Saturday, November 25, 2017

Book Review: Heat Storm by Richard Castle

I fell in love with the TV show “Castle” from the moment I saw the trailer.

As a refresher, the character of Richard Castle, as played superbly by Nathan Fillion, is a rock star author famous for his thriller series featuring the character Derek Storm. In the series premiere, Castle is celebrating his latest novel, the book in which he killed off Storm. And he’s suffering from writer’s block. Cut to a killer who is using scenes from Castle’s novels and the New York City police, in the person of Detective Kate Beckett, come and question Castle. He ends up helping solve the case, complete with delicious sexual tension, and pulls some strings with the mayor to get a favor: allow Castle to tag along with Beckett as an observer while he does “research” for a new series of novels featuring his new character, Detective Nikki Heat, as inspired by Beckett.

Got that?

Yeah, it’s a mind twist when you write it all out, but what was even more twisty was when Season 2 premiered in the fall of 2009…and an actual Castle book landed on actual store shelves. It had Fillion’s face on the back and HEAT WAVE was the first Nikki Heat book. Every fall, a new season would start and a new Nikki Heat novel would be published. Heck, even Derek Storm himself was revived (he faked his death!) and new Storm novels were published. Graphic novels, too. It was heady days for fans of the show.

Ultimately, the TV show was cancelled, but the books kept going. HIGH HEAT arrived last fall and, with HEAT STORM, the series comes to an end. HIGH HEAT actually was published back in May, but with other books on my TBR pile, I decided to wait until September to read (actually listen) to this last novel. Every Nikki Heat novel has “Heat” in the title and every Derek Storm novel has “Storm” in the title, so you know exactly what happens with HEAT STORM: Nikki Heat and Derek Storm team up.

In a series of alternating POV chapters, HEAT STORM picks up right after the cliffhanger of HIGH HEAT. Storm has been tracking down Chinese counterfeiters and his trail has led him back to Heat, but not Nikki. Her mother, Cynthia. In yet another mind-bendy twist, the life events of the TV show character Beckett (who’s mother was killed and that prompted Beckett to become a cop) are also the same for Nikki Heat (her mother also was killed). But in the course of HIGH HEAT, someone who looks remarkably like Cynthia Heat is roaming around NYC. And the secret is revealed here in HEAT STORM.

I have loved every single novel as published by “Richard Castle” and have read some more than once. Oddly, NAKED HEAT, the second novel, is one I’ve read about 3-4 times, the latter two was when I deconstructed the novel to determine how the writer crafted such an easy going page turner. I’ve used that information on my own books.

HEAT STORM serves as a greatest hits. You’ve got Storm doing super-spy stuff and Heat doing her best detective work. She’s a great character who, over the course of the entire series, was given a chance to grow and breathe. Surprisingly, the character of Jameson Rook (the counterpart of “Richard Castle”) doesn’t feature too prominently so you certainly have to take that into account. But the author (you can likely find the answer if you search the internet) ends the book series in a satisfying manner.

The entire series is well worth your time. As both the TV series and the book series went on, what I loved was how the books reflected the TV show. It took Castle and Beckett something like four seasons to get together. In the books, their counterparts got together in book 1. It was a model of how to keep the romantic chemistry going even though the “will they or won’t they” aspect had already been revealed.

The entire Castle phenomenon was one-of-a-kind. I still miss the TV show and now, with the publication of HEAT STORM, the book series is also at a end. As melancholy as that realization is , the Nikki Heat series remains one of my favorite book series of all time.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Crime Fiction by Native Americans; or, Tony Hillerman Will Only Be Mentioned Once

By David Nemeth

Note: I removed Sherman Alexie from this post in March 2018.

I know it is quite white of me to be writing about Native Americans on Thanksgiving Day, but trust me, it’s either this or writing about Turkey cozies or making up a book list of Pilgrim Noir. No one wants me to do that. As Winona LaDuke recently wrote, “There is this magical made-up time between Columbus Day (or Indigenous People's Day for the enlightened) and Thanksgiving where white Americans think about native people. That's sort of our window. November is Native American Heritage month. Before that, of course, is Halloween. Until about three years ago, one of the most popular Halloween costumes was Pocahontas. People know nothing about us, but they like to dress up like us or have us as a mascot. We are invisible.” Yeah, I am pretty much guilty as charged. Hopefully, I will come back to Native American crime fiction at several points throughout 2018.

When I started looking into Native American crime fiction my Bing searches always came back with works by Tony Hillerman. Craig Johnson, Margaret Cole, etc. This Goodreads list, Popular Native American Mystery Books is a sad example of the problem. I only counted one Native American author with only a few titles in a list of over 130 books. I’m not stupid, this was not the list I was looking for.

After some searching, I came across Mary Stoecklein’s dissertation “Native American Mystery, Crime, and Detective Fiction”. This paper was the key for me to opening up a world of works by many Native American crime fiction writers, many who I had not heard of. What I’m trying to do in this post is to add some crime fiction books by Native American writers to my To Be Read list. Will I miss some? Most likely. But I hope it will be a good first attempt at collecting some authors and titles of books we all might want to read. Please also note that the Indian Nation(s) of the author appears in parenthesis after their name. They have been mainly culled from Stoecklein’s paper, author's websites, or Wikipedia. This is all followed by the book title, publisher and year of publication.

Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe), The Round House (Harper, 2012)
The Round House, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2012, is the middle book of Erdrich’s acclaimed Justice trilogy which includes The Plagues of Doves, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and LaRose, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2016. At NPR Alan Cheuse wrote, “I've devoted many hours in my life to reading, and among these hours many of them belong to the creations of novelist Louise Erdrich. In more than a dozen books of fiction – mostly novel length – that make up a large part of her already large body of work, Erdrich has given us a multitude of narrative voices and stories. Never before has she given us a novel with a single narrative voice so smart, rich and full of surprises as she has in The Round House. It's her latest novel, and, I would argue, her best so far.”
Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet), The Least of My Scars (Broken River Books, 2013)
I’m choosing this Jones book out of the many because it’s on one of my favorite publishers Broken River Books. Other crime fiction by Jones include All the Beautiful Sinners and Not for Nothing. In Out of the Gutter Gabino Iglesias wrote, “Jones is a master storyteller regardless of genre, and his skills are in full display here. The prose is feverish and seems to push the narrative forward at 100 miles per hour. Billy, whose voice makes him a likeable character despite being a psychotic murderer with a taste for torture, appears to be a somewhat reliable narrator, but his mental state clouds everything in mystery and the few surreal touches Jones adds sporadically keep the reader guessing until the end. Also, the narrative walks a fine line between a superb horror story and one of the darkest noirs published in 2013.”
Martin Cruz Smith (Yaqui-Senecu del Sur), Stallion Gate (Random House, 1986)
Yeah, I didn’t know either. Smith is known for his Arkady Reno books set in Moscow, most famously Gorky Park The Amazon description reads, “In a New Mexico blizzard, four men cross a barbed-wire fence at Stallion Gate to select a test site for the first atomic weapon. They are Oppenheimer, the physicist; Groves, the general; Fuchs, the spy. The fourth man is Sergeant Joe Pena, a hero, informer, fighter, musician, Indian. These four men -- and a cast of soldiers, roughnecks and scientists -- will change history forever.” . Stoecklein also points us to another Native American themed book by Smith, Nightwing.
Louis Owens (Choctaw/Cherokee), Bone Game ( University of Oklahoma Press, 1996)
From the Encyclopedia of American Indian Literature, "Although a sequel, Bone Game stands as an independent text whose meaning is enriched by knowledge of its antecedent. When readers meet Cole McCurtain, a mixed-blood Choctaw professor of Native American studies, he has recently relocated to the University of California, Santa Cruz, from Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico. This setting becomes a character in its own right, offering Owens a means of critiquing contemporary New Age attitudes about indigenous people, academic desires and limitations within the field of Indian studies, and, significantly, the haunt- ing legacy of the bloody colonial history of Spanish missions in California.
McCurtain’s initial experience in Santa Cruz in1993 coincides with a series of gruesome murders in the Monterrey Bay area, which sets the region on edge. This third-person narrative, significantly focused on Cole, becomes both a murder-mystery thriller and a spiritual mystery simultaneously. Readers discover how the spirit world gives voice to ignored past injustices and is mistaken as a cause of the ongoing episodes of violence.

Marcie R. Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe), Murder on the Red River (Cinco Puntos Press, 2017)
At the StarTribune Ginny Greene wrote, "In her debut mystery novel, Marcie R. Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, casts us into the stark world of Cash, a pool-playing, Bud-swilling, Marlboro-smoking wisp of a thing. Cash has dark braids down to her butt and an aloof, independent air that plays well in the bars but doesn’t help her future." One Amazon reviewer wrote that it is "the best debut novel I've come across since Ben Whitmer's Pike."  
Erika T. Wurth (Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee), Buckskin Cocaine (Astrophil Press, 2017)
I am unsure whether Wurth's collection of short stories is crime fiction but it seems a close fit from the book's description saying that "is a wild, beautiful ride into the seedy underworld of Native American film. These are stories about men maddened by fame, actors desperate for their next buckskin gig, directors grown cynical and cruel, and dancers who leave everything behind in order to make it, only to realize at thirty that there is nothing left. Poetic and strange, Wurth's characters and vivid language will burn themselves into your mind, and linger. "

Frances Washburn (Lakota/Anishinaabe), Elsie's Business (Bison Books, 2006)
Stoecklein’s  writes, "Reviewers of Elsie’s Business have observed some of the ways in which the novel simultaneously embraces and subverts conventions of the mystery, crime, and detective genre. For example, in his review, Peter Grandbois states: “In flirting with the mystery genre, Washburn subverts it, refusing to solve either of the mysteries” (155). Rather than solving the mysteries, as Grandbois notes, “the reader soon realizes that there are no answers to questions such as murder and identity” and that “What matters is that the story is passed on. It is enough that the narrator hears Elsie's business, that we hear her story” (Grandbois 155).
Tom Holm (Cherokee/Muskogee Creek), Anadarko (University of Arizona Press, 2015)
Frances Washburn writes, "Like a master juggler, Holm tosses up one plot line after another, spins them in dizzying circles, then one by one, resolves them to an ending that not only satisfies but also provides yet one more surprising plot spin." The description of the book says, "Anadarko, a small bootlegger town in Oklahoma’s Kiowa Country, shakes off its sleepy veneer when J.D. Daugherty, an Irish ex-cop turned private eye, and Hoolie Smith, a Cherokee war veteran, show up to investigate the mysterious disappearance of oilman and geologist Frank Shotz. J.D. and Hoolie find their simple missing person case hides a web of murder, graft, and injustice tied to a network of bootleggers with links to the Ku Klux Klan. Set in the aftermath of the violent Tulsa race riot of 1921, Anadarko reveals a deadly and corrupt town filled with a toxic cocktail of booze, greed, and bigotry."
Katherena Vermette (Métis), The Break (House of Anansi Press, 2018)
The description of this upcoming release: "When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break ― a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house ― she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime. In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim ― police, family, and friends ― tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed."
As I said earlier, I know this list is incomplete and I have further research to do. Beyond Stoecklin's paper and the aforementioned Encyclopedia of American Indian Literature, Stoecklin also pointed me to the following books about Native American literature: Louis Owens’ Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, Gina MacDonald’s Shaman or Sherlock? The Native American Detective, Antoni Giovanni Idini’s Detecting colonialism: Detective fiction in Native American and Sardinian literatures, and Ray B. Browne’s Murder on the Reservation: American Indian Crime Fiction.

Another cool thing I happened upon is NDN Lit, a bi-weekly newsletter "filled with links focused on indigenous literature and culture." Steve Dragswolf, editor NDN Lit, also maintains a great companion Twitter feed, @NDNLit.

If there are any problems with this article, please reach out to me on Twitter, @nemski, or email,

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Memorable Villains

I read a Facebook thread about memorable villains recently. You know, those long sprawling posts where eventually the majority start sharing some combination of the same five characters, and others share obscure entries to avoid that trap?

The top 5 seem to be:
Darth Vader (Star Wars)
Randall Flagg (Stephen King's The Stand and Dark Tower series)
Sauron (The Lord of the Rings)
Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
Cersei (Game of Thrones)
Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men)

That's completely unscientific. Now, the reason I mention it is because we are taught to write villains who have more than one side, who we can sympathize with, who don't think they're the villain. And from the success of these series, that advice seems to be worth its weight in squirrel turds.

The worst thing to happen to both Vader and Lecter was when the creators showed more of them, and why they became who they are. Vader's redemption in Return of the Jedi was enough for me. He was just someone tempted by power, and that was enough. Lecter is great on paper, the mastermind serial killer who outsmarts everyone; he works because to quote my friend Les Edgerton, serial killers are boring. (Read that and more in his post about talking to Charles Manson, at his website). They do the same thing over and over! Only in fiction do they become interesting. I loved Silence in book and film form. Hannibal was silly fun, but Hannibal Rising was a disaster. And so were the Star Wars prequels. They made Anakin just an angry kid who got taken in by a Rasputin. Chigurh is a great creation, but he's barely human as well.

But I digress. I haven't read George R.R. Martin--he's far too wordy for my tastes, I prefer Glen Cook's The Black Company for my grimdark fantasy-- so I can't speak of Cersei except from the HBO series. She's not one-dimensional there to me. Randall Flagg certainly is. In The Stand, he is more than or less than human. I still recall the scene with his boots crunching gravel as he runs after a toadie who failed him, and the last thing that toadie sees, "big tombstone like teeth." He's the worst of us, but I can't see any sympathy for him. In the lesser novels of the Dark Tower series, he is more of a toadie himself, a henchman of the Crimson King, and he is much weaker for it.

So why are we crafting villains who are just folks like us who think they are working for the good side, if the culture adores big grandiose villains who are barely recognizable as human? In Bad Boy Boogie, the police chief Leo Zelazko is such a character. He is based on my father's friend Tony Maffatone, a former police officer turned executive bodyguard, who was a great family man and friend, but who had a Machiavellian philosophy of life. I amplified that to the extreme, creating someone who would commit terrible crimes to protect his family and his town, a man who lost the love of his son and tries to explain his behavior to get it back. Zelazko means "iron" and in my stories, the "iron people" are the authoritarians, who would rather be feared than loved.

What were my choices? I opted to pick new ones. I like Vader, Lecter, and Saruman, too.

Magneto from the X-Men movies especially because he thinks he's saving the world.
Javert from Les Miserables, for the same reason. He is the iron rule of law personified.
Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. She feels wronged and insulted and punishes generations of a family for it.
Loki from the Thor movies. Another wronged type who uses deceit and subterfuge rather than brawn. In Ragnarok he is still terrible, it's his nature, but can still love (and hate) his family. More realistic than many villains out there.
The nameless killer from Lawrence Block's final Matt Scudder novel, All the Flowers Are Dying. He's Keller if he murdered for sport, a villain out of Dumas made real.
Soulcatcher and Lady from Glen Cook's The Black Company series make the Cersei and Jadis look kind. I think they were sisters, too. Soulcatcher is the younger jealous one. Lady just wants what she wants, and heaven help you if you're in her way.
Annie Wilkes from Misery is pure terror.

A good read is this article, The Root of All Cruelty? in the New Yorker. The pattern in my choices becomes clear, afterward. The article speaks of how we commit atrocities, and Fiske and Rai define it as "the desire to do the right thing, to exact just vengeance, or to teach someone a lesson." With righteousness behind us, we can do terrible things.

And live with it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Beast

It's been a tough week for certain people who, at whatever level they existed, wielded a degree of power over others.  And I'm not even talking about the ever growing list of men who've groped, fondled, harassed, raped, etc.

So who are these people?  Well, there's Charles Manson, of course, who, on Friday, Renee Pickup on this site prematurely announced as dead.  I can't blame her for the mistake; the guy apparently took his time dying, though he didn't linger as long as Francisco Franco.  Now we know he definitely is dead, and the papers and Internet have been filled with stories about him.  For my money, the most complete and well-rounded take on the entire Manson family story is the one that Karina Longworth did on her podcast You Must Remember This.  It's a 12 part masterpiece that puts Manson, the family, and the murders in a specific historic and cultural context with a detail and insight I haven't encountered anywhere else.  I've mentioned this series here before, and again, if you haven't listened to it yet, now is the perfect time to do so.

But with all the attention on the Manson story, which never ceases to fascinate Americans, the death of another criminal seemed to get short shrift here.  At least, I didn't see that much about it, and maybe that's not surprising because the man's actions impacted another country more than it affected the US.  I'm talking about "The Beast", "the Boss of Bosses", Salvatore Riina.  A Sicilian Mafia chief from the 1970s on, Riina died Friday at the age of 87.  In jail since 1993, he had been serving 26 life sentences.

Riina is infamous for employing a strategy of violence that included killing Italian judges, prosecutors, and police.  He had absolutely no qualms ordering the deaths of women and children.  Tommaso Buscetta, a vital Mafia informant who gave the Italian government loads of information during the long Maxi Trial in Palermo, knew this as well as anyone.  Riina ordered the murder of Buscetta's two sons, his brother, and 33 of his other relatives.  The Maxi Trial ran from 1986 until 1992, and it's after this, from hiding, that Riina really unleashed his wrath upon the state, ordering the killings of Anti Mafia commission prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Falcone was killed in a bombing on a highway outside Palermo with his wife and three policemen. According to an informant's story, Riina threw a party after the killing, toasting Falcone's death with champagne.   A couple of months later, Borsellino and five policemen were killed in a car bombing near Borsellino's mother's house in Palermo.  

In the continuing crackdown against the Sicilian Mafia after these assassinations, Riina went so far as to order bombings against Italian tourist sites in Florence, Rome, and Milan, and after he was finally caught in 1993, prompting a day when Sicilian children were let out of school to celebrate, he ordered the indiscriminate bombings of Italian churches and art galleries. Giovanni Brusca, killer of many for Riina and later an informant, stated that at one point Riina was considering the idea of bombing the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  On Riina's orders, Brusca was also involved in the notorious kidnapping of the 11 year old son of a Mafia informant.  For 26 months, Brusca and the other kidnapppers held the boy, torturing him at times in an attempt to get his father to retract his testimony.  The informant's testimony, however, was already considered legally binding, and eventually the kidnappers strangled his son, now 14. To destroy evidence and prevent the boy's family from having a proper funeral, they then dissolved his body in acid.  

What's amazing is that when the authorities caught Riina after his 23 years as a fugitive, it turned out he'd been living all along at his house in Palermo. That he'd avoided capture for so long while hiding in plain sight, as it were, prompted many speculations over the extent to which the Sicilian Mafia and the Italian government, over the years, had worked in some sort of mutually beneficial symbiosis.  

There's much more to the Riina saga and quite a bit of it is byzantine, this being an Italian story, after all.  For one thing, there's the question of how much cooperation there was between the authorities and other Cosa Nostra bosses in effecting Riina's final capture.  One plausible version has it that Bernardo Provenzano, himself a fugitive boss for 43 years in Sicily, and in hiding during all the time we're now talking about, sold Riina out by providing, from hiding, a map showing the exact location in Palermo where Riina was.  Provenzano, who advocated a less violent approach to running the Mafia, would become Riina's successor until his capture in 2006.

But I'll leave it to Riina to have the last word here.  You can always count on the most brutal criminals to be utterly self-serving, and in this regard, Riina fits the bill.  From the New York Times story about him published after his death, there is this:

But the specter of Mr. Riina, who rarely spoke in public, hung over the country. In one of his 1993 trials, he refused to address the allegations of one of his accusers.

“He does not have my moral stature,” Mr. Riina said.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Character Actresses

I love Mr. Kaplan. I was binging The Blacklist when I was sick recently, and on top of all of the other things about the show that I enjoy I found myself wishing there had been a whole series devoted to Mr. Kaplan.

Susan Blommaert, the actress who portrays Mr. Kaplan, is a stand-out for me. Whatever role I've seen her in she's completely embodied, from the first time I recall seeing her in The X-Files.

She got me thinking about the fact that, while there are many men known as character actors, I couldn't think of many women known as character actresses. The only other one who comes to mind is Margo Martindale.

These are women who make every show better just by showing up in the credits. They show tenderness. They show tenacity. They show a total commitment to portraying the character for the good of the story, rather than for seeing their roles as opportunities to be idolized.

They're about the craft rather than the glory.

It occurs to me that a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that in order to be a strong woman the woman needs to try to act more like a man. One of the things that's true of both of these character actresses is that they've taken on superior roles where instead of being women who tried to fill the shoes of men they showed they were more than equal to their male counterparts and in many circumstances superior.

Can you think of other great character actresses? Worthy roles that should be celebrated? I will now (spoiler.................................................................................................................................)
mourn the passing of Mr. Kaplan and the fact that it will be a while before I see Susan Blommaert on the screen again, and hope to see Margo Martindale when The Americans returns.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Documents and Artifacts and References, Oh My

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an “archives crawl.” It’s like a pub crawl, but with less booze and more criminals.
"This man is a smooth talker and when he gets into jail takes up religion and cries his way out. He can’t keep out of Jail, so let your Jailers see this. He was convicted of Burglary and Grand Larceny here and escaped from the officer at San Francisco about a year ago while enroute to the State Prison at San Quentin to do six years.
I am very anxious to get this man and will pay the above reward for his delivery to me in any Jail in the United States.
Dated August 5, 1908"
Several Sacramento institutions band together and do this every year. They pull out items in their collections that are otherwise inaccessible. This year was the first chance I had to go. A friend and I started at the California State Archives, which houses everything from Spanish and Mexican land grants to state and local government records and genealogy information. It also has – right in my wheelhouse – extensive court and prison records. And some other items that bring the past alive in great ways.
This lock was as big as my fist.
Unidentified California state prisoner.
For a non-fiction book proposal I wrote several years ago, I spent a great deal of time in the archive’s big circular reading room. I was able to go through the entire original handwritten trial transcript of a death penalty trial from the 1880s. (Penmanship was WAY better back then.) For another project, I read the capital trial transcript of a 1950s killer and subsequent prison records and court appeals. (Sadly, they’d moved on to typewriters by this point.)
Next, we moved on to the California State Library, across from the Capitol. It’s the central reference and research library for state government and the Legislature. Okay, that’s not terribly exciting. But this is: it collects and preserves priceless historical items. And many of those are on display to the general public only this one day a year. It also has fun with its enormous accumulation of knowledge.
Top Ten Most Notorious California Criminal Trading Cards!
These naturally caught my eye. Here’s a sampling:

They had the newspaper microfilm archive room closed. Closed! I spent a lot of time there researching the same two capital cases I talked about above. I’ll admit, it’s not the most thrilling
room, packed with nothing but filing cabinets and microfilm readers. Oh, but the information! The collection has more than 2,200 newspapers, and it includes at least one title from each of California’s 58 counties. It dates back to 1846. It’s heaven, to me, at least. 
The other two majors organizations that participate are the Sacramento Public Library and the Center for Sacramento History. Next week, I’ll show you some of the non-crime related wonderfulness that was on display. (Hint: some of it relates to a jumping frog from Calaveras County.)