Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

In the end, even Agent Scully believed most of the stuff Agent Mulder believed. And that was about UFOs, aliens, and other weird things. Here, in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, Robert Langdon plays the skeptic over and over again, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Kind of reminds me of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Where to begin? How about some background between Dan Brown and I. The Da Vinci Code was my introduction to Robert Langdon and I enjoyed the book pretty well. I quickly read Angels and Demons and, frankly, liked it better. Recently, when Langdon’s third adventure was announced, I was happy and knew that I’d read it. I also knew Brown faced his own personal Kobayashi Maru test, a no-win situation: how the hell does he follow-up The Da Vinci Code?

Not all that well, truth be told. The Lost Symbol is marketed as a thriller. Okay, I’m good with that. But with that tag, certain things are expected: guns, chases, near misses, danger, pulse-pounding excitement. You are geared to expect these things to happen relatively rapidly in the course of the novel. Earlier this year, I read Jeff Abbott’s Trust Me and boy did it fit these expectations well. I could not put the book down. With Brown’s book, in the early going, there was a couple of nights when I was pondering “do I sleep or read more?” Sleep won, more than once. Don’t get me wrong, I can deal with slow-burn books (wrote one myself) but at least turn up the heat sometime in the first forty chapters, or one hundred fifty pages. I’m not kidding: it took forty-one chapters for the running to start.

As Brown would have Langdon think, What the hell?

Langdon is summoned to Washington, DC, to give a lecture. Instead of a room full of people, he finds the severed hand of his friend, Peter Solomon. The hand is positioned in such a way that it acts as an invitation to the chase. Langdon receives a call from a mysterious (and whispery, in the audio version) person: break the code and save Peter’s life.

This can’t be happening.

Yes, Langdon, it can and it is. So shut up and deal with it.

I can’t. It’s some lunatic who thinks there’s a pyramid hidden underground. He’s crazy.

What's crazy is the number of times Langdon thinks the entire situation is weird, crazy, or insane. This from the guy who uncovered the "truth" about Jesus's marriage.

When Inoue Sato, from the CIA’s Office of Security, shows up, Langdon’s more worried about Peter’s safety than helping her. He never once stops to wonder “hey, Peter’s kidnapping and Sato’s national security emergency might just be related. Come on, man! You’re supposed to be smart. All he does is insist the kidnapper is insane and he, Langdon, just wants to help poor Peter.

Langdon’s perception—of himself, of the thing the kidnapper wants, of the legends and the mysteries surrounding it all—is out of whack. Like Agent Scully at the beginning of “The X-Files,” Langdon believes nothing. It takes Sato to lay it out for him as only a government agent can and he’s still a reluctant hero. He just doesn't believe. Even at the end, when The Truth is revealed, the dude is a skeptic. Whatever.

Frankly, at times, I didn’t care if Langdon broke the codes and the symbols or not. I was not emotionally invested in the story. Even the female character, Katherine Solomon, Peter’s younger sister and the kidnapper’s second target, is there to try an enliven a stale plot. It’s hinted that Langdon and Katherine had some sort of feelings in the past but there is no spark at all.

Are you sure? What about the scene where…

Shut up, Langdon. This is my review.

The villain is a quintessential villain from any thriller: very intelligent, on top of his game, supremely confident, and dull. I figured out who it was long, long, LONG before the characters did. Even so, I would have expected any of them to catch on earlier than they did. When the big reveal happened, I’ll admit the scene played out nicely but, come on. Did they not even suspect?

The pace of the book is well done. Yeah, it’s often tedious and filled with way too many “mini lectures” and “as you know, Bob” moments. But Brown knows how to space out the cliffhangers. In these past few months, I’ve read the first three Tarzan books and have ingrained in my head Edgar Rice Burroughs’ style. Dan Brown writes the same way. Hey, that’s not bad, mind you, as long as you know what The Lost Symbol is: pulp fiction. It’s not literary in the slightest not does it pretend to be, despite the subject matter. It’s a page-turner, even if the only cliffhanger is the answer to a mini lecture.

Like a politician who doesn’t know when to get off the stage, the action climax of the story occurs fifty pages from the book’s end. Fifty pages of tedium that you have to wade through for what?

An intellectual climax. The true meaning of the book.

That may be what you think, Langdon, but it’s just a bunch of fruitless nothingness that did very little to make the ending anywhere near the emotional resonance Brown wanted.

Am I glad I read it? Sure, I guess. I would have gotten around to it eventually. Will I read the next Dan Brown book? Almost certainly. I’ll probably do as I did here: check it out from the library and listen to the audio.

Like I mentioned earlier, Brown was in a no-win situation. Like the fourth Indiana Jones movie, there was just no way to live up to the expectations that had built up steam for the six years since The Da Vinci Code exploded on the world. All the Da Vinci Code imitators had cluttered the market, making Brown’s story merely one among many as opposed to the one that started it all.

He’ll come back, just like the rock musician Sting does. After every fun album (Nothing Like the Sun, for example), Sting gets all intellectual and tries too hard. The resulting record (The Soul Cages), while good, is never as good as the one before it or the one after it (Ten Sumner’s Tales). In addition, the one after it is judged to be great mostly because the bar had been reset so low that just about anything would be better.

I think that’s where Brown finds himself now. For every overnight success, there is often a sophomore slump. It doesn’t matter if the artist or writer had written other books prior to Becoming Famous. For all intents and purposes, The Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown’s first book. The Lost Symbol is his sophomore slump. I’m looking forward to the rebound book, the one that’ll knock the socks off of everyone because they didn’t see it coming.

Friday, October 9, 2009


By Russel D McLean

The landlord of a local pub waved at me the other day. I was on my way to the launch, driving with my dad who was helping us take the stock from bookshop to the bar where we were going to do the actual event. The guy waved at us from across the street, so we wound down the window to shout hello.

He yelled, “Them twice! Us once!” and laughed.

Talking about another pub mentioned in the novels. How they’d appeared in more scenes than his own establishment. He was joking, of course, but it did get me thinking about the locations I chose to focus on in the books (and the short stories).

Dundee is a real city with a real history. When I chose it as the setting for my crime novels, I knew I was setting myself a challenge. You always do when you let your fiction impinge upon the real world.

It’s part of the reason why I use real bars (but create fake ones where bad things happen) and namecheck streets on occasion – I want the city I write about to be filtered through the perceptions of myself and my characters, but still recognisable to anyone who’s ever visited the place. But the city is a background on a canvas, not the focus. As a background, it must therefore serve to bring the focus of what I am writing about into sharp relief.

So while my fictional Dundee resembles the real thing – right down to some of the bars, even those mentioned with less frequency than others – I do not think it will ever actually be the real thing. This would be an impossibility on my part and, I believe, actually very dull for the reader.

Look at this way: as true to life as much of George Pelecanos’s DC may be, you bet your ass it is filtered through his perceptions. Same with Block’s NYC, Burke’s Lousiana and so forth. They are filtered so as to fit the world view of the novels in which they are used.

Taking the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, think about how different the city becomes filtered through the procedural eyes of Iain Rankin, the genteel mind of Alexander McCall Smith and the screwed up psychopathy of Allan Guthrie. All of them write about the same city – sometimes even the same places – but they all create such markedly different worlds.

When writing about real places in fiction, a writer rarely does simple reportage. They are always twisting the facts and the reality to fit their worldview. Sometimes they will talk about real places within the city, sometimes they will create fictional locations that seem plausible additions to the real world because they need to make a point, dramatic or thematic (and often both).

I chose Dundee deliberately as a setting not simply because I knew the place, but because I felt the city had something in it that reflected the kinds of stories I wanted to write. And, yes, I had to filter the city to do so, but my hope is that I have captured something of the city that is not simply recognisable to locals, but that feels real even to those who have never been here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Your One Stop Blog Shop

By Dave White

Yeah, you can go to Crimespot and check out all the new posts that are up there. Of course you can. And that's fine and dandy, I love the site.

But if you do go there, you're actually going to have to read the blogs. And, as I've riffed on before, blogs really only have a few repeatable topics... So, instead of shooting on over there, I'll give a rundown of what you can read on blogs almost every day. (BTW, on my blog you can probably discover that I've written about 90% of this topics as well.... except the first one.)


My favorite. This one ALWAYS shows up. And it always starts off like this, right after the "SEX" subject line: "Well, now I've got your attention, right?" HO HO! Wink Wink Nudge Nudge. That's right folks. Writers who read blogs for advice are really just a bunch of adolescents walking into their first sex ed class.


He is. I love his books. He's been really helpful in my career. He's a really nice guy. In fact, he's awesome. And you can read about it on at least one blog each day. So, instead of reading each post... just read it here and remember it... SO AND SO is awesome.


If you've ever self-published a book, you know how FREAKING AWESOME it is. HOW MUCH BETTER IT IS than publishing in New York. I mean, you can SPEND YOUR OWN MONEY to put a shabbily edited book out there. And it's so much better than big publishing because, I mean, you wrote the book and you published it, and you're not biased at all right? I mean John Grisham sold his book out of his trunk and look at him now...


Nevermind the fact that they paid you money to put your book out there. And edited it to the finest detail. And gave you a great, professional cover. And you can find it in REAL bookstores. They really screwed you over because they didn't give you co-op. They didn't send you on a national tour. And they didn't take an ad out in the Sunday Book Review. Hence publishing is the devil.


KINDLE is awesome. No REAL BOOKS are awesome. No KINDLE. No REAL BOOKS. Either one is going to RESHAPE AND FIX PUBLISHING.


This is a 45,000 word essay about the intracacies of a noir novel and how the word translates into black so it must be a DARK book. And everyone is screwed. And honestly, deep down, does it really matter? Because there will then be 400 comments and no conclusions will be made. Except someone will decide this post is actually about "What is hardboiled?"


It's so hard. I can't think like a woman. No wait, I can. But I can't think like a man. Women are crazy. Men suck.


James Patterson sucks because his chapters are short. Dan Brown sucks because he writes in italics. Let's face it, the writer of this blog (even me) is jealous because they sell millions upon millions of copies and the writer doesn't.


GENRE is a red headed ugly step child that deserves to be chained up to a rusty radiator in the basement. OR But LITERARY, why won't you appreciate meeeeee???


TWITTER WORKS HERE'S HOW! FACEBOOK WORKS HERE'S HOW! BLOGS WORK HERE'S HOW!!! I know how to promote and it's all I'm going to talk about...ignoring the fact that an average reader doesn't care about promotion and my book only sold 1,000 copies in the first year it was out.

And finally:


And there you have it.

There are a lot of good blogs out there... and a lot of good topics to read through.

But sometimes it feels like this is all there is. So, maybe, before you sit down to write your own blog post... think and see if what you're writing about has been talked about ad naseum. Can you say something new about this topic?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Screenplay Adaptations

It isn't official yet, but I've received a very good offer for the movie rights to Dirty Sweet from a Canadian producer.

Part of the offer is that I'll write the screenplay.

When the book was first published people asked me if I was interested in writing the screenplay because I'd wasted, er, spent a lot of time trying to sell screenplays. At the time I said there was no way I'd want to write the screenplay.

But since then I spent six months writing a TV show, had a great time and met some great people. So now I'm going to co-write the screenplay with one of my fellow writers from The Bridge, Dannis Koromilas (on the left in this picture with me).

It's very exciting. Lots of new possibilities and new challenges.

Of course, not everything form the book will make it into the screenplay and what does will likely have to be changed quite a bit.

We'll have to get the spirit of the book across much more visually than it is on the page. The events in Dirty Sweet seem cinematic, but the book is really a lot of internal monolgues. That's just the way I write. A recent review said of Swap that the book was full of "endless reminiscing." And that's true.

So, it'll have to be changed.

A great example, I think, of a movie changing a book and keeping its spirit is Emma Thompson's screenplay for Sense and Sensibility (oh yeah, here on this blog about crime fiction, that's right, Jane Austen, you know it). A few key scenes from the movie aren't in the book but they develop the characters and pull the whole thing together which I think is much better than making it a nineteen hour movie or just leaving suff out.

The hook in Dirty Sweet is right off the top:

"The cars were stopped on King, right there, waiting for the light to change."

Roxanne Keyes lit another cigarette and told the detectives exactly what she saw happen then. "A guy got out of the Volvo, the passenger side, walked back to this one, and shot that guy in the head. Then he walked back to the car, got in and it drove away."

She didn't tell them she was pretty sure she knew the driver of the Volvo.

Okay, so a couple of problems turning this into a movie. For starters, don't you think the movie should start with the guy getting shot in the head and not someone telling someone else about it?

And, how do you get across the fact she was pretty sure she knew the driver?

Then there's the problem that what follows this opening is pages of Roxanne thinking about her current situation (hey, it's my first book people) and the male lead, Vince, doesn't show up until page 15. That's way too far in for any potential actor reading the script to be interested until his character shows up.

So, this is what we came up with:


On a busy street near the intersection, a few people on the patio this crisp fall afternoon.

VINCE comes out of the shop carrying a coffee. He's about 40, good-looking, confident, easy-going. He sits down at a table.

ON THE STREET cars stop at the red light.

An SUV with heavy tinted windows is right in front of the coffee shop.

A man, KHOZA, gets out of the car in front of the SUV and walks back.

IN THE TINTED PASSENGER WINDOW Vince watches Khoza, who's a young looking sixty, and sees the gun in his hand.

Someone on the coffee shop patio yells, "He's got a gun!"

-- and the passenger window EXPLODES, the image of a calm Vince in the middle of panic around him falls in pieces.

Inside the SUV the driver jumps and turns to look at Khoza just in time to get shot in the head.

Blood splatters out the driver's window and hits a BIKE COURIER who falls to the street in front of a city bus that slams on its brakes and gets it from behind by a delivery truck.

Khoza leans in and shoots the guy two more times, then turns and walks back to the waiting car he got out of.

ROXANNE KEYES is coming out the door of the coffee shop. She stares at Khoza as he gets to the still open car door and looks past him inside the car, sees the guy driving, BORIS, and recognizes him.

And Boris recognizes Roxanne.

Khoza gets into the car, closes the door and it drives away. No screeching tires, no cutting off other cars, it just drives through the intersection and disappears into traffic.

The crime scene is pandemonium. People on the sidewalk screaming, people getting off the bus, the bike courier standing up covered in blood.

And Vince watches Roxanne watch it all. She continues on to the patio and takes a seat, taking out her cell phone.


The cops have arrived - lots of them - and closed the street.

Uniformed cops keep people away from the taped off crime scene, lab guys take pictues of everything.

On the coffee shop patio a couple of detectives, PRICE, a black guy in his early 40's and LOEWEN, a white guy in his early 30's, are finishing up questioning Roxanne.

I'm sorry, it all happened so fast, you know.

They know. They've heard it from every other witness.

And you're sure the guy wasn't shouting or angry or anything?

Not that I noticed, I was just coming out.

Did they seem to know each other?

Didn't look like it.

So, for no reason, this guy just got out of his car, walked back to that one and blew some guy's head all over King Street?

Most of hit that bike courier.

Behind Roxanne Vince is listening and there's the slightest hint of a smile.

Can you describe him?

The bike courier? He's right there.

The shooter.

I'm sorry, I must still be in shock. No, I didn't really get a good look at him. He was wearing sunglasses, a blue sports coat. Short hair.

She shrugs, she's got nothing else. Loewen nods, looking at his notebook, seeing the same vague description given by everyone else on the patio.

Okay, thanks for all your help.

Loewen gets up to leave but Price leans forward.

What kind of car did you say it was?

A Vovlo, S80. Midnight blue.

Price can tell Roxanne knows more than she's saying.

Not a Lexus?

Now Roxanne realizes she was too certain about the car and the details.

It could have been a Lexus, I guess.

Price stares at her. He knows. She stares back, not giving in to nerves and the temptation to talk more.

After a beat Price starts to stand up.

All right, thanks.

He taps her business card in his hand.

We may be in touch.

Roxanne looks at Loewen.

Anytime detective.

Loewen is pretty much unaware of what just passed between Price and Roxanne, totally taken in by her mild flirtation he stares right at her.

We'll talk.

He holds her look for a moment and then follows Price out of the patio.

Vince watches them go, then--

You didn't tell them you knew the driver.

Roxanne turns slowly to look at Vince. She's calm, in control again.

Not until I can figure out where I know him from.

Vince looks at her. He's unconvinced. He's also very cool, to the point he seems aloof. Roxanne keeps looking at him.

You also look familiar.

I do?

We've met, haven't we?

I rent practically a whole floor of an office building from you.

(Sorry, I don't know how to format this like a screenplay on blogger).

And it goes from there. It's early days yet and about 95% of all movie projects fall through so the odds are against us, but we'll do our best.

The title, Dirty Sweet, comes from the T Rex song "Bang a Gong (Get it On)," but Dannis has been playing music by an Australian band clled The Church while we write and now it's his dream to get some of their music into the movie.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is it a series?

By Jay Stringer

When I’m talking to other writers about my work, in those rare moments when I actually start to join in those conversations, I often get asked the same question. It’s a natural one to ask and be asked, especially when you’re at the fledgling stage that I’m at.

“Is it a series?”

And I’ve found that my usual answer is so pull a strange face, make a high pitched noise that makes it sound like I’m stretching to the moon to find the answer, and then saying Ummm…sort of…yeah.”
Now this answer really has three translations.

-“Why, yes. It is indeed a series, Should I be blessed enough to get a contract and sales that allow me to complete the story as intended.”

-“ummm….yes. But its actually a deep analysis of what a series actually is, and what it needs to do in the modern world to be relevant, and to chart the progression of a man’s self delusion over three or four books. I’m quite excited about it, if not a little pretentious.”

-“Yeah, it’s a series. But for some reason I don’t want to admit it.”

Now I’ll leave you to decide which answer you want to believe. I go with a lovely cocktail of all three. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I work through my second manuscript and continue finding my voice. It is a series, hopefully. And it is one with a purpose and a life span. But why do i feel the need to expand on that, and not simply say "Yeah, it is."

Last week I joined in a chat over at THE BIG ADIOS that included, amongst others, Ray Banks, Christa Faust and Tom Piccirilli. And one of the topics that came up was that of series writing. There seem to be an equal amount of plusses and minuses to writing a series as apposed to a stand-alone. You get time to explore your character(s) and to follow through on the repercussions and actions. On the downside, you can become stereotyped and trapped.

Some series appear t exist only for financial reasons, to keep a contract on the authors table and a steady income. Whilst others find new legs and manage to explore ideas and actions that a stand-alone perhaps cannot. One thing that a series writer appears to have is the ability to jump in and out. The author can choose to go off and do a stand alone for a change, whereas a writer of stand alones cannot so easily decide to go off and write a series.

I think a serries that serves of an example of everything both good and bad about a series is the Scudder books. The first four books are standard hard drinking PI books. Very well written, very dark and increasingly confident. The Lawrence Block decided it was time to introduce consequences to his fictional world, and Matt Scudder became an alcoholic.
The series is up to 17 books now, and seems to be finished. Following Scudder’s moment of clarity, we got both some great serial detective fiction, and some lesser books that seemed to exist through obligation. At their best, the books explored Scudder’s ageing, his continuing battle with addiction and doubt, his marriage and infidelity, and a growing friendship with a vicious killer. At their weakest, we got some convoluted plots and a couple of crazy serial killers. Because every series has to have at least one.

Maybe a good analogy for this type of series would be the classic TV show The Prisoner. The series lasted for 17episodes, but when you look at it in the cold harsh light of my living room, about half of those were actually key to the plot and the character. The rest were wacky interludes with westerns and a rocket ship light-house (not that I’ll hear a word said against THE GIRL WHO WAS DEATH. That is TV gold.) So if the story CAN be told perfectly in 6-7 episodes, why take 17?
If you sit with a red marker pen, you can trace names and references in James Ellroy’s work that could link everything from The Black Dahlia up to The Cold Six Thousand (can’t comment on Blood's A Rover yet) as a series. There are tenuous links between Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, and there are a couple of direct links bridging White Jazz into American Tabloid.
But it’s not big deal, maybe because it’s easy to overlook.

Writers like Elmore Leonard and Allan Guthrie seem to have the best of both worlds, they write stories that take place in a loosely shared universe, you can tie in their books if you want to, but you wouldn’t go so far as to call either authors series writers.
This very website has authors who are doing good things with series characters, and I’m knee deep in Russel’s second McNee book right now.

Some books, though, need to stand alone. Buttercup's Baby will hopefully always remain an in-joke at the back of The Princess Bride. The Maltese Falcon somehow seems perfect for not being the launching pad of fifteen similar adventures.

So here are a few questions for you as I sit and type away on my own series.

-What are your favourites?? Which have achieved a level of resonance and insight that couldn't have been achieved in a single story?

-Which authors have managed to find the write balance and to present an evolving character based story? Who has used the format to take their character and story in new directions and elevate the series.

-Do you think there is a maximum length for a good series? How long should they be? Is there a sell by date that an author needs to bear in mind?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hey, who said that?

By Steve Weddle

I was almost to the grocery story when she called.
“Hey, what’s up? You OK? Where are you?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Tony got arrested for killing a stripper.”
“You sure know how to party without me.”
“No. Really. He did. I just got him a lawyer.”
“Oh. You’re serious? Tony’s charged with murder?”
“You feel like going into details now?”
“I’m on my way to the store for liquor and pizza. Tomorrow I’m gonna look around for who really killed her.”
“So that’s a ‘no’?”
“What?” I asked.
“You don’t want to go into details now?”
“I thought those were the details.”
“What OK?”
Neither of us said anything. Great.
“You want to call me later?”
“Be careful,” she said.
“Yeah. Hey, Kate.”
“Uh, I’m sorry.”
“About what?”
“I don’t know. Just, you know. Us. Whatever us is.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”
We hung up. I went inside the store and couldn’t find anything I wanted.

A situation. Two people talking. Dialogue. Does the reader need more? How much more? Should the reader see the inner monologue of one of the characters? Both? How much detail of the scene does the reader need? Should you use details here to slow down the dialogue? To carry meaning? To build symbols?

These are the sorts of questions every writer deals with. To quote or paraphrase. To provide summary.

That dialogue is from a scene I’m writing. Probably near the end things need to slow down a bit as the emotion settles in. Start quickly to get the reader into the story. Then slow down when you want to make an impact. Writers follow this with action all the time.

A novelist might set something up – the killer is just about to enter the room where the main character is passed out drunk. Once the writer sets that up, then the writer can shift the point of view or spend a couple of paragraphs detailing the scene. Or showing inner monologue. All to build tension.

That’s in the action scenes. We slow things down to build tension. We have many ways to play with the action scenes, to work with the reader’s expectations in telling the story. But how many options do we have for dialogue? For running the inner monologue with the dialogue?

I’ve been reading John McFetridge’s SWAP and have been fascinated with his developing technique.
Here, let me show you something from the opening pages when Sgt. Vernard “Get” McGetty is at a border crossing.

“What is the purpose of your trip?”
Get said it was a vacation. “I’m going to the film festival.”
The guy said, oh yeah, and it’s not business?
Vernard said, yeah, “I’m Jamie Foxx.”

What I really like about this (and I’ll give a fuller review of the book at some point) is that, as a reader, I feel like somebody is telling me a story. The indirect quote and direct quote work together to provide a seamless stream of storytelling.

You lose yourself in the story, but never lose the story.

There’s none of the he said, he said, he asked, she said building up. Is that needed? In the opening example, most of scenic details and the “he said” tags are gone. They’re mostly ditched in John McFetridge’s SWAP dialogue, as well. How much of that does the reader need?

How much of the technique, the rules, the framing do we need to get the dialogue across? Do we need to have “The words” followed by the “he said” in each line, alternating with the “she said” tags?

In a recent PARIS REVIEW interview that’s working around the innerwebs, James Ellroy spoke of another author’s dialogue. "I tried to read a Cormac McCarthy book and thought, Why doesn’t this cocksucker use quotation marks?"

Why didn’t James Joyce or John William Corrington use quotation marks?

We all know that writers do everything they can to try to keep the reader “in the story.”

I think the scenery can get in the way of good dialogue. I’ve read writers who try to slow down the talking by throwing in weather reports. And I’ve also read writers who go back and forth with dialogue for a page or two, like some epic baseline volley in tennis. And, well, I get lost sometimes. I have to look a few lines up, figure out who said what, and then follow down slowly so that I know who the writer meant to say, “And that’s when I shot him.” Because that shooting stuff can get to be kinda important. I imagine there’s a rulebook somewhere (that we’ve lost, a la GREATEST AMERICAN HERO) that says only go so many lines of dialogue deep before you reindentify the speakers.

Is anyone else bothered by too much or too little scenery in dialogue? Too many or too few identifiers in who is saying what? Too many direct quotes and too few indirect? Are some writers just better at pacing dialogue than others? What makes good dialogue?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

You Might Be In A Spillane Novel If...

by Mike Knowles

You might be a redneck if… You think "loading the dishwasher" means getting your wife drunk.

Jeff Foxworthy has hundreds of these lines and whenever you think you’re bored of hearing them one catches you off guard and you chuckle. I think the laugh comes from the thought that no matter how ridiculous they are, you know there is a kernel of truth buried somewhere in that short line.

Foxworthy came to mind this week when I was thinking about Mickey Spillane. I have to come up with a new title for my next book because the one I chose was already taken by a book about S & M. I thought about Spillane this week because my favourite title is his I, the Jury. The book introduces Spillane’s most famous character, Mike Hammer. Hammer is no redneck, but he is sort of ridiculous. I applied Foxworthy to Spillane and this is what I came up with:

You might be in a Spillane novel if…

You just murdered several gangsters, in front of witnesses, and got off without losing your private eye license.

Most of the Mike Hammer stories revolve around revenge. Someone Mike is protecting usually dies and he immediately shifts into his default personality: alpha male death machine. Mike Hammer will then proceed to chase down, and kill, everyone in his path with zero fear of the law. There are instances where he is hauled in front of a judge, but Mike always walks out free and clear with the DA clenching his teeth and promising to get him next time. Mike Hammer is the Roadrunner to the DA’s Wylie Coyote. Mike amasses a body count somewhere in the high double digits and seems to get off by the skin of his teeth every time. The DA never learns, he just puts out a bigger trap and waits for the anvil to fall on his head again.

You frequently visit the police station to put down a high ranking police official and to taunt him about your upcoming crimes.

Mike Hammer’s best friend is Captain Pat Chambers and in almost every book he warns Mike to leave the business of catching the bad guy to the police. Mike always responds with something surly. He then goes on to explain that he wasn’t listening to what his friend has just said, because he is already planning to murder whoever wronged him. Imagine if you tried this. You see a murder and wait for the police to show up. Just about the time the cops finish the chalk outline, put up the tape, and start interviewing witnesses you walk right through the tape (not under, through) and tell the police that you saw the whole thing, but you’re not going to tell them anything. When they ask why, you promptly show them the butt of your .45 Colt automatic and then start verbally abusing the cops and spouting off about how the gun in your pocket is going to be what gets justice. I’m no lawyer, but if you managed to skate on the withholding evidence charge, I’m pretty sure you’d end up speaking into a nightstick or at least on the business end of a taser before the eventual arrest and trial. The real world isn’t all that kind to smart-mouth sociopaths.

You are a receptionist who has been saving herself for two decades (at least) for a man who behaves like a sailor on payday.

Mike Hammer’s assistant Velda is a private eye herself. She runs Mike’s office and spends her free moments staring at him in hopes he might notice her. She is described as the most beautiful woman to ever walk the earth, blessed with brains, fashion sense, and tons of guts. Mike knows she loves him, knows she’s saving herself for him, and he flirts with her constantly. But instead of making it legal with the girl, Mike goes out and boinks whatever women he is investigating. Mike Hammer is the Captain Kirk of private eyes. Every woman he seems to bump into is a goddess who moonlights a nympho with a thing for violent deadbeats. The parade of women never ends and to make things worse, the super smart and sassy assistant just lets him slide.

Even though the Spillane novels have a lot of things in them that you need to suspend your common sense for, you never seem to really take notice of it until you put the book down. While you’re reading Spillane, Mike Hammer’s actions seem like the most normal thing in the world. It’s only after you threaten your neighbour, mouth off to 5-0, and cheat on your wife that you realize no one could ever get away with anything Spillane put on paper.

I know these things now and what it has taught me is that a hiatus every so often to Spillane’s world is a welcome treat. It’s the one of the most visceral literary worlds I have ever been to and if it was possible I would get a season pass because sometimes it feels good to watch the good guy play dirtier than the bad guy and get away with it.