Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Gravetapping 2014: The Year in Reading


Posted: 29 Dec 2014 03:50 PM PST
2014 was a great year for reading in both quantity and quality. I finished 64 titles, and will likely finish one more—Logan’s Search by William F. Nolan. I surpassed last year’s mark by nine. The majority of the titles were fiction, but the total includes a tolerable number of nonfiction works, too. The nonfiction tended towards history and true crime, which included a number of interesting titles including A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger and My Silent War by Kim Philby.

I entered 2014 with two reading goals—1. Increase the number of “new” authors (in 2013 I read only five authors new to me); and 2. Increase the number of female authors on my reading list. I successfully increased the number of new writers, but the second goal was an abject failure. I only read one book—a nonfiction book titled Dirt, Water, Stone: A Century of Preserving Mesa Verde by Kathleen Fiero. So, 2015 will have to be the year of the woman in my reading list.

I became acquainted with the work of eight authors in 2014: Andrew Hunt (City of Saints), Richard Hoyt (Trotsky’s Run), J. J. Maric (Gideon’s Staff), Stephen Overholser (Shadow Valley Rising), Steve Brewer (Baby Face), Michael Parker (The Eagle’s Covenant), Robert Parker (Passport to Peril), and Gregg Loomis (The Julian Secret). The best of the “new”—not so new really since it was published in 1982—was Richard Hoyt’s Trotsky’s Run.  

As is my habit, I returned to old favorites many, many times. In fact, four authors accounted for 24 titles, which is approximately 38 percent of the total for 2014. I read nine by Harry Patterson, eight by Ed Gorman, four by Garry Disher, and three by Lawrence Block. I had a few special projects that inflated the number of titles read by specific authors including my ongoing initiative to read and review all of Harry Patterson’s early novels—34 novels published between 1959 and 1974—interviews with Garry Disher and Ed Gorman, not to mention an Introduction I wrote for Stark House Press’s forthcoming release of Mr Gorman’s classic private eye novels The Autumn Dead and The Night Remembers. An omnibus I recommend absolutely.

Now all that is left is my top five favorite novels of—at least that I read in—2014. No rules, except no repeats. If I read it in a prior year it is not eligible for the top five. It was difficult to pare the list to five, and there were three or four that were cut from the list that I wish hadn’t been. With that said, my five favorite novels of 2014 are—

5.  Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell. The work of David Morrell has been a staple of my reading since my teens, and I generally read his new work as it is released. Murder, however, was an exception. I waited more than eighteen months from its release before reading it, which was a mistake because it is, simply put, fantastic. It is a Victorian novel—think of the journal entries of Dracula mixed with the sophisticated mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, and the setting and description of Charles Dickens—but also very modern, and very David Morrell.   
4.  Trotsky’s Run by Richard Hoyt.  Trotsky’s Run is my first experience with the work of Richard Hoyt.  It was published in 1982 by William Morrow, and I ran across the mass market edition released by TOR in 1983.  It is an espionage novel with a cleverly devised plot, humor, a little tradecraft, a bunch of history—both now and then—and a somewhat satirical view of cold war paranoia. Read the Gravetapping review.

3.  Goin’ by Jack M. Bickham. Goin’ is a running-from-age novel rather than a coming-of-age novel. Stan is middle-age. He has a wife, now ex-wife, and a daughter. He is miserable, empty, and searching for something to make things better. He buys a small Honda street bike and hits the road. He finds adventure in the same vein as a 1960s television show—think Route 66. It has the feel of a coming-of-age tale, but it is shadowed with a darkness and cynicism that comes only with age and experience. Goin’ spoke to me—I, somehow, am inching in to middle age. I understood the struggles, and fears of the protagonist. Read the Gravetappingreview.    
2.  Whispering Death by Garry Disher. This is the sixth, and most recent, entry in the Hal Challis and Ellen Destry series of crime novels. It is a police procedural of the best kind. It is human, interesting, and entertaining. The antagonists are a serial rapist, and a brilliantly executed professional criminal named Grace. The beauty of this novel, and everything written by Mr Disher, is the crafty manner information is kept from the reader—from back stories to motive.   

1.  Strangers by Bill Pronzini. Strangers is a special novel. It is atmospheric, weighty, and entertaining. It is plot driven, but the procedural mystery runs a distant second to its raw emotional impact. The setting—desolate, stark, empty—fits the thematic structure of the story. It is one of the more powerful Nameless novels. Its emotional impact is on par with Mr Pronzini’s standalone work; particularly his masterful Blue Lonesome—which shares a similar setting, but very different leading woman—and The Crimes of Jordan Wise.  Read the Gravetapping review.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014




W.L. Ripley
W.L. Ripley is the author of two critically-acclaimed series of crime novels — four books featuring ex-professional football player Wyatt Storme and four books about ex-Secret Service agent Cole Springer. His latest novel is Storme Warning, a stunning new mystery/thriller that we’re publishing in February. We will also be re-releasing Ripley’s other books through 2015 and early 2016.
Wyatt Storme evolved from a love of mystery characters like Travis McGee, Spenser, and the protagonists of Elmore Leonard’s many novels. But in shaping Storme as a series lead, I wanted a neo-classic mystery/thriller hero who would seem familiar and yet would be uniquely his own person and uniquely my own creation.
Storme is neither a detective nor a police officer, which places him in Travis McGee territory, but he will use deduction and reasoning to isolate and learn about the villain.  This is a nod to the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes, without whom the modern mystery would not be what it has become.

Storme & Chick vs Spenser & Hawk

Wyatt Storme and his friend Chick Easton, a deadly and deeply troubled ex-CIA agent, are often compared to the Robert B. Parker’s team of Spenser and Hawk. But I believe Storme is more closely related to John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee because he is a man apart; a man taking his retirement in pieces. Yet unlike McGee, Storme is often reluctant to insinuate himself into other people’s troubles and does not seek a financial reward.  The character of Chick Easton is closer Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin, only more deadly.  Easton’s character often prods Storme into action and, like Goodwin, he keeps the dialogue lively and caustic.  The Wyatt Storme novels blend three sub-categories of the mystery/thriller genre:  tough-guy, western, and reluctant detective.
If you look at Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (brilliantly continued by author, Ace Atkins), the most recognized tough guy in the modern literary world, you’ll find that he possesses some traits associated with Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe but is distinctively his own man.  Spenser quotes poetry and literature like a University professor yet he is as comfortable throwing a left hook to dispatch anyone foolish enough to bull up on him.  He still carries the classic .38 police special but is at ease handling the modern semi-automatic weapons.  Spenser is the first Renaissance man in the tough-guy mystery genre and has opened up possibilities for all of us who write.

Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens Reflects his Pantheon of Characters

Elmore Leonard never saddled himself with just one hero yet many of his protagonists shared attributes that were singular to his pantheon of characters.  They usually were unflappable regardless of the situation.  They rarely spoke excitedly or in anger.  The best example of this, and Leonard’s most memorable and likewise most singular character, is Raylan Givens.
W.L. Ripley
Givens was the son of Kentucky coal-miners and a U.S. Marshal who was an expert with a hand gun.  He taught marksmanship to other U.S. Marshal’s and was deadly cool when dispatching a bad guy quite often giving the outlaw a chance to re-consider.  “I’m a dead shot.  I hit exactly what I aim at.  If I pull I shoot to kill.”
Note the nod to the old Western heroes of cinema and the western genre.  Givens is a Marshal like Matt Dillon or Wyatt Earp.  Givens participates in shoot-outs like many Clint Eastwood characters (There are marked similarities between Givens and Clint Eastwood in the novels.  Height, body-build, cold statement that his enemy is about to die).  At once, we are familiar with Raylan Givens and at the same time he is a unique character in his own right.
Storme is, like the above, a neo-classic hero. Both of my main series characters, Wyatt Storme and Cole Springer, are denizens of the new American West.  They are throwbacks, as comfortable in the great outdoors as they are with their backs against the wall, guns blazing.  Like old Western Cowboys, they ride into town and save the day.   Storme is Wyatt Earp to Easton’s Doc Holliday, Butch Cassidy to Easton’s Sundance Kid.

Dave Robicheaux and Stephanie Plum Are Among The Best

One of the best contemporary series characters is James Lee Burke’s, Dave Robicheaux, a disgraced N’Awlin’s cop whose desperate struggles with alcoholism and personal tragedy place Dave (now a Sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia Parish) in his own niche.  Burke is unsurpassed at making the setting a part of his stories and the tortured soul of Dave Robicheaux is on display at all times.  Robicheaux, like Spenser, is an intelligent man.  Yet, unlike Spenser, Robicheaux is often confused and even lacks confidence in his assessment of his moral stance.  Still, when his blood is up, Robicheaux is among the most violent of mystery heroes.
Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is smart, tough, and given to romantic adventurism that heretofore was a part of the male hero make-up.  Evanovich plows new literary ground by making Plum a bond enforcement agent (Chick Easton performs this duty at times in the Storme lexicon). Plum is of Italian/Hungarian descent and vacillates between the romantic overtures of two different men.  She is honest about her foibles, which create problems in her job, but it is this very self-deprecation that endears her to her readers and makes Stephanie Plum one of the most successful characters in the mystery genre.
There are many, many more examples.  Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (a classic detective in the Phillip Marlowe/Jim Rockford tradition), James Patterson’s Alex Cross (criminal profiler), Ace Atkins other best-selling character, Quinn Colson (Ex-special forces Ranger), and Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta (Medical Examiner) are among the best.
All of these authors write sharply drawn, well-researched characters that give us a peek behind the curtains of very unique aspects of these justice-dealing heroes and their occupations. They have also been successful mining the classic nature of the mystery/thriller genre and giving their character remarkable traits, not quirks.  Too often beginning writers think they need to make their characters quirky. Quirky characters are the province of situation comedies, not mystery/thrillers.

Characters We Love, Books We Want to Read

One of the hardest aspects of a series character is keeping them fresh through many books.  All of the writers that I’ve talked about do so brilliantly and aspiring writers should study their work to learn how they pull it off.
Developing a lasting series character is the hardest thing you’ll ever love doing.  I enjoy looking into Wyatt Storme’s past, how he evolved into the person he has become and witnessing the sights, sounds, and his interaction with the universe he inhabits.
I write novels that I would like to read.  My hope is that they are also novels that you will want to read, too. I want the reader to keep turning pages and be continually entertained with laughter, hope, suspense, sudden danger and the consequences of life….and that you will find all of that in Storme Warning.

One Response to “W.L. Ripley: How To Create a Series Character”

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Body Snatchers Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

Ed here: This is the best Sabina and Quincannon novel yet. Not only a fine mystery but a compelling (and often spooky) look at San Francisco history. 
How did your new series develop?
Bill invented the characters for a 1985 novel called Quincannon.  At that time Quincannon was a U.S. Secret Service agent based in San Francisco and Sabina was a “Pink Rose” operative for the Denver branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency; they met in Silver City, Idaho while he was investigating a counterfeiting case and she was working undercover on a fraud matter.  In 1986 Bill brought the two together as partners in S.F., for a collaborative, cross-time novel with Marcia, Beyond the Grave, in which Quincannon solves part of a mystery in 1895 and Marcia’s contemporary museum curator sleuth, Elena Oliverez, solves the rest through reports she finds in an antique desk.  In 1988 Bill began an ongoing series of short stories featuring the duo.  Some seven years ago Marcia asked if she could try her hand at a short story of her own featuring Sabina.  This turned out well and led to a collaborative short story, then to the series of novels.
Collaborations are difficult for many writers. How do you divide the work?
Collaborating has almost always been a pleasure, with each other and for Bill, with other writers.  In the C&Q series, we work out the plot in segments, then Marcia writes the Sabina chapters, Bill the Quincannon chapters.  There is usually some final polishing necessary to make sure everything hangs together, which Bill does because the characters were his original creations. 
The Body Snatchers Affair seems to be somewhat more serious than the previous two novels. Was this your intention?
Not really.  The storylines, of which there are two or more per novel, dictate the tone.  Essentially the books were intended to be, and we hope are, mysteries with no little emphasis on satirical, tongue in cheek humor – the primary reason we added the “crackbrain” who believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes to the mix.
From time to time horrific affects have crept into your mysteries.  Body Snatchers have some really chilling moments. Do you plan to continue with this?
Again, any elements of horror are dictated by the storylines, not planned.  The very nature of body-snatching, as well as the threat of a Chinese tong war, are what make Body Snatchers somewhat darker than the other books in the series.
Any cable tv interest in this series?  It's dark, it's funny, it's surprising and it's filled with the kind San Francisco history that both Ambrose Bierce and Jack London dined out on.  Carpenter and Quincannon seem perfect for the tube. 
Nary a whisper or a whimper.  Neither of us had much luck with H’wood.  But thanks for the compliment.  The most enjoyable part of writing this series is the research into the history of San Francisco and environs in the 1890s – and the most difficult part deciding what to put in for verisimilitude and what to leave out to avoid slowing the pace.
What's next for Carpenter and Quincannon?
The fourth in the series, The Plague of Thieves Affair, has been delivered to Forge and should be published in January 2016.  Teaser:  one of the plotlines concerns the bogus Sherlock’s true identity.  We have one more novel under contract, as yet untitled, which we’re about to start writing.  Whether there’ll be others after that has yet to be determined.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Beautiful Losers--F. Scott Fitzgerald & Pat Hobby

'FORGOTTEN BOOKS - The Pat Hobby Stories

Losers have always interested me more than winners. There's a line from a Leonard Cohen poem "The simple life of heroes/The twisted lives of saints." I'll take the saints (though Cohen isn't talking about folks the Vatican bestows sainthood on that's for sure).

My formative years were the Fifties. The films that influenced me the most were the noirs my father took me to and such fare as The Sweet Smell of Success and A Face in the Crowd. No heroes there. The same for my preferred reading (in additon to the Gold Medals and sf)--Hemingway, James Jones, Irwin Shaw (short stories), Graham Greene and Richard Wright among others. No heroes there either. Same for theater (I was writing terrible plays early on). O'Neill, Miller, Williams. Not a hero in sight.

We call a good deal of crime fiction dark. But is it? Cops replaced cowboys and now we have Cops (or investigators of any kind) with Personal Problems and reviewers think this is some kind of dangerous fiction. Not to me.

The constraints of commercial fiction are such that you risk losing a sale if your protagonist is an outright loser. The Brits were way ahead of us Yanks. Derek Raymond has spawned two generations of daring writers. The first time I read him I was struck by how much the texture of his prose reminded me of one of my five favorite books of all time, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. I read fifty pages of it the other day. What with globalization the world is once again as Orwell described it in the Thirties.

The literary writer Brian Moore (who started out writing Gold Medals and Dell originals under three different names) made a brief early career out of losers. The Lucky Of Ginger Coffee, for only one example, is about a daydreamer most people love but who is ultimately a selfish man whose daydreams are destroying his wife and children. He can't accept that he's an average guy--a loser. And that turns him into a dark loser indeed.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's work is filled with losers. Handsome, poetic ones, yes, but losers nonetheless. Winter Dreams, as one of his best stories is called, describes the near lifelong love of a man for woman he can never have. He has great business success but still there is his failure to possess her. The last few pages will give you chills.

Here we have The Pat Hobby Stories. They are set in the Hollywood of the late Thirties and feature a once prominent screeen writer who is reduced to virtually begging for work at the various studios that once wined and dined him. The Fitzgerald myth is so tied to the notion of Romantic Loss that we forget that he was also funnier than hell. And causitc.

As Arnold Gingrich said shortly after Fitzgerald's death, "These stories were the last word from his last home, for much of what he felt about Hollywood and about himself permeated these stories."

And damned good stories they are, too. Not major Fitzgerald but cunning and crafty tales of bars, studios, whores of both genders, unhappy winners and drunken losers.

My favorite here is "Pat Hobby and Orson Welles." The luckless Hobby is hanging around the writer's building trying to cadge anything he can get--even a B-western--when somebody mentions Orson Welles. And Hobby almost loses it. Every where he turns he hears about Orson Welles--newspaper, magazines, radio, movies. Orson Welles Orson Welles. 

Fitzgerald uses Welles as a symbol of generational turn. Hobby and other men his age were major players in their time but now their time is gone. One studio head admits (reluctantly) to Hobby that he doesn't know what the hell all the fuss about Welles is either but dammit the young people on his staff swoon every time his name is mentioned. So this studio head and others push enormous sums of money on Welles. Hobby bitterly wonders why Welles doesn't stay in the East where he belongs---with the snobs. The West, dammit, is for common folk. (Well, except for the mansions and Rodeo Drive.)

This is a book filled with boozy grief, hilarious bitterness, shameless self-pity and  and a fascinating look from the inside as to what writers went through under the old studio management.

As Fitzgerald himself saiid, "This was not art, this was industry. (Who) you sat with at lunch was more important than what you (wrote) in your office."

A fine little collection.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Seven Things to Know About Walter Matthau

Thanks to Classic Film and TV Cafe
The Classic Film and TV Cafe is a place for fans to mingle and share their love of great films and television series, ranging from the silent film era to the early 1980s. If you're a fan of classic Hollywood, world cinema, or TV shows like The Fugitive and The Avengers, then come on into the cafe and have fun!

Carol Grace and Walter Matthau.
1. Walter Matthau met his second wife, Carol Grace, when they both appeared in the 1955-56 Broadway hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? She was previously married--twice--to playwright and author William Saroyan (The Human Comedy). In her 1992 memoir, Among The Porcupines, she wrote: "I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn't believe how terrible it was the first time. I married Walter because I love to sleep with him."

2. In 1961, Matthau played an investigator for the Florida Sheriff's Bureau in the half-hour syndicated TV series Tallahassee 7000. It was produced by Herbert B. Leonard, who co-created Route 66 with Stirling Silliphant. Like Route 66Tallahassee 7000 was shot on location. Matthau later claimed that he starred in the show only to pay off gambling debts.

Matthau as Oscar in the film version.
3. Walter Matthau made his Broadway debut in 1948, playing a servant in Anne of the Thousand Days. He was nominated for a Tony as Featured Actor in a Play for Once More With Feeling (1959) and then won that same award for A Shot in the Dark (1962). However, his career as a leading man took off after his Tony win for Male Comedy Performance in The Odd Couple in 1965. Matthau played slob Oscar to Art Carney's neat freak Felix. Years later, Matthau told Time Magazine: "Every actor looks all his life for a part that will combine his talents with his personality. The Odd Couple was mine. That was the plutonium I needed. It all started happening after that."

4. Walter Matthau directed himself and his wife, Carol, in 1959's Gangster Story. He played a criminal on the run who inadvertently infringes on mob territory (the plot bears a slight resemblance to one his best 1970s films, Charley Varrick). Matthau never directed again, although his son Charlie became a director. Charlie directed his father and Jack Lemmon in The Grass Harp.

5. Matthau and Lemmon appeared in ten movies together, starting with Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie (1966), which earned Matthau a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He was nominated twice as Best Actor, for The Sunshine Boys (1975) and Kotch (1971). The latter film was directed by Jack Lemmon.

6. Lemmon and Matthau became great friends. Matthau told People Magazine in 1998: "The main thing I like about Jack is that he bathes every day, so I don't have to worry about being assaulted odoriferously."

7. He and Barbra Streisand clashed famously on the set of 1969's Hello, Dolly! I'll skip Walter's best-known insult about his co-star (just Google the film's title, Matthau, and butterfly) and close with this quip: "I would like to work with Barbra again on something more suitable to her talents--like Macbeth."

Friday, December 26, 2014

Books: Mr. Bad Taste and Trouble Himself: Robert Mitchum

Books: Mr. Bad Taste and Trouble Himself: Robert Mitchum
 by Robert Ward
For the entire piece go to

“He drank too much and smoked too much. He granted too many interviews full of cynical observations about himself and his business. He made too many bad movies and hardly any of the kind that stir critics to rapture or that, taken together, look like a life achievement worthy of official reward.
God, some of us are going to miss Robert Mitchum!”—Richard Schickel
And he’s still missed, 17 years after his death. No, you sure don’t see movie stars like Robert Mitchum anymore. But we can still appreciate the real thing. In 1983, Robert Ward hung out with the star of Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and wrote the following profile, “Mr. Bad Taste and Trouble Himself: Robert Mitchum.” It originally appeared in the March 3, 1983 issue of Rolling Stone and is collected in Ward’s terrific anthology, Renegades. It appears here with the author’s permission. —Alex Belth
A big, crazy, sexy sixty-five-year-old little boy who can’t get used to the idea that he’s supposed to act like, like Ward Cleaver, you dig?
Robert Mitchum is walking down this Kafkaesque hallway, holding his arms straight out in front of him, crossed, as though they’ve been manacled by the CBS production assistant who trucks along in front of him. Mitchum staggers a bit. All he drinks nowadays is tequila—and milk, though not together—and he had his first shot at one thirty in the afternoon, and now it’s ten thirty at night and he’s been through five interviews and a fifth of Cuervo Gold Especial and is fast moving into that strange land between dreams and wakefulness.
Things are mightily askew but still manageable until someone notices the glass partitions and the little wooden desks, which look like interrogation booths, and yells, “Bob, look, we’re in Czechoslovakia and they’re going to bring out the fucking guards!”
This registers slowly behind Mitchum’s lizard-lidded eyes, and smiling his curling serpent’s smile, he thrusts his hands forward as though they are cuffed and booms in this deep, hilarious voice: “My name is Robert Mitchum. My serial number is 2357982. My rank is private. I have nothing whatsoever to tell you….”
Down these endless narrow hallways and out of these little rooms come women of all ages—twenty-three, forty-five, sixty-seven—each of them saying, “Hey, that’s… that’s Robert Mitchum,” and each of them getting this look on her face. The same look. Lust! And helplessness. And yet, completely maternal. And sweet, like, “I’ve got to help that big, crazy, sexy, funky little boy who is sixty-five years old and has never gotten used to the idea that he has to act like a Ward Cleaver brand of grown-up.”
Mitchum had drawn a similar response from a group of young businessmen as we’d left the Waldorf Hotel earlier. “There’s Mitchum,” one of them said. “He’s all fucked up again.” And the rest of them laughed and nodded. Thank God somebody is still wild.

“Where the hell is the goddamned makeup girl? I want to kiss her, okay?” he says now, as he runs through the halls. Yes, right here at CBS, is Mr. Bad Taste and Trouble himself. Yeah, he’s got himself a pinstripe suit and dark Italian sunglasses like all the rest of those movie stars, but one look will convince you that here is a man acting like a civilized being. In a 1964 Esquire profile, the usually savage Helen Lawrenson said his personality had paralyzed her into wordlessness. D. H. Lawrence described it as the Life Force. But six-foot-one-inch, barrel-chested, ham-fisted, sleepy-eyed, speech-slurred Robert Mitchum gives off something that can’t really be put into words at all….Meanwhile, the makeup woman, a sixty-five-year-old gal herself, is literally buckling at the knees and wiping her brow and saying, “My, oh my, oh my…Robert Mitchum.” The whole place cracks up, and Mitchum sweetly kisses her on the forehead.