Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thomas Kaufman

Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy-winning director/cameraman who also writes mysteries. His first book, Drink the Tea, won the PWA/St Martin's Press Competition for Best First Novel. His second book, Steal the Show, is now available.

Earlier this month I asked Kaufman what he was reading. His reply:
Have you ever met a certain type of aspiring writer? Should you ask them who they like to read, they say, "Oh, I don't read any fiction."

"But you want to write fiction?"

"Yes, but I don't want to dilute what I do by reading other people's work."

Now, I understand part of this. When I'm deep into a first draft, I'm choosy about what I read. I may go into a non-fiction jag, or reread a fiction book I love. But to try and write fiction with out reading any fiction? Unthinkable.

Let's face it, all writing is based on what's come before. The greatest of us -- and the least of us -- all owe a debt to the men and women who came before. They wrote the books we love – and the books we hate (you can learn as much, maybe more, from books that don't work for you).

Plus, when you write the kind of book you enjoy reading, you have a big advantage. If you like detective fiction, and you've read lots of it, you unintentionally programmed your brain to think in a certain way. Somewhere in your consciousness, you already know how to write the kind of book you like to read.

Which brings me to Donald E Westlake. If you've read his work, I don't have to tell you that Westlake (who also wrote as Richard Stark, to name just one of his many pseudonyms) was one of the greats, a prolific mystery writer with an agile, inventive mind, a fine sense of irony, and a sly sense of humor that infects much of his work.

Recently I picked up Good Behavior, one of the John Dortmunder series. This group of books follows a group of criminals, lead by Dortmunder, as they commit outlandish crimes which they occasionally get away with (they have rotten luck).

Good Behavior begins with Dortmunder breaking into a warehouse, only to hear police sirens approach. He escapes over the rooftops, and by accident slips and falls into the belfry of a convent in Tribeca. End of Chapter one.

Chapter two shows us a nun praying in the convent, and we learn that one of their own, Sister Mary Grace, has been kidnapped by her father and is locked in a glass and steel tower, where the father is trying to deprogram her (from the Catholic church!) The nun prays to God to send them someone who can help them, someone who could find a way into the tower and free Sister Mary Grace.

Then a tiny plink -- and the nun sees a small screwdriver hit one of the hard wooden pews. This tool is joined by another, and another. The sister looks up to see Dortmunder hanging from the rafters, and she thinks, our prayers have been answered!

These two scenes create a fine juxtaposition, and the humor comes from that. Now, Westlake's dialogue is superb, and his plots are ingenious, but these two scenes represent his grasps of situational humor. While most of us might go for the quick laugh, Westlake creates situations that are inherently funny. He's been compared with Neil Simon, and with good reason.

The Dortmunder novels are written in third person. They have to be, because a first person narrative could never encompass all the different points of view (POV). And Westlake excels at POV.

In Good Behavior, we begin with Dortmunder's POV. Of course, since he's the protagonist. We also have POV for his partner in crime, Andy Kelp; his live-in girlfriend May; plus Tiny, Stan, and Wilbur, who make up the rest of his gang. There's the kidnapped nun, the convent of nuns who want her back, and a beautiful hard-edged woman named JC Taylor. We get the POV of all of these characters, plus the mom of one of the crooks. These folks work with Dortmunder.

One of them is Wilbur Howey. Wilbur isn't a regular, but one of a long line of eccentric lockmen that Dortmunder has on his string of criminals. Westlake has Wilbur just out of prison after a forty year stretch. Wilbur is sex-crazed, but so out of date (he takes his hat off when he spots a woman) that he sabotages his own chances of getting the women he wants. Westlake uses that piece of characterization in the scene of Wilbur meeting the voluptuous JC Taylor -- he raises his hat above his head and holds it there, hovering "like some flying saucer observing human mating rituals."

As to the antagonists, there's the kidnapped nun's father, Frank Ritter. Westlake characterizes Ritter as a self-important man who writes his profound thoughts in a book The book is always carried over his heart – it has steel covers to stop a bullet. Also, Ritter likes to fire people, and has a memo pad with "You'll never work in this town again" printed across the top.

Also on the dark side are Ritter's deprogrammer Henderson; the military commander of Ritter's mercenary army, Virgil Pickens; Ritter's building security forces; Ritter's son Garret; police captain Mologna, who has it in for Dortmunder; and a crook who wants to sue Dortmunder over a crime gone bad.

By my count, that's nineteen people. Westlake manages to write about each of these people with total clarity, so you always know who's who. But he also gives us so much, that these people come alive in our minds. That's the mark of a great writer.
Visit Thomas Kaufman's website and blog.

His blog tour continues at Jen's Book Thoughts and The Rap Sheet.

The Page 69 Test: Drink the Tea.

The Page 69 Test: Steal the Show.

--Marshal Zeringue