Sunday, July 31, 2011






This is the second of Sandra Ruttan’s novels I’ve read—the first being Lullaby for the Nameless--and I’m firmly hooked. It took two novels to determine the effect of Ruttan’s work on me—I’d compare the process to first discovering jazz and through both a gradual immersion in the music itself and learning how and why the emotion is influenced by the technical elements, Miles Davis becomes an artist in the listener’s mind. The same thing happened here. I wasn’t born appreciating Miles Davis, but in time I became one of his biggest fans. The same thing is happening here with me and Ruttan.

After reading Lullaby for the Nameless, I wanted to write a review, but I wasn’t ready. Her work—at least for me—can’t be approached and dissected like most novels—there’s a complexity in her work that takes time to understand (at least for me). When I tried to marshal my thought processes to pen an opinion, I kept coming up with the same, vaguely incoherent impressions. I felt like I was channeling my inner Harold Bloom. The overall impression when I finished Lullaby was that this was a work that had the feel of the Impressionists—you know, daubs of paint that once applied, the artist never touched it again or blended it. Little islands of words that somehow made a picture. The other overriding impression was that her writing was Jungian in conception—Jung’s “nightdreams” (not nightmares, although they could be) as opposed to the daydream of most novels. The Jungian approach to writing is of a higher order than the more language-based approach of the day dream.

Carl Jung believed that language imposed a barrier to the true understanding of the individual, because language consists of symbols and those symbols are a layer between the person and anyone trying to communicate with that person. The intellectuals and psychologists will probably shudder at my feeble layman’s understanding of his theories, but they’re all I have to operate with so I hope I’ll be forgiven for any liberties with his teachings here.

My understanding is that Jung felt that because of the artificial nature of words and language as symbols, that a truer understanding of a person’s psyche lay in coming to an understanding of that person’s dreams at night where those symbols aren’t present. For dreams are the manifestation of the true mind of the person without the barrier language poses. Examples in literature are novels such as John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig, which literary types are perhaps loathe to term a crime novel, but indeed, it is.

The daydream, is the more usual of novel constructions. The protagonist’s motives and goals are usually based on a simple emotion, most commonly revenge for something that happened in the past. A common example is the plot where the skinny kid goes to the beach to see a girl he’s hot for, bullies see him and depant him or otherwise humiliate him; he goes home and purchases a Charles Atlas course or learns kung fu, goes back and kicks the bully’s asses, wins the babe. Perfect for Hollywood. Perfect for a light summer read at the beach.

I realize I’m attributing things to Ruttan’s novel that may be overboard, but I’m just trying to describe my impressions as best I can. I think the reasons I felt this way were twofold. One, while her character’s dialog was pitch-perfect, the lack of tags many times confused me as to who was saying what until I backtracked. Second, many of the space breaks were “lost” when the text moved to the top or the bottom of the page, and I’d turn the page and was suddenly cast into a different pov or time period without the benefit of a signal to inform me that was what had happened. A number of these incidents led to an overall sense of being a step behind the plot much of the time. Finally, I decided to just read on and not worry about who said what or where we were in the chronology. And, I’m glad I did. Like the Jungian shrink listening to the patient on his couch, the more I read, the clearer it became. It also became clear that this was a writer writing intelligently; for intelligent readers. A writer with more of a European writer’s and reader’s sensibility, where the reader’s ability to “get it” is perhaps more of a given than for American writers. A writer who out-minimalizes Ray Carver.

I began to come to that awareness of Ruttan’s work with Lullaby; it was fully realized with Suspicious Circumstances. I just had to learn how to read her. Just the same as I had to learn to appreciate jazz.

I won’t give you the plot points and all that of either novel. Others have done a better job at providing that information in their reviews. What I offer for your consideration is my opinion that any reader who enjoys encountering an intelligent author between the pages will appreciate Sandra Ruttan. She’s the sort of writer that one wishes one could spend a lazy afternoon in a bar talking with. It will be an interesting and educational experience.

One thing more. I coach a few writers on their novels, and one of my clients is a terrific writer named Maegan Beaumont. Last week, Meagan emailed me about a concern she had with the novel she’s currently writing. Here’s what she asked:

Hi Les,
I have a question, hopefully you can help me out...

In my romance development between Sabrina and Michael I'm caught in the age-old dilemma... sex scene or no sex scene. I kinda feel like it's like the torcher scene between the killer and Lucy. I went half-way and it was okay but when I finally "went there" it really challenged me as a writer and really set the tone for the whole book. I have a feeling that this is same thing. I'm not squeamish about writing that sort of stuff but I really want to stay away from that "heaving bosom" and "throbbing member" crap... really not my thing. So a few suggestions... your humble opinion... a stern directive would be greatly appreciated :)

Also... I had always planned a romance between S&M (so glad you agree!) but I tried the sappy sweet "happily ever after" and it just didn't work for me. What I'm thinking is that they fall in love but can't be together because of the device in his back and he's forced back into service for FSS. It really plays with the second novel I'm planning and maybe by that time I can work through my happy-ending phobia. Let me know what you think... and thanks :)


To which I answered:

Hi Maegan,

Short answer is you don't have to have one of those sweaty sex scenes at all. You don't even have to have a sex scene at all. If you want one, fine, if you don't, that's fine also. And, if you do, you can create it any way you feel comfortable with and in the best way you feel it serves the story. Myself (and I'm like lots of readers, I think), whenever I encounter them, usually I just skip over 'em. Most are boring. It's virtually impossible to write a truly original or creative one any longer. Just don't feel you have to have one to "sell" your book. Not true at all. They're not obligatory in the least.

Hope that helps!

I followed that email up with this one:

Hi Maegan,

Here's something you might want to look at to see how a successful author writes a terrific novel where all through it there are obvious fireworks between two characters and never once do they do the nasty and yet it works as a powerful romance without them sweating and moaning in some Lady Chatterly sex scene. Check out Sandra Ruttan's Suspicious Circumstances. Seeing how this wonderful writer opted to answer for herself your very question and not include what some feel to be that obligatory sex scene will be illuminating, I think.

Blue skies,

One of my litmus tests as to whether I feel a book is original and represents excellent writing is if I can use it in informing my writing students and clients. Only the best books reach that threshold. Ruttan’s does just that.

Hope this helps and hope you’ll check out Sandra Ruttan. She’s the real deal.

Blue skies,

Suspicious Circumstances 

Guilty Conscience: Interview with Helen Fitzgerald

Guilty Conscience: Interview with Helen Fitzgerald: "Helen Fitzgerald is the author of five adult thrillers as well as young adult fiction also. Her current release 'The Donor' is gaining exc..."

This interview sold me on Helen Fitzgerald's writing when she talked about her use (non-use?) of description in answering this interview question:

Another stand out for me, was the writing style, no wasted words whatsoever. How much editing takes place after completing the first draft?

There was hardly any editing in The Donor – I think it took me two days. Most of the time, my editors say my writing is too sparse and too frantic, and ask me to slow things down and add description.  I’m not good at description. Fog’s fog.


Fog's fog.

My own take on most good description.

Blue skies,

Monday, July 25, 2011


Hi folks,

This post is about as far from a writing topic as one can get, but in a way it’s related—it stems from an article I read today in the Ft. Hooterville Journal-Gazette. The instant I read it, a red mist rose up in my vision, blinding me.

It was a wire article from United Features Syndicate titled SIMPLE SOLUTIONS and subtitled: GET A CHEAPER HAIRCUT.

That got my attention since I was a haircutter for over thirty years.

Here’s the first paragraph—the one that induced me to throw something and break a window.

“Believe it or not, the best way to cut costs is to have the hairdresser come to you. Salons pocket about 60 percent of the overall fee, so to bring in extra cash, many stylists make house calls. Just ask. Generally, the same services are available, including color treatments, but the prices are up 30 percent to 40 percent lower, because the stylist keeps all the money.”

I can’t begin to tell you how wrong all of that is. Well, I can begin and will…

First of all, let me declare the writer of this article a total ditz. Just another “reporter” who doesn’t do five minutes of any real research before he or she begins shooting her mouth off. In these days of political correctness, we’re not supposed to use the term “retard,” but if ever a person deserved to be described thusly, this person did. This is clearly a person who rode the short bus to school and lost her bus privileges for losing her helmet. And, became a feature writer… This is why brothers and sisters shouldn’t mate…

First, I wonder if this “writer” understands why salon owners “pocket” 60 percent of the service fee. This is information I suspect escapes those who simply show up to work with the only investment being their lunch bucket. I especially love her term of “pocketing” the money. Kind of a verb that suggests a pimp taking his cut from his prostitutes.

Here’s why owners “pocket” 60 percent. It’s called “expenses and overhead.” Along with “return on investment.” A partial list of those expenses and overhead would be: rent or lease payments, advertising costs, training costs for stylists, paying half of the employee’s Social Security (which brings up another expense for owners—as self-employed workers themselves, they pay both sides of SS for their own earnings), utilities, insurances (including liability policies for damages a stylist in their employ might create on a client and be sued for), benefits for their stylists, including pensions, health and life insurances, sick days, paid vacations, bonuses and a thousand other expenses I don’t recall at the moment. Not to mention furnishing a place to work, in many cases, tools, along with supplies such as shampoos, conditioners, color and perm products, dryers, chairs, refreshments for workers and clients, magazine subscriptions, the décor… it goes on and on and on. At sixty percent of the employees’ earnings, a well-run and efficient salon will realize about five percent of that. The majority of salon owners actually lose money. I know a great many salon owners who employ say five or six stylists who don’t make anything from their employees at all, and their “profit” consists primarily of what they personally take in each month.

Not to mention, the salon owner took a risk and invested in the business. A risk the employee doesn’t make at all. All he or she has to do is show up for work and bathe regularly. And, most stylists aren’t getting rich, either.

How do you suppose a salon owner would view one of their stylists giving “kitchen cuts” outside of the salon? A stylist who the owner has invested training dollars on. A stylist upon which the owner has spent large sums advertising for? Or paid the rent or lease money for the space she uses? Or paid half of her S.S.? Or taken out her taxes each week and paid for the accounting services to do that and provide her an annual W-2 form? Might it be possible that the owner has invested a sizable amount of money in that stylist, and might take a bit of umbrage that the client who came through the door and sat in that stylist’s chair mostly as a result of what the owner had done to induce her to come to the salon? If so, what do you suppose that owner feels about such a stylist going to that client’s house to do a kitchen cut and pocketing the entire, discounted fee?

Not very kindly.

In fact, when I owned salons and employed stylists, if I caught any of my employees doing that, they’d be automatically fired. On the spot. No appeal. It’s unethical, it’s immoral, and it’s a crime. It’s called STEALING from the employer.

And, yet… this is what this moron is suggesting people do.

Should we do the same for other services? Should we ask cab drivers to take us someplace “off the meter” for a cheaper fee? To conveniently “forget” the owner who has paid for the cab, paid for the insurance, the phone bills, the building they worked out of, the utilities paid, the business they worked for years to establish the reputation of his or her fleet? In this writer’s mind, it looks like that would be just fine.

Or, should we find a clinic and search out the junior doctors and nurses and offer them a lesser fee to come to our house to perform their ministrations? Find a just-graduated dentist to visit us in our homes to treat a cavity? Find a newly-minted lawyer in a large firm to write our wills for us in our house?

I doubt if she even considered that, but what’s the difference? Is it because she doesn’t see a stylist as being as “professional” or “important” as other service vendors? Her attitude fairly well screams what she thinks of hairstylists. Second-class citizens.

I think I’ll offer my services as a writer for her column. At forty percent of what she receives. That would be a great deal for United Features, as I think I can offer demonstrable proof that I’m a better writer than he or she is…

She offers some other ways to beat the price in salons. I’m so pissed at this person’s attitude I don’t want to spend any more time on her ignorance. I just wish I was still cutting hair and I knew who he or she was and that they popped up in my chair. I’ve got a cut in mind for them that would be worth every cent of the 40 percent she was paying…

This is the mindset of (many—not all) people who work for corporations or the government or other institutions and not small businesses. They really don’t have a clue how this thing called “the economy” works.

Their ignorance is appalling.

I’m still mad.

It’s one of the reasons I’m not cutting hair any longer. People like this writer.

If anybody knows the name of the person who wrote this article, send him or her to me. I’ve got a home haircut just for him or her…

Final thought—are there any editors out there any more who actually think about the copy that’s turned in? Any editors at the newspapers who buy this garbage who actually think about what they’re printing? That have a clue why newspapers are dying?

Rant over... For here. I'm still fuming.
Blue skies,

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Hi folks,
Just got the probable covers for my two novels about to be published by StoneGate Publishing and thought I'd share them with you.

This is a road novel, based on my own experiences in and out of prison. I'd estimate it's about 80 percent true life stuff. Several excerpts from this novel have been published as short stories in such magazines as Murdaland, Flatmancrooked, High Plains Literary Review, Houghton-Mifflin's Best American Mysteries 2001, and two excerpts will be published in the forthcoming Noir Nation. A couple of the excerpt/stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

The cover:

 The second cover is for my novel THE PERFECT CRIME. This novel was previously sold in auction to Random House and then the deal fell apart when Bertlesmann bought R.H. as previously chronicled on this blog. I'm deliriously happy that Aaron Patterson is bringing it out now with StoneGate. When I wrote this, one of my good friends, Bob Parker, had done projects for the government for various agencies and he vetted it and proclaimed it, indeed, "the perfect crime." He told me I should either do the crime myself or publish it and that I'd probably make more money if I did the crime. We'll see... He also said that it was a template for a perfect crime and that I should leave out or change at least one element so that criminals couldn't follow it, but I decided not to. And, since I wrote it back in 1995, there have been a couple of attempts to perform this crime (no one had at the time I thought up the idea), but they've all been caught. I think it's because the book wasn't out as if it was and they'd read it, they might have avoided capture... Now, law enforcement is up to speed and even if it was adhered to, they'd probably end up in the gray walls motel.

The cover:

They'll both be available soon from all the various outlets, including Amazon and through StoneGate Publishing. I'll be sure and let you know when.

Hope you like 'em.

Blue skies,

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Guilty Conscience: Interview with Paul D. Brazill

Guilty Conscience: Interview with Paul D. Brazill: "Paul D. Brazill writes some of the best short pulp stories you'll find trawling around the web. He is the author of the first 'Drunk on the ..."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Hi folks,

For those who live in the same area as I do—Ft. Wayne, IN—I know this is extremely short notice, but today at 6 p.m., I’m delivering a workshop for fiction writers based on the film, Thelma & Louise, at Congregation Bnai' Jacob, 7227 Bittersweet Moors Dr., Ft. Wayne. (Just off Jefferson Highway (24W).

I’d meant to post this earlier, but my Halfzeimer’s must have kicked in as I just realized a few minutes ago that today was the day! If anyone’s interested, they have seats left at a nominal cost (I think, $5). I’ll show the film, stopping it often to point out and illustrate how screenwriter Callie Khouri utilized techniques that solidly inform fiction techniques. I’ve given this presentation a number of times in the past and garnered wonderful and glowing reviews from the attendees. It will take about 3 ½ hours for the presentation.

If interested and you think you might want to attend (even at this late notice!), drop me an email for any questions you might have at I’ve been told that since this is in a synagogue, men will need to wear a baseball cap or a Kippah or other head covering.

Again, sorry for the late notice!

Blue skies,

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Hi folks,

Just making some observations about ebooks and wondering how others think about this.

First, I’m a believer in ebooks. Big-time. I was old-school until about a year ago when I bought a Kindle. Now, I get nearly all my books on Kindle and even pass up buying books that don’t offer an ebook version. It’s changed my reading life. And, I buy way more books now that I don’t have to run to the bookstore or wait for them in the mail. I used to buy an average of four books a week and now I’m buying closer to seven books a week. Truth.

I even bought my wife Mary a Kindle and her reading habits have mirrored mine. We both love our Kindles! And, we’re both buying a lot more books than we ever have and we’ve always bought lots and lots of books. In fact, for over twenty years, as a family we visited a local bookstore every single weekend and we always bought lots of books.

Since we both got our Kindles, we’ve only gone to the bookstore a couple of times. One was solely because the local Borders closed their doors and we went to get in on the close-out sales. But, our tradition of going every single week is over.

And, I’ve got my next five novels coming out as ebooks. So, I’m solidly in the ebooks corner.

However, I was thinking about a weakness in the ebook market and wondered what others thought about this.

The weak spot in the ebook market I see is the Christmas and birthday or other gift market. It’s much more attractive to send a physical book to the person you’re gifting, plain and simple. It just feels like you’re giving a  bona fide gift when you can wrap it up and put a bow on it. Giving an ebook just doesn’t give me that kind of satisfaction. Plus, it’s really hard to send an ebook to a child in particular, because most of the kids in my family just don’t have Kindles or Nooks.

I’m sure that will change somewhat over the coming years, but I don’t think there’s going to be a mass exodus for parents to buy their kids their own Kindles. At least not in my family. I suspect that will be the case in the majority of other families as well. I’m aware that there are people with more disposable income than I enjoy and that there are those who were buying their kids cell phones years before the parents in my circle did, and those folks will perhaps purchase Kindles for their kids, but I suspect that’s not going to be a sizable market, at least for awhile. At least not on my block. As one kid answered his father the other day when he asked the little guy if he thought money grew on trees, retorting, "Not in our back yard."

I have no way of knowing this and am basing my assessment solely on my own experience, but I also think I’m probably typical. I suspect that last Christmas season, physical books sold far more than ebooks and I also suspect that will remain the case this year and for at least the foreseeable future. When I send my grandson Logan a book as a gift (which is my usual choice of gifts for him), I can’t even consider an ebook. It has to be a physical book. One, I want him to have the experience of opening up a present. That still trumps—experience-wise—clicking on an on-switch, even if he had a Kindle, which he doesn’t. That’s just an aesthetic that I don’t see Kindle overcoming, at least for now. In the future, perhaps.

What about you folks? Do you buy books for gifts and if you do, do you buy ebooks or physical books? Myself, even though I could send a gift certificate for an ebook, I probably won’t. At least for the kids I send presents to. I want to at least visualize them ripping open a brightly-colored package and getting their little sweaty mitts on a real object. Not a piece of paper that has the emotional value of getting a Burger Doodle Gift Certificate. I just can’t see them waving a slip of paper in the air, jumping up and down, and screaming, “Look what Grandpa sent me!” I can see that with a book…

Also, in years past, whenever I did a booksigning, there were lots of folks who bought more than one copy of the book I was signing and asked me to sign the extra copies for their friends or relatives. Not going to happen with ebooks. The vast majority of ebook buyers buy one copy. Which really makes the sales pitch  I've always made at those signings to "Buy 10 copies! Christmas is just around the corner!" pretty much invalid. I'd often say that in signings held in January. And, it worked. No mas... Actually, not as many signings either... I'll miss that!

I’m all for ebooks, but I see this as a market I think they’ll find difficult to make a lot of headway in, at least for now.


Blue skies,

Friday, July 8, 2011

DRUNK ON THE MOON by Paul D. Brazill

Hi folks,
I never make two posts in a day, but I've just finished two remarkable books--the Allan Guthrie novel just before this (check it out following this post if you haven't already), and Paul D. Brazill's great new novella, DRUNK ON THE MOON.

Here's the review I posted on Amazon and Goodreads and some other places.

Yowza. I just bought Paul D. Brazill’s newest offering, DRUNK ON THE MOON, a couple of hours ago and read it all the way through, my mouth agape on every single page.

There are writers one reads for plot, for story, for strong characterization, for brilliant description, for brilliant dialog, for… all kinds of things. I read Mr. Brazill for all of those and more, but the thing I always look for in his work and am always amply rewarded is his writing. To wit, the way he turns a phrase, creates original-diginal language and so much “gooder” than any other writer I know. He’s the only writer I know who makes his work hard to read on a Kindle. Why? Because on just about every page I keep dropping it when I can’t help myself and clap my hands in delight.

Here’s just a few of the gems that are sprinkled liberally on almost every single page:

Nausea curdles away inside you.

…the migraine bright bathroom…

The oil slick of night…

Detective Ivan Walker flew in out of the storm like a murder of crows…

Suddenly, a sickly stew of screams and howls clung to the wind and drifted down to my car.

The moonlight oozed across The City’s dank cobblestones like quicksilver…

Days bled into weeks, which hemorrhaged into months, until the winter crept up and smothered the whiskey coloured autumn days with darkness.

Outside, a sharp sliver of moon garroted the coal black sky.

The winter moon hung fat and gibbous…

Dark dreams lapped at the shore of my sleep until I awoke drowning in sweat.

On the stage, partially clad young women slid around like spaghetti on an alcoholic’s plate.

He rolled the ‘r’ in grim like it was a chainsaw starting up.

I mean—who writes like that! Nobody. Nobody but Paul D. Brazill. As a writer, whenever I read one of his stories I feel like the pig who fell into a vat of sour cream. Brazill isn’t just a writer; he’s a poet and you can take any of his stories and write a master’s thesis on just the language employed.

As Emily Dickenson said about the very best of writing: It takes the top of my head off.

If you’re a writer, read Brazill at your peril. He’ll make you want to take your typewriter and go home and learn plumbing.

If you’re just a reader who loves brilliant writing, go right ahead. Be prepared to keep yelling out to your roommate, “Hey! You’ve got to read this!”

Over and over…

Get this one!
Blue skies,


Hi folks,
I want to talk about a book and a writer I recently discovered who's the "real deal," Allan Guthrie.

Recently, Brian Lindenmuth, my editor at Snubnose Press, made a comment about one of my novels, The Bitch, which was a wonderful compliment to it. He said, “I thoroughly enjoyed it and I appreciated that it was a dark novel that ended darkly. So many novels are dark in the telling but pull back at the end, leaving me to shake my head.”

Normally, I wouldn’t insert myself or my own work into the review of another’s work—that smacks of crude and blatant self-promotion--but Brian’s quote so perfectly fit my assessment of Allan Guthrie’s novel, Two-Way Split, I wanted to give him credit and then trust that the reader of this review and Mr. Guthrie himself, wouldn’t take offense at doing so.

Like Brian, I am so often disappointed when reaching the end of a noir or crime fiction when the work takes a major turn and ends with a “Hollywood happy-sappy” finale. You know, where the mass intellect is satisfied that the person they’re rooting for throughout the book didn’t end up in jail or get killed or maimed or something terrible. I always recall what screenwriter Callie Khouri went through with her brilliant screenplay of Thelma & Louise, when the “suits” at the studio wanted to let the two women live at the end—perhaps go off to prison for a few years and then emerge as happy campers. Thank god, Khouri resisted all of that silly nonsense and had Thelma and Louise plunge to their deaths off the Grand Canyon!

And, here we get another writer who doesn’t bow down to the knucklehead mouth-breathers who prefer such sappy endings! You know those folks. They’re the ones who keep that political correctness bullshit going and whose spiritual forebears were responsible in earlier ages for changing the Cinderella story where the evil stepsisters originally cut off their toes to fit the slipper into the insipid and soulless version kiddies are subjected to today. Those folks who don’t like to see much truth in their fiction… Or in their own lives…

Two-Way Split starts out dark, gets even darker, and ends in almost total blackness. Superb! A novel for intelligent readers. Halleluiah! Sharon Sheehe Stark, a brilliant writer who led one of my workshops during one of my MFA residencies at Vermont College put forth to us her very original and against-the-common-herd-mentality of fiction teachers, when she dismissed the prevailing writing theory of creating characters, who promoted the technique of “having your bad guy like kittens,” as a sort of trick to get the reader to like him or her.
Sharon gave contrarian advice. “Paint your character as dark as you possibly can. Don’t make him ‘love kittens’ or any of that crapola. Create a real person who hates cats as much as he hates everything else. Do not fall temptation to giving him any of those ‘saving graces.’ If you do that (and here is her genius), then the light will shine through the cracks.” (Italics mine.)

This is precisely what Guthrie does in his novel. He gives us characters who act honestly, according to their view of life, as flawed as that view may be to those who prefer their characters to end up in AA or forgiving those who trespassed against them. Ain’t happenin’ in Two-Way Split.

And, best of all, this is a novel that is enormously entertaining. The words such as “riveting” and the phrases such as “couldn’t put it down,” or “this was a page-turner,” are overused in assessments like this—many times, undeservedly--but dang it, all of those and more apply to this novel. I couldn’t put it down; it was riveting; it was decidedly a page-turner… and I’ve become a huge, huge fan of Guthrie. This is going to cost me some bucks, as now that I’ve read Two-Way Split, I have to buy the rest of his novels… and he has a few!

I’ll leave it to others to deliver plot points and all that. I just want to get out the message that this is a powerful book and one you’ll thank me for recommending to you. One thing I will mention is the title. It’s one of the great titles in literature. It works on several levels which I won’t reveal. You’ll just have to read it to find that out.

One note about the ending. As you can guess, this isn’t one of those “happy-sappy Hollywood endings.” It is, quite so, one of the best endings I’ve ever read. A good ending represents both a win and a loss. In Thelma & Louise, for example, the “loss” is fairly clear. They die. The win takes a bit more thought, but it’s also clear. The two women achieve their independence from men. Two-Way Split also has a profound win and a profound loss. You’ll have to read it to see. I promise you it’ll be worth it.

I teach creative writing. You can bet I’ll be using this novel in my classes. I’m already using it to inform my own writing.

Blue skies,

P.S. Allan Guthrie is a writer, editor and literary agent who lives and creates fantastic fiction  in Scotland. I think he wears a kilt and plays bagpipes, but that isn’t confirmed and may just be a stereotype spread by vicious rumors… You can check out Allan Guthrie on his blog and website at and

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Hi folks,

I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan and have been for four decades. I’ve read every single thing he’s written and paying attention to his writing has been a big influence on my own.

Awhile back, I wrote a couple of posts here where I discussed the television show Justified, based on the Raylan Givens character he’d created, when it first came out. At the time I wrote the post, I hadn’t yet seen the series, but had just seen the promos and instantly knew it was based on Leonard’s work, just from the sixty seconds of the promo. It had that “Elmore Leonard” feel that was instantly visible.

I was excited as in my opinion, Hollywood had never gotten Leonard right. Especially in movies like Get Shorty and most of the movies they’d based on his novels and short stories over the past twenty years. They always… what’s the word?... Hollywoodized his fiction. Tinseltown, in my opinion, had never “gotten” the real Elmore Leonard.

Then, when I saw a couple of episodes of Justified, I posted a review in which I expressed disappointment in the series. The main source of my disappointment was in the casting. Timothy Olyphant as the lead character just seemed too soft. That’s how I described him in my negative review, and it wasn’t exactly the right word, but I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong with him as Raylan Givens.

Now, I know what the right word is.

First, I need to give some backstory to show how I came to the conclusion that once again, Hollywood had failed to grasp Elmore Leonard.

My favorite of all of his novels—hands-down—is Killshot. I’ve read this masterpiece over twenty times. I feel it’s the very best of all his novels, bar none, and that’s going some. He’s written an awful lot of masterpieces! But, Killshot is, word-for-word, one of the best novels ever written by anyone. Again, in my opinion, but it’s the only opinion I have to work with.

His opening in that novel is the single best opening in any work I’ve ever read, and, as many of you know, openings are my particular shtick, and I talk about it extensively in Hooked. It does so many things. It creates the particular tone that is only Leonard’s and plunges the reader into the world of that novel completely and absolutely. It’s intelligent—written with Leonard’s minimalism that shows a complete trust in the reader’s intelligence to be able to understand it without the author using a teleprompter. I’ve read the novel at least twenty times—I’ve read the first few pages probably a hundred times. It’s that good.

In my review of Justified, I mentioned Killshot, as I’d read somewhere that they were making a movie of it. I vowed then that if they messed that film up, I’d never again watch a Hollywood version of a Leonard novel.

Well—shame on me—I don’t read the entertainment pages or People Magazine or any publication that talks about movies, so I didn’t realize it until a month ago that the movie Killshot had come out. A couple of years ago! And, I’d missed it!

I ran to the local Blockbuster’s and rented a copy. Viewed it two days ago. Viewed it yesterday. Viewed it a few minutes ago. Later on, I’m going to return to Blockbuster’s and buy it.

This is the first movie they’ve ever gotten Leonard right. It was pitch-perfect. Before I saw this movie, I had two favorite movies. As many of you know, I think Thelma & Louise is the best-written movie of all time. At least for fiction writer’s purposes. My favorite movie for all reasons—script, acting, entertainment value—all of the elements of great film—is The Hustler. For lots of reasons. One is that when that movie came out that’s what I was doing—hustling—and my friends immediately nicknamed me “Fast Eddie.” I was in the Navy at the time, and when I left those shipmates, the nickname slipped into disuse among my new friends. But, The Hustler was loaded with everything I want to see in a movie. Powerful acting performances by Piper Laurie and Paul Newman (Paul Newman, in my opinion, is the best actor who ever lived and I do not want to get emails telling me Marlon Brando or Johnny Depp or somebody else has that title, as I’ll delete them unread…). If you don’t believe Paul Newman is the best actor who ever lived, rent The Hustler and The Color of Money and compare the performances of both Newman and Tom Cruise in the respective title roles. Both are about the same age when they made each movie, and when you watch them together it’s clear that this is a comparison between a man and a boy. Or, an actor and a model…

I digress…

I learned that the reason I didn’t know it had come out was that it came out direct-to-video instead of as a theater release. This just shows two things. The intelligence of the multiplex audience and the intelligence of Hollywood… The review posted on IMDb mostly panned it.  Which… shows the intelligence of the reviewer as well…

Or, perhaps, since everybody else didn’t like it except for me, it may be my I.Q. that is suspect… I've been told that once or twice... Of course, the ones who criticized me and were foolish enough to provide their addresses are now room temperature... (Thanks, Guido, and you know what I mean...)

The movie Killshot was just that. Killer. For the first time ever, I got to watch a film based on a Leonard novel in which every single person involved in making it understood and “got” Elmore Leonard. I’m not sure who the casting director was, since listed on IMDb were four names—Kerry Barden, Billy Hopkins, Diane Kerbel and Suzanne Smith—so I don’t know who cast which parts, but whoever was responsible for which roles, they all did a superb job. Mickey Rourke as The Blackbird was the perfect choice. Every time Rourke makes a movie, I’m the first to buy a ticket. And, this was the best role he’s played since Angel Heart (which, coincidentally, is the only movie set in New Orleans that got the Big Sleazy right…). His sidekick, the smarmy Richie Nix, was played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I was afraid they’d be unimaginative and go for somebody like Steve Buscemi, but intelligence ruled in this choice. It isn't that Buscemi wouldn't have played the part well, but his fame would have overpowered the performance. This role called for a relative unknown. The Wayne Colson and Carmen Colson roles were filled by Thomas Jane and Diane Lane, and whoever made the decision to cast these two understood the novel completely. The “stars” were Blackbird and Nix, and not the husband and wife. Actually, the casting choices for the husband and wife were pitch perfect as they didn’t steal scenes or interest from the true central characters of the story. This is The Blackbird's story, all the way.

Hossein Amini, the screenwriter, did such a great job of getting the story down as Leonard wrote it that I was surprised that Leonard himself hadn’t written it. He completely understood the particular genius that is Leonard. Every single note was spot-on.

As did the director, John Madden. In fact, every blessed person involved in this collaborative effort just nailed Leonard perfectly. They were all on the same page. Which may be why it wasn’t released in theaters and why it got a shitty review. I suspect most movie-goers who don’t read Leonard would have preferred Quentin Tarantino and Danny DeVito to play some of these roles and made it into a comedy with clever dialog.

However, the thing that really made this movie true to Leonard more than anything, was Rourke’s performance. I’m glad that he played this part at his age now than in his younger days. I think if he would have had this role a few years ago, he would have overplayed it, much as did Robert DeNiro in the remake of Cape Fear, with his over-the-top performance where he came across mostly cartoonish with his overacting. Kind of a Jason role without the hockey mask. This kind of thing plays well for the pubescent crowd at the multiplex, but does little for acting subtlety and true acting chops. What makes Leonard such a great writer is not only his dialog (which was everywhere in this film!), but his approach to his characters and the world they exist in, in that they’re amoral to the nth degree. Totally existential landscapes and characters. Rourke played the role with true understated genius, and, by not trying to create a “bogeyman” kind of character, delivered a truly scary guy. He never once gets in his own way by stooping into melodrama. He’s a force in this movie, just as Leonard created him on the page, and he’s so powerful because nothing can stop this guy—certainly nothing moral. He plays the true criminal mind and character better than anything I’ve seen or read in a long, long time. And, I know something about the criminal mind...

And, that’s the key to my reasoning why Justified doesn’t work for me. It’s because Raylan Givens is the kind of character Leonard is almost alone in creating. His characters aren’t concerned about right or wrong, good or bad. They’re just concerned in… doing their jobs, getting through life. Doesn’t matter which side they’re on—the so-called “good” side or the so-called “bad” side. All of the characters in a classic Leonard story are almost totally amoral. In other words: realistic. In other words: pure noir. That’s the Raylan Givens character in the printed story. Not what appears in the series.

But the creators of the TV series didn’t understand that about Leonard’s stories. They made the stories and the characters moral. Compare the Olyphant character in the series to the Thomas Jane role in Killshot. Wayne Colson could give a shit about anything moral in the popular sense at all. He just wants his wife back and for The Blackbird to go away and leave them alone. While Olyphant looks soft and gooey in a white Stetson, Colson looks “real” and much better without one. A great example to illustrate that most audiences like at least a bit of a sermonette in their entertainment. Hollywood's idea of a lead character is to make him or her moral... but with a flaw. Bullshit Writing 101.

And that’s why Hollywood always fucks up Leonard stories. They know the average popcorn buyer isn’t into noir nor do they understand or appreciate it. That’s why they always try to broaden the audience by turning great stories into… shit. People understand crap. Many don’t really understand art.

I know I’m that prophet crying alone in the wilderness. I know that Hollywood will probably never adapt a “true” Leonard story. But, they did once and that’s great. If you love noir, rent this movie. If you like Quentin Tarantino and Danny DeVito in your crime roles, don’t.

This one’s for you, Carl Brush! I’ll be very curious if you agree or disagree with me on my take here.

I’d really be interested to know if Elmore Leonard agreed with me on any of this. Probably not. At least I suspect he wouldn’t agree publicly—but I wonder if he would in private. I know if I was him, I’d be kind of pissed about what Hollywood does with his stories…

Hope you folks found this halfway interesting.

Blue skies,