Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Oh, Sherlock, where did it all go wrong?

I’ve finally got round to watching the New Year ‘special’ Sherlock episode and even with my expectations set low it somehow failed to deliver. All shows have ups and downs, but this show is becoming quite fascinating in its ability to somehow be worse every time it returns. The pilot was a joyous romp and I’ve seen it numerous times and still enjoy it, but since then it’s been downhill.

When it was first announced that they were doing a Victorian episode, my immediate thought was that it would just be an excuse to bring back Moriarty from the dead. My second thought was that I hope it’s not more of that memory palace nonsense. Sadly, it was both of them. I find it amazing that a tv company would actually commission a story with the ‘it was only a dream’ twist. There are one-celled amoeba living on distant planets that have only just mastered the ability to move that know this twist is a bad idea, and yet there it was being presented as a valid way to tell a story.

Of course, having stories that aren’t real isn’t a problem. For instance, there’s that Star Trek Sherlock Holmes episode that was written for the sole purpose of bringing back Moriarty from the dead. That has the ‘it’s not real’ twist and the story is a lot of fun. The reason it works is that the twist is the answer to the problem of how can Moriarty walk off the holodeck and exist in the real world? The solution is that he didn’t and the real world isn’t real either. This is all very convoluted, but it’s never confusing because the scriptwriters worked hard to make things clear.

There’s a certain smug arrogance about Sherlock these days that means the scriptwriters for the special weren’t prepared to put in the effort to make the twist work. I’m not a fan of sticking rigidly to rules in writing, but as Kurt Vonnegut is just about my favourite author, I’ve always liked his rules. The eighth one is worth mentioning here:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I’ve amended that rule for my own writing to one in which I always try to be fair to the reader. If there’s a twist in the plot, I try not to create it by deliberately concealing something. I’ll happily conceal plenty from the characters, but I never conceal anything from the reader that the characters know and as such I hope that nobody ever feels cheated when the characters discover something major.

That just wasn’t the case in Sherlock where the story was structured to deliberately conceal relevant facts from the viewer for as long as possible, although these were facts that Sherlock Holmes knew and there was no good reason to conceal them other than to create a twist. This, of course, violates Vonnegut’s eighth rule and it just goes to prove it’s not a wise rule to ignore.

I just hate it when detective shows reveal a huge fact in the last few minutes that changes everything and means there was no way you could follow the clues for yourself and solve the murder. Last week Endeavour in its first new episode did this when after trundling along for the first 85 minutes with a languid and relatively straightforward tale of murder and posh folk, it suddenly revealed in the last few minutes, and all without so much as a hint that this is what was going on, that the killer was really an evil twin who had concealed his existence for twenty years as part of a magic act, left the magic act, fallen in love with the good twin's girl, but when the girl married a rich man the good twin decided to win her back by taking on a new identity as a flamboyant gambler, building up a fortune, buying a stately home and then humiliating her husband at poker, but his plan failed when the evil twin killed him and took on his secret identity and then tried to woo the girl himself, but his cunning plan was undermined because the good twin had fallen in with an evil slot-machine salesman who was smuggling drugs in teddy bears at the local fair that just happened to include the magic act where he once performed illusions with the good twin and when a clippy got hold of the wrong teddy bear she was killed and that led to the magician killing him in retaliation.

I thought at the time that this data dump of new information at the end was just about as bad as it can get, but somehow Sherlock was worse. I reckon that's because following Vonnegut's rule and revealing everything immediately and not playing tricks on the viewer wouldn't have changed the Endeavour episode as Morse didn't know these facts either. But in Sherlock it would have led to a much better story as ‘it’s only a dream’ is then the basis of the story and not a twist. Sherlock could have got on the plane, taken drugs, and then passed out and woke up in Victorian times. Then the viewer would know from the start that the situation isn’t real and can enjoy working out why he’s having this particular dream.

This is what Life on Mars did. That ran for sixteen episodes, but it would never have worked without the opening ten minutes setting up the situation of Sam Tyler falling into a coma and waking up in the past. If it’d have started in the past and then revealed in the last episode that it was all a dream, the show would now be famed for having the worst ever ending in tv history rather than the best.

I'll stop moaning now. Roll on series 4 with better stories and less Moriarty, I hope. I mean, it can’t get any worse, can it? Can it?

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Wanted: McBain now available on Kindle

Wanted: McBain is my fourth Cassidy Yates tale. I had some misgivings when I started to format this one for Kindle as I remembered it as being a weak tale. It didn’t go to large print, which I took as a sign that I’d missed the mark, but as it turned out, it wasn’t the stinker I thought it might be.

The problem is that I think this tale works less well as a standalone Black Horse Western, but better as a book that’s part of an on-going series. As such, the tale has less action and more talking than many I’ve written and is more about the conflict between two characters who used to be friends, but now find themselves on opposing sides. As the background to their situation is to found in previous books in the Cassidy Yates series along with the Nathaniel McBain series, most of the reasons behind their behaviour will perhaps be best appreciated by those who have read the other books.

The conclusion to this book marks an end to Cassidy and Nathaniel’s story that I started in The Outlawed Deputy. They both feature in more stories with Nathaniel’s next tale being The Gallows Gang and Cassidy returning in Bad Moon over Devil’s Ridge, but to date they have yet to meet again.

I should mention that I have just finished a draft of a story in which Cassidy and Nathaniel meet again after ten years apart, both in elapsed story time and in real time, and I had planned to send it to Hale in the new year. Hopefully Crowood might let me carry on their tale!

Anyhow, the book is now available from all good amazon stores.

Sheriff Cassidy Yates couldn't believe his eyes when he read the Wanted poster. His ex-deputy, and friend, Nathaniel McBain was both a wanted man and a member of Rodrigo Fernandez's ruthless outlaw gang.
There's nothing worse than a lawman gone bad, and Cassidy knows it’s his duty to arrest McBain. But when he finds him, McBain claims the Wanted poster is wrong and his true intention is to infiltrate Fernandez's gang and bring the outlaw to justice. Is McBain really working undercover?

Only one thing is certain: when Cassidy learns the full truth about McBain's plan, it will test to the very limit the strength of his friendship and his duty as a lawman.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Who

So another year of Doctor Who comes to an end and on the whole I’ve enjoyed this year. Since the reboot I’ve blown hot and cold on the various seasons. For me Eccleston was near perfect, and I dipped in and out of Tennant’s tenure, mainly out while Rose and Martha were there and in when Donna was around. I gave up when Matt Smith arrived when I realized that I didn’t like the Doctor, his companion, or the stories so there wasn’t much point watching any more.

But the joy of Who is that if you don’t like a Doctor, another one will come around again one day, and when Capaldi arrived I returned to the show, and I’ve found him to be a suitably intriguing figure with just the right level of quirkiness and authority. Maybe he was too stern in the first year and too soft in the second, but on the whole he’s always watchable. Sadly, I still couldn’t abide either the companion or the stories, but one out of three ain’t bad.

I never once got the point of Clara. She was given near divine status on the show for no reason I could see. Every week we’d get a speech about her importance and attributes, but nothing she did on screen ever seemed to warrant that, and her ‘death’ was written as if she was the most beloved character in sf history, and so was more gruelling for the viewers than for the character. Spock, who really was one of the most beloved characters in sf history, got about five lines before Trek’s peculiar form of time-dependent deadly radiation got him, but Clara got twenty minutes to bang on about it and then another half-hour after she was resurrected to bang on about it again. I did not get any of that.

I watched the episode on the Horror channel recently where Adric, the previous, and much-unloved, companion to die finally bit the dust. There were no speeches in that episode about how his character was an annoying, know-all twerp who deserved to get blasted away. Adric just acted like an annoying, know-all twerp and let the audience decide for themselves that he deserved to get blasted away. And he stayed dead, sort of.

I didn’t get ‘Me’ either, who also got more screen time than the character warranted. Maybe it was a brilliantly original idea to have an immortal react to the pain of being forced to live for all eternity by mooching around aimlessly with a gormless smirk on her face, but it was lost on me.

But, those minor gripes aside, the thing that’s the most important part of Who is of course the stories. This year every week I found myself wondering if there’d be a story this week, and most weeks the answer was no, despite all the two-parters. There were some weeks that actually had a plot. I liked the Fisher King tale as that used time travel in a good way and there were twists and turns and a solvable mystery. The eye gunk monsters, which I gather is already ranked as one of the worst in the show’s history, played entertainingly with the idea of how stories work. And I enjoyed the hapless Vikings, except for ‘Me’, as, again, it had a plot, but most of the rest weren’t so much stories as situations.

The usual structure to most episodes was to provide a huge amount of set up to create an interesting scene. Everyone then stands around admiring the scene from several angles, and I’ll admit that usually it was worth admiring. Then, just as you’re suitably excited about how this situation might develop, absolutely nothing happens, other than the cannon-fodder characters getting killed, until the episode ends.

The thing about the Davies years that I only now truly appreciate is that he knew how to plot. Stuff used to happen and it then developed and twisted and reacted and did all the things that make a story. Even better, every bit-part character was given a character. Davies used to do it in a painfully obvious way that gave everyone a domestic reality to their existence, but at least you then cared when they got exterminated, but that doesn't happen any more. People are just thrust on to the screen and we’re told to care about them, usually quite literally by someone making a speech about how they are important.

And then there are the feeble bad guys. As a kid it was the baddies that I loved the most about Who, and it was the thing that started the whole sofa hiding myth. You could always guarantee that the bad guys were very evil indeed. Yes, they’d lose in the end but that was the charm of the show. No matter what the Daleks did, in the end they’d end up spinning round with smoke coming out of their grills while cursing the Doctor, but you had a lot of evil to get through before that moment. The baddies would do something bad, the Doctor would react, the bad guys would fight back, there’d be a few twists, a few punches and counterpunches, a few corridors to be chased down and a few captures and escapes until finally the Doctor would save the day.

It doesn’t work like that any more. Now the bad guy announces that he is Rassilion, or the Fisher King, or Me. While the Doctor cringes away in fright, the bad guy says, ‘I am your Nemesis, your worst nightmare. I am the most evil creature in all creation, the horror that will bring this universe to an end kicking and screaming as countless billions of entities burn in the very fires of hell due to the fact that I’m unspeakably evil, and that means nobody can stop me from completing my evil plan to conquer all of creation from the beginning of time to the end of time plus several other dimensions. Oh, and did I mention that I don’t find puppies cute either?’ The bad guy twirls his moustache. Then he promptly disappears for the rest of the episode while doing absolutely bog all behind the scenes, before at the end he reappears, if we're lucky, to announce he’s lost. That just isn’t good enough.

As this feeling, that if the show was half as good as it thinks it is then it’d be twice as good as it actually is, is the feeling I have whenever I watch Sherlock where the build-up is great and individual scenes are a joy, but the whole fails to deliver, I guess that problem won’t go away any time soon.

Anyhow, I should stop whinging as I really did enjoy most of this year's run, and hopefully next year will build on this year by giving Capaldi better material, preferably with a companion who isn’t the most special person in the universe, or if they are special, then they do special things and let us decide they’re interesting rather than have the Doctor tell us to love them. Then there's the arc. Arcs aren't required in Who, but if there has to be one, I'd prefer it to use the Bad Wolf template. Back then, the arc had small, subtle clues that didn't impinge on the story that built to a big pay-off in the final episode. The arcs now are unsubtle and involve contrivances to shoehorn them into episodes that build in annoyance until they fizzle out when they are dismissed with a line of dialogue and zero pay-off. That's not good.

Oh, and some stories might help, too.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

The news that Robert Hale Ltd, the publishers of the Black Horse Western series, will no longer be trading is sad news indeed. They were the first traditional publishing company to make the mistake of publishing my nonsense and, as I’m quite enjoying the freedom of self-publishing, they might well be the last.

What I most enjoyed about Hale was their professionalism that was so different to the other publishers I’ve rubbed up against. If you sent them a book, you got an acknowledgement that it’d arrived within days, and a response as to whether they liked it within a week or two. If you had a query, they always replied quickly. If they had a query, they always asked it politely and often with friendly banter, and they gave you a decent amount of time to respond. Heck, they even sent out polite and informative rejection letters.

So, I’ll miss dealing with them and I hope the people who have found themselves out of a job find new and appropriate employment quickly. The publishing industry needs people like them.

I guess none of us know what Crowood will do with their backlist and the legacy they have inherited, but whatever happens, Hale will be a tough act to follow.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

No more tricks for the old dogs

Tonight, what was once one of my favourite tv shows, New Tricks, has its final episode, and I have mixed feelings about its demise. The cop show about retired policemen solving cold cases using old-fashioned methods has run for twelve years and it’s clearly long past its best.

For the first half of its run the stories were a fun mixture of murder mystery and comedy. I’ve watched some of the early episodes numerous times and still find them entertaining, but from around season 7 the show started to drop in quality. Each season was less fun than the previous one until season 11 where I found myself watching only because of that odd sense of duty you have with shows you once loved but which are now no longer entertaining. It was no surprise when the announcement came that the show would end, but then strangely, as sometimes happens with final seasons, the show has improved leaving me sadder to see it go than I thought I would be.

Many reasons are usually offered for its long decline with the most common being the changes in cast. The show started with the dream combination of great writing, great characters and the perfect actors to play those characters. All the replacement characters had less charm than the originals. So, as Jack, Brian, Sandra and Gerry were replaced by Steve, Danny, Sasha and Ted the show obviously lost something, but I think it had less to do with the actors and more to do with the writing. In the early days I found myself making mental notes about the writing. I often saw things that were such a perfect example of good writing that I tried to work out how it was done so I could use the technique myself.

So, for example, the show personified the old adage of how character is plot. Cop shows are often generic with the detectives running round picking up clues until they stumble upon the killer, and there’s little to distinguish them from any other cop show. You could probably put Lewis (which is starting a new season tonight) in a Midsomer murder and he’d solve the crime in exactly the same way because in those shows only the plot matters and not the characters.

With early New Tricks, that wasn’t the case. So Brian, with his photographic memory and psychological problems, could always be relied upon to go all obsessive over some detail in the case and delve ever deeper into something nobody else cares about until he finds the vital clue. Gerry, with his dubious past, would break every rule in the book in his attempts to pay off his debts, chat up any women involved in the case, and so get to a truth that conventional means would miss. Jack would use dogged police work to break down suspects and Sandra would have the impossible task of keeping everyone in line. In short, only that particular cast could have solved the murder because only they would investigate in that manner.

Sadly, later New Tricks failed to do that. Brian’s like-for-like replacement in Danny has a photographic memory, but aside from spouting trivia I can’t remember him ever using that knowledge to solve anything. Gerry’s effective replacement in Steve is apparently another maverick cop, but you’d only know that he was a rule-breaker because it was mentioned several times in his first episode. After four years he’s yet to do anything maverick. In her first episode Sasha was sold as a younger version of Sandra and aside from getting the same lines as Sandra did, she’s never once wrestled with the difficulties of keeping retired policemen and their antiquated methods in line. Ted hasn’t had long in the show, but aside from knocking on wood, I’m not sure he’s been given a character.

Then there’s the difficulty of mixing family life and work life. All cop shows try to detail the out-of-hours activities of the cast, and New Tricks managed that better than most. The key to making it work appeared to me to be that the show always ensured that an element in the home scenes helped to solve the murder. So, when Brian’s wife Esther is injured and in bed, all the scenes of Brian trying and failing to look after her came into focus when Esther spotted a vital clue that Brian had missed. The same was always true for Gerry’s tortured love life, Sandra’s even worse love life and Jack using his monologues with his deceased wife to work things out in his mind.

With the more recent series, that perfect mixture has been lacking simply because there’s no link between the home and work life meaning the home scenes come over as filler and soap-like. Steve has troubles with his son, but they have nothing to do with the cases. Danny had a daughter who looked promising, but she disappeared to be replaced by a girlfriend who is a pathologist, thereby ensuring that their home scenes ought to help the case, but they never do. Ted and Sasha both mention that they have a life outside of work, but that’s as far as it goes.

Then there’s the old adage about it being better to show rather than to tell. Any writer wanting to know how to do it could just watch an early New Tricks episode. For example, in the Ice Cream Wars episode, Jack doesn’t agree with the assumption that a motorbike rider seen fleeing the crime at speed had to be a young man. So he invites the rest of the cast down to the car park. They arrive and are nearly run over by a man on a motorbike riding around like an idiot. Just as they’re shouting at the rider, Jack whips off his helmet to show them that the rider they assumed was a young idiot is pushing eighty.

Then there’s Brian, who reckons the chemicals being delivered to the ice-cream factory could really be narcotics. So he buys the chemicals, mixes them up at home, blows up his kitchen, gets kicked out by his wife and chewed out by his boss for making drugs.

This is followed by Gerry who reckons the narcotics are being sold from the back of ice-cream vans. So he uses his young daughter’s enthusiasm for becoming a copper to persuade her to buy drugs. Then Sandra has to work out how to proceed when the case has been solved but only because one of her team has built a crystal-meth lab in his kitchen and the other has made his daughter buy drugs. Once that’s all been sorted out the hour running time is up and it’s been filled with entertaining scenes that are all show and no tell.

The same can’t be said of the later episodes. Recently, it’s been all telling. Nowadays, Ted would report that the rider didn’t have to be young, Danny would declare that the chemicals are a drug and Steve would respond that they're being sold from the back of the van. This method of relaying information gets the story told quickly, but it sure is dry.

Sadly, the less effective writing in the later years has often made me ponder on what doesn’t work rather than what does and I had something of a revelation recently about where the recent years have gone wrong. It’s something that I’ve never thought about before because it’s so fundamental, but I reckon it amounts to the fact that murder mysteries work best when there’s a murder. This sounds a bit daft, but it’s something that’s often been missing in recent years.

The standard solution to the mystery in the show’s later years has been that the killer and the victim argued. The victim tripped up, hit his head on an inconveniently-placed hard object, and died instantly. Then the killer ran away.

With this scenario, the killer has no motivation for the death so they don’t try to cover anything up and there are few clues. As a result, the cops can’t actually solve the mystery because there is no mystery. So the whole hour is flat and the plot doesn’t develop. Then, with five minutes to go, the killer realizes the episode is about to end and confesses. In other words, when the killer in a murder mystery has a strong motivation to kill, the plot will almost inevitably be strong, but when there is no motivation, everything will probably meander along aimlessly.

That scenario is one of many weak situations that have plagued the last few years. It’s also one of the reasons the show has been better in its final year as they’ve only once used the the-victim-fell-over-and-hit-his-head solution while in most of the stories the killer has actually had a strong motivation.

Anyhow, I’ll stop ruminating and say goodbye to the New Tricks team. Thanks for all the good times and no matter that I haven’t enjoyed it much recently, there’s always the early episodes to enjoy such as my favourite opening teaser here.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Countdown deal for Countdown

My Kindle title Clementine will be available on countdown this week. It's priced at 99c / 99p rather than the usual $2.99 / $1.99 on Amazon.

When snake-oil seller Fergal O’Brien sells a bottle of his universal remedy to cure all ills to the dying Leland Crawford, Leland makes a miraculous recovery, for several minutes. Then he drops dead.

In the few minutes before he dies, Leland bequeaths to Fergal everything he owns. Unfortunately, before Fergal can celebrate his good fortune he discovers that Leland’s only asset is his beloved Clementine, a 250-foot sidewheeler that once ruled the Big Muddy, until it sank.

Worse, Leland is heavily in debt and now the creditors expect Fergal to pay up. With Fergal having no money, his biggest creditor offers him a way out, but only if he kills Rivertown’s popular lawman Marshal Twitchell Swift.

To avoid carrying out this unwelcome task, Fergal will need to use all his legendary cunning or like as not in this wet weather, he’ll share the fate of Clementine.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Cassidy Yates Box Set available as a Countdown deal

This week the first three books in the Cassidy Yates series will be available on countdown for $1.99 or 99p on Amazon.

The Outlawed Deputy - Cassidy Yates was appointed deputy sheriff of Redemption City but such was his knack of attracting trouble that barely twenty-four hours after his appointment he had been slapped in jail! And if that wasn’t bad enough, Brett McBain’s outlaw gang rode into town to bust Nathaniel McBain from jail. Sheriff Wishbone is killed and the townsfolk think Cassidy responsible.
Now, having been imprisoned for the murder of his own sheriff, Cassidy must prove his innocence and the only way to do this is to infiltrate Brett’s gang. He must convince Brett he’s an outlaw, and persuade everybody else that he really is an honest lawman.
Could he pull off his enormous bluff or would he join Sheriff Wishbone on Boot Hill?

The Last Rider from Hell
- Staked out under the baking heat of the desert sun by Frank Chapel’s riders from hell is no way for any man to die. Only someone as resilient as Matt Travis had the courage to endure the heat and the vultures and survive. When finally he manages to escape a gruesome death only one thing is on his mind – revenge.
But his memory has been blasted to oblivion and he is even unsure of his own name. All he knows is that everyone wants him dead!
Justice must be done and Matt will be judge, jury and hangman. First, though, he must face up to the truth of his past and, that accomplished, lead begins to fly.

Yates's Dilemma - When Wendell Moon hightailed it out of Monotony, he left in his wake a murdered lawman and a mob braying for his blood. Fifteen years later the word is out – Wendell Moon is back! But, for Sheriff Cassidy Yates, Wendell’s unwelcome return rekindles old vendettas and ignites three days of raging gun battles.
Now the sheriff has the impossible duty of keeping the peace, but as if that isn’t enough Wendell also claims he never killed the lawman!
If Cassidy doesn’t unearth the truth quickly, Wendell’s trigger-happy enemies will deliver their own form of gun-toting justice. Real trouble lies ahead!