Saturday, May 5, 2018

Travis McGee and John D. MacDonald: One Reader's Revelation

Scott D. Parker

Come on. Are you kidding me? How good is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories?

Yeah, I know that many of y’all already know about McGee, have read all twenty-one of his novels, and have been a fan for decades. Not me. It was only two weeks ago when I reviewed THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY. Well, I’ve now read the next two in the series and boy, am I hooked.

Back in 1964, long-time pulp writer MacDonald decided to try his hand at a series character. McGee was the result. His publisher, Fawcett Gold Medal, decided to try something different: publish the first three novels a month apart and then the subsequent novels at a longer pace. The first book was published in March, NIGHTMARE IN PINK came out in April, and A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING in May. The fourth novel, THE QUICK RED FOX, also has a 1964 publication date, but I can’t find the month. Be that as it may, readers in 1964 saw four adventures of McGee. If they read those books like I’ve done, they’ve just devoured this new character.

NIGHTMARE finds McGee in New York. As a favor to an fellow Korean War veteran, McGee is looking into the death of the fiancé of the veteran’s sister, Nina. As a man who is decidedly not an official private detective, McGee has an interesting way of approaching what might be considered his cases. He’s the proverbial fly in the ointment. He is also the rescuer of lost things, mainly women. In this book, the ‘nightmare’ part is something I never saw coming: hallucinogenic drugs, administered without consent to McGee. Author MacDonald’s descriptions here are as trippy as anything I’ve read. Couple that with the sense of dread that washed over McGee when he realizes his predicament makes this entry downright horrifying.

PURPLE PLACE has McGee meeting a potential client in a fictitious town out in the Southwest. Mona Yeoman thinks her much-older husband has bilked her inheritance and she wants some so she and her new man, a professor, can get a divorce and run off together. No sooner does McGee beg off the job than Mona is shot in the back, dead before she hits the ground. By the time McGee escapes and brings back the sheriff, the body and all traces of the murder have vanished. In a brilliant bit of prose, McGee toys with the idea that he should just leave, but he and the reader both know he won’t.

Even before I read these three novels, I know McGee as a man who lived on a boat. Strange, then, that two of the first three books take places somewhere other than Florida. I preferred PURPLE PLACE over NIGHTMARE largely because the subject matter of NIGHTMARE made me uneasy. But I also enjoyed the relationships McGee made with the women. In books like these, there’s always a woman for the lead man to bed. But then there’s always the problem of commitment. The way MacDonald lets McGee out is actually pretty natural.

The way MacDonald writes these books is so fluid and captivating. The prose sucks me in with little effort. I’ve already dug out an old collection of short stories I bought years ago of some of MacDonald’s early pulp short stories. This man can write and I can read. And I aim to read more of McGee and MacDonald. They are a revelation to me.

So, long-time fans, what are your favorite Travis McGee and/or John D. MacDonald novels? And is there a good biography of MacDonald?

Friday, May 4, 2018

No news is good news...

There's a lot going on in publishing/writing right now. The Nobel Prize for Literature is cancelled this year (literally cancelled, not #cancelled), Junot Diaz is getting called to task for shit behavior to women, there are conversations happening all over social media about editors responsibility for diversity, their responsibility to seek out work, and not just throw out an open call.

It seems like it should be easy to pick a topic and run with it for the blog - but I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around so many news items, let alone distilling one or all of them down into a blog entry that isn't just word salad.

I use writing to work out how I feel, and sometimes nonfiction (essays, blogging, articles) can help me do that, but sometimes it's too complex, too big, to work out that way. This is the gift of fiction - reading or writing it. We can take big, complicated, upsetting things and work them out in compelling ways.

Instead of waxing philosophical or raging on the news, I'm going to put my head down and work. This isn't advice, this isn't a mantra or a way I think writers should do things - it is our responsibility to be aware and engaged. But it's also our responsibility to know when we don't have the right words or view point to tackle something.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Whiter Shade of Pale

By David Nemeth

Last week The Guardian asked 25 crime fiction writers "crime novels should everyone read?" Nothing really wrong with the question. I get it, the newspaper needs to get hits on their website, maybe even fill in column inches if they actually printed the article. The problem lies in the responses – the predominately white male authors whose books were published last century. But before we get into it all, let's introduce the writers The Guardian decided to ask.

The newspaper split the respondents up quite evenly with 10 female and 10 male writers (there was one duo author represented). I didn't look at the sexuality of each writer as Wikipedia only has so much information. Of the 25 writers polled only three were people of color: Jacob Ross, Abir Mukherjee, and Dreda Say Mitchell. The rest, all 22, were white as Casper the Friendly Ghost. I know the crime fiction community has some issues, but since The Guardian was picking and choosing the crime writers, they should have done a better job at this simple task.

Now let's look at the results of the poll. Of the 24 authors chosen all were white. The only person of color was Martin Cruz Smith and he was chosen twice for Gorky Park. The average published year of all the books selected was 1957 making the average age of the books selected 61 years-old. There were four books chosen that were over 100 years old: Bleak House by Charles Dickens, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And Art Taylor already told us about the problems with Bleak House.

If we removed the 100 plus year-old books from the numbers, the average publishing year would move to 1972 making the books 46 years old.

The youngish books were On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr, A Place of Execution by Val McDermid, Silence of the Grave byArnaldur Indriðason. Only one woman, but all definitely white. Again. If you removed these books from the list, the average publishing year would be 1945 making the books 70 plus years old.

We all know there are problems in the crime fiction community with diversity and I'm disappointed that the "top writers" in the field as they were called by The Guardian could not have done a more inclusive job in selecting books. Obviously, it is up to us to lead from behind.

If you have a moment, give me some important crime books to read that aren't by white men.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Award Season Depressive Disorder

NOTE: This is not to make light of actual mental disorders. I'm not even going to make too much light of this made-up one.

The curse of social media is that when you are scouring your timeline for therapeutic videos of a baby tiger beset upon by friendly otters, you will also be exposed to a gauntlet of distressing news items, from signs of impending dystopia to that violent shredder of self-esteem, awards season.
We're going to talk about writers other than you getting accolades! Quick, watch the tiger and otters video to brace yourself:

There will be some gentle mockery here, because it is coupled with self-deprecation. Two of my favorite writer people were asking if anyone was driven to succeed by spite. And well, you do what works for you, but as someone with a very unhealthy mental outlook when it comes to validation, even I think can't be good. But if it keeps you writing, I guess it's good.

I love awards season because you get to see books you loved get their just deserts. But know, as surely as there are people in the seats at a racetrack who are there for the crashes, that there are people who like to root against as much as they like to root for. (That's a clumsy sentence, but I have a hangover and the beginning of a cold, so go back and parse it.) Maybe you're one of those people. Maybe we all are? I like to think there are a few out there who don't have a secret nemesis they root against. Let's pretend there are.

Even if you don't root against a book that everyone loved but you found incomprehensible, you may feel like you're falling behind during awards season, when your book languishes in obscurity and some book you never heard of wins the triple crown. That's pretty self-explanatory, isn't it? If you haven't read the books that the genre cognoscenti think are important, how can you expect everyone to have read your book? You can blame it on nepotism or some other bitter invention, but when it comes down to it, there are thousands of books out there, and even with a publicity team and word of mouth, not all of them can win or even be nominated. And then of course, maybe your book just isn't the best out there. There's no shame in that. Read books by writers who are better than you, and learn.

That may not work, either. You can watch LeBron James all day and still never win a game of HORSE.

Wait, don't do anything rash! Here's a baby giraffe!!!

This is why I loathe the "I hate writing and writing is painful" trope. Then why the hell are you doing it? You can like having written as the joke guys, but if this makes you miserable, maybe, like the guy who was hitting himself in the face with a hammer, if will feel better when you stop. Joe Lansdale gives some tough-love advice when he says, (paraphrasing) "if you can quit, quit." If you need spite to keep you going, cut that nose off, baby! But there has to be some joy in this beyond the fawning praise of friends and strangers, or what are you even doing?

There's no guarantee of success, even if you persevere. Because we tend to keep moving the goalposts of success. Remember when you wanted to have a short story published, and that was enough? I'm sure there are plenty of you still striving for that laudable goal, and well, keep at it. Read the mags you want to get into, that helps. (If you hate what they publish, why do you want to get published by them? Ask yourself.) Maybe you passed that, and want more. Probably what someone else has gotten, and you're judging your success against theirs, as if it's the only way to "succeed." What's success anyway? Do you want money, or fame, or both? The respect of your peers? Do you want the life of a writer as depicted on a TV show or in a movie you saw at a tender age?

(Personally, Throw Momma From the Train is my goal movie. And I'm the DeVito character).

Dreams don't need to be realistic, but don't let someone else's successes distract you from your own goals. As it has been said again and again, this is not a zero sum game. One writer's success does not take away from yours. Even if they won the award you were nominated for. (Or weren't nominated for.)  As I've said before, I'm very happy that there are now other people enjoying the stories I come up with. I'd be thinking them up anyway. That's my outlook, and it helps fend off the envy when great things happen to other people. But I'm not saying don't be spiteful, if that's what works for you!

Roxane Gay says she has a nemesis. She has multiple best sellers, half a million Twitter followers, awards up the wazoo, all in the few short years since I met her at the Sackett Street Writers reading in a beer garden basement. She's a rising star and a great short story writer, and she has a nemesis. So who says you can't have one, if it helps? I mean, don't go all Salieri on them, but if they drive you to work harder and get better, by all means, spite away, pal!

There are writers who win awards and never sell a lot of books. There are writers who sell plenty and never win many awards. There are some who do both or neither, and they have their fans, they keep writing. There are some who write one book because the awards and fame and money either satisfied them or soured them or daunted them into seclusion. The awards don't make you a writer. Writing does. And coincidentally, that is also the best treatment for Award Season Depressive Disorder.

To quote Marty's agent from Throw Momma from the Train:

Writers write!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Untouched, No Longer Read, but Saved

One day during my freshman year in college, at a small bookstore in Endicott New York, the old working-class town not far from where I went to college - at SUNY Binghmaton - I made what is probably the single greatest book haul of my life.  On sale for a few dollars each, the prices written lightly in pencil on the cover page of each book, were these volumes:

I had never read Borges at that point, but I'd heard of him.  Curious to give him a try, I bought all four books on the spot.  This was during the spring semester, I think; I remember reading Borges for the first time outside on campus and enjoying the warmth and sunshine after a long winter.  I don't remember what I was reading for classes during that period, but I do know that I tore through all four of these Borges books and that he then and there became one of my favorite writers.  That was in 1981, and since then I have re-read the stories and pieces in these books countless times.  I never get tired of Borges.  I also found and added - I don't remember when exactly - the collection of mystery stories he wrote with his friend Adolfo Bioy-Casares. 

In this collection, a man named Don Isidro Parodi, imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit, is the detective. People come to his Buenos Aires jail cell with their stories of theft and murder, and Parodi, mental giant that he is, solves the crimes without once leaving the confines of his cell.  The stories are convoluted, amusing, and a lot of fun.  Borges, of course, loved mystery fiction, especially the classic kind, British or American, involving puzzles and ratiocination.

So I've got these five books, all published by E.P. Dutton, the translations by Norman Thomas di Giovanni.  Borges and di Giovanni were close, and in the 1960's and 70's, they worked together in Buenos Aires on these translations.  In a famous interview he gave in 1980, Borges said that di Giovanni's translations were better than his originals.  Now whether they are or not, I can't say, since I can't read Spanish, but I know that I love these versions of Borges' work and have been opening and reopening these editions for decades.  

The problem is, I don't want them to fall apart.  I'm working on a piece now about Argentinian mystery fiction written during the Juan Peron era, and for the piece, I've gone back yet again to these old E.P. Dutton copies.  I re-read the Parodi stories as well as a couple of stories in The Aleph.  I handle the books with gentleness, making sure I don't fold the front covers back too far when I'm holding them, careful not to create any new seams in the spine.  And the books, well-made, solidly constructed (kudos to Dutton!), remain in good shape.  But they can't stay in good shape forever, not if I keep going back to read them.  The wear and tear will have to affect them.  The spines will crack; pages will come loose.  Yet I want to preserve these books.

There's a simple solution.  Buy new copies of these translations. 

I can't, though, because after Borges' death in 1986, his widow renegotiated the English translation rights for his works.  This renegotiation is a story in and of itself, and I don't want to get into it here.  But the final result is that new translations were done for the Borges books and the di Giovanni translations went out of print.

I know that until the day I die, I'll be reading Borges. But I can't keep going to these di Giovanni editions unless I'm willing to see them fall apart.  They're such treasures to me now, I'm hesitant to open them.  I associate Borges' voice, his rhythms, his fiction itself, with everything di Giovanni brought to it, yet it seems the time has come to leave these books on the shelf as objects and get the new translations. It's a sad feeling, I have to say, letting these editions go, as it were, in order to save them, but I've done what I must. I've surrendered to the inevitable.  Just yesterday, I went to Amazon and ordered this: 

I shouldn't be harsh.  The cover isn't much to look at, but this edition does collect all Borges' stories, from the 1930's through the 1980's, in one place.  How will I like Andrew Hurley's translations after thirty plus years reading the master through someone else?  I don't know.  But obviously, I'll be reading from this book, and Borges does remain Borges. That mind, with all the conundrums it presents, remains his mind.  Let's just hope this particular edition has the physical strength of the old Dutton books.  Because knowing myself and my never-ending fascination with Borges, this volume will be getting a workout.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Monday Interview: Chris DeWildt

Heads up! Chris Dewildt has a new book hitting the racks on May 4th. Shotgun Honey is excited to present SUBURBAN DICK and having had the chance to read this suspenseful, eclectic private eye tale I can highly recommend. He's outdone himself.

Private Eye Gus Harris isn’t paid to be nice. Problem is he isn’t paid for much of anything these days. Recently divorced, all Gus wants is a little business to keep his one-man operation afloat and a chance to be a part of his kids’ lives. So when a pair of distraught parents come calling for help locating their missing son, it appears Gus’s luck may be changing.
Gus investigates the boy’s disappearance and discovers something rotten with the Horton High school wrestling team. He soon realizes the missing boy may not be missing at all, but rather part of an elaborate embezzlement scheme that serves to keep the team at peak performance and the college scholarships rolling in. Gus is certain that popular high school wrestling coach Geoff Hanson knows more than he’s willing to admit, but has no idea just how far the man is willing to go to keep his secrets from coming to light.
As the lines between Gus’s work and home life are blurred and Gus finds himself not only trying to crack the case, but also protecting the people most dear to him from Hanson’s vengeful wrath.

Chris kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his newest offering and how he came to write SUBURBAN DICK.

DSD: I feel like I know Gus Harris. He's a decent guy. Trying to do the right thing. Most of the time. Not asking for a giant piece of the American pie. Just a bite. I wonder, who was your inspiration for the highly relatable Gus?

Chris: Me. Without taking this whole thing too seriously, Gus's drive, passion for his work , and self interest are not that far removed from publishing. It's about chasing passions at the expense of everything.

DSD: What is your favorite thing about Gus?

Chris: My favorite thing is how much he loves his kids. Least favorite is his selfishness. Selfishness with his time that is. He would choose his family again and again, but he's his own worst enemy. He'd fuck it up again and again.

DSD: You've created such a realistic setting and developed real-world problems. With the story centering around high school athletic programs, juicing, and the heavy hand of organized religion, where do you find your inspiration?

Chris: Gus's world, Horton, is a fictionalized version of my home town. KILL 'EM WITH KINDNESS was set there too, as well as my novella CANDY and CIGARETTES. It's a place I love, and I know it better than anywhere else. But the religion and the dark shit all stems from there. I knew guys who used steroids and I'd done a lot of research years back for a different unpublished project and always wanted to come back to it. So here we are.

DSD: Are you working on another Gus adventure?

Chris: I am. New case, new set of family problems. Maybe a relocation, but you know, he's still a dick.

DSD: Wouldn't have it any other way.

Please stop by Amazon and check out SUBURBAN DICK by Chris DeWildt.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Best First Novel

A propulsive, gritty novel about a girl marked for death who must fight and steal to stay alive, learning from the most frightening man she knows—her father.
Eleven-year-old Polly McClusky is shy, too old for the teddy bear she carries with her everywhere, when she is unexpectedly reunited with her father, Nate, fresh out of jail and driving a stolen car. He takes her from the front of her school into a world of robbery, violence, and the constant threat of death. And he does it to save her life.
Nate made dangerous enemies in prison—a gang called Aryan Steel has put out a bounty on his head, counting on its members on the outside to finish him off. They’ve already murdered his ex-wife, Polly’s mother. And Polly is their next target.
Nate and Polly’s lives soon become a series of narrow misses, of evading the bad guys and the police, of sleepless nights in motels. Out on the lam, Polly is forced to grow up early: with barely any time to mourn her mother, she must learn how to take a punch and pull off a drug-house heist. She finds herself transforming from a shy little girl into a true fighter. Nate, in turn, learns what it’s like to love fiercely and unconditionally—a love he’s never quite felt before.
"From its bravura prologue to its immensely satisfying ending, this first novel comes out with guns blazing and shoots the chambers dry. It’s both a dark, original take on the chase novel and a strangely touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship framed in barbed wire." - Booklist (starred review)

Deborah E. Kennedy, TORNADO WEATHER
Five-year-old Daisy Gonzalez’s father is always waiting for her at the bus stop. But today, he isn’t, and Daisy disappears. When Daisy goes missing, nearly everyone in town suspects or knows something different about what happened. And they also know a lot about each other. The immigrants who work in the dairy farm know their employers’ secrets. The hairdresser knows everything except what’s happening in her own backyard. And the roadkill collector knows love and heartbreak more than anyone would ever expect. They are all connected, in ways small and profound, open and secret.
Moving…Complex, interlocking plotlines…A narrative that shifts its lenses continually and deliberately, playing with degrees of identification as it slides among more than a dozen viewpoints…Well-crafted, humane, and energetic novel.” - New York Times Book Review

Vivian is a cosmopolitan Taiwanese-American tourist who often escapes her busy life in London through adventure and travel. Johnny is a 15-year-old Irish teenager, living a neglected life on the margins of society. He has grown up in a family where crime is customary, violence is a necessity, and everything--and anyone--can be yours for the taking.
As Vivian looks to find her calling professionally, she delights in exploring foreign countries, rolling hillsides, and new cultures. And as a young, single woman, she has grown used to experiencing life on her own. But all of that changes when, on one bright spring afternoon in West Belfast, Vivian's path collides with Johnny and culminates in a horrifying act of violence.
In the aftermath of the incident, both Johnny and Vivian are forced to confront the chain of events that led to the attack. Vivian must struggle to recapture the woman that she was and the woman she aspired to be, while dealing with a culture and judicial system that treats assault victims as less than human. Johnny, meanwhile, flees to the sanctity of his transitory Irish clan.                
"A heart-wrenching depiction of a dreadful crime and its horrifying aftermath. Brave, raw and strikingly original, it is a story that will resonate for many years." - Daily Mail (UK)

Melissa Scrivner Love, LOLA
The Crenshaw Six are a small but up-and-coming gang in South Central LA who have recently been drawn into an escalating war between rival drug cartels. To outsiders, the Crenshaw Six appear to be led by a man named Garcia . . . but what no one has figured out is that the gang's real leader (and secret weapon) is Garcia's girlfriend, a brilliant young woman named Lola. Lola has mastered playing the role of submissive girlfriend, and in the man's world she inhabits she is consistently underestimated. But in truth she is much, much smarter--and in many ways tougher and more ruthless--than any of the men around her, and as the gang is increasingly sucked into a world of high-stakes betrayal and brutal violence, her skills and leadership become their only hope of survival.  
"Achingly beautiful...Lola is going to get compared to Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo…But Scrivner Love does better than Steig Larson by creating a female character who is not just standing up to males, she’s actually reconstructing gender for herself and her community.” - Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Emily Ruskovich, IDAHO
Ann and Wade have carved out a life for themselves from a rugged landscape in northern Idaho, where they are bound together by more than love. With her husband’s memory fading, Ann attempts to piece together the truth of what happened to Wade’s first wife, Jenny, and to their daughters. In a story written in exquisite prose and told from multiple perspectives—including Ann, Wade, and Jenny, now in prison—we gradually learn of the mysterious and shocking act that fractured Wade and Jenny's lives, of the love and compassion that brought Ann and Wade together, and of the memories that reverberate through the lives of every character in Idaho.
In a wild emotional and physical landscape, Wade’s past becomes the center of Ann’s imagination, as Ann becomes determined to understand the family she never knew . . .
“You know you’re in masterly hands here. [Emily] Ruskovich’s language is itself a consolation, as she subtly posits the troubling thought that only decency can save us. . . . Ruskovich’s novel will remind many readers of the great Idaho novel, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. . . .  [A] wrenching and beautiful book." - The New York Times Book Review