Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reading Outside Your Niche

Scott D. Parker

When’s the last time you walked down the Bible aisle in a bookstore? It had been awhile for me until this week. I found some time over a lunch hour and headed on over to Barnes and Noble to get a voucher for a free ebook. I rarely browse the stacks of brick-and-mortar stores anymore other than the periodicals. What surprised me about the Bible aisle were all the niche Bibles.

I’m not talking translations, mind you. I know all about the different ones, the literal translations, the paraphrase, the ones in contemporary English. What struck me was the different *types* of Bibles. I saw a Graduate Bible (for all matriculating students?), the Women’s Bible, the Men’s Bible, the Teenager Bible, the One-Year Bible, the Manga Bible (yes, really), and many more. Heck, I even saw The Green Bible. Couldn’t pass that one up so I opened it. Instead of, say, red text for the words of Jesus, various environmental verses were printed in green. It seems like there’s a Bible for every little niche out there. But when you get down to it, the words and the message are the same, just the packaging and focus is different.

No, this is not some great, new insight. It does seem to me, however, just one more way to break larger groups down into smaller ones. You won’t find men reading The Woman’s Bible because it’s not the masculine niche. Conversely, us parents probably won’t be reading the teenage Bible perhaps because the font is too weird. You know what? I think we should. Men should peruse the women’s bible and see what kind of things are highlighted. Ditto for the parents of teenagers and the teenaged Bible. We might learn something we didn’t know about other groups.

The same theory holds true for the mystery field, too. There are dozens of niche mysteries involving animals, quilting bees, herbs, what have you. Crime fiction is usually the dark, violent stuff and is written for folks who enjoy that sort of story. I still can’t help but think that we ought to read outside our comfort zones once in awhile. I’m in a small SF book club and I only get to pick a book once every four times. I’m reading three books I likely would not have chosen. It never fails: when I read a book out of my comfort zone, I learn more from the one, unfamiliar book that three or four where I know what I’m getting into before I even start. It’s made me a better, more well-rounded reader, and, perhaps, a better writer, too.

How often do you read outside your comfort zone?

Friday, May 28, 2010

“I don’t know if you noticed, Marjory, but the criminal fraternity sometimes engage in practices call pretending and lying…”

By Russel D McLean

Please, if you have not seen all of Life on Mars (UK) or Ashes to Ashes, prepare for possibly very deep spoilers to both shows.

I admit that last Thursday’s finale to the Life on Mars sequel/spin-off Ashes to Ashes was possibly the best episode they did for the entire run. Everyone at the top of their game, and some interesting stuff going on. But it suffered, as the whole series has, from a sense of being quite superfluous to requirements. No amount of dramatic handwaving or metaphysical revelations could distract from the fact that, as an extension of Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes was unnecessary.

Unless, of course, you wanted all the answers.

One of the things that I adored about Life on Mars – aside from the fact that it turned out to be one of the best British cop shows in years – was the fact that it drip fed you its metaphysical meanderings. And, in the end, it left you wondering what really happened, whether you saw what you thought you did and if so, what did it all mean? I can remember the excited discsussions at work and at home. With friends.

All of us disagreeing, pointing to plot threads and images that backed up our arguments. All of our opinions were valid, and in the end, that emotional connection really made the show.

I can also, honestly, say I’ve never wept quite like I did at the end of Life on Mars. Sam’s “leap of faith,” while I contended it not to necessarily have been suicide, was heartbreaking especially as, for a split second, you did not know what was coming. You still asked the questions:

Was he mad?
In a coma?
Back in time?

You didn’t know for sure.

But you had your suspicions.

It stayed with me for a long time, that ending, and even watching the show back this year, I choked up as Sam was forced to choose between 2006 and 1973 even though I knew what was coming and even though I knew by this time that Ashes to Ashes had stated, categorically, that Sam Tyler committed suicide.

In fact, that was one of the things that annoyed me intensely in year one of Ashes to Ashes (aside from the eighties setting; sorry, but the seventies were much cooler, in fashion, music and cop shows). With DI Drake’s insistence that she was in a coma and everything was a figment of her imagination, the drama was sucked out of the situation. The stakes were lesser. And even if they did give Drake a daughter to go back to (Sam had a girlfriend, but no real connections in 2006), I’ll say that quite honestly, I didn’t care whether she made it back to Molly or not. That dramatic impetus, that tension, was sucked out of the show, because everyone seemed so confident about the facts.

There was also another twist that I realised upon a viewing of Life on Mars a couple of years later. In the original show, we never left Tyler’s point of view. Every scene was either inclusive of Sam or a flashback as Sam was being told what happened by another character. In Ashes to Ashes, and this become more prevalent as the series continued its run, we would leave Drake’s point of view to join other characters outside of her knowledge. Of course this led the viewer to believe in the reality of the other characters, but again robbed the series of ambiguity and interpretation. Of course, in the end, we discovered that what we’d really been watching all along was The Gene Hunt Show, but then that always seemed to be the intention behind Ashes to Ashes, moving a brilliant supporting character up to lead and perhaps taking away some of what made him quite so compelling in the first place.

Where Life on Mars had been about mystery, about questioning the nature of the show, Ashes to Ashes tended to take the viewer by the hand – perhaps, again, a nod to eighties television and storytelling. The series was all about answering the very questions that had made Life on Mars so addictive, and while I’m sure many viewers wanted that, I was quite happy to have an open-endedness to the show; a sense that the answers were to be found if we wanted them to be found.

What we got with Life on Mars was emotional closure.

Ashes to Ashes provided a mythological closure. But I didn’t even come close to tears this time around. And I wanted to. I had been watching for three years, enjoying most of what I saw but never feeling the same urgency and excitement I had felt with the original show.

For my money, I’ll take the emotional closure over the mythological one. The honest, raw and even upsetting ideas bandied about in the final moments of Life on Mars affected me more than the revelation of an Afterlife, which we could have extrapolated from clues in the earlier series. Throw in an insane performance from a character who was clearly signposted as The Devil, and you realise that the show is Grandstanding big-time, making sure that everyone understands what’s going on, leaving no one in doubt as to anything.

There were no phone-calls, emails, disagreements following the end of Ashes to Ashes.

But there was much to enjoy through the run of Ashes to Ashes, despite its feeling of being quite superfluous. Gene Hunt was always worth watching, even if they softened him up for the second series (he was often genuinely terrifying in Life on Mars, his bigotry entrenched and less cartoon-like than in the second show) and foolishly tried to make him a romantic lead of sorts (sorry, but I never bought the Hunt/Drake thwarted romance line). In fact, the main cast were usually engaging (I never had a problem with Keeley Hawes as Alex Drake, even though early criticisms of the show seemed to point to her) and never put in less than their all. I even rather liked the character of Jim Keats who came into season trhee as a “discipline and complaints” officer, but I was rather upset to see his portrayal disintegrate in the final episode as his evil machinations came to light. Pull it down a notch, he would have been terrifying. But all that hissing, laughing and talking in tongues (not to mention the Hell Express elevator which anyone in their right mind would have walked away from) took away any terror from the character’s revelations and intentions, relegating him to cliché of the week, something that stunted Life on Mars through all three seasons (again, I could put this down to its eighties pop culture roots).

By overtly stating everything that Life on Mars implied, the series ultimately lost me. I like to figure things out. Maybe I’m a rare viewer in that sense, but I like to let my TV shows make me do a bit of work. Not necessarily all the work all the time, but I like to be able to figure stuff out rather than have all the dramatic points handed to me on a plate.

All the same, its strange to think we’ll not be seeing Gene Hunt on our screens again. With his performance throughout both series, Philip Glenister certainly created an original, often inspired and eminently quotable character.

And certainly, his last insult of the series (thrown at a Dutch drug dealer whose gang had just shot up Gene’s beloved Audi Quattro) did give me cause for a grin: “You murdered my car, you dyke-digging tosspot!”

No matter what else, the Gene Genie never lost his way with words…

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pearl Jam Concerts and Crime Novels

by Dave White

Last week, I saw Pearl Jam in concert 3 times. Once at the new Prudential Center in Newark and then twice. I've seen them about 8 times before this, but in my opinion these three shows were the best stretch of shows.

When I start talking about Pearl Jam concerts, I usually get asked why I go so much. The easy explanation is Pearl Jam is awesome. The longer answer is all the shows end up lasting 2.5 to 3 hours and they play 30 songs per concert. And yet, each show has an extremely varied setlist. For example, it took me four shows to see them play "Jeremy" and 8 shows before I saw "Black." But it only took me one show before I saw "Footsteps," which has grown into one of my favorite songs. Each show, however, has felt epic, huge, and always a more than just a concert.

It's a Pearl Jam concert (*).

(*How epic? The second or third time I saw them, they played two songs of each album in chronological order. Then they broke out "Hunger Strike" for the first time in fifteen years!)

Which brings me to crime fiction. When I read a certain author, I want the equivalent of a literary Pearl Jam concert. I want to be pulled through an adrenaline rush. I want to have to turn the page. I want big stories. They don't have to be about saving the world, but they do have to be about big emotions. I want to get something I haven't seen before.

At the same time, I want to know what I'm getting into. I want an author to be give me a vibe.

For instance, Dennis Lehane's Patrick & Angie series, MYSTIC RIVER, SHUTTER ISLAND, and THE GIVEN DAY can't be more different for each other. But all those books have the same feel. The same rhythm. The same with Duane Swierczynski. All his books are remarkably different, but if you tore the cover and title page off the books, I'd still know it was him.

It's a tricky feet to pull off, which is why I'm often hesitant to try new authors until I see tons of good reviews. I like something that's familiar to me, and then tries something different. It's difficult to explain.

The same goes for my writing. I always want to try something new each time I write something. WHEN ONE MAN DIES was a combination of a police prodedural and PI novel. In THE EVIL THAT MEN DO, I want to play with a timeline. My latest work is a balls out thriller.

What about you? What do you look for in your writers? In your concerts?

BONUS: Years later, I got to see HUNGER STRIKE and BLACK again:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought ___

John McFetridge

People are talking about different publishing methods since last week’s announcement of Joe Konrath’s deal with AmazonEncore and most of the discussion has to do with how the deal will affect publishers and writers.

So, I’m going to talk about how it affect readers.

It’s going to be good.

There’s no shortage of books being published every year. I often hear how there are too many books published. But when you start breaking them down into categories and niches are there really too many? And are they easy to find?

One thing that led to Konrath selling so much of his backlist himself as e-books was that Hyperion dropped its crime list. Other publishers have reduced the number of books they publish as well. It really looks like the publishing industry is following in the footsteps of the movie business and spending a lot of time looking for a few big blockbusters.

I’m not sure that’s a good model for books. Or really, it’s not a good model for books sold online – either print books ordered online or e-books. Because the online world isn’t the real world. Just look at the comment threads, so much of what’s posted there would never be said out loud in the real world. This blog is not a good example of that, too many reasonable people here, but we’ve all been to those other kinds of sites. This one, Get Off the Internet is depressing and funny at the same time, something the online world excels at being). There was a story on that website awhile ago about a knitting group getting into a huge argument and having to ban people. A knitting group.

Wait a minute, there’s an online knitting group? Of course there is. There’s an online group for everything.

The online world is about niche.

Joe Konrath’s sales are plenty good enough for him to keep writing books, just not good enough for a big publisher to keep making enough money off them.

So there are probably hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people out there who are in niches too small for publishers to go after. Up until now maybe those people sought out self-published books or fanzines (remember those?) or more likely just did without. Maybe they didn’t even notice they were doing without.

But now they (I really mean ‘we’) have a way to get books that appeal to a very small audience. Books that will look and feel just like big publisher books. This is especially true of e-books, but click over here and order a copy of Needles and you’ll see that POD books have come a long way, too.

And that may be the biggest change to the book business. Not self-publishing or e-books or Amazon Encore or POD or the iPad or the Nook or any of that.

The biggest change to the book business may be buying online where all books get the same amount of shelf space and they’re always in stock.

Of course that means that the pile of books is ten miles high and it’s impossible to find one in your niche.

And that’s where the next most important change is (have I now said that three or four things are the “most” important change? Well, change happens pretty fast online, I can’t keep up). It’s the accuracy of the, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought___,” button.

And it’s going to get even better.

Amazon will probably follow in the footsteps of Netflix and offer a million dollar prize to anyone who can come up with a collaborative filtering algorithm (of course I had to look that up) that will increase their business by 10%. Here’s the story of the Netflix algorithm .

When this kind of filtering system gets even more sophisticated for books it won’t matter where they come from – self-published, small press, big publisher, AmazonEncore – makes no difference on the Amazon page.

The other announcement that came out last week from Amazon that I think is also great news for readers is the introduction of AmazonCrossings, the new division that will sell english translations of books that up until now haven’t been available.

In many (most?) cases a translated book simply won’t sell enough copies for a big publisher to buy the rights, pay the translator and market in North America and those things are usually too expensive for a small press to be able to pay for upfront.

But if Amazon is the publisher itself it can ammortize those costs over... well forever, I guess. If the books are available as e-books and POD print books and they sell a couple hundred copies a year for fifty years, eventually it’ll pay off.

And it means even more books are available for us. Just imagine the cool Italian noir, the French, the Swedish ones that aren't about some girl who did something but about women?

It really is going to be good.

Now, I should say that like Joe Konrath I don’t think it’s a good idea to self-publish an e-book to the Kindle. But I should date this post because that could change fast, too.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One From The Vault; The Maltese Falcon

By Jay Stringer

I lamented a few weeks back that I don’t get much time to read at the moment. When I’m not hunched over my desk at the day job, I’m hunched over my laptop at the night job. It’s worth it, don’t get me wrong, bit it is something I’m missing right now.

Recently I found a little time to finish the great book ‘d been reading –review to follow in a week or so- and looked at my shelf for something familiar, something I could read without reading, if you know what I mean.

I almost picked up The Maltese Falcon, which I’ve not read in a few years, and that made me think or the review I wrote last time I re-read it. I enjoy dipping back into things I've written before. In this instance, it was fun to note how my online voice has changed since then, and how i lean more toward some of Hammett's other works. So here it is, straight from the vault.


THE MALTESE FALCON was published on valentines day 1930. That seems to strike a chord, its brilliantly fitting for the novel. And yet, it also feels wrong. To read the book in 2007 is to read something that feels modern, thoroughly modern.

Sure, it contains some dated references. It takes place in a world that nolonger exists. But at the same time, it reads almost as if one of our contemporary writers have written a ‘period piece’. The approach to the narrative, the characters and the dialogue, the total lack of morality, they all seem to come out of our modern psyche.

The private detective genre is one filled with clichés and traps; some writers fall into them, some subvert them or ignore them. Nevertheless, they are all aware of them. THE MALTESE FALCON was written before these clichés existed. But rather than reading something that came before the clichés, it feels like you’re reading a post-modern destruction of the private eye myth; that’s how good Hammett was, he turned the genre on his head even as he created it.

At no point in the novel does he take the reader into any of the characters heads, at no point does he tip the hat or give any motivation or plot details away.

His characters work a different trick to the other great names of hardboiled fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is the cliché, the standard. He faces every situation with the best dialogue ever written, the finest in dry wit. Behind all his bravado and wit, lies a broken heart. There is dissatisfaction bubbling beneath the service, knowing that the world will hurt you. Marlowe is an anti-hero not because he lacks morality, but rather because the world does. He holds true to what’s left of himself.

Sam Spade, Hammett’s central character in THE MALTESE FALCON is a whole other character. At the outset of the book we find that he is having an affair with his business partners wife, and through the various twists and turns of the novel, the only thing we are ever sure of is that Spade is looking out for himself.

There is no bruised hero here, none of Marlowe’s damaged knight in shining armour. Humphrey Bogart played both characters on the silver screen, which gives a good example of the difference between them. Rick in CASABLANCA has a place In film history as the man who did the right thing, at the cost of a broken heart. He put the woman on the plane. Marlowe, too, would put the woman on the plane and end the story with a cracking one liner to hide the pain. Spade, by turn, would find a way to sneak her out the back way for a damn good seeing too, and damn the greater good.

It’s a strange ending to the book, which grows out of that brilliant characterization. Though in many ways the greater good is served, and the ‘good’ has triumphed over the ‘evil’, there is a tonal lack of triumph.

In the end, Spade is doing the right thing not because he wants to, or because its right, but because its ‘good for business’ and keeps him out of jail.

More than the invention of modern crime fiction, this is also the departure point for much of mainstream American cinema. An influence that has bled through into television and music.

This book is an important part of our cultural psyche.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Frank Bill day at DSD

By Steve Weddle

Today you get pixels and a podcast.

I talked to Frank Bill about his new book, DONNYBROOK. You can find the podcast at the DSD Podcast page.

Here's what folks are saying about the book:

"Donnybrook is some serious hillbilly-noir that had my ears ringing by the end. Open the first page... and duck." --Craig Clevenger, author of The Contortionist's Handbook and Dermaphoria

“Dark, grim, and achingly beautiful. Frank Bill is one of the most original and compelling voices in this new generation of crime writers, and Donnybrook is nothing short of stunning.” -- John Rector, author of The Cold Kiss and The Grove

"Donnybrook is a bellow of rage from the American heartland, and Bill is the new bard of the disaffected rural underclass." -- Roger Smith, acclaimed author of Wake Up Dead

"With Donnybrook, Frank Bill has crafted one of the most fearless debut novels I've read in years. Bill has taken the rural noir traditions established by such masters as Larry Brown and Daniel Woodrell and has completely shattered them and reshaped those traditions into the methamphetamine fueled nightmare that is Donnybrook."--Keith Rawson, editor/publisher, Crimefactory Magazine

“Donnybrook is the culmination of Frank Bill's craft and style. The story gleams with ruined characters who reflect our drug-adulterated times, and dialogue that captures a singularly American desperation." -- Elaine Ash, editor Beat to a Pulp

Over at the DSD Podcast you'll find some of my conversation with Frank Bill about the book, his progress as a writer, meth cooking, and dead squirrels.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Do you read non-fiction?

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I don’t. Well, sometimes I do, but as a general rule, when I want to throw myself into a book, I pick fiction. And I read just about every genre – mystery, thriller, noir, fantasy, historical fiction, young adult, romance, etc… I can’t help myself. I love a good story. A lot of non-fiction just doesn’t give me that.

Not that there isn’t great stuff to be had between non-fiction covers. There is. I just have a harder time finding the ones that really grab me. Until two weeks ago.

My husband loves buying me books, especially since my awesome agent sold mine. Between my birthday, our anniversary, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, I have an entire Minotaur Books library of recent releases. (Yep, that's my version of the intimidating TBR pile Scott was talking about in his post yesterday.) And I’ve enjoyed making my way through the stack. But for Mother’s Day he bought me one that was different. A non-fiction book that he thought I might be interested in since the subject matter coincided with my current work in progress. The book is Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh.

The title is a bit dry and while it gives the facts of what lies inside, it doesn't fully capture the essence of the book. Yes, he did get a chance to be a gang leader for a day, but that took all of about 15 pages. The rest is a rich detail of a graduate sociology student who was interested in plight of Chicago’s poor. In trying to take a survey about their lives, the grad student ends up meeting a high ranking member of a gang who is willing to offer protection. This gives the student a unique view into the gang, the housing projects and the life of those who live there. I'm really simplifying here, but you get the point.

This story wasn’t told with dramatic prose. There wasn’t rapid fire action or high body counts. In fact, the lack of that type of story telling was what made this book so intriguing. It would have been tempting to pump up the drama considering the subject matter. But Sudhir Venkatesh showed great restraint with his turn of phrase. Instead, he gives an honest telling of his younger self’s naivete about gangs, his ethical dilemmas and his strange, but very real friendship with a man who controlled an entire community through drugs and fear.

Through the book, Sudhir is honest about the questionable morality of many of his decisions. He looked the other way when perhaps he shouldn’t have. He saw illegal activities and didn’t report them. There was always a reason why he didn’t call the police or tell his professors. Sometimes they were good reasons. Other times not.

The best crime fiction always has moments of blurred morality. Shades of gray are always more interesting than those that are black and white. This book isn’t fiction, but I believe most lovers of the genre will find this story compelling for many of the same reasons. If you read it, let me know. I’d be curious to see what you think.

And for all of you lovers of crime fiction – tell me – do you read non-fiction? If so, what is the most compelling non-fiction you’ve read? I’m ready to read another one.