A Few Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

Not only did the good people at Fahrenheit Press provide me with Duncan MacMaster’s Hack (which I just posted about), I got an interview with Mr. MacMaster as well! As usual, this is short and sweet, he’s got better things to do than come up with clever answers for me, y’know? Seriously, loved his answers. Give this a read and then scurry out to buy his book.

Would you like to give the elevator pitch for Hack? (for that matter, if you want to throw one in for A Mint Condition Corpse, that’d be fine, too)
The elevator pitch for Hack would be: A desperate man is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of a washed up TV star with scandal in his past and murder in his future.

The pitch for A Mint Condition Corpse would be: A semi-retired artist’s trip to his favourite comic book convention is spoiled by murder, and only he can solve it.

Do you have experience as a Ghost Writer? Is Hack your way working out some demons? Or does it have a much more benign genesis?
I never specifically worked as a ghostwriter. I did do things like selling jokes to comedians (no one you ever heard of) so I know a bit about doing something that someone else gets credit for.

There is a certain amount of exorcism in the genesis of Hack. By the time I got to writing it I had spent a very long time getting metaphorically kicked in the head by the writing business. The joke market had dried up, and I spent years enduring rejections that ranged from the incoherent to the callous, and some career setbacks that were downright ridiculous.

As you could guess, those experiences left some demons that needed to be exorcised, and Jake Mooney, the hack writer of the title, did it for me. Jake’s had a life defined by setbacks and it’s made him bitter, cynical, and lonely. He sees being a credited author as a step towards some redemption as a writer, and solving the crimes as an attempt at redeeming himself as a human being.

Of course none of this was conscious while I was writing it. While putting down that first draft all I could think about was the plot, the characters and making sure everything made sense. I didn’t discover what I had done with Jake’s and my own hunger for redemption and validation until working on later drafts.

It was different with my first crime novel A Mint Condition Corpse. That started with a conscious decision to make Kirby Baxter, card-carrying comics geek, the Sherlockian hero instead of the comedy relief sidekick, and to use him as a vehicle to combine mystery with a satire of pop culture and the people who run it. Hack, has a lot more of my id running amok in it.

You’ve done a little in other genres, but your publications seem to be predominately in the Crime/Mystery genre. What is it about the genre that brings you back? Is there a genre you particularly enjoy, but don’t think you could write?
I’ve dabbled in science fiction, fantasy, and even horror, and I do plan to do more in those genres in the future, but mystery/crime does seem to have a grip on me. Probably because it deals with people who are at the extremes of their emotions, and also because it’s a genre that’s is still a wide open field when it comes to narrative possibilities.

I always credit my narrative style to SCTV. It was a sketch comedy show I watched as a child that parodied television and movies, and it taught me that popular culture is loaded with tropes and cliches that create expectations in the audience. If you know them and understand them, then you can use them to manipulate expectations to misdirect, surprise, amuse, and hopefully amaze the audience.

When I started reading crime fiction in my teens I began to see the patterns inherent in the genre, and started seeing how they could be manipulated to create something new and entertaining.

As for a genre I enjoy, but don’t think I could write….well, I’m not sure. I’m sure readers would tell me if I really screwed up. My bet would be on straight up horror without any sort of mystery to solve inside it.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, a relatively slim volume that contains an epic inside. It sets a high standard that I hope to come close to some day. For the most part I tend to avoid reading fiction while I’m writing. I have a bad habit of inadvertently imitating whoever I’m reading. I wrote some truly dreadful pastiches while I was on a Lovecraft reading binge in my early twenties. All sorts of gooey overwrought eldritch nonsense.
This one’s not about you directly, but what is it about Fahrenheit Press that seems to generate the devotion and team spirit that it does (or at least appears to)? I don’t know that I’ve seen as many authors from the same publisher talk about/read each other’s books — or talk about the publisher — as much as you guys seem to. Is it simply contractual obligation, or is there more?
There’s no contractual obligation for camaraderie at Fahrenheit Press, or the House of Love, as our fearless leader likes to call it.

I can sum it up this way: Joining Fahrenheit is like joining a punk band in the mid-70s.

We don’t know what the future holds, or what we will achieve in the end. All we do know is that we are a band of misfits who are all doing what we love, we’re breaking rules and conventions that some thought were inviolate, and that we are all in this wild ride together.

Fahrenheit has been the best experience I’ve ever had in publishing, and I’m sure my fellow authors will agree with me on that.

What’s next for Duncan MacMaster?
I just finished the first draft of a sequel to A Mint Condition Corpse, called Video Killed The Radio Star, and the brutal editing/rewrite process awaits me. I’m also developing a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator. I am even outlining a potential sequel to Hack called Hacked, where Jake goes Hollywood. I’m hoping to complete all these projects and make them worthy of publication as soon as possible.

What happens after that, is anyone’s guess.

Thank you for having me on your blog.

Thanks for your time — I really appreciate it, and hope that the Hack‘s release is successful (as it deserves).

Hack by Duncan MacMaster

This feels a bit rushed to me — and more than a little vague. I guess it should, it was a little rushed, I liked this book enough that I pounded it out a couple of hours after finishing it, I didn’t want to sit on it for a while. And if the post is vague, it’s because this is the kind of mystery difficult to talk about without cracking open all the secrets, and because a lot of what I really liked about this is in the little details MacMaster gave. You need to experience it yourself to get what I’m saying.

HackHack

by Duncan MacMaster

Uncorrected Proof
Fahrenheit Press, 2017

Read: February 28 – March 1, 2016

Little victories, since they’re all I can hope for, they’re what I live for.

Jake Mooney used to be a pretty good reporter — good reputation, good results — but he got out of that game and got into a more lucrative field, even if it was more distasteful. Events transpired,  and that goes away — I’ll let you read it for yourself, but it involves lawyers and an ex-wife. Nowadays, he gets by being a ghost-writer for established authors who don’t have the time or ability to write their own material. Out of the blue, he gets an offer to help a former TV star, Rick Rendell, write his autobiography. He’ll even get credited for it. Credit — and a nice cash bonus. How can he say no?

Before you can say “Jessica Fletcher,” someone tries to kill Jake and then Rick is shot in front of a handful of witnesses, including Jake. Between his affection for (some of) the people in Rick’s life, worry over his own safety, curiosity, and his own sense of justice, Jake dives in and investigates the murder himself.

Jake finds himself knee-deep in a morass involving unscrupulous agents (I’m not sure there’s another kind in fiction), wives (current and ex-), Hollywood politics, an IRS investigation, a Drug Cartel, former co-stars, hedge fund managers, hit men, and a decades-old mysterious death. And a few more fresh deaths. . The notes he’s already taken for the book gives Jake fodder for his investigation — but the combination of notes and his continuing work provides the killer a constant target (and threat). As long as Jake’s working on the mystery/mysteries — and doing better than the police at uncovering crimes and suspects — the killer can’t just escape, Jake has to be stopped.

The voice was great, the mystery had plenty of twists and turns, Jake’s ineptitude with firearms was a great touch and served to keep him from being a super-hero. I really can’t think of anything that didn’t work. There’s not a character in the book that you don’t enjoy reading about. I had three strong theories about what led to Rick’s death and who was responsible — the one I feared the most wasn’t it (thankfully — it was a little too trite). My favorite theory was ultimately right about the who, but was absolutely wrong about everything else. I take that as a win — I felt good about my guess and better about the very clever plotting and writing that outsmarted me.

That’s more about me than I intended it to be, so let me try this again — MacMaster has set up a great classic mystery — a la Rex Stout or Agatha Christie. A dogged investigator with a personal stake in the case, supporting characters that you can’t help but like (or dislike, as appropriate), a number of suspects with reasons to kill the victim (with a decent amount of overlap between those two groups), and a satisfying conclusion that few readers will see coming. Hack is funny, but not in a overly-comedic way, it’s just because Jake and some of the others he’s with have good senses of humor. I chuckled a few times, grinned a few more.

I bought MacMaster’s previous book, A Mint Condition Corpse, when it came out last year — sadly, it’s languishing in a dark corner of my Kindle with a handful of other books from Fahrenheit Press (I’m a great customer, lousy reader, of that Press).  Hack wasn’t just an entertaining read, it was a great motivator to move his other book higher on my TBR list. Get your hands on this one folks, you’ll have a great time.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from the publisher, nevertheless, the opinions expressed are my own.

—–

4 Stars

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

Hide and SeekHide and Seek

by Ian Rankin
Series: John Rebus, #2

Hardcover, 272 pg.
Minotaur Books, 1991

Read: March 4, 2017


Now, this is more like it. You’ve got a seasoned detective who sees something that just doesn’t jibe — a routine O. D. that just doesn’t look right. At least to him — everyone else (including the detective who’d normally be assigned to the case) is good with the obvious answer. Not at all shockingly, there is more than meets the eye to this death.

Rebus’ ex and daughter have moved away, his brother is in jail, Gill is now seeing a DJ (who seems to be pretty popular), and Rebus has a new boss (and a promotion) — so outside of Rebus himself, there’s not a whole lot to tie the two novels together. It’s not just his coply intuition (to borrow Jesse Stone’s phrase), it’s some occult symbolism, a stolen camera, and the testimony of a near-witness that make Rebus continue to investigate. He spends time with druggies, students, male prostitutes, artists, academics, and the upper crust of local society in an effort to explain the death.

There’s something to Rankin’s prose that elevates it above most of what you find in Police Procedurals — I can’t put my finger on it, but you can feel it. The description of the corpse was fantastic, filled with those little details that will stick with me longer than your typical macabre tableau à la Thomas Harris or Val McDermid. The closing image was just as strong — ambiguous, but striking. I can’t wait to see what he does as he becomes a better writer.

Rebus isn’t good with people — family, friends, co-workers, lovers — he drinks and smokes too much, and cares more about police work than anything else. Even when he makes an effort with people (not part of a case), it just doesn’t go well at all — we’ve seen this character before, but it still works — readers just like this kind of cop.

So much of this feels (when you think back on it — or when you start to realize what he’s doing in a scene/with a character) like something you’ve seen before — maybe several times. Even by 1991 standards. But when you’re reading it, somehow , Rankin makes it feel fresh. I should note, incidentally, that a lot of what you think you’ve seen before, you maybe haven’t, if you give him enough time. He didn’t cheat with the solution, or how it was reached — but it felt like it came out of nowhere (it didn’t). That’s good enough for me.

That’s 2 down, 19 to go. Knots & Crosses felt like a character study, a good crime novel. Hide and Seek, on the other hand, feels like someone is building/introducing a series. It’s a subtle difference, but important. I’m reminded of the difference between Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript and God Save the Child. It’s only going to get better from here. I really like this character, even if I’m not doing a good job talking about him — I think that’ll change in forthcoming books. Once Rankin stops establishing the character/building the series’ foundation and starts building.Also, I look forward to getting a better understanding of Rankin’s use of the term “Calvinist.” This one was good, solid writing with a satisfying story — not dazzling, but everything you want in a procedural.

2017 Library Love Challenge

—–

3 Stars

The Doll (Audiobook) by Taylor Stevens, Hilary Huber

This post was supposed to go up this morning, but I thought of a point or two I wanted to add. So during my morning break, I pulled it up on my app and the post vanished. Well, not the whole post — the tags, categories, and headline stuck around — but the actual content vanished. Thankfully, I don’t compose in WordPress, so I didn’t lose that much, just some minor tweaks. But still — any one else ever have this trouble with their app?

The Doll (Audiobook) The Doll (Audiobook)

by Taylor Stevens, Hillary Huber (Narrator)
Series: Vanessa Michael Munroe, #3

Unabridged Audiobook, 13 hrs., 47 min.
Random House Audio, 2013
Read: February 17 – 24, 2016


The novel starts with Miles Bradford witnessing Vanessa Michael Munroe being kidnapped — and in a most impressive way. He mobilizes he members of his private security team in town and begin looking for her — and Logan — immediately. Miles assumes (correctly) that if the object was to hurt Michael, he and Logan would be the top candidates to join here. If she’s being kidnapped to do a job, Logan would be the ideal candidate for a hostage — as long as someone has him, Michael will do whatever it takes to keep him alive. Ergo, since he knows Michael’s out of the country, but he’s not sure where, the best thing he can do is to free Logan from whoever took him, eliminating the leverage they have over Michael.

Meanwhile, Michael wakes up somewhere in Europe where she’s presented with this simple choice: do a job for this man she recognizes as The Dollmaker — or he’ll have Logan killed (and he threatens to do similar things to others Michael cares about). The job is to deliver a young woman into a life of sex slavery and torture. This particular young woman is a rising movie star who’s gone missing — the surrounding publicity makes her one of the best known faces in the wold. She needs transported over a few European borders without being seen or injured in any way. Doing this will repay a debt to The Dollmaker that Michael incurred in a previous case.

Just typing that makes it sound like Michael’s a monster for even considering delivering Neeva — and she certainly thinks so — but in the context, Michael can’t seem to do anything better (although she does hope that Logan will be rescued, giving her the opportunity to save Neeva). Michael also knows that no matter what happens, she and Logan are dead as soon as the girl is delivered (barring a successful rescue). Most of the book is a compelling race against the clock, followed by Michael’s hunt for revenge.

This is the first time that we really get to see Bradford’s operation outside of just him — I’d enjoy a novel or two about he and his team without Michael, I must say. The best parts of this book involve Miles and his team doing their thing.

Huber did a great job, as per usual — I honestly can’t think of anything to say about her work that I haven’t said before. Neeva frequently sounded like Anna Faris to me — which helped solidify the character. There is one thing that I’ve meant to say since the last book and forgot about until this instance — there’s a playfulness that creeps into Huber’s voice as Michael prepares to do something violent. I love that little touch. It says so much about the character (and I hope Stevens agrees with what it says) — it also speaks volumes about Huber’s attention to nuance.

A gripping tale — with some of my favorite moments in the series — even if I found some character choices hard to believe/stomach. With plenty of callbacks to earlier books to cement this in Michael’s story. Still, another good entry for Stevens, Huber and Munroe.

—–

3.5 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Say Nothing by Brad Parks

Say NothingSay Nothing

by Brad Parks
eARC, 448 pg.
Dutton Books, 2017
Read: January 19 – 21, 2016

Since his debut novel, Faces of the Gone in 2009, I’ve considered myself a Brad Parks fan — but when I heard that he was going to step away from his series for a stand-alone, I got a little nervous. Maybe I wasn’t a Brad Parks fan — maybe I was just a Carter Ross fan. Honestly, the parts of the Carter Ross novels that he doesn’t narrate aren’t my favorite. Also, we all know all too well that for every Suspect or Mystic River, series writers can give us a The Two Minute Rule or Shutter Island — maybe grabbing this book was going to be a mistake.

Thankfully, it wasn’t.

While working on this post, I saw this from Sue Grafton talking about Say Nothing: “Terrific book. Truly terrific. Tension throughout and tears at the end. What could be better than that?” I’m a little annoyed by this, honestly. That’s pretty much how I was going to sum up things for this post. Frankly, I wish Grafton would focus her efforts on finding another 5 letters between X and Z rather than preemptively stealing my lines.

We meet Judge Scott Sampson a few minutes after the biggest crisis of his life has started — and a few minutes before he leans about it. Once you get to learn Sampson a little, you’ll see that the bar for biggest crisis for him is set a little higher than for most. He’s informed that his twin children have been kidnapped and is provided some pretty compelling reasons to believe that he’s under surveillance (and will soon be given even more reason to believe that). Basically, the message he gets is this: if you want to see you children alive and well, you will do what we tell you to with a case. There are a few tests he has to pass to demonstrate his compliance — tests that may do lasting damage to his career. But Sampson is eager to prove that he will do whatever he’s asked for his children, consequences notwithstanding.

This isn’t going to be an overnight escapade — in fact, for Sampson and his wife (how have I failed to mention Allison?), this is an ordeal of indefinite duration. The stress, the worry, the intense reaction to this situation begins taking its toll almost immediately. These pressures test their individual ethics, bring secrets to light, expose and exacerbate problems in their marriage, and generally bring them both to the breaking point. They are also both driven to discover their inner-Liam Neeson in order to get their daughter (and son) back — neither, really possess a particular set of skills fitting this goal, sadly. These attempts just make their personal and interpersonal woes worse — and their lives continue spinning out of their control.

There is a relentlessness to the pace that’s a pleasure — and a drain. Jack Reacher gets a good night’s sleep and enjoys coffee (and the less than occasional romantic interlude), Harry Bosch has jazz to relax him, Elvis Cole has that cat and Tai Chi — as intense as things may get, by and large these guys get a break. But for Scott and Allison — their children don’t stop being kidnapped, and whatever solace they might find in alcohol, sleep or family — it’s a temporary band-aid at best.

This doesn’t mean that it’s not an enjoyable read — Scott is a charming character and you will like him as you learn more about his life and family. You will not approve of every move he makes here (I guess you might, but I hope you don’t), but on the whole you will understand why he makes them and won’t judge him too harshly. Whoops, I was talking about tone here — I had fun with this, even as I was feeling a shadow of the pressure Scott and Allison are under, I even laughed once. There’s a real sense of peril when the narration focuses on the children — but it never feels exploitative.

Like most readers will, I had a couple of pretty compelling theories about who was behind everything (and why), and focused on the correct one pretty early on. Which didn’t stop me from being taken aback when it Parks revealed it — he really handled that well. Another weakness comes in the last couple of pages where Parks ties up a few loose ends, and a couple of them feel too tidy. But it’s instantly forgivable, and you want these characters to have something tidy after all they’ve gone through. On the whole, however, the characters and situations are complex and real (if heightened) — Parks nailed this whole thing. I think this will hold up to at least one repeat reading — the second read might even be more rewarding since you can appreciate what Parks is doing without being distracted by wondering what’ll happen.

The tears that Grafton mentioned? Yeah, she got that part right, too.

This is a thriller filled with real people and situations that you can believe. You’ll run the emotional gamut a time or two while reading this and will wish you could read faster just so you can make sure these kids make it home. I think I like the Carter Ross books more than this, but it’s in Say Nothing that Parks finds his stride as a crime fiction writer. Really well done.

By the way, It turns out that I am a fan of Brad Parks. Phew.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Dutton via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this, although my Primary Care Physician probably isn’t crazy about what it did to my blood pressure .

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Death Stalks Kettle Street by John Bowen

Death Stalks Kettle StreetDeath Stalks Kettle Street

by John Bowen

Paperback, 370 pg.
John Bowen, 2016

Read: February 6 – 7, 2017


Nothing against Adrian Monk — either in book or TV form — he was brilliant, fun, and his OCD was treated with sensitivity. But also for laughs — the combination wasn’t easy to pull off. But OCD isn’t really a laughing matter — just ask Greg Unsworth, the protagonist of John Bowen’s compelling cozy mystery. Greg wants to be normal, he doesn’t want to be kept awake because a tea cup might be out of alignment with the others, he doesn’t want to lock and relock and relock and relock his front door just to be sure it took, he wants to be able to cross the road when he wants to. Partially this would be for his sake, but mostly, it’s to help his brother out, because he’s really bothered with Greg’s OCD.

Beth Grue doesn’t believe in normal — she knows everyone is a little not-normal in their own way, she’s fully embraced her non-normality. She just wants everyone else to treat her as no more different than anyone else — cerebral palsy or no.

The two of them meet when they discover the dead body of one of Greg’s neighbors together, which leads to a fairly unlikely friendship. They understand the others struggles, they accept each other for what they are (well, almost, Beth isn’t as patient always as she wants to be). As the friendship develops, they begin to realize that the body they discovered was one of a pretty high number of accidental deaths in Greg’s neighborhood recently. Not only that, but someone has been sending Greg advance notice of these accidents (which casts a shadow on the whole “accident” idea, no?).

There’s a great subplot about Beth taking a class in mystery writing — which allows Bowen to comment on the genre, while helping Beth to think both about her novel in-progress and the murders she and Greg are convinced are being committed.

And the mystery? It was pretty well constructed, and the reveal was wonderful. There’s a handy red herring that was so obvious that the character might as well have been named Mr./Ms. Hareng Rouge. I didn’t mind him at all because Bowen used it well; our protagonists learn how to investigate (and how not to investigate) through wasting time with the false trail; and the way Greg discovered just how wrong he’d been was so much fun.

Right up until a couple of pages before the reveal of the killer I had a 3 competing theories — all of which seemed pretty likely (well, 2 of them did, anyway). I’m glad the killer is who it was, their motive — and best of all, how Bowen handled the reveal. One of the most satisfying conclusions to a mystery that I’ve read in ages.

It wasn’t perfect, but it got pretty close. I enjoyed the characters, their wants, their interaction, their fumbling attempts to solve the mystery – I can’t recommend this highly enough, really. It’s a cozy that has enough of an edge and dept to appeal to those who prefer their detectives a little more hard-boiled, without getting too messy, too violent, too un-cozy for the core audience.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Dead Gone by Luca Veste

Dead GoneDead Gone

by Luca Veste
Series: Murphy and Rossi, #1

Paperback, 404 pg.
Avon, 2014

Read: February 13, 2017

They say you get used to it. One victim becomes another. An endless array of body parts lit up, wounds, scars blood. If you deal with death all the time, you develop a gallows humour, dark jokes passed around.

Murphy knew differently. When it was bad as this, there was no levity to be found. You got on with the job, and hoped to catch whoever did it before it happened again.

In most series, we’d meet DS Laura Rossi as she joins the detectives, probably partners up with DI David Murphy (who we might have known for a book o more already), we get to know her as she gets to know the job and Murphy. Murphy’s a good detective with some interesting choices in his personal life, she’s an eager (and educated) rookie tied to her family in ways she wouldn’t prefer. Then in the next book, we see a mix of tragedy, crime and bad timing wreak havoc on Murphy’s personal life and it spills over to his career. Now, in Dead Gone, he’s trying to put his life back on track, recovering from whatever career setbacks he’s stumbled into with the help of his sometimes partner and boss.

But Veste jumps us right into book 3 without the foundation work — we get hints (and eventually more than hints) to put it all together — especially as it Murphy’s life becomes fodder for the killer’s taunting of the police. Honestly, I liked that approach. Other writers might not be as successful with it, but Veste pulled it off. You get the idea that Murphy was a really good detective, and if he can get his head back in the game, he will be one again. Rossi is well on the way to being a good one — but she might have hitched her wagon to the wrong mentor.

Oh, yeah, the killer — bodies are starting to show up in Liverpool. Death by multiple means, but left in similar conditions — and with letters attached making references to classic psychology studies — many of which couldn’t be replicated today with contemporary ethical standards. But the killer seems to be taking them further than the original studies. And, well, he’s a serial killer, so ethical research methods aren’t at the height of his concern.

I could’ve used a bit more of Rossi, I liked her as a character, but I enjoyed what we got. I understand that Murphy’s the star of the show, but hopefully she gets a bit more of the focus later on. The rest of the squad is pretty much what you get in any police procedural — I’d be happy if I don’t have to see Det. Bannon ever again, but hopefully he gets what’s coming to him — or a healthy dose of character growth — soon.

Murphy is dealing with a whole mess of personal issues as he’s leading the investigation — but it doesn’t really distract from his work, maybe it even helps it. This is tightly plotted, moves at a good pace — Veste doesn’t waste anything, there’s no fluff, no fat to this prose. Probably because I know there’s another 3 books so far in the series, I didn’t worry about the danger posed to our heroes at any point, but the tension was real. The terror visited upon the victims was more than real — Veste does an outstanding job of getting into the heads of some of the victims without getting exploitative. Too often in serial killer novels the victims are just corpses (or something that’ll be a corpse soon), so no need to really care about them. Not here — and what a nice change of pace that is — they’re people, not props.

This really isn’t a whodunit kind of novel — Veste pretty much gives it away pretty early on. Not that this stops him from dragging a large red herring across the reader’s path. Yeah, it’s pretty obviously a red herring — but he uses it well as such — and then . . . well, let’s just leave it as I didn’t see what he’d do with that particular forage fish after it was clear that the killer they’re hunting for is someone else.

I literally lost sleep staying up to finish this one — dragged myself through the next day at work, leaning on coffee just to seem passably competent. And it was worth it. I will be grabbing the next installment, The Dying Place, very soon.

—–

4 Stars