I had the pleasure of meeting AJ Devlin at Left Coast Crime in Vancouver in 2019. We ended up sitting next to each other at the Crime Writers of Canada pub dinner and really hit it off. It turns out that AJ spent many years in Hollywood as a screen writer and our daughter, Claire, works in special effects so I know how tough the film biz can be. And we bonded over the challenges we’d both had to overcome to be traditionally published.
AJ’s first crime novel, Cobra Clutch, found a home with NeWest Press. It introduced “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead, a former pro wrestler turned private eye. I loved it! Like pro wrestling, Cobra Clutch has it all: comedy, great characters and over the top action. (The shoot-out on Lion’s Gate Bridge is my personal favorite.)
Cobra Clutch was nominated for a Lefty Award and went on to win the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award. Not bad!
So I was eager to read Jed Ounstead’s next adventure, Rolling Thunder. I’m delighted to report that it’s great fun and a great read. Jed is in fine form as he dives into the world of roller derby. The coach of the Split Lip Sallies, whose stage name is Lawrence O’Labia, has disappeared days before a critical match. (Lawrence’s real-life name is even ruder.) The roller derby team hires Jed to find him.
Running Lawrence down lands Jed in enormous danger as he searches through Vancouver’s seamy side. Is it gambling? Drugs? Larry’s secret fondness for the (gay) leather scene? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
AJ has a gift for witty names and dialogue. He populates the pages of his thriller with hilariously weird characters, among them: an effete bookie who races dachshunds, an excruciatingly amateur talk show host and a 300lb roller derby star who likes to whack men’s butts. Jed gets lots of action in and out of the ring. The fight scenes are especially well-written: gritty and visual.
Rolling Thunderhits all the marks for a PI thriller. Thoroughly recommended. 5 stars.
COVID forced the pause button down on modern society. And the intensification of social media meant the whole world watched George Floyd get murdered. Yes, let’s use the right word – murdered over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.
Many times I’ve handed a $20 bill to a cashier who semi-surreptitiously checked it out with a UV light under the counter. What’s the worst that would have happened to me if it looked fake? The cashier would simply have handed it back and told me it’s phoney.
Because I’m white. Also I live in Canada.
As a kid, I witnessed the shootings at Kent State University on the TV news. The image of state troopers firing into and killing unarmed student protestors seared into my memory forever. Up until then, I believed the world was the way society and my folks told me it was. That day I began to see the way the world really is.
I’m hoping there’s an upside to the ubiquitous spying technology we’re so addicted to. (In case you missed it, our phones are turning us into “Little Brother”.) But amidst FAANG’s avid personal data collection, the truth occasionally slips out.
Will public outrage reach the critical mass needed for meaningful action? Does this mean Revolution, Baby?
Maybe this time it’s really gonna be different.
So I biked through Toronto’s Graffiti Alley to take in the street art memorializing George Floyd. Here’s what I found. The pics speak for themselves.
Graffiti Alley runs a short block south of Queen, east-west from Spadina to Bathurst. It’s gritty, the paintings multi-layered and ever-changing. Check Google Maps for location.
Delighted to report that my cross-genre story, “The Eternal Bakery of the Fractal Mind”, will be part of Carrick Publishing’s exciting new crime anthology, A Grave Diagnosis. Publication is slated for this fall and is one of the few bright spots in this write-off Plague Year AKA Anno Horribilis or 2020.
Donna Carrick chose the medical theme for Grave Diagnosis months before COVID was a whisper on the internet. Some readers might call this serendipity, but I call it prescient and perfect planning!
My story, “The Eternal Bakery…”, is a departure for me and is my first foray into speculative fiction. During Left Coast Crime 2019, I discovered that my favorite bakery from my university student days in Vancouver still exists – and it still serves my favorite cinnamon buns. The story simply dropped out of the creative ether like a crystal out of solution – a gift when it happens.
I’m delighted to share the pages with several Mesdames of Mayhem buddies and many crime writer friends. I’ll share the full list of writers as soon as it’s available.
And stay tuned for the cover reveal and details of our book launch!
In recent years, especially in noir crime fiction, authors and editors have pushed to create “geezer lit”. But the sub-genre hasn’t really caught on even though crime fiction readers are an older demographic.
True enough, modern protagonists of crime fiction, especially cozies, have become slightly older, but they’re not really old.
Two notable exceptions did take off. First of all, there’s the intrepid Miss Marple, inspired by an elderly friend of Dame Agatha Christie’s step grandmother. Miss Marple made her first appearance in a short story published in 1927.
Then more than half a century later, author L.A. Morse introduced Jake Spanner, his 78 year old PI. The Old Dick was Morse’s first crime novel and he won an Edgar Award for it.
In the early days of Crime Writers of Canada, L. A. Morse was much admired by the membership and perhaps more than a little envied because of his smashing success with The Old Dick. Though Morse worked as an administrator at the University of Toronto, he was actually an American from Los Angeles with two degrees in English literature from the University of California.
Re-reading The Old Dick, it’s easy to understand why it was such a hit. The writing is excellent: Morse goes for the comedy, with wry observations and epigrams packed into every page. He’s channelling his inner Raymond Chandler with observations like :
“When you got old, you either went soft or you got dry. Fortunately, I had gotten dry.”
“One of the few advantages of getting really old is that people don’t talk to you…They’re probably afraid that old age is contagious.”
“People have always divided the world into “us” and “them”, but when you’re old, you never fit in, so you’re always “them”.”
The Old Dick was not Morse’s first book. He’d already published, The Flesh Eaters, about a 15th century Scottish cannibal clan. He went on to write three more crime novels, all with a satirical edge. He took on Mickey Spillane with two hard-boiled novels, The Big Enchilada and Sleaze, whose hero, Sam Hunter “made Dirty Harry look like Mother Teresa”. He then showed his cozy side in An Old-Fashioned Mystery, penned by the mysterious and reclusive author, “Runa Fairleigh”.
In the mid-1980s, Morse turned to screen writing. He was one of the writers of Jake Spanner, Private Eye, a 1989 film starring Robert Mitchum and Ernest Borgnine. Though the movie centred on the Jake Spanner character from The Old Dick, the plot bore no resemblance to the book at all. Despite a strong cast, it failed to take off.
At this point Morse abandoned writing altogether. He turned to another medium for creative expression: he became -and still is – a sculptor. He became an expert bird watcher and published a two volume reference book on trashy 1980s movies and videos.
BOTTOM LINE: Abe Books lists the value of my used, unsigned paperback from $4 to $8US.
DECISION – SELL, KEEP or DONATE?
DONATE with an ounce of regret for the good writing between the covers
It’s been a cold spring in Ontario, but time to open up the cottage for the season. This means gearing up to battle the field mice invasion and/or emptying our bank accounts to repair winter damage.
At first, Anno Horribilis aka 2020 seemed to have thrown us a break. A mature pine tree had cracked in half over the winter but the tree top landed clear of our roof. No structural damage – whew!
As for the mice, well, remember Walter White’s respirator in Breaking Bad? Good thing we had one, because an ocean of rodent poop was waiting for us in the cupboard under the sink. More feces sprinkled over the counters, stove, you name it. And a favorite quilt chewed to pieces. Sigh.
It’s necessary to take extreme precautions when cleaning up because Huron County deer mice harbour the hantavirus. (Nasty info via the Ontario Government publication here.) But my love for animals was about to be further tested…
Outside in my late mother-in-law’s garden, we spotted a pretty bird about the size of a chicken. Not wanting to scare it away, I sneaked closer with my camera.
The bird wasn’t afraid. In fact, it exhibited so little fear that we worried it was someone’s pet. Not a safe environment around our cottage for bunnies and birds – lots of hawks and the occasional carnivore…
While taking the protective plastic off our young fruit trees later on, I noticed the bird again. Quite unafraid, still following us. Worried now, I wondered, should we feed it? Ask our neighbours who it belonged to?
Turning my back to it, all of a sudden, WHACK! Something hard struck me between the shoulder blades. It was the damn bird! Too cowardly to attack fact to face apparently.
OK, I thought, obviously a territorial dispute happening here. For some unknown reason, the grouse had settled on our cottage property for mating and breeding purpose.
Now the grouse was much smaller than me, so its attack was merely disconcerting. Still as a long-term animal rights supporter, I couldn’t help feeling a tiny bit betrayed.
More was to come though. Grouse-zilla kept a beady eye on us as we cleared the yard every so often gathering itself for a rush. By now I was visualizing predators at the top end of the food chain. Where was a fox, muskrat or hawk when you needed one?
“Let’s take a walk to the beaver pond,” Ed suggested. “We’ll lose it in the woods.”
The beaver pond lies about half a kilometre east of our cottage. You reach it via a trail through the woods. As we made our way along the trail, we heard it rustling through the undergrowth beside us – all the way to the pond.
“Let’s walk around the pond. It’ll give up,” I said.
So round the pond we went – a fair distance over ditches, narrow foot bridges, looping round on trails that aren’t easy to find. Did it follow? Of course it did.
It followed us all the way back to the cabin, a distance of at least one kilometre through dense trees and brush. In a (very) grudging way, I admired it. The little f**ker had grit.
After a quick search on the internet, I turned up other tales of grouse attacks. Here’s one of the funniest, Yellowstone Grouse Attack! on video.
We drove off but sadly it wasn’t under our tires. I hear grouse roasts up nice….
I was delighted to be a guest on Lisa De Nikolits’ Goodreads blog, Interview with an Author on May 2nd. Lisa is the award-winning author of eight novels and numerous short stories. Her work leans to the dark side and the weird – which is why I love it! It’s crime fiction which explores mystical and philosophical issues. Highly recommended! Her most recent novel is The Occult Persuasion and the Anarchist’s Solution.
In our interview, I tell how a scientist with a business degree ended up writing crime fiction and I share some of my life experiences that led to Windigo Fire. Read it here.
I was also delighted to be Donna Carrick’s guest author on her 70th episode of Dead to Writes on May 17th. Our interview is on Zoom so you can see and hear us talking about crime fiction, my writing and the Mesdames of Mayhem, the author community that Donna and I co-founded.
Enjoy our zoom interview here. Also on iTunes podcast here
Strange times, readers. But happily, at long last we can attack our TBR piles. Definitely time to indulge in feel-good literature even when one is drawn to the dark side – and noir.
The answer? Black humour and you will find plenty in the terrific anthology, Knucklehead Noir (Coffin Hop Press) edited by Robert Bose and Sarah L. Johnson. The byline says it all: When there’s no room left in jail, the idiots will walk the streets. Believe me, when you’ve finished these 15 stories (most new, some reprinted) by leading Canadian and American noir authors, you will feel much better about your own life, family, friends, job and COVID-19.
Leading off these tales celebrating idiots is one of my personal favorites, “Two Kangaroos Chained to a Piss Pot” by Jason Pearce. Angus arrives home with the Christmas gifts he made in jail, like the shiv his little brother can use as a toothbrush. Handy! But when he robs his local grocery store of beer and smokes, things go awry in the most Canadian way. “Honeymoon Sweet” by US screenwriter, Craig Faustus Buck, is the Macavity award-winning tale of marry in haste, repent at leisure. The same warning continues in “Work at Home Opportunity! Perfect for Single Moms” by Laurie Zottmann. Single mom, Chucky Jensen, struggles to sell stolen yoga pants at her kid’s school fair while fending off bitchy competitors and hiding the freshly dug hole in her garden from her nosy neighbour cop.
Golden Derringer winner, Michael Bracken, pens a cautionary tale about wannabee robbers of adult stores in “Sex Toys”, but Pamela Kenney gives us hope in “All in a Day’s Work”. You may change your fate if your kidnappers are dumber than you. The criminals in Chris R. Young’s story, ” Thick as Thieves”, are certainly thick. They mess up a job -no kidding!- and get caught in a hilarious twist of fate.
More inept wannabees appear in Tom Barlow’s, “Hic”. Andy tries to outdo his jailed brother, while sleeping with his brother’s devious ex, but his nerves set off a fit of hiccups and disaster. Jaclyn Adomeit’s story, “Scratch and Sniff”, skillfully blends suspense and humour in hero Nathan’s quest to smuggle drugs into an oil drillers camp. And the sad irony continues in Brent Nichols’ “Go Fish”, where a poacher steals a drowning victim’s cell phone only to find out that the vic has powerful friends bent on a watery revenge.
Another personal favorite is “Johnny Money”, by Steve Passey, where hardened gangster, Johnny, looks out for his vulnerable younger brother, Ricky. American noir author, Steve Brewer, shows his humorous side in “Cemetery Plot” where a trio of idiots try to kill each other off in a graveyard. Convenient because who looks for a murder victim in a cemetery?
Events turn downright bizarre in the cross-genre story “Soft Opening” by Will Viharo. Porn merchants learn that it’s never a good idea to cross an alien. In “Beer Run” by Scott S. Phillips, Radio Ketchum fights to retrieve a beer shipment stolen from his terrifying mother’s bar. And in Axel Howerton’s “The Aluminum Eagle”, we travel back in time in a thoroughly enjoyable homage to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. And rounding up the collection is the flash story, “Liner Notes” by editors Sarah and Rob where a hapless photog learns the hard way that his pics may be a goldmine, but not in the way he dreamed.
Strange times indeed. Normally in March and April, I’m training for The Ride to Conquer Cancer, to support cancer research at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, one of the top five centres in the world.
2020 would have been my 13th ride. Alas, not to be. The Ride is in limbo along with the rest of our world. Hard to see how an event of 4000+ sweaty riders plus 1000 volunteers, all served by well-used porta-potties, leaking buckets of energy drinks and pawed-over treats, could happen in this epidemic year.
No matter what they decide about the Ride itself, the donations will go to cancer research, if not this year, then in 2021. If only cancer went into quarantine! Happily though PMH has officially joined the war on CORVID-19 with researchers working on a treatment / vaccine.
What to do in the meantime? Luckily because I’m a runner and cyclist I’m not housebound. No rules against either activity…yet. Public health authorities encourage everyone to get fresh air. But where?
My favorite training loop, Mt. Pleasant cemetery, is closed, but city trails are not. And the streets are eerily empty of traffic. Surreal to be sure. My intrepid fellow companions are: dog walkers, families with small children, senior citizens and other crazy cyclists and runners. Waved to a gym buddy – an 82 year old grandmother and long distance runner who grew up during the Battle of Britain.
My British blood stirs. This is our boomer moment, I guess. Crap! And it’s spring and reason for happiness.
One of my favorite bike routes runs along the Beltline. Uplifting to discover that its interesting street art is not only intact, but restored.
Wildlife may be reclaiming their habitat judging by the sign spotted near the end of the Beltline. Stay safe, my friends!
Carrick Publishinghas announced their new crime story anthology, A Grave Diagnosis, to be released Fall 2020.
Submissions are open to the published and emerging writers. A prize will be awarded for best story and runner up. Deadline for submission: June 1, 2020.
Stories may be mystery, police procedural or thriller and must contain a clear crime. Word Count 1500 – 8000 max. No horror please.
Each story must contain an illness or a disease. The illness or disease can be life-threatening or only relevant in some other way. It can be related to either the protagonist or the antagonist. It can be a rare disease, or something very run-of-the-mill, including colds, flus and the like. But there must be a disease playing a factor in either the crime or the solution.
I’ve been a customer of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore since it first opened in Toronto on Bayview Avenue and I’ve followed it through four moves to its present location on Millwood Road.
I started out reading the classics (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham) but quickly gravitated to darker crime fiction, which remains my strong favorite. So on J. D. Singh’s recommendation, I tried the Harry Stoner series by Jonathan Valin and quickly became a fan.
Like most enduring PI heroes, Harry Stoner hides his human side and lives to deliver justice for his disempowered clients – through violence, what else? His city is Cincinnati (Sin City?), a dark gritty place ruled by grifters and gangsters thriving in the worst sin: snuff films, pornography, pedophilia…you know the list.
In the 1980’s, PI novels had far more rigid conventions than today. The Stoner series checks everything off the list: Stoner is a (Viet Nam) war vet. He bears mental and physical scars (he looks like a broken Roman statue). He’s big and strong and lethal with his fists. His PI office lies in a funky old building. He drives a wreck of a car – a (mercifully) non-flaming Pinto. He’s constantly short of cash. He lives on a diet of alcohol, steak and coffee – and survives more physical abuse than is humanly possible (beaten up, shot, etc.) He also gets a ton of sex.
On re-reading, The Lime Pit, the first book in the series, the limited roles of the women characters really got to me. They were straight out of a 1950s Mickey Spillane adventure. Good girls or bad, they only existed to have sex with Stoner. Their defining characteristics: compliant and horny.
So what was Valin’s appeal for me? His writing! It’s breathtakingly vivid, visceral and cinematic – just the way I like it. Here’s an example:
“Morris Rich was a sly, sentimental man of about fifty…but he was first and foremost a thief. He was a short man with a smooth, hairless head, the exact size of a schoolyard kickball and the bright, famished eyes and tiny upturned mouth of a rat.”
From 1980 to 1995, Valin wrote 11 novels in the Harry Stoner series of which I own the first eight. A TV movie was made of Final Notice, the second book in the series, starring actor Gil Gerard with Cincinnati played by Toronto (really??). The film didn’t catch on, which often as not happens with crime series: witness the failure to translate Louise Penny’s terrific Gamache novels to the screen.
Maybe that’s why after 11 books and 14 years of hard work, Valin switched to editing Fi, a music review magazine and left crime writing behind.
Valin won the prestigious Shamus Award in 1989 for his 8th Stoner novel, Extenuating Circumstances. He was nominated again in 1991 for Second Chance. Previously in 1986, Life’s Work was a runner-up for the Anthony award.
Distinguished author and screenwriter, Stuart Kaminsky wrote this about Valin’s writing and I can’t help but agree: “All [his novel] are gems. They never caught on, never got an audience, while far lesser talents became best sellers… I would read them all again and recommend them to all lovers of hard-boiled mysteries.”
My friend, Sam Wiebe, who was recently listed for the both Shamus and Hammett awards, shares the same hope – as do I – that in the end quality is what matters – and endures.
BOTTOM LINE: What are my paperback copies worth?
The low end is disappointing for books of this quality but that’s the marketplace. The lofty numbers are seller-specific. In other words, like Terry (Mr. Brainwash) in the documentary,Exit Through the Gift Shop, ask $500 for a ratty 1970s T-shirt and some mark might bite!