Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The commercials made me do it

by Michael Dymmoch

I don’t do cable. There are only three non-premium channels I can’t get with my rabbit ears, and I don’t have time to watch them. I don’t have time to watch all the programs I’d like to see on WTTW and WYCC.

Recently I broke down and ordered the first four seasons of The Dead Zone. The commercials made me do it. Ion TV is running episodes three days a week and WLS runs them late on weekends. The Canadian-made series stars the geek from The Breakfast Club, Anthony Michael Hall. It isn’t The Wire, but it’s a guilty pleasure of mine—fun to watch. The Canadians seem to have great production values for those series that make it down here—good writing, acting and editing. Years ago it was Night Heat. Now it's Da Vinci's Inquest and The Dead Zone. As on Law and Order, lots of great actors get to star or guest star. David Ogden Stiers, who did such a great job as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the final seasons of M*A*S*H*, is a regular on DZ. Adam Beach (Law and Order) did a stint in season 1 as an Indian shaman; Gerald McRaney (Simon & Simon, Touched By An Angel, Deadwood) portrayed a Vietnam vet/politician on another episode.

What finally drove me to spend money for the DVDs was the commercials. Not just the twenty minutes of interruptions to the flow of the story, but the little flashing decal commercials that the stations superimpose OVER the program after the commercial breaks. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it’s too much trouble to screen out all the visual noise.

Anyone else still watching “free” TV?

Monday, July 28, 2008

The (Very) Dark Knight . . .

-Sean Chercover

Okay, so I saw the Batman movie. I mean, the new one. The Dark Knight. And, yeah, everyone is right. It's a great movie. No, it's not as deep as it pretends to be, but I didn't go to the theater expecting a philosophical debate. It's a movie based on a comic book, and as you might expect, it paints in broad strokes. There is no subtlety here.

And it is very dark. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern found it "suffocatingly dark" in his mixed review. I don't disagree with any of his review, although I enjoyed the movie more than he did. My date did not enjoy it quite so well. Not that she thought it a bad movie, just that, like Morgenstern, she found the unrelenting darkness suffocating and left the theater feeling depressed about the human condition (and by what we watch for 'entertainment' says about the human condition).

Do NOT take the kids to this movie, but do go see it without them. It is, by a mile, the best Batman movie ever, and it has the best comic book villain ever. Alfred Molina was excellent as Dr. Octopus in Spiderman 2, but Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is even better - and every bit as good as the hype surrounding it...

Sure, there are nits to be picked. I think they went overboard with the Two-Face makeup - instead of being horrified, I just found it silly. If they'd pulled back a bit, it would've been realistic enough to be truly horrifying. And while I get the point of lowering the pitch of Christian Bale's voice when he's in the bat-suit, a more delicate approach would've been an improvement. The film's action sequences are somewhat disconnected from the rest of the story, there's some over-caffeinated editing (as you find in most "big" movies these days) and you could trim the film by 20 minutes without hurting it (again, something you find in most "big" movies these days).

Any other nits would also be spoilers, so I'll leave them unspoken.

Other points of praise - Chicago is absolutely gorgeous in this movie and both LaSalle Street and Lower Wacker Drive are used to their best advantage. It really is a beautiful film to watch. The performances are good all around. And most of all, this is the first time a Batman movie has really captured the darkness, the chaos, the corruption, and the psycho hero/villain duality that makes the comic so appealing.

The Dark Knight is very good, worth seeing, and definitely too dark for the youngsters.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Chicago Cop's Story

by Libby Hellmann

This post isn’t meant to be an apology for or a defense of the Chicago Police Department. It’s not meant to excuse. Or explain. I’m just passing on information from a friend who’s a Chicago cop. Part of the rank and file.

I bring it up because I think it’s representative of many organizations that undergo significant and rapid change. And because, while I was on the other side of the barricades forty years ago, writing crime fiction has given me – if not an appreciation – a respect for the men and women who put their lives on the line with every traffic stop.

Given that, something is wrong in the CPD. Something beyond politics.

For those of you who don’t live in Chicago, the Chicago Police Department has a new superintendent. Former FBI Special Agent Jody Weis was brought in from Philadelphia by Mayor Daley last February. Weis’s mission was to shake up the Department after a wave of scandals threatened the city’s political and economic climate as well as Chicago’s Olympic hosting hopes.

Weis did what he was told. Within a couple of months, he’d dismissed 21 of 25 Commanders and made other wholesale changes to CPD’s leadership and structure. The objective was to weed out the worst of the rogue cops and the corruption. The problem is that Weis might have gone too far too fast. In trying to clean up, he has weakened the average cop's ability to do his or her job.

Now any officer who doesn’t dot every “I” or cross every “T” risks sanctions from the upper echelon. Although they may be guilty only of minor or procedural mistakes, they’re being lumped together with cops accused of criminal activity. Long time cops are being taken off the street and put into desk jobs -- mostly because no one knows what else to do with them. The administration doesn’t yet know how far Weis wants to go, or even exactly what he wants, so a lot of good officers are being sidelined and sentenced to a purgatory of bureaucratic limbo. In a way, my friend says, criminals have more rights than do police officers accused of misconduct. He knows of officers who've been stripped of their powers for over nine months and still haven't been told what the allegations are.

More problematic, the cops on the streets no longer know what’s expected of them. And because they don’t know, and can’t count on support from the administration, they’re not going the extra mile. “Why even try if they’re gonna be hung out to dry?” My friend asks. For a police force that, my friend admits, has always been pretty aggressive, this is a huge change. And not for the better.

Even worse, some of the organizations designed to help cops who’ve gone afoul of the rules aren’t. The Police Sergeant’s organization, for example, can’t represent its own members because one of the attorneys is already representing Keith Herrera, one of several SOS cops accused of robbery and kidnapping.

The result? There’s been a spike in crime. Chicago’s murder rate is up 13 per cent; so are shootings and other street violence. While a down economy is a contributing factor, the media is feeding on it, regularly bringing out stories critical of cops, some of which may or may not be significant. My friend didn’t mention it, but a case in point might be the tow truck bribe scandal, which is just now being reported, even though a federal investigation has been ongoing since 2003. An investigation, btw, that was initially brought to the Feds by the CPD.

Consequently, morale in the department never been lower. Some of it is because people still trying to figure out what “the new guy” wants, but much of it is the lack of support for the officer on the street. “It’s just not happening now,” my friend says. And he’s worried.

OK. To be fair, there’s another side to this. Some people feel that cops like my friend are just whining because they’ve finally been taken to task. That, for the first time, they don’t have carte blanche to operate in their erstwhile aggressive and freewheeling ways. Some are applauding the fact that a high profile case of police brutality was actually referred to the Feds by CPD. Some are encouraged that Weis is trying to clean house. And they’re happy that he's an outsider and the city finally has a Superintendent that's not beholden to the "Chicago Way."

Still, I feel uneasy when the people we count on to keep chaos at bay don’t feel they can do the job they’ve been trained to do. There are too many examples where it’s triggered the breakdown of something more fundamental.

What do you think?

Finally, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, you’ll either love – or hate – this.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Your Purple Prose Just Gives You Away

By Kevin Guilfoile

In his infamous Harper's manifesto, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast, Tom Wolfe recalls an incident that occurred while he was writing his first novel:

I first wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities serially for Rolling Stone, producing a chapter every two weeks with a gun at my temple. In the third chapter I introduced one of my main characters, a thirty-two-year-old Bronx assistant district attorney named Larry Kramer, sitting in a subway car [his clothes disheveled], his eyes jumping about in a bughouse manner. This was supposed to create unbearable suspense in the readers. What on earth had reduced this otherwise healthy young man to such a pathetic state? This chapter appeared in July of 1984. In an installment scheduled for April of 1985, the readers would learn of his humiliation by a wolfpack, who had taken all his money plus his little district attorney's badge. But it so happened that in December of 1984 a young man named Bernhard Goetz found himself in an identical situation on a subway in New York, hemmed in by four youths who were, in fact, from the South Bronx. Far from caving in, he took out a .38 caliber revolver and shot all four of them and became one of the most notorious figures in America. Now how could I, four months later, in April of 1985, proceed with my plan? People would say, This poor fellow Wolfe, he has no imagination. He reads the newspapers, gets these obvious ideas, and then gives us this wimp Kramer, who caves in. So I abandoned the plan, dropped it altogether. The Rolling Stone readers burning thirst, if any, to know what accounted for assistant D.A. Kramer's pitiful costume and alarming facial tics was never slaked.

I thought about that anecdote on Monday when I read Sara's post about Edward Bachner, the suburban Chicago man who is accused of stockpiling pufferfish toxin, allegedly for the purpose of murdering his wife. Sara noted that the FBI was allegedly aware that Bachner had solicited people on the internet to kill his wife several years ago, and yet they did not tell her. "I would love to see the dialogue that went on in the FBI office when they decided not to charge Bachner and not to tell his wife about the 2005 alleged attempt to hire a hitman," Sara writes. "I can guarantee that if any of us wrote it, our editors would reject it as bogus."

That is certainly true. But while real life frequently trumps fiction, it also gives novelists license. Now that it's actually happened and a stink has been made in the media, a reader might accept such an absurd scenario in a novel (see the comments in Sara's post for some funny attempts). A plotline can go from "that would never happen" to "ripped from the headlines" in a heartbeat.

The Goetz incident might have preempted one proposed scene in Bonfire, but it has spawned an untold number of scenes in others. Wolfe had his fictional ADA cowering on the subway because it was the only reaction he considered plausible at the time, but since Bernhard Goetz we've had any number of unlikely city vigilantes in fiction, Jodie Foster's NPR hostess turned one-woman justice machine being only a recent example. They don't seem so incredible because we know it can happen. And they keep recurring in fiction because we haven't yet processed all the hows and whys of the actual event.

I've just read a book due out next month on Leopold and Loeb (more on that at a future date). As that pair, both from wealthy families, prowled Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood for a victim, Richard Loeb imagined that he and Leopold were supervillains like the ones he had read about in the pulps. Although they were motivated by nothing more than the desire to experience the sensation of killing (and to see if they could get away with it) they concocted a demand for a ransom they didn't need because the fictional villains Richard knew always had some criminal motive. Leopold and Loeb themselves did not find plausible a villain who murdered without motive, even as they were planning a murder that had no motive.

Ironically, their trial introduced the public to just that idea--the killer who murders for the sensation of killing--and in Leopold and Loeb's long wake mystery and thriller readers have been treated to a multitude of villains who kill for the "art of it," even as actual such killers have proven to be rather scarce. Reality--or at least the public perception of it--has provided the mystery writer with license.

In his essay, Wolfe argues that the ideal novelist is a reporter who observes the world carefully and is frequently able to anticipate events before they happen.

To write Elmer Gantry, the great portrait of not only a corrupt evangelist but also the entire Protestant clergy at a time when they still set the moral tone of America, [Sinclair] Lewis left his home in New England and moved to Kansas City. He organized Bible study groups for clergymen, delivered sermons from the pulpits of preachers on summer vacation, attended tent meetings and Chautauqua lectures and church conferences and classes at the seminaries, all the while doggedly taking notes on five-by-eight cards.

It was through this process, documentation, that Lewis happened to scoop the Jim Bakker story by sixty years--and to render it totally plausible, historically and psychologically, in fiction.

True enough, but real life doesn't really need fiction to make it plausible. Real life needs fiction to make it understandable. Fiction sometimes leaps out ahead, as was the case with Elmer Gantry. Most of the time it trails behind, trying to make some sense of it all.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reality bites

Northwest of Chicago is a bucolic community with half-million dollar homes on outsize lots. Ninety-five percent of the residents are white, 82 percent are college educated. And one of them is alleged to have tried to kill his wife in a manner reminiscent of Agatha Christie. Edward Bachner ordered 64 vials of puffer fish toxin, allegedly with the idea of killing his wife.

Bachner allegedly is a devotee of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing internet games. One might allege he was simply acting out an Internet game fantasy.

Turns out he also had bought a $5 million life insurance policy on his wife, with himself as the beneficiary. Three years ago, Bachner allegedly used the Net to find a hitman to kill "an unnamed woman" in the Chicago area, "intended as a simple termination."

The FBI questioned Bachner about the his e-mails, in which he was searching for a hitman, but they never pressed charges, and --they never told his wife, Rebecca. She lived with him for three more years, until someone got suspicious of all the pufferfish toxin orders and reported him. This time, the feds took him into custoy.

Please, guys, I know you have a lot on your plate, what with terrorists and all, but if someone (allegedly) tries to take out his wife, don't you think she has the right to know?

I would love to see the dialogue that went on in the FBI office when they decided not to charge Bachner and not to tell his wife about the 2005 alleged attempt to hire a hitman. I can guarantee that if any of us wrote it, our editors would reject it as bogus.

Sara Paretsky

Friday, July 18, 2008

Alistair MacLean and The Human Cost of War

by Barbara D'Amato

I was reminded of Alistair MacLean a few weeks ago when the Thrillerwriters put out a query for suggestions for naming their awards after a writer in the field. I doubt that they will name them after MacLean. He’s not remembered much anymore.

Which is a horrible loss to readers. I was reminded of him again last week when Patti Abbott asked me to come up with a novel for her blog Pattinase’s Forgottten Books.

HMS ULYSSES [1955] was the first novel Alistair MacLean wrote, and it’s a remarkable achievement. He had many later successes among twenty-eight novels—The Guns of Navarone, The Satan Bug, Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare, Breakheart Pass, Goodbye California, When Eight Bells Toll, and many more. Many were made into movies, but HMS Ulysses remains his very best.

MacLean had served in the Royal Navy from 1941 through the end of the war, as Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Torpedo Operator, and saw action in the north Atlantic, escorting carrier groups in operations against targets in the arctic and off the coast of Norway, later in the Mediterranean for the invasion of France and after that in the Far East, in Burma, Maylaya, and Sumatra. His brother Ian, who contributed data for his books, was a Master Mariner.

HMS Ulysses throbs with authenticity. I read it at least twenty-five years ago and it still produces a deep chill when I think of it. Not an easy book, often grim, always real, it is the tale of a light cruiser, put to sea to guard an important convoy heading for Murmansk. The convoy runs into crisis after crisis--German warships, an arctic storm, attacks from U-boats beneath, and from the Luftwaffe overhead. Slowly thirty-two ships are reduced to five. Then the Ulysses is called on to do the impossible--

As a depiction of the human cost of war, HMS Ulysses has never been surpassed. Critics have ranked it with The Cruel Sea [Monsarrat] and The Caine Mutiny [Wouk], but I think in open-eyed, unsparing truth, as well as sheer suspense, it is superior to both.

This is a good time to be thinking about the cost of war. So my question is—what war novels have made an impact on you?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Marcus is a Hack

by Marcus Sakey

Hey all, I was up on the roster for today, but the last week or so has really gotten away from me. So instead of a, you know, half-intelligent post, I offer you these questions:
  1. The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?
  2. What's the best book you've read in the last couple of months?
  3. Have you seen Firefly? If not, why not? What the hell is wrong with you?
  4. What's the book you're most looking forward to?
  5. What's your favorite part of summer?
My answers are below--hope you'll join me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Take the $ and smile

by Michael Dymmoch

In the late ‘80s, I had an idea for a movie I thought would be perfect for Sean Connery. I didn’t know anyone who knew Sean Connery, or anyone else in Hollywood. I’d never written anything longer than a short story or had anything published but bad poetry. Because I had no clue about how to get my idea to Mr. Connery (or if he’d be interested if I did), I went to the library and took out books on screen writing. I followed the directions and wrote my idea into a screenplay. I even lucked out and got someone in Hollywood to read it. When he called me to discuss it, he gushed about what a great writer I was.

But ...

Maybe I could rewrite the script to make it more like Back to the Future or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And why not call him after the holidays to discuss it?

I never called. Green as I was, I realized it would be easier to write another story from scratch than to rewrite my story to fit his ideas. Eventually I novelized the screen play; finally published it, The Cymry Ring, in 2006. (And I have a rewritten script available if anyone’s interested, though Mr. Connery is now too old to play the lead.)

Today I know people in Hollywood, though it isn’t any less crazy. And it’s no easier to get a story made into a movie. Everyone involved wants to make his contribution. People whose only qualification for writing is that they watch movies and have read Syd Field’s book want to tell the writer how to improve the script. Everything has to be like something else. Only different.

It’s all about the story. But...

Like publishers, movie companies have been bought up by international conglomerates. Except for indies—financed by indie film makers, passionate fans, and dentists—movies are made today by For-Ginourmous-Profit corporations, that don’t care if a movie makes sense as long as it makes money. And American audiences want circuses and happy outcomes. Very few writers have the skill to pull off a deus ex machina ending that works. (Neil Jordan comes to mind.) Writers have to know this to make it in film. (So if you want your book on the screen, exactly as you wrote it, you'll probably have to film it yourself.)

For novelists, adapting our own work is hard. Cutting a 300+ page novel into a 95-110 page screenplay—without gutting the story—is an art-form in itself. Best selling author and screenwriter Lee Childs has said he doesn’t want to adapt his own books. (And he gets hired to fix other writer’s scripts.)

Novelists realize the Moody Blues were right: Thinking is the best way to travel. And the cheapest. Actors are expensive, especially when they have speaking parts and box office draw. And car chases really co$t. Novelists don’t have to get permission to write a shoot-out in a public place. Or worry about crowd control, collateral injuries, lawsuits... Or idiots wandering through the scene demanding autographs.

We novelists don’t want anyone tampering with our characters or stories, but we don’t have to worry about convincing a bankable star or competent director to sign on. Even when the characters have minds of their own, we don’t have to settle disputes about who gets top billing, or think about whether the weather will cooperate or who’s going to pay the caterer and that long list of people named in the credits.

One of my books has been optioned; I wrote the SP. At the request of the producer, I’ve eliminated characters, added a chase, and blown up a boat (or maybe it’ll be a car if the movie gets filmed in winter). And the producer's indicated he wants the villain to have a larger role. He has his reasons. And they’re good ones from his point of view. Maybe the movie will never be made. Maybe a studio will buy the rights and hire a “real” screenwriter to rewrite it. And if they change everything but the title, I won’t care. They’re not gonna change my novel.

So I’ll cash the check and wish them luck. I’ll take the money and smile.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dispatches from Thrillerfest . . .

by Sean Chercover

Coming at you from Thrillerfest in New York. I didn't sign up for Craftfest, but you can read David Montgomery's post about a Joseph Finder session he attended, and you'll get a good idea of what is covered in these sessions.

Speaking of Montgomery ... the thing I love about crime fiction conventions is not so much the panels and sessions (although they're fun too) but the time spent (usually in the bar) with like-minded people. Sharing joys and frustrations and war stories with other writers ... talking with readers about our favorite books and authors ... talking about the industry, where it is now and where it might be heading, with agents and editors and publishers.

The atmosphere at these conferences is intense, and deep friendships are formed here. And if you remember to listen a little more than you talk, you can also learn a hell of a lot.

If you've never been to a crime fiction conference, I urge you to give it a try. Sign up for Bouchercon (Oct 9-12, Baltimore). Do it now. You won't be sorry.

One of the coolest things that can happen at these conferences is, you might see a good friend win an award. The Strand Magazine gave out its awards at a lovely cocktail reception the other night, and our own Marcus Sakey took home the award for Best First Novel.

That was a real thrill.

Now I'm off ... running back down to the hotel for the next round of fun. Hope to see y'all in Baltimore.

P.S. If you're here at T'fest, stop by the Ballroom Foyer A at 3pm today. I'll be giving away signed ARCs of TRIGGER CITY. Free books!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Let Me Count The Ways...

by Libby Hellmann

When I began writing crime fiction, I remember lots of chatter about the perfect murder weapon. The undetected murder. The exotic substance that couldn’t be identified. I heard about poisons like
oleander, foxglove, arsenic, and -- moving up the hazardous bio-chemical chain -- cyanide, sarin, and anthrax.
Indeed, I flirted with ricin in one of my novels. I remember hearing the old saw about the perfect murder weapon being a sharp icicle and thinking it was pretty clever.

However, the more I write, the more the manner of death has become a distraction. I don’t really care how someone is killed. The fact that they're alive one moment and aren't the next is enough. The fact that a killer used what he or she thought was an undetectable poison (which, btw, given enough time and the right equipment toxicologists say is mostly a myth) is less compelling than the killer’s character and motivation: the passion or fear or hatred or greed that drove him or her to commit murder.

In fact, all the falderal about intricate death scenarios boils down to this: (NB: The first 15 seconds are all you need to watch)

There’s something else, too. Murder is a heinous act. It’s perhaps the most profane act one human can perform on another. Because I don’t treat it lightly, I’m finding it more difficult to appreciate humorous crime fiction these days. I’m not talking about black humor – that’s something I think we all embrace when trying to deal with the unacceptable. What I’m talking about are the bouncy, breezy stories that show an otherwise normal person solving crimes on their lunch hour or summer vacation.

I’m sure they’re done with the best intentions – to emphasize the counterpoint between the gravity of murder and the joy of life. Indeed, I’ve written some myself. My amateur sleuth, Ellie Foreman, has a dry sense of humor and isn’t afraid to be foolish. Still, I find I’m less willing to trot her out these days. Maybe it’s because I’m getting to an age where life seems more precious every day. Maybe it’s because friends are being struck down long before their time. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t feel right to deal with a death which could have been avoided and then giggle about it. That’s probably why Georgia Davis appeared.

But enough from my end. What do you think? Does the manner of death make a difference in crime fiction? What about humor? How far can you take it? Am I just being cranky?

Sunday, July 06, 2008

I'm Embarrassed To Admit It Hit the Soft Spot In My Heart

By Kevin Guilfoile

Last week the family--my brothers and sisters and all our kids and my mom and dad--was together at my brother's house south of Boston. It was a leisurely five days of beach and pool and good food and wine that passed way too quickly.

Friday night we were in the front yard watching a neighbor's blatantly illegal fireworks display burst in magnificent colors over the treeline and my sister-in-law was asking about book suggestions for her 13-year-old daughter, a voracious and fairly sophisticated reader, especially of mysteries, who is ready to graduate to adult fiction. "But not too adult," said my brother's wife, who has read my own probably-inappropriate-for-the-purposes-of-this-conversation novel.

I suggested Agatha Christie, who was one of my first mystery loves. And To Kill a Mockingbird, which everyone should read for pleasure before some teacher forces her to. I had a handful of others, but I was surprised how quickly my well of recommendation dried up. Many books I just couldn't remember clearly enough. Was I sure they were mostly void of explicit sex and gratuitous violence and themes that a 13-year-old--even, as I said, a sophisticated one--isn't quite ready for?

It was a disturbing brain cramp.

So I pose the question to the Outfit jury. What grown-up suspense novels can you recommend to a sophisticated young reader who has already developed the wonderful, lifetime habit of reading? What books have you recommended to your own kids? Your own nieces and nephews?

Friday, July 04, 2008

The 4th of July

July 4. An emotional holiday for most Americans, stirring lots of different emotions. In my family, it was the one holiday where my parents didn’t fight. My father would recount for us the history of the Revolutionary War, my mother would make the custard for ice cream; we’d all take part in freezing it in the hand-turned ice cream maker, and we’d have a picnic supper with family and friends. We’d listen to my folks’ old 78’s of Paul Robeson singing “” and then set off fireworks.

These days, it’s harder to feel celebratory. The Supremes have decided that the only part of the Bill of Rights worth keeping and expanding is the 2nd Amendment. Yes! We can all carry handguns! We can create the armed state so many Americans have dreamed of for so long. Our rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from unwarranted search, our rights to privacy and equal protection under the laws are sorely diminished, but I guess we can all now shoot our way out of trouble.

And speaking of shooting our way out of trouble, with oil markets in turmoil, with the economy tanking, with 60,000 Iraqi soldiers dead or wounded and 30,000 U.S. soldiers in the same sad state, with the military unable to meet recruitment targets except by admitting gang members and the functionally illiterate, the U.S. is once more on the brink of war with Iran.

A year ago, Dick Cheney wanted desperately to start bombing Iran, but the Joint Chiefs told him the U.S. didn’t have the resources to carry on the war that would ensue. Now, he’s rattling the cage again. When Congress gets back from its July 4 recess, members will vote on Joint Resolution 362, urging Bush to use all means to stop Iran from doing whatever it’s doing. Iran may be a worrying Middle East threat, but do we really want to blow up the whole Middle East and our own people and economy in the process? Give it some thought. If you want to phone or fax your representative, this handy website gives their names and numbers.

Have a happy 4th. Eat ice cream. Enjoy your gun. Don’t say anything on the phone you don’t want Cheney to hear.

Sara Paretsky

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What the--? A rant.

by Barbara D'Amato

Nobody says “What the--?” unless they’re trying to be funny. If you walk into your home and find that somebody has burgled it, then petulantly scattered taco sauce on your rug, you don’t say “What the--?” You may say “What the hell?” or something even saltier.

My guess is that “What the—“ came into the language several decades ago from the comic books. My older boy went through a stage of saying it, to be funny, when he was a pre-teen. He had been reading a whole lot of Mad Magazine. But I frequently see it written perfectly seriously in crime novels. It isn’t convincing. It isn’t the way real people talk, and it’s lazy writing.

Another example of using comic book talk is “The diamond! Where is it?” People don’t talk that way. They say, “Where’s the bloody diamond?” If the hero is being carried off into the sunset by a giant firebird, does the girlfriend say, “The code ring! Drop it,” or “Drop the ring!” But this construction is being used in fiction a lot.

I’m also seeing “Well” used unconvincingly. One character says to another, “I went to the store and – well—I forgot the milk.”

And then there’s this dialogue:

“Hi, Mary. How are you?”
“Just fine, John You?”
“Oh, not bad, Mary. I can’t complain.”

I can complain, however. This too is lazy writing. The author is trying – on the cheap -- to remind the reader who these people are without going to all the work of characterizing them by what they say or how they say it. Or even a dollop of description.

It gets worse. Like this:

“I’ve been thinking, John. Ever since we were married eighteen months ago in Grand Rapids Michigan, on that lovely Saturday afternoon, your mother has been trying to drive us apart.”

“That’s not quite fair, Mary. Since she broke her leg last week falling over your hula hoop, she’s been a bit testy.”

The author is trying to avoid telling the reader what’s going on and must believe that dialogue like this is showing not telling. Telling would be a whole lot better.

I guess the thing that bothers me as a reader about this kind of thing is that I can’t see through it to the story. It screams “Heeeere’s writing!”

If you’ve got similar pet peeves, send them in. I’m making a collection.