Friday, December 11, 2015

Past is Prologue

Do you read differently now than you did as a teenager?

by Paul D. Marks

A younger me
In a word, yes. In another word, I don’t remember. In still another word I didn’t read much for pleasure as a teenager. I was too busy, well, being a teenager—having fun. I did, of course, read for school, both fiction and non-fiction, but even then I blew off as much as I could. Remember, I was too busy being a teenager.

When I was a younger kid (elementary school age), I did a lot of reading, both fiction and non-fiction. I particularly liked Landmark Books, history books put out by Random House, which were often kid—Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, The Witchcraft of Salem Village by Shirley Jackson and many others. They were one of the foundations that instilled a love of history in me that continues to this day. And of course, comic books, including Classics Illustrated—do they count as “reading”?
versions of adult histories. Books like

To be honest, I really do barely remember most of what I read in high school. A lot of the classics. Shakespeare. Greek mythology. Things like that—the usual stuff—but mostly for English class and not on my own. And everyone was also reading Kafka and Hesse then.

But maybe during high school and/or after, I read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Proust. Dumas. Borges, still a fave, and all that fun stuff, as well some literary works of the day. And I might have snuck in a thriller or two. I read The Day of the Jackal and was blown away by it, especially because I knew that de Gaulle hadn’t been assassinated, but Forsyth still held me all the way to the last page. So then I read his The Odessa File and became a confirmed Forsyth fan. Also read The Godfather—who didn’t? And others. And, of course, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda. Sort of required reading for the time.

And yes, I think I read differently then than I do now. I probably didn’t think as critically then as I do today. Didn’t see the seams holding it all together. But, of course, part of that comes from being a writer. So we know how the sausages are made. We can see when an author is trying to manipulate us. Plus I was more of an idealist then, less cynical, both in terms of reading/writing and life in general. And just like my writing then was more juvenile, my reading skills were as well. Just as I would have been or was a different writer then, I’m a different reader today than I was then.

When you’re 16, 17, 18 you don’t have a lot of life experience to filter what you’re reading through. When you’re an adult, with a few miles under the hood, you read things through the prism of your life experience. And that colors how you see and read things. You’re more equipped to agree or disagree with the author, more equipped to form your own assessment of what you’re reading instead of being spoon-fed someone else’s opinion of the work, whether a teacher, critic or anyone else.

My tastes have also changed, though now I’m referring more to being a young adult in my twenties. Then I read more classics and serious literature. I didn’t really start reading mysteries until later, maybe in my early thirties. I always loved old movies, film noir, etc. And my mom had a two-volume mystery collection—A Treasury of Great Mysteries—sitting on her shelf ever since I was a little kid—now in my collection. It was filled with classic mysteries from Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rear Window (originally published as It Had to Be Murder in Dime Detective) by William Irish/Cornell Woolrich, and more. I always remembered it because of the striking two-part picture on the spines of the books. The first novel in volume two, and the first thing I read in the collection, was The Big Sleep, which I’d seen as a movie many times, so I gave it a shot. I’ve been hooked on Chandler ever since.

Then somehow I got magically joined to a mystery book club—that I never actually signed on for. These mysterious mystery novels and books began appearing in my mail. I don’t know how I got signed up for this club, but I wanted out. So I contacted them and told them I was out and I wasn’t going to give the books they sent back since I didn’t order them in the first place. One of those books was a collection of three Ross Macdonald novels, The Galton Case, The Chill and Black Money, so I read all three (all three of which are still my favorite Macdonald books) and I got into him too. And from there my love of mystery reading took off.

I still like reading a wide range of things, though I probably read more mystery and thriller these days, but I still read literary books and classics. And non-fiction. And while I may not have “loved” reading as a teen, being exposed to good literature at that time, even though against my will to some degree, gave me a foundation to fall back on so that when I became an adult I fell easily and gladly into the reading habit. There’s an ongoing argument as to whether kids should be exposed to this or that at young ages, forced to do things—like reading or listening to music they don’t like, etc. I think they should. Then they have something to fall back on. Exposure at an early age often comes back to us later. If I hadn’t
been exposed to various types of music or books as a kid I probably wouldn’t enjoy them today.

My biggest problem re: reading today is not enough time. My wife reads/listens to audio books in the car, but I work at home and I find it hard to concentrate on audio novels. My mind tends to wander. And I’ll read on the iPad or Kindle, but I still prefer the tactile sensation, both touch and smell and words on a page of a “real” book.

But ultimately I agree with what Sam said on Tuesday, “I still read for the same reasons I did as a child--to be astonished and delighted.” And that’s really what it’s about, isn’t it?

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And now for the usual BSP stuff:

And speaking of Christmas, how ’bout picking up a copy of Vortex, Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, White Heat or LA Late @ Night—hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t invent commercialism at the holidays.

And the e-book version of Vortex is still on sale for $0.99.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

All I want for Christmas is . . .

By  Catriona

Do I read differently now from when I was a teenager?

Not really. Then, as now, I read voraciously, constantly, and one book at a time. My dad used to have an upstairs book by his bed, a downstairs book by his chair and a book at work for his breaks. They were often all thrillers. I still don't know how he kept them straight.

And while I'm dobbing in my nearest and dearest, I didn't then and don't now read the end first. Who does that? My oldest friend, that's who.

I've always been a big re-reader too, especially in times of stress. Back then I would re-read Enid Blyton school stories and DLS. Right now, I've got Juliet Stevenson purring Mansfield Park in my ear at bedtime, so I can stop editing the WiP and, if I'm lucky, not dream about it.

Audiobooks didn't really exist when I was a teenager. (Listen to this kids: I remember cassette tapes being invented.) But I always loved listening to stories read aloud, if I could find someone to read them to me, and have been hooked on BBC readings since I first missed poptastic Radio 1 on the dial and stumbled across the ear-cuddle that is Radio 4. If anyone hasn't yet discovered Radio 4, this week's Book at Bedtime is Nancy Mitford, Book of the Week is Stephen Fry's autobiography and also currently online are Ruth Rendell's final novel, contemporary scientists' letters to Darwin and Bono's tribute poem to Elvis. (And new shorts from the Arab world, and "Meet David Sedaris" and Some JG Ballard and Muriel Spark and that's just this week.)

Is anyone still here?

One thing that has changed is - when I was young, I always finished every book I started.  I remember clearly the moment that ended: I was in the Borders (Barnes and Noble? Okay, I don't remember that clearly) flagship store at Lincoln Center Square in New York on Christmas Eve sometime in the mid 00s (again, cloudy on this detail!). And I wasn't enjoying the book I was reading. It struck me that on the day I died, the world would full of great books I hadn't read. Since then I've read 100 pages of anything I pick up and if I'm still checking page numbers at 100 I put it down.

And another thing that's changed is this: I had so much time when I was a teenager. I was a lazy school pupil, winging it and chancing it through all six years of secondary education. I didn't do much in the way of chores and didn't play any sports. And of course there was no internet. Telly was grim too. So I just read, all the time, hours every day.

These days I recreate teenage bliss for two weeks every year, between knocking off for Christmas and going back after twelfth night. I start gathering these books around my birthday in October and hoard them like a miser, looking forward to hitting the couch and devouring them. I keep them by my bed and sometimes I stroke them.

Here's this year's final pile:

Not long to go now . . .

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Confessions of a book lover - by Cathy Ace

Do you read differently now than you did as a teenager?

Of course my teen years provided me with school and university reading lists, so I certainly did my fair share of reading “great works” as part of syllabus-stipulated English literature and language classes. To be honest, I enjoyed most of what I “had to study”. Especially Shakespeare – we would read it aloud in class and I loved the feeling of the words on my tongue. Iambic pentameter feels so natural.

What I chose to read was a bit different. By the time I hit my teens I’d consumed every Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Ellery Queen and Tolkien the shelves of local libraries (and my mum) could provide.

Some of the books I brought with me to Canada (Photo by author.)
Then I moved to Llwyn-y-bryn Comprehensive School for Girls. It had two libraries: the Upper Library contained thousands of volumes of what one would call “The Classics” – those books from around the world that had distinguished themselves somehow. So I began reading works by Mann, Nietzsche, Zola, Goethe, Camus, Sartre, Joyce, Austen and Dickens, poetry by Chaucer, Dylan Thomas, Hopkins, Elliot and Proust, as well as plays by Congreve, Wesker, Yates, Pinter, Ibsen, Osborne, Shaw, Wilde, and, of course, Shakespeare, for fun.  I understand now this is somewhat unusual behavior for a young teen, but, at the time, it seemed perfectly normal to me. When I turned sixteen it was decided that the Lower Library would be closed, and all the books were to be sold off at sixpence per volume (I think that would equate to about 5 cents). As a volunteer-librarian I spent weeks sneakily transferring books from the Upper to the Lower Library (and saving the money I earned working at a shoe shop) thereby ensuring I could snap up a wonderful selection for myself. (I might not have been reading many crime novels at the time, but I was certainly acting them out!)

I still have those books; they are my old friends, so, of course, I shipped them to join me when I moved to Canada. The photo here shows some of them. Certainly not all. I’ve read and re-read most of them, and am always delighted to discover how much more insightful the authors seem to become as I get older. Now in my mid-fifties, I am just beginning to understand how stunning it was that Zola had a vision across twenty novels – and that he had that plan when he was in his twenties! I’m so glad I found the books I did in my teen years, and not just because of what it has led me to read in later years; every rom-com I’ve watched on the screen takes me back to Jane Austen’s blue-print for those tales.

So, in my teen years I inhaled the classics - the Nobel prize-winners’ works, the lauded and the famous titles. I’m not sorry I did it. I learned a great deal, and my eyes were opened to a world far beyond the library walls of my school in Swansea.
Little did I know when I first read Lowry’s Under the Volcano, back in the early 1970s, that I would end up mirroring his migration from the UK to British Columbia, and would find myself living not far from where he wrote that book.  (Photo by author.)

After that I put in more than a quarter of a century of wide reading, however, I hate to admit it, but I don’t now read as much as I’d like to. That said, I could happily read for thirty hours a day! When I do read, if I’m not revisiting old favorites, I read crime fiction. If there isn’t a crime, a puzzle, a conspiracy, or a dead body in a book I keep waiting for one to present itself. I can’t help it. It might be seen as some sort of sickness, but, for me, it works. There are so many crime fiction authors – living and dead – whose works I have yet to discover, or at least fully enjoy, that I know there are enough books to see me happy when I do sit down to read.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Addicted to Reading

"Do you read differently now than you did as a teenager?"
- from Susan

Funny moment to be asking me this. I am reviewing the final pre-print proofs for Mixed Up with Murder, reading revisions to a new book for an editor, and reading enough of my new NaNoWriMo draft so I can finish the last scene, which I had to set aside to re-read and sign off on the final revision for the new edition of Murder in the Abstract (a long and somewhat painful exercise, another story…) I read a lot of my own books now, not always with great enjoyment!

Pre-college, I read hugely on my own, everything I could get my hands on. Lots of Thurber, Michener, Mary Stewart, O’Henry, Shirley Jackson, anything in The New Yorker…I can’t remember every author but lots of costume sagas and quirky stuff, modern Irish stories, historical novels. Pretty much all fiction. I read all the time. In school, Shakespeare, Harper Lee, Mark Twain, sanitized biographies, classics, nothing edgy unless you consider Macbeth edgy, which I emphatically do. It was my writing education.

In college, still in my teens and just beyond, I read James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Galsworthy and Flaubert, Tolstoy and James Joyce, Homer, Chaucer and other Early and Middle English tales, more Twain, albeit with a twist (“Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey” was the mind-blowing piece written by one of my wonderful teachers, Leslie Fiedler), reams of bardic Irish literature, and lots of poetry, a feast of poetry. Good stuff, the balance of my education as a writer and source of my passion.

Skipping a few years to today, what do I read? Mostly crime fiction. Almost never fiction in The New Yorker, which generally bores me. Periodically I buy a literary book award winner, and most of those – not all – leave me feeling in need of a blood transfusion. I read much more biography and history and regret that I waited until now to read all of Beowulf, although it’s Seamus Heaney’s 2000 translation that makes it such a tense and colorful tale. I’m re-reading Mrs. Dalloway because I know it’s considered a masterpiece, but, until this reading, wasn’t convinced. These books are refresher courses in what makes good writing and reminds me how much I still have to learn.

But, chiefly, I now read crime fiction. New books – lord, there are hundreds, many of them by people I know – and classics, and series I missed out on first time around. New and waiting for me: Terry Shames’ two latest, Stuart Neville’s two latest, Catriona’s latest, Colin Cotterill, Tim Hallinan, Michelle Gagnon…looking at the shelf makes me feel guilty. Classics I am aching to re-read by Tey, Sayers, Stout, Nabb… And these, too, are education. In plotting, in character arcs, in what the market wants and what today’s readers like.

So, no, I guess I don’t really read differently. I read as voraciously as I did when I was 13, still getting my education through the work of great writers.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Adventures in La La Land Redux

Settings play a key role in mysteries. Where do your mysteries tend to be set and why?

by Paul D. Marks

Since it’s Thanksgiving weekend, I hope you don’t mind if I repost a piece I did for another blog I write for ( This was the first post I did for them and I think it pretty much responds to our question this week.

And though I have stories set in other places, I consider myself an LA writer and Los Angeles does play a major role in many of my stories. Many people have said it’s another character and I agree. S.W. Lauden said, “I just read your novel Vortex. I loved how the action bounced around Southern California, almost as if the region was one of the main characters.”

So here are (some of) my Adventures in La La Land (with a couple of minor revisions from the original as posted on Sleuthsayers):

I thought I’d write about two things I know pretty well, Los Angeles and me. Sort of an introduction to my writing and me, my influences, especially my inspiration for setting. And since it is an intro it might be a little longer than a normal post...

I’m old enough to have grown up in Los Angeles when both Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and Chandler himself were still around. When I was a kid L.A. still resembled the city of Chandler's "mean streets," Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer and Cain's Double Indemnity. In fact, I grew up in a Spanish-style house very much like the one that Barbara Stanwyck lives in in the movie version of Double Indemnity.

L.A. was a film noir town for a film noir kid. And that certainly had an influence on me and my writing. And a lot of my writing involves L.A., not just as a location but almost as a character in its own right. Of course, we’re all influenced by our childhoods, where we grew up and the people we knew. And those things, whether conscious or unconscious, tend to bubble to the surface in our writing like the black pitch bubbling up from the La Brea tar pits.

* * *

Two things that Los Angeles means to me are movies and noir, oh, and palm trees, of course. Movie studios and backlots were everywhere in this city. You couldn’t help but see the studios, feel their presence and be influenced by “the movies” one way or another. Many of the studios and backlots are gone now, but almost everywhere you go in this city is a movie memory and often a noir memory. L.A. is Hollywood’s backlot and many films, including many noirs, were filmed throughout the city.

As a kid, a teenager and even a young adult, I experienced many of the places I read about in books and saw in the movies, once the movies got out of the backlot and onto those mean L.A. streets. Not as a tourist, but as part of my “backyard.”

So Los Angeles has insinuated itself into my writing. Here’s some examples of how it might have gotten there and how it reflects my view of the ironically named City of Angels.

Angels Flight
photo credit: Angels Flight via photopin (license)
Angels Flight is a funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles. Star of many films and many noirs, including Kiss Me, DeadlyCriss Cross and others. Chandler visits it in The High Window and The King in Yellow. As a young boy, my dad took me to the original Angels Flight (now moved down the road and since closed). And though I may not have known about noir films and hardboiled novels then, it was an experience I’ve always remembered. Such a cool little pair of trains going up and down that hill, the tracks splitting in the middle just as each car approaches the other and you think they’re going to smash into each other head on. Angels Flight slams back to me in memory every now and then and makes its way into my writing, most notably in the eponymous story Angels Flight, which I must say came out before Michael Connelly’s novel of the same name.

That story, about a cop whose time has come and gone, is still pretty relevant today. The world is changing and he’s having one hell of a time catching up, if he even wants to. He’s a dinosaur. And he knows that Angels Flight is an anachronism, just like he is. He says to the other main character:
“Will Angels Flight bring back the glamour of the old days? Hollywood’s lost its tinsel. Venice’s lost its pier. And there are no angels in the City of Angels. What can Angels Flight do to bring that back?”

“Sometimes you need something for the soul,” the other person says.

I think that sums up a lot of my attitude not only toward Angels Flight but to the City of Angels as well. 

In Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Tod Hackett comes to L.A. thinking he’s an artist. And like so many others he gets trampled by that dream. Not much has changed all these decades later in my story Endless Vacation, when a young woman comes to Hollywood with big dreams and a bigger heroin habit. The narrator tries to help but he also knows:

Who the hell am I to talk? I came to L.A. looking for a Hollywood that died before I was born. A glamorous town of movie stars and studios and backlots. A studio system that nurtured talent, whatever you say about how it also might have stifled it with the other hand. A town that made movies in black and white but whose streets were, indeed, paved with gold. Yeah, I bought it – hook, line and clapboard.

Luis Valdez examines the Zoot Suit Riots that took place in L.A. during World War II in his play Zoot Suit. I remember my grandfather, who lived through that time, talking about “pachucos” when I was a kid. In my story Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, set during the war, I take a stab at dealing with the racial tension of that era.

Hot jazz—swing music—boogied, bopped and jived. And Bobby Saxon was one of those who made it happen. Bobby banged the eighty-eights with the Booker “Boom-Boom” Taylor Orchestra in the Club Alabam down on Central Avenue. It was the heppest place for whites to come slumming and mix with the coloreds. That’s just the way it was in those days, Los Angeles in the 1940s during the war.

Venice Beach and boardwalk is the number one tourist destination in Los Angeles.Venice-CA-Canal-1921 People think it’s cool and flock to see the “freaks,” and maybe the nearby Venice Canals. Developer Abbott Kinney wanted to recreate Italy’s Venice in L.A., and he did, to some extent. But it didn’t quite work out. Many of the canals were drained and filled in, though some remain. They can be seen in several movies, too numerous to name. And, because they were another place I’d done time at, they pop up in my short story Santa Claus Blues, which opens with a bunch of kids playing along the canals and coming across a dead Santa floating in one of them.

Staring at the canal, Bobby thought about Abbott Kinney's dream for a high culture theme park, with concerts, theatre and lectures on various subjects. Kinney even imported Italian gondoliers to sing to visitors as they were propelled along the canals. When no one seemed to care about the highbrow culture he offered he switched gears and turned Venice into a popular amusement area. And finally the people came.

My grandparents always referred to MacArthur Park, on Wilshire Boulevard on the way to downtown, as Westlake Park, its original name. It was renamed for General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. But for my grandparents it was always Westlake. When I was a kid it was the place they took me to have a picnic and rent a boat and paddle around the lake. A nice outing. In the movies it’s the scene of a murder in one of my favorite obscure noirs, Too Late for Tears. By the time of my novel White Heat, set during the 1992 “Rodney King” riots, the nature of the park had changed from when I was a kid:

MacArthur Park is midway between Hancock Park, not a park, but an upper class neighborhood, and downtown L.A., a neighborhood in search of an identity. When I was a boy, my grandparents used to take me to the park. We’d rent rowboats and paddle through the lake, tossing bread crumbs to the birds. The park is a different place today. You can still rent paddle boats – if you want to paddle across the lake while talking to your dealer. Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays immigrant families still try to use it as a park. Most of the time, it’s a haven for pushers, crack addicts, hookers and worse. Even the police don’t like treading there. If they were scared, who was I to play Rambo?

Even if someone’s never been to Los Angeles, most people know Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. Sunset begins or ends, depending on how you look at it, at Pacific Coast Highway on the west and continues to Union Station in downtown L.A., though recently the last part of the jog has been renamed. It goes from wealthy homes in Santa Monica and the West Side, into Beverly Hills, through the Strip in West Hollywood, where hippies back in the day and hipsters today hang out. Into Hollywood and on to downtown. It’s a microcosm of Los Angeles. Of course, both Union Station and Sunset have made multiple appearances in movies and novels and have made several appearances in my writing. Sunset was a major artery in my life as well as in the city. One time I walked almost the entire length of Sunset on a weekend day with my dad, ending up at Union Station. Later, I hung on the Strip. I drove it to the beach. I slammed through the road’s Dead Man’s Curve, made famous in the Jan and Dean song. Sunset appears in my stories Born Under a Bad SignDead Man’s CurveL.A. Late @ Night and more. In the latter, Sunset is as much of a character in the story as any of the human characters.

She'd only noticed the mansion. Not long after that, her parents had taken her to the beach. They had driven Sunset all the way from Chavez Ravine to the ocean. She had seen houses like the one in the movie. Houses she vowed she'd live in some day. 

What she hadn't realized at the time was that there was a price to pay to be able to live in such a house. Sometimes that price was hanging from a tag that everyone can see. Sometimes it was hidden inside.

And who doesn’t know the famous—or infamous—Hollywood Sign? Something I sawHollywood_Sign almost every day as a kid, and which a friend of mine and I hiked up to many, many years ago, before it was all fenced in and touristy. In Free Fall, originally published in Gary Lovisi’s Hardboiled magazine, a man recently separated from the service, heads west, as far west as he can go until he comes to the terminus of Route 66 in Santa Monica, near the Santa Monica Pier. This is the end of the road for him in more ways than one.

I kept looking at the Hollywood Sign, wondering about all the people down below, pretending to be in its glow. Where do they go after L.A.? There is nowhere, the land ends and they just tumble into the arroyos and ravines, never to be heard from again.

So this is a sampling of my writing and my relationship to L.A., La La Land, the City of the Angels, the Big Orange. Could I have written about these places without experiencing them? Sure. We can’t experience everything we write about. But hopefully it has made my writing more authentic.

Maybe there are other cities less well traveled that would be ripe for exploration in movies and books. Maybe L.A. is overworked and overdone. But Los Angeles is part of me. Part of who I am. So it’s not only a recurring locale in my writing, it’s a recurring theme. And I’ve only just touched the surface here of Los Angeles, the city, its various landmarks and neighborhoods and my relationship to it.

So that’s part of what shaped me and makes me who I am. And some of my L.A. story. You can take the boy out of L.A., but you can’t take L.A. out of the boy. Oh, and here’s an L.A. story for you (a true one): I’m one of the few people to pull a gun on the LAPD and live to tell about. But that’s for another time. Or you can see the story on my website at:

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So, thank you all. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving and will have a good rest of the weekend!

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Down and Out Books is putting a whole bunch of great books on sale for 99¢ for the next two weeks, including Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, with mystery stories from such luminaries as 4 Time Edgar Winner and Co-Creator of “Columbo,” William Link • Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Bill Pronzini • Scribner Crime Novel Winner William G. Tapply • Shamus Winner Paul D. Marks • EQMM Readers Award Winner Bob Levinson • Al Blanchard Award Winner James Shannon • Derringer Award Winner Stephen D. Rogers • Sherlock Holmes Bowl Winner Andrew McAleer and other poisoned-pen professionals like Judy Travis Copek • Sheila Lowe • Gayle Bartos-Pool • Thomas Donahue
Click here to go to the Down & Out Amazon sale:

And my new noir-thriller Vortex is also on sale in e-form for 99¢.

“…a nonstop staccato action noir… Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery… but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end.”
—D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

And now for the usual BSP stuff:

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