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!
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!
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)
My long story, “Brainworm”, is featured on Donna Carrick’s Story Stocking,Part One on July 22nd and Part Two on July 29th. “Brainworm” first appeared in the Mesdames of Mayhem’s latest anthology, In the Key of 13.
In the story, Fiona, a middle-aged woman worn down by looking after her difficult stepmother, has a near miss on the highway during a biting winter blizzard. The shock forces her to face the danger about to devour her.
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
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!