Am interviewed this AM by Michele Emrath (at left) over at Southern City Mysteries. I explain why I'm envious of my protagonist, Ian Michaels, and my first love versus my current infatuation. Take a look here.
I'm no photojournalist. I carried my camera with me at this weekend's Left Coast Crime in downtown LA only sporadically. Too bad. I would have loved to get a photo of the terrific panel I moderated called "Thrill Me." Andy Gross, Meg Gardiner, April Smith, Boyd Morrison, and Dana Haynes were insightful, funny, and provocative. Also missing from the photos below are any late-night pix from the bar. Next time.
Here I am at a diner Friday evening with the ever-so talented Ellen Block (The Language of Sand out next month), the laugh-till-your-sides-split LA novelist Jennifer Colt (her The Hellraiser of the Hollywood Hills is out next month, too), and fellow Bay Area techie/novelist Mark Coggins (whose The Big Wake-Up garnered a starred review from PW last fall). They were smiling even after watching me eat my vegan tapioca for dessert. (The tattooed guy in the back is at the next table.)
Saturday morning I was on a panel called "Legal Eagles." (Jim Holmes, standing, was the moderator and then from left to right are my fellow panelists, Paul Levine, Twist Phelan, Teresa Burrell, and Ken Isaacson.) They knew what they were talking about. Me? I was almost arrested for practicing law without a license. Let off easy since I went to Palo Alto High, same as Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason series. Teresa claims to have dated the son of the model for Della Street -- that helped win me the pardon.
Angels Flight, a railway shorter than a football field, reopened on Saturday. Michael Connelly wrote a terrific book where the murder occurs right on this car. BTW, behind me in the orange fedora, that's Kelli Stanley. Her City of Dragons sits at #2 on the IMBA bestseller list.
Eric Stone, who writes the evocative Ray Sharp series, and the super-moderator and SinCLA chair, A.H. Ream, did a great job finding local places for lunch in downtown LA. Here's the menu board from the China Cafe in the Grand Central Market. Told that Raymond Chandler used to stop in for a bowl of chop suey. Nowadays that'll set you back around $4. (Note sign asking patrons not to throw lemons on the floor.)
Saturday night the wonderful Naomi Hirahara, the Edgar Award winner whose Blood Hina is just out, took her friend George and me on a tour of Japantown. We're in front of a statue of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during World War II who saved 6,000 Jews from murder at the hands of the Nazis.
I got back from sushi in Japantown with George and Naomi early enough Saturday night to catch pal Rebecca Cantrell pick up the Bruce Alexander Award for Best Historical Mystery for Trace of Smoke. It was a thrill for me just being there and seeing Becky win. Kelli Stanley, last year's winner, is behind her.
Rebecca didn't think she'd win the award. I did. We bet. I won. Don't know if you can read her scribble on the fin. It reads, "To Keith Raffel, who is always right. Rebecca Cantrell." Sweet.
In addition to those mentioned above, had a great time hanging with Gayle Lynds, Bill Cameron, LJ Sellers, Ken Mercer, Donna Bagdasarian, Janet Rudolph, Jason Pinter, Hannah Dennison, Barry Eisler, JT Ellison, Colin Campbell (who wore shorts most of the time), John Gilstrap, Diana James, Darrell James, Sue Ann Jaffarian, Steve Steinbock, Stephen Jay Schwartz, Erica Spindler, Christa Faust,Tim Maleeny, Mysti Berry, Sheila Lowe, Diana Orgain, Rita Lakin, Joel Goldberg, Tim Hallinan, Michelle Gagnon, Bobby McCue, Sophie Littlefield, Linda Brown, John Gilstrap, Holly West, Juliet Blackwell, John Billheimer, Melodie Howe, and many more. (Sorry if I missed you; didn't mean to.)
Home now and recovering. Time to focus on getting draft of current WIP done!
When I logged on this morning, there was an email from Amazon.com suggesting that I might be interested in Smasher by Keith Raffel. (See below.) Good thinking, Jeff Bezos and company! Also recommended were Kelli Stanley's City of Dragons, Lisa Bork's For Better, For Murder, and Diane Madsen's A Cadger's Curse. I am a fan of Kelli and Lisa's, so perhaps I should conclude that: 1) Amazon's algorithms do work pretty well, and 2) A Cadger's Curse would be worth a try.
There’s nothing I love more than getting an angry email from a reader that says something like, “Curse you. I had an important meeting at the office this morning and I was wreck. Why? Because I started reading your book at 10 last night and couldn’t put it down. I was up till 3.”
I should feel bad, I know. But I don’t. I wish I got more emails like that. Heck, I’m selfish enough that I’d be willing to see the GNP suffer (just a little blip would be enough) due to the reduced productivity of the millions of American workers reading my books. Well, like Willy Loman, a man “is got to dream,” doesn’t he?
So what am I saying? That my primary motivation in writing is to entertain. When I picture someone reading Dot Dead or Smasher, I see her or him on a beach chair or in an airplane seat. But I do have a more subtle, secondary motivation. Do you remember the big brouhaha a couple of years ago about Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook, Deceptively Delicious? In it she explains how to slip vegetables into kids’ meals without them noticing. You know, some puréed cauliflower in the mac-and-cheese or sweet potatoes in the pancakes. Well, I try to sneak some good-for-you “vegetables” in what I write, too. Critics picked up on this. Joe Hartlaub of Bookreporter.com, for example, wrote: “Dot Dead also deals, quietly but effectively, with spiritual and ethical concerns, infusing them into the narrative without overwhelming it.”
Why am I bringing this all up now? Because J, the Jewish Newsweekly of Northern California, didn’t review Smasher. Why not? Apparently because it wasn't viewed as a Jewish book.
I’m an American, a creature of Silicon Valley. That background infuses my writing. So does my Judaism. When Dot Dead starts, the hero is obsessed by making tens of millions from stock options he's been granted by the start-up where he works. In the course of the narrative, I try to “slip in” the notion that pursuing justice, belonging to a community, and establishing a loving relationship just might also be goals worth striving for. I am contrasting the schizophrenic values I myself have lived with: Ian Michaels's first obsession reflects the ethos of Silicon Valley and the second set of goals reflects Jewish values.
This learning process goes on in my second book beginning right with the epigraph drawn from the Talmud: “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.” Through this book, too, Ian continues to learn the way to a rich life is not through single-minded pursuit of money.
Now Ian is a skeptic with a natural distrust of pat answers. When his wife hovers near death, he doubts the value of the prayers his mother-in-law seems to rely on. When Ian asks what good it would do to seek justice for a long-dead great aunt, a rabbi tells him, “The Torah says, ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.’ It doesn’t say to just pursue justice for the living. Perhaps obtaining justice for the dead makes a better world for the living.” (Elsewhere in the book, Ian even learns that Judaism is pro-sex.)
The choices Ian makes, especially at the end of Smasher, shows the transformation Ian goes through. Like Moses, Ian is a reluctant hero. Even though Ian doesn’t necessarily believe in God, he does the right thing in the end. According to the Jewish Sages it’s far more important what you do than what you believe. He becomes a mensch.
I may write Jewish books then or at least books with Jewish themes, but they are certainly not intended only for Jewish readers. With Jews constituting only 2% of the population of the United States and ¼% of the world population that would restrict readership a little too much. I’ve had evangelical Christians, nuns, Moslems, Buddhists, and Hindus tell me how much they enjoyed what I’ve written. They like learning a little bit about Judaism and, of course, there’s a universality to the journey Ian is on. I doubt any religion would say a single-minded quest for money was more important than justice, community, or family.
So are my books Jewish books? I think so, just as they are American books and Silicon Valley books. But they aren’t meant to be only for Americans, engineers, or Jews. Most of all, I try to write books that will entertain readers of any nationality, religion, or profession.
A version of this post also appeared on Inkspot where there are a number of comments. Click here to read them or enter the conversation yourself.