A mysterious woman fleeing an unknown terror holds the clues to a crime that captivates the nation’s attention. After she boards the wrong plane at San Francisco International and disappears into the heart of the country, a troubled detective with a violent past must track her down before the people she’s running from can silence her for good.
You can read the first chapter at https://adiamond.me/books/gate-76-chapter-one/.
I read a lot of classic crime fiction, and when I go back to the best writers in the genre, I consistently find that they pack more substance, insight, and emotional weight into 200 pages than today’s bestselling authors can get into 500 pages. And yet, a handful of authors manage to consistently sell millions of copies of books about uninteresting characters doing far-fetched things described in prose that is not compelling and sometimes not even convincing. Why is this?
The computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once wrote a parable about two programmers who were both assigned to write a new software program. One programmer set to work immediately writing code. The other spent weeks thinking about the design of the program and the fundamental problems it had to solve before he typed a single line of code.
Both completed their work in nine months, and both programs did what they were supposed to do. When it came time for the programmers’ annual job reviews, their managers looked at the code they had written. The manager of the programmer who had started writing code immediately found a huge, sprawling code base with tens of thousands of lines of code. It was so complex, he could barely make sense of it. But he knew it worked, because people were using it.
When the manager of the other programmer looked at his employee’s code, he found just a few thousand lines of concise easy-to-read code that laid out with crystal clarity the problems the program needed to address, and then very neatly solved them.
The first programmer’s manager said to his employee, “I can tell by what I’ve read that you’ve solved a very difficult and complicated problem. That fact that the software works as well as it does is amazing. I can’t believe you cranked out eighty thousand lines of code in just nine months. You’re getting a raise.”
The second programmer’s manager said, “Your code is so surprisingly simple and clear, it shows that the underlying problem couldn’t have been very complex. The fact that the software works as well as it does just proves you were working on a simple problem all along. I can’t believe it took you nine months to write five thousand lines of code. You’re fired.”
This is how the software world sometimes works, and this is how the publishing world seems to work, especially in bestselling mystery and thriller fiction.
To write a good 200 page book, you first have to write a middling 50o page book. Then you have to distill that and pare it down. It’s not just a process of cutting unnecessary sentences. It’s often a process of conveying three chapters worth of information in a single scene, which has to come across as natural and fluid while advancing the story, developing themes, and conveying facts, emotions, and insights to reader.
Unfortunately, many established authors, knowing they have a dedicated readership, crank out the 500 page version and stop there. A good editor should push them either to have 500 pages of substance, or to cut the book down to where it’s nothing but substance (say, 200 pages?), so it will have more impact. But the writers and editors don’t have to, so they don’t put in the extra work. Readers happily accept the pale and flabby works of [I won’t say who] and have no idea how much deeper and more powerful are the works of the masters like Dorothy Hughes, Elliott Chaze, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Williams, and Jim Thompson.
To put it another way, readers would rather sink into a 500 page mess then contemplate a 200 page gem.
Edsger Dijkstra summed up the problem when he said, “Simplicity is a great virtue, but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse, complexity sells better.”
In the world of genre fiction, readers tastes have become accustomed to lazy writing and pointless scenes the way children’s tastes become accustomed to processed food. When you give them something fresh, they reject it.
I call this “The Seinfeld Problem.” If you pick up a popular mystery, thriller, or suspense novel that is part of a series, you’ll find lots of scenes where the main character has lunch with a partner or dinner with a date, or has a long argument with a friend over who makes the best meatball subs in town. These scenes don’t advance the plot or enrich the story. They’re supposed to give the reader some insight into the main character, or to make the reader feel more connected.
In series fiction, however, the reader already knows the main character from previous books. The writer doesn’t have to do the difficult and rewarding work of revealing the character through his actions and words. Because that work has already been done, the reader often finds himself just hanging out with the main character, talking about nothing over a long lunch, in just the way Seinfeld and Kramer and Elaine and George hung out and talked about nothing in the show that Seinfeld himself called “a show about nothing.”
Seinfeld got away with it because the characters were interesting and funny, and the viewer understood there would be no plot and none of the characters would change by the end of the story. But mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels are supposed to have plots, and those plots should keep moving. Stories where the main character changes and grows are always more interesting than stories where he/she doesn’t. But part of the nature of series is that the main character has to be the same from book to book. The main character is the product, and readers expect him to be same in the next book as he was in the last, just like they expect the can of ravioli they’re about to open to taste just like the one they ate yesterday.
As a software engineer, I became accustomed to managers asking, “Why are you still working on that program if it’s not crashing and there are no glaring bugs?” I keep working on it because I see it can be simplified, that a thousand lines can be boiled down to two hundred. Managers don’t always appreciate that, and neither do readers. But if you spend a few months reading the powerful, well-written works of the masters in any genre, and then you return to what passes for “a great read” on the current bestseller lists, you start shaking your head and wondering what’s going on.
What is going on?
John Harlan’s pro football career has ended after another driver hit him in what appeared to be a drunk-driving accident. After his recovery, Harlan is in very good shape by normal standards. He’s in his late twenties, strong, and fit. He just lost that extra bit of quickness that it takes to compete at the highest level of sport, and now that he can’t play football anymore, he’s on the skids with no idea what to do next.
As he drifts about, the insurance investigator who originally looked into the drunk-driving accident tells Harlan he suspects there may be more to the story. Part of the accident may have been deliberate, and while Harlan wasn’t the intended target of that mischief, he certainly was a victim.
John Harlan is a man of low morals and few scruples. He’s bitter, and he thinks he’s entitled to get back some of the money he lost due to the premature end of his career. He decides to blackmail the two people who he thinks were responsible for the “intentional” part of the “accident.”
When it comes to crime, Harlan is a good planner, even though he’s a novice. He takes huge calculated risks, because he’s greedy as hell. His risks pay off, up to a certain point, because of his obsessive planning, which is the focus of much of the narrative. He neglects some little things along the way, like failing to examine parts of his plan from every conceivable angle. He also neglects some big things, like failing to fully understand the nature of the people he’s blackmailing.
What begins as a brutish game of intimidation and force evolves into a subtle and intense battle of strategy and clever tactics by both the blackmailer and his victims. In fact, for much of the book, it’s unclear who the victims will be. Because we see the world through Harlan’s eyes, we become as convinced of his plans as he does, and we don’t see their flaws until they smack him in the face. Then the reader gets smacked in the face too because Harlan can really suck you in. He’s up against some very clever foes, particularly Julia Cannon, who plays a number of roles in turn, and all of them convincingly. She the cheating wife, the femme fatale, the victim, the master, the psychologist, the moralist, and the oracle.
Though the poor writing in the first few pages of the book may turn you off, stick with it. You’ll start to see the value by the end of the first chapter. This one really comes alive at the end, when a story that has looked like a series of adventures and misadventures starts to take on new layers of depth, darkness, and moral heft. It’s a Jim Thompson-style ending in which a character slowly comes to realize he is imprisoned by the very desires and actions he thought would set him free. Julia Cannon becomes the prophetess and the bearer of wisdom and fate, bequeathing to Harlan a legacy and a future he tries vainly to reject, and exposing in him every flaw she so eloquently enumerated when she chained him to the bed and forced him to listen to what he had so rudely dismissed as “her incessant yakking.”
What she tries repeatedly to drive home to him, and what she does get across loud and clear to the reader, is the hidden cost of crime: that is, the cost to the perpetrators. We get it, and we get her frustration when she says to Harlan, “I was unfaithful to my husband. I realize you have already grasped this, at least as far as its surface aspects are concerned, and there would be no point in attempting to explore it to any depth because eventually we’d run into language connected to emotion, which obviously would have no meaning to you. How would you describe a sunset to a blind mole living on the dark side of the moon?”
The Big Bite was originally published by Dell in 1956. This review is of the 1973 Pocket Books reprint, which sold for 95 cents and includes a full-color two-page ad for True cigarettes between pages 128 and 129. Your best chance to find this title is the Mysterious Press eBook edition of 2012.
Harry Madox has drifted in and out of a number of jobs, and has one failed marriage and some unspecified debts under his belt. When the story opens, he’s just landing a job as a car salesman in 1950’s small-town Texas. He’s not in town long before he meets two women. The young, sweet Gloria Harper brings out the best in him, against his nature and sometimes against his will. And then there’s the boss’ wife, Dolores Harshaw, who has a knack for getting him into and out of trouble.
Madox is one of those guys for whom the straight and narrow just hasn’t worked out. “In this world, you took what you wanted; you didn’t stand around and wait for someone to hand it to you.” He comes up with a pretty good plan to rob to local bank, but his entanglements with Gloria and Dolores complicate everything. I won’t spoil the story; it’s particularly interesting to see how two kindred spirits recognize each other instantly, bring out the worst in each other, and make a mess of things. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
The jaded and unsentimental Madox gives some priceless descriptions of his even more jaded and unsentimental lover, Dolores Harshaw. Here’s his description of her after the first time they’ve slept together. They’re in her house (Madox’ boss’ house), and she’s been plowing through a bottle of whiskey.
“Moonlight from the window had moved up the bed and now it fell diagonally across her from the waist to the big spread-out breast which rocked a little as she shook the ice in her glass. I thought of a full and slightly bruised peach beginning to spoil a little. She was somewhere between luscious and full-bloom and in another year or so of getting all her exercise lying down and lifting the bottle, she’d probably be blowzy…
“She had a bos’n’s vocabulary. My head felt worse and I wondered why I didn’t get out of there. She was already on the edge of being sloppy drunk, kittenish one minute and belligerent the next. God knows I’ve always had some sort of affinity for gamey babes, but she was beginning to be a little rough even for me. She had a lot of talent, but it was highly specialized and when you began to get up to date in that field you were wasting your time just hanging around for the conversation.”
Dolores Harshaw has some plans for Harry Madox, and she’s a smart one. He knows it too. “The smart thing was to get out of here and let her happen to somebody else.” But he just can’t quite untangle himself.
Overall, this is one of the best noirs I’ve ever read, with steadily-building tension and suspense. Williams writes straightforward prose when the situation calls for it, and can also be witty and insightful. His characters ring true, and he provides good insight into their motivations and weaknesses. Dolores Harshaw may be the best femme fatale in all of crime fiction: seductive, conniving, compelling, manipulative, jealous, ruthless, intelligent, and unhinged.
It’s a shame this book is out of print, but you can find used copies online. “The Hot Spot” is the book’s title under the Black Lizard imprint. It had been published earlier by Gold Medal under the title “Hell Hath No Fury.”
After two rounds with the editor and many drafts, Gate 76 is just about ready for the proofreader. Below are some cover ideas from my lovely and talented wife. Please let me know which cover you prefer and why.
Thanks for taking the time to help out. If you’re curious, you can read the first chapter of Gate 76 here, but don’t look until after you’ve picked a cover!
All of the cloud/plane photos are based on a photo by Adam Birkett on Unsplash.
I forgot how beautiful and inspiring this city is. The last time I was here was 1985. The train from London was smooth, fast, comfortable and quiet. Here are a few photos.
My hotel is next to the Montmartre Cemetery, so I took a stroll through there after a long day of walking.
ReadersFavorite.com announced the winners of their 2017 awards contest yesterday. Impala won the gold medal in the General Mystery category. Here’s a screenshot from the awards page, showing Impala with its alternate cover:
Impala also won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest competition, and received honors from Amazon.com, IndieReader, and Kirkus.
The writing life can be lonely and isolating, with discouragement at every turn. So it’s nice to get some recognition now and then.
When I finished writing Impala, I sent copies out to a number of reviewers and contests. One of those contests sent me a private review of the book, giving it F’s across the board. (That’s F like on a school report card. F as in Failure.) The reviewer gave it an F for plot, F for characterization, F for originality, and F for the overall quality of the writing. (That last F, by the way, really pissed me off. I taught high school English for a while, and I know what F writing looks like.)
Then one of the book’s first Amazon readers left a scathing two-star review. Try putting a year of work into something and then getting that response.
Having a day job is much easier than writing. At your day job, people don’t walk up to you and say, “Hey, I just took a look at that project you’ve been working on, and boy does it suck! Oh my God! I had no idea how stupid you are.”
In some ways, the reader-writer relationship is like dating. When you hit it off with someone, it feels like magic. And when there’s a gross mismatch and you just can’t connect, it’s awkward and painful.
Many of the things that those first reviewers disliked about the book were singled out for praise by later reviewers. And most readers seem to like the book. I’m thankful for that.
I’m currently waiting for my latest book to come back from the editor. I’ll do some revisions on that, and then I’ll send it out into the world and hold my breath, the way you might just before you go on a blind date. You know that feeling? Anticipation and dread, all mixed together, as you think about all the ways it could go right and all the ways it could go wrong.
The new book is tentatively titled gate 76, and you can read the first chapter here.
The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, describes the results of a five year computer analysis of over 20,000 novels. The authors wanted to figure out what differentiates the 500 or so New York Times bestsellers in their corpus from the rest of the titles that didn’t make the bestseller list.
The subtitle, Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel, describes the book’s goal, which is to describe the common traits of bestsellers, revealing some hidden and unexpected characteristics along the way. The book does not pretend to offer a formula for writing bestsellers. A similar book in the world of sports might reveal insights into what made Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James such great basketball players, but that doesn’t mean you or I could follow the formula and become the next NBA superstar. This book is a descriptive anatomy, not prescriptive how-to.
The authors use highly-customized Natural Language Processing (NLP) software to analyze thousands of data points within each book, including the frequency of different words and word types, sentence length, which topics appear and with what frequency, and where the emotional high and low points of the plot occur.
One thing you should know about NLP software is that it enables the computer to describe a text, but it does not enable the machine to understand the text. For example, in reading Harry Potter, NLP software will point out that virtually every paragraph that mentions Voldemort is full of words that express negative sentiment (words like evil, terrible, fearful, etc.). From this, the software can infer that Voldemort is the villain. However, NLP software does not understand what it reads the way a human does. It cannot answer complex questions like, “How does Mrs. de Winter’s understanding of her world change when Maxim says, I never loved her?”
Most of Archer and Jockers’ findings make perfect sense, and will be familiar to people who read a lot of novels and to those who read the advice of successful authors on the craft of writing. Readers prefer an active protagonist to a passive one. Readers prefer language that’s close to the everyday vernacular over the more formal type of writing that appears in essays. Bestselling authors do not overload their sentences with adjectives and adverbs. They convey meaning with nouns and verbs, which makes the reading experience smoother and more fluid.
Bestsellers tend to focus on a few topics within each work, rather than trying to hit on every theme the author can think of. Typically, the three major topics of a bestseller account for about 30-40 percent of the total topical matter of the work. Certain topics are more likely to make a bestseller: technology, work, family life, close interpersonal relationships. Surprisingly, sex is not one of those topics, and bestsellers in general tend to feature less sex than non-bestsellers.
Archer and Jockers identify seven structural patterns common to the plots of all bestsellers. They present the structural patterns as line graphs, which give a clear picture of the story’s emotional highs and lows. The summary of the classic love story, for example, is “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” If you were to draw that as a line graph, there would be a high point near the beginning when the boy first meets the girl, followed by a low point in the middle when he loses her, and another high point at the end, when he gets her back.
One of the book’s surprising findings is that the emotional curves of all bestsellers follow one of these seven graphs. The plot lines hold for trashy romances, far-fetched thrillers, and revered literary prizewinners. The Bestseller Code even charts the plots of some of these seemingly disparate novels together on the same graph to show you how similar they are.
Much of the value of this book comes from its clear and well-described insights into what readers respond to, and from the authors diving into a number of texts to provide illuminating examples of the generalized patterns that the computer has revealed. Jockers has more of a traditional English-lit background, and will occasionally touch on books by Virginia Woolfe and James Joyce. Archer comes from the publishing world, and her discussions focus on more current works.
One work they dig into is the unexpected phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, which, on its surface, seems to defy all the rules. It was written by an indie author with no marketing to propel it, one of its primary topics is sex (and not mainstream vanilla sex, but BDSM) which is not part of the “bestseller DNA”, and both readers and critics mocked the quality and style of its writing. But for all that, it sold hundreds of millions of copies. Why?
This is where the computer analysis really shines, as it points out characteristic patterns of the work without the baggage of emotional or aesthetic judgement that a human reader would bring. The analysis showed that E.L James, despite what some might call a lack of style, had hit on every element of the blockbuster novel, from topical makeup to plot structure to character. The analysis also showed that, based on the number of paragraphs devoted to each topic, the book was more about close interpersonal relationships than sex in general. And “close personal relationships,” the authors remind us, is one of the top themes common to all bestsellers.
While the overall public discussion of Fifty Shades tended to focus more on the sex, the computer was able to see that readers were experiencing, perhaps on a less unconscious level, the same sorts of interpersonal relations that fascinate them in the genres of mystery, thriller, and historical drama.
Even more interesting, Archer and Jockers point out, is the plot structure of Fifty Shades, which is a subtle and unusual variation of one of the six basic structures common to all bestsellers. James’ novel, generally follows “Plotline 4,” which Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots, calls “Rebirth.” Archer and Jockers point out that “these plots tend to see the main characters experience change, renewal, and some sort of transformation.”
The twist that James put on this basic plot is that, instead of following the plot’s typical emotional pattern of beginning-high-low-high-low-end, she created a series of highs and lows throughout the book, which occurred at such regular intervals that the graph of them looks almost like a perfect sine wave. Archer and Jockers refer to this pattern as the emotional rhythm of the plot.
Outside of the Harry Potter series, which was primarily aimed at young readers, the only “adult” book in the past twenty years whose sales numbers compare to Fifty Shades is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The authors point out that although The Da Vinci Code’s basic plot differs from Fifty Shades, the two books share an almost identical emotional rhythm. Page 106 of The Bestseller Code shows a graph of the two plot lines, with the high points, low points, and inflections points of both novels appearing almost in lockstep. Now who would have thought to compare those two books, or even mention them in the same breath?
Both were runaway bestsellers, and on an emotional level, both provided a strikingly similar reading experience despite their differences in topic, style, tone, and genre. That insight about emotional experience reminded me of a question and answer I read recently on Quora. A reader asked why the Harry Potter series was so popular despite the fact that its plots were not necessarily new and other writers had more interesting styles and were better at world building. An author named Nick Travers offered this response:
I used to think the same as you. I even thought, ‘I can write as well as that,’ so I started to write a novel to prove it.
Four novels later and I can write as well as J.K.Rowling, but the quality of my stories pale into insignificance compared to hers. What I’ve learned is that J.K. Rowling is not a particularly good writer, but she is a master story teller. When she tells a story it sparkles with magic in a way that draws people (especially youngsters) into her world. I wish I could tell stories like that.
The Bestseller Code maps out some of the characteristics and common traits of great story-telling in illuminating ways, and the authors’ commentary on a diverse body of well-known works makes it a fun and interesting read. If you’re interested in understanding what drives readers to buy books, this one is worth a read.
Back in April of this year, I was heading to south Florida to present at a conference at the University of Miami. By coincidence, my wife was returning from Miami just as I was packing to go. She had been visiting her father, and she said, “My dad wants a copy of Impala. Will you bring him one?”
I said, “Sure.” I signed a copy of the book and tossed it into my suitcase. And then for no particular reason, I tossed in a second copy. I flew out on a Tuesday for the conference that would occupy all of Wednesday and Thursday. On Thursday night, I would have dinner with my father-in-law and his wife in Key Biscayne, where I’d give them the book. On Friday, I’d fly back to Virginia.
After arriving in Miami and checking in to my hotel in Coconut Grove, I had dinner, and then went to a bar called The Grove Spot and had a beer. I gave my credit card to the bartender. She rang up the sale, and when she returned with the card, she said, “You have the same name as my husband.”
I said, “Andrew?”
She said, “Andrew Diamond.”
I told her I had once met another Andrew Diamond, in New York, around 1990 0r so.
Before I went to bed that night, I grabbed the second copy of Impala from my suitcase, signed it with a message for the bartender and her husband, and dropped the book off at the bar.
The conference occupied most of the next two days, though each morning, I got up between 4:00 and 5:00 to write. I was working on another mystery, and for several weeks, I’d been compiling a list of questions about the logistics of drug smuggling, distribution, and money laundering. My plan was to finish a first draft, in broad strokes, and then find answers to these questions so I’d be able to fill in the finer details. I was wondering who who would be able to answer these questions, and I figured I could get some leads by asking other authors, people on Goodreads, and the readers and writers on Quora.
The conference went well, for the most part, and after it ended late Thursday afternoon, I took an Uber across the bridge to Key Biscayne and had dinner with my father-in-law and his wife on the patio of an Italian restaurant. We talked for an hour or so, lingering over a glass of wine, and then I gave them the book.
They drove me back to Coconut Grove, and as it was still early and the air was warm, I took a walk. Before I went back to the hotel, I stopped again at The Grove Spot for a beer. The woman who had served me the first night wasn’t behind the bar this time. She was at a table on the patio with some friends. The bartender, a man, gave me my beer. I took two sips, put the glass down on the bar, and started thinking through my questions about drug smuggling and money laundering, and how I should write them all down.
Just then, someone beside said, “Andrew Diamond!”
I turned and saw a guy with brown hair and a brown mustache, dressed casually in slacks and a collared shirt. He held a beer in one hand and extended the other in greeting.
I shook his hand, and he said, “I’m Andrew Diamond. Thanks for the book.”
He took the seat next me and we started chatting. He asked me what brought me to Miami, and I told him about the conference. I asked him what he did, and he said he was a retired federal agent.
“Customs, which used to be part of the Treasury Department, then was merged into Homeland Security.”
“What kind of stuff did you work on?” I asked.
He worked on cases involving drug smuggling, distribution, and money laundering.
We talked for about an hour, and I went through every one of the questions I’d been compiling. He answered all of them, and even gave detailed examples, from cases in which he was personally involved, of how drugs are smuggled into the US, how they are distributed after they get here, how the dealers launder the profits, and how the feds, through painstaking work, are able to bust them. He even touched on some topics I had not considered, such as the tensions within and among different agencies of federal law enforcement, and different ways in which they approach their work.
Now how’s that for serendipity? My wife returns home to catch me while I’m packing and tells me to put a book in my suitcase. For no particular reason, I throw in a second copy, which will soon open the door to an unexpected meeting. On my first visit ever to Coconut Grove, I happen to go to the bar where the guy with the same name as me hangs out. And he happens to be the person who can answer all the questions I’ve been turning over in my mind for the past few weeks.
It’s now mid-August. I got an email from Andrew Diamond a few days ago saying he had just finished reading my novel. In case you haven’t read it, Impala is about a twenty-something hacker named Russ who finds himself with a load of stolen Bitcoin that a bunch of Russian thugs are eager to take back from him. He’s also being pursued by another gang, and by a federal agent who wants to haul him in before the thugs can get him.
In a final twist of coincidence, here’s Andrew Diamond’s commentary on Impala.
Thanks for the book. Good summertime read. Character reminded me of a Russian whiz kid we picked up in Cyprus in 2010. All of 23 years old and managed to swindle millions in New York and laundered it through bitcoin. Unfortunately for him, he also took a bunch from some businessmen in Russia with strong Kremlin ties, so – in the spirit of detente – we were all looking for him. Like your character, this kid was smart and tenacious. Unlike your character, he was arrogant and in love with the flash. It was ultimately his undoing. Truth be told, he was lucky my partner and I got to him first. US prisons always get far better TripAdvisor ratings than Russian gulags…
Not only did I give the book to someone with the same name as the author, he had actually participated in a story similar to the one I wrote. The federal agent in Impala, Jack Hayes, is not an upstanding citizen. Andrew Diamond seems to be, from what I know of him. And that’s a good place for the coincidences to end.