Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It depends on where you're sitting

Do I think like the hero or the villain?

I’d like to say I think like the hero, and mostly I do. I tend to follow the rules, try to help people out, and just in general be an annoying goody-goody. I’m so bad at lying that I have to call my sister when I need a whopper. I won’t tell you which sister, and I have three. But one of them is a genius at lying. Simple lies, complicated lies. She’s got the gift. She doesn’t lie all the time, but it’s there when she needs it, and it’s also there when I do.

So, I think I’m mostly a hero.

But recently I borrowed a friend’s car. A non-writing civilian with a real job. He was having problems with his boss and told me not to put anything in the trunk so it would be empty when I picked him up from work. Without missing a beat, I said, “So you can put in a body?” He looked at me in total astonishment and said, “So I can put in the boxes if I have to clear out my desk.” And that was when I realized that maybe I think a bit like the villain after all.

I’m trying to pass that off as a good thing, so pay attention here (and, no, I didn’t call my sister before coming up with this explanation). Every hero has some bit of villainy he needs to vanquish in himself and conversely every villain has noble reasons for her actions (yup, I’m messing with the pronouns just for fun).

Hero? My main character in A TRACE OF SMOKE thinks long and hard about taking in an adorable five year old orphan who appears on her doorstep one night. She doesn’t send him out into the darkness alone in the middle of the night, but she thinks about it.

Villain? My main villain is based on a historical figure, top Nazi Ernst Roehm, who was sure that he was the hero who was going to restore Germany to greatness. He did terrible, reprehensible things. He also had a warrior code that he lived by, he suffered horribly in World War I, and he was a highly decorated soldier. Like all villains since the dawn of time, he was human. For better and for worse.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Split Person-ality

Question: Do you think like the hero or think like the villain?

Depends whose point of view I'm writing in.  I write deep third person point of view and try to immerse myself totally into that character while I'm writing them.  Every character is part of me and I'm part of every character--even the badguys.

That being said, I don't often write in the villain's point of view.  I enjoy complex villains and want to make them psychologically as realistic as possible.  Since I've actually met real life killers, including one serial killer, I know that this reality is often not what readers expect from their fictional badguy--they want their villains to be over the top, diabolical, with a reason for everything.

Sorry, but real life isn't like that.  In real life, the badguys look just like you and me.  They aren't plotting three steps ahead of the cops or laying a trail of red herrings. 

They're often impulsive and take action because it's convenient or just easier to turn left instead of right....they're often narcissistic sociopaths and don't need a lot of motivation to do anything if it gets them what they want.

Since going into that kind of villain's point of view probably wouldn't be compelling or entertaining for readers, I tend to instead allow the villains to slowly reveal themselves through their actions.  The other characters experience the consequences of those actions and the reader can learn about the badguy at the same time the point of view characters do.

But....there's always a but, isn't there?....I've just started a project that features a badguy who feels very real to me.  In his point of view, he's just trying hard to be a good son, to do right by his parents, and to protect his family.

To the rest of the world....well, let's just say that the "creep" factor is revving past the red zone on this one, lol!!!

And, yes, I'm having a blast!  But I think it is because he truly is the hero of his own story.  He's doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons.  So who are we to judge him?

Here's my question for you all: why do YOU read crime fiction?

Is it for the vicarious thrill of being inside a badguy's head as he dishes out delicious deviltry that you'll never (ever) get the chance to experience in real life?

Or is it for the catharsis of playing the hero,  the comfort of knowing that some times the good guys do win and justice is served?

Thanks for reading!

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 http://www.cjlyons.net

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I Want to be a Dentist...Not!

Gabriella Herkert, Catnapped and Doggone

Why do I write mysteries? People actually agree to ride in my trunk. I kid you not. You can tell a complete stranger that you are “researching” your next mystery and need a little help in describing the exact sounds a body makes as it rolls around in the trunk of your car and they will be all too pleased to be “victimized.” No head bashing, knock-out dropping or jujitsu chopping necessary. A simple please and thank you and pretty soon you’re doing wheelies in the Safeway parking lot with a kerthump-kerthump that has absolutely nothing to do with the need for an auto repair. You can’t do this if you’re an accountant.

You can do the most bizarre things in public and be neither embarrassed nor arrested. Once, I was lying on the ground in Pioneer Square when a couple of tourists came over to offer assistance. A local homeless man, having seen me re-enact this conversion from dead body to screaming meemie protagonist politely informed the couple to stop disturbing me as I was clearly working. If a computer programmer tries this, you can be sure he’ll need the number of a good bail bondsman.

You can scare the bejeesus out of six-foot, four inch muscle builders in dark stairwells at no-tell motels while rehearsing a chase scene which in your mind is a frightened woman fleeing from a knife wielding assailant. The fact that the chaser is really a five-four, one hundred and twenty pound best friend using an inflatable soccer rah-rah balloon as a weapon is irrelevant. The bystander will abandon the obvious advantage and press his back firmly to the wall with a look of horror. You can script a great scene and finally understand the Kitty Genovese neighbors in less than two minutes. If an engineer tried this, he’d be walked out of his place of employment.

Clearly, the vast power placed in the hands of a mystery writer must only be used for good. You should not accidentally drop a friend from a second story window into the bushes below searching for secondary escape routes. You should not rig a high-strung soccer teammate’s car with a Christmas crackle in a neighborhood where gunfire is a fact of life. And do not, under any circumstances, send letters coated with dye that interacts upon contact with skin to turn the receiver’s hands blue. Yes, it will tell you if your poison technique has merit but it’s really tough for your victim to go through a week as a smurf.

Why am I a mystery writer? You’re kidding, right?


Friday, June 26, 2009

The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Why do I read mysteries?

Why not...why wouldn't you...what could be better?

Consider the so-called classics we were expected to read in high school and college. The great literature from the ancient world. Homer. Boewulf. Dickens. Shakespeare.

It's all crime fiction.

And in many cases it's fantasy or science fiction, as well. Supernatural suspense, adventure stories. Thrillers. Call it what you want in this sub-genre obsessed world we live in, but by comparison, the books called literary by the publishing industry today don't pass the test of time. I mean, where is the arc of redemption? The mystery? The plot?

Throw the Bible into the mix if you want even more adventure, blood and glory, heroes and villains, justice and judgment. Some would argue that religion deals with the greatest mystery of all.

Growing up I read anything I could reach on my parents' bookshelves, which included a bit of everything, from historical novels to adventure pulps to science fiction. And like Kelli, comic books were a big influence, especially The Amazing Spider-Man #121.

My reading list is still eclectic, but the books I always come back to are mysteries and thrillers, the type of books that first inspired me to write.

Maybe it's the moral compass in these stories. In a world where justice is rarely done and all too often it's the liars, cheats and bad guys getting their own reality TV show, elected office or corporate buyout, it is cathartic to read a story in which the villain gets his comeuppance. Mysteries have a way of putting ordinary people just like us into extraordinary circumstances that distill life's moral ambiguities into one fateful decision. Perhaps there's nothing politically correct or socially acceptable about pulling the trigger instead of calling the police, but it feels damn good when you do it in the pages of a mystery novel, because for that instant there is no moral ambiguity, only a compass pointing you forward to do the right thing no matter what.

Finally, I have a huge bias towards books that are fun to read. If you're asking me to invest in the first 100 pages of your book because after that it gets really interesting, you're asking too much. If you tell me I'll be glad I read it, but I won't be thrilled while I'm reading it, sell it to someone else. Entertain before you educate, suck me in and then take me for a ride. Help me escape, if only for a few hours. Ask me impossible questions that lead to improbable answers. Take me to another world.

I love mysteries. That's why I read them, and that's why I write them.

Hi, how how are ya, what do you do?

I write to meet chicks.

Fortunately, my wife of thirty years approves.

Cause I also write to meet dudes. And cops, firefighters, librarians, nurses, gas station owners, social workers, teachers, garbage collectors, mechanics, booksellers, book burners, gun salesmen, politicians, reporters, and ditch-diggers.

Or, as the great Harvey Korman said in Blazing Saddles in deciding to gather a gang to wipe out Sheriff Cleavon Little and the tiny town of Rock Ridge, "I want rustlers,cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con-men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwackers, hornswogglars, horse thieves, bull-dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers, and Methodists!"


Which brings me back to the point of this essay.

Why do I write?

Because I love to talk to people. Hear their stories. Learn their secrets. Observe their habits and quirks and moods and feelings, whether they're right or left handed, and what kind of car they drive, and if they talk with their hands as well as their mouths, and do their eyebrows jiggle or stay straight while they do.

Because those little details are important in helping me create characters that stay with you far after the book is finished.

As a writer, I must never forget that I don't write only to fulfill a publishing contract. I write for people. Therefore, I like to be around people. To see how they tick, and how they react under stress. (The surest sign of a person's true character.) And when necessary, to find people a lot smarter than myself so they can tell me things I don't know. So they can fill me in, and I can infuse my characters and scenes with that information. Making it easy for you to figure out what I'm saying.

This point was brought home the other day when I got an e-mail from Kelli (no relation to Our Kelli), who works for the school district in West Aurora, near my home in the Chicago suburb of Naperville. She runs a book club composed of folks who also work for the district--teachers, social workers, and others--and were reading my debut crime thriller, BLOWN AWAY. (Bless them every one!) Since I live in Naperville, she asked, would I like to join them for lunch to talk about the book?

It would have been easy to say no. I cracked a tooth the other day, and had a dental appointment that morning. I didn't know what the dentist would do, or what shape I'd be in to have lunch. (Eating with Novocaine mouth? Highly unrecommended.) The smart money was on blowing off Kelli's offer.

I jumped at the chance anyway.

I'm glad I did. The book clubbers don't live in Naperville, but they made a traveling feast because the book is set here, and it'd be fun to eat where the action took place. (Isn't that a cool thing to do?) They were smart, and friendly, and full of good questions. We had a great time over nearly three hours of cheeseburgers and discussion. (Plus, no dental work that morning, so I didn't drool in my French fries.)

Among other things, I found out that another of the group, Kathy, used to be in the Marines, and met her husband there, and they're both Russian language experts, and her hubby is now in law enforcement, and they know all sorts of folks in our armed forces, many of whom are fighting in the Middle East, and it turns out I'd like to set some scenes in future novels in the war zone, so we're going to talk again, so I can hear their stories, and maybe make my writing as rich and accurate as those fighting heroes deserve from me. Most important, I learned that I now have a new set of happy, interesting friends and readers named Kelli, Kathy, Lynne, Carol, Linda and Karen.

Which gets me again back to the point of this essay: why do I write?

And the answer: I write to meet people.

And the occasional hornswoggler.


None this week, alas. The above-mentioned dental appointment turned into oral surgery yesterday to remove the tooth, and I'm barely able to finish this post as it is swimming in River Vicodin! More O-Grams next week, I promise.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Seuss, Batman and the Power of Words

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”

Dr. Seuss was a very wise man. And probably one of the most influential of the 20th century--I mean, if you're a Baby Boomer or a Baby Boomer child, you were probably raised on him.

When I started thinking about reading and writing and why I became a writer--with every question spurring on another, i.e., does one really *become* a writer? Or are you born with the compulsion? But (typically) I digress ... anyway, as I was pondering over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (aka my TBR pile), I suddenly realized Seuss was more godlike than Zeus in teaching me the power of words.

Reading The Cat in the Hat and the rest of the oeuvre instilled the idea of rhetoric, of rhythm, of poetry and most importantly, the potency behind how we put words together. And the more I read--graduating from Dr. Seuss to other books--the more I learned. The more people I met, the more places I went ...

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself" ...
"We shall never surrender" ...
"I have a dream ..."

Words. But words in the mouth of great leaders or great artists resonate across time, triumph over unimaginable hardship and inspire generations. Words, in short, can LAST.

But it didn't take too long for me to realize that WHAT we communicated held this intrinsic power to hurt, to please, to motivate or to anger as much as HOW it was communicated.

"You love me, don't you?" As said by a ...

Teenage girl to the boyfriend she suspects is cheating on her ...

Five year old boy, tugging on his mother's sweatshirt and pointing at a stuffed tiger ...

Fortyish wife, laughing, and explaining to her husband why she bought a new dress ...

Fifty-something serial killer, crooning over his latest victim.

Same words, different stories. So the power of language isn't inherent in language alone, the magic combination of syllabification, sound and rhythm that makes prose into poetry. You need emotion.

You need story.

You need a writer.

That's power.

And as a kid, power is something you want and know you can't have. But you can always write ...

I'm an only child, so I read a lot. And I moved into writing when I was seven. Third grade, which was more noirish that you'd guess--and my first story, about a gangster who dies at the end, despite a heroic side, and a love interest named Madeline.

It was a play. I wrote, directed and starred. Haven't sold the rights yet ... so far.

I found Batman in fourth grade--my life irrevocably changed by the story "Night of the Stalker," graphic story-telling at its finest. I'd read all the Nancy Drews, had moved on to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. But Batman remained the dark savior of my dreams, the fantasy of wish-fulfillment that somehow connected back to all those lessons from Dr. Seuss.

If there is such a thing as a noir gene, I guess I was born with it. But maybe I've always had one foot in my grandparents' generation and one here, straddling at least two different eras like a time-travelling episode on Star Trek (original show, of course).

Like Batman and Robin Hood and the heroes of old, I wanted to right wrongs, fight injustice. I recognized very early that the world was not a just place--kids do, even those who don't carry the noir gene. I knew there was a price you paid for living. And I wanted to write about it.

So when it came time to write a novel ... after many years of many other things, after trying acting, which is another form of story-telling, and screenplays, and living in Europe, and degrees and all the things you do in life, things that happen to you, things that you seek out, and things that you don't ... I wrote a thriller. A mystery. And will keep writing them for the rest of my life, if I'm lucky.

Because of the power of words, and Dr. Seuss and Batman. And because inside, there's still a child who wants to fix things that go wrong, and make it all right. And because I want something to last, something to give the world, something that will transcend myself.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

Seuss knew.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Swing For the Fences

by Sophie

I have a strong memory of being told by an exasperated parent that I was “too emotional.” It was a liability that turned out to be impossible to shake, but luckily, I only had to invest about four decades in the struggle to figure out that it has one salubrious side effect: a free pass to the heart of genre fiction.

I like stories that make me feel things. I like to have my emotions stimulated and tested, stretched and wrung dry, and since I’m overburdened in that department, it takes truly compelling character work to make a dent on me.

And I like crime fiction because it’s the perfect vehicle for the job.

Lately I’ve been playing around with the idea that the most powerful human emotions are longing and horror, that all other emotions build from there.

Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" - his character's longing fuels all his impulses, criminal and otherwise

Every genre depends on these for emotional tenor. But when you combine them in one story, you intensify the experience by more than a factor of two. Play the attraction off the repulsion and if you do it right, you seize the reader’s attention at the most visceral level.

Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie - played by Casey Affleck in "Gone Baby Gone" - is driven by an emotional cocktail of guilt, longing, despair, revenge...Lehane knows how to stack the deck

One way to look at crime is the buildup of a need to a tipping point. It can be as simple as hunger driving the theft of food, but the more personal you make the need backstory, the more compelling the result.

Revenge crimes are a particular interest of mine. When you deprive a character of something longed for, or take away something held dear, they will be motivated to react to the extent of how strongly-felt the loss is.

Liam Neeson in "Taken" - a man with everything on the line

Said another way, the more you take from a character, without extinguishing his humanity, the more forcefully he will have to react to restore equilibrium.

That’s why we have so many heroes who show up on page one having lost their woman and child, who have nothing less to lose. (Which would be fine, except it’s unoriginal, and that’s a whole other discussion for another day.)

In a call for submissions for an anthology he was editing several years ago, author Craig McDonald wrote:

 “Swing for the fences…Gut-shoot me and/or break my heart, because, tonight, I just want to feel something.”

I’ve had that exhortation taped up above my computer ever since: aspiring crime writers can do far worse for a rallying cry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Not a grown up job

Why do I read crime/mystery/thrillers?

The first part of the answer is: because I read everything. I read crime, mystery, thriller, literary, historical, some sci-fi, the occasional romance, film scripts, and nonfiction. If it’s printed, I read it. Probably some kind of weird compulsion I ought to see someone about.

Reading takes me to different worlds and different lives. I doubt I’ll ever climb Mount Everest, fall in love with a Scottish Highlander, or solve a tricky murder. But because of books I can experience all that while sitting in a hammock sipping lemonade and listening to the surf. I know, it’s a rough life in Hawaii, but I will point out that the hammock broke because the salt air ate through the nylon so you know that it’s not all bliss out here. Yes, we have real problems.

My mother would say that I read mysteries because I have an overblown sense of justice and I expect the world to be fair. As usual: she’d be right. I do. And in mysteries everything happens for a reason, the evil are exposed and, usually, they even get punished for what they did. Who could not want to read that?

Obviously there’s a leap from reading them to writing them.

I could make up a deep psychological reason, but really I write them because they are fun. I get to do all kinds of research and ask questions that normally cause trouble. I just recently watched someone blow a giant pile of lava into gravel, begged an autopsy report off someone, found an expert on chemical weapons, and am going to spend this morning watching “The Olympiad” by Leni Riefenstahl. As a friend said: “It’s not a grown up job.”

I like that.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Two Snap Shots.....

From CJ
Question: Why are you a crime/mystery/thriller writer and reader?

Dedication from WARNING SIGNS:
This book is for Jeff,
lost too early,
but still an inspiration and never forgotten.

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 http://www.cjlyons.net

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Dating Game - Psycho Edition

Gabriella Herkert, Catnapped and Doggone

Who is my favorite villain? Well, picking the perfect psychotic is a tricky thing. If I exclude all the deranged nut jobs I can run into at a family reunion, my short list of favorite crazies drops to three. Choosing between them requires some serious analysis so I resorted to the only technique I know to make the ideal match -- the dating game.

Gabi: Bachelor #1, I’m looking for a smart man with a plan. Is that you?

Bachelor #1: Absolutely. I once convinced four felons to get me close enough to the only man who could identify me so I could eliminate him. They thought it was a drug deal.

Gabi: Nice. Bachelor #2?

Bachelorette #2: Technically, it’s bachelorette. I stole an identity of a woman and passed myself off as an Oxford alum for a couple of years. I played so many moves ahead, I buried my own child in a place that would make the autopsy they did years later completely inconclusive.

Gabi: That is long-term planning. I think that every good date includes a food activity. Bachelor #3, if we go out, what’s on the menu?

Bachelor #3: Quisp and cognac.

Gabi: Bachelor #1, same question.

Bachelor #1: Java from Guatemala. It reminds me of when I was picking coffee beans there.

Gabi: Bachelorette #2, I’m interested in what you said about advanced education. I think you can tell a lot from someone by what they read. What’s your favorite book and why?

Bachelorette #2: Moby Dick. Its major theme is man’s obsession with his own potency. If you extrapolate that to real life, you can take over a man’s mind.

Gabi: What about you Bachelor #1? Is there a book that sums up your approach to the outside world?

Bachelor #1: Machiavelli had it right. Pick your prince and stay in the shadows. From there, rule the kingdom.

Gabi: I’m looking for someone who can be bad but manages to get away with it. Bachelor #3, have you ever been arrested?

Bachelor #3: Never. People with my name are not inconvenienced by the Man.

Gabi: Bachelor #1?

Bachelor #1: I’ve done some time but it was to establish my background for my coup d’ grace a couple of years later.

Gabi: I’m looking for a psychotic with a dark past. Someone that has a hint of tragic hero about him. How did you get to be the person you are Bachelorette #2?

Bachelorette #2: My boyfriend taught me to kill. I was his greatest work.

Gabi: Are you still close?

Bachelorette #2: He was murdered. It was very sad.

Gabi: Well, then, what about you Bachelor #3?

Bachelor #3: I didn’t even know her boyfriend. We were never close.

Gabi: [Laughs] I love a sense of humor in a crazy. I’m still having trouble deciding. You’re all smart, successful lunatics. Okay, one last question for all of you. If you had to choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be?

Bachelor #1: Oblique.

Bachelorette #2: Adaptable.

Bachelor #3: Perfect.

Who could choose from such a group? Not me. I need them all in my life.

Bachelor #1, Kaiser Souze from the Usual Suspects is my favorite film villain. Bachelorette #2, AKA Nicole Wallace, the evil nemesis on Law and Order, Criminal Intent is the quintessential television psycho and Bachelor #3, the oh-so-perfect Windsor Horne Lockwood III, Harlan Coben’s fabulous side-kick in the Myron Bolitar series is my idea of the perfect print pathological. So many lunatics, so little time.


Friday, June 19, 2009

The Greatest Villain Of All Time

My fellow writers have brought forth some mighty unsavory candidates for their favorite criminal mind, but with all due respect I think we're ignoring the elephant in the room. Only in this case the elephant just happens to be a coyote.

Not just any coyote, but Wile E. Coyote, inarguably the greatest villain of all time. Consider the facts:

He wants to eat you. Long before Hannibal Lecter got his first baby teeth, Wile E. Coyote was on a mission to eat his victims. Sure, lately he's become obsessed with only certain prey — but who knows what he's eaten in the past? Unlike some fictional cannibalistic creeps, coyote's taste for raw flesh is hardwired, not cultivated from half-remembered scraps of a horrific childhood, channeled self-loathing or pathological rage. Put him in therapy and you'll discover an unapogetic predator. No whining, just drooling. He's a carnivore, and you're made of meat. Delicious.

More relentless than a Terminator. Sure, you can slow the coyote down, even flatten him like a pancake by dropping an anvil on his head, but he'll just snap back into shape and keep coming. A Terminator — even the T3000 — can be melted into slag or, if you're really clever, reprogrammed to help you instead of kill you. What kind of villain is that? (I heard you could even reprogram a Terminator to run for public office, but I don't believe it — they're too sophisticated to mingle with politicians.) But Wile E. Coyote can survive dynamite, a fall from a ridiculously high cliff, and even withstand dripping sarcasm from a bird who can't talk. Now that's a resilient enemy.

He has unlimited resources. With the ACME corporation behind him, Wile E. Coyote is plugged into a global military industrial complex beyond the wildest dreams of any corrupt dictator. Unlimited access to cutting edge technology such as rocket-powered rollerskates, the giant slingshot, and even a disintegrating ray. State of the art weapons of mass destruction are just an order form away.

He holds a grudge. There are plenty of road runners out there, but our coyote wants the Road Runner. Not all rabbits are as clever as Bugs Bunny, and no doubt coyote has eaten several in the past, but because he lost face, Bugs and Road Runner are his targets. But what if he were after you because of some misunderstanding? Think you could just apologize and get on with your life, think again. For Wile E. Coyote it's always personal, and he will not stop. To belabor the Terminator analogy, he will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

He's more immortal than a vampire. Morning sun comes up while you're still eating, what happens if you're a vampire? Dead. Stake through the heart? Game over. Vampires, zombies, witches and ogres are all lightweights by comparison. Easy to kill once you know how. Coyote has fallen off that cliff at least a hundred times and he still looks better than a zombie on its best day.

Laugh while you can. Sure, the winner gets to write the history books, and we've all seen hundreds of cartoons (rabbit-written propaganda) about the devastating defeats suffered by Wile E. Coyote. He always gets outsmarted. He's too slow. But look in the mirror and ask yourself these questions. Are you really as smart as Bugs Bunny? Can you run faster than the Road Runner?

If the answer to either of those questions is no, I'd say you're already in big trouble.

I humbly submit, my favorite bad guy is . . .

The moment the fat bastard hit the last step, he was scrabbling the cold basement floor like a stepped-on roach, blood sloshing from Gemini’s blitz attack. When the pain finally broke through the shock, he shrieked. Just like the drug maggot did—girly high, a wheeze almost, hairball strangling a cat, not understanding what just happened, yet there it was all over the carpet. The can opener in Gemini’s hand, with its rusty steel head and “Drink Blatz Beer” on the handle, flayed twenty-seven strips off his father, stopping only when mom said don’t kill him, boy, he’ll haunt us like a vampire . . .

Good times remembered.

Now he checked the rearview, saw nothing but rain and bouncing asses. He pinched out a smile. The runaway, who’d introduced herself as “Kandy, with a K,” was a pleasant way to kill the eight-hour drive from Minneapolis to Naperville, the Chicago suburb where they’d drop their load of narcotics and collect their suitcase of dead presidents. Gemini checked his watch. Not bad. Even with the storm they were moving all right—Naperville by six a.m., rich as thieves by seven. “Not bad for a working man,” he murmured. “Not bad at all—”

Another wail erupted from the back.

Gemini sighed. The teenager was more appealing than he’d expected from a hitchhiker. Polo-shirted, blue-jeaned, and knob-kneed. Loose swingy hair, legs up to her armpits, narrow hips, grapefruit boobs. Creamy face with a smile that made corpses pay attention. Exactly the kind of girl Freddie-Boy should have wet himself to own, the picky pervert . . .

“Enough,” Gemini said.

A moment later he heard the distinctive clack of a forearm breaking a windpipe. It wasn’t loud like in the movies. More like a dry stick across a knee.

“Women,” Cancer said, wagging his finger in mock dismay as she thrashed like a gaffed marlin, trying to suck air.

“Can’t live with ’em,” Gemini said.

She turned blue.

Virgo spread her dancer legs. “One for the road?” he asked.

She gurgled.

“Thanks, baby, you’re great too.”

Five minutes later they were done.

So was Kandy, with a K.

His name is Gemini. It’s his gang nickname; his New Orleans birth certificate reads, “Eric Dettmer.” He’s in his late twenties. His hair is electric yellow. He wears it in a skater cut—buzzed on the sides, long on top. His arms are long, his eyes are green, his fingers are twitchy.

He’s a stone killer.

A multiple murderer.

A maimer and shooter, a knifer and beater.

He loves it.

But he keeps me awake at night.

Because he is mine.

I created Gemini. He’s the bad guy in my next book, MOVING TARGET, which appears next summer from my publisher, Kensington Books.

That’s not why I'm writing about him, though. This piece isn’t for self-promotion.

It’s to remind you that for every nightmarish creepazoid you see in a thriller, there's an author who created it.

And has to live with it.

Seven days a week.

Twenty-four hours a day.

In other words, we sleep with killer scum.

We hang out with face rippers.

Child abusers.

Wife beaters

Widow makers.

They live in our waking and invade our dreams, for the year or so it takes us to flesh them fully and wrap them in a hundred thousand words. When they’re ready to bare their teeth, they vomit themselves onto the page, for all the world to see.

Where they’ll live forever, as your terror. And mine.

For, I gave them life.

It’s a crime writer’s lot, creating monsters that go bump in the night.

I truly love it.

But it does have one big downside . . .

I have to live with the spawn of my over-caffeinated mind.

I’m not complaining. I love the way my mind snakes and coils to produce a monster so vile not even his mother could love him.

I can’t love him either. He’s too cold. Too evil. Too inhumane.

But he nonetheless draws me like a moth to a flame.

With any luck, he’ll fascinate you too.

Let me know next summer.


¶ Just finished one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. It’s ONCE WERE COPS by Ken Bruen. Ken hails from Galway, Ireland, and he’s created an Irish cop Michael O’Shay. The cop is a sociopath who walks a knife-edge between sanity and all-out mayhem, and now he’s on the NYPD, part of an two-country exchange program. I was utterly fascinated by O’Shay, and even more by his new NYPD partner, a nasty piece of work named Kebar. In my opinion, this is Ken’s best work yet, and that’s saying a lot.

¶ Got an advance copy of JUGGLERS AT THE BORDER, the new book from Los Angeles writer Robert Fate. If you haven’t checked out his “Baby Shark” series, of which JUGGLERS is the fourth, please do. It’s set in 1950s Texas, and you can practically smell the smoke of the bars and joints in which action takes place. Kristin Van Dijk, the protagonist, is a young female pool shark turned private eye, and she’s as hard-boiled as a twenty-minute egg. I’ve loved Fate’s work from the first book, and you will too.

¶ Coming to ThrillerFest in July? Me, too. Please stop me in the hall and say hello, I’d love to meet you. And please look up the rest of the Criminal Minds gang, many of whom will be there too. (Fun fact: our own CJ Lyons was the director of the very first ThrillerFest in Phoenix, and she did a crackerjack job.) If you haven’t signed up yet, check out the conference at:
www.thrillerfest.com. Then sign up and come have fun.

¶ Finally, to leaven all the homicide and mayhem in this little ditty, I present one of the most inspiring videos I’ve ever watched. It has nothing to do with writing, but rather, spirit. To call this a jump-rope video is to call the Sears Tower a high-rise—it just doesn’t fit the towering reality. These kids are the Kings Firecrackers, and they’re a performance jump-rope team from the Kings Local School District around Cincinnati, Ohio. The team is made up of 4th through 8th graders, and their talent will take your breath away. Here, they’re performing at the U.S. Naval Academy. I wasn’t this good at anything in grade school except eating bologna-and-cheese sandwiches for lunch, were you? Anyway, check them out at:
If anyone knows who’s singing the opening song—a way-jazzy version of the Wizard of Oz—let me know. I want to download it to my iPod.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week.



P.S. Our June contest is still afoot--just post to this blog and you're eligible to win a bunch o' Criminal Minds writers' books PLUS a Barnes & Noble gift certificate. And be sure to start thinking about next week's topic. We'd love to have you back to visit.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Universal Criminal

Hi, I'm Kelli. I'm here to talk about my favorite Criminal Mind ... so come on down! :)
First, let's loosely define a criminal mind as a villain, someone who commits illegal, immoral or amoral (and sometimes downright evil) acts for reasons sometimes understandable and most times not.  Fair enough? Now, let's move a little closer ... not too close! Criminals aren't known for their grooming habits. OK, safe? Let's break this down further. Y' see, in order to figure out if I can even have a "favorite" criminal mind, I want to take a look at some broad categories of criminal.

They are ...

1. The Godfather. We all know (and some of us secretly love) this CM. He's the Don, he's Marlon Brando, he's DeNiro and Pacino. He's Tony Soprano! The Godfather is a CM who commits crimes for reasons that can seem somewhat reasonable. It's the business! You gotta protect the family! If I don't sell it, the neighbors will! That kind of thing. We understand their motives, understand greed, tradition, and family squabbles. They're criminals who make sense, because they're professional, they've got codes, they want to be rich, and we've seen them in a lot of movies.

A subset of this category, though, is The Dictator. The same kind of ruthless, power-hungry, sociopathic ego that drives The Godfather can also drive a politician to crime (think Nixon). The chief difference is that the politicians are never as charismatic, and they do what they do for power more than money. They're much more dangerous than la famiglia. Khan, the greatest Star Trek villain of all time, fits in this category.

2. The Bad Seed. OK, confession time. I played a sort of Bad Seed type character when I was acting in community theater as a teenager. (It was Mary Tilford in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, in case you're a theater buff). Later on, I played the tortured mother who gives birth to the Bad Seed in an actual Bad Seed production. So I've looked at Bad Seeds from both sides now ...

This is the CM that can't be rehabilitated. Whether you go for Maxwell Anderson's Bad Seed pseudo-science--it's all genetic, I tell you, genetic!!--or you opt for nurture over nature, this villain is the pyscho,
the Norman Bates, the all-too-real serial killer we're terrified of. They are mysteries to the hardened Godfathers of the crime world, because their reasons for killing--and other Hannibal Lecter-esque atrocities--are beyond the human ken. In the old days, they'd just be called evil, and that was that.

Brrr ... I don't even like thinking about them.

3. The Damaged. Here's another popular group. Kinda Bad Seed-like, but not so over the borders of behavior that brave (or foolhardy) psychiatrists think they're beyond redemption. Actually, even at 13, I didn't want to play a true Bad Seed, so I used a line in The Children's Hour about Mary's father killing himself to kind of build in the idea that she had been very damaged by the loss.  Unlike Rhoda Penmark (will the real Bad Seed stand up?), Mary didn't kill anybody ... though, to her CM street credit, she drove a teacher to suicide.

These tend to be vigilantes, imposters, kidnappers, etc., who are reenacting the bad stuff that was done to them on the world. Poor world! Best example might be a little known TV movie starring a young Martin Sheen and Linda Blair, called Sweet Hostage. Yeah, I grew up in the '70s, and it scarred me.

4. Last but not least, and (ta da!) my favorite CM: The Universal Criminal. OK, have I gone off the deep end? Wait--don't answer that! You know the universal criminal, because she--or he--is inside all of us.

Ever watch The Postman Always Rings Twice? Ever see or read Double Indemnity? You noir fans know what I'm talking about. The UC is the average Joe or Jane who makes the wrong--make that very, very wrong--decision at a turning point.

Gee, should I call the cops and tell them I wasn't part of that robbery where the cop was killed--that hoodlums stole my truck and threatened my wife? No, I think I'll run away with my pregnant wife in tow, hitchhike across the country, steal a car and crash at her Uncle and Aunt's Czech farm house. (I didn't make that up--it's basically the plot of Desperate (1947).  Gee, should I tell the cops that the man who picked me up hitchhiking just keeled over with a heart attack, or should I steal his identity? (Detour, 1945). Gee, should I cuddle up next to [Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner, etc. etc.] even though she's married/wants me to kill her husband/sent me to prison and ditched me? (try Postman, and Double Indemnity and The Killers, respectively).

Yup, my favorite Criminal Minds are those every day schmoes who get suckered by a femme or homme fatale and make a really stupid decision that usually involves NOT calling the police. Their crime was in succumbing to the temptation we all feel--for money, for love, for desire, for something we're not getting and desperately want. And, to give Hollywood credit, the temptations of both genders were usually very hard to resist. The Universal Criminal ... the Noir Hero/ine ... who, but for the grace of actually dialing the cops--is us.

So, can you think of a criminal mind that doesn't fit in one of these categories? Let me know ... I'd love to hear about it! :) And don't forget ... we're giving away signed books and a $50 Barnes and Noble gift certificate this month!

P.S. Playing Mary Tilford was a lot of fun ... particularly because she gets to slap people. Villainy has its pleasures ...