Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Julius's latest case

Julius Katz and Archie's latest case can be found in the upcoming June issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

2013 Ellery Queen's Readers Choice Awards


From the May issue of Ellery Queen

1st place -- Archie Solves the Case by Dave Zeltserman
2nd place - Borrowed Time by Doug Allyn
3rd place -- The Wickedest Town in the West by Marilyn Todd
4th place -- Sob Sisters by Kris Nelscott
5th place -- Jack and the Devil by David Dean
6th place -- Cemetery Man by Bill Pronzini
7th place --The Care and Feeding of Houseplants by Art Taylor
8th place -- In a Dark Manner by David Dean
9th place -- Darkness in the City of Light by Hilary Davidson
10th place - Ghost Writer by Val McDermid

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Writing Noir

This is from a chapter I wrote for 'Writing Crime Fiction' published by Top Suspense.


ON WRITING NOIR

I was a member of a noir fiction discussion group for years where every six months or so we’d debate what constitutes noir fiction. If you search on the Internet for definitions of noir you’ll find at least a dozen contrasting ones. So I need to first define noir, at least my view of it, before I can talk about how to write it. The best definition that I’ve come across (that best fits my own view of noir) comes from Otto Penzler, which was originally published in his THE BEST AMERICAN NOIR OF THE CENTURY:

"Noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let's face it, they deserve it.

"Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn't find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin."

In noir, the hero is doomed, but he's doomed of his own making. Noir isn’t about tragedy, it’s not the fates conspiring against some poor luckless soul. Instead it’s about our hero sealing his own fate by crossing a line that can’t be uncrossed. And as with Penzler's definition, the doom isn't necessarily death; for example, it could be instead psychic disintegration, but however our hero is left at the end, he’s as good dead given what’s waiting for him. And noir cuts across classes. For some reason it has become in vogue among certain mystery writers to say noir “is a working class tragedy”. That’s wrong on both the tragedy level and the working class-level. There are many good examples of noir protagonists coming from the wealthy (HOW LIKE A GOD by Rex Stout, and many Cornell Woolrich novels), the more affluent middleclass (ANYONE’S MY NAME by Seymour Shubin, KILLER INSIDE ME by Jim Thompson),  middleclass (DOUBLE INDEMNITY by James M. Cain), criminal class (THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH by Dan Marlowe), and every other possible class.

PSYCHO NOIR

Psycho noir in literature is fiction that fits the noir definition, but also has the additional property that the noir protagonist’s perceptions and rationalizations are just off center enough to send him to hell. Jim Thompson wrote psycho noir better than anyone, and some of his best include HELL OF A WOMAN, KILLER INSIDE ME, A SWELL-LOOKING BABE and POP. 1280. Most psycho noir novels use an unreliable narrator which I’ll talk about later.


NOIROTICA

Noir erotica or noirotica is another specific type of noir fiction which was pioneered by Top Suspense Group’s own Vicki Hendricks. Before Vicki’s groundbreaking 1995 novel, MIAMI PURITY, women in noir novels were mostly either femme fatales who lured the noir protagonist to his doom (or in some case, falling into the abyss with him), innocents who serve as a counterpoint to the femme fatales, or victims. MIAMI PURITY changed all that by having the noir protagonist as a woman. Lust and sex have played a role in many noir novels, but MIAMI PURITY raised the ante dramatically with its graphic sexual explicitness and showing more kinkiness than you’d find in any ten Dan Marlowe novels! And of course, the sex and lust is shown from a woman’s perspective. Vicki’s noir novels opened the door for other women noir writers, notably Megan Abbott and Christa Faust, but Vicki was the first, and in my mind, the best.


NEO-NOIR

If you write noir today, your books are going to be called neo-noir. So what is neo-noir? This is a term that came about to describe modern film noir; films that are more self-consciously noir and employ more modern themes. As far as noir literature goes, there’s no difference between noir and neo-noir other than you get to look cooler by calling your writing ‘neo-noir’.

WHY WRITE NOIR?

So now that we have our definition of noir, the question you need to ask yourself is why do you want to write noir given that many of the great noir writers like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Gil Brewer and Dan Marlowe all died broke. Most readers out there do not want to read true noir. They might be willing to accept something that has a noirish feel, but they still want a happy ending, or at least an ending with hope, and there’s no hope in noir.  So knowing that there’s a limited readership for noir, that many mystery readers who stumble on your book are going to be appalled by it, and that you’re behind the eight ball before you even start looking for a publisher, why write noir?

I’ll give my answer by explaining why I love to read noir. The best noir can be a far more exhilarating experience than you can find reading almost any other kind of mystery or crime fiction, and the reason for this is it can expose truths about the human condition that other genre fiction barely hints at. There’s a resonance in the best noir fiction that’s almost impossible to find elsewhere in genre fiction.

FORMULA FOR PLOTTING A NOIR NOVEL

Here’s a simple formula you can use for plotting your next noir novel:

Have your noir protagonist cross a moral line where there’s no turning back from. This might be committing a murder, robbery, betrayal, cowardice or anything else that you can think of which will ultimately doom your noir hero.

Keep putting your hero in increasingly more dire situations that he is barely able to escape from, and repeat this until the tension becomes unbearable.

Give your noir hero a thin ray of hope of escaping his situation. The hope might be real or might be a mirage or might be only a feverish delusion on the part of your hero, but to him it’s very real.

Just as it looks like he might escape his doom, pull the rug out from under your noir hero’s feet and send him tumbling into the abyss.

The above formula describes most (if not all) of the noir books I’ve read. In some books, the noir hero has already crossed that moral line before the book ever starts. In others, he’s born broken and also has no hope from the beginning. But in one way or another, this formula tends to hold.


THE NOIR PROTAGONIST

So who is the noir protagonist? Are there any specific traits they have in common? The answer: our noir heroes can be anyone, and the only thing they have in common is that they’re doomed of their own making. Here are some examples of noir protagonists taken from classic noir novels.

A middle-class insurance salesman. An everyman, whose major character flaw is he thinks he’s smarter than he really is. This is  Walter Huff from James M. Cain’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY. What lures him to his doom is ostensibly lust and money, but it’s really the challenge of getting away with the crime and outsmarting those around him.

A deputy in a small Texas town, where his father was the town doctor. The deputy is highly intelligent and has an upper middleclass existence thanks to the inheritance from his dad. He suffered a traumatic sexual experience as a teenager due to his father’s overreaction to it, and that has created a sickness in him. This is Lou Ford from Jim Thompson’s A KILLER INSIDE ME, and he’s an example of a character who’s been broken before the novel begins.

A down-and-out door-to-door salesman who’s got a million excuses for why things have never worked, and why he’s been stuck with an endless series of tramps. This is Frank “Dolly” Dillon from Jim Thompson’s HELL OF A WOMAN, and what lures him is lust and money, but even more, a desperation to finally be a success. This is one of Thompson’s best psycho noir novels.

A bellboy who had been a college student set on medical school, but had to put his plans on hold due to his father losing his job as a college professor. This is Bill “Dusty” Rhodes from Jim Thompson’s A SWELL-LOOKING BABE. This is yet another psycho noir novel from Thompson where the Rhodes ended up broken somewhere as a child, and what ultimately does him in is an unnatural sexual obsession with his adopted mother.

A hardened and vicious bank robber who loves dogs and is out for vengeance. This is Chet Arnold (later Earl Drake) from Dan Marlowe’s THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH

A well-to-do young man working as a stock broker and engaged to a beautiful young woman. This is Prescott Marshall from Cornell Woolrich’s FRIGHT.

A guy who owns a small TV shop. This is Jack Ruxton from Gil Brewer’s THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN. What lures Ruxton to his noir fate is lust and money, particularly money.

A young, college-educated writer for true crime magazines, and married to a beautiful, idealistic woman. This is Paul Weiler from Seymour Shubin’s ANYONE’S MY NAME. What lures Weiler is sex with a woman he doesn’t find particularly attractive, and what ultimately dooms him is his fear of exposure.

A used car salesman turned filmmaker. This is Richard Hudson from Charles Willeford’s THE WOMAN CHASER, and what sends Hudson tumbling into the abyss is a mixture of hubris and being unwilling to compromise on his artistic vision.

As you can see from my small sampling is that anyone can be a noir protagonist. A hardened criminal, a down-and-out loser, a lawman, a typical middleclass everyman, a young man of wealth and potential. In the noir universe, everyone if fallible. Everyone under the right circumstance can be seduced into crossing that line where there’s no coming back from.

In psycho noir, it’s a little different. There the noir protagonist is broken with no hope before the novel begins. Usually (but not always as with Lou Ford in KILLER INSIDE ME) they’re self-delusional, needing badly to believe they’re not as fucked up as they are.


FIRST OR THIRD PERSON?

Most noir novels are written in the first person. Being stuck in the head of a noir protagonist creates a claustrophobic effect that lends itself to noir. First person writing creates more of an intimacy with the reader, which can make the hell the character tumbles into all that more horrifying. But it is not an absolute. There have been great noir novels written in the third person such as Woolrich’s FRIGHT, Thompson’s A SWELL-LOOKING BABE, THE GETAWAY and THE GRIFTERS, to name just a few. Rex Stout even wrote a brilliant noir novel in the second person, HOW LIKE A GOD.

UNRELIABLE NARRATOR

The unreliable narrator works well with psycho noir, but only if the noir protagonist is lying as much to himself as he is to the reader, otherwise it’s a cheat and will lead to an unsatisfactory read. There has to be a reason why the narrator is unreliable—a defect in his personality, or possibly he’s so self–delusional that he’s incapable of recognizing the truth, or it could be that he desperately needs to fool himself or any other number of reasons. The unreliable narrator can also be very subtle in his unreliability, and one book that uses this to great advantage is SAVAGE NIGHT by Jim Thompson. The narrator in that novel is mostly relaying to the reader the unvarnished truth, but there is one lie that he desperately needs to hold onto so he can believe that there’s a hint of decency inside of him, and when the truth is exposed the effect to the reader is devastating.

THE TORMENTOR

A technique used in several of my favorite noir novels is to have a tormentor—someone who either suspects or knows what our noir hero has done, but instead of coming right out and accusing him, instead only drops hints about it, leaving our noir hero to stew over how much the person knows. A variant of this is having someone close to our noir hero—such as a wife—who has suspicions and is dropping hints not because they’re trying to torment our hero, but because they’re legitimately worried. And then there’s the accidental tormentor—someone who doesn’t suspect our noir hero is involved in the crime at the center of the book, but is still able to torment our hero by asking innocents questions about it.

NOIR EXERCISE

Pick any Ross Macdonald Lew Archer novel, read it, and think of how it could be rewritten from the guilty party’s perspective as a noir novel.

READING LIST

I’m including below a reading list to help expose you to a fifteen exceptional examples of noir fiction.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY by James M. Cain
HELL OF A WOMAN, SAVAGE NIGHT, THE GETAWAY, A SWELL-LOOKING BABE, all by Jim Thompson
THE WOMAN CHASER, COCKFIGHTER by Charles Willeford
THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH by Dan Marlowe
THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN by Gil Brewer
DIRTY SNOW by George Simenon
FRIGHT by Cornell Woolrich
SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER by David Goodis
ROBBIE'S WIFE by Russell Hill
ANYONE’S MY NAME by Seymour Shubin
MIAMI PURITY by Vicki Hendricks


About my own noir writing. The Washington Post said of Pariah: If there's any other young writer out there who does crime noir better than Zeltserman, I don't even want to know. NPR on choosing Small Crimes as one of the top 5 mystery and crime novels of 2008 called it 'a thing of sordid beauty.' PW said of Killer: Spare prose and assured pacing place this above most other contemporary noirs.

 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Heathens of Crime Fiction

From the article 'Gut Check Fiction and the Heathens Who Are Writing It' by Patrick L. Ledford

"A heathen is a person who does not prescribe to conventional beliefs (i.e. “the norm). Zeltserman, Franklin, and Pizzolatto are straight up heathens, charging the norm like raging bulls. They have their own style and their own way of doing things. These authors stand out because of their poignant and charismatic writing. Their characters display the complexities of man and that sometimes it can be too late to make the right choice. They paint landscapes where harsh intent and bad intentions roam like buffalo. Do not settle for what the mainstream media is telling you to read. Instead, do a little research, push your limits and take a gander at the guys that are reinventing the mettle of fiction."

Read the entire article here.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Fast Lane + The Interloper

FAST LANE is in the midst of a countdown sale, and for the next two days can be bought for $0.99.  I wrote several drafts of what would become Fast Lane between 1990-1992, and first sold it to the Italian publisher Meridiano Zero in 2002, and later it was published by the small US publisher Point Blank Press  in 2004 (and I'd like to thank JT Lindroos for letting me use Point Blank Press's excellent cover for the kindle version). Point Blank Press would also publish first books by Allan Guthrie (and I published Allan's first short story on my now defunct Hardluck Stories), Duane Swierczynski and Ray Banks.

 Fast Lane was not on my first book, but the first piece of fiction that I wrote with the intention of seeing it published. It's also arguably my most ambitious book. That may seem odd to those who've read Pariah, Monster and The Caretaker of Lorne Field, but it's true. While Fast Lane is disguised as a hardboiled PI novel, it's really very psychotic noir, but at the same time it's also a deconstruction of the hardboiled PI genre. And it's a book that fools readers, at least for a good part of the way.

The Interloper, which has gotten a big thumbs up from several Richard Stark/Parker fans who've I've shown it to is now at 86% funded with 12 days to go. From the feedback I've gotten I feel confident in saying that if you like Richard Stark's Parker books, the odds are pretty good you're to like this.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Excerpt from THE INTERLOPER + reward changes


With 26 days to go, THE INTERLOPER kickstarter project is 67.5% funded, and to help drive it to 100% I've added a new $5 pledge level which will have as a reward a digital copy of THE INTERLOPER, and I've changed the $10 and $25 levels to now have digital copies sent to 4 friends instead of 2.

Below is an excerpt from the beginning of THE INTERLOPER, and you can also read what some folks are saying about THE HUNTED and THE DAME here.

________________

At one fifty-four in the morning Dan Willis had a ski mask pulled over his face as he sat patiently in a stolen pickup truck, the engine idling softly in the darkness, the lights off. The pickup truck had been backed into an alley off of a desolate city block in East Boston made up almost entirely of abandoned factories and burnt out warehouses. There was still one operational warehouse on the block, and if things went right the crew Willis was working with would be stealing one point five million dollars worth of pharmaceutical drugs within the hour.

Four minutes later the car Willis was expecting drove past him. While he didn’t know what car it would be or who would be driving it, he and the rest of the crew were still expecting someone to be driving toward the warehouse at this time. In this case it turned out to be a badly dented older model Ford Escort. Willis waited where he was until one of the other crew members turned on the brights of the stolen car he was in and accelerated directly at the Escort, forcing the other car to slam on its brakes. Willis then gunned the engine and swung his pickup truck out of the alley and pulled up behind the Escort, blocking the vehicle. Willis got out of the vehicle and moved fast to the driver’s side door of the Escort, then tapped the window with the barrel of the .40 caliber pistol that he was holding. The driver of the Escort looked like a college kid. His eyes grew large and his skin paled to the color of milk as he focused on the gun. Willis tapped the window again and signaled for the kid to lower the window. The kid was scared to death but he did as he was directed.

“I’ve got about forty dollar on me,” the kid forced out in a faltering voice. “You can take my money, the car, the pizzas, please, just don’t hurt me.”

“If you shut up and act smart, you won’t get hurt. Get out of the car now, and leave the keys where they are.”

The kid did as he was told. Willis had him take off a grease-stained jacket and an even greasier-looking baseball cap, both of which had the name of the pizza shop the kid worked for stitched on them. Willis tossed these to Charlie Hendrick, who was the driver of the other stolen car and was standing off to the side. If the kid driving the Escort was closer to Willis’s size, Willis would’ve put on the jacket and cap, but the kid was six inches shorter than Willis and was closer to Hendrick’s height, although around twenty pounds chunkier. Hendrick was the one who had put this heist together, and like the rest of the crew except for Willis, was in his late twenties, and with his ski mask off looked like the typical slacker who maybe shaves once every couple of weeks and hangs out all day playing video games and smoking weed. Big Ed Hanley, Willis’s agent for this job, had told Willis that Hendrick and the rest of his crew might not look like much at first, but that they were smart and professional, and so far this turned out to be accurate.

As Hendrick slipped on the jacket and cap, Willis used duct tape to bind the kid’s wrists together behind his back, then after hitting the Escort’s trunk release latch and dumping out the garbage filling up the trunk, Willis had the kid get into it. It was a tight squeeze but Willis was able to position the kid so he could close the trunk on him. The kid was shaking badly and looked like he might pass out or start vomiting at any moment.

“Relax, kid,” Willis told him. “I’m not going to gag you or bind your ankles together. In thirty minutes the police will be here. Just kick the inside of the trunk and they’ll find you. You’ll be fine.”

He closed the trunk on the kid. Hendrick was on his cell phone finishing up his call with one of the other crew members. He nodded to Willis and got into the car the kid had been driving. Willis first moved the stolen car Hendrick had been using so that Hendrick could continue on to the warehouse, then he got into the pickup truck and followed him, all the while keeping the lights off. Willis pulled over far away enough from the entrance so that security guard working the front desk wouldn’t be able to look out the glass vestibule door and see the pickup truck in the dark. Hendrick had pulled up to the main entrance as if he were only delivering pizzas.

From Willis’s vantage point he could see the events that played out next, and it was exactly what Hendrick had told him would happen, not that he thought it would be otherwise. Hendrick brought the pizzas to the vestibule door, was buzzed in, and then as he was handing the pizzas to the security guard at the front desk, he pulled the pizza boxes back just enough to make the guard lean forward to reach for them, which got the guard’s hands away from the security alarm button on the side of his desk. As the guard awkwardly took hold of the two large pizza boxes, Hendrick, in a quick and fluid motion, slipped from his back waistband a nine millimeter Glock and brought it out in front of him, pointing it at the security guard, who just stood dumbly for a moment before putting two and two together. Willis didn’t wait any longer. He hit the gas and brought the pickup truck up to the front warehouse entrance. Hendrick buzzed him in, and at this point the security guard was sitting on the floor behind the desk, his wrists and ankles bound with duct tape, a gag stuffed in his mouth. The guard peered up at Willis with a hurt, sullen look, probably mostly angry at himself for allowing himself to get taken the way he did.



Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kickstarting THE INTERLOPER

I have just started a kickstarter project for the 3rd chapter of my Hunted series, THE INTERLOPER. Instead of being novella-sized, this one is 150 pages which puts it more the size of a Gold Medal paperback, but my plan is to put all 3 together as both an ebook and paperback. If you've read an enjoyed any of my hardboiled crime fiction, you'll like THE INTERLOPER, which is probably the twistiest and most action-packed  of my Hunted series.

It's going to be up to you the readers to decide whether THE INTERLOPER exists as an ebook and paperback or stays as a file on my computer. I basically need a combination of 200 ebook and 80 paperback sales for this to happen. So it's all up to you!

If you want THE INTERLOPER please help spread the word about this kickstarter project. That's the only way this will work!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Countdown sale underway for JULIUS KATZ AND ARCHIE

The funnest of my Julius Katz works is the full-length novel, JULIUS KATZ AND ARCHIE, where Julius is hired by a Boston mystery author to find out who is planning to kill him, except there's a catch, and things aren't quite what they appear to be, and Julius soon finds himself embroiled in his toughest case. And things quickly  turn personal when an attempt is made on Julius's life (which is foiled by Archie!)

Anyone who's enjoyed any of the Julius Katz stories that have been appearing in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine will want to read JULIUS KATZ & ARCHIE, and with a countdown sale underway, you can now get it for a ridiculously low price of $0.99 for the next 2 days!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A deeper look at Monster

With the paperback edition of Monster hitting stores now, I thought I'd write about what Monster is really about. The premise behind Monster is what if the story Victor Frankenstein told in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was an outrageous lie to protect his reputation. What if the real story involved Frankenstein in league with the Marquis de Sade to bring Sade's most horrific work to life to demonstrate what they believe is the true nature of man? And what if the monster was originally a poor unfortunate who was framed for murder by Frankenstein and retained all his memories after his transformation, and is finally now about to tell the real story?

That's the premise behind my novel, and in writing Monster I overlayed the story with Shelley's original so the same journey takes place, but the reasons for each destination are very different. So is Monster simply a retelling of Frankenstein? No. It's also very much a reworking of Marquis De Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, and thematically it's an exploration of Sade's philosophy of man being a base creatures like all other animals, and hence morality is only an invented concept with no true meaning. And eventually Monster is a repudiation of this philosophy.

Monster is also very much a horror novel with vampyres (the spelling taken from John Polidori's The Vampyre, whose genesis came from the same rainy day challenge at the Lake Geneva home in which Shelley's Frankenstein also took birth), witch burnings, satanism, dark magic, evil murals, and other horrors. While Monster is a loving tribute to Shelley's Frankenstein, it also is to a lesser degree to the great German fantasy and horror writer, E. T. A. Hoffmann (hence the monster's name before his transformation, Friedrich Hoffmann). While Hoffmann's influence can be found throughout Monster, one of his tales was the inspiration for my nightmare mural.

Finally Monster is also very much a historical novel. I had spent 9 months researching Monster, and the book is filled with small tidbits taken from this research.  Here's a short excerpt from where the monster is roaming the dark streets of London that is based on a gang of thugs I came across in my research who for sport collected the noses of the poor unfortunates they met:

I kept walking north, using the few stars I could make out in the sky to guide me. Mostly I made my way through cramped alleyways and streets, although at times I would come across small parks and gardens and buildings of remarkable grandeur. I was no more than a few miles from where I had freed that man from the pillory when I spotted five men standing together in the darkness. Somehow they sensed me and they moved quickly so that they surrounded me. They were big men, although nowhere my size. But each of them were over six feet tall and were thick shouldered, and each of them held long knives. They reminded me of the wolves that attacked me when I traveled to Leipzig.

One of them addressed me. “Aye, mate. If you are going to pass, you got to pay our toll.”

“What is your toll?”

He laughed at that. “Listen to his accent. A foreigner.” This was said to his companions. Then to me, he said, “Your pig snout. That is what we collect, and that’s why we are members of The Pig Snout Club. So remember that for when you tell stories of how you lost your pig snout!”

While I had studied English, I hadn’t spoken or heard it much in my life, and I wasn’t sure if I heard right. “I do not have a pig with me,” I said. “So I am afraid you will have to collect your snout from someone else.”

“That’s not how it works, friend. We’ll collect the snout from you. From your own face, mind you. So stand still and be prepared to pay your toll. Or put up a fight if you wish.”