Posts Tagged ‘Crime writing’

Can a Writer Retire?

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Philip Roth, long one of my favorite writers, recently announced his retirement. In his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side there’s reportedly a post-it note stuck on his computer screen that says, “The struggle with writing is over.”

But how does a writer retire?  Particularly one as single-mindedly devoted to his craft as Roth.

Philip RothFor more than fifty years Roth wrote constantly, turning out book after book from the novella Goodbye Columbus in his early twenties in 1959 to his last, Nemesis published in 2010.  More than thirty books, some better than others, but all with legitimate literary merit.

According to a piece by David Remnick in the New Yorker, “Roth’s writing days were spent in long silence-no distractions, no invitations entertained, no calls, no e-mails. After I wrote a Profile of Roth, around the time of the publication of “The Human Stain,” we would meet every so often, and he told me the story of how a friend had asked him to take care of his kitten. “For a day or two, I played with the cat, but, in the end, it demanded too much attention,” he said. “It consumed me, you see. So I had to ask my friend to take it back.” Four years ago, he told me that he was interested in trying to break the “fanatical habit” of writing, if only as an experiment in alternative living. “So I went to the Met and saw a big show they had. It was wonderful. Astonishing paintings. I went back the next day. I saw it again. Great. But what was I supposed to do next, go a third time? So I started writing again.”

My question is what will he do this time?  Go back to the Met over and over and over? 

Nevertheless Roth claims he has already said what he had to say.   In Remnick’s piece, Roth quotes the boxer Joe Louis  “‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had… I don’t think a new book will change what I’ve already done, and if I write a new book it will probably be a failure. Who needs to read one more mediocre book?”

I repeat my question, what will he do this time.  Keep returning to the Met?  He’s not young.  He turns eighty this year. But his mind is still sharp. His skills have barely diminished, if at all.  And writing a book is not an effort that demands physical strength like mining for coal or loading heavy furniture onto a moving van to help a still-active crime writer move from his island home to Portland.  Most writers, with some obvious exceptions, are not people who worked simply to make money, to amass a fortune and, having amassed it, now want to spend the rest of their days doing something more fun like chasing potential trophy wives. Or doing something more noble like helping hungry children in Africa or starting a foundation.

Philip Roth is and I believe always will be a writer. Being a writer requires a certain turn of mind. To sit (or in Roth’s case stand) at a desk and dream what it is like to live someone else’s life.  Whether you’re Roth who, no doubt, will be long remembered for his best works or James Hayman who almost certainly won’t, a writer writes. And both Roth and I are writers.

Somebody once asked Mel Brooks who is 87, when, if ever, he planned to retire.  He reportedly responded “Retire? Retire from what? I sit in a chair with a pencil and pad and when I think of something that makes me laugh, I write it down.”

I’m considerably younger than either Roth or Brooks. I’ve still got most of my hair, though now it’s mostly silver instead of its original black. And I’m certainly not as obsessive or disciplined about my writing as Roth.  I do go to parties. I do go to movies and museums. I do have lunch with friends. But at the end of the day, or more accurately, at the beginning of the next day, I go back to my writing.  I feel pretty much the way Brooks does. There’s never any reason to retire from a writing career other than Alzheimers , the horrible disease that felled British writer Iris Murdoch.

Harper Lee wrote one book. She published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1961. And, as far as anyone knows, has written little, if anything since.  Like Mel Brooks she’s now 87.  I don’t know how she did it or how she spends her days. But I think she’s an anomaly.

 Some retirees play golf.  Others do good works. Or take care of their grandchildren. Or travel. I’m not a golfer and at this point have no grandchildren. I have enough money not to be forced to put on a blue jacket and welcome people to Walmart. While I’ve served on a few boards, I’m not very good at it.  I’d like to be able to travel but nobody ever said you can’t travel and still write. In fact, writers have the unique luxury of legitimately being able to deduct the cost of travel from their taxes as research or reading tours. Even Amtrak is reportedly offering writers free train rides as “fellowships,” to write and I for one love writing on trains.

Having recently completed and survived a move from our island home to a house in Portland, I’ve started, after an enforced hiatus, to get back to writing my fourth McCabe/Savage thriller.  I’m 17,000 words in and I like what I’ve got so far and, more importantly, I’m enjoying the days I get to spend inside my characters’ heads.  It’s where I want to be.

 I hope, like Elmore Leonard or Mel Brooks, I’ll still be at it when (and if) I hit 87. I just hope that if I am, someone will want to read about the people I bring to life inside my head and on my computer.

 

The Problem With “Nice”

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

At the risk of appearing Scrooge-like in this season of Merry, Happy and Ho-Ho-Ho, I’d like to add my two cents to a kerfuffle over book reviews that’s been brewing both in the print media and on the Internet for the past month or so.

If you haven’t been following it, the brouhaha started when a popular website called BuzzFeed hired Issac Fitzgerald who used to work as the Publicity Director for Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s Publishing Company, to serve as the editor for its Books Section. Fitzgerald accepted the job because, as he says, “I was missing what I do best, which is talk about books online.”

However, Fitzgerald apparently only likes to talk about books positively, following what he calls The Bambi Rule:  “If you can’t say something nice then don’t say nothing (sic) at all.”  (Fitzgerald acknowledges that the line originally came from Thumper). While the Bambi Rule, whether mouthed first by a rabbit or a fawn, may a good one to follow when one is generating publicity for a book as Fitzgerald used to do but it’s not one legitimate critics or reviewers should be encouraged to follow.

The problem with “nice” is that few, if any, works of fiction are perfect and it is the job of competent reviewers to point what doesn’t work in a book as well as to lavish praise on what does. Reviews should do more than just try to convince people to read the books Fitzgerald or his reviewers fall in love with.

Whether we’re talking about crime fiction, literary fiction or non-fiction, legitimate reviewers should give us a sense of what the author intended and how well they achieved their goals. It should discuss in what ways the book didn’t work as well as the ways in which it did.  Reviews should also provide insights into both the style and quality of the writing.

If the reviewer does their job well, he or she can help people intelligently decide what they want to buy and read.  Just offering an unending stream of nice, as Fitzgerald suggests, isn’t criticism or analysis. At its best, it’s marketing and should be identified as such.  Most of the reader reviews on Amazon and B&N generally fall into this category.  At its worst it’s meaningless pap.

Predictably reaction in both online and traditional media was vociferous.   Both Maureen Dowd and Bob Garfield wrote stinging op-eds on Fitzgerald’s Bambi Rule in the New York Times. Garfield sarcastically ended his piece by noting:

BuzzFeed’s heroic initiative will succeed even if it merely eradicates the depressing negativity that has for so long kept literary criticism from becoming a full-fledged economic sector, like agriculture, transport and erectile dysfunction.

It also brings us one step closer to my two lifelong dreams: first, a newspaper that delivers only good news; and second, diet bacon.”

While I agree with Dowd, Garfield and others who think Fitzgerald is doing readers a disservice, I have to say I also agree that some book reviews and reviewers are unnecessarily––if amusingly––nasty.  I’ve always loved Dorothy Parker’s oft-quoted line,“This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

On a decidedly nastier note, Garfield’s column points out that  “The Hatchet Job of the Year Award” went to a reviewer named Camilla Long of the London Times who described a writer named Rachel Cusk’s  memoir of her marital breakup as “a needy, neurotic mandolin solo” written by “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist.”

That kind of barbed and personal mud-slinging is both nasty and unnecessary. Legitimate constructive  criticism shouldn’t be.  Like any writer, I love getting good reviews and hate getting bad ones.  While I’ve never been the target of anything remotely as ugly as Ms. Long’s poison pen, I would still prefer getting a thoughtful negative review that points out legitimate flaws in my work to one that mindlessly praises it.  Constructive criticism can help me improve my writing and my books.  Empty praise serves no purpose other than to puff up my ego (which admittedly makes me feel good) and to flim-flam potential readers which doesn’t.

A good friend of mine, now in his eighties and a compulsive reader, once asked me how many years I thought I had left in my life.  I offered an optimistic number.  He then asked me to multiply that number by the number of books I usually read in a year.

Even if I made it to the ripe old age I predicted, I was shocked by how few books I’d have time to read before they carried me out.  Given the small number, I’ll continue to depend on good reviewers and thoughtful criticism to help me decide which ones to choose.

I suppose the ultimate problem with “nice” is that it smacks of the philosophy that impels adults to give every kid who participates in a race, even the one who finishes last, equal praise and maybe even a trophy. In literary criticism that simply won’t cut it.

Firing Blind in Iowa

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

James Hayman:  Imagine a blind cop or maybe a private eye whose sense of hearing or maybe smell is so acute he/she can use it to ferret it out a bad guy and make the arrest. It makes an appealing premise for the hero of a crime series.  And its actually been tried a few times in the past, mostly on TV.

Actor James Franciscus starred as blind insurance investigator Mike Longstreet (who I don’t think carried a gun) in a TV series way back in the 70’s that ran for a couple of seasons.  Six or seven years ago, Steven Bocheo, whose other credits included major hits like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, tried it again with a short lived show called Blind Justice.  And more recently the PBS series Mystery ran a show called Second Sight about a British police detective named Ross Tanner who manages to hide his gradual loss of sight over the course of two seasons and copes by developing his other senses.

In detective novels, the uncanny enhancement of untapped senses by blind detectives has also been a running theme. Way back in 1914 a writer named Ernest Smith wrote a successful series featuring a sightless sleuth named Max Carrados, who sharpens his hearing skills till he’s able to perceive sounds normally inaudible to humans. He also gathers evidence through his bloodhound-like sense of smell.  And a 1941 mystery titled The Odor of Violets featured a blind detective who also solved crimes by development of his other senses.

However crime writers on TV and in fiction, even those with blind heroes,  have generally shied away from having them pack heat or blast away at a bunch of bad guys with Glock 17’s.  And for good reason. A, It sounds imbecilic. B, it is imbecilic. And C, having a blind cop blasting away at a bunch of innocent bystanders because he thinks they smell like the bad guys would tend to make him unpopular with readers..

Today, however, reality has once again trumped fiction. The Iowa state legislature recently passed a law that, according to ABC News, “allows the legally or completely blind to acquire permits to carry guns in public.”

Applicants for gun permits in Iowa are now only required to take a firearm safety course to obtain a permit.  But the course can be taken online and does not include a vision test or vision requirement. Which means that in Iowa, blind people now have the same right to carry guns as sighted persons and the same right to use them in circumstances of “self-defense.”  Apparently, it didn’t much matter to the legislators who passed the bill that blind people can’t see who they’re shooting at. It would be sublime justice, if the first victim turned out to be a legislator.

Nonetheless, some people in Iowa think the new law is just swell. Several advocates for the blind say the law squares nicely with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the same restrictions that apply to sighted people should also apply to the blind when it comes to guns.

While personally, I’m all for giving equal opportunity to people with disabilities,  the idea of giving the blind equal access to guns scares the hell out of me. I think the idea’s ridiculous. And more than a little frightening.   Using Iowa’s logic, shouldn’t the state  start granting drivers licenses to the blind because they should have equal access to transportation. Or perhaps commercial pilots licenses to give the blind  equal access to relatively high-paid jobs in commercial aviation.

I can see it now. There you are, settling uncomfortably into your cramped window seat and buckling your seatbelt.  Suddenly a confident and manly voice comes over the intercom.  “Welcome aboard Iowa Airlines Flight 232 from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids. I’m  your pilot Captain Dick Daring and I should mention that I’ve been totally blind all my life. But don’t worry about a thing folks. I’ve got a fabulous sense of smell and I’ve been sniffing my way to Cedar Rapids airport for years now.”

The ABC News report quotes Cedar County (Iowa) Sheriff Warren Wethington: “There is no reason why someone who is blind, if properly trained, can’t operate or use a handgun or any weapon just as safely as any person who isn’t visually impaired. I have a permit to carry. It doesn’t restrict me in times of low vision. My permit is still good in heavy fog, it’s good in low light, it’s good anytime that my vision is obstructed.   If I’m in a room that is low light or total darkness, my permit is still valid, even if I can’t see better than a totally blind person.”

Wethington doesn’t address the question of whether he or any other sighted person ought to be using his or her gun either in “total darkness” or in “heavy fog.” But then he’s the Sheriff.

There is some opposition to this local version of “Blind Justice,” but it’s not very vociferous.  “I have some reservations about full access for people who are blind,” said Patrick Clancy, superintendent of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, Iowa. “That’s just because shooting requires a lot of vision to be accurate outside of controlled settings with safety courses.”  No kidding, Patrick.

Crime Writers Beware: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

In my last post I wrote about unusual ways of knocking off victims in crime novels.  This post I’ll be writing about one of the weirdest reasons to kill anyone I’ve ever come across. Karaoke. And guess what?  It’s not fiction.  It seems that people who sing Karaoke…especially Frank Sinatra’s My Way and John Denver’s “Country Roads” in bars in places like Malaysia, Thailand, China and the Phillipines are getting gunned down or hacked to death largely because of what they decide to sing.

My first clue that this was actually happening came in an article I found not in the National Enquirer where I might have expected it , but in America’s most respected  “Gray Lady”, our “newspaper of record,” the New York Times.

Under the headline “Karaoke Killing,” the Times reported:

“A 23-year-old Malaysian man was killed on Thursday night after reportedly enraging other customers who felt that he “hogged the microphone” at what Malaysia’s Star Online described as “a coffeeshop-cum-karaoke outlet” in the town of Sandakan, on the island of Borneo.

The Guardian’s Ian MacKinnon adds some regional context:

Karaoke rage is not unheard of in Asia. There have been several reported cases of singers being assaulted, shot or stabbed mid-performance, usually over how songs are sung.

Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” has reportedly generated so many outbursts of hostility that some bars in the Philippines now do not offer it on the karaoke menu anymore. In Thailand this year, a gunman shot eight people dead after tiring of their endless renditions of a John Denver tune.”

A little further research via Google revealed the John Denver tune in question was “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

Britain’s Daily Telegraph, a generally staid and politically conservative paper, reported last March that “John Denver Karaoke Sparks Thai Killing Spree.”  According to the article

“A gunman in Thailand shot-dead eight neighbours, including his brother-in-law, after tiring of their karaoke versions of popular songs, including John Denver’s Country Roads. 

Weenus Chumkamnerd, 52, put his gun to the head of a respected female doctor and seven of her guests as they partied at her home in Songkhla Province, South Thailand

“When I began shooting nobody pleaded for his life because they were all drunk,” he said after his arrest.

He said he was so furious with their awful singing that he did not notice he had murdered his own brother-in-law.

“I warned these people about their noisy karaoke parties. I said if they carried on I would go down and shoot them. I had told them if I couldn’t talk sense into them I would come back and finish them off,” he added.

Apparently he couldn’t talk sense into them.   A third and even more horrific example of Asian Karaoke killings was reported by the Telegraph exactly one year ago today on August 30, 2012.  The headline read: Chinese Toddler’s Karaoke Tantrum Ends in Bloodbath “

 

The article went on to report: 

“A Chinese toddler’s refusal to give up the microphone during a family karaoke evening started a quarrel that left two men hacked to death with a meat cleaver.

The evening began jovially enough when Mr Yun, the owner of a noodle shop in the central Chinese city of Xi’an, invited his family to celebrate Qixi, China’s Valentine’s Day, with a singing session at a local karaoke parlour.

But by 11pm, there was discord in the room. Mr Yun’s four-year-old son was hogging the microphone and his parents were indulging him.

Two of the boy’s uncles began chastising Mr Yun and his wife for having raised a spoilt child; a “Little Emperor”, as the Chinese say.

According to the Xi’an police, the argument became heated to the point where the two uncles began pushing, and then punching, Mr Yun.

Finally, Mr Yun’s nephew, who also worked in the noodle shop, ran back to the restaurant and fetched a meat cleaver.

The man, named as Mr Hui, hacked the two uncles to death, inflicting at least ten wounds on each uncle. He has since been arrested.

Lest you think these cases are unusual, just try Googling “Karaoke Murders Asia.”  When I did I got 3,460,000 hits. Admittedly many of these must be repeats of the same stories but still…

Now in our roles as crime writers we are charged with coming up with interesting and unusual motives for murder.  But I have a feeling that if any of us (with the possible exception of James Patterson who can get away with anything) ever tried in a million years to make the motive for murder somebody singing a Frank Sinatra song in an Asian Karaoke bar, your editor would laugh you out of the room. Which would be bad, unless of course you were Carl Hiaasen who likes making his editors laugh.

Darkness First

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

James Hayman:  My next McCabe thriller, Darkness First, is coming out October 1st as the lead title in Harper Collins’ brand new Witness imprint that plans on featuring mysteries and thrillers initially in Ebook format and, in most cases, later on in print.

I decided to go with Harper Collins’ after learning that, while roughly 25% of all books sold in the U.S. are sold in Ebook format, in genre fiction such as mysteries, thrillers and romance, the number is closer to 60% and rising.

Darkness First US Front CoverDarkness First is the first novel in the McCabe/Savage series to feature Detective Maggie Savage, McCabe’s partner, as the key protagonist.  Most of the story is told from her point of view.  As a male writer I wanted to try writing a novel primarily from a female point of view which turned out to be interesting, especially when it came to describing the sex scenes. The book is also the first of the series that takes place primarily outside of Portland.

In Darkness First Maggie goes home to Machias in Washington County, where she was born and raised, to help Maine State Police CID detectives and DEA agents track down a murderous oxycontin dealer who has viciously killed a young woman who worked with him. In the process, the murderer came perilously close to killing Maggie’s oldest and dearest friend, Emily Kaplan, a doctor who was trying to help the murdered woman. Eventually (naturally) the hunt for the killer takes a number of unexpected turns and draws Mike McCabe, into the case.Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 6.18.12 AM

I drew the title Darkness First from the fact that Washington County is the easternmost county in the continental United States where, as many have noted, the sun rises first in America.  I found it interesting that far fewer people had made the point that Washington County is also where darkness  arrives first.  As Hemingway might have said, the sun also sets. And, of course, bad things happen when it does.

The book introduces a number of new characters I like and who may appear again in future McCabe/Savage novels.

These include Maggie’s father, John Savage, the four term sheriff of Washington County who, “a lean six-four, with a gray mustache and a weathered face, Savage looked more like a sheriff in a John Ford western than one in a rural county in Maine. He was even armed like Wyatt Earp with his pride and joy, an original 1873 long-barreled Colt .45 Peacemaker, strapped to his waist. All he needed was a horse and a Stetson hat to complete the image.  And somewhere at home Maggie was pretty sure he had the hat.”

Another of the characters I like in this book and may use again is Maggie’s best and oldest friend, Dr. Emily Kaplan.  In addition to being a doctor, Emily, at six-foot-three and one hundred and eighty pounds, is a former all-star basketball player and a one-time world-class amateur boxer. She is also something of an idealist. Emily practices medicine out of her childhood home, “a small but pretty colonial farmhouse set at the end of a country road on the outermost edges of the village of Machiasport…It was, she liked telling the few friends from med school who bothered to visit, the global headquarters of Machiasport Family Medicine.  They would smile at her small joke and tell her how much they admired her decision to work here, among the people of the poorest and most underserved county in a poor and underserved state. A few told her they were sometimes tempted to do the same sort of thing. But, as far as she knew, none ever had. Her classmates had richer fields to till.”

In the book we also meet Maggie’s ne’r do well brother Harlan, an ex-marine who suffered serious wounds serving two tours in Iraq and who is still suffering from the effects of  PTSD.   Harlan makes much of his living, such as it is, playing pool for money in a bar, The Musty Moose, in Machias. “The pool tables in the side room at the Moose were crowded with the usual assortment of players and hangers-on. Maggie spotted Harlan in a game at table three and leaned in against the wall under the head of a long-dead bear some taxidermist had stuffed with its mouth open and fangs exposed, in full roar. The creature looked like it was seconds away from leaping off the wall and gobbling up the nearest player.

She watched her kid brother sweep the table till all that was left was the eight ball pressed against the far rail about a foot from the pocket. He had a good eye, that was for sure. Probably why they’d made him a sniper in the Corps.”  That good eye comes in handy later in the book.

The last of the characters to mention is Tabitha Stoddard, the murder victim’s eleven-year-old sister. Tabitha is a nerdy, bookish, semi-fat kid with big round glasses, who, improbably, sets herself the task of tracking down her big sister’s murderer and who, in fact, ends up being a key part of catching him. We first meet Tabitha shortly after she learns that her sister Tiffany has been murdered.

“Tabbie had a hard time thinking of Tiff as dead. Everything about her big sister had always seemed so alive. Tiff was everything Tabitha always wanted to be but knew she never would. She was beautiful. Smart. Fun and funny. The idea of someone like Tiff being dead seemed crazy. Ridiculous.

Tabbie told herself to stop being stupid. Anybody could be dead and, at eleven years old,  a person really ought to understand what being dead meant. Dead was dead. Just like Terri was dead and had been for three years. Just like Grammy Katherine was dead. And their old dog Lucy. She was dead too. Tabbie’d gone to the vet with her mother when they gave Lucy the shot. The vet put the needle in and just like that Lucy went from being an alive thing to a dead thing.  At eleven years old a person obviously knew what dead meant.

What she wasn’t all that sure about was what happened after you were dead. Were you just not there anymore? Gone. Poof. Like you never existed? Just a rotting lump of meat in a box underground being eaten up by bugs and worms?

Or was dying more like what they said in church?  Tabitha was by no means certain it was, but if it was, well then there was a distinct possibility Tiff was flying around somewhere in either heaven or hell. She was in what Mrs St Pierre who lived up the road called a better place. Mrs St Pierre came over with some cupcakes after she heard on television about Tiff being murdered. Tabbie didn’t know why Mrs. St. Pierre thought cupcakes would help but apparently she did.”

Darkness First comes out first in the British Commonwealth countries.  On September 15th, Penguin UK will release it in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and so on.  Two weeks later Harper Collins will release the book as the lead title in the launch of their new Witness Impulse E-book imprint.

The Purpose and Future of Fiction

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

James Hayman: There have been many dire predictions over the past few years that what we do and enjoy as writers and readers is doomed both as entertainment and art.  The arguments are simple. Today, as never before, the competition for attracting interested customers, or as we used to call it when I was in the advertising business on Madison Avenue, for share of eyeballs is fierce.  They competitors are obvious and omnipresent.  TV. Movies. Music. Trolling the Internet.  Finding “friends” and communicating with them on Facebook and other social media. Video games. Online gaming. Texting. Sexting.  There are probably others I haven’t thought of. And, no doubt, there will be even more to come that nobody else has yet thought of either.

With all of these competitors and distractions, there is certainly legitimate reason to ask how many among us will continue to devote ten to fifteen solid hours to sitting and reading a novel either for simple entertainment or in appreciation of literary art.

I think there is hope. The enormous popularity among young people, of the Harry Potter books and more recently the Hunger Games Trilogy, gives me hope for the survival of a class of people willing and eager to spend hours alone reading a novel rather than watching movies or sports or slaughtering realistic cartoon characters in violent video games.

I think people will continue to read the crime novels that we, the “Maine Crime Writers,” create as well as other genre and literary fiction.  My reasoning is simple. Fiction in all its forms offers us something none of those other things can match.

To put it simply, fiction uniquely allows us, both as readers and as writers, to enter into, share and explore the interior life of other human beings.  Both the characters in the book. And the creator of those characters. “The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction,”  novelist Jonathan Franzen argues, “is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” Characters that are well drawn offer readers insights into themselves and to other human beings whose thoughts and feelings are usually as real and intimate as the author can make them. Writers who write well offer eaders similar insights into themselves.

As a writer of fiction, the physically solitary act of creating a character, allows me to explore as deeply as I know how, the inner lives of other people. The the feelings, emotions and attitudes of the characters I create  are of course bent by passing through the prism of my own attitudes and emotions.  But this in no way negates the connectedness Franzen was writing about. It adds to it.

Both writing and reading fiction are voyeuristic exercises. We peer into the lives of others.  But unlike the voyeur who eavesdrops on a conversation or reads someone else’s mail or illicitly peers through a window, the writer and reader of a well-imagined and well-crafted novel get to share the deepest emotions and thoughts of the characters. They come to know and understand them in a way that it is difficult to match in real life where  even those closest to us create emotional barriers and try to reveal only what they want us to know about them.

The removal of those barriers allows the sense of connectedness Franzen was talking about.

But, some may ask, how real can the connectedness be when the characters are made up.  When the characters aren’t real.

The simple answer is that they are real.

McCabe is to some extent the real me.  So is Maggie and the other characters in my books, both male and female, adult and child.  But in the act of creating them, in the process of giving them thoughts and feelings, of putting them in conflict and often in dire straits, the characters often take over and take on lives of their own.

I’ve written before that perhaps the most difficult and interesting character for me to create in the three books I’ve written so far was Abby Quinn the young schizophrenic woman in The Chill of Night.  In creating Abby I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about schizophrenia. I read a number of memoirs written by schizophrenics about their own interior lives.  I began to understand what its like to suffer this terrible disease. Then when I put Abby in extreme circumstances of witnessing a murder and then being pursued by the murderer, my understanding of who she was and how she would react became much deeper.  I believe readers of the book begin to share that understanding and develop a deeper sympathy and empathy for someone like Abby. That kind of understanding and empathy is what Franzen was talking about when he said, “The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.

Turn of Mind. A Brilliant and Disturbing Tale of Murder.

Friday, October 26th, 2012

James Hayman: “My name is Dr. Jenifer White . I am sixty-four years old. I have dementia. My son , Mark, is twenty-nine. My daughter, Fiona, twenty-four. A caregiver, Magdalena, lives with me.”

This is the opening paragraph of the front jacket copy of one of the most original, beautifully written and genuinely frightening murder mysteries I’ve read in years. Titled Turn of Mind, the book is a debut novel by a writer named Alice LaPlante  who teaches creative writing at Stanford and San Francisco State University.  LaPlante’s previous fiction consisted of short stories published in literary journals like Epoch and the Southwestern Review.

Turn of MindImagine a murder mystery largely narrated in the voice and thoughts of the suspected and likely murderer, a once distinguished orthopedic surgeon who specialized in surgery of the hand but who is now descending into advanced Alzeimer’s Disease.  The suspect, a woman named Jennifer White, has no idea whether or not she committed the crime. At times she thinks she may have.  At other times she thinks she might not have.  As often as not she’s not even aware that the victim of the crime is actually dead. Or that her husband James is also dead. Or, as the book progresses, even who her own children are.

Still the evidence against Dr. White as the killer seems compelling.  The victim, named Amanda O’Toole, was, before her death, an imperious and controlling woman in her seventies who lived a few doors down from Dr. White in an upscale Chicago neighborhood. In spite of O’Toole’s bristly personality and their frequent disagreements O’Toole and Dr. White are described as lifelong best friends. Each had keys to the other’s house.  O’Toole was the godmother of the Whites’ two children, Mark and Fiona.

The victim is already dead when the book opens.  Her body was found lying in a pool of blood.  The cause of death was a blow to the head. White and O’Toole were heard arguing loudly shortly before the killing.  Even more damning for White, the hand surgeon, is the fact that four of the fingers of O’Toole’s right hand were carefully and expertly amputated after her death for no apparent reason.  Later in the book a Saint Christopher’s medal belonging to White turns up. It is found to have traces of O’Toole’s blood on it.

What makes this book so compelling and frankly unforgettable, however, is not the details of the crime or the work of the cop in charge, a dogged and determined woman named Detective Luton. It is not even the ultimate solution to the murder.  Rather it is the beautifully constructed portrait of the disintegration of a once brilliant mind belonging to a character we come to know and care for.

A group blog on the Maine Crime Writers blogsite (www.mainecrimewriters.com)  this weekend will have us all tell of the scariest villains we’ve experienced in fiction. While Dr. White is no Hannibal Lechter, in many ways she is more frightening.  The descent into Alzheimer’s Alice LaPlante describes so beautifully is a condition we all fear for ourselves.  It is one that many of us have experienced first hand watching the slow disintegration of elderly parents or others we care for. It makes an absolutely brilliant choice to wrap around a tale of murder and deceit.

In Praise of a Perceptive Editor

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

James Hayman:  At the moment, I’m in the middle of making final revisions to my third McCabe/Savage thriller. Titled Darkness First the book is due out in the UK in June 2013 and, hopefully, around the same time in the US.

Darkness First is the first of my books to require any kind of extensive editorial rewriting.  Number two, The Chill of Night, sailed through with only minor tinkering and the first, The Cutting, required only one fairly simple, though important change to attain its final form.

Darkness First was the most difficult of the three books to write, in many ways the most ambitious and, in my view, also the most interesting.  It’s also the first of the three that helped me truly appreciate how valuable a perceptive and talented editor can be, in this case Stefanie Bierwerth who works with Penguin UK in London, can be.

The plot itself is fairly simple.  A large haul of oxycontin is smuggled by boat from Saint John, New Brunswick into Eastport, Maine. A distribution network is set up. The drugs are sold. Money is made.  Eventually, there is a falling out between the two people responsible for the crime. One is a vicious killer named Conor Riordan and the other a beautiful young woman from Eastport named Tiffany Stoddard. On a dark and steamy (no, not stormy) night in Machias State Park, Conor Riordan brutally stabs Tiff Stoddard to death.  The police quickly discover Riordan is the culprit. The only problem is Conor Riordan doesn’t exist.

At the suggestion of her father, Washington County Sheriff John Savage, Detective Maggie Savage of the Portland Police Department comes home to Washington County and volunteers to join the state police investigation into the crime. Eventually, with the help of her Portland partner, Mike McCabe, Maggie discovers the true killer and solves the crime.

However, in my view, what makes the book work is not just the story line (which I think is pretty good), but also the exploration of Maggie’s feelings for the other major characters and the conflicted feelings/relationships she has with them.  She  finds herself trying to mediate a nasty feud between two men she has loved all her life, her seventy four year old father, who she learns may be dying of cancer, and her  wild and irresponsible younger brother Harlan, who has recently returned from service in Iraq and is recovering from a serious wound and suffering from PTSD.

Maggie’s also trying to sort out her screwed-up love life and needs to resolve the strong attraction she feels to both her Portland partner Mike McCabe and a charming and handsome state police detective named Sean Carroll.

In the end unraveling and resolving these feelings and relationships added a lot to the story.  It also made the book more challenging to write and, in my view, ultimately much more interesting. Stef Bierwerth at Penguin understood this and her perceptive insights and suggestions were a huge help in getting it right. Thanks in part to her, I think it may be the strongest of  the three McCabe/Savage books so far.  I hope my readers agree.

A Glorious 4th on the 5th

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

James Hayman: Although there are a lot of great neighborhoods in the city of Portland, anyone who reads my books must know that Munjoy Hill has long been my favorite. My hero Mike McCabe, his girlfriend Kyra and his daughter Casey share a three-bedroom condo on the Eastern Prom “looking out at Casco Bay and the islands. That view, and the fact that it was less than a mile walk to police headquarters were the primary reasons he’d paid more than he could afford for the…condo when he signed on, three years earlier, as chief of the PPD’s Crimes Against People unit.” (From The Cutting.)

In an early scene from The Chill of Night I describe McCabe as he “turned left on Congress and headed west down Munjoy Hill. In spite of a decade of gentrification The Hill still retained the look and feel of its working class roots. Smallish wood-frame houses built sometime around 1900. Most divided into apartments. Tonight (an especially frigid winter night) they were all closed up tight, curtains drawn. He continued down the hill, passing a few couples heading for one or another of the bars and restaurants that were sprouting like weeds. The Front Room. The Blue Spoon. Bar Lola.”

Detective Maggie Savage, McCabe’s partner in crime-fighting has her own place on The Hill, a three-flight walkup on Vesper Street, a couple of blocks in from McCabe’s apartment on the Prom.

This summer my wife Jeanne and I decided for the second summer in a row to rent our house on Peaks Island to summer visitors and move into town.  We’re living on the third-floor of one of those hundred-year-old wood frame houses on The Hill (more or less halfway between McCabe’s and Maggie’s) where we enjoy an excellent view of the water.  Not quite as good as McCabe’s but still pretty nice.

Portland fireworks display goes off almost flawlessly (Press-Herald)

Portland fireworks display goes off almost flawlessly (Press-Herald)

Perhaps the best part is that we’re only one house in from the Prom and less than a one-minute walk from Fort Allen Park, Portland’s most beautiful public space and, without question, the jewel in Munjoy Hill’s crown.

Set on a sixty-eight acre grassy hill, Fort Allen Park slopes down from the Prom and offers, in addition to its tennis courts, sandy beach and picnic tables, endlessly breath-taking views of Casco Bay and the islands beyond.

Every Fourth of July what seems like most of the population of Portland crowds into the park to watch the annual fireworks display set off from a barge anchored just off-shore.  This year, however, just as the Portland Symphony was winding up its concert of patriotic music and minutes before the fireworks were set to begin,  a lightning storm lit up the eastern skies in a heavenly display that dwarfed anything the city could hope to put on. Torrential rain, high wind and dangerously close lightning strikes forced officials to cancel the show and reschedule it for the following night. The crowd trudged home, soaked I assume, to the skin.  I thought, given the disappointing evening, most wouldn’t return.

Turned out I was wrong.  By the evening of the fifth the skies had cleared and most of the people came back. Not quite as many as the night before but still an estimated thirty thousand of them.  The Portland Symphony replayed its entire program concluding with the signature 1812 Overture which was followed one of the best fireworks displays I can remember seeing anywhere.

According to the Portland Press Herald, “PSO conductor Robert Moody summed up the mood of the crowd before the signature overture (began). ‘ “I don’t think there’s any place better in the country to celebrate Independence Day than on the Eastern Prom with the Portland Symphony Orchestra,’ he said, to cheers.” I agree.