James Crumley is almost entirely responsible for my fascination with private detective novels. I first read The Last Good Kiss in graduate school, and I’ve read it at least seven or eight times since. That number doesn’t include the countless times I’ve re-read my favorite highlighted passages for inspiration and for pure enjoyment. C. W. Sughrue remains my all-time favorite PI, and Crumley’s prose is, for lack of a better word, addictive. This blog post was a joy to read simply because I wish I could have gone to a bar in Montana, ordered a beer, and met one of my literary heroes.
In White Heat, former Navy SEAL turned PI Duke Rogers makes a quick $250 dollars by locating the address of Teddie Matson, a burgeoning TV actress. A day later Matson is murdered, and Rogers, wrenched with guilt, sets out to find the killer. Set in L.A. during the riots following the Rodney King case, Rogers is beset on all sides by looters and gang bangers, stalkers and criminals, grieving families and damsels in distress, fires and bullets. But it is Rogers’s conscience that proves to be the biggest obstacle. Occasionally calling on the assistance of Jack, a racist/xenophobic ex-SEAL who is eerily likable, Rogers is a formidable hero and more than interesting enough to carry a series. No spoilers here, but I liked the ending precisely because every narrative thread was not neatly tied up, and yet, in the vivid, hard-boiled world Marks has created, justice is served.
White Heat won the Shamus Award for Best Indie PI novel in 2013, and I certainly see why. There are several elements to this book that make it more than just the run-of-the-mill private dick story. Exhibit A: the fantastic descriptions of Los Angeles. Having been to L.A. a total of once, most of my ideas about La-La Land come from TV, movies, and books. Marks does a remarkable job of portraying a city in crisis, a portrayal, I might add, that is more vivid than Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and more realistic and complex than James Ellroy’s. (Note: I love both of those writers and their books). Exhibit B: the palpable tension running through the narrative. Stalking is a big theme in this book, and as I read, I felt the fear, anxiety, and paranoia gripping me. Throughout the novel, there are italicized sections of inner monologue that serve to put the reader inside Rogers’s head and in the belly of the riots. Exhibit C: the commentary on race. It’s damned hard to successfully weave social and/or political commentary into a novel without coming off as preachy, but Marks pulls it off.
Bottom line, I’ve come up with a simple question for determining if a book is really good or not: how many hours of work and/or sleep did you lose because you couldn’t stop reading? Let’s just say I have a stack of ungraded essays on my desk, and my eyelids are very heavy. Cheers to the author of White Heat for that.
P.S.–Check the author’s blog linked below. Love his thoughts on old noir films.
I’m a sucker for a good series, and the Conway Sax books are not good, they’re great. Sax, a part-time mechanic, part-time PI, specializes in doing “favors” for fellow Barn Burners, or recovering alcoholics. As a former drunk, Sax has a checkered past, which, in a variety of interesting ways, both haunts and motivates him to assist other former alcoholics, even when they are ungrateful or downright despicable. But what I dig most about Sax is this: he is a decent guy, an American hero in the same vein as the Colson Quinn character in Ace Atkins’s novels.
In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler says this about the detective: “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it…He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.” To me, it’s almost as if Chandler were writing about Conway Sax.
Aside from the main character, however, there are many other excellent reasons to read Ulfelder’s books. The wonderful clipped prose. The fast-paced narratives typically centered around loyalty and redemption. I could go on, but I’ll let the writing speak for itself. Click on the link below, and read the opening chapter of Ulfelder’s latest novel Shotgun Lullaby.
This is Ace Atkins talking about his latest Quinn Colson novel The Broken Places. Atkins, a former Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, is, in my humble opinion, the best crime novelist in America. In this video, I love what he has to say about American heroes, Mississippi, and, best of all, the craft of researching and writing. If you haven’t read any of the Colson books, you should. They go in this order: The Ranger, The Lost Ones, and The Broken Places.
Congratulations! You have a completed rough draft of your very first novel. You deserve a bit of a celebration. Grab a gluten-free muffin and a decaf. Do a couple of deep knee bends, and put your butt back in the chair because now the real fun begins. (Actually, I’m quite serious about the fun part; I really dig the revision process, but I am, admittedly, OCD.)
- Read the entire manuscript and make notes only on plot issues. As a mystery reader and writer, I am obsessed with plot. The narrative is what keeps a reader turning pages, so make sure your plot a) makes sense, b) creates tension and suspicion, c) moves at a moderately rapid pace, and d) provides a surprising, yet inevitable and satisfying ending. And the only way I know to achieve a, b, c, and d is to revise, revise, revise, revise, and then revise some more. A quick tip on revision reading: assign yourself no more than five pages per day. Moving at this glacial speed, while tedious at times, will ultimately make your reading sessions more productive. After you’ve identified the plot issues, make any and all necessary corrections.
- Read the entire manuscript again and make notes only on tone. Plot is important for mystery readers, but we also read for the voice. Bottom line, we want an engaging, lively, and unique narrative voice, so take the time to make sure your first novel has one. Too, make sure the tone is consistent throughout. Characters, of course, can evolve (or devolve), but the tone should not. Think of it this way. I’ll bet if I copied and pasted a passage from one of your favorite author’s books into this post, you’d be able to tell me right away who wrote it. And how would you be able to do that? Because the author created a distinct tone, a unique voice. After you’ve identified the tone issues, make any and all necessary corrections.
- Read the entire manuscript again and correct any mechanical errors. Like I tell my students day in and day out: proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. An abundance of typos, misspelled words, and rambling sentences is just sloppy.
- Have an astute reader read your manuscript. This must be someone you trust to give you honest feedback. Me, I give my manuscripts to my wife, who is a voracious reader and highly critical (in the good way). Quick story: I gave my wife my first Nick Suits novel, and she flatly told me the plot was all over the place, the voice was off-putting, and the dialogue was wooden. This criticism, while difficult to hear, was, in a word, spot-on. Even better: it was specific. My point is find someone who can do more than just say, “I enjoyed it,” or “It wasn’t my cup of tea.”
- Put the manuscript in a drawer for a month…and then read it again. Honestly, I think all writers get too close to their work, so this break is very important. One other thing: during this break, start a new writing project. After all, writers write.
Now that you’ve not only read and applied the advice I outlined in Part 1, but you’ve also vowed to name your firstborn child after me for providing such sage-like wisdom, it’s time to do the hardest part of writing: apply ass to chair and write. But because I teach for a living, I will try to be more specific. Hope the bullet list below is helpful.
WHILE WRITING THE NOVEL
- Stick to your writing routine…no matter what. In Part 1, I suggested that every first-time novelist should create a writing schedule, a set time and place where and when he or she writes every single day. The trick to this is sticking with it…because there will be days when the words come easily and days when they don’t. Either way, keep writing. And don’t take days off to go fish. Or to the movies. This is a job, so treat it as such.
- Eliminate distractions. By this I mean do not listen to music, watch TV, or have any electronic device in the room while you write. At most, have your laptop and your beverage of choice. (I’d advice against alcohol; too distracting). I also recommend getting rid of the Internet on the computer you write on; this will limit the temptation to check Facebook or Twitter. If you prefer to write your stories out by pen, that’s cool, but make sure you store your manuscript in a safe place. For anyone out there who likes to work in a coffee shop or other public location, I suggest you try my solitary approach and see how much more efficiently you write.
- Have your detailed plot summary and character bios handy. If you want, you can condense these documents down even further to make it easy to keep track of scenes and basic character information. Try putting the condensed character bios on index cards and taping them above your work station. Ditto the scene by scene plot outline. Again, this level of organization is incredibly helpful, and it pacifies my OCD.
- When not writing, read! More specifically, you should read novels in the genre you write. This will provide you with an idea of what’s being published, and it will serve as inspiration. And remember: good writers borrow; great writers steal. My advice: dare to be great.
- Carry a journal with you wherever you go. Throughout your work day, you will undoubtedly think about your novel, so keep the journal handy to record any ideas. This might include images, descriptions, plot points, settings, etc.
Below are links to excellent websites for mystery writers. In them you will find information on writing, revising, editing, marketing, and promoting your novel. Check them out.
If time travel was possible, I would go back to 1999 and give my younger self some advice on how to go about the business of writing a novel. And, time permitting, I might tell him to never again dye his hair blonde and wear sport coats with shoulder pads. But that’s a post for another time.
Being that I’m older now and fanatical about organization, I’ve learned that all battles (and writing is a battle, albeit a fun one) are won or lost before they are ever fought. With that in mind, this is the first in a series of three posts about penning a first novel. Learn from my many, many, many, many mistakes.
BEFORE WRITING A NOVEL
- Make a detailed plot outline. I write a scene by scene summary of the plot on over-sized artist sketch paper, labeling each scene by number from beginning to end. Handwritten, these summaries are no more than five or six sentences in length.
- Write detailed character bios. Include a physical description as well as some backstory on every character you plan to use in the novel. Don’t forget to include full names, ages, and any memorable traits. For you mystery writers like me, don’t forget MMO (motive, means, opportunity). Remember you want a lot of detail on these characters, especially the protagonists and antagonists.
- Designate a specific time to write and a specific place…everyday! For me, this was in my tiny home office from 2pm to 4pm, no exceptions. I stripped the walls of said office of everything but my detailed plot outline and character bios, and I removed the Internet and all games from my laptop to really focus on writing. And of course: no cell phones, music, or TV. Humans aren’t cut out for multi-tasking, despite the rumors.
- Write a contract for yourself. Perhaps this seems extreme, but I found it necessary to actually write down my goal, which was to complete a rough draft of my novel by a specific date. In addition, I wrote down vows, which were actions I swore I would take to reach my goal. Once I wrote these goals and vows down, I printed out several copies and posted them in my home office, my work office, my refrigerator, and half a dozen other places I would see them everyday. Call it an accountability thing. (See the picture below for what this contract looked like.)
Pop quiz: which of the following qualifies as a reasonable favor for a friend? A) Bumming a ride to the airport. B) Helping move furniture into storage. C) Picking up the lunch tab. D) Going head to head with a megalomaniacal Las Vegas billionaire hell-bent on bringing a casino to Boston.
If you answered D, your name is Spenser, and you are one of the toughest and most memorable fictional PIs of the last three decades. Originally created by the late great Robert B. Parker, Spenser is now in the capable hands of Ace Atkins, who would be on my short list for the best crime fiction novelist still among the living.
In Wonderland, Henry Cimoli, an old boxing buddy of Spenser’s, is offered a buyout on his beloved condo in Revere Beach to make way for a casino. When Henry refuses, thugs are sent to expedite the process. Enter Spenser and his new apprentice Zebulon Sixkill, a six and a half foot Native American first introduced in The Professionals. From there, things get political, and violent, and the familiar hard-boiled themes bubble to the surface: greed, greed, and more greed. But Spenser, never one to back down no matter the odds, digs his heels in and tries to make things right for his friend…and the greater good.
What is so satisfying about Wonderland is the ease with which Atkins captures nearly every aspect of the Spenser series. Rapid fire dialogue? Check. Descriptions of Boston settings? Check. Fantastic fight scenes? Check. Atkins has not only Spenser’s character down pat, but all the series regulars, too: Susan, the beautiful intellectual who can trade barbs with Spenser all day, and Hawk, the deeply dangerous backup man. The addition of Zebulon Sixkill (called Z) gives Spenser a sidekick, which adds another satisfying layer to the series.
Pop quiz: would I happily read more of these Spenser novels as penned by Ace Atkins? A) yes B) yes C) yes D) hell yes
The idea of an author reading from his or her novel in public had always struck me as strange, bordering on the absurd. But that was the Younger Me, a broody post-adolescent clinging to the belief that an author was required to be a grouchy, reclusive genius who wore tweed coats with elbow patches and only listened to jazz.
So when I went to Francis Marion University last Thursday to hear Tom Franklin do a public reading, I was reminded just how thick Younger Me really was. Franklin, the award-winning author of Poachers, told riotously funny stories about his teenage years, provided thoughtful (and expansive) answers to all questions, and managed to make eye contact with the audience while reading from his 2010 mystery novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Best of all, he drew a possum on the book I bought (see picture below). If you get the chance, I strongly recommend you hear Franklin do a reading. In the meantime, pick up Poachers, a brilliant collection of short stories, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a literary mystery novel set in rural Mississippi.
To review what I learned from Tom Franklin: one, an author need not be unpleasant and anti-social; in fact, he or she can be funny and friendly and still be a serious writer. Two: elbow patches, while cool, are not required to write a fantastic book; Franklin’s written several great books, and, at least on the occasion in question, his jacket was sans patches. Three: a writer can listen to something other than Coltrane or Davis; during the Q&A, Franklin mentioned that he saw Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg at the same concert venue in Oxford, Mississippi. Jealous I missed that one.
One of the reasons I read (and write) crime novels is to experience danger without suffering any of the consequences. Call it what you will. Escapism. Wish fulfillment. Fantasy. But whatever label you want to put on it, I would argue it is a healthy way to indulge, and David Housewright’s PI novel Highway 61 is one thoroughly satisfying indulgence, a book totally worthy of adverbs.
In Highway 61, Rushmore McKenzie (great name!) is a recent millionaire and unlicensed PI who does favors for his friends, or in this case, the daughter of the woman he loves. The daughter’s father, a lowlife with a taste for barely legal girls named Jason Truhler, is being blackmailed. It doesn’t take McKenzie very long before he figures out Truhler has fallen victim to the classic Honey Pot scam. A bit more digging and all manner of unsavory characters come crawling out of the dirt: a pair of murderous brothers referred to as the Joes, a serial arsonist named Bug, a Machiavellian fixer called Muehlenhaus, and a teenage callgirl-come-blackmailer named Vicki Walsh at the center of it all. With a sordid cast of characters like that, the action is bound to reach a fever pitch, and in a hurry, which it does.
Aside from the requisite car chases and physical confrontations between McKenzie and the bad guys, all of which are expertly written and kept me up past my bedtime, this novel does something quite interesting: it uses Highway 61 as both a setting for the action and as a metaphor. The highway represents moral decay, and McKenzie must traverse this highway and save the day, all while maintaining his own moral compass. Pretty deep stuff, especially for such a fun read.
This was my first encounter with Rushmore McKenzie, but it won’t be my last. I’m planning my own trip down the highway soon. . .to pick up another of Housewright’s novels. Hopefully, I won’t come across any blackmailers or armed assailants as I prefer to keep my fantasy life separate from my real one.