George Berger, bad writer
Welcome to Mendacities, the website — home of Mendacities, the novel.
What is Mendacities? A highly entertaining, mildly dystopian novel about three slightly eccentric rural high-school students who inadvertently stumble across the details of a somewhat sinister conspiracy — details which could cost them their lives. To save their families — and themselves — they decide to expose the conspiracy, or at least try to. Various adventures, including the not-entirely-intentional overthrow of the government, ensue.
It’s very entertaining, if I do say so myself. But don’t take my word for it; you can read the first three chapters right here (4MB PDF file), exactly as they appear in the printed book. Or you can read a larger preview at this website.
Mendacities: 68,000 words. 234 pages. One heck of an entertaining novel.
E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) was a prolific writer of adventure, mystery, romance, and varied other novels published between 1887 and 1943. Largely forgotten today, when he’s remembered it’s usually as one of the great-grandfathers of the thriller genre; his tales of espionage helped pave the way for writers like Ian Fleming and, much later, Robert Ludlum.
I’ve long been a fan of Oppenheim’s books, particularly of his 1911 novel Havoc. Recently I happened upon a copy of one of his books that has intrigued me for a while – Peter Ruff and The Double Four. (Also published as simply The Double Four.) I read it – and enjoyed it – and think most other writers should, as well.
I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but some are inevitable. Sorry.
So, here’s what I can tell you about the book: First published in 1912, it’s a collection of twenty-one short stories, at least some of which were previously published in magazines at least as early as 1906. Some at the end may have been written new for the collection. I have to sort of guess here, because Oppenheim isn’t collected the way some writers are, so there’s no exhaustive database I can check for these things. The stories comprise a serial featuring someone who may or may not be named Peter Ruff. Despite being over a century old, there’s a lot the contemporary writer of serial fiction can learn from this book.
Peter Ruff is a classic protagonist of the “Rogue School” of fiction of ye olde days – a somewhat-moral criminal of questionable background who aspires to social respectability by any means. Like most of his contemporaries, he’s brilliant and a master of disguise and not prone to cowardice (which is not the same as “being brave”). He’s also, like most of his contemporaries, essentially asexual. While he’s engaged to a woman at the beginning of the book and continues to harbor some degree of feeling for her throughout, it’s made quite clear that the (cancelled) marriage to a woman well above his station was really just a means to an end for him. Later in the book he marries his secretary, whose feelings for him she’d made no secret about, as little more than a matter of convenience. Tellingly, as the book covers a subsequent six to eight years, or perhaps slightly more, they never have a child, nor is it ever suggested they want to.
Anyway, the reason I particularly wanted to read the book was the weird title. Peter Ruff and the Double Four, or sometimes just The Double Four. What the deuce is a “double four”? I imagined it perhaps had to do with a .44 handgun, or a train numbered “44”. I was wrong. The “Double Four” in the book is a global secret society headed by eight people. At the beginning they’re a sort of proto-Mafia organized crime syndicate; by the end of the book they’ve transformed into a group of secret behind-the-scenes political power-brokers for Europe. (Yes, in this book, even the criminal organizations dream of upward mobility.)
Now, the interesting thing about the book is the way things escalate over the course of the stories. Ruff has two nemeses, if you will; one is a Scotland Yard detective who, in almost arresting him, not only ruined Ruff’s engagement but then went on to marry his fiancee. Peter, after their first couple encounters, invariable outclasses the fellow in every way, ultimately ruining (and then restoring, for interesting reasons) the detective’s career. The other is a German Count and spy, who despite generally having far more resources at his disposal, is thwarted in various nefarious schemes by Peter’s cunning. The relationships between these three make for some interesting dynamics, and the recurring villains make for a pleasing change from the otherwise ubiquitous enemy-of-the-week that so many modern serials have adopted from television. The thing, though, is that there is only so much traction a writer can get out of defeating the same guy over and over again; about halfway through the book the detective is a broken man, his career in ruins and his wife separated from him – all thanks, directly or indirectly, to Ruff’s machinations. When Peter Ruff restores the man’s career (by giving him credit for solving a crime that Ruff himself had thwarted), it’s only done for the sake of the detective’s wife, whom Peter had once (and may still have) cared for.
That half of the book is an excellent example of how to plot out a serial – one antagonist, several increasingly grand victories by the hero, and then a little bit of feel-good redemption at the end.
For all that the stories about Peter and the detective could be seen as models of the well-done serial, the other half of the book, dealing with the Double Four after their conversion to a purely political entity, is perhaps more problematic, and a cautionary tale. Defeating a fairly inept Scotland Yard detective isn’t terribly exciting, though the actual schemes are certainly interesting and entertaining. Yet at the same time being a private investigator isn’t enough to fulfill the requisite social ambitions of a hero of this era, which is why Peter Ruff is summarily made not just the new head of the Double Four, a body it’s hinted he’s had only the most fleeting of past contact with, but made their (unofficial) ambassador and go-to troubleshooter in England, in the process somehow acquiring a spare Baronetcy the Double Four just happened to have laying around.
At this point in the book, traditional criminal matters are largely left aside in lieu of matters of underhanded statesmanship. Again and again Peter must thwart nefarious German (it’s always the Germans, in books of this era) schemes that (mostly) indirectly target Britain. The stakes are of course very much higher here, but the inevitable problem that Oppenheim runs into, as must any author of this kind of thing, is not only that the resolutions become increasingly bizarre, but that custom requires each new caper be grander than the last. After Peter Ruff thwarts some complicated German scheme to fraudulently acquire some new modern warships for free, at Portugal’s expense (whose thwarting is effected by Peter buying the warships himself, I might add…), what is there left for him to aspire to, really? Why, he can stop a scheme to steal the Spanish throne, that’s what. But wait, there’s more! Having pulled off that particular caper, Peter has one even greater task: prevent his arch-nemesis the German spy from successfully fomenting a socialist revolution that looks set to completely tear France apart.
He succeeds, one hardly needs add. And then on that note, he takes his retirement from the world of crime and politics and espionage, and wisely so, because after you’ve saved the very fabric of existence of one of the larger countries in Europe in the early teens, topping that is pretty much impossible.
It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also the perfect illustration of why I really don’t want to write a serial: the need for each episodic victory to be bigger and better, with more at stake than the last, is hard. But Peter Ruff and the Double Four is also a great example of how people pulled this off, with varying degrees of success, back before video games and RPGs existed. In this book, as in most of this era, the hero doesn’t “level up”, like so many modern heroes do, or run around collecting plot coupons. He prevails, basically, by being smarter and better-prepared than his adversaries. (And, on one or two occasions, a little tiny bit luckier.) Writers of today could do a damned lot worse than to emulate that classic formula, in my not so humble opinion.
There’s also, I think, a final lesson to be taken from the book, which has to do with marketing. In some countries the book is called “Peter Ruff and the Double Four”, and in some it’s titled simply “The Double Four”. Why? I’m going to go out on a limb and say the latter was used in countries where no Peter Ruff stories appeared in magazines, and whose residents thus had no idea who Peter Ruff was, whereas the former I suspect appeared in countries where people might conceivably go “oh, Peter Ruff, I remember those stories”. If there’s no earthly reason for anyone to have heard of your protagonist before, a short sweet intriguing title is the way to go.
You can get a free e-book of Peter Ruff and the Double Four from Project Gutenberg here, in Kindle or ePub formats. As far as I know there are no decent paperbacks, just badly-made modern print-on-demand ones at incredibly ridiculous prices. The book was published at least three times in hardcover in the teens and twenties, though, and copies are anything but hard to come by, with the A.L. Burt reprint being particularly common and the later 1920 “Review of Reviews” one being somewhat less so.
So, this week marks the long-awaited release of my newest book, the novel Angles and Curves. This book is a little bit of a departure from the usual for me, in several ways.
First, it’s neither self-published, nor published through the wonderful auspices of Amazon, as Midnight’s Tale is. It’s released by a small publisher called Queerteen Press. I submitted the manuscript to them back in September, pretty much on a whim, and very much to my surprise it was accepted fairly quickly.
Second, it’s contemporary fantasy. I’ve written in a dozen or so genres before, but this is arguably my first foray into anything that could legitimately be called fantasy, certainly at the novel length. (A now out-of-print novella I published a couple years ago was borderline fantasy/magical realism. But that was nowhere near novel length.) It wasn’t intentional–I had actually actively wanted to never write SF or fantasy–but it just kind of happened when I wasn’t looking.
Third, it’s young-adult fiction that’s not a love story. I’ve written several YA books in the past, but they’ve all been romances or romantic comedies. Angles and Curves is many things, but a love story isn’t one of them.
Fourth, it’s, as you might infer from the publisher’s name, a rather queer book. (In most every sense of the word, I might add.) I’ve written a fair few gay and bisexual characters over the years. Hell, my best-selling novel is a young-adult lesbian romance, right? Well, Angles and Curves has its share of bisexuals, and a lesbian supporting character. But it’s also got a protagonist who’s asexual and aromantic… and transgender. In an ideal world this wouldn’t be a particularly big deal, or anything worth mentioning. Know how many transgender YA books all publishers large and small released last year, though? One. I know I tend to avoid mainstream trends, but even for me, this is pretty unusual. Diversity in fiction? I’m definitely doing my part, it would appear.
Fifth, I suppose it’s worth mentioning that this is not the most cheerful and upbeat and positive book in the world. I wouldn’t call it dystopian, necessarily, and there are a lot of funny bits where readers will hopefully laugh out loud, but it deals, at length, with a few of the less pleasant aspects of modern society. The publisher calls it a “story about racism, sexism, and sexuality, and what it means to be human”, which might be understating things slightly. You will laugh, I sincerely hope–but I suspect there’s a chance you’ll also cry, once or twice.
You can get Angles and Curves at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and most anywhere books can be ordered. It’s available as an e-book for the Kindle, via iTunes, and is now or will shortly be available through all the other various e-reader platforms.
Just a warning to folks, some of my older books will be going out-of-print in the new year, so buy ‘em now if you want a copy. These are:
All The Wrong Reasons (will remain available in paperback in Unmarketable Dross): Mon 06 Jan 2014
Stanley and His Sword (will remain available in paperback in Unmarketable Dross): Mon 03 Feb 2014
Gorp: Mon 03 Feb 2013
Methilgar’s Ring: Mon 03 Mar 2014
Well Met by Gaslight (will remain available in paperback in Unmarketable Dross): Mon 07 April 2014
Never According to Plan (will remain available in paperback in Unmarketable Dross): Mon 07 April 2014
Here in Minnesota–and in much of the country–it’s cold and windy and just generally unpleasant. (As I type this post, we’re in the midst of yet another snowstorm.) That makes curling up with a good book sound like a great idea, and I happen to have a new release that someone somewhere is bound to enjoy. It’s called Gorp, and as you can see from the cover, it’s a contemporary love story.
It is in fact an actual (albeit odd–this is me, after all) love story, rather than a-couple-of-people-humping-like-drunk-rabbits. There’s one college student, one imitation college student, one religious cult, one secret society of militant old ladies; secrets and lies and emotions and head trauma and leftover Chinese food. There’s possibly even a talking cat.
It was released last Friday, and is available at most online retailers, like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble and Kobo. The e-book retails for 2.99 USD; the paperback retail price is 8.99 USD, though Amazon and others may offer it for less (or more, for all I know).
If you are in the U.S. and act really quick–like, before Friday the 20th–you can even enter to win one of three free paperback copies. See here for details.
I was on the phone with an editor the other day, and they asked a question that I don’t get asked all that often at all:
“George, are you a woman, or… did you used to be a woman?”
A little context is in order: I write books. I’ve written… quite a few, in a bewildering variety of genres. Two or three have been straight-up, out-and-out (no puns intended) romances, including my most successful novel. That novel (An Accidental Fastball to the Heart) and a couple of the shorter books are F/F stories. Or, put in less obtuse terms, lesbian romances.
Hence the editor, who’d read part of Fastball, wondering, as you might do… if I used to be a woman.
The next question from the editor was, “So what on Earth made you want to write a lesbian love story?”
The answer to that’s kind of long and complicated, but here goes.