Sunday, July 31, 2005

Warren Road by Peter Sellers

This is a short story in the latest Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I've never read Peter Sellers before and I'm heartily glad I read this story. Very atmospheric. Creepy even, and I did not anticipate the twist at the end. Nicely done. Still, there is the feeling, I think, that this story could have been longer without suffering and probably with some benefit. This is a common complaint I have with crime short fiction but usually it has to do with the development of the characters. In this case, I think it has to do with wanting to see more of what the characters were up to.

There was also a plot point involving olives that I didn't quite understand. I take that to be my own slow-wittedness, however.

In any event, overall reading the story was time well spent.

Writing So Far -Enter The Narrator

The novel I announced as begun a little while back has moved along a bit, but it's disappointing. I think I need it to be in first person. Otherwise, my narrator is sounding too clinical, and the words bore me as I put them up on the computer screen. Of course, that's not necessarily the narrator's fault. I might well have the right narrator and simply need to stake a claim to a POV character. Some of the better series out there belong to 3rd person narrators (I'm specifically thinking of Ian Rankin's Rebus series at the moment, but there are others).

Or maybe I just need to reread what I have so far and see if it's as badd as I think. But then I hate rereading my stories before they're done. I usually write so quickly, that there isn't much need to. This time may be different.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Brown on Brown - Manuel Ramos

Another novel by Manuel Ramos. More excellent work. Prose as smooth as jazz. Smooth jazz, not that unsmooth stuff. This time the plot was complicated enough to confuse me. I'm not sure that's a good thing, but I like seeing Luis Montez squirm and he certainly did that here. There is also a real social issue at play with part of the plot centering on southwest water rights. For a native New Yorker it's a little hard to imagine that anyone is still fighting over that kind of thing -- are people still killing over the sheep vs cows issue? But I remember being in Alburquerque a few years ago when a bunch of people were running for mayor and the main question was how the town would be getting its water in the future. All the candidates said they'd get it from a nearby Indian tribe. Sounded ominous.

Anyway, Brown on Brown -- racial tension, water wars, love with a woman who later tries to kill you (could Luis be that unlucky? Maybe it wasn't him. Read the book yourself and see.) what else could anyone want?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Another Day, Another Manuel Ramos Post

You'll think this is some kind of addiction, but it's not. There's a method to the madness. I've just finished "Blues for the Buffalo" and just started "Brown on Brown." About "Blues" what can I say that I haven't said about other writings by Manuel Ramos? Who knew Denver was so seriously whacked out? Once again, there's a smooth jazz prose unraveling a tight-knit mystery. Once again Ramos highlights both Chicano past and Denver present (ca. 1997). The story has incest, extortion, of course murder, and, this time, poets. And no matter which crime you look at in this book, the doer is never who you think it is. Unless you're better at this than I am, which, I have to admit, is not all that difficult.

There's also a growing role for Jesus Montez, Luis's near-80 year old dad. You have to like him, and I keep hoping for him to take the lead in solving a case the way some people have told me they want to see Mari solve a case in the Precinct Puerto Rico books. Who knows?

I'll save my words about "Brown on Brown" until I've gotten further along. I'll say for now that the first two chapters have a kick to them that promises good things.

Harry Potter and the ...

How do people read so fast? The book went up for sale yesterday and there are 564 reviews of it on Amazon. I saw the book. It's got to be about 650 pages longs. If I did nothing but read, that would take me three days. Minimum. If I was working at the time, it would take me weeks.

I saw the latest HP movie on DVD a couple of nights ago. I kept wondering when Gary Oldman would get a chance to say a few lines. I think he's one of the more interesting actors around. (Have you seen him in the Fifth Element? And his sermon in The Scarlet Letter was better than Demi Moore's "Let's take a bath thereby showing off a finely sculpted Puritan body to another woman" scene in an otherwise complete disaster of a film.) Apparently the producers of HP3 didn't think so highly of him as they gave him as much airtime as they did to a Hippogriff - a half duck, half horse thing that... well... it doesn't matter does it?

Anyway, I've been trying to figure out how I can create a similar craze for my books. Nothing comes to mind yet. At least nothing legal.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Manuel Ramos, Again

I'm studying up on my Manuel Ramos. I find that I'm far behind. Everyone has heard of him. Everyone has admired his writing for years. And I'm such a slow reader that it'll be a month before I catch up. If he puts out another book, I'm screwed.

I finished "The Last Client of Luis Montez." Brilliant. Once again the writing is smooth as a baby's forearm. The plot is gripping. The prose is fluid. The story is tight. Nothing is wasted, everything has its use. Except maybe Percival and Frances. Not sure about that. Still, a great read.

So why isn't he at the top of the best seller's list? Aldo Calcagno asks. I have ten answers but I'm not sure which is right. Maybe they all are.

1. Ramos is latino. Montez is latino. Who wants to read about latinos? Sure I do. Maybe you do. But we need to convince a half million others to take the plunge.

2. Lots of good writers don't make the best seller's list. I'm pretty good, but I haven't made any lists. Good reviews, but no list. I've tried pretty hard to get my name out there, but no list. That's publishing.

3. Blame his publishers.

4. He did something in a previous life that keeps him mid-list. As a fairly traditional Christian, I can't endorse that one, but I toss it out there for your consideration.

5. Manuel Ramos is purposefully trying to keep a low profile. When the time is right, he will pounce on the publishing world, banish J.K. Rowling from the top of the NY Times bestseller's list, and, in fact, make that particular list useless as readers learn that besides his books in the top fifteen there will only be room for "Oh, The Places You Will Go!" by Dr. Seuss.

6. Oprah hasn't read him yet.

7. His books are simply too thin. Brevity is all well and good, but for bestseller status a book must be long (except for that one by Seuss) since it is in long books that humanity finds solace.

8. He writes about Denver. Denver is nice, but, well, it's Denver. Not exotic, not quaint. Just Denver. When he writes about Prague, Venice, or Havana, the money will come in so fast, he'll need to hire someone to count it. That person will be so overburdened that they'll request an assistant. Ramos will deny the request, and the money counter will have to resort to weighing the money in garbage bags.

9. Real work like lawyering and teaching keep Ramos from touring the country or mounting a serious promotional campaign.

10. Ramos is so good, other writers have conspired to keep him down. Without this conspiracy, it would just be him and Seuss. Have you seen the recent Cheerios commercials? The restaurant with nothing but Cheerios on the menu? The supermarket with aisle after aisle of Cheerios? Imagine a world where ONLY Manuel Ramos novels were for sale. True, that wouldn't be so bad -- I like both Ramos and Cheerios -- but it would be a disaster for writers.

If you've got a better idea, let me know. Reading "Blues for the Buffalo" next.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Noir Thing, Part III

I just saw an episode of The Shield on DVD - great show. Anyway, it reminded me of something that used to happen in one of my old neighborhoods in The Bronx. Lots of trucks would pull off of I-95 in the early mornings and with some regularity they'd get robbed -- someone would watch for the trucks, toss a burning garbage can or mattress or sofa, etc into the road and when the truck stopped, the back of the truck would be opened and the merchadise taken -- if the trucker tried to do anything, he'd get dragged out and roughed up -- I often heard of naked truckers asking for help once their entire truck was taken from them. Could never figure out why an eighteen wheeler wouldn't just plow through.

This is not the sort of thing that made the news in NYC in the bad old days. It was simply part of the cost of doing business.

City bus drivers leaving the depots in the early hours faced the same troubles -- they used to carry paper transfer tickets -- you pay your fare, the driver gave you a transfer and you could then get on your next bus for free. Some drivers woudl routinely refuse to pick up passengers in the first couple of stops if they passengers were black or hispanic youths -- too high a risk of having a knife put to their throats -- not that they would hestiate to hand over the transfers (I'm talking about packs of them which could later be resold to rush hour commuters looking to save a little). The trick is that when there's a knife to your throat it isn't really YOUR actions that you worry about -- it's the other guy's actions. Even if you do everything that you're told to do, the guy calling the shots might still stick you.

Shows you the difficulties inherent in traveling through NYC. Here's a statistic that most don't recognize:

You'll remember that Black Day - 9/11/01. 22 NYC police officers (not counting Port Authority police) were murdered that day - 22. That's too many, of course. It's tragic. But, in 2001, more NYC taxi drivers were murdered than police officers. In fact, for several years, killing cabbies (not yellow cab guys; we're talking about what are often refered to as "Gypsy Cab" drivers) killing cabbies was a gang initiation ritual -- you get a cabbie to take you to some bogus address -- an abandoned building for instance, then you shoot him in the back through the driver's seat. Grab his money while you're at it. Over thirty times in 2001. Can't say how often I was refused service. Even in broad daylight.

The Noir Thing, Part II

When I was a teenager, I almost (stress on almost) walked into a real live shootout. I was walking to the train station near my home on a winter's day, eating peanuts or chips of something when I saw two old guys crouching behind a car. One of them motioned to me - get down! he said. I thought he was nuts and kept walking. Twenty yards later and another two old guys behind another car, they tried to wave me to the ground - get down! again. I began to wonder, but I certainly didn't stop walking. There were a lot of old people in my neiughborhood and if you stopped for every time they said something strange, well, you'd get nowhere.

Further on and I notice a couple of cop cars parked near the train station stairway at Pelham Parkway (the #2 line in the Bronx for those keeping score). There were cops crouched behind the cars, guns drawn. Nothing to do with me or anyone else as far as I could see. They were facing the Little Chester Shoe Store. A train, not mine, was pulling in on the tracks above me. Tons of noise. From about thirty yards away, I see a man leave the store, I see him double over, I see him run away from me around a corner, I see several uniformed police officers run after him. I keep walking.

Turns out, the man had gotten lousy service at the store and killed five people with a handgun. When he left the store, one of the cops had blasted a shotgun round through the rear passenger window of his squad car and into the man's gut causing him to double over. He managed to make it around the corner but collapsed soon after and was piled on by police. I never broke my stride and made it to the train station in the wake of running police officers. I had not seen a man shot before or since. I think the shot was fatal. Were there people in the store gasping their last breaths as I passed on my way to the train? Yes.

Here's the noir part - I heard (but don't know if it is true) that a survivor reported that a mother shopping with her two boys rushed them to the back of the store, away from the gunman, as the shooting started. The gunman, of course, was headed to the back himself. That is, in fact, where he found the mother and her children (as well as one of the shop owners) and killed them. Had she stayed in the side aisle where they had been looking at shoes, he might never have seen them.

Location, Location, Location...

I've sold five books and several short stories. Two of the short stories were set in places other than the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico -- everything else is set on the island.

I've been asked several times whether I would ever write anything about NYC where I was born and lived for about 30 years. Tom Cushman asked. My editor Marcia Markland asked. Readers have asked. So now I'm thinking sure, why not?

Originally, I wanted to avoid NYC as a setting because, well, weren't there already a dozen great mystery writers covering the city? Wasn't I on more or less virgin territory with Puerto Rico?

Also, at the time I started writing, who cared about crime in NYC? There was a stretch of years when, in real life, NYC averaged six murders a day. That's SIX with a capital 6. Every day of the year. No breaks for Christmas or New Year's. The Daily News reported some murders with three inches of column space -- real space was reserved for unusual murders: murder/suicides, multiple murders, etc. One gets a bit jaded. Still, I think I've got an angle now.

Also, now that I've been away from NYC for a while and have listened to what passes for news outside of NYC for three years, I think of NYC crime as newsworthy again.

But what else attracts a crime reader to the locale? I mean, what's so special about NYC now that they've gotten the murder rate to something less than two per day? I'll have to think on that.

The Next Great Thing

I'm trying to decide which writing project to take up in what's left of the summer. So far, the front runner is a novel set in NYC. It would focus on two detectives from the Bronx Homicide Taskforce (or maybe the 52nd Precinct). In any event, this is a novel I fully plotted out in outline form, something I've never done before. I did the outlining at Left Coast Crime this past February. It's wierd working from an outline. I've written seven novels (sold five) and never used an outline -- it never even occured to me really. Usually I just describe the scenes from the movies playing in my head. But now that I have an outline, and a movie, I wonder why I should bother to write it out full length. I mean, unlike the other novels, I feel I know what's going to happen at every turn -- no element of surprise. Why bother? Oh well. A writer's problem.

I've got about six weeks left before the semester begins. Can I write an entire book in that time? Let's just say it's iffy. I'll keep you updated.

BTW, I'm about 2,000 words in having started on July 4th.

Tattersby and the Old Curiosity Shed - Neil Schofield

An excellent story in the latest (I think) AHMM. Not only was the plot complex, but anyone who has read the previous posts about stories will know that the characters were well developed. Of course, I restrict myself to Tattersby himself. I kept thinking of the retired police officer on the BBC comedy "Last of the Summer Wine": Truly? Truelove? Anyway, this police officer had dry wit and a keen mind. There is a sort of justice meted out here thought I doubt it would pass muster in an American court.

The story is longish, which I think helped make it as good a read as it is. There was space to develop a back story and to get Tattersby into conversations that revealed his personality. Many stories fail, I think, because they don't take this kind of time. Neil Schofield has, however, scored a hit with his story.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Kamo Horse - IJ Parker

This is a story from the October 2003 Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (don't worry, a EQMM story is coming soon) and it's a great one. There are at least a couple of great twists that caught me off guard (not in itself anything to be proud of since I can be caught off guard by a candy bar wrapper) and, most importantly, I found myself really connecting to Akitada as a person. This, for me, is the clincher in a story. If you make the characters attractive, I'll be happy to read as they do just about anything. If I don't care about the characters, then I really won't be interested even if they're trying to defuse a nuclear device. I like Akitada and will read more about him. Hey, isn't there a novel out? Check here.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Manuel Ramos, Part Two

Finished "The Ballad of Gato Guerrero." Amazing. Ramos should be given an award of some kind. Seriously.

The story concerns Luiz Montez, Ramos's series character, and his friend Felix "Gato" Guerrero. Gato, of course, means Cat, and Guerrero, (a relatively common Spanish surname) means Warrior. Enough of that. The deal is that Gato has a girlfriend and she has a husband. Ah, quite bad, you see. Make that husband a mobster type and things get worse. Make Gato a Vietnam vet with a sharpshooter's eye and a temper and... well, you can see the trouble. So can Luis Montez. That doesn't mean there's much he can do about it though. Or is there?

In any event, experience the joy of this Ballad for yourself. As Martha Stewart used to say before heading off for the pokey -- "It's a Good Thing."