Saturday, August 1, 2020

What’s Your Book About? The Challenge of Book Descriptions

What do you think about book descriptions?

When someone asks us what our book is about, some of us are hamstrung. Having lived with the book for potentially months, we know the ins and outs of the story. Some of us launch into a massively detailed description of the book, the characters, the plots and sub-plots.

That’s not entirely helpful.

You’ve read a lot of book descriptions. I know I have. They either catch you or they don’t. Well, there’s another thing that can sometimes happen: the book description that tells too much. How irritating are those movie trailers that all but show you the entire film? We are all sophisticated viewers (and readers) so I don’t think we need every single beat of a story told in a description.

The reason I’m talking book descriptions is that I’m preparing my next book for publication. It’s called TREASON AT HANFORD: A HARRY TRUMAN MYSTERY. I’ve been re-reading it and making edits and changes most of the summer. I’ve got a cover concept (well, at least five) and I sent it to some of my fellow graphic designers to get their take. One of them came back: what’s the book about?

So I sent the description.

What’s problematic about a book featuring Harry Truman is that most folks know he was president and probably instantly jump to that conclusion when they think of Truman. But my tale takes place the year before he became vice president and then president. So I needed at least a sentence or two to lay the groundwork that I’m referring to Senator Truman and not President Truman.

After a few attempts, here’s what I wrote:

Before he became vice president in 1945, Senator Harry Truman led a congressional committee dedicated to ferreting out corruption during World War II. The investigators of the Truman Committee adhere to a simple credo: help the country win the war and bring our soldiers home.

In the spring of 1944, Truman receives a series of ominous letters from a lawyer out in Hanford, Washington. His client, a common farmer who lost his land when the government confiscated miles of territory for a secret project, has been drafted to keep him quiet about what he’s seen going on around a local warehouse with direct ties to the giant facility in the area.

Fearing the worst, Truman leads the investigation himself, bringing along Carl Hancock, a former policeman. Soon after they start poking around, Truman and Hancock witness a pair of brutally murdered corpses, a town clouded in secrecy, and the warehouse owner who is ready to pull strings and dismiss the pesky senator.

But the man from Independence, Missouri, is tenacious, and in no time, Truman and Hancock not only find themselves embroiled in the top-secret world of the Manhattan Project but also must confront the worst act of treason in American history since Benedict Arnold.
 

Analysis:

To me, paragraph one sets the stage in the reader’s mind that this is Senator Truman I’m writing about. Paragraph two features the incident that gets Truman’s attention and start the investigation. The third paragraph ups the stakes by throwing in corpses and the world of 1944. And the final paragraph—which could almost be a log line itself—tosses the phrases “Benedict Arnold” and “The Manhattan Project” into the mix, letting the reader know the just how high the stakes are.

I think it’s a good description and should tell potential readers whether or not they’d like the book.


Then there’s the elevator pitch. Maybe it’s the log line, the one-sentence version of the book. Kudos for any creative type who can sum up a work in a sentence. It’s crucial, mind you, but it’s a skill that must be learned if you don’t already have it.

Like I just wrote, the last paragraph of the description could serve as the elevator pitch, but I also have a sentence on the cover: Before Harry Truman dropped the bomb, he had to save it.

I debated whether or not to include ‘A Harry Truman Mystery’ or not as a sub-title and will likely opt not to have it and leave in the cover blurb. Not sure. Still tweaking the cover concept.

What’s the cover look like? Well, you’ll just have to watch a little bit longer.

What are  your thoughts on book descriptions? How do you structure them?

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Breaking Down Bosch on TV

When you're a writer, you always notice structure in a story, no matter the medium.

Not sure why the wife and I never started watching Amazon Prime's Bosch TV show, based on Michael Connelly's series of books, but a few weeks ago, we pulled the plug.

And have loved every moment of the first three seasons. Titus Welliver as the titular character is fantastic. Now, I say that as someone who's read only a handful of the Bosch books so he may or may not be everyone's first choice, but with Connelly on as an executive producer, he saw something he liked. Besides, it's a different medium. I love his intensity and Bosch's sense of justice no matter the cost, even to himself or his career. We're just a couple of episodes into the fourth season and I so love the fact that Bosch was assigned the main case because he wasn't the target of the victim, a dead lawyer who had gone after cops. How'd Bosch miss this guy?

Jerry Edgar, or J. Edgar, is Bosch's partner. Played by Jamie Hector of The Wire fame, he's naturally much younger than Bosch. You do get the typical veteran-to-younger guy vibe, but that's okay. J. Edgar dresses nice, has a wife and two young children, and is in a different place in life. Hector does a fine job of saying much by saying little, and I liked how his character gradually changed over the first three seasons, especially the third as he came to understand what makes Bosch tick.

The imposing Lance Reddick plays Irvin Irving, a guy who ends up being promoted to interim chief of police. I swear, if he were interrogating me, all he'd have to do was just stare at me and I'd talk. Another veteran of The Wire, Reddick brings a simmering intensity to even the most mundane of scenes. When the chief experiences a personal tragedy, there is one scene Reddick nails.

Amy Aquino plays Bosch's long-suffering lieutenant. Like all the cast in this show, she fits right in with the hard-boiled detectives of her squad. She gives as good as she gets, and is always there to back Bosch. We got a little of her backstory in season three and its...dicey.

I could go on, but I wanted to circle back to being a writer and watching a show like this. Each season is ten episodes, each about 45-50 minutes, give or take. The writers spin multiple threads during season three. There's the murder-of-the-season, there's the cold case involving the murder of Bosch's prostitute mother, there's Bosch's family life (teenaged daughter and ex-wife and her husband; the ex is a professional poker player), there's J. Edgar's family, and Chief Irving's story. That's five not including the bad guys who are involved in the season-long mystery.

I find it fascinating how well the stories ebb and flow, play off each other, and become resolved. Sometimes, it's about a 30-second scene with a few lines of dialogue. Other times, it's a full section. I haven't yet sat down to analyze a single episode, but I'm thinking about it. It seems so effortless, but I know it's based on long and hard work. You can learn structure and story by breaking down a book or TV show. I did it with The Da Vinci Code back in the day and a few episodes of Castle.

I'll keep watching for structure as we get through season four. It opens up new ideas in my head for how to craft a story. Writers. We're always learning.

The only problem with binge viewing? You eventually reach the end. Next season is next year. But I'm gonna enjoy this show. It'll probably lead me to the books.

What are the best Bosch books?

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Prodigal Son: Come for the Premise, Stay for the Twists


I had seen the promos for Fox’s PRODIGAL SON back in 2019 and my eyes slid off it. “What if Hannibal Lector had a son and they solved mysteries together?” Wasn’t interested.

A few weeks ago, with my wife’s urging, we gave it a try. I am converted.

The Premise

The story focuses on Malcolm Bright (played by Tom Payne), a former FBI profiler, who now works with a small team at the NYPD. The police squad is led by Lt. Gil Arroyo (perennial favorite Lou Diamond Phillips) with Detectives Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau) and JT Tarmel (Frank Harts) as part of the team. Keiko Agena plays Dr. Edrisa Tanaka, the medical examiner.

It is Malcolm’s father who is the serial killer known as The Surgeon, and for good reason: he is renowned surgeon Dr. Martin Whitly. Rouding out the main cast is Malcolm’s mother, Jessica (Bellamy Young) and his sister, Ainsley (Halston Sage).

The pilot centers on a copycat killer who is using The Surgeon’s MO, so Malcolm is brought in. As a kid, Malcolm was the one who exposed his father, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. Lt. Arroyo was there and has taken a fatherly interest in Malcolm ever since.

The Central Question

This is your typical killer-of-the-week type of show, but it is the characters who help lift this show above the mundane. Despite my initial reticence, you might have thought the premise alone would have hooked me, but I’m not a huge fan of serial killer stories. Still the dynamics of Malcolm’s character make it pretty interesting. With a title like PRODIGAL SON and Malcolm’s own mental issues, there’s a strong chord throughout the show asking the simple question: Is Malcolm like his father? Could the younger Whitly succumb just like his father?

The “Is he or is he not a killer?” is a nice twist on the traditional “Will they or won’t they?” question we ask of shows like CASTLE. Speaking of one of my all-time favorite shows, the pilot is very similar to to CASTLE’s pilot. Shrug.

There is also the question revolving around Malcolm’s continued flashbacks to one night, when he was a child, and saw a woman in a chest. Was she a victim? Who was she? And what happened to her?

The Characters

Even if a premise hooks you, it is often the characters who compel you to stay. Here, despite the guardrails of a network television show, the characters are pretty darn good. Malcolm’s great and his mind trips are, well, a trip. His relationships with the various members of his family are dramatic if not a little too dramatic. When he visits his dad, they’re always very formal, with the son referring to his dad as “Dr. Whitly.” But it’s really neat to see the progression of their relationship as the 20-episode first season goes on.

Speaking of The Surgeon, Michael Sheen is having a blast. He knows he’s often the comedic relief and he plays it up. It’s a little jarring at first to see this serial killer be funny and you laugh at his comments, but Sheen does a fine job. Know what else he’s good at? The sudden shift from funny to dangerous, sometimes at the blink of an eye. It is in those moments when you go, “Oh, right, he’s killed twentysomething people.”

Phillips is solid as a rock. He is even-keeled who knows he has to go by the book, but also realizes “by the book” doesn’t apply to Malcolm. This is an “eccentric detective with cops” show after all. He really cares for Malcolm and does his best to keep the young man out of as much trouble as he can, not always successfully.

The Stories

Like most shows nowadays, there is the crime-of-the-week ones and the season-long story arc. Both are satisfying but there are bumps along the road. Highlights include one in which Malcolm wakes to find himself chained inside a cellar (episode 11), the pilot (for setting everything in motion and hooking me), the one with a former cop who worked The Surgeon’s case (episode 10), and the last trio of episodes. I can’t think of a single episode that was sub-par, and many were quite entertaining.

The Twists

If given the premise and the central questions I listed above, I’m guessing you’d form your own opinions on what might happen during the season. Trust me: I had them, too. But creators Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver know what you’re thinking and deliver something different. It’s nice to say that some of the questions are resolved while others just make you anticipate season 2 that much more.

The Verdict

I thoroughly enjoyed season 1 of PRODIGAL SON and would certainly recommend. I know I’m eagerly waiting for season 2.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Palm Springs: A Time-Loop Rom-Com Full of Emotion and an Intriguing Ending

Friday night is movie night at the Parker house. Last Friday, the wife selected the film: a brand-new movie released on Hulu called Palm Springs. It's a film starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti that is part rom-com and part Groundhog Day. I knew nothing about the film, but it only took me seeing half the trailer to jump on board.

Boy, I’m sure glad my wife found this utterly delightful film.

Samberg spends much of his time on camera in the same yellow swim trunks and red Hawaiian shirt, but he also wears this to a wedding. Who the heck wears a swimsuit to a wedding? A guy who’s stuck in a time loop.

But we don’t know that at the movie starts. All we see is Samberg’s Nyles bored with life and love. Lazy time in a pool, snatching a microphone during the wedding toast, speaking directly to Milioti’s Sarah. Samberg is never without a beer (which made me wonder just how many he opened on set). But Sarah finally meets him as Nyles does a funny dance with all the guests at the party.

They talk, they go out in the desert to make out, only to be stopped by a shadowed man who shoots Nyles with a bow and arrow. The hunter (J.K. Simmons) flees into a cave with a bright orange glow. Nyles follows, but he implores Sarah not to follow him.

She does.

And wakes up on the same day (9 November) in her same bed. She freaks out (who wouldn’t?) and finds Nyles. It is he who tells her they (and Simmons’s Roy) are stuck in a time loop on the day of the wedding. She does what anyone else would do to try and stop it. When she discovers she can’t, she accepts it and she and Nyles begin their courtship.

The Journey in a Rom Com


In just about every romantic comedy, the question isn’t if the pair will end up together, it’s how. Still, it’s fun to see these two enjoying life. Nyles now wakes with a smile on his face and slowly but surely, so does Sarah. But they’re just spending time together and not sleeping together.

Until one night, natch. There’s a short sequence here that is magical that I won’t spoil here, but it left me grinning ear to ear. Even my wife loved it.

But in every rom-com, you have the breakup. Yes, it happens here. Nyles goes back to moping, finally realizing that his life-in-the-time-loop philosophy of carpe diem is wrong and that he’s actually fallen in love with Sarah. He even seeks out Roy to see where his day always starts. Sarah, on the other hand, goes to school. She starts to spend every day on the internet learning about quantum physics, determined to find a way to escape.

Now, at this point, I’m going to say that Palm Springs is a wonderful film. Writer Andy Siara has taken a pair of fun tropes and mixed them together in a nice, twisty film that is pretty darn funny and emotional. Director Max Barbakow unfolds the story in such a way as to reveal new facts the deeper into the movie you go.

For me, having never watched Andy Samberg in anything other than Saturday Night Live, it was fun to watch him morph from his usual type personality on SNL to show some genuine emotion. I only know Milioti from the opening story on last year’s Modern Love TV series (highly recommended), but she shines here. I really appreciated how she changed over the course of the film, and she shows that change with her voice.

Really enjoyed this film, and it felt good to watch something new. I’m going to talk about the science fictional elements in the section below, but make no mistake: it barely factors into this delightful show. Unlike, say, Back to the Future or Star Trek, this is a movie focused on characters. The SF stuff is just there to make the characters interact. So if you don’t like SF, don’t worry. It’s barely there.

But be sure to stay through the first half of the credits....

SPOILER WARNING:


From here on out, I talk the ending. Go watch the film and then come back. And this is all my own conjecture. I’ve not read any other articles, assuming they’re there (I’ll be checking after I write this). And all of this is just a fun thought experiment. The movie stands on its own.




Ready?



So, Sarah figures out how to get out of the time loop. She’s conducted the experiment with the goat. She knows it works because the goat no longer shows up in their time loop.

Okay, I got that. Then she and Nyles shuffle into the cave and as they kiss, she ignites the C4. Boom. Next thing we see, Nyles and Sarah are in the neighbor’s pool…and the neighbors show up. Nyles remarks that he guesses they return on 10 November, which is proof her experiment worked.

Cut to long shots of the desert…and I’ll tell you right now, I was starting to be not 100% satisfied with the ending. What about Roy? (As a dad, after Roy’s little speech, I felt sorry for him.)

The mid-credits sequence proves he also gets out.

But how?

So Sarah and Nyles are now in Regular Time, presumably 10 November and beyond. In the mid-credits scene, Roy comes up to Nyles (now dressed in a suit) and says “You’re girlfriend told me about the way to get out of this loop.” Nyles turns…and doesn’t appear to know Roy. Roy then breaks into a huge grin, knowing the escape is possible.

Again, how? How does Sarah and Nyles essentially go back in time to get Roy out of the time loop?

My first idea is that Nyles was lying to Roy, pretending not to know him but really being Nyles of Time Line A (the one of which we see only one day). That is, the Nyles we’ve seen for 90 minutes. But that still doesn’t explain how Sarah communicated to Roy. Nor how they basically went back in time to 9 November to relay the information. The only explanation I could come up with is a parallel universe.

Side question: assuming Time Line A is what we see—and Nyles and Sarah are caught in an infinite loop—can we assume everyone else in Time Line A just goes about their lives on 10 November and beyond, wondering where Nyles and Sarah are? Ditto for Roy’s family. To everyone else, the trio will have simply disappeared. Erased from existence, to quote Doc Brown.

The other idea is that Nyles and Sarah lived 9 November in as many parallel universes as they did, with every other person living out their days wondering whatever happened to Nyles and Sarah.

But somehow, Sarah communicated to Roy. The only explanation I can come up with is that Sarah figured out a way to go back in time. Heck, she figured out how to break out of the time loop. What’s to say she couldn’t figure out how to go back in. Or at least communicate through time. Perhaps the only thing she can do is communicate back in time, giving Roy instructions on what to do and how to do it.

That’s the only explanation I can come up with.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Joy of Making Edits

I'm working on the manuscript of my latest novel. It's a 94,000-word book that I'm pretty jazzed about. I spent June reading and revising the paper copy. It was long and slow, and I took my time with it. I kept a yellow legal pad next to my table and made additional notes along the way. Some of those notes were global ones like "Search for all instances of 'RDX' and determine which character explains it." Bonus points if you know what RDX actually is. I enjoyed re-reading this book and look forward to sharing it with everyone.

But the next step is the making of the changes. Page by page, edit by edit. I make all my changes with green ink as I read the manuscript. When I go back through and implement the changes, I use a pencil. Easy to visualize if I've implemented a change or not.

So, none of this is new for any writer. What I'm really getting at is this: I actually enjoy this last process. What some writers think of as tedious, I truly dig it.

Why?

Well, it's in the nuts and bolts of constructing a story. Sure, lots of craftsmen--let's use a carpenter as an example--might not truly fret about which nails to use and which varnish to apply to a completed piece. But many do. As a non-carpenter, I tend to think of a nail is a nail is a nail. That one's silver, this other one is brass. That one has a head, this one doesn't. Whatever. But to a carpenter, every type of nail means something and does something particular. The final result is where all the little choices made along the way add up to something greater than the whole.

So, too, with words and punctuation. I love the re-evaluation of my own edits. So there's my original draft and then there's the changes I made back in June. Now that I'm going back and implementing said edits, I get another chance to ask myself if my changes are good, if the original text is still better, or, perhaps, there's a third option. Or a fourth.

It's like a carpenter choosing nails or a type of saw blade. The magic happens in the nitty gritty details.

And I love it.

Am I alone in relishing this stage of the writing process?

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Online Author Interviews at Murder by the Book

Sometimes, washing the dishes can lead to a book purchase. Oh, is that just me? Shrug. It still happened.

My wife's a great cook so she prepares most of our meals. Being the team player I am, if she cooks, I clean the dishes. It's never a problem because I'll always plug in the earbuds and listen to a podcast or a few minutes of whatever audiobook that's atop my To Be Listened To list. (Right now: the science fiction/spycraft novel The Bayern Agenda by Dan Moren).

But a little less than two weeks ago, as I moseyed over to the sink to wash up, I checked Facebook. I don't have notifications turned on, so to see what's going on over there, I have to literally tap the app and start swiping.

Right up at the top of my feed was an indication that Houston's Murder by the Book bookstore was live. Like many things online during this Covid-19 pandemic, it was an interview (Zoom meeting) between John McDougall and author J. Todd Scott.

Scott is one of those authors that has circled my radar for a few years. As a DEA agent, many of his assignments have been in west Texas and the American Southwest. More specifically, his books are set in the Big Bend region of Texas, a place I love for its stark beauty.

Seeing the interview was live, I ended up listening while washing the dishes. Scott is in many ways an author like myself. He's got a day job and writes a little bit each morning. But it was something very specific that made sit up and take notice. He mentioned a book he wrote that he liked and submitted to his agent. The agent liked it, but paused. You see, it wasn't really "on brand" for a J. Todd Scott novel. Scott said he marveled at the concept that he actually had a brand. He does.

That got me to thinking about my own brand. But that's a topic for a different post.

I enjoyed the interview so much that I called the store the next day and ordered a copy of Scott's first novel, THE FAR EMPTY. My son picked it up for me a few days later when he visited my dad. I started reading that very night. In only a few pages, I was hooked, making me wonder why it took me so long to get around to reading a J. Todd Scott novel. Dunno. Maybe the timing wasn't perfect.

But if there's a takeaway from today's post, it's this: if you are not following Murder by the Book's Facebook page, change it today. Follow their page and when you do, you'll have access not only to future live author interviews, but all the past ones you might've missed. That incluces the one from J. Todd Scott. (It's a little odd to have an author's last name be the same as my first name.) I couldn't figure out how to snag the actual link, but you can find it on 23 June 2020.

Then be sure to check Murder by the Book's webpage which has the events calendar with almost daily interviews. It's a great resource for all the time we're all spending at home, staying safe, and reading books.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Three Cheers for an Indie: James D. F. Hannah Wins the Shamus

I read Jeff Pierce’s wonderful blog, The Rap Sheet, everyday. Y’all read that, don’t you? I mean, he’s nothing less that one of the most comprehensive sources of the goings on in the crime fiction world. His site should definitely be on your daily reading list.

On Thursday, he posted the winners of the 2020 Shamus Awards. They are sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America, a group started by prolific author Robert J. Randisi way back in 1981.

I always enjoy awards season when finalists and winners are announced because it gives me new books to add to the never-ending TBR pile. On Jeff’s post, he also lists the publishers of the books.

In the Best Original Private Eye Paperback category, the winning book is BEHIND THE WALL OF SLEEP, by James D.F. Hannah. I know the author and now he gets to put Shamus Award winning author behind his name. This is a great win for Hannah, but what I zeroed in on was the listed publisher: Self-published.

Yes, an indie writer won a major award!

I sent a text to Hannah and asked the question: to the best of your knowledge, are you first indie writer to win a major award? The answer was a resounding yes.

I ended up peppering him last night with a few more questions.

He has a day job. He works in government, public relations department. BEHIND THE WALL OF SLEEP is the fifth novel in his Henry Malone series. He has a spiffy cover and I asked him if he hired a designer. Actually, with his design background in the newspaper business, he created the cover himself. He quickly said it wasn’t something he’d recommend for most folks.

James D. F. Hannah is a pen name. His real name is pretty much out in the world. About the pen name, he wrote this: “The pen name came around because I’ve always jokingly said that I never wanted to see my name attached to a one-star review on Amazon.” If you glance at his Amazon author page, you’ll see he’s in no danger of any one-star review. But, he continued, his pen name contains his children’s names. As a dad, I love this.

Finally, I asked the big question: why indie?

His answer:

I wasn’t sure I could find a publisher interested in publishing what’s hoped were these funny redneck PI novels. Also, I wanted to be able to tell the stories the way I wanted to do it. Now do I necessarily think it was the best way to go? Probably not. But I’ve gotten to write these books and stay true to my own voice. That’s not to say I wouldn’t go with a publisher and adapt because I would. End of day, it’s always about getting to tell the story, and hoping others will like them.

While he is in the process of redoing his website, he is quite active on Twitter (@JamesDFHannah).

Congratulations to James for the award! Keep that indie banner flying.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Reach of Living History

I'd like to call your attention to an article by John Gruber over at Daring Fireball as an example of the reach of living history.

Earlier this month, the last person who was receiving a Civil War pension died. Now, the first thing you might think is "Didn't that war end 155 years ago?"

Yes, it did. So how?

If you read the story, you'll learn that Irene Triplett died this month at the age of 90. Her father was a Confederate and US soldier (yes, both; read the article for the reason). In 1924, her dad, 78, married her mother, aged 27. Her dad died in 1938 (that meant Moses Triplett was 92 so longevity is in the genes). After her mom died, Irene was eligible for the pension, which she received, all the way through May 2020.

Just think on that for a moment. There may be other children of Civil War veterans out there who didn't receive their father's pension, but for all intents and purposes, Irene's death means that last living person with a direct relation to the Civil War (1861-1865) has now passed away.

In 2020.

If you visit the link, the story has a secondary link to something call The Great Span. There is a YouTube video of a 1929 interview with a then 103-year old man. If that man was born prior to July 4, 1826, that meant he was alive...when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both alive. James Madison, too. Beethoven was alive. Dickens was alive. 

Go back to Irene Triplett. She was borh when Hoover was president (and Coolidge was still alive), the Great Depression was ongoing, and World War II was still nine years in the future.

I find it utterly fascinating the reach of living history. Even in my own family, my son was born in the 21st Century. I am so last century. 

By the way, the last actual Civil War veteran died...in 1956 at the age of 106. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

History Comes Alive With The Lincoln Conspiracy

There's a moment in The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Killed America's 16th President - and Why It Failed where the President-elect hears dire warnings from two independent sources that his life is in danger and he takes action. He agrees to sneak out of a pre-Inauguration Day party in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, don a disguise, and be whisked away by train, all in an effort to thwart the plot to kill him in Baltimore. That moment consists of me breathlessly wondering: Is he gonna make it?

It's been 155 years since his death. There's a giant statue of President Lincoln in Washington, He's on the penny. He's one of the most famous Americans of all time. He might be recognized in nearly every corner of the world here in 2020. Of course he makes it.

But that's the testament to the writing skill of Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch: they weave the story and the details in such a way as to make history read like a thriller. And dang if this story won't thrill you.

We all know Lincoln's ultimate fate on Good Friday, 1865, but few know of the first plot to kill him before he even took office. I'll admit I learned about it back in grad school at the University of North Texas but it was only in passing. I knew it was foiled and that private detective Allan Pinkerton played a key role. But I never knew the details that fill over 350 pages in this remarkable book.

Much like they did with The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington (2019), Meltzer and Mensch dig deep into the details of this 1861 plan hatched by a cabal of Southern loyalists. They didn't want the president-elect—who carried no slave-holding states in the recent election—to take his place in the White House. At the time, the Republican Party was against the institution of slavery even if Lincoln himself tried to steer a narrow line between free and slave.

Following a tradition dating back to America's first president, Lincoln traveled from his home in Springville, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., in the weeks leading up to his inauguration. Two things gave the Southerners fuel for their plot: Lincoln's itinerary was published in many papers and the rail-splitter from the west would have to change trains in Baltimore. What made this transfer problematic was not only was Maryland a slave state, but the transfer wasn't merely changing trains in a single station. No, this change from one rail line to another involved literally moving a train car about a mile from one station to the next. In that time, with the expected throngs of Southern sympathizers clogging the streets, the president-elect's life would be in jeopardy.

Hired by one of the railroad men to protect threats against the railroad, Pinkerton and one of his agents, Kate Warne, uncovered the real plot. It was then Pinkerton urged Lincoln to change his plans. The new president demurred until a fateful night when word of the plot arrived from his recent rival and future Secretary of State, William Seward. Convinced of the threat, Lincoln finally allowed himself to be disguised and sneak into the nation's capital under the cover of darkness.

Like they did with their Washington book, Meltzer and Mensch write their prose in the present tense. It gives the story an immediacy, a will-he or won't-he vibe that's pretty darn exciting. Often, they'll recount a scene and then cut to a contemporary scene in another part of the country. You really get a bird's eye view of the whole situation.

If you are a fan of audiobook, preeminent narrator, Scott Brick, reads the book. He could read the phonebook and I'd pay to hear it. He narrates everything he does so well, and I especially like the timbre of his voice as he reaches the end of the book and reads the last lines from Meltzer and Mensch.

History isn't just names and dates, laws and wars, pop culture and events. It is people, real people, living their lives and making decisions based on the best knowledge they have at any given time. Some decisions are momentous: the outcome of the 1861 election, the secession of the Southern states, the foiled assassination in 1861 and the successful one four years later. This book peels away some of the veneer Lincoln now lives with in the American imagination in the 155 years since his death, showing us a real guy, beset by personal and national tragedy, who is doing the best he can. Ditto for Pinkerton, Warne, and the Southerners.

Books like these breathe life into history, and as a historian, we need more books like this so folks in the 21st Century can be entertained and learn a little something along the way.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

In Memory of Dennis O'Neil, Writer Extraordinaire

[In lieu of the post I was going to write, I'm going to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of a comic book legend. Dennis O'Neil is easily one of the people you'd put on the Mt. Rushmore of Batman creators. I mean, he and Neal Adams are instant members of the Batman Hall of Fame. As good as the artwork of Adams was, the words of O'Neil gave the character depth and humanity. He did the same for Green Lantern and Green Arrow fifty years ago at the dawn of the Bronze Age of Comics. Then, in the 1980s, as the editor of the Batman titles, he steered the transition into our Modern Age, as comics 'grew up' and took on more mature topics.

In interviews, O'Neil often discussed his own personal demons and how he overcame them and his love of pulp fiction (especially The Shadow). But I really appreciated his workmanlike take on the job of writing. Yes, he can often spin words brilliantly, but he always showed up, rolled up his sleeves, and did the work.

I had already pulled my trade paperback of the famous Hard Travelin' Heroes storyline from Green Lantern (on its fiftieth anniversary), but yesterday, I pulled out my heretofore unread copy of The Question. I've always heard great things. Time to read up.

The following was published in 2018 and you'll easily see why I'm posting it. Rest in peace, Mr. O'Neil. Your stories are timeless.]

To commemorate the end of summer 2018, let’s take a trip back forty years.

The summer of 1978 was smack dab in the middle of one of my favorite pockets of my life. You see, Star Wars had debuted the year before and it consume much of my imagination. It had awakened in me a love for all things science fiction and I sought out as much as I could, eventually discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A PRINCESS OF MARS. I had discovered the rock and roll superheroes known as KISS through their albums, comics, and trading cards. And every issue of Circus or Hit Parader magazine I could find.

And, of course, there was the constant: comic books. I have memories of certain issues—where I bought them; what kind of day it was—but not all. Interestingly, as summer 2018 wound down, I was drawn to a forty-year-old comic of which I have no memory buying at the time. But I also have no memory of buying it in the years since, so it’s a logical conclusion that my ten-year-old self forked over a dollar bill for this unique issue.

Officially issue fifteen of the DC SPECIAL SERIES, the 1978 Batman Spectacular boasted of 68 pages of content and no ads. In reality, you get to 68 pages by using both interior covers. This issue is a true gem of my favorite era of Batman’s history: the Bronze Age. More or less, the Bronze Age of comics ran from 1970 to 1985. For Batman, the Bronze Age started with the pairing of writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams in the early 70s to the publication of Frank Miller’s seminal THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. In the 1970s, Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor and the Batcave and took up residence in the Wayne Foundation building. He was a detective, a creature of the night, and, most importantly, still a man. He could be hurt, both emotionally and physically, and he was, including this book.

The Batman Spectacular features three tales. The first, “Hang the Batman,” was written by David V. Reed and pencilled by Mike Nasser. The story centers on the death, by suicide, of a famous author, Archer Beaumont. But Beaumont believed it was possible to communicate from beyond the grave, a belief given new relevance when various signs start popping up around Gotham City. A cryptic note admonishes the Dark Knight Detective to solve Beaumont’s murder or Batman himself will meet death. He investigates, gets into fisticuffs, and, no spoiler here, solves the case.

Reed’s writing is crisp, fast-paced, and typical of the type of story from the 1970s. He provides all the clues the reader needs to solve the crime along with Batman. But it is the visual way Nasser (now Netzer) drew the panels that really set this story apart. His Batman is lithe yet muscular. He rarely treats a single page with traditional panels and borders. He visualizes the entire page as a canvas, seeking out new ways to tell the story. And he gives you interesting angles. I read this tale twice in a row I was so enthralled by his art.





The second story is by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Michael Golden. It features Batman’s (likely) best nemesis, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Batman’s unwitting and unwanted marriage to Talia, Ra’s’s daughter. O’Neil co-created Ra’s with Neal Adams and this is a perfectly serviceable story, but it seems rather small. Ra’s is best when he’s trying to take over the world or do something for which he sees as right. Here, he’s just trying to steal some diamonds—in a manner fitting a James Bond villain. Golden’s art is as realistic as you could get from art in the 1970s, and helps elevate this story.

O’Neil redeemed himself with the third tale of this issue. Advertised as “Something New..Something Bold!”, “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” is a Batman story told in prose by O’Neil and illustrated by the great Marshall Rogers. All three artists are fantastic at creating interesting visual storytelling. Rogers drew a series with writer Steve Engelhart many consider to be among the best Batman stories every told. The scenes he draws for O’Neil’s story are, like Nasser’s very visually interesting and almost minimal despite the exquisite detail.


But that’s okay, because the real stars here are O’Neil’s words. Free from a traditional comic book story, O’Neil’s prose is lavish in detail and is spun like a magician. And the details provided give a glimpse of a Batman rarely seen on comic pages. In one scene, Batman confronts a brute who thinks he can best the Caped Crusader. “The Batman shrugged. ‘Take your best shot.’” I loved the noncommittal nature of Batman here, the hero who knows he’ll win, the hero who has confronted countless thugs who think they’ll be the one to take down Batman.

As a writer, I especially appreciated how O’Neil didn’t always conform to proper grammar to paint his pictures with words. “The footfalls stopped. Snick of lighter. Odor of tobacco.” That’s it. Sure, you could write a paragraph, but why when a short few words will do the trick. The way he describes Gotham City is also splendid.

It is a monster sprawled along 25 miles of eastern seaboard, stirring and seething and ever-restless. Eight million human beings live on streets that, if laid end-to-end, would stretch all the way to Tokyo, crammed into thousands of neighborhood from the fire-gutted tenements of Chancreville, where rats nestle in babies’ bedclothes and grandmothers forage in garbage cans,to the penthouses of Manor row, where the cost of a single meal served by liveried servants would support an immigrant family for a year. It is countless chambers and crannies and corners in bars, boats, houses, hotels, elevators, offices, theaters, shacks, tunnels, depots, junkyards, cemeteries, buses, cars, trains, terms, bridges, docks, sewers, parks, jails, mortuaries—the shelters of living and dead, millionaires and bums, fiends and saints.
Napoleon’s armies could search for a lifetime and leave places unseen.
An exceptionally energetic investigator could visit the likely ones in a month.
The Batman had less than sixty minutes.

Come on! You can see that as clear as any artist. O’Neil’s love of old pulp fiction, especially The Shadow, bleeds off the page. And how’s this description of Batman emerging to take on a couple of crooks in front of a movie screen: “The Batman, stark and implacable against the expanse of white, a grim figure congealing from the shadows.” So, so good.

I highly encourage you to seek out this issue. The entire thing has not been republished elsewhere. The Ra’s tale you can find in Tales of the Demon. The prose story is reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers and in Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 23 - Discovering the Hinterland TV Series

Since most of us are still spending most of our time at home, I thought I'd pass along a new-to-me TV series: Hinterland.

My wife discovered this Welsh series via Netflix and started watching. I didn't watch at first mainly because of time. Each of the 25 episodes is 90 minutes and, with everything going on, I down to about an hour of TV a day. To watch Hinterland meant I'd have to carve out an additional thirty minutes. So I begged off.

But she continued through the four episode of season 1, liking each episode more than the last. The story centers on Detective Chief Inspector Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) as he tries to pick up the pieces of his life in the small town of Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Wales. The something isn't really explained, but that's not really the issue. He is partnered with Detective Inspector Mared Rhys (Mali Harries) and a couple of subordinates.

The Big Town Cop who goes to a small town thing is common in many TV shows and books so there's nothing new here. But Harrington is remarkable at playing Mathias as simultaneously troubled and brilliant, invasive and compassionate. He genuinely cares for the victims he encounters and wants to help them reach a resolution, even if doing so is not exactly according to the letter of the law.

As his partner and local girl Harries plays Detective Rhys as a good-hearted person, trying her best to raise her teenaged daughter on her own. The pair of detectives on the team--Alex Harries as Detective Constable Lloyd Elis and Hannah Daniel as Detective Sergeant Siân Owen--serve their purpose to find clues and pass them on to Mathias and Rhys. And there is Chief Superintendent Brian Prosser (Aneirin Hughes) who took on Mathias but might have a different agenda than he's letting on.

My wife kept pressing me to watch the series. She played a couple of trump cards: Hinterland reminded her of Wallander (Kevin Branagh) and The Missing (Tchéky Karyo). With that kind of recommendation, I started watching at episode 1, season 2.

And I was hooked.

Everything she said about Mathias is dead on. I was instantly drawn to his character, especially the compassionate part. The stories are engrossing and rarely did I see the ending coming.

I have to comment on the landscape. Wales is an interesting place and half the fun of watching this show are the long shots when you see a car driving along the roads. It also looks quite cold. Interestingly, this show is part of an initiative to bring more Welsh shows on TV. Every scene is filmed twice and the actors perform in both English and Welsh. Which brings up another fun side project: seeing which scene doesn't need to be re-filmed.

Literally, as I write this, I have NOT seen the last episode. After the penultimate episode--which features a remarkable secondary character in the form of an elderly woman out on a farm--my wife highly suggested I watch episode 1, season 1 (which is seemingly to play into the series finale). I did that last night. Heck, I'll probably watch the other three episodes of season 1, too.

So, Hinterland, no matter how the series ends, gets a high recommendation from me.

Have you see it?

Update: 


Last night, I watched the series finale. Just like The X-files or Castle, there is a larger, over-arching thread that runs through the entire series...and it paid off in the last episode. There was a moment, two actually, in which Mathias's personal character is mentioned. The first is when he learns the truth. The second is something another character commented on. It comes toward the end of the episode and it speaks directly how and why Mathias does what he does when being a detective. 

Wonderful show, wonderful ending. I told my wife that I almost wish Hinterland were an American show because then we'd get at least twenty episodes. I definately would love more from this character and series. Alas, with the third series now four years in the past, it is unlikely to happen, but we have a marvelous show to watch. 

Not sure what our next show will be. Any suggestions?