“ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE” Ruined My Trip

All the Light We Cannot See

By Paul Levine

Anthony Doerr ruined my vacation. He also destroyed the confidence of blossoming writers and set an impossibly high standard for other novelists.

What’s the matter, Tony? Winning the Pulitzer wasn’t enough?

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE author
Anthony Doerr, author of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr is the author of All the Light We Cannot See, the lyrical, compassionate, hauntingly gorgeous novel that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

And it’s kept me indoors on vacation. Fleeing the Miami heat and humidity, my wife Marcia and I escaped to Boulder, CO. My intentions were sincere. I’d hike, bike, sample the local brews. But instead of enjoying the glorious Colorado outdoors, I’ve been hunkered down on the porch, immersed in All the Light We Cannot See, reading and re-reading many of its elegant passages.

“All the Light We Cannot See” an Epic Tale

The novel is an epic masterpiece of fate and love, myth and imagination, humanity and inhumanity, tenderness and cruelty, and what happens to dreamers during the utter insanity of war. It’s the story of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy and how they’re destined to come together during the darkest of times. Indeed, it’s a novel of light and darkness.

All the Light We Cannot See
“All the Light We Cannot See” is a Masterpiece.

The portrait of 1940 Paris, on the eve of war, rings true. SPOILER ALERT: Germany invades France. SECOND SPOILER: The French put up as much resistance as an éclair to a butcher’s knife.

All the Light We Cannot See overflows with melodic phrases, magical imagery and dazzling wordplay. Of the blind girl who learns to navigate the streets from scale models lovingly built by her father: “She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

Most writers struggle to describe characters’ voices in original ways. Not Doerr, who floored me with this: “His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”

There is even a rumination on the possibility of life after death. In less than a page, the author posits a theory more persuasive than a thousand Sunday sermons. HINT: Souls travel on electromagnetic waves.

Oh, the Damage to Writers’ Fragile Egos!

So here I sit – on the front porch – entranced as I finish this unforgettable novel. But I complain not just on my behalf. Consider the young writers studying their craft at Stanford, Iowa, and the back booths of countless Starbucks. Does Doerr comprehend the fragility of their egos? The plenitude of their neuroses? Even without this daunting book, they fear their work will just add to the tsunami of swill, the endless tide of mediocrity pouring from laser printers and overflowing publishing platforms.

So, yes, I blame Doerr for nipping the buds of blossoming writers. And what about the environmental damage? The hardcover I purchased is from the book’s 37th printing. That’s a lot of felled trees, Mr. Doerr. Consider that, too, the next time you sit down to work your literary magic.

Paul Levine

Paul Levine’s “Bum Rap” is available in trade paperback, ebook and audio.

Carl Hiaasen Tricked Me Into a New Career

Carl Hiaasen novel

By Paul Levine

I blame Carl Hiaasen.

Let me explain.

It was 1986. I was a partner in the Miami office of a mammoth law firm with offices from Philadelphia to Tokyo. I specialized in “complex civil litigation.” Upside: Financial security. Downside: Boring work.

Even worse than the daily tedium, I’d abandoned my true self. Exhibit A: In college during Vietnam, I protested against Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm. Now, the law firm put me in charge of all asbestos cases. Defending the manufacturer, a company with a nasty habit of hiding evidence.

I was a wreck, filled with self-loathing. Then I read Hiaasen’s “Tourist Season.” In his first solo novel, Hiaasen told a hilarious story with powerful underlying themes about greed, the environment, and the destruction of Florida.

Carl Hiaasen and Tourist Season
“Tourist Season” by Carl Hiaasen Changed My Life

I knew Hiaasen’s work from his Miami Herald column where he roasted public officials for their idiotic behavior. And now this! A satiric, darkly comedic novel in which a deranged newspaper columnist kills tourists in bizarre ways in order to stem runaway population growth and the and condo-ization of Florida. (Actually, I doubt that Hiaasen considered the columnist deranged. Heroic, maybe.)

I loved “Tourist Season” and decided I wanted to write novels. What gave me the confidence to even try?

Because Carl Hiaasen made it look so damn easy!

The pages flowed as naturally as a mountain stream over polished rocks. You never saw the puppeteer’s wires maneuvering the characters. You never heard the writer’s keyboard clacking behind the dialogue. I was reminded of Spencer Tracy’s line: “Never let them catch you acting.” Carl Hiaasen never let you catch him writing.

So, I said, “I can do that.” After all, I was an expert at complex litigation. How hard could it be to tell a simple story? Obviously, I knew nothing of three-act structure, point-of-view, plotting, plot twists, and dialogue. I’d never taken a writing course or de-constructed a novel to see how the magic came to be.

Thankfully, I had read a bit.

Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald

Raymond Chandler knocked me sideways with his hard-boiled wordplay. “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

Dashiell Hammett’s dialogue taught me about sturdy protagonists: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”

And John D. MacDonald showed that a protagonist can be flawed: “There are no hundred percent heroes.”

Soon, I discovered that Hiaasen had tricked me. It wasn’t easy!

Still, in 1988, two years after reading “Tourist Season,” I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” which introduced Jake Lassiter, a linebacker-turned-lawyer with a hard bark and a tender heart. Lassiter owes a debt to Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald…and Hiaasen.

I Quit the Law; Carl Hiaasen is to Blame!

I resigned my law firm partnership. No more long lunches of rare tenderloin and stone crabs at the Banker’s Club. I was a full-time writer. Except for a detour to Hollywood to write for CBS, I’ve made my life as a novelist ever since.

Carl Hiaasen 2015
Paul Levine and Carl Hiaasen, 2015

I’ve lived through the giddy days of sizable hardcover runs and dandy foreign deals, then the consolidation and shrinkage of mainstream publishing. I’ve written books on spec that didn’t sell and suffered the sleepless nights that accompany fear of failure. Then came electronic publishing and the miraculous resurrection of my long out-of-print work, including “To Speak for the Dead.” This month marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s hardcover publication. Amazingly, “…Dead” has been one of the top five bestselling legal thrillers all summer, at one point hitting number two in the Amazon Kindle Store, behind only my latest, “Bum Rap.”

There Should Be a Pulitzer Prize for Titles

I still read Carl Hiaasen. Even his titles make me smile. “Bad Monkey.” “Sick Puppy.” “Strip Tease.” “Skinny Dip.”

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
“Skinny Dip” by Carl Hiaasen

I continue to hone my craft. I take my time, paring down my chapters, my paragraphs, my sentences, producing a book every two years. That’s right, Carl Hiaasen. I’m still slogging away, working hard to make it look easy. And I don’t miss those Banker’s Club lunches. But just the same, you tricked me…into a career I love.

Paul Levine

“Bum Rap” is available in trade paperback, ebook and audio.

(This originally appeared in “The Third Degree,” a publication of the Mystery Writers of America).

“BUM RAP” Sits Atop Kindle Store

lassiter in kindle store

By Paul Levine

Precisely 25 years after his first appearance in print, Jake Lassiter is back. The book is BUM RAP, and it’s off to a fast start, ranking Number One in the “legal thrillers,” “mysteries” and “thrillers” categories in the Amazon Kindle Store. Overall, with rankings changing hourly, it’s been skittering between number four and twenty out of 3.6 million titles.

Set in glitzy South Beach, BUM RAP brings Lassiter together with squabbling law partners (and lovers) Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord. Lassiter last appeared in “State vs. Lassiter,” a Shamus Award nominee. Solomon and Lord were last seen bickering and bantering in “Habeas Porpoise,” the fourth novel of their Edgar-nominated series.

In BUM RAP, Lassiter defends Solomon on a murder charge…while falling for Victoria. It’s an emotional powder keg that could destroy the defense and Lassiter, too.

Kindle Store List
A Kindle Store Bestseller

Bar-Girls, Betrayal and Murder

It all begins on South Beach when Solomon accompanies a new client – stunning Bar-Girl Nadia Delova – to Club Anastasia, where her job is to get men drunk and run up colossal charges on their credit cards. Solomon and Nadia confront club owner Nicolai Gorev, demanding Nadia’s back pay. They argue; Gorev is shot dead; Nadia is gone; and the murder weapon is in Solomon’s hand.

The key to the case: find the missing Nadia Delova. But Lassiter isn’t the only one looking for her. There’s the federal government. And the Russian Mafia. And a mysterious Miami gangster named Benny the Jeweler.

Just what is really going on at Club Anastasia? And why do all the Bar-Girls take the same flight from Moscow to the U.S.? And who really killed Nicolai Gorev? It all comes together in an explosive courtroom finale that could send Solomon to prison for life and end Lassiter’s career.

The Kindle Store Bestseller Lists

I’m writing this nine hours after BUM RAP went on general sale in the Amazon Kindle Store. And yes, it’s available as a paperback and audio, in addition to the e-book. My son, Mike Levine, a deep-voiced sportscaster, did a terrific job narrating the book for Brilliance Audio. And the idea for the book? That came from my wife, Marcia Silvers, a criminal appellate lawyer recently named one of the top 50 female attorneys in Florida by Super Lawyers magazine.

What’s the secret behind BUM RAP’s fast start? Certainly, there is the continuing appeal of Jake Lassiter. He’s “Travis McGee with trial experience,” as The Washington Post called him. I also want to thank Thomas & Mercer for its stunning pre-publication promotion that pushed both book and author into Number One status on the world’s largest bookselling platform.

Kindle Store Levine & King
Top Two Kindle Store Bestselling Authors

BUM RAP’s success also fueled sales of both the Lassiter and Solomon & Lord backlists. In June, seven of those books ranked in the top twelve bestselling “legal thrillers” in the Kindle Store. And how crazy is this? With BUM RAP holding down the first position, “To Speak for the Dead,” the first Lassiter thriller (1990) and “Night Vision” (1991) were second and third.

top Kindle Store legal thrillers
Kindle Store Top Legal Thrillers

To answer an often-asked question: No, you don’t have to read the earlier books first. Each stands on its own. If you want, you can start with BUM RAP and work backward.

So, whether you’re a longtime reader or new to the series, I hope you give BUM RAP a try and drop me a note if you do.

Paul Levine

Hard-Boiled Dialogue: From Philip Marlowe to Jake Lassiter

hard-boiled PI

Hard-boiled dialogue…the literary equivalent of a quick punch to the gut.

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Those hard-boiled lines come from the mind of tough-guy P.I. Philip Marlowe, which is to say from author Raymond Chandler. You’ll find the first one in Farewell My Lovely and the second in The Big Sleep, classics of the noir genre.

hard-boiled Bogey
Humphrey Bogart was plenty hard-boiled as Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.”

Many consider Chandler to be one of the founders of “hard-boiled crime fiction” featuring the weathered, world-weary and cynical private eye. However…

Hard-Boiled Can Be Humorous, Too

Hard-boiled dialogue is certainly an element of tough-guy crime fiction. But a line can be hard-boiled and humorous, too. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, the villains are Nazi spies, so it’s a serious drama…but with humorous interludes. Here’s an exchange between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman:

“Don’t you need a coat?” Grant asks.

“You’ll do,” Bergman replies.

hard-boiled Notorious
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman exchange hard-boiled, sometimes humorous lines in “Notorious.”

Hard-Boiled? Tough Bark with a Tender Heart

All this came to mind when a reader told me that a baker’s dozen of hard-boiled quotes from my Jake Lassiter and Solomon vs. Lord books are posted on Goodreads, one of the most entertaining and informative readers’ websites.

Often Lassiter is equal parts sly and hard-boiled. The ex-second-string NFL linebacker turned renegade lawyer has a tough bark but a tender heart. Still, he shares some rueful cynicism with earlier heroes of crime fiction, and he does dispense hard-bitten lines.

“I’m a brew and burger guy in a paté and Chardonnay world. I’m as health conscious as the next guy, as long as the next guy is sitting on a bar stool.” – FALSE DAWN

hard-boiled false dawn
Jake Lassiter cracks wise and hard-boiled in “False Dawn”

“I stood there, 230 pounds of ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things, leaning against the faded walnut rail of the witness stand, home to a million sweaty palms.” – TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD

“A good lawyer is part con man, part priest…promising riches if you pay the fee, damnation if you don’t.” – STATE vs. LASSITER

Hard-boiled Jake Lassiter
Hard-boiled Jake Lassiter finds himself behind bars in “State vs. Lassiter.”

Old Heraclitus Had it Right: “Character is Destiny”

Heraclitus wrote that “character is destiny,” which is a pretty nifty line. If he hadn’t died 2,500 years ago, he could probably get a job writing for NCIS. I’d add this corollary to Herac’s three words of wisdom: “Dialogue reveals character.” I’ve long believed that it’s better to reveal your protagonist’s character traits through his or her own voice, rather than clunky narration. I call these unspoken thoughts “internal dialogue.” Wikipedia uses the phrase “self-talk.”

From the quotes above, you might already have a feel for Jake Lassiter, even if you’ve never read any of the ten books in the series. He’s the guy they call “Last Chance Lassiter,” because he takes on impossible cases no other lawyer will touch. On the other hand, sometimes he turns down a case:

“I could have used the work, but I prefer cases I believe in. Best is to have a client you like, a cause that’s just and a check that doesn’t bounce. Two out of three and you’re ahead of the game.” – FLESH AND BONES

While defending a murder trial:

“At the prosecution table, Flagler gave me his Ivy League snicker. If I wanted, I could dangle him out the courtroom window by his ankles. But then, I was picking up penalties for late hits while he was singing tenor with the Whiffenpoofs at Yale. I’m proud of my night school diploma. Top half of the bottom third of my class.” – LASSITER

And finally from Lassiter, on the practice of law:

“We eat what we kill. Hey, they don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.”FOOL ME TWICE

But let’s close with a Raymond Chandler classic from the short story Red Wind:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.”

Yikes!

Paul Levine

You can watch Paul’s video interviews (including one about dialogue), learn about bargain books, and make purchases on the Paul Levine Amazon Author Page.

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