Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Those Eyes How Familiar They Seem

By Kevin Guilfoile

My three-year-old son has a Laura Lippman obsession.

I'm not sure how or exactly when it started. Every morning we come downstairs and I go to the kitchen to make breakfast and then I come back into the family room to get him. Some months ago, while I was setting the timer on the toaster oven, he started removing Laura's books from the shelves and arranging them on the floor or on the couch or against the wall. Of the hundreds of novels within his reach, he's interested only in Laura's books. Sometimes I'll come in and he'll appear to be reading one of them, holding it open in front of his face, turning the page every minute or so, the way mommy and daddy do. (Or the way mommy does, anyway. His daddy doesn't read two pages a minute.) Oddly I've never seen him actually pull the books from the shelf. I've only seen him obsess over them.

We read to Max every day, but the only grown up books he's ever asked us to read aloud are Tess Monaghan mysteries. I'm not sure what's going on there, and he's too young to tell me. Someday soon I'm sure he'll pretend to read other authors. Probably the same day he starts to eat food other than waffles. In any case, I'm extremely happy that Max seems to like the aesthetic of books. He likes to hold them and open them and smell them, even if he's not certain what all the words say inside. He knows there's a good story in there somewhere and I think he's trying to discover how to pull it out.

When Max was born I asked a number of friends to give me the name of the first book from their childhood that really got them hooked. The book they were reading--probably around fourth or fifth or sixth grade--when something clicked in their heads and they understood what it was to get lost in a novel, to be transported into a fictional world, to believe in characters that someone else had invented. I received dozens of great recommendations (and many actual books with loving inscriptions) and I've started to build Max's library for the day when he really can read to himself. I had three older siblings and grew up in a house full of books that were just a little bit advanced for me and I want Max and his brother to grow up the same way. I want them to be able to reach out their hands any time and find a book that thrills and challenges them.

So I'm posing the question again here. What was the book that did it for you? The first novel you stayed up at night reading under the covers. The first book you ran home from school so you could get back to it. The first book you really became lost in.

I'll post my own answer in the comments. For Max, I think the answer will always be Baltimore Blues.

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Morning in Court

26th and California. Cook County Criminal Court.

The lines to get in are differentiated by sex and worse than at the air port, the ends forced to wait in the 22ยบ cold. Inside, deputies announce, “Two lines. Step up. Empty your pockets. Take off your belts.” At least we don’t have to take off our shoes.

Courtroom 203 is a small circular space with wooden bench, jury box and tables separated from the spectators gallery by a curved wall broken by heavy glass doors, topped by inch-thick glass panels. Dorothy’s Brown’s name is prominent on the three Calendar pages posted on the wall—January, February and March. January 1-22 are crossed off with heavy black Xes. The gallery has three curved rows of benches and three windows overlooking treetops outside. Four of us wait: two men, black and white, two white women.

My information said 9:30 am. The clerk is here, a trim black woman with short shiny hair. By 9:40 the court reporter limps in, a short, heavy woman in a burgundy velvet top. She’s still unpacking her equipment at 9:50 when a deputy sheriff arrives.

At 9:51, a slim man pushes in a cart loaded with accordion files. He confers with the clerk.

9:57. Judge Brown, sans robe, comes in from the back. He checks something on the bench, then leaves.

9:58. A male attorney enters, throws his coat on the jury box rail, confers with the clerk.

9:59. Another attorney enters. He puts his folder on the States Attorney’s table and consults the clerk. The two men in the spectators gallery talk quietly, go out in the hall, return.

At 10:02 a woman with a police badge comes in, goes out. Another attorney enters and drops his folder on the defense table. He comes into the gallery to confer with the men, one of whom has an outstanding warrant for failing to appear for his last court date. He claims to have been in the hospital and to have papers to prove it. The lawyer tells him they will get the warrant lifted.

10:05 A female public defender enters dressed in sweater and slacks. Her blond hair hangs below her butt. She puts her folder on the defense table and comes into the gallery to ask her client, a young black male, about the communication problem he seems to be having with his counsel. They go out in the hall for a talk.

10:11. Another attorney enters. There is no way for a novice to keep track of who is who without a program. I am a novice.

10:12. A woman in a plaid jacket enters to sit at the end of the defense table and confer with the State’s Attorney. She turns out to be a prosecutor, too. Cart Man, who has the sharpest suit in the room, confers with one of the defense attorneys.

10:15. A woman enters with a red accordion file. She confers briefly with Cart Man then exits.

10:17 There are four of us in the spectators gallery, two women, the man with the outstanding warrant, and an older black man with a shiny bald head. He talks to the older woman, who turns out to be a court-watcher like myself. Ms. Public Defender returns with her client. He sits in the back of the gallery; she goes back in to confer with Cart Man.

10:20. Warrant Man’s attorney comes out to confer with his client. A second deputy sheriff joins the first in the court room but quickly leaves. Someone turns on the court speaker so we can hear the buzz of conversation beyond the bullet-proof glass. Two more woman enter and confer with Cart Man, then leave.

10:23. Judge Brown enters, robed, as the Deputy intones, “All rise.” We stand, sit. Court is in session.

I put down my pen and paper—note-taking is frowned upon in court. Talking, reading, eating and cells phones are prohibited. I keep my Court Advocate badge in my pocket. It’s supposed to send the message to the court that the community is watching, but I suspect no one cares. I decide to save my badge to use another day.

I take no notes, except to record the date to which the case I have come to observe has been continued. What I recall later is that Judge Brown is very respectful toward the defendants, saying “Good morning” to each. I wonder if he is always this patient and courteous. I wonder how Judge Judy ever got on a bench.

By eleven-something, Judge Brown has recessed the court, and the speaker is turned off. I am the only one left in the gallery. I wander into the hall where there are still attorneys conferring with their clients.

I go upstairs to Judge Toomin’s court, room 400, and sit in on the second half of a jury trial. The defendant was arrested for possession of a stolen motor vehicle after calling attention to himself by running a stop sign in front of a Chicago cop. I hear the officer testify about the arrest and certain foreign currency he found on the defendant. Although it corresponds to currency missing from the home burglarized when the car went missing, the actual notes are in the possession of Lake County where the burglary occurred. The defense attorneys object to the introduction of photocopies. Judge Toomin overrules the objection but later sends the jury out while they discuss the case.

We all rise when the jury returns for closing arguments and instructions. The jury retires to deliberate, returns in less than an hour, finding the defendant guilty. The judge sends them back to the jury room for lunch before dismissing them.

Then excitement! The defendant goes ballistic and stalks away from his attorneys. The deputy and the Chicago cop/witness wrestle him to the floor. Two more CPD cops charge in and join the fray. Judge Toomin orders the man back to jail.

I head for the exit, passing a man screaming onto a cell phone as he stands next to a pay phone. Just inside the front doors, on the safe side of the metal detectors, TV cameras are set up to capture the latest on another case, and a well know reporter waits to conduct an interview.

On certain days, 26th and Cal is the greatest free show in town. On any day, it has the melodrama of a soap opera, the unreality of “reality” TV, tragedy, comedy, pathos. It’s a place most people avoid unless summoned for jury duty. And those who are summoned, are prevented from seeing most of what actually occurs. Steve Bogira captures the process eloquently in Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Court (Vintage, 2005), which should be required reading in schools and for anyone writing about crime in Chicago. And for anyone who votes.

720 ILCS 5/Criminal Code of 1961

Updates Illinois compiled statutes

Friday, January 26, 2007

Violence -- Don't We Love It?

We’re constantly being told we live in a violent society. Like so much received wisdom, that may not be quite the case. And crime writers, who may be criticized for adding to the problem by writing about mayhem and murder, should get the facts.

In pre-industrial England and the early American colonies you didn’t travel on the roads at night because of highway robbers, brigands and footpads. [What a great word, footpads.] Today, I would think nothing of getting in the car and driving alone two hundred miles into central Michigan in the night. In Chicago, I walk almost everywhere I go.

The murder rate in England can be calculated quite accurately back as far as 1200, using court records. We may think of this as an agrarian Eden, but in fact murder rates up to 1800 were 21 per 100,000. The current rate in the U.K. is 1.4 per 100,000 and the U.S. is around 4. There are some studies that conclude rates in the U.K. before 1800 were over the 21 per 100,000 figures.

In hunter-gatherer societies, over half the deaths may have been murder. Societies varied, of course, but some guesstimates place deaths at 32 per cent from illness, 15 per cent accident, and all the rest, 53 per cent, murder.

I won’t belabor this, much as I’d like to.

Yes, we have crime in the U.S. And too many guns. And there are unsafe places. But for most people, going to the evening PTA meeting, walking to work, jogging in the park, picking up groceries, whatever, violence is very, very rare by any historical perspective.

Maybe we have a gut-realization of that. Maybe we realize instinctively that we are generally safe, even coddled, and maybe our primitive hunter-gatherer brain feels there’s something a little bit askew about this. Could that be why we love violent movies and TV? Could that be why we read crime novels and why some of us are even lucky enough to write them?

Maybe violence in fiction isn’t all bad. Well-written violence in fiction may even remind us how ugly real violence is. And maybe it’s cathartic as well.

Barbara D'Amato

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Not to Get All Mushy...

by Marcus Sakey

I love this business.

I don't mean the act of writing--though I love that too--but rather the business itself. You hear a lot of bad things, and some of it is deserved. But you don't hear near enough about how amazing this biz can be.

Here's the thing: the publishing industry is comprised of a group of people willing to work their hearts out because they love words, they trust in stories, and they believe books can change the world.

That's amazing.

I spent ten years in advertising and marketing, and enjoyed it. The people are clever, passionate, and creative. The work is fun, and the money is good. But at the end of the day, what you're creating is disposable. You're convincing consumers to buy your jeans instead of your competitor's jeans. And while there's nothing wrong with that, it doesn't lead to the sort of community that writing does.

So this week, now that my book is on the shelves and my touring is underway, now that an abstraction has become a reality, I'd like to take a moment to thank a few of the people who made it happen. Call it a shout-out to the writing and publishing community at large, a big "Thank You" from me to them.

Thanks to all the folks at St. Martin's Minotaur. In particular, high-octane gratitude to three individuals that aren't thanked enough: Matt Baldacci, Rachel Ekstrom, and Christina Harcar.

Thanks to Scott, for having my back from day one.

Thank you to the people who make this a community, especially Karen Dionne, Jon & Ruth Jordan, Ali Karim, David Montgomery, Graham Powell, Sarah Weinman, and my good friend J.A. Konrath. You guys are the beating heart of the writing world. Also a thanks to my fellow Outfit members, as well as the members of Killer Year.

Thank you to the authors who took the time to blurb an unknown debut: Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ken Bruen, Lee Child, Victor Gischler, Harry Hunsicker, T. Jefferson Parker, and George Pelecanos. It's no small thing to ask someone to read your novel.

Love and gratitude to booksellers everywhere. You don't get near enough credit.

Finally, an eternal debt to all the writers who made me want to be one. If you're ever looking for me, odds are I'm curled up with one of their books.

What about you? Anybody you'd like to thank? An author that rocked your world, a bookseller who always has a perfect recommendation, a friend who bought drinks at Bouchercon? Shout it out, my brothers and sisters. Time to hear some good things about this biz.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Happy Birthday, VI

This has been an exciting month in the Outfit, with Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey both publishing their first books. That first book brings pleasures that nothing else ever matches-from the first news that someone bought your book, to seeing the actual copies in print. Even though my own first book came out 25 years ago, I still remember it as if it were yesterday.

On January 22, 1982, V I Warshawski was born: Indemnity Only the first book in the series, was published by the Dial Press. V I started small, but she started a revolution in the way women are perceived in fiction. V I broke down walls around detecting women. Neither scheming vamp nor helpless victim, she’s a woman like most of the ones we all know, tackling life’s problems and solving them as best she can.
Nowadays all kinds of women are doing all kinds of things to find their voices, and to be taken seriously as readers and writers, but 25 years ago it was a lonely kind of place to be.
Over the past 25 years, V I has taken on corporate pollution, for-profit medicine, and a dozen other ills. She’s been trapped in a burning building (Burn Marks), left to die in a landfill (Fire Sale), and survived near drowning in the Great Lakes (Deadlock). Yet she soldiers on, aided by her close friends and her Golden Retrievers. Readers in 28 languages now follow her ups and downs.
This winter, V I’s twenty-fifth anniversary is being celebrated in several places. Clues the only scholarly journal that deals with the mystery, is devoting the whole winter issue to essays on V I and Sara. On February 27, Sara will speak at the Library of Congress on V I’s birth and growth.
Now you can join the party. Write a short essay, no more than 150 words, on what V I should do for the next twenty-five years. Enter at The prize for the best entry is a rare copy of the second book in the series, Deadlock. The contest closes on March 31; Sara will make a totally subjective decision on the winner. Let your imagination soar!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Nice Guy Hero vs. Pugnacious Bastard Hero...

by Sean Chercover

It’s been a very exciting 10 days, since the release of BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD. The reviews have been universally great (so far), the book signing events well attended, and I think I may even be getting used to being interviewed, instead of doing the interviewing.

But last week I was doing an interview and the reporter said, “I loved the book, and the writing, but I really didn’t like your protagonist, Ray Dudgeon. He’s not a very nice guy. Couldn’t you have made him more likable?”

Good question.

And one to which I didn’t really have a good answer. Perhaps I could’ve made Ray a nicer guy, but I would’ve been creating a different character, and writing a different book.

Ray’s an idealist living in a corrupt world, and he’s got a lot of anger. He's psychologically damaged, but he’s no sociopath. I don’t approve of all the things he does, and I don’t expect that most readers will, either. But he interests me. He’s not a bad man (most of the time) and he’s trying to become a better man. He’s just not very good at it. There’s a lot of room for him to grow, in future books, and I'm rooting for him.

And I find that many of the series characters I love to read are not necessarily the nicest guys around, either.

Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor (and Burke).
Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder.
Derek Raymond’s nameless Factory detective.
Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins (and Fearless Jones).

All of these series heroes can be ornery at the best of times. And at the worst, they can be . . . well, you get the idea. And then there are the classics - guys like Hammer and Spade and Marlowe and Archer. They were loyal and tough and had many redeeming features, but they were often far from likable.

I’m going to resist the temptation to list all my favorite bastard heroes, because I want to hear yours. And while we’re on the subject, feel free to post your favorite likable heroes too.

Which less-than-nice series heroes interest you?
Which series heroes would you like to be buddies with?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Baby Just Believe Me, Don't Try To Read Me

By Kevin Guilfoile

I was on my book tour and had an interview scheduled with Janet Taylor, an extremely intelligent and thoughtful host for Oregon Public Radio. When it started, the discussion was delightful. And then Janet said this (more or less):

“In your novel, the character of Justin Finn, the child Davis Moore clones from his daughter’s unknown killer so that Moore may one day see what the fiend looks like, is an obvious Christ figure. And as such I find it interesting that you chose to give Justin’s mother the name Martha. Of course it would have been very obvious and over-the-top if you named her Mary. But in the Bible—as you are obviously aware, Kevin, but I’ll explain for our audience—Martha of Bethany was a frequent host to Jesus and his disciples. And while Martha rushed around cleaning the house and preparing food and washing feet and so forth, her sister Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to him teach. Finally Jesus had to call out, Martha, stop what you are doing and come sit next to your sister. These other things you are doing are not important. The only important thing is what I have to say. And in Cast of Shadows, Martha Finn, like Martha of Bethany, is so worried about being a good mother to Justin, about caring for him and watching out for him, that she never sees who he really is or understands what he is trying to tell her.”

It was brilliant. It was sophisticated. It was meaningful. And I wish I had thought of it myself.

But here’s the important thing: Janet was right! Her analysis was terrific. And if we had never met she would always believe that the name Martha Finn was an intentional and clever allusion to the biblical Martha of Bethany. I’m not really a relativist when it comes to critical theory but that observation made the book better for Janet, and a writer has to recognize that each person who reads his novel reads a different book. Readers bring their intellect to the page just as the author does and each reader brings different knowledge and experience and history and bias. Each reader understands the book a bit differently. Each reader asks the novel different questions, and as a result each reader gets different answers. Some readers get better answers than others.

I was thinking about that a couple weeks ago as I read a newspaper review of a much anticipated novel. The critic raved about the book, calling it a "major work of art," a creation of "surpassing greatness" and compared the author favorably to Dickens, Nabokov, and Joyce. His review also included the following passage:

To read this book with anything like comprehension, a person has to be, like its polymath author, both intellectual and hip, a person mature and profoundly well read and yet something of a true marginal, a word-nerd with the patience of Job. In my charitable estimate that would describe about five out of 500 people that I know.

I'm not a nitpicker so I'll ignore the fact that people who actually want to be understood usually say "one in 100" instead of "five out of 500." This particular critic's inability to reduce fractions isn't my main concern.

I haven't read the book in question and I don't mean to imply that it's unintelligible. It might very well be a delicious literary burrito made from equal parts Lolita and Great Expectations and Ulysses. In fact, while his books don't fit the traditional definition of beach read, I think the difficulty of this particular novelist's writing is overstated by many critics. Certainly, I think the author himself believes he's writing for more than just 257 out of every 25,700 people. But even the most carefully constructed novels are relatively messy affairs. Much of what a writer puts in his novel is intuitive--he includes it because it feels right or it sounds good or even because it's a bit of a joke. A novelist doesn't always know how every element of his novel fits into some integral whole and as a reader, you shouldn't be made to feel stupid because you can't figure every bit of it out either. Novels aren't crosswords and the answer isn't printed on the inside back cover. Interesting novels have many mysteries, just the way interesting lives do.

The fact that you don't completely understand the latest celebrated literary novel doesn't make you an idiot. On the other hand if you really believe that a particular novel can only be understood by one percent of all readers, and you nevertheless call the book a creation of "unsurpassing genius," that does make you an idiot.

I know people who really believe that, though. I think they've been conditioned to believe that good books are ones they can't understand so they've stopped trying to read any of them. It's sad. In the future so few people might bother with "elitist novel-reading" that this super-intelligent reviewer and his five friends will be the only ones who get around to reading certain novels at all.

The ones written for .00000005 out of .000005 people.

(Note: A portion of the above appeared previously in an essay I wrote for the website of Penguin UK, most likely to make an entirely contradictory point.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

24 Turns 6

By Libby Hellmann

The Secretary of Defense is kidnapped. Suicide bombers are running amok in the subways. A nuclear bomb is set to explode over Los Angeles. Never fear. Somewhere in the bowels of the city, a grim band of anti-terrorists is working feverishly to prevent disaster.Yes, quicker than you can say C-T-U, the sixth season of 24 is here.

Once again Jack Bauer – now that he’s been freed by the Chinese -- will attempt to save us from the worst terrorist threats ever hatched on American soil. In so doing over the past few years, Jack and 24 have become not just must-see TV but a huge and growing franchise, spawning message boards, its own talk show, as well as specially produced prequels and video games.

So, why is 24 such a success? The plot machinations are often over the top. Some of the dialogue and characterizations are so lame they’re dead-to-rights funny. And we pretty much know the end of every season before it begins.

Part of it is the show’s production values. As a former filmmaker, I appreciate the eye candy: The lavish sets, the staging-- particularly in action scenes -- the razor sharp editing, the special effects, and dramatic cinematography are more than equal to most feature films.

As a writer, though, what I love most about 24 is the way it uses suspense. Before I became a writer, I read thrillers. I still do. I love the nail-biting scenes, the emotional roller-coaster, the utter inability to put a book down. I build suspense into my own work. And whether it’s in prose or on the screen, I admire when others do it well.

24 does.

First there’s the construct of the show itself: the ticking clock. 24 uses it relentlessly, book-ending each scene to create urgency and tension so it’s impossible to turn away. The countdown reminds us that some kind of deadline is always approaching, and there’s usually a sting or cliffhanger before each break. That’s suspense.

Another technique that 24 does well is shifting points of view. Cutting between Jack, other CTU workers, family members, and, most important, the villain builds momentum, keeps interest from waning, and allows viewers to invest in the characters’ motivations. Four way split screens at the beginning and end of scenes heighten that investment.

Yet another hallmark of suspense is to continually raise the stakes by creating complications for the characters. Again, 24 does it well. The CTU team is constantly faced with impossible tasks, risks, and decisions that keep mounting. Split second timing is often required. Take Season Four: a train explosion is followed by the kidnapping of the Secretary of Defense. No sooner does Jack rescue him, narrowly avoiding a retaliatory missile strike, when terrorists take control of the country’s nuclear power plants and threaten to cause meltdowns. High tech problems, such as the inability to get a satellite feed or the lack of internet access, complicate matters more. Every episode milks the opportunity for a worst-case scenario, and then it gets even worse. While some of the plot twists strain credibility, it sure makes for edge-of-your-seat viewing.

To its credit, the show does try to maintain some authenticity. Bad things happen to good people. The fate of Jack’s wife in Season One. The deaths of David Palmer, Tony, and Michelle. The warhead that slams into Air Force One. In addition, the deliberations at the very highest level of government (ie the Oval Office) are often thought-provoking. So is the debate over torture and – this season – internment camps for Muslim-Americans. These issues help balance some of the more fantastic plot points.

In any good thriller, the protagonists are faced with Hobbesian choices and dilemmas. Those choices not only define their character but add suspense. 24 is rife with them. Does Erin Driscoll, Jack’s boss, attend to her mentally ill daughter, or does she save the country from nuclear meltdowns? Does Jack track the terrorists or rescue his kidnapped wife? Even the villains have their own dilemmas: does Nina play along with Jack, even though it means delaying her own agenda?

Similarly, a good thriller isolates the protagonist, stripping away his allies, weapons, and tools until he faces the enemy alone. Whether it’s Jack dealing with Nina or Marwan, or President David Palmer confronting his political enemies, we feel their isolation, and we hold our breath to see what they’ll do. I could go on, but I’d love to hear your comments. Why do you love 24? Now that we’re in Season 6, can the suspense be maintained for another 24 episodes? I’m guessing it can…

Oh… btw… if anyone has an extra set of Season Five… let’s talk.

Friday, January 12, 2007

And The Winner Is. . .

by Sean Chercover

Put this one down in the books as a good week. A very, very good week . . .

Marcus’ debut novel THE BLADE ITSELF and mine, BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD, both hit bookstores on Tuesday, and our feet haven’t touched the ground since.

Last night, we hosted a joint launch party at Sheffield’s Tavern, and man, you shoulda been there. We had the back room for our party, but so many folks showed up to help us celebrate that we took over the adjacent room as well. The beer was cold and the mood was warm. Backs were slapped and cheeks kissed and books signed . . . and we all had a colossal time.

Marcus and I are humbled and touched by the show of support. Really. It was a hell of a bash, and we will remember it, always.

Now…on to prize awarding business: We have a winner to declare! There were many fine entries to our “best last line of a novel” contest. So many, in fact, that picking a winner became problematic, and we nearly resorted to the scientific “blind dart-toss” judging method.

And there were disagreements, lemme tell ya. Marcus enjoyed: “She’s not my sister, but she could be. I have my forty pieces of silver, and time, as the Stones say, is on my side,” while it didn’t quite crack my top-three. I was intrigued by, “After I’d buried him, I walked into San Francisco City Hall and presented them with my deed to the bridge,” which didn’t quite make the cut for Marcus.

We both hooted over the following entries, which make fine jokes, but don’t actually suggest a preceding novel:

“And, sure, it hurt a little, but if you can’t smile through it, what good’s a gal with a pierced tongue anyway.”


“Even though the final design looked more like a Lamborghini than a Ferrari, Dennis swore that for the rest of his life – no matter what anyone said – he would wear his condom with pride.”

But enough runner-up and honorable-mention talk. We encourage you to read the comments to the previous post, and pick your own winner.

Our winner is. . .

Jude Hardin! Here is Jude’s winning last line:

“I scattered her ashes along the rocky shore of Point Conception, sat in the sand and thought about nothing until the lighthouse switched off and it wasn’t the same day anymore.”

Jude wins a signed first-edition hardcover of THE BLADE ITSELF and BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD. Also, a signed copy of one book by each of our fellow-Outfitters: Barbara D’Amato, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Kevin Guilfoile, Libby Hellmann, and Sara Paretsky. But WAIT, (as Ron Popeil would say) there's more! Joe Konrath has kindly contributed a signed hardcover of THESE GUNS FOR HIRE, the excellent short story anthology he edited for the good folks at Bleak House Books.

That’s EIGHT signed books for you, Jude! Congratulations. Please make contact with Marcus or me through our websites – we need your mailing address.

And thanks to all who played.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Happy Beginnings and Killer Endings

by Marcus Sakey

This is a big week for the Outfit, with two novels hitting the stores: my debut THE BLADE ITSELF and Sean Chercover's debut BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD. Sean and I tossed around all sorts of ways to celebrate, but decided that while it might be fun to watch our wives kick stripper ass, it introduced liability issues. And Cristal is too expensive for something that doesn't taste even a little like Guinness.

So we decided to have a contest instead.

Everybody knows how important the first line of a novel is. But nobody talks about the importance of the last line.

Until now.

We want to see your best hypothetical ending. Can you come up with a line so compelling, funny, or intense that it leaves people desperate to read everything that came before? Prove it, and you'll take home not only signed hardcovers of both my book and Sean's, but also signed novels from every member of the Outfit -- seven signed books in all.

More important, you'll take home bragging rights.

So give it your best shot! The contest runs all week. To qualify, the line has to be written by you, and it has to come from a novel that doesn't exist...yet. I've put up an example to kick it off; Sean will add one of his own later today.

And you should know that we both kind of want those books ourselves...

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Gradual Road to Hell

by Michael Dymmoch

It’s just about the time we abandon New Year’s resolutions—those of us who made any. Most of our resolves concerned breaking bad habits. Eat less. Quit smoking. Write regularly (which really means abandon the bad habit of procrastinating). We rarely think about good habits—brushing our teeth, putting the car keys where we can find them again, buckling seat belts, turning off lights. Good habits seem like common sense. So we usually don’t try to analyze them extensively. They aren’t a burden because we do them on auto-pilot, leaving our minds free to plan our days or plot our murders. And they usually have good outcomes.

Bad habits often start out to have good outcomes. Overeating is the perversion of an activity we can’t live without. Smoking had cachet when we were thirteen. Now that we’re middle aged, it’s a smelly, expensive jones that leaves us standing in the cold and chronically short of breath. Alcohol is even more insidious because it comes recommended in moderation, though the event horizon for overindulgence can be difficult to locate. (And let’s not even mention TV.)

C. S. Lewis explained brilliantly how we blunder onto the gradual road to hell—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without sign posts. Dr. Phil insists you have to replace a bad habit with a good one.

What we do habitually is what we don’t think about. We may think obsessively about quitting, even exercise Herculean will power in resisting a bad habit, but as soon as we stop thinking—or resisting, the habit takes over. Making a meaningful change is a matter of thought control. And the first though you have to control is what’s the use?

In the long run, it’s usually worth the effort because the difference between a rut and a grave is the depth. Gerald Burrill had it right.

I wonder how he did after New Years.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ray Dudgeon Goes On A Date. . .

Excerpted from BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD by Sean Chercover

As I drove along Clark, it occurred to me that Jill might be intending for me to stay the night. Everything seemed to be heading in the right direction. We enjoyed each other’s company and there was sexual chemistry in abundance and we’d come pretty close to naked on our last date. But Jill wasn’t sure that she could be in a relationship with a guy who carries a gun and disappears for days at a time and makes enemies of violent men. I was trying to convince her that she could and I seemed to be succeeding, if slowly.

We first met in the emergency room at Rush Presbyterian. She was a nurse and I was a guy with a black eye, a broken nose and two cracked ribs. I’d been working on a case for a chain of hardware stores. Merchandise had been disappearing from their distribution warehouse, so I went undercover in the shipping department and worked there until I knew the names of all the employees involved. I testified against them and they were convicted. But their fence, Pat Delany, was upset that I’d cut off a major supplier, so he sent a couple of hard guys to make me hurt. Which they did.

When you arrive at the hospital in such a condition, they automatically call the cops. Jill listened as I told my story to the two uniforms who responded to the call. After they were gone, she said, “Seems like an awfully difficult way to make a living.” To which I replied, “Would you like to have dinner with me?”

That was three months ago. My ribs still tingled sometimes but it had been worth it, just to meet Jill. She was smart and funny and pretty and had all the right curves in all the right places. She was sexy and she knew it and she wasn’t afraid of it.

And it went deeper than that. While we were moving slowly on the physical relationship, the emotional connection had developed almost immediately. On our second date, something just clicked. Something beyond sexual chemistry and shared interests.

Jill was working the night shift at Rush, so we met for a romantic lunch at a little Italian joint called Sotto Le Stelle. True to its name, the place had hundreds of little white lights set into the ceiling, which was painted to resemble a night sky with scattered clouds. The restaurant’s windows were tinted black and there were candles on the tables and it really did feel like dining under the stars. We shared a bottle of Chianti with our lunch and, as the waiter refilled our glasses, it struck me. Normally during the early dating phase of a relationship, you project an image of your best self. It’s a sales job, really. But this was only our second date, and it felt completely authentic. I didn’t feel like I was projecting an image of my best self. I felt like I was my best self. And I had the sense that Jill was feeling the same thing.

Walking down Armitage after lunch, Jill took my hand in hers. I glanced down at the swell of her hip and felt an erection growing. She stopped and kissed me softly on the lips.

“I want you to do something for me,” she said. “I want you to show me something in this city that is special to you.”

I took her to the Shedd aquarium, where we wandered the tropical reef exhibits. Jill had never been diving and asked a lot of questions about the animals in the massive tanks and artificial habitats. I pointed out the different sharks and rays and eels and schooling fish and corals. Jill held my hand throughout. She never asked why this place was special to me. It seemed enough for her to just know that it was, and to enjoy it along with me.

Walking back to the car, I said something funny and she laughed and I watched her face in the afternoon sun – her small ears, her sharp nose, the fine lines around her mouth and next to her eyes that would only deepen with time – and I was struck by a feeling so pure and so certain. I could see her as she would someday look, a woman in her seventies, and I could see myself, still walking with her.

I could see myself growing old with this woman.

And on the dates we’d had since, that feeling had only become stronger, but Jill was still uneasy about my chosen profession. Now, driving to her apartment, I was hoping that she wanted me to spend the night and at the same time hoping that she didn’t, because I had to meet Terry later. What the hell . . . if it came down to it, Terry could wait. Professionalism be damned.

And then I noticed the green Ford in my rearview. I’d spotted it outside the liquor store when I picked up the wine. Just a car with two guys in it, idling at the curb. Two guys who just happened to pull away from the curb and into the flow of traffic two cars behind me and who just happened to be following the same route to Lakeview. But that didn’t mean they were following me. When I stopped at the El Jardin Cafe the green Ford kept going and I put it out of my mind, determined not to be paranoid.

Now it was there again.