Mystery Writers Lust After Hollywood

worst book reviews

I came to Hollywood for the health insurance.

That’s right. I lusted after cheap meds, not fame and fortune, when I migrated from Miami to Hollywood 17 years ago. And why not? A doctor’s visit costs ten bucks at the industry-subsidized Bob Hope Health Center. I quickly learned, however, that writers pay their dues in many other ways. Even mystery writers.

Before I traveled west, I thought Hollywood writers rolled into work around 11 a.m., scribbled for a couple hours, drank their lunch at Musso and Frank’s, then cracked wise with starlets the rest of the day. Like Bogart, who came to Casablanca for the waters, I was misinformed.

mystery writers strike
Mystery writers don’t go on strike. Unionized television writers do. (With Larry Moskowitz and Randy Anderson, bringing Disney to its knees).

I quickly learned that television scribes are skilled craftsmen who work damn hard, sometimes all night while cameras roll. The writing itself is tougher than it looks. One-hour dramas employ the same three-act structure as plays and novels. Yes, it’s still the dramatic form advocated by Aristotle. Act one is exposition; act two is complication; and act three is resolution.

HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER: “Aristotle said that? Get me his agent.”

An overriding factor in television writing is the restraint of time. Want to craft a one-hour drama? After commercials, you’ve got 43 minutes to tell your tale. Stream-of-consciousness writers need not apply. Mystery writers who are strong on structure fare better.

I came west in 1999, sneaking into TV at such an advanced age that the Christian Science Monitor dubbed me the “oldest rookie writer in Hollywood.” I had already been a newspaper reporter, a trial lawyer, and a novelist, so I have a track record of either taking on new challenges or being unable to hold a job, depending on your point of view.

mystery writers jag credit
Unlike mystery writers working on novels, television scribblers get immediate gratification (or sorrow). It’s just weeks from script to air.

I began doubting the sanity of this latest move my first day on the Paramount Pictures lot. My dungeon of an office in the Clara Bow Building overlooked a dumpster behind the commissary, and my window air conditioner whined like an F-14 taking off from an aircraft carrier.

Mystery Writers Are Their Own Bosses. TV Writers Not So Much.

Years earlier, as a lawyer, I enjoyed a view of Bimini from the penthouse of a high rise on Miami’s Biscayne Bay and lunched on stone crabs and passion fruit iced tea at the Bankers’ Club. Later, as my own boss, I wrote eight novels at home in Coconut Grove, parrots squawking in a bottlebrush tree outside. Now, with kamikaze horseflies from the dumpster smashing into my window, I was low man on a staff of six writers. As well I should have been. When I got to Hollywood, I didn’t know a smash cut from a cold cut. How did I get here, anyway?

I’d been bitten by the Hollywood bug in 1995 when the late Stephen J. Cannell produced an NBC movie-of-the-week that was adapted from my first novel. I began dabbling in Hollywood long-distance. I wrote an action-adventure feature for Cannell’s company. Think Die Hard in a missile silo. I wrote the first draft of The A-Team feature screenplay that likewise went nowhere. I penned a computer hacker pilot for ABC. Five similar pilots were commissioned by the networks that season; none got on the air. I wrote a miniseries for CBS, which also was never produced. I was beginning to learn of a world where writers were unionized and got paid even though their work was shelved — literally — stacked on shelves with hundreds of other dusty scripts.

I also free-lanced two episodes of JAG, the CBS military drama. When they aired, I had the novel sensation of listening to actors read my words aloud.

Mystery Writers Wondered if I’d Sold Out.

Then Don Bellisario, the creator of JAG, offered me a staff position. I considered the alternatives. Stay in Miami with the mosquitoes and no book deal. Or go to L.A. and get a paycheck plus that free health insurance. Goodbye mosquitoes. Hello coyotes. (The four-legged scavengers, not Hollywood agents.) My friends among the mystery writers watched from afar with alarm. Had I sold out? Would I be eaten alive?

mystery writers on deck
Mystery writers seldom land on the flight deck of aircraft carriers. “JAG” writers did.

I ended up writing 20 episodes of JAG and also co-created with Bellisario First Monday, a drama set at the Supreme Court. The show, which was based loosely on my novel 9 Scorpions , this year was named one of the “ten great Supreme Court novels” by the American Bar Association Journal. It is now available as an ebook, retitled Impact. First Monday gave me the opportunity to work with James Garner, Joe Mantegna, and Charles Durning, three terrific actors. In fact, the entire cast was fine. But we, the producers and writers, failed when we tried to jazz up the stories.

James Garner, Chief Justice mystery writers
Chief Justice James Garner and our fictional Supreme Court.

In reality, most of the drama at the Supreme Court takes place in the Justices’ minds and is difficult to dramatize. Still, we might have been a hit, if not for our dead-on-arrival demographics: most of our viewers were between Medicare and the mortuary. After 13 episodes, we were buried in the slag heap of cancelled shows.

So was the Hollywood experience all bad? As the junior officers frequently said to the admiral on JAG: “Permission to speak freely, Sir?”

Actually, there were many satisfying moments. While TV writers remain anonymous outside the industry, an actor’s compliment on a script or several warm and fuzzy e-mails from viewers mean that someone has noticed your work. The very speed of the process — weeks, not years — from page to screen, makes the medium more intense and immediate than publishing. Then there’s the knowledge that 15 to 20 million people are paying various degrees of attention to a story you created out of a thin air. (Moments later, of course, your story vanishes into thin air).

mystery writers credits
Television credits fade into thin air in just seconds. So do many shows.

Something else, too, something I never anticipated. Writing for TV sharpened my prose skills. I believe my writing is leaner, my plotting tighter, my dialogue zippier. And let’s not forget those regular paychecks plus pension and health benefits.

I have returned to the excruciating yet exhilarating task of storytelling with only the written word. Since Hollywood learned it could exist without my services, I’ve published four courtroom capers in the Solomon vs. Lord series. One of the books, The Deep Blue Alibi, was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award. I’ve written three more novels in the Jake Lassiter series. Last year, I brought Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord together with Jake Lassiter in Bum Rap, which was briefly the number one bestseller in the Amazon Kindle store. In June 2017, Bum Luck, the second in that new series, will be published by Thomas & Mercer.

There’s even renewed interest in Hollywood in Lassiter as a television series. No, I’m not interested in writing the show. I’ve got my health insurance — and my sanity — and intend to keep both.

Mystery Novels vs. Thrillers

By Paul Levine

At a conference recently, I was asked, “Do you write mystery novels or thrillers?”

“Yes,” I answered with a smile.

Okay, it’s a wise ass reply. There are discernible differences between the two genrea.  As Wikipedia succinctly explains, the thriller hero must stop the villain’s plans, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened. The latter situation is, of course, the setup for classic mystery novels.

By the time Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple or Columbo or Jessica Fletcher appears on the scene, the murder has been committed, the mystery is underway, and the heroes use their powers of detection to nail the killer.

Mystery Novels Raise Questions

So, “The Maltese Falcon” and “Gone Girl” are mystery novels. There are questions to answer. In “Falcon,” who shot Sam Spade’s partner and why are people willing to kill to get that black bird?

mystery novels, gone
Mystery Novels: “Gone Girl” is a classic mystery, despite the cover sticker proclaiming it a “thriller.”

In Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller “Gone Girl,” why did Amy Dunne go missing? Did her husband kill her? And…oh, wait! I can’t ask the next question, because as with many mystery novels, there’s a huge TWIST halfway through, and I won’t spoil either the book or movie for you.

Mystery Novels Are Puzzles

Mystery novels are often puzzles that are solved by the hero discovering the identity of the villain…and hopefully bringing him/her to justice. But there are sub-genres. The “closed mystery” or “whodunit?” conceals the identity of the villain until late in the story, while the “open mystery” reveals the perpetrator committing the “perfect crime” at the beginning, forcing the hero to figure it out at the end.  Columbo, anyone?

mystery novels, tattoo
Is “…Tattoo” a mystery or a thriller? Both!

In thrillers, the hero and the reader generally know the identity of the villain. Often, there are chases, explosions of violence, and a “ticking clock” race against time. The hero is often in danger, as are people he cares about. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Strangers on a Train,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “The Day of the Jackal” are all thrillers…but all also have elements of mystery. In “…Tattoo,” a mystery is at the heart of the story. What happened to the missing teenage girl nearly 40 years ago? But the action of the story is the hallmark of the thriller.

Mystery Novels and Thrillers Overlap

All of which brings up an important point. There is much overlap in these definitions.

So, back to the question at that panel…where do I fit in? I’m going to be as evasive as a shady witness on the stand. I prefer the broad category that labels me a writer of “crime fiction.” In fact, that’s where you’ll find me in Wikipedia, (alphabetically) just after Elmore Leonard and before Laura Lippman. And that’s a very fine place to be.

But then Wikipedia also says I’m a thriller writer and a mystery writer…alphabetically just after Gaston Leroux. Who? He wrote “Phantom of the Opera.”

To make matters more confusing, I write “legal thrillers,” which combine elements of mystery novels –who’s the murderer and will he/she be convicted? — with the classic thriller that places the hero in jeopardy.

mystery novels; alibi
Mystery Novels: Legal Thrillers Can be Both Mysteries and Thrillers

My legal thrillers clearly overlap the boundaries I’ve described. How else to explain that they’ve been nominated for the International Thriller Writers Award (“The Deep Blue Alibi”), the Edgar Allan Poe (crime fiction) award (“Kill All the Lawyers”), the Shamus (private detective) Award (“State vs. Lassiter”) and even the James Thurber humor award. (“Solomon vs. Lord.”)

So, bottom line…don’t worry about labels. Read what you enjoy. Mystery, thriller, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are pretty mysterious, too. Until next time…

Paul Levine

Mystery Books Hard-Boiled: From Spade to Lassiter

By Paul Levine

This question recently appeared on Facebook: “Who’s your favorite character in hard-boiled fiction?”

The answers were smart and reflected knowledge of both classic and post-modern noir crime fiction. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer were among the answers. So, too, of course was Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. How could he not be an icon of hard-boiled mystery books with lines like this from “The Maltese Falcon?”

“When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.”

Hard-Boiled Mystery Books Sam Spade
In the field of mystery books, a hero doesn’t get  any more hard-boiled than Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.”

More contemporary tough guys like Dave Robicheaux from James Lee Burke’s mystery novels, Matt Scudder from Lawrence Block and Easy Rawlins from Walter Mosley were also on the list. So, too, were Spenser and Travis McGee. I think those two iconic tough guys display a tad too much sentimentality to be considered characters of old-school hard-boiled mystery books, but no one can deny that Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald created protagonists who will live forever. The occasional female character also cropped up. Lisbeth Salander, from Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series, made an appearance, as did Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.  Hard-boiled babes, as it were.

Wikipedia defines hard-boiled fiction as:

“[A] literary genre sharing the setting with crime fiction (especially detective stories). Although deriving from romantic tradition which emphasized the emotions of apprehension, horror and terror, and awe, the hardboiled fiction deviates from the tradition in the detective’s cynical attitude towards those emotions.”

Can Heroes of Hard-Boiled Mystery Books Have Tender Hearts?

One answer on Facebook blindsided me. That was Jake Lassiter, the linebacker-turned-lawyer in 10 of my mystery books, including the recently released “State vs. Lassiter.”

Funny thing is, just as with Spenser and Travis McGee, Jake never seemed that hard-boiled to me. Oh, there’s the occasional tough-guy line: “They don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”

Then he’s occasionally getting punched out, digging up graves, and flirting with disbarment.

But is that enough? I always thought he had a hard bark but a tender heart. To determine whether Jake is hard-boiled or merely cynical, I recently had a not-too-friendly conversation with him:

Paul: You look like you’re still in shape to play for the Miami Dolphins. How do you do it?

Jake: Being fictional helps. By the way, you look like pelican crap.

Paul: You’re just peeved because I got you indicted for murder in the new book.

Jake: I don’t get “peeved.” I get pissed, and when I do, someone gets decked.

Paul: Let me ask you a tough question.

Jake: Take your best shot, scribbler.

Paul: You’ve been called many things. “Shyster.” “Mouthpiece.” “Shark.” But murderer?

Jake: I’m not bad. You just write me that way.

Paul: Okay, in “State vs. Lassiter,” your client’s money goes missing…

Jake: I never stole from a client, bribed a judge, or threatened a witness, and until this bum rap, the only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity.

Paul: How’s that?

Jake: I didn’t know the guy I hit was a cop.

Hard-boiled mystery books Jake Lassiter
Mystery Books: Is “State vs. Lassiter”  hard-boiled crime fiction or a legal thriller or both?

Paul: Okay, at the start of the book, you’re having an affair with a beautiful woman who also happens to be your banker.

Jake: So sue me. Women think I look like a young Harrison Ford.

Paul: One keystroke, I’ll turn you into an old Henry Ford. You and your lady are having a fancy dinner on Miami Beach. She threatens to turn you in for skimming client funds, and next thing we know, she’s dead…in your hotel suite.

Jake: Is there a question in there, counselor?

Paul: What happened?

Jake: I take the Fifth. Ever heard of it?

Paul: You go on trial for murder.

Jake: Hold your horses. No spoilers!

Paul: “Hold your horses?” What are you, an extra in “Gunsmoke?”

Jake: Sorry if I’m not hip enough for you, scribbler. You won’t find my mug on Facebook. I don’t have a life coach, an aroma therapist, or a yoga instructor, and I don’t do Pilates.

Paul: So you’re not trendy. You’re not a Yuppie.

Jake: I’m a carnivore among vegans, a brew and burger guy in a Chardonnay and paté world.

Paul: You’re a throwback, then?

Jake: If that’s what you call someone with old friends, old habits, and old values.

Paul: Bring us up to date. You first appeared in “To Speak for the Dead” in 1990.

Jake: Yeah, and Hollywood made a TV movie with Gerald McRaney. My ass is better looking than him.

Paul: Who should play you in a movie?

Jake: Easy. The Duke.

Paul: John Wayne? You’re kidding.

Jake: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on.” Sort of sums it up, don’t it?

Paul: “State vs. Lassiter” is the tenth in a series of mystery books. But you’re facing life in prison. Is this the end?

Jake: Not entirely up to me, is it scribbler?

Paul: Last question. Do you consider yourself hard-boiled?

Jake: (Reaches across the table and pops Paul with a left jab. Ka-pow!). What do you think?

Paul: Ouch! You’ll pay for this, Jake.  Wait till the next book.
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“State vs. Lassiter” is available in paperback and as a Kindle ebook from Amazon Books.