Tuesday, June 5, 2018

STARRY-EYED!


I write thrillers and mysteries published as ebooks on Amazon. Readers, a surprising number of whom aren’t relatives, friends or people who owe me money, post reviews on the Amazon website. The reviews range from one to five stars. In order of “star-iness” the ranking are:

  1. I hate it
  2. I didn’t like it
  3. It’s OK
  4. I like it
  5. I love it 

(By the way, I didn’t make this up. I copied the list straight from the Amazon page!)

Four- and five-star reviews, of course, are the most coveted. A five-star review is terrific, especially if it isn’t written by your mother. I’ve had five stars from people in other countries who I don’t know. Assuming they weren’t written by someone occupying a padded cell in, say, the London Institute for the Criminally Insane, I cherish those reviews.

Four stars, from an author’s perspective, are often more valuable, since they indicate the reader not only liked the book, but probably put a lot of thought into the review. (One reviewer said he wished Amazon allowed half stars, because the book deserved more than four but not quite five; I’m not sure I read my own books with that level of interest.)

At the bottom of the pile are the one- and two-star reviews. I am happy to report that I have rarely been skewered by such mean-spirited and uninformed comments by people who really should be in the London Institute for the Criminally Insane.

Only kidding. Some folks just don’t like my kind of writing. Or maybe I owe money to them. Truth is, getting a bad review is not all bad, since it provides a much-needed reality check for authors, such as moi, who think they are bloomin’ geniuses. Most of us are just regular people who forget to take out the garbage and regularly miss golf putts the length of a paramecium. Such reviews also serve to convince potential readers that my books are being critiqued by total strangers, and not people I am holding at gunpoint. Nothing validates good reviews more than the occasional scurvy one.

Then, there are three-star reviews. They are often weird. There is no other word for some of them. I’ve had a three-star that was so complimentary I had to check to make sure I didn’t write it myself. And I’ve had a three-star so scathing I could imagine the reader hurling his Kindle across the room in disgust. Yet it got three stars, which according to ranking system above, means that he thought it was “OK”.

But some three-star reviews are also very valuable, since readers often identify what they liked or disliked (plot, characters, length, typos, etc.). I’m not a writer that wants to cater to every taste, but I’d be dumber than a sponge to ignore constructive criticism.

I once received one three-star review that really rocked me. Here it is, verbatim: “I sort of liked it but it was not up to the standards of the Spenser series. I may be spoiled by Parker.”

Me, too, pal. I revered Robert B. Parker, who re-invented the private eye novel with his Spenser novels. Parker set the bar to a level I probably will never reach. But that doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying. Indeed, I periodically re-read ALL the Spenser novels for a literary transfusion of sorts. 
And I read just about everything Parker said about writing. Asked once why he thought his books were so popular, Parker argued that people probably just liked the way they sounded (or, in effect, read). His dialogue and descriptions, he indicated, kept his fans involved. They enjoyed being in the world of Spenser, Hawk, Susan, Quirk, Belson, Vinnie Morris and all the other colorful and familiar characters, good and evil. I think Parker was being self-deprecating. Many of his Spensers also had terrific plots and surprises, which kept readers coming back for more. But I took to heart his belief that all characters (both heroes and villains) must be interesting, and not cardboard stereotypes.

And I take to heart that three-star review suggesting – demanding – that I up my game.




Wednesday, May 23, 2018

THE CIPRO KID!


Thriller writers make terrible patients. I’m proof of that.

Since I’m constantly looking for ways to kill or main my characters, I do a lot of research into weird diseases, poisons and the like. As a result, there is hardly a symptom that I haven’t experienced, at least psychosomatically. I am what you might call a paranoid hypochondriac. If I don’t develop a disease on my own, I’m sure someone plans to give it to me.

When I don’t feel well, I don’t think stomach flu. It has to be Ebola or rabies.

I’ve spent a lot of time in bed, an easy chair and you know where else, all of which are conducive to catching up on one’s reading. That is a mixed blessing, since one of the books I read was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. A superb book, 10 years in the making, which immediately made me want to give up writing, because I’m not sure I belong on the same planet with talent like that.

It didn’t help that as soon as I got the book, Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize, an award that my colleagues and I at The New York Times barely missed getting for our coverage of the Wall Street Crash of 1987. Bitter, who me? For years I thought of buying a parakeet, so I could line its cage with the explanatory article from a rival paper that beat us out (a story later disproved, by the way).  

Speaking of the media, I must vent.

What is wrong with the American media? Readers of this blog may remember that I have argued that fiction writing suits me better than journalism because I can finally tell the truth. I was being somewhat snide, perhaps looking for a laugh.

But I’m not laughing now.

Over and over again, I read a paper or watch the nightly news, and am informed that ISIS or some other alphabetical monstrosity has shot, beheaded, burned alive or otherwise slaughtered some innocents, only to be informed that the images of the atrocities are too gruesome for public consumption. (Of course, two hours after the nightly news, that same too-delicate public is subjected to dozens of network and cable shows featuring shootings, stabbings, eviscerations, autopsies and zombies eating brains.)   

What if cell phones cameras and other modern tools were available during the Holocaust?

“There are reports that the Nazis are gassing and cremating millions of Jews and other prisoners in so-called death camps. We have decided that the images are too disturbing to broadcast.”

Next stop: 50 million dead in World War II.

There are important stories out there. Instead, we get two hours of prime time on a royal wedding. Now, I happen to like the royals (British variety, not the Saudis). But I’d rather have a zombie munch on my frontal lobe than watch two hours of pomp.

I feel a headache coming on. Probably anthrax. Luckily I’ve been hoarding Cipro.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

GENERATION GAP!


This is a column about generations. As in missing them, or being caught between them.

It is, of course, is a situation not unique to my writing life. For example, I was too young for Grace Kelly, and now I’m too old for Amy Adams. Don’t think that doesn’t bug me every day.

On a more rational note, I was born in the waning days of World War II and thus am not part of “The Greatest Generation”, which beat the Nazis. World War II is considered a just war, and provided a clarity of purpose that many subsequent conflicts have, to say the least, lacked. In WWII, we were attacked, everyone enlisted and went to fight enemies so cartoonishly evil that seven decades years later they can still be trotted out in books and films to evoke a visceral reaction.

Now, someone does something bad to us, and by the time a soldier finishes basic training, he or she is sent to fight someone else (usually by some politician who never got closer to a uniform than watching a war movie about the Nazis).

And I don’t quite fit in with the “Baby Boomers” that the “Greatest Generation ” lustily generated soon as they got home, although I do feel some kinship with them, as our so-called “entitlements”, such as Social Security and Medicare, are assaulted by what I’ve termed the “Ungrateful Generation”.

Cosmic moral considerations aside (including the Grace Kelly-Amy Adams thing), writers can have problems with being in the wrong generation. Especially mystery and thriller writers, such as myself. Not to put too fine a point on it, science and technology (both real and Hollywood-pseudo), have robbed the genre of much of its charm and made writers (including screenwriters) lazy. Again, such as myself.

In the good old days, circa 1940 or 1950, the private eye and the cops (who put up with him because he used to be flatfoot) would stand over a body in a hotel room. Even when there is a good suspect, things will then mosey along at a leisurely pace. 

COP IN CHARGE: “He won’t get away. Clancy, dust for prints and put out an A.P.B. Check all the bus, railway stations and airports. Set up roadblocks. It’s only a matter of time.”

The private eye smiles and lights up a Lucky Strike. He would bet his trench coat that it won’t be that easy. And he’s right. The suspect is not quickly apprehended because he is hiding out in remote mountain cabin with his moll, who looks nothing like Grace Kelly or Amy Adams, but certainly looks like someone you want to be holed up with in a remote cabin. (By this point, readers and/or filmgoers are rooting for the fugitive). Both the police and the private eye spend days trying to find him, and there are more plot twists than there are Viagra commercials on modern TV.

But now:   

COP IN CHARGE: “He won’t get away. We’ll “ping” the GPS chip in his mobile phone and triangulate his position between three cell towers. What’s that, Clancy, you already did that and he’s in custody? Great. Let’s get some donuts. I’m hungry.”

At which point the private eye lights up a filtered Virginia Slim and is immediately arrested for smoking indoors.

Between video surveillance cameras, which are apparently everywhere, and D.N.A. analysis, “perps”, in print or on the screen, don’t have a chance anymore, at least until the case is thrown out in court on a technicality.

In the days of noir, without hard evidence the police usually had to beat confessions out of suspects in a room with a couple of chairs and a lamp. (They rarely used the furniture; they used truncheons). And the confession held up in court, the only technicality being whether the killer got AC or DC in the electric chair.   

Not anymore.

Imagine the scenario today, in which a Gorgeous Female Cop (who does look like Amy Adams) is facing a smiling killer and his Nattily Dressed Lawyer across a table in a brightly lit interrogation room with a one-way mirror, behind which stand a slew of supercilious forensic experts.

N.D.L.: “If you have nothing else, Lieutenant, my client and I are leaving. Come on, Nigel.”

G.F.C. (holding up a small vial): “Not so fast, counselor. Do you see what’s in this vial?”

N.D.L. (leans in): “Looks like a dead mosquito. (Laughs) My client didn’t have anything to do with it.”

G.F.C.: “Very funny. But this mosquito was trapped in the room where the six people your client murdered were found. On a hunch, we checked the D.N.A. of the blood it ingested and it didn’t match any of the victims. But it matches your client’s. Do you want to explain how his blood got into a mosquito in the murder room when he claims to have been at a Knicks game?”

Behind the mirror one of the forensic experts says, “What a lame alibi. Who the hell goes to a Knicks game?”

Of course, the killer pleads down to attempted jaywalking, but that’s another story.     

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A HAIR-RAISING TALE!


As not enough of the world knows, I write thrillers and mysteries, 17 and counting. I love doing it and have gathered some great reviews from people I don’t even owe money to.

But I’m only human and can’t help being a wee bit envious of more financially successful authors. (“Wee bit” might be an understatement; should anything untoward happens to some of the authors, I’ll probably be a prime suspect.)

Needless to say, when I’m not feeling sorry for myself, I often wonder if I could duplicate some of the mega-authors’ success by imitating them. That is, by switching genres.   

The temptation is powerful. And, of course, sex comes to mind. No surprise there. The Mayo Clinic did a study in which it found out that the only time the typical American male doesn’t think about sex is when he is playing golf and his thoughts revolve around suicide. (I just made all of that up.)

Fifty Shades of Grey, originally a self-published ebook by British author E.L. James, has now been read by a gazillion people, all lured by the abusive, demeaning, sadistic, violent, sexually perverted relationship between a college graduate, Anastasia Steele, and a young business magnate, Christian Grey, who apparently has no visible means of support except his billions.

Hell, I could write a tender love story like that!  

But I have decided not to go that route, at least until I can think up a suitable pseudonym. Instead, I have started a series of children’s books. (Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?)

My wife has been bugging me for decades to write the Cowboy Bob bedtime stories I told my two boys when they thought I was the cat’s meow and listened to me. (They were VERY young.) Unfortunately, I do not remember most of the original stories. I’m just happy to recall that it was Cowboy Bob, and not, say, Cowboy Fred. I considered using some of the Cowboy Bobs I now tell my grandkids. But at the last recitation, Bob was chasing a one-armed alien through Alaska.  I may have to tweak that plot a bit before I publish it.

So, I’ve started from scratch.

To tell you the truth, I had no clue where scratch was. But Turner Classic Movies came to the rescue with Meet Me in St. Louis, the 1944 film about the four beautiful Smith daughters and their social quandaries when the family patriarch tells them they have to move from St. Louis, which is about to host the 1904 World’s Fair. It’s a delightful Judy Garland movie in which Margaret O’Brien, playing little Tootie Smith, easily steals every scene she’s in.  

So, I’ve set my children’s books in 1904 St. Louis, where my version of Tootie and her older brother run into a geriatric Cowboy Bob, who relates stories of the Wild West even more amazing than the World’s Fair.

Of course, a children’s book has its own challenges, especially for someone who writes thrillers heavy on mayhem. The Wild West wasn’t called the Wild West for nothing. My earliest effort raised some eyebrows (two of which were on my daughter-in-law, the mother of my grandchildren) because I introduced a little color. The color was red. So, out came any references to scalping and other hair-raising (I couldn’t resist THAT pun) activities. I have to say, writing about cowboys and Indians (I know, they are Native Americans; I explain the context in the book) without scalpings and massacres is not easy. But I managed it. I feel pretty good about that.

I also feel pretty good about not trying to capitalize on the current wave of books dripping with perverted sex. So, I hope you read my first Cowboy Bob book, Fifty Shades of Buffalo.

Only kidding. That’s not the title.

       










Friday, March 30, 2018

BOOKS GO TO WAR!


Shortly after our hairy and smelly ancestors climbed down from the trees, they discovered that long pieces of wood tipped with sharp points not only discouraged sabre-tooth tigers but also put Wooly Mammoth meat on the table (where there were more empty seats, since the uncooperative mammoths often stepped on the hunters).

 The more literate among the un-stomped cavepersons (although they couldn’t have known they were literate since the word hadn’t been invented) soon found out that by dipping smaller versions of those sharp points in a liquid – probably mammoth blood – they could start writing books. (I’ve skipped over cave paintings as a story-telling medium, mainly because they were probably done with fingers, which annoys the hell out of me since they are much more sophisticated than anything I can do 30,000 years later.)

 The first books were non-fiction. With a life span that didn’t extend much past puberty, most people didn’t have enough experience to make up stories. How can you write about all the problems you had growing up when you didn’t? A little-known fact: Only one in ten cave-teens even made it to the senior prom.

 But once people started living long enough to remember how rotten life was – dad invented wine and was drunk every night; mom ran off with the camel driver; my boyfriend slept with that tart from the next-door cave – novels were invented. Not long afterward, the ancients discovered plots, and promptly used up all the good ones even quicker than they exterminated the unfortunate mammoths. I’ve previously noted in this space that plot lines have since been in a bit of a rut. I posited that most of the good story lines (murder, love, incest, matricide, etc.) were developed by the Romans, and before them, the Greeks, and only refined by such Johnny-come-latelies as that Shakespeare fellow.

 But novels have persevered, to the point where trees were in danger of becoming as extinct as a hirsute elephant, at least until the Kindle came along.

 Did you know that books helped us win World War II? No really. I’m not making this up, unlike most of the previous paragraphs.

 Molly Guptill Manning’s wonderful “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” describes how American librarians, outraged by Nazi book-burning, sent 20 million hardcover novels to the troops at the outset of our involvement in the war in 1941.

 Many of the books were classics, including “The Great Gatsby” (which Molly notes was “rescued from obscurity” by the program). The Government quickly recognized the morale-boosting implication of the initiative and with the help of the publishing industry jumped on board. Those in charge, however, didn’t want GI’s jumping out of planes or landing craft burdened down with “Gone with the Wind” and other massive hardcover tomes, so they provided soldiers with 120 million Armed Services Editions (ASEs), small paperback copies of the approved books (thereby basically creating the paperback industry!).

 Thus bucked-up with the written word, our ASE-armed soldiers beat the pants off the Axis. (An aside: I’ve been reading about those rotten Nazi’s when a documentary about German wartime aggression came on TV. Two hours later I had this incontrollable urge to annex the Rhineland.)

I wish that I’d known all this when a Marine sergeant named Tarver upbraided me for reading in my bunk. He said, in effect, that while books were nice, they didn’t win wars. I actually don’t think he used the word “nice”, and since he wanted me to clean the latrine I’m sure the fate of the Republic was not at stake. I was incensed, which explains how I can remember his name so many years later.

 Guess what, Sarge? Books do win wars. At least the ones worth fighting.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

RAYMOND CHANDLER

There is a marvelous book: The World of Raymond Chandler (In His Own Words), edited by Barry Day.


As a thriller writer myself, I didn’t think I had so much in common with Chandler, the acknowledged master of the genre.

We both like cats and cocktails.

What? You expected me to say that we are literary equals? There aren’t enough martinis in the known universe to make me say something like that. (By the way, is there an unknown universe? How would anyone know that?)

Chandler never wrote a memoir or autobiography, so the surest insight into his mind (at least his literary mind) is through his novels, short stories, letters and the many interviews he gave after he became famous. Day’s book is loaded with excerpts from all those sources, as well as fascinating photos of Chandler and his contemporaries.

I’m ashamed to admit that most of my previous exposure to Chandler is through the movies made from his novels, including The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye. But as I’ve just learned from Day’s book, there was a lot more to Chandler than Bogie and Bacall.

American-born but classically educated in England, Chandler spent time in France and Germany and leaned the languages of both countries. He returned to the United States but when World War I broke out joined the Canadian Army and fought on the Western Front, surviving battles that basically annihilated his unit. After the war, he tried his hand at business in America, but didn’t like it and found out he could eke out a living writing for pulp mystery magazines. His talent was soon apparent and he won a book contract.

Moving to Los Angeles, Chandler basically reinvented the private eye novel; Philip Marlowe being his greatest creation. He also helped to reinvent Los Angeles, at the least the noirish, corrupt city that most of us imagine the “City of Angels” was in the 1950’s.

Chandler is justly famous for his descriptions and similes, many of which are so good they made me want to go out and get his books. (I did pick up The Big Sleep.) The World of Raymond Chandler has many of his best lines, but there are Internet sites devoted to “Chandlerisms”. 

Here is a sampling:

"I never saw any of them again - except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them."

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks."

 "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."

"Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake."

"If you don't leave, I'll get somebody who will."

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."

There are literally hundreds, maybe, thousands more. Do yourself a favor. Pick up a Chandler.









Saturday, March 3, 2018

GRINDING AXES


When I’m reading a novel, nothing annoys me more than an author who interjects his or her own prejudices and/or politics into the narrative.

Except, of course, if I’m the author.

Truth is, I can’t help myself. I have a lot of axes to grind, and where better to grind them than in my thrillers and mysteries. In everyday life, when I spout off, it’s usually after the second martini, and everyone stopped paying attention to me midway through the first. But in a novel, after I’ve presumably hooked my readers with a few murders and sex scenes, I can usually say something that I think needs to be said. Hey, it’s a free country.

In various books, I’ve taken aim at Wall Street greed (like shooting fish in a barrel), as well as  academic elitism, the publishing industry, the media, unethical politicians (there may be a bit of redundancy here) and the sports establishment.

I try not to overdo it. I’m not writing polemics. I fully understand that most of my readers are more interested in other things (see murder and sex, above). And an author must pick the appropriate time to slide an opinion in the story. For example, it would be highly inappropriate for a couple locked in a steamy sexual encounter to stop what they are doing to reflect on the mid-term elections.

“Oh, God,” she moaned, writhing in the sweat-soaked satin sheets.

“Yes,” he gasped. “Now they will try to impose tariffs on aluminum.”

“Oh, God,” she screamed in ecstasy.

“Beer cans are made out of aluminum!” he shuddered.

 And I recognize another danger, of course. Sometimes I have to give a character an unpalatable opinion, usually in a conversation. Such conversations define the character as a racist, a bigot, a chauvinist, a sexist pig, ax murderer (as opposed to ax grinder), pederast, serial killer, or even a Red Sox fan, in ways that I assume (hope) the reader doesn’t associate with me.

 My protagonists are basically moral people, who usually know right from wrong and are offended by injustice. (I say “usually” – one of my characters is an assassin, but he only kills bad people.) When they offer an opinion, you can be pretty sure it’s one I hold.

Interestingly enough, some of the villains in my books (not the ones preceding the Red Sox fan above) also have a moral code, and I like them to express it on occasion. In fact, I think a societal pariah’s righteous indignation is a very powerful arrow in an author’s quiver.

Bottom line: If you are occasionally tempted to insert your own feelings into a narrative, succumb to the temptation. After all, you are what you write.

STARRY-EYED!

I write thrillers and mysteries published as ebooks on Amazon. Readers, a surprising number of whom aren’t relatives, friends or people ...