Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Real Celebrity

Scott D. Parker

What does it mean to be a celebrity? The built-in dictionary here on my Mac indicates that a celebrity is “a famous person; the state of being well known.” Take a moment and think of some celebrities, both the ones you like and the ones you don’t like. Some celebrities are famous for what they do: athletes, entertainment stars, politicians. Others are famous for being who they are: Paris Hilton, any number of reality show contestants.

Often we look up to celebrities, trying to emulate the way they live their lives. One generation of celebrities gives birth to the next generation. Elvis and Buddy Holly influence the Beatles who influence just about everyone else. Authors like Stephen King read Lovecraft and want to carry the torch for the next generation. It’s life, and it’s natural.

Sometimes, our illusions of celebrities are shattered. Up until last November, most people considered Tiger Woods to be an upstanding guy, someone to admire, learn from, and be like. No more.

All of this brings me to the celebrity we lost this week in the mystery community, David Thompson. His death shocked us all. Word spread throughout our community, both on the internet as well as old-school telephone calls. An obvious place where the news spread was Facebook, both on the Murder by the Book location as well as David’s own account. I noticed something as the week progressed and the terrible news sank in. Many different people in the mystery community starting friending each other. I’d see “This Person is now friends with these five other people.” The number of new connections increased considerably by yesterday.

The more I think of that, the more I smile. David is still affecting our lives. We will all truly miss him as the months and years go by. But it’s nice to know that even after he’s gone, our own celebrity, David Thompson, is still influencing people and bringing us all together.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Forgoten Book: Stone City

By Russel D McLean

Its Friday.

There were a lot of topics this week I could have written about, but others have already expressed their feelings on the events of these last few days with more eloquence than I could.

I had no idea what to write. Until I remembered that Friday is always Forgotten Books day.

And for today, Forgotten reviews day, as well, I suppose.

This review was written a few years back for a planned re-release of Stone City by David Thompson's Busted Flush Press that sadly never got off the ground as far as I was aware. But if you can track down a copy of the book, I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

Stone City

By Mitchell Smith

Stone City is a dark, violent trip into a world that runs parallel to our own. A stone city where the worst of our citizens find themselves, segregated from society and forced to create their own rules and norms within the regulated world of the State Prison.

Stone City is a massive novel. Its labyrinth plot – as a college professor jailed for a hit-and-run hunts down a killer within the prison system – snakes through the twilight world of the State Prison, giving us glimpses of a place that seems far removed from the everyday reality we understand. While, in more recent years, television shows like HBO’s Oz have given us an understanding of life on the inside, the world of Stone City still feels sufficiently alien to unnerve even the most hardened reader. Inside the walls, an entire world is formed that runs parallel to the one outside. The prisoners create their own social norms, their own bizarre parodies of normal life. The prison “marriages” and the apparent division of prisoners by sex (whereby weaker, more feminine men are taken as wives in some quite willing and occasionally tender partnerships). The property market for primo space in prison. Separate blocks feel more like individual countries than extensions of the same building. This creates a self contained world with its own intricate systems of trade, barter and morality. At first glance, much of these adapted norms seem a mockery of the outside world. The reader soon comes to realise, however, that the inmates need to maintain this pretend society to survive. The only world they now know is inside, and they need to live there with each other.

In this place, new social contracts are drawn. Families – however dysfunctional – are formed among men who have never known such things before, and friendships, however tenuous, are forged through shared fears and insecurities. But everything is fragile in this world, subject to violent change at the will of any man.

Much of this is experienced through the eyes of Bauman, a college professor who finds himself sent to State after accidentally killing a girl. At least, that’s his story. Bauman survives not simply by adapting to this new world, but by trading on his own skills. Some of the best scenes in this novel are simple, brilliant scenes where Bauman attempts to help his fellow inmates somehow better themselves. Teaching illiterate bruisers to read, finding a way to recreate his old life in this twisted world in which he has been thrown.

The book relies on taking the familiar elements of the everyday world and throwing them askew. At its most basic level, the question of the sexes is dealt with by prisoners designating themselves accordingly. When Bauman starts to hang around with a fellow con by the name of Cousins, this relationship is taken in a romantic light by his fellow prisoners. After all, Cousins, with his delicate features and quiet manner, is a woman in this world, and he is so taken by the role that he dreams of becoming one for real upon his release.

Then, there is the matter of everyday living: cells are bought and traded like property. Men set themselves up in business. Different blocks become other countries within this world, each with their own set of rules and regulations. Nowhere is this more obvious than in segregation, where life is so removed from Bauman’s block that there may as well be oceans between these two places.

In contrasting Bauman’s life outside with his life inside, we see parallels and patterns that reflect the prison and the real world against each other, casting the events of the novel and the characters trapped within State, in an often unexpected light. We are forced to question: where was Bauman better off? Which life really was his personal hell? As the novel progresses and we learn more about what it was that sent Bauman to State, we begin to realise that the most seemingly civilised man in State may in fact be far from it, that civilised is dependent on a man’s situation and surroundings and that even on the outside, Bauman’s civility may have been little more than social veneer.

All of which is intriguing stuff, but apropos of nothing without the novelist’s skill to back it up. And Mitchell Smith is, thankfully, a brilliant writer. His carefully crafted prison world combined with his deeply detailed psychological portrait of a man from the outside finding himself on the inside is one hell of a read: darkly gripping, and with a final scene that is as shocking and unexpected as it is almost inevitable.

For some, the text may be a little overlong, the narrative taking many sideroads – not all of them as productive as could be expected – and occasionally guilty of repeating its most salient points when they are already made. But ultimately, the power of Mitchell’s words and the intricacy of the world and people he has created are what pull you in. You can feel the prison walls closing in, breathe the air heavy with the stink of fellow prisoners, and hear the cacophony of sounds that make up daily prison life. It is terrifyingly easy to become absorbed in this world that Mitchell has created.

Stone City is a dark trip into a world where violence lurks behind every word, where any action can be misinterpreted and where life is cheap. But it comes so close to our own world, that sometimes, when you re-emerge from the pages, you have to wonder whether you can’t hear a guard somewhere crying, “Fingers!” as the gates roll across cells packed tightly together in this manufactured hell where the guilty ultimately punish themselves.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

See No Evil, Hear No... What?

John McFetridge

A recent discussion on Crimespace about books being turned into movies brought up something interesting for me.

Caroline Trippe wrote, “After all, when I read any novel, it plays out in my mind's eye like a movie -- I "see" the characters, the places, hear the dialogue. I would guess this occurs with most writers. Part of all writing is visualizing---then you bring that to life with language.”

And I wrote, “When I read a book I never visualize the scenes like a movie -- I hear the story being told by the voice of the book. I prefer it to be the voice of a character (or a number of characters) and I sometimes accept it if it's the writer's voice (but not often ;)

A long time ago at Concordia University in Montreal I took a writing class from Garry Geddes, a guy who was mostly known as a poet, and he asked us to read our stories out loud. At first I was opposed to the idea because I thought prose was meant to be read not “performed” but Garry was a good guy so I did it.

My friend Lisa Pasold (author of the excellent Rats of Las Vegas) was in that class and when I finished reading my story she passed me a note that said, “Your head is so red, looks like it’s going to explode.”

I guess I was nervous speaking in public, that’s really common, but I think I was also realizing something significant – for the first time all that talk about the “authorial voice” was making a little sense to me.

Before that I had tried to visualize stories, see them as movies I guess, but at that moment I realized that I wasn’t trying to write movie scenes, I was trying to capture those moments at the kitchen table when my Dad told a story or those moments at my Uncle’s cottage around the fire when he told a story or those times in the bar when my brother told a story.

That was when I started to realize that prose is stories being told. That voice, that point of view, is the biggest difference between a book and a movie.
The same characters in the same situations doing the same things can work both as a book and a movie, but they’re very different experiences.

What do you think? Do you visualize a book as you read it or do you hear it?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Memoriam: David Thompson

by Dave White

David Thompson was one of the few people who could get me to fly.

Three years ago, when my debut was released he asked me to sign at Murder by the Book. I couldn't go, but he made sure he asked again when my second came out--sending about fifteen different dates I could show up. The message was clear, "Get your butt down here, we want to sell your book."

I had no choice, I agreed, despite my fear of flying. I actually got on a plane to Houston to be at that bookstore.

That's how David treated writers. He wanted them to come to his store and push their books. It didn't matter if you were Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, or any old midlist writer, he and his wife, McKenna, treated everyone like a superstar.

To them, every writer was special.

And they made sure their signings were legendary. They were fun question and answer sessions that went on for an hour or more, letting you learn as much about a writer as possible, and often immortalized on YouTube by Bill Crider.

David didn't stop there. He created Busted Flush Press, a small publisher who put out great novels and anthologies. He and Duane Swierczynski placed my first original story in a print anthology with DAMN NEAR DEAD.

He energy and enthusiasm toward books was contagious. He spent his time on Twitter pushing his favorite novels or most recent reads. He always let people know what books the store had imported from the UK. Murder by the Book is my go to independent store. They would ship to NJ without hesitation.

When I heard about his passing today, I went numb. I had just been talking about him in class that morning, telling my students my most embarrassing story--traveling to the signing. I nearly had a nervous breakdown on a plane and still made sure I signed there. Not many people can get me on an airplane.

And, I suspect that's how it was with David and all other authors. They would do anything to talk to him, do anything to sign at the store. His love of books was infectious. He was one of a kind.

I'm going to miss him.

I Hate Music.

By Jay Stringer

(If you're just catching up on the week so far, check bak to Weddle's post from yesterday. It's got some cool news about DSD's development, and a few hints of things to come.)

My favourite band are The Replacements. I may have mentioned that once or twice. One of their early songs, back when they were loud snarky punks, was 'I Hate Music.' It's only about two minutes long, and never destined to be a radio anthem, but it did have the great line, "I hate music, it's got too many notes."

I've used variations on that line many times over the years, applied to different situations. Music, football, alcohol, comedy,'s seen more uses than my big book of lame excuses. I've come to realise that, for me, it's not simply a throwaway line. There's something to it, something to all of it. Music often does have too many notes. Books can have too many words. A film can have too many scenes. My coffee can have too much sugar (i.e; it can have some.)

And you know what I often find to be the problem with mystery stories? Yep, that's write. Too much mystery.

I don't read mystery books for the trappings, the twists and turns. I read them for the character, for the soul of the book. Too often i hear writers complain that they leave behind the mystery genre because they grow tired of the trappings of writing them, and then later I discover those writers didn't create the kind of stories I want to read.

It's been something I've fought with myself. The series I'm writing at the moment starts out very much as hardboiled mystery, and then slowly changes into something else as the character changes. And I'm trying to hold myself to realism with the mystery element. In real life i don't think that crimes like theft or murder come with all that much mystery involved. Certainly not in the world of gangs, drugs and vice that I'm covering. Deaths will be for revenge, or to make a point, or for business. The only mystery would be whether or not the police could find the evidence to close out the crime.

Sure, there are mysteries. Someone can go missing, something can be lost. Mysterious things happen every day. But I find that the mystery genre has created a myth, and it can weigh stories down. I want my story to work because of the characters and the world. There are a couple of dead bodies in the book, and there's some work to do in order to get the right answer, but I'm not going to be throwing too many red herrings or conspiracies at you, because that all seems fake to me. Once you latch on to the logic of why things are happening, where the money is flowing, or who stands to gain, then you can get a step ahead of the protagonist. And that feels true to me.

If your story rests on the design of the mystery, then it falls down the minute the audience clocks it. If the mystery is merely one of the elements that runs through a well told story, then people will come back for more.

I'm thinking of this because I recently watched Righteous Kill. A tale of two NYPD cops on the trail of a serial killer, starring Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. The film is framed around a central mystery, it's what the whole plot is built on. It seems like it's meant to draw you in and then slam shut on you when you least expect it. Trouble is, because the film is telling you that one thing is happening, and because that one thing clearly isn't happening, it takes about ten seconds to reverse things and spring the trap on the film instead. You're then waiting for the film to catch up with you, or for the characters to somehow draw you into their story so that the mystery doesn't matter.

The film also shows the other easy trap of mystery writing; characters can start doing things simply to support the mystery. Characters in the film start saying and doing things simply to draw out the film's 'surprise.' More importantly, they don't say things that would ruin it. This feels forced, like a 90 minute cheap trick.

I don't know about you, but that sort of thing pulls me straight out of a story. I don't want cynical red herrings, I don't to have the kitchen sink thrown at me. I want a good story well told. I want solid characters, and I want the mystery to serve those characters. I want the mystery to make sense.

Like all rules there are exceptions. I'm still in love with The Usual Suspects just as much now as I was fifteen years ago, and that film is built around one looooong red herring. But where a film like that succeeds, i think, is in trying to fool you rather than treating you like a fool. The screenwriter knew that if we started the film with the question, "who is Keyser Soze?" we would figure it out within ten minutes. So the film showed us one thing, and then spent most of its running time convincing us that we didn't actually see that. It turns the question into, "where is Keaton?" But then when we look back on it, and in spite of the story belonging to an unreliable narrator, we find that the trick is a fair one. The pieces are all there and there is an internal logic. the mystery is still all in service of character, even if it's all in service of only one character.

In my writing, I'm working damn hard not to cheat the audience. I don't mind trying to fool them for awhile, but I'm not going to treat them like fools.

How about you? How to you find that balance between 'mystery' and 'contrived.' And in your reading, what have been the mystery books that have hit your sweet spot?

Monday, September 13, 2010

DSD now on Kindle

By Steve Weddle

Since this blog started 13 months ago, we've worked to improve things in terms of style and content.

Yes, we lost a Canadian, but we replaced him with two Americans. I'm not sure what the exchange rate was, but this has worked out so far.

We've worked on some theme weeks and even have our first collection, TERMINAL DAMAGE, done and nearly ready for your reading pleasure.

And now we have an improved option in terms of delivery.

Sure you can read the Do Some Damage blog on the computer. But that ain't good enough for us. Now, through the magic of fairydust and cutrate pharmaceuticals, you can now get your DSD fix each morning delivered to your Kindle.

Each morning at about 3 a.m. eastern time in the US of A, the blog gets updated. (Unless it's Jay's day, then, you know, eventually.) Here's what it looks like on the Kindle.

The sign-up fee for this is $1.99 a month, which gets you all 30-ish posts per month. I don't know why it's that price, which is set by Amazon. Whatever portion of that money makes it from Jeff Bezos's bank account to ours will be spent on lottery scratchers and whip-it cans.

So if you subscribe to DSD on Kindle, each morning you get the DSD blog sent right to you. I've subscribed to a number of magazines and newspapers, utilizing the FREE 14-day trial option Amazon offers. I sign up for the L.A. Times for a couple of weeks and end up with screens and screens of book reviews and feature articles. Want to see whether you like the New York Times Book Review? Trial subscription. Same thing with the Do Some Damage blog. Give it a shot on the Kindle and see what you think.

One of the little pieces of sweetness I like is that you get access to DSD archives. Check out the "section list" at the bottom of the screen.

If you missed Russel's bookselling post or Dave's discussion of Rutgers recruiting, you can just scroll back and catch up.

At first I thought that paying to subscribe to a newspaper I could get online for free was dumber than paying for water. But then I did the trial-subscription thing and understood. Delivered into your hands is pretty cool.

Anyway, if you have a Kindle and want to get the blog sent to you each morning, you can click HERE for a free 14-day trial subscription.

As if that ain't good enough, the DSD Podcast Season The Second -- or if you're in the Britains, Series Two -- should kick off soon. We're planning many more interviews and special guests, plus autographed photos of Jay Stringer, as those seem oddly popular now.

Keep in mind that debut novels from DSD's own Joelle Charbonneau and friend-of-the-show Hilary Davidson are coming out this month.

Kindle. Terminal Damage. Podcast. Debut novels. Phew. Getting kinda busy around here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Kid Stays in The Game

Blech. It's only September but I already have one of those colds that routinely kick my ass in the winter months. But I've moderated the doping enough to get this post off before I drop off into the sweet, sweet sleep of narcotics.

When I was a reporter, one of things I sucked worst at was enterprise journalism. These were the sorts of long-form, extended pieces they wanted us to write that won awards and made careers etc. I always had a bunch of good ideas, but for the most part they never got written because the day-to-day issues of covering the police beat always got in the way. I feel that way about blog posts too. I have several cool ideas for things I want to write about, but the day-to-day issues of life keep getting in the way. It doesn't help that I am created of the most procrastination-laced stock in human history.

For example, I have a post I really want to write about characters and how we choose the characters we read about and write about. But I can't because tomorrow (today) Is Spenser's second birthday and I'd rather write about that instead.

If you're talking about characters though, this little kid is one of the best. He's more of an anti-hero than your traditional type hero but he's been the greatest thing to happen in my life so far. I don't know that you can detect any major wholesale changes in my character as a result of his existence, but there has been a series of smaller changes that add up to a better, tired, me. Where I've noticed his presence most is in how I react to writing. I now fall every time for the kid in jeopardy tricks authors play with their readers. It's more fun now to read authors who have kids and see how it plays into their fiction. I'm also writing more stories about people who have kids. Granted, these stories have not always reflected a dreamy view of child rearing but I've been determined to present an authentic view of my life with kids and early on, that wasn't always a pleasant view.

At one point I debated writing a letter to Spenser instead of this post, but couldn't really find a way into it that wasn't cheesy or creepy so I'll just say that I love my little boy and would do anything for him. He embodies all of my hopes and dreams in a stinky little package that loves dinosaurs, SpongeBob, Elmo, cookies, Diet Pepsi, baseball, his light up Buzz Lightyear shoes, our dog, broccoli, Rick Astlye, and endangering himself and hates meat, littering, clothes, and sleeping.

Happy birthday buddy!