Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New Elmore Leonard - Eight chapters online now

Come this May, the new Elmore Leonard novel hits store shelves. Road Dogs brings together three characters from three earlier novels. Jack Foley is the "hero" of Out of Sight, portrayed brilliantly in the movie of the same name. Dawn Navarro starred in Riding the Rap and the third returnee is Cuando Rey from LaBrava. Now, I haven't read the latter two books so I don't know those characters. But the book is Elmore Leonard. What's not to like?

Here's something you can REALLY like. The first eight chapters are now available online over at Entertainment Weekly. Boo-yeah! But wait! There's more. The publisher is making these chapters available as part of a contest to see who can come up with the best fan-produced book trailer. How synergistic is that? Details on the contest here.

How great did you Tuesday just become?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Maurice Jarre

I just found out that composer Maurice Jarre has died.

As a member of the Star Wars Generation, Harrison Ford was like a god who walked among us. He was Han Solo. He was Indiana Jones. He was Rick Deckard (even though I was too young to see "Blade Runner" I got to 'see' it via the Fotonovels). We young boys who wanted to be like him always thought Ford was never given much credit as an actor.

Then came "Witness," and, with it, the gorgeous, flowing score by Maurice Jarre. I was already a fan of film music but, by 1985, most of my favorite music was composed by John Williams. Jarre was a major branch in my musical self education ("You mean someone other than John Williams composes film music?"). With his score to "Winess," Jarre brought synthesizers to a film score in a way that was not some early-80s techno-bob thing but, rather, as another instrument on the palette of film music. The music for "Witness," frankly, belongs with the movie. It's a little difficult to listen to it merely as incidental music.

Not so the music that accompanied the barn raising scene. You can see it in full here (even though the dialogue is dubbed in German which is, in itself, ironic for a movie that features the Amish). The soaring synth-strings evoked swaying waves of grain when you listen to the piece away from the film. The counter-melody, with its pseudo-clarinet, brought an earthy underpinning to the strings. This track is the single best reason to buy the score and it still wells up the emotion inside me every time I hear it.

As a high schooler, I knew that the piece was just a wonderful piece of music. As an adult, I know why it gets me: because the scenes in the film brings out a real sense of community and the music reflects that desired communal feeling. We all want to live in Mayberry or the Beaver's hometown but we don't. We know that's not real. However, with the one horrific exception a year or so ago, the Amish do seem to live in a community like that. (I say 'seem' because every place that looks like Eden from the outside usually has a serpent slithering around on the inside.) It's what Harrison Ford's character realizes. It's what we realize when we see the movie. And that feeling is memorialized in one exquisite piece of music.

Thank you, Maurice Jarre.

"Little Dorrit" on PBS

Everything is coming up Dickens. In December, I read and reviewed The Man Who Invented Christmas. I just finished reading Drood by Dan Simmons (review on Wednesday). Now, on TV, "Little Dorrit" started last night.

The first thing that came to mind last night was the gorgeous production values. The folks over in Britain really do their classic literature adaptations well. I thoroughly enjoyed "Bleak House" and watched all of the Jane Austen presentations last spring. These programs are so good that they might make me reconsider my lack of desire to own everything I love on DVD.

But production values alone don't guarantee a good film. The story has to be there. And with "Little Dorrit," is most certainly is. We are, after all, talking about Charles Dickens. I don't know the story of "Little Dorrit" at all so I am coming to this show cold. I'm just enjoying all the Dickensian tidbits and characters here and there and everywhere.

In one, two-hour installment, everything is set in motion. Little Dorrit, the daughter of man in debtors' prison, has a new job with Mrs. Clennam, a paraylized woman with a secret (natch). Her son is back from the East with news of his father's death and a dying request to fulfill. That request is so odd that he sets out to discover the truth. Jeremiah Flintwinch (great Dickens name), Mrs. Clennam's conniving butler, seems to know more than he should for a butler and, I think, has a secret all his own. Throw in Dorrit's gamling-prone brother, her actress sister, John Chivery, the son of the prison's gatekeeper who has eyes for Little Dorrit, to name but few, and the resulting concoction is one beautiful story with lots of inconnectedness. It is set up so wonderfully. You know: there's a reason why Dickens was a genius.

I'll write more as the series goes on. And if you missed it last night and are interested, you can watch online.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Sins of the Father by Lawrence Block

NOTE: I'm cheating. I admit it. I had jury duty yesterday and it threw off my reading and writing schedule. The book I was supposed to finish today I didn't. It'll show up next week.

So, since I've kinda forgotten about this book I read last year, I thought I'd re-post it today. Plus I read and reviewed it last year before folks started coming to my blog on a regular basis.

Editor's note: the other two Block books I mention in the first paragraph are A Diet of Treacle and Lucky at Cards.

For more Forgotten Book Favorites, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.
Three Lawrence Block books in a month. I guess you could call that a block of Blocks. Ahem, moving on.

One of the best things about what I seem to be doing (reading a lot of crime novels in an attempt to determine where my books are going to be placed within the wider pantheon of crime literature) is that there is just so much out there. Some of these writers, like Block, are so big, they transcend the genre. That is, I knew the name "Lawrence Block" before I even picked up the very first Hard Case Crime story ever published, Block's Grifter's Game. Since then, I have learned that Block is most famous for two creations, Bernie Rhodenbarr (AKA "The Bulgar") and the Matt Scudder novels. Being a stickler for reading these series characters from the beginning, I recently found the first books from each of these series. Don't know why but I read Scudder first.

We meet Scudder, where else, in a bar, sitting opposite a client. Scudder is not a licensed PI; instead, he does 'favors' for people. And, in the best tradition of old-school PI novels, Block gets right to the point. A bereaved father wants Scudder to learn about and report on the last days of his daughter's life. Specifically, he blames himself for not reaching out to her and he wants to know if what the papers have printed about her--that she's a prostitute--are true. Scudder agrees and takes the man's money.

The first thing that jarred me about this character--and immediately gave him depth--was that Scudder tithed 10% of his fee. Crime fiction that I am familiar with tends to be somewhat secular. I know there are PI series out there with priests and whatnot; I just haven't read them. And for a PI, down on his luck, divorced, with two boys he seems not to know what to do with, semi-alcoholic, who lives in a hotel, to give up 10% of his hard-earned cash is something remarkable. And he does it more than once. It's one of the neatest aspects of Scudder, that he knows there is a God and that he, Scudder, strayed though he is, is one of the sheep.

On the cover of nearly every copy of a Block book, invariably, there is a quote about Block's prose. I got the one from Martin Cruz Smith who considers Block to be a direct descendant of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. I haven't read Cain yet...but he's dead on with the Hammett reference. Block uses nice and tidy prose. There is no fat. My copy of the novel is 186 pages and seventeen chapters. But, considering Chapter 17 is only three pages long, Block tells his entire story in sixteen chapters and 183 pages. My current novel is on chapter 18 and I'm on page 125. Boy, do I envy Block's writing. To cite the last sentence of the Martin Cruz Smith quote, "He's that good."

Again, not knowing anything about Scudder, the second jarring thing he did came after this sentence: "I went back to Armstrong's, but it was the wrong place for the mood I was in." There had not been hardly any violence in the novel up to that point (p. 127) and I honestly didn't see what was coming. It jarred me. In fact, I put a sticky note on that page so I could quickly return to that place in the book. I expected it to be important and it was. Going back to the tithing aspect of his character, I couldn't help but see an angelic--not the good kind--coming out in Scudder's actions.

In my ongoing education in crime literature to date, I have met a lot of one-time characters: Angel Dare, Swede Nelson, Joe Hope, Cay Morgan, Jack Stang. Even Nick and Nora Charles, in literature, are one-time characters. Matt Scudder is the first ongoing character to whom I have been introduced. I want to taste a lot of different writers before I settle down and plow through an entire series. It is going to take a act of will not to buy the second book in the Scudder series tomorrow. He is intriguing. He is deep. He is, to appropriate the above quote and apply it to Scudder, that good.

What I Learned As A Writer: I am a writer and I am reading to become a better writer. I keep a pencil handy when I read so I can mark neat or interesting passages. I actually take notes when there is something important. At one point in this novel, Block does a fascinating thing. Scudder breaks into the apartment where the murder took place. This event happens on page 57 and Block covers it thusly:

"The window wasn't locked. I opened it, let myself in, closed it after me.
An hour later, I went out the window and back up the fire escape."

Scudder then goes and has a sandwich. At the time, accustomed as I am to CSI-type readings of crime scenes (that is, in intricate detail), I was shocked. It was the end of a chapter as well, so, as I turned the page, I expected to have the scene laid out, in detail. Uh-uh. What Scudder did and saw in the apartment is scattered throughout the rest of the book and a detail is divulged only when it is important. The rest of it doesn't matter. Holy cow! It is a brilliant way to keep the reader engaged. We know Scudder had to have found something...but what was it? Brilliant.

And I won't even go into detail about the obvious way those two sentences state what is necessary without any extra detail. We, the Reader, fill in the gaps. Makes me wonder if Cruz Smith should have included Hemingway in that list to which Block belongs? I think so.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My illness has a name!

I've been sick since August of 2006. You see, that's when I began "thinking" and "Conceiving" and "brainstorming" about Book #2. In the late summer of 2006, I was fresh off the high of finishing Book #1. I had met an agent at a conference and she had asked for the first 100 pages of my book. Nirvana was had. Visions of many things danced in front of my eyes.

Then, the albatross settled its grimy claws on my shoulders and neck. I had an idea for Book #2. It was pretty decent, I thought. So I started conceiving. And I conceived and conceived and brainstormed and outlined and thought about the story...and nothing came of it. Frustrated, I asked myself: who is this book about? Interestingly, I came up with a different character. Ooookay, the brainstorming commenced. Again.

Long story shorter and to borrow a movie term, Book #2 got mired in development hell. I have written the first Act three times and each time, I've come to a dead end. Finally frustrated, I set it aside last year to concentrate on my blogging and reading and researching the mystery field. I've joked with people that it's taken me longer NOT to write Book #2 than it took to write Book #1. I knew I wasn't the only one who suffered from this affliction. And now we have a name for it:


I read that term this morning over at Murderati. Rob Gregory Browne wrote about being blog-blocked (I kind of share that affliction, too) and he name dropped Harley Jane Kozak who coined the term Secondbookitis. I know my illness. Now, what's the remedy?

For me, it's a new book in a differet genre. For the time being, I've abandoned my old Book #2 for new Book #2A (can't really call the new work #3 since I never finished the original #2). Book 2A is a western, it's a adventure, it's a mystery, it's a pulp book. At least, that's the way I see it now. What I am going to write is a book that will probably mash-up a bunch of genres but should end up being the book I'd love to read. I am, after all, the story's first reader. I just happen also to be its author.

So, with full knowledge of what's I've been suffering from, onward I trek.

Here's where the irony will come in. Kozak's term refers to the second book a new author has to produce *after* the first book is published. I fully expect to suffer from Secondbookitis twice in my writing career. I've lived with it for two years now in trying to *just* write that second book. I suspect I'll also come down with it after I've published my actual first book (I say actual because who knows how many I'll have to write before one sees publication). To that I say one thing: Bring It On.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Strong Starts in Stories

Two things collided in my head over the weekend and, no, they weren’t my NCAA bracket and the grocery list. They were two instances of writing that actually said the same thing.

The first was reading the first chapter of the first Gabriel Hunt book, as written by James Reasoner. You can read it here. The second was watching “A Kiss Before Dying” last night. What do these two things have in common? Strong openers.

With Gabriel Hunt’s story, you expect a strong opening and Reasoner delivers. Gabriel and his brother, Michael, are at a black-tie event when a woman approaches them with a wrapped package. No sooner does she start talking to the brothers than a waiter holding a gun appears. Action ensues and, by the end of the chapter, you can’t wait to turn the page (or, in our sense, wait for the dang book to be published!).

Last night, I saw “A Kiss Before Dying” for the first time. On the surface, it’s not a movie that would appear to have a strong opener. You’d expect some introduction, some charming scenes before the killer aspect of the film starts. I thought that and I was wrong. This film follows the Elmore Leonard School of Writing: start a scene at the last possible moment. The opening scene itself is the latter part of a conversation between Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward. She’s pregnant. What are they going to do. Bam! You are there, in the scene, and at least want to know what happens next. That you know Wagner is going to try and kill her (whether from the poster or from Robert Osbourne’s introduction) goes without saying.

The point I’m getting to is this: we read all these reports about the attention span of modern readers or viewers. As not-yet-published authors, we are trained to capture readers’ attention on the first sentence, the first paragraph at least, and, by gosh, the first page as a last resort. Part of me wants to rail against this type of writing. Surely, I think, we can give an author time to work toward a plot.

But, you know, I realized this type of storytelling has been going on for a long, long time. It’s not a recent type of story-telling. It’s probably the most exciting type, to be sure: grab the reader and go for the ride. Be sure your seatbelts are fastened. Go, go, go! On the other hand, Dan Simmons' latest tome, Drood, is one of the other kind: long lead-in but it sticks with you and you stick with the story, despite the slower pace.

I’m taking the faster type of storytelling to heart as I write my next novel. It’s inspired by a short story I wrote that Beat to a Pulp accepted (and will be published in May). I am turning that story into “Chapter 1” and moving forward. I’ve been wrangling with how I should approach the story. Is it a true western? Is a straight-ahead mystery? Is it a pulp throwback a la Gabriel Hunt? Is it a steampunkish tale a la TV’s “The Wild Wild West”? The answer is: I don’t know.

But I do know that I’m going to try and grab the reader’s attention on page one. We’ll see how it goes.

Do you prefer story-telling like this or slower, leisurely ones?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Making Superman Better

I have always been a Batman guy. My earliest TV memories involve the 1960s TV show. I certainly watched the 1950s Superman show but the Batman show stuck. Same with the comics. I have boxes full of Batman-related comics but can barely fill a comic book box with Superman-related stuff. As Batman got the Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb and Christopher Nolan treatment, Superman got to pulling stunts. Death of Superman was good for awhile, until Clark returned (like you didn't see that one coming). I thought his Blue Phase in the 1990s was lame. However, there are shining lights. The comic mentioned in the article I'm plugging, Superman for All Seasons, is the best Superman story I think I've ever read.

Pete over at SF Signal thinks so, too. And he's written a good article about how to fix the Superman films. I think he's got something. Take a read and tell me what you think.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Forgotten Books: First Evidence by Ken Goddard

Imagine this: Agents Mulder and Scully are on a case in Las Vegas. They discover a carapace of an unknown insect. Seeking guidance, they look up Gil Grisson at the Las Vegas crime lab (AKA “CSI”), a renowned insect expert. In one of those rare instances where they both smile, Scully and Grisson go out for drinks, end up in a hotel, and, nine months later, a little baby is born to the two. You ever wonder (probably not up until this very moment) what the product of this union might be? Yeah, I didn’t think so. But, hey, I do have an answer for you.

Detective-Sergeant Colin Cellars is the star of Ken Goddard’s First Evidence. He’s a “Gil Grissom” living in northwest Oregon. As a crime lab tech, he’s trained to study the evidence and only the evidence, no matter where it leads. Even if it leads to something he doesn’t believe.

Colin’s not in the first chapter. Bob Dawson is. He’s an ex-military stud who’s chosen to be a hermit in the Oregon. Goddard describes Dawson as someone who Just Doesn’t Get Scared. And he’s scared now. Because some*thing* killed his dog and is in his house. He’s cornered and he realizes he’s not going to be able to meet his old friend Colin. In fact, he might not even get out of his house alive. Violence ensues. Fade to black.

Cut to Colin, biding his time at a UFO convention, stifling yawns and wondering why on Earth he had agreed to listen. One thing leads to another and Colin ends up processing a crime scene: Dawson’s house. And Dawson is nowhere to be found. Then, strange things happen that any viewer of The X-Files knows: people disappear from one place only to end up at another location without any explanation; strange shadows in the claustrophobic Oregon forest, etc. You get the idea.

It’s been awhile since I read this book (2001, the same year I went to Portland, Oregon) but I remember really digging the CSI/X-Files combo thing. Goddard is, himself, a crime scene investigator so you can trust his scientific knowledge.

The book has the great, moody, foggy atmosphere the first six years of “The X-files” had (before they moved production from Vancouver to LA). We, as readers, know from the beginning what Colin has to come to believe. He does it in the Scully method: that is, all science and evidence and ‘truth’ (It's out there!) even to the point where the conclusion is unavoidable. It’s a fun book, better than the second X-Files movie for sure. If you’re planning a trip to Oregon, I’d take it along (When I go on vacation, I enjoy reading books that take place in the area where I'm vacationing). If you’re wanting a fun, spooky book to pass a few hours, I’d certainly recommend it. If you like this book, there’s a sequel, too.

Go on over to Ken Goddard’s webpage and read the first chapter. See if you get hooked. I did.


For more Forgotten Book fun, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gabriel Hunt website - Now Live!

The new website for the novels featuring hero Gabriel Hunt is now active.

What's great about the new site is that there are sample chapters from all six books. If they don't whet your appetite for adventure, you must be made of stone.

For those of y'all who don't know, Gabriel Hunt is the brainchild of Charles Ardai, of Hard Case Crime fame. He mentions the inspiration of the Hunt books in my interview with him back in January.

The excitement is building...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Five Fabulous Blogs

David Cranmer at The Education of a Pulp Writer tagged me with this current Five Fabulous Blogs meme. I heartily thank him as his site is one of the my own top five.

I'll let everyone know that I follow, on my Google Reader, over 100 blogs of all shapes and sizes. I have the White House.gov blog, the Houston Chronicle's blog, and dozens of fiction and book blogs devoted to crime fiction, mysteries, westerns, and SF. Picking five was difficult.

Here are the rules:
You must include the person that gave you the award, and link it back to them.
You must list 5 of your Fabulous Addictions in the post. You must copy and paste these rules in the post. Right click the award icon & save to your computer then post with your own awards.

My top 5:
1. David Cranmer's The Education of a Pulp Writer
2. Patti Abbott's Pattinase
3. Sandra Seamans' My Little Corner
4. SF Signal
5. The Rap Sheet

I could list so many more. Check out the links on the right for more. One day I'll get around to posting my entire blog list and telling y'all why I follow them.

Now, I'm supposed to list 5 addictions. Well, since I won't list wife and child as that would be unhealthy, I'll go for other things.

1. Music in general, Chicago in particular (but so, so many more)
2. Tea - I'm a tea snob. Period.
3. History (and politics, which is history in the making)
4. Writing (including blogging)
5. Books, books, books


Friday, March 13, 2009

Forgotten books: Day off

Since Patti Abbott is taking a break from the Friday's Forgotten Books, I'm taking one with her. I'll be back next week.

There are a few out there who posted a forgotten book. Head on over to The Rap Sheet for a run-down and a list of other exciting things in the world of crime fiction. One I'm especially looking forward to is Bill Crider's reading of his award-winning story "Cranked" being released this Sunday at Crimewav.com.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SF Signal: The Faces Revealed...and more fun information

If you are a regular visitor to SF Signal, my essential daily SF fix, as I am, you know that the guys who run the blog are faceless. No longer.

Head on over to Cult Pop for a video interview with John DeNardo and J. P. Frantz. In addition to seeing their faces and hearing their voices, they give a rundown of the daily operation of SF Signal, how it started, and other interesting tidbits.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Two Sentence Tuesday: 10 March 2009

I'm taking a bit of liberty with today's blog. Instead of posting one passage from my own work and another passage from something I'm reading, I'm going to post two passages from my current to-be-read pile. Why? On the surface, I like them both and I can't choose. Underneath the surface, I don't have anything ready.

Awhile back, on David Cranmer's blog, we all had a discussion about how many books, if more than one, we read at the same time. At present, I have about five I'm working my way through. It just depends on my mood really.

Here are two sentences from Dan Simmons' latest opus, Drood:
The date of Dickens' disaster was 9 June 1865. The locomotive carrying his success, peace of mind, sanity, manuscript, and mistress was--quite literally--heading for a breach in the rails and a terrible fall.
For a book that 771 pages long, the work reads quickly. Wilkie Collins is the narrator and the incident in the above passage really happened. Dickens' train car was the only first class car to survive when his train jumped over a broken span of a bridge. The event changed him and he never completed another book (his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, remained incomplete when he died five years to the day in 1870.) In Simmons' imagination, Dickens, as he tended to the wounded of the train accident, encounters the dreadful visage of a man known only as Drood and becomes obsessesed with finding him. That is the crux of the story and, one hundred pages into it, it's a work of art.

On another plane altogether, I am finally getting around to Theodore Judson's The Martian General's Daughter (2008). I read Lou Anders' blog (what is it with people whose last names end in 's'?) regularly. He's the editor of Pyr Books, a SF/F imprint. I had read a lot of good reviews about Judson's book and wanted to pick it up. What astounded me was it's size. If Drood tells its story in 771 pages, Martian General Daughter does it in 252. I have lamented that there is no SF version of Hard Case Crime, good, quick reads with SF tropes and not all that world building stuff that weighs down a rapid narrative. Judson's book seems to be just that. And I want to know how he did it.

Thus, the opening sentence:
When the word of Pretext's fall came to Peter Black's camp the general was seated beneath a conveyer belt on the Twelfth Level, watching a sales presentation made by the scrap men of Antioch Station. Many hundreds of workmen in small electric carts were parading past General black and his staff officers while they displayed samples of the supposedly uninfected metal they were hoping to sell to the army.
What I appreciate about sentences like these is the broad paintbrush. The sentences evoke something grand and big, big enough, to be sure, to hold 'hundreds of workmen.' And there are enough questions ('scrap men'?; 'uninfected metal'?) to make you want to read more without one of those gotcha opening sentences we are so accustomed to write. The hook is there, but it's subtle. I like that in a book.

I shall report on these books at a later time.

As y'all read this, I'll be on a golf course celebrating my wife's birthday. For more two-sentence fun, head on over to Women of Mystery.

Friday, March 6, 2009

First Review up at New Mystery Reader

My first review is up at New Mystery Reader. I continue my thoughts on S. J. Rozan's The Shanghai Moon. It's a companion to my review earlier this week as part of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.

Thanks to Sandra Seamans for suggesting I see if New Mystery Reader might like my reviews.

Thanks to Stephanie Padilla, editor at New Mystery Reader, who saw something in my reviews that she liked.

And thanks to S. J. Rozan for writing a fabulous book.

Forgotten books: Poe's Detective Stories

(This is part of Patti Abbott's Forgotten Books Project. Head on over to her blog to be reminded of more books you know you've forgotten.)

Edgar Allan Poe is such a show-off. How many different genres did he invent or refine? A dozen? It sometimes seems so. With the bicentennial of his birth this year, I decided to read all three of the world’s first detective stories. The stories featuring detective C. Auguste Dupin are not forgotten by most of us. Even I knew about two of them just by living and being aware of literature. But I had never really read them. Now I have.

The most important things about Poe’s three detective stories are the story tropes he invented. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) was a locked-room mystery. I don’t know if it was the first but it’s the first one I know about. Who brutally murdered a woman and her daughter? Witnesses seem confused and the data seems contradictory. And, besides, the room was locked from the inside. The police are, of course, utterly baffled. Enter Dupin and his unnamed, first person narrator. The first dynamic duo visit the site and Dupin finds a clue the police missed. This clue leads Dupin to ratiocinate (his word; just think of Sherlock Holmes’ observational deductive theories) the true murderer. I’m not going to give it away for those of you who still need to read this story. It’s pretty cool and the logic is easy to follow.

Can’t say the same thing about the second story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842). In an afterward, Poe explains that he fictionalized the real details of the death of Mary Rogers. His goal was to solve the real-life murder of Mary Rogers using logic and ratiocination. I’m sorry. If Poe was going to fictionalize a story like this, he could have made it much more exciting. The logic is so complicated and detailed, I frankly, couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Shoot, I could see the trees for the twigs, the weeds, the dirt, and the moss. It was boring. It was interminably long and ponderous. And, unlike traditional back-and-forth dialogue, this story was over eighty percent Dupin just talking. And talking. And talking. I couldn’t stop thinking about Wallace Shawn’s character from “The Princess Bride” who drones on and on about which vial the dread Pirate Roberts placed the poison. I was glad I listened to this story. It made Houston traffic exciting by comparison. And we didn’t even get the pay-off. The story ends with Dupin basically saying, “If the police look for _____ (no spoilers here although I could just save you the trouble and…), the murderer will surely be found.” Poe trumpeted his own logic in the afterward where he laid claim to knowing the true culprit before confessions proved his point. That’s all well and good but, in a fictional story, at least give me a good ending. No, wait: give me a coherent story.

“The Purloined Letter” (1844) is easily the most accessible of the three stories primarily because we recognize the pattern. If you’ve read any Sherlock Holmes story, you know the pattern. There is a crime (stolen letter) and—wait for it—the police are baffled. They know who stole the letter and have turned his house inside and out looking for it. Dupin (actually Poe) telegraphs the ending of the story early on when he comments that, perhaps, the answer is simple. Dupin’s thesis is much like Holmes’: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I think the ending of this story is well known but, still, I won’t ruin it for you.

In my Sunday school class, we are discussing the differences between exegesis and eisegesis. The former describes an objective attempt to read the Bible (or whatever text) from the context of the writer. The latter describes how we insert our modern influences upon the Bible. That is, we read into the Bible. The same principles can be applied to Poe’s detective stories. Reading them for the first time in 2009, having had a century and a half of mystery and detective stories under our belts, to say nothing of television and movies, you can see where Poe’s stories fall in the hierarchy of mystery literature. You can also see how they measure up to other stories and compare and contrast them. You can see how other authors took Poe's ideas and concepts and, frankly, did them better. This is eisegesis.

But if you look at these stories with an exegetical eye, your mouth will probably hang open at the sheer audacity of invention from Poe’s pen. Out of nothing did Poe create a wholly new archetype, the detective, complete with quirks and idiosyncrasies. Out of nothing did Poe create the murder mystery and the locked room mystery. Heck he created what we know now as a mystery. It’s a phenomenal work of genius.

I guess I can excuse him for showing off. If I’d invented half the things he did, I’d show off, too.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Book Review Club: The Shanghai Moon by S. J. Rozan

(This is the second installment of the Book Review Club organized by Barrie Summy. For more reviews, head on over to her blog.)

If there is one thing I learned while reading S. J. Rozan’s The Shanghai Moon it’s that Chinese-American private detective Lydia Chin is not Sam Spade.

In a unique bit of timing, I had just finished re-reading The Maltese Falcon to bring all the Spade-isms back into my current memory before reading the new prequel, Spade and Archer by Joe Gores. But before I could get to the not-really-further adventures of Sam Spade, I read Rozan’s novel.

I was recently invited by the good folks over at NewMysteryReader.com to write some reviews. After seeing the types of books I read last year, they thought that the hard-boiled material would fit me well. With that endorsement and Spade’s wise-cracking still echoing in my head, I cracked The Shanghai Moon, expecting a certain type of book.

I didn’t get it. But, in many ways, I got something much better and, frankly, more satisfying.

Fellow New York PI, Joe Pilarski, asks Chin for some assistance. He has a new case that has a Chinese connection. Officials in Shanghai have unearthed some European jewelry dating back to World War II. Once the former owner has been identified as Rosalie Gilder, these no longer become just any jewels. This find becomes *the* find. You see, Rosalie was the original owner of the Shanghai Moon, a necklace made of jade and diamonds. It is the stuff of legend. Men have devoted their entire lives to the fruitless search for this mythical gem.

Pilarski and Chin meet Alice Fairchild, a lawyer specializing in recovering stolen Jewish property. Alice shows Chin and Pilarski an old photograph of Rosalie and a letter the young refugee wrote in 1938. Alice also produces a photograph of Wong Pan, a Chinese official who has disappeared from Shanghai. Since the jewelry has also disappeared, they believe that Wong is in New York, with the jewelry looking for a buyer. The Shanghai Moon might or might not be with the same cache. Chin and Pilarski are hired to ask around the Chinatown jewelry shop owners and let any potential buyer know that Alice is willing to pay for the stolen jewels on behalf of her clients, relatives of Rosalie Gilder.

All in all, pretty standard PI stuff, both as a job and as a novel. But Rozan throws in the history of the Jewish refugees in China. This wasn't some dry, wall-to-wall text boring history. We learn about it as Chin learns about it: through some dialogue, the internet, and, most importantly, letters written by Rosalie. You can see Chin's gradual movement from disinterested detective taking a case to very-much interested detective/person wanting to know the entire story. If you weren’t already hooked by the present-day mystery, the engrossing historical subplot will nab you but good.

We, like Chin, become personally involved with the story of Rosalie, eighteen, and her brother, Paul, fourteen, as they journey from Austria to Shanghai in 1938. It is this involvement that drives Chen for the rest of the story, even as people start turning up dead.

I had hoped to have my review, the play-by-play kind, posted at NewMysteryReader by today so that I could reference it while I discuss other aspects of the book here. Alas, it’ll have to be the other way round. Look for my full review at NewMysteryReader soon.

But let me return to Sam Spade and Lydia Chin and their lineage. Even though Hammett didn’t invent the hard-boiled PI, he set the standard. Spade is a huge figure in detective fiction and all detectives can’t help but be compared to him. Some fictional detectives do not veer far from the Spade branch of the detective tree. I’m thinking here of Marlowe or Hammer. Chin, and, to a lesser degree, her partner, Bill Smith, might be part of the same tree but they live on a separate branch.

In the Maltese Falcon, Spade had an adversarial relationship with the police. He loathes them and they him. It’s a mutual dislike and distrust. No matter what Spade does, it’s always in his best interest, no matter the cost to other people. In The Shanghai Moon, Chin’s best friend, Mary, is a NYPD cop. You know how, in movies or books, the characters don’t talk to each other? I mean, you’re slamming your head against a wall and yelling at the screen “Just call the cops.” Chin does, frequently. She readily admits at certain stages that the story is too big for her and wants to let the NYPD take over.

She can’t, of course. Just like Spade can’t, just like we couldn’t. She moves her investigation forward. And we willingly go along. The more Chin discovers, the more she wants to put things right. She and Spade—and just about every PI as well—are alike in that respect. But she doesn’t do it for self-congratulations. She seems more pure than Spade. Well, let me rephrase. Spade was pure in his desire to keep himself out of jail and out of a police station. Chin’s motives are much more personal. They feel more real. She comes to care for some of the people in this story and that makes all the difference.

I don’t usually like to start a series with any book other than the first one. There’s too much back story. The Shanghai Moon is book nine in the series. I can think of no other better praise than to say I’m looking forward to reading the other eight.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In Awe of '24'

Look, I know it's fiction. I know it can stretch credibility at times. There are even times this season--even last night's episode--when I shook my head and said "No way."

But, holy cow! Did '24' deliver last night. For those who don't know, last night was a special 2-hour event. The bad guys (I'm not going to bother with the recap) stormed the White House. I have to admit that it was hard watching the bad guys take over America's House. It's ours, dammit. It's inviolate. It's sacred. It' not for some tinpot dictator to capture.

The attack, of course, took place in the second hour so we viewers were treated to sixty minutes of hot anticipation. The attack was silent and pretty swift. But the tension was extremely high. I haven't had my heart racing, pulse pounding, palms sweaty over a TV show or movie in a long time. That's the beauty of a show like '24': you don't really know what's going to happen next.

Take "Air Force One": you *knew* going in Harrison Ford was going to win in the end. How about "The Dark Knight." No matter what, Joker was going down, one way or another. Any random episode of "CSI" or "Lost" or just about anything and you stand a better-than-average chance that you know what's coming.

Starting with Season 1 of '24' they tried to break some of those preconceptions. The last episode of Season 1 was heart breaking but it set a tone. The opening moments of Season 5 (gunshots anyone?) took your breath away. Sure, '24' has had some slips (Seasons 2, 3, 6) but this season, they have learned from their mistakes. And they know how to write thrilling, provocative, highly entertaining television.

I think we writers can stand to learn a few lessons from '24'. For starters, I think we ought to be willing to take a course of action that our readers don't expect. It'll turn off some readers but those that stay will thank us for our boldness. I thank '24' for its boldness.

And I canNOT wait until next week!

(Isn't that the point?)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Wild West Monday - The Additional Fact

While we're all celebrating Wild West Monday and Texas Independence Day, it turns out that it's the birthday of none other than Sam Houston, 216 years ago today. (For those of y'all who don't like math, that's 1793.) The native Virginian went on to become governor of Tennessee, President of the Republic of Texas (twice), U. S. Senator from Texas, and, finally, in 1859, governor of Texas. When the secession fervor erupted after Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, Houston, a strong Unionist, opposed secession. The Texas Legislature declared the office vacant and the governorship fell to Houston's Lt. Governor, Edward Clark. The name Clark may not mean much to, well, almost everyone but he was the colonel of the 14th Texas Infantry, the subject of my Master's thesis.

But today is Sam's day...and Texas Independence Day...and Wild West Monday! Go be Western!

Wild West Monday is Today*

Today is Wild West Monday over the blogosphere. For a complete rundown on what it all means, head on over to the Tainted Archive. In short, you should do this: go to your local bookstore and, if a western section isn't there, ask why. If a western section is there, buy one.

Living here in Houston means that at least one brick-and-mortar giant (B&N) does have a western section. I'm pretty sure Borders does, too. Yes, the section is small. Yes, it stocks the big names: L'amour, Leonard, Compten, Johnston. But it is there.

To date, I've only read two westerns: Mascarada Pass by William Colt MacDonald and Guns Along the Brazos by Day Keene (of crime fiction fame). I'm reading a second MacDonald for this week's Forgotten Books Project. And, lo and behold, I wrote my first western short story. It'll be available later this spring at the increasingly excellent webzine Beat to a Pulp. BTW, this week's story is a western by Chap O'Keefe, one of the famous names from the Black Horse Western line.

Depending on where you are in Texas, The West is either nearer or farther away. Here in Houston and elsewhere in East Texas, geography tends to dictate that we're more southern than western. Out in Ft. Worth, you are definitely in The West. Same for almost any town west of I-35.

As a Texan, western stories are just part of life. My grandfather devoured them. I was never really interested in them, to be honest. I preferred the Hardy Boys or Batman or Star Wars any day of the week. But lately, I've discovered a fondness for them. I inherited my grandfather's non-L'amour westerns and I'm going to work my way through them over the years. And I'll be trying my hand and writing a western later this year. Turns out the story I wrote for Beat to a Pulp might actually be a chapter one of a novel...or the start of a series character. Don't know. Looking forward to finding out.

All this is to say, westerns are an important part of American literature and shouldn't be dismissed or discarded. I don't think they will be but, as technology and the City encroaches outward, The West will shrink. It'll always be there: we may just have to search a little harder or go a littler farther to find it.

Or, you can read a western. So get on it, pard'ner.

*Today is Texas Independence Day. What better day for Wild West Monday?