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...

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Happy Birthday! (or, How a Grown Man Can Be Two Years Old)

This morning I'm driving to west Texas, to a book festival in Odessa called Books in the Basin. It's a long journey of more than 300 miles, so that's about five or six hours in the car by myself. I don't get all that much time alone so I'm looking forward to that part. But the trip will also be a celebration for me, because it will be two years to the day since the launch of my first novel, The Bookseller. (For a blast from the past, here is my blog entry for that day.)

This means that Hugo Marston, a former FBI profiler and head of security at the US Embassy in Paris, a gun-toting, hat-wearing, French-speaking Texan, is precisely two years old. Oh, sure, I first wrote him on the page several years before that but we don't count birthdays that way, do we? It's not conception, it's their appearance in the world, and his was on October 9, 2012.

Huh, never thought I'd trust a two-year-old with a gun.

Anyway, as you read this and as I motor westward, I'll be wishing Hugo a happy birthday and no doubt wondering about the luck I've had. called The Bookseller "unputtdownable." Stroke of luck right there. Before that, even: finding the brilliant agent Ann Collette who hooked me up with a new crime fiction imprint, Seventh Street Books. A new publisher whose books are now (lucky me)
distributed by Penguin Random House.

Since then, I've discovered some things about the book world. First, it moves very slowly. Second, foreign sales are unutterably cool (so far, seven countries, six languages). One of those is Japanese:

Pretty nifty, eh?

Third, and the most pleasing: authors are nice. So many big names have given me their time over the past two years, people like... you know, I started naming them and then realized there were too many. Here's a symbolic picture of me shooting guns with one of them, the bestselling author Philip Kerr.

Nice chap. Talking to people like Philip, you realize that even though he sells one or two more books than I do, we all share a similar insecurity: our most recent work isn't good enough.

That fear is so much worse the first time, when the hobby you've been working on is now up for scrutiny by people whose job is to evaluate novels. And not evaluate on the basis of, "Mark's a nice guy, this is his first, let's see how he did." No, a crime writer's books are judged according to how they stack up in the genre. The big wide world is combing through your work and that realization isn't very comforting. So it won't surprise you to learn that when The Bookseller was released there was a terror living inside me, a horror that the book would hit the shelves and slide immediately into the vast wasteland that consumes so many novels.

I don't know why, but that didn't happen. The book gained some traction (in fact, it was the #1 Barnes & Noble Nook Book recently) and not too long after Hugo reappeared in The Crypt Thief. Then came the third in the series, The Blood Promise. Each one I handed to my editor with a sense of dread that I'd failed, but each time I was wrong about that.

And then came The Button Man.

Quick story about the title: I was in NYC at a book fair and an older gentleman came up to me and told me he'd once known a button man. Now, a majority of people I met didn't know what a button man was, so I thought perhaps he was confused. I thought that because he seemed like a sweet old fella, and a button man is essentially a hit man. Yeah, you see? Anyway, he went on to say that he'd been a doctor and this Italian guy from Brooklyn would show up and pay in cash, and be very vague about why he was hurt and what he did for a living. Then the guy stopped showing up, and the doctor thought he knew why: button man. (This isn't the chap, but it's me meeting readers and booksellers at the book fair):

The Button Man has been out a month and is doing great, making me very happy not only as another Hugo story but because it's a prequel and so a wonderful entry point into the series. It's a journey back to England, where it's set, but it's also the book propelling me forward (or westward) because it's taking me to Odessa, it's the book I'll be showcasing there.

It's a long drive for sure, but it's a drive I'm happy to take. I'm lucky to take. The weekend after this one I'm flying to North Carolina for a signing, then I'll be at the Texas Book Festival, and then in November to the biggest crime-fiction get-together of the year in Long Beach.

I'm willing to concede it's not all luck, to acknowledge to myself that I've worked hard. But a lot of people work hard and don't succeed, so I'm also willing to accept that I'm fortunate. I'm also willing to not think about it too much, to just enjoy the anniversary of The Bookseller, to sing Happy Birthday to Hugo as I putter into the wilds of west Texas.

Four novels in two years and two more on the way. He's been a busy lad, our Hugo, especially considering he's just twenty-four-months old.

Happy Birthday, Hugo, and keep 'em coming.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Trailer for THE BUTTON MAN !

Not your average trailer, this one previews the fourth novel in my Hugo Marston mystery series by showing how the books are created.

But let's not dwell on who forces whose kids to write what.

A prequel to the series, THE BUTTON MAN is set in London, England, where Hugo Marston is head of security at the US Embassy. He's assigned to protect a couple of movie stars, who've received death threats. But before he even meets them, one turns up dead in a graveyard.... Enjoy!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A book recommendation: DANTE'S WOOD, by Lynne Raimondo

Time to dust this place off and give you some useful information. Like, for when you're headed to the pool and plan to drink 'ritas and read something awesome.

Try this: DANTE'S WOOD, by Lynne Raimondo.

Booklist summarizes the plot thusly:

"Still reeling from a late-onset genetic disorder that’s left him blind, Windy City psychiatrist Mark Angelotti is assigned to assess Charlie Dickerson, a developmentally disabled youth allegedly molested by a teacher.

"Just days after dismissing the allegation, Angelotti is shocked to learn that Charlie has confessed to the teacher’s murder. When the defense hires him to testify on Charlie’s behalf, Angelotti’s colossal ego rears itself in a sparring match with the prosecution that gravely wounds the case.

"Motivated by guilt, barely acknowledged curiosity about the world of the disabled, and the aforementioned ego, Angelotti begins his own hunt for the killer."

The cover:

My opinion:

I was amazed to see a main character who's blind. Honestly, I didn't think Raimondo would be able to pull it off and so I was enthralled to see if she could. (I mean, your reader normally sees the world through your MC's eyes, so how the heck...?!?) And a murder-mystery blind MC????

Well, I was wrong, she was right. The characterization, actually, was one of the best things for me. The MC has just the right balance of bitterness, anger, hope, and resolve to really make him real. I was truly impressed.  The plot, too, never let go of you. It's one of those where, part way through, you think to yourself, "Oh, wait, I think I know who..." and then ten pages further on you realize  you were wrong, but think it all over again.

As someone who tries to put a little of the location in my books, I also really appreciated some good glimpses of Chicago in the novel. Another thing that stood out to me, so well done.

Her second book just came out, called DANTE'S POISON. That allows me to pay the author the best compliment I pay any series, which is to say that based on the excellentness of the first, I'm buying the new one. I suggest you do the same.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Best Advice Ever (and how it helped me learn to swim)

Naturally, the best advice I ever received came from a sprightly, white-haired old lady. She was my grandmother and I lived with her in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for quite a while when I first came to America. It's her birthday this week, she'd be 105 (hey, she made it to 96, which ain't bad).

This was in the mid 1990s. I'd been a newspaper reporter in the UK, and was freelancing for local papers in the Chapel Hill area. But I wasn't happy - the stories I was being assigned were fluff and the pay was pathetic. I was 27 years old and wanting more.

I was thinking seriously about law school, but discovered very quickly I needed a U.S. bachelor's degree for that (my English journalism diploma wasn't enough). So I went to meet with admin people at UNC, to see how many hours of credit they'd give me for my professional qualification and the three years experience working at a newspaper.

They said: "Out of 120 hours needed to graduate, we'll credit you with seven hours."


So I went home and, as we did most days, I made tea while Granny made cinnamon toast. She could tell I was disgruntled (because I told her) and she asked what was wrong.

I explained: "Well, I'm 27 years old and I want to get my law degree. But to do that, I'd have to do three years of undergrad, taking an overload of classes, and then there's three years more of law school after that."

"Okay," she said. "And what's bothering you?"

"To do all that, it'll take me six years. Six years! I'll be 33 by the time I'm done."

"I see." A little smile appeared on her face. "Tell me, how old will you be in six years if you don't do all that?"

It was a light-bulb moment for me. I could be 33 with a law degree and my bachelor's, or I could just be 33. Brilliant.

But what does it have to do with swimming? Well, this is me at the beginning of the year, doing a lap.


Okay, not quite doing one.

The thing is, I've always been active, my whole life. Even now I play on two competitive soccer teams, play squash at least once a week, and lift weights. But I've always been a horrible swimmer. Maybe I'm too big, too lazy, too... something. I don't know. For whatever reason, I could swim one length (not lap) of the pool before spluttering and gasping for breath, holding onto the edge like it was my only salvation. Which it pretty much was.

I didn't like that. It didn't suit the image I had of myself - as someone who is generally active and reasonably good at sports. I also didn't like that terrifying feeling of running out of air, a feeling I got every time I swam more than about ten yards.

So I took lessons. Signed up for swimming lessons at the age of forty-noneofyourbusiness. I wanted to make sure my technique was decent (it wasn't, but now is) and then after that I just swam. Twice a week. It started with the successful completion of one lap (not length!). Then I managed to sew two laps together without pausing. Then three...

That was in January.

Today I swam a mile. A mile. Such a thing was a pipe dream to me six months ago. Even four months ago. But I did it because I kept plugging away, adding lap after lap. And I've reached the point where I can swim a mile because I knew, back in January, that even though it was a pipe dream, it was a possibility. I knew that in four, six, or nine months I'd be able to swim without that terrifying feeling of suffocation.

The bottom line is that back in January, I told myself I could be forty-noneofyourbusiness and be able to swim a mile, or I could just be forty-noneofyourbusiness.

Thank you, Granny.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hooligangsters and Me

I got word last week that my work here at the DA's office may slowly come to a halt in about a year. A new position has opened up with the city of Austin and they've asked me to consider it. I've already agreed to sit down with some of the city's council members to hammer out the details, but the job relates to the new soccer stadium that will be built here.

The Austin Chronicle covered the story a few days ago: All Aboard the Soccer Train! Major League Soccer and urban rail take Austin by storm.  

In a nut shell: "the construction of a new soccer stadium in the middle of the Colorado River – a project which will also provide the missing link in a new urban rail line serving the entire Central Texas area. The train will cross the river between Congress Avenue and I-35, stopping mid-river at a new, landfill-constructed and designed 'Fantasy Island.'"

My new job? Well, it suits me perfectly because it combines my legal knowledge, my criminal law experience, and my knowledge and love of soccer. The job doesn't have a formal title yet but basically I'll be taking lead on ensuring the minimum of hoologanism before, during, and after the games.

It's kind of a quasi-lega, quasi-law enforcement, quasi-looking cool job, so here's a pic of me in what they've asked me to wear:

The need for someone to do this job is based on a significant fear is that outside groups will use the rail system and soccer matches to bring crime into the city -- drugs and prostitution mainly. There's also a concern that the gangs from south of the border will end up waging turf wars here against the established Bloods and Crips. Fighting on the terraces is bad enough when it's over soccer, but we simply can't have hooligangsters roaming the streets of Austin and causing trouble for innocent citizens.

One initial thought, and I welcome feedback, is that we should try and make the game itself a force against evil. I'm not sure how, but one possibility might be to make the goals a little larger (others are already proposing this, like here and here). I know, it sounds weird even when I write it, but it seems to me that if more goals are scored then the game is more interesting, and maybe the people who are in the stands to make trouble will actually become enthralled with the Beautiful Game.

The other thought rolling around in my head is to require everyone going to a game to bring a child. It's a clever idea, I think, because this will result in less violence (who wants to start a fight in front of a kid?!) but has side benefits: (1) more income for the stadium because it's two tickets instead of one; (2) ice cream vendors as well as beer vendors can make a buck; (3) more kids will get into soccer and in ten years maybe the U.S. national team will suck less. Probably other benefits, too, but I just had the idea so they're not coming to me just yet.

The last thought I'll share is about cheerleaders. A foreign concept for soccer, right? Well, in case you forgot what they are, here's one:

Wait, now I forgot my idea.

Anyway, I'll keep you updated. I won't give up my novel-writing, never fear, and maybe I'll even get a few ideas from the new position.

"Hooli-Czar." How's that for a job title?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Good-bye Charlie, hello David.

After roughly two years riding in Charlie Sector, it's time for a move. I went with the sector I live in, known as David. In the map below, Charlie is the pink patch on the east side of Austin. David is in yellow, the south west part of the city.
I rode with Mario on Thursday, an officer new to APD but who'd been a cop in the mid-west for a few years. Super nice chap, we had a good time though it was a pretty quiet night. At one point I took a pic of an incoming call, which I thought might be interesting to readers. As you'll see, it's not about catching speeders and chasing bad guys.
Yep, someone wanted an officer to come out and shoot a cat caught in a fence. It wasn't our district so we didn't get a chance to respond, and my night ended before I could find out what happened. But it gives you an idea of the variety of calls they get. Actually, I think I'll do this in the future, take snaps of the holding calls. Hopefully no more cats in pain...