Monday, March 27, 2017

Adverbs and the Road to Hell

While many languages are romantic and flowing, English is muscular and lean. It permits a direct discourse of cause to effect: subject kicks object.

English is well-suited for marketing and exaggeration. The adjective assumes a higher importance than the thing. The adjective precedes the noun. What strikes with more force in the following sentences? It was a bright cold day in April. . . or, I am an invisible man. Day and man have a secondary emphasis to bright, cold and invisible. The adjective can replace and become the noun: The Bold and the Beautiful. The adjective can follow an indicative verb and the noun equals the adjective. I am cold.

English stylists of the terse school of writing have long declared that the most important part of speech is the verb. If you select the right verb, you've constructed a forceful sentence. I phrase this advice as: "Choose the strongest, most vivid verb your sentence will allow."

From MacBeth's soliloquy.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's [is] but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We have vivid movement verbs carrying a heavy weight: creeps, struts, frets. We have the sensory verbs; lighted, heard, told. As in death, the light is to be snuffed out (out!). Even the humble verb "is" is used to equate two nouns: Life equals a walking shadow; Life equals a tale told by an idiot. What does all this mean? Shadows, idiot tales, poor players, fools. It signifies nothing.

In line with the supremacy of the verb, stylists consider the adverb to be the lowliest part of speech. The adverb says: I didn't get the verb right and now I have to modify it. Ben Blatt, in his sprightly look at literature by the numbers, Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: And Other Experiments in Literature cites Stephen King's advice, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

Adverbs are like cholesterol: you have the good and the bad forms. Blatt divided out the bad form: the -ly adverbs, and then counted. Stephen King uses 105 -ly adverbs per 100,000 words. Hemingway, a spare 80. Blatt further goes on to demonstrate that many authors have fewer adverbs in their most acclaimed books. Faulkner had 31 and 42 adverbs per 100,000 words in As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, respectively, but had 130 or more in the forgettable (and forgotten) Soldiers' Pay and Mosquitoes.


Blatt examines Elmore Leonard's writing advice. One rule admonishes against the use of the adverb, "suddenly." He shows graphically how Leonard over his career had forty plus suddenlys per 100,000 words in his first four books and not once in his last nine novels.

How do mystery novelists perform with "suddenly?" In marking the performance of 52 authors, Blatt includes the performance of five who were primarily mystery writers.

Suddenlys per 100,000 words

Dan Brown, 59
Agatha Christie, 46.
James Patterson (22 Alex Cross books), 38.
Gillian Flynn 29.
Elmore Leonard 9.

This group fairs more poorly than the median rate for all authors he analyzed (24 per 100,000). Dan Brown has more suddenlys than some authors have total adverbs. I have no doubt he is laughing raucously all the way to the bank.

How well do I perform? I have three published novels and one novella. These average out at 71 adverbs per 100,000 and 3 suddenlys/100,000. While I don't go out of my way to follow Leonard's rules, they have invaded my writing style.

I have previously characterized Elmore Leonard's rules as: Do not write like a 19th century author whose fainting couch overfloweth. While composing this post I was reading Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, (1908), a classic in the genre of spooky house and mysterious goings-on. I could not help but noting, again and again, adverbs modifying everything. After finishing I tallied up the incidents: 140 adverbs and 36 suddenlys per 100,000 words. 

The rate of the use of the word "suddenly" by seven mystery writers. Patterson represents James Patterson's 22 Alex Cross novels. Rinehart is Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase. Most of this data came from Blatt's book, referenced above.

In Praise of the Adverb.

The terse, lean language advocated in The Elements of Style and by others is not the only worthwhile form. Choosing to writing effusively, rather than directly, is another choice. English can be a nimble language and its phrasing can be made to reflect that of the romantic languages.

From my pre-adolescent days, I remember reading a Reader's Digest article that spoke of a study which found that people who used adverbs in their speech were more likeable (and you can be more likeable using adverbs!). Ever since, I've noted authors who exploit this. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." (The movie version. The book version had two adverbs in the sentence). Within dialogue, exclamation points and adverbs and indirect speech serve to make a character colorful. My personal touchstone example of indirectness and repetition being used to make a character endearing is M*A*S*H's Radar O'Reilly. For example, "There might be naked female personnel showering in there with their clothes off!" and "Of course I could, but I'm not. I mean, I do, but I didn't!" I can't find the quote online, but from memory: "You're a female woman of the lady gender."

So, why all of these admonitions against adverbs? They are often found among the laziest and most amateur of writing. Good writing is never lazy. Good writing chocked full of adverbs and imprecision demands an even steadier hand at the helm: you are traversing choppy waters.


How Well Do Famous Authors Follow Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing? Part One.
How Well Do Famous Authors Follow Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing? Part Two.

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Benjamin Button and The Supreme Court

(Benjamin Button was the F. Scott Fitzgerald character who grew from old to young.)

Over the history of the United States, there have been 114 Supreme Court Justices including 3 living and retired and 8 living and serving.

Neil Gorsuch, if he were to be confirmed and sworn in on April 1st, would be 49 years 7 months and 2 days in age, the 29th youngest. While that might not sound too drastic on the young side, 13 of the 28 youngest justices were born in the 18th century. Among those born from the start of the 20th century, only 4 have been younger.

The four youngest Supreme Court Justices, all of those sworn in while they were in their thirties, were born in the 18th century. In terms of life expectancy, the most recent justices have been the youngest justices in history. This trend is especially true for the recent Republican appointees. Clarence Thomas was the second youngest justice sworn in since 1853. John Roberts became the youngest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court since 1801.

Dividing the group up into quartiles we have the following.
The average age at time of being sworn in versus age at death for Supreme Court Justices, 1789 to present. The time periods have been divided into quartiles (28 to 29 justices). The difference is the number of years lived between being sworn in and death.

In the first period the average age was just under fifty. This increased to over fifty-five in the third period and then declined again more recently. In the meantime, life expectancy, determined by how long the justices actually did live, increased from 70 to 80 years. (I was surprised those born in the 18th century lived to 70.) Eleven of the twelve most recent appointees are still living and their deaths did not figure into the fourth quartile figures.)

From the above graph we can see there was little change in life expectancy from the age of being sworn in, until the fourth quartile in which case the justices got younger while the life expectancy continued to increase.

Since January 1972, when two of Nixon's candidates were confirmed to the Supreme Court, the majority of the court have come from Republican presidents. That would have changed in 2016 with the nomination of Merrick Garland (then 63 years old). No hearings were given to the nomination.

The Republican's long run has been in part due to chance of history (ten consecutive justices between 1969 and 1991), the refusal to hold hearings, and the young age of the Republican candidates. The last of these three allowed those sitting to continue serving for a longer period of time.

Ages of Supreme Court justices at the time of being sworn in since the beginning of the Republican-appointed majority in 1972. Red were selected by Republican presidents; blue by Democratic presidents. [Gorsuch] is pending.

Over this period the average age of a Republican judge at the time of being sworn in was 52.2 years and the average age of a Democratic nominee was 55.4. The 52.2 years drops to 50.8 years if the first selection, Powell is removed. The Republicans have been putting forward nominees 3 years younger to 4.6 years younger by the latter criterion.

Neil Gorsuch is under 50 years of age. The last time a Democratic president had a Supreme Court Justice under fifty was in 1962.

The Excel files of all ages are available by request.

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Never Kill A Contest.

A prize of $100 (US) will be awarded to the author who best completes the short story, The Final Confession, the first 1,100 words of which are presented below. Alternative prize formats are presented after the story. The total length should be between 2,000 and 5,000 words. The completed short story will be submitted as co-authors to a journal of the winner's choosing. All proceeds from future sales will be divided evenly between the co-authors.

Rights: The writing and ideas from all non-winning submissions will continue to belong to those who enter. [You can finish the story, then go back and write a new first half and then it's all yours.]

Fees: There is no fee to enter.

Judging the Winner: I will be the judge. I will look for the piece that best dramatically completes the story with the highest quality of writing. Several further considerations are presented at the end of the piece.

I reserve the right to edit the final story to maintain consistency in tone. Although Detective Shelley Krieg is a character from my novel, Never Kill A Friend, it is not necessary to use other characters or info from the book.

How to Enter: To enter, include your conclusion to the story in the body of an email to by 11:59 p.m., June 15th, 2017, EST along with word count, your name, address, phone, and email. Include the words "contest entry" in the email subject line. Do not send your submission as an attachment. The winner will be announced July 15th.

Martin Hill Ortiz

    The Final Confession

    Only one thing could be worse than having a boyfriend whose idea of a romantic Valentine's date consisted of a dinner at Arby's: being stood up.

    Shelley Krieg sawed at the papery meat between her teeth with the pinched end of a soda straw. She had ordered a Junior sandwich to tamp down the hour-long anger in her belly, an agitation which intensified with the waiting. And waiting. No phone calls, no messages, his phone off-line.

    The sandwich merely stoked the fire in her stomach. Horse radish: a taste that gave a bad name to both horse and radish.

    Even after sipping a bit more of the melted ice puddle from the bottom of her cup, her mouth felt dry. Why does anyone eat here?

    She looked around. Families happily munching away. A priest and some nuns seemingly enjoying their meals.

    She thought back to her Catholic days. The Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa's group, ran her school. She once asked them whether they worried about living in a rough ghetto. They laughed and told her that D.C. was tame. They'd worked in the back alleys of Calcutta.

    She wiped off her lipstick, buttoned up her collar, and tugged down the fringe of her red skirt to just below her knees. Feeling less sexy, she felt less rejected.

    Her eyes wandered. Across the street, a car pulled up, double-parking in front of a liquor store. The driver, a skinny punk, wore a black ski mask topping his crown. With a jolt, her police instincts kicked in and her every muscle tensed.

    The driver twisted the plastic orange cap off of a play pistol. Even at this distance Shelley recognized it as a toy, but what she saw didn't matter: this was still armed robbery.

    Bolting from her seat, she knocked over her soda cup and hurried for the door, an action that elicited a crowd of stares.

    She had dressed for a night out—albeit, a cheap night out—and not for after-hours duty: her service belt and pistol lay stowed in her car. As she shouldered out the door, she took out her phone and speed-dialed dispatch.

    "This is Detective Krieg, MPD. We've an armed robbery in progress at B & B Liquors, Good Hope and Sixteenth. Make certain you tell them, 'Officer on scene.'"

    She emphasized the last part because she was out of her district and when the responding officers arrived they would encounter her: an unknown tall black woman with a gun in hand.

    She tweeted her car, flung open the door and reached inside, unbuckling her service automatic from its holster. She dumped the contents of her purse on the car seat and grabbed her shield, pinning it to her vest. And then she stood still, spending a quiet moment before heading into battle, ginning up her courage. It's a toy gun, she reminded herself. I saw the perp take the top off. But what if he put a plastic cap on a real gun to carry it around, making it seem fake? No, she told herself: I saw a toy, I know the difference. It had to be a toy—but what will I do if he points it at me? She knew what she would do.

    Then she recognized a new horror: what if I have to explain in court why I was eating dinner alone on Valentine's Day? At Arby's.

    She held her gun low as she crossed the street.

    Blam. A shot, a roar, from inside the liquor store. What the hell? A second blast. Shelley drew back from the door and to the side, out of the line of fire. "Police!" she called out. "Toss your weapon and come out with your hands raised."

    The door banged open and the punk staggered out. He clutched the toy gun against a gaping wound in his belly. He made it only a few steps before nosediving against the sidewalk. A moment later, a man appeared, brandishing a shotgun.

    Shelley aimed her gun at him. "Put your weapon down."

    "This is my store," the man said. His eyes were wild with adrenaline.

    "The crime is over. You do not need that weapon," Shelley said. And she didn't need a frenzied hero with a twitchy trigger finger. "Set it down." She demonstrated by lowering her own weapon.

    The man looked around as if to find someone who would support his rights. The few gawkers maintained their distance. He set the shotgun down beside him.

    "Call 911. Ask for an ambulance," Shelley said.

    "No," The owner said, folding his arms.

    Shelley dropped on one knee beside the man on the sidewalk. She freed the toy gun from his hand and tossed it aside to make sure the responding officers wouldn't think he was armed. When they arrived. If they arrived. Where are they? 

    It seemed as though half the man's blood had already spilled out: a rivulet from the broad puddle stretched to the gutter. Shelley rolled him over and pressed her hands against the bleeding. The man huffed against his ski mask. She pulled it back to allow him to breathe. From a distance, she'd judged him to be a punk kid. Up close, she could see he had a baby-face but with those creases that came in one's late thirties. The victim stared at her with desperation, mouth open, lips popping like those of a guppy.

    "You were likely within your rights to shoot this man," Shelley told the owner. "But if you do nothing and you allow him to bleed to death, you are committing murder and I can arrest you." Technically, this was true, but she made the threat only to ensure his cooperation. "Call 911 and bring me something to help stop the bleeding. A roll of paper towels if you have them."

    The owner reached for his shotgun.

    "Leave. It. There," Shelley said, each word snapping.

    "I want to put it somewhere safe."

    "Leave your weapon there."

    The man backed into his store.

    A shotgun, at close range, could tear a man in two. Both of Shelley's hands easily fit into the wide gash of his belly wound. She felt about for the source of the flood.

    "Bless me father, for I have sinned."

    Shelley had been concentrating so much on the wound, that these words startled her. She looked up. The priest from Arby's knelt next to the victim.

    "Tell me, my son," the priest said.

Additional notes regarding context and the contest.

Aspects of Shelley Krieg are presented in the above story. In summary, she is African-American, tall (over six feet), single and in her mid-thirties and works for the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department. She is a conscientious detective who does not act in an unethical way, although she has been known to cut corners for the greater good.

The first chapter of Never Kill A Friend is available here, online or from internet book outlets.

The winning entry should be realistic in plotting, not the magic of a poorly created cops-and-robbers world. Gratuitousness, whether it be sex, violence, gore or swearing is a negative. I will accept a moderate amount depend on context and internal justification.

The sacrament of confession is not absolute in requiring silence from the priest. Inasmuch as Shelley overhears something actionable, the priest could corroborate it: although this does not need be a plot point.

International contestants can apply. Alternative forms of awards can be: A check or money order for U.S. dollars, or as a gift card from iTunes, Amazon, or Google.

What publication rights are being asked? None, other than those requested by the magazine in which the final product will be published. The winning entry will not be published on-line beyond that of a teaser, unless by joint agreement. This could interfere with submission to journals.

You may query me with further questions or insert them in comments if you believe the answers would be of general interest.


 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Gangster Crime Novels

"They call it business. OK. But it's personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don. My old man. The Godfather. . . . That's what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal." Michael Corleone responding to the assertion "It was business, not personal" in The Godfather, by Mario Puzo.

Brighton Rock, the novel, is named after Brighton rock, the candy.

The gangster novel with its layered hierarchy of villains and antiheroes has been a staple of crime fiction since the early 20th century. Although earlier writers had dabbled with gangs in their novels and short stories, Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett is often said to be the first gangster novel. What makes it a gangster novel? The reader is set squarely inside the underworld: we see things from their perspective. Their immorality and allegiances define a code of conduct and create a skewed sort of reality.

Little Caesar

Maybe it was because the bigger-than-life Rico of Edward G. Robinson (at that time in his late thirties) lurked in my mind it took me a moment to adjust to the character in the book. Rico, in contrast, is a punk, a small time crook. He takes over a gang in twenties Chicago not because he is willing to use violence, it is not a conscious decision: violence is all that he understands. Other gangsters think before striking. Rico strikes. This results in a fast trajectory up and a quick end. In fact, the novel clocks in at a brisk 160 pages.

The final line, "Mother of God," he said, "is this the end of Rico?" is echoed in Walter Winchell's narration of the film. Little Caesar evokes a dingy and amoral world, dust-bowl dry and hand at the throat, V-8s roaring and tommy guns blazing. Adding to the immorality, Walter Winchell evokes J.J. Hunsecker (Sweet Smell of Success), jazz stings, and yellow journalism.

W.R. Burnett was a classic, learned-it-from-the-streets author. He went on to have a substantive career penning High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle along with many great film scripts: The Great Escape, Scarface, This Gun for Hire, and Night People.

Author: William Riley Burnett  (aka W.R. Burnett)
Novel: Little Caesar
Publication: 1929
Rank: #75 on the MWA list.
Word Count: (160 pages) approx.: 46,000
Age of author at time of publication: 29.
Previous novels published by this author: none.
Opening line: Sam Vettori sat staring into Halsted Street.
Significance: Said to be the first gangster novel. We are immersed in the world of hoodlums. The dialogue has a gritty authenticity and lyricism.

Brighton Rock

The British author, Graham Greene, had the ability to imbue the ordinary, even the tawdry, with grandeur. A cross between Le Carré and Joseph Conrad, at his best Greene created unforgettable characters and stories, the latter including The Third Man, Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American, and Brighton Rock.

In Brighton Rock we are introduced to Pinkie, a seventeen-year-old gangster who, like Rico, is a punk who wields violence to take charge of a gang. It is hard to reduce Pinkie's actions to a simple explanation. He seems without principles and yet he is informed by his Catholic conscience. Greene, who was Catholic, falls into a trap that Hitchcock once described in regards to his film I, Confess. In that film, the priest hears the confession of a murderer and will not reveal it because of the constraints of the sacrament of confession. The priest stays silent even when he, himself becomes a suspect. The reasoning of Catholicism is often foreign to others and in Brighton Rock, Pinkie has no problems with killing others but will marry to hush up a witness.

In spite of this, the overall verdict: the complexity of the characters, the beautiful descriptions of a grimy setting and grimy lives make this book a classic.

Author: Henry Graham Greene (aka Graham Greene)
Novel: Brighton Rock
Publication: 1938
Rank: #46 on the CWA list, #69 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 89305
Age of author at time of publication: 33.
Previous novels published by this author: six.
Opening line: Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.
Significance: A perfect blend of literature and suspense.

The Godfather

Reading The Godfather at times felt like reading the novelization of a movie. So many phrases have entered our culture, our very vocabulary, that I half-expected to turn the page and read about Michael Corleone clicking his ruby slippers and saying, "There's no place like home."

Like The Wizard of Oz, like The Simpsons, The Godfather permeates our culture.

But there is more to the novel than memorable dialogue. The book feels at times like a series of interconnecting novellas, this part following the trajectory of Michael Corleone's life as he not-very-reluctantly becomes a Mafia don; another part following the singing career of Johnny Fontane, who had only a minor role in the film. In fact, one of the major delights of the book comes from filling out the stories of those who were given cameos.

The Godfather shows the influence of its time. It has that sensationalist feel of The Valley of the Dolls. It has that broad story feel of a 1960's Cinemascope film. And of course, it has that sweet violin score of the Francis Ford Coppola's pair of early 70's epics.

Overall verdict: not great literature, but great Americana.

Oh, you liquidated her, eh? Very resourceful!

Author: Mario Puzo
Novel: The Godfather
Publication: 1969
Rank: #15 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 165245
Age of author at time of publication: 48.
Previous novels published by this author: five.
Opening line: Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.
Significance: You think another gangster novel had this kind of juice? Fugged-about-it. Became the most influential film of all time: instead of "Return of" and "Revenge of," it taught sequels to use numbers.


 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Review of Janet Dawson's Cold Trail

Cold Trail

In Cold Trail by Janet Dawson, her Northern California detective, Jeri Howard, takes on a personal case: her brother is missing. His medical bracelet is found at a murder scene. The opening line is gripping:

I felt cold and it wasn't only because of the morgue's temperature.

As Howard tracks down her brother, Dawson takes us on a tour of Northern California where wineries are overrunning apple farms and marijuana growers scar the land by razing trees for their operations. Having grown up on an apple farm, I found it pleasant to have apple folk as the underdog heroes and to read praise of how delicious a Red Delicious is, when it's fresh off the tree.

Okay, a side rant: kids won't eat their fruits and vegetables these days because the food is six-months old and selected for types that can be picked early and survive international shipping. I find it unlikely that GMO is health-hazardous, but its use has resulted in profits over taste (and perhaps has added to diabetes).

So, back on the Cold Trail. One of the questions posited early on: why would an adult disappear? Answer number one: he wanted to. He ran off. Answer number two: he is lost and injured or else dead. Answer number three: he is being held against his will.

Through methodical sleuthing Howard comes to accept that third, albeit unlikely, scenario. Then she must still find and rescue him.

The writing is understated; the investigation and details believable, adding to the suspense. Although not a "gotcha" thrilling book, it burns at a steady pace and makes for a fine read.

Janet Dawson's website.


 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Did The Apprentice Kill NBC?

He's plague, he's smallpox, he's typhoid. I don't want to follow his goddamn show. I want out of that 8 o'clock spot. I've got enough troubles without Howard Beale as a lead-in. You guys scheduled me up against "Tony Orlando and Dawn," NBC's got "Little House on the Prairie," ABC's got "The Bionic Woman". You've gotta do something. You've gotta do something about Howard Beale. [Maureen Warfield as Laureen Hobbes, the reality show terrorist in Network, Paddy Chayefsky, 1976]

Peter Finch as Howard Beale, Network, 1976.

Sometimes I get myself involved in stupid projects. Recently I mused—and it must have been musing because I certainly wasn't thinking—why not look at the ratings of the television show, The Apprentice, to see what they really were. Trump makes up numbers about everything else, why not the foundation of his recent popularity?

The undertaking proved to be brutal. The problem I ran into: there are so many episodes. And the puns used as episode titles, the awful puns, not just for The Apprentice, but for the competition and lead-ins. I may have permanent brain damage.

I put together an Excel file of the ratings, the share and the viewer statistics as reported at TV Tango for each episode of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, for the competition in the time slot, and for the shows leading into The Apprentice and following. 

Along the way, I came to the conclusion that not only was The Apprentice often terrible in ratings, but that it may well have destroyed NBC. Perhaps this is why Trump wants to cut back on the EPA. The toxic waste sludge of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice should have been declared a Superfund site.

So, why do I say that The Apprentice killed NBC?  My evidence for this comes in four parts.

  1. NBC took a steep and ongoing nosedive beginning the year The Apprentice debuted.
  2. Although it had the illusion of popularity at the beginning, The Apprentice was never popular. 
  3. The Apprentice gobbled up the best time spots and was the low moment in ratings between those who filled the lead-in and those which came after.
  4. Popular shows which were used as lead-ins and those which followed The Apprentice suffered.

NBC, Before and After.

Once upon a time, NBC dominated Thursday nights with its generation-defining sitcoms. Starting in the mid-eighties with The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Cheers and continuing with Seinfeld, Frasier, and Friends, NBC kicked ass with its ratings. Then in 2004, Friends came to end and the cowbird, The Apprentice, came to nest.

From the television years 1984-1985 to 2003-2004, NBC averaged 3.55 top ten TV shows on Thursday evening alone. Every year, for twenty years they had at least one.

NBC, Thursday nights. (Years on Thursday nights)
List of NBC Thursday night programs with multiple years in the top 10 Nielsen ratings, 1984-2004.
  • Cheers: (1982-1993) 7 years, top 5. 1 year, #1.
  • Family Ties: (1984-1987) 3 years, top 5.
  • The Cosby Show: (1984-1992) 7 years, top 5. 5 years, #1.
  • A Different World: (1987-1993) 4 years, top 5.
  • Seinfeld: (1989-1998) 5 years, top 5, 2 years, #1.
  • Frasier: (1993-2000) 4 years, top 10.
  • ER: (1994-2009) First 10 years, top 10, 3 years #1.
  • Friends: (1994-2004) All 10 years, top 10, 1 year #1.
  • Veronica's Closet (1997-1999) 2 years, top 5.
Others had a single year in the top 10.

Beginning with the year 2004-2005 and through 2015-2016, NBC has never had a top ten TV show on Thursday, in fact, it has only had three top ten shows period: Sunday Night Football, The Voice and The Blacklist.

How did NBC fall so hard, so fast? The Apprentice debuted on a Thursday in 2004.

Top Ranked TV show, NBC. (Beginning with the year after the advent of The Apprentice, 2004)
  • 2004-2005 ER #12
  • 2005-2006 Deal or No Deal #15 (Monday)
  • 2006-2007 Deal or No Deal #13 (Monday)
  • 2007-2008 Sunday Night Football #10. Otherwise: Heroes, #22.
  • 2008-2009 Sunday Night Football #8. Otherwise: ER #26 (tied with Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.)
  • 2009-2010 Sunday Night Football #5. Otherwise: The Biggest Loser #30.
  • 2010-2011: Sunday Night Football # 4. Otherwise: The Voice, #17.
  • 2011-2012: Sunday Night Football #1. Otherwise: The Voice, #10.
  • 2012-2013: Sunday Night Football #2. Otherwise: The Voice, #10.
  • 2013-2014: Sunday Night Football #1. Otherwise: The Blacklist, #6; The Voice #8, The Voice, Tuesday #10.
    • Four top 10 shows! Note: in 2013-2014, for the first time in ten years, there was not an incarnation of The Apprentice on TV.
  • 2014-2015: Sunday Night Football #1. Otherwise: The Blacklist, #12. 
  • 2015-2016: Sunday Night Football #2. Otherwise: The Voice, Monday, #9.

Intermission: A Brief Note on Ratings.

Different sources give what are usually slightly different rankings to television shows. In part this is based on whether they are citing ratings, total viewers, viewers in specific categories, whether they include or exclude reruns, etc. I will mainly focus on total viewers.

Sunday Night Football, although a bona fide hit, was only in the fall season and provided no lead-in or support for other shows the same night.

The above rankings are for the year. Time-slot rankings, which I will discuss below, are how well a program does compared to its competition during the time in which it is scheduled. In general, this ranking will be between 1 and 4 (NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox) from 8 until 10 pm at which time Fox signs off and the ranking becomes 1 to 3. The minor networks such as CW never competed with the above four. On rare occasions, although more frequently recently, cable TV has competed. Sometimes The Apprentice was scheduled at a time in which it came in behind historically high-rated cable shows including the final season of The Sopranos and two seasons of The Walking Dead. On one occasion, The Celebrity Apprentice ranked 6th in a portion of its time slot. Most cable programs even those widely talked about such as Mad Men, ranked below the network offerings.

The Apprentice Was Never That Popular - The Debut.

The Apprentice debuted at the tail end of NBC's dominance. It was given a primo debut spot, between Friends, the #4 show and ER the #6 show of the 2003-2004 season. Not only were both of these shows popular in 2004 both were on a ten-year run of consecutive years in the top ten. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present maintains a ranking of the most popular TV shows of all time. ER ranks #6 and Friends #14.

That spot in the Thursday line-up was golden. It could launch successful series and it could make forgettable series look successful. Do people even remember Boston Commons, The Single Guy, or Union Square (The #8-rated shows, of 1995, 1996, and 1997, respectively)? How about Fired Up, the 6th-rated show in 1997? All of these achieved a nova-burst moment of popularity because they were sandwiched in the NBC Thursday night line-up. They succeeded because of position, position, position. And this happened with The Apprentice in its first outing. It came in #5 in ratings for its first season, but as I describe below, it hardly ever won its time slot. And, in following seasons, in spite of throwing good shows in to prop it up, it dog-paddled along, barely peeking above the waterline.

The Apprentice was Fired Up and Boston Commons. It was a show propped up to look good in the ratings, but no more.

Let's look at how the debut episode of The Apprentice did.
The Apprentice debuted with a 90-minute episode. The # indicates ranking in time slot.

Seven million viewers tuned out when the episode of Friends finished and The Apprentice began. Fortunately for NBC, four million viewers returned when ER started. The Apprentice did win the first thirty minutes of its time slot when its primary competition was in reruns. Even winning part of a time slot rarely occurred in its long history (more on that below)

A brief counter-argument in favor of the popularity of its first season. The Apprentice was supported by a lead-in of Friends on four more occasions during its first season and by a lead-in of Will & Grace nine times. Will & Grace was not the same powerhouse (ranked #11 in the year before The Apprentice) as Friends, and on two occasions, the lead-in program was in reruns. On three occasions the following show was in reruns and twice they were specials. Factoring in this, we get this overall picture of ratings for the first season. Lead-in, average viewers: 18.79 million; Following total: 17.83; The Apprentice: 20.3 million. Reruns are a two-edged sword. The Apprentice had a higher audience because it never ran reruns. On the other side of the blade, The Apprentice could never provide reruns to fill out the program schedule.

The Apprentice was never that popular: a global perspective.

During Trump's tenure there were 102 episodes of The Apprentice and 83 episodes of Celebrity Apprentice. These were spread out over 14 roughly four-month-long seasons. So, how often did The Apprentice and Celebrity win their complete time spots? On six occasions, four times in its first season.

The Apprentice winning its time slot.

  • March 18, 2004. Reason: Main competitor pre-empted by NCAA Basketball.
  • March 25, 2004. Reason: Main competitor pre-empted by NCAA Basketball.
  • April 8, 2004. Reason: Main competitor in re-runs.
  • April 15, 2004. Finale first season wins against all competitors. (no reruns, strong showing)
  • March 17, 2005. Reason: Main competitor pre-empted by NCAA Basketball.
  • March 27, 2006. Reason: Main competitor pre-empted by NCAA Basketball.

As for winning even a slice of its time slot, that occurred on seven more occasions. And that's it. Over 14 seasons The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, even against its reruns and sometimes weak-ass competition, managed only 13 wins or partial wins out of 185 episodes and most of those came in the first season. Even against two or three competitors, it managed to lose.

The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice compared to its lead-in, follow-up program and leader of the time slot.

The Apprentice continued on Thursday night for three more seasons through December of 2005. Its viewership declined from 16.1 million in its second season to 11 million in its fourth season. In its fourth season it averaged about 40% of the number of viewers of the program leading its time slot.

After having destroyed NBC on Thursday nights, in season five, The Apprentice moved to Mondays.


Disaster struck. Not only could Jack Bauer not rescue Trump, he was part of the competition. The Apprentice regularly scored fourth place out of the four major network shows, falling below Two and Half Men, 24 (in its 5th season), and for half of its episodes, Supernanny.

The lead-in to The Apprentice, Deal or No Deal, was popular, #15 rated overall and the #1 show for the week of its finale which preceded The Apprentice finale. Deal or No Deal, was in fact, NBC's top-rated show and in a maniacal effort to prop up its overall lagging ratings, Deal or No Deal was extended to three episodes on three different weeknights. On Monday, unfortunately for NBC, the network lost a third of its Deal or No Deal viewers when The Apprentice came on. This season The Apprentice ended in June and its final competition were reruns. In spite of this, The Apprentice had fallen to 51st place.

Yada, yada, in its 7th season The Apprentice became Celebrity Apprentice and returned to Thursday nights where it revived its ratings up from pitiful to pitiable and finished the season ranked #48.

I wrote and then edited out a season-by-season description of its downfall realizing, really, who wants to go through 14 of these? One noteworthy moment came in September 2010, when the program returned in its tenth season to its non-celebrity format and came to roost on and crap in the now deceased ER's Thursday 10 p.m. time slot. That year The Apprentice finished ranked #113.

The Decline in Viewership of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice.

The Apprentice Killed NBC.

Okay, I've now shown how NBC's downfall concurred with the arrival of The Apprentice and how The Apprentice was never very popular. Now to demonstrate that The Apprentice killed NBC.

The death of NBC was more than coincidental. Over and over again, NBC sent in its most popular programs to prop up The Apprentice. The ratings of these programs took a nosedive or else the programs disappeared altogether.

First Year Sacrificial Lambs.

ER. Second highest rated show on NBC. One of the highest rated programs ever.
Role: Followed The Apprentice.
Ranking, year before the debut of The Apprentice: #4.
Ranking, year after: #12.

Will and Grace. Third highest rated show on NBC.
Role: Lead-in for The Apprentice
Ranking, year before the debut of The Apprentice: #11
Ranking, year after: #44

Friends. Top-rated NBC show, one of the highest rated programs ever.
Role: Lead-in for The Apprentice.
Ranking, year before the debut of The Apprentice: #2.
Year after: Program ended.

Wait! Surely you can't blame the scheduled finish of Friends on The Apprentice?

In 2002-2003, the salaries of the six major characters on Friends had ballooned to $1 million dollars. Per episode. That worked out to be $132 million dollars in salaries for just the principal characters. At the same time, producer Mark Burnett had rocked television with Survivor. Survivor had debuted in 2000 and proved that you didn't need star names (or salaries) to get killer ratings. In 2002-2003, the CBS program was the seventh highest rated show and, perhaps as significantly, it had come to roost on Thursday nights.

NBC recognized Burnett's revolution and decided to gamble on his latest creation, The Apprentice. Goodbye to $100-plus million salaries. NBC gave their baby what was possibly the cushiest time slot in television history after Friends and before ER. The Apprentice would spearhead their Friend-less future.

In spite of The Apprentice never being a great success after its first propped-up season, it continued on Thursday nights until ER was ranked #28 (and even then, the second best rated program on NBC). The best rated program on NBC? Deal or No Deal, which was sacrificed to prop up The Apprentice on its move to Mondays.

By the end of the decade, NBC had moved from having the top-rated scripted shows to reality shows, game shows and Sunday Night Football. For years, Sunday Night Football acted as NBC's only hit. To complete the symmetry of the devastation, The Apprentice moved to the Sundays after the football season ended.

Trump as Carnival Barker.

While performing this analysis, I realized one aspect of Donald Trump's character that I didn't quite get before. He is P.T. Barnum. He is a carnival shill. Even when The Apprentice was doing poorly, he was out there promoting the hell out of it. (I kind of admire this.) Of course, he didn't say the ratings stunk. He used euphemisms for stunk, like wonderful. From his tweets:

 Feb 22, 2012 12:35:31 PM @CelebApprentice is having wonderful ratings once again. @IvankaTrump & @DonaldJTrumpJr. I am very proud of this season.

The above tweet came shortly after Celebrity Apprentice debuted at third place in its time slot (second place for the final thirty minutes of its two hours). It finished the season ranked #73.

Trump made a lot of tweets about The Apprentice and ratings. He was also obsessed about the ratings of others.

Jan 26, 2012 02:54:17 PM @BarackObama's SOTU [State of the Union address] ratings were down 12% from 2011.

Being Trump, the claims of his ratings were often lies.

Nov 5, 2012 02:35:32 PM .@mcuban When Apprentice became the #1 show on tv you tried copying me with The Benefactor- a complete and total ratings disaster for @ABC.

The Apprentice was nothing like the #1 show on TV.

Feb 16, 2015 03:11:43 PM "@Bravolebrity1 LeezaGibbons @BrandiGlanville @kevinjonas @GeraldoRivera Ratings for #CelebrityApprentice have been at an all time high! #1"

For the February 16, 2015 episode Celebrity Apprentice was beaten by 2 Broke Girls, Mike & Molly, Stevie Wonder Special, The Bachelor, and Gotham. At 11:43 pm February 16, the time of the tweet, the ratings would not have been in.

Final Note: In the past year, with Donald Trump having headed off to work on other projects, NBC has been making a comeback and will likely end the year with several top ten hits.

Other Donald Trump posts:


 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Ballad of Oliver Crump

About 10 years ago, I embarked on a kid's book project about a tyrant and bully who announces people's secrets, a commentary on the growing lack of privacy. The character was Oliver Crump and he came to mind just today when I realized his name had the rhyme and cadence of Twitter-mad cyber-bully, Donald J. Trump. Metrically, the names are interchangeable.

My wife put together some lovely illustrations and we shopped the project around without success. Here is the set-up and premise and some of the artwork.

Oliver Crump, artwork Ana Fajardo

Oliver Crump

On a peak above Goodsville, on top of a stump,
In a hat lived a grump named Oliver Crump.
From the roof of his home with his thing-a-ma-probe
He would peep in on people all over the globe.

Then, from out his loudspeaker, he squeakily squawked.
To all those down below, he said, "Frankly, I'm shocked."
"My good people of Goodsville," exclaimed the news bearer.
"I've the tallest of truths!" The whole crowd shook in terror.

"Your beloved Queen Minnie has food in her teeth!
And King Vinnie's right shoe has no sole underneath!"
Crump then snickered while adding, "No need for applause,
I have readied a list full of everyone's flaws.

"I observe and I scribble and say what I please.
I see Kenny Keyes knees have fleas on their fleas!"
A few townspeople gasped while still others just hushed–
And in back of some bricks little Kenny hid, crushed.

With her brother boohooing alone among bricks,
That's when Mary Beth Keyes, who was merely but six,
Felt such anger, she shivered and uttered a vow,
"I will raise up my voice and fight back." Only... how?

With a map in one hand, the young Mary Beth Keyes
Made her way to the palace. She hollered out, "Please!
We must stand up to Crump, we must show him we're brave."
But the king and the queen merely gave a brief wave.

All their cows acted sheepish, their sheep were all cowed.
Only Mary Beth Keyes dared to speak to the crowd,
"First we jump when Crump jumps then we sneeze when he sneezes.
We allow him to spout out whatever he pleases."

Did this cheeky child mock him? Crump spoke with a huff,
"I see Mary Keyes' nose grows a purple nose stuff!
And more shocking than that, do you want to know what?"
"Me? I really don't care," Mary answered, "umm. . . so what?"

"You don't care!" exclaimed Crump with a lump in his throat.
"No one's said that before." First he wrote down a note,
Then he sealed up his hat so the lights all went black,
And he hung out a sign that read, "Wait! I'll be back."

"He'll be back," said King Vinnie, "but what can we do?
I'm still short of the money to buy a new shoe."
"He'll be back," said Queen Minnie, it truly upset her.
"We have hidden before. We'll just need to hide better."

"He'll be back," said a man to the royals in charge.
"I am Doctor Jack Pott, expert genius at large."
His pants were all baggy, his collar too snug
And Mary considered his smile much too smug.

"Worry not!" said Doc Pott, "I've you're answer right here.
The best way to fight fear is with even more fear!
With my whatchama-scope I'll give Crump a big fright."
Mary shivered and muttered, "That doesn't seem right."

Past the top of all up, on a peak above that,
Doctor Pott found a spot in an empty wine vat.
Where he crowed to the crowd from his telema-caller,
"One and all, listen up! I have truths so much taller!

"I reside in a vat with a whatchama-scope.
Crump, he hides in a hat. Just to think! What a dope!
His mind's stuck in a fog that got lost in a mist
And his brain's blown a fuse. He's got wires crossed and crissed."

Crump grumbled and cried out, "You're wronger than wrongest!
My thing-a-ma-probe is by ten times the strongest.
I have everyone's flaws on a twenty-foot list!"
"I can double your list," is what Doctor Pott hissed.

"I see failings and ailings, all blemishes, boils
And some plump juicy lumps that are oozing out oils.
I see all Crump can see, even more in reverse."
By now Mary was sure this had gotten much worse.

I feel I should cut it off here. It seems wrong to dump the entire piece on-line. Anyone interested in the finish can drop me a line and I'll send it your way.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Review of Disturbing the Dark, by Wendy Hornsby

Disturbing the Dark is a dangerous book: I almost died of collateral cholesterol. The menu of the Normandy coast countryside is so lushly and deliciously detailed, I had to finish each chapter with a burp. One of this mystery's best features is the immersion in modern rural France with its family ties, its cheese wars, and its painful past.

Maggie MacGowan, the heroine of author Wendy Hornsby's series, is making a documentary set in her family's ancestral farm ruled over by her willful grandmother, a place where everyone is either her cousin or the cousin of a cousin.

A bucolic cover for a mystery

The title "Disturbing the Dark" can be thought of as a metaphor for a film shown in a darkened theater or for uncovering a gloomy history. Local construction digs up a mass grave: Nazi soldiers who were slaughtered by the townspeople during World War II. As Maggie shifts the focus of her documentary to the sensational findings, this discovery leads to the unearthing of family secrets–and soon a murder.

Normandy has been the site of waves of invasions including the occupation by the Nazis, the blitz of the Allies subsequent to D-Day, and more recently, marauding tourists. Within the story appears further intruders: those lured by the lurid exhumations, creepy Nazi souvenir hunters, and those who are convinced the occupiers had buried a stash of stolen gold.

Hornsby has crafted a meticulous thriller, romance, travel guide and diet-destroyer. You can not help but want to escape among its pages.

Author's website.

 Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Monday, January 16, 2017

From Russia With Books

After an iconic image of Michael Caine in The Ipcress File.
"I never intended my leading character, James Bond, to be a hero. I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them, or get out of them one way or another. ... On the whole I think he's a rather unattractive man . . ." Ian Fleming in Conversation with Raymond Chandler, 1958. Transcript in Five Dials Magazine, Issue 7.

So far in my series looking at the top mystery novels, I've been moving my way through the top five on the Crime Writers Association (CWA) and Mystery Writers of America (MWA) lists and looking at related novels.


1. Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time
2. Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep [in Chandler versus Hammett]
3. John le Carré: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [below]
4. Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
5. Agatha Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd


1. Arthur Conan Doyle: The Complete Sherlock Holmes
2. Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon [or should I say Hammett versus Chandler]
3. Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of Mystery & Imagination
4. Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time
5. Scott Turow: Presumed Innocent [and legal mysteries in general].

In this post, I will look at CWA #3, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and other Cold War mysteries.

The Turkish book cover for From Russia, With Love

By the time of the 1950s, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene helped set the tone of the mature spy novel, but it was up to Ian Fleming to mix in the Cold War and mine the genre for pulpy fun. His fifth James Bond book, From Russia, With Love, sits at #35 on the CWA list and #78 on the MWA list.

At the time of its writing Ian Fleming expected it to be his last Bond novel and 007 appears to die in the end. "I am getting fed up with Bond and it has been very difficult to make him go through his tawdry tricks" [Wikipedia, citing Matthew Parker's Goldeneye]. But every Reichenbach Falls has a trampoline at the bottom and the next year Fleming started on Dr. No.

How well does the book hold up? For me, not very well. It is pleasant to see Bond not as a superhero, but as a vulnerable man who is fooled by the plot against him. And Bond doesn't even appear until one-third of the way through the book.

Author: Ian Fleming
Novel: From Russia, With Love
Published: 1957
Rank: #35 on the CWA list; #78 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 71687
Age of author at time of publication: 48
Previous novels published by this author: 4
Opening  line:  The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.
Significance: On a list of the top ten favorite books of John F. Kennedy. Generally agreed to be the best of the Bond series. Gadget-free entry to a series with a thousand gadgets.

Len Deighton in The IPCRESS File took on the spy world and made it in to a wince-inducing bureaucracy. He added in a tinge of black comedy and real world fears (nuclear testing) and sensationalism (brainwashing and kidnapped scientists). Published in 1962, it presaged le Carré's wildly successful, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Both authors went on to productive spy-writing careers.

Author: Len Deighton
Novel: The IPCRESS File
Publication: 1962
Rank: #9 on the CWA list; #43 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 79889
Age of author at time of publication: 33.
Previous novels published by this author: none.
Opening line: They came through on the hot-line about half past two in the afternoon.
Significance: One year before The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The IPCRESS File set a tone for a new type of spy novel: one of bureaucracies and heroes who stumble along.
Most recent novel: Charity, 1996.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was a phenomenon as much as a novel. A great novel: talent. A phenomenon: timing. The Spy... certainly wasn't the first literary spy novel (The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad). Instead it made its mark by tapping into the dissonance of international politics where peace was war.

By the time 1963 rolled around, a goodly number of people were questioning the Cold War. Linus Pauling won the 1962 Nobel Prize for his efforts to ban atmospheric nuclear testing. In 1963, the USSR and the US signed a treaty to do just that. The Missile Crisis of October, 1962 raised fears of a civilization-ending nuclear exchange. In 1963, Kubrick filmed Dr. Strangelove with a screening date set for November 22, 1963 (delayed due to a Steven King novel).

In this atmosphere, le Carré released, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a work that declared both the Russians and the Western world were morally compromised. The novel worked as suspense, as a world critique, and as literature. It achieved the "total effect" which Poe talked about, we might as well have been invited to the house of Usher. A gloomy chill surrounded the Cold War. Middle-aged men who clung to remnants of patriotism made the decisions and humanity was the collateral damage. Le Carré's thriller spent 34 weeks in the number one position on the New York Times fiction bestseller list.

My favorite sort of suspense comes about when, due to well-established constraints, protagonists are forced to escape with an excruciating slowness. Rick and Ilsa and Laszlo waiting for the plane to take off; Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains passing through a nest of Nazis where even a word of suspicion will bring their doom. At both the beginning and end of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, characters must make a slow transit across the East Berlin / West Berlin No Man's Zone, while fingers rested on the triggers of the rifles aimed at their backs. I'm envious. I hope someday to construct something so breathtakingly thrilling.

Le Carré has continued his spy-writing into his mid-eighties.

Author: John le Carré  (pen name of David John Moore Cornwell)
Novel: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
Publication: 1963
Rank: #3 on the CWA list; #6 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 63790
Age of author at time of publication: 31.
Previous novels published by this author: two.
Opening line: The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, "Why don't you go back and sleep?"
Significance: A monumental shift in the tone of the spy novel. The game was morally ambiguous and spies were broken people. Essential reading.
Most recent novel: A Delicate Truth, 2013.

Gorky Park. Am I Martin Cruz Smith's doppelgänger? The evidence: I am Martin Hill Ortiz, same first name, Hill corresponds with Smith as a common family name, as does Ortiz with Cruz as Latino names. He writes ambitious well-crafted thrillers. I have ambition and some sort of craftsmanship and shouldn't his doppelgänger be a ne'er-do-well? 

In the 1970s Martin Cruz Smith wrote Westerns (I have one), gypsy novels, espionage thrillers starring the Pope's own spy, and more. He had written 17 novels in the ten years before Gorky Park got published. And wow. It's a great book. It vividly recreates a human Moscow. It provides with characters who are flawed but strong, weather-worn, beaten down by life but full of life. The central conceit of someone trying to undermine the Russian sable trade makes for a great McGuffin.

In high school while playing the Russian in a reading of You Can't Take It With You, I was surprised to discover that I could do a great Boris Badanov impersonation. Bad Cold War novels make all of their Russian protagonists sound like high school actors: they are all growling bears. The above novels do much better at creating real personalities. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the East Germans are the West Germans reflected in a distorting mirror. In Gorky Park, there is some of the staccato speech, but it is surrounded by a sense of self-awareness and the pained humor that comes from being under the heavy thumb of a bureaucracy.

Author: Martin Cruz Smith
Novel: Gorky Park
Published: 1981
Rank: #82 on the CWA list; #35 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 135629
Age of author at time of publication: 38
Previous novels published by this author: 17
Opening line: All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling.
Significance: As Time magazine declared: "The U.S. at last has a domestic le Carré."


Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble