Posts Tagged ‘crime’

A someone focussed on words, I’m normally drawn to comics by their writers. But there three exceptions, artists whose work is so distinctive and brilliant that I’ll pick up a book just for them – Jamie McKelvie, Frank Quitely, and Bryan Talbot. Fortunately for me, Talbot is also a fan of stemapunk, as shown in one of his worlds that I’ve returned to this week, the strange place that is Grandville.

Wind in the Willows But With Murder

Grandville and its sequel, Grandville Mon Amour, are the sort of strange, idea-packed stories that the comics industry is particularly friendly towards. It’s a steampunk that combines an alternate history in which Napoleon won with a world of anthropomorphic animal people. Into this mix are thrown murder mystery plots which must be solved by the hero, Detective Inspector LeBrock.

One of the reasons this setting works so well as a comic is that the visuals provide a constant reminder of the setting, without getting in the way of the plot. Every moment your eye is on the page acts as a reminder of the odd world Talbot has created. This means he doesn’t have to stop to describe a strange gadget or the hamster landlady – they’re just there on the page, the story flowing through them.

Tying the Strands Together

As detective stories, LeBrock’s adventures aren’t particularly innovative in their rhythm or labyrinthine in their twists. But that doesn’t matter because they’re so strongly told. The central character, the setting and the crime are all neatly connected, meaning that each one helps to inform the readers about the other parts. The alternate history background is not incidental. The Socialist Republic of Britain’s recent separation from the French Empire is intrinsic to the mysteries LeBrock faces, the obstacles standing in his way, and his own life.

Story, character and setting all inform each other in fascinating and efficiently executed ways.

Beautifully Illustrated

The art too is tied to the story telling. Talbot uses interesting layouts to tell sequences without words, uses his amazing skill to bring the characters and setting to life. Everything is clear, vivid and wonderful to look at. His subjects are sometimes ugly – the scarred, dog-faced serial killer; the hippopotamus brothel madam – but the beauty of his illustration makes me want to keep staring at them.

Grandville is a strange, wonderful place, and one I’d heartily recommend visiting.

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Daredevil has shown that the combination of superheroes and gritty noire drama can work on TV as well as in comics. If that’s a new idea to you, or one you want to explore further, then I recommend one of the all time great overlooked comics – Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a secret agent under cover in an organisation of supercriminals. Except that he’s been cut adrift, without a handler or support, and being undercover means acting like the people he’s pretending to be. As loyalties tangle and motives blur, Holden is faced with the terrible question of whether he’s really a hero or just another villain. And worse yet, which does he want to be?

I’m not going to provide a detailed review. There’s so much to love about this comic that I could spend weeks picking over the details. Sean Phillips’s art is the perfect choice for a noire story, full of shadows and worn down looking characters. The supercriminal underworld is well thought out. The characters have both novel hooks and hidden depths. The plot is twisted but always coherent. The page layouts play with the comic book medium in ways that will delight long time comic fans without getting in the way of casual readers.

This book only ran for twenty-four issues, collected in four volumes. That means you can enjoy the whole story without getting lost in the endless web of superhero connectivity or decades long arcs. If you don’t have a comic shop nearby you can download the free Comixology app and buy the e-reader version through there. And you should. Because Sleeper is amazing.

Content warning though – Sleeper is full of violence, sex, bad language and unpleasant characters, sometimes all at once. It takes a dark palette to enjoy it.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionDetective Shadowvalt curled his tail up beneath him and pulled the hood of his jacket forward, covering his horns. He didn’t like to leave his trenchcoat behind, but at least he could still smoke while undercover. Lighting a cigarette, he enjoyed the smooth, sulphurous taste. He was sure the cigarettes tasted better in Hell.

Shoulders hunched, he stayed with the dozen lost souls walking through the barbed gates of the warehouse, past the watch demons guarding the place. Even before they crossed the yard, he could tell by the smell that this was it, the centre of the supposed people smuggling ring. There was an acrid tinge in the air, the smell of fallen spirits being consumed for others’ purposes.

Still following the damned, he walked through the double doors of the warehouse proper. At the far end a yellow demon with six tentacles stood by a stone gate. The air in the portal glowed blue with arcane power as a soul stepped in and vanished.

Seeing what was really happening made this all the more sickening. There were scores of mortals here, and they probably all thought they’d bought a way to freedom.

That was it. Probable cause to raid the place. He needed to fetch backup.

Shadowvalt turned and bumped into one of the watch demons.

“Not this way.” The demon blinked six of its eyes. Others emerged on writhing stalks, peering under Shadowvalt’s hood. “Hey, you’re not a mortal. You’re a-”

Shadowvalt flicked his cigarette into the demon’s face. It yelped and jumped back as he flung back his hood and pulled out his badge. “Police. Nobody move.”

The watch demon grabbed at Shadowvalt. He punched it in its sensitive, eye-covered head, sending it slumping to the ground in shock and pain.

“You want out of here?” the yellow demon bellowed, gesturing toward the portal. “Kill him!”

The lost souls, still bearing the marks of their deaths as well as their eternal torments, looked at each other in confusion. They’d probably never been told to attack a demon before. But they were desperate, and Shadowvalt new all too well what desperation could achieve.

They advanced toward him, fists clenched, eyes wide.

“Stop!” he bellowed. “You’ve been tricked. That’s not a portal out of Hell. It’s a construct to turn souls into power. They’re going to kill you.”

“Why should we believe you?” The soul who spoke had burns across half her face.

“Because this is a battery factory.” Shadowvalt pointed to the wires leading away from the portal, ending in a charger against the far wall. “What do you think we use down here, Duracell?”

They looked back toward the yellow demon. Clearly a specialist in technical arcana rather than convincing lies, it hesitated too long. Some of the souls sank to the floor in despair, while others rushed at the demon in rage.

They’d never win the fight, but it was enough. With everybody distracted, Shadowvalt stepped outside and over to the gates. He waved down the road, toward the abandoned building where his backup was waiting. Uniformed constables poured down the street toward him, horn tips gleaming, as the burned woman came up beside him.

“It’s not fair.” She spat the words. “All we wanted was to escape torment.”

“If you’d acted fairly you wouldn’t be here.” Shadowvalt lit a cigarette. After a moment’s hesitation he offered her one. “Just be glad I didn’t leave you to walk through the portal. I’d say justice has been served.”

* * *

You can read two more of demon detective Shadowvalt’s cases in my fantasy anthology By Sword, Stave or Stylus, which is free as an ebook on Amazon until Tuesday. You can also read another flash story about him here.

If you enjoyed this story then please share it – the more people read it the better. And feel to share your opinions below, as well as any ideas for future flash Friday stories.

The sun was going down by the time they decided to hang me.

I’ve written before about the value of a great opening line, and it was one of the things that drew me into King’s The Dark Tower. A great opening line grabs your attention while getting across something of the tone of the character and book. It’s one of the things that David Tallerman absolutely nails with Giant Thief, the first of his Easie Damasco novels, with the great opening line turning into a great opening page turning into a very enjoyable story.

A thief and not a gentleman

Giant Thief is the tale of Easie Damasco, a thief living in a classic Eurpoean-influenced fantasy setting. As Tallerman made clear in the FantasyCon panel on rogues, Easie isn’t meant to be a nice character. He’s just as selfish as any real thief, constantly trying to get out of helping the book’s better intentioned characters. He could easily have been completely unlikeable, but Tallerman does a great job of balancing Easie’s realistic selfishness with a more exaggerated witty detachment. Combined with Easie’s willingness to apply his ingenuity to try to solve the problems he ends up in, that makes him great company for 360 pages of adventure.

Balancing agency

This creates a challenge that Tallerman artfully dances around. We normally like our protagonists to have a great deal of agency, to be able to make decisions about how they want to live their lives. Sure, Frodo Baggins might face insurmountable odds, but from early on it is his decision to do the right thing that keeps him on the quest to destroy the one ring.

But if Easie could do that then he would just run away as soon as the going gets tough, leaving behind any hope that he’ll ever be heroic or do the right thing for those around him. And lets face it, as readers that’s something we want from a character like Easie – we want to live in hope that, eventually, he’ll be a good guy. Or at least that he won’t screw things up for the real good guys.

So for the story to work Easie spends lots of time at the whim of the characters around him, like the heroic Mayor Estrada or the valiant guard captain Alvantes. He still gets to apply his wits and his wit, just not in the way he would like. This is where the delicate balance comes in – give Easie too much control and the story stops working, give him too little and he’s no longer the protagonist of his own story. But Tallerman gets this just right.

Keeping up the tension

The last novel I read before this was The Name of the Wind, and it’s hard to think of a more contrasting pair of books, even though they’re both set within very familiar fantasy worlds. Whereas Rothfuss’s protagonist is righteous and multi-skilled, Easie Damasco is a greedy prick who’s only just above useless in the chases and fights he finds himself flung into. Those fights and chases are the backbone of the book, in which the action is interspersed with preparations for the next challenge, as opposed to the long stretches of slow, gradual growth in The Name of the Wind.

This is not a book to sit back and soak up the atmosphere. It’s one of action, excitement and adventure, making Easie Damasco a fun character to be around despite his many flaws.

Is it me, or is this a western?

That isn’t to say that Giant Thief doesn’t have its own distinct atmosphere. Despite lacking any of the props of the genre it reminded me of a spaghetti western, with its horseback pursuits, gritty characters, craggy scenery and deadpan delivery. If there were some way to make this into a film featuring a young Clint Eastwood I’d be a happy viewer.

That shouldn’t put you off if you don’t like westerns. There are no shoot-outs, no sheriffs and very few broad brimmed hats. But with a setting that’s also reminiscent of medieval Spain, there’s a sense of a rugged land full of rugged people, some fighting for survival, some for what they believe is right.

All this and a giant

I can’t finish this post without mentioning Saltlick, the giant that Easie steals. Saltlick is a wonderful character, coming across as a classic well-intentioned simpleton, and a good foil for Easie.

I’m already onto the second Easie Damasco book, Crown Thief, and will doubtless get the third one after that. If you’re looking for a fun adventure story then you should give this one a go.

I spent most of yesterday writing a murder mystery party, a commissioned piece for a friend. Writing something like that is all about the characters. Description and dialogue will mostly be covered by the behaviour of the players on the night. What you get to create, as a writer, is the characters, their conflicts, and of course the clues and background that will lead to the revelation (or escape) of the killer.

The nature of the piece, filling it with secrets and arguments, made me reflect on the relationship between characters and conflict, and it made me wonder – are characters primarily defined by their conflicts?

Choosing to fight over grammar definitely says something about your character

Choosing to fight over grammar definitely says something about your character

Think about it. What do you know about the sheriff in High Noon? Probably just that he’s standing up to the criminals defending his town. What’s the defining shared feature of the heroes of Star Wars? They’re rebels, their very careers defined by the conflict they’re in. Or look at Harry Potter – his whole life, from the way his face looks to his family circumstances to his often neglectful attitude towards education, it’s all defined by his conflict with Voldemort. Without that conflict, Harry would just be one more ordinary wizard.

You could argue that conflict is a reflection of character, but given the central role of conflict in making stories dynamic, is it maybe the other way around? Are interesting characters interesting because of the conflicts that they represent, the struggles they go through, the things that they value enough to get into a fight over them?

Does conflict make the character?

Not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know. Which do you think is the driving force?

 

Picture by Global X via Flickr creative commons

If you’re anything like me then you’re probably put off by a book that’s marketed as strange and mysterious. Anonymous author, being called ‘The Book With No Name’, stuff on the back about a dangerous book with no name… it all made me suspicious that this was going to be cheap style over substance. But the friend who pushed it on me also leant me the excellent Murder One, so I thought I’d give it a go.

I was right. This was a book of style over substance, though an entertaining one for all that. But it was also an object lesson in something frequently discussed in the Writing Excuses podcast – the importance of expectations.

Marketing mis-step

The Book With No Name is not what it claims to be on the cover. The atmosphere isn’t one of darkness and mystery, it’s a twirling Tarantino-style crime drama with elements of fantasy and horror. The in-story Book With No Name, touted on the cover as a significant part of the story, doesn’t turn up until halfway through, so using it as the name for the novel, putting so much weight of expectation on it, feels like cheating. And the mysteries around the characters are seldom as interesting as they want to be.

In short, this book doesn’t live up to the expectations it sets, and is frankly trying too hard to be something it isn’t.

The fun parts

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. My enjoyment was reduced by that marketing mis-step, but once I got reading it was a fast, fun, easy read. It’s a story that’s told like an action movie, with short chapters and an emphasis on action over introspection. It’s carried along by a pseudo-Tarantino style, with cool yet oddball characters, criminal antics, jumps of time and logic, and some fun dialogue. I was never bored.

The missing parts

I was also never terribly engaged. This sort of thing often works on screen because the actors help us to engage with the characters. In a book the writer needs to get us inside their heads, and that seldom happens. I wasn’t given much reason to care about the characters, and there wasn’t much substance to the story. Just a lot of slick and speedy action.

To read or not to read

Despite that I enjoyed this. It’s a bit like reading Steve Aylett lite – neither as incomprehensible nor as interesting as his work, but with a similar emphasis of weird characters and fast-moving strange events. It’s a fun, easy read that reminds me in theory of Dan Brown’s writing style, but that somehow doesn’t annoy me like he does.

Still, I think I’ll stick with From Dusk Till Dawn for my supernatural crime adventures – whether it’s the medium of TV or the way that show’s written, it just works that bit better.

And as a writer what did I learn? As is often the case, nothing terribly new. Remember to match the expectations you set to the place your story is going. If you want people to care then you need to get them invested in the characters. And a new one for the danger list – don’t try to cram in dozens of significant characters, however cool they are – it won’t leave you time to give any of them depth.

It can be difficult to get a character’s inner voice out. With books and short stories we can at least put thoughts straight onto the page, though that can sometimes be overly expository or slow down the pace. And for films and TV it’s even harder – characters’ attempts to express their emotions, to tell us what the writers want us to know of their inner state, can seem very forced. But this week I was struck by a particularly good example that uses varied approaches.

It’s the TV show Dexter.

Dexter

In case you don’t know it, Dexter is a drama about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. He’s a dark character who has trouble addressing his own thoughts and feelings. The actor can’t always show them on Dexter’s face because he’s a sociopath hiding what feelings he has from the world. But that’s awkward, because Dexter’s inner workings are central to the show.

They get round this in three ways – through ordinary dialogue, through Dexter’s inner monologue, and through the speeches he gives to his victims.

Dialogue

The dialogue is the most standard tool, and applies more to the other characters than Dexter himself. The writers, and the actors performing their words, do a good job of showing rather than telling what’s going on with a character. Someone who’s on edge won’t say they feel on edge, they’ll snap and snarl at people around them. It’s a standard approach, one every writer needs, but it’s easy to forget how hard it is to get it right. And they get it right.

Inner monologue

Every episode we get to hear Dexter’s thoughts. Not the chaotic jumble of natural human thinking, but an organised monologue about things from his past and what he feels about his current situation. Dexter addresses the audience directly, letting us know where he’s at. Done badly, this could just be crude exposition, but here it adds depth to proceedings, showing what can’t be seen on the face of a stone cold killer.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have used a similar technique in some of their comic collaborations, such as Sleeper and Criminal. As well as illustrating a character’s thoughts and feelings this sets up dramatic ironies, with thoughts and visuals in contrast.

There’s show going on as well as tell. Dexter doesn’t always tell us that he’s conflicted over something – as with other dialogue, often he’ll give us just enough to work it out for ourselves. And when he tells us something directly, it’s a way of bringing things together, of highlighting a theme and clarifying an episode’s message.

The villainous monologue

Dexter’s speeches to his victims have something of the super-villain monologue to them, explaining what he’s doing and why. But they don’t feel forced or unnatural. The writers have created a character who needs to vent in this way, and then given him an opportunity to do so.

And of course there’s some show as well as tell here, as Dexter’s inner life becomes more complicated, so his relationship with his victims becomes less straightforward.

The spice of life

The writers of Dexter have created a problem for themselves, and then solved it in a variety of ways. It’s part of what keeps the show fresh and interesting, and I find it a useful example to examine. Which thoughts and feelings are expressed in which ways can be as telling as the words themselves. It’s inspired me to think hard about how I show characters’ inner states.

What do you think? Are there other examples that are good at this, in books or on the screen, or that get thoughts out in other ways? Let me know in the comments – I’m always interested to have more ideas.