Sunday, June 26, 2016

Other Eyes

I've now done signings and readings on both coasts.  That means meeting and hearing from readers who move in very different circles.  The West and East Coasts (I've lived on both) really do have different perspectives, rhythms, and vibes.  I've also done signings in the southwest which has its own distinct culture.  I think it's great that even with mass media and cheap airfare and all our migrations within our own borders that we remain a diverse nation.  The old Hippie in Port Townsend, the Presybterian book group leader in Pennsylvania, the Hispanic English teacher in's been a joy to discuss my book with all of them.

I've been struck by how Denise Aragon has resonated with people from diverse backgrounds.  She is definitely hard to take for some people.  But when they've stuck with her, they have come to admire and respect her.  Sometimes it has been men who don't take to her right away.  She puts them off because maybe she doesn't fit their idea of a good choice for a date on the town. But then I learn how their admiration for her develops and by the end of the book they see her as a true hero, and maybe someone they'd want to emulate in their own lives (though I don't suggest her diet for anyone with cholesterol problems who doesn't work out at her level).

"You're such a nice guy, how did you ever come up with that?"  I've heard that, too.  All I can say is that I'm not responsible for my bad guys.  The way I right, not imposing myself, indeed striving to remove myself entirely from what is on the page, they simply take things where their characters want.  And then I'm stuck with cleaning up.

Like Denies Aragon.  One of the things I've revealed is that if I was going to write her honestly I couldn't know how the crimes she worked on were solved at the very beginning.  To be in her character I had to truly be in the shoes of a homicide detective inspecting a crime scene.  I dealt the cards, loading up the scene with forensic evidence, painting a portrait of brutality, but I had no more idea than Det. Aragon what it all meant.  We solved the crimes together and I think that made for a much better book.

Thanks to all who have been reading my book and sharing their thoughts and questions with me.  It has been a joy and has made me a better author.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Suspense Magazine reviews The Drum Within

Always a thrill to receive a positive review:

Detective Denise Aragon is on the force in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her recent job involves outsmarting corrupt lawyers and judges in order to stop a celebrity artist named Cody Geronimo, who just so happens to kill people to use for his “art.” His latest victim is Linda Fager, wife of cold and calculating criminal attorney, Walter Fager. But for the very first time, it seems that Walter wants the police to succeed, and bring down the sick artist before he can hurt anyone else. Unfortunately, Marcy Thornton, Walter’s former protégé, is defending the killer with a passion.

                Most of the police force know that Cody took his celebrity to new horrors. In fact, everyone sitting in court knows that on the night of the murder Cody called his attorney to actually inform her about what he’d done. This phone call is what Detective Aragon playsin court. Sadly, the judge rules that Aragon eavesdropping on a confidential call between attorney and client is illegal. Hence, the murderer runs free and Aragon is suspended.

                 As Aragon tries to keep her case afloat, Cody trespasses on private property and remains a vicious man. But Aragon will never quit as she deals with the subject of American Indian tribes, their property lines, as well as the social conflicts that crop up when dealing with the law.

            A thrilling police story, this gives the real mystery buff a lot to absorb. A major look at justice in all its colors, this incredible author gives us good guys and bad guys and, cross your fingers, it might just be the start of a new series.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Great Review from The Santa Fe New Mexican

I'm late in posting this.  I've been shuttling between Santa Fe and New Mexico this week.  Two radio show appearances, a great signing at Bookworks in Albuquerque and I know another coming tonight at Collected Works in Santa Fe.

Here's the review from The New Mexican's Pasatiempo section:

Craig A. Smith
The Drum Within by James R. Scarantino, Midnight Ink, 351 pages
Santa Fe Police Department detective Denise Aragon is not having an easy night of it. She and her partner have responded to a call about a dead young woman in a parking area up toward the ski basin. No sooner do they begin their work than a call comes in to drop everything and head back to town: The wife of a notoriously aggressive local attorney has just been found dead, and in particularly horrible circumstances.
Before she knows it, Aragon is in close pursuit of a possible murderer, things are heating up unpleasantly, and we’re not even halfway through the night — or very many pages into James R. Scarantino’s City Different-set mystery novel, The Drum Within.
Soon venal officials, competing counselors, and an acclaimed artist whose work teeters between hype and hypocrisy all help embroil Aragon and her colleagues in a whirlpool of obsession and angst, with multiple crimes weaving together puzzlingly. One thing is certain: Aragon will dig out the truth if possible, no matter who or what is in the way.
A local, Aragon is one tough cookie — though call her that to her face and you might find a heap of pain coming right along. Her hair is cut short to evade possible trouble in street fights, and on upper-body day at the gym she bench presses 183 pounds in three sets of 15 reps. She has a major jones for Blake’s Lotaburger, she brown-noses no one, and she is determined to do her duty, even when it might bring her into conflict with the powers that be. Especially with the powers that be.
For what amounts to a debut novel — an earlier, unpublished Scarantino work was acclaimed in the Southwest Writers Workshop International Writing Competition — The Drum Within keeps many ducks in tidy rows through a maze of gritty encounters, bitter confrontations, and some very clever red herrings. At that, Scarantino, of Port Townsend, Washington, should know whereof he writes. He has been a prosecutor, defense attorney, and investigative reporter before turning to the mystery genre, and his writing has very few ragged edges.
Print and media journalists do not always come off very kindly in this work, by the way. But then, neither do judges, attorneys, or government officials. The pretentious gratin of Santa Fe’s arch art scene gets some wicked and apropos smacks as well.
Though Aragon is supposed to be the protagonist — the book’s publicity says The Drum Within is “A Denise Aragon Novel #1” — Scarantino brings in many multiple viewpoints early on. The result is the kind of novel in which the reader is a participant through confidences but never an omniscient one: I found myself pop-eyed in surprise as the plot worked itself out. But the book never overreaches; everything that occurs ultimately makes sense, which is one of the severest tests of a mystery novel.
For a Santa Fean, it’s fun to follow the plot along as it takes the characters throughout downtown, up into the Hyde Park area, off into the rich north hills, over onto the west and south sides, in and out of police stations and courthouses — not to mention up near Glorieta, off into the near-trackless wilds around Grants, and on a gruesome detour down near Socorro. With Aragon as a companion, the trip is worth it. — Craig A. Smith

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Upcoming Appearances

February 24, 2016:  The Courtyard Cafe, Port Townsend, WA  6 pm.  Book reading and signing

March 22, 2016:  Bookworks, Albuquerque, NM  6 pm.  Book reading and signing

March 24, 2016:  Collected Works, Santa Fe, NM  6 pm.  Book reading and signing

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


The first book is out and I am experiencing the adrenaline rush and insecurity of lots of strangers all over the country (and a few in the UK, so far) reading my stuff.  So far, The Drum Within is being well received.  The responses I got from two writers I respect greatly, Lisa Scottoline and Robert Dugoni, bowled me over, lifted me off the ground and sent me into orbit.  Then came the praise of The Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal and independent reviewers like FictionZeal.

I had the pleasure of talking about my start as a writer with Elizabeth George at the Chuckanut Writers Conference last year in Bellingham, WA.  She lives just across a stretch of water from me, and here I thought she lived in England all this time.  She said is was a good thing I had the second book in my series done before receiving the first reviews.  I understood instantly what she was driving at.  Writing is hard enough without getting hammered your first time out on the court.  I makes you not want to drive on the basket again, but take safe shots far outside the three-point line.  I was glad to get the second book done because I had another in my head pushing its way to the front.  But I am glad I missed an early roughing up.

It has been a long road, longer than I anticipated when I sold the book.  I now have a better appreciation for all the work and workers behind every cover I see in a bookstore and library.  The publishing industry, though, remains a bit of mystery to me and I am learning something new every day.  Writing good books, though, not the business, will always remain the focus of my energies.  I've had other businesses and successes.  I write because I admire great books and want write my own.

I'm off on a mini-book tour in New Mexico and I have a book launch here on the Olympic Peninsula.  I am looking forward to talking with readers and learning from them.  I'll have those details in future posts.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Lisa Scottoline, The Spark

I remember stopping dead in my tracks as I passed through a bookstore decades back.  Lisa Scottoline on the shelves.  I had gone to law school with Lisa, been on the University of Pennsylvania Law Review together.  We clerked in the same federal courthouse in Philadelphia, windows looking out on Independence Hall.

She's an author!  Wow, and Edgar Award winning author.  A New York Times Best Seller.

I bought the book and read it straight through.  It was a Philadelphia I knew, voices I could hear.  A plot that I wish I had thought of...even though I was doing no writing at the time, except legal briefs and motions.

Ever since then I wanted to tell the stories I learned and imagined as I plied my craft as prosecutor and defense lawyer.

I picked up other Scottolines over the years.  They kept coming at an impressive pace. The dialogue always jumped off the page.  I was there hearing these Philadelphians, the cynical lawyer, the impatient judge.  And wondering what was coming next.

So I chipped away at my stories.  I won some awards.  But not until now did I get the break:  an agent, then a three-book contract.  I'm going to be not just a writer.  I'm going to be an author.

I contacted Lisa, thirty-three, thirty-four years after I last saw her, probably in the hallways of the federal courthouse where we had worked together.  She's now a giant in the trade. She was elected president of Mystery Writers of America in 2011.   I've seen her novels and books-on-tape in libraries, airports and bookstores on both ends of the continent.  I'm in a B&B in Yorkshire during a walk across England.  She's there on the shelf by the coal fire.

I thanked her for being the spark.

She congratulated me and asked if I still smoked.  Over three decades later and she was concerned.

Lisa hasn't changed.  Still a warm, people-loving person.  How she can write so many stories about murder, deceit, and dishonesty and retain those fine qualities is a wonder.

I said it in my e-mail.  I'll say it here:  Thanks, Lisa Scottoline.  I never would have tried writing a book if I hadn't first read yours. 

Oh, and I quit smoking before I got out of law school. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Fun with Forensics

What makes forensic science in telling the story of crime detection compelling?  Is it the technology, advances in instrumentation, computer breakthroughs, what?

I think it is always the people, not the machines or the math or the microbes that grab people when forensic science takes the stage as a character in an unfolding story.

Consider Forensic FilesI can watch this show for hours on end and not get bored.  My wife does.  It scares me a little.

Sometimes the technology is incomprehensible, though the show does a great job dumbing it down to a manageable state.  Occasionally one forensic advance follows another,  scientific knowledge accelerating exponentially, ensnaring a criminal who escaped during previous dark ages.

If it were a lecture on the subject, it would be boring.

It is fascinating because (1) it is being done in aid of capturing very bad people and (2) human determination, creativity, intuition and sometimes raw luck are what drives the application of cutting edge technology. 

Who would come up with something like that?

That darned detective never quit.  What kept her going?  

How did she see what everybody else missed?

We may be further along a hundred plus years later than Sherlock Holmes in our forensic acumen, but the same insight applied to Arthur Conan Doyle's books.  We were fascinated with the experiments, the technical discoveries, the treatment of microscopic evidence because we were fascinated by Sherlock Holmes.  If we were not pulled into his pursuit of a villain, his idiosyncracies, his brilliant madness we wouldn't care as much about threads of tobacco or stains on an index finger.

Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe...Harry Bosch, Kay Scarpetta.  Same thing.

They make forensics interesting.  It's not the other way around.

Epithelial cells can't do much for a lifeless story even if they do contain the solution to a crime.

My stories are heavy on forensic analysis of crime scenes and evidence.  But they are foremost character driven.  Detective Denise Aragon may not even understand the technology that breaks a mystery open, but she had the determination to keep bugging people with scientific expertise she will never possess.  She had the courage to go out and get the evidence, to break a few laws, if that's what it took, so the laws of science could work for justice.

Forensic science in mystery/crime/thriller novels (I don't pretend to understand the limits and definitions of each category) also runs the danger of serving as a deus ex machina, stepping up to supernaturally knot all lose ends and bring a resolution to the chaos and disaster that has overwhelmed mere humans.  Just because it is forensic science, and not a mysterious new character who descends from the heavens in the nick of time, doesn't make this literary device any more acceptable.

There's a real risk with forensic science serving as "god out of the machine" because in real life it so often plays that very role.  Crimes once thought unsolvable suddenly do open up because out of nowhere there's a scientific breakthrough.

But in telling the story it will only be a focus on the human being employing that new technology that makes the story worth reading.

One other temptation with forensic technology in mystery/crime/thriller novels is to make something up that solves the crime.   

Hey, Detective, I was fiddling around with my nuclear collider, and, voila!, I found a way to nail the bastard. 

It would be cheating.  Characters in stories can be cheaters.  Authors can't.

I read scientific papers and visit blogs like D.P. Lyle's The Writer's Forensic Blog for ideas or a check on a runaway imagination.  I think being true to the science makes for better writing and a better story.

For the book currently in progress I'm learning about biology, botany, and computer science so that my detectives can follow a trail as real and true as their characters.

It makes forensics fun.