BB King

BB King

CC 2008 piedmontstyle

BB King died last week. It was the end of an era. There were other blues men who influenced the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page. Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, and Willie Dixon come to mind. But BB outlived them, and he was always the most gracious.

Someone said King brought a lot of joy to people by singing the blues. And BB brought it to himself. One thing I never realized while he was alive was that he never sang and played at the same time. I thought about that and realized that, yes, I’ve never heard a BB King solo and a BB King vocal at the same time. Both are distinctive. While people think of the guitar when they think of BB, listen to U2’s “When Love Comes to Town” off Rattle and Hum. That song is nothing without BB King’s back and forth with Bono.

I discovered BB in my early twenties when I went through a blue and jazz phase. I got a greatest hits album that included “How Blue Can You Get?” If you want to see how BB balanced the darkest blues with a sense of humor, check out these lyrics.

“I gave you a brand new Ford
But you said ‘I want a Cadillac.’
I bought you a ten-dollar dinner
And you said ‘Thanks for the snack.’
I let you live in my penthouse.
You said it was just a shack.
I gave you seven children,
And now you want to give them back.”

That’s the stereotypical blues summed up in one verse, and I roared with laughter when I heard it. You can imagine BB smiling when he delivered the last two lines.

He will be missed.

The Love-Hate Relationship With Northcoast Shakedown

NCShakedown-ebook600A lot of authors are embarrassed by their first novels. Others are incredibly proud of them. After all, that’s the book that got them onto store shelves. For me, it’s both. I worked hard on Northcoast Shakedown. I had it beta read at least a dozen times before I sent it out to make rounds. When the eventual publisher took it, I cackled like an idiot when the first copies arrived at my house.

I had made it. I was on my way. That’s what I believed.

And then the publisher failed. I had three novels in the can. I had dropped an agent who very well could have gotten me past this problem. I was screwed.

By 2008, I had written Road Rules and failed to find a home for it. As Nita and I settled into a new life, I found a box of copies sent to me after the publisher went out. Angrily, I dumped them in the trash and let them rot in Cincinnati’s Mt. Rumpke. My wife called me out on that, but the books were gone. I even went as far as to ask people to burn their copies. I don’t know if anyone did. I do know a few unscrupulous booksellers were charging over a hundred dollars for a copy, which leaves me scratching my head. Who would pay more than $20 for a novel by an obscure writer published by a defunct micro-press?

Eventually, I rereleased on Kindle (and in print.) Most people who’ve read it loved it, but I’m still ambivalent. I think it’s because it’s a mix of success and failure in the same book. I got published, but I didn’t publish well.

Nonetheless, I won’t pull it. It is my first work. People did think highly of it. And who knows? Maybe Nick will whisper in my ear again someday.

Why Crime? And Why Go Back To Sci-Fi?

Back in 1999, when I contemplated going pro, I had a decision to make. I could do science fiction, since that was where the sandbox I’d been playing in lay. Or I could do crime. At the time, science fiction was actually in a low cycle. The shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble were dominated by franchise tie-ins: Star Trek, Star Wars, Pern novels if you wanted something original.

On the other hand, crime was literary. It had a long and storied history. PIs were big. Thrilling Detective!

The real reason I went the direction I did? The best I could do was retread Star Trek, and Star Trek was starting to run on fumes at that point. Anything I could come up with would just be another thinly disguised version of the show. But crime?

Hey, Cleveland didn’t have a PI. (OK, it had one, which still made it a┬ánovelty.) I had a character. Plus, I was just so freakin’ bored with science fiction. By going into crime, I discovered not only the PI masters, but new writers like George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman. I read Mystic River and discovered everything a novel could be if you put enough into it. So I went crime.

I won’t rehash here the reasons Holland Bay will likely be my last crime novel. But why science fiction? Why did my Dick write a novel. (Oh, you knew I was going to trot out that old joke, didn’t you?)

There was something I remembered from the 1990s. Nerds, when they find something they love, latch onto it. And there’s something about being the guy that creates something like that. Everyone from Ursula K. LeGuin’s thoughtful work to Gene Roddenberry and J. Michael Straczynski have created worlds their fans care about. And there’s something about being the creator of those worlds. It’s fun building those worlds.

Will I continue with crime? It depends on what happens with Holland Bay. And right now, Holland Bay is getting it’s last chance.

Thrilling!

thrillingWhen I first got into crime fiction, there were three webzines where I landed. The first was Blue Murder, which was running on fumes by then. Then came Plots With Guns, which took “A Walk in the Rain” for its second issue. And there’s The Thrilling Detective Web Site. Thrilling Detective was different in that it focused on PI fiction. For most people, that meant Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Spenser. For a few more, it meant Mannix and Magnum and Kinsey Millhonne. This particular corner of the mystery genre can get pretty derivative and repetitious. There are the tired tropes: Snappy patter, the lone wolf, the psycho sidekick, and so on. But Kevin Burton Smith loves it all, even when he hates it. Back when building web sites meant throwing together a tacky html page on Geocities, Smith went a little further and built an online encyclopedia of all things PI. Today, someone would build a wiki, but Thrilling Detective is old school. The site is huge and in-depth. There’s even an entry for Nick Kepler who, believe it or not, is not the most obscure fictional PI on the site. The site went live in the late 90s, when building web sites was a novelty. From the beginning, Smith and partner in crime Victoria Esposito-Shea offered fiction where some of the more obscure PIs on the site made their debuts. Eventually, Esposito-Shea had to bow out. Smith recruited Gerald So, a Hofstra adjunct professor, poet, and admitted television geek to take over. It was on Gerald’s watch that I was able to get “Roofies” (the prequel to Gypsy’s Kiss) over the transom. Kevin Burton Smith did accept an earlier story, but the revisions proved to be so untenable that I stripped it for parts and rolled it into Second Hand Goods. Other writers who started out around the same time also appeared in Thrilling Detective, including Dave White, Simon Wood, Ray Banks, and Victor Gischler. But alas, Gerald had other projects he wanted to focus on, and fiction proved to be the something that had to give for Kevin to keep the site going. So in 2009, the last Thrilling New Fiction ran, including my own “Love Don’t Mean a Thing.” The site still runs new nonfiction, and Kevin continues to update the never-ending lists of fictional PIs. Of all the zines I dealt with early in my crime fic days, Thrilling Detective has proven to be one of the most enduring.

87th Precinct Meets The Wire

McNulty and Bunk

Source: HBO

When I began writing Holland Bay,I thought about it as 87th Precinct meets The Wire. I had envisioned the detectives of Holland Bay to be like those of the 87th Precinct in that each subsequent book would feature a different detective. When I first described this to another writer at a Bouchercon, he asked me who my Carella was. I said I looked at them all equally. So he said, “Well, there has to be a first among equals.”

But McBain’s detectives, while not exactly perfect, are not also paragons of dysfunction. Carella is tempted by the fruit of a couple of others, but does not stray. Bert Kling has woman troubles. Meyer Meyer must deal with his baldness and his odd name. My detectives are dysfunctional as hell.

But McBain wrote about cops as the everyman. Even the seedier ones like Andy Parker (whom most of us would like to shove under an express train to Calm’s Point) and Fat Ollie Weeks (the 87th’s own bigoted uncle) are humans with flaws and struggles. But McBain also writes about the job of the 87th as a mission. They are the thin blue line in Isola.

87th Precinct

“87th Precinct Complete” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:87th_Precinct_Complete.jpg#/media/File:87th_Precinct_Complete.jpg

But my approach resembled something more recent: The Wire. On David Simon’s masterpiece of a TV series, not all the gang bangers are villains and not all the cops are good guys. In fact sometimes they’re neither. If Steve Carella is the man every other man wants to be, Jimmy McNulty is what happens when they fail. As smart and dedicated as Carella, he lacks political skill and responds to the stress of his job by drinking to dangerous excess and cheating on the women in his life, including his mistress in season 1. Stringer Bell is a shrewd, manipulative criminal not above murder to further his own ends, but you can’t help but rooting for him. Bell is going to college and running Baltimore’s drug operation like a business, right down to branding the dope and holding business meetings with corner boys.

The main difference is the approach of the creators. Simon admits The Wire, along with Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz, are angry shows about the decline of the American dream. Quite often the criminals depicted (many of whose real-life inspirations appeared on the show) are actually the ones living the dream only to be killed or jailed when someone lower down the food chain takes them out. Like McBain’s bulls, the cops of the Baltimore PD are flawed, but their flaws sometimes consume them. The cheat on their spouses, drink excessively, lie to their coworkers, and openly try to sabotage the brass, many of whom are barely qualified to carry a badge, let alone run a police department. McBain’s crew is world-weary but conscientious.

It’s this blend that went into Holland Bay. I hope you soon get the chance to see what I did with it.