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This Land is Noir Land

Oct 13, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

The Devil's HighwayI’ve always wanted to drive cross-country. Would have done it in college, except for two small things: (a) no car, and (b) no money.

But now that I own a motor vehicle (granted, a minivan) and have a little more folding green, I decided to take my family on a cross-country drive this past summer. We spent twelve days trekking from Philly to the Pacific Ocean, stopping at whatever caught our eye.

Of course, being a crime writer, my eye usually goes to dark places.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the allergy pills took hold . . . and I came to the realization that the U.S.A.—the whole dang thing—was an extremely noir country. Everywhere you look, there’s something to remind you of that French word for “black” that Otto Penzler thinks we all use incorrectly.

Don’t believe me? Here are only a few of our trip highlights: Continue reading ›

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The True Believer

Oct 12, 2010 in Books, Mulholland Authors

Every writer needs a true believer on his team. I am a literary agent, and I am a true believer. I am a creative partner and a business partner to a group of talented, ambitious, and hardworking authors. I’m a good editor, I know a lot of people who can publish your book or buy your rights, and I can negotiate a sweet contract with them. But my real job is just to believe.

Publishing is a creative business. Everyone who works in this industry is semi-crazy with the belief that we are working on something that is going to make a mark, become something special, maybe even invent an entire subgenre. I believe in the endless possibility of a good creative idea. That’s why I hate rejecting submissions. I sometimes sit on them when I should just say no, because I believe they can be fixed. I am sick with this belief; I can see the potential in almost everything. Yet in my heart I know they can’t all be saved.

But here’s how it goes when it’s good: One day a writer tells me about an idea. I tell her it rocks, because it does. A few months and a few drafts later, it is an 85,000-word novel under contract with a publisher. With an on-sale date at bookstores and a very pretty cover. Soon after that, it’s a signed first edition or downloading to your iPad in fifteen seconds and your friends are talking about it. The next year, it’s winning a big award and we’re all drunk with the celebration. Then I have cool-looking copies of the book in Polish and Chinese translations sitting on my office bookshelves, and the guy I first pitched the film rights to is on the telephone with me seriously talking about Nicolas Cage playing the lead in the film adaptation. This kind of stuff happens because we all believe.

My belief disrupts my family life. Last week, Duane Swierczynski delivered the first draft of his new novel Fun and Games. It seems like we just pitched this as a story idea not fifteen minutes ago. It is so damned good that I blew off the Friday night movie my wife and I rented to watch together just so I could finish reading it. Sadly, my wife understands. She wants to read it, too.

Continue reading ›

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Sinking the Titanic

Oct 11, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors, Mulholland News, Writing

Man with Tommy GunBest interview question I’ve ever been asked: What’s the worst thing your parents think you’ve done? Not actually done, but that they think you’ve done.

My answer: Heroin.

I love doing research. It’s like cheating, but with permission.

Here are some of the things I have done in the name of Research: learned to ride a motorcycle; became a certified EMT for both New York State and Monterey County, California; had my sneakers stick to the floor in a peep-show booth back when Times Square was not a place where you took the kids; drunk tea with nuns; crawled through the Portland Shanghai Tunnels; watched a domme flog her sub in an S&M club while he hung on a St. Andrew’s Cross; visited the Oregon State Police Crime Lab; learned to play guitar from a former member of Everclear; learned how to field-strip an M1911; gone on countless ride-alongs in countless cities; fired an HK MP5 on single, three-round, and full-auto; fired a Tommy Gun (only full-auto); fired many other types of firearms; hung out with junkies; hung out with methheads; hung out with rock bands; argued politics with a Political Officer at the State Department; gotten bronchitis standing in Lancashire fields taking reference photographs; been politely asked to leave the premises of Vauxhall Cross; run a day-long “scavenger hunt” through New York City and the boroughs (had to see if the route was possible, and to get the timing down); gotten sick-drunk with men who wouldn’t talk to me sober; been attacked by rats; trespassed; eavesdropped; learned the best way to burn someone alive; used a Starbucks bathroom seat-cover dispenser for a dead drop; been laughed at, mocked, threatened, and ignored.

Some of the things I’ve done.

Continue reading ›

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Jess Walter and Thomas Mullen on Character, Crime, Class, and the Whole Genre Thing

Oct 08, 2010 in Books, Mulholland Authors

Jess Walter writes about cops and feds, hapless realtors and laid-off journalists, poets and hit men. The protagonists of his three most recent novels are a mob informer living under Witness Protection and obsessed with his new voter registration card (Citizen Vince, winner of the Edgar Award), an NYPD survivor of 9/11 with a memory problem who gets mixed up in a shadowy intelligence organization (The Zero, nominated for the National Book Award), and a struggling journalist-poet who starts dealing pot to save his mortgage (The Financial Lives of the Poets, which was showered with acclaim last fall and was just issued in paperback).

I’ve never met Jess, but we’ve traded a few e-mails over the years, starting with the day I finished reading The Zero and was compelled to send him an electronic high-five immediately. Since his work seems to straddle the nefarious and hard-to-place (and some would say nonexistent) border between literary fiction and crime fiction, suspense and humor, genre and non-, he seemed an appropriate person to interview for Mulholland’s new website.

Following is a not terribly linear series of Qs and As we emailed each other over the past week, while he took a break from the publicity for The Financial Lives of the Poets paperback release and I procrastinated on writing a final chapter of my new manuscript.

THOMAS MULLEN: It seems to me that over the last few years the news has been full of stories about intelligence and espionage and new kinds of crime—CIA agents “rendering” and/or torturing people, journalists being prosecuted for their stories, the new “industries” around legalized pot in some states, etc. (Some of which are issues your last two books touch upon.) Are there times when you think, damn, there are so many amazing stories happening in the real world, how can fiction possibly keep up? Or do you think, wow, what a great time to be a novelist, especially one with a penchant for writing about cops and criminals?

JESS WALTER: I don’t imagine the gap between fiction and the real world is any larger than it ever was; how could you write a novel that kept up with events during, say, World War II? Fiction has always been the worst way to break news. That’s why, for me, character is a more rewarding and reliable starting point for a novelist. Real, organic-seeming characters can illuminate any event—whether it’s timely, the way I’ve worked recently, or steeped in history, like your novels. I like what Emerson said: “Fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures.”

Continue reading ›

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Bernie Madoff: Noir Icon?

Oct 07, 2010 in Guest Posts

Bernie Madoff was in the news again recently—or at least his bankruptcy case was. It seems the trustee and some of Madoff’s victims are fighting over legal fees—surprise, surprise. It was a small story, and just the latest chapter in a long saga, but it had me thinking again about Madoff, and about the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Which, given that I write crime fiction, often with Wall Street backdrops, is probably inevitable. After all, the case is a playground of crime fiction motifs, and rich in inspiration.

In the event you somehow missed it, here’s the story in a nutshell: Bernie Madoff rose from modest beginnings in Queens, New York, to become what my grandfather would’ve called a big macher on Wall Street—a big deal. He amassed huge wealth and influence as chief executive of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, the firm he founded in 1960. His company was a major market-maker in stocks, and the technology he helped develop was instrumental in the creation of the NASDAQ. The firm eventually came to employ Madoff’s wife, brother, sons, and other relatives, and Bernie himself became an elder statesman in the financial services industry, serving on the boards of major industry groups and as chairman of the NASD.

In the late 1970s, Bernie added a new line of business to his company: an investment-management division, with affluent individuals as its client base. By 2001, this division had grown into one of the largest hedge funds in the world, with investors that included universities, hospitals, charitable organizations, bold-faced names in sports and entertainment, as well as banks and other hedge funds. It was this part of his business that Madoff was discussing in December 2008 when he confessed to his sons: “It’s all just one big lie…basically a giant Ponzi scheme.” And so it was: Madoff had for years been fabricating client statements so that they showed steadily growing investment account balances. If ever clients wanted to liquidate their holdings, they were paid with money from other investors. The rest of the cash apparently went to finance Bernie’s lavish lifestyle.

Madoff’s sons went to the FBI and Madoff was arrested, and the messy aftermath began. Personal fortunes—many large, but some quite modest—were wiped out. There were an unknown number of stress-induced heart attacks and strokes among Madoff investors and at least two suicides (a retired British soldier whose family fortune had evaporated and a French money manager who’d lost over $1 billion of his own and his clients’money). Several charities—also Madoff investors—closed their doors for good, and anti-Semites the world over gleefully trotted out the usual slanders about Jews and money.

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The Meat of Children

Oct 06, 2010 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Favela Rocinha Rio de JaneiroAnd then those strange people flew those big planes into those big buildings.

You remember that, yes?

There was a vogue born in the aftermath, a fashion for declaring the death of things. As if actual deaths in the thousands were insufficient to the popular appetite for such things. Irony, particularly in the literary mode, was accounted an early casualty.

A rumor of demise that proved to be somewhat exaggerated.

This recollection occurred not in light of the recent anniversary, but was spurred a few days after when the Census Bureau reported an increase in the number of Americans and residents of the U.S.A. living below the poverty line.

A quick glance at the lead deposited this ratio in my brain: 1 in 7 American residents are now living in poverty.

The poverty line has been rather notoriously jammed against an invisible obstruction for several decades. Weighted by the burden of a fifty-year-old instrument of calculation, it has snagged on a flange of economics. Were the flange filed smooth and the weight cut away, the line would likely elevate until a vast, and not entirely unaware-of-their-circumstances, population found themselves under the thin shade of its protection.

Still, it is plenty high enough at present to overtop those 1 in 7 residents.

GunkidSpeaking of putting a bullet in the head of irony, 1 in 5 U.S. resident children are currently living below that line.

You can’t, as the comedians are wont to say, make this shit up.

Facts, in these situation, kick the shit out of fiction every fucking time.

The present moment is born of the past. The future moment is born also of the past, and the now.

1 in 5 children born from the past into present poverty. How the fuck did that happen?

Ultimate causality is a fool’s quest. It’s the arrow that never reaches its target because you halve, again and again, the distance it must cover to reach the bull’s-eye. A tail that no worm can consume without eating first its own head.

Why bother?

Is the poverty of children connected to job loss connected to economic collapse connected to heedless profiteering connected to wartime economies connected to overseas invasions connected to fireballs billowing from holes rent into the sides of skyscrapers by passenger jets?

Heat and pressure so intense it vaporized flesh and bone.

Continue reading ›

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Michael Connelly Drives Mulholland: EXCLUSIVE Video

Oct 05, 2010 in Books

Today is the publication date of Michael Connelly’s new novel The Reversal, which we of course devoured the minute we got our hands on it. Michael Connelly is an amazing writer and chronicler of Los Angeles.

Below is a video, exclusive to MulhollandBooks.com of Michael Connelly driving on Mulholland Drive, talking about The Reversal and the role that that the road plays in the book. (Please note that this video does contain a bit of information about the end of The Reversal. If you don’t want to know anything before you’ve read the book, you might want to wait to watch the video until after you’re done. Which, let’s be honest, you should be soon because it’s so good.)

This video is from The Reversal enhanced eBook, which is available for the iBook application and the iPad Kindle application. The enhanced eBook includes many more videos like this one created exclusively for the eBook, as well as interactive maps of Los Angeles featuring locations from The Reversal, commentary by Michael Connelly, author Q&A, timelines of major events in the lives of Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller and much more.

Download from the iBook store.
Download from the Kindle store.

Want to show your love for Michael Connelly?  Check in to The Reversal on entertainment social network GetGlue via the web or GetGlue’s app and share on Twitter and/or Facebook to earn Michael Connelly-related stickers. Collect a variety of 7 or more GetGlue stickers, and GetGlue will mail crack-n-peel versions of the stickers to you to display proudly.

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King Pleasure

Oct 04, 2010 in Books, Comic Books

more super rainI work in midtown, an area of Manhattan that isn’t often accused of having an excess of personality. Good restaurants within a few blocks’ radius are hard to come by. Chains dominate in all endeavors. But whenever I need to pop out at lunch for a few minutes of sweet escape from the nonconventional bookshelves, I’m glad the office is within easy walking distance of at least one New York underground staple: Midtown Comics.

Like Jonathan Santlofer, Brad Meltzer, and Max Allan Collins—like a whole lot of other crime and suspense addicts out there, I suspect—I, too, initially cut my teeth on the monthlies. It somehow became a tradition in my family that, after my father took me into town to get a haircut, we’d drop by the local independently owned comic store and I’d get to pick out one issue to add to my small but growing collection.

For me, it was less Batman or horror rags—I was a Marvel kid to start, mainly thanks to The Amazing Spider-Man around the time the villains Venom and Carnage were created.venom vs carnage

Whether or not all of my selections were age-appropriate is up for debate—I was young enough to still enjoy being read aloud to on occasion. During the recitation of a particularly climactic issue of X-Men, in which Magneto uses his power to forcefully expel all of Wolverine’s adamantium from his body—essentially gutting him like a fish—my father was horrified enough to refuse to continue right in the middle of a text box.

From then on, I kept my reading mostly to myself.

Like any self-respecting comic store, Midtown Comics has a section devoted to back issues many times deeper than the new offerings. This was my destination—not for one of the Marvel giants that initially drew my eye, but for something a little more obscure: Malibu Comics’ Solitaire #1. An origin story that has stuck with me to this day, of special note because it’s more than just derring-do, babes and bad guys. It’s a crime story. Continue reading ›

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It’s All about the Readers

Oct 01, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

When the wonderful folks here at Mulholland asked me if I would contribute a small post to their website, I found myself filled with a sense of pride at being asked and of panic at having to create the content.

It was similar to the panic I suffer from on a weekly basis at (excuse the plug) the group blog, Do Some Damage (www.dosomedamage.com), where seven hardy crime-writing souls — and yours truly — post daily on whatever strikes their fancy. But here, at the birth of a great-looking imprint like Mulholland, I figured I wanted to say something about reading and writing and what they mean to me.

But at first, I couldn’t figure it.

Couldn’t get a handle on what I wanted to say.

What is important to me about this business?

What is it that makes me stick things out as a writer (and a bookseller — my day job is working for a national chain here in the UK), despite all the doom and gloom that is being broadcast about the industry from so many quarters?

And then I realized:

It’s all about the readers.

All writers — all truly dedicated writers — have to start out as readers. The only way you can really understand this gig is if you know who you are writing for. And you can’t just understand a reader as some abstract thing. You have to be able to know them inside and out, understand that every reader is unique, that every readers loves and loathes literature in equal measure, because it’s all about that fragile connection that occurs between the words on the page and what happens in your mind.

Readers are who we are all writing for. Not other writers. But readers. Those who devour our words, who are thrilled, intrigued, and stimulated by these seemingly random collections of lines and squiggles. Because that’s what it’s all about.

Continue reading ›

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Noir Is for Losers

Sep 30, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

Noir.

Slippery little word, isn’t it? French, but applied in retrospect to American movies that were themselves informed by aspects of German Expressionism. According to Otto Penzler, when people profess to be fans of the sub-genre, they very rarely know what they’re talking about. As editor, critic, and proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop, Penzler obviously does.

The one thing noir isn’t, he says, is PI fiction. In fact the two sub-genres are “philosophically diametrically opposed.” Noir fiction’s “existential, nihilistic tales” represent the pitch-black flip side to PI fiction’s more optimistic slant. PI fiction displays an ethical code; noir fiction wallows in the gutter. PI fiction tends to restore order (Penzler’s connection to the sheriff cleaning up the wayward town is key); noir fiction must end in utter annihilation.

On the face of it, there’s not a lot to argue with here, other than the usual exceptions thrown up in response to a concrete definition written to an equally concrete word count. And indeed, there’s something about the definition that feels a little too concrete.

Let’s forget for a moment whether a sub-genre can comprise existentialism, nihilism, and some of the more basic concepts of predeterminism, and instead go right back to its roots. Penzler states that noir “has its roots in the hard-boiled private eye story that was essentially created by Dashiell Hammett in the pages of Black Mask Magazine in the 1920s,” and while I think it’s safe to say that the PI archetype (as opposed to the amateur sleuth or consulting detective) originated in its most popular and credible form with Hammett, my own feeling is that the roots of noir go much further back than the early part of the 20th century. Indeed—and you’ll have to forgive me for sounding like a substitute English teacher here—I believe noir can be traced right back to a trio of bad-asses named Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, the fathers of tragedy.

As evidenced in the work of the above and defined by Aristotle, the tragic hero is a man “who neither is a paragon of virtue and justice nor undergoes the change to misfortune through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake.” This mistake needn’t be an action on the character’s part, either—it could be and often is an inherent personality flaw, hubris, or a failure of the spirit that leads to his eventual doom. But the point is that there are no purely evil characters, that in even the worst of the tragic heroes, there is a spark of humanity that keeps him compelling to an audience. It may not be the most pleasant spark, but it’s there. And it’s that spark that makes noir characters compelling. After all, there isn’t that much separating the motives of Oedipus and Bill Rhodes, Macbeth and Jaime Figueras, or Ferdinand and J. J. Hunsecker, and Penzler’s assertion that “noir is about losers” who pretty much deserve their fates robs noir of its humanity and renders it instead a series of quickie morality plays with horny puppets double-crossing each other to death.

It is the critic and bookseller’s first instinct to categorize, of course, but the danger in this is that only the broad strokes are seen. Defining noir fiction by its lust-driven losers and doom-laden outsiders brings us perilously close to cliché, and cliché can only lead to stagnation. It’s the same thing that crippled the PI sub-genre, and while there are certainly some excellent writers working in a more traditional vein (Laura Lippman, Sean Chercover, Michael Koryta, and Russel D McLean, to name but four), I still think we’re waiting for someone to shake that sub-genre up the way Pelecanos or Crumley did.

So then, with an open mind, why can’t PI fiction be noir fiction? Well, the fact is, it can.

The first novel that springs to mind is Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen the sterling 1986 adaptation Angel Heart, which moved the story from New York to New Orleans and certainly made me think twice before eating another hard-boiled egg. The book opens with a quote from Aristotle, from Oedipus the King, no less— “Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that’s wise!” —and a typically retro hard-boiled first line:

“It was Friday the thirteenth and yesterday’s snowstorm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse.”

Although there’s a strong element of pastiche in Falling Angel is a one-off, and PI fiction by its nature tends toward the series, which is perhaps why I can think of more noir movie PIs than I can literary. But I think the first four Jack Taylor novels (ending with The Dramatist’s final bleak tableau) certainly count as a noir cycle, and the only reason I don’t include the others is that Bruen hasn’t finished the series yet, and I’d be surprised if Jack lives happily ever after. And I might as well admit that I have a dog in this particular fight myself. He’s not a particularly big dog, but he’s proven game enough to make it through four books. There does, however, seem to be a distinct lack of properly noir PIs. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to read them—comments are open.

Also, this lack of crossover reminds us of how fixated we can be as both authors and readers (yes, readers—you’re the ones dictating taste here) on the window dressing of a sub-genre as opposed to what made it compelling in the first place. And while every sub-genre waxes and wanes in popularity, isn’t there also a chance that every wane may be its last?

Ray Banks is the author of the Cal Innes novels, the last of which, Beast of Burden, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2011. He’s also written a bunch of short stories that have been anthologized in such places as Dublin Noir, Damn Near Dead, Expletive Deleted, and Shattered. When he’s not mouthing off over here, he can be found mouthing off over at his website, www.thesaturdayboy.com.

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