Saturday, February 1, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 5 AKA Virtual Bookshelves Never Go Out of Stock

Scott D. Parker

I couldn't believe what I saw.

Or didn't see.

Gregg Hurwitz: A New-to-Me Author

For a few years now, the Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz, has been circling my radar. I'd download a sample onto my Kindle, but never get around to it. I'd see the second, third, and fourth books in the series be published, but still I didn't move off high center.

Until late last month.

At  one of the paperback racks at a Barnes and Noble in far west Houston, I saw OUT OF THE DARK, the fourth volume in the series. Unlike in the past, when I see a book that captures my attention, I read it, no matter what number it is in a series. But when I realized it was an Orphan X novel, I was reminded that this series is one I should try.

So I walked over to the regular bookshelves and pulled a paperback copy of ORPHAN X, the debut novel in the series. This was late December 2019, in that timeless week between Christmas and New Year's Day. As an avid audiobook listener--who easily could have downloaded the audio version, I know--I resolved to read the paperback. Frankly, it had been awhile since I picked up a new paperback and actually read it. (I always pick up books, but don't always get to them.)

I read the entire book, finishing a week ago. Loved the book, the character of Evan Smoak, and Hurwitz's writing style. I'll have my full review this coming Wednesday (as part of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club) but I can tell you now it's a winner.

I was so jazzed to read the next book, THE NOWHERE MAN, that on Tuesday evening after rehearsal, I drove over to a Barnes and Noble (not the same one). I strode past the hardback section--where INTO THE FIRE sat, having been published that same day--and made my way to the paperback section.  I found the Hs and looked.

And looked. And looked. I checked the Mystery section just in case Hurwitz's books were considered mysteries by B&N. You know what I saw?

Zero Gregg Hurwitz books. A New York Times best-selling author.

Are Virtual Bookshelves Better?

If you read my column from last week, you'll remember one of my goals in 2020 is to create an online bookstore. Sure, there is nothing like going to a bookstore, browsing the books, and picking one up to read and buy. It really can be a magical experience.

But what happens when something like the absence of Hurwitz books occurs?

You go elsewhere.

And that elsewhere is either another bookstore or it is online

This is where an online bookstore has the edge. As long as an author is willing, the shelves of the online bookstore are always stocked. You can always find something you're looking for, especially if an author is willing and set up to sell direct to you, the reader.

It's not just ebooks either. I plan on having paperbacks available for direct purchase--complete with personalization. Audio will come later.

Just imagine the virtual bookshelves of an author's bookstore: ebook, paperback, maybe hardback, audio, video links, and more.

Exciting to imagine, huh?

Gregg Hurwitz in Houston

I love the serendipity of me finally buying that first book in the Orphan X series, reading it, and loving it. This coming Monday, at Houston's Murder by the Book, Hurwitz will conduct an author event and book signing. Love the timing. I'll let y'all know how it goes.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Beau in a Tub

Today, Beau takes Paul Greenberg into the bathtub with him.
Dead Guy in the Bathtub is a collection of crime stories with a dark sense of humor and irony. These characters are on the edge and spiraling out of control. Bad situations become serious circumstances that double down on worst-case scenarios. A Lou Reed fan gets himself caught on the wild side. A couple goes on a short and deadly crime spree. A collector of debts collecting a little too much for himself. A vintage Elvis collection to lose your head over. A local high school legend with a well-endowed reputation comes home.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020


Let's talk about sex shall we?  Come now we are all adults here. Well we try to be adults. Now we are not going to talk about graphic sex or over stylized soft focus erotica. I want to talk about sex and how it it used in mystery and crime novels. Noir novels specifically. Because for me sex and lust are one of the main pillars of the House of Noir. Countless letters have been arranged into a multiplicity of  configurations that examine the idea that noir fiction is about ennui and misanthropy but I posit sex and how it is expressed in fiction is just as important as the malaise of the soul that permeates both traditional and neo-noir.  

In Eliot Chase's classic novel BlACK  WINGS HAVE MY ANGEL, sex is a metaphor for the feral freefall of the main character. Tim Sunblade and Virginia have a relationship that is equal parts lust and  lassitude. They are partners in crime but they are also desperate shipmates on a voyage of self-destruction. Their frenzied couplings are physical manifestations of their shattered psyches. Their sex is not intimate. Its the blind idiot wind that blows two lost souls over a cracked rainbow. 

In George Pelecanos criminally underrated NICK'S TRIP the main character Nick Stefanos is a bartender and part time PI who is asked to search for a friend's missing wife. On the surface it's your basic paint by the numbers PI novel but look deeper. Nick's trip is a not only a bristling crime novel but a brilliant deconstruction of the PI as Lothario. Nick is approached by a friend to help her and her partner conceive a child. Sex in this book becomes nearly mechanical. It's intimate but almost in a platonic way. Nick does indeed have sex with his friend and we can only guess if she is with child but it feels like a favor akin to helping a friend move a couch. Juxtapose that with Nick's remembrances of his wild and fun filled youth. Specifically a trip he took with his friend Billy where sex became just another indulgence among a summer full of vices. By the end of the book we realize that long ago summer trip never ended for Nick. He is stunted as most protagonists in a PI series become. But we don't see Nick as a spoiled man child. We feel an immense sense of empathy for him. Or in more coarse language, Nick gets laid but he doesn't really get to enjoy it. And that is a projection of his current station in life. 

TAMPA by Allison Nutting is the idea of lust and sexuality taken to Nth degree. An unsettling and at times disgusting novel about sexual obsession and the lengths someone will go to feed their obbession TAMPA's first person narration insidiously draws us into the narrators disturbed psyche. We are essentially co-conspirators in this abhorrent crime. And yet we can't look away. Its like watching a car wreck in slow motion recorded on  a dashcam. Sex in TAMPA  is disturbing. It's base and ugly but it is also our clearest window into the damaged mind  of our narrator. The fact she is unrepentant only ratchets up the tension and our desire to see her held accountable for her actions. It is a testament to Nutting's skill that you are not really sure if her narrator will actually get her comeuppance. I'd posit that the physical act's in TAMPA are not really even sex. They are acts of violence.  The fact it's called sex by our narrator says a lot about our society as a whole. 

In the Kenzie/Gennaro series Dennis Lehane masterfully uses sex as a short hand to show us how his characters are growing and evolving. Patrick and Angie get together, they break-up , they find new lovers hook up with old ones and ultimately come back to each other and create a family. Lehane weaves stories about true intimacy that arouses us but also warms our hearts not just our loins. Patrick Kenzie is one of the more well adjusted protagonists in crime fiction and his relationships with the women in his life bears this out. Even when the physical connection is severed the women that have come into Patrick's bed and his life are still important to him. They may not all be his friend but none of them are his enemies. 

Sex ,like violence in a crime novel is only as necessary as the story demands. Gratuitous sex makes us roll our eyes. But earned intimacy makes us care about the characters. It creates a connection for us as readers and it adds layers to our protagonists that otherwise might be ignored. 

In essence we all get lucky. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Fiction is Not a Thesis Paper

When a fiction writer states a reason why he or she wrote a certain book and says something like, "I wanted to talk about the [blank] experience" or "We need to see a different side of [something]", I tend to become disinclined to read that person's book.  I get the feeling that the writer conceived the book with a particular thesis in mind and then tried to figure out how to create characters and a plot to fit that thesis. Or I suspect that the writer feels, with a heightened sense of self-importance, that he or she has to tell their story on behalf of some large group of people whose perceptions about a subject, as the writer sees it, need alteration. They assume there is a "we" that they, the writer, represent.  Who this "we" is to the writer becomes clear from the tone and perspective of the book.

It seems to me that these are among the worst ways to go about conceiving a novel.  The writer is starting, in essence, with the general and working toward the specific. This procedure is perfectly acceptable, even expected, in non-fiction, where a writer is writing about a specific subject or subjects and often wrote the book in the first place to illuminate certain facts, statistics, trends, ideas.  The writer started with a thesis, an argument if you will, and then writes a book to support that thesis. Specifics are presented to buttress the general argument.

Fiction, the best fiction, works exactly the opposite way.  Obviously, writers feel passionate about any number of issues and problems in the world, but the good writers start from the specific  -- an idiosyncratic character, an unusual situation, a mere image -- and build their story from there.  Flaubert says he wrote Salammbo, set in ancient Carthage against a lunar desert landscape, because he wanted to convey a sense of the color yellow.  From that idea, with a large cast of totally individual characters, he weaves an epic tale of war, love, sex, death, betrayal, ambition -- you name it.  

Or take a book like Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star.  It tells the story of a woman named Macabea, an ill-educated typist who lives in utter poverty in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.  In part, this novel is about the struggles and suffering of the poor, the forgotten, the nearly nameless.  But first and foremost, you read about the external and internal life, the daily grind and spiritual journey, of one particular woman.  And that woman is so well-drawn, so clear to the reader, odd as she is, that, yes, you can expand from Macabea and say that perhaps she does represent a certain type and that it's a type that's universal. Poor people, poor women like Macabea, exist all over Brazil and all over the world.  But Lispector starts with one human being she invented and who is not like any other human being. Macabea is the farthest thing you could imagine from a stereotype.

In the various critiques I've read of American Dirt, the writers have pointed out a slew of books you can read instead if you want to delve into narratives having to do with the US-Mexico border and the issues related to it.  But again, the good ones will work from the inside out, as it were, beginning with real people and not working from the outside in because, as the American Dirt author puts it about migrants, "We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings."  As has been asked by many, who the hell is "we"?  Again, beware the writer who tosses around that word.  "We think this and we think that."  Really?  Do we?  Speak for yourself, author.  No wonder you're likely to produce contrived abstractions instead of complicated, nuanced characters. 

I got no sense, to cite one example, of a writer overtaken by a "we" complex when I read Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World.  Here's a book of power and vivid imagination that explores the Mexican-US border world through the eyes of Makina, a woman whose crossing and dangerous quest is at once unique to her and mythological in scope.  Or to recall one of Herrera's inspirations, the great Juan Rulfo.  His novel Pedro Paramo gives us a picture of a Mexican town, a ghost town actually, that is like nothing else in the world of fiction.  That town is a Mexican town, with a specific geography, no question.  But the people in it, most of them poor, could be people anywhere. 

It bears noting, by the way, that neither Lispector's book nor Herrera's nor Rulfo's are works of social realism.  They all tackle the social issues they deal with through brilliant elliptical language or through magical realism.  Not that one can't tackle social issues head-on in fiction.  It's done, and often.  But perhaps to some extent, these books carry power because they are products of the writers' individualistic visions, not self-appointed mandates to tell people "stuff" the author thinks they need to know.

Unfair to compare anyone's book to Lispector or Herrera or Rulfo?  I don't think so.  If the great writers are not the standard, what the hell is the point?