Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Praise of CSI: Miami

Why do so many people dog CSI: Miami? It wins it's time slot easily every week. It's been in the top thirteen television shows for its entire seven-year run, getting as high as seven in 2004-05 (it's third season). The cinematography is gorgeous, it has beautiful people, and it has interesting stories. It also has David Caruso. I know for some, this is enough not to watch. I'm here to tell you something: you are missing out if you don't watch this show.

Some critics think CSI: Miami (Miami for the remainder of this post) is too unreal. Hello? If you're not watching "The Wire," then just about all police shows are unreal. Sure, some are more real (The Shield) than others (Monk) but that doesn't mean they are bad. They're just different. It is entertainment, after all. Miami's creator, Anthony Zuiker, knew exactly what he wanted when he made Miami: Not Vegas. In Vegas, you have The Land of Perpetual Shadows, pretty people wearing sexy clothes, and interesting main characters. In Miami, you have The Land of Perpetual Sunset, prettier people wearing sexier clothing, and main characters who are equally as interesting.

Miami had the luxury of airing its pilot episode wrapped inside an episode the original CSI. There's a crime in Vegas and Warrick and Willows travel to Miami to follow leads. There, they meet the Miami cast, see how they work, react to the differences, and basically get Miami's mission statement directly from Calleigh Duquesne: "We do things more fanciful down here."

Calleigh is only one of the cast of Pretty People in Miami. She's fun because she's a blonde Southern belle who knows and likes guns and has an alcoholic father. Hunky Eric Delko is Miami's underwater diver who, just last season, learned that his dad was really a Soviet, the very man who put out a hit on him. Yikes! Hello dad. Glad to know you, too. For fans of characters who have a lot of noirish backstory, Delko's your man. Or maybe you like'em smaller, less hunky, prone to wearing pastel ties with jeans, but with a gambling problem. Miami's got you covered. Ryan Wolfe has his demons, gets himself kicked off the force, brought back on the force, and is the only one team leader Horatio Caine trusts for a giant undercover project, much to the chagrin of the straight-and-narrow characters.

Horatio Caine. I think we can all be honest and say that, if you're one who doesn't like Miami, it's because of Caine. Rather, it's because of David Caruso, the actor who portrays Caine in all the episodes. I don't get it. Some accuse him of being a prima donna after his departure from NYPD Blue back in 1994. Yeah, maybe. Whatever. I don't care. Caruso's NY detective, John Kelly, was a great character and did the honorable thing when he turned in his badge and walked away. Granted, I caught this in reruns but I liked what I saw. Cut to the one-season TV show "Michael Hayes" (which I watched and enjoyed, thank you) and I thought there might be a new series for Caruso. Nope. Then, the Miami pilot: There he was again. And his character, Caine, and Caruso's portrayal of him, had me from the beginning.

As writers, we are excoriated to show, don't tell. Show a characters traits, don't tell us about them. Caine, in the first scene, shows what kind of man he is. The cops are looking for a seven-year-old girl. Caine finds her in the Everglades (or wherever they are) and approaches her. They talk and he mentions that people are looking for her. He sits next to her and says "Why don't we sit here and let them find us together." As a new dad in 2002 when this show aired, I was hooked. To paraphrase, he had me at "together."

It's exactly that empathy that I love and appreciate in Horatio Caine. He ends the episode by talking with young Sasha again, together, as they sit on a beach. He tells her that she'll hear many bad things said about her parents, who have both been murdered. He implores her to remember that both her mom and dad "fought like heroes for you." I guess that's why I like Caine so much: he fights for the powerless. Whether it's a little girl, newly orphaned, or Wolfe when he's fired/rehired, or the various other victims of crimes he meets, he's always there to help, to shoulder the burden of others' pain. That's why he does what he does even though his personal life (murdered wife; criminal brother; grown son introduced last season) is often in the tank.

You're saying "Scott, that's all well and good, but the show is just too damn cheesy" and I'll agree with you. Yes, there are entirely too many coincidences in Miami (CSI, too; can't speak to NY as I don't watch it). We're talking a 48-minute show here, people. What might take hours or days in real life takes a commercial break on TV. Deal with it. Yes, Caruso delivers his one-liners like Roger Moore did in his Bond films. William Peterson did, too, and no one gives him grief. What's up with that? And yes, there are the sunglasses. Yes, there are times when, entering a dark room, I yell for him to "take off the shades, H!". Whatever. It's iconic now. Just like Chicago *has* to play "25 or 6 to 4" in concert, Caruso has to have the shades. In last week's premiere, we get an origin story of the team...and the shades. I grinned. I love this show. So sue me.

If you haven't given CSI: Miami a try, you ought to. If you've left, give it another shot.* You might be surprised how much fun it really is.

*But don't forget ABC's "Castle." I've written about Castle on my blog and it was the one show I most looked forward to watching again. CSI: Miami was #1A. It's just aggravating that they both show up on Mondays at 9pm CST. Miami is in no danger of cancellation anytime soon. I watch Castle live and, around 10:01pm, I start up Miami. Maybe you could do the same.

P.S., After I wrote about Castle last week, I decided to write about Miami here in this space. I was going for the "Caine is like Donald Lam" angle (I'll write about this later) but changed to an entire CSI: Miami focus. In fact, I had the post mostly written when I received an e-mail from Damon Caporaso of I had linked to his website's recap of Castle on Tuesday. Well, he invited me to participate and write recaps of a show of my choice. Guess what I picked? Well, you don't really have to guess, do you? My recaps start this Tuesday.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Investigating the Investigator

By Russel D McLean

This post – an entirely fictional interview with an entirely fictional character – contains mild spoilers for THE GOOD SON.
J. McNee – he won’t give me his first name – is a private investigator working out of the Scots city of Dundee. Last year I was privileged to chronicle his investigative work, and again it seems I’ve been allowed back to chronicle one of his most recent high profile cases. Seemed a good time to catch up, see what was on his mind. We met at his offices on 1 Courthouse Square, and when I went in he was the one making the coffee. As ever, there was a slight air of sadness just below the surface whenever he talked, and I was loathe to ask him about how he was coping two years on from the death of his fiancée. But there was something else, too, a kind of change I could sense in him. From the most recent case? Or the passage of time? I was eager to find out… but getting the answers you want from a man like McNee isn’t an easy task…

Russel D McLean: I’m glad you could take out the time to talk to is. Its been just under a year since we last clocked in with you.

J McNee: Sure. Doesn’t feel that long.

RDM: How much has changed in your life?

JM: Hard to say. I’m still working. Haven’t found a replacement for Bll [Bill was McNee’s assistant before an incident involving two London hard men]

RDM: So he’s gone?

JM: I couldn’t fit access for his chair to the offices. And his boyfriend, Andy, blamed me for what happened. For putting him in that chair in the first place.

RDM: Do you think he’s right?

JM: Some days, aye, I’d agree with him. But you have to keep moving on. So I’m still working as in investigator. Still taking on cases. Been doing some work with a guy at the local paper, The Dundee Herald.

RDM: Cameron Connelly?

JM: That’s yer man. He’s had some troubles himself. His brother-in-law was an investigator.

RDM: Used to work out of your offices. Guy named Bryson. I knew him a little.

JM: Anyway, Connelly’s been getting me some gigs. Mostly on the QT considering his lords and masters don’t appreciate any extra expense.

RDM: He was the one told you about the Furst case?

JM: Aye. A favour for a friend. Can I give you some advice? Never do favours for friends. It never works out well.

RDM: Last time we spoke, you and PC Susan Bright had started to patch up your differences. I was never too clear why you stopped speaking the first place.

JM: (pause) It was complicated. As anything personal is. And this case… the missing girl… there’s been some fallout. I’m not sure what any of it means, of course.

RDM: You’ve been seen working with a man I believe to be another investigator.

JM: Wickes.

RDM: Looks like a cross between Brian Blessed and the BFG.

JM: Wickes. His name is Wickes. He was an investigator back in the day. Now, he’s… he doesn’t operate on the books, let’s put it that way.

RDM: And he’s a friend of yours?

JM: (silence).

RDM: Without getting too personal, I understand that with this case, there were some official questions being asked about –

JM: – I can’t talk about it.

RDM: We need to –

JM: – I won’t talk about it. Are you getting the message yet?

RDM: Following the suicide you investigated a year ago, it seems like your investigations seem to attract this kind of controversy I’m trying to talk about. All I want to –

JM: – The interview’s over, pal. We can’t talk about that.

Can’t or won’t? It’s hard to tell with a guy like McNee. Leaving the interview, I was sure there was more going on than I knew about his latest case. The missing girl, Mary Furst, was fourteen years old, seemed like any other girl. Except her godfather was a known criminal and I got the impression that there had been other secrets hidden by her more immediate family. And then there was this guy Wickes. When I started asking McNee about him, the atmosphere shifted in the room. Something happened between them that McNee wanted to avoid talking about. Something bad. Something deadly…

J. McNee’s latest case is chronicled in THE LOST SISTER, by Russel D McLean, available in the UK from Five Leaves Publications on October 1. The first McNee novel, THE GOOD SON is available now in the UK and will be release in the US by St Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne in December ’09.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


by Dave White
Dear Every Relative, Colleague, Friend, or Random Person on the Street,

I'm going to lay a little truth on you. I'm going to tell you what motivates me to write each day.

I love to write, but it's very hard to find the time to write.

My fiancee and I are planning a wedding. I'm a public school teacher. For another month, I'm still under thirty and I like to hang out with my friends. Have a little free time.

Sometimes it feels like writing should get put by the wayside. It's tough to sit down every day and write.

But I do it.

What motivates me?

Sometimes it's an email from fellow Do Some Damage-er Steve Weddle dragging me into a contest as to who can finish the draft of our novel first. I love stuff like this. Writing is such a solitary job (and yes, it is a job) that a little competition can go a long way.

Winning or losing doesn't matter (at least that's what Steve'll say when I kick his butt). What matters is getting the book done. Sitting there every day and getting something down on the paper. Getting that much closer to the finish line. Finishing a novel is a goal. It's a marathon.

And if you do it every day it becomes a habit.

That's why it bugs me when people come up to me and say, "I used to write. I don't have time anymore." or "I have so many ideas, I should write a novel. But I just don't have time." And their tone is clear. It's I'm better than you at writing. If I were to sit down and write it, my novel would be the greatest thing ever and make yours look like dirt. And they sit there and wait for you to say something.

It's as if these people are coming to me for abosolution. As if I'm going to sit there and say, "You know what? You're right. You're better than me. You just don't have time. You shouldn't feel the least bit guilty that you want to write, but won't find the time."

Becuase that's just it. It's not a matter (for the most part) of not having the time. It's a matter of WANTING to have the time.

And guess what... until you find the time to write... you're not better than me.

If you really want to write, you'll find the time. You'll sit down every day. And if you are better than me, you'll be published. And you'll motivate me some more. Because I want to get better. I want to beat you.

And right now, you're making it easy to beat you. I just have to tell you how I wrote for another two hours after work last night and then watch in your eyes, how you get annoyed that you didn't have time.

There are a lot of writers out there that are better than me. That can write circles around me. And they also have the desire to keep writing every day. To find the time. I strive to be as good as these writers. I find the time every day to get better so I can come close to their talent.

But you have to do it. Discipline is as much a part of writing as having an idea. As putting the words on paper.

And that's what motivates me the rest of the time. The people that complain to me about not having the time. I don't want to become like them.

I want to finish my third, my fourth, my fifth, my sixth... and so on. And I'll make the time for it. I wrote my first novel between term papers in graduate school. I'm working on my third and fourth now, between calling churches, reception halls, and florists.

I know someone who has two really young kids (including a newborn--congrats!!) and is finding time to get his opus done.

We all have to work. We all have things to do. We all let real life get in the way sometimes.

But writers write.

I find the time.

That's how bad I want to write.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

John McFetridge

For me, it all starts with the characters. The story comes later. If the characters are interesting enough, I can follow them anywhere. If they just seem to be there to advance the plot, I lose interest. Just my taste, and it doesn’t seem to be the most popular approach these days.

Author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), recently said that Dan Brown’s characters are, “completely flat and two-dimensional... His basic ignorance about the way people behave is astonishing, talking in utterly implausible ways to one another.”

John Grisham defends Brown (not that he needs defending, he seems to be doing all right on his own) and says of his own writing, “If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people's character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted.”

Now, the characters in my books may not be all that complex but I try to make them plausible. Sometimes that works against me. In a review in the National Post last weekend, Philip Marchand said of my new novel, Swap, “... one gets tired of hearing members of the human race routinely classified as either 'asshole' or 'bitch,' depending on gender. Such language is always a blunt instrument, and its use, through direct or indirect discourse, diminishes the characters — they cannot rise above the linguistic limitations imposed upon them.”

So here’s the dilemma. I wanted to create fully developed characters that behave – and talk – in ways the reader would find plausible. If this means they can’t “rise above the linguistic limitation,” I figure so be it. Marchand also says, “It is certainly hard to convey delicate emotions through this language. At one point Sunitha relates a painful childhood memory to Get. His response? 'She liked the way he made fun of it and still understood that it messed her up,' McFetridge writes. 'She got the feeling he’d never call her a psycho bitch and flip out on her.' That’s good — though surely it should be a minimal requirement for a gentleman engaged in an affair of the heart not to flip out and call his beloved a psycho bitch for sharing her feelings.”

My wife read the last part out loud with an English accent in her best Jane Austen voice – pretty funny.

And finally, Marchand is right when he says, “That’s life in the fast lane, with tough guys and tougher women, who can be pretty boring, when you come right down to it.” It’s that whole banality of evil thing.

So, I guess there’s a balance between creating characters as “real” as you can and still making them, well, not boring.

I like to know a lot about the characters in my books. I look up the most popular baby names from the year they were born, I like to know what year they graduated from high school (or dropped out) and what were the popular songs and movies and TV shows that year. Margaret Atwood said, “You wouldn’t want your character to have the wrong horoscope any more than you would want them to have the wrong name.”

And most importantly every character has to want something. They each have to have their own agenda.

Some of them may even get what they want.

What do you think? How fleshed out should every character be?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Heart Of The Matter

Writing inside-out
by Jay Stringer

I’ve been trying to crack a story lately. I’m working on a manuscript and, while I know I’ll manage to beat it into submission eventually, I’m still at the point where I haven’t quite cracked the heart of the story. But while I'm thinking about it, I’m realising a few things about my tastes.

I like writers that go inside-out.

What I mean is the emotion.Something Dave has touched on before. I need to get into the emotions before everything else falls into place. I’ve found a problem with all fiction, but one I notice more in crime, is that not enough writers really tackle issues like grief or loss.
Sure, loneliness and isolation get used, but often more as short hand for establishing a moody character. These are some of the key emotions that we all experience, and if a writer shies away from those, what do they have to build on when they want to tackle things like love or hope? In a genre that is built on dark deeds, marginalisation and death, the emotional fall-out of these things seems all to easy to overlook.

I’m generalising, of course. For every writer that I’ve just tarred with that brush, there are many more who deal with emotions. Reed Farrell Coleman built a whole PI series -the Moe Prager books- out of loss, grief and melancholy. Ken Bruen at his worst can do more with grief and guilt than I could do in a lifetime at my best. Our very own Russel D McLean’s The Good Son was a book that tackled these things head on, that actually managed to build a plot on top of emotion.

An example of what I mean is in my first book, currently being pitched by my ace agent. As I looked at where the story was headed on my last rewrite, I realised that I let the death of a teenager pass without any real sense of loss. So I stared at the screen until my forehead bled, trying to write a funeral. It wasn’t working. I’ve been to enough of them, I know what happens and when. But every time I started to write the scene, that’s all it became; a report of what happened and when.

Then, by chance, I wrote about the flowers on the coffin. I realised that some of those flowers would have been placed there by the boys’ mother, and bam….emotion. Writing the scene was easy from there; I had a way in. Once I had that one emotion on the page, the other followed, a broken heart and a bruised ego makes its way into the chapter. Anger bustles its way in. And just like that, a dull and lifeless scene became a chapter that managed to sum up each issue I was trying to get across in the book.

And thinking about all this recently has made me realise that this is what I look for in writers. All writers, be they films, novels, songs, comics, bleach bottle labels….

I often try and explain to friends that I need music to hit me in the heart and the gut before the head. I’m a lyrics man, no doubt, always have been. But they have to get me emotionally. If your song needs to be thought about before it can be felt, it’s not going to stick with me.
And that comes from an economy of words, I think. I real writer, for me, is one who can break your heart with the fewest words possible.

I’ve wasted many thousands of words online trying to explain what it is I love about Paul Westerberg. I mean, his lyrics are amazing, but to try and explain it that way is to make it sound wordy and complex. What really gets me? His lyrics get me into the heart of an emotion in a matter of seconds. He doesn’t need a whole song; he can do it with a flick of his lyrics;

“How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine? How do you say ‘Goodnight’ to an answering machine?”

Boom. Loneliness. Guilt. Love. Loss. Heartbreak. In two lines. THAT is writing.

“The bride groom drags you cross the room, you said ‘I do,"
But honey you were just a kid, your eyes say ‘I did.’ "

Again. Right into the heart of it, a whole story told straight away.

Springsteen, too, has become a master at it. His early albums, the ones where he sounded like a street poet with a record contract, were full of words. Free and easy, jangling guitars and rhyming dictionaries in flames. Then he seemed to get a little darker, a little older and he found focus the way some people find religion. He crafted his sentences, stripped away at them like a hardboiled writer until he became the most effective storyteller to ever pick up a telecaster.

“To the dead it don’t matter much, about who’s wrong or right.
You asked me that question, I didn’t get it right.”

Slipped into the middle of a rock song, hidden away amidst other songs that got scrutinised for any political meaning, was the simplest assessment of a foreign policy. And more than that, it was done through regret and a sense of loss, rather than anger or blame. Or how about one of the few moments in song that matches Folsom Prison Blues for getting to the heart of darkness;

“They wanted to know why I did what I did,
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”

Sometimes a total lack of emotion can be just as pure as any hatred or love. Here, a cold blooded killer looks you in the eye and tells you he killed innocent people for no real reason. Chilling. Terrifying.

How about our man Waits? Natural born storyteller. Look at this little turn of phrase and see how complete a story can be told with a throwaway line;

“It’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.”

Okay, okay. Everybody writes about Westerberg, Springsteen and Waits. This is true. But some clichés are still important. It doesn’t stop with them, though. There’s a songwriter by the name of Ben Nichols, the front man of Lucero, who I think is well worthy of attention.

“When this world was made, it was never meant to save everyone in kind.
I don’t believe God much had me, had me much in mind.”

I’ll be returning to Ben in future to look at his album, The Last Pale Light In The West. But back to today, it seems somewhat counter intuitive to love such economy. I mean, if a story can be told with 12 words, why read a book that takes thousands? Well, different mediums have different strengths, but the principle holds true. There’s an old joke that a gentleman is someone who can play jazz guitar but doesn't. Along those lines, I think a great writer is someone who doesn’t put too many words into a sentence. And I'm sure that Weddle fella could turn this little article on its head by bringing his knowledge of poetry, another way of relating complex emotions through simple words.

All of the writers that really stay with me are the ones who can get me into the very heart of the story. As I've already said, going for the pure driving emotion of the scene and writing inside-out. Why? I don't know. I've written before about how comic books taught me to read, so maybe it comes from that. Maybe its because I'm dyslexic, and its a survival instinct -the fewer words there are, the more chance i have of getting the point. Maybe it's just because the sky is blue, i don't know.

How about you guys? Who does this for you?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Abandoned Love: Novel Cuts in a Deleted Scenes World

By Steve Weddle

In 1974, Bob Dylan was recording songs for BLOOD ON THE TRACKS and had to leave out some great work. One of these songs was “Up To Me,” an absolutely masterful piece of meter, lyrics, images, music and whatever the hell else makes songs great.

Oh, the Union Central is pullin' out and the orchids are in bloom,
I've only got me one good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume.
In fourteen months I've only smiled once and I didn't do it consciously,
Somebody's got to find your trail,
I guess it must be up to me.

In 1985, I hopped into my blue ‘76 Caprice Classic, headed to the Pierre Bossier Mall and bought BIOGRAPH, an album of Dylan outtakes and rarities. I don’t know what it was like when Adam first saw Eve or, as Joe Theismann might say, when Norman Einstein split the atom, but I have a pretty good idea.

These were songs I hadn’t heard before. “Up To Me” was left off BLOOD ON THE TRACKS supposedly because it was too long to fit in. Feh. Since Dylan was never the Motown hit single machine, this reason sounds to me like complete bunk.
One of the things that makes this song so great is the personal nature: “And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free./ No one else could play that tune,/ You know it was up to me.

The entire 5 LP set (kids, ask your grandparents about LPs) was amazing, full of songs or versions of songs I’d never heard. Now, of course, I have whatever Dylan songs I want, hundreds of concert bootlegs and versions of albums, such as HIGHWAY 61, that were never meant for the mass market. And this is exactly what I want from an artist.

From the time Dylan recorded “Up To Me” until the time it sold to dopes like me was more than 10 years. In the 1980s, outtakes for albums were about as popular as outtakes for novels are now. Why would you release songs that didn’t make the album? Why would you release scenes that didn’t make the novel?

In editing my book LOST AND FOUND, I made some fairly substantial cuts, backspacing characters out of existence completely. I lost a good deal of junk, but also some good stuff in there, basically because it didn’t need to be there, didn’t move the story along. So what the heck am I supposed to do with the extra stuff now? Turn those chapters into short stories? Use Chuck Thompson as a character in the next novel? The reason Chuck didn’t make the cut – or, I suppose, did make the cut – was that he was set up as a foil for the main character, a role I was able to incorporate into another character, combining some of my needs in the book. Chuck was removed because the reason for his existence was gone.

Turns out I’m not the only one who’s wondered what to do with this deleted stuff. Robert Harris posted some deletions he made for his book THE MILLION DOLLAR GIRL. I’m sure others have given this some thought—the deleted scenes you see after you’ve watched the DVD.

Is it a good idea to publish your deleted scenes? Is there a chance that doing so spoils the experience for the reader? Maybe the decision whether to publish the cuts depends on the reason for the cuts. I can’t imagine a writer prefacing the publishing of a cut scene by saying, “I cut this scene because my editor was a little squeamish about how I ran these puppies through the meat grinder. I really hate puppies and loved this graphic scene, but my editor said the book would sell better without the scene. So I cut the scene, sold a ton of books and used the extra money to buy myself a new puppy grinder.”

Sure we have reasons for making our cuts, but what do we do with the cuts that could stand alone?

When we revise, we cut away so much that doesn’t “fit.” We’ve made more than we need for this project and have to remove the excess. I know this. But there are still so many good characters, sliced through with red pens or marginalized into the boxes of Track Changes. What do we do with these stories? As someone said, “When you bite off more than you can chew you have to pay the penalty,/ Somebody's got to tell the tale,/ I guess it must be up to me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Daniel Silva Was Right Moscow Does Rule

by Mike Knowles

Everything I have written so far has taken place in Hamilton, Ontario. If the last two words are unfamiliar, just know my books are set in Canada. I’ve briefly moved settings to Montreal, or Prince Edward Island, but the bulk of my work is about the city I live in. I write about the city because it’s all I know. But there are some places I really wish I could set a story in.

Recently, on Twitter, someone threw out the name Brent Ghelfi. I checked out the name and found out he’s the writer of the Volk series. The series takes place in modern day Russia and centers around a military operative working both sides of the law. Once I found out the book was set in Russia, I was in no questions asked. There is something so tough about the Russian setting, not the Jason Bourne-esque Russia full of embassies and expensive dacha’s, but the mean streets full of everyday people and everynight lowlife’s. Any crime story about Russia makes me excited like a kid on Christmas because I always know I'm in for something raw and new. As I read Ghelfi, I thought about why I liked the setting of the former Soviet Union so much. I think what it is comes from what the country was. The harsh communist roots bred a system of corruption so deep that every level of society is involved. This kind of corruption makes crime stories possible anywhere. Stories can involve regular people, the mob, political figures, and the army all at once and it never seems implausible. The country is also experiencing a boom in organized crime. Russian gangsters are the new black. They are written as cruel, emotionless, hard cases— they are the perfect bad guy. No one feels bad when you kill off a Russian gangster in a book. Even my mom was cool with it when she read about it in my book. Not even the government in Russia is safe. The politicians with their former KGB and military roots run a system that is corrupt on levels unheard of in the West. In short, there is bad everywhere in Russia. Bad is good when you’re writing crime novels. One other aspect that I really love about Russian crime is the lack of technology. You won’t get a protagonist aided by the latest satellite technology or forensic advancements in a Russian crime story. The old styles of police work and espionage still pop up even though everywhere else it is the twenty-first century. It always feels like the protagonists have less to rely on, so they end up needing to get really dirty to get the job done. I love the hands on approach. It is always more satisfying when something is beaten or coerced out of a person rather than found on the internet.

Case in point from Volk’s Shadow:

The makeshift command post has been established in the first floor lobby of an office building three blocks away from the one that was bombed. I cross a wide street emptied of traffic. Slam open the steel-and-glass door. A small group huddled around a folding metal table all turn to stare at me.

"Who's in command?" My voice sounds loud even to my own ears.

"Who wants to know?" Tall, thin, and spectacled, he looks like a haughty professor, although too young to be one. I know his kind at a glance. A staffer, privileged from birth by his family's social position in the old Soviet order. His uniform and red beret identify him as a special forces officer of the internal troops of the FSB—the principal successor of the KGB—but his kind can be found throughout Russia's military, political, and bureaucratic elites.

I throw off my overcoat so that he can see my rank on the tunic beneath. He turns his back to me.

"I'll get with you later, Colonel." He spits out the words as though he's trying to rid his mouth of a bad taste.


He whirls to face me, lips twisted into a snarl. "You'll not speak again until I address you. Is that—"

And I am upon him, wrenching him onto the table. It collapses under his weight and the force of the blow. A laptop crashes to the floor with him as he smacks the marble facedown. I plant the heel of my combat boot on the back of his neck.

"Who is second in command?" I say, so softly that everyone in the room leans forward to hear me.

A florid-faced policeman snaps smartly to attention. "I am, sir. Inspector Barokov."

The FSB officer under my boot struggles to rise. Or to reach a gun. I pull my Sig, bend down, and crunch it against the side of his head to knock him out. Then nod to the inspector to go on.

If this happened in an American story, there would be a court marshal and some time in whatever the brig is. In Russia, this doesn’t even slow the story down. How great is that?

Another place I wish I had the knowledge to write about is south of the border. Hard Case Crime had a few books set in Mexico and they are always off the chart fun. Mexico has a lot of the same corruption I like about Russia, but with added bonus of a huge emerging drug cartel with zero fear of law enforcement or the governments of Mexico or the United States. The geographic position of Mexico makes it possible for all kinds of cool smuggling stories and tales of extortion. You can even hit up a tourist angle and do a cool kidnapping story like Gun Work by David Schow.

"From the top, Carl," Barney said into his phone in the dark. "Deep breaths. Simple sentences. Subject, object."

"This goddamned phone card," Carl’s voice crackled back at him from one country to another. "You’ve got to get a phone card to use the payphones and half of them don’t work. The time on the cards runs out faster than—"

"You said that already. You said they grabbed Erica. Who-they?"

In Mexico, kidnapping constituted the country’s third biggest industry, after dope and religion.

"They didn’t leave a business card,"Carl said.

"But she was abducted."

"Kidnapped, right."

"What do they want?"

"They said a million."



Barney wiped down his face. Squeezed the bridge of his nose. He didn’t need to click on the nightstand lamp and become a squinting mole. "Why you?"

"Because they think I’m a rich gringo." Carl started breathing more shallowly and rapidly on the other end of the line. "My god, bro, how can I—"

"Don’t start that," Barney overrode. "You were doing just fine. Calm. Calm." A beat, for sanity. "So...are you?"

"Am I what?"

"Rich. Can you cough up seven figures?"

Another beat. Barney frowned. His long-lost friend was wondering whether to lie.

Finally, Carl said, "Yeah. Don’t ask how."

"And you want what from me, exactly? They’ve got the hostage and you’ve got the ransom. So, trade."

"It stinks, amigo. It stinks like underbrush when you probe by fire." He was playing the war-buddy card again. "Probing by fire" was when you cut loose a few rounds into unknown territory. If return fire erupted, you knew the hide was enemy-occupied. It helped to be fast-footed in such circumstances. The suspense was gut-wrenching, and you could smell your courage leaching out in your sweat.

"You want backup," Barney said, dreading it.

"There’s nobody else I can trust in a shitstorm like this. No good faces. I’ll wind up nose-down in a ditch with my money and Erica gone. I need your help. The kind of help you can’t just buy." Another telltale beat of quiet. "Will you help me?"

I’m not giving away the rest of the story, but Barney does help out and the violence that ensues could never happen in a North American setting.

I think that’s the great thing about these types of settings— they’re like the bizarro world where everything is similar enough to feel at home, but full of differences that make all kinds of new things possible.

I don't have money to travel, but I'm not sure if a vacation to Russia or Mexico would get me the experience I would need to create the kind of story I would like to write. I write about Hamilton because I know the people. I know the customs and the little nuances. I don't know how off the beaten path I would have to get, or how long I would have to stay there to get what I would need to write a good Russian crime story. Plus, if any of the stuff I read in books is true, I'm not sure I'll ever make it back off the beaten path. There's no way I could muster up enough broken Russian to keep me from being shot or ransomed. My fingers would probably end up being Fedexed to my door while the rest of me stays tied to a chair.

For now, while I build up my bank account, my vocabulary, and my nerve, I think I will just keep reading about the underbelly of Russia and Mexico. It’s safe enough from a distance of twelve inches from the page.