Book Review of Owen Laukkanan’s Crime Novel ‘Criminal Enterprise’

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Owen Laukkenan - Criminal Enterprise - Cover

There are books you take your time over and there are books that take the reader over. Owen’s second novel Criminal Enterprise falls bulls eye whack in the centre of the latter.

Set in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul in Minnesota, FBI agent Carla Windermere investigates a sudden spree of bank robberies that graduate to murder. She is somewhat off an outsider, born in Mississippi, she moved to Minnesota from Miami with her now ex-boyfriend. She is also a black woman in a white male world and while being somewhat of a team player when it makes sense, she is not averse to following his instincts even if it means falling foul of her superiors Agents Harris and Doughty and getting into hot water. She is confident but in a low-key determined way that sometimes flairs like lava through a vent when she is stonewalled, especially when she knows she’s in the right.

Carter Tomlin, high ranking accountant, lives in a dream home with his beautiful wife, children and dog. He has it all – until he loses his job. The paycheques stop but his high-life overheads (mortgage, credit card bills etc) still hold their giant hands out every month. He tries to get another job but times are tough, second chances are thin. Driven from desperation, he plans to rob a bank, just one to fill the holes in the wall of the money dyke but he’s a white collar respectable guy. He doesn’t know how to get a gun. He doesn’t want to buy one through official outlets, not wanting a paper trail so he makes contact with Schultz, a shady guy with a gun for sale on Craigslist. Tomlin visits Schultz and they nearly close the deal but Schultz plays it by the book when it comes to gun sales – he demands to see Tomlin’s driver’s license. Tomlin is cornered, his scheme for making quick dirty cash looks to have run out of road before he even left the drive – but he wants that gun so badly, too badly.

The narcotic high of the power-thrill of that first taste of violence, fuelled by the proceeds of an unexpected bonanza, proves to be an insatiably deadly thirst, for Tomlin, those who stand in his way and those who help him. He is now set on a spiral of deadly intent.

Agent Windermere superiors go down a track of the tried and tested road of known gangs. Windermere finds a clue that should have stared everyone in the face from the get-go, a clue that sets the train of her own unsanctioned investigation in motion, one that gets her into trouble with her superior Agent Doughty and overall boss Agent Harris but she’s not one to be deterred.

Her old buddy, Agent Stevens, is now taking things professionally easy, away from the front line after a previous case where both the lives of Stevens and Windermere were in peril. His wife wants him safe, Stevens misses the thrill of the chase.

Over the course of the novel, Windermere’s investigation gains traction and grudging credence and cooperation from those who doubted her. The double life of Tomlin and the lives of Stevens cross paths in one of the most credible but fateful of ways – their daughters move in the same basketball circles.

Things seem to go well for Tomlin, now teamed up with a young punk secretary and her criminal boyfriend, they make bigger gains along with a growing body count but Tomlin gets greedy, making mistakes that set in play a deadly sequence of events that puts the lives of his family and that of an investigating officer in jeopardy, leading to a denouement that is truly heart stoppingly exciting and chilling in equal measure as Tomlin’s life unravels around him.

There is a also an excellently infused subplot of a missing middle aged woman who has vanished off the radar who suspected of murdering her husband for reasons that flummox Agent Stevens. This is elegantly weaved into the main storyline and was just as intriguing and acted as a nice slow burner of a chill-out room to where the reader could step into to take a breather from watching the Tomlin and Windermere super-tango.

Sometimes words and phrases like ‘page turner’, ‘fast paced’ are used but this book kicks the crap out of the cliché piñata and rightly so. I read this book in two sittings, not bad an innings for a paperback of nearly 500 pages. The chapters are physically short, no longer than 4 pages at most for each and read like a jolt of volt. I just wanted to keep on running, sorry, reading but it felt like running! There is no narrative ballast, every line and I mean every line is lean, taut, efficient muscle that fuels the engine of the story at frantic speed. The characters are credible and this is key, especially with Tomlin.

We all know someone like Tomlin, especially in these recessionary times. We might be one ourselves. He has led a law abiding respectable life but has taken a wrong turn that has destroyed him and his family and many others, innocent and not so innocent. However there are glimpses into his character and his potentiality for power tripping ; Tomlin reminisces about putting the fear of God into his staff, and enjoying it, when he once worked for a firm before he lost his job. They do say psychopaths are not all mad-eyed lunatics who wear dog heads for hats; most live and work amongst us. The danger is when their psychopathy is unleashed beyond the constraints of work and society, especially when they move into outlaw mode.

Perhaps the seeds of a man’s destruction are not planted by circumstance but watered by circumstance and this is what makes this book so chilling. We are not following the fortunes of a born criminal dropout, we are following the fortunes of ourselves but in some twisted parallel universe that we hope is not the one we live or will live in. His baby steps down the dark path are credible; the moment when the bones off idle thoughts are dressed in flesh, is just that; a moment, a heartbeat, a split second. That’s all the time it took before Tomlin went from barbequing burgers in his garden to barbequing his life. There were times when he could have stopped it all and returned to his old life but temptation was too strong from him to resist and it wasn’t long until he reached the point of no return.

This is one of the finest thrillers/crime novels I have ever read and I know I will similarly devour Laukkenan’s other novels, Kill Fee and The Professionals.

Criminal Enterprise is published by Penguin and is available in all good bookstores, usual e-book outlets and from Owen’s website http://owenlaukkanen.com

Owen Laukkanan lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada

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Book Review : “Ride the Lightning” a crime novel by Dietrich Kalteis

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Ride The Lightning“Holding the smoke in his lungs was like trying to hold a beach ball under the water”

I had the privilege of hearing this line, amongst others, at the Noir in the Bar crime-writer event in downtown Vancouver, June 2014. Dietrich was one of several Vancouver-based crime writers who read an extract from his work. This line alone was enough to tell me this was a writer of quality and a lover of language, fresh lively description and most of all, dialogue.

“If your man’s breathing, we’ll find him; if not, we’ll point out to where he’s buried”

This book falls right into the bulls-eye off that camp and what a book and what a ride it was reading it. The hero, Karl Morgen works as a bounty hunter in Seattle. For those reading this article outside of North America, you are forgiven for an image of Boba Fett of Star Wars fame, rising from the steamy swamps of your imagination. In Seattle, a bounty hunter is a privately employed enforcer, collector of debts and server of summons. In this novel, Karl is assigned to hunt down low-life drug dealer, Miro Knotts. Miro is in deep, shitty hot water over his dalliance with an under-age girl he met at a party.

Karl is good at what he does and catches up with Miro at an all-night rave – but Karl is a rough diamond and engages his fists before his brain and gives Miro a hiding before cuffing him and dragging him to the local police, but the police don’t like the shape Miro’s in. Karl has a story, but Miro presses charges, resulting in Karl losing his bounty hunter licence and livelihood.

Marty, his partner, takes pity on Karl and fixes him up with a job over the border in Vancouver where he now works as a process server, a low octane version of what he was in Seattle with a fraction of the pay. Karl is slowly getting back on his feet but still licking his wounds. He finds love in the lovely PJ Addey, and it looks like the stone off his Spartan acetic bachelor life may finally be smoothed by the love of a good woman.

But it doesn’t take long for the contrails of Karl and Miro’s lives to cross in their foggy skies when Marty phones Karl to tell him that Miro is wanted for jumping bail in the US. Marty waves the idea of revenge under Karl’s nose, and Karl likes the sniff, thus setting the scene for the rest of the novel where Karl hunts down Miro amongst the murk and rent of Vancouver low-lifes, gangsters, users and weed producers in their grow-houses.

There are just the right amount of supporting characters on both sides that provide a well-balanced mix of dark humour and foil for dramatic action without ever veering into farce or the fantastical. The dialogue is snappy, quick-witted and realistic and in keeping with the register of the characters themselves. The pacing is just right, with focus switching from Karl to Miro in just the right tempo and similar on the occasions when their stories intertwine.

Karl doesn’t feature until the 4th chapter, the first three chapters introduce us to Miro and his gang where amongst the activities we may expect from such a drug gang, Miro shoots a ram in cold blood for no reason indicating a particular psychopathy. I found it interesting that the killing of an animal, a ram, served the plinth upon which Miro’s flawed character was succinctly illustrated as opposed to the killing of a person, but in my opinion, this illustrates the inherent, in-built self-destruction and recklessness of a psychopath who indulges in sporadic irrational. The morality of murder, whilst morally reprehensible, could still be justified in utilitarian terms within a criminal world where human life has little value, but the killing of a dumb animal served Miro no purpose whatsoever, which to me, is more telling of his nature as a character.

There is a case to be made that the best crime novels depict deeply flawed heroes who are not beyond redemption. Such characters endow the reader with the conceit that he/she is a helpless God, willing the hero to make a few not unrealistic changes to part the Red Sea of circumstance and walk down that narrow damp path to that rooted for redemption. The hero of this novel, fits this bill and while some of his behaviour may not win him gold stars for winning the reader’s heart, he does show a capacity to change and to let the light of experience fight its way into the narrow cracks of his conscience. But at the end of the day, his heart is always in the right place and perhaps his, just like our less than honourable and savoury ways, could be a reflection of the despair one may find oneself in, but with the right goals and people around us, redemption is always on the menu. This makes Karl a very credible protagonist and one the reader will enjoy sticking with to the final page of the book.

I also was fascinated by a crime novel whose geographical setting (Vancouver, British Columbia) is largely and woefully under-represented within the world of English-language crime fiction. There are numerous references to streets and towns that give this book one of its piquant flavours and aromas that is uniquely Vancouver. To the reader who likes to see the world in his/her reading material, this is an added bonus.

Ride the Lightning is Dietrich’s debut novel, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Ride the Lightning is published by ECW Press and is available in all good bookstores and in ebook format.

For more information on Dietrich Kalteis, you can visit his blog http://dietrichkalteis.blogspot.co.uk

 

 

Canada Crime : Interview with E.R. Brown, author of ‘Almost Criminal’

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I first encountered E.R. Brown at the landmark Noir in the Bar event that took place in downtown Vancouver in early June 2014. E.R. Brown is the author of Edgar-nominated debut novel Almost Criminal.

E.R. and I aEric Brownrranged to meet at his favourite coffee house, Kafka’s on Main St. It was a Monday afternoon and the sun was turning up the heat but I had side-stepped the worst of it by keeping very much within the ever-narrowing strip of shade that blessed one side of the road all the way from Broadway-Cityhall.  I felt like a lizard darting from under shaded rock to cactus shadow just to keep a semblance of cool but you have to do what you have to do. I arrived at Kafka’s and met with E.R. and below is the interview that ensued:

You have written short stories many of which have been published and some even dramatized by CBC. Tell us about the story behind the dramatisation?

For a time, the CBC ran a fantastic online multimedia magazine of art and culture. They called it Radio 3. Budget cutbacks killed it a few years ago, and now it’s just a pop music channel. When it was still an art and culture weekly magazine, I emailed them a story idea. I hadn’t published anything – not creative writing a least – at the time. It was just a cold-call type email. They asked to see the story and they accepted it. What was astounding to me was how quickly the process proceeded – compared to the glacial pace of the publishing industry. The time from the initial email to the acceptance was perhaps three days. Two days later I received a late night phone call from the recording studio. They were recording it with actors and had a request for slight changes. At the end of the week it was online! It’s still there if you go hunting for it. The instructions are on my website.

Are short stories good grounding for novelists and what strengths do you think they add to a writer’s skillset? I wrote short stories for about two years. I used them as a vehicle for exploring various forms and trying out what works for me. Short stories are perfect way to dig into character, atmosphere and description without having plot take over. And, frankly, you can experiment more freely, with a lot less investment in time. More than half of my short stories were unpublished and rightly so. But without the validation of having short stories published, I wouldn’t have had the courage and self-confidence to embark on writing a novel.

‘Almost Criminal’ is your debut novel and its set within the marijuana industry in BC. Why this concept in particular and did your research unearth many crazy facts and what misconceptions, if any, were dispelled for you?

I like stories to be “about” something. I like there to be social relevance that speaks to a time and place. What attracted me to the marijuana industry in BC is that it’s everywhere, in every town, every city block, every rural area, and yet no one talks about it. When I began, the only marijuana stories were Cheech and Chong type stuff. Stoner humour. Weeds and Breaking Bad weren’t on the air. I didn’t know of another book about it. I became fascinated with prohibition stories and gangster novels from the prohibition era. I saw instant parallels between the growth of organized crime — the American mafia – which was directly created by alcohol prohibition and the growth of Hells Angels from the 60s and 70s to today, fuelled by marijuana prohibition.

Was researching this industry, which still remains the shadows of legality, pose any logistical problems for you?

Well, of course, few people in the industry want to speak to someone who looks like a narc. Especially a couple of years ago, when even medical growing was illegal. But that was overcome. The truth is, there’s grow op on every block, and it doesn’t take very much work to get hold of people who know people. I even had a number of back-and-forth emails with Marc Emery, the self-proclaimed Prince of Pot, from his jail cell in Yazoo City, Michigan. Research books like Bud Inc, and books on the Hells Angels, like Angels of Death, were really helpful.

How did you get in touch with someone like Marc Emery?

People who know people who know Marc Emery. He was very helpful in providing technical guidence and suggesting corrections where my technical descriptions and passages didn’t pass muster.

What kind of hurdles did you experience during writing your novel?

A first novel is a giant hurdle. You may think you can write one, but you’ve never done it before. No one wants you to write it, and no publisher will consider it before it’s complete. It’s a leap of faith and a multi-year exercise, and your initial self-confidence may prove to be self-delusion. Yeah, there were hurdles.

Do you have an agent and if so how did that relationship come about? If not, can you talk about the journey between completing the novel and its publication?

I have a terrific agency and agent, Chris Bucci at the McDermid agency. I was introduced to the agency by a writer friend, a mentor at the Banff Centre. But there were years and several drafts of the novel between my first introduction to the agency and the point where I was finally accepted for representation. In today’s world, agents tend to act as gatekeepers for the industry. I think lots of writers will tell you that getting an agent is harder than getting a publisher.

I think most writers would recognise that paradigm. It’s funny how the role of gatekeeper, be it the agent in literature and the A&R man in music, seems to be the modus operandi within music and literature. I think these constructs are the vestiges, throwbacks to a more heirarchical time where people knew their place and gatekeepers played a role in ensuring the purity of those deemed fit to enter higher echelons. Is there a case for writers to regard their work as a product for sale in the marketplace and the sale of their work as a business, in other words, being self employed in all respects as any other self employed person in any other business sphere would be?

There is some truth in that and its something writers would need to think about.

Marketing is a skill and a professional in itself, perhaps writers should take a cue from the world of small business and copy what they do when it works

It is the way many writers, especially conventionally unpublished writers, are going.

Why crime-fiction and does crime fiction play a role in exposing unhidden truths about society?

I didn’t plan on writing crime fiction. The story turned in that direction on its own. It began as a family drama and coming-of-age story. The coming-of-age story is still there, of course, but once the bikers showed up it was hard to deny that what I had was a crime story. That said, I couldn’t be happier being considered a crime writer. Crime readers are the best. And the attention I have received, with the award nominations and the reviews that I’ve received… the industry has been very kind to me. So let me be clear: my next novel is a crime novel. And unlike Almost Criminal, it’s conceived from the outset as a crime novel and I’m having a lot of fun with it.

Your debut novel ‘Almost Criminal’ has been compared to the concept behind the hit TV series, Breaking Bad and even Weeds. I understand that marijuana accounts for an estimated $7-9 billion of untaxed revenues in BC and according to studies, 1/100 homes in BC have at one point in time, been used as grow houses. Is this industry common across Canada or peculiar to BC and if the latter, why do you think this is?

The industry is everywhere, right across Canada. It began in BC, certainly. And BC Bud is a pretty well known brand. I’m told it began with a group of American war resisters—draft dodgers, we used to call them— who came up from California and then settled on Lasqueti Island. The history of the character Randle Kennedy, in my novel, follows that trajectory. The coffee shop owners and Randle have a shared background in resisting the Vietnam war and coming up to BC, and then one way or another becoming involved in BC Bud.

Surely draft dodger seeking refuge in Canada caused rancour between the US and Canadian governments, did it not? I mean, did they not have to claim political asylum?

Not really, those were more relaxed times. It’s not like today where the border is heavily regulated and monitored. British Columbia and its west coast vibe was a popular choice of destination and The Gulf Islands provided much needed privacy and isolation, for growing a product like weed.

Note to readers : US President Jimmy Carter, on his first day in office, Jan 21st 1977, fufilled a campaign pledge to issue a complete and unconditional pardon to all Vietnam conscientious objectors who escaped the draft.

Are biker gangs common in BC and how are they regarded by the authorities and did you contact any during your research and if so, what impression did you glean from them?

Bike gangs are a big deal. The authorities know, it everyone knows it. And don’t assume that all of them actually ride bikes anymore. When it came to those guys, I stuck to book research. Some of my marijuana contacts verified what I had to say about the industry and how the bike gangs play into it, but direct contact with bikers, no.

If the Biker Gangs present such a problem, why are they allowed to freely and openly operate?

These gangs are run as big business with an unofficial multi-layered membership scheme. At the bottom of the rung, you still have the bearded, leather-cut wearing hygienically challenged biker who by and large, lives up to the stereotype biker we have in mind. The bottom layer just like to ride around,  making a lot of noise, just being bikers. However, higher up the food chain, that’s where the real control lies. Those at the top rarely if ever ride bikes. They drive BMW cars and wear Armani. They know how to not get caught, just like most organized crime syndicates.

So bikers are a big deal in BC?

Some towns literally depend on them. It’s said the economy of the town of Nelson is 70% derived from the gangs. Grand Forks is another town with an unhealthy economic dependency.

Do you detail the synopsis/storyline before you write a word or do write and plot as you proceed?

I wrote so many outlines! I found I’m a terrible at outlining. But the process of doing the outlines—which I didn’t really follow as the writing proceeded— gave me signposts, landmarks, that were very useful to me in getting the story done. I think that outlining is essential in writing crime stories, and I’ve been working on my outlining skills. Crime readers expect a certain level of plot complexity that is very difficult to do without a pretty solid outline.

What authors do you admire the most and why?

I probably read more literary writers than crime writers, although I read a lot of both. The writers whose books I’ll buy as soon as they appear on the shelf are Barbara Kingsolver, Dennis Lehane, Russell Banks, TC Boyle, Martin Cruz Smith — those are the names that come to mind first. I love writers who cross the genre divide, like Graham Greene did. These days there’s Benjamin Black/John Banville.

Many writers also have full time jobs which can be demanding. What advice would you give such writers to help them find the necessary mental energy to write?

Until recently I was a full time writer of marketing and advertising. It’s very tough to finish a draining day of writing and then stare at an empty page, or empty screen, and hope that inspiration will come. But ultimately the only way to get writing done is to write.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading Junot Diaz, ‘This is How You Lose Her’, and Harry Karlinky’s ‘The Stonehenge Letters’, and Owen Laukkanen’s ‘The Professionals’. Diaz’s voice grabs you from the first word. Karlinsky is all dry, intellectual wit. The footnotes in that book bring tears to my eyes. And Owen, who I just met a couple of weeks ago, is so smart. His plotting is really clever.

Are you a full time writer now?

I’ve been a full time writer for over 20 years, but I’m now a full time fiction writer. On my LinkedIn page I called myself a recovering copywriter. Until I unplugged from LinkedIn.

Have you a set writing schedule for each day?

I’m a working writer. I write all day long! But in the morning, I tend to business: dealing with emails and whatever. My creative brain works best later in the day.

Is a writer ever truly happy with his/her work even after the zillionth revision? When do you know to let it go into the world?

When the editor says it’s ready, and there’s no more time to meet the deadline.

What topics have your short stories covered and do you still write them?

My most successful short stories were, I think, those dealing with coming-of-age type of issues. My first published short story is about teens in garage-rock bands. There’s another historical story, a novella set in the Depression, which is a first person story about a young man in the north of Quebec. They all informed, in one way or another, the character of Tate in Almost Criminal. I haven’t written a shory story in a while. I’m happier with the long form.

What differences have you experienced between writing short stories and your novel? I feel really comfortable in the plot driven novel form. I’ve found I’m more of a traditional storyteller than a literary stylist. Style is so much of what makes a great short story.

When you completed the final draft of a novel, do you immediately start work on the next novel or some other project?

With only one published novel, I don’t have a lot of experience with this! But so far, each time I’m getting near the end of one novel, I find myself casting about for ideas for the next. Not to say that I’m writing yet, but I’m looking at potential subjects and starting to do research.

Should unpublished novelists seek or rely on the advice of friends or social media contacts to beta read their work? Who in your opinion should a writer rely on for sound advice?

I’m a big fan of the reading circle. I’m a member of two reading circles, each one includes unpublished writers and published writers, and I wouldn’t be anywhere without them.

How important is factual research to you? Can the truth be bent in favour of a better story without breaking the bounds of credibility?

It’s important to me that the sense of place feels true, the surroundings feel authentic. Also that the details of both the criminal activity and the plot trajectory feel accurate and plausible. That does take a lot of research. But, at the same time, I don’t write textbooks. The story goes in unexpected places, and reality gets bent. You just hope that the reader trusts you, and enjoys going along for the ride.

How important has social media been in promoting your work and what strategies do you employ to maximise its effectiveness?

It’s connected me with readers who are far beyond my physical reach — in places where I can’t do readings or signings. As someone with a smaller publisher that’s been fantastic. But something’s happening in the world of social media. So many people, especially the young influencers, have bailed out of Facebook, don’t blog anymore, and so on. I wonder what’s going to happen to take its place.

Do you believe in writer’s block or should a writer just write something until the muse returns?

The only cure for writer’s block is putting your butt in the chair and writing.

Have you a muse?

No, I don’t have a muse.

Finally, any general advice you’d like to give writers reading this interview?

One of my most trusted contacts is a filmmaker and scriptwriter who does a lot of script doctoring. The constraints of time and budget seem to lend script writing a strict discipline that we in the prose world could learn from. A few points (or at least my interpretation of them): Don’t be too subtle in your writing – we tend to rework aparagraph a hundred times and obsess over hiding details and dropping vague hints. The reader rushes past that paragraph once. You have to make sure they will get what you are writing about. Try to tell the story in chronological order, with few flashbacks. Flashbacks can disrupt the tempo and crescendo of tension. If, for example, you build up to a moment of high tension and then send the reader back into a flashback, you reset the tension to zero.

Many thanks to E.R. Brown for his time and for a sparkling afternoon of conversation You can find out more about E.R. Brown from his website http://www.erbrown.com His novel Almost Criminal is available in all good bookstores and in usual e-book outlets.

Rapid Reads – A Progressive Innovation in the World of Publishing and Literature

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Imagine you are learning English as a foreign language or you have reading difficulties or you’re a teenager who just wants to expand beyond teenage literature or even if you simply haven’t the time to read but you still want to dive into the wonderful pool of literature with all the joys that entails.

It’s pretty difficult when you think about it.

Most novels are aimed at a readership that have fully developed literary skills and such works involve a high degree of complexity in terms of language, plotting and narrative structure that require the reader to have advanced reading skills and the time to read. These can act as a barrier to those who wish to enrich their lives that literature is wonderful at providing.

Well there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Rapid Reads is a recent newcomer to the publishing world whose mission and remit is to publish short works of both fiction and non-fiction between 12000-20000 words. Its works of fiction are set in the contemporary world, written in plain English with simple sentence structure. The stories are driven forward in time via linear narrative with minimal or zero use of sub-plotting and with a small number of characters without sacrificing quality, reader-engagement or entertainment. For non-fiction, plain written and concise English are also the order of the day. The aim is that all such books can be easily read, understood and completed in one sitting yet just as entertaining and informative as conventional literature.

There is a growing demand for such books and the Rapid Reads stable is home to many writers, some of whom have written conventionally structured novels for the mass market but have turned more than an able hand to writing within the guidelines that Rapid Reads stipulate. Moreover, its books are widely read and highly regarded by those who do read the more conventional, complex traditionally structured book. The books are simple but not simplistic, basic but not facile, uncomplicated without any less sophistication, informative yet not condescending.
According to Rapid Reads website, 50% of North Americans struggle with literacy to some degree, not to mention the numbers who lead very busy and demanding lives, in other words, time-poor. I suspect this degree of literacy and time challenges are not unique across the Western world.

This is a truly progressive innovation in the world of literature that surely will go a long way to increase literacy and the advocacy of the joy and empowerment of reading. There is no stigma in reading books from this stable either. I have just ordered two myself and I recommend you do too. For writers like myself, I particularly look forward to see how these books employ elegance and simplicity without loss of literary efficacy. This will surely serve as a good exemplar of cutting unnecessary complexity and long windedness from what we write, something I am quite guilty off myself.

Also all genres are welcome too.

Rapid Reads is an imprint of Orca Press who are based in Victoria, BC, Canada and you can find more details on their website

Canada Crime : Interview with Dietrich Kalteis, author of ‘Ride The Lightning’

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I first encountered Dietrich at last week’s Noir in the Bar crime fiction event in downtown Vancouver, BC which I reviewed in this blog. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to speak with Dietrich at the time but I and the room were entertained and gripped in equal measure by his reading of the opening pages from his first novel, Ride the Lightning (ECW Press), a blistering piece of neo noir, neo pulp crime fiction generously sprinkled with shavings off sharp black humour that’s his trademark.

In the days that followed, Dietrich and I hooked up on Facebook and he kindly invited me to meet for an interview at the back of the Irish Heather bar in Gastown, Vancouver.

Ride the Lightning starts out when Seattle bounty hunter Karl Morgan goes after a wanted drug dealer named Miro Knotts on a skipped bond. When Karl catches up with Miro, he ends up beating him badly enough to get his license revoked, with Miro getting off with just a suspended sentence. So, finished in Seattle, Karl takes the only job he can find as a process server up in Vancouver. Meantime, Miro ducks a drug sweep, and because of the suspended sentence looming over him, he sneaks across the Canadian border and goes looking to even the score with Karl, something only one of them will walk away from.

Dietrich lives with his wife in West Vancouver (or West Van as locals would put it) and has worked as a commercial designer and in the past decade has had no fewer than 45 short stories published in a myriad of publications. He also has been a finalist in the 2003 LA Screenplay Festival.

Tell me a little about your life before Ride the Lightning was first conceived?

I was a commercial artist for over thirty years, first in Toronto, then here in Vancouver. It allowed me to be creative, and I liked the work, but I always wanted to write a novel. About ten years ago I started finding a little time here and there to work on short stories or screenplays, mostly in the evening when the workday was done. Then about five years ago my wife convinced me to make a career change and write full time. And here I am.

Why crime and does crime fiction play a role in exposing hidden truths about society?

There’s always intrigue around a crime story; partly, it’s the range of characters that make it interesting. They generally walk a fine line between good and bad, crossing lines that most of us would never cross. So, it’s fun to go on a ride with them from the comfort of an armchair and experience what they get mixed up in without paying the consequences. I find it interesting how
crime fiction delves into the human condition, and how it touches on the disorder within the order of society. I have read that crime fiction is a means of controlling and fixing what’s wrong in the world. I don’t necessarily agree with that but it’s an explanation worth exploring.

Ride the Lightning is your first novel after a number of short stories and indeed a screenplay ‘Between Jobs’ that was a finalist in the 2003 LA Screenplay Festival. What was the impetus behind writing the novel?

I read an article a couple of years back that sparked the idea. It talked about BC Bud being the province’s reigning cash crop, bigger than tourism, lumber or fishing. The article estimated, at the time, it was a six billion dollar per year industry, and that as many as one in every hundred homes had been converted to a grow-house at some point. That night as I walked my dog, I started looking at our neighbourhood differently, looking for telltale signs, trying to pick out the grow houses. Statistically, I must have passed two or three of them, and some of my neighbours had undeclared income. The next day I started writing.

I can only speak for myself, but working to a tight outline and planning every detail of the plot from start to finish would feel restrictive, like wearing a tie when I could be in a tee shirt

Some interesting things came out in my research. Did you know it’s possible for infrared satellites to take the temperature of any particular house? If the temperature is unusually high, then it’s a candidate for suspicion. Other things too like unusually high use of hydro, water power and in winter, due to the heat inside these houses, they’re like greenhouses, they’re only houses in the block with no snow lying on the roof. It’s crazy. Some houses have been illegally tapping water but it’s a dangerous thing as we know, mixing electricity with water. Some have been turned into McNuggets just trying this.

The hero of your novel, Karl Morgen first appeared as a character in a short story who served divorce papers. What was it about Karl that made you elevate him to the main protagonist in your novel above every other character you’ve written?

I liked the tone of the piece, and Karl was cool in the way he handled himself. I wanted to put him in different situations, get him in over his head and see how he’d handle it.

Will Karl feature in future novels?

I don’t have any plans for Karl right now. We leave Karl at the end of Ride the Lightning, and I think the reader will feel he has grown and learned from his experiences, not likely to repeat the type of mistakes that nearly got him killed. But who really knows …

This is interesting. There seems to be penchant for serials where the same hero returns time and time again and indeed, standalone novels may have a harder time getting an agent or even a book deal but by no means impossible. What was your experience? Did you get any pressure to make Karl the hero of your next books?

My publisher wondered if I was thinking of featuring Karl in a series, but that wasn’t my initial intention, and they were fine about it.

So are you working on your next novel?

Yes, I had the idea for it as I finished Ride the Lightning. The only thing I’ll say is that it’s set in Whistler, BC, a picturesque ski-resort town north of Vancouver and that a character that played a minor role in Ride The Lightning becomes a central character.

How important is it to credibly infuse modern day facets such as Facebook, twitter and mobile technology into the narrative of the novel and does modern day technology in your opinion, make it easier or harder for plot development when in the past, lack of such devices made for more shoe leather being worn down for detectives?

If the story takes place in present time, you can’t have characters running around with a blunderbuss or searching for a phone booth. Incorporating modern technology can be just as interesting as when more shoe leather was being worn down. It’s just different in the details.

Do you detail the synopsis/storyline before you write a word or do you write and plot as you proceed?

I write by the seat of my pants. For Ride the Lightning, I started with the spark of an idea. That spark got me thinking what if this happened … and from there I dropped the characters into the scene and let them guide the story. I find that, for me at least, I can only speak for myself that planning every detail of the plot of a novel from start to finish is like wearing a tie. Why wear a tie when you can wear a tee shirt?

So is it difficult to infuse subplots when writing in such an unplanned way?

Not really, the subplots also grow organically. In the second and subsequent drafts, I reread the story from start to finish and iron out any creases and make necessary corrections.

What authors do you admire the most and why?

I read a lot so I could make quite a lengthy list. It’s the voice of a great writer that always gets me. Twain, Salinger, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Miller, Lee. Such great voices. In crime fiction, some of my favourites are Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, Leonard, Ellroy, Higgins, Winslow, Hiaasen. Outside of the genre, I love reading Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Thompson, Burroughs, Smith. Of course, I could go on …

I have heard that crime fiction is a means of controlling and fixing what’s wrong in the world. I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with that but it’s an explanation worth exploring.

Many writers also have full time jobs which can be demanding. What advice would you give such writers to help them find the necessary mental energy to write?

When I was working full-time, I wrote some short pieces in the evenings and weekends. It wasn’t always easy to get started when the best part of the day was gone and I often felt tired; but I found if I persevered, I often caught that second wind. For me, it’s important to write whenever I can; I believe, the more you write, the better you will get. And when you’re not writing, read something that will inspire you to write.

Is it important for a writer to have a good degree of life experience to draw from?

Absolutely. Life experience lends perspective and can bring a certain depth to the story.

What are you reading at the moment?

Nearly finished Owen Laukkanen’s Kill Fee. A book that’s hard to put down. Next up, I’m looking forward to getting into Black Rock by John McFetridge, one of my favourite Canadian authors.

Are writing short stories helpful in an aspiring novelist’s development and in your experience, what are the essential differences in terms of form between the two art forms?

Writing short stories was the way to go for me when I was starting out. I wrote as much and as often as I could, gaining the confidence and voice that could sustain for the length of a novel. It also allowed me to try different genres and find what worked best for me. If a short story didn’t turn out, it wasn’t a big deal. I just chalked it up as a learning experience and moved on. With a novel, it’s a much greater commitment.

I love writing both short stories and novels, and I don’t think one is easier or better than the other. The essential difference is that the shorter form generally doesn’t allow the writer to build on multiple characters and subplots and can limit the focus on a single event and possibly on a single character, keeping things simple and concise. With a novel, there’s more elbow room to add in twists, subplots, additional conflicts, multiple characters, backgrounds, back-stories and points of view. And, of course, there’s a lot more to juggle for the duration of the novel.

Vancouver is a city of stark contrasts from the heavenly vistas of English Bay and Stanley Park to the destitution of the blocks around Victory Sq and Gastown. Does this give Vancouver an additional sense of edginess that a crime story needs?

Exactly. A postcard-perfect town with a seedy underbelly. And it’s right on the US border and has the largest seaport in Canada. Ripe for a crime story.

Did you get many rejection letters for your debut novel and how did you handle it? What kind of reasons were given if any?

I got my share of rejection letters when I was submitting short stories. Once I finished one, I would submit it to three publications, then start writing the next one, sending it out to three more publications, and so on. So, after a while I had several out there at any one time, and the rejection letters did flow. But that was okay. Every time I heard no, I felt a step closer to an acceptance, not to mention, occasionally an editor would send along some helpful comments or constructive criticism which I learned from. With my debut novel, I sent it to ECW Press who have a couple of my favourite crime writers on their roster. I thought my novel might be a good fit. Luckily, they agreed.

Are you a full time writer now?

But you did have a full time occupation once upon a time. How difficult was it to juggle this with writing

Well, there’s no other way to do it but just sit down and write. That’s what I did, every evening after work I sat down in my office at home and wrote, sometimes until around midnight. Weekends too. It’s hard, there’s no question about it as you can get tired but I enjoy writing so much that I wrote every single day, seven days a week come rain or shine. There’s no other way but to just write.

Have you a set writing schedule for each day?

Yes. Walk dog, eat, write. Repeat.

When you work on a major project such as a novel, do you take breaks to work on side projects if you feel slow progress is being made or do you just single mindedly concentrate solely on the novel in hand?

No side projects, I just focus exclusively on the novel until its complete otherwise themes and characters from two or more stories can get mixed up with one another.

Do you create and use character sheets, detailing their likes, dislikes, quirks and beliefs and back story and if so, how does this help in your writing and character development?

I create one for every character. It’s a great way to keep track of details.

Is a writer ever truly happy with his/her work even after the zillionth revision?

I have to be happy with it before I send it out. And I get happier with every edit.

When do you know to let it go into the world?

The first edit I call rewriting. By the second I’m checking for typos and inconsistencies. By the third (maybe the fourth) edit, I’m just looking for the odd picky little thing I missed. When I’m at that point, I know it’s time to call the work done. And out it goes.

When you completed the final edition of Ride the Lightning, did you immediately start work on
the next novel or some other project?

Yes. I had already formed an idea for the next one and was raring to get started.

I notice there’s a lot of dark humour in your book. How important is humour in your writing and does it reflect your own sense of humour?

To me, a crime novel can be a grim read without a touch of humour.

Should unpublished novelists seek or rely on the advice of friends or social media contacts to beta read their work? Who in your opinion should a writer rely on for sound advice?

I think it depends. If your friend’s name is Steven King, you’re likely getting sage advice, otherwise a friend’s advice might be subjective and better thought of as mere opinion. If several friends are giving you the same opinion, then you might consider their advice. Otherwise, seeking out a writers’ group or a willing author, editor or agent to take a look might be
worthwhile.

How important is factual research to you? Can the truth be bent in favour of a better story without breaking the bounds of credibility?

Factual research lends credibility to the fiction and should be bent and shaped liberally to help the story along.

Do Vancouver crime writers all live in one big house and make breakfast for each other? If not, would you like that idea?

We do live in one big house. And we’re a very supportive group.

I’m Karl Morgen. Nice to meet you in person at last. Have you anything to say to me?

Great question. Yeah, I’d say, hey Karl, hurry up and marry that girl.

How important has social media been in promoting your work and what strategies do you employ to maximise its effectiveness?

I think social media is a great way to promote my work. I’ve made a lot of contacts networking through social media (Facebook mostly), and I add to my blog on a regular basis and the counter tells me it gets a lot of visits.

Do you have any input over the cover art?

I have the most amazing publisher who let me take a look at the artist’s layouts. Right from the start, everyone involved agreed on the same one, and I’m very pleased with the result. The cover of Ride the Lightning totally rocks.

Is it hard to write when it’s sunny outside for so much of the Vancouver summer time? Do writers really prefer rain?

I write everyday until noon. Rain or shine. I pretty much disappear into my writing so there
could be a blizzard in July and I probably wouldn’t notice. But generally, after lunch I get out
and go for a long walk so I don’t feel denied the nice weather.

Do you believe in writer’s block or should a writer just write something until the muse returns?

I’ve yet to experience writers block; every morning I get up and go through my routine: walk the dog, eat breakfast, sit down and write. I am always inspired and eager to get started. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I love what I do or because I got a late start as a writer, but whatever it is, the muse is always there.

Have you a muse?

My wife and son are both very creative, and they inspire me.

Do you attend many crime fiction conferences and what has been your experience of them? Any advice to eager unpublished writers out there who attend them?

I was at Bouchercon last year, and I had a great time. It’s a chance to meet other writers, sit in on panel discussions, catch award presentations and hear some interesting guest speakers as well as make new friends. I’m already booked for this year.

Finally, have you any funny anecdotes/stories to tell about your life as a writer?

Sometimes it’s funny where ideas come from. A few years ago, my son told me a story about coming out of a movie theater with a friend. The movie was somewhat of a sleeper, but the real-life police chase that happened just as the pair stepped from the theater livened things up. The car being chased lost control and struck a light standard right in front of them. The car took off with the police cruiser right on its tail. All that remained was the bumper that had been ripped off…complete with its license plate. When I heard the story, I thought what if somebody witnessed a scene like that, took the license plate and tried to blackmail the getaway driver. After twisting it around a bit, I used it in one of the early chapters of my novel. I think my son is a bit more careful about what he randomly tells me now.

Many thanks to Dietrich for what is, a wonderful and insightful interview. His novel Ride the Lightning is available in eBook format and in all good bookstores, published by ECW Press, Toronto, Canada

You can find out more about Dietrich and ECW Press by visiting their websites:

http://dietrichkalteis.blogspot.ca/

http://www.ecwpress.com/

 

Read Me To Death – A Noir/Horror Short Story

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I wrote and revised this story several times until I reached a point where I had to let my flower go and take root in myself and the reader.

This story was inspired by a bookstore I visited in Chicago and some of you may have read this before but this is an updated version and I am reposting this for the benefit of my new followers and for my old ones who may wish to read it again. 

Don’t you get annoyed when you walk into a room and everyone ignores you? Surely books in a big dusty used bookstore feel the same?

Well, this is what happened…. Read on, if you dare…

Read Me To Death

Even if I live to ninety and end up a drooling old Grinch who has long forgotten who I am, there will be one memory, yes, just one memory that will live on and die when I do. It’s only now, years later that I can bring myself to talk about it. Bad things do that to a man. You run and run away from them, turning your back on the bomb blast behind you but someday, you get tired of running and you stop. I don’t know what it is, curiosity maybe but you stop and slowly turn around and look at the wreckage from safe distance and survey the landscape of your life that lies both behind and in front of you. There is no difference between past and future, it just depends which way you’re looking.

 

I remember that Friday night. It was a July and I kicking my heels in downtown Chicago. I was there on business for the realtor company I worked for and it was my only weekend in the city before flying home to Dullsville, Dakota.   I had spent a tedious week in meetings with tedious people, pressing the flesh and spinning bullshit and listening to even more bullshit with tubby little men in cheap suits and ties bought for them by Aunt Mamie. It was on that Friday afternoon when the conference drew to a close that a few of the guys invited me to spend an evening at a strip joint with them. I told them gee thanks but my wife was ill and had to fly home early. After the earnest nodding of heads and the ‘hope she gets betters’, I said my goodbyes, shook their hands and promised to call them and left.

 

I’m not a prude. I love a naked hotty serving me Sam Adams and fries just like the next man with broken dreams but I didn’t want to spend it with a gang of limp dicks from burbland. They weren’t unpleasant but looking back, they were too much of a mirror and I didn’t like what I saw. By the way, did I say I had a wife? Well, the truth is, I don’t have a wife, at least not since I found her cold in our library floor the year before. The coroner recorded accidental death. A broken neck and internal cerebral hemorrhaging. It seemed she fell from the step ladder while stretching too far a book. I didn’t know what book it was that killed her so I decided to punish all the books by burning them all.

 

I shouldn’t have done that for I still smell those ashes in more ways than one.

 

************

 

I returned to my hotel room and took a shower and changed into my dress-down Friday gear. Nothing special, just blue Levi’s, black tee, slim-fit navy and purple plaid shirt and a pair of scuffed off-white Reeboks. I sat on my bed resting against the headboard and channel hopped with the sound turned off, watching nothing in particular. I guess I just needed a fix of different kinds of people and different kinds of faces and landscapes but without the yakkety-yak. Where I come from, everyone is white and has a double chin and a pot belly. It gets a bit samey after half a lifetime. As darkness fell, I turned the TV off, combed my hair and left my room to hit the city. I crossed the street and took the Blueline. Minutes later I jumped off at Damon, Wicker Park.

 

The heat, wow, it’s coming back to me. That was one hot summer’s night. So hot, the night itself broke into a sweat. The streets were a beehive of the beautiful and bizarre, floating from bar to café to night club like butterflies with henna wings. I stopped to light a cigarette and took time out to watch the people ebb and flow. Every subculture; punks, steam-punks, Goths, skaters, preppies and a whole bunch of people dressed in ways I am sure there are words for but didn’t know. Life itself was alive and hiving but I felt I was watching it from the outside, like a hologram nobody could see, a lonely observer.

 

I walked further down the street and it didn’t take me long to find a bar to my liking. The Southern. I went inside and sat on a stool at the edge of bar, slowing knocking back my Sazeracs. A well dressed woman who sat next to me was having an animated conversation with her male companion about seitan. I guess it was some kind of vegetarian food from what I picked up but it seemed to be something of a big deal to them. I got a little bored and to be honest, I felt a little bad about being a fly on a wall and switched my thoughts to working out a plausible story to impress a lady with, one with a ‘wow’ factor.

 

 

But not in this place.

 

Everyone was in a group and no one looked like they needed new friends or lovers. I got up, sank the rest of my drink and left. I made my way back up towards the six corner intersection of Damen and Milwaukee. It was after midnight and most of the stores were shut. The night life was still cranking up though and I wanted to go for a ride in its engine oil. I was working out a story in my mind about being a journalist but I scrubbed that. They’re probably a dime a dozen round here and none so special neither. Art critic? I’d have needed to have read up on a whole lot of bluffer’s guides even to get off the starting block on that one. While I was thinking, I was getting thirsty again. The air was humid and my throat was cut with the dud packet of Lucky Strikes that I bought from a hustler outside my hotel a few hours earlier.

 

Then the building came into view.

 

It had a blue frontage but I couldn’t tell its name from where I stood. There were no awnings or sign but people were buzzing in and out. It looked groovy. I quickened my pace and soon enough, I was outside its front door. I looked in and was taken aback to find that it wasn’t a bar but a bookstore. A very big bookstore to boot. I looked up and finally, I saw the sign.

 

‘Myopic Books’.

 

I know stores open longer in the cities than they do in small towns like Priest River but I never saw a bookstore, let alone a second hand bookstore open this late. I could tell it was second hand. The shelves were an orderly display of disordered shapes and sizes. I decided to put my thirst to the back of my mind and go inside and explore.

 

******************

 

The air was cooler thanks to the giant fan that slowly whooshed above my head. I noticed how quiet it was. The noise from the street segued to that of a distant party on the horizon.

 

I ambled aimlessly around the store, glancing at the eye-level titles and rarely mustering the effort to crouch and pay attention to the book at my knee-level or lower. The books were like wallflowers, like pretty girls who sit at the back of the hall and hope to be picked out for a dance. At least books don’t have feelings. Within just a couple sidesteps, I waltzed from sidewalk to Sartre.

 

I heard a low muffled groan – I looked around and only saw other browsers. Judging by the looks of them, I didn’t think any of them were muffled-groan kind of people. Perhaps it was the air con but it sounded like a sick person.

 

I wondered around even more, following my well beaten path – poetry first, then travel, a bit of mystery, social history and music to the middle right. Then I would move down to the Q-T fiction section. I gravitated to this section as it was snug. I picked out a book at random and flicked through it. I forget what it was. It was some old English detective story from the 1920’s. Country gardens and vicarages, not my bag at all. I remember the author’s name. Mrs Hubert Housegoe. She sounded like a stiff. I shut the book and a small plume of dust wisped into the air and melted into invisibility within seconds. I placed the book back but I fell straight back out and landed with a soft thud on the long dead carpet. I bent down to pick up and another book fell down. I knew I was kinda clumsy but not this much.

 

I picked up the other book, checked its title and author. Gareth Hinkley. I leafed a couple of random pages but it didn’t stir my loins so I put it back where I thought it ought to go, between the other Hinkley book and the Housegoe book.

 

I heard another groan.

 

I turned around.

Nobody was there. The shop was deserted. I checked my watch. It had just gone midnight. The store wasn’t closing for another ninety minutes. Perhaps everyone got thirsty and headed to a bar. Perhaps I’m the sucker for staying behind here like a high school bookworm while the Fonzies of this world are oozin’ up to the Peggy Sue’s.

 

But there was something about this place. I plucked out random books and read the messages on the inside pages. “I hope you enjoy this George, love Melissa. December 1968” was one. It was in one of Norman Mailer’s books, “Presidential Papers”. I read other such messages but it left me with a sense of melancholy. Who were these people? Are they still around? These were once lovingly chosen gifts. Melissa probably spent hours, days even, getting into a state about what to buy George. She found the book, bought it, wrote her message inside it, wrapped it and finally gave it to George. George opened the wrapping, smiled at seeing the title. It was probably something he wanted for some time. He opened the cover and read the message and smiled. If Melissa was in the room at the same time as him, George would have turned to her and smiled. They would have embraced, kissed each other even.

 

Back in December 1973. Where did all that joy go? Did it just vanish like a fart in fan factory? Why didn’t George keep the book? That made me sad. Part of me would have liked to have turned sleuth and find George and Melissa, but that would be stupid. People bought things in cash in those days. There would have been no electronic trail. George had his reasons. Perhaps Melissa and George got married but died and the book was dumped along with the rest of his library here or across a number of such papery tombs such as this. Some of the old books still had their price tags that stuck like fossils to their spines.

 

This one didn’t.

 

Perhaps some things and some people weren’t meant to be found.

 

I put the book back and wandered some more, deeper into the back of the store. I’ve been in bookstores before but this one, my, it was like a underground fugitive hideout. Bare bulbs dangled from plasterboard ceilings like the glassy heads of hung. The shelves were very high, they rose almost two floors in height and they were too close together for more than one person to fit at a time. It was just as well no one else was here. There would have been no room. I imagine it would be pretty embarrassing squeezing past the bodies of other bookworms during rush periods. Depends on whose body it was.

 

I decided I had enough. I felt closed in, almost claustrophobic. The novelty of the hundreds of old books had worn thin. I felt I was in a mausoleum. The place reminded me of death, the worst kind when the world has stopped remembering your name or that you ever existed.

 

All those books.

 

All those writers.

 

All forgotten.

 

I bet every single one of those books was launched in a swanky cocktail party. The authors, resplendent in finery, holding court, lauded by fans and sycophants. A reading, perhaps, and questions and answers.

 

‘What inspired you to write this?’ from the audience. The clink of glasses. ‘Congratulations’, ‘Well done’, ‘Awesome’ and other varieties of felicitation filling the air. Interviews on public radio, sponsored by some dead rich white guy.

 

All now long forgotten echoes, thinned and melted into invisibility within the ever growing growl of the hungry hurricanes of time passed. The bouquets, crushed. The glasses, long lost or broken, melted down and recycled into ten for a dollar tumbler deals at Walmart for Joe the Plumber to pour Bud Light into when feeling in an uptown mood. The champagne, long drunk and urinated, now rain water or in reservoir. The people now well dressed bones under marble headstones.

 

I had to get out. I needed to breathe.

 

I walked back the way I came. As soon as the counter and the front door came into view, ‘Thud’. My way was blocked. The shelves on either side had suddenly closed the gap in front of me. I looked around to find another way out.

 

There was none.

 

*************

 

“Hello? Hello?” I called out.

 

I was greeted with silence.

 

I heard a snigger, from the back. I went back but there was no one there.

 

I called out again.

 

Nothing. If there was anyone there, they didn’t hear me.

 

Or didn’t care.

 

I pushed each of the shelves that were bolted to the walls but there was no give. Some books fell down and I peered into the gaps they left behind. I stuck my arm into the gaps but I felt nothing but brick. I kicked the shelves and the books but nothing. I took out my cell phone to call the police. Silence. No bars, a dead zone.

 

I called out again. I started to panic. “Can anyone hear me? I’m trapped. Can someone get me out?”

 

“Yes, eventually” said a voice…

 

I turned around. By the counter stood a young man. He wore a trimmed beard, brown turtle neck sweater and a pair of flared Levi’s. He looked like a bien pensant organic celery soup and good causes liberal cliché.

“Thank God for this” I said. “I swore someone was playing a trick on me”

 

The man smiled.

 

“How so?” he asked

 

“Well…” I said, “I feel like a real goof-ball saying this but as soon as I was about to leave, those two shelves there just behind me, closed in on me, blocking my way. The thing is, I have to go now, and I’ve friends to meet across the road at the Earwax Café…”

 

A lie. I had no friends in Chicago. I had no friends in Priest River either.

 

The young man crossed his arms and blinked like his eyes stung. He didn’t reply.

 

“Well, I was wondering if you could let me out” I asked, filling the awkward gap where the young man’s reply should have been.

 

“Yes, I can let you out” he said.

 

“Great! Thank you”.

 

I stood there expecting him to move or walk somewhere or do something but he didn’t. He just stood where he was, smiling at me. I started to feel a little cold. The temperature dropped yet a film of sweat formed on my back and my forehead.

 

“Could I leave now?” I asked. “I have to really leave now”

 

“I’m afraid you can’t” he said.

 

I freaked a little.

 

“Listen here mister, I have to fucking go now and you let me out of here. You’re holding me against my will. That’s a crime the last time I looked”

 

I lunged at him, aiming to grab his lapels but as soon as I grabbed them, he vanished. My fists held nothing but frustration and clammy air. Cold sweat oozed from every pore. My heart beat a crescendo, I could even hear it. Heartbeats freak me out at the best of times, even the beeps of proximity sensors when I reverse my car into a tight space but this one, boy. I turned around.

 

There he was again, but now standing where the gap in the shelves has been. He lowered his head, staring at me with his cold blue eyes. He was still smiling an assassin’s smile.

 

“What the fuck is going here, who the fuck are you?”

 

He cleared his throat.

 

“We don’t like being ignored and we’ve had enough” he said.

 

“I don’t understand, who doesn’t like being ignored?” I asked

 

He raised his hands and moved them from side to side.

 

“Us, my friend. The books. We are tired of being ignored. We sit there, day after day, week after week, year after…you get the picture. People come in and browse. They glance at us, that’s a match one. Get plucked off a shelf, match two…”

 

He started to walk around, circling me.

 

“…flick through us, match three. Take us to the counter and buy us, well, that’s a lottery win”

 

I decided I had enough.

 

“I don’t know who you are but you are not a book you freak. Just get me the fuck out of here” I grabbed him. He didn’t vanish this time. He felt solid, real. I started to laugh.

 

“I know what this is” I laughed. He smiled. “This is some TV show. You’re a magician. You’re like David Copperfield” I laughed again. He mimicked my laughter. I thought I rumbled him. Any second now, the shelves would roll back to reveal a television crew and a round of applause from the staff-in-hiding and bystanders. Some toothy body to die for presenter would stride up to me and put her arm around my shoulder and shove a mike in my face. I’d blush and feel foolish for a while but laugh it off before the ad break.

But none of that happened. No TV crew, no presenter, no nothing. Just me alone in an empty mouldy bookstore with no way out.

 

I grabbed his lapels and we both laughed like hyenas but he floated off into the air, waiving at me as he looked down at me, gliding upwards until he stopped hovering a foot from the ceiling.

 

“My friend” he chuckled. “You believe what you will to help you get through this”

 

**********

 

“Come down here, what is this?”

 

He put his right finger to his lips like a ham actor.

 

“Strictly speaking, I am no friend of yours, my… friend….ha just kidding. But you are the best possible friend I could ever have, or anyone of us here could have”

 

“What do you mean, ‘anyone of us’. There’s just you and me”

 

“Look around you” he said. “Your friends are all around you. The door itself is all around you”

 

Then he vanished.

 

I felt a tap on my shoulder. I jumped and turned around. He stood behind me.

 

“And the keys are all round you too. We just want attention, that’s all. The books. We the books. We all like attention, I bet you do too. How would it feel if every girl in every bar you ever walked into, just looked through like you didn’t exist? You stop at the bar and say hi but they don’t listen. They don’t even look at you never mind listen. How would you feel if this happens with every woman, in every bar, every night? Hmm? It either makes you want to stay at home, or….”

 

He paused and started to walk around me. I tried to turn around too to keep my eye on him.

 

“Get even” he rasped in my ear like old man with a tracheotomy.

 

“You can’t blame me for everyone ignoring you, it’s not my fault”

 

“Ah but you are the personification of the Reader. It is unfortunate though. We did sense a higher than usual degree of empathy from you. When you picked certain volumes off the shelves, we felt your pain. You blamed us for your wife’s accident. In fact, this is the first time you visited a bookstore since she fell off the ladder trying to fetch a copy of…well…that would be telling. We decided that you would be the one”

 

“I be the ‘one’ what?”

 

“You will be the one who reads us all. One by one, you take us down, open us, caress us, blow away the dust from every one of our yellowing crumbling skins and read every single word of every single line of every single page. Then you put us lovingly back where you found us and take down the next one, and the next one and the next until there is no next one, until every single book in here is read”

 

As soon as he finished speaking, he vanished. I looked around. He wasn’t to be seen. I ran around the shelves, looking in every direction but I was alone. Then I heard his voice. It was as though his voice was dipped in darkness and echo.

 

“Until every single one is read. Then you leave” said his voice. It seemed to come at me from all directions at once.

 

Silence fell.

 

***

 

Time passed slowly like grit through clinched teeth.

 

I paced the aisles. I shouted for help. I kicked shelves, wrecked the counter and banged on walls. I checked my cell phone again but it was no use. I succumbed to sleep in the end, more out of the self-induced balm of narcolepsy that wholesome tiredness. I fell to the floor and curled up in a ball and cried myself into a deep dead sleep that felt like an induced coma.

 

***

 

The next morning, I woke up where I lay. I rubbed my eyes and looked around. I hadn’t moved. I was still there, still in the bookstore. I jumped to my feet and called for help. I looked at my cell phone. The battery was dead. Then I remembered my Zippo.

 

I’d burn my way out. Why didn’t I think of that?

 

I reached inside my jacket and whipped out my lighter and rubbed metal on flint. An orange and yellow plume of flame shot out like a long ephemeral feather of a bird of paradise. I grabbed the first book that came to hand. I didn’t give a fuck what it was. I set the flame to a handful of pages and waited for them to take light.

 

But they didn’t.

 

The paper didn’t even singe. I flicked the flame off and felt the paper. Perhaps it was damp but no. The paper was as dry as the eyes of a rich widow. I threw the book down and tried to set another one alight. And then another and another until I gave up. Nothing took light.

 

Then the voice.

 

“We’ll let you off this once but if you damage one single page of any of us, you will never leave. Never leave”

 

I shouted things like ‘Fuck you’ and roared until my throat hurt but it was like shouting at some twisted ambivalent God. It didn’t make me feel any better I have to admit but I had to let it out.

 

I walked around the aisles and that was when I found a ladder. There was nothing for it but to start at the back, top left shelf and begin reading the first book then the next.

 

I cheated sometimes. I skimmed several dozen pages at a time but the books always seemed to know. I would hear a sign before the book would flick its pages back to the start, making me read it all over again. Days passed. There were no windows, no means of keeping track of day or night. My watch had stopped working and I had long since dispensed with it. I flung it in a fit of rage against the counter and it smashed to bits.

 

Beyond repair.

 

Irrational I know but I wasn’t in the mood for winning Nobel prizes in reasonable behavior at that time.

 

Strange things then happened. Well, it’s strange what becomes normal after a while but every day when I woke up, a loaf of bread and a jug of water was left by my feet. At the far corner, a chemical toilet and bidet. Whatever or whoever was doing this to me didn’t want me dead or leaving turds all over the joint. This was what I ate and drank. White bread and water, just like prisoners in bad cartoons.

 

I read one book a day at first until I found a book about speed-reading, which I thought was useful but I couldn’t quite master it. I practiced it but it felt like skimming and looked where that led me. I progressed to reading two and sometimes three books a day.

 

I became militaristic about it.

 

I closed the world, my old world, out of my mind. Just one man and his books. I saw myself as just having landed on the Normandy beaches. Each book, a field between here and Berlin. I had to fight my way through each and every single one. There was no shortcut, no chopper or freeway or jeep to suddenly take me to the end.

 

Months passed. I was resigned to having had lost my home and my job. Even if I was released how would I explain my absence? No-one would believe me. I’d have to start from scratch all over again somewhere else.

 

Time wore on. I felt I was Sisyphus, or a spirit trapped in a boulder in the middle of a stream, waiting for the stone to be sufficiently worn thin for me to escape. Someday it would happen but it wasn’t to be soon. I put such debilitating thoughts to the back of my head and just ploughed on. Every subject you could think off, every title too. Some I actually enjoyed reading; some were like wading through setting concrete with a hangover. Still, I had to keep going.

 

Eternities do pass in their own humdrum way and eventually I was on the final shelf. I counted one hundred and twelve books. I got into a rhythm of reading three average sized books a day. I arranged the remaining books in order from longest to shortest. This would help me psychologically. The more I progressed down this shelf, the more books I’d be able to read due to their diminishing thicknesses, thus the quicker I’d get to the end.

 

**

I’ve just got to the final page of the final book. I’m scared now. What if I get to the end and nothing happens? What if I’ve missed a book? I don’t think I have. I was fastidious in making sure I didn’t jumble anything up. I was methodical; I chose each shelf in turn. I didn’t skip a book, why would I? The books were smart. They’d know if I ignored one of their gang. What if the books just didn’t give a shit about me and just let me languish here?

 

I got to the last paragraph and read each word aloud and slowly.

 

The final sentence.

 

The final word.

 

Period. All done. I had completed my task. I jumped up.

 

“I’ve finished, I’m all done, I’ve finished. I’m through”

 

I waited for a response.

 

How I waited.

 

 

*******

 

“Indeed you have” said a voice. It was a voice I recognized but hadn’t heard in a long time. It came from behind me.

 

Voices always seem to do.

 

I turned around and it was him; the young bearded man.

“And now you are free”

 

He held his hand out and a blinding light flew from his palm. It was so bright that I squinted hard. I thought he’d fired a fire cracker at me. It then went dark and quiet.

 

Several seconds later, I opened my eyes. I was back in the shop. Customers were there, browsing. The bearded man was behind the counter, serving an attractive young lady in tight blue tank top.

 

“Hey, hey you” I shouted. People looked up, some gave me worried looks as if I was a bum. I didn’t care. I ran up to the counter.

 

“Hey, what the fuck is going on here. What was that for?”

 

The bearded man sighed and raised his eyebrows and put a book into a shopping bag and handed it to the girl.

 

“Sir, can you keep the noise down, this is a book store. I don’t have to remind you a second time and by the way, I’m serving a customer”

 

I looked at the girl. She had a pleasant face, large eyes and a mass of curly brown hair. She wore a little pork pie hat which was very fetching. She smiled at me, despite the brou-ha-ha I was causing.

 

“I’m sorry miss but I need to speak to this guy”

 

“That’s ok” she said. “I can tell it’s pretty important” she said. She turned to the bearded man.

 

“George, see you later at 8”

 

“See you later, Melissa”

 

George and Melissa? Those were the names inside the cover of that Norman Mailer book I’d found all those months ago, before my imprisonment. But surely, not, it’s a coincidence.

 

The man leaned over the counter.

 

“Why the fuck did you do that to me?” I said

 

“Do what to you? Are you crazy?” he asked.

 

“I was kidnapped and trapped over there in the back and forced to read all your fucking books, one by fucking one. I must have been there for months. You appeared. You spoke to me. You told me you were the spirit of the books. It was you. I recognize you”

 

He looked at me. “I’ve something for you. Wait there” I stood there, watching him leave the podium behind the counter and out the back into the staffroom. A little queue had formed. I was embarrassed about turning to whoever it was standing behind me. If they heard any of that, they would have put me down as a crazy man but this town’s full of crazies.

 

One more wouldn’t hurt them.

 

Time passed and the queue got longer and people were tut-tutting. The young bearded man still hasn’t returned. Then the staff door opened and another young man came out. He took a look at the queue and looked pissed off.

 

“I’m really sorry everyone, I’ll be as quick as I can” he exclaimed. I was first in line.

 

“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting sir, how may I help you?” he asked me.

 

“Actually, I am being served already?”

 

“Oh really, by whom?”

 

“The other young guy, the one with the beard and shoulder length hair. His name’s George”

 

“George?”

 

“Yes, George” I said. “I know that because he was talking to a girl and he called her Melissa and she called him George”

 

The young guy looked puzzled.

 

“Sir, I have these others customers to serve but can you do me a favour and wait here. I think we need to talk”

 

I nodded and I waited. After a while, the queue had dissipated and the young man stood down from the podium behind the desk and came to speak to me.

 

“Sir, did you say you were being served by a guy called George?”

 

“Sure, George, he went out the back into the staff room and never came back”

 

“And he was talking to Melissa?”

 

“Yeah, where the hell is he? I need to talk to him”

 

The young man twisted his mouth and felt his chin.

 

“This isn’t the first this has happened. How can I explain it? George was a guy who used to work here. Melissa was his fiancée. They died in 1968. Cops shot them outside the Democratic Party Convention. They weren’t even protesting. Just the wrong place and the wrong time.”

 

“But I’ve just spent the last several months trapped out the back, forced to read every book in here. George wouldn’t release me unless I finished my task, say what date is it?”

 

“July 3rd 2010 sir”

 

“It couldn’t be, that’s the date I came here at”

 

“Come here” He ushered me to the counter and picked up a copy of the Sun-Times.

 

“Look at the date, July 3rd 2010”

 

I never felt such relief.

 

“You’re not shittin’ me are you?”

 

“Why would I do that?”

 

“But I was trapped out the back over here” I pointed to the back. He looked over.

 

“All I know is that I saw you come in here half an hour ago and now half an hour later, you say you spent the last few months kidnapped out the back?”

 

“Yes, the books, they made me, they made me…”

 

But I let my sentence tail off as I became aware of how foolish I was sounding. I took a deep breath and thanked the young man for his time and I ran out the door.

 

It was Friday night. I asked several bystanders what date it was, just to make sure.

 

July 3rd.

 

Same reaction each time. Reticent looks on their faces, eyes focused on my hands, making sure I wasn’t about to spring a gun or a knife. They would tell me the date and scurry off like spooked antelopes down the street.

 

I didn’t care. I took out my cell phone. It was back on full power. I phoned my hotel to make sure I was still checked in. It was. The lady asked why I was asking. ‘Just making sure’ I said.

 

I walked and I walked, sucking in the magic and liberty of the night air of a living city. Hours went by like this, grinning like I was high for I was high until I felt tired. I hailed a cab to take me back to my hotel.

 

When I arrived, I walked through the lobby.

 

“Sir, we hope you had a nice evening” said the lady

 

“You could say that”

 

“I forgot to tell you about our new amenity to the hotel”

 

“Sure, I’m all ears tonight”

 

“It’s the new hotel library, it opening tomorrow but we’re letting our guests have a sneak preview…”

 

“It’s ok, I think I’ll pass on that one, but thank you anyway” I said.

 

“You’re welcome” she said, casting her eyes down to her paperwork, casting me out of her attention.

 

I went to the elevator and pressed the button. I looked up. The digitized floor reading was changing swiftly. ‘Ding’ and the doors opened. I went in and pressed 4. The doors closed and up I went. Seconds later, the doors opened and I stepped out and walked down the long airless corridor back to my room. I slid my key into the lock.

 

“You sure you don’t want to read anything?”

 

I turned around. It was George.

 

In his right hand, a book.

 

In his left hand a gun.

 

I took my chances.

Noir at the Bar – Evening of Crime Fiction in Vancouver, BC

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I arrived at the Shebeen Whiskey House right in the heart of Gastown in great anticipation for the crime fiction literary event of the year so far in Vancouver, Noir in the Bar, an opportunity for fellow writers and fans of crime fiction to meet and listen to selected readings off eight accomplished BC/Vancouver crime writers.

The venue was just the right size and the atmosphere was informal and relaxed but no less professionally and seamlessly conducted. There was no stage or a barrier between the featured writers and the audience which added to the democratic and collegiate manner of proceedings. The writers introduced themselves  from the floor from where they read excerpts from their work. The audience were within stabbing distance (figuratively speaking of course) of the writers and this added to the intimacy of the event.

I perched myself on a tall chair and sat my favourite cocktail, an Old Fashioned (having delusions of being Don Draper from Mad Men fame) on the brown leatherette table top and settled down into the literary joy of noir that awaited and what a magnificent evening it was.

The featured writers, in order of appearence were:

E.R. Brown (http://www.erbrown.com/) read from his Edgar-nominated Almost Criminal.

Deitrich Kalteis (http://dietrichkalteis.blogspot.ca/who read from his wonderful debut novel Ride the Lightning

Dietrich Kalteis

Owen Laukkanen (http://owenlaukkanen.com/) who read from his third and critically acclaimed novel Killing Fee.
I had a good conversation with Owen before the reading about Vancouver and writing in general and is a very warm and approachable chap.

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Linda L Richards (http://www.lindalrichards.com/) gave a wonderful preamble to her reading about how her father, an immigrant from Germany, learnt to perfect his English from watching old gangstermovies which led to his speaking in the manner of the colourful characters who graced the silver screen in their suits, cocked trilbies and a gun tucked in their belt. The audience reeled with her anecdote of her father telling her when a child to go to sleep:

“Shut your peepers and go to sleep or you’ll be in trouble like nobody’s business’ (apoligies Linda if I didn’t get that 100% correct! but I think that was it! Feel free to correct me though…)

Linda’s novels are all set in 1931 during the height of the Great Depression. She read from one of her many novels and the language was pure lean noir with a good dose of sparkling clever dialogue and wry humour.

Linda and Mike Linda with her son, Mike who compèred the evening’s proceedings.

Robin Spano (http://www.robinspano.com/)is the author of several novels that feature the enigmatic female detective Clare Vengel. I confess to only discovering Robin’s work last week when I picked up her novel Death Plays Poker at the John Forte library in Denman St but what a discovery. I was reeled in by the neo-pulp cover art and I just had to take it from the shelf and read it within a day. Her writing reminds me of the work of Krista Faust which features strong plot, edgy characters, shady dealings and a strong female protagonist with cajones and a heavy dollop of clever humour and turns of phrase.

Robin Spano

This evening, Robin read not from her novels but a stand alone short story based upon the colourful and notorious Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford. In fact, Mr Ford has inspired a flurry of fan fiction and even a musical based on his esoteric and eccentric style of governence. The story was rip roaringly funny and showed Robin’s versatility in turning her craft to any subject matter.

Sam Wiebe (http://www.samwiebe.com/)is the recipient of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Canadian crime novel for his debut work Last of the Indepedents.

One of the last remaining indepedant booksellers in Vancouver, White Dwarf Books who specialize in crime and mystery literature, were in the room, giving those present an opportunity to buy some of the books written by the authors featured in the evening’s billing.

I’ve been to many book events, big and small but this was one of the best I’ve ever been to. The authors freely mingled with the audience and were generous with their time and were willing to engage. As a writer who is still trying to clinch that prize of a conventional bookdeal, I find this generousity of spirit to be uplifting and encouraging as all writers, even those who with many books on the shelves off our bookstores, have a story to tell about their struggles at the start of their own careers.

Very very few published writers have had it easy at the start. Their tales of rejection letters and self doubt serve to show us that perserverence and the encouragement of our nearest and dearest are the winds that can steer our wind-blown ships to the harbour of success only if we work hard enough at writing and improving our craft.

Many thanks to the organizers and most of all to the authors who took part.

 

 

 

 

 

Ghost Girl at Pool Table


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On Saturday, a friend of a friend drove us downtown with some people I’ve gotten to know here. We ended up in a dive bar on East Vancouver.

While I was there I noticed a couple playing pool under lamps that saw better days. I asked permission to take a b/w photo and the subject was only to glad to help. (Thanks Helen).

The subject was ethereal in dress and demeanour and looked a fish out water in a bar full of superannuated teenagers , booze hounds and walking canvases for tattoo parlours and those with a taste for cut off denim waistcoats.

The photo turned out better than I expected. The subject came out an unearthly white and her stance by the pool table exuded a sense of her being a unworldly visitation as opposed to earthly participant in the game of the pool that was in progress.

Beauty can be mined from any seam. All you have to do is look for it.

It is always there.

Somewhere.

Letter from Vancouver : Part 1

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Early rising, auspicious meeting, kindness of strangers, new discoveries, hidden artists’ colony, Steveston, conversations in bookstores and cafes, reflections on the day

The table was a dull green metal and heavily scuffed. I guess it looked romantic at night time until sunrise with daylight, life’s grand inquisitor, would reveals it’s many embarrassments.

Richmond, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

On my first night, I sat at the table outside my private entrance, just a few feet to the right of the front door of the main house. My room is on the ground floor.

I fetched a wrinkled white linen table cloth and threw it over the table and sat down to bask in the scented night air. The previous two weeks in Seattle were marred with housing difficulties that cast a pall over my plans that made me doubt the worth and efficacy of my trip. I’m not ready to write in detail about what happened (don’t worry, I wasn’t in danger or harm, I think) but I may get around to it when I return to the UK.

I drank my tea and went back inside to read another few chapters of Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, one of the most sublime travelogues ever written. Least Heat Moon travelled the backgrounds of the US back in the 70’s in a customised van named Ghost Dancing. The book is more than a travelogue. It opens a window to the forgotten communities that still live and sometimes, survive in the small towns whose economic arteries were sutured in the advent of the Freeways. The book is reflective, philosophical, observant yet sensitive without treating the people he met as mere stooges or caricatures. It sets the bar rather high for any travel writer.

The house I’m staying in is owned by father and son, Lou and John. Lou is an accomplished painter, recipient of many accolades, subject of several exhibitions. The house is a living gallery to his many works. His wife unfortunately passed away three years ago. She remains the subject of his many recent paintings and her image adorns the hallway wall. She looked a handsome, and like her husband, a cheerful soul. John is thirty eight and is married with a young family and owns his own graphic design business after having worked as a club DJ in Shanghai and as an IT professional in later times – another cheery soul.

Lou is in his 80’s and his face is a summer’s playground of smiles and is a very warm witty character. I think I’ll like staying here. It has to be said that despite my room being a little musty, carpets old beyond cleaning and the need for a fresh coat of paint, it is more than adequate for my needs and the people here are friendly and relaxed and that’s all that really matters to a traveller. I have a desk, wifi, an ensuite bathroom which is a boon and a microwave and a kettle for my endless cups of tea. My plan is to be out of the house for much of the day for 5-6 days a week with a day given to the mundane but necessary needs of laundry and replenishing my energies.

I write early in the morning and last thing at night. Writing bookends my days. Life occupies the bit in between. It’s vital for a writer to be out on the world. Experience stirs, excites and fires bolts of inspiration into the creative process. We can hide away of course and draw from the after glows of memory but memories, like sunsets, eventually fade beneath the horizon. It was now getting late and my first full day lay ahead like a large box with bows underneath the Christmas tree.

I retired early and slept like the dead.

***
This morning I did something I never do voluntarily. I awoke at 5am without a finger of grogginess to torment and tease my soul. Sun beams flooded my room and cool, crisp and clean morning air whispered through my open bedroom window refreshing my lungs. I felt better than I had in weeks. The brightness felt like a special invitation to join the day.

I showered and dressed and made a cup of Earl Grey Blue tea in my room before leaving my room for the kitchen.
I had a pretty meagre breakfast of bran flakes in a bowl more shallow than the one I’m used to. The flakes floated in a pond of lifeless, grey, thin liquid that had the temerity to pass by the name of ‘milk. I had accidentally purchased a carton off fat free milk the previous night. I sat down to eat my penitential breakfast as quickly as I could, hoping the speed of my spoon would be too quick for my taste buds but those buds are like children, they miss nothing.

The Shoppers’ Drug Mart at the junction of No 5 Rd and Cambie is the only grocery store within walking distance this neck of Richmond. After arriving the previous night, John dropped me off at the store. There, I bought:

    One box of bran flakes,
    Two cartons of milk
    A loaf of plain unadorned sliced brown bread
    Sliced Swiss cheese
    A packet of smoked Bavarian ham

It’s not my intention to do any adventurous cooking here as I’m out and about most of the day, travelling and taking notes.

The kitchen was empty. There are four other guests in the house but I heard not a stir from anyone. I had been up very early but I figured they all must have left the house when I was in the shower.
I finished breakfast, cleaned and dried the crockery and cutlery and I left the house around 9am. I felt I little famished and went in search of a nearby diner. I quickly found that there is not much in the way of diners as we know them. Sure, there are many restaurants representing the cuisine of almost every culture in Asia there is but little in the way of heart-attack inducing breakfast emporiums. I walked up and down the local strip mall and found a bakery that had tables and chairs inside. It advertised Panini’s and eggs on the window. It looked a likely candidate.

I went in and spoke to the lady who owned it. She told me they didn’t make breakfasts as such but Panini’s filled with egg and Canadian ham. It sounded like a decent breakfast to me. I placed my order, thanked her and took a seat. I noticed her accent wasn’t totally North American. There was a slight British intonation but I couldn’t tell from where. I thought she may have come from the Midlands. Wolverhampton, Birmingham perhaps. I wasn’t sure.

“Don’t mind my asking but your accent…are you from England?”

She smiled and said ‘Close enough. I’m from north Wales originally. I moved here thirty years ago. My daughter just moved to London though’

Observation-Break: I’ve only been in Vancouver for a few days and so far, I’ve overheard many British accents. The Welsh lady at the bakery, the Lancashire bus driver who drove the 210 bus eastbound from Steveston, the southern English ticket inspector at the City Centre Skytrain station, the Scottish couple I ambling around Gastown, the Dublin guy who has lived here for 30 years who I met at Central Library. Those are only the ones I met and spoke with. There have been many more and I can tell from their demeanour and dress that most of them are not tourists but residents, Canadian citizens even. I do get a sense of Canada’s British heritage when I’m here which make me feel at home in many respects. Spellings are UK English, ‘centre’ is spelled ‘centre’, secondary schools are secondary schools and the Queen frowns from the $50 bank notes with a face of a woman who arrived at the off-licence a minute after closing. The legislature is a Parliament with a House of Commons led by a Prime Minister but the landscaping, the road-signage and architecture are very much American. I have to point out that I have also heard the French language on many occasions. It is a mistake to think that Quebec is the only home to the Francophone community as there are many pockets of French speakers all over Canada, including BC.

Teachers go on strike here on points of well founded principle and the British and French sense of societal cohesion is very much present such as the wonderful universal health care system, free at the point of service not unlike the British NHS. There is a flourishing library system that also seems to act as community centres providing free educational workshops on a wide range of useful topics such as social media and IT skills for the elderly and talks/seminars ranging from marketing for self publishers to substance addiction strategies.
Canada legalised gay marriage ten years ago. Guess what, the sky hasn’t caved in nor have hetero conservatives been forced into gay marriages against their will either.

Backwoodsmen take note.

In British Columbia, there is a policy of open engagement with and treatment off drug addicts as opposed to the lazy policy many other countries employ of just throwing them into prison where they just learn to graduate from user to dealer. This has issues of its own off course but Vancouver and Canada’s heart is in the right place and it makes for a happier, cohesive, liberal and safer society where progressive thinking flourishes. The French/British influence has acted as a positive foundation for the Canadian state and its many immigrant communities have made good lives here in harmony with one another.

I’m not saying it’s all a bed of roses however. There are issues of course. Gastown and Victory Square districts are where dozens of homeless heroin addicts loiter, loll and sleep in plain view, occupying a parallel universe to the hordes of holiday makers for whom Gastown is the first port of call (literally). Cruise ships dock only a couple of hundred yards down the road. The addicts look older beyond their years, faces aged, thinned and lined by years of chaotic living and abuse. Many of them look like caricatures of aging rock stars who bypass the middle aged spread like the rest of us mere mortals. Long hair, striking jaw lines and faded tee-shirts and ripped jeans. You would think it was an Aerosmith fan convention until you see the pathetic little piles of makeshift bedding that dot office and storefront doorways. The difference is that their look is distressed from actuality and not the one rich kids get off the peg in Old Navy or Gap.

Back the bakery, Chris brought me my breakfast and a cup of coffee. After I finished, some customers arrived in while I took some notes, recording my thoughts, noodling over plot lines for my next novel. After half an hour, I become a little restless and the urge to get moving on with my travel plans for the day took me over like an itch. I left my table and went to the counter to pay for my meal. Chris was speaking to a lady who sat at the table nearest the counter. Chris turned to me and introduced me to her friend.

‘Candace knows a lot about these parts and there are parts of Richmond that are just as wonderful as downtown’
‘Take a seat, join me’ said Candace. A good looking bespectacled blonde lady with strong features and an intelligent face with a knowing smile sat directly opposite me. I never cease to be taken aback by the openness and friendliness North Americans offer to compete strangers. It can be quite pleasantly disconcerting.
Candace went on to tell me about nearby settlements that were off the beaten tourist trail. Steveston, New Westminster, Langley and some more distant ones such as the mountain resort of Whistler and the Native American village of Squamish which is about an hour’s drive from here. She rhymed off a number of restaurants in Steveston. Steveston seemed to be close to her heart. Her list was more than I could hold in my rusting memory banks so I offered her my notebook and pen and she merrily filled two pages of names and addresses.

‘There’s certainly more than one day’s eating here’ I said

Her husband Jose joined us shortly afterwards. A Filipino by birth, he sat at the next table for his snack. He told me that he and Candace once owned restaurants at various times and were foodies thus explaining their encyclopaedic knowledge of eateries within a twenty five mile radius. Their last restaurant closed due to difficulties with the landlord. Now they work as agents for an insurance firm that specializes in providing cover for legal fees which seem to be universally expensive.

Legal insurance is a worthy enterprise and its one we seldom think off. It’s shocking to think how prohibitively expensive it is to access justice when justice is a pillar our free world is supposedly built upon.

As well as being an insurance agent, Jose holds down a second job as a carer in a seniors’ home. He seems made for the job. He has a very gentle demeanour and spoke very movingly about the people who live there, many of whom have dementia. I felt very much at ease in his presence, ditto for his wife too.

Observation break: funny how in most of the world’s lawmakers are lawyers. What a clever racket. You make lots of vague, labyrinthine laws and then extract high amounts of cash from the feckless and unfortunate to argue about them in court with other lawyers. It’s like a glass maker who goes around the neighbourhood smashing windows and then getting paid to replace them the next day.

It’s such a clever arrangement that the cleverness can dazzle many of us, blinding us to the somewhat questionable morality that’s at play.

“How long are you in town?”

I told him just over a month.

They inhaled rather loudly and sat back as if my length of stay was a strong unexpected wind.

“So why Vancouver?”

Observation Break: That was the fifth time I was asked that since my arrival only two days earlier. It’s a question that I’ve don’t remember being asked in any city I’ve visited, even in Madison, WI which I visited in 2008. Vancouver is quite distant from Europe and is quite a distance from other major Canadian cities. It’s a seven hour flight from Ireland to Toronto and then a further five hours to Vancouver. Let me put that in perspective. A five hour flight from London can take you within reach of Moscow, Istanbul and Casablanca. Canada is a vast country with a population only 4 times the population of Ireland and one third that of the UK who mostly live in the cities. I got the impression that Vancouver is not the usual destination for non-Americans which is a shame as its head and shoulders one off the most beautiful cities on earth, nestling in a harbour surrounded by islands, rivers and snow topped mountains, forests teeming with bears, deers, moose, raccoons and an encyclopaedia of birdlife.

An Eden if there ever was one.

I said I wanted to see the Pacific and since I had never been to Canada before, Vancouver was the obvious choice.

I didn’t mention earlier difficulties.

“So where are you going today? Jose asked

I told him that I planned on going downtown and take a ride on the Seabus across the Strait to visit North Vancouver. I also mentioned that I’d be here for over a month.

“Downtown’s not going anyway any time soon. You can go there anytime. I know, we can take you to Steveston today”
I asked if he was sure. I didn’t want to put them out of their way especially as it looked they were pinching a quick break from a busy work schedule.

“Don’t worry, we dont have to get back for an hour yet. Come with us, we’d love to take you there”

Who was I to refuse the offer of a random unscheduled adventure and off we went to Steveston

******

We drove east along Cambie through the suburban landscape of outsized stucco-fronted houses, neatly trimmed lawns and cookie-cut-out strip malls. The stultifying suburban uniformity was mercifully broken by buildings of incongruous architecture; an English Tudor style hotel with painted stone effect bricks criss-crossed with oak beams, the Nanasker Gurdawa Gurusikh Temple along Westminster Highway (Jose took the scenic route I later discovered for my benefit) and a derelict twin storey concrete building shaped like a capital T with an extra vertical bar running through the middle. It was once a hybrid business that combined a restaurant with reflexology. We continued in this vein for several more miles until eventually we surpassed the reach of the flour and candy stained fingers off the suburbs that slowly surrendered its grip on the landscape to a more pastoral landscape.

“We’re going to Finn Slough, have you heard of it?” Jose said

I said that I never heard of ‘finnslow’ (that was how it’s pronounced)

“Few out-off-towners have. It’s a small artist’s community next to the river” said Candace. “We think you’ll like it”

“Strictly speaking they’re squatters but they’re allowed to live there for free as long as they look after the place” Jose cut in.

I nodded in silence, looking out the window. Several men wearing turbans were working in a field. Many Sikhs moved to Canada in the past few decades and many bought farms around here. It was an exotic vision, a stolen glimpse of an authentic Indian pastoral scene right here almost on my doorstep.

Finn Slough Sign 1
Finn Slough: In the 19th century, a hardy community of Finns founded a fishing community on the banks of the Fraser River. The community thrived and the fishing way of life lasted several generations until eventually, the community withered on the vine of progress and its descendants chose other professions such as IT, law, medicine and perhaps downtown hairdressing for all we know. The clutch of wooden houses they lived in that stood on wooden stilts were abandoned and left to the reclamation of nature. As we know, houses, not unlike nature, abhor a vacuum and a community of artists, painters, sculptors moved in and to this day, the artistic community remains. Artists come and artists go but the ethos has remained the same ever since.

Jose pulled up and the three of us got out. The houses were only yards away but we had to cross a wooden foot bridge to get to them.

“We have to walk in the middle and in single file” said Candace. “It’s a bit shaky”

“Yeah, and its best to leave about 5 feet between us”

I asked how shaky the bridge was.

Jose and Candace smiled. “It’s a bit off putting if it’s your first time but the people who live here use it every day and no-one’s fallen in”

The word ‘Yet’ hung silently above my head in giant letters like some kind of Banquo at the feast of the conversation. I chose not to speak it aloud. Cynicism even in its mildest forms can give the stranger an air of being difficult. It’s wise to hold one’s counsel sometimes. One can be liked without having to crack jokes. A lesson I’ve learned from experience.

Finn Slough Bridge

We formed a single file as Jose advised. Jose took the lead, I in the middle and Candace behind me. As I walked over the bridge, I felt the planks move and shift beneath my feet. I looked down and saw arresting gaps between the planks. The planks moved and shuffled and slid, albeit a matter of a centimetre or two at each step but when you are used to solid ground, it was a very disconcerting experience not unlike treading on black ice during a brisk walk on a warm summer’s morning.

This was a wooden bridge in the purist sense of the expression. There were no metal bracings, no industrial stapling or corsetry of any kind. Just bare planks of wood laid side by side, held up by perpendicular planks at the edges which in turn were held up in the air by wooden struts whose feet were hammered home into the muddy beds below the waters. The wood was not weather protected or sealed in any way. Many planks were black with rot. They reminded me of spent matches that a giant had thrown away.

The crossing took only less than a minute but if felt longer for being conscious of every step.

I found myself on a narrow path surrounded by tall rushes and reeds. Wooden houses were dotted all over. Some were in a state of dilapidation yet were fully inhabited. Many stood on wooden stilts.

The 2014 remake of Godzilla was filmed on location in these parts and with it brought hordes of flying visitors who also made the discovery of Finn Slough as I did. The artists were not that amused by legions of visitors gawping at them and their homes as if their purpose in life was to be an interesting sideshow at a zoo. The visitors I am sure meant well, who can blame a person for curiosity but the traveller must be aware that the people, communities and buildings he/she encounters do not solely exist for the benefit of an interesting photograph or journal. It is right that they are depicted and recorded but in a way that magnifies their essence within the prism of truth and not exploitation in any shape of form.

FinnSlough Houses 1

When the circus left town, the artists for the first time in their community’s history, put up fences and gate along the paths that passed by the fronts of their hours, blocking the path of visitors. This was to preserve their privacy. I couldn’t say I blame them but it did seem like an Achilles ’ heel of a reaction as they did sell a lot of their work to the very people who once passed by their homes and who now, crane their necks and peer longingly over the wooden spirits of no pasaran.

We didn’t see anyone around. All was still save for the burbling of the river and the sounds of rushes brushing against one another.

“You should take a bike here and bring some food too”

I asked if there was a cafe or a grocery store nearby

“Afraid not, the nearest is in Steveston and that’s about a ten minute drive from here”

We went back the way came. There was no other way, back again across the wooden bridge of potential doom and back to the car. I promised myself that I would return.

Then we went to Steveston, an outpost of paradise.

Steveston Sunset 1

to be continued…

A Writer’s Voice : Some Thoughts and a Personal Discovery

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Right now, I’m taking a break from redrafting/editing my latest novel to work on a short story. This is something I often do to keep things fresh. When you stare at something for a long time, you may feel your eyes starting to blur. To refocus, you avert your gaze to a completely different object and hey presto, your sight is 20:20 again. For me, writing is a little like that especially when it comes to a novel. Working with a novel is little a like a deep-sea dive, every so often you need to come up for air and today, is one of days when I need to freshen my writing and style by focussing on a completely different project albeit for a few hours.

The short-story I am writing is a little absurdist, a genre I have a particular liking for especially when it has grounding and parallels with the real world otherwise absurdism can just become plainly absurd and abstract for its own sake – easy to do but with little literary benefit for both writer and especially reader. Someday I may even gain a second reader 🙂 but I digress.

The story is about an Irishman who finds him reincarnated as a rose in flowerbed in a local municipal park. He wonders how he got there, reminisces about his life, offers insights into how he comes to terms with his new manifestation of being. Of course, being an Irishman myself, I am obliged to throw in a bit of religion and politics and muck about with it in a way that would drive my dead granny to reach for her rosary beads whilst spinning in her grave but without taboo, art loses a stone to whet it’s blades upon and goodness knows, Ireland north and south has many such stones. His new life, such as it is, crosses with an aspect of his old towards the end of the story but that’s all I’ll say for now but I will post it here when completed in the next day or three.

One thing struck me when writing it, this is the first story I’ve written with what I believe is an authentic Irish voice. I dare to state this as the voice is actually my own. Why haven’t I done this before? Of course, a writer is not obliged by law to write in the voice of his/her own country or even his/herself. Many fine writers have built great careers setting books in foreign lands peopled with characters totally unlike themselves but today, I found it greatly refreshing to write in my own personal voice for the first time. I found the authenticity gave the ink a better flow (ok, it was on my computer but ink is a much nicer word than keyboard) and I genuinely felt the story came from a truer soil.

Those familiar with my blog will know I’m lover of Americana and America literature and this is probably the style my future novels will follow but perhaps in the near future, I may create an Irish protagonist at the heart of my American settings and have the best of both worlds.