Saturday, September 29, 2012

"Elementary" - A Review

I love Sherlock Holmes. Let's get that out on the table. Ever since I first discovered him back in the early 1980s when I took a paperback of the Adventures and Memoirs on a trip to Alaska, I've fallen under the spell of the famous detective. In these recent years, it's been a great time to be a fan of Mr. Holmes. You have the Robert Downey films (that I enjoy), the excellent novel, The House of Silk, by Foyle's War creator, Anthony Horowitz, the "I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere" podcast, and, most recently, "Sherlock," the excellent revamping of the Holmes and Watson characters in 21st Century London. With Holmsian material being enjoyed by so many, naturally American broadcasters wanted to cash in the action.

Thus, we now have "Elementary," the new series on CBS that debuted this past Thursday. In this one, the detective is played by Jonny Lee Miller, a British actor most famous to us Americans as the man who played the title role in the short-lived, fun show, "Eli Stone." Naturally, with this show's most obvious rival being BBC's "Sherlock," Miller will be compared to Benedict Cumberbatch (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Robert Downey). He will also find comparisons with Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, and my favorite *traditional* Holmes, Jeremy Brett. Rest assured that, in this series, Miller does Holmes well.

I put emphasis on the word "traditional" because that is where fans will diverge. Miller's series is set in New York City. Yes, he's still British, but much of the "usual" things that surround him are different, starting with his partner, Watson. Yes, it's a woman. No, it's not the same. Yes, that's a good thing. To spice things up a bit--and to bring in the female demographic--"Elementary" cast Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, Holmes's "sober companion". The thing that gets these two characters together is Holmes's recent "graduation" from rehab. His parents--alive in this version--hire Watson to basically live with and babysit Holmes for six weeks. Thus, the conceit: she must follow him to his place of business. It just so happens that his place of business is a crime scene.

Now, I know what the traditionalists are going to say: that Watson is a woman changes the fundamental dynamics of the relationship. Of course it does! But that's the point. This is a fresh take on the character in a new surrounding with a new partner. Ah, but the "Sherlock" fans will say the same thing, pointing to their male Watson (the fabulous Martin Freeman), and suggesting that their update is more true to the canon. Of course it is. That's the point of that show: take the canon and bring it up to 2012. The point of "Elementary" is different: put Sherlock Holmes in a typical TV police procedural and see what happens.

I found myself liking many things about the premiere episode. The chemistry is palpable between the two leads, especially as the hour wore on. You've got your standard assessment period where they both try things to test the other. Where Watson, naturally, assumes Holmes is a recovering drug addict, she is slow to realize that his substitute is the case work. Once she does, she sees Holmes in a new light. Where Liu's Watson shares common ground with all her male predecessors is her love of adventure. She quickly sees how the questions posed by the case prove to be a stimulant she didn't know she wanted. You saw that eye nod to Holmes as she notices a clue? She's into it. It's nice to see her choosing to help Holmes in her own, unique medical way.

Of all the little things I liked--the violin music; having the police foil be Gregson rather than the typical Lestrade; Gregson's nod to Columbo with his "one more thing" line; Holmes's near nod to Star Wars with his "wretched hive" line; that the killer doesn't have a monologue like in most every other police show--the one I loved the most is that Miller's Holmes came across as human. In the Doyle books, Holmes is all but a machine, a man who knows he's vastly smarter than anyone else and doesn't really hide the fact. Cumberbatch's Holmes does the same thing, Downey not as much. Miller's Holmes seems almost sad a few points, like when he finds the safe room in which lies the dead body. But as the show goes on and Watson keeps coming back to Holmes's initial deduction about her, she tries to chip away at his truths. It goes on like this until he blurts out the actual truth…but then rapidly tells her that he made up his initial deduction to spare her feelings. I loved this. No, it is not traditional, but it is modern. Now, not every modern thing is good, but I really liked this aspect of Holmes the man. In the books, you get the sense that Holmes does his job because he wants the mental stimulation. In "Elementary," Holmes is actually using his gifts to find the killer and put him away. That's great.

There are things I found odd--beekeeping as an obvious nod to the canon that, in this one episode, seems out of place; the cops discounting the overturned washing machine as an example of cops being dumb; the opera scene as a bit of funny, yet contrived theater--but they pale in comparison to all that they got right or fresh. Think about it: Holmes's parents are alive! Let the fantasy casting begin. Holmes has sex. Holmes had women troubles in London (who's going to bet it's a variation of Irene Adler?). That Holmes gets his clue from watching a bit of professional wrestling on TV in a bar. And that, in the closing moments, the episode ended with the strains of Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives," a song I hear each week on PBS's "The History Detectives."

There is way more than I expected that is good about this series after one episode and I'm excited about next week. For me, it's a keeper.

Did anyone else give the show a look? What did y'all think?

Friday, September 28, 2012

Its all relative...

By Russel D McLean

Its not spoiling anything about my novels to say my protagonist, J McNee, has killed a man. After all, the first book opens with a line that tells us as much.

But McNee has his reasons for doing so. Whether or not you agree with his actions, he is justified within his own mind as to what he did. I'm not sure even I agree with him entirely, but then that's not my job as an author.

Too many crime novelists inject a kind of judgement on their characters. The authorial voice present within the novel judges and condemns certain actions, layers a certain morality on top of the work that more often than not is of a very traditional kind.

But one of the joys of crime fiction is that it allows us to ask questions. Moral questions. Ethical questions. Questions of relativity. And while it is tempting to raise these questions in order to answer them, I think that its a poor novelist who does so absolutely. After all, fiction is a conversation between the work and the reader, and while the author may have certain goals in mind, if they start whacking the reader over the head with their own assumptions it weakens the novel.

That's not to say that its easy to allow your characters to develop their own moral compass. In early drafts of THE GOOD SON, McNee was far more liberal than he is in the final drafts. In fact he went so far as to refuse to carry a gun when one was offered to him. He rose above the level of the men he was going up against and went to that fatal confrontation unarmed.

Until one of my early readers pointed out that McNee was bringing "a cricket bat to a gun fight" and that McNee would be dead within a moment.

So how to get round it?

The answer was easy: stop imposing my own morality on McNee. After all, I would not carry a gun. Yes, I have fired a gun before, but I remain in favour of strict gun control.

And McNee might feel the same on one level, but on another it made sense for him to accept the gun and take it to this confrontation. And, in the end, to use it.

It opened up a whole side to the character I had never seen before. It made him more complex. More importantly, it made the narrative more complete in terms of morality, because McNee's actions were no longer simply moral in the traditional sense, but were situationally so. He made a decision that may have been best for getting him out of one situation, but which would bring more complexity to his life and his own conscience.

Morality in crime fiction novels is up for debate. What is the right thing to do in a situation that is utterly removed from the everyday? Will your decisions have unforseen consequences? How do you live with those decisions?

I don't like to offer answers in my fiction, or to impose any sense of my own judgements onto my narrative. I have my own personal ones, but I like to use characters to explore issues of moral relativity. To show how morality and ethical behaviour can be fluid within people, can be truly situational. This is easier to do when you have a protagonist who is not in a position of moral authority (such as an appointed investigator or policeman) but someone who can act outside of protocols and ideals of others, who can form their own morality and whose behaviour can be fluidly affected by the situations in which they find themselves.

McNee does not reflect my own morality. But he helps me to explore it. I would no longer impose my own sense of ethics upon him. Because to do so would be cheating. But he helps me to see other points of view, to understand another way of seeing the world. This is something that I think all fictional characters do to a degree, to both readers and writers. To read or write about a character is not to read or write about ourselves, but to see how others act and react, to try and understand them. Of course, fiction should be entertaining as well, but entertainment also allows us to gain new perspectives on the world in ways we might not even always consciously realise.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Writing Inside-Out

By Jay Stringer

One from the vault this week. For very much the same reason I mention in the first paragraph of this post. This was first posted on DSD way back in 2009.

I’ve been trying to crack a story lately. I’m working on a manuscript and, while I know I’ll manage to beat it into submission eventually, I’m still at the point where I haven’t quite cracked the heart of the story. But while I'm thinking about it, I’m realising a few things about my tastes.

I like writers that go inside-out.

What I mean is the emotion.Something Dave has touched on before. I need to get into the emotions before everything else falls into place. I’ve found a problem with all genres, but one I notice more in crime, is that not enough writers really tackle issues like grief or loss.
Sure, loneliness and isolation get used- but often more as short hand for establishing a moody character. These are some of the key emotions that we all experience, and if a writer shies away from those, what do they have to build on when they want to tackle things like love or hope? In a genre that is built on dark deeds, marginalisation and death, the emotional fall-out of these things seems all to easy to overlook.

I’m generalising, of course. For every writer that I’ve just tarred with that brush, there are many more who deal with emotions. Reed Farrell Coleman built a whole PI series -the Moe Prager books- out of loss, grief and melancholy. Ken Bruen at his worst can do more with grief and guilt than I could do in a lifetime at my best. Our very own Russel D McLean’s The Good Son was a book that tackled these things head on, that actually managed to build a plot on top of emotion.

An example of what I mean is in my first book. As I looked at where the story was headed on my last rewrite, I realised that I let the death of a teenager pass without any real sense of loss. So I stared at the screen until my forehead bled, trying to write a funeral. It wasn’t working. I’ve been to enough of them, I know what happens and when. But every time I started to write the scene, that’s all it became; a report of what happened and when.

Then, by chance, I wrote about the flowers on the coffin. I realised that some of those flowers would have been placed there by the boys’ mother, and bam….emotion. Writing the scene was easy from there; I had a way in. Once I had that one emotion on the page, the other followed, a broken heart and a bruised ego makes its way into the chapter. Anger bustles its way in. And just like that, a dull and lifeless scene became a chapter that managed to sum up each issue I was trying to get across in the book.

And thinking about all this recently has made me realise that this is what I look for in writers. All writers, be they films, novels, songs, comics, bleach bottle labels….

I often try and explain to friends that I need music to hit me in the heart and the gut before the head. I’m a lyrics man, no doubt, always have been. But they have to get me emotionally. If your song needs to be thought about before it can be felt, it’s not going to stick with me.
And that comes from an economy of words, I think. A real writer is one who can break your heart with the fewest words possible.

I’ve wasted many thousands of words online trying to explain what it is I love about Paul Westerberg. His lyrics get me into the heart of an emotion in a matter of seconds. He doesn’t need a whole song; he can do it with a flick of his words;

“How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine? How do you say ‘Goodnight’ to an answering machine?”

Boom. Loneliness. Guilt. Love. Loss. Heartbreak. In two lines. THAT is writing.

“The Bridegroom drags you cross the room, you said ‘I do,"
but honey you were just a kid, your eyes say ‘I did.’ "

Again. Right into the heart of it, a whole story told straight away.

Springsteen, too, has become a master at it. His early albums were full of words. Free and easy, jangling guitars and rhyming dictionaries in flames. Then he seemed to get a little darker, a little older and he found focus the way some people find religion. He crafted his sentences, stripped away at them like a hardboiled writer until he became the most effective storyteller to ever pick up a telecaster.

“To the dead it don’t matter much, about who’s wrong or right.
You asked me that question, I didn’t get it right.”

Slipped into the middle of a rock song, hidden away amidst other songs that got scrutinised for any political meaning, was the simplest assessment of a foreign policy. And more than that, it was done through regret and a sense of loss, rather than anger or blame. Or how about one of the few moments in song that matches Folsom Prison Blues for getting to the heart of darkness;

“They wanted to know why I did what I did,
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”

Sometimes a total lack of emotion can be just as pure as any hatred or love. Here, a cold blooded killer looks you in the eye and tells you he killed innocent people for no real reason. Chilling. Terrifying.

How about our man Waits? Natural born storyteller. Look at this little turn of phrase and see how complete a story can be told with a throwaway line;

“It’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.”

Okay, okay. Everybody writes about Westerberg, Springsteen and Waits. This is true. But some clichés are still important. It doesn’t stop with them, though. There’s a songwriter by the name of Ben Nichols, the front man of Lucero, who I think is well worthy of attention.

“When this world was made, it was never meant to save everyone in kind.
I don’t believe God much had me, had me much in mind.”

I’ll be returning to Ben in future to look at his album, The Last Pale Light In The West. But back to today, it seems somewhat counter intuitive to love such economy. I mean, if a story can be told with 12 words, why read a book that takes thousands? Well, different mediums have different strengths, but the principle holds true. There’s an old joke that a gentleman is someone who can play jazz guitar but doesn't. Along those lines, I think a great writer is someone who doesn’t put too many words into a sentence.

All of the writers that really stay with me are the ones who can get me into the very heart of the story. As I've already said, going for the pure driving emotion of the scene and writing inside-out. Why? I don't know. I've written before about how comic books taught me to read, so maybe it comes from that. Maybe its because I'm dyslexic, and its a survival instinct -the fewer words there are, the more chance I have of getting the point. Maybe it's just because the sky is blue, I don't know.

How about you guys? Who does this for you?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Welcome Our New Robot Authors

By Steve Weddle

If you're like most writers, you probably like to sit in the basement, passing gas, and playing "When Did I Eat That?" all morning.

That leaves very little time for writing.

Lucky for you that Combinatorial Publishing is now a thing.

All you need to do is to come up with a topic. Already, a sizable number of books exist concerning Snooki. Also, shark attacks. Archaeology. Here are some of their best sellers.

After some thought, I decided that there are too few books about a certain subject, so I created my own book --

I typed in that, then clicked a thing and voila:
Your search terms have been submitted to Nimble Combinatorial Publishing and the e-book is being built now.  If the alpha system understands the search correctly, the book will appear in the catalog after review by the publisher, typically within 24 hours.  In future, notification of status will be provided and appearance in the catalog will be nearly immediate.

So, I'll soon be a non-fiction author, I guess. 

Here's more on Nimble Books and CEO Fred Zimmerman, via the Boston Globe:
Zimmerman’s company, Nimble Books, is a small part of an industry that looks set to balloon. At its most vulgar, auto-generated content is used to churn out Web pages whose only purpose is to snag online searchers and drum up advertising. On a more substantive level, outfits like Narrative Science and Automated Insights are producing computer-generated articles on everything from Little League baseball to Wall Street trends. There are even efforts underway to produce automated snark, to cover the blog market.
But Nimble Books is something else—and the difference isn’t simply a matter of degree. A culture does not define itself by its ability to accurately portray box scores or stock movements. Our books, though—these are supposed to be the things that elevate us, that endow us with meaning. It’s hard to see where “Shark Attacks” fits into the literary canon. “Do we even know what a book is any more?” says Calvin Reid, senior news editor at Publishers Weekly. “It changes all the time.”

Right now, it seems, the Nimble Books software runs to Wikipedia and grabs some information. The idea, though, is that it will run around the internet, picking up pieces of information on your topic, then plop them into an ebook for sale.

By the way, Forbes also had a lovely article about the idea.

Right now, this seems mostly a non-fiction kind of thing.

Of course, fiction authors have had to do this the hard way, copying and pasting passages from Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum together, trying to make sense of them. I wonder how we can capitalize on this so as not be required to write anything original.

Take, for example, the recent spate of Public Domain Literature PLUS Monster story -- Jane Eyre and the Romulans, Sense and Sensibility and Salamanders, on and on. These authors have been forced to come up with their own salamander portions of the books. How 20th-century!

Imagine being able to type in a few book titles -- Moby-Dick, Harry Potter, 50 Shades -- and having a freshly derivative novel to sell.

These could be cheap, gimmicky books. As Zimmerman has pointed out, these books cost a couple of cents to put together. Even if, for some reason, the fiction books cost a little more, you'd still be able to make money from writing.

So, even if the book were to cost a nickel produce, you could sell it on Amazon for a dollar and, even with Amazon's thirty-cent cut, you'd be ahead.

No more writing novels that only you and your agent see. No more writing your fancy "linked stories" and waiting for the Pulitzer.

This is the path to publication. As the noted book-salesman John Locke said, you don't have to write good books. You just need to write entertaining books.


Speaking of entertaining books, friend of the blog Chris F. Holm had his second Sam Thornton book, THE WRONG GOODBYE, come out this week.

I've said that these books from Holm read like Jim Butcher meets Charlie Huston. I stick by that. There's this gritty, noir telling of a fantasy story, but the telling itself is so real, so palpable and engaging. Here's my Amazon review of the first one in the series, DEAD HARVEST.

And the second one, THE WRONG GOODBYE, really cranks it up a notch, especially the demons in a cave section. You'll want to get the book.

My guess is this will be one of the last really good books before the world is over-run with robot-generated novels.

Interestingly enough, THE WRONG GOODBYE is published by Angry Robot Books.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Lost Fastball

By Dave White

I still watch HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

Last week, I talked about watching THE NEWSROOM and sticking with it even though I didn't love all the choices the characters made. I said I liked the voice.

Not true with HIMYM. That was a show I genuinely loved. It played with time, much like Steven Moffat's COUPLING, to give payoffs to jokes you didn't see coming or give the audience a different way to look at the characters. It had honest "in your twenties" moments and the chemistry between the cast was great.

Over the last 2 seasons or so (maybe even more), the show has lost its fastball. Like Randy Johnson on the Yankees. It's still capable of a quality moment here or there, but I don't laugh at it as consistently as I used to. But I can't give it up.

Lots of reasons why: It's comforting and mindless for a Monday night. I want to know who the mother is. And the chemistry between the cast is good.

On the other hand, I have given shows up. THE OFFICE is one most recently.

Once Jim and Pam got together and had a kid, I felt like it ran out of things to do. I didn't care anymore. I wasn't invested. And that cast still, from what I gather, has chemistry.

So I'm not sure why one show (HIMYM) keeps me coming back each week, but THE OFFICE pushed me away. Where's the difference? What's the breaking point? And what about you? What keeps you coming back to a show or author after he or she has lost it? And who have you surprised yourself and given up reading or watching? Why?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Five desert island books

Short post this week from me.

I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago that Drive by James Sallis could possibly be a desert island book for me. Patti Abbott responded that Drive was too short. This brief exchange got me thinking about desert island books. Or to think of it another way if I could only read five books for the rest of my life what would they be? What qualities would they share?

Re-readability would be the be the obvious #1 quality. So I limited my list to books that I've actually read more then once. I think the trap that some fall into when making a desert island list is that they name books that they want to read. But I'd rather stick with known quantities.

In her response Patti suggested that a desert island book needed to be long. While I don't think has to be true all five of my selections are longer books. There is a dense and sometimes complex quality to each of these books. They all feature great characters.

So here, in brief, are my desert island books (as of right now any way).

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel
The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith
Last Call by Tim Powers
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff

(Also, I've read Drive five time since it has been released so yes, Drive really could be a desert island book for me. I've even mapped out the internal chronology of Drivers life in Drive because I'm that much of a Drive geek.)

So how about you? What are your five desert island books? What makes a desert island book?

Current Read: The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
Current Listen: The new Avett Brothers

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Looking for the familiar

By: Joelle Charbonneau

My husband is a huge fan of the Phantom of the Opera.  Me…eh…I like it just fine, but if you got into a musical theater debate with me, I’d probably come up with all sorts of reasons why I think the show needs a bit more tweaking.  Which is probably a bit audacious of me, but hey, I’m allowed my opinion, right?

Anyway, because my husband is a fan, he has been following the launch and reworking of the sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies, with great interest.  While Phantom of the Opera was a huge hit, the sequel hasn’t set the world on fire.  In fact, a lot of die hard Phantom fans (my husband not included) have had huge complaints about the new show.  Because of that, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and team have reworked the music and tinkered with the story.  But no matter the changes, the musical still has yet to connect with the existing fan base.


The writer in me has a theory.  It is because the characters have changed.  The story opens almost a decade after the original ended.  Of course the characters have changed.  They gotten married, had children, led lives. It only stands to reason that things will be different.  But, to me, the problem isn’t that the characters’ lives have changed—that which makes them what they are has changed.  The heroine is no longer heroic.  The musical opens with her having committed betrayals that at the core change who she is and how the audience connects with her.  The Phantom—the villain or anti-hero of the first musical—is now the hero.  Characters we liked have become warped and filled with jealousy and hate.  While the characters are still familiar by name, they are not familiar by nature which automatically disconnects the audience and disrupts the story before it ever has a chance to begin.

Crime fiction is filled with continuing characters and long running mystery and thriller series.  Time passes in between the last page of one book and the first page of the next.  Weeks, months and years go by between one case and another.  Readers are willing to accept that their favorite characters’ lives have continued.  But despite those changes when they open the next book, the reader expect to “know” them.  They expect that the choices that the characters have made between one book and the next will reflect the character’s core values and beliefs that are demonstrated on the page.  Those core values can change, but not out of the sight of the reader.  A reader wants to see those changes.  To live them alongside the character.  To feel the emotional tug-of-war and experience the path the character takes to come out the other side.  To change the core of a character out of sight of the reader is akin to pulling a bait and switch.  Which isn’t fun for anyone.

I’ve stopped reading a number of series because the characters felt distant and unfamiliar at the start of the next book.  Have you ever had that problem?  Have you ever felt cheated because a character had a major experience that you didn’t get to be a part of or changed them in a way that made the character unappealing?  And if you’re a writer, how do you deal with the time gaps that inevitably occur in between books?  Do you worry about what hasn’t been shown on the page?  And hey – who knows—maybe the folks in charge of Love Never Dies will read your comments and figure out how to make it the next blockbuster musical.  My husband would be grateful if they did!