The Story Behind The Story: “Murder Boy,” by Bryon Quertermous

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Apr 102015
 

(Editor’s note: This 56th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series brings to The Rap Sheet Bryon Quertermous, who I first encountered back when he was editing an e-zine called Demolition–long since demolished itself. Born and reared in Michigan, and now living outside of Detroit, Quertermous has penned short stories for Plots With Guns, ThugLit, and Crime Factory. In 2003 he was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award from the UK Crime Writers’ Association. His first novel, Murder Boy–about which he writes here–was released last month by Polis Books.)

I remember exactly where I was when the idea for Murder Boy popped into my head. I was driving along State Street, in downtown Ann Arbor, and passed by Angell Hall where the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program for the University of Michigan is housed. I was a student down the road at Eastern Michigan University in its less-prestigious writing program, and was struggling between a desire to attend a high-profile program like Michigan’s and go on to write boring, high-profile literary short stories, and be a famed writing teacher, or go all in with my pulp influences and take whatever job I could find while writing fun and crazy books and stories as quickly as I could.

That was my mindset as I drove by that hallowed hall, when a snotty voice popped into my head and said, “The great American novel can’t be about murder.”

I spent the rest of the day thinking about that line and the person who was saying it. The story sprung almost completely formed in my mind about a disgruntled creative-writing student who wanted to write crime fiction and the professor who was making his life hell because of it. I fiddled around with it in my head for a while, trying to figure out the best way to tell that story, before writing a long and messy novella version of it. Eventually I cut that down to a manageable length and it found a home in the Webzine ThugLit, and then it found a more permanent home in the ThugLit print anthology Hardcore Hardboiled (2008). But I wasn’t done with those characters. I knew there was a novel there–I just had no idea how to write it yet. The struggle to figure that out would consume me for more than six years, almost ruin my honeymoon, and lead me to such a debilitating case of anxiety that I quit writing for a year.

But before you can fully understand how I got to that point, we need to go back a ways to the moment I knew I was meant to be the next great private-eye fiction writer.

My earliest reading and writing was in science fiction and fantasy. I spend most of junior high reading Star Trek and Star Wars novels, plus the occasional epic fantasy. I wrote a few stories here and there that conformed to all of the worst stereotypes of beginning science-fiction writing. There was nothing to indicate any sort of talent or originality in my voice. But around high school I discovered crime fiction. This was the early ’90s and crime fiction was in the midst of a private detective novel renaissance. I would spend most of that decade reading nothing but P.I. fiction: Robert Crais, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Dennis Lehane, S.J. Rozan, and so many others. These were the writers who formed the core of my influence. It started, though, with Robert B. Parker and his 1988 Spenser novel, Crimson Joy.

That novel itself is rather mediocre, but it was the first time I’d read a novel and immediately wanted to go out and write my own version. It was also my first exposure to series fiction and the idea that I could work out my fantasies and my struggles and my life influences through fiction. I promptly set about writing some of the worst Parker knockoffs in history. And I loved it. The more I read, and the more I wrote, the more I began to develop my own voice. Parker’s fiction was so important to me that, in 2008 when my first kid was born, I named him Spenser. Shortly after he was born, I finished the first draft of my third P.I. novel, Ruins of Detroit. It was the best book I’d written so far, but it still didn’t work. It didn’t have a very good ending and I hated how much it had taken out of me without giving me back a book I could be proud of. I knew deep down that I had reached the ceiling on what I could do with that form and I’d need to write something different going forward. Unfortunately, I had too much invested in the P.I. novel form to let it go that easily.

I tried to write another P.I. novel, but it was just awful. I tried to write a P.I. novel version of Murder Boy that was even worse. I tried to write a mixed third-person/first-person thriller P.I. novel that was the worst of them all. I even wrote a draft of a Murder Boy novel that wasn’t bad, it just didn’t have any soul. I also wrote two more version of Ruins that got closer to being good, but not totally. The draw of Murder Boy was strong, and everyone I told about it said that was the book I needed to be working on, but I’d banked my identity on being the next great P.I. writer and I had a very, very hard time letting go of that. At this same time, my life changed drastically in a short period of time. I changed jobs, I bought a house, I got married and had two kids back-to-back. My life was exciting and these changes were good, but it was very disorienting. To balance that out, I tried to find solace in the familiarity of a form I knew rather than try and figure out how to write this weird literary/pulp hybrid novel I couldn’t stop thinking about. So for five years, I went back and forth like that, trying to bang a doomed P.I. novel into shape, or trying to write an Elmore Leonard knockoff that I couldn’t manage to tap into emotionally at all. Eventually it just got to be too much and I stopped writing.

After another year or so and some other failed experiments (the less I say about the screenplay adaptation the better), I finally switched Murder Boy to first-person and realized that point of view had been as much of the draw to P.I. fiction as anything. I set about pouring every bit of struggle and triumph and fear and inspiration into that book and that character. I blitzed it with autobiography and then kicked it up to an absurd level. It was cathartic and freeing, and the effort resulted in a book that has been praised as much for it’s emotion as for its over-the-top plotting.

I can’t bask long in that relief, though. Now I have to write a sequel.

The Story Behind the Story: “A Scourge of Vipers,” by Bruce DeSilva

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Apr 062015
 

(Editor’s note: This is the second piece The Rap Sheet has posted by novelist Bruce DeSilva, following a 2014 backgrounder on his previous yarn, Providence Rag. DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity awards, and he’s been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry awards. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’ well-respected noir anthologies. DeSilva has reviewed books for The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Prior to his novel-writing success, he spent 40 years as a journalist, and most recently served as worldwide writing coach for the AP. His fourth book, A Scourge of Vipers [Forge], is just out this week in hardcover and e-book editions.)

One morning a couple of years ago, I poured myself a cup of coffee, opened my New York Times, and spotted a story about sports gambling. It wasn’t about the odds on the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, or an exposé on point-shaving, or a breathless account of a raid on a bookie joint. Instead, it was a dry-as-dust bit of government reporting on a bill Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was planning to introduce.

Republican Christie, eager for ways to balance the state budget without raising taxes, wanted to legalize sports gambling so he could tax the profits. I could see right off that the idea was bound to generate some heat.

For one thing, it meant Christie would have to take on the U.S. government, because federal law outlaws sports gambling everywhere but in Nevada and three other states where it was grandfathered in.

For another thing, it pitted the governor against the men who ran the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the professional sports leagues, all of whom had long opposed legalization, claiming it would threaten the integrity of their games.

Sure enough, the NCAA was especially apoplectic, threatening to blackball New Jersey arenas from the annual March Madness basketball tournament unless Christie backed down.

And the way I saw it, organized crime figures, aghast at the prospect of seeing their bookmaking profits disappear, wouldn’t much like Christie’s plan, either.

But the governor’s proposal also had powerful supporters. Some public employee unions saw it as a way to protect their threatened pensions. And the Atlantic City gambling kingpins were eager to tap this new source of revenue. Once, they had run the only games east of the Mississippi; but they’d seen their profits cut in half by the explosion of casino gambling in nearby states over the last couple of decades, and they were growing desperate.

What all this portended was conflict–not such a good thing for the legislative process, perhaps, but solid gold for a crime novelist.

I clipped the story from the paper and started keeping a file on developments. As soon as I finished writing Providence Rag, the third book in my Edgar Award-winning series of crime novels set in Providence, Rhode Island, I started researching sports gambling in earnest. I thought I already knew quite a bit about the subject, but I was startled by some of what I learned.

I knew a lot of Americans liked to bet on sports, but I had no idea how many. According to surveys, 85 percent of us gamble on sporting events at least once in a while.

I also knew a lot of money was changing hands, but I had no idea how much. It turns out that the total amount Americans gamble on sports, most of it bet illegally, is estimated at three hundred and eighty billion dollars a year. To put that figure in perspective, it’s six times greater than the annual budget of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Clearly, both the proponents and opponents of Christie’s plan had deep pockets, millions at their disposal to try to influence the outcome. And before long, a number of other governors with hard-pressed state budgets started thinking about following Christie’s lead.

So I asked myself, “what if”–the question that has launched every novel I’ve written.

What if the colorful fictional governor I’d introduced in my previous novels proposed legalizing sports gambling in Rhode Island? Fiona McNerney, a former religious sister nicknamed Attila the Nun for her take-no-prisoners style of politics, wasn’t much like Christie, but she did resemble him in one respect. She wasn’t one to back down in the face of pressure.

With that, my new novel, A Scourge of Vipers, began to take shape.

The action begins when powerful organizations that have a lot to lose–or gain–if gambling is made legal, flood Rhode Island with millions of dollars to buy the votes of state legislators. All that money in a little state where the average campaign for a seat in the state legislature normally costs just $10,000.

Naturally, all hell breaks loose. First, a powerful state legislator turns up dead. Then a mobbed-up bagman gets shot down, and his briefcase full of cash goes missing.

My protagonist, Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for the fictional Providence Dispatch, wants to investigate, but the bottom-feeding conglomerate that recently purchased the struggling newspaper has no interest in serious public-interest reporting. So Mulligan goes rogue, digging into the story on his own. Soon, shadowy forces try to derail his investigation by destroying his career, his reputation, and perhaps his life.

The result is at once a suspenseful murder mystery and a serious exploration of the hypocrisy surrounding sports betting and the corrupting influence of big money on politics.

As I was working on the novel, Governor Christie pressed forward with his plan, pushing his legalization bill through the state legislature in defiance of the federal law. He declared that the sports betting would be launched at the Monmouth Park racetrack, and that it would soon spread to the Atlantic City casinos.

The professional sports leagues sued to stop him, and last fall a federal judge blocked Christie’s plan. Now, the issue is headed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia–and quite likely, eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.

READ MORE:A Scourge of Vipers: New Excerpt,” by Bruce DeSilva (Criminal Element).

The Story Behind the Story: “Cry Wolf,” by Michael Gregorio

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Apr 022015
 

(Editor’s note: With this 54th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series, we once more give center stage to the husband-and-wife team of Daniela De Gregorio and Michael G. Jacob, who write under the byline “Michael Gregorio.” After penning four historical mysteries featuring early 19th-century Prussian magistrate-cum-detective Hanno Stiffeniis, the most recent of which was Unholy Awakening, these two have taken off in a very different direction, publishing Cry Wolf [Severn House], a new mafia thriller set in central Italy’s Umbria region, where the couple live. Below, they tell why they’ve chosen this new literary path.)

Why kick good fortune in the teeth?

This is a dilemma that many writers have to face at some time.

You sold your first novel as part of a two-book deal. Those two books sold well enough for your publisher to ask for two more, featuring the same protagonist and setting. Before you know it, you have become a brand, and you’ve been pigeon-holed. You are now a relatively well-known writer of “historical thrillers” in the UK, or “historical mysteries” in the USA, and your novels have been translated into more than 20 languages. Your publisher is smiling, your agent is pleased, you have a growing band of faithful readers, and no one feels the need to ask you what you think about it.

That was pretty much the position Daniela and I were in when the following remarks, delivered by critic Barry Forshaw, appeared in The Independent in 2010:

The publishers tout Unholy Awakening as a “dark, gothic, vampiric mystery set in 19th-century Prussia,” and it’s hard to argue with this summary. With their first book, Critique of Criminal Reason, the husband-and-wife team who are Michael Gregorio managed to shoehorn references to the philosopher Kant into a thriller scenario. That book was a sweeping piece set in the Age of Enlightenment, with Prussian magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis enlisting Kant to aid him in investigating a series of violent deaths in Königsberg. It was clear that attention had to be paid to a major new talent in the period-crime field. Subsequent books (Days of Atonement and A Visible Darkness) have added lustre to the Gregorio brand. The reader of Unholy Awakening will notice fewer philosophical underpinnings in this gruesome narrative, but the powerful sense of time and place–and the minatory atmosphere–are in place.

Who wouldn’t be happy with such a write-up?

Obviously, we were very happy, but after four books featuring Hanno Stiffeniis, we felt that it was time for us to take a step back and decide whether we really wanted to be the next C.J. Sansom or Hilary Mantel.

Doesn’t that sound logical, measured, and cool?

It sure does, but that is not what happened.

What really happened was this: our lives were turned upside-down by something over which we had no control. One day, our next-door neighbor was arrested. Just 20 years old, he and four young friends were accused of being terrorists. We knew them well. Daniela and I live in a lovely old town in central Italy, and we had taken part with the five boys and hundreds of other people in protest meetings, sit-ins, and marches against building speculation that threatened to spoil the town, in our opinion. We’d appeared on television, and enlisted the help of prominent Italian environmentalists, art historians, and politicians. Questions were asked about the local clash in the Italian parliament. And just when everything was slipping into place, the police pounced at dawn one morning and arrested the five most defenseless kids in the protest movement. OK, so they had written slogans on walls, but what else had they done? The local authorities accused them of plotting acts of violence, hiding weapons and explosives. They had, according to the police, sent an envelope containing unexploded bullets to a regional political bigwig.

We put aside our plans to write another Hanno Stiffeniis mystery set in a fictional town in 19th-century Prussia, and we discussed what was going on in our own back yard. Right or wrong, what we came up with was this: the boys had been set up. Could we sit down and write another fancy tale for lovers of cute historical crime fiction while those poor kids were languishing, innocent, in jail? Of course, we couldn’t. So we helped to organize protest marches, spoke at public meetings, testified in court in their defense, wrote to national newspapers and appeared on local TV saying that they were innocent, and that it was a major miscarriage of justice.

And then, one day, we received an e-mail message …

An Italian publisher with a strong interest in environmental questions had launched a series of novels with crime and the environment as their central themes. Would we be interested in writing a novel about what had occurred in our town to kids that we knew?

We jumped at the opportunity, with one small reservation. We agreed to write a fictionalized account of what had happened, but we refused to sell the foreign rights. Boschi & Bossoli was published as a standalone in Italy in 2012. It wasn’t an immense success–it was too political, too vindictive, too Italian, let’s say–but it was something that we had to write. And while we were writing it, we came up with a theory that we couldn’t use in the Italian book, precisely because it was so political, so vindictive, so simple, and so Italian, too.

Who was behind the conspiracy that took five young people to a maximum-security prison, where one of them celebrated his 21st birthday alone in an isolation cell?

It sounds phony when you suggest such a conspiracy, but we believe that it was true. The mafia was behind it. Not the mafia of The Godfather or Gomorra, but another kind of mafia, an evil coalition of local business interests, greedy politicians, ambitious policemen, all with the desire to crush a protest movement convinced that there are more important things in this world than money, power, and a disregard for the beauty of a fragile eco-culture which the small country town of Spoleto represented.

We knew the book would not be a commercial success. That was why we held back the world rights. Daniela and I had decided that we were no longer exclusively interested in Immanuel Kant, Prussia, and Hanno Stiffeniis. Indeed, we wanted to write a new and different version of the Italian story, a fictionalized and damning portrayal of all the smaller mafias that make life in Italy such a hassle.

We re-used some of the original material we had gathered, and invented a great deal more. We took away the central role in the story from the kids, and we spoke through the mouths of the real protagonists, the crooked politicians, cynical cops, and professional criminals who had been behind the conspiracy to ruin Spoleto for their own selfish interests. We did “a James Ellroy,” let’s say–very different, but very exciting for us. We had to invent a new central character who would bring all these elements into focus, a park ranger named Sebastiano Cangio, who sees signs of the Calabrian mafia–the ’Ndrangheta–invading tranquil Umbria, and in Cry Wolf, we feel that we have achieved exactly what we set out to achieve. This novel was released in the UK in December, and goes on sale in America this month. It has garnered reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews which go beyond our wildest dreams:

Outstanding writing, a suspenseful and terrifying plot, and enough twists to keep even the most seasoned reader guessing, this is a terrific read that belongs in all mystery collections. (Booklist Starred Review)

But there’s an even better end to the real story.

The five kids were found innocent of the terrorism charges, the political bigwig who received the letter containing bullets will go on trial for corruption in the near future, and the crooked policeman who arrested the boys was condemned to 14 years in jail for running arms and drugs, and for his “limitless ambition” (in the words of the judge). Even better, after what amounts to seven of the busiest years of our lives, the ugly modern building which started the whole thing off has been scheduled for demolition!

Did we do the right thing to kick good fortune in the teeth?

We feel that we did the only thing possible under the circumstances. We also feel that we have been well rewarded for it. We have opened a new series of “Sebastiano Cangio mysteries” with a new publisher, and we still have magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis in the wings, if any enterprising publisher feels like asking us to pick up the Prussian historical mystery series again.

Like German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz, we feel that we are living in “the best of all possible worlds.”

Voltaire, the pragmatist, on the other hand, just laughed at fools like us and Leibnitz!

The Story Behind the Story: “Temple Mount,” by Keith Raffel

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Nov 022014
 

(Editor’s note: For this 53rd entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome back Northern California high-tech entrepreneur-turned-author Keith Raffel. After writing for this page about three previous works–Smasher [2009], Drop By Drop [2011], and A Fine and Dangerous Season [2012]–below he recalls the difficult birth of his brand-new thriller, Temple Mount.)

Thrillers and spy fiction have not recovered from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. On the frontier between East and West Germany, two different ideologies rubbed against each other, steel and stone, and if a spark was going to set off a worldwide conflagration, chances were good it would be struck there. Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Ross Thomas, and John le Carré all took advantage of those high stakes in writing their classic novels.

So for my next book, I wanted to find the equivalent trouble spot in the contemporary world. Where, I asked myself, are two civilizations colliding today? Is there another line that divides two worldviews, so fraught that a misstep could lead to a cataclysmic clash between civilizations? That question was not hard to answer–Israel’s border with its Arab neighbors.

OK. I’d never been to Israel, and it was time to go. My son was 9 years old and ready for adventure. I read plenty about the area before going, in order to get my imagination revved up. Two thrillers stood out. Lionel Davidson’s fabulous, but largely forgotten The Menorah Men (1966) played around with the idea of uncovering the ancient menorah of the Israelites. The Alexandria Link (2007), by the redoubtable Steve Berry, suggested that Solomon’s Temple wasn’t even in Jerusalem.

For 10 days after our arrival in Israel, my son and I traipsed up and down the country. We went up to the Golan Heights. Through binoculars, we watched Hezbollah riflemen across the border in Lebanon pointing their Kalashnikovs at us. But being a target did not encourage any plots to pop into my head. We traveled to Tel Aviv and saw where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948. Six countries greeted that announcement, approved by a vote of the United Nations, by invading the brand-new State of Israel. Leon Uris’s Exodus (1958), which had made such a huge impression on me in eighth grade, tells that story. I really couldn’t find anything left for my potential thriller.

We went up to the top of Masada, where Jewish Zealots opted for suicide rather than submission to the Romans. (It’s where many Israeli combat soldiers get sworn in today.) While my soul cringed to think of the Roman war engines moving forward to crush fighters for religious freedom, the writer in me wondered what if a modern-day discovery showed there had been no mass suicide, that the Zealots had escaped to fight another day? I marked that idea down as a possibility.

Author Keith Raffel on Temple Mount.

Finally, we arrived in the holy city of Jerusalem.

We started our explorations at King Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Hezekiah of the ancient kingdom of Judea had it dug in the 8th century BCE to ensure a water supply in case of an Assyrian siege. So, my son and I plunged into the tunnel with dozens of other tourists. The passageway is dark, most of it about five feet high and no wider than my shoulders. Water swished around my calves. Three hundred yards into the tunnel, I stumbled into the person in front of me–my son was up ahead with some other kids. In a chain collision, the person behind me ran smack into my back. So I was crouched over, my shoulders scraping the side of the tunnel, cold water swirling around my legs, and unable to move. I had not known till that moment that I was claustrophobic. Seconds ticked off and then minutes. The writer in me floated over my head and whispered, “So this is what panic feels like. Remember and you can use it.”

Still, knowing I was going to use claustrophobic panic in my book was far from finding a story. A day or two later we were scheduled to walk in another tunnel, one that ran underneath the Kotel, the Western Wall. I sucked it up and, heart pounding, got ready to descend again. Thank the stars, this tunnel was wider. We marveled at the size of the stones that made up the Wall. How had the ancients moved the Western Stone, which weighs 570 tons, into place? In a nook in the tunnel, a huddled coterie of a half-dozen women prayed at the point closest to the Holy of Holies, the room in Solomon’s Temple where the Ark of the Covenant was ensconced. And why was the Ark so holy? Because it held the tablets Moses is said to have received on Mount Sinai.

(Right) A tunnel beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem

So my son and I continued moving along the tunnel until we came to a circle of concrete amidst the massive stone blocks. I asked what it was and learned of two prominent rabbis who believed the Ark of the Covenant had been hidden in a shaft under the Holy of Holies when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem 57 centuries ago. The rabbis drilled and dug at night. But the Muslim authorities on the surface of the Temple Mount felt the vibrations of the jackhammers. They complained to the Israeli authorities who, fearing violence, put a stop to the midnight digging and plugged up the excavation.

OK, then. The magical two-word question for any thriller writer is “What if?” What if, I asked myself, the two rabbis had seen the Ark, before their excavations had been plugged up? And then, what if our hero’s grandfather had been with those rabbis and also seen the Ark?

I was off and writing. At the opening of my new novel, Temple Mount, Alex Kalman has sold his high-tech company in California’s Silicon Valley and is wondering what to do with his life. The phone rings. On his deathbed, his estranged grandfather tells him he has seen the Ark under the Temple Mount. Kalman embarks on a quest that takes him from Washington, D.C.’s corridors of power to the ancient passages under Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Finally, Americans, Arabs, and Israelis agree on something–the need to stop Alex Kalman.

The trip to Israel my son and I took left me with great memories and two souvenirs, my fifth novel and a lingering case of claustrophobia.

The Story Behind the Story: “Artefacts of the Dead,” by Tony Black

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Sep 042014
 

(Editor’s note: Today we bring you the 52nd entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. It was submitted by Australia-born Scottish author Tony Black, and tells us about his newest work of crime fiction, Artefacts of the Dead. Black wrote last month on this page about his collection of author interviews, Hard Truths: Cross-Examining Crime Writers.)

For all the excitement and sense of relief that comes with releasing a new book into the world there is also a feeling of dread at the thought of the one unanswerable question people always ask.

“What’s it about?”

For a novelist, there can hardly be a more difficult question to answer. Few will admit to feeling comfortable with the fabled “elevator pitch” summary, during which the months of labor to produce a count of, say, 100,000 words, is reduced to a few short, snappy sentences.

It’s not easy because a lot of what a novel is “about” can be below the surface–much like Ernest Hemingway’s description of the novel as an iceberg. The plot or even the story is much simpler to define. Perhaps that’s why so many novels’ descriptions carry a mere retelling of events on the back cover.

If you look at the front of my latest novel, Artefacts of the Dead (Black & White), or go by the title, you’ll likely identify it as crime fiction, but I’m not sure that’s what it’s about.

My last two books, both released earlier this year, were not crime fiction at all. The Last Tiger (currently shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize) and His Father’s Son had no crime content, and my readership seemed to hardly notice the difference. As a writer, certainly, both of those novels just seemed part of the same body of work. Could this be because all writers actually write about the same thing? It’s something that’s been said before and seems to have its adherents.

All my novels so far have, broadly speaking, covered the same themes of families in strife–especially fathers and sons at war with each other–and been strongly character-driven. I generally start by uncovering my main character and then putting him through the mill; the stuff of all fiction is about a character with some kind of problem in the end. William Golding put it nicely when he said writing fiction was about chasing your protagonist up a tree, and once there, throwing stones at him.

In Artefacts of the Dead, my protagonist, Detective Inspector Bob Valentine, is heading a murder investigation. It focuses on a particularly grisly impaling of a middle-aged banker on the municipal rubbish tip–something which a vocal audience in Glasgow enthusiastically applauded last week; some wish-fulfillment, perhaps? So there is murder in the novel, for sure, but that’s not what the story’s about either.

If I was to take a punt at it, I’d say the novel is partly about a man who’s come back from the brink of death–Valentine actually died several times on the operating table after a stabbing to the heart. He’s had a near miss. He’s also seen the consequences of this event up close, what it’s done to his family and those around him, and it has changed him.

Valentine is a man who has stared into the abyss–always dangerous territory, as Nietzsche said, because the abyss stares back into you. He starts to re-evaluate his years of experience, his life, and the lives of others. His place in the world around him starts to feel uncertain.

The detective’s gaze takes in the aftermath of not only his traumas, however, but those of others. His sympathies, previously buried under the necessities of being a police officer, are prodded by a family that’s been robbed of its life and soul through crime. The Coopers lost a child a decade ago but time has not healed the wound. Janie was their only child, taken from them at the school gates; their lives have been frozen since. They tread through their days like ghosts, waiting for release from their misery. But it never comes. For a man troubled by the thin line between life and death, the Coopers, and their lost child, haunt Valentine.

Watching Janie’s parents trudge through life is like witnessing a kind of hell on earth for the detective. Valentine feels for them, understands their massive burden and wonders how they go on. Simply boxing up his emotions, as he had learned to do in the past, is no longer an option; it’s as if the knife’s incursion into his heart opened him up both physically and mentally. Outside events have changed the man, made him look differently at himself and the world; but at best, that’s only part of what the book’s about.

As Valentine continues to sift through the Artefacts of the Dead he unravels another complex relationship a family has tried to hide. As the son of a murdered father this time, however, Adrian Urquhart, isn’t wallowing in grief for the deceased. My old preoccupation of a bold son testing the boundaries lain down by a traditional paterfamilias are almost turned on their head here. Urquhart knows his late father’s secrets, and finds them so shameful that he can’t bear to have the same blood running through his veins. His life, too, then has become wasted as he endures an existence that he knows there is no escape from. As Valentine uncovers this fact it seems to chime, once again, with his own situation and it solves his personal investigation within the wider investigation.

There is crime then in my latest novel, dark, unflinching, life-stealing crime; but that’s not what Artefacts of the Dead is about. Valentine’s investigation is as much an investigation into human nature. An existential investigation as much as a murder investigation. An exploration of life and death but also an exploration of life versus death, when one option seems little better than the other. Don’t expect to see that on the back cover, though. It just doesn’t fit into a few snappy sentences, but to the best of my knowledge, and when anyone asks, that’s what I’ll say the book is about.

The Story Behind the Story: “Forever’s Just Pretend,” by Craig McDonald

 Craig McDonald, Story Behind the Story  Comments Off on The Story Behind the Story: “Forever’s Just Pretend,” by Craig McDonald
Aug 262014
 

(Editor’s note: Ohio journalist and fiction writer Craig McDonald has been a periodic guest here at The Rap Sheet. He’s penned two previous “Story Behind the Story” essays, one about his 2010 novel, Print the Legend, the other focusing on 2011’s One True Sentence. Below, he not only introduces us to Forever’s Just Pretend, his fifth and latest novel featuring historical writer-cum-detective Hector Lassiter–he also kicks off a competition specially made for veteran Lassiter fans. If you’d like to read more from McDonald, check out his blog here.)

For the uninitiated, the Hector Lassiter novels usually incorporate historical events and figures, including Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, and myriad other 20th-century luminaries who interact with the main character.

The series returns this month, though not with just a single new novel, or with a re-launch of the previously printed four entries centered on crime novelist and screenwriter Lassiter, “the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives.” Instead, European publisher Betimes Books will unveil the entire series of Lassiter novels, released in an aggressively accelerated combination of “old” and new titles. Within a matter of just a few months, the whole of the Lassiter saga will be available for the first time.

I’m fairly certain we’re headed into uncharted publishing territory here, strategically speaking. But then the Hector Lassiter series has always been a genre maverick.

In a kind of premonition of this unusual publishing schedule, the Lassiter series was written in rapid-fire fashion, one book after another, long before the original second novel in the series, Toros & Torsos, was even contracted for publication. I had written the books with an eye to an overarching storyline that would bind the series into a larger tale focused on Hector’s life journey and climaxing with the mystery of whatever became of Hector, the author and the man.

After all the first drafts were completed, I went back over them en masse, polishing and pulling the series together in meticulous detail. To be clear, while other authors carry a series forward one book at a time, I plotted and wove the Lassiter novels together to form that larger story, from the jump.

Several of the individual Lassiter installments sprawl across decades. So a novel here may at points intersect or overlap with a novel or even two over there. Most series treat life as a chain of compartmentalized episodes, each book standing more or less alone. Real life more closely resembles an oil spill, of course. Events and episodes bleed together. I aimed to come closer to that mixing of mile-markers in shaping the Lassiter series.

At conception, it seemed this strategy allowed readers to tackle the novels in any order they chose. In their original publication sequence, the “first” Lassiter novel, the Edgar Award-nominated Head Games, opened in 1957. Its sequel took flight in 1935. The third novel, Print the Legend, explored the death of Ernest Hemingway and was largely set in 1965. The fourth, One True Sentence, was a Lassiter/Hemingway origin story, of sorts, set in 1924 Paris.

But as the series extended to four published novels, increasing numbers of new readers reached out, craving a recommended reading sequence. A striking number told me they wanted to read the novels in something approaching chronological order. I came to see readers’ attitudes toward Hector were dramatically affected by which Lassiter novel they read first.

When Betimes proposed publishing the entire series in a concentrated burst, and it was suggested we present the books in something like chronological order, I immediately embraced the notion.

Strictly speaking, the fact that some of the novels cover three or more decades makes truly chronological presentation of this series an impossibility. We’ll therefore be offering the novels in order of when each book opens.

In this new publishing sequence, One True Sentence–a story encompassing one week during February 1924–is now novel No. 1. OTS was released last week, followed by its never-before-published sequel, Forever’s Just Pretend, which is set across successive holidays in Key West, Florida, circa 1925.

Those two installments will appear simultaneously with a re-release of Toros & Torsos, which opens in 1935. A few weeks later, two more previously unpublished, World War II-era Lassiter novels will debut: The Great Pretender (1938) and Roll the Credits (1942). The remaining novels, a similar mix of old and new installments, will quickly follow.

I wrote an essay for The Rap Sheet about One True Sentence when the novel debuted in February 2011. That tale traces aspiring novelists Lassiter and Hemingway as they confront a cult of nihilist artists.

One True Sentence also introduced the character of Brinke Devlin, a fetching female mystery author who resembles sultry screen siren Louise Brooks but writes like Craig Rice. Brinke was established in OTS as the woman who shaped or even “created” the Hector Lassiter we come to know.

The previously unseen Forever’s Just Pretend delivers on the promised Hector-Brinke reunion teased in the final pages of One True Sentence.

Forever’s Just Pretend breaks the Lassiter template in significant ways. Most notably, for the first time, there are no historical figures; the focus is kept squarely on Hector and Brinke. Also, for the first time, we meet a Lassiter blood-relative.

This new novel introduces Hector’s paternal grandfather, a thinly veiled homage to a beloved, recently passed actor who helped inspire the meta-fictional, sometimes irreverent tone of the Lassiter series.

While no overt historical personages haunt the pages of Forever’s Just Pretend, the crimes that drive the plot are based on a real cycle of murders and arsons that rocked 1920s America.

Now, here’s a challenge to all you Lassiter series readers: the first three people who can correctly identify the inspiration for the “Key West Clubber” killings in Forever’s Just Pretend will be rewarded with signed and numbered copies of the now über-rare, limited-edition hardcover version of Toros & Torsos, complete with the “booking sheet” for yours truly and a personalized fingerprint. Submit your answer in an e-mail note to jpwrites@wordcuts.org. And please be sure to write “Key West Clubber Contest” in the subject line. We’ll let you know when we have our three winners.

The Story Behind the Story: “Screams from My Father: Stories by Paul F. Gleeson”

 Story Behind the Story  Comments Off on The Story Behind the Story: “Screams from My Father: Stories by Paul F. Gleeson”
Aug 212014
 

(Editor’s note: This is the 50th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. Today we bring you Sean Gleeson, who writes below about an unusual short-story collection he and his siblings in Chicago put together to honor their late lawyer father. Asked for a few biographical details, Sean explains: “I was born in Chicago in 1966. Worked at advertising agencies from 1987 to 2004, where my duties ever-so-gradually morphed from old-school art direction with marker layouts and paste-up to Web site development and programming. One day–I’m not sure when–I realized I was no longer an ad man, and had not been one for awhile. From 2005 to 2011, I was an adjunct professor teaching Web design and game creation. Today I am senior programmer at a defense contractor in Oklahoma City.” He and his family live outside of Arcadia, Oklahoma.)

In my fifth-grade classroom in 1977, an old nun was telling us kids about the radio shows she used to love. “Ooh, The Shadow was very exciting. It always started with a creaky door …” My hand shot up. “No, sister, The Shadow started with organ music and laughter. Inner Sanctum had the creaky door!” The good woman must have wondered, How did this ill-mannered 11-year-old become annoyingly familiar with old time radio dramas? That was from my father.

Paul Francis Gleeson loved stories. He loved hearing them, loved reading them, loved telling them. He was a successful lawyer in Chicago, but for one brief season in 1979-1980 he was something more. He was a pulp writer. He wrote well-crafted short stories of murder and intrigue, twisted tales ending with ironic justice, or sometimes ironic injustice. Witty and unsettling vignettes of the human condition.

I can tell you his literary influences, because he continued to enjoy them–and share them–long after they vanished from the rest of the world. He kept old radio dramas on tape, and played them often. “So, kids,” he’d say, “you want to hear Suspense tonight? Or X Minus One?” He loved publisher EC Comics’ Crime SuspenStories and The Vault of Horror, and television’s Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

He submitted his tales to the pulp mags of the day. The sci-fi he sent to Amazing Stories. The murders went to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen–as well as to Mike Shayne, the less-popular alternative to those. Besides the fiction, he submitted humorous essays to the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times; the Tribune printed one as a guest column. But none of the pulps would buy any of his stories. Every manuscript kept coming back, rejected. Until one did not: finally, Mike Shayne accepted the story “Unhappy Hour,” and printed it in their May 1980 issue. If you have trouble finding a copy of that back-issue now, it may be because my dad bought so many of them.

In the next issue, the magazine printed a letter from one Bruce Moffitt, a janitor in Brookfield, Missouri, who began his epistle quite dismissively, admitting he only bought Mike Shayne “to keep my file complete” and generally held the magazine in low regard. But he continued, “Then I began reading ‘Unhappy Hour’ by Paul Gleeson. This tale deserves to be anthologized. I’ve been smiling at my mop for the last hour.” I never saw Dad happier than when he read that letter, aloud, five or six times.

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine went on to publish a second Paul Gleeson story, “Don’t Touch That Dial,” in the October 1980 issue. It was starting to look like Dad was actually on the cusp of achieving his goal of being a full-time lawyer and part-time world-famous pulp writer. But that is not how this story goes.


Sean’s brother Kevin Gleeson (left) with their father in 1980.

A few of the rejection letters contained handwritten notes from helpful editors who explained their decision. “We already run too many of these domestic murders,” said one. “Having the X’s turn out to be Y’s instead of Z’s was just not enough of a twist ending for me,” said another (except I redacted three nouns from that sentence, because, you know, spoilers). But most of them were generic and impersonal photocopies: “Your story has been read by one or more members of our staff, but we regret …” “We regret …” “… we regret …”

How much regret can a man take? Each must have his own limit, and while it is easy enough to say to aspiring authors, “Don’t be discouraged! Just keep at it, champ!,” it must also be said that Paul Gleeson had ample sources of regret in his life without volunteering for more. And so, sometime in 1980, he stopped writing. These stories, these thrilling tales of crime and folly, these fables for an amoral world, were consigned–with the rejection letters–to a cardboard box under Dad’s desk. While they sat, unseen and untouched, turning more yellow and brittle each decade, he never mentioned them again, but he never discarded them either.

After Dad died in March 2012, at 70 years of age, that box of old stories turned up, and my two brothers, my sister, and I had to figure out what to do with them. We decided that we would turn those 10 short stories and five humor columns, everything Dad had ever tried to get published, into a book. We also decided that we four surviving Gleesons would make this book together, each of us taking on a role suited to his or her talents. Kevin, the oldest, would write the foreword, explaining who Dad was and how these stories came to be. Colleen would be the editor, transcribing and correcting the manuscripts. Brendan, who had attended New Jersey’s Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, would illustrate the cover. None of us had ever produced a book before, but we knew we had the skills, the smarts, and the inspiration to do this one.

My job was to publish. Having labored in advertising, I knew about design and print production, but I had never published a book before, so I had to teach myself how. I studied the specs for the CreateSpace print-on-demand platform. I acquainted myself with such terms as folio, running head, and front matter. I figured out how to get an ISBN, and the difference between a preface, an introduction, and a foreword. I also had to learn how to format a book for the Kindle, but this was a pleasant surprise: it turns out that Kindle books are made with essentially the same code as Web pages, which I already knew.

(Left) Sean Gleeson today

Not wanting to make any mistakes on Dad’s book, I did a dry run. All by myself, I edited and published a little volume titled Subjective Grounds: Writings by Persons with the Initials S.G. (Really, it’s a whole book of short works by 11 authors with my initials. Pretty good stuff, too.) That process went smoothly–it only took two weeks from start to finish, and cost nothing–and helped me navigate all the stuff you need to do after a book is launched: Amazon controls for adding descriptions, fixing prices, running promotions, and other settings. So now, I was a real honest-to-God publisher.

But I also felt that a book should have “blurbs” on its cover. You know, quotes from prominent persons saying this author is a new star in the firmament, and that you are indeed fortunate to be about to read this wondrous literary triumph, and so forth. I figure they’re easy enough to get at large publishing houses; the bosses probably shoot a text message to Stephen King, saying, “Sent new galley, fax me blurb by Monday,” and go golfing on their yachts. But I had no idea how to go about getting blurbs. So I just asked nicely, and found that David Cranmer, the editor of Beat to a Pulp, was happy to supply a great quote. Dad’s brother Tony Gleeson, who works as an illustrator in Los Angeles, helped me get a second blurb from Terrill Lee Lankford, the author of Earthquake Weather as well as dozens of other works. (He even wrote the screenplay for Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.)

We did it! Except for some guys at the bindery, I was the first man on earth to hold Screams from My Father: Stories by Paul F. Gleeson. The book my dad sired, and his children birthed. A dream come true after death. I am not exaggerating when I say it is beautiful. And I have to be honest, the very first moment I held it, all I could think was how damned sorry I am. I’m sorry he’s gone, and I’m sorry he was not happier in this life, and I’m sorry we didn’t think of publishing this book years ago (print-on-demand has been offered since about 2006) so Dad could have held it in his hands, and seen how much people love to read it. I held back a tear, maybe two. But I got over it; regret is a killer. And frankly, I doubt my dad would have allowed this book to exist while he lived. I imagine he has a better view of things now.

There will be no author tour, for obvious reasons. And we have no promotion budget, because I am not that kind of publisher, so you will see no ads for Screams from My Father. I have been sending copies of the book to various strangers, some in the media, some not. Every day I try to find a person I think should like the book, and I mail him one.

I even tried to look up Bruce Moffitt, the letter-writing janitor. I wanted to send him the anthology he wished for in 1980 while smiling at his mop. I was too late; he died in 2014. Mr. Moffitt, wherever you are, I want you to know your letter made my father smile too.

The Story Behind the Story: “The Good Know Nothing,” by Ken Kuhlken

 Ken Kuhlken, Story Behind the Story  Comments Off on The Story Behind the Story: “The Good Know Nothing,” by Ken Kuhlken
Aug 052014
 

(Editor’s note: Today we bring you the 49th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series, this one penned by Ken Kuhlken, an author based in La Mesa, California. Kuhlken’s short stories, features, essays, and columns have appeared in Esquire as well as other magazines and anthologies. He has been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. His novels received awards such as the Ernest Hemingway Best First Novel, the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel, and the Shamus Best Novel. He writes below about his brand-new work, The Good Know Nothing, the final entry in his Hickey family series, which began with 1991’s The Loud Adios and has ranged across the 1900s.)

I used to teach at California State University in Chico. My office partner, Dr. Michael Baumann, had fled Germany with his family during the 1930s. Among Mike’s scholarly pursuits was the study of the author B. Traven, whose books were originally published in German, though his distinctly American narrators led readers to assume that their creator must be American himself.

Traven refused to make his identity or background public. So, the mystery surrounding him intrigued literary folks, especially following the release of the 1948 film version of his novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The movie, which starred Humphrey Bogart, was a grand success. You may remember the line often misquoted as “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges.”

Mike Baumann spent years on linguistic and biographical research and analysis, and at last concluded that B. Traven began his public life as Ret Marut, a leftist radical pamphleteer who, following World War I, ran afoul of the German establishment on account of his involvement with the short-lived Bavarian Free State.

Yet to Mike the question remained: how did this fellow manage to so convincingly assume, especially as narrator of The Death Ship (1926), a wholly credible American identity? Mike’s strong suspicion was that The Death Ship and perhaps other Traven novels were in fact collaborations between Marut and an American expatriate with whom he connected in Mexico, to where Marut had fled from a likely death sentence in Germany.

I asked Mike what became of the American. “Right,” he said, “that’s the big question”

Later, I found an answer in the family story of Detective Tom Hickey.

The Death Ship appeared in English in 1936. My knowledge of Tom during that era being less than comprehensive, I began to investigate.

The early 20th century abounded in mysteries. Several of them piqued my imagination:

What became of Ambrose Bierce, acclaimed short-story writer and journalist whom William Randolph Hearst sent, during 1913, to cover the Mexican revolution, and who never returned. (Carlos Fuentes offered his answer in The Old Gringo.)

Were the rumors of the death in 1908 of Harry Longabaugh, aka Sundance Kid (who had become legend through a number of dime novels), erroneous? And did Longabaugh actually survive a battle in Bolivia and subsequently lend his skills not only to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, but to Depression-era bank robbery gangs as well?

Together, these and other mysteries led to my discovery of what befell Detective Tom Hickey during 1936, which in turn led to The Good Know Nothing (Poisoned Pen Press), the latest release in the Tom Hickey California Crime series.

The series is about half of the story I feel both obliged and privileged to write.

The whole story began while I read Doctor Zhivago and caught myself envying writers whose times were as loaded with drama as the Russian Revolution or the Napoleonic wars that inspired Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Or it began even earlier, with my grandma telling classic epic tales in versions fit for a little guy, which may have led me, in college, to major in literature and minor in history.

No matter the reasons, my favorite books are epic spellbinders that also help us contemporary folks understand how we came to live in the world as it is today.

So, one spring weekend in the village of San Felipe, Baja California, around a campfire high on a dune above the Sea of Cortez, while entranced by accounts and revelations from my friends Clifford Hickey and Otis Otterbach, I discovered what I’ve been writing ever since.

My story–explored through the California Crime series–is about Clifford’s remarkable family, especially his father, Detective Tom Hickey; about Otis and the mission forced upon him, to rescue the world from immanent desolation; and about the mad vision of Cynthia Jones, where the Otis and Hickey stories intersect.

Over the years, life and art have taught me that neither Doctor Zhivago nor any character of Homer, Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Hardy, or Hemingway inhabited a place and time more dramatic than my own time and place, 20th-century California.

(Left) Author Ken Kuhlken

Stories that live are begotten in passion and nurtured with attitude. Let’s call my attitude Beat Noir. Noir because the darkness we live in and the darkness inside us is often my subject matter. Beat because even before I started writing, I found an affinity for the writers labeled Beats. In hindsight I see that it wasn’t their iconoclasm, wild enthusiasm, or intellectual vigor that intrigued me so much as their quest.

Here’s a clip from Wikipedia about Jack Kerouac, the prime instigator of the Beat movement:

On May 17, 1928, while six years old, Kerouac had his first Sacrament of Confession. For penance he was told to say a rosary, during the meditation of which he could hear God tell him that he had a good soul, that he would suffer in his life and die in pain and horror, but would in the end have salvation. This experience, along with his dying brother’s vision of the Virgin Mary, as the nuns fawned over him convinced that he was a saint, combined with a later discovery of Buddhism and ongoing commitment to Christ, solidified his worldview which informs his work.

According to Kerouac, his 1957 novel, On the Road which is commonly misinterpreted as a tale of companions out looking for kicks, is in truth “about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God.”

My fascination with Cynthia Jones and Kerouac may rest upon a deep belief the three of us share: that the end of this age began in 1945, when a crew of Dr. Strangeloves and their bomb not only annihilated cities, but unleashed a legion of physical and spiritual demons.

Kerouac proposed that those of us who live with the threat of sudden obliteration ought to experience and respond with hearts and minds to everything while we can, before nuclear Armageddon gets us.

That belief was the cornerstone for the attitudes of the Beats, the hippies, and the Jesus people of the 1960s and ’70s. Most people in my generation have, in the words of Jackson Browne, traded their wings for resignation “and exchanged love’s bright and fragile glow for the glitter and the rouge.” Yet that fear and urgency still own us. We recognize that things continue to fall apart. We fear, like W.B. Yeats, that the center cannot hold, and we too wonder what strange beast is slouching toward Bethlehem.

My Hickey and Otis stories first connect when a Cynthia Jones vendetta incites the action of The Venus Deal (1993). Then a Tom Hickey rescue gives birth to Cynthia’s apocalyptic vision. And that vision drives the entire story, in four or five volumes, of Otis Otterbach.

I dream my books will acquaint more and more readers with Otis, Cynthia, the Hickey family, their times and their California, which like all true stories deserve to live in memory.

Seven Hickey books are now available, including The Good Know Nothing. The Gas Crisis, first volume of the Otis saga, will appear in October 2014.

I fondly hope you will read the whole story.

READ MORE:9mm: An Interview with Ken Kuhlken,” by Craig Sisterson (Crime Watch); “Summertime Won’t Be a Love-in There,” by Stephen Miller (January Magazine).

The Story Behind the Story: “Providence Rag,” by Bruce DeSilva

 Bruce DeSilva, Story Behind the Story  Comments Off on The Story Behind the Story: “Providence Rag,” by Bruce DeSilva
Mar 112014
 

(Editor’s note: Below you will find the 48th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. It was sent our way by Bruce DeSilva, who put in four decades as a journalist, working as an editor and national writer at The Hartford Courant and as an investigative reporter for The Providence Journal. More recently, he’s served as a writing coach for The Associated Press. His first novel, 2010’s Rogue Island introduced Liam Mulligan, a Rhode Island newspaper veteran, who reappeared in 2012’s Cliff Walk. DeSilva’s latest Mulligan outing, Providence Rag–about which he writes here–is being released this week by Forge.)

I’ve certainly never thought of myself as delicate, but novels, movies, and TV shows about serial killers often make me squirm. It’s been that way ever since my real-life brush with one.

Not that I was ever in any danger. The killer in question was already behind bars before I spent several weeks of my life researching and writing a magazine story about him. It was the kind of article journalists call a hell of a good story, but my god, it was an ugly one.

The killer’s weapon of choice was butcher knives, and he used them to stab his victims over and over again, long after he knew they were gone. The dead included two sweet little girls. As a father, I couldn’t help but imagine their terror, and it sickened me. I know this sounds melodramatic, but sometimes, in my dreams, I can still hear them scream.

So two decades later, when I retired from a 40-year-long journalism career to write crime novels, I was sure I would never write one about a serial killer. I didn’t want to get that close to pure evil again.

Yet, those long-ago murders never stopped working on my subconscious, the place where novels are born.

For several years, I resisted the impulse to fictionalize the story. I told myself we’ve already got all the make-believe serial killers we need. Ever since Thomas Harris upped the ante with Hannibal Lecter, novelists and screenwriters have been tripping all over themselves trying to make each new psychotic butcher more twisted than the last. We’ve been treated to Jigsaw (who cuts his victims into puzzle pieces), The Grave Digger (who buries them alive in automobiles), Red John (who paints smiley faces on walls with human blood), Floyd Feylin Ferrell (who serves investigators chili made from his victims’ flesh) … I could go on, but I trust I’ve made my point.

When the compulsion to fictionalize the real-life case became too great to resist, I knew I would have to write a different kind of serial-killer book, one in which the focus would be on something other than brutal murder and criminal detection.

The result is Providence Rag, the third novel in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island. The murders are committed and the killer is imprisoned in the first 75 pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring an impossible moral dilemma: What are decent people supposed to do when a legal loophole requires that an unrepentant serial killer be released–and when the only way to keep him locked up is to fabricate new charges against him?


Convicted murderer Craig Price, aka “the Warwick Slasher”

The real criminal who inspired the novel is Craig Price, the most notorious murderer in Rhode Island history. He slaughtered two women and two children before he was old enough to drive. Just 13 years old when he began killing, and 15 when he was caught, he was the youngest serial killer in U.S. history. But that’s not the interesting part.

When Price was arrested in 1989, the state’s antiquated juvenile justice statutes had not been updated for decades, and when they were written, no one had ever imagined a child like him. So the law required that all juveniles, regardless of their crimes, be released and given a fresh start at age 21.

The state legislature promptly rewrote the law so this wouldn’t happen again, but in America, you can’t change the rules retroactively. So the authorities were faced with the chilling prospect of releasing Price after he’d served only six years for his crimes. Robert K. Ressler, one of the first FBI profilers, and the man credited with coining the term “serial killer,” was horrified. If Price gets out, he told me, “you’ll be piling up the bodies.”

But Price did not get out. Today, 25 years later, he remains behind bars, convicted of a series of assaults and offenses he supposedly committed while in prison. I have long suspected that some of these charges were fabricated, but at the very least it is obvious that Price has been absurdly over-sentenced. For example, the state gave him additional prison time for breaking a rule against swearing at correctional officers. Prisoners do that all the time, of course, but Price was the first to have his sentence extended for it. Later, he was given 30 years for contempt because he declined to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric examination.

Have the authorities abused their power to prevent Price’s release? Quite possibly. Should he ever be set free and given the chance to prey on the innocent again? I don’t think so. The ethical dilemma the case poses fascinates me. No matter which side you come down on, you are condoning something that is reprehensible. I wrote the novel to explore the implications of all this.

In real life, this conundrum hasn’t caused any soul-searching in Rhode Island–at least not publicly. Everyone seems content to let Price rot in prison. And who can blame them?

(Right) Author Bruce DeSilva

But a novel is fiction, after all, and Providence Rag is in no way intended to accurately depict real events. In the book, the ethical issue at the heart of the story haunts Mulligan and his colleagues at the Providence Dispatch.

Some people argue that authorities who are faking charges against the killer are perverting the criminal justice system. And if they are allowed to get away with it, what’s to stop them from framing someone else? Besides, it’s the journalist’s mission to report the truth.

Others argue that if the Dispatch breaks the story and the killer is released, he’s bound to kill again. And when that happens, the newspaper will have blood on its hands.

The dilemma eventually embroils Mulligan, his fellow reporters, his editors, and the entire state in a heated confrontation over where justice lies.

READ MORE:Writer Interviews–Bruce DeSilva,” by Kristi Belcamino; “Bruce DeSilva,” by Gerald Bartell (Kirkus Reviews).

The Story Behind the Story: “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead,” by E.A. Aymar

 Story Behind the Story  Comments Off on The Story Behind the Story: “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead,” by E.A. Aymar
Jan 302014
 

(Editor’s note: Below you will find the 47th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. It was sent to us by E.A. “Ed” Aymar, who was born in Panama but now lives outside of Washington, D.C., with his wife and their small animal menagerie. Aymar’s first novel, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, was released late last year by Black Opal Books. The essay below supplies some background to that book.)

No antihero is more exciting to me than a kick-ass vigilante. I love the concept of the good guy who goes bad, who fights a moral war against those without morals. As a kid, I devoured the cheesy violence of Mack Bolan and the Punisher comic books (the families of both protagonists had been killed by the mafia), and as I grew older, I kept searching for scarred heroes in literature. So it makes sense that my debut thriller, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, centers around Tom Starks, a widowed single parent desperate to avenge the murder of his wife. Unable to pull the trigger himself, Starks hires a pair of hit men (well, one is a hit woman) to do the job for him. But that job is soon botched, and Tom and his daughter inadvertently become the assassins’ new targets.

Of course, by the time I wrote my novel, my concept of justifiable vengeance had lost its black-and-white simplicity. As a resident of the D.C./Maryland/Virginia triangle, and the child of a parent who was in the Pentagon at the time of impact (but, fortunately, survived), I keenly felt the echoes of September 11, 2001. I lost some of my enthusiasm for revenge when it was played out on a global scale, and in the national debate about which lines were necessary to cross. Furthermore, TV shows born in the same time period–such as 24–that never bothered to question their heroes’ questionable actions, bothered me. Unlike the majority of 24’s critics, only part of my concern was its endorsement of torture; most of my criticism was because of the empty personality of the show’s lead. A driven but bland hero can survive in television and film by his charismatic good looks but, speaking as a novelist, a character like that couldn’t be more boring to write.

Don’t get me wrong; I love tough guys, and tough guys as well as tough woman populate the pages of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. But my first-person, vengeance-seeking protagonist isn’t part of their world. Yes, Tom Starks wants revenge, and yes, that desire consumes him; but I was often surprised that Tom found himself more reluctant than he initially realized, even as he was dragged into a world darker than he’d imagined. My aspiring vigilante had trouble making the kind of choices his quest required, and I love that about him. He rushes through the pages of the novel and through his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, first seeking and then desperately rejecting the antihero label, while violence thickens around him like a sick fog. I only realized well after the book was written just how much his indecision was rooted in my complicated thoughts about revenge.

And that’s one of the best parts about developing a character, especially a character you get to grow over time (I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead being the first book in a trilogy). The choices Tom Starks struggles with in book one may be a given course of action in books two and three. There’s a lot of fun in this challenge, but you’re always faced with a risk if your character is seeking violence: how far can you extend the sympathy of the reader? And how far can Tom, in this instance, go before he loses my sympathies as his creator? Does his journey have to end in redemption, or does it simply end in an acceptance of evil? After all, there’s a lot of fun in being evil, but life, especially in fiction, needs limits.

This is an antihero path we’ve seen in characters from Hamlet to Humbert Humbert to Darth Vader, and it’s a hell of a joy to write. It’s also a tricky path, because you have to hope that readers stick with your protagonist to the end. And you have to trust that even if those readers disagree with his decisions, they understand and believe them. Even as Tom sheds his morals (or, depending on your point of view, adopts new ones), he has to stay believable, he has to stay human. He can’t scar; he has to bleed.