Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Du-ology (with apologies to Becky)

by Sophie Littlefield

How long should a series run?

I was wondering if I had an original thought on this subject, feeling pretty certain that the other CM's know far more about it than I, when I saw an opportunity to pull off a neat trick: *appear* to be sticking to the topic while wandering off in another direction entirely.

Let me tell you about how my young adult series came to be a series of...two. (In Becky's words, that's a "du-ology.")

I wrote a young adult novel a while back. I submitted th manuscript and detailed outline for a second and third book to my agent. A whole bunch of stuff happened in the manuscript, setting up a dramatic story problem for book two and a satisfying twisty resolution for book three. I was feeling, I must admit, a little smug. I thought I had really *nailed* this series thing. Yeah, I still have a way to go before I'm the sort of author who can sell on a proposal and three chapters, but I was on my way, right?

When Barbara (my extraordinary agent) did her thing and came up with an enthusiastic editor for the project, I was even more excited and impressed with myself. Ha! I thought - this publishing thing's not so hard after all, right?

Then came the "Aaaaaaand...."

Now when Barbara says "aaaaand" in that particular way she has, I have learned that I need to put the phone down, walk to the kitchen and pour myself a generous single malt, take a large enough gulp that it leaves dribbles down my chin, walk back to the office, lie down on the floor, close my eyes, cry for thirty seconds, and only then pick up the phone again and ask her to continue.

But I didn't know that then.

Barbara said "Aaaaaaand" and I said "Mmm hmmm?" and she said "It turns out they already have enough trilogies on the schedule so this is going to be a two-book series. Oh, and she has a few concerns about the story direction. It's a great starting place, though."

I'll spare you the next eight months of re-writes. Suffice it to say that the book I turned in was related to the original manuscript much in the way that, say, Paris, France is related to Paris Hilton.

And to think that, the day Barbara called me, my worry was how I was going to compress books 2 and 3 into a single book. Ha! Ha! Ha ha ha!

What's the point of this story, you're wondering? (Other than the valuable tip I've given you on translating me, you're gonna want to write that one down.)

Well, it's this: my series is now beautiful. Wish I could take credit, but it's the result of an editor who was willing to give me ample guidance, who knows what my target reader responds to, and who was unafraid to send me back again and again until I got it right. Left to my own devices I would have quit when it wasn't close to baked. Instead I got the job done.

So today's lesson is...

Sometimes editors know what they're doing.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Just for fun, I'll give you the answer I used to think was true before I learned otherwise.

How many books should there be in a series? Same answer as for any "How much" question: Just enough to leave them wanting more.

(If you doubt this, give it a try. Answer the following:
"How many Doritos should I have?"
"How many pages should I write in my fifth grade report about Abraham Lincoln?"
"How long should I stand on the porch kissing Matt Spicer?"*** )

***high school boyfriend...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why all book series must be trilogies

How many books should a series run?

By Rebecca Cantrell

A series should always be a trilogy. Who has ever heard of a du-ology? And bi-ology is something quite different. What about a quadrology? Pentology? Nope. Clearly if there is no word for it, it just can’t be.

And trilogy is a versatile term. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a four book trilogy. So is “Lord of the Rings,” if you count “The Hobbit.” Those are some successful quadrologies. The “Harry Potter” books are a septology, which doesn’t quite sound as naughty as a sextology, but after all those books are for kids.

Titles matter too. If you start with “A is for Alibi” you know you only have 24 more titles until you reach “Z is for Zero.” (What’s the word for a 26 part series? Kelli, you’re the Latin buff. Lend us a hand.) But if you start with “One for the Money,” you can keep writing until “Google Me Grandma Mazur.”

In all seriousness, a series should run exactly as long as the writer can tell rewarding stories in that world. Or until the publishers and readers stop buying them. As a writer, I hope for the first. Especially as I’m on the third book in my trilogy.

I’ll close by paraphrasing a junior high English teacher who, when I asked how long an essay should be, said “As long as a piece of rope.”

Drove me crazy then too.

Palladins, Seekers, and Other Icons

How many books should a series run?

As long as it takes....

Since I'm beginning my second series, I've been thinking a lot about this. I've decided that there are two kinds of series in crime fiction and they depend on the type of ICONs they feature as main characters.

The first type of series can sustain many books and go on, well, forever--until readers get bored or the author runs out of patience or ideas. In this kind of series the main character is relatively stable.

They don't really change--although the people around them and their circumstances do.

There are two main ICONic characters that work in this kind of series.

The PALLADIN is a main character who comes in to fix things. To solve the problems of the universe. Think Jack Reacher, Spenser, Mike Hammer, the Lone Ranger. They are on a quest for justice--to return balance to society--not on a quest to change themselves but the world around them.

The INVESTIGATOR is a main character whose interest and driving force is to solve a puzzle, thus restoring balance to the world. These are many of your amateur sleuths and PIs. Think Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple. They gain satisfaction from pitting their wits against the badguy and using their brains to figure things out.

In either of the above, the main characters' actions change the people around them more than themselves. Yes, they may gain physical scars, maybe even a few bad dreams along the way, but they won't change a lot from one book to the next.

In the second type of crime fiction series, the characters are malleable--in fact, they are undergoing a metamorphosis because their motivation to become involved in the crime is personal. There's something missing in themselves, a psychic wound if you will, and they're driven to fix themselves in order to fix the universe.

The two ICONic characters who are malleable and do change from book to book are:

The PENITENT who is searching for forgiveness, redemption, absolution for something that has gone wrong in their past. Think Dave Robicheaux, Harry Bosch ....any character "driven by demons."

The SEEKER may not need forgiveness as much as they need answers. Not specifically the logic that solves a crime but rather faith that there is something higher, something more out there and if they just strive hard enough, they may find it. Think Kathy Mallory, Fox Mulder...any character who begins as a cynic but really wants to believe in something larger than themselves or wants to believe in people rather than an abstract concept of justice.

Of course there are combinations and variations--that's what makes writing interesting! But it's interesting that you can easily name a dozen or more of the Palladins and Investigators, complete with long, long running series, than you can the Penitents or Seekers.

I think that's because when a character is on a quest to change themselves, there's nowhere to go once they achieve that. So they're often suitable for trilogies or shorter series or even standalones.

But for characters out to change the world around them and not themselves--well, lets face it, the world is never going to stop needing some improvement, is it? There will always be battles to be fought for justice, puzzles to be solved....

I read both types of books but prefer writing the Pentitent and Seeker types of characters. Lydia Fiore, the main character of my Berkley medical series is seeking redemption because she feels responsible for her mother's death when she was twelve.

Gina Freeman, a main secondary character, is seeking herself--she's put on so many facades to please others that she has no real idea who she really is, but working in the ER as a resident is like being placed in a crucible and she's slowly forging her true identity.

Amanda, the medical student lead character of my second book, WARNING SIGNS, is at heart a Palladin, always driven to do the right thing for her patients.

Nora, the main character in my next book (coming October 27!) URGENT CARE, is an interesting combination. She's a Palladin by nature but a Penitent by circumstance. URGENT CARE is her story of redemption.

Lucy Guardino, the main character of my new series, thinks she's a Palladin but at heart, she's truly a Seeker. She an FBI agent/soccer mom who works crimes against children while trying to protect her own family from danger—an impossible task, of course.

So, does this breakdown make sense to anyone else? What kind of Icon is your favorite to read? Which characters represent those Icons?

Do you want your characters to stay the same or grow and develop over time?

Thanks for sharing!

About CJ:
About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, is due out October, 2009. Contact her at

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Felony WUI - Writing Under the Influence

Gabriella Herkert, Catnapped and Doggone

What author has influenced me the most? Have I mentioned I’m a little hard headed? Maybe it’s the red hair but I’ve been told I telegraph my unwillingness to get with any program but my own. By that same token, my formative years (back when I could be shaped by my environment) were spent enshrouded in the words and worlds of many great writers. I can’t blame any one of them for how I turned out but each remains reflected in my current fascination with all things literate.

Dr. Seuss. I put him at the beginning of the essay because that’s where I first met him. His sing-song rhythms and colorful characters matched my mischief level without remorse or repudiation. Did I know that the Sneetches were teaching me about racism and tolerance? Was I aware that Green Eggs and Ham are a way to offer your friends the very best of your world? Or that the compromise lessons of Zax should worm their way into the Congressional Record as easily as they’ve found purchase in my short stories? Of course not. I wasn’t a prodigy. Yet, here we are, forty years later and I still put pen to page with my mind firmly fixed on doing more than entertaining – I want to make a point. And I haven’t given up hoping that one day I’ll make up my own language understood by children the world over. That guy had game.

Louisa May Alcott. Little Women not Little Men. It might seem like an obvious choice for a middle female child who dreams of becoming a writer but there’s more to Louisa’s impact than just a blue print for my foray into publication. Jo didn’t fit. Not with her aunt who could make her life easier or with the boy next door who was perfect on paper. She didn’t moan. She didn’t hide in the attic or lock her stories into a trunk and call it a day. Everything I write, the fact that I face each blank page, no matter how it comes out or who ends up reading it is an homage to Josephine March and her never say die attitude. As an added bonus, neither of us know how to match our handbag to our shoes. Kindred spirits as Lucy Maud Montgomery might say.

Marco Polo. He taught me that writing is transformational. Between the covers of a book you can not only visit lands of lushness and intrigue but you can live with the people who’ve gotten there first. You don’t need a passport or a youth hostel. You need Marco. He’s the Concorde and the Queen Mary, the local translator and the town’s oldest storyteller. A mind expanding, intellectually jump-starting, emotionally invigorating Aladdin carpet ride. Marco Polo is the author equivalent of a legal magic mushroom.

Honorable mentions go to Roget for the thesaurus, Webster for the dictionary and Gutenberg. That printing press thing is working out.

But don’t take my word for it. Submerge yourself in their essence. Read. Mysteries and romances and thrillers and biographies and business how-tos and Dilbert. Take it all in and digest your cerebral feast before embarking on an after dinner stroll down your own path. Thank you, Robert Frost.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Son of Tarzan

Which author influenced me the most?
Without a doubt Edgar Rice Burroughs, because his were the books that I wished I could read, long before I had muddled my way through the alphabet or discovered Dr. Seuss. My parents had read his adventure stories when the paperbacks cost a nickel, and being ardent book lovers they kept them all. So I grew up surrounded by pulps, and though I couldn't read the pages within, their covers spoke volumes.

Artists like Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, and J. Allen St. John brought Tarzan to life at a visceral level, so I was already convinced he was a real historical character (like Sherlock Holmes) even before I had read his first adventure. The same with John Carter of Mars and Carson of Venus. And who doesn't believe that Pellucidar, the world at the center of the earth, is just waiting to be rediscovered?

Once I was old enough to read them, the stories didn't disappoint. In fact they inspired me to seek out adventures with other authors like Lester Dent, author of innumerable Doc Savage tales. The Shadow. Conan. I couldn't get enough.

The pulps were a gateway to comics, which led to a decade-long addiction to science fiction. But somewhere along the line, on a trip to the attic or digging around dusty shelves in my parents' basement, I also discovered the lurid covers of crime fiction. And among those cracked spines I found Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, at which point I not only wanted to read, I wanted to write stories of my own. And like the books that inspired me to read in the first place, I was determined to write something that was unapologetically entertaining, a great adventure. An adventure in which you could lose yourself — and find yourself — at the same time.

Any time my will falters, writer's block looms, or I'm struggling with a plot or character, I'll re-read one of the stories that first made me fall in love with books, preferably in an edition with the original cover art. And somehow they're just as thrilling, though I know what's waiting around every turn of the page. Like a classic movie or favorite bedtime story, a great adventure never gets old.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Movie That Changed My Life

By Shane Gericke

I've climbed a mountain of crime books, swum a river of crime movies. Some were masterpieces. Some were beasts. The vast majority were good and did their job--entertain me for a couple of hours.

But only one made my brain hum about the moral implications of murder and those who commit it.

That movie is Crimes and Misdemeanors, by Woody Allen. It came out in 1989, and my thoughts about crime, punishment, redemption, and living with yourself after committing a terrible act were changed forever.

I grew up as a Boy Scout. Both literally--earning my Eagle at age 15--and figuratively: I firmly believed good always triumphed, bad guys always got caught, and those few who escaped the Long Arm of the Law felt the cancer of guilt eat at them the rest of their cold, miserable lives. It's not surprising, that world view I had: My dad was a policeman, mom a traditional homemaker, we lived in a small town in farm country, and it was the 1950s and '60s. Believing stuff like "winners never quit and quitters never win" and "do the crime, do the time" was easy. The institutions of the time--school, religion, neighbors, parents, media--supported that world view all the way.

Then came 1989 and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

In the movie, Martin Landau is a wealthy, powerful opthalmologist at the height of his Man-ness, complete with adoring wife, well-scrubbed kids, and all trappings of success. But his mistress, Anjelica Huston, insists that he dump his wife and marry her instead. Martin refuses. So Anjelica threatens to blow up his precious little world by going public with the carnal abyss into which he throws himself, night after night. Her revelation would ruin Martin forever.

So he turns to his brother, Jerry Orbach, who's connected with the underworld. Martin is the "good guy," the successful businessman, the community leader, the philanthropist, the family man, the saint. He's the epitome of Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full," everything that America like to mythify in its leading citizens. Jerry, on the other hand, is the "bad guy," the black sheep, the one who traffics not in platitudes and goodness and Rotary awards, but in harsh, unclothed reality of the street. Naturally, Martin always looked down on Jerry. Until the day he needs him.

Martin mentions his Anjelica problem to Jerry, and how exposure would ruin the life he's worked so hard to build. Jerry says he can get rid of the problem--permanently. Martin agrees ... and the deed is done, violently, at the very moment Martin is receiving yet another public accolade for the Goodness That Is He.

The moral heart of the movie is when Martin finally realizes that he's gotten away with it, and that not only does he not feel guilty and ashamed, as he'd expected, but that he feels at ease, and completely self-justified in having sold his lover to his killer brother. Or, as film critic Roger Ebert explains in his "Great Movies" writeup of this film:

How does it feel to be responsible for the death of another person? Can you live with yourself? "Suddenly it's not an empty universe at all," Judah (Martin Landau) tells Cliff (Woody Allen). God occupies it, and has eyes, and sees. "The man is an inch away from confessing to the police." Then suddenly one morning, he wakes up, the sun is shining, his life is good, and he has returned to "his protected world of wealth and privilege." The moral of this story? "We define ourselves by the choices we make," Judah says. By choosing to have Dolores (Anjelica Huston) murdered, Judah has defined himself as a man of wealth and privilege, respected by society, "idolized" by his wife, and a murderer. He can live with that. (See the entire review at )

And for the first time, I understood that people can and do get away with murder, mayhem and evil and still sleep well at night. That people can live with two contradictory impulses simultaneously, and be just fine.

That compelled me to start considering the moral component of evil deeds and the people who do them, and it has influenced how I treat crime and
criminals--and good guys who sometimes do bad things--in my own writing. Which makes for better, more honest, more human books than I might otherwise write.

So thanks, Woody, for showing me the way.


It's official: I'm the new chairman of ThrillerFest, the four-day annual gathering of writers, readers, editors, publishers, publicists, wannabes, do-bees, and other thriller lovers from around the world. ThrillerFest V--yes, it's our fifth birthday, can't believe it's gone by so quickly--will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City next July. As chairman, my job is to make sure things run smoothly for everyone who's attending, and to ensure that the terrific thriller writers who are our volunteer committee people have the resources they need to put on a really nice show for attendees. Like all the others on the team, I'm a volunteer, too, and it's a labor of love--International Thriller Writers is a tremendous organization, and Tfest is the single best book conference in the world, bar none. Check out the official announcement at, and read all about how my very first assignment as a minty-fresh ITW member back in 2005 was to buy liquor and snacks for a hundred people.

My kinda job.


Because we're still in recession, we're running a terrific deal that you should jump on if you're going to attend ThrillerFest next July. From today through the end of the month, you can sign up at the Early Bird discount rate ... from 2009. That's right, you get the price from 2009. It's a tremendous savings. The catch: you have to register by 11:59 p.m. September 30. One minute later, at midnight, the new prices take effect. Details and registration link are at, right at the top. Do it now!


Here's what happens when wildlife read

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Tree Grows in Humboldt

Which author, book, and/or movie influenced your work the most?

The short answer is Raymond Chandler, an anthology of poetry printed in the 1930s, and Casablanca. Here's the long answer ...

I'm an only child. In addition to the absence of siblings, I lived, for good portions of my childhood and all of my adolescence, in remote, rural areas (in junior high and high school this meant forty acres of undeveloped property in Humboldt County with no PG&E and no phone).

I spent a great deal of time by myself. I was often lonely, except for the company of our many animals (horses, chickens, cats, dogs, and at various times, goats, pigs, rabbits). The solitude gave me many gifts ... self-reliance. Decision. A love and understanding for nature. An appreciation of companionship.

It also gave me books.

Books, to me, were what playgrounds and television were to most of my contemporaries. They were entertainment that required no technology, no power. Nothing except a kerosene lamp or sometimes a flashlight. (And yeah, I'm givin' it to you straight about the kerosene lamp.)

My parents started me reading early ... Dr. Seuss, of course, and all sorts of early reader books that graduated into Nancy Drew by the time I was seven and Poe by the time I was eight. I remember reciting "Annabelle Lee" on the way to the bus stop in third grade, when we lived in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains.

A favorite was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which contained this line:

Books became her friends and there was one for every mood . . .

And so there was. I read whenever I could, whatever I could, wherever I could. I loved comic books (Batman had a huge influence on me), I read the classics from Austen to Tolstoy, I read potboilers (The Exorcist at eleven years of age can scar you!). I read horror, mystery, adventure, and lots and lots of poetry. Blame Dr. Seuss!

We did spend a few years in suburban San Jose, and television was no stranger to me for most of my childhood (I still laugh over Laverne and Shirley, OK?) But for some reason, I was always drawn to vintage movies of the '30s and '40s, even as a kid. My first noir was written when I was eight--a gangster melodrama with a French love interest and a tragic ending for the gangster when he tries to go straight. My favorite magazine when I was nine and ten was called Nostalgia Illustrated--lots of articles on old movie stars and radio shows and ... well, you get the idea. And I don't have a clue as to why I was drawn to noir and the '30s and '40s. Maybe I'm just a poster child for Shirley MacLaine ...

My relationship with books and plays and fiction as the ultimate entertainment form and escape (and I should include some non-fiction in there, too, because I did devour history books and became a big fan of Desmond Morris when I was a freshman in high school) is so deep and abiding and an essential part of who I am that it's kind of impossible to limit things down to one influence. Especially because there are conscious influences, like Chandler, and unconscious influences, and the latter are probably the strongest of them all.

Throw in this uncanny nostalgia for an era that is before my parents' childhood, a love of classic film and an attraction to noir and hardboiled that is apparently pre-natal, mix it all with four-color dark fantasies of super-heroic revenge, and an early life in out-of-the-way places.

All of this influenced me, continues to influence me, always will influence me.

So that's the long answer ... books were my friends. Some of the best friends of my life.
And my friends--like my grogmates on Criminal Minds--are the biggest inspirations of all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

T.C. Boyle - Thanks for giving me permission

by Sophie Littlefield

Which author, book, and/or movie influenced your work the most?

When I stumbled on an early short story collection by T. Coraghessan Boyle in the 1980s - not even sure which it was, though a quick search gets me thinking it might have been Descent of Man - I was riveted. I was in my first year or two of college, home for the summer, broke, bored, and trolling for something new at the local library. I was shocked that you could write in such an unvarnished way about human appetites and still get published.
There was also an element of emotional violence in Boyle's work that struck a resounding chord in me, one which, it turns out, later formed the basis for most of my own work. Also, some of the stories were also just so wonderfully, unapologetically, fantastically weird. I had certainly never heard of magical realism and, if I had, would have assumed it wasn't allowed in Missouri.

I wondered which of the librarians had test-driven the book - I was under the impression there was some round-table vetting process - and hoped I would not meet her eye by accident, because surely she would know: reading the book, I was convinced, had marked me forever.

In those days I felt deeply ashamed that I was so viscerally attracted to raw writing. A decade later, books like Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here made me see that you could reveal the drama at the core of human relationships without necessarily having to introduce sex and violence into the story. Though damn if those don't make handy story elements.

** PS this post was lifted from one I wrote for my friend Patrick Shawn Bagley when he asked authors to discuss their "pivotal books." It fit so well I couldn't resist using it. Sorry to be un-fresh, but I can't be a genius every damn day. **

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Your voice matters. And not just the literary one

Which author, book and/or movie has influenced you the most?

by Rebecca Cantrell

I know you probably expect me to list some great literary fiction that I love, like Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook" and Elie Wiesel's "Night" or "Dawn." Or maybe thriller writers I’ve gotten into lately, like James Rollins and Brent Ghelfi. Or maybe mystery writers that let me step into a time machine and consider hard questions, like Anne Perry or Arianna Franklin. And all of those would be perfectly true.

But I’m going to talk instead about books I read aloud, because they’ve influenced me a great deal. I read aloud to my son. A lot. We stop at the bookstore almost every day after school to do homework, drink a milk, and read.

Now the books we read lean more toward The Edge Chronicles and Spacecraft and Vehicles of the Entire Star Wars Saga, but back in the day we read a lot of Doctor Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown (Good Night Moon, The Runaway Bunny). In a book you are going to read, say 50 times, you notice every single word. That’s where I understood the genius of these writers.

Doctor Seuss and Margaret Wise Brown OWN you as a reader. You can’t not put the stress where they want you too. “I ran and found a Brickel bush. I hid myself away. I got brickels in my britches, but I stayed there anyway.”or “Good-night room, good night moon.”

If you compare this to say “Max and the Magic Pony.” you understand, painfully, the difference between great and barely good enough. “Max and the Magic Pony” is a perfectly fine story, but the prose is unreadable. My son loved it and wanted to read it every night. And it was horrible. Every single time. I read that book 21 times before it “accidentally” fell behind the bookcase and did not resurface for 2 years.

But I could read “Spooky Empty Pants” or “Good-Night Moon” every single day (and did some weeks). Why? Because the authors understood sentence rhythm. They knew that each word matters, and they always picked the right ones.

Sure, I heard about that in college when I was taking creative writing. But reading good children’s books was an enforced lesson in poetry. It wasn’t until I had to read every single word in a story over and over and over that I got it deep in my bones: Every word matters. It’s not just the meaning. It’s the sound. It’s the stress. I learned to channel Dr. Seuss, and it helps my writing.

Monday, September 21, 2009


By Tim Hallinan, critically-acclaimed thriller author of BREATHING WATER.

I fell under the spell of my first influence when I was five years old and living in Washington, D.C. My parents had scheduled a night out, and the baby-sitter bailed at the last moment, so I got hauled along to a dinner in a “real” restaurant and then a movie that my parents thought would bore me senseless.

It enthralled me. It transported me. It made me want to leave my body and fly through the air instantly to wherever it was that movie took place. That was the only place in the world I wanted to be.

The movie was “The King and I,” and the place, obviously, was Thailand. And here I am, 175 years later, living in Thailand part of each year and writing about it. And as much in love with the place now as I was when I first saw “The March of the Siamese Children.”

So my first influences were Rodgers and Hammerstein. Later, I identified more traditional masters for a thriller writer, artists whose work triggered something inside me that made me ask, “Could I do that?” The first of these was the inescapable Raymond Chandler. For all that Chandler repeatedly credited Hammett with inventing the modern whodunit (Hammett gave murder back, Chandler said, to the kind of people who create it), for me the real alchemy came when Chandler created Philip Marlowe.

Chandler also changed my world view. Reading him at, say fourteen, I first became aware that light is, so to speak, a local phenomenon, courtesy of an accidentally nearby star, and that we actually live surrounded by a kind of ravenous darkness in which anything can happen to anyone at any time. That's the thing, I think, that gives Los Angeles sunlight the uniquely cold, chromium brilliance it has in Chandler's books.

In my late teens and twenties I discovered writers who specialized in throwing light onto moral gray areas – first, the great Eric Ambler and second, the incomparable Graham Greene. I became fascinated with shadings of right and wrong, with the idea – new to me then – that moral absolutes were a luxury of the well-fed. Things look much grayer when one's children are hungry or when the rat-infested slum in which you live is set fire to in order to clear land for a skyscraper, or when an 18-year-old girl has to weigh prostituting herself against making money to feed her parents and keep her brothers and sisters in school.

More recently, Robert Wilson's wonderful Bruce Medway books, set in Africa, have explored this ground with skill and a kind of energetic compassion.

So here I am, writing about the land of “The King and I,” using a form borrowed from Chandler and his followers, and exploring a morally complex universe. And as happy doing it as a pig in mud. I have the luxury of living someplace I love (Bangkok) and managing complicated daydreams for a year or so until they're book-length. And my newest Bangkok thriller, BREATHING WATER, has gotten the best reviews of my career, including eight or ten “thriller of the year” designations from sites such as Reviewing the Evidence and Gumshoe Review, as well as some almost embarrassingly positive print reviews.

So I may spend most of each year in Bangkok, but you can give my regards to Broadway.

About Tim:

Timothy Hallinan has lived, on and off, in Southeast Asia for more than 25 years. He wrote songs and sang in a rock band while in college, and many of his songs were recorded by by well-known artists who included the platinum-selling group Bread. He began writing books while enjoying a successful career in the television industry. Over the past fourteen years he has been responsible for a number of well-reviewed novels and a nonfiction book on Charles Dickens. For years he has taught a course on “Finishing the Novel” with remarkable results – more than half his students complete their first novel and go on to a second, and several have been, or are about to be, published. Tim currently maintains a house in Santa Monica, California, and apartments in Bangkok, Thailand; and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy-Hallinan.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I live in the Pacific Northwest and I have an irritating neighbor with no family. I was thinking of disposing of him locally but can't decide between a water burial in Puget Sound or a trip to an off-beat hiking trail in the Cascades. Based on the forensics of my neighborhood, which drop spot will help him disappear faster?

All else being equal, his corpse will disappear faster in the woods, but it will stay disappeared longer (giving you more time to establish an alibi) in the sound. According to Spitz and Fisher’s classic Medicolegal Investigation of Death, one week in the air equals two weeks in the water (and eight weeks in the ground). The salt water will delay the process even further.

At either site, the process will take longer in the cold months, so you should delay the murder until the first snows of winter. There are no guarantees, of course, but there are bound to be many less hikers around in the winter, and with luck the body will be down a hill and covered with snow, impossible to see. After the up and down temperatures of spring, decomposition should be well established by the time hikers return, again giving you more time to cover your tracks. Animals will help out and perhaps carry away the pieces of flesh with the bullet wounds that occurred when your fit of pique got out of hand.

Unlike what we see on television, dead bodies sink when put in water. They surface when decomposition advances enough that the tissues fill with air. (Tissues, not the body itself. It does not inflate like a balloon so poking holes in it will not ensure that it stays down, as my husband demonstrated lately by shooting a bloated fish with a BB gun.)

Apparently Puget Sound does not get cold enough to freeze, but still, the colder the water, the more time it buys you. If the water is particularly deep and cold, the body may never surface. (Hence the lyrics, “Superior, it’s said, never gives up her dead….”)

Of course there will be many other factors to consider. Transporting a dead body is difficult, messy and risky. The closer you can get your target to the dump site under his own power, the less distance you have to carry him, so if he’s a boater and not a hiker that might affect your decision. Frankly, if he lives alone and has no family, it might be better (and free you of months of suspense waiting for the body to turn up) to kill him in his own home. If he’s old enough for it to seem believable, poison something in his kitchen with digitalis and let it appear to be a heart attack.

Foxglove grows easily in Washington and I hear it’s very pretty. Or, if you can get close enough for a gunshot, make it look like a suicide (just don’t move the body afterward, and don’t get fancy and try to fake a note). Either way, with luck he will decompose in the safety of his own home for a week or two before anyone comes looking for him, disintegrating certain evidence and giving you time to work on your alibi.

Also, this might make it hard to sell the house, so if you have some extra funds you might want to snap it up yourself and expand your estate. Then you won’t have to worry about getting another nasty neighbor and having to start this process all over again.

Lisa Black spent the happiest five years of her life in a morgue. Strange, perhaps, but true. In her job as a forensic scientist she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s as a latent print examiner and CSI working with fingerprints and crime scenes. She has been published in Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

TIm's question

In a typical forensic sweep of a crime scene are there certain things that are sampled as standard procedure and others which might be overlooked unless you were specifically searching for them, or are samples of carpets, dust, etc just collected across the board and then analyzed later?

So if there was a violent struggle and a body at the scene, would the focus solely be on blood samples, hair and tissue, and so on, or would random dust or surrounding matter be scooped up. I'm wondering in the context of poisons being used, something that might be left behind as a trace powder, but not something you'd look for if there seemed to be a more obvious, physical (as opposed to chemical) cause of death.

How much trace evidence, like hairs, fibers, dust and powders are collected at a scene will depend upon the circumstances of the death, the appearance or lack of likely suspects, and the habits and training of the investigating agency.

If there’s a visible streak of powder on the carpeting near the body, with no apparent explanation, it would probably be collected. If it’s next to a spilled jar of scouring powder or something that it is likely to have come from, it would probably be ignored. If it’s on the other side of a generally filthy room, it would probably be ignored. Once collected, it would be tested as a potential drug like cocaine, and then stored. It would probably not be tested unless the investigators were really grasping at straws, because it’s a long story to test a substance when you have no idea what it is. You have to test things for things. Narcotic? Adhesive? Accelerant? Blood? If it’s curare or Cover Girl Shine Free translucent eye shadow, we probably don’t have the supplies or procedure to identify it. Never mind that they do it in CSI every week. In real life, we don’t have a Bat Computer.

When I worked at the coroner’s office, we would tape the clothing and the scene for hairs and fibers, but only if the person died of strangling or bludgeoning. We didn’t tape gunshot victims when there was no reason to believe there had been any physical contact with the suspect. (Incidently, taping is generally better than vacuuming because adhesive tape picks up only the most recently deposited debris. A vacuum might suck up stuff that’s been there for years.) However, now that hair and fiber analysis is such a dying art, agencies may no longer do even that. Ditto for collecting samples of carpeting or upholstery at the scene to be compared to anything found on the suspect. At the moment my boss here in Florida is looking into getting me a comparison microscope so I can start doing hair/fiber analysis again, as even the state labs discontinued the practice. With this in mind, it’s likely that hairs and fibers would not even be collected at the scene, certainly not dirt or dust.

So an obvious powder might be collected, but only as a possible illegal drug. With signs of a violent struggle present it’s unlikely that the idea of poison would enter anyone’s mind.

But if your character needs a hair and fiber expert, well, let me give you my number….

Lisa Black spent the happiest five years of her life in a morgue. Strange, perhaps, but true. In her job as a forensic scientist she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s as a latent print examiner and CSI working with fingerprints and crime scenes. She has been published in Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan.