Monday, 24 November 2014

The Price of Books

Photo by Wayne Cavanagh, 92.3 JACK FM
Money is tough to come by, these days. Everyone's feeling the pinch, and hard choices often have to be made between necessities and nice-to-haves. A warm house and food on the table must come first, and entertainment expenses must be carefully managed.

Christmas is traditionally a time when we try to loosen the purse strings a little. It's said that a book makes a great Christmas gift, and with that in mind I recently participated in the annual Christmas craft show at a local high school to sell my novels. The show turned out to be huge, apparently with more than twice the vendors from a year ago.

I love doing these events because they give me a chance to meet people and talk about what interests them. My books range in price from $14.95 to $19.95 for each paperback copy, and with the wallet in mind I've decided over the holidays to sell them at these shows for $15 a copy and $50 for the four-book mystery series, autograph included.

During this particular show, a woman came up to my table and delivered an incisive little rant on the high price of books. "How am I supposed to know what I'm getting for $15?" she said. "I may buy it and not even like it. That's a lot of money to spend on something I might end up throwing away."

There wasn't a thing she said that I haven't thought every time I stood behind a table trying to sell my books. It is a lot of money to ask, just on faith. I put a great deal of care and attention to detail into the design and appearance of the books, but what if I can't write a good story to save my life? I'm very grateful that The Rainy Day Killer was longlisted for the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel in Canada, because it gives me something to say about the level of quality they'll hopefully discover when they get it home and start to read it. But still ..... fifteen bucks is a lot of money. I explained to her that people could visit my website and read an excerpt from each novel, to see if it might be something they'd like. I gave her one of my postcards advertising the series and told her I understood completely. She walked away, having spoken her piece.

She disappeared past the table next to me, where they were selling women's handbags for $35 a pop and cute tutus for little girls that were even more expensive. I don't know what people normally pay for that kind of stuff. I'm guessing it was reasonable, and I don't know how their sales were as the day wore on. However, I was selling like there was no tomorrow. It was a personal best for me that day. Books apparently do make an attractive Christmas gift!

And you know what? The woman who'd expressed her frustration about the high price of books returned to my table about twenty minutes later, my postcard still in her hand. She rapped her index finger on The Rainy Day Killer and said, "All right. I'll take that one."

Her concern about the price of books was obviously something she'd needed to get off her chest, and boy, I sympathize with her. Believe me. I signed the book, and as I gave it to her I held up crossed fingers and said, "I hope you like it."

"I'm sure I will," she said, and stormed off again.

Given how tight money is these days, I've still got those fingers crossed, ma'am.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Guilty Reading Pleasures

We all have them. The books we love to read but are embarrassed to admit are on our shelves because, well, they might not present the greatest intellectual challenges ever put down on paper. You have them, your friends have them, and now it's time for me to let you in on my guilty reading pleasures.

When I was a high school senior my English teacher liked to talk about a friend of his who was a professor of English at Trent University. Dr. Gallagher was, according to him, just an ordinary, unpretentious guy who liked to read ordinary, unpretentious stuff like murder mysteries and westerns along with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. At the time, because of my own personal reading habits, I thought he sounded like a good role model to follow.

Encouraged to be an omnivorous reader, I remember devouring a large bag of my mother's Harlequin romances out of curiosity as an undergrad at Trent. These were novels published in the 1960s, and I remember several doctor-and-nurse stories and a couple of mysterious houses and tall, handsome widowers. Already an avid fan of the highly-formulaic Doc Savage adventure series, I recognized in the Harlequins a similar dependence on well-established conventions and an even better approach to plotting. I haven't read any romances since, I must admit, but I'm very glad I took the time back then. As an aspiring writer, I learned quite a bit about basic storytelling from these books.

What I have continued to read, though, are what were referred to then as sports juveniles. As a youth I read almost every book in the Young Adults section of the public library, and the sports novels were among my favourites. As an adult I've built up a small collection of them that I regularly raid whenever I want to read something light, dependable, and fun.

These books include Junk Pitcher by Bill Knott, Rookie Running Back by Cliff Hankin, Throw the Long Bomb! by Jack Laflin, Scrubs on Skates and Boy on Defense by Scott Young, and Batter Up by Jackson Scholz, just to name a few. These books appealed to my budding sense of right and wrong, my appreciation of the difficult challenges faced by young people trying to succeed as athletes, and my love of a simple, good story, well told.

So I happily admit it! I still love to curl up with a bag of chips, a glass of juice, and one of my favourite sports juveniles. The room is quiet, my brain gurgles contentedly, and, once again, all's well with the world.

Say, it's been a while since I re-read Throw the Long Bomb! I think I'll grab that one tonight!

What about you? What are your favourite guilty reading pleasures?

Monday, 10 November 2014

Remembrance Day 2014

As this year's Remembrance Day ceremonies will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, I'd like to dedicate this post to the memory of my grandfather, Harry Brook.

Born in Acton, west London, England in 1888, Harry was already a twelve-year veteran in the Middlesex Regiment of the British Army when he shipped out with the rest of the 4th Battalion as part of the British Expeditionary Force dispatched to France in 1914. Landing at Boulogne on August 14th, Harry and his comrades saw action at Mons and Le Cateau, and were dubbed by Kaiser Wilhelm as "General French's contemptible little army." Proud to be known thereafter as one of The Old Contemptibles, Harry fought at the Battle of the Marne, the Battle of the Aisne, and the First Battle of Ypres. The worst was yet to come, though -- the Battle of the Somme in 1916, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, in which more than a million soldiers were wounded or killed.

Harry suffered a severe burn on his leg from mustard gas, a wound that never adequately healed for the rest of his life. My mother remembered him chasing her out of the kitchen when she was a little girl as he struggled to change the dressings on the wound, gritting his teeth at the pain that never went away. For his service in the Great War, he was awarded the Mons Star (with bar), the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal, which he wore proudly every Armistice Day until his passing in 1960. It was our understanding that he was last surviving member of The Old Contemptibles in Canada at the time of his death.

This week, as we remember the service of everyone who placed themselves in harm's way to defend their country and our way of life, I'm proud to salute the memory of my grandfather, Harry Brook.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Police Procedurals: The Body, Unplugged

I read with interest a recent essay by Eric Thurm in the LA Review of Books entitled Homicide: Death on the Screen. In it, he analyzes the attitude toward the corpse, as he sees it, in three different kinds of crime drama on television. While I disagree with much of what he says, I found his ideas interesting enough to want to compare them to my own approach to the dead human body in my crime fiction.

Thurm begins with the police procedural drama typified by Law & Order. He finds that, in its formulaic discovery of the body and subsequent investigation, the corpse is reduced to a "plot engine," a clinical object marginalized "as much as possible, hiding the fact that it used to be a person." As a result, he writes, while "murder cases are exciting ... these sorts of series do their best to abstract the fun parts of crime solving from the act and people who make them necessary."

At the opposite extreme, he notes, are series like CSI and Bones in which the body is "placed front and center ... this tendency to transform the body into a scavenger hunt combines with a sort of morbid fascination, making the entertainment value of the human body horrifyingly explicit."

A third tendency, he continues, is found in series such as Hannibal, in which the "treatment of the corpse [is] even more striking, refreshing, and necessary.... The body is a canvas, and the serial killers, the artists." Hannibal acts as a "corrective," as he sees it, to the tendency of traditional procedurals to gloss over death by whisking the body away too soon or to turn it into an intellectual puzzle.

I suggest you read Thurm's essay for yourself and come back to tell me what you think. But consider first the approach I've taken to the dead body in my crime fiction.

To begin with, because procedurals attempt to present a reasonably realistic representation of homicide investigations, it must be said that murder cases are not actually "exciting" and "fun." Not for anyone, but particularly not for the investigators. As I discuss in The Fregoli Delusion, homicide investigators often fall into something called "isolation of affect" in which they compartmentalize their emotional reactions to what they experience on the job, often damaging their personal lives in the process (pp. 174-177). As a result, the body of the victim often loses its humanity and does, indeed, become an object to the detective (and the narrator, as well). And once the instinctual revulsion has been put aside, of course, the investigation mostly falls into the dull, boring routine of interviews, surveillance, and combing through endless records for pertinent scraps of information.

However, good investigators often use the techniques of victimology to reconstruct a picture of the victim as they were in life in order to assess who or what might have put them in harm's way. This is the approach taken by Hank Donaghue in my second crime novel, Marcie's Murder. Hank had only a brief glimpse of an unknown woman before she was murdered, and his desperate, unvoiced desire throughout the novel is to be able to come to know who she was while she was alive. Similarly, he and Karen Stainer retrace the final days of the victims of The Rainy Day Killer in order to replace the harsh reality of their mutilated, tortured bodies, kept mostly off-stage or under cover, with a strong sense of who they were as vibrant, hopeful, innocent young women.

While Thurm is correct that procedurals tend to whisk the body off-stage quickly, it's inaccurate to say that this narrative approach sucks all the marrow out of the story as a result. The intention is not to make "it easier for us to ignore the dead and the dying," or to "allow the no longer living to disappear before our eyes, to merely become parts of the ritual, like so many communion wafers," as Thurm puts it. Rather, the investigative technique of victimology as I use it in my novels forces the reader to come at it from the other direction, as it were. To begin at death and work backward to appreciate who the victims were in life, and to experience the feelings of frustration, revulsion, and pathos at their loss that the detectives often will not permit themselves to acknowledge.