Showing posts with label Donald Westlake. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Donald Westlake. Show all posts

18 March 2017

On Killing and Consequences

Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which Mystery People called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.” He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim Museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, also home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture.

NOTE: I met Thomas at Bouchercon 2015, and have been a fan of his novels and stories ever since. Please join me in welcoming him to SleuthSayers!
— John Floyd


by Thomas Pluck

Normal people don't like violence, but they sure enjoy reading about it. And those of us who write violent stories are often called hypocrites when we decry violence in the real world. If you glorify violence, you may be inspiring it. But then again, you can inspire violence with a story that includes little. Just ask Salinger.

I have experienced violence, witnessed violence, and trained in violence. And I write stories that often depict violence. Yet I do not support violence, except in defense. You can call me a hypocrite if you like, that's your prerogative. But the difference is that I know the consequences of violence, and if anything, I write about those consequences more than the violence itself.

On Twitter, director Jeremy Saulnier recently got into a tiff (which seems to be what Twitter is best for, lately) when he supported a woman's charity run that was against gun violence. He writes violent films, such as Blue Ruin and Green Room. The troll said that audiences just see violence and react with "awesome! His head blew up!" To paraphrase, Saulnier replied "have you seen my movies?"

Truffaut famously said that there were no antiwar films because "to show something is to ennoble it" and later amended it, saying he never saw an antiwar film, because in the end they are all pro-war. Violence is exciting, and no matter how brutal you make it, someone will be titillated. In fact, you may only jade the audience. We're a long way from when Derek Raymond made readers flinch with the opening to I Was Dora Suarez. We've seen war films and crime films with limbs dangling by a thread. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Don Winslow's The Cartel, both dare the reader to continue, as the bloodshed mounts. I don't recall anyone swearing off crime fiction or westerns after reading them. Because they show the consequences.

It's a kind of shell shock. The adrenaline scours your veins and leaves you feeling empty. Everyone loves a good revenge tale, but there's a reason Sicilians say "when you set out for revenge, dig two graves." The other one is for yourself. Because revenge is a fantasy of justice. The only justice that would truly satisfy us requires a time machine. We can't be the person we were before we were victimized, and the dead can't be brought back. And as Gandhi said "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Revenge, if unchecked, would eventually kill us all. The Vikings had the blood price, to end such disputes. If only it were so easy.

Violence is not pretty and it always has a price. My great-uncle Butch (to whom I dedicated Blade of Dishonor) never spoke about his time in World War 2, except once. With tears in his eyes, he wept for the enemies he had killed. "They were just kids forced off to war, just like us." He was years past ninety when he came to that conclusion, and I am grateful he taught it to me. Because we stop glorifying violence by making our villains human. They can be evil humans, but they must be humans. Rare is the person who wakes up and says, "what evil can I do today?" Even the people we would classify as evil, the utterly selfish, who seem to take glee in trampling others on their route to success, have to say that their victims were weak, and deserved it. They couldn't face it otherwise. Psychopaths without empathy, cannot feel other's pain, but they feel their own acutely. They are not superhuman. The psychopath we perhaps know the most about, Carl Panzram, refused to believe that anyone thought differently than he did. That we were all out for ourselves, that we were just good at hiding it. There was no proving Panzram wrong; it's not as if he would have broken down in the face of true altruism. His mind simply would not permit such a belief to exist.

In Bad Boy Boogie, I studied "killology," as Lt. Dan Grossman calls it, which is the study of killing and how it affects professional soldiers and police. I also researched victims of abuse and bullying. Having experienced it myself, I wanted to know how those who avenged themselves felt. And it was no cure. As one character says, "It doesn't get better. It gets bitter." And Jay Desmarteaux, who begins as an acolyte of vengeance, who sincerely believes "some people just need killing," undergoes a journey of discovery that not only exposes the evil that people will commit to protect their deepest inner selves, but how killing affects the psyche, no matter how just a killing we tell ourselves it is.

One reader called Jay "Parker on steroids." For a fan of Don Westlake's work, that's as great a compliment as I may ever receive, Jay will crack a joke, and worse, he will regret the killing he's done, two things the outlaw demigod Parker would never do. But even Parker is more than a shell, though we don't see much evidence until the later books with Claire. He isn't a true sociopath. Once Claire comes into the picture he extends his circle of empathy to include her, and views attacks on her as if they are attacks on himself. This is a brilliant, subdued portrayal of how a killer deals psychologically with the world, and Westlake does it with incredibly entertaining stories that still have a large following.

And while Parker leaves a trail of bodies through the series, often for revenge or "to set things straight," the deaths put him and Claire at risk. The birds come home to roost. And it doesn't take away from the entertainment, or turn it into a "message story." The violent world of Parker always cuts both ways, just as in the real world.

19 August 2015

Five Red Herrings VII

by Robert Lopresti

1.  Critiquing a Grand Master.  If you are a fan of the late great Donald E. Westlake you owe it to yourself to take a look at The Westlake Review.  The blog's owner, one fredfitch, explains that his mission is simple: "Reviewing every book Donald Westlake ever wrote. Because I can."  

And these are not reviews in the sense of should-you-buy-it three-and-a-half-stars types.  No, he wants to discuss the  themes, the context, how it fits into Mr. W's ouevre and so on. As I write this the most recent work under the microscope is Comfort Station, in which Westlake, under a pseudonym, applies Arthur Hailey's Airport or Hotel style pomposity to the vibrant humanity of a public restroom in Bryant Park.


I don't know the author's real name; Fred Fitch was the luckless hero of God Save The Mark.  If you have read the Dortmunder chronicles and the Parker saga, you need this site.


 2.  E-book Mindfulness.  I'm guessing that most of you buy e-books from time to time.  But how do you do that?  Here are a couple of hings to think about.


When I want to buy an e-book my first choice is Kobo. You can purchase a Kobo reader if you want, but I read mine on my iPad.  I assume they work on the other tablets.  The reason I prefer Kobo is that they have a deal with the American Booksellers Association.  I go to the  website of my favorite independent bookstore, click on Search for E-books, and when I buy something part of the money goes straight to that bookshop.  My way of helping them stay in business.

If Kobo doesn't have the book - not all publishers play nice - I  buy a Kindle edition.  But I don't go directly to Amazon to do so.  There are others out there who have deals with Amazon, you see.

Kevin R. Tipple is an excellent book reviewer who also aggregates a lot of news about our field at his website Kevin's Corner.  His family has accumulated some horrific medical expenses for reasons  you can find on his page.  So I go to his site and click on the Amazon button there.  When I buy a book he gets a sliver of the dough.  It doesn't raise my price and I would rather he get it than the company one bookseller I know calls SPECTRE.

Before I found out about Kevin's case I used to buy my Amazon books through the Wolfe Pack page.  This is the official organization for Rex Stout fans and I was happy to put a few cents in their coffers when I bought an e-book.

I'm not suggesting you should make the same choices as me, but I do suggest you think about your e-book choices.  And let me know what you think in the comments.

3. To make you wonder.  I have mentioned Wondermark before.  It is probably my favorite webcomic, a steam-punk-friendly combination of Victorian book art with modern problems.  Here is one of David Malki!'s (yes, he includes the exclamation point in his name) recent comics that seems relevant to our website's subject:


And here and here are two more.

4.  I'm from the government and I am here to help you.  I may have mentioned a few hundred times that I am a government information librarian.  One of my colleagues, Daniel Cornwall, has created a guide to government information specifically for all the writers out there.

Here are a few random samples of the questions he offers to answer for you:

+ What are guidelines for reports of possible criminal activity involving foreign intelligence sources?
+ What are the symptoms of inhalation anthrax?
+ What are some of the relationship complications of pretending to be dead?
+ How can I find a name so rare, that it was only given to five or so babies in 1980?
 
Get your facts straight so readers like me don't whine at you!

5.  My two pages worth.  B.K. Stevens had (at least) two brilliant ideas this year.  One was to join SleuthSayers (yay!).  The other was to start her exciting new blog The First Two Pages.   Each week a different writer steps in to explain what he or she was trying to accomplish in the very beginning of a book or short story.  I am delighted that this week it is me, talking about my new novel GREENFELLAS.  Thanks for the opportunity, B.K.!

19 February 2014

Best Question

by Robert Lopresti

Writers have been known to gripe about certain questions  they receive over and over.  But human nature being what it is, we don't spend so much time talking about the questions we like.  (And if you have any favorites, plunk 'em into the comments.)

I want to concentrate on one question in particular, because it is vital to our business. 

Donald E. Westlake wrote an essay called "Tangled Webs For Sale: Best Offer,"  which appeared in I, Witness, an excellent collection of essays by mystery writers about  their experiences with true crime.  In his essay Westlake regales some strangers at a party with the true tale of some French criminals who stole the plan for a kidnapping from a novel by Lionel White.  Westlake is interrupted and then:

"What happened next?" demanded two or three fringe members of the group.  (They were, had they but known it, exemplifying not only the human need for narrative which creates jobs for storytellers like me, but also the professional need which at times drives writers to seek the answer to that question in other writers' books.)

What happened next?  That hunger to find out is what keeps folks turning pages, God bless 'em.

Back in 1979 my first story was published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (and yes, that was the cover).  I thought it had a reasonable ending.  Basically, a boy in a South American village has saved the life of his employer who is a very bad man indeed.  The employer is moved by the boy's action and it looks like his whole outlook on the world might be changed.  But the reader learns that the boy is simply keeping the man alive until he is old enough to sell him to a higher bidder.

When the story was published naturally I showed it off to some people.  A lot of people.  One of them was my wife's co-worker, Dorothy.  When she read it she immediately asked "What happened next?"

I assured her that I had no idea.  This did not satisfy her, and every time I walked into that office after that Dorothy glared at me and asked "What happened next?"

Finally I told her that the day after the story ended the boy won the lottery and his family and the employer bought a house by the seashore together.  Oddly enough, this didn't please her either.

Which brings up another point, doesn't it?  Wanting to know what happens after the ending may not be a good idea.  Or, maybe, instead of the ending. 

Connie Willis, one of my favorite science fiction writers, wrote a book called Remake in which technology had advanced sufficiently that anyone could remake a movie, essentially Photoshop it, so that , for example, Sonny doesn't get shot to death in The Godfather.  (Oops, spoiler alert there!)   She noted that one of the most popular changes was to "fix" Casblanca so that Rick ends up with Ilsa.  But, her main character points out, there is no way to make that happen without turning  Rick and Ilsa into  bad guys. 

I have been pondering this because my last story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine was a sequel I never expected to write.   I didn't feel any need to know what happened next with that character.  Then suddenly I did.  And more to the point, my next story in AHMM is a sequel to another story I never thought needed any company. 

Do you want to hear about that?  Come back in two weeks, because that's what happens next.