Mystery and Thriller Writer

Author: Tom (Page 1 of 3)

Will my stories include the coronavirus?

Recently, reader Amy sent me a question: would I be incorporating the coronavirus into my fiction?

It’s a good question, and I think it deserves an answer. Two, in fact.

I have both a short and a long answer to the question.

If video is your thing, I also answered this in a recent YouTube video. I’ll cover a lot of the same stuff here, but if you want to put a face (and semi-tidy home office) to the name, check it out.

The short answer: not really.

The long answer: My books are contemporary. They’re set around the time they’re published, and some of the books contain references to allow a reader to make a good guess as to when it’s set.

Late in 2019, I published Inside Cut. Its backdrop was the 2020 NCAA college basketball tournament.

Oops.

Obviously, no one knew then what would be happening now. In late February, I published The Next Girl, which is set in May (about a month in the future as I write this). The still-untitled ninth C.T. novel, which I plan to release in June, will move the timeline up to November.

The Next Girl cover

I have no idea what the world will look like in May, let alone six months afterwards.

And I don’t want to speculate. The coronavirus has disrupted societies on a scale few could have predicted, and I’m no prognosticator.

Here’s the rub: people read fiction for entertainment and escape. At the moment, the pandemic dominates news coverage, social media, and whatever conversations we still have via social distancing. For some people, it has cost them a loved one or a job.

If I set my books in a post-coronavirus society, how am I offering an escape?

If you’ve read my books, you know my series protagonist C.T. Ferguson is snarky. Could he make a glib remark about something like social distancing? Maybe. 

Later in the year, probably in the fall, I plan to launch a thriller series. It will also be contemporary and set in and around Baltimore. The main character has a teenaged daughter who’s heading to college. Most schools have shut their doors and moved everything online. Will this still be the case in September?

I have no idea.

No one does, and I don’t want to speculate. The result is I’ll downplay the coronavirus in the thriller series, too. Maybe the protagonist’s daughter will do a semester online and be disappointed, but it won’t go much farther than that.

I know readers want an escape, and I’d like to provide it.

Coming up: I watched Spenser Confidential, and I’ll share my thoughts on it.

Spenser Confidential: Thoughts on the Trailer

The trailer for Spenser Confidential dropped recently. Let’s just say I have some thoughts. 

There’s some definite star power attached here, encompassing the three male leads, the director, and musician Post Malone. But is this Spenser?

Before we delve too deeply into the answer, I also recorded a YouTube video on this. You can view it here. My channel is still new as of this writing, so I’d appreciate any likes and subscribes you can provide.

The big question I posed above was: is this Spenser?

No. Not as we know him, at least.

Before you tell me I’m a fan of the books who’s bitter over the adaptation, hear me out. This isn’t the Spenser we know because I don’t think he’s designed to be. While the movie’s IMDB page is pretty light, Wikipedia tells us the characters are basically just named after their literary counterparts. It also says the story is “very loosely based” on Wonderland, the second Spenser novel Ace Atkins wrote after Robert B. Parker’s death. It’s probably my favorite of the Atkins books.

This doesn’t look like the Wonderland I remember, just like these don’t look like the Spenser and Hawk we know. Like I said, I think this is by design. The movie needs to appeal to as many people as possible. Crime fiction fans know and love the characters, but outside of our sphere, how many do? Some folks may remember the 1980s Spenser: For Hire TV series (I do). Many may not—and many people watching the movie may have been born after it folded its production tents. 

Spenser Confidential poster

From the trailer, I think this is a buddy PI movie. It’ll have action, fistfights, some gunplay, and laughs. Many movies pepper these elements in successfully. Spenser and Hawk may have some humorous banter, but it won’t carry the gravitas it does in the novels.

Just because a film is “very loosely based” on a book doesn’t mean it’s bad. They’re different media, so I don’t think we could ever have a completely faithful adaptation. Look at The Bourne Identity. It borrowed a few elements from the Robert Ludlum novel, modernized a couple others, but for the most part, the movie told its own story. The second and third films in the series shared nothing with their source novels apart from names.

And they were great. 

Fans of the TV show will remember Avery Brooks as Hawk. How could you not? He owned the role like he’d been born to play it. He was cool, badass, poignant, and funny all at once. I like Winston Duke as an actor, and he may do a great job in this movie, but the shadow of Avery Brooks looms large. Robert Urich was a good Spenser in my opinion—this is far from universal—even though he wasn’t a perfect physical match. He captured the sincerity, glibness, and overall attitude of the character well. 

Whether you love or hate Susan, by the way, she’s not in Spenser Confidential. Iliza Shlesinger is credited as playing a character named Cissy. Susan wasn’t in the first novel, but omitting her from a movie really drives home the fact this isn’t the literary Spenser.

Will I see it? Yes. A friend of mine, talking about the uneven quality of Star Trek shows, says, “Bad Trek is better than no Trek.” I’ll port it over here and say this: Spenser in name only is better than no Spenser.

After I see Spenser Confidential once or twice, I’ll be back with some thoughts on it. Let’s cross our fingers and hope the star power pulls through. 

Knives Out is Terrific

Knives Out was the best movie I saw in 2019.

To borrow a line from Red Dead Redemption 2, “The competition ain’t too fierce.” I think this past year saw us go to the theater less than any other. I don’t mean to diminish the movie’s excellence with this, though—it’s terrific, and I would think so if I saw eight or eighty movies last year.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (probably best known for The Last Jedi, which everyone has An Opinion on), Knives Out is a throwback to the murder mysteries of yesteryear. Private detective Benoit Blanc (a scenery-devouring, Southern-drawl-speaking Daniel Craig) is summoned to a mansion to investigate the death of famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (the always-terrific Christopher Plummer). It’s the cast of characters Blanc meets there which makes the movie.

We learn of old Harlan’s demise as the movie opens, though it takes some time to encounter all the suspects, many of whom are the writer’s relatives. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Colette, Chris Evans, and more), and while some probably don’t get enough screen time, all of them are good. They look like they’re enjoying themselves, and they’re in on the fact this is supposed to be a comedy.

Knives Out poster

We also meet Marta (Ana de Armas, a delight), Harlan’s nurse and the last person to see him alive. She has a quirk that she can’t lie without vomiting. It seems random, and it is, but you know it’s going to matter for more than laughs before the movie’s over, and it does. The Thrombey family seemingly likes her, but after their patriarch’s death, they all try to pull one over on Ana, including using her mother’s immigration status against her.

At its heart, though, this is a mystery, and we get plenty of sleuthing. There’s not a lot of action, but the characters and the terrific dialogue make up for it. Blanc isn’t as smart or perceptive as Hercule Poirot, the character upon which he’s obviously and unabashedly based, but he navigates the investigation pretty well. 

This is a movie you’ll want to pay attention to. Lines and details you learn earlier will prove important at the end. I figured out who the killer was—it becomes pretty apparent by the midpoint if you’ve ever seen a movie before—though I missed a detail or two along the way. I thought a couple small things around the demise of Harlan were questionable, but those are minor nitpicks of a very enjoyable film.

If you like mysteries, humor, and character-driven stories, Knives Out has all three. I highly recommend it. 

Inside Cut, Chapter One

Below is a free preview of my upcoming novel Inside Cut. This is chapter one. Inside Cut will be the seventh crime novel in my C.T. Ferguson private investigator series.

Here’s the cover proof.

Inside Cut novel cover

Chapter One

The arrival of spring means many things to many people. For several of my college friends and me, it meant the start of a new lacrosse season. We enjoyed a good run at Loyola, even winning it all my last year of eligibility. As we got older, some guys moved away, others married off, and it became harder to get the band back together.

Tonight, I’d tossed back a few brews with five of my former teammates. One had a six-year run as a pro lacrosse player before injuries got the better of him. All of us were doing well. I was still the only one with an interesting job, though the fact I still held it provided some surprise to my fellow revelers. And maybe a little to me, too. 

A couple of the fellows had families to get home to, so we called it a night just after nine. I’d turned thirty the previous November, and I never felt older than I did in this moment. Leaving a bar shortly past nine? Didn’t we stay up all night in college? How often did we woo coeds until the wee hours and then arrive on time for eight AM classes? I reminded the family men they should each get a glass of prune juice for the road. They responded by telling me I was number one.

I exited onto the mean streets of Towson. Pubs and restaurants dominated both sides of the road with a few retail stores mixed in for good measure. I walked down York Road to the garage where I left my car when parking—as it often did in the area—proved dicey.

Before I made it half a block, I saw two men toss another guy onto the sidewalk. They were too small to be bouncers and too unsteady to be sober. The fellow on the ground stared back up with wide eyes, which he cast to me when he noticed my approach.

“You take it back, you damn Ay-rab!” one of the men said. I figured he pronounced “Arab” the way he did because he was a cretin, and being at least two sheets to the wind didn’t help.

“Go back home and speak Ay-rab!” the other added. They both loomed over the third man, who remained on the ground. He wore jeans and a white sports team jacket, and as I drew closer, I noticed the green, white, and red bars on the left breast.

I stopped a couple paces short of the scene. A few other people walked by, some stopping to snap a picture as they did. Never mind there might be an assault happening; Instagram needed to get the scoop. “Ease off, guys,” I said, eyeing the angry duo. “You’re both drunk.” Each man stood about six feet, giving me two inches on them. They weren’t particularly big—both were built like they peaked in high school and spent the next two decades sliding downhill. 

“He’s an Ay-rab,” the first one said. Gray chased away the black hair on his head. His beady eyes darted between me and the frightened fellow on the concrete.

“Arab.”

“Huh?”

“The word is ‘Arab,’ and I don’t think this guy is one.”

“How you mean?” the other one said. Breath reeking of whiskey and old tobacco blew into my face. His blond hair remained untouched by gray, though pockmarks dotted his face.

“See the flag on his jacket?” They both looked down and then nodded a second later. “It’s the flag of Iran.” Below it was script I couldn’t read.

“So?” the gray-haired one said.

“So it means he’s most likely an ethnic Persian.” The man on the sidewalk bobbed his head in assent. “Not an Arab.”

“We don’t much like Iran, neither,” the blond one said.

“Guys, move along. You’re drunk.” 

The fair-haired one stared at me. “Who the hell are you?” He gave me an ineffectual shove to the shoulder.

I answered with a hard punch to his solar plexus. He stumbled back a step, sucked wind, and leaned on a streetlamp for support. The other one scowled. “Plenty more where that came from,” I told him. He glowered a bit more, collected his buddy, and they walked away. I was about to offer my hand to the guy on the sidewalk when he got to his feet.

“Thanks,” he said, running a hand through wavy black hair. “Buy you a drink?”

“Sure.”

* * *

“What do you do?”

It’s a question I’ve gotten a lot. Most men in fact hear it any time they’re talking to another man at a social gathering of any sort. Ages ago, we might have compared spears or pelts. Now careers were the measure we took of one another. Once names and how everyone is doing get sorted out, the occupation query inevitably comes next. Sometimes, it’s posed out of genuine curiosity and others as a form of one-upmanship. I took it in the former sense. “Private investigator.”

Arash—we established names right away—showed wide eyes and then offered a slow nod. “Seems like you can handle yourself.” He looked around the pub, and I did, too. We sat at a table near the bar. The place was at about half capacity. The menu and decor would not help it stand apart in any way; I didn’t even catch the name as we walked in.

“I do all right,” I said. “A pair of drunks like those two makes it easy.” Arash sipped his amber lager. I nursed a ginger ale, having already downed three beers earlier. “What about you?”

He thought about it, frowning a few times, then opening and closing his mouth before answering. “Sports analytics.”

I glanced to the Iranian flag on his jacket and the foreign script beneath it. “You a soccer player?”

His eyes brightened. “Yes. How did you know?”

“I figure you don’t play a lot of hockey in the desert.”

Arash chuckled. “No, we do not.” He paused. “America does not care much about soccer, so I’ve focused on other sports. Baseball has already seen a . . . statistical revolution, I believe it’s called. I work mostly on football and basketball.”

“You working on new stats?”

He answered with another pause, this time for another swig of beer. “Sort of. I try to stick more to . . . predictive modeling. Are you familiar with statistics?”

I nodded. “Computer science degree.”

“How did you end up as a private investigator?”

I never had a good answer for this. It was a complicated journey with a long stop in Hong Kong, an arrest by the Chinese police, my eventual return to the States, and my parents funding my pro bono cases. Rather than spill this considerable cup of beans, I said, “It lets me do some things I’m good at.”

“This is what my job does, too.”

“You trying to catch on with a pro team?”

Arash didn’t answer right away. Maybe he simply liked to consider what he said, especially after two inebriated idiots almost beat him up over his words. English was probably his third language, though he spoke it well and with only a light accent. “I guess it would be good. I am still establishing myself, though. Maybe later.”

I didn’t think there was much more ground to cover. A chance encounter spurred this conversation, but I thought it ran its course. “I should get going,” I said, gulping down the rest of my soda and tasting its gingery bite.

Arash held out his hand, and I shook it. “Thank you, C.T. I have a feeling my night would not have gone very well without your help.”

“If I get home in time, maybe I can make someone else’s night, too.” I walked out into the chilly Towson night air. After a couple blocks, I arrived at my car. It was an Audi S4, the last year of the prior generation and thus the final one to come with a manual transmission. I put it in gear and started my drive back to Baltimore.

* * *

I pulled onto the concrete pad behind my house in Federal Hill. Thanks to a surge of revelers on weekends, leaving cars on the streets became dicey even with the parking pass issued to all residents. I shut off the car and entered my house through the back. I owned an end-unit rowhouse, and the rear door opened into the kitchen. When I walked into the living room, I smiled when I saw Gloria Reading on the couch waiting for me. 

We met more than two years ago during my first case. Our relationship was one of fun and convenience for a while before we both discovered we wanted more. Gloria didn’t live with me—her house was three of mine, so why would she?—but she stayed over most nights. The room seemed to brighten as she beamed, stood from the couch, and kissed me. “How was it?”

“Not bad,” I said, keeping my arms around her. “The crew seems to get smaller every year.”

“Probably harder to get everyone together now that you’re all so old,” she said. “Some of your teammates might even be over thirty.”

I’d hit the big three-oh a few months ago. The late birthday meant I was usually the youngest person on the team. This got balanced out by our club winning the championship during my first year of graduate school. One of the fellows I hoisted brews with tonight was thirty-one, but the rest were my age or younger. “Just wait a couple years,” I told Gloria. “When you hit thirty, I’ll never let you forget it.”

“I’m going to be twenty-nine forever.”

“I’m pretty sure numbers don’t work the way you want.”

“I’ll make them work that way,” she insisted.

“Let me know how it goes. Meanwhile, you’ll have a big three and a big zero on your cake before long.”

“Will you still love me when I’m an old woman of thirty?” I shrugged. Gloria put on her best shocked face and slapped me on the shoulder. “Afraid I’ll be past my prime?”

“Not really,” I said. “I do OK for a man of such advanced age.”

“You’re not bad.” Gloria pressed herself against me, and we kissed. In a cosmic display of bad timing, my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. “Ignore it,” Gloria said in a breathy voice. She pulled my quarter-zip sweater over my head. The phone quieted.

Then it buzzed again. 

Gloria frowned. I pulled the blasted thing out of my pocket and declined the call. When I checked the log, I saw the same number had tried me twice. Make it three times as the same digits flashed across the screen again. “I guess I should answer it,” I said. I leaned in and kissed Gloria one more time. “Won’t be long.”

“You’d better not be.” She headed upstairs.

“Hello?” I said to the person harshing my groove.

“Are you C.T. Ferguson?” A woman’s voice, and it sounded kind of weak and tired.

“I am.”

“I think I need your help . . . my son needs your help.”

“What’s the problem?”

“He’s in trouble, and I’m not sure how he’s going to get out of it.”

“Have you been to the police?”

She sighed, and it hit my ear like the hiss of a dying snake. “We can’t go to the police.” 

I expected more explanation there, but none was forthcoming. Extracting information from reticent potential clients was probably my least favorite part of the job. “Why not?”

“It’s something I think I should tell you in person,” she said.

I glanced upstairs. Gloria would be in bed waiting for me by now, and I didn’t plan on disappointing her. Or myself. “Can we talk about it tomorrow morning?”

She hesitated but eventually said, “That should be fine.” We confirmed the address of my office, and I talked her out of the beastly hour of eight AM for the more reasonable ten o’clock. She ended the call.

I bounded up the stairs two at a time.


Inside Cut will release on November 20, 2019. You can preorder it now. I hope you enjoyed this look at chapter one. You can see the rest of my books here on my site or at Amazon.

My Series is Open-Ended

I’ve had a couple readers reach out to me and ask why the C.T. Ferguson mystery series is ending.

Short answer: it’s not.

Longer answer: it’s an open-ended series. I just released the fifth book, Daughters and Sons. Amazon displays this is “book 5 of 5.”

The reason is because Amazon only knows about five books.

D&S Cover
It’s 5 of 5 and 5 of x.

I recently sent the draft for the sixth book to my editor. And I have at least plots for the following three. This gets us to nine in the series, and this is only counting novels. I also have a plot for another novella, which would be the fourth.

Not counting box sets (and the subscriber-only prequel Hong Kong Dangerous), that’s thirteen titles in the series. Like I said, though, it’s open-ended. So long as people enjoy the books and want to read them, I plan to keep writing them.

C.T. has many adventures ahead of him. The series isn’t ending anytime soon. If you enjoy the books, I hope you’ll stick around.

Land of the Brave, Chapter 1

This post is going to be a wall of text. Just warning you in advance. I have another free novella coming out soon. As you may infer from the title, it’s called Land of the Brave. I’m posting chapter 1 below as a preview to everyone because it’s taken me longer than I’d hoped to get it out. It should be available to everyone subscribed to my readers list within two weeks.

The formatting looks different than it will in ebook form. This post is formatted . . . well, like a blog post, not an ebook.

Without further ado , here’s chapter 1.


As was our tradition, my cousin Rich and I celebrated another closed case by hoisting a couple pints at a local tavern. This time, we chose the James Joyce Irish Pub in the Harbor East area of Baltimore. Rich honored our Irish ancestors by choosing a Guinness, and I honored them fifty percent more by ordering a Guinness Extra Stout. We sat at a table and sipped our festive brews.”To another arrest,” I said, raising my mug.

Rich tapped his mug into mine. “Hear, hear.”

“You’ll make Lieutenant pretty soon at this rate.” After doing the heavy lifting for my cases, I summoned Rich from the bullpen to make the arrests. He’s a decorated detective with the Baltimore Police Department, and a good bit of the decoration has been earned on my cases.

“I’m doing all right on my own,” Rich said. As usual, he refused to see the light on how much I’d helped his career in my ten short months as a private investigator. He’d been a plainclothes detective about the same amount of time and had earned more commendations than many of his longer-tenured colleagues.

“And now you’ve added a deadbeat dad to your ledger.” I sipped my drink again. Guinness Extra Stout–the beer that drinks like a meal.

“I was surprised you took a case like that at first.” Rich smirked. “Then I saw the mom.”

“Are you insinuating I only took the case because the client is attractive?”

“Attractive? She looks like a young Jennifer Connelly.”

“I’m not old enough to remember a young Jennifer Connelly,” I said. The ripe old age of twenty-nine stared at me a couple months down the road. Rich had almost seven years on me. An occasional gray hair intruded on his otherwise brown crew cut. His hair was a couple shades lighter than mine, and I could boast of no gray. Rich maintained the hairstyle and clean shave as artifacts from his time in the Army.

“Watch The Rocketeer sometime,” he said.

“I’ll see if I can add it to my Netflix queue.” Rich focused on his beer. I looked around the pub. It was a decent crowd for a weeknight, with more diners than bar patrons. When I glanced back at Rich, he continued studying his beer, as if something profound lay at the bottom of the glass. “You’re quiet.” Rich didn’t answer. “Everything all right?” Nothing. I paused. “I just booked a trip to Mars,” I said.

“Mm-hmm.”

“Rich.” He frowned and looked up. “Something must be on your mind. You’re quiet and surly, even for you.”

“I’m not surly.”

“When you grumble, it kind of confirms it,” I pointed out. Rich started to protest, but I broke in. “And don’t tell me you weren’t grumbling just now.”

“Maybe a little,” said Rich. Normally, he would have smiled or at least smirked. This evening, his expression remained neutral.

“What’s up?”

Rich gazed at me for a second, then shook his head. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Troubles with the ladies?” I said. Rich’s expression didn’t change. “You know, if you need advice from a younger, more handsome man, I’m willing to help.”

“I do not need advice from you,” Rich said.

“Rich, if this were still an era of little black books, you’d be stuck on page two.” Now he scowled at me. “I, on the other hand, would be authoring a multi-volume epic.”

“No one likes a braggart.”

“Many of the names in my little black book would disagree,” I said.

“Whatever,” he said. “Forget it.”

I shrugged. “OK.” After a few more swigs of my beer, Rich was just as chatty as he had been. I decided to give him some space this time. If he wanted to tell me, he would.

Rich looked at his beer some more, downed the rest in a giant swig, sighed, and looked at me. “Can we go to your office?” he said.

“Sure,” I said. I paid the tab, and we left.

***

My office was an extra room in my house. I had an end-unit rowhouse in the Federal Hill section of Baltimore. Whoever owned it before me built an addition for the kitchen and turned part of the first floor into an office. It pinched the square footage of the dining room, but I usually ate in front of the TV, and I had no complaints about the size of the living room.

I sat behind my desk. Three large computer monitors looked back at me. Rich sat in one of my guest chairs and busied himself looking around. This was not his first time in my office, and nothing in the room had changed since his last trip. Still, I let him take his time and figure out whatever he wanted to tell me. The next time Rich confided in me may not be the first, but I could count them on one hand.

“You ever know my buddy Jim?” he said after a few minutes. “Jim Shelton?”

I shook my head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”

Rich nodded and lapsed back into silence. A bad feeling welled in my stomach. I knew very few of Rich’s friends, and chief among the reasons was Rich chose his friends carefully. Getting on the exclusive list amounted to a lifetime appointment. Whether I knew the man or not, if Rich mentioned one of his friends to me, I doubted the reason was good.

“He’s dead,” Rich said, confirming my suspicion.

“I’m sorry.”

He nodded. “I’m sorrier for his widow and kids.”

“Of course,” I said.

I didn’t say anything else. Rich needed time to unpack this and tell me about it. “Water?” I said after a moment, reaching for the mini fridge.

“Sure.”

I handed Rich a bottle, opened mine, and took a sip. Rich looked at his as if staring at it would compel the cap to open.

“Coroner says it’s a suicide,” he said.

A coroner being involved meant it didn’t happen around here. Baltimore, like most cities, had a medical examiner’s office staffed with competent doctors. “I take it you don’t agree.”

“No way.” Rich shook his head. “He wouldn’t kill himself.”

“You’re certain?”

“Damn certain.”

“Why?”

“We served together,” Rich said. I presumed this; most of Rich’s friends overlapped his years in the Army, especially the time spent in the Middle East. “When he got out, he . . . had some problems.”

“PTSD?” I said.

“Yeah. I don’t know if he ever got diagnosed or treated, but he had it.”

Rich fell silent again. This time, I pushed on. “I don’t mean to sound indelicate, but. . . .”

“It sounds like a suicide?” I nodded. “It does,” Rich acknowledged. “But I know there’s no way Jim would do it.”

“How do you know?” I said.

“We talked about it some.” Rich opened his water and took a long pull before continuing. “He admitted he thought about it. Even with a family, he still thought about it.”

“What kept him from doing it, then?”

“An organization out there. Land of the Brave.”

“Out there?”

“Garrett County,” said Rich. The westernmost county in Maryland. Much of it was in the mountains, in the panhandle of Maryland, and it offered short drives to both West Virginia and Pittsburgh. I hadn’t been there in years, and my trip had been a weekend at Deep Creek Lake.

“How’s the county doing?” I said.

“Not well. They’ve lost a lot of jobs. Jim had trouble finding work, and when he did, the job usually didn’t last long. He felt like he couldn’t provide for his family, after leaving them for years.”

“I’m sure it was tough on him.”

“It was.” Rich drank some more water and paused. I gave him the time he needed. “Land of the Brave got him a job, sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“He worked with bees.”

“Like a beekeeper?” I said.

Rich nodded. “Yeah. He was responsible for several hives. They were setup on farms out there. The farmers leased out some land they weren’t planting on anymore. Worked out for everyone.”

“And this organization filled the land with bee hives?”

“I guess. Jim enjoyed the work. Said the buzzing didn’t bother him. It let him focus. I think it was almost quiet for him.” Rich frowned. “He told me working with the bees took a shotgun out of his mouth.”

“Wow.” I didn’t have anything else to say, so I sat in my chair and stayed quiet.

“Yeah. I’m sure he didn’t kill himself.”

One of these days, I would need to get better at asking questions. I probably should have asked this one earlier. “How did he die?”

“Gunshot to the head,” Rich said.

“And it appears self-inflicted?” I said.

“Coroner’s men found GSR on his hand.”

“You think someone else shot him.”

“Yes.”

“So why would someone shoot an ex-Army guy with PTSD who’s working as a beekeeper?”

“I don’t know,” Rich said, “but I want to find out.”

“And you want me to come along?” I said.

It took him a few seconds, but Rich nodded. It was as small a movement a human could make to count as a nod, but I saw it. “I don’t know if I can do everything myself,” said Rich. “Besides, I’m too close to it.”

“You’re not going to gripe when I break into a database or thumb my nose at the law?”

“I’m off the clock.”

I nodded. “All right; I’ll help you.” I smiled. “Wow, you’re hiring me. I should highlight this day on the calendar.”

Rich smirked. It was good to see a positive reaction. “I think I regret it already,” he said.

“No refunds.”

“Good thing you work for free, then.” Rich guzzled the rest of his water. “We’ll leave in the morning. Can you be ready at eight?”

“Doubt it,” I said. Rich glared at me. “It takes time to look this good. Not all of us have buzz cuts.”

“Fine. You think you can finish primping and pampering by nine?”

“I think I’ll manage.”

“Good,” Rich said as he stood. “See you then. Anything you can find out in the meantime would be great.”

“I’ll see what I can put together,” I said.

***

James Alan Shelton died five days ago, three weeks shy of his thirty-eighth birthday. He left behind his wife Connie, ten-year-old James Junior, nine-year-old Carly, and two-year-old George. Before Carly was born, the Army sent Jim to the Middle East, where he stayed a total of six years. Eighteen months later, he left the Army and, like so many veterans, struggled to adjust back to everyday life. Calling his post-service work history “spotty” would have asked the word to do work for which it was unqualified.

I pondered how far to dig. Normally, I threw caution to the wind and probed as deep as my considerable skill allowed. This case was more delicate. Not only was the victim a friend of Rich, he was also a veteran. I had no compunction using the Baltimore Police’s resources for my own purposes or knocking over random databases. I didn’t want to hack the Army. Even with good intentions, it felt wrong. Even I have attacks of conscience from time to time.

During my first case, Rich left me alone at his desk for a few minutes. In that time, I snagged his IP and hardware addresses, then went home and used them to fingerprint the BPD’s network. Ever since, their network has accepted one of my machines as its own. I could have used the BPD’s resources to poke and prod the Army’s network for more info on Jim Shelton. Doing so would have been lousy, though, and while my conscience rarely intruded, I had a feeling Rich’s I’m-off-the-clock proviso wouldn’t extend so far.

Did I even need the Army records? Whatever Jim did in the Army, he was several years removed from it. What were the odds that someone tracked him to Garrett County and shot him? Rich and I were going up there to investigate. If we uncovered a tie-in to something related to Jim’s service, I could go after the Army files then. Rich would probably approve at that point, after the requisite moment of frowning and scowling.

Rich mentioned PTSD and the idea that Jim never had it diagnosed or treated. His comments were practically an invitation to snoop around the Veterans Administration and their databases. Never one to decline such an offer, I went about it. For an agency protecting gobs of sensitive information about the country’s veterans, their network didn’t present much of a challenge. A few minutes after discovering the VA’s servers, I found one running an older version of Linux. One new exploit later, I was logged into that box. From there, I moved laterally to some other servers, discovered a database administrator credential in a text file—this is unfortunately common—and looked for records on Jim Shelton. When I found them, I transferred them off the network, erased my tracks, and disconnected.

Since he got out, Jim had seen VA personnel on an irregular basis. I discovered a lot of rescheduled appointments, a few missed ones, and notes with a surprising lack of depth. It seemed Jim wasn’t much of a talker, and the shrink he saw wasn’t much of a speculator. Thus, no one ever made a formal diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The only treatment Jim received consisted of aperiodic appointments with a mediocre shrink and no medicine. I felt bad for Jim and his family, and at the same time, I hoped other veterans fared better.

Without much else to go on, I packed a bag for the next few days and went to bed.


There you go. That’s Land of the Brave, chapter one. If you’re on my list, look for it to hit your inbox within the next couple weeks. If you’re not on my list . . . well, you should be, and you can sign up below. If you do, you’ll also get my first free novella, The Confessional.

‘Tis the Season of Giving–and Winning

Last weekend, our daughter’s Girl Scout troop braved the snow to collect and donate a bunch of toys to Toys for Tots. We spent a couple hours in a toy store, and got some customers to donate new toys while we were there. At the end, we took all the toys up the street to a drop-off location.

Toys for Tots donations

While we collected a decent amount of toys, we’re just one troop.

This is how you can get involved and win something cool at the same time.

I know it’s close to Christmas, but I’d like to raise money for Toys for Tots. It would have been great to buy a bunch more toys when we were at the toy store, but budgets are a thing. So I’m going to incentivize my readers to give. If you make a monetary donation of at least $15 to Toys for Tots via this link and send me the receipt, I’ll enter you in a drawing to win a signed paperback. That paperback can either be The Reluctant Detective or The Unknown Devil, after the latter is available in five to six weeks. (By the way, the second book in the C.T. Ferguson mystery series will be called The Unknown Devil.) One person who donates will win. If you want to black out details other than your name and amount on your receipt, that’s fine. Realize, however, that I’ll need to know your address (or PO Box) in order to send you a signed book.

Here are the details:

What you can do: Donate at least $15 to Toys for Tots.
What you do next: Forward me a copy of the donation receipt via email. If you want to black out personal details, that’s fine, but I’ll need to see your name and the amount.
What I do: Enter everyone who makes the donation and emails the receipt gets entered in a drawing to win a signed paperback.
When it happens: I’ll draw the winner and announce it after Christmas.
When you get your book: It depends on which book you want. The Unknown Devil is five or six weeks from release, and the paperback may lag a few days behind the ebook.
How you get the book: In the mail. I’ll contact the winner. I will need an address or PO Box to ship it to you.
Why? Because Toys for Tots is awesome, and plenty of kids could use some more happiness this time of year.

If I get a lot of entries, I might give away a second book. So if you want to share this with anyone, feel free.

Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and have a good holiday, whichever ones you celebrate. Let’s also try to make it better for some kids, too.

 

Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (let’s just call it Thor 3 for short) is raucous, good fun. It features good action scenes, some great images, plenty of laughs, and a story that moves the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) forward. There are some moments where it’s a little too cheeky for its own good, but you can look past them and enjoy the ride.

The movie: Fresh from stopping the demon Surtur (voiced by the great Clancy Brown–yes, the guy who is both The Kurrgan and Mr. Krabs) from starting Ragnarok, thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard. He exposes Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise. The brothers then go in search of their missing father, aided by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Odin tells them that his first daughter Hela (Cate Blanchett) is coming, and he can’t hold her back now that his time is up.

Hela arrives soon enough, laying waste to the brothers and destroying Thor’s hammer Mjolnir in the process. When Thor and Loki flee via the Bifrost, Hela follows and knocks them out into the void of space. She returns to Asgard, where she gains henchman Skurge (Karl Urban) and begins taking over.

Thor crash-lands in a dump, where a bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson) quickly captures him. She takes him to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who puts Thor into his network of arena fighters, all waiting for a crack at the champion. If you’ve seen a trailer for this movie, you know the champion is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). After their fight (which, of course, each thinks he won), Thor recruits the Hulk (and Loki) to help him take Asgard back from Hela. He learns that the bounty hunter who collected him is actually the last remaining Asgardian Valkyrie, and she eventually agrees to go back home and lend a hand.

Thor: Ragnarok

Not the god of hammers.

Heimdall (Idris Elba) has been hiding the people of Asgard from Hela, but she discovers them eventually. Thor and his “Revengers” arrive and the Big Boss Battle ensues. Hela is too strong, however, as she draws her power from Asgard, forcing Thor and Loki to undertake a desperate gambit to stop her.

The writing: Thor 3 hits the notes you would expect from an MCU film. The characters are written well, and their motivations are generally clear and believable. Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie probably has the best arc, though Thor learns quite a bit about himself in the arena against the Hulk and battling Hela at the end. (“Are you the god of hammers?” is a memorable line.)

I mentioned at the beginning that the movie was too cheeky in a few spots. It was legitimately funny, and it showed us that Chris Hemsworth has good comic timing. I think a few scenes were played too much for laughs, though, even at the expense of the characters (including Thor himself a couple times). Those moments aside, the movie entertained me the entire time. Mark Ruffalo gets a good turn as both the Hulk and Bruce Banner, and we get some insight as to the conflict between them. Of course, you’ll want to stay through the credits and see a scene that continues the setup for Avengers: Infinity War.

Thor: Ragnarok is a solid addition to the MCU. It’s probably the funniest movie they’ve made, but despite that, it has serious action chops and a few somber moments that are done well. It’s the best of the three Thor movies, and I say that as someone who liked Thor: the Dark World more than most.

Go see Thor: Ragnarok.

Book Launch Lessons and Plan

I can say I had a six-figure book launch.

Yes, the launch of The Reluctant Detective hit six figures . . . if you give me the decimal point and four places after.

It’s only been out for two weeks, so I’m not panicking. I didn’t expect to becomes James Patterson overnight. That will take until at least 2019! Further, I didn’t setup any marketing or promotion for the book prior to launch. Why not? It’s the first book in a series. That means the series currently has one book in it. One of the benefits of a series is read-through. People who read and like book one will go on to buy book two. If they like the first two, they’ll nab book three. And so on.

May still benefit from a book launch

I have no other books to sell. (Yes, I have a short story set, Pro Bono, available. It’s not the same as a novel.)

For future books, I’ll do some marketing before the launch, precisely because I’ll have at least one more book to sell. And I’ll be curious to see the effects of a more coordinated book launch on the sales of other books.

For this book, I have some marketing ideas coming up. I’ll be doing newsletter swaps with other mystery and thriller authors, trying to coordinate things around their release schedules so we can both benefit. When the other authors put out their newsletters, I’ll coordinate a Kindle countdown deal, so the price is lower and more attractive. I’ll also try out some Amazon ads, as well as sites like Bargain Booksy to drive traffic (and, I hope, sales).

It’s one book. I’m still a n00b at the indie author thing. There will be more books. I’m trying not to check my KDP dashboard every day, but of course, I do. Once I can stack a few promotions (probably next month), I’ll try to refrain from checking it every hour. And I’ll probably fail. It’ll almost be like a second book launch, and I know my curiosity as to its effectiveness will get the better of me.

If you’ve already bought The Reluctant Detective (or Pro Bono), thanks for your support! If you enjoyed the book, I hope you’ll also leave a review. Follow the book link, click on “Write a customer review,” select your star rating, and write a few words (or a lot of words). Reviews help indie authors like me get discovered, provide some validation for people who come across our books, and help us qualify for promo sites like BookBub. So if you enjoyed the book, please take a moment to leave a review. Thanks!

We’ll talk again next week.

The Reluctant Detective is LIVE on Amazon!

Phew. That’s my sigh of relief. After some delaysThe Reluctant Detective is now live on Amazon. You can check it out and buy it here.

Launching a book seems easy. Just take your Word document, make a quick cover, upload everything to Amazon (or your e-tailer of choice) and voila! Right?

Well, you could do it that way. Some people have. The reality is, if you want to put a good product up there, it takes more work. I hired an editor, who was terrific. Someone in my writing group referred me to a great cover artist. If you’ve forgotten what the cover looks like, here’s a reminder:

The Reluctant Detective cover

I’d like to say the launch was seamless, and that I am a writing and marketing savant. However, it wasn’t, and I’m not. Despite a spell-checker doing its job and alerting me to a typo, I totally whiffed on seeing it, and it made its way into the Amazon book description. Thankfully, someone alerted me to it quickly and I changed it, but still. We all make typos, sure, but that’s a bloody embarrassing place to have one. I also didn’t realize how much more complex print formatting was. If I had, I would have started all of that sooner. There will be a print-on-demand version. I’ll be offering it thru CreateSpace, but I don’t know exactly when. Check the book’s sales page periodically. My best guess is around the end of October, but I don’t know how quickly (or slowly) the process moves yet.

Launching The Reluctant Detective has been great, and it’s also been a learning experience. I have some lessons I’ve taken away for future book launches. For now, though, I’m stoked to have this book out. You can check it out here. It’s $2.99 to buy, or free to download and read if you’re in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program.

If you read The Reluctant Detective, I hope you enjoy it. If you enjoyed it, I ask that you do two things:

  1. Leave a review. Reviews are very important to independent authors like me. They help our books get noticed, vouch for their quality to prospective readers, and keep the mighty Amazon algorithms happy.
  2. Tell others about it. If you know people who enjoy mysteries and detective fiction, please let them know about my book. Even in our hyper-connected age, word of mouth is a great marketing tool.

Now that the book is out, I hope to get back to more regular blogging next week. See you then.

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