The Times asked authors to track what they do in isolation. Joe Ide, creator of the Long Beach detective they call IQ (whose latest novel is “Hi Five”), finds comfort in his family’s pecking order, fights insomnia with Headspace and John Le Carré, and binges Thomas Perry books.
I read Thomas Perry’s “The Butcher’s Boy” years ago. For aspiring writers, it’s everything you want to know about writing a crime novel. Tight, finely tuned, paced like the hundred-meter dash, singular characters, a singular voice. The writing is terrific. An embodiment of clear, clean, effective prose.
Presently, I’m binge-reading Perry’s Jane Whitefield series. Jane is a “guide.” She helps “runners” in jeopardy disappear. Not a new idea, but Perry makes it fresh. Jane is one of the smartest characters in the genre, certainly smarter than IQ. She’s incredibly clever, quick witted and immensely skilled.
Jane carefully researches your enemies. She understands their culture and psychology, anticipates their moves and plans accordingly. She provides you with a cover story and develops a background that’s credible and airtight. She knows which cars to buy, which cities and highways to avoid. She plans your escape routes and teaches you to spot danger when none is apparent. She shows you how to elude the bad guys when their cars are faster than yours, and how to avoid them at the airport when they’re waiting at your gate. It’s fun and fascinating to see her work. Jane might seem like another robotic action hero, but she has the same constellation of fears, aspirations and vulnerabilities we all have. I admire her. I want to be her.
I’ve also been binge-watching “Babylon Berlin,” a rich, compelling series about a detective in Weimar Germany in 1929. It’s based on the novels by Volker Kutscher and co-created by director Tom Tykwer. A police detective played by Volker Bruch teams up with a party girl played by Liv Lisa Fries to investigate corruption. The ensemble cast is terrific, textured, not a cliché in sight.
The show is set in the Germany of “Cabaret,” a time of decadence, cultural upheaval and the rise of the Nazis. I think production values can make or break a period piece, and they’re very convincing here. (I’m reminded of “The Last Samurai,” starring Tom Cruise, where the 16th century farming village is immaculate, the peasants are clean and well dressed and nobody is poor.) The set pieces in “Babylon Berlin” also shine. You won’t see them coming. As you might expect, a thriller about Germany, shot by Germans on location in Germany, has an entirely different feel from a comparable U.S. show. Watch the series.
Like millions of other people, I’m having trouble falling asleep. The uncertainty about everything creates a constant low-level anxiety, and every time you read the paper or turn on the TV, you give it sustenance. I talked to a very knowledgeable friend who gave me some advice. You have to decide to wind down. Assert control. Consciously tell yourself, “I’m winding down now.” No screens after 10 p.m. The screens themselves have a negative effect on sleep. A sleep app like Headspace may help. There’s a terrific English actor who narrates “Rainday Antiques” and a few other “Sleepcasts” but I’ve been unable to find his name. His voice his deep, warm and soporific.
Unless the music is designed specifically for sleep, turn if off. Music evokes. Books do too. Read or listen to something you already know. You eliminate the mystery and suspense. I like John Le Carré’s books, especially the ones he narrates himself. He was an actor in his younger days, his voice more resonant than the Headspace guy. His accents are spot on. Coincidentally, his German his excellent. There is very little violence in Le Carré’s books and that keeps your blood pressure low. His convoluted spy stories are driven by intrigue, character and human failing. I love how he uses made-up words as if they’re in everyday use. Scalp Hunters, Lamplighters, Babysitters, Pavement Artists. Real intelligence services have adopted them as their own. Le Carré was the first to use the term “mole” in modern fiction. Tonight, I’m listening to “A Perfect Spy.” It’s a story about the moral dissolution of a highly placed intelligence officer. There’s a lot of him in me, and maybe you too.
I’ve been Zooming with my three brothers. They’re the kind of guys who have empty Doritos bags, loose change, big folding knives and car magazines on their coffee tables. Whenever we talk or see each other, we are immediately transformed into adolescents and assume the status we had back then. Jack is the eldest. Tradition holds that he sits in the best spot to see the TV. He decides whether we watch a UFC fight or a Laker game, and gets the first slice of pie. I bat second in the order. I was the unathletic dreamer, book reader and Mr. Forgetful. I lost a fortune in jackets, lunch boxes, glasses and schoolbooks. I sucked at sports and I wasn’t a tough guy. In terms of my stature in the family, I was underneath the totem pole.
I have two younger brothers, Jon and James. They’re role players. Kurt Rambis or A.C. Green: always there, always solid. I’m the guy from the D League with a 10-day contract. My success as a writer has changed nothing.
I realize I could break out of my role and be more assertive, but the result would be chaos. We’d have to reshuffle our expectations, rearrange the pecking order and learn to relate all over again. Yes, I know, adulthood is an option, but really, who needs that? I’m more or less an adult all the time and seriously, it’s a drag. Adults are capricious, whereas my relationship with my brothers is stable and predictable.
I read my reviews and keep track of the comments on Goodreads, Amazon and wherever else they appear. A frequent remark is that there are too many characters, back stories, subplots and sub-sub plots. Admittedly, there are a whole bunch of them. Others complain that the present book isn’t like the last, that I didn’t follow the template of the previous one. That is also true.
It’s the way I write. I start with a story idea and some characters, and I go wherever they lead me. The glitch is, I don’t outline and I don’t have a plan. I can’t follow the conventions because I don’t know what’s coming, and I can’t write any other way. Will readers be disappointed if their favorite character plays a lesser role? Maybe so. But that’s where the story led me, and another character will fill that space. Hopefully, he or she will be just as satisfying. If not, your favorite character will step forward in the next book.