31 December 2009


I woke up far too early on this the last day of 2009. I was somewhat compensated, however, by the view from the bedroom window of the moon setting over the Hollywood Hills. Groggily, I went for my camera:

28 December 2009



I don't like Top Ten lists. For one, I usually have more or less than that to go on the list. For two, I tend to see most things in a bewildering array of shades of gray. For three, I break things down into an enormous number of concise categories. (Not just "books." Not even just "mysteries." Not even "mysteries," "thrillers," "literary fiction," "non-fiction," etc. I'd have to have dozens of Top Ten lists and I don't have the time, or the inclination.) For four, some of my favorite things came out prior to this past year and I just now got around to them.

So here's some stuff I liked this year. (Don't worry, to maintain my somewhat cranky reputation I'll get to some stuff I didn't like, below.)

Among the books I especially liked, loved even, were:

INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, Luis Alberto Urrea. It was fun, allegorical, magnificently written, smart as all get out, political, sexual, social and about nearly anything and everything worth giving a damn about. The beautiful, but not sappy, side of the human condition.

BEIJING COMA, Ma Jian. One of the most depressing, disturbing, fantastically written novels I have ever read. It is awfully hard to think anything kindly about China after reading this book. It is about the ugly, brutal, avaricious side of the human condition. Dostoevsky would have been proud to have written it.

THE KINDLY ONES, Jonathan Littell. Okay, another depressing novel. And really gross and hard to read in places, too. The fictional argument for Hannah Arendt's "Banality of Evil." Makes you think about things you probably don't want to think about.

MIRRORS, Eduardo Galeano. A history of the world through snippets of biography, memoir and quotes from people who are real, mythological and no one knows for sure. Wildly entertaining, easy to read, and thought-provoking.

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, Bill Bryson. Extremely amusing and informative. Intelligent science for us non-scientists.

I tend to avoid too much pimping of my friends' books, even though I buy and read all of them, or as many as I can. I'm sure to forget someone. Sometimes I might not like a friend's book (as they might not like mine) and so I don't feel like I can be honest. And, well, at this point I know too many fellow writers. I have a hard enough time keeping up with my own blather on this blog.

But, that said, I do want to add my voice to the growing chorus that is singing the praises of the first novel by Sophie Littlefield, A BAD DAY FOR SORRY. It is one very damn fine read from a writer who I know works harder at her craft than many of the rest of us; certainly more than myself. I'm looking forward to her future books.

I liked some movies this year, too, but for the most part I think it was a lousy year for movies, so I'm having a tough time remembering them. Not that many appealed to me, so I didn't see as many as usual. Among the ones I do recall are:

THE HURT LOCKER. About as suspensful and riveting a movie as I have ever seen. I got so wound up watching it that I felt like I had to do stretches and take deep breaths when I got out of the theater.

THE HANGOVER. It was funny - even the second time. (I saw it again at Thanksgiving with my family.) And I find so few comedies actually funny, that that was enough. But it was smart, too, and somewhat sabotaged it's genre - which I appreciated.

That's about it, at least that I can recall. I tried jarring my memory by looking at the current rash of Top Ten lists online, but I just didn't see much that I loved at the movies this year.

On the other hand, this is the year that I finally decided television is capable of being a whole lot better than movies. I think this is because of the medium itself. Most movies are anywhere from 90 to 130 minutes long. That has nothing at all to do with artistic or storytelling decisions. It has to do with the fact that in the past movie theaters were set up to best handle films that involved a certain number of reels of film, and that they also need to squeeze in a certain number of showings per day to make a profit. (And overpriced popcorn and sodas, of course.) That severely limits the amount of character and plot development any movie can engage in. In some cases, it's a good thing. Too many movies are already too long.

But I have come to see movies as the equivalent of short stories - no matter how big their scope. While television series can stretch out, much like a novel. Perhaps that is a reason why the best movies adapted from previously published works, tend, with a few exceptions, to come from short stories, rather than novels.

I read, and enjoy, and write, more novels than short stories. So here's some of the television series that I have most unabashedly enjoyed in the past year:

BREAKING BAD. As dark, complex, bleak and yet at times funny as anything I have ever read or seen.

MAD MEN. Ditto, but also about the very human struggle against the brain-numbing responsibilities of daily and family life.

BIG LOVE. Sexual and religious politics to the max. A Shakespearean drama that has the ability to make me squirm.

UGLY BETTY. I dunno, I just like it. I think it's smart, funny, charming, touching and sometimes makes some pretty good points.

THE BIG BANG THEORY. The only half-hour sitcom I have ever liked this much. Very smart, very funny, politically incorrect. If laughing really is good for you, this show is medicine for me.

Okay, I could go on and on and on if I wanted: music, websites, restaurants, art shows, etc. But enough's enough.

Here's a short, incomplete list - in no particular order - of some (domestic only) things I didn't like this year:

The Supreme Court
Big financial institutions
Many unions
Glen Beck
Keith Olbermann
All TV "news"
Sherlock Holmes - the movie.
Bored To Death - tv series.
American Airlines
About 77.8 percent of what I see on Twitter
Celebrity obsession
Bob Dylan's Xmas album
"Reality TV" (other than Top Chef, which I have a weakness for.)
A Prairie Home Companion
The NY Yankees

There's plenty more where those came from, but it's time to wrap up this year end wrap up.

I hope, as I always hope, that next year is better. Although on the whole, for me at least, this year's been pretty good.

18 December 2009


Not exactly, not really. I stayed on the Strip at the Wynn Encore. I walked up and down the Strip numerous times. It's excellent exercise - two miles from the Encore to the MGM Grand if you stick to the sidewalk (2.6 miles to the Mandalay Bay), somewhere between 2-1/2 to 3 miles to the MGM if you detour in and out of casinos and shopping malls, etc.

And, even if you don't gamble, go to shows or get driven by touts to strip clubs - none of which I bothered with - there is still a lot to see along the Las Vegas Strip.

Foremost is, of course, the people. It is very fun people watching. It's also international. I gave up counting at overhearing 16 different languages - at least the ones I recognized.

There is also some amusing, and now even some truly great, architecture. Parts of the new City Center development - some five years and $8.5 billion in the making - opened this week, and I gotta admit I loved it. Here's some photographic arguments (click on the photo if you want to see it bigger) for why:The two, yellow-checkered buildings really do look like they tilt away from each other and at an angle to everything else. It's disconcerting and fun. The multi-angled building in front is the shopping center. (Interior pictures below.)
A Henry Moore sculpture just outside one of the entrances to the shopping mall.
Bird chairs just outside the shopping mall.

Interiors and fountain/sculptures.The ice melts and refreezes, the water swirls and gurgles.

There is, of course, the more traditional, bizarre architecture to be found along the Strip, both inside the hotels and out:

There's art, too. In the Paris Hotel and Casino I saw a very fun exhibit of cover art from Harlequin Romance Novels. And Paris is also home to the world's largest equine mural - painted by my uncle, Fred Stone:
And in Mandalay Bay, right across from Michael Mina's Stripsteak - order the off-the-menu Angus Ribeye Cap, it is one of the best steaks in the world - is more art (not, however, by my Uncle Fred):
There does seem to be something about the Las Vegas Strip that brings out the religious side of commerce:

But all is not lost. Bettie Page apparently has her own store right next door to True Religion:
Some of the greatest art in Las Vegas is neon. The Neon Museum is one of the great things to see in the city. (The museum itself is being built. At the moment you have to take a tour of the "boneyard" - a dumping ground for old neon signs. It is well worth it, a true highlight of any visit to Las Vegas. Click anywhere on these sentences to link to their website.
They are very strict about publishing pictures taken in the boneyard - even on blogs. But here's some pictures of neon signs in downtown Las Vegas, where some of the best are to be found:

Okay, so it is the Holiday Season. I suppose I'll sign off with some Christmas Cheer - Las Vegas style:

Well, maybe not. I don't want to upset those of you who know me to be the grinch that I am. On Christmas Day my tradition is Chinese food and a movie matinee. Here's a picture taken from Las Vegas' surprisingly large and interesting Chinatown, followed by the sort of thing that most people who know me well associate with me and Christmas:

Happy New Year. I can get behind that.

15 December 2009


I don't know that I want to write much at the moment. There's a whole city full of crazy stupid stuff going on some 61 floors below me and soon I want to descend into it. I'm on a three day visit to Las Vegas for no good reason other than that I got a really good deal on a room at the Wynn Encore and wanted to get out of L.A. to somewhere - anywhere.

I'll give you plenty of gory details later. I will tell you, though, that one of the highlights so far is that the only Christmas music I have been subjected to was in a taxi. The driver was playing "White Christmas" at near deafening volume. He was a Muslim from Nigeria. He loves "White Christmas" and it had just come on the radio. Go figure.

Here is a small preview of some photos from the trip so far:The very way cool, new, City Center Las Vegas.

The always ridiculous Venetian.

$4,200 per pair Manolo Blahnik shoes.

What $4,200 shoes make me want to do.

More to come.

10 December 2009


You sure do, or at least I sure do, eat a lot of stuff that is lousy for your blood this time of year. And that got me to thinking about the fact that I haven't had my cholesterol and other such things checked in a while.

Strangely, I like blood tests. I don't mind the needle. I even sort of like watching my blood bubble up into the vial. (Maybe it's because I have good veins; they're unmissable.) And blood tests seem so efficient. A comprehensive blood test is pretty much the human equivalent of when you take your modern car into a modern shop and the first thing they do is plug into your engine's computer to get a big readout of what's going on.

I probably won't live to see the day, but I imagine that eventually, once a year you'll go to an office or pharmacy or wherever, and pop a needle into a vein. Rather than drawing blood, the needle will be connected via a USB cable, or whatever the next thing is, directly to a diagnostic computer. As your blood flows past the sensor in the needle, the computer will instantly tell you what's wrong, or right, with you. I'd be more impressed by that than, even, by personal jetpacks. (Jetpacks scare me. Think of the accidents.)

So, it's time for me to have a blood test. In the past, I would have simply called up my doctor, made an appointment, gone to his office, then paid all the bills when my crappy insurance paid only a small portion of them, or not at all. I once paid over $700 for a doctor's visit that amounted to little more than a blood draw and the subsequent lab fees.

No more. Earlier this year I shopped around for a colonoscopy I could afford. It turned out to be cheaper for me to simply pay for it as a cash customer, than it would have been to try and use my insurance. (I'm still haggling over a fee that was mistakenly charged to me when a doctor's office ran something through my insurance company rather than understanding I was a cash customer and wasn't using my insurance.)

I've made some calls.

If I go to my regular doctor's office - admittedly, a high-end Beverly Hills physician - don't use my insurance and don't even see the doctor, simply have them draw the blood and send it to the lab, they'll give me a 20 percent discount off the lab fee: $666 minus 20% = $532.80. My guess is that I'll also be charged something for coming into the office and having a nurse draw the blood.

If I go through Direct Labs.com - sign up online, find a lab near you for the blood draw, have the blood sent to the company, get back your results - the same test will cost me $59 if I do it this month. (In January it goes back up to the regular price of $97.)

But there's a lab in Los Angeles where they really know their blood. They have to. AIM Healthcare - The Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation - does the HIV and STD testing, among many other services, for the porn industry. Us non-industry types can use it, too. (Sometimes for a slightly higher price and at a lower priority for speedy results than people in the industry. That seems only fair.) AIM runs a couple of real-life, standard, highly-regarded medical clinics, staffed by doctors every bit as good as any other clinics, and with access to some of the most up-to-date, high-tech medical laboratories anywhere. They'll do comprehensive blood panels as well. They charge $38.

Guess where I'm going to get my cholesterol checked?

In September I paid my annual insurance premium - $5,020 - for a policy with a very high deductible. Every now and then I flirt with the notion of simply dropping it. But, like everyone who bets against themself - which is essentially what insurance is - I worry about what would happen if something major were to befall me. If it were major enough, even with my insurance I'd probably have to sell my house. But I might come out with something left.

So I keep forking over the big bucks, year after year, paying for something that I hope I never have to use and that actually costs me money to use unless something catastrophic occurs.

I wish I saw something that might help me out in all the jumbled stupidity pouring out of Congress about healthcare. But I don't, not much anyhow. Maybe I'll be able to buy into Medicare earlier than I would have been eligible. But an increasing number of doctors, clinics and hospitals are refusing to accept Medicare patients. Supposedly Medicare doesn't pay enough.

But that's another thing that doesn't make sense to me. How much does medicine cost? Who the hell knows? If a simple, comprehensive blood test can range in price from $666 to $38, what possible hope is there for figuring anything out?

But, it's the Holiday Season. I shouldn't think about this sort of stuff. I should just go drown my sorrows in ham, tamales, turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, cookies, pies, have another scotch - a big one, a very big one. And keep away from the shopping malls. And try to avoid the Holiday-addled drivers on the roads. And take deep breaths, close my eyes and do my best to stay calm when confronted by Christmas music or Starvation Army Santas and their damn bells.

I can get my cholesterol, and blood pressure, checked next month. After it's all over. And I know just where to go to do it.

01 December 2009

Write Like Your Readers Are Dead

Okay, so I'm cheating, a little. This blog post appeared yesterday as a guest post on The Lipstick Chronicles. But I have a pile of work to do, my sister is in town visiting and I don't have time to write a whole new blog post. And I think this is an interesting topic. So, here, recycled, it is:

An important note to my readers: I love you, I do, I really do. I think about and care about you a lot. Just not all the time. That’s what this is about. That said…

Let’s get the hard part of this over with first. I killed Ray Sharp, my series hero. I killed him halfway through my most recent book, SHANGHAIED. He was the narrator, too. The narrative duties were taken over by his sidekick, Wen Lei Yue, who will now take over the series as well.

That made some people mad. “You killed Ray Sharp??? I'm finished with you. I read 3 of your books and liked them but no more. Forget it from San Diego.” – A recent email.

Only one outraged reader has threatened physical violence, although I have been warned to steer clear of some others by friends and some bookstore owners.

One frequently quoted bit of sage advice to writers is: “Write like your parents are dead.” That has always struck me as sensible. Self-censorship seldom gets the job done. But how far can you take it?

Should I write like my readers are dead?

Part of the problem is that there are all kinds of readers. I have received a few emails from people who thought it was “way cool,” “fantastic,” “astounding,” “brave,” etc. that I offed Ray.

And some readers, you just can’t be quite sure what they think. SHANGHAIED, which mostly got excellent reviews, got one review that said: “Sleazy! That’s how I would describe this book. With lesbian relationships and heroin usage, these are topics that many of us have not experienced and do not intend to experience. Through much of the novel there is constant adventure…” The review went on at some length in a way that made it seem like the reviewer really liked my “sleazy” novel. Go figure. (I kinda like sleazy novels myself, sometimes. So maybe it was meant as a good review.)

The worst review any of my books has ever received, was also for SHANGHAIED – an Amazon review. Oh boy did that reviewer have some terrible things to say about the book, and about all of my books, which he/she hasn’t liked since the start. But they’ve read all four of them, carefully, apparently. (Maybe it was for the sex scenes. I’m cool with that.) Hmmm.

My father doesn’t like the sex scenes in my books. They make him uncomfortable. Well, too bad, Dad, I’m writing like you’re dead anyhow.

At one point, my father was considering writing his memoirs. (He has had a memoir-worthy life.) But then he came up against the fact that he only wanted to be so honest in his memoirs, knowing that his kids would read them. Hmmmm, so I guess you have to write like your kids are dead, too.

Does all this mean that we writers have to write like everybody’s dead?

Writing is a solitary profession. Is it a selfish one, too?

There are, unfortunately, those people who we writers do have to please: agents, editors, publishing company sales and marketing people, reviewers (well, some of them, some of the time, anyway) and booksellers. Unless we want to simply write for the sheer enjoyment of it and then put the finished products away in our closets, there is only so solitary we can be.

But, how much can we allow that to affect us and still write the books we want to write?

The fact of the matter is, that when I killed Ray Sharp I didn’t give a moment’s thought to what my readers would think. I was thinking about the story, and the characters, and how to challenge and excite myself creatively. As for my readers — they might as well have all been dead when I wrote that scene.

And the ones who like my writing, like my books, even most of the ones who liked Ray, are okay with that. They get a better, more interesting book to read because I didn’t take them into account. Just like my parents. Just like my Dad could write a really great memoir if he wasn’t worried about me reading it. (Come on, Dad, I can take it.)

None of this is to say that I don’t love, cherish, respect, desire, lust after and suck up to my readers. I do. I want them. I crave them. All of them. I need them. I need and want you, whoever you are.

But the way in which I can repay readers for the time they spend reading my books and the dollars they spend buying my books is to make every effort to write the best possible books I can. And for that, they are pretty much stuck with trusting me.

It’s implicit in the bargain we’ve made. If they buy and read my books they are welcome to like them or not as they see fit. And they’re welcome to let me know how they feel about them. (I’d prefer not to get punched, however.) And I always listen, and 99.9 percent of the time respond, politely.

But I gotta tell you, when it’s just me and the computer and the leaf blowers and barking dogs and delivery trucks and vans and the occasional helicopter overhead outside, everybody else is dead to me. And if you want me to keep writing books that some of you are going to love, and some of you are going to hate, that’s the way you want it, too.

30 November 2009


I'm guest blogging today at The Lipstick Chronicles - a very entertaining and smart blog by a group of women writers.

If you want to see what I have to say today, follow the link in the above paragraph. I might post it here tomorrow - since they asked me to be a guest blogger, they get first crack at it - if you can wait that long.

15 November 2009

Guest Blogging Today

You'll find what I have to say about GET IT RIGHT on Type M for Murder at: http://typem4murder.blogspot.com/

01 November 2009


In two ways: Central Avenue is the working title of my work in progress. The first draft will be done this week. And, Central Avenue, the street that runs south from downtown Los Angeles, where the book is set - in 1947 - well, it's been just about finished for a long time now.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, Central Avenue was one of the world capitols of nightlife, of jazz, rhythm & blues, of black culture and society. There's not much left. I drove down it yesterday to take some pictures of some of the places where my new book is set.

See for yourself (captions are below the pictures):The Dunbar Hotel was right in the thick of things. The largest, swankest black-owned hotel in the country, W.E.B. DuBois cut the ribbon to open it. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and countless other luminaries stayed there. At 42nd and Central it was Ground Zero in the "Furious Forties" - a 10 block stretch of Avenue with dozens of nightclubs, bars, cafes and shops. (A scene is set in its lobby in the new book.)Club Alabam - all that remains is this recently erected awning - was next to the Dunbar and was to L.A.'s Central Avenue as the Apollo Theater was to Harlem in New York. The actor Stepin' Fetchit used to park his gigantic cream-colored Packard in front of the place, with his pet lion in the backseat.(There are several scenes set in the Alabam in my new book.)The Last Word was here. One night in the late 1940s, Big Jay McNeely, one of the great honking sax players on the Avenue, blew his sax out of the Alabam, laid down for a little while in the middle of the street - still playing, of course - then made his way into The Last Word across the street, where he took up residence as the new sax player.At the other end of the block from The Dunbar, The Downbeat was here. It was owned by L.A.’s top mobster, Mickey Cohen, the Stars of Swing featuring Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, and Teddy Edwards — one of the greatest jazz groups ever - was the house band. (There's a scene here in the new book.)
The Lunch Top Cafe (now a small park) - open 24 hours with slot machines in back - and Club Memo (now a KFC parking lot) - host to more jazz giants - were also across the street from the Dunbar.The Lincoln Theater, up the Avenue at 23rd, was the site of many huge shows featuring Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Basie, Billie Holliday, you name the musician from the 1920s-1940s and they almost certainly played there.The Cabin Inn was acroos the street from the Lincoln Theater.Back down the street, The Club De Lisa.Jack's Basket Rooms was here. It opened around 1am and was famous for its fried chicken baskets, good setups (bring your own booze or buy it from the guy in the corner) and afterhours jam sessions where Charlie Parker, among others, were regulars.All that's left of Famous Food is the sign. (There's a scene in here in the new book.)This used to be Dolphin's of Hollywood Records, the largest jazz and r&b record store in the world. DJs would regularly broadcast from a booth in the middle of the store. Dancing would break out in the aisles. (There's a scene set in here in the new book.)The 54th St. Drugstore was here. It was open all night, had setups at the soda counter (and the requisite guy out front selling half pint and pint bottles of booze), and a lot of slot machines in back. (There's a scene in here in the new book.)The Club Araby was here. It featured big bands and was popular for dancing. (There's also a scene set in here in the new book.)

As for this new book I keep referring to, it is a novel tentatively titled, CENTRAL AVENUE - A ROMANTIC NOIR. It takes place over the course of one night in 1947. The first revised draft will be done sometime in the next few days. Then it goes to a couple of readers. Then it goes to my agent. Then, hopefully, once it works its way through the slow publishing process, you'll get to read it. At some point before too long, you'll be able to read an excerpt from it on my website.

21 October 2009



Oh, whoops, too late. I already spoiled it in the headline.

So, for those of you who don't know already, Ray's dead. Live with it. He won't.

I'm not going to tell you how I killed him. That would be giving too much away. I will tell you that he dies halfway through SHANGHAIED; in first person - present tense even, like he did everything. It's a very neat trick if you ask me.

Then Wen Lei Yue takes over the story. She doesn't know she's doing that for a few chapters. She's got too much else to deal with. The poor dear, she's going to take over the series, too. What a responsibility. You'll get an inkling of what's in store for her by the end of the book.

Maybe you're wondering why I killed off Ray. Maybe you're upset about it. Maybe you're relieved. Maybe you could care less and you read my blog for reasons having nothing to do with my Ray Sharp series of books.

In any case, I'll tell you why I murdered Ray.

But first, here's a picture from Google Earth of the place where he died. There's no good reason for me to put this here, but I like to break up these blogs with some photos from time to time.

Here's why Ray had to die.

I don't outline my books. I just get a basic idea, an idea of where the story is headed and what I want to say with it, and I sit down and start writing. It helps keep it fresh for me, I feel like I discover the story in the way that my readers will.

So there I was, happily writing along, minding my own business. I had an idea of how the story was going to end and what Ray was going to be doing at the end. But then, Ray's in trouble, bad trouble, life threatening trouble. How's he gonna get out of that?

The problem is, one of the things I always liked best about Ray Sharp as a character was that he was a normal human being. Sure he was tenacious and loyal and smart and energetic; but he wasn't much different from you and me. He was no James Bond, no Jack Reacher. He was the kind of guy who relied on wits, luck, and a little pluck, to get himself out of jams. And sooner or later, a guy like that, his luck was just going to run out. It's unrealistic otherwise. And I always wanted Ray to be realistic, too real for some people even.

So Ray did what you or I or most of the people we know would do in a similar situation - he died.

I hadn't expected that. It totally freaked me out. I made three panicked phone calls to three good friends, along the lines of: "You won't believe what I just did. What the hell am I supposed to do now?"

I wasn't really asking for help. I wanted sympathy, understanding. I'd just gone and hoisted myself on my own literary petard and I was flailing away up there.

It was obvious that Lei Yue had to take over. I was only halfway through the book and she was the only other character who knew what was going on. I was concerned, though, that my readers didn't know her very well. I'd beefed up her character in the beginning of the book, tried to make her something more than just a sidekick or a curiosity. But I needed to quickly make the story hers, and get the reader wrapped up in her story as well, while keeping it moving along the track it had started on with Ray.

And the voice had to change. I didn't want Lei Yue to simply become a stand-in for Ray. She needed her own distinct way of narrating. I had my work cut out for me.

It was the most fun I've ever had as a writer. It was hard, challenging, and the more I plowed ahead the more convinced I became that I'd done the right thing in killing off Ray.

Maybe some of us writers aren't cut out for writing long series. (I wouldn't mind Robert Parker's royalty checks, but I can't even begin to imagine writing the 25th, or even tenth Ray Sharp book.) Or maybe Ray just wasn't the sort of character who could survive all that long anyhow. (Sooner or later an outraged girlfriend would have probably done him in.)

I don't know about Lei Yue, yet. In some ways she's tougher than Ray, meaner, more of a survivor. But I do have some pretty nasty stuff in mind for her in the two books that are presently percolating.

19 October 2009


Despite this joke that I heard:

"What's the difference between a writer and a large pizza?"

"A large pizza can feed a family of four."

It was a reasonably cheerful and upbeat event in Indianapolis.

I look forward to Bouchercon every year. It's four or five days of water cooler time with my colleagues - that I don't get sitting around at my computer in my home office. And it's a great opportunity to hang out with booksellers and readers and a few agents and editors as well. It's informative, useful, nearly always fun and reassuring in that for us solitary writers it makes it clear that we're in the same boat as a bunch of other folk.

It is not so good for my liver or lipid panels. (Bouchercon in Anchorage was the cholesterol exception - I ate a lot of salmon and halibut.) The culinary highlight of this time in Indianapolis was the St. Elmo Steakhouse. A classic place that's been there since 1902. The second night I was there I couldn't bring myself to eat anymore MEAT. So I had the "World's Best Shrimp Cocktail." It was loaded with very strong horseradish and did an excellent job of clearing my sinuses while tasting good. Three of the people I was dining with shared one Kansas City Strip steak and were well and truly stuffed by it. (Shapiro's Deli, however, which had been highly recommended, was a disappointment. The pastrami was dry and bland, the rye bread limp and dull.)

I was on a couple of panels, both of which were extremely well attended and a lot of fun. I don't know how many books it sold, but probably a few.

On Friday I was on a panel about "Setting As Character." It's one of those topics that can go either way. It can be deathly dull, or fun and thought-provoking. Thanks to our moderater, William Kent Krueger, it was the latter. Deborah Atkinson, Tom Corcoran, Jonathan King and myself, made a very good, wide ranging mix of panelists. And by my rough estimate, there seemed to be more than 200 people in the audience - which is a lot.

On the last day I was on what is known as "The Liars Panel" with Charlaine Harris, Dana Cameron, Ed Lin and moderated by SJ Rozan. Questions were asked. Three of us would tell the truth and one lie and the audience would vote on who they thought was lying. I won the award for the most times that the audience thought I was lying when I was actually telling the truth. (Yes, I really did work a drill press in an airplane toilet factory and if I wasn't a writer, I really would want to be an economic anthropologist.) I didn't know whether I should be concerned about that or not. Do I look untrustworthy? I am preferring to think that there are elements of my past and my opinions, notions, desires and attitudes that are, shall we politely say, somewhat odd.

I was happy to meet Charlaine Harris. She seems like a southern belle, and then you start talking to her and hearing her talk and well, she's just plain funny, smart, full of entertaining and interesting quirks and someone I'd very much like to hang out with. She reminded me of how one of the things I tend to like about my fellow authors - and that Bouchercon is always a good reminder of - is that with a few notable exceptions, they are seldom full of themselves. Even the most successful rock star writers are more often than not supportive of their fellow writers and wannabe writers, helpful and encouraging and willing to give of themselves to the scribbling community.

Next year Bouchercon is in San Franciso, the year after that St. Louis, and I'm looking forward to both of them.

Lastly, a little bit of hate mail for American Airlines. You suck!

[] I do not appreciate being sardined more and more into my seat every time I fly. (Ashley Ream, who sat next to me on the flight from Chicago to L.A. and who is not by any stretch of anyone's imagination - perhaps a mouse's imagination if it had one - large, said it was the most cramped and claustrophic she'd ever been on an airplane.) I felt like I was going to be in need of amputating my legs and ass by the end of the flight.

[] I do not appreciate being nickel and dimed to death for every minor convenience or comfort - while at the same time the quality of said available conveniences and comforts is laughably - if it doesn't make you want to cry - bad.

[] What the policy of charging for check-in bags has done is to make entering and exiting the planes even more of a nightmare than in the past. Overhead compartments rapidly fill with suitcases that by all rights belong in the cargo hold. The meager leg room under the seats in front of passengers has disappeared as it has filled with what won't fit overhead. Passengers are duking it out to get to and from their carryon bags that have found their way to points more and more distant from where they're sitting.

In recent years I have flown on Virgin America, Jet Blue, Southwest, American, Delta and Northwest. American, Delta and Northwest are pretty much tied for worst. Unless I have absolutely no choice in the matter, I won't fly on any of them ever again - unless I hear that their treatment of their customers has greatly improved.

07 October 2009

Who Needs Homeruns? I Love Baseball

Sure, when my team, the Dodgers, hits them I won't turn them down. But where's the real excitement, the tension, the suspense? A strong guy with a fast bat and a reasonably good eye manages to hit a ball just right and out it goes. It's an impressive feat of strength and timing, you bet, but where's the finesse? Where's the skill, the thought, the calculation?

Now Casey Blake's walk in the ninth inning of the second playoff game between the Dodgers and Cardinals, that's different. That's what I love about baseball. That's what makes it different, and to my mind better, than all other sports. Bear with me. If you read the following paragraphs and can follow them, you might begin to get an inkling - if you aren't already a fan - of what I and so many other people love about baseball.

To set the scene: It's the last half of the ninth inning, the Dodgers are losing two to one in an extremely important game. There are two outs. One more out and the Dodgers lose the game. James Loney comes up and hits a fly ball that should have been caught by the left fielder to end the game. But the left fielder muffs it and Loney ends up on second. He's taken out for a pinch runner, Juan Pierre, who's a lot faster.

Casey Blake comes up to bat. The first pitch is a strike. The second pitch is a ball. The third pitch is close enough that Blake begins to swing at it, but then thinks better of it and tries to stop his swing. If he swings too far it's a strike. If he manages to stop in time, it's a ball. The umpire calls it a strike and Blake is furious because he thought he held up in time. So now the Dodgers are down to their last strike before they lose the game.

If Blake can get a hit, great. But that's not easy to do. Hitting a pitched ball for a hit, is generally considered one of the most difficult things to do in any sport. Consider that a player who consistently gets a hit three times out of every ten is a great, not merely good but great, player.

The pitcher wanted to strike out Blake, or make him hit a pitch into fair territory that was either a fly ball that could be caught - by pitching him high enough that he'd swing under the ball and hit it into the air; or make him hit a pitch on the ground to one of the infielders who could throw him out at first base for the final out - pitch him low so that he hits the ball on the top.

If a ball is close to the strike zone, with two strikes on him already, Blake has to swing at it or risk striking out and the Dodgers lose the game. But if it's a bad pitch to hit - too low, too high, too inside or too outside - and he swings at it and hits it wrong, he'll probably make an out anyhow.

Meanwhile, Juan Pierre, the speedster on second base, is always a threat to steal a base. So the Cardinals' pitcher, catcher, second baseman, shortstop and third baseman had to worry about, and keep their eyes on him, too. (If he stole third base, it would be much easier for him to score and tie the game if Blake got a hit.) There was tension and suspense and potential action that involved six players and several possible scenarios.

The outfielders had to be ready as well. If Blake hit a ball into the outfield that they couldn't catch, they had to try and position themselves to throw the ball to homeplate in the hope they could get Juan Pierre out as he was trying to score.

What happened was that Blake, using all his skill, speed, eyesight, knowledge of the pitcher and plain old smarts, made his at bat last six more pitches. Three of those pitches were close enough to the strike zone that he had to swing at them. But they weren't good enough to really try and hit. So to the best of his ability, he deliberately hit them foul - out of play. Every single pitch could have resulted in the Dodgers losing the game, an important game. Every single pitch was a moment of enormous suspense, tension, excitement and potential.

This all assumes, of course, that you gave a shit. I do. Not in the way I care about world hunger or global warming or my book sales, but in exactly the same way that any great movie, music, art gallery or book can affect someone.

The last of the nine pitches of his at bat was the fourth ball and Casey Blake trotted to first base, having very artfully earned himself a walk.

A simple, meager, not anywhere near as impressive as a towering homerun, walk. But it was damn good baseball, exciting, nerve-wracking, suspenseful, dramatic baseball. And the great thing about baseball is that if you really appreciate it and know what to look for, almost every game has moments of that sort of drama.

The Dodgers went on to, almost miraculously, win the game. They wouldn't have without Casey's walk. But even if they hadn't, that one at bat of Casey Blake's, coming on the heels of nine previous innings of moments of small and large drama and tension, was more than enough to make me very happy.

27 September 2009


I'm a crimewriter, or so I'm told. I can't be a mysterywriter, I suppose, there isn't much mystery in my books. As I'm fond of saying, they're "don't do its" rather than "who dun its." In any event, I'm what is referred to as a genre writer.

That's okay with me. It certainly means I'll never win a Nobel Prize for Literature, or probably a Booker, a National Book Award or a Pulitzer either. For that matter, I'm probably a longshot for an Edgar, too. Or an Anthony. Or a Dagger. Or any of the other awards for books of my genre.

And that's fine with me, too. I don't think my books are easy to classify, which is just the way I like them. When my first novel, THE LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD, came out, Borders shelved it in the mystery section. Barnes & Noble put it in general fiction.

I wonder what's going to be made of the book I just finished writing? (If it's published. My agent hasn't even seen it yet.) For lack of anything else to call it, I've dubbed it a "romantic noir." Huh?

It does have romance in it. Well, developing romance at any rate. And atmospherically, it is pretty noir - whatever the hell that means. There's crime, even a murder, but the plot doesn't in any way revolve around that. For one of the characters it's a coming of age novel. It's kind of historical - Los Angeles in 1947. It deals with issues of race and class. For those of you who read my Ray Sharp novels for the sex scenes, sorry, there's no real sex in it. There's drugs, though. And a lot of music.

So what the hell is it?

I don't know and I don't care. It's a book. Some of you will like it. Some of you won't.

That is, if it ever gets published. It's the sixth book I've written. So far all five of the previous books have been published. I don't have any collecting dust on a shelf or in a closet. This one is currently at the stage where I've sent it out to my first round of readers and I am awaiting their remarks. When they're done with it, I might tinker with it a little before sending it to my agent, or I might not.

But I like it even though I have no idea what sort of book it's supposed to be. And if all goes according to plan it will be the first in a trilogy (as opposed to a series) of thematically-linked books set in Los Angeles in different eras. 1969 is next.

If you want to know what genre it is, I can't help you. Sooner or later, probably after I've sent it to my agent, I'll post an excerpt on my website and you can judge for yourself. If it matters to you.

Does genre matter to you? Do you need to be able to pin down what type of book a book is, before you're interested in it? How specific do you get? Let me know what you think. I'm curious.

19 September 2009


You could say that I grew up in a rural community - Los Angeles. For the first ten years of my life - until 1963 - Los Angeles was the biggest agricultural producing county in the United States. The first house I remember living in was in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley. There was no freeway to get to it. Ventura Boulevard, the main drag, turned into a dirt road not too much west of where you turned off onto our street. When I'd scramble up onto the wall at the border of our backyard, all I could see was fruit orchards. Farms were all around us. (There was a two acre garlic farm in one of the most high-value real estate parts of the Valley until just recently. Maybe it's even still there, I'm not sure.)

Today, L.A. is still one of, if not the biggest producers of nursery plants in the country. Most of those farms are under miles and miles of powerlines that stretch across the city.

So, like any other country boy, I've always loved the County Fair.

These people were speaking Cantonese, which made me feel back at home in Hong Kong, but I don't think the goats understood.

A child about to be eaten by sheep. Farm animals can be dangerous. As Ashley Ream, author, friend and standing county fair date, put it (and she ought to know, coming, as she does, from rural Missouri): "An undeniable feeding frenzy. We’re lucky to be alive."

For "security" reasons, the cow milking barn was off-limits to the public. I, for one, would hate to have the terrorists poisoning our milk supply.

Of course, some farm animals are just plain tasty. I'm not sure why these pigs are in such a hurry to "bring home the bacon," but I'm glad they are. There was a chocolate covered bacon vendor just outside the pig racing arena. And at the end of the race, all the spectators got a coupon for a free pound of bacon. How could you not love the county fair?

Food, glorious food. FRIED food, lots of it. Just looking at this picture is enough to make your arteries harden.

Not everything was fried.

But you could get almost anything dipped in chocolate.

I couldn't even bring myself to find out what, exactly, is "meat lovers ice cream."

I am very fond of what I refer to as the "slice it / dice it booths." Here, a very persuasive sales guy demonstrates his miracle, master sushi maker.

There are many useful, heavily discounted, items to buy at the Fair. The electronic cigarette complete kit - with recharger for home and auto, carrying case and other stuff - will set you back $129 in stores, but only $79.95 at the Fair.

And if you love baseball, and you smoke too many real cigarettes, this could be just what you're looking for. (Ashley was disappointed to see that they weren't offering any Kansas City Royals caskets - she's a fan.)

Unfortunately the Fair seldom has any biggest or smallest or ugliest or much of anything other ...est anymore. I fondly recall, from the past, The Giant Jungle Rats of Vietnam, Zambora the Apewoman, and other such luminaries. Last year there was at least a gigantic cow - a steer (eunuch) really. All I could find this year were snakes. I didn't even bother going inside. I am almost certain I've seen bigger.

But you can still win oversized plushies that assault baby strollers.

And of course there is the Midway, colorful as always, reeking of hot dogs, cotton candy and teenage adrenalin spilling off thrill rides.

By the way, I am guest blogging also today at the home of Sha'el, Princess of Pixies