12 July 2019

Weed Meets Greed in Matt Phillips' Countdown + Interview


In 2016 many saw the passing of Proposition 64, which finally legalized the recreational use of marijuana, as the dawning of a new day in California. It seems like ancient history when Robert Mitchum saw jail time for toking a little Mary Jane in Laurel Canyon, but consider this: in 2003 Tommy Chong was sentenced to nine months in jail for selling bongs through his California company Nice Dreams. Prop 64 reflected how the Golden State had, at long last, mellowed out about getting high.
The full force of the new law didn't happen until last year, when legal sales for non-medical use were allowed. Licenses for dispensaries were granted. Everything was supposed to be chill for those in the bud business.

All that went up in smoke when the harsh reality of local, state and federal taxes hit legal dispensaries. According to a McClatchy article, between state and local taxes, weed could be taxed up to 45 percent. The IRS has gone after state-legal dispensaries for a tax rate of up to 70 percent.

The result hasn't been the well-regulated pot industry Californians voted for. Instead, illegal underground marijuana dispensaries are everywhere in California.  According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 200 illegal marijuana businesses operate in Los Angeles alone. Illegal dispensaries are attractive because their untaxed kush is up to 50 percent cheaper than what you'd buy from a licensed dealer. What becomes of all that untaxed ill-gotten revenue?

Matt Phillips' Countdown (All Due Respect), a timely, gritty tale of weed and greed, is the first novel (Please correct me with other titles if I'm wrong!) of what I'll call Prop 64 Noir. It takes the plight of underground dispensaries with a lot of illegal cash-on-hand and chases it to a bloody and riveting conclusion.

Donny Zeus Echo and Abbicus Glanson are two ex-soldiers, tweaked by their violent combat experience in "Eye-Rack," trying to make their way in a seedy San Diego that has literally gone to pot. Jessie Jessup is a transplanted Texan who uses aquaponics –"that's right, fucking fish"–to grow some righteous weed. LaDon Charles is her unlicensed dispensary's muscle, providing street smarts and neighborhood connections.

With dispensary robberies on the rise and forced to keep their black market money from the prying eyes of the I.R.S. Jessie and LaDon turn to Abel Sendich, another vet. Abel runs a one-man security operation that stashes illegal cash under lock-and-key, safe from the I.R.S. and armed robbers. When Sendich and Glanson bond over their military background after a chance encounter, Sendich recruits Glanson to help him in his faux Fort Knox operation. Glanson has other plans, and his former "battle buddy" Echo is only too glad to help. When LaDon suspects that Glanson and Echo are targeting Jessie's shop, a suspenseful countdown to mayhem begins.

Though Countdown marches to its inexorably violent end, Phillips takes time with his characters. Jessie pursues a crush. LaDon plays a cat-and-mouse game with a pimp. Glanson agonizes over a physical trait that dooms his chances at romance. Echo, suffering from PTSD, unravels. You get to know Phillips' characters so well, you almost feel sorry for them when the bad things start to happen.

Phillip's San Diego isn't the sunny, upscale enclave it's often portrayed as. It's not the San Diego of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It's a pit filled with mini-malls, dive bars, and shabby apartment complexes.  Iraq vets at loose ends roam strip joints, pimps run hookers. Marijuana is the drug of the moment, but heavy drinking is the order of the day. Like the weed and booze, the money is a means to one end: escape. Countdown is a sunny SoCal postcard in negative; an invitation to get out of the Golden State before the good times turn deadly.

Author Matt Phillips
Lawrence Maddox: Countdown is the first crime novel I've read that tackles the failure of Prop 64 to fully regulate California's marijuana dispensaries, which were licensed last year. I'm officially naming it Prop 64 Noir, and you may have invented it! How did you jump on this in such a timely way?

Matt Phillips: Prop 64 Noir-I freaking love it! It's about time somebody created a new genre. I agree with you that Prop 64 has failed in some ways. There's no doubt this legislation has failed when it comes to fair "regulation." Lot's of small growers are losing out to corporate folks.  And, yeah, that means growers and sellers are forced to stay in or resort to the black market. Another paradox is that now I can stroll into a dispensary and buy whatever I want.  Tell the truth: I kind of miss the mystery of texting a guy I slightly know to get in touch with a hookup he slightly knows for a dime bag of weed. I think they call that nostalgia.

Anyhow, I was interested in the money behind the herb. If these growers, sellers, etc, can't put it in a bank, what do they do with it? After speaking with some law enforcement folks I know, I had a pretty solid idea for a great story. That's how Countdown began for me.

Beyond that, right near where I live in San Diego–a pretty hip neighborhood–an illegal dispensary was raided and shuttered. That pretty much solidified the idea for me. I just ran with it.

Speaking of Prop 64 noir, check out the novel 101 by Tom Pitts. He did Prop 64 Noir before I did.

LM: I highly recommend Pitts' 101 too. 101 depicts the weed biz before Prop 64, though.  Your book deals with the aftermath of 64. Countdown is about the illegal dispensaries, the need to hide the money, the tax burden that forces the sellers underground. 







A crime novelist in the making. Matt Phillips training to be a journalist at
North Carolina Central University.
How much does your journalism background influence your crime fiction?

MP: The biggest way journalism has impacted my fiction is through dialog. There is no substitute for listening to people speak and trying to write it down as they say it. That helps a writer learn the shape of a person's speech. It means getting into rhythm and cadences and the musicality of speech. Dialog, to me, is about capturing language.

From a weed-perspective (Been waiting for that one!), I wrote a story for the food section in The Denver Post a few years back. I interviewed a chef who makes cannabis edibles. The whole idea was to treat cannabis like any other ingredient. We published a recipe and everything. Gave it the regular food writing treatment. The story got a lot of pushback from readers, but the editors defended it heartily and it got me interested in marijuana as something natural that–and I'm being blunt here–has a major impact on the power dynamics in our society.

Make no mistake, what we're seeing with marijuana now is still about power. Who will own this "thing" that everybody wants (and some people need)? Who gets the profits? Who calls the shots? And even worse:If we can't put a bunch of people in jail for using it, how the hell can we make money off it? That's pretty much the way things are, though I've purposely avoided the nuances here.

LM: San Diego used to be considered LA's sunnier, better-behaved sibling. You vividly depict it as a pit. What's going on with San Diego?
"No awesome surfing to be seen here."
San Diego's Pacific Beach

MP: Ha! Maybe I'm just trying to lower housing prices, right?  "San Diego is the absolute worst! Close your eyes if you see our tourism commercials on your TV! Stay in the midwest! DO NOT VISIT! Stand-up paddle boarding sucks. So does surfing. You do not want to catch a giant tuna! We do not have as many palm trees as you think! The beer is not great!"

Okay, fine. Truth be told, San Diego is exactly what you describe. More sun. More chill. More fun, for chrissakes. We've even got more beer. But like any American city, we've got our gutter punks and our hookers and our pimps and our drug addictions.

I'm writing noir, not a tourist commercial or a convention proposal. I need to find what's really out there...And pass it along to thee.

Important note: I love that I can "vividly depict" my home city as a pit. I'm sure those fine scholars who make selections for the National Book Awards are well-aware of my excessive accomplishments as a prose stylist.  I await their accolades!

LM: Do you think California will ever be able to regulate marijuana sales? There are around 200 illegal dispensaries in LA alone. I drive by many of them daily.
I like to take pictures of dispensaries that have the same names as
people I know. Grace got a kick out of this one.
Grace Marijuana Pharmacy, totally legit, located in
Santa Monica.

MP: Simple Answer–no. This is something I could grow in my house. And I could do it well. Marijuana is more than a product.  It's a cultural object that carries with it lore beyond what can be bottled by some shit-ass corporation. I remember a drifter I met while working at TGIFriday's. He worked with me about a week. Crappy busboy. But he had a tiny cedar box wrapped in a purple ribbon. He kept his weed inside with a small pipe. He talked about how it wasn't the high that drew him into weed, but the pleasure of its secrecy and subculture and "funny little conversations." Not exactly sure what he meant, but how do you regulate that?

Talking about those illegal dispensaries: The first thing that needs to happen is the federal government needs to remove its tweed sweater vest and put on a freaking t-shirt. Legalize it. It'll be like the craft beer industry. People flying to cities and taking weed tours.  It'll solve some money problems and it'll make life more simple. After that, I think cities and towns need to make sensical regulations about where and how a dispensary can operate.  The fees need to be akin to any other upstart business fees. Make sure every operation is up to health and quality standards and tax them based on revenue. I'm not an economist, but it seems like common sense is part of the answer here.

LM: What's next for Matt Philips?

I have a new noir novel slated with Fahrenheit 13, the rebels who published my noir novel Know Me from Smoke. The new one is called You Must Have a Death Wish and follows one of the characters I introduce in Countdown. No solid news on a publication date, but that's on the horizon. I've got a brutal PI novel written and I need to put on the finishing touches. That'll be a series (I think) and I have the second novel underway to about 20,000 words.

What else? A small town noir novella nearly finished for a super-secret project plus I'm banging away at a short story collection. And the day job, right? My production has slowed over the last year with some day job stuff, but I keep plugging away at my stories. Fingers crossed that people like them...

Matt Phillips is the author of numerous crime novels, including Accidental Outlaws and Know Me From Smoke.  I highly recommend Chris Rhatigan's interview of Matt Phillips at ADR Interview w/ Matt Phillips . For more Matt Phillips, check out MattPhillipsWriter.com.



As for me, I'm currently writing my sequel to Fast Bang Booze. On a related note, know of anyone in the LA area good at recovering lost data from busted hard drives? More to follow.

If you have any cool photos of dispensaries with funny names that you'd like to share, tweet em my way at LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks. 










11 July 2019

The Long Overdue Revenge of the Customer Service Representative


by Brian Thornton

Aloha from Maui!

Every time I've driven past the signs for Kihei in the past week, I've thought of old pal and fellow Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, and his better half, Kiti. (And they know why!).

As I sail toward the end of the first real vacation my family has taken in years, my thoughts have been on an amazing and amusing thing that happened to me during the final week of the school year a couple of weeks back.

One of my students (hard-working, charismatic, a real leader, just a fine young lady) informed me that her mother works for the credit union where I and my family do most of our banking. "Oh," I think to myself, "Small world."

Turns out there was more.

"My mom finally remembered where she recognized your name from," this amazing kid went on.

"From the credit union?" I said, still not quite getting it.

"Yep. She sees your name quite a bit there."

These are vacation pics and having nothing to do with this post: that's the island of Kaho'olawe across the bay.
Casting back in my memory to try to recall whether I had any recent NSF fees (Hey–no judgement. Most of us have been there at one time or another, after all.), I asked, "What does your mom do at XXXX Credit Union (Not its real name)?"

"She's Quality Control for Customer Service."

This information sends my thoughts in a new direction. Have I complained about the service I've received lately? Nope. Does that mean someone's complained about me? Is that even a thing customer service folks even do?

I asked myself this last question because a few decades back, I was one of those people working in a variety of entry-level customer service jobs. It was some of the hardest and least rewarding work I've ever done. I worked in food, in hospitality, in transportation, all while working my way through college so that I could embark on a different–yet–not–all–that–different type of customer service: teaching.


Back in those days (and we're talking the early '90s here) one customer complaint could mean the end of your employment (I didn't have a union job until I started teaching, everywhere I worked was a one-counseling session and you're fired kind of place.). I know this because at least once I got fired because of a customer complaint.

Well, that and the fact that the guy who fired me (someone who really put the "ass" in "assistant manager.") was a real piece of work.

But that's another story.

These and other memories were washing over me during my conversation with that awesome student of mine. So I said: "Quality Control, huh? She fields complaints, things like that?"

"Yep," Awesome Kid (not her real name, but it might as well be) said.

"Does she like her job?"

"She does. And she likes you."

I cudgel my brain trying to recall whether I've ever met Awesome Kid's mom. Nope. I'm pretty sure I'd remember. She didn't come to conferences, and I didn't see her at Open House. So that surprises me.

"She likes me?" I ask, all intelligence and awareness, now.

"Yes. You're one of the highest-rated customers they have."

I blink at her, not comprehending. "They rate customers?"

She nods. "And the customer service reps all really love you. You get high marks all the time and you're near the top of their list."

And just like that, with this small kindness, Awesome Kid made my year.

The island of Lana'i (left) and the West Maui Mountains (right) framing a spectacular sunset

My early experiences with the downside of customer service (being the one to catch the irate call, or get someone's order wrong, or commit one of thousand small errors) have informed my interactions with the people who work in those positions ever since my own days in customer service, lo those many moons ago.

In the years since I've striven to be patient, to be polite. To be courteous and respectful, even when I'm pretty pissed off about something.

Because, nine times out of ten, it's not the fault of the person I'm talking to. They're there because they picked up the phone, took the chat request, what-have- you.

I've never forgotten what it's like to be on the other end of that call, and I hope I never do.

So it did my heart good to know that customer service reps are getting a chance to rate their interactions with clients: getting a voice in how that back-and-forth went. Because, hey, it's a hard job. And it usually doesn't pay all that well.

Plus, I gotta admit, I like that someone on the other end of that phone call notices how I try to treat them well.

After all, Couldn't we, each and every one of us, use a little more humanity in our daily interactions?

This is why I've been tipping people left, right and center (something I do religiously anyway) over the last week, and will until we head for home.

Like I said before, it's a tough job, and people don't get paid a whole lot to do it.

And that's all I've got for this go-round. I hope you're all having a wonderful and productive July.

Mahalo, and see you in two weeks!




10 July 2019

Countdown


So, about this Jeffrey Epstein thing, am I the only one who thinks we're looking at a hand grenade dropped into an overloaded Port-a-Potty? The guy's a child predator, and he bought off a federal prosecution. The explosion of toxic effluent threatens to be enormous. He palled around with Trump, he palled around with Bill Clinton, we've got him in bed with the freakin' House of Windsor. It's a real stinkeroo.
If you don't know the story, it has a familiar flavor. People talked about it for years, guys smiling behind their hands. Common knowledge. The local cops in Palm Beach began pursuing the case in 2005, and turned it over to the FBI a year later. The year after that, the U.S. Attorney for Miami worked up an indictment, but the Feds got cold feet, and decided against taking it to trial. They let the guy plead down.

This is where it begins to unravel. The deal the U.S. Attorney made with Epstein's lawyers was to allow him to plead to lesser charges in Florida state court, but the non-prosecution agreement required victim notification - in other words, give the victims an opportunity to air their grievances - and that didn't happen until after the deal was already signed, sealed, and delivered. Just this year, a federal judge ruled Epstein's NPA violated the law.

The case now unfolding is being brought by the Southern District of New York, specifically by the Public Corruption Unit, which may signal a willingness to investigate the plea deal as well as the underlying crimes. If they max Epstein out, he could draw forty-five years. He's 66. You do the math.

The obvious question here is whether Epstein will make a bid for leniency by pretending contrition, and ratting out the list of names he pimped underage girls to. Leaving aside the fact that he's almost certainly a sociopath, and without remorse, I'm guessing it's long odds he'd live long enough to name names. He'll do the time.

The other side of the same question is of course Epstein's protection. Who was it, and how long did they cover for him? Let's face it, this is something we're never going to find out. It's in plain view, over on the Grassy Knoll.

09 July 2019

Plot, Not Snot!


by Barb Goffman

Realism. It's something authors strive for and readers look for. If I see something in a book that seems completely unrealistic, it may make me stop reading. And while readers will often suspend their disbelief for a good story, it behooves authors not to push readers too far.

So when I see an author striving to get the details right, I'm pleased. But allow me to let you in on a little secret ... it's possible to go too far.

Yep. There are certain things I don't want to read about, especially in detail. Here are some:

  • Snot. Yes, in crime fiction, you may have characters who cry. And yes, in real life, there may be snot associated with that crying. But I don't want to read about it. It's gross. So if it's not necessary to the plot (and really, when was the last time snot was necessary to the plot?), cut it. Please! 
    Showing tissues, good. Snot, bad.
  •  Vomit. Sure, sometimes the contents of a character's stomach may rise. Saying that bile entered someone's throat can be a good way to show a character's reaction to a disgusting situation. Even saying a person threw up can be okay. But showing the vomit leaving the body in graphic detail, nope, nope, nope. Don't do it. Please!
  • Farting. Another thing that happens in real life that I don't want to read about unless you can make it germane to the plot. Good luck with that one.
  • Using the toilet. Yes, we all do it. And sure, if you want to mention someone went to the restroom, go for it. People can talk privately in restrooms. They can wash their faces while contemplating the horrible thing they just witnessed. And they can go in there to take care of bodily functions. All fine. But when that stall door closes, the reader in me begs you to fade to black. I don't need to know the details about what goes on in there. Please, please, please.
  •  Phlegm. Similar to vomit. Yes, it happens. Nope, don't want to see it.
I'm told that these rules don't apply to fiction aimed at children. That kids love books that talk in detail about bodily functions. Not having been a child in a long time, I will have to accept that premise as true. But I'm interested in hearing from readers with kids on this matter. Do your kids like reading about all this disgusting stuff? Is there an age at which it ceases to be something fun and turns into something gross? And is there a difference between boys and girls on this matter?

Okay, readers, weigh in please. Have I missed anything? What do you not want to read about in graphic detail on the page? Tell me what is snot necessary for you. 

08 July 2019

Why I Write


Today, I'm following a trend started by Michael Bracken, R.T., and O'Neil.
Writing is something I've done for so long that I can't imagine not doing it. Restructuring my life without it would be like a dancer having to reinvent himself after losing both legs.

The previous generation of my family included several teachers and two journalists, then called "reporters." My sister and I are the two youngest of eleven first cousins, seven of whom taught at one time or another (One was a principal and another was a superintendent), three of whom were involved in theater, and two of whom became attorneys.

Adults read to us constantly from the time we could sit upright in their laps. My sister and I both read at a fourth-or-fifth-grade level when we entered kindergarten, and I assume our cousins did, too.

When I was ten, the Mickey Mouse Club presented their first serialization of The Hardy Boys, and over the next year, I read every existing book in the series. Naturally, I tried to copy them myself, both sides of a wide-ruled notebook page per chapter, ending with the hero getting hit over the head or a flaming car soaring over the cliff. My mother, who worked as a secretary for the Red Cross during World War II, typed a couple of my stories out, and seeing my word in print gave me a thrill that never went away.

I slowed down in high school and college, but I never really stopped writing. In grad school, I took an American short story class that brought back the urge. Between 1972 and 1981, I taught high school English, earned my Masters and C.A.S (sixth-year) from Wesleyan, worked part-time as a photographer...and wrote five unpublished novels. Then I drifted into theater, where I acted, directed, produced, designed lights and/or sound and helped build sets for over 100 productions between 1982 and 2010. My third grad degree is in theater.
Upper Right, me as the crazy father

 I retired from teaching in 2003, and the theater where I did most of my work lost its performance space a week later. I wanted to revise one of the books I'd never been able to sell, and now I had time to learn to do it right. I read books on craft, attended workshops, and asked questions. Three years and 350 rejections later, I sold my first short story. Four more years and 250 more rejections, and I sold my first novel. Since then five short stories (including that first one) have short-listed for the Al Blanchard Award. I've won Honorable Mention three times, but never won. Two other stories won the Black Orchid Novella Award (Rob Lopresti has also won), and one story, the ONLY story that was accepted the first place I sent it, was nominated for an Edgar.

Linda Landrigan on the left, Jane Cleland on the right. Second Black Orchid

As I write this, most of the other bloggers on this site sell more short stories in a slow year than I have even written in my life. My acceptance rate hovers around seven percent and I have eight stories still floating from market to market looking for a home. My fifteen novel (All self-published since the first one became a terrible experience) will appear late this year or early next year.

Since 2007, when my first story appeared in print, my writing enterprises have been in the black three times, and the largest amount was about a hundred dollars. If I stopped writing today, it wouldn't affect my income or my standard of living.

My quality of life, though, well, that's a different issue.

I was a shy kid. Even though I could play baseball and football and basketball fairly well and had a bike like the other kids, I always felt a little bit outside the group. The writing gave me a retreat that was safe. So did music. I studied violin in firth grade (I really wanted to play piano) and picked up a guitar when the Beatles invaded. I played bass in a fortunately forgotten band in college. I recently started teaching myself piano all these years later, and music appears in many of my stories. Theater shows up occasionally.
One of my last directing gigs

The book I finally got right. 
I don't write for the money or for the recognition. I write because I still like the furniture in my little interior retreat. I love how it feels to send out a story when I know it's the best I can make it. That doesn't mean it will sell. A story I think is one of my very best has 19 rejections and no other appropriate market on the horizon. Another one I love has 15.

So what?

Would I like to make more money writing? Sure. I'd also like to play piano and guitar better, be twenty years younger knowing what I know now, and lose 15 pounds.

But I'll settle for this.

07 July 2019

Murder Mystery – Spare Me


Thanks to a couple of friends, I’ve been indulging in one of John Floyd’s favorite passions– NetFlix. How could I resist a movie called Murder Mystery? How could I not document it for SleuthSayers?
Murder Mystery: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler
Murder Mystery: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler
The Premise

A marriage-worn New York couple finds their relationship  declining and disintegrating if not quite out. Thus starts the film on a squirmingly uncomfortable note. He’s an NYPD street cop who keeps failing the detective exam and lies about it to his wife. She’s a beautician who casually derides her husband. Then in a whiplash moment, he abruptly takes her on a long-promised trip to Europe.

Part of the ersatz humor comes from the stereotypical bumbling of uncouth Americans staggering around foreign countries. He’s the Cleveland jacket type, the working man who only dresses up for temple or church or mosque with his favorite colorful plaid or checked sports coat. Naturally they wear their Sunday best to Europe. Except those moments when Sandler chooses to wear sloppy clothes to dinner.

They bump into the fabulously wealthy set, whereupon death, destruction, and tired hilarity ensue. Solving the crime and saving their own asses bring them closer together, whereupon kissy-face romance re-ignites. More scripted hilarity ensues.

Emergency! Emergency! Kissing Coach to the set!

For a film rife with yachts, planes, trains, and automobiles, it’s awfully pedestrian. The real mystery is why a catatonic Adam Sandler murdered the movie. My least favorite SNL comic, he seemed to come into his own in movies, often silly, but he proved he could seriously act in Spanglish.

Unfortunately, he brought none of the warmth he’s capable of to Murder Mystery. His chemistry with his costar registered at the low end of the Kelvin scale. Dude, if you’re going to be kissing Jennifer Aniston, put some damn effort in it. Sheesh. Act like you might possibly maybe under the right circumstances kinda sorta enjoy it.

Wait. Back up a moment.

This movie is so sloppy, anyone with a passing familiarity of Europe’s cities and airports will quickly realize the movie is riddled with impossible geographic errors. Málaga is not in Italy; Milano is not in Monaco, and… How did they get to Montreal? In all these places, people drive on the right in left-hand-drive cars, same as North America. The embarrassing question enquiring minds want to know:
  • Were the filmmakers too stupid to notice?
  • Did they think Americans too stupid to notice?
The Abbott and Costello School of Motoring

Speaking of cars, we’re asked to leap a huge chasm of disbelief– that New Yorkers who’ve spent a lifetime not driving and have never seen a clutch or stick shift can suddenly pilot a Ferrari Testarossa left manual 7-speed gear shift at high speeds. R-i-i-i-i-ght, as Bill Cosby might intone.

Author’s Saturday shopping car, disbelief suspension

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

That said, two jots of humor bear mention. Sandler’s character is a terrible pistol marksman but, channeling Goldfinger’s Oddjob, he unleashes his deadly accurate frisbee arm. Viewers brace for timid, tentative tee-hee.

The Tourist: Angelina Jolie
The Tourist: Angelina Jolie
The single funny moment in this one-hundred crawlingly long minute ‘comedy’ brings the chase scene to a close, a visual joke. Actual chuckles ensue.

The final scene brings us back to the nearly forgotten title in a faint nod to Agatha Christie. Promoters are talking about a sequel, Murder Mystery II. Is this final scene where it starts?

Start to finish, the movie plays like a Pink Panther episode on valium. If you want to see how an American on the run in Europe film should be made, visit The Tourist (2010). It combines a Hitchcock flair with a stunning Angelina Jolie who seems to grow more beautiful with the years.

Murder Mystery 👎👎
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ ‘meh’

06 July 2019

Apocalypse Soon


One of the first things I learned as a beginning writer was that good stories must have conflict. In fact, the more conflict, the better. Maybe that's the reason I prefer writing mystery/crime stories. When the characters in a story have broken--or are breaking, or are planning to break--the law, one level of conflict is already there. It's built-in. And I need all the help I can get.

The same could be said of stories whose plot involves a countdown of some kind. In that case, the built-in ingredient is suspense. It could take many forms: the timer on a bomb, a deadline set by a killer or kidnapper, a runaway train, an upcoming trial date, a clock ticking down to high noon, etc. Or the relentless approach of something final and terrible--an asteroid, a missile strike, a plague, an alien attack--that will put an end to all of us.

This line of thinking of course led me to all those end-of-the-world movies I've seen, and forced me to--how could I resist?--pick out what I thought were the best and worst. So in case anyone besides me likes this kind of thing (doubtful, I know), I've put together a list of my twelve favorite global-disaster-is-coming films. Sometimes doomsday is averted, sometimes it happens as scheduled. You'll have to watch them to find out; no spoilers in this report.

NOTE: I did not include movies set mostly after an apocalypse--and there are plenty of those: The Road, The Day After, Night of the Comet, War of the Worlds, The Book of Eli, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, The Day After Tomorrow, Zombieland, Waterworld, 2012, Dawn of the Dead, Daybreakers, and so on. Even the Mad Max and Hunger Games-style movies could fit into that post-cataclysm group. Unlike those, the movies in my list are set in the time leading up to the event, and therefore populated with characters in the normal world who must somehow deal with the knowledge of impending doom. They aren't the walking dead, at least not yet. They're just regular folks who are fully functional but soon to be in deep bandini.

Anyway, here's my list of the dozen ultimate-catastrophe movies that I enjoyed most, from silly to serious, from action-packed to slow and thoughtful. I liked them all, but the first ones are my
favorites.



1. Melancholia (2011) -- Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland. Definitely a slow-paced, navel-gazing story. Two sisters try to work out their problems with each other as a newly-discovered planet heads toward a collision with Earth.

2. Deep Impact (1998) -- Morgan Freeman, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood. This time it's an asteroid on its way to do us in. The President tries to save a select few; the rest are on their own.

3. Fail-Safe (1964) -- Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau. American bombers are en route to Moscow and the Russians are set to retaliate, but the attack was a mistake--and now it can't be stopped.

4. Dr. Strangelove (1964) -- Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden. Sellers plays three different roles, and once again the threat is nuclear holocaust. The only comedy, if you can call it that, in the list.

5. Take Shelter (2011) -- Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain. A young father who has visions of a coming apocalypse takes steps to try to protect his family.

6. The Mist (2007) -- Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden. A group of shoppers huddle inside a supermarket after a botched government experiment unleashes a spreading mist that contains bloodthirsty creatures. One of the better Stephen King adaptations.

7. On the Beach (1959) -- Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire. Most of the world has blown itself up, and the so-far unaffected Australians are now in the path of a deadly and slow-moving (like the plot) cloud of radiation.

8. Miracle Mile (1988) -- Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham. A young man accidentally hears a phone call telling him nuclear missiles will strike his city in seventy minutes.

9. Seeking a Friend at the End of the World (2012). Steve Carell, Keira Knightley. As another asteroid nears Earth (screenwriters are fond of asteroids), a lonely man goes on a road trip to find his high-school sweetheart.

10. These Final Hours (2013) -- Jessica De Gouw, Nathan Phillips. On the Last Day, an Australian man makes his way across a chaotic town to help a little girl reunite with her father.

11. Last Night (1998) -- Sandra Oh, Don McKellar. With the end of the world six hours away, several unusual people decide to face their fate together.

12. Armageddon (1998) -- Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton. As yet another asteroid (?!?) makes its fiery way toward Earth, NASA recruits a team of misfits to try to save the world.

Runners-up: Independence Day (1996) and The Rapture (1991).




What do you think? Have you seen all, or any, of these? If so, do you agree? Disagree? Do you have any movies to add to the list? (I intentionally left out a few: The Day the Earth Caught Fire, When Worlds Collide, etc.) Do you even like this kind of movie?

If you don't, no worries. It's not the end of the world.

05 July 2019

Motivations



by O'Neil De Noux

Following up on blogs by Michael Bracken and R. T. Lawton, I am amazed at my similarity to both writers, especially R. T.

I was an army brat who went to a dozen different schools before I graduated from high school. I kept the nomadic way through college, going to three different universities in getting my degree.

I too was drafted into the US military during the Vietnam War but I took the option to enlist before reporting (spending 3 years instead of 2 in the army so I could choose my MOS). I chose photographer, like an idiot, instead of photo lab technician so they trained me as a combat photographer. I was not sent to Southeast Asia – luck of the draw.

I started out as a short story writer, wrote a lot of bad stuff. Became a novelist after I became a homicide detective. As a cop I've always taken notes for stories. George Alec Effinger showed me how to write a short story and I've been writing stories and novels since the mid-1980s. It's been a long road with a lot of rejection and a lot of acceptance.

My novels have all been published with mixed results as for sales. But they are all in print.


It wasn't until the early 1990s did I managed to get stories accepted by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (as well as Asimov's and The Saturday Evening Post) and other top markets and anthologies.



Motivation? I knew in grammar school I would be a writer. It took a long time to learn how. No way I can stop or even slow down. I write every day, even when I doing other things. I always start a novel as soon as I finish a novel. As I write the new book, the characters and the story stay with me, even when the pace is interrupted by work (back when I was working) or a short story which gripped me to write.

I love writing novels and short stories.

That's all for now.


04 July 2019

Happy Fourth of July!


In between barbecues and fireworks, sports and speeches, beer and brats, there's going to be time for some movies.  Here's a few:

Smith goes.jpgMr. Smith Goes to Washington:  Can you believe that this movie was controversial when it came out in 1939?  Because it actually dared to talk about corruption in politics?  (Pearls clutched across the nation!)  Only Jimmy Stewart could have played this part - and what a great one it is.  The filibuster scene alone is worth watching.

"I guess this is just another lost cause Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for and he fought for them once. For the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule. Love thy neighbor. And in this world today of great hatred a man who knows that rule has a great trust. You know that rule Mr. Paine and I loved you for it just as my father did. And you know that you fight harder for the lost causes than for any others. Yes you'd even die for them. Like a man we both knew Mr. Paine. You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well I'm not licked. And I'm gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these. And the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me."

Advise-&-Consent-(1).jpg
And speaking of corruption in politics, another great movie is 1962's Advise & Consent, starring Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Gene Tierney, and a host of other Hollywood celebrities.  Communism, homosexuality, and womanizing all feature in the various forms of blackmail, backbiting, demagoguery and political intrigue that revolve around the President's choice of Secretary of State.

Fred Van Ackerman:  [sniveling over being shunned]  What I did was for the good of the country.
Bob Munson:  Fortunately, our country always manages to survive patriots like you.

Of course, the Fourth of July is about the birth of our country - but strangely enough, I find most movies about the American Revolution pretty... bad...  (Think about Mel Gibson's The Patriot and Al Pacino's Revolution.)  So how about watching 1776?  A musical take on the Revolution and the Convention, it'll have to do until Hamilton comes out.
"I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress! And by God, I have had this Congress! For ten years, King George and his Parliament have gulled, cullied, and diddled these colonies with their illegal taxes! Stamp Acts, Townshend Acts, Sugar Acts, Tea Acts! And when we dared stand up like men, they have stopped our trade, seized our ships, blockaded our ports, burned our towns, and spilled our BLOOD! And still, this Congress refuses to grant ANY of my proposals on independence, even so much as the courtesty of open debate! Good God, what in hell are you waiting for?" 
            - John Adams in 1776

But July 4th is also about war.  

From above a flat. and dry desert floor, a person in a green military uniform with heavy padding holds red wires attached to seven pill-shaped bomb canisters scattered around him. At the top of the poster are three critics' favorable opinions: "A near-perfect movie", "A full-tilt action picture", and "Ferociously suspenseful". Below the quotes is the title "THE HURT LOCKER" and the tagline, "You don't have to be a hero to do this job. But it helps."
America has been making up for some time for the way Vietnam veterans were treated when they came back from the war.  But wars haven't stopped; if anything, conditions continue to degrade, and a soldier's lot has become one of perpetual deployments, wars with no exit strategy or even long-term goals, devastating injuries to mind and body, and a Congress that never seems to want to spend money on them once they're home.  There are a few "fun" movies about war - but here are a few movies that keep in mind the real price:

Black Hawk Down
Born on the Fourth of July


Full Metal Jacket
The Hurt Locker
Johnny Got His Gun
Platoon

“I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same.” 
― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

“Society can give its young men almost any job and they'll figure how to do it. They'll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end, it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for. ... Soldiers themselves are reluctant to evaluate the costs of war, but someone must. That evaluation, ongoing and unadulterated by politics, may be the one thing a country absolutely owes the soldiers who defend its borders.”
― Sebastian Junger, War

Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day.JPG

BUT let's get back to fireworks and fun.  And if it's fun you want, then you need Presidents and aliens:

Dave poster.jpgMost fun movies about Presidents, from Dave to Independence Day, and, of course, Mars Attacks!  

Fun quiz:  Which quote is from which movie?

(1)  President:  I don't understand, where does all this come from? How do you get funding for something like this?
       "You don't actually think they spend $20,000 on a hammer, $30,000 on a toilet seat, do you?"

(2)  What is with [the] President lately? I mean has this guy been having too many "Happy Meals"? I mean geez!

   (3) I'll tell you one thing, they ain't gettin' the TV.

   (4) President:  What? Oh, you mean the press conference. I had a couple of ideas that I wanted to share with the country.

   (5) President: I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain't bad.


There's also Seven Days in May, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and Dr. Strangelove.

Or you could do the Lincoln cycle - Raymond Massey's Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Henry Fonda's Young Mr. Lincoln, and Daniel Day Lewis' pitch-perfect Lincoln:
An iconic photograph of a bearded Abraham Lincoln showing his head and shoulders.Lincoln: Abolishing slavery by constitutional provisions settles the fate for all coming time. Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Two votes stand in its way. These votes must be procured.
Seward:  We need two yeses. Three abstentions. Four yeses and one more abstention and the amendment will pass.
Lincoln:  You've got a night and a day and a night; several perfectly good hours! Now get the hell out of here and get them!
Ashley:  Yes. But how?
Lincoln:  Buzzard's guts, man! I am the President of the United States of America! Clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.
It's a shame that there haven't been nearly as many good movies about the other Presidents on Mount Rushmore.  The best are probably Ken Burns' documentary on Thomas Jefferson, the first 3 episodes of The Roosevelts:  An Intimate History for Teddy Roosevelt, and the 1984 miniseries George Washington (starring Barry Bostwick).

Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington.jpg“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
― George Washington

“As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality.” 
― George Washington
Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson (by Rembrandt Peale, 1800)(cropped).jpg
“We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”
― Thomas Jefferson
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
― Thomas Jefferson
President Roosevelt - Pach Bros.jpg“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

“Politeness [is] a sign of dignity, not subservience.” 
― Theodore Roosevelt

“Jazz is democracy in music.”
― Wynton Marsalis

Happy Fourth of July from South Dakota!


Image result for fireworks over mount rushmore

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
-- John F. Kennedy

03 July 2019

Rushing Mount Rushmore


An author out standing in his field
If you have time for only one blog in your busy life obviously it should be SleuthSayers.  But if you can fit in more, you might want to consider Something Is Going To Happen, the blog of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.*

They recently featured an interesting piece by Dave Zeltserman in which he described his "personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers."

It's a fun concept.  Can you reduce the pantheon of the greats down to four?

I'm not going to reveal Mr. Z's choices, because you should definitely go read his piece for yourself, but I will list my own and invite you to do the same in the comments.  You will find that I overlap with his, but we are not identical.

My monument is arranged in the order I discovered the writers.

Rex Stout.  The first adult mystery writer I found after Conan Doyle.  He was the pusher who got me hooked.  Stout is all about character and voice.

Especially voice.

Nero Wolfe: "Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth."

Archie Goodwin: “When the day finally comes that I tie Wolfe to a stake and shoot him, one of the fundamental reasons will be his theory that the less I know the more I can help, or to put it another way, that everything inside my head shows on my face. It only makes it worse that he doesn’t really believe it.

Occasionally Stout has moments of plotting excellence (e.g. Too Many Cooks) but more often Wolfe and Archie have to carry him over bumps in the road.

Donald E. Westlake.  I first read his story "Come Back, Come Back," in one of those Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks.  It was a dead serious story about a cop suffering from a possibly fatal heart condition trying to convince a wealthy, perfectly healthy business executive not to commit suicide.

In high school I discovered his early comic classics, what David Bratman  called "the nephew books," in which some luckless schmuck finds himself in deep doodoo (The Spy in the Ointment, God Save the Mark, etc.)  By the time Dortmunder tried (and tried and tried...) to steal The Hot Rock I was hooked.   Westlake was the master of chaos, crisply described.  Movies based on his books usually failed because they couldn't capture his narrative tone.


Dashiell Hammett.  I confess I am not a fan of most of his novels (the exception being you-know-what).  But the Continental Op is everything the private eye story wants to be.  And could that man write an ending!  I'd give several toes to write a last paragraph as good as the one in "The Gutting of Couffignal."

Stanley Ellin.  Like Hammett, he had one great novel.  Stronghold is about a young man who grew up bitter on the outskirts of a community of modern Quakers (Ellin was one).  As a full-fledged adult psycho he brings back a gang to kidnap all of their women, yearning for either ransom or a bloody shootout with the cops.  But the Quakers won't cooperate with violence, even by calling the police.

Ellin's genius was for the short story.  "You Can't Be A Little Girl All Your Life" was a story about rape a decade before its time.  "The Question" is a quiet reflection by an executioner that turns into a stunning social comment.  And "The Payoff," well, the ending is just a punch in the gut.

So, while I brush away the stone scraps and clean off my carving tools: Who would you put on your mountain, and why?

*Also, Trace Evidence, from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

02 July 2019

Tess Gerritsen: What Makes Books Fail?


In my last post for SleuthSayers I briefly mentioned Tess Gerritsen and her keynote speech at the California Crime Writers Conference. Leigh asked if I could talk a little more about what she said, so here goes:

I really enjoyed her speech, it was funny and relatively short—about twenty minutes. And it kept my interest. Much of what I say here is quoted or paraphrased closely from her speech. But I think I misstated her premise in my last piece, saying she talked about What Not to Do. More accurately her speech was about What Makes Books Fail. She started with some anecdotes and wound her way around to that topic.

She opened talking about how happy she was to be in sunny SoCal. Though it hasn’t been as sunny here as it normally is. But I guess coming from Maine anything above 50 is sunny.

She segued into Delia Owens and her phenomenal success with Where the Crawdads Sing. She also talked about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece  Annie Barrows which spent many weeks on the NY Times best seller list. Delia Owens was 70 when her debut novel came out. Shaffer, author of Potato Peel was 74 …and died before it came out. The point was it doesn’t matter how old you are or what you look like. You just have to do it. And you don’t even have to be alive to be a debut novelist!

Delia Owens
Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows
She moved on to talk about something we can all relate to. One day, while in her local grocery store, the butcher smiled at her over the meat counter. Then came running out after her—hopefully not with a butcher knife raised over his head.

“I knew you’d be in here eventually,” he said. “I want to give you this.”

Three guesses as to what he wanted to give her. Okay, time’s up.

He brandished a manuscript—what else? She took it. And to cut to the chase it never got published, at least not traditionally.

Another time she was in a restaurant. A man across from her jumped out of his chair, dashing out of the restaurant. He returned 20 minutes later with a briefcase…holding, well, you know what it was holding.

And then she talked about love, at least Shakespeare in Love. But rather than try to retell what she said, this, from her website, pretty much covers it:

“Young Shakespeare writes ‘Romeo and Juliet’, falls in love, and tries to stay one step ahead of the Queen’s guard. The scene that had me laughing hardest? When a ferryman finds out that Shakespeare’s a writer and asks him, ‘Will you read my manuscript?’”

Do you notice a theme here?

But the real theme of her talk was why some novels get published and others don’t. Why didn’t the butcher’s novel get published? The real theme was:


What Makes Books Fail

Ms. Gerritsen said that there are certain mistakes that are made often that keep one from breaking out or getting a traditional contract. By way of illustration, she talked about Uncle Harry. We all have one, right?

Uncle Harry and Aunt Maude both experienced the same earth shattering event. Harry will talk your ear off, telling you everything that happened, blow by blow, and bore you to death. Maude will tell you the same story and keep you on the edge of your seat. What’s the difference? Maude gives you the high points of the story.

Tess says we need to identify where the emotional high points are. It’s not that Harry isn’t intelligent, but he needs to get a sense of the dramatic. That’s why Maude’s version is better.

She told the story of Michael Palmer’s agent taking him on, even though the agent didn’t like the book, because they thought he had a sense of the dramatic. And when she and Palmer, both doctors, taught a course in writing for other docs who wanted to be novelists, they discovered that most of them, intelligent as they are, and as understanding of all the tech aspects, couldn’t tell a good story because they didn’t have that sense of the dramatic.

Tess Gerritsen at the 2019 California Crime Writers Conference
And her heart dropped when an attorney-friend of hers wrote a book and wanted to talk to her about it. But, she thought, he does interesting stuff so maybe it would be okay, and agreed to meet for lunch. And this is what she said:

“His book was about a man who comes of age in the turbulent 60s and moves to Maine. ‘And what happens,’ I asked. ‘It’s about self-discovery, about the journey, about coming to grips with life,’ he said. ‘But what happens,’ I said, ‘where’s the conflict? Where’s the struggle?’ And he said, ‘life is a/the struggle.’ And I thought okay, we’re in trouble. So the more I pressed him on the plot and the characters, the more I heard about actualization and personal journeys and maximizing relationships. And in a fit of frustration, I finally just said, ‘you’re thinking too hard. You should be feeling the story,’ and that’s what I’ve come to conclude, is that what makes most stories fail is that people are thinking too hard and they’re not feeling their way. In a nutshell, writers really shouldn’t be cerebral, shouldn’t be logical. We should be thinking about the dramatic points in our lives, the emotional centers in our lives.”

And one more example: Another man wrote a scene about a family preparing a BBQ. He wrote it in great detail, the cooking, the salads, every little thing. And then his grown child telling the dad that “we’re going to have a baby.” That’s great, the dying dad says, congratulations, and they go in and have dinner. But the author didn’t let the characters chew on that. Didn’t play off the emotional core of the scene, the dying man becoming a grandfather. It was just glossed over.

Tess said she remembers the day she was told she was going to have her first grandchild. Her son, who has a flair for the dramatic, showed her a sonogram on the rim of the Grand Canyon. She and her husband started sobbing. She doesn’t remember the hike or how she got to the rim. She only remembers about the baby, now her five year old granddaughter. So, she told the man writing about the BBQ he shouldn’t pass over the emotional center so quickly and spend so much time on the steaks being medium rare. She couldn’t remember the trip to the Grand Canyon. Every bit about the salad or how the steaks were cooked wasn’t what was important.

How a book fails, she said, is that we fail to remember that we’re human beings. It’s all about emotions, not about telling. And a large part of our skill is choosing the scenes—which scene/s are you going to point out? What are the details that matter to you? And even though we sometimes have to deal with technical aspects of what’s happening, we still need to find the emotional things there.

She used her book Gravity as an example. She had to explain the technical aspects of a spacewalk. But she didn’t have the heart of her story until she read Into Thin Air, where one of the climbers, who knew he was doomed to die on the mountain, called his wife to say goodbye. That brought Tess to tears and gave her the spark for the emotional center for Gravity. What is your last goodbye going to be like? Make your story interesting by bringing in your emotions.

So, even when you do need to tell, as we sometimes do, you need to find the emotions of the scene. Show something from the point of view of what you and your characters are feeling.


The bottom line:

What she’s learned is: trust your heart. That’s where your story needs to be. Don’t tell, but show. Choose the scenes that have the highest amount of gravitas and angst, and maybe we’ll all be Delia Owens someday.
~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Also in this issue are fellow SleuthSayers Janice Law, R.T. Lawton and B.K. Stevens. Hope you'll check it out.



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

01 July 2019

The Pitfalls of Being First





by Travis Richardson 


Today I am going to leap into the shark-infested waters of controversy. I’m crossing my fingers (which makes it difficult to type, BTW) and hoping that I won’t get banned from Sleuthsayers or unfriended (in real life and on social media) by longtime colleagues that I admire or challenged to a fist fight in the parking lot at the next Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime. It is a critique on a point of view used by many of the masters of the crime genre with names no less than Edgar Allen Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Sir Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Chandler as well as over half of current crime fiction and a large percentage of “literary” works as well. And, I might add, that I have used this popular contrivance myself. 

Itchin' for a fight
So here is my critique. Ahem, first person point of view in past tense fiction is contrived and rife with pitfalls. Yep, I said that. I’ll duck under this desk for the next few minutes while everybody throws tomatoes and rocks at me. 

Whew, glad that is over. 

Crime fiction is built on the above-mentioned forebears' groundbreaking works. (For what it's worth, according to Ranker those forebearers represent 5 of the top 6 crime writers of all time.) It is hard to think of a PI novel that’s not in first person. Several cozy/traditional mysteries also use this POV too. Of the crime books I’ve read this year, the first-person narrative holds a slight 7-6 edge over the third. (Not including short story anthologies, the books are Under A Dark Sky, House. Tree. Person., Cut You Down, Weight of Blood, Revenge is a Redhead, Get Carter, Silent City vs. I-5, Negro and an OfayKnow Me From Smoke, Don’t Speak, The Big NowhereThe Drop.) 

I asked Terri Bishoff, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Crooked Lane Books, and Chris Rhatigan of All Due Respect Books whether they have more first or third person POV titles in their lineup. Terri believes she has helped publish about 60% first person POV titles. Chris said he used to publish more first person, but the trend has shifted to third person recently to the point they are about 50/50. 

While I prefer to write in third, there are times when first is necessary and I’ve embraced that world as each story dictates the best POV. Below, I'll give a few arguments regarding the issues and pitfalls of the first-person narrative.


Total Recall

The biggest problem is the suspension of disbelief. Stories told in first person are often full of dialogue and minute details while taking place of over several days—as we’ve come to expect. The problem/contrivance with that setup is that every narrator from Dr. Watson to Kinsey Milhone has hyperthymesia, also known as superior autobiographical memory. This incredibly rare and not well-understood anomaly in the brain allows certain people to recall every detail that happened to them in the past. Few people have this super-power and from what I can tell it is usually a burden for them to the point that they are depressed and inactive as they are living in the past too much. While depression is a firmly established trope in the crime fiction, inactivity would not make for a great protagonist so I doubt many of the protagonists have hyperthymesia. 

In the real world, people often talk about conversations they had with others, they might remember their lines well (or enhance with retrospective distance) and paraphrase the other person’s dialogue unless it concerns a line or two that created a tangible emotional response. Like an offensive phrase or an enlightening piece of wisdom. A person relaying a personal crime story might recall a specific lie they heard from a suspect or a threat that burned a permanent impression in their brain cells. In fiction, an enormous amount of details usually go into a first-person story. It’s what readers have expected over the years and an overlooked contrivance, but if I were to listen to somebody relate story like we read in fiction, I would believe they are unreliable unless they convinced me they had hyperthymesia. 

A Narrator’s Ultimate Peril

Another problem is that the protagonist in question, while possibly in peril, will probably not die at the end of the story regardless of their opponent’s evil intent. Of course, this expected for series characters. (Why kill your golden goose, right?) I’d argue that after the first self-narrating pronoun of “I” or “me” in the past tense, an indirect signal goes to the reader that the protagonist will live in the end. Maybe there won’t be much more than brainwaves, a heartbeat, and oxygen filling the narrator's lungs, but the retelling of events almost guarantees this at minimum. In some ways that lessens the threats made against the protagonist life.

That’s not to say that surprises can still happen in first person past tense. The narrator can relate the story while dying in a pool of blood (aka Walter Neff) or being lead to the gallows/gas chamber/electric chair, but that’s the exception. 

Dictation before dying.

One way to get past the ultimate peril problem is to put the story in the present tense. There is no past. What is happening on the page happens in real time. While I know some readers and writers don’t like this approach, I’d argued that is used in visual media—movies, video games, comics—to great success. And let’s be honest, we are getting our butts kicked by them. Also, by writing in the present tense there are fewer letters in use thereby creating a slightly more efficient read. Any flashback would be in past, not past perfect and pacing can be increased. (Of course, how a narrator can shoot a gun and tell a story at the same time is another contrivance.)  

Protagonist Loathing

Part of the allure and strength of first-person narration is the immediacy of knowing the intimate thoughts and motivations of a character. The reader gets a window into the soul of the narrator as they make choices and feel events happen on the page. This easier to do in first person and even though there is a considerable amount of telling over showing, it is couched as thoughts and philosophies that seem conversational. 

But those pluses can be a negative too. It is easier for me to read about an a-hole in third person doing less-than-ethical things or acting erratically than a narrator in first person trying to get me to sympathize with them. It feels like pandering. 

Reading from the POV of a dour malcontent gets old, especially for 300 pages. I am not (get ready for controversy) a Phillip Marlowe fan. Chandler’s writing is AMAZING (although I am often too aware of the stylized prose which takes focus away from the story). Whenever Phillip finds himself in peril, I want him to get his ass kicked hard. He’ll complain either way he comes out of the fight and I have to read about it. In David Simon’s The Wire, Jimmy McNulty felt like a Phillip Marlowe prototype—a knight errant with personal flaws trying to go up against overwhelming, evil powers. But I liked Jimmy over Phillip because I watched him through action and if he ever philosophized it was through dialogue and his views could get countered by other characters.

The Wire Jimmy McNulty.jpg
Sometimes an update is better than the original.

Evangelism Fatigue 

Too much evangelizing from a character’s POV about certain philosophies or political issues can also turn me off if it is repeated like a drumbeat. This problem happens in both first and third, but I think it is easier to fall into the trap in first because the narrator is thinking about a certain issue. I don’t mind a character having political or religious beliefs that they discuss every so often, but when they try to convince the reader to convert to their ways through repetition, I get turned off. 

I took 3 required philosophy classes in college and I hated them (which I didn’t expect). Either I disagreed with the philosopher and had to read a book of arguments I didn’t care for. Or I agreed, but still had to read a book of something I already supported since page 10. This happens in fiction sometimes too. A statement here or there is fine and showing hypocrisy, corruption, power of faith, etc. is fine, just don’t bog the book down trying to convert me. 


So there are a few of my critiques on the first person POV. Thank you to Terri and Chris for a quick turn around on my percentage question. (BTW All Due Respect is open for submissions if you write "lowlife literature.") Let me know what you think. If things look bad I might have to carry around a pair of brass knuckles for the rest of the year. 





Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at www.tsrichardson.com