Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Thin Man Movies: I Get It

In my review for the novel, The Thin Man, I commented on how the book and my own pre-conceived notions of Nick and Nora Charles didn't match. I have since watched the first two movies. Okay, I understand now.

I loved these first two films. I can only assume that the next four are just as fun.

William Powell and Myrna Loy: those folks had chemistry. Just the body language alone spoke volumes. Powell plays Nick as the tottering, near-constant drunk he was in the book but in a fun way. Loy plays Nora as the adoring, curious, woman Nora was the in the book but with more pizazz. Add in the funny dialogue and sotto voce asides and the film was flat-out hilarious. *That's* what I was expecting when I read the book.

The second film, "After the Thin Man," is funnier than the first. I think the writers wrote for the screen and for Powell and Loy specifically. And the humor was increased. On the second DVD, there is a great radio adaption of "After the Thin Man" performed in 1940. None other than Cecil B. DeMille introduces the show and Powell and Loy reprise their roles. This after the third film had already hit theaters. In his introductory comments, DeMille relates how famous Nick and Nora are and confirmed for me that FDR named his dog, Asta, after the famous pooch of the films.

The last scene of movie #2 was classic: Nora knitting a baby bootie. When Nick finally gets it, she says "And you call yourself a detective." Wonderful films.

And, better late than never, I get it.

Book Review: A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block

It’s a rare crime novel that sends the reader to a dictionary just to learn the definition of a title word. That’s what I had to do for “treacle” in Lawrence Block's A Diet of Treacle. Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree. I hold both and didn’t’ know that word. Go figure. Now, I do. It’s an odd word, evoking fantastical things and people, not criminals and guns. Sure enough, the quote is from Alice in Wonderland. One word of advice: when you finish the novel, go back and re-read the excerpt. You’ll have your ‘a-ha’ moment. I did.

The cover synopsis focuses on Anita Carlone, good girl who is bored with life so much so that she starts living with her new man, Joe Morelli, and his roommate/sugar daddy, shank. As the novel progresses, I kept wondering why the focus was on her. This was clearly a book with three protagonists. Each person has his or her own life view and that worldview influences his or her decisions and reactions.

Joe and Shank live in Greenwich Village circa 1960: pre-JFK, pre-Vietnam, pre Summer of Love, pre-counterculture. They both smoke weed that Shank sells, talk in beat lingo, and that’s about it. I have to praise the reader, Christian Conn, for employing different voices to bring these cats to life, Shank, especially. Conn gives Shank the nasally quality of a weasel. At first, I didn’t like the reading. Then, I began to fear what’s behind the voice. Block skillfully gives a little background on Shank early on so that each subsequent scene has some underlining tension to it.

As the story progresses, I kept waiting for the murder the cover blurb (“She went looking for thrills…and found murder”) promised. It finally arrived at, of course, the most inopportune moment. One can guess what happens next. However, as their flight and hiding out continues, I kept wondering why Shank kept bothering to keep Joe and Anita around. Shank himself wonders why, too. Maybe it goes back to the quote. I couldn’t figure it out, but the quote ties directly into the last sentence.

I rewound the track a few times, listening to the last line over and over before I smiled. As I mentioned in my reviews for Money Shot and Kiss Her Good-bye, it’s a great book when the last sentence delivers a punch. This last sentence doesn’t deliver that kind of blow, but it’s a good one. It makes you pause and think, which is sometimes just as good as a punch in the gut.

What I Learned As A Writer: Cleverly chosen quotes can enhance the reader’s experience, perhaps even inform it ahead of time if the reader knows the source. It was pretty cool when I re-read the quote after finishing the book.

Second thing was chapter length. This audiobook was about four hours long, probably around 200 pages in the printed book. Block only had 11 chapters. I have written a little over 100 pages in my current novel…and I have 16 chapters. Perhaps I may be able to combine more than one scene into a single chapter, reducing the number of chapters. But I can’t help but wonder if the shorter chapters lengths are merely the result of our shrinking attention spans.

Third thing: Every book I have read this past month starts off strong, fast, and exciting. My second book starts that way. Perhaps I have learned something.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ian Fleming at 100

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that today would have been Ian Fleming's 100th birthday. I could go to the effort of linking to all the articles from today...but I'll let the Rap Sheet do it for me. But be sure to check out today's "Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, and Bombs" column where Bruce discusses the Young James Bond series. I've already placed the audio of the first book on hold at the library.

In terms of the Fleming novels, I came to them late. I read Casino Royale about 12 years ago (1996) and it was strange. The torture scene (which made the movie) surprised me. It was my own myopic opinion that stuff so overt didn't happen in novels of the 1950s. I liked CR but read no further.

About four years ago, I discovered that Audible.com has almost (if not) all the Bond stories on audio. I blew through about four in a row. The most surprising ones were Moonraker (#3) and Diamonds are Forever (#4). For all of y'all who like intimate details of your favorite fictional characters, Moonraker is a good Bond book. (BTW, forget the movie. Just forget it when you read this novel.) The first third of the book has Bond battling Hugo Drax...in cards. You see Bond in his office, bored. You see Bond in his house, the clothes he wears for a night at a men's club, the food he eats. It's pretty interesting.

Diamonds are Forever is another book that you'll have to check your memories of the movie at the door. It's different in a travelogue sort of way. You see a side of Vegas in the late 50s that reminds you that that the city really was built in a desert.

From Russia With Love is very much like the movie. If you read Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac today (linked at the Rap Sheet), you'll see that Fleming wrote the book with the movie in mind. It's probably no wonder why FRWL makes many best-Bond film Top 3 lists.

I haven't read the next book in order (Dr. No) but I imagine I will after I plow through Sebastian Faulks new Bond pastiche, Devil May Care. I've got it on hold at the library. I'll review it later this summer.

Oh, and a last word about the novels: unless you are one who really likes 'clean' copies, go to used bookstores. The Fleming novels are always there.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

New/Old Books Ordered

Because I don't like getting into a series in the middle, I decided to search for a few 'first books' in my local used bookstores. No dice. So, I pointed my mouse over to abebooks.com and found exactly what I was looking for.

Since I consider myself 'going to school' for classic crime fiction, I wanted to try out a few famous people in that field. They are:

-Bertha Cool and Donald Lam in The Bigger They Come
-Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws
-Mike Hammer in I, The Jury

I used to watch Mason on TV and loved him. I know of Hammer only through reputation. And Cool and Lam are new to me. Hard Case Crime published one of their books so you know their good.

So, look for those reviews in the coming weeks. And here's a question for all of y'all who already know this stuff: Who else should I read? Help me make a list of Crime Fiction I Should Know.

Thanks.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Writer's League of Texas Novel Contest: Results

In the words of Agent Maxwell Smart: "Missed it by that much."

My second book, Justice in H-Town, missed the cut for the Writer's League of Texas 2008 Novel Contest. Bummer. But I got my score sheet back...and it's full of little gems that are quite encouraging. There is a scoring system that consists of ten categories. Each category is awarded a score between 2 (Major problems) and 10 (Excellent). Here are my results, starting with the last one.

For anyone who thinks grammar is not important, talk to me. I mean, I'm a tech writer so I should have caught the little things (tic not tick; who's not whose; short not shot), right? Wrong. I got an 8.

Synopsis: 6 - I had to condense my one-page, single-spaced synopsis to a one-page, *double-spaced* synopsis. While the judges said "Great opening! Excellent premise.", they said the ending was somehow unsatisfying.

Hook: 10 - This judge said similar things that another judge mentioned: lose some of the introspection in chapter 1. "Great hook, though - the stand-off scene has a good tone and great tension. And the chapter end really leaves us hanging."

Structure: 10 (see a trend?) - "Great job - sucks me in and keeps the tension up."

Characters: 10 - [no comments]

Conflict: 10 - Money quote: "I'm dying to know what happens next!"

Dialogue: 10 - "Natural dialogue, good, snappy, internal monologue, and a great narrative/dialogue rhythm. Well done."

Setting: 10 - "Excellent job during the stand-off - great description."

Plotting: 10 - "...Excellent transitions and scene opening, good rhythm."

Technique/Style: 10 - "Very readable - funny, yet real and vulnerable main character. Good scene structure, excellent transitions, good tension. Nicely done."

Additional Comments: "Top contender; your grammar errors and synopsis held you back, but great job. Clean this up and send it out!"

--
Now, how's THAT for some Friday morning encouragement! And it couldn't have come at a more perfect time as I'm wallowing in doubt about the story. Uh, not any more. :-)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Book Review: Home is the Sailor by Day Keene

Since I am a sucker for cool cover art, Day Keene’s Home is the Sailor (Hard Case Crime) was on my to-read list from the get-go. Not many of their covers simultaneously have a car going over a cliff with a hot babe in a too-tight dress. Then I learned a little about him and how much stuff he actually wrote. Couple that with more recent comments about him (Christa Faust mentions she’s reading Keene in this video from her Money Shot premiere), I was quite excited to crack the book.

I had to chuckle when I read the first two sentences: “It was night. It was hot.” (So, basically it was a dark and not-so-stormy night? Aren’t we writers cautioned not to start a book with the weather?) Nonetheless, I read on.

Pulp fiction is known for its pace. Old movies—film noir and others—are also known for their pace. It’s fast. Nowhere but in pulp fiction and old movies do men and women fall in love on sight. It happens to Swen Nelson, a sailor with $12,000 in hand and dreams of a life on land on a farm in Minnesota. But before he can get there, he meets Corliss Mason, the owner of the Purple Parrot bar-and-hotel establishment. He falls for her, she for him. They are all set to get married and move to the heartland when one thing leads to another and they have to get rid of a body.

Keene’s Nelson drives the story and faces plenty of questions. One character keeps imploring Nelson to go away while he still can. A man threatens Nelson to stay away from his wife. And, through it all, Nelson puts away an astonishing amount of rum. The book takes place over four days and he’s drunk most of the time, a fact that almost every other character comments on. How does Nelson function with so much booze in him? Must be the sailor DNA.

In my review for The Guns of Heaven, I commented on some of the asides written out and how they really didn’t serve the story like I expected them to do. Well, the opposite is true for Home is the Sailor. There’s an aside, just some conversation between two characters, that comes back around like a boomerang and hits you between the eyes. An astute reader will put two-and-two together before the characters do (I did, at least) but it still makes the story fun.

One sad thing I noticed is the paltry number of Keene books available. Other than this one by Hard Case Crime, there are only two modern reprintings of Keene’s books at Amazon. Guess I’ll have to start the hunt in used bookstores. I found a great site with a good bibliography of Keene’s works and I’ll try to find some more.

Oh, about the ending: Just like Angel Dare in Money Shot, Swen Nelson gets a chance to really examine himself and ask the question “Who am I?” And we get the answer in a brilliant last line. Don’t flip to the end; it’ll ruin it for you. Just go with it. You’ll enjoy the ride.

What I Learned As A Writer: The aside I mentioned earlier is important. And, I realized, that it’s a great way to throw red herrings at the reader, assuming you have more than one. There was only one but its importance was revealed in layers. Granted, I was ahead of Nelson for most of the book but that didn’t disappoint me. Heck, I could’ve been wrong. In my future books, I’ll try to incorporate some extra asides, some extra little stories the characters learn, and leave it to the reader to decide which one is important.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Wednesday Paperback Cover at the Independent Crime Blog

If you are like me, you really dig those old painted covers from paperback originals back in the day. Nathan Cain, the author of the Independent Crime blog does too and posts one every Wednesday. Add this to your Wednesday To-Do List. Not only does he post a scan, he writes a sly comment. I mean, how can you NOT comment on a book titled The Endless Orgy?

Oh, and his mission statement--the reason for the blog--is worth returning week after week.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Book Review: The Guns of Heaven by Pete Hamill

When one thinks of pulp fiction and noir, a few things automatically come to mind: femme fatales, guys in trench coats, guns, night, booze. Moreover, the time period that usually comes to mind is usually any year from the time of FDR’s inauguration to that of John Kennedy. That is to say, the 1930s through the 1950s. The 70s figure in the picture, too.

But the 1980s? Nah. At least, not to me. I have written that I’m fairly new to the genre of crime fiction. There may be a slew of great 80s books out there, just waiting for me. But, as of today, I don’t know them. The 80s just don’t seem like a noir decade to me. And that put Pete Hamill’s The Guns of Heaven at a disadvantage. It takes place in 1983 and deals with the conflicts in northern Ireland.

I’m old enough to remember seeing the news coverage of the various bombings but young enough, then, not to know what it was all about. And that’s where Hamill’s book shined. It reminded the reader—this one 25 years later—what all the fighting was about. Unlike a Michael Crichton novel—where Crichton unloads mind-numbing facts the reader needs to know in order to understand the actions of his characters, so much data that you feel like you have to take some notes—Hamill pares the Irish troubles down to its bare facts. His asides were good and necessary.

The story is, however, um, boring. Let me try again: the first half of the book is boring. Sam Briscoe is a 40-something newspaper reporter who agrees to carry a sealed envelope from Ireland back to New York. Sam is a veteran reporter and he doesn’t know that this might be a bad thing? He stops over in Switzerland to see his daughter in her boarding school. The end result is, of course, the bad guys know about her and end up kidnapping her. Hmmm, didn’t see that one coming.

The second half of the book is much better as the action takes off. But unlike other books I have read recently, I never was scared for Sam. Now, that might have been in part because I listened to the book while driving but that’s not all. There are plenty of books that got my heart racing so fast that I actually slowed down my driving in order to concentrate on both things better. The Guns of Heaven was not one of those books.

As a historical piece, it was fantastic. It’s quaint for me, a child of the 80s, to read a book written in an earlier time; I get to experience what they experienced. Hamill’s book took place in a year that I actually remember. I enjoyed reading about the state-of-the-art sound system that included tape decks and turntables. I enjoyed characters having to fish a dime out of their pockets to make calls on public phones. At some point in the novel, Sam refers to The Big Four: four famous American politicians (a governor, two senators, the Speaker of the House) who favored Ireland. I know that Tip O’Neil was Speaker, Ted Kennedy was one of the senators, but I can’t remember who the other two. Anybody help me?

The Guns of Heaven is my least favorite Hard Case Crime book to date. Perhaps it just had the unfortunate slot of being the first book I read after Money Shot. Shoot, Lucky at Cards was more entertaining. The reader, Christian Conn, was very good. His woman’s voices were okay but his male voices were superb. He did a great Irish and southern accent. My next audiobook, A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block, is read by Conn, too. It should be entertaining.

What I Learned As A Writer: For all the good asides Hamill wrote about aspects of the Irish cause, there were a few times where he wrote asides for characters that first emerged onto the book’s stage. Many of them were Too Long. One set of characters was given a bio that lasted about five minutes of listening time. Don’t know how many pages it was but it was too long. And, at the end, when this character did what he did, I realized that I didn’t really need to know this guy’s life story. That’s just me. I try to keep extraneous information down to a paragraph. Perhaps, in some future book, I’ll need a few pages but I’ll try to keep it down. It’s like musicals where the songs don’t’ advance the plot. They just get in the way. Perhaps Hamill needed to be reminded of Elmore Leonard's #10 Rule of Writing: Try to leave out the parts that readers skip. Ironically, when I do that, I get dinged for it by my critique group. Go figure.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fantastic Weekly Blog: Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, & Bombs

I have Google Reader and I link to nearly 25 things, some news, some music, but the rest fiction related. One of the blogs I have come to enjoy a lot is Bruce Grossman's Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, & Bombs over on Bookgasm. Generally, he takes a theme for the week, reads 2-4 books on that theme, and writes about them. What makes this one blog rise above the rest is twofold. One, he reads at an incredible rate. Unless these are books he has read a long time ago and is just now writing about, he is actually reading this many books per week. (Excuse me while I mop up the drool.) Two, the books he chooses are right up my alley: pulp fiction, pure and simple. I have not gone back into his back catalogue (that's the only downside so far; no way to search) but he reads those paperbacks that I so love. It's a great way to spend 5 minutes on a Wednesday morning.

So, do yourself and your Wednesdays a favor: bookmark Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, & Bombs. You'll be glad you did. (Today's topic: TV Shows and their books, including Cyborg, the novel that spawned The Six Million Dollar Man.)

[ERROR: Mr. Grossman was kind enough to reply to my message. He also let me know how to find all the things he has written. Here is what he said:

"Type grossman into the search bar on the site. That will bring everything I've reviewed up including all my columns."

And, since you all want the easy link, Mr. Grossman has provided it here.

Apologies and enjoy!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Book Review: Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block

Lucky at Cards is the second Lawrence Block/Hard Case Crime book I read. The first one I read was HCC’s very first publication, Grifter’s Game. And this is the first Block book I read after I started documenting and reviewing book on this blog.

Lucky at Cards finds one Bill Maynard in a dentist’s chair, having the dentist repair his teeth after a “misunderstanding” in Chicago. Block never names the city but you get the gist that it’s east of Chicago and west of New York. Thus, it could be any city and that makes it fun. Sy Daniels, dentist, invites Maynard for a game of poker with his friends that evening. Maynard, short on cash, accepts. You see, he’s a cardsharp (yes, sharp, not shark like I thought it was) and he knows he can cheat his way to some dough. And that he does…until the host’s wife, Joyce Rogers, comes into the room and steals Maynard’s breath away. Not only that, she calls him on the cheating using code words that only they would know. In short order, Joyce is naked in Maynard’s hotel room and they have hatched a plan to con her husband, Murray, out of his wife and his money.

The beauty of this book—the first con-game book I’ve read since I really dove in the deep end of reading crime fiction—is in the great lengths and details Maynard tells us about as he plans and executes his con. Little things, like changing his voice and his demeanor. And I thoroughly loved Maynard’s fast hands both at the poker table and in the process of the con itself.

Block’s humor and wit are on display here. Can’t quote much because I listened to Lucky at Cards via Audible. The reader, Alan Sklar, was good, putting lots of emphasis in his vocal characterizations. In fact, I actually laughed a few times aloud and alone in my car. Have to love that. Moreover, this is not the first book published during the formative years of rock and roll that has characters lambaste the new music. I chuckle every time.

One thing that struck me was the sex. This book was originally published in 1970 or so and the stereotype of books of this time is that things are implied but never explicitly stated. (That is my impression based on the books I have read so far.) Block pretty much puts it all out there, cleverly glossing over graphic details with euphemisms that leave little to the imagination.

The ending got me. Surprised me a little. The entries from HCC that I have thus far read have almost all had a particular type of ending. (You know what I mean.) Lucky at Cards didn’t. It was a good ending. It just wasn’t what I thought. Whereas the ending of Branded Woman or Little Girl Lost slaps you across the face, making sure to dig in the nails, Lucky at Cards slaps you another way. More in line with Kiss Her Goodbye. It isn’t bad and I am trying to dance around the fact without giving anything away. I really liked the change of pace.

This will not be my last Block book. I know HCC has published at least one more but I’d like to try one of his burglar books. And it has reminded me of a famous short story that I want to go re-read. I can’t tell you the title…or I’ll give away the ending. Just read Lucky at Cards. It’s a sure bet.

What I Learned As A Writer: Another thing I noticed with Block is that he always tells, in a few short words, what foods and drinks his characters are enjoying. It’s a little thing, really, but it brings the reader in that much more. Oh, and the ending. It proves to me that a writer can vary the endings of various books and still achieve the desired outcome. It's a good lesson.

Next audiobook: my first Richard Stark book, Lemons Never Lie.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Book Review: Money Shot by Christa Faust

One can’t help but notice the irony of the books published by Hard Case Crime. In the nearly fifty-book run, every cover has a woman on it, usually painted to be beautiful, evocative, steamy, and just plain sexy. Another constant is that all the books have been written by men.

Until now. Christa Faust’s Money Shot is the first book written by a woman and published by HCC. Let me just tell you: it was worth the wait.

Most of the women on other covers of the other books have at least some clothes draped over them. The lady whose eyes bore into you from the cover of Money Shot is naked. Not nude. Naked. She’s wearing earrings, a cleverly-placed $100 bill, and nothing else. She’s got one hand teasing her hair, the fullness of her breasts are merely hinted at, covered by the folded bill. The smooth sway of her hips extend outward from the C-note, suggesting even more. You can’t tell if she’s standing or laying down but you can tell one thing for sure: she’s got a gun pointed right at your gut. And you know what she’s saying. In that soft teasing voice, she’s saying “You know you want it. I can see it in your eyes. Come on. Pick me up, open me, devour me, ravish me. I dare you not to. Because if you don’t, I’ll blow a hole in you.”

Thusly dared, thusly threatened, I picked up the book and discovered the woman’s name: Angel Dare, former porn star now owner of Daring Angels, an adult modeling agency. She’s through with the porn business—at least, from in front of the camera—but not with what the industry can still give her. And the cover blurb helps to define her character: “It would take more than bullets to stop Angel Dare.” So, if you, a potential reader, were not already drawn to the book by the cover painting (by Glen Orbik, here's a short interview) or the blurb, just give the book the first sentence and/or paragraph test. The first paragraph’s too long to quote here so I’ll give you the first few sentences.

Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies. In real life it takes forever to do little things like pry open your eyes. You spend excruciating ages trying to bend your left middle finger down far enough to feel the rope around your wrists. Even longer figuring out that the cold hard thing poking you in the cheek is one of the handles of a pair of jumper cables. This is not the kind of action that makes for gripping cinema.

But it does make for gripping fiction. From that first paragraph, I dare you not to read further (see, there’s that dare word again). Or how about this, the last two lines from the excerpted section in the front pages of the book.

"Angel Dare," he said. "Wow. You look amazing. This is gonna be awesome."
Then he punched me in the face.
This book is eye-opening. In stylish, unsentimental prose that holds nothing back and slaps you every now and then like they knows you need it, Faust and Dare skewer the porn industry, showing uneducated readers like myself what happens to the ‘glamorous’ guys and gals when the camera lights go off. It ain’t pretty. Nor is Angel Dare pretty after being punched, beaten, tortured, raped, shot, and left for dead. Oh, and then she’s framed for murder. She’s got ample reasons to be pissed off. It’s a good thing the folks at HCC didn’t commission that painting. People would run from the bookstores, screaming about the scary-looking woman with a gun in her hand and revenge in her eyes.

For that’s what Money Shot is: a revenge book. But unlike so many other crime fiction stories (mainly with men), Angel Dare is not a stone-cold killer who was trained in combat and can take out an adversary with her bare hands. She’s a normal, not-usually-violent person, just like the rest of us. And that’s when you realize that Angel’s story is our story. What would we do given the same set of circumstances? Angel Dare has to make those choices and make them from within herself. She does have help along the way but in every crucial milestone of this story, it’s Angel, by herself, in her head, making decisions. She lives with them, no matter how much it rips her heart out.

And we live with this book, at least for a time. There’s a lot in there. To be honest, this is a book I’m likely to read again, I enjoyed it so much. I know I probably missed things. The pace is fast but not breakneck. Angel has moments of contemplation and that allows the reader to catch his breath and then ask of himself the same questions Angel asks of herself. We may arrived at different answers than does Angel but it’s Angel’s story.

The end of the book, the last 30 pages, is almost sublime. For over 200 pages, Angel has gone through the ringer, operating by a set of rules so foreign to her that she doubts the kind of person she has become. But the actions she takes and the choices she makes in that last couple of chapters reveal the true nature of Angel’s character. I will spoil nothing here. You have to read it for yourself. Then, when it’s over, ask yourself that same question: what would you have done?

I highly recommend this book to folks who like this kind of book. It’s stark. The subject matter is not pretty and sometimes ugly. The jokes are often hilarious but not quotable here. Read it. I dare you not to.

What I Learned As A Writer: In many of the modern crime fiction/noir books I read, some authors relish in the graphic details of what happens to a person when flesh meets bullet or blade. That stuff happens in Money Shot. No doubt. I’ll leave it up to your moral code as to whether certain characters deserve what they got. But Faust pulls the less-is-more card from her deck. She lets the reader fill in all the blanks. And, given the circumstances of some of the scenes, I scared myself with the thoughts that I came up with. Genius storytelling.

P.S.

Last week, I mentioned that Allan Guthrie has earned himself a place in my Must-Read list. Christa Faust is now there.

Among the folks who blurb the book (Megan Abbott, Vicki Hendricks, Jason Starr, Duane Swierczynski, and Allan Guthrie) is none other than McKenna Jordan, one of the good folks who work at Houston’s own mystery bookstore, Murder by the Book. Congrats McKenna.

At Christa’s website, she has posted a self-made trailer for the book. Check it out.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Coincidences

In my New York Times Page-a-Day Crossword today, the day after I finished The Thin Man and wrote my review, there is this clue: One of Asta's owners. Four letters. Beginning with N-O-_-_.

Here's my latest bit of coincidence: I just finished reading my first Allan Guthrie novel and I'm currently reading my first Christa Faust novel. Love them both...but my local libraries don't have any other copies. And I've been to five bookstores looking for Guthrie works...and there are none. Granted, that might be because they are so good everyone is buying them. So I'm looking at the table of contents for an anthology I have but have not read (Hell of a Woman) and what do you know? I've got stories not only by Guthrie and Faust but Bruen, Charlie Huston, Sara Gran, and Eddie Muller. Guess I should have opened the book sooner. I would have been ahead of the game.

Has that kind of thing ever happened to you? Where you get some notion or idea or thought, you ponder it, and then something comes out of the blue and it is just what you needed to hear/see/feel? Weird that way.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Book Review: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

One of the things about coming to the crime fiction scene so late in my life is that I know the clich├ęs before I actually get to their origin point. The same is true for films, too. When I finally saw “Casablanca” in my 24th year of life, I was amazed at how many phrases/scenes were originally from that movie. It was fun but it lost a little because I had seen cartoon characters utter certain lines for laughs, not human characters saying those lines like they meant it.

When I first decided to read Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, I knew enough of the book to know that the stars of the show were Nick and Nora Charles. I am a child of the 1980s. As such, certain things are ingrained in my head and I bring them to every new adventure I go on. With The Thin Man, “Moonlighting” and “Hart to Hart” were the things that moved past Star Wars miscellanea and rare music trivia to set up shop at the forefront of my brain. There they sat, ready to divulge some little chunk of knowledge that might prove useful with my new book.

Honestly, I was disappointed. With those two TV shows in my head—and the relationship between the respective couples active in my memory—I read The Thin Man waiting for the book to be like those shows I remembered. It didn’t happen. Granted, the book was published in 1934, but I expected a little more involvement from Nora. There are large chunks of the book where she’s relegated to their hotel room while Nick, the former PI, goes off and solves the case. True, Nick and his cop pal, Guild, go to places a socialite like Nora wouldn’t want to go to, but still, I’d have thought she’d be in more scenes. And take a look at that cover. Glamor and intrigue ooze from the cover painting. Didn't find much in the prose.

The story itself is light but not in a bad way. Much of the action is relayed to Nick or Nora by other characters telling a story. As a modern writer whose mantra is ‘show don’t tell,’ some of the scenes were annoying. The dialogue between Nick and Nora was fun and the reader, William Dufris, does a remarkable job of speaking in multiple female voices.

Another preconceived notion I had going in was a direct result of an earlier Hammett novel, Red Harvest. In that novel, much blood is shed. I kind of expected some more blood but I guess The Thin Man was something of a cozy in hard-boiled clothing.

I can’t help but wonder how it was that I knew Nick and Nora Charles before I read the book. The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel but there were something like six films made. Perhaps that is where their fame emerges. I have the movie and I plan on watching it this week.

What I Learned As A Writer: As previously mentioned, 'show don't tell' should still suffice as the fundamental mantra for any writer. Additionally, for this, my least favorite Hammett novel to date (I haven’t read The Glass Key yet), frankly, I’d like to do a better job. I hate to write that because Hammett is a giant in the crime fiction field. Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon were much more enjoyable to me. But I do think there is room in the world for a modern take on the husband-wife crime-solving team. It will be fun to try.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Charles Ardai on Fresh Air

Charles Ardai, one of the two founders of Hard Case Crime, was on NPR's Fresh Air today. Here is the link. Listen how Ardai talks about noir fiction, the imprint Hard Case Crime, his own novel, Songs of Innocence, and his take on the history of crime fiction.

What's great about Ardai's two novels (Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence) is that his PI, John Blake, is not your typical PI. He's bespeckled, slight, a liberal arts major, and not very good at his job. He's a little like me, to be honest. I'm a liberal arts major, middle-class, doing well for myself, isolated from the bad stuff that goes down everyday...and I like reading about and I'm writing about people I'd be scared of. Weird?

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Great SF Podcast

What Behind the Black Mask does for crime fiction, Adventures in SciFi Publishing does for science fiction and fantasy. Aside from the fantastic in-depth interviews with authors (talking about their books, writing process) and members of the SF/F publishing field (Lou Anders is a frequent guest), Tobias Buckell serves up an "Ask the Writer" segment. It is always a pleasure to hear how others writers deal with this strange thing called creative writing.

Check it out. Subscribe to it. Love it. Be it.

My Desk and Writing Area

Over at Murderati, there is a discussion from the question: What is on your desk? Here is my response.

I have two desks--one made by my dad--and I use them in different ways. The writing desk is literally the desk I sit at to write anything long hand. There are times when pixels and a keyboard don't do it for me. I break out the pen (Pilot PreciseGrip 0.5mm, blue ink) and paper (college-ruled comp books) and compose. Yes, there are times when the ideas flow too rapidly that my handwriting is horrible. (During those times, I make notes in the margins or on yellow Post-its.) But the old-school way of writing helps the flow sometimes.

Then I have the computer desk. It's really a old server thingy--with shelves on both sides of a central post. On the closest shelf, I have it lowered to where my ergonomic keyboard sits. The other shelf I have raised so that my MacBook is almost eye level. Behind the Mac, in plain view when the Mac is closed, are my Current Books. (Right now: Money Shot by Christa Faust, Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, By Night in Chile, Hell of a Woman (anthology), The White Trilogy (Bruen), and the book I just finished and reviewed, Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie) On the walls next to my Mac are my awards (four so far). I won an authographed photo from the band Chicago when I wrote a short story using over 70 titles of their songs. My first novel, Treason at Hanford, twice won third place at the Ft. Bend Writer's Guild contests. My second novel, Justice in H-Town won third place just last month. And I have a framed copy of my first published piece: a memorial to the journalist David Bloom, published in the Houston Chronicle in April 2003.

I use them to remind me that I have the talent to be a writer...and that only persistence will help me become a *published* author.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Female Crime Writers and Female Characters

Since my second novel, Justice in H-Town, has a female HPD detective as the main character, I'm becoming a bit more sensitive to 'woman things.' By that I mean that, well, I'm a guy and have guy thoughts. But I need to be sure to put gal thoughts in the head of my detective, Anne Chambers. My wife is a great resource as are the women (and men) in my writing group.

Over at the Behind the Black Mask, Clute and Edwards have posted the podcasts they did for Noircon 2008 in Philadelphia. I just listened to the Wise Guys and Femmes Fatales episode. C&E interviewed Megan Abbott, Vicki Hendricks, Christa Faust, and Jonathan Santlofer. Had to laugh when Jonathan mentioned that his female editor, at one point, mentioned that he did not have enough 'girl stuff' in his books. Great episode and it, and all the episodes from Noircon, are well worth a listen. Looking forward to when I'll be attending, first as a fan and then, maybe, someday, as a writer.

BTW, after finishing Guthrie's Kiss Her Goodbye, I'm currently reading Christa Faust's Money Shot (Hard Case Crime). Tune in to Behind the Black Mask in May when C&E will interview Faust. I've read the first chapter already. Holy cow! I'm already blown away.

Book Review: Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie

Let’s get this out of the way first: if Hard Case Crime publishes it, I’ll read it. Period. In fact, I have used it to learn about new authors and get reacquainted with older writers long out of print or lacking the respect of modern critics. Ken Bruen is a name I first learned because of HCC. Richard Aleas is another. Add to that list Allan Guthrie.

As I mentioned in my post about crime novels, I’m a late comer to the crime genre in fiction. I’m ever expanding my list of Must-Read authors. Allan Guthrie just landed himself on that list. And it was because of Kiss Her Goodbye.

Kiss Her Goodbye is Guthrie’s second novel after Two-Way Split. One of the best things about HCC is the cover blurbs. I’m not talking about “From the author of Touch of Evil;” I’m talking about those one-liners that grab you by the shirt collar and scream for you to read it. For KHG, it’s this: “For what she went through, somebody had to pay…” On the cover is a typical HCC girl—pretty, daring, wearing an expression to make a priest blush—with a baseball bat. I’m there, brother. Bring it on. Granted, as the story goes on, I did begin to wonder who the ‘she’ actually was because there are multiple candidates. And that's part of the beauty of the story.

The main focus of the story is about Joe Hope, the muscle for a loan shark in Scotland. His daughter committed suicide and the cops think he killed his wife. His love for his daughter is palpable and struck me, a parent, right in the gut. It brought me along on a story of a guy who’d I’d cross the street to avoid.

The writing is tight but dense. Guthrie gives Joe good chunks of internal struggle. It is this internal struggle that carries us through half the book, as Joe spends most of the first half wandering in a daze or inside a police station. I’ll admit that there are times, when reading a book, where I skim over the longer paragraphs to get to the next bit of dialogue. No so KHG. I dug deep and felt Joe’s pain.

In one of the blurbs on the KHG page at HCC, a reviewer mentions Guthrie’s ‘mastery of casual violence’ and I didn’t know what that meant. KHG is a modern noir book. I expected violence and I got it. But I now know what ‘casual violence’ is. Almost like reading a grocery list, violence just happens. There’s no big lead-up, there’s little warning, it just is. I guess that’s what it’s like in real life. I like it. I’ll try to incorporate it into my fiction.

One last thing: it’s a rare book whose last sentence delivers a punch. Branded Woman is one. The Day After Tomorrow is a fantastic example. Kiss Her Goodbye delivers one, too, but it’s a more nuanced punch. Don’t get me wrong: it still smacks you but in a good way. Try it. You’ll like the feeling.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I have to go to the library and find me some more Allan Guthrie books