My Top 10 Shamus Award Books from 1982-2015

By Max Everhart

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Grateful is my word of the day because Split to Splinters (Eli Sharpe #2) is a finalist in the Best P.I. Paperback Original category for the 2016 Shamus Awards.

Bill Pronzini.  Harlan Coben. Robert Crais. Dennis Lehane. Alison Gaylin. Paul D. Marks. M. Ruth Myers. These are just some of the many previous Shamus Award winners/finalists whose work I greatly admire, whose books have entertained, thrilled, challenged, and inspired me.  My love of reading is the main reason I started writing, and today, I’m feeling particularly grateful to all the aforementioned novelists for providing the blueprint on how to craft a first-rate mystery.  I’m also grateful to my publisher Camel Press for nominating my book.

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I’m also grateful to The Private Eye Writers of America, not only for selecting my book as a finalist, but for staying committed to celebrating, recognizing, and elevating the sometimes maligned P.I. genre.  Without PEWA, an organization that I use as a source for book recommendations, I might never have discovered many of my favorite sleuths such as Elvis Cole, Myron Bolitar, and Maggie Sullivan. For that, too, I thank you.

I’m so excited to be going to Bouchercon in New Orleans this fall that I went back and scoured all of the Shamus Award winners and finalists from 1982 through 2015.  Rediscovering some of my absolute favorite P.I. novels made me create a top ten list that I’m dying to share with everyone. So, if you’ve read these, good work! If you haven’t, you’re welcome. . . and get on it.

My Top 10 Favorite Shamus Award-Winning-or-Finalist Books (in no particular order)

  1. Gone Baby Gone–Dennis Lehane.  In Gone, Baby, Gone, the master of the new noir, New York Times bestselling author Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island), vividly captures the complex beauty and darkness of working-class Boston. A gripping, deeply evocative thriller about the devastating secrets surrounding a little girl lost, featuring the popular detective team of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, Gone, Baby, Gone was the basis for the critically acclaimed motion picture directed by Ben Affleck and starring Casey Affleck, Ed Harris, and Morgan Freeman.
  2. Don’t Dare a DameM. Ruth Myers. Tea with two spinsters thrusts 1930s private investigator Maggie Sullivan into an explosive mix of murder, political rivalries and family secrets. Pursuing their case means risking not only her life, but her detective license.
  3. Fade AwayHarlen Coben. In novels that crackle with wit and suspense, Harlan Coben has created one of the most fascinating heroes in suspense fiction: the wisecracking, tenderhearted sports agent Myron Bolitar. In this gripping third novel in the acclaimed series, Myron must confront a past that is dead and buried—and more dangerous than ever before.
  4. And She WasAlison Gaylin. A breathtaking novel of suspense, Gaylin’s And She Was introduces a remarkable new protagonist: Brenna Spector, a missing persons investigator afflicted with Hyperthymestic Syndrome, a rare disorder that enables her to remember every moment of every day of her life. A twisting mystery, both chilling and surprising, And She Was sets the haunted investigator on the trail of a missing child who vanished more than a decade earlier—a case with disturbing echoes in Brenna’s own scrupulously remembered past.
  5. White HeatPaul D. Marks. Days before the verdict is read in the Rodney King Case in Los Angeles back in the 1992, a weasely little man walks into private detective Duke Rogers office and asks him to locate an old friend, Teddie Matson. The guy is white and Teddie is black, and Los Angeles is just about ready to explode due to racial tensions, but Duke isn’t thinking about that, just the $250 he’ll make on the easy case.
  6. Sunset ExpressRobert Crais. Prominent restaurateur Teddy Martin is facing charges in his wife’s brutal murder. But he’s not going down without spending a bundle of cash on his defense. So his hotshot attorney hires P.I. Elvis Cole to find proof that Detective Angela Rossi tampered with the evidence. Rossi needs a way back to the fast track after falling hard during an internal investigation five years ago. But Cole needs to know if she’s desperate enough to falsify the case against Martin in order to secure her own position. As Cole and his partner Joe Pike work their way through a tangle of witnesses and an even greater tangle of media, they begin to suspect that it’s not the police who are behind the setup.
  7. BoobytrapBill Pronzini. Emotionally exhausted from the events surrounding his partner’s suicide, “Nameless” welcomes the chance for a quiet vacation that comes when San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Patrick Dixon proposes that the burnt-out detective drive Dixon’s wife and son to their summer cottage on a remote High Sierra lake. In exchange, “Nameless” will have a week’s free use of a neighboring cabin.
  8. Big City, Bad BloodSean Chercover. Disillusioned newspaper reporter-turned-private detective Ray Dudgeon doesn’t want to save the world; he just wants to do an honest job well. But when doing an honest job threatens society’s most powerful and corrupt, Ray’s odds of survival make for a sucker’s bet . . .
  9. Fatal Flaw–William Lasher. Ethically adventurous Philadelphia lawyer Victor Carl usually does the right thing, but often for the wrong reasons. When old law school classmate Guy Forrest is accused of murdering his beautiful lover, Hailey Prouix, in their Main Line love nest, Carl agrees to represent him — while keeping silent about his own prior romantic involvement with the victim, and his present determination to see that his client is punished for the brutal crime. But once Carl sets the machinery of retribution in motion, it may be impossible to stop it, even after his certainty begins to crack. Now Victor Carl must race across the country to uncover shocking truths: Who, really, was Hailey Prouix? And why is a killer still waiting in her shadow?
  10. Dancing BearJames Crumley. Detective Milo Dragovitch spends too much time boozing until he gets caught up in a case involving two-bit criminals and an old lady on the run.
    His friends call him Milo. No one has ever called him Bud except his father, long dead, and now Sarah Weddington, stirring painful memoires and offering him his first case since he abandoned his private practice and took a job marking time on the night shift for Haliburton Security. The case seems almost too easy, hardly worth the large fee, just to satisfy this old woman’s curiosity. But things are soon exploding all over the place and Milo is turning up grenades, machine guns, a kilo of marijuana and a bag of coke  . . . and suddenly Milo is on the run.

max picI would love to hear from you, so check me out on FB here and/or my author website here. Or send me an email at maxeverhart30@gmail.com.

 

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How Can I Write Better Dialogue? 4 Quick Tips

Dialogue matters.  A lot.  In fact, I have stopped reading many an otherwise solid novel due to sub-par dialogue, and I wanted to provide a friendly warning to authors out there: even casual readers can sniff out sloppy dialogue, and that could cause said readers to stop reading, which could mean they write a bad review, or worse, no review at all.  And what happens to the novelist then?  Well, that lack of reviews could lead the writer in question to quit writing and take up drinking, which could lead to the downfall of his marriage, which could lead to him losing custody of his kids, which could lead to more drinking and financial problems, which could lead to getting behind on the mortgage.  The end result: the writer ends up homeless.  . . .all because he wrote piss-poor dialogue. Tragic.

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Anyhew, I’m in the midst of new writing project, and to remind myself not to screw up dialogue and end up drunk, divorced, destitute, and only seeing my adorable son Harry on every other weekend, I’ve jotted down 4 quick tips. Enjoy.

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Tip #1: Dialogue creates tension.

  • Speaking in completely reductive but useful terms, I lump all novel writing to do with tension-building into two broad categories: characters either DO things that create tension, or characters SAY things that create tension. So when writing dialogue remember to allow a character’s true personality to come out to play. If they’re mysterious, dole out their words carefully, and with utmost attention paid to timing. If they’re a smartass, dialogue is an ideal place to showcase that particular talent (yes, it qualifies as a talent; otherwise, I would have no discernible talent). All of these should help increase tension between the characters.

character counts

Tip #2: Dialogue builds a character’s backstory.

  • It takes a seasoned novelist to achieve what I’m about to suggest, but it can be done and done well: use dialogue to help round out a character’s backstory. Now I’m not suggesting nor do I advocate for information dumps; those take readers out of the story, which defeats the purpose. But if you can weave in memorable (and, occasionally, important) bits about a character’s biography then dialogue is wonderfully efficient place to do so. Plus, it saves time and space. Being lazy, I like that.

dialogue new newTip #3: Dialogue helps create separate and unique characters.

  • Every character, from the protagonist to a minor character with only a few lines, should have a distinct way of speaking. This helps brand them as unique characters, and it helps readers differentiate between characters, especially recurring ones who have lots of dialogue. Find ways to make every character’s speech memorable. Does a character stutter? Talk really fast? Speak in clipped phrases? Whatever, just make it memorable.

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Tip #4: Dialogue, on occasion, reveals a character’s most important thoughts and feelings.

  • Again, a seasoned novelist will do this sparingly. Unless, of course, the character in question is someone who wears his or her heart on his or her sleeve and keeps up a constant monologue. But still, dialogue is a nice place to, on occasion, toss in how a character feels about an issue (say, the crime in question, for example). This will help cement a reader’s feelings toward the character, and it will also help other characters who are involved in the dialogue parse their own feelings.

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So how important is dialogue to you as a reader? Got any tips on how to create meaningful and memorable dialogue? Have any Italian sandwiches you’d like to send my way? (What, I’m hungry.) Would love to hear from you. Drop a comment.

 

It’s Sooo Easy: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Explains How to Write a Private Eye Novel

max picHey, would-be writers of mystery!: To celebrate the launch of my latest book Ed, Not Eddie, I thought I’d show everyone just how easy it is to write a P.I. novel. Follow these simple steps and join the pantheon of great detective writers: Raymond Chandler, P.D. James,  Ross MacDonald. . .Fill-In-Your-Name-Here.  

by Max Everhart

Part One (average length: one to two chapters at most): P.I. meets client. Client describes the case, usually withholding some important information.  In classic noir tales, the P.I. will be sarcastic, jaded, and more than likely attempt to talk the client out of engaging his/her investigative services. But, reluctantly, the detective is hired, and then he/she asks pertinent questions about the case and the people involved. This initial meeting sets up Part Two.

Tips for Part One:

  • Establish a clear setting, which includes not only the physical environment, but the time period as well.
  • Establish the narrative perspective and tone of the book.  Most private eye tales are in either first person or a tight third person narration, but there are exceptions. Regarding tone, ask yourself if you want the book to be funny, serious, whimsical, satirical. . .whatever, just write accordingly. And keep it consistent throughout the narrative.
  • Sprinkle in interesting details about the P.I., but do not, under any circumstances, do an information dump.

usual suspects

Part Two (average length: four to seven chapters, depending on the complexity of the case): P.I. meets/interrogates all relevant suspects/witnesses. He/she asks basic questions that establish each character’s motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime, all the while taking notes (mental or otherwise).  During this phase, the detective also performs research, collects “clues,” and forms general impressions about the suspects/witnesses and the case at large.

Tips for Part Two:

  • All suspects should have a credible motive, means, and opportunity regarding the crime. Translation: anyone could have been responsible for the crime in question.
  • Create an atmosphere of distrust, especially between the P.I. and all the suspects, but it helps for the P.I. to start to doubt the intentions of the client as well.
  • Establish a clear timeline for the crime. This helps the reader better understand the crime and allows him/her to investigate right alongside the P.I.
  • Write scenes, not chapters. Scenes are based on action; characters in a particular place, hopefully an interesting one, working out the basic dramatic conflict.
  • Periodically have the P.I. briefly summarize what he/she “knows” or “thinks” about the case thus far. Keeps the reader orientated. Helps you, the writer, as well.
  • Keep the pace brisk. Translation: move the story forward, always. Remove any long-winded backstory, exposition, or stalled scenes.

red herring

Part Three: (average length: three to four chapters): P.I. narrows the pool of suspects. Accomplish this by eliminating suspects that could not have committed the crime in question. Have the P.I. hone in on his/her favorite suspects and really squeeze them.  At this point, the dramatic tension gets ratcheted up a notch, which helps lead toward the climax and resolution.  Typically, the detective will bark up the wrong tree a bit before discovering the true villain(s). Keeps the reader guessing. Keeps the detective on his/her toes.

Tips for Part Three:

  • Throw in a red herring or two.
  • Have the P.I. involved in a dangerous scuffle/gunfight or two. Helps increase the tension and build toward a satisfying conclusion.
  • End each chapter provocatively—with a startling image, interesting dialogue. . .anything that demands the reader keep reading til the end.

climax

Part Four (average length: two to three chapters): P.I. figures out the culprit.  A showdown ensues (aka: the climax).  Depending on the type of mystery (hardboiled, cozy, murder, etc), the climax may or may not involve violence, but remember, there need not be bloodshed in order to create drama and excitement for the reader. Just remember that the ending should be surprising, yet inevitable.

Tips for Part Four:

  • Don’t cheat! No acts of God. No surprise villains. You have to play fair with the reader, which means you should have given the reader just barely enough information to deduce the ending.
  • Make it dramatic! Novels can have flaws and problems (and all of them do), but if you play fair and still wow them in the end, it’s a successful book. And those same readers will want to read another one by you.

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Recommended Books and Articles

Well, that’s about it. Tune in again when I discuss the two basic types of private detectives: Intuitives and Scientifics. Until then, go buy Ed, Not Eddie!

 

 

 

“Pink Elephant,” an Eli Sharpe mystery is FREE!

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Hello, all. Great news. On the eve of the launch of Ed, Not Eddie (Eli Sharpe #3), my publisher Camel Press has made “Pink Elephant,”a fast-paced mystery, FREE on Kindle. You heard me. Free! Pretty excited as it has already landed at #4 on one of Amazon’s Top 100 Lists.

Synopsis

Former pitcher Darren “Duck” Williams hires ex-ball player/present private detective Eli Sharpe to make a delivery—a stuffed pink elephant to Duck’s daughter. Stuffed with what? Drugs, that’s what, unbeknownst to Eli, and the girl isn’t related to Duck at all. Eli owes Duck bigtime for bailing him out once, or he’d never try to save his ass after being played—taken for a drug mule. The bad guy he’s up against, Mr. Spoon, is one stone cold killer. But Eli always has a card or two up his sleeve. Introducing Eli Sharpe, PI extraordinaire of the Eli Sharpe Mysteries, set in Asheville, NC. Full-length novel adventures include Go Go Gato, Split to Splinters, and the upcoming Ed, Not Eddie.