The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

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The Underground ManThe Underground Man by Ross Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lew Archer is moving into the seventies, trying to keep up with changing times, and so are his characters.

After reading several crime/mystery novels, it was refreshing to read one that opened with real momentum, and that felt honestly earned. Archer is searching for a kidnapped boy in the midst of a California wildfire. The authorities have too much going on to offer much help, and Archer has to do the fictional PI’s work of digging through every character’s lives to work out the truth of the current crime and the obligatory crime-of-a-previous-generation.

The prose is a little purple, but it’s a pleasant hue. As a fan of private investigator novels, I like a bit of purple prose. Macdonald isn’t entirely convincing in his description of his younger character and people’s drug use, and frankly, I thought it spun on a little long, but it was still one of the best mysteries I’ve read this year.



Pick up a copy for yourself.

Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

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Chelsea Mansions (Brock & Kolla, #11)Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do guys who were born and raised in Montreal really say “Fancy a cup of tea?”

Maybe they do. I wouldn’t know. It just seems a very English thing to say, from a guy who grew up in Quebec. But maybe I’m wrong.

2.5 stars for this, because it was well-structured but also sort of inert. There was no momentum, little urgency, and not much at stake. It’s one of those mysteries where everything anyone says–and everything anyone reveals as part of their personal history–turns out to be part of the solution to the mystery.

Which is fine. As a craft issue, it’s an admirable way to create a mystery, but without truly engaging characterization or a sense of momentum, it feels very rote. I realize I’m jumping into a long-running series, but it was hard to feel much interest in the characters’ dilemmas.

Did I mention that everything tied into the final mystery? Well, one thing didn’t. One of the two stars of the series catches the Marburg virus and goes into the hospital for much of the book. There’s no real reason to do this except to leave the junior partner, a woman, in charge of the investigation for a while. And of course she makes an error that gets her whole unit disbanded.

Meh. I wasn’t feeling it.

Oh! I forgot to mention that there’s a whole lot of talk about some old cases involving a deadly criminal by the name “Spider Roach.”

Now, maybe that is the greatest villain since Prof. Moriarity, but nothing about “Spider Roach” sounds promising to me.



Get your own copy of Chelsea Mansions: A Brock and Kolla Mystery (Brock and Kolla Mysteries)

Randomness for 10/21

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1) World’s Worst Playgrounds h/t @cstross

2) Maps of modern cities drawn in JRR Tolkien’s style.

3) How to “gird your loins,” in illustrated form..

4) Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover art with DC Comics characters.

5) Drunk J Crew, a Tumblr.

6) An internet glossary, from The Toast.

7) The Zero Stooges (aka The Three Stooges Minus Stooges). Video.

Authors with six-figure incomes

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Twenty years ago, Donald Maass interviewed authors to find out who had six-figure incomes, and what they had in common. What did he discover?

No conventions. Hear that? They don't attend many conventions

Excerpt from ‘The Career Novelist’ by Donald Maass

Download a free copy of the book this is from at this link.

Obviously, none of them listed “Lucky” among the important factors in their success, but we can take that as a given. You can do everything right, but if you’re abandoned by your editor, or your preferred subject matter appeals to a small audience, well, that’s just too sad for you.

But how much of this advice (to the extent that it actually constitutes advice) still holds, twenty years later?

I suspect that writers really do need to be somewhat “plugged in” right now. Writers aren’t going to make a lot of sales by going onto social media and calling for readers, but they can recommend other authors, and those other authors can recommend them in return, if they like. Log-rolling! It’s not actually evil, if you liked the book.

I also wonder what other factors would weigh in here: how quickly do they publish? Are their books largely within a single series? Do they win awards?

Personally, last month I passed the five-year mark on my publishing career, and it hasn’t be great. When the trilogy and the new UF comes out this winter, I’ll have published or self-published ten books.

I’m not looking for six-figures here, but mid-five would be nice. Very very nice, actually. We’ll see.

A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly

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A Darkness More Than Night (Harry Bosch, #7; Terry McCaleb, #2)A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unsurprising and a little disappointing.

There isn’t a lot of mystery to this mystery; obviously, the star of a long-running detective series is not going to suddenly turn out to be a secret serial killer, and the B plot makes it obvious what’s really going on. It’s creepy as hell in places, but the the only real question is where they’ll find the clues to the inevitable solution.

I’d give up on these books if people didn’t keep recommending them so highly.



Buy a copy for yourself.

I backed the third edition of CHILL (and so should you)

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When Pacesetter put out the first CHILL edition way back in the ’80’s, I snapped up a copy. For those of you who watched my Kickstarter video from last year (oh, shit, a year? must finish books) you might have noticed that box on the shelf behind me. It’s been 30 years since it came out, but while I have never played in a genuinely good Chill game, I still remember it fondly.

When Mayfair put out a second edition in the early nineties, I started snapping those books up. They were fun to read, for the most part[1], and suggested a great many story ideas, most of which I never got to use[2]. Someday, maybe. Someday.

Still, this was the ’90s, when The X-Files was all anyone talked about. It should have been the perfect moment for the game to break out. Unfortunately, the fear checks never really worked, and the horrors in CALL OF CTHULHU bigfooted all over the traditional monsters in Chill. People were more interested in Deep Ones than haunted houses, apparently. The game never sold as well as it should, and when Mayfair had a break-out hit in SETTLERS OF CATAN, they dumped rpgs in favor of board games and have never looked back.

There was an attempt some years back to put together a third edition; I was part of the crowd reading through the rules and discussing them. Sadly, people suck, and the nasty sarcasm I got when I dared admit that I sometimes ignored a die-roll to make the narrative work, convinced me it was more stress than it was worth. Much later they tried to raise $45k to print the rulebook, but it never happened.

Part of the reason I never quite had a successful game is my own weakness as a GM (excuse me… “CM”). Part was that the game required a certain willingness for players to face an enemy that was more powerful than they were[3] which had to be investigated before it could be fought. Part of it was that the players were unused to NPC interactions that didn’t mimic the might-uber-alles bullying that came with lawless murder hobo fantasy campaigns. Part was just an unwillingness to get in the spirit of things.

An example of that last:

Me: “The last thing you need to do for character creation is think up the first time you came into contact with the Unknown. It can be a haunting, a vampire attack, whatever.”

Player: “Uh, well, okay. I was walking down the street and I saw a werewolf driving a pizza-delivery truck.”

Me: “Dude.”

Player: “What?”

Sophisticated role-players, we were not. Suffice to say, I made several attempts over the years with different groups, but it never really came off.

However, I quite liked the way the rules handled creatures’ powers as though they were spells. I liked that you roll percentile dice for skill checks. I liked the idea of SAVE[4], the organization dedicated to fighting the supernatural[5]. I liked the genuinely scary creatures in the main rulebook. I even liked the weird psychic powers the PCs could access.

It was also nice to see that they broke the “rules” with regard to the creatures. I was raised to color inside the lines, and that attitude extended to pretty much everything, including the “rules” of monster movies: vampires can’t cross running water, ghosts have a task they needed to accomplish, werewolves could be killed with silver. There were boundaries! It was all laid out!

Then came Chill, which offered that sort of monster, along with other kinds. You could have werewolves that didn’t give a shit about silver or vampires that could walk in the sun. It didn’t matter, as long as it was interesting. For me, who had always broken rules on the sly because breaking rules meant trouble, the game was a bit of a paradigm shift, creatively.

Plus, for a guy who loves spooky horror but hated the sadistic pain movies and books of the 80’s (and who still hates modern grimy torture porn), Chill gave me some control. It let me imagine the stories I wanted.

That’s why, yesterday, I backed the third edition of their Kickstarter even though I can’t really afford it. The playtest materials are gorgeous; this is really the best art the game has ever had, and a quick glance at the rules is very promising.

It also looks like they’ve fixed the issue with fear checks.

Anyway, the materials they’ve already made available have me excited for the project. I hope they blow the doors off their goal and start funding a bunch of supplements or whatever.

Hell, I might dig out the adventures I was working on twenty years ago to see if there’s anything salvageable in them.

So, if traditional horror rpgs sound good to you, back them. You’ll at least have a chance to look at the playtest, with plenty of time to change your mind (you won’t change your mind).

[1] I was sorely disappointed by the “monster manual” for the game, called Things, but I’ve read enough horror game supplements to know how difficult it can be to make up a long list of horror creatures that are a) inventive, b) scary, and c) set the right tone.

[2] On Twitter, someone suggested that the playtest sampler for the 3e Kickstarter had a bit of Child of Fire in it, but in truth the influence goes the other way. The idea of a family (a whole community) that can’t remember one of its own comes straight out of the main rulebook for 2e. I read about that creature almost fifteen years before I started CoF. If you back the Kickstarter, you’ll get to see for yourself.

[3] In fact, I converted one of the creatures for 2e Chill (a mist mummy, which is a creature that spreads pestilence) directly into Champions so a five PC superhero team could fight it, and damn if it didn’t have blisteringly high points.

[4] aka Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata or The Eternal Society of the Silver Way, which was explicitly changed from “White Way” in the Pacesetter version because it sounded like an offshoot of the Klan. See also: The Dresden Files TV show changing the “White Council” into the “High Council”.

[5] In first edition, it was an actual functioning society that sent people out to investigate shit. The second, naturally, turned things all grim and dark, because 90’s. The new edition seems to have a rebuilding theme, which is welcome.

9 Dragons by Michael Connelly

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Nine Dragons (Harry Bosch, #15)Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This isn’t what I was looking for, either.

Anyway, I read the first three Harry Bosch novels in omnibus form, having snatched the massive hardback for them off the front table at now-defunct Tower Books in Queen Anne. The police procedural plot was a bit predictable but clearly well-researched and the tone was perfect: a sort of morose, cynical inevitability of ruined lives and terrible grief. Yeah, the lead character smoked alone in his little house at night while jazz saxophone music played, but the cliches were effective.

I love that shit. I enjoyed the books so much, I wanted to do my own version.

In the years since, I haven’t kept up with the series, but I have occassionally bought a copy for the giant to-read pile, and I returned to the author now for another taste of that perfect tone.

Sadly, it all gets pissed away partway through the book. What starts as another police procedural about a murdered man with a family suddenly turns into the movie TAKEN, with Bosch in the Liam Neeson role (sans karate).

I can forgive the clunky prose, although this was much clunkier than I remember. I can forgive the tenuous string of clues that lets the Bosch track his daughter all over Hong Kong. I’m less forgiving about the way the Chinese characters are treated, although I guess that’s hard to avoid in a crime novel. Same again for the fridged ex-wife.

By the time the characters return to L.A., I knew the big twist was going to be that the obvious killer was obvious, and I’d lost momentum.

Still, it reads like a thriller, and I worked my way to the end.

I can’t pretend it wasn’t disappointing, but I have A DARKNESS MORE THAN NIGHT here in my pocket, so maybe that will be a return to that bleak, sorrowful tone.



Pick up a copy of 9 Dragons for yourself

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

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A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Matthew Scudder, #17)A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After seeing A WALK AMONG TOMBSTONES at the theater, I was looking for a novel that would make me feel as sad and as bleak as the movie did, without the unfortunate elements that I had to forgive in the theater. This was the closest option and I grabbed it.

It doesn’t have the same punch as the film, but it is very nicely done, as private investigator books go. As in most of these books, it’s primarily dialog but it’s very good dialog.

The plot is pretty straightforward: Matt Scudder, former corrupt NYPD detective and struggling alcoholic, tells a story from decades before when he was an unlicensed private investigator. He does favors for friends, and they give him gifts in return, all very under the table.

In this case, a guy that Matt knew as a kid grows up to be a career criminal. After a stint in prison, he and Matt both end up in AA, trying to stay sober and put their lives back together. Part of the AA recovery process involves contacting people you’ve hurt in the past and making amends and while in the midst of this step, the poor guy gets murdered. Matt gets “hired” to look into the list of people the victim wronged to see if any of them might be the killer.

It’s a sad book, but it’s not as bleak as the film, and that’s what I was looking for. That’s not fair, I know, but I’m still laying out 4 stars for a solid crime story where the most pressing question is whether the protagonist will make it to his one-year sobriety anniversary.

Anyway, if you like private eye mysteries set in NYC of the recent past, this is the book for you.



A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block