Saturday, April 24, 2010

Book Review: The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

(When inspiration doesn't strike, it's time to recycle older posts. This is one from my own blog written before many of you knew who I was. Enjoy.)

Perry Mason. Bet you instantly thought of Raymond Burr, the actor who played Mason on CBS from 1955-66, right? Who didn’t? I did as I read The Case of the Velvet Claws, the first Perry Mason novel, published in 1933. I’ve been wanting to read some Perry Mason novels (there are 80) for awhile but I didn’t want to start just anywhere. Sure, I’ve been told by more than one source that there is no chronological order to these books. Be that as it may, I am a purist when it comes to series. And, as a writer and creator of characters myself, I wanted to see how Erle Stanley Gardner started when he created the most famous lawyer in crime fiction.

Picturing Burr is not a bad place to start. You see, Mason in the novels is hardly described at all. His secretary, Della Street, gets more words of description (“slim of figure, steady of eye”) than does Perry Mason. The one feature of Mason’s physical appearance that Gardner describes more than once are his eyes. In fact, it only takes six sentences from page one to get a description of Perry Mason’s eyes:
"Only the eyes changed expression. He [Mason] gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, and then finish him with one terrific punch.”
Knowing what I do about the television shows—Mason never loses—it’s remarkable that there, in paragraph one of book one, the Mason template is laid out. Three pages later, Mason, himself, lays out his mission statement to his new client:
"Nobody ever called on me to organize a corporation, and I’ve never yet probated an estate. I haven’t drawn up over a dozen contracts in my life, and I wouldn’t know how to go about foreclosing a mortgage. People that come to me don’t come to because they like the looks of my eyes, or the way my office is furnished, or because they’ve known me at a club. They come to me because they need me. They come to me because they want to hire me for what I can do.”
She (the client) looked up at him then. “Just what is it that you do, Mr. Mason?” she asked.

He snapped out two words at her. “I fight!”
Hard to argue with that line. And Mrs. Eva Griffin doesn’t. She’s in trouble and she hires Mason to help her get out of it. The previous evening, Mrs. Griffin was out with Harrison Burke, a man who was not her husband, a man running for office. When a hold-up occurs at the hotel where they were dancing and dining, the police arrive. One of the sergeants, a friend of Burke, recognizes him and knows that the newspaper reporters will have a field day with the news of Burke and a married woman. That officer allows them to stay away from the reporters and then smuggles them out the back. Everything’s good to go except Frank Locke, the editor of Spicy Bits, a gossip rag, finds out and threatens to publish the information.

Now, Mrs. Griffin is asking Perry Mason to help her. His first response: have Burke pay Locke off. That surprised me a little, knowing what I know about the TV version and Mason's stone cold integrity. And with Mason’s fixation on money, he not unlike Bertha Cool, Gardner’s other famous creation. But Mrs. Griffin refuses because she wants to keep Burke’s name out of the papers. She lays down some cash on Mason’s table and gives her new lawyer one tidbit of information: Locke has a secret he’s trying to keep hidden. Mason rushes off to expose the secret and use it as leverage against Locke. The trail leads to one George Belter, owner of Spicy Bits. And his wife is there, none other than Mason’s client, Mrs. Eva Belter.

From this point, the book races along but not before George Belter’s shot dead, and Eva Belter tells the police that she heard Perry Mason’s voice in her husband’s bedroom seconds before the gunshot. Now, Mason must clear his own name while simultaneously looking out for the interests of his client. You think he can do it? Seriously, do you?

I am not an avid watcher of the TV show so I can’t say how Burr-as-Mason goes about doing his job. And I’ve only read book #1 so, if Mason changed his tactics throughout the novels, I can’t know about it either. I will say this: Mason is quite hand-on in this case. In fact, the most surprising thing he does is sock a guy to the ground. Didn’t see that kind of action coming, but loved it. Another interesting aspect of this case was how soon Mason had an idea as to the truth of the entire plot. But he needed proof. And he went about getting the proof in ways I also didn’t see coming. He set up on of the characters, not knowing, for sure, if his set-up would work. For example, he went to a pawn shop owner and paid the man $50 to verify that whomever Mason came back with was, in fact, the purchaser of the gun used in the crime. Now, as a reader, I got to wondering: who will Mason bring back? Later, Mason goes to another character and all but blackmails that character into saying something that needed to be said in front of a third party. Brilliant tactics but not entirely on the up-and-up.

The language of the book is obviously dated in places. Gardner loves his adverbs and uses some of them over and over again, including the word “meaningly.” In an effort not to type (or dictate as Gardner did) the word “car” or “automobile” constantly, Gardner interchanges the word “machine.” It’s a bit odd to read a car described that way. And, like William Colt MacDonald in Mascarada Pass, Gardner spells out, phonetically, drunken speech, employing words like “fixsh,” “shtayed,” and “coursh.” Humorous and easy to understand but, again, things we modern writers could never get away with.

And speaking of things you can’t get away with, there’s Gardner’s choice of the word “girl” to describe Della Street. She’s 27 and, while we never get the age of Perry Mason, he can’t be that much older than she. But, nonetheless, Gardner has “the girl” get a file or “the girl” answer the phone or “the girl” take down dictation. The biggest shock of the story—and I don’t this is giving anything away; apologies if it’s so—was when Della and Perry kissed. It didn’t seem romantic and I didn’t get the impression that there was something more. But it was there. You never saw that in the TV show. Just one more reason to read these books, especially the early ones, to see how Perry Mason was originally portrayed.

There’s a quote about Erle Stanley Gardner on the back cover of the Hard Case Crime edition of Top of the Heap, a Cool and Lam story that, I think, sums up Gardner’s technique of crafting a story: "Among his many other virtues, Erle Stanley Gardner is surely the finest constructor of hyper-intricate puzzles in evidence..." The Case of the Velvet Claws is certainly intricate, a well-crafted tale. Heck, half the fun was re-reading chapter 1 when everything was set up, now that I knew the ending. But, like a good mystery author, all the clues were there. When Mason delivers his summation, you want to smack yourself on the forehead. (His summation, by the way, was not in a courtroom, something I, of course, kept waiting for. Not in this book. Perhaps Book #2.) As hard-boiled as the book is, this is the coziest mystery book I’ve read, perhaps ever. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to many more Perry Mason mysteries.

Historical Note: the edition I have is the 16th printing from Pocket Book, June 1944. What makes this edition unique is the wartime nature of the presentation. On the back cover, in a small black square, are the words “Share this book with someone in uniform.” At the end of the book, after the story and biographical information, is a page imploring the reader to buy war savings stamps and certificates. Lastly, there is a list of books published by Pocket Books, seven pages long, complete with asterisks noting which titles fall under 8 oz. and, thus, can be sent overseas without any written authorization. These seven pages are peppered with testimonials by servicemen from around the globe. The most telling feature of the introduction is about the POWs. Those Americans imprisoned by Germany can receive books via a Prisoner-of-War Service established by Pocket Books. Interestingly, the Americans captured by Japan were not allowed to be sent books. It’s a fascinating snapshot of a country at war and how even the simplest of entertainments—a mystery book—cannot escape the all-consuming nature of a world at war and the call to do one’s part.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The horror, the horror

By Russel D McLean

“The advice I got was don’t put supernatural in a crime story. It won’t work. Readers won’t buy it.”

That’s a paraphrase of a friend of mine talking about the advice he got for his first novel. Apparently supernatural and crime don’t work together. At least for readers.

I’ve thought about this a lot because the advice came from a source I respect, but the more I think about the more I think that in this case the source of wrong.

Two cases in point.

The first is the most recent. Sarah Pinborough has been hanging around the horror genre for a few years now, but her first “big” novel (at least in the UK) has just broken free. A MATTER OF BLOOD combines near future dystopia, crime fiction and, yes, the supernatural to thrilling effect. What’s particularly impressive – at least to me – is the build up to the “unnatural” events. By first combining two more “natural” genres (the near future stuff, set after an organisation called The Bank came in to save us from our monetary woes, and of course the crime fiction element which spins very naturally from her created society, being as it is set amongst coppers for “hire” and organised crime bosses) and then gently layering the supernatural elements on top until you suddenly realise they were there all along and you just weren’t paying attention, Pinborough effectively mashes genre styles to captivating effect. It’s a gamble that pays off wonderfully, and by mixing genres in this way, the story arc becomes more unpredictable, and the reader is drawn into a world with which they are unfamiliar. Putting readers off balance is a brilliant trick, and mixing genre traits – something that has become de-rigeur in the world of movies, so why is it quite so sneered upon in the world of prose? – is a perfect way to achieve that.

Of course, Pinborough isn’t the first person to mix the supernatural and crime genres to grand effect. One author who has been doing this since almost the beginning of his career is the sublimely talented John Connolly* whose latest novel, THE WHISPERERS** is one of the most chilling and artfully written thrillers I’ve read in a long time.

While I came to Connolly through an ostensibly “straight” horror novel, BAD MEN, it is his Charlie Parker series that fascinates me. EVERY DEAD THING, Connolly’s debut was, on the surface, a very well written serial killer novel set in the US. Charlie Parker’s family were killed by a stranger who called himself The Travelling Man, so our protagonist sets out across the country for revenge on this serial killer. By the end of the novel, however, something happened that made us question the nature of its events. We were left with the uneasy feeling that The Travelling Man may have been part of deeper, more unexplained events. This feeling again occurred in DARK HOLLOW, the second Parker novel and by the time of THE KILLING KIND, we were sure that all was not as it seemed in the world of Charlie Parker.

But the stroke of genius on the part of Connolly, was that, until THE LOVERS, we were never sure what was going on, how much was in the damaged head of Charlie Parker and how much was real. There were hints here and there, but the interpretation was left to the reader, and there were ways in which you could read events to suit either interpretation.

I won’t tell you which way he jumped. But it is a beautiful surprise, and changes the nature of the series in a way Connolly has followed up masterfully in THE WHISPERERS.

So this week’s reading advice (if you hadn’t figured already)?

Pinborough and Connolly.

Go on, you won’t be disappointed.

*Disclaimer, blah-blah, yes I know JC has said very very nice things about my debut, THE GOOD SON, but I was a fan of his for many years before he even knew my name never mind said such ego-swelling things.

**An early edition fell into me lap thanks to the wonderful folks at Hodder & Stoughton

Thursday, April 22, 2010

GUEST POST: Loaded with Sin

I ran into Douglas Corleone through Facebook, clearly the best way to meet people. He grew up in New Jersey, but now lives in Hawaii... (Yeah, I question his decision making as well.)

Anyway, it turns out Douglas is the author of ONE MAN'S PARADISE,winner of Minotaur's Crime Fiction contest. The book's due out on Tuesday and it's getting some great reviews, so I thought I'd give him a shot to speak his mind here. Check it out:

Loaded with Sin
by Douglas Corleone

“I like smooth shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin.”
~Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

Don’t we all, Ray. Don’t we all. But it isn’t as easy to find such women in modern crime fiction as it was in Chandler’s day. Is it because there are any less of these women around in the real world? Luckily, not in my experience. So, the way I see it, the absence of these smooth shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin, stems from one of two things: (1) crime writers no longer write these women well, or (2) crime writers no longer feel they can get away with it.

As I search through my library for books written in the past two-three decades that feature this kind of woman, I find very few. Scott Phillips provided us one in The Ice Harvest in the form of a strip club owner named Renata Crest, played beautifully by Connie Nielsen in the movie. But who else comes to mind?

Now I’m not talking about your average femme fatale. Nor am I referring to your everyday kick-ass FBI agent like Clarice Starling - there are plenty of those around. And I’m certainly not looking for more lady sociopathic serial killers; I get my fix from Chelsea Cain. No, what I want is Jessica Rabbit on the page. Not deep down bad, just drawn that way.

But Bond Girls seem a thing of the past in crime fiction. Many crime writers now imbue their women with either a childlike innocence or an overinflated sense of morality. These ladies either need rescuing or they’re the ones saving the day. Where are all the bad women? Not the villainous or crazy, but the kind who will go to bed with your hero the same night as his nemesis without giving it a second thought. The human kind motivated by money and sex. The kind of woman who will step over a dead body to grab her purse.

Can crime writers get away with writing women like that in this publishing climate? I can’t say. But I sure as hell think we should try. Crime fiction says a lot about the culture in which it’s written, and I think it’s high-time we let readers know that sin is in again. Let’s ditch the double standards once and for all. If our male characters can act licentious, then so can our girls. Let’s not leave all the female drinking, drug use, and promiscuity to those who write fiction for Young Adults. Because it seems the YA section is where you find all the good sin today. I just can’t bring myself to read it.

Of course, there may be books out there that I’ve missed, or books that I’ve read after six too many drinks. And if there are, by all means, point them out in your comments. Because I love to read. Especially about smooth shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

East Coast - 4

John McFetridge

And we're back from the commercial break:

Moncton, New Brunswick – Northup Home

Jerry was flipping channels, a little Sportsnet – playoffs starting and it looked the Canadiens would get bounced in the first round again, but at least they were winning this game - a little news and a piece of a movie.

Isobel came into the basement carrying abig hardcover book close to her chest and sat down on the couch next to Jerry and said, here, look, “She was in my senior year,” and Jerry said, “Who?”

“Melody Goodwin.” Isobel opened the yearbook and held it in her lap. “That’s her.”

“She was in your class?”

“She’s not in the class picture, this must have been taken at the beginning of the year, she got pregnant and dropped out.”

“That’ll be Mickey.”

“I remember she brought him to school to show him off, he was so tiny.” Isobel was still staring at the photo in the yearbook. “Now he’s a big time drug dealer.”

Jerry said, not that big time, “But we’re hoping.”

“Then I saw her today in front of the hopsital, she has a handicapped daughter.”

“Yeah, and she’s got another daughter, twenty-three, she’s out west.”

Isobel said, “How do you now?” and Jerry said it was in Mickey’s file, “She’s a hooker in Vancouver.”

Isobel closed the yearbook and said, “I realized I’ve probably seen Melody dozens of times at the hospital, she’s been bringing that girl in since she was born, I must have just walked right past her.”

“I bet she’s changed.”

Isobel said, oh yeah, she’s changed, “She looks sixty years old, but she still looks like Melody, you know? She was just invisible to me.”

Jerry said, yeah, and it was quiet for a minute an dthen Isobel said, “And I was thinking, imagine if our kids were that old now, if they were all grown up,” and Jerry said that’d be all right, “We wouldn’t have to do everything for them, we’d have this place to ourselves.”



“Before Melody dropped out, a few years before, we were friends. Well not freiends, really, but we hung out with some of the same people.”

“These your wild years?”

“No, this was kids’ stuff. We were dressing up like Madonna, we were talking about boys not talking to boys.”

“So Melody had the wild years?”

“I don’t think so, not really. She got pregnant and dropped out and then I must have heard that she had another kid, but then I never really heard anything else. Her whole family was messed up.”

“That’s usually the way it is.”

“That’s so sad.”

Jerry didn’t say anything, he looked at his wife but she was a million miles away. She stood up and said, “I’m going to bed,” and he said he’d be up in a few minutes, just wanted to see if Montreal could hold the lead, but she wasn’t listening and she was gone up the stairs.

Moncton, New Brunswick – RCMP Offices

Jerry was in the office early and Edwards knocked on his open door and he said, “Hey, Ev.”

She stepped in saying he was in early and he said, “I had no idea there was so much paperowork.”

She said, yeah, and then didn’t say anything else so Jerry said, “What’s up?”

Edwards said, “It’s Mickey Goodwin.”

“What about him?”

“I had a meeting with him last night, he wants out.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t want to keep dealing with the guys in Montreal.”

“He has to.”

“He said he’d rather go to jail here.”

“I’m sure he would, but that’s not one of his options.”

Edwards looked around the office, still looking like Henry Bergeron’s, Jerry hadn’t changed anything and she said, “It’s what we would have done last week,” and Jerry said, yeah, “But it’s this week now.”

“He says he’s not getting anything out of the guys in Montreal anyway.”

“Well,” Jerry said, “Mickey never was one to stick with things. Look it’s going to take a while, he’s going to have to buy more. Get him some more money, tell him to buy four keys, we’ll keep two let him put two out on the street. He gets to be a bigger player they’ll trust him more.”

Edwards said, “He’s really not good at this,” and Jerry said, no, “But you are. Look, he’s in it, it’s what he does, you keep pushing him, stay on him but be patient, it’s not going to happen overnight.”

“Okay, sounds good, long-term planning.”

“Something new around here.”

Edwards said, yeah, something new, and walked out of the office.

Jerry went back to the paperwork, more overtime requisitions. It didn’t look like Bergeron had ever even asked for overtime, so worried about the budget.

Then Jerry was thinking it was about time they started worrying more about crime.

Moncton, New Brunswick – Loose Moose Bar and Grill

Alphonse Turcotte was eating chicken wings and telling the story about Jerry, when he was on highway patrol out of Bathurst and they sent him to serve a warrant on a guy who ran a scrapyard, “And, of course, was selling stolen car parts.”

Jerry was leaning back in his chair, beer in hand and watching Edwards and Leonetti and Whitney and a couple other cops and he was thinking they were coming together as a team already.

“So he drives as far in as he can, but the road is blocked by crap, car bodies and and old truck.”

“And a caboose, busted up into pieces,” and everybody laughed.

Al said, “So he gets out and walks up to the offuce, and I’m staying back,” and Jerry said, “Of course you are.”

“And I’m wondering why he doesn’t think, where’s the dog?”

Jerry just shook his head.

“So he gets all the way into the office and Buddy we’re coming to serve is there and now we see the dog, big German sheperd and he’s growling low and Buddy doesn’t say anything but he motions with his head, just a little, an dthe dog goes for Jerry and gets him b the balls.”

Everybody laughs and Al said, “Just enough, you know, holding on but not biting down, and Buddy says, ‘What do you want pig,’ like a tough guy and Jerry here pulls out his .38 and aims it right at Buddy and says, ‘Call of the dog or I’ll kill you,’ and Buddy looks like he dropped a load in his pants and called off the dog.”

Whitney said, “What the hell, then what?” and Al said, “Then Jerry shot the dog,” and Edwards said, “What? You shot the dog?”

“Damned right I shot the dog. I would’ve shot Buddy if Al hadn’t been there, I didn’t know him well enough them, if he’d turn me in or what.”

And everybody laughed and Jerry looked sideways al Al, knowing him well enough now, knowing he was telling these stories so they’d all bind with the new boss, Jerry finally realizing how good al was at the politics.

Then Jerry’s phone beeped and he looked at the screen, saw it was Isobel and stood up and walked away from the table to take it, saying, “Hey.”

Isobel said, “Are you still at work,” and Jerry said, “Yeah.”

“Can you get away.”

“What, now?”

“I called Emily, but she can’t stay any longer.”

“You were supposed to be off half an hour ago.”

“Jocelyn couldn’t come in and there was a car accident, we’re going into surgery.”

“How long are you going to be?”

“I don’t know, hours. We’ve done this before, Jerry, you were always able to get home.”

Jerry was looking back at the table, at Al telling the team another story. He said, “Yeah, I know but it’s different now.”

“Now that you’re the boss?”


Isobel said, “We’re going to have to talk about this,” and Jerry said, “Yeah,” and Isobel said, “But not now because I have to get into surgery,” and Jerry said, okay, fine, “I’ll take care of it,” and hung up.

He walked back to the table and Al said, “Everything okay,” and he said, “Yeah,” and picked up his beer and said, “Gentlemen,” and looked at Edwards and said, “and lady, here’s to doing a good job,” and he downed what was left and turned away form the table while everyone else was still drinking.

Al caught up to him and said, “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine, it’s just Isobel has to work late and we don’t have a babysitter,” and Al said, “okay.”

Jerry looked athim and said, “But the boss shouldn;t be the first one to go home, should he?”

“Even the boss has family life.”

Jerry said, yeah, that’s right, but he looked back at the table and knew it would be better if he could stay, thinking of all the things he was planning to ask of his team and how it wouldn’t feel right, him running out.

Still, he had to go.

Moncton, New Brunswick – Northup Home

The only light in the house was from the fridge, Jerry getting a beer, when the front door opened and Isobel walked in.

Jerry closed the fridge and watched her walk into the kitchen and she said, “Hey there,” and he said, hey.

She walked towards him but he moved to the other side of the island so she went to the fridge and got herself a beer. Opening it she said, “What a night,” and took a drink looking at him a she did.

“Yeah, here too.”

“Five people in a car and three in a pick-up in a head-on. One was DOA and two more died on the table, but the rest’ll be okay. More or less.”

Jerry said, “That’s great,” and drank from his beer bottle. The kitchen was a mess.

Isobel said, “I’m not quitting my job.”

“I don’t want you to.”

“And I’m not transferring to another department.”

“So now I’m going to have crazy hours, too.”

“You always had crazy hours.”

“Now it’s going to be worse.”

She said, it should be better now, “If you’re gonna be the boss you should delegate, you should work office hours.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“You just don’t want to give up the fun parts, playing cops and robbers with your buddies.”

“It’s not a game.”

Isobel walked out of the kitchen saying, “I’m not talking about this tonight, I’m too tired.”

And Jerry stood in the dark house and drank his beer.

Moncton, New Brunswick – Evergreen Park School

Jerry pulled up in front of the school still on the phone, saying, “No net yet... later today for sure... come on, Al, I’m on it... yeah, I know we need it today, it’s a report, we’ll submit it, don’t worry... yeah, yeah, I know as soon as I get in.” He flipped his phone shut and said, “Sheesh,” and from the back seat Sam said, “Didn’t you get your homework done?”

Herbie was still looking too serious and Jerry said, “It’s not homework.”

Sam said, “Will you get a detention,” looking sideways to see if Herbie was laughing. He wasn’t, but he was starting to smile.

Jerry said, yeah, “I’ll have to stay late,” and Sam said, “Will you have to write, ‘I will not forget my homework,’ a hundred times and then Herbie was laughing.

“Yeah, I will and I’ll have to clean out the cells. Come on, you guys are going to be late.”

Herbie slid open the side door and jumped out, running off, and Sam hung back and said, “So, are you and Mom going to get a divorce,” and Jerry said, “No, of course not, why would you ask that?”

“You slept on the couch in the basement last night.”

Jerry looked at his son and said it was nothing, said, “It’ll be fine, don’t worry.”

Sam said, “Okay, but are you sure? Because maybe our next dad will be a doctor and we’ll get a cottage and a boat.”

Jerry started to smile and then tried to look serious and said, “Get out of this car right now,” and Sam said, “Okay, I’m just saying.”

He got a few steps towards the school and turned back around and waved and Jerry waved and sat in the car and watched until both of his sons were inside the school.

Moncton, New Brunswick – east of downtown

Mickey Goodwin was standing beside his minivan, leaning against the hood not even looking around.

Kathie, the hooker in the mini skirt, halter top and five inch heels in the middle of the day was saying how good Mickey’s stuff was, “Really good, pure,” and Mickey said, “Yeah.”

She started to hand him the money but she heard a car and pulled her hand back and Mickey said, “Don’t worry about it,” and she looked at him standing there like he wasn’t worried about a thing and she said, “What’s going on?”

Mickey said nothing, “We’re good, come on,” and took the money.

Kathie said she could use more, she said, “I don’t have any more money yet, but I could work it off,” and Mickey said, sure, “what the hell, let’s go,” and walked around his minivan, looking at Kathie just standing there and he said, “So, get in,” and she did, still surprised.

Mickey drove to the lot behind the old train repair shop that had been closed for years and she gave him a blowjob. It took him a while to get it up and she said, “You okay,” a couple of times, but he finished and gave her four more eightballs and drove her back to St. George Street.

Moncton, New Brunswick – east end

After getting rid of another dozen eightballs in was past midnight when Mickey pulled up in front of the house he rented in the east end. His girlfriend had been gone three weeks, up to Toronto looking for work, trying to be a stipper but Mickey knew if she was going to make any money it’d be as a hooker, she just didn’t have the moves for the big city clubs, so the house was epmty.

Or, it should have been, but as Mickey got closer to the front door he saw someone inside.

He walked up the steps to the front door and looked in, then let out a sigh and opened the door saying, “Hey man, I didn’t know you were in town.”

Marcel Dagenais stood up from the couch saying, “Well here I am.”

“You wanna go out for a beer or something, I don’t have anything in the house.”


“No, sorry,” and then he saw the gun in Marcel’s hand, some kind of Glock it looked like and he said, “What the hell,” and Marcel shot him in the chest.

Mickey fell to his knees, wide-eyed, still couldn’t believe it and Marcel took a step closer and shot him in the face and then again in the chest and then walked out.

The street was quiet, no sound except for the car that slowed down to let Marcel get in.

Across the street a woman walking her dog saw him leave the house and the door still wide open and she walked up to see what was going on and saw Mickey on the floor. She didn’t scream, she just took out her cell phone and called 911.

Moncton, New Brunswick – Hospital Emergency Room

Doc Kovalchuck and three nurses were working on the body, elbow deep in blood, but they all knew it was too late.

Kovalchuck said, “Two entry wounds,” and Isobel said, no, “There’s another one here, and Kovalchuck said, yes, “And another.”

The monitor was giving them a straight line and Isobel said, “Are you going to call it?” and Kovalchuck poked around for another minute and then stood up straight, pulling his gloves off and saying, “Time of death, one fifty-seven,” and walking out of the room.

Isobel looked at the two younger nurses and nodded and then she walked out, too, taking off her gloves and cleaning up before walking out to the waiting room.

Melody was there, standing beside her daughter’s wheelchair, looking like she’d been crying for a while but stopped and got herself together a little looking at Isobel, a little bit of hope left and Isobel said, “I’m so sorry Melody,” and the crying started again.

Isobel said, “We did all we could, everything we could, but his injuries were too severe.”

Meldoy caught her breath and said, “He wasn’t injured, he was shot, he was murdered, they killed him, they killed him.”

“I know, Melody, I’m sorry.”

“They killed him because your husband pushed him into it, Mickey wasn’t a player, he never would have gone to Montreal on his own, he was just a kid.”

“I know.”

“You don’t know anything, you have no idea, your husband might as well taken my Mickey out and shot him the head himself.”

Isobel said, “Melody.”

“No, just stop it, stop it,” and she turned the wheelchair away from Isobel and sat down and put her hands to her face and cried.

Isobel went and got cleaned up and changed and drove home. It was the middle of the night when she got there, the house dark and quiet and the place still a mess. She dropped her coat on the back of the couch and walked down the hall to the bedrooms, stopping to look in on Susie, sleeping under her Kim Possible blanket. Isobel stood and looked at her and then backed out, closed the door and stood outisde the boys’ room.

She stood there for quite a while and finally opened the door, knowing the room would be a disaster and it was, clothes and toys and junk everywhere and Herbie and Sam in their beds. Looking at them she wondered if they’d ever each want their own room or if they wouldn’t even think of it. Her boys, still little boys.

She closed the door and turned to see Jerry standing in the hall by the open door to their bedroom.

She could tell just by looking at him that he knew about Mickey Goodwin and she wanted to be mad at him, she wanted to blame him and hear him say it was Mickey’s fault, he played with fire and he got burned and she knew that was true, but there was more to it, it was more complicated.

And Jerry didn’t say anything. Just stood there looking at her and she knew he understood, she knew he felt it, he wasn’t going to show it but he wasn’t going to brush it off like Mickey was nothing. She knew that.

They embraced.

(End of Episode - be sure to watch those credits flying by on the side of the screen, those people do a great job!)

Now, a question. Would anyone be interested in more 'episodes' of this series?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Man Without Fear

By Jay Stringer

A few weeks back, that McLean fella wrote a fine piece about Batman being the ultimate noir superhero. And I almost agree with him. Almost.
I mean, I too was a Batman kid. And part of me always will be. I learned to read using comics, and it was the recognisable pop-culture image of Batman that provided the in. My young mind was warped by Batman:Year One and a little later I was hooked big time on the stories from Grant and Breyfogle. One of my clearest childhood memories was managing to sneak under-aged into a viewing of the first Burton Batman film (which was rated 12 in the UK and I was 9) None of this is me attempting to appear to be an uber fan, or show any crass secret handshake. It’s simply important that you know how much I care for the character, that he is miles ahead of my third favourite. That, if I veer into the realms of shit-talking the Bat in this blog, it’s all relative, and it’s all in service of making my point.
Because, ladies, gentlemen, and that guy at the back searching for Batman porn, I give you my ultimate noir superhero.
I give you Daredevil.
Bruce Wayne is Batman because he can be. He can afford to be. His is a life that gave him the privilege to swan off around the world learning to be the best at everything, then to come back and fund a private war on crime. Beneath it all, he is a spoiled brat, angry with his parents for leaving him and getting closer to them every night. I love that Christopher Nolan doesn’t shy away from this. The Batman of the most recent film is a self-righteous fanatic. His belief in his own worldview is matched only by the Joker’s belief in nothing. That is one of the things I like most about the character; he is heroic but it’s not necessarily fuelled by the right things, and his personality is not necessarily likeable.
But Matt Murdock isn’t a hero because he can afford to be. His is not a life that has afforded him any leg up or moment of comfort. He is a hero despite his background and, arguably, despite himself.
In the Batman universe, Murdock would be another of the great villains. His mother ran away after he was born –later we find out she became a nun- and his father was a washed up alcoholic boxer. Young Matt was lonely and poverty stricken. His father demanded one thing from him; a promise to never use violence. Never use his fists. Use his brain, study and work his way out of the hole.
His father couldn’t provide for him. Couldn’t protect him. And couldn’t be of any use to his son moving forward. But he could give him one final, important lesson. He was murdered by the mob for refusing to throw a fight. A washed up, broken down old boxer, way past any shot at the big time, would rather go down honest than stay up as a crook.
Cut to a decade or so later, and the son who promised to never use violence wears a mask and beats up criminals. That’s an added reason to wear a costume; shame.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Item 1; Matt is blind. He was blinded in a moment of childhood heroism. He jumped in front of a truck to save an old man, and in doing so he lost his sight forever. A moment of total selflessness that cost him everything. That sets a pattern. So, we have a blind man who jumps off rooftops. Insane? Whoa yes.
Item 2; Matt is a Lawyer. And a good one. Pound for pound Matt Murdock is the best lawyer in the city, he’s strong, he’s smart, and he’s determined. It also makes him a hypocrite. He is sworn to uphold the law. His professional life is dedicated to serving and protecting the justice system as if it were a religion, a pure faith. Then at night, he puts on a mask and breaks the law, the very thing he serves. Nuts? Whoa yes. And that's without mentioning that he's a catholic who dresses like a devil to do the right thing...
Item 3; Matt is a liar. Totally. Completely. In a long running storyline of a few years back, Matt was ‘outed’ in the press. It was leaked that he was Daredevil. His response? He lied. He stood in front of the worlds press and stated that he wasn’t. He sued the newspaper for libel, and won. He sued anyone who made the accusation. He refused to resign from his job, and continued to serve both as a lawyer and a masked vigilante. His friends were not shy in calling him on his bullshit, his arrogance. But he kept going. He endured. Did that make him a hero? That’s a difficult issue. It certainly made him a great character.
Item 4; Matt is insane. He is. There is no doubt. In the seminal Born Again storyline he cracks. He is pushed right up the edge of his sanity by his archenemy and…well…his sanity doesn’t fare well. He starts to see conspiracy. He talks to himself. He sleeps rough. He breaks off all ties with the world around him. He’s had at least one other nervous breakdown since then. He is not a stable person, if you didn’t already get that from the ‘blind-man-rooftop’ thing.
Item 5; He fails. A lot. I don't think any superhero has had his or her ass handed to them as often as Ol' Hornhead.
He’s been worked on by many fine writers. Stan Lee created him of course, as a poor-mans version of Spidey. So right there, he has the inbuilt chip on his shoulder that all great crime fiction characters have. From there, Frank Miller turned him into a ‘film noir superhero,’ the book was filled with moody lighting, smoking, dark alleys and backlit skyscrapers. He fought organised crime, ninjas and hitmen. Two of my favourite modern writers, Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker, have both taken turns at wrecking Matt’s life and knocking him to the canvas. In between there have been such great comic-scribes as Denny O'Neil and Anne Nocenti.
If you want to read what is (in my opinion) the greatest achievement of super hero comics, you can pick up Daredevil: Born Again. It’s a systematic dismantling of the genre, but its not done against the backdrop of a grand canvas like Watchmen, or with a true icon like Batman: Year One. It’s done in the grubby back alleys of Hell’s kitchen, with the evil plan being nothing more than destroying one mans life.
Matt’s ex-girlfriend, Karen, has fallen into drug addiction. And for the price of another fix she sells Matt’s secret, betrays the one man she loves. Once the Kingpin has this information he begins to squeeze. He picks at every corner of Matt’s life; his job, his money, his home, his friends. Bit by bit, he starts to take the hero apart, peeling away layers. By a third of the way through the story, Matt isn’t even wearing the costume anymore. When you strip a man right down to his core you see what’s left. When you strip Matt Murdock right down to his core you see that all he is, at heart, is a survivor. Coupled to this is Karen’s fight to save herself, to find Matt and seek forgiveness. Can the two of them find redemption on the streets? Can they put themselves back together?
Matt’s father taught him,"It’s not how long it takes you to get knocked to the canvas that counts, it’s how long it takes you to get back up.” And Matt does keep getting back up. He doesn’t know anything else.
The true heart of the character is that he has nothing to lose and “..a man without hope is a man without fear.
And so I submit my case, folks. Daredevil; a man who has every reason to be a villain, who is at best arrogant and inflexible . He lies, he fights and he’s cold to those who love him. He makes the wrong decisions and frequently lets the cracks in his sanity show. Despite all of this, he succeeds.
At great cost to himself every time.
So what about you guys? Who would you stack up against Batman and Daredevil and great noir or hardboiled comic book characters? Is there anyone fucked up enough to match them?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Low-carb crowbar

By Steve Weddle

On the wall of the newsroom was a cartoon of a blindfolded reporter tossing a dart at a wall of words to find out what he would be an expert in for that day. Oh, joyous riot. Reporters have to research stuff. Ah, the hilarity.

Now I'm thinking that cartoon should hang over the desk of every novelist I know.

Casino security. Pipe bombs. Untraceable poisons. Yeah, there's a reason I hop over to my neighbor Justin's wifi router when I do my serious searches. (You can fake up with all the proxy stuff you want and keep your local box clean and footprint-free, but don't leave that router loop open.)

But novelists really hafta have a bucket of darts. Novelists have to have attention spans that are deep and wide, but also, um, flittery?

For a writer, surfing the Internet is work. Research. And reading magazine articles. Writers have to create worlds and characters, and these have to feel authentic.

When I started listening to John Coltrane, I wanted to know everything there was to know. Kicking his drug addiction by locking himself in a room in his mother's house. Bill Evans playing piano one handed because he'd accidentally numbed his arm while shooting up. The insult of 'walking the bar.' Modal music. Tracking down all I could find out about Red Garland. Collecting as many bootlegs as I could, and trying to figure out whether I liked this Eric Dolphy guy. Trying to figure out which version of "My Favorite Things" was my favorite. Sort of an all-consuming passion. Then, of course, this leads off in other directions.

Sometimes the all-consuming fire of a topic lasts for only a short time.

As my lovely bride said when I came home Friday with three low-carb books: "Hmm. This is going to be an interesting month."

Low-carb. I have no idea how this is going to come into play. A recent episode of the TV show "Castle" showcased murder by balsamic vinegar, so I guess anything is possible.

Of course, writers have their own ways to research. I'm reading COTTONWOOD by Scott Phillips. It's an amazingly awesome book set in late nineteenth-century Kansas, full of detail and atmosphere you can't get unless you know your subject. Oh, and you kinda hafta be a damn good writer, too, not just a good researcher.

Unless Mr. Phillips has a time machine, he did his research in a way quite different from that of Mr. William T. Vollmann, who lives with prostitutes in order to write about them. Of course, Vollmann's ICE SHIRT and other books in that SEVEN DREAMS series rely on the book-learning aspect of researching history. And talking to others who know their stuff.

And that's what it is to be a reporter or a novelist or anyone with a literary case of OCD. (Or, as the joke goes, CDO, which is OCD, but the letters are in order.) You dig into something, root around for a bit, and come out with pieces you can put together to share your vision.

Now if I could only figure out how to kill a character by using ketosis.


Writers -- How does your research work? A little here and there and then back to the writing? Or do you get sidetracked and come out a few days later knowing way more than you need to about how tough it was to kill Rasputin?

Readers -- Do you like a novel with a good deal of non-fiction learning? Does it sometimes get in the way of the story? Or does that matter? Is there a book you think really did this super-well?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Balls and Strikes

Watching Brandon Inge play over the weekend, along with reading a few more traditional mystery stories gave me some insights into my plotting troubles. I don't know why exactly, perhaps it was my age, or limited exposure to all of the genres tropes and stocks in trade, but when I first started writing mystery stories and until I gave them up a year or so ago, I thought every mystery story I wrote needed to be a home run, every twist amazing, every ending a huge whamo surprise ending. And while I never hit that home run, I struck out quite a bit. Just like Brandon Inge.

Inge is a guy who has had some huge hits in his career for the Tigers. Well-timed home runs or grand slams to win the game. But when he's not winning the game, he also strikes out a lot at very inopportune times and I think it's because he's always hitting for that big hit. He doesn't quite get the value of a single or double just to get on base. In my reading, I came across several stories that were more "small ball" if you will. The stories succeeded on a string of well-timed singles and doubles, and even a few triples, which made for entertaining and memorable stories. None of them blew me out of the water, but they didn't have to. So this is how I need to start plotting my stories.

I've talked in the past I've talked about how much I like stories that turn on small stakes as opposed to massive, world-altering, stakes and I think this sort of follows the same lines. When you're constantly hitting homers, eventually people become bored with them. This has happened to two of the few thriller writers I was ever able to read consistently, Harlan Coben and Jeffery Deaver. The first few books I read I was shocked and awed by the twists. But as I read more of their books, I started seeing patterns and began spotting the twists way ahead of the game. With Coben I was still able to enjoy the books because I like his characters, but with Deaver, who relies almost entirely on plotting to sustain his books, once that formula is cracked the books lose their energy.

So that's what I'm doing with my novella, trying to get a couple of good singles and maybe an RBI double and give the fans something to see. Anybody else have a way to cram an awkward baseball metaphor into a writing blog?