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...

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.