Monday, May 30, 2005

Informing the Mole

I just picked up the double issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and (given my reading speed) I read a truly short story by Arthur Porges called "Informing the Mole." For the 500 to one thousand word length, it is quite good. The difficulties are instructive however.

A terrorist is being interrogated about a dirty bomb. There is the interrogator, three officers from federal agencies and a Navy Commander. One of them is a mole. The difficulty in the story is that none of them is fully drawn. Of course, they can't be in so short a space. I wish the story were longer for this reason. For me, a good story hinges on the depiction of the characters -- if I care about them at the end, then it was a good story.

Still, a nice plot twist at the end made the story enjoyable overall.

Saturday, May 28, 2005


I have an apartment with a basement and the basement has about 2,000 books. Many of these are To Be Read. The grand majority are NOT mysteries. A lot of History, Philosophy, and Classic Literature. Since I read slowly, I have reading matter for the rest of my life. Right now, I'm concentrating on mysteries, at least until the Fall semester begins. Over the Summer I should get to read about six or seven novels (if I concentrate).

Right now, To Be Read, I have Michele Martinez's MOST WANTED (page 60; loving it), Alicia Gaspar de Alba's DESERT BLOOD (Read the opening pages a couple of days ago - grabs you by the throat), and Manuel Ramos's THE BALLAD OF GATO GUERRERO. Something of a Latino kick, I guess. Seems appropriate.

Manuel Ramos, Part I

Here’s the deal: I met Manuel Ramos in Las Vegas for Bouchercon a couple of years ago. We didn’t get to talk, and I didn’t know then who he was. Now I’ve read a couple of his novels and had some email correspondence with him. I’m supposed to eventually put together an article about him (Suggestions on what angle to take would be welcome). This will be delayed because I read very slowly, sometimes taking a month between beginning and ending a novel (and I don’t mean War and Peace).

The books I’ve read are The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz and Mooney’s Road to Hell. Excellent books, the both of them. Here is what surprises me most about his books: his graceful writing style. He either cares a great deal about each sentence or he’s a natural poet. Or both. I don’t say this because I expected bad prose. I don’t think mystery writers are less artistic than literary writers – there are plenty of so-called literary writers who couldn’t turn a nice phrase to save themselves from eternal damnation. But I had heard Ramos’s books were noiry and hard-boiled – I expected the sentences to be staccato or in some way hard-edged. I didn’t expect lyricism. Surprise!

Anyway, were I a more organized man, I'd have examples of his lyricism. Instead, let me just say that the quality perfumes his books. I've just gotten The Ballad of Gato Guerrero from the Black Orchid Bookshop in NYC, and can't wait to get to it. It's third on my list of TBR.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Alicia Gaspar de Alba - Desert Blood

Just wanted to report that Black Orchid Bookstore in NYC sent me a copy of Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders (Bonnie and Joe are good people who will track down titles and ship them out). I read the opening chapter – gripping. You know how they say that the mystery writer should drop the body in the first chapter? Well, if you haven’t heard of the Juárez murders, it may interest you to know that this book is based on real incidents that have been happening in that city for some years now. There are about four hundred bodies that have dropped – all women, mostly raped or mutilated – plastic bags melted onto their faces, eyes removed, wombs removed. Not much action taken on either side of the border, not because these women are prostitutes – they aren’t. But because they are factory workers and their daughters. That is, they are brown and poor.

I have a feeling this will be very noir indeed. But pale in comparison to the truth.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Steven's Theory of Writing Fiction

Focus on characters. When I started writing seriously, it was in response to reading Anthony Trollope's Autobiography. Trollope was a Victorian novelist, rival of Charles Dickens. Better than Dickens in my view. One of his provisos in that book was that one should be careful to create characters that people would care about -- not always likeable, but always interesting. Give the reader a good character, and they'll watch that character even as he ties his shoelaces. Present a character they don't like, and it won't make any difference what he or she does -- the readers won't care.

My Gonzalo character is supposed to be likeable. He's a good man, a smart man, a real man -- or so I hope. And a good man in a bad situation, that's drama. I think.

Delayed Gratification...

As part of the writing life. This, I think, is the part of the writing life that doesn't get readily understood by most of the fans (or others) who ask me about the writing life. There is just about no business in the world that is slower than publishing. Forget about how long it takes to write a novel -- once it is written and you have an agent (which I have never had) and you have a publisher (which I do have) you still have a year or more to wait before you see a copy of the book. Longer, much longer, to see royalties.

The short story market is faster. The stories take less time to write, and the acceptance or rejection comes back in a month or two or three. Publication usually follows soon (relatively speaking) after. A few months.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


That throat clearing is not just the start of an announcement, it is part of it as well. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine has taken one of my stories. I can't say how much this pleases me. For some reason, I have thought of the two biggest mystery publications as a sort of holy grail of short story writing. Not because they carry the best story -- CrimeSpree Magazine is just as good as far as I can see. AHMM pays however. The money's not that important. (Though quite nice.) But it insures competition.

Intersting to me, I think I've written better stories. CrimeSpree published one of them in January -- "Stoop, The Thief." Still, there is a very real sense in which I cannot be the best judge of my own writing.

Another point of interest -- the story is based on a true story that occurred in Puerto Rico about fifteen years ago. Can't say more until it comes out.

Loving Peter Lovesey

I first read Peter Lovesey last year -- one of the Inspector Diamond novels which I loved quite a lot. There was a problem with that one -- a bullet that went through someone's skull and came out intact on the other side. Doesn't quite seem realistic to me. Still, that was the only hitch and I have a couple more books by Lovesey on my TBR pile (a pile that currently holds about 1,000 titles. No joke.).

More recently, I read a Lovesey short story that appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. A magazine I hope to get into one day. Perhaps if I am very, very good.

The story was called "The Man Who Jumped for England." It was good, but slight. That is, it, like many, many other crime short stories, turns on a twist ending. The shorter the story, the more its merits will rest on that final twist. I think this distorts the genre in a way that doesn't happen at the novel length. It is difficult, in little space, to make the outcome seem natural. Of course, often in a novel length work the ending is not natural, but there is the space to make it SEEM natural. For instance, red herrings can be cleverly concealed in a novel. In a short story, this is much more difficult. Kind of like playing hide and go seek in a room with no furniture.

ANyway, this was supposed to be about Peter Lovesey - great writer. "The Man Who Jumped for England"? A good short story. Probably an even better long story.

Friday, May 20, 2005

“The Hunter” by Joyce Carol Oates

This story is in an old Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine from a couple of years ago. There is a problem with it. I’m not sure why, but I’m finding it tough going though it is only about ten pages long and I skipped a page. I just can bring myself to finish it. Frankly, I think I’m bored. Ms. Oates (whose story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I have taught several times in class) tries to present the inner workings of a sick mind, but it seems a bit forced to me. Hold on…

I’ve finished reading the story now. Still don’t like it. Still seems forced, and I certainly don’t feel like I was actually in the mind of a psychopath. Not Ms. Oates’s best work.

Martin Limón, Part 2

I found another story by Martin Limón. This one was called “The Widow Po,” and it ran in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine a couple of years ago. Another excellent story. It is set in South Korea and has as protagonists two GI investigators. There’s a séance and plenty of atmosphere. It feels like I’ve learned something about Korean culture. Of course, there is no way for me to check that, but the illusion is seamless. Limón, I find was stationed in Korea as a soldier for ten years, so no doubt he knows whereof he speaks. Again, fully formed characters and a rich backstory though not quite as good as “Death of an Aztec Princess”. I’m anxious to try one of his novels.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Martin Limon

Just finished reading my first story by Martin Limon, "Death of an Aztec Princess" in the current Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. This is a magazine I hope to one day be published in, but if Martin Limon is my competition, I don't stand a chance. Probably one of the best mystery short stories I've ever read, and I've read Chandler, Hammett et al.

The story introduces a new character for Limon, if I understand correctly, a private eye who goes by the name of Gonzo. Anyway, it is told quite beautifully -- Limon is able to pack in so much more than just a plot: well drawn, full blooded characters (and not just the main character either) a little sociological study of Los Angeles and of Chicano culture to name a couple of items. In any event, I will be looking for more stuff by this author. Bob Tinsley's review of the story (I'll link later) turned me on to it, and for that, I am grateful.

The Whole Noir Thing, Part One

The stories I write tend to be boiled -- whether hard-boiled or soft-boiled depends on the reader I ask. There's violence but it's not gory (for the most part), very little cursing, and just about no sex.

I don't write noir. Here's the difference as far as I can see. In hardboiled fiction, there is violence and sometimes sex, but the main character believes it all means something. That is, living in this world is painful but worth it. In Noir, living in this world is just painful. I believe life is worth living and that there is good in the world. True noir (I think a lot of hardboiled stuff is labeled noir without really being so) doesn't appeal to me. The concept seems fake to me.

From second grade through the fifth, I lived in a part of the Bronx where murder was literally a daily occurence. There was a heroin shooting gallery in the abandoned building across the street from us. Junkies stumbled in and out of the building at all times, often leaving lit candles behind which became minor blazes requiring the NYFD to respond. My father twice had guns put to his head, once to the forehead, once to the nape of his neck. How's this for name dropping -- when I was a child I got to see Paul Newman in the flesh when he came to my neighborhood to film part of a movie called "Fort Apache, The Bronx." The movie is known for portraying the grittiest grit in a gritty city.

When I was twelve, I met a man (we were living in his mother's apartment for a few weeks while my parents looked for one of our own) this man wound up dead just a short while later. Murdered. Not too shocking. Lots of people get murdered. This guy, however, was found little by little -- one piece in a garbage can, one piece under a bridge, one piece in the trunk of an abandoned car, etc. Pretty noir, no?

Yet all these lives have meaning. I didn't say "had" because they continue to have meaning -- even the heroin addicts, even the guy who got chopped up. I think to suggest otherwise is simply to not have known these people.

Monday, May 16, 2005

First post

What to say, what to say? Well, perhaps just that I write crime novels and short stories and that I read the same. While I'm a quick writer, I am a precious slow reader. I suspect my posts will be more about writing than my reading for this reason. There. That's out of the way.