Showing posts with label mysteries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mysteries. Show all posts

27 July 2019

Themes in Novels (in which Bad Girl discovers she’s not so flaky after all…)


One of the great discussions in the author world is whether your book should have a theme or not. Of course it’s going to have a plot. (Protagonist with a problem or goal and obstacles to that goal – real obstacles that matter - which are resolved by the end.) But does a book always have a theme?
Usually when we’re talking ‘theme’, we’re putting the story into a more serious category. Margaret Atwood (another Canadian – smile) tells a ripping good story in The Handmaid’s Tale. But readers would agree there is a serious theme underlying it, a warning, in effect.

Now, I write comedies. Crime heists and romantic comedies, most recently. They are meant to be fun and entertaining. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that all of my books have rather serious themes behind them.

Last Friday, I was interviewed for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) mini-documentary featuring female Canadian crime writers. During this, the producer got me talking about the background to my most awarded series, The Goddaughter. This crime caper series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one, but keeps getting dragged back to bail out her inept mob family.

I know what it’s like to be a part of an Italian family that may have had ties to the mob. (In the past. My generation is squeaky clean.) The producer asked me If that informed my writing. Of course it did. But in our discussion, she stopped me when I said: “You are supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is *this* one?”

Voila. There it was: a theme. All throughout the Goddaughter series, Gina Gallo grapples with this internal struggle.
So then I decided to look at my other books. The B-team is a spin-off from The Goddaughter series. It’s a funny take on The A-team television series. A group of well-meaning vigilantes set out to do good, but as this is comedy, things go awry. In fact, the tag-line is: “They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even works.”

Was there a theme behind this premise? Was there a *question asked*? And yes, to me, it was clear.

In The B-Team, I play with the concept: Is it ever all right to do illegal things to right a wrong?

Back up to the beginning. My first series was fantasy. Humorous fantasy, of course. Rowena Through the Wall basically is a spoof of Outlander type books. Rowena falls through a portal into a dark ages world, and has wild and funny adventures. I wrote it strictly to entertain…didn’t I? And yet, the plot revolves around the fact that women are scarce in this time. They’ve been killed off by war. I got the idea from countries where women were scarce due to one-child policies. So what would happen…I mused…if women were scarce? Would they have more power in their communities? Or would the opposite happen. Would they have even less control of their destinies, as I posited?

A very strong, serious theme underlying a noted “hilarious” book. Most readers would never notice it. But some do, and have commented. That gets this old gal very excited.
I’ve come to the conclusion that writers – even comedy writers – strive to say something about our world. Yes, I write to entertain. But the life questions I grapple with find their way into my novels, by way of underlying themes. I’m not into preaching. That’s for non-fiction. But If I work them in well, a reader may not notice there is an author viewpoint behind the work.

Yes, I write to entertain. But I’ve come to the conclusion that behind every novel is an author with something to say. Apparently, I’m not as flaky as I thought.

What about you? Do you look for a theme in novels? Or if a writer, do you find your work conforms to specific themes?



Got teen readers in your family? Here's the latest crime comedy, out this month:

On AMAZON

26 March 2019

Can You Hear Me Now?


Thanks to the fine folks at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a recording of me reading my Agatha Award-nominated short story "Bug Appétit" will be available online at the EQMM website beginning April 1st. (It's true. No April Fool's here.) When they asked me to make the recording, my biggest concern was technical. How could I get a good version of me reading my story in Virginia up to New York, from where it would get uploaded to the EQMM podcast site? That may sound like a no-brainer to many of you, but for me, well, let's just say I'm not really great with new technology. I'm still waiting for someone to teach me how to use the Bluetooth in my car.
Eventually things got worked out technologically speaking (thank you, Jackie Sherbow), so I was able to focus on my next worry: I have five speaking characters in my story. How was I going to make them sound different enough that the listener would be able to tell them apart? If you're reading the story on paper (or on a screen), you can see when a speaker changes, even without a dialogue tag, because you'll see a closing quotation mark, then a change in paragraph, and the next line of dialogue opens with an open quotation mark. You're not going to have those visual signals with audio. My friends told me not to worry--ha!--and said that surely it would all be fine.

"Bug Appétit" was in the
Nov./Dec. 2018 issue
Skeptical, I realized procrastinating was doing me no good. So I put those worries aside and moved on to the next ones: Was I properly pronouncing all the words in the story? Would I talk too quickly?--something I've been accused of in the past. Would I insert verbal tics (umms, etc.) without realizing it? To address these concerns I looked up the words I was unsure of, including researching regional pronunciations, and practiced reading out loud. Then I recorded the story, sent it off to New York, and now I wait anxiously for April 1st to arrive for the recording to be posted so I can see (or more precisely, hear) if I did an okay job.

In the meanwhile, here are some things I've learned from this experience:

(1) Even if you think you've written a funny story, you can't laugh at your own jokes while you read the story aloud. This is tougher than you'd think when you're a hoot. (Just saying.)

(2) While Alexa may be good at a lot of things, pronunciation isn't one of them. When I asked her how to pronounce "sago" (as in sago grubs), which I spelled out for her, she pronounced it for me--the same way I would have said it instinctively. Woo-hoo! But then she said that she's not often good at pronouncing things and while she's always improving, maybe I shouldn't rely on her. So much for technology.

(3) "Pecan pie" is one of those terms that is pronounced differently in various parts of the United States. Where I grew up on Long Island, it's pronounced PEE-can pie. (Every time I say it or think it, I can hear Billy Crystal saying it over and over in When Harry Met Sally. "Pee-can pie. Pee-can pie. Pee-can piiiiie." But on the West Coast, where my story is set, many people pronounce it pih-KHAN  pie. I had to practice to say it right.





(4) Practice doesn't always make perfect. When you read aloud, you instinctively say a word the way you've always said it, no matter how much you practice. Or at least that's what happened to me, which is why I had to stop and re-read that part for the recording. Twice. That pih-KHAN pie was hard fought.

(5) No matter how hard you try to remove background noise, when you're recording something, there will always be a plane flying overhead.

(6) And when you have a dog named Jingle, he will become velcro right when you want to start recording and then he will live up to his name, moving and scratching and jingling over and over and over, so you have to stop and restart the recording over and over and over. And over.

(7) Eventually you'll get so frustrated you'll tug his collar off and tell him to be quiet (perhaps with some expletives mixed in). When he finally does it and falls asleep, you'll sigh in relief, but beware: your bliss will be short-lived. Because within a few minutes the dog will start to snore. Of course he will.

(8) Effecting five different voices plus the one saying the internal monologue is not easy. I found that I physically tried to embody each character, stretching tall with my nose raised whenever the mother spoke, tilting my head sideways to get the amused dad's voice right, and internalizing the narrator's voice from season two of Fargo when I read the exposition. The only voice that came really easily was the grandma's--a woman who spoke her mind. Go figure.

(9) Reading a story aloud takes much longer than you'd expect. Much longer than reading it silently. Let's hope that means I read it slowly enough without any verbal tics. And, um, if I, um, included some tics, um, please don't tell me.

(10) If the fine folks at EQMM ever ask you to record one of your stories for their podcast, jump at the chance. It was a lot of fun. But first, arrange for your dog to go on a long walk before you hit record. The last thing you want listeners to hear while you're reading your story is someone snoring in the background.

26 February 2019

Fracture


A while back I did a post here about neo-noir films that I liked. One of them was Fracture, with Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins.


Today I’m going to go into more depth about that film, which also stars David Strathairn, Rosamund Pike and Billy Burke:


No, not that Billie Burke, this Billy Burke:


And, you know I did that just to show pix of both and (hopefully get a laugh)…
Written by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers and, and directed by Gregory Hoblit, it’s one of those movies that I find myself watching over and over – I’ve seen it a few times now. And want to watch even more, but talk myself out of doing so so I can see something new or that I haven’t seen in a long time.
The movie’s opening credits roll over a sort of super hi-tech Rube Goldberg contraption which sets the tone for the twists and turns that will be delivered later. And the story revolves around Ted Crawford (Hopkins), a hotshot millionaire aerospace guy, and Willy Beachum (Gosling), a hotshot Deputy District Attorney in L.A., who wants to move into the big bucks world of corporate law. Crawford knows – we’re not sure how but he knows from before the movie starts – that his wife is having an affair with a man, who’s also an LAPD detective. He wants revenge. He wants to get away with it. And he has very ingenious plan to try to do so.


It’s hard to talk about a movie like this and not give away plot twists or spoilers, so I feel like I’m being a little vague. But the movie is a clever cat and mouse game between the very shrewd and brilliant Crawford and the equally good DDA. Two matched equals gunning for each other and isn’t that one of the things we’re told do in writing – the villain and the hero must be equal to each other. And, boy, are these two. It’s like Sleuth or Death Trap on a bigger canvas.
One of the underlying themes (and where I believe the title comes from) is finding the flaws or cracks in a person. Crawford tells Beachum the story of how he grew up working on his grandfather’s farm. His job was to candle eggs – check the eggs and look for hairline fractures and flaws and remove any bad eggs. Well Crawford did the job so well that none of the eggs made the cut. It’s a brilliant piece of writing – a clever way to have the audience see what a sharp and ruthless man Crawford is and how he can’t tolerate weakness in his unfaithful wife or the hapless police department or anywhere else. And how Crawford, like the predator he is, is able to find the flaws in the cops, the system and the DA – to find Beachum’s hairline fracture – and take advantage of his/their weaknesses:

Ted Crawford (Hopkins): You know, my grandfather was an egg farmer.

Willy Beachum (Gosling): This isn't going to be about your, uh, "rough childhood," is it?

Ted Crawford : No, I used to candle eggs at his farm. Do you know what that is? You hold an egg up to the light of a candle and you look for imperfections. The first time I did it he told me to put all the eggs that were cracked or flawed into a bucket for the bakery. And he came back an hour later, and there were 300 eggs in the bakery bucket. He asked me what the hell I was doing. I found a flaw in every single one of them - you know, thin places in the shell; fine, hairline cracks. You look closely enough, you'll find that everything has a weak spot where it can break, sooner or later.

Willy Beachum : You looking for mine?

Ted Crawford : I've already found yours.

Willy Beachum : What is it?

Ted Crawford : You're a winner, Willy.

Willy Beachum : Yeah. I guess the joke's on me then, isn't it?

Ted Crawford : [grinning]  You bet your ass, old sport.


Hopkins is of course magnificent in this role. And Gosling is likeable and earnest and believable. The casting of these two is a great move.
As with all movies, there’re some things in the movie that defy belief. But what movie doesn’t if you really look at it. If I was an attorney I could probably tear apart the courtroom scenes, but again, you have to suspend disbelief and go for the ride. So, as with all movies, you have to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. And Fracture, for my money, gives a hell of a fun ride as these two antagonists jockey back and forth with one having the advantage and then the other.
I never get tired of watching them play the game and I always see something new each time I watch it that I didn’t notice before, even though I know the outcome. I rate it five out of five .50 cal BMG rounds straight up.


If you’ve seen the movie, I’d be curious to hear what you think – just don’t give away any spoilers. And if you haven’t and decide to check it out, I hope you’ll enjoy it even half as much as I do.

~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:

The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

25 December 2018

A Stay at Home Christmas


Since my post falls on Christmas Day this year, I thought I should do something Christmassy. I thought I might preach but that would get preachy. I thought I could make snowballs, but I don’t have any snow, though we do get it here sometimes. So instead I thought I’d make a list of Christmas or holiday movies that I like. You probably have your own, which I hope you’ll add in the comments. And then, with Janet Rudolph’s kind permission, after the movies is a list of Christmas mysteries. So, even though by the time you read this the actual holiday will be half over, the season is good at least until the first week of the New Year, so catch up on some good movies or good mysteries and have a very HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON AND NEW YEAR! (Oh, and if you want to get a last minute gift for yourself or someone you’re a little late with…Broken Windows deals with things in the news this past week, immigration, and no one gets off unscathed.)

So, here we go:

Bishop's Wife, The

Black Christmas…

Christmas Carol, A (Reginald Owen version)

Christmas Carole, A (Alistair Sim version) – This is probably the best version. A paranormal Christmas, along the lines of The Blair Witch Project (well, not really). Amy’s (the wife) favorite Christmas movie. Every year she wants to watch it. Every year I balk. And every year I end up enjoying it. One year, in the days of VHS, I bought her tapes of every version of A Christmas Carole that I could find, including Mr. Magoo’s version, the Muppets and everything and anything else.


Christmas Holiday – With Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly

Christmas in Connecticut – Barbara Stanwyck, SZ Sakall, Reginald Gardiner, Sydney Greenstreet and Robert Shayne, who played Inspector Henderson on Superman – how can you go wrong? Oh, and the premise is funny, too.


Christmas Story, A – Gotta watch this at least once each year. But sometimes we just put on Turner when they’re running it 24 hours and catch bits and pieces here and there.

Comfort and Joy

Cover Up

Die Hard – There’s an argument as to whether or not this is actually a Christmas movie, but since they play Let It Snow that’s good enough for me.

Four Christmases

Holiday Affair – Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh.

Holiday Inn – The movie that introduced White Christmas. That’s enough.

Holiday, The



Home Alone

It Happened on Fifth Avenue

It’s a Wonderful Life – It’s got Gloria Grahame, if no other reason that would get it included. But it’s good on all those other levels too.

LA Confidential – You know, Bloody Christmas, thus a Christmas movie.


Lady in the Lake

Love Actually – I figured I’d get shot if I didn’t include this. But, hey, I do like it.

Meet Me in St. Louis 

Miracle on 34th Street – The original, of course. My favorite Christmas movie because it proves that Santa Claus is for real. What more do you want?


Remember the Night – Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray pre their Double Indemnity teaming. Hard not to like anything with Stanwyck. And written by the great Preston Sturges. I really like this one.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians – Amy has fond memories of this from when she was a kid. Go figure kids’ tastes... If you like cheesy sleazy with terrific production values (is my nose growing?) this is the movie for you. And let’s not forget it was Pia Zadora’s debut as Girmar.

Scrooged

Shop Around the Corner, The – A charming, wonderful movie. I even like the remake, You’ve Got Mail, but not so much the musical version, In the Good Old Summertime.


White Christmas

And every Hallmark holiday movie ever made… ;-)  (Actually, I’ve never seen any, but I understand they’re very popular.)


And here’s Janet Rudolph’s lists of Christmas Crime Fiction:

A-E
https://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2018/12/christmas-crime-fiction-authors-e.html


F-L
https://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2018/12/christmas-crime-fiction-authors-f-l.html


M-Z
https://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2018/12/christmas-mysteries-authors-m-z.html


CHRISTMAS MYSTERY SHORT STORY ANTHOLOGIES & NOVELLAS
https://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2018/12/christmas-mystery-short-stories.html


Thank you, Janet.

~.~.~.~




And now for the usual BSP:

I’m thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:  "Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element:  "Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:  "This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"



And I’m honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2018/10/the-impossible-dream.html

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the 2018 Macavity Award.





Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com


22 November 2018

The Macbeth Murder Mystery


UPDATE:  It has been borne in upon me that my copying of The Macbeth Murder Mystery from another site may infringe upon copyright. I have deleted it, but here is the original New  Yorker link:  New Yorker, and New Yorker Folio.

It can also be read in its entirety here.

I have had a cold I can't shake and spent the weekend at the pen, so, for your Thanksgiving entertainment, enjoy a trip down memory lane - and murder - with James Thurber!
Thurber First Wife

Thurber Big Animal
https://jimsworldandwelcometoit.com/2012/12/07/thurbers-cartoons/

https://jimsworldandwelcometoit.com/2012/12/07/thurbers-cartoons/#jp-carousel-2168
Thurber, James 1943 The Thurber Carnival Harper and Brothers, NY pp. 60-63
Submitted by Caryl for our enjoyment!!!!
http://userhome.brook...
Image result for JAmes Thurber cartoons
https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/60-minutes-favorite-new-yorker-cartoons/42/

20 November 2018

Putting the Happy in Happy Thanksgiving


It's two days until Thanksgiving, and I bet some of you are stressed. Maybe it's because you're cooking and ... it's the first time you're hosting, and you want it to be perfect. Or your mother-in-law is coming, and your turkey never lives up to hers. Or the weatherman is predicting snow on Thanksgiving and you're afraid that your relatives won't show up ... or maybe that they will.
Or maybe your stress stems from being a guest. Are you an introvert, dreading a day of small talk with the extended family? A picky eater, going to the home of a gourmet who makes food way to fancy for your tastes? Or are you a dieter, going to the home of someone who likes to push food and you're likely to spend the day going, "no thanks, no rolls for me," "no thanks, no candied yams for me," "no thanks, no cookies for me," ... "dear lord, lady, what part of no thanks don't you get?"

No matter who you are, or what your situation, Thanksgiving can cause stress. The best way to deal with stress is laughter. And that's where I come in. So set down that baster and get ready to smile, because I've got some fictional characters who've had a worse Thanksgiving than you.

Paul and Jamie Buchman from Mad About You
 

They tried so hard to make the perfect dinner ... only to have their dog, Murray, eat the turkey.


Rachel Green from Friends


All she wanted was to cook a nice dessert for her friends ... only to learn too late that she wasn't supposed to put beef in the trifle. It did not taste good.


The Gang from Cheers 


Those poor Thanksgiving orphans. They waited hours for a turkey that just wouldn't cook ... only to then suffer the indignity of being involved in a food fight. (For anyone who's ever read my story "Biscuits, Carats, and Gravy," this Cheers episode was the inspiration.)


Debra Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond


She was determined to have a happy Thanksgiving despite her overly critical mother-in-law ... only to drop her uncooked turkey on the floor three times before flinging it into the oven. Yum.



Arthur Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati




He wanted to create the greatest promotion ever, inviting the public to a shopping mall and providing free turkeys ... live ones ... only to learn too late that turkeys don't fly so when you toss them out of a helicopter from 2,000 feet in the air they hit the ground like sacks of wet cement.


Garner Duffy from "Bug Appétit"


All this con man wanted for Thanksgiving was to eat some good food at his mark's home before stealing her jewelry ... only to learn too late that her mother is an ... inventive cook. ("Bug Appétit" is my story in the current (November/December) issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. I'm so pleased to have heard from several readers who enjoyed it, including one who called it "hilarious.")

So, dear readers, I hope you're smiling and feeling less stressed. If you'd like to read my story, you could pick up a copy of the current EQMM, available in some Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million bookstores, as well as in an electronic version. You can find more information about getting the magazine here. The issue also has a story from SleuthSayer alum David Dean that I'm sure you'll enjoy.) As to the TV episodes mentioned above, I bet you can find them all online.

Until next time, please share your favorite funny turkey day story (fictional or real) in the comments. Happy Thanksgiving!

09 August 2018

Early Early EARLY Mysteries


If I asked you what was the first mystery story, what would you say?

Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue?"  Sorry.  Published in 1841, that's practically current events.

How about Shakespeare?  There was that whiny prince trying to figure out who killed his father.  Uh uh.  Hamlet only goes back to 1600.

Well, there was the story of Susannah, which appears in some editions of the Book of Daniel.  The prophet solves a crime by using a technique known to every modern police force.  But that only dates back to around 200 BC.

How about Sophocles' play about a king interrogating various witnesses to discover the murderer of his predecessor?  Nice guess, but no.  At 400 BC, he's still an Oedipus-come-lately.

Enough suspense.  Here is the true answer, courtesy of those brilliant British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

24 July 2018

Just Like Starting Over


Beginning August 2003 and ending May 2018 I had one or more short stories published each and every month. That’s 14 years and 10 months (178 consecutive months), and I know of no living short story writer who has come close to accomplishing a similar feat. (Edward D. Hoch accomplished something similar—and far more impressive—with a story in every issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine beginning May 1973 and continuing through March/April 2009.)

The streak began with the August 2003 Hustler Fantasies, which contained “Married vs. Single” and “Slice of Heaven,” and ended with the May 2018 publication of the anthology A Wink and a Smile (Smoking Pen Press), which contained my story “Too Close to School.”

During this run, my stories were published in nearly every genre; in anthologies, magazines, and newsletters; electronically, in print, and in audiobooks; in several countries and in at least three languages. They appeared under my own byline, under a variety of pseudonyms, and, in the case of confessions, without any byline at all.

Excluding self-published work and those months when I had collections released, my best months were April 2008 and June 2012 (nine stories each); July 2006, December 2010, and November 2012 (eight stories each); and April 2011, May 2011, September 2011, November 2011, January 2012, and August 2014 (seven stories each).

During this multi-year streak, 132 stories appeared in True Story and 125 in True Confessions. My longest single-magazine run was 29 consecutive issues of True Story, which is only slightly longer than a previous run of 26 consecutive issues of the same magazine.

Thirteen times I had three stories published in a single issue. This happened most often with True Confessions (May 2012, July 2012, March 2017, and April 2017). I had three stories in three issues of Ruthie’s Club (June 19, 2006; July 17, 2006; and April 28, 2008); three stories in two issues of True Love (April 2011 and May 2011); and three stories in single issues of True Romance (March 2005), Black Confessions (August 2006), True Story (January 2012), and The Mammoth Book of Uniform Erotica (Running Press, 2015).

My wife can attest that I grew nervous as month-ends approached without anything published, and at least twice I had single-story months in which that month’s lone story was published only a few days before the month ended.

HOW I DID IT

If I can trust my personal blog, I first noticed this streak at the three-year mark in May 2006, and I began to pay attention to what was happening.

Because editors determine which stories to accept and which issues to put them in, this is a publication streak over which I had little control. Even so, there are a few things I did that helped maintain the streak once it began:

Maintained high productivity. The more stories I wrote and submitted, the greater the odds that I would publish regularly.

Targeted multiple genres. There aren’t enough paying markets in most genres to support a highly productive short story writer. So, I wrote in multiple genres.

Targeted multiple publications. Even within genres, I spread my work among multiple publications.

Wrote themed and seasonal stories. I wrote several stories tied to themes or seasons, thus producing stories most suitable for specific magazine issues. For example, I had good luck with New Year’s Eve stories (published in January), Valentine’s Day stories (February), St. Patrick’s Day stories (March), Halloween stories (October), Thanksgiving stories (November), and Christmas stories (December).

NOW WHAT?

As the streak lengthened, I began to believe I had control over it. I believed the sheer momentum of my achievement would propel it forward, and writing to the streak (themes and seasons!) would ensure its continuation.

It didn’t.

Editors changed. Markets disappeared. Anthologies tanked or missed scheduled publication dates. My productivity faltered. I can identify any number of reasons why the streak ended, but rather than assign blame for its end, I prefer to be amazed that it happened at all.

And now that the streak has ended, the pressure’s off. I no longer feel driven to write to the streak, and I wonder how that will impact my writing going forward.

The count starts over. With the July publication of “Good Girls Don’t” in Pulp Modern (volume 2, issue 3), the publication of “Decision” in the Summer 2018 Flash Bang Mysteries, and the release of “Fissile Material” as a stand-alone audio release, I have now had one or more short stories published for one consecutive month.

08 May 2018

A White Hot "White Heat" Tour of L.A.


This week I want to talk about one of my favorite subjects. No, not me. Los Angeles. A lot of people have said L.A. is another character in my books. Author S.W. Lauden said of my one of my works, “I loved how the action bounced around Southern California, almost as if the region was one of the main characters.” I take this as a huge compliment. And, though I’ve written about L.A. one way or another before, sometimes you just feel called home.
Since my novel White Heat is being re-released this month by Down & Out Books (release date May 21, 2018 and Available now for pre-order on Amazon), I thought I’d talk about some of the locations in the book. I was born in L.A., my family goes back a ways, at least on my mom’s side, and L.A. infuses me and my work.

White Heat is about Duke Rogers, a P.I. who inadvertently causes the death of Teddie Matson, a young actress, by helping her stalker find her. He then tries to make things right by going after her killer. His search takes him to South Central L.A. right as the 1992 Rodney King verdict is announced and the riots are sparked.



Before the main action, Duke returns to his house and his dog Baron after being away. Baron is named after a dog my family had as a kid. He’s the larger dog in the pic. But he and Molly, the other dog, were a great team. He protected her. He protected all of us. And he had some great adventures.

I’d gone out of town for about a week on a case. My buddy Jack had collected the mail and taken care of my dog, Baron. I came home, greeted by Baron in his usual overzealous manner. There was a message from Lou on the answering machine. She didn’t say what she wanted and I couldn’t reach her. Everything else was in order. I went to the office, was sitting in my chair, listening to k.d. lang, catching up on a week’s worth of newspapers and taking my lunch break of gin-laced lemonade. I’d cut down on the alcohol. Cut down, not out. I could handle it in small doses. The article I was reading said that a verdict in the Rodney King beating case was expected any day now. But it was another headline that slammed me in the gut. 

Another photo. 

Made me want to vomit. 

Through force of will, I was able to control it. 

I crumpled the paper. 

Tossed it in the can. 

Kicked the can with such force that the metal sides caved in. 

Fucked up a case. 

Fucked it up real bad.


Duke’s house is a Spanish-Colonial built in the 1920s. Similar to the house I grew up in, though based more on a friend’s house.

I pulled up to the house, a Spanish-Colonial built in the twenties. The driveway ran alongside the house back to the garage, which like a lot of people in L.A. I never used as a garage, even though I had a classic Firebird. The stucco was beige, though it might have been lighter at one time. A small courtyard in front was fenced off from the street with a wooden gate. At the back of the courtyard was the front door. I pulled about halfway down the driveway to where the back door was, parked. Baron, my tan and black German Shepherd was waiting for me with a green tennis ball in his mouth. We played catch. He loved running after tennis balls. Seeing him, playing with him, gave me a feeling of normalcy again. Made me forget about things for just a moment. After half an hour it was time to cool off.


I have to include El Coyote, a Mexican restaurant near Duke’s house. A real place that I’ve been going to since I was about three years old. And that my mom was going to well before that. People either love or hate this place. My wife Amy had to pass three superficial tests before we could get married: Not smoke, like the Beatles and like El Coyote. She’d never been there, so I took her and she passed the test. And, as they say, the rest is history. In White Heat Duke meets a friend of his there, Lou. She works at the DMV and got him the info that sets the story in motion…and inadvertently gets Teddie Matson killed.

The lobby was crowded. Lou’s strawberry hair glinted in the lights, accenting a still-perfect complexion. Her Anne Taylor dress highlighted her figure, flaring at the waist. Stunning, as usual. 

She knew. Her eyes said it. The corners of her mouth said it. And her weak handshake instead of a hug said it. She knew. 

El Coyote was an old restaurant from the old neighborhood, a few blocks west of La Brea on Beverly Boulevard. It attracted an eclectic clientele. Tonight was no different. Teens in hip-hop drag mixed with elderly couples and homosexual couples and young hetero couples on dates. All inside a restaurant that had been here since before the war—the Big War. Lou particularly liked the decor, paintings made out of seashells. “Interesting,” she always said, as if that was enough. And she loved the food. So did I. But I knew a lot of people who didn’t. You either loved it or hated it, there was no in between. That’s the kind of place it was. I liked their margaritas. They weren’t those slushy crushed ice new-fangled things you find in most restaurants. They were just tequila, triple sec, lime juice and salt around the rim. Damn good. 

“Interesting,” Lou said looking at a shell painting, after we were seated. I nodded. There was an awkward feeling between us, a gulf of turbulent air that we were trying to negotiate. There was nothing for me to say in response. This wasn’t a social call. She leaned forward, talking quietly. “You know why I wanted to have dinner, don’t you?” 

I nodded. 

“I didn’t want to leave any specifics on the answering machine or call a bunch of times.” 

“In case the cops were on us already.” 

She nodded. “I shouldn’t have run it for you. I didn’t know who Teddie Matson was. I don’t watch television, especially sitcoms. How was I to know you were asking me to look up a TV star?”


Teddie’s Fairfax area duplex. Teddie lived in a four-plex in the Fairfax area. Her character is inspired by Rebecca Schaefer and what happened to her. And Ms. Schaeffer lived in this neighborhood.

The light was mellow, soft. It grazed across the row of Spanish-style stucco duplexes and apartments, reflected off leaded picture windows and prismed onto the street. Each had a driveway to one side or the other. Gardeners worked the neatly manicured greenery of every other building. It was a nice old neighborhood in the Fairfax district, one of the better parts of town. My old stomping grounds. 

The same time of day Teddie Matson had been murdered. I planned it that way, hoping the same people would be around that might have been around that day. 

I walked up the street, my eyes darting back and forth, up and down, aware of everything around me—radar eyes—looking at the addresses on the buildings. The number was emblazoned in my brain. I could see it before my eyes, but it was only a phantom. I passed a gardener at 627, coming to a halt at 625. I stared at the building. 

A typical stucco fourplex from the ’20s. Even though I hadn’t been inside yet I knew the layout—I’d seen enough of them. Two units upstairs, two down. A main front door that would lead to a small, probably tiled hall, with an apartment on either side and a stairway heading to the two upstairs apartments. I walked up the tiled walk, stuck my hands through the remnants of yellow crime scene tape, tried to open the front door. Locked. I rang the bell. No response. I felt as if I was being watched. Still no one answered the buzzer. 


Florence and Normandie in South Central. Or what previously was called South Central but today is just called South L.A. You might recall Florence and Normandie as the riot’s flashpoint and the corner where Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten. In White Heat, Duke, finds himself in South Central the day the riots explode. He hooks up with a local named Tiny and they try to get to safety together.

Tiny and I bolted from the doorway and ran down the street, ducking for cover by low walls, doorways, shrubs all along the way. We weren’t out to party. We were on a mission. He was taking me to Warren, to Teddie’s family.

We came to Florence and Normandie. Half a block away the cops were regrouping. Or retreating. Or hiding out. It was hard to tell. There was a swarm of them, but they weren’t doing much of anything.


The family of murder victim Teddie Matson lives in a craftsman house in South Central. Craftsman houses dot various parts of L.A. Duke and Tiny make their way through the wreckage to Teddie’s family’s house.

An explosion in the distance. A plume of smoke hit the sky. 

“They don’t realize that they’re only wrecking their own backyard. One of the first things my daddy taught me was never to piss in the wind and don’t shit in your own backyard. Problem is, too many of ’em just don’t have daddies,” Tiny said wistfully. He stopped, turned up a walk. “Here we are, Teddie’s family’s house.” 
Craftsman (Victoria Park) By Los Angeles [CC BY-SA 3.0
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
 or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)],
from Wikimedia Commons

The house was a Craftsman bungalow. It had a low-pitched roof, a stone fireplace that was also seen from the outside, exposed struts and a wide porch. It wasn’t big. It wasn’t small either. Comfortable might have been the word. It looked almost rural with its magnolia trees, shrubs and wood and stone exterior. Looked like a nice place to grow up. In fact, the whole street was clean and well-tended except for the graffiti and broken glass. I assumed the broken glass was from that day. I hoped it was.


In a B story/subplot, a woman comes to Duke for help with a stalker, Dr. Craylock. Craylock’s house is in Rancho Park, on Tennessee, a block west of the Twentieth Century-Fox studios (in West. L.A.)—Well, they say ‘write what you know’. And I knew this neighborhood well. I was living here when I met Amy, about a half block west of Fox. And the funny—or ironic thing is—I lived walking distance to the studio and, at that time, it was the studio I went to the least. The one I went to most was Warner Brothers, way across town out in Burbank—the farthest from my house.

Craylock’s house was in Rancho Park, on Tennessee, a block west of the Twentieth Century-Fox studios. It was an expensive one-story Spanish job, not unlike my own house. A new jet black BMW sat in the driveway. Pickup car, I thought. She hadn’t mentioned what he did for a living; it must have been something where he could charge people more than he was worth. A doctor. Plumber maybe. 

The riots hadn’t stretched this far west, yet. It was a good neighborhood, if there was still such a thing in L.A. I used to live only a couple blocks from Craylock’s before I moved back into my folks’ house. The first street north of Pico. The Olympic marathon runners had run down Pico just across the alley behind my apartment. I watched from my breakfast area window. It was a different L.A. then. It wasn’t that long ago.


La Revolución. Duke visits a bar on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., where some pretty rough types hang. He’s looking for one guy in particular, a banger called Ramon, who might be able to put him on the trail of Teddie’s killer.

La Revolución was a dingy place on the outside. Looked like an old industrial building, small machine shop or something. The bottom half of the stucco wall was painted a dark, though chipping, forest green. Top half was white, or used to be. Grime and dirt crept all the way up to the roof. Made you wonder how it got that high. A handful of men stood outside talking, playing dice and drinking. We parked a few doors down. Jack dumped the contents of the kit bag on the floor, swept them under the seat, all except for his credit card, driver’s license holder and the .45, of course, which he put back in the kit and stuck under his arm. We walked back to the entrance. Several pairs of intense brown eyes followed us up the sidewalk.


Duke also finds himself in MacArthur Park, formerly Westlake Park, but renamed for General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. It’s here that he finally hooks up with Ramon. My grandparents used to take me there for picnics. They’d rent a boat and we’d glide along the water. When Amy first moved to L.A. she had a job interview downtown. She’d bought some food and decided to eat at MacArthur Park as it looked nice from the street. But it had changed a lot since my grandparents took me there. It was a needle park, filled with drug pushers and gang bangers. Luckily she made it out safely. And scenes from Too Late for Tears, one of my favorite film noirs, were filmed here.
MacArthur Park (formerly Westlake Park)

MacArthur Park is midway between Hancock Park, not a park but an upper class neighborhood, and downtown L.A., a neighborhood in search of an identity. When I was a boy, my grandparents used to take me to the park. We’d rent rowboats and paddle through the lake, tossing bread crumbs to the birds. The park is a different place today. You can still rent paddle boats—if you want to paddle across the lake while talking to your dealer. Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays immigrant families still try to use it as a park. Most of the time, it’s a haven for pushers, crack addicts, hookers and worse. Even the police don’t like treading there. If they were scared, who was I to play Rambo? 


The rental car slid easily into a parking place on Alvarado. Click—locked. Of course that wouldn’t keep out anyone who wanted to get in. The Firestar was in my belt, under a loose fitting Hawaiian shirt that was left untucked. Wet grass sucked under my feet. As long as it didn’t suck me under I was okay. 

“Meet me by the statue of el general,” Ramon had said. The statue of General Douglas MacArthur is in the northwestern corner of the park where there was, naturally, no place to park. Cutting through the park was not a good idea. I walked along Wilshire Boulevard, past garbage and litter and clusters of men, teens really. Some young men in their early twenties, in white tank top undershirts and baggy pants, charcoal hair slicked back off their foreheads. One man danced a nervous jig by himself in a corner of the pavilion building. Crack dancing. 

No one approached me to buy or sell drugs. Probably thought I was a narc. Maybe saw the silhouette of the Star. MacArthur had seen better days, both the park and the statue. Graffiti camouflaged the general’s stern visage. No one there cared who he was or why there was a park named after him. 

No Ramon. 

I stood on the corner. Waiting. Trying to look nonchalant. A black-and-white cruised slowly by. Mirrored eyes scrutinizing. What’s the white man doing there? Is he buying drugs? Do they see the gun? Were they calling for backup? Fingering their triggers? Seconds passed like hours. The car drove by. Gone. I felt lucky. Luckier than I had walking the length of the park without getting mugged. 

“Amigo.” 

“Ramon.” 

He stood behind the statue, signaling me to join him. 

“We finally connect, uh, man?” 


Griffith Park Observatory. Duke finds himself on the trail of the killer, the Weasel, heading up the winding roads of Griffith Park.
Griffith Observatory By Dax Castro
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At Sunset he turned right, heading for Hollywood. Where were the damn cops now? Nowhere in sight. We dodged in and out of traffic to Western where he headed north, up into the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park. I didn’t know if he knew where he was going, but heading up the winding roads of the park wouldn’t get him anywhere, except maybe to the Observatory. 


He couldn’t know where he was going. I think he was trying to hit the freeway and took a wrong turn. We chased up the backroads of the park, past the boy toys sunning themselves on the hoods of their cars, waiting for another boy toy to pick them up. 

Finally, we turned into the Observatory parking lot. He headed around one side of the circular driveway. I cut the other way, heading toward him, hoping we’d meet at some point. If not, he just might get all the way around and take the other road down. 

I gunned it around the circle. He was coming for me. A school bus was unloading children near the entrance to the building. I stopped, not wanting to hit any kids. The Weasel kept coming from the other side. Shit—I hoped he wouldn’t hit anyone. A teacher saw us coming and hurried the kids out of the way. 
Fight scene from Rebel Without A Cause
 filmed at the Griffith Observatory

He came flying around the circle in one direction. 

Me in the other. 

Engines gunning. 

His old Monte Carlo with the big V8. 

Me in my little Toyota rental. 

A hair’s breadth before we passed, I cut in front of him. He played chicken and ditched onto the sidewalk. He thought he could go around me.

***

So these are some of Duke’s adventures in La La Land. Duke (and I) love exploring all the different neighborhoods of Los Angeles. And I like doing that in my writing. Duke’s journey also hits other areas of L.A. and even takes him up to Reno, Nevada and down to Calexico on the Mexican-American border. Duke and I explore more of L.A. in the sequel to White Heat, Broken Windows, coming in September.

###

My Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down & Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon.  Release date is May 21, 2018:



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

11 April 2018

The Hillerman Prize


The past ten years I've been a reader for the Hillerman Prize. (They in fact call it a 'judge,' but that inflates my influence or importance.) The contest is for the best first mystery in a Western setting, in the spirit of the late Tony Hillerman, and what it comes down to is reading up to half a dozen manuscript submissions. Each year's winner gets a book contract with St. Martin's. It's a blind test, because the authors are anonymous at the time I see the manuscripts.  

I think the process is pretty fair. There are obviously quite a few of us, spread out across the mystery community, writers, readers, and editors, and I don't imagine any of us have a particular axe to grind. I might prefer hard-boiled to cozy, myself, but if it'd good, it doesn't matter. Tie goes to the runner. You have a responsibility to give good weight.

Having said that, there's the Yes, But factor. Basically, you're a gatekeeper. You're triaging the slush pile. It's the inside of the transom. You want to know why those interns at publishing houses were ready to slit their wrists, back in the day? Now you know. Now, on the other hand, no such job exists. The big trades don't accept unsolicited. Agented only. Which makes agents the gatekeepers, and they don't accept unsolicited, you have to pitch. Which means the Hillerman's a throwback.

You see where this is going. Think about your own stuff that got turned down, even by a sympathetic editor. After a certain amount of heartbreak, you begin to harden your heart, but let's be honest, you always take it personally, because it's personal. How not? This is something you made out of whole cloth. You bled on it, laid awake nights, washed it in your own tears. And some oblivious bozo sends it down the slop chute with a dismissive comment or two.

So, yes. It's a stacked deck. It does none of us any credit to claim otherwise. Then again, to be utterly brutal about it, you think what's being published is crap? You ought to look at what doesn't make the cut. Some of it's just numbingly bad. As if these people had never picked up a mystery in their lives, or paid much attention. You give in to terminal aggravation, sad to say.

A very well-regarded agent once explained to me that editors read for rejection, meaning they wait for the first stumble, and spike the book. It's an unforgiving process. Maybe we all make the same rookie mistakes, and learn by doing, but surely by now, with all the practical advice available - Larry Block, Stephen King, David Morrell, Anne Lamott, just off the top of my head - is the learning curve really that steep? The fifty-page flashback. The serial killer first-person prologue. The indecipherable clue, held up to a mirror or over a candle flame, and blindingly obvious to Aunt Hezekiah, who does acrostics, or the insufferably precocious sixth-grade computer savant. Not that you can't get away with devices like these, but it takes a practiced hand, and cute wears out its welcome in a hurry. Tonstant Weader Fwows Up.

You want to respect the work. You know how much work it is. That first year, I read all six manuscripts front to back, and it was a real effort, because two of them were terrible, but I thought I owed it. Two of them were marginal. One of them was better than okay, and one of them was really good. I strongly recommended a second read for the two I liked.

In subsequent years, I'm loath to admit, I've had less patience. It's not something you really want to cop to, but the plain fact is, if it's a shitty book, you can tell pretty quick. Once or twice I haven't even lasted thirty pages, and that only because I felt obligated to go further than page two, knowing from the outset it was road kill.

On the upside, out of some sixty-odd books, I've found at least one to like every year, or something to like, a solid lead character, the evocation of place.  I've never picked a winner. I've picked a couple I thought might go the distance, but not, in the end. I hope they're heard from, down the road. I know of one guy who submitted, and didn't actually win, and got a three-book contract out of it. 

If there's a lesson in this, it's humility. Good, bad, or indifferent, these people laced on their sneakers, and came out ready to play. You gotta keep faith with them.



30 January 2018

Curses, Boiled Again!


I work full-time as a freelance editor, which means that I get to spend my days helping other people's dreams come true. I don't have a magic wand like Glinda the Good Witch. (Wouldn't that be fun!) But I do have a hardworking red pen, which I use to help make novels and short stories shine. But publishing is a hard business, and for authors aiming for traditional publication, there's no guarantee a book will get picked up, no matter how good it is.

That's why it's wonderful when one of my clients gets a contract with a traditional publisher. And it's especially wonderful when that publisher is one of the big ones in New York, and the deal is for three books. And it's even more wonderful--wonderful to infinity and beyond!--when that client is also one of your closest friends, and the contract is for her first published novel, and that first book finally comes out.

Well, today all that wonderfulness is wrapped into one with the publication of Curses, Boiled Again! by Shari Randall. The book, the first in the Lobster Shack Mysteries, went on sale at a Barnes & Noble in Virginia last weekend where Shari appeared at a signing, but today is the day folks everywhere can buy a copy of this book, published by St. Martin's Press.

So what's it about? This is a cozy mystery whose main character, Allie Larkin, is a ballerina who's back home in Mystic Bay, Connecticut, recuperating from a broken ankle. Her beloved aunt Gully has recently opened a lobster shack--her dream come true. But it soon turns into a nightmare when Gully is involved in a foodie competition, one of the judges dies after eating a competitor's entry, and suspicion turns on Gully. Did she tamper with the food? Allie isn't going to let her aunt be railroaded, and she won't let a broken ankle keep her down either, so she sets off to solve the mystery and find the killer.

Signing at Barnes & Noble
The book is filled with delightful characters, delicious food, twisty twists, and Connecticut charm. What's not to like?

So take it from me, who edited the first draft of this book, the final version is sure to knock it out of the park. How do I know? I've also edited two of Shari's short stories (one in Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder, and the other in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies, which is coming out in April). And I edited a fabulous, unpublished stand-alone novel Shari wrote, which could be the start of a separate traditional mystery series--hint hint to any acquisition editors out there. So I know firsthand not only how well Shari writes, but also that Shari is an author who takes editorial notes and runs with them, making her work better and better. I have no doubt she took what was a good first draft of Curses, Boiled Again! and turned it into a great book, especially after working with her editor at St. Martin's.

But don't take just my word for it. Here's what some other authors who've read the book think:

"Not only is Curses, Boiled Again! a suspenseful and entertaining mystery, but Shari Randall left me longing to visit the Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack―even though I'm allergic to crustaceans!" ―Donna Andrews, author of the multiple award-winning Meg Lanslow Mysteries

Cheers to Shari Randall!
"Delightful! A fun whodunit full of New England coastal charm and characters who feel like friends. Warm humor, a delectable plot, and clever sleuthing will keep you turning the pages." ―Krista Davis, New York Times bestselling author of the Domestic Diva Mysteries

"A mystery as richly layered as a genuine Connecticut lobster roll!" ―Liz Mugavero, Agatha Award-nominated author of the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries

"Curses, it's over already! Shari Randall introduces a lively cast of characters who had me dancing through this book. Allie Larkin charmed me with her sense of humor when faced with a heartbreaking injury. The climactic scene is like nothing I've ever read or seen and I loved it!" ―Sherry Harris, author of the Agatha Award-nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries

And if you head over to Goodreads, you'll find around twenty-five reviews of the book, and they're all good. That's no surprise to me, of course.

The only disappointment is that the next book in the series, Against the Claw, won't come out until July. But at least it can be pre-ordered now. And I'll get to see the first draft of the third book in the series this spring. I can't wait to get my editorial claws all over it. Yes, sorry for the pun, but we're talking cozy mysteries here. It was a given!

****

Let me take a moment for a little BSP: Yesterday my short story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet was named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. I have stiff competition from four writers whose work I admire: Gretchen Archer, Debra Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. Woo-hoo for us all! I'm sure all the nominated stories will be available online for you to read soon (if they're not already), but in the meanwhile, you can read mine by clicking here.