On this date in 2008, Nita made me a very happy man.
Happy anniversary, baby. I love you very much.
The skinny: Nick and Elaine are shadowing Roy Sutton, the pastor of a suburban church. So far, they’ve found nothing on him, but one of Nick’s operatives comes across something that tells them they’ve been on the wrong track. But a collision on a lonely rural road keeps Nick from finding out what. It also forces Nick to look more closely at the church itself. Who’s really skimming the money? Is it Calvin Leach, the church leader who wants to be the next great televangelist? Is it Alex Pullman, whose real estate fortune was made paving over perfectly good neighborhoods to build upscale shopping malls? Is it one of the church board? Or is there more going on here, a religious schism that’s closer to Nick’s past than he imagined.
In the background is Nikolai Karpov, the Russian mobster who seemingly likes Nick enough to want to bring him into his organization. Meanwhile, Elaine is dealing with the disintegration of her marriage and what her budding partnership with Nick means, both personally and professionally.
This book was written in 2005 as the third book in the Kepler series. As often happens in small press, the book never saw the light of day. As I began releasing the first two Kepler novels and the collection, I dusted off the old manuscript and went through the beta reads that had been sitting around since 2006. I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover this story. It’s more complex than the first two Keplers.
I’d like to thank Jennette Marie Powell for the awesome cover on this one. Covers are something I’ve struggled with. Jen began her career as a graphics designer. So doing a little back-and-forth and thinking about how crime novels normally look really brought this together quickly. I hit on the “keyhole” idea for the cover, and boom, Jen had it together a couple days later, better than I expected.
This will be the first print novel I’ve offered since Northcoast Shakedown‘s original release in 2005. It’s time to return to print.
The ebook editions will be $3.99. Print details will become available when that edition is ready.
About 30 years ago, I got into an argument, as teenagers are wont to do, over who was a better guitarist: Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen. Back then, before my progressive rock phase, I was a blues snob of the highest order. So to me, it was Clapton. To my friend, it was Van Halen, all fiery pyrotechnics and bombast. Who won the argument?
No one. I was 17. The kid was 14. We were snobs of a different sort. Imagine if that had happened in my prog phase. Part of the problem with Van Halen for me was that it was all pyrotechnics. But there’s something there in his playing that makes him standout from other fluid players. He’s technically brilliant, yes, but there are other players even better technically than Van Halen.
And they sound like complete crap. Why?
Eddie Van Halen has feel. Listen to a snippet of him play, and you know which band it is. It’s why Deep Purple tolerated Ritchie Blackmore’s ego for so long. It’s how Jeff Beck ended up on everyone’s wish list in the late sixties and early seventies (including the Rolling Stones. Twice.) It’s how Steve Vai became Eddie V’s surrogate when David Lee Roth went solo.
It’s still Clapton. Much of what Clapton does is subtle. He, along with fellow ex-Yardbirds Beck and Jimmy Page, pioneered the technique of playing two guitar lines simultaneously or playing the bass line along with the lead guitar. And the thing is they don’t need to show off. Page needs the bombast because Led Zeppelin is bombastic. Except when it’s not. Beck is actually flashier than Page, but it’s so ingrained into the music that you don’t notice it as much.
That’s not that technically brilliant can’t have feel. Queen is nothing without Brian May. (Well, they’re nothing with Freddie Mercury gone, but even they acknowledge that.) Steve Howe not only can machine gun his guitar faster than Van Halen, but he plays it classically. His counterpart in the early Genesis, Steve Hackett, is even faster, yet he sounds like he’s playing a harpsichord sometimes.
What drove it home for me was an interview with Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. Buckingham is usually not held up as a guitar god. He’s more of a song writer. When asked, though, why he didn’t go for the flash and the volume, he said it wasn’t needed for Mac’s music. He then proceeded to play a Van Halen guitar solo. When he finished, he pointed out that a lot of guys who play like that aren’t really playing. They’re just showing off.
The greatest example of this is my favorite guitarist ever, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. I’ve heard Gilmour described as someone who “puts more Gilmour through the guitar than anyone else.” In a recent documentary about Pink Floyd, he was shown during the Dark Side of the Moon sessions playing a solo from “Time.” Stripped of the rest of the song, it could easily have been part of a heavy metal song, played over a classical piece, or even woven into jazz. It’s not anything. It’s just David Gilmour. I’ve heard him get as loud and flashy as Brian May, and I’ve heard him as subtle and almost subliminal as jazz great Stanley Jordan. He is, to me, the perfect guitarist and musician.
But try to tell me with a straight face that Eddie Van Halen is replaceable in the band that bears his name. Go on. I’ll wait.
Michael Connelly takes a break from Harry Bosch to look at a serial killer known as “The Poet.” He is difficult to spot because of his method of operation. The Poet kills homicide cops, making it look like a suicide and leaving notes behind that quote Edgar Allen Poe. The deaths are convincing as they follow the normal pattern of a cop suicide. There is always a hard-to-solve child killing that obsesses the cop. Two shots are taken, one supposedly to steel the nerves, the other do the deed. Only The Poet kills Denver homicide detective Sean McEvoy. Not only is Sean’s twin brother a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, Jack McEvoy specializes in writing about murders. After a short mourner’s leave, Jack looks at his brother’s death and talks with his sister-in-law. It doesn’t add up to suicide, and soon he has convinced the Denver Police and his editor that something more sinister is happening. McEvoy soon uncovers two more “suicides” and soon finds himself embedded in an FBI investigation. It’s about that time that pedophile photographer William Gladden gets into trouble with the Santa Monica Police, then leaves a body behind similar to the murder Sean McEvoy hoped to solve at the time of his death.
Connelly seems far more comfortable in Jack McEvoy’s skin than in Harry Bosch’s or Terry McCaleb’s (Blood Work, A Darkness More Than Night, The Narrows). At the same time, he is such a master at misdirection and miscues that he leaves The Poet’s true identity in flux until almost the last page. Like Reed Farrel Coleman (whose The Hurt Machine I’ll review next week), Connelly likes taking the standard, serviceable solution and tossing it out as soon as there’s a false climax in the story.
Connelly is also a tech savvy writer, lacing 1996 technology throughout the story to give the reader a feel for how things are done as a reporter or an FBI agent than trying to beat them over the head with geek speak. (A couple of writers from that era wrote some cringe-worthy tech passages that probably passed in the 90′s but would throw many readers out of the story now.) The end result is that the story has a feel for its time frame, sounding intentionally dated, but not obsolete.
Way back in 1998, when tech still boomed, dotcoms hadn’t busted yet, and the biggest crisis the nation faced involved a stain on a blue dress, I had a decision to make. I could stick with my SF roots and try and create a new universe. Or I could dust off a PI character I’d toyed with in the late 1980′s. At the time, crime seemed like a good bet. There had been a PI explosion in the late 80′s, and we were still in its afterglow. A new character with a new take on the formula might meet with success. On the other hand, SF had two problems. What I wanted to write looked too much like Star Trek (and I was still somewhat into Trek at the time), and the scifi shelves at Barnes & Noble and Borders looked pretty anemic. If your name wasn’t David Weber, Iain Banks (may he rest in piece), or Anne McCaffrey, forget it. Science fiction and fantasy had been welded into a single genre, and even the sword-and-sorcery stuff had gone into decline. Publishers were getting inundated with literally thousands of manuscripts that did not take place in Middle Earth if only to avoid lawsuits from the Tolkien estate (and many of those did a poor job disguising their fanfic origins.)
So I went with crime. I think I would have been OK if I’d have started on Northcoast about two years earlier and been more patient looking for an agent. As it was, I pulled the trigger too fast and signed with a small press that was way too small for its own good two weeks before an agent called me. Ouch. So while I tried to find a way out of that mess, the market for crime collapsed. If you weren’t already in, you were done.
Meanwhile, science fiction underwent a sort of renaissance. And the paying markets for short stories did not evaporate as badly as those for crime had. I made a critical mistake.
See, there are crime geeks. One gent calls himself the “Nerd of Noir.” They are definitely loyal to their authors, but their numbers are small. SF geeks, fantasy geeks, game geeks, and comic geeks comprise a much bigger ecosystem that never really went away. If they find something they like, they latch onto it with a tenacity that makes tax examiner look like a slacker. I never tapped into that, and shame on me. I was one of them for a very long time. I might have spent the 90′s sharpening my writing skills, but I should also have been building a world for readers to dive into. That sort of thing was and is tailor-made for the Internet.
So I will be “building” another writer, an SF writer. I still have contacts in that realm, so it won’t be nearly as hard to build up the network writers need to get started. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped with crime. I mean I just posted the cover for the new Kepler, which will be the first one to see print in eight years. At the same time, if I can’t sell Holland Bay or get people excited about it, that’s probably going to be it for crime. It’s been fun, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done, but a decade and a half is enough time to know if the rabbit’s going to survive the experiment.
This weekend, I plan to take Holland Bay back out of mothballs and read what I finished in early May. I’m sure there are some cringe-worthy moments in there. For all intents and purposes, this most recent draft was a reboot of the first draft.
I did this on all the books listed on the Books Page. When I finished the first draft, I let it go. I know a lot of authors, particularly on deadline, like to dive right back into the manuscript and start revisions. That is probably a mistake. You’re too close to the story then. It’s still… my baby!
This is probably the shortest layoff I’ve had from a long work. I like three months, an entire season. The weather changes. The daylight hours change. Life changes. It’s long enough for one to become a different person from the one who typed “The End.” But I was lucky. Northcoast Shakedown was written on spec. Second Hand Goods was written while Northcoast was shopped. While Northcoast never had a deadline, Second Hand was in third draft by the time it had a deadline. Bad Religion had a deadline, but the publisher collapsed before I could start the third draft. I had not looked at it from 2006 to about July of last year or so. That was the longest I ever let a finished manuscript lie with the intention of getting back to it.
I hope I never have to pass chapters to an editor or agent as I write the story. That’s madness. Thomas Wolfe wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities that way, serializing it in Rolling Stone. There is no way I’d fly without a parachute like that. If the story goes off the rails, it does so with in front of a live studio audience, in Wolfe’s case, the still-substantial readership of Rolling Stone. It’s not so bad when it’s you and someone involved in bringing the novel to the public, but you still lose some control over your story.
If I were a perfectionist, I would rework every scene and every page until I liked it and write detailed outlines of everything. I can see a time where that’s going to become necessary, but for now, I prefer ignoring a story until it’s ready for the next stage of development.
Stephen King tells of writing this way, leaving the draft in a drawer for a month or two or three. He prefers work to become almost a foreign thing when he looks at it again, like someone else wrote it. That’s the way it should be. The bookshelves, Amazon pages, and even POD self-pub houses are strewn with the literary corpses of those who defended “their baby!” (Including mine.)
Cover by Jennette Marie Powell.