Friday, January 30, 2009

Forgotten books: The Night of the Assassin (The Wild Wild West #3) by Robert Vaughn

At its best, television can link people during a happy event (the inauguration), a tragic event (9/11), or great entertainment (“The Wire” or “Foyle’s War”). At its worse, it appeals to our lowest common denominator (insert the most insipid reality show here). Somewhere in between are our guilty pleasures, those shows while, not great, still give us smiles and escape for an hour each week.

One of those guilty pleasures is “The Wild Wild West,” the 1960s “James Bond on horseback” show that was wonderfully anachronistic and charmingly fun. Robert Conrad’s tight pants and short waistcoat were hardly the stuff of the old west but he looked good so who really cared? Ross Martin’s Artemus Gordon, the consummate actor, was Jim West’s brilliant partner. Except for the episodes without Martin’s Artemus, there’s hardly a clunker in the bunch.

They saved the clunkers for the books. Well, at least one of them.

Eleven years ago, Robert Vaughn wrote three novels based on the series. In a break from my usual pattern (read book #1 first), I decided to read book #3, The Night of the Assassin. Why? Because, according to the back cover, the story takes place here in Texas--in Houston, no less--and it deals with the desire for some Texas secessionist to kill President James Garfield and leave the union. Again. You know, there was a war that settled that little matter. There’s not a need or a justification for Texas to secede. And there’s little reason to read this book.

I wanted to like it, I really did. I was all primed to see what adventures Jim and Artemus had in my hometown. I even checked my brain at the door as I read some of the clunky prose. (It probably didn’t help that I am listening to the gorgeous prose of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion while I read this book.) I checked up on Robert Vaughn and discovered he’s written something like 200 books. This one he mailed in.

The book opens on April 14, 1865. For you non-history types, that’s the day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. Of course, that’s the day Jim West gets his discharge papers, meets Artemus, and, later, attend the theater at the same time as Lincoln. I get that. But their witty repartee starts that very same day...and they’ve just met. Didn’t jive. Needless to say, Jim and Artemus don’t get their man.

Cut to sixteen years later, 1881. Jim and Artemus are dispatched to Sweetwater, Texas, to investigate some counterfeit money circulating around town. Now, at this point, I’m thinking to myself “Well, Sweetwater’s nearly 500 miles from Houston, a seven hour car ride in 2009. How are the dynamic duo going to get down to the Gulf Coast? Oh, well, the book’s still young.”

They arrive in Sweetwater and investigate. The Texas Liberation Front (TLF), the funny money, and a traveling acting troupe all seem to be in the same places at the same times. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out there’s a connection. Artemus infiltrates the acting troupe while Jim heads out to find the TLF. (Stifles yawn here.)

The typical stuff happens: gun fights (not convincing), night investigations (not suspenseful), flamenco guitar (played by Jim, natch, because he’s Jim West!), and the deployment of gadgets. Now, that’s where the book goes right. The gadgets are cool and have always been. There’s even a primitive computer.

As we pass the halfway point, I started wondering, again, how the heck Jim and Artemus are going to get down to Houston. And where’s that main plot, the one about Garfield, the back cover promised? Shut up, Scott. Don’t think. Just be in the moment. Sighs. Turns page.

Garfield doesn’t step onto the book’s stage until page 134. The entire book is only 181 pages. Now, the historian in me started thinking about what really happened to Garfield. He was shot on July 2, 1881, and died two months later. You’re typical reader isn’t going to know that so I went with the flow. I was curious to see how the real events melded with this fictional story. And I’ll admit it was pretty good. As Jim and Artemus confound the assassins (come on, that’s not a spoiler, you knew it when you picked up the book), the real Garfield is getting shot up in Washington. The scenes cut back and forth at this time and, honestly, it worked well. Jim and Artemus foiled the plot only to have their president get wounded anyway. Would have been nice to have the two men actually be sad about it. All we get is this: “Artemus sighed.” Sighed? Is that all?

Oh, and the city in which the attempted assassination took place? Dallas. Not Houston. Guess that explains how Jim and Artemus are to get to Houston. They aren’t! I’m a tech writer by day and I’d be in serious trouble if I let a book get out with erroneous information on the cover. The actual date of Garfield’s shooting was July 2, 1881. The date in the book: July 1, 1881. Minor quibble but where’s the editor?

The absolute groaner of a quote was made by the Dallas police chief at the end: “And while I am saddened [is that all you can muster?] that President Garfield was shot, I must confess to being thankful that it didn’t happen in Dallas. I’m not sure the city could ever live anything like that down.” The beauty of historical fiction is that you can use quotes like this because we know what happened. But seriously, that’s overkill.

There are two other books in this series and I already own them. I imagine I’ll get around to them. Someday. In the meantime, however, I’m off to my library. I need to check out some of the original episodes on DVD so I can be reminded of how fun the shows were. Lots more fun than this book.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Treason at Hanford: The novel resumed

It occurred to me that I stopped posting chapters of my first novel. Not really sure why. Granted, no one was haranguing me to keep posting the chapters (no, that's not some lame attempt at eliciting comments; just a fact).

But I've decided to start again. Again, not sure why.

You can find Chapter 28 of Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery available over at Texas Pulp Writer.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Schizophrenic writing: Do you suffer too?

Just about every single writing tip can be boiled down to what Stephen King put down in his book, On Writing: "All writers should read a lot and write a lot."

It seems simple, really, and my writing for this blog has certainly honed certain aspects of my writing. And I've never stopped reading/listening to books when I write my fiction. But I do come across a certain schizophrenic aspect of my writing and I'm wondering if I'm not alone.

You see, most of my reading is crime fiction and, of that, most of it consists of hard-boiled material. As a result, I read a lot of shorter sentences with great Pulp Words and Phrases and those seep into my writing. Nothing wrong there. However, when I do decide to read something of a different genre, I discover my writing style shifts. Take my current reading project, Hyperion, by Dan Simmons. It's one of the most elegantly written books I have ever read. He has fun with words and writes flowery sentences that could stand side-by-side with great literature. Now, in my day job (tech writer), I've been accused of writing too flowery often but not in my fiction. As I wrangle words for my current story, I find the hard-boiled self and the flowery self at war with each other. The resulting mess is something akin to verbal vomit.

Anybody else have that kind of war within themselves? If so, what do you do about it? I'd hate to tell myself not to read certain kinds of books when I think everything I read goes into making me a better writer. Maybe I'm just working out something via words, finding my true writer self. Elmore Leonard once said that it took him a million words written before he found his true voice. If that's the threshold...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Two Sentence Tuesday

Today, I break the rule. Here is a three-fer from a piece I started writing a year or two ago. I’ll probably dust it off sometime this year and work up something. In fact, I’ve already an idea about what to do.

Griffin Lynne is the main character. He’s a black, ex-con, trying to go straight but finding the path not quite straight and much too narrow. Griffin is atop his motorcycle in Houston traffic and has just noticed a preppy guy in a late-model sedan, listening to insipid pop music, with a set of golf clubs in the back of the car. Naturally, Griffin thinks him a prick.
Mr. Golf Guy locked eyes with me and smiled, admiring, apparently, my bike and my gear. I got those kinds of looks all the time from preppy guys who think the mere act of riding a motorcycle—Harleys, usually—made them into some kind of rebel. When the hell did owning a bike make you a rebel?
I’m currently reading Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, one of the most elegant novels I’ve ever read. I’m NOT finished (that’s for anyone out there who reads this and then spills some secret you think I should already know but don’t yet). The story can be boiled down to this: The Canterbury Tales in Space. It’s much more than that, really (I’ll review it when I’m finished). There is subtle grace and magnificent, mind-expanding ideas and realities.

Nonetheless, there is a poet character and he’s an acerbic, profane man. When he’s telling his story, he has these words of wisdom for folks, like me, who consider themselves writers
Belief in one’s identity as a poet or writer prior to the acid test of publication is as naive and harmless as the youthful belief in one’s immortality. And the inevitable disillusionment is just as painful.
It’s the first time in my life where I actually want to do acid.

For more Two Sentence Tuesday doubles, head on over to Women of Mystery.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Forgotten Books: It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive by Eric Alterman

Now that we have the most important event of this month behind us (the successful transition to a new president), it’s time to turn our attention to the second most important event of the month: the new Bruce Springsteen album, “Working on a Dream,” landing on store shelves this Tuesday. And to get everyone ready, I’m reviewing Eric Alterman’s It Ain’t a Sin to be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen as part of Patti Abbott’s continuing Forgotten Books Friday project.

For those of y’all who don’t know, Alterman is an unabashedly liberal blogger/columnist/author of books on politics and music. He was the first major columnist hired to blog on a major media outlet ( and he now writes for The Nation.

But that Alterman is not the one who wrote this book. He is, first and foremost, an enthusiastic fan of Springsteen’s music. Everyone reading this review is a fan of at least one famous person and we’d all like to meet said person. He got his wish in 1998 on the set of the Charlie Rose show. In a humorous introduction, Alterman relates how he met Springsteen before The Boss’s interview and how, when faced with one of his idols, he clammed up. He wanted to relate how much the music meant to him as he grew up. He wanted to pour out all the things he’d done to score tickets. He wanted to reveal that he couldn’t imagine his life without the soundtrack Springsteen provided.

What Alterman did say was nothing much more than “Hello.” And, with a clever wink, he ends his introduction with these words: “Here’s what I wanted to say...” What follows is a book-length love note to one of the most consequential musicians of the past thirty years.

For the most part, folks who read this book are already Springsteen fans. That’s pretty much a given. What’s essential about Alterman’s book is context. He reminds the reader just how dire the circumstances were for traditional rock n’ roll in a time of glam-rock, progressive rock, and other music crowding the AM and FM airwaves. By 1975, when Bruce landed on the covers of Newsweek and Time in the same week, one of the most famous quotes about Springsteen was made. The New York Times’ Henry Edwards wrote “If there hadn’t been a Bruce Springsteen, then critics would have made him up.” Alterman turns this quote on its ear. To him, Springsteen was too good to be true. “No responsible writer would dare invent him.”

The book is a musical biography of the Second Most Famous Musician from New Jersey (bonus points if you can name #1)*. Alterman’s takes on Springsteen’s music and career and mixed with a wealth of primary sources--via interviews, new and old, with the members of the E Street Band--and secondary sources throughout the years, infusing this book with a life all its own. It’s one thing for an author to write about the commanding stage presence of the young, shy New Jerseyian. It’s quite another when you discover quotes like this: “...jamming with Springsteen [was] ‘like having Einstein coming over and doing your homework for you.’” It was back in these days when the nickname “Boss” was first applied, something The Boss himself has come to detest.

Each chapter is a period of Springsteen’s career and it’s fun to read the table of contents to get a sense of how Alterman breaks up everything. “A Saint in the City” is the early years, the first two albums; “Tramps Like Us...” is, of course, the seminal “Born to Run” album; and “Caviar and Dirty” the 1990s, post-E Street Band phase. Each chapter starts with a photo and a lyric-of-the-era as an epigram.

The "Born to Run” chapters are certainly highlights of the book. From the exuberant joy of the music to the angry court battles that followed, the years 1975-1977 changed Bruce. According to Alterman, the fairy tale ended on 27 May 1977, the day Springsteen and his former manager, Mike Appel, settled their legal battle. Bruce had “entered [the studio in 1975] a romantic young innocent and left [the court battle] a guarded, distrustful adult.”

In light of his recent efforts for Democratic candidates in 2004 and 2008, one can’t help but wonder if this was the turning point in Bruce’s political as well as social life. I’d say it was, as evidenced by the transformation of his song lyrics. Up through “Born to Run,” Bruce sang about youth, dreams, girls, cars, and rock n’ roll. After, starting with 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” outcasts of a different sort emerged in his songs: killers, war veterans, unemployed workers, or victims of terrorists attacks or police shootings. Repression becomes a theme, chains that hold people in virtual or real slavery. Alterman writes the bleak assessment of “Darkness” that cast a long shadow over the next thirty years: “The songs on Darkness are about the characters Born to Run left behind.”

I could go on and on about the fun facts in this book (“Darlington County” as a "Darkness" outtake? “Born in the USA” as a cut from "Nebraska"?) and I could go on and on about Springsteen (mainly how the repression he wrote about thirty years ago has allowed faith and redemption to spring forth as the major theme of his later work). I am a late bloomer to the music of the Boss. For me, the 1992 albums, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," were my first records after having listened to "Tunnel of Love" and finally realized what Bruce was singing about. Ironically, the reprinted edition was published in the same year as the September 11th terrorist attacks, an event that would spurn the reformation of the E Street Band and Bruce’s own response in the album "The Rising." I’d like to see Alterman write a follow-up so that he can capture Bruce in this decade.

But, in the meantime, for all fans of Springsteen and his music, this book is essential reading. Pick it up next Tuesday when you pick up the new CD. Get a nice musical history lesson of the past forty years through the prism on one artist. But, more than anything, read this love letter by one writer about an artist many of us cherish. I’ll just let Alterman’s last paragraph serve as benediction.
The “greatest challenge of adulthood,” Springsteen once explained, “is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.” For anyone who has traveled from adolescence to maturity during the past quarter century, there is no better argument for holding on to one’s idealism--and no better companion for the journey--than the man who spoke those words and, through the power of his music, somehow willed them to life.

*Frank Sinatra

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Presidents and Mysteries

In light of yesterday's inauguration comes a fun list of mysteries with a presidential theme over at Mystery Fanfare. Someday, I'd like to add my presidential mystery to that list.

As a historian, it's just a joy when history is made and everyone knows it. More importantly, I love it when folks realize history is exciting and consequential and made by regular folks, not some dry recitation of facts and dates.

Another interesting footnote to history...and my first novel

Via Boing Boing today, there is a story about Hanford, WA, the site of my first novel, Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery. It seems they have found the world's first weapons-grade plutonium in a dump. Talk about scary.

When I began writing Treason at Hanford, I conducted some research and discovered most of the websites were devoted to the post-WWII era and, specifically, the clean-up. Hanford is the world's "Dirtiest" (i.e., nuclear dirty) place. That must have been before Chernobyl or Bopal, India. Oak Ridge, TN, gets much more coverage when it comes to the nuclear bombs from WWII but Hanford was important, too, as this story reveals.

Hmm, maybe my story wasn't fiction after all...?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Question: What Does the Inauguration Mean to You?

First of all, I don't mean for this question to be partisan. But I am wondering, for all y'all regular readers (and newcomers!) what does the inauguration mean to you?

All throughout our history, we, as Americans, are trying to fill in the blanks that Jefferson didn't know he inserted in his famous phrase "All men are created equal." Back in 1776, "Men" equaled "white, adult, land-owning" etc. As we grew up as a republic, we started taking away some of those hidden adjectives. After the Civil War, we started adding other adjectives: black men, women, 18-year-olds.

As Joseph Ellis wrote in his Washington Post piece, when Obama takes the oath, he will be fulfilling a promissory note Jefferson wrote in 1776. John Adams would also be proud, as would most of our Founding Fathers and other giants of our history.

But I think Obama is also fulfilling a promissory note issues by Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment. Not only that,

America is, and always will be, a work in progress. It's a point of pride that we can adjust our country, right wrongs, and move forward. It's all part of a great conversation, one that we all get to enjoy tomorrow.

Lincoln is everywhere nowadays but his words have special resonance this week. Take this last phrase from the Gettysburg Address: that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Every inauguration is a new birth of freedom. This one seems just a little bit more.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pen vs. Laptop as told by Joseph J. Ellis

Just found this nice little piece as a part of the Washington Post's The Writing Life. Today is Joseph Ellis, one of our best chroniclers of the Founding Era. He tells us why he continues to study our Founding Fathers and why he always writes his first drafts with a pen.

Here it is. And be sure to pay special attention to the metaphor he uses to describe our nation's founding. I love it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Inauguration: Lego Style

I visited Legoland (Carlsbad, CA) in June 2008. Arguable the coolest thing is Miniland where they have built many famous structures out of Legos. There is NYC, complete with the new Freedom Tower, Las Vegas strip, and Washington, D.C. (Capital, White House, etc.)

To commemorate the inauguration, they have built a representation of the inauguration. The photographs are here.

Forgotten Books: Doc Savage #1: The Man of Bronze

Superman died (then came back to life). Batman had his back broken (then returned to the cowl). Jean Gray died (then came back as the woman you do NOT want to meet in a bar). Heck, even Patrick Duffy came back to life (after realizing Bobby Ewing really was the best he was ever going to get). All these characters, and more, faced death, got hurt, or realized a bad career move.

They got nothing on Doc Savage. In this Year of More Pulp I’ve started, I decided to start with the man tagged as the first superhero. I’ve known about Savage pretty much my whole life and I’ll admit to a misconception: I always thought his sobriquet (“The Man of Bronze”) really meant the man was made of metal, like Colossus from The X-Men. Nope. But I don’t think Colossus could have done half the things Doc did in his first adventure.

Clark Savage, Jr., AKA “Doc” Savage, stepped onto the pulp fiction stage in March 1933. Street and Smith Publications wanted another pulp hero to go along with The Shadow and they wanted a superman (notice the lack of capitalization). As Lester Dent, the writer of many of Doc’s 181 tales, reminisced years later, Doc “had the clue-following ability of Sherlock Holmes, the muscular tree-swinging ability of Tarzan, the scientific sleuthing of Craig Kennedy, and the morals of Jesus Christ.” Whew! When they wanted a superhero, they really did want a super man.

“The Man of Bronze” is Doc’s first story. I picked up the reprinted version from Nostalgia Ventures, a line of books you can find in many comic stores. The book is nicely presented in two-column format, complete with the sketches that accompanied the pulp magazine back in 1933. The story, as it should, starts off with a lapel-grabber: “There was death afoot in the darkness.” What’s great about his opening is the killer and the reader both get introduced to Doc Savage from a distance. Indeed, when the killer looks through his binoculars, he mistakes Doc’s body for a statue. There is quite a lot of authorial intrusion in this first chapter as Doc and his five companions are introduced. For those of y’all who don’t know, Doc’s friends are:

-“Renny” or Col. John Renwick, engineer
-William Harper Littlejohn, geologist and archeologist
-Maj. Thomas J. Roberts, “Long Tom,” electrician
-Brig. Gen. Theodore Marley Brooks, “Ham,” lawyer
-Lt. Col. Andrew Blodgett, “Monk,” muscle

All these men excel in their chosen field of expertise and all their skills are put to the test in this first adventure. The problem is this: someone killed Clark Savage, Sr., Doc’s father.

No sooner than all six men were ensconced in Doc’s 86th floor headquarters than the assassin fires his rifle, aiming for Doc. What follows is a six chapter action sequence that gives you merely a taste for what lies ahead. I’m used to action scenes lasting paragraphs or pages, not chapters. And one thing immediately stands out: as good as Doc’s Five are, Savage himself is flat-out superior. He does everything right and far better than mere mortals. Doc hangs on a rope about to be cut by the assassin. What does he do? Lets go, plummets, allows the assassin to lose his balance, and then grabs the rope again, swinging effortlessly onto a ledge. It goes like that.

The bulk of the story finds the Super Six winging it down to the fictional Central American country of Hidalgo. Doc’s father left him an inheritance, a portion of Hidalgo for his very own. Now, he just has to go claim it. After getting shot at again and again, Doc and the Five discover a Mayan pyramid of pure gold ore. These Mayans welcome Doc and his friends but the red-fingered warriors are in the sway of an evil man, the very fiend who killed Doc’s father.

I give nothing away when I say that Doc lives (for 180 more books even). The action plays in the best tradition of Saturday morning serials at the movies. At the end of one chapter, one of Doc’s friend is trussed up and thrown into a pit of writhing snakes. Heavens! Cut to the next chapter and you realize the truth: Doc *already* figured that the bad guys would throw his friends into the pit so he, Doc, climbed into the pit, caught his tied-up friend, and let a rock fall to the bottom of the pit, the better to give the bad guys the illusion of victory. There is nothing wrong with this kind of action. I found it pretty darn fun, really. But, I’ll admit, it might get a bit long in the tooth by about book #45, to say nothing of 181.

Lester Dent, writing under the house name of Kenneth Robeson, writes fast, quick prose with lots and lots of good Pulp Words. The tale is never boring. There’s no time to be boring. He brings in some good humor among the men and not a little 1930s-era stereotypes and life outlooks. The funniest aspect of Doc Savage the Hero is how he deals with the one female in the book, the Mayan king’s daughter. Savage is powerful, masculine, without reproach, but utterly flummoxed when it comes to seeing that the daughter likes him.

Dent’s style is definitely an omniscient author. He tells you just about everything and shows only rarely. Don’t know if he changed later on or not but it did take some getting used to. For example, Doc leaves the scene a time or two to hunt for some clue. Dent doesn’t have Doc explain to his friends where he went. In prose, Dent just tells you. Not bad for a “novel-length” story in a pulp magazine but certainly not the way we do it nowadays.

I can’t say Doc Savage is really forgotten but he’s new to me. Plus, I don’t see his books in print. In the volume I have, Nostalgia Ventures grouped the first two Doc adventures together with a nice introduction and a historical essay. They do The Shadow as well. Expect a review on him in the coming weeks.

I don’t think I’ll be able to read all of Doc Savage’s adventures. They’d probably get a bit monotonous. But I’ll certainly plow through a good chunk. I hadn’t had this much reading a book in a long time.

Note on an audio version: I found a podcast of The Man of Bronze by Uvula Audio. It was a good recording and they even included sounds effects.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fiction: The Truth Behind Boot-cut Jeans

Taking a cue from David Cranmer's blog yesterday, I threw my hat into the ring for a fun writing contest. Jason Evans, at the Clarity of Night blog, put up a photograph here. Our job as writers was to submit a 250-word story inspired by the photo.

My entry is #120. David's is #93 and Sandra Seamans is #20 (guess she got the memo earlier).

After I finished the story, I didn't quite know where it all came from. Neither did my wife. But, it's there. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two-Sentence Tuesday: 13 January 2009

I just finished reading Lawrence Block's Killing Castro, the latest installment from Hard Case Crime (review arriving tomorrow or Thursday). I appreciated that in four paragraphs (the last being a single sentence), Block has hooked you. Here is the last sentence from paragraph three and the single-sentence paragraph four:
He had bigger things on his mind than corner loungers or early-bird whores.

He was thirty-four years old, and he was wanted for murder.

For my own entries today, a couplet that just jutted itself in my head this morning as I was commuting to work. Dunno what'll come of it.

With tears in his eyes, the chef reached for the meat cleaver and stared down at the body. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and set to work, doing his best to ignore the man with the gun who watched on impassively.
(Yeah, it's an adverb but this is off the top of my head.)

For more two-sentence goodness, head on over to Women of Mystery.

'24' is Pulp Fiction

I watched the four-hour, two-night premiere of the seventh season of ‘24’ with two minds. One mind was the pure fan. It was good to see Jack Bauer again, even if he was answering questions from a senator about tactics used in the field. And, like the man we’ve all come to admire (or loathe), Jack fessed up and told it like a man. Then, of course, the world needed Jack--or, at least, the FBI; Mulder not around? They pulled rank and Jack was escorted out of the building. Beep-BEEP, Beep-BEEP, we’re off.

The other part of me was the writer mind. In the last year, as I’ve read lots of crime fiction, I can appreciate how well the writers of ‘24’ start off a season (and, each episode). Daddy and daughter driving in the car, bickering about cell phones when, Holy Cow, is that a car headed toward them. Dad, please get off the phone before you... And then a second vehicle hits the dad’s car. And then men storm from a van and abduct Dad, all the while daughter is crying the backseat. Okay, writers, you have my attention.

And that’s the point. When you get right down to it, ‘24’ is serial pulp fiction in the grand tradition. Each episode grabs you by your lapels and demands you watch. Each episode leaves you with a cliffhanger. If Hard Case Crime did tie-ins, they’d do ‘24.’ All through these four hours, good storytelling techniques come into play. In dialogue, we get recaps of Jack’s whereabouts these past months, as well as a few other returning characters. Sure, there were a couple of moments when you have to roll your eyes (Chloe! Grow up. This is the big if the previous seasons weren’t) but it’s all in good pulp fun. I had to chuckle as some dialogue for episode 4 brought viewers up-to-speed...even though we’ve been watching for three hours already. Guess they’re looking toward the future and syndication.

I’m not going to do a total recap here (Entertainment Weekly, at, does a good job at that) but I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts from a writer’s point of view. ‘24’ really is a good example of how to keep the plot moving. Watch it for pure escapism. But, if you’re a writer struggling with how to maintain suspense and pay it off on a regular basis, you could learn a thing or two from ‘24.’

Monday, January 12, 2009

Charles Ardai at Murder by the Book

The day before Charles Ardai, a New Yorker, arrived in Houston, we all wore shirt sleeves and shorts. Yeah, it was January, but, hey, it’s Houston. On Saturday, however, a cold wind blew threw town, driving all Houstonians back to the closet for sweaters and socks. I’m not suggesting that Ardai brought the cold weather. It was a coincidence. But if he had, he also brought the antidote: a warm enthusiasm that shined through his wide grin and lively eyes.

We all have our hobbies and things over which we absolutely geek out. For many who read this blog, and for me as well, crime fiction is one of those subjects. I would not be writing this blog if I didn’t want to join the pantheon of crime writers, great and small. The folks whose blogs I link to over there on the right also fit into that category, even published ones. We’re fanboys and fangirls. We love the smell of old paperbacks, of finding that rare gem at a garage sale when the seller doesn’t know what he has, of watching old black-and-white movies and catching our breath when the good guy doesn’t see the billy club coming down on his head. We share a common bond and, to state the obvious, Charles Ardai is a fanboy just like us.

You already know that if you’ve picked up any of his Hard Case Crime novels. Those gorgeous covers, the classic authors, the up-and-comers, the forthcoming Gabriel Hunt novels: all proof that Ardai is living our idea of a dream job. Anyone can know this by reading interviews or listening to him on the radio. But you miss out on the visuals. What you can’t get from radio or print is the enthusiastic grin on his face when he talks about his love for old crime fiction from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. You really have to see it to get that full effect.

For a man whose reputation is so large within the crime fiction community, Ardai is, in person, quite normal. He wore gray slacks, black shoes, and a blue dress shirt opened to reveal a T-shirt with cops and robbers on it. I think it read “Eat lead, copper” but can’t remember exactly. His glasses are thicker than mine, probably the only outward indication that the man devours books.

Upon being introduced by David Thompson (of Murder by the Book and Busted Flush Press), Ardai and I struck up a short conversation. After David pulled him away, Bill Crider and I got to meet face-to-face again. We’d met only once before, at a book signing by Duane Sweirczynski for his book Severance Package, but, through blogs and comments, we have conversed for months since. I have yet to meet anyone in the crime fiction community as open as Mr. Crider. Even on Saturday, an event not featuring him, he was willing to sign books for fans who recognized him. Wonderful guy.

After a brief introduction, Ardai broke out what we all had been waiting for: his slide presentation detailing the history of Hard Case Crime. Among the nuggets of trivia we all learned were the following:

  • When pitching the concept of Hard Case Crime to publishers back in 2000, one of the key terms Ardai and co-founder Max Phillips, used was “Old School Cruddy”. They wanted HCC books to be found at a bachelor pad in Tribeca and on the floor of a tree fort.
  • The desired imprint they wanted was Kingpin Crime. Literally, the day before, Aaron Spelling secured rights to the “Kingpin” name and Ardai and Phillip had to go for choice #2.
  • When Robert McGinnis submitted his first painting for the cover of Richard Aleas’s Little Girl Lost, he drew too much “butt cleavage” on the girl. He had to cover her up. Odd that in the 1950s, butt cleavage was okay but, in 2004, if you want to sell your books in Wal-Mart, butt cleavage was banned.
  • It took seven steps, from initial concept to finish painting, for Chuck Pyle to complete the cover image for Grifter’s Game.
  • E. Howard Hunt, author of House Dick, was such a good writer (before his Watergate infamy) that he beat out Gore Vidal and Truman Capote for a Guggenheim fellowship

Needless to say, Ardai spent a good amount of time talking about the covers and showing concept art. Since we all know the covers so well, it was interesting to see how certain artists painted different scenes from the novel in question. And Ardai brought some photographs of the models, specifically for the cover of the forthcoming Losers Live Longer, the first landscape cover by HCC. They were, um, quite nice.

When it came time for the Q&A, many of the questions continued to revolve around the cover art. How long do the artists have to paint the covers? Two months, Ardai reported, although some have been known to finish a picture in a day. The six cover paintings for the Gabriel Hunt books were all painted by Glen Orbik in only three months.

Scott Montgomery, of Book People in Austin, Texas, asked Ardai about the structure of Fifty-to-One, Ardai’s tribute to the first forty-nine books HCC published. You remember this one, right? Each chapter title of the book Fifty-to-One corresponds to the title of a HCC book. All in order. Thus, Ardai said, if he had known back in 2005 that he was going to write a book with this structure, he would have published The First Quarry before The Last Quarry. Montgomery’s question was this: which book was the most difficult to include. Ardai’s answer was simple: A Diet of Treacle. And he told us the genesis of the title itself, how Lawrence Block suggested it to Ardai and Ardai accepted. Again, had he known...

One of the biggest treats of the evening was Ardai’s discussion of the upcoming Gabriel Hunt novels. There will be six books--and the covers are fantastic--all by different writers. He created the “Hunt Bible” so that Ardai and the five other writers would all be on the same page even when they are on different computers. And Ardai himself will be editing all six books. What about research? Ardai had a directive: don’t do any. He didn’t want any of the writers getting bogged down in research. If you’re writing about Africa, make it the Africa of your imagination. He even pulled out a sheaf of papers with the first 20,000 words of his Hunt book (to give to David Thompson) and read the first paragraph. Oh, boy! Are you ready for these books?

I had time to ask a question posed on Bill Crider’s blog last Friday about John D. MacDonald and Hard Case Crime. Why hasn’t Hard Case Crime published any of MacDonald’s non-Travis McGee books? Ardai was delicate in his answer but it comes down to money.

After the talk and Q&A, there was a drawing. Ardai brought the audio version of Donald Westlake’s Somebody Owes Me Money (the best of the HCC titles on audio; my review here) and a copy of the hard cover edition of his first novel, Little Girl Lost. The prized possessions, however, were two ties featuring the cover art of Fifty-to-One. I didn’t win one but I sure wanted one. How cool would that have been. (Actually, the prized possession would have been that sheaf of paper.)

Folks then lined up for book signings and I got to chat with some folks. I met Morris, a guy who, by now (he was going home to finish Killing Castro that night), will have read all fifty-one HCC titles. Laura Elvebak is always a fun person to talk with and she signed a couple of her books while we were there. I stayed a bit longer and watched as Ardai happily signed every single Aleas or Ardai title the bookstore had on hand (stacks and stacks). If his hand got tired, it didn’t show.

It was a fun and enjoyable evening. We met an affable man who is more than willing to please his fans. We were treated to a few scoops along the way. And we got to fellowship with like-minded folks. Yeah, when we left, it was darker and colder than when we had arrived. But that didn’t matter, really. You see, we were all smiling.

You can find my interview with Charles Ardai here.
Bill Crider posted a blog with photos here. He also posted an up-close image of one of the Gabriel Hunt book covers here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Forgotten Books: The American President by Philip Kunhardt

Psst. I really hate to admit it, but it's true. A picture is worth a thousand words. Yeah, I don't like it either. I'm a writer, just like you. We’re supposed to be able to paint a picture so vivid in the reader’s mind that the images just leap out and come alive. But there are times when words just can’t do the kind of exquisite justice that a photo can do.

It’s the pictures in The American President, by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, that are more than worth the price of the book. The Kunhardts Three have compiled a rich and extensive collection of photos for this coffee table book, a companion to the PBS series of the same name. They cover all the presidents up to Bill Clinton and, with a publication date of 1999, we get to have vivid images of the impeachment proceedings that easily best the drawn illustrations from the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial.

The book is not divided chronologically as you might expect. No, it’s divided thematically. Here is the table of contents to give you an idea of where the Kunhardts are going.

1. The Heroic Posture (Washington, Wm. Harrison, Grant, Eisenhower)
2. Compromise Choices (Pierce Garfield, Harding, Ford)
3. The Professional Politician (Van Buren, Buchanan, Lincoln, LBJ)
4. An Independent Cast of Mind (John Adams, Taylor, Hayes, Carter)
5. Family Ties (JA Adams, Benjamin Harrison, FDR, JFK)
6. Happenstance (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Truman)
7. The American Way (Jefferson, Coolidge, Hoover, Reagan)
8. The World Stage (Monroe, McKinley, Wilson, Bush)
9. Expanding Power (Jackson, Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Nixon)
10. The Balance of Power (Madison, Polk, Taft, Clinton)

You can quibble if you want where they put your favorite president (or the ones you love to hate) but the thematic structure works. Some of the groupings are obvious: the four generals in chapter one, the five former vice presidents who assumed power upon the death of their predecessors in chapter six, or chapter eight, the world stage presidents. Some of them are not so obvious. LBJ and Lincoln in the same category? Jefferson and Reagan sharing time with Hoover? What ties Carter with John Adams and Taylor and Hayes? These are fascinating questions.

Each chapter gets the same treatment. There is a general overview that puts the president in historical context and why they were grouped as they were. “In His Own Words” is a sidebar each man gets with famous quotes—or in the case of, say, Fillmore, any quotes. Occasionally, you get some quotes and text on various First Ladies.

But the jewels of this book are the photos, those things that thousands of words can’t quite capture. Obviously, the first few presidents don’t have photos but the portraits are especially good. Starting with John Quincy Adams (president from 1825-1829), the authors include a photograph of every man save William Henry Harrison (he didn’t live long enough). Think about it: there is a photograph of John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, a Founding Father. How awesome is that? It’s not until you get to Polk (1845-1849) where a sitting president was photographed. Here’s what President Polk wrote in his diary: “[I] yielded to the request of an artist named Brady of N.Y., by sitting for my Degueryotype likeness today.” That would be Matthew Brady, who attained fame during the Civil War.

The photos tell much more of what it’s like to be president. There are pictures of the White House during its evolution. You can see the somberness of the White House on the evening of December 7, 1941, and, in the close-up of FDR, what the war did to him. Cut to the Truman section and you get a photo of hundreds of sailors and their ladies on the White House lawn on V-J Day, 1945. The Kunhardts include a progression of portraits of Lincoln and you can see how the young man was also wore down by his own war to assume the visage we associate with him. Various shots of the Capitals are included, as well and you can see what DC looked like 150 years ago and compare them to the spectacle we’ll see in eleven days.

Speaking of inaugurations, twenty year ago, I had the honor of marching the the Inauguration Parade of George H. W. Bush as a member of the University of Texas Longhorn Band. The event really was a spectacle. Without question, a president inauguration is the most patriotic thing we do, better than a thousand Fourth of July celebrations. They are reminders that we are a part of something larger than ourselves.

But, when you get right down to it, it’s all about people. Our forty-three presidents—soon to be forty-four—are real men, with gifts and foibles just like the rest of us. They lived, breathed, laughed, and cried like anybody. This book, with its glorious photos, interesting groupings, and fun trivia help us to remember that real men become president. When times get tough, as they are now, it’s good to remember such thing. The American President is a nice, compact way to cherish and learn about our presidents and a little of our history as we make more each day.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Author Interview: Charles Ardai

When asked, many mountain climbers state that the reason they scaled a mountain was because it was there. Back in 2001, Charles Ardai and Max Phillips decided to do something because it wasn’t there.

Over drinks one night, Ardai and Phillips lamented the proliferation of books so large that chapter one could be printed on the spine. These shelf hoggers edged out the smaller, cheaper titles, leaving potential readers fewer choices, both in authors and styles. One line of book that seemed lost to the world was the hardboiled crime story. In a recent interview, Ardai posed the central question: “Where were the lean stories of the 1950s, the ones that hooked you on page one with a dead body or a man on the run or a naked woman getting out of the shower (or all three) and then hauled you bodily through the rest of the plot in five- or six-page chunks, ending finally with a breathless, heart-stopping finale on page 176 or 192 (or, sometimes, 144 or 128)?”

The answer was easy: nowhere. Ardai and Phillips saw a mountain that didn’t exist and decided to make one. Hard Case Crime is the result. Wondering if anyone else in the reading world pined for those kinds of books, Ardai and Phillips set out to reprint some classic, but out-of-print, books while sprinkling in works by new authors. They thought they might publish six or a dozen. As of January 2009, they have published their fifty-first book, Killing Castro, a 1961 “lost” work by Lawrence Block. Ardai himself wrote Fifty-to-One, a comedic celebration of Hard Case Crime with a most unique framing structure (more later on).

Ardai is generous with his time and you can find a few of his recent interviews here (The Tainted Archive), here (, and here (Arts and Literature). In advance of Ardai’s scheduled book signing/presentation this Saturday, 10 January, at Murder by the Book in Houston, TX, Ardai agreed to answer a few questions for this blog. I am excited to publish my first interview and sincerely thank Mr. Ardai for taking time out of his day to answer these questions.

You have said that when it comes time to select and out-of-print book to republish, you merely go to your bookshelf and find an old favorite. Describe the process of getting permission from the family of a dead writer. How do you locate widows, children, or grandchildren? Have any descendants contacted you to publish a lost work?

To answer your last question first, yes: the daughter of Robert Terrall got in touch with me to tell me about her dad's work, and that led us to publishing KILL NOW, PAY LATER; I'd already had the book on my shelf and read it and enjoyed it, but I had no idea how to find Terrall (who actually is still alive as of this writing, so he doesn't quite fit your description) or his children and I might never have gotten around to pursuing that book if it hadn't been for his daughter contacting me. There are a few other cases like this as well, though so far not ones that have led to us publishing the author's books.

But for the most part I have to do some detective work for myself to find these people. There are some obvious starting points. There's a service called the Authors Registry that is vastly incomplete but does have some information about what literary agencies handle what authors' estates. If that fails, I try to find the last publisher who brought out one of the author's books to see if they have contact information for the estate. If that fails -- and often it does, since very often these authors haven't been in print for decades -- the next step is to check with knowledgeable sources in the field, people like Marty Greenberg or Ed Gorman, who have dealt with thousands of authors over the course of many years and have a powerful institutional memory. If even that fails to turn up a lead, I switch to more traditional sorts of detective work.

To find the estate of Day Keene, I started with the fact that Keene's real name was "Gunnar Hjerstedt," and I tracked down every person in America named either "Hjerstedt" or "Hjerdstedt" (it wasn't a huge number) to ask whether they had any information about a relative named Gunnar who had died in the 1960s. Eventually I found some loose threads and started pulling on them. It turned out that not only was the author dead, but his wife was dead, his son was dead, even his literary agent was dead...but his son's wife was still alive, and it was through her that I got the rights for HOME IS THE SAILOR, one of our very best books.

E. Howard Hunt was a prominent figure who only died recently, but it turned out to be hard to find his estate. His son, surprisingly, didn't have the information, so I reached out to Hunt's co-author on a non-fiction book, and he was able to put me in touch with an attorney, and the attorney connected me with Hunt's widow. More steps than you'd think would be needed, but it worked out in the end.

To find the estate of Robert B. Parker (not the one who writes the Spenser novels -- the one who wrote espionage thrillers and died in 1955), I started with the very brief bio notes published on the backs of his books and got on the phone to call every school the man ever attended (including one in France) and every company he ever worked for, just to see if they might have any information in their records that would help. Bit by bit I built up a detailed biography for the man and a set of contacts who knew something about him. Finally, one of the people I was talking to about the case turned up the slender bit of information that Parker was obliquely related, by marriage, to the one-time U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg...and when I called that one-time ambassador (now a very old man), he was able to pass my email address to one of Parker's three children. The story didn't end there: I then had to track down the other two children, one of whom the third had only met once twenty years earlier (they were half-siblings) and the other of whom she'd never met at all. Google was very helpful. Eventually I found them, signed contracts with all three, and Parker's PASSPORT TO PERIL will come out this summer.

Many of these older reprints were published under pen names. For me, the publication of Grave Descend and Zero Cool was the first time I’d ever heard of Michael Crichton’s pseudonym. How do you discover these writer’s true identities?

Sometimes an author will tell us himself -- Lawrence Block gave me a copy of the book that we published as KILLING CASTRO, and it was good that he did, because otherwise I'd never have known "Lee Duncan" was him. It was a name he'd never used before and never used again. But generally if a writer became well known later under his real name there's someone, somewhere who knows the pseudonyms he used earlier in his career and is delighted to share that information, usually by publishing it on the Internet. Once again, Google is a detective's best friend. Spend a few hours searching and you'll discover that Martin Cruz Smith was once "Simon Quinn," and Gore Vidal was once "Edgar Box," and on and on and on.

When you and co-founder, Max Phillips, decided to start Hard Case Crime, you probably made a list of reprints you would like to republish. The third book was Top of the Heap, a Bertha Cool and Donald Lam story written by Erle Stanley Gardner (using the pen name A. A. Fair). Were it not for Money Shot, Top of the Heap would have been my favorite Hard Case Crime book I read in 2008. And I’m not the only blogger who loves these books. Of the nearly thirty Cool and Lam books published, how did you come to choose Top of the Heap?

As a kid, growing up, I'd always assumed that the A.A. Fair books were inferior work because Erle Stanley Gardner was famous under his real name, and the character he wrote about under his real name -- Perry Mason -- was even more famous...the A.A. Fair stuff had to be the dreck he didn't feel was good enough to bear the Gardner moniker, right? Wrong. I finally picked up one of the Fair novels a few years ago, and I was blown away. They're much, much, MUCH better than the Perry Mason novels, certainly for anyone who prefers hardboiled crime stories. So I sat down and read my way through the series, and TOP OF THE HEAP turned out to be my favorite of the lot. Part of it was that a lot of the others had bits of racial caricature that probably didn't raise too many hackles in the 1940s and 50s when the books were written but just made me uncomfortable today -- dialect-spouting black servants, sinister Japanese during WWII, that sort of thing -- and I preferred to find one that didn't have too much of that stuff. Why needlessly give modern readers pain if you don't have to? Plus TOP OF THE HEAP had an extra soupcon of emotional resonance that most of the others didn't have -- in addition to the puzzle, there's the relationship between Lam and Millie. Plus there's that great ending, where everything just clicks into place's just a terrific book.

Alan Sklar (A Diet of Treacle) and Stephen Thorne (Somebody Owes Me Money) are two of the readers on the handful of Hard Case Crime books that have been produced as audiobooks. Thorne, especially, brought out the humor in the late Donald Westlake’s prose. Who selects the books to be made into an audiobook? Do you have any influence as to the actor doing the reading?

We have no influence at all as to the actor and only minimal influence over the selection of books. We have a relationship with BBC Audiobooks America, and to date they've bought audio rights to about a dozen of our books. If you look at which ones they've chosen, it's not hard to discern their method: they've done all our books by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, Pete other words, our biggest-name authors (except for Stephen King, where Simon & Schuster owned the audio rights and brought out their own audiobook). The audio business is, alas, even more big-name focused than the book publishing business is, so trying to get an audio publisher to bring out an edition of Gil Brewer or Day Keene, or even David Goodis or Cornell Woolrich, is pretty much hopeless. But I'm glad we at least have managed to get audio editions of some of our books out there -- more than 20% of the line, which isn't bad.

On New Year’s Eve, the world lost Donald Westlake. Hard Case Crime has published three Westlake books to date with a fourth on the way. What was it like to know and work with Westlake?

He was a great guy. I've written at greater length elsewhere (for the Guardian's Book Blog, among others), so I won't rehash the same stories again, but I'll say this: there's no author who has been more professional, more cordial, more pleasant, or more fun to work with. Every time I got an e-mail from Don, I'd get a big smile on my face, not just because I'd just gotten e-mail from one of my heroes, but because I knew that no matter how trivial the subject of a message was, he'd always write it in a supremely witty way. The man could say "yes" or "no" and make it funny. Plus, he was a mensch, a down-deep good human being, generous and patient and supportive. Out of the blue I got an e-mail from him once saying that entirely on his own he'd picked up a copy of my first novel, LITTLE GIRL LOST, and enjoyed it: "I read more than half of it on the train, and am looking forward to the next. Nice job." Unasked for, unsolicited -- and I was walking on air for a month because of it. That's what it was like to work with Westlake.

Not only are your classic reprints just plain fun to read, they are also snapshots of post-war America in different eras. Pete Hamill’s The Guns of Heaven remind everyone of the IRA bombings in Ireland in the 1980s and any number of the 1950s novels reference World War II. A title I’m particularly interested in reading is the forthcoming Passport to Peril. Do you seek out books showcasing certain eras or times or is that aspect a nice by-product? And was it a coincidence that Killing Castro was published on the 50th anniversary of Castro's revolution?

The timing of KILLING CASTRO was a coincidence, although a happy one. (We certainly aren't shy about celebrating 50th anniversaries, as anyone who's read our fiftieth book, FIFTY-TO-ONE, knows.) We also didn't know when we bought it that Castro was about to make headlines by retiring. Sometimes the world cooperates better than you have any right to expect.

We don't often do political books -- THE GUNS OF HEAVEN and KILLING CASTRO are the exceptions -- and we don't seek out books because of their relevance to a particular moment in history. If anything, we prefer the opposite, books that, although set in the past, feel more or less timeless and for that reason will appeal as much to modern readers as they did to readers at the time they were written. Donald Hamilton's NIGHT WALKER makes passing use of Red-baiting and the Cold War as plot devices, but they're really incidental to the core story, and even PASSPORT TO PERIL, which is explicitly a post-WWII tale of international intrigue, complete with former Nazis and Communist Russians skulking around the war-torn streets of Budapest, is more an adventure yarn than a serious look at the politics of the time. I do find the politics interesting myself -- I like the time capsule aspect of these books -- but I think more readers would find that sort of thing distancing or offputting than would find it appealing, so we don't emphasize it. When the time came to choose a Hamilton book to reprint, for instance, I deliberately chose one in which the political element was secondary rather than THE STEEL MIRROR, which is just as good a book and which Hamilton himself told us was his favorite, in part because the reader needed to know too much about WWII-era politics to make sense of the plot of THE STEEL MIRROR.

Christa Faust’s Money Shot landed on many Best of 2008 lists. She is also the first female author published by Hard Case Crime. How did this powerful book end up on your desk and, later, on our bookshelves?

I saw a blog post Christa had written about her love for the work of old-time paperback writer Richard S. Prather, who'd been one of the field's big bestsellers in the 50s and 60s but today is largely forgotten, and I was impressed -- that she knew who he was, first of all, and that she appreciated just how good he was and what he was good at. Then, as I read through some samples of her writing, I realized this woman could really write. And when I find someone who both loves the sort of books we do and can write like a master, I don't miss the opportunity to reach out. So I dropped her a note, asking if she might have a book of her own we could take a look at. A little while later, MONEY SHOT showed up in my inbox and I read it and bought it. Simplest decision I ever made -- though I did check first with Dorchester Publishing, our publishing and distribution partner, to make sure they didn't feel uncomfortable about the porn milieu in which the story is set. (It didn't make me uncomfortable, but then very few things do.) Dorchester loved it as much as I did, and we were set.

There's been a lot of talk about how Christa was our first female author, and that's true, and I'm proud of her for breaking this barrier, but the truth is that things would have played out exactly the same regardless of her gender. If I'd seen the same post on a male author's blog I'd have sent him a note just the same, and if he'd sent in the manuscript of MONEY SHOT I'd have bought it just the same. I probably wouldn't have been able to get a sexy photo of him into Penthouse magazine when the time came to do PR for the book the way I did with Christa, but in terms of the book itself, the only question was quality of writing, not configuration of genitalia.

You have penned three novels for Hard Case Crime, Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence (as Richard Aleas) and Fifty-to-One (as Charles Ardai). Many authors who blog describe their method of writing. What is your writing process? Do you use a computer, typewriter, pen-and-ink, or some other method? How long does it take you to write a first draft? With your first two books, did you plot out the action or just write and see what happened?

I use a computer (I did write longhand for a while, but that was in the days before the ubiquity of PCs -- I'm probably the last generation of writer who actually turned handwritten manuscripts in to editors). I prefer to write in the morning, before everyone else is up and other things start intruding on my attention. My wife, who is also a novelist but not a morning person, prefers to write at night, so we have something of a 24-hour fiction production line going in our household.

It's hard for me to answer the question "How long does it take you to write a first draft?" because I've never written a first draft, precisely, in the sense of there ever having been a second draft that followed. The first draft I write is, in classic pulp fashion, the draft that goes to the printer. That said, I do re-read compulsively along the way and polish each chapter before moving on to the next, so it's not as though my books don't have the benefit of at least some rewriting. But it's always on the level of individual sentences, not major overhauls of plot or character or structure.

As for plotting out my books, I generally start with an opening scene that appeals to me and then wing it from there, although in the case of SONGS OF INNOCENCE I did know how I wanted the book to end (including the very last sentence of the book) before I started. But even there, I didn't know how I was going to get to that ending. In the case of FIFTY-TO-ONE, I gave myself the challenge of writing a book in fifty chapters, with each chapter named after one of our fifty books, in publication order -- so Chapter One would be "Grifter's Game," Chapter Two would be "Fade to Blonde," and so on, all the way up to Chapter Fifty, which would be "Fifty-to-One." I had to come up with a story whose plot would make logical sense of each chapter title as it arrived (so there had to be a vengeful virgin of some sort in Chapter Thirty and the phrase "the guns of heaven" had to have some relevance in Chapter Twenty-Four, etc.). But I didn't plot it out in advance -- that would have robbed the project of a lot of the spontaneity and the improvisational quality that made it fun for me to write and I think also makes it fun to read.

In other interviews, you mentioned that your first love was fantasy. Mine was science fiction. It wasn’t until Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River that my eyes were opened to crime fiction. What was the book you read and then realized you had just fallen in love with crime and mystery fiction?

I had a couple of eye-opening experiences like that. When I read Lawrence Block's SUCH MEN ARE DANGEROUS, it chilled me to the bone. It was perhaps the first crime novel that made me fully aware of the potential of writing a book in which the nominal bad guy gets away with his crimes. No one has ever crept into the heads of criminals and made them sympathetic the way Block has. I also remember being blown away by James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (heart-stopping) and by Raymond Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP (heartbreaking). Then there was Bernard Malamud's THE ASSISTANT, which floored me. Reading masterpieces like those four woke me up to just how powerful a crime story could be.

Back in the Golden Age of pulp fiction, cheap magazines and paperbacks were the medium whereby readers of all socio-economic classes could read fast-paced stories. With modern technology, I think ebooks, read on cellphones, iPhones, or Kindles, might be the 21st Century version. What is your take on ebooks and might Hard Case Crime strike out and make ebooks available?

We might -- but I have to admit I'm not a believer myself, or at least not yet. People have been talking about e-books in one form or another for two decades now, and they've never amounted to much. I don't care for reading fiction on a screen myself -- I do a lot of it, but I don't much like it, for all the reasons old fuddy-duddies always cite: not portable, requires electricity, screen has too much glare, gives me a headache, doesn't smell like a book, etc., etc. Hard Case Crime in particular is not merely about the stories we publish, which in principle could be presented in any format -- we're about reviving a particular physical artifact, the mid-century mass-market paperback book. It's not just 'content,' to use a modern buzzword that annoys the hell out of me -- it's a thing, a physical object that has certain dimensions and not others, a certain weight, feels a certain way when you shove it in the back pocket of your jeans, cracks a certain way when you open it too far, rots a certain way if you leave it out in the rain. It's got a painting on the cover that is a certain size relative to your hand and to your eyes and that you keep seeing out of a corner of your eye as you read the book and turn pages and lay the thing down spreadeagled to get a cup of coffee. It gets dogeared and creased and dropped and stepped on and chewed by the dog and shelved upside down. If an author does his job really well it might wind up with some pages stuck together. It's a book, not a goddamn computer screen or earbud or corneal implant. It's dead trees and ink and varnish and yeah, maybe a hundred years from now when we're all dead there won't be any more books like it, but not today, brother -- not today.

Speaking of the golden age, in May, the first of the Gabriel Hunt books will be published. These books look to do for pulp adventure stories what Hard Case Crime has done for hard-boiled literature. Will you be discussing these books at Murder by the Book on Saturday? And how did you come to realize the literary world had another mountain that needed building?

Yep -- I have a slide in my talk that shows all six Hunt covers and I'll say who wrote each and maybe where each one takes place. If people want to know more I can say more.

As for why I created the series, it was something I'd been thinking about for a while, but the real catalyst was when I went to see the new Indiana Jones movie. I had such high hopes and it was such a disappointment. It was bound to be, since I'd been coming up with storylines for it in my head for 20 years -- no way could it live up to my fantasies, or to my memories of seeing RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at age 11 -- but just objectively it was *so* poorly written, unforgivably so given all the talent involved... So I decided the time had come to launch my own adventure series, in which each book could be what the fourth Indiana Jones movie should have been but wasn't.

It's also a tribute of sorts to the adventure novels I grew up reading, from Tom Swift and Rick Brant to Sax Rohmer and H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Pure adrenaline, pure fun.

In the introduction to your guest appearance on the Behind the Black Mask podcast (2006), Clute and Edwards mention that you have never driven a car. Is that still true? And I wonder if you have seen any of the episodes of "Foyle’s War," the superb mystery series from the UK where the main character, Christopher Foyle, also doesn’t drive?

I haven't seen "Foyle's War," but yes, it is still true that I've never driven. Given that I don't have a driver's license, this is probably a good thing. I've ridden in a lot of taxis, and I've driven cars (badly) in a lot of computer games -- I can wreck a car faster in GRAND THEFT AUTO than anyone else I know -- but I've never driven an actual car in the real world.

I've also never drunk an entire cup of coffee. I've had sips here and there, but I can't stand the stuff.

What else, let's see. I've never drunk an entire beer. I've never shot and killed a man. I've never worn suspenders.

And yet I've written about doing all these things! Ah, the imagination.

You once said that your musical tastes end around 1959. Some of my fellow bloggers (David Cranmer, Paul Bishop, Chris Jones) and I love old jazz, particularly Miles Davis and John Coltrane. What are some of your favorite albums, old or new, jazz or otherwise?

I've got a lot of the classic jazz albums, but when I was growing up I never liked them much because I'd get annoyed with the performers, who I wished would just stick to the damn melody. I liked Porter, Berlin, Kern, Gershwin and so on, and I liked them because they wrote brilliant melodies, and those jazz guys would give you maybe four seconds of the melody and then they were off on some riff that sounded nothing like what I'd come to hear!

I've since matured a little and can listen to jazz without getting annoyed...but my first love is still the real thing, performed straight. So it won't surprise you to hear that a lot of my favorite albums are original cast recordings from Broadway shows and movie musicals. That said, one virtuoso pianist whose work I loved even though he'd occasionally tear off on flights of fancy like the jazz guys was George Feyer, and if you can find any of his albums I recommend them to you extremely highly. He had at least two Cole Porter albums, at least one Gershwin, at least one Kern, and they're all wonderful. Oh, and a modern jazz group that does spectacular covers of old material is the Howard Fishman Quartet ( -- if you like this sort of music, you should definitely check them out.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sneak Peak: Charles Ardai interview published tomorrow

Tomorrow, I will post something special. It's my first author interview and it's with Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime co-founder and author of three novels (Little Girl Lost, Songs of Innocence, and Fifty-to-One).

This precedes Mr. Ardai's book signing/presentation at Murder by the Book, this Saturday, January 10, an event I will report on next week. Come on by, if you're in the area.

"Snowy Ducks for Cover" by Erle Stanley Gardner

This is the year I pulp up, by which I mean that I plan to read a lot of classic pulp stories and NeoPulp stories (coined recently by Patti Abbott) and just absorb what makes these stories so memorable. I will improve my writing as a result. When Raymond Chandler decided to start writing stories, he studied the authors published in the Black Mask magazine. In the timeline at the front of Chandler’s Collected Stories is this entry for 1933: “Studies Erle Stanley Gardner and other representatives of pulp fiction, and spends five months writing his first story, ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,’ which is published by pulp detective magazine, Black Mask.” Well, if it’s good enough for Chandler, it’s sure certainly good enough for me.

Erle Stanley Gardner is the creator of Perry Mason. For that, he’ll live on. He’s also the creator of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, a highly entertaining series that is recommend by just about any reader who cracks open an installment. But before the novels, Gardner churned out short stories. A quick check at Thrilling Detective lists nearly forty series characters all created by Gardner’s fertile mind. There is not a series of books with all the short stories in them but there are a few. The Danger Zone and Other Stories is one such collection. Publishers Crippen and Landru bring together some never-before-reprinted stories of Gardner’s rare characters. “Snowy Ducks for Cover” (1931) is the lead story.

In the introduction, Bill Pronzini describes Snowy Shane thusly: “a tough-minded private eye with a penchant for highly unorthodox detective work.” With a sketch like that, the mind starts whipping up an image even before you read the first word. Shane gets his moniker because of “a bushy crop of gray hair which silvered his head with a grizzled mane.” In the age of the pulps, where an author only has a few lines to describe a character or situation to snare a reader, Gardner writes this about Shane on page one: “He didn’t play the game along orthodox lines, but took shortcuts whenever he felt reasonably certain of his ultimate goal.” Quite American of him, don’t you think? The ends justify the means, I guess. This one-line mission statement probably resonated with readers back in 1931, the date of this publication, where soup lines snaked around the block and men eked out an existence, looking for just a little break to get them over the hump. Shane was a good member in the long line of pulp heroes because he got results.

The case in this story is simple. Molly O’Keefe, secretary to Harley Robb, is accused of the murder of her boss. Robb, according to a handwritten “confession,” was embezzling funds from his company for speculation. O’Keefe’s defense lawyer asks Shane for any clue on which to hang a defense. Shane doesn’t’ want to do it. Then the lawyer (Sheridane) plays his trump card: “I want you to pull some of your fourth degree stuff and get our client a break.” Shane is hooked (as are we; Fourth degree stuff? Cool!) and, then, Shane is off.

Shane’s methods are not unlike the methods of countless detectives, Sherlock Holmes included. He visits the crime scene and sees something. He doesn’t tell the defense lawyer and, thus, Gardner doesn’t tell us. Shane visits each of three men, all members of the company’s advisory committee—and, thus, the benefactors of Robb’s untimely death—and asks random questions, sometimes only one before dragging the sputtering lawyer to the next suspect. In one exchange, the Shane-as-Sherlock, I’m-not-going-to-tell-you-anything comparison is quite apparent:
In the taxicab, the lawyer regarded him [Shane] speculatively.
“Really, Snowy, I don’t see what you gained.”
“Shut up,” said the detective. “I’m thinkin’.”
The way Shane identifies the true murderer is interesting and, certainly unorthodox. It might be illegal nowadays what with our penchant to sue over the most inane things, usually the result of a lack of self-responsibility. There’s a nice presentation quality to the reveal, something akin to the Thin Man movies, although the main confession takes place off-stage. The last paragraph explains the story’s title and seems to imply this isn’t the first Shane story even though I can’t find a list of Shane stories on the web.

Gardner presents this story in the traditional fashion: an interested party approaches the detective, gives the detective (and reader) all the pertinent data, the detective does his thing, and the bad guy is caught. Nothing really earth-shattering in scope but, then, Gardner was just using the template so many other pulp authors used (and still use).

The prose is quick, exciting, and full of good Pulp Words and Phrases: frail (a woman); jane (a woman); “His eyes went slithering about…”; “Sheridane’s brow was corrugated…”; and my personal favorite: “Robb didn’t cop that coin without some split.”

What I Learned As A Writer: Description. I’ve been knocked time and again for not providing a description of a character, a scene, or the surrounding environment. In this story, Gardner always introduces a character and describes him, even if it’s the bare minimum, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. I’ve taken to reading with a pencil in hand, circling and annotating things I need to learn. This story is a good lesson in description.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Yet Another New Bruce Springsteen Song

Leading up to the January 27th release date of his new CD "Working on a Dream," Bruce Springsteen has been making available--for free--some of the new songs. Next up is "Life Itself" after "Working on a Dream" and "My Lucky Day." Since I downloaded the song--for free--from Amazon yesterday, it looks like the tune is no longer available. But, the video, also at Amazon, still is. What the video shows is more behind-the-scenes footage, one of the things I'm most looking forward to with the release of this CD/DVD.

And if you want a sneak peek at the genesis of this record, head on over to Springsteen's main website. He has a note explaining how the new record came about in the immediate aftermath of the October 2007 release of his last record, Magic.

And for those of y'all who have already made the paradigm shift to downloading (legally) your music as opposed to buying a physical artifact (as I have), iTunes is offering a special pre-release price of the CD where you get the album, the DVD footage, the liner notes, and a bonus song, "A Night with the Jersey Devil," a song Springsteen released on Halloween 2008.

And, in case y'all didn't know, Springsteen and the E Street Band will perform at the Super Bowl. Wow! What a way to start the musical year!

Two-Sentence Tuesday

Taking a cue from The Women of Mystery and David Cranmer's The Education of a Pulp Writer, I playing along with the fun project.

After the response from my post yesterday about old-school pulp fiction, I started reading my copy of the first Doc Savage story, The Man of Bronze. Boy, I have to tell you, there are quite a few couplets I could have picked. I think these two, from Chapter 1 no less, will do nicely. The "forest" in question consist of the girders from an unfinished skyscraper.
"It was in this forest that Death prowled. Death was a man."
I'll say more when I review the book but I love Kenneth Robeson's use of catchy, action-oriented "Pulp Verbs." Death didn't just hang out, he "Prowled." It really moves the story along quickly, which, of course, was the point.

My own two-fer is from a story I'm aiming to submit to Cranmer's Beat to a Pulp ezine later this month. It's from my first western story.
The man shuffled forward a pace or two, limping, the dust curling around the man’s feet. Carved into the dirt street behind the man, in a sort of Morse code repeating the same feeble refrain, Prescott saw the man’s footsteps—one longer, ragged rut where the man dragged his left foot for every clean boot print of his right—trailing away back across the street.
Can't help but note the irony of this story, a western. It goes like this: I grew up a SF geek so naturally, the first novel I write is a historical mystery. Having fixed on crime fiction as my medium of choice, the first short story I write is a western. Go figure.

If anyone else want to play, contact The Women of Mystery and get your name thrown in the hat.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Help Wanted: Fiction with More Pulp

Throughout 2008, I tried to learn as much as possible about crime and mystery fiction. i started with hard-boiled, moved to noir, got a taste of the traditional, and even threw in some comedy. I am far from an expert but I at least know where to look.

I realized I still have a deficit: old-school pulp fiction. By pulp fiction, I'm talking not just westerns but adventure fiction. My recent reading of a Tarzan short story made me realize I was missing something. It's the stuff I probably should have read when I was in middle school (Tarzan, Mars books, Fu Manchu, Quartermain) but never did. Now, I'm planning on rectifying that deficit.

Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books Project is helping (thanks August West for the G-8 reference). But I'd still like y'all's help in compiling some lists.

What are some great pulp adventure stories/authors?

What are some pulp western stories/authors?

What are some great pulp science fiction stories/authors?

What are some great pulp spy/espionage stories/authors?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Donald Westlake

I barely even put my toe in the ocean of Westlake's prose before he passed on New Year's Eve. I have only read one of his books, Somebody Owes Me Money (Hard Case Crime). My review is here. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more.

There are better outlets with many more links. The Rap Sheet has some good links as well as Sarah Weinman.

Suffice it to say, we've lost a giant. And a standard by which all crime fiction must be measured. I think we're all in Westlake's debt.

Dan Simmons' Hyperion: Now on Audio

Do you have books out there that you have always wanted to read...but haven't for one reason or another? Dan Simmons' SF classic, Hyperion, is one of those books for me. I have the paperback but never got around to reading it.

Now, the good folks at have published the audio version. And it's fantastic. Multiple voices lead to a rich narrative...and I'm only 90 minutes into the story.

Yeah, buddy. Another Christmas present...

New Charles Ardai Interview

After you have read all the Forgotten Book reviews at Patti Abbott's blog, you must, MUST, head on over to The Tainted Archive. Gary has an interview with Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime publisher. Ardai will be in Houston next Saturday and I was considering trying for an interview. With the good Q&A at The Tainted Archive and all the other interviews, I'm not sure what questions are left to answer.

Either way, I will be reporting on the event at Murder by the Book on January 10. David Thompson, from Murder by the Book, tells me that Ardai is going to make a presentation with photos, etc. Needless to say, I'm quite excited. I'll report on the talk next weekend for those of y'all not near Houston.

If you're in the area, come on by, hear a great speaker, browse in the wonderful bookstore, and introduce yourself. In the meantime, read the new interview.

Yeah, I know it's Friday but...

To everyone arriving today looking for a forgotten book, you'll have to go to Patti Abbott's blog for a list of authors who actually did find the time to write a review today. No excuse from me, really. I've just been enjoying my time off with the family. I'll be back next Friday.