Monday, November 30, 2009


What's the most embarrassing mistake you made in a book that got caught by a sharp eyed reader?

Grrrr.....don't you just hate it when this happens? I'm especially sensitive to it when it's something medical. Like the opening credits to HOUSE which consistently showed an Xray backwards (the heart is meant to be on the LEFT in most humans!)--although, HOUSE is so filled with outrageous medical bloopers, that I haven't watched it in years, so they may have fixed that by now.

But given that a recent survey revealed that over 1/3 of Americans "learn" about medicine from prime-time dramas like HOUSE and GREY'S ANATOMY, well, let's just say that makes things a bit disheartening for someone like me, a real-life doc who tries her best to get things right in her books while still keeping them as entertaining as possible.

Which isn't easy--medicine changes so darn fast that sometimes what I carefully researched and was correct when I wrote the book has been reversed by the time I get to copyedits. Like for LIFELINES when the American Heart Association changed all of their resuscitation protocols while I was working on the book! I had to wade through 400+ pages of new protocols to make sure my doctors and nurses were doing things right.

Of course, they've since changed....again! Medicine is like that, which is why I try to give writers a break when I see things that are wrong. Except for that whole heart is on the left side thing, sorry House, that hasn't changed and probably won't anytime soon.

What really bothers me isn't when a writer gets a fact wrong, it's when they get an entire profession wrong. Any real world doctor who made as many mistakes as the "Nation's best diagnostician" would have had their license yanked and be in debt from the malpractice and civil suits long ago--in not in jail for assault and battery.

Yet House not only thrives, he is pampered, coddled, and encouraged in his outlandish violations of ethics, scientific thinking (no, throwing every antibiotic in existence at a patient just "in case" they have an infection is not sound science), and logic (yes, let's please have the junior medical staff member be the one to drill into my brain instead of a fully trained neurosurgeon)

Only a great actor like Hugh Laurie could pull it off--and we love him for it! We forgive him for getting things wrong 3 times out of 4 and almost killing his patients time and again with his incompetence. Now that's genius! Acting and writing.

If only it weren't about medicine, then maybe I could sit back and enjoy, lol!  And for your enjoyment, here's a HOUSE blooper reel:

So, what books, TV show, or movie drives you nuts with their "bloopers"?

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, October, 2009. Contact her at

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Star Struck

Gabriella Herkert

Catnapped and Doggone

Do I ever get star-struck? I’d like to pretend that I never, ever lose my cool, but I was a fan, a reader, a rabid devourer of literature long before my first book made it into print. Being in the same room as some of the people whose pictures smile at me from the back covers sitting on my bed stand honestly gives me chills. Naturally, I’m excluding those authors who are already dead. I’d still get chills but they’d be a whole different kind of physiological response and, an entirely new genre.

Harlan Coben was at Bouchercon a couple of years ago. I love his stuff, both the Myron Bolitar series and the stand alones. I particularly like how he’ll take a minor character in one book and give them a starring role in a completely new story or vice versa. So, I got my chance. He was on a panel just ahead of a panel I was doing. The line to talk to him was around the block. I stood. I waited. And waited. He was incredibly generous with his time and, I suppose, his wisdom although I was too far back to hear. I got close enough to tell that he is taller sitting down than I am standing on a box. Then, nature called. Loudly. I could abandon my post and speak on my own panel in relative comfort or I could meet “the man” and ask the embarrassing question that had plagued me since I first read an interview with him years before. What can I say? I’m weak and so is my bladder. I never did get to meet him. He was always surrounded by people and I just couldn’t think of an articulate lead-in to what I really wanted to know. I was dying to know …and missed my chance to find out...if he’d kept in touch with the roommate who’d been the inspiration for Win Lockwood. Him I’d really like to meet. In the end, it was a little too literati eHarmony with witnesses for my comfort level. Too bad since I’ve got a penchant for the true psychos.

Unlike my spineless Coben debacle, I did introduce myself to Janet Evanovich at the MWA Edgar symposium several years ago. She’s the size of my thumb. Very tiny but a ball of energy even from across the room. I felt we were kindred spirits based mostly on the two most obvious things we have in common, smart mouths and red hair. I wanted to ask about her agent, how she’d redefined mystery and broken out of the romance mode. When it came time, however, I asked about her shoes. She was wearing basic white sneakers. I hadn’t seen them while I’d been awaiting my turn and was so shocked to see Stephanie Plum’s alter ego in Keds that I blurted it out. “What’s with the shoes?” Deadpan, she told me she was going bra shopping and wanted to be comfortable while doing it. A smarter, faster brain than mine would have had a comeback or at least been able to process the information. I must admit, I was flummoxed. Yes, flummoxed. Not a state I generally find myself in. I did suggest Nordstroms had a nice selection. She could have been messing with me. Or she could just have been a woman in need of undergarments. The magic that is Janet Evanovich left me never knowing which. Even now, I laugh, thinking about it. I’ve even incorporated it into my own non-sequitor repartee. When asked, by someone who clearly couldn’t care less, what I’m up to I say ‘bra shopping.’ By the time my response is processed, I’m striding away in my comfortable shoes. Hey, I'm living in the Pacific Northwest. Berkenstocks are considered high fashion.

Final confession. I, like every writer trying to get to that moment when writing might actually be enough to provide three square meals a day, am stalking Oprah Winfrey. I don’t write Oprah book club books. Not the ones she used to pick or the more recent crop of non-fiction or classics. I haven’t even read many of the ones that have received the magical nod. But I want people to read what I write. When she says the word, millions hear her. And she’s still reading. In a world where she’s made billions on television, she clearly still fondles the pages of her favorite dog-eared books. Just like her audience. I would love people to read my books or stories but I’d be happy just to say thank you for keeping reading cool. It matters to every author. It matters to every reader. And I am, as always, both.

Thanks for reading today.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Welcome to the family

When I first attended a crime writing conference years ago, a very kind woman pulled me aside and said, "This is your first conference, isn't it?"

Clearly I had the stunned look of someone unused to walking around with a badge around his neck, bumping into authors you'd read for years, and signing books for fans you didn't even know you had. I think I'd gone to the conference with some trepidation about writers, anxious there might be a cloud of literary pretense hovering over the whole affair. I couldn't have been more wrong and have never forgotten this woman's keen observation about the mystery world.

"Crime writers spend their whole day killing people on the page, so they get all their aggressions out. They're lovely, unpretentious people." And then she paused and added, "There are only 3 or 4 jerks, and we all know who they are."

She nailed it, and I had a blast at that conference. Sure, I met some people I admired over the years, and they didn't disappoint. But in the crime fiction arena those in the know realize it isn't about big names or little names, just that we're all in it together, and that's why you go to the conferences. To hang out with the people you love, dear friends whose names you see regularly on the bookshelves but whose faces you see only two or three times a year.

Friday, November 27, 2009


John Sandford. Great guy. Superb novelist. Blows-out-your-eyeballs protags in Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers. Fellow ex-newspaperman, won the Pulitzer even though I ... didn't. Yep, I'd fly anywhere, anytime, to see John at a conference.

But that's it. Just John.

And, Jodi Picault. Maybe her. All right, yes, definitely her. Tremendous stories about seriously messed-up families, which isn't normally my cup of tea, as I prefer thrillers, but the writing's so damn compelling I can't help but read.

But that's it. Nobody else ...

Except Tom Wolfe. Dennis Lehane. Robert B. Parker.

And that really is it.

Cause hell, I've met all the rest at a conference ...

Thursday, November 26, 2009


By Kelli

"What big name author is enough to get me to a conference?"

Well--to echo my fellow CMs--I don't go to conferences to meet big name authors. I go to meet and visit and talk with everyone I can, from pre-published authors to readers to book dealers to librarians to bloggers to editors to journalists to fans ... because, taken as a whole, this entire community--the whole maryann, as my Dad likes to say--is wonderful, and one of the biggest joys in my life.

That said, some of the greatest names in this business belong to some of the truly nicest people--people who epitomize the supportive spirit and overwhelming generosity that characterizes writers who write about crime. And I'd go out of my way to meet many of them--especially if I could get a chance to thank them personally for the inspiration or support they've given me.

Magical, wonderful things happen at conferences ... lifetime friendships form, relationships blossom, creative energies get refilled. My first Bouchercon--Alaska, 2007--will always be very special to me, and the people I met there share a certain bond. In fact, that conference kicked off CITY OF DRAGONS--I came home and started writing. Just one reason why the book is dedicated to that event and the incredible community it represents.

I try my hardest never to miss Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, Left Coast Crime ... and I hope to add Crimebake and Sleuthfest and Crimefest and Malice Domestic to that list eventually.

So yeah, I love conferences ... because I love the people who go to them. :) And for all of them, I'll be saying a very sincere and deeply felt thank you, as we officially celebrate Thanksgiving.

And thank you, loyal CM readers! We've made it to the six month point with our virtual conference panel, and hope to be bringing you more fun and thought-provoking posts in the next year. :)

Take care, everybody!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Love You, Love Your Book

by Sophie

What big name author is enough to get you to a conference?

There are writers I admire for their prose alone. There are writers I didn't take much notice of until I met them, and then I loved them instantly for their kindness and their smarts and their humor, and by the transitive property of my affections, I loved their work as well. There are a handful of writers I admired until I met them and found them boorish or arrogant or, worst of all, mean - and then I wished I'd never met them at all because their work is now dead to me.

If it's on the tip of your tongue to impugn this notion, save your breath. I completely understand that I'm not supposed to judge works of literature based on the nature of the authors who penned them. Too bad. That's the way I work and I'm not going to change. My love of fiction is visceral; if I love a story it bumps and roils in my head through all the days of its reading (and those are likely to be several; I am not a one-sitting reader) and its tendrils reach into everything I do. The story becomes like -

I know: the story becomes like this. You're in grade school and you've stolen a sheet of your mom's good watercolor paper (because your mom was an artist - more on that another time). You also stole a bit of charcoal crayon. Using charcoal on watercolor paper is never a good idea, but you can't resist because of the gorgeous texture of the paper and the allure of getting that sin-black dust all over your fingers. Anyway you take a shot, you draw a horse, it doesn't work (it never works) you erase the whole mess with one of those gummy gray erasers (oh I can get high off the smell of those things just remembering) and then for penance you go ahead and paint some insipid thing in watercolor. A scene of a rocky shore, let's say. But underneath is the shadow of your failed drawing. Its traces show through the paint. No one else sees it, but no matter how many family members dutifully ooh over your little ocean picture, all along *you* know that it's the horse beneath that they are really looking at.

So it is with a story. Back when I was reading the early Lehane series, I would go through my days carpooling and picking out tile and going to the grocery store, and I would appear to be saying all the appropriate things ("Let's go with the darker grout" and "Three McNugget Happy Meals, please") but all the while, Patrick and Angela were right there with me, whispering in my ears and causing a hell of a distraction.

When you live with stories like that, their source - their authorship - becomes very important. At least to me. Its an intimacy that perhaps trumps all others - access to my imagination, most cherished quadrant of my brain for sure. Not just anyone gets to come stomping in there. Enter that realm and turn out to be a jerk - it's the equivalent of tracking mud on my carpets and ashing in the potted plants and calling my dog ugly. And I can't read you any more.

I would rather be deceived. I would rather live in ignorance, believing the best of you, never meeting you at all. But that's not possible, because at heart I'm curious as can be, and I can't ever seem to get out of the bar anyway, so eventually I'll meet every author ever born.

And as I said it's far more common for me to be pleasantly surprised. Like when I met Laura Benedict. there she was, sitting at a table with these patterned tights and tasteful ankle boots and I was completely intrigued because, honestly, what kind of darkness could such a polished woman possibly write? We talked the evening away and I loved her right away and I got home and picked up her book and bam, instant fan. I think it's because of her exquisitely gruesome ordinary-world-meets-unspeakable-horror skills, but it sure doesn't hurt that she's, you know, Laura.

Anyway, I think I wandered a little there. Would I go to a conference just to see a cherished author? No...and I might even avoid them just to keep the magic alive - the magic being the impossible big shoes I have created for them in my mind. Much safer to hang around with all the good souls. I just spent the weekend at this writing thing with some stuck-like-glue friends. I love their books - how could I not? Because I love them.

Cornelia Read at the Berkeley Mystery Writing Intensive last weekend

A certain agent reacting to Cornelia's book - trying to reconcile the author with her work?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Because You Never Know

What big name author is enough to get you to a conference?

By Rebecca Cantrell

I thought I was going to be the first curmudgeon of the week, but CJ beat me to it. She’s right though. I don’t go to conferences hoping to meet big name authors. Not that I’m not thrilled when I do. It was wonderful finding out that Lee Child is as charming as everyone says, the James Rollins is very funny, and when I met R.L. Stine it took all my self control not to go all fan-girl on him.

But the people I spend most of my time with are other writers whom I know and don’t get a chance to see enough of, such as our very own Kelli Stanley and Sophie Littlefield, both of whom are pee-in-the-pants funny. Or wise and funny CJ Lyons. Or the ever charming Tim Maleeny and Shane Gericke. I’ve never met Gabi, but I want to, even if I won’t eat anything she gives me after reading her questions to Lisa Black, whom I also met in Indianapolis.

And then there are the wonderful wild cards. This year I finally got to meet Jen Forbus. I didn’t spend as much time with her as I would have liked because I got cornered by a guy who wanted to talk about Prague in 1589, which was likewise fascinating.

I also met a former world champion fencer and writer, Mitchell Graham, who actually met Helene Mayer (she won the silver medal for Germany in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was the only Jewish athlete competing on the German team). She shows up in my next novel, A GAME OF LIES, as do references to fencing that are now much more accurate.

I once sat next to a very shy woman at a technical translation conference who turned out to have written her PhD thesis on Weimar Germany and had translated novels and autobiographies from some its major players. This was a few months after I decided to set my book in 1931 (the end of Weimar-era Germany).

You could never get away with this in a movie, as the coincidences are just too great. But for me, conferences are always like that. I just happen to stand next to someone who has the most amazing story to tell. It’s not always a big name, although it sometimes is (I don’t think I can ever look in Joseph Finder’s freezer without cracking a smile). Sometimes it’s another early career writer like me, or a writer who isn’t yet published, or a reader, a historian.

It’s not the big names that get me to a conference, it’s everyone.

No such thing as a "small" name....

What big name author is enough to get you to a conference?

Honestly? No one. Okay, before you throw tomatoes at me, there are a number of reasons.

#1 Big names at big conferences draw big crowds--what are the odds of getting any "quality" time with them if you don't already know them?

#2 As a professional writer, I'm at conferences to connect with readers of my work, both old and new. So I choose my conferences based on the kind of audience they draw.  I'm more interested in which fans will be there than which "big" names.

#3 Conferences cost money (usually more than it would for me to travel abroad for a week! but then I'm a frugal traveler) and time, neither of which I have a whole lot of right now.

So that's the reality. But here's another reality--relax and let good things happen.

That's how I met the wonderful David Morrell at my first Bouchercon in Toronto. I said hello and told him I lived in Scotia, PA where he set several short stories, precursors to his First Blood novel.

We chatted and he personally escorted me to the very first International Thriller Writers meeting--where I then met tons of my other "gods" and "goddesses". It was at that same Bouchercon where I also met two of my all time thriller heroines: Lisa Gardner and Tess Gerritsen.

This led my becoming the Chair of the first ThrillerFest (a job Shane has this year for TFest #5) which led to my meeting Sandra Brown, Clive Cussler, Lee Child, and many, many more life-long heroes of mine.

Most important weren't the "big" names I had the chance to meet, but the many wonderful not-so-big-yet names who have now become my closest and dearest friends--some published, some unpublished, some writers, some readers, and all more valuable than any chance to shake hands with a "big" name in a bigger crowd.

So my advice? If you're a fan, then by all means go to conferences--we writers love, love, love meeting our readers!!!

If you're a writer and looking for networking opportunities, then get involved!

And for both, volunteer! You never know who you'll be teamed up with--you may end up driving Robert Crais from the airport or escorting Nora Roberts to a signing....

So who is your dream-come-true "big" name to meet?

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, October, 2009. Contact her at

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone
If I were to write non-fiction book, what topic would I choose? I’m going with the idea that all the mayhem I have so far committed on paper, are assumed to be mere figments of my imagination. Generous assumption of my innocence aside, I’d love to write non-fiction if for no other reason people would start to believe what I say.

I would really like to be the author of a mandatory textbook used by all first year law students. I’d call it Remember Nobody Dies. The practice of law, while painful, metaphorically bloody and downright invasive isn’t usually fatal. Self-important lawyers tend to forget this fact and leave the profession with nothing but ulcers to show for three years of education and tens of thousands of dollars of student loans. Now my motives aren’t pure the driven snow. (I know it shocks and dismays many of you that I would admit to being less than pristine about anything but just go with me on this.) T extbooks are the biggest selling, best income-producing segment of books sold in this country. Every year there’s an updated version and when you multiply the number of wannabe legal beagles by the number of revisions I’d get to be one of those lucky writers earning a living. At which point, I’d need to hire contract lawyers and intellectual property lawyers and tax lawyers. It’s a circle of life thing.

If I were to go the true crime route, I would love to pen the tale of the Greenhalghs. Have you heard of this them? Talk about your family business. Recently, Shaun Greenhalgh was arrested in Great Britain after almost twenty years spent forging works of art. He, along with his brother, parents, grandfather and great-grandfather are the alleged masterminds behind the production, provenance and sale of works of art ranging from pastels to sculptures to bas-reliefs. Production. As in they made the things themselves. I don’t know about you but I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, have two left feet and draw like a kindergartner with no talent. They made them at home. Then, they sold them to collectors, dealers, museums. Frequently, they were asked to authenticate the very pieces they made. I say put them on that British talent show. I’d bet they’d win. Even if they didn’t, even if they are found guilty, do we really want to put some senior citizen Picassos behind bars? My working title, Garden House Gang, is the headline nickname given to the entrepreneurial family tree.

Or I could go with the self-help section. Anyone who’s ever met me has suggested that I need to spend a little more time in this part of the bookstore although I sense the suggestion is aimed more at me as a reader than as an author. I should go with something deeply psychological and spiritual but I’d probably end up with Bad Hair Days Aren’t for Everyone -- Just You. I’d do a chapter on hat hair, one on becoming an accidental dye goth and another on the unique hornlike directional challenges of going grey. My sage advice -- as an expert worthy of non-fiction publication – is accessorize your coiffure with a matching attitude and no sane person will mess with you. Under my non-fiction tutelage, you will never again be greeted with ‘what the hell happened to your hair?’ We’re talking a life changer here. Talk show circuit, DVDs, maybe even a group exercise workbook.

Maybe telling the truth is in my future. Maybe it’s in my past. Maybe it won’t be that easy to tell the difference. Maybe you’ll have to keep reading to figure it out.


Friday, November 20, 2009


Ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico was murdered by serial killer Brian Dugan in 1983. Last week, a Chicago area jury sentenced him to death by lethal injection.

By Shane Gericke

If I were a tree, what kind of tree would I be . . .

Ah. Right. I should get onto The Topic. Which is, "If I wrote nonfiction, what kind of nonfiction would I write?"

Nonfiction. Right. Um, let's see ...

Well, it's a good question. I was a newspaperman for twenty five years, primarily at the Chicago Sun-Times, before I drank the Kool-Aid that is thriller writing. (What color would that be, wild cherry?) I was good at journalism and I liked it a lot, with its hustle and drama and show-tune-singing crazy people. (And that was just the reporters.) So yes, this is a darn good question, what would I write if not fiction, I’m sure glad we decided to pose it . . .

Hmm. Have I tap-danced long enough to figure out an answer? No? All righty then: I wish the Apple MacBook I'm writing this on came with a real delete key, not just a backspace button labeled "delete." It's a pain in the ass not having a real delete that kills letters in front of the cursor, not just behind it . . .

Sigh. Even I'm getting annoyed with myself for not getting to the point. Which is, what would I write if I were limited to nonfiction?

Easy: I'd write about serial killers.

Precisely like the one I'm going to write about today, in fact. His name is Brian Dugan. He killed the young lady in the photo at the top of this blog, strangled her after kidnapping her from her house, raping her, and beating her. She was found a few days later, by herself, on a lonely walking trail just a few miles from her two-story home in unincorporated Naperville, Illinois—the city I’ve lived in most of my adult life. The young lady’s name is Jeanine Nicarico. She was 10 when she died in 1983, with brown hair, break-your-heart eyes, and a love of horses and reading . . .

But I can’t tell you about it now, because I promised to write about nonfiction. I’ll get back to Dugan, I promise. Now, what would I write if it wasn’t serial killer and limited to nonfiction …

I’d blind you with science.

No, not that that icky high-school stuff with equations and titrations and endless filmstrips about Our Natural World Around Us. I want to write about


Capitalized with exclamation marks, please. The swashbuckling derring-do that hunts terrorists, smashes infectious disease, unearths water on the moon and life on other planets, even if those planets aren't Pluto, which was recently downgraded to, uh, other than a planet, the bastards. I'd write about explorers and poison hemlock, the Science!!! That fires imagination every bit as much as thriller novels.

Like the kind James Rollins writes.

Jim writes adventure fiction based in science. (Think: Indiana Jones, archeologist, scholar and treasure hunter.) He took us to the dark heart of the Amazon forest in AMAZONIA. He dug out an arctic ice station full of macabre WWII secrets in ICE HUNT. He tackled bioengineering and the Oracle of the Delphi in THE LAST ORACLE, and introduced us to a real Russian lake, Lake Karachay, which is so saturated with Cold War radiation it’s considered the single deadliest place on the planet.

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about, Bucky: Science!!! Life with a felt hat and bullwhip. But me, I'd write the real stories behind them. In high school I entertained serious notion of becoming a virus hunter, chasing those tiny microbes that made people bleed from all their openings—ebola, anthrax, plague. But I stunk in math, and you had to be a mathematician to be a scientist, even a Lantern-Jawed Germ Warrior. Fortunately for me, writing was a compelling second choice, so I became a newspaper reporter and editor, then a Writer of Crime Fiction, Available In Fine Bookstores Everywhere.

But still, now and again, I itch to dive into the natural artesian well at Pilcher Park in Joliet, Illinois. I heard some magical stories about the well growing up, like if you jumped inside you'd plunge into a rushing underground river that dumped out in China, or at least Detroit. It fascinated me so much I told my father we should jump in together, swim the river and map and photograph so we’d know exactly where it came from and how it worked.

But Dad just smiled and said:

“Some things should remain mysteries, I think. If you know it works, it doesn’t enchant you any more."

Well said, and true. Still, I'd rather take apart a freezer then wonder if gerbils really did run on treadmills to provide the electricity. (They don't, and I can prove it. I took apart the family freezer one lazy afternoon, with a screwdriver and Crescent wrench. I was still at it when Dad got home from work. He didn't yell as I'd expected, seeing those flanges and screws and metal panels strewn across the floor. He liked that I was curious about innards. We did put it back together right away, though. Spoil the Easter ham and all.)

Another time I took apart a vacuum cleaner. I had the whole thing in pieces, nozzle to exhaust, but couldn’t get into the housing protecting the motor. No screws, access panel or seam. A hammer took care of that, though, bang crash. The noise brought Mom running, and when she spied my mess, she asked, Where’d you get that vacuum? It’s from school, I said. A teacher knew I love taking things apart, and said I could have her broken-down old canister vac, cause she was throwing it out anyway. Mom said all right, went back to her ironing.

How were we to know what I’d just whammo’d my grade school’s brand spanking new commercial upright vacuum? And did I mention, brand-new and expensive? (Our district was rural and poor, so this was a Really Big Deal purchase by the school board.

Well, that’s when the principal drove up. He saw the mess I was pounding out and shrieked. Maybe it was a whimper. Either way, he put his head in both hands and rocked.

I’d taken home the wrong vacuum, he told Mom. The janitor had put the expensive new upright in one corner of the building. Meantime, the teacher had put her shot-to-hell canister in another corner … one the same exact day. What are the odds, right? She said to grab the vacuum and haul it home, do what I wanted with it. So, I did …

They didn't make my parents pay, which is good. Dad was a small-town police and Mom a homemaker, and together they made so little money every dime went into mortgage and food. But they wanted to do the right thing, and offered the principal five dollars a week till the thing got paid off in, oh, 2037.

But the school board said, aw, hell, shit happens, we'll charge it off to insurance. (These days, they’d file suit, call SWAT, and send me to an alternative school. But that’s a different story.) It probably didn’t hurt that the principal saw the humor in the whole thing.

So now it’s time for the second part of today’s story …


Brian Dugan didn't say kee-an-tee. But he should have--he killed so many people you'd think he was the embodiment of Hannibal Lecter, the Frankenstein of American serial killdom.

Mostly, he looked like a librarian.

That's not a slam against librarians. As the saying goes, some of my best friends are librarians. But librarians just look so ... regular.

As did Brian Dugan, killer of children.

I sat in a courtroom the other day to hear the defense argue that Dugan should live out his life in prison, as opposed to being injected with heart, lung and nerve poison in the close quarters of Death Row. I took notes as the day wore on, and here’s my report:

Dugan was quiet and bookish, and extraordinary in his ordinariness: gray shirt, dark slacks, glasses, and brown hair with a graying wing over each ear. The hair was carefully slicked back, a la Mike Ditka in his glory years with the Bears. The glasses were not round but round-ish, and reflected the overhead lights of DuPage County Courtroom 4000, where the death penalty hearings were being held. His lawyers wore expensive suits and nicely polished shoes. So did the prosecutors. The reporters looked scruffy, as reporters do. The jury wore denim, fuzzy pink sweaters, and Dockers with pleats.

The spacious courtroom contained four guards: two in front with Dugan, one in the gallery with us, and one outside the door, looking over visitors as they arrived. They were sheriff's deputies, armed to the hilt, and forearms the size of Popeye's. Circuit Court Judge George Bakalis presided, leaning Larry King-like over his elevated judge's desk. Pat Nicarico, Jeanine's mom, wore a dark turtleneck under a jacket, muted checked slacks, short heels without backs, and expertly applied makeup. Tom Nicarico, Jeanine's dad, had on brown pants and a green checked sportcoat. He had no makeup. Tom and Pat attended every single trial and hearing in the twenty-five-year-old case, and today's was no exception--if it involved their daughter, they were there. When the verdict was announced, they cried. They said it was tears of joy.

The only one-one-one moment I had with Dugan was when I entered the room. He'd noticed the movement, and we locked eyes. Predators try to stare you down to establish they’re the king of that particular jungle. I stared back. Eventually he made an expression of slight amusement, and turned away, diving into the paperwork his defense lawyers had in abundance. The judge came in, we all rose and sat, the lawyers did The Legal Dance without shouting, objections or hurling objects. ("Thrilling courtroom drama” is found only in novels.) Then the bailiff turned down the lights, and Dugan watched himself explain himself on the DVD his psychiatrist played for the jury, to explain what it was like Growing Up Brian.

I sat in the gallery with Tom and Pat, whom I know, if not well, than more than in passing. I raise funds for the Jeanine Nicarico Memorial Literacy Foundation, and they went out of their way to say thanks when they found out. It's a lovely thing, that foundation: When Jeanine died they and the Naperville school district thought it would be nice to have a foundation in her name, to remember her for the reading she adored, not for the Brian Dugan Freak Show. I raised money for it when I published my debut thriller, BLOWN AWAY, in 2006, and will do so again when my next book, TORN APART, comes out next July.

Brian James Dugan, killer of children.

Dugan sat in a hardback chair in the front of the courtroom, conferring with his lawyers and forensic psychiatrist while watched by the Popeyes. I studied him as the DVD got under way, and saw he had a roundish face, lightly tanned, as if he saw the sun a lot, which he didn't, being in maximum security,. His hair was thin in front, showing lots of forehead. The hair was squared off in the back, the length a shade longer than Regular Guy. His lips were thin, and he smiled subtly, as if laughing at some private joke.

Perhaps he was. The psychiatrist with the DVD was arguing that Dugan is a stone-cold psychopath with the brain scans to prove it, and that's why the jury should vote prison instead of death: his brain was damaged from childhood abuse by Mummy and Daddy, and he therefore is missing brain cells for Empathy, Sympathy and Caring. Lenience is deserved, the psychiatrist argued, it's not Brian's fault that he raped and beat and strangled Jeanine Nicarico, 10, brown hair, doe eyes, on a deserted hiking trail after kidnapping her from the family home; raped and drowned Melissa Ackerman, 7, after snatching her off her bicycle and trying and failing to grab up her equally young playmate; kidnapped, raped and drowned Donna Schnorr, 27, in a quarry after running her car off the road; kidnapped and raped another woman, 21; tried for force yet another a woman, 19, into his car, though she escaped; forced a girl, 16, into his car after threatening her with a tire iron, wrapped a belt around her neck, raped her, then inexplicably took her home; attacked and snapped the arm of a woman, 20; and is suspected of four other unsolved murders. The psychiatrist made his lenience argument with a straight face.

Hell, I'd laugh too, I was Brian.

Fortunately, the jury wasn’t buying it, and voted unanimously for The Needle. I'm glad. I shouldn’t be, as I believe capital punishment should be stricken from The American Experience. Not because it's immoral; some people simply need to die, nothing immoral about that. It should be stricken because politicians put election spins on everything they touch, particularly death penalty law, which leads to such aonishments as blacks composing 17% of the American population and 90% of Death Row; the State of Illinois exonerating more than half its Death Row prisoners on grounds of actual innocence; and the Republic of Texas almost certainly having executed an innocent man. But I freely admit I’m happy Dugan’s going to die, and yes it’s hypocritical; sue me.

This isn't a death penalty debate, though, it's about Brian Dugan and his doomed victims. So, I wouldn't have minded if the jury had voted life without parole, because then maybe Dugan would get what he really deserves: general population. In maximum-security prisons, even the hardest convicts despise those who do children. Dugan would be raped until he died, then have sharpened toothbrushes jammed into all his orifices. Surely that would represent justice for a man who raped and killed so many innocents.

Which makes me think about the lethal injection system Dugan will experience when his appeals run out, the chemicals and pumps and gurneys and straps, and how Dugan's body will slowly turn to Malt-O-Meal in the grave, which reminds me of the microbes I wanted to hunt as a kid, and of the freezer and the vacuum cleaner I took apart, and that if I didn't love writing crime fiction so much, I'd latch onto science like a starving man craves a hamburger.

But I dig my fictional cops and killers and psychos and feebs. I love the magic that happens when I spin them rich lives out of whole cloth, infuse them with the flesh and blood and brains and hearts and motivations of real people.

Maybe I should combine them, my serial killers and my science. After all, Dugan is a Certified Serial Killer with a Brain Without Pity, and he's going to die from chemistry. Maybe we could sit in a room, he and I, discuss death and physics till we're so exhausted we can't say another word . . .

Nah. The "sit in a room" part is the deal-breaker. I'd be throwing up so much I'd never take the notes I'd need to write the book. So, Brian Dugan will have to remain a mystery to me.

Meaning my father was right, after all.

Some mysteries don't need to be explored.


Shane's take: The world's largest bookseller has adopted a “poison pill” self-defense plan after an investment firm upped its stake to 16.8 percent. Swallowing poison was a common tactic in the mergers-and-acquisitions craze of the Reagan years, in order to stop corporate raiders like Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens from taking control through stock purchases, then breaking the company into itty-bitty pieces ready for fire sale. Thus, adopting this “shareholder rights plan," as BN euphemistically calls it, practically guarantees the bookseller will remain in current, friendly, hands. I was a business editor at the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1980s, and watched all sorts of rape and plunderage of well-regarded but vastly unprotected corporations by these raiders. Here's the details from Publishers Weekly reporter Jim Milliot:

A few days after it was revealed that investor Ron Burkle’s investment firm, Yucaipa Companies, had upped its stake in Barnes & Noble to 16.8%, the nation’s largest bookseller adopted a shareholder rights plan that will make it extremely difficult for any outsider to get control of the retailer. Under the plan, which B&N said was approved “in response to the recent rapid accumulation of a significant portion” of B&N stock, shareholders will receive rights to purchase shares of a new series of preferred stock in certain circumstances.

The rights plan will kick in if “a person or group,” without board approval, acquires 20 % or more of B&N’s stock or announces a tender offer that would give that party at least a 20% stake. The plan will also go into effect if a person or group already owning 20% or more of B&N stock acquires additional shares without board approval. The rights plan gives existing shareholders--except the person triggering the rights--to acquire B&N common stock at a 50% discount. The rights plan, B&N said, “is intended to protect the Company and its stockholders from efforts to obtain control of the Company that are inconsistent with the best interests of the Company and its stockholders.” It added that “consistent with Barnes & Noble's commitment to good corporate governance, the rights will expire in three years and the Company intends to submit the Rights Plan for stockholder ratification within 12 months.”

When Burkle made his SEC filing disclosing his new B&N holdings, he said he was “concerned with the adequacy and enforcement of the company’s corporate governance policies,” particularly as it pertained to the company’s purchase of B&N College Booksellers. In the filing, Burkle said his group intended to monitor B&N and communicate its views to the board as well as to potential strategic or financial partners. In approving the rights plan, Burkle received a clear message from the company whose largest shareholder remains founder Len Riggio.

National bestselling thrillerist--Like that? I made it up!--Shane Gericke writes the Emily Thompson/Marty Benedetti crime series, which brings serial killers to Shane's hometown of Naperville, Illinois, to cross swords with Emily, a Naperville Police detective. His debut, BLOWN AWAY, was RT Book Review's Debut Mystery of the Year back in '06, and has been translated into Slavic, Turkish, Chinese, and German. CUT TO THE BONE, his followup, won no awards but has picked up a German translation deal, which is very cool. The third in the series, TORN APART, will hit the shelves July 6, 2010, just in time for ThrillerFest V, the New York-based literary festival of which Shane is the proud chairman.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Rock

By Kelli

If you were to write a non-fiction book, what would your topic be?

Like Sophie, CJ and Becky, I've done some hard time. You know, on the Rock. Not Alcatraz ... sorry, I may wear a fedora, but I'm not that old. No, The Rock is also known as the Island of Misfit Writers (with apologies to Rankin/Bass and Rudolph).

Y'see, we've got these monsters--er, creative energies--that live inside of us, and they just gotta come out. So we find ways ... from Sophie's fabric chickens and Oliver Wendell Holmes (hey--was he ever attacked by a fabric chicken? Did he ever defend a fabric chicken?) to Becky's tech writing, to CJ's medical reports. We spin out a word there, trot out a turn of phrase there, put a flourish on a song or tinker on the piano. 'Cause it's damn hard to squeeze in creativity when you're trying to squeeze out a living ... so you takes what you can get.

Me, I started out as a Drama major, and fully planned to do something creative with my life. Life left that career behind, and at one time about the only creative thing I was doing was writing sonnets and playing the harmonica. Not at the same time, though.

Eventually I wound up in solitary confinement on The Rock. A place called The Academy, where creativity can be a very dangerous occupation. Fortunately, I had some understanding people around me, and I got a chance to tinker with translations of ancient poetry ... won a couple of awards, and that helped give me enough confidence to think maybe I could write a novel. Did that in graduate school, and that's how NOX DORMIENDA was hatched. In between I studied a lot of history and what's called historiography, which is basically the history of history. I don't know what the history of historiography is called, but I'm sure there's a word for it ... there always is.

Anyway, I was published in a scholarly way before NOX. Not just my MA thesis, though that's part of the record, and if anyone is curious about the Orphic symbolism behind the character of Pentheus in Euripides' Bacchae, I'm sure it's not checked out. No, I was published in journals, too ... my most noteworthy article was about Wonder Woman and classical mythology. I turned down two other opportunities for such-type publication, 'cause I was working on this crazy idea for a novel.

Y' see, I discovered--after seven long years in solitary at the Rock's Academy--that history IS about fiction. History is opinion, history is a story, history is narrative, and no historian I have ever read--even the best, and I've been privileged to know a few personally--is entirely without bias. The old saw that history is written by the winners? Very true. One reason so little literature remains of female poets from ancient Greece ... but I digress.

So even when I was still on The Rock--still finishing up my degree--I didn't want to write history. History is Kurosawa's Rashomon -- a splintering of subjectivity that takes more ego and less sensitivity than any poor wannabe thriller writer could muster.

I wanted to write stories IN history ... to make history a part of our every day life, to make it personal and meaningful and human. As a scholar, I was also interested in cultural analysis, in interpreting why we do the crazy things we do. One of the publishing opportunities I turned away was based on a conference presentation I gave at the University of Melbourne that was founded on a simple (and geeky) question: Why was pop culture in the 70s so obsessed with the occult? Why couldn't superheroes escape the "Night Gallery" treatment?

[Slight explanation due: you'll notice comic books and superheroes are a common theme here. I've always been a comic book fan, used to own a shop, and am a pop culture fanatic ... in fact, I think popular culture is the surest way to understand any culture (including classical ones).]

So. To make a long and rambling story a little shorter: IF I were to write a non-fiction book, it would be a cultural analysis type thing. Probably about comic books and odd little cultural trends that puzzle me (my presentation ultimately covered American society's swing between science and occult from the 30s to the present).

That, and a guide to urban living I call Always Wait for the Second Bus.

But really ... all I wanna do is tell stories, and now that I've managed to swim off the Rock, I'm clutching my life preserver, and don't plan to ever let go.

Say, is that a fabric chicken floating by? ;)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I Prefer Lyin', Thanks

by Sophie

If you were to write a non-fiction book, what would your topic be?

Well here's the thing - I already wrote a non-fiction book. Actually, come to think of it, I wrote two! Only one was published, though, because right around the time the second one was wrapped up and ready to submit, I went a little nuts and wrote A BAD DAY FOR SORRY and I haven't looked back.

Remember I was telling y'all about my Dad a while back? Well, back in the bad old dot-com era, things were kind of grim around here. We went from being paper millionaires to paupers overnight, like so many folks. I was a merry housewife at the time, but as I cast about for ways to make a little extra scratch (I have promised Dan that I will tell him the worst job I ever had over a beer at Bouchercon next year; it happened during this little interlude in our lives and I swear you will never, ever guess what it was), my Dad had a great idea - that we could collaborate on a book. And so, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr: The Supreme Court and American Legal Thought was born. I think I made $1500 and, for a matter of a few months, knew all there was to know about that Supreme Court bad boy.

Then I promptly forgot every bit of it.

The other book I wrote was on quilting. I created all my own patterns and sewed in the evenings. You would be astonished to know the depth of my quilt knowledge; I bet there's not a single technique I haven't tried or written about or researched - no notion I haven't owned - no fabric I haven't put into service, no fiber or embellishment or batting I haven't experimented with. I made wedding gowns and drapes and baby clothes too, but my quilt madness reached such heights that I started filling notebooks with my designs and notes.

But...the other day I went to fix a hole in Junior's jeans, and I'd forgotten how to thread my machine.

The point here is that I'm a fiction writer now, in the blood, and nothing else will ever hold my interest the same way. I think the stories in my head have shoved all the actual fact-type knowledge into a far corner, where it's piled up carelessly and I can't reach it. There will be no further non-fiction books from me. I tell people I'll turn back to quilting one of these days when I get a spare moment, but the truth is that I probably won't - I'll just keep writing stories. In fact, I finished a book the other day and since then I've written nothing but emails and blog posts and workshop proposals, and if I don't get to start lyin' and carrying on soon I believe I'll just about lose my sanity.

Speaking of a loss of sanity...yes, I really did once sew these fabric chickens