I read my first T.D. Stash novel while vacationing with the family at a tourist lodge on Lake Temagami. Despite being exhausted after canoeing with a 3 year old, I sat up all night to finish The Neon Flamingo. Its Florida Keys setting was as removed from Northern Ontario as you can imagine.
Gripping and smoothly written, W.R. Philbrick’s book has stayed with me, mostly because its hero, T.D. Stash, was so unusual for the late 1980s. He was a screw-up – a stoner and sometime fisherman desperate enough for cash to do favors for friends – legal or not so much. He often made dire situations worse.
I quickly read the next two books in the series, The Crystal Blue Persuasion and Tough Enough. Then waited in vain for more.
A few years later I met W. R. Philbrick at a crime writers’ conference. He happily signed my copy of The Neon Flamingo then passed on the bad news that his editor didn’t want any more T.D. Stash novels. A damn shame!
I suspect that TD Stash series was too dark. In other words, too intense, truthful and violent for 1990s readers. Like Liza Cody’s Bucket Nut, the books were fine examples of noir – and thus decades ahead of their time.
So what happened to W. R. Philbrick? I’m happy to tell you that he’s written over 30 novels under three pseudonyms, including the Connie Kale and J. D. Hawkins crime series. He’s had great success as a YA author, winning multiple awards. His YA adventure story, Freak the Mighty, was translated into several languages and is studied in classrooms throughout the world. Later it became a successful film.
The T.D. Stash books are not available on Amazon in print or digital form. Abe Books carry only a very few used paperbacks listed between $3 to $8US.
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!
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.)
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!
Beautiful morning on Monday, August 24th for the third of my pledged four 2020 Rides to Conquer Cancer.
In Ride #2, thunderstorms drove me back closer to home, so today my goal was to head west along the lake shore to the Humber River trail. But the best-laid plans…
I zipped down Bayview extension, passed the warning raccoon and opted for the section of the Don Valley trail that runs along the eastern edge of Bayview. I ride past the Brick Works (and the sadly closed Cafe Belong) down to Rosedale Valley Road.
Happily I discover that Toronto City has put in a bike path along Bayview itself as far as River Street. Traffic is a little hairy, but manageable.
Up the hill to River Street and the falling cranes thereon (read article here). Scary to think that the day before the accident, my cycling buddy and I rode under this crane. Holy dodging a bullet!
I zoom past the Toronto Humane Society, where I volunteered as a “cat groomer” many years ago then cross through the Canary District to get to Lakeshore.
Funnily enough the legendary Canary restaurant was one of the most celebrated dives in Toronto. Whenever we drove by it, I dared myself to eat there, but I never had the guts –ha, ha– to do it. The building has a storied history – warehouse, school, artist apartments – and even starred in films shot in Toronto. (I’ll be writing up the late, great Canary in a future blog.)
A new street through the Canary District takes you under the Gardiner Expressway. There I ran across Underpass Park, one of Toronto’s better efforts to beautify the grottiness under the cement arches the raised highway. There’s a children’s playground and lots of interesting street art.
I carefully heed the pedestrian signals to avoid getting flattened by the mad traffic on Lakeshore Boulevard. All going well all, as I ride along the Queen’s Quay when thump, flap, flap, flap! It’s a sound cyclists know all too well – I’ve a puncture in my rear tire.
Punctures are an unhappy reality for urban cyclists. Bits of broken glass, loose screws, hard plastic, sharp rocks – all are lurking to destroy your inner tube. Earlier this season, I had a “snake bite” puncture: if you go over a curb too hard, the inner tube can twist and you get twin holes. Sigh.
I wheel my bike over to Balzac’s in the Distillery District and enjoy an early coffee break while awaiting rescue via Ed in the Mazda. Slight panic when the internet tells me that my usual bike shop has closed for summer holidays. Then I remember passing by GEARS bike shop on my way through Canary. A short drive over after rewarding Ed with a latte. Terrific service – they replace my inner tube and I’m back in the saddle within 20 minutes.
By now, it’s late morning and the two-lane Queen’s Quay bike trail is bustling with MAMELs, biking families, mums and babies in strollers. Hard to pass so I settle in to the slower flow. Unbelievable amount of construction with high rise condos going up everywhere.
It’s hard to spot Cinesphere, where I’ve seen so many great films. I hope it survives COVID as well as my fav landmark, the windmill demo project. Only a mild headwind today so it isn’t turning.
The crowds thin out slightly. I have to stop for a flock of Canada geese crossing the trail and spot an encampment only 10 feet away from the thunderous traffic on Lakeshore. The Sunnyside Bathing Station is surprisingly open despite COVID.
At long last the “millennial” white pedestrian bridge over the Humber is in sight signaling the turn north onto the Humber River trail. Close by the bridge are the twin Palace Pier towers.
In 1981, Patrick Kelly, an undercover RCMP officer, tossed his wife off the 17th floor balcony of the building. He was convicted of first degree murder in 1984. His trial revealed that he’d turned to the dark side, working with organized crime to fund his extravagant lifestyle as well as his extra-marital love affairs.
He made parole in 2010 only to have it revoked in 2012 because of his relationships with women and insisting on cash payments for his antiques “business” in Prince George. By 2016, he was out again, living on Vancouver Island. Caveat emptor – indeed caveat everybody.
The trail along the western edge of the Humber River is lightly travelled today. I’ve had it easy so far since the roads have sloped down to the lake. Now I’ve got a few heart thumper hills until I emerge at Old Mill and Etienne Brule park to tackle the toughest climb yet.
Even at my fittest, I’ve never made it all the way up Humberview, a killer hill complete with hairpin bend, impatient drivers, etc. I walk up my usual bit then dive into the shady alleys of Baby Point.
A friend lives nearby. I’d always pronounced it “baybee” but in fact, it’s “Babbee”, the name of French fur trader, Jacques Bâby. Not a very nice guy though.
Recently the plaque below appeared near the stone gates of the enclave. It was created and funded by a white person with a social conscience. Not a comfortable truth to learn that Canadians also enslaved Black and indigenous people.
From here it’s a long hot ride along Annette and Dupont over to Summerhill. I stop along the way at one of my fav Starbucks at Christie for a cold drink. It’s housed in a former bank, but of course, the usually crowded cafe is much diminished because of COVID. There’s no place to sit down outside so I take a walk break and enjoy the street art along the way.
For many years, this Summerhill landmark, the former North Toronto station stood neglected. Built to rival the downtown Union Station – the tower is copied from the Venetian bell tower in St. Mark’s Square – it fell into disuse by WW2 though it continued to function as a liquor store. It’s now one of LCBO’s flagships. Read its full history here.
Finally I’m on the home stretch. A shady cool ride through Rosedale, Moore Park and Mt. Pleasant cemetery. I do a short loop past The Boys and reach home for 50km!
Last year I had the best time at the wonderful multi-genre festival, WHEN WORDS COLLIDE! in Calgary, Alberta. I was part of a crime fiction panel and learned about coz-play and writing children’s books.
I also had the privilege of reading at Noir at the Bar and getting to know the great authors and editors behind Coffin Hop Press, the publishers of The Dame Was Trouble.
Visiting Calgary also became a sentimental journey. My childhood can best be described as unsettled. Five of my early years were in Calgary – where we lived in three different houses.
Strangely enough my memory of Calgary as a patchwork of disparate cityscapes proved to be accurate. And one of my old homes still exists! There I had a magical conversation with the current owner. (Stand by for a Surreal Trapdoor blog.)
Because more importantly, WHEN WORDS COLLIDE 2020, will be on Zoom this week, from August 14 to 16th.
Best of all registration is FREE!! Register here. THE PROGRAM AND LINKS IS NOW UP!!
I’m delighted to one of the TEN Mesdames of Mayhem who are on the conference. panels.
We Mesdames have our very own panel, Meet the Mesdames of Mayhem, Saturday, August 15th, 4pm (Toronto time), 2 pm (Mountain time). (Donna Carrick, Rosemary McCracken, Madona Skaff, M. H. Callway moderating.)
We’re also out in force for The Long and Short of Crime,Saturday August 15th, 2 pm (TT), 12 noon (MT). (Jane Burfield, Rosemary McCracken, Lynne Murphy, Caro Soles, M. H. Callway moderating.)
Be sure to check out friends and authors Jayne Bernard, Melodie Campbell and Lisa De Nikolits.
Jayne Bernard, Melodie Campbell Plot vs Character, Crime Fiction’s Eternal Grudge Match, Friday, August 11th 3pm (TT), 1pm(MT)
Lisa De Nikolits, Caro Soles, Can the Crossover Fit the Crime? Saturday, August 15th, 12 noon (TT), 10 am (MT)
Jayne Bernard, The Heroine’s Journey, Sunday, August 16th, 1 pm (TT), 11am(MT) ; From the Mean Streets to the Deadly Wilderness, Sunday, August 16th, 3pm (TT), 1pm (MT); Diversity in Speculative Fiction, Sunday, August 16th, 5pm (TT), 3pm (MT)
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.
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
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