Tag Archives: mystery/thrillers

Nerd Chat with FACES OF THE GONE Author Brad Parks

If you’re a regular reader here, you know I don’t do interviews with stuffy people. If I’m gonna sit down to a lunch interview, have a phone conversation and exchange a bunch of e-mails with someone, that person had better be interesting, funny, smart and look good in a Speedo. Brad Parks is three out of four so I heartily welcome him to Pop Culture Nerd.

Brad "I'm too sexy for furniture" Parks

Brad is the debut author of Faces of the Gone, a mystery about Newark newspaper reporter Carter Ross investigating the case of four dead bodies found in an empty lot with execution-style bullet holes in their heads. The novel provides an unflinching look at life on inner-city streets and in the newsroom, leavened by a healthy dose of humor.

For intimate details about Brad and to see him in a turtleneck, visit his website. But first, read on for our nerd chat.

Pop Culture Nerd: You’ve been all over the blogosphere promoting your book and given shout-outs by everyone from the New York Times to the Sun-Sentinel. Since this is our first time together, I gotta ask: Have you been tested?

Brad Parks: You know what they say—when you blog, you’re not only blogging the blogger, you’re blogging every person they’ve ever blogged. So I might be a bit dodgy, yes. I mean, just blogging at Jen’s Book Thoughts alone probably made me filthy. That skanky ho Jen Forbus gets around.

The infamous Jen Forbus with her niece

PCN: Hose yourself down with Lysol, man! She’s been with everyone in the crime fic community, male and female. But I’ve got my hazmat suit on so we can continue. What was the biggest thrill for you on pub day? Did you go to stores, point to your book and yell at strangers, “That’s me!”?

BP: Honestly? While my pub month was a string of incredible, wonderful, I’ll-never-forget-them happenings, my actual pub day was a bit crushing. In my mind, December 8, 2009 was something I had been building up for years—behind perhaps only my wedding and my kids being born (but ahead of, say, college graduation) in terms of significant days in my life. But to everyone else it was just a Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I got dressed up in my best author outfit, stuffed a Sharpie in my pocket and charged out the door to meet my public. I first went to my local independent bookstore, where the owner (who is a friend) had been so busy with the holiday rush, she hadn’t had time to put my book on the shelves yet. Next, I started in on the chain stores.

Now, mind you, I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the front of these stores—that’s something you’ve got to earn. I wasn’t expecting to be face out on the New Mystery shelf, because that’s valuable real estate, too. But I’m with St. Martin’s Press, a reputable publisher, so I was thinking each store would have at least one copy. Even if it was stuffed in a musty corner somewhere, I would proudly sign each one, whereupon Cherubim and Seraphim would strike a heavenly chord, even if I was the only one who could hear them.

Instead, I got this succession of blank stares from store managers, and it quickly became clear to me that until I darkened their doorstep, they had no plans on stocking my book. After the fourth no-show, I gave up and bought myself a cheeseburger, which I ate alone. It tasted a lot like humble pie.

PCN: But then all the rave reviews and best-of year-end mentions started pouring in. Has your head blown up to melon size? How has your life changed since you became a published author?

BP: You may ask Brad Parks this question, which Brad Parks will be glad to answer, since you clearly acknowledge that He is a Better Person than you. No, seriously, the reviews have been lovely. And there have been some Sally Field you-like-me-you-really-like-me moments, when I’ve felt the warm glow of knowing my words were appreciated somewhere. Other than that, I don’t feel all that different. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my wife complains I talk about myself too much, but she did that before I was published, too.

PCN: Any interesting tour anecdotes you can share?

BP: Well, I wrote about this one for Shelf Awareness. To give you the Cliffs Notes version, it basically involves me white-knuckle-driving my way through an ice storm to a bookstore, where I figured I’d end up sitting in front of a large pile of my books in an empty store. But then…aw, heck, I won’t ruin it. Just click on the link if you’re curious. And promise you’ll come back to PCN when you’re done!

PCN: Thanks for sending both my readers over there. Now I’ll have to pay two other people to read this. You’ve said Carter is a lot like you, but if you could be like any character in crime fiction, who would it be?

BP: This answer probably changes on a daily basis. But today I feel like being Jack Reacher, who has spent all summer digging ditches and has puffed up to 250 heavily muscled pounds. And then I’d go play pick-up basketball. Having otherwise gone through life as a scrawny white guy, I’d like to be able to set a pick that means something for once.

PCN: Did you tell Lee Child about your Reacher daydreams when you fetched him a Coke at last year’s Bouchercon?

BP: I did tell Lee I daydream about being Reacher. Then he replied, “That’s funny, I dream of being Carter Ross.” Then we bro-hugged. Then I woke up.

PCN: What other authors turn you into a gushing fanboy?

BP: I would say Harlan Coben. I’ll know I’ve really arrived when I can spend time with Harlan and not have this little voice in my head—it sounds like an 11-year-old girl—constantly going, Omagod, omagod, I’m hanging out with HARLAN COBEN, omagod! Hasn’t happened yet.

PCN: I like how you equated the process of writing to open-water distance swimming in one of your guest blogs. What do you do if you get a cramp? Or jump in then realize you’re not a distance swimmer? And are Speedos or trunks better for that kind of swimming?

BP: I’ll take the last part of this question first, because it’s important to state—before any bad images get planted in anyone’s head—that I am a trunks-only man. No one needs to see my upper thighs.

As to the rest of the question: Obviously, you ought to have some minimum level of swimming competency, built in the safety of shallow backyard pools and municipal swimming holes. (Or, to extend the metaphor back to writing, stories in school literary magazines, articles in local newspapers or entries in personal journals).

But once you have that, I believe you need to throw yourself in over your head and make yourself swim for your life, cramps and all. That’s the whole point of open water distance swimming. You can’t just stop and walk. You have no choice but to keep going. And I think writers with unfinished manuscripts—know anyone like that?— would be well-served to think of their work that way.

PCN: One of your characters, Tee, has a booming business making R.I.P. T-shirts for gangbangers who get gunned down. The idea is both horrible and savvy. Is it based on something you encountered for real?

BP: Yep, that one is, as they say on Law & Order, ripped from the headlines. As a journalist working in a depressed inner-city, I was constantly fascinated (and saddened and appalled) by the culture of death that surrounds young people in areas with high murder rates. One day, I saw a set of R.I.P T-shirts wrapped to a telephone pole at a housing project in Newark—three kids, all killed before their 21st birthdays. I started poking around and learned there was a whole cottage industry of creating and displaying these shirts. Kids would actually wear them on the anniversaries of the days their friends got killed. So I wrote a story about it.

PCN: And then you wrote two more, books 2 and 3 in the Carter Ross series. The second one is called Eyes of the Innocent. Are you branding this as the body parts series, a la Sue Grafton’s alphabet books? What happens when you travel south of the beltline?

BP: Yeah, the body parts thing is going to be my schtick. And as I’ve told my agent, when we reach Thumbs Up My Ass we’ll know it’s time to quit.

PCN: Okay, so let’s just stay north of the nipples for now. You mentioned in another interview, #817, that you might write a non-fiction book one day. Would it be true crime or something else?

BP: That was actually interview No. 788. Please try to keep count. And, sure, I might write non-fiction someday. Maybe true crime. Maybe ghost-writing for some famous person. Maybe history. Maybe something else entirely. My curiosity is fairly boundless, and I started writing for newspapers when I was 14, so non-fiction is still pretty comfortable for me. More than anything—having gone back and forth between fiction and non—I find they’re a lot more similar than most folks realize.

At the end of the day, it’s all about telling a story. The only difference is whether you have to find the pertinent facts or make them up. Which, I would argue, are roughly equal in difficulty.

PCN: Lying, er, making up stuff is so NOT difficult for me. If you had to choose between writing books that sell 50 million copies each but are critically lambasted (I’m not mentioning names), or those that win busloads of awards but have only modest sales numbers, which would you prefer?

BP: Oh, this one’s easy: Give me the 50 million copies. And then give me 50 million more. Go ahead and shake your head and say, “Brad! How whorish!” And I am. But as commercial as that sounds, there are real, artistic reasons behind it.

See, I’ve never really written for myself. For me, the joy in the creative process has always been in the sharing, and in the reaction it provokes. I write with the hope my words have an impact on people, whether it’s to inform, to entertain, or just to make them shake their heads at something. I want that impact to be as broad as possible.

And it’s not about money. I get just as much of a charge from the fan letter that starts “I bought your book at the store and…” as I do from one that begins, “I got your book at the library…” Do I want critics to like my books and to win awards? Of course. But ultimately it’s because I know those things will increase the size of my audience. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.

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Review: Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE

gwpwfWhen I read the first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (see my review here), I finished it in a two-and-a-half-day marathon. I beat my own record when I swallowed Fire in 34 hours minus 6.5 hours for sleep.

The books’ heroine, Lisbeth Salander, might appreciate these details since she’s some kind of mathematical savant who enjoys working with numbers. But that’s only one of her talents. She’s also a genius computer hacker, boxer, and master of disguise, a skill which, in this latest adventure, helps her elude a massive police manhunt after she becomes the prime suspect in a triple murder. The only person who believes in her innocence is Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist from Tattoo whom she helped crack a case. He comes to her aid this time by hunting down clues which might lead to the real killer(s).

As the investigation progresses, details from Salander’s past slowly come to light, specifically about incidents she calls “All the Evil.” I was already captivated by her in the first book though she was maddeningly opaque at times, behaving in ways I couldn’t understand. After much of her attitude and unique code of ethics are explained in this book, I’m more deeply drawn to her, though pity is not amongst the emotions I feel since Salander would never want that from anyone.

As with Tattoo, you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck here. This book is a thriller, police procedural, exposé on sex trafficking, and psychological study. The exploration of Salander’s psyche makes Fire an even more compelling book than Tattoo, The Empire Strikes Back to Tattoo’s Star Wars in more ways than one. Unlike Star Wars, though, the bad guys in Larsson’s books tend to be one-note evil (even Vader was cool to Luke in the end). I’m talking super nasty, the most depraved bastards you could possibly imagine with no recognizable human traits. Then again, that makes it much more fun and satisfying when they have to face Salander’s wrath. This girl doesn’t just play with it; she’s on fire.

Nerd verdict: Raging hot Fire

Want a copy of this book plus some dragon tattoos? Enter my giveaway here.

Interview: Nerdy Questions for TRUST NO ONE’s Gregg Hurwitz

Photo by Gwen + Eddie

Photo by Gwen + Eddie

One of the highest compliments I can give you is by saying I want to shove you down the stairs. It means you have such an abundance of gifts, I want to steal some a la Eve in the movie that’s all about her.

Thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz is someone I’d like to shove down the stairs twice. But I can’t. Because he’s cool. And he’d probably “punish” me if I tried (more on that later).

Among other accomplishments, Gregg is the author of nine novels, the latest titled Trust No One (out June 23). It opens big, gets bigger, and hurtles towards an explosive finish without shredding character development and logic along the way. Gregg writes with equal parts intelligence, heart and muscle—what else can you ask for?

tno coverThe plot: Nick Horrigan has been waking at 2:18 a.m. every day for almost two decades due to a traumatic incident which destroyed his life and sent him on the lam when he was seventeen. He’d just started sleeping normally again when an LAPD SWAT team storms his apartment one night and drags him out of bed. A terrorist has barricaded himself inside a nuclear power plant and given the edict he will talk to only Nick. But Nick doesn’t know the man and has no idea what’s going on. Turns out the so-called bomber has a key to unlock the mysteries in Nick’s past which involved his stepfather Frank. “Trust no one” is the credo Frank lived by (etched as a tattoo on his arm in Japanese characters) and one Nick must adopt to survive.

For more info on the book and about Gregg, click here. In the meantime, read on as he answers my nerdy questions.

PCN: Since Frank broke the ice with the teenaged Nick by asking, “What do you want me to not do?”, I’ll start with, What do you want me to not ask?

Gregg Hurwitz: Don’t ask me about sock puppets. Or Ayn Rand.

PCN: Done. You’re Harvard and Oxford-educated, have guest lectured at Harvard and UCLA, swum with sharks, hung with SEALs, zip-lined across gulleys in Costa Rican cloud forests, a pole-vaulting champion, Shakespearean scholar, novelist, comic-book writer, inventor of fire, screenwriter, husband and father of two. Could you please tell me something you can’t do so I can feel less inadequate?

GH: I can’t tie my shoelaces except by making bunny ears. My nine-year-old, to her great delight, discovered this some months ago and has been lording it over me. I also can’t find my way out of the proverbial paper bag without help from a GPS system or my wife.

PCN: I feel much better, thank you. The U.S. title of your new novel is Trust No One. So if I say your book is terrific, would you think I’m lying? How would I convince you I’m not?

GH: Aw, shucks. Okay, I believe you. And thank you.

PCN: OK, good. So you’ve said you were interested in joining the FBI during your senior year in college. If you had become an agent, would you have been more like Scully or Mulder, whose motto was also…well, you know.

GH: Boy, that’s a tough one. Back then, I was definitely more Scully—I was (even more) argumentative and fact-based. I think I’ve mellowed since into a more Mulder-esque “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” mindset.

PCN: Horatio couldn’t have possibly dreamt about the kind of nuclear threat at the beginning of TNO. That was alarming. Did your research into that make you wake up in a panic at 2:18 a.m. every day?

GH: Not exactly. But I will say this—there’s a lot of scary stuff out there. And part of my job as a thriller writer is to find a type of threat—a NEW type of threat—and present it in a way that puts ice in readers’ veins. This isn’t always the obvious threat, and it shouldn’t be one that people have seen or read before. Often, the best stuff comes in at a slight angle. And so the threat that Nick confronts in that power plant in the opening sequence isn’t what readers will expect it to be. That said, the book shifts gears very quickly from there; it becomes very much about Nick’s struggle to reclaim his identity.

PCN: One of the themes in the book is that it’s not what a person says or promises, it’s what he does that defines him. What do you do every day that makes you who you are?

GH: Well, most obviously, I write every day. I think a lot of people want to be writers, but very few actually want to write, so that’s something that’s very defining—the activity itself. Mostly, I try to be a man of my word, to uphold promises, to be honest even when it’s not convenient. I do okay at it, I hope. Those are the values I want to instill in my kids, and those are the values that Nick learns from Frank, his stepfather, in Trust No One. Frank doesn’t say much in the book, you’ll notice, but he sets a very strong example by what he does.

PCN: Frank’s a great character. I like how he’s not some cliché stepdad who’s a jerk to his stepson. But if you were in Nick’s shoes and had to go on the run for 17 years, where would you go and what would you do?

GH: Well, I do have it a bit easier, since I’m an adult (or simulate one reasonably well). What’s really damaging for Nick is that he’s forced onto the run as a seventeen-year-old and cut off from his family—and his entire life. For me, I’d probably go somewhere near lots of bookstores and bourbon and live in a tent.

PCN: You have lots of jobs now but what was your first paid writing gig and what did you do with the check?

GH: I was very fortunate early on; I sold my first thriller, The Tower, right out of school. And the check went, boringly enough, straight into the bank so I could keep writing and not have to get a real job. Writing is all I ever wanted to do, so when I got paid, I wanted to bank as many months as I could to keep doing it.

PCN: Wait, how did you manage to sell your first novel right out of school? You had time to write a book between term papers?

GH: I wrote the (very) rough draft of The Tower over the summers before and after my senior year of college. I’d written one sequence the summer previous, when I was 19, but the bulk of the writing came during those two summers. Then I was fortunate enough to land an attorney that next year, when I was getting a master’s in Shakespearean tragedy in England, and my attorney got me an agent who gave me LOTS of (highly necessary) notes. When I was finishing my master’s and supposed to be working on my dissertation, I was in fact rewriting The Tower (and playing lots of soccer), and shortly after I finished up, we managed to sell it. [Editor’s note: The line to shove Gregg down the stairs forms to my left.]

PCN: You don’t just write novels; you’ve written Wolverine, the Punisher and Foolkiller for Marvel Comics [Marvel just announced Gregg will also be taking over Moon Knight]. Which character is most like you?

Hurwitz, in said skull tee, with friend Betsy Little, photo by: Vee Scott

Hurwitz, in skull tee, with friend Betsy Little, photo by Vee Scott

GH: Wow. It seems there is no un-arrogant way to answer which superhero one most resembles—who are you most like, Einstein or Oppenheimer? But I’d have to say, uh, okay, [the Punisher] Frank Castle. Mostly because I wear a skull T-shirt around a lot.

PCN: But you do help save lives. Your third novel, Do No Harm, saved a man’s dog. What other useful tips can readers get from your books?

GH: They can learn how to boost a car, avoid getting sucked into a mind-control cult, and (in the restaurant scene in Trust No One) figure out how to navigate the coolest and most scary conceptual dining experience out there!

PCN: That restaurant scene was freaky! I’d be scared to stick things in my mouth I can’t see. Speaking of dining, I love the perfect anniversary date Nick comes up with at the end—Capra or Howard Hawks, Inn of the Seventh Ray, Shutters, the pier, etc. But that’s expensive. Any ideas for the perfect L.A. date on a budget?

Olvera St., Photo by Pop Culture Nerd

Olvera St., Photo by Pop Culture Nerd

GH: L.A.’s a great budget place for a date since there are so many aspiring not-quite-there-yets hanging about. The beach is always a short drive away and always wonderful, whether for a walk or a picnic. The Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax is terrific—great cheap food from all cultures. Olvera Street—the historic first street in Los Angeles—has the best taquitos in the world.

Oh, and a walk around Venice Beach is like warping to another world. Hippies, head shops, soft-serve ice cream, arts and crafts, Muscle Beach. Last time I was down there I popped in to a storefront running a literal freakshow so one of my daughters could see a sheep with two heads.

PCN: You can get tattoos down there, too. If you had to get one of your life mantra, what would it say and in what language would it be?

GH: I think it would simply be the yin and yang—dark and light, reconciled.

Jack Reacher Will Not Be GONE TOMORROW

gone tomorrowThe title of Lee Child’s 13th Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow (out today), is misleading since Reacher ain’t going anywhere any time soon. He’s back, this time in New York City, kicking asses like always and kicking them hard.

Reacher, a former military cop who’s now just a traveling man, finds himself on the subway at 2 a.m. as the story opens. He sees a woman who shows all the outward signs of being a suicide bomber. Reacher approaches her and attempts to diffuse the situation but instead sets off a shocking series of events that escalate faster than the train on tracks.

The web of intrigue ensnares a former Delta Force major now running for the Senate, a pair of Ukrainian women who may not be what they seem, a human resources clerk in the Pentagon and lots of guys in suits who won’t show ID. Reacher becomes both hunter and prey in the urban jungle, trying to stay one step ahead of deadly opponents who match him in fighting and survival skills but whose hearts are pure evil.

I’m a huge fan of all Reacher novels but I particular like the ones written in first person, as this one is. Reacher is so clever and meticulous that it’s fun to be inside his head when he’s figuring out how to get himself out of a bad situation. I never really want a magician to show me his secrets but with Reacher, I think, Aha! I’ll remember that next time two guys come at me while I’m walking down the street.

Actually, I’m more likely to walk away from a fight or talk myself out of a conflict. But when reading the Reacher books, I always want him to put some serious hurt into the bad guys. This is a testament to Child’s writing skills. A protagonist can only be as heroic as the villains are evil, and Child gives Reacher enemies so hideous that only the Reacher brand of justice will satisfy.

Nerd verdict: Grab Tomorrow today

George Pelecanos’s THE WAY HOME Is Worth Taking

This review was written by contributing writer Eric Edwards.

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pelecanosI’ve never read any of George Pelecanos’s novels so I was very surprised to finish The Way Home (out today) in a single sitting. The book’s lean prose held my interest without sacrificing character development, setting or, most importantly, story. I literally could not put it down because the characters really shook me up.

The story begins with 17-year old Chris Flynn sitting opposite his parents during visiting day at Pine Ridge, a juvenile detention center in Maryland. Despite the agony he had caused his hard-working middle-class parents, all Chris has on his mind is why a place on flat ground with no pine trees anywhere would be named Pine Ridge. Never wanting for anything, Chris had nonetheless gone from being a strong athlete and avid churchgoer to petty thief and budding pot dealer. When our supposedly rehabilitated hero finally rejoins society, his father gives him a chance to prove himself by providing Chris with a job installing carpet for the family business. Mr. Flynn is even open-minded enough to give Ben, one of Chris’s fellow inmates, employment as well. Alone on one particular install, Chris and Ben find a bag full of money hidden underneath the old flooring they were hired to cover. Ben tries to convince Chris to split it between them. “I’ve seen this movie,” thought Chris. “It always ended up bad.” And that’s exactly what happens.

I literally held my breath as I devoured the pages. Has our hero learned his lesson? What about the people who put the money there in the first place? You know it’s only a matter of time before they come looking for the cash. Admittedly, this is not a particularly new storyline, but Pelecanos manages to keep it fresh and the action moving. It’s a solid read I highly recommend.