Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Color of a Sky

A few minutes ago, as I began to write a post on a completely different subject, I looked out the window and noticed the color of the sky. It’s dusk as I’m writing, and we’ve just felt the westernmost fringes of Hurricane Irene pass through this part of eastern Ontario over the course of the afternoon and early evening. Here in Oxford Station there was only a bit of rain and enough wind to move the trees around but not enough to bring them down.

I spent some time outside this afternoon in our screen tent while the storm was at its peak, smoking a cigar, listening to the rain pelt against the canvas roof and watching the trees move briskly back and forth. We live on seven acres, and our house is surrounded by trees. The air was very fresh, and it was safe – more safe, I knew, than in other places where the storm had previously passed.

Now, at 7:30 p.m., the winds have eased somewhat and the rain has stopped. As I say, I was just beginning to write a blog post on a subject I’ve already forgotten when I noticed the color of the sky outside my office window. I got up immediately and went out on the front verandah for a better look.

The verandah faces west, where the sun had just set, and the color of the sky was a remarkable cantaloupe. Cut open a cantaloupe, scoop out the seeds, and as the juice runs down your wrist you’re looking at the color of a sky at dusk after a passing hurricane has brushed its fingertips across its cheek.

As I stood on the verandah I thought of my father. When I was young and still living at home he used to call me outside from time to time to look at something or other that had caught his fancy. The power of a thunderstorm, a rabbit in the back garden, the color of a sky. I used to oblige him because he was my dad and these things were important to him. I’d take a look, try to match his interest, listen politely as he tried to put into words what these natural phenomena made him feel. It was important to him, as I say, and he wanted these things to be important to me, as well. He wanted me to appreciate the beauty and power of the world in which we live.

He’s been gone for seventeen years, but as I stood there on that verandah just now it was as though for a moment I’d unconsciously obeyed his call once more to come outside for a minute to take a look. I hadn’t thought about it, I’d just seen the sky from my desk, said “wow” or something, and went out the front door for a look. It took me several moments to remember why it felt so familiar to be doing this thing.

So I stood there and admired that cantaloupe sky as though he were standing there next to me.

Now here I am, back at my desk typing this entirely different post, and it’s dark outside. Night has fallen. The dog next door is barking at something. My border collie’s a little restless, lying by my feet. I’m well aware of how violent the weather has been, that lives have been lost and property destroyed, that nature is often something to be feared these days. I’ve never been more certain of my mortality, believe me.

I feel like someone left behind.

I feel as though my turn to pay the bill has once again been deferred to some other day, down the road I don’t know how far.

I miss my father very much right now.

But that sky, I must say, was very beautiful while it lasted.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Book Signing Scheduled for September 17, 2011

Just a heads up for folks in eastern Ontario that Blood Passage is now on the shelves in the Chapters Pinecrest store in Ottawa at 2735 Iris, the Pinecrest Shopping Centre. I'll be appearing there on Saturday, September 17 from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm to sign copies and yak with everyone.

Watch for Blood Passage to appear in other Ottawa bookstores in the near future, and those of you in Ottawa should keep your eyes peeled for the downtown poster collar campaign that will gear up in about a week.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Knock and Talk

"Knock and Talk," the third short piece in the collection STORIES from the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series, has been uploaded to Smashwords and is now available free of charge at

In this short story, which is about 5,421 words in length, Hank and Karen follow up on the tip from Jimmy Yung concerning the shotgun killing of four men on a front porch on Devin Street. They interview the widow of one of the victims who confirms that the murders were likely the result of an unpaid gambling debt. They question a local biker, who tries to get rough with Karen and lives to regret it, then follow a lead to South Shore West, where they track down the man named Fanshawe and close the case.

Stay tuned for more uploads, and visit Smashwords on a regular basis to download all the free Donaghue and Stainer short stories in this collection.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Blood Passage Featured in the Indie Books Blog

I'm pleased to announce that Blood Passage will be featured in the Indie Books Blog at It will appear on August 21, 2011.

The role of the Indie Books Blog, as they describe it, is to carry out the very important job of "Highlighting independent fiction releases, introducing new writers, and celebrating the digital literary revolution. You can support indie authors because their vision is valid. (Appearance here is not a guarantee of literary or entertainment quality--please decide for yourself. In the indie era, you are the boss.)

"Thanks for being part of the Indie Village."

Check out this entertaining blog and don't miss the Blood Passage feature!

Crossing Genres and Not Blurring Them

I mentioned in an earlier post that I love to read genre fiction, going all the way back to those heady days when I was a 12-year-old haunting the public library, lugging home armloads of science fiction, sports juveniles and westerns. Now that I'm a big boy and able to write my own stories, I find the same urge to explore my favorite genres, to try my hand at the tropes, conventions and distinct atmospheres of each.

The Ghost Man, my first novel, was an entry in the horror genre, a supernatural thriller, which I picked because my son was very interested in ghost stories at the time and encouraged me to try it out. I like horror and will go back again for another shot in the near future.

Blood Passage, on the other hand, was the result of a long-standing love of crime fiction. Science fiction will always be a sentimental favorite, but crime fiction is where my imagination has pitched its tent, built its campfire and settled in. I'm gonna fish this stream for a while.

I'd like to make it clear, though, that Blood Passage does not blur the division between crime fiction and supernatural fiction. Reading the descriptions of the book, you may think that Donaghue and Stainer are investigating a case of reincarnation. You may think you'll be forced to accept reincarnation as a part of the Donaghue and Stainer universe if you read the novel. That's not the case at all.

Blood Passage was inspired by the book Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives, by Dr. Jim B. Tucker of the University of Virginia Medical Center. Dr. Tucker's research, which extends the research of Dr. Ian Stevenson, is a completely scientific exploration of a very real phenomenon -- that there are many children out there who seem to recall memories of a previous life. Dr. Tucker goes to great lengths in his book to make it clear he's not shoving reincarnation down anyone's throat, but rather is exploring it as one of several possible explanations. I was inspired by the book, and I'm greatly impressed by Dr. Tucker and his work, but I have to say straight out:

I didn't believe in reincarnation before I read Life Before Life, and I don't believe in it now.

I'm an agnostic on this one. A fence sitter. It's one of those who-knows, anything's-possible kind of things. It tantalizes, it tweaks the imagination, and quite frankly, some of the evidence analyzed by Dr. Tucker is quite compelling. But Blood Passage was not written from a position of belief, and it shouldn't be read as an attempt to convince.

I think, personally, if I ever encountered one of these children and hovered at Dr. Tucker's elbow as he investigated their memories, I'd likely feel the same undertow sucking at my beliefs that Hank Donaghue and Karen Stainer feel in Blood Passage. I mean, you don't know. It's upsetting, because criminal investigation lives in a world of physical evidence, witness testimony, suspect confessions, things that a judge and jury can see and hear and feel and understand with minimal effort. But little kids remembering who killed them four years ago in their previous life? When someone like grad student Josh Duncan presents physical evidence and witness testimony that seems to corroborate these unlikely memories, it's upsetting.

It's that tension which works at the center of Blood Passage. Which gnaws at Karen and Hank when the case is finally closed. Which readers will also hopefully carry forward with them after reading the story.

But be clear on one thing: Blood Passage is crime fiction. The world of Donaghue and Stainer is the world of police procedure, homicide investigation, crime scene analysis, victimology, witness interview, suspect interrogation. A universe very similar to our own.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Ambition of William Chow

The Plaid Raccoon Press has uploaded "The Ambition of William Chow," the second short piece in the collection STORIES from the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series. This story is 4,531 words in length and is free of charge in e-book format from Smashwords. Find it today at

While this short story contains minor spoilers, it also contains a coupon code that will enable you to purchase Blood Passage from Smashwords for only $0.99 if you act before August 31, 2011. What a bargoon!

Stay tuned for more uploads, and visit Smashwords on a regular basis to collect all the Donaghue and Stainer vignettes in the STORIES collection.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Being a Caregiver

Being a caregiver to a family member with Alzheimer's Disease is tiring, stressful and sad, and of course it affects the amount of time one can devote to fiction, blogging and other such work, but it's not something a person can turn away from. The elderly are vulnerable at the best of times, but when Alzheimer's is present they're that much more at risk.

Without dwelling on personal details, I feel it might be useful for me to share with you a few things I've learned about being a caregiver to a parent with Alzheimer's Disease. Some of you may be in the same position, others may ultimately find themselves there, and we need to know that we're not alone in this experience. Here are a few things I've learned.

One thing I've noticed is that people with no direct experience with the disease may find the behavior of an Alzheimer's patient amusing. It's not. We've had several home care workers and therapists come in to provide various services, and I can always tell the ones who've had little or no contact with Alzheimer's patients because they find the behavior funny. The ones who understand the disease know better. I've found oranges left in the microwave, dishes left in the sink to soak in a waste paper basket, and I've been introduced to strangers as my mother's husband rather than her son. Not of this is amusing. It's very sad, and it's hard not to be depressed by it. It takes an enormous effort to accept that it's happening without getting upset.

Once you reach a certain level of acceptance you learn how important it is to depersonalize certain behavior. Alzheimer's patients become quite paranoid at times. My parent was convinced that someone was coming into the apartment and stealing all the waste paper baskets (yes, like the one which ended up in the sink). Along with the paranoia comes anger. I've been the target of such flareups on several occasions. It is essential, absolutely essential, not to react to these emotional swings. I've learned that any negative emotion I let slip will be returned to me a hundred times greater.

Depersonalizing these things means accepting that the relationship between yourself and your parent has changed. They were always the one who knew better, who showed the leadership, who spoke first, who knew the answers to your questions. Now these things are no longer true. You are the one who must know better, show leadership, speak first and know all the answers. As a result, you must react differently to their anger, paranoia and confusion now than you did as a child. You must remain above it, understand it, and not take it personally.

Patience is the key, and the most important lesson I've learned. Alzheimer's ensures that the explanation you give today will have to be repeated tomorrow, and again the next day, and every day thereafter. There's absolutely no point in reminding them that you told them this yesterday. Treat the question, objection, challenge or confusion as though it were the very first time it had ever come up in conversation, because for them it is the first time. Every time. They don't understand your frustration or impatience, and they'll only react in kind, as I said before. Be patient.

Be patient, and be kind. Understand that they're living almost exclusively in the present. They want to eat sweets, watch something funny on television, go for a walk in the garden. Be kind and give them these moments. The rest of their time is spent in the distant past. My parent remembers nothing now of my childhood, nothing of having raised me, taught me, protected me. For them, it's all gone. They remember their own childhood and adolescence, and eventually that'll be gone as well. Sometimes they'll pretend to remember something if you bring it up in conversation, but it's easy to tell when they don't. Be kind; let them pretend. Tell the story anyway, and they'll enjoy it for the moment. Something to share. For the moment.

Last of all, and perhaps most important, it's very easy for the caregiver to feel guilty. About everything, really. Things that were never said between you before it was too late, not understanding what was happening when the disease first began to tighten its grip. And most importantly, it's easy to feel guilty about feeling tired and stressed and wanting it to be over. Being a caregiver is very, very hard. It's normal for us as family members, who are not trained to do this sort of thing for a living and feel all the emotional burden of the disease, to feel guilty when we want to take back a little of our own lives. Here in Ontario we have a very good support system that has gradually been ramping up to alleviate the burden my wife and I have been carrying. It's been very hard, though, to pass some of the responsibility over to someone else. It makes you feel guilty to have to rely on strangers for assistance. But that's what they're there for, that's what they do as professionals, and at some time it will be okay to release the guilt and let it all happen.

I'll get there eventually, I hope.

Friday, 12 August 2011

A Fresh New Voice in Crime Fiction

The Plaid Raccoon Press has begun an advertising campaign for Blood Passage that features the slogan “A fresh new voice in crime fiction.” It’s popping up in Google adwords, street posters and other places.

I’m a voracious reader, myself. I read nonfiction during the day, including American history, criminology, and whatever else pops up (I still say that Candyfreak by Steve Almond is a very cool book), but at night I read fiction to get the brainwaves regulated for sleep. Genre fiction, to be specific.

My favorite genre is crime fiction. I have a lifelong addiction to science fiction and I also read sports juveniles, westerns, horror, historic naval fiction (Hornblower, Ramage, Bolitho, Drinkwater, etc.) – really, anything with a good storyline and a strong protagonist. But police procedurals are my favorite. However, I’ve found that I’m turning more and more to old Louis L’Amour novels these days than I am to the leading authors in the mystery/thriller/crime genre.

Why is that?

Frankly, I find that the big guns have gotten tired and seem to be writing more to fulfill contract obligations than from genuine inspiration. Even – and I hate to say this, because Reacher is The Man – Lee Child’s last two novels have been a little disappointing. (Don’t hit me! Please!) Having him stuck in the American Midwest in winter over the last two books has been almost symbolic of the cold, desolate, empty state of the author’s inspiration. It’s as though the constant sub-zero temperature has completely drained Lee Child’s battery. Time for a jumpstart, my friend.

The same can arguably be said for most of the others: Patterson, Burke, Lehane, even Connelly. Some titles are better than others, but many are just a little bit lifeless.

When I began the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series, it was because I wanted to write the kind of stuff I like to read. With that in mind, I want to take a moment to explain a couple of things you’ll find in every Donaghue and Stainer novel.

First, a strong protagonist. To me, this is a must. I’m well aware that there’s a school of fiction that favors taking the main character and turning their life into a living hell before leading them gradually back to the light. Many chase books use this trope. It’s a good formula that’s very, very popular. Readers can imagine themselves fighting for their life and their reputation against overwhelming odds. I don’t like this type of story, though, when the protagonist is weak or stupid and can’t survive without the help of a beautiful woman/handsome man. I tend to identify with the main character and I don’t feel comfortable identifying with someone who’s just plain dumb or cowardly or really, really slow to figure out what’s happening to them. Arrrrgh. I want to identify with someone who’s strong, in charge, aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings and able to compensate for them throughout. That’s why I’m such a big Reacher fan. (Even when Reacher gets thrown in jail it's cool, right? He's got it under control.)

Second, I can’t stand reading prologues at the beginning of a novel, and I vow never to write one. I promise. Ever. Period. Why? Prologues often start with the point of view of a victim. I absolutely hate beginning to read a book from the point of view of someone who’s about to get killed. Waste of time. Fake pathos. Obvious manipulation of my feelings as a reader.

If not a victim, then it’s usually going to be the point of view of the villain. A taste of evil to whet the appetite for law and order. A few clues to help you understand the direction the good guys will have to take in their investigation. I don't mind if the story gives me a few looks through the killer's eyes. Sometimes this is good. But I absolutely do not want to start a book that way.

Why not? Because I feel very strongly that a good story starts and finishes with the point of view of the hero. Nobody else. It’s crucial to me. It’s like imprinting in baby ducks. I’m going to latch onto the first point of view I encounter in a story, and it better be the hero because I want to know right up front whose point of view I’m expected to share for the duration of this book. I don’t mind if point of view moves around as the story progresses, as I say; that’s fine. But I insist on beginning with the protagonist.

For this reason every Donaghue and Stainer story will begin with Hank Donaghue. His is the central consciousness of the series. Karen Stainer’s point of view will also be shown to the reader with regularity because I’ve got a lot of work to do with her, a lot of time to spend developing her story. I will also spend time with Peter Mah and other secondary characters, because I’m not afraid to alternate points of view when it serves the overall story and the development of these characters. But when you start each book, you’ll start with Hank.

And no prologues. Often the novel will begin at the crime scene of the homicide that will be central to the story. Not always, but often, because these novels are police procedurals and Hank and Karen investigate homicides. In the case of Blood Passage, the novel begins at the crime scene of Martin Liu, even though it’s four years before present time, but that’s because the Liu cold case is central to the story. I suppose it comes from watching all those CSI episodes where Mac, Horatio et al. show up at the crime scene, take a look at the body, and toss off a zinger to hook the audience.

A fresh new voice in crime fiction? Start with Blood Passage and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Amazon Kindle edition

Finally, Blood Passage is available in e-book format for the Kindle through Amazon's own website. You can find it at

I admit that I'm feeling my way along here and teaching myself as I go, and this is a good example. I published the e-book version of the novel through Smashwords on July 11, 2011. It took a couple of weeks for it to get processed into their premium catalogue for distribution to Apple, Sony, B&N, Kobo et al. Amazon is listed there as well but it took me a while to figure out that the two rivals are not playing well together at the moment. I dithered and dithered, hoping it would get shipped, then finally realized I'd have to take it to Amazon myself. A bit of research confirmed for me that other authors are doing the same thing, so this afternoon I got on the job. Six hours later it was available on their website at the above link.

I have to say that I find this whole e-book thing really impressive. Now I have to get busy drawing some attention to the darned thing.

Monday, 8 August 2011


Today marks the publication of the first in a series of background short stories from the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series. "The Tom Donaghue Story" is now available free of charge from Smashwords at

In this short story, homicide Lieutenant Hank Donaghue reflects on the troubled life of his oldest brother, Tom. A talented jazz pianist who became a heroin addict as a young soldier in Viet Nam, Tom Donaghue split away from his family and drifted from city to city until he met a woman who took him home with her and helped him put his life and music back together.

Look for more background stories to be published each Monday during the month of August, 2011.

"The Tom Donaghue Story" and the short piece that will appear next Monday, "The Ambition of William Chow," are both based on material from the original manuscript of Blood Passage. Cut during the revision process in order to get the manuscript down to a manageable size, these vignettes were well-received by ms. readers but weren't central to the plot of the novel, and so had to be removed. It's stuff I liked too well to delete altogether, and they provided background information important to the understanding of the primary characters, so I decided to publish them in electronic format through Smashwords as free e-book downloads.

I hope that readers will enjoy them as vignettes in their own right. When there are enough of them, I'll gather them into the collection STORIES from the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series and republish them as a full-length book.

Opinion poll: should I charge something for the collection when it's published, or release it as a free download as well?

Let me know what you think!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Crime Fiction

Welcome to my blog on crime fiction, writing, and other stuff. I’m also maintaining a blog on my website at http://www.mjmccann/apps/blog and I encourage you to skip over there to check things out. I’ve decided to open up shop here as well, however, because Blogger has outrageously good search engine indexing and better opportunities to interact with the bloggiverse. So, in the immortal words of Darkwing Duck, “let’s get dangerous!”

As I was preparing Blood Passage for publication I found myself wrestling with questions of taxonomy. How would I categorize a novel in which attention shifts between homicide investigators, a murderer who is a high-ranking organized crime official, and a little boy who claims he is the reincarnated spirit of the murder victim at the center of the investigation?

The most appropriate category available from Mother Amazon is Mystery & Thriller, and so Blood Passage has been duly listed there. While other novels in the series may be more accurately described as mysteries, Blood Passage isn’t so much, because while the killers of Martin Liu are eventually identified through the investigations of Donaghue and Stainer – as well as Peter Mah, the Triad Red Pole – the killings perpetrated by Peter are not at all mysterious in nature.

As a result, I took a little comfort in slotting Blood Passage into the Police Procedural subcategory of the Mystery & Thriller category, because it does in truth focus on the investigative procedures of Donaghue and Stainer in some detail. I spent a fair amount of time researching homicide investigation and tried to present a reasonably accurate picture of how police detectives work and live.

But when it came time to settle on the name of the series of which Blood Passage is the debut installment, I balked at calling it the Donaghue and Stainer Mystery series. Instead, after a little experimentation, I settled on “the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series.”

Wikipedia defines crime fiction as “the literary genre that fictionalizes crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as science fiction or historical fiction, but boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred.”

While you could argue that this is a typically fuzzy Wikipedia effort, I like it because it touches on all the important elements in what I’m writing. Crime. Its detection. Criminals. Their motives. This works well for Blood Passage and will work well for the other novels to follow.

This distinguishes it from the kind of story in which the mystery and its solution take center stage, usually a story in which the detective follows clues and uses logic and sound reasoning (ratiocination) to identify the perpetrator, as in the Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie vein, or investigators sift through thousands of bits of physical evidence to solve the crime, as in the CSI-centered stories.

The more general definition of crime fiction allows me to position your point of view as reader anywhere in the story I wish. I can withhold the answers from you and make the mystery and its solution the primary focus of your attention, but in some instances I might prefer to position you closer to the characters than to the mystery. In the case of Blood Passage I prefer to have the characters dominate your attention as you move through the story. I want you to learn about Hank, Karen and Peter. And Smoke Archer. And Uncle Sang. And Anna Haynes Donaghue.

So, crime fiction it is.