Friday, September 19, 2014


“A writer of truly unique voice, approach, and ambition, Craig McDonald delivers again with "Roll the Credits". Hector Lassiter is a compelling character but also a fascinating forum for McDonald’s historical, social, and artistic observations. For all the wonderful action, slick dialogue, and plot twists McDonald throws at the reader, he’s equally interested in saying something substantial about time and place. Not to be missed.” —Michael Koryta

World War II: the last good fight. In his own words, novelist Hector Lassiter confides the secret history of his clandestine campaigns in the European theatre and beyond, and his long, bloody battle of wits against a Nazi filmmaker. Aided by a beautiful OSS operative and a two-fisted Irish cop-turned-Army intelligence officer, Hector takes on the impossible mission of smuggling a hard-hunted Jewish orphan from France while pursued by the might of Germany’s occupying army. The high-stakes chase extends from decadent Berlin to occupied France, from post-war Hollywood to the steaming jungles of Brazil. A dazzling fusion of crime fiction and espionage thriller, Roll the Credits is also a haunting study of the birth of film noir and the bloody underbelly of cinematic history, with a supporting cast including icons of the Lost Generation and heroes of the French resistance.

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

In the old days, if a horse stumbled three times you shot it in the head.
As far as I was concerned, our driver had just made his second stumble.
Well, arguably it was his third if you counted a certain slip of the tongue earlier in the late-morning. I’d wondered at Billy’s fluent German before, but now?
Following the twisting, mounting road toward the Alps, we were still thirty miles from our unstated destination. I was chewing my lip and weighing when best to kill our traitorous driver.
From the seat behind us, Gertrude Stein yelled over the Renault’s engine’s roar, “Hector, perhaps we will at last have the windows up. It looks like rain, does it not?” She was tugging the window crank on her side with no success.
More bellyaching. I twisted further around in my seat and said, “Sorry, darlin’, but this heap’s side and rear windows are all broken out. As a humble war correspondent moving in enemy territory, this Juvaquatre van was all I could wrangle under the gun.”
That was true enough. I’d doffed my correspondent’s duds for native street clothes, and then stolen our current ride. According to my hastily forged papers, I was Günther Hess of Lyon, one of the guys in charge of retooling Renault for German war production.
I had a smattering of rusty, Great War-era German and figured to get by just fine if chitchat didn’t go far beyond basic weather, bathroom and sporting house directions or drink orders. I said, “Still, you’re maybe right about the weather turning. I’ve got some rain slickers stowed behind you there. We’ll stop and break those out, just in case.”
Might as well get the bloody deed over with now, I told myself. I glanced at Billy, finding little stomach for the wicked task to come. I promised myself that for both our sakes, I’d try to make it quick. That was a sop to my sometimes not-elusive-enough conscience.
To distract myself, I smiled at Alice B. Toklas. Alice had never cared for me, not a lick, but the same was true of all the men that Gertrude doted over—all the male fiction writers and poets Gertrude had mentored or fed through the poorer times in older, better days in long-gone Paris.
Alice and I had exchanged perhaps a half-dozen frosty words since we’d hit the road seven hours ago. Now I said to the little bird-like woman with the dark, hairy upper lip, “Think we might even have an extra-petite raincoat that will fit you, Miss Toklas.”
Turning back around, I tapped my driver on the arm and above the wind’s sheer hollered, “You find a shoulder that looks firm enough, you pull over, okay, Billy? We’re going to need to stretch our legs and get some provisions out of the back.”
Blond, blue-eyed Billy, looking very Aryan to my own pale blue eyes now, shot me this suspicious look and said, “We’re making good time, Hec. How much further do we have to go? Where are we going, exactly?”
Not subtle. But then subtle and Billy didn’t seem to be acquainted. I shrugged and smiled. “Told you, kid, I’m only allowed to go where we’re going so long as I keep my secrets until we get there. And it’s far enough away yet to warrant a break from this kidney-busting heap of ours, son.” The Renault’s shocks were well past shot.
Yessir, I had decided now. Billy was going to be going further away than the rest of us, quite soon and for keeps.
I shook out a cigarette, offered one to Billy — his last, after all. I fired him up with my windproof Zippo. Alice coughed as our smoke blew back past her face. The little dame would just have to tough it out. Gertrude was diverting-enough company when she wasn’t complaining, but Alice? I could feel her hateful stare at the back of my head, even now.
Billy nodded at a wide spot in the road ahead, a scenic pull-off at an ascending curve, and said, “It’ll do?”
It was a picturesque place to die with that mountain valley view.
“If you think it’ll bear the weight, why not, kiddo,” I said thickly.
He pulled over and set the brake against the incline. Last moves.
I swung out and stalked around to the back of the van; dropped the tailgate. “Gonna need a hand with this, son.”
Billy sighed and hauled himself out from behind the wheel. It was just starting to rain now, cold and stinging. Blinking back the rain and fumbling with the fasteners, I stepped aside as Billy said, “Here, Hec, let me.” He got her open and I loaded his arms with stuff. Billy was now burdened with tarps and rain ponchos. Perfect. My stomach churned.
Gertrude had moved around in her seat to try and watch us. That was too bad for her. She was going to hate was she was about to see. Probably be haunted by it. She held her hand out the broken back window, palm up against the needle-spray rain and said, “Hector, hurry, the weather.” She said it like it was news. Well, that was Gertrude in a nutshell, always discovering the world for the rest of us. Or at least presuming that she did that.
In the distance, I could hear truck engines. Those coming our way precluded me taking a gunshot at Billy. The sound of the approaching caravan also put the boot to my backside to take action, now.
I dipped my hand in my coat pocket and wrapped it around the bone handle of the SS knife I’d taken off a dead Kraut a few days ago. Sudden-like, I got around behind Billy, or maybe he secretly was a “Wilhelm,” and wrapped my left hand around his forehead. I jerked his head back hard to expose his throat.
Gertrude gasped; Alice turned.
Billy, who evidently had some commando training, dropped his load and, snarling, elbowed me in the gut. He stamped on my foot with his heel, then he twisted in my arms. He forced his forearm against my neck, pushing at my windpipe. With his other hand, Billy went for my souvenir Nazi knife.
He was half my age and all my height. Billy was also trained in hand-to-hand combat—that was all-too-evident now. More wisdom come my way too late.
Billy snarled, said, “You Jew-lover! I’m going to kill you slow with that knife, Lassiter!” He smiled meanly and said, “Werner Höttl sends his regards.”
Höttl: Would-be German film expressionist and auteur turned Hitler stooge.
So, it was Höttl behind this chase after the women. Hell, I’d suspected as much.
Billy’s hand of a sudden clutched at his own throat. The curved handle of a walking stick was digging into his windpipe now. Gertrude and Alice were pulling on the other end of the cane, bless ’em.
I kicked Billy hard between the legs, three times though the second two kicks were admittedly meanly gratuitous. Clutching at his crotch, Billy fell gasping to his knees in what was quickly turning to mud. I got around behind Billy and slit his throat down to bone. I let his corpse fall face first into a blood-spritzed puddle.
Gertrude said, “What is this, Hector? Why did you kill that young man?”
“He’s a spy,” I said. “New Yorker from his accent, but Billy was German American Bund, or something, I’m guessing. One way or another, Billy-boy here somehow threw in with der Fatherland. Had my suspicions about him the past couple of days. I sorely owe someone in intelligence on our side for saddling me with this one. Close as we’re getting, well, to keep you two safe in this new, good place, this had to happen, bloody as it was. Sorry, ladies. And thanks a million for the assist. Billy was a tough little traitor, sure enough.”
I looked at the boy’s body bleeding into the mud. Now he looked like just another luckless young one undone by our latest World War. Kid was going to stalk my dreams.
Gertrude said, “We do not care for these times.”
“Ain’t lately finding much to love myself,” I said, standing over the dead boy in the stinging rain.
Those trucks were rumbling closer. Chewing my lip, I planted a boot against Billy’s hip, pushed hard and sent his body tumbling down the muddy mountainside.
Shaking my head and wiping the kid’s blood from the back of my hand, I said, “Yep, moments like this, I ain’t remotely crazy about times myself, Ma’am. Now we best get moving, vite.”
I helped the ladies out from the Juvaquatre and passed out the raincoats and some tarps to spread over their legs.
Alice reluctantly accepted my steadying hand as she climbed back into the rear of the Renault. Helping in short, stout Gertrude took a bit more effort. She finally opted to sit up front alongside me, wrapped up like a damp mummy. I handed Gertrude the cane she stumped around on and she stowed it between our seats. Gertrude said, “You know how to get us there, my Hector? I mean, without his help?” She nodded in the direction of the hillside I’d sent Billy tumbling down.
I released the brake, got us going again. “I was checking the maps,” I called above the engine’s roar. “Yeah, I can do it. Should be there before late afternoon. Hold on tight now, you two. We’ll see if we maybe can’t outrun this rain.”
Gertrude and Alice were settling into their new home. Rich friends were sworn to protect the women from the Nazis here in the so-called Free Zone. The village mayor said, “Though we’re not occupied, I am still under strict orders to provide the names of all those living here to the Germans. Regardless of the risk, I will of course omit Miss Stein’s and Miss Toklas’ names from that list, Monsieur Lassiter.”
I slapped his arm and said, “You’re a good man, brother. Maybe the only politician on God’s crazy earth I admire.” I grinned, added, “I mean, besides Churchill.”
He said, “Not your own president?”
FDR? I had longstanding reservations about that one.
I looked around: Gertrude and Alice’s new home was on the banks of the River Rhône, near the foothills of the Alps. It was a good and pretty place for a couple of famous female Jewish American lesbians to hide from Hitler’s minions until we kicked Adolph’s ass.
The mayor said, “You’ll stay the night, yes? I’m a fan of your novels. And of the films. We’ll have some good wine and you can tell me of your books, and how the battle truly goes. You can tell me when your countrymen will at last join the war. You can—”
I shook my head. “Glad you like the books. The movies are for money. Sorry, but I’m kind of AWOL from my reporting duties smuggling those ladies here, Sir. Have a lot of ground to cover, fast. Dreadfully late getting to Lyon.” It wasn’t quite a lie.
The mayor smiled. “Another time, then?”
“Count on it, buddy,” I said. He saw to a refueling of my jalopy. They finished up that task as the rain returned. As I settled in for the long wet ride to Lyon, a middle-age woman handed me a wicker picnic basket.
“Provisions, for your trip back.” I was surprised to see Gertrude and Alice behind her.
Leaning hard on her cane, Gertrude said, “Again, much gratitude for bringing us, my star.”
I waved that away. “De rien,” I said. “Just keep a low-profile and stay well until we hand Hitler his head, right ladies?”
Alice surprised me by passing me a bottle of red wine. She said, “Please try not to get yourself killed in this war, Hector. It seems to again be a time for men like you.”
When we first met in Paris after the Great War, when I was just a kid struggling to make a name as a writer, I still had a bum leg from the German-inflicted wound that nearly killed me.
I squeezed Alice’s hand and hefted the bottle. “I’m going to save this, darlin’. We’ll toast the death of Hitler and Germany’s defeat with this very bottle of vino.”
After stowing the wine in my picnic basket, I turned over the engine. The mayor said, “I’m more than surprised you weren’t assigned a driver.”
Gertrude and Alice exchanged uneasy looks. I said, “Men are in too-short supply to be hauling around American war correspondents. And I lived in France for several years after the Great War, so I know my way around your country well enough.”
Smiling at Gertrude, I said, “Take care, Miss Stein,” then tore off down the road. As I left, I shoved an arm out the window and held my hand up in the V for Victory sign; cheers at my back.
I’d lied to Gertrude. For me, these were very good times, heady and satisfying.
At the edge of the village I slammed on the brakes, sliding a bit in the mud. Standing there in the middle of the road, straddling water-filled tire tracks, was a half-starved black Labrador Retriever.
I swung out and walked slowly toward the dog, one hand out. Tail down, the stray smelled then licked my hand. Fella had no collar and looked as though he had gone many days without food. Still some puppy in him: he hadn’t yet grown into his own big feet.
As I headed back to the Juvaquatre, the dog followed on unsteady legs. I rooted around the basket of food and stripped a sandwich of slices of ham and fed morsels to the dog. He weakly wagged his tail while he wolfed it down. When he was done, I swung up into the Renault. “You get clear now, old pal,” I told him.
The Lab tried to jump into the car with me through the window, but his back legs were too weak to do the job. His front legs, now hooked over the Renault’s open passenger-side window, began to fail him. He sat down and scratched weakly at the door with a clumsy front paw, whimpering.
Behind us, some trucks were headed our way. I thought about it, then reached over and opened the passenger-side door. I grabbed the dog by the scruff and hauled him up into the Juvaquatre with me. He collapsed onto the floorboards on the passenger’s side and looked up at me with grateful dark eyes, panting tiredly.
I grabbed one of the tarps Gertrude had wrapped herself in and swaddled the dog in that to keep him warm and dry from the now harder rain. We tore off down the sodden road as the impatient truck drivers on our tail began to lay on their horns.
Close by Lyon, German troop trucks began to ride my bumper. The Kraut soldiers sounded drunk, boisterously singing “Drei Lilien, Drei Lilien” and cursing at me.
I scratched the black dog behind his ears and ground my teeth.
I thought to myself, If I only had a machine gun and enough ammo, I’d fix all this world’s sorry present troubles.

ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook


TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook


ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Crime series: They tend to revolve around cops, private eyes, journalists or medical examiners… Possibly sundry, similar fields of illicit investigation.

My most-noted series focuses on novelist/screenwriter Hector Lassiter. The question I’m frequently confronted with at readings or book events is, “Why write about a writer?”

(My new novel Forever's Just Pretend actually doubles down, featuring not just Hector, but fellow author Brinke Devlin...)

A number of factors drove my decision to use an author to center my series of literary thrillers.

Partly, I wagered that I could pump up the language and dialogue a couple of extra notches if my central guy was a man who makes his living with words. Writers, on the whole, tend not to talk like other people. Sometimes that’s probably conscious on their part—call it a kind of performance art. But hang around enough of them and you’ll see: as a breed, we tend to use words differently.

There was also the fact that in the typical crime series, when your protagonist is a cop or a private eye, you expect that fella to pretty much tell a story in straight-up fashion.

But when a storyteller is telling you the story?

Then all bets are off.

A fiction writer might well trump fact for effect, and maybe he’ll do that nearly every damned time. He’ll possibly bend events in tricky ways to tell a richer story. In short, it seemed to me that a particularly gifted storyteller would, perhaps paradoxically, be the most untrustworthy of narrators: mysteries within a so-called “mystery.”

Now couple that possibility with the reputation that Hector Lassiter has earned in his universe for using his life as fodder for his fiction (Hector is best known as “The man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives”), and there’s some built-in latitude to let the story go a good bit deeper than the average mystery ever dares go.

As his years pile up across his body of “fictional” work, at some point, Hector Lassiter ceases hiding behind fictive personas, and in fact uses himself as his own character, by name.

I wish I could claim that notion was original to me—candidly, it’s an homage.

Back in the early 1990s, I took a stab at writing a series using a then-contemporary reporter turned crime novelist (since released as a series of eBook exclusives as the “Chris Lyon Series," consisting of Parts Unknown, Carnival Noir, Cabal and Angels of Darkness, to date. With their 1990s settings, they now read as inadvertent historical fiction, after a fact).

That series was a kind of forerunner to the Hector Lassiter novels I see now, and it in fact introduced characters I later brought over into Hector’s novels, including Irish cop James Hanrahan. (Chris returns the favor, cropping up in the concluding pages of Print the Legend, and a still-to-be-published Lassiter.)

But after writing several of those manuscripts about that other journalist/writer, I began to steep myself in the sublime works of novelist James Sallis.

I was most enthralled by Sallis’ Lew Griffin series and immersed myself in those books. I loved the notion that Griffin, among other trades and professions, was also a crime novelist.

As Sallis’ series unfolds, things begin to blur and even the titles of Sallis’ novels, and those of Lew Griffin’s, converge in vexing and evocative ways.

Because of Sallis’ Griffin series, I became enthralled with the notion of taking my original concept of crime novelist as hero and pushing it backward in time. Hector Lassiter became for me, a writer who would begin as an aspiring literary author, then move through all those “–isms” that shaped 20th century literature, eventually resulting in postmodernism and meta fiction.

Through Hector’s journey as a fiction writer, it became my plan to explore 20th Century pop culture as a driver of history and art.

In a dizzying development, I ended up appearing at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Arizona with James Sallis one February 2011 evening—a surreal and humbling experience for me and one I’m grateful to Mr. Sallis and Poisoned Pen for making possible.

At one point, there was even a video of our resulting discussion online. Hopefully, it will one day reappear, if only for the purpose of archiving and extending Mr. Sallis’ end of our conversation.

With that man, with that author, every exchange ends up being a kind of life and/or writing lesson.

And, being such an accomplished author, Prof. Sallis surely uses the words as so few do.

My earlier, in-depth interview with James Sallis can be found in ROGUE MALES: Hardcover/Paperback

The first five novels in the Hector Lassiter series—One True Sentence, Forever's Just Pretend and Toros & Torsos—are newly available from Betimes Books. (Ordering information below)

ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook


TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook


ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook