Legal Eagles: Attorneys Writing Fiction (3)

Today on Legal Eagles, I’m featuring a crime author who also happens to be a fellow alumnus from the University of Colorado, School of Law. Manuel Ramos. I had the pleasure of speaking with Manuel recently at the Mysterious Bookshop, at an event to meet and greet the new board members of the Mystery Writers of America. Click here for a blog piece Manuel wrote about his new status on the national board.

As Manuel makes clear in his blog post, he is one of very few published Latino authors of crime fiction. I would venture to guess that he is also one of the few Latino crime writers with the distinction of having a highly successful law career, which included years of award-winning public service for Colorado Legal Services. He is now retired from the law.

At the Mysterious Bookshop, I picked up a copy of his latest novel, My Bad. I’m glad I did.

My Bad, by Manuel Ramos (Arte Publico Press)

My Bad, by Manuel Ramos (Arte Publico Press)

Many reviewers have written of Manuel’s talent for spare and vivid prose, bringing to life Denver’s Chicano culture and changing neighborhoods. I would add to these accolades that his legal background makes a significant contribution to his work. Those of you who’ve read the Dana Hargrove legal thrillers know of my interest in exploring the ethical dilemmas facing attorneys in the field of criminal law. Manuel enhances his work with plenty of them. How’s this one for a doozy? An ex-con employee of a criminal defense lawyer, tailing a client to investigate a civil lawsuit, unwittingly finds himself at the scene of a murder that implicates the client. Should the attorney report it or keep it quiet? What an impossible tug of competing loyalties! A dilemma of choice among the ethical duties owed in multiple capacities: as lawyer, friend, employer, and citizen. I love this stuff!

Subtitled “A Mile High Noir” in a nod to the mile-high Rocky Mountain city, My Bad is just as much a story of the relationship between attorney Luis Móntez and ex-con Gus Corral, as it is a plot-driven crime drama. Gus is adjusting to life on the outside after serving an unspecified number of years in prison for unspecified crimes. Under the watchful eye of his parole officer, Gus is perpetually on edge, second-guessing every step he makes for possible repercussions to his parole status. The legal mess that landed Gus in prison is the subject of a previous novel. Click here to watch a very cool video about the first Gus Corral novel, DesperadoI haven’t read Desperado, but am now driven to read it, to find out more about Gus. Like my Dana Hargrove novels, Manuel’s books are standalone and can be picked up in any order.

My Bad gives a real sense of place and community in its descriptions of city streets and buildings, Mexican food, family gatherings, social events, and references to music, mostly rhythm and blues. The author also sprinkles in a good number of phrases and words in Spanish. Porque lo entiendo un poquito this was not a problem for me, nor would it pose an obstacle for readers who don’t understand the language. The meaning is clear (or close enough to clear) from context, and you’ll enjoy the flavor that the dialog gives to scene and exposition.

In fiction, I appreciate creativity with language, mood, and scene, and you’ll get a lot of that here. The language is terse and, in some places, tough, but not so very tough. I’m a fan of suggestion, innuendo, clever twists, and leaving a lot to the intelligence of the reader—not a fan of graphic violence, blood and guts, or gratuitous cursing. This novel falls in place with these tastes. The characters are human, flawed, a mix of good and bad, their personal challenges relatable. For example, there’s a good deal of angst expressed by Luis Móntez as he prepares to wind down his law practice and retire, reflecting on his professional and personal life, attempting to come to terms. Does this sound familiar to me? Perhaps so. I won’t go into detail.

I enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading more. Check out Manuel’s website for descriptions of all his works.

Reflections on the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

On a dismal, drizzly afternoon in Manhattan, an array of editors, authors, artists, and crime fiction aficionados jammed a large meeting room at the Butler Library to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  Appropriate to the occasion were several surprise visits from beyond the grave (an eerie, other-worldly screeching from the HVAC system), and a chilling reading by Joyce Carol Oates from her story “Big Momma,” a creepy tale from The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror.  Shivers!

In a publishing environment where magazines and journals of short fiction easily come and go, EQMM can be proud of its longevity. The secret (or mystery) of this success was one of the topics explored during the afternoon of panel discussions by notable authors and editors.  Some shared fascinating personal experiences about working with the founders of the magazine, the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who collaborated as Ellery Queen. The distinguished panelists included Otto Penzler (proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop and founder of The Mysterious Press), Sarah Weinman (author, editor, and expert on women crime fiction writers), Jeffrey Marks (biographer of Anthony Boucher, at work on a biography of Dannay and Lee), Russell Atwood (ftomrobertsormer managing editor of EQMM), and award-winning authors Jonathan Santlofer, Joseph Goodrich, Josh Pachter, and Charles Ardai.

Especially fun was the slide show of several EQMM covers from different eras of the magazine, along with interior black-and-white illustrations of the stories. Janet Salter Rosenberg, the daughter of cover designer George Salter, gave insight into her father’s creations. Artists Laurie Harden and Tom Roberts discussed their respective works and their appreciation of the artistic freedom EQMM affords them in bringing their visions of the stories to life. Here is an evocative cover by Roberts from the July 2011 issue. The cover for the very first issue, and a clever story about it by Arthur Vidro, can be found on the EQMM blog, Something is Going to Happen, posted on August 31.

The symposium was capped by our trip up to the sixth floor, enticed by the promise of a glass of wine and (the real inducement) an exhibit of EQMM artifacts displayed in a small alcove of the rare book and manuscript library. Of particular interest to me were the yellowing pages of manuscripts, typed out on an old Remington or some such, with Dannay’s edits marked in pencil. Those of you who know of my life as an editor will guess at my delight in seeing Dannay’s flourishes and variances of the universal copyediting symbols and his spot-on word choices!  The exhibit is on display through December 23.

Why has EQMM endured?  The panelists and current editor Janet Hutchings agreed on a few key ingredients: a commitment to quality and a wide variety of stories of different styles within the mystery genre.  Wait a minute:  I’m going to ban that word “genre”!  It’s thrown around far too often and stirs up preconceptions that limit a reader’s horizons.  As an author who resists a pigeonhole for her own work, I would do the same for EQMM, unless you take the most expansive view of the term “mystery” as an essential element of compelling writing.  As stated on EQMM’s website, when founders Dannay and Lee were “deciding how to orieeqmmallnationsnt their new magazine, there could not have been any question that its outlook would be global. Both men had cosmopolitan tastes and a knowledge of world literature. It has become part of EQMM lore that Dannay, who soon took over the editing of the magazine, aimed to prove, in its pages, that every great writer in history had written at least one story that could be considered a mystery.”

Jeffrey Marks notes in his essay in the September/October issue that EQMM has published such literary luminaries as William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Mark Twain, and E.M. Forster, as well as several Pulitzer winners.  This year, in the May issue, we were treated to a reprint of Borges’ iconic story exploring alternate realities, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was originally published in EQMM in 1948.

Another masterpiece, Stanley Ellin’s “The Specialty of the House,” is reprinted in the current issue. Beyond these prize reprints, the range of writing that appears monthly in EQMM’s pages includes something for everyone, whether light or dark, police procedural or private eye, cozy or locked room. My taste runs to stories of psychological suspense and intellectual challenge, and I can always find them here. Janet Hutchings has maintained Dannay and Lee’s expansive vision for the magazine and the tradition of high quality. I’m grateful that my own writing, which bears absolutely no resemblance to Agatha Christie’s, has been printed in two issues of EQMM eqmm_sept-oct2013and its e-book anthology, The Crooked Road Volume 3.  I’m also fortunate to have been welcomed into this community of amazing authors. As one of the panelists noted, mystery and crime writers are a really nice bunch of people because we’ve transferred every bit of aggression and nastiness to our fictional characters!

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Slightly off-topic, on the subject of anniversaries, I note here that October 26 marks a milestone for me.  A year ago, the print editions of my first two novels, Thursday’s List and Homicide Chart, were released.  To help celebrate, I’m running giveaways for signed copies of the two novels on Goodreads.  Be sure to enter for a chance to win!

My Ten Minutes With Lee Child

If you’re a small peanuts writer, ten minutes is longer than you’d expect to spend chatting with the legendary Lee Child, bestselling author of the Jack Reacher series. Where else could this have happened but the Mystery Writers of America holiday party? At most, I thought I’d have the chance to breathlessly utter a trite compliment after standing in line to see the guest of honor. But I got a full ten minutes. I wasn’t timing it, but it had to be that. As an appellate lawyer, I’ve read enough testimony in trial transcripts to know that people who witness thrilling or traumatic events tend to be very bad at estimating time. A single robbery, two witnesses, one says three seconds, the other says three minutes. But I have proof that my time estimate is not far off the mark. We covered several topics.

I admit, I didn’t monopolize—there were a few other people standing in our group. And I did start out with a compliment, somewhat mentally rehearsed. In the days when I was commuting by car, I spent many wonderful hours listening to Jack Reacher novels on CD. Didn’t want to get out of the car when I pulled into my parking spot.

The conversation progressed beyond that. These are some of the things I asked:

“I understand there’s a writer out there stealing your characters.” (I had just heard this from another MWA member who’d been chatting with Mr. Child minutes before.) “Yes,” he answered, “I call it fan fiction.” Seems that there are writers making a buck publishing e-books full of characters from Reacher novels. Mr. Child said, “I don’t mind.” I said, “You’re very generous.”

“Do you have another cameo appearance coming up in the movies?” I asked. Yes, his next film shoot is scheduled to take place at the airport and will last no more than five hours—he will be in between flights. And, yes, the cameo role is a guy at an airport.

The conversation turned to the publishing industry. Mr. Child said that the e-book/paper ratio of his book sales was 75/25 in 2012, and now it’s back down to 60/40. People are coming back to paper. I observed that many young people I know (my daughters included!) prefer to hold a book in their hands. This, despite (or because of?) all the screen time they put in.

Mr. Child said he generally doesn’t enjoy collaborating with other writers, but he recently had a very rewarding experience collaborating on a project with his daughter. I shared that I also had a profoundly moving experience collaborating with my daughter on an artistic project. “I’m a dancer,” I said. “It was a dance film.” I don’t think anyone was much impressed.

Finally, I asked him if he had any advice for a non-bestselling author to get her novels into film. “You don’t have to be a bestselling author to get into the movies. Just pitch your book to an agent.”

Easier said than done. Is there any hope for Thursday’s List and Homicide Chart?

“The best thing, though, is to sell the movie rights without the movie ever getting made. You get paid well and don’t have to worry about the movie ruining your novel.”

Dream on.

Thank you for the conversation, Mr. Child! A very genuine, nice guy. Think I’ll go read another Reacher novel.