I met the ever-friendly Ray Daniel in Long Beach at Boucheron in 2014. We’re both fellow ‘Inkers.’ That is, we’re published by the same cool house, Midnight Ink. I’ve run into him at other writing conferences and he’s a fellow board member with Mystery Writers of America.
Terminated is the first in the mystery series featuring uber-geek and hacker extraordinaire Aloysius Tucker.
The Boston Globe called it “a smart novel with plenty of witty asides (and) slam-bam action.” Corrupted Memory followed and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review (“compulsively readable”). Coming this summer is Child Not Found.
Daniel’s short story “Give Me a Dollar” won a 2014 Derringer Award for short fiction and “Driving Miss Rachel” was chosen as a 2013 distinguished short story by Otto Penzler, editor of The Best American Mystery Stories 2013.
Daniel’s short fiction has been published in the Level Best Books anthologies THIN ICE, BLOOD MOON, STONE COLD, and ROGUE WAVE; as well as in the Anthony-nominated anthology MURDER AT THE BEACH (Down and Out Books).
A full review of Terminated follows but, first, Daniel was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail.
Question: So much crime and mystery fiction has been set in Boston, did you find it a challenge to do something different with the setting or did you just go with the flow? And, by the way, why is Boston such a great setting?
Ray Daniel: I know authors who worry about setting books in a city popularized by Parker and Lehane, but that comparison has never worried me. We all live in our own version of our cities. The aspects of the city that strike me aren’t the ones that struck previous authors. Also, Boston keeps changing, so there’s always some new wrinkle to examine.
There are several reasons that Boston is a fantastic setting for stories. The first lies in the varied neighborhoods crammed together into such a small space. It’s only a 45-minute walk from the North End to Fenway Park and in that walk you’ll pass Faneuil Hall, Downtown Crossing, the Boston Common, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay. It’s easy to cram different types of people together in Boston.
Another reason that Boston makes a great setting is that it has been a great setting many times. Readers and moviegoers are familiar with Boston and so feel grounded in stories there. It’s been said that people argue whether New York or L.A. are the best settings, but both sides agree that Boston is next on the list.
Question: Software designers and software debuggers—is it really two different camps? Two different mindsets? Will designers ever be able to design a hack-free computer or device? Is there always a weakness? And why don’t the debuggers sit in when the architects are working and point out mistakes?
Ray Daniel: Three great questions. As to the mindsets or camps, you might compare it to authors vs. editors. While it is possible to have someone who is good at both roles, people definitely have strengths in one direction or the other.
The author/editor split also applies to the question of having debuggers involved in the architectural process. The problems a good editor solves are not usually apparent until the entire story is written. The same can happen with software.
As for whether it’s possible to create hacker-proof computers or devices, it is possible as long as the device doesn’t do anything. A brick is pretty hacker-proof. Once you start adding functionality you are almost certain to create security holes that can be exploited. Even something with no electronics at all, a lock, can be hacked (or picked in that case.)
Question: Terminated relishes the particular joys of the modern day industry convention. You sound like an old pro and these things. Do you enjoy, hate, endure…or a combination? Any convention survival tips you’d care to share?
Ray Daniel: I’m an extrovert who feeds upon the energy of crowds, so I love conventions and conferences. My biggest tip is that if you are working a convention (for example if you are at the American Library Association Conference signing books in your publisher’s booth) never stand on your booth’s carpet. Always stand in the neutral walkway carpet. This keeps out you there meeting people.
When you meet a new person always ask, “Have you seen our booth yet?” That way you have a next step whether they answer “yes” (“What brings you back?”) or “no” (“Let me show you around.”)
Question: Tucker’s three days in Terminated are, to choose one word, harrowing. How did you determine how many close shaves he could handle?
Ray Daniel: Poor Tucker takes it on the chin every time I think the audience may get bored. Since I’m paranoid about boring my audience, he takes it on the chin a lot. Also I’m a big fan of books in which the main character is in real physical danger, so again Tucker bears the brunt of it.
My biggest challenge as a new author was learning how to write the scenes where Tucker responds to his close shaves. Being in danger is an emotional experience, and it would be flat if Tucker didn’t respond to the danger.
Question: The exchanges between Tucker and his dead wife Carol, who materializes at surprising moments, are both colorful and, again, funny. How did you develop this idea? Have you ever had an experience like Tucker’s, seeing and talking with the dead?
Ray Daniel: Carol was an in-the-moment inspiration when I was writing the scene where Kevin had left Tucker alone for a moment in his office. I wanted conflict in the scene, but Tucker was alone, and the idea for Carol popped into my head at that moment.
Once I had the idea I wanted to make sure that Carol didn’t fall into the category of “My sainted dead wife.” That’s become something of a cliché. That’s why they fight so much.
Also, once you’ve been married long enough, you don’t need the other person around to have the fights.
Question: Favorite Boston (or New England) writers—go. And, sure, feel free to mention any others you like, maybe a few unsung heroes of yours.
Ray Daniel: This question and the next question have the same answer: Robert B. Parker. I used to tell people that I liked reading “First-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries.” So, when I started writing I wanted to write first-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries, and I do.
Question: Who or what inspired your mystery writing career?
Ray Daniel: <above>
Question: What’s next?
Ray Daniel: Tucker’s third book, Child Not Found, publishes on June 7th. Tucker takes his cousin’s daughter sledding on Boston Common and loses her in chapter one. I really liked what Kirkus had to say about this book: “As usual, Daniel is more than generous with the violence, guilt, tweets, craft brews, and compassion.”
I love the fact that I’ve reached a point in my career where a reviewer can use the phrase “As usual.” It looks like I have a recognizable style!
Terminated begins with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind. The first two words of the book, however, offer a somewhat helpful clue. “Morning sex…”
The five days of plot in this brisk novel, after the opening action, never let up. Our erstwhile techie hero Tucker manages to get in a few stops for various bits of Boston nosh and beverage along the way. This guy needs a drink. Or four. He’s had it rough and it’s going to get worse.
Tucker and his wife Carol developed controversial security software. They were a team, of sorts, at a company called MantaSoft (what a great name). Carol was viciously murdered in their home six months prior to the gauntlet of mayhem that takes place from Sunday to Thursday within the pages of Terminated. It turns out that Tucker and Carol’s marriage had plenty of bumps and not much going on in the bedroom. But that doesn’t mean Tucker doesn’t care who killed her. He cares, in fact, very much.
But now “Carol” follows Tucker around and he can often be seen having conversations with her in public, though the Bluetooth gizmo prevents others from questioning his sanity. Yes, this is a familiar device but Ray Daniel’s uses it sparingly and Carol pops up, appropriately, at some wonderfully inopportune times. And they continue to bicker about what went wrong. Hilarious.
A few pages into Terminated, Tucker’s pal at the FBI is letting him in a new lead, a somewhat worrisome photo of a woman, someone Carol once hired when she worked at MantaSoft. She’s dead. And someone thinks Tucker may have played a role in the woman’s demise, further fueling Tucker’s need to find out what’s going on at his old company.
Tucker can hack or debug anything. “You really solve puzzles through a flash of insight,” he says. “Then you work your way back through the logic so you can explain it to others. After years of debugging software, I was good at generating flashes of insight.”
And he’ll need them. By the time Tuesday rolls around, Tucker makes Jack Reacher look like nothing more than the captain of a Swan Boat in Boston Garden. Tucker isn’t likely to take on five big men with only his fists, but he seems to attract as the violent type. He’s a mayhem magnet.
Humor and violence live side by side in Terminated. And Daniel flashes some very funny lines.
“If you took a bowling ball, taught it to talk, and bought it a custom bowling-ball suit, you’d wind up with Agent Bobby Miller.”
“The prosperity of the 1960’s blew past Boston’s dying textile industries. While other cities were making money and dropping down the architectural equivalent of bell-bottom pants, Boston was too broke to build.”
“The beach still curves gracefully toward Nahant, but the only noted attraction is Kelly’s Roast Beef, which is ‘World Famous,’ according to its sign. I’d once asked some folks from Budapest if they had heard of Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere and they had not. It was very disappointing.”
Tucker has lots to sort through. Not everybody is what they appear to be. And Tucker will soon realize, despite a sharp ability to debug anything, that his smart aleck ways are helping leave an easy trail for would-be assassins to follow.
Terminated (a title that probably carries quadruple meaning here) is a fun and hair-raising romp through the streets of Boston. It ends, like it starts, with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind.