Tag Archives: crime fiction

Review: Richard Lange’s THIS WICKED WORLD

wicked worldEvery once in a while, a neo-noir writer comes along who’s so exciting, he/she turns me into an annoying evangelist-type fan with a fervent need to spread the word. Five years ago, Charlie Huston had this effect on me with his first novel, Caught Stealing. Gillian Flynn did it to me in 2006 with Sharp Objects. This year, the honor goes to Richard Lange and his debut novel, This Wicked World.

Former marine and ex-con Jimmy Boone is a bartender on Hollywood Boulevard, trying to repair his life after a horrible mistake cost him a luxiourious lifestyle and landed him in prison. One day, he goes with a friend as a favor to look into an illegal immigrant’s death and quickly becomes obsessed with the case, even after his friend has dropped the investigation. Boone’s probe into the matter gets him involved with an attractive ex-cop neighbor, a vindictive stripper and her drug-dealing brother, and a deadly criminal mastermind who runs a dog-fighting ring in the Twentynine Palms desert. Things go violently awry and Boone finds himself in a situation that puts his life—and those of his friends—in mortal danger.

There are many things to praise about this novel: the tight yet expressive prose; the hip, witty dialogue that almost needs to be read aloud so you can hear how good Lange is with banter; the compelling plot which slowly reveals why Boone went to prison; and the unexpected moments of black humor (a bad guy’s profane internal monologue is cut off mid-sentence when he gets shot).

But the most striking thing about this book is the cast of characters. In this story, no one is completely heroic and no one is pure evil. Everyone lives in a gray area, surviving the only way they know how, searching for the same thing: redemption. The good guys have done some questionable things in their past but somehow you don’t judge them. More surprisingly, Lange made me understand and empathize a little with the nastiest characters, even as I was horrified by their actions. One of the crime boss’s henchmen, for example, can kill a man in cold blood but also subjects himself to painful tattoo-removal procedures so he can look more respectable in court while fighting for custody of his young daughter.

This dual nature extends to the novel’s L.A. setting as well. The city can be a glamorous place but Lange prefers hanging out in the grittier neighborhoods, capturing the feel of places and people who usually have police searchlights instead of movie spotlights on them. “Wicked” can mean either evil or wonderful so the title is appropriate because this story is both.

Nerd verdict: Wicked World is wicked good

Crais, Parker, Winslow & Wambaugh discuss “Cops & Crooks in California” — Conclusion

This is part two of my report on the “Cops & Crooks in California” panel held this past Saturday, April 25, as part of the L.A. Times Festival of Books. (Click here for part one.) The participants were crime novelists T. Jefferson Parker (The Renegades), Don Winslow (The Dawn Patrol), Joseph Wambaugh (Hollywood Crows) with Robert Crais (The Watchman) as moderator.

Crais had asked the panelists why they write crime fiction. Parker launched into a story about a signing he did in Norwalk, CA, where a woman asked what his book was about.

“It’s about friendship, love and hate, crime and betrayal,” Parker responded. The woman asked, “What’d you want to write about that stuff for?” Parker said he found those subjects compelling. The woman then said she could afford only one hardcover book a month and had already bought it but wanted Parker to sign it. She proceeded to pull out a copy of a Robert James Waller bestseller, which Parker dutifully signed. “Somewhere out there, there’s a copy of Bridges of Madison County with my name on it!”

Wambaugh had his own funny anecdote about a signing he did at the East Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. A woman came looking for the writer Irving Stone and was disappointed to find Wambaugh there. “You’re not Irving Stone,” she said. “No, lady, I’m Truman Capote,” Wambaugh quipped. The woman looked him over and said, “But, Mr. Capote, on television you look so much more masculine!”

Crais chimed in with his story about a signing he did with four other writers. A man came sniffing around the table, looking over everybody’s books. “Me being me, I said, ‘Are you gonna buy something?’ ” Crais said. The man asked, “Whose book is the cheapest?”

Not to be outdone, Winslow shared details of one of his bizarre signing experiences. “The lady who owned the store had me come in and there was a flood that day…there were sandbags in front of the store. I had to take off my shoes and wade…nobody came. It was a two-hour signing. After an hour ten minutes into it, the lady said, ‘Just lock up for me.’ Irish-Catholic boy that I am, I sat there, robbed the till, then left.”

After the laughter died down, Crais asked, “So, you’ve been on tour, you’ve met the fans. Have you ever been frightened?”

Winslow went first with a story about a signing in Greenwich Village where a woman showed up dressed in full S & M garb. She wanted him to sign a book called Slave Girls of Rome [when Crais mentioned this title during introductions, Winslow said it was another Don Winslow, an 82-year-old man, who wrote it]. This woman approached the author, “her voice dropped an octave and she said, ‘I love your other stuff, too.’ Mine went up two or three octaves. ‘No, you don’t! No, you don’t!'” Winslow said.

“I think she came to one of my signings in D.C. She said, ‘You should read Don Winslow,'” Crais said. He then talked about a Philadelphia appearance where a woman came up to him with a toddler. “She plopped that boy on the table and said, ‘Here’s your daddy!'”

“What was your comeback, Bob?” Parker asked.

“I said, ‘Looks just like Jeff Parker!'” Crais answered.

At this point, Crais opened the floor to audience members and invited questions. The first person up asked whether or not the authors have any control over who reads their audio books.

Wambaugh said he had no control and the others agreed. “I’ve never listened to one of my books. I don’t know why. Can’t bring myself to read them, either,” Wambaugh said.

Crais said he finds it hard to listen to audio versions of his novels because he hears them in his voice so it’s jarring to hear them in someone else’s voice. “Most I can listen to is eight to ten minutes. I did do the abridged version of Hostage. That, I can listen to over and over.”

Next, someone asked whether the authors create outlines or just start writing and let the plot write itself (!).

“I do both,” Parker said. “I once started with a bar napkin with four character names circled on it. That was Little Saigon.” But he’s learned to outline because “I can’t hold a 500-page manuscript in my brain.”

“I’m an outliner,” Crais said. “I figure eighty percent of the stuff out beforehand. I’m a fan of notecards. I’m a very visual person and actually like to see the continuity of it. I actually believe that it helps me to balance and pace my books because if a lot of the scenes and stuff where nothing is really happening—if that’s all jammed to one side—I think, ‘Man, I’d better have something happening there’ so then I start moving cards around.”

“James Ellroy does 350-page outlines before he starts writing,” Wambaugh said.

A woman in the audience asked why in his books, Crais refers to the good guys by their last names but the bad guys by their first. She wondered if it was an intimacy issue.

“I never thought about it before. Now, I’ll obsess about it and never write again,” Crais said.

Another audience member asked how the writers felt about the Kindle.

“I’ve never seen one before,” Crais said, but added he’d be open to it if someone wants to send him one. Winslow said, “I don’t care, as long as people are reading.” He said he likes the tactile feel of books and how he can drop them in the tub and it’d be okay.

At this point, a woman behind me asked, “Can you explain what a Kindle is?”

Wambaugh threw up his hands and said, “I have no idea!” Another woman behind me helpfully held one up for all to see.

The last question was something about characters [how they’re created? Sorry, my handwriting was illegible here after an hour of scribbling].

“All writers are cannibals. You eat up your life,” Crais said. He explained that he infuses his characters with a lot of his worldview.

“I think characters are everything. If people don’t like them, they’re not going to care what happens to them,” Winslow said.

Parker said, “You pull from everything, little pastiches, combinations of everyone I’ve ever known. They represent something, an extreme of some kind, traits you recognize.”

“You guys have said it,” Wambaugh said. “I think I have one thing to offer. When you’re dealing with an audience like this that can be agenda-driven, ready to skewer you with political questions, give them a very brief two-word response to everything. Example: ‘Are you a Republican?’ Not yet!…’Are you Jewish?’ Not yet! ‘Are you gay?’ Same answer!”

On this note, the discussion ended, the authors hugged it out before fans swarmed them for photo ops.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it!

Subscribe to Obsessions of a Pop Culture Nerd by Email


From L: Winslow, Wambaugh, Parker and Crais

Crais with my friend Betsy

Crais with my friend Betsy

“Cops & Crooks in California” Panel at L.A. Festival of Books with Crais, Winslow, Parker & Wambaugh


Remember in the ’70s when you bought K-Tel compilation albums because you didn’t want to buy a bunch of albums by different bands where most cuts were just filler? This past Saturday, at the annual L.A. Festival of Books, the “Cops & Crooks in California” panel was like a K-Tel collection, with Don Winslow (The Dawn Patrol), T. Jefferson Parker (The Renegades), Joseph Wambaugh (Hollywood Crows) and Robert Crais (The Watchman) as moderator. Everyone was a hit and you got them all in one place.

Apparently this panel sold out quickly so for those of you who couldn’t get in or don’t live in the area, I took notes and thought I’d post the highlights. There’s no way I can capture all the hilarity but there’s still plenty of juicy info to be had. Many thanks to Debbie DeNice, who helped me recall quotes in parts where my memory was foggy and my scribbles illegible. I’ll publish this in two parts so be sure and come back for all the good stuff.


After introducing the panelists, Crais’s first question was whether there was “something about Southern California that’s particularly identifying” to the other writers. He addressed Parker first.

“I was born here. I don’t have to go to a new place and ask questions and learn anything because it’s right in front of me,” Parker said. “You know, it’d be very hard to go set up a story in Boston and have the same sort of casualness to the story. I’d have to work really hard.” He equated being a native Californian to Nicholson having floor seats at Lakers games.

“I came out on a case [as a P.I.], went down the PCH, saw Laguna Beach, called my wife and said, ‘We’re moving out here,'” Winslow said.

Wambaugh said he came out here when he was 14. “Would it have been the same if I’d written East Pittsburgh noir?”

“I’d be terrified to go somewhere else and set a novel,” Parker added. “I lived in Orange County for 45 years. My big move was from Orange County to Fallbrook. It was 34 miles but I felt like Magellan.”

Crais next asked the writers how they felt about writing standalones vs. a series.

wambaugh_hollywoodcrowsWambaugh said, “I wrote a sequel to Hollywood Station because I thought maybe it’d be easier since I had some of the characters…But I found some of the characters didn’t want to come back…They didn’t help me plot. Plotting’s the hardest thing.” He added that on his tombstone, it’ll probably say “At Last, a Plot.”

“I didn’t know better,” Winslow said. “I thought all P.I. novels had to be series [he wrote the Neal Carey series].” He stopped writing about Carey when the detective became a “whiny, petulant, little bastard” and the author got tired of him. Winslow told a funny anecdote about a fan asking at a signing if he was anything like Carey and he denied it while his wife nodded vigorously. He then mentioned that the Dawn Patrol gang will be back in his next novel, The Gentleman’s Hour, which made me squeal internally. Hour will be released in the U.K. in June but won’t be out in the U.S. until next year.

Parker said he didn’t look at it as writing a series, more like “writing one big book that’s 2,000 pages.” He mentioned that Charlie Hood from L.A. Outlaws and The Renegades will be back for his third adventure next year called Iron River.

Crais next asked the other writers to share their Hollywood experiences. “Is screenwriting work as important as your prose work?”

“Screenwriting—adapting, I should say, a novel—is the only writing that’s actually fun. It’s like a crossword puzzle,” Wambaugh said.

fallen“I have a guy turning The Fallen into a series…Maybe I can learn something new. Can’t wait,” Parker said. He then added, “Don’t hold your breath, though.”

Winslow had considerably less enthusiasm for Hollywood. He told a story about having a meeting at a studio “that shall remain nameless.” But then he said when he arrived, the guard told him to “go up Mickey Street then left on Dopey Lane.”

“So this was at Paramount?” Crais joked.

Winslow continued, “I told the guard, ‘I took a left on Dopey Lane back in ’89 and didn’t make it back onto Mickey Street until ’92!’ ” The guard said, “Don’t repeat that upstairs.” When Winslow finally got in to see the movie exec, who had several books on his desk, Winslow asked if he’d read them all. The exec answered, “I don’t read. I have people who read.”

monkeysraincoatCrais then told his own story about the “studio that shall remain nameless.” He said when The Monkey’s Raincoat first came out, he received a call from Michael Eisner’s office saying the then-CEO of Disney liked his work and wanted Crais to write a movie based on an original idea Eisner had. When Crais arrived for the meeting, he was met by an exec who said Eisner couldn’t make it. The man then asked Crais if he’d heard of Beverly Hills Cop. When Crais said yes, the exec said that Eisner felt “Beverly Hills as a location hasn’t been exhausted yet at the box office.” Crais said, “Great. What’s the idea?” The exec looked confused and said, “That’s it.”

Crais’s next question was why the men chose to write crime fiction. He said he does it because “I love this stuff” and he’d be reading it if he weren’t writing it.

“I guess if I knew anything about ballet, I’d write about ballet. I was a cop,” Wambaugh said, shrugging.”I went to CalTech to do some research and did end up writing a crime that took place at CalTech. The answer is: What else can I do?”

“Who do you like?” Crais asked.

“I like Tom Wolfe…that’s a guy you can learn something from. For those of you who are novelists or journalists, whatever—he can really put it together. I highly recommend him,” Wambaugh said.

Next, Winslow shared why he writes crime novels. “Same answer—you write what you know and frankly, I grew up around criminals…I always loved the genre, I love reading it. I think as a writer it gives you everything. I’m really greedy as a writer, I want it all. With the crime novel, you can take everyday life if you want drama, then you can also do murder and mayhem and political issues, the nexus of government…so for me, it just gives me that whole world. Any of that piece you want, you can do it in a crime novel.”

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion, when the panelists discuss scary tour experiences, their plotting techniques and how they feel about the Kindle.