Thursday, January 29, 2009

Grisham, Charlie Rose, and stuff

Here are a few facts you don’t need and probably can’t use.

The Associated Press reports that a poll conducted by the Sports Marketing Group in Atlanta has identified the top 10 most hated spectator sports:
1 Dog fighting
2 Professional wrestling
3 Bullfighting
4 Professional boxing
5 PGA Tour
6 PGA Seniors
7 LPGA Tour
9 Major League Soccer
10 ATP Men’s Tennis

The Duluth Pack was invented in 1892 and is still manufactured and sold and used today.

John Grisham appeared on Charlie Rose last night. At least that’s the program we saw here in the Twin Cities. He is a charming, well-spoken good-looking man with the manners of a gentleman. In spite of Rose’s irksome habit of sometimes laughing inappropriately and interrupting his guests, Grisham never lost his cool and always stopped when Rose talked. Here are some highlights.

Grisham told a fascinating story about his “A Time to Kill,” in my opinion probably his best book and how it came to be written.

He makes no apologies for the kind of suspense thriller he writes. His aim he said is to write a taut fast-paced page-turner. He admits his books are light on characterization (!) and that his wife often admonishes him to get off the soapbox. For each new book the hardcover print run is more than two million books. He avoids racy language and explicit gore and sex because he wants a book that you, his middle-aged first reader, would feel no discomfort handing to your teen-ager or to your grandmother.

Discipline is a key. He believes that you must be able to write a page or two every day or you’ll never get the job done. He is working on several ideas at a time, goes with the one that grabs him, clips news stories, steals from any source that interests him and listens to folks around him for dialogue.

Plotting and good storytelling are his strengths, he believes, and while his books are often pointed indictments of some aspect of our society, that is never his point or his rationale. He can give you the plot and essence of every book he writes in one or two sentences and strongly suggests that if a writer can’t do that, he or she had better learn to do it. He is paying for a wide variety of worthy causes here and abroad, most apparently dealing with support of literacy and education.

There’s lots more. Crime fiction writers would do well to get a copy of the program and study Grisham’s approach. He was on for the full hour.

Oh yes, he says he never reads critics unless they are positive, then went on to reveal that in fact he does read them and believes he still learns from thoughtful, well done criticism.

Here’s another of my thoughtful, well-done reviews of a mystery.

Blacklight Blue
by Peter May
from Poisoned Pen Press
hard cover, 326 pages

Another in May's series with the crusty scot Enzo MacLeod, former ace forensic scientist. Living now in France, Enzo struggles with relationships with his two daughters, and abruptly with several coordinated attacks on his relatively well-ordered life.

This novel is the third in May's excellent cold case series. A French writer has done a book about a series of old unsolved murders and a reward has been offered for any one who can solve the cases. But unlike earlier efforts, here the target seems to be striking preemptively at Enzo and his family.

A crime novel with more than the usual twists and elements that are not what they appear on the surface. Enzo answers a lot of questions in the course of determining who killed a man named Lambert. But there is a lot more of substance in this emotional tale. It will entertain, mystify and perplex, right up to the very end.

Friday, January 23, 2009

BLOODY HALLS: an excerpt

You see, if you come an hour late,
you have to put up with cold meat

Later, when I’d had time to think about it, I realized it was those banging metal trash cans in the lobby that marked my initial entanglement in the Marshall affair. Sometimes, when I dream about those noisy trash cans, I wonder what might have happened if I’d followed my first instinct, left the rehearsal, and gone to the theater lobby while the killer was still there. That thought makes me sweat, sometimes, in the quiet dark of an early morning.
* * *
The day of the murder hadn’t been one of my better days. I’d stayed late in the college’s Office of Student Services because that’s what directors have to do to keep up with the workload. Now, well after the cocktail hour, I found myself in an uncomfortable seat, cold, bored, waiting. Waiting for my entrance in this creaky, drafty barn of a theater.
Weeks earlier I’d let my eagerness for the play get the better of my judgment. When the community theater group loosely associated with our college, City College of Minneapolis, announced they were going to produce Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” I couldn’t resist the opportunity. I happen to like Ibsen a lot. Here was my chance, I told my friend Lori, to really stretch myself. If I landed a part, even a bit part, what an experience! Ibsen. Wow! So I auditioned. And I got a part.
“Wonderful,” one would say. “Just what you wanted,” another will say.
“Rats,” I’ll say. It was a much bigger part than I ever anticipated. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was too much part for me. Besides, I knew it would take up most of what little free time I already hadn’t enough of. I should have declined, but I was the director’s first choice, so pride entered into the equation as well as opportunity, and I was lost.
Dr. Stockman. Enemy of the people. That was to be my role.
That had been weeks earlier. Now here I was, facing an obsessed director, Delton, he said his name was, a graduate student from the big university across town. The small college for which I labored had no theater department so the acting company usually hired a grad student from elsewhere. Funny, this same director, when he’d called to offer me the part, had seemed pleasant, logical, even charming. No longer. I was fast becoming convinced that this mere child of a director knew no more about Ibsen’s time and the dragons that drove the good Dr. Stockman than did that janitor, banging about in the lobby outside the auditorium doors at that moment.
What was it with that janitor? Didn’t he realize the noise would distract us? I finally rose from my seat, intending to go to the lobby and snuff out the continuing banging. I had almost reached the double doors when the noise stopped. Silence fell on stage at the same moment. I glanced back and realized most of those in the auditorium were looking at me, or more precisely, looking in my direction.
“Well, Marston?”
“Well, Delton?” I shot back. Quick, that’s me.
“I believe you have an entrance here,” the director growled.
“Ummm... right. Sorry.” I’d lost track of exactly where in the act we were when I started up the aisle toward the lobby. I was still curious about the now absent noises, but decided I’d better get on stage, playbook in hand. I trotted back toward the proscenium while Delton stalked off, deep in conversation with someone whose face I couldn’t quite see.
As I approached the stage, I was conscious of the people scattered throughout the big auditorium. There were actors, stage crew members, set and costume people. Some were alone, some in small groups. All eyes seemed to be on me, but I couldn’t positively identify everyone in the auditorium because the light was strongest from the stage, which threw many of their faces into shadow. The assistant director, a student whom I vaguely recalled from one of my counseling classes, fell into step just behind me and we made a short parade.
Because I was tardy for my entrance, everybody else had to wait. They didn’t like it, although no one said anything. They were unhappy because we’d learned by this time that director Delton ran long rehearsals and delays added to the time. You’d think the guy was directing professional, paid actors. Professional actors probably wouldn’t take the verbal abuse we’d already received, and it was still early in the rehearsal schedule. I found my place, did the scene, and we made it through Act I. It got on to eleven and just when I began to think Delton was going to have us start over or, worse, go on to the next act, he took a big, tired breath and kind of whooshed at us.
He stared slowly around at the assembled cast. That night he wore a frayed, shapeless green coat of some kind over a sweater and faded jeans. The coat might have been military surplus and it seemed to be about two sizes too large. His narrow shoulders slumped forward below his receding chin. He said, “Tomorrow night at seven, please. Do-not-be-late.” He punched the words for emphasis. Another thing about Delton I didn’t like was his eyes. At times they seemed to bore into you, as if there was a recording machine inside his skull instead of just a brain. Maybe that was just me. He’d made it clear from the start that he considered me a distraction to his art. It was unclear to me why he’d chosen me for the role of Dr. Stockman.
Dismissed, we collected our belongings and wandered through the backstage area, past old flats left over from God knew what ancient production. Backstage was a vast cavern inadequately lit by a few dim unshaded bulbs hung on long black snakes that descended from somewhere overhead. The grid of lights, sandbag weights, ropes and other trappings of live theater resided about twenty feet above us. The ceiling of the building was somewhere above that. We left in a group through a back door, into the cold November night, and somebody locked up. As I shrugged into my jacket and went out, I remembered the noises from the lobby.
The tiny space where we were allowed to park was just a narrow gap between the tall dark buildings. It felt oppressive, confining. I hunched my shoulders. I left my fellow thespians and turned the other way down the alley. I walked around the building to the marquee on Eighth and peered into the dark interior. Nothing. “All’s well that ends well,” I muttered aloud.
I didn’t try the doors. Later I wished I had.

The novel, first in what I hope is a long series of so-called academic crime novels, is published by Echelon Press and is available as a downloadable e-book from Fictionwise

I juste finished a scary book by Peter May, titled "Snakehead." It's pub. date in the US, from Poisoned Pen Press is February. I'll have a review up early next week.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


In my hot tub and watching through the plants and windows as snow comes down thickly on the white lawn .

I wonder how much the current economy will affect the growth of electronic publishing and perhaps energize a move to more activity in this area. The development of the Kindle and the Sony Reader in particular have clearly made a recent difference. But the cost of the reader still is a problem for lots of potential readers. Since the tendency is to add bells and whistles to these devices, I’m not sure we’ll see a substantial reduction in price anytime soon.

Many interesting visual images of yesterday’s Inauguration. For me one of the most intriguing was when Senator Feinstein was introducing President Obama for his address. Behind her, on the left, appeared just the head of the new president. He was looking directly at the outgoing President, George Bush. Just the head of President Bush appeared on the right side of the screen. The two men looked intently into each others faces and were apparently shaking hands although you couldn’t see that. It was only for an instant and then both heads disappeared.

I had the great privilege the other night of hearing the Minnesota Orchestra in a concert of Leonard Bernstein’s serious compositions. All interesting, energetic, fun to hear. Two of the five pieces included a solo by a leading member of the orchestra, Adam Kuenzel, flute and Bert Hara, clarinet. Excellent music., The last piece, titled “Lamentation” was sung by mezzo, Susanne Mentzer. It’s from Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1. I mention this because I was very impressed by the demeanor of the soloist. Ms. Mentzer has a wonderful voice, but she is required to sit through a long passage prior to singing. That seems to be a problem for some soloists with orchestras. They fidget, they shift, they cause small distractions. Ms. Mentzer sat quietly, hands in her lap and slowly surveyed the hall before her. She appeared to be a performer gradually sinking herself into the role, mentally and physically donning the sad robes of an observer of the loss of Jerusalem.

I recently completed Sean Chercover’s second novel, “Trigger City.” Ray Dugeon is an interesting Chicago PI. The plot is fascinating, well thought out and it moves steadily at a useful pace. There are some problems and I wish the author would figure out a better way for his character to decide to reconnect with his sometime lover Julie.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Death of the Book is 'way overstated

And so is New Year’s Eve. At least I hope it’s a memory for you.

Nice getting together with old friends we see so seldom, and making new acquaintances.

The world churns and things change. Donald Westlake, a top prolific crime fiction writer died in Mexico of an apparent heart attack. We’re lucky at least one more novel from his ancient typewriter (!) will be forthcoming.

Karen Spengler, a marvelous woman and owner of I Love a Mystery in Mission, Kansas, died recently, a great loss to the mystery community. I have fond memories of ribs and that atmospheric store. She will be sorely missed.

I’ve just finished a dark moody, enthralling novel called Pavel & I, by a transplanted Canadian named Dan Vyleta. It is set in the winter of 1946 in Berlin, an awful place to be, where Russian, British, American and of course German military and civilians try in desperate times to survive. The author chose a weak, even slimy, apologist to tell his tale. Peterson is a man who takes little joy playing the role of torturer for a fat Brit colonel, but he only apologizes for his inability to tell a complete story about the mysterious Pavel, a man of honor who sacrifices many to achieve his end as he wades through unbelievable horrors of brothels, double dealing , murder and a truly nasty monkey. Bloomsbury Press is the publisher, a most interesting enterprise.

Other readings of note in the past few months include,

HOLLYWOOD BUZZ by Margit Liesche,GREEN MONSTER BY Rick Shefchik,THE ANTEATER OF DEATH by Betty Webb, all from Poisoned Pen Press along with THE ESSENTIAL MYSTERY LISTS, edited by Roger Sobin.

Then there was A WEDDING TO DIE FOR, BY Radine Trees Nehring, a St. Kitts Press issue, FLESH & BLOOD, by John Harvey from Harcourt,

Also COURTROOM 302 by Steve Bogria, a fascinating look at one of Chicago’s criminal courts. From Vintage Books.

You wouldn’t go wrong spending time with any of these.