Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page


In crime on August 14, 2012 at 6:12 am
Stringer Bell

Stringer Bell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These days you know actor Idris Elba as John Luther, the brilliantly troubled and sexy as hell Deputy Chief Inspector with a malfunctioning moral compass in the hit BBC series Luther. When he’s not keeping Londontown safe from assorted serial killers and fellow tainted coppers, or wrestling with his personal demons, DCI Luther is engaged in an intellectual pas de deux with Alice, a beautiful physicist who just happens to have murdered her parents.

While I love “Luther” for many reasons—spot-on writing, a terrific cast of supporting actors, a taste of London that U.S. television viewers rarely see—for me, Idris Elba will forever be Russell “Stringer” Bell, the upwardly mobile Baltimore crime lord who ruled for three seasons on the Dickensian cable TV series The Wire.

Stringer Bell was the most remarkable of The Wire’s many antiheros. For five seasons, The Wire created a sweeping narrative that encompassed the overlapping stories of cops, drug dealers, lawyers, teachers, politicians and work-a-day Baltimoreans (the vernacular term for the city’s denizens).

Depicting cops and criminals as two sides of the same coin is an old trope, one I daresay Luther uses to great effect. But Stringer Bell rose above the stereotypical criminal, who under different circumstances could have been the next Steven Jobs or run a Fortune 500 company. Make no mistake, Stringer Bell was ruthless as they came. Along with his street-wise childhood blood brother Avon Barksdale (whose nephew Bell executed because he knew Barksdale was too weak to order the hit), Bell ran Baltimore’s illicit drug trade with icy efficiency, raking in millions of dollars that he hoped to parlay into high-end real estate deals. To better himself, Bell took college classes in economics (The Wealth of Nations was on his bookshelf) and applied these lessons to the drug trade. During weekly gang meetings, Bell even made his minions adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order while lecturing them about supply-side economic theory.

But any criminal, even one as cunning as Stringer Bell, has a chink in his armor. For Bell it was his naive belief that making deals with “legitimate” businessmen would forever take him away from Baltimore’s inner-city drug corners and into the boardrooms of the city’s sleek downtown office towers. Bell all too quickly learned that business is business, no matter if it’s conducted by wielding a gun or by signing a federal contract. Whether the currency is crack cocaine or luxury condominiums, by day’s end, someone is going to get screwed. Frustrated by deals gone bad in the “legal” world, Bell ultimately realized that he’d been played, but this time he couldn’t order a hit in retaliation without risking his reputation as an aboveboard businessman. In the end, Bell was gunned down in cold blood by Omar Little, a gangster whose motto is “money don’t have no owners”—a fitting coda to Bell’s failed efforts to escape from his thug life.

I’d love to see John Luther and Stringer Bell meet up in London or Baltimore. What would happen? Would they square off against each other in a Sherlock Holmes—–Professor Moriarty epic duel or would they join forces and become uber-versions of themselves, a superhero mash-up of cop and criminal? Perhaps there’s another TV series in the making. For now, I’ll have to be content to watch The Wire on reruns.

Author “Murder in the Dog Park. Bad Girl. Good Cop. Bad Dog”

Visit Jill on her blog


In crime on August 7, 2012 at 6:10 am


A couple of year ago I saw an  episode of Charlie Rose in which the long-winded host interviewed two shorter-winded guests sitting together: Martin Amis, who I think is the most talented craftsman working in English, and Elmore Leonard, almost certainly the greatest crime novelist of all time.

What I found most interesting about the interview was that the two guests seemed to know each other’s work intimately. To my knowledge, the two very different writers had not collaborated on a project; they weren’t there to sell anything. But the highbrow Martin Amis spoke admiringly about Elmore Leonard’s surgically precise dialogue. The concise Leonard insightfully explained Amis’ mastery of the unexpected turn of phrase. Who knew that two highly accomplished writers separated by at least fifty yards at the typical Barnes & Noble knew and read each other?

I find interviews with successful authors bracing and inspiring. For instance, Scott Turow was all over the Internet recently promoting a new novel. I was glad to learn that his first novel to sell, Presumed Innocent, was in fact his fifth novel.

What I admire about the most successful writers (and here I define success as not primarily sales but admiration by informed readers) is that they are much more humble and self-effacing than unsuccessful writers.

If you visit the writers’ groups on LinkedIn, LibraryThing, and Goodreads, as I do, you cannot escape the endless self-praise from apprentice writers with the slimmest of accomplishments. Could it literally be true that the every self-published self-help book, vampire novel, and memoir of growing up in a middle-class suburb of Minneapolis written by a retired public-relations executive, aerobics instructor, or Christian life coach is in fact “great”? Aren’t some of them merely “very good” or even “good”? Aren’t some of them, to be frank, “unremarkable”? 

Once I saw the inimitable John Updike discuss, calmly and in considerable detail, the limitations of one of his highly regarded novels. He spelled out exactly what he had hoped to achieve in that book, and then he explained the nature and extent of its failure and what he had learned from it.

I think of these interviews when I try to figure out just how great my new mystery novel, Deviations, is. Although I’m sure it’s not as good as the new books being discussed by their authors on social media, I am confident it isn’t as bad as the typical John Updike novel.


In crime on August 6, 2012 at 6:35 am
Up until a couple of years ago, Mike Markel never knew how good he had it as a writer. He would write academic articles about writing, which nobody read, but that was okay because nobody was supposed to read them. And he would write textbooks about writing, which many thousands of people read.
The best thing about these textbooks is that all he had to do was write them. The publisher did the rest. The publisher edited them, proofread them, secured the permissions, designed the cover, compiled the index, and–best of all–marketed them. The publisher wrote, printed, and mailed thousands of brochures and sales pieces, and placed many large ads in appropriate journals and magazines. And there would be a team of dozens of smart, aggressive salespeople criss-crossing the country, persuading college teachers to compel their students–25, 100, 500 of them at a time–to buy his textbooks. And, oddly enough, they would.
Then, he started to write fiction. Now he writes, he proofreads, he markets, and–worst of all–readers buy only one copy at a time. “All of this work,” he writes, “just so I can kill people without having to go to jail.”
His new book, Deviations, is a sequel to Big Sick Heart, which features a mismatched pair of detectives. “I really like Ryan Miner,” Markel says. “He’s honest, hardworking, and cheerful, and he uses correct grammar. I could get along with him. But I’m scared of Karen Seagate. Her life has fallen apart. Her drinking has cost her her family. For companionship she turns to the guy on the next stool at the bar. She’s insubordinate, erratic, and impulsive, and sometimes she goes off the grid. She gets herself hurt badly. Her vocabulary blows. The only thing she does well is catch the bad guy. Overall, I find her very disturbing.”
See Deviations on Amazon at