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.
Quick description of cozy mysteries: a genre of crime stories where the crime takes place in a small community where everybody knows each other and have long-time, even generational relationships with each other and they’re all up in everybody’s business. The detectives in these stories are generally amateurs and mostly women. The example that most people would be familiar with is the long-running and highly-successful “Murder She Wrote” starring Angela Lansbury as mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher who always seems to be stumbling over dead bodies. In fact, there’s a fan theory that has it that Jessica herself was actually the murderer and framed all the people who went to jail for the crime as there was no possible way she could have encountered all those murders by happenstance.
I myself have very little familiarity with the genre myself as my taste in detective fiction runs toward the hard-boiled. I’m more down with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Chester Himes. But I do believe that with the plethora of good fiction available, there’s simply no good reason to obsessively limit one’s self to one type of fiction. So, when CURSED FROM THE CRADLE: THE ELLIOT LAKE MYSTERIES I became available to me, I thought it a good time to check out what the genre had to offer.
The beautiful town of Alder Bay on the Oregon coast is one of those communities far enough away from the big cities that the inhabitants can cheerfully pretend the outside world might as well not exist. It’s not a big town. In fact, it’s so small it only has one unmarried Chinese-American resident; Elliot Lake, chief reporter for the town’s weekly newspaper. Elliot’s a friendly, easy-going guy, well-liked by the residents and seemingly satisfied with his life and his job. A lot of the pleasure I got out of reading the book is Elliot’s wry, laconic thoughts about the town and its people, most of whom we get to know very well indeed when a series of child kidnappings commence.
This is less a straight-up and down relentless hunt for the kidnapper(s) stealing young children and more of a study of how the kidnappings affect the town and how the inhabitants deal with it and their relationships with each other as it soon becomes apparent that whoever is snatching the kids has intimate knowledge of their movements. It has to be someone living in Alder Bay and for Elliot, the thought that the kidnapper(s) has to be somebody he considers a friend is as frightening as the fact of the kids being stolen. Elliot isn’t just some small-timer. He’s worked for Seattle newspapers and as such he’s trained to observe. How could he be that close to somebody that capable of such a crime and not have seen them for what they are?
Well, that’s possibly because he’s distracted with girlfriend problems as well as dealing with a surprise visit from his parents. Let’s just say that Elliot has issues with them he is neither qualified nor prepared to cope with and we’ll leave it at that. In fact, goodly portions of the novel are taken up with Elliott and his personal problems to the degree that if you decide to read the book (and I do recommend you read it) you may at one point (as I do admit I did) say to yourself; “Well, shucks…they don’t seem very worry about finding these damn kids. And if they don’t care then why should I?”
And that’s where you’d be making the mistake. Because that isn’t the kind of book Cynthia Moyer is writing. Cynthia’s characters are deeply concerned about finding the missing kids. It’s just that life has to go on while they’re looking for them. People still have to go to work. Kids still have to go to school. Dogs have to be fed. Clothes still have to be washed, ironed and folded away.
Cynthia obviously likes these characters a lot and knows her fictional town as well as Michael Jordan knows how to handle a basketball. Yes, there are some characters that wander in and out of the story with no good reason at all save that Cynthia wants them to be there and there’s one character that every time she showed up I wished that the book was a movie I could fast forward through the scenes with her but on the whole, I had a pretty good time with the story and characters. Enough that I’m engaged enough to want to read the sequel. Good job, Cynthia.
About halfway into DOMAIN by Mike Baron I was wondering if maybe Mr. Baron hadn’t gotten two versions of the same novel mashed-up together and mistakenly published them as one. Give me a minute and I’ll explain.
In the first version we have Kendall Coffin, moderately successful comic book artist who due to an unexpected financial windfall is able to purchase an extraordinarily lavish and baroque Los Angeles mansion that looks like a cross between 1930’s Art Deco and a Mayan temple. It’s a mansion that was built by an eccentric architect and owned by an even more eccentric Hollywood producer. As in any good haunted house story, the mansion is rumored to have been the location of depraved sexual acts, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, Satanic rituals, pedophlia, necrophila and Great Cthulhu himself only knows what all else went on in that joint. That’s why Kendall is able to buy it cheap.
He settles down to his new life, meeting new neighbors, engages in romantic and business relationships and even gets himself a dog. But as he explores his new house and finds new rooms full of Hollywood memorabilia and remnants of the former owner’s depravities it begins working on his conscious and subconscious mind. Are there spirits of the dead infesting the house and subtly influencing Kendall? Maybe even to the point where he is committing murder without being aware of it?
In the second version Kendall Coffin goes to work for a thinly disguised Disney knock-off as a storyboarder. The studio is moving in a new direction and their latest production is an erotic thriller. While the job pays extraordinarily well, the subject matter is distasteful. And it’s in this version that Coffin wryly and cynically observes and muses on pop culture, comic book culture, Hollywood, TV, The Cult of Celebrity that has infected this country, video gaming, religion, the pros and cons of drug use, mortality and The Meaning of Life.
Don’t get me wrong, the two versions co-exist side-by-side and at times I actually found myself wanting to see more of the version with Kendall navigating his way through Hollyweird, wondering if this is truly the life he wants. There are chapters that are nothing more than Kendall going through his day and rather than being boring they do indeed enhance the story, providing characterization and doing something that a lot of horror stories don’t do; remind us that even though horrible things are happening around us, life does indeed go on. We still have to feed the dog, put out the the garbage and make a living. We still have to deal with loss and we still want to find love and have sex.
This is the fourth novel of Baron’s I’ve read and as always, I enjoy his freewheeling, don’t-give-a-damn prose. Baron writes as if he’s out to entertain himself first and foremost and it’s a tactic I wish more writers would adapt because if the writer is enjoying himself then it can’t help but translate into an enjoyable reading experience. I also like how he’s not afraid to use brand names, the names of real and made up rock groups, movie and TV actors, song titles, movie titles. There’s a name for this, y’know. It’s called “The Fleming Effect” named after Ian Fleming, the creator James Bond. A good case could be made for him inventing Product Placement since he name dropped left and right in his James Bond novels. I like it myself. It gives a novel an added layer when I’m reading about characters eating in the same restaurants I do, reading the same books and watching the same TV shows I do.
If you’ve read Mike Baron’s other books then you know what you’re getting and I don’t have to twist your arm. If you haven’t, then I’d recommend you sample “Helmet Head” (which reads like the best John Carpenter movie John Carpenter never made) and “Skorpio” before diving into DOMAIN. But no matter which of his books you decide to start with, you’ll be entertained, trust me. Mike Baron writes in a highly cinematic style that puts me in mind of to best of 1980s movies. True, his books have a lot of build-up but it’s there for a reason and the payoff is always worth the wait. Highly Recommended.