Monday, July 27, 2015

Mercy, Mercy Me, Book Publishing Ain't What It Used to Be.

Phelan Tierney, the well-named hero of David Corbett’s excellently written new thriller The Mercy of the Night, is a new variation on the contemporary genre hero: one who’s more like a social worker.

Tierney, a civil attorney, is disbarred for slugging one of his clients for disparaging his terminally ill wife. After his wife dies, he seeks to ease his pain by volunteering as a GED tutor at a halfway house for former prostitutes, girls and women who are struggling their way into the mainstream of life, many of them for the first time. (Corbett’s knowledge of mourning is both wide and deep, captured with ghostly poignancy.)

Tierney finds a bookend to his trauma in a former teenage prostitute named Jacqui Garza. An outcast among the outcasts, Jacqui’s life has been more harrowed by trauma than most: ten years before the story begins, she was kidnapped by a serial child murderer but, unlike his other victims, escaped to help send the villain away for life.

So Jacqui—the most real and interesting character here—survived, but for what? While most street girls are estranged from their families, Jacqui remains all too close to hers. Their criminal roots claw at her ankles. What most of us think of as normal life is alien country for her.

The halfway house is nowhere near far away enough from those ugly roots. Its emotional demands are crude and unbearable. Everyday life compels us to keep secrets. At a halfway house secrets are strictly forbidden. Further, Jacqui is a reactive, reflexively cynical, angry, impulsive woman, operating almost purely on instinct. She’s also selfish and deluded. She gets the idea she can heal her pain by a change of scenery, namely a beach in Mexico. So she flees the house, hitting the streets again, in pursuit of a vague dream

Jacqui’s muddle of bad luck and poor decision-making lead her far away from Mexico and into new danger when one of her tricks is murdered before her eyes, soon after he proposes that they run away together to Visalia. She knows him as “Fireman Mike” while the rest of the city of Rio Vista knows him as a man important, powerful and corrupt. (Bay Area readers will recognize the town as based in part on the North Bay city of Vallejo.)

Now everyone is after her: Some want to save her life; others are eager to end it.

Like other Corbett novels I’ve read, this is a beautifully, lovingly written novel, a smooth blend of suspense and tenderness, action and keen observation, not only on the bitter path of grief, but also on the collapse of a 21st-century city and how its impact its citizens. It moves adeptly from the small and personal to the epic.

Jacqui Garza is a pip: a vivid portrait of a girl at torn ends. The novel inhabits her knee-jerk nihilism without becoming devoured by it. (She’s also a cousin to Roque Montalvo, the young hero of Corbett’s superb Do They Know I’m Running? a hemisphere-trotting epic from 2010, a novel I loved for its broad sweep, bright hard colors and keen-eyed adventure.)

As Phelan Tierney tries to track Jacqui down to save her both from herself and the wolves on her trail, there’s another dog in the hunt—Skellenger (yet another cool name), a compromised homicide detective. He’s not as cold-hearted as you might suspect, but his steely pragmatism has sullied his integrity and put his career at risk. He and Jacqui share a mysterious history. And while they only meet in flashback, until the end, I sensed their shadows wandering near each other. They make worthy adversaries who might cross paths again someday.

The Mercy of the Night takes place in a smaller landscape than Do They Know I’m Running?  I must admit, it took awhile for it to gain traction with me. Phelan Tierney seems too nice a guy--so full of tenderness and compassion, so self-effacing, that he lacks a bit of sand.

Beyond an occasional naiveté regarding the underworld, Tierney’s human flaws don’t seem particularly compelling. That client he punched out? He had it coming, regardless what the California Bar decrees. When Jacqui accuses him of exploiting her as a personal recovery project, I thought, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”

One thing I’ve noticed about grief is how the grief-stricken often feel a bitter resentment at how the rest of the world goes on, seemingly without them. I wanted Tierney to snap, to lash out more.

You’d definitely want to take Tierney home to meet Mom, and even date your sister, but put him in the shark-infested waters of a suspense novel an avatar of PC-male virtue, with the surrounding characters shining more brightly.


David Corbett’s novel took me over three weeks to track down in its analog trade paperback after it came out. (Corbett is one of those few writers whose new work I try always to read in paper. Even Herman Melville and Jack London get the digital read with me.) Three weeks I spent wandering from bookstore to bookstore, placing orders, being told “Sorry chum. Distributor sez not available.”

David Corbett is a major writer. Since his 2002 debut, every novel he’s published has been greeted by bright, well-deserved fireworks.

Not this time though. I saw Mercy of the Night on the shelf of the library where I work, but still have yet to see it on any bookstore shelf anywhere, even in the Bay Area.

Along the way, I noted it was published not by Ballantine, as Corbett’s previous novels were, but by a company I’d never heard of: Thomas & Mercer, located in Seattle. A web search revealed Thomas & Mercer to be a division of Amazon. Meaning, among other things, Mercy of the Night is only available within the Amazon universe, from where I finally ordered it.

(And then, as the drone flew away, I opened fire on it and sent it crashing to the ground in a delightful burst of flames to cheers from the entire neighborhood … JUST KIDDING!)

(I later found out that it may have been a problem between the particular bookstore I approached and the specific warehouse it ordered from. Maybe I should have dug deeper, but given that Corbett is also a noted Bay Area writer as well, I expected--and he deserves--greater visibility than I saw.)

But this is not yet another attack on Amazon, but more of reflection on the state on the mindful literate genre fiction that David and I both write and advocate for.


Someday, genre masters such as John le Carré, Peter Straub, Martin Cruz Smith and others veterans who can still be found on the lists of the Big Five, will pass into the Great Shade. And when that happens, it’s highly doubtful the Big Five will replace them. The “New Economy” that sprung up in the last twenty years won’t allow for it.

Publishing used to be an industry of low margins, where say, Danielle Steele’s profits would pay for the publication of "mid-listers” like Donald Westlake, and others who were writing much more interesting, strange and exciting books.

“That window is closing,” David during a talk he gave a few years back. Sure, the smart readers are still there and still willing to pay for something different, something more than the routine helter-skelter, something more like literature, the kind of novels you can read again and experience anew.

But the high profits now demanded by various parties in the industry are too high to cater to them: like, say, Thoroughbred racing, discriminating readers and the authors who seek them are “niche” to the world’s big players.

So Danielle Steele pays for more Danielle Steele. J.K. Rowling pays for her imitators—most of whom are expected to hit a best-seller home run on their very first effort and if not, there’s not even a minor league to get sent down to. (One story has novelist George Pelecanos being sent to this Outer Darkness by his publisher for selling “only” 40,000 copies of a novel.)

There’s only independent DIY publishers, like my own Ambler House, and a few small brave outfits like Subterranean Press, who can only handle a few authors. For new genre writers, or those trying something different, there are few doors to knock on.

Publishers once, good and bad, right and wrong, served as gatekeepers. Now that most of them have been kicked out or swallowed by the Whale, leaving only the Whales. The rest of us have to go DIY.

It’s a new world all right, but where is all this glory promised? Serious writers and serious readers of genre fiction are being shunted to the side.

Yeah, I guess it’s “freedom.” But it feels like a different kind of tyranny to me. I’m not the first to point out that Web 2.0 is not leading to increased freedom for everyone, but freedom only for the ruthless, the unrepentant, and the merely lucky.

With a million writers publishing on their own, there’s not much point in searching among the bytes in the hope of finding a book I can even call “well-crafted.” Why should I, or anyone with a modicum of taste, have to read fifty or a hundred unreadable e-books to find even a halfway decent one?

Life’s too short. And getting shorter.


Outside of horse racing, I’m terrible at predicting the future. (“Ten bucks says they put George W. Bush on Mount Rushmore!”) Still, I wish to venture a small vision for the future of literate genre fiction, and that’s the possible reemergence of the old paperback houses, such as Bantam, Dell, Fawcett, and Gold Medal, where Westlake, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and others got their start. This time in the guise of e-publishers.

That’s what professional publishers are for, to take the time and money to pick among the garbage, to find the nuggets in the muck. And once the lump is shined up, do all the rest of the work that, to be honest, most good writers are incapable of doing for reasons of time, expense, and ability. (I’m a good writer but my marketing skills are only okay, and I couldn’t distribute a box of used books at a low-grade second-hand store.)

Here’s where I predict evolution may kick in; that a new breed of publisher evolves to fill the vacuum left behind by the old. E-books are the new paperbacks now. I’d like to think that the e-book distributors, among them Bookbaby and Smashwords, could evolve into more active and involved companies that the old houses used to play.

Bookbaby (my distributor of choice) seems to be evolving in this direction with various services, (though their pricing framework needs improvement.) Amazon, whatever we think of them, is also showing the way with their Thomas & Mercer imprint.

There are too many books in this short life. Someone needs to sort through them for the rest of us. Readers and writers could both use a little mercy.

[Updated 7/30/15 to include new information about book distribution issues, and miscellaneous corrections.]

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest novel Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up, will appear later this year. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Invitation to Murder

Behind the high, ivy-covered walls of the Burchfield Estate in Oakland, California, the Lord and Lady of the Manor spend many an evening huddled before a warm TV, watching British mystery series, mostly on PBS, some on BBCA. (They’re also available for streaming on Roku, through Acorn, but we haven’t snipped the cable yet, mostly because the servants object. And with good help so hard to find these days, well . . . .)

Among our favorites—and there are a fair number--is Midsomer Murders.  Based on a series of novels by Caroline Graham, it’s not the crème de la pinnacle of its genre (an honor I bestow upon Prime Suspect, Foyle’s War, Sherlock! and Poirot et al). But it rates high as a most companionable and genial program, with John Nettles (Ret.) playing a droll Sheriff Andy to a bizarre population of kinky eccentrics and village nutcases. It’s perverse waltz theme, featuring the Theremin, makes a fine ear worm.

We like Midsomer for choosing sharp, polished fun over tortured profundity, making it a relative rarity in 21st Century cable TV’s savage, despairing environment. (I can watch Sam Peckinpah’s original Straw Dogs--also set in rural England--again anytime I want to despair over the human condition.)

Though ostensibly contemporary (cell phones abound), Midsomer cheerily wanders a never-never land of rural English villages, woodlands and fields, all nested in the titular bucolic county.

Peaceful as it appears though, Midsomer County has what seems the highest homicide rate per population on Earth. Underneath all that chipper bourgeois Winnnie-the-Pooh gentility bubbles a bloody cauldron of homicidal mania. The English can’t stop killing! Any good-hearted, innocent wide-eyed American who dares to tread its green sward is bound to return in a pine box (as I might as I am in the planning stages of journey there in a couple of years. I am so glad I have cable!)

The blame for England’s descent into genteel slaughter though, lies not with Midsomer Murders itself, but with its ancestral inspiration: the stories and novels of Agatha Christie, still the best-selling author in the world nearly forty years after her passing, and the Queen of the so-called Golden Age of Mystery.

This ancestry is most ably and enjoyably explored in The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story by Martin Edwards, the latest in several books about how mystery fiction grew to so dominate western literature.

While paying due tribute to the founders of detective fiction, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton, The Golden Age story begins in the 1920s. That was when the painfully shy Ms. Christie, then an upper-middle-class housewife, published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduced one of literature’s most endearing oddballs, Hercule Poirot.

Mystery fiction already had monuments left by Doyle and Chesterton, but thanks to Christie’s deft plotting and the imaginative characterization of her heroes (especially Poirot), the genre’s popularity ballooned to phenomenon. Her success inspired near-countless other writers to try their hand, among them Dorothy L. Sayers.

Eventually, in 1930, a group of them living in London, co-led by Sayers, united to form The Detection Club, electing G.K. Chesterton as their first president. This happened, in part, to help promote the work of members; form a united front against greedy scheming publishers; but, mostly to provide an excuse to socialize. They held their own cheeky, flamboyant bizarre initiation ritual, complete with robes, candles, murder weapons, and a skull grinning from a velvet cushion, all topped with a grandly solemn oath. They often collaborated on novels, stories, and radio scripts in round-robin fashion.

They were truly like characters out of their own books, as odd and fascinating as the tales they imagined. Their private lives concealed their own mysteries and scandals.

Sayers had a child out of wedlock whose existence she never fully acknowledged (in keeping with the strict mores of the day). And Christie pulled a sensational vanishing act in 1926, for reasons that remain foggy. Other writers wove their secret fantasies of murder and adulterous misbehavior into their stories, engaging in a level of meta-gamesmanship, perhaps equal to Vladimir Nabokov in daring and cleverness, if not in style and vision. (Nabokov, sad to say, was too much a snob, for he could have well thumped these writers at their own game playing. What a book that would have been!)

They all thought nothing of cheerfully peeling their plotlines right out of the day’s headlines, imagining solutions to many a famous and unsolved murder. But they were not a callous bunch. Some critics theorize that many of them were subconsciously dealing with the trauma of World War I, in which many served.

Christie and Sayers are among the few Detection Club members who are read widely today. Some of the other noted names were A.A. Milne and, later, Eric Ambler.

Others are now forgotten, some undeservedly. Among those, John Dickson Carr, an American, was master of the “locked room” mystery (and author of a sinfully enjoyable non-mystery, the time-travel historical romp, The Devil in Velvet).

Then there is Michael Innes, who helped develop the “Oxford Don” mystery. Innes wrote fine prose with a razor wit and a flair for wild n’ wooly action climaxes. His influence can be gleaned in the series featuring Inspectors Morse and Lewis.

Despite their reputation for upper-class twittery, Golden Age writers often adeptly captured their era, the years between the wars. Nor were they all reactionary Tories. Their viewpoints ran from left to right and up and down the class system. Some even sounded early alarms about Nazism while inveighing against both Communism and Capitalism. The Detection Club drew members from near and far, among them New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh and the American Carr.

The Detection Club is still active, with author Edwards as a member and first club archivist. His research has borne good fruit here. But if you want to join the club yourself, good luck on even finding a web page. It’s invitation only. Some things really should remain a mystery, hidden in locked rooms for good.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.