Dangerous Foods? (part one)

Is the way to my secret heart through my stomach? Do I come to crime and thriller writing through food, or have I become an (allegedly) international scofflaw because I’m drawn to crime? Am I just cheap?

I think it’s probably the former, and that my love of food has driven me to spirit (all right, smuggle) regional delicacies and foodstuffs home.

chieftain o’ the pudding-race

I have detailed my quest for Haggis for Burns Suppers and St. Andrew’s Day celebrations in “Thunder Road.” And I’ve battled with Parisian waiters – “A Very French Battle.”

Those who follow me on social media know that I struggle mightily to achieve the perfect pie crust, and that I practice “seasonal gluttony.” That is, I gorge on fresh, local and in-season food. Miraculously, right about the time I’m getting tired of eating strawberries or asparagus, for instance, blueberries and cherries are coming on, and artichokes are plentiful. Later still, peaches, tomatoes, fresh corn…until we’re finally down to roots and tubers, cabbages and kale—plus whatever I’ve frozen!

But some things fall outside that cycle, and outside my (free) range.

bottarga (tuna)

Botarga is one such (sometimes spelled with two “t’s”). It’s Italian, dried fish eggs (either tuna or red mullet) that you grate over top of (preferably bucatini) pasta and serve tossed with capers, garlic, parsley and oil. Interestingly, you don’t put cheese on the dish, but rather a very light coating of breadcrumbs. It has a distinct aroma and taste—at once sharp and earthy. A pleasant funkiness, too! I prefer the tuna version, but its cost per ounce here in the U.S. rivals cocaine.

On my last trip back to the States from Italy, I made room in my bag for guanciale, prosciutto, pancetta, some smoked duck breast from my Oxford butcher. And botarga.

I had nothing to declare.

Surely “meat” on the declaration list meant fresh meat, which I would never have brought in my suitcase. These were cured! The customs official ordered me to open my bag. My wife looked on, shaking her head. The children stared glumly at me as though they might not ever see me again. The customs officer unzipped the bag and turned over a pair of blue jeans revealing my stowaways. She said I couldn’t have any of it, and my heart sank.

She began plucking out the various vacu-packed salumi. First the pancetta and the duck breast as I watched with tears in my eyes, then the prosciutto. She tossed them unceremoniously into a bin. (I expect customs officials eat very well.) She took hold of the guanciale and held it up to me: “No meat, sir,” she said.

Boldly, I grabbed hold of the botarga. “This isn’t meat,” I said, holding it up briefly before stuffing it into my laptop bag. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me. I manfully met her gaze. “Not meat, officer,” I said again. Which was the truth. More or less. She sighed, looked around for a moment and then scribbled something on a form. With a flick of her hand she indicated that I should leave now.

Which I did before she could change her mind. There was a long line behind us.

Next up: Montreal Bagels, smoked haddock and Cuban cigars (I know, cigars are not food—but truly, almost as important!)

# # #

You can check out McCrone’s latest short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland, currently under review. His work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Representing

Recently, I’ve seen Facebook posts and a Tweets (each with a dozen attending comments) regarding fellow writers’ concerns about in-person readings and book signings; and I’ve heard privately from others about their discomfort over large gatherings. I absolutely get those concerns, and I would never disparage or second-guess another person’s reasons for wanting to remain safe and healthy.

What I would like to do is talk about the importance and value of these get-togethers, and my hope that they will return in full force sooner rather than later. The Zoom readings do have value in a number of ways, but they are no substitute for a live gathering.

Annamaria Alfieri and Gary Cahill

Last night (Tues., April 12, 2022) I was the first reader in the latest installment of the MWA-NY Reading Series at KGB Bar, along with Gary Cahill, Tom Avitabile, Bill Chambers, A. J. Sidransky and Albert Tucher–and it was wonderful! It felt great to be out and about, to (re)connect with old friends, meet new people, and to hear first-hand what others are doing and working on. The place filled up nicely, too. A good mix of people (say, 20+) came out on a Tuesday night to hear crime stories. There was an energy and vitality in the room that you can’t get over a screen.

At KGB, as is true at Shade Bar, in Wilmington, West Chester and other venues, the audiences are generous, knowledgeable, and attentive. As I’ve written elsewhere there’s no substitute for a live audience, and these readings series and Noirs at the Bar give us one filled with writers and readers who are both avid fans.

Like many writers, I use these short readings as a way to try out new work or work-in-progress. It’s similar to stand-up comedy, I think, in that there’s no buffer. You wrote the words, and you’re speaking and representing them. You’re putting it out there. And there’s no mistaking a moment when you’ve lost the audience. These writers and readers know what grabs them, too, and you can see it in their faces when something you’re reading doesn’t sound right…or drags on too long.

Which, when/if it happens is a horrible moment (not that I would know, personally! :). But it’s a necessary moment, and it’s far better to be forced to grapple with why and how something isn’t working early(ish) in the process before you start pitching and querying. Even when you’re reading something that’s already out in the world, audience reactions can inform and inspire a current work.

As a reader/performer, I think, you have at least two reciprocal roles for the evening–performer and audience member. As writers in a community, we do more than just cheerleading. It reminds me of moments when you hear professional athletes speak about a fellow athlete, sometimes even a competitor. They’re fans, too! They understand and respond to another athlete’s playing on an informed level.

There’s also the serendipity of being in a room full of people who care about writing and story. One of the readers last night, Tom Avitabile was answering a question from someone who was clearly very taken with Tom’s reading. In his response, a single word leapt out at me that fused a lot of things I had been thinking about my own work, an image grew in my mind for how I should think about the structure of the rest of the book. I’m not sure when or if that spark would have come without his comment–one about something else entirely, and not even directed to me. (And bonus, his new thriller hits the ground running, and sounds fabulous.)

Finally, it’s just fun to be out and hearing stuff!

The next MWA-NY/KGB Reading Series is June 14 (I think). I’m planning to go, and I hope to see all of you there.

# # #

The selection I read Tuesday night, from Witness Tree is months away from being finished. But you can check out my latest short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Set in the 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” coming May 15 in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland. He’s currently writing a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, w/t Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Philly Freedom (2) – Setting as Character

I got to Philly by way of Scotland.

That is, writing about it. I’ve been fascinated by how, indeed whether, a story’s setting can work like a character. Could something happen here that wouldn’t happen somewhere else? What effect does place have on a story? This past year, as I wrote here, I began writing about the place I live.

While working on my fourth novel Bastard Verdict, a political thriller set primarily in Glasgow and Dundee, I found that the details I included to make those cities come alive (Glasgow in particular) kept reminding me of home, of Philly: the contention between old and new; of a splintered city with deep, working class roots (and pride), struggling with its sense of itself, straining against the blanchissage of what had made the city unique.

Glasgow tenements
Society Hill row houses – Phila.

Both Glasgow and Philadelphia are old cities, perennially on-the-rise in some manner, only to slide grindingly backward in some other. Both cities played an outsized role as heralds of- and key players in the Industrial Revolution. Both were once strong in ship building. Kinship, religion, ethnicity and race count for a lot. Multiple generations live with- or around the corner from one another.

Any fan of William McIlvannie’s work (particularly, the Laidlaw mysteries) knows in their bones that while the stories resonate with readers outside of the city, the characters and stories only make sense in relation to Glasgow. McIlvanney’s vivid description of his town – “It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat” – sounded and felt a lot like Philadelphia, in a way I’d have never thought of in relation to the Seattle of my youth. Other cities have tough reputations, certainly, but here things are personal.

And it was that sense of the personal set in a unique place which has (re)animated my writing.

Divine intervention

In Philly, there’s a casual, winking corruption and/or indifference to authority, which grapples with WASP-y notions of order and tutting bourgeois sensibilities. It’s as much a legacy (if you want to call it that) of organized crime as it is an understanding, an acknowledgement that people need to get along, and allowances must be made. So yes, if you do your home-remodel on weekends and evenings, you can probably get it done without pulling permits. Who’s to know? And who’d report you? And outside of Center City you can park on the sidewalk, or in the left turn lane along Broad Street. It’s not legal, but again….

How else are youse gonna stay warm?
9th Street Market, Phila.

I don’t want to write about the 70’s and organized crime. I want to write about here and now–the juxtaposition of splendor and squalor, of what it means to leap forward while leaving whole parts of a city stuck behind. And I wonder if some of the people I’ve just deemed as “left behind” would see it that way.

When I briefly worked at the 9th Street/Italian Market here, I had complaints from time to time from newer residents about the trash can fires that the day-stall workers set to keep warm outside in the winter.

“Is that even legal?” they’d ask. “Aren’t those pallets they’re burning treated with something that might be toxic?”

I had zero time for these discussions, and typically I would nod gravely, promise to look into the matter, but know that I would do nothing. I remember one such conversation where I noted that “It would have to be the cops who enforced it, and”–I pointed towards the Market’s beat cop warming his hands over one as he chatted with the stall owner–“I’m afraid he’s the one who’d have to do it.”

# # #

If you want to check out these latest short stories, you can find them here:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” on Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Set in the 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist. The narrator and his partner in crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” coming May 15 in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out my Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Philadelphia Freedom!

Missed garbage pickup, South Philly

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s glad to see the back of 2021. Professionally, last year played out like the opening of some noir tale about a small-timer who dreamed of and failed at making his mark…Back list sales languished, the pitches for my fourth thriller met with stony silence, the third act of a comedy play wouldn’t come together. The dismal list goes on.

But in the midst of all this, I started writing short stories again, something I hadn’t done in years. And while two of my three published novels feature South Philly, they’re not set here, aren’t about the place where I live.

All that changed this past year.

Each is set in Philadelphia, and each, while different in tone and detail, confronts the tension between the competing experiences of- and aspirations for the lives of the city.

And some of those stories have found excellent homes:

This past weekend (1/15/2022) “Eight O’Clock Sharp” debuted on Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Later this month, “Ultimatum Games” comes out in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
And in May ’22, “Nostalgia,” will be my contribution to volume 3 of the Low Down Dirty Vote anthology.

#7

In each of the stories above (and one or two that haven’t yet found a home), I wanted the conflict to be not just personal and unique to the characters, but also to represent the lived contention in modern cities, like my Philadelphia.

In “Eight O’Clock,” set in the 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces. In “Ultimatum Games,’ about a rare book heist, the narrator and his partner in crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms. And in “Nostalgia,” an armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

I’ve been thinking more about setting as character, and will be writing about that interplay in future posts.

# # #

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out my Events/About page. And follow this blog!