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.
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.
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.
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 Nighthawks, Swordfish Trombones, Rain 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.
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.
When 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.
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.