Behind the story of Herbie’s Game with Timothy Hallinan

Herbie's GameTimothy Hallinan’s latest Junior Bender mystery, “Herbie’s Game,” is a mixture of humor and suspense that Hallinan calls, “A tour of the nine circles of Hell, but with better weather. And laughs.” For this interview, Hallinan talked about the conundrum facing humor writers: how to make an argument while keeping the story funny.

“I think comedy is almost always about something serious,” said Hallinan. “We like to think we shape our own lives, but at some point I believe most of us arrive at a moment when we look at how we live and ask, ‘How did I get here? Was this who I wanted to be?’ At that point we realize that at least part of our choice was made for us, either by circumstance or by the influence of another person.”

Hallinan uses the analogy of a home to describe how someone might feel when faced with that question. “So there we are, living in a sort of imaginary house that we built day by day, thinking we were the sole architects, and then realizing that we don’t really like it very much, and that it might be too late to tear it down and start over. And then what do we do?”

“In the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers,” said Hallinan, “I used the fourth book, ‘The Queen of Patpong,’ to take the reader back to an impoverished little town in the Thai northeast to see how a shy, awkward village girl with no real choices in life turned into the ‘queen’ of Patpong Road, one of Bangkok’s most lurid red-light districts.”

While Hallinan likes using the fourth book for the character’s backstory, the number two also seems to have special significance for him. He co-founded two companies in the television industry before turning to writing full-time. He writes two books a year, one each in two different series. And, he and his wife divide their time between two cities, Los Angeles and Bangkok.

For those unfamiliar with the Junior Bender series, Junior is a burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks. In “Herbie’s Game,” when one of the San Fernando Valley’s “executive crooks” finds his office burglarized, he knows instantly what’s been taken is the list of criminals through whom he’s commissioned a killing. The crook also suspects that whoever took the list of names intends to work his way through the chain for revenge. When Junior is brought in to solve the case, he’s sure he knows who is behind the heist.

Hallinan said, “Since the first book it’s been established that he had a mentor in his teens, a sort of uber-burglar named Herbie Mott, who served as a surrogate father. I wanted to go back and explore that relationship and ask what would become of Junior if he discovered that Herbie was a much less admirable character than Junior always believed him to be. Junior also asks himself how much of his life is actually of his own making, and how much of it is Herbie’s Game.”

When he was starting out, Hallinan says he received helpful advice from successful writers. Now that he’s writing full time and has received multiple award nominations, he wants to pass along that same type of help to others. “I’ve used most of my website as a platform for a section called ‘Finish Your Novel,’ which contains most of what I know about writing a book, or about making the commitment to integrate into your life any long-term creative undertaking. It’s been used by literally thousands of writers.”

Much like his protagonist, Hallinan may wonder if he was the sole architect of his career. On the other hand, perhaps there was another factor. He said, “When my wife was undecided about whether she should accept my proposal, my mother said to her, ‘Marry him, honey. He’s lucky.’  And I have been absurdly lucky (he says, knocking wood): to be able to live with the woman I love, in two cities I love, doing the thing I most love, writing. If my life were to end tomorrow, I would be owed nothing from anyone.”

More information

Learn more about Timothy Hallinan and the free writing resources he provides on his website at For the writing resources, use the “Finish Your Novel” button.

Blind Moon Alley ripe with speakeasies, crooked cops, and the mob

Blind Moon Alley by John Florio“Blind Moon Alley” is set in 1931, prohibition-era, Philadelphia. Jersey Leo is an albino working as a bartender at a speakeasy called the Ink Well. Jersey’s working hard to support the Hy-Hat social club in Harlem, run by his father, and to keep himself off the bread lines. When his grade school friend, Aaron Garvey, calls from death row requesting Jersey to join him for his last dinner, Jersey wonders why Aaron picked him.

Aaron’s favor involves their grade school friend, Myra Banks, twenty thousand dollars, crooked cops, and the mob. Jersey’s not sure he can help his friend, but when Aaron escapes from prison and goes into hiding at the Ink Well, Jersey realizes he can’t say no. With help from his father, the champ Ernie Leo, and a few other friends they set out to help protect Aaron until they can get the money needed for him to leave the country.

In Jersey’s fight to help his friends and find the real truth about why Aaron killed a cop, he wants very much to do the right thing and be like the champ he admires. As Jersey becomes more involved, he questions himself, his honesty, and his integrity, eventually wondering how far he will go to save his friends.

This second Jersey Leo novel weaves just enough background into the story to orient the reader without bogging down the plot. The story is well-written and filled with unforeseen twists and turns. Descriptions of character and place, with language reminiscent of the 1930s, makes one feel as though they are right there with Jersey. This is a fun read for anyone who wants to take a peek back at the prohibition-era.

FTC Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided by its publisher.


The E-ZPass email scam

EZPass screenshotIf you’re a commuter in a metropolitan area where E-ZPass is used to pay tolls, the E-ZPass email scam can be quite alarming. You may wonder if the credit card used to pay your account has expired or been rejected for some reason. Carpoolers who might be allowed to use the toll road for free may wonder if something has gone wrong in the system and they’re being accused of illegally using the roads resulting from an error. That threatening email appearing to be from an E-ZPass email address is, however, a fake.

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With twenty-four million E-ZPass users, the “market” for scammers on this email scam is huge. Currently, there are twenty-five toll agencies in fifteen states that cooperate in the E-ZPass program. The system eliminates the need for toll booths by allowing commuters to equip their vehicles with transponders. Those transponders automatically charge tolls to a commuter’s online account, thus allowing commuters to pay their tolls online rather than during their commute.

The email claims that you have not paid for driving on a toll road and demands that you “service your debt” immediately. This email is not from E-ZPass, however. It is a scam used to download malware or collect personal information that will be used to steal your identity.

The real E-ZPass Group has become aware of this scam and has posted information on their website at The FBI has also become aware of this scam and advises anyone who is victimized to file a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at

To the end of the road at Waipio

IMG_0408Last week’s post, The little Hawaii town with two names, took us to the Jacaranda Inn and the little town of Waimea. By the end of our second day, we’d completed the background research for that area and had a little time to kill. It was time to take a drive and play tourist.

The drive began in town on the Mamalahoa Highway. The scenery in this area is filled with big trees and rolling hills. It’s absolutely stunning and the fifteen miles to the turnoff for Honokaa came quickly. We’d never come this way before, so we were delighted when we arrived in Honokaa and discovered it’s an incredibly quaint town. The draw of the town was strong, but we resisted and continued on our journey to see the Waipio Valley.

There’s no direct route to Waipio Valley from the Mamalahoa Highway, which means you must backtrack about eight miles on Waipio Road. The drive, however, is easy and the views at the end are stunning. The hike down to the lookout and restrooms is short, but steep. At the base of the hill, there are a series of signs describing the valley, a picnic area, and the biggest surprise of all, restrooms with running water.

I hope you enjoy the photos as much as we enjoyed the trip. It was well worth the drive.


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Behind the story of Beach Plum Island

beach_plumNot a lot of authors will tell you that their mom gave them the idea for their latest book. That, however, is what Holly Robinson said of her latest release. Robinson writes what she calls “family mysteries.” Her stories tackle difficult social issues in our society. And her mother had a whopper of a true story which led her to write “Beach Plum Island.”

“Prospective readers should know that my novels are a sort of cross-genre,” said Robinson. “I call them family mysteries because they have the rapid pacing of mystery novels, with clues being unveiled along the way, but the characters are fully developed and the writing is often extremely emotional.” Robinson said “Beach Plum Island” typifies this writing style.

“The events in ‘Beach Plum Island’ are set in motion when a dying father makes a mysterious request:  he wants his daughters to find a brother they never knew they had, and tell their brother ‘the truth.’” According to Robinson, the three sisters are stunned by the revelation that they have a brother and a family history they never knew about.

“As they set out on a quest to uncover the answers,” said Robinson, “they unravel a series of haunting family secrets, and in the process must examine their own lives. Throughout the novel, I explore the conflicts that can surface in families when divorces rip them apart and remarriages attempt to weave them into a new fabric.”

Robinson grew up reading her grandfather’s castoff mystery novels, but also loved reading so-called literary classics. As a result, she’s naturally drawn to stories with both a complex plot and characters. It’s that propensity for family mysteries that brings this story almost full circle. Robinson said, “My mother gave me the idea for ‘Beach Plum Island’  when we were children. She used to entertain us with stories, and one of them was about a babysitting job she had when she was a teenager in rural Maine.

“The family she was babysitting for told her that the children were asleep and she could do her homework or whatever, but under no circumstances was she to go into the back bedroom. Naturally, being a curious teenager, she sneaked down the hallway and listened at the door. To her shock, she heard a noise, so she opened the door—and discovered a blind, semi-feral child, a little boy, who was being kept under lock and key in that bedroom.”

Her mother said she didn’t know anything more about the family or the boy. But, that never satisfied Robinson. “I always wanted that story to have a beginning and an ending.  I finally had to make them up myself.” And isn’t that exactly what writers do? Take snippets and turn them into a complete story? Robinson seems destined for that role.

“I majored in biology and intended to go to medical school—until I got sidetracked by a creative writing class my last semester of college. Today, I make my living as a freelance writer, bouncing between fiction, magazine assignments, and working as a ghost writer for celebrities.”

Robinson’s career as a writer is not one of those overnight-success stories. She said it took her more than twenty years to publish her first novel. Now, she has a contract with Penguin asking for one book a year. She offers this piece of advice to aspiring writers: “Keep knocking on doors. One will eventually open!”

When she was twelve, Robinson lost her five-year-old sister to cystic fibrosis. Later, her stepbrother died in a car accident. Even her family’s basic structure classifies as “complicated.” Robinson said, “My parents were divorced, then remarried after a hiatus where my father was married to another woman for sixteen years. I now have a blended family—the ‘yours, mine, and ours’ sort—of five children, and live in perpetual fear of something happening to one of the kids.”

While Robinson worries about her children, she doesn’t feel her fears are unusual. “It’s nothing psychotic, just the usual ‘mother anxiety’ most moms suffer through. I guess writing about family and loss serves not exactly as therapy, but as a way for me to pour my emotions onto the pages of my books rather than steamroll my kids with them.”


A quick tip for dealing with data breaches

keyboardscamThe news that Russian hackers had stolen a billion sets of login credentials is just one more reason to consider the use of a password manager. There are plenty of these software programs, some of which are even free, out there. If you’re not familiar with what these programs do, check out my The Password Manager Age is Upon Us post.

We use a password manager to keep track of every password in every online account. In my case, that list now has more than 100 entries. Only a few of those entries would be considered critical. Most of the accounts, if hacked, would cause nothing more than some annoyance. But, what about those few critical accounts? How do I make sure to update that short list each time there’s a data breach? Here’s one way to systematize that process.

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Create a document in which you list your critical accounts. Use a Word doc, spreadsheet, text file, whatever type of file you prefer. Save the file with an easy-to-remember name. By saving the file now, it provides a blank master that only includes account names for use after the next data breach.

By the way, I’ve been burned one too many times because I needed an old password when a security procedure let me think the password had been updated when it really hadn’t been. The following process gives me a temporary copy of the old password in this file until I know the password has been changed. To get started, make sure your password manager is open.

1) Copy the password for the first account, then paste into your document on a separate line from the name.

2) Have your password manager create a new, unique password that is at least 16 characters for the account and paste it into the document on the next line down from the old password. If you’re using a spreadsheet, you can use separate columns.

3) Repeat for each account.

4) Use the password manager to log in to the first account.

5) Find the link to change your password on the account website.

6) Change the password on the website by copying and pasting the old and new passwords as necessary. Hint: Each account will be different. Some will take that 16 character password, others will require a shorter version, which you can create simply by shortening the password in the master file.

7) When you think you’re done, log out and try to log in with the new password. If it works, you’re done. If not, there was a step on the website you missed and you’ll need to log in with the old password to make the change.

8) Once you’ve changed all of the passwords, either undo all of the changes to the document or close it without saving it. In either case, do not keep a copy of the new passwords and reopen that file to make sure no password got left behind.

Check and double-check that master file to make sure it contains nothing more than critical account names when you’re done!

The little Hawaii town with two names

The front lanai of the Jacaranda Inn. This is gorgeous first thing in the morning.

The front lanai of the Jacaranda Inn. This is gorgeous first thing in the morning.

At the end of May, we visited to the Big Island of Hawaii. Our first two nights were spent in “the upcountry.” This is the area around Parker Ranch, which was once the largest cattle ranch in the US. Today, the ranch has downsized due to a number of issues and with those cutbacks, the little town with two names where Parker Ranch began, has changed.

It had been many years since our last visit to this area and with a few scenes in the next McKenna Mystery taking place in the upcountry, I wanted to get a renewed sense of the area. For this part of our trip, we stayed at the Jacaranda Inn, which is located on the outskirts of Waimea.

I called Waimea the little town with two names. The first of those two names, and the original, is Waimea. However, a series of US Postal Service instructions to postmasters in the 1890s restricted multiple post offices in one state from having the same name. As a result, Waimea is also known as Kamuela. If you do an online search for either name you’ll get the same place.

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The Jacaranda Inn was a pleasant surprise. Our first night there, we arrived late and the place was very quiet. There were other guests, but they were either off having dinner or already in their rooms. We were in the Hibiscus Room, a stunning green-flowered bungalow with a very large bath. The room was stuffy when we entered and my first reaction was, “What? No air?” It was definitely the wrong reaction.

First off, the buildings at the Jacaranda Inn are somewhere on the order of 100 years old. Second, there’s no need for air conditioning. With the windows opened, the cooler outside air filtered in and the room temperature quickly became very pleasant.

The following morning, it was time to explore the rest of the property. The more I saw, the more I loved it. Each room is decorated differently, but all maintain that elegance and grace so prominent in years past.

The only downside to the inn is that the front doors are left open until well after dark to allow guests to enter. Unfortunately, some of those guests are the flying kind. After providing the local mosquitos with a good source of food on our first night, we decided the main house was off limits after dark. Other than that, the Jacaranda Inn turned out to be a wonderful spot to forget the rest of the world and revel in the beauty of Hawaii’s past.

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Award-winning author focuses on spunky disabled characters

Death of a Crabby Cook by Penny WarnerPenny Warner has published more than sixty books for both adults and children. The latest release in her current mystery series, dubbed the Food Festival Mystery Series, features food trucks and is set at the San Francisco Seafood Festival, where someone is steamed enough to commit murder. “Death of a Crabby Cook” was inspired by the popularity of food trucks and the controversy they engender.

“Their popularity intrigued me,” said Warner. “I thought it would make a great venue for a murder mystery. There’s a lot of controversy about the food trucks vs. brick-and-mortar restaurants, so it’s ripe for trouble.”

Warner, who creates fund-raising murder mystery events for libraries across the country and teaches child development at Diablo Valley College, likes to include a character with a disability in her mysteries. She said, “My first series featured a deaf woman, the second ‘How To Host A Killer Party’ series offered a party planner with ADHD and a mother with Alzheimers, and in my current series, ‘Death of a Crabby Cook’ serves up a computer hacker who has Asperger’s Syndrome. My disabled characters are very empowered and coping well with their disabilities.”

So, how did Warner become so dedicated to helping those with disabilities? She said, “During high school I did volunteer work in a multi-handicapped class. One student in particular had an impact on me. He was diagnosed as being developmentally delayed until they later learned he was only deaf. Once they realized this and put him in a school for the deaf, he made remarkable progress. I became so interested in deafness that I learned sign language and went on to become a sign teacher.”

Warner received her MA in Deaf Education. “I taught infant and preschool deaf children sign language. I stopped teaching briefly when I had my children, and that’s when I began writing. I thought a deaf protagonist would make a fascinating sleuth, since she’d have to use other senses to solve a crime, rather than hearing.”

When she wrote that first mystery featuring a deaf protagonist, Warner was very concerned about acceptance in the deaf community. “It was challenging, since I wasn’t deaf myself, but I got a nice review in a deaf periodical saying, ‘I can’t tell if the author is deaf or hearing, but she’s captured the deaf experience.’ I breathed a sigh of relief and kept writing about the deaf community.”

In addition to being accepted in the deaf community, “Dead Body Language” won a Macavity Award for Best First Mystery, and was nominated for an Agatha and an Anthony Award. Warner’s children’s mystery series, The Code Busters Club, won an Agatha Best Children’s Mystery Award and is nominated for an Anthony.

As for the Food Festival Mysteries, Warner said, “This is a cozy series featuring Darcy Burnett, recently down-sized from her job as a restaurant critic, who goes to work in her Aunt Abby’s food truck. It offers a fun story, a little romance, inside information on the food truck world, and lots of recipes.”

In “Death of a Crabby Cook,” Darcy discovers that someone’s been trafficking in character assassination—literally—when a local chef turns up dead and her aunt is framed for the murder. The victim was an outspoken enemy of the food trucks—and now Darcy wonders if one of the other vendors cooked his goose. With her aunt’s business—and freedom—on the line, it’s up to Darcy and Dream Puff Jake Miller, to put the brakes on a crabby—and out-of-control killer . . . before time is up.

With the San Francisco Seafood Festival behind her, Warner has set her sights on dessert. She said, “I’m working on the next book in the series set at the San Francisco Chocolate Festival, ‘Death Of A Chocolate Cheater,’ and making myself drool over all the chocolate recipes.”

More information

She writes a column for the local newspaper on family life in the Valley. Learn more about her on her website at


Cat on a Cold Tin Roof is an easy read

Cat on a Cold Tin Roof by Mike ResnickIn “Cat on a Cold Tin Roof,” private investigator Eli Paxton may be down on his luck, but he’s not out. When Eli gets a phone call requesting his presence at a murder crime scene in a very affluent area of Cincinnati, he’s certain the job will give him the money he needs to buy a new transmission and repair his old Ford.

Eli learns the murder victim was a financial advisor to a Chicago Mafia family, was subpoenaed to testify against them, and is worth at least ten million dollars. His assignment, in a snowstorm in the middle of the night, is to find the widow’s missing cat. Eli finds and returns the cat, but is accused by the widow of stealing the cat’s collar, which is studded with diamonds worth millions.

When Eli is approached by Chicago Mafia enforcer Val Sorrentino with a partnership deal, he realizes how many people are looking for the diamonds and have motive for the murder. While the police are busy looking for the killer, Eli searches for the diamonds. He hopes that with any luck at all, he’ll find the jewels before his new Mafia partner, the widow who hired him, or the three shooters from a Bolivian drug cartel who are shadowing his every move.

“Cat on a Cold Tin Roof” is a quick and easy read filled with twists and turns that will keep you entertained and guessing from beginning to end. The characters are so believable you’d think they were your neighbors, friends, family. If you like your private investigators to be a little old fashioned (no computers, cell phones or GPS), smart, but with a sense of humor, then you’re in for a treat.

FTC Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided by its publisher.

Avoiding the credit email scams

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

A man walks into a bar with a dog, orders a drink, and tells the bartender he wants to sell him a life insurance policy. The bartender chases the man out. The next day, the man returns with two dogs. The result is the same. When the man returns with three dogs the following day, the bartender asks why the man keeps coming back with more dogs each day. The man thinks for a moment, then says, “Because they’re a good distraction and you’re giving me a free drink each time I’m here.”

Okay, terrible joke. But, it’s the reality of spam. The man is like the scammers who fill our email inboxes with junk. The dogs are the emails themselves. Thus, each day, unless we can find a way to break the cycle, we get an increasing number of emails from people who are looking for a free ride in life.

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In a very unscientific survey of my junk mail, I discovered that approximately ten percent were directly credit related. The emails offered me loans, opportunities to refinance through the government’s HARP program, tax relief, coupons to save money, and online shopping opportunities. This doesn’t count the chance to buy my own jet or go on safari to South Africa.

Here’s a short list of some of those spammy titles:

  • HARP Eligible
  • Experian
  • Amazon Voucher
  • Tax Defense
  • FHA Rate Lock Support
  • Affordable

What do most of these emails have in common? First, most contain very little text. Usually, they consist of a few links and may contain an image. Make the mistake of clicking anywhere on that image and you’ll be  taken to a website used for phishing or malware distribution. The tricky part about these images is that they may include text disguised to look like links. Be cautious when poking around because clicking anywhere on the image will activate the link.

Other tricks used by the spammers include adding background colors on links to make them more obvious and look less like the hundreds of other identical email scams we see.

Unlike the bartender, who could simply stop serving the man, getting rid of spam is much more difficult. Using the “opt out” link in the email would be tantamount to giving the man another drink and telling him to come back the following day. The only real solution (short of using a service that requires everyone who emails you to register) is to mark the email as spam and hope the sender doesn’t have any friends who own more dogs.