Saturday, February 23, 2008

Background Check on Crosshairs (Lee Henry Oswald) by Harry Hunsicker

We talked with Harry Hunsicker about the latest Lee Henry Oswald novel, Crosshairs.

1) How long did it take you to write the novel?
About eight months.

2) Where did you come up with the plot, what inspired you?
Two things. I wanted to see what Hank Oswald would be like if he was no longer operating as a private detective. I also wanted to explore how our society is controlled by corporations, specifically the big pharmaceutical companies.

3) Oswald is semi-retired, Olson is on his own, Nolan got a boob-job and hitched... Why did you decide to shake things up like that? And am I right in thinking this might be the last in the series based on those changes?
Writing a novel is like anything else worthwhile in life: you have to keep stretching and pushing yourself or you grow stagnant. I have very rough sketches in mind for another two Oswald books; however, at the moment I am finishing a standalone crime novel. (See previous comment about stretching oneself.)

4) Did you visit / talk with any Travelers for the book?
No. I thought about it but some friends who are involved in law enforcement advised against it.

5) Several people have commented they still need some explanations about the plot. Did you leave things a bit vague intentionally or need the readers just learn to think harder?
“Who are these people?” the author asked suspiciously.
I haven’t seen those comments but in general I do like books that leave things a little open-ended.

6) There's quite a couple of guns in the book. Do you have any experience with them?
I used to shoot skeet, the shotgun game where the shooter walks around a half-circle and fires at clay targets. Even though that involves shotguns, you tend to pick up a lot of general knowledge about guns.

7) Which scenes did you enjoy writing the most?
I really enjoy writing a scene where something happens that I didn’t expect.

8) Who is your favorite among the characters in the novel?

9) What are the best things people have said about the novel and which the worst?
My favorite comments come from family members and old friends who invariably say something like: “I read your book and I really liked the story. It was very good which surprised me.”
Worst? My first book, STILL RIVER, briefly explored some of the very real social and economic differences between various areas of the city. A couple of commentators took me to task for using the real setting of Dallas in a work of fiction.

10) Is there anything else you'd like to say about the novel?
Please buy many many copies.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Discusion private eye clichés

There's an interesting discussion going on at, started by David Montgomery. It talks about private eye clichés and of course I've joined the discussion too as well as guys like Sean Chercover.

I submitted my own Noah Milano to the list.

*The psycho sidekick who does the dirty work so that the hero can keep his hands clean. While Noah has two sidekicks (his mentor Kane and his buddy Tony Hawaii) he doesn't keep his hands clean, often breaking the law to get the job or justice done.

*The detective who's a gourmet cook.
Noah's specialty is a phone call to Domino's.

*The detective who drives a flashy car. (Would you really try to tail someone in a Ferrari or Shelby Cobra?)
He drives a flashy Dodge recently but used to drive a regular Mazda.

* The detective as social worker -- not only does he solve your case, he heals your soul.
Noah helps out several people (notably some teenagers in White Knight Syndrome and Good Girls Bleed Too, see the sidebar My Writings for details).

* The detective who's a gimmick instead of a character: he loves Bugs Bunny, he's got OCD, he's a leper, he's a left-handed transsexual, he thinks he's from Mars, etc.
Noah is the son of a gangster. Gimmick? Personally I consider it an interesting element to build stories around. Also, he loves comics and rock music. Those aren't gimmicks, they make him a person.

In the end this discussion might benefit the genre because a lot of people seem to be joining in and as they say better bad publicity than no publicitiy. Tackling these cliches might in the end show people the PI genre has certain common elements but is also an enjoyable one with many good writers working in it.

Lori Armstrong, author of the Julie Collins series gives her own oponions at I totally agree!

Q & A with Chris Knopf

We spoke with Chris Knopf, author of the Sam Acquillo series...

Q: What makes Sam different from other fictional (unofficial) private eyes?
Sam is an engineer. Not a very exciting profession to those who don’t know engineering. But as with any pursuit, there are plenty of very clever and creative engineers, and Sam is one of those. He was a trouble-shooter, then headed up his company’s R&D department, so he’s professionally and temperamentally inclined to question the obvious, brood over anomalies, solve puzzles and never accept the accepted truth if it doesn’t fit with his observations.
He’s also socially conflicted. He grew up in a blue collar, rough and tumble world, but like a lot of guys my age from that time, earned an education, and subsequently, a more sophisticated lifestyle than his roots would suggest. So he has one foot in each emotional paradigm – hard-edged, working class anger and erudite, intellectual curiosity.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?
Sam has a few sidekicks, none psycho. I’m familiar with the type, which I think writers invent to provide a surrogate dark side to their principle – a foil that helps with character development and plot. I think most of those sidekicks would be better off being shot before they hurt somebody.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?
I try to be factually accurate, especially when I mess with poets and philosophers, historical references, technology and science, geography, place names, and matters of the law and police procedure. But everything else I make up, because it’s fiction, which I can write without getting sued.

Q: Has your writing changed a lot over time?
I’ve become much more succinct.

Q: How do you promote your books?
My publisher, Martin Shepard, is very good about getting his books in front of reviewers, mostly by publishing books worthy of review. We also try to stay in front of independent booksellers and the mystery press. Other than that, it’s ad hoc. In the U.S., that means going to Bouchercon, doing what you can in your local market, putting in the time to get your books read by influential readers and never getting discouraged.

Q: What's next for you and Sam?
The third Sam book, Head Wounds, will be released in North America in May, 2008. I hope it does as well as the first two, but you never know. Sam will not stay fixed in time, but rather will grow and change. Not every series takes this approach, but I think it’s a lot more realistic and more interesting to allow your characters to evolve.
We’re going to release Sam four, titled Hard Stop, in May 2009. After that, who knows. What I hope is more people read the books and support the series.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Phillip Marlowe, of course. Though I actually prefer Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer. Some of the best versions have been expressed in the moves, notably Rick Deckard in Blade Runner and Jake Gittes in Chinatown. I like Spenser and Hawk (is he a psycho sidekick?), though I feel that Parker keeps writing the same book (all bestsellers, so what the heck.) I also really like Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone – daughters of Spade.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
I’m not sure it will be specific writers so much as the change in the way younger people consume culture – notably through digital technology and fragmented media. I think much of the popular forms favored by this generation are very dark – truly noir – which have been heavily influenced by graphic novels (Frank Miller) and music culture, especially the crop of existential, female fatalists beginning with Allison Morrisette.

It’s not a stretch to think there’ll be a swing of the pendulum back to a more intellectual, less violent and nihilistic form in the near future as the next wave of mystery freaks emerge.

Q: David Fulmer came up with the following question: Why did you want to write in this genre?
Like Hammet, Chandler and others of the same ilk – in modern times Dennis Lehane, and for my money, Scot Turow – I think you can write a book of suspense that’s also of a literary character. A lot of classic literature is ponderous and dull. A lot of popular fiction is silly and superficial. What’s wrong with joining the best of both, thus producing something both intelligent and fun?

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
Ask them what they do in their spare time. If they don’t say “write”, congratulate them on a far more successful work strategy than I have.

(I’m only half kidding. Writing books is hard, time consuming work. I think you should probe into their writing life. Get them to tell you how they pull it off in the face of all the stuff that works against us. The press and reading public tend to focus on the end result, whereas writers tend to anguish over the process.)

For more info about this author visit:

Crosshairs (Lee Henry Oswald) by Harry Hunsicker

Lee Henry Oswald is trying to make an honest living, working in a bar doing his best to stay away from the PI / fixer stuff that got him in trouble just one too many times. You can't keep a good shamus down however, so finally he's convinced to search for the daughter of an old Desert Storm buddy and to find out who is bothering medical reseacher Anita Nazari. While he investigates he has several violent run-ins with armed thugs as well as The Professor, a mysterious killer who has ties with Desert Storm and chemical warfare. Aiding Oswald are group of Travelers (kind of Irish gypsies) and his old partner Nolan, now sporting a boob-job and a wedding ring. He uncovers a conspiracy involving the government as well as the pharmaceutical industry.
As in his previous novel Hunsicker's prose is tight and easy to read. The pacing is relentless and basically there's never a dull moment. These elements made this a great read to me but I can imagine it will put off people who like the more introspective, lyrical prose of James Lee Burke or the bigger plots of Michael Connelly.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Running Wrecked (Phil Riley) by Mark Combes

When Isla Tortuga dive shop owner Phil Riley discovers a sailboat that's left adrift he sets out to investigate. When he's beaten up he gets even more determined to get to the bottom of the case but when his young friend Chubby disappears and he suspect the bad guys of kidnapping him he really gets motivated. During his investigation we learn Phil's guilt-ridden reason of living on the island and Phil shows just how determined and tough he can be.
Phil is a true amateur detective but don't think we're getting into cozy territory or anything like that. There's too much action and hardboiled tone for that.
I found the pacing a bit on the slow side the first 60% of the novel, part of that might be a result of Riley's amateur status that doesn't allow the investigation to head off quickly. Fans of the Florida adventurer style (Doc Ford, Travis McGee, etc) will probably enjoy this novel, there's even a lot of Doc Ford references in it.

Spare Change (Sunny Randall) by Robert B. Parker

Sunny Randall is asked by her father, a retired cop to help him and the Boston PD to track down the returning serial killer called The Spare Change Killer.
Also, she faces her feelings for her ex-husband Richie, trying to find a way to make that work and learns more about her dad's relationship with her mother. In another subplot her best friend Julie gets into some trouble with a man who wants to have a trio with her and Sunny and doesn't take rejection well.
As always with Parker he gives us a fast read. It's kind of nice to see him tackle a serial killer, which he hasn't done before if I remember correctly. He's got a good handle on Sunny's character and offers some nice insights on the other characters. One of my favorites in this series.

Background Check on Big City, Bad Blood (Ray Dudgeon) by Sean Chercover

Big City, Bad Blood won a great deal of prizes and was Sons of Spade's favorite debut of 2007. It's being developed for TV as well. Sean Chercover gave us the lowdown on this succesful novel.


1) How long did it take you to write the novel?
About three years. I was working as a writer and video editor on television documentaries at the time. Editors spend ungodly hours sitting in the edit suite, staring at computer screens. After putting in a 15-hour day editing, there was no way I could come home and sit in front of a computer and write. So I'd have to put the book aside for months at a time while working on long editing gigs. Then it would take me a while to get back into it.

2) Where did you come up with the plot, what inspired you?
The genesis of the plot came from just around the time when I was starting as a P.I. There's a widespread con called the Fake Landlord Scam. The short-con version is the most popular, but there's a lesser-known long-con version. It works like this: Find a vacant building with an absentee owner who lives out of state. Remove the locks and put your own locks on, and get the utilities going. Then rent out units in the building, posing as the landlord. If you make the rent inclusive and pay the utilities yourself, it can take a long time before anyone gets wise. If you have a few multi-unit buildings going at once, you can make a great deal of money ... until you get caught. Every few years you'll read in the Chicago papers about someone getting busted for this con.

Anyway, I ran into a long-con Fake Landlord Scam where the guy who got busted claimed that he was connected to the Outfit (Chicago's mafia) and tried to intimidate witnesses. In the end, he was a small operator and didn't really have Outfit muscle behind him, so he copped a plea and went to prison. But as a fiction writer, you're always asking What If...? So I started asking, What If ... he really had been connected at a high level? What If ... this was just the tip of a much bigger scam that involved some bent politicians and corrupt cops? What If ... one of the witnesses hired Ray Dudgeon to act as a bodyguard until the trial? What If ... the other witnesses started dying. And so on.

In the late-90s, I sold a screenplay to Hollywood. It died in 'development hell' and never got made, but during that time the producer flew me out to Hollywood and took me to parties with "the beautiful people" and I thought it would be fun to contrast Hollywood culture with Chicago's blue-collar Midwestern values. So that's how the Hollywood angle made its way into BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD.

3) Ray Dudgeon's back story is unraveled very slowly. How much of it was clear to you when you started writing?
I knew that Ray's mother had killed herself when he was 13. I knew that he didn't know who his father was and had been raised on a lie. I knew that he spent his teenage years living with his grandparents in Georgia. I knew that he'd moved back to Chicago and become a newspaper reporter, and that he'd quit journalism in a huff and gone into business as a P.I. But the specific details came to me as I was writing. I don't outline in great detail.

4) Was Virginia Lane inspired by a real actress?

5) I loved Gravedigger Peace, but he ended up having little pages devoted to him, even for a 'psychotic sidekick'. Was that a conscious decision?
First, thank you. Gravedigger resonated with a lot of readers, which makes me very happy. In the upcoming anthology HARDCORE HARDBOILED, edited by Todd Robinson (coming May 27), I have a Gravedigger Peace story. Ray isn't in it; it's Gravedigger's own story.

Anyway, as you said, Gravedigger doesn't have a whole lot of pages in BC,BB and he comes in fairly late. This was a conscious decision. I wanted to reflect the kind of relationship that Ray and Gravedigger have. They've shared some traumatic times in the past and they have a rock-solid bond, but they don't get together to hang out and reminisce or phone each other up just to say hi. For long stretches of time, they may not have any contact at all. But each knows, without a flicker of doubt, that the other will be there in a crisis. So Ray calls Gravedigger when he's in crisis, but not before. It felt false to bring Gravedigger in earlier, just to "set up" the character.

Some folks have written to say that they wanted more of Gravedigger. I'm happy to report that he returns in TRIGGER CITY, the next Ray Dudgeon novel. But in accordance with my approach to the 'psycho sidekick', Ray will still have to do his own moral heavy-lifting. I don't like shifting that burden onto a sidekick.

6) The security measures Ray installed for his client sounded very real. Have you used those yourself in the past or is it just good research?
Both. I worked a few Executive Protection gigs when I was a P.I. so I was familiar with the tools and procedures. But I also did a little research to keep up-to-date on changes in equipment since I quit the business.

7) Which scenes did you enjoy writing the most?
The Virginia Lane sequence was a hoot to write. In fact, the whole Hollywood plot flew along effortlessly. I also loved writing the underground garage scene and the following interrogation at the police station. And Ray's friendship with Terry Green is fun. But some of the more difficult scenes to write are also very satisfying. Ray's torture was difficult to write, but it meant a lot to me. And his struggle to communicate with his girlfriend Jill. I can't say they're "fun" because they explore Ray's weaknesses, but they make him more interesting to me.

8) Who is your favorite among the characters in the novel?
Ray. After all, I wrote the whole book about him, and told it in his voice. But I have a soft spot for many of the minor characters, and I try not to write "good guys and bad guys" so even the "villains" are a mix of good and bad, and that keeps me interested as I write them.

9) What are the best things people have said about the novel and which the worst?
I've been extremely fortunate and the reviews have mostly been great (it would be immodest to quote them here, but you can see them on my website, What really blew me away was getting emails from readers. The fact that people take time out of their day to write and tell me that the book spoke to them, that's really gratifying. And I'm very pleased that cops and FBI agents have responded so favorably. The FBI even gave the book a shout-out on their website. That was awesome.

The worst? A newspaper reviewer said that the book was immoral and offensive and should never have been published. But I don't know the reviewer's moral compass, so I don't really have the necessary context to say if I should be hurt or take it as a compliment. There was a literary agent who read the first 100 pages and then told me, politely, that I should learn how to write. I guess that was the worst.

10) Is there anything else you'd like to say about the novel?
BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD comes out in paperback on February 26th.

Sean Chercover

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Unquiet (Charlie Parker) by John Connolly

Daughter of missing shrink Daniel Clay, Rebecca is being stalked by an ex-con called Merrick who wants to know where exactly her dad is now. This character is typical of the almost mythical characters Connolly often introduces, like the returning Collector. When she hires Charlie Parker to keep him away from her he gets deeply involved in Merrick’s quest for revenge which is linked to a mysterious group of masked child abusers and a dark chapter in Maine’s history. Along for the ride are gay assassins Louis and Angel, adding some comic relief.
There are again the supernatural overtones of earlier novels due to the appearance of the aforementioned Collector and the Hollow Men. There’s the emotional context of Charlie’s troubles of separating from his deceased wife and daughter. The action when Charlie and his sidekicks square of against Russian gangsters. And of course the lyrical crime writing of Connolly that compares to James Lee Burke.
As always with Connolly’s Parker novels a fantastic PI novel that shows what you can do within the genre when you respect what came before but don’t feel restricted by it. Highly recommended.

Asphalt Moon (Deets Shanahan) by Ronald Tierney

Deets Shanahan is a PI who’s a bit older than the usual ones. That’s probably why there’s his younger partner Howie Cross, who however is involved in his own case during most of the novel. Cross finds the daughter of an old flame on his doorstep. When he sets out to find her he gets involved in a national criminal scheme. Meanwhile Deets is almost shot in his own house by an unknown person. When they try to kill him again, and nearly succeed, he and Cross investigate and discover the reasons to kill him are personal, not professional.
The plot is not very shocking or original nor is the suspense nail-biting or the action pulse-pounding. The writing is nice and direct and at 213 pages a fast read. That makes it an enjoyable read during your train, bus or metro commute but probably not one you’ll remember for years to come. Good entertainment.