crime fiction

Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

Alex Lomax is the only private detective on Mars, scraping a living under the protective dome of New Klondike. Like all the best fictional private detectives he’s got a nice line in wisecracks, an eye for the ladies and a reputation that precedes him. New Klondike likewise is a typical frontier town full of fossil-hunters determined to strike it rich, people on the run, corrupt cops. And a writer in residence.

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of Robert J Sawyer before this novel, or maybe the name just hadn’t sunk in – it seems he’s won a whole mantelpiece full of awards over the last few years – but I’ll be looking out for more of his work. Red Planet Blues was an assured romp through a twisty plot full of double-crossing, kidnap, murder and mistaken identity. It all starts with what seems like a simple missing person case, but then Lomax starts to uncover things that might be best left undisturbed. Like the truth about what happened to the men who first found fossils on Mars and started the fortune-hunting rush. All this in low gravity, with the added complication of essentially immortal transfers (people rich enough to upload their mind into custom-built and largely indestructible android bodies).

The novel is handled with wry humour, but it has its share of grit and science. If you like your Chandler and Hammett but aren’t averse to some future-set extra-terrestrial fiction, I would recommend reading Red Planet Blues.

First draft excitement

Pretend you’re interested for a moment while I share the excitement of having completed the first draft of Sunrise over Centrified City (the SF noir novel I began during NaNoWriMo). I wrote the final scene this evening and am now bathed in mild elation tinged with regret. The thing about finishing a long piece is, you have to leave behind some characters you’ve come to know deeply. Although as OneMonkey pointed out, it won’t be for long – I’ll need to start typing up (having written it longhand) and then re-drafting in a couple of months. In the meantime I’m marvelling at the accessibility of this achievement. In January I worked on the novel on only 3 Sundays and a Saturday, and produced a total of 10,000 words. Doesn’t that sound so easy to fit around other commitments and general life stuff? I don’t know whether to be inspired, or disappointed that I don’t manage this kind of output more often. However I end up feeling about it, this is only the beginning. The real work begins when I start plugging all the plot-holes with the rewrite, and I can see that taking me all the way to November and the next NaNoWriMo.

MOOCs, autodidacts and organisation

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’d signed up for a free online university course. I’ve now done the first week’s work, haven’t touched the second yet despite it being available since Monday (I need to get more organised. Again) and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s what’s known as a MOOC (massive open online course) and is an introduction to forensic science, partly chosen because I thought it might be useful for crime-writing – apparently I’m not the only one, as the MOOC Twitter feed claims well-known crime author Stuart MacBride has also signed up for it (Stuart MacBride is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up everywhere but I’ve never actually read any of his stuff. I’m back on James Ellroy at the moment – White Jazz, not quite as gruesome as The Big Nowhere but neither is it as compellingly written and I keep coming close to putting it aside and moving on to something more pleasant).

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I’m a fan of lifelong learning, autodidacts, and acquiring knowledge with no immediate purpose other than to entertain or broaden the mind. So, while the MOOC was partly about adding flavour to crime-writing it was also largely about doing a MOOC to see what they’re all about. As the name suggests these courses are open i.e. free (and often with no prerequisites), and they’re online so it doesn’t matter if you can’t make a regular commitment on a Tuesday afternoon, or don’t live near a good bus route, you can do the lot in your own home (or the local library if you’re lucky enough to still have one) whenever it’s convenient.

Coincidentally, this week The Guardian has begun a series on MOOCs, trying to get to the bottom of what and who they’re for. Some people seem to think MOOCs herald the end of universities as we know them, or at least will be a game-changer. Personally, I’m not so sure they’re even direct competition, certainly not to undergraduate degrees. It strikes me that at least at the moment, when most of the open courses aren’t credit-bearing, what they’re actually replacing is all that recreational education that FE colleges ran out of funding for, or that’s being squeezed out of university lifelong learning departments in favour of access courses (stepping stones for mature students to go do a degree). With all the recent arguments about tuition fees seeming to revolve around the idea that universities are some kind of employment training centre conveying no benefits other than the increased likelihood of a well-paid job, I think we need MOOCs in a big way. You might want to check them out while they’re still free.

It’s that month again

Ridiculous challenge warning: I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo again.

NaNoWriMo, for those who don’t yet know (and really, it’s getting harder to avoid) stands for National Novel-Writing Month. Except it’s international, and some people seem to write a collection of short stories instead. Anyway the point is you write 50,000 words during November and hope that enough of them will be good enough that you can call it the first draft. I’ve taken part once before, in 2011 (though I have also done the now defunct ScriptFrenzy which left me with a decent graphic novel script and a radio play I could have written better when I was twelve), when I wrote just over 22,000 words that I wouldn’t otherwise have got round to. For me, NaNoWriMo is an excuse to tackle something big that I’d normally put off ‘for when I’ve got more time’. This time it’s an idea from over a year ago, and I’ve spent October writing 60-odd pages of notes (filling up one of my Wallace and Gromit notebooks and getting a fair way through the next) on character, setting, plot. I’ve got street-plans, sketch-maps, a diagram of the main character’s apartment, and her family tree. I’ve still got a fuzzy grey spot where the main business of the plot should be though.

My tools of choice this November

My tools of choice this November

For reasons of expediency I’m writing this novel longhand, thus adding hours to the total project time with the need to type up eventually, and frustrating OneMonkey every time I stop after a couple of paragraphs and quickly count the words I’ve just written. However, it does mean that if all I need is an A6 notebook and a biro (usually one I’ve picked up for free somewhere along the way) I can write on the train, for five minutes before dinner, at the interval in the theatre (and inevitably there are 2 or 3 things I want to see this month). On Day 1 this seemed to work brilliantly and I wrote far more than I expected. Day 2, however, when I was at home all day with little to do except write, my relative lack of wordcount completely cancelled out the achievements of Day 1. Lashing rain, thunder and lightning, scarily strong winds – you’d have thought it would have been the perfect day for curling up with a notebook and retreating to another world. Maybe the problem is that the other world is bone-penetratingly cold and in the grip of an energy crisis, full of corrupt officials and with not much hope in sight at the moment. Yes, not only am I attempting a detective novel this time, it’s a sci-fi detective novel. OneMonkey asked if it was going to be as good as Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch; no, I replied (still haven’t got the hang of this self-promotion lark). Not interested then, he said with a grin. I guess I’d better go get writing and aim a bit higher.

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy

A crime novel a little off the beaten track for me, but I enjoyed the film LA Confidential, so when I saw that novel plus a couple of Ellroy’s others in a charity shop, I thought I’d give them a go.

The Big Nowhere is not for the faint-hearted, though I did appreciate as I read it that some events were put across in a couple of matter of fact sentences, when in a more salacious setting they could have been lingered over in awful detail. Even so, there’s a fair bit of violence, some nasty murders and a couple of forensic scenes, not to mention bizarre sex crimes. I kept marvelling at the fact I was still reading, but the power of the writing and characterisation was such that I had to know how it all worked out, I had to know who was responsible for what.

Set in the first days of 1950 in Los Angeles, The Big Nowhere follows a murder investigation seemingly linked to gay men, and an investigation into Communist activity in the motion picture industry, at a time when being gay or being Communist were about equally likely to turn you into a pariah. This is the scuzzy underside of the city, rife with corruption and blackmail, victims no-one cares about, and rivalry between city and county police. It seems there are no good guys or bad guys, only bent cops and gangsters with half an eye on justice. Sometimes they’re the same person.

It’s a complicated novel, the pieces of the puzzles so intricate that I occasionally had to re-read to make sure I’d got it straight before I moved on. On the whole it had an urgent tension to it that kept me reading, but every so often the police procedural aspect of it slowed me down (lists of names, licence numbers, addresses that people read out over the phone to each other, for instance) but I’m not sure how else you’d be able to do it so that the reader sees the information and can put two and two together at the same time as the character. It has a gritty, dirty feel to it, and was depressing in places but I like the fact that it didn’t have a neat uplifting ending with all loose ends tied. Once I’ve cleansed my palate with something uproariously funny, I’ll be back for more of Ellroy’s harsh urban style.

Ultra-short crime

There’s only a couple of days left to enter CrimeFest’s Flashbang competition, it’s open till midnight on Friday 1st March. I haven’t yet come up with a 150-word crime story I’m happy with, but I did enjoy reading the winning entries from last year, particularly the clever approach of the winner, Iain Rowan. Frankly it’s enough to make all my efforts feel a bit lame, but there is still time for inspiration to hit.

Weather reporting

Elmore Leonard apparently said you should never write about the weather. With pared-down crime writing you might think that makes good sense, and it can’t have done him any harm, but don’t underestimate the effects of the weather.

Maybe it’s just because I’m British, and the twists and turns of the weather are discussed at great length daily, not least by me. I think in any piece of writing the weather can play a part – though I’m not saying every piece of writing should dwell on it, or even mention it.

Think of a place you know well. I’ll take the street I live on, a street I walk down every weekday morning, and back up ten hours later. It has as many different moods as there are cloud configurations over the valley.

  • A crisp October morning with breath faintly visible in the sunlight.
  • A foggy November teatime, the streetlights doing nothing but tint small patches of fog orange.
  • Blue-cast January, silent snowflakes settling slowly on covered paths.
  • Muggy August, clouds gathering in late afternoon as the storm promises cool relief.

In each of those cases the street looks and feels different: open and light or closed in, safe or full of hidden dangers, familiar and comfortable or eerie and unsettling. That in turn affects my mood, so imagine what it can do for your characters.

For crime writing the weather has added benefits. Loud wind or rain can muffle thuds or shouts: either nothing is heard at all or witness reports are confused. Bad weather of any kind keeps people indoors, or walking with heads down, either way they’re not witnessing anything. Snow holds tracks (cars, feet, dragged bodies), rain makes mud which does the same. Heat shortens tempers and makes people lazy. And all that’s before you get to the ‘why was he only wearing a thin jumper when he claimed to have walked all the way across town? He’d freeze.’

Monet kept painting Rouen cathedral at different times of day in different weather. Those paintings are all of the same building but they’re by no means the same picture.