Category Archives: Elmore Leonard

What Shall I Call You?*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you’ll know that right now, I’m working on revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. Revising can be a difficult process, especially if some fundamental things about a story need to be changed. But most authors have to make at least some revisions to their drafts.

One of the things I’ve discovered about this particular novel as I’ve been revising is that, of all things, the title I’d chosen no longer works. The plot has changed, and that means that the title doesn’t reflect it very well any more. So, I have to choose a new title.

Titles are interesting things, too. In some way, they have to catch the reader’s attention. Some authors do that by selecting unusual titles. For instance, the titles of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels are certainly inventive. There’s A Red Herring With Mustard, and I Am Half Sick of Shadows, just to name two. And Bradley’s by no means the only author to opt for such unusual titles.

Other authors, such as Sue Grafton and the ‘Nicci French’ team use titles to link the novels in their series. Fans can tell you that Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is sometimes called ‘the alphabet series,’ because each book begins with a letter of the English alphabet (e.g. A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc..). And the Nicci French Frieda Klein novels all have days of the week in their titles (e.g. Blue Monday).

Whatever title an author chooses, most people agree that it needs to be short enough to be remembered fairly easily. Too many words and it’s clumsy. That’s why there are so many crime titles that are one or two words (e.g. Elmore Lenoard’s Get Shorty, or Ruth Rendell’s The Vault). There are exceptions to this, of course. However, titles that are ‘crisp’ and not overblown generally seem to be more successful.

A title also arguably has a real advantage if it reflects something about the book. Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice has as one of its central plot points a dangerous new drug, known as ‘black ice.’ In this case, ‘black ice’ also refers more metaphorically to very dangerous situations that one might not see coming, and are all the more perilous if one’s not prepared. And Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is about the death of Faith Usher, who dies of poison after drinking a glass of champagne at a dinner party.

As you can see, the choice of a title can be a tricky business. It can’t be too long (but it has to be long enough to say something about the book). It can’t be too ‘cookie cutter’ (but not too ‘cutesy’ either). It has to be attention-getting (but not so strange that it’s off-putting). Little wonder that I’m really paying attention to this part of the revision.

But, you see, I have an advantage. I have you. You folks are all readers, and excellent judges of the titles of that get your attention or annoy you (or something in between). So, I’ve decided to ask you to help me and choose the title of my next Joel Williams novel. Below, you’ll see a poll with some possible titles. If you’d like a say, vote for your choice. The poll will be up for about a week, and then we’ll talk about it.

Now, to help you decide, here’s the tentative blurb (there may be some changes, but this is the basic story):
 

Research Can Be Deadly!

Criminal justice professor Joel Williams and two colleagues are studying Second Chances, a Philadelphia alternative school program that’s supposed to keep at-risk students off the streets and out of prison. But it hasn’t kept those young people out of danger. The research team is shocked when their work turns up a tragic death. One of the students, 15-year-old Curtis Templeton, fell from a building near the school, and everyone says it was a horrible accident. But if it was an accident, why isn’t anybody willing to talk about it? And if it wasn’t, who would want to kill Curtis?

To get answers, Williams and the team will step into the world of for-profit alternative schools, and into the lives of the people they’re meant to serve. And they’ll go up against someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep certain secrets hidden.
 

What do you think? Which title says it best?

 


 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ Flesh and Blood.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton

Somebody Help Me, We Gotta Stop a Crime*

preventing-murderIn many crime novels, a great deal of the suspense comes from the effort to catch the culprit(s). But there are some crime stories in which the real tension comes as the sleuth tries to prevent a crime (usually murder). That sort of story is a bit tricky to do, since it may mean a crime story in which there is no murder. And it’s a bit more difficult to keep the pace and suspense going with that sort of story. But when it’s done well, such a story can keep readers’ interest. And it allows the author some flexibility (will the murder be prevented?).

In Agatha Christie’s short story Wasps’ Nest, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to an acquaintance, John Harrison. He tells Harrison that he’s there to prevent a murder, and then brings up the subject of Claude Langton. It seems that Langton was formerly engaged to Harrison’s fiancée, Molly Deane, but Harrison claims that all is well between him and Langton. Nevertheless, Poirot insists, there is a real likelihood of murder. And it’s interesting to see the impact of Poirot’s visit.

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes starts with an attempt to prevent a death. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he comes upon a young woman who’s about to jump off a bridge. He manages to coax her away from the bridge, and then takes her to an all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Although she lost her mother when she was only two, she’s had a more or less happy life until recently. Not long before her suicide attempt, her father met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins – a man who is cursed, as he puts it, with knowing the future. Since that time, Harlan Reid has paid regular visits to Tompkins, and every prediction he’s heard has come true. Now, Tompkins has said that on a certain night at midnight, Reid will die. Since that prediction, Reid has been a shadow of his former self, and his daughter is distraught. Shawn decides to do what he can for her and her father. Part of the plot of this novel follows the Reids and Shawn as the time for Harlan Reid’s death (at least, the time foretold by Tompkins) gets closer. It’s interesting to see how all three respond to that stress.

Elmore Leanord’s Maximum Bob tells the story of Florida judge Robert ‘Maximum Bob’ Gibbs (so named because he has a habit of giving out the harshest penalties the law allows). One day, an alligator is found on his property. It does its share of damage, but no-one’s injured. Still, the police are called in, in the form of Gary Hammond. Gibbs wants to make as little of the incident as possible, but Hammond wonders whether the animal might have been brought to the property deliberately. Then, matters get more serious: shots are fired at Gibbs’ home one night. It’s now clear that someone is trying to kill the judge, and Hammond has to start to work quickly before there’s another, perhaps successful, attempt. He’s got plenty of suspects, too. For one thing, Gibbs’ harsh justice has made him plenty of enemies. So has his wandering eye. Hammond and parole office Kathy Diaz work to find out who’s trying to kill the judge.

There’s quite a lot of suspense in Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. In that novel, SP (Special Police) Officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police gets a new, and very difficult, assignment. A fugitive named Kunihide Kiyomaru has turned himself in to police in Fukuoka. He is guilty of the rape and murder of a young girl, Chika Ninagawa, and Mekari’s task will be to go to Fukukoa and bring Kiyomaru back to Tokyo to face justice. This isn’t going to be an easy task, though. Chika’s grandfather, who is extremely wealthy, has offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru and proves that the deed has been done. Thousands of people already know about this bounty, and are planning to have their try for the money. And as the journey begins, many more learn about it. So, Mekari and his team will have to go up against many thousands of possible killers if they’re going to bring Kiyomaru back to Tokyo alive.

And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. In that novel, Brighton and Hove Police Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are investigating the murder of a man whose torso was found in a disused chicken coop. It’s not an easy case, and matters are not helped when Grace is told that he will need to provide protection for superstar entertainer Gaia Lafayette. Originally from Brighton, she now lives in Los Angeles, where she’s become an international celebrity. She’s also become the target of a stalker who’s already made one attempt on her life. She and her entourage want to return to Brighton to do a film there, and of course, that will mean all sorts of potential revenue for the city. But it will also mean a potential security nightmare. So, Grace is told to make protecting her a priority. With the other case going on, as well as the usual police work (and some story arc events in Grace’s own life), it’s going to be a difficult assignment. And he’s up against someone who is determined to get to the star.

These are just a few examples, of course, of that plot point. And it can be very suspenseful to follow along as the protagonist tries to prevent a murder. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s Voice of America.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cornell Woolrich, Elmore Leonard, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Peter James

Got Clean Away in a Stolen Car*

gangsters-and-mobstersAs this is posted, it’s the 83rd anniversary of two events. One is the escape of John Dillinger from an Ohio jail. The other is the incarceration of George Francis Barnes, AKA Machine Gun Kelly. They were by no means the only gangsters out there. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, and Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel are just a few of the other infamous names of the times. Some of these people were members of criminal gangs and groups. Others were ‘lone wolves.’

Either way, these people were, first and last, criminals. Many of them committed horrible acts, and certainly sanctioned others that they didn’t commit themselves. And yet, they have a certain fascination. Gangsters and mobsters figure in a lot of films, TV shows and series, and books. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the crime novels where gangsters figure into the plot. But here are a few to show you what I mean.

Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, which takes place in early-1930’s Oklahoma, features Jack Belmont. He’s always been a ‘wrong ‘un,’ as the saying goes, and now dreams of being a powerful outlaw, just like Pretty Boy Floyd. If he’s going to do that, though, he’ll have to get past Deputy U.S. Marshal Carlos ‘Carl’ Webster. He’s as determined to put gangsters like Belmont behind bars as Belmont is to be at the top of the ‘most wanted’ list. For each man, it’s as much a personal matter as it is anything else, and it’s interesting to look at the culture that made folk heroes of so many of the outlaws of that time.

Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs tells the story of the Franco family. In 1974, an unnamed art restorer happens to be in the Swiss Alps looking at some of the frescoes at a monastery there. He meets an old man who lives in the care home attached to the monastery, and gets an irresistible offer. The old man promises to tell him a story – a good story – if he’ll tape record that story. The art restorer agrees, and the old man begins. The story really starts at the turn of the 20th Century, when Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family immigrate from Italy. Franco is, by trade, a shoemaker, and soon sets up his business in New York City. He does well, and the family prospers. But then he starts drinking too much. One night, he gets into a bar fight and ends up killing Luigi Lupo, son of a powerful New York gangster. Lupo’s father finds out who killed his son and puts a curse on the Franco family. According to the curse, Franco’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi Lupo was when he was killed. The storyteller than goes on to recount what happened to the three sons, how the curse impacted them, and how it led to the family’s current situation, years later. As the story is told, we learn about the mobsters and gangsters of that era, and how the various criminal families operated.

Before the days of Fidel Castro, Havana was a watering hole for many mobsters and gangsters, and Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’ uses that context. Joaquín Porrata is a fledgling reporter for Diario de la Marina, accustomed to doing ‘fluff’ stories like interviewing actors. One day, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, the Great Executioner of Murder, Inc. Anastasia was killed in New York City, but the Mob’s reach is far, and it’s believed he was killed because he was interfering too much with some powerful bosses’ Havana interests. Porrata is taken off the Anastasia story and instead, is told to follow up on a story about a hippo who escaped from a zoo and was found killed. When Porrata discovers that the hippo was ‘a message for Anastasia,’ he is convinced that there’s a connection between Havana’s gangster activity and what happened in New York. The closer he gets to the truth, though, the harder some very powerful people try to shut him up.

Today’s outlaws, gangsters and mobsters are arguably cut from a different bolt, as the saying goes. But they’re still a force to be reckoned with. We see a bit of what they’re like in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, ex-pat Americans Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move to a small town in Normandy. They’re hoping to settle in and start new lives, but it’s not going to be easy. For one thing, there’s the culture shock. For another, Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against fellow mobsters. In return, he and his family were placed in the US’ Federal Witness Protection Program. When word of the Manzonis’ gets back to New Jersey, the ‘Blakes’ are in serious trouble… There are other authors, too, such as Mario Puzo and Richard Condon, who’ve written books detailing life in the Mob.

What do you folks think? Is there a certain mystique about the gangsters and outlaws of bygone days? If so, why do you think that is? Whether ‘lone wolves’ or members of groups, those gangsters certainly made names for themselves. And they’ve found quite a place in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mitch Murray and Peter Callander’s The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Elmore Leonard, Mario Puzo, Mayra Montero, Richard Condon, Tonino Benacquista

Where the Gin is Cold, But the Piano’s Hot*

SpeakeasiesFrom 1919 until 1933, the transportation, sale, import and export of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States. But Prohibition certainly didn’t stop people drinking. And it certainly didn’t stop people selling alcohol to those who wanted to drink it.

One sort of place where people went to drink was the speakeasy. Speakeasies were illegal (although in some places, police looked the other way for a ‘consideration’). For a lot of people, that added to their appeal. So did the music and dancing that were often a part of the speakeasy experience. People who wanted to go to speakeasies often needed to have memberships, know a password, or in some other way be ‘vetted.’ It was a way of making sure that the police didn’t raid. So in that sense, speakeasies could be selective places.

If you think about it, the speakeasy atmosphere is tailor-made for a crime novel. All sorts of people frequented speakeasies, many of them not exactly upstanding or law-abiding. Add to that the sometimes-racy entertainment, the alcohol, and the conflicts that could arise in such places, and you’ve got a very effective context for a murder mystery. So it’s little wonder there are lots of speakeasies in crime fiction.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, for instance, begins in a New York City speakeasy. PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora, who live in San Francisco, are visiting New York City just before Christmas. Nick’s having a drink at a speakeasy when a woman approaches him. She is Dorothy Wynant, daughter of successful executive Clyde Wynant. She’s concerned because he seems to have gone missing, and she wants Nick to find him. Nick knows Wynant, but he’s reluctant to get involved. Then, Wynant’s attorney persuades Nick that this is a serious matter. And the next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolfe, is found dead. So Nick and Nora start asking questions. To say that they’re not teetotalers is an understatement, so there are several scenes in the novel that take place in speakeasies.

Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, which takes place in 1926, tells the story of Joe Coughlin. He’s had a very proper Boston upbringing, but he’s gotten involved in organized crime, and now intends to climb his way to the top. Because it’s during the time of Prohibition, organized crime leaders often get involved in smuggling and delivering alcohol to speakeasies, and Coughlin does his share of that. In fact, the novel begins when Coughlin and a partner hit a gambling room behind a speakeasy that belongs to a rival gang leader. That plays a major role in what happens later in the novel, as Coughlin moves to Florida and gets involved in rum-running and other operations. Among other things, this novel shows the often-close connections between speakeasies and organized crime.

So does Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, which takes place mostly in early-1930s Oklahoma. That novel introduces readers to Jack Belmont, who’s always been a kind of ‘wrong ‘un,’ and now has dreams of being an outlaw like Pretty Boy Floyd, only bigger and more powerful. The novel also introduces Deputy U.S. Marshal Carlos ‘Carl’ Webster, a lawman who is determined to put gangsters like Belmont behind bars. For Belmont, the speakeasy isn’t just a place where you go for a drink, or a source of income. It’s a place where a criminal can lie low for a while if necessary. Webster knows that speakeasies are places to get information about what’s happening in the underworld, so he finds them useful too, in a different way. It’s an interesting look at the way the speakeasy fit into social life at the time.

Of course, not all speakeasies were seedy and ‘low rent.’ There were plenty of speakeasies that catered to wealthier people. We see that, for instance, in Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that novel, we meet Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson, a rum-runner who makes his living selling smuggled alcohol to Hollywood luminaries for their parties, and to the speakeasies that those people frequent. When Hud’s friend and business partner Danny is murdered, Hud decides to find out who’s responsible and have his revenge. And there are several possibilities, too. For one thing, a rival gang has moved in and tried to take over some of the local speakeasies and other criminal operations. They’d be only too happy to have Danny and Hud out of the way. For another, there are the people with whom Danny and Hud do business. Some of those people wouldn’t hesitate to kill if they saw the need. The trail leads through speakeasies, film studios, smugglers’ boats and high-class parties.  

And then there’s Ellen Mansoor Collier’s Jazz Age series. Beginning with Flappers, Flasks, and Foul Play, the series features Galveston society reporter Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Cross. She wants to make her mark as a ‘real’ reporter, but that’s difficult for a woman at that time and in that place. Jazz’ brother Sammy owns a speakeasy called the Oasis, and that’s where Jazz gets her chance at a real story. One night, successful banker Horace Andres suddenly collapses at the club, and later dies. Jazz has the opportunity for a real story, but she’ll have to find out who the killer is without alerting the police to the fact that her brother owns an illegal business.

And that’s the thing about speakeasies. They were illegal. And that meant that all sorts of things might happen there, and the police frequently couldn’t get involved. That’s part of the reason they make such interesting contexts for crime novels. Well, that and the great music of the age.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s All That Jazz.

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Filed under Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Ellen Mansoor Collier, Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Stone

Anyone For Tennis*

TennisAh, tennis! For many years it was one of those genteel sports, where players and coaches were supposed to behave politely. But if you’ve ever played tennis, you know that it can be extremely competitive. And for those with real talent, the international tennis circuit can be lucrative, so there’s a lot at stake.

With all of that competitiveness and money (not to mention the fame) on the line, it shouldn’t be surprising that tennis features in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage, we are introduced to Frank Dorrance and his fiancée, Brenda White. Frank has made it clear that his main purpose in marrying Brenda is access to the money she will inherit if they marry. But Frank has a rival, Hugh Rowlands, an impoverished solicitor who’s genuinely in love with Brenda. One day, Frank and Brenda attend a tennis party, where Frank manages to alienate just about everyone there. When it’s over, they leave the court. After the party, Brenda finds her fiancé murdered on the same court. The only footprints on the wet, sandy court belong to Frank, so there’s very little evidence to suggest how and by whom he might have been killed. But there’s no lack of suspects, as the victim was arrogant and obnoxious, and had made many enemies. Dr. Gideon Fell gets involved in the case, and finds that he has to clear both Hugh and Brenda, since both had motives.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories involve tennis. In Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Jennifer Sutcliffe, who is an avid tennis player. She’s a new student at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school, and soon makes friends with another new student, Julia Upjohn, and both enjoy their shared interest in tennis. Late one night, the school’s games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot in the new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Julia’s mother happens to be friends with Maureen Summerhayes, an acquaintance of Hercule Poirot’s, whom fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead will remember. When she finds an important clue to the murder, Julia uses that connection to visit Poirot. He returns with her to Meadowbank, and investigates the events there.  You’re absolutely right, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train, and of Evil Under the Sun.

In Harlan Coben’s Drop Shot, sports agent Myron Bolitar and his friend, Win Lockwood, are attending a U.S. Open tennis event, where Bolitar’s client, Duane Richwood, is competing. Richwood is an up-and-coming tennis star from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, ready to take the tennis world by storm, as the saying goes. During the game, Bolitar and Lockwood head to the food court outside the stadium, where they discover the body of former tennis great Valerie Simpson. For a number of reasons, Bolitar has an interest in finding out who killed the victim. First, it’s possible that his client might have known her. If there is a connection between the two, then Richwood could be a suspect. Second, Bolitar himself had been getting calls from Simpson, who wanted to resurrect her career. And it turns out that Lockwood referred her to him. With all of these connections hitting close to home, Bolitar decides to find out the truth behind the murder.

There’s a tennis angle in Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, too. Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara met in a Michigan prison, where both were serving time for stealing cars. They’ve become friends, and have decided to join forces to plan a potentially very lucrative crime. They’re going to kidnap Margaret ‘Mickey’ Dawson, wife of wealthy Detroit developer Frank Dawson. He’s in a position to pay a large ransom, and Robbie and Gara don’t think they’ll have any trouble from Mickey. She’s a devoted wife, and dedicated ‘tennis mum’ to thirteen-year-old Bo, who’s shown real talent on the court. But this plan soon goes wrong. First, Dawson has little interest in paying ransom. He’s got a girlfriend in the Bahamas, and was planning to divorce his wife, anyway.  There are other complications, too (no spoilers here!). As the novel goes on, we see that Mickey comes into her own, showing herself to be far from the ‘meek little housewife’ she seems to be at first. Among other things, this novel gives readers a peek at the perspective of the ‘sports parent.’

Many people know H.R.F. Keating best from his Inspector Ganesh Ghote novels. But he wrote several other novels too, including a series featuring Detective Superintendent Harriet Martens of the Greater Birchester Police. In one plot thread of A Detective in Love, the second in that series, Martens is seconded to the Leven Vales Police when U.K. tennis star Bubbles Xingara is stabbed to death during a morning training run. The victim was top-seeded at Wimbledon, so there’s more than just possible personal angle to this murder. What’s more, her fame and her reputation as a ‘media darling’ means that this case is going to get international exposure. So Martens will have to do everything right.

I don’t think I could do a post on tennis in crime fiction without making reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. As fans of the film will know, Hitchcock turns Guy Haines from an architect (his profession in the novel) to a professional tennis player. And there’s a very famous scene in the film that takes place at a tennis match in which Haines competes. Those who know the film will know exactly which scene I mean. If you haven’t seen this adaptation, I recommend it. But then, I admit to bias, as I like Hitchcock’s work very much.

See what I mean? Tennis seems like such a civil sort of game, where everyone is well-behaved. But under the surface? Hmm…. I’m not so sure.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Cream.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Elmore Leonard, H.R.F. Keating, Harlan Coben, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Highsmith