Saturday, July 23, 2011

The History of Mystery by Max Allan Collins

Scott D. Parker

For folks like me, without the complete knowledge of mystery and crime fiction imprinted on our DNA or who came late to the mystery party, Max Allan Collins is a godsend. He has written The History of Mystery, a nice non-fiction book that traces the origins of crime fiction from the late 1800s until the 2000s. It's a large book, coming in at almost 12 inches square. That's perfect for what this book does best: present old paperback covers and movie art in a large canvas.

Starting with Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, Collins discusses how the Pinkerton Detective Agency's real exploits gave rise to the dime novels in the 1890s and 1900s. When I read this book, I didn't realize Nick Carter was such an old character. There is, of course, an entire chapter on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (natch) until you hit pay dirt: The Pulp Fiction Chapter. Here you've got gorgeous covers of the 1920s and 1930s: True Detective, Argosy, Detective Story Magazine, and, of course, Black Mask. All the main pulp characters are here: The Shadow, The Phantom Detective, The Spider, The Avenger, and others. As a reader, I drooled over all the livid covers of these great magazines. As a writer, I wised they were still being printed.

Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner each get their own sections. Cool and Lam even got an entire two-page spread complete with an original cover from Top of the Heap, the Cool and Lam story reprinted by Hard Case Crime.

Mystery comics are represented here. Besides the obvious Batman and Dick Tracy, there is Perry Mason (seriously?), The Saint, and Collins' own Ms. Tree, among others. Agatha Christie opens a two chapter section on cozier stories, including folks like Father Brown, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the books of John Dickson Carr. Charlie Chan lands here as does Lillian Jackson Brown's Cat stories.

Once you hit the 1950s and 1960s, this is where paperback characters (Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, etc.) and those wonderfully lurid paperback covers take over. Again, drool commences. The ends with a section on TV detectives (Rockford, Harry-O, Magnum, and Jessica Fletcher) and some modern authors (Estleman, Francis).

All in all, if you want a nice, short (under 200pp) book with lots of fabulous covers and rare artwork, this is a good book to have. It's a coffee table book. Buy it and just set it out as a conversation piece. You'll likely find a whole lot of other people who love this stuff, too.

Comics of the Week: DC's RetroActive 1970s. In a nice addition to throwback summer comics (think DC's Wednesday's Comics from two years ago, a gorgeous piece of neo-nostalgia), the company is putting out a series of one-shots with a particular decade as a theme. Along with the above-the-title tagline, "RetroActive," DC included the logo of said decade (70s, 80s, and 90s) as well as the then-logo of the title character. This week was the 1970s, and we got stories about the Flash, Batman, and Wonder Woman, complete in her white mod suit. Each book has a new story, written in the old style, and a reprinted story from the era. For all the sophistication of modern comic storytelling, there's just something fun about this old stuff.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Guest Post: PRETTY BOY FLAWED (by Lawrence Block)

(not by) Russel D McLean

I remember my dad giving me a book. This was when I was first getting into crime fiction. The book he handed to me was called 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE. "You'll love it," he said. "Its part of a whole series about a detective in New York." I was, admittedly, a little skeptical, already beginning to realise how certain crime novels could start to blend into each other. Then he said: "But while the crime's intriguing, really the whole series is about New York itself. And alcoholism." I was intrigued enough to look. And I was glad I did, because the Matthew Scudder books have been a huge influence on my own work and I remain, to this day, a fervent fan of the works of one Mr Lawrence Block.

Which brings me to today's guest post. I'm in Harrogate just now, living it up with the UK crime brigade, and so I thought I'd try and arrange a guest post. I didn't in a million years reckon that I'd be able to bag one of my favourite eye-writers to do it. But somehow, ladies and gentlemen, we have managed to procure for you a true legend of the crime writing world to do some damage this Friday. Of course, the man himself has admitted this post is not without its flaws, but I guess you're just going to have to read on to see what he means. So, ladies and gentlemen, without any further pre-amble (as I write this I'm late for my lift to Harrogate), I give you, Mr Lawrence Block:


By Lawrence Block

Critics and reviewers like to point out that the characters I write about have flaws. It’s not hard to see what they’re getting at. Matthew Scudder, the narrator and protagonist of seventeen novels to date, begins as a good two-fisted drinker, and by the fifth book he’s in the grip of full-blown alcoholism.

He sobers up, and not a moment too soon, but not getting plastered doesn’t make him a plaster saint. He’s had a few girlfriends over the years, though I have to say I was bemused when one reviewer spoke disparagingly of Scudder’s womanizing. Now that’s a hard enough word to use in any circumstances without sounding like a perfect twit, but I was appalled to hear it applied to Scudder. If I had to guess, I’d say that the lad who wrote those lines hasn’t been getting much.

Still, it’s true that the man cheated on his call girl girlfriend, Elaine, with his winsome widowed client, Lisa. Then he married the one and went on seeing the other. That’s a pretty serious flaw. And it seems to me there was something else, but what was it?

Oh, right. His best friend is a career criminal. And sometimes, when the law doesn’t appear to work as he thinks it should, he’s not above taking it into his own hands. A couple of times he’s killed people, and it hasn’t always been in self-defense, or in the heat of battle.

Or consider Bernie Rhodenbarr. He’s a nice enough fellow, literate and personable. Old ladies and dogs take to him, and he runs a secondhand bookstore, for heaven’s sake, and he’s even got a stubtailed cat named Raffles. You’d be glad to have him over for dinner, but afterward you’d count your spoons.

Because, see, the habit he can’t seem to break is one of letting himself into other people’s houses and stealing their things. He knows a lot about art and collectibles, and part of his knowledge includes where to sell it without having to furnish proof of ownership. He’s a burglar, for God’s sake, and he’s been one for ten books already, and if that’s not a flaw, what is?

Well, how about killing strangers for a living? That’s what Keller does. He’s been in four books so far, and the body count is really getting up there. Aside from that, he’s a pretty decent fellow, a sort of Urban Lonely Guy of assassins.

He winds up being a guilty pleasure for a lot of readers, who like him more than they think they should. Women in particular are crazy about Keller, and are ready to take him by the arm and pick out drapes, and names for their kids. Some of them try telling themselves that he only kills people who deserve it, but that’s not true at all. Hey, he’d kill you if somebody paid him to. (Well, not you, but that other lady over there. He’d never kill you.)

So it’s not as though I’m arguing that my protagonists are perfect beings, that they’ve built up enough good karma in countless reincarnations to be subsumed into the next world and absorbed into the infinite goodness of the universe. I don’t rule it out, but it strikes me as unlikely.

But does that make them flawed?

I’ll tell you, I don’t much care for that word. It suggests that they’d be much better off without these flaws, and we’d be better off ourselves for knowing them. Why, if only they managed to overcome these flaws, then they’d be perfect. And wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Matt’s already come a long ways, now that he’s given up the drink and made an honest woman of Elaine. And he hasn’t been catting around on her lately, or if he has he’s kept it to himself, so at least we don’t have to know about it. Now if only he could stop hanging out with that reprobate Mick Ballou. . .

And Keller. Why, all he has to do is fine another way to make a living. He’s a stamp collector, so why doesn’t he give up homicide for hire and set up shop as a dealer in rare stamps? It may seem like a tame life in comparison to his old profession, but there ought to be enough drama and excitement in the life of a professional philatelist to keep readers turning those pages.

And Bernie. He keeps telling us he knows stealing stuff is reprehensible and he yearns to give it up. Well, duh, what are you waiting for, Bern? Give it up! Run the bookstore. Go straight home after work instead of boozing it up at the Bum Rap with your pal Carolyn. And who knows, if you can set a good example by giving up burglary, maybe she’ll see the error of her ways and give up being a lesbian. I mean, the two of you could get married, you could have kids, you could move to Armonk and run the book business over the Internet. You’ll love it in the suburbs. All that fresh air, all those healthy people—you know what? It wouldn’t surprise me if Raffles the cat grows his tail back. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen?

Oh, I exaggerate, do I? After the publication of Bernie’s fourth adventure, The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, I got a copy in the mail from a disgruntled reader. “This is my last Burglar book,” the accompanying note advised me. “I find it unacceptable that, after four books, a presumably intelligent hero would not have grown enough to renounce his criminal ways and reform.”

Now I’m not generally quick to take umbrage, but there was an abundance of umbrage there for the taking, and I helped myself to a double armful of the stuff. “You mucking foron,” I wrote, approximately. “Either way it’s your last Burglar book, because if Bernie reforms the series is done.”

And who on earth wants to read about a perfect person? I haven’t come across too many in real life, but they turn up all too often in fiction, always doing the right thing, always taking the right path, always putting the needs of others ahead of their own. Empty suits is what they are, empty suits of armor. And untarnished in the bargain.

I don’t want to read about them. And I certainly don’t want to write about them, and couldn’t if I did. Because I wouldn’t know how.

But I still don’t like that word.


It makes my peeps sound defective. Like they’re somehow less than. Like there’s something wrong with them. Like they need fixing.

The hell with that.

Fortunately, there’s a better word. I had to get away from readers and writers to find it. So I went up to West Forty-seventh Street and walked amongst jewelers, and there I learned what the call the wee imperfection within a gemstone.

They call it an inclusion.

An inclusion! Isn’t that better? Isn’t it, like, tons better? Damn right it is. My characters don’t have flaws or blemishes or defects. They have inclusions.

They’re not missing anything. No, they’ve got something extra, something that puts them a step ahead of those flawless perfect nobody-home cardboard heroes.

They’ve got inclusions They’ve got what the other guys have, and more. Something additional. Something included.

Makes me proud of them, looking at ’em that way. Makes me want to sit down right now and start writing something about one of them. I’m not sure which one I’ll pick, and I might strike out in a new direction and embark on an adventure with a brand-new character. But if I do, I know one thing about him from the jump.

He’ll be a man with inclusions.


Lawrence Block’s most recent book is A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, a novel about Matthew Scudder, Man of Inclusions. In September Hard Case Crime will bring out as its first-ever hardcover original GETTING OFF, a novel of sex and violence, by Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson. Its heroine is an endearing young woman whose mission in life is to pick up men, go home with them, enjoy great and fulfilling sex with them…and then kill them. Some might say she has issues. LB says she’s got inclusions, and he loves her just the way she is.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer Reading List: Two Way Split

By Jay Stringer

I like to think I have my finger on the pulse. That's why today I'm reviewing a debut book by a hot Scottish talent. And don't just take my word for it, this book was chosen as Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year. In fact, the book won the award on this very day.

In 2007.

Finger. Pulse.

But no. Really. See, Two Way Split, by Allan Guthrie, has just hit the kindle. You can get it straight to your device right now for 0.99 of your pounds, or for 1.59 of your shiny dollars. Go ahead and read it, I'll wait right here.
Robin Greaves is an armed robber whose professionalism is put to the test when he discovers his wife has been sleeping with a fellow gang member. Robin plans the ultimate revenge, but things go from bad to worse when the gang bungles a post office robbery, leaving carnage in their wake. Suddenly they are stalked by the police, sleazy private eyes, and a cold-blooded killer who may be the only one not looking for a cut of the money…

As our two long time readers will know, I'm already a fan of Guthrie's work. To read one of his novels, or novellas, is to read a story that has an evil glint in it's eye and knows where you live. He has a talent for making you laugh and recoil at the same time, and that always keeps me coming back for more.

There's plenty to explore here for the long term fan. Like listening to the first demo recordings of your favourite band, it's the chance to see what has changed and what has been distilled. there's the same cracking dialogue, and the same glee in throwing together the mundane and the abnormal. There are the early signs of themes that have run throughout his work, such as family and trust, and knowing the exact right moment to end the story.

But this isn't a nostalgia trip I'm going on here. What struck me about the book was what a great primer it was for a first time reader, and what a lean and controlled book it was for a debut author. And, as much fun as it was to see how how his writing has changed, it was even more enjoyable to see how much he got right first time.

Two Way Split has one of my favourite opening lines, one that I've looked at many times when I've been struggling to get a story going;

"Four months and twenty-two days after he stopped taking his medication, Robin Greaves dragged the chair out from under the desk and sat down opposite the private investigator."

And there you go, you're into the story. It's not a line that's bursting to tell you the plot of the book, or to pull any fancy tricks. It doesn't even swear at you, which seems to be a popular trick. What it does, straight away, is give you an understanding of one of the main characters and the clear sense that somethings about to go wrong. It sets a clock ticking on the story without needing to blow anything up. That's classy writing.

He repeats the trick a couple of pages later, when introducing the character of Pearce;

"Winter in Scotland was far to cold to walk around bare-chested. That's why Pearce wore a t-shirt."

In two lines we have character, location and time. That, folks, is how it's done. More than any of his subsequent releases, there's something to these opening lines that reminds me of the clarity and rhythm of the first Parker novel, The Hunter, and of another good opening line;

"When the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell."

Stark is an interesting comparison point, because I'm always tempted to liken Guthrie's Pearce to Stark's Parker. But each time I think about it, I realise that their differences are more striking than their similarities. Pearce is only ever interested in the quiet life. He wants to live and let live, but he's not very good at it. He doesn't ask to get caught up in a stick up. All he wants to do is visit his mum, then maybe go home and listen to show tunes. Pearce is not so much an anti-hero as an anti-protagonist, hoping not to get caught up in another mess.

The real drive of the narrative comes from it's other main character, Greaves. In those opening lines we know that he's stopped taking his medication and that he's meeting with a private investigator. That's already telling us that he's in at least two different shades of bad. Then we find out that his wife is sleeping with his business partner, and that the three of them are planning to knock over a post office together. I'm not giving anything away in saying that the robbery goes wrong, because that's only the beginning. This isn't a story that attempts to keep a lot of plates spinning in the air, it's one that throws them all up at once and asks how loud the smash will be when they fall.

You wouldn't want to be around when all of these plot elements collide, but you will want to read about it.

If James M Cain wrote a heist story set in Scotland, the result would read a lot like Two Way Split. It's a book that sets the fuse on page one and then runs like hell, and you won't find a better debut crime novel. And did I mention that it ends in the perfect place? Oh, I did? Well, that's because it does. Keep an eye on this Guthrie fella, I think he might be a talent.

You can buy the book right now, here and here, and check Allan Guthrie's ebook blog here.

And you definitely want to check back here at DSD tomorrow. Trust me on that one.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Neighbourhood Crime

John McFetridge

A couple weeks ago my good friend Randy McIlwaine took me on a walking tour of his old neighbourhood of Point St. Charles in Montreal. Wikipedia describes the Point as, “ of Canada's first industrial slums,” and says that today it is still, “...considered the heart of Irish Montreal, with street names like Rue Saint-Patrick, Rue d'Hibernia, Place Dublin, and Rue des Irlandais testifying to its heritage.” There’s also Rue de Coleraine and for some strange reason Fortune Avenue and Rue de Paris.

When my grandparents arrived in Montreal from Northern Ireland in 1922 they settled across the Lachine Canal in Ville Emard, a mostly French and Italian neighbourhood. I have no idea why they didn’t settle in the Irish neighbourhood.

What I really noticed walking around the Point was how cut off it still feels from the rest of Montreal. It’s bordered by train yards and the Lachine Canal and, until recently, you even had to go through the Wellington Tunnel when leaving the Point. But more than the physical borders, the Point is a self-contained neighbourhood that hasn’t changed much. It’s still mostly Irish and there are still no chain businesses; no McDonalds or 7-11s or Starbucks or even Tim Hortons.

And that self-containedness of the Point figures in a true crime book I read recently, Montreal’s Irish Mafia by D’Arcy O’Connor and Miranda O’Connor.

According to the book, the Irish mob in Montreal, usually referred to as the West-End Gang, wasn’t a closed-off, hierarchal mob, it was more a loose organization of crooks who knew one another and worked together when they needed to. And they weren’t all Irish – the Canadian mosaic at its finest, I guess.

But the port of Montreal (world’s largest inland port), according to reports, has been controlled for years by Irish guys from the Point. And, according to Wikipedia (where would we be without the Wiki?), “Police estimate that over a 15 year span from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the gang trafficked more than 40 tons of cocaine and 300 tons of hashish, with an estimated street value of $150 billion.” Montreal was also the port of entry for the heroin in the famous ‘French Connection,’ ring.

Some of the old factories along the canal have been turned into condos but otherwise there really isn't much gentrification going on in the Point.

Probably every city has a neighbourhood like this and there’s probably some crime fiction set in most of them. Any favourites?

One more thing. My buddy Randy who gave me the tour is a cartoonist and has a book available for Kindle, Breaking the Scorn Barrier that’s very funny.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Top Five Crime Novels

Was looking through my old blog the other day and came across this post from 2007. I'm sure the list has changed since then (ok, it actually hasn't too much. Just might add a book or two), but it's an interesting list to check out, so I thought I'd share. What are some of you faves?

t's the summer. What better time for a list? I've been thinking about this lately because I'm thinking about the authors whose quality I strive for. So here you go.

In no particular order.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane: The ending of this book is what did it for me. Yeah, the twist you can see coming for at least a hundred pages, but the chapter after that is HAUNTING. It's stuck with me for over 4 years. I remember reading it on my couch in my parents' basement, finishing it and just sitting there creeped out. What a book.

Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman: This book is a book that I was just enthralled by. I read this book while I was student teaching in Paterson, and just going out to my car on my lunch break. I would sit there--barely eating--and just fly through this book for 40 minutes a day. I couldn't put this book down. Some of the best characters I've ever read.

Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski: The fact that this book was pushed back until the summer of '08 is very disappointing. I read the book in manuscript form and was just taken with it. I remember waking up in the morning and not being able to wait to get to my computer to continue it. An action packed, horror filled, funny book, it's simply amazing. Once this book is released it should be at the top of your TBR list.

Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker: One of the best PI novels I've ever read. Before Hawk, before the Susan Silverman relationship really bubbled over, Spenser takes on a case of blackmail involving the Boston Red Sox. Again, the ending, showing Spenser ability to be brutal when he's left with no other options.

L. A. Requiem by Robert Crais: He's written better (and worse) books since, but this was the novel that showed me what could be done in a PI novel today. It didn't have to be the PI just talking to random odd characters and then solving the case. It could be a fast paced thriller and at the same time get into the hearts of it's characters and finally tear them apart. A brilliant, risky novel.

HONORABLE MENTION: The Drowning Pool by Ross MacDonald: The first Lew Archer book I'd ever read (I'd seen Harper) gave me a hint of what the PI novel was really all about. The creepy child and hint of incest. The few actions scenes... including the memorable scene where the book gets it's literal title (there's a metaphorical one too)... I raced through this one and immediately went out and read most of the rest of MacDonald's books.

Your favorites?

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Resolution Conundrum

HOUSEKEEPING: Today starts the DSD Book Group discussion on FUN AND GAMES. Stop by and start your own thread or join an ongoing discussion.

By Steve Weddle

Holy Hell, am I tired of these pat endings in crime fiction -- particularly mysteries.

It's the resolution that bugs me. That little epilogue thrown up at the end where you get some Shakespearean double wedding and every loose end is tied up like a noose.

I should probably explain. I've been laid up with some sort of bubonic curse of a cold for a week (Don't you dare say "summer colds are the worst." I swear, I'm making a list and when I can stand upright for more that thirty seconds, everyone who has said that to me is going to get an elbow to the larynx.) I've had to forgo my normal self-medication routine of pills and Bushmills (Pills and Bushmills gimme the thrills and the chills, hoorah!!) and hand myself entirely over to Dr. Nyquil. So the incoherent rages that my psychiatrists and I have come to, what's the right word?, respect are now learning to fight their way through the five-times-a-day doses of doxylamine succinate. So, you know, bear with me.

As I mentioned on Joelle's post about focus, I've been working for months on a collection of stories. And I've decided that I don't like the way most stories end. See, they resolve. I'm thinking I hate that. You know, like you come to the end of this 5,000 word story and it's all pacing and tension and character development and then at the end you want to see the main character resolve the situation by Making The Bad Guys Pay or Finding The Lost Child. Or you learn who was pulling the strings. Or who was to blame for the banking disaster. Or you finally get the explanation for The Hero's Pain. It's like there's this feeling that everything must come to an end when you get to the last period. The reader must feel closure. The reader must know why things happened as they did.

Well, you know what? Fuck you. You don't get to know everything, asshole.

You don't get to see the hero get the girl. You don't get that closing that doubles back on something in the opening that ties it all together. Hell no. Sometimes the story just ends. You paid 99 cents for a collection and you're upset that a story didn't tie up everything like a shiny box of plastic crap on your tenth birthday? Too bad. Here's a nickel refund, champ.

Recently, when I twatted something about disliking pat endings, TommySalami linked up this great article on Chekhov's endings.

Here's the part I really dig:
Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have.  A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader continues the journey in the character’s stead.  I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.
Now, look. Comparing me as a writer to Anton Pavlovich Chekhov is like comparing, um, someone is who isn't so great at something to someone who fricking created the thing. (See what I mean. Totes QED and all, right?)

But I think that's what really bugs me the most. I mean, heck, I'm sure I've dug stories -- novels or shorts -- that tie everything up in a bow. Maybe it isn't a deal breaker. But where I think we start to fail as writers is when we forget that someone will be reading the story we're writing. I think it borders on a lack of respect for the reader, sort of saying "Here, let me explain this to you in small words." Maybe this works for some stories. Maybe some readers are idiots. Maybe they appreciate having everything handed to them so that they can close the book and think about how nice that was and then move on to mowing the yard or sorting coupons for Hamburger Helper.

But resolution is for sissies. The stories I'm really liking these days are those that are more open-ended, those that don't resolve that last chord.

I've been reading through THE NEW YORKER STORIES from Ann Beattie. She and Raymond Carver are often mentioned together as some sort of kindred souls. The endings of her stories are much like the various endings in Chekhov's. They end -- but they don't always resolve. And that is where the power lies. The reader isn't handed closure. The reader is more involved. More is asked of the reader when the ending is unresolved.

And, at the end of the page, that's what I want. I don't want a contained, compact experience that ends when I move on. I want a story that grabs hold of me for thousands of words, gnaws deeply into whatever is left of my soul, and won't let me move on. Anyone else?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Tunnel Vision

by: Joelle Charbonneau

What kind of writer are you? Are you the kind that starts several different projects before finally settling on one that you want to take to the end? Are you the kind that needs to write more than one project at once? Maybe you like writing short stories in between chapters of a novel to keep your perspective fresh.

I’m a writer with tunnel vision. I start a project and I need to get to the end of it before I can begin another. Sometimes I have an idea for a new project that I jot down a few ideas for before I put it to the side, but I always put it to the side. Because there is a story that I am telling and until I get to the end I feel incomplete. I need to get to the end.

Right now I’m 73,000 words into the new WIP. The end is in sight. Maybe a week to ten days left of writing before I get there. Which means I’m ignoring almost everything else on my to-do list to get to closer to THE END. Nap time with the tot never seems long enough. Going out to have fun seems like a chore. I pray that my editor doesn’t send edits for MURDER FOR CHOIR to me until after I am finished because I don’t want the distraction.

Yeah – I’m sick. I need some kind of vaccination against this driving need to finish this book. But I can’t help myself. I want to finish. Then I want to get to reading the whole thing and find out if it is any good.

Which makes me wonder if I’m the only one with this kind of drive when THE END is in sight. What kind of writer are you? What is your process as you write the novel and as you start to approach THE END? Do you creep toward the final pages dragging out the enjoyment of the process or do you barrel straight ahead? And once you are done finishing a book or a story – how do you celebrate the event?