Novellas are relatively rare in crime fiction where formats are far more rigid than in literary and speculative fiction. Short story lengths greater than 5000 words are tolerated…barely. And novels must be no less than 65,000 and no more than 95,000 words.
No doubt the formats are dictated by business rather than artistic imperatives. The story or book length a publisher believes will hold readers’ attention spans.
So what is a novella exactly? A long story or a short novel? As an author whose work naturally tends to fall in this category, I believe a novella is a story with a linear plot but with more texture, atmosphere and complexity of character than can be captured in 5000 words or less.
The Orca Rapid Reads Series breathed life into the crime fiction novella. Mostly because of this series, the CWC Awards of Excellence have had enough entries to create and sustain a novella category. (CWC defines a novella as a story between 8000 and 20,000 words.)
The Rapid Reads series is aimed at adults who are ESL students, who have difficulty reading or those who simply want a fast satisfying read. Although the language is uncomplicated, the books are not simplistic. They are hard-hitting, with adult themes and they often focus on social issues.
It’s a challenge for an author to streamline their writing style without losing its essence. That’s why Orca contracted with leading Canadian crime fiction authors for the 68 books in the series, including my friend, Sam Wiebe.
Sam’s novella, Never Going Back (Orca, 2020) is one of the latest books in the Rapid Reads series. Its protagonist, Alison Kidd, is a tough young woman, a master thief who’s just gotten out of jail. She hated prison and she’s determined to go straight, but the local crime boss blackmails her into pulling off a risky job. If she refuses, her brother will be killed. Can she outsmart her old boss and save her brother and herself?
Sam’s hard-hitting, critically acclaimed Dave Wakeland series and his debut novel, The Last of the Independents, are both written very much from a man’s point of view. I was intrigued that Sam chose a woman hero for Never Going Back. Could he pull it off?
I’m delighted to say that, yes, Sam did! Alison Kidd is a terrific and likeable character. (More books and stories with strong women, Sam!) The plot has the twists and turns of a switchback highway and the suspense that goes along with it. An excellent thriller!
As a kid I was space mad. I longed to become an astronaut or an astronomer. And while I was growing up, sightings of UFO’s were prominent in the news. I became convinced that space aliens were visiting our planet.
Maybe that’s why I have fond memories of Lia Matera’s thriller, Star Witness, the fifth book in her Willa Jansson series. The book opens with a hit-between-the-eyes description of a horrific road accident: a sporty Fiat has dived into the roof of an old Buick, squishing the driver. The owner of the Fiat, Alan, has vanished. When the police locate him, he claims he was abducted by aliens. They’re the ones who dropped his car on the Buick!
It falls to grumpy lawyer, Willa Jansson to defend Alan and his incredible alibi. But delving into reports of UFO’s and encounters of the third kind, her skepticism dissolves. Holy Cartman’s anal probe!
Matera did a deep dive into UFO’s and weird encounters and included a listing of books and videos at the end of Star Witness. In her foreword she describes how her personal skepticism took a journey much like Willa Jansson’s.
Even today in Canada, we have firm believers in UFO’s. (Check out the meet-ups in Toronto alone!) Many years ago, I met and chatted with one of BC’s leading UFO believers thanks to my friend, retired filmmaker, Chris Windsor.
Chris had studied film making at UBC while I slogged away at my doctorate in organic chemistry. His student film, Roofman, was a huge hit with audiences at the university. That success and his talent landed him a job making industrial training films in Alberta. Mind-numbing and soul-destroying to be sure, but at least he was earning a living in his chosen profession.
In his spare time, Chris began working on a documentary about UFO’s. By then I was living in Victoria and writing my PhD thesis. Out of the blue one afternoon, Chris phoned. Would I help him out on a film shoot? He and his cinematographer were in town to interview the President of BC’s UFO Society.
Boy that was a hard choice – cranking out dry scientific prose or skiving off with two friends to explore UFO’s. Hell, yes!
The three of us headed off in Chris’s car to interview the UFO President at his house in a rural part of Vancouver Island. He turned out to be a kindly middle-aged man who lived in a tidy, respectable middle class home: he looked and acted like our dads though if memory serves, he did don a tinfoil hat. And his belief in UFO’s was absolute.
I’ll always owe Chris for that amazing life experience. I don’t know what happened with his UFO documentary, because shortly after that I handed in my thesis, graduated and moved back to Ontario.
So what happened to Lia Matera and Chris Windsor? Lia Matera , herself a lawyer, was chief editor of the Constitutional Law Quarterly and a teaching fellow at Stanford Law School, when she took up crime writing. She wrote the Willa Jansson and Laura Di Palma series of crime novels, twelve books in all, plus a dozen short stories. Her work collected several nominations for leading awards: the Edgar, Anthony and Macavity. She won the Shamus award in 1996.
Matera wrote from 1987 to 1996 then very little thereafter though Ellery Queen Magazine published her chilling tale, “Snow Job” as recently as 2019. Did she go back to law? Did she retire? The crime writing world is poorer for it!
Chris did go on to make a feature film, Big Meat Eater, a horror comedy that was released in 1982. It got favorable reviews and was a finalist at the 1983 Genies for Best Original Screenplay, but it never became a huge hit. Chris told me that unfortunately, as a Canadian film it was eclipsed by the American film, Eating Raoul, another horror comedy about cannibalism.
Andrew Gillies, Chris’s star in Roofman and Big Meat Eater went on to have a long career as a stage and film actor, with roles in The Virgin Suicides and Orphan Black.
Sadly, Chris left the film business. He may simply have burned out. To learn about the arduous art of film making, read his excellent article in the Georgia Strait here. He now lives in Asia where he has worked for many years.
VALUE: So what’s my used paperback copy of Star Witness worth on Abe Books? About $2 to $8US. It doesn’t appear to be available in Canada
I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned buildings. Arrested in time, they are living ghosts, hoarders of stories. I’ve always imagined them to be located on windswept hills, next to crumbling seashores or hidden in industrial wastelands, not lurking in my neighborhood.
To my surprise, I’ve now run across several abandoned buildings close to home. I’ve even learned how to spot them. (Stay tuned, that’s for Part 2.)
About a year ago, a visitor to our cottage told us that they’d discovered a “haunted house” on their walk through town. Following their directions, I found it on my next morning run.
The house at first glance seemed to be an older Victorian whose owners loved ivy-covered walls. But a closer look revealed a seriously deteriorated roof and a badly overgrown garden. The kingdom of plants had taken over.
A danger in being abandoned is vandalism – those who seek to destroy for the pure pleasure of destruction. Worst of all is the onslaught of natural elements, water being the most lethal.
I couldn’t help being curious about the reasons behind the house’s deterioration. An official notice was posted close to the “no trespassing” sign. Perhaps the inhabitants grew too elderly or too poor to maintain the house. As per COVID, one day would slide into the next, each as unremarkable as the other until decades had passed.
I spotted signs of an attempted clear-out. Was there a forced eviction? Two of these sad signs below.
Over the summer, I observed attempts to clear and/or repair the house, apparently by someone working singlehandedly. Not much progress as you might expect for such an overwhelming task.
This summer, a year later, curiosity led me past the haunted house again. Massive changes had happened: the ivy was gone, the extension had been demolished and the entire garden had been ripped out. Nothing was left but an empty purged shell.
Back in the 1990s, the Crime Writers of Canada had an unusual guest speaker from the UK – a woman! Indeed a young woman! She’d just written crime novel with a fascinating protagonist, decades ahead of her time. And it had won the prestigious CWA Silver Dagger Award.
Liza’s hero, Eva Wylie, is a female wrestler – and gay. The book I’ve pulled from my shelf is Bucket Nut, a pejorative phrase thrown at women who don’t pass het-male beauty standards. Or as the Brits put it “a face that could stop a clock”.
Bucket Nut is written in Eva’s voice and vernacular, every word pitch-perfect. Here’s a sample para:
“I know you think I’m stupid. Don’t try to tell me different, because I know, see. And maybe I’d done a stupid thing. All right. But even clever people can do stupid things. You don’t have to be all-round stupid to be conned. Clever people can be fooled, too. Hasn’t anyone ever taken you for a sucker? Well okay. I’m not judging you, so don’t you sit there and judge me!”
Set in the sordid world of low-rent wrestling, Bucket Nut shows Liza’s knowledge of a tough and gritty Britain. Like other great crime novels, it explores the social issues of sexism, poverty and the class system while solving the mystery. Eva is no saint and she relies on her fists and muscle more than is wise.
In creating Eva, Liza Cody was inspired by real-life British wrestler, Klondike Kate, who, she says, looked like a rain barrel in a leotard.
After the CWC meeting, I chatted with Liza, who, though tall, was about as far removed from the world of female wrestling as can be imagined. Born with dyslexia, she attended art school, became a graphic designer and worked day jobs, including doing hair styles on the wax dummies at Mme Tussaud’s!
When the digital world eclipsed the old mechanical world, Liza could take up writing, because of the computer spell-checker. Her experiences in the art world served her well in creating – or documenting – bizarre encounters. During our chat, she entertained us about a cop at her gym who wore a complete “Dr. Frankenfurter ” under her uniform!
So what happened to Liza Cody? She didn’t disappear at all. She just didn’t come back to Canada!
I’m delighted to report that she’s had a very successful career in the UK. Her Anna Lee novels about a woman private investigator, became a TV series in the UK and the USA. And she continues to write: dozens of short stories, many published in Ellery Queen Magazine as well as five standalone novels.
Her most recent work, Lady Bag, stars an elderly homeless woman whose pet greyhound is her best friend. One day outside the National Gallery, they meet the Devil… I’m definitely going to read that one!
VALUE: So what’s my used paperback copy of Bucket Nut worth on Abe Books? About $4US. And the Thierry* value: $66US.
BOTTOM LINE: Keep. In honour of wild women protagonists!
*Thierry value = most outrageous price you can humanly get away with. Named in honour of Mr. Brainwash who successfully sold used, outdated T-shirts for $500+. (See Banksy’s documentary, Exit through the Gift Shop.)
This has been a strange year indeed. Most of all, I miss connecting with you and my fellow crime authors in the Real World.
Just in time for Christmas, Amazon delivered my print copies of A Grave Diagnosis, Donna Carrick’s spooky and appropriate anthology for Anno Horribilis, AKA 2020. It never gets old to see one’s work in print! And a special Christmas decoration, 3D-printed here at home, that captures the world’s feelings about much of this year. Look closely for the message!
Stay safe and looking forward to a much brighter and happier 2021 in the Real World!
I was a bookish child and so inept at sports that my friends would fight to NOT have me on their team. But two amazing women got me to love sports – and changed my life forever.
In university, my sister-in-law got me into hiking, biking and downhill skiing. (We also had adventures dinghy sailing.) And my friend, Marian Misters, co-owner of Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore, introduced me to road running.
Hard work and perseverance accomplished more than I dreamed of: I’ve run a marathon, regularly biked 120 km at a stretch and skied black diamonds without dying! But I remain in awe of ultramarathoners, adventurers and mountain climbers whose exploits I devoured in the late, great Outside magazine.
Jon Billman, is a search-and-rescue expert, a former wildland firefighter and regular contributor to Outside. In The Cold Vanish, he explores how and why people continue to go missing in the wilderness. It’s been said that the solution to an enduring mystery is often sadly banal. That may be true of the many cases Billman writes about, but like Jon Krakauer, he unveils the tragedy behind each story – and a warning. Venturing into the wilderness requires an abundance of caution.
Billman’s book reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down. The overarching story centers on Jacob Gray, a 22 year-old cyclist who disappeared in Olympic National Park in Washington State. He’d embarked on a cycling journey but shortly after leaving home, his bicycle was found abandoned by the side of the road, all his gear intact. Close by was the fast-flowing Sol Duc River. Searchers assumed the worst: that he’d tried to fill his water bottle, fallen in and drowned.
Billman formed a close friendship with Jacob’s father, Randy, who never gave up hope of finding his son. They searched for Jacob for over a year, chasing scenarios from Jacob being involved in the drug trade to joining a cult to simply walking away from the world. (No spoilers, you must read through to the end of the book to find out what really happened to Jacob.)
The reasons behind these disappearances range from murder to accidents to running away. Billman interviews scientists – there aren’t many of them – who research how and why people go missing in the wilderness.
So how do people go missing? Much of the time accidents are to blame, usually falls when the person was on their own. The other main reason? Simply getting lost and dying from exposure, which usually means dehydration or hypothermia. People greatly underestimate the amount of water they need when hiking, especially in the heat. And even temperatures as moderate as 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) can lead to hypothermia.
Sadly the vast majority of the cases do not end well. Billman does include a miraculous rescue, that of a young yoga teacher who went missing in Hawaii for over two weeks. She wandered off the marked trail in a nature preserve and got lost. She survived a fall and a broken leg, but knew enough about nature to stay dehydrated. Search planes found her by chance in an area of the preserve far outside the search range. She’d wandered much farther than anyone had predicted.
The takeaways from the stories: those who go missing for a long time are found by chance and by people unassociated with the original search and rescue team. Often as not, the missing person is in a location logic did not dictate.
Important to remember that our predominantly urban society is spectacularly underequipped to deal with the wilderness. It’s not Disneyland. When exploring the wilderness, listen to the advice of forest rangers and park wardens. Don’t wander off marked trails. Take the right amount of water, food and supplies with you. And never go alone.
My rating: 5 stars Eat this book!
A Footnote: In 2016, at Left Coast Crime in Phoenix, Arizona, I took a tour of the Apacheland Movie Set museum. Our guide told us how a hiker had died the day before of heat and dehydration. He’d wandered off the beaten track and gotten lost, one canyon looking much like another. Also that day, three German tourists had set off into the desert with umbrellas to ward off the sun, but greatly underestimated the quantity of water they needed. Fortunately they were rescued, dehydrated but alive. Read the full story here.
Do join me and my fellow crime writers for the Zoom launch of Carrick Publishing’s new crime fiction anthology, A Grave Diagnosis. This collection of tales of murder and malaise appropriately launches on Halloween!!
AND a special Halloween treat – here’s our video on YouTube! Thank you, editor and publisher, Donna Carrick!
My friends and I have embraced Zoom. It’s become an indispensable tool for authors during these dystopian COVID times.
Since the run-up to Christmas is a strong market for book sales, I pitched the idea to the Mesdames that we run a series of Zoom book launches. They loved idea and the Mesdames’ Book Launch Marathon took off!
First author was my friend, Rosemary McCracken who just published the 5th book in her popular Pat Tierney series, Uncharted Waters. By all accounts our Zoom launch was a terrific success. Our three secrets? Planning, planning and planning.
Rosemary shares her excellent write-up about successful Zoom launch planning from an author’s point of view on her blog, Moving Target. Read it here.
Even better, watch our video of the whole launch!!
Here are my pearls of wisdom from the moderator / techie side:
For an audience greater than 40+ people, the moderator and the techie must be two different individuals.
Work closely with your author before the launch to:
develop interesting questions
make a list of invited guests for vetting during the event
support each other before, after and during the launch!
Make the launch interactive to engage the audience
allow lots of time for Q& A
have contest questions throughout the launch
Email the links to the author’s book(s) on Amazon, etc. to all invitees.
Our next marathon event is the launch of Carrick Publishing’s new crime fiction anthology, A Grave Diagnosis. Appropriately enough the launch date is on Halloween! Saturday, October 31st, 2pm. And as a contributing author, I can kick back, relax and be a guest this time!
Saturday August 29th was the 2020 virtual Ride to Conquer Cancer – and my 4th and final pledge ride of 50 km.
On Friday I picked up my official blue jersey from the mid-town Ride office. Distancing in the line-up, I happily ran into a friend from yoga class – and fellow rider. We almost didn’t recognize each other with our masks on.
The virtual event was a new experience. Saturday morning I dutifully logged onto YouTube to listen to the opening speeches, which were inspiring – and short. I learned that 4000 Riders would be cycling throughout Ontario – and indeed all over the world, even in the mountains of Columbia.
Speeches done, I set off on my final 50 km. It felt strange not to see Niagara Falls at the end and to ride solo. The sky looked ominously dark. The weather report called for scattered thunderstorms. But so what – I’ve ridden through thunderstorms on The Ride before.
I cut down through Leaside and entered Sunnybrook Park through Lyndhurst Hospital. The big hill down was slick from the night’s rain and my sunglasses fogged up immediately from the humidity. I took it slow.
The sun came out as I passed the dog park and paused to wipe off my glasses. Then off for a beautiful, easy morning ride through the park. Very few people about. I met my first fellow Rider halfway along the trail. The poor guy was fixing his punctured tire, but kindly refused my offers to help.
Thinking, been there, did that on Ride #3 and wishing him the good luck I had, I reach “The Teeth” and turn south onto the Don Valley trail.
The Upper Don Valley trail is getting busy. MAMELS, runners, dog walkers, other cyclists. I wave to a corporate team of Riders at the Pottery Road crossover and embark on the equally busy Lower Don path.
Sad to see the official, i.e. commissioned, street art murals steadily defaced by “tags” this past season. The murals in the tunnel of the Belleville underpass are pretty much obliterated.
At Lakeshore, I turn east and head under the concrete arches of the Gardiner toward The Beaches. I pass many icons: Ashbridge sewage works, the movie studios, Canadian Tire mega store and the skater’s park with its cool art.
It’s now mid-morning and the beaches are getting really crowded despite the many signs warning to “keep ur distance”. Pedaling feels remarkably fluid and fast. I know from experience that this means strong headwinds from the west behind me. I zoom along in top gear, thinking smugly how well my training has paid off, but when I turn around…
At the turnaround by Balmy Beach I prepare myself for a slog.
Riding against a headwind can be a humbling experience. I cope by gearing down and “spinning”. In other words, my feet go round and round the pedals in low gear like a hamster on a wheel. Several stony-thighed MAMELS pass me, but they may not know an endurance runner’s secret: always conserve energy.
I reached the 25 km halfway mark at the Beaches turnaround. Delighted to rendezvous with Ed at Balzac’s cafe in the Distillery District to nosh down my reward of coffee and delicious chocolate banana muffin!
By the time we’ve finished our coffee break, the skies have cleared. I head west in brilliant sunshine, cross over Lakeshore and take the crazy-busy Queen’s Quay bike trail. At least no construction trucks today.
I pass and wave to many Riders wearing the blue RIDE ON bike jersey. The headwinds have subsided somewhat. At Princes Gate the southern half of Lakeshore Blvd has been closed off to traffic, allowing more space to humans. (Maybe Toronto’s imitating Paris which closes the road along the Seine every Sunday morning so that cyclists and walkers can enjoy the river bank in peace.)
This is too good to pass up. Besides, for every Ride, the City of Toronto closes Lakeshore Blvd to allow 5000 Riders to get to Mississauga. The weather turns stormy again by the time I reach the end of Exhibition Park.
For nostalgia, I cross through Exhibition Park. Normally the crazy, sleazy Ex would be in full swing now. Ed loves it, especially the “Pure Foods” like deep fried butter and Canada’s favorite, Tiny Tom donuts. Sadly, Tom Brazier, the founder died earlier this year but his family will be carrying on his well-loved business. (See the history on video on the Tiny Tom Donut website.)
I return to the lakeshore trail via a handy pedestrian bridge and turn east for home. I’m already at 42 km!
Because it’s Saturday, I decide to try the bike lanes through downtown Toronto. At Spadina, I take a new trail through the generically-named Southern Linear Park, pass The Dome and the Aquarium (you can get Tiny Tom donuts there) and pay tribute to the great Steam Whistle Brewery.
Since the very first Ride in 2008, Steam Whistle has been rewarding thirsty Riders with TWO beers at the end of each day. (Ed as road crew gets his beer!) Here’s me celebrating the end of my very first Ride.
I’m really impressed with the new bike trails through downtown. I remember biking to work during various TTC strikes wondering if I’d make it home in one piece. Now I spot Bike Share everywhere. Progress at long last!
Up Simcoe, a short dash along Queen St., then onto Bay St. with its single lane reserved for buses, cabs and cyclists. I definitely feel rain drops now and eye various options for shelter just in case.
Despite the thundery-looking heavens, I take a minute to salute Queen’s Park, my old employer and IT client. At the site of what was probably the ugliest government building in Ontario, there’s an enormous multi-story wrapped in flapping construction paper like an erstwhile Christo / Jeanne Claude artwork.
The building I remember – where we IT consultants were consigned – was a square cement low-rise, dingy, poorly lit and without a single bit of decoration. For years, it housed the Ontario Publications book store on the ground floor. (Please contain your excitement!)
The most remarkable thing about the building was its survivability. Perhaps its dowdiness convinced taxpayers the Government of Ontario wasn’t wasting their money (ha!ha!).
But even the most hardy disappear in the end. I’m not sure if this glass tower will be housing civil servants or condo dwellers.
Up Bay Street and down Belmont Avenue, the site of the legendary Toronto Truck Theatre where Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap had its longest run outside of London, England. The Canadian version of Mousetrap opened on 19 August 1977 and closed on 18 January 2004 after a run of 26 years and over 9,000 performances. The only person who ever guessed the murderer was our daughter, who was about 9 at the time, because she noticed that…sorry, no spoilers.
Up Yonge Street, dodging traffic, aiming to cut through the St. Clair reservoir. No luck, it’s still under construction – for nearly two years now.
I steel myself for more risk-taking adventures (Yonge does not have a bike lane) and turn in to Mt. Pleasant cemetery just north of Heath St. I finish my ride in the calm and peace of its roadways. No traffic, the sun bursts out and before I know it, I’m home and done.
At 5pm I logged back on to YouTube for the closing speeches. This year The Ride raised $7 million, nearly 50% more than the organizers had anticipated.