Posts Tagged ‘Ann Rule’

I’m a little worried that an e-mail from Ann Rule is going to pop up in my inbox any minute.

Why would I be getting an e-mail from Ann Rule, you ask? And why would that worry me? Well, it’s like this: The other day, I turned in a review of “But I Trusted You,” the fourteenth and latest volume in the Seattle true-crime author’s “Crime Files” series. It’s being published on the Reading Local Seattle web site. It wasn’t, shall we say, lavish with effusive praise for the book. In fact, I devoted nearly 2,700 words to exploring why the book wasn’t very good. In my opinion, of course.

And I said these things even though I made clear in the review, more than once, that I have the utmost respect for Rule and for the majority of books she’s published in her long career. I wasn’t pulling punches, wasn’t trying to have it both ways, either. It’s really what I think.

And I said what I said because I also think it’s important to be honest, and I don’t think there’s enough honest book criticism out there these days.

Publishing, as my colleagues at 1st Turning Point (where I also publish essays) often remind me, is a business of relationships. And, in their view at least, we should be careful to avoid saying anything negative in public because it’s bad business, because word gets around and the opportunities to develop the kind of relationships I need to make deals could disappear as a result.

I think that mentality, correct as it may be, often kills quality book criticism. (I’m not saying mine’s all that, though I will defend this review to the death as well-thought-out and informed by comprehensive knowledge of the author’s oeuvre … oh, and most importantly, backed up by my real name).

Most reviewers these days, in my observation, seem to subscribe to the “If you can’t say something nice about a book, don’t say it at all” mindset, and either post relentlessly sunny reviews or criticisms so diluted that they’re difficult to pick out of the text. To do otherwise, they seem to be saying without saying anything of the kind, is to somehow hurt their own standing in the literary community (many, it seems, depend on relationships with authors or booksellers).

Honesty should be inside books, not about books. I guess that’s the message.

To me, that sort of thinking is as useless as the thinking of those who would lob Molotov cocktails of corrosive criticism on Amazon or Goodreads from behind the cowardly safety of anonymity. (Anything worth saying, good or bad, is worth saying with the coin and credibility of your name.) That’s why I was dismayed to see all the good-riddances from the literary community when Kirkus Reviews — well-known for its abundance of negative reviews — ceased operations in December. The good-riddances were misplaced, in my view, because they focused on the mere fact of negative criticism, and not at all on whether the criticism might be accurate or well-informed. Instead, all the chatter was about how rude those reviewers were, as if that’s the worst thing a person in the literary community could be. (Funny how not that long ago, when literary lions like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote roamed the earth, it was the best thing a person in the literary community could be.)

But the reality is that there’s a lot of crap out there these days — more so, it seems, in this time of pared-down editorial staffs at most publishing houses — and someone needs to say so. Someone who knows what they’re talking about.

I don’t know everything about everything; I wouldn’t be the right person to review, say, the latest novels by Jodi Picoult or Philip Roth or V.S. Naipaul.

But I do know about Ann Rule.

I’ve read Ann Rule books for nearly 30 years now, back before I knew I was reading Ann Rule books. (Her first published tomes were written under her true-detective-magazine pseudonym, Andy Stack.) She lives in the Puget Sound area, just as I have most of my life, and writes largely about crimes of the Pacific Northwest (which happens to be my area of professional interest). I have a tremendous amount of admiration for how she built herself up into the publishing powerhouse she is today — from being a disabled former Seattle cop to a single mom of four who freelanced for true-detective magazines on the side, building up her name and her game until she could land her first book contract. Since then, she’s knocked out upwards of 30 books, most of which are well above average for the genre, and continues producing at a fearsome pace well into her 70s. I don’t know her well, but I’ve corresponded with her a few times, attended several of her public appearances and spoken to her after those events on a handful of occasions. Like everybody else, I like her. And I wouldn’t object to getting to know her a lot better.

So why am I saying that her book isn’t very good?

Because … well … hmmm. Because it just isn’t very good.

I’m sorry. I wish it wasn’t so. And I felt an obligation to say so, given that there’s virtually no outlet that I can find for coherent, informed criticism of true-crime books. Mass-market paperback originals, especially, fly almost totally under the critical radar.

That said, I don’t kid myself that I will dissuade one person from buying “But I Trusted You.” That’s not the point. Nor is that particularly what I want to do. The point is that I’d like to be a catalyst for a conversation about what we want and expect from books in the true-crime genre, what standards we expect them to uphold, and I don’t see that serious conversation taking place anywhere now besides a on few threads on Amazon.com. (Most conversations about true crime that I can find are more TV-centric, more focused on the cases of the moment in the national and global media. That doesn’t interest me.)

So why then, if I am so convinced that I’m doing something good and worthwhile, am I so worried?

One, because I well know to criticize somebody’s work is to criticize their blood and sweat and tears, to criticize their children. My attack may be professional but I don’t pretend for a second that it won’t be taken personally, perhaps by Ann Rule but almost certainly by some of the more ardent folks among her legions of fans (who she affectionately refers to as ARFs, for Ann Rule Fans). I’m a human being. It was never my intent to hurt anyone’s feelings, even as I knew going in that I might do exactly that. All I can say is that my criticism, taken in context, is constructive and not destructive.

That’s what I hope people keep in mind if there are any consequences, as a result of my review, on my ability to forge and maintain the kind of relationships that will allow me to become a published author myself. I know there could well be, especially in the world of the Internet, where people often react without pausing to think and post slashing, searing rebuttals in the heat of anger.

That I can handle. The idea that people won’t deal with me in the future — people I’d like to have deal with me — because I violated publishing-world protocols of politeness and professionalism would be much tougher to take.

So the question is: Is any literary criticism deemed to be rude by definition? Or, could it be that I’m just fretting over nothing, and that what I say just might be taken by everyone who reads it in the spirit in which it’s intended?

Actually, the idea that I’m fretting about this is kind of funny, given that one of my next blog posts will feature an absolute shredding of another true-crime book released last year — a book so indifferently reported and incompetently written that I think it threatens to undermine reader confidence in the entire genre. A book that Ann Rule couldn’t or wouldn’t write in her worst nightmares. Bet your ass I have something to say about that.


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It’s been a tough month.

I think I’ve been dealing with a low-grade depression the past few weeks, possibly brought on by the short days and long stretches of darkness. Getting anything done these days seems like a long, slow slog under water … and as a result, I haven’t gotten much done. I’m overdue now for not only a blog post, but a book review, a 1st Turning Point article and a long-form newspaper piece.

I’ve gathered string on them all, but haven’t wrapped up a single one.

I know writers in generally are moody bitches with overdeveloped interior lives, and I’d be curious to hear from others if they too swim through metaphorical molasses when it comes to tackling work at this time of the year. Or do they just recognize the possibility in advance and take a mental-health break? Or is it a non-issue?

Anyway, it hasn’t been a completely unproductive time. Here’s some of the highlights, lowlights and sidelights of my December so far:

• I tried to play amateur attorney with the Washington governor’s office in an effort to shake loose some documents that shed light on why Gov. Gregoire turned down the subject of one of my stories for a pardon — after her handpicked board supported the petition. I did some legal research, coming up with some reasons I felt the documents weren’t covered by executive privilege or attorney-client privilege. But the governor’s office, in a letter I received Dec. 11, argued otherwise, and cited specific statutes to support its point. The documents I requested were included with the letter, however — completely blacked out. Nice touch. I think that left me feeling a bit defeated. More than a bit, really, since the simple reality is that smarter, more powerful people than me righteously kicked my ass for presuming I was fit to step into the same arena with them. I really wanted something from the governor’s office for my story besides stony silence. And I’m having to accept that I’m just not going to get it.


• I finally finished doing all my interviews for the long-form article, two months later than I had hoped. I had to let go of some prospective sources who just weren’t returning my calls or e-mails despite their initial pledges to cooperate, however, and I had to really ride herd on others who kept making promises and putting me off. Some of the squirmiest people were those who had the most to gain from my story, too, which still leaves me scratching my head. Now I just have to write the damned thing, and try to keep its length in line — which means that better than 90 percent of my herd-riding won’t be reflected in the final version of my story. I accept that … and yet, it makes me feel a bit bogged down.

• I’ve noodled every few days on the 1st Turning Point piece, the book review (on the latest true-crime compilation from Seattle’s Ann Rule) and the long-form newspaper piece, plus a lengthy blog in which I shred another true-crime book. But I can’t honestly say any of those have progressed much beyond the roughest-of-rough-drafts stage. Normally I might procrastinate a bit before I fully plunge in and bang a piece out. Not this December.

• I’ve whipsawed wildly on my fiction-writing efforts. One day, I’d dick around with the rewrite on one manuscript. The next, I’d tool around with a novel in progress. Then I’d work on an outline for another, and then pull a short story out of the cyber-trunk. It’s been something beyond ADD, like a spring-loaded 5-year-old who’s off his Ritalin dosage. All the more so because in between, I’d slump on the couch and watch five “West Wing” episodes in a row.

• Just this Monday, I made visits to see the subjects of two different true-crime stories at the state women’s prison near Gig Harbor and at the McNeil Island Corrections Center. That’s tough any time, given the general dreariness of prisons, but harder this time because both inmates were feeling pretty low. Both were feeling the pain of holidays not being spent with loved ones — in the woman’s case, loved ones she had killed — and, I think, making themselves a little crazy over the possibility of being free within a few months or a few years. (As Jeannette, the female inmate, put it: “I’m getting a little crunchy.”) And there was a new burden: As of Jan. 1, they’ll lose the right to wear their own clothes. Everything, including underwear, will be state-issued. This, I’m told, is a giant morale-crusher in places where morale, obviously, is none too strong to begin with. You may have no sympathy in the abstract for this — “It’s prison, dammit!” — but I assure you that if you get to know some of these prisoners as people, you will rethink those hardline assumptions. I left both facilities carrying a little bit of their funk with me, I think.

There were some good things, too, though. The last of my major interviews for the long-form piece was an absorbing two-hour talk with Gov. Gregoire’s former senior legal counsel. I made some pretty solid progress in getting all the interviews transcribed. (It generally takes me an hour for every 15 to 20 minutes of recorded conversation.) I attended the latest state Clemency and Pardons Board hearings, and emerged with a couple of cases worth at least knowing more about. I even came up with a quick-hit book idea that I can turn around in a few months for a small side-stream of revenue should I need it (i.e., should my ever-precarious newspaper-editing job get yanked out from under me).

The wheels are always turning. It’s just a matter of whether they do it in mud, or on pavement. And, just today, I feel the ground getting a little firmer under my feet. And I think it’ll get a little firmer still once I arise on Christmas morning, eat my usual breakfast by myself, take my usual dinner to work that afternoon, do my usual thing in the newsroom that night, and go home and put this most difficult of holidays behind me for another 364 days. And finishing something for a change, if only a blog post.

I take that as a good sign. Because a week ago, I couldn’t have even gotten started.

So, Merry Christmas to me. And to you, my readers and friends, who make me believe that my dreams of becoming a book author will someday soon come true.

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