Your Musical Community Is Where You Find It

Music as a communal event is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't play any instrument and doesn't (or shouldn't) sing. I've attended concerts where the sense of community was created by the shared music we all knew, or by the intense efforts of the performer to make sure that connection happened. But for the most part, I've always Read more

Help Plot My 2015 Reading Tour

Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person? If so, here's what you need to do.  Go to your local bookstore, ask if they'd be interested, and if they are, send me the contact info, including the name of the person in charge of author events. Don't Read more

Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

Age ain’t nothin’ but a…problem

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, Spenser, writers, writing | 4 Comments

In a recent Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter talked about the dangers of having your literary characters, especially detectives, age in real time. She cites several examples of authors allowing their characters to develop the infirmities and declines that come with advancing years, as well as those who freeze their heroes in time so that while the world changes, they don’t.

The original detective heroes like the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe didn’t face this worry. Their series were relatively short compared to what we now consider a successful run: seven novels and some short stories for Marlowe, compared to 21 for John Sandford’s “Prey” series; Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple racked up 12 novels, against 40 for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Sam Spade, the quintessential tough-guy detective, exists in only a single novel, The Maltese Falcon.

The appetite for series now requires at least a book a year, and authors with contemporary settings have to face the fact that the world changes around their heroes. Do the heroes change with it? Some do. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, once young enough to be played in a movie by Alec Baldwin, is now 73. Michael Connelly’s 60-year-old Harry Bosch has to deal with the vagaries of contemporary retirement. But some, like Spenser or Kay Scarpetta, don’t. In fact, the biggest surprise in the article was how many authors began with their heroes aging, and then arbitrarily froze them in time when the series became successful.

It made me think about Eddie LaCrosse’s age, and how that affects his ongoing adventures. I created his prototype character when I was 18, but I wanted him to be worldly and sophisticated, so I made him roughly 35, which is his age in The Sword-Edged Blonde. At the time I thought that was mature enough to give him the perspective I wanted. However, by the time the book actually came out I was over 40, which meant I was now writing about a character a decade younger than me. Further, and strange as it seems, I’m continuing to age. So I’m faced with the dilemma of what age Eddie should be in each book.

Luckily I’m freed from the worries of the modern world, since Eddie’s world is fantasy and only changes when I change it. But I still want him to be believable, and part of that is aging. I don’t have a set time frame, like Stephanie Plum (Kinsey Millhone ages one year for every 2 1/2 books, so she’ll be about 40 when the series concludes). But he does progress. In the framing story of Dark Jenny I think he’s about thirty-eight, settled into his relationship with Liz and established in Neceda. In the next book, Wake of the Bloody Angel, he’s about the same age. Which works out to real-time again, one year per book, by default. But it’s not deliberate, therefore I can’t be held to it. Ultimately, Eddie’s as old as I say he is.

Fatherhood, Spenser style: Early Autumn

Posted on by Alex in fatherhood, novel, Robert B. Parker, Spenser, writing | 3 Comments

Since the death of Robert B. Parker in January 2010, I’ve been re-reading his Spenser novels. The earliest ones, written in the 1970s and 80s, staked out his moral as well as physical territory, revolving around ideas of traditional masculinity in conflict with the modern world. And in 1981′s Early Autumn, Spenser demonstrates how his code is built and applied in the life of a clueless teenage boy. It’s a book of its time in the particulars of setting, plot and society, but it touches on universal ideas that may be more applicable than ever.

Paul Giacomin is a chess piece between his divorced parents. Private eye Spenser is hired by his mother to retrieve him from his father, but it’s not from maternal affection, merely the latest skirmish in their ongoing, selfish power struggle. The fifteen-year-old has literally, as they say in the South, had no raising:

“The kid’s never been taught how to act,” I said. “He doesn’t know anything. He’s got no pride. He’s got nothing he’s good at.”
(p. 98 of the Dell paperback reissue).

To protect Paul, Spenser hides him in an isolated cabin. Over the course of several weeks he teaches Paul carpentry, weight lifting, boxing and most crucially, self-reliance:

“…that’s why, kid, before you go back, you are going to have to get autonomous.”


“Autonomous. Dependent on yourself. Not influenced unduly by things outside yourself. You’re not old enough. It’s too early to ask a kid like you to be autonomous. But you got no choice. Your parents are no help to you. If anything, they hurt. You can’t depend on them. They got you to where you are. They won’t get better. You have to.”
(p. 123 of the Dell paperback reissue).

The extended middle section demonstrates just how Paul gets autonomous. In a lot of ways it’s idyllic: Paul, who would be called a slacker if Parker was writing now, responds to Spenser’s tough love and blooms (or whatever the male equivalent is) under it. The construction of the cabin, which prefigured Life as a House by two decades, becomes a metaphor for the construction of Paul’s self-esteem. And in one of the book’s more clever twists, Paul’s nascent autonomy leads him to his dream career: ballet. Which does not involve coming out as gay, which there’s no indication he is. And which Spenser, the most “he” of he-men, fully supports.

The book’s weakness is the same as the recent “Young Spenser” novel Chasing the Bear, which I reviewed here: there’s no real challenge to Spenser’s ability to do what he says he’ll do. He knows how to handle every difficulty he encounters, which is both a bit of a cheat dramatically, and also part of the thematic point. It would be hard to demonstrate self-reliance if the circumstances didn’t allow it, and without that demonstration, Early Autumn would be merely The Celestine Prophecy for wayward youth.

And Paul puts up little resistance. He’s apathetic and aimless, but not really rebellious. In re-reading the book, I was struck by two contradictory thoughts. First was how much Paul seemed to resemble the kids I see in the mall, limp-bodied and pale, unengaged in the world except through a screen. Apparently, if Parker was writing about them in 1981, they’ve been around a while. Second was the desire to see Spenser confront a real rebel, someone determined not to be “saved.” Yet that story would’ve been a cliche’.

As proof of Spenser’s success, Paul Giacomin becomes a recurring minor character in the later novels, especially Pastime, where we first learn about Spenser’s own childhood. But Early Autumn remains a unique book in the series, and not just for the elaborate carpentry skills Spenser never again displays. It’s the first and only time this poster boy for autonomy steps deliberately into the role of parent. He’s good at it, of course; then again, he has the luxury of choosing his child, something real parents can’t do.

Or real children, for that matter. As someone who was essentially abandoned by the elder male figures in my childhood, I wonder how I would’ve responded to such a strong masculine presence dedicated to my self-improvement. Truthfully, I think I would’ve resisted far harder than Paul Giacomin. And I wonder what contemporary teen boys, in a world of pedophile priests and other sexual predators, would make of a grown man who takes a boy alone into the woods for weeks at a time. Would Spenser even think of such an idea today?

"The work is play for mortal stakes"*

Posted on by Alex in Robert B. Parker, Spenser, writers, writing | 1 Comment

In 1988, I lived in Huntsville, Alabama working for Olan Mills Portrait Studios as a traveling photographer, a job with slightly less dignity than scraping up road kill. I also wrote novels on big yellow legal pads, that I subsequently typed up when I had the chance (on a typewriter, even). My stuff was terrible; I had no sense of my own style, so I mimicked those of books I read (it’s a wonder I survived my Joe Lansdale Drive-In period). I had not yet discovered my own voice.

Luckily, thanks to the Huntsville Public Library, I took a chance on my first Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker, Pale Kings and Princes.

I knew the characters from the TV show Spenser for Hire, so I had no trouble jumping into this, the fourteenth book in the series. The plot was self-contained and dealt with drugs, the hot topic of the 80s. But I was unprepared for my response to Parker’s literary language: here were moral dilemmas with no easy solutions, characters sketched in vivid detail, relationships that felt real and literary jokes I got. I knew almost at once that this was the sort of writing I wanted to do.

I can even quote the passage where I felt The Big Click in my head telling me I’d found my personal literary touchstone:

The Wheaton Street Directory was the size of a phone book with a green cover plastered with ads for local establishments. At the bottom was printed A Public Service Publication of the Central Argus. It consisted of an alphabetical listing of the streets, each address and the name of the person who lived at that address. People who go to great trouble to keep their phones unlisted never think to keep themselves out of the street directory.

I started with Acorn Street and went down the list looking at the names listed opposite the numbers. In the best of all possible worlds there was no reason they couldn’t live on Acorn Street. There was no reason to think I’d have to go through the whole book. Early in the afternoon, about one-fifteen, I found the name Esteva on Water Street.

(Pale Kings and Princes, p. 63 of the hardcover first edition)

I don’t know why this particular passage struck such a chord, but it prompted a major sea change in how I wrote that reached its first fruition in the late 90s with my Firefly Witch short stories (see an example here). In them I developed my first unique narrator, figured out how to write humor that worked instead of groaned, and embraced the serious emotions I’d previously skirted.

I also became a total fan of Robert B. Parker, who passed away on Jan. 18.

There will be many far more eloquent tributes to the man and his work, from authors much more accomplished than me. There’s even at least one other author who named his son Spenser, as I did. But on the occasion of Parker’s passing I wanted to honor his influence, and to remind everyone that while the art may stick around, the artists who touch us are not infinite resources. Take a moment to look them up online and send them an e-mail; you may get a personal response, a form letter, or no reply at all. But if they, like Parker, sit down at their desk one morning and don’t get up, you’ll be glad you did.

(the author’s “RBP” signature on my copy of his western novel Appaloosa.)

*from Robert Frost’s poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Quoted in at least two Spenser novels (Mortal Stakes and Rough Weather).

“Do you fall in love with all of your clients?"

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, Spenser, writing | 5 Comments


Recently I got an e-mail from a reader that said, in part:

“Eddie LaCrosse with a girlfriend is not the same as Eddie LaCrosse wandering companionless through the world. The lonely but worldwise Eddie LaCrosse seems like a stronger character…Burn Me Deadly starts out great, but as soon as it went to the town scene with his girlfriend it lost something immediately (for me), and I think it was seeing him act like a wuss.”
(quoted by permission.)

It got me thinking about why I wanted to give Eddie a romantic partner in Burn Me Deadly, and that made me consider Eddie’s literary lineaage. I covered some of this back in June 2009, at a guest post on Erica Hayes’ blog, but for this I want to focus a bit more on relationships.

Consensus agrees that Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story with “The Purloined Letter” in 1844, and the hard-boiled detective was created by Dashiell Hammett in his “Continental Ops” stories and novels beginning in 1923. Poe’s Auguste Dupin was, as most of his characters, mostly a cipher in service to the narrative, and while the Op definitely liked women, his job always came first. It wasn’t until the appearance of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe that the literary detective gained a full-blooded moral dimension in his relationships with women.

Marlowe, who first appeared by name in 1939′s The Big Sleep, is cynical, disillusioned and fully aware of the world’s evil. Yet he’s also capable of comprehending innocence, both in the criminal sense and the moral. He sees the world for what it is, and remains aware of what it could be if the right people were ever put in charge. Marlowe also liked women, a lot, and wasn’t shy about expressing it. But he seldom lowered his guard with one, and when he did he ended up regretting it.

Marlowe seems to be a confirmed bachelor, but Chandler actually married him off in his final novel Poodle Springs (unfinished at the time of his death in 1959). In 1989, the man considered Chandler’s literary heir was asked to complete it; more on that to come.

Although Marlowe lived and worked through World War II, it took Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer to truly embody and explore the post-war world. Introduced in 1949′s The Moving Target, Archer is considerably less witty than Marlowe, but he’s also more overtly sympathetic. Marlowe could be dragged into cases he didn’t want, but it was in his capacity as a detective; Archer gets pulled into things as a human being. Archer had once been married and occasionally connected with women from his cases, but never for long. Unlike Marlowe, who always saw the world’s inadequacies as the impediment to love, Archer accepted that his own weaknesses were to blame.

When Raymond Chandler’s estate searched for a contemporary author to take the four chapters of Poodle Springs and turn them into a finished novel, they chose Robert B. Parker. Parker’s own Spenser novels combine Chandler’s wit and Archer’s empathy with a self-conscious literary element (Spenser is incredibly erudite and well-read). Since his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, he has appeared roughly once a year in a series that is still going, if not exactly “strong,” at least still capable of pleasant surprises (for example, 2005′s Cold Service casts Spenser in the sidekick role in an adventure mainly involving his friend Hawk).

The biggest fundamental change Parker wrought on his predecessors was the addition of Susan Silverman in his second novel, God Save the Child. Susan becomes Spenser’s long-term romantic partner, comfortably unmarried yet fully committed to the relationship (as is Spenser). With Susan, Spenser can drop his defenses and reveal his true feelings. But Susan has a deeper function as well: as a psychiatrist, she can give Spenser insights he might otherwise lack, often providing crucial psychological clues.

Eddie LaCrosse could have easily been a loner like Marlowe and Archer, forever mourning the one great love he lost. But in a lesson learned in part from Sam Peckinpah (see prior blog), I didn’t want to make Eddie a rigid character; despite his world-weariness and seen-it-all cynicism, he’s still capable of learning and changing. I also wanted to give him both someone to talk to, and someone who’d call him out on his mistakes.

I understand my reader’s comment above, but I respectfully disagree with it. I don’t think having a girlfriend makes Eddie a wuss. Believe me, there are days when I’d rather face big men with swords than work through issues with my wife. But that’s as important a battle as anything fought with weapons, and I firmly believe that it makes Eddie (and me) a more interesting character.

(The title quote is from the strange, strange 1947 film adaptation of Chandler’s novel The Lady in the Lake. Marlowe’s response: “Only the ones in skirts.”)