Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brian Garfield on Words and Writing

In 1973, Brian Garfield published his "Ten Rules for Suspense Fiction" in Writer's Digest. John Grisham famously claimed that he used Garfield's advice as the foundation for The Firm. The full article is available at The Big Thrill, but below I have posted Garfield's last two rules which made the biggest impression on me.

I like that Garfield says, "There is no such thing as a dead genre because the human imagination is limitless." The heritage of genre can, at times, seem intimidating (at least to me), but Garfield reminds that even within established forms there are always new alleys to walk down. Prime examples within Garfield's own work include his innovative take on the kidnapping plot in What of Terry Conniston?, the Navajo Highway Patrolman Sam Watchman in Relentless and The Threepersons Hunt, and the Western revenge-picaresque in Tripwire.

The other point that Garfield makes which I like is: "Don't write into a genre for which you have contempt...If you thoroughly enjoy sea stories --- even if you don't know a thing about nautical life --- you're better off attempting to write a sea story because you'll go into it with enthusiasm." It might be obvious, but sometimes we forget the obvious things. As I gear up to write some new stories this summer, this advice is going to be important for me.

And now, on with Garfield's words of wisdom:
Don't rush in where angels fear to tread.

I admit this one is a catchall. Essentially I mean that it is wise to observe not only what the pros do, but also what they avoid doing. The best writers do not jump on bandwagons; they build new ones.

The pro doesn't write a caper novel about the world's biggest heist unless he's convinced he can write an unusual story with a unique and important twist. Otherwise he risks unfavorable comparison with the classics in that subgenre. "Why bother with it if it's not as taut as Rififi and not as funny as The Hot Rock?"

Yet this should not be taken to mean every writer must obey faddish advice, such as "Spy fiction is dead," or "Historical novels are out this season." There is no such thing as a dead genre because the human imagination is limitless, and there is never a dearth of new ideas, new twists, new talents.

The question is, "Is this idea strong enough and important enough to make the story sufficiently different from its predecessors to merit publication?" If a novel is good enough, it will find a publisher whether it is a hard-boiled detective story, a western, a spy novel, a historical adventure, or a novel about bug-eyed monsters from Mars. If it isn't good enough, the publisher may reject it by saying that such novels are out of style, but this is merely a euphemism.

Don't write anything you wouldn't want to read.

This one sounds self-evident, but I've met several young writers who decided they wanted to start out by hacking their way through gothics or westerns, just to learn the ropes, because those categories looked easy to imitate. Nuts. I f you start out that way, you'll end up a hack.

Now if you like to read westerns, then write a western. But don't write into a genre for which you have contempt. If you don't like gothics but insist on writing one, your contempt will show; you can't hide it. I don't say you can't sell books this way; God knows people do, all too often. But if you thoroughly enjoy sea stories --- even if you don't know a thing about nautical life --- you're better off attempting to write a sea story because you'll go into it with enthusiasm.

"Tripwire" by Brian Garfield (David McKay Co., 1973)

Brian Garfield’s Tripwire is an exciting and original Western adventure that crisscrosses the American Southwest deep into the mountains of Mexico. The main character, Sergeant Boag, isn’t your typical cowboy protagonist. A former slave, he had been freed during the Civil War and later was a Buffalo Soldier during the Indian Wars. Now, he’s serving time in an Arizona chain gang for being a vagabond. When he’s released, things look up when he’s offered a job helping Jed Pickett, a notorious Scalp Hunter for the US Government, steal a shipment of gold. But when Jed double crosses him, throws him overboard into the river and opens fire, Boag vows revenge. So begins the cross-country pursuit of one man against a small army of vicious gold brigands.

Three of Garfield’s strongest assets as a writer are giving readers unusual and evocative atmosphere, powerful action scenes, and innovative, distinctive characters—all of which are on full display in Tripwire. Tripwire is a revenge picaresque that, oddly enough, suggests a fusion of Mark Twain and Sam Peckinpah. The segmented trip and its multiple destinations seem like it could have originally been serialized in a pulp magazine. There’s also something Twainian about Boag’s journey, and how the river and the trail provide a procession of new characters, locations, and plot complications that propel the story forward. Portside towns, riverbeds, Mexican prisons, dingy backwoods cantinas, mountain fortresses, jungle trails—Boag’s travels offer a wealth of colorful and diverse settings, and Garfield brings each of them to life in vivid detail. And it would take a Peckinpah (or someone of his caliber) to cinematically capture the sweat, stink, and blood of Boag’s adventure, not to mention the Gatling gun and explosion-filled climactic battle at the end of the book.

Boag is a fascinating character, and it is eye-opening to examine the legacy of the American West through his eyes. Garfield isn’t didactic about the political and racial underpinnings of the story, yet he’s astute enough to make them a significant part of the story. The West of the lawmen is one of fostering communities and implementing justice, The West of the homesteaders is of building families and developing land, and The West of gunfighters is one of mobility and ever-present danger. Boag’s experiences as a black man aren’t like any white character’s. He may have been “freed” from slavery with the Civil War, but he’s never experienced “freedom.” Even in the military, he was a second-class soldier. And while Manifest Destiny gave new opportunities to scores of people who moved Westward, Boag was still arrested based on the color of his skin. Though Boag never explicitly says so, his battle for vengeance is just as much as a battle for equality.

With Boag, Garfield also evokes the image of Richard Stark’s “Parker” character from The Hunter (Tripwire is dedicated to the real “Stark”—Donald Westlake). Both Boag and Parker are known only by one name, both were ripped off after committing robberies, and both set out on reckless revenge crusades that aren’t as much about money as they are about their characters’ philosophies and moral worldviews. It’s not so much about getting even so much as getting—and taking—what is rightfully theirs. They’re professionals, and while they kill along the way, they’re not outright “killers.” Boag is often in the position to blast his enemies into oblivion, but he usually resists and prefers to knock them out, tie them up, or otherwise disarm or incapacitate them.

Garfield finishes Tripwire with an open-ended conclusion, leaving space for Boag to turn into a series character. As far as I know, this is the only novel Garfield published with Boag, though I need to do more research to confirm this. If so, it’s a shame, as I think the character is rich enough to have developed several more novels around.

When Tripwire was first published, Newgate Callendar reviewed it for the New York Times. This is what he had to say about the book: “One may not believe that a black ex-soldier, a one-man army, can do quite all this one does. But the action moves breathlessly, there is a Grade-A sumbbitch of a villain, and the strong, silent Boag is a man for all men.” While Boag’s mission seems incredible, it was never beyond complete credibility (at least not for me). As Garfield shows in the magnificent culminating battle, Boag isn’t beyond hurt, nor does he have an unlimited supply of vengeance—or bullets. It is in those final moments, where each decision counts the most, and where life or death hangs on his every action (and bullet), that Boag is most human.

Overall I really enjoyed Tripwire. Fans of Garfield will know to expect first-rate storytelling and a gripping plot, and the author comes through once again. The novel is also an excellent example of how flexible and open the Western can be, and that there are lots of possibilities there still to be explored within the genre.

Monday, May 30, 2011

"The Night it Rained Bullets" by Brian Wynne (Brian Garfield) (Ace, 1965)

The Night it Rained Bullets is a damned good title. It's tough, ominous, and atmospheric. It also happens to be one hell of a great book. The whole story takes place over the course of 24 hours as a blizzard rolls in and cuts the Arizona town of Spanish Flat off from the rest of the world. The weather not only prevents help from getting in—it also prevents the criminal element from getting out.

Marshal Jeremy Six has his hands full as he deals with a number of livewires just waiting to go off. There’s Jack Lime and his drunken hooligans, who were bested once by the Marshal and are gunning for revenge; Will January, the notorious gambler who is so good at cards—and quick on the draw—that he doesn’t have to cheat; and then there’s Sammy Preston, an alcoholic deadbeat son who inherited his father’s enormous wealth but can’t live up to his legacy. To top things off, there’s Jeremy’s paramour, the saloon keeper Clarissa, whose former lover took a bullet to save the Marshal; and Amy Preseton, who has a yen for the new gambler in town, which only infuriates her brother, Sammy. Fate has thrown them together, but it is up to them to decide who makes it out alive.

One of the things I loved about The Night it Rained Bullets is the elemental simplicity of its construction. There’s only the barest outline of a plot, yet the novel is bursting with story, action, and excitement. Characters are the catalyst in The Night it Rained Bullets. Once the blizzard hits, confrontations between the characters is inevitable—but it’s just a question of which explosion is going to go off first. Garfield has assembled an extraordinary ensemble cast in this book, and it comes across in his writing that this is a town with history, and that each of the characters has a past that has brought them to this point in time. Somehow Garfield manages to evoke these complex relationships in a deft and economical fashion. He doesn’t waste words, nor does he skimp on the human details that make his characters and the story come alive.

Another thing I like about the novel is the intimate, immediate sense of space that Garfield conjures up. No one writes about the Western winter like Garfield. In his books, the cold is as unrelenting and violent as the hot desert sun. There’s also something very active about winter—the snow and the wind seem to come alive in a way that the more static heatwave doesn’t. In this novel (and in Garfield’s excellent novel Relentless), it is as if the winter elements have come alive and taken a personal interest in making the characters as miserable as humanly possible. If they’re not worrying about hot lead ripping out their guts, they’re worrying about getting lost in the storm, their finger freezing to the trigger, being buried alive in a snowdrift, or the cold slowing their draw just enough so they don’t get the first shot off.

I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it’s as haunting and cold as the winter wind. When all is said and done, when the last round have been fired, I don’t think Garfield sees anything heroic about the pools of freezing blood all over town. Jeremy Six may be the Marshal, but he doesn’t come off like a superhero like many lawmen of Westerns past. Not that there’s anything wrong with that archetype, but just that Garfield is doing something different, and it’s deliberate. The final showdown isn’t a blaze of glory, but something more desperate, more spontaneous and less controlled. It isn’t a single-handed miracle, but an effort that takes a group of people, and costs a number of lives—and not just the outlaws, either. The final page is elegiac. There’s a touch of tenderness amongst the survivors, but also a sense of loss, and a longing that can’t be soothed. And for that, the characters have stayed with me, even after I’ve put the book back on the shelf and picked up another one. (Another Garfield, of course.)

All in all, a tense and thrilling Western from Mr. Garfield, one of the genre’s best practitioners. Unfortunately, it is out of print, but used copies can be snagged for pretty cheap.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

50 Great Gold Medal Titles

Find a Gold Medal paperback. Look at the title. Chances are, you’ll probably want to read it. Doesn’t matter if you’re familiar with the author’s work, or even if you like them. Heck, even if you hated the last book you read by the author, one look at another title and you might think to give him or her a second chance.

Earlier in the spring, Eric Beetner published a terrific essay at the Mulholland Books blog called “Talking Titles” in which he discussed the history of noir titles, from Mickey Spillane to Jason Starr to his own novel, One Too Many Blows to the Head, co-authored with J.B. Kohl.

Beetner’s essay got me to thinking about my favorite titles. A lot of them—but not all—come from Gold Medal paperbacks. I didn’t merely want to repeat what Beetner did so well in his essay, so I decided to put my own spin on it. I went through all the Gold Medal titles listed at BookScans and picked out my 50 favorites. I won’t claim they are the best titles (I’m sure I missed some gems), nor will I claim that these are the best novels. I haven’t read most of them, so I have no idea if they are any good. Some are classics (Down There by David Goodis, Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson), some are forgotten gems by celebrated authors (Some Must Die by Gil Brewer), and some I had never heard of before. All the titles are arranged alphabetically by author.

So, without further ado, here are Pulp Serenade’s selection of 50 Great Gold Medal Titles. If you have favorites of your own, be sure to mention them in the comments section.

Meanwhile Back at the Morgue by Mike Avallone
Not I, Said the Vixen by Bill S. Ballinger
Seven Votes for Death by Pat Bannister
Satan Is a Woman by Gil Brewer
Some Must Die by Gil Brewer
Hell’s Our Destination by Gil Brewer
Lovely and Lethal by Frank Castle
Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze
The Lady’s Not For Living by Dexter St. Clair
The Captain Must Die by Robert Colby
Make My Coffin Strong by William R. Cox
Case of the Nervous Nude by Jonathan Craig
I Came To Kill by Gordon Davis
The Lady Kills by Bruno Fischer
Second-Hand Nude by Bruno Fischer
Death and the Naked Lady by John Flagg
Down There by David Goodis
The Moon in the Gutter by David Goodis
The Wounded and the Slain by David Goodis
Assassins Have Starry Eyes by Donald Hamilton
Jezebel in Crinoline by Homer Hatten
Horsemen From Hell by Homer Hatten
So I’m a Heel by Mike Heller
Red Runs the River by William Heuman
To Kiss, or Kill by Day Keene
Come Murder Me by James Kieran
Cry Hard, Cry Fast by John D. MacDonald
The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything by John D. MacDonald
One Monday We Killed Them All by John D. MacDonald
It’s Your Money—Come and Get It by Sidney Margolius
The Name of the Game Is Death by Dan J. Marlowe
The Raven is a Blood Red Bird by Dan J. Marlowe and William Odell
Killers are My Meat by Stephen Marlowe
Homicide Hussy by Atha McGuire
I’ll See You In Hell by John McPartland
Come Destroy Me by Vin Packer
The Evil That Men Do by Hugh Pentecost
Everybody Had a Gun by Richard S. Prather
Strip For Murder by Richard S. Prather
Dig My Grave Deep by Peter Rabe
It’s My Funeral by Peter Rabe
Kill The Boss Good-by by Peter Rabe
Murder Me for Nickels by Peter Rabe
Let Them Eat Bullets by Howard Schoenfeld
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
Death Takes the Bus by Lionel White
Lament For a Virgin by Lionel White
Fires That Destroy by Harry Whittington
Don’t Speak to Strange Girls by Harry Whittington
Hill Girl by Charles Williams

A few words on the selections:

Some of the titles are simply salacious (Second-Hand Nude by Bruno Fischer), which is often enough. Others are deeply nihilistic (Hell’s Our Destination by Gil Brewer, or Dig My Grave Deep by Peter Rabe). There’s also a sense of humor in some of them (Strip for Murder by Richard S. Prather, Meanwhile Back at the Morgue by Mike Avallone). Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has by Angel and Goodis’ The Moon in the Gutter have a poetic ring to them, while Day Keene’s To Kiss, or Kill almost seems like a pulpy evocation of Hamlet’s dilemma. There’s something melodic about Donald Hamilton’s Assassins Have Starry Eyes and Homer Hatten’s Jezebel in Crinoline, they roll nicely off the tongue and there’s an element of wordplay that is subtler than, say, Death and the Naked Lady by John Flagg. Harry Whittington even seems to be looking out for us readers, offering us the sage wisdom, Don't Speak to Strange Girls. (How many of Whittington's own protagonists could have been spared, had they heeded the author's advice?)

Many of the titles are blunt, but few are as economical as Hill Girl by Charles Williams. 8 letters and it tells you exactly what you want to know. Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson is, at first, strange, because there’s nothing sexy or alluring about that number—but there’s an inherent desolation that lures one in. Stephen Marlowe takes a comic spin on the hardboiled sensibility with Killers Are My Meat, and Lionel White’s Death Takes the Bus harkens back to the pulp days of yesteryear (I can almost imagine Fredric Brown using a title like that, but I doubt that White’s novel is anything close to Brown). Sidney Margolius’ It’s Your Money—Come and Get It, Vin Packer’s Come Destroy Me, and Peter Rabe’s Murder Me for Nickels outright provoke the reader, taunting them and making them implicit in the crimes contained within the pages.(Rabe’s also makes me wonder why he has such low self-esteem, why not Murder Me for Quarters, at least?). And is there anything more violently chilling than One Monday We Killed Them All by John D. MacDonald?

Titles are tricky business. The best of them not only draw our eyes to the book, but also capture our imagination in their own way.

Crime Factory 6 is on the Rampage

Crime Factory 6 has broken loose, is on the street, and looking to bite your ass. Keith Rawson, Cameron Ashley and Liam Jose have assembled one heck of a gang for this issue: Eric Beetner, Tony Black, Libby Cubmore, Jedidiah Ayres, Nigel Bird, and a whole lot more.

Head on over to Crime Factory and check it out.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Justice at Spanish Flat" by Brian Garfield (originally "Range Justice")

Range Justice, published in 1960 by Avalon, is the earliest Brian Garfield novel that I can find. His website says that his first novel sold was written he was 18, though the site doesn’t mention the title. Since he was born in 1939, he would have been 21 when Range Justice was published, so this very well could be what he wrote when he was 18. I’ll do some more research and find out if this is true. I read the abridged version, Justice at Spanish Flat, published as an Ace Double (along with Tom West’s The Gun From Nowhere) in 1961. Even though some scenes seemed slightly truncated, the pacing a little rushed at times, the story itself is wonderful Western excitement.

Tracy Chavis used to be the foreman at the Chainlink Ranch in the town of Spanish Flat. He and the Ranch’s owner, Jim Boyce, had gone on a trip to sell the herd. After making the sale, they got drunk and someone rolled them for the money. Ashamed, Boyce headed home—broke. Chavis stayed away, determined to earn back the money they had lost.

Four years later, Chavis has the money and he is returning to Spanish Flat. When he arrives, however, he found much has changed. He’s walked right into the middle of a large-scale range war between ranchers and nesters, and Chainlink is caught right in the middle. Since Jim Boyce has passed away, his daughter Connie has taken over the ranch, and she isn’t quick to forgive Boyce for letting the money slip away, or for being away for four years. Chavis is determined to not only win her trust, but settle the range war—and find the identity of the man who robbed him four years ago.

There’s a strong through-line of action throughout the novel, supported by nice cast of supporting characters. Garfield is good at writing ensemble narratives whose characters drive the story forward. His plots can be simple—such as in What of Terry Conniston?, Relentless, or The Night it Rained Bullets—but their clarity and focus is something to be relished by readers, and studied closely by writers. Justice at Spanish Flat may be an early novel (and abridged one, at that), but it still shows the seeds of the gifted writer that Garfield would very soon blossom into. It's not as dark as The Night it Rained Bullets or as tense as Relentless, and the characters are more likable than in What of Terry Conniston?, but even though it might be on the lighter side, there is still much to enjoy in Justice at Spanish Flat.

This is the first of several Westerns that Garfield set in the community of Spanish Flat. The other novels, according to Bernard A. Drew’s Literary Afterlife, are: Mr. Sixgun (1964), The Night it Rained Bullets (1965), The Bravos (1966), The Proud Riders (1967), A Badge for a Badman (1967), Brand of the Gun (1968), Gundown (1969), and Big Country, Big Men (1969).

On another note, there’s something sort of surreal about this cover! The riders are lost in a sea of blue-green ambiguity, and behind them is an explosion of hay. Most of the Western paperbacks from this year that I’ve seen are usually ground in realism, albeit heavily romanticized (especially grimaces, guns, and bosoms). Anyway, I like this cover!

Friday, May 27, 2011

"What of Terry Conniston?" by Brian Garfield (1971)

Brian Garfield’s What of Terry Conniston? originally appeared in hardcover published by The World Publishing Company in 1971, with a paperback from Fawcett Crest the following year in 1972. It’s about a young woman, Terry Conniston, who comes from a rich family. She is kidnapped by a down-and-out rock n’ roll band looking for a quick trip to easy street. Unfortunately for them—and for the girl—the family isn’t so quick to pay the ransom. As the kidnapper’s hapless scheme begins to fall apart, Garfield explores the deep-seated corruption of the Conniston family business.

Newgate Callendar applauded the book in The New York Times when it first hit shelves, calling it “tough, violent, complicated, and [Garfield] brings the various elements together like a virtuoso.” Forty years later, What of Terry Conniston? may be out of print, but its capacity to absorb readers remains undiminished. It’s a tour-de-force of suspense fiction, expertly crafted and riveting from page one, and full of twists and surprises right up until the last page.

Garfield’s novel affected me on two different levels.

First, it’s a superbly constructed book.

The opening chapter of What of Terry Conniston? is a paragon of craftsmanship. You want to know how to start a novel, and how to draw in readers and have them hooked before they even realize it? Study what Garfield does here. Carl Oakley, lawyer for business Arizona business tycoon Earle Conniston, is at the crime scene. A barn in the middle of the desert. Two dead men lay on the ground. Two sets of tire tracks go off in different directions. He knows the kidnapped girl, Terry Conniston—Earle’s daughter—was held captive here. But now she’s gone. So are the three other kidnappers, and so is the half a million-dollar ransom that was paid. Private Eye Diego Orozco is also on the scene, he but seems to be more interested in a land settlement dispute between Earle and the local Chicano community than the kidnapping. Earle, himself, is nowhere to be seen. The chapter ends with a telling line that will come to haunt the whole narrative—“And what of Terry Conniston?”

Garfield lays the clues in front of you right from the get go—the missing girl, the rock n’ roll kidnappers, the ransom, the tracks that lead nowhere, the disinterested family, the corrupt business—and leaves it to you to piece it all together. Without even realizing it, you’re putting two-and-two together, trying to make sense out of a crime and why the people most directly affected aren’t more concerned with the value of human life. And that’s when you know that Garfield has you hooked. You’re knee-deep in the narrative and it’s only chapter one. By the end, you’ll be up to your neck in nasty characters and their sordid motivations, and you won’t be able to turn away from it. At least I wasn’t.

The narrative drives ahead with economic precision, never wasting a word, never overstuffing a chapter, never taking the reader into unnecessary digressions. It’s trim and efficient prose, the mark of a writer in complete control. But Garfield also takes the story in several unexpected directions. The plot twists aren’t complicated—and for that they’re all the more effective. I won’t spoil them for you, but early on in the book something so simple, so natural, happens and it throws everyone—the characters in the book as much as the reader—off their guard. After that, all bets are off and anything can happen.

Second, there’s a real nastiness to the characters in the book, but there’s also an honesty in the way that Garfield describes them. The lawyer, the detective, the father—they’re white collar criminals who connive, blackmail, and twist laws to get what they want. Some of them have better intentions than others, but the methods are the same. They’re no better than the kidnappers, just smarter, and that makes them all the more repugnant. And as for the band, they’re heartless punks. Only Mitch, the guitarist, shows any hint of a conscience. Still, as the book reminds, he stood by and let it all happen. He’s dumb, na├»ve, and gullible—in short, he’s believable as a twenty-something crappy guitarist with a history as a petty criminal who gets suckered into a kidnapping.

As I mentioned in my review of Relentless, one of the challenges of writing a crime novel isn’t just making the crime plausible, but making the characters desperate enough to pull it off, no matter what the human cost. Garfield succeeded in Relentless, and he succeeded in What of Terry Conniston?.

“And what of Terry Conniston?”

Her character is interesting yet unexpected. She’s mentioned in the title, and she’s the inciting incident for the whole story. Everybody’s actions are based around her, yet she’s always the furthest from their minds. People treat her like an object, not a person. She’s part of an equation: the band wants to trade her for money, and the family is unsure if she’s worth the money. She’s the moral center of the book, but in an interesting twist Garfield places her off-center within the narrative. For the most part, we don’t see the story through her eyes. That is part of what makes the novel so effectively unsettling: it’s not comforting or reassuring to see the world through the eyes of so many characters that have little regard for human life. But it is also a fitting narrative technique considering the story at hand: Terry isn’t in control of her life—her family, the lawyers, and the band is—so why should she be the one telling the story? It’s another smart move on the part of Brian Garfield, an example of the subtle but skillful touches that he brings to his work.

What of Terry Conniston? is another winning suspense novel from Brian Garfield. Look for more reviews of Garfield’s work in the weeks to come on Pulp Serenade.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"On Dangerous Ground" Reviews at Spinetingler

Over at Spinetingler, I have reviews of two stories from On Dangerous Ground: Stories of Western Noir, edited by Ed Gorman, Dave Zeltserman and Martin H. Greenberg. I liked both of the stories I reviewed very much. Special thanks to Brian Lindenmuth and everyone at Spinetingler for inviting me to be involved!

Here are links to my reviews, as well as excerpts.

"Lead Poisoning" by Gary Lovisi
Lovisi can not only write it all, but already has—and in spades! Author, historian, and publisher of Gryphon Books, Lovisi is a triple threat—but also a triple treat to readers everywhere. “Lead Poisoning” shows Lovisi flexing with Western muscles and having a great time spinning a mythological yarn about outlaws, corrupt lawmen, and Indian mystics.

"Going Where the Wind Blows" by Jan Christensen

I’m a sucker for great first lines, and Jan Christensen’s “Going Where the Wind Blows” begins with this stellar hook: “It wasn’t that she liked whoring. But what else could a gal do?” The voice of her main character, Rita Mae Wilson, is immediately apparent, as are the qualities that will guide her through the story: street-smart resourcefulness, world-weary resilience, and a complete absence of sentimentality—not to mention a sense of humor about the bad hand of cards that life sometimes deals you.

Read all the reviews of On Dangerous Ground here at Spinetingler.

Click here to buy a copy of the book direct from Cemetery Dance Publications.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"The Threepersons Hunt" by Brian Garfield (1974)

Sam Watchman, the Navajo Highway Patrolman from Brian Garfield’s Relentless, makes his second appearance in The Threepersons Hunt. In the first novel, Watchman had to track five bank robbers across a mountain during a blizzard while bucking the prejudice of his colleagues and the interference of the FBI. In The Threepersons Hunt, Watchman is finally given the lateral promotion he should have gotten years ago—a trial period as a Detective. The advancement, however, is a political move and not without its undercurrent of racism. There’s no pay raise, and the job is only temporary while he locates an escaped Apache prisoner named Joe Threepersons.

Watchman’s bosses are unaware of the long-standing tribal differences, and to them an Indian is just an Indian. Watchman tries to explain the situation to his bosses:
“Do you know how much cooperation I’m likely to get up there? I’m Navajo. Maybe we all look alike to you, but before the Anglos came down here and unified the Indians by giving them a common enemy, Apaches and Navajos used to shoot each other for sport. If the Apaches are hiding him out they might not talk to a white man about it but they’d sure as hell not talk to a Navajo.”
Determined to overcome the cultural and racial objects in his path, Watchman accepts the case. The search for Joe Threepersons, however, is not as straightforward as it sounds, and along the way Watchman realizes that he has uncovered a much deeper story of political corruption and murder cover-ups.

Sam Watchman is a great character, and I'm glad that Brian Garfield revived him for this second outing after Relentless. In fact, I wish there had been a third and a fourth. It's not only great to see a Native American narrator, but also to get a glimpse of contemporary Native politics and culture, as well as the relationships between the tribes. Too often Native American characters aren't given the depth or three-dimensionality they deserve, and I like how Garfield reversed the stereotype and showed the world through their eyes rather than have an outsider narrator looking at them.

Despite sharing the same central character, Relentless and The Threepersons Hunt diverge in a number of crucial ways. Where Relentless was more action-oriented, The Threepersons Hunt unfolds mainly through dialogue that reveals increasingly complex motives and subterfuge. Threepersons is also told solely from the viewpoint of Sam Watchman, whereas the first book alternated between Sam and the criminals in a constantly shifting game of the hunted and the hunter. Each narrative approach could appeal to different readers, but I preferred Relentless for its taut narrative and sustained suspense. However, I really liked the political and cultural issues that Garfield was examining in The Threepersons Hunt.

The Threepersons Hunt also shares something in common with the plot of Garfield’s earlier book, What of Terry Conniston? In that novel (which I think is a little more successful), the title girl was kidnapped, but as her family contemplates whether to pay the ransom or not, her welfare becomes less important than the social and financial threat. Something similar happens to Joe Threepersons: the deeper Sam Watchman looks, the less he realizes that the Reservation and the authorities care about the escaped criminal. Legal water disputes between ranchers and the local reservation, and skeletons buried deep in the closet, are much more important than a man’s life.

In his review for the The New York Times, Newgate Callendar gave the novel a strong review when it was originally published in 1974 by M. Evans and Co. “His calm, relaxed prose contains a great deal of tension; he has a good eye and, equally important, a good ear. Thus his dialogue rings true. In addition to writing a thrilling chase story and building a well-plotted mystery around it, Garfield gives a fine picture of reservation Indians…” I’d agree with Newgate about the “relaxed prose” and especially about the excellent insightful portrayal of contemporary reservation life and politics, but I feel that a little concision would have helped to tighten up the plot a bit. Still, Garfield is an excellent writer, and The Threepersons Hunt has some terrific scenes. Both of the Sam Watchman novels are now out of print, but hopefully someone will think to republish them again sometime soon.

The edition pictured is the 1975 Fawcett Crest paperback.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Relentless" by Brian Garfield (World Publishing, 1972)

Relentless is the perfect title for Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel about Navajo Highway Patrolman Sam Watchman. It captures the tenacious drive of five bank robbers who rob an Arizona bank of $1,000,000—the largest heist in the state’s history. It also aptly describes Watchman’s persistence as he chases the robbers across a perilous mountain range during a raging blizzard. Moreover, “relentless” nails the momentum and impact of Garfield’s style. The characters are strongly composed and the plot seethes pitch-perfect tension every step of the way. Relentless is a masterful novel from a writer who, at the young age of 33, was already a seasoned pro with over a dozen titles under his belt (including the terrific kidnapper caper What of Terry Conniston?). Garfield may have got his start early (his first published novel was written when he was 18), but he paid his dues, and his work shows the craft, care, and quality that comes with experience.

One of the primary challenges of writing a crime novel is not just making the crime believable—it’s making the characters desperate enough to pull it off, regardless of the difficulty. In this regard, Garfield is extremely successful. Relentless is structurally straightforward—the heist is already in motion on page one, and the rest of the book is a cat-and-mouse chase that alternates perspectives with each chapter—but with simplicity comes clarity, and precision gives power. Garfield builds his scenes with very specific, detailed knowledge about the Arizona desert, flying a plane through a blizzard, tracking people in the snow, wilderness survival. These are the marks not just of an author who has done his research, but of one who knows how to use realism for its fullest dramatic impact.

There’s a great deal of subtle, but significant, social commentary in Relentless. Foremost is its Navajo protagonist, Sam Watchman. He’s a unique and refreshing character to read about, and it’s great to see a Native American action hero in contemporary times presented with such depth and nuance. When the book was written in the early 1970s, the Native American Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and in 1972—the year Relentless was published—the American Indian Movement even occupied Wounded Knee as a protest. As Sam Watchman struggles with prejudice from his co-workers, the FBI, and even the robbers themselves, Garfield imbues his character with the political spirit of the period.

Another social aspect of the book has to do with the Vietnam War. Four of the robbers were vets, and group’s mastermind—the Major—was given a dishonorable discharge for killing innocent Vietnamese civilians. Garfield, however, doesn’t make the morality so black-and-white: he asks (not in such an obvious way) who is responsible, the grunts following orders, their officers in the field, the superiors back at the base, the training instructors, the politicians? Like David Morrell did the same year with First Blood, Garfield is bringing just a piece of the Vietnam War back home to the United States.

There’s no denying that Relentless is filled with scores of exciting, action-packed scenes, but it’s the strength of such well-developed characters that make the novel so compelling to read, and so satisfying to see through to the very last page.

Relentless was made into a TV movie in 1977 starring Will Sampson (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The White Buffalo). The movie was never released on home video, but I’m trying to track down a copy…Garfield later revived Sam Watchman once more for The Threepersons Hunt in 1974, which I will review later this week.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lee Goldberg Interview

When Lee Goldberg was still at student at UCLA, while most of his classmates were slacking off on their homework or snoozing through class, he managed to produce not just one novel…but four! The first was called .357 Vigilante and appeared in 1985, and its story followed freelance helicopter pilot Brett Macklin who goes on a city-wide rampage for justice after his cop father is burned to death by a local gang. The novel, now titled Judgment, is everything you want in an action novel: driving plot, blockbuster-worthy spectacle, fights, explosions, and just the right amount of humor to rebound from all the destruction and keep things enjoyable. Three more books quickly followed in the series (the last of which went unpublished until recently). These action classics have since been re-titled the Jury series and are available as a collection either in print and ebook formats.

That was only the beginning for Goldberg. Since then, he’s been busy not only as a novelist, but also as a writer and producer for TV shows such as Diagnosis Murder and Monk. Speaking of those shows, he’s also written a number of highly acclaimed tie-in books for both series. And speaking of tie-ins, Goldberg is the co-founder of The International Association of Media Tie-In Writers (along with Max Allan Collins).

Goldberg’s latest endeavor is The Dead Man series of novels, which originated as an idea for television with co-creator William Rabkin. (Book one reviewed here.) The Dead Man follows Matt Cahill, a lumberjack whose life suddenly changes after being nearly buried alive while skiing. Now he can literally see evil all around him—rotting flesh, maggots and worms, and a specter known only as Mr. Dark that won’t let him alone. Fusing elements action, suspense, and supernatural horror, The Dead Man series is a sure-fire bet for entertainment. The first three installments are out and—with future installments to be written by the likes of James Reasoner, Bill Crider, Mel Odom, Matthew P. Mayo, Harry Shannon, and many others—things are only going to keep getting better. Book 3 is Heaven in Hell, another winner for Goldberg and Rabkin, and it is available in print and ebook. Long live The Dead Man!

For more information, be sure to check out Lee Goldberg’s website and blog, as well as The Dead Man blog and Top Suspense Group.

Lee Goldberg was kind enough participate in a Q&A for Pulp Serenade.

Pulp Serenade: Your first novel, .357 Vigilante (retitled Judgment) has recently been reissued along with the whole Jury series. What's it like going back and reading those early works again?

Lee Goldberg: Embarrassing. Some of the writing, particularly the overuse of adverbs, make me cringe. But I am also surprised by how confident, consistent and snarky the voice is. They don’t read to me like books written by someone who had never written books before.

PS: Why the change in titles for the reissue?

LG: Actually, it was Joe Konrath’s idea. We had a little bet. You can read about it here.

PS: The Afterward mentions that you wrote this series in college, while your classmates were probably either studying or doing keg stands. Having just finished grad school, it was difficult enough to find time to blog -- yet you managed to write multiple novels! How long did each of the four novels take to write?

LG: It took me about 90 days to write each one. I wrote them in class, on the bus, in the bathroom, anywhere and anytime that I could. I put myself through school as a freelance writer, so I was already used to writing quickly under deadline and managing my time.

PS: Now that the books are back in print, did you ever consider writing a fifth book in the series and bringing Brett Macklin into the 21st Century?

LG: I have...and will...but as a book in the Dead Man series.

PS: The Dead Man is in full swing, so I'd like to ask a few questions about that series...You and William Rabkin are credited as co-writers on the first and third Dead Man novels -- how does your collaborative writing process work?

LG: We write the books differently than we write our scripts, which makes sense, given they are two very different ways of telling stories. So far, the way we’ve done it is that one of us writes the first draft and the other one does the revisions (or suggests revisions that the other writer does). But we talk to one another throughout the process. I won’t tell you who wrote the first draft of which book…you’ll have to figure that one out for yourselves.

PS: What are the advantages and challenges about writing in a team as opposed to solo?

LG: In TV, it’s being able to do twice as much work in half the time it would take a single writer. It also allows us to get a lot more work done. One of us can be writing a script while the other one is rewriting another. Or one of us can write while the other preps with the director. It also means that you have someone always making sure that you don’t take the easy way, that you do your very best. We never let one another get lazy in our writing. There are also times when I just can’t seem to get the scene where I want it to go…and I know that Bill can take a look at, know exactly what I was trying to accomplish, and take it where it couldn’t. And vice versa. It’s harder to co-write a book. But we have written together for so long now that we are very good at writing in a shared voice.

PS: What do you think are the qualities that make a good action hero, and how did you try to work them into Matt Cahill's character?

LG: Vulnerability, humor, a clear point-of-view, understandable goals, and something personal at stake in what is happening around him.

What brings out all of those aspects of his character are stories with strong conflicts and obstacles that challenge our hero in ways that make him test his own abilities, confront his fears and limitations, and question his own judgment. We really wanted Matt to be an everyman, a regular guy, someone who genuinely cares about people, feels pain, and experiences self-doubt and fear. But we also wanted him to embody the classic traits of the western hero…a personal sense of honor, rugged determination, uncommon courage, and a loner’s wanderlust… combined with a very un-Western sentimental humanity, a sadness and longing for connection that makes him sympathetic and relatable. He’s The Man with No Name combined with Dr. Richard Kimble in TV’s The Fugitive. He’s a working class, decent guy who finds himself in an extraordinary situation who wants nothing more than to just go home and lead a normal, quiet, unremarkable life again.

PS: What is your vision for the future of The Dead Man series? Is there a finite end to the story, or would you like it to go on for hundreds of volumes like The Executioner?

LG: I would like it to go on like The Executioner…but more grounded in an emotional reality, if that makes any sense. I never want Matt Cahill to become a superhero. I never want him to lose that regular guy persona, even as he becomes more accustomed to violence and to the supernatural.

PS: What does your desk/writing station look like?

LG: See attached photo.

PS: How many bookshelves do you have, and is there any rhyme or reason to how you organize them?

LG: I have 27 in my office and they are mostly filled with signed, first edition mysteries, thrillers and westerns and some reference books. On the second floor landing outside of my office, I have another 30 shelves of unsigned fiction, reference books, art books, film & TV books, etc. All the novels are arranged alphabetically by author, all the reference and art books by subject.

PS: Token goofy question: Favorite writing snack?

LG: Roasted, lightly salted almonds.

PS: What's the most challenging book you've written yet and why?

LG: I would have to say Diagnosis Murder #5: The Past Tense. It told the story of Dr. Mark Sloan’s first case. It was set present day, and told in the third person…but then flashed back for a good third of the book to one week in February 1962 and was written in first person. It was a real challenge for me to switch POV and to accurately evoke another time period. It was also the best reviewed, and best selling, of my Diagnosis Murder novels. In much the same way, I’d say Mr. Monk in Trouble was equally challenging, since half the book was set in the old west and told from a different narrator’s first-person POV.

PS: When you wake up in the morning, what makes you want to sit down and write…and on those days when you don't want to write, how do you get yourself going?

LG: The answer to both questions is the same: my mortgage. I make my living as a writer. If I don’t write, I can’t pay my bills. I don’t have the luxury of just waiting around for inspiration to strike.

PS: Big things are happening in the publishing world right now. What is the most encouraging change that you see? And what is the most discouraging?

LG: The most encouraging is the rise of the ebook and the ability now for writers to successfully…very, very successfully…self-publish. Authors have viable options for the first time in, like, ever and finding value in work they thought was valueless - namely, their out-of-print backlists. The most discouraging, and inevitable, aspect is how the rise of ebook is bringing about the demise of the bookstore. I love bookstores.

PS: What are you working on now?

LG: In books, my 13th Monk book, a crime novel called King City, and The Dead Man series. I’m also out there pitching TV series and, with luck, it looks like my feature adaptation of Victor Gischler’s novel Gun Monkeys may finally be heading towards production with a major, A-list actor attached (I can’t reveal who just yet).

PS: And lastly, any advice to up-and-coming writers trying to make their start in the writing world (like myself)?

LG: Write. No matter how bad it is. Just write. Give yourself permission to suck. Sometimes, all it takes is just hitting that one good line or paragraph to break the creative log jam. I also recommend taking a break and reading a good book. Reading forces you to work with words and your imagination.

There are mistakes I see so many aspiring writers make…and that you should avoid.

1. Looking for short-cuts. The biggest danger right now is the ease of self-publishing. So many aspiring writers are putting out their awful, cringe-inducing, unpublishable crap as e-books, simply because they can. They don’t realize that you only have one chance to make a first impression. I don’t think most aspiring writers realize how many awful, unpublished novels successful writers have in their drawers...and how many rejections they’ve received before they finally sold a book. In most cases, it’s because those early books were awful…and those authors are glad today that those books didn’t see print (that desperation for a short-cut also makes aspiring writers easy prey for scammers like fee-charging agents and vanity presses like Authorhouse, PublishAmerica, etc.)

Just because you can self-publish with ease doesn’t mean that you should. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and self-publishing a book that’s amateurish and awful and best left on your hard drive is not going to help your career. I still urge writers to do everything they can to be professionally published first… you can always go back to self-publishing. Even a bad deal with a reputable, established publisher will pay off for you in the long run in terms of editing, experience, prestige, and, hopefully, readership and name recognition that you can bring with you if you ever decide to self-publish

2. Not editing & rewriting. Believe it or not, your first draft isn’t gold. It’s probably crap. It needs work. And if you aren’t open to editing, if you can’t take a note without being offended or overly-protective, then you aren’t going to make it as a writer and you aren’t going to grow creatively. As one mentor once told me, writing is rewriting.

3. Doing too much self-promotion. Some authors forget that it’s the writing that counts the most, not the relentless salesmanship. It’s also a major turn-off to readers and your fellow authors. It’s a delicate balance, one I haven’t always managed well myself.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

William Heffernan Interview

The Dead Detective, published by Akashic Books in September 2010, is William Heffernan’s seventeenth novel. It ranks not only among his best works, but also one of his darkest. The novel’s protagonist is Harry Doyle, a detective for the Pinellas County sheriff’s department known as “The Dead Detective.” As a child, he had been momentarily dead before being resuscitated, and since becoming a detective he’s felt a strange connection with the deceased. His latest case is the murder of a woman who was a convicted child molester. As more bodies begin to appear around town and Doyle gets deeper into the case, he is forced to face the ghosts of his past that he had spent a lifetime suppressing.

A former journalist, three-time Pulitzer nominee and winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Heffernan’s novels are steeped in realistic crime on both the micro and macro levels. Whether focusing on the global or local stage, Heffernan has the ability to craft compelling dramas that engage with history and politics while still entertaining readers and without falling into the trappings of didacticism or dilettantism. He does his research, and it shows in the strong details and compelling dramas of his novels. The Corsican (1983), which looks at international drug smuggling in Laos in the mid-20th century, reaches Graham Greene-like heights of political intrigue. Blending cultural anthropology and crime fiction, Beulah Hill (2000) is Heffernan’s masterpiece, an investigation into a racially motivated murder in a small Vermont town during the Great Depression. And The Dinosaur Club (1997), about the corruption of corporate America, is as timely as ever and remains one of the author’s most popular works.

Broderick, his first novel, was published in 1980. It is based on the real-life figure of Johnny Broderick, a tough New York cop as legendary as he is notorious. Nicknamed “The Beater,” Broderick is anything but your conventional heroic policeman; he’s as corrupt, violent, and as crooked as the gangster and hoods he hunts down. Heffernan’s worldview is decidedly realist: his characters are imperfect, their worlds harsh and violent, and justice is rarely achieved on either the individual or judicial level.

Heffernan intertwines the personal and the political in complex dramas in which characters are involved with issues that are larger than they fully comprehend. Heffernan’s background in journalism shows through in his analysis of the roles that individual people play in national and global dramas. In Acts of Contrition (1986), when reporter Jennifer Brady begins to investigate up-and-coming politician Tony Marco and his background with the local waterfront union, she discovers that if finding out the truth is difficult, reporting it is even harder. Corruption isn’t a single cancerous cell than can be excised with one article—it’s a living cancerous organism with an extended family tree.

In Heffernan’s world, individuals may have the power to make or break history—but that power is not always in their control. You can see this at play in the political struggles in The Corsican and Acts of Contrition. Even in Cityside (1999), a journalist finds that writing an expose on medical malpractice in order to help save a child's life is not so morally cut and dry, and that saving a life isn't the top priority for either the doctors or his editors. A more personal version of this desire appears in A Time Gone By (2003), whose narrative is split between a cop in 1975 looking back at one of his first murder cases in 1945, and the long string of tragedies that all began with a decision he made back then. Heffernan is a subtle stylist, and one of his finest touches is using the past tense for the 1975 narration and the present tense for the 1945 section. So haunted is the protagonist that the past is more immediate than the present—a perfect evocation of noir’s lingering and nagging sense of regret.

At NoirCon 2010, I had the immense pleasure of meeting Heffernan and having an on-stage dialogue with the author. Following the convention, Heffernan was kind enough to do a follow-up interview with me regard his long career as a writer.

Pulp Serenade: At NoirCon, you mentioned that The Dead Detective was based on a true story. What was the original story, and what attracted you to it?

William Heffernan: A true story in the sense that the woman who was killed was real or at least based on a real woman. Shortly after I moved to Florida in 2005 the media exploded with the story of an extraordinarily beautiful middle school health teacher who had seduced one of her 13 year old students. What intrigued me was that she seemed to relish the publicity. You could see the little glint in her eyes. She dressed extremely well, was a former swimsuit model and had just married six months earlier. She made love to the student in her own bed while her husband was at work, in her automobile while the boy’s 15-year old cousin drove them along back roads – all the time watching the driver watch her in the rearview mirror. The boy she seduced was ultimately devastated by the publicity that ensued, and as I watched her on television I would look over at my own 13-year old son and wonder what was going on in the mind of a woman who could obviously have any adult male she wanted.

At the same time, there was another story about two young boys whose mother had decided to kill them by drugging them, placing them in her garage and starting the engine of her car. Both boys were clinically dead when police, alerted by a neighbor, found them. The younger, smaller boy, who was six, could not be revived. The older boy was brought back to life. The mother, who belonged to evangelical church, claimed she wanted her sons to “Go to Jesus and wait for her.” The media ate up the story, quoting the older boy extensively, when the state’s attorney claimed he would testify and help put his murderous mother in the gas chamber. The boy told the media he was prepared to testify but all he really wanted was to be sure his mother never got out of prison. He was ten years old.

Of course the “what if” hit me immediately. What if the 10 year old grew up to be a homicide detective, who could (because he had been there himself) feel what murder victims felt at the time of their death, and what if he now had to investigate the murder of a child abusing woman, who had done precisely what this Tampa school teacher had done. Add to that the emotional problem of having his mother coming up for parole. I couldn’t wait to get to the computer.

PS: You’ve been writing novels for three decades now. Do you feel like you have a comfortable routine down, or does each new novel still pose a certain challenge? If so, what challenge did The Dead Detective pose?

WH: My routine is well established but each novel always presents its own challenge. In the case of The Dead Detective the challenges were many. I was new to Florida and had to learn the area, it’s police procedures, etc. I came here from Vermont and New York City, and Florida is a far cry from either, from its flora to its overwhelming abundance of strip clubs and near fanatical Christian churches (often, I suspect, populated by the same people). So it was a long learning experience.

PS: On a similar note, after writing novels for so long, what is the most fun part of the process for you?

WH: I love the writing, of course, feeling the characters develop until they are as real as any person I might meet, perhaps even realer because they live with me 24 hours a day. The research is the most fun because it helps me develop that little world that I will live within for a year or more.

PS: At what age did you start writing, and who were some of the early influences?

WH: I started writing seriously in college and was influenced by Henry Miller at first; then Joyce and Faulkner, Hemmingway, Jim Thompson, Graham Greene, Alain Robbe-Grillet, an eclectic bunch. In truth, almost anyone I read in high school and college influenced me and filled me with the desire to do what they were doing.

PS: As a journalist, you were awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and nominated for three Pulitzer Prizes. What were the news stories which won and were nominated?

WH: The Kennedy Award and one of the Pulitzer nominations were for a series of articles I wrote for the Daily News exposing corruption and abuse in the Foster care system in New York City. The series resulted in 11 new federal laws. It also won a Heywood Broun Award. The other Pulitzers were for articles detailing corruption in the New York State prison system and the other for political corruption in Buffalo, New York, which also won another Heywood Broun Award.

PS: What prompted the shift from journalism to writing novels?

WH: Writing novels is what I always wanted to do. Journalism, which I loved, was a way to earn a living as a writer until I found a way to crack into the world of book publishing.

PS: Tarnished Blue, which won the Edgar in 1996 for Best Paperback Original Novel, was the fourth Paul Devlin novel. How do you sustain a character for that long and what keeps a character and his actions fresh?

WH: With great difficulty. That’s why the Devlin books ended with the seventh book. I couldn’t keep the characters fresh any longer.

PS: Beulah Hill is not only one of your darkest books but, in my opinion, one of your best. Can you talk about how you discovered this forgotten piece of American history and what drew you to it as a writer?

WH: I was looking for a house in Vermont in 1988 and the realtor had given me a map so I could follow the rural areas we were traveling through. As we headed for a house she wanted to show me I saw on the map that the road was called “Nigger Hill.” When I questioned this, she told me the name had been changed to “Lincoln Hill” in 1985 (Vermonters were slow with their political correctness in those days). When I reached the house I questioned the owner about it and was told she knew little but there was an abandoned African-American cemetery in the woods behind the house. I went looking and found it and the names of the African-American characters in the book were taken from those gravestones. This little discovery began six years of research to find the story that eventually became Beulah Hill.

PS: Many of the characters in Beulah Hill are filled with hate, bigotry, and ignorance. As a writer, how do you cope with these emotions, particularly when you do not personally side with them?

WH: In my mind I become each character and they show me where the hate and bigotry comes from. Sounds spooky but it’s true and if the characters don’t do that for you, become that real in your mind, the book will fail.

PS: One of the things that struck me about A Time Gone By is its unconventional structure that switches between first and third person narrators. In the 1970s, as an older man, Jake’s story is told through third person. But when he is remembering back to the 1940s, the story is told through first-person perspective. Why the switch?

WH: I wanted to move back and forth without having to alert the reader about what I was doing. I also wanted to write 1940 sections in the style of the great Noir writers of that time, and the 1970 section in my own literary voice. As Marilyn Stassio noted in the New York Times review, it was a clear homage to those great noir writers – Gardner, Thompson, Hammet, etc.

PS: I saw that you reviewed several books for the Washington Post a few years back. What was the experience like for you as a critic?

WH: I started reviewing books at the request of the editor, who was a close friend. I found it very difficult, especially when I had to gently pan Mario Puzo’s last book, which was published after his death. I admired him so much, and I’m still convinced he did not finish that book himself. At least I hope he didn’t. I decided to give up reviews after that.

PS: You are mainly known for your novels, but do you also write short stories?

WH: I started out writing short stories, but have given them up. The novel is where I belong.

PS: For Tarnished Blue you went on tour with Mickey Spillane. At NoirCon you told me a wonderful story that involved both of you answering a question about how long it took to write a book. Could you recount the story again?

WH: Mickey and I were appearing at a bookstore, largely before a crowd of middle aged and older women. One woman asked us how long it took us to write a book. I went into a long (too long) and convoluted answer about it depending on how much research was needed, etc. Mickey, God love him, just looked her in the eye and gave her the truest and most honest answer I have ever heard flow from a writer’s mouth. Mickey who had a number of ex-wives still collecting alimony said: “It depends on how much I need the money.”

PS: Lastly, what is up next for you? Any projects you can let us know about?

WH: I just finished a book set during the civil war, and I’m starting the research for another “Dead Detective” book, this one set within the Scientology community in Clearwater, Florida.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Talmage Powell on Words and Writing, Part 2

This is third-hand information, and perhaps more than a tad apocryphal, but nonetheless amusing.
"Day Keene, when he first introduced me to Talmage Powell...told me that Powell only wrote on Friday afternoons. With the volume of work he's turned out over the years, this had to come under the heading of a base canard, but Powell apparently thought it amusing enough not to deny it." --Robert Turner, Some of My Best Friends Are Writers, But I Wouldn't Want My Daughter To Marry One!, page 176-177

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Even More Love and Admiration for W.C. Fields

Over at AltScreen, my outpouring of love and admiration for W.C. Fields continues.

"Speaking Fields: The Gift of Gab" is an appreciation of Fields' inimitable, bizarre vocabulary.
"Equal parts carnival barker and poet, Fields made ballyhoo sound like opera. As he grew older and his frame bulkier, his voice became increasingly lithesome, exhibiting an uncommon playfulness and range. Fields could shout at the top of his lungs, speak out of the sides of his mouth, or insult you under his breath, but he always brought a melody to his speech, such that one often thinks of Fields as much as a vocalist as a humorist."
I also pay tribute to my favorite Fields movie, "The Fatal Glass of Beer."

Earlier in the week, I posted a link to this paean to Fields' two most recurring character types: "The Con-Man Philosopher and the Everyday Sucker."