Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Girl vs. Boy
October 30, 2006, 8:31 am
Filed under: JT Ellison, Killer Year Founders

So my husband makes an entirely valid yet wholly offensive point that I have more estrogen than testosterone in my system, ergo I’m wont to be irrational about things. Now, he can get away with saying that to me, because I love him. Anyone else would be shot in their tracks.

I don’t find myself remotely irrational. Maybe that’s just the hormones, but I don’t see that my gender should dictate my mood. Though I’m often tricked by that.

Men are just… easier.

I’ve always been one of the boys. It’s just a thing. I grew up with two older brothers, neither of whom treated me like a china doll, more like a football to be tossed between them when I got in their way.

There were two boys my age – Barry and Troy, who were the only other kids in the neighborhood. They were rough and tumble kids, and we spent all our time together. Blissfully destroying our little world. Then, on a fine summer day, Susan moved in down the street.

Suddenly, it was much more appropriate for me to play with her. We sat inside, drank tea and made up stories for our (gulp) dolls, but I was so completely bored that I’d fuss and the visits would end early. Being forced to play with Barbies has to be one of my most abhorrent childhood memories.

My Dad, bless him, saw the trend early on and rescued me. He got me into sports, took me to football games and races, took me out to the golf course. In short, I did all the fun things the boys got to do.

As an adult, I still identify with the tomboy in me. It spills into my characters – my females aren’t fussy. They are down to earth women who enjoy a beer, enjoy football, are more likely to hang out with the male species than go shopping with other women. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I have anything against girly girls. I’m just not one of them, so I have a hard time writing that perspective.

A lot has been postulated recently on whether women are grittier, dirtier, more violent than men in their writing. I can’t answer that. I do have a very noir bent to my books, but I don’t know whether someone would read it and say “Oh, that was written by a woman. She’s trying to shock me, show me that she’s just as tough as a man.” I certainly don’t read male authors and say “Oh, he’s raped fourteen women, hung them up by their toes, drained them of blood, and bitten off their breasts. He must be overcompensating for a too-small penis.” This is truly a road to nowhere, but suffice to say I don’t buy into it. Women can be just as violent as men, and men can be just as sweet as women.

That said, I find it much easier to write from a male perspective – be it a good guy, or a not so good guy. It’s not less challenging, don’t get me wrong. And there’s several of those pesky biological reactions that because I don’t have the equipment, I have to, ahem, imagine. (Not something I generally like to poll my male friends and hubby about. “By the way, just what exactly does a hard on feel like? Do you know it’s coming, or do you find out too late? And why do they say imagine dead puppies?”)

But I digress.

Now wait. Is hard on supposed to be hyphenated? Hard-on or hard on?

And I’ve just spent ten minutes looking that up, and still don’t have an answer, and I’m laughing so hard at the sheer ridiculousness of my life – a world where a hyphen make ALL the difference.

God, sorry, I’m really going astray. I’ve just gotten Sandra R. and myself in hysterics, and that just shows you that I’m full of it.

But it sounded really good for a while there, didn’t it?


JT Ellison


Mira Books, November 2007

Posted from Nashville, where the men are men and the sheep are nervous.


My Changed Life
October 26, 2006, 8:47 am
Filed under: Brett Battles, Killer Year Founders

I’ve always been a writer – not counting before the age of 11, of course. But from around sixth grade on I knew I wanted to write books. (Okay, so it took me a while to finally get in print.) What I didn’t know was the changes it would make in my life once I became published. I’m not talking about becoming instantly rich. At least for me, that did not happen. But there were other things.

The life I had before I sold THE CLEANER was different. Sure, I wrote, and I went to my day job – both things I still do today. I also sometimes did things with friends, the same friends I sometimes do things with today. Where it’s different is that in addition to the communities of my old life (my workmates, my friends, my family), I’ve added a new community. It’s a community where of people who think like me. People who understand the frustrations of writing “book 2.” People who are interested in the ins and outs of the publishing world. People who laugh knowingly when you talk about your process for naming a character. Writers.

For years, writing was a solitary act. Living in L.A., most of my friends who wrote were working on screenplays. That never really interested me. I wrote prose. I wanted to write a novel. They couldn’t relate. It got better when I found a writing group dedicated to writing books. Finally I had six or seven people who understood. But when I finally sold my novel, that six or seven turned into hundreds.

Now when I walk into a book store, when I see books on the shelves, I look for titles by people I’ve met. I see their books and don’t think of them just as a product but rather as the work of a friend. It’s weird when I stop to think about it. It’s an unexpected by-product of that dream the sixth grade version of me had.

Everyday now, I get emails or phone calls from authors who are now my friends. It’s great to talk about writing and process and (lack of) progress. It’s great to talk about anything at all. For once in my life I guess I finally have peers, not just friends that I work with. I don’t mean that egotistically like I have no peers in my day-to-day life. It’s just that my day job has always been just that to me. A job. Not a career. I could do it my whole life and it would never be a career. Writing, though, writing is my career. And in a career you have peers – people who understand and know what you’re going through.

Last night, I attended a book signing at Borders in Torrance, California. It was for Tess Gerritsen. The main reason I went is that she is a wonderful writer and a very nice person. I also wanted to thank her in person for the incredibly kind blurb she gave me. I didn’t go to the signing alone. Fellow Killer Year member Robert Gregory Browne met me there, as did authors Brett Ellen Block and Jennifer Colt.

Tess did not disappoint. She gave a great talk on the question of where authors get there ideas. After, we each went up and had copies of THE MEPHISTO CLUB signed. Though we’ve never spoken before, Tess recognized me before I even reached the table. She smiled. She talked to me for several moments, and asked if I was going to ThrillerFest next summer (I am). She made me feel like a friend. With Rob, she talked about book 2. How it was the hardest one to write. Writers talking about writing in a way non-writers wouldn’t understand.

After the signing, Rob, Brett, Jennifer and I (the male Brett) went out for dinner and spent almost 2 hours talking about writing, publishing and life. I love my friends, and I love my family, but the conversation the four of us had at dinner was one I could have not had with anyone except another member of our writing community. There was a short hand, an understanding, a common bond.

I guess it’s that bond, more than anything, that represents how my life has changed. I am no longer alone. I love it.

I feel…home.

Cocktail Party What-Ifs
October 22, 2006, 12:43 pm
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Marcus Sakey

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, said:

A strong enough situation tends to render the whole question of plot moot…the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.

In other words:

“What if vampires invaded a small New England town?” (Salem’s Lot)

“What if there was a centuries-old conspiracy to hide Christ’s relationship with Mary Magdalene?” (The Da Vinci Code)

“What if killers took over a high-rise, trapping hundreds of civilians and one policeman?” (The movie Diehard)

“What if you didn’t fall in love with your husband until after he’d died?” (And Only To Deceive, by Friend-of-Killer-Year Tasha Alexander. Now in paperback—go buy it.)

What-ifs are a great way to sum up a story, or, if you’re a writer, to find the heart of it. Asking yourself “What if?” until you have an answer that sends a shiver down your soul assures that a story has enough energy to carry you through the year it’ll take to write.

But there’s another kind of What-if, and that’s the one I’d like to talk about. I call ‘em Cocktail Party What-Ifs, and to me they’re one of the best things about genre fiction. Because these What-ifs not only suggest a story, but they also pose a question that the reader gets to answer for themselves.

For example, what if you found a bag full of money in a crashed plane?

Would you take it? And before you’re quick to say no, understand that we’re talking millions here. Enough to insure that you and yours will never have to worry, never scrimp and save. Never work two jobs to pay for college. Never need to stick with the career you hate instead of pursuing the passion you love.

Sounds pretty good when you put it that way. But then, of course, there’s the other side. That money came from somewhere. Your gain is someone else’s loss. You’re stealing from someone.

Okay, but for all you know it’s drug money, blood money. That would be okay, right? Don’t owe those guys anything.

Except wouldn’t that also mean someone might be coming after it?

See what I mean? Cocktail Party What-Ifs add a whole other layer to a novel, because not only do they provide the bones of a terrific story—I mean, just look at the above—but they also let readers ask themselves the same question. Suddenly, instead of simply reading a story, we’re having a conversation with the author, in this case Scott Smith, who used the What-if above as the basis of his novel A Simple Plan.

Here’s another.

What if the sexiest woman you’ve ever met, the kind of woman that has fired your dreams all your life, desperately wanted you—even though were a married man?

Would you have an affair?


Well, ramp it up. What if your marriage was mediocre, your job was murder, your daughter was ill, and your life was drab—apart from the rainbow of colors this illicit woman brought?

(Before anybody calls my wife, I’m talking about James Siegel’s Derailed here.)

Pow. We’re off again. Because sure, technically we all know adultery is bad. But don’t we deserve a little something for ourselves? I mean, it doesn’t have to cost anything, no one needs to know. We’re just reaching for a little joy.

Only, what if things aren’t that simple? What if you fall in love? What if someone spots you? Blackmails you, or worse?

You can see why I love these things.

So in closing, three questions:

Would you take the money?

Would you sleep with the girl? (With a wave of my wand, I grant immunity from spousal prosecution—this is a thought experiment)

What’s your favorite Cocktail Party What-If?

The Blogs that Bind
October 21, 2006, 7:44 am
Filed under: Dave White, Killer Year Members


I dislike blogging. 


I mean have you seen my blog?  I do updates on Rutgers football and basketball, make fun of people, and occasionally post something about writing.  It’s not like I’m putting much effort into it.

It’s one of those new things writers have to do for promotional purposes, and I don’t like it.  I just don’t see the point of it.  Blogging is a way to gain new readers, you hear.  Blogging is a way for people to get to know the writer and interest them in the book.

Do we as writers really think that’s going to happen?

There is no possible way some random dude is just going to log on Google and type in “Dave White” to find a new author to read.  I’ll tell you exactly who’s going to log on to Google and try to find “Dave White”:  people I graduated high school and college with who want to see what yours truly is doing.  Oh, and Dave White, because I’m always curious where I rank on the Google search list.

So, why blog?

Here’s why I do it.  I know a lot of people in the writing industry and I consider a lot of them friends.  And hopefully they consider me the same.  So blogging is a way for them to know I’m still alive.  It’s a way for them to find out what I’m interested in and what I’m paying attention to and what I’m doing.

And I read my friends’ blogs for the same reason.  Oh, I haven’t talked to Duane or Jim or John or Bryon or Gerald in a while, what are they up to?  (Ooh, did you see that blog trick I just did?  I just promoted five of my friends.  Don’t you hate when bloggers so blatantly do that?)

And then I read blogs for a completely different reason.  I call them “train wreck” blogs.  The ones where the posts are so serious and so ridiculous you can’t help but laugh at them.  And email them to friends.  And then talk about how ridiculous they are. 

Come on, you know you all do it. 

But that leads me back to my original question:  Do blogs help promote books?

I guess in some way they do.  They keep fans of your work updated on what’s going on and when stuff is going to come out.  They keep up the interest after people have read your stuff, while they wait for the new one. 

But debuts? 

It’s highly doubtful that people will discover you because of your blog. 

Unless you’re completely outlandish and popular and mentioned in the New York Times or something, then it might help.

But since I’m not going to be mentioned in the Times because of my blog, I’m just going to keep doing it for my friends. 

And to make myself laugh.

Because I really hope someone out there considers my blog a train wreck blog.

Aural Gratification
October 19, 2006, 11:29 pm
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Robert Gregory Browne

When I was a child, my mother would read to me. Most often when I was home sick with a cold or the flu. She’d sit next to me, crack open a book and take me to unexplored worlds. Pirates. Cowboys. Super heroes. Fairy tales.

There was nothing better than lying back on my bed, listening to the gentle sound of my mother’s voice as she read from a favorite book.

I grew of out of that, of course. As an older child, I discovered Maxwell Grant and The Shadow, and the hilarious caper comedies of Donald Westlake. The thought of anyone reading these to me was ridiculous. I was a grown-up now, no longer interested in such childish activity.

When I heard my first audio book, many, many years later, I couldn’t quite understand why anyone who had a choice would want to be read to like this. When listening, I’d find my mind starting to wander, losing important story points. And, frankly, the reader just didn’t do it for me. Was laughably bad, in fact.

Traffic jams changed me. Working in the movie and television business required me to take frequent trips to Los Angeles, about a ninety minute drive from my home. Listening to talk radio got old – very old, very fast. Most of the time what the callers and host were blathering on about was more frustrating to me than the traffic itself and I’d usually wind up at my destination in a foul, foul mood.

Music is wonderful, but after awhile, I found myself overloaded by sound and couldn’t concentrate on anything, let alone the road or the music itself. I’ve always been a lie-back-with-headphones kind of guy. Headphones allow me to hear the nuances of the music, the various tones and subtle phrasings that can’t be heard when you’re rattling down the highway.

Audio books saved me. I was in the library one day and noticed that they had a huge collection of audio book CDs, many of them unabridged. (Why anyone would ever want to listen to an abridged audio book is beyond me.)

Why not give them another try? I thought, and picked one up by one of my favorite writers, Michael Connelly, narrated by a guy named Dick Hill.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. We all know what a wonderful storyteller and stylist Michael Connelly is, but what surprised me was how beautifully Dick Hill read the story. He is, to my mind, one of the shining examples of how to do an audio book right. Because, believe me, the only thing worse than a bad book, is a bad audio book reader destroying a GOOD book.

A note to any current or future audio book readers. Do yourself a huge favor and listen to Dick Hill or Scott Brick or Richard Ferrone when learning your craft. And keep these things in mind:

If you’re reading a child’s dialog, don’t modulate your pitch by six octaves and imitate a squeaky cartoon character version of a kid.

If you’re a man reading a woman’s voice or vice versa, don’t modulate your pitch by two or three octaves in some pathetic effort to imitate the opposite sex.

Read in your natural voice. Keep the pitch modulation light and not cartoonish, utilizing inflection and phrasing to get the point across.

Read dramatically, yes, but don’t do it as if you’re projecting for the guy at the back of the theater. Audio is a very intimate medium. Treat it as such.

Take it slow, let us savor the words. You don’t have to rush.

One of the most amazing readers I’ve ever heard is William Hurt. I listened to his rendition of Stephen King’s HEARTS OF ATLANTIS and was blown away by his unusual yet compelling reading of the work. One of my all-time favorite audio books.

I’m now hooked by them, of course. If the reader violates any of the above “rules,” however, I immediately shut it off.

And I know that audio books aren’t for everyone. I tried to get my wife to listen to THE LINCOLN LAWYER during a flight once, but she had a hard time with it. Didn’t like the narrator (although I think he did a fine job) and couldn’t concentrate on the story.

Sounds a lot like my first experience.

But when you find one narrated by a true pro like Hill or Brick or Ferrone or Hurt, even a mediocre story sounds much better than it actually is.

It ain’t mom, but it works.

The Virtue of the One-Night Stand
October 18, 2006, 1:09 am
Filed under: Derek Nikitas, Killer Year Members



In my previous Killer Year blog post, I threw around some highly subjective ideas about what makes for a good read, whether that read is a crime novel or otherwise. Most of what I wrote was about “levels of association,” or what some people reductively call “theme.” But—wait—there’s more. So much more—but I’ll limit myself to musing about character this time around.


I’ve read quite a few guide books on creative writing, all of which spend considerable time on character—whether the guide book is an almost-religious mediation on great writing like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or an asinine paint-by-numbers workbook like (and I’m making this up, I hope) YOU, TOO, CAN WRITE THIS YEAR’S GREATEST BESTSELLER EVER IN THREE SHORT WEEKS!!!! One gets all sorts of advice about building great characters, and, because I’m an insufferable iconoclast, I question some of what I’ve read, if only a little bit.


My first gripe is similar to one that Sandra Ruttan expressed in a recent Killer Year post, and it regards the idea that “universal types” or “archetypes” make the best characters because they are recognizable and comfortable to a wide variety of readers. Star Wars is loaded with these archetypes—from Han Solo the wisecracking rogue mercenary to Luke Skywalker the wide-eyed boy hero to Darth Vader the ruthless overlord with a dark secret. Crime fiction features plenty of archetypes, and many of them have been famous serial detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Mike Hammer, Phillip Marlowe and so on. I’m not about to argue against such characters. They are some of the most famous and enduring characters in film and novel history. But sometimes I wonder if maybe this endless recycling of universal types doesn’t lead more often to bad, clichéd, dull, formulaic novels than fresh and exciting novels.


The fact that a character is often universal seems almost a given. Every character is universal, in that she exhibits traits we recognize from ourselves, our friends, or our fantasies about what we could be. Saying “the key to a great character is universality” is almost akin to saying “the key to a great character is a total of two fully functioning eyeballs.” Most competent writers create recognizable characters rather unconsciously, and any self-conscious effort to do it seems almost destined for flatness and cliché. I can almost imagine the hack writer inventing his characters by rolling a twenty-sided die and filling out one of those old Dungeons & Dragons data charts: agility 15, stamina 7, constitution 12.


By contrast, there is the concept of defamiliarization, which I’m borrowing from literary theory (I know, I know; bear with me). This idea says that what’s exciting, what’s compelling about good fiction is how it makes the familiar suddenly strange again, that it unsettles the reader, thus prompting her to get excited and entranced by a weird, fresh, exciting new view of the world. When I look at character this way, I begin to suspect that the most exciting and interesting characters are exciting and interesting because of the ways that I don’t recognize them, not the ways I do. Right now I’m finishing a truly defamiliarizing novel called Smonk by Tom Franklin. Its main character is a one-eyed syphilitic dwarf with a big goiter. Can’t get much stranger than that, and as a reader I’m just as much compelled by the strangeness of the character as I am by the power of the story and the language. Granted, one needs to be able to pull off such a stunt, and Franklin does it brilliantly.


This crazy dwarf dude is a womanizing, murdering lowlife that is deserving of almost none of my sympathy, but I find him compelling anyway. This fact leads me to question another common “truth” about great protagonists, which is they have to be likeable. If one wants nothing but a familiar, comfortable read, then sure—but I’ve often been thrilled by books brimming with nothing but despicable characters. My favorite, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, is a prime example. Jim Thompson’s entire oeuvre is another. Frankenstein? Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian? James Ellroy’s American Tabloid? These are some of my favorite books, though I’d never invite a single character from a single one of them into my home for dinner. We sympathize with what is familiar, but we are also lured by what is unfamiliar, just as we are compelled to look at a car wreck on the roadside. To bring my point back to the case at hand: I think the unnerving, the disturbing, the discomforting, and the unfamiliar seems so fundamental to noir fiction that it’s often disheartening to hear folks argue against it.


Here’s the third “rule” I gripe about: a protagonist must undergo a significant and permanent change by the end of the novel. This advice has the weight of a commandment, and it’s certainly true most of the time. After all, the heart of drama is in a character’s escalating struggle against opposing forces, forcing him or her to change. For instance, I was constantly compelled watching Billy Costigan (Leo DiCaprio) in The Departed gradually devolve under the pressure of his undercover operations. And, much like the Grinch, L.A. Confidential’s Bud White (Russell Crowe) lets his heart grow a bit by the end of the movie version. The characters in James Ellroy’s original novel evince less obvious transformations than in the movie version, and yet the novel is no less compelling.


Outside of the Hollywood system lurks an army of fascinating noir characters who undergo virtually no change at all. The backward chronology of Memento demands that Leonard (Guy Pearce) doesn’t change. “Alice” (Natalie Portman) in Closer is such a mercurial femme fatale that change in her character is only an illusion. In Brick, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is so stoic in the face of his mounting troubles that we’re forced to paint our own reactions onto his blank face. The emotionally vacant, blank slate protagonist or femme fatale is the very basis of hardboiled noir, and the device has been working for over half a century. It provides an empty costume that the reader or viewer can fit his emotions inside. It provides the locked box inside which the writer hides her secrets, poised to be sprung on the audience.


The audience is the real barometer for indications of change, I think. The characters are not required to change so much as the audience is required to change—to grow in understanding as more and more information is revealed. To pull a simile from a decidedly non-noir source, I’ll say characters are like flowers—closed bulbs at the beginning; in full, glorious, revelatory bloom at the end. We appreciate the beauty of the revelation, but the flower is still the same flower. The Leonard we meet at the beginning/end of Memento is the same Leonard we see at the end/beginning—but both Leonard and the viewer are struck by the mind-boggling information he learns about himself. For an instant, he sees himself in full bloom. An instant later that Pandora’s box will slam back shut on him, but not on us. Similarly, what is revealed about “Alice” in Closer does not change her character. Rather, it revises everything we thought we understood about her, as if we’ve watched the movie twice with two totally different plots.


This talk of change is a great segue into the issue of serial characters—your Harry Bosch, your John Rain, your John Rebus, your Sherlock Holmes. As I move from my final revised draft of my first novel Pyres (phew!) to brainstorming my second, this issue is full on my mind. I need to decide whether I want my police investigator to take another case, and currently I’m leaning toward leaving her alone and moving on to new characters and fresh locales. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to disagree with the hundreds of thousands of thriller readers who have resoundingly approved the use of serial characters. It certainly makes good business sense to keep a character going, so long as you (the writer) don’t crash your car in the snow and get rescued by Annie Wilkes.


For the reader and writer both, serial characters provide the comfort of an old friend. Or at least, they provide us with that old costume we can dress our emotions inside (thus the reason why so many serial characters are hardboiled blanks, all of them with anonymous-sounding names like John). Sitcom characters are similar; I watch Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm not because I expect to be surprised by what he’ll do or say, but because I enjoy the satisfaction of correctly anticipating what he’ll do or say in unique situations. I read Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels for a similar reason. Of course Bosch develops over the novels—new girlfriends, a kid, old revelations—but these developments are more like a rearrangement of the furniture than a deep-seeded transformation. In fact, the conventions of narrative dictate that serial characters can’t really change that much over the course of a single novel because dramatically sharp character arcs in sequel after sequel eventually get a little difficult to believe. Somebody who changes too much too often is wishy-washy, the furthest thing from the hardboiled cynic that so many serial characters embody.


Can I make a potentially disastrous admission? I like Connelly’s Bosch novels, but in truth I love his stand-alones The Poet and Void Moon even more. The protagonists in those two books had more at stake, more to prove, because they only had one book to do it. I am fully aware that Connelly reexamined some characters from The Poet in The Narrows, but The Narrows provides a good illustration of my point. It is, in my humble opinion—brace yourselves!—the weakest novel I’ve read of Connelly’s impressive output. It lacks Jack McEvoy’s compelling voice and his urgent quest to find his brother’s killer, it reverses the cynical beauty of The Poet’s ambiguous ending, and it mercilessly kills off a character from one of Connelly’s earlier books (it happens in the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away).


In fact, in my own little world I count Blood Work as a standalone because I don’t like to think about Terry McCaleb’s subsequent fate (and I haven’t read A Darkness More than Night). Blood Work is also, I contend, a standalone because it so beautifully captures the total story arc of a great protagonist. I can’t imagine where Connelly could take McCaleb after Blood Work ends. In fact, one of Connelly’s justifications for killing off McCaleb was the settlement of his character; there was simply nowhere else to go with him. Would that some other writers (none of whom I have named here) would treat their own serial characters with such ruthlessness. We’d have a lot fewer flogged horse corpses lying around.


So back to my own dilemma—serial or no serial? Probably the latter, no matter the commercial risks. Heck, if readers hate the characters in Pyres then I won’t have wasted my time writing more nonsense about them that nobody will want to read. Instead, I’m toying with the idea of letting some characters from my first novel show up as minor players in my second. Seeing them mulling around in the background will fulfill my desire for a sense of “connectivity” in my writing, similar to the way Stephen King wrote many of his novels toward the “mythology” of his Dark Tower series without ever recycling the same protagonist, except, of course, Roland himself. One gets a little tingling thrill when somebody in a Stephen King novel other than Cujo refers to “that rabid St. Bernard over in Castle Rock,” or some such reference.


Mind you, I fully respect the writer who can pull off a serial character. She circumvents the problems I mention in ways that I can’t emulate. But as for my own aesthetic—whatever that means—I’m too fickle. In order to immerse myself in a character, I have to have a burning desire to get to know her. The desire has to be total, and it has to be fulfilled by the end of the story or novel. She has to be so fully exposed that nothing more could possibly be revealed. I swear the sexual innuendos only became intentional halfway through this paragraph, but they lead me to a disturbingly self-revelatory conclusion, which is that I’m not really one to call my characters back for a second date after the initial one-night stand.


Derek Nikitas
Author of Pyres
Available Late 2007


My Top Five: The Year (so far) in True Crime
October 15, 2006, 8:45 pm
Filed under: Gregg Olsen, Killer Year Members

It’s no secret that a large percentage of crime fiction is inspired by true life events, which is a more genteel way of saying True Crime. Yup, the guilty pleasure from the back of the mystery section. I really don’t know where the other percentage spring from, but it must be something pulled out of thin air.

Or at least the author might claim such.

Since I know a little bit about TC, I thought I’d assess the year so far and give Killer Year blog readers my pick for the top five stories of the year in which we’re presently mired. If you’re old enough to remember Casey Kasem, conjure his voice as we count down to number one. If your countdown touchstone is TRL’s Carson Daly, I feel sorry for you.

But give it a whirl, anyway.

Number 5: Natelee Holloway and the Aruba story. Jeesh, didn’t we get enough of that? Didn’t carnival barker TV news harpies, Nancy Grace and Greta van Susteren dish us on every nuance of the blond Alabama teen that went missing on a senior party in 2005? The story was the Ever-Ready True Crime story—and for no good reason. It went no where, but generated more empty headlines and finger-pointing than any case in recent memory. There is a reason, of course.  Natalee’s blond and pretty. If she had been of color and fat, you’d never heard a peep about her. She is the epitome of the Missing White Girl Syndrome and all its troubling societal baggage. The reason she’s number five, is simply because every list must mention her. It is required.

Number 4: John Mark Karr, the queen who would be king of all TC crimes if he’d had only delivered on what he promised. He’d be number one with a bullet (in his head) if he’d actually killed JonBenet Ramsey as he’d promised while on a sex change mission to Thailand earlier this year. The man is disgusting, sure. What’s more revolting is how ABC and NBC have sucked up to him just to get the exclusive first interview. Limo rides around the old school where he taught in Petaluma, a new suit that showed of his trim (high) waist, and more eye shadow than a Queensryche comeback concert. I wish he’d killed JBR (if you’re not a TC reader, you must know that in the cult of celebrity she commands initials, like say JFK or PDQ.) I want someone to be arrested and put away for that horrendous murder nearly a decade ago. Too bad it happened in Boulder, Colorado. No one there seems to know how to do his or her job.

Number 3: John Grisham writes a TC book and all of a sudden a modern day classic has been released. This is very interesting. The book upon which he relied (and mentions in his acknowledgements) The Dreams of Ada actually was a modern day classic. But it wasn’t written by a mega-selling author and therefore must stay in its place—the literary dustbin. I loved many of Grisham’s early novels (this is not some snobby remark meant to indicate that I don’t care for what he’s done lately; I simply have author ADD), but honestly, why does it take his name to suddenly bring a supernova of brilliance to a genre? Isn’t it funny how crime fiction seems to escape the taint of trash? But really, can you read one more book about a cupcake murder or a crime-solving cat? (Aha! That’s the elusive percentage not inspired by true life events!)

Number 2: Florida rep Mark Foley and his penchant for IM-ing young pages could overtake my top pick for the year so far, should he torpedo the Republicans in the election next month. I don’t mind saying, I’ve got my fingers crossed as I type. Try it. It can be done.  Honestly, I don’t know what’s worse, Foley’s disgusting abuse of power, his lust for boys, or his excuse that the bottle is to blame. Have we finally reached the point where the booze excuse (file it with the abuse excuse) no longer holds any credence whatsoever? I’m not without sympathy for those who’ve had traumatic lives, but I’m fed up with feeling sorry for anyone whose own actions account for their troubles. We have free will. We can make choices. My choice would be to exile Foley to Boca Raton, where the average age is 90.

And now the top of the chart for the year so far…

Number 1: It has to be Shasta – as in the little Idaho girl who’d been kidnapped along with her brother by John Edward Duncan. You know the story—the family was murdered by a pedophile creep of the lowest order. Shasta was rescued when an alert Denny’s waitress recognized her and called the police.  The trial starts next week.  The reason this story is number one, isn’t because of the media that will flock to the Idaho Panhandle to cover it. It isn’t because Nancy and Greta and all the rest will be yapping about it for weeks. Shasta will face Groene in court. Only 9 years old, she’ll testify about what he did to her and her family. This is a story of courage and survival. She might not know it now, but the entire nation stands with her. At least I do. Here’s the thing: Shasta was held captive by evil. She’s going to face it head on and put a stop to all of it. This is not about retribution. It is about courage and how it can come in the form of a child.

It gives me hope.

So really, who knows what will happen with any of these picks? Maybe Grisham’s book will come and go and not be the harbinger of a new trend of novelists switching to nonfiction crime? Maybe Mark Foley will make a comeback five years from now and guest host on Jim Bakker’s TV show? Maybe Natalee will be found? Maybe she’s been sold into slavery in Columbia? Hey, Mark Karr might get that sex change and take a job as schoolteacher somewhere until he’s caught with a student, of course. That’s another story, however. More than anything, I hope Shasta Groene is surrounded by the love of her fragmented family. Maybe they can rise to the occasion, as she has. I hope that when we hear of her ten years from now, she’s a college student somewhere pursuing dreams of her own. And that she’s no longer on anyone’s list.

Even mine.

Gregg Olsen
Author of A Wicked Snow
Available March 2007