Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Detective With a Six-Shooter: Longarm and the Border Wildcat

Scott D. Parker

Mysteries don't always happen in big cities or the English countryside. Sometimes they occur in the Old West.

Custis Long, U.S. Marshall, was the star of 436 monthly westerns and most of these titles involved some sort of mystery. Written by many different authors, the Longarm novels penned by James Reasoner (as this one is) focused on a central mystery Longarm had to solve, and this story was no different. In the 229th adventure, Longarm acquires a partner in the most Longarm-ish way possible: a fight over a woman.

Just as the voluptuous red-headed Anne Marie is about to lead Longarm up some stairs to her boudoir, a bearded, beefy hombre questions the federal lawman about his intentions with "my girl." The brawl ensues and both men get in their licks under the man, Lazarus Coffin, produces his Texas Ranger badge. Longarm laughs and trumps the state badge with his federal one. It is only then they realize they are both in Del Rio, Texas, for the same reason: to provide security during a delicate negotiation between diplomats from America and Mexico.

This being an adult western, naturally there is yet another woman. She is Sonia Guiterrez, sultry daughter of the Mexican diplomat, Don Alfredo. She in openly wanton in her wants and desires and she teases just about every man in every scene in which she appears. Naturally, her father is unaware, but Coffin and Longarm aren't. Thus begins a rivalry between the two men to see who can bed the temptress. Guess who wins.

Another factor is at play in this story: a mysterious marauder, El Aguila. The local owlhoots who ride through the streets and shoot up the town are alleged to be members of his gang. That may be so, but if they are his men, the leader himself proves too elusive.

Longarm and Coffin chaff at the boredom of standing guard while the diplomats negotiate, but that lull is quickly dispatched when El Agulia's gang again rides into town. This time, however, they kidnap Sonia. When asked why she was out of her hotel room, Longarm doesn't answer that he and Sonia were having a rendezvous in an alley.

Naturally, the two lawmen must pursue the kidnappers and bring back the lovely Sonia. Along the way, they meet El Aguila himself, sling lead with the bandits, and uncover the truth behind the entire scheme.

As always, these Longarm westerns are fun, action-packed, and a joy to read. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the more cautious and reasoned Longarm and the brash Coffin. I emailed Reasoner and asked if Coffin ever showed up again in a future Longarm novel he wrote. He said no, so this is your one and only time to meet the big Ranger.

Speaking of Ranger, I also got a smile on my face when Reasoner namedropped "Jim Hatfield" as one of the Texas Rangers Longarm wished had been sent to Del Rio. Hatfield was the lead character written by Bradford Scott in the old pulp magazine TEXAS RANGER. Speaking of old pulp characters, there's another one hidden in plain sight. Read this book and see if you can identify the character.

If you want something different than your typical detective or mystery novel characters, give Longarm a try. I'll bet you read more than one. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Sex OR Violence

Vice published an article outlining how Amazon has (again) throttled erotic books on their site. The official statement from the retail giant is that it was an accident, and it's fixed now, but this isn't the first time Amazon's policies and practices with erotic books has affected the authors that depend on Amazon for the vast majority of their sales.

I find it interesting because our genre never comes under attack here. Even the ones that feature a lot of sex (many Amazon romance authors report being labeled erotica when they were simply "hot" romances). Seems crime fiction writers can have their characters shoot at each other, stab each other, beat the living shit out of each other, and whatever else we please because we haven't made the mistake of focusing on sex (or being a female dominated genre that deals with love - oft regarded as the most feminine genre, and not surprisingly, oft the most derided).

It's unsurprising that Amazon's policies would favor violence over sex. It's an American tradition, after all. Recently, a tv series I enjoy, (The Last Man On Earth) featured Fred Armisen as a cannibal. We saw him murder and eat people, we saw him dig a corpse out of the ground and eat various parts of his body, and finally, we saw him blow himself up with a puzzle box bomb. But when Will Forte and Kristen Schaal's characters have sex it's an awkward, perfectly still scene, just as last week's SNL featured a "sex scene" that featured a fully clothed woman on the lap of a fully clothed man - perfectly still. Both shows have confirmed it was to appease network censors. See - you can slit throats, eat corpses, and be blown to smithereens on network TV - but if two people wiggle a little during sex, all hell breaks loose.

In a society overrun with violence, and with weird, often harmful views of sex and sexuality, we're still letting whatever violence creators can imagine through, and hiding any instance of two people enjoying each other in a sexual way. This is not to say that violence in books or on TV causes violence - all the strange dancing around sex in entertainment hasn't stopped us from fucking, after all. But it's worth questioning why we accept increasing levels of violence in our entertainment, but freak out if we think a kid under the age of twenty-one might see two people go at it, even in a show like Last Man where the characters were not only married, but actively trying to have a baby. They're straight, too - if it were a porn, it would be the kind that's inexplicably marketed to hardcore religious people.* Still, the sex can't even be a little sexual.

It's weird, right? I don't have an answer, and this isn't exactly a new viewpoint, but I wonder when the reckoning is going to come. When are we going to talk about our weird attitudes about sex in entertainment in a meaningful way? How did we become a society that's okay with blowing up Fred Armisen on Prime Time but not with wiggling on late night TV?

I don't mind violence in my entertainment - some of my favorite books and films feature enough of it that they're routinely labeled "gratuitous." I don't think violent entertainment causes violence. I do think having extremely permissive ideas about hurting people, versus extremely strict ideas about pleasing people is unhealthy. The ideas behind the actions are what worry me. America has some shit to sort out and this is only the beginning of the beginning.

*remember when that was a big news story? A Google session couldn't confirm that it's still a thing.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

So you want to moderate an author panel

By Steve Weddle

This past weekend was the Virginia Festival of the Book, an annual event held each spring in Charlottesville.

I met Alex Segura and Rob W. Hart for dinner Friday night. Along with 39 other authors, we took the back room at a new Korean BBQ place on the downtown mall. About two dozen walked out when the waiter told us that they had yet to receive their liquor license. (For the record, the water was fine.)

The next day I moderated a suspense panel with authors Alison Gaylin, Kate Moretti, Kaira Rouda, and Erika Raskin, pictured below, in order.

We had a lovely time. I had 197 questions prepared and we got to about six of them.

My name is not Katrina Holm, which means I'm not the world's greatest moderator. But I've done many of these panels, as author and moderator, and I figured I'd pass along some thoughts in case you are ever on that side of the table.

When you make gumbo, first you make a roux. When you do anything in crime fiction (or books, in general, really) you ask Jon Jordan for advice. Well, Jon and Ruth Jordan and others put together this handy guide for Bouchercon moderators -- YOUR MODERATOR BIBLE.

Read that. Live it.

I'll just bounce off a few of those ideas, in no particular order.

Read the books or don't read the books or read some of the books or what?

Yeah. I know, right? So you're a month out and you've got four books to read for the panel and you'll never make it. So go back in time and start sooner, dummy.

No, for reals. Read all of every book?

Ugh. Look, I have talked with other folks who come across as wonderful moderators and they said the trick is to read the first 50 pages and no more. That way you can sell the book to the potential reader without giving away any spoilers. I'm not that worried about spoilers. I figured out early on in Dave White's first novel that Jackson Donne, the main character, was really the one who had murdered all those orphaned kittens. Knowing that didn't make the book any less enjoyable.

But, if you're a bit of a gossipy doofus, maybe stop reading 50 pages in. I don't know. I barely know you. I enjoyed all four of these books and wouldn't have been able to stop 50 pages in. Why did the birds fall? Who was driving? Is Paul really that bad? Will she and her boss end up together? Like the gentleman with the number of bullets questions for Dirty Harry, I had to know. So, I say read all of every book. If you don't like reading, maybe there's a TV show you can watch to fill your life.

I'm a middle-aged man who is balding. Can I wear a baseball cap and moderate?
If it's crime fiction, a mesh trucker cap is allowed. Otherwise, no. Jackass.

As a moderator, should I sit in the middle or at the end.

The wonderful Bouchercon PDF I linked to up there that you read and memorized has some thoughts on this. My thought is this: It's not your show, buttercup. Stay out of the way.

How many questions should I prepare?

You've got three or four panelists and an hour? You're going to have some housekeeping at each end of the program. If you have a half-dozen for each, you'll have more than enough. I always over-prepare because I get nervous and if I don't have more material than I need, I'll spend the three hours before the panel with a runny bottom. Maybe you're tougher than I am. Figure out how many questions you think you need, and then do the trick where you convert celsius temperature to American temperature: Double the number and add 20.

I like to have a free-flowing panel, so  I'm thinking maybe I just go in without preparing to give it a more natural feel. Does that seem like a good idea?

Go shit in your hat, moron.

Should I start with author and book intro and then ask each person a question or ask everyone a question at once and what if they don't all answer and everything bombs?

I was in the audience last year at a book festival when the moderator asked each author, in order, the following: "Thanks for coming. Can you give us all a quick bio and tell us about your book?" Then the questions were about how they came up with their ideas, what their writing process was like, and so forth. Let's be clear. If you're not going to read the books or learn about the authors, don't moderate a panel. It is only through the restraint I learned during my seven years as a monk in southeast Asia that prevented me from walking up and splitting that moderator stem to stern. Don't be that guy. These authors have worked their tails off. For many of them, this is their only panel this festival. For some, it's their first ever. To quote from one of my favorite movies, "Show Dick some respect."

OK. So do my research. Got it. But how do I structure the hour? Intro the people and the books and then questions?

Look, you do you. Here's what I did this weekend. We went through and did quick bios of each author, which helped the authors and the audience kinda settle in. If you're the leadoff hitter, you're going to want to take a few pitches. I started with one of the books, gave the jacket copy info, and then read a one-star review of the book. Then I asked a question of that author about her book -- but a question that I knew from having read the books and every online author interview and review I could find that would open up themes and ideas to all the authors and their books.

You read all the author interviews and book reviews before the panel?


Are you just making that up, like the Dave White stuff and the monk stuff?

No. I have probably 80 to 100 pages on each author. Some of them were asked and answered amazing questions with a book from 10 years back, and I wouldn't have gotten to know that had I not delved in. It's pretty easy. Use the Google. That's how I work. You might not work that way. Like I said, you do you. But for me, I read the books and then devote a week of prep to each author. The last week of February was Kate Moretti Week for me, for example. Once you learn about your authors, you can see what ties them together. What do they think about secrets in their supsense novels? If all of them used an unreliable narrator in a book somewhere along their career paths, you can talk about that. How do they all deal with setting? What type of character are they drawn to in their writing? What have they said about pacing? About tea vs. coffee? What day jobs have they worked? Honestly, you dig around and you'll find connections. And when you see what connects all the authors on your panel, you end up with a threaded conversation in which they all come off as old friends. And if you're blessed as I was this weekend with four fabulous authors, it's pretty simple to get things rolling and keep yourself out of the way.

A good moderator is like other people's children -- they should stay the hell out of the way.

As a moderator, you have two jobs: 1) make your authors look good; and 2) end on time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Representation Matters. Misrepresentation REALLY Matters.

Perhaps you'll remember that bit Eddie Murphy used to do about the similarities between blacks and Italians. Two bada-bing types walk out of a showing of "Rocky," and figure any black man they encounter is a sucker for a southpaw hook to the mouth. Rocky was so compelling, so immersible, some 5'2" untrained Italian dood leaves the cineplex pretty damned certain he can just sucker-punch brothas. "You can really do that." "He's 6'5". I'm 5'2". He's bigger than me, but I'm Italian." Hilarious, right? This is an instance where representation matters, if only because misrepresentation REALLY matters. This one is funny. The outcome of my man's ignorance is being knocked out by the concession stand at the Cinemart in Forest Hills.

You know how there are a lot of folks who think that watching all sixty episodes of The Wire is enough of a primer to speak deeply on issues of race and class in America?
"Well, it's just like on 'The Wire.' Have you seen 'The Wire?' Oh, my God. Great show. So real. I had no idea."
Deep familiarity of black Americans at large, acquired through binge-watching five seasons of a television show about people from Baltimore. If they stayed with David Simon for HBO's Treme, they're a scholar. If they can go all the way back to Homicide: Life on the Street, whooo lawdy, you have a hell of a cocktail party debate on your hands. Multiple-degreed historians and anthropologists struggle with getting our shared existence in this country right, but you know what's up because you had an HBO subscription and plenty of time one weekend. I listen to NPR in the car, right up until I hear mention of "The Wire," which is just about weekly, and always in relation to someone's professed understanding of black Americans. It's what we do with new insights. We peddle them everywhere and lend them to everyone we can get to listen. It's just human.

Good God, everything is Hip Hop! Sure, some openly lament its traces, if only because its elements and attitude are everywhere. Remove the Hip Hop from ESPN and it's boring, middle of the road, innocuous sports trivia. Hip Hop—black American—speech, attitude, and aesthetics are present in Country and Gospel. So much American cultural output was off the menu until a little Hip Hop was mixed in with the batter. It's everywhere. Can't even keep up with it. Know what? Let me cook your noodle for a second.

Hip Hop is crime fiction. I don't need to parse it. I'm not going to break it down. Y'all get it. Hip Hop is crime fiction more than it is music. You don't think Raekwon actually commits all those crimes, do you? Don't rhyme sayers cleave unto their (largely fictional) biographies as much as crime fiction novelists who enjoyed morally ambiguous reputations, ala Ian Fleming and Chester Himes? Doesn't James Elroy start all his public speaking engagements as his own hype man? Before Hip Hop, folks would figure him just crazy, as opposed to crazy like a fox.

Say, suppose for a moment you're a youngish Latinx police officer in St. Anthony, Minnesota, which I imagine is a place where one is, shall we say, unburdened by the social requirement of interpersonally relating with black folk. We're effectively only ten percent of the US population, after all. There are plenty of Americans who can spend their entire lives without having to look at a black person unless they want to. When we aren't a predominant portion of the population in an area, the black folk one would encounter are likely behaving according to white middle-class social norms. The "he/she's black, but…" types. Joe Biden crystallized this mindset perfectly:
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."
Thing is, Philando Castile wasn't Obama-level storybook. He wore dreads. He regrettably had the worst luck with Minnesota police and cars. His lady was behind the wheel and her respect for the law was negligible. He had a concealed handgun on him. It was all chill, until Castile's admittance of his weapon, permitted and lawful to be carried. In 40 seconds, everything went from "Hello, sir," to casual banter, to dead black man. Former Officer Jeronimo Yanez's testimony included these tidbits:
“I thought he had a gun in his hand.”
Actually, he told you it was concealed on his person, it was concealed-carry permitted, and you told him not to pull out the weapon. You would have seen him pull it out, dawg.
"I was scared because, I didn’t know if he was gonna, I didn’t know what he was gonna do."
He told you. He was gonna get you his ID, which was what you asked for.
"I thought I was gonna die."
From what? Castile's effusive cordiality and compliance?

Officer Jeromino Yanez is trained, armed, has supervision available via radio. His partner is chill and trying to get him to chill. Nothing about the situation is escalating. Yet, within forty seconds, a man who was, by all accounts, affable and well-intentioned (and probably a little dumb) was dead and a cop was accused of murder, and anti-blackness. He said he was afraid he was going to die, despite all his weaponry, training, back-up on the scene and no visible presence of a firearm other than his own. What was the source of his fear??

Well, here's an image of Philando Castile.

And here is a photo of Omar Little, that death-defying, bulletproof, sexy/dangerous, antihero, supernigga from The Wire.

Take the glasses off of Philando. Add some THC-derived chillness. Make it the first real-live black person Yanez has seen in a while, and the only one he's seen with the balls to admit he's carrying a gun. The only one with the balls to carry a gun while sitting in a car with a woman who has her own well-documented troubles with the law. Philando Castile's dumb ass is sitting in a car with a loaded gun when he's a cop magnet. Over sixty cases for anything and everything vehicular. I wouldn't go anywhere near a car were I Castille. You got to figure he's at least a little crazy, like crazy Omar Little, who defies death.

And what young police officer in a place where not much crime happens hasn't seen The Wire? How many young police officers, soldiers, teachers, etc. are exposed to crime fiction and the filmed entertainment adapted from them? How much of this crime fiction have they enjoyed before it became necessary to do their adult jobs without preconception or bias? I'm just asking.

Okay, okay. I get it. I got Tarantino first week, then Black Panther. Now I'm going to take down The Wire? Not at all. My point is that culture informs, and it misinforms faster. Folks get all lifted over Omar Little, they want to have their own Omar Littles in their novels and television shows, same as how Hip Hop goes in the goddamned milkshakes and apple pies at McDonald's. It becomes so common, it's archetype. A staple. A standard. Culture helps us navigate through the parts of our world we have yet to directly experience. And if you don't have a chance to make up your mind before fear sets in, culture will make your moves for you. The way I suspect it did Officer Yanez.

There is something about fallacies and the human heart. It tells the brain, "Yo, don't go sayin' that shit. You know it ain't true." To look at another human being in different skin than you and regard them as some inferior variant requires conditioning and constant reinforcement. Cultural reinforcement. Crime fiction has the fastest pipeline to the entertainment industry. If it's romance, then crime fiction runs a close second. Once ideas and conventions leave the pages of a book, they're pushed through the Hollywood mill where all but the broadest strokes are ground down.  Blackness is many distinct cultures, each with their subcultures, but on television, we're only ever Omar Little or, say, Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, with very few gradations between.

What's any of this have to do with anything? Well, my Eddie Murphy example serves the point that misrepresentation gets people hurt. My Hip Hop example hints at what happens when the legend becomes standard. My example of The Wire is to help y'all see that individual black folk's show-and-tell is trumped by what someone saw on television the night prior. If folks are printing the legend, and people with institutional or situational power believe the legend, a black person on the business end of a crisis situation has to be more compelling than the Apollo Creeds, Omar Littles, and Raekwons. Right there, on the spot. Or else power is justified in its fear.

I'll end this with a little W.E.B. Du Bois:

“Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?”
“I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”
- W.E.B. Du Bois, "Criteria of Negro Art" October 1926

Du Bois dropped that on us ninety-two years ago. It's safe to say the next eight years likely won't see a cultural shift. Stephon Clark. Danny Ray Thomas. Killed by police within days of each other. Everyone is so afraid of black folk, even well-armed police officers. Even when a black man is in his grandmother's backyard.

"Oh, my God. Have you seen that show "The Wire"??"

Yeah. I've seen it.

"It's so real. I had no idea, ya know?"

Yeah. I know.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Scouting a Location

My favorite kind of research involves going somewhere to do what you might call location scouting. That's what I did yesterday, taking a day off from work to travel to a wild place that looks like this:

A river with waterfalls, surrounded by woods. At this place, I was able to wander around in peace and quiet while plotting out a story I have to write for an anthology.  I got a feel for the river and its banks and took photos I can refer to later.  An escape into nature for a day, a morning and part of an afternoon walking around in the area where I've chosen to set this story.  Where best to have the crime occur, or the body to be found?

If the river in the pictures looks narrow, that's because it is, and if the building in the picture above makes you suspect I'm in a city here, that's because I am.  I took a drive from the central Brooklyn neighborhood where I live to the northern Bronx and the Bronx Zoo area to get reacquainted with the Bronx River, around which this story I'm supposed to write revolves.  It's a crime fiction anthology, yes, but each story has to feature a river in some fashion, with proceeds to go to a river conservation group.  But why the Bronx River?  Not exactly a mighty torrent.  It's because when the person organizing the book, a fellow New Yorker, asked me to pick a river, he said outright, "Don't say the Hudson."  Which, of course, I would have picked.  I had to think for a minute in order to find another river I could write about, and then it dawned on me how many times since childhood I've visited the Bronx Zoo and walked over, past, and alongside the river that runs right through it.  The Bronx River runs for about 24 miles from Westchester County (north of New York City), down through the heart of the Bronx, and over the last several years, thanks to the efforts of many, it has gone through much clean-up work.  Go there in the summer, and the entire greenway can look pretty lush.  From certain vantage points, whether you're on its bank or canoeing down it, you'd never know you're in a city.

Anyhow, I had a lovely day skipping work and strolling along the riverside paths.  The zoo on a Monday in March isn't crowded, and the calm was conducive to thinking.  I made progress plotting out the story, though I do have details to work out. 

They'll come (I hope).  

Let's see. Gotta have the river in there, but should I involve any animals? A body disposed of in the reptile house with the crocodiles?  Or maybe the corpse is dumped in the river, blood flowing downstream...

Monday, March 26, 2018

What Might Not Have Been

It's hard to believe, but Omar Little (The Wire) may not have been played by Michael K. Williams. There was a real possibility that the role of Leonard (Hap and Leonard) could have gone to someone else.

Yes, Michael K. Williams had struck out with acting and was working in his mom's daycare when he decided to give it one last shot.

It's easy for those of us who love his performances and (like Obama) agree that his character on The Wire is a memorable stand-out.

Omar's so popular he's got several supercuts of clips on Youtube that keep popping up, years after Omar and The Wire took their last bow.

Michael K. Williams isn't shy about crediting the role with altering the course of his life.

Imagine if he hadn't decided to give acting a final try.

Imagine if his mom hadn't given him a loan so that he could make that attempt.

The truth is, many artistic types suffer from self-doubt and rejection along the way. It's easy to get discouraged. No matter how nice and supportive a lot of people in your industry are on the surface there are always going to be those people who will try to bring you down. I just had a chance to chat with Dana King about his latest book and he talks about some of the issues female authors face as just one of a number of gender-related issues that inspired his story.

I got a lesson in perseverance from my 3rd cousin, Deric. Same age. Same home room in high school. Different paths in life. He quit college, packed his bags and moved to Nashville. And when his debut CD came out he wrote about spending 10 long years deciding whether to buy groceries or pay the electric bill while he struggled to get his break.

This would be the same guy who's had his own successful career as a Canadian recording artist and as a popular songwriter. If you've listened to popular country music on the radio then you've heard something that Deric penned.

I'd always wanted to write novels and I felt shamed that the only thing I had to do was invest my time and energy and I could write from the comfort of my own home. I didn't have to move to Nashville. I didn't have to struggle to pay the bills while trying to pursue my art.

Deric talked about seeing people come and go from Nashville. All he could say was to keep chasing your dream. You couldn't give up.

Imagine if he had.

Imagine if Michael K. Williams had.

What will the world miss out on if you quit?