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Thank You for Smoking

Sep 14, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

It has often been said by crime writers (this one included) that the community of mystery writers is uniquely clubbable, and, while there are one or two crime writers of whom I would use that word in the same way it is applied to baby seals, I think that, generally speaking, this description is true. It may be, of course, given that one or two crime writers are rather fond of a drink, that this reputation owes more than a little to alcohol. When a legend of the crime-writing community throws his arms around a relative newcomer and says, “I love you. I love your books. You’re my best friend!” it’s easy enough for the newcomer to believe all she has heard about what a warm and welcoming bunch mystery writers are and overlook the twelve beers and the bottle of tequila that the legend has poured down his throat.

But booze and the odd bad apple aside, I can certainly attest that, as a rule, crime writers seem to me to be a very decent bunch of men and women. There are certainly fewer crime writers who subscribe to the “in order for me to do well, you have to do badly” approach than some I have encountered in other areas I know reasonably well: television, the comedy industry, and, dare I say it, other areas of the wider literary community.

Someone — it may well have been Ian Rankin — once described crime writers as a “gang,” and that’s not a bad word to use, though admittedly we don’t have much in the way of initiation ceremonies. Well, there is the ancient and much revered Detection Club in the UK, but fear of reprisals forbids me going into that. OK, so there are skulls and candles . . . I’ve said too much already. But in the sense of camaraderie and of existing at what might be described as the periphery of the literary community, gang is a word that will do well enough. I heard an even better description while attending the Ned Kelly Awards in Australia a year or two back, when someone described crime writers as the “smokers of the literary community.” Now, whatever you think about smoking, this seemed and still seems to me to be utterly wonderful.
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Eerie Prescience

Sep 13, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

Breathing smoke from oil well fires in Kuwait was a health issue in 1991. It also caused safety problems, such as reducing driver visibility. Kuwait 1991Crime writers like to be right. We research. We anticipate. We like to think we do our homework well.

But it turns out that there is a point at which prescience becomes creepy.

I’ve been writing crime fiction for over twenty years, which is long enough that I occasionally allow myself the luxury of believing that I’ve run out of lessons to learn about things like life imitating art, or about much else. In the past, when current events left me feeling like an accidental sage with my fiction, I’ve usually ended up bemused—convinced that any similarity between my story and any subsequent real-world circumstance was incidental. Actual prescience or premonition never made it onto my short list of explanations.

Until last month. That’s when the stark parallel between my last book and an almost catastrophic event in New York City smacked me across the face.

It, literally, gave me chills.

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In Praise of the Erotic Thriller

Sep 10, 2010 in Books, Film, Guest Posts

I blame the movies.

Or, at any rate, bad movies.

Well, I suppose Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction were only half bad and could conceivably fall under the “guilty pleasures” category. But it’s the torrent of uninspired imitations that gave the genre a bad name: remember Shannon Tweed and a cohort of surgically augmented Hollywood and Playboy rejects, starlets that bared all and more against a vague plot involving guns and sex and gratuitous nudity that put the nail firmly in the coffin. And then Madonna got on the bandwagon with Body of Evidence, and a nadir of sorts was reached. Oh, Sharon Stone’s depilated mons veneris, you are to blame for so much derivative product!

Sadly, those B-movies and legions of straight-to-video (as it was then in pre-DVD days…) exploitationers have tarred the erotic thriller name badly.

To this day, whenever a character stumbles into a strip joint in a crime movie, we shudder at the prospect of yet another panorama of siliconed gals squirming around poles in the background with the camera panning across their shiny attributes as the protagonists go about their conversational business in the interest of advancing the plot. What plot? This is just tits and ass.

And how this has made life damn difficult for some of us in the crime writing wars!

It shouldn’t be so.

After all, what are the principal motivations for crime from days immemorial?

Money. Revenge. Religion. Power. Social pressures.

All of the above.

But what is the major factor that sets people, characters, on the path to transgression?

Yes, sex.

And in real life, sex is not just hydraulics, it is also a manifestation of love, emotions, relationships. The engine that makes us all function.

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Expect the Unexpected

Sep 09, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

and the sea will come to kiss meIt’s a hugely arrogant thing, to expect the attention of a reader for over three hundred pages. Any writer worth reading is aware of that. Sympathetic characters can take you only so far, a good hook can do some good, but ultimately, what most readers need is to know that the story is not one they could make up themselves.

This is the great gift of the unexpected.

Readers are told a story they could never guess, and the writer’s job is to make that credible and, when it works, make it the obvious answer, a solution so credible that the reader knows that of course this is what happened. Of course! With all of these characters and these factors in place, the rain, the car with no petrol, the gun with a single bullet—this is exactly what would happen.

Making the unexpected inevitable is the job of the writer.

Description is nice, observations are good, resonant depictions of familiar situations are great, but what really separates a good book from a book that stays in the mind and feels, when remembered, like it was something that happened to a cousin of a friend of yours, is the inevitability of the unexpected.

But what is unexpected? Giggling during a shoot-out. Love in a bank robbery. Kindness in a police station. They are unexpected but not brilliant because they are on the same emotional trajectory: love and hate, kindness and brutality, giggles and guns. What is truly unexpected, the curve ball that comes from nowhere to hit you on the side of the head, is not at all on that same trajectory.

Here’s the equation for it:

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Tips for Budding Crime Writers: Dialogue

Sep 08, 2010 in Guest Posts, Writing

Writer's BlockNot on the nose, please.
Conflict is essential in effective crime writing. I like to create conflict in my dialogue by keeping it oblique. For instance, it’s amazing how much tension can be generated simply by banning yes and no (and their synonyms). Try it at home or work, and you’ll soon see what I mean. There’s nothing worse than dialogue that’s a series of questions and answers. Particularly in an interrogation scene!

Don’t just talk; do something.
I also like to break up speeches with action. Three sentences are about as much as I’ll allow any character to utter in one burst. I then break off to let him scratch his chin, or, better still, interact with his immediate physical environment, and only after that will I let him continue speaking. Inserting a visual cue helps keep the reader grounded, develops a sense of place, and also provides variety.

Use said.
Ideally, if a character is given the right words, syntactical choices, body language, actions, etc., there’s no need for the writer to interpret his emotional state for the reader. Consequently, I rarely use any verb other than said to carry dialogue. Also, I use adverbs with caution. If there’s a choice between telling us he’s angry or showing us how his anger manifests itself, I’d always recommend the latter. For instance,

“I don’t much care for adverbs,” he fumed, angrily.

is less effective than,

“Adverbs stink,” he said, slamming his hand on the table so hard the plate rattled.

Okay, I lied. Don’t use said.
Lately, I’ve been using constructions like this one more and more:

“Don’t move.” John aimed his weapon at the burglar. “Or I’ll shoot.”

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Prose and Pictures

Sep 07, 2010 in Comic Books, Film, Guest Posts

Not everyone was schooled on comic books. But I was. I had a roomful: Superman, Batman, The Green Hornet, Spiderman; Archie, Betty and Veronica, Riverdale High, Little Archie. I had Classic Comics too: The Three Musketeers, The Last of the Mohicans, Robinson Crusoe (all of which I considered books until I finally read a real one).

But my favorites were horror comics: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Chamber of Chills, Terror Tales. I had them all. Stacks of them. It was difficult to get in and out of my bedroom. My mother complained it was impossible to clean. I didn’t see her point. Friends would come over and we’d lock ourselves in and read all day. I’d read and reread my favorites, stories that became etched in my preadolescent brain.

There was one called “The Couple,” or maybe “The Strange Couple,” where the writer (yes, these guys were writers) used the clever device of telling the story from the reader’s point of view — in other words, putting you in the driver’s seat, literally in a car on a dark and deserted country road. The car breaks down (of course), and when you seek help, you end up at the home of a ghoul and a vampire…and you can imagine the rest.

In another, a surgeon loses his hand in a car accident, goes a little nuts, murders a drifter, removes the guy’s hand, and sews it onto his own wrist with disastrous results.

These stories haunted me — overtaken by ghouls, losing a limb — but like an addict I craved more: more blood, more horror. The illustrations were always gruesome and sometimes sexy — until some crackpot wrote a book about how these comics were corrupting young minds and creating juvenile delinquents. That’s when the Comics Code was created, and I turned to writers like Poe and Woolrich, Chandler and Hammett. It was about the same time I gave up William Castle’s cheesy horror flicks (The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler) for the more sophisticated ones of Hitchcock (Pyscho, Vertigo) and, ultimately, the urban thrillers of Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City) and Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, The Departed) , men who made movies the way I wanted to write books — big, dark, and real.

Some people argue in favor of silent films. “Who needs sound?” they say. But frankly, I like it when there are two things going on.

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From Suspense to Dread

Sep 03, 2010 in Books, Film, Guest Posts

Florin Court LondonI was idly watching the end of an old TV episode of Poirot the other day wherein the world’s third most famous Belgian had, as always, gathered the eight or so suspects together in the drawing room and began pointing the finger of suspicion at each of them in turn. It seemed to me that there were two types of suspense on offer here: the identity of the murderer, and what, if any, small changes would occur in this strictly adhered to formula of going through each suspect one by one. (No, not the sweet old lady!) As long as the audience knows all the possibilities, then quite small variations can generate suspense as we try to outguess the detective. In other words, complete familiarity offers a way out of complete boredom: as long as everyone knows the rules in detail, even small variations will generate suspense. It’s almost impossible by now to create a major surprise in this particular setup, mostly because Christie herself pretty much mined them out (they all did it in Murder on the Orient Express). This almost equal knowledge between reader (or watcher) and writer is what creates suspense but also limits it (unless the adapter, gone mad after years of writing minor variations on the same ending, has Poirot or Miss Marple being revealed as the murderer). Suspense has, I think, its limitations when it comes to engaging the emotions of the audience — it’s the emotion of a game.

Consider Seven as an alternative. The setup is grislier than a Christie and the setting, a corrupt city, as far away as you can get. But it’s still about a series of carefully planned murders by someone unknown and cool and ruthless in his execution of the crime. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, Seven takes us on certainly an original journey with a brilliant concept at its heart — a moralizing murderer sardonically reenacting the seven deadly sins. But what is alleged to have happened before Fincher took over as director is revealing. It’s said that the studio insisted that while they were prepared to finance the film, they would only do so if the writer changed the last quarter of the film, when the script completely departs from the murder thriller and creates something utterly new. It stops being a game of suspense for the insider/viewer by abandoning the game altogether. The identity of the murderer, blasphemously, is revealed not by the detached intelligence of the detectives but by the murderer himself. By rejecting the fundamental desire to get away with it, the killer takes command just at the point where we are waiting for the forces of good to squeeze him into a place of abject failure by revealing the fundamental things he does not want revealed, his motives and his guilt. Apparently the studio forced Walker to undo all this and rewrite the ending so that Christie reigns supreme.

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The Mulholland Muse

Sep 02, 2010 in Books, Film, Guest Posts, Mulholland News

Most people know the name Mulholland Drive from the eponymous David Lynch movie. If you go deeper, you recognize the roman à clef elements that were interpreted into the plot of Chinatown — the Noah Cross character played by John Huston is heavily derived from the machinations of William Mulholland during the period know as the “California Water Wars.”

An Irish immigrant who became chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department, it was Mulholland who conceived and oversaw the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, that “stone river” that bisects most of the San Fernando Valley, scene of innumerable auto chases in cinema (you’ll know it when you see it) and best remembered as the place a gang of giant, atomically mutated ants established an L.A. beachhead in Them! Mulholland also helped build the Panama Canal, the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the Hoover Dam.

Mulholland’s biggest folly was the construction of the St. Francis Dam near Saugus in San Francisquito Canyon. Built in 1926, the dam burst at three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, wiping out a sixty-five-mile swath between Oxnard and Ventura, virtually destroying everything between it and the Pacific Ocean under twenty-five feet of water, with blast waves cresting at seventy-five feet. More than five hundred people died. Mulholland, acquitted of malfeasance, later committed suicide in 1935 at the age of seventy-nine. The sole monument to him is a fountain in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles.

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Doorstep Horror

Sep 01, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

Policeman at the Barbican Building SiteOctober 1977. I’m eight years old. Dad’s at work. I’m sitting at home hunched over a chessboard waiting for him. White and black plastic. Pawns and pieces on a foldout board fraying at the edges and along the central crease. Knights in profile facing the King and Queen. I’ve been teaching him to play.

A radio on in the kitchen. Mum’s getting ready to go out. She has a part-time job at the Imperial pub on Bewsey Road, a five-minute walk away, serving pints of mixed and pints of tan and black to wire-factory workers: No-Danger Joe, who has his own chair by the door. Nodding Kenny, who’ll agree with anything his boss says. Varley, the pisshead with eyes the color of verdigris, trying it on with the barmaids. She serves them all until they’re too drunk to speak, at which point the manager, a gruff Belfastard, points to the door.

Dad works at the police station in Chester. Top floor. I’ve been to the canteen there. You can look out at the river Dee and the Roman wall while you eat your pie and mash and tea (two sugars). This was in the days before healthy eating. Healthy anything. This was smoker’s cough with your cake and a pall of undigested whisky fumes at breakfast. Bring the lad in to work for the morning. Nice treat while Mum’s in hospital. The receptionist — Brenda or Beryl or Olive — asks if I want a Quality Street sweet while I hide behind Dad’s legs. He’s all smiles and muttonchop whiskers. The clatter of typewriters vibrates through the building. I can smell carbon paper and Quink ink and wet dog and leather. Hoops of sweat under armpits, rings of grime on loosened collars. Brylcreemed hair and Hamlet cigars in top pockets. The world is filled with villains and slags and bastards. Some of them work here.

That radio. Chat and comment and opinion. All buzz. All background. Dad comes in. Winter’s breath full of bonfires and petrol fumes. Kiss, kiss. Dinner’s in the oven, cold lips. Mum goes out into crystallizing darkness. Dad and his brown, steaming hot pot, slashed through with red cabbage. I can’t look at his plate. Newspapers. Can of beer. I wait. I listen.

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Once Were Mysteries

Aug 31, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

The former chairman of the Booker Prize committee said last month,

“A mystery has as much chance of winning the Booker as a donkey winning the Derby.”

I ask myself, in pretty much all honesty, Who won the Booker last year?


I can rattle off who won the Edgar, the Hammett. But you could say my interest lies solely in mystery.

My daily reading consists of an eclectic mix of biography, and books on writing, poetry, philosophy, psychology. Because I’m fascinated by all of them.

John Arden, the acclaimed playwright, activist, author, recently domiciled in Galway. On the publication of The Devil, he met me after a signing, not a literary critic on the horizon, said,

“Crime novels are the new social conscience.”

I wrote a children’s book, was assaulted on most all sides by


“You’re selling out?”

“You can’t write a children’s book .”

And you really have to smile, move it from drama to light entertainment.

I ask my own self,

“Have you ever heard of a literary writer transcending the genre and writing a mystery novel?”


But their excursions into the second grade are excused by terms, no kidding, like


Yah gotta love ’em.
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