Killer Year–The Class of 2007


Some of the early reviews are coming in for the anthology, and we’re thrilled to share them here.

From Library Journal:

Well worth a look…

“Why writers who deal with the dark side of human nature are among the most collegial is a mystery in itself. What is not in doubt, though, is the quality of this collection resulting from that collegiality, with 13 of its 16 stories by writers who published their first novels in 2007 and were mentored by established authors under the auspices of the International Thriller Writers organization. Some of these stories—which, as editor Child notes, are ‘far, far harder to write than novels’—push the edge of the genre and snag the memory, among them Marcus Sakey’s exploration of love and the difference between wanting and needing in ‘Gravity and Need.’ Sean Chercover’s Chicago P.I. Ray Dudgeon keeps a case from going south, Gregg Olsen gives a final twist to his tale of a true crime writer, and Jason Pinter shows how things can go inexorably wrong in an instant. The mentors’ introductions to these stories, plus brief biographies at the end, should entice readers to longer works by these promising new authors. Even amid a recent rash of anthologies in the genre, this one is well worth a look.”

From Kirkus Reviews…

Sixteen shades of noir, all interesting, some compelling.

Three of Child’s contributors—Ken Bruen, Allison Brennan and Duane Swierczynski—are seasoned pros, but the collection’s gems come from the 13 members of the younger set. Derek Nikitas’s “Runaway,” for instance, is a superbly ambiguous chiller about an adolescent girl who may or may not be a real runaway, or for that matter real. In Toni McGee Causey’s artfully composed “A Failure to Communicate” introduces the indomitable and irresistible Bobbie Faye Sumrall, a steel magnolia whose steel will cause three lowlifes to rue the day they took her hostage. “Perfect Gentleman” by Brett Battles and “Bottom Deal” by Robert Gregory Browne are both lean and taut, expertly crafted in the good old hard-boiled tradition. In Marc Lecard’s sly “Teardown,” a hapless loser arrives in the wrong place at what turns out to be exactly the right time. Gregg Olson’s autobiographical “Crime of My Life” features a surprise ending that actually surprises. The quality is less consistent among the other entries, but, remarkably for a collection this ample, there’s no sign of a clinker.

An anthology so worthwhile that it comes within an eyelash of deserving the hyperbole Child (Bad Luck and Trouble, 2007, etc.) heaps on it in his introduction.

From Publishers Weekly…

For this impressive crime anthology, bestseller Child (One Shot) has gathered 13 stories by newcomers and three by veterans. Such established writers as David Morrell, James Rollins, Gayle Lynds, Ken Bruen and Allison Brennan introduce tales by such rising stars as Marcus Sakey, Brett Battles, Robert Gregory Browne, Sean Chercover and Gregg Olsen. Some selections, like Olsen’s “The Crime of My Life,” hit like a hard swung sap. Battles’s “Perfect Gentleman” is more like a knife that slides in easily, then twists in the gut. Browne’s “Bottom Deal” features a PI that would be at home in a lineup with Spade and Marlowe. Sakey’s “Gravity and Need” lets the reader bleed out slowly, while Chercover’s “One Serving of Bad Luck” earns a rueful smile. Not every entry is a winner, but the disturbingly good new talent showcased in this volume bodes well for the future of the genre. (Jan.)


We’ve updated our website as well, stop by and take a look. The Killer Year is drawing to a close, but the website will have all our current information.


Irresponsible Writing
November 15, 2007, 11:39 pm
Filed under: JT Ellison, Killer Year Founders

(This column appeared on the fine mystery blog Working Stiffs October 29, 2007)

“Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.”
                                                                                                             James Joyce

Playing by the rules. We’re conditioned to follow the righteous path, to stick with the proverbial straight and narrow. Yet how many times have you heard of the person who broke all the rules, got the agent through a flamboyant attempt, landed an unheard of deal for a book that no one had ever thought to write? Writing workshops, conferences, blogs and listserves counsel new writers to always, always follow the rules. So why is it, when we hear the success stories, the rule breakers are the ones with the clout?

Let me back up for a moment. Stephen King makes the excellent point that if you’re going to be a writer, you need to know the rules. The Writer’s Toolbox, he calls it, the fall back position for every writer. Vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure – all of these individual tools are essential to writing a good book. The trick is to know the rules well enough that when you break them, you’re doing it on purpose, for a specific effect.

So when you have your toolbox chock full of every imaginable instrument, and you’re the Yo-Yo Ma of the dangling participle, what then? How do you know when to break the rules? How do you know that it’s okay to take a chance?

This is a subject I’ve been dealing with for years. In college, I fancied myself a poet. I studied the masters, soaked up all the guidance my professors gave me. I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying for this idealized version of prose that I was being taught was the “right way” to write. I was surrounded by award-winning literati, ate, drank and slept Donne and Tennyson, could recite couplets from Shakespeare with ease. But something was missing. I kept writing these poems and stories, kept getting feedback that I wasn’t hitting the mark. I worked hard on my craft, searching for that elusive something that would gain glory and praise. After I submitted one particular story that I just knew was going to knock their socks off, the feedback was terse. “Reads too much like B-grade detective fiction.”

That week ended on a real high when my other professor, the young literati poet, the one with the flowing black hair and groovy pink and tortoise glasses, the bohemian whom I admired and attempted to emulate, pulled me aside. “You’re not going to get published,” she said. “The chance of this kind of work making it in the real world is limited. You should focus on your other studies.”

SLAP! The glory, the creativity, the late nights watching snowflakes drift to the ground and trying to describe them individually, gone. Like a stupid, impressionable kid. I listened. I stopped writing.

I still read. Depressed as only a thwarted writer can be, I secretly imbibed to excess on my favorite poets, wondered at their ability, knew that I’d never be at their level. Somewhere, deep down, I believed my favorite little bohemian was right. I wasn’t good enough. Damn it, I followed all the rules, and I just wasn’t good enough.

Later in the semester, desperate for work to submit so I wouldn’t fail the course, I branched away from what the teachers were selling. I happened across a book by a man I’d never heard of. College is the time of discovery, right? The book was “HOWL and Other Poems,” by Allen Ginsberg. It knocked my socks off. I didn’t understand it, deconstructed and looked for the hidden metaphor, the meaning behind the words. I still didn’t get it. Then I just read the poems. I let the words be what they were, not a symbolic journey through allegory, but naked, hysterical truth.

With Ginsberg’s irreverence flowing through my work, I finished my thesis. It garnered lukewarm praise. The tiny little bud of creativity I’d been nurturing went dormant.

I’m ashamed now to admit that after my dismal last semester in school, I did focus on my other studies. I went into politics, had a nice career, moved into marketing, had a nice career, lost my job, moved to a new state, was bored to tears. Started to read again, really read, the way I’d done in college. Reading to learn is much different that reading to entertain. And these new writers I discovered weren’t following the rules I knew.

I wrote the requisite manuscript that lives in a drawer back in 2004. I heard the voice of my professors on every page. The “not good enough” and “B-grade detective fiction” became a mantra. But I used them to drive me forward rather than allowing them to hold me back. I broke some of the rules they’d told me not to. In the end, the book wasn’t great, but I decided to send it out. It got a wad of rejection letters, one of which changed me yet again. “The writing is excellent, but there’s nothing here to differentiate it from other manuscripts we’re receiving.”

Well. We’re making progress, I think.

I chucked it all then. Threw out every single damn rule I’d been taught. Wrote the book I wanted to read. Wrote like the wind. That one got me an agent, but didn’t sell. Timing this time, not any fault of mine. Instead of pulling back, I did it again. That one sold.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’m changing the course of humanity with my work. But I’m writing for me. I’m writing that tone, that voice that so disturbed my professors in college. They called it B-grade detective fiction. I call it a thriller.

Stuart Woods told me once, “The only rules are those you create, page by page.” That one sentence was better writing advice than anything the professional teachers ever gave me.

So know the difference. When an agent asks for a submission on green paper with 2 inch margins and courier font, you sure as hell better listen to them. But when your heart and your soul are telling you to try something different, to break the mold, to throw caution to the wind, listen. Listen, and succeed.

Writing place
November 11, 2007, 12:05 pm
Filed under: Marc Lecard

When I got out of grad school I holed up in my shitty little apartment and read crime fiction every day for a month or so, sometimes at the rate of two books a day. This was obvious recovery mode, psychic healing after two years of plowing through the dull pile of disconnected nonsense that is much academic writing. And I was a creative writing major.

I probably learned more about writing fiction in those several months than in the previous two years of directed study. (To be fair, I was majoring in poetry.)

One of my big writers during this period of recovery was Georges Simenon, especially his Inspector Maigret novels. These books were short enough that you could easily read two a day, and rich and compelling enough that you would want to.

After the character of Maigret (a taciturn guy who relied on his deep insights into personality and the kinds of accommodations and compromises people make with life in order to solve his crimes), the thing that hooked me most about these books was their setting.

The Maigret novels took me into a Paris of narrow back streets, dark little boites, bureaucratic office warrens where the cops ate sandwiches at their desks, prim bourgeoise apartment blocks, shabby hotel rooms. I could smell the caporal, black coffee, baking bread, the furniture polish, spilled wine. It always seemed to be raining.

I was there. I felt I knew the city well enough to drive cab there.

But when I went back to the Maigret books recently (I hadn’t looked at them since that post-grad orgy), I was astonished to see how little description of place there was in them.

What was definitely missing were any big set pieces, any long descriptions of the city, any poetizing over atmosphere (less than in this blog post, in fact).

The effect–and these books were still pungent and atmospheric–was cumulative , quick hits in passing as Maigret navigated his world. Every little hit of atmosphere was given in the course of some action. The story moved quickly, without stopping to look around and take notes.

Yet I was left with Paris.

Now I am not trying to say that this is the only or the best way to convey atmosphere and place. Some writers–James Lee Burke comes to mind–are capable of rich and extended passages of pure description that put you completely in a particular time and place. But it is remarkable how much can be accomplished with very minor means.

Weighing down the story with too much description is a problem I have had in my writing, and to cure it I feel I sometimes go too much in the opposite direction, and lose this valuable sense of place. So Simenon’s example seems useful to me.

Any thoughts on this? Any exemplary writers that put across a sense of place with minimal means?

Great Opening Lines
November 4, 2007, 3:34 pm
Filed under: Sean Chercover

Note: This post originally appeared on The Outfit blog.

-Sean Chercover

At a recent lit conference, the conversation among writers in the bar turned to great opening lines. Not, Hey baby, what’s your sign? opening lines, but opening lines of crime novels.

Writers love to talk about opening lines. What makes a great first sentence, what grabs the reader . . . or what is likely to make the reader close the book, put it back on the shelf and reach for another.

I’ve noticed a recent trend in crime fiction, toward such whiz-bang first lines as:

“The bullet slammed into Joe Smith’s chest and threw him against the wall.”

“The safety line snapped and Jane Brown fell away from the rock-face and plunged toward the canyon floor.”

“Just as the man entered the bank, his head exploded.”

Okay, I made those up. But I’ve seen many that are just as bad. Full of action and danger, but ultimately boring as hell. I don’t care about Joe Smith or Jane Brown or the man with the exploding head. I haven’t even met them yet.

Here are some great first lines, pulled from the nearest bookshelf:

“Nothing is so sad as an empty amusement park.” – Soul Patch, by Reed Farrel Coleman.

“What do you do with an old madam when she’s peddled her last pound of flesh?” – Retro, by Loren Estleman

“Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.” – Drive, by James Sallis

“It surprised him, how light she was.” – In This Rain, by S.J. Rozan

“When I was a kid, my favorite book was Horton Hears A Who, and, like most kids, I wanted to hear it over and over and over again.” – No Good Deeds, by Laura Lippman

“Gold was up 2 percent the morning that Benjamin Raab’s life began to fall apart.” – The Blue Zone, by Andrew Gross

“Calderon figured that, on this night, he had to be the only chauffeur at Los Angeles International Airport who was picking up a dying boy.” – Stigma, by Philip Hawley, Jr.

“It’s hard to get lost when you’re coming home from work.” – Blonde Faith, by Walter Mosley

And finally, one that always gets me, no matter how many times I’ve read it:

“Because Lydia didn’t have arms or legs, she shelled out three thousand bucks to a washed up middleweight named Cap to give her ex-husband the beating of his life.” – Psychosomantic, by Anthony Neil Smith

These are all fantastic opening lines, I think, because they are written in a distinctive and authentic voice. And nothing hooks me as strongly as voice. These lines convey a mood, but more than that, they convey an attitude, hint at a world-view. And they make me want to know more about the characters.

The bad examples I wrote above are written without any distinctive voice. They convey no distinctive attitude, and they fail to breathe life into the characters. They seem gimmicky – a cheap (and even a little desperate) attempt to try and grab the reader by the collar. The only mood they covey is, “Look Out!”

And a distinctive voice does more than just hook me. It also assures me that I’m in good hands, that the writer is confident in his or her ability to take me into a fictional world for a few hundred pages and keep me there. That the characters I’m going to meet along the way will be fleshed out and three dimensional.

So what do you look for in an opening line? Does voice matter to you, or do you want to get straight to the action?

Share with us, some of your favorite first sentences. Not the one’s you’re writing (we already did that post) but from books already published.