Thursday, April 29, 2021

Blood and crossroads with Beau


This week, Beau takes a look at Crossroads, from Laurel Hightower.

When Chris's son dies in a tragic car crash, her world is devastated. The walls of grief close in on Chris's life until, one day, a small cut on her finger changes everything. 

A drop of blood falls from Chris's hand onto her son's roadside memorial and, later that night, Chris thinks she sees his ghost outside her window. Only, is it really her son's ghost, or is it something else—something evil?  

Soon Chris is playing a dangerous game with forces beyond her control in a bid to see her son, Trey, alive once again.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Bike Theft Adventures, Part Two

About five years ago, in an angry frame of mind, I wrote a piece here about the theft of my bicycle.  It happened in May outside the Brooklyn Museum, and the main cause was my own inattention.  While on the phone, I took my eyes off my unlocked bike for a minute or two.  A still pretty new bike, an expensive one, and to make matters worse, it had been a gift given to me by my wife.  Now, wherever it was and whoever had it, the bike was alone and forlorn, as far as I was concerned, never to be ridden again by me.

As it so happened, one of the guests who had stayed in the Airbnb we run had left behind an old bike, a Spaulding, green, with thick road bike tires and three speeds, and though it looked a little scuffed in places, it worked perfectly well after a tune-up.  Instead of buying a new bike, which I didn't have the money for, I decided to use that one, and it served me well.  Once, the chain broke but I had that fixed, and overall I came to like this bicycle version of a jalopy, though the gnawing anger of having been inattentive enough to get my previous bike stolen stuck with me. 

The pandemic hit, and I decided I'd finally buy myself a new bike.  Last spring and summer, during the height of lockdown, bicycling provided a great source of relief and enjoyment.  Problem was my then 14-year-old son needed a new bike -- he'd outgrown his kid bike -- and the 24-year-old didn't have a bike and didn't have the money to buy his own bike, and then, how could I buy my younger son a bike and leave the older one without a bike?  He's an adult, but you know, kids are kids as far as their siblings go, and...I don't think I need to say any more about any of this. To make a long story short, I bought each of them brand new bikes, and after the cost of those beautiful things, I only had enough money to give my old Spaulding yet another tune-up. This was a thorough tune-up, I must say, and included switching out a tire, and the bike did run well, again, for the course of the spring, summer, and fall.

Finally, this year, with the money to do it, I bought a brand new bike, one with 14 speeds and thin tires, and after thanking the old Spaulding for its years of service, I left it out near the Brooklyn Academy of Music unlocked, hoping someone else, preferably a Brooklynite, would take it.  Not a theft, but a giveaway, and maybe right now somewhere in Brooklyn that bike is rolling along with somebody on it.

For a few weeks I rode my new bike without mishap, enjoying it thoroughly, and then one day after locking it to a bike post near the Apple Store in downtown Brooklyn, I came out to find that the Kryptonite lock I had on it would not open.  I put the key in, I twisted, I cursed, I exhorted the lock to open, I did everything I could, but the lock would not release.  Not an old lock either, maybe a year old at most, but once one of those things get jammed, you are truly screwed.

My luck with new bikes!  If it's not theft, it's the secure lock jamming and making it impossible for even me to take the bike.  I won't go over every detail of the 3 or so hours I spent that late afternoon into evening trying to free the bike - it involved taking an Uber to the bike shop where I bought the bike, taking an Uber to a Home Depot to get some WD-40 (as the You Tube videos recommend) to loosen the lock, and more and more dealing with the lock itself, and night came on and a chill settled in.  At last, in the dark, still there on the sidewalk as people walked and drove by, I had to give up and go home.  I live about 20 minutes from where the bike was locked and I went back to my house more in a mood of resignation than anger.  There's something about me and new bikes, my luck in this department...

I did figure that the bike was secure where it was.  You have to hand it to the Kryptonite company: they do make pretty secure locks.  Anyway, the next morning, I rose, showered, dressed and took yet another Uber (I wound up spending about $90 dollars in two days on Ubers jetting around because of these bike-freeing efforts) and returned to the bike to find it, yes, there, untouched.  It's actually a very public and pretty upscale area, so I wasn't worried too much about anyone tampering with the bike in full view of others, though this is New York and you never know.

All options exhausted, I had to do what the bike shop guy had told me would be the one way to release the lock if the WD-40 didn't work -- an edge saw to cut through the lock.  I don't have an edge saw so I called a locksmith and he came and went to work.  

Now here we were, broad daylight, lots of people around going to the Whole Foods right there and the Apple Store down the block and the subway stations nearby, and I stood there while the guy bent down and did his work with his edge saw on the lock, the saw cutting through the metal and sending sparks flying everywhere.  I asked him whether we should tell the cops (there were some nearby) what we're doing and that it was my bike. I could show them the key fit the lock if need be.  "Don't have to," he said, and continued sawing and the sparks kept flying, reminding me of the sparks that fly when James Caan's character cracks that safe in Thief.  Could we get a little Tangerine Dream music here please?  In the end, it took the guy about 10 minutes and the bike was free.  Nobody walking, cycling or driving by had paid us the slightest attention, which I found either comforting or disturbing.  Cost: 200 bucks.  But I had my bike back, having hired someone to "steal" it for me, a somewhat amusing, though pricey, capper to the theft of my other bike, in public, five years ago.

I bought a new Kryptonite lock and will make sure, as the bike guy advised me, to keep it well-lubricated. And I'm going to buy myself an edge saw, because if this ever happens again, I want to have the right tools.  Why pay a specialist?  Now that I see how easy it is to free a bike in public, I want to be the one, if it must be done, who "steals" my bike.

Monday, April 26, 2021



The stories I tell are very personal and often there is a wide-ranging, big picture sort of purpose behind the narrative. Maybe there is no specific or obvious statement, but there is a reason behind the tale.

It’s been my hope to write a book that helps people understand the reality of their fellow humans, create a story that lifts the curtain and spares a glimpse of some extraordinarily ordinary person. And in turn, I want anyone who reads me to feel they’ve been seen or heard. Maybe understood. I’d like to make people feel less alone, the way my favorite books or songs work for me. With my intentions and experience, I thought I had something to say that might help someone. Who knows?

If no one is reading what you write, should you keep writing? Truthfully, it depends on why you write in the first place. I love to write. It relieves me, energizes me, and excites me. Maybe putting everything down on paper helps make sense of all the parts that make up my life. I simply know, if I’m not working on a story, I feel mentally rudderless, with no direction or drive. Therefore, I believe, I will always write. Does it deserve my time? I guess.

Getting an idea for a good story is such a charge; creating the characters and scenes, connecting the dots together. And when I’m able to carve out time to write, it’s also a big rush. It’s an exciting and guilty pleasure. I actually get cranky if I don’t write on the regular. But it can also be tedious and mundane, with every word you put down on paper sounding useless, or worse, like lies. And in end, does it even matter? Maybe not.

I’ve been fortunate that good writers who love to read have read my work. I’m lucky in that talented editors have helped me break bad habits, learn my weaknesses and strengths, and grow as a storyteller. I’m glad I take criticism well, and I’m frankly disappointed if changes or edits aren’t plentiful, because that’s how I learn to become better at writing. And really, what I want is to become a good writer.

There is also the responsibility to my first job. I have to make sure my children don’t suffer because of my secondary obsession. They need my time and attention, every ounce of energy I have really needs to be directed to their benefit. I’m one of the few stable things in their life, and that is a terrifying thought. Should I think of what makes me happy? In measure.

Do I want my girls to see me give up? When I don’t get what I want or life doesn’t go the way I’d hoped, should they watch me simply tap out. No. That’s a horrible idea. Life is nothing but adjusting your perspective to the large serving of chaos you’ve been given and will continue to be given. Life is always testing you. I don’t want them to give up, so I can’t give up. I need to look at this other love of mine in a different way. With fresh eyes. And I need them to see me taking the punches and getting back up.

I come to the question I’ve been struggling to answer for several weeks. Do I keep writing? I guess, yes. Because I don’t have to be well-known or successful to write. I don’t need money or props. I just need my ideas and time. One element is renewable and the other is a resource that continues to tick away. If given time, grab it with both hands, write while everyone is sleeping, and never close my eyes to inspiration. Set an example for my girls.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Put LeVar Burton in Jeopardy!

By Claire Booth

Things I love:




Star Trek

What do all these things have in common?

LeVar Burton.

What else do those things have in common (well, except for Star Trek)?


And now—finally—the two shall meet. Burton has at last been chosen as a guest host of the iconic game show. He’s been lobbying for a slot for a while, and his supporters have been all-out campaigning for it since November. As of yesterday, the petition had just crossed the 250,000-signature mark. It asks that he also be made the permanent host. I completely agree.

Here are a few reasons why.

He spent 23 years helping children fall in love with books as host and executive producer of “Reading Rainbow” on PBS. This is not a gig you stick with because it’s lucrative. It’s because you’re making a difference. When it went off the air, he pivoted to app-based reading programs, and eventually the web-based Skybrary, which has ad-free educational books and videos for children.

He now helps adults fall in love with short fiction on his podcast “LeVar Burton Reads.”

He grew up in Sacramento (hometown shoutout).

And okay, the Star Trek connection doesn’t technically have a lot to do with hosting Jeopardy! but you have to admit, playing Cmdr. Geordi La Forge on “The Next Generation” puts his geek cred through the roof. (And that isn’t a dig, it’s a compliment; I’m a life-long Trek fan.)

Burton’s Jeopardy! episodes will air from July 26 through July 30, 2021. Mark your calendar and be sure to watch. Good ratings will put him one step closer to getting the job permanently. And if you want to make your voice heard before then, you can go the petition.

Vote LeVar!


Saturday, April 24, 2021

A Claustrophobic Mystery in Antarctica Shines Through the Darkness in The Head TV Show


Scott D. Parker

What do you get when you cross a mystery, a drama, and a survival story? The Head TV show.

Available on HBO Max, The Head was produced out of Spain yet is mostly in English. The only non-English language spoken is Danish by a handful of characters. It was pretty seamless so it’s not a stumbling block.

The story centers on a group of scientists in an Antarctic research facility. They’re on track to isolate a thing that’ll help combat climate change. The name of the base is Polaris VI. During the sunny part of the year, the base is brimming with people, but come the six-month dark times, only about a dozen stay behind. Let that sink in: six months of darkness in the inhospitable Antarctic winter. You couldn’t pay me enough money to do that. No. Way.

But these folks do. There is the ostensible leader, Arthur. The doctor, Maggie, is a newcomer to the group, living through her first winter. There are other veterans of the dark shift, many of whom worked in a previous base, Polaris V. One of those experienced people is Annika, the wife of Johan. She chooses to stay behind in Polaris VI while Johan, the summer commander, leaves. She doesn’t want Arthur to hog all the credit for their research because they are so close to victory.

You get a little poignant shot of the summer folks leaving the winter folks behind and then you jump six months ahead. Johan has returned, bringing with him the summer team. What he finds shocks the hell out of him. The base is deserted. The radio is out. There’s a dead body—Erik, the winter commander. What really gets to him is Annika. His wife is missing.

Johan has no way of knowing what’s going on until he stumbles upon Maggie hiding inside a kitchen cabinet, knife in hand, and clearly injured. With medical help, Maggie begins to recount the story of what happened during the dark six months in Polaris VI.

It ain’t pretty, but it comes across as a pretty gripping mystery. We get flashbacks from Johan’s point of view as we see his relationship with Annika and their desire to start a family but only after Annika has done her time down in Antarctica.

Via Maggie’s fractured recollections, Johan and his team must piece together what happened. Clues abound. Dead bodies, too. It’s only when another survivor of Polaris VI shows up that doubt is cast on Maggie’s tale. Is she a reliable narrator? Is she telling the truth or is she hiding something? What’s really difficult is knowing which characters are already dead in the present and, in Maggie’s flashbacks, you get to know them better. Makes the show all the more dire. And, with the dark winter outside, rather claustrophobic. 

The mystery deepens and it held the attention of my wife and I pretty well. The acting is good, with Johan (Alexandre Willaume) saying a lot with just his facial features. Katharine O’Donnelly as Maggie does a fine job simultaneously stoking your suspicion and empathy for her. There are a few times when Arthur (John Lynch) gets angry and, my goodness, does he do angry well.

Now, as to the ending, my wife guessed it. I thought about her prediction and I agreed with her it was mostly likely the real reason. Turned out to be accurate. You might guess it, too, but that doesn’t detract from a well-done television show. At only six episodes, you can knock out this intriguing show in less than a week. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Golden Age Quickie

2. Nick and
4. Mencken's Mask mag
7. Chandler's business (1939;1950)
8. Sayers's Lord Peter
9. Anthony Berkeley's club (b 1928)

1. Nickname of Anne Hocking
3. Cain's Mildred
4. Christie's first short (unpub), The House of ______
5. Ronald, the rules maker
6. Christie's detective couple 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Feels like we've been here before


This week, Beau Johnson takes a look at RECURSION, from Blake Crouch.

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the bestselling author of Dark Matter and the Wayward Pines trilogy comes a relentless thriller about time, identity, and memory—his most mind-boggling, irresistible work to date, and the inspiration for Shondaland’s upcoming Netflix film.

“Gloriously twisting . . . a heady campfire tale of a novel.”—The New York Times Book Review


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Writers' Room Wednesday: Outlander

Executive producers and writers Toni Graphia and Matthew B. Roberts show us around the office where "Outlander" gets made.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

High School Reading

Recently somebody on Facebook posted something that talked about their high school reading assignments, and it prompted a variety of responses, with people weighing in on whether they liked or disliked most of what they were given to read in high school and on the makeup of the authors -- by race, gender, etc -- that they were given to read.  That prompted me to think about all the reading I had to do from 9th through 12th grade, primarily in English classes but also in Humanities class in 12th grade, as I remember, and I thought it'd be interesting to look at what I read for school then, recalling with honesty what I thought of the reading at the time. I'm sure I'm missing a few things we got to read, but the books and plays below comprise most of what the teachers gave us.

Animal Farm - Liked, very clear and anti-authoritarian enough to appeal to myself as a teenager

1984 - Not exactly fun, but bitterly enjoyable, and rats would make me break as they do Winston Smith so it struck a chord that way

To Kill a Mockingbird -  Liked then, liked now.

The Great Gatsby - Slow and lugubrious to a 15 or 16 year old, and when I re-read it as an adult, because it's one of the supposedly great American novels, I still found it...underwhelming. Not that I dislike everything by Fitzgerald. I very much liked The Pat Hobby Stories and The Last Tycoon, but maybe that's because those are about Hollywood and have a poignancy only someone who was on the downswing like Fitzgerald was then could write.

Lord of the Flies - Some love, some loathe.  I loved it as 10th or 11th grader since it appealed to that teenage sense of unearned jaundice about human beings as a whole.  It seems very simplistic to me now in retrospect.  

The Chosen - By Chaim Potok.  A coming of age story about two boys, one Hasidic, one a secular Jew, growing up in 1940s Brooklyn.  I remember trying to like this one, but couldn't relate in the slightest to the characters and found it interminable.  Never tempted to re-read.

The Pigman - By Paul Zindel. A YA novel really. I think we read this in 9th grade. This was one I found very readable and quite, in its ending, disturbing.  It lingered with me for decades.  Finally, about 40 years later, I read it again to see whether it would have any of the impact it had the first time. It did.  

A Tale of Two Cities - The French revolution is as bloody as human history gets and fascinating to read about in general.  But Dickens? Well, the style of course was difficult, and I've never taken to Dickens as a writer.  I'm not talking about whether he's a genius or not, etc. That goes without saying.  But I never felt tempted to go back to this book, and have read very little Dickens since. Just not my cup of tea.

The Return of the Native - To this day, I remember what I told my 12th-grade teacher, Mrs. Scalera, about this book.  It's 350 pages and the action doesn't pick up till page 300. 

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck - Endless.  

Ethan Frome - Depressing and slow, a male teenager found this book.  All the repression and needless emotional misery.  I haven't re-read it, but as an adult, I do indeed like Ethan Wharton very much as a writer. So she's one, at least with this book, I was not ready for at that age, but who I appreciate now.

Madame Bovary - Why do they even give this to high schoolers to read?  What person of that age is going to appreciate the travails of a 19th-century person, in this case a woman, disappointed in marriage?  So here's yet another one I found interminable.  However, years later, as an adult, I tried again, listening to the entire novel on an audio book version narrated by British actor Ronald Pickup. This time, in my thirties, unmarried still but more appreciative of the disappointments life can bring, I quite enjoyed it.  And to hear it read brought to life a lot of the subtle ironic humor in the book.  So, there you go.  A second try that was worth it, though my favorite Flaubert work is undoubtedly Salammbo, his blood-drenched epic set in ancient Carthage.

The Sorrows of Young Werther - Couldn't stand the character's constant romantic yearning and whining.

The Old Man and the Sea -- Short, easy to read, something of an adventure story.  I found this one palatable, though later I came to like other stuff by Hemingway, like The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast and several of his short stories, a good deal more.

Fathers and Sons - Quite liked.  The Russians.  A classic they gave us that wasn't 300-400 pages.  And when I read this one as an adult, I absolutely loved it and found the main father-son relationship quite moving.

The Death of Ivan Ilych - The Russians again.  Somehow, or so it seemed to me at the time, they get to the point of things much more succinctly and directly than the British.  And when I found out that Tolstoy foresaw the now famous five stages of grief as first modeled by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, I was impressed. Clear evidence here how the great writers are so often ahead of the social scientists and psychiatrists and the like.

Romeo and Juliet - I think we read this in 8th grade, but anyway, it was never a play I especially liked.  The language is hard of course but you get used to that.  And the characters are young.  Just all the dying for love stuff didn't appeal to me.

Julius Caeser - Enjoyed very much and found pretty thrilling.

Macbeth - Loved even then and still consider it my favorite Shakespeare play.

Hamlet - Hamlet basically is a quintessential adolescent, so it was easy to relate to his discontent, uncertainty, and psychological tension.

So there it is.  High school reading from 1976-1980 in a solid suburban school just outside New York City.  As I mentioned, there may have been other books we read, but this picture gives a good indication of what we delved into.  Nothing here is subpar literature, as it were, but obviously there were no writers of color and way more male writers than women writers.   And it's all Euro or American-centric. Not that this bothered me then; I suppose this was just a given at the time.  That high school reading now takes from a more diverse range of authors -- at least I hope it does -- is a very good thing. That’s a given. But beyond that,  the problem with much of this reading was how slow and truly boring it was, and also, how unrelatable to people 14-18 years old.  But who knows?  That was then and this is now, and I'm sure the reading in high schools now is not only more diverse but filled with assignments to read great genre fiction and stuff from all over the world and...

Sunday, April 18, 2021


By Claire Booth

This coming Saturday is Independent Bookstore Day. For an author, there are no better friends than independent booksellers. They host book signings, promote local authors, and contribute to local economies. And they’ve been hit hard this past year. Now, as things start to open up, many are putting together safe in-person activities or online events to celebrate the day. I’ll be at my “home store,” the wonderful Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, California (where they’re going to do well-ventilated sidewalk tables and I’ll be wearing a mask). 

A pre-Covid local author event at Face in a Book. That's me on the right with fellow local crime fictioners James L'Etoile and Cindy Sample. (Remember when we could stand so close? Sigh.)
So why should you venture out to your local bookstore that day? Here are a few good reasons:

They’re always friendly and kind and put a lot of work into everything they do.

They’re psychic—they can figure out what you’ll like within two minutes of talking to you.

They’ll broaden your mind, by recommending books you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

Dashiell of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan.
They often have furry employees (see photo).

They see nothing wrong with having a five-foot tall TBR* stack.

Who else can you use a literary pun with and have them think it’s funny?

They’ll special order pretty much any book you want.

They let you serve wine at book signings.

The events they host are a vital part of community life.

*To Be Read

And if there isn’t one located near you, consider ordering from an out-of-town store and having it shipped. You can find bookstores or place orders across the country at either or Shop local, shop books!

Saturday, April 17, 2021

What Are Some Literary “Jumping the Shark” Moments?


Scott D. Parker

Sometimes old things trigger new questions.

For the longest time, our front living room was television-less. That’s where the library is, it’s where we set up our Christmas tree, and it serves as the guest bedroom. We didn’t mind not having a TV in the front room, but during last year’s NFL season, I pulled out an old TV we had and one of those digital antennas and converter box and set up the TV. I’m the only one in the house who enjoys football and I didn’t want to hog up one of the good TVs just to watch a game.

It’s been kind of fun having that old TV available. I plugged one of our VCRs (yes, really) and a portable DVD player so I could watch the occasional show on it. In terms of live television, however, when it’s not being used for football, it’s on MeTV.

Imagine my surprise, a couple of weeks ago, when suddenly MeTV was not where it usually was. The network recently purchased a station here in Houston and started broadcasting from that new channel. A channel my old converter box/antenna combo did not receive. Cue a drive to Target to purchase a new combo setup. Viola! They work perfectly and I now can get MeTV.

But this new converter box also has a recording feature. It’s like a DVR but only for over-the-air channels. No problem for me. So one afternoon I pulled out the instruction manual to figure out how to record things.

And I received a happy surprise.

“Happy Days” was airing at that time and wouldn’t you know it, the episode in question was “Hollywood, Part 3.” What? You don’t know that episode by title? Well, it’s the exact fifth episode where Fonzie jumps the shark.

Naturally, I ended up watching the rest of the episode.* Yeah, it’s as cheesy as you remember it to be, but I reckon my nine-year-old self was glued to the TV in suspense, just like the Cunninghams were.

The term “jumping the shark” has been used to define when a TV show went off the rails. That is, when it stopped being the original thing it was and became something else, usually a shell of its former self. Just me writing this brings to mind many a show to your minds. That time when Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd got together in “Moonlighting.” That time when Victoria Principal discovered Patrick Duffy’s Bobby Ewing in the shower and they told you the entire season you had just watched…was a dream. That time when David Duchovny left “The X-Files.” Those are just off the top of my head.

Then I got to thinking: Are there literary “jumping the shark” moments? Are there books in long-running series that jump the shark? I know there must be, but I’m not coming up with any. Granted, I’ve not read many long-running series. There are 52 In Death books by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts). John Sandford has written 31 in the Prey series. Twenty-five Jack Reacher books exist and I don’t even want to start counting the number of series James Patterson has written. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 80 Perry Mason novels (and 30 Cool and Lam novels). The old pulp writers Lester Dent (Doc Savage) and Walter Gibson (The Shadow) wrote a novel a month for years.

The point is, there are many a long-running series in the book world. Have (or did) any of them jump the shark?

Follow-up Question

By the way, Happy Days went on for another six years, eleven seasons in total. Were all those post-shark episodes bad? Probably not. The TV show Dallas recovered from the Bobby-in-the-Shower moment, but The X-Files and Moonlight didn’t.

So if there is a book series that jumped the shark, did that series recover?

*Side note: The other plot for this episode (and probably parts 1 and 2) was Richie mulling over a choice of whether or not to attend college or head out to Hollywood and sign a film contract. I had completely forgotten this since I probably saw the episode on the date of its airing and then never again since. But there’s a nice scene between Richie and his dad. Howard Cunningham gives his son a nice pep talk, ending with a reminder: no matter what Richie choose, his father will support him and be proud of him. Now that I’m a dad myself, this scene got to me in a way my nine-year-old self couldn’t possibly have imagined.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Snakes on a post


This week, Beau takes a look at Rattlesnake Rodeo from Nick Kolakowski.

Jake and Frankie managed to escape that terrible game, but their problems are just beginning. They’re broke, on the run, and hunted by every cop between Oregon and Montana. If they’re going to make it through, they may need to strike a devil’s bargain—and carry out a seemingly impossible crime.

Rattlesnake Rodeo is a neo-Western noir filled with incredible twists. If you want true justice against the greedy and powerful, sometimes you have no choice but to rely on the worst people… More>>

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Writers' Room Wednesday: Better Call Saul


From Adam Harper at

I saw this in twitter land and thought that fellow Stage 32 people may find it interesting/useful.

If you don't want to ruin the Better Call Saul season 4 finale for yourself, don't open this image and squint at it!

Does anyone else do similar? My home is too small for an outlining wall :-( I was using an excel spread sheet but, a writer friend introduced me to Trello this week and I'm hooked on it!  More >>

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Lending the Key to the Locked Room

Since last year, when I rediscovered the pleasure of reading locked room mysteries, a favorite of mine from when I first began reading mysteries as a teenager, I've used Locked Room International, the small publishing house started by John Pugmire, as a resource.  Over the last several years, he's published an impressive, and growing, catalog, of novels centered around a locked-room or impossible crime.  You can check out the LRI list of books here if you're interested:  

What I especially like is that many of the books published by LRI are books written since 1980, whether by Frenchman Paul Halter or by one of the Japanese practitioners of modern honkaku (authentic or orthodox mysteries).  The locked-room mystery novel is alive and well, and I enjoy reading these kinds of stories set in the more contemporary world than the Golden Age Mystery world, wonderful as those classics often are.  Browsing through the list of LRI books recently, I decided on one that sounded like fun, and it turns out I was not disappointed.  Lending the Key to the Locked Room by Tokuya Higashigawa, originally published in 2002 and translated last year, kept me both suitably puzzled until its solution and quite amused.   

In brief: Ryuhei is an aspiring filmmaker who just been dumped by his girlfriend.  When she gets murdered, drunken threats he made to kill her turn him into the main suspect.  He has an alibi, but it's shaky.  He claims he was watching a film with his friend at his friend's home movie theater.  The two avid cinephiles made a night of it, watching a crime film, drinking, eating.  But his alibi is shaken because on the same night as the screening, his friend is stabbed to death in his bathroom, with the door to the apartment locked with a door chain.  Nobody but Ryuhei was in the locked apartment at the time of the killing, and Ryuhei had been passed out during the actual murder.  He wakes in the morning to find his friend's dead body.  With all the evidence against him, Ryuhei panics and flees the scene, which doesn't make him any less suspicious to the police.  

Lending the Key to the Locked Room has a tongue in cheek tone and an amusing eccentric detective who gets involved in the case.  But the mystery itself is genuinely tricky and plays fair with the reader in all the ways a "fair play mystery" should do that.  It's also something of a treat for film lovers, since a lot of the plot revolves around discussions of genre films and different cuts of certain films.  For escapism and the exact type of mental workout I love from these books (not that I ever figure them out), it delivered.  I'm really getting into these Japanese locked room mysteries, with their air-tight and baffling plots and their emphasis on the puzzle itself.  So far the ones I've read have not taken themselves too seriously, and that's all for the better.  Thanks to Locked Room International for making a bunch of them available in English translations.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Of Course There Are Mobsters in New Jersey in Bury the Lead by David Rosenfelt


Scott D. Parker

If it's New Jersey, of course mobsters are involved.

In this, the third book featuring lawyer Andy Carpenter and his intrepid pooch, Tara, our hero is taking it easy since his last case. By taking it easy, we're talking not working. While he might be itching to get back in the courtroom, Andy's barely lifting a finger.

Until his friend, Vince Sanders, comes calling. He's the owner of the local newspaper, and his star reporter might need some legal help. Young Daniel Cumming is being used by a serial killer who kills women and then severs their hands from their bodies. Daniel writes stories about the killer, including direct messages. Vince just wants Andy handy to absolve the newspaper from anything untoward should anything go awry.

And something does go off kilter. Big time. The latest victim is found in a park in the same condition as all the others. The difference is Daniel. He's also in the park, unconscious and wounded. He claims he tried to stop the killer, but the police ain't buying it. Now, Andy has a real client with real stakes. Daniel is put on trial as a serial killer, and Andy must defend the cub reporter.

Step one: learn about Daniel and his background. But with each new revelation comes new wrinkles in the case and new layers about Daniel's past. 

And, of course, the mob gets involved.

Famously, when he was crafting the template that would become the Perry Mason TV show, author Erle Stanley Gardner stated that no one cared about Perry's personal life so there was hardly anything mentioned. David Rosenfelt has a different opinion and it's one most of us appreciate. We get a lot of Andy's personal life in these books, and it's one of the things that makes them so interesting. Andy isn't some cardboard character going through the motions. He comes across as a real flesh-and-blood guy. We get a lot of personal details in this third book, including his desire to marry his girlfriend, Laurie. She also serves as his private investigator. He wants to and she's noncommittal. Quite the flip from the usual way we think about relationships.

Speaking of unusual, Andy's an interesting guy. He's very smart when it comes to the law, but not always keen on other aspects of life. He's not what you'd call a man's man. Sure, he drinks beer, watches sports, and bets on them, but he doesn't own a gun and he's not that great in a fight. In fact, there are a few scenes where he's scared to death. I find that wonderfully refreshing in a character. It does make him more relatable as a regular guy who gets caught up in irregular events. I don't bet on sports and I typically only watch the NFL, but there are more than a few things about Andy to which I relate. Perhaps that's why I'm enjoying this series so much.

We also get more dog stuff. Author Rosenfelt and his wife rescue dogs, so it is natural for his character to do the same. In a continuation of events from past books, Andy is in partnership to create a kennel. He's a dog lover and with his substantial inheritance, he wants to give dogs good homes and places to live in the meantime. It's a great character trait and one clearly used to sell the series. Want proof? Check out the covers.

Five of the first six book covers are your standard-type mystery cover you see on a dozen other books. Book five, Play Dead, features a dog. Then, starting with book seven, New Tricks, there are dogs on every cover. It works. In fact, it helped sell me my first Andy Carpenter novel, Dachshund in the Snow back in December.

I'm listening to this series so I have to again give a shout out to Grover Gardner. He voices Andy's first person narration with a wry tone in his voice. I've listened to many other Gardner-narrated stories, but he has fast become "Andy Carpenter" to me.

If you want a good mystery series with honest and real characters and a lead who is not a superman, then the Andy Carpenter series is right up your alley. 

Other books in the series:

Open and Shut

First Degree

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Beau is on the hunt


This week, Beau takes a look at BOISE LONGPIG HUNTING CLUB by Nick Kolakowski


When you want someone found, you call bounty hunter Jake Halligan. He’s smart, tough, and best of all, careful on the job. But none of those skills seem to help him when a shadowy group starts taking his life apart piece by piece.

First Jake comes home to find a dead body in his gun safe. He thinks it’s a warning—and when you drag people back to jail for a living, the list of people who want to send that kind of message is very long indeed. With backup from his sister Frankie, an arms dealer and dapper criminal, Jake plunges into the Idaho underworld, confronting everyone from brutal Aryan assassins to cops who want his whole family in jail.

But as Jake soon discovers, those threats are small-time compared to the group that’s really after him. And nothing—not bounty hunting, not even all his years in Iraq—can prepare him for what’s coming next. Jake’s about to become a player in the most dangerous game ever invented…

Boise Longpig Hunting Club is a wild ride into the dark heart of the American dream, where even the most brutal desires can be fulfilled for a price, and nobody is safe from the rich and powerful.


“Nick Kolakowski spins a ripping pulp yarn of smart-ass bounty hunters and bad-ass crime queenpins caught in the Jean-Claude Van God-Damnedest take on The Most Dangerous Game since Hard Target, but with no bad accents.” —Thomas Pluck, author of Bad Boy Boogie and Blade of Dishonor

“Bounty hunters, a Monkey Man and Zombie Bill, explosions, sharp violence and even laughs. Kolakowski brings the goods with this one!” —Dave White, Shamus Award-nominated author of the Jackson Donne series

“A bounty hunter, his underworld criminal sister, and a dead body stuffed in a gun safe. What could possibly go wrong? In Boise Longpig Hunting Club, Nick Kolakowski unleashes a sordid and delightfully twisted tale of double crosses, revenge, and good ol’ redneck justice. Like the bastard child of Joe Lansdale and James Lee Burke, this one is well worth the sleepless night you’ll spend captivated.” —Joe Clifford, author of the Jay Porter thriller series and The One That Got Away


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Writers' Room Wednesday: Justified

On Story: 513 Justified: 

Inside the Writers’ Room

Writers from the hit show Justified discuss adapting Elmore Leonard’s short story for television and the evolution of the show’s tone, rhythm, and setting.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Joshua Chaplinsky on 'The Paradox Twins'

Scott's Note: Joshua Chaplinsky guest blogs this week, talking about his new novel, The Paradox Twins. Chaplinsky is the managing editor of, as well as the author of the novella Kanye West - Reanimator and the story collection Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape.  The Paradox Twins is his first novel, and it is, quite clearly, a genre blender. 

Here he is:

April 6th marks the release of my debut novel, The Paradox Twins, courtesy of CLASH Books. It’s an epistolary work comprised of excerpts from various memoirs, novels, screenplay adaptations, and documents of public record. These conflicting sources combine to tell the story of estranged twin brothers who reunite at their father’s funeral to discover they have aged differently and no longer look alike. 

A pretty good setup, if I do say so myself. One that could go in any number of directions. I find doubles and doppelgangers to be inherently noirish tropes, and although this sounds like the setup for a Hitchcockian thriller, I should be honest—The Paradox Twins is not a crime novel. 

So that begs the question, What am I doing here on Do Some Damage? I mean, aside from Scott inviting me. I assume he knows The Paradox Twins isn’t a crime novel. I didn’t even consider the alternative at the time—he made an offer and I accepted. When it comes to promotion, I’m a “say yes to everything” kind of guy. So don’t blame him. 

If I’m to continue being honest, I’m not sure what category The Paradox Twins falls under. It definitely doesn’t adhere to a single genre’s rules. At its core, it’s a family drama set firmly in reality, but it’s also a sci-fi novel and a ghost story. It’s got elements of existential horror and satire as well. It plays with structure and format in a way that could be described as ergodic. I wouldn’t necessarily call it experimental (although the “e” word did find its way onto the cover copy), but if I did, I would say it’s accessibly so. There’s a lot going on under the hood, which doesn’t make it easy to target a specific audience.

Which is why I decided to target all of them.

Well, not all of them. My approach is a little more focused than that.

You see, I’ve found a certain overlap in readers of modern genre fiction. Especially denizens of the small press scene. Maybe that’s because a lot of the best small presses run the gamut, publishing everything from poultry farm crime dramas to metaphysical high school murder-sleaze to intergalactic sex romps. Presses like Perpetual Motion Machine, Apocalypse Party, Word Horde, Weird Punk Books, Broken River Books, Soho Press, Kingshot Press, Down & Out Books, and of course my own publisher, CLASH Books. In the last few years they’ve published an impressive array of titles, everything from African horror, gothic fairytales, and military sci-fi to video game influenced poetry, personal memoir and dystopia. Hell, they’re even publishing an entire book about ska. Ska! It’s almost as if they’re a genre unto themselves. Like a lot of these presses.

So it made sense for me to go where fans of these publishers congregate, no matter what genre banner they rallied under. Most venues proved welcoming to outsiders. It wasn’t long before I had a nice little blog tour going. I scheduled an interview with a speculative fiction site and a guest post on a horror blog. A small transgressive press agreed to host an excerpt. I secured reviews on a number of horror, literary, and weird fiction websites. Twins was recommended in roundups on IO9 and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. I’ve guested on three different podcasts so far, one of which is a Random House podcast for serious-type authors (not sure how I managed that one).

I also took note of the trails blazed before me. One novel that influenced my approach was the genre-defying masterpiece Liminal Space, by Zack Parsons. 

For my money, Liminal Space is one of the all-time great genre experiments. And it achieves this without mashing everything together into an unrecognizable gray mush. It’s kind of like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but without the nesting doll structure or changing cast of characters. One reviewer described it as “a helter-skelter journey through mind-blowing SF, western dime novel, noir mystery, and near-future dystopian horror that somehow manages to become a cohesive, thought-provoking whole.” The nearly unanimous consensus is that it shouldn’t work, but it does. Like gangbusters. 

It’s books like Liminal States that are constantly at the back of my mind when I’m writing. Whenever my self-doubt says, “You can’t do that!”, Zack Parsons says, “Oh yes you can, motherfucker!” (because I imagine Zack Parsons would curse, and it sounds cooler that way). David Mitchell, on the other hand, would be more reserved in his encouragement to break the rules. More of a “Go for it, old chap!” kind of guy.

Then, when I’m staring at the finished product thinking, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” I look to books like Liminal States to guide me in my promotional efforts. Where did Parsons get reviewed/do interviews? What circles were tweeting about his novel? Was he covered by each of the genres represented in his writing? Did the more conservative outlets go out of their way to feature his book? You do this with a handful of examples and you start to bank options.

Of course, they say if you’re going to break the rules, you’d better do it well, and if Liminal States was a turgid pile, no one would have paid any attention. The few who did would be clucking their tongues. So if the imaginary version of one of your favorite writers is encouraging you to take risks, you need to be confident in their abilities as well as your own. And then you need to go out there and share your risky business with anyone who’ll listen. Because although genres may be rigid, communities don’t have to be. 

Am I implying I broke the rules well? How the hell should I know? My book just came out. You probably shouldn’t be coming to me for advice. And now that I think about it, I don’t remember Liminal States selling that many copies. I once tweeted at Zack Parsons asking him when he was going to write another novel, and he told me hopefully never, because it was a horrible experience. 

So there’s that. 

You can get The Paradox Twins right here.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Len Wein’s Batman: Batman 307


Scott D. Parker

As a kid in the late 1970s, comics were one of my go-to things (Star Wars, KISS, and early Star Trek fandom were the other main loves of my life) and Batman was my favorite. Still being a young kid in late elementary, I didn’t pay attention to the names of the writers or artists. I just bought the books and read them, ingesting the stories over and over again.

When I review the covers of my issues of Batman, it turns out some of my favorites were all scripted by the same guy: Len Wein. Unknown to me at the time, Wein had already co-created Swamp Thing for DC and rebooted the X-Men over at Marvel, including the co-creation of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Colossus. Nope, all I cared about was good Batman stories, and for a stretch there in late 1978 and all through 1979, Len Wein was the monthly writer (mostly) for Batman.

With the cover date for Wein’s first issue being January 1979 (although it hit the spinner racks a month or so earlier), I thought it would be fun to re-read Wein’s Batman run forty years later and see how it holds up. Spoiler: his run is among my favorites of all-time. In fact, Wein wrote one of my favorite all-time comic stories, Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk. But that’s a different post.

Speaking of holding up, Batman and Bruce Wayne in the 1970s is my favorite version of the character. Dick Grayson is off to college, leaving Bruce to move out of Wayne Manor and into Gotham City proper. He takes up residence at the Wayne Foundation building, and operates there for most of the decade. It is one of the neatest buildings in comicdom, what with the giant tree in the middle of the building, which secretly houses an elevator to the basement where the Batmobile is kept. For a young boy like me, this was the coolest thing ever.

The building shows up in Batman issue 307, but not before in intriguing two-page prologue. A beggar woman is asking for spare change. A man in a trench coat, fedora, and scarf approaches and gives her two gold pieces. The next page, she falls dead, right under the title, “Dark Messenger of Mercy!” The artist in this issue is John Calnan and Dick Giordano.

The first time we see Bruce Wayne, he is in his office, staring out the window. Next to him is Lucius Fox in his debut. I’m not sure the thought process Wein went through to create Fox, but the character has been around for these last forty years. Morgan Freeman played him in the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. From the chit-chat between Fox and Wayne, however, it’s clear Wayne has not shared his secret identity. The two men talk about business and name drop a man named Gregorian Falstaff (love the name) who, according to Wayne, “He’s rumored to have have a fortune which makes mine look like so much lunch money.”

Darkness literally falls over Gotham in one short panel, and Wayne excuses himself. He tags up with Alfred who has the Batman costume at the ready. As he swings off the top of the Foundation building, Batman makes a comment to Alfred: “When I start making value judgements—deciding who’s important enough to avenge—it’ll be time to hang up my mask forever.” Here in 2019, with the recent passing of Stan Lee, many folks mentioned Lee’s strong streak of social justice running through his words. Here, in 1979, Len Wein does the same thing for Batman. police headquarters, a man named Quentin Conroy is livid. He wants Gotham’s finest to help him find stolen property, gold coins to be exact. Unbeknownst to both men, Batman is sitting in the same room, legs casually crossed, fingers steepled. The Caped Crusader in convinced he can find Conroy’s missing money, especially since two of the coins turned up on that dead woman’s corpse.

Street level, Batman approaches a sleep bum and there is a funny couple of panels. In the boxed panels, Wein writes “Without question, the Batman is an impressive figure. His unexpected visage, looming large out of the darkness, is often viewed with admiration...or hostility...or outright fear…” “But rarely indifference.” This as the bum goes back to sleep. See? You can have humor in a Batman story. Anyway, an Irishman named Shamrock (natch) approaches and asks the hero if he needs helps. When Batman says he’s investigating the murder of the woman, Shamrock knew her. He volunteers to escort Batman down into the sewers to meet some folks who might have seen something.

What Batman sees is a group of people living in an underground tunnel, the area kept warm by the steam pipes. Here, Batman meets Slugger (from the ‘48 Gotham Giants baseball team), Poet (Shakespeare of the sewers), and Good Queen Bess. Through dialogue alone, Wein gives these characters their accents and particular ways of speaking. Shamrock always says, “Laddie,” while Slugger talks like a New Yorker: “Pleased to meet ‘cha!” Batman learns there have been other deaths...and Queen Bess actually has two of the coins with her. The Dark Knight Detective ascertains the gold coins are laced with a contact poison, absorbed through the skin.

No sooner does Batman make this discovery than a piercing scream fills the bowels of Gotham. Another woman is being attacked! It’s the man with the fedora and red scarf. Batman leaps to action. A fight ensues, and Batman gets himself whacked by Scarfman’s cane. In the melee, two things happen. One, Scarfman’s hat and scarf fall away, revealing a face the citizens of the underworld know. Two, Scarfman’s cane cracked a steam pipe. It’s about to blow. So Batman gets between the pipe and the people. It explodes, hurling Batman across the room.

Later, Batman’s “new tattered friends” say Scarfman looks just like one of their own: “Limehouse” John Francis Conroy, a man who used to sleep with them before just disappearing. Being the detective, Batman soon finds his way to Quentin Conroy’s house (because Batman can get into any room in Gotham, right?). Heated words are exchanged and Quentin confesses John Francis was his father. He kept the gold coins as a remembrance of his father, a man who ran out on his family while Quentin was a kid. The modern pressures of the world drove John Francis to the streets, supposedly dying in a gutter.

But Batman isn’t so sure.

The next night, we see Scarfman prowling about. He gives coins to a man who extends his hand...the gloved hand of The Batman! Oddly, Batman is wearing a sling, proof not only did the steam explosion hurt him worse than we saw three pages ago, but reminding readers the Caped Crusader is really just a man, a man who can get injured. A second battle commences, but Batman’s shoulder hampers him. Scarfman swings the cane too wide, allowing Batman to come in underneath him. A powerful punch to the mid-section topples Scarfman. The odd cast of characters are also there, cheering on Batman. Scarfman questions their motives. All he wants is to give these street people some mercy and peace. But “the peace of the grave” is something they shun. Just as they shun him.
Scarfman’s mind snaps. He accuses Batman of turning these “friends of his” away from him. His face is misshapen, resembling John Francis Conroy, but a few panels later, it is revealed to be Quentin all along. Quentin, looking almost like a young boy.

Wein wraps up the entire story in three thin panels. We see Quentin being led away and Commissioner Gordon asking Batman about the clue. It was the heels of Quentin’s shoes, something we saw a few pages before. Many of the 1970s stories had clues the reader could follow, and it’ fun to go back and notice certain things you might have missed the first go-round.

Wein wrote a pretty decent script. I enjoy the non-super-villain aspect of these kinds of stories. Kind of like a breather before we get to the next issue featuring Mr. Freeze. Wein brings Batman’s humanity to the fore, both in how he protects the homeless but also, at the end, when he hopes young Quentin will receive the help he needs. He’s a true hero to all, discriminating toward none.

What did y’all think about this story?