Saturday, November 14, 2009

Doc Savage and Uncomplicated Heroism

by Scott D. Parker

I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes recently, super heroes specifically. The comics industry lives and dies by heroes. The early pulp era had their share as well. I’ve been reading “The Land of Terror,” the second Doc Savage novel. Published in April 1933, this novel is darker than the debut book. Doc actually takes out some of the bad guys and doesn’t give it a second thought. I’ve read that this story is among the darkest of all the Savage novels Lester Dent wrote.

The thing that strikes me about Doc is his infallibility. Simply put, the man can do no wrong. He has his Fabulous Five (Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom, and Johnny) and Dent describes these guys as without peer in their respective area of expertise. Doc exceeds them all. Like Tarzan, Doc Savage is incorruptible and he shies away from the ladies. If he was a cowboy, he’d wear a white hat. You never have to worry if Doc will do the right thing. His word is good all across the globe. If Doc Savage is on the case, the public can breath easier. If you’re up to no good and Doc’s after you, winning is not an option for you. Plain and simple, Doc will prevail. He uncomplicated in his goodness.

Nowadays, all our heroes are all complicated and they wear gray hats. Hell, some of them wear the black hats. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of heroes and, frankly, they are interesting to read and follow. But where did the true-blue heroes go? Where are the heroes who, when they walk on stage, you don’t have to wonder what they’ll do?

More importantly, what happened to them? I’m pondering this question and one of the things I come up with is war. World War II, with all of its carnage and violence, spawned numerous literary creations, the hard-boiled, violent detective novels of writers like Mickey Spillane being but one example. Could a genuine hero like Doc Savage survive the war? Part of me thinks not. His magazine was cancelled just four years after V-E Day. Did our world become so complicated that an uncomplicated hero no longer fit in it?

I don’t have the answer although I think war and the violence of war is a factor. For those of you who wonder about things like this, what’s your take on uncomplicated heroes in a complicated world? Are there any out there now, on TV, in books, movies, or comics? If so, who are they? If not, why? Maybe we can think about this together.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow."

Michael Caine’s latest movie, Harry Brown, is, according to the man himself, about the kind of man that Jack Carter might have been if he survived to a ripe old age.

I have no idea whether the film is any good or not, but it has done is get me thinking about Get Carter, one of the best damn crime flicks you’re ever likely to watch. And more surprising because of Caine.

It’s easy to forget sometimes just how damn good Michael Caine is. He’s so recognisable for being himself and he’s done so many bad movies that when he comes back at you with an incredible performance, you just sit there open mouthed.

Get Carter is one of those performances. It is literally iconic. You watch Caine and you think, “That man is cool.” And he is. In the best sense of the word. There is no posing for Carter. He exists and he does what he does. He is the UK equivalent of a man like Parker in the way that Caine plays him. His eyes are ice-cold, his expression unchanging and his determination absolute. Nothing will stand in his way.

What brought home the absolute brilliance of Caine’s performance was going to see Get Carter on stage at the Fringe a couple of years back. It was a good show, but what was interesting was to see how the lead interpreted the character of Jack Carter. On stage, he was bluster and anger and sheer rage. This character was heading towards his own doom. He was out of control. He created his own troubles and you could see it in every move he made.

It was a great and affecting performance, but what works so well with Caine is that you just don’t know what he’s going to do next or how he’s going to react. He is unreadable. All you know is that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of him. Say the wrong thing and there will be no warning. He will strike back. Fast, deadly and brutal. Beneath that cool exterior, the rage that the stage projected is bubbling up and threatening to explode, but Caine’s Carter keeps it so reeled in that when it is unleashed, you – and those around Carter – are shocked and horrified.

But it is interesting to think about the different ways in which characters are interpreted – not just in film, but in the minds of readers – and how that affects their actions. The Carter on stage went through a very similar (with some minor variations) journey to the character of Carter on film. And yet the emphasis was very different. The conclusions drawn were different. The Carter on stage was a thug, a loudmouth, a man filled with anger. The Carter on film is a bastard, through and through, self centred and yet curiously indifferent to the world around him if it stays out of his way. Were it not for the fact that his family are affected by the machinations of local criminal elements, Carter would just shrug his shoulders and walk on his way. He wouldn’t hurt anyone, wouldn’t even notice them. There is a beautiful scene where a fella Carter knows has been beat to shit. Its Carter’s fault. Carter offers some money to the fella because, well, its in part Carter’s fault this happened. The fella moans about his girlfriend is coming down from Liverpool, and what’s she gonna think when she sees him like this?

Caine, dismissvely throw the money, says, “Here, go get yourself a course in Karate” and walks. He doesn’t care. He’s giving the guy money because its Carter’s fault and he knows you have to take responsibility. But in his cold heart, he truly does not give a shit.

Carter is one of my favourite on screen tough guys. Truly, he’s the real deal. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Get Carter is probably one of the most perfect British crime movies ever made. Not a false step in there.

And one of the coolest opening themes you’ll ever hear:

PS – you’ll notice I didn’t mention the Stallone interpretation of this character. There’s a very good reason for that. But if you want me to explain it, you’ll just hear a lot of bad-tempered swear words…

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dirty Bits

by Dave White... well, sort of.

Sometimes I think he's making fun of me. Just a month or so after I spend an entire blog post teasing people blogging about writing a sex scene, my buddy Bryon Quetermous emails me asking if he can guest blog here.

And since I'm all out of controversial topics at the moment, I agreed to let him.

And what does he give me?

A blog about sex scenes.

The universe hates me.


It pains me to admit that many of you out there may not know who I am.
Sure I'm no Stephen King, but there was a time where I blogged a lot,
published a lot of short stories online, and even had a hand in
publishing several of the fellows on the sidebar there through a
website I ran called DEMOLITION. But then I got married, had a couple
of kids, and suffered one of the worst bouts of writer's block I've
ever had. So I shut down the blog and DEMOLITION and stopped writing
short stories and basically disappeared.

Well I'm back and looking for new readers
( This blog seemed as good a bridge as
any from my past life to the present so I appreciate the indulgence.
My post today is part discussion, part advice, and part shamless

Occasionally Dave White and I will chat about blogs and some of the
topics that seem to always pop up in them. Two of the biggies are
always writing sex scenes and e-publishing vs. traditional publishing.
I'd like to touch on both of those topics today, but hopefully in a
less clichéd context. One of the hallmarks of my old blog self was a
healthy (and sometimes over indulgent) sense of the truth in my life.
I wrote about everything, including my love life. I wrote about dates
and crushes and misfires and unrequited love among my posts about
murder, mayhem, and musical theater. And they were some of my most
popular posts. But since I've been married that's fallen off. I don’t
have crushes, or dates, or misfires really, or at least none that I'm
willing to admit publicly. But the funny thing is, I seem to find
myself writing more about sex.

It started with an invitation to contribute to UNCAGE ME, the
follow-up anthology to the collection of dirty stories EXPLETIVE
DELETED edited by Jen Jordan. For this story I wanted to really let my
nasty side fly. So in the middle of the story I had the most explicit
sex scene I've ever written. And I didn’t need anybody to tell me how
to do it. Sadly, I didn’t use my imagination I just wrote from real
life. And it's received some raves from people who have read it. The
next two short stories I wrote after that both ended up having
explicit sex scenes in them as well, also drawn from real life. Now
obviously, I will run dry quite soon based on my limited experience,
but it was an interesting revelation about what I'm capable of.

This also led me to looking into the erotica publishing field as a
possible outlet for some of this stuff. What I found is one of the
most profitable and technologically advanced segments of the
publishing industry. I found publishers that mix print with electronic
publishing seamlessly. There were tiny publishers with amazing
distribution and dear god, the money. Publishers, writers, readers,
everybody is winning. It's the first time I've felt excited about the
state of publishing in a long time. I've got to believe crime fiction
will come around to this stuff eventually. But until then, I think
it's good for writers to be exposed outside of their standard genre


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Waterloo

John McFetridge

This week I’m giving a reading at the Princess theatre in Waterloo, sponsored by Words Worth books, with Linwood Barclay and Robert Rotenberg. I’ve met both guys a few times and it should be fun.

Linwood Barclay was a columnist for the Toronto Star newspaper and wrote some non-fiction books, one a memoir called Last Resort about growing up at the summer resort his parents ran in Ontario, a political satire called Mike Harris Made me East My Dog (Harris was the very right-wing premiere of Ontario for eight years that felt like eighty) and Father Knows Zilch, about, well, the title says it all.

Linwood also wrote the Zack Walker series (Bad Move, Bad Guys, Lone Wolf and Stone Rain), which I really like. Zack Walker is a sci fi novelist who lives in the suburbs with his wife and kids and gets involved in murder mysteries. I like the attention to detail in the sci fi stuff (Star Trek models play an important plot point), the humour, the mysteries but most of all the family dynamic. In some ways these books are like the TV series Castle and come to think of it, they’d make a great TV series.

But then Linwood wrote a stand-alone thriller. I guess that’s the plan for just about everyone writing a first person detective series these days and I guess the reason why is because of what happened to Linwood: No Time For Goodbye was a huge, freakin’ international hit. USA, Canada, the UK, lots of countries I’ve never even heard of.

It’s a really good book. A teenage girl wakes up one morning to find her family has disappeared.

So, the flip side to the story we hear too often about the teenager going missing. From there the action picks up years later with the girl now grown and telling her story to a reality TV show. It’s smart and clever and like the Zack Walker books the family dynamic is the best part.

What’s weird is that Linwood has followed up that high-concept thriller with two more books in as many years that are just as good (clearly Linwood is buying the beers on our little outing here), Too Close to Home and the new one, Fear the Worst.

Robert Rotenberg was also involved in journalism as the editor of Passion, the english magazine of Paris and also T.O. The Magazine of Toronto. He was also a criminal lawyer in Toronto and all these experiences come into play in his debut novel, Old City Hall.

Old City Hall came out around the same time as my novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and covers some of the same ground in Toronto (physically and thematically) and I’m not bitter at all that Old City Hall was universally acclaimed, a huge hit in hardcover and paperback in Canada and the USA and lots of other countries and has been sold to a bigtime producer to be turned into a TV series.

Not bitter at all.

Really, I just want to tell all those people (lots and lots of people) who bought Old City Hall that Everybody Knows... would make a nice accompaniment.

They do have a lot in common. Both books start with a dead body on the top floor. In Everybody Knows... the body comes falling off the roof onto the hood of a car in Parkdale and in Old City Hall the body is in the bathtub of a penthouse condo on the lake. Of course, the police get involved. Both books have a Jewish homicide detective which may or may not have to do with the fact that until he retired recently one of the Toronto police homicide detectives we saw on TV a lot was a Jewish guy. In Old City Hall it’s Ari Greene, a single guy who’s taking care of his widowed father, a Holocasut survivor, and in Everybody Knows... it’s Teddy Levine, a married guy I based loosely on an old friend of mine, Allan Levine (hey, at least I changed his first name).

Both books are ensemble stories with big casts that get into lots of different neighbourhoods in Toronto and Old City Hall even gets out of the city up to a ski hill and small towns. Robert’s experience as a criminal lawyer comes through in big and small ways. There’s a little thing I really liked where a cop meets with a guy who’s been planted as the cellmate of the suspected murderer to see if the guy will talk. When it’s time for the plant to return to jail he stubs out his half-smoked cigarette and slips it another another smoke into his sock. There’s great stuff like that all through the book.

In my introduction before the reading I’m going to say that when I started to write novels I didn’t realize I was writing crime novels – I was just writing about what was going on in my city. My books don’t have clues, there isn’t a single crime (much less a single murder) that drives the story and there isn’t much justice served in the end.

I was always worried that my books would fall through the cracks, niether fish nor fowl, that kind of thing, so I’ve been thrilled with the acceptance from the “mystery community” and I’m very happy to be sharing the bill with these guys.

Check 'em out:

Linwood Barclay

Robert Rotenberg

And if you're anywhere near Waterloo, Ontario then Words Worth Books looks pretty good.

One last thing. It's Remembrance Day in Canada and some other countries and Veterans Day in the USA. I'm going to take a couple of minutes at 11:00 to reflect. My Dad was in the Canadian navy from 1938-45, serving mostly on Corvettes taking convoys across the north Atlantic. He didn't talk about it much, told a few funny stories if the occasion called for it like the time he was constipated for days and guys on the ship had a betting line for when he'd, "get over it," but he didn't say much about the boat getting torpedoed out from under him, spending the night hanging onto debris and then a month in the hospital in Glasgow with pneumonia. One of his jobs during the war was dropping depth charges on U-Boats and it's trite to say he never got over the taking of lives, but he never did. My Dad died in 1985 at 65 and I have no doubt his service took years off his life.

It's also somewhat fitting that this day of Remembrance is happening around the same time we're seeing so much attention given to the 20th Anniversay of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know my Dad would have been pretty happy to see that, and maybe especially to see Lech Walesa there for the celebrations. My Dad was also in a union for a long time (42 years) and he had a tremendous amount of respect for Walesa and the Solidarity movement.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I had a gun, you know the rest

By Jay Stringer

I wrote a few weeks ago about violence in crime fiction. At the time, I was looking more at the difference, if there is one, between male and female writers. But I want to return to expand on a different point. I like to get into an idea and dig around.

Violence is key to crime fiction. It really is. There are a number of different branches within the crime family, the cosy, the mystery, the crime, the noir, and the yadda yadda. Something that unites them is that they would all have some form of violent act in there, somewhere. And what separates them is how that is dealt with.

It might not be extreme violence, and it may not be on screen, but it’s there. Five minutes before Miss Marple walked into the room and saw the local doctor lying dead on the floor, someone hit the poor quack over the head with a vase.

Something I’ve often found with crime fiction is that too many writers are more interested in the act itself than the consequences.The physical rather than the emotional. I touched on this aspect again a while back when I talked about grief.

I read two books recently that really impressed me with their handling of violence. The first was Hell To Pay by George Pelecanos. There is a lot of violence in and around the edges of that story, but very little of it is really described. There’s a horrific event about halfway through the book, and it is touched upon. But Pelecanos invested much more time into showing the aftermath. We see the funeral; we see the family’s grief. We see the shockwaves that go through the community and then the speed with which modern life forgets. It was an act that we didn’t really need to see, our brains are well capable of detailing it, but what we did need was all that followed. In fact, for those of you who've read the book, think abck to that incident and even as it was happening, Pelecanos took us inside the mind of one of the victims to show us a simple and heartbreaking last wish.

Likewise near the end of the novel the main character stops an act of violence, something that was about to happen ‘off screen’, and this simple moment carried a lot more weight than it might have in the hands of another writer. The character got into the emotions of the scene, and thought through the consequences that would have followed, and intervened.

I find that kind of writing far better than any number of grisly descriptions of murder or autopsy.

The other book I’m thinking of is The Lost Sister by our very own Russel D Mclean. There is a lot of violence in there; we know this because we don’t see it. We see the blood and the pain that follows. We see the weight that the violence leaves behind rather than the weight that went into the punch. Naturally I won’t go into spoilers here, but there was a key scene where something important happened, and rather than show the act Russel chose to show the aftermath. I was really struck by that decision, largely because it showed that sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not write.

It can be far more effective sometimes to leave a scene rather than to explore it.

There’s a camera move in the film Dr No which has always stuck with me. James Bond is about to be beaten up by some of the henchmen, and as they start hitting him the camera drifts away to focus on something else. We hear the violence but we don’t see it. Now, in terms of the film this may have been to do with ratings. But a trick that might have grown out of compromise became one of the most effective parts of the film.

In this month’s issue of Detective comics, written by Greg Rucka, there is another such moment. The scene shifts from the usual third person P.O.V to first person, so that the reader is seeing things through the eyes of the main character as she and her family are kidnapped. The thing is, the main character has a bag over her head, so all we can ‘see’ is the sound of her mother and sister begging for their lives. We hear, rather than see, the violence. We feel the lump at the pit of our stomach as her family fall silent following gunshots, and then we are left with the mess as the bag is pulled from our eyes.

Rucka, and the artist J.H.Williams could have chosen to show the act in graphic detail. But they decided that showing the aftermath would have a far bigger impact, and it does.

And so it is with crime fiction. Do I need a detailed description of a woman being raped, or the places a snake can be fitted into? Do I need to see or read an autopsy, the cold clinical examination of a corpse or a victim? Do I need to know what sound a madman makes as he kills someone? Nope.

I need to know what the affect is. I need to know what makes this act of violence important, and that is measured by the wake that it leaves.

And so that’s where I find myself as both a writer and a reader. Don’t try and impress me with your hyper-violence. I don’t care if you can blow something up in slow motion, describe the trajectory of a bullet, or prove to me that you’ve done a ton of research on anatomy.
I just want to know that you understand the emotions behind what you’re doing. And I want to see how people deal with the mess that’s left behind.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from all of this as a writer is that sometimes what you don’t write is far more important.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Q&A with Gregg Hurwitz

By Steve Weddle

You think your life is weird. Gregg Hurwitz went to Harvard and Oxford and is now writing Wolervine, The Punisher, and Moon Knight for Marvel Comics. Oh, and crime fiction.

His ninth novel, TRUST NO ONE, recently hit the shelves to great reviews and solid sales. In the book, Nick Horrigan wakes up in the middle of the night. Every night. At the same time. As the book opens, he wakes to military folks storming his apartment.

According to David Montgomery over at The Daily Beast: "Nick is an especially interesting creation: a thriller protagonist who, most of the time, doesn’t really know what he’s doing, makes mistakes and trusts the wrong people. Those very human qualities make the tension in the plot all the greater."

And as Thomas Gaughan said in BOOKLIST, "The scope of the book’s plot is too circuitous and elaborate to detail, but the page-to-page suspense and the breakneck pacing will please Hurwitz’s growing audience."

Basically, you can't put the book down because every few pages you're finding out something that pulls you further in. Yeah, it's one of those. I read it in two days and thought it was great fun. We sat down via the email machine for some of the Q&A stuff.

SW: TRUST NO ONE has plenty of twists and turns. When you start a book, do you know who all the bad guys are or does that develop as you go along?

GH: The twists and turns develop as I go along. As a writer, I have to stay open to the opportunities the plot and characters will present me as they evolve. I often have a sense of the main "bad guy," but as I write more, I find that I'm moving away from villains and more to antagonists—people who make bad choices and feel that their view is justified.

SW: How much fun was it to create the politicians in TRUST NO ONE?

GH: So much fun. I wrote this before Obama and McCain had emerged on the national stage (or at least before they'd emerged as presidential candidates) and it's interesting to see how certain traits of my fictional/futuristic/ideal candidates mapped onto those personalities. However, the politicians are not the thrust of the book—it's not a political thriller. It's really about Nick and the choices he's forced to make. The backdrop just happens to be an election.

SW: So, pole-vaulting, huh? How’d that happen?

GH: I was new to an all-boys high school, scrawny, and had just gotten cut from football. And so I wanted to choose the most dangerous sport imaginable to prop up my diminished self-esteem.

SW: Danger. Right. Speaking of danger and considering your scholarly background at Oxford, do you see any way to read Frank Castle (Punisher) as a Shakespearean character?

GH: Well...I suppose in his motivation and that he's doomed (or blessed?) to reenact a cycle and that it seems largely out of his control. However, he doesn't have the downfall that's required of a Shakespearean tragic hero. At least not yet!

SW: In addition to the Punisher, Marvel’s Moon Knight has made quite a comeback. What makes him a hero for our times and what draws you to him, to Wolverine, to the Punisher?

GH:They're all insane in differing ways but they also hold tight to a defined code of ethics, no matter how off kilter that code might seem to the impartial observer.

SW: You’ve written comics, novels, and movie scripts. Does writing in certain forms help with others?

GH: Yes—when I come from a script to a book, I write with more leanness, with a sense that every scene must drive the plot. And in reverse, I come with a greater sense of character and ambiance.

SW: Movies, comics, novels. You seem pretty busy. What’s a day like for you?

GH: Up at 7. Write all day. Go to the gym/soccer/hiking at 5. Home. If on deadline, more work. Then see the kids and wife/go to a movie/dinner/frolic/read.

SW: Can you think of any excuse for drinking light beer?

GH: Daytime baseball games. Or if it's your fifth beer and you're feeling bloated. I prefer Mexican beers or stouts - the two ends of the spectrum.

SW: Many of the writers who read our blog are working hard to find agents. What advice can you give to unagented writers who are sending out their queries?

GH: Make sure that manuscript is in the best possible condition, that it represents the culmination of all your talent, hard work, and skill, and that you've rewritten the hell out of it.

SW: What’s your favorite room in your house and why?

GH: My office. The view. And the fact that it largely supports the rest of the house, which is a source of humility and pride.


There ya go. From light beer to pole vaulting. What more could you want? To find out more about Gregg Hurwitz, visit his site. Oh, and you might wanna check out this video in which he talks with Robert Crais about TRUST NO ONE. And if you'd like to read more about TRUST NO ONE, the folks at January Magazine have a pretty comprehensive write-up. You can read the first chapter here and an exclusive short with the lead character here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Writing Without a Net

by Mike Knowles

I don’t know how a lot of other people write. I know some sit in front of a laptop and type their books while they sit at Starbucks. I know others write in the middle of the night while their kids are KOed. I myself do the first draft of anything I write whenever, and wherever, I can on paper in a blue notebook. I bought ten blue notebooks from Walmart and I have filled five of them so far. It’s not OCD or anything, I’m just prepared in case it turns out that it’s the blue notebook doing all the work. When I finish writing a book by hand, I move on to typing and editing. The process works for me and it has been successful enough so far. What I don’t really do is plan. I have an idea about what I want to write and I know generally where the story is going, but most of the time I am working without a net. My pen starts moving and whatever comes out at the time hits the page. This system, in my opinion, has benefits. I’d like to think that working without a definite plan often creates writing that is different. I don’t nail myself down to a formula and as a result my books are usually not like others on the shelves in the same section of the bookstore. I think writing something different is hugely important, especially in crime writing, because there are plenty of times I have picked up a new book and felt like I had been there before.

There is, however, one drawback to writing without a net. I have written myself into some serious corners. I have created scenarios on the fly without a thought as to how the protagonist could possibly survive. There have been many nights where I have sat in my office staring at the empty page running scenarios in my head like some sort of low-grade computer. Nine times out of ten, I never solve the problems in the office. I usually figure things out in the shower, or when I’m walking the dog. My mind will be wandering and all of a sudden, I’ll be struck with an out, something that will keep the book going. It seems I always figure out how to keep writing when I’m not thinking about writing at all.

There is some science behind this occurrence. A university of British Columbia study found that the human brain is surprisingly active during daydreaming. “Findings suggest that daydreaming – which can occupy as much as one third of our waking lives – is an important cognitive state where we may unconsciously turn our attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems in our lives.” (Science Daily)

Someone might not think that a chapter in a novel is not an important problem, but writing yourself into a corner can feel like a splinter in your brain. You just keep picking at it and picking at it thinking it will come out if you just keep trying. Reading the study from UBC just confirmed what I had figured out a few years ago. It’s possible to set your brain on auto-pilot.

I’ve learned to accept being stuck. I might take a break for a day or two, or I might move onto another chapter knowing I can always come back to what I was working on eventually. Every time, without a doubt, my brain has come through and given me something I can use. There are a few exceptions that took longer than the day or two I mentioned. Something I recently finished came together over the course of a year. I was thinking the story out in my head while I walked the dog. Imagining each scene bit by bit. There were months where the story was just on loop and I imagined the same things over and over again. But after a while, my sub-conscious would eventually come up with something and the story would continue. After a year or so, the story went to paper and then to my agent the beautiful Al Guthrie.

Trying to force your brain to be creative is like trying to force yourself to pee in a crowded room. Try as you might it’s not going to happen. But, if you let your mind wander, you can go anywhere.