Saturday, April 30, 2011

Thrilla in Vanilla

Reece Hirsch

Thrillers and mysteries are different, right? They must be because both categories have their own awards and their own conferences (ThrillerFest for thrillers and Bouchercon for mysteries). But I think the distinctions are often so blurry that they often serve little purpose other than providing a hook for the marketing efforts of publishers.

The thrillers I like best usually have some sort of whodunnit element and plenty of twists and turns. Likewise, the best mysteries usually have some of the forward momentum, action and immediacy of thrillers. But, that said, let's forget about those subtleties from here on out.

Imagine, if you will, a generic mystery/thriller protagonist named Sam Dekker, ex-Special Ops and recovering alcoholic turned PI. Let's consider what Sam would do in a situation if he found himself in a similarly generic mystery or thriller.

Scenario 1: Sam attends an AA meeting and meets Angela, a troubled young woman.

Mystery Version: After the meeting, Sam and Angela have a cup of coffee, talk about their shared problems with alcohol and commence a tender, tentative relationship. Angela happens to have a sister who has gone missing and Sam agrees to take the case. Then Sam sleeps with Angela.

Thriller Version: The faces of the attendees at Sam's AA meeting look strangely familiar. He realizes that he knows most of the people sitting in the circle of metal folding chairs from his days in Special Ops -- the meeting is a trap set by a bunch of old enemies. Sam pulls his Beretta 9 millimeter, just as everyone else in the room draws their guns. Carnage ensues. Sam is the last person standing, along with Angela, who seems to have been the only actual recovering alcoholic in attendance. Sam and Angela flee the scene before reinforcements can arrive. Then Sam sleeps with Angela.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Thrillers and Mysteries -- what's the difference?

by Meredith Cole

I was reluctant to do this exercise--especially after reading the amazing efforts of my fellow bloggers this week. So I decided to just write it as quickly as possible and see what came out.

I consider my books traditional mysteries, but I try to use thriller techniques occasionally to get the adrenaline going and the heart pounding.


The elevator was out of order. Great. Liz was already late. Eleventh floor. No air conditioning. She’d experienced worse, but not when she was dressed up and trying to make a good impression. The first two flights were easy. By the third her feet started to hurt in her high heels, and she began to sweat under her silk blouse and suit jacket.

At last, panting, she reached the 11th floor. Liz didn’t once think it was strange that she hadn’t passed anyone on her way up. She pushed open the door to the hallway. A no frills building, the owners had tossed up walls, laid down some tile and put a coat of paint down occasionally but hadn’t blown their budget on anything fancy. The fluorescent lights hummed and flickered.

Suite 11-F. She’d written down the address and even though she’d memorized it weeks ago, she still checked the paper in her hand again. Jonathan Neetlebaum. Lawyer. He might have some information about her father. Her excitement mounted. Liz could have veered off to use a restroom and clean up a little, but she couldn’t wait to see him and finally find out what had happened to her dad who disappeared so many years ago.

Liz pushed open the door to the office expecting to be greeted by a secretary. But the first room was empty except for bookshelves, and several brown leather chairs arranged for visitors. She cleared her throat. “Hello?”

She walked in further to peer into the second room. Perhaps the lawyer was on the phone and hadn’t heard her. The room was crowded with dark leather furniture and law books. At first it seemed unoccupied as well. Had she made a mistake about the time? Had he not waited for her arrival? And then Liz saw his hand peeking out from behind the desk, pale against the dark red oriental carpet. She moved toward it, thinking he had fallen or had a heart attack. Maybe she could help him. And then she saw the blood. Someone had shot and killed him.

Without thinking, she turned and ran.


And now for a mystery...

Liz watched impatiently as Mr. Neetelbaum arranged the papers on his desk for the 100th time. He looked like the kind of man who had regular manicures and a whole row of identical blue pressed shirts in his closet. He had written her a formal letter hinting of family mysteries. She came out of curiosity. Her family had all died and she had been alone for years. Luckily her mother’s life insurance money had helped pay for college, a down payment on a condo and start in life. But she had never stopped longing for family and to know more about family members. She was hoping that someone had reached out to this lawyer to find her.

“What do you know about your father, Ms. Smith?”

Her mind went blank. She hadn’t been expecting the question. “Not much. He died when I was a baby. His name was Robert Smith, and he was in the army.”

The lawyer shuffled the papers on his desk. It had to be a nervous tick. “How interesting.”

Was it? To her it sounded so hopeless and tragic. She would have loved to have known her father.

“What if I told you that your father was still alive.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“Not at all. But I have information that I think would be very valuable to you.”

Valuable. That meant he wanted money. Money she didn’t have. She wondered if it was for real or if he was just looking for an easy mark.

“How did you learn about him -- and about me?”

“Let’s just say that the police are very interested in the case. You see, your father is a murderer.”

She had not been expecting this. In all her fantasies of her father, he was brave and loyal and kind. He died tragically and young as a hero. To find out that he was still alive and a murderer seemed like a horrible cruel joke. She shook her head in disbelief. Her father couldn’t be guilty. She wanted more than anything else in the world to prove him wrong and make him eat his words.


Is there a big difference? Could either one be the start of a thriller or mystery? Perhaps. Maybe in the end I can just write one way, and the story dictates where I go. But now I'm glad I had the chance to do the exercise and have a chance to mull over the differences.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Out of Time: Two Versions

By Kelli Stanley

Jumping jacks can be fun, and God knows, writers are sedentary creatures. This week, thanks to our brilliant question whiz (who I believe is a crusading attorney by day and a fabulous mystery writer at night), we get to do some calisthenics for our brains and imaginations.

Two stories, one set-up. One a mystery ... the other a thriller. You ready?

On your mark ... get set ... GO.

Out of Time: A Thriller

Twelve minutes.

That's all the time she had. All the time she might ever have.

Kasia pushed the thought away at the same time that she flashed a disarming "thank you" smile at the security guard and adjusted the backpack on her shoulder. Backpack, jeans, an old college ID with no expiration date. She looked like what she was supposed to look like: an earnest young journalism student here at McPhee International in order to interview one of the research scientists.

She strode quickly past the mirrored wall on the way to the elevator, and barely recognized herself. When was the last time she wore jeans during the work week? Not exactly the wardrobe of a high-profile environmental lawyer. But then, she wasn't Kasia McCormick any more, was she?

The elevator doors opened with a clang and she jumped, searching the bored corporate faces for a sign of recognition. Head down, she filed in with the others. A woman in a lab coat pushed the 27th floor.

Kasia closed her eyes for a moment, the memories of two days ago flooding over her. Men in black with gold shields and automatic rifles, the gloved hands destroying her apartment ... her life. They wanted something they thought she had, and her only clue--the only idea she could come up with in the 48 hour fight to keep running, keep alive--was the deposition she'd taken, just the day before.

Charles Lloyd ... the witness against the McPhee corporation and Roger McPhee himself.

She'd planned it out, calculated. She'd have maybe 12 to 13 minutes to get in McPhee's inner office. Find whatever it was they thought she had, find out who was setting her up.

The bell clanged again, and she stepped out on the 27th floor.

Deep breath.

Step one: Ladies room, drop the smoke bomb.
Step two: Supply closet. Open the backpack, put on the gas mask. Drop the canister of tear gas.
Step three: Hallway. Hit the fire alarm.

Screams, coughing, smoke. Chaos and an empty office. So far so good. Sirens were starting to wail outside.

Step four: One more bomb, on the opposite end of the floor. No one around, time to detonate. 27th floor window, plenty of glass.

Security alarms, more sirens, burly men in orange vests. Hide in the ladies room again, stand on the toilet. Five minutes left, and there goes McPhee, escorted by two flacks and three security officers.

Kasia could barely breathe through the gas mask. She slid into McPhee's office, the thick-walled room dark from no lights--they must have cut the power.

Her flashlight cut through the gloom like a razor.

A man in a lab coat was sitting behind the desk, a smile on his face and a gun in his hand. It was Charles Lloyd.

Half of his skull was missing.

Katia was out of time.

Out of Time: A Mystery

The magical smell of chocolate brought a smile to Kasia's face. It had been far too long since she'd seen her uncle Roger, CEO of McPhee Chocolates, Forbes poster boy, and all-around chocolate king, as sweet as his milk chocolate caramels.

You shouldn't have waited until he called you, she chided herself. Family comes before career. You never take enough time with the family you have left. Never enough time.

Ah, but in this case Uncle Roger called precisely because you're a criminal attorney ... not just because he misses your mother.

A shadow crossed Kasia's face, and she pushed the thought away. Work had helped her deal with losing her mom, but had she really dealt with it? She glanced in the hallway mirror on the way to the elevator.

No joy in her eyes. What happened to that little girl who loved her chocolate Easter Eggs? What happened to the young woman full of idealism, a crusader out to write wrongs and fight injustice?

The elevator dinged a welcome distraction. Kasia concentrated on the small talk around her, two women in the corner debating on whether almonds or cashews were better in the latest McPhee Miracle bar.

By the time she reached the 27th floor, she'd regained her composure. She was looking forward to seeing her uncle, even if it took time away from her latest project. Then again, if he needed her help ... it might be something serious.

Gayle smiled at her from behind glasses only a devoted secretary could wear, and pushed the buzzer. Kasia tapped on the door, then walked in, smiling shyly.

Her uncle looked virtually the same, the unruly mop of his hair a dull gray where it used to be blond. The only thing truly different was the frown he wore. It came unnaturally to his face, just like the anxiety lines around his eyes that she could swear hadn't been there half a year ago.

"Ah. Kasia. My not-so-little niece. Sit down, sweetheart." He gestured to his desk, and she perched on a comfortable, leather-bound chair. Then she noticed the gun in front of her uncle.

"Uncle Roger, why do you--why do you have a hand gun? What's wrong?"

He gave her a puzzled look before his face relaxed into its customary grin. "Oh--sorry. That's the latest mold. Realistic design--looks just like a .44 Magnum, doesn't it? We're developing a whole new "Chocolate Trick" line--jokes, parties, you know, that kind of stuff. I always test the first chocolate item off the line."

He picked up the chocolate gun and broke off a piece of the barrel. "You want some?"

Kasia smiled and shook her head, wondering what was bothering him and when he'd get to the point. Her uncle shrugged his big shoulders, and folded the dark chocolate into his mouth.

Roger had chewed twice when Kasia realized something was wrong. He dropped the chocolate gun on the floor. His eyes were round, huge, suddenly red. The big man stumbled up from his chair, his hand clutching his throat, retching, trying to speak.

She jumped up and ran behind him, trying the Heimlich maneuver. He coughed, sprayed a chocolate spittle over the carpet, doubled over. She tried again.

He fought her off, trying to face her. His eyes were pleading. "Chas" he said, over and over. "Chas."

He coughed one more time, his hand at his throat, before he crumpled and fell to the floor. Kasia stood over him in shock. Then she bent down to feel his pulse. She ran to the door, screaming to Gayle: "Call an ambulance! There's something wrong with my uncle!"

Later, she stood mute in the office, a silent sentinel looking down at her uncle's desk. Tears wouldn't come, not yet. Kasia stood there for an hour, until Gayle gently knocked at the door and helped her into a coat and out of the room.

Kasia looked up at the secretary, her eyes gray and hard. "I ran out of time for him. Never enough time. But I promise you--as God is my witness--I'll find my uncle's killer. No matter how long it takes."

There you have it ... and thanks for the exercise!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Two Mystery Versions. A Man, A Woman, A Desk and A Gun.

By Tracy Kiely

Well, here they are. One thriller opening; one mystery opening. For the record, I should point out that I’ve never attempted a thriller. And now I think I know why.


The day of the funeral was hot. The kind of heat that dulled the senses and made you feel your full age, and I couldn’t afford that. Not today.

I had just come back to my office – an overpriced high-rise that, as of this morning, was double the space I needed – and dropped wearily into my chair. That’s when I noticed the package on my desk. It was a lumpy affair, done up in stiff brown paper, and secured with twine. Reluctantly turning my body away from the cool blast of the air conditioning unit, I studied it a minute before taking a letter opener and cutting the string. The paper fell away, and there it was. A gun. Not just a gun, but, unless I was very much mistaken, the gun.

The elevator door in the outer hall banged open, and I heard her quick footsteps alight. I had heard the rhythmic patter of her spiked heels too many times not to recognize them now. She swung the door open without knocking and stood framed in the doorway. She was still wearing her black widow’s weeds. They suited her.

“Hello, Frank,” she said, her cold eyes taking in the sight of the gun on the desk in front of me. “I see you got my package. Now, what the hell are we going to do about it?”

Mystery (cozy)

The day of the funeral was hot, and I wished I hadn’t worn hose. I doubted my grandfather would have cared, now that he was presumably experiencing celestial bliss, but my mother – who was still very much of this world – was a whole other story.

I glanced down again at the address my grandfather’s attorney had given me, and then back up at the marble building in front of me. It was one of those expensive high-rise office buildings in the city’s financial district. Okay, so, maybe the hose were a good idea.

I rode the elevator to the top floor and stepped out into a lush reception area, decorated with glass, mahogany, and leather. The temperature was cool, almost cold. I crossed the thick carpet to the receptionist’s desk and to the efficient looking young man behind it. Before I could speak, he stood up, and in a clipped accent, said, “You must be Miss O’Neill. Mr. Baines is waiting for you. Please follow me.”

Confused more than ever as to why my grandfather’s attorney had sent me here, I followed him into an office that made the receptionist area look as if were decorated with garage sale remnants. A thin, balding man, whom I judged to be in his mid-sixties, sat at an enormous desk. The desk caught my attention, not only because it looked like something that historical treaties might have been signed on, but because of the gun laying on it. “Miss O’Neill to see you, sir,” murmured the receptionist, before discretely vanishing back to the outer office.

“Ah, Miss O’Neill,” said the man, as he rose from his chair. “So good of you to come on such short notice. I was sorry to hear of your grandfather’s passing. He was a very complex man, and he thought very highly of you, which is why,” he said, indicating the gun on the desk, “he wanted you to solve what he couldn’t.”

Thriller, mystery, or cheater?

by Rebecca Cantrell

Here’s an opening based on a thriller I’m working on. I fudged a bit. The scene is set in Venice, so there’s no high rise, and Clara’s in her 20s instead of her 30s. But at least I followed a couple of the rules of the assignment. There’s a gun and he’s older than her.

A woman in a burgundy suit showed her to Commissario Rutelli’s office. Stacks of paper towered from each corner of his scarred wooden desk. The papers on the bottom looked older than he did. Between the stacks was a pistol. She had seen one like it before in a glass case in Vienna. And another near the body of a dying man.

“Signora Bloch.” He rose and took her hand between both of his. “You are well?”

She pried her hand free and gestured to the pistol. “A connoisseur, I see.”

“The M1910?” He made a sound of dismissal. “A common gun here.”

“Yet it is the gun that killed Archduke Ferdinand and started the first world war,” she said. “The tool of an assassin.”

* * *
I rewrote it as a mystery. I don’t quite like it yet, but decided to post it anyway. Not all experiments are successful, and that’s important to show too. Or at least that’s the high falutin’ excuse I’m spouting so that I can gracefully give up and go to bed.

I took a water taxi to the police station. The brackish water reeked of decaying fish, the smell of the sea that my mother always raved about. I clenched my hands in my lap and tried not to think about her.

At the Questura a woman in a burgundy suit with a golden scarf knotted in that clever European fashion that I could never master showed me to Commissario Rutelli’s office.
I knocked once and went right in before he could send me away.

He sat in a rickety office chair that failed all Silicon Valley’s ergonomic standards, head resting on a stack of papers piled up on his desk. A pistol sat square on his desk next to his outstretched hand.

“Hello?” I asked, but he didn’t move. In fact, he wasn’t going to ever move again.

* * *

You be the judge: is the thriller a thriller? the mystery a mystery? or did I cheat the assignment?

Monday, April 25, 2011


Have I ever mentioned how much I hate being one of the two Mondays? It’s intimidating to come up with the first post of a new week’s question. Makes me feel like I’m standing up at the front of the room, giving an oral book report. Without notes. The last time I had to do that, I forgot the name of the protagonist. Ack!

Anyway, today I’ve got to come up with two versions of the same scene, one a mystery, the other a thriller. Here goes nothing.


I hadn’t known my great-uncle Salvatore Ciccotelli. Mom wanted nothing to do with Dad’s side of the family -- one of
those families -- and refused to marry him until he agreed to move as far away from New Jersey as possible and leave no forwarding address. So you can imagine my surprise when I received a letter stating that I was named as a beneficiary in Uncle Sal’s will. The letter made no mention of what Uncle Sal had left me, only that to collect my inheritance, I had to do so in person at the Newark office of mob attorney Anthony Molino. An airline ticket accompanied the letter.

Which is why I currently sat opposite an ultra-slick looking, silver-haired guy who wore a custom made silk suit that probably cost more than I make in a month as a kindergarten teacher. A massive rosewood desk separated us. Aside from a phone and a copy of Uncle Sal’s will, the only other object on the desk was my inheritance.

I stared in disbelief at the hunk of metal. “He left me a gun?”

Molino leaned forward and steepled his fingers under his chin. The corners of his mouth twitched upward. He was enjoying this farce too much. “Not just a gun, a very specific gun.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“This is the gun that killed your father.”

“You’ve got the wrong girl. My father is very much alive. He drove me to the airport this morning.”

“No,” he said. “Your real father died before you were born.”


The cryptic message I received this morning read, “If you want to find out what’s really going on at Merck, be at 100 Broad Street, room 1803, 4pm.”

Damn right, I wanted to know what was going on. Too many people were dying, and the one thing they all had in common was their connection to the giant pharmaceutical company. It had taken quite a bit of sleuthing on my part to uncover that fact. Not all of the victims had worked at Merck, not all had been ill, not all had been taking Merck manufactured medications. Yet all had some Merck connection and all had been murdered. Except both the police and the D.A. had chalked the deaths up to accidents and suicides. They brushed aside my Merck theory as pure coincidence.

I don’t believe in coincidence.

Except someone must have believed me. Hence, the note and the reason that at precisely 4pm I stood outside the door of room 1803. No signage indicated the type of business behind the door. I turned the knob and stepped inside.

A desk filled one far corner of the large room. Aside from that, the room appeared bare. No carpet, no file cabinets, no wall art. Not even any seating other than the desk chair. At first I didn’t realize anyone sat in that chair. The sun streamed in from the windows behind the desk, keeping me from seeing anything more than the silhouetted shapes of the desk and the chair behind it. But the chair had a rounded shape above it that I assumed was the head of whomever sat behind the desk. I cleared my throat to get his attention. Nothing.

I approached the desk, shading my eyes from the blinding sun, but stopped when I was close enough to recognize the single item sitting on the desk. A .357 Magnum. I pulled my gaze from the gun to the person behind the desk, a well-dressed elderly gentleman. A man who wouldn’t be divulging any secrets, thanks to the bullet hole between his eyes.

Lois Winston writes the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries for Midnight Ink. Read more at her website and Anastasia's blog.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Greasy Burger Method

“A goal is a dream that burns in your belly.” 
About 16 years ago this simple phrase became the most important advice/message I would ever hear.  It was spoken by a keynote speaker at a work conference and it changed my life forever.  You see, these were the words that kicked me in my ass to make the commitment to follow my lifelong dream of being an author.
The message was simple: In order to fulfill a dream, it must first become a goal.  Then that goal needs to become a focus in your life, even an obsession. It needs to burn in your belly, annoying and nagging, until you pay attention and take steps to fulfill it.  Only fulfilling it will make the burn go away.  Like an itch in a difficult spot that drives you nuts until you manage to scratch it.  Or a greasy cheeseburger that needs Rolaids. Once the goal is met, the sense of accomplishment is overwhelming and sets up the path for the next goal … and the next. 
Dream vs. Goal – aren’t they one in the same? No, they are not.
We all have dreams – wishful thoughts that may or may not be viable as goals.  Very few dreams become goals and even fewer become realized goals.  Dreams are passive. Goals are active. You cannot reach a goal without taking some type of action.  When it came to my dream of becoming a published author, I first elevated it from a dream to a goal. Then I kicked into action.  I learned my craft. I put words to paper. I found an agent and, after several years of perseverance, eventually became a published author.
Since then I’ve applied this dream-to-goal-to-reality method to several of my dreams, long term and short term.  It works. Trust me. 
So go out and grab your own greasy burger. Devour it. Digest it. Then seek the relief you need to stop the burn by taking action. And don't lose sight of your mission.
But be careful, turning goals into realities can be addictive. But what an addiction!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What Would Pop Do?

My answer to this week’s question about this business of advice takes me back many moons ago, back around the time fire and electricity were invented and I was a youngster growing up in South Central L.A. Oh, and this is a somewhat bifurcated response but you’ll see how they dovetail. Anyway, when I was a kid I read a lot of Marvel comics from the Fantastic Four, Captain America (both these titles plotted and drawn dynamically by Jack “King” Kirby -- seen here with some of his creations), Namor, the Sub-Mariner (who Star Trek’s Mr. Spock resembles) and on and on. In my neck of the woods, in those days, you didn’t read too many goofy DC comics – this before DC’s editor took a page from the Stan Lee-influenced Marvel line, and introduced angst in their characters.

My cousin and I would trace those great sequential panels by Kirby, Gil Kane, Wally Wood and the like, and write our own dialogue in the word balloons. There was nothing more I wanted to do then that write and draw my own comics titles for Marvel. There was a thing then called comics fanzines, memographed and eventually offset printed amateur publications where those of us burning with the fever to talk about and make our own comics could band together with other such geekazoids -- using snail mail I might add – to create our own characters and stories. Our efforts could result in a one issue we might put together or if you had the stuff, your work might see life in the pages of publication such as Alter Ego, Sqa Tront, Ariel, or All Dynamic. These publications would have comics combined with articles about whatever was abuzz in fandom. Various professional got their start in these fanzines.

So I would spend hours and hours at my wooden draft table laying out the panels on my page, doing the finished pencils, inking that work and then sweating out trying to letter my dialogue and captions on those pages. I even took art in high school and college toward this dream but it turned out I suck as an artist. But now we get to the advice. See my dad had only made it to the sixth grade, having to drop out and work during the Depression. He did all kinds of jobs from being a lookout for a bootlegger in his hometown of Seguin, Texas, picked up bodies for the local mortuary in San Antonio, dug ditches for a Works Projects Administration project, hauled large blocks of ice up and down walk-up apartments for ice boxes in Chicago, etc. so to him when you had a job to do, be it menial or high falutin’ you didn’t sluff the work. You mopped that floor the best you could because that was your job and you didn’t half-ass the work.

I had an art teacher who essentially said the same one time in a college class and I guess because I’d heard my dad say it, his words stuck with me. He was talking to us one day and mention almost in a n off-hand way that he always wanted us to do our best, that maybe it wasn’t for a big commission but that didn’t mean you didn’t take the work any less seriously. He warned if you approached some jobs as something that demanded less than your best, your work would be affected when it came time to go all out.

When I feel I’m writing a scene on auto pilot, or I come to that part of the plot where I could just kind of coast and do that thing I’ve done before only a little bit different, try as I might to block the admonishment from echoing in my head, it does. I can ignore the advice but my work pays the price.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Chop Phooey

Gabriella Herkert

Catnapped and Doggone

The best non-writing advice I ever received? Stop cutting your own hair. Now, the truth is I have received this advice from numerous people over the years starting with my so talented coiffure fixer Evey. Then there was Kriss, who gave me the Leatherman tool I used to whack my pony tail off and Kirstin who threatened to remove the children’s safety scissors that were all that remained of my cutting implement tool box. Let’s not forget my mother who tactfully pointed out I had no future at Vidal Sassoon and the surprised look of my too short perpendicular bangs looked like Barbie hair. Maybe I need to hear advice over and over for it to penetrate my thick skull. Then I need more time to process the words into useful life application.

What does ‘stop cutting your own hair’ actually mean? Emote outwardly. Okay, okay so I’m not a big emoter in any direction but you get the gist. My hair styling hysteria is the moment someone needs to die. When the impulse strikes, I need to get out of the bathroom and put my crazy self at the keyboard. Not only is that state of mind good for a murder or two, it’s a pretty good shot of imagination for both method and disposal.

Spend nine months arguing over a telephone bill with a huge bureaucracy of interchangeable players and you could go home and end up with a DIY Mohawk. Or, you can sit down and let your favorite gentleman character swing hard at an evil woman who bears a remarkable likeness to your utility counterpart. Now, your character may not usually resort to fisticuffs particularly with the fairer sex but Mohawk maintenance requires product and commitment. Plus, it doesn’t really go with the frumpy suits and girl shoes. Let him take a second shot if the moment hasn’t passed.

Fly coach in a middle seat at a moment’s notice to negotiate a major contract only to have your opposition no be able to find their own conference room. This can lead to a military buzz cut administered with the sewing scissors a helpful hotel concierge will provide free of charge. Of course, it will take a while so an asymmetrical punk look might be where you actually end up. To avoid a sunburned scalp and negotiation paralysis from the rubbernecking baby lawyer the other company has sent in unprepared, use a pitchfork. Name the victim using the first name of the other attorney and the last name of his obnoxious business partner. Stick him good. For that matter, let him linger a little. There’s something so soothing about ridding the world of people who waste your time and energy and think it’s okay because they work for a bigger company. Entitlement as a motive for murder. I can see it. And it leaves my hair at a length that allows me to put it in a ‘I haven’t combed it today’ bun. It’s the girl version of the boy bed head ball cap. I don’t want to lose that. It comes in so handy.

Have a loud discussion with an executive at your own company about actions you’ll be forced to undo and defend at the same time. Bald only looks good on Sine̕ad O’Connor and Demi Moore. I suspect my skull is full of bumps and flat spots. Worse, I might even have freckles there. This is the moment when a professional assassin is hired by a keep my hands clean society lion. Bodies fall. One after another. The good guys are stumped. Soon even the entrepreneurial marksman takes aim at our big wig bad’un. It’s so sad really when those in power can’t spin their assets and allies into legal bulletproofing. Sad and exhilarating. All without having to wait until it grows back.

Those friends who held my haircut intervention – they did good.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Best Advice

I grew up in a repressed household. When I asked my dad where babies come from, he looked uncomfortable and said, “I’ll give you a book.” (He never did.) When my mom wanted me to cut the lawn, she would stare out the window, and I was to infer that the grass needed cutting. (If I failed to infer, she gave me the silent treatment – which was followed by a deeper silent treatment if I failed to understand that her first silence meant she was mad at me.) If, as a thirteen year old, I stumbled home reeking of beer, dad and mom never raised their eyebrows, never sniffed the air, never said anything. When our neighbor called because my brother had passed out drunk on the lawn, dad and mom picked him up, carried him to bed, and said . . . nothing. The next morning when he came to the kitchen table, green faced and hung over, mom served him a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage. That was the punishment: a big greasy breakfast for an upset stomach.

In short, in our family we were expected to know better. And if we didn’t already know better, we were expected to learn it on our own. We received very little advice – cheap or otherwise. I do remember my mom telling me that if I cut my hair so it no longer fell to my shoulders, I would be able to “get away with more,” which was another way of saying, appearance counts, which turned out to be true. And I remember from when I was very young my dad telling me not to stand on the bathroom counter when brushing my teeth. But that’s about it.

As is the way with intergenerational pendulum swings, I offer my own kids way too much advice. I let them know what I’m thinking all the time. I’m happy to discuss parthenogenesis as well as more conventional sexual reproduction. I enumerate a clear list of repercussions if they don’t do their chores.

But when I write about family relations in my mysteries, I model the advice more upon my parents’ practices than my own. Joe Kozmarski’s mom encourages him always to carry a gun, which seems to me as useful as my dad telling me not to stand on the counter when brushing my teeth, and she sometimes practices the silent treatment to powerful effect. Joe himself encourages his nephew Jason, who lives with him, to treat others – and himself – with respect. But that’s about it. Joe is a pretty big screw-up and wants to avoid the hypocrisy of telling Jason to behave in ways that he himself fails to. So, he gives advice sparingly.

And maybe that’s enough. It’s more interesting – more fun and more painful – to learn lessons on one’s own. Hearing from one’s parents that it’s a bad idea to pass out, drunk, on the lawn makes less of an impression than a morning-after plate of sausage and eggs. But I still wish my dad would give me that book.

* * *

Joe Kozmarski will be learning particularly hard lessons in A Bad Night’s Sleep, available now for pre-order.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It's all good advice if you know how to use it

The problem with advice - as far as I can tell - is that for every bit of wit and wisdom there is a countervailing bit of equal wit and wisdom. Maybe its some type of yin and yang thing or maybe its because -like in the Matrix - the equation must balance so as Neo grows stronger so does Agent Smith.

A perfect example stares at me from the first page of Stephen King's On Writing -

The first line says "Honesty is the best policy" - attributed to Miguel de Cervantes.

The next line says "Liar's prosper" - attributed to anonymous (hmmm... that's interesting in and of itself)

So should I lie or should I be honest or does it depend if I think I'm going to get caught - I think that's in the subtext somewhere.

Mr. King is not the only one to notice this - I believe George Carlin did a bit on it, and most of us deal with it every single day.

"Good things come to those who wait."


"The early bird catches the worm."

So did he get to the worm hole early and then wait around to catch it like a teenager (or 40 year old man) trying to get tickets to the next Star Wars movie. And did the worm just come out and pop into his mouth when the sun rose. Cause that's what I get out of melding these two together.

And what about this.

"Love conquers all."


We do have a 58% divorce rate in this country so maybe "Love conquers... and then moves on to conquer someone else."

Of course bits of advice can compete with The Judge in Caddyshack - played by the incomparable Ted Knight who said - "It's easy to grin when your ship has come in and you've got the stock market beat. But the man who's worthwhile is the man who can smile when his pants are too tight in the seat." I really have no idea what it means but it sounds pretty cool.

Of course he also told the caddy who wanted the scholarship so he could get a better job in life that "the world needs ditch diggers too". So don't know if that helps anyone.

And of course Ty - Chevy Chase's character in the same movie - asked Noonan if he "did drugs" - to which Noonan said "Every day" - to which Ty said "Good."

And of course Bill Murry espoused much advice on how to rid the world of gophers throughout the movie - I remember something about falling back and obtaining superior firepower - so if you need advice Caddyshack might be a good place to start.

But finally - and honestly - the best advice I ever heard came from Kirk Douglas - he didn't give it to me - he told his son Michael Douglass - who also didn't tell me but did tell someone on Entertainment Tonight. And the gist of Kirk's advice --which applies to writing as much as to anything else in life is this. "Do the best job you can when working on something - and whatever happens after that: Fu#% it."

In this business - in this life there is so much we can't control. You can make yourself crazy trying to figure out how to control the outcome - which you can't control anyway no matter how hard you scheme. And all that thinking and worrying and trying to figure all the angles drains the energy out of the work you're trying to do in the first place. Basically do your part - and whatever the hell happens - happens. But once you stop worrying about what you cant control and focus on what you can - you do a much better job on what's in front of you anyway.

A circle of paper, labeled

by Josh

The best non-writing advice I ever received still came in the form of a piece of paper.

I was 10. Or 11. Maybe 12. Definitely not 13 or 14 or 9 or 8. 10, 11, or 12.

I know this because I was.

Like most children of that age, those ages, etc., I had to do chores. Namely, I was responsible for mowing the lawn. We had a gasoline-powered mower and to get it revving, you had to thumb the primer button a few times. For the life of me, I had no idea how the primer button exactly woke the old beast up, but I followed instructions and primed the mower and tugged on the power cord and ggggggggGGGGGRRRRR went the mower, purring loud enough to wake the future.

I can hear it now.

I had other chores, such as cleaning my room and emptying the dishwasher and wiping down the toilet in the bathroom, but mowing the lawn was the one chore exclusively mine. My younger sister never had to mow the lawn my father believed, I suppose, that girls don't mow lawns. And my two younger brothers were too far small to mow the lawn. And so the care of our front yard, backyard, and side yards fell to me.

And God how I hated it.

I didn't hate it because it was hard work. It wasn't really hard work. The lawnmower did most of the work. All I had to do was push it, and I didn't even have to push it very hard, Newton's Law of Motion being what it is. Sometimes I even listened to my Walkman cassette player when I mowed the lawn, although I could barely hear any of the music (be it INXS or Billy Joel) above the purring of the mower's engine. But I could at least hear the silence between songs, and that served as a sort of clock tick to indicate my progress. Mowing the lawn usually took both sides of an album. But, truth be told, it wasn't the length of the activity that bothered me either.

No, what rankled me was this: whether I wanted to or not, mowing the lawn was a requirement. Even if I had nothing better to do - and I usually didn't - at least that would be better than doing something out of obligation. I felt like an indentured servant and my all-too-common form of protest was to put off my chores as long as humanly possible.

"Josh, when are you going to mow the lawn?" "I'll get around to it."

It was the same dialogue every week of every spring, summer, and fall. We might as well have been performing a play. We certainly knew all the lines.

"Josh, when are you going to mow the lawn?" "I'll get around to it."

Well, one evening, when I was 10, 11, or 12, and I had successfully shirked my lawn-mowing responsibilities for another day, my father called me into his bedroom. His bedroom was large, with shiny brown-and-tan wallpaper and stringy white carpeting. All the furniture in the room was brown, too, with black flakes running all along their wooden surfaces like birthmarks. He was sitting up in bed, as he often liked to do when watching TV, and Mom wasn't there beside him because she was on the sofa in the living room, undoubtedly knitting a colorful sweater.

"Josh," my dad said, "I have something for you."

Was I in trouble? He didn't seem upset, but then again, both he and I were well aware that the lawn had yet to be mowed. So I did my best to remain calm and waited for him to continue.

"Josh, you know how I asked you to mow the lawn?"

Oh crap.

"Do you remember what you said?"

I nodded. Of course I remembered. I knew my lines as well as he knew his. "I said I'd get around to it..."

Then he handed me a slip of white paper, no larger than the size of my child-sized palm. He had cut the paper into a circle and written something on it in blue ink. Since my father's handwriting can best be described as an echocardiogram with punctuation, it took me a moment to decipher the word:


To-it? What the heck was that supposed to...?


Paper cut into a circle. "To-It" written on one of its sides, almost like a label.

"Now that you have a round to-it," he said, "you don't have to get one anymore."

The following morning, I mowed the lawn.

Now do I even need to explain how this applies to writing? For one, I learned the value of clever wordplay, always an important lesson for a budding author to have. More significantly, though, what my father had taught me was the art of misdirection. I couldn't have seen his ruse coming, not in a million years, but in retrospect, it seems so very obvious. Doesn't this pretty much define one of our main duties as mystery writers? We have to give our audience a twist that they are in no way expecting - but which at the same time rings absolutely true. Now I've yet to top my dad in this regard, but I keep trying...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Suck It Up, Sweetheart.

This week the criminally minded are discussing the best non-writing advice we've received that we've actually applied to our writing. There's a bit of irony here because if I remember correctly, I suggested this topic...and I had no clue what to write. However, in between beating my head against my desk and gnashing my teeth in frustration, I found my topic.

I'm the youngest of six children so you can imagine sibling rivalry ran rampant through our house. Being the youngest, I often thought I was getting the short end of the stick, whether it was true or not, and in proper childish fashion would--loudly--proclaim "It's not fair!" My parents' response in a nutshell?

"Life isn't fair so suck it up and deal with it."

Their response wasn't from being mean or even overly strict, although they did believe in disciplining their children they also believed in personal responsibility and admitting to one's mistakes. They were, I think, simply tired. After all, they'd been through five other kids and didn't want to hear the whines, complaints, and excuses of a sixth, which only led to me being more creative with my whines, complaints, and excuses. But I digress...

Life isn't fair. There is always a guy with a bigger car. A bigger house. A bigger bank account. A get the idea. We all have the choice of either being envious and bemoaning our postage-stamp size patch of brown grass, weathered paint and cracked siding, and car that barely makes it out of the drive before dying in the middle of the street, or we can suck it up and find ways to change our circumstances.

With those choices in mind, I've taken my parents' advice and I apply it to my characters on a regular basis. I admit I torture my characters. I stoke the fires of Hell and make them walk through barefooted. The Sword of Damocles is forever hanging over their heads. (I do offer carrots and chocolate and the occasional blood buffet, but that's beside the point here.) However, they don't whine...much. I don't let them. I hate to read whiney characters. So I make them suck it up and deal with whatever I'm throwing at them. They may have a moment or two to be emotional but then it's time to go to work and find solutions.

Once the crises are over, then they can freak out, melt down, or have their happy-happy-joy-joy moment. But it's only a moment because life isn't fair, and there's always a bigger, badder bad guy out to rub someone's nose in it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Riot of Attitude

By Hilary Davidson

The first time I met Marian Misters, co-owner of Toronto's fantastic
Sleuth of Baker Street, she told me how much she loved Lily Moore's attitude.

"Attitude?" I asked. "What are you talking about?"

"She's got attitude in spades! Think of the riot."

I suspect most parents go through this moment at some point in their lives. My sweet child with attitude? I don't think so. When I picture Lily, I think of a woman who's been deeply wounded by her family history, someone who finds it impossible to trust anyone fully, no matter how much she cares for them. Sure, she's streetwise, but she has to be. The fact that she lies to the police, hides evidence, and starts a riot... well, not exactly a riot. More like, she turns passersby into an angry mob to attack a private investigator who's been shadowing her.

Here, you be the judge. From The Damage Done:

Once I started looking for the man following me, he wasn’t hard to spot. I caught sight of him in the reflection of a shop window, then again, after zigzagging a few blocks and pulling out my lipstick case on the street. He stared at me in the reflection over my right shoulder, then feigned interest in the cars on the street when I turned around. His appearance was unremarkable. He wasn’t particularly tall and he had an average build. He was white, his coat was black, and he was wearing jeans.

I walked alternately north and east. Stopping at the Strand Bookstore at Broadway and 12th Street, I fingered the well-used paperbacks that sat on shelves outside, even in winter. The man stood across the street from me, waited a bit, then went around the corner. When I moved around the block he reappeared. How did I shake off a professional stalker? If I pointed him out to a cop, what evidence did I have? The man was always at least half a block away from me, and I was sure that he’d be able to feign surprise and pretend that I was the crazy one. Assuming that he was working alone, I needed to find a building with multiple exits. That wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Several stores had entrances on both the north-south avenue and the east-west street, but all you had to do was stand at the corner and you could watch both.

My anger and frustration were mounting. Why was I running away from him? I made a 180-degree turn and headed straight for my shadow. I was close enough to catch his startled frown before he darted across the street mid-block. After a taxi passed, I followed him. He glanced over his shoulder and I almost smiled; this wasn’t what he’d bargained for. Finally, he decided to make his stand in front of a store window, staring into it fervently as if hoping I’d pass by, so I could be the target again.

“Hey, Gregory!” I called loudly as I came up to him. “How’d you get out of jail?” A couple of passers-by turned their heads to look at us.

“You’ve mistaken me for…” he started to say, but I was just getting started.

“I can’t believe they’d let a child molester out of jail,” I yelled. “How many kids have you attacked since you got out, Gregory? Are you still going after little girls, or are you going after little boys, too?”

People were stopping in their tracks and craning their necks to watch the show now. Gregory put up his hands. “Look, I’m not…”

“You are a disgusting excuse for a human being! I can’t believe any court would let a child molester like you go free.”

By the time the police get to the scene, Gregory (who is not a child molester, I should add; Lily made that up) is on the ground, having been punched and kicked. Also, Lily is nowhere to be found. I told you, she's streetwise. She's not hanging around to talk her way out of this!

(Above: At Sleuth of Baker Street on November 17, 2010: [L to R] Marian Misters, me, Tom Best, Rita Silva, and J.D. Singh; photography courtesy of Dave Cuthbertson. Sleuth recently relocated to 907 Millwood Road in Toronto: 416-483-3111,

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I Predict A Riot

Reece Hirsch

In THE INSIDER, my protagonist Will Connelly gets involved in a chase and shootout in the middle of San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade that leaves two dead and Will in the joint custody of the Department of Justice and the San Francisco Police Department. I wouldn’t say that Will started a riot, but he definitely disturbed the peace in a major way.

Here’s where the action begins, as Will attempts to conduct an exchange with two Russian mobsters to recover his kidnapped semi-girlfriend Claire. It should come as no surprise to you that things do not go as planned.

Yuri drew a pistol from his jacket. In a moment of excruciating clarity, Will saw the glint of afternoon sun on the barrel of the gun, the concentration on Yuri’s face as he aimed.

An instant later, Will was shoving his way through the parade crowd, throwing elbows like Shaquille O’Neal. He heard no gunshots. Will managed to make it to Market Street and, drawing several shouts of resistance, clambered over the barricade into the street. He heard the cries multiplying behind him and knew that Nikolai and Yuri were plunging through the throng after him.

As he staggered onto Market Street, he found himself surrounded by a group of men dressed like nuns who had been outfitted at Frederick’s of Hollywood. It was the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a troupe of drag queen performance artists. The Sisters took his intrusion in stride – one blessed him, another attempted to spank him on the ass with a ruler. Standing in the middle of Market Street, with Nikolai and Yuri at the barricades and once more able to take aim at him, he felt more exposed than the burly Sister standing next to him wearing fishnets over a thong.

The Sisters did not have a float that Will could hide behind, so he tried to stay close to the performers while moving against the tide of the parade. When he looked back to spot Yuri and Nikolai, he saw them climbing over the barrier. Will wondered if they were actually brazen enough to shoot him in the midst of a televised parade.

Looking for cover, he was relieved to see a float rumbling towards him. It was a large, rolling lump of papier-mâché covered with plastic flowers and bearing the slogan: “More Than A Law Firm” and, in smaller letters, “Celebrate Diversity! Reynolds Fincher & McComb Honors San Francisco’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities.” The float was manned by about a dozen people who were standing at a low railing along the side throwing Mardi Gras beads to the crowd.

A string of beads hit him in the chest. When he looked up, he saw that they had been thrown by Craig Logan, a paralegal he had worked with on the Jupiter deal.

“Didn’t expect to see you back so soon! Happy Pride!”

Will walked backwards to face Craig and keep up with the float. “Can I join you up there?”

“This isn’t your coming out party, is it, Will?” Craig reached down and extended a hand. Will climbed the steps built into the side of the float and joined Craig at the railing.

“Craig, I need your help. Is there a place around here where I could hide?”

“Once that closet door is open, Will, there’s no more hiding.”

“I’m serious, Craig. I need to get out of sight. Right now.”

I'm going to stop right there, but the rest of the chapter features a hungover Ian McKellen as the parade grand marshall, the cast of Bleach Blanket Babylon, murder, mayhem and muy macho DOJ Special Agent Joan Fisk. It may not qualify as a riot, but it's pretty close.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Riot? Me?

by Meredith Cole

It's hard to imagine Lydia McKenzie starting a riot. She doesn't like to ride the subway because it forces her to stand too close to strangers. But starting a riot isn't always intentional.

Riots are frightening. A whole crowd surges and moves like a tsunami. People get trampled and killed. I've never been in a riot, but I have been in some really scary situations. I was once afraid that I and my infant son would get crushed on 5th Avenue in the Christmas crowd. People were pushing and shoving and there wasn't room for everyone. I had to work my way to the police barricades and demand to be let out. The cop didn't want to do it at first, so I used my best Jedi Master imitation  (and threatened to call 911). He opened up the barricade and I marched off through the cars on 5th Avenue still carrying my child and his stroller. I didn't start shaking until a few minutes later. Delayed shock.

Years ago, when my husband and I were living in Paris, we were riding the subway to a friend's house for dinner. Someone tossed a tear gas canister into our subway car as a joke. I can still remember vividly the helpless feeling of being blind as the crowd rushed toward us. I think of that often when I see footage of the police firing "harmless" tear gas at protestors. The oddest part of the story was that when we arrived at our dinner party full of our adventures, our French friends assured us that it happened all the time. Not cool.

Lydia isn't much of a rabble-rouser, to be honest. She wouldn't hesitate to interfere or speak up if she thought someone was getting picked on or abused. She has a strong sense of justice. But why would she want a crowd to get all riled up? I can only imagine that it might be in order to distract a killer so someone could get away. And in hipster Williamsburg it's a bit difficult to arouse passions in an ironic crowd. So what would get them excited? A big sale on Clove cigarettes? A free Brian Eno concert in McCarren Park? A Bud Lite to the first 100 people to enter a bar? Who knows. But hopefully she'll never have to start trouble on the street. Too often the trouble just finds her. And a riot does nothing to stop it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Riots and the Righteous

By Kelli Stanley

It seems like forever since I've sat down to right an honest-to-goodness blog. First there was the book tour ... then there was Left Coast Crime ... then there was the burglary of my house, which has taken (and is taking) a great deal of time to deal with. I'm really, really grateful to Shane, my blog buddy, good buddy, and ace substitute for filling in for me ... he also needs a shout-out for being shortlisted for a Thriller Award--yay, Shane-Meister!!! :)

I also want to thank my fellow blogmates for bearing with my absence ... my schedule was already impossible before the burglary, and ... now I just laugh at it. ;)

So, back to the post. The subject for the day is a riot. No, I mean literally.

Riots are nasty. They're a sort of unified mob chaos, with random individual acts of crime and violence ... even those riots that are initiated by positive events (like winning a Super Bowl or a World's Series). Those that are begun out of frustration and anger with a political or social event can be even worse. Innocent people are inevitably hurt--or even killed--because of the temporary, uncontrolled madness and lifting of inhibitions that embody riots. And of course, criminals--by definition anti-social--will take advantage of the chaos for profit.

I was nearly caught in a riot in Greece once when I was a young student and studying in Italy. A political rally turned nasty ... as politics often does. Let me put it this way: nothing undertaken by an out-of-control mob ever feels good. There isn't much difference between a riot and a lynching, except that the latter is smaller and focuses on a defined, murderous goal.

What's frustrating, though, is that good things have emerged from bad acts. Riots have helped change policy and law--for the better--by calling attention to an issue that might otherwise be ignored by the power-brokers. And because this is the case, they continue to be viewed as a viable form of protest, and are--witness the recent events in Egypt. Riots can lead to revolution, which might lead to a stronger sense of individual rights and freedom.

Miranda Corbie, however, will have none of it.

Miranda distrusts people in general, and in groups, she distrusts them even more. There is no such thing as a safe mob. So ... if she's hauled to the Hall of Justice down on Portsmouth Square one day in 1941--and presented with a charge of inciting a riot--she'd call her attorney, Meyer, who would get the charges dismissed. Because Miranda would never start a riot ... though she would try her damnedest to end one.

Say, a riot targeting Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Or the "Zoot-Suit" riots in Los Angeles. Or the "Bloody Thursday" riot of San Franciso's great strike in 1934.

Because the problem with riots is that innocent people are harmed ... even if the underlying cause is just. And in Miranda's world--where politics and politicians are largely concerned for themselves, rather than for the citizens--where the citizens themselves are more concerned with food on the table and Amos and Andy than they are with what's going on around them--where the people you trust you can number on one hand and maybe two fingers--in that world, riots and the mob violence that define them are what Miranda fights against.

Because saving the dry cleaner on the corner--making sure the drug store's windows aren't broken--picking up the lost kid caught in the middle of a gunfight--are the causes she's fighting FOR.

Miranda returns in CITY OF SECRETS on September 13th ... she's got a lot of fighting ahead.