Sunday, May 28, 2023

Review: A Truffle Load of Good Writing (And Dogs)


Unfortunately doesn't have scratch-and-sniff, but is otherwise perfection.

By Claire Booth

I’ve never had a truffle. I’ve never even wanted to try one. But I was on board instantly with Rowan Jacobsen’s Truffle Hound, an effervescent, sensorily spectacular unearthing of the world’s truffle industry.

My bedtime reading is always nonfiction, and I go through dozens of books a year. I read them as ebooks, a switch I made for only my nonfiction after dropping Ron Chernow’s three-pound Grant on my face multiple times as I needed off. My ereader thankfully doesn’t cause as much injury, and it comes with a very nice benefit. I can download the first pages of a book before buying it. And I always do, because—and I’m going to be brutally honest here—I need to see the writing. The book could be about a topic I love, but if the writing isn’t good, I can’t do it. That said, it’s actually rare that a sample completely fails with me. Most fall in the middle, are worth committing to, and turn out to be good-to-great reads. But it’s only once in a great while that something grabs me from the first page and has me pledging to follow the writer anywhere.

“It was hardly a food scent at all. It was more like catching a glimpse of a satyr prancing across the dining room floor while playing its flute and flashing its hindquarters at you. You think, What the hell was that? And then you think, I have to know.” 

Yes, I do.

So I followed the James Beard Award-winning Jacobsen to Italy, France, Bosnia, Hungary, Spain, and both coasts of the U.S. And enjoyed every minute. But aside from some late nigh back-room dealing in expensive fungus, what does truffle hunting have to do with crime fiction? A lot, if you write like Jacobsen. His book is a master class in the art of the character sketch. He introduces you to people all over the world in delicately perceptive, big-hearted strokes. The resulting portrayals are so vivid you feel like you know them—which is what every fiction writer aims for, isn’t it?

“Voldemort picks me up in Budapest, buys me an espresso, and we drive south in the early light,” he writes of a Hungarian truffle hunter whom others have warned him about. “Istvan Bagi has a sharp nose and a black goatee and would actually make a decent bad guy on TB. He’s soft-spoken and focused in a way that can imply either spiritual advancement or supervillainy.”

Or this one:

“Ivana’s boyfriend, a strapping young Croatian with a black bear and ample tattoos, loads four dogs into the back of a Citroen minivan. When I ask him his name, he says, ‘Call me Ban, it’s my last name, but you can’t pronounce my first.’ (It’s Hrvoje, if you want to give it a shot.)”

Plus, he’s so clearly obsessed with his topic that me-the-novelist thinks he would make a great mystery character.

Truffle Hound: On the Trail with the World’s Most Seductive Scent with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs



And for more of his journalism:


Saturday, May 27, 2023

What Are You Going To Do With the 99 Days of Summer 2023?

Veteran writer Dean Wesley Smith dubs the summer months the Time of the Great Forgetting. It’s that point in the year when the good intentions of New Year’s Resolutions made in the depths of winter fall by the wayside in bright light of hot summer days when the pull to do just about anything other than writing draws writers away from their keyboards. It’s only in later summer and early fall when writers remember their annual goals and either charge full-stream ahead and barrel to the end of the year, desperately hoping to achieve their milestones, or just give up and do something else.

He speaks the truth.

But I’ve come to see the summer months as an almost perfect time capsule to get things done, including writing.

Bookended Time

Starting with Memorial Day and ending on Labor Day in September, summer has a definitive beginning and ending. The only span of time that rivals this is Halloween-to-New Year’s Day. Unlike the holidays—which a chock full of known events and Christmas pageants visits to friends and family—the summer months are largely unstructured. School’s out, vacation season is in, and we all get to collectively breath deep for a few short weeks before we do it all again in the fall.

The summer vibe is looser. We wear different types of clothes. We read different kinds of books, the beach reads if you will. And we watch certain types of movies. I’ve already seen one of my favorite movies of the year—Fast X, a rollercoaster in a movie theater—and canNOT wait until both Michael Kenton’s Batman and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones share the multiplexes for the first time since 1989. 

The clearly marked beginning and ending of summer also is the perfect time to do something creative, including writing. There are 99 days this summer—97 if you don’t include Memorial and Labor Day. Just imagine what you can do. Write a 99,000-word novel if you write 1,000 words per day. Or maybe two shorter works of, say, 45,000 words each. In the 14 weeks we get this year, you could write 14 short stories. Writing is merely a habit, and if you get into the habit of writing, it will be difficult to stop it.

Just imagine, come the Monday of Labor Day, the tremendous sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you look back over Summer 2023 and marvel at what you’ve done. It’s just like your New Year’s Resolutions but for a shorter period of time.

Your Summer Resolutions

Come to think of it, why not think of them as Summer Resolutions. Or your Summer Goals List. 

So spend some time this weekend thinking about what you want to write or accomplish this summer. Make a list—on paper—hang it on the fridge, and look at it everyday. Then, each day, when you open the fridge, ask yourself if you have moved the needle forward on those goals. When you do the incremental daily work, the end result will be greater than you could imagine.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Martin Amis and Elmore Leonard

When news came of Martin Amis' death, I, like many, thought not only about his fiction but of how good his non-fiction writing is. In this vein, the first thing that popped into my mind, of all things, was the review he wrote on May 14, 1995 of Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap for the New York Sunday Times Book Review. This is a review I read at the time, on that Sunday, since in those days I bought the physical edition of the Sunday Times nearly every week and read the Sunday book review regularly.

You can't improve on what Amis says about the book, so I'll quote him a little bit, talking about Leonard's thirty-second novel: 

"LET us attempt to narrow it down. Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers. He belongs, then, not to the mainstream but to the genres (before he wrote thrillers, he wrote westerns). Whereas genre fiction, on the whole, heavily relies on plot, mainstream fiction, famously, has only about a dozen plots to recombinate (boy meets girl, good beats bad and so on). But Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner's Tales, in which Death roams the land -- usually Miami and Detroit -- disguised as money.

Nevertheless, Mr. Leonard possesses gifts -- of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing -- that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet. And the question is: How does he allow these gifts play, in his efficient, unpretentious and (delightfully) similar yarns about semiliterate hustlers, mobsters, go-go dancers, cocktail waitresses, loan sharks, bounty hunters, blackmailers and crime syndicate executioners? My answer may sound reductive, but here goes: The essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.

What this means, in effect, is that he has discovered a way of slowing down and suspending the English sentence -- or let's say the American sentence, because Mr. Leonard is as American as jazz. Instead of writing "Warren Ganz III lived up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County," Mr. Leonard writes, "Warren Ganz III, living up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County." He writes, "Bobby saying," and then opens quotes. He writes, "Dawn saying," and then opens quotes. We are not in the imperfect tense (Dawn was saying) or the present (Dawn says) or the historic present (Dawn said). We are in a kind of marijuana tense (Dawn saying), creamy, wandering, weak-verbed. Such sentences seem to open up a lag in time, through which Mr. Leonard easily slides, gaining entry to his players' hidden minds. He doesn't just show you what these people say and do. He shows you where they breathe."

I remember reading this in 1995 and finding it such a sharp look at Leonard. It's admiring, of course, but doesn't just talk in semi-vagaries about "Leonard's great dialogue" or "Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing", but analyzes what is at the crux of all novels no matter what type of fiction the author writes, regardless of what genre the author navigates: language.  How the author uses language is where everything in writing starts, and it's surprising how often conversations about fiction and writing touch on everything related to writing except this core thing.  Anyway, I hadn't known before reading this review that Amis was such a Leonard fan, and if you want to read the full piece, you can Google it easily.

Also worth checking out is a co-interview Amis did years ago with Leonard, a most interesting talk between two writers who are so different, working toward quite different aims, but who so strongly value how they use language. The interview, perhaps unfortunately, is on the old Charlie Rose program, but you can't have everything. The draw here is Amis and Leonard talking writing.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

It’s an Easy Choice: Don’t Wait a Year to Read Falling by T.J. Newman

By Scott D. Parker

Look at that cover. How cool is that? For me, it stopped me in my tracks last year when I saw it for the first time. Isn’t that what a cover’s supposed to do? Well, mission accomplished. I promptly put that book on my To Be Read list.

And a year later, finally got to it.

When I finished the debut novel by former flight attendant T. J. Newman, I chastised myself. Why did it take so long to pick up the book because it was a good one.

The premise is a great example of an elevator pitch: on a transcontinental flight from LA to New York, veteran pilot Bill Hoffman is given a choice: Crash the plane or his family back in LA will die. The proof: a live video feed of his two kids and his wife held hostage in his own house. Both his wife, Carrie, and the kidnapper/terrorist wear bomb vests.

Oh, and if Bill does not make a choice, well, there’s someone on the plane that will force him to choose. Needless to say, the terrorist commands Bill to tell no one about the situation because if he does, his family dies.

You get all of this by the time Chapter 3 is over and there are still 39 chapters left to go.

Normal People in Unusual Circumstances

It is a hallmark of thriller and suspense stories to have a common main character just going about his or her life and then is broadsided by outside events. That fits this story to a T. It naturally makes you ask what you would do in a similar situation. What I particularly enjoyed about Falling is how logical (given his predicament) his choices are. The same could be said for his allies (come on; that’s not a spoiler). Given Newman’s background as a flight attendant you didn’t think they wouldn’t play a role is how this story plays out, did you? Of course not.

Flashbacks Deployed Judiciously

I listened to this book as narrated by Stephen Weber and the story just flew by. The rare pauses occurred when Newman would give us a flashback to an earlier scene in order to given Bill’s actions greater context. It’s a time-honored trope as well but it is a trope for a reason, and they work here. They didn’t bother me a bit and, just as Newman wanted, it deepened Bill and the choices he was being forced to make.

The Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and the ending actually sparked an emotional response. I rarely get those from books. In fact, the most recent one was 19 years ago with John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Newman may be a debut author but she knows how to spin a yarn. Her latest book, Drowning will be published this month and you can be sure I won’t wait a year to read it.

T. J. Newman's Encouraging Open Letter

In reading about Newman, I discovered her recently published open letter to fellow storytellers over at Deadline. It's a Must Read.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Using AI to write today's DSD post

By Steve Weddle and AI

I've been busy as hell watching YouTube videos on the best sling bags for travel, so I asked Chat GPT to write a 250-word essay about how to come up with a series character for a detective novel. 


Developing a captivating series character for a detective novel requires a careful balance of creativity and relatability. The protagonist should be someone readers can connect with, while possessing distinct qualities that set them apart. Here are some key steps to creating a compelling series character:

1. Define the Character's Background: Start by crafting a backstory for your character. Consider their upbringing, education, and any formative experiences that shaped their personality and worldview. This foundation will help you understand their motivations and provide depth to their actions.

2. Establish Unique Traits: Give your character distinguishing features, such as a particular skill set, a personal quirk, or an intriguing past. It could be a photographic memory, expertise in forensics, or an obsession with crossword puzzles. These unique traits add flavor and make the character memorable.

3. Create Internal Conflict: A series character should have inner struggles and flaws that humanize them. These conflicts can range from personal traumas to moral dilemmas, adding depth and complexity to their personality. This internal struggle will make the character more relatable and provide opportunities for character growth throughout the series.

4. Craft a Compelling Personality: Determine the character's demeanor, sense of humor, and interpersonal skills. Are they stoic and serious, or witty and sarcastic? Develop their emotional range to make them multi-dimensional and capable of resonating with readers.

5. Design a Memorable Appearance: Consider the character's physical appearance, including their clothing style, grooming habits, and any distinctive physical attributes. This visual description will help readers form a mental image of the character and contribute to their overall appeal.

6. Allow for Evolution: Remember that characters should grow and change over the course of a series. Give your protagonist room to learn from their experiences, develop new skills, and adjust their perspectives. This ongoing character development will keep readers engaged and invested in their journey.

Creating a series character for a detective novel demands a balance of intrigue and authenticity. By following these steps, you can construct a dynamic and relatable protagonist who will captivate readers throughout your series.

Art from and essay from

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Two Enjoyable Private Eyes

Some reading I did recently reminded me that a lot of the pleasure that comes from reading private eye novels lies in how enjoyable it is to just spend time with an investigator with an interesting personality.  Don't get me wrong.  A PI novel always benefits from a strong plot, dextrous writing, evocative scene-setting, and so forth, not to mention the need for compelling secondary characters. But the enjoyment that comes from sort of hanging out through an investigation with a PI who has a distinctive voice and personality can in itself be a strong one, and this was certainly true of two books I zipped through last month.

The Old Dick, by L.A. Morse, as its title might indicate, is something of a parody of a PI novel.  Published in 1981, it is told by Jake Spanner, a 77-year-old retired private investigator living in Los Angeles. When we first meet him, he is living modestly in his small house, spending his time reading bad PI novels and trying to avoid a widow next door whose cooking is atrocious.  Soon enough, he gets lured against his better judgment into some intrigue by a guy about his age who he once helped bust and who is just out of jail.  What ensues after that is a funny semi-misadventure of a detective tale that gets, in the classic tradition, more and more complicated as it goes along. The plot is solid. But what most carries the book and keeps the reader turning the pages is Spanner's voice, crotchety and often self-mocking, somewhat cynical and jaded, but still engaged with life enough to care about things like the truth and perhaps even justice. It's a book sort of in the vein of what Robert Benton did with The Late Show and Art Carney's Ira Wells character. Without tipping over into farce, the book parodies and yet does full justice to the PI novel form, and I just liked spending a few days with Jake Spanner and seeing the world through his aging eyes. Fun book. 

Charlotte Carter's Rhode Island Red, published in 1999, is the first of three books about Nanette Hayes, a young saxophone-playing street musician in New York City who gets caught up in a murder that takes place in her apartment after she takes in, for a night, a fellow apparent street musician.  In this book, the plot is pretty good, nothing spectacular, but Nanette is a complex and highly entertaining main character, conversant as she is in jazz music, Arthur Rimbaud, Jean-Luc Godard and cinema in general, and a number of other things. She is sexually active and likes to drink. She never does not speak her mind. As a musician and poetry translator scraping by in New York, hanging on barely to her tiny apartment, she is resourceful and even cunning when need be, and though she is not, strictly speaking, a professional investigator, she takes on the role of the amateur PI without missing a beat in her life. I have to say, too, that as a New Yorker, this picture of a time not too long ago in the city but far enough back to be a different era has its nostalgic value for me. To be a bohemian and able to survive in NYC; it never was easy but was it once a bit more possible than it is now?  Whether it was or wasn't, Rhode Island Red makes it seems as if it was, and Nanette Hayes is your compelling guide through a particular music-obsessed underworld. I'd follow her other places and certainly intend to finish the series. I should add that there's a superb in-depth piece about Charlotte Carter and the peripatetic life she has led by the estimable Michael Gonzalez that was written a few years back and that you can find here: It's definitely worth a read.

Jake Spanner and Nanette Hayes. Two very different people investigating crimes who I had a great time accompanying as they poked about in dark and mysterious places.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Season 2 of Perry Mason Continues to Reimagine the Characters


Scott D. Parker

The second season of Perry Mason played more or less like how the original series television show used to: introduce some characters you don’t know, witness a crime (but conceal the culprit), and bring in our main characters. There will be a courtroom scene and there will be a confession of the real culprit on the stand in front of…

Okay, so the analogy only goes so far, and that’s why I am really enjoying HBO’s revamping of Perry Mason. I say revamping because it many ways, it’s not an update, but a throwback. The TV show was broadcast in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the stories were all contemporary. The original books started in 1933 and went all the way up to 1973. As far as I can suspect, author Erle Stanley Gardner kept Mason up to date with the times.

The HBO show is set in 1933 and serves as Mason’s origin to be attorney and man we know him to be. What makes this show special is that the creators do not attempt to press all the existing characters into the existing boxes we all know. Mason is a divorced dad, Della Street is studying to be a lawyer (and not just Mason’s secretary) and is a closeted homosexual. Ditto for district attorney Hamilton Berger, character traits that are explored and exploited. Private investigator Paul Drake is African-American so race comes to the fore often. 

When I think of this modern Perry Mason, I think about the Sherlock Holmes TV show Elementary. Unlike BBC’s Sherlock—which merely updated the old Conan Doyle stories to the present century—Elementary reimagined Holmes and Watson and changed their story. Same with HBO’s Perry Mason. And I have zero issues with it. If I want something traditional, the old TV is airing everyday on MeTV and I can go watch an episode. Or I can pick up one of Gardner’s books. I don’t want a warmed up retread. I want something new. That’s what this show is.

The writers of season 2 do take a page from Gardner’s often intricate plots. Brooks McCutcheon, son of a wealthy father, who has some shady dealings along with his philanthropy and driving desire to be Major League Baseball to Los Angeles. He is the one murdered in episode 1 of this eight-episode season. The accused are Rafael and Mateo Gallardo, poor Mexican-American young men who live in one of the Hoovervilles. (Historical note: I loved the use of “Hoovervilles” among the characters but none of them felt compelled to have an “As you know…” aside.) 

As with any good Gardner story, the more Mason digs into a case, the more oddball things crop up. This one has a few, but the highlights of this series are the individual moments that serve to mature and grow the characters. Mason, trying to make up for being an absent father really tries to be a part of his son’s life and ends up dating one of his teachers. Della meets and falls in love with a rich screenwriter and sees what it’s like not to have to live in a boarding house and be able to go to nightclubs that cater to lesbians. Paul’s story is not as happy, as the case compels him to do things he doesn’t want to do, putting pressure on his marriage and his living arrangements with his wife’s brother. 

Like the intro to this post, a key feature to any Perry Mason story is his courtroom theatrics. There are some in this show that are really good, including one fantastic one, but you’ll have to watch the show to see it because I’m not spoiling it here.

When you get to the end and the culprit is revealed, it will likely cause you to reflect on the entire series and think back to moments and if the writers telegraphed the ending. I’ll leave that up to you, too, but I’ll say that it makes sense. 

With the TV show, by the time you got to the end of an episode, there were clear winners and losers and the end result was as black and white as the film used to make the show. But we’re in the 21st Century now and few things are crystal clear. Both seasons of Perry Mason mirror the era in which we find ourselves living, and I’m perfectly fine with that, too. It’s more real, more nuance, and harkens back directly to a quote Mason heard in season 1 and repeats in season 2. 

I have grown to really like this series and it hangs on a point where a potential season 3 could show us the modern version of the old TV show. Boy, I hope we get a third season.