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

May 24, 2010

You could say I've had ONE TOO MANY BLOWS TO THE HEAD

I'm way behind on talking about all the reading I've been doing lately. I have no excuse other than laziness. But I'm here, I'm ready, so let's play catch-up now.

First off, the deadline for the original stories in the Watery Grave contest has passed and all twelve invitees got their stories in on time. Stay tuned for further developments.

Yes, you could say I've had One Too Many Blows to the Head, but you can't blame the story by Eric Beetner and J.B. Kohl for that. The co-authors turned out a pulp tale that is the love-child of Dave Zeltserman's out-of-prison trilogy mated with Richard Stark's The Hunter. Chapters alternate the first-person tales of Ray, who is out to avenge the death of his brother resulting from a fixed boxing match in 1938 Kansas City, and police detective Fokoli, who is hard on Ray's heels as the bodies start to pile up. The story and characterization have weight, and a suitably seedy-noir feel. And although the story begins in the boxing ring, it doesn't hang around for long, moving well out into the underbelly of America's Depression-struck heartland.

CJ Box's Nowhere to Run is the first of his Joe Pickett series that I've read. The first third or so of the book, I was completely hooked, as game warden Pickett encounters a set of murderous identical twins living off the land in a state park. That part of the story reminded me of the excellent hunter/hunted tale by Louis L'amour, Last of the Breed. But rather than making the tense hunt-and-escape the whole of the book, it occupied merely that first third; after that, the tension fell off and by the end of the book I was completely out of sympathy with the protagonist, who reminded me more of a pissy, by-the-book meter-maid than a stand-up hero.

I re-read Earl Emerson's Yellow Dog Party, one of his PI Thomas Black novels. Emerson knows how to start a story in the middle of the action, before filling in the backstory, and in this book he starts out by hanging his protagonist. The gist of the story is that Black is working for four well-to-do men who want to hook up with their "dream dates" and they need Black to find the women. Only the first woman Black finds has been beaten into a coma by person or persons unknown, and as Black leaves the hospital he is assaulted, dragged out to the middle of nowhere, and lynched. And that's just the beginning. I'd say this is one of my favorite Thomas Black novels, but I say that about almost all of them.

I also re-read Georgette Heyer's Death in the Stocks for the Foul Play bookclub. This is a traditional 1930s English drawing-room mystery, with plenty of red herrings but not terribly difficult to solve, and full of snarky dialogue and characters that are a shade or two warmer than in many such mysteries.

The entire fandom of Michael Connelly may come crashing down on me for saying how much I didn't care for 9 Dragons, so I won't say it.

Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer, is fine YA reading, about an 18th-century orphan girl who, for a while, passes as a boy in order to get work and square meals aboard a British man o' war. This is the first book in a highly-praised series that takes the undersized street urchin, Jacky Faber, from the high seas to a Boston girls' school and eventually to Napoleon's army.

Lee Child rebounds from the last two somewhat ho-hum Jack Reacher novels to once again deliver the goods for his fans in 61 Hours. Smart as Reacher is, though, in this new book he is unable to pick out the villain as fast as any reasonably alert reader will do. But on the plus side, Child created a character, a retired librarian, who forces Reacher to examine himself and his motives a bit more closely than in any of his previous outings. Our Jack doesn't exactly start navel-gazing, but the old lady does force him to do a bit of self-examination. Yes, that's right, author Child has finally fallen on that necessary crutch, character development, to improve his story. Go figure. For a full review, see PopCultureNerd's excellent summation.

And John Sandford's latest installment in the Lucas Davenport series, Storm Prey, is as solid an outing as his fans have come to expect. Instead of Lucas being front and center this time, it's his wife, a surgeon, who takes center stage as she is part of a team involved in separating conjoined twins while a pair of killers want to insure that the doctor never be able to identify them. Davenport's old flame/fling Marcy Sherrill makes an appearance as does "that fuckin' Flowers," Sandford's other series lead. The descriptions of the procedures (jigsaws! microsurgery!) involved in separating the twins are every bit as fascinating as watching Davenport's team of detectives close in on the killers. In the case of both the Child and Sandford novels, if you're a fan you'll probably be pleased by these books. If you're not a fan, these books aren't built to persuade you otherwise.

(Yes, Jen, I know I told you I'd never review a Sandford or Child book, but these blurbs don't really count as actual reviews, do they? More like acknowledgments, don't you think?)

May 23, 2010

NICE GIRL DOES NOIR I/II by Libby Fischer Hellmann

When I received two volumes of short stories by Libby Fischer Hellmann to preview, I was not unaware of her writing credentials. I even have her novel, Easy Innocence, in my TBR stacks, and I had read Jen Forbus's interview with her. I lacked firsthand knowledge of her work though.

If you're like me in that regard, NICE GIRL DOES NOIR Volumes I and II, are a great place to get acquainted with Hellmann's talent. Volume I is an especially good choice for those readers wanting to break into Hellmann's two series of novels, featuring police detective Georgia Davis and video producer Ellie Foreman, as four of the five stories involve one or both of those characters. Those four stories are traditional detective stories.

In Common Scents, Davis sniffs out a killer whose MO is distinctive but easily hidden. Ellie Foreman takes center stage in The Last Radical, as the author expands on the old Satchel Paige axiom: Don't ever look back, something might be gaining on you. In A Winter's Tale, Ellie lends support to a widowed neighbor and finds herself fitting together a picture puzzle of greed in suburbia. And in The Murder of Katie Boyle, the author brings her two series' protagonists together for the first time, as Ellie discovers a murder and Davis investigates. And isn't it interesting that the two characters don't immediately become bosom buddies?

 The fifth story -- or the first one, I should say, as it appears first in the book -- is The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared, which has the deserved distinction of having won the 1999 Bouchercon Short Story Contest. In this story, the author steps back to 1938, and delivers a different kind of coming of age tale as two young students witness the doomed romance between a stage actress and a numbers runner. Hellmann does a stellar job of creating a time and place where these characters live, so memorable and vivid one can watch them mentally on screen in black and white as Benny Goodman's clarinet provides the soundtrack to heartache, and as Hitler is beginning to rattle sabers in the background.

Volume II of NICE GIRL DOES NOIR is made up of nine stories broken into two sections: 'Chicago, Then and Now,' and 'Other Places, Other Times.' And it is in this collection, along with The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared, that the reader really begins to fully appreciate Hellmann's talent. Freed from the necessity of framing the story to fit the demands of the traditional mystery, she brings forth those shades of gray that paint true noir. With the Foreman/Davis stories, the author's particular 'crime in suburbia' niche is good reading, but when Hellmann explores the less sunlit areas of Chicago and times gone by, her canvas becomes not only more universal but has greater depth and emotional value. Aspiring short-story writers would do well to pay attention to how Hellmann creates both story and character arcs within the small framework.

In Dumber Than Dirt, Hellmann relates the story of a young man, not too bright but who epitomizes the old saw that it is better to be lucky than good. My particular favorite in this volume is The Whole World Is Watching, about a young Chicago police officer on duty during the civil unrest in that city during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In both of these stories the characters are engrossing and the arcs are perfect without being predictable.

And guess what? Both volumes are available now as e-books at Smashwords and amazon. Yes, it's true that I usually won't provide links to amazon, but as far as I'm aware Smashwords and amazon are the only places a reader will find these works (for now anyway), so because these stories are worth your while, I'll make a rare exception:


May 18, 2010

"They're here already! You're next!" *

It's a major disappointment to me that actor Kevin McCarthy will not appear at the forthcoming Cinevent 42 after all. And isn't that strange, considering I hadn't planned on attending anyway? Or perhaps not, because given the freedom and budget, I wouldn't miss it.

Cinevent is an annual gathering of fans of silent and early sound films. This year there are some 30 screenings slated over the Memorial Day weekend, including this one I never heard of:    >>>>>>>>>>
Patsy Ruth Miller? Who dat?

There will also be a dealers' room, loaded with posters, books, action figures, and movie-related memorabilia of all kinds. Looks like there's to be a pre-Monster Bash party as well, to get those folks in the mood for Monster Bash, which occurs in June in Butler, Pennsylvania.

On the evening of May 27, the day that Cinevent opens but in a completely separate event and venue, the Wexner Center for the Arts will screen Out of the Past and Point Blank, as well as the Two Minutes to Zero trilogy from director Lewis Klahr. I want to see Out of the Past just to enjoy the reaction of all those young people seeing the film for the first time when Robert Mitchum does the famous "baby, I don't care" line.

*Invasion of the Body Snatchers

May 11, 2010

Short Takes #9

Good golly, you want a short story that'll rip our your heart, soul, and every hope of heaven you ever had? Try Ken Bruen's To Have and To Hold. And as long as you're visiting the Hardluck Stories archive of Borderland Noir, stick around and read Craig McDonald's Broken Promised Land. Over at A Twist of Noir, in case you missed it, you'll get a lesson on how to properly pack for a vacation in David Cranmer's delightfully grim story, The Missing Husband of Mildred Malloy.

David also informs us at his Education of a Pulp Writer blog, that the first season of The Rat Patrol is now available on dvd. That's good news for this fan. I'm still waiting for rumors about a dvd set of It Takes a Thief to become reality.

So sad to learn of the death of Peter O'Donnell last week. I will always be grateful to him not only for his terrific Modesty Blaise series, but also for the gothics he wrote and published under the name of Madeline Brent. His heroines were not only strong and intelligent, but were possessed of good common sense and, as with the late Georgette Heyer's heroines, their slight brushes with romance were never designed to embarrass or titillate the reader. No mother ever need fear what her teenaged daughter might be discovering between the covers of a Madeline Brent book, but at the same time O'Donnell was never shy about naming the difficulties women faced in the Victorian era. And so few writers of series ever wrap up the lives of their characters as neatly as O'Donnell did in the last Modesty Blaise adventure, a collection of short stories called Cobra Trap.

May 7, 2010

Take me out...

The hour of noon now being past, I've drawn the names of the ten lucky recipients of an invitation to the next phase of the Watery Grave Invitational Short Story Contest. My sincere thanks to all of you who submitted your stories for the Watery Grave contest. I enjoyed the wide variety of stories and I deeply regret that for some of you, the contest is over. 

These ten writers will join Keith Rawson and Jimmy Callaway (top five finalists from last year's competition) in creating original crime stories of 3500 words or less based on the theme of: Baseball. A game, the equipment, a player, a fan, a uniform -- whatever. Weave baseball into or around your story. The deadline for emailing your story to me is noon EST, May 24.

Congratulations to the invitees:

AJ Hayes
Chad Eagleton
Liam Jose
Matthew McBride
Kathleen Ryan
Kieran Shea
Chad Rohrbacher
Dan Ames
Joe Hartlaub
Nigel Bird
Again, thank you all for participating. This is much more fun for me than for you, I'm sure.

May 3, 2010

WGI: Latest entries and need for a judge

The latest contenders for an invitation to the Watery Grave Invitational are:
A LOVELY SHADE OF BLUE by Michael J. Solender published by A Twist of Noir
CROSSED DOUBLE by Joseph Hartlaub published in Thriller 2, edited by Clive Cussler
PICKUP ACROSS THE RIVER by Mike Dennis published by A Twist of Noir
MR. PARKER AND THE GUN by Matthew McBride also published by A Twist of Noir

And I'm very pleased to see that Keith Rawson has wrung a little time out of his overcrowded schedule to accept the automatic invitation bestowed on him as a result of his third-place finish in last year's WGI, Inspired Love.

There are lot of familiar names I haven't seen lining up to take a swim though. You know who you are, and all you have to do is email me a link to your story. Before noon EST, Friday.

I'm casting about for one more volunteer to be a judge, as I somehow misplaced my local volunteer. Judges don't have to read all the applications, they need read only the original stories written by the invitees. Unfortunately I have no rewards for the judges, other than my gratitude. If you're interested in judging rather than writing, shoot me an e-mail at Scratch all that. I have a volunteer. Hehehe.

May 2, 2010

WGI, Weevils, and Whatnot

After the first day of open submissions to the Watery Grave Invitational Short Story Contest, we have eight applicants for invitations, as follows:
MEXICO by A.J. Hayes published by A Twist of Noir
BABY FOOD by Liam José published by The Flash Fiction Offensive
LAWYER #4 by Dan Ames published on Ames to Kill
VICTIMS OF THE NIGHT by Kathleen Ryan published by A Twist of Noir
AN ARM AND A LEG by Nigel Bird published by Crimespree, issue #34
SHE GOT HERS by Pamila Payne published on The Journal
THE SOUTHWEST CHIEF by Josh Converse published by Plots With Guns
THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED by Chad Eagleton published by A Twist of Noir
And Jimmy Callaway has accepted his automatic invitation, given as a result of his placement in last year's contest.

I'm keeping a running list of all applicants in the sidebar, so authors, please: Make sure I include you within 24 hours of sending your story, that I spelled everything correctly, and that the link works as it should.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of meeting Sophie Littlefield, Carla Buckley, and Brad Parks. What a triumvirate! All I can say is, to know them is to love them. I've read and enjoyed Sophie's and Brad's debut novels, and I'm looking forward to getting my copy of Carla's debut book, The Things That Keep Us Here. Yes, it's true: Her book sold out before I could get a copy! (That Sophie snatched up the last one, and she's just way too fit to fight with.) Carla amused everyone by trying out her urban dialect while reading an excerpt from Brad's book, while Brad gave Sophie's Stella Hardesty character a southern accent in his interpretive reading.

A bonus for me was the presence of Joe Hartlaub. Joe is an attorney, actor, reviewer, and the author of one of the more memorable short stories I read last year, Crossed Double, from Thriller 2: Stories You Just Can't Put Down. And I'm proud to own him and Carla, too, as homies. Yes, we all live right here in central Ohio. When you add Craig McDonald to the mix, I'd say we've got an amazing pool of talent on tap locally.

All of the authors were amazingly generous with their time, but yesterday was a might cool and breezy, and poor Carla and Sophie were turning blue with cold after a couple of hours. Granted, Brad did offer to share his sport coat but then there was some talk of cooties, and the ladies wisely  chose chill bumps as the lesser of two weevils.

In other matters, I have been remiss in not mentioning the quality of the short stories in the first issue of Needle: A Magazine of Noir. Full disclosure: I co-edited several of these stories. You may think that disqualifies me as an objective voice, but as this entire venture has been a labor of love, not profit, from everyone involved, you can rest assured that I have no personal stake in selling copies of Needle. But you should buy it and read it. Why? There are sixteen stories, meaning sixteen good reasons to read the magazine, but I'll just give you two: Hilary Davidson and Dave Zeltserman. 'Nuff said.

Catching up on the books I've read lately: C.J. Box's newest Joe Pickett novel, Nowhere to Run, is a tale about twin brothers hiding out in the rough terrain of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The story around these brothers is an intriguing one and I have no doubt the book will delight Joe Pickett fans.

Sharon McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun is a cozy mystery which gently lampoons the people we have all seen (and sometimes are) at science fiction conventions.

Hemingway Deadlights by Michael Atkinson presents Ernest Hemingway in the role of amateur sleuth. Here Hemingway is less literary-god and more drink-befuddled comic, as he pursues the killer who used an antique harpoon to kill one of Papa's occasional drinking buddies. Here's the book trailer:

May 1, 2010

Feel like I'm fixin' to drown: The 2nd Watery Grave Invitational

Last year Corey came up with a brilliant idea to support writers of short crime fic: A contest. But Corey being how he is, he added a twist. He made it interesting by pitting only ten writers against each other in The Watery Grave Invitational Short Story Contest. Last year's winner was none other than Hilary Davidson, whose novel, The Damage Done, is scheduled for publication this autumn. Second place was taken by Sophie Littlefield, whose debut novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, is Edgar-nominated. I believe that this year's contestants will prove just as talented as last year's.

That's right: this is your official announcement of the return of the WGI, and I'm delighted that Corey trusts me to run this contest for him. I've made some minor rule changes so everyone should read the rules carefully, even if you participated last year. Before I get into the rules though, I want to remind everyone that according to last year's rules, the top five contestants from that first contest each get an automatic invitation without any further requirements. Those five writers are:
Hilary Davidson
Sophie Littlefield
Keith Rawson
Jimmy Callaway
Mike Wilkerson
And now, THE RULES:
Phase One: Apply for an invitation.
In order to apply for an invitation the author must have a crime fiction story of no more than 3000 words already published in any format that is available for the public to read. Web, print, digital (e.g. Smashwords, Kindle, etc.) -- they all qualify. Your story posted on your own blog does qualify this year.

The story must have been published on or prior to April 15, 2010.

Email a link to your story (the link must connect to the online posting of your story) to no later than noon EST, Friday, May 7, 2010. For authors whose work is in print or digital format, please email the story in the file format of your choice. The subject line should simply say FICTION SUBMISSION, and the body of the email should contain only your name, the name of your story, and the link to your story or the file attachment with the publication identified. Do not send original material unless and until you are invited to do so.

An author may submit only one story. Not one at a time, just one. So choose your best work, as long as it doesn't exceed 3000 words, because you only get one shot at an invitation.
Phase Two: Invitations.
If I like your story and style, your name goes into a hat from which I'll do the drawing. Ten lucky writers will join the five writers named above in receiving an invitation to write an original story (unpublished anywhere, ever) for the contest. As Corey wrote in his original rules, "you won't know whether your name went in the hat to be randomly chosen. You could have the written the finest story on the web to date and still have Lady Luck give you the cold shoulder. So if you don't get an invitation, don't assume I didn't like your story." Whether you receive an invitation or not, you will be notified. I won't leave you hanging.
Phase Three: Original Stories
Writers who accept the invitation will have until noon EST, Monday, May 24, to submit an original story of no more than 3500 words and based on a theme which will not be revealed until all invitations are accepted. There won't be much time to write and polish a new story, but look on the bright side: You'll have it out of the way in time to relax and enjoy the Memorial Day weekend (if you're a Yank).
1st Prize: $25
2nd Prize: $15
3rd Prize: $10
Other notes:
The judges will not be identified until after the winner is named. I'm sure none of the writers would try to influence a judge (except for Keith Rawson and Paul Brazill -- I got my eye on you guys!), but this way the temptation is removed.

If any of the five authors who received an automatic invitation declines to participate, no replacement will be named. However, if any of the ten authors invited via the Phase Two process declines to participate then a new name will be drawn as a replacement. There will not be fewer than ten authors in the final phase of the competition, and not more than 15.

The top five finalists will again receive automatic invitations to the next WGI.

Okay, I'm braced for the whirlwind. Ready. Set. GO!