Saturday, August 22, 2015

Character Change in Crime Fiction

I have read a number of crime fiction novels. I love them so and many great writers have contributed to the genre. Some of my favorites are Donald Westlake, Stephen Hunter and David Baldacci. For me, there is nothing better than a good crime yarn spun from the criminal's viewpoint. Let's face it. The police have the laws on their side and the criminals do not. It does not mean the criminals are right in what they do but it does mean they have more of a struggle as far as not getting caught. So for suspense, it is hard to beat.

One thing I have noticed however is that most crime novels in a series feature a protagonist who does not change. Book after book, he is the same. James Bond is a good example. I have read all the Ian Fleming 007 books and they are excellent. However, the one element missing is any sort of change in Bond. There is nothing wrong with this for most fans, including me. It just is not that type of story. But I will say that I have found a prefer a change in a character over the course of a story where I can get it.

An example that sticks out in my mind is in Dirty White Boys by Stephen Hunter. While most of the characters do not change, one does. Richard Peed, who has the wimpiest name of just about any criminal I have read about, does change. He goes from a cowardly, drawers-soiling pansy into a hardened criminal with a cold quiet demeanor who gets respect from his peers behind bars. This was quite fascinating to read and my favorite part of the book. I would love to shake Mr. Hunter's hand for that alone.

You take The Dark Knight. That movie is my favorite comic book-based film for many reasons. The story rolls right along and is really just addictive once it starts. Heath Ledger's Joker is amazing to watch and just as creepy a version of the clown prince of crime as can be hoped for. The special effects are kept to a minimum to give it a gritty, real feel. Christian Bale's Batman pulls off he darker side of Bruce Wayne while still holding the lighter in place and he explodes on the screen whenever in the cowl. All these things are great and make for one hell of a movie.

However, for me, an added element that helped it resonate was the story of Harvey Dent. Dent is the center of the film since we have Batman on one side- incorruptible hero and the Joker on the other side- corrupting, anarchist villain with Harvey Dent clearly in the middle. In the beginning, he is the hero that Gotham needs without a mask and all and appears to be just as ruthless as Batman about getting it. Yet, as the movie goes on, we see that while he does stand for good, he has a slightly darker side to him that may be a bit too ruthless.

After the explosion takes his girl away and half his face, we see Dent transform into a bitter man who leaves everything to chance since fate did not save him from anything. His entire ideology has changed for the worse. The Joker did corrupt him. But the change is fascinating to watch. I believe the Harvey Dent character added resonance to the film that otherwise would not have been there and will keep this movie relevant for many more years.

For me, change is fascinating and probably the number one reason I love to tell stories. Obviously Dickens agreed to a point, given his characters Ebeneezer Scrooge and Pip. Obviously the positive change is best I think, but even the negative changes can be intriguing. I think in change we see true vulnerability and the defeat of internal fear. I look forward to my own characters changing in my work as well.


We can't all be James Bond.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Caine Mutiny- A Pleasant Surprise

If you have yet to watch The Caine Mutiny, I recommend you do so before reading.

I recently watched The Caine Mutiny and I was very impressed. The acting is top notch, the plot intense and the cast is excellent, which brings me to the true reason I watched the film- Humphrey Bogart.

Old Bogie is definitely one of my favorite actors. He always turned in a convincing performance in a number of versatile roles. The introverted tough guy made me feel for him and empathize every time out. In this film, I knew he would be playing the role of the hell which he did so well in The Roaring Twenties and my personal favorite, Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

However, this role required a bit more than just being a villain. It required something deeper below the surface which Bogie did so well. He made you understand why he did what he did, with his performance. The real understanding was spelled out for us by Jose Ferrer in the last scene.

While Bogart did act the brute and showed all the signs of paranoia and serious authoritarian complex, he did so for a reason. His men doubted him.

Sure, he made some mistakes, but when he asked the men if they had anything to say to him about his behavior or how he was running the ship and asked genuinely if they could help him, they sat silent.


The film took an entirely different direction, showing that those who choose to sit by and watch the ship go down are indeed guiltier than the one bringing it down. Bogart played the part masterfully, rolling the balls back and forth and each little movement displayed the outward appearance of a man in inner turmoil.

If you have not seen this movie, you may feel I have ruined it for you, but trust me. Like any great film, the true weight of the picture is not in what happens, but why it happens. You will be thinking about this one for weeks after seeing it. This was one film that truly held a high purpose and great lesson. Never leave your captain hanging out to dry, no matter how nasty he is.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What's the Biggest Disaster You can Imagine?

Off the top of my head, I'd say the earth running out of water would have to be the biggest. We as a species would be done unless something drastic happened. However, that is only one. There are so many possibilities.

Crime thrillers are my favorite kind of read. The suspense and nail-biting page turners reel me in and keep me in a another world that I escape into. While I'm there, I experience terror and chills and thrills, but the cool thing is I can always bring myself back into the safer real world (sometimes).

I think the key to a great thriller is the disaster that each one looks at. They come in all kinds.

I am recently reading a novel where a billionaire sets in motion events to destroy the current U.S. Economy. Definitely a frightening thought. Without a total economic collapse of one of the wealthiest nations in the world, chaos is bound to ensue. Those who are not fortunate enough to be on the right side of the system will surely be hit hard and may not even survive.

I have read others about total devastation to this country as well as nuclear weapons being set off in the middle east and of course, Cormac McCarthy's The Road paints a very dark picture of the future where nuclear war has killed virtually everything in the United States(the plants won't even grow anymore) except a few fortunate(if you can call them that) survivors.

However these are large scale thrillers with dire stakes for a whole country or the entire world. Can a thriller have a smaller scale?


Stephen Hunter's Pale Horse Coming deals with the town of Thebes where a prison is run by big, brutish racist guards who keep the mostly black prison population in horrible circumstances. Only that town is affected but hey, if the protagonist does not stop them, they will only continue on with their reign of cruelty.

My own novel Jack Little deals with the stakes being high for Will Hodge who will lose his house and everything he has worked for if he does not steal to support his family. While these stakes are only concerning Hodge primarily, if we put ourselves in his shoes, we definitely see where his motivation comes from. The down side to it all is he could lose his family if he keeps up with his cold, distant mindset.

So what's the secret?

We as the readers, have to care.

Plain and simple.

If the world is abut to end in a novel and no one cares, then what's the point? The real substance is in the characters. If the world ends, well, we don't want that. But we really do not want the characters' world to end. We have taken a journey with them and we empathize with them to the point to where if they fail, the world won't just end. We the readers will be crushed.

The stakes in thrillers must be high but high for the characters concerned. From what I have read, the world savers are generally in a line of work that would put them in such a position to save the world. They could be a spy, a counter-terrorism operative or some sort of ex-military man/woman. Either way, it's hard for us to see a mild-mannered newspaper reporter saving the world.

Eh. Bad example, maybe.

In a small scale story, the protagonist does tend to be more normal as in Donald Westlake's The Ax. Burke Devore is no spy. He is merely a former manager for a paper company who has decided to start killing his competition(literally). The funny thing about this type of story is that we find ourselves rooting for this man is clearly committing amoral acts. He nearly convinces us he is completely justified in his actions, citing society as the reason for his type being pushed out into the wilderness with only one viable solution- murder. It is small scale and yet, we are drawn in.

Which ever you prefer, small scale or large, I find it's always fun to picture the craziest large scale disaster you can imagine.

So what about you?

What is the worst thing that can possible happen? What kind of protagonist would be required to stop it? Can you think up a problem so big that you have no idea how it could be solved or if it's even possible? I'd love to hear your thoughts(and no, I'm not going to steal them, although I might make an offer on a good one, wink wink).

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Clear View

Recently I was driving my truck along when I came to a turn. Being a responsible driver(sometimes), I turned on my signal which is located on the same bar as my windshield wiper control and whoops.

The wipers came on and whipped their way across a dry windshield. The passenger side blade ripped right off.

Needless to say, I bought new blades a few days later since the local weather man indicated rain in the five day forecast. I replaced the blades and problem solved. When the rain hit, if I happened to be on the road, the new blades would whip the rain from my windshield and I would be able to see just fine.

However, in real life, things are always this simple.

If for instance, you are looking to find a new relationship but cannot get over your ex, you can definitely have a problem seeing clearly. The new people you date might not ever measure up to the standards set by your ex or they might even remind you of the ex too much. And who knows? Maybe they have an ex they are not over either. So the both of you are more or less wasting each others time.

In fiction, this very same thing happens.

A character goes through a series of events that end up blinding their vision to real opportunities and real threats.

I am sure most of us like to think that we could easily see that Ahab was crazy and that Moby Dick was best to be let go of, but Ahab cannot see this. He is blinded by his obsession.

In Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, Jimmy Marcus is blinded by his own rage over the murder of his daughter that he kills Dave Boyle to get revenge only to learn that Dave- a man who he'd known since childhood and once been friends with- is actually innocent.

I my novel Jack Little, Will Hodge is blinded by the idea of stealing every valuable item he can to the point to where we never know the names of his wife or son. While he seems like he was always somewhat closed off, he appears to have his mind in another place all the time.

I suppose these blinders can serve a story and lead characters to make decisions they otherwise would not just as they do in real life. We have all done things that, when we look back on them, were very foolish. And we would never do them again.

Unless we get blinded...

What about you?

Have you ever had pesky blinders on that led you to make a mistake?

Is it time for you to get new wiper blades?

Let me know. I love your comments!


Saturday, August 2, 2014

To be a snob or not?

I have been reading fiction for several years. I have enjoyed many books and short stories in that time with exceptions which just did not grip me. However I have to admit, that I have not always been fair.

I can admit it.

I have been a snob.

If the book was not by a well-known author with excellent reviews and awards behind it, I just felt like it was a waste of time to read it. I was not willing to give anything I had not heard of a chance. Life is short and what is the point.


Through most of my twenties, I even shunned modern books of any kind. Only the classics- those books which were well established and here to stay- could get my attention. I went through every classic I could find, from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment to George Orwell's 1984 to J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. They were all excellent and very well-written. However, I must admit, they did not all grip me.

The truth is crime fiction is really my genre. For the longest time, I could not even pinpoint my favorite genre to read, much less write. And I could not even decide on a genre which I wanted to really delve into.

However I did decide and have since read several books in that genre and while most have been around for a while and well-established, many of them have actually been written in this century.

This year, I really went out of my gourde.

I read a few novels available on the Amazon Kindle. One had a meager price and the other was absolutely free.

Can we say turnaround?

Now while I know that some classics even are available on the Kindle for free, I was giving an unknown author a chance. While my instincts a few years ago would have warned me to stay away from such trash, I took a chance.

I am very glad I did.

The books were by authors who are unknown to most, but each one was excellent. They were well-written and very professional. I found myself immersed in each one and thought, other than a big name on the cover page, what was the difference?

There was really none.

If the author had been well-known, I would have read the book and totally thought 'Wow. Another good one. That guy just keeps going.'

Yet, I think that my old attitude comes from an old place. In years past, writers had to go through the major houses to get published. This brought with it a certain prestige especially when the author's books sold well. Wow. What a mountain they climbed. They must b geniuses!

Well, some of them were.

However, with the uprising of self-publishing a lot of things have changed. Now anyone can publish for very little cost. Now does this mean a lot of bad books are out there?


It's much different than the old days with traditional publishing where every published book was spectacular.

Wait a minute.

Actually there were many less than quality novels back then, too. I don't think the e-revolution will hurt much of anything. I think it will only open up more doors for more writers. After all, the editors, agents and publishers miss talent often just like in any other form of entertainment. People are human. They make mistakes.

And I now realize I made a big one. The saying “You can't judge a book by its cover.” has been around for a long time for a reason. The words inside the book are black ink on paper. What the author does with them can only be discovered when we open the book and open our eyes to the fact that lots of great books are put out every year and may not go on to be classics but are nonetheless worth a read.

If you have been a snob as I have, I urge you to open up. You could be missing some truly great stories out there.

What are your thoughts? Are you a snob? Are you open to anything? Any regrets?

 Be sure and check out my novel Jack Little available on the amazon kindle!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Long Enough to Satisfy?

I just finished reading The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. It has been given much praise and hailed over the years as a roman noir classic. Did I think so?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/
I really enjoyed it. The characters were well developed and the story zipped right along. Also, while at times brutal, it never lost my interest. Now by the same token, would it sell today?

Obviously it sold me since I bought it. However it is hard to say if it would. But let's look at why.

IS the story too slow for the modern reader?
Image Courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Not at all. Compared to the 1946 film, it moves rapidly. There is suspense throughout the book and I was never sure where things were going.

Is the story too dated?
Image courtesy of Nuttakit/

Well it could be. America has changed a bit since 1934 when it was published. The dialogue is a bit dated and well, I doubt all Californians are making a living selling hot dogs to one another. Still, I don't see why any reader could not get what was happening in the story which is all that matters to hook a reader and keep them hooked.

Really there is only one thing about the book that might give me pause about it selling well if it were released today.


The book is only 116 pages!

Yes, betrayal, scandal and murder all in 116 pages. Now while this sounds good in a way since there are no subplots to wade through to get the story, I think in modern day fiction, this is rare and possibly unacceptable.

All the modern day novels I read have one thing in common- they are at least 250 pages and usually more. There ARE subplots and while they are good reads, you have stay with them for a while to finish. I finished The Postman Always Rings Twice in one day, which brings me to my point.

Most readers want a journey.
Image courtesy of Tongdang/

A journey in movie terms is an hour and a half to two hours or maybe more. However, a book priced at ten dollars or more better have enough length to ensure the reader cannot devour the thing standing around the book store. I re-read books all the time, but a lot of people don't and see no point to paying for something so short.

And why should they?

Now don't get me wrong. Some of the best works I have read have been shorter ones. Ambrose Bierce always thought novels were just stories with two many pages between the covers and I feel that he is often correct. Some novels are wonderful but have to throw in subplots that do nothing for the main plot in order to have a sufficient length to call the story a novel. And well, it is a business and if we don't sell books, we don't eat.

My own novel Jack Little, is a little over 80, 000 words.

There aren't many subplots and I think the ones in there are essential to the main plot. There is a lot to Will Hodge's story he is not aware of yet. On his journey, you learn that he does not even know himself that well, but hopefully in the end, he sees more than he did.

So how do you feel? Do you think books would be better without a lot of subplots just to match the length? Or do you want at least 100, 000 words before you even consider handing over your hard-earned money for a good yarn?

Monday, July 7, 2014

What does THAT term Mean?

What does THAT mean?!?

Image courtesy of stockimages/

I have read hundreds of novels but to this day, I always read certain terms of which I am not sure of the definition- no matter how clean or simple the prose. 
For this reason, I am going to discuss a few terms below you might not be familiar with and well, give you a little insight into their meanings for future reference. 
I hope this knowledge enhances your reading pleasure.
Horn-Rimmed Glasses
Image courtesy of stockimages/
Apparently this style of glasses were originally made out of actual horn or tortoise shell. However they have since over the years been constructed of plastic in an attempt to copy those materials. They tend to give the wearer's face a bolder appearance in contrast with metal frames which appear less pronounced.

The style has been popular throughout different periods of the twentieth century, including the early years as well as the 1940s-1960s. They have made a resurgence since the late twentieth century and early part of the twenty-first which may be due in part to the popular TV series Mad Men as well as appealing to hipster subculture.

So the next time you read “horn-rimmed glasses” I guess you can assume the wearer is rather hip perhaps or could be some big corporate executive.

While a fish-eye refers to a particular type of lens that offers a panoramic view for uses in camera lenses, the lens is often used to indicate a peep hole in a door.
Image courtesy of adamr/
When I first saw the term used in the peephole context, I had a good idea what it meant, but well, I still felt a need to look it up.

So when a character is said to go to the door to look through the fish-eye, it's a modern word for peep hole. 
Go check your fish-eye. 
You might have company.
In modern times, this term refers to a sideboard in a home or office.

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong/
I can't count how many times I have read this term in several crime thrillers when describing some corporate executive or big time attorney's office furniture. It pretty much means a sideboard for their office.
The next time you read about a hot shot with an office on the fortieth floor, a bear skin rug and a credenza, you'll know the author means a sideboard
Now this one can get interesting. From what I have read, the term sometimes refers to a handgun or a gun used to commit a murder.

It can also mean a pot head. I guess the idea is that he has smoked so much he has “burned” himself out.

It can also mean a person engaged in the act of burning property.

However, for the most part I have seen it used to mean one thing- a pre-paid, disposable cell phone.
In the modern world of crime, pay phones just don't cut it anymore. There are few of them and well, they can most likely be tracked when you get down to it. However pre-paid cell phones generally cannot be tracked which is why most criminals use them. You can't always discuss criminal activity the best way- face-to-face.

So the next time a scumbag or a guy who just needs to talk business where no one can listen, he might use a burner and you'll know what that is.
Image courtesy of stockimages/
This term refers to a knife or blade but it is typically a home-made version, often made out of plastic.
Not nearly as scary as, well, THIS!

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/
These are very common in prisons where regular knives are hard to come by.

So the next time a character has a shiv on their person, you can expect bad intentions and a heated action scene are on the way.

Well, there you go. I hope this clears up a few terms you might come across when taking in crime novels. I have seen all five of these used numerous times and understanding them definitely increases understanding of the story. 
Have a great day and keep reading!