Saturday, April 29, 2017

A One-Star Review and Guns

Like other writers, I loathe one-star reviews. I hate to get them, and if there’s a book that I didn’t like I’d rather ignore it and spend my time writing a review of a book that I did enjoy. But I was compelled to write a one-star review on a particular book because it exploits my favorite genre--crime fiction--as a soapbox to promote a political agenda that I disagree with. The book, Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, is an anthology edited by Eric Beetner who uses the book as a platform for his pious grandstanding as a shill for the anti-gun lobby. Read my review here.

No doubt, you’re going to ask, “Mario, what is it about you and guns?”

To begin, I’ve always liked guns. When I was four, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told her I wanted a machine gun. Part of the reason I joined the army was that I’d have the opportunity to shoot all kinds of guns. Once I even got to shoot a vintage automatic rifle reportedly used by the police when they ambushed Bonnie and Clyde. Macabre for sure, but if you write crime novels, supremely cool.

Then on September 5, 1985, my father committed suicide with his pistol. It was a day of enormous tragedies, heartache, and shame. I associated guns with those horrific events and my reaction to the pain and grief was to get rid of the few guns that I owned. My attitude was that I didn’t need guns, and neither did anyone else. So for the next twenty-five-plus years I was ambivalent to owning guns.

Then recently I read Woe To Live On by Daniel Woodrell and Empire of the Summer Moon by S.G. Gywnne.


In both books, the early black powder revolvers were central to the action. I became fascinated with these guns to the point that I decided to buy one. When I mentioned this to a writer friend, he told me that if I owned a gun my chances of being killed by it would be 2.7 times more than if I had no gun. The statistic shocked me. Why would I do such a risky thing? I decided to investigate his claim and that led me to dive headfirst into this debate about guns in America.

I learned that statistic came from a study (long since discredited) headed by Dr. Arthur Kellerman, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. His study was part of CDC’s quest--not to find the truth or promote public safety--but to cook the evidence in support of abolishing guns. “We’re going to systematically build a case that owning firearms causes deaths.” And “…a long term campaign… to convince Americans that guns are, first and foremost, a public health menace.” However skeptical you might be that the CDC willingly compromises its ethics you only need look at their history with the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

The anti-gun lobby, in league with the American medical establishment, likes to preach about the dangers of owning a gun but when you look at the numbers reported by the CDC, for 2015 Accidental Fatalities, you have: Firearms 489; Pedestrian 959; Drowning 3602; Falls 33,381; Automobile 36,161; Poisoning 47,478 (of which half are prescription opioids, i.e., provided by the medical community). Considering that in this country there are as many gun owners as there are car drivers, Americans as gun owners are much safer than Americans as car drivers. And accidental firearms deaths continue to decline (in 2005 it was 789, in 2010 it was 606), and so you think the anti-gun crowd would cheer that trend but they don’t even mention it.

The Epidemic of Gun Violence! Now that sounds super scary. The big numbers that make up “gun violence” are gun homicide and gun suicide, and those numbers are subsets of the much larger totals of violent crime and all suicides. Interesting how no politician or bureaucrat ever says we have an epidemic of violent crime or an epidemic of suicide. By using the term gun violence, the apparatchiks can blame gun owners--people like me--while washing their hands of the hard work needed to stop violent crime (domestic violence, robbery, gang violence, and drug trafficking) and suicide (depression and substance abuse). To me, suicide is especially troubling since we live in a land of promise and plenty, and yet as our material standard-of-living continues to rise, so do our suicides.

If we are truly committed to solving violent crime and suicide, then we must devote the necessary resources and be diligent and honest in grappling with some tough social issues. The solution will not be a policy based on fraudulent agendas, misdirection, and lies.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Serial Killers Begone

The Beautiful Lizzie Borden

Fractured Families required a serial killer. It was necessary for the plot. The murders were too bizarre to have been committed by a person of ordinary sensibility. I did a lot of research on this subject and know more about truly evil people than is good for me.

My editor asked if she should use the word "sociopath" or "psychopath" in flap copy. Actually the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is the psychologist's bible, called this kind of deviance "psychopath" until 1958, then the term switched to "sociopath." After 1968,  information was classified under the heading of Anti-Social Personality Disorder.

For publicity purposes, we settled on using the word "psychopath" because the term is more familiar.

My home state of Kansas has had its fair share of serial killers. Lizzie Borden was famous, of course, and so were the Bloody Benders.

Graves of victims of the Bloody Benders

However accurate historically, It seems as though serial killers have been done to death in mysteries. I'm happy that my current work-in-progress won't need this kind of individual. The classic motivations of greed, love, and revenge have stronger characterization.

Recently I listened to an old, old book (1830s) The Count of Monte Cristo, on an audio recording. Narrated by John Lee it was the one of the best narrations I've ever heard. A classic tale of revenge, it held my interest for hours.

I think betrayal and revenge is are two motivations that are universal.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Going Places

One of the great things about the crime fiction genre these days is that it is so diversified readers can both see themselves in books and experience (virtually) societies and people who live in worlds far from their own.

Therefore, when I buy a crime novel, I’m more interested in character and setting than I am in crime and plot. I want a novel to take me to a real world I haven’t explored yet.

Naomi Hirahara gives me this. She explores the Vietnamese-American culture in Los Angeles in a fascinating and interesting way in her Ellie Rush series. (SJ Rozan, who does New York City pretty darn well herself, suggested Naomi’s books to me.)

Hirahara’s parent-child relationships illustrate the potentially-tense dynamics among a generation that wants for their children all that America offers but also needs for those same children to appreciate their Vietnamese heritage. A familial conflict is always simmering, ready to boil over.

Similarly, I’m rereading A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church, who according to the author bio on his books was "a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia." That’s about all I can find on the guy. No pictures. No further info. Church offers North Korea in a way the makes his respect and love for the citizens their obvious. Here’s a teaser: “Trees are not like people.” His lips tightened, and his cheeks lost their color. “They’re more civilized. People lose someone, what do they do? Nothing, they just keep going. Some people lose everything, everything. They lose everything, they keep going. Not trees. Trees don't do that. They live together, they don't move away, they know each other, they feel the wind and the rain at the same time, they can't bear it when one of them dies. So the whole group just stops living.” He paused while the train went past a patch of open ground with an abandoned log cabin. “Don't listen to anyone who tells you about loyalty to an idea. You're alone,” he said. “Without your family you're alone.” (101)

Wonderful metaphor. Fascinating illustration and exploration of culture and society. Church is an impressive prose stylist who offers North Korea (in a novel written in English, no less) in a manner similar to Dostoyevsky's handling of Russia (in translation). North Korea’s people, politics, and landscape are presented in a nuanced and subtle way that only decades spent on the ground observing can provide. Will I ever get to North Korea? I bet most of us won’t, but Church takes us there.

And, finally, there’s The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar Award, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This book is a huge step forward for crime fiction. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that my grad school professor told me that if I wanted to teach at the college level I needed to “write a mainstream novel.” (I asked why if I wrote a mainstream novel, I was doing the acceptable thing, but if he wrote a crime novel, he was becoming a commercial sellout.) I never got an answer that day. The Sympathizer shows a great crime novel can be a great novel.

So many contemporary crime novels offer setting in rich and interesting ways that plot really does become secondary, at least for me. I’d love to hear what my Type M colleagues are reading and what they and others look for in contemporary crime-fiction novels.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

SWAT On My Street

I used to live on such a quiet street, so quiet that during the day you could hear the birds twittering in the trees and squirrels skittering across our roof. When there was noise, it came from leaf blowers and kids playing in the street.

Then the Great Construction Period started. For the last six years or so, there’s been one house or another under construction on the block. The bang of hammers and rat-a-tat-tat of jackhammers has become the new normal.

Last week, it got more interesting. We received a notice on our doorstep that the local SWAT team would be doing a training exercise on our block, using a house that is slated to be torn down. (Yep, another one.) They warned us there may be loud noises during this period. We’d be allowed to observe as long as we stayed in the designated areas.
SWAT vehicle parked in front of house and a few observers on the right.

SWAT preparing to go in

The thought of a police training exercise happening just two doors down from us filled this writer’s heart with joy. The first evidence of activity was someone going into the designated house and hearing them talking about their plans.

When the SWAT vehicle arrived, I headed outside to do a little gardening...and see what was going on, of course. (Yes, I really did do some weeding and deadheading of roses. It wasn’t just an excuse!) A few people hovered around watching. I met the developer who’d bought the property and his children and grandchildren, all there to observe.

Finally, the SWAT team was ready to start. They breached the front door of the house followed shortly after by a flash bomb. The boom set off two car alarms on opposite ends of the block and brought out a concerned neighbor who hadn’t gotten the memo about the police training exercise. Some time later, another boom. Then, an hour or so after that, they were done and the street returned to normal.

The part of me that likes a quiet street was happy they disrupted the neighborhood as little as possible. They didn’t block the road or cause excess noise. Other than the two booms you wouldn’t have known anything was going on. But the writer side of me was disappointed there wasn’t more to observe. The construction fencing prevented us from seeing a whole lot. Still, it was interesting to see what they were doing.

There’s enough construction going on in this city and the surrounding ones, the police shouldn’t have any trouble finding another house to train in when they need one.

On a separate note, I found that sentence I was looking for the other day. Yep, it wasn’t as great as I remembered but, at least I found it! Now I have something to revise.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Arthur Ellis Awards Shortlist for 2017

by Rick Blechta

In case you don’t know — and that’s probably most of the readers of Type M — my novella, Rundown, published last year has been shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award given by the Crime Writers of Canada. It is a high honour indeed and I am over the moon about it. Here's a link to the complete shortlist in all categories:

My book is in pretty select company with a past winner in this category, Jas. R. Petrin, plus the illustrious Peter Robinson and two other very worthy writers, Linda L. Richards and Brenda Chapman. With competition like that, I’m not figuring on much happening past the nomination, but at the very least, it is very validating to have one of my works chosen — and I also get a whole month of glory.

But beyond the wonder of possibly winning an Arthur is this: the idea behind the awards has always been to promote Canadian crime writing (both fiction and non-fiction) to the world-at-large and show there are good things happening in the Great White North. So every Canadian crime writer has a stake in every Arthur Ellis shortlist.

Most of our Type M readers do not live in this country, and even if you live in Canada, the chances are good that you’ll not hear about any of these books. Our publishers don’t have the megabucks needed to seriously promote their books, and what money they do spend always goes to the “sure things” because they know (or at least feel) they’ll sell enough of those books to justify the expense.

So please, if you enjoy reading crime fiction or true crime (and I assume that’s the case if you’re visiting Type M), whether in English or French, take a look at the Arthur shortlist, pick something that piques your interest and give it a read. All of the books on this (or any) year’s list have been adjudicated by experienced panels and found to be “worthy”. I’m pretty darn sure you will be pleased with your selection.

And please cross your fingers for me on May 25th!

By the way, I’m also the photographer for the Arthur Ellis Gala this year, so if by some amazing circumstance Rundown gets the Best Novella Arthur, I guess I’ll have to take a selfie.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Sort of Reader Are You?

by Vicki Delany

I got a chuckle out of this cartoon.

What sort of reader are you, this chart asks.

I am a variation of a monogamist reader.

I usually read one book, straight though. Beginning to end. And then I start another book. I never read two books at once.

But unlike the above category, I don't often re-read books. I have lots of favourites that I would probably enjoy discovering again, but time is short and there are so many new books out there.

There are only a few books I've re-read. I've read the Lord of the Rings maybe twenty times. Seems excessive, doesn't it? Most of that would have been a long time ago, although I did reread the entire series when the movies came out.

I've read The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart several times. Gosh, how I loved that book. And her others about the life of Merlin as well.

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A couple of years ago, I bought a bunch of Barbara Michaels' books and re-read them. I did enjoy them, but in some ways I found them dated. Michaels (who we all know was Barbara Mertz AKA Elizabeth Peters) was an early feminist and wrote with a feminist sensibility, but her female characters still needed saving, rather than saving themselves.

I re-read an early V.I. Warshawski novel for a radio interview I did on influential books. And I found it really dated.

I recently re-read The Hound of the Baskervilles to reacquaint myself with the story for writing the next Sherlock Holmes Bookshop novel, and enjoyed it very much. Of course it's horribly dated, but as I read I could hear Jeremy Brett's voice in my head.

Speaking of reading new books, last time I wrote about the book I'd read for my book club and how I thought it needed a bit of food and drink to liven it up.

This month’s book club choice is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I just loved Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. It's very slow and lyrical, so beware if that's not your taste. I am now just beginning the next book by him, The Gift of Rain, and so far enjoying it as just as much.

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So much, that I've decided to go to Malaysia for my next year's trip.

Tell me, dear readers and fellow bloggers, what reading type are you? And do you re-read old favourites?

Friday, April 21, 2017

Of Notebooks and Chocolate Bunnies

In the midst of my usual almost-end-of-semester chaos, I'm late to the discussion about how we keep track of ideas. But I did take a photo this morning. Here's my current notebook.  I've had this notebook for years. I bought it one Christmas as a stocking-stuffer for myself – intending to keep a journal when the new year began. I never got around to the journal. But I have enjoyed looking at the notebook's lovely pristine pages. A couple of months ago, I had an idea and no other paper handy. I grabbed the notebook and a red pen and wrote down my semi-brilliant idea before it could slip away. I am now using my notebook to record random thoughts.

This notebook is in addition to the five files I have on my computer with notes about potential books or short stories. I sometimes forget those files. But when I go back to them I'm always pleased that I have a plot factory quietly churning away. I'm also dismayed at how many ideas I have with limited time to develop them. But sometimes the ideas come together – as in the case of the short story set in 1948 that I have coming out in EQMM. Random thoughts became ideas that finally took shape and came together when I did some research.

That brings me to the chocolate bunnies in this post. Here is my cat Harry's plate. I took this photo this morning. His plate is one of the reasons I choked when I tried to eat the chocolate bunny that I bought during the Easter candy sale. I haven't had a bunny in years and I thought it would be a treat.

But as soon as I chopped the head off I remembered the headless corpse of one of the rabbits who was living in my yard. I came upon it one morning as I was walking to my car. The rabbit had apparently been the victim of one of the cats who pass through my yard. The memory of that headless rabbit – and that I could never eat rabbit stew (made by my mother when my father went hunting) when I was a child – gave me some clue about why I was having a hard time eating my chocolate bunny. Harry's plate this morning gave me the rest of the story. This is what he left after gobbling down his breakfast of rabbit and pumpkin. Harry has a finicky stomach so I didn't argue when his vet suggested I vary his canned prescription cat food, alternating between chicken and rabbit. I didn't argue but I did say, "Yuck!" Which suggested that I am much more squeamish about fluffy bunnies than about chickens. At any rate, watching Harry gobble his weekly canned rabbit reminded me once again that my sweet, gentle cat would hunt and kill his own bunny if he were allowed outside.

So because of a headless corpse, rabbit stew, and Harry's gourmet cat food, I choked on my chocolate. That got me thinking about characters and how something as simple as a chocolate bunny can be a way into understanding a character and revealing something about her or him to readers.