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An Excerpt from Limitless: Part II

In 2002, Alan Glynn wrote the celebrated suspense novel The Dark Fields. On March 18, The Dark Fields will come to theaters as the film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Abbie Cornish.  To celebrate, Mulholland Books will run a three-part series: three chapters from the book (generously provided by Picador from their Limitless movie tie-in edition), accompanied by stills from the film. As well as some forthcoming extras. Get ready for Limitless, the author’s cut.

Missed Part 1? Read it first.

We went to a bar over on Sixth, a cheesy retro cocktail lounge called Maxie’s that used to be a Tex-Mex place called El Charro and before that had been a spit-and-sawdust joint called Conroy’s. It took us a few moments to adjust to the lighting and the decor of the interior, and, weirdly, to find a booth that Vernon was happy with. The place was virtually empty—it wouldn’t be getting busy for another while yet, not until five o’clock at least—but Vernon was behaving as though it were the small hours of a Saturday morning and we were staking our claim to the last available seats in the last open bar in town. It was only then, as I watched him case each booth for line of vision and proximity to toilets and exits, that I realized something was up. He was edgy and nervous, and this was unusual for him—or at any rate unusual for the Vernon I’d known, his one great virtue as a coke dealer having been his relative composure at all times. Other dealers I’d been acquainted with generally behaved like ads for the product they were shifting in that they hopped around the place incessantly and talked a lot. Vernon, on the other hand, had always been quiet and businesslike, unassuming, a good listener—maybe even a little too passive sometimes, like a dedicated weed smoker adrift in a sea of coke-fiends. In fact, if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought that Vernon—or at least this person in front of me—had done his first few lines of coke that very afternoon and wasn’t handling it very well. Continue reading “An Excerpt from Limitless: Part II”

An Excerpt from LIMITLESS

In 2002, Alan Glynn wrote the celebrated suspense novel The Dark Fields. On March 18, The Dark Fields will come to theaters as the film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Abbie Cornish.  To celebrate, Mulholland Books will run a three-part series: three chapters from the book (generously provided by Picador from their Limitless movie tie-in edition), accompanied by stills from the film. As well as some forthcoming extras. Get ready for Limitless, the author’s cut.



I don’t have too sharp a sense of time any more, but I know it must be after eleven, and maybe even getting on for midnight. I’m reluctant to look at my watch, though—because that will only remind me of how little time I have left.

In any case, it’s getting late.

And it’s quiet. Apart from the ice-machine humming outside my door and the occasional car passing by on the highway, I can’t actually hear a thing—no traffic, or sirens, or music, or local people talking, or animals making weird nightcalls to each other, if that’s what animals do. Nothing. No sounds at all. It’s eerie, and I don’t really like it. So maybe I shouldn’t have come all the way up here. Maybe I should have just stayed in the city, and let the time-lapse flicker of the lights short-circuit my now preternatural attention span, let the relentless bustle and noise wear me down and burn up all this energy I’ve got pumping through my system. But if I hadn’t come up here to Vermont, to this motel—to the Northview Motor Lodge—where would I have stayed? I couldn’t very well have inflicted my little mushroom-cloud of woes on any of my friends, so I guess I had no option but to do what I did—get in a car and leave the city, drive hundreds of miles up here to this quiet, empty part of the country . . . Continue reading “An Excerpt from LIMITLESS”

Organized Crime Writing

ajtorres_la mafia '11When I finished my second novel, 2005’s The Heartbreak Lounge, I was determined never to write about traditional organized crime again. The whole New Jersey mob thing had become too much of a cliché, thanks in part to the brilliance of The Sopranos, which brought that world into people’s living rooms every week.

For a crime novelist who lives in and writes about New Jersey, this wasn’t an easy choice. Clichés are clichés because they’re true. Credit The Sopranos creator and N.J. native David Chase for knowing his subject. Part of his research, by Chase’s own admission, came from stories published in The Star-Ledger of Newark, the newspaper where I worked as an editor for 13 years. Recognizing the Ledger as the N.J. O.C. paper of record, Chase often featured it prominently in the show, with an additional thanks in the end credits of most episodes.

At one point, the Ledger – New Jersey’s largest newspaper – had two full-time organized crime reporters. In 1992, one of them, Robert Rudolph, wrote a book called The Boys from New Jersey, a seminal work on organized crime. It chronicled a Lucchese family trial that went on for two years and ended with the acquittal of all 20 defendants, and a bitter defeat for the government.

Continue reading “Organized Crime Writing”

My Dark Places (with sincere apologies to James Ellroy)

DraftingHead bent, sketching hit men on a title page, I do my best to let the blur of the convention fall away. A line forms: three people deep, clutching copies of my new graphic novel and waiting for my angular signature and brief sketch to scar their pure, untainted book. Using skills honed while penciling to music at drafting tables, I tune out noise to ensure each book’s owner receives a drawing on par with the level of quality poured into the book—a sequential history of the rise and fall of Murder, Incorporated—and with the research still living in my head, nothing will tear focus from the page, ink and line…

…Until a voice breaks through, stopping my pen, promising one hell of a story. A relative’s connection to one of the book’s gangsters, a momentary brush with Lansky, Lepke, Bugsy, or Waxey. Important enough to tell yet definitely not the first time it’s been told, performed with beats and banter so pitch-perfect either or both have been rehearsed several times before. A story, personal and dear, heard in the neighborhood and carried across the nation to bring a place, an act, a crime to those that have yet to cross its dark, dangerous path.

Capping my pen, I stop to listen. Hell; I’ve always got time for a story.

A personal crime story, like a comic book, is best experienced and traded (in my humble opinion). Picked up in a convention bar or at a panel, possibly accumulated while reading an interview, the personal crime story is perfect when related by one familiar with its native streets. “I knew a guy that knew a guy” proves poor comparison to Uncle Maury, black sheep of the family, who not only knew the guy but also delivered corned beef to his Flatbush Avenue apartment every Thursday afternoon. The story carries weight from the place it was born, evolving not only from those involved, but from the streets, avenues, and city around it.

Detroit Murder CityYears ago, living in Detroit, my friends and I prided ourselves on the fact that we hailed from the Murder Capital of the World (spoken with Honor Capitals, as if discussing the President of the United States). Detroit was dangerous, which meant we, in turn, were dangerous despite the fact that the lot of us were, in fact, short, nervous, and Jewish. But despite the truth, when it came to tales of murder, gangland crimes, or urban intrigue, every Shlomo, Dov, and Heshy in North Oak Park, Michigan, claimed to be the god-given successor to the Purple Gang itself.

Continue reading “My Dark Places (with sincere apologies to James Ellroy)”

A Conversation with Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is the author of three of the most highly acclaimed crime novels of recent years. His debut novel, The Ice Harvest, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the California Book Award, a Silver Medal for Best First Fiction, and was a finalist for the Edgar Awards, the Hammett Prize and the Anthony Award. It is now a major motion picture from Focus Features. Its followup The Walkaway continued his success, with The New York Times calling it “wicked fun.” His third novel, Cottonwood, is now out in paperback.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, where much of his first two books are set, Scott lived for many years in Paris, and then in Southern California, where he worked on screenplays. Those who frequent Showtime in the middle of the night may see his name on Crosscut (1996). He now lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.

Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel and an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery. It was also shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, Crimespree, and Macavity Awards, and it was named to lists of the year’s best mystery debuts by the Chicago Sun-Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Sophie lives with her husband and two teenage children near San Francisco, California.

SL: A while back we were talking about whether every writer secretly wants to be a musician. You, and a few other writers I admire, keep wandering over into other media like untethered goats. Why do you think we’re so distractible? I mean, symptom or cause?

SP: It’s that urge to use a different part of the brain, I think. And there’s also the urge to make money, and sometimes other media just beckon. I’m doing a novel in France called Nocturne le Vendredi, which is going to be a TV movie sometime in the next couple of years, so there’s an example of a project existing in two media at once. And then I’ve been playing music as long as I’ve been writing, but in my case it’s mostly been closer to performance art than real music, because I’m not very talented. I’m very envious of my friends who are real musicians, though.

I also go back and forth between genres, which is something you do as well. Do you think you’d go nuts writing the same kind of book over and over again, the way some people do quite successfully?

SL: Uh, yeah . . . and I’m amazed that not everyone feels this way. I was talking to some writing friends, and the question came up: if a publisher offered you a million dollars a book, with the stipulation that you could write only in that genre, would you take it? Truly, I don’t think I could do it.

I have attention challenges. But I have to say, some of the most fascinating people I know are unfocused. Or scattershot-focused. Or going in ten directions at once. Really, I think part of the problem is that all the language we have to describe such a state is pejorative . . . I have a friend who takes a lot of work to keep up with; he’s probably unintelligible to the casual listener. But he’s made the point that by trying to medicate kids (and adults) into a state of uniform mental processing, we bridle and quash the skills that are necessary for certain endeavors — among them writing. Which is not to say that beautiful writing only unfurls from an unquiet mind . . . but that such a state of affairs should not, for some, be discouraged or mended.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Scott Phillips”

The Questions Authors Fear Most

Light Man walking“Where do your ideas come from?”

The only other question that depresses me more is: “Have any of your books been turned into films?”

(The inference is always clear. Surely I’ll never regard myself as being a successful novelist until Ben Affleck has starred in a very bad movie based on one of my books. But back to the ideas…)

Peter Robinson, the wonderful Canadian crime writer, tells people that he buys his in bulk from Costco, while Neil Gaiman visits a lovely little ideas shop in Bognor Regis. Val McDermid tells a wonderful story of doing an event with Ian Rankin in Scotland when this question came up. Ian was at the end of a punishing six-week tour and something inside him just seemed to snap.

“Well,” he said, smiling graciously, “when you get signed by a publisher, they give you this website address and it’s got hundreds of brilliant ideas. You scroll down the list, find one you like, tick the box, and it’s yours.”

The audience laughed, recognizing the joke, but the man who asked the question came to Ian after the event and said, “If I give you fifty quid will you tell me that website address?”

What people don’t want to hear is: “I make my ideas up…out of my head.”

Continue reading “The Questions Authors Fear Most”

A Conspiracy to Believe

Anti-helicoidalAs an novelist, the question I’m most often asked actually isn’t where I get my ideas (a shame, as I’ve got a peppy answer to that), but when I’m going to write another book like Only Forward. It happened twice the other night. As this was my first novel, written over a decade and a half ago, I have to fight not to come back with a tetchy “When I work out a way of being twenty-six again, okay?” The question I get asked almost as much, however, is why my work so often features a conspiracy. This is since I’ve been a thriller writer. Before that, when I wrote noir science fiction, I was asked why my novels always revolved around a hidden realm.

They’re the same thing, I eventually realized. And so is the supernatural. And so is crime.

It took me a while to understand this. I tend to write with wide-eyed naivete, blurting what’s in my head rather than trying to promulgate any long-term agenda or plan (short-term plans are ambitious enough: I’m seldom sure what I’m having for lunch). I’ve gotten used to being apologetic for having written in a variety of genres, and for publishing under two names. Only in the last few years have I started to become bullish in declaring that I’ve been writing the same thing all along. I’ve been trying to pull aside the veil, basically, to show there’s another veil right behind—and to keep going through veil after veil, in fact, until I find what I’ve been looking for: the sense of wonder that comes from finally confronting a question that has no answer, and never will.

I’m not claiming this to be a ground-breaking insight. I recall having conversations somewhat along these lines years ago with Ralph, my extraordinary agent, who died a month ago, suddenly and far too young. Ralph Vicinanza was a rare agent (and man) in very many ways, including the profound spiritual faith he had in the power of storytelling. He understood that trying to grasp and celebrate the ineffable was fiction’s fundamental purpose, whatever guise that story took, which is perhaps why he was prepared to be tolerant of me skipping back and forth between genres like some crazed mountain goat with a sugar rush.

Continue reading “A Conspiracy to Believe”

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.

Continue reading “Sinking the Titanic”

Expect the Unexpected

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

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.”

Continue reading “Tips for Budding Crime Writers: Dialogue”