Pulp Fiction: On the Bayfront

November 21st, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Pulp Fiction: On the Bayfront

They skulked into my office like Dodger fans the day Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard ’round the world. Guy and his frail, both pulling faces. The mug must have lifted weights in his sleep. The dame had killer legs and a top that couldn’t contain her enthusiasm.

Neither could I.

“You Doyle?” muscles said, his voice tight as a dog collar.

I checked the black letters on the door. “Can Judy Garland sing?”

Popeye mouthed a cigarette. Tough baby.

“Take a load off,” I said, and we did the introductions. Dutch Malone worked the Navy Yard. Helga Nordmann worked on me. Her blue eyes could cut glass. Two kids squatting in a cold-water walkup in Bay Ridge. Out of money and out of luck.

Helga cracked her gum. “We got trouble.”

“So does Korea,” I said.

“Somebody’s trying to kill me.”

I smiled. “Now that’s a crime.”

Jeff Widmer

You can see this entry in the New York Times pulp fiction contest at this link.

The infectious prediction of thrillers

October 17th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
The infectious prediction of thrillers

Some writers land in the right place at the right time. Others anticipate, showing us what life might look like in a few years if things go horribly wrong. Many of the near-futurists build their plots on epidemics. Bob Reiss (Black Monday) did it with oil. Patricia Gussin (Weapon of Choice) does it with biologics.

In Gussin’s novel, published in 2012 but set in 1985, thoracic surgeon Dr. Laura Nelson gets caught in a medical and bureaucratic firestorm when a fast-moving staph infection spreads through her hospital at the same time the facility receives its first AIDS patient. Aside from delivering a decent thriller, the author shows what happens when antibiotic-resistant infections spread, and how hospitals and agencies such as the CDC must work quickly to contain the disease.

Weapon-of-Choice-3DSince Gussin is not only a physician but the former vice president of consumer pharmaceuticals at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, she writes with great detail . . . and frightening authority. Frightening because people can use these microbes as weapons.

All of which leads us to the latest crisis in healthcare, the threat of an Ebola pandemic. People worry about travel and transmission. Writers evoke images of the plague. Institutions scramble to contain, treat and reassure.

In Gussin’s book, she details CDC protocols for isolation and decontamination. Have they improved since 1985? Do they work as well in airports as they do in books?

When you look into the near future, what do you see?

The secret life of writers

October 14th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
The secret life of writers

For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.

In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.

In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.

Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.

How far would you go to hid something from your past?

Keeping the novel above stall speed

September 24th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Keeping the novel above stall speed

A novel is a little like a small prop plane. Fly too fast and the scenery blurs. Fly too slow and the plane stalls.

Take the pop fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s by authors like Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Some of those books streaked through plot as if it were aerial combat. Then there are writers like Martha Grimes, who tie down the wings for the night to give the reader insight into the life of a dog and two cats on the village green.

Others, like Robert B. Parker, Margaret Coel and J.A. Jance, alternate between action and reflection in short bursts designed to add depth while holding course.

I got to thinking about pace in mystery and suspense fiction after reading novels by Julia Keller and Iris Johansen. Keller’s A Killing in the Hills crackles with excitement while providing detailed portraits of her characters and their small town in West Virginia. At the other end of the pop-fiction spectrum, Johansen’s On the Run races through character and description to focus on the physical aspects of criminal and romantic pursuit. (Johansen does slow the pace in the middle of the book to create backstory, motivation and a simmering feud between the two romantic leads.) Both novels soar, just at different rates.

I generally give a book 60 pages. If the story hasn’t taken off by then, I’ll pull the ripcord. But that benchmark varies by author, genre and style.

When it comes to reading and writing, what’s your speed?

15 seconds of fame . . . in march time

September 10th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
15 seconds of fame . . . in march time

John Philip Sousa III unfolded himself from the director’s chair on a grassy hill in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, and looked back to his childhood. “I paid no attention to it at all,” he said of the grand marches written by his famous grandfather. He went to work as a publisher and forgot about the legacy until he assumed the leadership of the Sousa Foundation.

A few decades ago I met Sousa’s grandson at a concert in his honor and wrote about the patriotic music. And then I forgot about it, too. Until I became a member of WRTI-FM, the classical and jazz station in Philadelphia, and started listening to Gregg Whiteside and the Sousalarm. Every weekday precisely at 7:15 a.m. Gregg plays a march by Sousa and others. If you send him an email he’ll induct you into the Sousalarm Club and mail you a certificate.

Man Behind the Gun sheet musicFor me, he played “The Man Behind the Gun,” a march Sousa wrote in 1899. (The title is more ominous than the music. Sousa wrote the march as part of a larger musical called “Chris and the Wonderful Lamp.”

The march, the certificate. . . . At first you feel a little embarrassed. Then you remember the good parts of childhood, the joy of listening to bright music on a dark morning, the pep bands and parades. And then there is the guilty pleasure of hearing your name on the radio, of succumbing to the subtle lure of public approval.

In a world of instant media, 15 minutes of fame has shrunk to 15 seconds. Still, a little brightness, no matter how short-lived, is reason to celebrate. So put on your marching shoes and step lively. The band’s about to play.

Scene of the crime: the character of place

September 3rd, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Scene of the crime: the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The long-running summer series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller cities and towns—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international cities—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As summer draws to an end in North America, the spots serve as a sweet treat for readers who like to investigate their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

August 25th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

What makes Chris Grabenstein’s Down the Shore novels so entertaining? I think it’s the voice he chooses to tell the stories.

Iraq war veteran John Ceepak is a police officer in the town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. With a code of ethics as strong as a gun barrel, he’s clearly the hero. But Grabenstein chooses to filter the fluff and drama of beach life through the eyes of 24-year-old Danny Boyle. A part-time police officer who likes to impress his friends, Doyle plays the role of the post-adolescent, alternating between irreverent and respectful, hopeless and hip.

With a quick eye for contrast, Danny becomes the perfect filter for all that is crass and criminal during summer at the Jersey Shore. He’s Watson, Hastings and Natalie Teeger rolled into one. Ceepak forms the strong moral core of the books, but it is Danny’s voice that resonates long after the saltwater taffy is gone.

What do you think? Is the hero the best narrator for mystery and suspense novels or the sidekick?

For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

August 18th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

I don’t usually appreciate head-hopping in novels. The author gains a global perspective but sometimes sacrifices intimacy and suspense—when we see everything in real time, the heroine’s discoveries don’t always land with the same impact.

Unless the author is Margaret Coel. In The Perfect Suspect, the author makes a good case for the technique, employing it to craft a book with perfect pace. Using duel points of view, that of the killer and the investigator, she lights the candle at both ends . . . and we’re happy to watch it burn.

The plot involves the murder of a candidate for governor in Colorado. The point of view shifts from the killer, a female police detective by the name of Ryan Beckman, to a journalist, Catherine McLeod, as each races to track the other. By alternating POV, Coel not only illuminates their motives but sets the two on a course that can’t help but result in a collision. It’s a heady rush to a satisfying end.

What do you think? When you read or write fiction, are two heads better than one?

For Vanessa Munroe, the menace within

August 12th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
For Vanessa Munroe, the menace within

Many reviewers compare Taylor Stevens’ Vanessa Michael Munroe to Stieg Larsson’s hacker Lisbeth Salander. But I think Munroe owes some of her literary genes to one of the original cyberpunks, William Gibson.

In 2003’s Pattern Recognition, Gibson gives us cool-hunter Cayce Pollard and a head-rush culture addicted to self and fueled by anxiety. In Stevens’ first Munroe novel, The Informationist, the author presents a character who polishes her paranoia like a talisman. We find a similar theme in Larsson’s dragon tattoo trilogy, where the government Salander trusts becomes the monster of betrayal. All three vacuum information for a living.

Gibson, most famous for computer mind-meld books like Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, uses the digital world to portray disorientation and chaos. Stevens uses water and dirt to create the claustrophobic feel of corruption and pursuit. Different characters, different settings, yet books with surprising menace from the very people assigned to protect us.

Do we recognize a pattern?

The mystery within

August 8th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
The mystery within

I’m staring at a mug I bought at a craft show in 2008. The potter has glazed the outside in muted blues and greens and let the speckled brown surface show in faint rows. It is a serviceable piece.

Inside, the colors burst from the sides, washing over circles like watercolor, changing hue and depth as they flow.

I have a bowl like that. We use it to hold fruit. On the outside it looks utilitarian. On the inside, the colors explode. We see the outside daily. We notice the inside only when we clean the bowl.

Why do potters hide their best work? Comments are open.