Tools of the Trade
Knowledge is power. Isn’t that the message we’re flogged with on children’s television programs from a very young age? But Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge, and at least one Chinese philosopher says knowledge is a curse.
Those warnings unheeded, I feel compelled lately to fill some the gaps in my knowledge, revel in my beloved genre, and go on a quest for knowledge about the ugly business of crime writing.
So let’s look at some writer’s manuals and pull back the curtains on the mighty Oz. The Bookslut crowd is an infamously well-read and creative audience, so the chances are at least a few of you out there plundering your fertile brains for fictional PIs, pimps, hustlers and thieves.
On the other hand, if I’m reading the shelves at the local bookstores correctly, there are a whole bunch of you out there scribbling Lords of the Rings tributes, Harlequin romances, and the next DaVinci Code knockoff. You can find the writing books in the section with the staggeringly homely covers and the transparent titles. How to Write a Damned Good Novel (from the tragically named James N. Frey). How to Write Your Own Life Story (just add alcohol. And lots of drugs and jail time, apparently). How to Write From the Heart. (What heart?) And the most graceful entry, Damn! Why Didn’t I Write That? How Ordinary People Are Making $100,000 Or More And You Can Too! (This joke writes itself, so to speak).
The fact of the matter is that the marvelously imaginative men and women out there pounding the keyboards for money aren’t ordinary people. Crime writers in all their myriad forms are pilgrims in an unholy land, willing to step into the shoes of the most cynical, lunatic and profane characters in modern literature. It’s a heavy headspace to occupy. For that matter, while crime novels are leaping forward in popularity, it’s still not the most respected field in the whole world. When was the last time you saw a mystery on the shortlist for any award that didn’t end have the words Dagger, Edgar or Queen in it? Anybody that’s willing, as Gene Fowler astutely observed, to stare down a piece of paper until drops of blood appear on their forehead is a goddamn hero in my book.
That said, the more decent writers, the better. The most recent entry that slid under my deadlocked door was Carolyn’s Wheat’s How to Write Killer Fiction from mystery publisher Perseverance Press. The Edgar-nominated author has put together a solidly constructed overview of the mystery and suspense genre and the fundamental construction of its books. While it does have some of the same hoary elements that infect most writing manuals (Joseph Campell, anyone?), I admire that Wheat truly loves and understands the conventions of the genre’s various subcategories and can speak as well to a serial killer thriller as she can to an Agatha Christie cozy. She also isn’t stuck in academics. By using solid, well-written and, perhaps most importantly, best-selling novels by Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly and others as examples, Wheat demonstrates a keen awareness not just of the history of the ferocious trade but also of the bloodthirsty marketplace these books are born into.
Going back a few years, there’s Larry Beinhart’s How to Write a Mystery. It was published in 1996, but like Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, it’s lasted because it’s elegant. Unlike the ugly, clumsy manuals that scar the shelves of most bookstores, Beinhart takes the basic elements -- character, plot, point of view, violence and sex -- and examines each with a nearly philosophical tone.
Writers Digest has long been the temple of writer’s manuals and while I can’t confess to loving all their output, there are a few standouts. Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America is a good mix of writer’s tips from Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Tess Garritson and other popular writers. It’s a good starting point for writers who haven’t really nailed down their area of expertise yet.
My favorite of their books, however, is definitively David Morrell’s Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing. Morrell’s insightful book, part instruction and part memoir, isn’t just an instructive read; it’s entertaining as hell. The First Blood author’s chapter on how Rambo nearly ruined his writing career is one of the funniest, most poignant essays about the pitfalls of the movie business.
The WD is also where you can find the best basic research books. While everybody has to talk to cops, morgue technicians, private eyes and the occasional prostitute for research from time to time, sometimes you just need a quickie fact on hand. The Writer’s Complete Crime Reference Book is a discriminating little collection of miscellanea that’s as good for brainstorming as it is for research. It’s reasonably well organized and has great lists like “possible hiding places for smuggled objects,” and “acts of violence.” There’s also Howdunit: How Crimes are Committed and Solved, which is essentially a denser encyclopedia or crime, and the Howdunit series, which details police work, crime-scene investigations, weapons and poisons in titles like Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists and Other Criminals Think. (See, crime writers aren’t sick. We just read a lot).
Finally, I have to profess a great liking for Monica Wood’s The Pocket Muse, not because it will, as advertised, “Teach you, cheer you and inspire you to write as never before.” I love it because so many of its writing prompts stir the most menacing stories burrowing around in my subconscious. Imagine all the terrific, dark, hard-boiled, murderous stories you’ve ever read. Okay, all together now:
- Write about a noise or a silence that won’t go away.
- Write about a roll of film that has been obtained surreptitiously.
- Write about an appliance, a weapon or a vehicle being put to a use for which it was not designed. (This one is my favorite).
- Write about the worst visitor who ever darkened your door.
- Write about an ordinary ritual in which something goes terribly wrong.
- Write about a grown-up who does not play well with others.
- Write about someone is pretending to be something that they are not.
In the right hands, The Pocket Muse is as black and handy as a book of spells.
On that note, I’ll leave you to your scribbling and you can leave me to mine. Hopefully, we’ve both gained a little something and as we’ve all learned -- as that idiot box says -- knowing is half the battle.
The other half? Violence.
For you people who could care less how the sausage is made, there’s good stuff on the shelves this month.
First and foremost is Stephen White’s Kill Me, which is an ingenious endeavor on his part. White, a clinical psychologist who lives in Colorado, wrote a dozen or so respectable thrillers about Alan Gregory who is, well, a clinical psychologist who lives in Colorado. But this is the biggest, baddest novel he’s written and it’s worlds apart from his previous thrillers.
Gregory shows up here but he’s merely the Greek chorus to carry the book home. In a wickedly original tact, it’s narrated by the book’s victim. It’s not a maudlin Lovely Bones fantasy, either. The protagonist is, by self-admission, a complete stereotype -- the rich, white guy. He made a few bucks on a technology company and now lives mostly a life of leisure. When one of his yuppie buddies gets his brains turned to mush in an accident, he starts ruminating on life and death.
Enter a shadowy organization that he dubs the “Death Angels.” For a fat fee, these guys provide the ultimate life insurance. When you hit a predetermined set of circumstances, be it by accident or illness, they step in and make sure you maintain your dignity, but with extreme prejudice. Boom, like that.
Naturally, there are plenty of twists and turns involving Nameless’ kid and a mysterious contractor with the Death Angels. The ending is a bit of a stretch but sheer edge-of-your-seat suspense, this one is the month’s winner.
It’s nice to see the quick return of Adrian McKinty with The Dead Yard. An expat-Irishman, McKinty’s first novel about Belfast-born mercenary Michael Forsythe, Dead I May Well Be, was one a terrific hard-knock look at the Irish underbelly of New York City and its sequel lives up to the promise. Taking a more international bent, Forsythe is on the run in Europe but is quickly nailed by the cops after a soccer riot turns sour. He’s offered a chance to infiltrate an IRA cell on behalf of the British government and takes the deal to get them off his back. The Dead Yard is a great mix of double crosses and dirty deals, howling with the noise of a Pogues record and starring a hero as unsentimental as a shotgun blast.
There’s also an old book dressed up as a hot young thing this month. You might be fooled into thinking that Ian Rankin has cranked out another book in record time, but in fact Blood Hunt was originally published in 1995 under Rankin’s pseudonym, Jack Harvey. While it was originally published to little fanfare, it’s worth taking a look back at Rankin’s early work and a nice way to sample the Scottish author’s talent without falling down the well of the Rebus novels. Like his other standalone thrillers, Witch Hunt and Bleeding Hearts, this one lets Rankin work on a grander scale, treading in the upscale shoes of Fleming or Le Carre more than Rebus’ ale-soaked loafers.
It’s about a former soldier, Gordon Reeve, who comes to America to investigate his brother’s apparent suicide. An ex-SAS soldier with scars and ghosts from the Falklands War and other conflicts, Reeve quickly finds his brother has been murdered and he’s next on the hit list. It’s smartly written and pleasantly violent, as much about revenge as it is about Rankin’s grander ideas about ethics and somewhat dated conspiracy theories. It’s not the best of the Rankin novels but it’s a worthy pursuit while we wait for the last Rebus novel to come screaming into the world.
After all, it all has to end sometime.