Sunday, January 28, 2018


In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio, who in his quest to woo Portia borrows money from Shylock, at one point says, “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind”, which has been loosely translated to mean, “I don’t like it when a villain acts nice”.

Au contraire. Far be it from me to disagree with any statement originating from the Bard’s quill, but I like it when villains act nice. In fact, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to write a thriller or mystery in which all the bad guys and gals are one-dimensional scuzzbuckets. I’ve always hated books and movies where characters show up as faceless mountebanks and are immediately dispatched (often after being shot in the face), just to show how mean they are and/or how heroic the hero is. Of course, every work has to have a couple of “Star Trek Extras,” characters whose only job is to die, usually quite horribly. (John Scalzi wrote a hilarious sci-fi novel, Redshirts, about such characters – from their point of view! Once the doomed crewmen figure out they are dependable plasma-fodder, they not only stop volunteering for dangerous “away-team missions” they start hiding from their officers. The book won a Hugo Award in 2013.)

My “good” miscreants are far from pussycats. They do some really nasty things, including pushing a nice old man in front of a subway train, strangling a war hero, poisoning lovers, rubbing out witnesses, torturing people with lighter fluid and decapitating an obnoxious author (now, who hasn’t wanted to do that?). I should point out that these things happen in several different novels. I don’t want people in white coats or the Feds coming to my door. And I should also note that some of the villains who perpetrated the aforementioned mayhem got their comeuppance. But not all! A few actually proved quite heroic, or at least useful, in the end.

I’m not a big fan of political correctness, so I spread my villainy around: man, woman, straight, gay, person of color (all hues), old, young, Nazi, Commie, Democrat, Republican, mobster, priest, alien. (I kid you not. I’m working on a book with aliens in it; real ones, not the undocumented kind, although my aliens’ papers are also probably fake.)

Now, I will admit to a practical reason for making villains interesting.

More words. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. Fleshing out characters, even the bad ones, adds length to a narrative. I don’t think I’m particularly good at describing things: houses, rooms, furniture, flora – you name it. I also have a tough time describing what people look like, and occasionally resort to comparing them to real people I hope my readers recognize. In the case of villains, that’s how I humanize and soften them a bit. If your assassin looks like Amy Adams, how bad can she really be even if she is garroting someone? Of course, there is a danger in this approach. Times and tastes change. I remember Ian Fleming describing James Bond’s resemblance to songwriter and actor Hoagy Carmichael. Hoagy Carmichael?

I give my favorite villains, whether I kill them off or not, plenty of backstory and internal ruminations. This is easier to do in my third-person narratives, where I can look into everyone’s mind while standing back from the action. (Blood splatter can ruin a nice pair of loafers.)

First-person narratives are more dicey, since other than in prologues and similar devices the hero and the reader only find out how good or bad people are through their actions and dialogue while in the narrator’s presence. But it can, and should, be done.

People aren’t just one thing. And your characters shouldn’t be either.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


John Semley once wrote an interesting article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Death of the Private Eye”, which was not about the demise of a particular gumshoe (think Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon) but about the entire genre in print and film.

Needless to say, I found the article interesting because that is the genre in which I write.

Semley suggested that modern technology has made the traditional private eye – the dogged hero of so many wonderful novels and films – largely irrelevant. In this era of smart phones, the Internet, GPS and drones, how hard is it to nail your cheating spouse? Your next-door neighbor’s kid could probably get the goods for you.

OK. You may not want the little snot to know your personal business, so you might hire a private detective (or, more likely, an “investigative service” with dozens of ex-cop operatives working on their fifth and sixth pensions). What used to take 50 pages in a thriller now takes a few strokes on a keyboard. Case closed. Here’s your bill. It’s unlikely that the electronic “detective” will uncover the obligatory murder or other mayhem that would fill out the other 150 pages. It’s hard to stumble over a dead body when looking at a computer screen.     

Moreover, if there are any crimes, the super-sleuth police detectives working at the city, state and Federal level will solve them before an old-style private dick’s morning hangover eases. The airwaves are replete with crime dramas where cops locate criminals using portable fingerprint scanners, embedded GPS chips in cell phones and surveillance cameras. Then there is the ubiquitous “facial recognition” technology. I saw one example on a Castle rerun where a techie identified a suspect by her ear, the only part of her head visible in a surveillance video. Apparently, there is a law enforcement database of ears. I immediately went out and bought some Q-tips.

Heck, a few years back there was a Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report, set in the not-too-distant future where the police identified and collared suspects BEFORE they committed a crime.

Does all this really mean that today one can’t write a private-eye novel?   

Au contraire. My stalwart heroes can now solve crimes that they (meaning I) have no right solving. I have invented databases and electronic investigative shortcuts that can’t possibly exist in the real world (although after the ear thing I may be wrong). And I don’t feel bad about it. I bet Raymond Chandler wished he could have used something to tie up all the loose ends in The Big Sleep, his masterpiece, which, he admitted, made no sense even to him!  

My point is, I think many people read private eye novels not to see how a crime is solved, but for other reasons. They want to see injustice punished. And they also like to see a lone wolf stick his or her finger in the eye of the establishment, while still maintaining a basic decency.

Recall the aforementioned Miles Archer, the private eye who gets himself shot at the beginning of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.  His partner, Sam Spade, doesn’t even like him. In fact, he had an affair with Archer’s wife. (That tells you something about Archer’s competence as a private investigator, even before he lets himself be lured into an alley to be plugged.) But Spade is determined to avenge Archer’s murder.

“When a man's partner is killed,” Spade says, “he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it.”

A police officer certainly believes that; we expect that kind of team loyalty from a cop. But a private eye who hews to such a code of honor may even be more admirable.

And who doesn’t want to be like Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, who in The Big Sleep is insulted by a spoiled rich girl who says he is not very tall. To which he replies, “Well, I try to be.”

If today’s crop of fictional private eyes wear out less shoe leather than their predecessors, who cares?

There is still a need, in fiction and in life, for men and women who, Chandler writes, must go “down these mean streets” without being “tarnished nor afraid” and who will “take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge”.

Authors aren’t the only people who need characters like this. We all do.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


I am often asked whether I preferred writing “facts” for newspapers rather than the “fiction” I now attempt with varying degrees of success.

I can honestly say that I much prefer the latter, since it has become much more believable.

In my books, the really evil villains usually wind up dead or in prison. (I say “really evil villains” to differentiate them from some of the other bad guys and gals I create who have a moral code and who often prove useful in bringing the real slime buckets to justice.) I know many thriller writers like ambiguous endings, where justice doesn’t prevail and the heroes – and the readers – just become more cynical. I prefer a happy ending, no matter how many people I have to slaughter.  

When I was a reporter at The New York Times, covering Wall Street, very few of the people who stole hundreds of millions of dollars (they would be considered pikers now!) were ever punished. And those that were received sentences out of all proportion to the damage they inflicted on small investors and the economy. The combined years they spent in prison probably wouldn’t add up to the stretch given a single street-corner crack dealer.

The more recent Wall Street criminals (and there are always recent criminals) haven’t fared much worse. I’m not talking about Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford (a man I knew and helped bring down, by the way) who were given life sentences for their billion-dollar shenanigans. They, and a few others, were only exposed when the WORLD’S economy was brought to the brink of collapse by the establishment’s financial hooligans – who caused trillions of dollars of chaos. Their punishments, while richly deserved, provided cover for the big financial Kahunas who not only went unpunished but were also given taxpayer-financed bailouts, some of which went into bonus checks.

Recall the story of the family stranded at sea with a sick baby, and the subsequent media debate about whether the government should charge the parents for the cost of their rescue by the Air Force and Coast Guard? Sanity and compassion prevailed, preventing the following headline:



My point is this. In the “real” world, we have to put up with injustice. In my fiction world, I can shoot, stab, dismember, boil in oil, decapitate and otherwise dispose of horrible people. When at the Times, I could only try to describe their “alleged” crimes.

(Don’t you just love the word “alleged” in the media. A man can shoot the person singing the national anthem at home plate on opening day at Yankee Stadium in from of 60,000 fans and the N.Y.P.D. Marching Band, then grab the microphone from the dead vocalist’s hand and confess on national TV, and he’ll be referred to as the “alleged” killer.)     

You will notice I said “try to describe” the financial schemes. No entity other than Big Blue, the I.B.M. computer that can’t be beat at chess, could probably figure out what some of these shysters did. Take “high frequency traders” who front run stock orders. That is, they learn what people are buying and then use faster fiber optic cables to get their own orders in a nanosecond ahead of the market, thus stealing billions from normal investors.

You notice I said “stealing”, not “allegedly stealing”.

That’s because I write fiction and can tell the truth.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


My last blog was about sex, so I have been a bit perplexed about how to follow up on that. Actually, the blog was about crafting sex scenes; like most writers, I talk a good game.

So, today, I think I’ll talk about genres and point of view. (I can almost hear people turning off their computers, but hang in there; I’m going to throw in some sex!)

My primary genres are thrillers and mysteries. My novels are not what can be described as literary (as anyone who has read one of my sex scenes can attest). I am beginning to experiment with other genres, including science fiction. Not the science fiction of Dune or the Ming-the-Merciless fantasies of weird civilizations in other universes where everyone has a name spelled off an eye chart, but rather stories about what science may look like in the not-too-distant future.

I know I have to be careful, since things are moving at such a pace that the “fiction” part, no matter how outrageous, may be fact before you know it. When I was in high school, I was fishing under a clear night sky with my cousin Al, ruminating on the origins of the universe. (It was a slow night; the fish had better things to do.) Anyway, I suggested that “in the beginning,” as they say, there was “nothing.” Then, for no particular reason, all the heavier “nothing” got together and formed the universe.

We thought that was quite hilarious. (There may have been beer involved.) But, a couple of years later, there was an article in The New York Times by some distinguished physicists saying basically the same thing. Only they used bigger words and threw in the Big Bang Theory, so that people wouldn’t think they made it up out of thin air (or, maybe, a vacuum). Just for the record, neither Al nor I pursued our theoretical leanings; we discovered girls. Probably couldn’t have gotten into the prestigious universities those physicists were not teaching classes in, anyway.

Another genre that I’m toying with is children’s books. My wife and kids have been pressuring me for years to write down some of the “Cowboy Bob” stories I told those kids when they were little. The pressure has mounted now that there are grandkids allegedly dying to read the stories (the oldest of whom who has already written one on his own because, as has been pointed out, he isn’t getting any younger).

It isn’t as easy as it sounds. For one thing, some of my tall tales were only slightly less ridiculous that my universe-from-nothing idea. For another, it’s hard to switch from writing thrillers for adults to penning a cute story about the Old West for a child. My first attempt brought a gentle chiding from my daughter-in-law that I might want to tone down the abductions and killings a bit. That may take some doing, since those were the two main entertainments of both the settlers and the Indians at the time. But I’m going to give it another shot.

I mean, attempt. 

Now, for point of view. My thrillers are written in the third person, which allows me to get into the heads of all the characters and describe scenes away from the action, so to speak. The mysteries are first-person, because it’s easier to leave things to be discovered by the reader when the protagonist doesn’t know where he or she is going. (No snide remarks about writing sex scenes in the first person, if you please.)

Of course, I occasionally “cheat” in the first-person narratives, using prologues and similar devices, typically in the third person, to set up a plot device. I know some authors have experimented by writing in the second person. I can’t quite get my head around that. All I can say is that you must be a hell of a writer to pull that off. And how do you write a sex scene in the second person? It must be an out-of-body experience.

Hmm, come to think of it, that would probably work well in science fiction.


“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” I think I got this quote from Oscar Wilde right. It should be every writer’s mantra — up to a poi...