Saturday, May 14, 2016

Throwing the Book at a Cop. (Actually, About Fifty of Them.)

A month after Austin Police Officer Russell Smith was in a near-fatal car crash on his way home from patrol, I reached out to a community of people for help.
People who, on an a normal day, create the kind of mayhem and madness that Officer Smith deals with on a daily basis. People with evil in their minds, people who deal out death and destruction to the innocent and guilty, to the young and the old. Ruthless, murderous people.
People, quite frankly, who possess ginormously loving hearts and incredibly generous spirits.
Oh, let me back a moment and introduce you to Russ. My family had lunch with him and his wife today and he let me take his pic, neck brace and all.

I've had the pleasure of seeing Russ on the job and he's so professional, so respectful when he deals with members of the public, and I'm proud to call him a friend and colleague. You guys don't know him, but trust me when I tell you the world needs more police officers like Russell Smith, and whether he's back on patrol or behind a desk he'll make a difference to our community.

One other thing to know about Russ is that he's an avid reader. Fiction, non-fiction, history, crime, he loves it all. I found that out over several ride-outs in his patrol car, and over several meals we've shared. Right now he's on a Hemmingway kick, just so ya know.
Anyway, it struck me that a reader who's facing a long lay-off and a lot of rehab could almost certainly use a few more books. Just a few. So I put out one, solitary appeal on Facebook to see if a writer friend or two might be able to sign and send a book.
Yeah, well, this happened:

To save you having to count, that's fifty-three novels, from more than twenty writers, readers, reviewers, and my own wonderful publisher, Seventh Street Books. And that was in just two weeks, I know there are more on the way. As well as books, people sent get-well cards, a coffee mug, and several gift cards.
Oh, and a copy of Playboy. Seriously. My friend Steve Weddle has an article published in this issue so he kindly mailed it for the collection. Which will make Russ the first person to say, "I'm reading this for the articles," and not be a big, fat liar.
Now, I have the pleasure of interacting with my colleagues in the crime fiction community at a conference every year, and sometimes our paths cross on the book-signing trail. Every experience has been a wonder, their kindness and generosity has always blown me away but never more so than in their rush to help Russ Smith.

So, to you all, my thanks. And to anyone who reads, especially crime fiction, know that every time you buy a book your are supporting a wonderful community of kind and generous people. So thanks to you, too.

There's a lot of bad news in the world these days. And I'm sitting in my local library while a storm rages outside, which should portend evil. But not today. Today I loaded three boxes of books into the trunk of a friend's car, books written by other friends.

A good day for everyone.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Eye-Witness Testimony of Children (aka, How To Turn Two Into Eleven)

We had an interesting experience recently that made very real the problem with eye-witness testimony, and shows why I rarely rely on it as a prosecutor unless there's some very good corroborating evidence.

One weekday evening, my son and three friends were in a nearby park (he and the two girls were eleven, and another boy was eight). They encountered two boys who identified themselves as 8th graders at a nearby middle school. Unfortunately, these boys began throwing rocks at the younger kids, and threatening to kill and rape them.

Yeah, charming.

My son is a tough lad but had no desire to stand his ground, so took off running. He fell and did this:

We reported the incident to the police, who can't do very much without an identification of those boys. So on Friday we rendezvous-ed at the elementary school to look at a yearbook from the middle school, to see if the kids could recognize the two boys. Actually, the kids and one parent, who'd gone to look for her daughter in the park and encountered them.

So, four kids and one adult.

They took turns leafing through the yearbook, so as not to influence each other. The photos weren't divided up by year, but by alphabet, so they had to look through several hundred pictures of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders to find the stone-throwers.

How hard could it be?

I'll tell you: very.

By the end of an hour, we had eleven suspects. The identifications varied from fifty percent to eighty percent certainty, but the interesting thing to me (apart from the number eleven) was that we had zero crossover. In other words, none of the five people perusing the book had chosen the same kid.

Pretty scary, eh?


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Cover Reveal... And Quiet Places With Books

I'm delighted to be able to show off the cover art for my next Hugo Marston novel, The Paris Librarian. As you can see, it's a little different from the previous Hugo books and I absolutely love it.

 And it's especially appropriate that I get to reveal it this week of all weeks, simply because it's:

There are many people in my life who make it possible for me to write, people who have supported me in various ways and allowed me to act and feel like a real author.

Well, thanks to them, that's what I am.

There are the usual suspects, those I thank at every opportunity, like my wife and kids, my parents, my close friends. Folks like Scott Montgomery at BookPeople here in Austin, my agent and the great people at Seventh Street Books (Jill , Dan, and Jon, I'm looking at you...!).

But what about the unusual suspects?

In 2009, I started going to my local library, the Will Hampton Branch of the Austin Public Library system. Here she is:

I went there every weekend and some afternoons, whenever I could, to write The Bookseller. Took me about eight months and all that time I'd stroll in, nod politely to whoever was at the circulation desk, find space at a table, and get on with it. When that novel was done, I started on the sequel at the library as I waited for my agent to find me a publisher.

Then, in October of 2012, the book was published and one of the first things I did was take two copies to the library manager and hand them over.

"This book was written right here," I told him. "Thank you for helping me get it done."

He was delighted, and admitted that they'd wondered a little about the guy who came so regularly and typed so intently. So I made the rounds and introduced myself to the other staff who were there. Most of them have moved on since but I get to know the new folks who come in, and they are always thrilled that a real-life author wrote (so far) seven novels in their library.

And I still do.

The current WIP is also being sweated over and thumped out amid the stacks. The staff are always happy to see me, to stop for a quick chat, but they also respect my time and are plainly hesitant to interrupt -- how perfect is that?

Sometimes I get to give back a little. For example, the Hoover Public Library in Alabama invited me (and half a dozen other authors) to their Southern Voices Festival. Talk about an impressive library and staff... But there I was able to meet with and talk to hundreds of readers, tell them in person why I love (and need) libraries. They even filmed a chat between myself and fellow author Jamie Mason (of Three Graves Full and Monday's Lie fame). Check that out here.

I'm sometimes asked why I write at a library, and there are several reasons. For one thing, I'm surrounded by books, and there's nothing more inspiring than that. I also like the ambient noise of the place, people murmuring and browsing the shelves, the occasional too-loud kid who's excited about this book or that video.

And now, of course, it's also about the people. I still have questions they can answer, usually something like: "Hey, Eric, what do you Americans call such-and-such?" But more than that, I enjoy having friendly and familiar faces around me as I work. (I know I have familiar and friendly faces at home, but they are much smaller and usually need things from me.) Here I am with some of my librarian friends:

The moment I pass through those sliding glass doors a kind of peace settles over me (unless I'm returning an overdue book, then I whistle innocently and point in the opposite direction as I drop it in the return slot).

I'll be back there this Friday, on most Fridays in fact, it's as close to an office as this writer has. But it's not your usual office - the commute is five minutes, the welcome is genuine and warm, the hours are short, and I get a ton done.

So thank you to my friends at the Hampton Library. And thank you to all the librarians out there, you probably have no idea how much we writers need and adore you.

But we surely do.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The DWI Testimony of Donald Trump

This hasn't been in the news for some reason, but now that the case is over I can publish the transcript of a trial in which presidential candidate Donald Trump played a small role, right here in Austin. This happened when he was campaigning in Texas -- as part of his pro-law enforcement platform he rode out with APD, in Nigel Sector.

About halfway through the evening the officer he was with, Officer Dover, pulled over Christopher Paul Bacon for failing to maintain a single lane (aka weaving). Mr. Bacon took the case to trial, and because Mr. Trump was present he was called as a witness. He testified right after the officer, as the State's second, and final, witness. (The prosecutor was assistant county attorney Gowan Gether, the defense attorney was Susan Yoo.)

Let's begin with how the officer came to pull the defendant over that night. What happened?

I'll tell you what happened. I was there and saw everything. Saw it all, and you better believe I can tell the heck out of what happened that night. The officer was terrific.

Thank you. Please go on.

Oh, I will. See, I was in the police car. Super car, too, had great lights on the top. Best police car I've ever seen, Officer Ben can drive as fast as he wants. It's got lights. Sirens. The works. We could drive the wrong way down a street if we wanted, no one would say anything. Anyway, we see this guy, the drunk guy who's sitting by that horse-faced lawyer over there. He's driving but he's also drunk, so we arrest him.
OK, but why did you guys pull him over? What was your probable cause for the stop? 

Probable what?
Cause. The reason for the stop.
What, are you kidding me? He was drunk. Look at the guy, he's probably drunk now. He looks drunk to me, sitting there like a loser.
Defense Atty:
I object, Judge, this isn't evidence, it's insults.

Hey, I got evidence. The best evidence. Evidence like you've never seen. Beyond all absolutely reasonable doubt, that's how good my evidence is. It's terrific.
Defense Atty:
Then let's hear it.
Be quiet. I bet you paid for his drinks that night, didn't you? In fact, I bet you're probably hammered right now, too, aren't you?  Who else is a drunk gonna hire for a lawyer? Like for like. You're both losers.

Officer, stick to the facts please.
Fine. You want the facts? You better believe I'll show you facts. Big ones. Huge facts, ones you won't even believe exist until I tell you about them. [Pointing] Drunk. This guy, while he was driving. Shocking, I don't know what this country's coming to. But here I am, testifying. My testimony, it's great.
Perhaps we could hear some of the specifics.
You did. I said it. And just for you, so we're clear, I'll say it again. That guy was drunk while he was driving. Drunk like a skunk, and believe you me I know my skunks. Especially the ones who are drunk. And driving.
Did the officer you were with perform any SFSTs?

Any what, now?

Standardized field sobriety tests.

That's a great question. A fine question. And yes he did. All of them. He performed all of the tests that we know about, that you're talking about. Great tests, super ones. Every single test that there is, those are the ones he did.

Were they passed or failed?

I've never failed a test in my life. Any test. Never. You can go back and look, Donald Trump hasn't failed a single test, it's right there you just have to look. Quite clear.

What about blood or breath? Did the defendant give up any of those?

Are you kidding? I could smell his breath a mile away. No test needed. Clear and unequivocal. Drunk. That's the problem with policing these days, people like you expect all their fancy-shmancy scientific tests when some common sense will do. I'm a businessman, successful, millionaire businessman. Billionaire, even. I know wasted when I smell it, even if you don't. That's your problem, right there. 

What about a blood test?

What? Of course not. No one's taking his blood. I'm not taking anyone's blood. That's disgusting. Who would do that? Where are you from that you'd do that? Disgusting. I bet you're not even from here, are you? In fact, why don't you who us your birth certificate? See, you probably don't have one. Not even born yet.
Err, thank you. I pass the witness. And abandon the case.

Abandon? No, I'm not done, loser. You know what I'm gonna do? When I'm president I'm gonna keep arresting drunks, and make them prosecute themselves. Next one I catch, just you watch. Take him to jail and make him prosecute himself. I'm just saying. Too many of them in this town. Now, I'm sure they're not all bad, some are probably good people. But yeah. Just you watch.

You're excused. Case dismissed.

No it isn't. Does this case look dismissed to you? All these people, this yuge courtroom. I'll tell you this, there's no problem with this case. It's solid. The best evidence, not dismissed. No problem at all.
Hey, where's everyone going?

[End of Transcript]

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I'm doing it: Me for political office (the only one worth my attention).

I'm running for President of the United States of America.

I need to begin with an admission: I had believed that you need to be born on U.S. soil to be eligible but I now know that's not true. If Ted Cruz is eligible, as a Cuban/Canadian/American, I realize that I am, too.

Also, if Ted Cruz is a viable candidate, I can be, too. I mean, seriously.

My qualifications: 

As a prosecutor I have years of public service under my belt, and have accepted and executed the demands of this office with diligence and determination. Not executed literally, you understand, that's not my job.

As a former journalist I am up-to-date on current events and will be able to step into the White House and know what I'm talking about, be it the Russian invasion of Ukraine (and I know enough not to call it "the Ukraine"), climate change (and I know enough about science to accept this as fact), or the Keystone pipeline (ok, I don't know so much about that one).

As an author I wear tweed jackets and smoke a pipe occasionally. That is the perfect visual image of a President.

As an Englishman I will be able to take tea and play cricket with the English and Indian Prime Ministers. And continue to not take Australia seriously as a nation.

My political platforms:

Healthcare -- single payer system. I say make the Australians pay.

Gay marriage -- my wife would be most upset if I was in one. Kids would be kind of shocked, too. That said, I've noticed no detriment to my own vows or the fabric of society resulting from other people gay-marrying, so I'm all for it.

Military action overseas -- not really working out too well, so I say either (a) pull back the troops and reallocate money to make our own society more equal and just, or (b) invade a sleepy unprepared, and ultimately easy-to-conquer nation. May I suggest New Zealand? I know, you thought I was going to say Australia but that place is full of snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and wombats. And Australians. New Zealand is like the Canada of Australia, but warmer. And not as combative. An easy invasion followed by gentle walks in the sheep meadows. That's some foreign policy for you.

Climate change -- as a former ski instructor I'm a little miffed about this turn of events. And I hate the way sand gets in your sandwiches and crotch at the beach, so don't try and tell me that's a benefit. Consequently, I'm opposed to climate change. Plus, I feel bad for the penguins.

Taxes -- more. Locally and nationally. Although I'm in favor of alternatives like Uber. Oh, wait, you said "taxes" not "taxis." In that case, fewer taxes. And fewer tax dodgings (I'm looking at you, rich people; caveat: if I become rich, I will revisit this policy).

That's enough to get started on.

Oh, you're wondering which party I'm running with, Democrat or Republican. Answer: neither, which tells you that I have more self-respect and dignity than the vast majority of my opponents.

Vote for me?

Monday, March 23, 2015

All books can matter. All of them.

A woman wrote to me recently, asking for a favor for her dying father. She told me that he’s a fan of my books but is unlikely to be around by the time the next one comes out, in June of this year. Her father, Michael, is dying of liver cancer, and she hoped I might be able to get him an early, pre-release copy of the book.

For those who don’t know, publishers do print advanced review copies (ARCs), which are not fully edited but look pretty much like the finished version. They are not usually handed out to readers, for obvious reasons, but as you can imagine I was deeply touched by this request, and immediately asked my publisher to send me an  ARC so I could sign it and send it to him. And a few days after mailing it off, I received messages of thanks from Michael himself, his son, and two of his daughters, just for doing this small thing. Oh and this photo.

(Michael, his daughter Sarah, and his grand-daughter Scout with an ARC of The Reluctant Matador.)

What they didn’t know, couldn’t know, is that my own father was taken by cancer not so long ago. He died just a few months before my first book was published and so he never got to see it in print, hold it in his hands. As result, I strongly disapprove of cancer, never more so than when it separates parents from children and, in our shared circumstance, readers from authors. This, then, was a small favor for me but a huge honor. And it set me thinking about the way our books impact people in ways we can’t possibly know. I write mystery novels, a series with an old-fashioned hero who operates in London, Barcelona, and Paris. I don’t pretend to tackle important issues with the books, I just try to tell a good tale and bring a few characters to life to entertain my readers. And every week I hear from a reader or two, kind people who take the time and trouble to write to me, either to say nice things or to ask questions about the books. But I’ve never had a request like the one from Michael Harmuth’s daughter.

You may know that there is forever a rumble in the world of books, as authors and readers (but usually authors) take positions on the relative merits of literary fiction versus genre fiction (which would include crime, romance, sci-fi, horror, western, erotica, etc.). I don’t plan to rehash those debates here—they aren’t hard to find elsewhere—but the basic argument is that literary fiction tackles important ideas with beautiful and moving language whereas genre fiction is more about what happens, about entertainment.

My own view is that there is no real distinction, just a large palette of a thousand colors that includes all writers, styles, and subjects. Within my own genre, crime fiction, we have Tana French, Jamie Mason, Laura Lippman, and a host of others writing novels that are literary in tone and style, and are still crime novels. They spatter blood over those literary v. genre distinctions and stuff them into body bags. I recently saw, and endorse, the opinion that Pride and Prejudice is a romance and Lonesome Dove is a western. That The Time Traveler’s Wife is science fiction and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is horror. And isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird a crime novel?

But here’s the thing. Even if someone more articulate is able to make a case for a line between literary and genre fiction, the truth is that I’m happy to have pitched my tent where it now sits, in the genre camp. And I know with certainty that my novels have had the kind of impact on at least one person that any artist or writer could hope for. A kind, funny, decent man wants to read just one more of them before he makes his way on to his next adventure.

And there’s one more thing I can, and will, do for my new friend and his family. He has in his hands book five in the series, The Reluctant Matador, which is set in Barcelona. Most of the novels are set in Paris, so I know Michael has enjoyed his visits there with my characters. The next in the series will again be in the City of Light—and Michael will be there, too. With his blessing, Michael Harmuth will be a character in my next book, maybe plotting mischief or perhaps providing clues to the good guys. Either way, the next novel in the series will be as important to him and his family as the others because every time they pick it up, Michael’s children will be able to read about, and picture, their father on the streets of Paris, as alive in their minds as he is today, and having a damn good time with a few of the literary characters who have meant something to him.

As a writer, I don’t set out to change the world or impart large truths. But I’m more aware now that our books, all of them, have the power to bring a little light into the lives of strangers, to give them something to look forward to, and maybe hold on to. And, in at least one instance, a chance to live on in a way that may be different, but a way that means something to him and to me.

(Michael has his own blog, where he’s talked about his “journey with cancer.” He calls it “Incurableme,” which tells you a lot about his strength and sense of humor).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Death panels in California (the fun kind).

Don't worry, the death panels are over. You and your loved ones are safe now.

Actually, you always were because the death panels I'm referring to only kill pretend people, in books. Here's a picture of one, snapped this past weekend at the huge mystery conference called Bouchercon, in Long Beach. Look how harmless they are (I'll  identify them in a moment):

Naturally, I don't approve of bunny ears in a photo, that's just silliness, very juvenile. Never do it myself, frightful behavior. But my point is, not only are these people harmless, they are very, very nice. That's why I'm posting this because most people don't get to know the authors of the books they love. It's funny, and I've had this discussion with many an author -- a lot of avid readers could walk right past their favorite writers and not recognize them. I imagine that's because we're not performance-based artists, like actors or musicians, so our faces aren't integral to our work (thank goodness, right?!). It may also be true that many writers are reclusive by nature (not me!), and so for those reasons it's understandable that our readers have no clue what we look like.

But it's also a shame. Writers are some of the nicest, friendliest, and most humble people I know. (Granted, I hang out with lawyers a lot so maybe that lowers the bar a little...) but the people in the photo above are NY Times bestsellers and multiple award winners, and also sweeter than pecan pie. There's no "I'm more famous than you," at these get-togethers, and even though I felt a little pressure at appearing amongst these guys, it was nothing but fun.

Ah yes, who they are -- from left to right: John Connolly, Tammy Kaehler, William Kent Krueger, and me. Taking the photo was Julia Spencer-Fleming.

The bar is a frequent hang-out spot at these conferences, which is a little bizarre. Not because writers don't drink, hell yes we do, but because hotel bars charge $16 for a scotch. Now there's a crime for you.  Fortunately, I'm at the point where I know enough people that I can often find someone mid-order and force them, out of politeness, to ask what I'm having. I suckered James Ziskin a couple of times over the weekend, although I did buy him a small coffee on Sunday morning to make up for it. He seemed grateful.

Another plus: these aren't sexist conferences, like some. I was able to mooch a martini from Jamie Mason, too. Here's proof:

See how she's holding onto her drink with both hands in a bar full of writers?? Smart woman.

Where was I? Ah yes, nice authors. So there I am, mixing and mingling, and the super-star Cara Black comes up to me and tells me how she saw my books for sale at a store in Paris (France, not Texas). She apologized that her phone battery was dead and so she couldn't take a pic, but she wanted me to know, because she knew I'd be excited. Heck yes, my books being sold in Paris? Love that.  And there she is, a woman who's sold more books than Shakespeare getting excited with me, taking the time to share that. Heck, even noticing my book there in the first place.

Right after talking with Cara, I spent more time with the man of the hour, Kent Krueger. I told him what I told several people that weekend - I read one of his books because it was getting good reviews and I was going to be on a panel with him. Now I recommend it to everyone I can because it's brilliant (and is picking up awards like an 18th century sailor picks up communicable diseases). Lucky for him he didn't try the bunny ears on me, I guess he knows I'm much too serious of a person for that nonsense...
His book, by the way, is called Ordinary Grace. Check it out.

One other person who's a must-see at these deals is Terry Shames. She's with my publisher, Seventh Street Books, and I love her mystery series, set here in Texas. Turns out, by the way, I'm not the only one who loves it because she won the Macavity Award for best first novel this year! Here's a pic of Terry and me at the pub the night she won.

Obviously, photo bombing with a thumbs-up is way more mature than bunny ears.

One more picture I want to share. And this exemplifies what's best about writing conferences because here you have (from left to right) aspiring author Jonas Paterno, B&N mystery guru Jules Herbert, and authors James Ziskin & me. Tall, handsome men. What else could a conference need?

I suppose conferences are self-selecting by nature, the rude and boorish (or boring) probably don't go. But when I stand at the bar and see Michael Connelly chatting with his agent, or Lee Child laughing with a bunch of people I don't recognize, it warms the cockles of my heart. I have seen first hand how welcoming established authors are to the new guys, and now that I'm not such a new guy any more, I look forward to mooching drinks off the latest batch of mystery writers. The least I can do, right?

But here's a challenge. Think of the last couple of books that you read and try to picture the author in your mind (if it's me, Krueger, Black, or Mason, stop cheating!). I wonder if you can.

But rest assured, he or she is probably extremely nice and feels very lucky, just like I do, to be published and to have the chance to hang out with other writers and hordes of readers at book conferences. I may be tired this week, but I'm already looking forward to the next Bouchercon, in Raleigh, North Carolina. If you have a free weekend and like mysteries, come along. You can meet and chat with your favorite authors, hear their words of wisdom, and maybe even buy them a drink. Although at $16 a pop, you might want to bring a hip flask and a couple of plastic beakers...