What I learned about writing crime fiction from reading Stephen King’s The Outsider

the outsider

 

 

Adverbs may be our enemies, but adjectives, action verbs, and similes are our friends.

 
Kill off characters we’ve learned to identify with.  I think this is what King really meant when he advocated killing your little darlings.

 
Threaten to kill off other characters we’ve learned to identify with or care about.

 
There’s no end to the universe. It goes on and on forever, much like some Stephen King stories.

 
Generate doubt and suspicion by demonstrating—show, don’t tell—how everything we believe to have happened in the story thus far may be untrue. Only the willing suspension of disbelief can provide the proper perspective to help set things right. There really are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 
Must and can’t are dangerous words. Psychologist Albert Ellis termed internalizing such words “mental musterbation.”

 
Show that kernels of the truth lay buried—hidden amongst all that chaff that mucks up human perception—and would surely have been evident if only we’d paid closer attention from the very beginning, if only we hadn’t allowed personal bias to color our perceptions. If only Terry Maitland hadn’t shown our son how to bunt. If only we’d never loved eating cantaloupe as a child. If only . . .

 
The keys to good story-telling, like the keys to producing memorable poems and songs, are repetition and rhythm.  Play it again, Steve. And again and again and again. For old time’s sake.

 
“He thinks that if we all tell the same story, everything will be okay . . .If we all tell the same story.” King tells the same story over and over again as different viewpoint characters relate events from their own perspectives. Then he repeats, as often as needed. Soon the familiar world disappears, and a fictional world–a world that resembles the real world but isn’t the same–replaces it with a world that feels equally familiar.

 

Now that you’ve willingly suspended disbelief, anything is possible.

 

Getting lost in a King story is sort of like taking drugs. “Everything still hurts, but you don’t give a shit.” All you want is more of that old familiar feeling you know so well.

 

The Outsider by Stephen King (Scribner, May 2018) will give readers a few sleepless nights worth remembering. Highly recommended.

 

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I love the details Lisa Black provides in Unpunished

 

 

unpunished

 

Unpunished by Lisa Black (Kensington, January 31, 2017) is a Maggie Gardiner and Jack Renner mystery. Maggie is a police forensics tech, and Jack is a homicide detective. When key staff at the last remaining Cleveland daily newspaper are brutally murdered in the busy and noisy press room, Maggie and Jack are forced to work together to find the killer. Lisa Black provides enough back story so readers needn’t have read That Darkness, her previous novel in the Gardiner and Renner series, to feel the palpable tension between her two protagonists. The secret they share is enough to send both of them to prison for life if either of them talks: Jack is the hunted “Vigilante Killer” and Maggie, not Jack, actually pulled the trigger on the Vigilante’s last victim.

One major complication: Maggie’s ex-husband is also a homicide cop and he’s been assigned to track down the “Vigilante Killer” and bring him to justice.

Besides lots of forensic details designed to please mystery lovers and readers of police procedurals, this novel is chock-full of fascinating and accurate newspaper lure. In fact, the press-room murders are themselves symbolic of the death of print journalism in America in the digital age. Will the Cleveland Herald survive the deaths of its senior copy editor, the circulation manager, and others who daily expose and inform the public of the greed and corruption in our midst? Will Maggie and Jack survive to expose the killer? Will Maggie and Jack be exposed themselves?

I, of course, loved this novel. As a crime novelist and ex-newspaperman, I appreciated the details Black wove into the storyline as much as I appreciated the dialog and characterizations. I bought That Darkness after reading Unpunished, and I look forward to reading it and all future Gardiner and Renner novels.

New Trade Paperback Edition of Claw Hammer

 

clah-hammer-print-2016-cover

 

 

Claw Hammer was first published in 1989 by Pinnacle Books. The story itself has haunted me most of my life. I’m extremely grateful to Crossroad Press for the opportunity to finally revise this tale and tell it the way I wanted to tell the story in the first place.

I lived in Chicago and worked at the American Society of Clinical Pathologists’ Chicago headquarters, directly across West Harrison Street from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, when I wrote Claw Hammer. My ASCP job was to sell continuing education classes to pathologists, and I got to sit in on many of those classes because I was the person who registered pathologists for various courses, set up microscopes in classrooms at conference centers, ran the overheads and slide projectors, hawked new books published by the Society or the College of American Pathologists, and hosted cocktail parties for the docs at national medical conferences. One of those ASCP classes featured the latest techniques of tool mark analysis available to forensic pathologists interested in identifying the instrument of death. I was fascinated to learn about the variety of ways people, more often than not, used common household implements to kill beloved family members and friends. That fascination manifested in Claw Hammer and many of my other novels.

That class also reminded me of several terrible tragedies that had happened to grade-school classmates of mine in my own hometown of Rockford, Illinois. I recalled awakening one dawn, when I was only about eight or nine, to the sound of sirens. I learned that a neighbor had allegedly gone crazy during the night and killed his entire family—all but one daughter who survived—with a claw hammer. The milkman, the same milkman who had just delivered milk to my house, discovered six broken bodies when he entered the neighbor’s house to put milk in the refrigerator as he normally did twice a week. In those Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver days of the early 1950s, people were very trusting and nobody ever locked their back doors. All that changed, of course, after an entire family was murdered in our close-knit suburban neighborhood. It never dawned on us that locking the doors would do no good if the killer lived inside the house and had keys to the locks.

Not long after that first tragedy, the mother of another female grade-school friend was electrocuted in her bathtub. Supposedly, a radio fell off a shelf and added 110 volts to an afternoon bubble bath that fried the lady’s brains and turned her into a boiled lobster. Police arrested the lady’s husband and charged him with her murder. My young friend had to leave school to go live with her grandparents. I never saw her again.

One of my favorite uncles, Eric Ekebom, was a Rockford police detective sergeant and I remember asking to see his gun when I was too young to know any better. He told me he hadn’t had to use his gun even once in more than twenty years on the police force. He did carry a gun, he explained, but he said he really didn’t need one because “Good detectives use their brains and not guns to catch criminals.” I’ll always remember that.

When Pinnacle Books bought two of my novels and wanted them delivered right away, I wrote a rough draft of Claw Hammer, more an outline than a novel, and sent it off with the expectation   I would have time to revise and polish the manuscript later. I had one day between the time I received the page proofs and the deadline for getting the completed novel back to New York in time to make the publishing window. I overnighted the proofs back. I have never missed a deadline. In the old days when I was learning the newspaper business, we published what we had in order to make a deadline. “Go with what ya got,” the city editor called out as the daily deadline approached. Some stories were incomplete or inaccurate, but we knew we always had the next day’s edition to round out the details or publish a correction. I’m glad Claw Hammer endured to see a next edition.

Computers make the writing and publishing businesses much easier. Revisions don’t require retyping the entire manuscript. Editors e-mail page proofs, and writers e-mail corrections   back. This time around, I actually had time to make revisions and correct page proofs. I accept full responsibility for any errors you find in this edition.

I hope you find the story a good read.

 

Now Claw Hammer by Paul Dale Anderson is available in a new trade paperback from Gordian Knot and Crossroad Press. Only $9.99 at https://www.amazon.com/Claw-Hammer-Book-Instruments-Death/dp/1519058314/

 

 

 

Collecting the Dead

collecting the Dead novel

Collecting the Dead by Spencer Kope (St. Martin’s Press, June 28, 2016) is told in first person present tense, something incredibly difficult for any author to do well. Kope manages to pull it off because Kope’s style — riddled with understated humor like Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard novels — humanizes characters with snappy dialogue.

Magnus “Steps” Craig, a “Tracker” for the FBI, is the viewpoint character. Unlike other search and rescue (SAR) trackers, Steps acquires the unique ability, after he nearly dies (or does die) in the woods at age eight, to see “shine.” Whether shine, manifested in various colors, is the residue of life-force aura left behind at a crime scene or a connection with the supernatural is left to the reader to decide. Steps has to fake doing a step by step search for clues to appear legitimate. Only Steps, his FBI partner Jimmy Donovan, and the FBI director know the truth. Should Steps tell Heather, his girlfriend and a crime reporter, his secret? Can he trust a reporter not to reveal the secret to the world?

Steps identifies the presence of a serial killer who abducts young women in Oregon and Washington State by his magenta and rust shine and by the sad face icon the killer draws near each victim. Mr. Sad Face, aka Mr. Magenta and Rust, leaves behind his invisible-to-all-but-Steps shine on everything he touches, including vehicles and houses and people. When Steps, Jimmy, and local Sheriff Walt Gant get too close, the killer’s shine appears at their homes and on their cars. Now the hunters have become the hunted.

Rich in characterization and dialogue, Collecting the Dead moves along at a break-neck pace. Steps’ self-deprecating wise-cracking helps offset the tension as deadlines for saving victims approach. Step’s gift is also a curse. Each time Jimmy and Steps uncover another corpse, Steps has to remind himself that “We save the ones we can.” Nevertheless, the sad faces of the dead haunt Steps’ life as much as his dreams.

I recommend Collecting the Dead to anyone who enjoys devouring a first-person fast-paced thriller with snappy dialogue and a slice of gallows humor thrown in for good measure.

Just Fall is an amazing love story

Just Fall by Nina Sadowsky (Ballantine, March 2016) alternates between then and now. What a wonderful way to bring in backstory.

Now is told in present tense, then in past tense. Ellie married Rob. Rob was a cold-blooded killer. Ellie has to become a killer to save Rob’s life. Rob lies, and Rob has lied to Ellie in the past. Can Ellie trust this husband she barely knows?

Every person has secrets, and everyone lies to hide those secrets. Sometimes they lie to others, including the ones they love. Sometimes they lie to themselves.

Amid this tale of secrets and lies, deliberate murders and accidental murders, is a love story. Love is sometimes tender, sometimes cruel, sometimes deadly.

Just Fall is a brilliant first novel by an accomplished screenwriter. The dialog is rich, the scenes vivid, the characters believable.

I couldn’t stop reading Just Fall even with other deadlines demanding my attention. That says a lot for a first novel. I can’t wait for a sequel, and I hope there is one.

Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon

Try Not to Breathe: A Novel by Holly Seddon (Ballantine, February 2016)is an intriguing British mystery by an experienced journalist but a first-time novelist.

Alex Dale, a thirty-year-old freelance journalist and a closet alcoholic, begins research for a minor filler-story on long-term-care patients in the same hospital ward where Alex’s deceased mother was once an Alzheimer’s patient. Some of the patients in Bramble Ward, although not-legally brain-dead, have their bodies kept alive only by machines and require constant medical care. A few are trauma victims whose badly-beaten bodies eventually regained limited function but their minds still remain seemingly unresponsive. Alex discovers one of those unresponsive patients is thirty-year-old Amy Stephenson, a former classmate from the same grammar school Alex attended fifteen years ago. Then-fifteen-year-old Amy was abducted, brutalized, and left for dead.

Alex decides to do a major feature story on Amy. Amy isn’t in a coma. She can breathe on her own. Brain scans indicate parts of Amy’s brain are actively processing information. But she can’t communicate. It’s as if her mind is trapped inside of a paralyzed body. She can’t move, can’t speak. Amy’s assailant was never caught because Amy couldn’t tell anyone who had attacked her.

I’m giving Try Not to Breathe five stars, my highest recommendation, not because the writing is spectacular or the plot brilliantly original. It rates five stars because the author makes the characters come alive. The reader desperately hopes Alex, Jacob, Tom, Matt, and Amy can overcome their human frailties, find ways to adapt to their present circumstances, and emerge happy and whole from the deep holes each of the characters has dug for herself or himself. Life is complicated, and family life often becomes unbearably complex and complicated.

Seddon alternates POV between each of the major characters, allowing the reader brief glimpses into the reasoning processes that comprise a backstory that spans fifteen years. As a cognitive neuroscientist and medical researcher, I appreciated the mention of fMRIs and their importance to mapping brain function. The mystery of who did what to whom and when kept me reading all the way to the end.

New First Novel from A Writer to Watch

“If I was gonna kill someone, I’d probably read everything I could find on forensics,” says Ben, Sheriff Niko Quintano’s deputy, and that is so very true, not only about psychopathic serial killers but about crime writers worth their salt.

Crime writers need to read everything they can find about forensics, and it’s evident Sue Coletta has. Marred is the first published novel by Sue Coletta, a writer to watch. Sue Coletta includes lessons in forensics in every novel. She also includes keen insights on the failure of human communication gleaned from closely observing human interactions.

Sage Quintano, Niko’s wife and chief protagonist, is not only a best-selling crime writer but Sage is also a crime victim. Sage was brutally raped and nearly killed when Niko and Sage lived in Boston. Niko had arrived home in time to save Sage’s life but not the life of their unborn child. Even after moving from Boston to New Hampshire, Sage carries the scars of the killer’s intrusion on her body and in her mind. Niko thought taking a job as sheriff in a rural area of another state would keep Sage safe and help her to heal. But it seems the killer has followed Sage and Niko and now holds Sage’s twin sister hostage.

Sage’s fatal flaw is the unrelenting shame she feels from allowing herself to be raped. To save her own life—and the life of the fetus growing within her—she complied with the rapist’s demands. She should have fought. She should have screamed. But she didn’t. Sage’s shame prevents her from telling Niko the truth and keeps her from having a sexual assault examination performed that might have identified the killer through DNA; destroys the relationship she once had with her twin sister, Chloe; nearly ruins her marriage; and causes her to drive away her literary agent at a time she needs Jess’ help most. Shame and fear make Sage vulnerable. Vulnerable people tend to compound mistakes.

Niko’s fatal flaw is his failure to protect his wife. He has other shortcomings, too, and his failure to communicate—as does Sage’s failure to communicate—only compounds the situation. Niko doesn’t listen to others the way a good cop should. He seems insensitive to the feelings of others. He refuses to understand the needs of others and thinks only of himself. He needs to change if he wants to save his wife, save his job, and keep his marriage. But can he?

When they were first married, Niko and Sage made a deal. Only one of them would come unglued at the same time. Of course, that didn’t apply when both were under attack and neither could think straight. Niko and Sage both come unglued and, if the serial killer doesn’t kill them first, stress will.

Frankie Capanelli is Niko’s partner. By right of seniority, Frankie should be chief deputy and Niko’s choice to succeed him as sheriff. But Frankie is a bit too informal and unconventional in both her dress and demeanor for Niko’s tastes, and Niko decides to groom Ben to become the next sheriff instead. Ben is the perfect candidate from a male chauvinistic perspective: he wears the uniform correctly, has former military experience, follows orders, and is polite and respectful. But is Ben really what he seems?

Marred is a roller-coaster thrill ride that alternates points of view between Sages’ first person and Niko and Frankie’s third person. Human beings make mistakes, and sometimes they hurt the people they love most. Sage, Niko, Frankie, and Chloe feel hurt, so they hurt others in return.

Marred leaves open the possibility of a sequel. I can’t wait to read what happens next.