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A Series of Complaints

X-ray LightbulbsWhen John Rebus retired at the end of Exit Music, I was free to experiment.  I spent the next eighteen months or so writing my first graphic novel (Dark Entries), some lyrics for an Edinburgh band called St Jude’s Infirmary, a novella for people with literacy problems (A Cool Head), and a serial for the New York Times (which would eventually be published as Doors Open).  Oh, and I also set to work on my first film script, an adaptation of James Hogg’s novel Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (ongoing as I write this).

But then I read a newspaper article about the Complaints and Conduct department of a UK police force.  That article got me interested.  It seemed to me that to work as a member of The Complaints, basically spying on your own kind, would take a certain mindset.  You’d have to be a very different kind of cop from Rebus.  You’d be slow and methodical, a stickler for the rules, and somewhat of a voyeur.  So I used my contacts and was granted an interview with an officer who worked at one time for the Complaints department of a Scottish police force.  It was a fascinating experience and whetted my appetite for writing something.  I wanted to take a cop from The Complaints and turn their life inside out, goading them into action  –  no longer a voyeur, no longer someone who abides by the letter of the law.

At the same time, everyone in Edinburgh seemed to be voicing some complaint or other.  This was the winter of 2008/9.  Work was ongoing to reinstate a tram system in the city.  A lot of people couldn’t see the point of trams and many more disliked the disruption.  Streets were closed off.  There was almost a sense of ‘apartheid’ as the roadworks made it difficult to move from New Town to Old Town and vice versa.  Added to which, the weather was fairly grim.

And the banks looked ready to implode.

Banking is in Edinburgh’s blood-stream.  Many jobs depend on financial services.  If the likes of the Royal Bank of Scotland caught a cold, we would all be infected.  Major players who had been national heroes in years past now suddenly became pariahs, in a reversal that could have come from Shakespeare or Greek tragedy.  I didn’t want to write about these figures per se, but I did want to explore the potential knock-on effects of economic uncertainty.  With any luck, the plot would allow me to use characters from the Complaints and Conduct department, too.

Now that I’d decided to write another police novel  –  and one set firmly in contemporary Edinburgh  –  I needed to be sure that no one would see the protagonist as a thinly-disguised version of Rebus.  I needn’t have worried: from the outset, Malcolm Fox was very much his own man.  Then I introduced him to Jamie Breck  –  dynamic, charismatic, racing up the promotion ladder.  If the two men seemed chalk and cheese, they would soon start to see common ground.  Both would become suspects.  And in Fox’s case, he would have to turn from gamekeeper to poacher.

As I say, he doesn’t really remind me of Rebus.  He’s actually more like Miles Flint, the hero of ‘Watchman’, one of my early non-Rebus novels.  Flint was a quiet, fastidious London-based spy who had to become proactive in order to find an enemy set on destroying him.  He shares a strand of DNA with Malcolm Fox, while Rebus remains somebody Fox is more likely to have under his microscope.

Oh yes, I’ve been mulling over that idea.  There must be a few skeletons lurking in Rebus’s closet, and who knows when one of them might come rattling to the attention of Complaints and Conduct….

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. Visit him online at, download the Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh iPhone app and visit his publisher Reagan Arthur Books for a list of all the amazing coverage Ian has received for The Complaints

Seven Things Screenwriters Should Know About Writing Novels

After the unprecedented success of yesterday’s column, I decided I would flip it around and provide you the converse list of things screenwriters should know as they switch from Final Draft to MS word to scratch that prose itch.

1.  Publishers Want To Sell Books. It’s a common misperception that screenwriting is for commercial aspirations while novel writing is a place to pen esoteric ideas and ramblings.  The truth is:  publishers want commercial books.  They want to reach a wide audience.  The same forces that drive a spec script sale drive a spec novel sale.  Will this book attract a large number of readers?  You have to write a novel the same way you would write a movie:  with compelling characters, surprising plot twists, strong dialogue, and a unifying theme that encompasses all.  Sure, you don’t have to worry about set pieces and budgets and casting, but you’re going to have a hard time if you write for a very narrow niche.

2.  The Money Is Not The Same (At First). When I received my first book contract, I called a novelist friend of mine in London.  “How do novelists make a living?” I asked.  Her reply:  “They don’t!  They all want to be screenwriters!”  Unless you are one of those amazingly successful novelists:  King or Connelly or Grisham or Clancy, the money just isn’t the same as you would get for writing and selling a screenplay.  So don’t write a novel thinking you can quickly switch careers and won’t have to deal with studios and producers anymore but will make the same money.  Unless you write THE FIRM… then you can.

3.  Publishers are Your Friends. You know how, as a screenwriter, you’re constantly wary of your status on your own project?  Like at any moment, you can be fired for seemingly no reason?  How every word you write can be changed at the whim of a junior executive fresh out of film school?  It takes a little while to get used to, but your publisher actually likes your opinions on your work.  They treat you deferentially as they suggest… key word “suggest”… edits.  They consult you on everything from chapter breaks to the book covers.  And they are pulling for you and your book to do well.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop but so far, it hasn’t.  Not one word gets changed without your permission.  Somebody slap me.

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The Dark 13: Noir in Horror and Other Adventures that Made Us Evil

Still from a horror movieWe have a theory that most movies and books in the noir mode actually aspire to be horror movies and books.  And we think that a lot of horror films desperately want to be noir.  Come to think of it, a lot of your action/suspense/thriller-type-things tend to feel an awful lot like they want to be noir AND horror. Then you have those berserk stepchildren who happen to be all of these things and none of these things. Those are brave writers and fearless directors playing around with theme and technique while they gene-splice genres and re-write the rules.  You can do a lot when you throw away the playbook. You can invent your own stinkin’ genre.  We took a stab at this recently with our collaboration on BLACK LIGHT for Muholland Books, which is a novel about a private eye with supernatural powers who gets in deep with a bunch of ghosts on a high-tech bullet train—how’s THAT for genre-bending?  We’re pretty happy with how it’s shaping up and we think it owes a dark debt to a lot of the crazy films and books we grew up with, many of which probably had no idea how many rules they were breaking.  We’ve been asked to share some of these bad bastards with you this week, by way of introducing you to our raunchy little pop-lit power trio, and we thought it might be a good opportunity to throw out some keen observations, witty personal anecdotes and clever banter that will almost certainly mark us as “serious authors” to the world at large.  (Hear that sound?  That’s Stephen with his tongue so far up his cheek he’s licking out his ear.)  At the very least, you may find some of this information useful on a bar trivia question or something—after all we ARE professionals.

So let’s rack ‘em  up:  THE DARK 13, baby.  Who wants to go first?

Marcus: If I may offer…THE CROW.  I remember painting my face up and driving out to the Coralville, Iowa 3 Plex to buy tickets for myself and buds to see this film opening night. I then found myself watching it another twenty-four times over the next couple of years. Over and over again, this stark revenge tale sucked me in with a pulsating score & soundtrack that honored the graphic novel’s inspirations as much as the cinematography honored the novel’s panels.  I knew I wasn’t the only one this film affected—for on subsequent Halloween’s, no matter which University Of Iowa kegger one may attend, there were always a handful of ‘Crows’ quietly hanging out in a circle with filled red cups, bobbing their heads in unison. Every now and then, you have a film which anchors itself to a terrific feeling or a sense-memory which is far beyond the running time of a movie.  It meant a lot to share a love for THE CROW with buds and it raised the bar for graphic novel adaptations to come.

Stephen: Man, twenty-four times!  That almost beats my record—I saw ALIENS thirty-seven times when it came out.  On the subject of THE CROW, I think it’s worth noting the comic book also, because it really is an amazing work of gothic noir in the supernatural vein—so much bleaker than even the film was and just oozing with vision and style.  All the art is in black and white, and it sometimes has the feel of an old classic horror film or crime thriller.  It actually derives from a senseless tragedy the author was grappling with when he wrote and illustrated it—which is an artistic impetus I can really identify with.  In the book, the crime that kills Eric Draven and traps his soul is more of a random occurrence—something that could happen to anyone by the side of the road, and the Crow itself is more of an Edgar Allan Poe specter.  Beautiful, haunting stuff.

Patrick: Ha!  I was at that Iowa kegger and I distinctly remember Marcus with electric tape wrapped around his jeans because he couldn’t find black leather pants in Iowa City.  What a dork.  Yeah, that movie was pretty badass.  Not until years later did I discover the comic book.  Stunning work.  I heard a rumor at some point that the remake would be shot in black and white to emulate the comic book.  The marketing people would never let that happen, but we can dream.  Then again, can projectors these days even show black and white prints anymore? (wink-wink)

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A Conversation with the Breakout Kings: Nick Santora and Domenick Lombardozzi

Nick Santora is the author of SLIP AND FALL and FIFTEEN DIGITS both forthcoming from Mulholland Books. He is also the co-writer, co-executive producer and co-creator of Breakout Kings which premieres this Sunday, March 6th at 10PM on A&E. Here, Santora and Domenick Lombardozzi (star of Breakout Kings, The Wire, Entourage and more) discuss their collaboration on the show, the concept of literary TV and, most importantly, which New York borough is the best.

Mulholland Books: Nick, you’ve described shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Breakout Kings as “literary TV.” What does the phase mean to you?

Nick Santora: I think to me, and there are other shows that I think fall into that category as well like Boardwalk Empire. But to me, it’s trying to take television to a different level of storytelling -when you’re doing stuff that you have not necessarily seen before. There’s television out there that is absolutely great; and that makes a lot of people happy and makes a lot of people a lot money, but it’s definitely, for lack of a better term, I guess, a bit old hat. It’s the straight case of where character dialogues are interchangeable and it just doesn’t make a difference who says what. I can state from experience: I’ve worked on shows where I’ve been on set, and I’m not going to name the show; but, where one actor was having trouble with his lines, and his buddy, another actor has said don’t worry, I know that line. I’ll take it and you take my line, it’s shorter. And my writer brain and my producer brain both cramped at hearing that until, I actually saw them play the scene and I realized- it just doesn’t make a difference, who says what.

Because the whole entire episode is about the case and the characters are nothing but meats puppets that give exposition. It really bothered me, and I swore that if I could ever get my own show on the air, I would try at least to make the show about something other than just the case of the week. And on Breakout Kings, that’s what I and Matt Olmstead, my co-creator on the show, have tried to do and I think that we have been relatively successful.

MB: Domenick, your Wikipedia entry claims that your main inspiration as an actor is the film State of Grace. While the film is a cult classic, it’s also kind of a narrow choice, so I thought I’d ask…

Domenick Lombardozzi: No, that’s not true. Although, I do love the movie. Gary Oldman. Fantastic. Although I did A Bronx Tale when I was fifteen, it wasn’t until I did a movie called Kiss me Guido that I really fell in love with acting– just the whole process, the learning what other people do, the camaraderie. It was that experience for me because we actually took that movie from nothing, and got funding, did readings to get money, to get that movie we made for Tony Vitale, and it was just that whole process that really inspired me.

NS: Kiss Me Guido is another example of literary film–Tony Vitale is really a talented writer. You know we can all go out and see a movie that is a lot of incredible special effects, and the star of the movie frankly is what’s done in the editing biz with the incredible talented editors, and the CGI, and all the incredible technology that is available today. Those movies are great and I love those movies; and I’ll be the first one to go and see one of those films, but, I also love a film where the star is the story, and the actors are bring the story to life.

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Music Speaks

the magnificent eiffel towerThe irony was not altogether lost on me. Though irony—possibly—was not the right word. Perhaps it was just another example of the way in which life can sometimes double back, can turn suddenly and reflect itself every once in a while. A variation of déjà vu. An echo.

I sit in a darkened film-editing suite. The room is thick with smoke. I am watching a rough cut of a film by Olivier Dahan, Oscar-winning director of La Vie en Rose. On the sound system is a previously unheard soundtrack written by Bob Dylan. It is my first trip to Paris, and there I am—somewhere in an office within the shadow of the Eiffel Tower—discussing the possibility of writing a screenplay of my book A Quiet Belief in Angels (Seul le Silence). What happened as a result of that meeting, the three days I spent in Paris, the screenplay, the potential film…all of this is irrelevant to the story. What was really interesting to me about that first meeting was Robert Johnson. Forrest Whittaker as Robert Johnson, right there on the screen ahead of me. The whole backstory of Johnson—how he met Lucifer at the crossroads and sold his soul for the blues. That story.

It was a story within the film that Dahan had just made, and it was a story I’d heard before.

Backwards more than thirty years. A seven-year-old child stands in the hallway of a strange house. His mother has just died, and he has been sent to stay with a relative. The relative, a great aunt, has a son. The son is a teenager, a wild guy, a rocker, and he has a room painted black with posters all over the walls—Hendrix, Joplin, Canned Heat, Jim Morrison and the Doors. He spends his time playing records, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer.

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Dog to Dog: A Conversation with Scott Bakker and James Sallis

Dog Fighting
[Our two radical nonconformists begin in mid-leap]

SB: …which begs the question of just what “this” is? Should we just make “it” into a conversation, wanker to wanker?

JS: Well, I love begging questions. Sometimes you do have to slap them around a bit to get a proper answer. Or they lawyer up.

I think we’re just supposed to discuss the same stuff one talks about every day with his or her companions on the bus, standing in line at the unemployment office, or down by the river, the stuff we read on our cereal boxes and within fortune cookies: Why we’re here, what it all means, what is real. Unfortunately, you and I pretty much covered all that while clutching wildly at our seats or staggering monkeylike down swaying cabins on the eight-hour train ride to Semana Negra.

Nor do I want to debate the virtues of genre. Too much dust in the air already, too many footprints at the crime scene. So let me start by asking you—who debuted with what might well be called anti-fantasies, stuck a foot in the thriller water to check the temperature, and are about to publish a crime novel—what it is that attracted you to genre. (I won’t mention your training as a philosopher, since we want people to read this.)

SB: In a word: cynicism.

My philosophy background is partially to blame. You can’t spend as much time splitting hairs and chasing tails as I did without becoming disillusioned with humanity and its innumerable vanities and conceits. The things we think we know—holy moly. Because of this disillusionment, I spent far too much time researching human cognition for my previous thriller, Neuropath. I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered: the difference between what we assume and what the sciences of the mind and brain are showing us is nothing short of dismaying. I’m pretty sure I was clinically depressed for a span of months…

The remarkable thing about the PI in noir crime fiction, it seems to me, is that he already knows, on some visceral, implicit level, all the things I had to have spelled out for me. If most fishermen become fatalists because of the caprice of the seas, then all private detectives become cynics because of the caprice of human nature. (As a cop once told me, the problem wasn’t that he had seen it all, it was that he had seen too much. It got to the point where he saw scams no matter where he went.)

This voice just popped into my head, this über-cool persona, who took my deepening cynicism regarding the lies, big and small, which all humans use to make sense of their lives, and turned them into a strange way of life. Disciple Manning was born.

I had no choice but to write crime fiction then.

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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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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 Andrew Vachss

On the occasion of the publication of Andrew Vachss’s new novel The Weight, Ken Bruen and Andrew Vachss talk about the blues, justifiable rage and writing for the streets not the critics.

Ken: Would you consider Two Trains Running your seminal work?

Andrew: Retro-seminal, in that it dissects events which have already occurred. Seminal was probably A Bomb Built in Hell…after all, who was even thinking about the possibility of a disaffected, marginalized young man walking into a high school with a knapsack full of weaponry, and killing a whole lot of random targets before taking his own life in 1973? Or Chinese youth gangs taking over from the traditional tongs in Chinatown industries such as gambling, drugs, and prostitution? Or what would happen in Haiti were someone to put a round in Baby Doc’s head before he fled to that bastion of art, France? You know, the same country that is now harboring Roman Polanski?

Ken: I know I miss Burke; do you?

Andrew: I don’t. Burke—who, by the way, suffered the same fate as Bomb when it (finally) did get published—got the job done. I needed a guide to Hell, and an angel wouldn’t do. So when Burke had a conversation with a predatory pedophile who was modem-trafficking in kiddie porn, the (cloistered) reviewers fell all over themselves dismissing the book (this was the second volume, Strega) as the work of a “sick imagination.” That was 1986. Now it’s a fairly standard plot device for the “noir” crowd. Of course, that crowd doesn’t like the word “seminal,” as only the very best Jim Thompson imitators qualify as “real.”

Damn, this is a long answer. But I don’t miss Burke in the “literary” sense. For many years, his only reason to live was hate, and his only religion was revenge. He was not a “vigilante,” as some twits have decided; he was a mercenary. But hiring him for some jobs would have been a suicidal act. Then he found his “family of choice.” They chose him; he chose them. And he became blood-bonded to this true family to the point of psychosis: endanger any of them, either you die, or Burke dies trying. The goal of a true family is not that their children follow in their footsteps, but that their children surpass them in all ways. For Burke’s family, the arc was complete when their children—raised by career criminals—left the underworld and stepped out into the light.

Look, who but a terminal narcissist would set out to write an 18-book series? I expected Flood to be my one chance in the ring, which is why it is so long: I threw every punch I could in the first round. But one of the significant ways Burke differed from “private eye” crap is that he aged. As did the world around him. I love those boys who “keep it real” via a protagonist who is the same in 2010 as he was in 1950. Oh, the surroundings change, but the narrator is still the strong, handsome, White Knight of the Chandler clones. It was time for Burke to go, and I was not going to keep him on life support. That wouldn’t have been his choice, and I had to respect that.

I know—not because I’m prescient; because I can read the letters that keep coming in—that ending the series was not a popular move. But I didn’t—such accusations to the contrary—“kill off” Burke. He’s gone, not dead. For those who felt they were losing part of their own family, I apologize. But I also want you to ask yourselves: is Wesley dead?

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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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