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.

Getting Found

Reading at the beach

By El coleccionista de instantes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The other night, I got a message on my phone about Bad Religion. It surprised me. Not just because it was about one of the Kepler novels, either. I had not heard from this woman since I graduated high school. I’d been pretty good friends with her brother. We were scifi nerds together, watching Star Wars and Star Trek together. He favored Japanese monster movies. I was snooty and leaned towards 2001. But that was high school and several presidents ago. We had all moved on.

My friend had gotten married, moved to another state, and, like me, moved into IT. Aside from the odd Facebook post, I doubted we’d ever really meet again unless the stars aligned come class reunion time. So imagine my surprise when, after nearly [*redacted*] decades, I get a Facebook message out of the blue.

“Just finished Bad Religion. Very good! Looking forward to the rest! Way to use that crazy imagination of yours.”

My friend’s brother and I used to do our own version of Star Trek as kids, often in each other’s basement. Yes, before that one room was my bedroom, it was the bridge of a starship. We also used to drop action figures into glasses of water and put them into my parents’ full-sized freezer. Why? We were putting Mr. Spock and Luke Skywalker into “suspended animation.” (We also got into fights over Judy from Lost in Space. We were dorks.) So, yeah, the crazy imagination goes back decades and spans multiple genres. Don’t laugh. I very nearly became a vampire writer in the late 1980s.

But to hear from my friend out of the blue was amazing. I asked for (and got) a review on Amazon. At a time when crime was beginning to look like a dead end, I got some validation from a very old source. It sort of confirms what I’d forgotten from back when Northcoast Shakedown was an honest-to-God published book: You have to talk to people about your book. Not get in their faces or make every conversation about it, but genuinely talk about this thing you created and sweated over. Show them your enthusiasm. Thank them if they liked it. Be genuine.

The Tom Waits Phase

Tom Waits

By Tom waits in buenos aires 2007.jpg: Theplatypus derivative work: Klausness (Tom waits in buenos aires 2007.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the last decade when I was on my way to fame and fortune as the savior of the PI novel (Pause for hysterical laughter), I was introduced to Tom Waits.

It started with Ray Banks, who could not stop blogging about him. He would quote Waits in story titles and mention him in blog posts and even posted a YouTube of an ad Waits sued over because the company used a Waits impersonator.

And then there is Ken Bruen. Bruen loved waits. And if you were fortunate enough to get pulled into Ken’s orbit, he would tell you all about him. Waits, to him, was one of those guys like Johnny Cash or Neil Young or Warren Zevon. I even found myself in a bar trading Waits lines with JA Konrath, back when he was a struggling midlister. It didn’t hurt that the crime community’s favorite show, The Wire, used various versions of Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” as its theme song.

So what was it about this guy that attracted those of us who wrote about the dark side of life?

Well, Waits is clearly the last beat poet. If you find Kerouac or Ginsberg beyond you, listen to Waits. Everything the beatniks tried to do, Waits manages to do without imitation or pastiche. This is most obvious on his live album, Nighthawks at the Diner and in the song “Trouble’s Braids,” which formed the basis of a Christmas parody I post every year, “A Very Tom Waits Christmas.”

The essential Waits albums are NighthawksSwordfish TrombonesRain Dogs, and Mule Variations. I should really like Rain Dogs more. It’s his best music, but it’s also Waits at his graveliest. To me, Mule Variations sums up Waits best: Equal parts Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Pete Townshend (without the self-indulgence. Sorry, Pete. You know we loves ya.) “Get Behind the Mule” is as close to raw blues as he will ever get while “What’s He Building in There?” is Waits the beat poet. Then there’s “Chocolate Jesus,” showing us Waits the slumming angel in a song that would not have been out of place on Johnny Cash’s American recordings. During a rare musical appearance for The Daily Show, Jon Stewart said it best: “I hear you, and I think, ‘I’d like to get drunk and fall down in a gutter with that guy.” Waits thanked him.

Tom Waits owns the dark side of America. Oh, Green Day may have staked a claim there, and Trent Reznor might have pumped out a techno vision of one heroin-impaired corner of it, but Waits owns it.

And we all thanked him for it.

The Original Blog

Back in the day, I got bit by the blogging bug. Back then, social media (which wasn’t even a thing yet) meant AOL or the ancient Usenet forums. But if you were a writer, you needed a blog. And I noticed that both Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and John Scalzi’s Whatever looked like newspaper columns with comment sections. (I really hate the comment sections on news sites now.) Well, I always wanted to be Dave Barry.

So I signed up for a Blogger account and announced to all and sundry that I would blog about… Whatever. Sometimes I reviewed and interviewed. Sometimes, I just blathered on about whatever struck me as interesting. I entitled it Northcoast Exile.

Only Blogger was, to put it mildly, crappy. But for $15 a month, you could have a Typepad account. So I moved Northcoast Exile over to Typepad, and the thing just blew up. I couldn’t import the old blog (one of the reasons Blogger sucked.) But it was so much easier to grab content and share it. So much easier to link content. I met a lot of writers because I was up to 500 hits a day. Not John Scalzi numbers, but respectable. The blog was personal. I think that was its biggest appeal.

But eventually, I had to justify spending $180 a year on a blog that didn’t pay off on anything. Plus I noticed that people began sending me emails of “Hey, are you okay? That rant was kind of intense even for you.” I eventually turned off the old Northcoast Exile, saving what I thought were the best bits. I moved over to WordPress, which provided both more opportunities to sharpen my tech skills (Dick’s blog is self-built and self-hosted on a standalone WordPress install.) and at the same time not have to deal with any of that.

Besides, I’d picked up a couple of trolls on the old blog and, in one case where a commenter did not have a concept of personal boundaries, a cyberstalker. The irony is the cyberstalker once told a friend of mine that a cyberstalker was a sign of success and that he wished he had one. (And now I know whom Tina Fey used to model Jenna on 30 Rock.) And then there are the anti-blog rants of the mid-2000s that sound like the anti-Facebook rants of today. One idiot used to blog about how he hated blogging. (Well, then don’t blog, dumbass. You don’t need twelve steps for that.)

The audience dropped off when I launched Edged in Blue. I think people were ready to move on. My network of fellow writers had started to dwindle, and it became unclear as to when I would have another novel to offer. Besides, the day of the blog as a writer’s primary face has passed. John Scalzi came out of it getting massive hits everyday and a couple of bestsellers. A writer still should blog, but it’s doubtful daily content is necessary or even wanted anymore.

Plots With Guns

Plots With Guns logoWhen I started out, I sent one of the first Kepler stories I’d written to an unlikely zine. Entitled Plots With Guns, it had a simple premise: We want stories with a gun in it somewhere. One story, which wound up in a 2006 collection, centered on a nail gun as a murder weapon. My story, concerning PI Nick Kepler’s efforts to dispose of the corpse of a childhood friend’s abusive boyfriend, had a few aspects that might not have worked in, say, Thrilling Detective. You could feel the damp atmosphere of Nick’s lonely walk along a stretch of rural highway, the anger he had toward the doomed Joe Kopinsky after seeing fellow bar rat Angie’s bruises and black eye. The story also had a back-and-forth narrative, revealing more and more of why Nick was walking along Cleveland’s Route 3 on an April night. That, I did not know, was exactly what mastermind Anthony Neil Smith was looking for.

Neil and cohort Victor Gischler have a deep love of noir (before the term became meaningless) and unconventional story telling. As grad students in Mississippi in the days just before 9/11, they hatched an idea to present these tales of bleak situations, screwed characters, and occasionally novel revenge plots. How unconventional? Consider that Gischler’s debut novel begins with the murder of a gang boss by planting a blasting cap in his cream stick (which is both horrifying and the funniest thing I’d ever read up to that point.) Plots With Guns was mostly Neil. Vic came along for the ride, but Neil needed more hands-on help and recruited various partners in crime. Along the way, he discovered a few writers who’s profiles in the crime fiction community rose in the middle of the last decade, including some idiot from Cincinnati named Winter. But I refer to guys like J. Michael Blue, a refugee from the old Blue Murder zine, Ray Banks, Ed Linskey, and Kent Gowran. It was via Plots that I became aware of an Irish writer named Ken Bruen, who for many years would be a sound friend and mentor.

Neil shut down the zine late last decade, deciding it was time to move on. New zines, like Thug Lit, arose, but the call was too strong. Neil had to resurrect it once his life in Minnesota settled and he reached a groove with his Billy LaFitte novels. Eventually, he recruited new acolytes to run the zine while taking on the role of publisher.

Plots may or may not continue under a new publisher in the coming years. I hope it does. It’s a different type of storytelling, one that would make Tarantino proud. Crime fiction needs a little “Fuck you” to keep it honest. Plots With Guns has always provided that.

Hard Pressed In Small Press

800px-Printing_press_(Albion)

By Rodw (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I call it the biggest mistake of my career. At the time, I thought it was a great idea. Usually, that’s how disasters happen. Just watch Tosh.0 and Ridiculousness for clip after clip of examples. What was my stupid writer trick?

I signed with a small press at the height of the print-on-demand era.

I won’t name the press (It’s gone anyway.) and I won’t repeat some of the rants I made when it went under. Suffice it to say, it’s one of the reasons Holland Bay is going to be my last crime novel. So what happened?

Back in the day, I’d worked very hard on Northcoast Shakedown. I talked it up on forums, made friends with some influential zine editors, and even networked with some rather successful writers. It even netted me some agent referrals. So what happened to the fame and fortune?

Well, first off, there’s no guarantee of fame and fortune. In those days, I was rather friendly with publishing guru Sarah Weinman, and often we would lament that a promising author’s career would tank with a rushed second novel or shabby treatment by a publisher. It happens. It’s business. But I think if I had waited two more weeks for a nice lady named Jane Chelius to contact me, I’d have at least had a two- or three-book run to build upon.

Instead, I shopped to several small presses that were getting buzz. One of them was run by a radio guy and his wife who lived waaaaay out on the fringe of the Baltimore-DC area. He had signed a couple of writers from a forum I had joined, and his wife worked for Borders, which helped get the books on the shelves. (I really miss Borders.) My system was to send out the manuscript to certain small presses and get the rejection letters out of the way. Only this guy didn’t. He pulled the trigger. Soon I found myself with a contract (no advance, which should have been a warning sign), and an agent for whom I had no manuscript now to shop.

OK, I thought, I’ll ride out the contract, get some sales, and move on to something New York would like better. Only…

I politely refer to this guy as “someone working out of his garage,” an apt description as several more successful small presses do just that. I signed based on goodwill, and in our capitalistic, opportunistic society, goodwill is sometimes a liability. We soon had problems. Early copies looked rough because he missed his payments to Lightning Source. Some bookstores wouldn’t carry our books because of the returns policy. And print-on-demand smacked of vanity press. I never paid a dime to get into print, but man, I spent a lot of travel money going to signings and conventions. I miss those days when I could hop a plane to New York or spend a weekend in Chicago.

But alas, a company needs revenue to survive. My publisher was long on good intentions, clearly loved what he did, but did not have the business acumen or the cash flow to make it work.

This, of course, is not a knock on small press. Many micro-presses and small presses do rather well. But they live within their means, try not to overreach, and generally don’t make promises they can’t keep. I’d seen what happened to me play out several times before. I remember when Blue Murder Press imploded that many people worried for the publisher once they knew the story. When a small press fails, it’s never pretty. Many publishers, including mine, go into denial. Many writers, including me, lash out in anger. And I’m a planner. I already had a trip to his door planned, three courthouses Google mapped, and the number to the IRS memorized before I got my rights back. Yeah. I was righteously angry. I got the reversion of rights agreement in the mail before I ever left on that trip or called the IRS.

But I moved on, and from what I’ve seen, so did my former publisher. He focused more on radio and film after abandoning his publishing venture. I hope he’s done better since then.

As for my side of it, my biggest crime was being impatient. Two weeks, I tell myself, and I would have been into traditional publishing back when it was really the only game in town.

An Interview With Dave White

Way back when I started in crime fiction, there were two guys I often found myself mentioned with in the same breath. The first was Ray Banks, a noir master and aficionado from Newcastle, England, and one of those guys who turned me onto Tom Waits back in the day. The other was this grad student from New Jersey named Dave White. Dave had a run with Three Rivers Press in the late 2000s, then an interesting indie standalone called WITNESS TO DEATH. He has since signed with Polis Books and brought back his creation, Jackson Donne. Because, as this interview will reveal, he’s not quite done torturing Donne yet. Not by a longshot.
Dave White
It’s been a long layoff for Jackson Donne. Did you have this story in mind when you signed with Polis Books?
 

Yeah.  This is the story I pitched Jason when he started up Polis.  I needed a reason for Jackson to come back, and it couldn’t just be someone hired him to spy on a cheating wife.  It had to be big and personal for Jackson.  So, yeah, this is the story I had started to write when Polis came along.

What about Jeanne Baker? Her death was something that bound Donne and Bill Martin together whether they liked it or not. At what point did you realize she might not have died?
 
About a year before I started writing the book, I was thinking about Jackson Donne again.  Other than some fits and starts with short stories that never went anywhere, I hadn’t done much with Donne.  But, as I’ve told this story before, I was sitting around watching Doctor Who and in the season premiere of Matt Smith’s 2nd year as the Doctor, the Doctor gets killed (sort of).  It was a truly stunning moment for me, not only because it looked like the Doctor died, but also because a show that has been ongoing for 50 years managed to surprise me.
And all of a sudden, I was thinking about Jackson Donne again and what would surprise me and the reader alike.  And it wasn’t about killing someone off, but instead bringing someone back.  That’s when I knew Jeanne was alive.  And then the juices started flowing again.  The story was marinating.  The following winter I started writing the book.  I’m so excited about this book and the pitch–I really think there’s stuff in here that hasn’t been in many (any) other PI novels.  And it really pushes Jackson and his supporting cast into a whole new place with many more possibilities.

In every book, you utterly destroy Donne’s life. Is this guy ever going to catch a break?

Where’s the fun in him catching a break?  The years that pass between EVIL and NOT EVEN PAST are his break.  He’s got it figured out, he’s engaged, he’s going to college… life is good.  But there’s no drama or tension there.  No reason for the reader to keep turning the pages.  Who wants to read about a character having a good day?

That said, he might catch a break sooner rather than later… you’d have to keep reading.  I’m pretty sure one of the next few novels may feature a relaxed afternoon tea scene.
 
You have a passing reference to the events of Witness to Death. Are you building a Dave White Jerseyverse of sorts?
 

Yeah, my books all take place in the same universe.  Jesus, who’s a key character in WHEN ONE MAN DIES (the first Donne novel) is in all my books so far.  I’ve always liked that about Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Stephen King to name a few.  You can read any of my books and have a great experience, but if you read all of them, the story is bigger, rich and tied together.  I grew up on Marvel Comics… how could I not do crossovers?

Did you consider going independent with this novel?


WITNESS TO DEATH was an independent success for me.  So, when I originally sat down to write what would become NOT EVEN PAST, I knew going indie was an option.  I also knew that going indie was a ton of work, and since I’d just taken a new job and was back in grad school for a year, I really wasn’t in a hurry to go that route and do EVERYTHING myself.  If I was going indie, I’m not sure NOT EVEN PAST would be available yet, but having a publisher really eased some of my burden in terms of editing and cover copy and opened up some doors that were closed to me, like Audible.com.
So, while I’m not against doing indie (again WITNESS was a huge success for me), having Polis in my corner has made things a bit easier.
 
What attracted you to Polis Books?
 
Jason Pinter, Jason Pinter, Jason Pinter.  He’s so smart and when he explained to me his Polis business plan, I was totally on board.  The man knows what he is doing, and has a long term plan for success.  Every time I asked him a question, the answer he gave made me happy.  So glad to see him and the company doing well and creating a ton of buzz.
NOT EVEN PAST is available now from Polis Books.