Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review: Dark Entries by Ian Rankin and Werther Dell'edera

by Scott D. Parker

I've been reading comics (Zorro; Volume 2 of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series) and fantasy in recent days (the glorious and incomparable Perdido Street Station) so I made an interesting selection for my next crime story: combine the two. I picked up the first two volumes of the new Vertigo Crime imprint from DC Comics. These are interesting products: crime writers (Ian Rankin; Jason Starr) and comics writers who write crime stories (Brian Azzarello) teaming up with artists to create a hardback, single-story, illustrated book. I went with Ian Rankin's Dark Entries since it featured the occult detective, John Constantine.

Interestingly, I know *of* both Rankin and Constantine, but from afar. Rankin is the author of the Inspector Rebus series of novels. All I know about Rebus is that he's well, an inspector. I knew about the same about Constantine until he made an appearance in Volume 1 of the Sandman series. An occult detective. Interesting. In the Sandman story, he helped the main character, Dream, locate one of Dream's lost totems.

I suspect with a job like occult detective, Constantine faces some pretty hazardous jobs. For Dark Entries, Constantine must face something even more dire: Reality TV. Matthew Keene, smartly-dressed television producer, comes to Constantine with an interesting problem. He's producing a show called "Dark Entries." It's basically set up to have a group of celebrity-craved nobodies agree to stay in a house. Then, once they've be acclimatized to the house, the producers will start making the set haunted. The more fear generated, the higher the ratings. Nothing wrong with that premise. Surprised it hasn't really happened yet.

The problem is this: the house/set has started it's own hauntings early. Strange and mystical things have started terrorizing the contestants before the producers are ready. And they want Constantine, with his unique brand of expertise, to take a look at some of the footage and see if he can't figure out what's going on. He does and then he makes the obvious conclusion: he has to go inside.

Then the fun begins.

I can't write too much about the "fun" because, well, it's a huge spoiler. Needless to say, Constantine and his fellow contestants must figure out what's happening and why without any "help" from the outside.

I'm curious how Rankin's novelistic style differs in his own books rather than in this graphic novel with a character he didn't invent. Via Constantine, Rankin gets to vent about modern celebrity culture and the vacuousness of a lot of television, reality or not. His English colloquialisms are abundant, helping to remind this American that Constantine is, in fact, British (and not Keanu Reeves). The puzzle is self-contained within the story. That is, you, as a reader, are not presented clues with which you can deduce the ending. As a result, you're just there for the ride. It's entertaining, but not very lasting.

This being an illustrated comic story, I have to give some time to the artist, Werther Dell'edera. An Italian, his black-and-white art helps the story along perfectly. Remember the opening shots (during the credits) of "The Killers": the long shadows, the stark whites alongside even starker blacks? That's how this book is throughout. In a neat, visible cue, once "the fun" begins, all the pages are black, bled to the edges. You can see the white first half of the book and the black second half. The drawings themselves shift, depending on which character is in the scene. You go from simple lines drawings to fleshed-out art, sometimes frame by frame. Like everything with this book, I've not heard of Dell'edera before this. I'm glad I have now.

Dark Entries is a curious book for Vertigo *Crime*. I consider there to be a difference between mystery fiction (people trying to solve a mystery or puzzle) and crime fiction (stories of thugs, criminals, and the hard-boiled cops that chase them, often with a good dash of social fiction thrown in for good measure). Rankin's book definitely falls in the mystery side of things. Judging merely by the covers of the other Vertigo Crime entries, it might be by itself in that regard.

Ian Rankin and Werther Dell'edera have crafted an interesting tale of the supernatural with a jaded eye towards once facet of modern life. The middle section--where "the fun" begins--was a nice surprise and the latter half of the book certainly picked up the pace. It's a good, enjoyable read, although one that won't make you think too long after you've closed the book.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Motivational Speaker (aye, right...)

By Russel D McLean

This week, I have done two events. They were hugely different in terms of scope and audience, and it was extremely interesting (at least to me) to note the difference between them.

To fill you in, I have done many events before but never (unless you count launches) as the star attraction. I’ve either been on a panel or I’ve been interviewing another author or merely doing the introducing. All of these have been great fun.

But I digress. This week was the Russel show. And that was a terrifying prospect.

We started on Monday at Kirkcaldy library which was a full-on event for the public. A grand idea? Maybe. I’d never quite held my own* for a full event. Like I say, launches are a different beast altogether. Here, we were talking a paying audience whom I had never met. Except for me mum and, bizarrely, my primary school teacher who had heard about one of her pupils becoming a writer and turned up to see what all the fuss was about.

But for the full skinny (and photos) on this event, I’d suggest you check out my main blog. Because the event that really interested me this week for the DSD post was event #2.

Event #2 came courtesy of the wonderful ladies of the University of Dundee Careers Service. And I’m not just saying they’re wonderful because I went to uni with Karen, who organised my presence at the event. No, they truly are dedicated to helping students find their way once all that tedious studying and drinking is drawing to an end. What they asked me to do was to come a careers fair and talk about how I find myself as a graduate and a writer, to pass on any pearls of wisdom I might have.

Which sounds fine.

Until you think about it.

Most of the speakers were from organisations with strict entry requirements and pension schemes and all that good stuff. They were people there to sell their business and their lifestyle.

What was I going to say?

Become a writer? Live with your professional life dependent on the whim of publishers and readers? Do your own taxes? Worry constantly about the changing nature of your industry while everyone spouts more and more doom-saying prophecies?

Not the stuff of comfort. And maybe not entirely true either. In the end, I decided the best thing to do was to go in and try to say that, look, your life isn’t going to end up the way you expect, but if you find something you love (me and writing), then you should just go for it in the most enthusiastic way you can, even when you know all the pitfalls (and you *should* know all the pitfalls).

It was a strange event. As I’ve said before, I’m not always comfortable handing out advice on how to be a writer (although I have been known to give some limited editorial pointers here and there: its much easier to talk about the craft of writing, for some reason) because I feel like I’m still coming to grips with a lot of it myself. Who am I to tell people about how to approach a career as a writer? All I can do is say what worked for me and what I’ve observed working for other people.

I talked a lot about writers who balance other careers (GJ Moffat as a lawyer, Zoe Sharp as an all-action photographer and quite possibly top-secret killing machine) and how it takes a lot of work to make comfortable money despite some obvious exceptions. But what I really wanted them to take away were two thoughts:

1) That deciding to go into the arts, or opening your own business, isn’t an easy route, but it can be hugely rewarding if you work hard enough at something you love.


2) That even if you decide to stay in Academia, sometimes it can be beyond your control. For example, I left due to lack of funding for my PhD. But even if something like that happens, it can be a very positive thing. If I had gone on to do my PhD, the likelihood is I wouldn’t be writing. So, really, sometimes you just have to find the opportunities in life and exploit them to the fullest.

As I’m finishing off this entry, an email has come through with some of the feedback from the day. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure whether I reached anyone or whether I seemed half as interesting as the corporate types with their powerpoint presentations and non-fuzzy maps to success (my map to success seemed to be – do what works best for you and don’t be afraid to mess up once or twice along the way). But maybe some people were listening (a swift selection of comments):

"interesting and entertaining"

I think the top two mark the as some kind of success. In ten minutes there’s only so much you can achieve, but maybe one or two of the people there might look more closely at alternative approaches to life after university. I just hope they were listening to my practical advice as well for anyone entering the arts.

Always have a back up plan. A day job. A trust fund. Because sometimes it all comes down to luck as much as it does talent. But, believe me, that’s half the fun of this gig.

*Stop sniggering at the back.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: Justified

by Dave White

The F/X show JUSTIFIED premiered last night on F/X. It's the story of Raylen Givens, a US Marshal who is transferred back to his home state (and most likely city). He is immediately thrust into a case that involves people he knows (who have become Neo-Nazis).

It's a very good set-up, but as with all Elmore Leonard adaptations, what really sells it are two things: the characters and the dialogue they speak.

Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) drops enough tough guy dialogue to give Bogart a run for his money. He plays it right, tough and sincere, making you fear him, but also know he's not as hard as granite. There's a caring side in him. He wears a stupid hat, dumber than what Givens wears in the text, but it works.

Also in the story are the typical Leonard bad guys. Hicks, dummies. Guys who are successful at crime, but so dumb, they don't know when they're funny. Which is--of course--what makes them funny.

There is plenty of atmosphere, noir, dialogue and tough guy action scenes to carry this story along. I cannot WAIT for the next episode.

I haven't been this excited for a series in a long time.

What did you think?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Should Crime Fiction Be Held To A Higher Standard?

John McFetridge

In the pilot episode of the TV show I worked on, The Bridge, a lawyer says to a cop, “Shouldn’t the police be held to a higher standard?” And he says, “Not when it’s used to screw with them.”

Now, that episode was filmed before the rest of the writing team was hired, but it was something we discussed quite a bit in the writer’s room. The show is about a cop who becomes head of the police union and works to, as the union slogan says, “Protect Those Who Protect Us.”

I kept insisting that the police aren’t held to a higher standard, they’re held to the police standard. The same way doctors are held to their standard and engineers and lawyers and truck drivers are held to their own standards – every profession has a set of standards and all the members are held to it – or should be.

A cop is trained, armed and sent out into the community with the power to detain people, to remove them from their daily lives, bring them to a police station and hold them against their will. No one else can do that. Then the lawyers get involved and sometimes the person is let go and sometimes they’re charged with a crime and held in custody until a trial, or released on bail. Throughout the whole process rules must be followed, there are standards specific to the process – not higher standards than a truck driver has in his/her job, just different standards. They’re different jobs afterall.

Then last week my latest novel received a very negative review in a big US newspaper. Well, that happens, I don’t like it but I understand. In fact, I feel in order for people to like something a lot it has to be specific enough that other people are going to hate it. And this reviewer hated it.

One of the reviewer’s many complaints (I just ignore the stuff about foul language) was, “ On the side of law and order are detectives so beyond hard-boiled that they make a mockery of what they do.”

I’m not really sure what that means, but I think it’s similar to another negative review the book received which said, the cops are “...little more than aw-shucks narrators on the sidelines of a greasy show that's all about the bad guys.”

Okay, I get it, in crime fiction readers want cops to solve the crimes and catch the bad guys.

And then usually they want the cops to shoot the bad guys because we really don’t like all those lawyers getting involved insisting that rules be followed and that standards be upheld. We like lone wolf cops that ignore the rules – and always get the right bad guy anyway.

But I want to write about what I see in my city every day. There are drugs, there is organized crime and there is violence. And, yes, there are cops, but not enough, and with nowhere near the amount of resources they need to do the job properly.

I don’t like the “lone wolf” cop that has to break all the rules to catch the bad guy. I want the good guys to follow the rules and catch the bad guy. And if that means the deck is too stacked in favour of the bad guy and few of them get caught (and how often do we see heads of organized crime syndicates arrested? How often are there drug shortages on our streets?) then I think that’s one thing that crime fiction ought to illustrate. I’d like to see the rules changed so that the good guys don’t need to break them.

Then there’s the issue of women in crime fiction and thrillers.

In an essay called, “Feminist or Misogynist,” on the blog The F Word, Melanie Newman looks into the way male writers “empower” women (and probably a lot of women writers, too):

”So many male visions of female potency resemble cartoons; the kick-boxing girl has become a 21st century literary cliché... These unlikely - and therefore unthreatening - ass-kicking babes may be employed to lend a veneer of legitimacy... Or they may reflect the authors’ belief that if only females would stop acting as ‘victims’ and discover their own capacity for violence, the aggression visited on them by men would disappear... The solution thus lies in women’s hands, relieving men of the responsibility.

So, again, these are lone wolf characters acting outside the law to get things done – and they always get things done.

Now, I know that kind of lone-wolf stuff happens sometimes, I’ve seen Serpico, there are probably even ass-kicking rape-victims who’ve gone after criminals themselves, but it’s become such an entretched standard of crime fiction that it’s starting to feel like a limitation.

And I don’t think literature should have any limits.

I’d like crime fiction to reflect the reality of the world the same way literary fiction does and not be held to a “higher standard” where justice must always be served. Literature – art - isn’t comfort food, it isn’t a security blanket.

Literature – art – has kick-started many a public discussion that has then led to changes, maybe even improvements, in peoples’ lives. Now, I’m not saying all books should do that – or even try to do that.

But if we never try to do that then we’re supporting the status quo. Our books and stories become, “unlikely – and therefore unthreatening.”

Crime fiction can, and should, be many things but it should never be unthreatening. It should challenge and upset and get people arguing.

It shouldn’t be held to a “higher standard.”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Crime Is King," Says The New Guy

By Chuck Wendig

“I’ve got to go and kill a man,” Jay Stringer said in that accent of his (what is it? French? I don’t even know). He thumbed bullets into a rusty snubnose.

“Cool,” I said, just glad he wasn’t going to kill me. I’ve seen what he can do. I’ve seen how his enemies fared. Missing fingers. Lips burned to a char with cheap cigarette lighters. Chair legs shoved in various orifices, some new, some standard.

“I need you to handle some business while I’m gone.”

“Whatever you need, String.”

“You need to right some wrongs. Steer the ship straight.”

I wasn’t following.

He continued: “It’s Do Some Damage, man. It’s Weddle. It’s always goddamn Weddle. He gets drunk on his fruity drinks and then posts about Harry Potter and Twilight and My Little Pony and shit.” (Except, he pronounced it shite, instead. French people with their French pronunciations.)

I just shook my head. I should’ve known.

“You get in there. You do what needs doing. You can talk about Harvey Keitel’s wang if you want. Or the sexual habits of dinosaurs. But above all else, crime fiction. Talk about crime fiction, for Chrissakes.”

He spun the cylinder, snapped it shut.

“You think you can do that for me?” he asked.

I nodded.

He handed me a Taser. I gave him a look.

“For Weddle,” he said. “He comes at you, you give him a dose of this.”

* * *

Crime fiction is king. Let me tell you why – after all, seems like a good introduction to the site, right? Me, showing up here, seems like I should start at the beginning, and the beginning is that crime is king.

One of my recent mini-crusades in writing is how to make the story and the characters more active. Right? People do shit. A lot of stories end up the opposite, though: People respond to shit. Love? Love can be passive. Falling in love is unwilling. Romance can be born unaware. Horror? Horror is often reactionary. Evil comes. It chops down your door with an axe. You evacuate your bowels. You run. You scream. You respond. Fantasy? Sci-fi? Mythic patterns. Be forced on a hero’s journey. Respond to new technology and changing conditions and future nonsense.

To be clear, I’m not saying those other genres are automatically genres of passivity. Not at all. I love those genres. But you could, if you were so inclined, fall into a somewhat easy pattern of passive stories and passive characters. Those genres allow that.

Crime, though? Crime doesn’t put up with that kind of bullshit.

Crime is like a agar dish of awesome: active elements growing aggressively. Character commits a crime, he does so actively. He is full of want and need. The stories are sodden with possibilities. Guy kills his wife’s lover? Jealousy. Rage. Sure, he’s responding to it, but his response is wholly active. He chases the cheating fuck across the lawn. He pops shut the shotgun’s breach and pushes two shells deep. He pulls the trigger and blows the cheating fuck’s guts out his belly and onto the lawn gnomes (intestines draped upon them like a feather boa on a Vegas dancer).

Bunch of assholes rob a bank?

Girl gets revenge on some sick prick by hanging him from a tree and, er, “pruning his man-branch?”

Cop goes off the reservation to make a side deal on the sly so he can feed his family?

Car bomb? Axe killing? Confidence game?

It’s all active. It’s all about people doing things. As a writer, you conjure the circumstances surrounding a single crime, and it’s like a series of dominoes starts to tumble forth into shadow. Who are these people? Why are they doing it? Motivations abound. Desires rise, triumphant. Fear and vice hold hands and jump. You’ve no idea where this trail of breadcrumbs may lead.

Crime is a transgression. It is a violation of social norms. Transgressions, deceptions, violations, violence: these elements serve as a wild source of conflict, and conflict is what we want. Conflict is the food that feeds the reader. An old writing professor said it best: in life we try to avoid conflict, but in fiction, we must head toward conflict. Or, like Tim O’Brien said in a recent interview: “When I hit plateaus, I head for the mountains. By that, I mean (or think I mean) that I do all I can to point a story or a novel toward its central human drama, toward its essential human mystery.” Goddamn right. Crime, then, is the ultimate expression of those mountains -- or, perhaps, as it represents a nadir, we might say it represents the valleys, pits and canyons, and the character must descend, must transgress, must cross the borders and boundaries that Should Not Be Crossed. The characters in crime fiction leave the plateau. They abandon the status quo. They choose that path.

It’s that choice that’s so compelling. The decision to transgress, to pull the trigger or take the money or crack some dude’s head open with a statue of the Buddha, that’s why we read it – or, at least, that’s why I read it. Why do you read it? Why, for you, is crime king?

Ooh. Dang. I gotta go. Weddle’s coming at me, and I want to get this Taser shot juuuust right.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Did I ever tell you about my Uncle Max?"

By Steve Weddle

Musta been when I was 15 or 16. We were piled into a school bus, heading to a track meet. Or a basketball game. I'd ended up without anything to read, though I think I probably had my OTASCO-version of a Walkman and a couple of Psychedelic Furs tapes. Or maybe one tape. You got TALK TALK TALK and what do you need, right?

So we stopped at a McDonald's in Bossier City and Coach handed out five dollar bills for us to get something to eat. I bought a bag of hamburgers and, while the other kids wasted time socializing, cool dude that I was, I eased across the parking to, imagine my luck, a little used bookstore. Great place to spend my left-over burger money, right?

Being in my mid-teens and super cool, I walked back to the bus with a Welcome Back, Kotter novel. I know. I can smell your jealousy from here.

Paperback. Probably twenty-five cents. A picture of the Sweathogs on the cover. Green with yellow font.

I haven't the slightest idea what the book was about. I do remember that it was first encounter with a certain word. Turns out one of the guys was "ogling" one of the girls. Then he "ogled" another one. I know, right? Some kinky stuff.

What drew me to the book was a familiar cast of characters. I dug the TV show and wanted more contact with the world there. So that's why I chose that book. Had I known it would open a world of people ogling the hell out of each other, I'd have picked it up sooner, of course.

My usual read was science-fiction. Harry Harrison. Isaac Asimov. I liked good characters. I liked the Stainless Steel Rat. I liked the Foundation series. Robots. Other planets.

Some occasional science-fantasy. Steve Brust. I liked dragons. Never found much use for unicorns.

So I was buying stories based on characters I liked. Usually series stuff. I find someone I like, I read everything I can about that character. But not from that author. At the time, I wouldn't have read any non-Stainless Steel Rat books by Harry Harrison. I don't know why. Sheesh. I was 15. I didn't know what "ogle" meant, you want me to know why I only read the Rat books? What do you people want from me?

Now I pick books based on recommendations. Whether I know the person in the flesh or on the Twitters, if someone has the same tastes I do, I'll read what they recommend. Shelfari. Good Reads. Facebooks.

We've also got some great book review sites online now, and whatever is left of the print reviews. I still read the London book review and the New York one, both still in print, as well as so many online.

And reviews at the online shops -- Amazons, Powell's, B&N -- and more. And the printed-out sheets of paper pasted up on bookshelves in bookstores.

So 25 years ago I was picking books by looking through the shelves for something familiar. Now I ask around for something new.

How do you pick your next book to read?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I Swear To Tell The Truth. Jury Duty Sucks!

by Joelle Charbonneau

Almost two weeks ago, I did my civic duty and reported for jury duty at the Chicago Criminal Court building. I’m one of those strange individuals who can’t win a raffle or the lottery to save their soul, but every year without fail I get a jury duty summons. Normally, I watch the video on how to be a good juror, I type away on my laptop for a bunch of hours, eat almost inedible cafeteria food and go home without doing anything more exciting than watching some guy picking his nose in the corner.

This time I got called to be on a jury panel. Whoo hoo. Okay, this part was kind of exciting. After all of my jury duty visits to the courthouse (and yes, there have been many) I’d never actually made it into a courtroom. This was at least different and interesting. More interesting was being read the indictment. This was a murder trial. Wow. I felt like I was in an episode of Law and Order. Pretty cool stuff.

Or not.

Funny, but once you step inside a courtroom time ceases to exist. Court time is different than regular time. It took 4 ½ hours to question 40 potential jurors. Some folks thought they were on Letterman and gave us lots of information about their love lives and their reading habits. (Male magazines were mentioned at least once…I wish I was making that up.) Some folks were quick and to the point. Others slept.

Nope. Not kidding. The woman next to me started snoring five minutes into questioning. Loudly. The prosecutor dropped his very large binder of papers to jolt her into awareness. That worked for about three minutes until she started snoring again. The defense attorney then leaned over and asked the prosecutor to drop his book again.

I have to admit that the byplay between to the defense attorney and the prosecutor during those snoring moments was interesting. Clearly, they got along. Not exactly the animosity that you often see portrayed by the two sides on television. They laughed every time she sounded like a buzz saw and raised their eyes at each other. Needless to say, that woman didn’t make it onto the jury. But I did. Not that I wanted to. I did try saying I was a murder mystery author. I even got questioned about my upcoming book and asked to give a blurb about the story….fun marketing, but it didn’t get me booted from the case.

What followed was three days of lots of waiting in the jury room followed by longer periods of time in the jury box. My fellow jurors and I arrived at noon and often didn’t see the inside of the courtroom until 3. We rarely left the courthouse before 6 or 7 p.m. (The last night was actually 1:15am, but that was after deliberations.) While I wasn’t happy about the delays or the long periods in the courtroom, I understood them. But more than one of my fellow jurors did not share my outlook. Every one of them took it as their duty to pay attention and reach a verdict, but more than one hated how long it took to question a witness. They were waiting for the rapid fire dialogue that you get on Law and Order and in the movies. They didn’t want the slow, have to connect each dot, have to verify each fact method that needs to be taken.

And that got me thinking about how false expectations were set by the fiction we see and read every day. So here’s my question to you: has the way our court system is portrayed in books, movies and on television hurt the judicial process as a whole? Do we expect the courtroom to be an exciting place filled with A-ha! and Gotcha moments? And if it isn’t what does that do to the defendants sitting on trial? Do we side with the defense when the prosecution fails to provide the entertainment we expect after watching TV on our living room couch? What do you think?

After this case, I personally think there is no less exciting place than the jury box in a courtroom during a murder trial. No matter if you are certain the defendant did or did not do the crime, you are the one that controls the next ten, twenty, fifty years of his or her life. It makes for great fiction, but in the real world, jury duty sucks.

(not) Produced by Dick Wolf