Monday, September 17, 2018

STOUT READING!


I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for all things Amazon and Kindle-ish. But I am an unregenerate library rat.

The city where I live, Naples, FL, has the best library system I’ve ever seen. The Headquarters Library is housed in a building that resembles the Alamo (pre-Santa Anna), and there are more branches in town than Publix supermarkets, which as anyone in Florida knows, seems impossible.

As a thriller and mystery writer myself, I’m always looking for inspiration, so I recently grabbed some Nero Wolfe mysteries. Addictive? Think Hershey’s Kisses or N.C.I.S.

I don’t know why I picked up Might As Well Be Dead, my first Wolfe. I didn’t even know much about the author, Rex Stout, who sounds like a star of silent Westerns, but is in reality one of the finest mystery writers this, or any country, has ever produced. After finishing Might, I rushed out to get the first two Nero Wolfes, Fer-De-Lance and The League of Frightened Men, published in 1934 and 1935, respectively. Both are superb and created a huge splash back then.

Nero Wolfe as a character is, well, a character. He is a huge man, fond of orchids, beer and gourmet food. He regularly humiliates cops and prosecutors, solving crimes that always stump them. He rarely leaves his New York brownstone, delegating the necessary footwork to a band of retainers led by Archie Goodwin, a tough, street-wise private eye with a nose for trouble, an eye for the ladies and a penchant for milk and cookies.

Goodwin, who freely trades insults with his boss, but considers him a deductive genius, narrates the novels, and is often astonished by Wolfe’s ability to solve a case by collating a series of apparently random clues brought to him by his employees. (Example: A woman’s brother is missing; she asks Wolfe for help. A prominent man dies of an apparent heart attack on a posh golf course. The brother also turns up dead, miles away. From a newspaper ad that no one else noticed, Wolfe deduces that both men were murdered by the same man. He’s right. Of course. And you won’t believe what one of the murder weapons was. The cops didn’t, and eat crow after Wolfe forces them to dig up one of the bodies!)

Despite references to the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Lynn Fontaine, roadsters, newspapers (remember them?) and the like, the early Nero Wolfes are eminently modern in approach and style. The prose is remarkable and literate, the banter between characters priceless, the plots fascinating and full of surprises.      

Rex Stout’s own life reads like fiction. He was a Navy yeoman on Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht as a young man before deciding on a writing career! While he is best known for his Nero Wolfes (33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975), he also wrote a gazillion other things (poems, magazine pieces, other novels and the like) and was an intellectual leader in the battle against Hitler, becoming a radio celebrity.

I would urge everyone to Google his accomplishments and awards, especially if they, like me, sometimes need their egos deflated. How I ignored Stout for so long is a source of supreme embarrassment. This is an author that Boucheron, the world’s largest mystery convention, anointed as the best mystery writer of the 20th Century.

Monday, September 10, 2018

YOU CAN LOOK (OR MAKE) IT UP!




It is a given among many thriller writers like myself that research is a royal pain in the asterisk. I mean, nothing can ruin a good story like facts can! After all, fiction writers are in the business of making stuff up, right?

Now, take “virons”. These nasty bits are a combination of viruses and prions. They are so small it takes millions of them to get through the eye of a needle, after the camel. They kill camels, humans, fish, asparagus – anything you can think of.

And they don’t exist.

I made them up, and they wreaked appropriate biological havoc in my thriller, “The Viron Conspiracy”. I’m pretty sure there are people out there who now believe in virons. I’m also pretty sure that someday some scientist with too much time on his or her hands will produce a real viron, which will wipe out the human race and root vegetables before the scientist can even collect a Nobel Prize.

(Just for the record, and to prove that I do look stuff up: a prion is, according to the online Encyclop√¶dia Britannica, “a small proteinaceous infectious disease-causing agent that is believed to be the smallest infectious particle.” Among other things, prions can cause Gertsmann-Straeussler-Scheinker disease, which is as bad as it sounds.)

Writers do need to get some facts right, if only to provide a dash of verisimilitude to their books. I mean, readers get downright nasty if you put the Pacific Ocean in Kansas (unless you are writing a global-warming thriller, that is).  

And, occasionally, research can be enlightening.

Take gun silencers, also known as suppressors, which professional assassins use in many thrillers. But sometimes the good guys need them. I used to agonize over how one of my heroes could obtain one. Not to worry. A quick Internet search revealed that  the following states allow private ownership of suppressors: AL, AR, AK, AZ, CO, CT, FL, GA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, ND, NE, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, OK, OR, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WA, WI, WV, and WY. And, as the Internet search revealed, “buying a suppressor is a simple process which generally requires less paperwork than buying a new refrigerator.” (Using refrigerators as a murder weapon is problematic.)

In my home state of Florida, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission repealed a six-decade-old law that prohibited the use of pistol and rifle suppressors in hunting for deer, gray squirrels, rabbits, wild turkeys, quail, and crows. Now, I’m not an anti-gun or anti-hunting fanatic. I believe honest citizens should be allowed to have guns for self-protection or to take game. I once shot a deer, as a rite of passage, and basically ate everything but the hooves and antlers.

But silencers for squirrels? Are people afraid that a wounded rodent will track down the source of the shots and attack! Isn’t hunting supposed to give animals a chance? A gunshot that misses presumably alerts an animal to the realization that it is probably a good time to beat feet. Can you imagine a hunter who uses a silencer to pick off a flock of turkeys, one by one. Do the other birds see a fowl fall over and think: “Gee, Fred must have had a heart attack; we told him to lay off the stuffing.”

Now, if it’s easy to shoot squirrels with silenced guns, it’s pretty darn easy to shoot people with them. Gee, you could probably go classroom to classroom before anyone noticed.

Maybe that’s why I limit my research. It’s too damn scary.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

IT TAKES ALL KINDS


I’ve been thinking about authors and the diversity question.

Just how should they “integrate” minority characters into their novels?

I am primarily talking about modern novels. Period novels and non-fiction books are less problematical. The author of a history or novel about the Civil War that features only white people would have a lot of splainin’ to do, Lucy. And the Boxer Rebellion without Asians is a rocky proposition. Sorry, I couldn’t resist it!

I write mysteries and thrillers set in current times. My main protagonists are white, heterosexual (aggressively so!), handsome and tough men of the world. I naturally modeled them after myself.  (OK, everyone who knows me can now stop laughing.) Of course, if anyone wants to make a movie out of one of my books, with Denzel Washington or Idris Elba in the lead, I’ll rewrite every line. I like all colors, but green is my favorite. 

There is at least one strong woman in all my novels, who often plays a role almost as crucial as my main character. She is always beautiful and accomplished, and usually just as tough, or tougher, than my heroes. Most of the women are white, but I am introducing other races into the mix. And some of the women are more sexually “diverse” than my guys, usually because I need some spice to further a plot. Or maybe I’m just fantasizing. Hey, it’s fiction. It’s my book. So, sue me!

But what about secondary characters and villains?

First, the secondary characters. My heroes are basically private eyes or government agents, who naturally deal with other detectives, agents and a wide assortment of private citizens. I make it a point to include as many races into the mix as I can. But not as sidekicks! Tonto need not apply.

Readers of this column know that I am a big fan of Robert B. Parker and his Spenser novels. And I give Parker credit for creating the unique character of Hawk, the black leg breaker who morphs into Spenser’s best friend, ally and, in many cases, conscience. But Parker often spends a lot of time talking (through Hawk) about the black experience. He tries to make Hawk more than a sidekick, but I am not sure he entirely succeeds. The same holds true for Parker’s gay characters. 

In my books, the blacks and other minorities are just THERE, and are competent or incompetent, smart or stupid, good-looking or ugly, etc. I don’t make a big deal about it. To treat them otherwise is condescending.  That’s not to say that I don’t ascribe prejudices to other characters.  The real world is full of jerks. And we, as authors, write about the real world.

Now, villainy. I have featured Asian, black, Hispanic and many other non-white villains – a veritable United Nations of killers, both male and female. If you put them in a room, they would look like the cast from Star Trek. I don’t try to whitewash their evil (perhaps I could have found a better word than whitewash, but I’m trying for some irony, here), or explain it away as a result of a disadvantaged youth or any such claptrap. That, too, would be condescending. They are just THERE.

In novels, writers should not discriminate.

Bad people are as good as anyone else. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

WE MAY ALL BE OUT!


In these contentious times, a free and vibrant press is more crucial than ever.

Many mid-sized newspapers still depend on print advertising for the bulk of their revenues and have not succeeded in monetizing their online presence (if they have one). This does not bode well for them. As more and more people gravitate to the Internet for their news, the necessity for ink-based reportage will diminish, to the point that fewer big-city papers will survive. In New York City, for example, the tabloid Daily News has just slashed its staff by 50%!

I suspect that The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, our two “national” papers, may make the cut, and, perhaps, the Washington Post (beltway politicos like to see their pictures). And, of course, the weeklies that serve small-town America (many of which are free) will hopefully endure. But everything in between may go the way of the Triceratops.

On a personal level, I find this all very sad. In the early 1960’s, my family moved to Staten Island. I spent my freshman year at the local Wagner College, where I was on the baseball team. One day I was returning home when a neighbor sitting on a porch yelled over to me. Staten Island back then was more like Iowa than a New York City borough.

“Nice game against Manhattan,” he said.

I was stunned and wondered how the man knew I went two-for-four at Manhattan College the previous day. I hadn’t even told my mother. So, I asked him.

“It’s in the Advance today,” he explained.

“What’s the Advance?”

He showed me. In the sports section of the Staten Island Advance was a small story about my heroics on the ballfield. The story was slightly off. It credited “Larry De Maria” with two singles (or “bingles”, in local sportese) when one of my hits was actually a double (someone more fleet of foot probably would have legged out a triple). But I didn’t care. I was in the paper!

I was astounded to learn that just about everyone not in Pampers on Staten Island read the Advance, which had a circulation of 70,000 in a borough of 200,000 people!     

I kept that baseball clipping in my wallet until it fell apart. I eventually replaced it with clips about my two sons’ athletic prowess. (By the way, those two hits were the only ones I ever got. I don’t even remember why the coach put me in that game. I think the team was ravaged by the bubonic plague, and he was shorthanded. Ahem, be that as it may, I did bat .500 in my college career.)  

A few years later I wound up working at the Advance, which kick-started my journalistic career. I had much bigger stories when I eventually wrote for The New York Times, but I never felt more like a journalist than when I covered various “beats” on Staten Island (mostly politics and crime, which meant I was often writing about the same people).

Today, the circulation of the Advance is reportedly below 40,000, in a borough of 500,000 people! A paper that was once a must-read is being crushed by the Internet. (Sad to say, my Pampers analogy may not hold water (!) any more, since Staten Island now has many nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, where many of the paper’s loyal readers now reside.)

Was the Advance perfect? No. (Remember that double I never got credit for? I do.) Did I agree with its political bent? Rarely. Did I clash with my editors when I worked there? All the time, especially when they were right. I was a young know-it-all pain in the asterisk.

But the Advance in its heyday was the quintessential home-town newspaper. It covered ball games (down to Little League and bar teams); marriages, deaths, promotions, accidents, crime, elections, Rotary and other civic meetings, church groups, you name it. Staten Island communities were towns with names (Tottenville, New Dorp, West Brighton, Rosebank, Midland Beach, Port Richmond, St. George, and a dozen more). The Advance covered them all. It made Staten Island, Staten Island.

There once were hundreds, maybe thousands, of such papers in this country. And they have died or are dying.

In the near future I seriously doubt some kid will walk home and have a neighbor yell out, “nice game”, unless his Mom put it on Facebook.










Sunday, July 22, 2018

MURPHY'S LAW


“Even paranoids have enemies” is a quote usually ascribed to Henry Kissinger, although some people claim Golda Meir said it to him when he accused the Israeli Prime Minister of being paranoid about her Arab neighbors. Personally, I like to think Henry stole it from Golda. I’ve always thought he was too sneaky for his (and our) own good.

But whoever said it, the quote could be a motto for thriller writers. At the very least, it could be my motto.

I’ve written about where I get my ideas for my thrillers, which basically explain how I get them. I noted that some ideas – reworked, of course – come from old movies (thank you, Turner Classic Movies); many from current events, and even some from dreams, when I can remember them. I used to keep a pad next to my bed to jot down notes of what I can recall when I wake up; most of such scribblings I quickly destroy, lest they appear in a future commitment hearing. Now, I keep my iPhone handy, and usually email myself a note. (Thus, no doubt, leaving an electronic trail that will be used at a future hearing.)

The where and how of my creative process, and those of other thriller writers, don’t explain the why. Many people watch TV, read the papers and dream, without trying to write a thriller or mystery. I’m not talking about talent, or ability, or the facility with the written word. Again, many people are good with words, and may even write well. They may craft lovely poems, stirring memoirs, fine literary novels. But not thrillers.

I think all thriller writers have must have a touch of paranoia. Well, maybe more than a touch, in my case. Prior to my book-writing days, I once sat on a non-profit board where, a few days after a particularly contentious meeting, one of the directors with whom I clashed invited me – out of the blue – to go fishing on his cabin cruiser. I had just watched the episode of The Sopranos where Tony Soprano took his pal Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero out on his boat and rubbed him out. The guy who invited me owned a construction company. That was enough for me. I passed on the fishing trip, and then had to listen to the lug brag about all the fish he caught!

I’ve mellowed since then, and now channel most of my paranoia into my thrillers.

For example, I came across some articles on the Hadron Collider, which is the most complex machine built by man. It is a particle accelerator that is so huge its main component, a roughly circular tunnel in which bits of matter are sent smashing into each other at nearly the speed of light, is 17 miles long and crosses into two countries, France and Switzerland.

Unlike American tunnels, there is no toll, but that’s not what caught my paranoid attention. What did was a statement by one of the scientists working at the collider that, contrary to fears expressed by some other scientists, the Hadron Collider, in its attempt to find the “God particle”, would probably not create a black hole that would be dangerous. Since the black holes that we know exist are sucking entire galaxies into oblivion, I did not find the “probably” too reassuring. So, I wrote a thriller (THE HADRON ESCAPE) about things that go badly askew at Hadron. However, I refrained from destroying anything larger than a section of the collider, since the book is part of a series and obliterating the entire planet would be a mite short-sighted.

Am I being paranoid in thinking that Hadron will lead to catastrophe? Probably (there’s that word again!), but I check the morning papers to make sure that Switzerland is still there.

Then, there was an article in The New York Times about some scientists in Siberia who have discovered, and revived, an ancient pithovirus that has been frozen in the tundra for 30,000 years. Pithoviruses are about 25 percent bigger that your run-of-the-mill virus like, say Ebola, which means that only about 50 zillion of them can fit on the tip of a needle. Fortunately, the scientists say, pithoviruses usually only infect amoebas. The word “usually” is right up there in my paranoid pantheon with “probably”, so I wrote a thriller (THAWED) in which amoebas get a pass, but the human race doesn’t.

I mean, am I being paranoid? After all, these are the same scientists who thawed out a wooly mammoth and munched on the meat! We’re not talking M.I.T. here. More like M.L.I.T., as in the Murphy’s Law Institute of Technology, where what can go wrong will go wrong.

Just thinking about a 30,000-year-old virus running amok has me feeling queasy.

But that’s because I’m a bit of a hypochondriac, too – another trait I suspect is common to thriller writers. 

















.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

AMAZING AMAZON!


In a spate of articles, various publishing “experts” have questioned the growth of e-books. They suggest that traditional printed books were making a comeback at the expense of Amazon, which dominates the e-book landscape. They also claim that the increasing numbers of small, independent bookstores is a sure sign that the e-book revolution is slowing. They quote booksellers and readers who said they preferred the feel of printed books. (I don’t doubt that; I have several e-book readers, but still also enjoy reading the printed page.)

Their arguments are flawed, because the folks who wrote them only looked at the sales of the e-book versions of books also published in print. Those e-book sales may indeed be slipping, most likely because the so-called “legacy” publishers are keeping their prices relatively high. For example, take a novel selling at Barnes & Noble for $17.13 in hardcover and $14.99 as an e-book. For what amounts to a $2 difference, many people might indeed opt for the physical book.

But the great bulk of e-books are self-published. According to AuthorEarnings.com, a website that tracks all book sales, “indie authors and Amazon-imprint authors sell more e-books daily than all traditional publishers put together, a remarkable fact that most industry observers — ourselves included — still find hard to believe.” The website notes that publishing industry statistics from Nielsen, Bowker, and the like “all rely on counting ISBNs” ignoring the fact that “37% of all e-books sold on Amazon.com each day do not use ISBNs”. This is significant because “according to most industry accounts, 65% of all U.S. e-book sales happen through Amazon’s Kindle store”.

AuthorEarnings.com contends that while e-book sales of popular authors may be lagging, sales of self-published authors are exploding, as more and more millennials eschew print for e-books. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a matter of economics. While there is plenty of self-published dreck, there also are some fine – or at least readable – self-published books. (Dreck, of course, isn’t limited to the self-publishing world; just check out any airport book kiosk.)

Dreckness aside, the typical self-published e-book sells for $2.99 on Amazon, earning a royalty of $2.05, which is comparable to what a “traditional” author might earn after agents, editors, publishers, and other middlemen take their cut of the pie. (And self-published authors who participate in Amazon’s KDP Select borrowing program earn additional funds for pages read.)

Now, this is not to say that most self-published authors are making a killing. Very few (myself included) do. The Hugh Howeys, John Lockes, Amanda Hockings and Joe Konraths in the Amazon million-seller universe are the exceptions.  

I love print books, particularly non-fiction. I find it hard to imagine enjoying illustrations, charts and graphics on anything but the printed page. The Battle of Gettysburg loses something on a Kindle or Nook.

I believe the literary world is big enough to permit both print and e-books to coexist. I also believe that critics do not give Amazon, in particular, and the e-book revolution, in general, enough credit for generating a new wave of reader enthusiasm.

Why do you think so many small bookstores are thriving?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A WRITER IS ALWAYS "ON"


“A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.”
I have this quote, from Eug√®ne Ionesco, prominently displayed on my website. It’s also taped to my work desk at home, where it shares space with several hundred other notes and jottings I consider absolutely crucial, such as lists of groceries I was supposed to buy but didn’t.
Which explains why dinner tonight will be leftover pizza.
Ionesco was an avant-garde Romanian playwright and must have been a bit of a strange bird. In Romania, the official language is, not surprisingly, Romanian. According to Wikipedia, the country’s other spoken languages include Hungarian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Slovak, Romani, Ukrainian, and German.
Ionesco wrote in French, perhaps because the French came up with the phrase “avant-garde”.
In any event, I think he is spot on with the quote in whatever language he wrote it. I cannot remember a day when I didn’t think that something I did, heard, saw, read or imagined wasn’t grist for my writing mill. A writer is always “on.”
One of my thrillers was influenced by a trip I took to Ireland in 2014. I played a round of golf on a course called Old Head, where if you strayed off the fairway, you fell to your death on the rocks 400 feet below. Needless to say, I didn’t look for my many golf balls in the rough. But I did get a great murder scene out of the experience.
Another book, a mystery, was set on Bald Head Island, a tiny island just off the coast of North Carolina I visited. (Contrary to snarky comments from my sons, the island was not named after me; they ignore the obvious genetic possibility that their own domes are doomed to a receding-hairline future.) The island is only accessible by ferry, does not have cars, has a history of shipwrecks dating to the Spanish Main, is a refuge for people who want to be left alone, has only a rudimentary police presence, and suffers a murder every 500 years.
I was only there two days, and a plot using all those facts percolated in my head (aided, no doubt, by the local rum punches). The resulting book includes murders and dismemberments, of course.  

STOUT READING!

I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for a...