Bullet Points: St. Paddy’s Week Edition

 Bosch, David Morrell, Dennis Lehane, The Rockford Files  Comments Off on Bullet Points: St. Paddy’s Week Edition
Mar 192015

• To hardly anyone’s surprise, Amazon has renewed the TV crime drama Bosch for a second season. That show is based on Michael Connelly’s popular novels featuring Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch. You’ll find The Rap Sheet’s recent coverage of Bosch here.

• In the latest installment of her fine newsletter, The Crime Lady (now available online, not just to e-mail subscribers, it seems), critic Sarah Weinman relates a very uncomfortable moment during last weekend’s Left Coast Crime convention in Portland.

• As you might expect, I already own all six seasons of James Garner’s renowned private-eye series, The Rockford Files, on DVD, and have managed over the years to find most of the subsequent teleflicks on YouTube. But word has finally come down that Universal Studios Home Entertainment will release The Rockford Files: The Complete Series–a 34-disc anthology including 120 episodes and all eight TV films–on May 26. Retail cost: $149.98. On that very same day, says TV Shows on DVD, Universal will put on sale a DVD set of the last four Rockford movies, those that weren’t featured in The Rockford Files: Movie Collection–Volume 1, which hit shelves back in 2009. The Rockford Files: Movie Collection–Volume 2 will reportedly retail for $26.98. If you’ve been waiting for the right moment to add Rockford to your DVD-viewing diet, now might be the perfect time.

• Also worth watching for is the release, on June 16, of The Bold Ones: The Senator. Starring Hal Holbrook, that 1970-1971 NBC-TV political drama was one of several series rotating under the umbrella title The Bold Ones. Only nine episodes (plus a pilot film) of The Senator were made, yet it won five Emmys, including one for Holbrook himself. TV Shows on DVD offers this program synopsis:

In this gripping drama, Senator Hays Stowe [Holbrook] … works tirelessly to serve his constituents, and the American people as a whole. Exploring the issues facing our nation, The Senator received praise for its intelligent portrayal of the challenges and responsibilities inherent in one of the most sacred duties imaginable.

Co-starring Sharon Acker and Michael Tolan, and featuring guest appearances by Randolph Mantooth and Burgess Meredith, The Bold Ones: The Senator is a fascinating look back at the ideals held within our political system and a program whose themes still resonate today.

The Bold Ones: The Senator–The Complete Series will be a three-disc offering produced by Timeless Media Group, a division of Shout! Factory. It will set you back $49.97.

• Have you ever seen Harry Houdini’s 1926 death certificate?

• We already knew that Christian Bale was slated to star as Florida “salvage consultant”-cum-private eye Travis McGee in a film adaptation of John D. Macdonald’s 1964 novel, The Deep Blue Good-by, and that Rosamund Pike would play the female lead in that picture. Now, though, I hear Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage has been cast as McGee’s brainier-than-thou sidekick, Meyer, in this story that sends McGee “on the trail of stolen sapphires, which leads to a sadistic torturer.” Meanwhile, the lovely 20-year-old actress Nicola Peltz (Transformers: Age of Extinction) “will play a woman who acts older than she is, knows more about the sapphires than she lets on, hires McGee to find them, and ends up on the wrong side of the torturer.” This big-screener is currently scheduled for a 2016 debut. Oh, and did I mention that author Dennis Lehane is working on its screenplay?

• Lehane, whose new novel, World Gone By, has just seen print, is certainly a busy guy these days. As fellow author Craig Mcdonald writes: “Word on the street is Dennis Lehane is mounting a TV series about [former Untouchables investigator Eliot] Ness that will presumably come closer to the real and ‘touchable’ Ness than previous incarnations ever contemplated.” Ohio’s Cleveland Plain Dealer explains that Lehane is putting together a program “based on Douglas Perry’s 2014 biography, Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero. The series will focus on the crime-fighter’s post-Untouchables years [in Cleveland] as public safety director, mayoral candidate, society swell, and alcoholic. Don’t get too excited, though,” remarks the newspaper’s book editor, Joanna Connors.  “As Lehane cautioned last week, in a phone interview, the show still has many steps to take before you add it to your DVR lineup.”

• And before we leave the subject of John D. MacDonald, here’s a link to a post Peter Quinones wrote about the women appearing in the first four Travis McGee novels.

• The new James Bond film poster is downright uninspiring.

• Stephen King’s novel Joyland has already won a good deal of publicity, including critic Ali Karim’s choice of it, in January Magazine, as one of the best crime novels of 2013. However, paperback publisher Hard Case Crime–which previously also issued a hardcover limited edition of Joyland, with new frontal art by Robert McGinnis–has still more plans for King’s popular book. HCC announced yesterday that it will release an illustrated edition of Joyland in September 2015.

The acclaimed coming-of-age story set in a possibly haunted small-town amusement park spent more than 25 weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller List in paperback and e-book format. Aside from certain extremely limited editions for collectors, however, no hardcover edition of the book has ever been published. The new edition will feature a brand-new cover painting by popular Hard Case Crime artist Glen Orbik, whose other covers for the series include books by Gore Vidal and Michael Crichton; a map of the Joyland amusement park illustrated in the classic “mapback” style by Susan Hunt Yule; and more than twenty interior illustrations by acclaimed artists Robert McGinnis, Mark Summers, and Pat Kinsella.

• Was Arthur Conan Doyle the victim of a police conspiracy?

• Paula Hawkins, author of the much talked-about novel The Girl on the Train, dropped a few hints to Entertainment Weekly about her next project: “It’s a similar genre [as that of Train] and it’s also going to be narrated by women, but a very different book. I haven’t really talked about this much because it’s quite a difficult thing to explain. Because it sounds weird. It’s got quite a gothic feel to it. It’s not about witch-hunting, I can tell you this. However, I wanted there to be something about women being accused of witchcraft. That didn’t happen much in the south of England. Mostly that happened in Scotland and the north. That part of England really lends itself to a dark and gothic and brooding novel, so it worked out. I’m not at the point where I’ve got an elevator pitch, as you can tell! But I’m working on it and I think that [the novel] will be out next year.”

• Since I recently interviewed novelist David Morrell for Kirkus Reviews (with part of our e-mail exchange spilling over into The Rap Sheet), my radar is still quite sensitive to stories about his work. So it was to be expected that I’d catch mention on Facebook of a forthcoming collector’s edition of First Blood, his 1972 debut novel and the story that introduced resourceful Vietnam War veteran John Rambo. On his Facebook author page, Morrell writes that Gauntlet Press will issue “a numbered edition of 500 signed copies and a lettered edition of 52 signed copies. The lettered edition includes everything that’s in the numbered edition, but it also has additional items: manuscript pages, research photographs, and 1972 publicity materials.” Gauntlet’s own site adds that, along with Borderlands Press, it “will publish special editions of the entire Rambo trilogy over the next three years.” Something to look forward to, indeed.

• So, as it turns out, I’ve been loading toilet paper the wrong my whole life. Inventor Seth Wheeler apparently had specific ideas about this when he applied for his patent in 1891.

• I’d pretty much forgotten the one-season TV spinoff, Law & Order: Los Angeles. But then Mystery*File reminded me of its passing.

• This is a most promising development: Publisher Altus Press has announced the premiere of its new line, The Argosy Library series, which will resurrect fiction originally featured in Argosy magazine (one of my grandfather’s favorite publications) or its sister periodicals, The All-Story, Flynn’s Detective Fiction Weekly, and others. Ten books at a time are set to be brought to market (in hardcover, paperback, and e-book versions), with the initial batch coming in May. As the press release for this venture phrases it, “The Argosy Library expects to showcase the varied mix of genres that made Argosy one of the most popular pulps of all time, and Series 1 does just that by showcasing adventure, mystery, Western, science fiction, fantasy, and crime stories by … authors such as Lester Dent, W. Wirt, Otis Adelbert Kline, W.C. Tuttle, George F. Worts, and Theodore Roscoe …” Click here to find the covers and write-ups about each volume.

• With his first book, On the Road With Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, coming out this fall from Henery Press, Virginia author Art Taylor explores the “novel in stories” concept in this piece for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine blog.

• Who remembers Robert Loggia’s T.H.E. Cat?

• After revisiting the 1974-1975 ABC-TV crime drama Get Christie Love! during last month’s Classic Detective TV Blogathon (see his post here), Hal Horn of The Horn Section has apparently decided to stay on the GCL beat at least a while longer. Go here to read his review of the November 13, 1974, episode, “Downbeat for a Dead Man.” Personally, I’d be happy to see him write about all 24 regular episodes of that Teresa Graves series, though since there’s been no DVD release of the show, I suspect they’re hard to locate.

• Director Guy Ritchie’s big-screen version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.–set to premiere this coming August–has evidently fiddled a bit with the back story of American secret agent Napoleon Solo (portrayed in the original 1960s TV series by Robert Vaughn). The Spy Command has that story.

• I’m intrigued to read that Portland, Oregon, author Evan Lewis has resurrected Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op for a story–the first in a new series–being published in the May 2015 edition of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. More here.

• Finally, it seems Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, who play Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, respectively, in the BBC One TV series Sherlock, will–by some strange alchemy of storytelling–be sent back to Victorian England (Holmes’ traditional milieu) for a holiday special “likely set to air next Christmas.”

Nov 232012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

One place you will NOT find me today is in a mall. Instead, we’re having Noir Friday here on Murderati.

So I’ve professed my undying love for Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, many a time on this blog, but I do have a serious beef with this year’s line up.

The noir panel was all men.

I mean, really? In 2012?  When Megan Abbott and Kelli Stanley and Cornelia Read are attending? When Christa Faust is not only in the room, but up for an Anthony?

I guess all the women were stuck in binders or something.

(Kudos to the one panelist, John Rector, who knows a little about noir himself,  who jumped to point this absence out.)

Bouchercon was over a month ago and this noir sans femme thing is still rankling me, so I decided to blog about it.

 This is also partly because I was asked (multiple times) to take part in the latest author blog hop, The Next Big Thing, in which authors post their answers to a set of ten questions about their latest books on their blogs and then tag five more authors for the next week, and possibly Kevin Bacon is involved, and then we take over the world. 

So my horror/thriller author pal, the wildly dark, or darkly wild, Sarah Pinborough, tagged me two weeks ago, ad I did my ten question interview on Huntress Moon last week – here –  and now it’s my turn to tag five authors and link to their interviews this week. 

And because I am still seething over the noir panel, I chose a theme of fantastic dark female characters, and tagged my authors accordingly:

– Michelle Gagnon is a thriller writer who has recently brought her powerhouse female perspective and adrenaline-charged storytelling to the YA thriller genre with her latest, Don’t Turn Around. Noa is a terrific tenage role model; I hope we’ll see more of her.  Read her Q & A here




– Christa Faust knows noir backward and forward, and has virtually created a whole new direction for the genre and its characters. Angel Dare is an alt heroine who brings OUT everything that noir anti-heroines like Gloria Grahame were doing in a coded sense, and Butch Fatale takes the “two-fisted detective” archetype to a new meaning.  Read her Q & A here



 – Wallace Stroby. As Anyone who reads this blog knows, I am VERY picky about men writing “strong women”, and on the dark side, Stroby is as good as it getts, both shattering and reversing noir gender stereotypes. His Crissa Stone series presents a thief who doesn’t just hold her own, but leads and controls motley collections of male gangsters. And I’m even more fond of Stroby’s Sara Cross, who mirrors the classic noir paradigm; she’s a truly good woman whose near-fatal flaw is a tragically bad man.



in the Charlie series is set in New Orleans! http://zoesharp.com/  

Zoe Sharp needs no introduction here. As we know, she actually DOES write a kick-ass female lead, Charlie Fox, who works as a bodyguard and makes the physical reality of her job perfectly plausible (I’ve learned a lot about self-defense from these two…) while she battles uniquely feminine psychological demons. And her new installment in the Charlie series is set in New Orleans! http://zoesharp.com/

(Right, that’s only four.  I can count, at least up to ten, but getting authors to do anything on deadline is like heding cats.)




I really encourage you all to click through to their interviews, especially for the fun question on who they would cast in a film or TV version of their books. Always a good exercise for any writer, you might get inspired!

So not everyone above is writing noir, exactly. Stroby, definitely. Faust has a lot of noir influence but I’d say her work is more like female-driven pulp, with a strong emphasis on camp humor, too. Sharp and Gagnon write dark and intense, but it’s not noir any more than I’m writing noir, which is not at all.

I’m also no way a noir scholar, and let’s face it, the lines are blurry (Is it noir? Pulp? Neo-noir? Just a good old B movie?) and I’d like to leave the question open for David – I mean everyone – to jump in and define it for us in their own words.  Personally, I know it when I see it!  No, really – for me, the key difference is that, for example, in Zoe’s and Michelle’s story worlds, there is the possibility and even probability of redemption, while in the classic world of noir, there is none, or very little. Doom and fate figure predominantly.

I liked  John Rector‘s capsule summation on that B’Con panel: “Noir pushes people to extreme circumstances and there is no happy ending. The hero/ine is fighting the good fight… but loses.”

So I guess the personal line I draw between “noir” and “dark” is about that possibility of redemption and at least temporary triumph. You can win the battle even when you know the war rages on. In my own books, there’s plenty of dark, but not noir’s overwhelming sense of inexorable fate; my own themes are more about the people caught up in a spiritual battle between good and evil. And no matter how dark it gets, there’s always the presence of good. 

In fact, some of my favorite dark thriller writers: Denise Mina, Tana French, Mo Hayder, Karin Slaughter, Val McDermid, seem to me more fixed on exploring that spiritual evil than fate. As dark as they get, I wouldn’t call what they’re writing “noir”, because it IS more spiritual, they’re dealing with a more cosmic evil.  Or maybe the evil they depict is so rooted in a feminine consciousness and feminine fears and demons that it doesn’t FEEL like noir. But that could be me splitting hairs, you tell me! That’s what this blog is about.

And there’s another element that I consider classic noir:

Threatening women.

Threatening to men, anyway, apparently! 

But the presence of shadowy – or maybe the word I mean is shaded – women is key. For my money some of the most interesting women ever put to page or celluoid are noir femmes, and part of that is because quite a few noir writers and filmmakers and actresses actually made a point of exploring the dark sides of women.

And noir takes on significantly different meaning when the leading roles are played by women instead of men. These days Sara Gran, Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Christa Faust and Wallace Stroby are all doing really exciting work genre-bending by putting women in the protagonist’s seat and then absolutely committing to what it would look like and feel like and mean for a woman to take that lead in circumstances we don’t usually see women in.

I was enthralled by Sara Gran’s Dope, which explores a noir standard, addiction, and the noir paradigm of the tarnished white knight committed to a hopeless and destructive person – all from a completely feminine point of view. Likewise Wallace Stroby’s Sara Cross (in Gone Til November) is a committed knight… lawman… lawperson… who very nearly falls because of a fatally seductive man, and any woman who’s ever been tempted will understand her struggle. 

Gran has created another classic yet entirely unique noir heroine in her latest, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead; I can’t think of another noir character so reliant on my favorite force in the world: synchronicity. But also, back to addiction: is that synchronicity drug-induced?  Claire’s pot habit might be useful juice for her detecting instincts, but one gets the feeling it’s playing hell with her personal life.

Megan Abbott layers a specifically feminine addiction, the pathological narcissism that anorexia can be, into her latest, Dare Me – to chilling effect. And I’ve never seen anyone else portray the feminine counterpart of criminally sociopathic male athletes, but you better believe these cheerleaders are exactly that.

Abbott, Gran and Flynn (in Sharp Objects) are also sometimes writing female protagonists battling female antagonists, with men relegated to secondary roles. I find it a deliriously welcome reversal of the traditional order.

I suspect it’s easier, or really I mean more natural, for women to achieve a genre bend with noir and thrillers because we’re working against a very entrenched male tradition. If we’re just fully ourselves, it’s going to look new to the genre.

But men can get there. I think Dennis Lehane did a brilliant genre bend with his male characters in Mystic River by going places that men don’t usually go in their own psyches  – they’d rather assign that scary stuff to female characters to distance themselves from the experience instead of having to put themselves into those vulnerable positions. Which  personally I think is cheating.

And as Stroby is proving, consciously committing to the physical and emotional reality of a complex female protagonist is possible for a male author, too.

By looking at crime through a specifically feminine lens, these authors are creating a new genre. I don’t know what to call it, but I know I love it.

I know there are more of these authors and books out there, and I want to hear about them, so let’s have it. Who are your favorite dark female leads – and villains? Which authors in our genre do you think are portraying ALL the facets of women, black, white, and every shade of gray in between?

And yes, what is your definition of noir?  I’d love to know.



Oct 172012

By David Corbett

When I was trying to learn how to write, I took a course from Tom Jenks, formerly with Scribner’s (where he was responsible for editing Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden for posthumous publication) and currently the main force behind Narrative magazine.

One of the most important things I learned from Tom was that it was better to go back and re-read books that had a profound effect on you, or which you considered particularly excellent, instructive, or inspiring, than to be broadly read. It’s advice I’ve taken to heart, particularly since my writing career has so profoundly curtailed my time to read for pleasure.

It’s good to know that when I do read for the sheer enjoyment of it, I’m going to read something I know will scratch that particular itch.

One such book I picked up again recently was Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. This was my first re-reading, and I was amazed at how much more I enjoyed it the second time through. I wasn’t reading for story, I was reading to see how Lehane did certain things, and how many he did well.

His pacing is both leisurely and taut, not easy to do. You never feel rushed but you never feel like you’re meandering, either.

His prose evokes a profound emotional connection and also provides a vivid pictorial image without being showy.

His command of setting is as deft as Richard Price’s—high praise. I was awestruck by how intimately he knew these neighborhoods, and captured them for the reader. I know, he grew up near there, but familiarity isn’t enough. You’ve got to know what to include, what to leave out, and in both cases why.

His female characters are fascinating and rendered beautifully on the page.

His understanding of cops and how they work—more importantly, how they think and talk—is unparalleled.

And these last two points are part of a larger one: I don’t know a writer who captures the inner life of his characters as vividly, intimately, and movingly as Lehane does here. This skill isn’t prized the way it used to be. Screenwriting, an affliction a great many of us now suffer from, has taught us to emphasize what can be seen and heard, not thought or felt—or worse, explained.

There’s a lot to be said for that approach. Dramatic writing, relying on what characters do and say, benefits from the power it brings to the depiction of conflict.

But there are moments in Mystic River when a character is alone with his or her own mind and heart that are simply some of the most moving I’ve come across on the page in quite some time.

They’re the kind of moments that are all but impossible to capture on film, which is one of the reasons I’ve always found the film version of Mystic River wanting. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie. But I didn’t love it the way I loved the book.

So much of the pleasure of the book resides inside the character’s skulls, which is invisible to the camera. In particular, I thought the women characters were robbed of the subtle interiority that made them so compelling on the page.

That also contributes to another problem I have with the film, one that the story mage John Truby discussed in an online essay discussing story structure in which he used Mystic River, Intolerable Cruelty, and Runaway Jury as his examples.

His chief complaint about Mystic River’s screenplay goes as follows:

Mystic River uses the classic technique of showing the three lead characters as boys, when one of them is molested. The rest of the story therefore has to turn on how one boy’s ghost haunts all the boys as adults. But this central connection is never made. Yes, the molested boy, Dave, is a broken man. But the other two, Sean and Jimmy, seem to be no different than they were as kids. And Dave’s horror has no real effect on them as adults.

In the book, we see more clearly how Dave’s molestation has affected both Sean and Jimmy.

One of the most moving scenes in the first part of the book—a scene I’d largely forgotten until I re-read it—portrays Jimmy’s profound isolation and his yearning for female affection, not just from his fragile, troubled mother, but from his teacher who lavishes attention on Dave when he reappears after his abduction.

Jimmy’s the toughest of the three friends, which is what makes his longing so interesting. His desire for this kind of attention is so profound he fantasizes that it was him, not Dave, who got into the strangers’ car that day. That need for female validation defines Jimmy’s capacity for staying straight as an adult, and it explains why his daughter’s murder so deeply unhinges him. More importantly, it provides the connection of shame and perverse envy that links Jimmy’s youthful longing with the vengeful hatred he feels toward Dave as an adult.

As for Sean, he was the one who got out. His dad was a foreman at the Coleman candy plant, responsible for firing Jimmy’s dad, and Sean has never looked back after leaving East Buckingham. But that superiority was built on circumstance, not character. And the issue of luck plays out to tragic consequences when he’s unable to solve the murder of Jimmy’s daughter in time. It was luck that kept him out of that car as a boy, luck that got him out of East Bucky—and now, thirty years later, luck that draws him back in and, this time, turns against him.

It’s an old complaint, a great book ill served by its film adaptation. But I didn’t appreciation exactly why I so preferred the book until I went back and read through those pages again. 

But then, I forget a lot of things these days.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros—what book(s) do you re-read, for inspiration, education, or just the sheer pleasure of it?

* * * * *

Also, a little publicity for a new 4-week online course I’ll be teaching next month through LitReactor, called:

The Spine of Crime: Setting, Suspense and Structure in Crime, Mystery, and Thriller Stories

I’m expanding from the Who of crime to the What, Where, and How, with detailed lectures and manuscript review of student projects.

If you or someone you know might be interested, find out more here.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: The inmates (male and female) of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, the Philippines, doing their astonishing dance routine to Psy’s Gangam Style:


Aug 082012

By David Corbett

Starting tomorrow, I begin my second class through Chuck Palahniuk’s online writing university, Litreactor. This one is titled The Character of Crime.

The class deals with the importance of knowing your subgenre in order to better understand reader expectations so you can not only meet those expectations but exceed them.

I also stress the need to create characters with sufficient depth and complexity so your story has a chance to achieve not just popular but critical success.

There is still room for four more students in the class, so if you’re interested, sign up now.

I realize I seem to be harping on the same theme as two weeks ago  – the potential for greatness in the crime genre. My apologies if I seem a bore. Two weeks back I was inspired by Don Winslow’s marvelous talk at the Book Passage Mystery Conference. This time I’m just restating my fundamental belief that this is a great genre that owes apologies to no one.

Either way, I find myself returning to a debate we often have in this particular corner of the literary world:

What does it mean to serve the genre, to respect the genre, and to transcend the genre?

I’m normally one of those people who finds the phrase “transcend the genre” more than a little patronizing. It’s so often used to describe the works of literary writers who go slumming in the Naked City to make a few bucks – and who often not only don’t “transcend” the genre, they fail to respect or even understand it.

Literary writers often think of genre conventions as mere formula, and automatically recoil. This is, to my mind, exactly the wrong way to look at it.

Rather, if you’re going to try your hand at a genre and not just wander in as some kind of snooty tourist, you need to know what makes the thing work, and why. Anything less simply reveals your arrogance and ignorance – and it’s been my experience that arrogance and ignorance all too often go neatly hand in glove.

But by saying we need to serve or respect the genre, I’m not saying that we can’t expand our usual understanding of what a crime story can do.

One thing I’ll emphasize in the class: The difference between a good crime story and a great one often lies in seeing in its subtlest, most far-reaching or most profound terms the underlying thematic premise of the particular subgenre you choose.

The detective genre, for example, is fundamentally about: How can we determine the truth?

This idea is as subtle and as vast as you care to make it. It’s no accident, for example, that Chinatown is based on the oldest detective story in the Western canon – Oedipus the King – or that it resonates with the same theme: the intrinsic danger in presuming the truth can be known.

And in Vertigo, Scottie Ferguson doesn’t just solve the crime and overcome his fear of heights, he tracks Freud’s understanding of male sexuality, from the pleasure principle (Babs) to romantic idealization (Madeline) to the reality principle (Judy) – with tragic results, as in Chinatown, due to a fundamental lack of knowledge.

At the heart of every detective story lies a mystery – something that baffles our usual understanding of things – and there is nothing confining the limits of that mystery except the reach of your own imagination.

The crime subgenre, which is more about the battle between police and criminals than about solving a mystery, fundamentally addresses the balance between individual freedom and social conformity.

A world run by criminals would be a Hobbesian state of nature, with no rules, the war of all against all, and ultimate power residing with those who possess money and weapons. A world run by the police would be – you guessed it – a police state, with everyone guilty of something, and paranoia and suspicion underlying every act.

Every society seeks a balance between these two polarities, and the crime story is a great vehicle for exploring what it would mean to move the goal posts in one direction or the other.

You can also ask fundamental questions such as what makes a given act a crime, or to whom do you owe your loyalty, and answer them in as ingenious a fashion as you please. Two great Boston crime writers, Dennis Lehane and Chuck Hogan, do this brilliantly in such books as Mystic River and Prince of Thieves.

Crime stories that feature the criminal as hero – like The Thomas Crowne Affair  – often ask us to reconsider the value of the creative individual in a society defined by compromise, mediocrity, and conformity.

The criminal in such stories is often devoted to excellence – and risk – in a way that others in the society are not. In a very fundamental way, the criminal in such stories is a stand-in for the artist, whose role is every bit as challenging, enigmatic, potentially disturbing – even revolutionary. (It’s no great surprise that real revolutionaries are often described as terrorists or criminals by those hoping to trivialize their political aims.)

Other stories with criminal heroes, like The Winter of Frankie Machine, Goodfellas or In Bruges, achieve greatness by forcing the criminal hero to perform a moral accounting of his entire life.

The thriller, which combines elements of the detective story with the horror story, pits the seeker of the truth against relentless pressure and danger. It shares certain traits with the epic and myth, and like those ancient types of stories it can be expanded to show the individual hero, through great sacrifice and personal transformation, redeeming or redefining the society in which he or she lives.

In other words, the genre is perfectly capable of delivering big themes and great art, and it doesn’t need interlopers to pull it off.

This is something I’ll continue to hammer away at here, in my classes, and in my own work. I love the crime genre. I think more than any other form of story it represents our current mythology on how we live. And if you see it in that context, you can achieve something truly original and meaningful and profound.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros – What crime stories do you think have that spark of greatness?

When was the last time you had to defend crime stories against the snoots?

What themes in the crime story affect you most deeply?

Note: I’ll be traveling again today, and won’t be able to check comments until this evening when I get home on the west coast. Don’t let that stop you from chiming in, though. This community is more than capable of having a rousing discussion without me as room monitor.

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I was visiting the east coast this week, and on Saturday had the chance to visit with former Murderati regular Cornelia Read and her beau, the actor Peter Riegert. Peter shared a clip from a former student, the beautiful and gifted and quite tall Storm Large (her real name, interestingly enough). It’s a number from her one-woman show and I can’t get it out of my head.

WARNING: This track has quite explicit language and a perspective on sex and womanhood some may find offensive. If you think you might fall into that camp, by all means skip it. But if you’re up for it, this is one of the wittiest, raunchiest, most wryly ironic and unapologetically non-PC performances you’re likely to see in quite some time. (Real catchy tune, too.)

Jun 272012

By David Corbett

Last Friday, Alexandra posted a call to the barricades titled Two Books a Year, in which she referenced a recent and already infamous New York Times article noting that, in the era of ebooks, anything less than two books a year is slacking. (Note: The Times article singled out genre fiction for this rate of productivity.)

I decided to spare my response for today’s post, because I think it’s a very important topic, and one that deserves real consideration by everyone who writes.

I agree with Alex that to write well one must write often. Daily’s not a bad regimen — some might say it’s de rigueur. An ambitious word count is great if you can manage it: say, 1,000 words.

I don’t agree, however, that: “Successful writers write a LOT of books. Tons. Staggering numbers.”

This is no doubt true of many authors, but I know a great number of superb writers for whom this simply isn’t the case. Junot Diaz is one. It took him ten years to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I think it was time well spent, and do not mourn the nineteen other books that were hypothetically aborted by his not keeping up a two-book-per-year pace.

I tend to shy away from the phrase “successful writer” because I consider the term loaded. In a letter to H.G. Wells, William James famously remarked:

The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.

I could write a great deal more efficiently, and part of my modest output is due no doubt to an obsession with revision that is perhaps, well, obsessive. Charlie Stella, in our recent dialog here, referred to me as a “stone polisher.”

It may well be that this obsession with rewriting speaks not to artisitic excellence but a neurotic fear of being found imperfect. Shame has paralyzed artists far greater than me. On some level, however, I’ve accepted my imperfections and released my ambitious failures into the world. They’ve been four in number, fewer than I perhaps should have written in the same time period.

Am I therefore something less than a success?

I’m sure there are many who think so. And on some days, I’m one of them. Fortunately, those are just the bad days. (Or, as some folks call them: weekdays.)

There are writers who can crank out voluminous material without becoming stale, formulaic, or unintentional self-parodies. I marvel at Ed McBain’s output, for example, to name just one.

But there are others who focus not on overall output but on making each book a great book.

I was perhaps cursed early on in this regard by working with Tom Jenks, who among other notable accomplishments edited the unfinished Hemingway manuscript that became Garden of Eden, and who runs the online literary zine Narrative with his wife, the novelist Carol Edgarian (only two novels, both brilliant).

Tom asked a simple question: “If you’re going to write a book, why not make it a masterpiece?”

This question paralyzed another of Tom’s students, the thriller writer Andrew Gross, and it was only by putting this daunting measure aside that Andrew could write the books he knew he could write. And he is, by many measures, a success.

For whatever reason, I bought in to Tom’s point. And with each book, I’ve tried to write, if not a masterpiece, a book that at least tries to measure up to the greatest books about crime that I’ve read: The Long Goodbye, Cutter & Bone, Bellman & True, Nightmare Alley, Dog Soldiers, God’s Pocket, Clockers, The Long Firm, to name a scant few.

George Pelecanos, after reading The Devil’s Redhead, wrote: “Is this a classic? Maybe not, but I bet Corbett has one in him.”


I’ve tried to live up to that challenge with every book. Perhaps I’ve failed. It may well be that I cannot write a classic, and never will, and trying has simply slowed down my output to the point I’ve crippled my own chances for—pause for emphasis—success.

But I’ve put my heart and soul into each effort in a way I never could have if I were cranking them out at two per year. I simply don’t and can’t write well at that pace. I have and will continue to suffer the consequences.

I need time to sink into my material, to discover, as filmmaker Leslie Schwerin puts it, “The thing beneath the thing.” I need time to catch the clichés in what I at first blush thought was a stellar idea, whether it was a bit of dialog, a description, a premise, a plot turn, whatever.

Writers who do work at the faster clip are often known more for their entire output than a single book, though often a handful of books stand out among the others. (Dennis Lehane, when responding to questions about why he didn’t take the Kenzie-Gennaro series any further than he did, routinely said: “Have you every heard anyone say ‘The seventeenth book in the series was my favorite’?”)

In a recent Jonathan Franzen appearance I attended (you can find his remarks online here), he talked about how much Kafka influenced him, and why.

Basically, especially in The Trial (one of those non-genre crime books that has inspired not a few of us), Franzen admired Kafka’s commitment to teaching us “how to love ourselves even as we’re being merciless toward ourselves; how to remain humane in the face of the most awful truths about ourselves.” For Franzen, this engagement with the paradoxes of our existence, especially through examination of character, is what made the novel the great—and unique—art form it is.

Or, in Kafka’s own words:

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

To anyone who can write two such books a year, more power to them. I can’t.

I think pushing yourself to do more, to do better, is seldom if ever misbegotten. But each of us has to choose the path of our work as we see fit and as our talent provides, whether we embrace the cold hard truth of market forces or dismiss them as anti-art. (My guess is, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.)

Being creative requires a great deal of resilience, persevering in the face of considerable resistance, frustration, negativity, and criticism—some necessary, some inevitable, some even useful. How you withstand those countering forces while remaining true to the inspirational spark that guides you will, to my mind, go a long way toward defining your capacity for success—no matter how high or low your productivity.

* * * * *

How do you see yourself and your career—as a producer of a steady output of solid work, or someone striving for that touchstone effort that simply requires more time?

Which prolific writer astonishes you with the consistency of his or her greatness?

Which author with only a few books to his or her name do you admire?

What is more important to you, the writer’s complete oeuvre or the individual book?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Linda Thompson’s production has been limited by stage fright so severe it actually paralyzes her vocal chords. But she’s an artist I cherish, and I particularly love this song, “Katy Cruel” (also a favorite of our former comrade Cornelia Read):


Apr 052012

by Michelle Gagnon

I hope you’ll excuse a little BSP today. I have a short story out in the new Mystery Writers of America Anthology, VENGEANCE, edited by the wonderful Lee Child. Plus I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the long, occasionally tortuous journey this story has had over the past twelve years…

Some background first. This was the first real piece of crime fiction I ever wrote. I composed it while working with the San Francisco Writers’ Workshop back in 2000. I’ve never been much of a short story writer, but at the time I was just diving back into fiction, and figured that playing around with briefer pieces might help me find my voice. So this was one of the first (and only) stories I ever wrote. Shortly afterward, I started working on my first book (the one that never sold), and then, eventually, moved on to writing THE TUNNELS.

I always had a soft spot for this story, but had no idea what to do with it. Filled with hope, I submitted it to a few literary magazines. After it was roundly rejected by them, I shrugged and put it away in a drawer.

Fast forward to 2004. Lee Child was headlining the Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference, and at the last minute I scraped together enough money to attend. On the last night of the conference, all the participants were invited to read a short piece of fiction, kind of an informal critique exercise. I wasn’t happy with the opening of my novel yet, and was considering skipping the event entirely until I remembered this story. So I pulled it out of the drawer, dusted it off, and read it that night. All in all, it was well received; Lee attended the reading, and spoke with me afterward about how much he’d liked it. Which was terribly flattering, but again, I had no idea what to do with it. So back in the drawer it went.

Fast forward another seven years, to 2011. Lee emailed me out of the blue and asked if I’d ever done anything with that story from the Book Passage reading. He explained that he was putting together an anthology for the MWA centered around the theme of vigilante justice, and thought my piece might fit in perfectly. He asked if it would be all right to include it. Once I finished turning cartwheels across the room, I said yes.

So this week my little story, the first piece of crime fiction I ever wrote, was published alongside the work of some of my idols, including Lee, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and Zoe Sharp. To say that I was honored to be part of this anthology would be a tremendous understatement. It really is a dream come true.

And from it, I’ve learned a few things:

a) It’s impossible to judge the true value of a writing conference. Sometimes they might seem like a waste of time and money, but you never know what may come of the contacts you make there.

b) Never empty that drawer. The story that can’t find a home today might bear fruit years down the road (or even decades!)

c) Never give up. I have to confess, when those literary magazines first snubbed my work, I was disheartened and almost tossed in the towel. I really thought the story was pretty great, and discovering that not everyone agreed was crushing. It was hard to go on when it felt like what I was writing might never be appreciated, or even read, by anyone outside my critique group. Eight published or soon-to-be-published novels (and one short story) later, I’m really happy that I decided to forge ahead.

What follows is an excerpt from my story, IT AIN’T RIGHT. The VENGEANCE Anthology is currently on sale at bookstores and online.


“It ain’t right, is all I’m saying.”

Joe just kept walking the way he always did, shovel over his shoulder, cigarette clinging to his bottom lip.

“You hear me?”

He stopped and turned, lifting his head inch by inch until his eyes found my hips then my breasts then my eyes. A dustdevil whirred away behind him, making the bottom branches of the tree dance like girls on Mayday, up and down. He stared at me long and hard, and I felt the last heat of the day seeping into my skin and down through my bones, reaching inside to meet the cold that burrowed in my stomach early that morning.

“She’s dead, ain’t she?” With his free hand he scratched his belly where the bottom of his ‘Joe’s Diner’ shirt had pulled away.

“Yeah, but just cause she’s dead don’t mean she should be put down like this.”

He looked past me, towards where the road met the hill and dove behind it, wheat tips glowing pink in the twilight. “What else we gonna do with her?”