Monday, October 30, 2006

Consider The Source

When I was learning to read, one of my teachers was Sidney J. Harris, a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. (His “Strictly Personal Prejudices” became “Strictly Personal” when the benign meaning of prejudice was forgotten.) Mr. Harris is the one who taught me “the purpose of a liberal education is to make your head a pleasant place in which to spend your leisure.”

Before discrimination became a dirty word it meant “to recognize a distinction or difference.” Discrimination implied that you knew enough about things to perceive differences. These days, it doesn’t seem to matter that you speak five languages or know the functions of the hippocampus, amygdala and nucleus acumbens. If you can’t summarize the latest episode of Survivor, discuss the most recent antics of Paris Hilton, or recite the win/loss average of leading sports teams you must be living in a cave. Too few distinguish between information that was derived from research and stuff heard on the “news” or read on the internet (or between information from the CDC site and “facts” gathered from their favorite list).

Many writers distrust Kirkus Reviews because the reviewers—however erudite—don’t put names to their opinions. Based on Kirkus reviews of my own work, the anonymous critics have quite different tastes. You have to read the book itself to know whether you will like it because until you read the book, you don’t know anything about the prejudice of the reviewer. (And all reviewers—all humans—have prejudices.)

Ebert and Roeper are trusted because--in their respective areas--they are masters, both are liberally educated in areas other than film, and they sign thier work. Even if you don’t agree with one of them, you can judge whether you will personally like a film based on what he says about it. (For instance, I don’t agree with Mr. Ebert that Apocalypse Now is one of the all-time greatest films, but I know his opinion wasn’t based on which side of the bed he got up on the day he screened it.) Mystery fans and writers don’t just prize a good review by Dick Adler or David Montgomery because they put their names to their opinions. Those of us who read them regularly know we can trust them to be informed and honest.

And good reviewers make you think even when they don’t convince you to agree.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Ernie Rizzo Has Left The Building. . .

by Sean Chercover

Ernie Rizzo, Chicago’s most famous private eye, died last Sunday of a heart ailment at the age of 64. (Tribune article, Sun Times article, New York Sun article)

You’ve seen Ernie Rizzo on television, talking with Phil Donahue or Geraldo Rivera or Bill O’Reilly or Paula Zahn, or… He was involved with so many high-profile cases (Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Yoko Ono, Michael Jordan, Henry Hyde, Helen Brach, the Wrigley family, the Walgreens family, Scott Peterson, R. Kelly, and on and on…) and was such a good self-promoter that he, too, became a celebrity.

I first met Ernie in 1991. I’d just earned my Illinois Blue Card and was eager to get started as a private detective. Ernie was generous with his time. He offered pointers, warned of pitfalls, and helped me get my start in the business.

One of the first things he told me was, (and I use quotes liberally here, since I’m quoting from memory) “Half of success in this business is selling the image to your clients. A lot of these lawyers, they sit behind desks all day, and they get off on hanging out with a private eye, living your stories vicariously. You gotta be good at what you do – that’s number one – but you also gotta sell the image.”

He was right, of course. The thing is, Ernie was so good at “selling the image,” a lot of people never saw anything else in him. But some of the lawyers he worked with regularly did, and what they saw was a creative thinker, an incredibly smart detective who craved attention, had a problem with authority, and could look right into people and read the motivations behind their public masks.

Ernie hated hypocrisy, especially in society’s most powerful. He was proud of his skills and his success, and he loved to win, but he never put on airs. He was the smart kid from Taylor Street who made good without going corporate.

Raymond Chandler wrote, “…down these mean streets a man must go who himself is not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…” Ernie may have been tarnished, but he wasn’t mean and he wasn’t afraid. Two out of three ain’t bad.

Later, after I moved to New Orleans, I called him for advice, and he delivered. But after I left the business, we fell out of touch, as people often do.

Earlier this year, I made contact again, and we got together for drinks. We met on Rush Street and you should’ve seen him. White linen suit, gold and diamonds, and he was working the crowd like a pro. People calling out his name, and Ernie pressing the flesh and flashing smiles. Everybody knew him and he knew everybody. At Tavern On Rush, we were escorted to the roped-off VIP section, where we caught each other up on our lives. People stopped by the table to shake his hand and say hello and offer their respect.

The next time we got together, I gave Ernie the manuscript of Big City, Bad Blood. I hoped he’d get a kick out of it, and he did. He even gave me a really nice blurb for the cover.

After that, we talked a lot on the phone. Ernie had all the best stories, and he could talk for hours. He was entertaining as hell.

Then one day, he asked if I’d co-write his autobiography. It took me about half-a-second to say yes.

The last time I saw Ernie Rizzo was couple of months ago. We had breakfast together at a Denny’s in Schaumburg. Ernie pulled up in a little yellow sports car. As it had for years, his license plate on the new car read, “I SPY.” Selling the image.

I don’t know if he knew at the time that he had a heart condition, but from his choice of breakfast food, I’d have to guess he didn’t know yet. We talked some more about his autobiography, about his belief in coincidence, about the lessons he’d learned in 40 years of detective work. He talked about his daughter Tracy, of whom he was enormously proud, and about her career as a lawyer. Just as we were wrapping up, his cell phone rang out the theme from The Godfather. It was Fox, asking him to do a noon television interview.

And off he went, in that little yellow sports car with the “I SPY” plates. Off to sell the image some more.

Ernie Rizzo has left the building. And Chicago is a less colorful place for his departure.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Vote Early and Often

Voting used to be an orderly process. People never got too riled up about elections. There were usually two candidates, neither all that different from the other. Occasionally, there was a third candidate, but he was a lot like the other two. People went to the polls, voted, and the candidate with the most votes won.

2000 changed all that. After Bush was appointed president, there was an outcry and chorus about the optical scanners and other electronic voting machines that facilitated his “victory.” You’d hear people saying “It’s the optical scanner systems, stupid.” There was a lot of talk about reforming the way we vote, cleaning it up, making it transparent, incapable of sabotage. Now, 6 years later, after another national election, on the eve of yet another, it’s time to ask, “What happened?”

The answer, unfortunately, is: Not much.

Report after report proves that these machines, as well as other electronic voting systems, just don’t work. And that if they do, the people who operate them aren’t trained properly, making them dangerously error-prone. Even the staid Chicago Tribune
is worried. In fact, just Google "voting irregularities, optical scanners.” for more lurid details.

According to the consensus, optical scanners are easily hacked, manipulated, and contaminated. And many of them don’t generate a paper trail so we can figure out if and how they’ve been hacked, manipulated, and contaminated. Bottom line? Never has the potential for vote fraud been so massive as it is today. And that doesn’t even start to address the fact that the CEO of the company that makes many of the machines (Diebold) is a significant Republican contributor committed to Bush.

Seems to me if there’s anything we hold sacred these days (and I realize there’s not much) it should be our ability to vote and believe it might make a difference. Granted, stuffing the ballot box is not a new-fangled thing. In fact, Chicago has a rich tradition of it. (Quick: who coined the phrase “Vote Early and Often?”)*

But after the Florida nightmare in 2000 and the debacle in Ohio in 2004, I’m afraid we’ve become so inured to systemic corruption that we’ve become cynical and apathetic. We just assume the fix is in-- and we don’t bother to challenge it.

Well, we have another chance in less than two weeks. The pundits all say a sea change is coming. Is it? What should we do if it doesn’t? What if, for some unexplained reason, some of the Republicans who are expected to lose end up winning? Do we just say the media was overreaching? The polls were wrong? The issues people care about were “Republican issues” after all?

Or do we ask the hard questions: Who did the counting? How did they do it? Who trained them and how? And where’s the paper trail? I, for one, would sure like to know those answers. I’d like to know the “chain of custody” with the process. How the votes get transferred to a central collection point. Who enters the data. Who pushes the buttons, and which buttons they push.

Of course, we could simply eschew the exercise of voting altogether. We can always watch it on TV. Hey -- we could even let Paula, Simon and the rest of the gang decide who our next American Idol should be.

Come to think of it, we might already be doing something tantamount to that when we depend on optical scanners to tally our votes.

I think it should be an interesting evening. What do you think?

(By the way, David Skibbins, a fine mystery writer, has a book coming out in 2008 about how a Presidential election is manipulated through optical scanners. He’s calling it Hardened. Timely, no?)

*Answer: Big Bill Thompson, Chicago mayor, 1915-1931 (more or less)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Judy Baar Topinka: Apply Directly To the Forehead

I don't think I need to remind American readers of this blog (or Chicagoans) that there's an election coming up, but every year I'm always surprised at the number of my friends--intelligent, engaged, caring friends--who don't vote. Barack Obama was on Oprah last week and he referred to the famous quote by Justice Brandeis: "The most important political office is that of the private citizen." That's worth remembering now.

(Obama also mentioned that he turned down an offer from Oprah to travel with her to Africa on her private jet. He did this for sound ethical reasons but as a citizen of Illinois I'd like to suggest that the state legislature pass a law prohibiting Oprah and Senator Obama from flying together on the same plane. Seriously, now that Michael Jordan is basically gone, the celebrity pickings around here are pretty slim.)

Here's another idea. Pass a law that says if 75% of eligible voters don't go to the polls, the election is invalid and will have to be held again in one month. This will mean another 30 days of condescending, mind-eroding, profoundly annoying campaign ads. I suspect the conversations at the local tavern will then go something like this:

BILL: Hey, Pally. Who'd you vote for today?

PALLY: Oh I didn't vote. I had to drop off my--[Persmackety! Persmackety! Persmackety!]

(Where "persmackety" is the sound of Bill punching Pally repeatedly in the face.)

Anyway, I think it's time for a contest and because I'm lazy I'm going to adapt a quiz I devised years ago when, under another name, I was the puzzlemaster at McSweeney's.

On Friday, I received my ballot for the Mystery Writers of America and every single candidate is running unopposed. Now that is a neighborly organization. But let's imagine a competitive election with suspense writers and their running mates. And suppose, as part of their campaigns, the candidates had to make up colorful signs to display in the yards and windows of their supporters. Now if their names were long, they would have to be printed in very small letters. This would put those candidates at a disadvantage. It would be much better if the first name of the number two guy shared a few letters with the last name of the number one. We might, for example, have:

"J.A. KonraThomas Harris"


"Sara ParetsKyle Mills"

Below, you will find the first two letters of the first name of potential candidates, and the last two letters of the last names of their potential running mates. Fill in the blank to reveal the name of the complete ticket.

Rules in this edition of the contest require all candidates and their running mates to be published mystery or suspense or thriller authors. They do not require, however, that the candidates be living, or even for the candidates to have been on this earth at the same time. The names of candidates and their running mates must share at least two letters. In some cases there may be more than one correct answer. All verifiable answers will be considered.

Any time you have an original answer to any of the questions below (that is, one that hasn't been proposed by someone else), enter it in the comments along with your name. You will be entered in the drawing once for every legit answer you give. Anonymous entries will be disregarded. My answers do not include any obscure authors but yours might, so include book titles for verification.

The winner will receive a signed copy of A CHICAGO TAVERN, Rick Kogan's terrific history of the Billy Goat (discussed here last week), as well as a Sixteen Straight t-shirt (celebrating the Bears march to an undefeated season), and, since I have them lying around, a signed copy of my novel CAST OF SHADOWS.

All entries received before Midnight on Wednesday, October 25 will be eligible. The winner will be announced in these comments on Thursday.

Good luck. And please, please, please, don't forget to vote when it really counts.

1. Da_______________en
2. Su_______________an
3. Ja_______________ry
4. Jo_______________ut
5. Do_______________ow
6. St _______________en
7. Ph_______________in

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I, the jury..and judge

Fury said to a mouse
That he met in a house,
“Let us both go to law;
I will prosecute you.—
Come, I’ll take no denial;
We must have a trial’
For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.”
Said the mouse to the cur,
“Such a trial, dear Sir,
With no jury or judge
Would be wasting our breath.”
“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,”
Said cunning old Fury;
“I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.”

Lewis Carroll’s cur is apparently now the model for the American judicial system. On October 18, George Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act. The act allows the president to decide what is torture and when to use it. It allows him to decide who is an illegal enemy combatant, whether that person is a U.S. citizen or not. If someone is so designated, they can be held without charge, without trial, without recourse. The law overrides the principle of Habeas Corpus which dates back to the Magna Carta. The allows the CIA to continue to send prisoners to secret prisons abroad.

I know this is a blog of crime writers, writing about crime fiction, but I don’t know a more sickening crime than for Americans in the highest positions of power to commit torture and to claim that it is their moral and legal right to do so.

I’ve recently returned from a publicity tour of Scandinavia, where my recent novel Fire Sale was published in translation. While I was there, 40,000 Hungarians—out of a population of 10 million—stood outside their president’s house in silent protest because he had lied about the economy to get elected. In almost every press interview I gave, journalists didn’t have any questions about my work, my deathless prose or my characters, or about me. They wanted to know why Americans weren’t in the streets, or some place, protesting what has been done in our names. They weren’t asking in an aggressive, or censorious way; they were asking out of anguish, because we are so powerful, and what we do affects the whole world.

I didn’t have an easy, or very good answer. I told them that many Americans are protesting, but there isn't an institution, either in media or government, that carries enough weight and enough visibility for the protests to be heard, and for them to make a difference.

How many people objected when the president and his attorney general and secretary of defense decided to contravene the Geneva Convention? How many people protested our abandoning the millennium-old writ of Habeas Corpus, or abandoning the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure of our homes and persons? How many people protested going to war, before Iraq became the debacle that it is?

The answer is that many did so, but consolidation of TV, radio and newspapers into a few conglomerates, controlled by people who are uninterested in anything except further aggrandizing their already vast fortunes, has meant that our protests are like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. These media giants have a vested stake in the government, which has given them many favors, in terms of bandwidths and frequencies, as well as bending anti-trust laws to allow both vertical and horizontal integeration; they don't often show serious protests in depth. (100,000 people were in Washington to protest Bush's first inauguration, but not even the New York Times reported this. I learned about it from an indie journalist who was there.)

I came home to find that the Chicago Tribune Corporation has just fired the publisher of the LA Times because he refused to fire more reporters. Today, NBC announced draconian cuts to its news staff. Basically, media companies have cut their reporting staffs in half, across the country, because that boosts their corporate share prices. The net result is an inability to do in-depth reporting, which means that our population gets less and less information, but more and more entertainment pretending to be news. And an uninformed, under-educated population cannot support a democracy—the ill-informed become easy prey for demagogues.

What should we be doing, we readers and writers, at such a time? If you have a suggestion, I very much need to hear it.

Sara Paretsky

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Half this game is ninety percent mental." --Danny Ozark

“Half this game is ninety percent mental.” --attributed to Danny Ozark, 1973-79 manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

A novel is a kind of game between the reader and the writer. The reader knows the story isn’t true, and even realizes that the writer is holding back, dribbling out little bits of backstory, hints and clues, tidbits promising more insider gossip and revelations ahead. This is most true in the case of crimes novels, when the reader knows perfectly well the writer knows whodunit or how it comes out. The reader puts up with this benevolent deception as long as he or she remains interested. The writer strings the reader along, like playing a gamefish, and hopes the reader doesn’t throw the hook. Yes, the game is ninety percent mental.

Which brings me to this: what does the writer do to keep the reader turning pages?

The classic sources of narrative drive or tension are these:

Somebody is going to be killed.

Somebody has been killed and a friend or authority wants justice.

Somebody has been killed and the wrong person is being blamed.

An evildoer will continue to get away with his evil doings.

A selfish person will continue to victimize others.

A scam will succeed [or fail.] Think of all the wonderful Topkapi-style heists in which, law-abiding as you may be, you root for the crook.

The planet, country, city, or village is facing disaster. It’s The Satan Bug, over and over again.

Justice is being methodically thwarted.

Something impossible has happened. Think of the wonderful locked room murders from the thirties and forties.

X is losing Y’s love for a bad reason.

X is gaining Y’s love for an evil reason.

Last, rare, and very hard for an author to accomplish: A desire on the part of the reader to spend more time in the company of a character or characters. Most often, this works in humorous mysteries. Think Janet Evanovitch.

The love elements in crime novels are ubiquitous, but mostly used as sub-plots. One or more of the others must be central To the extent that an author can keep the reader involved in the outcome of one of these sources of tension, there will be narrative drive. A vector, an arc--what’s going to happen next?

And that’s the important thing. Pretend you are reading your book and don’t know what’s coming. Very difficult, but try. Ask yourself what does the reader hope? What does the reader fear? If you come on a page or scene where the reader neither hopes nor fears anything in particular—kill it.

Barbara D’Amato

Monday, October 16, 2006

Shivers and Hope

by Marcus Sakey

I was on a panel the other day where my friend J.A. Konrath told the audience, a group of frightened-looking Columbia College students, about his experience judging a short story competition. Over the course of reading something like 2,000 of the suckers, he learned that there were certain trends, certain clues, that told him very early on whether a story had potential or not. The biggest, of course, being the first sentence.

Not news to any of us who write, but it got me thinking, sent me to my bookshelf, pulling favorites both litfic and genre.

Here are a few of genre selections:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Neuromancer, William Gibson

“My earliest memories involve fire.”
A Drink Before The War, Dennis Lehane

“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner.”
Killing Floor, Lee Child

Yowzer. Talk about humbling: graceful, taut, and intriguing as hell. Gibson shatters the old axiom of not starting with weather; Lehane introduces a thematic thread that runs throughout the book; Child throws you in the action. All three make it near impossible to put the book down.

Or try this one, from Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys. Besides being grabby as hell, it’s a litmus test—if you don’t like this sentence, stop reading, son, because it’s only going to get rougher:

“Three men at McAlester State Penitentiary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figuring, hardly human at all.”

The litfic sentences tended to be less shocking, less action-oriented, but no less effective:

“A screaming comes across the sky.”
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

“In the later years, holding forth to an interviewer or an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Michael Chabon

“At this point in the story, Packard had never fallen in love, and didn’t trust what he’d heard of the lingo (forever, my darling, with all my heart, till the end of time, more than life itself, with every fiber of my being, oh my darling Clementine, etc.).”
Train, Pete Dexter

Fewer guns, fewer penises, but I wasn’t able to put any of them down either.

So what is it that makes a first line work? Well, obviously, they grab your attention. That’s a good idea whether you’re writing the Great American Novel or an email to your boss. Whether you do it with the histrionics of a screaming four-year-old or the subtlety of a glance across a dim-lit room depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. This isn’t a genre distinction, either; plenty of crime novels go subtle, while plenty of litfic hits with a heavy hand.

But I think that the best first lines do more than grab attention. Working at their highest level, a first line encapsulates the whole feel of a book. It’s like a trailer for a movie. A good trailer teases; it flirts, giving you touches and hope, flashing stolen glimpses of a world worth losing yourself in.

The best first lines are the same.

Not easily accomplished, certainly, and done wrong more often than it’s done right. But when it works, man, it’s magic.

One more example, of one of my all-time, top-five, desert-island faves:

"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."
The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley

Gives me shivers.

Which ones give you shivers?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Paranoia comes with the territory

It’s hard to read a newspaper or watch the nightly news without coming up with a story idea. Not that I need more. I have five novels in progress and a drawer full of files labeled, “story ideas.” It’s not that every story in the paper is a crime story, either. It’s just that writing crime fiction lends itself to developing a criminal mindset. Read an article on the value of certain native hardwood trees, you immediately think TREE RUSTLERS. Read about a genetically engineered hypoallergenic cat, you think PEOPLE WITH ALLERGIES WOULD KILL FOR ONE OF THOSE. Even a seemingly innocuous item—like the pay and go device offered by some credit card companies—leads to criminal speculation. They’re supposed to save time and make life easier, but you think, Oh yeah? What happens when that instant pay-pass device gets lost or stolen? Could you steal someone's information by brushing her purse or his pocket with a reading device? Or frame someone by surreptitiously borrowing his swipe-and-go and using it at the scene of a crime? (So maybe I have watched too many episodes of Law and Order.)

Our information-age society facilitates crime. Pfishing scammers prey on the naive, spammers on the desperate. Want to learn how professional criminals do it? Just go online. YouTube has videos that give step-by-step instructions on how to make and use dandy stuff--like burglary tools. They even offer safety warnings—always be careful to wear eye protection when you’re grinding the hacksaw blade to make your lock-picks.

Once your mind starts moving in a criminal direction, everything suggests nefarious possibilities. Just bought a house? You start wondering if the lady from the title company was from a real company. Have you ever asked for IDs at a closing? After all, anyone with a computer and a half-decent printer can fake documents. And if you're buying a car from a newspaper ad, how do you know it wasn’t stolen?

Not long after I moved into my condo, I received a census survey that was originally sent to the previous tenant. She didn’t respond, so the census people transferred their attention to me. Their survey asked all kinds of nosey questions—like how much money do you make? (And it wasn’t even a census year.) When I filed the survey in my circular file, they sent someone to my building to tell the doorman to have me call them. (These people don’t give up easily.) How hard would it be to send people a fake census form? Or just tell their doorman to have them call your (prepaid, untraceable cell phone) number with their census data?

Although the census bureau doesn’t release individual forms for 75 years, they disseminate composite data as soon as they compile it—free. On the internet. And the newspaper lists who sold what property to whom and for what, the assessed value, and the taxes. Handy internet satellite-picture sites let you zoom in on individual properties.

Since Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered in 1989, drivers license information has been restricted in most states, but if you don't mind breaking the law you can get people’s driving records from the Secretary of State's Office on-line for $30. Judging by the solicitations I‘ve received—the Secretary of State also distributes car registration information to insurance companies and warranty resellers; the county clerk gives voter lists to political parties.

And for a modest fee, websites like offer access to--among other things--genealogy info; birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, and death, records; military and naturalization records; obituaries; probate records; estate records; real estate records; corporate filings; federal court dockets; civil, criminal, district, and superior court filings; credit reports; small claims records; bankruptcies; judgment files; lien records; identity thefts; voter registrations; IP addresses; unlisted phone numbers; DMV records; driving records; drivers license files; reverse license plates; reverse phone lookups; warrant files; police records; DUI files; juvenile files; criminal files and indictments; arrest records and felony arrests; sentencing files; correctional files; parole records; sex offenders; and an inmate locator.

When you know about scams and swindles, you get crazy if your credit card or bank statement is late. Never mind that the logical explanation is the Post Office is delivering your mail by way of Sydney, Australia. Once you know that banks and credit card companies keep serious rip-offs out of the news, you’re sure your mail’s been waylaid as soon as it’s overdue. The scary world we live in is all the more so if you’re hip to the criminal opportunities.

But the upside for crime writers—if you can live with the paranoia—is that the story possibilities are endless.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Get Out There And Circulate...

by Sean Chercover

Okay, so I’m drinking at the Billy Goat Tavern a few days ago. Sitting at the bar. A college football game is on TV. Nick is behind the stick, smoking a cheap cigar and telling me all about his strategy for betting football. The spread will kill you over time, so don’t mess with the spread. Always bet the over/under. Total points on tonight’s game is 38, and Nick has taken the over. Before the evening is out, he will win his bet.

Not a lot of tourists in the place tonight, and the tourists usually sit at the tables anyway. On any given night, sitting at the bar, you’ll meet newspaper reporters, lawyers, union heavies, cops, teachers, and even the occasional politician.

An interesting mix of people tonight, and the conversation turns to corruption in local politics (a popular subject in bars across Chicago, and here at The Outfit). Tonight at the Billy Goat, we’ve got reformers and status quo-ers, and everybody’s got a story to tell.

The point is, if you write crime fiction and your idea of research is sitting at your computer surfing the Internet, you’re missing out.

I recently heard a mystery writer (who I suspect writes about crime-solving cats, or at least includes recipes and knitting patterns in her books) say, “All these books full of foul-mouthed policemen aren’t actually realistic at all. I’ve been on three ride-alongs with the police and never once heard a profanity.” Right. Going on ride-alongs with cops is worthwhile, but keep in mind that the cops are on a PR assignment.

The fact that I used to work as a private investigator doesn’t mean I can write my name in the dirt with a stick. But it allowed me to experience subcultures that tend to be closed to outsiders (including writers who show up, notebooks in hand, on research assignments).

I’m not advocating such extreme measures for all writers of crime fiction. Chandler was never a detective. Hammett was. Did that make Chandler an inferior writer? Nope. You don’t have to work as a detective to write about detectives, any more than you have to rob a bank to write about bank robbers.

But if you want to write about cops and politicians and bad guys (some of whom may be cops and politicians), then it wouldn’t hurt to at least meet a few. And meet them in their natural habitat.

Which brings us back to the Billy Goat. Chicago is blessed with multitudes of these ‘water cooler’ joints. But whatever city you live in, there are bars and diners and pool halls and cigar shops and bowling alleys and barbershops that serve as community water coolers.

Hang around and keep your ears open, and you’ll soon know which joints cater to which subcultures. It’s far easier than putting in time working as a cop, or a bank robber. And you’ll reap benefits that you just can’t get by surfing websites.

So take some time away from the computer, get out there and circulate.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Prodigal Wordsmith: Coming Back to Words

I’m sorry that the new film of All The King’s Men didn’t get better reviews. Especially since I think it’s one of the best American novels ever written. So I’m sorry.

But I’m not surprised. The process of making a film – whether from a novel, a short story, a song-- anything, for that matter -- is fractious. It’s a process through which the end result, with rare exceptions, often bears little resemblance to the original.

I know that, because before I wrote novels, I made films. I spent over 25 years producing news, documentaries, and then industrials. Don’t get me wrong. I loved making films. In fact, while pursuing a graduate degree at NYU, I thought I might become the Lina Wertmuller of the US (okay, I’m dating myself).
And when I started working in network news, I had visions of becoming the female Edward R Murrow.

It doesn’t matter that my fantasies exceeded my grasp. I love telling stories visually. I love the joy of a beautiful pan, a crisp close-up of an actor’s face, Most of all, I love the magic of editing-- when you cut and shape a scene, and – by god – it works!

To this day, I still get a little thrill every time I’m in a theater and the lights dim, the curtains sweep apart (well, maybe not so much now) and the projector clicks on, signaling an escape from this world for a few hours. It’s a wonderful outlet for emotions, as well… and I’m a sucker. I cry early and often. In fact, the protagonist of my series is a documentary producer. And I’d love someone (other than me) to turn those books into films.

Despite all that, I’ve come back to words. The problem is that the filmmaking process is by nature collaborative, and each collaborator seeks to put his or her stamp on the process. If it’s not controlled by a strong director, the result can be a mess. Before production, scripts can be rewritten each time the “product” changes hands or a higher level production executive comes on board. Then there’s the director, the art director, the cinematographer, the costume designer, the actors, each of whom might have a different vision for the film. Once photography is complete, there’s the editor, the sound mixers, and the special effects team, all of whom can alter the film in significant ways.

Which is why I came back to words. Writing is still a solitary activity. But it’s my solitary activity. Sure, my agent and editor make comments, but they are careful to label their advice as “suggestions.” I like that. I also love the fact that in writing, I have five senses to explore, not just sight and sound. Both prose and film have their own rhythm and pace, but prose allows a reader to set the pace. We can dawdle over each word and idea, reread passages (as Kevin and Laura pointed out yesterday), or hurtle ahead to the next page. We are not held captive to an external, manufactured pace.

And then there’s that thing called imagination. While I love watching someone else’s interpretation of a character or a location on film, as a writer I trust my reader’s imagination to conjure up an image. It’s up to me to select the details that I think are important, but the end result will be the reader’s choice, and I love the fact that one reader may end up with one image of a person or place, while another will have a very different one.

Reading… and writing… takes more time. And it requires more energy. And that is one of the problems. We either don’t have the time or choose not invest the time to read. Or write. It’s quicker to snap on the tube, rent a DVD, or click on a link. In fact, it’s frightening how swiftly and quickly the number of people who read fiction has declined. But then, that issue – and what to do about it -- is a different blog.

What do you think? Which do you prefer – film or prose?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Even Though I Can't Explain It I Already Know How Great It Is

Fifteen years ago my buddy Jim Coudal was staying at The Tropicana and he got on an elevator with some guys who were in Vegas attending a shoe convention. For several floors Jim eavesdropped on their foreign-sounding shop talk--wrap-ups and ten-bennies and knockdowns and books--and finally one of them said to the other, "Oh, that Florsheim 860 is a good shoe. I could sell that shoe even if the heel was on the front."

Ed Champion was at a convention recently. Ed is a litblogger who doesn't normally cover the suspense beat, at least not closely, but he went to Madison last week to observe Bouchercon as an outsider. I think that's what he was doing. Maybe he had another reason for being there, I'm not sure.

Bouchercon, if you don't know, is the annual mystery writers convention and it's basically a social and professional networking opportunity for writers and aspiring writers and hardcore mystery fans. (I explain this because I didn't know what Bouchercon was until I was out on my first book tour and was told by my publisher that I had been booked on a panel.) So Ed flies from San Francisco to Madison and he pokes around a little bit and it doesn't sound like he had much fun. Then at least one person he tries to talk to about "experimental" mystery fiction is inexcusably rude to him, and that plus a conversation he overhears between two strangers in a coffee shop causes him to conclude that Bouchercon is "a colossal joke."

Okay, fine. Ed is making some hasty generalizations and later he begs the question when he tries to use his Madison experience to explain why "the genre isn't taken seriously" and why mystery fans are "pilloried at home" without providing evidence that either of these statements is true. (His only attempt to establish this is to speculate why newspapers don't cover the event, but this isn't an industry convention like BEA, and guild conventions aren't exactly a staple of daily lifestyle sections. The sci-fi and comic cons you hear about are much more fan-oriented than Bouchercon and the only reason the dailies sometimes cover those is to get pics of all the dentists dressed up like jawas.)

But I don't bring this up just to nitpick the logic of Ed's post and I certainly don't bring it up to get people all frothy over his comments. Bouchercon can be great fun (and it's an important venue for building relationships with other authors) but even writers are ambivalent about how many books it sells. In fact Ed's impressions are pretty much what you'd expect. To a person with little or no interest in the subject, any convention probably should seem uncomfortable and pointless. Like a shoe with the heel on the front.

The reason I bring this up is because the question Ed posed to this unnamed and unmannered Bouchercon attendee is an interesting one, and it's too bad Ed didn't get the discussion it deserved. Since the writers and readers who congregate at this site are like a mini-Bouchercon of sorts, I thought I'd bring it up here.

Specifically, Ed wanted to know if there are "any mystery novelists, outside of James Ellroy, who might employ an experimental style?" I talked a little about this in the comments of Ed's post but I'd like to expand on it a little.

Genre distinctions are a primitive version of the algorithm that provides Amazon and Netflix and Tivo recommendations. If you like Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly then you might like John Sandford and Jeffrey Deaver. Or whatever. They can be helpful to certain readers who, for better or worse, want to narrow the field of possibilities for their next read. To qualify as genre a book has to meet a certain set of reader expectations. If it doesn't, then it's probably not a good recommendation for them.

So a writer who does much experimenting with the conventions of genre is probably no longer writing genre. A guy like Mark Danielewski used many horror staples to write HOUSE OF LEAVES, but HOUSE OF LEAVES isn't really a horror novel. David Mitchell riffed on a half-dozen different genres in his brilliant CLOUD ATLAS, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to fans of, say, Patrick O'Brian. Everywhere I go I tout the work of Walker Percy. Each of his later books was a genre novel on the surface--a thriller, a southern gothic romance, a dystopian sci-fi satire--but few would suggest Percy is a genre writer.

Most stores shelve CAST OF SHADOWS in the mystery section but I've gotten an earful from a few mystery fans because my book doesn't have a clearly defined hero and because, in the end, good doesn't necessarily triumph over evil. I like that kind of ambiguity in stories, but I also understand that not everybody does.

Nevertheless, the framework of the mystery is certainly flexible enough that it allows for boundless creativity (and I would even argue that some restrictions are necessary to produce great art, but that's a post for another day). There are plenty of writers who still meet certain expectations of the mystery reader while creating characters and stories and structures that are original and unexpected. Ed mentioned Ellroy. Another poster talked about Pete Dexter. I added John Burdett and Michael Gruber and Henning Mankell--all of whom write series procedurals about police detectives but with a real freshness, I think.

Stephen White has written 14 installments of his bestselling Alan Gregory series, but in his last one, KILL ME, Gregory is only a minor character. That was no doubt a risk for White who must have worried how his longtime fans would react, and while I have no idea how sales were for that book compared to previous ones, I think KILL ME is one of the very best in the series.

Experimental? Not in the way Ed was suggesting, I don't think. But I know it's a good book.

I would bet almost everyone here has read more books within the genre than me. Is there a suspense writer you'd call a real experimenter?

Monday, October 02, 2006


One. I’d better get the first chapter absolutely perfect before I go on.
You hear it said that the first chapter of a book is the most important chapter, the first page is the most important page, the first sentence the most important sentence. True. An editor may not read beyond a few pages. But you will never finish if you don’t get past the beginning. And the rest of the book will inform changes that you will later want to make to the opening. Move ahead. I’ve had one or two friends over the last many years who got stuck on perfecting the first chapter. They finally gave up writing.

Two. If I use up all my ideas in this book, I won’t have any left.
Not true. Ideas breed ideas. You will have more later. In any case, you have to make the book you are working on the best it can possibly be.

Three. Maybe somebody else has written the same thing.
It won’t happen. Some years ago I gave a class three pieces of information about the first chapter of a book – the central character, the setting, and the premise. I asked them to write the first page. Their pages were all very different.

Four. How do I know if it’s interesting?
If it’s interesting to you, you are going to be able to make it interesting to the reader. If it’s not interesting to you, forget it.

Five. I’ll wait for inspiration, and then write twenty or thirty pages at a crack.
Maybe you can. Most writers can’t. You are better off treating writing as you would an important job, which it is. Set a doable number of pages to write every day, and then write them.

Six. The people who get books published are real writers, not ordinary people like me.
Real writers are exactly like you. You may not start out writing publishable material, but if you keep at it, you can do it. I believe that people are not born knowing how to write a book. They learn how. Work at it.

Seven. I’ll just get it good enough. The editor can fix it.
No he won’t.

My own devils have always been numbers four and six. But most of us have some of these problems. Being aware of them can help the struggle to overcome them.

Barbara D’Amato