Thirty Years a Detective

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Although this is by no means a great book, it is well worth reading as a historical document. The book is not a biography or autobiography of Allan Pinkerton. If you want that, look elsewhere. It is a fascinating description of the practice of crime in 19th century America.

This book’s main flaws are 1) it often reads like advertising or even propaganda for the abilities of the Pinkerton agency to thwart crime and protect moneyed interests, and 2) the prose is wordy and overwrought, even by 19th century standards.

There is more than enough interesting material in here to excuse both of those flaws. As one Goodreads reviewer notes, Pinkerton (or his ghostwriter) tends to write that many of the criminals in this book were geniuses, or somehow super-criminals. Actually, many of them were, which is why they’re included in this volume. If the book described the cat-and-mouse game between smart, resourceful detectives and crude, run-of-the-mill criminals, it wouldn’t be too interesting.

There’s an entire chapter on “burglars,” which in this book refers specifically to those who crack bank safes (as opposed to typical house burglars). Of the safe-breaker, Pinkerton says:

…experience has demonstrated beyond question that he is possessed of more than ordinary mechanical knowledge, and that his energy and patience are phenomenal. Nor is there any reason why this should not be so. The burglar is trained to his vocation by the hardest discipline known to man.

Pinkerton goes on to say:

So exceedingly proficient have many of them become in the art of safe-opening, that I have known of more than one instance where burglars have been taken from their prison cells to open safes and vaults whose owners have forgotten the complicated combinations…

The “safe-openers” of the 19th century were akin to the hackers of the 21st century. They had to outwit the most sophisticated security designs of the cleverest minds of the era. But unlike today’s hackers, they had to do their work onsite, in the dark, almost always between the bank’s closing on Saturday evening and when its reopening on Monday morning.

Like today’s best hackers, the safe-openers worked with a set of specially-made tools, often of ingenious design, and many of which they built by hand specifically for the task. The best of these criminals carefully studied safe manufacture and design, knowing that they could defeat the security of the safe only by attacking it at its weakest point. Pinkerton provides illustrations and descriptions of some of these tools, and describes how they were used in specific heists.

A number of bank burglaries described in the book depend less on cleverness than on perseverance. Sometimes burglars, like hackers, ignored the obvious point of attack and found a way into the vault that no one would have ever anticipated. (If you’ve seen the film Sexy Beast, you’ll have an idea of how this type of burglary works. It depends on tremendous audacity, patience, and perseverance.)

The book also contains a long chapter on counterfeiting, which describes a number of fascinating characters. Counterfeiters are by nature patient, subtle, wily, wary, detail oriented, and highly skilled. Compared with common thieves, who rip people off one at a time, counterfeiters operate on a huge scale, and by the time anyone recognizes that false currency is in circulation, the perpetrators are gone.

Thirty Years a Detective is most interesting as a description of how crime was practiced in the 19th century, and how it was detected. In this book, as in The Expressman and the Detective, Pinkerton shows that there is a fine line between the top-notch detective and the top-notch criminal. Both are deceptive and elusive. Both employ similar tactics to case their targets. Both are preoccupied with the questions “How does one deceive an honest citizen?” and “What weaknesses in the system can I exploit for gain?”

The criminal works forward from these questions to engineer his crime. The detective works backward to figure out what was done, how, and by whom. The criminal merely has to commit the act. The detective has the much tougher job of proving it was done, who did it, and how. In this book and in others, Pinkerton admires and laments the misapplied genius of his toughest adversaries, and it really is an interesting read.

In Memory of O’Neil McGean

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I knew O’Neil since I was about 12 years old. We called him Neil back then. He was about 16 years old, and my mother used to have him come to the house to watch my brothers and me when she went out. Neil’s main job was to keep my older brother, Dan, from beating the crap out of my younger brother, Paul. Neil was very good at distracting Dan, who was 13 at the time, and the two became close friends.

After he graduated high school, Neil worked for the small business my mother owned and ran. The company collected data from the Labor Department and from the Securities and Exchange commission, verified it and cleaned it up, then published it in volumes that were sold to professionals in the financial industry. Neil’s job was to call the companies that had filed documents with Labor and SEC, and verify that all the data was still accurate. He was good at it, because he was good at talking to people.

After he left that job, he started working at the Charles Jourdan store on Wisconsin Avenue, near Friendship Heights. How he pulled that off, I still do not know. The guy didn’t shave half the time, he didn’t dress particularly well, and he seemed to always have a toothpick or a plastic straw hanging out of his mouth. (Maybe some of his other friends from that time will remember how, whenever he went to McDonalds he always came out with a pocket full of straws. He’d stick one in his mouth and chew on it for a while, and then when he got sick of it, he’d unwrap another one, like it was a fresh cigar.) Anyway, this somewhat slovenly guy somehow wound up being so good at selling high-end shoes to rich women that they promoted him to manager.

He stayed there for quite a while before he decided it was time to move on. And what’s the logical next step in that career path? Why, landscaper, of course! He left the fancy shoe store and started rooting around in the dirt. In the summer of 1988, we were both working again at the same company. I forget the name of the place, but the headquarters was in Rockville, and they had a fleet of 30 or 40 white pickups, along with a few larger trucks. About 90% of the business was mowing, so that’s what 90% of the employees did every day.

We used to roll in a little before 7 A.M. Neil and I drove separately, but we both liked to get there early because there were only three or four fast self-propelled mowers and whoever got there first got to take them for the day. We were also both pretty particular about which truck we drove, and the trucks too were first-come, first-serve. Almost the whole fleet was Dodge, and the Dodge trucks of the late 80’s had the brake release directly above the parking brake pedal. When you pulled the release, the pedal would shoot up and crush your fingers. I always tried to take one of the Ford trucks to avoid getting my fingers crushed. Neil seemed to favor one really old truck that reminded me of Sanford and Son. (It wasn’t quite that old, but you get the picture.)

Each morning, we’d be assigned a partner, and we’d go out in teams of two, with a list of 20 or 30 lawns to cut. Neil and I were both very efficient, and they’d give us the longest lists. We’d take the fast mowers and head out with our partners.

One day, after the rains had made the grass unusually tall and thick, I remember Neil had his truck all loaded up with two mowers and a trimmer and blower, and he was pacing around the shop and cursing because he had a huge list and his partner had not shown up.  Neil called the guy’s house, but there was no answer.

I headed out with my partner, and we had a lot of trouble getting through the high, wet grass. We typically ended our days at the Montgomery County Transfer Station up in Gaithersburg, where we’d dump our truckload of grass. Actually, we had pitch the grass out with pitchforks. Unlike the dry yellow grass of late summer, the tall green grass would get heavy in the truck bed. We’d start pitching it out, and when we dug down to the middle of the pile, it would be steaming. The decomposing grass got so hot that if you fell on it (which I did many times), it burned your skin.

On that particular day, my partner and I were in the transfer station before noon, unloading more than a full day’s worth of clippings. We were only half way through our list, and we knew we’d be back later with another full load. A couple other trucks from our company were unloading next to us, and trucks from other companies were streaming in as well. Everyone was having the same problem.

We usually started around 7 AM and finished around 3 or 3:30. That day, my partner and I finished the last yard around 5:00, and we had a long drive from Bethesda to Gaithersburg to dump our grass. We were on River Road, rolling up to a red light, in the left turn lane so we could make a U-turn. Neil’s truck was up ahead, already stopped at the light, and he had a mountain of wet, heavy grass piled high above the top of the cab. His mower was on top of that mountain. I have no idea how he got it up there, but I imagine he was cursing the whole time. The back of the truck was sagging so low that the wheels were almost scraping against the wheel wells.

I pulled up next to him, and I said, “Hey Neil!”

He was angry and tired, and his face was sunburnt.

I couldn’t help teasing him. “Did you get through that whole list?”

He said, “I have one more to go.” Then he held up his middle finger and repeated. “One.”

I said, “Where’s your partner?”

“Looking for a new job.”

That was about the most annoyed I’ve ever seen him. Then he started laughing.

When the light turned green, I started my U-turn. He hit the gas, and his overloaded Sanford and Son truck stalled. As I headed up the road in the other direction, I heard him yell, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!!!!”

I didn’t see him again until the next day. He came in a little late, which was unusual for him, and he walked right up to me, laughing, and he said, “You know what happened yesterday? Right after I saw you? Like one minute after I saw you?”

“What?”

He told me he got the truck started again after the stall, and it took a while to get the thing up to speed because it was straining badly under the load. He was approaching a yellow light, which he wanted to run, because he wanted to finish that last lawn and get that miserable day over with as soon as possible. He sped up for the light, trying to squeeze through, and assumed the driver of the school bus in front of him would do the same. The school bus stopped, and Neil said that it wasn’t until he slammed on the brakes that he realized an overloaded truck takes a lot longer to stop than an empty one.

He was laughing when he told me, “I rear-ended that bus so hard, I snapped the truck right in half.” The frame of the truck broke just behind the cab, the mower flew up over the bus, and 2000 pounds of grass went all over the road. Neil wasn’t hurt, and there was no one on the bus but the driver. The cops were pissed about having to clean up all that grass in the middle of rush hour, and Neil wound up stuck at the accident scene for an hour or two. After that, he went out and got drunk.

Somehow, improbable things were always happening to him, and he would report them as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. Like the time he found an envelope in the alley with $2000 or $3000 in it. Neil, the good Samaritan, turned the money over to the police, because he thought whoever had lost it really needed to have it back. He asked the cops what would happen to the money if no one claimed it, and they said in that case, it would be his.

A few months went by and no one claimed the money. When Neil tried to get it back, the cops said they were keeping it. He was pretty pissed about that. He said that if he ever found a big wad of cash again, he’d just put it in his pocket and keep his mouth shut. He also said, “You know, I wish I could have learned that lesson with, like, fifty dollars.”

In 1993 and 1994, Neil had his own landscaping business, and for several months, I was his sole employee. We liked working together, because we were both efficient. We’d spend the days out in Montgomery County, cutting grass and cleaning up yards, then pick up a six pack on the way back into DC.

I’d see him now and then in the evenings walking by the Fox and Hound on 17th Street, where I used to drink at the sidewalk tables with my friends. There was one point when we weren’t doing any work, and I hadn’t seen him for several weeks. Maybe it was winter. I don’t remember. But when I finally did run into him and asked where he’d been, he said, “I was walking down the street, and I got this sharp pain in my side, and then I just doubled over and passed out. Right on the sidewalk. I woke up in the hospital, and they told me they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, so they just took my appendix out. That must have been it, because I feel fine now.”

I think he was living down near 9th and O Streets around that time. He had bought a house in a neighborhood known for its drug dealers and prostitutes. This was during or near the end of the crack epidemic in DC, when the city was the murder capital of the US. There was a crack house across the street, and Neil would watch the dealers and the addicts quite openly, and report to the police who was there and what they were doing. The cops raided the house so many times, they finally shut it down. The dealers and the users were so sick of being harassed, they just left.

Neil spent a lot of time cleaning up the yard, because he wanted the house to look good, and he wanted to provide a visual symbol that someone cared about the neighborhood, as well as an example that showed that if you try to make things better, they will eventually get better.

Anyone who lived in DC in the 70s, 80s, and 90s knows that it was a city of deep racial tension. In the late 80s and early 90s, DC was had the highest per-capita income of any major city in the US, and the highest poverty rate. Think about that. The white minority had more money than almost every other group in every other city in the US. The black majority had almost nothing. And there was a lot of mistrust and resentment on both sides. The city’s own mayor, Marion Barry, once publicly refused to plow the streets of Northwest DC after a blizzard (even though he had plowed out the rest of the city), because, as he put it, “Those people didn’t vote for me.”

Down at Ninth and O, Neil was the only white person in a tough neighborhood that was many years away from becoming gentrified. On the one hand, his convictions were powerful enough that he would risk his personal safety almost daily to shut down the crack house across the street. On the other hand, he often felt in danger. He told me that he used to weed his garden with one hand while he held a pistol in the other, just so people knew he had a gun. (And by the way, handguns were illegal in DC back then.) When his neighbors said hi, we would smile and wave back with his gun hand.

The gun, and the fact that he so frequently talked to the police in front of his house, led many of the neighbors to believe that he was a cop. After a while, they started addressing him as “Officer Neil.” He thought that was funny, but he also liked that it provided some protection, and made people less likely to mess with him.

He told me that one day, one of the neighbors came banging on his door, crying. She said her boyfriend had just beat her up, and she wanted Neil to come over and arrest him. Neil said he didn’t want people to know he wasn’t a cop, so he put his gun in his pocket and went over to the woman’s house and starting talking to her angry, violent boyfriend. He actually managed to calm the guy down. Anyone who knew Neil knows he could connect with anyone, in any situation, because he was a good listener, he was empathetic, and he was a straight talker. There was never any bullshit with him. He got the guy to leave, then he talked to the woman about filing a formal report and getting a restraining order.

Somewhere in this time frame, Neil was living with a guy named Brian, who I think was first guy Neil was really in love with. I don’t remember if that was just before Ninth and O, of if that was at Ninth and O. Neil and Brian had this giant Saint Bernard that was always slobbering on everything, and the only toy the dog would play with was a 16-pound bowling ball that he pushed around the house with his nose. The dog would nudge the ball down the basement stairs, and watch it thump down each step, one by one. Then he’d slowly turn his giant head to Neil, as if to say, get that for me, will you?

Over the course of twenty minutes, Neil must have hauled that bowling ball up the stairs a dozen times. His fingers kept slipping out of the holes because they were filled with dog slobber. Finally, he said to me, “You see how backwards this is? Most people throw the ball, and the dog has to get it. Some of my friends say this dog isn’t very bright, but you can see who’s running the show here.”

I only saw Neil upset twice in my life. Once was after he and Brian split up. He didn’t go into details, but I could tell the end of that relationship really hurt him. The other was on a drive home after a long day of landscaping, when we were both covered with dirt. We stopped at a little grocery store off of Connecticut Avenue in Kensington and picked up a six-pack of Budweiser. We were drinking them on the drive back into city, joking and having a light-hearted conversation.

As we were going around Chevy Chase Circle, I mentioned something about him being left-handed. He got upset, suddenly and inexplicably. And he glanced over toward Blessed Sacrament, just east of the circle, and there was a lot of emotion in his voice when he said, “Those fucking nuns used to smack my knuckles with a ruler when they were teaching me to write. They said, you’re using the wrong hand. Use the other hand, like everyone else. Why couldn’t they just understand I was made that way?”

When I first met Neil, he was still in high school, still dating girls, or at least flirting with them, including my cousin, Regina. He was probably beginning to suspect by then that he was gay. I don’t know if coming out was a struggle for him, but I know that, on some level, the nuns got to him. If being left handed was unacceptable in the eyes of the God they represented, how much worse was it to be gay? When he finally chose to come out, he chose to be the person God made, and not the one anyone else was telling him to be.

The honesty that everyone who knew him could sense in everything he said and did started there, in his acceptance of himself, and pervaded every aspect of his character. He was honest to the point of trying to give back an envelope full of cash to someone he had never even met. And in the end, he was robbed and killed by people who just wanted to take from him the money he didn’t really care that much about. His first love, Brian, who was also an unusually generous and open person, came to same end just a few years ago. Someone killed him just to get his bank cards and empty out his accounts.

All I can think is, what the fuck? That would be Neil’s response too. I can hear him saying it. He had a perfect facial expression to go with that question. If you took a photograph of him when he uttered those words, you could show the photo to anyone and ask, “What is this man thinking?” And the viewer would respond without hesitation, “What the fuck?”

Neil, I am glad to have known you, and I am sorry you are gone. There is no replacement.

 

Impala Wins Writer’s Digest Award

I just got news that Impala won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. The genre fiction category covers all genres (mystery, thriller, sci-fi, romance, historical, etc.). The announcement and the book will appear in the March/April 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest.

Impala Is Here!

In addition to Amazon.com adding Impala to its list of best of the month list for September, they also added it to this week’s Kindle Select 25 list.

I got word yesterday that Bibliolabs and Library Journal added Impala to their Self-E Select list as one of the notable indie titles of the month. They’ll help make it available through local libraries around the country. Since Kirkus also featured it in their September issue, I’m interested to see if libraries pick up the paperback.

In other news, I wrote a guest post for Elizabeth A. White’s blog the other day about Impala and the tradition of classic American crime novels. And today, The Feathered Quill posted an interview with me along with a nice review of Impala.

IndieReader and Reader’s Favorite both gave the book five stars. Now I’m waiting to hear from actual readers.

If you read it, please leave a review on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or Goodreads, or wherever you like to post your opinions. Reader reviews are usually the best testimony, and I’d like to hear from you.

You can buy Impala at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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Writing and Selling

My new book, Impala, was finished in May–not just the writing, but the editing, proofreading, design, and layout. I decided to have it ready four months before release so I could do some of the promotional work that traditional publishers do: get the book into the hands of reviewers, talk to bookstores and news outlets. The ebook market is quite competitive, and like the app market for smart phones, it often seems like a race to the bottom. The writers and app developers who appear to be winning are the ones who are working really hard to sell their product for 99 cents, or to give it away for free in hopes of drawing attention to their paid works.

In the book market, hard copies still account for the bulk of sales, so I wanted to spend some time trying to get Impala into stores. Few of the ebook authors cranking out formulaic series put much effort into selling physical books, so I thought there might be a little less competition there. I’ve also noticed that the indie titles that tend to sell well on Amazon belong to genres where people tend to read quickly and in high volume: romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Amazon is to Kindle readers what 7-11 is to stoners: a place to find something quick, cheap, tasty, and forgettable that will tide you over until the next time you get the munchies.

The first step in selling to bookstores, so I thought, was getting good reviews from the reputable sources that booksellers actually read: Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, local and regional newspapers and magazines. To make a long story short, most newspapers and magazines state explicitly that they will not accept self-published work. Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist say they welcome your submission, but they may or may not review it, and if they don’t review it, they don’t give any explanation why.

I spent a few hours a week for many months reading independent book review blogs, and made a list of bloggers who might like my book. I wrote individually crafted emails to each of them, but only one agreed to look at Impala. In fact, she was the only one who even acknowledged receiving my email. Many independent bloggers also now also say they will not review self-published books. I understand that, because there’s a flood of them now, and no one wants to wade through that slush pile in their spare time for free.

In the end, phase one of my strategy yielded a number of very good reviews, but not all of them came from the prestigious sources I was after. While the book was out for review, I started talking to bookstore owners and managers, and I learned a few things there as well. If you’re an unknown author, they don’t want your book taking up limited shelf space unless 1) the book takes place in their town or pertains directly to some local interest (like a book about farming in farm country), 2) you’re willing to do a reading or event in their store, and 3) you have some general marketing plan that shows you’re serious about promoting the book. The marketing plan should include a series of appearances on radio, at bookstores, and events, etc.

My first book, Warren Lane, is published through Ingram and listed in Ingram’s catalog under standard terms, which means a 55% wholesale discount, and the book is returnable. I went into a few stores and asked the manager to look the book up in their system to see how it appeared, then I asked them if there was anything in the listing itself that would prevent them from ordering the book. They all said, “Well, it’s Print On Demand (POD). We don’t stock those, but if a customer comes in and requests the book, we’ll order a copy.” That left me thinking that most customers would just order the title online from Amazon or Barnes and Noble and have it shipped right to their house.

Print On Demand makes sense, both economically and environmentally. When putting out a new title, publishers have traditionally guessed how many copies they could sell, and then ordered a print run of 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 copies. They distribute those to bookstores and regional warehouses, and hope they got the number right. If the book sells better than expected, they order another print run, and hope they can get the title back onto store shelves before the first printing runs out. If the book doesn’t sell, they wind up shredding thousands of copies, losing money and wasting trees.

Print On Demand neatly solves the problems of having enough copies available and avoiding returns, but it has a stigma, as Brook Warner notes. Even though the big publishers now use POD for parts of their backlists, bookstore owners think POD means either 1) the author is self-published and therefore won’t sell, or 2) the publisher didn’t have enough faith in the book to issue an initial print run, so why should they take a chance on it?

Indies face yet another problem in bookstores. Traditional publishers send book reps out to stores to sell new titles months before they hit the market. The book rep meets face-to-face with the store owner to discuss upcoming titles. The rep and the manager have a trust relationship. They may talk every few months. As an indie author, you’re trying to get shelf space from someone who’s never heard of you, and the space you’re trying to get may have been reserved months ago.

All these obstacles led me to focus once again on online sales. I had learned a number of things about the online market after publishing Warren Lane. First, the promotional sites like Just Kindle Books and Kindle Nation Daily catered to readers of genre fiction, and if your book didn’t fall neatly into one genre, it’s going to be difficult to market. Second, the books that sell well are not necessarily well written or insightful or memorable in any way, but they do give the reader what they’re after. (I noticed that most of the hot-selling genre fiction on the promotional sites fell into the Romance category. I used Amazon’s Look Inside feature to read the opening chapters of some of those books, and I got a little education there too. I had thought “Romance” meant something like courtship and Prince Charming and happily ever after. Instead, I learned that women like to read porn, instead of watching it like men.)

Finally, most successful indie authors are writing series within one or more genres. They have a detective or a fantasy hero or a spaceship and crew that readers follow from one adventure to the next. The book covers in each series have a similar look, so readers can identify them, and once the series has two or more titles, the author will give away the first book, or sell it for 99 cents, to bring in new readers. That’s a good strategy for writers, and it makes economic sense. The software market these days follows a similar pattern, with free and paid versions of the same app, “freemium” web services that give you bonus features if you’re willing to pay, and open source software that companies give away, making their money through customization and support instead of sales.

What’s disheartening to me is what the genre-series model says about readers: that they only want what’s familiar, and if the book they read today isn’t just like the one they read yesterday, they might be disappointed. I’ve never quite understood that kind of reader, because I’ve always been that kind of reader. I read to find new insights, new depth and perspective. Bookstores tend to be full of books that offer those things, while the hot-selling indie titles on Amazon tend to be closer in spirit and substance to the mass-market paperbacks at the grocery checkout.

So if you’re an indie author and you’re not interested in writing a commercial series, you’re in a bind. Your real readers are in bookstores, but getting into those is difficult.

I had been lamenting this after publishing my first book, and as I was beginning to promote my second. Then, recently, I came across a series of books by Chris Fox, which embraces all of the things I had once lamented about the online book market. In a book called Write to Market, Fox describes the process he followed to produce a top-selling ebook. First, identify a sub-genre on Amazon that has strong sales and is underserved. That’s one in which the top few sellers are selling very well, but the tenth and twentieth best-selling items on the list are not moving many copies at all. After identifying a sub-genre, Fox read the top few titles and figured out their formula. In his case, he found books about spaceships with maverick captains having to fend off some alien threat that might wipe out the whole human race. The final part of Fox’s advice is to write a book that follows that formula, give it a cover and a blurb similar to the covers and blurbs of the best sellers, do a little marketing, and collect your paycheck.

Fox says he took a lot of flack for the process he described in Write to Market, with a number of readers and writers calling him a cynic and a sellout. I actually think he’s really smart. If you want to make money, you’ll do much better embracing the market than complaining about it. And I agree with his point that if you choose a sub-genre that you actually enjoy reading, you can still write a unique and compelling book, despite the fact that you’re following a formula. Think about how many painters have done landscapes and battle scenes, and what a different feeling you get from two people presenting two different views of the same subject.

If you look at fiction from a business perspective, it looks like a bunch of people creating products that no one asked for, and then wringing their hands because no one is buying what they made. Most businesses, from home building down to cupcake baking, first ask, “What do people actually buy?” And then they say, “OK, we’ll make some of those.” Writers and painters and musicians, especially the more intellectual ones, think their creations are special and that they’re entitled to an exception to the market rules. I’m guilty of that myself sometimes. We might as well expect the law of gravity not to apply to us.

So Fox’s books got me thinking about why I read and why I write. What do I look for in a book, and what do I try to create in a book? Fox has another book called 5000 Words Per Hour, which describes why and how you should write 5000 words per hour if you want to make it as an indie author. (For the why part, the short of it is that Kindle readers like series, and they’ll binge read if they can. The faster you can put books in front of them, the happier they’ll be. As your sales increase, you become more visible to new readers on Amazon, creating a cycle of sales growth.)

Now I can probably write 5000 words per hour. I can certainly type that fast. After all these years as a software developer, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the keyboard. But I know I couldn’t produce the work I want to produce if I were writing at that speed. I tried to formulate the reason why, but I couldn’t quite do it until yesterday, when I was looking at paintings in the art museum in Richmond.

I was admiring the work of Kehinde Wiley, who himself has something of a formula, and when I looked past his message to the quality and detail of his work, I was finally able to describe why I can’t be a 5000-word-per-hour genre writer. It comes down to this: There is no story we can tell that hasn’t already been told. The stories that stick with us are the ones that are told in a way that moves us. They have a little more heart, a little more depth and style than what we’re used to finding. In telling yet another version of a story we’ve heard before, they reveal a something new, reaching us in a way the other tellings didn’t.

I like writing that shows a willingness to open up and look deep, that shows attention to composition and detail, building not just the story, but an overall experience in the reader’s mind by working on many levels at once. That kind of writing doesn’t really happen at 5000 words per hour. In the online writing market, choosing the challenges of depth and detail means giving up your shot at being a first-tier seller. You’re aiming at a smaller, pickier audience that’s harder to find, and the chances of them discovering you without the marketing channels available to traditional publishers is slim.

So for now, I look at writing and earning a living as two different things. Software pays the bills, and when I have time to do it, writing is the creative outlet that keeps me going.

 

An Update on the Classic Crime Novel

My new novel, Impala, is a thriller in the vein of the classic crime novels of the thirties, forties, and fifties. The best of those novels follow a pattern that goes like this: An intelligent but flawed character gets in trouble after he gives into to some desire or compulsion, like lust, greed, or revenge. He finds himself surrounded by people and powers that will not let him go. His attempts to extricate himself from his troubles only lead to deeper trouble. He’s usually involved with a woman who is either in love with him or betraying him, but either way, their fates become inextricably intertwined. Finally, these stories always convey a mounting sense of inevitability, as if the fates of these specific characters in these specific circumstances could have only one inevitable conclusion.

Impala

Impala – Available September 21, 2016

The best of these novels—such as Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angelalso share a fundamental aesthetic of leanness. There are no superfluous chapters, scenes, or words. If you haven’t read them, you’ll be surprised at how much story these authors can pack into 200 pages or less. Leanness and tautness are essential to a good thriller. You don’t ride a roller coaster in a cushy reclining chair. You might also be surprised, when you return to reading contemporary mass-market mysteries and thrillers, how larded they are with description, back story, and events that don’t add much to the story.

Pop1280

Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280

Many of today’s 450-page bestsellers would have more impact if they were pared down to 250 pages. That kind of editing is hard work, and I think it requires a mindset that many novelists and editors don’t have, but many playwrights, screenwriters, and poets are forced to have. It you wrote a 450-page screenplay, the resulting movie would run for 20 hours. Playwrights, screenwriters, and poets put a lot of effort into reducing characters and scenes to their essence, because they have to. And it’s interesting to note that Kenneth Fearing was a poet, while Thompson and Cain wrote screenplays. Chaze was a news reporter who had to file stories daily, so he was used to getting to the point.

 

The Big Clock

Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock

With the exception of The Big Clock, each of these four books was considered pulp when it was published, and received little attention and no respect from the literary establishment. Today, they’re all considered classics, with The Big Clock and Black Wings now available under the New York Review of Books imprint, which has also rescued a number of other brilliant but overlooked works.

When I was in college and graduate school, I was very much into literary fiction, which I’ll define loosely as fiction one appreciates for the quality of its prose, the depth of its insight, and the development of rich and nuanced characters and themes. Commercial fiction and genre fiction tend to focus more on plot, and when you read it, you’re much more interested in whether the main character is going to get shot than in how subtle idiosyncrasies of that character’s psychology may be a comment on the social, political, and economic conditions of his upbringing.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice

It’s interesting to look back on the classics I read as a student, and to see that many of them were considered pulp fiction (or worse) when they were published. All of Charles Dickens’ novels were published as serials in bi-weekly penny papers, and initially had the taint of being written for the uneducated masses, whose coarse tastes weren’t capable of appreciating refined writing. Many of the classic crime writers, employed by the dime-store pulp publishers, had the same taint.

But these writers all tell compelling stories in clear, engaging prose that almost any ready can identify with. That, to me, is one of the hallmarks of good writing. Clear prose looks simple on the surface, but it actually takes a lot of work to produce. You can’t get to clarity until you’ve sorted through a lot detail. You probably know this from your own life. Think of times when you’ve tried to explain some emotionally important event to a friend. The first time you tell the story, it’s a flood of jumbled words that may go on for 20 minutes without really conveying the essence and impact of what happened. After weeks and months, and sometimes years, you can tell that story fairly clearly, in fewer words, with greater impact. But your mind needed that time to clarify what it wanted to say.

Black Wings has My Angel

Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel

Computer programming and writing are similar in this regard. There’s a parable of two programmers who are asked to write the same program. One programmer starts writing code right away, while the other spends many weeks meditating on the problem that the program needs to solve. The busy programmer churns out an enormous volume of confusing, complicated code that eventually solves the problem. The thoughtful programmer doesn’t write a single line of code until he has boiled the problem down to its essence. He then writes a very short, concise program of crystalline clarity that solves the problem.

The busy programmer’s boss looks at the enormous amount of code his employee has written and, overwhelmed by the complexity of it, says “Wow! You did a great job on what was obviously a really hard problem.” The thoughtful programmer’s boss looks at his employee’s work and says, “There’s not much code here, and from the simplicity of it, it looks like the original problem wasn’t that hard. Why did it take you so long?”

When I look at a lot of today’s literary fiction, I sometimes think the whole literary establishment suffers from the same problem as the busy programmer’s manager, mistaking complexity for genius. I find much of today’s “literary” work to be unreadable because it’s wordy, slow-moving, lacking in substance, and worst of all, larded with unnecessary description and metaphor.

You’ve probably had a teacher or professor somewhere along the way whose lectures left you swimming in confusion, and you thought, “Wow! They are so brilliant, my mind can barely grasp a tenth of what they’re saying.”

Actually, I think that person was just a poor communicator, and perhaps unable to clarify ideas even to himself. You should have come away thinking, “Wow! My grasp of the subject is so much deeper and clearer than it was yesterday.”

That kind of clarity—focused words that build over time to impact the mind and the emotions—is what the old crime writers were good at. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of enduring popular fiction.

Impala tries to follow in that vein, though of course, crime today is different from what it was in the mid-twentieth century. Much of it has moved online, and the characteristics of the successful criminal have changed, with intelligence, cleverness, and stealth replacing force, intimidation, and ruthlessness. (Though those latter three have their place, when push comes to shove, as it often does in the world of crime. Impala‘s protagonist learns this the hard way.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the illicit markets of the dark web, which is where all the trouble starts in Impala, The Economist’s article on cryptomarkets provides an excellent and fascinating)introduction.

So far, the reviews for Impala have been very good. They’ll be available online closer to the release date in September, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the general public responds to the book.

 

Iceland, June 2016

I’m sitting here in Keflavik airport on a Tuesday afternoon, waiting for a flight back to the US. I stopped here for a couple of days on the way home from Dublin, and I’m glad I did. When you fly into Iceland, the first thing you see is the huge lava field of the southwest coast. It’s a broad, flat plain of lichen-covered rock, with huge swaths of purple. The color comes from Alaska lupine flowers, brought to the island in 1945. There are now millions of them along the coast and in the interior plains and valleys. They seem to grow even in the stoniest soil.

iceland_alaska_lupine

I took a day tour yesterday and saw too many cool things to note. But one I really liked was this simple wall of rock.

iceland_na_tectonic

This is the eastern-most edge of the North American tectonic plate. There’s a big lake next to it, and on the other side of the lake is the western-most edge of the Eurasian tectonic plate. The two are moving apart at a rate of 2 centimeters each year. The lake between them sits in a plain about 4 miles wide and is warm year-round. You can even go snorkeling in it.

The most dramatic sight on the tour was Gullfoss, the great waterfall that drops into a huge canyon. The photos from my phone can’t do it justice, so look around for some photos on Google.

iceland_guldfoss

I enjoyed Reykjavik quite a bit. It’s a waterfront city surrounded by mountains, similar to Seattle and Vancouver. I think this is the first city I’ve ever visited that doesn’t have a slum. I spent many hours walking, and from what I saw, it looks like the dead people have the nicest neighborhood in town.

reykjavik_cemetery

I saw this public service announcement in a few places around town. A bartender explained that many bars and restaurants have a policy of expelling men who won’t stop hitting on women, or won’t take no for answer. The staff considers that service to be part of their job.

reykjavik_psa

That’s a little different from the pubs in Ireland, which might actually encourage problems with beers like this.

dublin_cute_hoor

The best sign I’ve seen on this trip was at the entrance to the Lincoln Inn in Dublin. One arrow points into the cafe, the other points back out onto the street. This sums up a lot about our world.

dublin_happiness_reality

 

Ireland, June 2016

I arrived in Dublin on June 12 for the 2016 Open Repositories conference at Trinity College. By coincidence, my brother Paul arrived the same day from Seattle, on unrelated work, and had a room in the same hotel, two doors down the hall from mine. We met in the lobby around 5pm and were approached immediately by a drunk American woman in her 60s who asked Paul where his wife was. When he said she was at home, the woman said, “Well then, maybe you’d like to join me for a drink.” (She already had one in her hand.) Paul said no thanks, and the woman turned to me and asked where my wife was. Also at home. She invited me for drink, but I declined. Then she started cursing the “eighty year old losers” in her tour group and walked off, but not before reminding us both that we could find her at the pub next door at 8pm.

The pub next door was The Bleeding Horse, though the sign says something a little different.

TheBleedingHorse

The Bleeding Horse is a bustling place, and I had my first pint of Guinness there. It’s true what they say: it does taste better in Ireland. I’ve been a big fan of Guinness for years. I even named our first dog after the beer. In the US, Guinness has a faint hint of bitterness, which may come from being pasteurized. In Ireland, it’s smoother and sweeter. Not sweet like sugar, but sweet like cream or pure, cool water.

I was surprised at how close some Irish accents sound to American accents. Many people here sound like they grew up in Maryland or Pennsylvania. A local told me they call it “the mid-Atlantic accent,” and you only find it around Dublin. There are many other accents in Dublin as well, and once you leave the city, the accents change substantially from one town to the next.

Another thing that struck me was this statue of George Salmon at Trinity College.

GeorgeSalmon

Salmon was the provost of Trinity College, and his statue occupies a place of honor, just inside the main gate. Statues of leaders in England, France, and the US generally try to portray a sense of energy, strength, nobility and grandeur, as if the subject were a visionary, larger than life and above the fray of common strife. This statue makes no such pretensions.

The man’s posture is slack, but his face is attentive and benevolent. You can see the accumulated weight of daily cares in his face and in his slightly disheveled dress. Maybe his appearance isn’t as important as his actions, his attitudes toward others, and his willingness to be a part of life’s struggles alongside everyone else. This man has been entrusted with power and influence, and he is clearly not “above it all.”

The entrance to the dining hall near the statue displays this quote from the Irish surgeon Denis Burkitt:

Attitudes are more important than abilities, motives are more important than methods, character is more important than cleverness, and the heart takes precedence over the head.

This isn’t a nation the celebrates power. Not in its public art, anyway. As Jonathan Swift wrote centuries ago:

Poor nations are hungry, and rich nations are proud, and pride and hunger will ever be at variance.

On a tour through Connemara yesterday, the guide described the great famine of 1845-1852. Irish peasants worked the land on the estates of British landowners, harvesting food they themselves couldn’t eat. The paid rent to the same landlords who employed them, the poorest of the poor survived mainly on the potatoes they grew themselves.

When the potato crop failed due to blight, the people had nothing to eat. When they were too weak to work, they lost their meager incomes, and then their homes. Ireland had 8 million people in 1845, and lost a million to starvation and another million to emigration over the next few years. The population never really recovered. Today it’s still around 6 million.

The tour guide noted that, while the potato crop was wiped out by blight several years in a row, other crops and agricultural products (beef, lamb, etc.) did not fail. But those were shipped to England, under armed guard, along the roads and through the ports where the people who harvested them were starving. That’s a pretty stark image of how capitalism and colonialism work.

If you want some more images, take a look at these. The first is of Kylemore Abbey, in Connemara.

KylemoreAbbey

This was a private home built by a wealthy British industrialist for his wife. Construction started in 1867, in a region of Connemara that was once home to about 500 people per square mile. After the famine, it was almost empty. Even now, there are more sheep in the region than people.

And here is a group of sculptures from central Dublin, showing what life was like for the masses in those years when Cannemara was emptying out. This is the most haunting and moving public art installation I have ever seen. I won’t comment, because the images speak for themselves. But it says a lot about a country and a people, when they are willing to acknowledge this right in the heart of their richest city, in an area surrounded by banks and upscale shopping.

Famine10 Famine09 Famine08 Famine07 Famine06 Famine05 Famine04 Famine03 Famine02 Famine01

These are stark images of a tragedy that cultures and institutions conspired to let happen not so long ago. It was the result of a system of laws and institutions designed specifically to ensure the flow of wealth in one direction, and a culture that reinforced the moral stigma of poverty to overcome natural human sympathy and decency.

I work in the tech industry, and I see all this happening again. Knowledge and information, which are the capital and currency of the 21st century, flow from all directions to a handful of powerful players who keep getting richer in the winner-take-all tech economy. Meanwhile, those who aren’t prepared for, or can’t conform to the world of thinking machines find themselves working harder and harder for less and less.

I look at those sculptures, and I hope it never comes to that again. But we certainly haven’t set things up to prevent it.

 

How To Make a Mess of Things

The other day, I was trying to buy a new phone and sign up for a mobile service plan online. I added a phone to my cart, and then when I selected a payment method, the page disappeared, and I found myself looking at a different page full of phones I didn’t want.

“OK,” I said. “Let’s try that again.”

Another try, and I got the same result. So I tried again without specifying the payment option. After I added the first phone to my cart, the site asked if I would like to purchase a second phone. Yes. I put the second phone in the cart, and the first one disappeared. Again, and again, and again. There was just no way to get two phones in the cart at the same time. And the service plan I had selected kept changing, even though I wasn’t changing it.

How can a major corporation run a website that’s THIS bad?

Well, I happen to be a programmer who has built a number of sites like this, so I have some idea of what’s going on. I know from someone who worked at this company that they outsourced development of the site to a major contractor, who brought in a huge team of programmers to build it.

This is the root of the problem. Try getting hundreds of people to collaborate seamlessly on ANY project. Try getting hundreds of people to build a coherent product of ANY kind.

Imagine you want to write a 500-page novel, and you need to do it quick, because every day it’s not out there selling on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, you’re losing money. (This is how corporate managers think.) You need to hire someone right away. But it would take a writer months to crank out 500 pages. Maybe weeks, if you keep the pressure on. But still, that’s just too long.

So how about we hire 500 writers and have them each write a page? Brilliant! We’ll have our novel by noon!

We just have to give the writers a few parameters. We’ll say it’s a Romance novel, because Romance sells well, and the formula is pretty straightforward. You have a woman who is lonely or unfulfilled. You have a new guy appear on the scene who is single. They meet under less-than-ideal circumstances, there’s lots of tension between them, and the reader knows they’re meant for each other, but they can’t be together because…

I don’t know, just throw some obstacles in their way. Maybe 400 pages worth of obstacles, but make sure we get to know and like the characters while their being obstacled to death. Then — THEN! — though fate and luck and force of will, they get together, and it’s oh so satisfying! Your readers are delighted, and they can’t wait for your next book.

We’ll put our 500 writers in the lunchroom, and we’ll assign a manager to walk around and make sure they’re actually writing and not wasting company time on Facebook. We’ll give them these parameters:

Heroine: Rebecca, a passionate but repressed red-headed librarian, age 30.

Hero: Maxibillion, a wealthy maverick technologist from the Scottish Highlands with a devil-may-care attitude and nothing on under his kilt, age 34.

Location: Portland, OR

We’ll call the book Maximum Satisfaction.

At 10:00 AM the writers are in the lunchroom and they have their instructions. OK, everyone, pens to paper, and… GO!

At noon, the proctor collects the papers, and voilà, we’re done!

Except we’re not, because the story doesn’t make any sense. Rebecca is sensitive, and then she’s not. She met the blonde-haired Max in a coffee shop on page 10, and when she meets him at the pool on page 30, she’s smitten by “the tall dark-haired man she’d never seen before.” The whole book is riddled with these inconsistencies. There are no transitions, and the tone changes from page to page. Chronologically, it’s a mess. You might as well throw all the pages up in the air and read them in whatever order they land.

Those damn writers! Why do they screw everything up?

We have to call them all back in, and we’re going to make them read the entire novel and identify all of the problems and inconsistencies. Then we’re going to outline the entire plot, scene by scene. We’ll workshop it. Then we’ll assign each writer a page and have them get to work. If the guy writing page 400 needs a bearskin rug in the living room, he’s going to have to coordinate with the guy writing page 20, where the living room is first described.

Each writer will have to consult with each of the other 499 writers to ensure that his page is consistent in fact, spirit, character, and tone with what the others have written. This will require a great number of meetings. We’ll have to cater lunches and pay overtime.

18 months into our project, we see Lonely Red sitting at the top of the bestseller lists. The passionate librarian has snagged her kilted billionaire to the delight of readers everywhere.

But this is not our book! According to the three dozen managers who are now overseeing the project, our book won’t be ready for at least another 18 months. And this Lonely Red, this bestseller that was OUR original utterly unique once-in-a-lifetime idea, was cranked out by some lone self-published author in just nine months! What the hell?

As absurd as this story sounds, this is how many large organizations develop software. They look at developers as interchangeable commodities, ten of whom should reasonably be able to produce ten times as much software as a single programmer working alone.

When they have a big project, they put together a big team, and then find that communication and management are more difficult and time-consuming than the original problem their programmers set out to solve. Though Fred Brooks exposed these issues over 40 years ago in The Mythical Man Month, some organizations still don’t get it.

In the 2000’s, many companies doubled down on their big-team philosophy by choosing the Java and C# programming languages. The hallmark of both those languages is their restrictiveness. They were designed primarily to prevent mediocre programmers from doing bad things on big projects, and they came with Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) to help enforce consistency.

If our 500 writers had IDEs like the ones the Java/C# developers use, the guy writing page 400 would not be able to say Rebecca’s raincoat is green, because the guy who wrote page 20 said it was black. The IDE knows this, and will put a squiggly red line under the word “green” when the page-400 writer types it.

So now, at least, our book is consistent, and the manager who made everyone use the IDE will get a raise for having solved an entire class of problems in one fell swoop. A $200 IDE license for each of our 500 writers cost the company $100,000 up front, but will save $200,000 in editing and proofreading over the life of the project. Which is now at least 36 months from completion. And even though the book is still going to suck compared to Lonely Red, it WILL be error free!

In his 2010 book, The Design of Design, Brooks notes that virtually every major creative and innovative work of the last century has been the product of a single mind, with a few rare exceptions coming from two well-matched minds. (Brooks lists Apple, Inc. as an example of the latter, with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak being an extraordinarily fortuitous match.)

In the software world of the past decade, most people working outside of Large Dysfunctional Organizations (LDOs) have recognized that smaller teams of talented people will vastly outperform large teams that have huge communications and organizational overhead. The non-LDOs have also recognized that the creative and innovative aspects of programming flourish under less restrictive programming languages, like Ruby, Python, Go, and Clojure. Instead of the Java/C# design principle of “don’t trust the programmer,” these languages were designed to let programmers express themselves freely, clearly, and simply.

Is it any wonder then, that for the past ten years or so the startups have been running circles around the LDOs?

I came away from that website the other day thinking about all this. And about how, in the past, I’ve worked with teams of 3–5 developers to produce fully functional, high-traffic retail sites that work quite well.

In the end, I wound up going with a different cell carrier, because if a company can’t even take my money when I’m trying to hand it to them, what kind of service can I expect them to provide?

By the way, LDO Publishing’s Maximum Satisfaction will be published under the pen name Duke Newcomb sometime in 2016 2017 2018 the future. While you’re waiting for that, enjoy the next seven books in the Lonely Red series.