Posts Tagged ‘Seattle’

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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To me, it was a mystery worthy of, well, a mystery novel.

A Seattle mystery author publishes three novels. All are reviewed reasonably well; all sell reasonably well. She’s under contract to write two more. But that fourth book never materializes. In fact, the author disappears … and is never heard from again. As an author, anyway.

Fourteen years later, had the trail grown too cold for the truth to emerge?

I decided to find out.

And the solution I found to this mystery is, to many I’m sure, a much greater mystery:

I found a writer who simply didn’t want to be a writer any more.

What — or who — killed her ambition?

Here’s my investigator’s report.


To explain this properly, let me go back nearly two decades in time. In the spring of 1991, I was the Ellensburg correspondent for the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper (central Washington cities, for those of you who don’t know the area).

I was also a voracious reader of mystery novels, in an era when Seattle-based mysteries were going through something of a golden era. And I was envious, too — I had taken my own hack at writing mysteries but couldn’t seem to figure out how to do it right, how to do proper pacing and plotting. So I kept on reading to find out how it was done. And I kept on reading because the books were so damned fun to read.

There were J.A. Jance’s novels about surly-but-sweet-hearted Seattle police detective J.P. Beaumont. Ridley Pearson‘s Lou Boldt series covered similar but somewhat darker ground. G.M. Ford and Frederick Huebner were just cranking up a head of hard-boiled Puget Sound steam. Earl Emerson made a big splash with his snappy noirish novels about Seattle private dick Thomas Black and small-town fire chief Mac Fontana. And Mary Daheim grabbed me from the get-go with the small-town entanglements of fortyish newspaper editor and publisher Emma Lord.

210X3YFV4WL._SX106_And there was Janet L. Smith, the Seattle attorney whose 1990 debut novel, “Sea Of Troubles,” was a skillfully entertaining diversion. In fact, I bought that book at Jerrol’s Bookstore in Ellensburg, where, I learned shortly after, a caravan of six mystery authors would be making an afternoon stop. I don’t remember every name, but the tour included Sequim author Aaron Elkins, the author of several mysteries featuring anthropologist Gideon Oliver; children’s mystery author Willo Davis Roberts, and Emerson and Smith.

I happily flitted around Jerrol’s during the entire visit, schmoozing with as many of the authors as I could. (In fact, I wound up writing features on two, Emerson and Roberts, for the next day’s Herald-Republic.) The event was pretty sparsely attended, as far as I can recall, and I don’t think any of the six sold many books (other than the dozen or so I snapped up, of course). But everybody seemed to have a good time anyway, visiting with the few people who did drop by, and with each other.

I got Janet L. Smith to sign my copy of “Sea Of Troubles.”


In thinking back on that event, I realized that almost every single one of the authors I met and read in those days is still in business. Most, in fact, still pump out at least a book a year.

In fact, there are just two exceptions: Willo Davis Roberts, who died in 2004, and Janet L. Smith.

I got thinking about Janet a few months ago, when I was cleaning up my garage. I came across a box full of old paperbacks, and among them were Janet L. Smith’s three novels: “Sea Of Troubles,” (1990) with the author’s signature still there in faded ink on the inside page; “Practice To Deceive” (1993); and “A Vintage Murder” (1995).

I re-read each one. And I’ll say this: They’re not great, but they’re pretty good. They’re well-paced and well-plotted, authoritative on legal procedure, maybe a little light on character development and distinctive prose style. But I bought all three when they came out … and would have kept right on buying them if they had kept on coming out.

But, of course, they didn’t. And I set out to find out why.

Finding her wasn’t too difficult. A Google research revealed a Seattle law practice for Janet L. Smith. And, as big as Seattle is, I figured the odds of two Janet L. Smiths practicing law there were pretty long.

As it turned out, I played the odds right. I sent off an e-mail, and got one back less than two days later. Not only did I have the right Janet L. Smith, but yes, she’d be willing to meet with me and tell me her story.

We met Sept. 22 at a Starbucks on Aurora Avenue, not far from the Northgate-area office where she practices eldercare law. A smiling woman in her mid-fifties, Janet let me buy her a latte.

I jumped right in. So … what’s the deal? I asked. Why are you no longer a writer?


Janet smiled.

“When people me ask me that, I say, “Nobody asks someone why they didn’t write another Ph.D thesis.'”

That much fun, huh?

She then cautioned me, still smiling, against the assumption that she had failed.

Then she talked about introverts and extroverts. She was very much the latter, she said. Most authors don’t like being public figures, much preferring to hole up at home and write. That, Janet said, is not her.

“If I was doing writing 100 percent, without talking, I’d go stark raving out of my mind,” she said. But that, of course, is the discipline of novel writing, the one that doesn’t get talked about much. The reality is that writing a book is damned hard work, and requires a concentration that usually insists on isolation from all distraction. Some of us thrive on it. And some of us are like Janet.

Luckily, Janet didn’t have to worry about that, at first anyway, as she was juggling her part-time writing career with her legal work. At the time she landed her deal for her first book, “Sea Of Troubles,” she was working as an administrative law judge for Washington state, having moved on from the corporate law for Boeing and other clients. While her career was only intermittently satisfying, she did know legal work of some kind was what got her juices flowing the most.

“I have a high need for a lot of challenge,” she said. “What makes me happiest is solving complicated problems.”

For a while, she could balance the boring work with meeting that need through the novels. After all, her fictional alter ego, Seattle attorney Annie MacPherson, solved complicated problems, too. And at the time Janet broke through, heroines like Annie MacPherson were just what the publishing industry was looking for. Mystery authors like Sue Grafton, Sharyn McCrumb and Sara Paretsky, with tough, sexy, self-sustaining heroines, were just completing their ascents into the sales stratosphere.

“I hit a moment in time where what I was selling was what they were looking for,” Janet said. “They wanted women protagonists, a strong regional flavor, nobody who was a cop or an FBI agent.”

That said, breaking in wasn’t a slam-dunk. Janet did what most aspiring authors did in the pre-Internet era, which was write dozens of letters to agents whose listings were found in the annual Writers Market reference books. “No luck,” she said in reference to her efforts to get attention for “Sea Of Troubles,” which was actually completed in 1989. “And I must have paid a fortune for copying and postage.”

But, Janet added, “I got encouraging rejection letters. That kept me going.”

And, at last, she broke through, with a small Bay Area press called Perseverance Press — an outfit so small, Janet said, that at the time it put out just one book a year. At the time, Janet was working in the state capital city of Olympia and recalls regularly visiting the small mystery bookshop there — Whodunit Books, which is still around — to babysit her book.

Then, mysterious good things happened. “Sea Of Troubles” got a positive review in The New York Times, even though it had never been submitted for one as far as Janet knew. (The reviewer said that “the novel has “an intelligent heroine, a glorious setting, an ingenious murder and a romance that doesn’t overwhelm the crime-solving procedures.”) A buyer for Fawcett/Ballantine books spotted it, and eventually a mass-market imprint publisher — Ivy Books — picked up the paperback rights.

213NAYCZHVL._SL500_AA140_That led to a new deal which saw her second Annie MacPherson book, “Practice To Deceive,” come out in hardcover as well as paperback. And led to her developing a public presence as an author. She attended the major mystery-writer conferences — Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime among them — and became active in the Sisters In Crime organization. She made friends among the Northwest writer community. Some of those she got close to were Emerson, Elkins, Huebner, Bellingham’s Audrey Peterson and Seattle historical-mystery writer K.K. Beck.

That part was fun. The actual making-the-books part, not so much.

“For me,” she said, “the process of writing just isn’t fun.”

210BY75NRRL._SL500_AA140_There were other factors, however, more beyond her control. After three books, her sales were steady but flat, trapping her in what she called “the comfortable midlist.” “Practice To Deceive” had done slightly better than “Sea Of Troubles,” and “A Vintage Murder” had done no worse than “Practice,” but neither represented the great leap forward that author and publisher both hoped for. That was being reflected in her publisher’s so-so support for the books; Janet’s regional tours to promote them were largely self-financed.

“Going from the midlist to something more probably wasn’t going to happen,” Janet said. “I probably wasn’t going to make that leap into Sue Grafton territory. My publisher didn’t see me having gold foil covers.” That’s the point, she said, where “they put you in a box and tell you where you belong.”

By 1995, she said, “I realized I was getting bogged down with the writing.”
Part of the reason for that were the other factors more within her control. In 1992, Janet had traded in her administrative-law judgeship for part-time private practice, dealing with worker-compensation cases.

And in 1994, as work wrapped up on “A Vintage Murder,” she and her longtime boyfriend got married. Soon after, Jim — her husband — started work on launching a company dedicated to geriatric care management, and Janet found herself increasingly invested in getting that business up on wheels.

By 1996, Janet had lost interest in Annie Number Four. “I was struggling with the outline and character development stage. I wasn’t happy with my progress,” she said.

So she went to Ivy, her publisher, and asked to be let out of her two-book deal.

“They were very gracious,” she said. “I choose to believe they were disappointed, but they didn’t give me any grief.”

It was a good time to get out, Janet recalled. “The number of publishers were decreasing, and editors were getting fired left and right. My editor was involuntarily retired. People were scared.”

There were no regrets, nor any time for them. From their West Seattle home base, Janet and Jim’s business, Elder Care Solutions, launched in 1997. Janet kept her law license active, and eventually helped steer the business in a legal direction. By 2000, things were going well enough that she let go of her other legal work.

“It was a very, very satisfying time,” she said.

Everything went fine, in fact, until Jim died unexpectedly in August 2004.

“I had to regroup and rethink,” she said.

Little more than a year later, Janet created the Seattle eldercare law practice she has today. “It was the logical thing to do,” she said.

And today, it’s a thriving business. “Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot of bad people out there trying to take advantage of Grandma,” she said.

And things are just as satisfying for Janet on a personal level. She has a new man in her life. And even though he relocated to Arizona not long ago after being laid off from his Seattle job, she’s making it work, spending about 10 days a month in Tucson with him.

That happiness means leaving her mystery-book days in the past. She’s not even a particularly voracious reader of them. She still loves her old favorites like P.D. James, however, and calls Florida author Carl Hiaasen’s novels her “go-to airplane books.”

And she’s left her days an author in the past, too. Well, mostly.

She laughed as she recalled a moment from earlier this year in which she caught her practice’s office manager, during a slow day, reading one of her books — totally unaware that the author was her employer.

“I asked her what she was reading, and she was so embarrassed to be caught that she just said, ‘Oh, just some crap.’ I asked her who the author was, and she looked at the cover. It took her a moment to figure out that I was that Janet L. Smith.

‘I didn’t mean ‘crap!'” the office manager howled.

Janet teased her about it. “‘Not only are you reading on the job,” she recalled saying, “but you’re reading fluff!’ She had to tell everybody in the office about it.”

And that’s about the sum of her literary legacy, she said.

“It’s a trivia fact of my life,” she said. “Not much more than that.”


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