All Posts By Michael Kahn

An Evening with Scott Turow–November 6th at 7:30 PM

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I have been a fan of Scott Turow and his writings ever since publication of his first book, One L, a work of nonfiction subtitled The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School. That book came out during my own first year at Harvard Law School. As you can imagine, I was hardly the only One L at Harvard to purchase a copy of the book that year. Ten years later, Scott published his first novel, Presumed Innocent–and three decades later it remains at the top of most lists of the greatest legal thrillers of all time.

Scott and I have had several overlaps in our lives. He was four years ahead of me at Amherst College and one year ahead of me at Harvard Law School. We both began our legal careers in Chicago–Scott at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, me at a litigation boutique that specialized in media litigation. And now my daughter Hanna and her family live one block away from where Scott raised his children in the Village of Wilmette, a North Shore suburb of Chicago.

Our next overlap will occur at 7:30 on Sunday, November 6th. That’s when Scott will take the stage as the featured speaker in the keynote event that kicks off his year’s St. Louis Jewish Book Festival. I will be honored to take the stage with him to conduct a conversation on a wide range of topics that will range from his early days as a prosecutor in a high profile series of criminal cases against various Cook County judges to his experiences with Hollywood in the motion picture production of Presumed Innocent to his occasional gig as a singer in the Rock Bottom Remainders, a quirky rock band that includes Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and other writers.

It’s sure to a fun and fascinating evening with a fun and fascinating guy. And even though Scott is, alas, a fervent Cubs fan, he is otherwise a true mensch.

A Delightful Evening with Two Great Guys Who Happen to Be Terrific Writers

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Writing a novel is, by definition, a lonely avocation. It’s just you and your computer–or just you and that legal pad. Thus any opportunity to hang out with a fellow writer is a welcome opportunity–but sometimes it can be a truly delightful opportunity. And that’s what I experienced last Monday night when I took the stage with two superb mystery authors who also happen to be genuinely charming, interesting, and funny guys.

First, some background:

On October 10th, the St. Louis County Library hosted an event it labeled a Celebration of the Poisoned Pen, which featured three authors published by Poisoned TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]Pen Press. In addition to yours truly, the featured authors were Jeffrey Siger and Reavis Wortham. Up until that evening, I knew them only by their words. Jeffrey is the author of the Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series set in Greece, and Reavis is the author of the Red River series set in East Texas in the 1960s. Poisoned Pen Press has recently published the latest in each of our mystery series, mine being The Dead Hand.

800px-Toasted_Ravioli-650x488[1]The three of us met for dinner beforehand with my wife Margi. As their St. Louis host, I insisted that our meal begin with an appetizer found on the menu of every Italian restaurant and sports bar in St. Louis–and virtually nowhere else on the planet. I refer, of course, to toasted ravioli. They both enjoyed it.

As I soon learned, each of us shared something else in common besides our publisher. Reavis and I both started our careers as public school teachers–Reavis in Dallas, me in Chicago. As for Jeffrey, in addition to our Pittsburgh connection (his hometown and my father’s hometown), we were both lawyers. Jeffrey, however, has been lucky enough to quite his day job and now spends half of each year on the Greek island of Mykonos. Not too shabby.

The rest of the evening was a delight. Each of us read a passage from our latest novel, talked a little about how we got  our start in the writing world, and fielded several interesting questions from our audience, including one toasted-ravioli inquiry directed to my two fellow authors, each of whom wisely (and I hope honestly) praised that St. Louis appetizer.

I confess I was eyeing Reav’s ten-gallon hat with envy. I also contemplated that mustache of his, but my wife Margi quickly nixed that idea.

I’m hoping I get to see both of these fine men again before too long. In the meantime, I’d recommend sampling a book from each of their mystery series.

 

Fun Book Event at the St. Louis County Library–October 10th

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TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]I am looking forward to this Monday night, October 10th–and not just because the 2nd Presidential Debate will finally be behind us (although the cable news networks will no doubt still have their panels of “experts” seated around the table and bloviating on who won).

No, Monday night is a special one for me because I get to be on a panel with two wonderful mystery authors who are also published by Poisoned Pen Press: Jeffrey Siger and Reavis Wortham. While my Rachel Gold mysteries are set in the quirky but admittedly less-than-exotic locale of St. Louis, Missouri, Jeffrey’s mysteries transport us to Greece while the latest from Reavis takes us back to the 1960s in the rural Northeast Texas community of Center Springs.

The three of us will each talk about and read a passage from our latest mysteries and, of course, sign your copy.

So come join us! It’ll be fun.

Groucho Marx versus Warner Bros. — A Social Media Smackdown

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a_night_in_casablanca-795905039-large1While I am often described as “a lawyer by day and an author at night,” those two occupations have a tendency to blend into one another. All of my novels have featured lawyers and compelling legal issues, and much of my law practice involves the writing of what I hope are compelling works of non-fiction (including my time sheets).

But occasionally, my two occupations become one, which happened recently when I read an article by one of my colleagues, Drey Cooley, on the dangers of “trademark bullying.”

First, some background:

A trademark bully is a big company whose lawyers draft an aggressive and threatening cease-and-desist letter to a little outfit. The goal: terrify the little guy into submission. But just as Goliath met his David, trademark bullies have lately been experiencing what has come to be known as social shaming via the Internet.

Drey’s article reminded me of perhaps the most famous example of social shaming. Incredibly, that social shaming went viral more than a half-century before the Internet. The bully? Warner Bros. Studios. The David? Groucho Marx. The story? Originally I told it on my law firm blog but it certainly contains enough literary merit (via Groucho) to deserve a place right here, too. Enjoy!

God or Huck Finn: Who Should Tell Your Story?

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An online discussion among several of my fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors got me thinking about the one decision every fiction author must make before typing CHAPTER 1 at the top of the page. That decision? Who will tell your story?

“Huh,” a baffled reader may wonder, “doesn’t the author tell the story?”

Only rarely. Except for those novels, more typical before the 20th century, where the author occasionally stops the action, pokes his head out from behind the scenery, and addresses you directly, often with a coy, “O gentle reader,” the writer remains, in the jargon of Hollywood, off screen.

So who tells the story? I had to make that decision when, on a dare from my wife Margi, I decided to try to write my first novel, Grave Designs.

But first, a little background:

sistine-chapel-michelangelo-paintings-61One familiar storyteller is the”omniscient third-person narrator.” Think of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” That voice comes rumbling down from on high to describe the creation of the earth or reveal the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. No “gentle reader” playfulness there.

That narrative style is the favorite of many authors. It gives them the ability to dart around the stage and jump inside the heads of any or all of the characters to let us know what they are thinking and what they are up to. In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the narrator slips into the perspectives of Anna, Vronsky, Karenin, Levin—and even Levin’s dog, Laska (for two chapters)!

There are more constrained versions of third-person narration, the most popular being the third-person subjective, where the narrator can describe the thoughts and actions of one or a few characters but without knowledge of all people, places, and events. Most thrillers are written that way because the author can build suspense by cutting back and forth between the actions of different characters.

At the other end of the spectrum is the first-person narrator, where the entire story is told by a single character. “Here I am,” our narrator announces at the outset. Whatever happens offstage literally happens offstage, since our narrator can only describe what he sees.

While this narrow scope might seem a handicap for an author, the three contenders for the title Great American Novel are all narrated in the first person, as their authors make clear in their enchanting first sentences. Herman Melville opens Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” Mark Twain opens The Adventures of Huckleberry: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” And F. Scott Fitzerald opens The Great Gatsby: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Many authors (including me for two of my novels) fit their storyteller to their story, sometimes opting for first-person and other times for third-person. Charles Dickens chose the former for Great Expectations, opening with the narrator introducing himself: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” But he chose the Voice of God for Bleak House, which opens with one of the greatest first chapters in literature.

9781464204395_FC-181x276[1]But back to Grave Designs.

I had read somewhere that you should write what you know–advice I now realize is terrible. But what did I know back then? I was a young male attorney in a large law firm, and so my detective would be a young male attorney in a large law firm.  The idea for the novel? A powerful senior partner dies, his firm discovers a secret codicil to his will setting up a trust fund for the care and maintenance of a grave at a pet cemetery. The mystery? He never owned a pet, and his family has no idea what was in the grave (which will be robbed just days after he dies). My protagonist will be assigned the task of finding out what was in that grave.

Having never written a mystery, I opted for the first-person narrative–a common choice for mysteries. And thus the first word in the first sentence of that first chapter was “I.” They say all of us have at least one whiny, boring autobiographical novel in us, and my young male attorney was soon sounding too much like a whiny version of me. Frustrated, I set the draft aside after 75 pages.

And there it sat for months. Until that day in court as I waited for my case to be called. I watched in dismay as a crusty old male judge taunted and humiliated a young female lawyer. She left the courtroomTheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1] in tears. On my way back to the office, I had my author epiphany: my hero would not a young male attorney in that big male-dominated law firm but a savvy, tough young female attorney. Once a prized associate at that firm, she got bored with the corporate clients, fed up with the big firm politics, and did the unthinkable (at least to the firm’s partners): she walked away to set up her own practice. And thus–after several more drafts of those first 75 pages–Rachel Gold’s voice suddenly came alive. Two years later, Grave Designs was in the bookstores.

Hard to believe that this month–a quarter of a century later–Rachel and I have reached her tenth novel, The Dead Hand.

Meet Me in St. Louis: Toasted Ravioli, Hoosiers, and High School

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If asked to name the key elements of their favorite novel, most readers would place at the top of their list vivid characters and an engaging plot. But when we think of our favorite novels, another vital element is the strong sense of place. Whether it’s Huck Finn’s Mississippi River in Mark Twain’s masterpiece or Pip’s London in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or the Spanish countryside of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls or the environments of any of your favorite works of fiction, that sense of place is woven into the very fabric of the story.

Photo credit: Dustin Batt
St. Louis Union Station (Photo credit: Dustin Batt)

Sense of place has always been an important element in detective fiction. Think of Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles, Dave Robicheaux’s New Iberia, and the Four Corners area of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee mysteries. And now imagine the cognitive dissonance you’d experience if we placed those characters somewhere else. Des Moines instead of Los Angeles, Brooklyn instead of New Iberia, Orlando instead of the Four Corners. Sense of place is key.

St. Louis has been the setting for all but the first of the mysteries in my Rachel Gold series. In addition to trying to evoke the mood of this blues-loving, Cardinals-crazy river town, I’ve worked one or  more unique St. Louis locations into the plots of each of the novels. For example, the final confrontation in Grave Designs takes place inside the Gateway Arch, and the pivotal event in Bearing Witness occurs inside the imposing Clock Tower at St. Louis Union Station.

TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]In creating my new Rachel Gold mystery, The Dead Hand (to be published this September), I decided to pay homage to three of the quirkiest elements of my town’s culture. Newcomers to St. Louis inevitably comment on all three. Natives of St. Louis, especially those who’ve spent most or all of their lives within the metropolitan area, are startled to discover that what they assumed were standard throughout the nation are in fact unique to their town.

My homage occurs in the opening paragraphs of Chapter 14, which is when Rachel is about to confront one of the city’s most powerful and ominous lawyers. The confrontation takes place at Golden Bough (a fictional Jewish country club that some of my fellow natives may connect to a real country club). Here are those opening paragraphs:

 

Golden Bough.

I smiled.

Of course.

But first, some background:

There are three things that make St. Louis unique:

The first is toasted ravioli, an appetizer you will find on the menu of every Italian restaurant and sports bar in town and almost nowhere else in the nation.

The second is the word “hoosier”—a term the rest of the nation understands as a proud nickname for an Indiana resident but in St. Louis is a derogatory term for a hick or, for certain suburban snobs, a white-trash resident of the South City portion of St. Louis. Indeed, many a resident of our town is baffled when first learning that the Indiana University sports teams are known as, and are actually proud to be known as, the Hoosiers.

And the third thing unique to St. Louis is our obsession with your high school. As we natives know, the most common question posed when two locals meet is: “Where did you go to school?” And unlike residents of other cities, we understand that the term “school”—even when you’re in a room filled with possessors of graduate and doctorate degrees—means “high school.” And we also know that the answer to that question will reveal a trove of sociological, cultural, and religious information that would make an anthropologist jealous.

For more on the etymology of the St. Louis “hoosier,” you can start here. And for those poor souls who’ve never seen, much less consumed, an order of toasted ravioli, here is a special St. Louis feast for your eyes:

800px-Toasted_Ravioli-650x488[1]
Toasted Ravioli

The Law of Zombies (Crimespree Magazine)

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(from Crimespree Magazine)
(from Crimespree Magazine)

As news of the upcoming publication of my next novel, The Dead Hand, began to spread, the editors at Crimespree Magazine asked if I would be willing to share with their readers some insights into the types of research involved in writing such a novel.

I was happy to do so–especially for this new novel. Though I have been a lawyer for more than 30 years, there are certain oddball areas of the law that even after all these years I still have only the foggiest understanding of. One such area, which plays a central role in The Dead Hand, is what I have come to call the Law of the Zombies. So here is what I shared on zombie law with the Crimespree readers. Hope you enjoy it!

From the Odyssey to the Unforgiven

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O_brother_where_art_thou_ver1[1]Critics have long debated whether the correct number is six or nine or eleven, but they do agree that all literature–no matter the genre–can be reduced to less than 12 basic story lines. Whether you label Homer’s The Odyssey a quest story, a revenge tale, a picaresque adventure, or an astounding melange of all three, its impact on subsequent storytelling has been enormous. In just the past century, Homer’s epic has been the acknowledged inspiration for the Margaret Atwood novella The Penelopiad, the Coen brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, and the James Joyce novel Ulysses. And certainly the qualities Homer celebrates in Odysseus–wily, courageous, determined, smooth-talking–also describe Philip Marlowe, Spenser, Lew Archer, and many other American detective novel heroes, each of whom sets off on their own odysseys.

But it was only recently that I discovered yet another modern heir of The Odyssey. That epiphany occurred during my drive to the office. I had been listening to the audio version of that epic tale, read brilliantly by Dan Stevens, the actor known better for his role as Mathew Crawley in the PBS series Downtown Abbey.

For those who haven’t read (or have forgotten the details of) The Odyssey, it opens nearly a decade after the Greek-Trojan war. The resourceful Odysseusulysses[1] has been on a difficult quest to return home to Ithaca and to his faithful wife Penelope and only son Telemachus, who was just a toddler when his father left for the war nearly 20 years ago.

As our hero’s quest takes him on one adventure after another–battling monsters, resisting enchanting witches, visiting shades in the underworld–Homer occasionally cuts back to Ithaca, where Penelope and Telemachus have been forced to share their home with the “Suitors,” a crowd of 108 boisterous, obnoxious young men whose goal is to persuade Penelope to marry one of them, all the while exploiting the hospitality of household and consuming its wine, pigs, and wealth.

Telemachus leaves the island in search of news of his father, who he fears is dead after all these years. Back on Ithaca, AntThe_Odyssey_by_Homer_53219[1]inous, the leader of the Suitors and a truly creepy, arrogant aristocrat, plots to kill the young man on his return home. But Telemachus evades the ambush and seeks sanctuary in the hut of his father’s loyal swineherd, Eumaeus. And there, to his joy, he is reunited with Odysseus, who has also just returned.

That’s the point where the story shifts from epic quest to tale of revenge. And that’s when I had my epiphany. As Telemachus and Odysseus start toward their house and all those rowdy Suitors, I realized that The Odyssey was also the godfather of the American Western movie. Yep. The Odyssey, starring John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.

Take, for example, one of my favorite movies, The Unforgiven. That final battle scene in the saloon between the gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and the followers of Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman) echos the final battle scene in the Great Hall between Odysseus and followers of Antinous.

Odysseus enters the Great Hall disguised as an old man, and is immediately mocked by Antinous and the other Suitors. But after surprising them by winning a contest of strength, he throws off his disguise, grabs his bow and arrows, and cries, “But another target’s left that no one has hit before. We’ll see if I can hit it–Apollo give me glory!”

And then, in a battle scene that echoes the final gun battle in The Unforgiven, Odysseus take his bloody revenge. Here’s how it begins (in the Robert Fagles translation):

With that he trained a stabbing arrow on Antinous . . . just lifting a gorgeous golden loving-cup in his hands, just tilting the two handled goblet to his lips, about to drain the wine–and slaughter the last thing on that suitor’s mind. Who could dream that one foe in that crown of feasters, however great his power, would bring death down on himself, and black doom?

But Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat, and the point went stabbing clean through the soft neck and out

–and off to the side he pitched, the cup dropped from his grasp as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life blood came spurting from his nostrils–

thick red jets–

a sudden thrust of his foot–

he kicked away the table–food showered across the floor, the bread and meats soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.

The suitors burst into an uproar all throughout the house when they saw their leader down.

And, as with Little Bill and his doomed posse in The Unforgiven three millennia later, the slaughter has only begun. The message is the same in both: don’t mess with Odysseus, and don’t mess with Clint Eastwood.

First Review of The Dead Hand

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Writing is a lonely pursuit. You spend all those hours on your own, writing and rewriting your novel, hoping that it’s working, hoping that your readers will enjoy it, worrying that maybe you’re kidding yourself, that maybe you’re producing the literary equivalent of the Hollywood bomb.

Thus nothing makes an author more jittery than news that Kirkus Reviews has just published a review of your next book. Those reviews generally come out about two months before your book’s publication date. They target an audience of bookstore buyers, public librarians, and other retailers who are trying to decide which books to order for the next season.

In the publishing world, Kirkus has earned its reputation as a tough critic. A very tough critic. To quote the lyrics from that Frank Sinatra classic, “If you can make there, you can make it anywhere.”

And thus as my next Rachel Gold mystery, The Dead Hand, approached its two-month pre-publication date, I started nervously checking the Kirkus website.

Click.

Nope.

Five days later. Click.

Nope.

Another five days.

Click.

And there it was, with the headline: “A high-water mark in this inventive, ebullient series.”

To read the full review, here’s the link.

Thank you, Kirkus!

Reading and Writing: A Fun Conversation with David Alan Binder

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As my publisher and I prepare for the release this fall of The Dead Hand, the next novel in the Rachel Gold series, I had the pleasure to “sit down” (in the electronic media sense of that term) for a fun conversation about writing with David Alan Binder, the writer, musician, and prolific blogger who has interviewed dozens and dozens of authors.

TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]My favorite question from David: “What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?” It gave me a chance to talk about the joy of cage-free characters. (Thus the feral rooster shown above.)

You can read my answer, along with the rest of our conversation, here.