Hill House and Adaptations: Happy Halloween ’18!


I’m not sure when October became Halloween month, but I’ve decided it’s not such a bad thing. Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten lots of good recommendations for scary books and films. My husband and I made it a point to watch some beloved old-school scary films together, including The Haunting (based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House), The Sentinel, and Rosemary’s Baby.

We also watched the television series, The Haunting of Hill House, the Netflix adaptation *cough cough* of Jackson’s novel. Ahem…

Have you read the 1959 novel? If you haven’t, then I’ll wait here while you do. Don’t worry. It’s long, but I promise you’ll speed right through it. But if you’re too busy, here’s the premise: University professor studying psychic phenomena gains access to a reputedly haunted house called Hill House, and brings along a presumed psychic (Theo), a disturbed young woman (Eleanor) who ostensibly caused rocks to rain on her house, and a young man (Luke) who is a descendent of the ill-fated family who built the house. They investigate over a period of a few days, and Many Scary Things happen. Someone dies.

I LOVE THIS BOOK. It’s also beloved by legions of fans. It’s nuanced and original, yet also and comfortingly familiar, with its haunting tropes like creepy statuary, darkness, unidentified banging, unsettling architecture, mysterious writing on the walls, a harrowing origin story, and bizarre servants who won’t stay after dark. But the true strength of the novel is that it is less a horror story than a tale of psychological suspense and festering fears and tensions. In fact, it was nominated for the National Book Award.

The 1963 black-and-white film adaptation adheres pretty closely to the book, and Julie Harris is brilliant as the fragile virgin, Eleanor.

We only speak in hushed, abashed tones about the 1999 Catherine Zeta Jones remake.

Husband and I began watching the Netflix series set in both the present and the 90s with heightened expectations. Then we almost didn’t make it through the first hour. I confess, we were pretty angry. Nothing felt right, and very little felt familiar. For openers, the house is ostensibly being renovated in order to be flipped by the Crain family. Um, what? There are five children in the family, and Timothy Hutton and Carla Gugino play the Crain parents. The children are named Steven, Luke, Nell, Theo, and Shirley. Again, what? The adult Steven Crain is a bestselling writer who made a bajillion dollars telling the family’s darkest stories in his novels. Shirley is an undertaker, Luke, a heroin addict, Theo, a psychotherapist, and Nell–well I can’t remember, but it was something innocuous. They’re estranged from their father, and their mother is dead.

Thank goodness for terrific child actors–the kids who play the young Crains were very, very good.

The two story lines eventually bear each other out. We discover why the mother died, and how she was killed. We learn what’s truly wrong with the house. But very, very little of this plot has anything to do with the book or the 1963 film. It’s as though the creator were a magpie who took all the sparkly bits of the novel and sprinkled them through an entirely new story.

Forgive my being vague, but I want to avoid spoilers in case you want to watch it. Which you should! It’s very good if you simply dismiss any notions you have about the book or the 1963 film. It does stand on its own beautifully. And, in my opinion, it should just be called The Forever House. But no one asked me, darn it.

So, has anyone else seen the series? Read the book? Seen the 1963 or 1979 films? If so, what do you think of them?

Something else to consider: What adaptations of your favorite novels elicit strong opinions from you, either way.


Compulsive Readability

A few weeks ago I purchased the latest Tana French novel, The Witch Elm, even though my TBR pile is almost to the ceiling. The reason? I buy every novel of hers as soon as it comes out. Why? Because of what I call ‘compulsive readability’ – closely aligned to the ‘trustability’ that Jim blogged about yesterday – meaning I automatically, faithfully, buy every book of hers that’s published. There aren’t many authors I’ll do that with – even J.K. Rowling missed the mark with me. I adored all the HP books and pre-ordered each installment, but then came her foray into adult books. I was uninterested in purchasing The Casual Vacancy and then with the Cormoran Strike mysteries, while I liked them, I didn’t love them (which means I got them out from the library but didn’t purchase them). In this instance, an adored author, didn’t necessarily become the compulsively readable one across all genres.

So what makes an author compulsively readable? What makes a reader buy every single book no matter the blurb or description? I think this aligns with what Jim was speaking about yesterday when it comes to ‘trustability’. I trust Tana French’s books implicitly and because of that level of trust, I won’t hesitate when it comes to buying her books. This, in essence, is what we are writers all strive for – to develop that degree of trust amongst our readers (this is what publishers are clearly looking for too!).

So what makes Tana French so ‘trustable’ to me? I thought I’d try and break down the reasons, as it helps highlight the key factors all of us should keep in mind as we build our writing careers.

First, and foremost, all her books are written to a consistently high standard – and by that I mean every single on of them is well-written, well-conceived, and (even when there may be plot holes) beautifully crafted. As a reader I have no hesitation ordering her books because I know I’m not going to be disappointed, even when they don’t appear to directly fit with the series she’s written to date (which is the case with The Witch Elm). Her writing is what has always stood out for me, not the premise of her books or the plots she spins, and this for me is critical. She never loses focus on what matters the most – the beauty of the words on the page.

Secondly, she consistently builds and maintains a world that I want to enter. Her Dublin murder squad series comprises different narrators/voices/characters but the world remains the same – which creates both an expectation and an anticipation in her readers. Whenever a new book comes out, I can’t wait to see what new spin or perspective she brings to this world (and the way she treats overlapping characters is cleverly executed – further enhancing the world).

Finally, her books never feel rushed. She doesn’t just pop out a book as if it’s merchandise. I’ve never got the feeling that she produces to a schedule (even though she almost certainly has to!) – so I don’t ever get the sense of being cheated that, now she’s successful, she’s resting on her laurels or producing ‘more’ at the expense of ‘quality’.

All these elements are worth bearing in mind as we, as writers, continue to try and establish or maintain our own careers. The difficulty is that there’s also an ineffable element – one I can’t pin down – that probably attracts me to these books over and above another (equally talented) author’s work. Nonetheless, what makes an author compulsively readable  is worth analyzing. Af all, if it was easy, we’d all be best sellers:)

So TKZers, who is your ‘compulsively readable’ go-to author? Which author are you committed to buying and why? What factors do you think go into ‘trustability’ as well as ‘compulsive readability’?



Staying Afloat in the Roiling Sea of Books

by James Scott Bell

Blue-footed booby

Discoverability is becoming as rare as the blue-footed booby.

According to Bowker, the outfit that registers ISBN numbers, over a million self-published books were issued ISBNs last year.

That’s a one with six zeros after it.

And understand, this does not include traditionally-published books, nor all the ebook-only titles without ISBNs.

Which means there’s a whole lotta books out there, and more added every year. (Most of which are bad. See Sturgeon’s Law.)

Industry observer Mike Shatzkin added this:

I had reason to learn recently that Ingram has 16 million individual titles loaded in their Lightning Source database ready to be delivered as a bound book to you within 24 hours, if not sooner. So every book coming into the world today is competing against 16 million other books that you might buy.

That number — the number of individual book titles available to any consumer, bookstore, or library — has exploded in my working lifetime. As recently as 25 years ago, the potential titles available — in print and on a warehouse shelf ready to be ordered, or even to be backordered until a next printing — was numbered in the hundreds of thousands. So it has grown by 20 or 30 or 40 times. That’s between 2000 percent and 4000 percent in the last quarter century.

Of discoverability, agent Rachelle Gardner recently observed:

How can any single book stand out in that large of a field? It’s very difficult. The problem is known as discoverability and it means the odds are stacked against us when we want to bring readers’ attention to our books.

This is why the publisher needs your help—it’s important to find your audience, that specific group of people who will like your book. They need you engaging with your audience, connecting with them, doing your part to make them aware of you.

Even with all this work, it’s still hard to make your book discoverable. It’s not anyone’s fault. Publishers are not conspiring to make life difficult for you. They’re not being unreasonable by requiring authors to participate in marketing. It’s simply the situation we find ourselves in—there are too many books, so we all have to work so much harder to each one stand out to its unique audience.

One line that jumped out at me is: the publisher needs your help. It used to be the other way around. A writer needed a traditional publisher to get into bookstores. If there were some marketing dollars in the budget, the publisher might arrange to have the book placed on the New Release table at the front of the store.

But now, with bookstore space shrinking, and marketing push going almost exclusively to the A list, authors writing inside the walls of the Forbidden City are expected to do audience building themselves (which has some authors wondering why the publishing houses still take the same royalty split as when they did all the heavy lifting. But I digress).

So how do you build an audience these days? The old-fashioned way. You earn it. (Hat tip to John Houseman).

Book after book. And more than one or two titles. You don’t hit a stride until you have several books out there to go with a steady pace of future production.

Another agent, Steve Laube, also reflected on the Bowker publishing numbers, and offered this advice:

  1. Write the very best book you can.
  2. Build an audience who will support your work (i.e. platform).
  3. Decide whether to self-publish (but only do it the right way) or go the traditional route (get an agent).
  4. Figure out how to launch a book.

The fundamentals don’t change, do they? That’s why they’re called fundamentals. I’d modify the list a bit this way:

  1. Write the very best books (plural) you can, at least one per year.
  2. Keep learning and growing in the craft.
  3. Decide what kind of writer you want to be. If self-publishing is on your mind, consider:
    1. Can you be sufficiently productive?
    2. Do you have the discipline to learn basic business practices?
    3. Are you willing to invest between $500 and $2,000 for cover design, editing, and proofreading for each book?
  1. If traditional publishing is your goal, ask:
    1. Am I patient enough to wait up to 18 months for my book to come out?
    2. Will my agent fight for more author-friendly non-compete and reversion-of-rights clauses?
    3. Am I ready with a plan should my publisher drop me?

One word I do wish we’d get rid of is platform. For non-fiction a platform is desirable because there’s a built-in audience for a subject. But agents and publishers push this amorphous concept on unpublished fiction authors, which only adds to their stress and detracts from their writing time.

The best time for a fiction writer to build a platform is 2003. That’s when we weren’t so blog saturated that a new author might actually gain a following. That’s when we weren’t tossing away good writing time on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram (and, worse, thinking that the latter venues are good places to sell books!)

As I argued a couple of years ago, we need to get out of “discoverability thinking” and into “trustability thinking.”

You should be thinking that each new offering is an opportunity to prove to readers that you deliver the goods. As you do this, time after time, trust in you grows. Consumers buy more from businesses they trust. Readers are consumers and you are a business.

This applies whether you are traditional or indie, commercial or literary, tall or short.

Or have blue feet.

So … are you about to dive into the cold Atlantic of content, knowing full well how vast and choppy it is out there? Have you taken swimming lessons (studied craft and market)?  

Or are you already swimming?

How’s the water?

It’s Time To Share, TKZers! What Are You Working On?

A while back, a TKZer made an excellent suggestion: to give an opportunity for readers to share something about their writing and latest projects.

So, this is the day we want to hear about YOU, your WIP, and recent accomplishments! Don’t forget to include a link so that folks can find out more about your work.

C’mon, it’s time to toot your horn!

A Different Twist on Storytelling

By John Gilstrap

The Greenbrier

Autumn is conference season.  Bouchercon morphed into C3 (Creatures, Crimes & Creativity con), which then morphed into Magna Cum Murder.  As a former road warrior, traveling by air all the time, I decided this year to skip the airport this year and drive from Northern Virginia to Indianapolis for Magna.  On the way out, we broke the trip into two, four-and-a-half-hour drives, stopping for a night in Wheeling, West Virginia.  For the trip home, we decided to take the southern route, which took us through White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, the home of the stately and wonderful Greenbrier Resort (and yes, that’s spelled properly).

From 1962 till 1992 The Greenbrier kept an important secret.  Then a reporter from the Washington Post decided on his own that the world needed to know something that the government had classified Top Secret.  The Greenbrier had been designated as the relocation spot for members of the US Senate and House of Representatives in the event of a nuclear attack.  (I’m told that said reporter now teaches journalistic ethics at the collegiate level.  Just sayin’.)  A 112,000-square-foot, 153-room bunker facility lies buried 720 feet under the Allegheny Mountains, and is constructed of 50,000 tons of reinforced concrete.  One of the four blast doors that provides access to the bunker weighs 25 tons, and swings on hinges that are four feet long, 14 inches wide and eight inches thick.

The bunker was built in total secret.  How, you might ask?  That’s where storytellers became important.  Beginning in 1955, the C&O Railroad, owner of the resort at the time, started a press campaign celebrating an expansion of the hotel which would add the West Virginia Wing, featuring new guest rooms and massive exhibition space for business meetings and trade shows.

Joy and me standing in front of one of the smaller blast doors.

And here’s the thing: When the bunker was finished in 1962, the massive spaces were all used for business meetings and trade shows.  One of the nation’s most important secrets was kept in plain sight!  The enormous blast doors were disguised as walls, and the House and Senate chambers were rented out for classes and business meetings.  Who would  think to ask if the walls were five feet thick?

For thirty years, the bunker was maintained by a crew of thirteen very special workers who doubled as the television and electronics maintenance team for the hotel and its visitors.  Their cover worked because they actually were the television and maintenance team for The Greenbrier.

If the balloon ever went up, the U.S. Government Relocation Facility–the official name for the bunker–would have become home to roughly 1,100 members of congress and their staffs.  Sleeping in bunks and sharing bathrooms and showers, conditions would have been Spartan at best.  Even in the early sixties, the folks who ran the bunker understood that cramming passionate politicians from all persuasions into tight quarters could lead to flashes of temper.  They understood that after weeks of living underground, somebody might go a little nuts and try to open the blast doors to expose everyone to fallout.  Thus, there was a safe, accessible only to security personnel, where riot gear was stored.  Because these people needed to be fed in shifts and it was therefore necessary to move people along, the architects intentionally included design features that made the cafeteria an unpleasant place to sit and talk.

One of the planning details that impressed me the most was the White House backdrop on the wall of the media room.  The president and the executive branch would never have come near The Greenbrier, so it made sense that the Capitol Building backdrop would be part of any broadcast, but why the White House backdrop?  Well, if the president and vice president were killed, the speaker of the House of Representatives would become the president, and they were prepared for that eventuality.

And then there was the incinerator room.  Yes, it burned documents and clothing that were brought in, but the designers had also taken into consideration that members of congress were of a certain age, and that there would be lots of stress, and, well, you know.  Burial really wasn’t possible.

As I took this tour, my mind whirled at about a million rpm.  Think classic locked-room mystery.  Think psychological thriller.  Think political thriller.  Is there any place one couldn’t go with that kind of setup?


Is Anything Really Taboo
In Today’s Crime Fiction?

I am on book tour in Michigan today, so excuse me if I don’t answer quickly to comments. In meantime, I wrote this recently for the great online mag Criminal Element. (Which coincided with a terrific review for our new Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done.) Thanks to my editor at CE, Adam!) 

By PJ Parrish

Taboo. Off limits. That’s a no-no. Don’t go there. Oh man, you can’t do that.

That’s what mystery and thriller writers often hear. Be it from editors, reviewers or readers — especially readers — there are things we aren’t supposed to write about. Things that no one who’s looking for escapist fiction, wants to read about, things that are too sensitive, too controversial, too just plain ick-factor to deal with. After twenty-odd years in publishing and with thirteen thrillers under my belt and a new one just published, this one question never fails to intrigue me.

What is too much? How far can you push the envelope? Where is the line when readers will turn on you? And, maybe most important, as a writer, should you care?

We often hear there are some things you should never do in mysteries and thrillers. Maybe it’s because some folks believe the old boundaries of genre fiction still bind us. Maybe it’s because we’re all hyper-aware of the problems of finding audiences in a world of shrinking shelf space and the blat-blare-honk! of indie-publishing.  Maybe it’s just vestigial adherence to the sad old rule that genre fiction should know its limits. Here’s just a few of the no-no’s I know:

  • Don’t deal with abused children because readers can’t take it.
  • Don’t write about religion because it’s too personal.
  • Don’t write about politics because it’s too divisive and partisan.
  • Steer clear of graphic violence and sex.
  • And never, ever, kill an animal.

I’ve been thinking about this topic since the release of our new book THE DAMAGE DONE. This book heavily stresses the series-long character arc of our protagonist, a biracial PI ex-cop who is desperate to get back to wearing a badge again. Louis Kincaid is mysteriously recruited for a cold-case squad of the Michigan State Police run by an old nemesis who ten years before caused Louis to lose his badge. The “why” behind Louis’s new job is seminal to the plot and tests Louis’s faith in law enforcement.


That is the underground railroad that propels the plot of THE DAMAGE DONE. And that means dealing with religion. It is in the foreground when Louis is called upon to solve the murder of a mega-church minister. But in the background, the slow percolation of a second cold case — the remains of two boys are found in an abandoned copper mine —  boils up memories of Louis’s childhood slide through the foster system and tests his complex notion of faith.  Faith in what? Or in whom?

Religion isn’t easy to write about because like anything of import, you can get, well, preachy. But, while many of our characters are people of deep faith, it was important with this story that we didn’t dictate what the reader concludes. And that, I think is how mystery and thrillers can illuminate the social questions of our weird times — deal with hard issues but never be didactic. I’ve been working my way through the John D. MacDonald books for the last year.  In Condominium, MacDonald took on shady real estate developments and crooked politicians. In One More Sunday, he tackles televangelists and moral ambiguity — but never loses sight of telling a ripping good yarn.  Luckily for me, I finished my own novel about faith before I started this one.

I read a crime novel recently by an Edgar-winning writer. The writing was elegant, the plot set-up tantalyzing. I really liked the protag. But about halfway through, I found myself getting irritated. Why? Because the writer started shouting about the devastation of the environment and it was drowning out the story. I don’t like folks banging on my door trying to teach me about Jesus. I don’t like crime writers hitting me over head with a thematic two-by-four about baby seals.

Likewise, I get annoyed by bad women-in-peril books. Now sexual predators are a fixture of crime fiction, and some authors handle the subject graphically. (Karin Slaughter’s Kisscut comes to mind.). But if you can’t bring anything new to the subject, if your female characters are cliched victims, then don’t go there, especially in the red-hot passions of the #metoo movement.  Reality is far more potent than most anything you can put on the page today.

Yes, we should write about politics, sexual violence,  and yes, we even need to kill animals if the story needs it. (Although I had to put down a book by Minette Walters, one of my favorite writers, because she wrote about torturing cats and I had ten cats at the time.). But you have to deal with a touchy subject always with the idea that it must organically support the story.

With our book A Thousand Bones,  we dealt with the devastating rape of the protagonist. Our editor asked us if we really wanted to “go there.” After much agonizing we decided the heroine’s character arc wouldn’t be believable without including the violent act. In the same book, the heroine, a rookie cop, commits an act of vengeance against her rapist. We thought long and hard about the ethics of a law enforcement officer pushing the limits but decided to leave the incident in. We got some emails on this from readers claiming a “a good cop” would never do this. I was at a signing and a man came up holding the book. He said, “I’m a retired Detroit police captain and I need to talk to you about how you ended this story.”  I braced myself. Then he said, “I would have done the same thing she did.”

Not every decision about “taboos” is as difficult. We got a thoughtful email from a regular reader about our book An Unquiet Grave telling us she found the profanity off-putting. We write a hard-boiled police procedurals and thrillers, so we have to reflect the reality of the street and the station house. But we came realize we had become too reliant on profanity to convey intensity of character. It can be a crutch, a poor stand-in for powerful dialogue. Yes, our books still have profanity, but we think about each word we use. Which is sort of what you should do with non-profanity, no?

In the end, after thirteen books and twenty years of crime writing, I’ve decided there is only one real taboo — that the message never overwhelm the plot and characters. The story must always win out.


How To Use False Eyewitness Testimony in #Thrillers


Forensic Psychology is a fascinating field, especially as it relates to eyewitness testimony. Can we always trust our memory? Let’s test your observation skills. In this short video, count the number of times the ball is tossed from one white-shirt player to another. Sounds easy enough, right? Give it a try.

Well, how’d you do?

This phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Your mind perceives what’s happening, but you do not attend to it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. But for some reason this information is more subconscious than conscious. The best known demonstration of inattentional blindness is a study performed by Simons and Chabris (1999) known as Gorilla in the Midst.  It’s highly copyrighted so I couldn’t embed it here, but if you’d like to check it out, click the title.

Imagine the implications inattentional blindness has on eyewitness testimony? Often times victims of violent crime are so focused on the gun they see little else.

Change blindness is another phenomenon that effects key elements of our surroundings, including the identity of the person right in front of us, even if that person has changed places with someone else. If you’d like to use change blindness in your WIP, check out The Door Study.

The implications of change blindness on eyewitness testimony could delay solving the crime. Always a good thing in thrillers. A detective could be led down numerous dead-ends, and so could the reader.

In a violent crime, “weapon focus” muddies the waters. Participants in another study watched a film of a kidnapping attempt. Would it surprise you to learn that actions were better remembered than details?Eyewitness testimony

Action Details

When we witness a crime, we absorb the information by the actions that happened during the commission of the crime. For example, a man pointed a gun at a woman, pushed her into his van, and sped away. The central information — what an eyewitness focuses on — and the peripheral information — what’s happening around said eyewitness — often becomes skewed with the surge of adrenaline.

Such findings suggest that when we witness a traumatic event, our attention is drawn to the central action at the expense of descriptive details. Yet, in other circumstances, such as non-violent events, our attention may be spread more evenly between the two.

Which brings us back to inattentional blindness. This phenomenon occurs when attention is drawn toward only one aspect of an eyewitness’ surroundings, resulting in lack of information. Which writers can use to our advantage.

Weapon Focus

The use of weapons complicate matters even more. When a gunman brandishes his firearm, an eyewitness tends to focus on the pistol rather than other details, such as the suspect’s hair and eye color, build and dress. Researchers have tested this theory, as well.

In the study, they showed participants videos of robberies — robbery involves a weapon and a victim; burglary does not— where one group witnessed the robber with a concealed pistol and other group witnessed the robber with the gun in plain sight. When researchers asked the concealed weapon group to identify the robber in a line-up, only 46% of participants could identify the suspect. From those who watched the video where the robber brandished the weapon, only 26% could identify him.


In order for an eyewitness to be able to answer a question, they must be willing to respond. And it’s this willingness that can impair their memory of the events. Not everything we “see” or “experience” is stored in our minds. Our brains don’t work like computers where each bit is encoded. Rather, we make connections to other things in order to process information. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written about Subliminal Messages on my blog.

Episodic memories — memories involving an event — are organized in our minds as “event schemas.” This allows us to store knowledge, events, and activities by connecting to what we classify as “normal.” In other words, rather than remembering every time we dined at our favorite seafood joint, we tend to build a general impression of seafood restaurants … the smell, the atmosphere, and so on.

However, the use of schemas can distort memories. The perfect example of this is when someone asks me about my childhood, then asks my brother. From our answers one might think we grew up in different households. Many factors contribute to how we remember times and events. Such as, influence. When gaps exist in our memory we tend to incorporate new information in an attempt to fill in the blanks. Although useful in everyday life, this poses real problems for investigators, because this new information is often constructed after the crime took place, and leads to false testimony.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into Forensic Psychology. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Next time, I’ll share how an investigator should pose questions to an eyewitness. Perhaps you could use the techniques in your WIP. Would that interest you?

So, TKZers, how many of you saw the gorilla? Are you tempted to use false eyewitness testimony in your WIP?

The Mystery of Jack Waer

by James Scott Bell

It’s no secret that I love the paperback era of the 1950s. Most of it is eminently entertaining, and almost always well written. Why? Because the writers in those days had been through the classic American schooling that drummed the structure of the English sentence into their heads. Then they paid their dues writing for newspapers, where grizzled editors would scream at them to write more clearly.

The result was sharp and grammatical prose, unlike so much of what’s produced today, even in once respected newspapers. I recently saw the word anyways in an actual news column trying to make an actual point.

But I digress.

I recently purchased The Noir Novel Megapack—four 1950s novels for only 55¢! A few days ago I started reading one of them: Murder in Las Vegas by Jack Waer.

It’s terrific. A solid noir set up: After a night of drinking and getting into a fight, a guy wakes up in his apartment, not knowing how he got there. He finds his .38 on the floor and picks it up. Then he spots a dead body on his bed just as his cleaning lady comes in and, seeing the gun in his hand and the body on the bed, screams and runs out. It isn’t long before he’s on the lam and hiding out in L.A.

Excellent hardboiled prose, as in:

His fist came up into my face and it was like having a stick of dynamite exploding inside my head. That was the end of the line. After that there was nothing but the black velvet road that led me through insane dreams.


Slowly, I crossed around the bed. I went just so far, then stopped, although the thing inside my gut sprang forward, clawing and spitting. I wanted to yell, to scream out all the filthy things I’d ever learned in all those years on the way up. I wanted to yell until the noise drove away the sight in front of me.

Somebody had been at her throat with a knife.


I grabbed the threadbare huck towel off the rack and splashed some water on my face. After I’d dried off I took a look at myself in the mirror and decided never to do it again.


The Vanguard was the address where the high tone and six-figure sports kept their private doxies in the manner to which their wives had never been accustomed.


The place reminded me of my happy childhood. It was like Old Home Week to enter the dark interior and smell the sweetish odor of stale beer, dampness and despair.

So I found myself wondering, who was Jack Waer? But my initial searches hit a cul-de-sac.

On Amazon, there are only three titles listed for him, as used paperbacks. Murder in Las Vegas, Sweet and Low-Down and 17 and Black. 

Who was this guy? I didn’t find any biography of him on the usual noir sites. He was not listed in my go-to reference on this era, Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era. I even emailed an MWA Grand Master who is an expert in the pulps. He’d never heard of the guy.

I began to formulate a theory. Because the writing in Murder in Las Vegas is so sharp and spot-on, I thought “Jack Waer” might be a pseudonym for a mainstream novelist. In those days, literary writers often went “slumming” in paperback originals in order to make some dough on the side, all while protecting their “good name.” Evan Hunter did that under the pseudonym Ed McBain. It was McBain who became rich and famous. I don’t know if Hunter ever forgave his alter ego for that.

So that was my theory. Only three books. (It turns out it’s only two, for Sweet and Low-Down is a reissue of 17 and Black with a new title.)

Did he die? Or did the literary author simply move on?

It turns out I could not have been further off.

I did another search on Google and saw an old black and white photo:

So I went to the page, which turned out to be the blog of L.A. mystery writer J. H. Graham. Ms. Graham is, like me, third-generation Angeleno, and we both love the crime lore of the 50s. I am indebted to her for solving the Jack Waer mystery.

Turns out Waer was a gambler running in the same circles as Mickey Cohen, the underworld king of Los Angeles. Says Graham:

Waer, who is also used the name Alexander John Warchiwker according to his naturalization forms, was born in Warsaw Poland in February 1896. He came to Los Angeles sometime after 1930, having previously lived in Detroit. In 1942 he listed Eddie Nealis as his employer on his WWII draft registration card; his job description was not specified. However, he was arrested on gambling charges in July 1943, when D.A. investigators raided an office in the Lissner Building at 524 S. Spring St. and found Waer running a dice game.

The [Los Angeles] Times had called Waer a writer after the NYE 1945 hold-up. He may well have been one; In any case, he became a writer for sure by 1954 with publication of his novel 17 and Black (later issued in paperback as Sweet and Lowdown).

So there you have it. A habitué of the illegal gambling dens of 1950s Los Angeles wrote a couple of books on the side, one of which is pretty doggone good!

Even if your beat is the underbelly of society, it helps if you can write.

Waer, according to Graham. died in Las Vegas in 1966.

And if you are interested in crime fiction that takes place in Los Angeles back in those days, check out J. H. Graham’s mysteries.

What obscure writers have you come across who should be better remembered?