Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Policeman's Lot by Gary M. Dobbs

I wasn't sure what to think when fellow writer and blogger Gary Dobbs sent me his ebook,
A Policeman's Lot, for review, but he did me a favor in allowing me to post an article on his site about my new ebook Justified Sins, so I figured I would give it a look.

One word: Wow. This is a good book.

The story begins slowly, a man's morning routine as he gets ready for duty and faces the possibility of a busy day, but he has no idea how "busy" it's going to get! Throw in Buffalo Bill, a Wild West show, murders that may or may not be connected to Jack The Ripper, and you have a really hot read. I don't want to say too much for fear of giving something away, but it's a well-written yarn and you will get hooked right away. It's also, for me, a nice change of pace from the modern urban hard-boiled junk I've been digesting lately.

Nice job, Gary.

Check it out!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The (Reluctant) Birth of a Series

Editor’s Note: Rebecca Forster has been a friend of mine for nearly 20 years, in which time she has published almost as many books. She graduated from paperback romances to the exciting world of legal thrillers and, like Grisham, knows the territory. But, typical of midlist writers in the last decade, has had her share of ups and downs. Now that Amazon is letting authors make their work available on the Kindle, she is taking advantage and having a great time with great sales to match. The Witness series, featuring attorney Josie Baylor-Bates, the subject of this article, is a consistent seller, more so than it ever was when originally published in paperback. I recall reading Hostile Witness, the first episode, while working the graveyard shift at KCBS-AM in San Francisco, and it was such a hot read that I’d get really cranky whenever I had to put the book down and open my microphone to actually get some work done. Now Rebecca is continuing the Josie series specifically for the Kindle market, and I cannot wait to see the results. So here is Rebecca, in her own words, sharing a little about how the Witness series came to be, and the challenges of writing about the same characters over and over again.

Hostile Witness was supposed to be a stand-alone book and then the editor fell in love with the characters and a series was born. Silent Witness and Privileged Witness followed.

A few things stand out about this turn of events in my career.

First, I was thrilled that the first book was exciting enough for an editor to ask for more. Then the excitement wore off, and real concerns presented themselves.

Hostile Witness had a solid story and plot. It was inspired by my husband, a superior court judge, who had just sentenced a sixteen-year-old boy to life in prison as an adult. The boy had murdered three people and the question of when a child becomes an adult in the eyes of the law intrigued me. In writing Hostile Witness, I found a drama that proved compelling for readers. Would I be able to follow up with equally dramatic stories?

I also had to ask myself if I liked these characters well enough to continue to write about them. Were their voices unique enough? Did they deserve a long life or would readers tire of them? Had they been created with finite motivations? Those questions created a pressure I had never experienced before. In all honesty, most of that pressure was self-inflicted as I worked to make the second book as good as the first.

Finally, I wondered about the technique of series writing. After writing 20 books I realized I didn’t know anything about writing continuing characters.

Here’s what I discovered as I worked through these concerns.

Stories are compelling because they are inherently good. The next book in my series simply had to be a story I could embrace with as much passion as I had Hostile Witness. If I could do that within the parameters set by my characters, all would be well.

As for the characters, I loved them in the first book so there was no reason I wouldn’t like them even better in the tenth. I had heard that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to hate Sherlock Holmes. I would never want to feel that way about Josie and Hannah and Archer. Knowing that, I have a final book plotted and put away so that I will end their literary lives gracefully. For now, though, I can’t imagine using that story. I love these people. I want them to live and thrive.

Finally, I tackled the question of technique. Do series characters age? If not, how can they grow? Was it mandatory to have each of the pivotal characters in every book? How often--and with what intensity--do I reiterate descriptions and back story? Not every reader will pick up the first book nor will every reader will want to read the whole series. Where do I draw the line with background information?

I discovered there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to creating a series. I have taken each book as it comes. I let the characters speak to me and the story dictate how those characters will grow and change.

Now, working on book number four--Expert Witness--I continue to feel a bit reluctant about writing a series. With each book it is a challenge to include the subtleties that have come before, the shading of character, of time and place, the tone, and to build upon them. Each book must tie to the ones before it while also being a viable stand-alone read. I have to live with decisions made without thought--the color of a car, the style of a haircut, the indication of a food preference.

Yet, there is also the excitement of stepping back into the lives of these people I have created and come to know so well. Like my readers, I am always curious where they will end up and if they will live to tell another story.

The funny thing is, Josie, Hannah and Archer don’t seem to sense my reluctance at all.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sand's Game by Ennis Willie--Yeah, It's Good, But....

I'm almost done reading Sand's Game, the recent collection of stories from author Ennis Willie. Several of today's best writers have endorsed Willie via loving introductions, touting not only his influence on them but his powerful writing style as something to pay attention to. They talk about how he wrote like Mickey Spillane, but with his own personal twist. That's all true. Mr. Willie sure knew how to put a sentence together and tell a good story, but...

I'm sure Willie's work was hot stuff in the 1960s, and I know the writers who contributed notes love his work and want the whole world to know, but...

There have been so many imitators and so much slam-bang-kiss-kiss action novels (one of which I myself am guilty of spawning) that have covered this same ground over and over again that even one of the better masters can't quite rise above the junk. (Even the latter Spillane books paled compared to his original five.) Willie uses similar plot gimmicks as Mickey (with solutions hinging on the "it was right in front of me the whole time!" twist) as well as the "surprise, shocker endings" (which are repeated several times and quickly grow stale just as they did in Spillane's work). Sand easily solves the murders, they're usually the first person you susepct (even the title of one of the short stories gives away the killer's identity), and all you get in between the murder and solution is a lot of slam-bang-kiss-kiss.

Not that there is anything wrong with that!

Anthony Boucher once wrote that Mickey Spillane rose above his imitators because he actually beleived in what he wrote. Boucher intended that as a put-down, I think, but I see it as a compliment; a writer must beleive in what he's writing, otherwise he'll never touch the reader. You cannot go at a project with a "what the hell" attitude; maybe you'll fool me once but never again.

It is obvious that Ennis Willie beleived in what he was writing and had a good time going at it; why wouldn't he? He was young, selling well, had money in his pocket; who wouldn't want that gig? Derivitive and repetitive as the Sand material may be, these stories are turned up to eleven. You'll blast through it in a few days because there is so much action packed into the plots that you won't be able to put it down. You'll see the surprises coming but you'll have a great time getting there.

I really hope that Ramble House, who produced this collection, does another set of Willie's work; maybe some of his stand-alone books, or maybe some more Sand. That would be fun.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ennis Willie--Sand's Game; Hammett and Hemingway

I turned another year older this past Monday, and with the usual Amazon gift card I placed an order for Sand's Game, the "Sand" omnibus by Ennis Willie you may have read about elsewhere on the Internet. This hot little pulp story collection sounds very promising. I have read a lot of interesting articles about Willie and his creation, so I'm looking forward to seeing the stories myself. I think Sand, in some ways, based on what I've read so far, has a little bit in common with my character Pierce, so I'm doubly excited to see if Willie will inspire me the way he's apparently inspired other crime writers. If you've read the Sand book, I'd appreciate your comments.

In other news, I visited the local Half Priced Books on my birthday and made a heck of a haul. Back in the 1990s a book company published Ian Fleming's James Bond books in hardcover. For the longest time I've had all but two of the books, and somebody had turned the entire set into Half Price, so I grabbed what I needed. It's too bad the company didn't publish the last two Fleming books, but I guess they couldn't get the rights to them.

I also picked up a neat paperback called "The Essential Hemingway". I've spoken of Ernest before, I believe, but I've never owned any of his work. "Essential" gathers one novel, portions of other novels, and a bunch of short stories, and I must say I'm enjoying Ernest like never before. I may be one of the few who doesn't care for "The Killers"--I think the movies may have ruined it for me, even though it has a hopeless echo at the end which suggests Hemingway would have been a top-notch noir writer had he tried that--but "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" almost made me cry. You don't often see a writer capture raw emotion, and in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" Hemingway did it in spades. You don't get much description, so the writing seems a little thin and hollow in some places, but the characterization and emotion that he communicates through wonderful dialogue carries the story and leaves you stunned. If you haven't read it, go read it, even if you must stand in the bookstore and read it there. I think he tapped into a genuine human fear (that of having nobody to go home to) and it resonated with me very loudly. Hard-boiled? Sure. In the purest, unsentimental sense.

Of course, reading Hemingway makes me think of the old debate about whether or not Hammett influenced Hemingway or was it the other way around? So far I'm not 100% sure, but I would guess the answer is neither. Hammett used descriptions better and really gave you a sense of a story's environment; granted I'm not very far into Hemingway's canon, but I haven't seen much of that in his work. But I will also take this opportunity to add that Hammett's non-crime stories, as printed in his "Lost Stories" collection edited by Vince Emery, shows that while his crime tales are what he's known for, his stories about regular people were better, and when you compare them to Hemingway's stories about regular people, I think I prefer Hammett. I think that if Hammett had been able to keep writing after The Thin Man, he would have eclipsed Hemingway. Bold statement, yes, but one I confidently make.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Two for One

I thought I would post an interview that appeared Monday where I talk about both Justified Sins and Reaper's Dozen; this is from Kipp Poe's wonderful blog, Closing My Eyes Helps Me To See Clearly, where he chats with many "indie" authors. Check him out and say hey for me. Link and interview below!

Brian Drake Justified Sin Release Party

1:What can you tell us about your new ebook, Justified Sins?

Here’s my back cover copy: When Sheila Webster’s husband is killed a after double-crossing the men who hired him to crack one last safe, she finds herself the next target. What her husband stole, he managed to hide, and now the men who hired him are after her to get the stolen goods back. There’s only one person she can turn to. Her foster brother. A dangerous man named Mr. Pierce.

Justified Sins is my take on the vigilante action novels of the ‘70s, like “The Executioner” series, which I read almost exclusively when I was young. This genre is actually hard to write, I discovered, as there are certain liberties one must take with reality, more so than you would expect, when you have a fellow like Mr. Pierce, the hero. People simply cannot go around shooting bad guys and blowing stuff up real good without somebody asking questions. On the flip side there is a strong emphasis on the characters and their relationships to one another, and I think that helps elevate the story from its genre limitations.

2:What inspired you to write about a vigilante?

I wanted to write about a hero who wasn’t a cop or a private eye; somebody who could wear the white hat but be totally independent from the usual cast of heroes in urban action stories. That meant a vigilante who had his own moral code and reasons for wanting to strike at criminals and help victims who have nowhere else to turn. The hero, a crime victim himself, takes every case personally as he’s trying to prevent the tragedy that happened to him from repeating with somebody else. Thus we have Mr. Pierce. He’s not totally alone, though, he does have two key allies in local law enforcement who are sympathetic to the cause and help clean up whatever messes he makes.

3:How is Justified Sins different from other books in the action genre?

The book is less about action and adventure and more about how wrong decisions, from the hero taking the law into his own hands to the villains and their schemes, seem right when they’re made, but don’t hold up over time. I think we can all identify with that. How often do we make excuses, and lousy excuses, really, for the poor choices we make? How many people have we hurt because of our selfishness? That’s what the book is about.

4:You also have another ebook available, Reaper’s Dozen. What can you say about that one?

Reaper’s Dozen is a collection of twelve short crime and mystery stories. It’s my valentine to the hard-boiled stories from Black Mask magazine, and it’s dedicated to the magazine’s most influential editor, Joe Shaw. Shaw and his stable of writers, which include Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Paul Cain and other big names, developed the American style of detective story as we know it today.

5: Both Reaper’s Dozen and Justified Sins have strong law enforcement elements. Do you have any connections in your local police department to give you such insight?

I don’t have any personal connections so for details like that I need to use the reporting skills I learned during my newspaper days. In the case of Justified Sins, I interviewed several drug enforcement agents to get the juicy details on the current state of the war on drugs. The war is far from being won, of course, and the agents were able to fill me in on some of the nastier elements which made it into the book, and the book is dedicated to those agents who gave me their time. They’re all hard-working people fighting a war nobody seems to want them to win. As for other details about police procedure and investigation, I have a bunch of books on that stuff so I just look things up.

6: Again both books have lots of different info on a large variety of firearms. Are you a gun enthusiast?

When I think of a gun enthusiast, I see somebody who has guns coming out his ears, and I have friends like that who buy a new gun every week. I like to shoot, but I only have a pair of personal weapons, so I don’t know if I’m in the “enthusiast” category. Is this the part where I mention that “gun control is six in the bull’s-eye”? Great. Got that out of the way, thanks. Next question.

7: Do you have any plans to bring back Pierce from Justified Sin to take part in any other stories? He is a very well developed character.

You’re not the only one to say you want more of Pierce; for now, all I can say is that Pierce appears in two of the short stories featured in Reaper’s Dozen, so that’s where you’ll have to get your fix for now. There was an entire subplot in the book that went deeper into his background, but I chopped it because somebody told me it was a little confusing and might be better as a stand-alone story. Now I’m not so sure that was the best decision because he’s becoming popular; also, I wound up using that material in another book since I didn’t expect I would write about Pierce again. However, since y’all seem to want him around, I will now have to come up with another angle to his character and do more with his story. I think the next obvious adventure is what he does when his identity and activities are discovered by a police detective who isn’t sympathetic to his cause. At the end of Justified Sins he’s in a position where he’ll be forced to grow emotionally, and I think that would be a good story, too.

8: I hear you have a spy thriller in the works. How is that coming along?

It’s almost done. In previous interviews I mentioned the book will be called The Eagle Intercept, but that’s no longer the case. I chose that title because I wanted something that was a throwback to the titles Robert Ludlum used to select for his books, but apparently I’m not the only one doing that, and I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle, so the title is now Heroes Wear Black, which, to me, is more provocative and hints at some of the story’s content. It’s about a pair of C.I.A. agents who have to determine whether or not the man who trained them—the father of one, the mentor of the other—has turned traitor. I didn’t want to churn out another kiss-kiss-bang-bang spy story. I almost didn’t want to do a spy story at all, until the family conflict presented itself. I don’t know any spies so I can’t identify with their world, but in Heroes Wear Black the spies are people with a job, and I have one of those and know other people who have jobs, too, so writing about people going to work made it an easy book to write. It just so happens that their job involves national security and a lot of kiss-kiss-bang-bang. I expect to have Heroes out by November.

9: What I like most about your stories is that you are thrown right into the action from the first paragraph, and the pace does not slow down from there. IfJustified Sins was to be made into a movie, who would you like to direct it?

Gosh, give me the easy question last, why don’t you. I have no idea, except that I hope this question goes from your mouth to God’s ears. I think the guy who has done the recent Batman movies (Christopher Nolan) would be a good choice, as I see Pierce as a Batman-Without-the-Costume. Bryan Singer is an amazing director and he would do a terrific job because I think he would dig into Pierce’s guarded emotional state and really make him a three-dimensional character. I think Singer would be my first choice. Maybe we can get Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects for Singer, to write the script. In fact, McQuarrie is a great director, too, so if he’s interested maybe he can do the job.

10:Where can we go to buy your books?

Both are available at the Amazon Kindle store and at Smashwords.Com. You can find direct links on my website, (, where I talk about books, writing, and whatever else life brings up.