Tag Archives: Crime

Skies of Ash

Rachel Howzell Hall is a time thief.skies of ash

If the name sounds a bit familiar, it’s because I reviewed her first Detective Elouise Norton novel, Land of Shadows, last year. The book blew me away, and I’ve been waiting very impatiently on the follow-up. The wait has also been somewhat apprehensive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book by an author and was thrilled to discover them, only to have subsequent novels disappoint me.

That’s not the case with the new book in the series, Skies of Ash.

To be honest, it didn’t catch me immediately. In Land of Shadows, we had what looked to be the makings of a serial killer (at least to me) because of the nature of the crime. In Skies of Ash, the crime doesn’t seem quite as sexy at the outset: a woman and her two children killed in a house fire, the husband/father in the hospital after firefighters tackled him to prevent him from going into the burning house to rescue his family. And I think, in the hands of anyone else, this setup could have turned into something either dreadful or far too predictable.

But if this book taught me anything, it’s to expect the totally unexpected from Rachel Howzell Hall.

I’m not gonna give up any spoilers, though I am gonna reiterate what I said when I reviewed Land of Shadows: get this book and read it.

The protagonist, Elouise Norton—or Lou—still has an apparently philandering husband, who she has forgiven yet again. She’s still stuck with a cowboy partner who really doesn’t get her. And she has friends who, while they got her back, maybe nag at her a little too much—mostly about said philandering husband. And it doesn’t help that one of those friends is also a reporter who tries to get Lou to give up details she’s not at liberty to divulge.

Just another day at the office for our intrepid detective (yes, I went there).

But there are differences. Lou’s husband, Greg, is showing signs of jealousy. For some reason, he feels threatened by her partner. Of course, my thought when I read scenes where he’s razzing her for this working relationship was He seems to me to be protesting a bit too much. And there is a man she’s attracted to, though he’s best friends with the husband in the case and may well know things he’s not telling her.

land of shadowsOn top of that, her colleagues suspect perhaps her domestic troubles are prejudicing her on this case, making her suspect the husband when it’s pretty obvious he’s too grief-stricken to be the murderer.

Especially when the evidence for murder is circumstantial, at best.

But Lou is, if nothing else, determined to get the bottom of this case, and the more layers she strips away, the stranger it all becomes. Maybe the murder isn’t as sexy at the outset as in the first novel, but this case works at you in others ways, worms its way into you consciousness until you have no choice but follow it all the way through. Which I did in about two days.

Ms. Hall does what I love most in a mystery: she makes the case have an effect on the main character. Just as Michael Connelly does with Harry Bosch and Robert Crais does with Elvis Cole, the ramifications change their lives, make the cases more than just another day at work for them. There are things in the case that parallel their personal lives in some way, and there are aspects of their jobs that they can’t leave in the office. These stories go far beyond mere mysteries or police procedurals. We get to see the humans behind the cases, and we come to care for them and empathize with the effects that witnessing humanity at its worse can have on the investigators.

They’re not getting through these things unscathed.

And that makes us love these people, makes us root for them as we never would for Sherlock Holmes. We want Sherlock to solve the case. But we want Harry and Elvis and Lou to triumph, not just over the case, but over the problems in their lives as well. And because they often fail—just as we do—we root for them that much more.

Ms. Hall steps outside the boundaries of the genre with these books, and that makes me a fan, not just a reader.

I only have one problem: Ms. Hall, if you’re reading this, where’s the next one?


The Barrow Gang

(This is the first in an occasional series I’m going to start doing. This series will focus on historic crimes in Northwest Arkansas and adjacent areas. Since I write crime fiction, and have an interest in the history of crime, I thought this might be an interesting topic to explore. For my inaugural post, I’ll focus on some names that most folks will be familiar with.)

In the early morning hours of June 15, 1933, two carloads of worn out people pulled into the Twin Cities Tourist Camp, located on the corner of North 11th Street and Waldron Road in Fort Smith, Arkansas. They’d been on the run for several days, working their way from Wellington, Texas to Hutchinson, Kansas. There were five people in those two cars: Buck Barrow and his wife, Blanche; WD Jones; and Buck’s brother, Clyde, and his lady, Bonnie Parker.

Collectively, they were known as The Barrow Gang. They’re more famous as Bonnie and Clyde.

English: Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, somet...

On June 10, Clyde, traveling with Bonnie and WD, had run their car off the road, going over a twelve-foot ravine. The car, a Ford V-8 coupe, had rolled over, trapping Bonnie inside. Sulfuric acid from the battery had leaked onto her right leg, burning her badly. A local farm family by the name of Pritchard had helped them, though when Sam’s son-in-law Alonzo Cartwright saw all the guns Clyde retrieved from the car, he slipped away and went for the sheriff. Clyde noticed he was gone and guessed where, so when Sheriff George Corry and City Marshal Paul Hardy arrived, they were disarmed and taken prisoner. Things were getting tensed at the Pritchard place, so they handcuffed the two officers, put them in the backseat with Bonnie laid across their laps, and headed for Oklahoma. Around 3 a.m., they met with Buck and Blanche at a bridge near Erick, Oklahoma. They tied the policemen to a tree using barbed wire, then disappeared. They later abandoned Corry’s Chevy and stole another Ford in Hutchinson, Kansas, before making their way to Fort Smith.

The Barrows were well-known in the Southwest, and, since a shootout in Joplin, were becoming famous in Missouri and the Midwest as well. But during this time, they tried to make contact with another famous Oklahoman, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Floyd had other business, though, and didn’t think much of the Barrows, calling them trigger-happy punks and not true professionals (John Dillinger was likewise disparaging of them). By the 16th, Floyd was in Kansas City and became a prime suspect when McAlester, Oklahoma police chief Ott Reed, officers W.J. Grooms and Frank Hermanson of the Kansas City Police Department, FBI Special Agent Raymond J. Caffrey, and outlaw Frank “Jelly” Nash were killed.

By Sunday the 18th, Bonnie’s condition was becoming serious. Clyde knew something had to be done, so he left Fort Smith for Dallas and brought back Bonnie’s sister Billie Jean Parker Mace. They arrived in Fort Smith about mid-morning of the 19th. Bonnie had begun to rally, and having Billie Jean there helped even more.

But now that Bonnie was getting better, the gang’s finances were getting worse. Between rent, medicine and food, they were running low on funds. So they decided that Buck and WD would try to raise some funds while Clyde stayed with the girls.

Buck and WD left the tourist camp about noon on Friday the 23rd, headed north on Highway 71 for Fayetteville to rob a grocery store. Both men were experienced criminals. WD had been robbing, stealing cars, and taking part in gunfights for six months, and Buck had staged robberies for ten years, so what should have been simple turned into a bloody comedy of errors.

English: jail photo of William Daniel Jones, B...

English: jail photo of William Daniel Jones, Bonnie and Clyde associate, 12/4/1933 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WD and Buck began casing stores late that afternoon. Rather than being professionals about it, they raised the suspicions of the owner of Bates Brothers Market, who wrote down their descriptions and license plate number. About 5:30 p.m., Buck parked a block away and WD walked across the street to Brown’s Grocery at 111 West Lafayette.

When WD entered the store there were only two people there: Mrs. Robert L. Brown, who was behind the counter, and Ewell Trammell, the bag boy. WD produced a pistol and told them both to be quiet. He then tried to open the register but couldn’t. Mrs. Brown opened it for him, then stuck her hands back in the pockets of her apron, hiding two diamond rings. WD took $20 from the till, then frisked Trammell, getting thirty-five cents from him.

Then, rather than walk the block back to where Buck was parked, WD decided to steal the Model A delivery truck parked outside the store. Mrs. Brown told him the keys were in it, but neglected to mention the battery was dead . WD knocked seven-year-old Wanda Audit down as he ran from the store, then had to push the truck and pop start it. He then drove a couple of blocks, across one block, then back up the hill to Buck. They were last seen headed south on 71.

Thanks to the information from Mr. Bates and the call from Mrs. Brown, Fayetteville police had a good start. By 6:00 p.m., they were notifying communities along the getaway route by phone, asking for help. One of the most obvious places to watch was Alma, since it had the intersection of US Highways 64 and 71. FPD reached Alma Marshal Henry D. Humphrey at the AHC Garage, run by his son, Vernon. They gave him the license number and description, then asked him to watch for the fugitives.

Alma was a small town, and Henry was the only full-time officer. Vernon would have gone with his father, but he had to stay at the shop until his night mechanic arrived, and the mechanic was running late. So Henry took Ansel M. “Red” Salyers, a Mississippi Valley Power Company employee and what we today would call a reserve deputy sheriff. They left AHC at about 6:20, headed north on 71 in Salyers’s maroon Ford sedan. Henry had a .38 revolver and Red had a .30-30 Winchester. About two and a half miles north of town, they met the late mechanic, Weber Wilson, as they topped a hill, and waved at him, then continued on. Before reaching the bottom of the hill, they met a black Ford that was traveling fast.

Buck had made the fifty mile trip on one of the ten most dangerous highways in America in about fifty minutes, a trip that, today, takes almost forty minutes at 75 mph on Interstate 540. They were only about twenty minutes from the tourist camp, thinking their luck was turning. Then they topped the hill and crashed into the rear end of Weber Wilson’s blue Chevy.

Red and Henry heard the crash and turned around to investigate. When they reached the site, they saw the plates on the car—1933 Indiana 225-646—matched the number they’d been given by FPD. Red stopped the car facing east, blocking the road behind Buck’s Ford.

English: Bonnie and Clyde Català: Bonnie i Clyde

Things happened fast then. Buck and WD recovered from the crash and saw Weber crawl out of his car, pick up a large rock, and come toward them. Since neither could afford questioning, they came out shooting.

Weber saw the guns, dropped the rock, and ran. Henry had just stepped out of Red’s car, close to the Ford, and Buck shot him full in the chest with number-four shot from a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun. Henry was blown into the roadside ditch.

Red was more fortunate. His car shielded him from WD’s gunfire from a Browning automatic rifle (BAR). He tried to hold his own, but the BAR outclassed Red’s deer rifle. Several shots were exchanged. Then Buck’s shotgun jammed and WD had to reload. Red took advantage of this and ran for a house some seventy-five yards away. WD managed to reload and fired at Red, but missed, sending rounds into the house, the barn, and even a nearby strawberry field, but missing Red entirely. Red hid behind a rock chimney to reload, and Buck and WD ran to his car, the only one there still running. Just as they drove away, Red got in a couple of shots. One of them knocked off the horn button, taking two of WD’s fingertips. While driving away, the two outlaws took shots at a passing motorist.

They headed north, but only for a few hundred yards. Then they turned onto a small lane that took them to Rudy Road about a mile later. They turned south there, where they were seen by the Farris family, and reached Highway 64 in just a couple of miles. For some reason, they decided to dump Red’s car and flagged down Mark Lofton and his wife, robbed them, and took their car. Unfortunately, they were across the Arkansas River from the tourist camp, and there was only one way across—the bridge at Van Buren, which by then was guarded by law enforcement. So they dumped the Lofton car and headed into the woods, waited till dark, then stole across the river on the Frisco railroad trestle that ran alongside the automotive bridge.

The trip was a disaster. Instead of getting the needed cash, they had only $20. Instead of a new car to replace Buck’s roadster, they wrecked the sedan they’d had and lost two other cars. And instead of keeping the low profile needed while Bonnie recovered, local law enforcement was on the alert for them.

Having only one car, Clyde took the women and slipped into eastern Oklahoma, then returned for Buck and WD. By first light on Saturday the 24th, the gang was gone, though law enforcement didn’t know that. They put Billie on a train back home and headed for Kansas. There were a few more incidents—such as a woman in Winslow being robbed and raped by two men the morning after the shootout, and a strange call for an ambulance to go about twelve miles north of Van Buren—but The Barrow Gang was long gone, headed for Kansas and other adventures, including a later gun battle

English: snapshot of capture of Blanche Barrow...

English: snapshot of capture of Blanche Barrow by unknown onlooker at Dexfield Park, July 23, 1933 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

in Iowa where Buck and Blanche would be captured after Buck was shot in the head, a wound he later died from.

Marshal Henry Humphrey died that Monday at Saint John’s Hospital, the fifth lawman killed by the Barrows, but not the last. Clyde became convinced that all lawmen had it in for him, and that he’d never go back to prison, swearing they’d have to kill him instead.

Just about eleven months later, on May 23, 1934, that’s exactly what happened when he and Bonnie were killed in a law

English: This is the memorial at the location ...

English: This is the memorial at the location where Bonnie and Clyde were shot in Gibsland Louisiana. It is in poor condition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

enforcement ambush outside Gibsland, Louisiana, taken down by a posse consisting of Ted Hinton, Prentis Oakley, Manny Gault, Bob Alcorn, Henderson Jordan, and Frank Hamer.

But that’s another story.


Bonehead Moves

You’ve seen it before: the sexy blond/hunky guy creeps up the stairs to investigate a noise. Meanwhile, the serial killer with the machete is lurking around somewhere, just waiting to something ghastly to a new victim.

Don’t go up there, you think or say aloud. This last usually happens if you’re watching with friends and/or family. If you don’t say it, someone else will. Maybe several someone elses will.

Bonehead moves. We see characters do them all the time, and, in the comfort of our favorite reading/viewing spot, we sit back and wonder why. It’s called being an armchair quarterback. Or a backseat driver. Either way, we’re separated from the situation. We know there’s more going on than this person can see, so why the hell are they acting like that?

I’m reading a book called Chasing Smoke by Bill Cameron. The protagonist is a somewhat crusty Portland, Oregon detective named Thomas “Skin” Kadash. He’s called Skin because of a birthmark on his necChasing Smoke coverk, and he’s crusty because…well, he’s just that way. Been on the job too long.

When the novel opens, Skin is on leave because he’s taking treatments for bladder cancer. He’s a former smoker, still feeling the pull of the nicotine, and we’re left in doubt as to his long-term prognosis at this point. He’s through with his chemo, but now he has some kind of gnawing pain in his gut and his doctor isn’t sure what it is.

Anyway, his partner calls him in to a crime scene that looks like a suicide. Problem is, there’ve been several of these suicides lately and they all share one common denominator: Skin’s doctor.

Officially, the PPD isn’t investigating this. There’s a new lieutenant running Skin’s department, and he’s remaking them in his own image—and he doesn’t like Skin. Seems to think investigating these suicides is a waste of department time and money. And, since Skin is off the clock, he’s not supposed to be showing up anyway.

But Susan—his partner—drags him in regardless, then midday of the same day seems to turn a 180.

But Skin’s suspicions are up. He’s seen his doctor’s medical assistant—who he insulted earlier that morning—heading for the office of another person of interest in the investigation, and this has him wondering.

So what’s a good, irascible cop to do?

Make a bonehead move, that’s what.

And he does it knowingly.

On top of that, before he starts his bonehead move, he buys a pack of cigarettes. Hasn’t smoked one yet, but it could happen.

Bonehead moves.

Are they bonehead moves when the author writes them? That’s what I’m wondering, because I’m not sure if my characters have made any bonehead moves. It’s such a common thing in fiction, though, so it makes me wonder if maybe I should start adding them to my arsenal.

For me, it’s a hard thing to contemplate. When characters start doing something that’s obviously stupid, I have a hard time keeping from skipping ahead. But how much of that is being an armchair quarterback?

It seems such a common occurrence that I have to wonder if I have my characters doing the same thing without realizing it. To me, when I write, it’s a plot device. As a reader, it makes me want to choke the living shit out of the character. Or at least give them a good slap upside the head. With, say, an anvil.

And yet, bonehead moves raise the stakes. In Skin’s case, the person he goes to question as part of his bonehead move has considerable money and influence. She threatens to call his supervisor to complain about the way he treated her (he’s not exactly Mr. Personality—see above irascible reference). This means Skin’s boss will find out that he’s working a closed case off the clock—something he’s already been forbidden to do.

So I can safely say I have mixed feelings about bonehead moves. On the one hand, as a reader, I lose patience with them quickly. I always manage to read through them, and good authors use them to good effect.

As an author, though, I have to wonder if I either need to use them more often, or need to recognize when I am using them.

What do you think? Are bonehead moves good or bad? Or does it depend? For that matter, are they even necessary? Should they just be determined by plot and/or storyline?

Let me know what you think.


Start Shooting

Black, white, brown, or yellow, on Chicago’s South Side, your neighborhood is your surname. Put on a gun belt, a suit, or a nun’s habit, and all you did was accessorize.

For those of you exiting the ’L near Eighteenth and Laflin in the Four Corners, the etiquette is: grab a length of rebar, scratch a cross in the concrete, set both feet solid in the quadrant that best fits your skin tone, lean back, and start shooting. Welcome to Chicago, the “2016 Olympic City.” We’re glad you’re here.

Thus begins Start Shooting, the new—and second—novel by Charlie Newton. And it’s a great read. There. That’s mySTRAIGHT SHOT Set against the backdrop of corrupt Chicago, Newton's two protagonists navigate the dangerous world of crime review in a nutshell. It’s not perfect, of course, but what book is? I’ve seen novels reviewed as perfect and, when I read them, found all kinds of problems.

Critics. Go figure.

Start Shooting is the story of Bobby Vargas and Arleen Brennan, who grew up in the Four Corners. Bobby is a gang cop. Arleen is a waitress/actress and the twin sister of Coleen Brennan, who was murdered twenty-nine years ago at the age of thirteen. Mr. Newton tells us their story in alternating first-person narratives that have very distinct voices, which is no small feat in and of itself.

Here’s the basic plot: twenty-nine years ago, Bobby and Arleen were next door neighbors. This was before the further segregation of the hood and the current war between the Twenty-Treys and Latin Kings. Booby and Arleen’s sister Coleen were boyfriend/girlfriend in that innocent way young kids can be. They had held hands and kissed, but all this had to be done in secret, since Coleen was Irish and Bobby Mexican American.

Then Coleen was raped and murdered. A year later, her mother died, and  twin sister Arleen disappeared. As the book progresses, we learn that Arleen hopped a bus to LA and tried to become an actress there, but all she ever got was tantalizingly close. So now she’s back in Chicago, waiting tables and still hoping for her big break.

Bobby, meanwhile, grew up and became a cop, as did his older brother Ruben, who is a homicide detective. One night while staging a drug buy, a new female member of the gang team Bobby works on is killed. Everything goes downhill from there.

A front-page exposé in the Herald brings back Coleen’s murder and implicates Bobby and Ruben. As the story progresses, the accusations deepen to the point Bobby is accused of being a child molester and murderer. In short, he starts feeling as if he’s being blamed for every crime that’s happened since Cain killed Abel.

The story is gritty and real, and you come away from it feeling some of the grime of Chicago’s South Side streets and corrupt political machine—not to mention a bit of dirt from the federal government thrown in. I say that last to tantalize you, because if I tell you more along that line, it’ll spoil it for you.

If I have issues with this, it’s more on the personalities of Bobby and Arleen. Both start realizing there’s some kind of conspiracy going on (and I don’t mean in the Grassy Knoll sense but in the more common criminal conspiracy), and it turns out that Ruben is at the center of it. For Arleen, this means she is constantly doing what I thought were stupid things in order to break free of Ruben’s control. For Bobby, it’s his stubborn refusal, despite almost twenty years of being a street cop in Chicago, of all places, that his brother might be corrupt.

It’s understandable. When you step back and look at it, these two have to have hang-ups. It makes them human, for one. And for another, they’re the kind of people who would fight the system. Part of the reason Arleen returned to Chicago was that she realized she couldn’t beat the Hollywood system, no matter how many “favors” she did for movie and casting directors. For Bobby, it’s seeing what’s happened to his neighborhood and fighting for recognition as a second-generation Mexican American who insists that other Hispanics speak to him in English.

There are plot twists aplenty, such as the truth about Coleen and Bobby, which isn’t sinister but adds depth to the story, as well as the corruption that Ruben is involved in and just how wrong it is. All the characters, no matter how long they’re onstage, are fully realized individuals with distinct personalities. Some of them you want to backhand and tell ’em to wake the hell up, others you want to hug and tell them the world isn’t all the way you’ve experienced it. You become involved in their lives because they become friends you care about or enemies you want to see—well, at least caught, if not killed.

And the vast majority of it takes place in the space of six days. Six long days for the participants, in which they seem to seldom sleep or even get a chance to clean up, must less stop for a moment to regroup and reassess.

It’s a story where the past not only haunts the present, but figures into it in a major way. It interweaves with the present like threads in a tapestry. And like a master weaver, Charlie Newton brings all those threads together into a satisfying picture that, while not perfect—and this time I mean in the sense of Disney movie happily ever after—brings everyone a measure of closure, maybe even happiness. In other words, it doesn’t have a Hollywood ending, but it does have a good one that makes sense in the real world.

So if you’re in the market for a gritty, street-real read, pick up a copy of Start Shooting by Charlie Newton. It’s worth the time.



This and That

I finished Spree this past Saturday. It wasn’t an easy ending to write, because I had to give it a lot of thought in order to orchestrate things properly. One of the problems I had with writing Spree was that my main characters, for the most part, are criminals. While I enjoy exploring the criminal psyche this way, it’s still a little difficult to make them sympathetic characters. You have to find a balance. I thought it was interesting when I was watching the extras to a movie called Takers that centers on a group that pulls off high-dollar heists and the cops who are trying to find them.

One of the cops is played by Matt Dillon. Dillon is a good actor, even if he’s not what I’d call Hollywood handsome, not by any stretch (or maybe it’s just me). In Takers, he’s a LAPD detective who is so dedicated to his job that he’s lost his wife to a divorce. At one point in the movie, he even takes time from a weekend outing with his daughter—the purpose is to help her with a homework assignment by visiting LA landmarks so she can write an essay—to work on the case.

Anyway, one of the problems the filmmakers said they had with Dillon’s character was his brutality. He has not problem roughing someone up to get information from them, especially if they’ve been busted for something. The trick, the filmmakers said, was to show how far he would go to get the information without having him actually go so far that the audience would turn against him. To that end, they filmed a very long scene of him roughing up a criminal and then cutting a lot of it to achieve that balance. Personally, I found his dogged determination to pursue the case more alienating, but maybe that’s from being separated from my kid for so long. I can’t even imagine forsaking an outing with her in order to get a few more tidbits of info on the bad guys—even if the tidbits he gets end up being crucial to the case.

So I had to balance the ending, because I have criminals for main characters and, unlike Lyle Villines from the Pipeline stories (BTW, I have an idea for a new Lyle Villines novel, for those of you who like him), these guys have pretty much always been lowlifes. Lyle fell into it in an effort to make extra money. But Steve Wilson, my main viewpoint character, grew up on the streets of LA, while Eddie Jones has ties to the Mafia back in New Jersey. Meanwhile, you have a LAPD detective, as well as the FBI, pursuing them.

How do you balance that? Well, to answer that would be to give the ending away, so I’ll leave you wallowing in mystery.

One of the interesting experiences I had while writing this book though, was that I ended up borrowing a couple of my daughter’s characters from her YA crime novel The Doc is In. She has a couple of FBI agents who run an elite team that investigates hard-to-solve serial bank robbery cases. That’s the focus of her book: a guy known only as Doc is running orphan teams, claiming to hold the money for them until they turn eighteen. But her main character, Lauren, learns that he really kills them and keeps the money and goes to the FBI. The two characters I borrowed are Dale Navarro, the team commander, and his second, Jennifer Xu . My cop, Brad Ferguson, got interested in Jen, as she insists you address her, but didn’t think anything would come of it. The team is lending a hand to the case because they’ve hit a wall in the follow-up to the case of the Kid Bandits (my name. Jesi doesn’t use a name, if memory serves). I made sure I cleared this with Jesi—of course—and when I talked to her a few days later, she suggested a further use for Jen—which I won’t reveal here as it’s another surprise in Spree—that helps her on her sequel to The Doc is In.

I like the concept of an über-world, which means the world of your books is consistent: characters from one book might be mentioned or even make cameos in others, even if the current story has no relation. It’s something you see a lot in sf/f, but I’m not sure if anyone’s ever used another author’s characters in their own original stories. I’m sure there’s at least one more example out there. I’m just saying I don’t believe I’ve encountered it.

One of the other things Jesi and I talked about was the library I intend to accumulate for research purposes. I’m currently reading a book called El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency by British journalist Ioan Grillo. He’s spent ten years in Mexico investigating what Mexicans call El Narco from the inside, and there’s a lot of good information in it for me. Mind is a library copy, but I intend to obtain my own for my personal library.

What else would I need, though? Think about it: I write crime novels. I need information on things like forensics, police procedure (I’m going to try to arrange a ride-along with a local PD soon), things like that. But I also need to know about illegal things, like drug manufacturing, the use of explosives, things like that. My library could end up looking highly suspicious, especially in the age of the Patriot Act where you can be held just because LE decides you could be a terrorist. I’m hoping good relations with local LE—and published novels—will allay that for me. But it’s an interesting thought: that I could get into legal trouble for simply having a library of research material for my writing.

Ah, the risks we take for our craft. Think of the poor folks who write erotica. What kind of strange circumstances do they find themselves in? What risks do they take? It must tax their minds with worry.

I’ve also decided to try and learn Spanish. I had help on Pipeline from a friend of my daughter’s, but it would be nice to know it myself. Since the Drug Wars scenario fascinates me so much, having a working knowledge of the language would be nice, but I need street Spanish, everyday Spanish, not the stuff you learn in high school or college. That’s too formal. I need the slang, things like that. I don’t know if even Rosetta Stone would help me there, as good as they’re supposed to be (besides, who can afford them? Not a lowly writer, that’s for sure).

Well, this post has been rambling and pointless but, hey, it’s my blog and I’ll ramble if I want to. Some weeks are like that. I always feel a little drained when I finish a novel, and the new idea I have for Lyle is preoccupying me to boot. Plus, it’s later than I usually write my post, I have a couple letters I need to write, and I’m critiquing The Doc is In one more time for Jesi, so you’ll just have to put up with a little rambling this week.

At least I didn’t get off into the whole rant about responsibility that I thought about writing.

Maybe I’ll get to that one next week.



A Walk on the Dark Side

Crime fascinates us. If you don’t believe me, look at all the cop shows right now, such as CSI and all the variations of it. Then there are cop movies and crime novels in all their variations. In fact, CSI has pervaded society so much that most people think that’s how crimes are solved. That’s showing up in crime fiction.

We make it glamorous, too. Think of older shows like Miami Vice, where the cops wore Armani suits and drove hot cars. The rumor for years was that the show was started by then head of NBC Brandon Tartakoff (not sure if I spelled that one right) when he scribbled “MTV Cops” on a piece of paper. The truth, while maybe not so dramatic, is still telling: show creator Anthony Yerkovich got the idea from an article about all the illicit money in Dade County from the coke trade. He combined that with the way stories were being told in videos on MTV and, for spice, threw in the federal law that allows the seizure of property used in the commission of a crime. It was this last that allowed Crockett and Tubbs to wear the suits and drive the cars, despite what detractors say. In fact, there are several times throughout the series where Crockett gripes that he doesn’t own the clothes he wears or the cars he drives.

But if you look close, you’ll see the grit, too. Yerkovich wanted Miami as a setting for another reason: its seediness. There are several episodes that concern things like pornographic movies and the sex trade in general. There’s even an episode that wasn’t shown during the regular run that centers around child molestation. NBC decided it was too graphic for prime time TV, and that episode wasn’t shown until later, during syndication.

Then, of course, there was the whole Cocaine Cowboys thing, where the Colombians were murdering one another in drug wars much like what we see happening in Mexico today. Our modern wars were started by Joaquin Guzmán, while the wars from the 80s were started by Griselda Blanco, the Godmother. In both cases, there was peace until the guilty party decided they wanted a bigger piece of the pie.

In Guzmán’s case, he had Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, the man in charge of the Ciudad Juárez border crossing points, murdered along with his wife as they visited a Culicán shopping mall. This was, somewhat ironically, in September 11, 2004.

As for Griselda Blanco, she had two Cubans killed on July 11, 1979 at the Dadeland Mall in Miami. As a woman, she had to be more vicious than the other Colombians, and the list of murders attributed to her numbers somewhere around 250.

Griselda was associated with the Medellín Cartel, though even they kept her somewhat at arm’s length. She was just too violent, and they eventually turned on her because she had Marta Ochoa killed so she wouldn’t have to pay back the Ochoas for some money she owed.

The other famous member of the Medellín Cartel, of course, was Pablo Escobar. I just finished a book about him, called  Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden, the same man who wrote Black Hawk Down. In Killing Pablo, Bowden doesn’t concern himself so much with the Cocaine Wars as he does the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar.

Escobar is commonly seen as the leader of the Medellín Cartel, though, in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, both John Roberts and Mickey Munday, who imported something like $2 billion worth of coke for the cartel, say it was really Fabio Ochoa who ran it. Whichever is true, Pablo is the most famous and, according to Bowden’s account, was something of a linchpin for the organization. When he was killed in December of 1993, the Medellín Cartel effectively ceased to exist, supplanted by their rival, the Cali Cartel.

Bowden spends the first part of the book giving something of a capsule biography of Escobar, how he started as a street thug, mainly stealing cars. When the cocaine trade came along, he jumped at the chance. He had a thing for teenage girls, even though he was devoted to his wife and family. He was particular about his bathrooms. Every one of them in every house he lived in—after he acquired his money—was the same. He was chubby and fancied himself a man of the people.

But he became so powerful that he was, in effect, the dictatorial leader of Colombia. Toward the end, when the government, with the help of the United States, started closing in on him, he employed the use of car bombs and even blew up an airliner. This wasn’t long after the Lockerbie bombing, too, so this kind of thing was fresh on people’s minds. He subjected Colombia, and Medellín in particular, to a terrorist campaign, and many aspects of what he did reminded me of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.

While I read this book, it occurred to me that this aspect of crime is often overlooked in fiction. Sure, we can see the horror on the nightly news, but in our crime fiction, we overlook the underside of crime itself. Consider one of Griselda Blanco’s hitmen named Cumbamba. His trademark was that he would drain his victims of all their blood and break their bones so he could fold their bodies up and put them in boxes for disposal. These were violent people, and Griselda was responsible for the majority of the murders that took place in Miami between the years 1979 and 1982 or so. When she left, the murder rate dropped considerably. And when you consider Miami was the murder capitol of the world with a Time magazine article called “Paradise Lost” written about it, that’s saying a lot. There were 641 homicides there in 1982, and 25% of them involved death by machine gun fire.

There was lots of money involved, though. The Medellín Cartel imported 80% of the cocaine used in this country in those days. Mickey Munday transported over 38 tons of coke from Colombia to the US, and became a partner with Jon Roberts. These two were major movers in those days, and Mickey in particular seems to wonder why the Colombians wanted to ruin things by going to war with one another.

It’s the same thing the Mexican cartels are doing now. It’s all about control. He who dies with the most toys, wins. Joaquin Guzmán spent an estimated $2.5 million to escape from a maximum security Mexican prison in 2001 and, like his Medellín predecessors, is regularly listed in Forbes as one of the richest men in the world. He has lost at least one of his children, his son Edgar, to the drug wars.

I would say that most of these cartel leaders, whether Mexican or Colombian, are aware they probably won’t die of old age. But, if you look at the lives of most criminals, that’s how it is. They would rather live fast and hard and die young than do what the rest of us do and plod through life a step at a time. The late David Mac, author of the book When Money Grew on Trees, believed that certain people were just born to be criminals, and perhaps that’s true. Criminals fascinate me, and they’re why I’ve chosen to write crime novels from their point of view: it’s an effort to understand something I would never do. Stephen King wouldn’t do some of the gruesome things in his books, and I certainly have no desire to be some kind of kingpin.

But I think we need to step back occasionally and remember the dark underside of all this. As a society, we’ve chosen to make certain things illegal. And while we can argue about some of them, others are pretty much universally accepted as wrong, such as murder. Say what you want about the drugs, but when people get killed over the proceeds, folks sit up and take notice.

In Miami during the cocaine wars, bodies were showing up everywhere. Assassinations were taking place on city streets in broad daylight. If you watch Cocaine Cowboys, you’ll hear the people interviewed talking about how the Colombians would kill everybody in sight to get one person that they really wanted. One of the quotes goes something like, “If there were kids there, they’d kill them. If you owned a bird, they’d kill the bird. If you had a goldfish, they’d kill the goldfish.”

A friend of mine once said that even crime novels are fantasies. I disagreed at the time, mostly because I was talking about fantasy as a genre and my inability to write a fantasy story that satisfies me. But I’ve given it thought since then, and he’s right: as crime novelists, we find ways for our heroes—or antiheroes—to kill people and get away with it. I make a statement in Pipeline that Crockett and Tubbs were serial killers with badges, and it’s true. But we have to bend the punishment of these killings, either because our character needs to get away with it or he’s one of the “good guys” and is part of an ongoing series, such as Elvis Cole. He’s killed several people, though I do have to be fair and say Robert Crais keeps those killings to a minimum.

Sometimes, though, it can’t be helped. We want to evoke a reaction in our readers, and there’s no better way to do it than by having somebody die. And if that somebody is important to the main character and the reader, all the better.

It’s a walk on the dark side, but it sure is a lot of fun.