Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cherchez le Crook: a guest blog by Timothy Hallinan

 Julia Spencer-Fleming:  We've been talking about superstorm Sandy along with mysteries this week, but today's guest, Timothy Hallinan,  is a little removed from all the drama - he's in Bangkok, where he lives for half the year (the other half he's in LA. I, for one, am jealous.)

Tim is prolific - He's written ten novels, edited two story collections, and he teaches writing. His free online course, FINISH YOUR NOVEL, is a fantastic resource for aspiring authors. But even a seasoned pro might blanch at the prospect of starting a new series by publishing three novels in November, January and June. What's his inspiration? Easy. He likes to hang out with crooks.

Like all crime writers, I love crooks. And they frighten me.

I love them because they're so much fun to write. They make up their own rules. As children they paid no attention to the hopscotch squares chalked on the sidewalk, and as adults they pay no attention to the Ten Commandments and the million lesser laws the Commandments spawned. They bubble and seethe, crablike, with malicious energy. They don't have to be politically correct. They can offend people.

They frighten me because they have a way, unless they're watched very closely, of walking away with my book.

Our heroes have to behave, at least until we've pushed them to extremis. Even then, most of the time they can't get any fun from damage they do. That might lose the reader's sympathy. Our crooks, on the other hand, can win at chess by sweeping the pieces off the board and then shooting the person sitting opposite, shrugging it off as a striking variation on the Sicilian Opening.

We've seen this taken to unfortunate extremes lately, especially in the serial-killer genre, with sadism and murder serving as straight lines for Schwarzenegger-style wisecracks. I think this is dishonest writing and actually violates the writer's agreement to take the reader's intelligence seriously. On the other hand, some of these books sell quite well, so what do I know?

But I understand the appeal of that energy. I have to admit that I'll be digging away at a book, trying to figure out where in the world I'm tunneling to (I don't outline and generally have very little idea what's going to happen until it actually does) and all of a sudden the crook tears open the page and climbs through the hole, and I experience a burst of electricity. Crooks and villains seem to bring their worlds with them, while I feel as though I have to work to fill in the worlds of my more sympathetic characters. In the fifth Poke Rafferty book, The FearArtist, we don't get anywhere near the villain of the piece until page 141, if you don't count a four-line exchange of dialogue in the second or third chapter.

All the villain, Haskell Murphy, does in his first close-up is get off a plane, climb into the back of a car, and be driven to his house, and within the four or five pages that drive took, I learned so much about him that I had to rewrite the first part of the book. That's energy. It felt like I'd been digging away at the story with a tablespoon, and all of a sudden I was holding a jackhammer. Murphy even brought a whole new character with him, his daughter, whom he calls Treasure, and she changed not only the ending of the book, but also the book I'm writing right now.

But, as much fun as he was to write, I couldn't give Murphy the book. It's a series, and most readers expect the really important series characters to be alive at the end of the book. If I'd given Murphy his head, it would have been Armageddon.

So I'm dealing with it. I'm dealing with it by writing a new series with a hero who's also a crook, a burglar named Junior Bender who moonlights as a private eye for other crooks. When a crook gets ripped off, he or she is not going to call the cops. They're going to call Junior.

I wrote the first two Junior books, Crashed and Little Elvises, as ebooks, but pretty much the moment I finished the third, The Fame Thief, they suddenly got picked up for everything – publishing (Soho), film (Lionsgate), and audio (Blackstone). So the fun I had writing them is apparently detectible on the page.

Right now I'm writing the sixth Poke Rafferty book and the fourth Junior Bender (all of the first three will be published by June) and I'm hoping that the energy will average out between the two series. As much as I love writing the Pokes, they're less fun (read: harder work) than the Juniors. Almost everyone in the Juniors is crooked to one degree or another, and they've all got that energy. Writing them is like playing with matches—the old matches that would strike on anything. I never know when the page is going to catch on fire.

Crooks. What would we do without them?

What are your favorite crooks, creeps and villains, dear readers?  Let us know, and you may win one of two copies of the first Junior Bender mystery, Crashed, or a copy of the latest Bangkok thriller, The Fear Artist.

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok Thrillers, the Simeon Grist Mysteries, and, now, the Junior Bender Mysteries, to be published beginning this November by Soho Crime.  Hallinan also edited the ebook SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, which raised money for Japanese tsunami relief, and and MAKING STORY: TWENTY-ONE WRITERS ON HOW THEY PLOT, the first in a series of TWENTY-ONE WRITERS books for aspiring novelists.  Tim blogs at The Blog Cabin. You can follow him on Twitter as @TimHallinan and friend him on Facebook.



  1. Villains we love to . . . well, there are two camps here: the lovable ones we cheer on, in the Alexander Mundy/Nathan Ford sort of crooked good-heartedness of “It Takes a Thief” and “Leverage” villainy . . . and those who seem to have no redeeming qualities, who frustrate the heroes and are generally the “bad guys” in the tale: Simon Legree in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” . . . The White Witch in “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” . . . Sauron in “Lord of the Rings” . . . .

  2. I'm with Tim on serial killers. Not only can they lead to lazy writing, they're no fun to read. Give me a good, old-fashioned sociopath who commits his crimes for profit and does what he has to in order to get away with them. Now that's a noble foil for a cop or detective.

  3. I guess my favorite villain would still have to be Professor Moriarty. He's the pattern on which the others came to be based - at least for a while. Dee

  4. For all time villainy, I have to go with Fu Manchu. He embodied the fear of the unknown, of the different and was every bit the equal if not the superior of the "good guys." I use the quotes, because Fu Manchu not only did he not think of himself as evil, but (despite the stereotypes that grew from and around him), he was never really protrayed as a villian by Sax Rohmer. He merely had a different perspective and focus from the West.

    For a more modern crook, I have grown quite fond of Chris Ewan's "good thief," Charlie Howard.

  5. Welcome, Tim! What a roll you're on right now with publication, film, and audio rights being picked up all at once! Super congratulations!

    Raffles and Patricia Highsmith's
    Ripley both come to mind as favorite villains (or anti-heroes). Other examples of the likable villain are the Saint (Simon Templar) and Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr and, of course, Alexander Mundy.

    As far as the serial killers go, some of the books involving them come perilously close to what I've heard described as "torture porn." Anyway, the king of serial killers was Jack the Ripper, who's still puzzling and fooling the experts even today.

  6. Hi Tim! I agree with you on the serial killers. Boring to write, boring to read.

    But, like you, I do like writing villains. There's something so liberating (especially for a well brought up Texas girl) about writing characters who say and do things that you would NEVER say or do. And you do have to be careful or they will run away with the book, so I think you've come up with the perfect solution:-)

  7. Hi, everyone --

    I'm in Bangkok and it's 11 PM and I wasn't sure the blog was up yet, and look at all of you. Thanks so much for reading this.

    You're all right, villains come in all shapes, sizes, and depth of villainy. I have to admit I've never read Fu Manchu, although I've got one somewhere on my Kindle, among the 250 or so books in the UNREAD folder. I agree with a lot of you that the serial killer thing descended to self-parody and burned out, probably partly because Thomas Harris was SO GOOD in the first two Lecter books and then became a parody of himself later. (I wonder whether the change in Lecter came about in part because of the movie scripts -- Harris imitating the screenwriters' imitation of Harris.

    But there's an undeniable charge in writing bad guys/gals, something that almost worries me. Why do they attract us so strongly, both as writers and as readers?

  8. Welcome, Tim!

    While I think there is a huge danger of books in the serial killer genre being or becoming "torture porn" (Linda's comment), I do, generally, like the genre. When it is done well, This genre examines the elements important in the creation of all dedicated murderers, above all others– lack of conscience. It can be a different kind of hunt, because you are often looking for someone who blends exceedingly well into their community. I think an astonishing majority go undetected and uncaught.

  9. Tim, TiM, Tim! You are my hero and role model! I am SUCH a fan. And am delighted with Junior's success.
    My favorite villain..well, I don't know if he's my fave, but I remember being especially creeped out by the Jack the Ripper character Somebody Morgan played in that time travel move I also can't remember the name of.

    Okay, I realize yo are all saying--huh? But you know who I mean?

    And Urquhart in that British political series. And the Kelsey Grammer character on BOSS.

    And got to "love" Hannibal Lecter.

  10. Oh Hank, yes... TIME AFTER TIME! Reid Morgan? Malcolm McDowell? Loved that one!

  11. David Warner played Doctor John Leslie Stevenson/Jack the Ripper in "Time After Time" . . . there was a Read Morgan in the cast; he played a booking cop. Malcolm McDowell was H. G. Wells . . . Warner's Jack the Ripper was creepily evil . . . .

  12. Yes, yes, Joan and Reine, David Warner in TIEM AFTER TIME. Exactly. He was so sinister. ANd I LOVED that movie! Wasn't it so good?

  13. Welcome Tim!
    I think Thomas Harris elevated the serial killer to cult status with Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs - and he did a masterful job - but not everyone tells as good a story. Sometimes the SK is an excuse for a high body count and a villain that doesn't require much motivation because "OMG, he's a serial killer!"

    My captcha is rare that a Hannibal Lecter reference?

  14. Hi Tim, It's nice to see you here, and I am looking forward to your new books. Junior is a good guy crook; Poke's adversaries are bad guys. I think this is an old fascination we have with nature of evil, and those who seem to embrace it. I always think of Iago and how much more interesting he is than Othello. For me, we live a relatively law abiding life, and those who are untouched by the nature of right and wrong are both scary, and somehow hypnotic.

  15. I personally think the Captcha on this sire was designed by a serial killer. It's thwarted me four times, and it's just a good thing I saved my message. And also that I am a positive, upbeat, slow-to-anger individual who hardly breaks much of anything most of the time.

    Hank, thanks for the kind words. And congrats to you on the big splash with the new book, which Amazon won't let me download in Thailand.

    I don't think there's much argument that serial killers, as a genre, reached its high point in "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs" and then (for me, anyway, sank into camp with "Hannibal." Someone told me that Harris, after "Silence," declined to be edited. Don't know whether it's true, but there is NO writer I know who can't use/doesn't need a good editor.

    David Warner was never bad in any film. And "Time After Time" is a great movie and also a great book -- time for me to reread Jack Finney, if Amazon would sell him to me here.

    I don't think torture porn is limited to serial killer books. I've read books in several genres that I simply put down because the writer couldn't distinguish between powerful writing and sensationally nauseating detail.

    And, Lil, Iago almost always steals the show. Why the great actors want to play Othello instead of Iago is beyond me.