I just finished my third novel by Bill Crider, and I enjoyed it as much as the first two. This one features Sheriff Dan Rhodes.
Between 1986 and 2017, Crider wrote 25 novels about this character. Booked for a Hanging is the sixth, published in 1992. In his long career, Crider created four other series but wrote no more than five novels for any of them. Clearly Rhodes was the character he knew best.
Being a small-town sheriff, Rhodes has the same settled-in quality as Carl Burns, the English professor who solves the crime in Dead Soldiers. As he goes about his business, he's always conscious of being a member of the community.
Like Ted Stephens, the hero of Mississippi Vivian, Rhodes is a man of action. He'll fight if he has to. It's part of the job. But he's not "badass" the way Stephens is. After all, Stephens is a private investigator, and Rhodes is a law man.
In all three of these novels, Crider renders life in small Southern towns with imagination and authenticity. Crider himself was an English professor in a small town in Texas.
There are no stereotypes here. Every character is a wonderful blend of quirks. With each, I think, "I've never met anyone quite like that."
Crider's books weigh in at about 200 pages or a little more, just right so far as I'm concerned. I do not understand the current taste for crime novels upwards of 350 pages.
I think I'll be spending a lot of time with Sheriff Dan.
Last Friday, we had lunch with some friends we hadn't seen in almost a year. We talked about what each of us had been up to, and I admitted I was ready to start publishing the mysteries I've written. One friend asked what the books are about. Another asked to be informed when they are available.
Another said Stephen King's On Writing is really a good book. Some others agreed. I think this was the only time I've heard a book on the craft of writing mentioned and discussed by people who aren't writers.
On Writing might be widely read because King's fiction is so popular and because the first 90 pages is about how he grew up and became a writer. But I think people are also reading the 140 pages that make up the middle of the book in which he lays out how to write fiction.
These pages are practical and inspirational for the writer, but also, I would imagine, entertaining for anyone to read. For instance, King says the room in which you write needs only one thing, "a door which you are willing to shut." That's bound to raise a smile.
A writer I know found it perplexing that King devotes about 100 pages of the book to autobiography, although the subtitle of On Writing is A Memoir of the Craft. But another of my favorite books on craft, Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, illustrates many of its practical points with anecdotes from the author's career.
I also like the way King says, "I have written because it fulfills me." This reminds me of how Patricia Highsmith in her how-to book says, "Writing is a way of organizing experience and life itself . . ." Ultimately, it's as much personal as practical.
This is the only oil painting on the walls of our apartment. I bought it at an antique shop when we lived in Philadelphia for less than we spend on groceries in a month. The bill of sale describes it as, "Oil on board of the 'Trou de Bozouls' in Aveyron, France (ca. 1946) signed F. Monge."
I've done a little searching to find out who F. Monge may have been and have turned up nothing. Maybe there is a small regional art museum somewhere in France that celebrates Monge's work. If so, they don't turn up in an internet search.
I've wondered whether F. Monge might be due for rediscovery by the art world, or if some scholar might find that a famous artist signed some paintings with this name at a stage of his or her career.
Such a discovery would make this painting more expensive, but not more valuable. In the years we have owned it, I have not gotten tired of it. I still enjoy looking at it. That is its value for me, along with knowing it is a relic of the mid-twentieth century.
If it became an expensive painting, I would have to pay to insure its replacement cost. I might even have to take precautions so it wouldn't be stolen from my home. I might hear from people who want to see it or borrow it for an exhibition. That might be pleasant or not, depending on the person.
I like owning a painting that is valuable, but not expensive. So, I guess, the theme of my "collection" is, "art without the bragging rights."
I tried another novel by Bill Crider and liked it even better than the first one I tried. This one is about Ted Stephens, a private investigator hired by an insurance company to look into fraudulent claims.
Mississippi Vivian has all the things I liked about Dead Soldiers---the transparent prose, the straight-ahead, logical plot---but the main character is quite different. Ted Stephens has a quality that is highly desirable, according to Matt Bird in his book, The Secrets of Story. Stephens is "badass."
By contrast, Carl Burns, the hero of Dead Soldiers, is humble and has a sense of humor about himself. This is appropriate for an English professor forced into service as an amateur sleuth on his campus.
Ultimately Carl Burns is just as heroic as Ted Stephens. He's willing match wits with reluctant witnesses and suspects, and he risks life and limb when the need arises. But he always seems surprised when he prevails, whereas Stephens sets his sights and gets it done.
By the way, Clyde Wilson, the other name on the book jacket, was a private investigator who apparently consulted on the writing of this novel. For Crider to name him as co-author was generous.
This was typical of Crider according to Susan C. Shea who had the pleasure of knowing him. When I spoke with her recently and mentioned I was reading Crider for the first time, she smiled, and said, "Oh, wonderful Bill."
A good writer and a good man. I'm sorry I didn't meet him before he passed in February.
This view of the Golden Gate was taken from the entrance to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, an art museum in San Francisco's Lincoln Park. We are looking into San Francisco Bay with the Pacific Ocean at our backs. Worth noting: if you sail under the Golden Gate Bridge, you've already sailed past about half the city.
This narrow opening to the bay was called the Golden Gate long before the bridge was built in the 1930's. One might assume it was given that name because thousands of ships rushed through it during the Gold Rush, which started in 1849. But in fact this strait was given that name by John C. Fremont in 1846. He saw it as a "golden gate" to trade with Asia.
These waters outside the Golden Gate are known as the graveyard of ships. At low tide pointed rocks look like rows of teeth on either side. At high tide, they lie hidden beneath the surface, waiting to rip open any vessel that strays outside the central channel.
Because of this danger, bay pilots take control of any ship entering or leaving the bay. They must learn the topography of the strait and and study the currents driven by the tides. But their knowledge is not enough to ensure safe passage even when aided by GPS.
Sometims at night, as we lie in our beds, we hear the fog horns like a chorus of tubas warning the pilots to beware the graveyard of ships.
San Francisco is a good city for bookstores. There's the legendary independent store, City Lights, in North Beach. There are other much-loved indies such as Green Apple Books and Browser Books. There are a couple of local chains: Books, Inc., and Book Passage. There is the venerable source of fine books, Argonaut Books.
And then there is G. F. Wilkinson Books in the financial district. This picture shows the entire store. It occupies three retail display windows, which, I assume, are available because the fast-food place that occupies the ground floor of the building didn't need them.
About a year ago, Rick Wilkinson (seen above) decided to retire and it looked like the store would close. But some of his customers formed a collective and took over the store to keep it open. A similar thing happened to Borderlands recently.
And it's not just bookstores going non-profit. Sam's Grill, which had been slinging the hash at Bush and Belden Streets for 147 years closed briefly and was reopened by customers who bought it and started running it.
Apparently we're entering an age when only tech and financials can make a profit. But people gotta eat, and people gotta read.
Novels in print don't have tables of contents. They don't bother to tell you that Chapter Ten starts on page 83, for instance. Have you ever wished a novel did?
But all ebooks have them. They give you a list of links so you can jump to any chapter, or to the goodies at the front and back of the book.
But how do you know you want to read Chapter 21? The table of contents doesn't tell you what's in Chapter 21.
I guess you can use the links to jump halfway or two-thirds-the-way through the book. But you have the slider at the bottom for that.
I question all this only because I was having trouble adding the table of contents to Dark Mural, the first Nicole Tang Noon mystery, which I will publish on Amazon in September.
I finally found a simple way to do it after trying several other simple ways that didn't work. So Dark Mural will have a table of contents, just in case you feel the need.
I first heard of Bill Crider last April when I read his article on paperback originals. Since then I've seen his name mentioned several times, including, sadly, in his obituary. He died in February of this year.
Crider was one of those English teachers who also had a career writing popular fiction. Another, Jack M. Bickham, wrote some excellent how-to books for the aspiring novelist. And then there's Stephen King.
Upon learning he was a crime writer along with being a scholar of crime fiction, I decided to try Crider's novels. Though best known for his series about Sheriff Dan Rhodes, I chose one that features Carl Burns, an English professor at a small college in Texas.
Since I used to be a professor, and my forthcoming mystery series is about a professor, this seemed the best place to start.
After only a few pages, it was clear Crider's books have two qualities that make me stay with a book. First, the words don't get in the way of the story. The prose is transparent. I see through it and focus on what happens next without pausing to think about how the author uses language.
Second, the story goes in a straight line. There is no prologue. Chapter Two does not jump back weeks or months before Chapter One. Rather, each scene proceeds logically from the scene before it.
Also it helps that I share Crider's sense of humor about what odd ducks college professors are.
I've been reading a lot of Jim Thompson lately. Perhaps I should be worried. Most people I know say his books are too dark.
Which brings us to the subject of noir. In the 1930s the French word for black was used to describe black-and-white films in which there's more black on the screen than white. Since then noir has come to describe a type of story, as Otto Penzler explains in his Foreword to Best American Noir of the Century:
"Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories are existential, pessimistic tales about people . . . who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Noir comes out of the early twentieth century, which also saw the rise of the social sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, etc. These sciences said, "If you want to understand human beings, study their circumstances."
The early twentieth century also saw the rise of the naturalistic novel in which characters struggle with their circumstances as well as with each other. Jack London's stories aren't so much man against nature as man subject to nature. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair writes about working conditions in the meat-packing industry. In Native Son, Richard Wright shows how crime grows out social conditions.
The naturalistic novel asks the reader, "How well would you fare in these circumstances?" I see noir as a sub-species in which the answer is, "Not very well." This prompts compassion.
A lot of people don't like the idea that we are a product of our circumstances, but to some degree we are. To think otherwise is false pride, the kind that goeth before a fall.
Thompson's books are noir but reading them does not depress me. I feel compassion for his characters.
Several times I saw this bicycle parked in front of the place where we go for breakfast once a week. The painting depicts the Palace of Fine Arts, which is near the cafe.
One day I struck up a conversation with a guy wearing bicycle clothes, and he admitted to being the artist, John Paul Marcelo. We had a nice chat about his work. I especially admired the way he captures the effect of fog to make peripheral elements of the picture recede from the main element.
I didn't ask any of the obvious questions, because they seemed to answer themselves.
Why does he ride around with the painting strapped to back of his bike?
It's the only way to carry it when travelling by bicycle.
Why doesn't he cover the painting to protect it?
This way he advertises his work.
What if it rains?
Then he wouldn't be painting outdoors.
What if it gets scratched?
He can repair it.
The only question I can't answer is: Why don't we see more of this?
Having uploaded my manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), I used the preview feature to see how it will look as an ebook. I found a few spacing and formatting problems, and I learned there's more to it than that.
For instance, these two paragraphs look like normal bits of narration in my manuscript, but, on an ebook reader, they look like brick walls. The monotony of the page might make a reader think my story was tedious. These two paragraphs will become four.
This is not the way writers are trained to think. According to my ever-handy copy of The Elements of Style, "The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached."
However, in the world of independent publishing, the writer becomes a book designer and learns visual composition has a logic all its own. While consciously reading the words, the reader subconsciously follows the shape of the text.
Book designers have done this for centuries, making decisions about margins, line-spacing, indentation, typeface, and other things, all to make the appearance of the page support the intent of the prose.
New printing press . . . new rules.