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.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Midnight Ink: The Denise Aragon Series Is Coming

I am excited to announce a three-book deal with Midnight Ink, the mystery/thriller/suspense imprint of the international Lewellyn Publications.  Midnight Ink is relatively new to the publishing world, but already has turned out over 100 books, including a bunch of best sellers.

These will be the first three books in the Denise Aragon series.  She is a tough, relentless Santa Fe, NM homicide detective who grew up in the sections of town the tourism board wants to keep hidden.  She was the victim in her early teens of gang violence compounded by police incompetence and judicial indifference.  She is haunted by the death of a boyfriend who gave his life trying to protect her, blaming herself for not saving him though there wasn't a thing she could do.

She became a cop so no one would have to experience what she lived through.  The first step in keeping that promise is to make sure the bad guys don't get away.  To that end, she will do whatever it takes, codes of conduct and judicial niceties be damned. 

I like Denise Aragon.  A lot.  She's strong, bull-headed, street-smart and tireless.  She carries a chip on her shoulder about how Santa Fe has changed into something she can't recognize and how its native Hispanics have not fully participated in its success.  Maybe she's a bit of a redneck and sometimes too quick to let her mouth run when she's frustrated and angry.

She's a superb shot with a .40 semi-automatic and incredibly strong for her size, which is short.  She's altered her appearance to fit the job to which she gives all her life's energy (I'll let you read the books to find out how).

While she may bend the rules to nail people who hurt other people, she will not play along when it means prosecuting the innocent.  She hates politics, despises Santa Fe's judges, and has nothing but contempt for criminal defense lawyers, especially one named Marcy Thornton who grows into her nemesis as the series progresses.

Denise wants love, needs it, but struggles with scars from the sexual violence she suffered.  An FBI agent who reminds her of her murdered boyfriend tugs at her heart.  In each others arms they drive away the horrors they confront in their daily lives.  But she's afraid, confused, conflicted by her feelings for this living replica of the first man she loved.

She's got a great partner, a steady, thoughtful family man as tireless as her.  He's the reader in the team, spots for her when she lifts weights and tries to get her to eat something besides Blake's Lotaburgers.  He's a bit afraid of her, but backs her whenever she steps over the line to get the job done.

The first book in the series follows Detective Denise Aragon as she outsmarts and outruns corrupt judges and lawyers to nail a celebrity artist who kills for his art supplies.  Ironically, the case that puts her on the killer's trail is the murder of the wife of the city's leading and most ruthless criminal defense attorney.  Now he must work with the police instead of against them. The biggest obstacle in his path is the killer's lawyer, his own protege, Marcy Thornton. 

The title is Killer Park.  I can't wait for its release so you can read the whole story with all its twists and turns and watch Denise Aragon do her job as no one else does it:  mistakes, stumbles, determination and brilliance combining for an explosive ending.

Not a tidy, wrapped with a bow, sealed with duct tape, done-once-and-for-all ending.  There's more to come.  It is a series, remember.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gun Talk

Every crime, mystery,  and thriller novel has somebody shooting somebody else with a gun.

So how does a writer know what to say?

Try learning to shoot, handling and cleaning a gun, shopping for a weapon and ammo and spending hours at the range.

Go to a gun store.  Lean over a case, ask questions.  Get the store owner and customers talking.

Hang out at gun shows, if you really want to learn from people who knows guns.  They are not creepy events.  You'll be surrounded by very polite people.  And you can be assured there will be no robberies.  Consider it field research.

It's safer than a convenience store or gas station after dark.

Have your ever read a story that's cooking along until false notes start sounding about guns, bullets and shooting?  It has ruined books for me.  Credibility evaporates.  I start wondering about everything else.

In my books I've worked hard to get details right.  I've shot most of the guns I write about.  I may own one or two of them.

In the case of older weapons, I've been fortunate to find collectors who let me handle their treasures.  I was particularly interested in the British Webley revolver, used widely around the time of WWI.  It is unusual by today's standards in how it is broken open to be reloaded.  I lucked out.  The father of a friend had two.  We sat at his kitchen table while I learned all there is to know about the gun.

That is a Webley revolver in the upper right of this page.  It has an six-sided barrel and is a top-loading gun, meaning the barrel opens from the top to permit ejection of spent cartridges and reload.

I also wanted to know about the Carcano rifle.  In my historical novel it was carried in the WWI trenches by my central character.  There's a lot of history to this rifle.  It is what Lee Harvey Oswald  used to kill JFK. It fired a 6.55 mm cartridge with a round nose. 

I hoped I might run across a Carcano by meeting WWI reenactors.  Sure enough, I found an Italian fellow who had invested a small fortune in recreating an authentic get-up for an Italian infantryman.  He had a Carcano, an actual bullet pouch (cardboard and all), the right bullets, a bayonet, even a working range finder on the weapon.  Holding it gave me an appreciation for the formidable weapon this rifle was, both as a gun and as a club in close combat.

The importance of knowing whereof you speak when talking about guns was driven home to me in a homicide trial I did as a defense lawyer.  My client stood accused of shooting a nine millimeter handgun into a crowd outside a bar.  He hit several people and killed one, allegedly.  The ballistics were a problem for us, as was the testimony of a young man who was in the car with my client and turned state's evidence.

The ballistics report indicated the bullets had been fired by a Chinese manufactured semi-automatic, a knockoff of an older Russian design.  I went out and located a similar weapon, bought it, shot it, took it apart, cleaned it and reassembled it.  The knowledge I gained was crucial in winning an acquittal for our client.

I've heard published mystery/crime authors warn new authors they had better get every detail correct about any guns included in their stories or they'll hear about it from readers.  I've taken that to heart.  I think it makes for better writing, knowing what it feels like to hold and shoot the same weapon as the characters you create.  It's also very enjoyable research.  I've turned out to be a pretty good shot with most guns, even S&W snubbies.

My first gun was recommenced to me by a Philadelphia homicide detective when I was an assistant DA.  In fact, he insisted on picking it out and showing me how to shoot.  The very same range in north Philly where I learned how a semi-auto works turned up years later in a mystery novel by someone who is a best-selling author.

Small world .

He got the details completely wrong.   I mean, seriously wrong.  People violating every rule of range safety, walking around with loaded weapons, chatting, standing behind other shooters with their own guns loaded.  He also botched how the guns worked that were being shot by his characters.

Small world. I met this author some time later and let him know.  He confirmed I had accurately identified the shooting range in question, but laughed off the factual inaccuracies I pointed out.

I hope that's never me.  Except maybe the best-selling part.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Music in Port Townsend

When I'm not writing, hiking, or tending the back forty, I'm playing music.   Port Townsend is full of great musicians who have found their way here from all over the country.  Make that, from all over the world.  One of our local talents holds several European gold records. 

We have fewer than 10,000 people, but any night of the week there's live performances in multiple venues.  Later this year I'll write about the Acoustic Blues and Bluegrass Festivals at Fort Worden, where Officer and a Gentleman was filmed (one of the best screenplays ever).

The weekly scene is music in bars.  Country, blues, alt indie, American, folk, jazz, electric, African, Hawaiian, ukeles galore.  On and on.

I'm plugged into the open mic scene.  I bought my first good guitar a year ago, a beautiful Seagull, and it already has lots of playing time on its solid cedar frame.  There are no fewer than seven weekly open mics and one additional open mic monthly just outside town at the Snug Harbor Cafe at the bottom (or the head, depending on perspective) of Discovery Bay.

The most popular open mic convenes at the Tin Brick.  Strange name for a pizza, cheesesteak and beer joint.  It comes from a similarly-named Irish pub in Fishtown, a rough and tumble working class neighborhood on Philadelphia's northern waterfront.  The owner of the Port Townsend Tin Brick is the grandson of the Irishman who opened the original Tin Brick in the 19th Century.  Harry Doyle, the owner of our local establishment, has recreated a Philadelphia neighborhood bar in a building that housed sailors' bars and gosh knows what else when Port Townsend was known as Bloody Townsend, the roughest seaport on the west coast.  Shanghaiing was legal here as a way to attract ships.  Tunnels lead under the old Victorian buildings to the water.  They were used to carry unconscious sailors to rowboats.  The unfortunate sods would awake 20 miles at sea.  They'd be gone for years.

Our entertainment is much more friendly.  We get traveling musicians who have YouTube videos and successful music careers behind them.  We have a local guitar genius who sits in with anyone who asks.  Same for a terrific bass player.  And talented vocalists are ready to back anyone with multiple-part melodies.

My first time at the open mic I was terrified.  I did "Wasn't It a Mighty Storm" and found myself surrounded by people coming from the crowd to sing with me.  I relaxed instantly and have enjoyed myself ever since.

Some of the best performers show up late, when the pub empties out and serious music begins.  A local virtuoso on guitar and octave mandolin has been showing up with new arrangements that blow people away.  Last week a poet from the Carolinas sang some old gospel songs.  Turns out he's also a denizen of the blues scene in Chicago and D.C.  And a guy named Chicago Bob debuted, announcing he finally moved here after attending Blues fests for years.

The music is a great change of pace and brain patterns from writing and editing stories about murder and mayhem.  If you're ever on the Olympic Peninsula, please catch one of our open mics.  And don't just sit in the crowd.  Get up and sing something.  You'll be warmly welcomed, no matter your level of talent.

Friday, January 23, 2015

New Mexico Crime Fiction: Fertile Soil in a Harsh Environment

Land of Enchantment.  Land of violent crime.

New Mexico's two faces, both compelling.  Both great subjects for novelists.

Tony Hillerman built a legacy introducing America to crime and crime fighters on the Navajo reservation.

Michael McGarrity became a franchise writing about violent crime in a state where he knew law enforcement first hand. 

A contest in Tony Hillerman's honor produced Christine Barber, whose first book The Replacement Child captured a side of Santa Fe no one else had previously tackled--the sad story of northern New Mexico's heroin culture.  The contest has continued to attract talented, unheralded novelists writing mysteries and crime fiction.

As Richard Santos has written, "There’s a long history of crime novelists not only writing in, but writing about New Mexico. After centuries of tribal warfare, Spanish invasion, the Pueblo Revolt, a couple forgotten Civil War battles, the wild west, Billy the Kid, and the Atomic bomb, New Mexico’s history reads like bloody crime fiction. So it’s not surprising that so many mystery authors have been drawn to the Land of Enchantment."

I'd been a prosecutor in Philadelphia before moving to New Mexico.  Immediately I as struck by the odd, bizarre and extremely violent subculture of crime throughout the state.  In future posts I will discuss some of the cases that stood over the years.

I'd go so far to say that there is a unique character to crime in New Mexico.  It is frequently the stuff you think you'd find only in off-beat, darkly humorous crime novels.  I think that is one of the reasons why the Breaking Bad series was so successful.  It blossomed in New Mexico as it would not have done had the series been set elsewhere.   There was a newness to the settings.  The characters were unique.  We'd never seen anything like them before.  Even the light was different.

Albuquerque proudly celebrated Walter White.  What other large city would claim as its hero a high school teacher turned murderous drug lord?

The environment is dry and harsh, unforgiving, swinging from extreme colds to extreme heat.  Its food is painfully spicy at times.  Its high air is thin.  Its winds unrelenting.  Its autumns spectacularly beautiful.

It is a crossroads of cultures, the place of the bloodiest prison riot in American history, home to a world famous opera, the world's largest balloon fiesta, two of the country's most important national laboratories.

People the world over know of Santa Fe.  In Paris, Edinburgh, Rome,  I'd say I was from New Mexico and people who live in some of the world's greatest cities would tell me how lucky I was to live near Santa Fe, somewhere they always wanted to visit.  And was Albuquerque really as bad as it appeared on that television show about the high school teacher turned drug lord?

New Mexcio has always had one of the nation's highest crime rates.  And yet it is such a small stage, its population dwarfed by immense, empty spaces.

It is a compact stage, where actors and stories won't get lost among props and special effects.
It is simply a great setting for crime fiction.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Thanks, Chris Gilbert

The photo of me on the home page was taken by my friend, Chris Gilbert.  It twas a dark and dreary day on the Olympic Peninsula.  We needed a flash even in a room with almost floor to ceiling windows.  I said to heck with it.  Let's take this outside.

Chris took a shot of me in the rain in front of a rhododendron.  It was a go.  Enough already with the camera.

Chris has a terrific voice, and an English accent that makes him perfect for singing Ewan MacColl songs (think "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "My Old Man" and "Dirty Old Town.").

We've had a lot of fun playing together in a pub band called "Happenstance."  I bring the guitar and harmonies.  Chris fronts the band and does it superbly.

Right now we're in hibernation.  Our bass players flees the gray Puget Sound winters for Central California sun.  And Chris' brother, our uke man, is back in England.

Did I mention Chris is from England?  That accent isn't acquired.

When the weather warms and sky clears, hopefully we'll be at Port Townsend's Uptown Pub, Tin Brick, Sirens Pub, and the Courtyard Cafe offering up songs by the Chieftains, the Furies, and Dubliners.

Now, if we can work up an hour of maritime music, maybe we'll make it to a stage at the Port Townsend Woodend Boat Festival.  That would be something. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Santa Fe Crime

Covering crime is like covering sports.

So wrote Geoff Grammer, former "justice" reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican.

He's now a sports writer for the Albuquerque Journal.

That's him.

While he covered "justice" for Santa Fe's daily, he kept a blog entitled, appropriately, Santa Fe Crime.  It provided the most extensive, intensive and entertaining coverage of the City Different's rogues, scoundrels, and thugs. 

I wish someone had kept the blog going.

Mr. Grammer discontinued the blog when he went he returned to sports writing.  Since then coverage of Santa Fe crime has been spotty and incomplete.  None of Santa Fe's media outlets regularly report on that city's crime the way Albuquerque's dark side gets attention.  Not that Santa Fe lacks for raw material for a robust police blotter.  Just look at Grammer's blog.

Santa Fe has its gangs, its shootings, its burglaries, its robberies, everything other cities have.  In light of its relatively small size, Santa Fe may have an even higher incidence of crime per capita or square mile.  The website Neighborhood Scout rates Santa Fe at level 8 on a scale of 100, 100 being the safest rating.  That means Santa Fe is only safer than 8% of the rest of America.


Not the stuff the tourist bureau and real estate companies selling the mansions in the hills want broadcast.

The same website reports that a Santa Fe resident has a three times higher risk of being a victim of property crime than an Albuquerque resident.  As for violent crime, Santa Fe is a bit safer than the rest of New Mexico.  But that's not saying much.  The Land of Enchantment is also the land of high rates of violent crime just about everywhere in the state. 

New Mexico may be at the bottom in many indices, but it exceeds the national average when it comes to crime.

Back to Santa Fe.

I think there are many untold stories behind the charm and style.  The contrast between the east and west sides is almost Dickensian.  It was the best of small cities (check the money and retirement mags), it was the worst of small cities (see above-cited stats).  That tension can be the stuff of great stories.

So I'll pick up where Geoff Grammer left off, writing about the twisted characters and nefarious schemes in the Santa Fe you won't read about anywhere else.