Senator currently one of “101 Nook Books Under $2.99” at Barnes & Noble

Senator is currently on sale at Barnes & Noble for the ridiculously low price of $0.99.  (Yes, friends, you heard right!)  So now would be a good time to pick it up if you’ve got a Nook.

I don’t know how this sort of thing works, but my publisher got the novel a spot on B&N’s “101 Nook Books Under $2.99” promotion.  It’s currently on the third page, but the book moves up the pages as its sales rank improves. This promotion is having an effect.  A couple of days ago Senator‘s sales rank was somewhere north of 300,000 on B&N, meaning (I suppose) that no one had bought it recently.  Currently its sales rank is 460.  Maybe someone will finally review it!

Here’s what the cover looks like, in case you’ve forgotten:


What this senate race needed was a good murder mystery

Like, er, this one.

Democrat Ed Markey has defeated Republican Gabriel Gomez for the right to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate for the next 18 months or so.  My affluent little town, which is a couple of towns over from where Gomez lives, went 55-45 for Gomez, but turnout in the high school gym wasn’t that great:

2013-06-25 08.31.55

This was like a TV show that has lasted a season too long, and the replacement actors just don’t have the sizzle of the people they replaced: Markey came across as a standard-issue Democrat who has been in Washington too long, and Gomez came across as a standard rich Massachusetts Republican who has nothing to offer but vague promises about bridging the partisan divide.

Also, the Bruins lost, so who cares?  We’ll have to do this again next year, when John Kerry’s term is up, and maybe the Republicans will find a better candidate.  Maybe Scott Brown will have had enough of making easy money as a lobbyist and Fox News commentator.  Markey should be vulnerable, but other than Brown, Massachusetts Republicans don’t have much to offer.

Maybe the governor’s race will have a murder mystery.

Another bad review for Senator! (Also, reading a book on an iPhone)

At the risk of running counter to the purpose of this stupid blog, which is to persuade people to buy my stupid ebooks, I’d like to highlight a one-star review of Senator that just showed up on Amazon:

Too soon after the elections. Just one more book that proves that politicians are first grade liars, and will do anything to stay in power.

It’s easy to be snarky about a review like this. The obvious remedy for the reader’s problem with the book is to read it when she’s not sick of politics. It’s not the book’s fault that she read it right after the election!

On the other hand, this highlights something important about the fickleness of everyone’s judgments about books (and movies and music…).  We encounter them at a specific time and place, and our judgments about them are inevitably colored by those circumstances.  Sometimes you’re too young for a book; sometimes you’re too old.  The books I enjoyed before I had kids may not be the ones I’d enjoy after I had kids.  It’s impossible to be completely objective in your assessments of books, and an author shouldn’t blame a reader for not trying.

Based on a recommendation from one of my very fine readers, I recently read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which is number 30 on the list of the greatest English novels of the twentieth century.  (He changed the title of the novel, and also his last name.  Read Wikipedia to find out why.) Just for kicks, I read the book in the Kindle app on my new iPhone.  And I hated it!  But now I’m never likely to be able to fully disentangle my assessment of the novel from the modality by which I encountered it.  I thought that reading a book on an iPhone was pretty claustrophobic, with the small screen size giving you such a small view of the text.  And guess what — I found The Good Soldier to be claustrophobic as well, with the narrator’s obsessive telling and retelling of his story of the interactions among several decidedly unpleasant people.  So, what can I make of the novel?  Reading it was at best a two-star experience for me, but maybe reading a leather-bound critical edition of the book would have caused me to give it an extra star or two.  Maybe if I hadn’t read parts of it while waiting to get my hair cut, or during half-time of a Patriots game in which the secondary once again wasn’t getting the job done…

That’s why an author should be eternally grateful when he encounters readers who seem to understand and enjoy what he’s trying to do.  There are so many ways in which that can fail to happen.

Rule #1: Don’t sleep with your biographer

A correspondent notes that if General Petraeus had read Senator, he wouldn’t be in this mess.

I have now added a “Life is stupider than fiction” category, but I don’t see how anything could top the Petraeus / West Point grad – Ph.D. student – jealous mistress / Tampa socialite – honorary Korean consul with a crazy twin sister and a bogus cancer charity / jealous FBI agent sending shirtless photos of himself / general with enough time on his hands to send thousands of emails story.

I know I wouldn’t be able to top it.

My ebooks: sales, prices, reviews

I handed over my ebook pricing to a publisher in return for having them perform some sales magic.  The magic appears to be working.  First they made Senator free on Amazon, which got it near the top of the top of the “sales” list for free political novels.  Then they raised the price to $0.99, and now it’s up to $2.99.  In the meantime it’s gotten a bunch of great reviews.  Here’s a five-star review I liked because, when I started reading it, I had no idea how it could possibly end up being a five-star review:

The beginning of this book put me off. I generally do not care for novels written in the first person, and the first chapters were tedious, another overworked story of the dead mistress whose murder threatens to ruin her high-placed lover. However, once all of the players were identified, I found myself relating to the protagonists and many supporting characters on the same kind of personal level as when I first read Presumed Innocent so many years ago. Bowker creates the flawed hero of the classics, a man driven on the one hand by ambition and on the other,by a sense of honor. Even at the end, the Senator possessed strengths and weaknesses that are not entirely resolved. In other words, he is human. This is not just a fine tuned murder mystery, it is a journey into the very complex issues of guilt and innocence-good and evil. For nearly a quarter century, I was a prosecutor of serious felonies, a position not without personal as well as professional challenges. It was not uncommon for me to sometimes relate to the defendant sitting one chair away at counsel table on a very human level. That did not change the nature of my mission–I was considered a tough prosecutor– but it made me reflect upon the difference between the concept of legal guilt and that of moral evil. This is not a story in which the murderer is arrested, tried and convicted, but its resolution is gratifying. In the past 18 months I have downloaded more than 415 books on my Kindle, and read all but a very few. This is one of the better ones, perhaps when it comes to a political mystery, the very best.

Anyway, Senator is now #22 for political genre fiction on the Kindle store, in between a couple of novels by Vince Flynn–should I know who he is?–and two positions ahead of a volume containing Animal Farm and 1984, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens.  Yoicks!  The book is also #2515 on the overall Kindle bestseller list.

So that’s pretty good!  On the other hand, my other current ebooks, Summit, Pontiff, and Replica, are still mired in the lower reaches of the Kindle sales list.  Maybe it’s time for my ebook publisher to do something about them.  You can help, of course.  If you’ve read any of them and liked it, please write a review!  It doesn’t have to be as detailed as the one I quoted above.  Reviews on other sites besides Amazon are also welcome.

Books without any reviews just seem sort of lonely.  No one wants to hang with them.  They eat lunch by themselves in the cafeteria.  They go home and watch infomercials on high-number cable channels.  They buy costume jewelry from QVC.

Please consider helping them out.  They will be forever grateful.

The Senator debates his opponent — and becomes unglued

The first presidential debate is coming up in a few days.  The experts say that the debates really aren’t terribly important–they happen too late in the election cycle to change people’s minds.  But on a personal level, they are high drama–the candidates at last facing each other on stage.  They are a natural for a political novel, so of course I included one in Senator (there’s one in Replica as well, but it’s too central to the plot to talk about here).

In Senator, the protagonist is under all kinds of pressure as the day of the debate arrives.  His marriage is crumbling, the DA is getting ready to charge him with murder . . . and then, the afternoon of the debate, his father wrecks his car and ends up in the hospital.  The senator arrives at the debate with little time to spare, and his advisers quickly prep him . . .


Sam Fisher paced along one end of the conference room. “Maybe you can use this as a human-interest story,” he suggested. “You know, they ask you about health care, the elderly, so on, work in about how you just came from visiting your aged father in the hospital, you saw what wonderful care he was being given, and your reforms to the medical system would provide every senior citizen with the opportunity for the same kind of care.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’ll keep it in mind,” I said.

“You’ve got to stay personal,” Sam warned. “You have a tendency to come across as a know-it-all. People can’t digest strings of statistics in a debate; they like anecdotes.”

“Welfare mothers using food stamps to buy heroin,” I said. “OSHA inspectors shutting down pro football ’cause it’s dangerous to the employees.”

“And don’t be a wiseass. You can be witty, but don’t get nasty, and don’t go over people’s heads.”

“And above all, be myself,” I said.

“Well, that goes without saying,” Sam replied, and I wasn’t sure he got the joke.

“Perhaps we could go over the main points one last time,” Harold said.

The debate, we figured, would be the campaign in a microcosm. Each candidate had his themes; they’d been tested on countless focus groups and honed to a fine edge by master political craftsmen. They didn’t have a great deal to do with policies and issues, which made some op-ed types gnash their teeth, but they weren’t entirely devoid of content. We both stretched the truth in support of our themes, but they were close enough to reality (they had to be) that people wouldn’t notice or care if we fibbed a bit.

Bobby Finn’s main theme was that he was in touch with the people of Massachusetts. Their concerns were his concerns. He was the guy you could go have a beer with and talk about your sewer bill, your car insurance rates, your kid’s drug problem. He wasn’t the handsomest or wittiest politician around, but he understood how to make government work for the average citizen.

The corollary of this was that Jim O’Connor was out of touch with people. Out of touch philosophically, since many of my positions were not shared by the majority of voters. And out of touch as a senator, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and planning my run for the presidency instead of taking care of the voters’ business. Bobby Finn wanted to be senator so he could serve the people, not so he could gratify his own ego.

Our main theme, on the other hand, was that I was the candidate who had the stature to be the United States senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I had the leadership skills; I had the experience; I had the intelligence; I had that extra something that made me a worthy representative of the Bay State in the world’s greatest deliberative body. You might not always agree with Jim O’Connor, but don’t you feel proud that he’s your senator?

Our negative theme, therefore, was that Bobby Finn was just not “senatorial.” He hadn’t done a good job as governor, and he wouldn’t do a better job as a senator. You might go out for a beer with him, but can you imagine him debating the great issues of the day on the floor of the Senate?

Our debate would be a contest to see who would do the better job of getting across his themes. I would stress my accomplishments and try to project my senatorial image—without sounding too intellectual—while portraying Finn as just another local politician who was in over his head. Finn would try to come across as the friend of the workingman—without sounding too inarticulate—while portraying me as distant, uncaring, interested only in my own career. And the one who had the edge might see a spurt in his tracking polls, and that spurt, if properly nurtured, might be enough to win the race.

I listened to all the advice as Harold led the last-minute strategy session, but I didn’t pay much attention. Harold, of course, noticed. He cornered me in the men’s room afterward. “You’re not here,” he said.

“I’m on my way,” I responded.

“Would you please make sure you show up? I mean, I’m sorry about your father, I’m sorry about your marriage, but this is important. This is crucial.”

He knew about my marriage then; Marge had probably told him that she had given away the secret about Liz and Roger. “Doing my best, Harold,” I murmured. “Honest.”

He gazed at me, helpless. A campaign manager can take care of a lot of things, but he can’t step out in front of the TV cameras for his candidate and debate the opposition. We flushed in unison and washed our hands, and it was time to go.

* * *

The debate was held at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Government at Harvard University. More or less neutral territory, since I was a Harvard grad and Finn claimed to be a JFK Democrat. My entourage pulled up at a side entrance, and we made our way to the auditorium. A burly Cambridge cop was guarding the stairway to the stage. He beamed when he saw me. “Hey, Jim, good luck tonight!” he said as we approached.

“Thanks very much,” I replied with an automatic smile.

“I’ll never forget you writin’ those book reports for me in high school. Sure saved my ass.”

I stopped and looked at his name tag. Doherty. “Billy?” I said.

He grinned. “Been a long time, huh, Jim?”

“Sure has.” Since that gray dawn when you punched Paul Everson in the face and might have killed him with your nightstick if I hadn’t kindled some spark of human feeling in your soul. Do you remember, Billy? Or have you conveniently forgotten—like Danny, rewriting the past to make it fit what he needs to survive the present? “Gee, it’s good to see you, Billy,” I said. “You’re looking great.”

“Ah, I’ve put on the weight. Too many beers. But we’re all rootin’ for you, Jim. You’re doin’ a great job.”

I shook his hand. “I appreciate it, Billy. We had some good times in the old days, didn’t we?”

“Sure did.”

“Senator,” Kevin murmured.

“Gotta go, Billy. Give my regards to the family.”

I went onstage, to cheers from my half of the audience. Bobby Finn was there already, along with his wife. They were talking to the moderator, an anchor emeritus at one of the Boston TV stations, which trotted him out for important occasions like this. Gobs of makeup made him presentable on camera, but in person they couldn’t disguise the passage of time; he seemed tired and bored, as if he had attended one too many of these things in his career. Mrs. Finn looked cool and handsome in a navy blue silk dress and pearls. She also looked psyched up for the big event; I was glad I was debating her husband instead of her.

Finn’s forehead was already beaded with sweat, and his palm was moist when he came over and shook hands with me. He made no secret of his dislike of debates. “Don’t worry, Senator,” he said with a tense smile, “I’m gonna go easy on you tonight.”

“No, no, gimme your best shots,” I replied. “We don’t want people upset because they gave up reruns of The Cosby Show to watch us.”

Finn shook his head. “Okay, you asked for it.”

I looked around for Liz. She was already in the audience; Kathleen waved to me, and I waved back. Liz didn’t want to come up onstage, and I didn’t blame her.

So we killed time chatting with the moderator and the panelists, who were going to ask the penetrating, provocative questions to which we would respond. We went over the ground rules. We tried to control our nerves. It felt like a prizefight; it felt like a trial. The difference was that there was rarely a clear-cut winner in a debate. Finn would win if he did better than people expected; I would win if I came up with better sound bites or if he said something outrageously stupid. The polls might show something, but most likely the message would be mixed. And the battle would continue until election day.

The director started giving orders. The audience quieted. I went over behind my lectern, where Kevin had arranged my notes. Everyone waited. Then the red light over the camera came on, and the debate began.

* * *

I gave the first opening statement. “Six years ago you elected me to the United States Senate. It was the greatest honor of my life. Not a day has gone by since then that I haven’t reflected on the responsibilities that go along with that honor. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t tried to live up to the trust you have placed in me…”

I could tell immediately that I wasn’t right. I had hoped that my personal problems would take an hour off while I did my job; they had generally cooperated in the past. But instead I felt the way I had on the Senate floor when making my futile speech in favor of my amendment. The words were all there, but the passion was missing. I couldn’t focus on what I was saying. Instead I saw my father in his hospital bed, or Liz in Roger’s arms, or Amanda dead on her kitchen floor. I wondered if Melissa and Danny would survive their latest crisis; I wondered if I would share Liz’s bed again; I wondered how much all this was hurting Kathleen. I tried to banish such thoughts, but apparently I was no longer in control.

Would the voters notice? Would the pundits and the spin doctors? Perhaps not. I was a professional, after all, and my opening, no matter how absentminded, was still smoother than Finn’s; Bobby stumbled a couple of times and looked as if he’d rather have been single-handedly battling the entire North Vietnamese Army. And this was the easy part for him: just say what he wanted to say, without having to respond to some tricky question. So maybe I would be all right, at least by comparison.

The first question was about crime. Doesn’t matter what the specifics were; reporters spend hours crafting their questions trying to trip us up, and then we go ahead and answer the unasked question we feel like answering. Finn over-praised his own record and belittled mine. For all my tough talk, what had I accomplished as a senator? He brought up the failed amendment. All talk, no action; that was Jim O’Connor. I gave my standard response, ticking off all that I had done and all that Finn had failed to do. Too many facts, Sam would say. Well, did he want me to bring up Amanda?

The next reporter brought her up for me. Did I think her death and my relationship with her should be a factor voters should consider in deciding whether or not to vote for me?

We had figured out how to handle this one. “Her tragic death is an issue,” I said. “But so is every other murder in this state.” And then I simply ignored Amanda and laid into Finn again.

Finn gave a careful response, which indicated to me that his people still didn’t know how to handle the situation. The matter was under investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment on the case until the investigation was complete, blah, blah, blah. If Cavanaugh had something on me, wouldn’t Finn at least have dropped a hint?

And so it went. Neither of us was particularly effective, I thought. Finn made a moderately controversial statement about taxing Social Security, but I failed to follow up on it. He garbled his syntax, but I tossed off too many statistics.

And then came the easiest question of them all. “Could you each recount for us one incident from your early life that helped form the person you are today?”

Finn went first. As usual he didn’t answer the question; instead he talked about how important his family had been to him. Good old middle-class Democratic family values. Big deal. While he blithered, I thought. My standard response to this sort of question was to talk about the time my grandmother had been mugged, beaten up by a couple of punks for about seven dollars in cash. She lived for a few years after that, but she never left the house again, except to go to a nursing home to wither away and die. The punks were never caught.

But I didn’t feel like talking about Gramma. God love her, I had gotten enough mileage out of her suffering. What then? Just one-up Bobby Finn on families? Mine was more working-class than yours, so there! I could bring in my poor dead mother and probably my injured father—Sam Fisher would be pleased—but I didn’t feel like doing that either.

What about the time Danny scored the touchdown off me and made me cry? Not very senatorial, unfortunately. But I wasn’t feeling especially senatorial. I was feeling… strange.

Something was happening inside me as I stood at my lectern and listened to Bobby Finn—some shifting of my internal continents, some rearrangement of my constellations. It had started when I talked to Carl Hutchins in the cloakroom and realized that I didn’t know if my amendment was worth passing, or perhaps it had started even before that, when I found out about Roger and Liz, or when I saw Amanda’s body on her kitchen floor.

I don’t know when it started. I only know that at that moment I felt reckless; I felt reborn. I felt as if true wisdom were within my grasp if only I could recognize it.

Finn had stumbled to a finish. “Senator O’Connor,” the embalmed moderator intoned.

I opened my mouth, and I swear I had no idea what was going to come out.

“One morning in April 1969 I was present when the police evicted a group of demonstrators from University Hall in Harvard Yard,” I heard myself say. “This was at the height of the antiwar movement, when campuses across the country were in turmoil. The police cleared out the hall without much trouble, and then some of them proceeded to riot in Harvard Yard, indiscriminately bludgeoning helpless onlookers. I saw fellow students, male and female, with blood streaming down their faces. I saw a boy being dragged from his wheelchair and beaten with a nightstick. I saw the fierce, unreasoning eyes of the police as they attacked these kids who despised them.”

So what did that teach you, Senator? How did that form the person you are today? It had better be something good, or you’ve just thrown away the election. “It would have been easy enough,” I went on, “to become a left-wing radical as a result of that experience, to mindlessly despise all authority, to see everyone in uniform as the enemy. That’s what happened to many of my classmates. But I think that eventually I learned some deeper lessons. First, that all authority must be tempered with restraint. It must not simply please the majority; it must be absolutely fair to the minority, or else authority will become tyranny. Second, that you must give the people in authority the tools and the training and the support to do their job effectively; otherwise you risk having them lose control the way the police did that morning. And finally I learned the importance of tolerating diversity, of seeing someone else’s point of view. I was a student, but I was also a local boy; those cops were my neighbors. So I was pulled in two different directions. But in life I’ve found that you can be pulled in many more directions than that. You choose the path that you think is right, but you always have to keep in mind that there are other paths, and other people who firmly believe that those paths are correct.”

I stopped. Had that been ninety seconds or ninety minutes? I felt as if the whole world were staring at me with its mouth open; Bobby Finn certainly was. Was that Jim O’Connor, the Jim O’Connor, talking about a “police riot”? About them beating up a kid in a wheelchair, for God’s sake? Had my explanation of the lessons I had learned saved my skin or just dug me in deeper? And had I really learned those lessons, or was that just the politician in me talking?

The next question arrived, and I answered it on automatic pilot. Everything else was an anticlimax now. The TV stations had their sound bite; the columnists had their angle. And I had one more problem to add to my list. Before long I was making my closing remarks, and then Bobby and I were shaking hands as the moderator declared the debate history.

“You kinda surprised me there, talking about the police,” Finn said.

“I’m full of surprises.”

“You don’t think you shot yourself in the foot?”

“Just wait and see, Bobby. Just wait and see.”

Then it was time to greet the family, who were obliged to come onstage as the closing credits rolled. “I thought you were great, Daddy,” Kathleen said, giving me a hug.

“I’ve been better,” I said.

Liz was looking at me oddly. “You never talked about that incident in Harvard Yard before,” she said.

“Saving it up for the right moment.”

“It was very moving,” Kathleen said.

“See? I’ve clinched the fourteen-year-old vote.”

On the way offstage I saw Billy Doherty staring at me. We didn’t speak.

* * *

Sam Fisher kept on pacing. “They don’t know what to make of it,” he said, referring to the pundits. “Some of ’em think it’s a cynical ploy to get the liberal vote. Most of ’em think you’re off your rocker, although they’re afraid to say so.”

“It reminded me of one of those Saturday morning cartoons,” Marge said. “You know, where the stupid lumberjack saws off the limb he’s sitting on?”

“I think it’ll go over well,” Kevin said. “It’ll make the senator appear more human, less—less…”

“Arrogant?” I suggested. “Cocksure? Condescending? Isn’t that what you wanted, Sam?”

Sam threw up his hands. “I wasn’t suggesting that you spit in the face of your core constituency.”

“Just what were you thinking of, Jim?” Marge demanded.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. Maybe I was wrong. Do you people want a real live candidate or a robot?”

“A robot, of course,” Marge replied. “Especially if the real one is going to start reminding people that he was a draft-dodging police-bashing Harvard pinko while Bobby Finn was over in Vietnam heroically defending his country.”

Harold glanced at me. I smiled at him. He looked away.

“This is bad,” Sam muttered. “This is very bad.”

“Well,” Kevin said, trying desperately to look on the bright side, “things can’t get much worse.”

The Real News comes out tomorrow,” Harold said.

I stood up. “I guess we’ll have to have another meeting tomorrow then,” I said wearily.

No one replied, so I left the conference room and went home to sleep on my couch.

Fake Ebook Reviews: Worse Than Plagiarism?

For an ebook to be successful, it needs to get good customer reviews.  I now have half a dozen reviews of Senator on Amazon, all of them five stars.  Yay!  But three of them are from people I know.  Should I feel guilty about that?  Maybe.  But those people really liked the book!  I think.  (Of my other three ebooks, two have only one review on Amazon, and Pontiff has none.  C’mon, guys!)

Asking your friends for reviews is at most a venial sin, I think.  But faking reviews gets us into a bad place.  I suppose I always understood that some reviews might be fake, but a couple of recent articles suggest that this is actually a pretty pervasive problem.

This Times article describes a service that, for a while, provided authors with favorable reviews in bulk, for a price. The article quotes a data mining expert as estimating that . . .

. . . about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.

The service that the article describes was run by a guy named Todd Rutherford, and for a while he was wildly successful.  And he made authors successful as well.

One of Mr. Rutherford’s clients, who confidently commissioned hundreds of reviews and didn’t even require them to be favorable, subsequently became a best seller. This is proof, Mr. Rutherford said, that his notion was correct. Attention, despite being contrived, draws more attention.

The second article, in Forbes, is titled “Fake Reviews: Amazon’s Rotten Core.” It focuses on an author with the odd name of Stephen Leather, who has “admitted to creating accounts on Amazon under assumed names in order to leave positive reviews of his own work. He also does the same on Twitter and other forums.” He says:

I’ll go onto several forums, from the well-known forums, and post there, under my own name and under various other names and various other characters. You build this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself. And then I’ve got enough fans…

The article notes that there’s also a phenomenon of malicious negative reviews.  I noticed that with Matthew Yglesias’s The Rent is Too Damn High.  As I understand it, Yglesias offended the right-wing Breitbart crowd about something or other, and in return they carpet-bombed him with one-star reviews, with the result that the book’s average rating is a little over two stars.

What’s to be done about it?  The Forbes article points out that Amazon is complicit in the problem, which makes it harder to solve:

Unfortunately, there is also no motivation for Amazon, or other online booksellers, to clean up their own acts. Amazon exists to sell stuff. They will only begin to care about this if it starts to threaten sales, despite the fact that they could, if they wanted to, make it much harder for people to fake reviews.

And authors like Stephen Leather are unlikely to be harmed by the furor, even if they admit (or brag about) what they’ve done.  Average readers aren’t going to have any idea he’s gaming the system.  (I read the first chapter of one of Leather’s novels.  It seems like a standard-issue military thriller, with something of a comma deficiency.  It’s the sort of thing you’ll probably like, if you like that sort of thing. I also went to his web site; he seems fond of wearing leather jackets and striking a serious pose.)

All this leaves me feeling a bit like a moderately good baseball player in the 1980s who didn’t take steroids.  I’m not interested in gaming the system or doing anything unethical, but it’s annoying when you see other writers are becoming successful by doing so.  Where’s the World Anti-Doping Agency when you need it?

The solution, of course, is for all of you to read my books, love them, and write great reviews out of the goodness of your heart.  That will make me forget all about Stephen Leather.

New, lower prices on my ebooks

Regular blogging will now resume.  I hope you found other ways to entertain yourself in the past week.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out that my ebooks are on sale at Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and probably at other places as well.  My new publisher’s marketing scheme appears to be to set a list price of $4.99 on Amazon, and then discount from that, so the books look like they are on sale.  Which, I guess, they are.  So buy them while the prices are low.

Senator remains free. It’s been interesting to see how it has fared on the “bestseller” list of free Kindle books.  It peaked somewhere in the 100s on the overall list; now it’s down in the 800s.  For a while it was #1 in the political genre; it has now faded to #6.  It was also in the top ten for a while in the suspense genre; it is now at #24.  As the Underpants Gnomes say: Profit!!

Replica is now available for $0.99.  That’s a pretty good deal!  But has not yet broken into the top 100,000 for Kindle.  Shoot.

Pontiff and Summit are both available for $2.99.  Oddly, Pontiff is much higher on the paid Kindle bestseller list than either Replica or Summit.  I’m guessing that, at the sales level we’re talking about, a few copies can make a pretty big difference in a book’s ranking.

The ebook release of Dover Beach is going to be delayed so we can publish its sequel, whose title may or may not be Locksley Hall, at the same time.  But it shouldn’t be very long.

My goal is to get the ebooks for Forbidden Sanctuary and Marlborough Street out the door by the end of the year.

Then we’ll have a party.

Free ebooks and the Underpants Gnomes

I asked folks at work to help me make Senator free.  And they did!  And it worked! It’s currently ranked #1 in the Kindle store for political fiction.  That’s almost like winning a gold medal, almost.

One of these nice folks told me he had difficulty explaining to a friend how making an ebook free actually helped its author make money.  I allowed as how my business plan was probably similar to that of the underpants gnomes.  He gave me a blank look.  I appealed to the other folks in the neighborhood.  Underpants gnomes?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  They gave me blank looks.  I thought the underpants gnomes were part of our common cultural heritage like, well, “Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?”  They even have a Wikipedia page–although I do, too, so I guess that doesn’t prove anything.

Here, from South Park, is the underpants gnomes’ business plan:

Phase 2 of the business plan isn’t all that it could be.

Here is an Underpants Gnomes reference from Paul Krugman.  From the other side of the political spectrum, here is a reference from the Wall Street Journal.  So the meme is out there, even if my erudite co-workers haven’t encountered it.

Anyway, the underpants gnomes theory of free ebooks is:

  1. Give away an ebook
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

There’s got to be more than question marks for phase 2, right?  I think so.  I hope so.  I’m happy to get my book into the hands of lots of people, but really, it would be nice to get some actual sales out of this endeavor.  The obvious model for giving away an ebook is when it’s the first book in a series.  Get your readers hooked, so they’re willing to shell out real money for the sequels.  Here is Jeff Carver doing this with the first book of his Chaos Chronicles, Neptune Crossing(Check it out — it’s great!)  I don’t have a series, so I have to hope that people will like Senator enough to seek out and pay for my random other books.

If the plan doesn’t work, well, I can always make money from writing my blog.

Oh, wait.

Senator is free on Amazon!

Get ’em while they last!  And thanks for the help!  Here’s the link.  It’s already #3 in the Kindle free political fiction category, #357 overall among free Kindle books — is that a good ranking, I wonder?

Please help me out by downloading the book.  Even more of a help would be a good review.  All it takes is 20 words.

If you’re undecided about downloading, here is the first chapter — and you don’t even have to bother clicking a link.


I am a politician.

I stare at the blank screen, and that is the first thing I can think of to write.

It’s astonishing, really. I have never thought of myself as a politician. I certainly didn’t plan to become one. Even as I campaigned, as I shook hands and kissed babies, gave canned speeches and attended endless fund raisers, it didn’t occur to me that these activities were defining me; I always thought of them as simply a means to an end. Until now. Now, when it has all changed forever.

I’m a politician, and I have just finished the toughest campaign of my life. But it isn’t just the campaign I want to write about in this unfamiliar room, on this intimidating machine. Because I want to be something more than a politician, and that will require an understanding of far more than the mechanics of running for public office. It won’t be easy to find that understanding.

But this is where I have to start.

* * *

The battle had been shaping up ever since Bobby Finn announced in late spring that he was going to run against me, but the public didn’t pay attention until after the primary. Couldn’t blame them; we were both lying low—raising funds, doing research, plotting strategy. Neither of us had opposition in the primary, so we spent our time stockpiling ammunition; better to do that than to use it up early and risk having nothing left for the final struggle.

But even when we started in earnest, people were slow to react to the legendary confrontation. The pros blamed it on the weather. It was a soggy September. Flights were delayed, parades canceled; people at factory entrances and subway stops rushed past us to get out of the perpetual rain. Even indoors the crowds were small and inattentive, worried more about whether their basements were flooding than about who would get their vote for senator. Maybe after the baseball season, the pros thought. Eventually they would have to take an interest.

Eventually they did, but Lord, it wasn’t the way I wanted.

I may as well start with the Friday evening it all began. Just another speech—this one to the Newton Republican Women’s Club. Not an especially important event; I was preaching to the converted, and there were only a couple of local reporters there to take my message to the masses. My mind was far away, but still, it went well; the fine ladies laughed at the jokes and applauded at the proper places and were generally thrilled to be in my presence. A politician is an actor whose performance never ends.

Kevin Feeney was with me. It was his job to grab me away from the fine ladies as soon as possible after my speech. Let them blame him, not me, for not staying longer. Sorry, ladies. I’m a slave to my schedule, and Kevin is its keeper.

He did his job—he always does—and together we headed out into the fog and drizzle. He held an umbrella over the two of us as we stood in the parking lot. “Let me drive you home, Senator,” he said.

“Don’t be silly. What’ll we do with the extra car? Take the night off. Relax.”

“You should have let me drive you here.”

By using my own car, I had provided the evening with a logistical complication that Kevin found unnerving. He was supposed to take care of me, and I wasn’t cooperating. “I managed to get here by myself, Kevin,” I said. “I’m sure I can make it back. Go home. Introduce yourself to Barbara and the kids. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Kevin still didn’t look happy. His wife and children came in a distant second in his loyalties. But I wasn’t going to argue with him; I had more important things to do. I got into my Buick and opened the window. “Go home, Kevin,” I repeated. And then I left him standing forlornly in the parking lot.

I didn’t feel sorry for him; in fact, I didn’t give him another thought. Kevin would always be there. I drove along Commonwealth Avenue, an oldies station on low, the windshield wipers keeping time with Neil Sedaka. Generally I like driving alone—offstage, if only for a while. But tonight the pleasure was soured. I had a problem, and I had to solve it by myself.

At a stoplight I picked up the car phone and dialed a number. After the fourth ring the answering machine clicked on: “Hi, this is Amanda Taylor. I can’t come to the phone right now, but—” The light turned green, and I slammed the receiver down.

Maybe she’s there, I thought. Maybe she just isn’t answering.

But maybe it would be better if she weren’t there. I had a key.

Newton turned into Brighton, and the big old Victorian houses gave way to dorms and apartment buildings, laundromats and convenience stores and bars. I come from Brighton, but not this part; this was academic territory. First Boston College and then Boston University, the campus sprawling in urban disarray on both sides of the road for a mile or two before petering out in the dance clubs and record stores and pizza joints of Kenmore Square. To the right, the light towers above Fenway Park blazed in the darkness; the Red Sox were trying to get the game in despite the fog. Big advance sale, probably. I cursed silently: ten thousand extra cars in the neighborhood.

I made my way through the chaos of Kenmore Square traffic and into the Back Bay, where Commonwealth Avenue became elegant once again. I didn’t pay attention to the stately elms and old brick town houses, though; like everyone else in the Back Bay, I was looking for a place to park.

The best I could find was a “residents only” space on Gloucester Street. I decided that I didn’t have a choice, so I pulled into it. I got out of the car and opened my umbrella. At least the fog would make it less likely that I’d be recognized; I didn’t need a conversation about abortion or someone’s Social Security benefits just now. I started walking.

If she was there, what would I say? It was important not to lose my temper. I didn’t need an argument. Above all, I didn’t need her angry at me. And I did need to know what was going on.

If she wasn’t there, I would have to wait for her. This couldn’t be put off.

The building was on Commonwealth, between Gloucester and Fairfield. Out front a low hedge surrounded a magnolia tree, glistening in the light from an old-fashioned streetlamp. Black wrought-iron bars enclosed the windows in the basement and first floor. In the basement I could see the flicker of a TV through the bars. A woman approached, walking a Doberman. The Doberman paused at the streetlamp; the woman stared at me. Where had she seen that face before? I hurried up the front steps and inside.

I closed the umbrella and glanced around. A row of mailboxes to the right. On the wall next to them, a handwritten notice about a lost cat. On the floor beneath, a few faded sheets advertising a Scientology lecture. The ever-present smell of disinfectant. I had caught a whiff of the same disinfectant once in a bathroom at a fund raiser and found myself becoming aroused. I expect that will happen to me again someday. I rang her bell; no answer. I didn’t want to hang around the lobby. As usual someone had left the inner door unlocked. I opened it and hurried up the stairs.

I never took the elevator. You can avoid being seen if you pass someone on the stairs; it’s impossible in an elevator. I took out my keys and started looking for the one I wanted. By the time I reached the third floor, I had found it. The door was there in front of me. My heart was pounding—from racing up the stairs; from the tension of the coming confrontation. I put the key into the lock, and that’s when I knew that something was wrong.

The wood around the lock had been splintered and gouged, as if someone had attacked it with a hammer. I tried the knob; the door was locked. I turned the key, and the door swung open.

“Amanda?” I called out, closing the door behind me.

No answer. I moved into the living room. My heart sank. The place had been ransacked: books and tapes and compact disks pulled off shelves, papers scattered on the rug, the glass coffee table upended. A spider plant lay on its side, its pot cracked, dirt trailing from it like blood from a wound. “Amanda?” I whispered, a prayer now: She wasn’t here; she was at a friend’s place; she was at the police station. “Amanda?”

On the floor next to the bookshelves I saw several large shards of glass. It took me a moment to recognize them; they were the remains of her crystal ball. “I wish I knew where all this was going to end up,” she had said to me once, smiling wistfully. “I wish I had a crystal ball I could look into and see the future.” So I had bought one for her. A joke. It was the only present I had ever given her. It had never done her much good, and now, shattered into a dozen pieces, it looked more useless than ever.

I wanted to run away. I wanted to rewind the tape and start over again. This wasn’t it. The scene was supposed to be entirely different. She should be standing here, beautiful, frightened, apologetic. She had made a mistake. She could explain everything. Nothing for me to worry about.

But my will wasn’t strong enough to change reality, and I knew that running away would only make things worse. So I forced myself to move through the apartment, pleading with God to make it empty.

Her bedroom seemed untouched. So was the bathroom. The little second bedroom she used for an office was a mess; the desk drawers were all open, and her floppy disks were scattered on the floor like shingles ripped from a roof by a hurricane. But her computer was on, humming softly in the silence. On the screen, white words against a black background. I stepped into the room and read the words:


she had to die she had to die she had to die she had to die she had to die she had to die she had to die she had to die she had to die she had to die she had to die she…


They swam in my vision; they merged and twisted as I stared at them and tried to change their meaning. They are only words, I thought. Words can lie. Or they can just be words, sound without content, a speech to nice Republican ladies.

One last room.

I walked past the words and into the kitchen, and that’s where I found her.

She was sprawled on the black tile floor. Her white shirt was torn and bloody; her eyes were open, and they stared unblinking at the ceiling. They seemed amazed that this was the last thing they would see. I reached down and touched her wrist; she was cold.

I looked around wildly. Was her murderer lying in wait for me as well? But I had searched already; I was alone. I closed her eyes, and then I closed my own, slumping down beside her on the floor. The apartment, the city were silent; the only sounds were the hum of the computer in the next room and the thumping of my heart. She was cold. She was dead.


At that moment I would have given back everything I had accomplished, everything I had achieved, for Amanda to be alive again.

But it wasn’t going to happen. My life ticked inexorably onward, and gradually my grief yielded to the pressures of the moment. After a while I forced myself to open my eyes. I haven’t been to a great many crime scenes in my life, but I’m not unfamiliar with murder. I tried to look at Amanda clinically. No rigor mortis, so she’d been dead less than eight hours. On the floor, the bottom of her arm was purplish from the blood settling there, so lividity had started. That meant she’d been dead at least a couple of hours.

Someone had murdered Amanda in the late afternoon.

And I thought: Exact time of death is going to be important.

Her clothes were intact, except for where she had been stabbed. At least she hadn’t been raped, thank God. There was a bruise on her right forearm—where her attacker had held her? There were cuts on her hands and arms—where she had tried to defend herself?

On the floor near the sink I saw a kitchen knife, its blade dark with dried blood. I recalled using that knife to chop celery one evening.

Oh, Lord, I thought: fingerprints. And then the pressures started to overwhelm me. I had to do something. I was in terrible trouble.

I crawled over to the knife. I took out my handkerchief and wiped the handle—

—and immediately felt stupid and evil. It had been months since I had used the knife. My fingerprints couldn’t possibly have been on it. What mattered more: saving my career or finding out who had murdered Amanda?

But then I realized that finding out who had murdered Amanda was just as likely to end my career as having my fingerprints on the knife. This murder couldn’t be a coincidence.

So what should I do? Run away? Go outside and howl in the fog? I couldn’t think of anything that would help. I don’t deserve any credit for it, but finally I decided to do what civilization had taught me to do. I went into the bedroom and called the police.

I gave the dispatcher the address and told her there had been a murder. She asked for my name, and I gave that to her as well. She didn’t seem surprised. There are plenty of James O’Connors in Boston.

Then, continuing to be responsible, I called Harold White. No answer. I tried Roger Simmons next. He was home. “Hi, Roger. Jim.”

“Jim, how are you? What can I—”

“I’m at a murder scene, Roger. I discovered the body. I just called the police. They haven’t arrived yet.”

“Jesus Christ,” he whispered.

“I need you,” I said. I gave him the address.

“Jim,” he said, “I’m not sure I’m the person you want. You know I haven’t done criminal in—”

“That’s okay. Between the two of us it’ll all come back. And get hold of Harold if you can. He isn’t answering.”

“All right, but—”

I hung up. I didn’t feel like chatting with Roger.

I sat on the edge of the bed and looked around. Lights were on, I noticed: in the living room, here in the bedroom. Did that mean she had been alive into the evening? The time of death matters.

But it had been foggy all day, and the apartment was dark anyway, so—

So what? Amanda was dead.

I looked down at the black comforter on the bed. Black comforter, black rugs, white walls. “Why is everything black and white?” I asked her the first time I saw her apartment. I was nervous; I needed to talk.

“I have no style,” she said. “Decorating’s easier if you stick to black and white.”

I didn’t believe her. She oozed style. “I think it’s because you’re a journalist,” I said. “Journalists like extremes. Good guys and bad guys. Saints and sinners.”

“All right,” she said. “Have it your way.”

“So am I a good guy or a bad guy?” I persisted.

And then she smiled at me. That sensuous, knowing smile, the smile of a prom queen watching the gawky boy try to ask her for a dance. “I don’t know,” she said. “But I intend to find out.”

The words were filled with menace in the remembering. I thought of her white shirt, now stained red. I thought of her white skin turning purple against the black floor. I heard sirens.

I thought of what I had come here to find out. Too late for that now. If it was here, hidden somewhere in the computer or the pile of floppy disks, I was ruined. But I thought: At least I can’t let them find out we were lovers.

We had been careful, I knew. No presents, no mementos. No risks. Was there anything—

Yes. A Polaroid snapshot we had taken with a timer one night after a bottle of wine: the two of us kissing openmouthed on the edge of the bed. Where I was sitting now. We didn’t stop kissing when the flash went off and the camera spat out the photo. Afterward I suggested that we burn it, but she refused. “I need something to remind me of you when you’re not here,” she insisted. Were those words another lie? I hadn’t thought so at the time. She kissed me again, and I didn’t object when she kept the photo.

She had put it in the drawer of her night table, beneath her birth control pills. Could it still be there? Perhaps she had thrown it away in anger or despair; more likely she was saving it for evidence. I opened the drawer. The pills were where I remembered them; I picked them up, and there was the photograph. I stuck it in my pocket without looking at it. And then I held my head in my hands and started to cry for the first time since I was twelve years old.