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Year End Review: A Few Thoughts on Jim Thompson and The Grifters

With 2013 just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to sit back and reflect on another year of great content and great books. Check back twice daily in the last days of 2012 for a selection of our favorite MulhollandBooks.com posts from the past year!

There are those moments in life so powerful and disturbing that they defy definition.  For me, Jim Thompson’s novels provide such moments.  Or maybe it’s more fair to say they knock me into them backwards—ass over applecart.

Apparently, I’m not alone in that.  Read what’s been said about Thompson, and you see that everyone is grasping: “If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it….His work…casts a dazzling light upon the human condition.”

This is the first quote about Thompson’s work that many readers encounter, the Washington Post blurb splashed on the back of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard editions that came out in the 1990s, after years when it was hard to find Thompson’s novels.  It’s evocative, and for fans of hard-boiled it has a dreamlike feel.  But ultimately it’s not very helpful.

Why?  Well, the problem with any definition that works by comparison is that it can only sketch around a thing: a chalk mark on a sidewalk, it misses the heart of the matter entirely—the heart that is so raw, so terribly visible, it forces you to work through analogy in the first place. “What does Hammett have to do with anything?” you might argue.  “There is none of his carefully-controlled and sleekly-styled disillusion here.  Surely the reviewer should have said Chandler, Cain, and Woolrich.  Or better, Cain, Woolrich and Chandler, in that order.”  In no time, what is Thompson’s is lost.

Yet such an approach is understandable, for to look at the heart of Thompson’s work… Well, it’s a hard place to look.  But in the end, the only way to get at it is to read, and then live with the consequences for a while. Continue reading “Year End Review: A Few Thoughts on Jim Thompson and The Grifters”

Not Your Father’s Bond

The new James Bond movie Skyfall has been out in theaters for about a month now, and as pretty much anybody visiting this site must already know, critics are calling it one of the best Bond films in decades. There are, of course, many reasons why the film has been met with the acclaim that it has. The breathtaking action sequences. Javier Bardem’s masterfully villainous performance. The way the film takes a step back and manages to capture the full weight of Judy Dench’s portrait of M, which has, largely unremarked, anchored the Bond series for nearly two decades.

But part of the acclaim surely has to do with director Sam Mendes and screenwriters  Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan’s attempts to allow the influence of modern world into franchise that has always offered the ultimate in wish fulfillment.  Is anyone in the world as poised and suave, even for a few minutes’ stretch, as Bond has been at nearly every moment of his fifty-year history? Probably not. And for perhaps as never before (forgetting, for now, certain scenes of the dreadful Die Another Day), Skyfall shows James Bond brought down to human proportions—injured, aging, psychologically compromised, his very vocation placed on the chopping block by members of the British government, his longtime employer in the crosshairs of a killer unlike any he’s ever before faced.

Not everyone outside the critics’ inner circles has been enamored with this approach. A number of the detractors I’ve talked to in the past few weeks have taken issue with the humbling of James Bond, their arguments boiling down to: I see what they did there. But that’s not the Bond I grew up with. The unconverted happen to be absolutely right. Skyfall’s Bond is a far cry from the Bond of yesteryear. But what really interests me is not whether or not Skyfall is a great film—or a true Bond film–but why the hell it is the way it is at all. Continue reading “Not Your Father’s Bond”

The Birth of The Right Hand

In the summer of 2001, my screenwriting partner Michael Brandt and I were hired to rewrite a screenplay for Universal Studios that involved an FBI agent embroiled in a global, political thriller.  While researching the film, Michael and I flew to Washington DC and were able to train with FBI agents at Quantico, including watching members of the Hostage Rescue Team perform drills — storming a facility with live flash bang grenades and real ammunition.  As part of that trip, we met with a reporter who covered the pentagon, and through him, we were able to interview a couple of real life American spies.  I was struck in particular by one man who, while perfectly pleasant in every aspect, would not tell us his name.   Still, he shared with us that one of his jobs while working for the CIA was to be in charge of holding copies of Presidential Directives.  We pressed him, and he explained that these documents noted when the President authorized breaking the laws of another country.  He would not tell us when he had this responsibility, because, he intimated, if the news got out, he would be targeted by several foreign services.

Years later, that little conversation over steaks at the Palms in DC stuck with me.  What kind of man would the US send in to purposely break the laws of another country… and what would the US do if the man were caught?  I remembered the biblical expression:  “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  What if there were a field officer, known around Langley as The Right Hand, whom the US sent in when they wanted a mission completed but zero knowledge of how that objective was achieved.  A man so autonomous as to be in a black ops unit consisting of only his handler and himself.  And what if that spy embraced that anonymity, that it was a two-way street, that he was perfectly content to have his Agency unaware of his riskier methods.  He could be the Right Hand.   They tell him another spy went missing in Russia and they want him back.   The Right Hand is the spy who completes the assignment by any means necessary, and if he’s caught, he will be abandoned by his own country.

As this idea started forming in my head, another notion struck me.  What if this spy is given an assignment to track down a beautiful young woman who may or may not exist?  What if the mission itself might be apocryphal?  What if the Right Hand decided to make up his own assignment?    After that, I had a character and I had an assignment and the pages started flowing.

My last three books were all written in the first person, and I was eager to stretch myself by writing this book in the third person while occasionally jumping points-of-view.  Some of my favorite espionage authors — Ludlum, Clancy — deftly leap from location to location, character to character, as the web of intrigue spins out from the center.  I tried to do that here, while always holding the main character Austin Clay at the center of the action.  The fates of the other characters we meet are intertwined with Clay’s, and they will be moving towards each other like planets in the same gravitational pull as the book progresses.  Some of the fun of reading these types of books is to guess how the various characters will come together.  I hope I surprise you more than once.

That’s the origin of The Right Hand, a book I massively enjoyed writing and I hope you will enjoy reading.  I’m more than happy to answer any comments or questions about The Right Hand or any other project in the comment section below… a feature on the Mulholland site that is woefully underused.  Don’t hesitate to give me a shout…  I love hearing from readers.   I hope you’ll be one of them.

Derek Haas is the author of THE RIGHT HAND, THE SILVER BEAR, COLUMBUS, and DARK MEN. Derek also wrote the screenplays with his partner Michael Brandt for 3:10 TO YUMA, WANTED, THE DOUBLE and the NBC show CHICAGO FIRE. He is the creator of the website popcornfiction.com, which promotes genre short fiction. Derek lives in Los Angeles. Follow Derek on twitter (@popcornhaas), or facebook friend him.

A Bad Feeling: A Short Story

Trigger-Happy Star Formation (NASA, Chandra, 8/12/09)Arthur held one finger up to his wife while he checked the number. “I need to take this.” He didn’t wait for her to protest, he just got up from the table and moved to the sidewalk in some vague notion of modern etiquette as he swiped his finger across the face of his phone and put it to his ear.

“This is Art.” He hoped his voice didn’t sound too anxious.

“I have Josh for you.” And then a few seconds later, “Arthur, how are you?”

“Good Josh. I’m good. How are you?”

“I’m returning your call.”

“You have to get me a meeting with George.” Well, that cut to the chase. He heard some shuffling on the other end of the line. Before Josh could answer, Art blurted, “Listen, you know I can get this job. You know it. Remember, Sarah? Remember when I said get a meeting with Sarah and I nailed that down with one phone call. I didn’t even have to go into her office. I just talked her through it and she pulled the trigger. Right then and there. Remember?”

“Art. That was six years ago.”

“Has it–? Well, I didn’t…”

“Sarah’s had a lot more work since then and she hasn’t called you back.”

“What’re you saying?”

“I’m saying people talk.”

“Sarah’s an idiot. That much was clear from the get-go.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you, Art, but you have a bit of a stink on you now.”

“Bullshit.”

“You hired me because I tell it like it is. And I’m telling you, you’re toxic. George isn’t going to happen.”

Arthur looked at his wife still in the booth in the restaurant, drinking a black and white milkshake. Why’d she have to order the milkshake?

“You know what, Josh?” He looked up at the sky, gray and pitiless. He hung up the phone before he finished the sentence. His wife would ask him who that was calling and he rehearsed saying “nobody,” then went back inside the diner. Continue reading “A Bad Feeling: A Short Story”

A conversation with Thomas Mullen

The below conversation between Thomas Mullen and Jon Fasman appears in the paperback edition of THE REVISIONISTS, now available in bookstores everywhere.

Check back later in the week for questions and topics for discussion perfect for your reading group. Or, head out to your favorite bookstore, snag a copy, and start reading now. You’ll thank us later.

Thomas Mullen has written two great novels set in America’s past: The Last Town on Earth, which tells the story of a quarantined town in Washington state during the 1918 influenza epidemic, and The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, the story of two Depression-era bank robbers with an unusual gift for surviving bullet wounds. His writing, both in these stories and in his new book, gestures toward fable, allegory and that catch-all category, magical realism, but remains grounded where novels should be grounded: in character, and in love. His new novel, The Revisionists, is a historical novel of sorts: one of its protagonists comes from the future, which he calls The Perfect Present, and treats our imperfect present as history.

I met Tom by chance, in 2007, when we were both living in the same neighborhood in D.C. One year later he moved to Atlanta, and a year later, again by chance, my work moved me down here — to more or less the same neighborhood once again. I had a few conversations with Tom while The Revisionists was still in the idea stage. I told him then that it sounded great, but how great it actually turned out to be surprised and delighted me. What follows is our conversation about imagination, genre, and the not-so-Chocolate-anymore-City.

JF: You give us brief glimpses of Zed’s world: the Department, pods, erasers of memory. Did you, as the author, imagine, see or plot more of it than that? Was Zed’s world that you allude to complete in your mind?

TM: I admit that I don’t read much sci-fi, and that the specifics of Zed’s future world (what it looks like, what sort of inventions they have, etc) wasn’t quite as interesting to me as the philosophy and politics behind it. So I tried to describe the world as vaguely as possible and let smoke and mirrors do the rest.

What most intrigued me about his allegedly “Perfect Present” is the way they deal with past conflict and with the idea of race and ethnicity. I was inspired by a Time magazine cover story from 2000 that used computer graphics to create a composite face of what humankind will look like many, many generations in the future, when all the ethnicities have mixed and we’re basically one race. I figured that if one of my characters was a time traveler from such a future, then he should look this way. The contemporary-Washington characters who see him think he looks “interestingly multiracial” and puzzle over his background, which leads to some awkwardness. Continue reading “A conversation with Thomas Mullen”

A Review of The Revisionists: A good story, well told.

This week, Mulholland Books celebrates the publication of the paperback edition of Thomas Mullen’s THE REVISIONISTS, a Paste magazine Best Book of the Year, and the novel CNN.com calls “a compelling and complex page-turner” and “a paranoid thriller for the post-9/11 age.”

Read on for New York Times bestselling author Michael Koryta’s take on the book, and check back later in the week for a look at the bonus content for reading groups included in the new edition.

There are writers whose work you love to read, and writers whose work you love to read…but also make you mad with envy. The latter, I believe, comes at an intersection of talent and bravery. When the author’s narrative gifts and honed skills make you think damn, I wish I’d written that, and his or her choices makes you think damn, I wish I had the nerve to try something like this. Those writers stand out not just because of enormous literary abilities, but because it’s clear why they’re writing: for love of story.

I can create a list of writers who hit that intersection of talent and bravery regularly (Stewart O’Nan and Jess Walter rise swiftly to mind) but it’s a short one. Thomas Mullen is certainly on that list. Most of us talk about pushing our boundaries while we stay in a relatively tight space. We’ll venture from wall to wall, maybe, but we ain’t kicking them down and crossing the neighbor’s lawn. There’s a literary comfort zone at play, and in his fantastic third novel, THE REVISIONISTS, Thomas Mullen demonstrates that his literary comfort zone is not bound by genre…or place…or time. Tom demonstrates so damn many things, in fact, that were he not a genuinely good guy I’d start to hate him.

Coming off two brilliant historical novels – THE LAST TOWN ON EARTH is one of my favorite books of the past several years, and THE MANY DEATHS OF THE FIREFLY BROTHERS is every bit as good – Mullen decides to forsake the past for the future in THE REVISIONISTS. Or does he? While Zed is an agent from the future, sent to ensure that a Dystopian existence does not come off the rails if left in the hands of humans from the past, (well, present…are you starting to understand why this book would be so damn hard to write well? Trust me, the narrative flow is a lot smoother than this review), the weight of history hangs over the story at all times, so that just as the action and intrigue are pulling you forward, you’re pulling back to consider how we got here, and what it means.

Want to know if the story will engage you or if it’s just a bunch of pretty writing hung on a fascinating intellectual concept? I’ll let you tell me. Here are a few lines from the opening chapter:

“I saw a young woman carrying her toddler, a little black girl in a pink sweater, her hair braided with white beads. Residue from cotton candy encrusted the girl’s lips, and I thought to myself, She’s two, maybe three. I wanted to know her name, look her up in my databases, see if by any chance she would be one of the survivors…The girl smiled at me and waved. Her mother never noticed, never turned around, and after they reached an intersection I made myself stop. It doesn’t make any difference, I told myself. She’ll likely die, or, if she’s lucky, she won’t – yes, if she’s lucky, she’ll get to grow up in one of the most violent periods the world has ever known.

I waved back, helpless as she was.”

Got you yet? If not, please FedEx me the heart-shaped stone that resides in your chest. I would like it for my collection.

If you want plot, rest assured, you’ve come to the right place. Zed’s background, skill set, mission and progressive challenges are the stuff of great spy novels, with that added twist of sci-fi, and everything is anchored in a Washington D.C. setting that is closer to the realism of a George Pelecanos version of our capital than it is to the convenient montage used in so many fate-of-the-world thrillers. As is the case in any good novel, though, the book begins and ends with character, and Mullen’s creations are familiar and empathetic, coming time and again to questions of the deepest humanity: if we could cleanse prejudice by cleansing the linkages – ethnicity, faith, culture, family – that inspire divisions, what have we gained and at what cost?

Call it what you’d like – a literary-reader’s thriller, a thriller-reader’s literary novel – but I don’t have much interest in attempting to label this book, and one of the great pleasures of reading it was in the realization that Mullen has even less interest. It’s geared to no one and nothing but the story, and the beautiful writing, mind-bending plot, and moral complexity make it one of those truly rare finds: a good story, well told. A reason to read. Mullen’s books seem to have permanent residence on “Best of the Year” lists, and I expect you’ll see THE REVISIONISTS on several this December. Do yourself a favor and get to it first.

Michael Koryta (pronounced ko-ree-ta) is the author of many novels, some of which have won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Great Lake Books Award, and St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize, while also earning nominations for the Edgar, Quill, Shamus and Barry awards. In addition to winning the Los Angeles Times prize for best mystery, his novel Envy the Night was selected as a Reader’s Digest condensed book. His work has been translated into nearly twenty languages. A former private investigator and newspaper reporter, Koryta graduated from Indiana University with a degree in criminal justice. He currently lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Bloomington, Indiana. Connect with him on Facebook.

C S I Don’t Think So

GunfightEver since I was a kid, I was fascinated by the capabilities of bullets. My father was a police officer, so we had access to an outdoor shooting range anytime we wanted. We experimented endlessly. My mother freaked out endlessly when she went to look up a phone number and found that our phone books had been shredded in the name of science.

Since then, I’ve continued experimenting with the physical characteristics of bullets in real-world situations. By contrast, bullet manufacturers test bullets by using uniform standards, most commonly in long, rectangular blocks of ballistic gelatin. This is clear Jello basically, but more dense. It’s produced in blocks at a standard density so that results will be consistent and differences in bullets can be measured. Gelatin is used because it’s considered a fairly good proxy for human flesh.

In a standard test, a bullet is fired into one end of the gelatin block. Because the gelatin is almost transparent, it’s possible to see the wound channel the bullet caused, exactly how far the bullet penetrated, if it broke into pieces, and if it deformed. The bullet is dug out of the gelatin and can be microscopically examined. This data provides a baseline of results that can be used not only by bullet manufacturers, but also by doctors and medical examiners who deal with gunshot wounds.

However, it’s not much fun looking at gelatin blocks because they don’t answer many other real-world questions. Will a bullet go through a car door? Can you shoot through walls? Do bullets bounce off windshields?

Much of what we see in movies and TV regarding bullets is fantasy. Though it might seem harmless, depending on these myths in the real world could be fatal. For instance, on a popular TV adventure series, two main characters wanted to penetrate an armed perimeter and decided to do it by driving a car into the protected area. The savvy hero prepared the car by pulling off the door panels and stuffing them with phone books, claiming that this would stop the bullets. Continue reading “C S I Don’t Think So”

Start Reading Say You’re Sorry

Eager to get started on Michael Robotham’s newest Joe O’Loughlin novel SAY YOU’RE SORRY, which Kirkus calls “subtle, smart, compelling and blessed with both an intelligent storyline and top-notch writing,” but can’t make it  to Murder By the Book in Houston tonight to meet Michael and hear him read? We’ve got you covered–

My name is Piper Hadley and

I went missing on the last Saturday of the summer holidays three years ago. I didn’t disappear completely and I didn’t run away, which is what a lot of people thought (those who didn’t believe I was dead). And despite what you may have heard or read, I didn’t get into a stranger’s car or run off with some sleazy pedo I met online. I wasn’t sold to Egyptian slave traders or forced to become a prostitute by a gang of Albanians or trafficked to Asia on a luxury yacht.

I’ve been here all along—not in Heaven or in Hell or that place in between whose name I can never remember because I didn’t pay attention at Sunday scripture classes. (I only went for the cake and the cordial.)

I’m not exactly sure of how many days or weeks or months I’ve been here. I tried to keep count, but I’m not very good with numbers. Completely crap, to be honest. You can ask Mr. Monroe, my old math teacher, who said he lost his hair teaching me algebra. That’s bollocks by the way. He was balder than a turtle on chemo before he ever taught me.

Anyone who follows the news will know that I didn’t disappear alone. My best friend Tash was with me. I wish she were here now. I wish she’d never squeezed through the window. I wish I had gone in her place.

When you read those stories about kids who go missing, they are always greatly loved and their parents want them back, whether it’s true or not. I’m not saying that we weren’t loved or missed, but that’s not the whole story.

Kids who blitz their exams don’t run away. Winners of beauty pageants don’t run away. Girls who date hot guys don’t run away. They’ve got a reason to stay. But what about the kids who are bullied or borderline anorexic or self-conscious about their bodies or sick of their parents fighting? There are lots of factors that might push a kid to run away and none of them are about being loved or wanted. Continue reading “Start Reading Say You’re Sorry”

Some Thoughts on The Watcher

I used to get frightened reading. I used to like being told or read ghost stories by MR James, Edgar Alan Poe. The masters. I remember my mother retelling me the plot of Hitchcock’s Psycho when I was too young to get in to see the movie (which seems funny now). I’ve jumped plenty of times, but never been scared in the cinema.

I was a true believer in the Uncanny. But I lost my religion around age 39, when I had kids. Now that we are all vampires or werewolves, I have no allegiance to horror or any genre. In fact I shun them.

I am not sure what induces me to write. Ideas come, float around in amniotic flux, then either disperse or coalesce suddenly like a shoal of fish. Which can be unsettling. I take on each new book as a journey of exploration, a quest which will surely end in discovery, revelation, enlightenment. It almost never does. In my non-fiction book, The Wolf Children, I hoped to establish whether human children had ever been fostered by animals in the wild, or whether such tales belonged to myth and folklore, reflecting a longing to revive the lost connection with our animal ancestors. The strange story of the wolf children of Midnapore led me on a trail through remote Indian jungle villages and amongst the embers of scientific controversy. But the truth about feral children remains elusive.

As a fiction writer, I’ve been attracted to the outer limits, the far frontier, searching for meaning in the unexplained, looking beyond the boundaries of ordinary experience. Described as a metaphysical thriller, The Watcher charts an individual’s attempt to make sense of human existence through a chain of past lives that are linked down the ages by a single purpose – a karmic journey, as he sees it, towards the light. It tells the story of an ordinary man whose unremarkable life spirals into nightmare when he commits a mystifying atrocity. In his quest to discover the cause of his actions, the hero, Martin Gregory, takes the reader with him into the darker corners of his mind presenting his elaborate fantasies as the truth. We know this can’t be the case, yet we want to believe him. Partly because we don’t trust his nemesis, the smooth, rational psychiatrist who, in a contrapuntal narrative, warns us not to listen to his patient….he’s talking nonsense, he needs help! Naturally, it’s Martin’s lapel-grabbing insistence that ‘you must believe me’ that prevails against the dry clinical response of Dr Somerville, who may be smart and is probably right but before the hero’s eyes and ours turns sinister as hell. In the final down-the-ages struggle between good and evil we have to be rooting for Martin, the anti-materialist, save-the-planet visionary complete with crystal staff and ready to lead mankind back onto the true (spiritual) path, to win…there’s no middle way. The fate of the earth hangs in the balance! Continue reading “Some Thoughts on The Watcher”

Ten Rules for Writing a Sherlock Holmes Novel

It may well be that Sherlock Holmes is the reason why I have spent so much of my life writing crime fiction of my own and if there is one small boast that I occasionally make, it’s that I have probably written more fictional murders than any other writer. Ever. The crime figures can be quickly totted up.

If you were to ask what has made Sherlock Holmes the most successful and best loved detective of all time, I would argue that it is not in fact the crimes or the mysteries. It seems to me that the appeal of the books has much more to do with character, the friendship of Holmes and Watson, the extraordinary and very rich world they inhabit and the genuine and often under-rated excellence of Conan Doyle’s writing, a touch melodramatic at times but still very much in the tradition of gothic romance. When I was asked to write The House of Silk, I realized that this would be the key. I had to become invisible. I had to find that extraordinary, authentic voice.

So, I set out the ten rules which I would have beside me as I wrote The House of Silk – and here they are. If you’ve read the book, you can judge for yourself how well they were kept and, indeed, if they were worth keeping. Continue reading “Ten Rules for Writing a Sherlock Holmes Novel”