So, FINALLY, Tommy Hancock over at Pro Se has done his reveal of three author imprints where I got to do the initial logo designs…
The plan was to reveal them over the weekend at the convention that hosts the annual Pulp Factory Awards in Chicago.
Not that I’ve ever been, but I’ve won one to my complete surprise.
So the three authors involved with this part of the reveal were Kimberly Richardson, Frank Schildiner and my good friend and partner-in-virtual crime Derrick Ferguson. All three are authors in something called “New Pulp” but really that’s kind of a narrow definition of their particular brands of storytelling. All three are well regarded, they’re unique in their own rights, they all have their followings who eagerly await their latest projects and all of them have happened to be offered a chance to exercise their prodigious imaginations under their own brands with Pro Se.
And lucky me, I get to contribute by building the first part of that brand with these imprint logos…
So, though you’re probably not asking, how does that work? Well I’m glad you didn’t ask, let me tell you the intricate planning that went into each one of these and the meticulous work we in the independent publishing game go through to make our talent shine…
Last weekend, Tommy hits me up on Facebook with no warning whatsoever and says he needs some author imprint logos for this show in Chicago: “can you do it?” I ask for details because obviously I’m just getting to a party already in progress, and he kicks out the rough ideas for Kimberly and Frank…
…which, BTW, for a guy so full of ideas and stories and plans was woefully light on details just generalities, and he turns me loose after I inform him I’ll talk to Derrick who had already contacted me. Derrick and I do all our stuff more like a couple of guys shooting the breeze on the front stoop on a Sunday afternoon. Yeah we work, it’s just more of a relaxed thing where we kick back and chat and at some point we, usually accidentally, hit on the right thing. I love our process because when we do chop it up, I never fail to end our conversation without a smile at the end and at least two good belly laughs from the soul.
Which is pretty much how his brand POWER PLAY! was done. I, in the course of our discussion run an idea of what I’d like to use as his look and he shows me the very thing I had in mind, which in an odd bit of coincidence was sitting on his desk: a gold clenched fist with that 1960s/70s Soul Brother/grindhouse film vibe as the logo. In my head, what you see as the POWER PLAY! logo was a black light velveteen poster stuck to a ceiling between some mirror tiles with a fish net full of fake starfish.
It was the 70s, you had to be there.
So he was easy and POWER PLAY! was done in one. There are colored variants and, as a last minute thing, I added the tag line “Old School New Pulp” which is what Derrick does. He’s got an updated Men’s Adventure/Action Hero/Thriller feel to a lot of his projects, so it felt right.
Now Kimberly’s came with the most detail from Tommy. Crossed guns, gothic mansion, emboss this, something something that…
So I did that first and like an old “Men On Film” sketch: “Hated it!” It didn’t matter how many ways I crossed the 20 pistols I put together, none of them looked right. So instead I went to work on the manor house bit and abandoned the guns. Nice… but generic. The house was sitting on a cliff, so I pulled the cliff, threw in a really basic shield, colored it all black… better, but still needed something. I uncrossed the guns, used them as a frame and was there.
But then I wanted to make it hers. Any schmuck could build a lady a house but it needs to be HER house. So I took a look at the lady I was building the house for since I’ve never had the pleasure IRL or online of getting to know her. First thing I noticed, which is the first thing I notice about a lot of women in photos, were her eyes…
…that, kids was the hook, she’s got great eyes. I stared at those eyes and attempted to be as accurate as I could be despite simplifying them for an illustration. Stared at them for so long, I think I owe her dinner and one failed rom-com running through the airport scene. I tossed an oversized moon in the background added the eyes and I was in love…
…with the final product.
So PULP GOTHIC gave me the Lady of the House, a touch of Stephen King in the mansion, got the guns in and it all was an echo of the old paperbacks that used to come with the mapback covers telling you about the location of the story.
Last, but not least, came Frank Schildiner. His was done first, I really didn’t like it but I took Tommy’s rough idea too literal. Frank and I aren’t online running buddies, but he and I enjoy decent fight techniques, he’s a martial artist and instructor (in addition to being an author) and I’m immensely impressed by his focus and skill. Unfortunately the logo I came up with didn’t really reflect Frank or his work. It was sort of a hero shot that reminded me of a rejected logo for the old fitness guru Jack LaLanne. It was passable, but it wasn’t Frank. As Friday rolled around I still wasn’t happy with it and it’s hard to put out something I’m not in love with as I send it out. Tommy’s looking for logos and I’m one short. But it was also something Tommy said that sparked an image early on: “Frank’s work goes everywhere.” The image that invoked was pure Jack “The King” Kirby. If you don’t know Jack and his work in changing the face of comics as we know them with Stan Lee…
…move out of that cave so I can get you some help.
So the image I came up with was a complete re-do which is inspired by guys like Kirby and the late Darwyn Cooke and we had something worthy of Frank in particular and his work in general.
And I FINALLY learned how to DIY the famous “Kirby Krackle”…
…yeah, whatever, it’s a big deal to me.
So SCHILDINER’S WORLDS final look is probably more due to Tommy’s summation of Frank’s work than anything else. I had the image in my head, but thought I had to do the other thing based on his explanation of what he said the look should be.
So I did what he said over what he asked.
I submitted both though, as I did with the manor only version of PULP GOTHIC, because you should give a guy options…
I’m glad he chose the ones he did.
Bet you’re wondering where that planning aspect went that I mentioned at the start, right?
Tommy and I refer to this as the “Butch and Sundance”…
If you’ve ever seen how BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID ends for them, you’ll get it.
Sometimes we just have to take a leap, man…
So, if you follow these folks and missed Tommy’s press releases…
…big things are coming from some of your favorite folks…
From the mean streets and crime-ridden boroughs of the modern metropolis to the dusty western wastelands where the only thing more precious than a bullet is a drop of water to soothe a parched throat, Derrick Ferguson takes the reader on journeys as visceral and vivid as a waking dream. Herein find eight stories, written for cash on the barrel to put food on the table. Sail the Seven Seas with Sinbad the Sailor, run headlong into gunfights against overwhelming odds with lawman Bass Reeves, battle against super-villains, and get hard-boiled with two-fisted detective action. Pick your poison. And make it a double.
“The Undercover Puzzle”
“The Knobloch Collection Assignment”
“Sinbad and The Voyage to The Land of The Frozen Sun”
“The Ruckerville Arraignment”
“Unto You Is Born…Rayge!”
“A Town Named Affliction”
“The Bixbee Breakout”
If you’re as well read as I think you are (and you must be…why else are you reading book reviews? You’re looking for something good to read, right?) then you should have some familiarity with the name Mike Baron. Mr. Baron first landed on my radar when I discovered his innovative science fiction comic book “Nexus” which he co-created with Mike Rude. Much like other great comic book pairings like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers or Marv Wolfman and Gene Colon, the two of them made magic together and if you haven’t read “Nexus” yet then you should correct that at your earliest opportunity.
Mr. Baron has also written many other comic book titles but in recent years he’s been working in prose, writing some really compelling novels such as “Helmet Head” which I really enjoyed. That’s a book you really ought to pick up as it reads like the lost novelization of a John Carpenter movie. Yeah, it’s that good.
SKORPIO is almost as good. It’s not a roller coaster ride like “Helmet Head’ which reads like a runaway train going downhill from start to finish. Mr. Baron takes his time setting up the situation and the characters before he gets to the guts of his story but I appreciate a writer who has the confidence to take his time to take us where we need to go so he can most effectively deliver the goods later on and yeah, SKORPIO delivers.
Vaughan Beadles is a Professor of Anthropology at Creighton University in Illinois where he enjoys a near rock star status. He’s too handsome for his own good with a gorgeous wife and beautiful baby boy. Beadles is riding high due to his acquisition of relics belonging to a previously lost Southwestern Indian tribe, the Azuma. But all that comes to a screeching halt when Beadles is framed for stealing some of the artifacts. And if that wasn’t enough, one of his students dies from a scorpion sting that he got when Beadles lets the kid get an unauthorized sneak peek at the artifacts.
His life rapidly falls into ruin. His wife leaves him, he loses his job and all of his money goes toward his legal fees. The only way Beadles can see to salvage his life is to find where the Azuma actually lived and prove his theories to be true. In his quest to find the birthplace, Beadles runs into a truly amazing diverse cast of characters. Some of them you’ll wonder what the hell they’re doing in the book but trust me, part of the enjoyment of reading SKORPIO is seeing just how Mike Baron pulls all of these characters together and makes them integral components of the story.
It takes a while for the title character to show up but when it does it’s worth the wait. Skorpio is a vengeful ghost of hideous power who appears in the sunlight, which is a nice twist as ghosts are usually associated with the nighttime. I also liked Mr. Baron’s choice of protagonist. Vaughan Beadles isn’t exactly squeaky clean in his dealings and he’s a bit of an opportunist, always actively looking for an angle to advance his career and fatten his bank account.
In fact, most of the characters in SKORPIO are a little more on the gray side than you might expect but I enjoyed that as it gave the book an unpredictability I found refreshing. There’s never any way to tell what these characters are going to do or say and for me, that’s always welcome in my fiction.
Mike Baron’s prose is as uncomplicated and straightforward as the word “No.” He doesn’t go in for flowery purple prose. He’s a born storyteller who is concerned with only one thing: telling you a good story. He’s not interested in showing off his vocabulary or trying to impress you with his cleverness in turning a pithy phrase. He just wants you to have a good time and I certainly did have a good time reading SKORPIO.
Nah, it’s not a job I’m on, this was just me doodling on my down time inspired by something I read recently.
Occasionally the grind of life gets you down, you’ve gotten in a rut, and it seems like all you do is go do your job so you can go home and wait to go do your job and then go home and…
Well, you get the idea.
Then, out of the blue, you get a call from a guy you know who wants to get together and he can invite you and a couple of other guys out for a trip so wild…
Which is why it helps that the destination that this guy has in mind is…
This is really one of those times where you’re gonna want what happens in Vegas to stay in Vegas. In fact, this situation takes place in the early days of the Strip in 1965, so it’s possible this is the thing that happened that stayed where it happened in the first place.
Which is a breezy primer for Van Allen Plexico’s fun little crime tale VEGAS HEIST.
Now, as I’ve said before: I love heist stories and their second cousins caper stories. Give me a crew of thieves with an eyes bigger than their stomachs crime on the schedule with seemingly impossible obstacles and toss in a couple of twists and I’m good. Toss in some of that classic Sinatra/Rat Pack “Ocean’s 11” and mix liberally with nods to other characters of that era in crime fiction and I’m not only in, I want a window seat. So Mr. Plexico is swinging in the right direction for me right out the gate.
So let’s break down the plot just a little. We start with John Harper, who is in the middle of putting his foot down on a loose end from a job he pulled prior to the start of our story: an associate who feels his take should’ve been bigger. Roughly Harper’s share of that job bigger. Harper disagreed with that assessment of the situation…
As this exchange is going on, Harper gets a call from another associate whom he’s had a more positive relationship with: Saul “Salsa” Salzman, an attorney who occasionally moonlights as a heister, a roper, and an inside man who fingers potential jobs based on keeping his eyes and ears open and seeing an opportunity when it presents itself. Salsa’s got a lead on a job and it would require a first rate planner to work out the angles. Harper agrees to a meet, and gets back to what he was doing. Later, and in as neutral a locale as you can find, Salsa drops the caper on Harper: he’s got enough inside information on a mark that he wants Harper’s help to pull off a heist…
…in Las Vegas.
He has a crew: Bobby Donovan, an old school “jugger” (safecracker) who has been knocking knobs off of safes long enough to be considered one of the best. Besides being their vault man, Donovan also has a way to bankroll and arm themselves for the job without being on the line to another party who’d take a cut as his pay back on the vig, or the principal investment, plus the juice in the form of interest. There’s a catch, but nothing he, Harper and Salsa can’t handle. Plus Donovan brings with him Brett Rooker, a former boxer and wrestler who hires out now as muscle to crews who need it for a cut of the take. Rooker asks few questions, keeps himself to himself to a degree, but he’s hitched up with Salsa’s caper because of the notoriety of this particular crew’s individual reputations.
After they secure their money and weapons, the crew hits the road and move on to Vegas.
And they have a plan to break the bank while they’re there.
Now, I’ll stop there because it was really hard not to spoil the bits of business above with more details, but let’s get down to cases. VEGAS HEIST is a story you’ve seen, heard, read, probably even wrote at some point. It’s a little bit of Sinatra’s “Ocean’s 11”, it’s a little Richard Stark’s Parker, it’s all been done, yes, that too.
…it’s all about execution that lets you know if you’ve got a hack job or really nice piece with the flavor and feel of a nice 1960s era crime flick with enough twists and turns in all the right places. Van hits the latter over the former, VEGAS HEIST is just a lot of fun. It’s a departure from Van’s usual bailiwick of superhero action adventure and space operas, but he really stepped into this genre with an obvious affection for it. If this continues on as a series of stories, I’m going to assume his characters will be fleshed out a bit more. Not too much, I don’t need an origin story or two, but it’ll be nice to see them develop past their obvious inspirational sources into distinct characters with unique voices. Still the way Van wrote these guys you get some subtle insights into how they see the world around them like Salsa’s gregarious nature having him presume that Harper’s a friend, while when he writes Harper’s point of view, Salsa’s more like a reliable associate he can trust not to stab him in the back. Plus, the other characters involved in the plot do have specific and distinct places in the narrative and the action.
And the twists, Lordy lord the twists in this tale are so much fun to see play out. There were plenty of places where I figured out the twist early but then Van would toss in something I took my eye off of and do something you kind of saw coming…
…but not like that.
Folks, Van kind of nails it.
So, VEGAS HEIST was a lot of fun for me, so much so, I decided to fool around with a what if scenario and make up one of those old house style ad like pieces that might’ve made it into a magazine or a movie marquee if HEIST got that kind of traction.
Bobby Nash is a writer that has always impressed me with his versatility. You name it, he’s probably written it. New Pulp, Classic Pulp, Science Fiction, Planetary Romance, Mystery, Horror, Hard-Boiled P.I. Thrillers. And in a variety of formats; novels, novellas, comic books, graphic novels. He’s also acted in a number of movies and television shows. Just going over his resume makes me feel like a lazy bum.
In the interest of full disclosure, this review started out as a blurb Bobby asked me to write for him. I had read SNOW FALLS sometime last year but to refresh my memory before I wrote the blurb I sat down to read it again. And SNOW FALLS at 110 pages is a pretty fast read, thanks to Bobby’s can’t-put-it-down prose. And a funny thing happened…the more I read, the more I started taking notes and before I knew it I said; “Ah, screw it…might as well write a fargin’ review.” That’s how my brain works. Ask me to write a short story and you’ll end up with a novella. Ask me for a novella and you’ll get a novel. Ask me for a novel and you’ve really made an error in judgement because you’ll most likely find a trilogy in your lap.
Undercover agent Abraham Snow is forced to take an early retirement thanks to being shot twice by Miguel Ortega, an international crime lord who must employ the same press agent Keyser Soze uses. After a long and painful period of recuperation he returns to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to continue to rest, heal and reconnect with his family. And quite the family it is. Abraham’s grandfather Archer created Snow Security Consultants which has grown from a local security consulting firm to an international one. It’s now run by Abraham’s dad, Dominic. Father and son don’t get along. Grandpa tries to mediate but he’s much better at doing that in the boardroom than with his own family. But Abraham doesn’t really mind all that much that dear old dadums isn’t glad to see him. Baby sister Samantha and baby brother Doug are more than happy that their big brother has returned to the family business.
Abraham insists that he has no such plans. He just wants to rest and recuperate. He’s still not back up to being 100% physically and the psychological effects of being shot are still fresh in a mind continuing to cope with such a frightening event. But an attempt on the life of Owen Salizar, a billionaire biochemist suspected of secretly funding terrorist groups pulls Abraham back into his old life. Good thing he’s got his family backing him up this time around.
SNOW FALLS plays out like the prose version of a pilot for a 1970s action/adventure TV show and Bobby makes no secret about that. And being a lover of 1970s action/adventure TV shows, I had no problem with it. The relationship between Abraham and his grandfather has echoes of the relationship between Lee Horsely and Buddy Ebsen in “Lee Houston” (although I visualized Archer Snow as Dennis Farina). Being a screenwriter as well as a novelist I imagine that Bobby knows exactly what will transfer well from one medium to another.
And I applaud Bobby for giving us a character that is not yet another Mike Hammer clone or a loner ex-cop crippled with guilt, a drinking problem and an ex-wife. Not that I’m against those types of characters but it is refreshing to have a character in this genre who has a different set of issues to deal with. It’s also nice to see a character in this genre who has family that he gets along with (mostly) and who isn’t an orphan. Again, not that I got a problem against those characters. After all, many of our greatest pop culture heroes such as Batman, Superman, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond were orphans. But a hero with family has a different worldview and mindset than an orphan and it reflects in his thoughts and actions.
That’s not to say I’m totally in love with SNOW FALLS. It’s set in Atlanta but I really didn’t get much of a feel of the city or what makes it unique. Oh, Bobby makes Abraham’s love of the city clear but I never got a feel of why. I’ve been in Atlanta many times myself as my sister lived in Covington for about ten years so I would visit her often. Atlanta is a terrific setting for fiction and I’d like to see Bobby exploit it more.
I also like a bit more description in my prose. Bobby works hard at helping us visualizing his characters and defining their relationships. And his prose is wonderful to read. It sounds very natural and there are passages where Bobby doesn’t tell you who is talking to whom because after a certain point, he doesn’t need to. I could tell from the dialog who was talking. But there were spots where I was fuzzy on where the events were taking place and I could have used some help in orientation.
But then again, SNOW FALLS is meant as introduction to Abraham Snow and his world and at 110 pages it’s a solid introduction that makes me want to dive into the sequels right away. Give SNOW FALLS a try and I think you’ll feel the same. If you’ve never read anything by Bobby Nash before, this is an excellent gateway drug to his work. Enjoy.
I know what you’re thinking; “Damn, Derrick…this thing came out back in 2015 and you’re just now getting around to reading and reviewing it?” Well, I did read it back in 2015 and fully intended to write up a review of it back then as I am an avid fan of the work of Joel Jenkins and Percival Constantine. But as so many of my editors/collaborators know, I’m so easily distracted by bright shiny objects. But thanks to Christofer Nigro (who I’ve since also become a fan of) I revisited this book and ta-da…here at last is the review. I hope it’s worth the wait.
“Black-Hearted Killers: A Monica Killingsworth Story” by Joel Jenkins. Monica Killingsworth is one of Joel’s favorite characters. I can tell because of my firm belief that if a writer is truly having fun writing a story/novel then that fun can’t help but be translated to their prose. He’s written several stories about Monica, all of which I recommend. The story itself is in Full Tilt Boogie Action Movie In Prose Mode from start to finish. The only drawback I can point to here is that for somebody like me who has read other Monica Killingsworth stories and so am familiar with the character and her background so that I was able to fill in the gaps from memory. But for somebody who is coming to the character cold they might be a bit bewildered by exactly who these people are and what’s going on. But if all you’re looking for is plenty of shootouts, wiseass dialog and eccentric characters, you should give this one a try. I especially liked how the ending turned out to be a real surprise.
“The Damsel of Disaster” by Christofer Nigro. Christofer does a good job of setting up the scene, letting us know where and when we are. I like that he sets the story in Buffalo as it’s a good reminder than organized crime was operating everywhere and not just in New York City and Chicago. But I do question as to why one mob boss would bring along his daughter and the other one would bring along his girlfriend to a sit-down where they are going to discuss things that are best not discussed with potential witnesses in the room. He’s got good characters and a solid plot but everything feels compressed and rushed and just shoved into too small a space for events to happen organically. Too many moments in the story feel like they happen just because Christofer wanted them to happen and not because they came from the interaction of the characters and the decisions that they make. But overall, it’s a well-paced story that doesn’t slow down for a bit and it does the job it’s supposed to do; tell a hard and brutal story about hard and brutal people and on that level, it succeeds.
“Tragic Like A Torch Song” by Shannon Muir. If I had to categorize the stories so far, I’d say the first one is 1980s Action Movie while the second is 1930s Warner Bros Gangster. This one is firmly in the arena of Film Noir. I could easily visualize this story in nourish black & white while reading it. Torch singer Hazel Atwood agrees to do some amateur detective work for her manager Frank who thinks his wife is cheating on him. The manager is skeptical but Hazel’s father used to be a P.I. and she persuades him that since she knows Hazel, Frank’s wife won’t be suspicious if she does her snooping around. When Frank turns up dead shortly afterwards, everybody is not only suspicious, they’re suspects as well. But Frank’s murder isn’t the only mystery to be solved. There’s also the secret of Hazel’s parentage that gets coiled up in Frank’s murder and she needs to unravel the both of them. Out of all the stories in the book, this is the one you’ve got to pay the most attention to because the solution to both mysteries is both tricky and convoluted. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to read the ending twice to make sure I understood how and why everybody and everything was connected.
“Shikata Ga Nai” by Percival Constantine. Know what I miss? Private eyes who keep a bottle of booze in their lower right-hand desk drawer, a loaded .38 revolver in the pocket of their trench coat and who solve their cases with experience and knowledge of human nature along with sheer brainpower instead of computers and DNA results. Private investigator Kyoko Nakamura is just such a private eye. In a relatively short story, Kyoko comes to life and Percival uses the location of Osaka, Japan almost as another character in the story. The missing person case Kyoko accepts at first appears to be a fairly easy one. But that’s before the Yakuza gets involved and soon Kyoko has a hired killer stalking her. This isn’t a twisty, convoluted mystery where you have to really work to make sense of what is going on but it is an excellent introduction to the character of Kyoko Nakamura and her world (Note to Christofer Nigro: go read this story for the dialog. THIS is how people in this kind of story talk)
Even though it was published in 2015, this could be the perfect time for THE DAME DID IT to be discovered and find an audience as we’re seeing strong women characters in prose, TV and movies stepping into the spotlight in all manner of fresh, new and exciting ways. A book of stories, all with female protagonists kicking ass and taking names may have been ahead of it’s time in 2015 but in 2018 it’s right on time. Enjoy.
The hard-boiled private eye genre is one I dearly love. The trench-coated shamus with a cigarette dangling from his lip, .45 automatic or .38 revolver in a well-worn shoulder holster, fedora pulled down low over his forehead, the faithful gum-chewing secretary and even more faithful fifth of scotch in the desk drawer. Using his experience of having lived a tough life and insight into human nature to solve mysteries, not fancy computers and DNA. it’s a genre I never get enough of. And since television and movies have apparently abandoned the P.I. it’s up to writers like Lee Houston, Jr. and books like HUGH MONN, PRIVATE DETECTIVE to give me my fix.
Let me explain; even though Hugh Monn lives and works on the far distant planet of Frontera interacting with many different species and using advanced technology, the tone and feel of the character and the eight stories in the book are pure 1950’s. Lee drops in a mention here and there of some bit of sci-fi such as a character having green or purple skin or Hugh’s weapon of choice being a Nuke 653 Rechargeable but that’s just throwaways Lee lobs at us once in a while to remind us that we’re not on Earth. But he doesn’t go into any real detail as to how this future civilization operates or how the technology works. When the subject of detective stories crossed with science fiction comes up, I usually mention Larry Niven’s stories and novels about Gil The Arm or Roger Zelazny’s “My Name Is Legion” since in those stories, the science fiction is integral to the story. Take out the science fiction and you wouldn’t have a story. Not so with Lee’s Hugh Monn stories. They could easily have been set in 1950’s Los Angeles or New York with a little rewriting. But I digress…let’s take HUGH MONN, PRIVATE DETECTIVE for what it is, not for what it isn’t.
Hugh Monn is a Human and yes, he freely admits to his clients that his name is a gag. But one he prefers to use as he’s got some pretty big secrets in his past he’d prefer to keep to himself. As a detective, Hugh is capable, sharp, principled and dogged in his determination to solve his cases and get to the truth. Hugh isn’t a pain-in-the-ass who rebels against authority and isn’t a lone wolf who doesn’t play by the rules. Matter of fact, Hugh conducts himself as a total professional. He doesn’t shoot when he doesn’t have to, he’s polite to everybody he meets and he co-operates with the authorities. In particular, Lawbot 714 who he runs into in a couple of stories and who I wouldn’t mind seeing become a regular if Lee gives us more Hugh Monn cases. He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, he likes kids; he holds open the doors for old ladies. I think you can tell where I’m going with this. Hugh’s a fine detective but as a character I found myself wishing that once in a while he’d haul off and slug a suspect for no good reason other than he doesn’t like the fact the guy has eight eyes. Hugh could stand to be a little rougher and not so polite.
The story “Shortages” is a good example of how Hugh Monn solves a case using his understanding of both humans and aliens and his powers of observation. It also introduces the character of Big Louie, a Primoid. Big Louie is the main suspect in a series of thefts being committed at a high security pier. It’s a pretty good locked room mystery and the relationship between Hugh and Big Louie is the primary attraction in this story, as in “At What Price Gloria?” Hugh and Big Louie have to rescue Big Louie’s wife Gloria and stop an assassination attempt. I only wish more of the stories had been as suspenseful as this one. In some of them, the mystery really isn’t that hard to figure out as there’s a lack of suspects so the solution comes down to either being this one or that one. And I never got a sense of Hugh being in any real danger in any of these stories. But Lee should be commended for trying different types of stories such as “For The Benefit of Master Tyke” which hinges more on the healing of a family than the solving of any real crime. I picked up halfway through “Where Can I Get A Witness?” is intended as a homage to the 1944 film noir “Laura” and I enjoyed it until the very last paragraph where it felt to me as if the writer had stepped in to give his opinion of his own story and didn’t allow his character to do so.
So should you read HUGH MONN, PRIVATE DETECTIVE? As this was his first book, I’m inclined to give Lee a pat on the back. There’s a lot to like in his writing style. He does know how to keep a story moving but he shouldn’t shy away from rolling in the dirt and giving his characters some sharp edges. I wouldn’t mind seeing Hugh Monn tackle some more cases but I also wouldn’t mind seeing Lee Houston, Jr. strip away the political correctness and explore the real darkness of Frontera.
Jilly Paddock; I’m a British woman, no longer young but not yet ancient. There’s a lot of grey in my hair, which used to be black, and my joints ache in wet weather. I’m interested in biology, geology and astronomy – I like to know the names of animals, wildflowers and trees, rocks and gemstones, constellations and stars. I like Pre-Raphaelite artwork, Romantic poetry, folklore and folk music. I’m very practical and have dabbled in a lot of different crafts, including jewelry-making, silversmithing and knitting. I collect studio glass perfume bottles and tarot decks. I’m a cat person, but don’t have any pets at the moment. I have a dark sense of humor.
I used to live in South London near Crystal Palace, which has a park with life-sized dinosaur statues sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. They date from 1854, were the first of their kind in the world and were scientifically accurate at the time. I saw them as a child – how could I not write fantastic stories after that?
DF: Where do you live and what do you do to keep the creditors away?
JP: I live in the UK, in a cathedral city in the Fens in East Anglia. I have a small house packed with books, CDs and other stuff, and I share it with Dave, an editor and book reviewer. I miss the chalk hills and woodlands of South East England, where I grew up. It’s very flat here, with wide open skies. I live on the edge of the city and can drive out to the countryside in a few minutes.
I spent most of my working life in the NHS (National Health Service). I was a Biomedical Scientist, which sounds very grand but is just a posh name for a lab technician. I worked in Microbiology, growing and identifying bacteria, testing for antibiotic resistance and doing blood tests to diagnose all kinds of diseases. I’ve handled all kinds of pathogens, including TB, typhoid, cholera and diphtheria, and also viruses like Hepatitis B and HIV on a daily basis and somehow lived to tell the tale. I took early retirement in 2011 and now survive on my NHS pension. It may sound odd but I still miss the bacteria, the colors of the colonies on the various media, the smells (some Streptococci smell of caramel and other bacteria have very distinct odors like pear drops or geraniums) and the sense of wonder when you find something unexpected or unusual.
DF: How long have you been writing and what have you learned about yourself through your writing?
JP: I started writing when I was eleven, inspired by two schoolfriends to put pen to paper. I’d always lived in imaginary worlds inside my head, but now the three of us wrote stories, shared them and had a lot of fun doing it. Both of my friends are now published writers working in the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres. I kept writing, selling a couple of short stories in the 1990s and trying to get a novel published. It was the first of the Zenith Alpha 4013 series and although several editors liked it, it never made it into print. After I retired I self-published it as an e-book, along with two novellas and a collection of short stuff. Then Pro Se Press picked it up and TO DIE A STRANGER finally came out in paperback in 2014. It was very satisfying to finally hold a real, solid book in my hands after so long.
I suppose I’ve learnt that I can complete a novel, that I can make that journey from first line to ‘The End’ through the twists and turns of the creative process. There are recurring themes in my work; I seem to be obsessed by walled cities, AIs and dragons. There’s probably a deep psychological meaning behind that, but better not to dwell on it!
DF: What audience are you trying to reach with your work? Is there an audience for Jilly Paddock?
JP: I don’t write with any particular audience in mind. I just write for me, using mainly female protagonists. I suppose that my books have a flavor of the science fiction I read in the 70s and 80s. I’m surprised that I have many male fans, as my work isn’t hard science fiction and has a feminist slant. I’ve had several people who’d never dreamt of reading science fiction pick up my books and tell me they enjoyed them, which is very gratifying.
DF: Where do see your writing career five years from now?
JP: Hopefully all of the Anna and Zenni books will be out by then, plus the huge space opera, WARBIRD. I’d like to still be going to conventions, maybe two or three a year. It would be nice to be better known and to sell more books, of course.
DF: What are you working on now?
JP: I’m finishing the fifth Anna and Zenni book, which was inserted into the original chronology so I could play with the characters a bit more. I have other unfinished pieces, notably a fantasy that’s a simple fairytale with a big dose of folksong and a talking horse, LADDER TO THE MOON, which I need to complete and release into the world.
DF: A. Afton Lamont and her partner Jerome are characters you obviously have a lot of affection for. What is the origin story behind your creation of them?
JP: Afton and Jerome came from a small seed – I needed a pair of detectives on a colony world for a short story, which turned into BLIND WITNESS, which is in the LEGENDS OF NEW PULP anthology. A friend had mentioned that most of my male characters were bastards, so I decided to have a nice man as my first-person protagonist. Poor Jerome – as well as being my first likeable man, I made him black and bisexual as well! He isn’t human; he was rescued from a barbaric desert planet by a team of Earth scientists, who then mutilated him with surgery and inflicted our culture on him. He doesn’t quite fit in the society he lives in; as he says of himself, he’s a stranger in a strange land. Afton started out as the classic cynical police detective, belligerent and disliked in the ranks, full of anger and sarcastic quips. We still don’t know much about her past; she was born on Earth and probably spent some time in the military, but how she ended up on a backwater colony world is a mystery.
I do like my characters, some more than others. I spend so much time with their voices in my head that it’s hard not to see them as friends.
DF: TO DIE A STRANGER mixes science fiction with elements of the thriller and detective genres. Mashing up different genres seems to be a trademark of yours. Why do you enjoy blending genres together?
And what’s the secret to mixing different genres together and making them work smoothly with each other?
JP: I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until my reviewers pointed it out. When I started out, choosing science fiction was a no-brainer – what other genre allows you to write about anything you can imagine? I’d read a lot of thrillers and detective novels as a teenager, so that went into the mix, and it didn’t seem odd to add a little supernatural and magic, mythology and folklore. Real life has traces of all of that, plus a big dollop of coincidence and synchronicity that readers would baulk at if you put it in fiction. I just let the story go where it wants.
I’m not sure I know the secret of mixing genres, as I don’t do it deliberately. Keep your nerve and make it plausible – if you’re confident and believe in the plot your readers will go right along with you.
DF: WITH AMBER TEARS is the sequel to TO DIE A STRANGER. How many more books have you got planned for this series?
JP: It’s planned to be a ten book series. The fourth book, THE BEAUTY OF OUR WEAPONS, is with Pro Se and due out in May/June this year. Book five is unfinished, six to eight are complete but need minor re-writes, nine exists as fragments and ten needs a bit more work. This series is unusual in that I started writing it in 1973 and the books have been lurking on my hard drive since then, constantly being tweaked and altered as the story arc unfolded.
DF: STARCHILD is your latest novel. What’s it about and why should we be reading it?
JP: STARCHILD is the third in the Zenith Alpha 4013 series. Anna and Zenni are now working for Earth Intelligence (EI) and need to prove themselves, so they’re sent to Ile Garoque, a world that severed all contact with Earth two decades ago. The initial plan is to put Anna in the entourage of StarChild, a hugely popular band who’ve been invited to play on the planet, but when Taheera, the lead singer, refuses to go the mission turns into an impersonation of her, using Anna’s acting skills and EI’s technology. Add to that a hostile first contact situation with a group of predatory aliens, an enemy making yet another attempt on Anna’s life, an unexpected romance and being caught up in two weird storms in hyperspace that can destroy unwary spacecraft.
This series is at the lighter end of science fiction, edging towards pulp sci-fi. I think of it as space soap opera; this one has romance stirred into the mix. It has humor and isn’t too gritty, although it does have some swearing and a sex scene, so I wouldn’t recommend it to kids. You should read it because it’s fun and I think most people would enjoy it.
DF: What is the one book or story of yours you would recommend to somebody to start with? And why that book or story?
JP: That would have to be NO EARTHLY SHORE, a novella that’s currently only available as an e-book. It’s another tale of first contact, between the colonists of a world called Calvados and giant telepathic sea slugs, who were assumed to be just dumb animals until they save a girl from drowning and start talking to her. This time the mix includes a marine biologist, another EI agent (although he isn’t revealed as such within the story and he lacks psionic powers) and quilt patterns. It’s a very uplifting feel-good story and seems to appeal to science fiction fans and people who don’t usually read in that genre alike.
DF: Most of your novels and stories are connected. Did you start out to do this on purpose and is it easier to create stories once you have a fully developed universe in place?
JP: Again, this happened by accident. I can’t claim to have invented the universe – it’s a future variant of our own. I’m enough of an optimist to hope that we will go to the stars someday and set up colonies on other worlds. Some of the links between books seemed obvious and logical – the agent that Terrapol sent to help Afton and Jerome in THE SPOOK AND THE SPIRIT IN THE STONE had to be an agent-pair from EI – and some were in-jokes to amuse me and any readers who were paying attention. The world Jerome lives on was discovered by the spacecraft from WARBIRD, so some of the street names are surnames of the crew and Jerome’s cat, Gresham, is named after the ship’s captain, who is also ginger.
I suppose it’s a symptom of my scientific brain to keep things simple – don’t reinvent the wheel – so, if you need a planet, ship or character for the plot, why not use one you already have instead of starting again from the ground up?
DF: What keeps you motivated when you have a creative slump?
JP: There have been times when I’ve stopped writing, when life really got in the way. The stories keep bubbling away in the back of my brain and I have to let them out eventually. I write to empty my head, to get it down on paper so it stops bothering me and I can move on to the next thing. I’ve always found that forcing words out when they aren’t ready doesn’t work well. I don’t like deadlines; that said, I have produced some short stuff very rapidly when necessary.
DF: Drop some much-needed Words of Wisdom on all the young aspiring writers reading this that are thirsting for your knowledge.
JP: Other people have said this, but it’s true – if you want to be a writer, write. Keep writing and finish stuff. Even if you think it’s awful don’t throw it away – keep it and you might be able to use it one day. Read, a lot.
And, if you write on a computer, for pity’s sake keep multiple copies and back-ups of your files!
DF: What writers have influenced you?
JP: So many! I read a lot of classic science fiction and fantasy – Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Tolkien, Leiber – they’re buried in the landscape that lurks under my writing style. I adore Cordwainer Smith, who had such a quirky voice, so deceptively simple with strange psychological depths. There are touches of him in STARCHILD, in a chapter title and the notion behind dragon-storms. I like Peter S Beagle, who writes lovely, poetic prose, and Tanith Lee, Louise Cooper, John Wyndham and Iain Banks – too many of those have died recently. The poetry of W B Yeats and John Keats haunts me, and also the song lyrics of Melanie and Leonard Cohen, which have also inspired titles.
DF: How much room in your head do you allow critics or criticism to occupy?
JP: Too much, I guess. One bad review overshadows ten good ones. I wish I could be more like Iris Murdoch, who said “A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.”
DF: What’s a typical Day In The Life of Jilly Paddock like?
Ooh, I’m dead boring! I have porridge for breakfast and drink lots of tea. I don’t have an office of desk to write at – my computer is next to my armchair and I type with the keyboard on my lap. There’s usually music on in the background, as Dave has a vast and eclectic collection of songs and albums on his computer. I switch between writing, reading and the latest knitting project, and play solitaire to rest the eyes.
In winter I don’t venture out much – one of the joys of being retired is that you don’t have to go out in the rain or snow. About once a fortnight I take my father shopping and out to lunch. He’s 91 now and still lives independently, but he gave up driving last year and needs me to take him to medical appointments and the supermarket. I hope I’m still as fit and mentally alert (and alive!) when I get to that age.
Derrick Ferguson: Anything else we need to know?
Jilly Paddock: In the question about which book I’d recommend as an introduction to my work, I was torn between two, so can I mention the second one here? It’s THE THIRD WORST THING THAT CAN HAPPEN ON MARS and it appeared in PRO SE PRESENTS #19: SUMMER 2013. It’s about the misadventures of Vonnie, a teenage girl who isn’t at all happy when her parents move to Mars. It seems to be a popular story, particularly with youngsters, and will come out soon in a version illustrated by the award-winning fantasy artist, Morgan Fitzsimons. She did the covers for WITH AMBER TEARS and the e-book, THE DRAGON, FLY.