Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Review: Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker

Scott D. Parker

(It's Spring Break and I ain't got anything earth-shattering this week--unless you count my defense of the new "John Carter" movie over on my personal blog. As such, I present a review of a book I quite enjoyed a year or two ago.)

In order to get a good handle on this book, you're going to have to use your imagination. Think of a celebrity chef, one that specializes in French cooking, but not one of those bombastic ones. Now, add a dash of detective, the old-school one from the golden age of the detectives. Not one of those obsessive compulsive detectives like Monk or Peroit, but a newer vintage. Now, set a story in the provincial countryside of France, mix well with a little dash of murder, a lot of good food, and you pretty much have an idea of the character of Martin Walker's Bruno, Chief of Police.

I don't particularly like the word "foodie" but that's the modern term for people who like food, the preparation of food, the discussion of food, and pretty much all things about food. Looks like a duck, walks like a duck, I guess that makes me a duck, or a foodie. So, when I received Walker’s book out of the blue last year from the publisher asking for me to review it, I had no idea who Walker was much less his character. But blurb at the bottom of the trade paperback cover sold me: "a nice literary pairing with the slow-food movement…" That's a quote from Entertainment Weekly, and, to paraphrase "Jerry Maguire," it had me at "slow-food movement."

Benoit Courreges is the chief of police in the small French Village of St. Denis. But to all the people in the village, Courreges is simply Bruno. He lives by himself in a restored farmhouse, he showers outdoors, he walks around the village every day, and the hardest part of his job, as the book opens, is helping all the purveyors of the various traditional French food markets avoid being fined by the European Union's food investigators. Along the way, Bruno extols the virtues of good coffee, good food, where to get the best truffles after the rain, and the languid life of a country policeman.

Enter into this pastoral scene a murder. The victim is an elderly Algerian war hero, who fought for the French in Germany in 1945 and later in Algeria. What makes the murder of Hamid particularly offensive is the swastika carved into his chest. Seeing as he is an immigrant, the local villagers began to suspect that the murder was an ethnic killing. Naturally the politicians see opportunity and descend on St. Denis like ants at a picnic. French-born residents of the village don't like all the attention paid to their small little town, and start to chafe against all the unwanted attention. Naturally, it's up to Bruno and the national police, including one young female policewoman, Isabelle, to solve the murder and avoid any political difficulties. And, since we’re in France, a budding romance blossoms as well with all the shadowed delicacy of Bruno’s former life as a soldier in Bosnia brought to the fore.

Walker is the senior director of the Global Business Policy Council and formally worked for the Guardian of Great Britain. The historian part of me relished all of the intricate details about France during World War II, the deep-seated animosity between the Vichy French and De Gaulle’s group, the immediate post-war period, the Algerian war, and the war in Vietnam before the French left in 1954. The history aspect is a gift, but there is one better: the food. It's a rare day when I can read a book and start a hankering for the food that the characters are eating, but it happened all the time and this book. The descriptions are so good that you can hear the bread crust crunching under your fingers, you can smell the yeasty goodness that only comes from French countryside bread, making your mouth water with lust. He even makes the water—the water!—sound like the sweetest thing you'll ever taste on the Earth.

I’ll say this about the book, though it's not really a criticism, but it has to be noted. The book has a languid pace. If the cover blurb references the slow-food movement, you could almost call this a slow-mystery book. Not a lot happens on the surface, but a lot happens just below the surface. This is a book filled with nuance, and subtle characterizations that I've found very appealing. You go into various online sites—including, where I downloaded the audio book—and you'll find comments from some reviewers that state the book was boring. One man's languid is another man's boring. I didn't find the book boring in the least, but, then again, I love food. So during the times when the mystery part of the book stopped, the characters were usually talking about food, something I enjoyed. If you are a reader who doesn't like discussions of French food and its preparation, or if you like your mysteries to possess a more rapid pace, Bruno, Chief of Police might not be the book for you. Rather, if you enjoy all those BBC productions we get here in the States via PBS, glorious descriptions of food, and a character that has enough of a complicated back story that makes me, at least, want to know more, I recommend this book.

You could almost call this a summer book since the story takes place in the summer and the descriptions and actions bring to mind one of those bright, Mediterranean Monet paintings. This book is like a brochure at a travel agency: it makes you want to visit France. You can, with Bruno as your guide. You just can't eat the food.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Batman's Politics

By Jay Stringer

I wrote last week about how I like to let the reader do as much work as I can get away with. Create the looks and sounds of things in their heads based on a few hints on my page. It brings to mind something that we all do; we project ourselves into characters. No matter what the author has out on the page, we, the reader, have free reign to imagine whatever we want.

How many times have we read a character description but decided to stick with an image we have in our mind that's a little different? How many times have you read a James Bond novel and spent a little time wondering which Bond actor you're going to cast in this story, or whether you're going to go with Fleming's original description?

I like to call this element of readers licence 'Batman's Politics' because, really, we see what we want to see.

I've had discussions with people who want to argue that Batman is the ultimate lefty; liberal of spirit but militant of fist, standing up for the poor and downtrodden, progressive. He hates guns. He's against capital punishment. He believes everybody should have a second chance, and he gives up on nobody. He helps little old ladies across the road and he votes for the nicest, wooliest candidates come election day because, really, he just wants a world where everyone is equal and everybody gets along, free of crime and death.

I've had conversations with people who want to argue the exact opposite. Batman is "one of the 1%" He lives in a mansion on the hill. He believes in strong responses to crime, and is only ever an army away from being a fascist dictator. He's a rich man who beats up poor people. Does he stop to ponder what social context has led a criminal to be on the end of his fist? No, he gets on with the punching. His crusade isn't based on making the world better for humanity, it's based on the fact that he's a spoiled rich kid who's angry at his parents.

But think what you will, the story doesn't change. Batman's politics never play a part. He goes out each night, and we get a story, and his political or social leanings can be whatever the reader wants them to be.

Would characters like Batman be as huge, as adaptable and as long-lived if there wasn't that wriggle room? There have been characters like Mr. A, The Question & The Punisher who all seem to have a clearer political stance, and who are all arguably more believable than a man whose response to trauma is to dress as a bat, yet they've never had the enduring appeal of the dark knight. Aside from all issues of media proliferation, could an element of it not be down to the phenomenon of 'Batman's Politics'? He is whatever you want him to be, and in that way, he's everybody's character.

I realised that when I was younger, I would fill the gaps in these characters with myself. Batman, Bond, whoever. They would deep down agree with me on almost all things, it was just that they were better at stuff. But as I got older I stopped doing this, and I tried to let them be themselves. Bond was allowed to be a jerk, Batman was allowed to be a control freak, Daredevil was allowed to be deeply religious.

As a writer now, it's fun to play with these things. To look at it as you're writing and to decide which bits you're happy to leave blank for the readers to fill in, and, more, to see if you control the craft enough to decide when the reader can and can't do it.

These are just some of the random thoughts going through my head on a Wednesday night.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Winston: New tool for publishers

By Steve Weddle

Many years ago, my wife and I would wake in the middle of the night, startled by a strange clicking noise we couldn’t place. Thin and sporadic, the clicks would advance and retreat through the darkened bedroom before either of us was awake enough to triangulate the aural attacks.

As it turned out, our DirecTV box was dialing home, through the phone line, to update the computers at DirecTV with, I imagine, what show we watched, whether we skipped commercials, how to reconcile our Nielsen journal of “Masterpiece Theatre marathons” with the box’s record of non-stop SportsCenter.

A wonder, then, that it’s taken this long for someone to develop Winston, a data collection tool for ebooks. The software, what they’d call “malvera” in Esperanto or “unecht” in German, was developed by Sidd Finch Enterprises with one goal in mind: making better books.

Here’s how Winston works. As of April 31, 2012, all ereaders will have the plug-in installed. From that moment on, all publishers will have access to your reading data for each ebook. When you started the book. How long you spent on each page. Where you stalled.

Imagine how great future books will be once publishers begin utilizing this information.

For example, say you purchased a book called FUNERAL DREAMS and downloaded it immediately to your ereader. But instead of reading that book when you got home that night, you played Words With Friends. Or you farted around on Facebook. Imagine now a publisher being able to prompt you with pop-up reminders. *Bop!* When you’re done with Facebook, don’t forget to read FUNERAL DREAMS, a book your Facebook friend Toni McShae gave four stars!

Publishers have been working at a great disadvantage for a long time. Think about the books you’ve bought but never read, started but never finished. Think about all those authors you’ll never buy again. Why? At what point in the book did you leave?

Maybe you gave a book 25 pages to get going. Maybe you got through the first-person narrative of Part One, but gave up during the plodding third-person Part Two. Maybe you got hung up scrolling through footnotes of a nonfiction book, flipping back and forth to the index.

Imagine how much publishers can learn from your reading habits.

Perhaps they can offer up new versions of books once they find out that 27% of readers stalled out during a particularly slow section of the latest coming-of-age novel.

Or publishers can compare your reading of books. Maybe you speed through light sci-fi, finish the read, then click to buy the next edition. Maybe publishers will determine this is where they need to focus more of their debut novelist dollars.

Maybe you only read established authors, more likely to read two dozen books in a series you like than to try a new author from the bookstore’s similar algorithms.

Once you’ve bought the book, the publishers need to know what works for you and what doesn't, so that they can continue to make books like that, books that sell.

Imagine the report that says you were reading a screen every three minutes for the first 100 screens, then when the lasers started or the zombies attacked or the puppy was dognapped, you went to a screen a minute and didn’t let up until it was over.

Imagine how much information a publisher would be able to get from your habits and how much more sellable all the books could become.

As an author, how great would it be for you to get an email from your publisher, detailing where people stopped reading your book. Maybe you and the editor could then work on revamping the book, putting out a second "Winston Approved" edition that merges a couple of characters or adds in more vampyres. Maybe you could take what you learned from readers' approaches to your book to alter how you write the second book in the series.

There is a reason McDonald’s sells billions of hamburgers and Joe’s Hipster Burger sells a hundred – you know exactly what you’re getting from McDonald’s. You’re getting the same burger you had for lunch last week. Readers are sophisticated. They know what they want. And if your police procedural drags in the second act, they'll leave you for another author just like you, only better.

Imagine how lucrative publishing will become once the information from Winston begins to be used. It’s a brave world, folks. And speaking of BRAVE NEW WORLD, if you read that one at a screen every half-minute, Winston suggests you’ll like BRAVE NEW WORLD: NEW MOON.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Whole Free Thing

So I had a pretty good week.

First off, my wife and I finally closed on our house and moved in. To celebrate, I played around with Witness to Death and made it free for a few days.

And the book did better than I ever could have expected. Over the span of a week, the book was downloaded over 25,000 times. Meanwhile, when it returned to costing money, it got into the top 100 in both the US and the UK. It's sold so many copies this week, that I've nearly doubled the copies sold.

So, while I'm sitting here, surrounded by half empty boxes, I wanted to take a moment and thank you all for your help. WITNESS TO DEATH is in the hands of more people than I could have ever imagined.

Hope you all enjoy it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why I decided to publish Plastic Soldiers by WD County

When Spinetingler publisher WD County's story My Name is Priscilla in 2010 I was stunned that we were his first publishing credit. A story this assured can't be a first credit, can it? It was.

When I sent out invitations to submit a story to Snubnose for the Speedloader anthology all of the names were well known ones from the short crime fiction scene. I knew I had to invite County. That's how much of an impression his story made.

There is no way in hell that the power of "My Name is Priscilla" could prepare me for the story that he sent me.

The moment I finished reading "Plastic Soldiers" I knew I was going to publish it. I just had to.

"Plastic Soldiers" is the darkest story I've ever read. It's a story that physically makes you uncomfortable while drawing you in with it's power.

When Speedloader was released it received largely positive reviews and County's story was singled out as one of its best. It's the kind of story that you never forget and becomes a favorite (if that is the right word).

-Absolutely. Fucking. Terrifying. A story about a horrific situation and one kid’s fight for survival, and even though I never want to read it again, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Stories don’t have to be pretty to be awesome. Sometimes they can be downright brutal.

-I've never read anything so intense in my entire life. I may never again....this is almost a perfect piece of fiction...This is in my top five of all-time, too.

-It's a painful story to read, horrible is more the word. but it is now and will remain in my top five list forever. As will that cover, I couldn't see the damn thing for a long time because my eyes were and are clouded with tears. You cannot read Plastic Soldiers without experiencing every emotion there is in the human lexicon. It is as I said, a story that is horrible in content . . . but it's also a testiment to pure bravery and an indomitable human spirit. It speaks to most everything that is evil in the worst of us and the pure good in the best of us. Plastic Soldiers is so layered with tragedy and triumph that it is impossible to read without being moved to complete desolation and complete joy at the same time. If dogma keeps anyone from reading this work, they will be the poorer for what they've missed.

County manages to pack a novel’s worth of pain and desperation and hope into five of the most compelling pages you will ever read.

That's why I decided to publish "Plastic Soldiers".

The artist for Speedloader was so inspired by the story that he did an alternate cover image based on it.

"Plastic Soldiers" was introduced a big talent to the crime fiction community who are all waiting anxiously to see a WD County novel.

For the first time in my life as a publisher I find myself in the position of thinking that I published the best story of the award regardless of what the various award nominees say. It's a weird place to be in.

Dear Mr County: Should you ever, and I mean ever, decide to go the epublishing route for one of your novels please consider Snubnose Press again.


I just finished reading Zombie Bake-off by Stephen Graham Jones and it is a holy crap, must read book.

Currently reading: The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson, Ishmael Toffee by Roger Smith, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, submissions for Snubnose

Currently listening: Heartless Bastards:

And I finally put aside unfairly preconceived notions and realized that I like Ray Lamontagne:

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Please welcome our special guest Mike Cooper

Drone Tech: Wicked Powerful

Mike Cooper

Today's guest is author Mike Cooper, whose novel Clawback has just been released by Viking. He's incredibly tall, super talented and the older brother of the lovely Sophie Littlefield. Please make him feel at home here at DSD and go read his book! You'll thank me when you do. Take it away Mike!


I write thrillers, among other genres -- the fast-paced sort, with cutting edge technology. Keeping up with new gear can be a problem, given publishing cycles: describe a fancy new iPhone in your draft, say, and by the time the book comes out, it's three versions old.

That's why there aren't any quadcopter drones in my current novel ... but there sure will be in the next! Private UAVs are astonishingly capable, more so every day, and interesting not just to thriller writers. If you're at all concerned about your every move being monitored by a crowd-sourced panopticon, you ought to pay attention to these remarkable devices.

For one thing, they're agile. Look at these two, playing autonomous ping-pong:

For another, they're smart. Or they can be programmed to appear so, which is maybe good enough. The next video shows a swarm of quadcopters flying in formation:

Or this set, playing the James Bond theme.

The point is, these little drones are incredibly capable and fairly cheap. If you don't want to build one yourself, a few hundred bucks buys one right off the internet.

The next obvious step is to attach a video camera, which most of these do. Now you've got a surveillance drone of your very own! Curious about your neighbors? The local police station? Your competitor's factory, behind its razor-wire fence? With your micro eye-in-the-sky, anything can now be seen. The following Nightline clip shows just what you can do. Starting at about 0:48, you can see video shot by a realtor, showing million-dollar estates he's trying to sell:

Sure, he had permission to fly his tri-rotor through the mansion -- but it would be easy enough to get almost as close without permission. Illegal, probably, but that's not a big deterrent. Certainly not to a typical thriller protagonist, who's always ignoring bureaucratic pettifoggery anyway.

Hobbyists are also building larger UAVs, including a repurposed Army drone (they replaced the gas engines with electric motors) that can hack wifi and cellular networks from the sky.

Don't count on the government to continue restricting unmanned aerial vehicles in the US. The FAA, which has strict regulation on the use of public airspace, has issued hundreds of waivers allowing government agencies to fly drones over US soil. And Congress recently ordered that drones be allowed more freely into civilian airspace by 2015.

Backyard nude sunbathers, beware.

Apart from the privacy issues, are these drones safe? Even skilled operators can lose control -- like in Texas recently, when a sheriff's deputy crashed a police UAV right into a SWAT truck. Amateurs and DIY-ers might or might not be more competent, but if nothing else, short battery life (15-20 minutes is typical flight time) will surely lead to unexpected hard landings.

Devices like these are only going to get smaller and quieter, with longer battery life and better optics. Combined with facial recognition technology -- also improving by leaps and bounds -- "Big Data" analytics, and ubiquituous computing, physical anonymity is very nearly a relic of the dead past.

But quadcopters definitely do belong in the next novel.

Mike Cooper is the pseudonym of a former jack-of-all-trades. Under a different name his work has received wide recognition, including a Shamus Award, a Thriller nomination, and inclusion in BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010. His next novel CLAWBACK will be published by Viking in 2012. Mike lives outside Boston with his family. More at