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Why does an Englishman write American crime?

This is a question I have been asked so many times.  Enough times for me to take a long look at it, if for no other reason than to have an answer next time I am asked.

Paul Auster said that becoming a writer was not a “career decision” like becoming a doctor or a policeman.  You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days, and I concur with his attitude.

I feel the same way about genres.  I think the genre chose me, as opposed to my choosing the genre.

The thing that has always fascinated me, and the thing that I believe is the only thing that fascinates authors really, is people.  It’s that simple.

Life is people.  People are life.  Without people there is nothing to talk about, nothing worth saying.

And why American crime?  Because such a genre presents me with a broad canvas, and upon that canvas I can write conspiracy, thriller, romance, history, politics, social commentary.  I think US crime holds a mirror up to society better than any other genre.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly for me, crime gives me an opportunity to present my “people” with situations that they would never experience in ordinary life.  This then gives me possibility of putting those people through the mill emotionally, and that is where my true interest lies.

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The Murders in Memory Lane: Remembering Henry Kane

Henry Kane’s pretty much forgotten these days, with all his work out of print.  You can Google him, as I did, and you’ll unearth a great deal of information that way, some of it true.  And you can find copies of his books on eBay and Amazon and other used-book sources.  He wrote over sixty novels, and while none of them hit any bestseller lists, there were enough copies printed so that some survive.

He was born in 1918, earned a law degree, but if he ever practiced the profession he gave it up when he found he could make a living with a typewriter.  He wrote a great deal over the years for radio and television, and probably created the series “Martin Kane, Private Eye,” which had a good run on both media.  The Blake Edwards TV show, “Peter Gunn,” was clearly inspired by Kane’s series of books about one Peter Chambers, though Kane never got any official credit.

I read his stories in Manhunt, and his books, when I began trying to write crime fiction of my own.  In the first or the third person, Kane wrote with no apparent effort and produced narrative that was sophisticated, amusing, and urbane.  I haven’t read anything of his in ages, and the books I once owned have long since moved on to other owners, but I remember having enjoyed them all.

I came to know him through our mutual agent, another Henry—Henry Morrison.  I spoke with Henry Morrison recently, and learned that it was at HK’s urging that HM opened up shop as an agent back in the mid-Sixties.

HM had decided to part company with Scott Meredith, for whom he’d worked for almost ten years, and was planning to sign on as an editor at a paperback house.  He said as much to Kane, who took him out to dinner and told him he was making a mistake and wasting years of great experience.  He should open his own agency, Kane said, and that way he’d be doing what he was best suited to do, and working for himself, and would no doubt blossom as an excellent agent.

And would Kane go with him?

“No,” said Henry Kane.  “Because you might not make it, and then where would I be?  But set up on your own, and get yourself some clients, and if you’re still in business a year later, then I’ll go with you.”

And that’s what happened.  Henry Morrison became a successful agent, and after a year Henry Kane became his client, and never left.  I met Kane a couple of times when we were both visiting HM’s office to drop off a manuscript or pick up a check, and in the early 70’s we got to know each other.  I was living on 22 acres outside of Lambertville, New Jersey, and had a fourth-floor walkup studio on West 35th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues that I used for writing and adultery.  (I was far more successful at the former pursuit, and wrote several books there, including Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man and Chip Harrison Scores Again.)  Henry Kane lived on Long Island—Lido Beach, if memory serves—and spent Monday through in an apartment on 34th Street west of Ninth Avenue.

I paid a few visits to his pied-a-terre, and had some good conversations.  He took his work seriously, and insisted that each page be perfectly typed before he went on to the next one.  He began the work day by swallowing a Dexamil capsule, and after a certain number of hours at the typewriter he’d pour himself a little Scotch to soften the edge of the speed.  He’d sit there typing and chain-smoking and sipping Scotch until the day’s work was done, and then he’d go out for dinner and a night on the town.

Uh, don’t try this at home.

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Serial Author

motherI’m in the middle of a tour of the East Coast of the States as I write this, and I’ve been reminded once again of how deliciously, dementedly easy it would be to combine my day job with that of a serial killer!

When on a book tour, I’m ghosted around the country by my publishers from city to city, state to state. I rarely stay in the same location for more than two or three nights, often just a single night. Nobody questions my travel arrangements — I have a perfectly legitimate reason to be on the road and to flit around the place. And who would ever suspect a respectable author of being in any way suspicious, especially one who writes children’s books?!?

If I was of a certain bent, the USA — indeed, the world, given that I travel globally every year to promote my books — would be my twisted oyster. I could fly in, check into the nice hotel which my publisher puts me up in every time, unpack, have a shower, brush my teeth, go do my event, entertain my fans, shakes hands, pose for photos, sign lots of books, put a pile of good cheer out there into the world.

Then back to the hotel for a little rest. Wait for the sun to set. Go for a walk or to see a movie — traveling authors always need a few hours out of their hotel room every night, to unwind and relax and prepare themselves for the next day’s travel and work.

The lovely thing about cities in the States — is one was of a certain bent — is that they’re packed with scores of dark, dangerous alleys. Many places to lurk while out walking or en route to a fictitious cinema. Weapons would never be a problem, not in the land of the Free. Hell, if the worst came to the worst, every writer travels with one or two sharp pens…

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Darkness in the East

Noir is a French word meaning dark. It’s used to identify a certain type of grim fiction or film. Don’t let the French name fool you. There’s plenty of noir right here in East Texas, though it’s mixed with Southern Gothic and Western and all manner of stuff; it’s a gumbo boiled in hell. I know. I’m from East Texas. I’ve seen it. I’ve written about it. Weird as some of it is, fictionalized as the work is, it comes from a wellspring of true events you just can’t make up.

Let’s clear up one thing. There are plenty of good people in East Texas (saw one yesterday), but if you’re a writer of crime fiction, which I am at least some of the time, you’re not looking for good people. steam cloud You’re looking for weirdos, criminals, malcontents and the just plain stupid. That’s your meat if you write crime.

i just dont think I will ever get over youIn spite of the word, not all of the fiction or films associated with this genre are completely dark. Noir wears many hats, some even with bright feathers in them. Sometimes noir can laugh, which is where I come in. It’s where East Texas comes in. You can’t point at noir and call it one thing, but it usually has some of these elements: existentialist attitude, cynical and desperate characters, wise-ass talk, rain and shadows, a lightning bolt and shadowed blinds, sweaty sheets and cigarette smoke, whisky breath and dark street corners where shots are fired and a body is found, and long black cars squealing tires as they race around poorly lit corners.

For me as a writer, noir takes place in the backwoods and slick, brick streets and red clay roads and sandy hills of East Texas. My noir is about Baptist preachers claiming with lilting poetry to be called by the Lord to preach The Word, but who have intentions as false as a stuffed sock in rock star’s pants; pretty soon they’re gone with the congregation’s money and three deacon’s wives are knocked up. My noir is about the deep backwoods and small-town girls with inflated dreams and big blonde hair and the kind of oozing sex appeal that would make a good family man set fire to the wife’s cat and use it as a torch to burn down his house—with his wife in it.

You got your slicked-backed-shiny-haired used car salesman with more better deals and a plan to burn his business for the insurance money. You got your muscle-armed, pot-bellied hick with a toothpick and a John Deere gimme cap, forever dressed in hunting boots, camouflage pants and a wife-beater T-shirt—even if his destination is just the barber shop or the barbecue joint. He’s the kind of guy who likes to get drunk every night and drive home weaving. He’s the kind of guy whose last words are to his best buddy in the passenger seat—“Hey, hold my beer and watch this”—and who then proceeds to unzip his pants and attempt to drive his truck with his manly appendage.

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A Conversation with Writer/Director Mike Hodges

Mike Hodges is the director of the canonical crime film classics Get Carter, A Prayer for the Dying, Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. Having just published his debut novel, Watching the Wheels Come Off, he reflects on his relationship to storytelling on the screen and off.

Mike Hodges, you’ve had a prestigious career making films, and in your seventies you pen your first novel. What prompted the change of direction?

For me writing a novel seems a logical extension rather than a “change of direction.” Over the years I’ve written and directed for both theater and radio, always venturing into territory I always knew I’d never be allowed to enter on film. I seem to recollect Kurt Vonnegut saying he had to cease writing because nothing in his imagination could contend with the reality of our accelerating insanity. I’m new to the literary game, so it’s too early for me to give up on the human comedy. The title of my novel says as much: Watching the Wheels Come Off. Unlike Vonnegut, I always use a crime story as the conveyor belt for ideas; crime seems to more easily hold our attention.  On both film and page, human curiosity is the one thing I’ve always banked on, although I suspect it may be a diminishing human trait. We seem to be moving in larger and larger cultural swarms, with our collective moves being directed by increasingly Machiavellian marketing skills. Manipulation, exploitation, and human gullibility have always been the engines that drive my creative output; not sure quite why. I suspect it stems from having sampled all three in a childhood dominated by Roman Catholicism, an indoctrination process I managed to shed in my early teens, but not without a struggle. By the time I emerged from that trauma it seems my sense of humor had been considerably sharpened, from then on becoming a major tool in my survival kit. Not surprisingly, Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers. Only in Get Carter, with its odd shafts of dark humor, and, more fully, in my second film, Pulp, have I been able to exercise my bleak drollery. Hence  the necessity for my literary output.

You’ll always be remembered for Get Carter. How did you first come across Ted Lewis’s novel?

It landed on the floor of my London apartment; only then it was called Jack’s Return Home. With it came a letter from film producer Michael Klinger asking if I’d be interested in adapting and directing it for the cinema. The back story to this is that, during 1968-69, I had written, produced, and directed two feature-length thrillers for television, Suspect and Rumour; Klinger had seen and liked them. He’d already successfully produced Roman Polanski’s first two English-speaking films: Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion. Needless to say, with that track record, I read Ted’s novel immediately. It was a unique book; way outside the usual British crime fare. I can’t say I realized it was the classic I now recognize but I knew immediately it could make a great film. I still have Klinger’s letter: It’s dated 27th January, 1970. It’s a date I still find hard to believe. On the 20th of July — a mere seven months later — I was shooting the opening scene in London and the following day Jack Carter on the train to Newcastle. Get Carter was completed in forty-five shooting days and was in the cinemas early the next year. I thought filmmaking was always going to be like that: decisions quickly taken and quickly acted on, instinct always in the driving seat. Nine feature films over the next forty years shows how wrong I was. Keeping instinct alive in an industry run largely by committees of incompetent and frightened executives is no easy matter.

A good proportion of your films are within the crime and mystery genre. What attracts you to it?

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Midnight Oil

As a special Halloween treat, we have a short story from Xeric-Award winning graphic novelist Neil Kleid. The perfect fit for the occasion. Enjoy!

Patrick Checker lost his mind sometime between final count and lights out.

Frank Day, horror novelist and convicted Communist sympathizer, wouldn’t have minded except that he was sitting across from Checker at the time. Fingers followed Checker’s brain, then his teeth. They’d been debating the structures of stories and Checker, a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, adamant that solid characters made up for formulaic plots, had been refuting the argument Day had constructed over the last hour when the right half of the screenwriter’s forehead slid past his eyes and into his nasal cavity, choking him as skull, brain, and hair joined it inside his throat.

 Day, a large man carrying the air of a history professor with deep-set eyes, prone to favor herringbone jackets and a Vandyke beard, moved to take Checker’s hands but had trouble maintaining a grip when the fingers came off joint by joint. He shouted for the guards as Checker pitched forward into a pool of his own dissolving muscle, blood, and bone. The body shuffled, stumbled, and fell to the ground with a sickening splash that sounded like overripe melons being pulped with a single, gleeful hammer.

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Music to Die For

Sound compo: amplifier and microphone Remember that Monty Python sketch? Michael Palin exclaiming that although he was an accountant he really always wanted to be a lumberjack? Well, when I was young I wanted to be an accountant. Or, rather, an accountant is what I thought I would be. But in my dreams I was front man in a great pop or rock group. I’d started buying records at the age of ten or eleven, and soon thereafter I formed my own band. They were called Kaput (I think), with Ian Kaput on lead vocals, Blue Lightning on guitar, and Zed “Killer” Macintosh on bass. Alas, the band existed only inside my head and on paper. I would write their lyrics, plan their tours, script their media interviews, and design their record sleeves. Then there was the weekly top-ten singles and album chart, which necessitated dreaming up nine other bands. I was doing what every writer does: creating a parallel universe where things would work out pretty much as I wanted them to. As I got older, Ian Kaput formed a new band, the Amoebas. He no longer sang three-minute hits but had gone “prog,” and the band did album-length “suites” with titles such as “Continuous Repercussions.”

So far, so sad.

In time, I put away Ian Kaput and the Amoebas. At university, I joined a new-wave band called the Dancing Pigs. We lasted six months. After university, I worked on a music magazine in London for a short while. Once I’d built up my record collection and put together a decent system to play it on, I quit and went full-time as a writer. I’d already written the first Rebus novel, where Rebus tends to listen to jazz—stuff I reckoned loner existential cops might stroke their chins to on long dark nights. But another author, John Harvey, was writing gritty books about Nottingham and his cop was called Resnick. Resnick listened to jazz. To put some clear blue water between our two characters, I handed my record collection over to Rebus. Soon after, I even started stealing album and song titles for my books—Let It Bleed (the Rolling Stones), The Hanging Garden (the Cure), Dead Souls (Joy Division), The Falls (the Mutton Birds). Musicians liked the references in the books. One, Jackie Leven, got in touch and we worked together on a project called “Jackie Leven Said,” with which we toured. There was even a CD—for a few weeks I could walk into HMV and see me and Jackie on the racks.  REM asked if I could hook up with them for dinner. Pete Townshend sends occasional e-mails when I mention his work in my novels. Robert Smith liked what I did with The Hanging Garden. I’ve done a gig in New York with Aidan Moffat, and written lyrics for the second album by Saint Jude’s Infirmary. I got to meet Randy Newman backstage, and he told me I’d introduced him to Irn-Bru.

I’m not alone here. Plenty of other crime writers would rather have been musicians—I know because we talk about it whenever we get together, and lots of us reference music in our books. If we had the talent, maybe we could even form a band, but I’ve heard myself sing and it’s not pretty. So I’m happy enough indulging my fantasies on paper, just like always. Because in Black and Blue I needed one of the biggest bands in the world to be fronting a Greenpeace festival in Scotland. I could have chosen U2 or REM or the Stones. I chose the Dancing Pigs, naturally. That’s my lumberjack moment right there. . . .

Ian Rankin is a #1 international bestselling author. Winner of an Edgar Award and the recipient of a Gold Dagger for fiction and the Chandler-Fulbright Award, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and their two sons. Learn more at www.ianrankin.net and be sure to download the Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh app for your iPhone or iPad.

Sinking the Titanic

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

My answer: Heroin.

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

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

Some of the things I’ve done.

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

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.

Tips for Budding Crime Writers: Dialogue

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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