Monday, October 19, 2009

The Road to Bouchercon (and back again)

The 40th Annual World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon, held in Indianspolis in the middle of October was my first. The Bouchercon (named after mystery writer Anthony Boucher) allows mystery writers and mystery readers to come together for five days.
The six hour drive with my wife and her sister from Windsor to Indianapolis was pleasant and peacefully uneventful. The trees in Michigan and Indiana were glowing with intense reds and orange.
The three of us stayed at the very comfortable Westin near the Hyatt, and we found the people of Indianapolis very friendly and helpful.
This year’s Bouchercon boasted of literally hundreds of mystery writers and almost as many fans. It reminded me of Wordsworth’s great verse:
Writers, writers everywhere,
And all of them did speak.
Writers, writers everywhere,
And I could use a drink.
All joking aside, attending Bouchercon was an incredible experience, with such authors as, Louise Penny, William Kent Kruger, Sean Chercover, and this year’s guest of honour Michael Connelly. To have that much talent and experience in one place was both inspiring and daunting.
There were enough panels to satisfy every subgenre; supernatural mysteries, detective stories past and present, southern writers, Irish writers, Canadian writers, series and stand-alone mysteries, and a veritable plethora of others.
One of the things I found interesting (and comforting) was to hear the tragically humourous tales of authors and their ofttimes dismal turnouts at their booksignings I know I have had many of those.
Saturday night saw the Anthony Awards, and Sunday morning fans stood in a long line for a chance to get free signed copies of books from their favourite writers.
Next year it’s Bouchercon by the Bay, in San Francisco, California. (Now that would be a long drive!)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hard-Boiled Roman Detective
One cannot love stories without loving to read, for that is where stories are at their best. Not on the movie or TV screen, but only on the printed page where dialogue and description are there as the writer intended, but still allow for the individual reader to interpret the words as they see fit. One must read, and read a wide variety of subjects and authors, for each one has something to offer, if nothing else to help the reader decide what subject or author they do NOT like.
As a young man I loved to read; everything from comic books to short stories, poems and novels. Though I grew up in the TV age – I enjoyed watching television, and still do– both my parents were avid readers and I suppose I inherited my love of reading from them. It was not unusual for me, however, to discover great detective stories through the medium of television.
In the early 1970s I was watching TVOs Saturday Night at the Movies - with no commercials - and they showed ‘Murder My Sweet’, 1944, starring Dick Powell, based on a hard-boiled detective novel by Raymond Chandler. It was a good movie and I never forgot it. Years later I would come to appreciate Humphry Bogart in Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’, published 1932, the film 1946 and Bogart again in Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’, published 1930, the film 1941. Eventually I would come to read these novels that were first introduced to me through the movies.
There was something about the hard-boiled detective that appealed to me. Maybe it was his moodiness–I have been told I can be moody– maybe it was his unconventional attitude and rough edges– I have been told... let’s just say I felt an affinity for these characters and could appreciate their nature.
I was sitting in church one Easter Sunday listening to the Passion, and as I heard the familiar story I started to imagine if, after Christ’s Resurrection, had the Romans- who were occupying Jerusalem at the time - heard the story circulating about the city of a crucified Jew who had risen from his tomb? And if the Roman authorities did hear these accounts, would they send someone to look into it? And if they sent someone, who would they send, and how would he go about it? And most importantly; what would he be like?
This was the germ of an idea that culminated into a ‘The Case of the Empty Tomb’.
As I began to work out the main character, I saw him as the hard-boiled detective of the 1930s and 40s.
To write this story I would, naturally, try to keep it as accurate as possible. I used numerous sources for my research, including The Bible. As I read Sacred Scripture, some of it for the first time - something I am not proud to admit as a Catholic - I saw how there was a ready-made detective story with conspiracies, mysterious women, plots, counterplots, suspicious characters, political intrigue and religious mysticism.
Many of the characters in The Case of the Empty Tomb are real and it did not seem to take much effort to bring them life. Indeed, there were times when it felt as if someone else was assisting me in writing this book.
I chose to tell the story in the first person which is in keeping with the hard-boiled detective genre. By having the main character, Claudius Maximus, tell the story we learn something of his character from his narration. The book begins with a very strong Chandleresque monologue:
"I hated the desert. I hated the heat, and the sand, and the dust. I hated everything about it."
This was not the original opening paragraph I had written. This opening was written when I had almost completed the second or third draft. It was only then did I get a feel for my main character, and I wanted the reader to see immediately what type of person was telling the story.
I wanted my central character, Claudius Maximus, to resemble the typical hard-boiled detective, tough and unsentimental. He drinks too much and barely has a friend in all Jerusalem, a city which he abhors almost as much as it inhabitants.
To make Maximus as miserable as possible I located him in a place where he did not wish to be, and longing for home where he was not longer welcome.
With a character such as Claudius Maximus it is important to know something of his background, but I do not like to give too much all at once. I like to keep certain elements of his background a secret. This was quite easy since I myself did not know much of his background. Very seldom do I bother to write character outlines or backstories. Most of my characters develop as I write. During the story the reader will see that I drop subtle hints about his past. Early on Maximus relates the rumours circulated about the city regarding why he was banished from Rome and sent to Jerusalem.
"I cannot say that I truly objected to any of these stories. None of them was as bad as the truth."
In The Case of the Empty Tomb, Maximus is given the duty of looking into a rumour circulating about Jerusalem regarding a recently crucified Jew who is missing from the tomb where he was interred.
In his search for the truth regarding the missing messiah, Maximus encounters hostility from his fellow Romans, (he is even badly beaten while in the state of inebriation), he endures threats from high officials such as Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. He even has to endure insults from Joseph Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest.
Despite all this, Maximus presses on out of a sense of duty, and a strong desire for the truth. These are the very reasons why we will always appreciate the hard-boiled detective.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Books, Books and More Books

I like going into bookstores. I have to admit to ordering books over the internet, but only when I could not find them in bookstores. I prefer to hold a book in my hand, read the blurbs on the back, skim through (never to the end!) and generally see how it is layed out. More than that, I appreciate the atmosphere of a nice bookstore, the way it is arranged, the lighting and ambiance. It is guaranteed that you can always run find someone who is in-to books, someone who likes to talk books and authors and storylines.
This past week my wife Susan and I made a little pilgrimage and visited three Canadian mystery bookstores.
The first was The Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto on Bayview near Yonge Street. There we met with Marian Misters who was very helpful. Susan was taken with the ladder that slides on rollers along the tall, packed bookcases. I liked Sir Percival, a very big poodle who seemed to lay around a good deal. I can also recommend subscribing to their newsletter, The Merchant of Menace.

Next it was on to the nation’s capital, Ottawa where we dropped on at Prime Crime Mystery Bookstore on Bank Street. It is a nice, cozy long shop that draws you in, with big, comfortable chairs at the back, a coffin-shaped bookcase, and it is the only bookstore I’ve been to that has a skeleton in the window. Their slogan is, We’re dying to meet you.
The last stop on our pilgrimage was historic Kingston and As the Plot Thickens on Brock Street. Unfortunately Brian Fenlon was out, but we did get a opportunity to speak with Ann Stevens who is as friendly as anyone from the East Coast. This shop has all the accoutrements of the perfect mystery bookstore; lovely hardwood floors, custom-made bookcases, fireplace, soft lighting and comfy chairs. Maybe its most notable feature was that the cashier’s table was an antique bar with foot rail.
While in Kingston, I attended the Scene of the Crime, the annual festival for mystery fans held on Wolfe Island.
Saturday, August 15, was a beautiful morning for crossing the St. Lawrence River to Wolfe Island. The ferry ride from Kingston is free, and it was my first trip to the island. Giant windmills stood like techno sentinels along the island. These slow-turning guardians of the Green movement generate much needed power but look so out of place in such a setting.
This was the 10th annual Scene of the Crime festival, and the Grant Allen Award, named for the man who is a pioneer in Canadian crime writing and was born on the Wolfe Island in 1848.
Among the great list of Canadian mystery writers were, Peter Robinson, this year’s Grant Allen Award winner, Rick Blechta, Barbara Fradkin, David Rotenberg, and Vicki Delany. Needless to say there were plenty of books for sale.
As rewarding as it was meeting and talking to these writers and hearing them read their work, was meeting the great mystery fans who attend the festival. These are the people who love to read mysteries and revel in thinking about crime. Better to only think about it than to do it, I say.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

To Know Evil

Who doesn’t like a good mystery? We love the chance to solve little puzzles, to discover the truth to what hides beneath the surface. Since I read my first Sherlock Holmes’ story in grade seven, I have always appreciated a good mystery.
There is something special about mystery stories. I think it strikes something in our mind and imagination. There is a riddle that must be solved. It intrigues and challenges us.
And what good is a mystery unless there is someone to solve it? I think detective stories appeal to us because through the detective we experience a sense of justice that comes when the detective solves the crime and captures the wrong-doer. As a Canadian I have a national tenancy to feel a kind of peace and security when the perpetrator is apprehended. Justice is served and order is restored out of chaos. We are very much for justice here in Canada. Peace, order and good government is a profound expression found in our Constitution Act of 1867, so there is little wonder that Canadians appreciate these three items perhaps even more so than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I could not imagine my hero ever being a mirror image of the villain. The hero must want to serve good.
History is another subject that has interested me for a long time. I am one of those people who believe it is easier to know where we are going if we know where we come from. When I began to write, it only seemed natural that I would incorporate two of my favourite subjects, mystery and history.
When a writer decides to do a historical mystery, how does the writer choose a time period and a setting?
For my latest historical mystery, I did not choose a time and place that I was familiar with (I seldom do).
To Know Evil was inspired by another book my wife bought me (God bless her) which traced the history of the Bible through the ages, from oral tradition to the time it developed as written text. One night while reading the book I turned the page and was instantly struck by two illuminations from medieval manuscripts, each showing a group of black-robed monks with tonsures. One page not only proclaimed that these monks were guardians of the Scriptures, but went on to describe life in medieval monasteries. I remember saying out loud, “This would be a good setting for a mystery story.”
Medieval monks was something I knew nothing about. So with no idea what the mystery story would be about, I began to research monastic life in the middle-ages. Eventually I chose a time and place and the particular order I would integrate into the story.
With still no idea of what the story would entail, I began to write.
It always amazes me how a story will unfold to a writer. As I wrote my first pages, with characters not fully developed in my mind, I had not the slightest idea what would happen in the story. Only with continued research as I wrote did ideas and characters evolve.
My main character, Thomas of Worms, developed in a peculiar fashion. Needing a name I chose Thomas after one of my sons. The name I knew I could change later, but I never did. Originally Thomas was supposed to have come from the east, but I soon discovered this would not do. In my research I came across the German town of Worms and thought, ‘What a great name, Thomas of Worms!’ Being of German origin, Thomas’s character and nature naturally developed, or should I say developed naturally.