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Do You Have to Be a Murderer to Write Killer Fiction?

Sep 29, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts, Writing

Everyone reading this column has one thing in common: we all love crime novels. The question I’d like to pose is, are the best crime novels written by those experienced in crime, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it?

Crime fiction is about murder. Do crime writers who have experienced violence write different kinds of murder mysteries than people who never have? I think so. Just like the best war novels are almost most often written by men who’ve experienced war (From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Naked and the Dead). In American fiction, as far as I know, the only great war novel ever written by a guy who had no experience in war was Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage.

My favorite crime novel, The Hoods by Harry Grey, was written by a man who was serving time for manslaughter in Sing Sing. While it is true one of the most successful books, The Godfather, was written by a man with no known ties to the Mafia, Mario Puzo was smart enough to pick up a great deal of street gossip and anecdotes from his Mafia-infused neighborhood. In addition to this, as a veteran of World War II, he witnessed much violence and corruption in postwar Berlin. Out of this came his wonderful novel The Dark Arena. Perhaps the greatest crime trilogy of the 20th century, the Studs Lonigan books, was written by James T Farrell, a guy who knew many Studs Lonigans in the poor and violent Chicago neighborhood he grew up in. And of course, we also have Nelson Algren.

Perhaps a writer can compensate for not personally taking part in violence by being an acute observer. Therefore we have people like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and James Ellroy, who may not have participated in violence themselves, but avidly follow and report on it. Of course, there are many criminals who have published successful crime books, but these are usually ghosted. I know in my case, my fiction comes out of the eighteen and a half years I spent growing up in East New York, the toughest slum in the country. Since I was not tough, I had to be extremely brutal in order to win my streetfights. A writer who had to decide whether or not to murder people writes different crime fiction than someone who hasn’t. Now I’m not saying I killed anyone, but out of the ninety or so street fights and fistfights I was in, there were a number of times I made decisions to try. As Mike Tyson, a guy who grew up in Brownsville–East New York, said in the documentary that bears his name, street fights were different from his fights in the ring. While street fighting, he had to beat his opponent so badly he would not be able to return to his block and bring back reinforcements or a gun. In my fiction, when I’m writing a violent scene, all I have to do is remember my past. There are certain things that writers who have engaged in violence know that writers who’ve never witnessed or participated in any can never know. A former editor of mine, Brando Skyhorse, once happened to ask me questions about the authenticity of a scene I wrote in which one character was pleading for his life. Without even thinking, I responded that I’d had a number of people plead with me to let them live, and this is what they said. Brando kept the scene. I am not proud of how I grew up, but by writing fiction I have managed to constructively use the violence I witnessed and participated in. This violence came from both warring street gangs and the young hoodlums who grew up to be portrayed in movies like Goodfellas.

There are other crime writers, including ex-cops and criminals, who, like me, participated in and witnessed tremendous amounts of violence. People who experienced violence in the past and have the talent to write about it will probably write more realistic crime scenes than people who have to fall back on their imaginations. If realism is your standard, it makes sense to first read writers who in their pasts and possibly present are actually involved in crime. A person who has fired a gun or investigated a murder will write a different book than someone who hasn’t.

Joseph Trigoboff lives in New York City with his wife and two children. He is the author of The Shooting Gallery and The Bone Orchard. For his novels, Joe draws much on his childhood in the violent neighborhood of East New York/Brownsville where street and fist-fights were commonplace and packs of wild dogs roamed the streets, he is currently working on a memoir about this period in his life.


The Spy Gadget Vendor Who Loved Me

Sep 28, 2010 in Guest Posts

day 91 - flickr style spyIn the last two years, my work as a national security reporter brought me into contact with an array of bright and gallant intelligence community personnel ranging from a temp at the National Security Agency to the director of the CIA. As it happens, the source who had the greatest influence on my latest espionage novel was a civilian who distributes cheap spy gadgets from his father’s basement.

We’ll call him Steve. Because his work involves a lot of legal gray area—using just about any of his products as intended violates electronic surveillance laws, potentially making you the next Linda Tripp—he prefers pseudonymity. But he happily shared his story with me, offered insights into the industry, and listed his bestselling devices.

Three years ago, his business consisted only of a website and his conviction that the URL would be found by suspicious spouses and people with nannies they didn’t trust. Since then, eavesdropping by private individuals has created an industry with about $2 billion in annual revenue—comparable to that of the National Hockey League. Of that, Steve pulls in about $2 million, all via the Web, which is home to almost all such transactions.

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Cathartic Thrills

Sep 24, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

AirplaneA few years ago I was on a book tour in Spain, where I spent two days in a hotel being interviewed by reporters. Interestingly, nearly all of them posed a similar inquiry: What’s it like not to write serious fiction?

I admit, at first I was thrown by the question. But in the end I answered it with an inquiry of my own. How many times have seen a person reading War and Peace on an airplane? None of the reporters answered me, so I offered the answer for them. None. Then I asked a second question: How many times have you seen someone reading a thriller on an airplane? Of course, the answer was obvious. Many. I followed up these two questions with a statement: I doubt that Tolstoy could have written a popular thriller. Which is similar to my doubt that I could write like Tolstoy. That doesn’t make either one of us better than the other, it simply makes us different.

It’s true, no thriller will ever win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize for Literature. They rarely win anything (except of course the Thriller awards, bestowed each July by the International Thriller Writers, of which I am currently the co-president). And it could be argued that no thriller will change the face of world literature. Great analyses will not be written about them, and rarely are they favorably viewed by any of the major book review outlets.

Those things also don’t make them bad, they simply make them different.

Thrillers perform one simple task: they entertain. For a short while they allow readers to escape their own world, to forget their own troubles, and to just have a good time. Luckily, the genre is packed with a multitude of sub-genres, each geared to its particular audience, who savor those subdivisions with a zeal that has long helped to sustain publishing houses.

A few months ago I received an email from a reader. He’d gone through a difficult divorce, then was involved in a car accident. While recuperating he’d read a number of thrillers, including all of my Cotton Malone series. He wanted me to know that my stories had helped him through a difficult time. They’d allowed him time to relax, and he said that without them his recovery period would have been unbearable. And he’s not alone. Nearly every week I receive emails from servicemen and -women stationed overseas. They too want me to know that my stories were a welcome relief from the horrors they witness every day.

So what’s it like not to write serious fiction?

Not bad.

Not bad at all.

Steve Berry is the New York Times bestselling author of The Balkan Escape, The Paris Vendetta, The Charlemagne Pursuit, The Venetian Betrayal, The Alexandria Link, The Templar Legacy, The Third Secret, The Romanov Prophecy, and The Amber Room. His books have been translated into thirty-seven languages and sold in fifty countries. He lives in the historic old city of St. Augustine, Florida. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have founded History Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving our heritage. Visit to learn more about Berry and the foundation.


In Search of Crime Fiction’s Shadow Cabinet: Adventures of a Long Tail Reader

Sep 23, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

bookshelvesReading a book that not only entertains but is also deeply felt—deeply realized, created from a highly personal vision, strikes me as a kind of rebellion.

—Jeff VanderMeer (2002)

I was once called a champion of the obscure. Maybe because the books that often get me excited are the ones that others haven’t heard of yet; maybe because I always strive to be willing to try new things. While everyone is jumping up and down about Savages, by Don Winslow (and they should, because it’s a brilliant book and a potential game changer),  I’m the guy jumping up and down about Pike by Benjamin Whitmer. Maybe I’m just a kind of outlier. Or an oddball. I don’t know, that’s for others to decide, but for now, how about a new term: “Long Tail Reader.”

There’s nothing quite like finding that undiscovered small gem of a book, unknown to most or forgotten in time; the book that yields little if anything when you Google the title and author; the book that requires some proselytizing. Finding those books and bringing them in from the cold to be among a fellowship calls for a willingness to go just about anywhere in search of story: to other genres, to other mediums, to very small presses, to other communities.

I can’t speak for other Long Tail readers, but one thing that bothers me is when lists are made and the authors of said lists claim to have made an effort to include items that are “off the beaten path” or that are mavericks,” but they haven’t. My beef isn’t with the intent or even with the compilers of the lists; it’s the choices that often baffle me. If you’re going to choose something out there, then really make it out there.

I think it’s worth acknowledging up front that yes, there is a high level of subjectivity to what’s about to come. More important, though, I want to be very clear that this column is intended to be open-ended. I want this to be the start of a conversation that goes on and discusses more and more books. So talk to me. Not just for the rest of the day or until the next column is posted, but beyond that.

Some books are true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool members of the “Shadow Cabinet” (defined by Jeff VanderMeer as “an anti-canon that exists in the minds of those readers who have not been colonized by the all-too-familiar”). These books have either absorbed the history of the genre without being encumbered by it or have chosen to ignore it. This is crime fiction that fights against regressive trends and forces and looks ahead. Such books are innovative in ways that others aren’t. They may be more daring. They may be more structurally innovative. If these books share a common factor, it’s that they often don’t have any or many conventional or easily recognizable genre markers (to paraphrase George Pelecanos, not crime fiction per se but in the criminal milieu). Because of this they may require a more active reader who is willing to do some of the lifting or at least share the load. They can be difficult, and they can be challenging, but often they aren’t. Sometimes these books are already or are destined to become the cult classics of the genre.

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Box Set of Plenty . . .

Sep 22, 2010 in Guest Posts, Television

my new television setForm and content. Discuss.


How about format and content? Or platform and content? The thing is, technology drives behavior, and with constant changes in technology—upgrades, new developments, the occasional revolution—our behavior as consumers of “content” is never the same for very long.

An Amazon package arrived at my door the other day: the third and final season of Showtime’s Brotherhood. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m looking forward to it and will probably devour the thing in two or three sittings. Or maybe even just one.

But this isn’t the only way something like this can be ”consumed.” (Okay, watched). If I lived in the U.S.,  I might have followed season three of Brotherhood when it was first aired on TV, week by week. Or, if I lived in a country with a decent broadband infrastructure, I could presumably watch it all on my laptop, without bothering the mailman or the guys at the Amazon warehouse. For the present, though, the DVD box set is the platform of choice. That’s how I watched The Wire and the first three seasons of Mad Men. In fact, the latest season of Mad Men has just started on BBC 4, and I could follow it week by week if I wanted to, but you know what, I think I’ll probably wait . . .

Despite the temptation to binge, having the entire thing in front of you to watch when and how you choose is a great modern luxury. There’s certainly a lot to be said for the old way, that of watching one episode a week; it often engenders a sense of community, of a collective response in the form of the watercooler debate. I also remember following as a teenager, with all my schoolmates, the BBC’s brilliant serialization of I, Claudius and the unbearable, shared tension of waiting for the next episode. But that epic, almost tantric seven-day tingle of anticipation has now been telescoped down into the few fumbling moments between cutting short the end credits of one episode, getting back to Episode Selection in the main menu and booting up the next installment—at most, what, maybe a whole five or ten seconds?

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The Artistry of Ted Lewis

Sep 21, 2010 in Books, Film, Guest Posts

Years ago I mentioned during a conversation with a friend that a particular writer or filmmaker I admired just seemed to have that inborn artistic temperament. My friend challenged me to define what it means for a person to have that capacity, and I struggled to form an explanation—it’s one of those things you see clearly in your mind’s eye but have a hard time putting into words. What I didn’t realize then, but know now, is that I could have simply answered, “It’s what Ted Lewis had.”

Ted Lewis was a guy who had artistry coming out his pores. He first began expressing himself creatively as a young boy, decades before he wrote Jack’s Return Home, the brilliant and influential 1970 novel that established his still-strong reputation as the originator of the British school of hard-boiled crime fiction. Born in 1940 in the Manchester suburb of Stretford and raised for the most part in the small north Lincolnshire town of Barton-Upon-Humber, Lewis showed himself to have a keenly creative mind from his earliest days. In addition to writing fiction he was an artist and a musician, and although he never worked directly in film, he was a cinema buff forever fascinated by everything having to do with the movies.

Lewis was a gifted visual artist who spent a lot more time sketching figures in drawing pads than he did writing novels. He drew pictures for his friends and family members throughout his life. Some of his drawings are breathtaking. He did schoolboy sketches of zoot-suited gangsters, an early hint at the direction his artistic leanings would ultimately take him. His manuscript notebooks are filled with comics and other sketches. The birthday gift he almost always gave to friends and relatives was a drawing of them, or of something he felt was meaningful to them. Even in Lewis’s last days —when he was penniless and hopelessly addicted to alcohol—he was still taking time to draw pictures as gifts. At times it seemed like these drawings were the only way he knew to effectively communicate with other people, and this practice of expressing himself through his pictures began in his childhood years.

Lewis’s younger cousin Alf Lewis says that when their two families got together during their childhood, Ted (then Edward) was loath to make chitchat but always willing to have a family member sit for him:

“Edward looked at me as an inconvenience and hid constantly from the ‘what are you doing’ requests. It was always the fact that I stopped him from sketching and the moments of solitude that I think he was deeply involved in. In hindsight, I see that what he really wanted was to be alone in his own world. I do know that art was his passion. He would request that we [sit and pose] for him while he sketched. Each family member would sit in the kitchen on a wooden chair for hours, so he could sketch them. He clearly enjoyed doing this and never spoke much while drawing. He never tired of capturing images mentally and on paper. He never spoke about his future but I think that any other route was not an option other than something to do with art.”

Lewis’s school friend Zilla Gilfoy (née Yarwood) remembers his  constant practicing of the visual arts, from their time together as teenagers at Barton Grammar School: “In class we all remember his exercise book. He doodled all the time, everywhere, all over the covers and margins of the book. He did heavy lined black ink drawings of guns, daggers, Dick Tracy –style gangsters. He would be told off for spending his time in class doing this, but of course he would ignore it.”

Lewis took piano lessons as a boy and played that instrument in a traditional jazz band during his time at Hull Art College, where he developed his knack for the visual arts by formally studying commercial design. He  wrote about his time in the band in his debut novel, 1965’s awkwardly titled All the Way Home and All the Night Through. That jazz group was something Lewis and the other members of the band engaged in just as a good-time diversion from their studies, and he never seriously undertook piano playing as a profession. But he played the piano throughout his life, and music was always a factor in his books. Whether it be all the references to “Walker Brothers haircuts” in Jack’s Return Home, the list of jazz records Victor Graves and his various girlfriends listen to in All the Way Home and Lewis’s other straight-ahead literary novel, 1975’s The Rabbit, or the 1970s singer-songwriter albums George Fowler spins while losing his mind in Lewis’s swan-song novel GBH, he was always working music into his fiction. As an adolescent and a college student, he had a great love for traditional jazz, George Shearing and Dave Brubeck being among his favorites.  And in addition to becoming an able pianist, he seems to have been a serviceable drummer. Cousin Alf recalls how much young Edward, in the early years of his childhood, enjoyed singing hymns in front of the Salvation Army on a Sunday—an activity Jack Carter and his brother Frank took pleasure in, as recounted in one of the many vivid memory passages from Jack’s Return Home.

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Crime Fiction and Fact: Real vs. Hollywood

Sep 20, 2010 in Books, Film, Guest Posts

If there’s one thing I know about, it’s crime. I’ve dealt drugs, used drugs, been shot at (and shot back), participated in high-speed chases with the cops, and lived with a call girl. I’ve been involved in stabbings, check-kiting, armed robberies, and some other tricks and stratagems of the hustling trade. Even spent two-plus years in prison, in one of Indiana’s then two maximum security prisons, Pendleton, back in the sixties on a 2–5 for second-degree burglary.

I also have this weird desire to write true accounts of the criminal mind in novels, something I’ve seen very little of. Very few novels, other than true noir, ever come close.

What’s the reason most miss the true nature of the criminal mind? That’s easy. Most who write have never been criminals.

Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:

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Sex and Violence, Please

Sep 17, 2010 in Books, Film, Guest Posts

The announcement of Little Brown’s new suspense line, Mullholland, is a cause for rejoicing in mystery-writer circles…and not just because an attractive new market for the craft has revealed itself.  The launch reaffirms the notion that neither the book nor the mystery is dead, and that’s always good news to a writer trying to keep the customers entertained and the bills paid.

The larger argument over the life and death of the book – especially that sub-category known as the novel – will have to wait.  I can only say that while I am unlikely to purchase an e-book reader, having grown up loving the physical object that is a book, I have no prejudice against whatever delivery system is devised to get my content out there.  My son Nathan – now translating books and video games from Japanese into English – grew up on computers, even as he was surrounded by books, and he loves both the old-fashioned physical object but is, of course, comfortable with an electronic delivery system.  He grew up with computers the way I grew up with comic books (another reviled delivery system for storytelling, before the term “graphic novel” came along).

The specific concern of the mystery writer, however, is that the genre itself – and all its subdivisions – will survive in an age where the 24-hour news cycle comes up with more sex, violence and absurdity than we could ever hope to fathom, but much less fashion.  No self-respecting editor would allow a writer to invent an embezzler named Madoff, or a self-destructing movie queen called Lohan.  Reality has outstripped us, and in our weak moments, we feel threatened by “reality” TV (quotes needed).  That I hear my Hollywood agent casually using the phrase “scripted content” as the exception to the rule of current TV series, I get understandably nervous.

But the mystery story – the thriller – isn’t going anywhere.  The human craves storytelling, and liars like me will always have a place at the campfire.  Seems likely that a lazy but creative lout like yours truly created the fictional story by staying home from the mastodon hunt, cowering somewhere, only to come up with a whopper (lie, not burger) to earn himself a prehistoric steak come dinnertime.  That story probably was at least as scary as what the hunters came up against, possibly containing twists and turns to explain why the lout wasn’t able to make the trip with the other guys who went out on the hunt.

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Report from the Bookselling Front at The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles

Sep 16, 2010 in Books, Booksellers, Guest Posts

mulholland drive somewhereMulholland Drive is notorious in our town and around the world as a street of significant history—some of it quite shady, some of it fictional, some of it quite real. All of it makes for great crime (fiction). When we saw the name of the new Little, Brown imprint, we were intrigued.

It was when we saw the lineup of the authors that we started doing various versions of chair dancing. Okay, I did some chair dancing and some instantaneous Facebooking and Tweeting; Store Manager Bobby McCue—aka Dark Bobby—raised an eyebrow, nodded his head ever so slightly, and said, “Hmmm…this will be cool.”

Mulholland Books has gathered authors ranging from legendary and established icons to up-and-coming talents, with everything in between. And they’re reaching beyond our own American shores to the UK and Australia, and to various subgenres within the field. Most of these authors will already be known to our customers; many of these authors have become good friends to The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles. All of these authors will be of great interest to our customers and staff.

The authors and the mission of Mulholland Books are so very much at the heart of The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles: to promote the best of crime fiction, whether it’s from old friends or newcomers to the field. When I saw the press release on an author friend’s blog, I immediately fired off an email to Miriam Parker, head goddess/marketing director of Mulholland Books, and said, “Whatever we can do to help, let us know!” This is a party we want to be in on, from the very beginning—a venture that has The Mystery Bookstore Los Angeles written all over it!

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A Tribute to David Thompson

Sep 15, 2010 in Books, Booksellers

We are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming here today to remember someone who we admired and loved here at Mulholland Books: David Thompson. A devoted bookseller, publisher, lover of crime fiction and supporter of authors new and established. He will be missed. We send our condolences to his family, friends and every person whose life he touched, which we know was many. We will be posting tributes to David throughout the day here.

David was one of the best people I’ve met in this business, probably this world. He was about one thing, getting good stories into the hands of good readers. It’s a simple equation that is often lost. To that end he was a great champion to writers who needed a champion, who couldn’t find a champion in New York. That was David the businessman and publisher. Books first, writers first. But there was also David the friend. He took me to some of the better barbecue places in Houston and, of course, the food was good but I’ll always remember those times and those conversations. With David it was a movable feast. He will be greatly missed. -Michael Connelly

David Thompson’s death is tremendous loss to the crime fiction/mystery reading community. David was a man who loved books and found his dream job as a seller and publisher. He was fortunate in that regard; unlike many, he made his living in an endeavor for which he had great passion. I always looked forward to visiting him in Houston and will remember our excellent dinners together at the Thai restaurant around the corner from Murder by the Book and our spirited discussions there. He was always the first to call or e-mail me with a congratulations when something positive was happening with my career. David was a good guy and a good friend. -George Pelecanos

I did not know David well, but it was abundantly clear on those few occasions when I met him that aside from being a lovely guy, he was someone with boundless enthusiasm and an enormous passion for what he did. In a world where ‘numbers’ and ‘units’ and ‘product’ seem to count for so much, genuine passion such as David’s is something to cherish and he will be sorely missed. -Mark Billingham

Just Monday, David and I were emailing one another – about a book McKenna had liked, about another author whose next novel David was excited to read. In the sad hours after we heard he’d died, I was struck by the number of people saying essentially the same thing – we’d just heard from him, we’d just spoken to him, he’d just written to ask about a book he was interested in. David was an eternal enthusiast, always excited to read new books, always eager to bring them to the readers they deserved. What writer, what publisher could ask for more? And yet – we thought we’d have so much more to look forward to, from someone gone much too soon. -Reagan Arthur

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