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.

A Writer’s Journey: In the Beginning

Monkey typingLast week, I announced I was retiring from crime fiction. I wish that was after a ton of sales, movie deals, and a series based on my work. I’d love to retire for real in my forties, though something tells me I’d just go find something else to do.

But retire from the genre I am, and I thought I’d go back to when I started this journey way back in 1999. New Year’s Eve, specifically.

Author Jennette Marie Powell, back when she was “that girl who introduced me to my (now-ex) wife,” announced she had written her first novel and signed with one of the first ebook publishers. “So when do you finish yours?”


I’d written a lot in the 1990s, but I was stealing Gene Roddenberry’s characters and situations. Call it fanfic. Call it plagiarism. Call it slacking off (which is probably the most appropriate description), it was wasting my talents. At the time, I had some scraps of notes and some scenes written for a Cleveland-based private detective named Nick Kepler. In the mid-1990s, I’d discovered Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series and found an arrangement for Kinsey Millhonne in her early adventures that would work well for Kepler as well. Nick would not lease an office. He would do claims investigations for his former employer in exchange for help from a secretary and free office space. And then one afternoon, as a contractor did work on the balconies of the apartment complex where I lived back then, Eddie Murphy popped up on Comedy Central doing his “Kill my landlord, kill my landlord” bit. And I thought, “How do you do that and get away with it? At least long enough for a private detective to figure it out before the cops?” So a story started to form. In fact, somewhere downstairs is a 14-page outline of the original story to Northcoast Shakedown.

But I had one problem. I didn’t know the character. Who was he? And what tropes did I want to avoid? Well, for starters, every writer and his first cousin were doing the psycho sidekick bit made famous in the Spenser novels. It worked for me in Spenser, even when Spenser did not, because it was Hawk. And Hawk was his own character, not an archetype. At least not in the beginning. But I didn’t think it’d be very original if I recycled what was now a cliche one more time.

I had a couple of ideas for shorts, both coming from real life incidents. In one, a deputy sheriff who worked out at the same gym as me at the time came in angry about an altercation he had with a motorist. The deputy was white (and generally a quiet guy). The motorist had been black. Race had, as it so often does, entered into it, and my fellow gym rat dropped an ‘N’ bomb while we sat at the smoothie bar. That pissed me off, but it was the genesis of “Race Card” and the character of Wolf (who might have made a decent psycho sidekick.)

The second involved reconnecting with a high school friend who was making a run at a recording career. My friend had married an abusive man while in the service and ditched him one night after one too many beatings. It was either that or kill him. My friend married her high school sweetheart (another old friend) and had a nice life at the time. But what if she’d killed him? And the childhood friend wasn’t some computer nerd now living in Cincinnati but a freelance insurance investigator?  Thus “A Walk in the Rain” was born. That one took one rainy evening in April of 2001. It landed in the second or third Plots With Guns, back when Neil Smith and Victor Gischler were still geeky grad students with delusions of noir godhood on their minds. (Neil’s always been a sound friend and a good writer. Vic has emerged as an off-beat fantasy/scifi writer and respected comic book writer.)

So I was ready to become a bestselling author. Right?

Well, that’s what I thought. And that led to one of many decisions I probably should not have made, but I’ll tell you about that at the end of the farewell tour this summer.

Northcoast Shakedown Now In Print!

NCShakedown-ebook600It is now in print and winging its way toward Amazon. Northcoast Shakedown, back on dead trees for the first time in seven years!

Sex, lies, and insurance fraud on America’s North Coast. Nick Kepler is a Cleveland insurance investigator who finds three cases, two seeming slam dunks and an easy cheating spouse job, are all tied together somehow. He soon finds himself in a web of sex, blackmail, and murder that reaches the upper echelons of the city’s elite.

The first Kepler novel, the only traditionally published book of the series.

$9.00 in America

£8.00 in the UK

€8.50 in Europe

Still available on Kindle, Nook, and iBooks.

Exteme Makeover – Nick Kepler Edition

rr_cover_newAs you can see, there’ve been some changes either done or to be done to the books I have out.

For starters, I did Bad Religion with a print edition, my first print book in eight years. Next up will be Road Rules. I never liked the formatting on Road Rules, and the cover has too much pixelation for my taste. So I’ve revamped the cover, redid the formatting, and will upload the book at the beginning of August.

I also plan to right a grievous wrong as I did not properly credit J.D. Rhoades for his introduction to the book. So, as you can see by the new cover, I’ve fixed that. It will show up when the various ebook pages are updated as well. And finally, there will be a print edition. No, I haven’t sold very many copies of Bad Religion in print. In fact, Kindle seems to be the preferred format. But there is very little cost up front for CreateSpace, none if you do an electronic proof. So why not?

NCShakedown-ebook600Come Labor Day weekend, a reformatted version of Northcoast Shakedown will appear, also with a new print edition. Jennette Marie Powell has been working on new covers for NCS, along with its follow-up, Second Hand Goods. Both books will have print editions as well, with Second Hand, barring any delays, appearing in early October.

Come Halloween, I will be putting out a print edition of The Compleat Kepler as well. So, by Christmas, you can have Nick Kepler on all the dead trees you want.

And finally, in December, the non-Kepler shorts will appear in a collection called The Compleat Winter. No, I don’t have a cover yet, but I do have a cover concept. I also need to collect the stories and put them into proper ebook and print formats.

In the meantime, we’ll be having a contest for Bad Religion. Stay tuned as I will announce it first on Twitter. Just follow @authorjimwinter and keep your eyes open. The contest will be announced this Friday.

Northcoast Shakedown: The Nick Kepler Chronology

In the run-up to Northcoast Shakedown, I wrote a series of short stories to help me get a handle on Nick’s background. They did not get published in order, and only one, “Flight of the Rat,” has an actual date. (September 11, 2001, and for obvious reasons.) If you look at the short story page, you can see the publication order of the stories. However, if you want to see Nick’s actual chronology, here it is:

Race Card” – January, 1999

A Walk in the Rain” – April, 1999

Valentine’s Day” – February, 2000

Just Like Suicide” – April, 2001

Wring That Neck” – May, 2001

Full Moon Boogie” – July, 2001

Flight of the Rat” – September 11, 2001

Demon’s Eye” – November, 2001

Cold Cocked” – January, 2002

Roofies” – March, 2002

Might Just Take Your Life” – May, 2002

Love Don’t Mean a Thing” – July, 2002

Northcoast Shakedown – August, 2002

Lady Luck” – September, 2002

“Wasted Sunsets” (novella, in progress) – November, 2002

“Gyspy’s Kiss” (in progress) – January, 2003

Second Hand Goods – (coming soon) July, 2003

Northcoast Shakedown: What Was I Thinking?

Northcoast ShakedownOne of the biggest jacket blurb cliches from the last decade was “In the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, and McDonald,” meaning Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross McDonald, as if those three were the only ones who ever wrote private eye fiction. I’m pretty sure Private Eye Writers of America chief Bob Randisi would have something to say about that. I should know. I was a member of the PWA for several years.

For non-hardboiled fans, there seems to be a perception that every private eye story is a rehash of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. So the Hammett and Chandler comparisons are inevitable even for the ultra-violent Mickey Spillane. But is it fair?

Well, I’ll cop to Raymond Chandler in that I wanted a private eye who was something more than a sarcastic guy in a trenchcoat taking names and kicking asses. If anything, Nick Kepler gets his ass kicked more often than he kicks asses. And I did try to put a little style into my prose. But was Chandler the most influential writer on Northcoast Shakedown?

Actually, it was the late Robert B. Parker. I avoided what turns many people off to Parker’s later work: the psycho sidekick, the cutesy patter, and the nearly goddess-like place reserved for the annoying girlfriend. No, I took my queues from Parker’s opening salvo. I read The Godwulf Manuscript back in high school and was blown away by the prose. Parker had a way of hanging descriptive tags on people and places that gave the reader a quick shorthand to carry through the rest of the novel. I picked up on that in my writing early on.

But there’s more. Parker is from Boston and has a certain New England vibe that’s hard to articulate or replicate. You see it woven through Parker’s first ten or so Spenser novels. It’s a big red neon sign in the work of Stephen King, who first surfaced about three years after Parker. Dennis Lehane, whose writing leans more toward King than Parker, is probably the smoothest at it.  And it’s been a growing presence in some of Dave Zeltserman’s more recent work. What is it?

I don’t know. I know it’s pretty obvious when King and Lehane talk about their characters’ childhoods, but beyond that, I don’t know. It’s a vibe that’s crept into my own work, which I suspect is a by-product of growing up in Yankee-influenced Cleveland instead of the languid river vibe of Southern-tinged Cincinnati.

But getting back to Parker himself, it’s also the humor that really shows up in my work. It often shows up in sarcasm, and Nick Kepler is nothing if not sarcastic. Sure, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe cracks wise, but Spenser took it to another level (before Parker got comfortable and let it get out of hand. Let’s just say his later work is more for himself and his fans.) So Robert Parker’s Yankee-tinged smart-assery was a huge influence.

One author that was not an influence was SJ Rozan. I bring that up because, despite being acquainted with SJ for several years, I was a late-comer to her writing. So imagine my surprise when I read her dialog-heavy, spartan prose and found it similar to my own. So I’d love to say I was influenced by her, but I can only say that a better writer simply confirmed for me that I was doing something right.

During the run-up to the aborted publication of Northcoast‘s follow-up, Second Hand Goods, JA Konrath suggested I’d been reading a lot of Mickey Spillane. In the case of Second Hand Goods, I did, actually. In that one, Nick is pretty enraged. There were a couple of lines I put in his mouth that could have come right out of I, the Jury.

And then Nick pulls out a gun during an interview and casually lays it in his lap, denying that it’s a threat. We’re back in Spenser territory.

But of course, none of this was deliberate. You don’t really pick your influences. They simply grab you.

Northcoast Shakedown: What’s Nick’s Beef With SUV’s?

Northcoast ShakedownNick Kepler has a real problem with SUV’s, particularly the huge ones. They’re road hogs. They suck more fuel than the space shuttle just going around the block. They’re pretentious as hell. To him, they symbolize waste and conspicuous consumption.

Why is this so unusual? Don’t we live in an era where people are expected to be more frugal? Tea Partiers wanting less taxes? Occupiers going after the One Percent?

All this is true, but that was now, this is then. Then happens to be 2002, when America still basked in the afterglow of the dotcom era and gas cost less than a large coffee from Starbucks. And back then, before SUV’s came down in size and up in gas mileage, most of them were huge. I recently saw a series of parodies of Ford pickup ads that showed how denizens of the more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs needed the F150 Hyde Park and Mason editions for picking up Thai food and hauling brats to the zoo. So the aversion to large vehicles for no really good reason has become societal.

But even so, why should Nick give a damn? He drives a boring and practical 1996 Honda Accord that sips gas and has a nice stereo.

Well, Nick is a working class PI, as some people often point out to me. He grew up with his father driving used cars for years before scrapping them, and he’s never really been one to show off by conspicuously consuming. Oh, he grudgingly has a cell phone. In fact, he had one before his creator did. But to Nick, the SUV became a symbol of greed and waste to him. In one sequence, to hide his car from the bad guys, he stakes out a nightclub sitting in a GMC Yukon, which is roughly the size of a Sherman tank. He reasons no one would expect him to drive one. In another scene, a driver in a Lincoln Navigator almost hits him. Nick understandably flips him the bird, to which a friend points out that he’s just flipped a county commissioner the bird. Nick says he’ll vote for his opponent. (Never mind that his opponent probably drove an SUV, too.

Is it neurotic or petty? Yes. It’s irrational, actually. It has its roots in my own aversion to SUV’s, however. I got tired of listening to coworkers talking ad nauseam about their oversized behemoths and their off-road capabilities. I asked, “So when do you take it off road?” They looked at me like I’d just asked them to enter a Roll Royce in a demolition derby. I gave the aversion to Nick and amplified it a bit.

Today, one of the family cars is a Hyundai Santa Fe, and the Neon’s likely replacement will be either a Toyota RAV4 or a Ford Flex, both of which would disappoint Nick.

But Nick, if only you made money for me, I’d be choosing between a new Charger, Camaro, or Mustang.

Naw! I’m pretty boring in my car choices. Just give me something practical with a big ass stereo in it.

Amazon | Nook

Northcoast Shakedown: Rick Reese

Northcoast Shakedown

Rick Reese is probably Nick Kepler’s most loyal sidekicks. He first appears the Kepler’s debut, “A Walk in the Rain” as a bar patron. However, “Walk” was the second story I’d written for Kepler. He is Nick’s client in “Race Card,” ironically pitting him against suburban cop Wolf. “Race Card” was written first, but published later.

There really is a Rich Reese. I used to work with him a long time ago, and Deputy Reese’s personality owes a lot to the former dishwasher and (later) restaurant manager from Akron. Like Kepler’s friend, he looks a little like a young, ornery version of Bill Cosby with a high-pitched voice and a warped sense of humor. The real Rich and I had a shared love of Led Zeppelin and Camaros, each owning one at the same time, both taking turns taking the other’s car up to 100 mph.

But Nick didn’t meet Rick until both were staring middle age in the face. And while it’s clear Rick doesn’t want to hire a PI to handle his harassment problem, nor is Nick too thrilled about possibly busting a friend – a cop friend at that, both men suck it up because this Rick Reese has kids. Turns out Reese’s suspicions were wrong, and he eventually becomes a regular operative for Kepler in his off-duty hours.

Like Elaine Haskell, Nick’s long-suffering secretary, Reese fills a role normally given to the psycho sidekick. Whereas Elaine is Nick’s conscience, Reese is extra muscle, only with a conscience of his own. He keeps Nick from committing murder a couple of times, and reminds Nick of his former days as a cop.

Northcoast Shakedown – Elaine

During the 1980’s, it seemed every new PI , with the refreshing exception of VI Warshawski, had to have a psycho sidekick. After all, Spenser had Hawk, and wasn’t Spenser the face of the modern PI?

Well, yes, but…

When I created Nick Kepler, I had a strong aversion to giving him a psycho sidekick. Lehane had created Bubba Rugowski, and Robert Crais did Joe Pike. It not only had been done, but done better than I felt like doing. So Nick Kepler had to dirty his own hands.

That’s not to say he didn’t have a sidekick. He just had a different one. Through his arrangement with his former employer, TTG Insurance, he gets the services of the Specialty Claims Division’s senior administrative assistant, Elaine Haskell. From the moment she first appears in Northcoast Shakedown, it’s clear her loyalties lean more towards Nick than TTG. She’s somewhat of a maternal presence in his life and he needs it. Nick is not exactly the most organized PI.

But what red-blooded male PI wouldn’t want to have Elaine as his sidekick. She’s a former Cleveland Cavaliers cheerleader who still has the body, flirty, and smart. It’s suggested she really runs the Claims Division, an exaggeration, but her bosses, including Nick’s college roommate depend on her as much as Nick does.

There is an obvious undercurrent of sexual tension between Nick and Elaine. She is frequently interested and amused by Nick’s sex life, and Nick muses that he’s loaned Elaine use of his office for marital purposes on her lunch hour. Yet it’s also clear the two share a mutual crush. She’s a bit older than Nick, who is in his late thirties in Northcoast, which puts Elaine clearly into cougar territory. It begs the question, “Have they?”

In the pages of Northcoast Shakedown, no. Though I suspect if one of them invited the other across the street to the Marriott (which is attached to the Key Tower, Cleveland’s tallest building), the other would protest just long enough to lock up the office and get to the elevator.

More importantly, Elaine clearly has a bigger interest than the orders of her employer might suggest. In many way, she’s the silent partner in Kepler Investigations.