Saturday, May 30, 2009

Razorback on the Run

Hogdoggin’ - the sport - is a vicious, bloody spectacle in which a wild boar is set upon and ripped apart by a company of ferocious dogs.

Hogdoggin’ - the book - is a vicious, bloody spectacle in which an outlaw, ex-policeman is set upon and torn into by a multitude of ferocious enemies.

In last year’s Yellow Medicine, after getting shitcanned from the force and divorced by his wife when he and his partner murdered a suspect in Mississippi during the wild west aftermath of Katrina, Billy Lafitte was pissing away his second chance as a deputy in Yellow Medicine County in the plains of Minnesota. His grift included regulating the local meth market and exchanging leniency on petty busts for sexual favors from young women when he ran afoul of some small time terrorists using the meth trade to fund their operation and the Homeland Security agent who is on their trail and believes Lafitte is a part of their operation. The collision of Lafitte, Agent Rome and the terrorists left a trail of bodies – several scumbags and all the innocents - and the climax of Yellow Medicine found Lafitte weighing his options, seriously considering suicide or going underground and running from the legacy of his misdeeds. It was a stunning end to a gripping book featuring the most compelling anti-hero in crime fiction since The Shield’s Vic Mackey.

Hogdoggin’ picks up about a year later and finds Lafitte serving as sergeant at arms to Steel God, the seemingly indestructible and charismatic leader of a biker cult currently roaming South Dakota. He’s pumped up on an anabolic steroid regimen that Steel God demands, cracking heads, digging shallow graves and finding it unsettling to be the least lawless among his companions, but he’s under the radar. Waaay under the radar.

Turns out Steel God is dying of cancer, but damned if he’d going to lay down for anyone. He’s going to lead the gang until somebody challenges and kills him for the privilege. He’d like that to be Billy.


The last thing Lafitte wants is any kind of spotlight. He’s still not sure he wants to live, let alone lead, especially when there are other mutinous elements within the gang waiting for their chance to kill the leader – whoever that may be – and ascend.

About this time, Lafitte receives a message. Franklin Rome, the demonically driven federal agent, still convinced he had the right man when his superiors let Lafitte go, is biding his time within his disciplinary post to New Orleans, secretly conducting a search for Lafitte and manipulating Billy’s unstable ex-wife to believe that Billy is coming after her. It’s an attempt to lure Lafitte out of hiding so transparent yet effective enough that within a day Billy is on the road solo, riding a turquoise hog toward hell on one front and away from its snapping jaws behind him.

On the way, he encounters local police, vigilantes, bounty-hunters and federal agents, none of whom can dissuade him from his purpose and all of whom will collect their literal pound of flesh.

Like Vic Mackey, Lafitte’s motivations shift quickly and sometimes imperceptibly between simple greed, love for his estranged family and dedication to an image of himself that he wants, more than anyone else, to believe in, but what trumps at every turn is survival. You just can’t stop Billy Lafitte’s instinct for self preservation. He is ashamed of himself and frightened by the depths he has sunk to, but can’t seem to climb out of the damned pit he’s dug, and opts for digging deeper, clinging to the shaky logic that he’s bound to pop out the other side soon.

After the comically twisted Psychosomatic and the love song for hair metal – The Drummer - Anthony Neil Smith has created a saga that both plays for real stakes and for keeps, without sacrificing an ounce of the smart assed and twisted sense of humor that has grown a cult around his writing and vision for noir/transgressive fiction.

Like YM, Hogdoggin’s climax leaves space for you to draw your own conclusions. Will there ever be another Lafitte novel? There’s compelling reasons to hope for either answer, but one of the strengths of the Lafitte series thus far is the unwillingness of the author to repeat the experience of the previous book. Hogdoggin’ is NOT Yellow Medicine II, it’s a stand out standalone tragedy of a bad man becoming worse and hoping for better. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions but the road home is paved with blood.

Monday is Hogdoggin' Monday - the day to make your purchase a statement.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Okay, I know Mr. Bill, (tee-hee I'll never get tired of that one, buddy), that is Frank Bill has posted a report regarding last night's inaugural St. Louis edition of Noir at the Bar over at the House of Grit and it's a fine happy piece, but let me tell you folks, no fewer than 10 fictional characters lost their lives in that hour and a half. One was raped! Some were bludgeoned with baseball bats or hammers, one burned alive. There was whoring, adultery, drug use, pissing of oneself, pornography and not a little name calling. Let's not even get into the language. Whew! Foul! I am sworn off the hard stuff for a spell. Gimme re-runs of 7th Heaven and Little House on the Prairie, please. One anecdote that's got to make the rounds, though. Wednesday night Anthony Neil Smith and Scott Phillips did a reading at Puddin Head books and Scott read from his yet to be published novel Rut, which deals with all the usual Phillips material, so it was a wee bit distracting when a group of four young, (like under ten) children came into the bookstore, (probably 8:30 by this time) while he was in the middle of a fairly profane depiction of human carnality. Clearly distracted, Scott stuttered a couple of times before resorting to various jack-off hand gestures while in ear shot, but out of eye line of the innocent children to relay the progression of the piece. The "censored" version of the story was pretty good, but for the rest of you, I hope you can read the real thing SOON. Tomorrow night Scott introduces Michael Connelly at the library and Sunday maybe I'll spend some time with my family. Monday is HOGDOGGIN' MONDAY. Vote with your pocket books and let the world know what you want, nay demand - solid, go for broke fiction that scares your parents.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Grease is the Word

Today Anthony Neil Smith brings his virtual motorcycle rally to HBW in support of his new novel Hogdoggin'. It kicks off ANS season over here. Over the next couple of weeks there'll be plenty of posts revolving around Smith's work and world, so get used to it. For those uninitiated in the rally, go over to Crime Dog One and catch up on the story, it's been wild.

In the Last Episode, Ed Pettit showed Lafitte how to have a gloomy good time.

The cook came out the back door carrying a bag of patty melts and his vat of chili saw Smith, the owner of the Virtual Dive Bar, and probably the biggest supporter of this mess of a Rally, hanging around the outskirts of the mob that had circled Steel God’s bike. He crossed his arms and peeked over shoulders, but wasn’t as worked up as the rest.

The cook asked, “Who’s he got?”

Smith stopped his pacing. “It’s Hot Guac. Guy who leads the Skull Patrol? Yeah, he’s not doing so good.”

The cook looked down into his vat. He saw his reflection in the pooling grease. “I was going to dish some of this out.”

Smith shook his head. “They’ll just chuck it up again after this show.”

The cook thought, Well, how is that different from any other day?

He set the vat down, shouted at one of his busboys who was watching the show, told him to take that shit inside. He didn’t want to. Wanted to see the guy get what was coming, deserved or not. Wanted to see some fucking blood, bossman.

But the cook threaten the kid’s job and his face, so he relented and hauled the chili back inside. The cook heard the kid spitting in it soon as he hit the door.

Back to the action. He said to Smith, “You want to get a better view?”

Smith cringed. “I’ve seen enough already. Last time, Guac didn’t look quite so bad, but at least his fingers still worked.”

The cook shrugged and bullied his way through most of his employees and regulars to get a front row view. The waitress he’d gone home with the week before--off-his-ass drunk, of course--didn’t want to let him through, but he slapped her ass, and she sighed like all the magic of last Thursday had bubbled up to the top of the soup again. She adjusted her ten-years out of fashion eyeglasses and stepped behind him, hand on his shoulder.

At the center of all this was Steel God, sitting on his Harley, calm as the wind that day, which was unusually gentle. Behind him, tied at the wrists with leather straps, now writhing on the ground, his back contorted, was the guy Smith called Hot Guac.

Steel God noticed the cook and grinned. “Hey, Cookie. Sorry to interrupt your breakfast crowd. I was hoping to use your grease trap.”

“What for?”

“Aw, just going to drown him, that’s all.”

Hot Guac was too far gone to react to that. He just rolled and groaned.

The cook shook his head. “I don’t think I can help you.”

The crowd all went, Awwww. Grumbled. Jake Oliver threw his coffee to the ground and stomped away. The crowd began to disperse.

The cook said, “What happened to you skullfucking him?”

“Man, I’m tired. And I don’t have the constitution to go ahead and pop the bad eye out. No, I guess it’ll be your food as the dick, fucking his mouth.”

“My food?”

Steel God ticked off points on his fingers. “Jesus, the only reason people eat here is that they’re drunk, they want an excuse to miss work, it’s easier than exercising, or it’s their first time. So go on in there and get me a couple of footlongs with that nasty chili sauce on them. On second thought, make it three, and some fries.

“No!” A newly energized Hot Guac finally spoke up. “I’m vegetarian! Don’t do that to me.”

“Fuck,” Steel God said. “I wouldn’t worry if I was you. Most of his dogs stopped being meat, legally, weeks ago.”


A smaller crowd waited around eating the cook’s patty melts, washed down with straight tequila to kill the germs, while he went inside the Hardboiled Wonderland and started the dogs on the grill. Only one of them had something fuzzy on it, so he chopped it off and went on, found a couple of non-greenish stale buns, and some chopped onion left over from the night before. With all the skill and style his father taught him, about the same time he warned him never to eat his own diner’s food, the cook whipped up two foot-long hot dogs, plated them, poured a cup of phlegmy, nuclear chili on top of both and carried them back out to the waiting Steel God.

It was not pretty.

Steel God grabbed Hot Guac’s hair and yanked it back hard, his head tilting backand his jaw dropping. He was pleading, beggin, but Steel God grabbed the first dog and shoved it into Guac’s mouth.

He thrashed left and right at first, sent chili flying everywhere. But Steel God kept it in there, even as the gagging started, and shouted, “Chew or choke, you motherfucker! Chew of choke!”

Eventually, the man chewed. He had a face full of mustard, chili, and drool by the end of it. He puked twice. But he ate both.

Steel God ventured inside to wash his hands, told the cook to keep an eye on the bastard, who was possibly the most pathetic and wretched soul the cook had ever seen.

“I think I just shit myself,” he said.

The cook crouched down, looked him in the eye. “Man, what did you do to him?”

Big smile. “I hired a chick to cut his junk off and deliver it to me. But she didn’t do it.”

“Why’d you do that?”

He shrugged, spit blood. “Thought it would make a nice trophy.”


“Look, it ain’t so bad. He’s going to keep this up for a while, but he won’t kill me.”


“Aw, man, he ain’t gonna kill me cuz, like everyone else, he’s dying to know what sort of shit I’ll come up with next.” He blew his cheeks out. “That ain’t settling right.”

“I’d get a shot if I were you. But listen--how can you top the dick thing? How can you top what he’s done to you?”

Hot Guac started laughing. A full-on belly laugh, rumbling up just as Steel God stepped back outside, walked over and mounted his bike.

Guac said, “As history has shown us, there’s always a way, my friend. It can always get worse.”

Steel God kicked off and shouted to the cook, “Put it on my tab!”
As they rode off, the waitress with the old glasses and the plain face but sweet little breasts and feet, sidled up to the Cook and said, “What the hell was going on with those two?”

The cook turned, slipped his arms around her. “You want to go inside and fuck in the walk-in freezer?”

Her face brightened. “Can I have a raise, too?”

“How about I lick your pussy instead?”

She shrugged. “Beats getting fired, I guess.”

Hand in hand, they walked back into the Hardboiled Wonderland.


Last year, Scott Phillips told me, “You’ve got to meet my friend Jed.” He was working at a bookstore at the time, and he was pushing my books big time. And then they started talking about this noir movie Mosquito Kingdom that Jed had written and acted in. Some low-budget wonder. So of course, I had to see it.

And, yeah, some of the acting is a bit rough. The editing is kind of weird. But overall, it’s a sweet little movie. The camerawork is beautiful, especially considering how cheap this was, and the story of an island purgatory for wayward criminals as a place to lay low, but they in fact discover they’re never supposed to leave, was a fantastic noir allegory. Ayres was able to weave several different threads together--the act that landed our protagonist on the island, all of the other castaways, their stories, how they tie into our hero’s tale--and give us several layers of that kept peeling off and revealing more.

So, yeah, great stuff. It went on to win Best Cinematography at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, and was invited to be shown at St. Louis international Film Festival.

Since seeing it, I then published Jed’s “Morning After” in Plots with Guns. I’m always surprised at how he is able to wring tense, atmospheric situations out of what seems like the most mundane moments of life:

Terry rooted through the pantry for kibble, but there wasn’t any. Beth hated the dog as an extension of him and she never bought it any food. He’d brought the puppy home the day before she came back from the hospital with their first born. He figured it was only fair. One for him, one for her.

Six months later, she’d given him the weekend to get his things out while she took the baby to visit her mother in Fayetteville. Layla whined and turned in circles as he pushed aside cans of corn and peas, green beans and Gerber bananas.

But then later in the story:

They burst through the front door with grocery bags over their heads, unable to see clearly unless they used one hand to hold the eyeholes gouged in their plastic masks flush to their faces. To compensate for limited vision, they turned their torsos continually in severe arcs with pistols drawn to cover the whole store.

“What’s good here?” shouted Cal as he grabbed the lone clerk by his shirt and planted the barrel of his gun under the young man’s chin. “Down on your fuckin’ knees, now.” Terry covered the store, rounding up a heavy set woman with a teenage daughter in tow and a swell-gutted man of about thirty with a camouflage ball cap on his dome.

How’d that happen?

And check out this bit from “Politoburg” in Thuglit:

You’ve been to Mexico once before, but this time had fuck all to do with Sammy
Hagar and margaritas. This was all dust and rocks and heat stroke, skin turning to leather and sunshine so intense, your balls disappear when you squint. The Sierra Madres hemming you in sounds good for a movie, but actually makes you feel like a fish in a bowl.

You make your way barefoot toward the only road around, trying like hell to
extract some nutrients from your cigarette. The dog carcass from the day before has disappeared from the roadside and you make a mental note not to chance Ramon’s stew today.

Other than the fact that it mentions Sammy Hagar in a favorable light (which I approve of in all stories), this also does a damned fine job of evoking mood, making damned sure I know this is the author’s world and I’m going to lose myself in it.

So we share a love of noir, exploitation movies, music, and we also have connections to evangelicalism that have shaped us. It’s no wonder that when I watch Mosquito Kingdom or read Ayres’s short stories, I feel I kindred spirit at work. I know this guy. I know why he writes this crazy fucked-up shit that he writes. And I want to read plenty more.

Vice versa, he’d probably tell you to read Hogdoggin’ too, so I’ll spare you the sales job and just shorthand it for you: HD MONDAY, 6/1 = ORDER/BUY HD.


Tomorrow--he’s got beer in one hand, a five wood in the other, and a rack of ribs in a third hand. Yes, I said three hands. It’s Victor Gischler.

On the Diner Speakers: Chagall Guevara, “Murder in the Big House”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Who in the Lou?

So I'm at the St. Louis County Library's fourth annual Suspense Night watching Reed Farrell Coleman raise a few bucks for the library to keep events like tonight's going, and he gets to an item that I could possibly bid on. Strapped for cash as I am, I've not even made a token bid on any of the items he and fellow panelists have donated for this informal auction, but now... now he holds up an ARC of Tower, the title he and Ken Bruen have collaborated on for Busted Flush, due out later in the year. What the hell, I'm gonna buy one any way, right? And it's a good cause right? But then there's this guy. This dude right in front of me opening the bidding at fifty bucks and taking it home for seventy-five. Fucker. Turns out he's my "friend" Rodney Wiethop from Crimespace. Crimespace is one of those social networking sites for ubernerds like me to rub elbows with the beautiful people and not much practical use, but hey, I'm there. I get "friend" requests sometimes and look at their profiles wondering what the hell steered them my way, but Rod's caught my eye. Rod knows his shit. We talked a lot about William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Craig McDonald, Tom Franklin and Daniel Woodrell. Turns out he's writing now too, looking forward to that, but I digress. WTF? Between tonight's event with RFC (who has the greatest voice), Scott Phillips (who wore and fielded questions on his WWED? - What Would Ed Gein Do? t-shirt... thanks Batfatty), SJ Rozan (who is even taller in person) and John Lutz (who wrote SWF Seeks Same that the movie Single White Female was based on - that one where Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh get naked - no the other one, directed by Barbet Schroeder), next week's Noir at the Bar with Anthony Neil Smith, Mr. Phillips and Frank Bill and May 30th's appearance of Michael Connelly suddenly there's a bit to do. Not complaining, mind you, but damn. Speaking of Connelly, Terril Lee Lankford has been directing short adaptations of the first chapters of Mike's books as they're released for a few years now and the latest, The Scarecrow is up now. Yeah, there's not much money in them, but they're true to the books and beat the crap out of Bloodwork. And speaking of Lankford, go read Shooters, or Earthquake Weather or somethin. Stay inside, it's too sunny outdoors.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Here's To You, Mrs. Robinson

Last night I stopped in to Subterranean Books in the Delmar Loop and found perched upon their shelf Sex, Thugs and Rock & Roll, the new anthology from Todd Robinson and the crew over at Thuglit. I picked it up and sniffed the pages - a hint of Bactine - and cracked the spine. I found my own story sandwiched between Allan Guthrie and Richard J. Martin Jr. What a gas. Anybody looking to blot out the oppressive sunshine this summer with some shady characters would do well to pick it up. There are other nuggets of unwholesome goodness from folks who've been awfully kind to HBW - Greg Bardsley, Jordan Harper, Patricia Abbott and Anthony Neil Smith who'll be in St. Louis May 27&28 to promote the release of Hogdoggin' and read Thusday night for Noir at the Bar at the Delmar Lounge with Scott Phillips and Frank Bill - c'mon, Frank, you can do it - this is meth country - you can drive all night and still be frosty for work the next morning. Am I off the track? ST&R&R also features Jonas Knutsson, Justin Porter, Albert Tucher, Joe R. Landsdale, D.T. Kelly, Daniel Hatadi, Marcus Sakey, Steven M. Messner, Hugh Lessig, Lyman Feero, Gary Carson, Matthew Baldwin and Jason Starr whose new book Panic Attack is available for a FREE PDF download from the Macmillan Trade Publishers' web site, (only for a few more days - do it now). ST&R&R comes with an introduction by the scary-bright Sarah Weinman and a touchy-feely note from Big Daddy Thug himself. He's gotten so cuddly since Lady Detroit made an honest man out of him. Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

I cannot effing believe I forgot to mention SCOTT WOLVEN has a story in ST&R&R. Scott is so badass. Get thee a copy of Controlled Burn and memorize it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Craig's List - the Interview

Part two of the McDonald posts.

Craig McDonald knows more than you do. Forget it, he does. In the forward to Craig’s first book, Art in the Blood, Ken Bruen says of McDonald, “I read him, mutter…the hell do I know?” His books drip with the details and insights about art, literature, film and history you’ll be passing off as your own at parties the rest of your life. But they are not bloodless scholarly tomes. Oh, no. He packages all that into crime novels so doggone entertaining you’ll finish without realizing you’ve been educated. His stories spin a wild tapestry of twentieth century history with, (what else?), a writer at the center of it all. But Hector Lassiter is far more than some pulp fiction Forrest Gump, bumping into Elvis here or JFK there, bumbling his way through popular culture and world events, he’s a rich fictional creation full of conviction and contradiction. Craig’s new book is Rogue Males.

You made a name for yourself in crime lit circles as a journalist and interrogator first. Which came first for you, the desire to write fiction or write about it?

Definitely to write fiction. I first tried to write a crime novel when I was nine. I wrote some short stories that verged on hardboiled crime fiction whose content concerned my third-grade teacher enough to warrant a parent-teacher conference. I actually wrote a couple of crime novels in the early 1990s, came close to getting an agent a few times with those, then got married, had children and set fiction writing aside for a few years.

About 2000, I was approached by the editor of the Australian crime fiction magazine Crime Factory to interview some American crime writers for the zine. I started with James Ellroy, and went on from there. I also began posting long-form Q&As with interview subjects on my own website, then later adapting those same online interviews for occasional newspaper articles. But my eye was always on writing novels and I was writing my own novels again while conducting all those interviews.

Does that third grade teacher still live in your fiction?

No, I’ve never used my teacher and probably never will…she’s just not going to fit comfortably into my fictional milieu.

Who would have influenced you at nine years old?

My grandfather had a basement full of paperback thrillers, crime novels and some deeper stuff, like Nelson Algren and Calder Willingham. He also had stacks of magazines: Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine…Argosy and the like. Those were packed with short stories by Ian Fleming and articles about Jack the Ripper and the Cleveland Torso Slayer, so I was reading all that exceptionally lurid stuff years ahead of when I probably should have. He also turned me onto the Bantam paperback reprints of the Doc Savage pulps. The first of those I read was The Land of Terror, probably the bloodiest book in the series, and one of the two in which the title character actually killed people, and pretty indiscriminately…I was about 7 or 8 when I read that one, and was hooked on the series, and pulp lit, like that.

The descriptions characters give to reading Hector's stories sound awfully similar to your account of reading The Land of Terror.

I hadn’t made the connection until you pointed it out, but The Land of Terror may well lie behind The Land of Dread and Fear, which is Hector’s then-most-recent novel that so many other characters comment upon throughout Head Games — a novel so dark and turbulent it leaves many around Hector unsettled… A novel too dark to ever become a movie, as Hector puts it. The kind of running theme through the Lassiter series in terms of other people’s reaction to Hector’s work is one of fascination and mild frustration. They find Hector’s fiction gripping and evocative and the characters very involving and well drawn, yet they feel Hector has abilities that recommend him for more literary undertakings…that his crime writing is somehow slumming.

As the series unfolds, and I think you get this very strongly in the third novel, Print the Legend which will be out early in 2010, we see Hector was in Paris in the 1920s and started down the path of literary fiction. Print the Legend is largely set in 1965, and as the 1960s are getting on, Hector is starting to come around to the notion that keeps being thrust in his face — that he should maybe try to write a very different kind of book.

Is that something you "wrestle" with? Hector seems more than a little contemptuous of the notion.

No, I was always going to be the writer I am. I firmly believe that and with the benefit of hindsight, I can look back and see how all the dots connect and I see no other path but the one I’m on.

Hector fronts occasional contempt for the notion, but it digs at him because he did set out down a different path early on, as did a few crime writers of his era. Cornell Woolrich’s first novel was not in genre and in fact drew favorable comparisons with Fitzgerald’s work. Writers of Hector’s era, these kind of man’s man writers like Hemingway, also struggled with the notion that something as intellectual as writing was a less than macho means of making a living. They all tended to disparage their own trade to varying degrees. Hemingway was the most extreme example of that tendency probably, with the sports fishing, the boxing, the big game hunting, et al. At the end of the day, Hem was a neurotic, probably bi-polar guy with a bum leg, bad eyes, chronic ill-health and a vast library of books.

Hector’s self-effacement can’t be taken at face value. Print the Legend runs him up against a mountain town full of literary scholars and academics and it forces Hector to a rather disarming reappraisal of his career.

So then, how far ahead, (or behind) have you got Hector defined? Will the series climax with Black Jack Pershing or Hector's conception?

Well, I conceived it as a seven-book series and wrote them all before we sold numbers three and four. I had my own sequence in mind, but my new editor at St. Martin’s acquired what I envisioned as the last two books in the series. That said, I’m working on a World War II take on Hector now, but that would definitely be the last I’d attempt with him. So, definitely, seven books by my plan; and just maybe eight…and then we’re done with him.

Not knowing in what sequence they’ll eventually appear, I can’t really tell you how the last book might play at this point. All I call tell you about what’s ahead is that after Print the Legend, we move to 1958 Nashville for a Hector-narrated tale that will return several key characters from Head Games. That one is coming from Minotaur, probably in fall of 2010 and is called Gnashville, Mon Amour. Beyond that, there’s one novel set in one week in Paris in 1924. That one leads into a novel set in 1925 Key West. After that, there’s a 1950 take on the Kefauver hearings and the Ohio mob. And then, maybe, Hector’s escapades in World War II. Getting those others out there will really depend on reader interest in the next two coming from Minotaur Books. In my mind, it’s really all one big novel.

Between the first two books, the tone shifted dramatically from the hard-charging pulpy tilt of HG to a more melancholy and meditative T&T. Can we expect that from the rest of the series?

You can expect ongoing tonal shifts from one novel to the next. I’m very much committed to not giving you the same ride two books in a row. I think a critical problem with too many series is a willingness on the part of the authors to coast, or to advance their characters’ arcs at a kind of glacial pace. Some series writers — and their readers, to be fair — are apparently willing to accept essentially the same book under a different title. For my part, I’m committed to thwarting expectations with succeeding installments in the Lassiter series. The next one is perhaps a bit closer in feel to Toros & Torsos — Megan Abbott calls the third one “epic” — but it’s still a very different kind of book and its mood and tone are very much its own. The fourth, Gnashville, returns Hector to the role of narrator, and its pace and feel are a bit closer to Head Games, but it’s in no way “Son of Head Games.”

Depending on the journey Hector’s undertaking in a particular installment, it may be dark, wistful or exhilarating coming into the final turn of each novel. Even the darkest of the Lassiter books have a running thread of black humor. In Print the Legend, Hector is 65; he’s reached the apex of his celebrity and he’s outlived friends and family. Yet he’s hungry and restless and the writer in him is stirring in new and unexpected ways.

There was a graphic adaptation of Head Games being discussed and that's a transition that sounds doable — it's harder to imagine T&T as a graphic work. Is that something you consider as you write?

The graphic novel of Head Games is still coming. I wrote the script for that sometime ago, and it’s in the pipeline somewhere. Although it’s a bigger book, I think I could adapt T&T a bit more easily than HG, oddly enough. One of the challenges with Head Games is that so much happens in Hector’s head, and the plot is advanced by newspaper clippings, magazine articles and by text-heavy elements of that sort. It’s kind of the Watchmen problem in that sense — story elements that are critical but firmly outside a strictly image-based medium. T&T is pretty conventional in its story form compared to HG…it unfolds through action and dialogue.

But no, I don’t think of the novels as anything but novels as I write them. I’m not considering how they might or might not adapt to graphic novel format, or to film. The one effect other formats has had on me in terms of writing or editing these novels stems from the unabridged audio recordings of the Lassiter series being made by Recorded Books. I got exactly the reader for Head Games that I wanted — Tom Stechschulte. He also reads No Country for Old Men and The Road, as well as providing the narration for the Watchmen Motion Comic. Now, when I write or edit Hector, I hear Tom’s version of his voice. T&T will be released on audio later this year.

Which interests you more with this series, creating a three dimensional fictional character or telling the story of the twentieth century?

There’s definitely an intertwining of 20th-Century “under-history” and Hector Lassiter’s biography that fires this series. He was born on January 1, 1900 and came in with the century. So far as the historical stuff goes, I’m essentially trying to depict how pop culture and art might drive what we take for history. But not all of the books are built around historical events. The one set in Paris in the 1920s, in particular, has no historical roots, but it is dense with historical figures.

All that “real” stuff aside, my primary concern is with Hector and exploring him fully as a character. If I succeed in my job, when it’s all there for you, you’ll have a complex, multifaceted character who I’d hope seems strangely missing from the actual history books and biographies pertaining to the real events and people who populate this series. For me, always — always — the focus is on Hector as a man and a writer.

Hector recoils at the suggestion that he writes mysteries, but T&T contained a lot of classic mystery elements.

Yeah, it’s a sore point with Hector. He much prefers “crime writer.” But then think of the kinds of “mysteries” his stuff was up against in various phases of his career…a lot of stuff in the 1930s-70s was insultingly puerile and all of it, high and low, was called “mystery” writing.

As to Toros & Torsos, yes, it does contain some mystery elements, some of it for storytelling reasons, and some of it getting back to some of the post-modern undertow that runs through the series.

For my part, I see no reason a mystery or crime novel can’t also work as a piece of literature. A few reviewers have actually treated Toros & Torsos as a literary work; others, including George Pelecanos, called it “genre bending.” Print the Legend, I think — and early readers are so far confirming this — actually leans more in the direction of a literary thriller, and pushes the boundaries of genre a good bit farther than T&T did. But in the end, and I say this as a former book reviewer, tags and genre designations are useful for literary page editors and for bookstores and libraries in terms of where to shelve a book, and that’s about it.

So what about the shelving situation? Does it please or irritate you where and in what company you find your stuff kept/marketed/reviewed?

Nah, it is what it is. In most bookstores, I’m in the mystery section. The independent store here in town has me shelved in fiction, alongside Cormac McCarthy. I did have the recent experience of walking into a Barnes & Noble and finding Head Games in the mystery section, and Toros in the fiction section, in the same bookstore. Really, I’m thrilled to have the books stocked, period. And given the speed with which newspapers are dying, it’s just really terrific to be reviewed.
What about life after Hector?

As I said, the graphic novel is in the pipeline. Head Games was just published in Russia. It will be out this fall in France and soon, Japan. Then I have some non-Hector novels. I also have other projects in reserve including a more contemporary series I wrote a few years back that has some character overlap with Hector’s world… That guy’s name-checked in the next Hector. We’ll see how the world turns.

This May brings Rogue Males: Conversations & Confrontations About the Writing Life from Bleak House Books. It’s my second interview collection and Bleak House’s first foray into nonfiction. It effectively marks the end of my nonfiction work. It’s a much scrappier interview collection than the first, Art in the Blood. This book has one of James Crumley’s last interviews…Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Andrew Vachss, Craig Holden, Pete Dexter, Daniel Woodrell and my favorite living songwriter, Tom Russell, among others.

The heart of the book is a longish narrative about my trip to Arizona to interview James Sallis and Ken Bruen. I was about halfway through writing Head Games, put it aside for a few weeks, reread all of Sallis’ books, all of Ken’s, then flew to the desert to plumb their minds on the craft of crime writing. I came back, wrote up the piece, then finished Head Games. For me, at least, Head Games, and the Sallis/Bruen essay are pretty much of a piece.

So, aside from five as yet unpublished Hector books, you've got how many completed novels sitting around waiting?

I haven’t counted and I think the exercise of doing that would be both depressing and frightening. But there are some standalones, new and older…and pretty much another series. Best to leave it at that.

Just seems like a hell of a work ethic. Obviously, you didn't write one then wait for someone to pick it up... let it be rejected over and over...

I believe it’s like so many other things in this life — overcoming the law of averages. So I treat it as a numbers game and a war of attrition. Short stories or novels, you finish one, best you can, and start another. Give it to your agent and cross your fingers. Keep your head down and write.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Got Male?

There’s an interesting progression to the release of books written by Craig McDonald. The first, Art in the Blood (PointBlank 2006), was an enthusiastic collection of well researched and executed interviews of crime writers that achieved some real moments of insight to our favorite hacks. Then, skipping second base all together, Hector Lassiter had his fictional fingers under the panty line of pulp fans everywhere before we could play coy, and Head Games (Bleak House 2007) scored much deserved Edgar, Anthony and Gumshoe noms. In the excitement that followed the nominations, Craig’s next collection of interviews was pushed back to make way for a second date with Lassiter. We thought we were up for another roll with Hec, but having our virtue secure in his trophy case, Toros and Torsos, (Bleak House 2008) turned down the lights. It was a more measured pace, darker and moodier than its predecessor. Hector made us a bit nervous when he smiled, sadder when he cried and the author who “lives what he writes and writes what he lives” gave us a good dose of tragedy too. Rogue Males, like T&T is weightier than the first and, especially when read after the other books, leaves between its pages, an after-image of the author himself. This time around, McDonald is a presence, not just a prompt, and his subjects respond to him as a peer. We feel we’re hanging out backstage with the bands while they compare notes on clubs, groupies and record companies. His return subjects, James Ellroy, Ken Bruen and Lee Child, go even deeper and more candid than the first time around and the late James Crumley reminds us what we lost when he passed last year. The chapters are duets, the subjects placed beneath a title, (Kith & Kin, Duty & Honor) and beside a counterpart (Daniel Woodrell and Alistair MacLeod, Max Allan Collins and Stephen J. Cannell). A few trivial things even a casual read will reveal about Craig: he likes Deadwood, Ernest Hemingway and Tom Russell, the musician whose tunes are often, “noir set to music.” In the section titled Troubadours, Russell talks about Charles Bukowski, the internet and the overlap of fiction, film, painting and music, and Kinky Friedman, amidst the hoopla of his Texas gubernatorial bid comes down to earth, far, far closer to the ground than John Williams could coax him in Back to the Badlands, (Serpent’s Tail 2007). For the last section of the book, McDonald narrates a trip he took to Arizona to meet with and bring together two of his heroes, Bruen and James Sallis, (two of the four authors he claims had him on page one – Ellroy and Woodrell completing the quartet). During the summit they pick up Patrick Millikin and Dennis McMillan for a late night in a Mexican restaurant that sounds like a cross between the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs and My Dinner with Andre, except nobody ends up shot or bored to death. Of course the drawback for some readers with a collection like this is the stronger attraction to some subjects than others, but you would be short-changing yourself to skip it for those reasons, or to read it selectively or out of chronology, because McDonald pulls off a neat trick here. The subjects are hand picked and arranged with precision to produce that after-image of the author, that silhouette that becomes more discernable with each successive chapter and book. With their areas of overlap and the emerging themes of the conversations, it’s more confessional than biographical, revealing a portrait of the artist as a young fan and offering a mirror dimly for others who respond to the work and the words to recognize something of themselves. We get the feeling from his stated intentions to retire from these interviews, that come face to face with the writers that have inspired his own craft and having achieved a peer relationship, McDonald turns now to his own fiction and the daunting benchmarks left by this collective. He quotes Ernest Hemingway in the introduction. “As you get older, it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What Do They Do Then?

This is a slight expansion of the Friday's Forgotten Books post I put up at Patricia Abbott's blog last week... it is the laziest blog post ever.

James Ross produced only one novel in his life, They Don’t Dance Much, 1940, but damned if he didn’t make it count. It’s tough and dirty, funny as hell and it deserves to be read.

“’Okay.” He said. ‘Pull off his shoes.’ While I was taking off his shoes Smut picked up the tongs that were standing beside the fireplace …He put the coal to Bert’s right foot, just above the toes… I wished we could think up some other way of making money.”

So says Jack, the down on his luck farmer, who takes a job from an old school mate with ambitions, and goes along for the ride, or descent. Smut Milligan has got plans for revamping his filling station into a roadhouse with dancing, gambling and hourly rate cabins out back, to attract the money falling from the pockets of hosiery mill workers outside of Corinth on the North/South Carolina border. He also has designs on an old flame, married now to a wealthy man in town. Smut brings Jack on as an employee at the roadhouse and later as a partner in something darker when the flow of money isn’t fast enough to suit his plans. And Jack lets himself be led into trespasses we wouldn’t have believed him, (ourselves), capable of, without much resistance. Then things get sticky.

Fans of Jim Thompson or Charles Willeford will recognize the world view stripped of sentimentality and find that the account of a murder at the plot’s center is still, (seventy years on), shocking and horrific as the disposal of the body is disgusting and hilarious, (this shine taste funny to you?). The book lives in the details and consequences of the actions taken and not, refreshingly so, in stopping the fiends.

I like Raymond Chandler as much as the next guy, but sometimes I wonder what things would look like now without the inescapable influence and legacy of his moralistic and sentimental trappings. They might look something like They Don’t Dance Much which Chandler himself called “a sleazy, corrupt, but completely believable story.” High praise indeed.

Beyond entertaining and provoking me, it taught me a great deal about writing – specifically all the things I do wrong. What things? You’ll have to read it, and me, yourself. I read it only last year for the first time and have gone back to it physically and psychologically countless times since. In another ten years, I imagine I’ll have it memorized.

My main man Scott Phillips turned me on to some amazing books in the last year and none more so than TDDM. There's an afterword in the edition I read by George V. Higgins and it's worth the price of admission alone. George goes OFF on prudes in literature and their choke-hold on culture... No wonder people don't read more. He praises James Ross for telling it like it was from within the confines of the day's publishing standards. It's a nasty, nasty tale, full of gnarly characters who speak and live in a salty way and Ross's delivery of their story is brutal, yet restrained, or hobbled, as George puts it, by the censors of good taste. There's a tendency to look upon the past as either a golden age so far superior to our own, or with contempt for it, as a time of naivete about the state of humanity. This snobbery of chronology, (which is more cynical - dismissive flipness or nostalgia?) blinds us to the greatness of our own times as well as the enormous blind spots we nurture until the sheer weight of our collective leaning collapses them and it robs us of appreciating some damn good stuff from today and yesterday alike. I wish Ross had produced more because his was a powerful, incisive voice, but perhaps, as Higgins recalls, the disappointment of the non-event of the original publication put to rest any other ambitions for fiction. (To paraphrase) The book came out and no one noticed. No one noticed.