Sunday, January 31, 2010

Music vs Books

by Mike Knowles

Last weekend, I happened to catch the movie The Soloist on the movie channel. If you haven’t seen it, the film is about a reporter, Steve Lopez, who strikes up a friendship with a homeless schizophrenic name Nathaniel Ayers Jr. Steve hears the sound of Nathaniel’s violin playing on the street and soon learns that the homeless man was once a student at Juilliard. The movie chronicles their friendship and all and all it was pretty decent. One particular thing that struck me as interesting in the film was a question Nathaniel asked Steve. Nathaniel asked the reporter if his love for books was similar to way he felt about music. The reporter said no and changed the subject, but I thought about the question long after the movie ended.

I like music, but I am in no way an authority on it. I don’t devote massive amounts of time to music. I listen when I can, but I don’t go out of my way for it. I just don’t have Nathaniel’s passion for music. But books, books I love. Books I devote time to and read as often as I can. I would have to say that, unlike Steve Lopez, I find in books what Nathaniel Ayers Jr. finds in music.

My classical tastes are more for McBain than Beethoven. Writing for a whole orchestra is neat, but it is no way as cool as the way Ed McBain could weave the lives of the men and women of the 87th precinct together.

Rather than listen to Eric Clapton classic rock riffs, I’d rather read about John D. MacDonald’s classic PI. Playing the guitar is cool, but a PI living on a houseboat named Busted Flush is way more badass.

Punk has a lot of messages buried in the seemingly simple music, but I would rather listen to Ken Bruen and Jason Starr’ s daring use of language in their Hardcase Crime collaborations than anyone who headlined CBGG.

Heck who wants to listen to Canadian songstress, and all around skinny gal, Celine Dion when they can bury their nose in a McFetridge.

The more I thought about what Nathaniel had asked Steve the more I realized how I think about books. When I look at a book that has earned a place on my shelves, I don’t immediately recall the plot of the book. Instead, I remember particular scenes, description, and dialogue like they were favourite songs. Robert Parker’s workout conversations between Hawk and Spenser, Mike Hammer’s cold one liners, Stark’s mean descriptions, Eisler’s combat scenes. All of them are greatest hits to me.

Words hit me in a way music never has. I appreciate a good phrase more than a good song. When the movie ended, I remember enjoying the music of Nathaniel’s cello, but I remember a single clever description more. It was one of those things that was just so perfect, I had wished I had thought of it. Steve walked skid row narrating to himself for his newspaper column and he described seeing, “rats the size of meatloaf’s.” That line stuck in my head and I thought about how much I liked it long after I changed the channel. A description of rats will forever be my first thought when I think of that movie, not the beautiful songs, or the heartbreak of mental illness. Just rats the size of meatloaf’s.

Nathaniel’s question to Steve changed the movie for me. The homeless schizophrenic became so much more understandable when I realized we were the same. Something about books hits me deep inside in a way I can’t explain or define. And if my life were stripped away until I was left with nothing, like Nathaniel’s, I would still cling to the way I feel about books and the wonderful things inside them.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Fiction Chain and ABW

by Scott D. Parker

For the new year, I decided to be Jerry Seinfeld.

No, not really, but I did decide to try something he used to do. As a young comic, Seinfeld knew he needed write everyday in order to get his voice. To reward himself with a visual cue, he purchased a calendar with all the days of the entire year. If he writes on a day, he puts a red “X” on the date. Repeat. After a week, you have a string of seven X’s. The days rolled on and so did the X’s. Soon, he had visual incentive not to skip a day, even if he wanted to because he didn’t want to break the chain.

Okay, I thought just after the new year, why not? It’s a gimmick, really, like most everything we writers do to trick out minds. I started on 4 January and wrote. I made a simple choice: I count fiction. Blogs and other non-fiction don’t count. Period. Fiction equals new content. For fourteen days straight, I wrote fiction. I had two stories going in my head and was preparing them both. Boy, it was intoxicating. I got to where I’d bow out of playing a game or something because I hadn’t “made a link today.” I didn’t want to break the fiction chain. It was great fun, too. Nor was I surprised with the amount of content I was creating. (More on that come 1 February on my blog.)

The third week of January showed the flaw in my effort. I finished Story #1 on a Sunday. I hadn’t mapped everything out for Story #2. The day job got to me that day and I didn’t have my lunch writing hour. Sure, I wrote a “CSI: Miami” recap that night but not fiction. Thus, no “X.” Don’t laugh but it killed me. I wrote the word “blog” on that day but, really, it’s a cheat. Come lunch time on Tuesday, it was so easy to break out the laptop and start writing. I wanted to start the chain again.

When it came time to edit the stories, I decided that editing fiction counted since I was still creating new lines and sentences and working fiction. As Story #1 was submitted and the first draft of Story #2 was completed, I again ran into a problem: what to write next? Thus, a chain was broken. Leading me to my corollary to my Fiction Chain: ABW.

ABW stands for Always Be Writing. That’s my short hand for always, always, have something on which I can write every single day. Some days it may be editing. But I told myself never to let a day arrive where I’m between projects. Thus, on my wall now, a large sheet (18-in. x 48-in.) of paper is taped. It is titled “Story Ideas” and I write them all there. If I’m at a loss, I look up. Simple as that.

This one little trick has allowed me to produce more fiction in twenty-two days (started on 4 January, only blogged on two days, suffered a setback on one day and didn’t produce) than I did all of last year. One Month! It’s a gimmick but it works for me. Every month in 2010 might not be like January’s output but it’s amazing how fast stories pile up when you write every day.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Talk Talk

By Russel D McLean

The Nerd of Noir is the man of a thousand swears, but despite how that may make him appear to some people (hello, mother!), he’s a savvy guy. Not just because he gave a nice review to one of me books lately* but because he genuinely seems to have a brain underneath that beautifully coiffed hair of his.

That review pointed out one thing in particular about THE GOOD SON that no one else in the world seems to have picked up on:

McNee initially does what no fucking private eye ever seems to do in novels – he used a fucking phone. Instead of traipsing off to London a million fucking miles away (like any other private eye character since Marlowe would do), McNee makes some calls, figures some shit out from the comfort of his office. Instead of a thousand scenes of McNee going from one shady bar or one shit-hole flat to another at who knows how much of an expense, McNee gets practical about it and just calls up contacts. It may not initially seem like a big thing, but think about it. It’s kind of a revelation.

A revelation indeed. But it didn’t seem to me to be one at the time. While I had grown up on novels that relied on those scenes, I am also a product of a world that has started to rely more and for immediate information and I knew that any decent investigator wouldn’t waste his time going to the scene when he could easily get what he needed from his armchair. Or at least lay the groundwork for a speedier investigation.

Is this hampering the idea of the traditional plot? Is this killing crime fiction that things just aren’t so difficult on our protagonists any more?

No, I don’t think so. As anyone who’s read the book will tell you, McNee doesn’t just sit on his arse the whole time (and besides, what if he did? Never did Nero Wolfe any harm…), but his approach opens up a whole new set of complications and has repercussions that would have been very different if he’d done that whole “traipsing down to London” nonsense. I also think it sets him up as a man of his time; a man who can use the modern world. And this is important because I think many protagonists in crime fiction can feel removed from the world they clearly live in due to such simple things as not using a phone properly or refusing to look at the internet (again, McNee’s browsing of a website provides much information on one important character in the book).

I think that if crime fiction is to move forward, it has to embrace the modern world in a natural way and adjust its expectations and clichés accordingly. Yes, there is the worry about characters constantly being in touch or not being isolated when the killer’s coming, but there are ways and means around such things that can be dramatically more terrifying than the old because characters would be reliant on such communication and technology. There is also the question – and its one at the centre of Steve Mosby’s chilling Cry For Help – over who is at the other end of a phone?

Can you really trust a text?

Yes, I think the modern world will kill some clichés, some standard tropes, some long-held ideas of genre fiction. I think it will make wrters consider new ways – consciously or not – to treat old situations.

And, truly, I believe that’s a good thing.

*In the grand and brand new issue of Crime Factory, available if you clicky-click the beautiful link

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And that's the end!

by Dave White

Just finished another draft of my next novel.

Like literally, just hit save, and closed the Word doc.

And I'm exhausted.

It always surprises me how tiring writing is. Sometimes, after an extremely trying writing day, I feel like I've run three miles. And my brain doesn't compute this, exactly. It thinks about what I did during the day and tells me, "You lazy bum, you just sat on the couch all day."

But writing really is exhausting. Think of the mental work you have to put in. First you have to make sure the plot is clicking. Then you have to make sure everyone doing everything within their character (okay, one and two are interchangable). Then you have to make sure the way you're telling the story works. Your word choice has to be smooth. Your tone has to fit what you're trying to say. You have to show, not tell. You have to be grammatically coorect.

And if you aren't you better be fitting a perfect style.

A lot goes on with each keystroke.

So, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to keep this post kinda short and go hit the sack for the evening.

Night, folks!

(Though, if you haven't had enough of me, you can check out my thoughts on house hunting over at my personal blog.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Beginning of a New World

I used to love album covers. Back in the early seventies some friends and I drove from Montreal to Plattsburgh, New York, to buy Alice Cooper’s School’s Out album because the Canadian version didn’t include the panties. Yeah, that’s right, the vinyl record was wrapped in a pair of pink panties.

For years I had both posters from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on my wall. The only way to get the posters was to buy the album.

I used to buy records at Dutchie’s Record Cave on Stanley Street in Montreal and ride the bus home studying the album cover.

One wall in my first student apartment had been painted in what I thought was a pretty good attempt at Roger Dean, Yes-style cover art. I can’t remember which album cover it was, but I do remember it was the one with Astral Traveller and Sweet Dreams.

I haven’t bought new music in quite a while but last week I went online and bought, of all things, the Peter Framton album, Fingerprints, an instrumental that came out in 2006.

I have no idea what the cover art looks like, or even if there is any, but Frampton is just as good a guitarist as he was when that got lost in his pop music fame.

So, for me anyway, the covers are gone, the giveaway posters are gone and sadly, the giveaway panties are gone, but the music is still here.

And that’s kind of my segue to books and specifically e-books.

This is in part inspired by Tess Gerritson’s, The End of the World as We Know It? blog post, because while that may be true, the new world might not be so bad.

All the reports that mention Ms. Gerriton's blog refer to her as, “bestselling author Tess Gerritson,” and that’s great for her, but there are a lot of writers like me who know we’ll never be bestselling authors. I don’t know, was James Crumley ever a bestseller? Even George V. Higgins had a lot of success with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but I think a lot of his other books are out of print. I’ve been tracking down books by those guys and a few others lately and it’s been tough. I’ve been using Abebooks and looking all over online for used copies because a lot of the books I’m looking for aren’t even in print anymore.

There are thousands of books like The Super Summer of Jamie McBride which are out of print and yet Amazon or Abebooks will sell me a used copy. The author, or his or her estate, gets no money from that sale. If it was an e-book, always in print, he might get a quarter. Okay, so it’s not much but you never know, over years it may add up.

For a writer like me that matters. I’m not worried about having a bestseller, I’m worried about people who want to buy my book being able to find a copy.

When I started writing I dreamed about having huge bestsellers, being as popular as Ian Flemming or Robert Ludlum. Then as I got older that changed. First it turned into a sort of hazy dream about being a kind of drunken genuis, hanging out in bars and, well, that one was always kind of vague and never really made sense.

But then I hit on my current dream, the one that’s stuck with me the longest:

I dream about being able to make as much money as a writer as I would as a school teacher.

A quick look online tells me teachers make about fifty grand. Okay, let’s say I make a buck a book (averaged out between hardcover, trade, mass market and e-book) so I’ll need to sell 50,000 books a year.

Wow. Okay, have to look into that drunken genius thing again...

All right, all right, with print runs less then five thousand it's unlikely I'll ever sell fifty thousand copies of a book. Right now I have publishing deals in Canada and the USA, so I'll need a deal in the UK and Australia and everywhere else people speak English (I don't expect to ever sell English books in non-English speaking countries, imagine how much a special order import would cost) and I'll have to get translation deals. So far I haven't been able to get a foreign deal and one of the main reasons given is that my books haven't sold enough copies in English. An Italian publisher, for example, would have to buy the rights to the book, pay a translator, design a new cover, print up a lot of copies, do some marketing and promotion, ship books to bookstores and hope to sell enough copies to make a little profit.

There's no way that's gonna happen.

But with e-books, always available around the world, I might sell enough to make as much money as a substitute teacher.

And that's a chance I'm willing to take even if it means some books will be pirated. Right now some books are shoplifted, some are damaged in shipping and sent back and some are simply returned unsold. Lots of books are given away free as ARCs. Who pays for those?

Yes, it may be easy for me, lucky to sell a thousand copies of a book, to say I'm willing to risk having a few pirated, that's a lot different from a bestselling author who sells 100,000 copies and has 20,000 copies pirated. What about the twenty grand extra they might have made (I still think most people who download illegal won't buy legally)? I don't know about that.

These days it seems there's an awful lot being written about the publishing "industry" in every newspaper at the same time all those papers are cutting back on their book review sections.

Maybe when the fad of e-books and e-readers and book pirating passes we can go back to talking about books. Newspapers will be available on e-readers and you never know, they might bring back book reviews.

Most of us will never be Pink Floyd. We’ll be lucky to be Wishbone Ash.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Knowledge Adds, Wisdom Lets Slide

By Jay Stringer

Nothing goes to plan. Ever. Not one thing.

Okay, maybe that one time with that safety deposit box and……Ignore that.

I know a lot of writers plan things out, to varying degrees. Some have detailed maps of where they’re going, flowcharts and diagrams, walls and desks cluttered with post-it notes. So far, and please let there be time to change and improve, that’s just not me.

Nothing goes to plan.

Example one; This blog. To take you behind the scenes of how we plan these things –on the rare occasions that planning applies to what I do here- Russel and myself had many chats about how to make a DSD presence for Tony Black. Plan A involved an interview, to be done in advance, which I didn’t do. Plan B involved a podcast interview. And, dutifully, the night before we both attended Tony’s book launch, I laid out my laptop back next to my recording equipment to take with me the following day. And I did remember to take the bag. Just not the stuff that was meant to be in it. Russel saved the day, as his Friday report of the launch more than covered the fact that, frankly, to work with me is often to work on your own. My brain has other things to do, like catch dinosaurs, and build rocket ships.

I’m thinking of this because a friend recently asked me for a few bits of writing advice. And as I tried to make it sound like I knew what I was talking about, I realised I'm the last person to ask.

I’m currently at work on the second draft of my second book. Now the first, as I’ve said before, was sorta written by accident. I had a vague idea, one that would be told in first person by a bartender and really didn’t have the legs to go past the first plot twist, and I sat down to write a short story. And I wrote. And I wrote. And sometime later, climbing out of the cave and wiping the hair and cobwebs from my eyes, I had a 75,000 word short story.

And boy was it a mess.

I showed it to a few people, who’s opinions I have come to trust. And they said, “Boy, this is a mess.” But I’d done it, and I was proud of it so I worked on. I drafted and hacked and sliced. I took in advice and criticism. I started to feel like I knew what the book was going to be. I made the mistake of having a plan. Then somewhere between the first and second draft, I realised that the central character had nothing to do with the story, and that the most interesting guy was someone else in the bar that night. So the first person narrative got a brain transplant. Then somewhere between drafts two and three, I realised that all the stuff that I really wanted to write, the stuff I was finding interesting, was happening ‘off screen’ to other people, so I abandoned the main plot for a different one. And then a few other characters turned up somewhere along the way, and a few other vanished, and hey presto I had a book that seemed to move at a decent speed, be about things that interested me, and have characters I wanted to return to.

So to write a book i had to firstly accidentally write a different book, with different characters and a different plot.

Starting the second (or should that be third?) book, I decided I needed a plan. I would learn from the process of the first one. First and foremost, i would actually intend to write a book. That one small step seemed to make so many things make more sense. I decided I needed to know where the story was going, and who was in it. But then, well…..nothing ever goes to plan. The first draft was difficult for those around me. Endless questions, agonising, and general attempts at making myself out to be the last of the great moody artists. And then, in a fraction of the time if the first one, a first draft was born.

Super Agent read it, gave me plenty of notes and ideas to work with, and I set about the second draft. And, having all the experiences of the first book, and a pretty concise first draft of the second, I thought the process would involve less dramatic changes this time round. But I’m knee deep into it, and characters keep telling me I’ve got them wrong, and other motivations keep cropping up that change the meaning of scenes, and some of my favourite bits of writing have already bitten the dust.

Thing is, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. I’m so used to flying by the seat of my pants that I’ve learned to trust it. I think my instincts are better than my plans, and by feelings are better than my ambitions. Watching me write is like watching me cook; there’s a lot of chopping and mess, there’s very little in the way of recipe, and there’s a lot of strange smells. But some of what comes out is tasty. I’m not sure I have it in me to go the more controlled route; I wouldn’t know what to do with a flowchart or a recipe.

How about you, are you a planner or a chancer?

BONUS COMPETITION!!! just for a bit of fun. First person to identify where the title of today's blog comes from will get a mix cd. It'll be made by be, so don't get too excited.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Of stories and factories

By Steve Weddle

You know those BEST AMERICAN whatever books that come out each year? Aren’t they great? Sometimes I get them right when they come out. Sometimes I get them the following year when they go “Bargain Priced.” I was just working through the 2000 version of Best American Mystery Stories. Donald Westlake edited that one, which had some Shel Silverstein and Dennis Lehane in it. Stories from The Chattahoochee [more fun to say than spell] Review, The Oxford American, The Greensboro Review and other mags join work from AHMM and EQMM. This morning I was reading sweet action from Scott Wolven in the 2008 version edited by George Pelecanos. The 2008 edition also has stories by Kyle Minor, Alice Munro, James Lee Burke, Scott Phillips, S.J. Rozan and a ton of other talented folks.

So that’s the post today. Just wanted to say what I was reading. But while you’re here, let’s think about this for a second. I’m looking at print books that collect stories from print mags. Great stuff, yeah.

Not that long ago, if you wanted to read great short stories, you had to live near a bookstore. Or a library. Or have some subscriptions to the magazines that published quality short fiction. But now, we got quality stuff coming out our ears around here. Yeah, yeah. Good writing is dead. There’ll never be another Faulkner. Anyone can publish now. Blah. Blah.

Shaddup with that nonsense. This ain’t like poetry, folks. Writing fiction is hard work. And folks are publishing it all over the place. And now we’ve become our own collectors of good writing.

OK. I use Google Reader to sort through the blogs I wanna read. Mixed in with the blogs that tell me of Dave White’s suggestions for the Rutgers basketball team or what Jay Stringer thinks of the Wolves’ chances to avoid relegation, I’ve got some pretty fantastic fiction blogs. But it’s not just the straight blogs. We’ve got mags and zines and whatever else you want floating out there.

Today, Monday, the fantastic CRIMEFACTORY launches, featuring a couple of us DSD guys who sneaked in among some top-shelf quality. Head over and check it out. The site is great and the zine, all pdf-ed up, is a marvel of coolness, all retro-noired for your pleasure.

And that’s not all. Let’s use the DSD crew for a test case. Take a look at Dave White’s stories. His first two novels were about Jackson Donne. And you know where you could have seen Donne before the books? Over at ThrillingDetective. Yup. Short stories online. Russel D. McLean has stuff at ThrillingDetective, as well as plenty of other stops. And Scott D. Parker, Jay Stringer, and I have some of our best stuff over at Beat to a Pulp. Online shorts. Just a handful of examples. And look at what John McFetridge has done. He’s collected some of his stories in pdf form for you to download and read. That link over there on the right that says ‘Flash.’ Yeah, that’s it. And as for Mike Knowles, heck, I’m reading his GRINDER on my iPod touch since my local bookstore didn't have it. So I went clicky-click and had it from the amazons in a second. In other words, we’re all out here in various places online. And that’s not to take a damn thing away from print. That’s just giving more options.

Other top sites such as Plots with Guns, ThugLit, A Twist of Noir, The Feral Pages, and so many more (Yeah, I'm sure I forgot your favorite. Tell me about it in the comments.) publish great short stories. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Flash Fiction. And Jay and I talked about it on the podcast. But going back through these BEST books the day before CRIMEFACTORY launches, just shows how much quality there is. This isn’t a matter of e-zines killing off the dead tree magazines.

This is about messing up my To Be Read pile. Let's focus on what's important here, folks: My reading pile. I not only have mags such as Mystery Scene and Crime Spree to read, plus short story collections and estimated nine inches deep – now I have to add CRIMEFACTORY and all these other great online collections to the pile. Thanks Keith, Cameron, and Liam for giving me more for my TBR pile – and another excuse to ignore the laundry pile.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Another Giant Gone

by Mike Knowles

Every name on the top two shelves of my bookcase now belongs to a dead man. Stark, Spillane, McBain, and now Parker. I should add that my books are arranged by coolness, not alphabetical order.

Hearing about Robert Parker’s death was a blow. When I began reading crime fiction, Parker’s Spenser was one of the first heroes I encountered. I remember being in awe after I read The Promised land. I also remember the excitement of finding out there were a ton more of the books. That feeling is still one of the best feelings I can think of. The moment you put down an awesome book and find out there are a bunch more just waiting to be read. I keep chasing that high, but as I get older it happens less and less.

When I look at the bookshelf, I wonder who will pick up the mantle of my heroes. But really no one has picked up the torch from these writers. Who, right now, is on track to write twenty or thirty best sellers? The names on the top shelves of my book case were a rare breed. They wrote book after book about the same characters and nothing ever really got stale. Even though Parker kept pulling jobs that went wrong, Mike Hammer kept killing people and avoiding committing to Velda, and Spenser kept solving cases without making a lot of money and putting up with more violence than any one man should be able to the stories never got old.

Some people just expect writers to be able to do that. To just sit back in an office chair with a laptop and fire off a best seller. I wonder if these people think that baseball players can just hit one out of the park whenever they want to. Because make no mistake about it, writing good fiction for twenty years straight is not an everyday skill. That kind of skill is what separates someone like me playing hockey from the way Gretzky played hockey. Sure we both played the same sport, but there were vastly different results. Gretzky’s skills made him a phenom while the way I applied those skills made me a public embarrassment.

Plenty of people like to say they like to think they have a novel in them. They say a novel, not twenty. Twenty is crazy. Twenty is impossible. The guys on my bookshelf did it. Stark and McBain wrote over 100.

I had been waiting to read the last Spenser book for a little while now, and it will have to wait a little longer. I’m going to read Robert B. Parker all the way through again. I’m going to try and recapture that feeling I get too little. And I’m going to remember that a giant has passed leaving huge deep footprints to follow.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Review: Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

I enjoyed reading fellow DSDer Jay have a go at the history of crime in comics these past two weeks (part 1; part 2). It got me to perusing my bookshelves and I happened upon my collection of crime graphic novels by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I read the first one, Coward, a year or so back and thought I'd post my review here (from my own blog). While Jay's posts inspired me to re-visit this older post, I'm also under the gun for two projects, both due by month's end. So, a reprint for today. Enjoy.


When you think of comics, I bet you think of superheroes in spandex. Nothing wrong with that. But there used to be a whole other realm when someone mentioned comics—horror, mystery, crime, and terror—in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then, with the Comics Code Authority, much of what was in comics evaporated and the superheroes were neutered. Crime-focused comics fell under that knife and stayed dormant for decades. By the 1970s, when I began collecting comics, I don’t even remember any crime comics out there. And I’m not including Detective Comics that long ago became just another vehicle for Batman. No, crime comics died and only rarely rose up to see what was going on. The only crime comic title I can think of before the 1990s was Max Allan Collins’s “Ms. Tree.”

The late 1980s saw the introduction of a newfound realism in comics. The emergence of the graphic novel as a medium proved that comic books were not just kids’ stuff. DC Comics launched the Vertigo line of comics intended for mature readers and focused on subjects more intense than Superman trying to get the alien imp Mr. Mxyzptlk to say his own name backward (thus banishing him back to the Fifth Dimension). With this new attention being paid to comics as a storytelling medium, it was inevitable that crime comics would be re-born.

While the re-birth cannot be attributed to one person, there is one man who can take a large amount of credit for the revitalization of crime in comics. Ed Brubaker bounced around the comics’ world, writing his own material that was usually crime-related and putting his own unique stamp on standard heroes like Batman, Catwoman, and the X-Men. In 2007, he and artist Sean Phillips launched a new title, “Criminal” that featured multi-issue story arcs. The first five issues have been collected in a trade paperback.

Coward” tells the story of Leo, a pickpocket with a genius gift for planning heists. He got the gift from his dad and his dad’s best pal, Ivan. Over the years, Leo has internalized his father’s rules, one of which is always have more than one way out of a situation. Leo lives by these rules and he has survived. The fallout is that he knows when to bail—and does—and he’s earned himself the reputation of being a coward. He’s cool with that, however. As he tells one character, “My ego can take a few morons thinking they scared me.” What Leo realizes (too late) is that his aloofness turns people away, even people who try to get close to him.

Leo’s gone under the radar in the five years since the Salt Bay heist went belly up. He takes care of his dad’s friend, Ivan, now a heroin addict with early onset Alzheimer’s. But an old friend shows up asking for Leo’s help in a heist. It’s a big payday: an armored car full of trial evidence including $5 million in diamonds. Leo says no way. “I’m out of that line of work.” Then his day nurse (the one looking after Ivan) quits. Greta, whose husband died on that botched Salt Bay job five years ago, shows up, cajoling Leo to help. She’s a recovering addict with a kid who needs some medical bills paid. Suffice it to say, Leo agrees and sets out to plan the perfect heist. He’s working with crooked cops and he knows he’s going to be double-crossed. It’s just a matter of time. But what he doesn’t know is that the double-cross is going to allow him and a wounded Greta to get away with the real target in that evidence van. Only when he sees the prize he’s stolen does he start to form another plan, a plan to get himself and Greta out from under the thumb of the guys looking for that briefcase, and, while he’s at it, see about getting paid for his services.

“Coward” is a joy to read. Oh, it’ll slap you in the face with its realism and it’s language, but it’s still a rush. The language surprised me. If filmed, this would only work as an HBO program as the language is rife with four-letter words. But that’s how real criminals talk so no harm, no foul. The plot is tight. Brubaker plays his cards close to the vest, not revealing the true nature of Leo’s actions and outlook on life until late in the book. The artwork is film noir on paper. Sean Phillips uses shadows and light exactly as a director did in the late 40s, giving “Coward” its visual tone that matches the bleak outlook of its text. This is a noir story, not necessarily hard-boiled. There is a bleakness to Leo’s story that permeates most characters as they question their motivations.

In a nice touch, there is a story within a story. The characters all read the newspaper and most of them read a comic strip featuring Frank Kafka, Private Eye. Okay, you can start sniggering now. But the name Kafka and the story being depicted speak to Leo’s story and vice versa. It’s a style Alan Moore used brilliantly in “Watchmen”—except he used three stories.

I’ve been interested in crime comics for a little while now and decided to start with Brubaker’s work. This will not be the last trade paperback I buy. Next up will be "Gotham Central," Brubaker's story of the Gotham City Police working under the shadow of Batman. “ Coward” has merely whetted my appetite for more crime comics, modern as well as golden age. If you like crime fiction, there’s more to it than just novels and short stories. Try the comics and start with Brubaker’s work. Don’t worry: they’re so good, you won’t have to hide them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Loss Launch

By Russel D McLean

If my camera was working, I'd have pictures.

But the sad truth you'll just have to accept my word as proof that tonight Scots noir author wunderkind Tony Black launched his third novel, LOSS.

I have already talked about LOSS at the website of the ITW, rightfully praising both book and author for their bleak, beautiful view of Scottish society; a view that is seen from the bottom up by alcoholic hack Gus Drury. Dury is one of the most impressive characters to emerge from the Scottish crime scene in recent years - - a complex and dangerous character whose faults often make up for his virtues, he is, as Black was quick to assure us tonight, nothing like the author. Except perhaps in his views of politicians and the abundance of “tartan tat” that blights the Scottish tourist industry.

Black is one of those writers I offer as proof of the rebirth of Scottish hardboiled. His cynical worldview combined with a searing prose style has swiftly edged him up on my list of must-read writers. And, as ever, it is because Black seems to understand that politics and society are as important to crime fiction as any creative bloodletting. Yes, people may ask (and tonight, some did)what kind of mind can conceive of such attrocities as Black describes, but when you think about it, the true horror of a writer like Black comes in the quieter moments, the moments when Black confronts the mindset of those who would commit attrocities both physical and mental on other people.

Not that he was always a crime geek when it came to his career as an author, of course. Tonight's event offered up evidence of a burgeoning need to write a historical novel about the Tasmanian Tiger (no, we're not kidding) and the revelation that his four previous novels were not remotely connected to the Drury series (although at least two were caper novels). There was also the admission that women's reaction to Drury was “they'd either slap him or shag him” and the admission from the audience that men are more squeamish than women when it comes to the violence in his novels.

For me, one of the more interesting (and sadly unexplored) moments of the night came in Black's naming Irvine Welsh as a crime writing influence. Welsh is more generally accepted as a literary author, and yet I'm right behind Black when he outs Welsh as a crime writer. Having argued with many folks over the use of “mystery” as our preferred nom-de-genre, I would say that Welsh is a crime writer, if not a mystery writer and thus mystery is clearly a subset of crime. But I guess that's an argument for another (arguably more sober) day.

For today, however, it is enough to say that LOSS is a book you need to go and buy right now. Or, failing that, you need to buy the first two Dury novels.

Tony Black is currently one of the best kept secrets of the Scottish crime scene, but if you're missing out, believe me when I tell you that you're missing one of the most emotionlly honest, painfully violent and brutally intelligent of the new Scottish crime pack. Black brings a brutal urgency to his novels and manages to make Dury more than just another alcoholic hack with anger management issues. This is modern crime at its most affecting, its most honest and its most intelligent.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Robert B. Parker

by Dave White

Parker was one of my biggest influences. I've been reading his books forever. His death hit me pretty hard this week.

I wrote a tribute on my blog, and I'm not sure how much cross traffic we get between here and there, so I thought it would be a good idea to repost the tribute here:

R.I.P. Robert B. Parker

My father once said that THE GOLDWULF MANUSCRIPT was the kind of book he wanted to write. Robert B. Parker just did it a lot better.

Parker was my first introduction to the world of private investigators via Spenser. My parents were always buying his paperbacks, reading them, and then passing them to me. I loved the voice, the witty banter, the action, everything that went along with a Spenser novel. I enjoyed that Spenser never felt rushed, and rarely felt afraid. He knew he would solve the case, and he would do what it would take to get the job done. Some people would call it lazy writing, all the tension taken out of the novel. It didn't matter to me. I loved Parker's characters. They were broadly drawn, but had a depth to them that would sneak up on you.

I even liked Susan.

Between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I breezed through the first four novels on a road trip to Florida. During that trip, MORTAL STAKES became one of my all time favorite books. After that, I didn't miss a novel.

And as the series went on, people complained the quality of them sagged. I kept buying them, the day they came out.

You see, the Spenser novels weren't about thrilling reads to me. They became a visit with an old, tough, and funny friend. Half the fun was noting the types of beer Spenser drank, trying to spot quotes from English lit. Half my witty comebacks were borne from something read in a Spenser novel. I always wanted to know what Spenser was up to... even if it was the same old same old. I even read Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall, and the Appaloosa novels. None of them were Spenser.

I couldn't give him up.

Last fall, the last (I'm assuming) Spenser novel was published. As usual, I bought it on release day. I hadn't read it yet. I gave it to my parents to check out. There were other things to read. Other books to check out, other authors I wanted to get to first.

THE PROFESSIONAL is going to be my next read. I'll probably read it slowly, trying to savor that one last visit with an old friend.

Those visits will be missed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

If I Ran HBO

Well, I'd sell my stock options and retire to write books before I bankrupted the place, but let's say I made one decision before I left.

It would be a series. I used to love movies, I used to go all the time but I don't much anymore. Now I prefer the longer story arcs of a good seriesor miniseries. The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, Band of Brothers - I watched them all on DVD.

Now we have HBO Canada so I'm looking forward to The Pacific (my father-in-law spent a lot of the war in what we used to call Burma with the RCAF):

And I'm really looking forward to this one:

Let’s see, Emmy Award winner Terence Winter (The Sopranos), Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi, Gretchen Mol, based on the book by Nelson Johnson, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, I guess it could be good.

So, the next big one I'd like to see as a series on HBO is this:

Such great characters, everybody from Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon, Kennedy (Big Brother and Little Brother), Jimmy Hoffa, movie stars, mobsters, HUAC, COINTELPRO – it’s Hollywood, Washington, Vegas – everything.

I really liked the movie version of LA Confidential but the material in these three books would make for such a great HBO show. Each book could be a ten or twelve episode season.

Let's face it, HBO is losing out to AMC and FX and other cable networks and stuff like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Justified (the one based on Elmore Leonard's Fire in the Hole with US Marshall Raylan Givens) and so on.

So, what do you think? What material would you like to see adapted into a cable TV series?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Four Colour Crime, Part Two.

By Jay Stringer

Last week I took a look at pulp. That is, I took a look at how crime fiction, comic books and superheroes are all part of the same dysfunctional family.

This week I’m going to bring things up to date. But before I focus more on the crime side of things, I want to give a special mention to one of the best comic books of all time.

Batman: Year One was Frank Miller’s revision of the batman’s origin. Bringing the costumed hero crashing down into the slums and dirt of mid 80’s urban life, it’s seedy and dark and brilliant. Batman is dark and driven, but unlike Miller’s other stories he still gave Bruce Wayne enough humanity and humour to keep him sane. The real achievement of Year One was Jim Gordon. Previously a one note supporting character, friendly and honest in the comics and bumbling in the TV show, the Jim Gordon of the 80’s was going to be a whole new breed. He arrives in Gotham at the start of the story as a disgraced Chicago cop, hired by the most corrupt city in America because he can be bribed and controlled. But, in the last place you should ever choose to make a stand, he refuses to be bought. His journey is the human core of the story, as he finds redemption for himself in the shape of a man who dresses like a bat. In many ways, this version of Gordon was the last time Miller would show any restraint or subtlety in his writing.

Okay, that’s enough of the guys in tights. A while different breed of hero came in the form of Ms. Tree, from Max Allan Collins. A feminist take on the hardboiled private eye, she was gun toting and hard as nails. The issues were topical, dealing with rape, incest and drugs, and the main character was as unforgiving as Mike Hammer ever was. Collins recently gave the character a prose reboot through Hard Case Crime, but her comic book routes don’t get the attention they deserve. I’d say a decent retrospective collection is long overdue.

Since then crime has spread like a wonderful addiction back into the mainstream. Frank Miller’s Sin City series was a stylish pastiche of Mickey Spillane, full of dames, bullets and huge guns. It’s (almost) all black and white, and if you’ve seen the film you have an idea what you’re in for. The first story (now retitled The hard Goodbye) saw Marv, a psycho with a heart of gold, on a trail of revenge for the one woman good enough to sleep with him. As Marv himself says, she was “Worth dying for. Worth killing for. Worth going to hell for.” Each subsequent book in the series overlapped slightly, there are enough connections to build a bigger story if you’re looking for them, but you can enjoy each book on its own.

An unknown cartoonist by the name of Brian Michael Bendis spent the best part of a decade working away on crime comics. These days he pretty much is Marvel, writing for spidey and the avengers, but once upon a time he was working full time and using his spare hours to write (and photocopy) Jinx, the tale of a female bounty hunter who falls for the wrong guy. As well as a great crime tale, it was paying homage to Sergio Leone, which adds another branch to the family tree.

Then something funny started to happen. Crime fiction authors started to cross over into comics. Charlie Huston wrote Moon Knight, Greg Rucka produced the snow bound crime drama Whiteout before writing just about every important character on the DC roster, and (friend of the site) Duane Swierczynski jumped head first into characters like Iron Fist and Cable. Rucka has just started a brand new PI comic called Stumptown, a homage to the Rockfords and Magnums of the world. The second issue is due out any day now, so RUN.

In truth, there are just too many top people out there in the field right now –and too many quality titles- for me to provide an indepth look at them. There are a few notable absences from the last two weeks, 100 BULLETS, THE HUNTER and Will Eisner will all be returned to in more detail at a later date. Whilst I haven’t get my eyed around the new crime series from Vertigo comics yet, but I will. And i've not gone into any detail at all about the careers of writers like Ed Brubaker. But i've written plenty about his work elsewhere. What I really wanted to achieve was to give you a list of modern titles to check out, all of which are readily available and come with the DSD seal of approval.

SCALPED by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guerra (vertigo)

If I had to come out and decide on the best comic book on the stands right now, It would be impossible to look beyond SCALPED. In fact, it’s already been the subject of some love on this blog. To reveal too much about the plot would be to ruin the twist of the first issue, but it’s a book that centres of the seedy, vice and alcohol fuelled world of an Indian reservation in the Unites States.

THE ROBERTS by Justin Shady, Wayne Chinsang and Erik Rose (Image)

Sometimes you come across an idea so perfect, and so simple, that you want to break down in tears if you didn’t think of it. THE ROBERTS is one of those cases. Two of America’s most famous serial killers are residents in the same retirement home. There, genius. What follows is dark, unsettling and deeply funny.

TORSO by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko (Image)

A true crime period piece. It wouldn’t be to far off to call this the James Ellroy of comics. Following Elliot Ness as he hunts for the ‘torso’ serial killer. Bendis is known for his dialogue, but challenges himself here by trying to give the characters a realistic 1930’s voice. The artwork is an interesting mix of black and white drawings mixed in with crime scene photographs, and overall its one of the most interesting reads I’ve come across.

CRIMINAL by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Icon)

Criminal is the most instantly accessible hardboiled crime book on the stands. It’s also ideal for jumping on, because it takes regular breaks between story arcs giving time for people to catch up. So far the whole series has taken place in and around the same town, with the same supporting cast. Each story arc has a different lead character, and follows them as they become slowly trapped by the world around them or by their own humanity. So far we’ve had heists, drugs, organised crime and lots of people in over their heads. With some of the best writing in comics, and the incredible noir art of Sean Phillips, this is a book worth reading, right now.

Monday, January 18, 2010

You got a problem with that, punk?

By Steve Weddle

At the moment I am writing this, 27,873 fiction blog posts in the last 365 days have been devoted to discussing the writing of sex scenes.

Coming in a close second is the fight scene.

As Dave is the self-appointed DSD expert on fictional sex (see his earlier posts), I’ll take a shot at fight scenes.

Mostly so that I can deduct this month’s $93 innerweb bill, I researched fight scene writing.

Here are some tips I found >> Use as many kicks as you do punches. Have the fight move from one room to another. Always use at least one weapon. Vary sentence length. Only use short sentences to keep the action quick. Pause after a punch to describe the scenery in order to slow the action.

Heck, you could read pages of these tips and feel like you’re really learning something. I don’t know how helpful it is to your own writing, though. Or to mine.

What I’m thinking often happens is that writers want a fight scene, so they choreograph some moves. They write the scene, not the character.

I’ve read stories in which the protagonist, as the page turns from 73 to 74, magically picks up the ability to fight for a couple of pages. This might come as a shock to many in the noir community, but most private detectives are not seventh-degree black belts. They’re not former Army Rangers who have retired to a small town to fight their bad dreams and alcoholism.

Not to get into Dave’s specialty of fictional sex, but remember that Elvis Costello song, “Mystery Dance,” with the line: “So both of us were willing but we didn’t know how to do it”? Why is it that everyone in noir is a good fighter? Don’t tell me it’s just the genre. That’s a crap answer, and you know it.

Maybe the reason is that writing fight scenes is fun. Active. A nice break from all that exposition junk and placing clues around and having to write a convincing explanation of how your protagonist knew that the colonel was the real murderer just because he’d gone to Notre Dame with the victim’s brother.

If your protagonist is a stand-in for you – whether you’re the reader or the writer – the fight scenes are fun. Punching someone in the nose with no consequence. Let me tell you, you pop someone’s nose back into his skull, there’s gonna be some blood.

You know what happens in most fights? They end up on the ground. At the dojo where I trained, we spent a considerable amount of time working with Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, a style of fighting pushed by the Gracie Family who knew a thing or two about ground fighting. How many fights in that novel you just finished ended up on the ground?

I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong. I’m certainly not saying that I know which is which. But I’ve written a few fight scenes that just don’t quite work. And I’ve read some like that, too. Too long. Too many people. Too much standing toe-to-toe.

If the first rule of Fight Club is that you don't talk about Fight Club, let's make the first rule of fight scenes that we talk about fight scenes. OK?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Don’t Read This If You Are Offended By The Word Crazy

by Mike Knowles

A while back, I wrote about the Stark Equation. If you missed it, in a nutshell, I wrote that I noticed that each installment in the Parker series by Richard Stark follows a pretty standard equation. The other day I noticed something about a lot of contemporary crime fiction novels. Many books contain a crazy best friend.

The standard crime fiction protagonist is usually a man with a strict code of morals. The morals may differ from character to character, but most are alike in that the character has some personal idea of right and wrong that they base all of their actions on. Crime fiction protagonists are as rigid to their personal code as samurai. But many protagonists, despite having strong feelings about right and wrong, have a close relationship with an absolute psycho. Someone who, by all rights, should offend their code and who should be considered an enemy.

Off the top of my head in no particular order, I present a list of men and their chemically imbalanced friends.

1. Spenser and Hawk

2. Elvis Cole and Joe Pike

3. Patrick Kenzie and Bubba Rogowski

4. Ray Dudgeon and Gravedigger Peace

5. Leonid McGill and Hush

6. Easy Rawlins and Mouse

7. Burke and Wesley

The presence of a nutjob friend in many of my favorite books was something I thought was interesting and as I sat in bed last night thinking about it, it suddenly occurred to me that I did it too. In my books, there is a main character with his own code that he follows and he is friends with a man who is, at the best of times, barely containing his explosive rage. Steve Sullivan in both Darwin’s Nightmare and Grinder is like a lid on top of a pot of boiling water. The lid makes you nervous when you watch it hop around and you know that left untouched the steam will build up and cause the pot to boil over.

I didn’t consciously put a character like that into my book. I didn’t say to myself, you want to write a crime book well then you need to get yourself a nut sidekick. But as I sit back and look at myself as another person who used a similar archetype in his writing, I wonder why. What is the appeal of this type of character?

In many cases, this type of character is a tool. The crazy friend is brought out to provide backup or to connect the hero with a part of the underworld that he would never be a part of. Most stories involve a main character going up against a powerful, evil enemy who outnumbers the hero in bodies and resources. The crazy best friend is usually a way to even the odds and allow the main character to gain an advantage over his foe.

Perhaps, they crazy friend is a foil. Someone who makes another seem better by contrast. The main character seems more noble, more human, when compared to their friend. Those of you with wives know what this is about. How many times have you gone out with your idiot friends and come home looking like a great catch?

The crazy friend could be the yang to the hero's yin. Take Spenser and Hawk for example. Spenser is almost completely good, Hawk is almost completely bad (or at least he once was when he was cool). I use the word almost. Both characters have enough of the other in them to create a balance when they are paired. The balance is what makes the books so good. Most of the weaker Spenser books are those in which Hawk is absent. Spenser never feels quite right without his other half. Suddenly he is less interesting and too much of a goody goody. In the better books, the one’s with Hawk, Spenser’s nobility seems to shine when there is a lack of it so close.

The nut buddy could also serve as a reminder of what could have been for the main character. Most of the protagonists and their friends are close because they have grown up together or have shared extreme experiences. The main character could have gone the other way and become the crazy friend, but their strength of character kept them on the right path. The presence of the friend is a constant reminder of the strength and loyalty of the main character.

But it has to go deeper than that. Why do so many use a similar type of character in their writing?

The idea that an unbalanced character attached to a protagonist serves a function implies that there was a conscious decision to include a character like that. In my case, there was no preplanning. The character came on the fly and stuck around because he earned his keep and made me like him. So why would a writer devise such a character? If the book is looked upon as a reflection of the writer’s consciousness there is a possible answer.

Every character I write has me in it. Good or bad, man or woman, black or white part of me is there. I am sure of this because every time I am typing my first handwritten draft of a novel I find myself typing without looking at the page. I suddenly think I have an idea about the perfect way a character will respond. I will type in the response and then look at the page to find I already wrote it. This happens a-lot. I mean a-lot. It’s not memory. This is tens of thousands of words, months after I wrote them, and I keep rewriting the same thing. This is because the characters are part of me and I know how I would respond.

So if we look at a book as a reflection of the author’s consciousness the rational mind is usually represented in the protagonist. The rationality is expressed in whatever code a character possesses. The code is structure and reason even if it is extreme and outside the societal norm.

If the rational mind exists on the page then the irrational should automatically also exist. The antagonists display the types of wrong behavior our consciences protect us from acting on. Personally, whenever I have a truly heinous thought there is a small bit of shock and shame that follows. I would imagine that these types of emotions are the way certain types of behaviors are controlled and curtailed. On the page however, these feelings and emotions are not beaten back they are instead given life in the bad guy.

But, there are other bad thoughts that my conscience holds me back from acting on. These types of wrong ideas are not accompanied by feelings of shock, shame, or remorse. For example, the urge to do harm to someone who hurts their child. My thoughts run wild with ideas on how to solve the idea of child abuse myself, but I do not act on these thoughts. I do not act on the thoughts because I find the idea of them shameful or wrong - it is because they are not rational. I know better. These types of thoughts, I think, are the root of the crazy friend. They are not felt to be wrong feelings, so they are not the seeds for the antagonist. But the feelings are not also right because they are not rational, so they are not the seeds of the protagonist either. The homeless thoughts feel closer to right than wrong so they end up in a character close to the hero, but not part of the hero. They become the crazy best friend.

Turns out in fiction, friendship is complicated.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Creating Characters

Much has been made about the chronological discrepancies in the Sherlock Holmes stories. As I'm reading the first collection of short stories, Leslie Klinger, in the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, notes all the problems in the timeline. It's lucky Conan Doyle didn't have a rabid, online fan base to nitpick every new story like we do now.

Pulp author Robert E. Howard conceived of his most famous character, Conan, in 1932, while traveling around Texas. While I haven't read any but the first, "The Phoenix on the Sword," I know enough to write that Howard wrote and published the Conan stories as they occurred to him. That's why, if you read a collection of Conan stories arranged by publication date, the great barbarian is a king in one story, a young warrior in the next, and so on. One writer somewhere stated that the publication order of the Conan stories is like Howard telling you stories while sitting around a campfire.

The thing is, unless a writer makes a conscious effort to have certain characters firmly fleshed out before the first word is ever written, the process of writing reveals aspects of a character the writer never thought about. In addition, an author might have certain ideas about a character ready to go when the first word is written and, yet, never return to them in the course of writing the stories. Such is the case with the new Sherlock Holmes movie, the first Holmes novel, and the fact that Holmes was listed as an expert boxer.

I encountered something akin to this type of thing recently in my own writing. Last year, in a one-sitting fit, I created Calvin Carter, a railroad detective. I wrote his literal first adventure as a detective and the good folks at Beat to a Pulp thought the piece entertaining enough to publish it. You can find the link over there on the right. The things I had Carter say and do just came to me, as my fingers pecked at the keyboard. I can't say where they emerged only that the sheer amount of stuff I've consumed over the forty-year span of my life embeds things that just bubble up from time to time.

When it came time for me to write Carter's second story--now completed and in the editing process--I realized a template had been created for him. I hadn't set out to create one--like Charles Ardai did with Gabriel Hunt--and, frankly, still haven't. I knew one thing: the way he revealed his deductions was both intellectual and slightly show-offy (how's that for a fancy word?). I knew, as I approached that particular scene in Story #2 that Carter would present the facts in much the same way. And so he did. Interestingly, in the writing of Story #2, Carter revealed a few particulars about himself I didn't know. I've decided to start taking notes as I interact with Carter and create for him the Carter Bible, the tome where I can collect all the passing references I write for him. It'll be great fun to look back on in the future, especially if he takes me in a different direction.

How do you create your characters? Do you have them fully fleshed out ahead of time or do they grow and change as you write?

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Some will live and others die..."

It was my dad who awakened my love for crime fiction. He was the one who, for years, kept pushing this book called Mr Majestyk under my nose. Now, sure, the first Leonard novel I actually read was Get Shorty, but I like to think I came to the author because of my dad’s near fanatical love for his work (something which soon passed on to me).

I mention this because it was my dad who introduced me to a lot of great authors (and a lot of great music) as I got older. He had a kind of instinct for what I’d dig (and if my mum is to believed, its because we’re essentially the same person, but one of us has more grey in his beard).

Which is a roundabout way of telling you how this Christmas he got me Crime Story on DVD.

Crime Story, for those of you who don’t know, was a cult 80’s crime show starring Dennis Farina (and his ever brilliant moustache) as hair-trigger Chicago cop Michael Torrello. Which doesn’t sound too unique until you consider that what Mann and the show’s other creative forces were trying to do was tell a story over the course of a TV show.

Does that sound surprising?

In the pre-Wire world?

Hey, shouldn't all shows be doing that now?

In the eighties, of course, it just wasn’t something you did. You reset the show week after week to try and catch a new audience. You didn’t expect them to remember what had happened, didn’t expect them to cotton to changes in the characters.

This was the era, after all, that was to give us The A-Team.

All the same, Crime Story was ambitious for its era as it attempted to tell the dual story of Torrello’s obsession with catching criminal thug Ray Luca while at the same time detailing Luca’s rise to the top of the American Mafia (while never answering the question of how Luca’s hair so consistently defied gravity episode after episode).

Now, I’m a fan of Mann’s work but I’d never come across this show before, so I was intrigued to see it. Of course, I came in fully prepared for the limitations of 80’s network TV, and in some cases, I was right to prepare myself. There are some bizarre and unlikely resolutions to certain cases, and sometimes you can see the censors stepping in, but on the whole Crime Story is surprisingly gritty, particularly in its presentation of the Chicago Police Department of the 1960’s. Torrello and his boys get drunk, get laid, make mistakes, beat up on suspects, fly into rages and do all kinds of shit you just don’t expect from a network show of that era. Torrello himself is a particularly complex character and while you can chart Farrina’s finding his footing as an actor, he brings a kind of raw intensity to the role that works surprisingly well.

And then there’s the fact that the bad guys seem to get away most of the time with the shit they do. Sure, there are stand alone episodes like the TV killer that play out like a particularly dark version of almost any TV cop show, but when the focus is on Luca and Torrello’s back and forth, there’s a real sense of danger and that the balance of power could shift in either direction.

The show is packed to the brim with actors who were either already famous (the wondrous Pam Grier appears in a brilliant subplot that deals directly with racism and mixed-race relationships as well as the unique nature of the American “ghettos”) or would become so (David Caruso, Julia Roberts, Gary Sinise, Michael Madsen and Ving Rhames all pop up over the course of the show), and the sixties setting means the soundtrack is absolutely incredible, with particular love going to the title theme, Runaway, a song I’d heard before but never really appreciated.

But yes, there are problems. A mid season slump kicks in around Paul Guilfoyle’s appearance as a hostage-taking psychopath with a particularly implausible plot to sleepwalk through (it is one of the shows weakest episodes and nearly made me give up) while the plot recaps reach ludicrous proportions – nearly six minutes in one episode to get through the “previously on” while one particular mid-season episode is nothing more than a recap of the story so far. But then the show kicks back into high gear as it focuses on the Torrello/Luca dynamic and moves the action to Las Vegas. From there we get a string of brilliant episodes including a particularly surprising instalment which deals directly with a man raping his teenage daughter-in-law and does so in a way that deals with the issue as upfront as it possibly can given the restrictions of the time, and re-affirms Crime Story as the fore-runner to complex and gritty dramas such as Homicide and NYPD Blue and then, of course, The Sopranos and The Wire.

I’ve just kicked into the end of season one this evening, with a particular WTF moment on the very last disc. It’s an insane plot twist, I think, utterly out of left field (if you can avoid spoilers and haven’t seen the show before, it’ll really kick you in the nuts), but by this point I was so invested in the characters and the snaking arc of the show that I was just going with it, and trust me, I’ll be slipping season two into the player tomorrow.

Of course, if my agent’s reading this, only after I’m done with that work I should be doing…

Thursday, January 14, 2010


by Dave White

Got an ARC of this book in the mail a few weeks ago, and after I was done with Charlie Huston's SLEEPLESS, I decided to pick it up.

I didn't know what to expect when I started the book.

The book is about a Finnish Investigator who stumbles on the case of a murdered Somali actress. With nothing but a Swierczy recommendation, I opened to the first page.

I haven't been able to not sleep because of a book in a long time. What works about this novel is the voice. The narrator, Investigator Vaara, tells the story in present tense first person. The delivery is very matter of fact. Despite all that is going on in the first few chapters, the narration feels emotionless. Vaara tells you about his wife, his past, his family without flinching. He goes deep into Finland's culture and even though there is tragedy all around, you still feel that Vaara is apart from it all.

Until the novel keeps building. It took me over a hundred pages to realize what was going on. It wasn't that there was no emotion in the voice. It was that the voice was doing it's best to hold the emotion back. Much like all the Finns in the novel Vaara doesn't talk about his emotions. He tries his best not to even show them.

And when it all boils over... Man, that scene is fantastic.

The mystery is spot on too. There are plenty of red herrings and plots so fantastical, you want to believe them, but know better. Even Vaara gets sucked into the POSSIBILITY of what's going on.

There are incredible moments of violence. The book never shies away from what's going on.

I read it in two days. While revising and working.

It's a fantastic book and I can't wait to see what happens next in the series.

Highly, highly recommended. This book rocks.