Fresh Blood

Name: Chris Culver

Title of Book: The Abbey

'‘The Abbey’ is very exciting stuff.'

Ash Rashid is with Homicide and it is never good to end your day having to tell parents their child is dead. But that is what Ash finds himself doing. And this time it is his own family.

When Ash’s niece, Rachel is discovered dead in the guests apartment of one of the lands most important multi-millionaires he is determined to find out the truth – especially when ‘colleagues’ of Ash’s say her death was a suicide and not murder. And then Rachel’s boyfriend, the son of the millionaire is also found dead in the apartment: an apparent suicide. One suicide you could accept, but two? And within a day of each other? Others may not be concerned, but Ash is determined to find out who is killing young adults. And by the end of his quest Rachel and her boyfriend won’t be the only ones to fall victim to a maniac whose main goal is to put death on the streets.

‘The Abbey’ is the e-book sensation of 2011. It has already sold upwards of 550,000 copies. And now it is published in book format.

Ash Rashid is an interesting new recruit to the detective genre. He is an Arab American and his Muslim practices can sometimes alienate him – but first and foremost he is a Homicide investigator. He also has his failings but that only shows the complexity of the man.

The investigation touches on the issue of blood and now and again mentions vampires. I did worry to begin with that this murder investigation was going to quickly deteriorate in to a paranormal (forbid!) romance, not my favourite (made-up) genre. However, thankfully, the vampire scenario is a bluff and what you have is a malevolent body of people controlled by the brains of the operation. I can’t really say more without giving the whole thing away, but Culver is very good at leading the reader by the hand and showing you through Ash’s eyes the clues and how to join the dots. It is all very intriguing and I have to say, although the writing isn’t going to win any Pulitzers any time soon, Culver does spin a fantastic yarn and I was galloping my way through those pages to see what the heck was going on!

You can’t help wondering if Ash who is harassed not only by the hornets nest he has disturbed but also by his supposed ‘colleagues’ is tempered by the fact he is a Muslim. It is very interesting to read Culver’s answer on how many in the US perceive Muslim’s (even ones born and bred in the US) as an immediate threat… but back to the book. Culver really puts Ash through the mill and conjures up a thriller that is extremely and highly addictive. I look forward to seeing where Culver takes Ash in his second instalment. ‘The Abbey’ is very exciting stuff.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What originally made you want to write a crime novel?
This is actually a tough question to answer because it’s not one I’ve ever really thought about. I was fifteen or sixteen when I sat down to write my first novel. I had no idea what I was doing, and, without considering the subject matter, I wrote what was probably the worst crime novel the world has ever seen. Since that time, I’ve gone to college and then graduate school, and finally I became a teacher. I’ve never stopped reading and writing mysteries and crime fiction, though. In fact, I don’t think I could write in another genre – and if I did, it would probably be pretty awful.

On another level, though, crime touches so much of our public and private lives that a good crime novel can explore issues many genres can’t. Poverty, inequality, politics, and even religion: they’re all issues worth talking about, and they’re all fair game for the genre. I find that quite appealing.
2) You self-published ‘The Abbey’ as an e-book which then went on to sell over 550,000 copies in three months. Why did you take the path to publish it as an e-book?
My decision to self-publish ‘The Abbey’ was partially borne of necessity and partially of choice. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a teenager, and I worked hard toward making that happen. I sat down in front of my keyboard and wrote a thousand words every day for years, I read voraciously and widely, I stayed current with trends in the publishing industry. As I’m sure every writer knows, though, that’s not always enough. The publishing industry is tough, and sometimes you have to get lucky.

When I finished writing and editing ‘The Abbey’, I was ready to call it quits. I had spent almost a decade toiling away on various manuscripts only to get nowhere. Moreover, I was at the point in my professional career that I needed to make a choice: go back to school and finish my doctorate or start looking for a new career. At the time I published The Abbey, I had six fellowship offers from quite prestigious American universities. Academia was a viable path for me, and I think I would have made a pretty good academic. That wasn’t what I wanted to do, though; I wanted to write.

I did some research to see what my options were with my latest book. Self-publishing was still in its infancy back then, but there were a couple of writers making a go of it with some success. I saw these other writers, and I figured I didn’t have much to lose. The worst that could happen was that my book would languish on the virtual shelves unread and I’d go back to grad school as a failed novelist. Graduate schools and law schools are full of people in similar circumstances, so I figured I’d at least be in good company.

I uploaded ‘The Abbey’ in early February and sold enough books my first month to take my wife out to dinner. It was pretty exciting stuff. The next month, I sold a couple thousand books. After that, my sales increased exponentially and I started showing up on major bestseller lists. It’s almost surreal how things have turned out.
3) Ash Rashid is a Muslim born and bred in the US. What made you decide to make your main detective a Muslim and did you have to immerse yourself in to the culture to make sure you got all religious observations correct?
Good question and my answer is a little convoluted. In the summer of 2010, I was roped into teaching a Comparative Religions course when a colleague of mine was inexplicably unavailable. I had a fairly strong background in comparative religious studies, but I was a last-minute replacement and had never taught the course before. Since it was a summer course, I was in front of a classroom full of students for three hours a day, four days a week. That’s a hell of a lot of contact time with students.

When I got to the section of the course on Islam, the class changed a little. Almost none of my students came into class with prejudices about Buddhists or Hindis, but there was definitely some tension when we started discussing Islam. The more I interacted with my students, the more I realized how deeply affected they were by stereotypes of Muslims that they had seen in movies, on television and heard about from reactionary politicians. I couldn’t blame them, either. Frankly, if my only knowledge of Islam was what I had seen on television, I’d probably be terrified.

That wasn’t my only knowledge, though; I know a lot of Muslims, and the vast majority of them are shockingly normal. They’re doctors, lawyers, teachers, businesspersons, etc. Most importantly, they’re not terrorists. I turned my main character in The Abbey into a Muslim because I thought people needed to see the sort of Muslims I know. They’re good people who experience the same trials and tribulations as everyone else. They just happen to go to a Mosque on Friday afternoons.

I didn’t immerse myself in the sense that I started hanging out at the local mosque, but I read quite a bit and asked a lot of questions. I’ve found that most of the Muslims with whom I interact are more than willing to talk and share about their faith, so it was interesting and fun.
4) The book begins with the death of Rashid’s niece. Why did you pick a victim so close to home for Ash?
In early drafts, the victim wasn’t originally his niece, but I wanted Ash to have a motive in his investigation that was more than just some abstract call to justice or right and wrong. I wanted him to feel emotionally involved with his victim. If the victim is his niece, he has that motive. That close connection makes him work that much harder and be that much more willing to risk himself to solve the case. I think it makes the book a little more exciting, and it makes the characters a little more real.
5) Ash is a contented family man who obviously loves his wife and daughter. Yet Ash has a failing – drink. Why did you give him this failing and is it something that is likely to plague Ash in future books?
Ash’s alcoholism is borne from observations of real-life law enforcement officials I know and have met. I can’t imagine seeing the sorts of things a real-life homicide investigator sees every day. The emotional toll on these men and women is palpable and real. Some people seem to have an almost uncanny ability to compartmentalize their lives into work and home and not allow the emotional baggage from one area to reach the other. [I tend to think there’s more going on here than is apparent.] Some people have healthy outlets to deal with the emotional stress – they see counsellors, they develop coping skills, they exercise, etc. Others, though, can’t handle it at all. They burn out and quit.

When I created Ash, I wanted to create a character that was true to life. I wanted him to be affected by the things he sees, and I wanted him to react to those things. Ash has tried to develop healthy outlets, and he’s tried to get over the things he’s seen, but he can’t. I think that makes him more human, and like a real human being with a drinking problem, he’s going to have it forever. He may not be a practicing alcoholic, but he will be an alcoholic for the rest of his life.
6) How much research was needed to detail police procedures, especially information about the narcotics side of Ash’s investigation?
I did more research for this book than I’ve ever done for a novel. A key plot point in the book hinges on the transportation of cocaine from South American labs to the Midwestern United States. To make that plot plausible, I had to learn more about the chemical makeup and production of cocaine than I ever expected. I didn’t go so far as to actually take a trip to a South American drug lab, but I did watch videos filmed in real working drug labs. [It’s amazing what you can find on the internet.] I also read a number of papers on cocaine and talked to some real life forensic scientists to see what they had to say.
7) Will we be seeing more of Ash’s supporting cast like Mike Bowers?
Oh, yeah. I’m editing the second Ash Rashid novel right now [to be published by Little, Brown in 2013] and writing the third book in the series. A significant portion of the supporting cast is back. Ash is always going to be the lead character, but certain members of the supporting cast will grow in importance – hopefully in unexpected ways. And just like in real life, the relationships among the characters will evolve and change and some of those characters may turn out to be very different than they first appear.
8) What advice would you give other new writers who are planning to turn their story in to an e-book?
It’s difficult to give blanket advice to everyone because I’d give different sorts of advice to different writers based on where they are in their careers.

For writers just finishing a first book: edit the book as well as you can, put it away and start on your next. You may have just completed the most brilliant book ever written, but you probably didn’t. It takes time and practice to become a proficient writer. Take your book out in six months or so and read it again. If you still think its brilliant, show it to a trusted friend who will honestly tell you his or her opinion. If your honest friend tells you it’s great, maybe you’re on to something and you should see my advice below. If your honest friend tells you it’s lousy, he’s probably right.

For writers who have written a number of books but haven’t had success with the publishing industry: take your newest work in progress to a good critique group. Get your newest book in the best shape you possibly can and then sit on it for a while. Take it out of a drawer in six months, reread it and work on it some more. After that, send it around to a group of beta readers and see what they have to say. If they like it and you like it, consider your options. Self-publishing might be worthwhile, but there’s something to be said for the trade publishers as well. If you decide to self publish, make sure you hire a good editor, copy editor, and proofreader, cover designer and formatter. You can try to do those things on your own, but chances are high that everyone will be able to tell you did them on your own. [This is not a good thing.] Be willing to delegate certain tasks to the professionals. Your book will be better for it in the end. Be willing to spend some money to get your book in the best shape possible; at the same time, only spend money you can afford to lose. Anecdotal data suggests that few self-published books are capable of earning enough money to cover the expenses required to bring them to market.

If you’re a professional writer with a number of books under your belt, your agent could probably give you better individual advice than I ever could. If you’re interested in self-publishing, though, consider starting with your backlist [assuming the rights have reverted to you.] If you price your backlist competitively, it will introduce people to your writing cheaply and help you sell your future books. Start a blog so you can interact with your fans; they will become your best salespersons. Also bear in mind that magazines and newspapers that have happily reviewed your previous books might not be interested in reviewing your self-published work. There are still plenty of blogs and smaller venues that would be happy to.
9) If you had a gun to your head (only figuratively speaking) who would you have as Ash Rashid on the silver screen?
I honestly don’t know. Ash is an Arab American, and there aren’t that many big actors who could convincingly pull off the role. I’d love to see a movie made from my books, but my guess is that if Ash Rashid ever makes it onto the screen, he’ll be on television. If that were the case, I would expect them to cast a good Arab actor who’s probably yet to receive his big break.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
It’s hard to pick the top three, but here are three that have impressed me enough to stay in my mind long after reading them.

‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler – This was the first book I read by Raymond Chandler, and it was my first real introduction to the hardboiled detective. Philip Marlowe, despite his faults, was at heart a profoundly good man; to paraphrase Chandler himself, Marlowe walked the mean streets but was not mean himself. As a writer of hardboiled fiction, I owe Chandler (and Dashiell Hammett) a clear debt.

‘Eight Million Ways to Die’ by Lawrence Block – In my mind, Block is one of those writers who just can’t write a bad book, and Eight Million Ways to Die is my favourite of his Matthew Scudder series. The plot here may be simple, but Block has created such an incredibly engaging character with very real struggles that the book is difficult to put down even after I’ve read it several times. If I can make characters even half as engaging as Scudder, I’m doing something right.

‘LA Requiem’ by Robert Crais – I really like Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. They’re great characters, and every book in the series is worth reading. This one’s my favourite, though. It has a depth to it his earlier books lacked and a real sense of heart. This one really was a good book.