Saturday, October 30, 2010

Joelle Charbonneau at Murder by the Book

Scott D. Parker

I think by now, most of us can hum the theme song to “Cheers” and, if not, at least know the sentiment of the song: you want to go somewhere where everybody knows your name. I don’t frequent bars, but I do frequent Murder by the Book and dang if it isn’t a place with people who know my name. Fellow Do Some Damage scribe Joelle Charbonneau was to have her first signing at the store and I had called ahead to reserve a copy of her book, Skating Around the Law. No sooner do I enter the door than Dean James reaches behind the counter and delivers Joelle’s book to my hands. That, my friends, is the type of service that’s few and far between in this day and age. It’s noticed and appreciated.

Joelle Charbonneau, a Chicagoan, was one of three authors at Murder by the Book last Saturday, JoAnna Carl and Jan Grape were the other two. Since I literally had just picked up Joelle’s book, I hadn’t read anything by them so I automatically felt at a loss. In addition, I tend to read the grittier material, hard-boiled fiction and noir stuff. Ironically, that kind of reading is in direct contrast to the types of mysteries I watch on television: Castle, Masterpiece Mystery [Foyle’s War; Wallander; Collision], Monk, CSI: Miami. Not exactly blood and guts, you know? I’ve been contemplating the types of books I write and this light vs. dark debate is the primary question I’m trying to answer. Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the event.

After brief introductions and biographies, the authors read their first chapters (or portions of chapters) for us. In all the author events I’ve been to, this was a first for me. JoAnna kicked it off by reading from The Chocolate Pirate Plot. Jan followed with What Doesn’t Kill You. The third member of the “J” Gang was Joelle who read most of her chapter. Here’s what struck me by all three authors was the audience reactions. There was about a dozen of us and we laughed, chuckled, or gasped at all the right places. I think it’s great, as a writer, to read aloud to other people and see if they react like you expected them to do.

Each writer talked about the inspiration of their new book. For JoAnna, this is twelfth book in her series featuring Lee McKinney. Jan demurred, saying there were too many inspirations to mention just one. I can concur with that, seeing that some of my ideas filter down from dozens of sources. Joelle’s mother is a world class rollerskater so it was natural for Joelle to write a skating book. Her agent was, according to Joelle, probably thinking of a romance novel. The only problem was that Joelle kept seeing a dead body at the end of chapter one. Thus, a mystery with some romance.

Seeing as we here at Do Some Damage just discussed our writing habits, I asked them to talk about theirs. Interestingly, all three authors don’t outline, at least in the traditional sense. They generally have an idea of whodunit and a place to start and little else. They all stressed the concept that they, the writers, were, in fact, the first reader and they wanted to just keep going. As Jan said, “You have to tell the story to yourself first, then you can fiddle with it.” Personally, I think that the fiddling is where many writers—this one included—go astray. If we can’t even garner enough interest from outline to prose, how the heck will our readers.

The entire event was just plain fun. As a buyer of Joelle’s book, I earned myself a tour T-shirt complete with tour dates on the back. Tres cool. After I finish Joelle’s book (and Russel McLean’s The Good Son that I picked up at his event a few weeks ago), I’ll be tackling Jan’s and JoAnna’s books.

I spoke with Jan a bit about her time as a bookseller in Austin. She had opened a mystery bookstore in the 1990s, and, at one point, Texas had four mystery bookstores. Jan had to shutter the doors of her shop after business dried up. Now, if I remember correctly, Murder by the Book is the only mystery bookstore left in Texas. So, people, if you have a independent bookstore near you, frequent it. Get the folks who work there to learn who you are and what you like. Then, one day, you’ll be able to walk in the store and they’ll know your name and you’ll feel right at home. You might even hear that familiar theme song...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Talking about Novels

I've been reading a lot of interviews with writers for TV shows and comic books lately. I actually prefer their interviews, as opposed to interviews with novelists--most of the time.


Because comic writers and TV show writers are often more willing to talk about endings. They trust their interviewers to warn about spoilers beforehand. They trust the fans to avoid the articles with spoilers in them until they've read or watched.

And that's cool. I love to see writers talk about how an ending comes about. Alan Sepinwall's interview with Vince Gilligan, creator of BREAKING BAD is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.

I love all the talk about writing yourself into a corner. The info on the Cousins is great.

And why don't we see novelists doing this?

I think there's a lot of reasons for this. First, I think novelists worry that by discussing an ending they'll scare readers off. If someone knows what's going to happen, they won't buy the book.

There's also a big differents between TV/Comics and novels. Novelists don't know when a reader will actually open the book and start reading. Therefore, a novelist has to always be selling. Comics/TV writers know when the show is on, and even if DVRed, the fan has to be done with it by the next installment. There's a shelf life.

It gives some freedom.

But, part of me would love to see a novelist talk about an ending. I would love to know how Harlan Coben comes up with some of his twists. Or why Laura Lippman ended WHAT THE DEAD KNOW the way she did. I would love to see an insightful interview, with an author discussing a novel through a close read.

And, as a writer, I'd love to be able to talk about some of the plot twist endings in my first two books.

What about you? How deep and freely would you like an author to talk about his or her novel?

PS: This is my last post as a 30 year old. From now on, you'll be reading sage wisdom from a 31 year old. I hear that's when you figure everything out.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Drama from the non-dramatic

John McFetridge

Yesterday Jay was talking about “social fiction,” and crime fiction. A little while ago in a column at The Daily Beast Justin Peacock claimed that, “We are living in a golden age of the social novel. However, it has largely gone unnoticed by the critical establishment, because it is taking place almost exclusively within the crime novel.”

But I have to wonder. Are we really writing social novels, or are we just exploiting social situations for cheap thrills?

What’s got me thinking about this is the recently released video of the interrogation of a serial killer in Ontario. In some ways it’s valuable for the crime writer as it shows a professional interrogation and how undramatic it is. Truly, the murderer, Russell Williams, typifies the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt identified in the Nazis. He’s calm, the interrogator is calm, information is exchanged, it ends with an arrest. No raised voices, no banging on desks, no crying or begging for mercy, just a couple of guys talking about a couple of young women being tortured and murdered.

It makes me sick.

Still, I watch it and I think about lessons I can learn for my fiction (and that creeps me out).

The story is tragic and sad. A guy named Russell Williams was a colonel in the Canadian air force, married with no children. His life of crime started as a peeping tom, moved up to break and enter into women’s houses, then he started stealing their underwear, then breaking in while the women were home and photographing them asleep, then breaking in and waking them up and assulating them and then twice he broke into women’s houses, assaulted them and then killed them.

For a while there it sounded like James Ellroy, peeping tom, then break and enter and then stealing underwear. I have no idea how often this happens and then, as in Ellroy’s case, goes no further and how often, as in this case, it escalates.

But people study it and write PhD dissertations and books and fiction writers use that information to create characters. If the fiction is done well it’s more than just cheap thrills, more than just, as George Lucas said, killing the puppy (I don’t have the exact quote, but he said something like, it’s easy to make people cry watching a movie, you show them a puppy and then you kill the puppy). I think what he was saying is that maybe as the creator you have a responsibility to do more than simply tap into an easily exploited emotion.

Here is part one of the interview. There are no dirty words, no swearing, no banging on the table, just a calm convesation between two men. In fact, the way the interrogator (Detective Jim Smyth of the Ontario Provincial Police) controls the interview really is something to see.

The lead homicide detective on the case described it as a, “smart man being outsmarted by a smarter man.”

A little backstory; the main piece of evidence the police had about the second murder (at the time a missing person as the body had not been recovered) was the description of an SUV parked beside the victim’s house. From that they found an “unusual” tire track and set up a roadblock to check cars going by for the same kind of tires. At the roadblock Williams was identified and put under surveillance. Three days later he was asked to come into the police station in Ottawa, told it was because he lived near the victim and the police were talking to everyone in the area, just being thorough. In fact, Williams even mentions to the cop how impressed he is at their thoroughness. When Williams came into the interrogation the police had very little physical evidence and he knew that.

But as the interview starts, the cop zeroes in and very early on, makes him a deal, “You want discretion, Russell, because this is getting out of control really fast... this is getting out of my control.” He knows a bit about Williams, the guy’s a Colonel in the air force, he’s always in control, he values control. “You and I both know... your wife now knows what’s going on... your vehicle has been siezed... you and I both know that they’re going to find evidence that links you to these situations... you and I both know that the unknown offender, male... (evidence) is going to be matched to you.”

Such gentle threats. And he says, “these situations,” not murders or killings or even crimes, just situations.

Later on, when Det. Smyth is pulling out all the details about the murders he never says, “What did you do next,” he always says things like, “What happened next,” so it’s not something the killer did, not something he was in control of, just something that “happened.”

So, as a lesson in writing an interrogation scene it’s terrific.

On a TV show in Canada the interview was shown to an FBI instructor who said it will now be played all over the world as a “how to” video in police training.

Sadly, he’s right, this scenerio will play out again and again around the world.

And we’ll continue to write scenes like this and walk that fine line between exploitation, entertainment and literature.

So, as the great Hill Street Blues said, "Let's be careful out there."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Oh, The horror

By Jay Stringer

I've had horror on my brain all month. It's natural enough at this time of year. We all like to think a little darker, a little spookier. We like to cuddle up at the weekend and watch a few horror classics.

I've gone a little further than usual this year. My good friends over at Matinee Idles have had a horror season, with a series of podcasts examining some classics of the genre. To tie in with their shows, I've been doing two articles a week looking at some good (and very bad) examples of horror films. Not only have I been writing about two films a week, but in order to decide which films to write about, I've watched a ton of films. More than usual.

It's lead to some fun dreams, I can tell you.

In watching the films I've begun to realise a few things about what I look for in horror, and I've realised how closely it ties into what I look for in crime, and in fiction overall.

Now there's nothing new in noticing a link between horror and crime. A look on the shelves of your nearest book store (hey, remember them?) shows that the market is well ahead of us there. There are vampire detectives, wizard detectives, werewolf detectives and...hey I'm spotting a theme here. Over in comic books, John Constantine (that's the blond Brit, rhyming with time, not the vacant Californian guy who rhymes with spleen) is a hardboiled detective dropped into the middle of Lovecraft.

Al Guthrie has said "noir is non-supernatural horror." And he makes a fair point. It would be a blog in itself exploring that idea, showing the overlap between the two, but that's best left for the man himself or for a podcast further down the road.

I'm thinking that the draw for me is in a slightly different place.

It's interesting to note how people end up at crime fiction. It seems a lot of crime writers have moved across from other fields. Russel is on record at having come to crime via sci fi. I've had my stints as a sci fi fan, of course. And fantasy. What teenage male hasn't? I tended to be more Michael Moorcock than Issac Asimov, a strange hyrbid of sci fi, pulp and fantasy that probably says a lot about my tastes.

But as a writer I cut my teeth with horror and comic book scripts. Somewhere in my parents attic are sheets filled with short stories about vampires, werewolves, zombies, and strange men whistling nursery rhymes in dark streets. I remember getting in borderline trouble at school for writing a poem about a boy who found a severed head by the side of the road, took it home and planted it in a plant-pot, and nurtured it back to life.

(Yes, don't worry, the men in white coats have been called.)

And what I think I found in horror that I later came to find in crime was the social fiction. It's easy to get caught out generalising things like fiction, which can be all things to all people, but I think it's fair to say that for me (and a lot of this sites readers and contributors) good fiction is social fiction. I've written at length -and Russel, Dave, Steve, Gerald So and I have discussed in the podcasts- that we like crime fiction to hit us where it matters. On the streets, with real issues and real people.

What I have realised is that I want the same from horror, too. I want Halloween that holds a scary lens up to suburbia, that asks us, that guy down the road, was he staring at us? I want Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead to show some uncomfortable home truths about humanity. There are many famous quotes and images from those two films, but that one that sticks with me most is the scientist describing that the zombies can't be considered human, in part because they don't prey on each other. It's hitting us where it hurts to think about that. And the more obvious moments hold power too, of course. The mall mentality, the brainlessness, the inevitability of it all. The lynch mobs, the need for material goods and violence.

Sure, the classic movie monsters can be fun. And who doesn't like to see the occasional alien invasion? But real horror for me are the films that show that we are the problem. The films that show that our society is frail and broken, and that we let people slip through the cracks. It shows us the haves and the have nots, and shows how we will exploit and victimise each other.

It's in bringing horror down into the streets and houses with us -rather than in some spooky castle or forest- that I find stories and issues worth investing my time and fears into. And that's just the same as crime.

Once again it all comes down to social fiction. Funny that, eh?

Monday, October 25, 2010

I went to see him, yada yada yada, and now he's dead

By Steve Weddle

Recently I was on the road all by lonesome for a couple of ten-hour drives. I dropped the CDs of Joseph Finder's COMPANY MAN into the CD-playing machine in my automobile's dashboard. That and Michael Connelly's new THE REVERSAL are a couple of interesting examples of how to use timing in writing.

Really, any audio book suffers from, er, I mean, benefits from this. You don't know when the chapter is going to end. When I'm reading a book in print -- hell, even on the Kindle machine for reading the new electronic books -- I know that we're coming to a break. I see it out of the corner of my eye. I've flipped ahead a little to know that I'm just three pages away from a new chapter, so I should just push through and then head to bed. Like in one of them big fancy classical music pieces, you know? All of those strings starts screeching away, louder and louder. You know something is building up. Sure you can feel the build-up in the audio book, but you don't see the end; you don't know exactly how long the build-up will last. In a book, you see the end coming, even though you don't know how it will end.

You know when you're watching a cop show on the television box and they arrest the killer dude 37 minutes after the hour and you totally know that's not the dude because then what are they going to do for the rest of the show, you know? Have Bones and Angel kiss for 20 minutes? Damn, I hope not. Anyway, you have some aspect of what's coming up based on the timing of the arrest. We've got these expectations of how things will play out, and listening to an audio book kinda takes away one of the, I don't know, "tools" I use to know what to expect.

We grow to expect a certain timing in crime fiction, and when we stop and listen -- or, you know, drive 78 mph and listen -- stuff sorta goes a little goofy.

Speaking of a little goofy, Michael Connelly's new book plays with timing and expectations in a whole different way.

Michael Connelly
In THE REVERSAL, Harry Bosch and his half-brother, Mickey Haller (I used the comma there thinking Haller is his only half-brother. I don't know for sure, though.) do the investigation thing. The book is kinda-sorta from Haller's perspective. What this allows is for Bosch to pop in every other chapter or so having done something already. In a couple of spots in the book, he's already investigated a lead and Haller and the reader get to find out what happened. Sometimes, this happens in front of you, of course. So it's a matter of perspective and timing.

Does the action always have to happen in-sequence? Can you have substantial action occur off-stage and carry the story forward by the telling of the action, which, not to get too meta-, but is kind of a telling of the telling, ain't it?

You expect the investigator -- whether retired cop, private investigator, or antique salesperson -- to go to this person and ask questions, which lead to that person. Then go to that person, get clonked on the back of the head by a shadowy assailant, then get more invested. And so on. You don't expect the "I went to ask some questions, yada yada yada, and came home with this eyeball."

So when the timing of the story gets goofy -- whether from not being able to know when the close of the scene is or from the action having taken place off-stage -- things can get kind interesting.

I'm sure there are other ways to play around with timing. You know that trick in third-person novels, right? The hero is about to be lowered into the pit of fire-breathing piranha terrorists and the next chapter is from another character's point-of-view on the other side of the world? Those thriller folks do this all day long.

What other "timing tricks" am I missing?

Do timing and point-of-view always hang out so closely together? Am I conflating the two?



Discount Noir -- tons of cool flash pieces including work from our own John McFetridge, Jay Stringer, and me, as well as many of our commenting people and readers.

8 Pounds -- an ebook collection from Chris F Holm, cover by John H Jacobs

Terminal Damage -- still scheduled for the end of the month, with an introduction from Jason Pinter and cover from Mr Jacobs, again

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Jeepers Peepers

I swear to God this isn't a post about the death of the PI novel.

But a few things--Dave's post about his old PI character, the end of fiction at the Thrilling Detective Website, and Brad Park's Shamus Award win--got me thinking about PIs. PI fiction is dear to my heart. Authors like Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Rick Riordan, SJ Rozan, Steve Hamilton, Sue Grafton, and of course Robert Parker are the ones who brought me into the mystery fold. For most of the 90s and early new millennium I didn't read many mystery books without a PI character. So even as I've branched out into other sub-genres and the PI as lead has fallen out of favor, I've followed it all with a keen eye. And one development I've been disappointed by is the rise of the newspaper reporter as hero.

Where the hell did this come from? Their industry is in the toilet, they have very little power to change things anymore, and what they do is mostly boring. Meanwhile, most of the "hot jobs" lists I see always list private investigator as a growing field. And why wouldn't now be a great time to be a PI? In this crappy economy police departments are underfunded and need all the help they can get. Marriages are on the rocks due to financial struggles and spouses are growing more paranoid. Those who still have jobs are under strict observation and new employees being brought in are subject to extensive background investigations. And a lot of people, desperate to escape the nightmare their life has become, are just disappearing without a trace. Add to that all of the repo work, eviction work, and bail enforcement work available it seems like a plum job. Yet the newspaper reporter is the rising hero.

I was happy to see, for once in many years, all of the Shamus nominees for Best Novel were true PI novels. But as you get into Best First (like Mr. Parks and his fine novel THE FACES OF THE GONE) and Paperback Original the line is hazier. Every year there seems to be at least two or three journalists nominated for PI awards. And you see them on the bestseller lists too. Jason Pinter, a great guy and a great writer, has done very well with his Henry Parker thriller series and the big monster success lately, the Steig Larsson books, are about a reporter. Even James Patterson has a character who is a former cop turned reporter.

What gives?

Meanwhile, the PI field is growing an expanding nicely under the radar. We have excellent books from across the pond from the likes of Declan Hughes, Russel McLean, and some fellow named Bruen. The PWA/ St. Martins Press contest has finally started picking winners outside of the cliched standard mold with exciting books like DRINK THE TEA and Michael Ayoob's great SEARCHING FOR MERCY. There's also a new Patrick and Angie book along with the trade appearance of Tess Monaghan in THE GIRL IN THE GREEN RAINCOAT. We've also got Lawrence Block's A DROP OF THE HARDSTUFF that digs back into Scudder's past. I wish Sean Chercover would write a new Ray Dudgeon book already and I still hold out hope that Stephen King will write a PI novel, but I'm happy with the field and look hopefully on it's survival. All we've got to do is get rid of these damn reporters...