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.

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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.”

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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!

Antagonizing

What we get wrong in political thrillers is the same thing we get wrong in real life —

We tend to oversimplify antagonists.

For the protagonist, every writer asks, who is she? what does she want, and why can’t she get it? Part of the writer’s craft is to artfully reveal details that make the main character(s) feel rounded.

But what does the antagonist want–and why?

My recent thriller, Emergency Powers, takes seriously those questions, delves into who the bad guys are–so much so that one reader said he almost began rooting for one of them.

He didn’t think that was a bad thing, and neither do I. You don’t have to agree with- or root for them. But reader and writer should at least understand who the bad guys are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

My thrillers – Faithless Elector, Dark Network and the new Emergency Powers – have been called prescient, seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines (or, rather, anticipating them). One of the reasons is that I looked not only at the driven, conflicted protagonist, FBI Agent Imogen Trager, but at what the bad guys wanted; how they might get it—and what it would take to stop them. If possible.

That impulse forced me to think like them, to consider how they might go about staging a coup. I had to consider which tools were at hand, which key institutions and offices could be undermined, corrupted or hollowed out. And as I worked on the second draft, I stumbled onto things I had written that were really happening. (I should say that I never saw the Jan. 6 capitol riot coming; and even if I had my editor would have axed it as too far-fetched.)

But I did see that a pliant, corrupt Attorney General would be the key to covering up and legitimating a coup; that cabinet positions–even whole departments–could be captured or rendered ineffective through second-in-commands and “acting” heads; that hollowing out the civil service by putting the OPM (Office of Personnel Mgmt) under the ambit of the White House and returning it to a “spoils” system would make a cover-up more complete. And I saw that this state of affairs–a true conspiracy with many moving, coordinated parts–would be hard to stand against, much less defeat. But if anyone could, Imogen would be the one to do it.

Thrillers are meant to be an escape, but not an escape from sense. The gray eminence presiding over the coup (“The Postman”) is concerned with private power, exercised through public means. In the past, he tried to get himself elected, and tried to buy politicians, but his ideas are unpopular and can’t win in the public sphere. Like a lot of frustrated suitors, he thinks it’s because the game is rigged. Well, two can play at that game…

His henchmen are not James Bond automatons, but have real (if misguided) reasons for signing on with the Postman. A great many of us bemoan the level of discourse on social media, but confronting (and considering) some of the ideological rantings there has given me insight into what ideas they hold and what they might be capable of doing.

It makes for a thrilling story–all the more so because much of it could really happen.

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark 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, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place this fall. 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.

Political institutions are the problem, but it’s institutions that will save us.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what Adam McKay would say about institutions (the law, courts, norms, democratic rule) but I would nevertheless love for him to read and respond to my Faithless Elector thriller series. Because as gratifying as it’s been for the books to find readers who see the political moment reflected in the pages of my books, the larger narrative sometimes gets lost; that the present moment has been a long time coming. And the moment isn’t over.

Speaking to David Marchese in the NY Times magazine, McKay talks about what “hooked” him in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (which he produced for the screen). Reading the book in one night, he says that “[Lewis] does two things. Number 1, we all love the taste of making a lot of money. The other thing we all love is knowing things that we’re not supposed to know. Lewis tells me things that most people don’t tell me…” He goes on to say that what he asks of a work is: “Is there a sincere attempt to understand the world, or is the action just one of manipulation and distraction?”

In the three books that make up the series—Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Emergency Powers—I’ve tried to do just that–to tell a story that tries to understand the world, one that doesn’t talk down to the reader, nor one that has an axe to grind. They’re about insider politics, and delve into things you thought you knew about in a new way: strong, character-driven stories set within a context of conflicted, dangerous politics. The conspirators exploit weaknesses in our legal/constitutional institutions to effect their power grab—motivated, as McKay discusses “by pure power and reactionary beliefs.” And if they can get hold of all the levers of power, they may very well succeed.

The “Faithless Elector” conspiracy, and the forces arrayed against America in my stories didn’t rise with Trump (he’s nowhere in their pages). Rather, it’s part of a much longer trajectory and deeper worry. And those forces haven’t gone away now that Trump’s making his noise offstage.

I would urge anyone thinking or writing about politics to give the interview a good read. It’s the kind of insightful, reasoned (yet still passionate and opinionated) discussion many of us lament as lacking these days. He also zeroes in on the dearth—in literature and in politics—of working people’s voices. Which, again, my work strives to bring into the conversation. Meetings between the FBI and “regular” folk aren’t caricatures, but are meant to be rounded people, to add nuance and complexity to the plot—and the stakes—as the story unfolds.

Later in the interview, McKay makes an interesting claim about center-left and center-right politics, putting himself in the CL corner, and Aaron Sorkin’s work on the CR. It’s Sorkin’s faith in institutions (again, the law, courts, norms) that pushes him rightward in McKay’s view. (McKay is careful not to claim that Sorkin is a right-winger). McKay’s observations and phrasing are in keeping with a balanced, long-view perspective. By McKay’s rendering, I guess I’d end up CR, too. Which is an uncomfortable feeling…

But insofar as my work enlightens, as it is a sincere attempt to understand the world, I’ll accept it.

Far from contributing to the politics of distraction and outrage porn, the Faithless Elector series reads, in the words of one reviewer, like an “insider’s view” of power politics. The conspirators manipulate the Electoral College, the congress and the bureaucracy from the inside–and for their own ends–with the future of the nation in the balance. It is characters in and out of government who risk their lives to right the ship of state. What my characters oppose is not bureaucracy, or legal authority, but the perversion of those institutions.

There’s a quote posted above my home computer, from Professor Emilios Christodoulidis at the University of Glasgow School of Law:
“Any separation between legal and political power is purely conceptual…there can be no real legal authority without some political power…[and] there is rarely political power without some legal authority.”
(from Jurisprudence: Themes and Concepts )

As the tagline for Dark Network notes: “Without law, there’s only power.” To which, perhaps I should add, And what about when law protects and abets the powerful?

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James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. The third book, Emergency Powers, is available NOW!
All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

He’s at work on a fourth thriller, set in Scotland, w/t Bastard Verdict.
A Seattle native (mostly), he now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. James is a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.