The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

April 30, 2010

KILLER by Dave Zeltserman

Killer will be released tomorrow, May 1. Because I wholeheartedly endorse Corey's review of this book we're reposting it with only minor editing. If you like noir, you've got to read Zeltserman's work. (nj)

by Corey Wilde

SYNOPSIS: Leonard March did some bad things for which he has just spent 14 years in prison. But Leonard committed crimes much worse than that for which he was imprisoned -- like a couple of dozen murders for which he did no time at all. That's because he traded his mob boss, the notorious Salvatore Lombard, for a lighter sentence before the DA realized that Leonard was a lot more than just a small-time hood.

Through strength, cunning, and some luck, Leonard survived prison and the attempts at retaliation by Lombard's mob. He doesn't expect to survive being outside though. The mob still wants him dead. The whole world hates him. He's an old man now, and he has no money or resources. His children don't want any contact with him, his wife died while he was in prison, and as for friends, rats don't have any. He can't leave town because he has to appear in court to face civil suits filed by the families of his victims. And then there are the debilitating headaches that won't go away. Leonard has no health insurance, so he just eats aspirin like it's Pez. It's not easy for Leonard to look ahead when he has to spend so much time looking over his shoulder to see who might be gaining on him.

REVIEW: To put it simply, Killer is a brilliant character study that will rip the literary rug right out from under the reader's tightly-curled toes.

As with the previous two entries in Zeltserman's "man-out-of-prison" trilogy, the author has created a memorable protagonist, and in this case, one more sympathetic than the sociopaths the author depicted in Small Crimes and Pariah.

Killer reads like a grotesque, mesmerizing biography as Leonard March tells his story in first person. The chapters alternate between his present circumstances and earlier life, leading the reader through March's childhood, then his willing descent into mob hitman, and later still, his increasing isolation from his family as he seeks to keep the filth of his job from spilling over onto the wife and children he really loves.

Strange though it sounds, it's hard not to be sympathetic to Leonard when the people he killed were the kind of people most of us wish didn't exist in the first place. He doesn't like to dwell on what he did. He's just trying to keep his head down and stay out of trouble. He would make himself into wallpaper if he could. But he won't give himself a moral whitewash either. He knows the nature of his many crimes.

And so he commits himself to his job as a night janitor, humble as it is. He scrubs office toilets at night and in the wee hours returns 'home' to his seedy, narrow apartment, which is all that he can afford. You don't find many hitmen willing to scrub the toilet, or settling for a used recliner complete with stains and tears in the fabric. Leonard manages the few dollars he has with great care. No frills. He tries to contact his now-grown children who make it painfully clear how much they want nothing to do with him. And although Leonard wouldn't mind a little non-judgmental human contact, he goes out of his way to avoid people who hold out the promise of wealth in exchange for a book deal. He shows up in court to face those families of his victims who have filed wrongful death suits against him, even though he has no money for a lawyer and his presence means that the Lombard mob will  certainly find him. He even prevents a robbery, not that anyone wants to believe that Leonard is capable of both decency and courage.

The story of Leonard March's return to society is not an action story. The mundane events of his days and nights echo the lives of the marginalized and the dispossessed everywhere, with the added suspense of wondering which day will be Leonard's last. And even though Leonard has done nothing in his past to merit better treatment, the reader can't help hoping that this old man doesn't end up being tortured and murdered, that somehow he finds a measure of peace in whatever is left of his life. Or at the very least, that whatever has gone physically wrong in Leonard's head takes him out before the mob does. Between a society that despises him, crippling health issues, and a pair of younger Leonard Marches looking to take him down, his chances aren't looking good.

Zeltserman packs a lot of insight into the human psyche in the character of Leonard March, surely the world's most candid hitman. He also manages to flip the story on its side and roll it when the reader least expects it, forcing one to reevaluate all that came before.

Killer is a more suspenseful story than the previous books in this trilogy and less action-oriented, at least on the surface. But don't go thinking that Zeltserman has lost his touch. He has, in fact, refined it. Killer is the crown jewel of his trilogy, a story that builds tirelessly towards an unforeseen inevitability that will jolt the reader right out of his socks. If you've read Small Crimes and Pariah, and you think you know what this author is capable of, allow me to say this: You ain't read nothing yet.

April 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Signings

Last night I went to what I call an away signing, that is, a book signing that takes me out of town. A couple of friends and I had made plans to drive to Dayton to see C.J. Box. We met as planned, left on time and 90 minutes later I was parking directly across the street from the bookstore. We had time, so we had a quick bite at Panera's, then went to the bookstore, bought our books, listened to Mr. Box discuss his new book, got our books signed, drove home. All without incident. Pleasant evening. That's how an away signing is supposed to go.

Here's how it isn't supposed to go:

First off, I got my calendar screwed up. Craig Johnson was to appear at the Ohio Valley Book Festival in Huntington, West Virginia, on April 14 and 15. And I forgot to add whichever date my friends and I had all agreed on to my calendar, so that two days before the event I was reminded and then found myself scrambling for someone to cover my familial duties on the day in question. No coverage, no can go. But that worked itself out at last.

The 14th dawned bright and sunny, an absolutely perfect day for traveling. It's about a three-hour drive to Huntington, and we had allotted an extra hour, just in case. So I'm to pick everyone up - everyone being Carolyn, Linda, and Phyllis - at 9 am. Rush hour should have been winding down, and so what if traffic should prove a bit slow, I've got that hour we built in.

Only I used that hour. And then another one. I got caught up in the traffic jam created by an accident, and it took me two hours to travel two miles, before I could get off at the next exit and use a different route. I had my cellphone (emergency uses only!) so from time to time I let the others know what was going on. I was so bored and fitful while stuck in traffic that I drank an entire can of Pepsi (which should have lasted all the way to Huntington) and thought about calling Mike 'n' Mike in the Morning on ESPN to give my opinion on how best to crucify sexual-predators whose athletic prowess allows them to skate. I refrained.

As I exited the outerbelt and picked up SR 315, I found myself getting up to speed behind a pickup truck that had a trailer attached. On the trailer were bags of mulch and topsoil. When the truck driver arrived at his destination he would have found himself short one bag of topsoil, because it fell off the truck and exploded on the pavement directly in front of my car. Besides showering my car with dirt pellets, it nearly scared the Pepsi out of me.

And I couldn't help thinking, this trip is doomed. Doomed. I was not meant to go. But Carolyn and Linda and Phyllis all said they still wanted to go, even though I warned them we would miss half of the event.Actually I was worried that none of us would make it back alive.

When I left SR 315 and took to the streets, everything appeared normal. Traffic was flowing and I was rolling my shoulders to ease the tension of the last two hours. And I swear to you, this cop car came out of my trunk -- or perhaps out of some part of my personal posterior -- with lights flashing and sirens blazing, and this time it was a very close call controlling the Pepsi. And then of course, since I had broken no laws and the cop had secured his morning laugh, he began playing dodge'em through the four lanes of traffic ahead of me. Yes. Yes, I did think about what causes road rage. Yes, I did want to pinch his tiny head off. The big one, too.

But I finally gathered up the friends and we headed south, about two and a half hours later than planned. I had carefully mapped out our route there and back, pictures and directions included. But Carolyn, who to this day I still call friend, brought along a GPS. Now I've never used a GPS. Carolyn swore by its efficacy even while admitting to not knowing how to program it. She'd had her daughter handle that part. As soon as she turned it on, a prissy Englishwoman gave me a direction I already knew. And kept doing it.

And then came the fork in the road. I knew from my map work that I should stay on Route 23. That's the right fork, as well as being the correct fork. The prissy Englishwoman told me to go left, Route 35. Carolyn is saying no, we take 33. I'm going, no, not 33, that would take us well out of our way. Do we go 23, as the fallible human wants, or do we go 35, as the infallible English priss would have it?

And my mind is saying, if I choose 23 -- even though I know that's the way we should go -- and we are even one minute later than necessary for the event, I will not hear the end of this on the ride home. And hell, maybe the GPS knows something I don't. Okay, 35 it is. And that is when we found out that the GPS was possessed. The voice changed. The English priss was gone and some demon of a chipmunk had taken her place. This demonic chipmunk spouted nearly incomprehensible instructions even as it led us down a twisty-turny road to rival anything in West Virginia or Hell.

"Do you hate me?" Carolyn asked. I assured her I did not, but told her that if the GPS started spinning and throwing up pea soup I was going to pitch it out the window.

"Where are we?" Phyllis wanted to know.

"Ohio's version of Deliverance," Linda pronounced. And we would have all laughed except that she was so very right. The road was made up entirely of hairpin curves, gloom, and the occasional seedy mobile home. No people. Never saw one other person in the 35 miles we traveled on that road, and in my haste to leave it all behind as well as to get to Huntington, I may have treated my passengers a trifle roughly, slinging them around 15 mph curves at 35. Ever done that in a Kia? That suspension system was not built for that kind of usage, and the thing corners like a pig. But no one complained.Well, at least in Deliverance, Ohio, I didn't have to worry about oncoming traffic. There was none, and none behind me either. I would have turned on the radio but I was afraid all I would hear would be the theme from The Twilight Zone. Suddenly everyone was concerned about fuel. It wasn't a place to be stranded. On that matter at least I was able to reassure everyone.

After too many miles of wondering and wandering, we at last crossed the Red Sea -- scratch that, it was the Ohio River, and rolled into Huntington a mere half hour late. Meeting Craig Johnson did in fact make all the trouble worthwhile. But there was one more hitch. I handed Craig my copy of Dark Horse to sign, he dutifully opened it to the title page and announced, "This is already signed. It even has my drawing."

I was mortified. How did that happen? Where did I get a signed copy of one of his books? Where could I have got -- oh my word, I hoped he wasn't thinking I bought it on eBay! And Carolyn, whom I do not hate, came to my rescue with her far better memory:

"Toni and John [the owners of Foul Play] brought that back from Bouchercon for you, as a 'thank you' for helping with Michael Koryta's signing while they were away."

Yes! That was it! But I was mortified nonetheless. Otherwise it was a joy to meet Craig J. And perhaps he didn't intend to punish me, but I noticed that Carolyn got to try on his hat and I didn't.

We didn't use the GPS on the return trip. Does that surprise anyone? But I saw the memorial (at Point Pleasant, West Virginia) to the souls lost in the 1968 collapse of the Silver Bridge, then remembered the Mothman stories and was mighty glad to get home safely that evening.
Left to right: Linda, Carolyn, Craig, Phyllis, Naomi

April 21, 2010


SYNOPSIS: Two teens were shot in front of a dope house, though neither boy was known to be a user or dealer. One boy is dead, the other comatose. The surviving boy is the son of a beat cop; the dead boy is the only child of a successful businessman. Was it a case of wrong time, wrong place? What really happened, what chain of events brought these two boys out of their safe neighborhoods and to such a fate, is explored from four points of view: The two fathers, the detective who gets the case, and the heroine-addicted uncle of the comatose boy. Once the truth begins to spill out, none of these men will ever be the same.

REVIEW: To call Dennis Tafoya's new novel both powerful and moving is to use a cliché too frequently bestowed on undeserving novels. But The Wolves of Fairmount Park is deserving of all the praise readers can muster. This is a story dark and sweet, poignant and provocative, raw and real.

A truly great crime novel is about more than just whodunnit. It's about the characters, and how their lives are turned inside out by the crime. I had a professor once who told me that if you wanted to study crime, you must study two kinds of people: criminals and, well, there isn't a second kind, he admitted. Crime, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. In this book Tafoya has done a brilliant job of bringing his characters and criminals to painful life, and I can already say with great certainty that this is one of the best books I'll read this year.

The prose is dark and lyrical, but not florid, and the author has great insight into his characters. Orlando, the uncle/addict, is so very memorable. The reader is constantly torn between pity, revulsion, fear, and heartbreak for him, and yes, pride in him, too. Orlando may be the one character who doesn't deceive himself, even though he will deceive others or descend to petty crimes in order to get his fix. And Orlando knows the streets and the people of the streets as well as he knows himself. He can read intent and motive in every nuance and gesture. To get at the truth, he endures and he sacrifices in ways most people cannot imagine, even while he lies and steals and uses.

Orlando isn't seeking the truth out of some action-hero notion of vengeance either. Finding the truth may be his last opportunity to prove his value as a human being, a value that was dismissed long ago by his family and friends. He wants what, in the end, all of us want: redemption. All of the main characters have their reasons for seeking the truth: Orlando's brother, the beat cop, wants justice for his son. The businessman wants, too late, to get to know his son. The detective is looking to his career. The  beat cop, the businessman, and the detective all want Orlando to stay out of the way. His drug habit is perceived to be part of the problem that must have initiated the shootings in the first place. It is easier to point fingers at Orlando and other users than for these men to undergo the kind of self-examination that might result in personal culpability.

Here is an excerpt in which Orlando, shot by a psychotic PI working the case, is visited in the hospital -- the same hospital in which his nephew lies in a coma -- by the boy's father, Brendan. Orlando's girlfriend, Zoe, also an addict, is present.
He heard her breathing and looked over to see her head down, her hands over her eyes.

"What am I supposed to do, you get killed? Where do I go then?"

He breathed out, tried to think what to say. Then he saw a shadow in the door and it was Brendan. Shit.


He ducked his head, a reflex. Looked up at his brother as he resolved from a dark figure into someone recognizable. Saw for the first time the gray pasted into the hair at his temple, the deep cul-de-sacs under his eyes. Looked down again.

"You're out of bed? You're okay?"

Orlando couldn't think what to say, mumbled "sorry" under his breath, looked from Zoe's wary, foxlike eyes to Brendan's frantic ones.

"Jesus, Orlando. Jesus."

"I didn't do it. Didn't do anything. This crazy fuck tried to kill me."

"We don't have enough, me and Kath? Not enough to worry about? We have to hear this, too?"

"I swear to Christ, Bren." He held his hands up, empty palms catching the light, and the IV pole rattled. He felt like a ghost, a phantom festooned with chains. Not fully present in life, able only to horrify. Looking from one disappointed face to another. The fact of him an object lesson, a curse.

If you want to read a book that the critics are going to be falling over themselves to praise, read The Wolves of Fairmount Park. I'll be very surprised if this book doesn't make a whole bunch of "best of" lists this coming December. I know it will be on my list.

by Dennis Tafoya
Release date: June 22, 2010
Minotaur Books
Hardcover, 352 pp.
ISBN: 9780312531164

Available online from these independent booksellers:

Aunt Agatha's New & Used  Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books
Seattle Mystery Bookshop
Warwick's Books
Mystery Lovers Bookshop
The Poisoned Pen
Powell's Books
Skylight Books
Vroman's Books

April 17, 2010

21 Tales by Dave Zeltserman

The creative gulf between writing a good novel and a good short story is one not always easily bridged, even by some very fine novelists and short story writers. That gulf is never more apparent to me than when I pick up an anthology and go directly to a story by a favorite novelist, read it, and my reaction is: meh. It doesn't always happen that way, of course. But it happens just often enough for me to acknowledge the varied skill sets demanded by long and short form fiction.

And then sometimes a writer comes along who shrinks that gulf to a drywash. A writer like Dave Zeltserman. A while back I read one of his short stories, Nothing But Jerks at Pulp Pusher, and I thought, wow, that's a quality short story.

Turns out Dave Z has a whole raft of short stories, many of them written between 1996 - 2006. Some of these stories appeared in quality webzines (e.g. Thuglit, Mysterical-E, et al) and some in the rather better known print mags, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Now these stories have been collected into a volume called 21 Tales, available now as an e-book at Smashwords and the amazon Kindle store, and later this year in paperback from New Pulp Press.

Any one of these stories, taken on its own, will delight fans of the surprising twist and audacious plot turn. Taken altogether, these stories reveal a breadth of imagination and a wicked sense of humor so neatly wrapped in reality that, yes, I found myself wondering whether Mrs. Zeltserman knows what her husband is plotting behind her back.

I focus on Mrs. Z, because the collection is broken into sections, one of which Dave claims is "bogusly autobiographical." This is the Life in Writer's Hell section, about a frustrated writer. Good things do not happen to the women involved with this fictional writer, whose frustrations are so very true to the writing life. My favorite of these stories is She Stole My Fortune!, which recounts the events stemming from a stolen fortune cookie. The author displays a sharp awareness of America's inability to distinguish notoriety from celebrity, but he also understands the cheerful exuberance of a writer who finally gets published, no matter the cost. The other two stories in this section, More Than a Scam and Flies, will first make the reader grin (especially those of us who've been on the receiving end of those Nigerian scam e-mails) and then, like me, wonder just how healthy Mrs. Zeltserman is these days. I don't think we can just take Dave's word at face value on this matter.

Another section of stories is simply labeled Weird. This is a set of five stories that surprise the reader with the appearance of anything from demons to trolls to 3D holograms. No question but my favorite in this section is the quirky Dave Stevens, I Presume?, in which a staid traveling salesman must deal with the fallout of his charming doppelganger's philandering ways. After years of being misidentified, being slapped and having drinks thrown in his face by angry women, what might happen if this salesman decided to stop denying who he was and be the man he was mistaken for?

A much more chilling tale is View from the Mirador. Zeltserman himself notes that this may be "one of the sickest" stories he's written. One of? No, Dave. The. Drop the qualifier. And this slick, sick story about a man who spends his days watching the cliff divers in Acapulco in the hope of seeing one of them die, never even gets overtly graphic or attempts to gross out the reader. The chill factor is increased because the reader is  readily able to believe that there really are people so vile, so lacking in humanity, and so bored, that this is how they could spend their time.

In the Hardboiled section is a pair of stories about con man Pete Mitchel. In Money Run, Pete is on the down-and-out when he gets a job to deliver a package. The simple job quickly spins into cross, double-cross, and cross and cross again. It isn't often that story labeled as 'hardboiled' can leave me grinning. Man Friday is a follow-up story, with Pete now reduced to sleeping on a park bench until he wangles a job with an affluent couple who wish each other dead. Mitchel is an ingratiating character, completely unable to be true to his word, and one I wouldn't mind seeing appear in a longer format.

Three stories are held together by a character named Manny Vassey, a mobster that readers of Small Crimes may remember. These stories involve a younger but just as deadly Manny, locked in the throes of his favorite pastime: cutting people into small pieces. Manny's appearance is a brief coup de grace (if you will forgive the pun) in Triple Cross, a tale of murderous triplets with a psychic link. The nasty story about an invalid mobster whose "friends" don't call, Nothing But Jerks, also appears in this section.
The last section is Brutal. The author could not have found a more apt name as these stories focus on characters with the same destructive DNA as the protagonists in Zeltserman's 'man out of prison' trilogy. In Adrenaline, four thugs have a comrade bound and tortured. The poor guy hasn't a hope of rescue. But the comrade has a weapon his four friends don't: a brain. And he knows how to use it, suffering through bouts of torture while planning his psychological manipulation, the author creates an ending both resolute in one respect and creepily irresolute in another.

Fans of the macabre, the hardboiled, the sly twist and the devious mind, are certain to enjoy this collection of stories. I know Zeltserman is primarily focused on writing novels these days, but a talent and skill for short form crime fiction like his should not be allowed to rust. I'm just saying, Mr. Z.  Please don't send Manny Vassey to pay me a visit.

Readers can find samples from this book at Smashwords in several formats (including Kindle, pdf, palm, LRF, and several more) and get the entire e-book for only $1.49. That's an incredible reading value. What are you waiting for?

And the award goes to...

Thanks to everyone who participated this week in solving my (admittedly lame) puzzles. Our grand prize winner is Elizabeth, and she will receive a $35 gift certificate from Aunt Agatha's along with a copy of Earl Emerson's Cape Disappointment.  To all of you who worked so hard and came out with no prize, all I can give you is my gratitude. For now. If any of you are writers (and I know a couple of you are), the Watery Grave Invitational Short Story Contest is coming up in just a couple of weeks. It pays cash!

April 16, 2010

Saving the Best for Last: Earl Emerson

Today is our final entry in the Detectives Around the World Week, brainchild of Jen's Book Thoughts. This week we've looked at two books in the Thomas Black mystery series, The Million-Dollar Tattoo and Cape Disappointment, and we've taken a virtual tour of Thomas Black's home town, Seattle. As much fun as I've had reading the books, writing columns, creating puzzles and all, I really believe I have saved the best for last.

I'm delighted today to be able to introduce readers to the creator of the Thomas Black mystery series, Earl Emerson. Besides Thomas Black, Earl also created the mystery series featuring small-town fire chief and smooth dancer Mac Fontana. He has also written half a dozen excellent thrillers, including Into the Inferno, Pyro, and Firetrap.

But being a full-time novelist with 23 published titles to his credit isn't enough for Earl. He is also full-time firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department. And he's the epitome of perseverance when it comes to getting published. He wrote his first novel at age 19. While enduring 43 rejections for that book, he wrote a second book which garnered him even more rejections. And the cycle was repeated for 15 years before the first Thomas Black mystery, the Shamus-nominated The Rainy City, was finally sold. Being either a novelist or a firefighter would command my respect and admiration. A person who is both would leave me a little awestruck, if he wasn't such a great guy. Friends, please meet Earl Emerson:

Your books take place primarily in Washington state. The Thomas Black books and your standalone thrillers mostly are set in and around Seattle, while the Mac Fontana series occurs in the fictional town of Staircase, in King County, Washington. How important to your work is the familiarity of setting, and what role does setting play in your books? Any desire to ever drop Thomas and Kathy down in, oh, say Acapulco and see what happens?
It has occurred to me more than once that setting and background function much like another character in the story. They can be detailed and complex or glib and facile, just as any other character in the story can be those things. For me, setting plays a different role in a series, at least it does in my series. People expect a "Seattle" mystery to move about the city and perhaps show them something new or interesting or familiar about the city and because people expect that, I'm compelled to keep these attributes in the Black series. I'm writing a book now which takes place in a fictionalized version of America, and while politics and atmosphere take up a lot of space, setting takes up almost none. I wouldn't think this was possible with a Thomas Black, which relies upon Seattle for its backdrop. Also, I've always been amazed at how little it takes to frame a setting in the reader's mind. Re-reading Raymond Chandler, who is noted for his strong settings, I'm struck by how little description his novels really carry.
Many of your fans were happy to see that after several years of writing standalone thrillers, you brought PI Thomas Black back out of mothballs. What made you return to this character? How difficult was it to pick up the threads of his life again, or to find that voice that is so distinctively Thomas's voice?
I don't know that I did find Thomas's voice in Cape Disappointment. I sure tried to and I thought I did, but I'm still not sure. The narrative structure is unlike any other Black and was heavily influenced by my thrillers. I brought Black back simply because so many people had asked for him. After I finish the project I'm working on now, I'm thinking about writing four or five Blacks in a row, really get back into it.
Elmer 'Snake' Slezak is one of those off-beat characters made for the screen. To find, in Cape Disappointment, that he has a twin who is even more eccentric and also has a dark side, was an absolute delight. Have you ever considered giving Snake and/or his brother their own stories? Have any of your minor characters ever threatened to hijack a novel for themselves?
Oddly enough Snake was the main character in a novel I couldn't sell back in the beginning of my career. I liked him enough to bring him back and put him in a Black novel. He's based on a world champion bull rider I met for about thirty seconds when I was eighteen. I guess he made an impression on me. So far, none of my books have been successfully hijacked by a minor character. At least, I don't think they have. Generally, if a minor character is running away with the story, there's something wrong with the main character.
Throughout your books, almost from the beginning, it's been easy to see you stretching yourself as a writer: Changing voices and multiple POVs, playing with the time structure, and so on. Do you consciously set these tasks for yourself, or do you see them arising naturally from the demands of the story? Which book presented the greatest challenge to you as a writer?
It took me a long time to get published. I started writing in late 1968 and made the sale of The Rainy City in late 1983. It took so long that I got into the habit of asking myself serious questions after each effort. The biggest question of all was how could this book be better? So I'm always trying to improve. The more techniques one has in the tool box, the greater variety of stories one can spin. Another reason for stretching myself as a writer is that I get bored easily. The biggest challenge is always the book I'm working on right now, though if I had to go through my list of published books, the switch from pure mysteries was hard, so Vertical Burn, my first thriller, would be right up there with the toughies. In some ways, though, it was almost as hard to go back and write a Black after so long. I was quite nervous about that.
What's up next for Thomas, now that he's reemerged? And can readers expect to see a similar reappearance by Mac Fontana? (This is my not-so-subtle way of asking, what's the next book about and when can readers expect it?)
It's going to be a while before the next Black. I'm not sure what it will be about, but Black has always been concerned with class differences and those are really coming to the fore with the new economy of the last thirty years. I'm sure he'll be brushing up against moneyed interests and those who are injured by moneyed interests. I'm between publishers right now and working on a futuristic novel. I'm not sure I'll ever get back to Mac Fontana. The best incentive for that would be if I got the Fontanas back in print or if there were interest from Hollywood, either of which would spur me on.
You said you're "between publishers." Please tell me this is simply a negotiation process and that there is a new publisher there for you. And if not, are you willing to go the route of publishing your own e-books, as JA Konrath has done?
I can't say if this is a negotiation process. My last publisher, Ballantine, has first-refusal rights to my next book, but I haven't finished my next book and thus, they haven't seen it. When I do, we'll send it to Ballantine and see what they say.
Chapter titles are something of a lost art in novels today. Your Thomas Black series has no chapter titles, the Mac Fontana series contains some extraordinary chapter titles (two examples: It Might Be Numb, Honey, But Let's Just See if It Still Works and You Count the Odds, You Might Figure Out You Owe the Universe a Tragedy), while the thrillers are mixed: some have them, some don't. How do you decide which books get those titles and which do not?
I had fun with chapter titles in the Fontana series, which for some reason seemed to lend itself to them naturally. For reasons I cannot explain, not all of my thrillers call out to me for chapter titles. If the writing of the book puts me in the mood for them I include them; otherwise I don't bother.
You've never been shy in your fiction about writing some negative things regarding fire department administration and how politics affects firefighters. Even some readers have come right out and accused the Mac Fontana character of that dastardly crime - gasp! - political incorrectness. What kind of blowback have you had from city and fire department administrators and the public for your sometimes less-than-flattering depictions of characters in positions of power?
There's been all kinds of blowback. There was a fire station in Seattle that didn't have an electric typewriter because a chief I'd crossed thought I might write books on it. Ten years after I transferred to another station, they were still using a manual typewriter. One chief in particular took offense and sent my crew and me repeatedly into a ship fire while other crews had yet to take a single turn inside. People who do that sort of thing are usually bat-shit crazy, so I don't worry too much about them. In Pyro, I depicted a chief who'd done some rather outrageous things and gotten away with them. I've had a lot of readers complain that I'd gone over the top, when the truth was, I had to tone down the facts, because the character was based on a real chief and the offenses in real life had been a lot worse than in the story. The problem with fiction is it has to be believable. What this chief had done and gotten away with, was not.
Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest as a whole, is teeming with successful crime writers. Besides yourself, there are Aaron Elkins, Ridley Pearson, GM Ford, JA Jance, Gabriella Heckert, Carl Brookins, and many more. What's in the water up there? What about the area lends itself to crime writing, and why so many good ones as opposed to say, Columbus, Ohio?
I can't speak for the other writers. I was born in Tacoma, Washington and have lived in the state most of my life. I like it here. Whenever I travel and come back, I marvel at the beauty and variety of the area. Of course, for six months of the year we get a steady diet of rain and crappy weather, too, which could turn anyone to crime.
Even more than cops and military personnel, it's been my experience that firefighters have the best stories to share about their work. The pig falling from the plane in The Smoke Room would be one example. Anything wild and crazy happen to you recently? No more arsonist-fans stalking you, I trust?
Two shifts ago we responded to a guy who jumped off a freeway overpass and landed in the middle of Interstate 90. He fell about thirty-five feet and miraculously was not hit by any traffic, broke only his hip and femur, and badly compressed his L-5. He also knocked out two teeth from the jolt when he landed, but he didn't lose consciousness. The strange part was we have a new GPS system in our apparatus and when we had to drive east to Mercer Island in order to turn around on the one-way freeway, everything from the middle of the lake and beyond was blanked out on the GPS. I guess the city honchos were afraid we would run away with their fire trucks if we had a map that extended beyond the city limits. As a consequence, a medic unit with this patient in the back got lost on Mercer Island while the patient lay in agony. The stories in the fire department come with maddening frequency.
As part of Detectives Around the World Week, Jen Forbus is conducting a bracket tourney to determine the World's Favorite Detective. (These are fictional cops and licensed PIs, no amateurs or non-law enforcement characters.) Naturally, your first vote would go to Thomas Black. But what fictional PI or cop would get your second vote? As a novelist, who has been your greatest influence?
I love anything written by Charles Willeford. Actually, his Hoke Moseley books, which are his most famous, are probably his weakest. They're good, but the early stuff was magnificent. He's written two memoirs that rival anything from Steinbeck. Talk about an artist who never got his due. Early on I was a huge fan of Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett, Rex Stout, Ross MacDonald, and John D. MacDonald.
I heard that you used to participate in a race in which firefighters, in full gear, ran up the steps of a 20+ story skyscraper. Are you still a masochist? What's your current role in the fire dept? Any thoughts about chucking in the day job and living off the 401K?
I'm still a lieutenant on Ladder 3. I can't tell you how much I love the job. Well, maybe I can. I retired from it this past December, actually filled out the paperwork, mailed it in, and called the state to make sure I had done it all properly and was on their books. They said I was slated for my first retirement check in February. I then went to the station to work my last three shifts. By ten o'clock of the first shift, I'd phoned the state to beg for my job back. So, I'm still working. It will be interesting, when I finally do retire, to find out what it's like to write full time, to sleep in my own bed every night of the year, and to never, ever, be writing while in the throes of exhaustion.
Blogging and social media have become a very visible means of marketing books. I understand you're working full time and writing books, so that leaves little time for surfing the 'Net, but once you retire from the SFD, can readers expect more online activity from you? Can fans east of the Mississippi ever hope to meet you on tour again?
I will definitely be more available when I'm writing full time. As far as touring east of the Mississippi again . . . the days of publishers sending mid-list writers around the country are gone. I'm not ruling it out, I'm just not sure it will happen.
The recent fracas between and MacMillan probably caught your attention, although Mac is not your publisher. Any thoughts on what went down there, and about the new "agency" model? Or on the publishing business model in general?
The publishing business has been raped and pillaged by big business. Ballantine, the company I published with for over twenty years, is only a shell of the great company it once was. Most of the personnel who made it great were long ago riffed out the door or encouraged to retire. Mainstream publishers have been incredibly slow to embrace new technologies and I believe it's because they realize those technologies make them expendable. One can now publish a book on the Internet and get it into the Amazon cannon, along with every other major online bookseller, and you can do it all without going through New York. We have electronic books and on-demand printing which makes it cost-effective to print one book at a time as it is ordered. All of this scares the hell out of the big publishers. Who needs them? In the past they were good for getting review attention, but that has all but dried up after newspapers around the globe cut costs by eliminating their book sections. I don't know what form published fiction will take in the future, how the business will evolve, but it isn't going to be anything like the past. It's a revolution that will be talked about a hundred years from now.

I'm grinning ear to clichéd ear. I really did save the best for last. Thank you, Earl Emerson, for your time and your candid answers. And thank you most of all for making fans happy with your wonderful books.

Readers who would like to know more about Earl's writing: his methodology, motivation, schedule, and yes, where he gets his ideas, will find all of that and more in a solid interview Earl just did with I recommend it in particular for aspiring writers. And you can find his books at any of the fine indie bookstores, including:
Aunt Agatha's New & Used  Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books
Seattle Mystery Bookshop
Warwick's Books
The Poisoned Pen
Mystery Lovers Bookshop
And folks, you still have one last chance today to get your name in the drawing for a copy of Earl Emerson's outstanding mystery/thriller Cape Disappointment, as well as a $35 gift certificate from courtesy of Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries, Detection and True Crime Books, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aunt Agatha's just happens to also be the Indie Store of the Month. Whenever you're in or near Ann Arbor, Michigan, be sure to visit.

I bet you're all wondering about today's puzzle. Well, I thought about copping out and just saying everyone who comments today (except for spammers) would get an entry. But I had to do pretty much do that for the last puzzle, plus somehow that seems unfair to the people who scratched their heads all week long over the real puzzles -- especially yesterday's -- in order to get their names in the drawing. On the other hand, today is Friday and it's been a long hard week for some folks. They are tired of puzzles where they have to scour the Web, tired of trickery and semantics. Okey-doke. Today's puzzle is one where all you have to know is the alphabet and all you need are rudimentary spelling skills:
Make 15 words or more using only these letters: S-E-A-T-T-L-E.  Shouldn't be hard, I came up with 30 with no struggle. There are probably even more, but 15 is all you need to get your name in the drawing. I'll announce the winner of the drawing tomorrow. Good luck to all of you!

What? Oh. Yeah, yesterday's puzzle. Picture my face red. How many lighthouses guard the shores of the USA? I thought this would be easy, so easy I didn't even look it up myself until people started guessing.Who knew that no one keeps count of these things, or that they count them in ways that overlap, like lumping historic museums with working lighthouses with lightvessels and beacons? Wikipedia identifies about 1000, but their list contains many duplicates, museums, beacons, and even "future" lighthouses. According to Fodors in 2007, there were 700. According to the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, which promotes the Cape Disappointment lighthouses, there are 750.The US Coast Guard only claims 400. I could not find a definitive number. My local reference librarian could not find a definitive number. According to Rich, a pleasant gentleman at the US Lighthouse Society, whom I called directly, there are roughly 600. He agreed that it all depends on how one defines a lighthouse.  SOooo,. everyone who was brave enough to even venture a guess gets entered into the drawing! (And God bless reader/blogger Jeff Pierce, who really does his research and forces me to do mine!)

April 15, 2010

REVIEW: CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT by Earl Emerson (Reposted)

Corey first posted this review in 2009. Like him, I found myself grieving over the death of PI Thomas Black's wife, Kathy. I think this is one of Emerson's more complex and emotionally moving stories, and even so, there are still laugh-out-loud moments. This one is a gem. 

Be sure to return tomorrow, not only for the final puzzle in our contest, but because I'm posting my interview with Earl Emerson, the creator of the Thomas Black series. You do not want to miss that. My talk with Mr. E will be only the second author interview ever at The Drowning Machine, so that gives you a clue as to how highly he is regarded here.

As for the contest, you'll find the answer to yesterday's puzzle and today's puzzle at the bottom off this post. (nj)

SYNOPSIS: A plane crash takes the lives of 11 people, including a US Senator and Kathy, the wife PI Thomas Black. Weeks later a bomb explodes in a gymnasium, taking four lives and nearly taking Black's life. Severely injured, hospitalized, his mind and memories clouded by painkillers, Thomas tries to patch events together. He recalls witnessing the plane crash just off Cape Disappointment. He also recalls the Slezak twins, Elmer aka 'Snake,' and Bert. Snake is a friend and fellow PI. Bert is whole 'nother story, Bert is a guy to worry about. A repeat offender only a half step from living on the streets and who was represented in court by Kathy for violating a restraining order, Bert had also warned Thomas to keep Kathy away from Senator Sheffield in case an 'asteroid' were to strike the Senator. Bert is full of paranoia, conspiracy theories and wild hairs, and he also has a mobile home stockpiled with more guns and ammunition than the Alamo. But if Bert is really the simple nutcase Thomas believes him to be, why are the FBI and the NTSB interested enough to hold him after the crash? How could a social outcast like Bert have known anything was going to happen to the Senator? Was it just coincidence that Bert was on the phone to Thomas right when the bomb exploded, killing four people and putting a steel bar through Thomas' abdomen? And the reporter who was asking some interesting questions about the plane crash, was the car wreck that killed her husband another coincidence?

REVIEW: It's been about 10 years since Emerson gave readers a new installment in the Thomas Black series, and it was so worth the wait. Over the years Emerson has created some memorable characters and thrilling plots, but I will argue with anyone who thinks this is not his best book yet because it is, and not by a small margin either. I was a little wary before reading this book because so much time had passed, I wondered if the author could still capture the upbeat, wise-cracking, affable voice of his PI. No worries. Opening this book was like falling in with old friends, there was a strong comfort level. At the same time, the reader is immediately sucked into the nightmare that has become Thomas' life.

It's a rare thriller that can evoke as much emotion as Cape Disappointment does without losing the thrill aspect. The unutterable grief Thomas Black endures is one that nearly everyone can identify with. Who has lost a loved one who has not also seen that person in parks, in cars, in stores for days, weeks even, after their death? We dream of them still being alive, we see signs around us that tell us they are trying to connect with the living. Most of us catch our breath, bear down on the pain, and go on. Thomas has a more difficult time than many because he has no body to bury – not all of the crash victims were recovered, although some bodies had washed ashore – and they were in the middle of a phone call when the plane went down. So when he sees Kathy anywhere he runs after her, but it's never Kathy. It's usually someone who doesn't even really look like her. Over and over, until the hinges on his mind start to work loose and he swears he won't run after people again. But he always does. His own personal Cape Disappointment awaits him every time. Emerson not only captures the early stages of grief perfectly, he also captures the actions and speech of those who are not grieving but must deal with the stricken Thomas. Those people run the gamut from the caring friend who simply watches over him (even Thomas realizes he's approaching a suicidal state of mind) to the attractive redhead who callously offers to come by and help clean out his wife's closet.

One of the wonderful things that has happened since Emerson last wrote about his PI is that his writing has been truly tested, grown and stretched. For this book the author has returned to the first-person singular POV so common to detective stories but that narrow POV doesn't feel like a restriction here, possibly because Emerson has learned so well how to seamlessly move the story back and forth in time. And because he has such an ear for conversation that his dialogue almost carries inflection. He could teach a master class on how to accomplish chronological and scene transitions without confusing the reader or slowing the pace while always moving the story forward. The tale moves back and forth from Thomas in and out of the hospital after the bombing to scenes before and after Kathy's death. With each change clues to the bombing or to the plane crash are provided, but also we get insight to the relationship between Thomas and his wife, between his wife and her clients and co-workers. Their marriage was not a perfect relationship but a longstanding one of depth and true friendship, and along the way we start to grieve with Thomas.

No thriller would be that without unexpected plot twists and Emerson provides some dandies, but never does he pull a James Patterson-like faux-frantic chapter ending just to leave the reader dangling. Every twist, every complication, has a raison d'etre, which gets really scary when social misfit Bert Slezak starts spouting conspiracy theories tightly connected with reality. When Thomas makes a CIA connection between Bert and the head of the NTSB, when he starts to think someone is poisoning him, and when Kathy's cellphone – the one at the bottom of the ocean – calls his cellphone, the puzzle isn't even close to being solved. Along the way Thomas is forced to face realities he never thought could exist and carry secrets that will forever haunt him.

Cape Disappointment was anything but disappointing. Characterization, pace, tight plotting, complex structure, and strong, muscular prose all combine in a winner of a book. It's absolutely, far and away, the best thriller I've read in ages. Welcome back, Thomas Black!

You shouldn't think that because Thomas is a recent widower that there is no humor in this book. Emerson always makes me laugh, and here's a sample that tickled my funny bone. In this scene Thomas is working in his cubicle and he overhears Kathy questioning the flaky Bert about the charges against him for violating a restraining order against his ex-wife:
"Then what happened?"

"Her boyfriend showed up."


"He was supposed to be at work. He works the night shift down at Nucor Steel in West Seattle. You think somebody tipped him off? Maybe the government? I've been seeing more undercover federal agents in town. Did I tell you that? I'm being followed by government agents. I ditched one this morning on the way here." Bert's paranoia showed up in almost every conversation, though it was usually under some degree of control by the time he headed to court, as if the sweat factor snapped him out of it.

"Okay. What can you tell me about the car?"

"They can't prove a thing."

"They have a witness who ID'd you. And it is quite a coincidence that the boyfriend throws you out of the house and three hours later his car burns down to the rims."

"Coincidences happen all the time."

"We drew Anderson and she's tough on domestic cases. It would help if you could show some remorse in court."

"Sure. I can fake remorse."

"Genuine remorse would be better."

"No problem. I can fake that, too." He must have made a comical face, which he was prone to, because Kathy laughed.

"You're laughing. They say that's the key to a woman's heart. Make her laugh. Check out how many comedians have married beautiful women. What do you say? Costa Rica? Just you and me and a thatched roof under the stars. We could be there in two days. We'd never have another care in this world. I would read Emily Dickinson out loud and massage your feet after long walks on the beach. Haven't you ever wanted to have a man who made you laugh, worshipped your every move, and knew how to skin a rabbit?"

"The man I have makes me laugh and worships my every move, and what's more I believe he's sitting outside that door."

"Can he skin a rabbit?"

"Probably not, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was about to tan your hide."

Yesterday's Puzzle: There are four Thomas Black books that have actual Washington locations in the titles: Cape Disappointment, Deception Pass, Poverty Bay, and The Rainy City. That last one, of course, is Seattle's informal nickname. The Portland Laugher refers to Portland, Oregon. There is no Portland, Washington, according to Google Maps.

Today's Puzzle:
There are two lighthouses at Cape Disappointment, both built in the 19th century. How many lighthouses (+/- 50) guard the shores of the United States today?

Post your answer in the comments any time before tomorrow's post. Then come back tomorrow and Friday to find a new puzzle and post your answer. Everyone who posts a correct solution to each day's mystery will be entered into a drawing for a wonderful prize. The more puzzles you solve, the more chances you get to win. For example, if you post the correct answer to three out of the five puzzles this week, you will have three chances at the prize. And naturally, you must post your correct solution before the answer is revealed in the following day's post, or it won't count.

The winner will receive a copy of Cape Disappointment, the most recent book featuring Thomas Black,  and a $35 gift certificate courtesy of Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries, Detection and True Crime Books, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aunt Agatha's just happens to also be the Indie Store of the Month, Whenever you're in or near Ann Arbor, Michigan, be sure to visit.

Also, remember to check Jen's blog for continuing events honoring Detectives Around the World Week. And for heaven's sake, don't forget tomorrow: Earl Emerson himself!

April 14, 2010

Thomas Black's Seattle

Today's episode of Detectives Around the World Week, sponsored by the ever-clever Jen Forbus at Jen's Book Thoughts, finds us in Seattle with our PI, Thomas Black.

Thursday afternoon traffic probably wouldn't be bad, but the Seattle area was so congested and there were so few alternate routes, it took the freeways only a heartbeat to choke up like a fat boy in an all-you-can-eat restaurant.
                                                         (Deception Pass)
The mental image many people conjure of Seattle includes the Space Needle, Puget Sound, Mount Rainier somewhere beyond the city itself, maybe even the old Kingdome that was imploded a while back. All that stuff certainly draws (or drew, in the case of the Kingdome) tourists, but it's all background noise for many Seattleites. While author Earl Emerson, in his Thomas Black mystery series, ensures that the reader gets to visit Seattle, he avoids the trap of allowing too many notable tourist spots to overwhelm his story. Let's take a quick trip around Seattle and maybe see just a little of this city as Thomas sees it, instead of the average tourist. That means no Space Needle, no Mount Rainier, but places either close to where he lives or works, places where his interests might take him, and places where he goes while on the job.

PI Thomas Black lives in a "modest frame house off Roosevelt in the University District." It might look something like the house in this picture if this house had roses growing there. Thomas enjoys biking and growing roses, so he probably takes time away from his work to occasionally visit The Woodland Park Rose Garden. (Yes, that IS a McCartney rose in the picture.) Don't let that "rainy city" nickname fool you into staying away. Seattle doesn't even make the top ten list for American cities with the most rainfall. In fact, Seattle has a moderate climate that is perfect for roses and gardening.
And since the garden is attached to The Woodland Park Zoo, he might also want to take in the meerkats coming to the zoo this May. Even if he doesn't want to, I have a feeling that Kathy, his wife, would make sure he doesn't miss seeing these little guys.

Thomas and his wife, Kathy, a lawyer, have their offices on the fourth floor of the Mutual Life Building in the historic Pioneer Square district. On the first floor of the building is Magic Mouse Toys, a 7,000-square-foot package of toys, run by a "professional child." After the way Thomas played around with the electroshock weapon in The Million-Dollar Tattoo, it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine him whiling away the odd hour in a store as convenient and inviting as this one:

Pioneer Square isn't really a square at all. It's about 90 acres of art, history, music, dance, and shopping. There's an old street car and an observation tower and - wait for it - bookstores! Yes, bricks-and-mortar bookstores that still sell those paper-and-ink relics so dear to a book-blogger's heart. In fact, our April Indie Store of the Month, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, is one of those bookstores found in Pioneer Square. The square is busy during the day -- you wouldn't want to miss Seattle branch of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park --  but at night is when the place really comes alive with live music and dancing.

At one point in The Million-Dollar Tattoo, Thomas takes a 30-mile bike ride that takes him through the University of Washington Arboretum, which has been called "one of the largest, and most loved, historic park holdings within the Seattle Parks system." Here are a few reasons why Thomas would enjoy the ride:

After stretching and showering, I met Kathy at Rosita's, a Mexican restaurant near Green Lake, where you were served all the hot tortillas you could eat while you waited.
                                                       The Million-Dollar Tattoo
Earl Emerson didn't make this up. There really is a Rosita's at Green Lake, and I got hungry just looking at the photographs of the food they serve up.

Thomas' fellow PI and client in The Million-Dollar Tattoo is Snake Slezak. Snake has his office in the International District of Seattle. Formerly called Chinatown, the district is now a neighborhood of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese and Southeast Asians businesses and homes. Besides the beautiful Chinatown Gate, there are parks, art galleries, a hotel, grocer, festivals, and much more. But one of the pictures that caught my eye was of the beautifully painted columns supporting the I-5 freeway.

Closer to Thomas' home is the Hotel Meany, where Thomas goes for a job interview. It was the Hotel Meany when the book was published but now is called Hotel Deca. Built in the early 1930s, the building is art deco. The owners began a massive renovation project in the late 1990s, restoring marble floors and giving the entire hotel a neo-deco look, right down to the art and bedding in the individual rooms. And for a boutique hotel in a major city, the prices are as good or better than any of the chain hotels around Chicago. Should I make it to Seattle, I think I'd like to stay here. It's only about four miles from downtown, is close to the university and its attractions, and has panoramic views. And look here what they have for sale online: art deco bed linens. I really think Thomas and Kathy need to spend a getaway weekend here.

As a PI, Thomas visits all parts of the city though, not just swank hotels, parks, and toy stores.
Reluctantly Elmer sat up and directed me to Second Avenue, and then to the Millionair Club at the corner of Second and Lenora. It was a concrete block building with about a dozen men leaning against the wall or standing on the corner waiting for employers in automobiles to come by with work."
                                                       The Million-Dollar Tattoo
The Millionair Club is a charity whose mission is to provide day labor and employment-readiness services for the working homeless in Seattle and King County. The charity fosters dignity by providing opportunities for the working homeless to get back on their feet and be part of their community. The charity screens its workers, and last year more than 4300 homeowners, investors, and businesses hired workers through the Millionair Club. And while this charity does fine work, the truth remains that, as Christ noted, the poor are with us always. You have only to read a couple of posts on Street Stories, a blog by Rick Reynolds, to feel your heart break for the homeless of Seattle and everywhere.
About the only project my neighbor Horace ever took on that I approved of was driving down here a couple of times a year to pick up men for the heavy work in his yard...
                                                       The Million-Dollar Tattoo

Thomas is a resident of Seattle. His cases don't necessarily include murder at all of the usual tourist stops. From the waterside of the Coleman Ferry dock to watching dead salmon being tossed like softballs at Pike Place Market, Thomas Black covers the city of Seattle. And it is thanks to Thomas's creator, author Earl Emerson, that the reader's experience of Seattle never feels like a tourist's map. It feels like Thomas's home.

First, the answer to yesterday's puzzle: It takes ten $100,000 bills (the ones with a portrait of Woodrow Wilson) to buy a million-dollar tattoo. Although if you really, really have to have a tattoo, I'm sure you can get one for a much more reasonable price.

There are twelve books in the Thomas Black mystery series. Identify those books which include actual Washington locations in the title. Be careful, this is tricky. If you need help, visit Stop, You're Killing Me! for a list of all titles.

Post your answer in the comments any time before tomorrow's post. Then come back tomorrow and Friday to find a new puzzle and post your answer. Everyone who posts a correct solution to each day's mystery will be entered into a drawing for a wonderful prize. The more puzzles you solve, the more chances you get to win. For example, if you post the correct answer to three out of the five puzzles this week, you will have three chances at the prize. And naturally, you must post your correct solution before the answer is revealed in the following day's post, or it won't count. (Today will be a busy day for me; I may not check answers before late afternoon.)

The winner will receive a copy of Cape Disappointment, the most recent book featuring Thomas Black,  and a $35 gift certificate courtesy of Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries, Detection and True Crime Books, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aunt Agatha's just happens to also be the Indie Store of the Month, Whenever you're in or near Ann Arbor, Michigan, be sure to visit.

Also, remember to check Jen's blog for the schedule of events honoring Detectives Around the World Week all over the crime fiction blogosphere this week.  I bet somebody else is giving away freebies, too! And if you haven't voted in the final round of World's Favorite Detective, what's the holdup? Marlowe needs your vote!

April 13, 2010


Welcome to day two of Detectives Around the World Week, sponsored by Jen's Book Thoughts. As many of you correctly guessed yesterday, The Drowning Machine is celebrating fictional PI Thomas Black, Seattle. Thomas Black is the creation of a great story-teller, Earl Emerson.

Before I talk about Thomas, just a reminder that you'll want to come back every day this week from now through Friday for a chance to win a copy of Emerson's Cape Disappointment and a $35 gift certificate courtesy of  Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries, Detection and True Crime Books, our Indie Store of the Month here at The Drowning Machine.

And now, meet Thomas Black:

Thomas is an ex-cop who took a disability pension after he inadvertently shot and killed a teenager he thought had a weapon. This quick-witted, bike-riding PI has been the lead investigator in twelve novels, spanning a publishing time frame of 25 years. Thomas first appeared on the crime fiction scene back in 1984's The Rainy City, and he knows his way around the streets, mean or otherwise, of Seattle. And author Earl Emerson knows those streets very well indeed because he's a full-time firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department. Fans of Emerson, stay tuned this week for an interview with one of the most candid and interesting authors I've ever had the pleasure of chatting with.

The second novel in the Thomas Black series, Poverty Bay, won the 1986 Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America for Best Original PI Paperback. Guess who one of the other nominees was in that category that year? Uh, yeah, Earl Emerson, for The Rainy City. Poverty Bay also was nominated for an Edgar that year.

The following year, the third book in the series, Nervous Laughter, was also nominated for a Shamus. Two short years later still, Deviant Behavior, the fifth Thomas Black mystery, was nominated for Best PI Hardcover, and in 1996, The Vanishing Smile, TB #8, also collected a Shamus nomination. In 1998, it was Deception Pass that got a nomination. And let me note that the other nominees that year -- non-winners also-- included Robert Crais for Indigo Slam and Sacred by Dennis Lehane. So you can see that as a writer Emerson has been keeping exclusive and highly-regarded company for a long time. Yeah. So those of you who haven't discovered this fine series, go ahead and kick yourself now. I'll wait.

Book nine in the Thomas Black series is The Million-Dollar Tattoo. Corey selected this book several weeks ago for the Detectives Around the World blog fest, because he liked the connections between this book and the the most recent book in the series, Cape Disappointment, which will also be reviewed later this week. Those connections have to do with twin brothers who see conspiracy all around them. I was happy with Corey's selection just because this is one of my favorite entries in one of my favorite mystery series. Tattoo is a fun and funny story, and still manages to address a topic which is still relevant in the have/have not culture of modern America. And, as is his wont with the entire series, Emerson shows the reader many intriguing facets of Thomas Black's hometown: Seattle, the rainy city.


SYNOPSIS: Hard-drinking, gunslinging PI Elmer 'Snake' Slezak woke up at 4 am to pee and found he had a much bigger problem than a full bladder. That PYT sleeping next to him? Dead. Strangled. Snake is just awake enough to call his fellow PI Thomas Black for help. Snake swears he didn't do it. Thing is, he also swears she's an alien. Not alien as in immigration status; alien as in from outer space. He knew her only as "Seventy-Three." He also swears that he's been sleeping with a whole bunch aliens as part of an intergalactic breeding program.

Thomas naturally concludes that the paranoid and highly volatile Snake has gone completely 'round the twist, but Thomas's wife, Kathy, a criminal lawyer who is ever-sympathetic to someone in trouble, agrees to represent Snake even though she can't stand him. (He might have goosed her once.) The result is that Thomas has to work this like a real case, even though he thinks Snake probably killed the woman in a drunken bout of paranoia and doesn't remember doing it.

It isn't long before Thomas finds himself interviewing everyone from a homeless guy Snake was feeding to a power-tripping corporate front-man who just might be ex-MI-6. Mysteries Thomas must investigate include the a tattoo of a butterfly, which all of the "aliens" had - except the dead one. And whether there really are dwarfs in a Buick following Snake. And what's the deal with the multinational conglomerate waving big bucks and insisting that Thomas drop what he's doing and come to work for them immediately? And who is the mysterious man who comes through with bail for Snake?

REVIEW: Snake Slezak has to be one of the most colorful PIs in fiction. He darned near steals the show from Thomas and Kathy in this book. That's not easily done because this PI-and-lawyer husband-and-wife team give off Nick'n'Nora-type sparks with their flirtatious wit and sexual banter. Snake is a confident, ex-rodeo rider, and a shameless womanizer;  he's also hopelessly un-PC, paranoid, devious, impetuous, blunt-spoken, and a heavy drinker who loves guns. How do you suppose a guy like that could ever end up in trouble?

Thomas is none of those things, except for confident. He's athletic, in love with his wife, good humored, and rarely feels the need to tote a firearm. But, boy, is he relentless with a puzzle. He also doesn't take to being pushed around, and once Thomas starts digging into the events leading up to the murder in Snake's bed, the pushing and shoving start to get out of hand.

Of course, just because Thomas doesn't like getting pushed around doesn't necessarily mean there aren't some characters big and bad enough to do just that. Thomas is no superhero, he isn't even a Jack Reacher wannabe. He's close enough to being an everyman that readers can identify with him but not so close they could be bored by him. There is a scene in a supermarket where one of those bigger, badder characters begins to take Thomas to pieces, our PI having unwisely interfered in a violent domestic dispute. For many authors this would be a standard action sequence. In Earl Emerson's hands, this is an opportunity not only to further the plot but to leaven the drama with a large dose of hilarity as Thomas discovers the near-addictive joy of wielding, however carelessly, a Taser-like electroshock weapon.

Thomas's wife, Kathy, has the level-headed qualities a reader expects in a criminal attorney, but she's also attracted to the action that occurs around Thomas. She's a welcome change from the cliched female romantic figure in PI fiction; you know, the woman who gets bent out of shape because she's in fear every time the PI she loves faces danger, and is always threatening to leave him (and sometimes does).

That's not Kathy. She's always known what Thomas does for a living, and she has no interest in changing him. And if something is going down, she wants to be there. She's no over-the-top kick-ass karate expert or anything like that but she's smart and she's not a wuss. She's clearly her own woman, and not a female version of her husband, although her sense of humor is a perfect match for his. (Too bad Elvis Cole didn't meet this lady-lawyer before that he hooked up with that other one.)

Earl Emerson has a talent for creating characters not just believable and interesting but also easy to see in your mind's eye. And yet the villain of this piece, nameless here in order to avoid spoilers, is not so easily seen, even though Emerson puts that character squarely in front of both Thomas and the reader. Emerson also keeps control of the pace, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader laughing and guessing. Transitions are made smooth by Thomas's humorously masculine POV. This is a fine, fun mystery and the underlying theme of unchecked power is handled with finesse. Emerson is a gifted storyteller who won't scare readers into paranoia or strew blood and guts all over the pages, but will keep them turning those pages.

Here's how Thomas describes Snake:
He was reputed to be Tacoma's sleaziest investigator, but if you knew him well, you knew the label wasn't entirely accurate. He was dirty-minded, opinionated, and cantankerous, but he had plenty of empathy for his clients. He'd once broken into tears over not locating a fifteen-year-old runaway, the daughter of a Boeing engineer, a girl he'd discovered had been sexually abused by a half-brother and was now hooking somewhere along the coast. More than once he'd loaned cash to clients who hadn't been able to pay their bills.

Among his preferred hobbies were shooting rats in the county dump, homophobia, catching bullets in his teeth, and moral superiority, though his real passion was, as he put it, "chasing pussy."

With bricks in his pockets he weighed in at a hundred twenty-five pounds, and perhaps because of his Lilliputian stature, he was feistier than he needed to be. The hardest I ever laughed was in a bar in San Diego when he got the crap knocked out of him by a one-armed woman who'd retired from the Roller Derby. During the scrap he'd pulled off her prosthesis and was drunk enough to think he'd pulled off a real arm. He bawled about his own brutality even as she threw him across the floor with her good arm. The brawl lasted six or seven minutes, and Snake never got in a single lick.

You have more money than you can count. You want to buy a million-dollar tattoo. (Shut up. You DO.) How many US treasury notes bearing this image will you need to make your purchase?

Post your answer in the comments any time before tomorrow's post. Then come back every day this week to find a new puzzle and post your answer. Everyone who posts a correct solution to each day's mystery will be entered into a drawing for a wonderful prize. The more puzzles you solve, the more chances you get to win. For example, if you post the correct answer to three out of the five puzzles this week, you will have three chances at the prize. And naturally, you must post your correct solution before the answer is revealed in the following day's post, or it won't count.

The winner will receive a copy of Cape Disappointment, the most recent book featuring Thomas Black,  and a $35 gift certificate courtesy of our Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries, Detection and True Crime Books, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aunt Agatha's just happens to also be the Indie Store of the Month, Whenever you're in or near Ann Arbor, Michigan, be sure to visit.

Also, remember to check Jen's blog for the schedule of events honoring Detectives Around the World Week all over the crime fiction blogosphere this week.  I bet somebody else is giving away freebies, too!

April 12, 2010

The Mystery Detective Contest

Welcome to the The Drowning Machine edition of Detectives Around the World Week, sponsored by Jen's Book Thoughts.

Jen gave us our choice of fictional detectives to celebrate for this fun week and Corey chose -- wait. This is about detectives and detecting, right? How about if I let you puzzle out the identity of our chosen detective? (Stay tuned, I promise to make the game worth the candle.)

Below is a photo of the building in which our PI has his office. Here is the description by the author: "It was a stone-faced, flat-roofed, narrow building four stories tall, lacking spatial separations from the buildings on either side. A set of worn steps led up to the front doors."

Hm, looks to me like this building really has six floors (or did at the time it was built), but our PI only cares about the fourth floor, where his office is located. Not ready to take a guess yet? Let's see if the next photo helps any. This one should help you pin down the city, or at least the region, in which our mystery detective lives and works.

Too general? Still can't quite pinpoint the city? Maybe this link will help you figure out the location.

All righty, then! You know the city now, right? But, wow, there sure are a lot of fictional detectives in this region. Still not ready to guess? How about if I clue you in on an activity this detective really enjoys?

Are you kidding me? You still don't know? What if I tell you what his girlfriend-later-wife's occupation is:

Okay, the only possible reason that you cannot identify this mystery detective by now is because you haven't read the books. Let's remedy that. Every day this week, through Friday, you'll have the opportunity to become acquainted with --. Nope. Not gonna tell you. Not right here, where you could have just glanced down the screen, seen the name, and then pretended like you knew all along. You have to solve the puzzle. I promise, this will be easy. First and last name of our PI is:

Ah, now you have it! Easy, wasn't it? Now what you need to do is just post your answer in the comments. Then come back every day this week to find a new puzzle and post your answer. Everyone who posts a correct solution to each day's mystery will be entered into a drawing for a wonderful prize. The more puzzles you solve, the more chances you get to win. For example, if you post the correct answer to three out of the five puzzles this week, you will have three chances at the prize. And naturally, you must post your correct solution before the answer is revealed in the following day's post, or it won't count.

And what does the winner get for all of his/her detective work? The winner will receive a copy of the most recent book featuring our mystery detective and a $35 gift certificate courtesy of our Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries, Detection and True Crime Books, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aunt Agatha's just happens to also be the Indie Store of the Month, It's a terrific store, and Robin & Jamie are even better people. You don't want to miss out on these luscious freebies, so remember to come back every day.

Also, be sure to check Jen's blog for a full schedule of events honoring Detectives Around the World Week all over the crime fiction blogosphere this week.  I bet somebody else is giving away freebies, too!

TOMORROW: Look for my review of one of the funniest mysteries featuring You-Know-Who. And a brand new puzzle to help you gain another chance at a wonderful prize.