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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
Jan 132014
 
(Editor’s note: This 46th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Kathleen George, a professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Taken, Fallen, Afterimage, The Odds (an Edgar Award finalist for Best Novel), Hideout, Simple, and her forthcoming book, The Johnstown Girls. Below, she recalls the evolution of A Measure of Blood, her seventh novel featuring Pittsburgh homicide chief Richard Christie, which is being released this week by Mysterious Press/Open Road.)

I need to fall in love before I write a novel. In the case of A Measure of Blood it happened when I met a gorgeous child, the son of a distant relative of my husband--his half-niece. This woman, let us call her Angie, had wanted a child badly and decided to get pregnant by artificial insemination. She was at the top age for motherhood, but it worked. The child was physically beautiful, smart, too, but a little sad, a little nervous. Everybody at a Thanksgiving gathering wanted to please him, to entertain him, to make him calm and secure. Did he mind not having a father, I wondered. I suspected he did.

A few years later we found out that the boy’s mother was seriously ill and needed constant medical care. She was unable to care for the boy any longer. We were not young enough to take him and make a life for him (though I wished we were). Thankfully, other relatives of the right ages stepped in. But for me a plot began to form. What if a mother died leaving a child she’d had through artificial insemination with no one, no relative to claim him? And what if the clinic that had helped her to become pregnant had a policy of not revealing the sperm donor; what would happen?

That question then became: What would happen if a single mother were murdered and the man who did it wanted the child? Stalked the child. Got the child. What would the police have to go on?

At first I thought I would set the novel in New York (even though my Richard Christie series is completely set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), because the actual person who inspired the story lives in that city. I began researching Child Services in New York and learned quickly that it is a tough system, insisting on immediate foster care, no wiggle room. Hard on the child, but also hard on my novel’s plot. So why, I asked myself, could a woman not get pregnant at a fertility clinic in New York and live her life in Pittsburgh? Ah, I was back on home ground and it felt good.

I created a mother out of several people I’d known. I saw Maggie Brown as a woman who loved her kid, who was always tired (from holding down three jobs), an artistic type--a painter who was getting discouraged about painting something she really believed in. She often let her son, 7 years old, mess with computer games and video games because she didn’t have the energy to stop him. She never told him anything about his father (and the fact is, she knew almost nothing about him from the clinic). So both she and her son, Matt, are surprised one day when a man from her past approaches them in a supermarket parking lot, furious that she didn’t tell him he had a son. The boy witnesses the angry confrontation. He wants to know if the man is his father. His mother tells him the man is not. A few months later, she’s dead and Matt has no one.

I keep writing about “parentified” children--those children who need to be strong, adult before it is time, because they either have damaged parents or no parents. These parentified children have appeared in all my books to this point, but perhaps most memorably in The Odds (2009). In that novel, four children are living on their own, managing to get to school and to find food, because they do not want to be separated. They are the Philips kids--Meg, Laurie, Joel, and Susannah. And they are definitely adults before their time. A good number of people fell in love with them (as I had, as I had to do to write that novel) and asked me for more of them. But I couldn’t just force another story out of them. I wanted to visit them again … but how? Why? I found a way to bring them in for some scenes of A Measure of Blood. Who could be more sympathetic to bereft Matt Brown? Meg Philips knows how to talk to him. It was terrific fun to be able to bring her back.

(Right) Author Kathleen George

But my main team is still there. Commander Christie, his pal Detective Artie Dolan, his partner, Colleen Greer, and her lover, Detective John Potocki. And this case particularly shakes Christie. Seven years old, abandoned and parentified? He’s been there. He identifies. So he becomes overly involved in Matt’s case, trying to find him the perfect family. All the while he asks these questions: Who was Matt’s biological father? Who killed Matt’s mother? And are they the same person?

The couple Christie puts Matt with as hopeful adoptive parents have echoes of my husband and me. It’s easy to figure out the psychological connections in that invention! I made Jan Gabriel a theater director (as I have been) and she is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream (one of the Shakespeare plays I did not do) in the Charity Randall Theatre (where I spent much of my life). It was strange and wonderful to be able to bring in so much of my theater self to this novel. I set scenes in my office in the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt. And at the park across the street. And at the 7-Eleven down the street. And as things unfolded I had Jan do what I would have done to keep Matt safe. She cast him as the changeling child in the play so she could keep him near her.

But I know how those rehearsals are--people coming and going, the monomania of rehearsing. And Jan does not keep Matt safe. He’s gone. That’s the turning point of both the novel and of the boy’s life.

READ MORE:What Is Kathleen George Reading?” (Writers Read).
Aug 122013
 
(Editor’s note: This 45th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Evanston, Illinois, author Sam Reaves. A former president of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, he has worked as a translator and a teacher, and has published 10 novels thus far--half a dozen under his own name, and three others as “Dominic Martell.” Reaves’ most recent book is the neo-noir crime thriller Mean Town Blues (2008), but in the piece below he recalls his efforts in crafting a previous novel, Homicide 69, which was re-released last month in e-book form. You’ll find it offered by Amazon as well as by Smashwords.)

You never stop learning. In 1991 my first novel, A Long Cold Fall, was published by Putnam. It was a more or less hard-boiled tale about a Chicago cab driver, Cooper MacLeish, who gets involved in a murder investigation. It was set mostly in the Rogers Park neighborhood where I lived and there wasn’t a lot of police procedure or insider knowledge in the story. It was a decent first novel, but it wasn’t really a Chicago novel, in the sense that it could have taken place pretty much anywhere. I wrote three more books in that series, each one a little more connected to the city, a little more rooted in the conditions that make it a great setting for writing about crime. I was learning.

I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but when I published that first novel I’d lived there for more than 10 years, reading the papers and talking to people, and I thought I knew a lot about the city. I didn’t, really, but I knew enough to be getting on with. For that first book my research consisted largely of talking to a former Chicago Police Department (CPD) homicide detective, who’d been introduced to me by a mutual friend. We met over coffee and he was gentle with me; I could see the amusement in his eyes as the expanse of my ignorance became apparent to him. I mined the information he gave me for another couple of books’ worth of faked expertise.

I got distracted by other things for a while, writing very different books under a different name, but then in 1997 I came across a book in my local library that got me energized about Chicago stories again. The book was called The Enforcer, by William Roemer, formerly the head of the FBI’s organized-crime squad in Chicago, and it was a biography of Tony Spilotro, the Chicago hood who was sent out to Las Vegas in the 1970s to watch over things and made so much noise that he wound up getting whacked and then immortalized in a Nicholas Pileggi book and a Martin Scorsese film (1995’s Casino). Roemer had butted heads with Spilotro in Chicago early in his career, and though he wasn’t much of a prose stylist, he certainly had the goods on Spilotro and his Outfit pals. I’d been aware of Chicago’s entrenched organized-crime culture, of course, but had never really gotten interested in it as a source of fictional material. Now it hooked me. When I finished reading Roemer’s book I realized I had been sitting on an inexhaustible fount of inspiration for a crime writer.

I started reading everything I could find about the Outfit, and I started talking to people again. I networked and cold-called and went to meet people and listened as they tried to educate me. I plotted, researched, and produced a novel in eight months, the fastest I’ve ever worked. The novel was Dooley’s Back, the story of Frank Dooley, an ex-cop coming back to Chicago after a self-imposed exile to find that his former partner has a gambling problem and consequently a mob problem. That mob problem is the mainspring of the plot.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s mob problem had begun to seem to me like a potentially rich literary theme. You can’t understand Chicago without knowing its history as a wide-open frontier town that exploded into a major metropolis in a few short decades, entrenching a culture of corruption that endures to this day, though much attenuated by successful federal prosecutions. Chicago is considerably cleaner than it used to be, but it has been irrevocably shaped by the vice and corruption that lay at its heart from the beginning. And there’s a great deal of human drama in that.

Within a year I was working on a prequel to Dooley’s Back, a book on a larger scale. This one was a big-picture attempt to capture a whole era. Set in 1969, it featured Frank Dooley’s father, Mike, an old-school homicide dick working a mob-related murder case against the background of the rapid and traumatic social changes of the late ’60s.

I had gotten interested in the succession struggle that took place in the Outfit as Paul “The Waiter” Ricca and Tony Accardo got old and attempted to retire while leaving some kind of stable regime in place. No Ottoman palace or third-world dictatorship ever saw more intrigue and backstabbing. I fictionalized elements of the struggle and used them as the basis of the novel, entitled Homicide 69, in which I sought to capture the city’s culture of corruption at a moment of crisis.

To do that, I needed to speak with people who had been there. Networking again, I was put in touch with a retired CPD detective named John DiMaggio, who had seen and done just about everything over the course of his long police career. John turned out to be the best sort of informant a writer could have. He gave me reams of information about police procedures, circa 1969, reviewed my chapters as they were written, and provided insights drawn from a career spent confronting corruption within the police department.

Another contact of mine was Arthur Bilek, now the head of the Chicago Crime Commission, who modernized CPD training under reform superintendent O.W. Wilson in the early ’60s, before heading the Cook County Sheriff’s Police. In the latter position Bilek confronted Richard Cain, a mysterious figure who rose high in Chicago law enforcement--despite notorious mob ties--before dying in a high-profile hit in 1973. The fictionalized character of Cain is at the heart of the plot of Homicide 69. Over a memorable lunch one day, Art sketched out for me the labyrinthine connections between cops, politicians, and mobsters of that era, scrawling an intricate diagram on the paper mat covering the table that I wish I had had the sense to collect and keep.

It was a priceless education. The lesson for me as a writer was that you have to do your homework. My books got better as I learned more about the city I lived in, exploring its ethnic chemistry, geography, rivalries, tensions, and power relationships. You can make a lot of things up, but if you aspire to write fiction that will last, it has to be firmly rooted in reality. A real novel with a chance to transcend its genre conveys something true about people and their environment. And to accomplish that you can’t just sit at the desk and recycle ideas from other books. You have to go out into the real world and talk with people. It’s an education, and it has to be a continuing one.
Jul 122013
 
(Editor’s note: This 44th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Los Angeles-based freelance editor Elaine Ash, better known to crime-fiction readers as Anonymous-9. While helping David Cranmer launch the Webzine Beat to a Pulp back in 2008, Ash wrote short works of fiction, 11 of which were gathered into the 2011 e-book The 1st Short Story Collection. Her storytelling has earned her a variety of commendations, including Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Short Story on the Web Award in 2009, the 2012 Readers’ Choice Award from The House of Crime and Mystery, and a couple of Derringer Award nominations. With Cranmer, Ash edited Beat to a Pulp: Round One [2010]. She currently pens a blog, Ashedit, and is the author of Hard Bite, which New Pulp Press released in June, and about which she writes below.)

Why did I write this book, my book, Hard Bite? I ponder this while sitting in the smoldering ruins of my modest back-house rental (an illegal garage conversion; this is the new California). As smoke coils in the corners it occurs to me that I wrote Hard Bite because I had to. Because I’d be branded a dilettante and a failure if I didn’t. “Writer” is what I’ve always called myself, feeling a fraud but nevertheless categorizing myself with a label the world understands, and at some point you’ve just got to put up or shut up. Something readable must be produced. So I flung myself at the task like a spawning salmon braving the rapids, refusing all the paid work I could afford to turn away while researching and revising and obsessing ... until the barest minimum word count eked onto enough pages to qualify as a novel. Manuscript in hand, short though it was, I knew it could move faster. Fifteen thousand slow-moving words were excised and replaced with 10,000 words that moved, ripped, exploded, cried, and howled. Now I had something.

What’s the story behind the story? I formulate an answer while perspiring in the humid California gloom of June, glowing embers from the most recent fire illuming my one-room house here and there--never fear, a pan of water is at hand in case a fire flower blooms, and they do occasionally. ... Still, turning on the battered air conditioner isn’t an option, even though power is included in my meager rent. My writing desk is positioned too close to the A/C unit and cold air blows across my vulnerable neck while the rest of me threatens heat stroke. I live in this hovel because I write. Because I write, the book finally came. Gentle reader, is a picture coming clear?

I had an idea for a character and the voice of a character, and it was all good fun until I committed to writing the book full-length and discovered that I knew nothing about serial killers and police procedures, the Mexican Mafia, or “life on wheels,” as people in wheelchairs call it. Research was called for, and in Los Angeles every scruffy screenwriter has exhausted normal avenues for conducting it. Talking to cops, dropping by stations, going on jail tours--all that stuff is out-of-bounds to any L.A.-based writer with less than a three-picture deal with Paramount or at least a two-book deal with Random House and an agent at Trident. So I had to be inventive and sly and do things such as lie my way into the coroner’s office and pretend to wait for a friend with a freshly dead relative, so I could eavesdrop on the staff and catch snatches of phone conversations. I can’t tell you what else I did or the Fifth will have to be invoked ...

So why did I write this story? Because I had the voice of a paraplegic man in my head, and he was struggling for recognition, struggling to prove he was still a man who stood for something. Although Dean Drayhart’s body was damaged, his free will and sense of justice were unscathed. His voice was so strong that I needed to create a whole world for him to shout from. Dean pushed me on and on, stumbling through the dark, scrambling for research to flesh out the chalk outlines he drew in my head.

But back to the questions implied at the beginning of this essay: How did I come to be sitting in my own home while it burned? Who set the fire? What about 9-1-1? The answers lie in four simple steps to concocting noir fiction that came to me some years ago. I always employ them before writing anything that has to be good. Good and original. Not only good and original, but something more on top of that. An energy thing, a truth thing; a driven, raw quality that threatens to go off the rails at any moment but holds on by its fingernails as the plot twists and careens--BOOM! Perhaps sharing my helpful hints will solve the mystery ...


Author Anonymous-9, aka Elaine Ash

Step One: In solitude, I organize my writing area. In case the computer crashes or worse, distracts me, two pens are laid out, just in case. A pad of lined paper is also helpful.

Step Two: I set fire to the area. The room must get good and scorched--dousing too soon drowns the muse. Smoldering embers in a few places are OK--there’s nothing like the threat of combustion and smell of smoke to inspire a noirist.

Step Three: Sifting through the ashes of my possessions, I grab whatever material is left to write upon. I am prepared, if the computer and pens are destroyed, to open a vein and write with my own blood on the sooty wall--blood and grime contribute mightily to noir. Anything I write at this stage pulses on the page because it contains the four five essential elements of the genre: loss, pain, desperation, and the will to live. Let’s not forget a glimpse of mortality.

Step Four: These preparations have linked me in spirit to lions of the genre such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson--if not in talent and craft, then in willingness to reduce my life to ashes for the sake of art. Smoke swirls and I hold a cloth over my mouth as the three enemies of noir are banished from my consciousness: levelheadedness, dignity, and esteem. Reckless abandon courses through my veins. The computer is a charred lump, so I pick up a pen ...

And those, dear reader, are the conditions under which I wrote Hard Bite. Or at least it felt like those conditions. Every word here conveys a kind of truth. At this juncture you may feel some sympathy for me, even pity. Please save it for those who want it. Instead, click this link and read a few of the 43 rave reviews (mostly) for Hard Bite at Amazon.com. Perhaps you’ll then click the “Buy” button and acquaint yourself with the paraplegic Dean Drayhart and the characters who people his world. It’s a deal at $4.99 for digital, or splurge on a paperback for a trifle more.
Jun 242013
 
(Editor’s note: This 43rd entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Linda L. Richards, an author and resident of British Columbia, Canada, who also serves as the editor of January Magazine and contributes frequently to The Rap Sheet. In the essay below, she writes about Death Was in the Blood, her new, third novel in a succession of historical mysteries set in Los Angeles. It follows 2008’s Death Was the Other Woman and 2009’s Death Was in the Picture.)

I don’t remember participating in the creation of Kitty Pangborn.

I’ve talked about this before.

I was in a period of reading a great deal of classic noir fiction. More than my share. And amid all the drinking and testosterone-informed shenanigans, I began to see her there, at the edge of things. A voice of sense and sanity (a feminine one, of course) in a rough-edged world peopled by men who’d seen too much and had paid too high a cost in a war years past--one they still carried around with them, emblazoned on their souls.

Men like that, they’re good men, but broken sometimes. It can be as true now as it was then. We’re luckier now, at least some of the time. We have words for things; acronyms even. And we know that post-traumatic stress syndrome can do funny things to a soldier’s mind and heart. But during the first half of the 20th century? They didn’t have words for such problems back then. “He’s busted up inside,” someone might say. Or, “You mean that Theroux boy? He ain’t been right since he came back. There’s nothin’ wrong with him, you understand. But he ain’t been right at all.”

These men--these big-hearted yet shadowy and broken men--loom large in the work of some of my favorite wordsmiths. Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon, et al.) is racing from demons, I’m sure of it. We don’t really know that. Hammett never says, but one can imagine that Sam Spade’s story was influenced at least in part by Hammett’s own. Hammett had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1918 and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps until he contracted Spanish Flu and then later tuberculosis. Hammett lost his health to the military, and it seems entirely possible he lost more than that. And certainly, the detectives he later wrote about were broken in ways the author never clearly defined, but that we could sense, all the same. Lost boys, in a way. Lost in distant lands and never to find their way back, even when they made it all the way home.

So during all of this noir reading, I began to see that it was not possible for the lost boys peopling that field of fiction to actually be accomplishing what they seemed to be accomplishing. The drinking they were managing all on their own. The occasional womanizing, sure, they were doing all right with that. But, as people, it often seemed they were so shattered, it was unlikely they could keep businesses together. Yet there it was, in tale after tale: their name on the door. Phones ringing. Clients more or less standing in line.

When they were out of the office, though--drinking, or womanizing, or even out on a case--who was looking after things then? And who was keeping it all together, just running the day-to-day business?

I don’t even remembering what wild and crazy hat I pulled Katherine “Kitty” Pangborn out of. The name, I mean. And the girl, as well. Suddenly, she was just standing there, tidy threadbare office suit, sensible shoes, and all. I know she was somewhat inspired by Spade’s capable secretary, Effie Perrine. Effie, whom you had the feeling was young and even lovely, yet whose sister-like relationship with Sam was refreshingly free of that often-all-too-tiresome frisson that can muddy up the clearest noir waters.

Although the latest Kitty Pangborn novel, Death Was in the Blood, stands alone (as all my series books have done) and doesn’t rely on readers having enjoyed the books in sequence, I think it is a darker read than those that have gone before. Kitty herself is in a darker place. No longer just happy to have found a way to keep a roof over her head during America’s Great Depression, she’s thinking about her life and about what might have been, and discovering she’s not entirely happy with the result. For me, that’s one of the things that defines Death Was in the Blood most sharply. Meeting the beautiful and privileged client Flora Woodruff, an aristocratic young woman about Kitty’s own age, forces Kitty to examine her own life and the odd turns it’s taken since her father’s suicide led her to find a job working with Los Angeles private eye Dexter J. Theroux.

* * *

A lot of the action in Death Was in the Blood takes place against preparations for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. That was, in many ways, a ground-breaking Olympics. It took place at the height of the Depression and a number of countries pulled out because they simply couldn’t afford to send their teams on such a big trip. Less than half the number of participants of the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam competed in L.A. in 1932.

That competition in Los Angeles marked the first time in history that an Olympic village was built to house the athletes. It was apparently really fantastic, with dining halls and entertainment centers and even a screening room where the athletes could watch moving pictures of their performances from the day. (And nobody had iPhones, so it was a pretty big deal.) Movie stars would drop by every night and give impromptu shows (so L.A.!), but it was all for the men. The women athletes were housed in a hotel on Wilshire Boulevard and got left out of all the fun--though, in fairness, it should be said that 1,206 men competed, compared with only 126 women.

So all of this is known absolutely: we have first-hand accounts, we have photos and even film. What we don’t know exactly is where this village was, because it was dismantled right after the Olympics concluded and, near as anyone can tell, beyond one structure that ended up--and still stands--at the police academy in Elysian Park, the rest of that trailblazing 1932 Olympic village is gone without a trace.

(Left) Author Linda L. Richards

There is agreement that the village was located in the Baldwin Hills, but it might have been in the Blair Hills, an area that’s now actually part of Culver City. Or it might have been near Crenshaw and Vernon in the View Park area and, according to the Baldwin Hills Park Web site, “One account places the village in the Crenshaw or Angeles Mesa district, in the hills to the west of Crenshaw Boulevard south of Vernon Avenue. The roads Olympiad Drive and Athenian Way in this area commemorate its history.”

From that same source:
The village comprised between 500 and more than 600 two-room dwellings and included post and telegraph offices, an amphitheater, a hospital, a fire department, and a bank. The village was built on between 250 and 331 acres that was loaned by the heirs of the estate of Lucky Baldwin. The buildings were removed after the games.
This account is pretty consistent with what I found in other sources: references to developer and stock market speculator Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, who died in 1909 but whose fortune--by the early 1930s--was still largely intact. Mentions of the Olympic village being constructed at great cost during the Depression, then mysteriously disappearing right after the games.

But there are enough things not mentioned, or merely hinted at, that if you’re of a certain disposition, your mind fills in the blanks. The construction of a whole village during the Depression--one that needed to look good, yet not be required to stand the test of any significant amount of time? That would have been a plum contract. A multi-million-dollar contract, even in the dollars of the day. One worth killing over? Well, just wait and see.
Apr 302013
 
(Editor’s note: This 42nd entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series reintroduces us to Canadian author J. Robert Janes, who I was so privileged to interview last year. In the essay below, he writes about The Hunting Ground [Mysterious Press/Open Road], his new standalone thriller set during the German occupation of France during World War II.)

A year ago last January I had to undergo a very serious operation on my right eye and was told to keep my head down for at least 10 days. I managed 14, but what does someone who’s used to working every day of the week but Sundays do for all that time?

Out came the clipboard and the manuscript--there was, in retrospect, never any question of what I would work on during my convalescence. You see, The Hunting Ground has been with me ever since 1990, and has been through at least six or seven revisions during those years. It’s the book I first worked on after my thriller The Alice Factor was finally set to be published in 1991. Which was before I started writing Mayhem (1992), the opening number in my Jean-Louis St-Cyr/Hermann Kohler mystery series.

Head down, pencil in hand--for I always compose my stories in longhand and have for the past 43 years of full-time writing--I started in. And yes, I always use one of those rechargeable pencils: HB 0.5mm leads and no others. That first day, I worked for 12 hours straight and totally forgot myself.

Immediately, it all came back, all those doors that had opened in my imagination, opening again and again into Occupied France during the Second World War. Those 14 recovery days eventually stretched into six months of work on The Hunting Ground. And certainly, when I retyped the manuscript later on, I could have used both eyes, had they been working in sync and in focus. However, the operation was a terrific success and I am extremely lucky to have come through it so well.

In The Hunting Ground, Lily de St Germain (née Hollis) is a wife and mother who, in 1938 and living in what she has come to call a “château” on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest to the southeast of Paris, feels increasingly that she must take her children and leave before the threat of war reaches her doorstep. A chance meeting in Paris during the first exodus in September 1939 brings a man named Thomas Carrington into her life. He keeps coming back, but initially it’s not because of his interest in Lily, it’s because of something her son has found hidden--hidden by his papa, Lily’s unfaithful husband, for friends who are no friends of hers. Only when Tommy takes Lily and the children to England, does she discover that he’s an insurance investigator who works for a very old, well-established firm in London that underwrites the underwriters. But, of course, Lily’s husband steals their children back and she has to return to that “château.”

Always I am drawn into the story I’m telling and that, in itself, can be a very powerful thing. And of course, once done, one has to stand back and look at it all from a distance. Sure, some things you might not see even then, simply because you’ve been so close to the work for such a long time. But Lily, as the first-person narrator of this yarn, had--and still has--a lot of meaning for me because, in essence, she spoke of what was happening to so many others. Lots and lots of people just like her hoped never to be drawn into such a war or made victims of that war’s violence, and yet they were. Lily comes to see and live with the very changes war visits upon her, a mother with two children.

She also introduced me to the German occupation of France (1940-1944) and allowed me to open door after door into what is a truly remarkable period of history. And certainly, when I was working again on this novel last year, with a far greater understanding of the history than I had back in 1990, I could have included and dealt with other aspects I’ve come to understand since then. But I didn’t; I wanted the story to be as close as possible to the way I’d written it originally.

Becoming an active résistante, Lily goes on to work with Tommy and others in the search for and recovery of stolen works of art. However, she’s ultimately arrested and sent to the German concentration camps at Birkenau and then Bergen-Belsen, where the past and those recollections of Tommy and the others are all that really keep her going. Always, though, she blames herself for what happened. Finally freed in 1945, her recovery is uncertain. From a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, she begins sending little black pasteboard coffins to her husband and his friends, and also to one other person, all of whom think her dead and themselves released from any responsibility for what has happened. Telephone calls follow in which Lily tells each of those people that, while they may have been cleared by the Résistance, she’s coming home and they are to meet her at the “château.” But time, which for her, in the concentration camps, has been spent entirely in a memory-packed past, increasingly confronts her with the present, until both are one and the same. To achieve her ends, she’ll have to employ all of the survival skills she learned from the Résistance, as her husband--together with his friends, a Sûreté detective inspector, Gaetan Dupuis, and a former SS Obersturmführer, Ernst Johann Schiller--pursue her in what was once the hunting ground of kings: namely, Fontainebleau Forest.

I still vividly recall that after my first attempt at writing this historical and psychological thriller, I set my pencil aside and asked myself, “Hey, what about a good Sûreté officer in all of this Occupation? Of course, he’d need a German overseer, since everything else did in those days. I’d call him Hermann Kohler but make him only a detective inspector, since Jean-Louis St-Cyr, his French counterpart, was a chief inspector.”

The notion of writing a series attracted me. I knew, though, that if I were to tackle it properly, I had to keep on delivering new installments to bookstores. As a result, I set aside The Hunting Ground and concentrated on the wartime investigative adventures of St-Cyr and Kohler. Yet still, I found myself coming back repeatedly to the tense tale of Lily de St-Germain. Finally, I had that eye operation and those six months of concentrated work on the novel, and it all led to the publication this week of The Hunting Ground--23 years after I started writing the novel.

It’s only the first of two new books with my name on them. Tapestry, the 14th installment in my St-Cyr and Kohler series (following last year’s Bellringer), is due out from Mysterious Press/Open Road on June 4. And The Alice Factor is set to be released as an e-book, also from Mysterious Press/Open Road, on June 5.

So in a sense, for me as well as for Lily, the past has become the present.