Saturday, December 8, 2018

Christmas Readings and Discoveries

Scott D. Parker

I love Christmas anthologies. I have my small collection. They run the gamut from SF (Christmas Stars) to classic (Dickens Christmas tales; Christmas Classics) to mystery (Crime for Christmas) to scary (Christmas Ghosts; can't find a link; it's the Hartwell/Cramer one) and Sherlock Holmes (Holmes for the Holidays). I've even got my comics covered with A DC Universe Christmas and Lee Bermejo's Batman: Noel.

But when it comes to mysteries, I think there is a top dog. Otto Penzler's The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. Released in 2013, this 650-page book has something for everybody.

Agatha Christie opens and closes the book, and in between these bookends, all your favorites are here: Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Ellery Queen, Donald Westlake, Isaac Asimov, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, and more.

The stories are broken out by themes such as A Modern Little Christmas, A Puzzling Little Christmas, A Pulpy Little Christmas, and A Traditional Little Christmas. If the stories don't get you, the wonderful cover painting, evoking something from the golden age, certainly will.

A collection this large cannot possibly be finished in one season. I don’t even try. Instead, I dip in for the last five years, reading a tale here and there. What’s cool is that since the last time I opened this book in 2017, I have now read 5 John D. MacDonald novels featuring Travis McGee. I knew MacDonald’s name before this year, of course, but now I have some background.

I always enjoy making new discoveries, even if the discovery is something older.

Have y’all read through this book? If so, what are your favorite stories?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Dark Knight Returns

By Ray Banks

About twenty-two years ago, I was given a charity anthology called Unusual Suspects. The reason: the book boasted a “lost” Jim Thompson story, “The Car In The Mexican Quarter”. Now I couldn’t tell you much about that story (I probably liked it), nor do I remember the details of work by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke or Jonathan Lethem. The only thing I do remember is the jolt of the penultimate tale, a short-short piece barely four pages long, called “Homeless”.
“When I was a little kid, I saw this demonstration in the park near my house. A lot of people, screaming and yelling. Most of the men had long hair. The man who lived with my mother would have said they were fags. There was a big sign. BRING THE WAR HOME it said."
This was my introduction to Andrew Vachss. It blew my world apart. I didn’t know writing could be like that. Declarative sentences, meticulously crafted. Statements of fact. This is the world. This is the truth. This is important. And God help you if you don’t pay attention. His voice is that of the voiceless, his focus unparalleled. Many writers are described in pugilistic terms; very few read like they’re fighting for their lives. Further research confirmed the theory: this was an author who’d been an aid worker in Biafra, a labour organiser, a director of a maximum-security juvenile prison, an attorney specialising in cases of child abuse. For a young writer prospecting for authenticity in his prospective influences, Vachss was the motherlode.

I read Shella. I read the Burke books. I narrowly avoided tumbling into existential despair. Burke’s New York is rancid to the core, populated with irrevocably damaged outsiders trying to keep the predators from their prey. His worldview is grim, his victories small. Vachss became a tough recommendation to make, more so as ultra-hardboiled pretenders aped the violence and eschewed the informed indignation. In the end, it became easier to file Vachss under “grim-dark” and leave him there. For all their rigorous intensity, Vachss’s work felt too nihilistic to revisit. But then I felt the same way about Pinter for a while. And I was wrong there, too.

“Don’t confuse me with others in this game. I’m no cold reader. I don’t do hypnosis, I don’t look for tells, and I don’t use Amytal or psychedelics. Staging is important, yes, but I am the only indispensable element in the equation.”

Vachss’s latest is The Questioner, a novelette from snarling new publisher Utopia Books. The eponymous (and nameless) questioner is a man schooled in the dark arts of interrogation, but for whom violence is never a means to an end. He is a persuader, a diviner, a truth prospector. Over the course of 36 pages, we follow The Questioner through a series of interrogations as he gently probes his subjects and guides them towards their absolute truth, interspersed with meditations on his craft. On a surface level, this is another in a long line of skilfully rendered psychological thrillers from Vachss; scratch that surface and you’ll find a philosophical investigation into morality on a global scale. The hard, simple truths of Burke and his ilk have become something nebulous, their solutions no longer applicable if indeed they ever were. And in case you think this is a blurring of talent, rest assured that Vachss’s prose is still as precise as ever. The difference now is that he dares to leave room for interpretation. In this respect, the novelette’s ostensibly slight length is a bonus: this is a story that demands repeated reading, and promises to offer more with each experience.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some re-reading to do. And what the hell, it’ll start with a demonstration in the park. That never goes out of style.


Ray Banks has worked as a wedding singer, double-glazing salesman, croupier, dole monkey, and various degrees of disgruntled temp. He currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland and online at

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Travis Richardson on Writing Short Fiction

Dear DSD Community,

I am honored that Scott Adlerberg graciously asked if I could write an article for him for today’s Do Some Damage. Specifically, he asked me about my approach to writing in regards to the variety of styles, tones, characters, etc.

I thought this was going to be an easy topic to tackle, but thinking about my approach opened a lot of issues, like how did I get here and what is the point of writing crime fiction? I ramble a little below but give a little insight to my muddled mind.  

When writing a story, my main goal is to have an impact on the reader. Whether the goal is emotional devastation, rays of hope, thoughtfulness on an issue, or humor, I try to find the best medium to get the point across. Years of reading “literary” fiction in my twenties made me into a crime fiction writer. This is not to say I didn’t read some great works back then, but I often read stories where the unhappy protagonist burdened by the weight of the world went through their unhappy day(s) unchanged through the end. The writers of these stories often had elegant prose and a unique perspective on an aspect of life, but the repetitive ennui (a fancy word I don’t know how to pronounce) left me exhausted, indifferent, and ultimately forgetful about a story that I spent time reading.

As a writer, I don’t want to do this to anybody. Readers have invested their time and possibly money so that I can ferry them into another world for five minutes to several days. When they finish, I hope the story stands out like a destination vacation to the Caribbean or Paris, and not a routine trip to the grocery store to buy eggs and bread.

When I encountered crime fiction in my mid-thirties, something clicked. Lives changed irreparably between the pages, and characters were pushed to their limits exposing their true selves. Readers endured an impact based on dire situations that resulted in memorable stories. It was a world that dealt with hard consequences for previous actions and sometimes countered with powerful reactions. These were not worlds where a shrug and a sigh were the entire point. Online short fiction and crime magazines exploded in between 2008ish and the early 2010s. Sites and publications like Twist of Noir, Spinetingler, Plots With Guns, Needle, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, and All Due Respect delivered hard hitting tales. I studied several short story crime writers including Matthew Funk, Todd Robinson, Patricia Abbott, Tim L. Williams, and Jordan Harper, among others, to learn how they compressed words and packaged explosive situations into an impactful, memorable reading.

So when it came time to submit, I wanted to stand out in venues full of amazing talent. I played with styles that would most effectively drive a point home. This can be through point of view, an absurd take on a serious issue, or a character who demands attention and must have their voice heard.

My crime fiction stories switch from comedic to serious to action-packed adventure. In the movie world, both Billy Wilder and the Coen Brothers created noir masterpieces one year and followed it up with a slapstick comedy next. I see less breadth in the writing world. It seems a writer must stake a claim to a certain style and stick to it. I believe I lost part of an audience I had built with a sensitive coming-of-age tale in my novella Lost in Clover when I followed it up with a hyper-violent and profane comedy Keeping the Record. Perhaps that wasn’t the best move. (I’m still learning.) The short fiction community, however, seems to be okay with radical changes in voices, tone, and style. Thank you!

Short fiction also gives me room for experimenting that wouldn’t go over well in longer fiction. “Here’s to Bad Decisions: Red’s Longneck Hooch” is the story of a man’s downfall through a beer ad. “Because” documents the reasons a young man becomes a criminal (and the consequences) with each paragraph giving three reasons for each fatal choice. In both of these stories, I’m not sure a reader could endure 50,000 words of text in either of these styles, but 700 and 1000 words deliver the maximum effectiveness. I’ve written a few stories in second person present tense, which I ‘d argue is more authentic than first person past, but that’s for another day.

Most stories I write in typical first or limited third person in past tense, but I love the immediacy and unpredictability of present tense. The characters and their stories ultimately determine how they get told. I often start with a vague idea of a person doing something and what would happen next, or sometimes it’s an issue that bothers me and I want to explore it through fiction. I’ll start in one direction and then reverse course. I’ve started in the middle then worked to the beginning and then put on the ending. My poor writing group sometimes gets drafts from me where I’ve changed the POV, tense, or gender part way through the draft and tried to clean it up miserably. I’ve changed stories based on rejections, and they’ve often become better for it.  Most of my flash fiction begins several hundred words over and then through several drafts I take out everything that doesn’t matter. I also believe flash fiction shouldn’t be just a scene, but should have a beginning, middle, and end.

I like challenges and restrictions as they force creativity within an area. Themed anthologies is something that does that.  But sometimes they almost drive me crazy. Holly West invited me to write a story in her upcoming Go-Go’s anthology. When she was coming up with the concept at the California Crime Writer’s Conference, a writer looked up and read aloud the titles of all the Go-Go songs from Wikipedia. When “Johnny Are Queer?” came up (never recorded, but played in their live set) another person said nobody should touch that story. I knew in that moment I had to write it. I did, but it took a lot of work to get the story right, balancing controversial issues. I remember thinking more than once, why didn’t I go for “Our Lips Are Sealed?”

Anyhow, if you’ve made it this far down, thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope you can find my fiction that’s out there or in my latest collection Bloodshot and Bruised: Crimes Stories from the South and West. (See what I did there?) Thank you and Happy Holidays.


Scott's Note: 

You can pick up Bloodshot and Bruised: Crime Stories from the South and West right here.

Monday, December 3, 2018

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Good Night

"It took me 50 long years just to work out
That because I was angry didn't mean I was right."
- Jackie Leven, Classic Northern Diversions

There's been a lot of anger lately. Anger over award nominees. Anger over successful authors having a writing room. Anger over the attacks against writers. Anger over an author's book title. 

And I'm reminded that just because a person is angry doesn't mean they're right. 

I have no issue with standing up on principle. There are times we need to say something is wrong. (I support the MWA decision about rescinding the award last week ...) 

But there are also times to take a deep breath and consider addressing a concern privately ...  Or consider if it should be abandoned. (Thinking about a book title scandal and then someone said JK Rowling isn't a writer, she's a waitress ... Just because you're angry doesn't mean you're right.) 

My husband and I have both been in the mystery community online for a long time. Between the two of us we've written hundreds of reviews. Brian has produced some serious in-depth analyses on different things in the genre. We've both interviewed a lot of different people. Everyone from Laura Lippman to Ken Bruen (who is responsible for introducing us) to Rick Mofina to Duane Swierczynski to Allan Guthrie ... The list goes on and on. The list of people I have published, and am about to publish in 2019 is also very long.

And we've seen the online community go through a lot. It isn't the same community that is was in 2005 when I launched Spinetingler. It's more cliquey and fractured and, sometimes, a lot more angry. This has come up more and more when Brian and I talk about the publishing world. It came up last week in a conversation we had with another friend. It's come up in other communications with other members of the mystery writing community. Some of us who've been around for a long time wonder where things are headed. What's become apparent is that there's more conflict than we even know about.

I'm shaking off negativity by doing an extended Advent Calendar of things I loved in 2018. Books, movies, shows, other stuff... Whatever was worthy of consumption. Today I feature a book I absolutely loved from my 2018 reads. The list to all prior entries, including the first book that kicked off my Advent Calendar, is in that post.

I never get up in the morning and wonder who I can piss off. I never begin a book hoping to hate it. I want every book to be great and every person to be awesome. And 2018 had a lot of greatness in it. Great shows, great books. It was hard to bring it down to 27 things. 

Moving forward, I'm going to be focusing on keeping my feed filled with genuine book recommendations based on more than friendship. Brian and I are looking for the tremendously great stuff we want to champion. What I love may not be for you; another book that doesn't wow me may be perfect for a specific audience. Part of recommending books is knowing who they'll resonate with. (If you love cross-genre greatness then one of those books is a dystopian sci fi noir thriller you may love. The other is a fantasy story about sacrifice for the greater good, about family, about commitment.)

2019 is going to represent a conscious shift in what I'm listening to on my social media feeds.

I work with a lot of great guys (like my Edgar nominated, Theakston Award-winning agent and my publishers) and am married to one. 

Outside of them and a few close friends and associates, I want to hear more from diverse and female authors. I want to hear from more book bloggers who aren't featuring a book for money or for some other gain, but just strictly out of love of books. For me, I've looked into my feed and seen where a lot of the anger is coming from, so I plan to let 2019 be the year when PAWM fall off my radar for good. There's a long history of clinical depression in my family and I am Eeyore at heart. I see all this constant arguing and the cycle of attacks and feel depressed. I have to filter it out. 
There's too much to be legitimately angry about (politically, environmentally) and there are times that anger is justified and needed in publishing, like acting to ensure equality for female and diverse authors. I need to save my anger energy for those things that deserve it.

Most people just want to hear about great stuff they might like. Because when people read a great book that they love they want to read another great book. All drama sells is popcorn.

We aren't engaging anyone who will be won over as a reader as long as we focus on fighting among ourselves. The Edgar controversy didn't increase book sales ... in part, because it had nothing to do with books. It may have ended with what I think is the right result, given what I know and saw, but the fact that there was a conflict stinks.
Save the energy for what matters. And if you don't have good stuff to say about the genre, maybe it isn't the place for you. Go find what makes you happy. Life is short enough. 
I'm saying so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night to unnecessary anger. I'm hoping 2019 is going to be a year of positive change. And I intend to surround myself with like-minded souls who are willing to work for the things I believe in and stand their ground when needed to champion a worthy cause, instead of people looking to control, to censure or to create conflict.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Little Station That Could (and Then Couldn't)

Once upon a time, there was a great radio station. It played good music—almost college radio station good. Lots of variety, bands you’d never heard before, nothing from the Top 40, the occasional out-there choice that made you suspect the person who chose it was probably stoned. There were commercials just a few times an hour, and there was never a DJ. Nobody talked, ever. There was no morning show, no silly contests, no call-in chats.
People loved this station (me included). Until somewhat recently, I didn’t have a car that was equipped with Bluetooth. It wasn’t even equipped with a reliable CD player. So if I wanted music, radio was my only option.
This station was heaven. And it did something interesting that I hadn’t encountered before. Listeners could text in “like” or “dislike” for every song. Too many dislikes and a song got pulled from the rotation, sometimes even getting yanked right in the middle of the song. This was awesome and vastly more entertaining to me than the average morning show.
They say now that this “text your like/dislike” has spread throughout the industry. I have no idea if that’s true. I will say that when it started, and no one had heard of it being done before, it did feel like your opinion counted. It might have been merely an illusion—like when an amusement park makes the chained zig-zag lines so long that it feels like the line’s moving even when it’s not. We’re going to lead you to believe we’re listening, even though we’re definitely not, you gullible sap who still doesn’t have satellite radio and so can’t turn us off without being forced to sit there in silence with nothing but her own thoughts. That’s okay. I’ll take that kind of feel-in-control-of-some-part-of-your-life delusion when I’m trapped in my car at the sixth red stoplight within a quarter-mile stretch.
But then (and I think you know where this is going), my little radio station got found out—by evil corporate scouts or Maleficent or Grendel or something. I don’t know. Now it has talking, way too many commercials, and absolutely no original or undiscovered music. The worst thing is that even with the talking, it’s all the same generic stuff from the same voice as one on a different station in my market. Literally. It’s the same guy, saying the same things about entering the same multi-market contest with the same code word. So now I have to sit through a DJ, and it’s not even resulting in legit employment for people of the DJ persuasion. It’s just some corporation adding to one employee’s workload, probably without a matching bump in compensation.  
As a result, I’ve sadly hit a final “dislike” and turned my little station off for good. I’ll probably pop in once in a while to see if it’s still terrible, but then it will be back to my Bluetooth and this wonderful world I’ve discovered—podcasts!