Book Review: DOCTOR-DETECTIVES IN THE MYSTERY NOVEL

DOCTOR-DETECTIVES IN THE MYSTERY NOVEL by Howard Brody (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021) Let me get my bias out of the way. I was the executive producer & head writer of the TV series DIAGNOSIS MURDER, and have written for many other TV mystery series, so I have a natural interest in the subject matter of doctor-detectives. However, I also wrote eight original DIAGNOSIS MURDER novels, which are discussed in a chapter of this book. That has no impact on my review, but you will have to take me at my word on that.

My biggest criticism of the book is the outrageous, indefensible, $68 price for a 375 page hardcover, which makes it highly unlikely that this fantastic reference work will reach the wide audience of mystery readers and writers it deserves, and that is a shame.

My second major criticism is also a veiled compliment. Brody does indepth analyses of many medical mystery authors and their works (like Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell, Colin Cotterill, and Aaron Elkins among many many others)…and, in doing so, spoils many terrific mysteries by revealing the solutions (which is inevitable, given that he is analyzing how medicine is used to solve the crimes, reveal character, and further the plot). If you are interested in a particular author, or their work, do NOT read any of the examinations of the books or the pleasure of reading them will be ruined. However, if you *have* read the books, then his indepth reviews are a splendid and revealing addition to your experience.

Whether you are interested in medical detectives or not, this book is an invaluable resource for mystery writers, particularly the first four chapters, a study of the basics of mystery plotting. Brody also discusses the various types of mysteries and methods of investigation, the various tropes and cliches, the art of misdirection, and the key differences between a mystery ending “that makes perfect sense” and one that you “couldn’t guess the solution.” In many ways, these chapters serve as a primer on what to do, or not do, in crafting your own mystery.

He notes from the get-go the close ties between detective work and everyday medicine, arguing that being a doctor, and diagnosing a patient’s ailment, requires all the same skills  and methods as people solving crimes. He makes a case that R. Austin Freeman (1907-1942) was the first, and best, of the medical mystery authors. Freeman is unknown to me and, I suspect, most mystery readers, most likely because he was a raging anti-Semite and eugenics proponent, and those attitudes permeate his work. 

To be honest, I was less interested in his in-depth — and that is a huge understatement — explorations of every single work by Freeman and other very obscure, early authors than his broader comments about the craft of mystery writing, plot structure, and investigative techniques. If this book were more affordable — and that is also a huge understatement — I would enthusiastically recommend it as a necessary, fascinating, scholarly volume for every serious mystery writer and reader.  I wish I had this book before I started writing DIAGNOSIS MURDER…. 🙂

PS – That has to be one of the ugliest, and laziest, book covers in the history of publishing. It really feels like the publisher didn’t give a damn whether the book sold or not. Baffling.

KILLER THRILLER Bonus Chapter

Killer Thriller by Lee GoldbergIf you’ve read my novel KILLER THRILLER, then I have a treat for you…  a bonus chapter that I deleted from the final draft of the book.
 
BIG SPOILER ALERT – Absolutely do not read this bonus chapter if you haven’t finished reading KILLER THRILLER or it will totally ruin the ending of the book for you.
 
Okay, you’ve been warned.
 
But it you have read the book, this bonus chapter will give you a little more insight into the final events in the story. It will also give you a peek into my writing process because I explain why I ended up deleting the chapter. Sometimes you have to cut stuff, no matter how much you like it, if it slows the momentum of the story.
 
I never throw anything away… I included the chapter in my opening of FAKE TRUTH, the third Ian Ludlow book, but ended up cutting it yet again. But I am still very fond of the chapter, which is why I am offering it to you today.
 
 

Mission Accomplished: Hardman is Back

I can’t believe this day has finally come — all 12 of Ralph Dennis’ HARDMAN novels are back in print in new ebook and paperback editions (and in audio for the first 4 titles) If I’d known how much time it would take, and how much money it would cost, I’m not sure that I would have embarked on the quest.
 
But I am so glad that I did. Not just because the books are back in print, but for the journey itself. If not for Hardman, I never would have launched Brash Books five years ago with my good friend Joel Goldman (with the invaluable day-to-day guidance of Denise M. Fields), and I never would have experienced the honor & joy of publishiing amazing new novels by Phillip Thompson, Leo W. Banks, Robert E. Dunn Phoef Sutton, Robin Burcell, Mark Rogers, Craig Faustus Buck, Michael Genelin, Warren Ripley, Gerald Duff, Jack Bunker, and Patrick E. McLean…as well as bringing back-into-print 80 other crime novels by some of the most talented and acclaimed authors in the business.
 
It’s a big day for me, but I’m just getting started. There are more of Ralph’s novels coming soon…and a lot more reprints and never-before-published new books representing “the best crime novels in existence.” It a brash claim, and one I hope to keep making for a long time to come.
 
 

What it Takes to Write Bestsellers

My brother Tod, also a novelist, and I sat down with the good folks at Thrive Global for a long, and very detailed Q&A to discuss what it takes in terms of skill, experience, and dedication to sustain a successful writing career and write bestselling novels. Here’s an excerpt:

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it?

Lee: I think it’s rejection and failure, which are inevitable in the writing business. Your manuscripts will be rejected again and again and again before they land a publisher. But some books simply won’t sell. Some of your published books will bomb and be savaged by reviewers. Not everything you write will be a winner or find the right audience. The key is not to become crippled by self-doubt and pain but to learn from the experience (Why was the manuscript rejected? Why did the book bomb?) and incorporate those lessons into your next book. The only way to overcome the failure is to keep writing.

Tod: Well, finding out what I was meant to write was a big part of it for me. When I was starting out, for some reason, I was averse to writing crime fiction and so I wrote these kind of quasi-literary books that even I wasn’t interested in reading. The public responded in kind! Once I finally decided to write crime fiction, everything sort of began to line up for me. But, too, as Lee said, self-doubt can be paralyzing. It’s odd. A coal miner isn’t paralyzed by self-doubt that prevents him or her from working, so talking about it as a challenge seems sort of silly in context. A job is a job, be it creative or physical. It’s what you do to make a living. I think once I began to think of writing as a job, as the thing that fed my family, these more ephemeral things began to fade away. Still, you have to write books people want to read.

You can find the entire interview here.

The Return of Hardman

I’m excited to announce that I’ve acquired the rights to all of Ralph Dennis’s work — his published and unpublished novels. Brash Books will be re-releasing his 12 Hardman novels, starting with the first four in December, and the rest through 2019. The Hardman books include a terrific introduction by Joe R. Lansdale. The first two titles in the series, Atlantla Deathwatch  and The Charleston Knife is Back in Town are already available for preorder in paperback and ebook on Amazon, iBook, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
 
We’ll also be re-releasing in 2019 a substantially revised version Ralph’s WWII thriller MacTaggart’s War, which we’ve retitled The War Heist. It was his last published title and didn’t do as well as he, or the publisher hoped. I believe i know why… I’ve gone back to his original manuscript, rearranged chapters, deleted chapters, and made other revisions to heighten suspense, sharpen characters, etc… cutting the book by about 35,000 words along the way (it still clocks in at 100K words).
 
And we’re also going to be releasing many of Ralph’s unpublished novels…which, if they need revision, I will be doing myself. One of the manuscripts is going to be slightly reworked as a sequel to his previous published novel Atlanta (which we are likely to retitle before re-publishing)
 
Boucheron 2013: Joel Goldman, Lee Goldberg and Jeffrey Deaver
Joel Goldman, Lee Goldberg and Jeffery Deaver at Bouchercon Albany where “Brash Books” was born

This has been a passion project for me ever since Bill Crider and Paul Bishop introduced me to the Hardman novels five years ago. I immediately decided I had to get them back into print, so I sought out the advice of my good friend Joel Goldman…and as a result of those discussions, a partnership and a publishing company were born. Now, after the publishing nearly 100 titles together, we are finally putting out the novels that we’d hoped would be our first releases.

Ralph Dennis isn’t a household name… but I believe that he should be. He is widely considered among crime writers as a master of the genre, denied the recognition he deserved because his series of twelve Hardman books, which are beloved and highly sought-after collectables now, were poorly packaged in the 1970s by Popular Library as cheap men’s action-adventure paperbacks with numbered titles.

Even so, some top critics saw past the cheesy covers and noticed that he was producing work as good as John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald.

The New York Times praised the Hardman novels for “expert writing, plotting, and an unusual degree of sensitivity. Dennis has mastered the genre and supplied top entertainment.” The Philadelphia Daily News proclaimed Hardman “the best series around…”

Unfortunately, Popular Library didn’t take the hint and continued to present the series like hack work, dooming the novels to a short shelf-life and obscurity…except among generations of crime writers, like novelist Joe R. Lansdale (the Hap & Leonard series) and screenwriter Shane Black (the Lethal Weapon movies), who’ve kept Dennis’ legacy alive through word-of-mouth and by acknowledging his influence on their stellar work.  

I can’t wait to hear what you think of the books as they roll out… and I hope you will spread the word. We want Ralph Dennis to get the recognition and readership he’s long deserved.

What Is The Bad Guy Doing?

Lee, Steve Cannell & William Link at Santa Barbara Book Fest
Lee Goldberg, Stephen J. Cannell, and COLUMBO co-creator William Link at the Santa Barbara Book Festival

Creating a strong antagonist in a crime novel can be the key to the success or failure of your story. I’m a firm believer that “the bad guy” has to be as smart or, preferrably, smarter than my hero…and someone whose personality and actions will highlight all the weaknesses and conflicts that make my hero who he is.

I also make sure my “bad guy” is more than just a bad guy…he’s someone with his own agenda, his own demons, his own needs, someone who has more going on in his life than whatever criminal act he is engaged in (or that he has already committed). And that’s very important. Rarely is anyone just pure evil for evil’s sake…except in cartoons, Batman episodes, or James Bond movies.

I always try to look at the story from the bad guy’s point of view and ask myself what he’d be doing if he was the hero of the story…and if my protagonist was, in his view, the “bad guy.” I have to invest as much thought in my bad guy as do in my hero if the story is going to work.

You can learn a lot about making bad guys rich characters by watching THE SOPRANOS, a show that’s ostensibly all about the bad guys. Sure, they killed people, but they also had mortgages to pay, worried about their kids, read the morning paper, had all the responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and anxieties that “good guys” have. They didn’t wake up each day and ask themselves “what evil can I do today…mwa-ha-ha.”

I learned to make my bad guys fully-rounded characters, with lives and goals of their own, from watching COLUMBO…and later working for Stephen J. Cannell…and reading Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.

On COLUMBO, we spent the first half-hour of each episode watching the bad guys, getting into their lives, understanding why they had to kill. But what ultimately made COLUMBO such a pleasure was that he was always outmatched by the bad guys…and beat them anyway. The smarter the bad guys were, the smarter he had to be to beat them. Or, to put it another way, the best bad guys brought out the best in Columbo.

It was Steve Cannell, one of my mentors, who taught me to always ask myself “What is the bad guy doing?” “What does the bad guy want?” “What is the bad guy thinking about?” in every scene where the bad guy wasn’t on screen. The bad guy always had to be doing something, not sitting around waiting for the detective to catch him or simply throwing obstacles in the detective’s way.

Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry (in his westerns) made their “villains” as likeable, layered and interesting as their heroes…in fact, some times they were even more compelling. Leonard and McMurtry excelled at creating likeable, funny, believable psychopaths and killers.

The bottom line: having a strong antagonist makes your hero stronger and your story better.

(This post was originally written for April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)

Writing is Rewriting

My writing ritual is simple. I do my best writing from 8 pm-2 am…and I usually start my day at 10 or 11 am by rewriting what i did the day before. When that is done, I start writing “the new stuff.” I repeat that process until the book is done.

I’m a big believer that writing is rewriting…and that it’s always easier to rewrite crap than it is to fill an empty page…

Get. Something. On. The. Page.

That is my writing mantra.

But that often means that what I end up with at the end of the day is terrible or just the broad strokes of what I am going for. I know I will go back, sharpen the dialogue and color between the lines, adding the character or details left out in my eagerness get something down. Or it can go the other way…I’ve written endless reams of exposition and dialogue that I need to trim with an ax. Ten pages of blather becomes three pages of tight, lean writing. If what I’ve written doesn’t further the plot and reveal character then it has to go. I am also very aware the beat of my story, the pace…it’s almost like tapping my foot to music. If i lose that beat, cuts or revisions need to be made to move things along.

I typically go through the pages with an eye toward cutting all the exposition that I possibly can,all the unnecessary details that slow the pace, and taking whatever clever lines I come across in prose seeing if I can put them into my characters’ mouths instead. I strike out any cliche phrases, which were left as place-holders for actual writing that I’d do in the revisions.

I will often rewrite a scene four, five or six times before a book is finished. So when I complete my first draft, it’s pretty close to done. Anything I do at that point, before turning it in, is more about tweaking and polishing.

PS – I should also mention that I always work from an outline, I never just wing it. I need to know where I am going so that when I’m writing I’m concentrating on writing, not plotting. My plot may change (and often does) as I write, and when that happens, I revise my outline. That is a continual process. I usually finish my outline, which I call a living outline, about a week before I finish the book.

(This post was originally written for  April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)

Heartbroken for Bill Crider

I was heartbroken to read this weekend that my friend Bill Crider has entered hospice care. He’s been fighting cancer for a few years now and I want to believe he’ll keep fighting it… and beat it. I treasure our friendship, which has meant so much to me in so many ways. He’s perhaps the nicest guys in publishing…and certainly one of the most well-read…a gentle, caring soul who can’t teaching others through his love of the genre. He’s certainly taught me a lot.
 
Bill introduced me to so many great books and authors who have not only entertained me, but made me a better writer. Authors like Harry Whittington, Ralph Dennis, and Dan J. Marlowe, to name a very few.
 
He edited two of my books, THE WALK and WATCH ME DIE, for Five Star Mysteries…and his advice made them better. I was thrilled when, thirteen years later, he agreed to write THE DEAD MAN: CARNIVAL OF DEATH for the series that William Rabkin and I created & edited for Amazon/47North. It was so great to be able to work creatively with him again and to share a byline.
 
And I am honored that Bill has entrusted me with his terrific western novels OUTRAGE AT BLANCO and TEXAS VIGILANTE…first to adapt to the screen (we’re still trying to get them made!) and later to republish them through Brash Books (where he was instrumental in advising me & Joel Goldman on titles we should acquire).
 
I’ve enjoyed the many hours we’ve spent over the years talking about mysteries and books…and am so glad I got to visit him at his home in Alvin, Texas a year ago and see his incredible book collection for myself 
 
I spent some time with him and his daughter Angela Crider Neary just a few weeks ago in Toronto…and he seemed so happy and energetic, that I believed he’d beaten the cancer for good. I still hope it’s a battle he can win.