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Enter the Void

Aug 30, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts


I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain. 


I mostly get the question at parties. The answer is something of an icebreaker. Someone will ask me about the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read — “the books that made you want to pull your eyes out” — and I relate the following:

I have a thing for bad books. Not just books that are poorly written, incompetently edited, and morally irredeemable, but books that make you question man’s place above the animals. Books that, under most circumstances, would not be missed if they were burned.

Yeah, those books.

My slide into this literary gutter didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t go from reading Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud straight to Paul Ross’s Chopper Cop No. 3: Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert.* I was a good kid, a good student. I studied Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme, wrote dense essays on Derrida and deconstructionism. But like the anonymous teen protag of any confessional young-adult memoir, I met a few shadowy people who took advantage of my weakness for pulpy science fiction and European trash cinema. One vice led to another, and before I knew it my bookshelves were filled with titles like Frank Colter’s Death Squad and Phillip Atlee’s Joe Gall, The Nullifier.

I first stumbled across the dreaded “men’s adventure” pulp through a review of the Mack Bolan novels in the back pages of a now forgotten zine. This was the late nineties, and I was looking for anything shocking. Anything outrageous. The Sharpshooter series by Bruno Rossi fit the bill perfectly. Marketed in the mid- to late seventies as men’s crime novels, they were cheap, and most used-book stores had entire shelves bowing under the weight of their gaudy, bloody covers.

Rossi’s Sharpshooter series (after his adoring family is gunned down by mafia goons, Johnny Rock becomes a mobster-eating machine fueled by bullets, pasta, and cheap gasoline)** and its identical twin The Marksman series*** were the gateway drugs. And these Don Pendleton rip-offs soon led to better, more-deranged fare like Marc Olden’s Black Samurai  (“The Black Samurai tangles with a human Satan in a hellish den of torrid sex and deadly violence!”),**** Wade Barker’s Ninja Master (“Japan taught him the world’s deadliest art — now . . . vengeance is his!”), William Crawford’s Stryker (“She was a beautiful coed model . . . until she was forced into heroin addiction, pornographic exhibitionism and a gruesome death!”), and Nelson DeMille’s early, outrageous Ryker/Keller series (“The terrorists splashed the streets with innocent blood. It was Sgt. Ryker’s job to seek and destroy them — one by one!”).*****

Two years into my craze, red-eyed and twitching, I found the non plus ultra of trashy crime novels, the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read: Dean Ballenger’s Gannon series.******

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A Donkey in the Grand National

Aug 27, 2010 in Books

Congratulations must go to crime novelist Peter Temple who last month won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s oldest literary prize. But before we seal and send that particular “well done, mate” package, let’s just drop a sharply delivered head slap in there, too. Because as much as Mr. Temple obviously deserves his accolade, he’s also prompted an additional round of Booker bleating.

For those of you not in the know, I’ll keep it brief — the Man Booker Prize is a cash award (originally £5k, now a whopping £20k) for the best novel written in the English language, written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen, and published in the UK. It’s arguably the most prestigious literary award in Blighty, and for some reason crime writers want in on the act. The difficulty is, of course, that publishers have a limited number of entries, and according to former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland, if publishers were to nominate a crime novel, “There’s a feeling that it would be like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”

Which, y’know, if you want the press to go pestering Ian Rankin and Val McDermid for their already well-recorded thoughts on the matter, then that’s a fine way of going about it. The problem is crime novels have consistently made the Booker shortlist, along with other genres. In the past ten years alone we’ve seen Margaret Atwood’s 2000 winner The Blind Assassin (crime), Peter Carey’s 2001 winner The True History of the Kelly Gang (crime), Tim Winton’s Dirt Music (thriller), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (sci-fi), Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (thriller), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (sci-fi), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (sci-fi), Aravind Adiga’s 2008 winner The White Tiger (crime), and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (horror).

Now, yes, maybe I’m playing fast and loose with genre definitions there, but I still believe that whatever line there is between literary and genre, it’s easily blurred by quality. Case in point, and homework for you if you want it: compare and contrast the work of Richard Price and George Pelecanos with a particular reference to genre bias. Price’s first novel was a coming-of-age story about gang warfare; Pelecanos’s, a considered contemporary spin on the PI novel. Both have written extensively for The Wire, and both have had their most recent books branded with The Wire graphics, at least in the UK. Price’s novels frequently have cop protagonists and some kind of street-level mystery to be solved; Pelecanos has written variously of cops, PIs, and music-store clerks and tends to eschew mystery, especially in his later novels. So the question is, why does Richard Price have the popular literary label, while Pelecanos remains apparently stuck as a crime writer? Quality isn’t a factor — both are accomplished novelists. Is it a stylistic issue? Are Price’s prose pyrotechnics what make him literary? Do we still attribute being prolific with being poor? Pelecanos has written almost a book a year since his debut in 1992; Price has written four books since that time. Or is it simply geographical snobbery, where New York is seen as more artistically credible than Washington? Or is there an artistic glass ceiling, a real “us and them” situation? Because I have to say, I’m beginning to think it’s more just an “us and us” situation.

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Why Mark Billingham is a Badass

Aug 26, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Viaduct, Birmingham, England 1982Mark Billingham has been a crime-fiction sensation in the UK since his first novel, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001 to great acclaim and success. The protagonist of that book, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, has appeared in many subsequent novels and is now a beloved figure in British crime lit.

Billingham earned his success. Raised in Birmingham, he has been an actor, screenwriter, and stand-up comedian for most of his adult life. He continues to work in those fields, but it’s obvious from reading his books that his major love is writing novels. He’s ambitious in the best way; he wants to write good books, and, like any author worth a damn, he’s getting better at it over time. I’ve enjoyed all of Mark’s books to varying degrees, but I do think his last few have been flat-out fantastic. Bloodline, which Mulholland Books is bringing out in the States, is one of my favorites.

In Bloodline, a series of violent deaths are linked by relation to the work of an infamous, long-deceased serial killer. Thorne and his coinvestigators (Hendricks, Holland, Kitson, et al.), an intriguing bunch, all finely drawn, methodically go about the task of finding the murderer who is committing the deadly tribute. Mystery and police procedural aficionados will be very satisfied with the proceedings and will also be treated to a rich character study and a heady snapshot of contemporary London. The dialogue is drolly, organically funny, and the plot speeds to a gripping denouement. It’s a boss performance by Billingham, through and through.

This fall a television series based on two of the Thorne novels, Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat, will be broadcast on British television. It stars David Morrissey as Thorne, Aiden Gillen (Tommy Carcetti on The Wire) as Hendricks, Sandra Oh, and Natascha McElhone, memorable from John Frankenheimer’s excellent Ronin.

Billingham’s books are as compulsively readable as Michael Connelly’s. I’m on record as saying that Connelly is the best mystery writer in the world, so I can’t give you a more respectful recommendation than that. Don’t let the British milieu or slang scare you; trust me, you’ll get it. American readers will be highly rewarded by giving Billingham a try.

George Pelecanos is the author of fifteen crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C. He is an award-winning essayist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Mojo, and numerous other publications. Esquire magazine called Pelecanos “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.” He was a producer, writer, and story editor for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series, The Wire, winner of the Peabody Award and the AFI Award. He was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on that show. Pelecanos lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and three children. He is at work on his next novel.


Heating Up the Cold Case Files

Aug 25, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

NoirI found the remote mansion of the “living Sherlock Holmes” before noon. Richard Walter was a withered, thin man with the face of Poe and a suit that stank of menthol Kools. I sat in the Victorian parlor where baffled cold-case detectives and federal agents came to glimpse the heart of darkness. My host offered me a “spot of tea,” in his formal English accent. Then he handed me a thick book documenting the la cuisine au beurre of a London cannibal killer. Scotland Yard had rushed the book by diplomatic pouch to the forensic psychologist in the Pennsylvania mountains they know as “the guru of perversity.”

On the shelf was I Have Lived Inside the Monster, the book by legendary FBI agent Robert Ressler, whose work inspired Silence of the Lambs. It was inscribed, “To Richard, my friend and fellow monster slayer.” There was also a flattering inscription in Signature Killers by Dr. Robert Keppel, the PhD criminologist and Seattle investigator famed for developing computer programs to chase down Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer. Keppel and Walter are renowned for describing the personality subtypes of murderers in a scientific fashion a generation more advanced than the FBI. Nearby was the grand piano the thin man plays, classical pieces of his own creation — only when he is alone, only when he can create unique pieces no one else will hear and he will never play again — to stimulate the subconscious mind.

“He had served ten years for murder, then the do-gooders let him out,” my host said, his aquiline nose wrinkled in distaste. “And now this. It’s quite a marvelous tale, actually.”
I began to turn through the pages of photographs, close-ups of the iron skillet sizzling with chopped brain and fillet of scalp with bits of dark hair.

“Young man,” my host said, “would you like some cookies? Chocolate chip. I bake them myself, an old recipe with some modifications, real butter, proper chemistry. They’re quite good.”

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The Dark Heart of Noir

Aug 24, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

Chess BoardSeven years is a long time for anyone to do anything; on the basis of stamina alone you gain a reputation for being some sort of expert. Perform cerebral commissurotomies for seven years, and you lose the right to start sentences with, “Well, I’m no brain surgeon, but . . .” Edit a line of noir crime novels for seven years, and people will look to you for insights on what makes the genre tick, doubly so if you’ve been foolhardy enough to write three of the things yourself.

Which is why I periodically get e-mail asking me to explain what noir is.

It’s a question germane to Mulholland Books because although the line has a much broader mandate than just noir, its initial presentation to the world — even its name — owes much to iconic elements of film noirand noir literature, and several of its authors are ones sometimes thought of as noir writers.

So, what does it mean when people describe a crime novel as “noir”? That it’s dark, to be sure (sometimes, that it’s dark and French).  But all crime fiction is dark. Even comic crime fiction concerns matters such as murder, assault and robbery, incidents that are dark in substance, however light the presentation might be. And even the stoniest noir purists wouldn’t deny the existence of noir comedies.

What, then, is the particular shade of darkness that we label “noir”?

The five dozen books I’ve published in the Hard Case Crime series would offer at least five dozen different answers to this question, as would the squabbling denizens of the invaluable Rara-Avis discussion group, who lob competing definitions at each other like soldiers manning mortars on the Maginot Line. But there’s a definition that I haven’t seen bandied about that has grown on me in recent months, and I present it here for your consideration:

Noir is crime fiction written by pessimists.

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See You in the Darkness

Aug 23, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

Barbara Stanywck and Fred MacMurray - Double Indemnity 1944One chilly February evening back in 2008, mystery writer Alan Gordon drove me home from a book launch for Queens Noir (Akashic, 2008), an anthology of dark tales set in my home borough. Both Alan and I live in Forest Hills, a pretty serene neighborhood set deep into Queens. As we approached the police precinct at the corner of Yellowstone and Austin that night, we noticed a burst of activity out front, including TV cameras and roving reporters. The next day, Alan e-mailed me: “So, all those camera crews at the precinct last night were about the arrest of the orthodontist’s wife for contracting his murder. My wife said, ‘I always knew she was crooked.’ ”

I knew the case vaguely. Back in October 2007, Daniel Malakov, a local man the newspapers described as a “prominent member” of Forest Hills’s Bukharian Jewish community, had been shot and killed in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a distant cousin to kill Malakov, with whom she was embroiled in a fierce custody battle. The key piece of evidence: a homemade silencer discarded at the scene. The silencer was traced to Borukhova’s cousin, whose fingerprints were on file for evading a subway fare. Shortly thereafter, police found that an astounding ninety-one calls had been made between the cousin and Dr. Borukhova during the three weeks preceding the murder. The jig was up.

In my reply to Alan’s e-mail, I remember noting that the whole story was in fact the classic noir tale — wife hires man to kill husband, only to find herself trapped in her own web of deception. Double Indemnity come to life. But, of course, beneath the genre staples, the case speaks to something far more elemental about the enduring attraction of crime fiction — particularly noir, with its emphasis on the fickle finger of fate. There is a tendency to dismiss crime novels as lurid, as trivial, as escapist. These dismissals always strike me as anxious attempts to diminish the genre’s actual, visceral lure. That, instead of being disposable yarns to be consumed quickly and tossed aside, crime novels speak to our very essence, to the often painfully compelling (impelling) emotions that, for all the layers of “civilization” and modernity that lay atop us, still can’t be soothed. Desire. Greed. Wrath. Envy. Revenge. These are timeless drives. Universal ones.

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’70s paranoia thrillers and why we need them now more than ever . . .

Aug 20, 2010 in Books, Film, Guest Posts

It was never going to last that long. Golden ages rarely do. But for a while there in the 1970s, that’s what we had.

Ten years after Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase “the paranoid style” (in a lecture he delivered just days before JFK was assassinated), the national traumas of Vietnam and Watergate were in full swing. Hofstadter’s point was that “they” weren’t out to get you at all — you really were being paranoid. But by the early ’70s, this paradigm had been shattered. The point now was that they really were out to get you, whether you knew it or not, and generally you didn’t until it was too late.

This dark mood of suspicion and disillusionment was reflected at the time in a glorious run of movies — including Alan J. Pakula’s great troika Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men; Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor; and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In an almost fetishized landscape of impersonal architecture and encroaching technology (with taut, dread-laden scores, usually by Michael Small or David Shire), these movies chart the gradual alienation and disempowerment of the individual in modern society, the stripping away of privacy, and the growing influence of shadowy power structures.

Although very different from these, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (sun-drenched 1930s L.A., unforgettable noir score by Jerry Goldsmith) is perhaps the greatest of them all. That moment at the end when Lieutenant Lou Escobar instructs Loach to handcuff J.J. Gittes to the wheel of a car, thus rendering him powerless to determine the outcome of events, was a major psychological turning point in American cinema, and it mirrored the greater shift going on outside the movie theater. It was like a changing of the guard. Here, suddenly, were serious, challenging stories where the individual had no moral compass anymore and could casually be crushed by malign, unknown forces.

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Dead Mower Dreams and the Weeds of Boo Radley

Aug 19, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

When someone asks me why I think there’s been a resurgence in dark crime, hard-boiled, and noir fiction, I tell them the story about the house across the street.

It’s a two-floor split-foyer that nowadays sort of looks like Boo Radley’s place. It’s become one of those legendary homes where kids are dared to run up to the porch on Halloween. Obviously, no one lives there anymore. The weeds are chest high. Part of the fencing has toppled. A leaf-strewn trampoline lies collapsed in the backyard, and sun-faded flyers and newspapers litter the stoop.

Eighteen months ago it looked like every other place on the block: well-tended, colorful, lively, active. There was always plenty of noise over there, but not the kind that gets on your nerves. Teenagers shot hoops in the driveway while younger kids played volleyball in the yard or drew chalk pictures and hopscotch boards on the sidewalk. There was a lot of laughter.

This was before my neighbor defaulted on his third mortgage and fled in the night with his family in a box truck, without saying a word to anyone on the street.

Two weeks ago I got so tired of looking at the shabby lawn that I dragged my mower over there and spent an hour doing my best to trim back the jungle. I struggled, sweated, and failed. A third of the way through, the mower started coughing smoke and spitting sparks. Then it let out a shriek like a well-stacked scream queen and died. I haven’t been able to get it started since.

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Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman on themselves and everything else

Aug 18, 2010 in Books, Film, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

I’ve known Mark Billingham since 2002, but I feel as if we’re lifelong friends. When I heard he was going to move to Mulholland, I was sad for our mutual publisher but happy for Mark, if that makes sense. We share several enthusiasms, including the music of Elvis Costello and beer. I guess I should also mention that Mark is the author of the award-winning series of police procedurals about Tom Thorne, and a stand-alone, In the Dark. A stand-up comedian, he also is one of the funniest people I know. My new book came out in the United States on Tuesday, August 17, and Mark’s latest, From the Dead, is out in the United Kingdom on Thursday, August 19. When Mulholland asked if I wanted to inhabit its online real estate for a day, I suggested that Mark and I chat via Facebook. This is a lightly edited version of that chat.

MB: So, Laura, the new book is out in a couple of days. This is another stand-alone, right?

LL: Yes, another stand-alone. It’s called I’d Know You Anywhere, and it’s about a woman who’s contacted by the man who kidnapped and raped her when she was fifteen.

MB: Are you into any kind of pattern with the stand-alones and the series? A Tess Monaghan, then a stand-alone?

LL: There was a pattern, but it was broken because I wanted the book that was serialized in the New York Times magazine — The Girl in the Green Raincoat, the one with Tess’s pregnancy — to go out into the world before I resumed her story. That will finally happen next year.

MB: You’ve said that in some ways the new book is a companion piece to Life Sentences.

LL: After writing a book about a high-strung type who wrote the kind of book that book clubs discuss, I wanted to write a book about the kind of woman who belongs to a book club. Does that make sense?

MB: Absolutely. So would you say it’s less of straightforward mystery novel than you might write if it was a Tess book? Or should I say less of a crime novel?

LL: Less of a straightforward mystery, but very much a crime novel.

MB: So many writers, when they’re as many books in as you, start talking about feeling certain pressures to deliver the genre goods. Is that something that bothers you at all?

LL: Nick Hornby has a great line about how writing a good novel within a genre category is harder than writing a mainstream novel. I think it ups the ante in a very exciting way. It helps that I never did big twists. Weaknesses can become inadvertent strengths. I’ve never delivered huge twists (although some readers of What the Dead Know might disagree) so readers don’t expect me to take the tops of their heads off.

What do you think? Your Thorne books and your stand-alone seemed to me to be centered in real-world situations, where things are surprising, but never out-of-the-blue-didn’t-see-that-coming. I have to say, I think the dedicated reader, the one who wants to solve things, should be able to see things coming. You?

MB: Yes, I agree. I’ve actually started to grow tired of books where there is twist after twist. You can never actually invest in the story, because you know that so much of it is going to get pulled from under your feet. There’s a danger of it becoming nothing more than a technical exercise.

LL: I think at some point we have to choose between being clever and being — I’m stuck for the best word. Grounded? Credible? I’m not saying the latter is better than the former, just that it’s hard to do both in the same book. Presumed Innocent managed it. But it’s hard.

MB: If your book stands or falls on a reader being able to figure out a twist, or who the killer is, then it’s probably not much of a book. There has to be something more going on than that.

LL: I talk to young writers (or just new writers) about role-model books, the books that one aspires to write. Did you have such books? You know, “If only I could write a book like [Title] I would be so happy.”
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Guns to Shape the Future

Aug 17, 2010 in Books, Mulholland Authors

bulletsThe sensation, if you allow yourself experience it, is that of pressing your face up against the glass right at the rushing tip of the present as it plows headlong into the future. There is no wind, only a thrum of momentum from somewhere deeply hidden; yet the sense of speed is nauseating, teetering on the edge of elation and dismay. Morale flicks back and forth, threatening to fall definitively to one side or the other, as each blurred impression of what the world is becoming blips onto the horizon, looms suddenly, and plunges behind us into the immediate past. With no time to understand.
Is it any wonder that we only climb into the nose of the present to face this overwhelming aspect on rare occasions?
I mean, I like a roller coaster, but not every minute of every day.
Of course, the biggest difference between a roller coaster and the future is that one runs on tracks, and the other does not. That’s what makes the terrors of a roller coaster enjoyable, and the terrors of the future a source of dread. Corkscrewing while pulling 3G’s can be an exhilarating sensation with a padded steel bar locked over one’s torso. Hurtling through the radically mutating implications of shattered financial systems, looming ash clouds, gouting oil leaks, combusting religious extremists, mushrooming mega-urban sprawl, radicalized weather systems, and your choice of today’s lesser headlines, all without the benefit of a lap belt, let alone an air bag, is something more akin to being caught in the head, your pants around your ankles, when the airbus goes into a tailspin: pinned to the wall by incomprehensible forces, half naked and helpless, with shit flying everywhere.
Still, I like the future. Though it seems intent on killing me and everyone I love, I’m a big fan. What I like about the future is that I have no fucking idea what it is going to do next. I am astounded all but daily by how the future manages to take both the past and present by the tail and twist them until they howl and spring off in directions no one ever imagined they had gone or could go.
Neat trick.
Because the future is so very present right now, it is the kind of thing one might want to write about, if one were a writer.
Hello. My name is Charlie Huston, and I am a writer.
The future, you say?
Hmm, how would one write about such a thing?
To be clear, when I think or write about writing about the future, I’m not thinking or writing about writing science fiction. Not right now, anyway. I’m thinking and writing about writing about that perilously thin membrane stretched between

Oddly, writing about the extreme verge of the present is quite hard. Trying to capture the sense of a moment while it is happening is a slippery business. And there is a great danger that what one writes will feel dated a year after it is written, about the time it is likely to be finding its way into the hands of people willing to pay money for the pleasure (if lucky) of reading it.
I’m not good at it.
I gave it a whack in a book called Sleepless, but ended up pushing that story ahead a few years, setting it in a definitive future. One close at hand, yes, but not a real NOW.
Now I’m trying again.
Along with the future, I also like a good wall I can bang my head against.
It’s a very healthy process, this writing thing.
Which explains why I am trying to write about the present in a story told primarily through the eyes of a man who will seek to destroy it. Or risk destroying it. Or save it.
Or something.
If I knew for certain what he would do, I wouldn’t have much reason to write the book.
I’m writing about people who are right there at that membrane, people with resources that allow them to do more than simply stand there and feel the rush of the future, people who are equipped to reach beyond the membrane, to swing their hammers and their picks and hew the future.
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