Apr 082014

By P.J. Parrish

The other day I caught an interview with Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally. His new play Mothers and Sons is now on Broadway and he and its star, Tyne Daly, were talking about it:

Daly: Terrance is great at punctuation.
McNally: Punctuation is very important.
Daly: If you follow what he does, it’s like a musical score.
McNally: That would be in my notes, that it’s a comma not a semi-colon. I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.

To which I said: “Yes!”

Did you notice that I used an exclamation mark there? That is because when I heard McNally talk about punctuation, I got really, really excited. Because I am one of those old-fashioned writers who believe that all those little marks we pepper in our fiction:

. ; : ? ! ( ) , “” 

all those little marks make a big difference. So forgive me if I go in the weeds today (yeah, I know, I do this often) but I want to talk about getting the little stuff right.

But first, I’m thinking we need a definition of “right.” Because even though all of us savvy folks here at TKZ know we need to be up on our grammar so our editors will accept our manuscripts and our readers won’t flame us with Amazon one-star reviews, we also know that when it comes to fiction, rules can be bent.

In fact, sometimes they need to be bent. Sometimes, you the writer are going for a particular mood or effect or style, and if you do that with confidence, then grammar police be damned!

Take a look at this opening line of a famous book:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

That’s the opening line of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure what Dickens was trying to do with it, and technically it’s a misuse of the colon. It probably should be “Marley was dead, to begin with.” But that’s flat and prissy. That oddly placed colon is like slamming up against a brick wall in the fog. I think it works in a weird sort of way. (Hat tip to blogger Kathryn Schulz for this example).

Here’s another strange one that I’m sure you’ll recognize:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Again, misplaced commas, an inflamed colon, fragments and a plethora of periods. But it is music, no?

One more and then we’ll move on:

Grogan’s is not the oldest pub in Galway. It’s the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.
While as the rest go
it remains true to the format fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seat, no-frills stock. The taste for
hasn’t yet been acknowledged.

I can just hear the grammar gurus grinding their teeth over that one. This is from Ken Bruen’s Edgar-nominated The Guards. This is classic Ken, a style that ignores convention to create its spare lilt. Like George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates, Ken plays with sentence structure, indention,  and makes up new uses for all the old punctuation symbols. Because when he hears his story in his head, he hears a singular rhythm that you or I would not if we tried to tell the same story set in that Irish pub.

But here’s the thing: (colon!) These writers all knew the rules before they broke them. Charles Ives was a church organist before he broke away to write The Unanswered Question.

Picasso painted this

Before he felt free enough to paint this

William Strunk, the éminence grise of grammar, says: “The best writers sometimes disregard the rules. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.” Or, as I often tell folks in my workshops: Don’t start juggling machetes if all you can control is two tennis balls. So maybe we should take a moment — pause em dash — to look at some of those little marks and decide which ones we can play around with without slicing ourselves to bits.

The Period

This is my favorite punctuation mark. It is concise and emphatic without being overbearing. You always know where you stand with periods. Periods give you simple sentence structure and clear syntax. Periods can also create lovely sentence fragments, which can be a nifty stylistic tool. You can write a really great novel with just periods, quotes and maybe some question marks. Unless you’re James Joyce. Cormac McCarthy once said of Joyce: “[He’s] a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”  But hey, Joyce is juggling chainsaws in Ulysses. Don’t try this at home.


Wars have been waged over the poor comma. Some people are very strict about them, sticking them in every little compound sentence crevice. Others feel less is more, that fiction’s narrative voice allows you the freedom to “feel” your way around a phrase without the pause a comma injects. If you publish traditionally, your editor will have style manual and will inflict many commas on you. Some are bad:

Woman, without her man, is nothing

But some are good:

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The Colon
This is a pretty clear-cut fellow. It introduces text that amplfies something previously said or it tells you a list is coming up. I don’t think colons have much place in fiction, except maybe for that second use. A colon finds a better home in non-fiction. I think a better, less stodgy substitute for the colon is:

The Em Dash

I adore the em dash because to my eye and ear, it feels more like people really talk and think. Our thoughts tend to move forward and there is something pure and lively about seeing this     instead of this :  A colon bring your eye to a stop while a dash implies there is more movement ahead. Two examples:

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds: the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.’

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.”

I think the second is better because it is dialogue. You also can use the em dash to show an abrupt break in the dialogue, when one person is cutting off another:

“Define insubordination.”
Louis wet his lips. “I did something — ”
“I don’t care what you did. Define the word.”

Which leads us to the ellipses. It’s a cousin of the em dash in that you see it used in dialogue often. But there’s an important difference. Whereas a dash implies an abrupt break in the dialogue, the ellipses implies a trailing off. It can also imply a slowing of thoughts.

“Why didn’t you quit?” Jesse asked quietly.
Louis shook his head. “Can’t…”
“He’s still out there.”

The Exclamation Mark

This thing can be like a rabid ferret…hard to control. Yes, you need a rare one to convey extreme emotion. But like a dash or italics, it can lose its effectiveness if you overuse it. As Elmore Leonard said: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

And last but least:

The Semi-Colon

I saved this one for last because I hate the damn things. Semi-colons are like some professor-types. They’ve got an inflated sense of importance from living in the academic world. Or maybe they’re like literary novelists who like to go slumming in crime fiction. I think I’ve used maybe two semi-colons in sixteen books and both times I had to take a shower right after. I am not alone in my attitude. Let’s go back to what the playwright Terrance McNally said for a moment: “I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.”

Our own James Bell called semi-colons the eggplant of punctuation. (Click here to read it). Why are semi-colons bad? Because the beautiful business of fiction is replicating real life on the page and in real life people don’t think or talk in semi-colons. Unless they’re using emoticons. And c’mon, don’t you want to punch out those people anyway?

Postscript: After I finished this, I was proofing one of my back list titles. It is filled with em dashes! The Em seems to be my default punctuation. That got to wondering why I hate the semi-colon so much and what this says about me as a person. So…

What Your Favorite Punctuation Says About You

Period: You are emphatic, decisive, fearless. In the life raft, everyone looks to you to figure a way out.  You bowl overhand.

The exclamation mark: You’re dramatic and get a lot of invitations to parties. You wear purple. You’re probably the person people glare at for talking on your cell phone too loud at the bagel store.

The Em Dash: You are creative and optimistic. Life is a cabaret, old chum. You keep fresh kale in your fridge, wait for a Kraftwerk comeback and you root for the Knicks.

Question mark: You are deeply spiritual and people in meetings always wait to hear what you think. You have read and understood everything George Saunders has written. Your favorite color is tweed.

Colon: You’re organized and make to-do lists. People always ask you to arrange the Christmas office party but no one grabs you under the mistletoe.  You do the Times crossword in ink.

Semi-colon: You are cautious and methodical but you change your mind easily. You have trouble ordering at a restaurant and often resort to eating off other people’s plates because you think you made a mistake in getting the sea bass. You think Rand Paul makes a lot of sense.

May 142012

By David Corbett

Looking for Pari? Fret not. We’ve traded places this week, since I’ll be in the air …

… heading to New York on Wednesday. Look for Pari’s post then.

* * * * *

My first two novels and a brand new story collection are coming out in ebook format tomorrow through Mysterious Press and Open Road Media.

Open Road and Mysterious Press have also re-issued the works of fellow Murderateros Gar Anthony Haywood, Martyn Waites, and Ken Bruen. Click on their names to see the books available.

I’m particularly jazzed about the story collection, for it includes a new story not previously published, the eponymous “Killing Yourself to Survive;” plus “Pretty Little Parasite,” which was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2009; “The Axiom of Choice” (a personal favorite), which appeared in Strand Magazine; “It Can Happen,” which was nominated for a Macavity Award and has been optioned for a film; and several other nuggets that have appeared here and there but have never been collected in one place.

I’ll let you know how to track down the books below. For now, in celebration of the re-issue of The Devil’s Redhead, let me tell you about the most embarrassing—and perversely resilient—goof-up in any of my books. (So far. That I know of…)

On page 301 of The Devil’s Redhead hard cover edition (page 313 in the mass paperback), you will find this curious phrase: “sandstone palavers.”

In isolation, it has a certain surreal/dada/Lewis Carroll quality. If only that were what I’d intended.

I wish I could blame some drudge in the bowels of Random House, anyone but myself. Note to aspiring writers: Never edit when you’re blind with grief.

The word I wanted, of course, was “pavers,” a word I’d never heard until my wife, Terri, used it as we were choosing tiles for a rehab job on our back porch.

Part of the word’s charm was her usage, a kind of giddy almost childlike pleasure that she brought to everything. And when it came time, a few years later, to describe a Monterrey-style décor in a Mexican hotel, it seemed the mot juste.

Except my brain couldn’t find it. It rummaged around in “similar sounding” bucket, and came up with “palavers.” I knew this was wrong, and mentally earmarked the spot for revision once the right word came to me. Unfortunately, it never did.

The reason? By the time of this rewrite Terri had died of cancer. The manuscript for Redhead was purchased by Ballantine six weeks before her death, and I reworked the passage in question after her passing.

She was forty-six, the love of my life, and I was devastated. Anyone who knows that kind of grief knows it turns your mind and memory to slop. The simplest things confound you. Both the inner and outer worlds acquire a smudgy dullness, as though wreathed in a leaden haze, and the only light you see comes in lightning bolts of helpless pain and rage.

Such was my state of mind when the copy-edited version of the manuscript reached me.

When I came to the page in question I saw the copy editor had corrected it, but had been so baffled by my misuse, so unclear on my intent, that she changed it to another inappropriate word, with a question mark in the margin. It felt like a violation, given the word’s link to Terri, her happiness, but I still couldn’t conjure the right word myself. I stetted angrily, once again hoping that before I returned the pages the correct word would come to me. Then, of course, I forgot.

I forgot a lot of things back then.

The typo has proved to be as immortal as a Transylvanian count. In edition after edition, even in the U.K., the lousy little monster remains. (God only knows how the Japanese translation must read.)

I promised myself that, should a new edition appear I would finally, once and for all, erase this blight from the book. But when I sold the rights to Mysterious Press, I didn’t have a Word document I could go in and change at will. All I had was a PDF. But that allowed me at least to place a strikethrough mark on the telltale “la” that turns “paver” into “palaver.” I wrote a note pleading that this error be addressed in the final version of the ebook.

We shall see, said the blind man. I’m not, as they say, holding my breath. Typos, unlike the rest of us, are eternal. And who listens to the author anyway?

I’m sure somewhere, Terri is chuckling way. This is what I deserve, she no doubt thinks, for losing my temper. I wish I could tell her: Oh baby, I know. I know.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros: What’s the worst in-print gaffe you’ve committed, and have you been granted a dispensation, given the right to go back in and tweak the little sucker? Or does it sit there still, a troll beneath the bridge of your otherwise perfect prose?

* * * * *

Now, for a bit of TBSP [Tediously Blatant Self-Promotion]:

Here again is a little author profile video that the team at Open Road Media put together to help publicize the launch.


And here are links for purchasing the books:

The Devil’s Redhead 

Done for a Dime

Killing Yourself to Survive

If you haven’t yet tried my work, give one of these babies a spin. I’m proud of each of these books in different ways. I’d be honored and pleased if you decided one of them was worth a look.

* * * * *

Jukebox Heroes of the Week: I’m choosing two, one for each of the first two novels. Music always figures prominently in my books, and these two tunes were signature pieces for Redhead and Dime respectively: Rickie Lee Jones with “We Belong Together,” and Charles Mingus with “Moanin’:”


May 022012

David Corbett

First, if I may, a preliminary bit of shameless self-promotion:

On May 15th, Open Road Media and Mysterious Press will allow me to join fellow Murderateros Gar Anthony Haywood and Ken Bruen as a Brother in Backlist as they re-publish in ebook format my first two novels, THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD and DONE FOR A DIME, plus an all-new collection of stories, KILLING MYSELF TO SURVIVE.

Pre-orders are now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and Google.

I’ll have more info when I post on May 14th (I’m trading days that week with Pari), but for now here’s a personal profile the folks at Open Road prepared for the launch. Hope you enjoy it:

* * * * * 

The author, age three or so. Note the evil.

This is a story about unspeakable sin and ultimate redemption. 

Whose sin, whose redemption? You tell me.

At the age of six I entered first grade at Our Lady of Peace Elementary in Columbus, Ohio. Nothing, nothing about the public school where I attended kindergarten the year before could have prepared me for what I was about to encounter.

The first bit of strangeness involved the women in whose care my parents abandoned me.

Penguins, the older kids called them.

I’d never seen nuns up close before. And not just any nuns. Dominicans. Daughters of the Inquisition.

They had antiquated names linked to obscure saints—Sister Malcolm (there’s a St. Malcolm? Who knew?) Sister Sabina. Sister Norita. Sister Euthenasia (Okay, I made that one up.)

The habits they wore, which I would later refer to as Medieval Madonna Drag, had a black-veiled wimple with a flat mortarboard top. It looked like a nice place to park a cup of coffee if there wasn’t room on your desk. I was secretly hoping one of them might pull a stunt like that—you know, for laughs. But you don’t take vows of lifelong obedience, chastity and poverty if what you’re looking for is a chuckle.

But it wasn’t just the habit. The truly weird part about their get-up was that each of them had tied around her waist a long chain of black beads:


At the end of that chain was the figure of a dying man, naked except for a loincloth, nailed to a cross, a gaping wound in his side and a bird’s nest of thorns jammed down onto his head.

They referred to this man as their spiritual husband.

All of which explained, I suppose, their generally unpleasant demeanor. What a pack of sourpusses. Scowls outnumbered smiles ten-to-one, and a few were just mean as weasels. They glared at you through their rimless spectacles with an expression that said: There’s a chair in hell waiting for you, my pretty.

But as strange and menacing as these women were, they were nothing compared to Father Foley, the parish pastor. Kids would literally turn white and tremble at the sound of his name—partly because the nuns said it the same way your babysitter talked about the guy with a hook for a hand out on lover’s lane. The constant, inescapable message was: Beware! Beware of the Wrath of Father George Foley!

Central Casting’s Image of Fater Foley

He was a huge bucket-headed Irishman, 6’2, 250 pounds. He ran the only “legal” bingo operation in all of Franklin County and believe me, there were a LOT of greased palms involved. He’d been a boxer before he went into the seminary and his first stint as a priest was at the boy’s industrial school, as they called it. Reform school.

But none of this — NONE of this — could prepare you for your first face-to-face encounter with the man himself.

To borrow a line from The Twilight Zone: Imagine if you will … You’re six years old. Six years old. You’re still in a state of childlike awe over so many of life’s mysteries, things like dragonflies and waffles and questions like: If I have a right shoe and a left shoe, does that mean I have a right sock and a left sock? (You wouldn’t believe how long I puzzled over that sucker.)  Innocent, okay? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re innocent.

But you’re also Catholic. Which kinda nullifies the innocent.

Then one day, as you’re sitting quietly at your desk while Sr. Sabina teaches you the Hail Mary or the Our Father or the ever-so-important, never-to-be-forgotten Act of Contrition (“O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins…”), suddenly downstairs the door to the school SLAMS open.

I mean, LAPD’s SWAT Team would love to kick in a door like this.

And then you hear it. The voice. The voice you will never forget.


You hear his steps on the stair — did I mention he had elephantiasis in one leg, so he was crippled and in constant pain. There’s a mood enhancer. But despite all that he dragged himself up the stairs to the second floor where the classrooms were, his steps an eerie and ominous:

BOOM Thud.

BOOM Thud.

BOOM Thud…

Silence as he reached the top of the stairs. Every kid in my class is shaking. Then the classroom door BLOWS back. He’s there in the doorway, immense, fire-eyed—he’s John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, he’s Ahab harpooning Moby Dick. He’s the God of the Old Testament. And he’s come —  here to YOUR classroom — to pass out report cards.

The first thing he says, still in the doorway, is: STAND UP!

Confused, wobbly and weak-kneed like baby goats, we clamber up as best we can from our still somewhat puzzling desks — but that’s not good enough:

When sister or I enter the room, you don’t just stand up. You leap up. LEAP!

For the next five minutes, we had leaping drills. He’d tell us to sit. Then he’d bellow: LEAP. We’d shoot up from our chairs like bottle rockets. Okay, he’d say. Sit down. Pause. Then: LEAP. Up we’d shoot again. Over and over, until he decided we’d finally gotten the message.

Then he passed out report cards.

“Have they been good, sister?”

“Well, for the most part, father. Some better than others.”

To say Father Foley believed in discipline is kinda like saying the Vikings were fond of sailing. And it wasn’t like you could run home for sympathy. My mother — my mother — told me: Don’t come running to me complaining that Father Foley hit you because if you do I’ll just swat you again.

If you got a C in conduct Father Foley would BLISTER you with a harangue that would make a Marine drill sergeant weep. His voice could knock out fillings — and if it didn’t, he’d use his hand, or his cane — no joke. For a C in Conduct. It was like you’d robbed a bank or strangled your kid sister or raped the school mascot. Then you had to come down for the next 6 Saturdays and help Mr. Johnson, the janitor, clean the school.

Father Foley called it: The Rock Pile.

I never had to go on the Rock Pile. My crime would be far more serious than that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First grade went by reasonably quick and without memorable incident. I habitually got straight A’s and was thought of as a decent kid and a good student.

Things would change.

In second grade I had Sister Alphonsa, who truly, madly, deeply … HATED me. Even before I did the terrible thing.

One day I was working quietly at my desk like all my fellow second-graders when suddenly I heard this swoosh swoosh swoosh and the rattle of beads.

I glanced up: Sister Alphonsa was charging toward me, her habit and rosary swaying from her momentum, a look on her face as though, given half a chance, she would eat me whole and pick her teeth with my bones.

She grabbed my hair, pinched my cheek hard, slapped my face, and said: Look what you did!

She slammed a piece of paper down on my desk. I’d misspelled the word “school” on my spelling test.

Call it the curse of being a good student, I suppose. I got the message — I was supposed to be perfect.

Maybe that’s why I did it. The terrible thing.

What was it?

I signed my own report card.

Now, let me remind you, we’re talking straight A’s, across the board, even for Conduct and Effort. I’d show my grades to my parents and they were so blasé about it like: Oh, Christ, this again? Yawn.

So I thought: What’s the big deal?

Now, in second grade we were just learning how to write script, and we hadn’t gotten around to “a” yet, which made writing my mother’s name somewhat challenging, since it was Mary. I thought, Oh well, I’ll just use an “e.” Like Merry Christmas, except it was Merry Elizabeth Corbett. And Merry only had one “r.”

But the misspelling was hardly the giveaway. My mother had the most beautiful handwriting. Her signature belonged on the Declaration of Independence, or the Magna Carta. When I signed her name beneath her previous signatures, it looked like this woman with the beautiful script had lost her hand to a wolf, and was writing with the stump.

But arch fiend criminal genius that I was, I thought: Eh. Who’s gonna notice? Nobody looks at these things.

Several weeks went by. Then Sister Alphonsa appeared beside me once again. She didn’t come flying down the aisle this time. She came slowly, methodically, as though pacing herself to a dirge only she could hear. When she reached my desk, she stopped, glared down at me with every drop of contempt and disgust she could muster and said:

“You … are an evil boy.”

She told me to go out into the hallway. Sister Macaria wanted to speak with me.

Sister Macaria—named for St. Macarius, of which there are in fact three: Macarius the Elder, Macarius the Younger, and Macarius the Wonder Worker—Sister Macaria was, as it turned out, pretty much the opposite of Sister Alphonsa. The kids liked Sister Macaria, the boys especially. She played softball with the eighth graders, had a mean underhand and when she was at the plate and the wood met the leather that little sucker was outta heah.

She also wore her wimple cocked a little to the side with a kind of — how shall I put this — devil-may-care jauntiness.

Sister Macaria had my report card. She looked at it. Looked at me. Looked at it. Back at me. Said finally:

Huh. You signed your own report card.

Yes, sister


I dunno. Sister.

She sighed voluminously. Well, go inside and get back to your schoolwork.

I’m thinking: That’s it? One minute I’m evil, the next it’s: Go back to your desk and try not to puke on your shoes. 

I’m thinking: Wow. This is sin? Count me in. 

A few more weeks go by, then early one morning: SLAM.

Boom. Thud. Boom. Thud…

The classroom door blows opens: We all leap up.

Good morning, Father Foley.

Oh yes. We’d learned our lesson only too well. We were God’s little children. Obsequious, oleaginous, obedient little drones.

The weird thing. Father Foley was in an incredibly chipper mood. He didn’t bellow, didn’t threaten, he even cracked a few jokes with the nun.

But I knew what was on my report card, and I’m thinking: You know, this may not end well.

But then I think: Oh come one. He loves my mom—she made an incredible apple pie, and when she baked one for bingo he’d sneak down to the school basement, scoop it up before the crowd arrived and take it back to the rectory all for himself. And my brother Jim, the sanctimonious suck-up, was his favorite altar boy.

I had juice, is what I’m saying. How bad could it get?

Father Foley goes through the A’s: Jimmy Adamski. Marie Anthony. Terry Archibald.

Then the B’s: Mike Bernardo. Kathy Brennan. Debbie Bucci.

Finally the C’s: Jack Cardi. Nancy Callahan. David Corbett.

He looks at my report card — again, such a good mood.

He says: Okay, Corbett, let’s see what we’ve got. A in reading, good. A in arithmetic, good. A in conduct, A in effort.

He turns it over, looks at the back.



I shot out of my chair like a moon launch and stood there shaking. I was so terrified I don’t even remember what he said but he made me stand there for what felt like eternity, going on with the other report cards but returning his attention to me every few minutes to scold me, browbeat me, humiliate me.

The other kids, I knew, hated this. Hated me. I’d turned the sunshine into gloom. For everybody.

I was an evil boy.

Finally Father Foley wrapped up with Brian Zimmerman. No more distractions. But instead of handing down my sentence, he got up and started to leave. He shot me one last withering, malevolent glare, then said: Corbett? What you did is so bad I have to go home and think about what I’m going to do to you.

Thus began my year in hell. I knew, as only a seven-year-old can, that Father Foley was spending every waking minute of every day trying to come up with the most hideous, shameful, pitiless punishment he could dream of — for me.

If he came within sight I’d duck behind somebody else and shrink up like a sponge, trying to become invisible. For whatever reason he didn’t hand out report cards any more that year, Sister Macaria did, but I knew that just meant he hadn’t come up with an appropriate punishment yet. He was still thinking. And what he was thinking was just getting worse and worse and worse the more the days rolled by.

Finally summer break came, I forgot about it for a while, though I knew he hadn’t forgotten. How could he? What I’d done was so bad …

Next year, third grade, we’re preparing for Confirmation, the sacrament that would make us Soldiers of Christ.

We had to memorize the catechism


because we’d be questioned by the bishop and if we flubbed an answer, we wouldn’t be confirmed, our families would be shamed — we’d be a public disgrace not just to our confirmation class but the entire parish.

And so we learned:

The three conditions for a mortal sin.

The four kinds of sanctifying grace.

The three Evangelical Counsels.

The four cardinal virtues.

The seven chief works of corporal mercy.

The two types of judgment.

The three kinds of lies.

The eight beatitudes and:

The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost (which are, by the way: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord—some things you never forget.)

Father Foley conducted the confirmation classes. I still expected him any minute to finally say: Okay, Corbett. I figured out what I’m gonna do to you.

Me: still trembling scared. Terrified.

One day, as he’s running us through our paces, trying to explain the difference between mortal sin and venial sin, he says to Molly Medaglia: Medaglia, say you push good old Corbett there down the stairs …

I didn’t even hear the rest of the question. It didn’t even register that, at least hypothetically, he’d just pushed me down the stairs.

I thought: He called me Good Old Corbett.

Good. Old. Corbett.

He forgot.

Inside, it’s like the Bells of St. Mary’s are ringing in my chest. Doves are flying off toward sunlit towers. Raindrops on roses and blah blah blah blah.

From somewhere deep inside, a voice rose up: Free at last! Free At Last. Thank God Almighty I am free at last!

I was an evil boy. But I never spent a minute on the rock pile.

But I’m still Catholic, and I know how this works. No one gets off Scot free.

Somewhere in hell. There’s a chair. With my name on it. In my mother’s handwriting. 



* * * * *

So, Murderateros: What incidents of childhood fear, dread, sacrilege or shame formed you indelibly as the hopeless wretch— ahem, soulful writer — you are today?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Speaking of an evil boy: Moodvideo’s revisualization of Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” (oh yeah):


Apr 172012

By David Corbett

No less a literary light than John Banville has said of today’s guest:

Len Wanner is the perfect interrogator, subtle, accommodating, and incisive, and these interviews elicit many layers of deep, dark, and vital intelligence.

I got the idea to interview Len when I saw that The Crime Interviews: Volume Two, his latest collection of interviews, is now available in Kindle format from Amazon. (Volume One is also available, of course, in both Kindle format and in an edited bound version titled, Dead Sharp: Scottish Crime Writers on Country and Craft.)

For several years now, Len’s website, The Crime of it All, has provided fans of top-notch crime fiction a venue for some of the most insightful, interesting and informative author interviews and book reviews available anywhere.

His interviews are particularly rich, with subjects that have included, among innumerable illustrious others: former ’Ratis Tess Gerritsen and Ken Bruen, Ian Rankin, William McIlvanney, Robert Wilson, Denise Mina, John Banville/Benjamin Black, Jason Starr, Peter May, Megan Abbott, Ray Banks, Adrian McKinty, Reed Farrel Coleman, Louise Welsh, James Sallis, Barbara Fister, Wallace Stroby, Stuart Macbride, Charlie Stella, Allan Guthrie, Gregg Hurwitz, Declan Burke, Anthony Neil Smith, and yours truly.

To give a little insight into Len’s interviewing style, here’s a particularly intriguing question he’s put to more than one guinea pig—um, I mean, subject (including guess who):

Does the crime writer sit at the table of literature like a transvestite cousin at a family gathering, where he is silently pardoned while his fabulous hat is studiously ignored? 

Well, I had nothing so wonderfully off-kilter in mind when I decided to turn the tables. I just wanted Len to have a chance to speak for himself for a change. Here’s where we got to:

* * * * *

This is your second set of author interviews. How does this one differ from the first—simply in the authors included, or did you have a different perspective or purpose in mind for these?

Both, I hope, but let me start by saying ‘thank you’ for offering me a role reversal and ‘sorry’ to your readers for accepting your offer. Who cares about the interviewer, eh? Well, let me give you my version of: “Enough about me, back to me.”

Speaking of role reversals, long before I started doing interviews, I walked in on Ian Rankin doing a television interview in his favourite pub. He was surrounded by preoccupied men, chained to their purpose by microphones thirsty for answers, and more preoccupied men still, chained to their pints by questions no longer relevant. We had never met, but I fit the bill. The director asked me to stand beside Ian to make him look of average height and sobriety. He turned around and I introduced myself: “You don’t know me, but I’m doing a PhD on you.” Classy. Acknowledging the unintended nerd-flirt with a laugh, he replied: “Is that what it’s come to?” Classier.

A few years later, I decided to extend my dissertation to the work of 30 Scottish crime writers. Interviewing them seemed like a good idea, so I read every interview I could find and questioned about 300 authors, including yourself, about their techniques and topics. When I thought I was ready, Ian gave me an interview for my first collection. Now he’s written the foreword for my second collection. Along the way, I came to appreciate The Paris Review Interviews and my ambition extended beyond academia. I’ve since tried to make The Crime Interviews do for crime fiction what The Paris Review Interviews have done for literature at large.

Why don’t you give our readers an idea of which authors are included in the first book and then this most recent book. How did you decide which authors to pursue and include?

The line-up for volume one is: Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Karen Campbell, Neil Forsyth, Chris Brookmyre, Paul Johnston, Alice Thompson, Allan Guthrie, and Louise Welsh.

The line-up for volume two is: William McIlvanney, Tony Black, Doug Johnstone, Helen FitzGerald, Quintin Jardine, Gordon Ferris, Craig Russell, Douglas Lindsay, Ray Banks, and Denise Mina.

I’m working on a third volume with another dozen writers, to be published later in the year. In each volume I’ve tried to include big names as well as big talents to represent the depth and breadth of contemporary Scottish literature. International bestsellers like Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Quintin Jardine, and Denise Mina are well known without being known well, so I’ve interviewed them in the company of their peers, which I hope to offer an introduction to your new favourite writers as well as an in-depth reunion with those you thought you already knew.

You have become the interviewer of choice for authors hoping for a more in-depth examination of their work. Why do you think that is?

You’re very kind to say so, David, but a guess is the best I can offer you in answer to the first part of your question. Perhaps the authors you refer to can tell that my purpose is not to catch interviewees off guard, but to capture the fullest possible account of their writing lives: Who they are, what they have done, and how they do what they do best. I offer an occasion beyond their own books where a writer with something to say can hope to be heard, be it to create the definitive portrait of the artist or a deft contribution to his or her ultimate portrait. And since I try not to answer my questions myself, my interviewees may have the added satisfaction of creating, to a large extent, self-portraits.

I think unless you love conversation, you may unintentionally turn your interview into a questionnaire and your interviewee into a statistic. If I deserve your praise, I credit my family’s Streitkultur, which, in the absence of an English translation, is sometimes paraphrased as the ‘atmosphere of constructive debate’. I’d like to think I’ve since come to appreciate the implied meaning, which is to embrace the courage of your doubts.

You make writers feel very much at ease talking about subjects and aspects of their work that may feel unclear or uncertain even to them—and these are often the most fascinating parts of the interviews. Writers seem to feel free to conjecture, imagine, correct themselves, and generally explore. Has this just been because of the unique rapport you have with these authors, or do you deliberately try to let them know they can let down their guard and speak openly and freely?

Again, the first part of your question is hard to answer without asking the interviewees you think have shown such faith in me. So David, why did you feel very much at ease talking about subjects and aspects of your work about which you may feel unclear or uncertain?

(Answer: Not to be cheeky, but no one has ever asked me questions like that before, and I felt compelled to give thoughtful responses, which took me to places I just hadn’t thought about all that specifically before. I felt grateful for the opportunity.)

As for the second part of this question, I’d like to think that mutual interest, genuine curiosity, and sustained attention combined let most people speak openly and freely, but a lot depends on rhythm, which is why I try to build interviews, rather than be seen to dominate them. Perhaps the 20 interviewees in my collections were aware of our shared concerns: character development, narrative arcs, and unexpected turns.

You also go into greater depth concerning the artistic ambitions, the sociological implications, and the political nuances of each writer’s work than a great many other interviewers even attempt. Why do you think others shun these sorts of subjects, and why do you so consistently pursue them?

Because those who consistently pursue them don’t get a lot of by-lines. Newspapers, whether off- or online, give pride of place to exposés, Q&As, and reworded press releases, rather than artistic ambitions, sociological implications, and political nuances. Following hot on the heels of market forces, the audience’s expectation has dropped so low Pierce Morgan has his own TV show. The alternative, as ever, is publication in book form, but I suspect few interviewers are tempted by the extra effort and lack of financial rewards.

I certainly wasn’t. I was tempted by the prospect of impressing my lady friend, who is doing a PhD in Anthropology. I still am.

It’s clear that you believe the crime novel has more to offer than a ripping good yarn or the proverbial brisk read. What is it about the crime novel that you think lends itself to a deeper understanding of current events, how did you come to this viewpoint, and which authors do you think are particularly good at it?

Let me answer this question with a quote from a recent review I wrote:

“Why is David Corbett the next big American novelist? Because he knows what he’s doing. At a time when most men of letters think they owe it to themselves to be easily bruised, Corbett knows he owes it to his readers to be unique, understanding, and unafraid. Setting his sights on a world beyond his own is not colonial complacency but simple strength. He lets us see unfamiliar places and perspectives with the same humble sensitivity with which he lets us see our shared violence and suffering. He is at home in life, and even in his darkest moments he shows us the difference between imitation feeling and the real thing, the stuff that will singe your soul or make you wish you had one.”

(Note: The interviewer is blushing.)

How did I come to this viewpoint? I read a lot.

Which authors do I think have advanced the crime novel? My list includes William McIlvanney, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Michael Chabon, David Corbett, James Sallis, Ken Bruen, and Louise Welsh.

Do any of these most recent interviews, or parts of the interviews, stand out in your mind as particularly gratifying or interesting?

They all stand out in my mind, because I found out why…

–       William McIlvanney likes Montaigne, the passion of commitment without offence, and a place where the attempt at intellectuality cohabits with the utterly banal – dislikes using computers, boring himself, and the Scottish moment of being found out.

–       Tony Black likes ladies’ race cars, men’s men, and exams – dislikes symbolism, bagpipes, and interviews.

–       Doug Johnstone likes strong women, strong whisky, and strongly worded reviews – dislikes long books, literary ponderfests, and having his picture taken while playing his guitar on Portobello beach.

–       Helen FitzGerald likes Allan Guthrie’s ovaries, complicated women, and the kind of unhappy family Tolstoy wrote about – dislikes the Catholic Church, learning Italian, and being called ‘Mrs’ Fitzy.

–       Quintin Jardine likes cowboy hats, director’s cuts, and Spider-Man – dislikes writers’ conventions, dead chauffeurs, and splitting infinitives.

–       Gordon Ferris likes e-books, libraries, and emails from readers – dislikes whodunits, CSI, and the ending of Casablanca.

–       Craig Russell likes the year 1956, German music, and touching his research – dislikes over-writing, German eBay, and eavesdropping waiters.

–       Douglas Lindsay likes barbershops, Bob Dylan, and Dyson air blades – dislikes jumping the shark, early Christmas festivities, and society.

–       Ray Banks likes transgressive writing, The Big Issue, and Jacques Barzun – dislikes community theatre, performance art, and (other) circle jerks.

–       Denise Mina likes conflicting her readers, family days out with political protest groups, and the clown army – dislikes Derrida, prize committees, and protagonists who are right.

So Murderateros: Is there a question you’d like to put to Len?

Is there an author you’d like to suggest for an interview, or a particular interview you’ve read that you found particularly gratifying?

Do you think crime fiction is the transvestite cousin …?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: I handed selection over to Len this week, and he chose this mini-film for James Grant’s “My Father’s Coat,” complete with appearances by William McIlvanney and tartan noir superstar Tony Black, both of whom are interviewed in Len’s most recent collection:


Man’s—and Woman’s—Best Friend

 Alafair Burke, dogs, Ken Bruen, The Duffer, Zoë Sharp  Comments Off on Man’s—and Woman’s—Best Friend
Mar 222012

Zoë Sharp

I’m side-stepping my usual post, yeilding the floor to two others whose voices need to be heard today, both former Murderatos. The first is Ken Bruen, who surely needs no introduction here, and the second is Alafair Burke.

Their words speak for themselves:


Ken Bruen

In Ireland today, doctors are being paid for treating 513 dead patients.

Due to serious flaws in the HSE’s notification system.

In 2010, 5 million was written off by The Health Authority, when they discovered that 20,000 dead Medical card holders had been paid.

How seriously fucked is that?

And we wonder why, after Greece, we are in such serious financial shite?

But lest I begin to grim, we can get back to that later, here is my own grave story.

Last November, the sole remaining member of my family, my brother Declan, was found dead in his flat. His body was lying there for 8 months!

I kid thee not.

Always a very private person, disappearing for months on end was his gig. But he lived in a gated community, surrounded by pubs, his mates and right in the centre of the city.

After I had identified the remains, we had the funeral on a wet bitterly cold late November morning. Just before I was due to hold the rope that would lower the casket, the manager of the cemetery said

‘I need to speak to you urgently.’


I snapped

‘Could it like wait, five minutes?’


He whispered

‘There’s no room for you.’

‘Room, where?’

He indicated the open grave, where five of my family rested, said

‘When Declan goes in, it’s full, there’s no room for you.’

Jesus, how unhealthy did I look?

And I asked

‘Did you have to.. I mean absolutely have to tell me now?’

He was affronted at my tone.

Stalked off.

A metaphor if you will. As there’s been no room for me in my family in life, I was now banned from the grave.

Perfect for a writer.

The ultimate outsider.


I got a new pup.

Cross me bedraggled heart.

Named Polo as the vet said, I swear

‘He’s bi-polar.’

Well, he’s certainly the quietest dog I’ve ever had. Zen in his stillness. Maybe he’s read my recent reviews and feels silence is best. I, after all, dish out the grub.

So you know!

I remain convinced that one of the best treatments for depression is a dog. Very hard to be wallowing in the deep when a little pup is gazing at you in love and wonder.

And he’s funny.


Steals the case of my glasses, hides it, then looks like

‘Who me?’


To write for Murderati was one of the great joys



Of my career.




Pari and JT

Alexandra and Zoe

and now new Murderati friends

Gar and Stephen and David


The crew of Murderati are just the very best I know. To be allowed to check in at odd moments is just bliss. To writer belong. Since I gave up cigs, I’ve become a gobshite.

Truth to sadly tell.

I started cycling, 20 miles every day, and worse, cut out brews since my trip to New York in December.

(Note to cemetery manager.)

I said to Reed, next

‘I’ll be writing cat mysteries.’

(Maybe a Zen bi-polar canine sidekick?, you think?)

Reed in his inimitable fashion, emailed back


Flash fiction par excellence.

Read Craig’s El Gavilian

And the new Jason Starr.


David Corbett continues to hugely entertain on the poetic nuances. I’m re-reading The Book Thief for the sheer joy and it reminds me of David in the best way.

I’m readying me own self for The German tour.

Sounds …posh………….The German tour

As opposed


Poor tour I guess.

The Germans have discovered my role as a dead Viking in the worst movie ever made

‘Alfred The Great.’

Which dovetails nicely


(always wanted to seem literary and dovetail)

My most recent news.

A role as an English professor in a new Irish –German TV series.

And my preparation?

Grow a beard.

And I suppose, act ..am.. literary.

I’ve been doing serious and intense me whole befuddled life so that’s a give.


The pup seems bemused by this new me, and barks when I rough house in the garden with him and won’t

No way

Bring back the old ball he used to love a month ago.

Not a grave matter you might think but in the world of pups



The second voice is Alafair Burke, whose French Bulldog, The Duffer, has been such a significant part of her life—and her posts during her time on Murderati.


Saying Goodbye to the Duffer

Wed, Mar 21, 2012

Alafair Burke

On Halloween in 2005, I walked into a pet store in the West Village, saw a black and white French bulldog puppy, and fell in love. I knew it was an irresponsible move. Bad lineage. Puppy mills. Imported.  All of that.

But I’d already looked into the piercing eyes beneath that furrowed brow and knew he and I were connected. My husband wasn’t my husband yet. We lived together. We knew we’d get married, but hadn’t bothered to set a date. Then we had this puppy, and somehow we were a family. We got married two months later on New Year’s Eve.

I wanted to name the boy Stacy Keach. There was an obvious resemblance, and the idea of a dog named Stacy Keach (not Stacy, not Keach. Stacy Keach.) made me laugh. The soon to be husband didn’t get it. Fine, I said. Come up with something better.

Duffer. Like a bad golfer. Like Duff Man from the Simpsons. And it kind of sounded like Puppy, which is what we’d been calling Puppy for nearly a week.

But not Duffer. THE Duffer. He was special, after all.

The hardest part of loving The Duffer was knowing that, despite my crazy, unprecendented connection to him, he wasn’t really human. Absent some tragedy on my end, he’d have to go first.

This week, the day I’ve feared at some level since Halloween of 2005 came. Sooner than I expected, but as late as we could hope under the circumstances. Th- I’e Duffer had a brain tumor. He got radiation last fall. He lived five extra, happy (extra-happy) months. We found out this week there were no more good days to be had.

As a good friend just wrote to me, “They live on in our hearts. He was a lovely little guy and he had a great life, and he was loved and cared for at the end. We should be so lucky.”

I will miss the Duffer, but find comfort in knowing that he never missed a thing. Thank you for letting me share him with you.


Our hearts go out to both Ken and Alafair. ZS




Nov 052011

The second installment of my Los Angeles Review of Books column, “The Criminal Kind,” has been posted on their website. In the piece, I discuss Christa Faust’s Choke Hold, Ken Bruen’s Headstone, Ed Gorman’s Bad Moon Rising, and Day Keene’s Dead Dolls Don’t Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold.

Excerpts are below, or read the full piece here.

Christa Faust
Choke Hold
Hard Case Crime, October 2011. 256 pp.
Written in a casual-but-confident first person perspective, Faust skillfully weaves some of today’s most kinetic hardboiled action with her endearingly earthy humor and moments of unexpected poignancy.

Ken Bruen
Mysterious Press, October 2011. 256 pp.
“Taylor, I heard you were dead,” yells a cabbie in Ken Bruen’s ninth Jack Taylor novel,
Headstone. Bruen’s series detective has endured enough booze, coke, beatings, and bruises to bury most of his private eye predecessors, but like a hardboiled Sisyphus, Taylor’s eternal punishment is to push bottles back-and-forth across a bar, taking cases as they come, seeking atonement that’s always out of reach, and accepting yet another glass of Jameson as a consolation prize.

Ed Gorman
Bad Moon Rising
Pegasus Books, October 2011. 256 pp.
Gorman is in top form in Bad Moon Rising. Rather than wax nostalgic or reactionary about the sixties, Gorman cuts through the mythology to reveal a much more nuanced and confused socio-political landscape… Sam McCain is Gorman’s most compassionate and endearing character, and Bad Moon Rising is another triumph in an already extraordinary career.

Day Keene
Dead Dolls Don’t Talk /Hunt the Killer /Too Hot to Hold
Stark House Press, August 2011. 371 pp.
Rounding out the Keene anthology is Too Hot to Hold (1959), in which average joe Jim Brady steps into a Manhattan cab on a rainy day and walks out with a suitcase full of money… Circumstances get so twisted that even Joe wonders, “What kind of a nightmare had he gotten himself into?” The type of nightmare that Day Keene can dream up: the result is a lean, dizzying, and masterful thriller to rival any of today’s top-sellers.