Sunday, April 3, 2011

About Bad Karma

While Bad Karma is a sequel to Bad Thoughts, it's a very different type of book. Bad Thoughts is a grim and bleak horror and crime mix that masquerades as a police procedural. Bad Karma takes place 5 1/2 years after the horrific ending of Bad Thoughts, with the setting having been moved from a gray Boston Winter to the bright sunshine of Boulder, Colorado, and is purely a hardboiled PI novel with new age sensibilities. What is shares with Bad Thoughts is Bill Shannon and his ex-wife, Susan, and certain metaphysical issues. Dreams are important in both books, although for different reasons. In a lot of ways Bad Thoughts is about suffering (and ultimately surviving) while Bad Karma is about healing and moving on. That's not to say Bill Shannon doesn't have his challenges or face dangerous characters in Bad Karma, but the tone is very different than Bad Thoughts.

I was at the University of Colorado in Boulder during the late 70s and early 80s, and in a way Bad Karma is my ode to Boulder, at least a Boulder I used to love and is no longer quite the same. Some of the people I used to know back then show up in Bad Karma. For example, there's a character named Eddie in the book who is very much like a guy named Charlie who used to hang around the student center to play chess. Here's a scene where I recreate an incident where I decked an obnoxious kibitzer who later became one of my best friends (although he claims he doesn't remember this)

Nodding to the cashier, he left the cafĂ© and started walking idly down Pearl Street again, slowing down when he came across two men playing chess. One of them was sitting on a bench, the other on a folding chair, with a chess set on a folding table between them. The man on the bench was in his sixties, and looked like Paul Bunyan, except that his red hair had turned mostly gray. Even though it was midsummer, he wore dungarees, work boots and a heavy red flannel shirt. As he studied the game, he pushed an upper plate in and out of his mouth. The other player was young and probably a college kid. Along with needing a shave, his hair resembled the top of a string mop that had been dyed black and, like his clothes, looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. As he sat there, his eyes moved fervently as they scanned the board.

Standing nearby kibitzing on the game was what looked like another college student. A tall blond Germanic-looking kid with red cheeks, a smart-assed smile and a cheap stogie dangling from his lips polluting the air around him. “Idiot,” he exclaimed as the other kid reached for his bishop. “Don’t you see you can win a pawn?”

The younger player turned to him and pointed a finger. “Are you playing this game?” he asked. “No? Then shut the fuck up.” Under his breath, he added, “Moron.”

The color dropped from the tall blond kid’s face. Still smiling his smart-assed smile but with no humor left in his eyes, he tossed his cigar at the player.

“Sonofabitch,” the kid jumped up, knocking the cigar out of his lap. “You’re going to throw a lit cigar at me?” He was a good six inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter than the blond kid.

“You could’ve been more polite about my suggestion…” the blond kid started, but before he could say anything else he was hit hard with an uppercut that sent him on his ass.

“The sonofabitch threw a lit cigar at me,” the other kid repeated, his arms moving in wild gestures as he stormed away. The blond kid looked stunned as he sat on the ground. Then, rubbing his jaw, he flashed an embarrassed grin before getting back to his feet and walking gingerly in the opposite direction.

“I never knew chess was a contact sport,” Shannon said.

While the setting of Bad Karma is in the bright sunshine, the ultimate plot turns out to be pretty unseemly and evil, maybe as much so as anything I've written. There's also an intersection with Fast Lane that I think Fast Lane fans will get a kick out of. Still, even given how unseemly the plot turns out to be, it's a book that's more than appropriate for all hardboiled PI fans. Here's what Booklist had to say when Bad Karma first came out in 2009:

Detective Bill Shannon, introduced in Bad Thoughts (2007), is back, and a welcome return it is. Relocated from Boston to Boulder, Shannon has fled the Boston PD for a low-stress lifestyle, picking up a little work on the side as a private eye. But despite his efforts to find psychic and psychological peace of mind after his horrific encounter with Herbert Winters, the demonic serial killer from the earlier novel, Shannon discovers that putting distance between himself and the old evils doesn’t help him escape the new evils. Zeltserman weaves together elements of both mystery and horror genres, as Shannon again finds himself confronting the darkness that roams the boundary beyond one’s physical senses. It’s as though Zeltserman has aimed a 12-gauge sawed-off at smarmy New Age sensitivities and fired off both barrels. Irony abounds, as Shannon unmasks deviant gurus, evil yoga studios, Russian gangsters, and guys who use their baseball implements in socially unacceptable ways. If you liked the first novel in this series, you’ll love this one. — Elliott Swanson

Part of the reason I wrote Bad Karma was after the horrific suffering I put Bill Shannon through in the first book, I wanted to give him a chance to have a happier existence. I never really talked much about Bad Karma when it first came out because the timing was awful--Five Star released Bad Karma the same week Serpent's Tail released Pariah. Pariah's a book that I thought the Washington Post could end up picking as one of the best of year (which they did), while Bad Karma is more of a fun, hardboiled PI read, so I concentrated my efforts on Pariah. But I do have a fondness for Bad Karma for a number of reasons, and we might well see Bill Shannon in future PI novels.

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