Wednesday, January 30, 2013

No Ordinary Book Club

(This essay was first published in Crimespree Magazine in 2005 and on Digital Book Today last year, but I now have the rights back-- and a new cover --  for AN IMAGE OF DEATHso I thought it was a good time for a revisit. Plus, it’s one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as an author. It is a little long, so save it until you can read the whole thing.)

The buildings rose out of the prairie as though the ground had suddenly coughed them up from some nether region. A few homes were scattered nearby, and a school sat to one side, but the compound, about twenty minutes from Racine, Wisconsin, loomed beside the road like a behemoth warning us we were entering a different world. We parked in an adjacent lot and climbed out. I’d been told to leave my purse in the car, so I swung my backpack up on my shoulder and headed inside.

I was surprised by the seemingly low level of security. Just one small metal detector, no search wands, no dogs. A beefy looking man behind a counter asked to see a photo ID. All the doors were locked, though, even the ladies room, and to get from the entrance hall into the meeting room, you passed through a small antechamber with glassed in walls and two doors. One door was locked before the other was opened.
I glanced into the meeting room. Almost forty women were there, waiting quietly, apparently content to let time pass. Clearly, this was no ordinary book club.

I’d been asked to come to the Robert Ellsworth Correction Center for women to talk about my third novel, An Image of Death. The invitation had been issued via Midge Green, the CRM at Barnes and Noble, Racine, WI. She and some of her friends had been visiting the jail regularly, bringing books and discussing them with inmates.

Ellsworth is home to approximately 300 female offenders. It’s a minimum security facility, and some of the women are on work release programs at nearby factories. About a year ago, two employees at the jail, Pam Petersen and DeNeal Erickson, decided to start a Book Club for the inmates. Within six months there were 25 members, and after a year, 50. Typically, the women would read the selected book, then divide into smaller groups to discuss the issues raised. Thanks to contributions and fund-raisers by B&N and others, the women have read several works, including Motherland by Fern Schumer Chapman and Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. Image, however, was the first crime novel on their list.

Crime fiction for criminals? What was that all about? Who was I kidding? What could I, a woman who still gets the shakes when I get within twenty feet of a cop, tell them about crime or the criminal justice system?
The answer, I was told, was in Image. In the book an unidentified package is dropped on the doorstep of my amateur sleuth, video producer Ellie Foreman. Inside is a surveillance video that, when Ellie plays it, shows the murder of a young woman. Who that woman was and why the tape ended up with Ellie is the crux of the plot.

I’m not giving too much away by revealing that the woman killed on the tape wasn’t from this part of the world. Arin grew up in Armenia, and after marrying a Russian soldier, she moved to the Republic of Georgia. She lived in the lap of luxury as the wife of a Soviet army officer for a brief time—until the Soviet Union collapsed. Suddenly, her world was thrown into chaos, every trace of stability stripped away. Life became brutal, survival precarious. The choices facing Arin (and her best friend Mika) were made out of desperation. Arin became a diamond courier; Mika was forced into prostitution. Both had to contend with men whose need to survive themselves made them behave in aberrant, cruel ways.

It was this concept of choices—or the absence of them—that resonated with the teachers at the jail and prompted the invitation. The offenders in Ellsworth could relate to bad choices—or none at all. They wanted to hear about women in a similar predicament, explore their actions, compare them to their own. Would I please talk about that?

And so I nodded to the guard, sucked in a breath, and headed into the antechamber.

The first thing I noticed were three huge displays on mural paper taped to the wall. The first was titled “Russian Mafia”; the second “Foster Care” (Ellie is producing a video on the foster care system while she’s sleuthing); the third was “Transitioning back to mainstream society.” Each display was part photo montage, part hand-written text. As I browsed, I noted a lot of information about each topic: facts, figures, conclusions. Some of the information, especially on the “Transitioning” display was personal. They’d also drawn up a character tree, with each of my main characters and their character traits listed.
I started by telling them how and why I’d written An Image of Death—that I was intrigued by what happens to a society in the throes of radical change and that the best way to explore that was to tell the stories of a few individuals in the midst of the maelstrom. I talked about the characters and the role each played in the book. I talked about the notion of choices, and how Arin and Mika felt they didn’t have any. Almost every woman in the room nodded at that. One woman told me she felt I was writing her story. More nods all around. I decided it was time to let them talk, so I asked for questions.

I was overwhelmed by the response. It seemed as if every woman in the room had something to ask or say. Some asked questions about writing. Others asked questions about the characters. One woman told me she liked the information about foster care because she had two kids in the system now, and her goal was to reunite her family when she got out. Another woman asked how I did research, and another asked why David, Ellie’s boyfriend, made the choices he did.

I asked them about the displays. What had they learned about the Russian mafia, foster care, and transitioning back into society? Hands shot up. They’d learned that the Russian mafia wasn’t so much a monolithic organization as disparate gangs of thugs. That the violence and brutality they sanctioned made the Italian mafia look like kindergarten kids. That the foster care system wasn’t perfect, and in fact, was losing funding at an alarming rate, but it was better than the systems in other countries.

But the most touching moments were their comments about transitioning back into society. Person after person recounted how much Pam and DeNeal, the women who started the Book Club, had done for them. How valued they felt… some for the first time in their lives. How they felt that their opinions mattered. How wonderful the personal attention felt. How they would never forget the efforts their “teachers” had put into the Book Club and that they would carry this new found confidence back into the world. Pam and DeNeal were in the room, listening. They didn’t show much of a reaction, but I felt my throat get hot.

After the presentation, while I signed copies of Image, at least five women came up to tell me their stories. One of them said she was in her early sixties, but she didn’t look a day over fifty. Her hair was perfectly coiffed, her make-up expertly applied. None of the women wore uniforms, and she was dressed in a clean blouse tucked into a pair of slacks. She’d been seated in the first row and had said several times how much she connected to Image. When I asked why, she told me she’d been a business woman who owned three beauty salons outside Milwaukee. She’d married late in life—a man from Croatia. The relationship soon soured; he had a violent temper. When the US sent troops into Bosnia twelve years ago, he became enraged. He went after her and beat her for three hours. Something inside her snapped, and she grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed him to death. She got twenty years, but after serving twelve of them, her sentence was reduced. She was getting out soon, she said, but while she was still there, she had started a salon at Ellsworth, and was teaching the women how to do hair.

I wished her luck. She wished me back the same.

As Midge drove us back to Racine, I tried to process the afternoon. Much of it was a blur—it had gone by so fast. The women asked more questions and were more receptive than I’d expected. I’d been concerned they wanted me to say something profound about crime fiction—after all, it’s not every day a crime fiction author talks to prison inmates—and I’d felt unequal to the task. But that wasn’t what happened. As we got to know each other, I felt more relaxed and sure-footed.

Still, I realized that, in one respect, I’d been right. The women of the Ellsworth Book Club weren’t ordinary. They were doing what many of us have ceased doing, forgotten, or relegated to the back of our minds. They were using books, the ideas sparked by them, and the experiences related to them, as catalysts—catalysts to make sense of their past and find hope for their future.
I was honored to be a tiny part of that process.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dead Man Books Daily Deal

All the DEAD MAN books, including titles by TSG members Bill Crider, Harry Shannon and Joel Goldman, are 99 cents today to stoke enthusiasm before the launch of DEAD MAN #16 next week.

You can find the Kindle Daily Deal here.

The Screenwriter and the Novelist: Looking back on LOST

Remember all the sound and fury that surrounded the Lost finale? One of my favourite contributions was this piece by Kay Reindl, in which she tackles the assertion (by a novelist) that the Lost writing team should have carried a novelist or two, to show them how it should be done.

People, I've done both, and she was right. Try to make episodic TV with just a novelist's tools and you'll be chewed up and spat out, left nursing wounds that you'll be showing to the faithful at literary festivals for the rest of your life.

My favourite part about working as a novelist is that of being an armchair general, in that I can plan a perfect campaign and designate the outcome. Whereas the American TV series is like a feuilleton whose fate, length and scope will depend on factors that can't be predicted with any accuracy. You put all of your initial energies into getting it sold and while you may have a grand design in mind, that's like the battle plan that never survives the first exchange of fire. You're navigating a sea of executives, viewer responses, and unpredictable production developments. There's no way to account for new ideas you may have along the way, or the contributions of of your creative coworkers whose ideas may take you in directions you didn't foresee, but which you'd be stupid to pass up because having such ideas is what they're there for.

Ideally you should have an ultimate destination in mind, in the form of a vision of your finale that you keep in your back pocket and put into the works on the day you hear you're being cancelled. A classic example would be the spectre of the one-armed man that always stayed out of reach throughout The Fugitive. Early hints suggested that the Lost showrunners had their ending in mind from the beginning (leaving them with little choice but evasion or denial when some fans predicted the 'correct' outcome), but we can be sure that everything in between was live juggling. The final episode's various closures and resolutions were a matter of tidying-up the playground to the best extent possible.

In an early post on my own blog, I wrote:
For me it can never end successfully with a make-sense-of-it-all revelation, any more than The Prisoner could... it's all about dread and uncertainty and wondering about what's on the other side of the door. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, the moment you actually open the door all that wonder condenses down into whatever's there.

The only good ending I can imagine is something like, they find a box that's the answer to everything, look inside it and go "Wow." Like the moment in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray whispers something to Scarlett Johannsen that makes everything OK, and we all have ideas about what it might have been that are unique to ourselves, and which are best not shared. Some people won't have that... a quick Lost in Translation Google shows messageboards with people wanting tips on how they can boost the soundtrack enough to hear what Murray says.
If you saw Lost as a puzzle to be solved, then I guess you were disappointed. If you saw it as a journey - well, to quote Shakespeare, journeys end in lovers meeting.

Which, as I recall, is what we got.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Neanderthal Baby Update

Harvard professor blasts Web rumor: Harvard professor blasts Web rumor
Neanderthal clone story blamed on poor translation

The Thirty-Nine Steps

I recently went back to John Buchan's novel The Thirty Nine Steps, the template for all modern on-the-run thrillers from The Fugitive to 24 to the entire Jason Bourne trilogy.

The re-reading confirmed my remembered impressions. The book has terrific narrative velocity. It also falls apart to an utterly unmemorable end, and the story doesn’t hold up under anything but the most uncritical scrutiny.

But somehow, it's still has greatness in it.

Though the execution can be shambolic, the overall shape is a classic one. The glue that holds it together is Buchan’s portrayal of his hero, Richard Hannay - an impressive achievement in the light of the fact that the author shows no discernible ability to characterise anyone else. The other players are all the stock types of Clubman’s fiction. They're mostly defined by rank and class, to the extent that some of them don’t even get names.

Buchan has obviously sensed from a distance the arc that he wants to achieve. It starts in the bustle of the city and loops out across the far wide country, where Hannay discovers with a rug-from-under-the-feet feeling that, far from making his way to safety, he’s made his way to the heart of the conspiracy that he's been running from. In the final act our hero, with his good character restored, leads the forces of right in the final showdown.

I suppose my contention here is that The Thirty-Nine Steps, in its combination of personal conflict and open landscape, offers the closest thing we have to the Great British Western.

That Buchan falsifies process and reality at every turn in order to achieve this is actually something of a key to how the book works. It operates on a level of almost pre-adolescent magical thinking. How else to explain the way in which authority figures hand control of their operation over to the man they've been chasing, on the basis that "He's been doing a pretty good job of it so far"? That’s the kind of thinking that has the Chief of Police calling on eleven-year-old Johnny Atom in order to beg him to take a look at the case that has his best men baffled.

People are recognised as good sorts and bad sorts without any need for qualification or demonstration. It’s a story completely without women. Oh, there's Julia the Czech girl, who gets a promising mention at the beginning. Her name provides the key to a cipher, but she herself makes no appearance.

My antenna says that Buchan had a vague idea that she would, but then went ahead and found no place for her in the execution. I’m convinced that he didn’t pre-plan his story to any great degree. I think that’s the reason for the looseness and breeziness of the writing, but also the dissatisfaction that you’re left with at the end. It’s a bit like realising that you’ve been entrusting your education to a teacher who’s only two chapters ahead of you in the textbook.

Charles Bennett's screenplay for the Hitchcock feature essentially took the framework of the novel and laid an almost unrelated romantic comedy over it. Comparing book to film is a bit like watching Noises Off on stage, where the old warhorse of a story is playing on one side of the flats and the enjoyable stuff with the lighter touch is playing only inches away on the other. The surprising thing is that the combination of thriller and romcom works so well, a fusion of genres that was to become a genre in its own right.

I’ve only a dim recollection of Ralph Smart's 1950s version. Memory suggests that it was a remake of the Bennett screenplay that rested almost entirely on the cheery personality of Kenneth More, one of those actors that I always feel pleased to see. For the rest of it, what I remember is a lot of two-dimensional staging and unconvincing back-projection at precisely those points where tension and thrills are required.

As for the '80s Robert Powell version, I’ve no memory of that at all apart from the image of Hannay dangling from the hands of Big Ben at the end. Though that's not to knock it. Production values appear to have been high and I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

The pic shows Charles Edwards, who appeared as Richard Hannay in both the West End and Broadway productions of Patrick Barlow's spoof/homage to Buchan's novel and the Hitchcock film. Edwards also played the young Conan Doyle in my Murder Rooms story for the BBC Films series. And everyone else's, for that matter.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


One night in the pub, we were discussing double entendres. I'd heard a good one, supposedly a Square Dance call. Unfortunately my telling of it coincided with one of those unexpected room-wide silences when everyone goes quiet and yours is suddenly the only voice to be heard.

So to the woman in red at the bar who gave me a filthy look, if she should happen to be reading this:

When I said, "After the clap, change partners," it wasn't necessarily what you thought.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jack Irish

A couple of interesting TV movies came out of Australia last year, with Guy Pearce playing the title role of Jack Irish in Black Tide and Bad Debts, based on novels by Peter Temple.

Not exactly the same tone as Jesse Stone, but for me they seemed to scratch the same itch. They're making a couple more. Worth looking out for.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

TV Crime: A Top 10

"I’ve never made it all the way through an Inspector Morse. Everyone who loves The Wire is lying. A Touch of Frost is part of a plot to destroy humanity’s will to live. Jonathan Creek went steadily downhill after Caroline Quentin left. The writers on The Mentalist are all fat and ride a golf cart to lunch.”

At the request of the Dead Good Books blog, I compiled a list of ten TV crime shows that I think have exceptional merit.

You can read about those that get the thumbs-up here.

Here's a hint:

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Dead Man

Created by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin, The Dead Man books are a series of raw, in-your-face, energetic novellas featuring a new title every month. Matt Cahill is a bluecollar hero, a sawmill worker from the Pacific Northwest. He’s handy with an axe, and as dependable as they come. Lost in an avalanche while skiing with his lover Rachael, his survival after three months under the snow defies all medical explanation. With his old life effectively ended, and afflicted by flashes of a mysterious kind of vision that no one else shares, he takes to the road in search of answers.

You get the feeling that The Dead Man is written at white heat by people who know exactly what they’re doing, with the overriding objective of entertaining the reader. Goldberg and Rabkin’s TV and published work ranges from Spenser for Hire, Martial Law, and Psych to Diagnosis Murder and cult favourite Monk, and each month’s guest contributor is a novelist of solid professional standing. Harry Shannon, Christa Faust, Bill Crider, James Reasoner, Phoef Sutton, James Daniels... the list continues to grow and you can find details on all the titles here.

The world is sufficiently grounded to be relatable, the concept sufficiently off-the-wall for escapism and fun, while the format is a new take on a proven approach – the excitement of the pulp era’s monthly newsstand visit, reinvented for the eBook generation.