Saturday, July 16, 2011

Noir Night at the Poisoned Pen

When the Poisoned Pen hosted Noir Night, there were four authors on stage, Harry Dolan, Thomas Kaufman, Duane Swierczynski, and Michael Wiley. Barbara Peters, owner of Poisoned Pen kicked off the program, assisted by author and editor Patrick Milliken, the store's expert on noir fiction.

Peters told the audience the evening came about not only because the authors were in town, but as a result of Steve Hamilton and Michael Koryta asking if there were any good PI novels now. They were both winners of St. Martin's PWA (Private Eye Writers of America) competition, a contest that actually results in publication of a book. Tom Kaufman and Michael Wiley also won that competition.

She then introduced the authors by setting.  Dolan writes in the Midwest tradition, with a maverick editor as main character. His books are set in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Duane Swierczynski is the author of maverick fiction. His latest book is set in LA. Kaufman and Wiley both have private investigators as protagonists. Tom's series is set in Washington, D.C., and Michael's is set in Chicago.

Duane Swierczynski
Patrick Milliken welcome Duane, saying it was his first visit to the Poisoned Pen. He had driven in from Philadelphia, and he said when his son saw the news stories on the July 5 Haboob, the dust storm that was 50 miles wide and one mile high, he was scared to come to Phoenix.

Duane's first book, Secret Dead Men, was a 2005 selection of Poisoned Pen's Hardboiled Crime Club. It was the first in a string of terrific books. When Barbara mentioned it came out at the same time as James Sallis' Drive, just made into a movie, Swierczynski said yes. He wrote the other crime novel that came out that month. Milliken called Duane's The Blonde a kick-ass noir book. He's also written graphic novels, and now, the first of three books that will be released back-to-back.

Swierczynski summarized Fun and Games as being about  an alcoholic house sitter in LA. He's staying in the Hollywood Hills, and a disturbed woman in the basement insists someone is trying to kill her.  She's right. It's a book about LA and celebrity culture.

Milliken said the books reminded him of the Gold Medal line. They're narrative driven, often involving prison or bad relationships. They are shorter, brutal novels. They were wafer-thin, brutal reads.

Swierczynski's publisher is Mulholland Books. The next book in the trilogy, Hell and Gone, will be released Oct. 31. Then the third will be out in March. Duane's working on the third book now. He said the first book is his LA novel. The second one is his prison novel, sort of buddy cop meets Moonraker. In the third one, Point and Shoot, he's going to see how far he can push his action hero before he breaks. It's the same character in all three books, and Duane brutalizes him.

Peters said as the publisher of Drive, she wanted to say that no one would publish it because it was too short. The authors all hoped that short novels are now making a comeback. Peters always says she sees the popularity of genres on a twenty-year cycle, and crime is up right now. Short novels have an online presence. Duane said it's encouraging that they're the new cool thing online.

Keith Rawson, pulp fiction writer,  a staff writer for Spinetingler, and publisher of Crimefactory magazine, was in the audience. Keith said Ken Bruen gave him an ARC of Drive, and it demoralized him because it was so good. Another author was in the audience, and Milliken introduced Barry Graham, whose book, The Wrong Thing, out soon from PM Press, with just 130 pages. Peters said it's a great summer for pulp fiction.

Asked if hard-boiled noir can reach more people with technology, Peters told a story from that week. Alex Kava had been at the Poisoned Pen, and they did a webcast of the event. People in Canada and other locations bought copies of her book, and said they appreciated the opportunity to "attend" the event. Technology actually expands opportunities for bookstores and authors. Peters said there's room for both digital and paper books. Digital provides opportunities for backlist. Mulholland Books purchased Jim Thompson's backlist. And, Don Winslow was able to acquire his backlist. Keith Rawson said he was happy with what Mulholland is doing. They've expanded rapidly. Rawson sees it as an exciting time to be a writer and publisher.

Harry Dolan and Barbara Peters
Peters told us she liked the video trailer for Harry Dolan's first book, Bad Things Happen. Stephen King and Karin Slaughter loved it. Dolan told her his British publisher did the sound track. David Loogan is the crime busting literary editor in Dolan's books. He came up with the character because Harry edited a magazine in college at Colgate, and then was an editor of academic books and journals for years. That was something he knew about. In Bad Things Happen, there is a series of murders around Gray Streets magazine, a magazine based on the pulp magazines of the '30s and '40s.

There was laughter when Peters said there hadn't been a series revolving around an editor, and someone mentioned a small book called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Peters said she was excluding the Europeans. This magazine dealing with crime is rooted in the pulp fiction idea. The crime is linked to the magazine and the editor.

The killer in Dolan's current book, Very Bad Men, is a literary guy. He's thirty years old, and troubled. He's fixated on a crime from seventeen years earlier involving the robbery of the Great Lakes Bank. He's determined to kill three people who had been involved in that robbery. He kept a list in a notebook, and he saw the letters glowing in those names, an actual medical condition in which words or music generate color.

Then Peters turned to Thomas Kaufman and Michael Wiley, saying they had been on the road together, so she knew they were prepared to talk about their books.

Kaufman said his private detective, Willis Gidney, wants to adopt a child in Steal the Show. Tom likes to put his detective in a tree and throw rocks at him. At the end of Drink the Tea, Gidney had rescued a baby. He himself was a product of D.C.'s system of juvenile justice, so he was stepping up to try to take care of the kid. Kaufman, whose other career is in photography and film, said he has one of Preston Sturges's screenplays. Sullivan's Travels was never made into a movie. It's the story of a man who wanted to wash an elephant. He was nearly destroyed trying to do the right thing. He makes nothing but mistakes from beginning to end. Kaufman said he loves Robert B. Parker's Spenser, but Spenser never makes mistakes. Willis Gidney makes a lot of mistakes.  And, he's a single man trying to adopt  a baby. Gidney knows D.C. and what it's like. There's a lot of role playing, and no one cares about their job.   But, Willis gets the one caseworker in D.C. who cares about her work. 

Michael Wiley's third book, A Bad Night's Sleep, is just out.  He won the PWA competition two  years before Kaufman did. There was a year in between when no one won. Wiley's character, Joe Kozmarski has a hopeless romantic life. His ex-wife and his partner both want to sleep with him. He has an eleven-year-old nephew, and he does a bad job taking care of him. In A Bad Night's Sleep, Joe is on a job late at night, parked at a housing development in his seventeen-year-old Buick Skylark, watching for thefts. A police cruiser pulls up, and a uniformed cop gets out and snips the lock. The cops are involved in the thefts. Joe shoots, and kills a uniformed theft. Joe has cops, thieves, his ex-wife, and his partner after him.     

Barbara Peters said detective stories are usually rooted in landscape. When you think of Spenser, you think of Boston. She asked the authors if their books would be different if they were set in another city.

Thomas Kaufman and Michael Wiley
Tom Kaufman answered that he tries to write the city as if it was human. D.C. is a weird place. It's a Southern city of 800,000 people, and then you add the federal government. It's as if a flying saucer lands and squats on the city. It's really two cities, with inherent conflict between the two strata. There are contradictions all over the place. Gidney's client blackmails him into working for the Motion Picture lobby. There's a scene in which the man in charge of security for the lobby takes him to a bar in a hotel downtown where there are leatherbound books. But, it's just the bindings. The books have been cut out. The substance is missing. D.C. is kind of that way, and it's comforting.

Michael Wiley writes about his Chicago memories. In the late '60s, it was an immensely dirty city. It was cleaned up in the '70s, but still remained a clean, hard city. Then Mayor Richard M. Daley turned it into "Garden City." Wiley writes about the harder, colder city. And, his character is Polish because
Chicago has the second largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. You can't separate Chicago and the Polish.

Duane said he tried to set Fun and Games in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, but it didn't work. The book is set in LA, and that's not arbitrary. Place is essential. He said he loves Ed McBain's books, but he always wants to make the place Manhattan, a real place.

Harry set his first book, Bad Things Happen, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but he never intended it to be a series. He doesn't know how far he can go setting crime novels in a city where they only have about one murder a year. He can surpass that in one chapter. A lot of the activity in the second book, Very Bad Men, takes place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. In future books, he might play around with the setting. He may send Loogan, his editor, elsewhere, maybe to upstate New York where the editor, and Dolan, grew up. He hasn't worked it out yet.

Tom finds it a tremendous advantage to write about a place where he lives. He can walk down the streets. It helps his imagination. Duane said he has to be in a place, or have been there for a while before he can write about it. He never set anything in Phoenix because he hadn't been there until now. Wiley, on the other hand, said it's easier to write about Chicago from a distance. He's lived in Florida for thirteen years. He goes back to Chicago a couple times a year. Wiley was asked if he felt the pressure of those who wrote about Chicago in the past, Studs Terkel or Sam Reeves. They wrote about a Chicago that is gone, a big and muscular city. Duane answered that cities are different for each writer. Swierczynski's New York is different from Lawrence Block's. Harry Dolan's Ann Arbor is all his, though.

Patrick Milliken commented that crime fiction provides a sense of what's happening in cities, with the social problems and the seething problems. He then said PI characters are iconic as outsider art or form. Tom said the PI novel covers all different stratus of society, the power and powerless. It's a way to examine society by following the PI. They're knight errants, believers in what is good, but outside the system.

PI writers have to acknowledge Chandler and the tone of his writing, just as everyone who plays sax has to acknowledge Louis Armstrong. Everyone owes him. Keith Rawson questioned, though, whether the same tropes are used time and time again. Kaufman said why write a Spenser or Chandler. That's a dead-end street since it's been done.

But, Michael Wiley asked, has it been done to death? The stories are hundreds of years old, not just one hundred years. The outsider chasing at windmills is a very old story that never gets old. Genre-breaking fiction isn't new. New Fiction is old fiction in new shoes. Alcohol becomes coke addiction, and then new flaws. Old narratives become new. It's easy to overestimate originality. It's not the story, but how you tell it. Someone has to tell it in a new one.

Again, Tom used a film reference. He said film director Howard Hawks said there are only a couple stories. Everyone uses a different number, but it's finite number of stories. That leaves you with characters. If the characters grab your attention, the story will take care of itself. Kaufman stressed character, while Barbara emphasized landscape. Duane said it has to be the right voice to click. Don Winslow you write 300 pages about laundry, and Swierczynski would read it because of Winslow's voice. Wiley likes a voice with a sense of humor. He said the voice rings in dark books, and that's right, but sometimes dark books have humor. You can hear overt dark humor. He said it's a world view, and it takes a certain ear to hear it.

The group discussed the paperback market in the '50s when Thompson and others were writing, and there were no rules. Keith said they were geniuses, although they wrote the same book over and over. Peters mentioned that James Lee Burke is writing Thomas Malory. She said you must hear him read in that Louisiana twang. Rawson mentioned Joe Lansdale, and his East Texas accent is no bullshit. Barbara agreed, saying, and he looks so normal, and is so nuts. Duane said when he was young he read horror, and Lansdale was his doorway to crime novels. The Kmart where he bought his books had a great horror section. It was the days of the horror boom, with Stephen King and T.M. Wright.

Rawson mentioned that Swierczynski is writing his first series. Why is he writing a series? Duane said he pitched it as a standalone. He resisted writing a series. He always wanted to use up his characters. If his characters survived, he had failed. But, this time he has a three-book arc, and wants to see where the guy ends up. After this, he's going to write a 1000-page adventure novel. When the audience laughed, he said he was serious.

Harry Dolan said he had no intention of writing a series. But, his agent read the book, and then the publisher did, and there were people left alive. They thought it would make a good series.  And, he knew he had more stories to tell about David Loogan, his main character. He likes his voice.

Barbara said that's good that Harry wants to write a series because his publisher likes series, while Duane's publisher encourages diversity.

Tom said he got to the end of the last draft of his first book, and he thought he finally knew Willis Gidney by the end. He had a handle on him, and wanted to write more about him. He liked him. He likes to put him up in a tree and throw rocks at him. He's working on the third book.

Wiley knew he wanted to write a series.His character is seeking what he wouldn't find. He'll never be able to find what he's looking for. He uses him up in each book, and then wants to see what happens when he comes back in the next book. Barbara asked what happens if he hates the guy at the end. Tom laughed and said he writes a prequel from the time when he used to like the guy.

One question was directed to Michael. Why is his character Polish? He answered he's not Polish, but his wife is Polish on one side. When he came back to Chicago, he wanted to write about the city. Joe Kozmarski is possible only in Chicago. He dreams of going to a fishing village in Florida. He has ideas that it's a different world. But, Polishness is part of Chicago. Peters compared it to Les Roberts' Cleveland with the Serbs and Bosnians.

Duane said Polish noir is the next big thing after Swedish noir. He said he's allowed to make Polish jokes since he's Polish. Patrick said maybe it will be Swierczynskian noir, the new term he'd coined earlier.

Then Patrick said he had a question for Harry. Since his character has an editing background, and doesn't come from an active background, does he rely on others to do the heavy footwork? Dolan answered he did want to say Loogan has been shot in each book. In the second book, the tried to make him more active and tougher.

There's constant conflict in Bad Things Happen. Patrick said someone once said if your characters are having a good time, your readers will not. Tom said he heard as air is the medium in which sound travels, conflict is the medium in which story happens. There can be a respite, but not for long. James Lee Burke and Robert B. Parker provided that respite through meals.

And, before the session broke up, with the authors moving to autograph books, Duane Swierczynski said they really hadn't gone far enough, discussing Polish noir. They needed to go to dinosaur noir or primordial ooze.

Harry Dolan's website is

Thomas Kaufman's website is

Duane Swierczynsk's website is 

Michael Wiley's website is

Keith Rawson's website is


S. Connell Vondrak said...

Poisoned Pen Press had my book, No Evidence of a Crime, for over a year and a half, going back and forth with comments. How they pick books is a good process for new writers. You get a lot of insight and feedback from readers if you choose to listen. In the end, PP didn’t like my use of Homeland Security in the book. The next publisher I sent it to, Oak Tree Press - two weeks – we want to publish. Life is a winding road.

Lesa said...

Thank you, S. Connell. That is a while for an author, I'm sure. But, as you said, if you choose to listen, you get good feedback.

Janet Rudolph said...

What a fabulous wrap-up. almost like being there!

Can't wait for Duane to be our guest at the Berkeley Lit Salon August 3. Loved Fun and Games, and I'm eagerly awaiting #2 and #3...

Thomas Kaufman said...

it was great to see you, Lesa. thanks for being our recording angel

Prentiss Garner said...

I fell like I have now been to PP
and attended wonderful author event!!!!


Lesa said...

Oh, you're going to enjoy having Duane as your guest, Janet. He's really funny, while being quite knowledgeable at the same time. Recaps are what I do best, so I'm glad you felt as if you were there.

Lesa said...

My pleasure, Tom. I do my best to get the information across, and hope people get the feeling as well.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Prentiss. If you can't be there, or see a webcast, at least I can try to bring you an event at PP. Two more recaps coming up soon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention. It was a great evening.

Susan said...

Wonderful recap as aways, Lesa -- thank you!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Barry. I should mention a local author. Congratulations!

Lesa said...

I love doing it, Susan. Thank you.

kathy d. said...

What a terrific summary. Reading it makes one feel like one is in the room.

The only author I've read in the group is Harry Dolan. I liked Bad Things Happen so much that I laughed constantly, and loaned it to a friend who also laughed a lot.

Have been waiting for his second book and am glad to see that it's ready for readers.

And, in reply to Harry Dolan's view about a paucity of murders in Ann Arbor, if Sweden and Norway can have a plethora of serial killers -- which in reality they do not -- then that university town in Michigan can have a few. Academia, a local economy, a time of layoffs, downsizing, budget cuts and foreclosures, some people are likely to be very upset.

Anyway, Lesa, great job summarizing.

And hats off to Barbara Peters who seems to know everything possible about mysteries and their publication.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Kathy. Barbara Peters' knowledge about mysteries and their publication is unbelievable.

I'm glad you like Harry Dolan's books. And, the summary at least introduced you to some of the other authors. Thanks, Kathy.