Thursday, April 27, 2017

Going Places

One of the great things about the crime fiction genre these days is that it is so diversified readers can both see themselves in books and experience (virtually) societies and people who live in worlds far from their own.

Therefore, when I buy a crime novel, I’m more interested in character and setting than I am in crime and plot. I want a novel to take me to a real world I haven’t explored yet.

Naomi Hirahara gives me this. She explores the Vietnamese-American culture in Los Angeles in a fascinating and interesting way in her Ellie Rush series. (SJ Rozan, who does New York City pretty darn well herself, suggested Naomi’s books to me.)

Hirahara’s parent-child relationships illustrate the potentially-tense dynamics among a generation that wants for their children all that America offers but also needs for those same children to appreciate their Vietnamese heritage. A familial conflict is always simmering, ready to boil over.

Similarly, I’m rereading A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church, who according to the author bio on his books was "a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia." That’s about all I can find on the guy. No pictures. No further info. Church offers North Korea in a way the makes his respect and love for the citizens their obvious. Here’s a teaser: “Trees are not like people.” His lips tightened, and his cheeks lost their color. “They’re more civilized. People lose someone, what do they do? Nothing, they just keep going. Some people lose everything, everything. They lose everything, they keep going. Not trees. Trees don't do that. They live together, they don't move away, they know each other, they feel the wind and the rain at the same time, they can't bear it when one of them dies. So the whole group just stops living.” He paused while the train went past a patch of open ground with an abandoned log cabin. “Don't listen to anyone who tells you about loyalty to an idea. You're alone,” he said. “Without your family you're alone.” (101)

Wonderful metaphor. Fascinating illustration and exploration of culture and society. Church is an impressive prose stylist who offers North Korea (in a novel written in English, no less) in a manner similar to Dostoyevsky's handling of Russia (in translation). North Korea’s people, politics, and landscape are presented in a nuanced and subtle way that only decades spent on the ground observing can provide. Will I ever get to North Korea? I bet most of us won’t, but Church takes us there.

And, finally, there’s The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar Award, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This book is a huge step forward for crime fiction. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that my grad school professor told me that if I wanted to teach at the college level I needed to “write a mainstream novel.” (I asked why if I wrote a mainstream novel, I was doing the acceptable thing, but if he wrote a crime novel, he was becoming a commercial sellout.) I never got an answer that day. The Sympathizer shows a great crime novel can be a great novel.

So many contemporary crime novels offer setting in rich and interesting ways that plot really does become secondary, at least for me. I’d love to hear what my Type M colleagues are reading and what they and others look for in contemporary crime-fiction novels.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

SWAT On My Street

I used to live on such a quiet street, so quiet that during the day you could hear the birds twittering in the trees and squirrels skittering across our roof. When there was noise, it came from leaf blowers and kids playing in the street.

Then the Great Construction Period started. For the last six years or so, there’s been one house or another under construction on the block. The bang of hammers and rat-a-tat-tat of jackhammers has become the new normal.

Last week, it got more interesting. We received a notice on our doorstep that the local SWAT team would be doing a training exercise on our block, using a house that is slated to be torn down. (Yep, another one.) They warned us there may be loud noises during this period. We’d be allowed to observe as long as we stayed in the designated areas.
SWAT vehicle parked in front of house and a few observers on the right.

SWAT preparing to go in

The thought of a police training exercise happening just two doors down from us filled this writer’s heart with joy. The first evidence of activity was someone going into the designated house and hearing them talking about their plans.

When the SWAT vehicle arrived, I headed outside to do a little gardening...and see what was going on, of course. (Yes, I really did do some weeding and deadheading of roses. It wasn’t just an excuse!) A few people hovered around watching. I met the developer who’d bought the property and his children and grandchildren, all there to observe.

Finally, the SWAT team was ready to start. They breached the front door of the house followed shortly after by a flash bomb. The boom set off two car alarms on opposite ends of the block and brought out a concerned neighbor who hadn’t gotten the memo about the police training exercise. Some time later, another boom. Then, an hour or so after that, they were done and the street returned to normal.

The part of me that likes a quiet street was happy they disrupted the neighborhood as little as possible. They didn’t block the road or cause excess noise. Other than the two booms you wouldn’t have known anything was going on. But the writer side of me was disappointed there wasn’t more to observe. The construction fencing prevented us from seeing a whole lot. Still, it was interesting to see what they were doing.

There’s enough construction going on in this city and the surrounding ones, the police shouldn’t have any trouble finding another house to train in when they need one.

On a separate note, I found that sentence I was looking for the other day. Yep, it wasn’t as great as I remembered but, at least I found it! Now I have something to revise.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Arthur Ellis Awards Shortlist for 2017

by Rick Blechta

In case you don’t know — and that’s probably most of the readers of Type M — my novella, Rundown, published last year has been shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award given by the Crime Writers of Canada. It is a high honour indeed and I am over the moon about it. Here's a link to the complete shortlist in all categories:

My book is in pretty select company with a past winner in this category, Jas. R. Petrin, plus the illustrious Peter Robinson and two other very worthy writers, Linda L. Richards and Brenda Chapman. With competition like that, I’m not figuring on much happening past the nomination, but at the very least, it is very validating to have one of my works chosen — and I also get a whole month of glory.

But beyond the wonder of possibly winning an Arthur is this: the idea behind the awards has always been to promote Canadian crime writing (both fiction and non-fiction) to the world-at-large and show there are good things happening in the Great White North. So every Canadian crime writer has a stake in every Arthur Ellis shortlist.

Most of our Type M readers do not live in this country, and even if you live in Canada, the chances are good that you’ll not hear about any of these books. Our publishers don’t have the megabucks needed to seriously promote their books, and what money they do spend always goes to the “sure things” because they know (or at least feel) they’ll sell enough of those books to justify the expense.

So please, if you enjoy reading crime fiction or true crime (and I assume that’s the case if you’re visiting Type M), whether in English or French, take a look at the Arthur shortlist, pick something that piques your interest and give it a read. All of the books on this (or any) year’s list have been adjudicated by experienced panels and found to be “worthy”. I’m pretty darn sure you will be pleased with your selection.

And please cross your fingers for me on May 25th!

By the way, I’m also the photographer for the Arthur Ellis Gala this year, so if by some amazing circumstance Rundown gets the Best Novella Arthur, I guess I’ll have to take a selfie.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Sort of Reader Are You?

by Vicki Delany

I got a chuckle out of this cartoon.

What sort of reader are you, this chart asks.

I am a variation of a monogamist reader.

I usually read one book, straight though. Beginning to end. And then I start another book. I never read two books at once.

But unlike the above category, I don't often re-read books. I have lots of favourites that I would probably enjoy discovering again, but time is short and there are so many new books out there.

There are only a few books I've re-read. I've read the Lord of the Rings maybe twenty times. Seems excessive, doesn't it? Most of that would have been a long time ago, although I did reread the entire series when the movies came out.

I've read The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart several times. Gosh, how I loved that book. And her others about the life of Merlin as well.

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A couple of years ago, I bought a bunch of Barbara Michaels' books and re-read them. I did enjoy them, but in some ways I found them dated. Michaels (who we all know was Barbara Mertz AKA Elizabeth Peters) was an early feminist and wrote with a feminist sensibility, but her female characters still needed saving, rather than saving themselves.

I re-read an early V.I. Warshawski novel for a radio interview I did on influential books. And I found it really dated.

I recently re-read The Hound of the Baskervilles to reacquaint myself with the story for writing the next Sherlock Holmes Bookshop novel, and enjoyed it very much. Of course it's horribly dated, but as I read I could hear Jeremy Brett's voice in my head.

Speaking of reading new books, last time I wrote about the book I'd read for my book club and how I thought it needed a bit of food and drink to liven it up.

This month’s book club choice is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I just loved Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. It's very slow and lyrical, so beware if that's not your taste. I am now just beginning the next book by him, The Gift of Rain, and so far enjoying it as just as much.

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So much, that I've decided to go to Malaysia for my next year's trip.

Tell me, dear readers and fellow bloggers, what reading type are you? And do you re-read old favourites?

Friday, April 21, 2017

Of Notebooks and Chocolate Bunnies

In the midst of my usual almost-end-of-semester chaos, I'm late to the discussion about how we keep track of ideas. But I did take a photo this morning. Here's my current notebook.  I've had this notebook for years. I bought it one Christmas as a stocking-stuffer for myself – intending to keep a journal when the new year began. I never got around to the journal. But I have enjoyed looking at the notebook's lovely pristine pages. A couple of months ago, I had an idea and no other paper handy. I grabbed the notebook and a red pen and wrote down my semi-brilliant idea before it could slip away. I am now using my notebook to record random thoughts.

This notebook is in addition to the five files I have on my computer with notes about potential books or short stories. I sometimes forget those files. But when I go back to them I'm always pleased that I have a plot factory quietly churning away. I'm also dismayed at how many ideas I have with limited time to develop them. But sometimes the ideas come together – as in the case of the short story set in 1948 that I have coming out in EQMM. Random thoughts became ideas that finally took shape and came together when I did some research.

That brings me to the chocolate bunnies in this post. Here is my cat Harry's plate. I took this photo this morning. His plate is one of the reasons I choked when I tried to eat the chocolate bunny that I bought during the Easter candy sale. I haven't had a bunny in years and I thought it would be a treat.

But as soon as I chopped the head off I remembered the headless corpse of one of the rabbits who was living in my yard. I came upon it one morning as I was walking to my car. The rabbit had apparently been the victim of one of the cats who pass through my yard. The memory of that headless rabbit – and that I could never eat rabbit stew (made by my mother when my father went hunting) when I was a child – gave me some clue about why I was having a hard time eating my chocolate bunny. Harry's plate this morning gave me the rest of the story. This is what he left after gobbling down his breakfast of rabbit and pumpkin. Harry has a finicky stomach so I didn't argue when his vet suggested I vary his canned prescription cat food, alternating between chicken and rabbit. I didn't argue but I did say, "Yuck!" Which suggested that I am much more squeamish about fluffy bunnies than about chickens. At any rate, watching Harry gobble his weekly canned rabbit reminded me once again that my sweet, gentle cat would hunt and kill his own bunny if he were allowed outside.

So because of a headless corpse, rabbit stew, and Harry's gourmet cat food, I choked on my chocolate. That got me thinking about characters and how something as simple as a chocolate bunny can be a way into understanding a character and revealing something about her or him to readers.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rough Justice


Aline’s entry, below, got us Type M-ers talking about how some of us keep notes, in one way or another, of stories we’ve heard or read about, that finally end up in our books. I am particularly guilty of doing that.

I’ve lived most of my life in the American West, which is a gold mine of eccentric behavior that is better than anything I could make up. My books and stories are full of tales that others have told me or snippets I have read in the paper, or events I was involved in when I was a slip of a lass—sometimes things that I have remembered for decades. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend who is very into research on her ancestry, and she told me a tale about a forebear of hers who pretended to commit suicide on the front porch of the lady who had rejected him. I immediately filed that tale away for use in a future Alafair Tucker mystery.

My own relatives have provided me with a wealth of material, though I have to admit that some ancestral events are too grim or shocking to use in the type of series I’m writing without being…let us say, cleaned up a bit. There is one family tale that I’ve used as inspiration for murder more than once, but never actually written about. One of my maternal grandfather’s sisters, whom I will call Violet, was married to a man who regularly abused her, but she kept it a secret from her family for years. Until her husband (let’s call him Perry) finally beat her so badly that she took the children and went home to her parents. Her face was so pulped that her father, my great-grandfather, grabbed a pistol and ran out of the house, intending to do justice right then and there.

My great-grandmother didn’t care about the abuser, but she did care about her husband and had no desire to see him hanged for murder, so she persuaded her sons (including my grandfather) wrestle their father to the ground and prevent him from leaving the house. I fear that eventually my great aunt went back to her abuser, who also was a womanizer and cheated on her regularly. But this was in the late 1910s in the wilds of Arkansas, and women had few other options back in the day. My great-grandfather was a Baptist circuit preacher, and I’m sure divorce was not an option.

The story has an interesting ending, however. Shortly thereafter, Perry was found dead by the road, a bullet in his head, apparently shot right off his horse. No one was ever charged with the crime. Was he killed by a cuckolded husband or the relative of a wronged woman? Or did one of Violet’s brothers, or even my preacher great-grandfather, decided to take matters into his own hands? However Perry met his end, he brought it on himself in those days of rough justice.

Violet didn’t have a lot of time to enjoy her freedom. She was killed in a car wreck in the 1920s, and her children were raised by Perry’s parents.

I love to learn the details of a life, and there is no one who has ever lived who doesn’t have a fascinating story, whether they share it with us or not, whether we ever know about it or not. It seems important to me that our tales by shared, because the joys and tragedies of every life are what binds us together as human beings.

p.s. Someday I’m going to ask permission from my living relatives to tell some of our more shocking family stories. I’ll bet that when they brought into the light of day, we will hear from many people who have shared our experiences and lived to tell about it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Politics and the Pen

Barbara here. It seems right now politics is foremost on everyone's mind. As the world teeters dangerously closer  to war, as leaders rattle sabres and trade threats, it's difficult to keep our gazes resolutely turned away, ignoring the rumblings and avoiding any kind of discussion on the subject. I suspect not too many Passover and Easter gatherings escaped without a single mention of missiles and egomaniacs, no matter what one's political stripe.

My favourite social media sites are full of it, with the resulting flame wars, outraged "unfriending", and accusations of stupidity and heartlessness. There are those who insist they will always stand up for truth, equity, and justice. There are others who are overwhelmed by helplessness and just want a respite from the fruitless anger and fear. They have withdrawn from social media altogether or choose nothing but flowers and cute puppy pics.

Social media, with their instant communication, relative anonymity, and impatience with subtlety or complexity (why use a paragraph to express your thoughts when you can use an emoji), fuel this polarized, oversimplified discourse. And sometimes we authors find ourselves caught in the thick of it.

By nature, we writers are thinkers and communicators. We reflect on the world and want to share our thoughts and observations. If we weren't, we'd fix cars instead; it pays better. Crime writers in particular are concerned with questions of moral and social justice, of right and wrong, of good and evil. We grapple with heroes and villains every day. So not only do politics seep into our writing, we usually don't try to avoid them. We want to talk about the ills of the world.

Most crime writers I know lean towards the progressive end of the political spectrum. I realize this is an oversimplification, because even the "spectrum" is multi-dimensional, but in general our exploration of interpersonal struggles and our quest for social justice in the stories we tell, together with the empathy we develop as we step into the shoes of many different characters, leads us to a nuanced and tolerant understanding. As many scholars have observed, the less a person knows about a subject, the more certain they are. Conversely, the more a person learns about a subject, the less they "know".

Many crime writers prefer to leave behind the simpler world of black and white in favour of the grey zones of human frailty, conflict, and failings. Politics can't help but sneak in, whether in overt themes such as poverty, racism, and exploitation or in more subtle, personal themes of greed, family dysfunction and unattainable dreams. It's part of who we are as writers, and to ask us to stop writing about the challenges of today's world and simply focus on telling a "good story", is like asking a bird to fly without wings.

Sometimes we're not even aware of the political biases in our books, and we're surprised when a reader expresses their disapproval. Some readers go so far as to say they will never read another book by us. No writer wants to lose readers, but after a brief period of soul-searching, most of us dust ourselves off, shrug, and carry on, muttering privately that the reader probably wouldn't enjoy our next book anyway.

Socia media are a different story. As the recent horrific murder illustrates, social media have a dark, unpredictable side. Writers often have an eclectic mix of friends from around the world, some of whom we've met only casually through conferences and book events. Often a joy of reading has brought us together. With all of them, we writers enjoy sharing book talk and other thoughts of the day, including political opinions, without expecting flame wars, name calling, or unfriending. We react like anyone else; sometimes we block, unfollow or unfriend, sometimes we just delete the comment, sometimes we engage the commenter in a discussion.

But sometimes we feel a twinge of alarm. Social media trolls can be more that just a nuisance; they can be threatening and dangerous. Public figures can be the targets of extraordinary, unfiltered hatred, so much so that some have shut down their accounts, changed addresses, and retreated from the public eye. The more public and outspoken we writers become, the more vulnerable we are to this fringe element. Not just ourselves, but our families. Most of the time, it's all sound and fury signifying nothing, but it only takes one person ...

This should not, and will not, shut us up, but it does give us pause. Who knows where I live? Who knows where my children go to school? What invisible bear might I poke simply by creating this story or posting this opinion? I'd love to hear what others' thoughts and experiences have been, and how they have handled it.