Monday, February 20, 2017

Singing to Myself

If your writing process/life could be summarized as the title of a song – what song would it be? And why?

-from Susan

Not only is this the hardest question I’ve ever been asked on 7CriminalMinds, but it begs the question of how I can begin to summarize my writing processes. Catch me on Wednesday and my process, my writing life, is apt to be 180 degrees different than it will be on Sunday.  Meet me for coffee on Tuesday and I’m floating. See me at an event on Friday and it’s doom, doom, doom.

And to make the assignment even harder, I don’t have a wide range of popular music to draw on or the memory bank for song names. I was in agony trying to wrest something – anything – to answer the question. I knew “Mahler’s Fifth Symphony” wasn’t going to cut it, or the prayer to Isis and Osiris from The Magic Flute…so here’s the best I could do:

The dorky song “High Hopes,” sung by Doris Day in that strangely chipper voice. Something about ants, I recall, but the idea was that you keep on and you can conquer most everything, which in my case includes sloth, the desire to rewrite endlessly, and plot holes I keep falling into.

“Pick Yourself Up” written in the 1930s and sung in one of those charming if effete musicals Fred Astaire did so well. The only lyrics I recall are “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and…” Sorry, it fades after that, but it is a good idea for a writer, right?

Here’s my best song candidate: “Hotel California,” by the mighty Eagles. Why? This line, which I do remember “…this could be Heaven or this could be Hell” and if that doesn’t describe the overall writing life for me, I am stumped as to the best candidate.


I wait eagerly to see how much better the rest of the week’s answers are!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Shades and Striations

My desire to broaden the reach of mystery/crime fiction as it relates (or doesn't) to race, class, and identity in America is plain. While this may have engendered eye rolls from more than a few folks prior to November 8, 2016, a subtle nod toward diversity can now be considered a radical act. Yet I'm not throwin' bombs. I'm tossin' books.

My first suggestion comes from the late, great Chester Himes, whose work, along with his amazing life, demands to be considered a national treasure on a scale beyond the Chandlers, Hammetts, and Ellroys. Described by the autobiographer James Sallis as "a novelist in whom autobiography and fiction are inextricably and often maddeningly intertwined," Chester Himes dared to write hardboiled fiction that, in his own words, "was (meant) to force white Americans to confront the horror and brutalisation of the black ghettos." Whereas historically, African American characters are used as foil and fodder in the genre, Chester Himes shows us that other America by centering his plots with blackness. I hear often that my work does the same, and to welcoming effect. I'm not the first. I'm standing upon the shoulders of this black giant.

If only to lead folks to all of his mighty works, I suggest the final book in what is known as the Harlem cycle, or Harlem Detective series: Blind Man with a Pistol.

New York is sweltering in the summer heat, and Harlem is close to the boiling point. To Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, at times it seems as if the whole world has gone mad. Trying, as always, to keep some kind of peace—their legendary nickel-plated Colts very much in evidence—Coffin Ed and Grave Digger find themselves pursuing two completely different cases through a maze of knifings, beatings, and riots that threaten to tear Harlem apart.


I'd wager you'd go back and start at his For Love Of Emmabelle a.k.a. A Rage In Harlem and continue all the way through. In our genre, black America is often treated as underbelly or nether-region that is navigated by choice, or desire. In this work, Chester Himes gave us not an African America, but the actual America, not in another shade or hue, but in stark white light-level reality.

"Blink once, you're robbed," Coffin Ed advised the white man slumming in Harlem.
"Blink twice, you're dead," Grave Digger added dryly.
***

Though our nation is a cluster of cultures that only blur into a mélange when pureed by our mastication of consumer experience, the twin halves of the American identity is interminably black and white. Yet along the equator of daily life, through the miasma of this abject oversimplicity, we are able to journey through several distinct cultural realities. Worlds upon worlds exist alongside the influences of white supremacy and black resistance. We just have to, say, ponder who cooks our tacos and chow mein. We have to consider going deeper, beyond the weekend excursions and staycations and treat our car windows as the looking glass where we see other beings so similar and yet most unlike ourselves.

My frequently expressed dictum for writing in our genre is crime touches us all. It is the grand equalizer of the American experience. Henry Chang's Detective Yu series boldly reclaims Asian American crime themes from Earl Derr Biggers and rekindles the complexities of the Chinese people in America to stirring effect. I read Chinatown Beat and, though I identify as African American, I was at home in its protagonist Jack Yu's internal and external conflicts. There is deep American commonality in these books.


NYPD detective Jack Yu must investigate the rape of a grade-school girl on the fringes of Chinatown, where he grew up and has just been stationed. Meanwhile, would-be gangster Johnny Wong is carrying on with Mona, the gorgeous mistress of his employer, Uncle Four, head of the local branch of the Hip Ching tong and a powerful underworld figure in both New York and Hong Kong. As Yu digs deeper into his case, he finds evidence of a connection between the rapist and the local gangsters.

Henry Chang may not be from your neighborhood, but he understands his neighborhood, and 'hood recognize 'hood, y'all.

***

Most folks know I have a love for heroes. I prefer a good hardboiled mystery or thriller that puts a protagonist at odds with a con, conspiracy or overall oppressive force that wants to chew up the little guy and gal with impunity. Elliot Caprice, the protagonist of my novel, A Negro and an Ofay (May 2017, Down & Out Books), is, to his continual frustration, bound by a singular personal ethic: "It's wrong, and it happened in front of me. That makes it my business." We write what we know. I know heroes. Even anti-heroes are still heroes.

Though I don't reach for caper stories and criminal tales, in which the con is the thing, and the plan is to get away with it, they often fall in my lap, and I enjoy them all the same. Except I didn't enjoy Vern E. Smith's brilliant—and sole—crime novel, The Jones Men, nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author in 1975. I couldn't stand it, as it was the psychological equivalent to being locked in a room with all my friends and family members who came up on both sides of the American hypocrisy of narcotics: pushers and users. There's less mystery in the plot, though plenty can be found in the motivations and activities of the characters, and especially within the notion that any of them will succeed.



An all-out drug war explodes in 1970s Detroit when a young Vietnam veteran decides to rip off heroin kingpin Willis McDaniel. In the chaos, rival outfits, the Mafia, and even junkies themselves try to step in to fill the void while one lone assassin tries to hunt them all down—and one determined cop tries to stop it all.




Mississippi-born Vern Smith (1946) was a journalist covering Detroit for Newsweek during the siege of drugs and violence that claimed the city's identity from the prosperity of the automotive boon and its Motown soundtrack. In its pages, he draws a perfect picture of the collusion of all the players in the drug game. Though the reader may pick a side, the work is bereft of heroism, and it plays in the modern mind as a tragedy on the scale of Sysiphus. Though Smith would go on to continue a distinguished career as a journalist covering such seminal events as Hank Aaron's usurping of Babe Ruth's home run record and the Atlanta child murders that had the entire nation captivated in 1980, he never again wrote a novel. The Jones Men is a hole-in-one in the final round of the US Open. It's the goddamned Hope Diamond of crime fiction novels. Yet Vern E. Smith, though he serves America still, has no Wikipedia entry for himself or his novel. Check out Eric Beetner's excellent article on the book at The Criminal Element and track down a copy. If you find it at a flea market or Goodwill, it's the crime fiction equivalent of a rare Rembrandt on markdown. Just don't expect to feel cozy while reading it.

***

I've yet to be asked to cease asserting my themes and ideas, so I've resolved to keep going and make certain I offer up jewels and gems of literary brilliance that help bring those unlike us into focus and, as a consequence of our illumination, bring us together on and off the page. I appreciate your patience.

Though I'm gonna do it anyhow.

- dg

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Black and Blue and Indigo

by Alan

What 3 mystery books are “must reads” for those who have never read mysteries before?

So many great books to recommend! So many potential “must reads”! How can one possibly choose?

By narrowing things down using my Book-Sort-O-Matic Machine (patent pending)!

I hauled it out of deep storage, replaced the flux capacitor, and programmed the following criteria:

1) Book written by an author who is either an Edgar Award winner or MWA Grand Master.

2) Book itself either won, or was nominated for, a prestigious mystery-writing award.

3) Book features a detective (police or PI).

4) Book has a color in the title.

5) I read the book and enjoyed it.

 

Three choices popped out!

Black EchoThe Black Echo – Michael Connelly.

Winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1993, this is the first in the Harry Bosch series.

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Edge

 

The Blue Edge of Midnight – Jonathon King

Featuring ex-cop Max Freeman, this won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 2003.

 

 

 

 

indigoslam_largeIndigo Slam – Robert Crais

This is the seventh novel in the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series (nominated for a Shamus Award in 1998).

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your favorite mystery with a color in the title?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hard to put down

by Dietrich Kalteis

Here are three mysteries I’ve read over the past few months, ones that I’d recommend to someone who’s never read one.

First up is Sucker Punch by Canadian writer Marc Strange. It’s the first Joe Grundy mystery in a two book series, published by Dundurn Press in 2007. It was Strange’s first mystery and was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best first mystery right out of the gate. Its storyline follows ex-boxer Grundy whose claim to fame is he was once KOd by Evander Holyfield. Now, he’s the security chief at a swank downtown Vancouver hotel. When a guy who just inherited millions checks into the hotel and announces that he’s going to give it all away, then starts passing out hundred dollar tips, Grundy guesses trouble’s on its way. And when the rich guy ends up dead and a large amount of his cash is missing from his hotel room, Grundy sets out to discover who did it. This story gives readers the right mix of plot, pace, interesting characters, told and just the right touch of humor. 

You can’t read Sucker Punch without following it up with the sequel Body Blows, released in 2009 and winner of an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best original paperback. Another great mystery. And if you like Marc Strange’s writing as much as I do, there are two more written before his death in 2012. Follow Me Down (2010) and Woman Chased By Crows (2012) make up the Orwell Brennan series, published by ECW Press, and they’re every bit as good as the Joe Grundy stories. 


At End of Day was the last novel by George V. Higgins. His career as a prosecutor served him well, getting to know the lowlife crooks of Boston’s underbelly. This one was published in 2000, and the storyline follows a couple of long-time Boston gangsters, McKeach and Cistaro who rat out the Italian mob to the FBI. The trouble is they’re used to agents who look the other way to the crimes that they’ve committed themselves. When a new guy takes over the Organized Crime Unit, they’re not sure if they can trust this guy. In typical Higgins’ fashion, the story is told mostly in dialog. Taking the place of narrative and action, his street lingo is so strong and right on the button that it works as well as it did for his early classics from the seventies like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Digger’s Game and Coogan’s Trade.

“So I go in, way outta my way, and, this and that, and say to him, ‘What’s goin’ on? You know? ‘What gives?’ Like, ‘Where’s my fuckin’ money? And he acts like , well, I dunno, like it’’s a big surprise or something, I might be somewhat concerned. He’s onna phone when I go in, talkin’ to some fuckin’ broad, and he’s the one now pissed at me—I’m comin’ in with no appointment—like I’m interruptin’ him. Just what am I doin’ there?
“Well, geez, I mean, what’m I supposed to do? He’s three weeks late. He owes us thirteen thousand bucks and change, plus the nienety underneath. I’m gonna write it off this week and next, ‘til things turn around for him? Who the fuck are these people …”


The Second Girl by David Swinson is another book to add to your reading list. Swinson’s former career as a police detective goes a long way to add authenticity to his writing, and he’s got a great understanding of the workings of police departments as well as how the darker side thinks. The Second Girl’s a solid mix of fast pace and believable characters. The protagonist, Frank Marr has his finger on the pulse of crime in Washington, D.C. A decorated and retired police detective turned private investigator, Marr’s the best in the game; the only problem is he’s also a long-time drug addict whose equally good at hiding his secret. When he accidentally stumbles on a kidnapped teenager in the home of a local drug gang he planned to rob, he finds himself in the spotlight when asked to investigate the disappearance of another girl, possibly connected to the first. The trouble is trying to keep his own secret when he finds himself constantly under the spotlight. The Second Girl is a great start to the Frank Marr series, and the next offering is Crime Song which will be available from Mulholland Books this May.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

You can't go wrong with a classic British mystery

By R.J. Harlick

What three mystery books would you recommend to someone as must reads who’s never read a mystery before? 

A tough question. There are so many fabulous mystery books that have been written over the years, it makes for a difficult choice. Since it is February 14, I could look at mysteries that have a hot steamy romance. Though, that isn’t usually a crime novel’s strength.

I developed my love for mysteries by devouring Agatha Christie as a child before moving onto other British authors like Dorothy Sayers, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter and the like, so I might as well look at British crime writers for my suggestions.

A person new to mysteries could start with one of the forerunners of today’s modern mystery, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Written in 1859, it is considered an early example of detective fiction with the protagonist, Walter Hartright, taking on the role of an amateur sleuth. The action starts with Walter encountering a mysterious woman in white who appears to be in some distress. He later learns that she escaped from an asylum. The plot swirls around switched identities and an inheritance while drawing attention to the lack of legal rights women had at the time. A fabulous book. The Moonstone, also written by Wilkie Collins is another fine example of an early mystery.
 
Agatha Christie was truly the master, or should I say mistress, of the puzzle mystery. I don’t think I have read one book of hers that I have been able to guess whodunit. For me the Christie book that stands out the most in its ability to fool the reader is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It is masterful in its ability to hide the truth which, by the way, is in plain sight, if only the reader were perceptive enough. A person couldn’t go wrong in trying to test their wits with this book.

There was a time, when I took a break from mysteries, preferring to make my way through the literary greats. The discovery of the P.D. James’ series with poetry-writing detective Adam Dalgliesh brought me back into the mystery fold. Beautifully written with a strong sense of the British countryside, each book deftly explores the psychological motives behind murder. I’m not sure I could recommend any one book of the fourteen in the series. They are all good. So perhaps the best place to start, as with any series, is with the first one, Cover Her Face.






I mustn't forget what day it is. Hope you celebrate it appropriately.


Monday, February 13, 2017

3 Must Reads

Terry Shames answers the question: What 3 mystery books are “must reads” for those who have never read mysteries before?

What a question! Before I would make such a recommendation, I need to know what kinds of books the reader likes to read: Fiction or non-fiction? Does he/she like to learn something when they read, or do they prefer to use reading as an escape? What interests them: history, science, social issues, women’s concerns, art, music? Do they like to read books set in other countries? The list is endless, because there are mystery novels that cover every single topic anyone likes to read about.

That’s why the mystery writers that I admire take very seriously the task of researching background for their books. They work to describe settings and characters so that the reader feels as if they know the place and the people. If they write history, they dig up the little details that make the story fresh. They are careful to use technology properly; they know how weapons really work; they know how people really behave. And in the case of the unknowable, they try to imagine how it might be (I’m thinking of those who successfully write from the viewpoint of an animal. No one actually knows how a dog thinks, but read Spencer Quinn, and he takes a fair shot at knowing the unknowable).



If I were to select three books for the novice mystery reader would I want to suggest a classic or a contemporary book? A “literary” mystery? Would I start them on something cozy and accessible? Would I go for the amazing story or the amazing character? Would I suggest they ease into small-town life, or big city life? Or life on a boat? Would I want them to try something funny, or something serious? Something with a hefty philosophical bent? Something psychological? Or would I go out on a limb and suggest a mystery with a little science fiction thrown in? Should I throw in a little romance? And in this time of fraught politics, would I want to soothe them, or catch them up in a whirlwind of political intrigue?

With all this in mind, I’m going to suggest three books (out of dozens that I would really like to suggest) that I think embody the best of the genre.

The Hot Countries, by Tim Hallinan.  This book goes for broke in every possible way. I’ve never actually been to Bangkok, but in Hallinan’s books I go to Bangkok. I know the back streets, the seedy establishments. I know the way intrigue works there. I know the way people live their everyday lives, and how they respond to extraordinary circumstances. This book has a core of meaning that sent me back to read some passages again and again. It’s a book with heart.

Black Water Rising, Attica Locke. Locke won the Harper Lee Prize for best legal thriller this year with Pleasantville. It was a great book, but I have enormous affection for her first book, Black Water Rising. Another book with heart. Locke has the deepest respect and affection for her characters. It’s set in 1980s Houston, with an African-American anti-hero trying to come to terms with his radical past and to solve a crime he stumbled into. The language and descriptions are unsurpassed.

Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger. The year it came out this novel won every single award and deserved the wins. Beautifully written, an exploration of meaning. A coming of age story. And yet another story with heart.

I commend these books to you. Happy reading!




















Friday, February 10, 2017

Face to Facebook

How do you get yourself and your books noticed by the public? We hear that many publishers aren’t doing much PR anymore. How do you stand out from the crowd?

by Paul D. Marks

Set your hair on fire, borrow Lady Gaga’s meat dress, wardrobe malfunction. All of the above. They say there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Everyone earlier this week had so many great things to say, I hope I have some new ones as well as maybe re-hitting some of the previous things in my own inimitable way, especially as this was written before I saw this week’s posts. But great minds and all of that...

In a sense you’re not just a writer anymore but a small publishing/PR company of your own, even if you’re with a major publisher. The big publishers push the big authors—you know, the ones who don’t really need it, like Stephen King, Anne Rice, Sue Grafton and John Grisham. But you and your little book, whether you’re pub’d by a major, a small publisher or an indie, and who could really use a push, well you’re on your own for the most part. But you can do it. It just takes time, effort and a little money. But not nearly as much money as ad campaigns used to take when your only outlets were print, radio and TV.

So, as much as many writers like to disengage from the world, you have to engage, at least to some extent. Sometimes in person. Sometimes online.

Face to Face:

Be part of the community. That can happen in a variety of ways.

There are bookstore (and other) signings and panels and interviews to do. The problem with signings is that it’s sometimes hard to get people to come out if you’re not one of the aforementioned big stars. On the other hand you might make friends and connections with booksellers who can help you down the line.

There’s also conventions like Bouchercon, Malice and Left Coast, etc. All good places to meet people and network. And just have a good time. I haven’t been to Malice, but I’ve really enjoyed Bouchercon and Left Coast. And if you get on a panel so much the better. On top of that, my wife and I always book a few extra days so we can explore the convention city. We went to Bouchercon in Albany, not a place I had ever really expected to go or to like. But we enjoyed its New England Flavor and history, as we enjoyed all the cities of the various conventions we went to.
There’s also groups like Sisters in Crime, ITW, and MWA, and others. These groups hold social functions, informative meetings, have an online presence. They’re a great way to meet people.

Face to Facebook:

I went kicking and screaming onto Facebook a few years ago. Publicist and friend Diana James “gently” suggested that I should go on it.

“I don’t want to see pictures of what people had for breakfast…or worse,” I said.

So, after much cajoling from Diana I took the dreaded step and signed onto FB. At first I didn’t know what to do, how to use it. I was an evil lurker. Of course, since I had few FB friends I didn’t have much to lurk at. So I’d check in every few days or so, still not knowing what to do, but gaining a few friends here, a few friends there.

And eventually I started posting. Don’t remember what those early posts were. But not too long after I started I began to find my way. I began to post things that meant something to me or that I related to. Things like pix of my breakfast: cereal can be fun and entertaining pop art. And pix of my scars—want to see them? Just kidding.

Actually, I started posting things about noir and film noir and putting up “Film Noir Alerts” when I knew a noir movie was coming on television. Also stuff about mystery and noir writing, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, et al. And I started posting about Los Angeles and LA history, something I’m very much into on many levels. I began to be known as the LA Guy or the Noir Guy. People I’d never met in person would come up to me at conferences and other events and say, “You’re the Noir Guy”. I had to plead guilty.

And then when White Heat came out I put up some posts about that. And other people shared them. And I think it did help get the book known, get reviews and make sales. But the key is, as everyone says, not to only push your books. People get turned off by that big time. Be a friend. Be part of the community. Comment and share other people’s posts. Participate.

Besides Facebook, there’s also Twitter and Instagram and Reddit and so many more online entities that you can’t count high enough. The key here, I think, is to pick one or two, maybe three, to focus on. Otherwise it just gets out of hand. I do mostly Facebook and Twitter, with the help of Hootsuite and Tweetdeck, which is the only way to make Twitter decipherable.

Have FB and Twitter made me a NY Times Bestseller? No. But they’ve definitely helped get me more readers and connect with people with similar interests, which is more than I could have done by going on a cross country book signing tour …and it costs a lot less. And I figure now there’s not a state in the country that I couldn’t have lunch with someone if I happened to be passing through—and if I do I’ll be sure to post the photo of the meal. Hell, there’s several countries on different continents that I could have lunch with someone I know from social media. Anyone for tennis?

Pay or Play:

If you’ve got money you can hire a publicist. But, just like with anything or anyone else, some might be good, others not so good. And just because they work for a big company or have a fancy office doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better. When I was working in Hollywood my then-writing partner and I got one of the Big Three agencies as agents (have I told this one before?). We thought it was the best day of our lives. Celebrated. Flying high. But it turned out to be the worst experience as we were the little fish in the big pond. (But I’ll leave the details for another time.) And the best agent I had was working out of his converted garage when I met him. He hustled for me. And got me work. And he was eventually picked up as a VP by another large agency and took me with him. The point I’m making here is don’t let the trappings of a big publicist (or publisher for that matter) fool you into thinking you can sit back and do nothing or let things slide.

Besides publicists, you can try to get your book on Book Gorilla, etc., or place ads in things like E Reader News or Kindle Nation Daily or Kindle Review or the very expensive and very choosy Book Bub. Even Facebook ads.

Yammer Yammer Yammer:


Get out there and talk, to anyone and everyone who will listen.

Blog. You can start your own. Guest on other people’s. Join a blog like Criminal Minds. I blog both here and on SleuthSayers.

Try to get radio interviews. People, especially internet radio, are always looking for interesting guests.

Try to get your book reviewed. Not always easy, but there’s a ton of bloggers in the great cyberspace out there who review books. Contact them.

Do blog tours.

Word of mouth is one of the best things. If you can get people talking about you or your book/s, you’re on your way. Easier said than done, but not impossible.

Use Goodreads and other sites like that.


Pay It Forward:

Pay it forward. A lot of people have been nice to me over the years. And while I want to repay their kindness directly I also try to pay it forward in general. The mystery community seems pretty nice and pretty supportive overall and I want to contribute to that atmosphere.

And the bottom line is write a good book.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

Available now from Down & Out Books:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea 

A collection of 15 Private Eye stories from some of the best mystery and noir writers from across the country. Also available on Amazon: