Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Now let's talk about the bird

I'm back. Sorry for the absence. Did your heart grow fonder?

Probably not. I know how annoyed I get when I click over to my favorite bloggers and find they haven't posted anything fresh. (Where have you gone, Barry Eisler?... a nation turns its lonely eyes to you...woo woo woo. And let's start a petition to get Miss Snark back while we're at it. )

Blogging is like flossing. If you don't do it every day, your gums bleed, your teeth go bad and start falling out, bacteria enters your bloodstream, you get a horrible debilitating disease and you die alone and in great agony. Probably without a will.

Okay, that's just what my dental hygenist tells me to scare me. But it works for blogging, too. If you don't do it with regularity and conviction, you die.

So I am back, if you'll have me. And today, I want to talk about the black bird.

You know which one I mean. Literature's most famous MacGuffin. The "fairly interesting statuette." The stuff dreams are made of. *

This year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon." This deceptively simple detective story first saw the light of day as a serial in the old pulp magazine "Black Mask." But here we are decades later, still talking about the bird. Today, I was on a panel as part of our library system's "Big Read" program, talking about Hammett's book with three talented crime writers: Jonathon King, Anthony Gagliano and Christine Kling. And while we had great fun yakking about such tangential topics as femme fatales, the Depression and Humphrey Bogart, we kept coming back to the same thing: What is it about this book that still pulls at us?

Jonathon started things off by saying he appreciates the book mainly through his writer's prism. "To me, it's all about the writing," he said. Jon is a splendid writer (James Lee Burke no less said of his stuff: "He captures the intrigue, lyrical beauty, and darkness of the Florida Everglades better than any other writer I know of.") But it was kind of cool to hear Jon say he wishes he could get away with using words like "heater" in his books.

Anthony made an interesting point that Sam Spade was a new type of hero on the American landscape, a guy who can trace his lineage back to the Shanesque saviors of the American western. To which I had to respond that Spade reminded me most of Palladin -- a black knight who drank good whiskey, frequented the best San Francisco hotels and meted out justice according to his own moral code.

Chris had many points to offer -- there was a lively discussion of Spade's treatment of women -- but she was at her best in interpreting for us the famous Flitcraft parable , the theme that throbs at the dark heart of Hammett's story. It takes an English teacher to make stuff like that clear.

And what a great audience. One gentleman was so knowledgable about Hammett's life that he could have written a credible biography. A woman argued passionately that Lillian Hellman had written much of Hammett's best stuff -- and vice versa. But my favorite was the little elderly lady in the front who had read "The Maltese Falcon" as a girl during the Depression and reminded us it was "good entertainment, something to make us forget about things."

And that it is. Still. Critics and scholars will continue to dissect this book. Here's one essay in January Magazine I particularly liked written by Richard Layman, author of "Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett." And experts will continue to praise it: E.D. Hirsch, author of "New Dictionary of Cultural Literary" lists it as one of the 102 significant writers. (Hammett is only one of four crime writers listed, the others being Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Raymond Chandler).

But the bottom line? I have to side with the elderly lady in the front row. "The Maltese Falcon" is just a helluva good yarn.

* This line never appears in the book. Just the movie.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The real story on the fume-addled thriller writer

It was hard not to be pissed if you read this past week about Whitbread award-winner Joan Brady. The American-born author sued a shoe factory in her English village claiming that toxic fumes wafting into her neighboring home had caused so much damage to her health that she had been "reduced to writing thrillers."

There was much gnashing of teeth in the crime writers world, of course, because here was yet another literary type taking cheap shots at genre fiction. This after Brady's thriller Bleedout" became an international bestseller. Harumph! How dare she slum, snark then take the money and run!

Well, come to find out, Brady never said any of this. The fumes thing came from a London Times headline, which also juxtaposed two extracts - one from her award-winning "Theory of War," the other ostensibly the opening paragraph of Bleedout (it is actually from later in the book) under the headline "Dumbing Down."

Here's an excerpt from a more recent article, quoting Brady on the brouhaha:

"I haven't dumbed down. I never said it. That's the pure invention of the Times. They have decided that this effete literary woman has become so stupid that she can no longer write boring literary fiction and writes poorly selling thrillers instead. My mental faculties haven't deteriorated. And anyway, what an insult it would be to thriller writers to suggest that you need to be stupid to write them. It seems to me so irritating that you would denigrate a remarkable genre where much of the best writing is done. I'm a great admirer of writers like John Grisham and Scott Turow."

The idea for the thriller "Bleedout" came only because she was mad as hell after battling for years for justice: "I wanted to line these people up against the wall and machine gun them. Magistrates, environmental health officers, lawyers, shoemakers, everybody. It's amazing how violent your imagination gets. I'd never been that angry before. At least you can kill people in a [thriller]."

Kind of makes me want to go out and buy her book now.

You can read the whole article HERE.

Friday, February 01, 2008

I'll take Brady and Barack and the points

Well, I'm stoked. Two days to Super Bowl Sunday! As with political affiliation, it's not wise to disclose which side I'm rooting for. Let's just say I'm in a New York state of mind. (And I ain't talking about senators here).

But speaking of politics, I was watching Hill and Barack go at it last night and I got to thinking that maybe these debates could use a couple guys in the booth to tell us what is going on down there on the dias. You know, like football guys. Bring in Al Michaels to do the play-by-play and John Madden to do color commentary. The same cliches they use in football would work really well for debates:

Al: This game is going to be won in the trenches.
John: Obama needs to play smash-mouth football.
Al: Clinton should stick with her original game plan.
John: Oh man, Obama was just blindsided! That's gonna hurt come Monday morning.
Al: Yeah he bends but he doesn't break.

I love football cliches. I have been collecting them in a little book for years now. You can't watch football -- or politics -- without a good supply of them. So in honor of Super Tuesday and Super Bowl Sunday, I am going to share my best ones with you.

Feel free to steal these as need be. I promise, even if you don't know what the hell is going on, if you toss a few of these out there, you'll impress your friends. I know I will be using them when I go to my friend Doug Delp's house to watch The Game:

They have to play ball-control offense. (well, it IS hard to score without the ball...)
They have to establish their running game. (tell that to Tom Brady)
They have to stop the big play. (as opposed to the little ones)
They have to pound it out on the ground. (or in the case of Arizona Stadium on a giant grass-filled retractable tray)
They have to take care of the football. ("nice ball..." )
They should just go out and execute. (preferably not the refs)
They have to make plays on both sides of the ball. (it's a spheroid; it doesn't have sides)

Brady has happy feet (he's worried about getting slammed on his ass so he's jumping around alot)
That pass looked like a wounded duck. (no spiral)
He'd like to have that one back. (incomplete but easy pass)
He threw up a prayer. (Ah, the stink desperation!)
Manning is trying to force the ball. (usually to the opposite team)
Brady has all day back there. (Or an eternity.)
Great touch on that pass. (this one HAD a spiral)
Brady hit him right on the numbers. (the guy should've caught it)
Manning threw a strike. (He DID catch this one)
That pass was right on the money. (Even I could have caught that!)
They flushed Manning from the pocket. (But he ran out on very happy feet)

They can't cough it up here. (fumble the pigskin)
He bulls his way for extra yardage (defense sucks)
They're running it right up the gut. (defense really sucks)
He's a bruising running back. (steroid user)
He's overdue to break one. (he's been sucky til now)
He couldn't turn the corner. (defense ran him down before he could reach the gut)
He needs to run more north and south. (and thus turn the corner)
You could have driven a truck through that hole. (fat guys up front are doing their job well)
He'll be buying dinner for the whole offensive line after this game.
(Which is partly why the guys up front are fat)


He's got alligator arms (weanie didn't extend out for the catch)
That was a circus catch. (probably of a wounded duck)
That was a timing pattern. (no one really knows what this is but it sounds sweet)
He heard footsteps. (was afraid of getting his head torn off so he missed the catch)
He ran out of real estate (couldn't keep both feet in bounds)
They pay him to make those catches. (Randy Moss)
That looked like a blown coverage. (Randy Moss)
He had him covered like a blanket. (What Sam Madison probably won't do to Randy Moss)

They're going to call a timeout to ice the kicker. (Nah nah nah nah nah!)
This should be a chip shot for him. (tell that to the Buffalo Bills)
That kick splits the uprights. (goes right down the middle)
That missed extra point will come back to haunt them. (my favorite!)

That was a game saving tackle. (which it never turns out to be)
That was a shoestring tackle. (the bugger almost got away)
The defense had that play sniffed out. (offensive coordinator caught napping)
The defensive line is quick off the ball. (they aren't as fat as most linemen)
The defense is starting to assert itself. (thus winning the battle of the trenches)
They're going to tee-off on Brady. (and try to dirty up his purty uniform)
That hit really cleaned his clock. (don't you love American idioms?)
He really got his bell rung there. (concussion)
He put the lumber on him. (Hard hit but beats me what it really means!)
That front line is 1000 pounds of beef. (and if you are playing a 3-4 that means really big lard-butts!)

You can see the frustration starting to set in. (one side is losing badly)
Looks like we've got some extra-curricular activity on the field. (a fight!)
We hope that cooler heads prevail. (who are they kidding!)
They have a few choice words for each other. (some helmet-butting going on)
They're just exchanging pleasantries. (if you listen hard, the mikes pick up the obscenities)

Welcome to the NFL. (Said after a rookie is tackled or hit during his first game)
He was really clothes-lined there. (a forearm to the neck. Ouch...)
He ran into a brick wall. (a guy bigger than him)
He's slow getting up. (because he got his clock cleaned or bell rung)
Looks like we've got a player shaken up. (you try getting hit by a 280-lb mad man)
We hate to speculate on the injury...(but we will anyway).
They can ill-afford to lose him. (especially if he's named Brady)
Their locker room must look like a MASH unit. (and that's just the refs)
He left the field under his own power. (unless it's a cart)

They're trying to milk the clock (they're ahead and trying to stall)
They're looking at third down and forever. (they're behind and desperate)
They're in four down territory. (they're behind, desperate and down to their last bullet)
It all depends on where they spot the ball. (and wherever it is, someone will be pissed)
They're marching down the field. (defense is sucking air)
This is their deepest penetration. (finally, they are inside the 20!)
They're knocking on the door. (near the goal line)
They've got to punch it in here. (you can only knock so long...)
You really want to come away with some points when you're this close (Hello, Chargers!)
They've got to take it to the big house. (get a touchdown BECAUSE....)

There is no tomorrow.

Have a good Sunday!