Saturday, December 15, 2018

Sea of Greed by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown


Scott D. Parker

SEA OF GREED by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown is the latest entry in the NUMA Files series. Spearheaded by hero Kurt Austin and his right-hand man, Joe Zavala, the NUMA team tackles dire threats to America, usually of a nautical nature. Well, maybe that’s not entirely the case as I’ve only read one other NUMA story: THE PHARAOH'S SECRET. But if nautical-based adventure is what you want, then SEA OF GREED is the book for you.

As is typical of most Cussler modern-day thrillers, SEA OF GREED begins in the past, specifically 1968. It seems the French and the Israelis are working together to create something in a test tube. But things go south and whatever is being protected is lost at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea when a pair of submarines sink. Cut to the present day aboard an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Something goes wrong. Somehow, some way, the oil is igniting…underwater. Naturally this proves catastrophic. Nearby, however, are Kurt and Joe and they quickly race to the destruction and risk their lives rescuing some of the wildcatters and engineers. Only then do they all start to question what happened: how in the world could crude oil react to water? And what the devil was that strange saucer-shaped submersible coasting in and around the oil lines?

Quickly, Kurt and his team are tasked with finding out those answers, and just as quickly, they learn of the presence of Tessa Franco. Not only is she a billionaire seeking to create fuel-cell technology for a post-oil world [hint], she also invented the Monarch, a giant flying fortress that would have made Howard Hughes proud. Well, it doesn’t take that large a leap to conclude the lady is part of something nefarious, and Kurt must endure the hardships of champagne with the beautiful Tessa to learn more.

And fists fly and action ensues.

I could go on, but do not want to give away any major plot details. Sure, some of the plot is fairly easy to guess, but that does not disappoint the reading—or, in my case, the listening by the always excellent narration by Scott Brick. The story moves along at a pretty good clip. What’s fascinating about this story is how the disparate team members all work together without knowing what their partners are doing. Not knowing the entire series well, the characters of Kurt, Joe, and Prya really shine in this novel. They are believable, even when they’re performing death-defying acts of daring do. I rather enjoyed the smaller moments just as much as the over-the-top ones. Scott Brick is my favorite audiobook narrator. He reads all the Cussler series—including my favorite, Isaac Bell—and he does such a great job at bringing a taste of whimsy to the narration. It is like the old Superman TV show where Superman/Clark Kent and we, the viewers, were in on the secret, and he’d sometimes wink at the camera. Somehow, Brick does the same with his voice.

I really enjoyed SEA OF GREED. It was one of the more enjoyable books I've read this year. And I  will make a beeline back to Audible and start reading, er, listening to, the rest of the books in this series.


Well, 2018 is at an end for all of us at DoSomeDamage. On behalf of everyone here, we thank you for your continued support, reading, commenting, and the overall community.

Speaking of the community, 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of this little project! We will certainly have some celebratory posts come summer 2019.

And as for me, well, I plan a fun, interesting, and exciting 2019 with all of my projects. I will feature many of my activities here at DSD, so tune in the first Saturday of January to get the lowdown.

But until then, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a safe New Year’s.

See you in 2019!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The one that got away to Bleak Harbor

First, some housekeeping.

The first season of the DoSomeDamage podcast, 7 Minutes With, is in the books. Expect to see the second season in early 2019. Chatting with Chris F. Holm, Holly West, and Jedidiah Ayres about music, television, and movies (respectively) was a blast.

As we've done for the past decade, DoSomeDamage is taking a couple weeks off around Christmas. We'll hang a sign up in a few days and be back in early January, provided everything is still here when we get back.

If you haven't done all your Christmas shopping, here are a couple books about kidnapped children you might enjoy.

Joe Clifford's The One That Got Away is just out from Down & Out Books. You may know Clifford from his shorts or for Junkie Love or for his Jay Porter series or for his anthology editing. Or for his golf game. Or for his own story.

Clifford's Jay Porter series consists of Lamentation, December Boys, Give Up the Dead, and Broken Ground.

Joe Clifford
With the Jay Porter series and with Junkie Love and some of the short stories, it made a sort of sense to refer to Joe Clifford as "former junkie" or "recovering addict" and so forth. The bio opens something like "Former homeless junkie Joe Clifford has written a book that...." I haven't any intention of minimizing that experience, except to minimize it as a dependent clause or descriptor in Clifford's bio. I'd suggest replacing it with "Brilliant storyteller Joe Clifford has crafted a tale...."

In The One That Got Away, Clifford writes with a confidence I hadn't seen in his earlier work. It wasn't that the earlier books lacked anything. They were all good, all solid, all highly recommended. The new book steps it up a notch or two. This is the sort of book you should see front-facing in your local bookstore. This isn't the former junkie writing a mystery novel about a former junkie solving a mystery. This is an author crafting a story, carving out sentences to carry you through the novel, from character to character, story beat to story beat, compelling the reader forward.

Publisher's Weekly calls the book an "unsettling psychological thriller," which is fine, in as far as it goes.
In the early 2000s, a string of abductions rocked the small upstate town of Reine, New York. Only one girl survived: Alex Salerno. The killer, Ken Parsons, was sent away. Life returned to normal. No more girls would have to die. Until another one did. 
It’s been seven years since Kira Shanks was reported missing and presumed dead. Alex Salerno has been living in New York City, piecemealing paychecks to earn a livable wage, trying to forget those three days locked underground and her affair with Sean Riley, the married detective who rescued her. When Noah Lee, hometown reporter with a journalistic pedigree, requests an interview, Alex returns to Reine and Riley, reopening old wounds. What begins as a Q&A for a newspaper article soon turns into an opportunity for money, closure and—justice. The disappearance of Kira Shanks has long been hung on Benny Brudzienski, a hulking man-child who is currently a brain-addled guest at the Galloway State Mental Hospital. But after Alex reconnects with ex-classmates and frenemies, doubts are cast on that guilt. Alex is drawn into a dangerous game of show and tell in an insular town where everyone has a secret to hide. And as more details emerge about the night Kira Shanks went missing, Alex discovers there are some willing to kill to protect the horrific truth. 
In the modern vein of Dark Places and Mystic RiverThe One That Got Away is a dark, psychological thriller featuring a compelling, conflicted heroine and a page-turning narrative that races toward its final, shocking conclusion. 

In this book, Clifford isn't relying on addiction to build Alex Salerno. He's digging more into her character, her specific trauma. She was broken before the kidnapping, that crime causing another kind of damage to her.

Clifford uses the town to tell the reader about Alex, how the town might seem different, but underneath is just as awful as ever.
Driving back to the precinct, Alex watched the naked trees, stripped of their cover, zipping past, bare and exposed. Some things had changed about their hometown, it was was true. But in between the new Chili's, Arby's, and PF Chang's was the same rundown crap she'd grown up with.... 
Here, Clifford goes on to describe the dirty bars, rundown liquor stores, and so forth. But it's the action in this description that sells it. Alex isn't simply describing the buildings. She's passively watching as they pass her. She isn't driving through town as much as the world is passing by her. And, yet, she's being pulled back. It's an impressive use of conflict Clifford carries on, just under the surface, throughout the story. While lesser writers focus on bar fights and torture porn, Clifford is using the scenery and movement to build a character as he moves the story along. It's top-shelf stuff.

Another new book about a kidnapped teenager is Bryan Gruley's Bleak Harbor, out from Thomas and  Mercer.
Danny Peters was something of a trial even before he disappeared. Lacking much of an affinity for other people, the autistic teenager was interested mainly in dragonflies, computers, and Wallace Stevens. Now he’s gone off with someone who promised him a milkshake, and his mother and stepfather are agonizing about how to raise the quixotic ransom of $5.145 million by the impossibly tight deadline. Both of them have reason to worry about their ability to pull together in their hour of need. Pete Peters, who owns a medical marijuana dispensary, is hiding his off-again professional relationship with Slim, the go-between who supplied him with better product for less money than his legal sellers until all of a sudden he stopped. Carey Peters, newly promoted executive assistant, finance, at Pressman Logistics in Chicago, allowed her boss, Randall Pressman, to take her out to dinner to celebrate and then slept with him, then refused his encore invitations and responded to his attempts to trash her at work by stealing some sensitive documents that reveal his own illegal activity and demanding a hefty payoff for her silence.
Working variously at odds with each other and the authorities they’ve defied the kidnapper by calling, Carey and Pete try to raise the ransom by leaning on Carey’s hateful mother, monstrous town matriarch Serenity Meredith Maas Bleak; Oly O’Nally, the boss who fired Pete from his brokerage firm; and, of course, Randall Pressman for the cash. They all turn out to have agendas of their own. So do Danny’s ex-con birth father, Jeff Bledsoe, Pete’s employee Dulcy Pérez, and Pressman’s henchman Quartz—not to mention Lt. Katya Malone, of the Bleak Harbor PD, and Allen Locke, of the FBI.
Modern bookstores have sections for mystery, for literature, for celebrity cookbooks. They could just as easily devote a large section of their floorspace to novels about stressed-but-brilliant mothers caring for a special needs child while the father is mostly useless. I've read roughly 87 of these types of books in the last two years. They're very popular in the domestic thriller circle. The mother is smart and capable, balancing her care-giving with her professional strength to hold together her family, which includes a special needs child. Meanwhile, the father is overwhelmed, seeking solace in drugs, alcohol, and lovely women who often end up corpses or blackmailers. Now, some of these have been done quite well. Those are the exception in terms of quality, though they all seem to sell just fine. With that in mind, I have to admit that the first few dozen pages of Gruley's new novel had me worried. Which, as it turns out, was unnecessary.

Gruley doesn't short any of the characters in his novel, despite the fact that a dozen of them take center stage at various parts of the story. Pete and Carey Peters's son is taken. While they do work together to find him, they also work separately, down various tracks, many of them competing with each other.  Gruley's novel is twisty and mesmerizing,  and I can't begin to imagine how he organized the different threads throughout.

Pete and Carey each have secrets that this kidnapping threatens to expose, and they each work to navigate back through those secrets as they try to save their son. The shifting narratives create clean cliff-hanger points, a structure that helps to keep this book moving. The reader hops into one narrative, seeing all the dark places in a character's past that look close to exploding, only to shift in the next chapter to someone else, someone else with secrets to hide.  It's the sort of "ok, just one more chapter" book that readers tend to devour.

If you're ordering these or any other books this holiday season, don't forget your local indies. I dig Fountain Bookstore in Richmond and One More Page in Northern Virginia.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Literary Stoner Noir

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a piece here on Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, his 1966 novel.  I discussed how it is what you might call an anti-detective novel.  It's definitely, among other things, a mystery novel, and a California one at that. In the spirit of completeness, I figured I'd follow that piece up with one on Pynchon's full-fledged private eye novel, 2009's Inherent Vice, a book I enjoyed quite a bit. Pynchon actually followed this up with another detective-oriented novel, 2014 Bleeding's Edge, but...confession, I haven't read that yet.  Anyway, I wrote this piece on Inherent Vice several years ago for the Thrilling Detective website, a superb site you should check out if you don't know it.  If you liked Paul Thomas Anderson's film adaptation of Inherent Vice and haven't read the book, I'd recommend reading the novel.  Anderson was very ambitious to even try making a movie of a Pynchon book, and the movie is suitably weird, with a number of funny parts.  It is, however, difficult to unravel the plot.  The book's plot is convoluted as well but does provide connections the movie lacked.

In any event, let's talk about the book:

Thomas Pynchon's fictional world teems with mysteries and quests. His first novel, V, from 1963, revolves around a man's search for an enigmatic woman or spirit named V who has appeared on different continents at critical moments in 20th Century history. In The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), California housewife Oedipa Maas investigates why she was unaccountably named executrix of a rich former lover's estate, an investigation that leads her to discover the possible existence of a secret postal organization inside the United States. And his huge masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow (1973) is chock-full of conundrums and questions; in Europe during the final days of World War II, protagonist Tyrone Slothrop flees from menacing scientists and double-dealing agents of all kinds as he and others strive to understand the secret behind a destructive device the Nazis plan to put in a V-2 rocket.

The Pynchon universe abounds with conspiracies and tantalizing patterns. For a Pynchon character, paranoia is a sign of intelligence, not madness. Skepticism of all powers that be is the only sane response to a world fought over by covert entities obsessed with increasing their spheres of control and pools of wealth. A master of parody and extravagant invention, an author famous (or infamous) for writing long non-linear books, Pynchon might seem like the last person to write a gritty private eye novel. But in fact his worldview in many ways reflects the view of a detective story writer.

Using paranoia as a guide, his characters are always trying to make sense of the complicated plots they find themselves caught up in. They sniff out and decipher clues. They attempt to separate fact from fancy, truth from lie. His central characters, whatever their faults, are essentially moral and decent people, and stand in contrast to the world's collection of pricks and bastards ever ready to crush and exploit the individual. A moment when deception is uncovered and a sliver of some kind of truth revealed is a victory, however small, however temporary. It should come as no surprise then that with his seventh novel, 2009's Inherent Vice, Pynchon produced a book that actually is -- no bones about it -- a straightforward private eye tale.

Well, not exactly straightforward. This is Thomas Pynchon we're talking about and the plot in Inherent Vice is no typical private eye plot.

The setting is Los Angeles. The time, late 1969, spring of 1970. Chronic pothead Larry "Doc" Sportello is a veteran PI living in Gordita Beach, not far from LAX. With a classic private eye novel opening -- "She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen her for over a year." -- his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay comes to his office one day and enlists his help.

The problem: her current boyfriend, the real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann, is in danger. Mickey's wife and her lover, Shasta says, want to put Mickey in a mental hospital so that they can make a grab for his fortune. Doc and Shasta haven't been romantic for quite some time, but their relationship remains warm and it's clear that Doc has never completely gotten over Shasta. He takes the case. Soon after, he gets a visit from a black ex-con named Tariq, who hires Doc to find a certain Glen Charlock, a former prison mate of Tariq's. Tariq says that Charlock owes him money. So happens that Charlock also happens to be a bodyguard for Mickey Wolfmann. Two people now have hired Doc to do jobs, and both jobs relate to Wolfmann.

Poking around, Doc visits a massage parlor owned by Mickey and winds up getting clubbed on the head and knocked unconscious. Not only that, when he wakes up, he finds that Charlock has been shot and killed inside the parlor. Long time frenemy Bigfoot Bjornsen of the LAPD informs him that he doesn't have much of an alibi. Prime suspect number one, Doc is questioned and released by both the LAPD and the FBI, and he discovers that both Mickey and Shasta have vanished. In fact, for all he can tell, both may be dead.

At this point, we are in vintage private eye novel territory and we have a sense that Inherent Vice, for all the Pynchon jokes, won't be a mere parody of a detective novel. That's a good thing. A story is developing, our PI is on the case, and we want to know what will happen next. Well, much will come next, but what does follow will leave the conventional PI novel world behind and takes us into pure Thomas Pynchon terrain.

Sportello does genuine gumshoe work despite all the pot he smokes. He's not always sure whether something he said in his head is something he also voiced aloud, but he's no fool and he is dogged. Pursuing leads, he crisscrosses LA and environs in a manner worthy of Philip Marlowe. He investigates the mystery of a rock musician thought to be dead after an apparent drug overdose but now apparently working for a government counter subversive group. He learns of a CIA project that put Richard Nixon's face on millions of dollars in US currency. He enlists the help of a bounty hunter friend named Fritz who spends all his time doing private surveillance amid "computer cabinets, consoles with lit-up video screens, and alphanumeric keyboards and cables running all over the floor."

This is a "network of computers called ARPAnet," a forerunner of the Internet. He keeps coming across something called The Golden Fang, which in true Pynchon fashion seems to be a few things at once. As his lawyer Sauncho Smilax tells him, The Golden Fang is a schooner with a long mysterious past that involves smuggling off the California coast. At the same time, The Golden Fang may just be an Asian criminal gang linked to drugs, the Nixon-faced counterfeit money, Vietnam and China.

But wait -- the Golden Fang is also a business syndicate composed primarily of dentists who set the company up for legitimate tax purposes. A visit to the Golden Fang company headquarters leads Doc to a young woman named Japonica Fenway who was once a runaway Doc restored to her parents.

Still troubled, she reveals she has spent time at a clinic called The Chryskylodon Institute, where Doc promptly goes. He bumps into Coy Harlington there and finds evidence that Mickey Wolfman passed through. It seems that Mickey must have been brought to the clinic against his will and perhaps he and Shasta both were then spirited away on the schooner The Golden Fang. Meanwhile, Doc learns, Glen Charlock was shot at the Chick Palace massage parlor during an attack mounted by a "little private militia the LAPD uses whenever they don't want to look bad in the papers."

You get the idea. Inherent Vice is byzantine. My recap here has boiled down the goings on and I've only reached a point halfway through the book. Of course, the byzantine quality itself is nothing original for a California detective novel. We expect such intricate plotting, whether the storyline is somewhat incoherent as it can be with Raymond Chandler or beautifully structured as with Ross MacDonald. The funny thing is that for a Thomas Pynchon book, Inherent Vice is his most accessible. Despite the abundance of characters and the mysteries within mysteries within funny asides, Inherent Vice has more straight ahead drive than any of his previous books, including the much shorter Lot 49.

On the other hand, Inherent Vice is not, as some have said, Pynchon-lite. I don't buy that critique. Inherent Vice lacks the apocalyptic darkness that permeates Gravity's Rainbow and other Pynchon works, but it still explores ideas and issues Pynchon has explored for years. Conspiracies proliferate in Inherent Vice -- the sense that behind every large power structure there lurks yet another layer of power.

And Pynchon, even using the established genre of the private eye novel, is up to all his old tricks. We get the characters with silly names -- Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fortnight, Arthur Tweedle, Rudy Blatnoyd -- and we have sprinkled throughout the pages the humorous songs invented by Pynchon. The characters love to discuss movies and television shows (Doc's favorite actor is John Garfield) and nearly every character has some eccentric tic or obsession.

Above all else, as far as the characters are concerned, you have the usual Pynchon dichotomy: on one side, the characters who tend toward a "live and let live" philosophy -- however odd their individual preoccupations -- and on the other those who in some way ally themselves with the forces of power, repressive forces.

While Pynchon's sympathy lies with the live-and-let-live people (best represented in this book by the hippies and party chicks and their ilk), Pynchon's narrator retains a pleasant non-judgmental tone toward everyone, including the forces of law and order. This is best seen through Bigfoot Bjornsen, Doc's almost friend. For the whole book, the two interact. Each time they meet they verbally spar, and their banter is hilarious. Bigfoot continually calls Doc "hippie scum" and worthless this and brain-dead that, but his insults are lightly delivered. Doc never takes offense at them. They both try to use each other to pick up information about their cases, but there's a camaraderie between the two. Doc often finds himself worrying about Bigfoot's mental state and Bigfoot mentions his respect for Doc's tenacity and skill with firearms.

Skill with firearms? How unhippie-like of Doc. Also unhippie-like is Doc's sometime sexual relationship with an assistant DA. For all his love of pot and rock-and-roll and casual sex whenever it presents itself, Doc has enough of the straight world in him to make him believable as a detective. He's not a radical trying to burn the world down; he comes across as a pot-infused version of a conscientious private eye. He'll handle cases for very little money and continues working on some even when it's obvious he won't get paid. He has a sympathy for outcasts and "losers" that Lew Archer would understand.

Is he heroic? Not exactly, not in any grand sense, but Doc does have physical courage and will go anywhere his leads take him. This being the Sixties, however, he doesn't so much go down mean streets as weave through kaleidoscopic labyrinths.

Because of Sportello's cheerfully indulgent pot-smoking ways, Inherent Vice has been cited as an example of "Stoner Noir." And I'd be remiss here if I didn't bring up the other chief example of this noir variant, The Big Lebowski. It's impossible to read Pynchon's book without thinking of The Coen Brothers' movie and Jeff Bridges' performance as Jeff Lebowski.

Is The Big Lebowski an influence on Inherent Vice? It could be, and one figures that Pynchon saw the film and enjoyed it, but as a matter of fact, there are more differences than similarities between the two works.

For one thing, Sportello is a professional Los Angeles PI while Lebowski is not. Besides his law enforcement contacts and his comfort with guns, Sportello even dons disguises when he deems it necessary. He does seem to have some sort of investigative method, albeit an unusual, pot-driven one. And whereas The Big Lebowski is set in the early 1990s and features characters (Lebowski, his friend Walt) who were molded by the 1960s, Sportello actually inhabits the psychedelic era. He smokes and drives and does his thing dead smack in the heart of late 60's countercultural Southern California, and if nothing else, Inherent Vice is a wonderful evocation of a time and a place.

"The bums lost," is how the rich older Lebowski describes the 60's to the middle-aged hippie Lebowski, and no doubt many people see the 60's this way. Thomas Pynchon isn't one of them. He writes with affection for the freewheeling sexual mores, the carefree youth and the happy dopers. Casual drug use, of pot and LSD in particular (but not other drugs, an important point), is shown as fun. More than that: they enrich the imagination. As many PIs hit the bottle for sustenance, Doc Sportello reaches for a joint, and why he should feel defensive about his particular brand of fortification? But what am I talking about? The detective as drug user goes all the way back to our dear friend Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, it is as a detective novel that imbeds its peculiar mystery plot in a fond look back at a specific time and place that Inherent Vice succeeds best. For Doc Sportello spends much time reflecting not only on the particulars of his case, but on the developments, the ebb and flow, of his era. He's noticed the forces out there determined to stamp out the hippies, the screwballs, the kooky misfits:
If everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who'd make it happen.

Was it possible that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever -- those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?
Doc enjoys the time he's in, but he has a feeling for what's coming next. Manson and his family have just committed their murders, and references to how LA is on edge resonate through the novel. Using Manson and his murderous hippie followers as an emblem of the end of the carefree Sixties is hardly new, but it still serves as an effective image. The hippie, once considered silly but harmless, is now a potential threat:
Doc noticed for the first time that both cops were... well, not trembling, the police wouldn't tremble, but vibrating for sure, with the post-Mansonical nerves that currently ruled the area.
Doc sees that the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness... but like any private eye worth his salt he doesn't let the darkness in the air defeat him. He closes his case, and he even has to break out of handcuffs, hit people, and use his gun to do it.

And considering everything, is life so bad? The last we see of Doc he's doing the prototypical Californian thing, driving in his car, listening to rock and roll on his radio. He has more than half a tank of gas, coffee in a container, a full pack of smokes.  We're glad that through his complicated case he's righted at least a few wrongs, and he himself seems pretty content. 


Until next year and happy holidays!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Stephanie Post

Sweltering summer nights. A traveling carnival. Ruby the snake charmer and a mysterious stranger. 
Miraculum, the new Southern gothic fantasy from author Steph Post, debuts January 22. Pontilliar’s Spectacular Star Light Miraculum moves through the south, filled with strange attractions and stranger people. When a charismatic new freak joins the menagerie, unlikely and dangerous events begin to happen. Ruby, carnival owner’s daughter and resident snake-charmer, attempts to discover the stranger’s secrets and further understand her own.
Post, previously known for the literary crime novels A Tree Born Crooked, and the Judah Cannon series Lightwood and Walk in the Fire, is dipping further into the magnetic darkness and creating a tale of magic.

Steph has seen success with her Florida Noir novels and her striking short fiction. You can check out her shorter tales in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, Nonbinary Review and the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. Her work has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize, a Rhysling Award. In the midst of her well-deserved success she still dances on the edge and takes chances. It’s exciting to see someone break away from the expected and try something new and different.

As the release of Miraculum approaches, Steph Post talks to Do Some Damage.

· How long has Miraculum been hanging in your head and how long have you actually been working on her?

Oh wow- so, I wrote a ‘prototype’ version of the novel as my grad school thesis back in 2010. Then, after 2 published novels, I went back and completely wrote the book from scratch in 2016. It took me about 10 months to write.

But yeah, I’ve been thinking about carnivals since about 2009.

· Were you fascinated by carnivals as a child?

Actually, I don’t think I ever even went to a carnival as a kid. So, it’s more what they represent. As a kid, I was always fascinated by wildness, magic, the unseen world, things unexpected or subversive.

A carnival sort of encapsulates all of that, but with a dark, seedy side, too. And that side was always lurking in my childhood as well.

A carnival is like the ultimate symbol of an imagination let loose and allowed to be both raw and free.

· Miraculum is a bit of a departure for you, were you or are you nervous about this jump? Was your publisher supportive?

I’m really excited, actually. The book I’m just now starting to write is much more like Miraculum than my Southern crime novels. I’m ready for readers to see this different side of my work, especially since it’s the direction I’m heading in.

And yes, Polis Books was/is super supportive of all my work, regardless of genre. It’s been a great experience to have a publisher who embraces all that I do.

· What can you tell us about your current work-in-progress?

So, I just finished the third and final Cannon book, wrapping up my Southern crime trilogy. It will be out in 2020. And I’m just now getting started on a new novel set in the 1890s. I’m still in that ‘discovery’ phase of the book though, so I don’t want to say too much. It will be another genre departure for me, I think, but still with my same style.

· What keeps you inspired during the creative process?

Oh, music! I’m trying to think back... I can only listen to instrumental while writing. Several scenes were built from closing my eyes and putting my headphones in, laying on the floor with a song on repeat.

There’s a particular scene I built around Hans Zimmer’s track ‘Coward’ from Interstellar. I’ll never be able to hear it without seeing that scene play out.

There were a ton of soundtracks from Trevor Morris, too. I’m determined that he will score the film version of Miraculum

And inspiration boards...
This is the ‘Miraculum’ part of an ongoing book board up in my studio now. These are some of the pictures that were on my original board for Miraculum:

These relate to characters, though these aren’t actors to play them necessarily. It’s more about certain looks. I’m so visually centered when I write. I see everything in a cinematic view. So, the photos remind me of a certain look, which translates to a feeling that is something I wanted to capture- in a completely different context- in the book.

Though if Benedict and Eddie Wanted to play roles in a one-day film version, I wouldn’t complain.

Not Your Grandma's Reindeer

By Claire Booth

It's time to bust out the Christmas music.
This year, with my ears about to bleed from another version of "The Christmas Song" and its woefully out-of-date roasted chestnuts, I decided to search out fresher fare.

Some of these aren't necessarily new, but they are fresh in that they haven't been recorded by twenty different artists and played to the point where they've atrophied radio play lists and shopping mall sound systems. If they're new to you, too, I highly recommend you check them out.
Leona Lewis, "One More Sleep," from Christmas, With Love (2013). Upbeat holiday perfection that showcases Lewis' fantastic voice with great choral backup.

Aloe Blacc's Christmas Funk just came out last month. Don't even waste time sampling it. Just get the whole album right now. Here's the track I've found myself humming--"I Got Your Christmas Right Here." You'll sing along, too. Guaranteed.

Here's another one where I'm recommending the entire album. It's a Holiday Soul Party by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (2015). It has the excellent "Ain't No Chimneys in the Projects,"as well as "8 Days of Hanukkah," several traditional carols and "Just Another Christmas Song."

Going in a different genre direction brings me to the pinnacle of holiday country music. There is nothing better than Kenny and Dolly's Once Upon a Christmas (1984). It has a staggering six original songs out of a ten-track album (most holiday albums will give you one, if you're lucky). Five of them were composed by Dolly Parton (and none by Kenny; just sayin'). All of them should be classics: "I Believe in Santa Claus," "Christmas to Remember," "Christmas Without You," "Once Upon a Christmas," and "With Bells On" below:

Another of my favorite Christmas country songs (1997) comes from the incomparable Dwight Yoakam and is that perfect country blend of upbeat music and depressing lyrics. A mom tells the kid that "Santa Can't Stay" and a car that looks like Dad's pulls away. I'll take that over Jingle Bells any day.

I'm also going to include two honorable mention categories: traditional songs with an original spin, and original songs that have become traditional classics. In the first category, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" from the Barenaked Ladies (2004) and the what-the-hell pairing of Ceelo Green and Rod Stewart on "Merry Christmas, Baby" (2012). It makes me smile every time.

And no Christmas is complete without Wham! (I know you're rolling your eyes, but it's my list and I can do what I want) and their 1984 classic, "Last Christmas." And I'll leave you with a song many others have since recorded, but the first one is still the best--Stevie Wonder's 1967 peerless version.
It's "What Christmas Means to Me."

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!