Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Gray Ghost by Clive Cussler and Robin Burcell

Scott D. Parker

Clive Cussler is one of those authors I admire. He cut his teeth on his Dirk Pitt novels before expanding his universe to include the NUMA series (Kurt Austin) and Oregon Files (Juan Cabrillo). These three series have numerous crossovers (if my paltry reading of the entire run is any indication). But it’s his Isaac Bell series, set in the early days of the 20th Century, that I really enjoy. The fourth series is the Fargo adventures, featuring Sam and Remi Fargo. They’re a charming pair of millionaires (thanks to Sam’s invention) and they travel the world, searching for treasure and doing good. I had only read one novel of theirs to date (THE TOMBS) but the latest novel, THE GRAY GHOST, features not only them, but Isaac Bell.

How, might you ask, can a story set in the present also include Bell? Well, it’s a very clever conceit. In 2018, someone steals the Gray Ghost, a Rolls-Royce car from 1906. In the course of the story, Sam and Remi get involved in the search for the priceless car. You see, there has always been a legend that treasure exists in the car, but no one has found it for over a century. As soon as the Fargos get involved, they have bad guys trying to stop them, even while they try to help the actual present-day owners locate the vehicle.

Where Isaac Bell comes in is through a journal. Back in 1906, Bell helped an ancestor of the present owner thwart another attempt to steal the Gray Ghost. That ancestor kept a journal of the exploits, but that volume of the journal is missing in the present day. Stolen. Cussler and co-author Robin Burcell keep the action going not only with the Fargo adventures but the Bell investigation as well, interspersing passages of the journal with the current action.

As with all Cussler novels, I listened to the brilliant Scott Brick narrate the story. It was interesting to hear slight variations between how Cussler and Burcell treat Bell versus Cussler and Justin Scott, the team who writes the Bell novels. Brick brings so much to his narration that it enlivens the story above the mere prose.

If I have one criticism of this series, it’s in the back-and-forth dialogue of the two main characters. Often times, you don’t get the spark of passion between husband and wife. I’m not calling for a bunch of intimate scenes, and I’m completely fine with them walking to a hotel room with the knowledge of what they’re about to do, but I would like to see a little more fire to their relationship. In one of the dire moments in this book, I got the sense of it, but I’d like to see if when they’re not fighting for their lives. It’s a little thing, but noticeable.

For a good summer beach read, THE GRAY GHOST is a humdinger, and it’s propelled me to my next Fargo adventure, THE MAYAN SECRETS.

Friday, July 6, 2018

On Reading Outside Your Genre

I’m going to take a quick time out from talking about writing from a “crime fiction” perspective and talk about it in a more general sense. I went out to see Paul Tremblay read from his latest novel, Cabin At The End of the World, which I finished a few days ago. Afterward, a group of us went to get a snack and talk. A lot of attention was on Paul - after all, he’s the belle of the ball at his own reading, and everyone had either read Cabin... or was looking forward to it, but we talked books in general. Sitting at a table full of writers, the majority were horror writers, but as readers and movie watchers - we talked science fiction, too. Earlier in the evening I’d chatted with others about historical fiction, sci fi, crime fiction, and more.

This has me thinking about Stephen King’s advice about writers being readers first. You don’t become a writer without loving at least one book. Most of us love a hell of a lot more. Personally, I grew up on horror and literary fiction, and stuff I pulled off of my mother’s nightstand and my grandmother’s bookshelf. This put me reading everything from old Tennessee Williams plays to Robin Cook and James Patterson. My favorite, like so many people, was Stephen King.

To call these “influences” might build an expectation that my work is somehow like the work (or at least attempting to be like the work) of these authors, and the obvious truth is - it’s not. But talk to any good writer, and you’ll find someone who reads across genre. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. A crime fiction writer better love crime fiction, or it’s going to be a hard road, but it would be ridiculous to say a crime fiction writer should only look to Tremblay’s earlier crime novels for inspiration and learning, when his horror novels have so much to offer.

I thought about giving some examples, but holy hell I don’t want to spoil a single twist in this novel - I read it in one night, it was so good. But after I got over the emotional trauma the book put me through, and was able to think about more than the ways the story knocked me on my ass - I wanted to pick at all the techniques and tricks Paul used to make me feel that way. Every good book I read makes me want to do that - and that includes everything from young adult fiction to literary fiction.

Of course I’m going to tune in when crime writers talk about crime writing, and I’m going to read as much in my genre and sub genre as I can, but there’s always new ground to be covered, and new lessons to be learned. I hope writers all make an effort to read outside their genre, learn from the good (and hell, even the bad) books that come from other writing communities.

If I can find writing lessons watching romantic comedies for Mandatory Happy, surely we can all learn a thing or two from a horror novel.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Podcast Summer

By Steve Weddle

As you may have heard, the DoSomeDamage Podcast Network is back with 7 Minutes With, coming to you every two weeks. In each episode I chat with three crime fiction authors about music, movies, and television. Find us on SoundCloud and iTunes and elsewhere.

The new episode with Jedidiah Ayers, Holly West, and Chris F. Holm should be in your ears by the end of the week, as long as you subscribe to the podcast.

Eryk Pruitt and company just launched The Long Dance Podcast, which you can find here. This is a true crime story about an unsolved murder case from the 1970s.
On February 12, 1971, in Durham, North Carolina, a 20-year-old nursing student and her 19-year-old boyfriend left a Valentine’s Dance to park down a secluded lover’s lane. They never returned. Two weeks later, their bodies were found deep within the Carolina pines. They had been strangled, tortured, and murdered. Their murders have never been solved.
THE LONG DANCE is the story of the lives touched by the murders of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane. Produced by crime fiction author Eryk Pruitt, investigative reporter Drew Adamek, and sound engineer Piper Kessler, it uses recorded interviews to tell the tragic tale of North Carolina’s most baffling murder case.
In creating THE LONG DANCE, we had a very simple goal: To create the substantive record about the lives and deaths of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane, as well as the forty-six year investigation into their murder, and the stories of those people touched by their deaths. Not only were we fortunate enough to record several hundreds of hours of interviews with our subjects, but we also became active participants in the investigation by helping to secure the DNA profiles of the three suspects who had never been eliminated. We have partnered with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office who believes this may be the final chance to close the book on the forty-six year old murder case. >>
If you want to hear crime writers in conversation with each other, be sure to check out Angel Colon's excellent podcast, The Bastard Title.  He's chatted with former DSDers Holly West and Dave White, as well as current DSDer Renee Asher Pickup.

And be sure to check out the Defectives CRIMEFRICTION podcast here, hosted by DSD co-founder Jay Stringer and the brilliant Chantelle Aimée Osman. You can subscribe on the iTunes here.

And, of course, you've got the Writer Types podcast with S.W. Lauden and Eric Beetner, as well as JDO's JDO interview show here & Luca Veste and Steve Cavanaugh's Two Crime Writers show here.

That should keep you busy.

Oh, and here's a taste of the upcoming DSD 7 Minutes with podcast, featuring Jedidiah Ayres, Holly West, and Chris F. Holm.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Cast Your Colors

Today, I'm writing from a safe place. Safe in body. Safe in the knowledge everyone I love is safe. They're all safely enjoying themselves. and enjoying the relief that those they know are safe. Some, and I would hazard most, humans do not. They don't know safety, neither for self nor loved ones. They don't know independence. When they were born, everything was gray, as it was when their fathers were born. The concept of anything other than gray—that independence could ever be such a thing—is foreign to them, as foreign in their reality as tyranny would be ours.

I think everyone wants to come to America because of what they've always been told the nation represents. When we were observing our own principles, serving them, with fidelity, its effect was easy to see from far away. The poorer and more troubled nations on Earth, peoples beleaguered by darkness, would have been able to see that promise from far away, like a spotlight shining up from a dark vista. That shining city up on a hill bit? That's what America looked like from East Germany and Vietnam. Kosovo. Mexico. If a North Korean is somewhere snapping out of it and talking with his friends about how much bullshit everything is, someone safely smuggled that kid something from America, a culture comprised of opportunists of all shades. The black market provoked those revolutions.

If you were in the Soviet Union, living a gray life devoid of the color of potential, you could see how, despite our issues internally, from that distance, it was colors upon colors. No gray. Bright. Alive. One glimpse of verboten audio, video, literature, fashion and the grit gets in the gears a little bit, then a little bit more. Back in the 80s, every nation we feared would destroy us in our sleep with a nuclear strike was one bootleg copy of Michael Jackson's Thriller away from having to reboot their whole goddamn regimes. Be it sonically, visually, or literarily, something produced and expressed and consumed with joy made America look like the best place on Earth, and made those so far away from it challenge their leaders to have lives of deep colors and no more grays. Tore shit up for color, for independence, if they had to. Often, it was relatively peaceful because their leaders were even more tired of the gray and couldn't wait to take these rubles they pilfered from the people and buy up Miami Beach and drop anchor heirs and heiresses.

Folks knew they had it bad in their own nation because the light of America illuminated all the cracks and flaws at home. Didn't matter if they were loyalists to the cause. Some Soviet politburo higher up defects because he went to the US for a summit and he got a hamburger and milkshake from Jack in the Box and he just can't get back on that bus to Moscow. Those who weren't fortunate enough to have perspective? They had the black market. Their leaders tried to block out that light America cast upon the rest of the restricted world. Then Levis would sell for $500 a pair. Black leather jackets with symbols painted on them start turning up. You only need one contraband copy of any album from The Clash and/or Public Enemy catalogs and countless young people could dance to the music of change if they were willing to risk it all. And there is no risk in losing the gray. America cast the gray in color. When you experience color, ain't no goin' back to the gray.

Shine a light. Cast your colors. Happy Independence Day.

- dg

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Refugees, Asylum, Victims, and Criminals - Danish Style

Last night I watched episode 3 of the second season of the Danish crime show, The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey.  I've mentioned this show here before, so I'll just briefly say it's a procedural centered around a Danish policeman named Hallgrim who is part of an investigative team based out of Copenhagen.  The team handles criminal cases that cross borders - terrorism, money laundering, child trafficking, and so on.  The show ran for three seasons, from 2004 to 2006.

The reason I bring the show up again is because of how striking episode 3 season 2 is in light of all the stuff going on now in the US at the Mexican border.  The episode picks ups with the team trying to find and catch the person who so far this season has been their prime nemesis - an Israeli, with a Swedish mother, who while serving in the Israeli military years ago was brought up on charges, and then convicted, for killing a civilian child.  He has since become a free man again and gone totally bad, helping to run a child prostitution ring with connections to Russia.  Through his Israeli military contacts, he has also arranged for the selling of weapons to different warring factions in the Congo War.  The Eagle doesn't go into too much detail about this war, so it may help to know a little background about it.

This is the Second Congo War, or the African World War as it's been called, that took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 to 2003.  The war went virtually unnoticed in the United States, but it's a conflict in which about five million Africans died and a couple more million at least were displaced.  It was a complex war that, besides the Congo, involved Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nambiba, Chad, Libya, Angola, and Sudan.  In The Eagle, the Israeli, Benjamin Stern, has been instrumental in getting Israeli weapons to a particular warlord in the Congo in return for blood diamonds, and at the point the episode picks up, the warlord is paying him to get rid of two people who've sought asylum in Denmark.

The two people are the mother and teenage daughter of a journalist who back in the Congo managed to write articles critical of the warlord. For his efforts, the journalist was imprisoned and tortured.  He was lucky to leave prison alive, and he managed to find safety in Sweden.  His daughter, who grew up without knowing him, was raped during the war. Over a 24 hour period, a unit of 40 soldiers raped her.  Besides the emotional trauma, she has suffered internal injuries that require surgery if she's ever to fully heal.  The mother and daughter, under the organized watch of the Danish authorities, are being housed in a livable facility while the asylum process goes forward, but Hallgrim's team finds out that Stern and a pair he hired have located them. The pair almost kill the mother and daughter but are stopped at the last minute by two members of the team.  

In the meantime, the mother's husband, the journalist, remains in Sweden.  He is essentially hiding there because he's supposed to testify at a coming war crimes tribunal against the warlord.  The mother hasn't seen her husband in years and is trying to find him so they can reunite.  But then comes the twist.  Something the journalist does not say when interviewed by Hallgrim makes Hallgrim suspicious of him, and we understand that the journalist is the warlord masquerading as the journalist.  He is trying to evade justice that way, and if his masquerade works, he will get into Europe and obtain asylum.

That's where the episode ends, and I'll soon get to watching episode four.  I should add that Stern, having failed to eliminate the wife and daughter as the warlord paid him to do, ends the episode dead.  It appears the warlord paid someone to eliminate him and shut him up for good.

Now I'll assume that The Eagle gets into issues that Denmark had to deal with when the show came out - African refugees specifically and people fleeing the Second Congo War.  But does any of this sound familiar?  I found myself straightening up on my couch when the story became one about a parent and her child (in this case a teenager) who are fleeing a country where they aren't safe.  More than unsafe really: they've been brutalized.  They are being held in a facility for refugees, though the facility does look halfway decent (no bars anywhere) and the Danish policy regarding them clearly is not zero tolerance.  But the show does have a character who represents the very danger we are told is supposed to be prevalent down at the Mexican border: the person pretending to be a victim when in fact he's a terrible criminal.  Based on what he did to the Israeli (who got what he deserved, true), I suspect that even if he gets asylum in Europe, the warlord won't become an upstanding citizen.

Different time and different continent, but it's noteworthy how this particular show uses a crime narrative to look at the subject of human migration.  From south to north.  From a very dangerous place to a place that can provide a measure of refuge.  It's a subject, unfortunately, that seems all too timeless and universal. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Watching Our Words

By Sandra Ruttan

Believe it or not, there was a point in my life when I didn't swear much. One of the hardest adjustments was understanding for myself that if certain words came from a character's mouth in a story I wrote, they still weren't my words.

I got over the swearing. 

It's been much harder dealing with other language.

Remarks made against women or racist comments are the hardest thing to put in a character's mouth. You'd think I might be used to it because The Spying Moon has a lot of it, but making Moreau be female and half Native were deliberate choices to multiply the number of ways she's alienated in the story. 

I still find myself worrying. Worrying someone will take a character's remark personally or think their sentiments are my own. When I wrote it initially that wasn't something I thought about as much, but so much has changed in the last two years that it's clear we aren't moving past racism as a society. Discrimination, on multiple levels, seems to be more rampant than ever. And in some circles it's even acceptable, if not encouraged.

Having a character tell a woman to get in the kitchen or make an assumption about someone based on their race while the POV character and others recognize that as wrong is different from writing something based on your experiences, with a POV character who shares your name and expresses racist sentiments. 

In the wake of the ALA decision to rename an award there's been good reason to think about our racial language in what we write. I think that first, the ALA can call their award whatever they want. Second, no books are being banned. They changed an award's name to make it more inclusive and in line with their mission as an organization.

The fall-out was far and wide, with uproars on Twitter and Facebook, and in organizations like Sisters in Crime. 

Backlash over the name change shows that people can be reactive. Some may be racist and others may just be insensitive.

It has heightened my awareness. My friend count recently went down on Facebook when I asked people who support putting babies in cages to unfriend me. I consider that the best kind of housecleaning possible. I don't need to engage with blatant racists to know how they think.

But what it shows is that this type of thinking is far more prevalent than some of us realized. And that, for me, is the definition of white privilege. I don't always think about how people are treated based on race because I am white.

In order to address prejudices we have to acknowledge they exist and that will come into what we write sometimes. I trust readers to see that treating a person differently based on gender or skin color or sexual orientation or anything else is wrong. 

But I will still think carefully about racial language in every work I produce. We send messages with our words. The subtext of any work worth reading shouldn't be that it was just an excuse to make crude or derogatory remarks.

The ALA's decision, particularly given the current climate, has heightened our awareness of how far there is to go to really change attitudes and embrace equality. I'm thinking about the nuances of language more than ever and, while I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, the reason for it is. Hopefully the future will see a more inclusive writing community, as well as a more inclusive world.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Lose Yourself in a Book

It seems like there are bad things going on everywhere right now, so this Sunday I thought I’d show a good thing.
Have a seat. It’s a fully functional bench – but if you’re like me, you’d rather look at it than sit on it. It’s part of the Writers’ Garden at 916 Ink, a creative writing nonprofit that provides workshops for Sacramento area youth in grades 3-12, including many who are at-risk or vulnerable. Students go through workshops that transform them into confident writers and published authors. They have their stories or poems published in anthologies (complete with ISBN numbers) and participate in book readings for their family, friends and the public. These workshops instill a love of reading and a healthy dose of self-confidence in kids and teens.
Part of what 916 Ink offers is inspirational space. And that’s where this book bench sits. The artist who created this thing of beauty is Kerri Warner, a Sacramento-area mixed-media specialist who works a lot with local non-profits. She did several pieces for 916 Ink’s location, most of them book-related. If only every kid could have a chance to sit on something created by someone who obviously loves the written word.

*You’ll be hearing a lot more about 916 Ink later on. It’s one of the organizations chosen by the Sacramento Bouchercon 2020 committee. At the Bouchercon crime fiction convention in October 2020, held here in California's capital, we’ll be raising funds to help out this great cause.