Archive for December, 2013

As you’ve probably gathered from this blog, I read a lot. But I pick my reading material in kind of a haphazard way, so I can’t claim to be up on the latest trends or have comprehensive knowledge of any particular genre.

So maybe this isn’t as rare as I think. But here’s the deal. With his debut novel, Silent City, Alex Segura has written a crime thriller set in Miami populated by … get this … actual human beings.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of what Dave Barry has called the “bunch of nuts in South Florida genre” of crime fiction. Love Tim Dorsey. Carl Hiaasen is like a god to me. (Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” is a bit more problematic. And I stopped following the TV series, which I hear jumped the shark big-time after I wrote this post. *Sigh*)

Much of the fun of the aforementioned writers is their over-the-top style and zany characters. I also admire the way that Hiaasen manages to get in touches that humanize even the most eccentric of his characters, such as the hirsute thug “Tool” in “Skinny Dip.”

That being said, you can overwork even the most appealing story elements, as I wrote about here. I love it when I’m reading a detective story published in the 1940s, and a dame who looks like trouble walks into a private dick’s office. I cringe when the same thing happens in a book published in 2013. Sometimes there’s a fine line between paying homage to a classic convention, and kicking it to death in the alley out back.

Segura’s book has many of the elements of a vintage hard-boiled detective novel. A missing woman. A mysterious killer. A hard-drinking hero with one last shot at redemption, and a cast of characters as apt to drop false leads as they are to provide clues.

And Miami’s no safer than it is in the conventional crime thriller set there. It’s still the Wild West on crank, full of drug runners, killers-for-hire and corrupt cops. This is no cozy mystery.

But “Silent City” feels refreshing in large part because the characters ring true. They’re motivated by recognizable emotions, and behave in believable ways when thrust into desperate situations. The story is set around a newspaper. And as a former longtime newspaper reporter myself, I can verify that Segura nailed the different personality types who haunt newsrooms.

One of those is the hero of the book, sports editor Pete Fernandez.

Pete’s on a downward spiral. He’s still licking his wounds from a broken relationship, mourning the recent death of his homicide detective father, and barely managing to choke back his anger at the smarmy corporate types gathering at his newspaper like hyenas to feast on newspaper journalism’s corpse.

He’s drinking heavily, sabotaging what remains of his career and pissing off his few remaining friends.

Then a dodgy columnist from his paper approaches him with an unusual request. He wants Pete to look into the disappearance of his daughter — an investigative reporter who was working on a piece about a mysterious underworld assassin known only as “Silent Death.”

Dangerous complication arise, as they will in this type of story. Nobody’s giving Pete a lot of credit. But he learned a trick or two from his father, and may have more grit and resources at his disposal than either friend or enemy suspects.

In the best noir fashion, the ensuing mystery dredges up some ghosts from Pete’s past. And it has the requisite double-crosses, edgy characters and twists.

I guess really, that’s the challenge for any writer of genre fiction. Hitting the beats that make fans love the genre in the first place, without hitting them so predictably that they’re drained of all vitality. Segura manages that balance admirably.

And he ends the story with a promise of more to come. That’s good news for fans of quality crime fiction.

duck dynastyI could be fired for writing this. By “this,” I don’t mean the words to follow. I mean that this very sentence I’m typing right now, in this format, could theoretically get me canned.

By the way — Hi, regular readers! Assuming any of you are still left. Sorry I haven’t posted in so long. I took a new job, and for a while I was commuting 90 minutes each way. I really didn’t have time to do much posting.

I don’t want to tell you where I work, for reasons that will become apparent. Suffice it to say that it’s a media-related job with a sizable corporation. I like it. I’m happy with my employers and my co-workers.

But I wasn’t happy about one stipulation that I had to agree to when I took the job. It stated, effectively, that I was barred from public communication outside the job. No books. No blogs. In light of the fact that this was a week before my book was scheduled to be released, I was less than pleased.

One of my supervisors confirmed what I suspected. The company didn’t intend to vigorously enforce this provision. It was just in place so they’d be covered in case I should decide to start a blog devoted entirely to trashing my employer. Or something outrageous that might hurt our public image, such as white supremacist propaganda.

I guess that sort of “no public controversy clause” is increasingly common. But is it right?

I started considering that when I read about Phil Robertson, the guy who got fired from the hit A&E reality series “Duck Dynasty” over his homophobic remarks in an interview with GQ.

I’ll say a few things up front. This might be a wishy-washy piece, because I’m not going to arrive at any answers here. I simply don’t have them. All I intend to do — all I’m capable of doing — is raising a few points that may be worth considering. I’m not a big TV watcher. I’ve never seen “Duck Dynasty,” nor have I ever felt any desire to check it out. I have gay and lesbian friends and relatives, and I am a staunch supporter of their rights. Robertson’s remarks about homosexuality, which I will not reiterate here, were grossly insulting to these friends and family members of mine. They disgusted me.

I saw some comments on social media to the effect that A&E’s decision to fire Robertson was a violation of the constitutional principle of freedom of speech. My first reaction, when I saw those comments, was to roll my eyes. Don’t these people understand what “the constitutional principle of freedom of speech” means? It refers to the role of government. If a government agency subjected Robertson to some kind of legal sanction for his remarks, THAT would be a violation of constitutional principles. Didn’t happen.

He has a legal right to say whatever he wants. And if I find his remarks offensive (which I do) and decide to start a boycott of A&E unless they fire him (which seems unnecessary at this point), I’m exercising my freedom of speech. The system works.

But is it really that simple?

Let’s not talk about Freedom of Speech, the constitutional principle. Let’s talk about plain ol’ freedom of speech — the ability to say what you want, when you want. The rationale for Robertson’s firing is that he entered into a contract with A&E. He was essentially serving as a public face of the company.  If he does something to make himself a liability to the network, they can fire him. Nobody forced him to sign that contract at gunpoint.

Obviously, that kind of thing is very important for TV personalities, whose entire job description is based on being in the public eye. Companies should be able to dismiss employees who become liabilities in that respect, right?

Yet, that also sounds very similar to the company policy that says I can be fired for writing this blog post. Nobody forced me at gunpoint to sign that agreement. (Although I was informed of that policy only after I’d left my previous employer and showed up for the first day of the new job. Just sayin’.)

And I can’t say I’d necessarily be opposed to that policy, under certain circumstances. I work hard doing my part to make the company I work for successful. Ideological objections aside, I would be very annoyed if a colleague negated my efforts by driving off potential customers with a misogynistic blog or self-published anti-Semitic rant tract. Even if he wrote said blog or rant tract on his own time, it would make little difference if people saw him as the public face of the company. I’d likely be happy if this theoretical co-worker got his ass fired.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s easy to protect speech you agree with and condemn speech you disagree with. The problem is that it’s always a double-edged sword. Sanctions that you condone for the guy you DON’T agree with can eventually apply to the one you DO agree with. Or to you.

So let’s look at employers with the “no public controversy” clause. Like mine. Yeah, you could argue that nobody’s forcing anybody to work for them. But would that really hold any more water than the argument that nobody was forcing black people to patronize segregated diners in the early 1960s?

And say that clause went on to become as ubiquitous and accepted as workplace prohibitions on smoking. What if you had no reasonable option other than to accept it?

It’s not hard to imagine some dire possibilities arising from that scenario. For example, picture selective enforcement where bosses fired employees with blogs supporting Political Candidate A, but looked the other way when they supported Political Candidate B. Having recently worked for an employer that blatantly harassed union supporters via selective enforcement, I know that’s no abstract hypothetical.

So there’s no question A&E had a legal right to fire Robertson, and a sound practical reason to do so. I’m just wondering if I should be applauding what happened to him. Even if I think he’s wrong.

By the way — you may wonder why I’m writing this, despite what I was saying back there in the first sentence. It’s because I believe in freedom of speech.  Although I’m not always sure what it means these days.