Block & Pochoda In Mystery Scene.

mystery scene 164

You’ll find Ivy Pochoda (These Girls, 2020) and Lawrence Block (Dead Girl Blues, 2020) in the current Mystery Scene magazine, issue 164. Pochoda nabs this issue’s cover, and is treated to an excellent four-page profile by Oline H. Cogdill. Lawrence Block appears with “A Burglar’s Future”, a Bernie Rhodenarr story from the new The Burglar In Short Order 2020 release. Honestly, there’s not a page to be skimmed over in this particular issue, even including a review (the lead review, that is) for the novel I just finished, Pip Drysdale’s new The Sunday Girl (see an upcoming post for that one).

Compare & Contrast.

dead girl blues

“Compare and contrast.” I heard that often enough in college art history classes when a huge screen lit up with slides of some old master painting paired side by side with an impressionist, abstract or expressionist work dealing with a similar subject. “Compare and contrast,” we were instructed to do, awkwardly standing up in a packed auditorium and, in my case, terrified that I’d butcher the artists’ names when forced to say them out loud.

Compare and contrast: I’d just tucked away my copy of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women, knowing what I was in for when I pre-ordered the book and still mulling it over days later when Lawrence Block’s 2020 Dead Girl Blues came in for a pickup. Pochoda’s novel might end up mis-shelved in the mystery or thriller section in some stores, but really it’s neither, instead being a much more harrowing look at the overlooked and ignored in an all-too-familiar setup – a serial killer preying on prostitutes in South Central L.A. Pochoda’s take on this, its literary structure and wordsmithing throw down a gauntlet to challenge countless contemporary thriller writers who celebrate violence, sexualized torture and death for entertainment, her novel zeroing in not on yet another psycho killer, the law enforcement chase or voyeuristic peeks at the victims’ suffering, but instead, on the victims’ friends, parents and even the neighborhood that was the scene of the crimes.

these women

Now I’ve sung Lawrence Block’s praises here before, being one of a select group of writers I revere and who could retype an old phone directory and still sell it to me. With a career that goes back to the 1950’s, there’s a mountain of Block work to digest, so I won’t claim to have read everything he’s done. Well…yet.

Compare and contrast: Pochoda’s These Women goes after the sometimes squirm-worthy serial killer/thriller conventions with a radically different voice, points-of-view and tone that defiantly challenge readers to rethink genre tropes…and more. So, what was Lawrence Block’s intent with Dead Girl Blues, clearly a very personal and eerily unsettling book that also defies many/most genre conventions, though in a very different way? Hey, don’t ask me. All I know is he wrote one hell of a disturbing book which, in its way (and an entirely different way) also insists that the reader rethink the often icky serial killer/murder/thriller conventions. I suppose it would take someone with Block’s resume to dare to put out this book. Sure, a trendy l’enfant terrible might disingenuously try it just to snag some short-lived buzz. But Lawrence Bock has nothing to prove and no need to court trendyville.

Don’t look for shoot-outs, car chases or fetishistic sexual violence-as-entertainment. I’m not sure anything is resolved when you reach the end of the last page, but you’ll be riveted from the opening, “A man walks into a bar”, and wrongly presume that you’ve been down this road before…maybe too many times.

Oh, but you haven’t.

Block’s about to take you somewhere you don’t expect to go, following the unassuming fellow beside you at the bar, next to you in the front seat of the car, behind the store counter, across the dinner table, maybe in bed with you. Hell, he could be your coworker, your boss, your neighbor or even your lover. He might be the James Thompson you think you know, or he might just be “Buddy”, and he’s done something very, very bad. Horribly, sickeningly bad. Maybe he’ll do it again. Maybe not.

There’s not a superfluous word to be found in this novel, the wordsmithing so crisp that Joe R. Lansdale called it “prose as lean as a starving model”. It’s a relatively short work that ought to have any mystery/crime fiction reader thoroughly riveted, but more so, should compel any avid reader of the oh-so-many bestselling sex-n-violence serial killer thrillers to pause and think about what they like to read – and why. Maybe that’s what Ivy Pochoda aimed to do with These Women. Maybe it’s what Block had in mind. Maybe not. But maybe it’s something we all need to ponder when we think about our reading and viewing choices.

Ivy Pochoda’s These Women. Lawrence Block’s Dead Girl Blues. Compare and contrast? I can’t, I suppose, other than having read them back-to-back. Two radically different works from two radically different writers, yet both challenge genre tropes and conventions in their own very powerful ways. So all I can say, is read these books…read them both.

www.lawrenceblock.com

Why Bother?

raica oliviera by fulvio maiani

As explained in prior posts, I’ve reluctantly pressed the pause button on my querying and writing outreach activity, hoping things will settle back into something like normal come September (summer being a notoriously bad time for pestering agents anyway, or so we often hear). The fact is, my last query went out way back in mid-March and it was a straggler at that.

So, I was surprised to receive a query response this week. Even more so since I’d sent that particular query five months ago. I’d already flagged it as a “NORMAN” (No Reply Means A No) long ago. I’m not sure what’s more dismissive: No reply at all, or one sent five months later.

I mean, seriously…at that point, why bother?

 

Photo: Raica Oliviera by Fulvio Maiani

See You In September.

Jeff Drew PW

See you in September? No, I’m not going anywhere.

But that is the title of a recent Publishers Weekly lead article from Vice-President, Editorial Director Jim Milliot reporting on NYC publisher surveys regarding plans on when and how their offices might reopen. Like so many businesses there and in other cities nationwide, the “Big Five” plus Abrams, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kensington, Norton, Scholastic and others responded with cautious and flexibly phased plans, none of which involved employees returning before Labor Day. Till then, work-from home, Zoom conferencing, digital manuscripts, galleys and review copies will remain the norm.  In some cases, senior management is even reassessing long term office space needs, anticipating that some portion of their staff will continue with WFH at least in some capacity. To a degree, it may be less about reconfiguring office spaces and work schedules, and more about the logistics of getting to and from work, those challenges all too apparent to any city dweller. Bus, subway, El and train commuting are still scary prospects. Further, how will crowds navigate elevators up and down hi-rise office buildings?

The following week’s issue included the first in a series of independent publishing columns, that one by past chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association, Peter Goodman, who speculated that the pandemic’s impact will likely reshape independent, hybrid, micro-press and self-publishing with increased adoption of e-books, a regrettable but likely inevitable shakeout among indie retail bookseller accounts, and the growing influence of distributors and their print-on-demand capabilities. Myself, I’m all for that last one, a crucial component in keeping indie press and backlist titles available, particularly if retail bookstore upfront orders are publication go/no-go criteria. Goodman also acknowledges what many have fretted over or even joked about: The sheltering-in’s sudden proliferation of budding writers. “…A lot of smart, creative people who are spending more time at home will be producing more books,” Goodman states. “Is this a good thing? Not entirely, as it crowds the marketplace and may again create an unfortunate line between ‘real’ and ‘hobby’ publishing.” Will retail bookstores – indie or chain – get serious about stocking some of these self/hybrid/micro published titles, or will the nearly non-navigable and overpopulated online maze remain their only marketplace?

stef van der laan marie claire france 2015 by robert nethery

A second entry in this series the following week, this one from Ed Nawotka and Claire Kirch, reported a mixed bag of business results and planning among independent publishers. Topline: Nearly all endured a brutal March and April with drastic drop-offs in orders, though sales have steadily picked up since. Back to normal? Not exactly. Nor are independent and smaller presses racing to get back to their offices just yet, even if they aren’t in the same types of workplaces the majors are.

Along with Publishers Weekly, a number of book sites/blogs I follow have been reporting on the plight of booksellers throughout these sheltering-in months, now transitioning to updates about their slow and cautious re-openings. But the entire industry hit pause back in March or thereabouts, and if publishers and retailers aren’t up to speed, then agents won’t be either, so writers will have to make their own individual decisions about queries and submissions. Myself, I hate to think of sitting on my hands till Autumn (though Summer has always been considered a notoriously bad time for querying/submitting anyway), but I’d already concluded it might be prudent to do so, and reading reports from industry insiders simply reinforces that.

Oh well, Fall’s always been my favorite season.

Publishers Weekly cover illustration: Jeff Drew; Bookstore photo: Stef Van Der Laan by Robert Nethery, 2015.

These Women.

these women

If you’re overwhelmed by the daily deluge of plagues, protests and politics, I’m not sure that Ivy Pochoda’s These Women (Ecco/HarperCollins 2020) is the book I’d recommend right now. But you should read it. In fact, I can think of no better way to do so than to grab it right after finishing any one of the zillion ‘thrillers’ crowding bookstore shelves with their cast of creepy serial killers abducting/torturing/murdering women in puzzlingly twisted voyeuristic descriptions.

I never got to see where These Women will be shelved at retail, having ordered the book ahead of time for a pickup. I suspect some stores will place it in Fiction & Literature while others will stick it in Mystery/Crime Fiction, where I’m sure the book will squirm in agony, flanked by a whodunit and a police procedural. These Women certainly deals with crime. A serial killer, in fact, and on all too familiar turf: contemporary Los Angeles. But Pochoda’s novel (more or less) ignores the culprit, the crimes and the chase to focus on several women, including former prostitute Feelea who survived the serial killer’s attack back in 1999, and Dorian, the grieving mother of the killer’s last of thirteen victims. There’s Julianna, AKA Jujubee, a strip club worker and hobby photographer, and performance artist Marella along with her aspirational mother Anneke, and finally, L.A. detective Essie Perry who uncovers disturbing details about the decades old unsolved serial killer case, and suspects the murderer may be at work once again. The women’s lives all intersect, Dorian being the cook at a fish shack frequented by streetwalkers, Essie the cop who’s saddled with Dorian’s reports that’s she’s being stalked, and so on.

In lesser hands – or at least, a writer with simpler ambitions – this cast of characters would hover on the sidelines while the reader spends way too much time inside the twisted mind of a creepy killer, periodically witnessing gruesome murders and cheering along while the detective overcomes bureaucratic interference and routine male coworker misogyny to finally take down the killer. But Pochoda’s not interested in telling yet another serial killer tale. She’s writing a book about the women impacted by brutal tragedy and living in violent horror on a daily basis. The killer, the crimes, the hunt…they’re almost incidental.

Stepping out of formulaic genre fiction comfort zones into the literary fiction arena can be daunting. Here, art supersedes narrative, so if a reader accustomed to straightforward plotting and a familiar balance of character vs. storytelling suddenly feels the author is merrily flipping them off, it’s no surprise. Art can be self-indulgent, and writerly cardinal sins that would be ruthlessly purged by agents and editors in more formulaic and genre projects are not only allowed here but encouraged. Now I’m not saying Pochoda’s flipping off book buyers! I’m only noting that hip-hopping between different times and multiple character POV’s while probing sense-of-place minutiae takes some getting used to. But it’s well worth the effort, in the case of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women.

Anybody Can.

1938

Originally from Drive In Theater Of The Mind (via Browse The Stacks) at Tumblr: Apparently no one had to wait for Kindles, Nooks, 99-cent eBooks or bargain-priced bundles to pen their deathless prose for every possible perversion. The “Famous Jack Woodford” already knew way back in 1938 that anybody can write a sex novel.

Damn, I think I’ve been wasting my time agonizing over these noir-ish hard-boiled crime manuscripts all along…

Websites & Typewriters.

WD May-June

The May-June 2020 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine was surely put together before the pandemic swept over us and the subsequent sheltering-in commenced. But this issue’s main feature, WD’s 22nd annual “101 Best Websites For Writers” by managing editor Cassandra Lipp proved well-timed for readers/writers stuck at home. I’ve already flagged a few that look interesting (just what I need…more sites and blogs to follow).

I’m pretty sure some of the site info is already obsolete (one at least is on hiatus or gone altogether as far as I know) but there are some intriguing sites in this year’s list, including some you may be well aware of but which were entirely new to me, like ‘Cliché Finder’ at www.westegg.com/cliché or TV Tropes at www.tvtropes.org. As time allows, I’ll be visiting a bunch, but cautious with the follows, a plan to prune an already too long list of blogs and sites funneling stuff into my inboxes one of the many sheltering-in to-do list chores I’ve yet to tackle.

But for readers who aren’t looking for more ways to squander time online, there’s Alexandra Claus’ 5-Minute Memoir: “Typewritten Wonder” about the old baby blue Smith-Corona typewriter in a tan case spotted at a local Goodwill store when she was only 11. Begging her mother to spring for the ten-dollar price tag got Claus’ nowhere at the time, unaware that of course Mom returned to the store later, bought the treasure and had it refurbished just in time to be the best Christmas present ever.

jak kaiser

Add something from WD’s 22nd batch of recommended writers’ websites to your favorites bar, or nod knowingly along with Alexandra Claus when she writes, “My typewriter made my childhood dreams of being a writer feel real. Its well-worn keys stoked the creativity in my soul.” Kinda makes me want to shove this laptop aside and hunt up a typewriter.

Well…just kind of.

Photo: Jak Kaiser

 

Close Up.

close up amanda quick

When I first spotted Close Up (2020) on more than one of the too-many mystery/crime fiction and book sites I follow, I was expecting “Casey, Crime Photographer” in heels, and scheduled it for a bookstore curbside pickup. I’ve been making it a point lately to try big name authors whose books I’ve bypassed, partly to see what I’ve been missing and partly to find out what I can learn for my own writing.

Amanda Quick is well-known Seattle, Washington author Jayne Krentz. With over fifty NYT bestsellers to her credit, Krentz writes ‘romantic suspense’, with her ‘Amanda Quick’ pen name reserved for historical romantic suspense (which apparently just recently transitioned to more recent history, like Close Up, which is set in the 1930’s), and works as ‘Jayne Castle’ (oddly enough, the author’s real name) for paranormal romantic suspense. From this I’ll glean that the latter isn’t horror as such, the Quick books aren’t quite ‘noir’ or crime fiction, and the Krentz novels not quite thrillers. These are romance novels however you want to label them, not that this is a bad thing.

In Close Up, Vivien Brazier flees a pampered but claustrophobic heiress’ life in San Francisco to pursue a career as a fine arts photographer in Los Angeles. She pays the bills by moonlighting as a crime scene photographer, following police radio calls at night and elbowing the boys club aside at fires, auto accidents and murder scenes, spending her days working on a provocative series of male nudes with a steady stream of Muscle Beach buff-boys lined up outside her beachfront home studio. Smarter and more observant than the rest of the camera jockeys, Vivien helps the police I.D. a high-profile serial killer only a few chapters into the novel. But this spins off into a more puzzling murder mystery, and pairs her with dapper but troubled private (and apparently psychic) investigator Nick Sundridge and his loyal dog Rex. An elaborate if ill-conceived scheme to ensnare this new and even more diabolical killer takes them to the upscale oceanfront resort town of Burning Cove, where romance blossoms even as they to elude – then uncover – the murderer.

A snippy critic might complain that the plot takes some mighty implausible turns, the characters continually do incredibly improbable things and the entire business is rife with an endless list of writerly no-no’s that would guarantee an agent’s or editor’s swift and dismissive rejection for any unknown. But with a looong list of successful books to her credit, I don’t think Quick/Krentz/Castle needs to worry about any of that, and just aims to tell a good story in her own way.

Still, I’ll confess that I kind of wished the author trusted the nifty setup she initially created and left intriguing, no-nonsense Vivien Brazier right where she was when the book began: prowling the means streets of 1930’s Los Angeles on the hunt for grisly crime scenes with her big Speed Graphic camera in tow, bantering with the cops and the lensmen, and living the Boho life by day as a fine arts photographer, even though she has to endure the gallery elite’s sneers at her figure study photos. But Quick/Krentz/Castle knows what she’s doing, even when she chose to hightail it out of that intriguing milieu for a remote movie star hideaway resort and something more like a Golden Age drawing room mystery (albeit one laced with some sex). Bottom line: What the hell do I know? When I have fifty NYT bestsellers under my belt, I’ll make suggestions.

Whether you only enjoy its beginnings or stay on board for the rest of the ride, I bet you’ll agree that Quick’s Close Up is a fun read. I just hope some other writer picks up where Amanda Quick began and brings us an engaging, no-nonsense ‘girl crime photographer’ in a retro urban setting…Close Up was really onto something there. Hey, don’t look at me. I’m already wrestling with my own no-nonsense ‘stiletto gumshoe’ in a retro urban setting. You give it a try.

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