Saturday, March 29, 2008

Prepare for Tough As Leather!

As most of you know I'm not just the guy running Sons of Spade, but also the writer of the Noah Milano series. Coming up soon is "Tough As Leather" a collection featuring all Noah Milano short stories published so far together with some extra features. Every story will be accompanied by an introduction written by one of my favorite PI-writers. Here's some things they had to say:

Jeremiah Healy, author of TURNABOUT and THE ONLY GOOD LAWYER: "J. Vandersteen takes us back to the glory days of pulp fiction. And I mean the genre, NOT the movie. His Noah Milano character rings completely true as a tough, lone-wolf private."

Wayne D. Dundee – author of the Joe Hannibal series: The difference is mainly in the character of Noah Milano himself, a man struggling both internally and externally to break free from his “Family” ties and to walk his own path toward what he deems Right and Just. This is good stuff. Read and enjoy.”

Les Roberts, author of the Milan Jacovich series: "Noah Milano is all too human, which makes him more appealing."

If you like these authors you can satifsy your PI appetite right now by ordering the first Noah Milano novel, White Knight Syndrome or wait just a few more months for Tough As Leather - A Noah Milano Collection to come out.

Madman on a Drum (Rushmore McKenzie) by David Housewright

One of the biggest strengths of David Housewright's writing is the way he manages to present Rush McKenzie as a person who can get quite hardboiled when pushed, but overall stays very humane and kind. And McKenzie is really pushed in this novel when the daughter of his best friend is kidnapped. McKenzie needs to provide the ransom money but working together with several FBI-agents he unmasks the kidnappers. When one of the kidnappers ends up dead McKenzie discovers the kidnappers have strong ties to his own past.
This one's got all the goods. Lots of action, a fair-play mystery, some comedy to lighten the mood, an insight in the character of McKenzie and a fast-paced thrillerlike plot.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Q & A with Libby Hellman

We interview Chicago author Libby Hellman about her first PI protagonist and the genre in general.

Q: What makes Georgia Davis different from other PI's?
She’s relatively inexperienced -- this is only her first year as a PI -- and she still looks at her work through the lens of a cop (she’d been one for almost 10 years). She realizes she doesn’t have the resources and connections she used to have, and she’s still finding her way. So, for example, she makes a serious mistake during the early stages of EASY INNOCENCE that almost destroys her case. However, she’s a quick learner, and won’t make the same mistake twice. Like most PIs, she’s cynical and apt to see the darker side of human nature, but I wouldn’t call her hard-bitten. She has a soft spot for children, especially, and she’s not ashamed to show it.

There’s one other thing. Georgia is not seeking redemption or atoning for her sins. She wants recognition and respect. In that sense, she is different from other (mostly male) PI’s who sometimes battle their own demons as well as the criminals on the page.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?Can you say cliché? I recognize that PIs need a sounding board -- they’re generally solitary figures, so the sidekick becomes a device for the author through which the PI can analyze the case verbally. Then there’s the muscle component… which is perhaps where you’re going with psycho sidekicks… ie Dennis Lehane’s Bubba…maybe even Robert Parker’s Hawk. They serve a purpose as well. But a little of them goes a long way.

Some PI’s use sources in the police department rather than third party side-kicks to summarize and move the story forward, which, of course, can be a cliché, too. But I have to be careful here, because Georgia is still in contact with her former boss in the police department, and he throws her a bone every so often. He’s anything but a psycho, though.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?
Constantly. I have two PI friends whom I call regularly whenever I can’t figure out what Georgia should be doing next. I also have several police contacts on speed-dial who are helpful. Also assistant states attorneys (which is what we call District Attorneys here in Chicago). Plus I’m always doing research about the issues, history, or politics involved in the story. I never want someone to throw my book across the room and say “Oh that could never happen…”

Q: Has your writing changed a lot over time?
Writing is the most difficult challenge I’ve ever undertaken, and I usually feel unequal to the task. I’m always second-guessing myself -- for example, if I write a sentence, I’ll usually rewrite it several times, trying to make the prose silkier, or more descriptive, or more substantive. However, in terms of how it’s changed, I have learned several mistakes to avoid. I’ve also become bolder, I think, in my pacing. And in experimenting with multiple POVs. And, of course, my writing has turned darker.

Q: How do you promote your books?
Because I’m of the theory that you throw it all against the wall and see what sticks, I do a little of everything. BLEAK HOUSE sent out a number of ARCs for EASY INNOCENCE, which I think is essential for a new title. I supplemented their efforts with some of my own. I’m doing a fair amount of signings, mostly in independent stores, but some chains as well. I’m also doing more online promotion: I contribute to a blog called THE OUTFIT ( with 6 other Chicago crime fiction authors; I also am contributing to other people’s blogs (thank you Jochem), and I hope to get more online reviews. I also conduct several writing workshops: Building Suspense… 20-20-20 (Dialogue, Plot and Research)… and Setting.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Maybe a few Daughters of Spade… see below…

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?
As a woman, I have to mention Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton. I think they -- perhaps even more than the masters -- have influenced me by giving me “permission” to create a female PI who’s a blend of guts and compassion. I expect they will weather the test of time. I also think SJ Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan are stellar characters. Laura, especially, along with William Kent Krueger (who sometimes writes PI), and James Lee Burke have infused their crime fiction with beautiful prose, which I hope will influence the coming generation.

Q: John Rickards came up with the following question: What do you bring to the genre that few others have?
Because I’ve only written one PI novel, I think it would be presumptuous of me to claim any unique contribution to the genre yet. I will say that Georgia plumbs the affluent suburbs of Chicago known as the “North Shore” rather than the mean streets of urban Chicago. And finds just as much evil, so that might signal something unique down the road.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
I’d like to know why PI writers chose the PI vehicle through which to tell a crime fiction story, as opposed to a police procedural, amateur sleuth tale, or thriller. My answer is I was feeling stifled by the amateur sleuth format (I wrote four novels in that vein). I just couldn’t keep finding credible ways for my sleuth -- a video producer -- to become involved in a case. I knew I couldn’t write a police procedural -- it required too much knowledge that I’d probably never assimilate. So the PI format solved the problem. He or she takes on a case and is paid for it. Simple and efficient. Plus, the PI can do more creative things … and more “off the books” activities… than a cop.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Winter's End (Alex Rourke) by John Rickards

In his debut novel, the first in the Alex Rourke series (now already containing books) takes the classical PI and puts him into thriller territory.
Alex Rourke is a burned-out FBI agent now working for a security / criminal consultancy firm. He's asked to go to Winter's End, the place he grew up, to interrogate a suspected killer. Soon he discovers the killer set him up to come over and has distinct plans for him, plans that have it's roots in the past Rourke would rather forget.
Rourke is an interesting character. He's a pretty cool guy, listening to blues, dressing in leather and driving a Corvette who shows a very vulnerable side at times. The style of the novel is hauntingly dark, the setting sometimes evoking Stephen King and John Connolly. I'm going to catch up on this series for sure.

Bad Luck and Trouble (Jack Reacher) by Lee Child

Jack's aid is enlisted by a former Army colleague. It seems someone's killing off the members of their old team. Together they get the survivors of the team together to find out who killed them and bring them to their own brand of justice. We all know you don't want to piss off Jack Reacher but this time he's even tougher than before, because it's very personal this time around. He surprised even me, a long time reader of the series, with his occasional ruthlessness. Still, it's a risky move to make a series star this callous and still manage to give him mass market appeal and Lee Child pulls it off.
The plot seemed a bit thin this time but the action scenes (for instance in a helicopter) are great and it's nice to see Reacher interact with his old team, that consists of a bit stereotypical but enjoyable characters.

A Welcome Grave (Lincoln Perry) by Michael Koryta

Lincoln Perry tracks down the son of his ex-fiancee Karen when her husband dies. When he arrives the young man shoots himself through the head, making Lincoln a murder suspect. I was a bit worried that this would turn into a 'falsely accused' story, a type of tale I usually don't enjoy that much. It didn't however. The incident starts a fast-paced thriller in which LP is aided by hitman Thor. His reporter friend, now his lover Amy is endangered and Lincoln is forced to get very hardboiled.
More noir and more violent than the first two novels Michael develops even more of a distinct style while still very much appealing to fans of Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais, now dragging along the readers of Marcus Sakey and Duane Swierczynski.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Blue Door (Eddie Cero) by David Fulmer

David Fulmer, better known for his Storyville-series introduces us to 2 new characters, based in Philly: boxer Eddie Cero and PI Sal Gambrioni.
Eddie saves Sal from being beaten up in an alley and is subsequently hired by Sal to help him out with his PI-work. He shadows a teenage girl and discovers she has some dark secrets. He also gets involved in the search for a missing singer, Johnny Pope and falls in love with Pope’s sister who seems to disagree with his quest.

The picture David paints of sixties Philadelphia and the bars, music scene and racism is incredibly vivid without getting lost in too descriptive scenes that slow the pacing.

It’s interesting to see Eddie evolve into a better investigator and he’s a very likable, ‘real’ character. The writing is nice and hardboiled, really evoking the old days of the genre without getting too pulpy.

I’d love to see Eddie and Sal return!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Q & A with John Rickards

Q: What makes Alex Rourke different from other PI's?
Not much, probably. He's basically a nice enough guy, which sets him apart from some, without being a total white knight figure, unlike others, and isn't a colossal screw-up. I suppose the main difference is that - if I remember right, anyway - he doesn't do much actual private investigating. The only time Joe Public hires him is for an incidental job in the second book. In one and three he's basically a consultant to the cops/Feds, in the main part of two he's working for himself and in the fourth book he's just caught up in something else. He's basically a thriller character masquerading as a PI.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels? Bloody dreadful device. It's a cheap way of keeping the hero(ine)'s hands clean and their moral character above question while still allowing the book to contain plenty of dirty work. Very cheap.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?
Less and less as time goes on. I don't write much in the way of technical stuff and by choice I make my settings up.

Q: Has your writing changed a lot over time?
Oh boy, yes. Hopefully for the better. My style's grown shorter and more terse, I'm better with some of the more mechanical aspects of story construction and I don't feel the same need to fill books with cheese as I used to. Parts of Winter's End make me wince these days. But that's probably the way it should go; no sense in keeping going if you know everything there is to know.

Q: How do you promote your books?
I carve their titles into my forehead and run screaming through the centre of town. That, or pay performing midgets to spell them out from the rooftops in semaphore. (Lies upon lies. I only *wish* I could do that.) Q: What's next for you and Alex? Book Five is done and off being read by people who'll tell me just how awful it is. But it's unlikely to be an Alex Rourke book when all's said and done on it. It's very much a departure from the other novels, which has been great fun doing. I understand the genre's thirst for series fiction, but I've found it starts feeling like a straitjacket at times, even with the amount of variation I've been able to put into the last couple of books.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
As much as it pains me to inflate Banks' already gargantuan ego, I like Cal Innes a lot. The Jack Taylor books, too. And even though it's a one-off, 'shit magnet' Mike McGill from Warren Ellis's Crooked Little Vein was a great character. Every cliche present and correct, and then turned on their heads.

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 know I'm not the only person here to suggest Ken Bruen - both stylistically and in terms of the, well, misery that the genre embraced in its early days, which he's been able to bring back to the fore without it seeming stupid. Laura Lippman deserves to; her fiction carries the social and emotional side without falling into the trap of being overpowering.

Q: Ray Banks came up with the following question: When are you going to write a real book?
I'll do it when he does, the swine! Or, equally accurately, probably never. I'm basically a big kid at heart.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
What do you bring to the genre that few others have? If I've brought anything to it it'd be an ambivalence and a lack of resolution, but I don't think that's anything much new. Bugger me, what a disappointing answer to my own question. I wish I'd asked something else now.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Review: The Last Refuge (Sam Acquillo) by Chris Knopf

Sam Acquillo used to be an engineer before he decided to quit the business and his wife left him. Now he lives in his dad's old place in Southampton where he spends the time doing not much besides drinking vodka. When he discovers the dead body of his neighbor, an old lady he sets out to fulfill a role as her administrator but also investigates wether her death was really a natural one.

Chris writes Sam as a very 'real' man and he made me care for the character. That's what he excels in, the original characters and the story of a man who seems to have lost all and chosen to. He also writes pretty witty dialogue although some conversations do seem to take a bit too long. That's also the most important gripe I had with the book. It went on a bit slow for me. As a literary novel it works better almost than as a crime novel.

Good reading if you like something slower and different, skip it if you only read Lee Child, Robert Crais and James Patterson.

Q & A with Peter Spiegelman

Q: What makes John March different from other fictional private eyes?
March is the black-sheep son of a prominent New York banking family. He walked away from the family business to become a small-town cop in upstate New York, and eventually a private investigator back in NYC. March’s cases are set in the world of finance (or have that world as a backdrop in some way), and March’s background makes him a sort of outside insider to that world. He knows his way around Wall Street, but he’s got a healthy skepticism about what goes on there—a vital critical distance.

Another thing I’ve tried to create in March is a character who is in retreat from life. Rather than taking refuge in drink, drugs, etc., March has made his life very small, very spare. He’s stripped it down to things he can control. His life consists of his work and his running. It’s somewhat monk-like—simple, disciplined, and with little in the way of emotional entanglements. He’s much more comfortable examining other people’s lives than his own. Needless to say, his retreat from life is imperfect, and his control over things is mostly illusory.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?
I have no particular problem with sidekicks per se, as long as they’re fully-realized characters—people I care about, and who are important to the story. The cartoonish, two-dimensional variety that exist only to do the heavy-lifting the PI is too squeamish for don’t thrill me.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?
Not a huge amount—though hopefully enough. My stories tend to take place in milieus that are familiar to me. If I’m writing about something I don’t know a lot about, I try to do my homework, to get the facts and the atmosphere right.

Q: Has your writing changed a lot over time?
I think so. I’ve become a harsher editor, and as a result, I think my writing has become tighter and somewhat more spare.

Q: How do you promote your books?
In the usual ways—touring, interviews, website, conferences, etc. My publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, does a great job getting review and media coverage. There’s no magic promotions bullet that I know of, but little by little you eke out an awareness of your work amongst the reading public.

Q: What's next for you and John?
I’m working on March #4, which takes place mostly in L.A., and in the world of hedge funds.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Too many to name. Certainly Spade himself, as well as Marlowe, Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Spenser, Matt Scudder, Dave Robicheaux, Milo Milodragovitch, Easy Rawlins, Arkady Renko (I suppose technically he’s a cop)--though they’re the tip of the iceberg.

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?
That’s a tough one. I actually think that world events will probably be a bigger influence on PI-writing than any particular contemporary author will. The PI archetypes that we know and love arose to a great degree in the wakes of the Depression and WWII. Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the disruptions in the global economy, we seem to be in another period of great flux. I suspect we’ll see this turmoil manifest itself more and more in PI writing.

Q: David Fulmer came up with the following question: Why did you want to write in this genre?
Another good question. My PI jones dates from the time I first read the Maltese Falcon, when I was about 12 years old. I was hooked on Hammett’s narrative voice, the strong sense of place he created, and his characters—especially the character of Sam Spade. I went on to read the rest of Hammett’s work, and then Chandler, MacDonald, etc…, and I knew I wanted to try my hand at it. Which I finally did—about 30 years later.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
Other than PI writers and PI novels, which authors and what sort of writing has had the greatest influence on your work?

For me, the answer is poetry. It was my first “serious” writing, and I still write and read it today. Some of my favorite poets are: William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Jorge Luis Borges, Rilke, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, John Allman, Jane Mead, and Stephen Dunn.

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