Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ask, Please!

Hey there criminal blog readers,

It's time for us to generate the next round of questions for our virtual panel, and this time, we'd like to take our cue from the audience to address questions you'd like to hear answers to.

Are you a reader who wants to know more about our characters? An aspiring author who wants to learn about process? A published author interested in the opinions of colleagues?

Be wild and crazy. Make it easy or tough on us - your choice. But tell us:

What would you like our panelists to answer in the weeks to come?

Leave your devilish questions here for our weekly panel to tackle, then come back to add your own answers, comment, or throw virtual tomatoes at us for our responses over the next few months!

Friday, March 28, 2014


Who would be your dream mash-up? (For instance, Sherlock Holmes thrown together with Stephanie Plum.)

By Paul D. Marks

(I think I understood this week's question a little differently. I thought mashing it up was teaming two detectives together, rather than merging them into one. So, on that basis, here goes.)

In this corner we have Kathy Mallory, Carol O'Connell's tough as her long, red fingernails, NYC police detective. And in this corner, we have Mickey Spillane's violent and brutal PI Mike Hammer. What a team.

If you're a bad guy you better watch out if these two are coming at you.

Hammer has frequently been labeled a psychopath and Mallory has been called a her own author, Ms. O'Connell. These two would be the solve it or kill 'em Dream Team. And any bad guy's worst nightmare as they tag-teamed them into submission.

Not only would Mallory and Hammer hammer on the bad guys, they would probably hammer on each other. And given each one's characteristics, I'm not sure who would come out on top.

Mike Hammer and Kathy Mallory – old school, brutal misanthrope vs. cold analytical not-give-a-damn-and-want-to-do-things-her-way-or-the-highway NYPD detective. Hammer is reminiscent of Dirty Harry (or vice versa as Hammer came first). Of course, now that I think about it so is Mallory. Mallory is sort of like a cat going after a mouse. She is beautiful to look at but cold and ruthless, without any remorse. Efficient and cool in pursuing her prey. She's relentless, a computer expert, who digs in deep and finds things no one else finds, sees things no one else sees, robotic in her efficiency. Somewhat emotionless, though one gets the idea that there are emotions she won't always admit to going on under the surface.

And Hammer makes Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and most other classic detectives look like kids playing cops and robbers in a playpen. For Hammer, the law is just an obstacle standing in the way of justice – or at least justice as he sees it – and one that can be gotten around by pretty much any means necessary. The end justifies the means. He has his own code and he will enforce that code, since the actual statutes and codes often let the badguys off. He doesn't give a damn about little things like laws, Miranda Warnings and other niceties. All in all you might say – and this is being kind and gentle – that Hammer is a thuggish, sexist, sadist, misanthrope. But probably a fun guy to have a beer with...

If Raymond Chandler thought of Marlowe and other detectives as modern knights errant, Spillane's Hammer is the tarnished knight, maybe the Black Knight, but he's no Darth Vader. He hasn't gone over to the dark side – he just uses dark side methods to help those who can't help themselves or who society is slow to help, if at all, find some semblance of justice.

Some readers have asked for a kinder, gentler Mallory. And the badguys would certainly like that. But O'Connell states in a Publishers Weekly interview: "PW: "Mallory’s drive remains as intense as ever, and she’s still lacking in warmth." Carol O'Connell: "Sometimes readers ask for a kinder, gentler Mallory. I explain that if I do that, I’ve got no book. These are character-driven novels, and I like the way the lady drives. In that respect, she has a vehicular-homicide way about her: always a challenge to go through a red light before it can turn green. I suppose I could try to warm up her image by giving her a dog, but the dog would be frightened all the time."

And if the question of a kinder, gentler Hammer was ever posed to Mickey Spillane I'm sure he would have thrown his drink in the questioner's face and laughed him out of the bar.

Some men, the good, the bad or the ugly, would be intimidated by Mallory. I don't think Hammer would. On the other hand, I don't think she would be intimidated by him. Wonder if they'd even find a little romance, if Hammer could tear himself away from Velda and Mallory could act human for a change.

The question I'm left with is would Mallory and Hammer beat the bad guy to a pulp or each other? Now that's a mash-up.

And I'd like to congratulate Catriona for winning The Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award for Best historical mystery novel at Left Coast Crime last weekend for "Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses." She gave a terrific and very moving and touching acceptance speech.


Had a great time at Left Coast Crime last weekend. The conference was fun and interesting. Met lots of new people and reconnected with old acquaintances. And Monterey and the drive up and back is nothing short of stunning.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A mash made in heaven

Jane Tennison squinted past the smoke from her seventh cigarette since the start of the shift and took a long look at what stood before her: the golf tan almost orange against the pale pink polo shirt, the white loafers peeking out below khaki chinos, the manicured hand held out in greeting.

"Who the hell are you?" she said.

"Windsor Horne Lockwood III," said the stranger. "They call me Win. Who are you, cutie?"

                                                         (in my head, WHLIII = DHP)

Tennison blew two plumes out of her nostrils and ground the stub out in a brimming ashtray.

"They don't call me 'cutie'," she said. "Not twice anyway."

"Ma'am?" said Win.

Tennison narrowed her eyes.

"Not ... sir?" he asked. "Surely."

she shook her head very slowly, just once to one side and once to the other.

"Kitten?" said Win. "Cupcake? Sweetcheeks?"

Her lips twitched before she answered.

"Guv," she said. "Call me Guv to my face. Whatever you want behind my back. And for God's sake change your clothes before someone sees you."

"What's wrong with my clothes?" said Win, trying not to let an eyebrow lift as he surveyed her ill-fitting grey skirt, her sweat-ringed blouse and the scuffed shoes she had kicked off. Her toenails, with their chipped polish, had made holes in her tights.

"This is a nick," said Tennison. "Not a bloody country club. Now shut your mouth before your whitened teeth blind us all. We've got work to do."

In Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series, we're told that Win - the sociopathic philandering sidekick - sometimes helps out international law enforcement. I love to think of him arriving at Southampton Row Police Station in London and joining forces with Det. Supt. Tennison to crack a case. He's indefensibly awful but charming with it and I imagine that as soon as he clapped his cold eyes on Jane, he'd set out to seduce her. He'd fail; she'd eat him for breakfast with extra ketchup but he'd never forget her.

Monday, March 24, 2014

On Mash-Ups, Zombies, and Unlikeable Protagonists

It's a treat to help launch a debut author and I'm happy to introduce Lisa Alber as a guest. Lisa describes herself as "ever distractible, staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with my friends." She's interested, in no special order, in Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging (whew) and she's hard at work on the second novel in the County Clare mystery series.

Thank you for letting me take over your spot today, Susan! I’m an excitable debut author, but I’ll attempt to keep it sane … except that when I found out this week’s topic was mash-ups, my brain began sizzling like hot oil on a fry pan.

Which is to say, I love a good mash-up. I’m thinking movie mash-ups at the moment, and if a movie’s got zombies in it, all the better. Zombie romance in “Warm Bodies,” zombie 1950s domestic drama in “Fido,” zombies and Elvis Presley in “Bubba Ho-tep.” And let’s not forget zombie comedies a la “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.”

(If you have a thing for Elvis and Bruce Campbell like I do, you gotta see “Bubba Ho-tep.”  Bruce does a perfect Elvis—heeelarious.)

Being a book geek, I can’t help but ponder what a mystery + zombie mash-up would look like. A zombie detective, perhaps, who’s hard-pressed not to gorge on his suspects? Someone’s going to come up with a zombie mystery series, you just know it. And we’ll shake our heads as that author rakes in millions.

Recently, I was asked to mash-up familiar characters to describe the protagonist in Kilmoon, my debut novel. I had a helluva time coming up with an answer because Merrit, so I’ve learned, isn’t what you’d call an instantly likeable character (for some readers at least).

Unlikeable protagonist?!?!? Nooo, tell me it isn’t so!

Here’s what riles me—and I hope you don’t mind me pulling out my soapbox: If Merrit were named Mark, the likeability question wouldn’t be an issue. Apparently, we women are supposed to care about being liked and thus to act in likeable ways. Phooey!

I find Merrit endearing in all her flaws and morally dubious complexities. She’s got baggage, and heading off to Ireland to meet her long-lost father is, she hopes, a fresh start. (All I can say is, Hah!)

I’m not into the black-and-white thing. Life occurs within the, dare I say it, shades of gray. We all experience moments of weakness and high stress that can cause us to act out in questionable ways. Why should female characters be deemed “unlikeable” because they inhabit luscious gray worlds?

So, in honor of “difficult” female protagonists, I’d love to see a mash-up between Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Elisabeth Salander. You know this Jane Salander/Elisabeth Tennison would kick some zombie ass.

A little about Kilmoon: Californian Merrit Chase travels to Ireland to meet her long-lost father, the famous Matchmaker of Lisfenora. Little does she know that he’s a man with a dark past, and murder is about to make an unexpected appearance. Family secrets, betrayal, and vengeance from
beyond the grave … Merrit’s in for a wild ride!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Masters and Commanders of Our Fates

What period of history, from the invention of the printing press to yesterday, was the best time to be a writer?

by Paul D. Marks

It depends. Like with most things, there's pluses and minuses to various times in history for being a writer.

If you start off in Gutenberg's days – or even before – there probably weren't a hell of a lot of writers, so there probably wasn't a hell of a lot of competition. On the downside, there probably weren't a hell of a lot of people who knew how to read.

Also, I doubt many people could afford a printing press, and writing more than a few pages with a quill pen probably wasn't a lot of fun.

During the Renaissance, writers and artists had patrons or you could be someone's protégé like the Mischa Auer character in the movie "My Man Godfrey," though, of course, that's not set during the Renaissance (good screwball comedy by the way). Wouldn't it be nice to have a rich patron to freeload off of and it wouldn't matter how many books you sold? But, of course, being writers we want to sell as many books as possible. There's always a downside, isn't there?

In the 20th century, things were a little easier in some ways. Typewriters were ubiquitous, which made the physical aspect of writing easier. But there was a highly entrenched establishment in the publishing industry and it was really hard to break in, almost as if you needed some magic spell to get the door to open – Open Sesame. But if you got in, even if your weren’t at the top of the best seller list and were just a midlist writer, you were at least nurtured along by an editor and/or publicist. And I think people in the publishing industry liked writing and had a respect for writers. That started to change, maybe around the 80s, when things got more corporatized and Hollywoodized. And the people in publishing cared less about the writing and the writers than the marketing. I saw this change from the time I "sold" my first book to a major publisher (that ultimately didn't get published), to when I tried later on to do it again and the whole ethos of the business had changed. The people I dealt with originally loved writers and writing and books. Not necessarily so a few years later. Very frustrating.

But also in the early 1980s, personal computers started to come in. When they did I was working in Hollywood and had a writing partner. He was the first person I knew to get a PC. I thought it was a silly toy...until I was over at his house one day and he showed me how easy it was to move a paragraph from page 3 to page 71. I was hooked – and I was the second person I knew to have a PC. Ancient technology by today's standards. It had two 5.25" floppy drives, no hard drive and a monochrome monitor. It was a Leading Edge, similar to the one on the right. Looks pretty high tech, doesn't it? And if you wanted to run more than one program you had to take the floppy with that program out of one floppy drive and put in the next program. Fun. Still, it was better than a typewriter. And things moved quickly and writing with computers was definitely the way to go.

But the biggest improvement came with the internet and being able to "take" meetings over e-mail and chat and send things and not have to live in town and be close to everything. And, of course, researching on the internet is a breeze. I'm a night person. I sleep during the day and I write at night. And there are few libraries open at 3am. But the internet is on 24/7. And that's heaven for me.

Along with that and things like e-books and Amazon, the publishing industry began to change again. Today, because of the indie scene, the gatekeepers are not as strong as they once were. And we'll see how things shake out. Now, with so many players on the field, the question becomes (as it was even with gatekeepers) who has a good book, how does a reader distinguish, and how does the writer get it noticed?

The final question is, how do you earn a living as writer? At least enough of a living to live off of it. In the mid-20th century people could actually make a living writing short stories. You could get paid a decent amount for them. Today you have more freedom, but paying markets for short stories have begun to dry up and it’s impossible to make a living off them. Even most novelists, both traditional and indie published, still have to keep their day jobs. Isn't the writing life grand, not quite Hemingway sitting on the Left Bank, is it?

That said, my answer to the question posed is: today is the best time for writers overall. Why, because for good or bad, we are much more the masters of our own destiny today. And (mostly) that's a good thing. Because as William Ernest Henley said in his poem "Invictus":

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ink Odyssey

No, I'm not going to suggest that Ancient Greece was the best time for a working-class girl to be a writer. (Sidebar: I can entertain being born in Ancient Greece but not being posh or male? What's that about?)

I'm down at the other end of the cultural universe with Mr Kubrick, because 2001 was when I became a professional writer and I think, in what might be a massive failure of imagination, that it was the best moment I could have chosen.

I'll see off earlier times first. The trouble with being a writer when Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf or Dorothy L Sayers were writers is I'd have to actually live then too. The problem with that is . . . dentistry and sanpro. I'd love to visit any of those times but oh how very briefly. (My favourite scene in the Lost in Austen time-travel caper is where Amanda finds herself back in modern London and heads straight for the Colgate).

As for the thirteen years since, they've been horribly interesting times. Recessions, mergers, shrinking markets, exponentially complex business practices. I'm sure someone somewhere knows what's going to be going on in publishing when the dust settles but it's not me or anyone I've ever spoken to. I know how lucky I am to have happened to catch the last uncomplicated publishing boom.

It's hard to believe how different it was from today. I sent a paper submission to an agent. She wrote me a letter back. Licked a stamp and everything. I sent a huge block of paper to London and it thudded onto editors' desks, one after the other, until someone bought it. They paid me a decent wedge for English rights, and I started writing the second one. I went out for lunch with my publisher, made scones for the newspaper arts correspondent who came round for tea to talk to me, and signed for the bouquet of flowers that arrived on release day.

No blog tour to double-book, no Skype dates to forget, no online bookmark print order to get wrong, no conventions to spend a ton of money attending, no Facebook to use up 12 hours, no Twitter to use up the other 12 hours, no Kindle daily deals to find out about a day too late to tell anyone, no pirate sites to monitor until your eyes cross.

Man, it was dull. I absolutely love blogging, Skyping and ordering online. Left Coast, Malice and Bouchercon are like Christmas, New Year and my birthday all over again. Facebook is home. Twitter is my weekend cottage in the country. Kindle daily deals are like little gifts from a stranger and I get to fight pirates!

But sometimes I feel like one of the old countries spouting on about free trade and conveniently forgetting that they made their stack when it was anything but (coughempirecough). When I see a first-time writer beginning to fray at the edges under the sheer tonnage of stuff writers do now that's not writing, I just want to give her/him a hug and a huge cocktail.

So, if you see me at Left Coast Crime next week, debut authors, and you can summon a half-decent eye-twitch or neck blotch, the drinks are on me.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Would You Write If It Meant Getting Your Head Chopped Off?

What period of history, from the invention of the printing press to yesterday, was the best time to be a writer?

This week’s question catches me unprepared, I admit. Part of me enjoys romantic fantasies about Shakespearean England, another about 1920s Paris, and let’s not forget The famous round table at the Algonquin in Manhattan.

But then I remember that 16th and early 17th century England was fond of hanging, beheading, or incinerating people who wrote something that displeased whoever the queen was at the moment, that writers have died of starvation or neglect (witness the stories enshrined in grand opera), and that books have been burned in more than one epoch including the terrible 1930s in Germany.

Today, traditional publishing is a bit of a shamble as the people who watch the health of the bottom line have triumphed over those who watch the health of the culture and society. On the other hand, e-books and self-publishing have opened the universe to exponentially more voices.

So, who’s to say? I’m hoping more erudite Minds will pick up the ball and run with it this week. I’ll learn something in the process. For now, I’m sticking with what I know – the only time I’ve been in the business – the present.