Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Rap Sheet: 10 Years in the Making

I’ve wanted to be a book critic for a very long while. The first review I ever wrote was for The Oregonian, the daily newspaper in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. My eighth-grade teacher, Jeanne Leeson, had a program in place that allowed her more promising students to publish reviews in that broadsheet, and she asked me to critique a new book about U.S. Senator Mike Mansfield (D-Montana) and his efforts to limit the deployment of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems in the United States and the Soviet Union. (A rather complicated topic, though I don’t remember feeling out of my depth.) From there, it was some years before I took on another reviewing assignment, this time for my college paper. Protests had erupted on campus after the administration foolishly invited a South African government official to address the student body (this was during South Africa’s racial-segregation era, after all), and one of my contributions to the coverage looked at James McClure’s crime novels starring white Afrikaan Lieutenant Tromp Kramer of the Murder and Robbery Squad and his Zulu assistant, Sergeant Mickey Zondi.

After college, during my stint with Portland’s “alternative weekly,” Willamette Week, I composed a great number of crime- and mystery-fiction reviews for the paper’s entertainment section, Fresh Weekly, and took advantage of what I now see were incredibly lucky opportunities to interview authors in this genre. (It was during that period, for instance, that I traveled—on my own dime—to interview Ross Macdonald in Santa Barbara, California, Arthur Lyons in Palm Springs, and Bill Pronzini in Petaluma; plus Robert B. Parker in Boston and George C. Chesbro in New York.) Although I was interested as well, back then, in science fiction (particularly work by Larry Niven, who I also went to chat with in Tarzana, California), my passion for stories marked by a crime or mystery bent soon dominated my pleasure-reading hours. It was just the beginning of a long education in the field that has carried me through the rest of my life so far.

When Linda L. Richards invited me, in 1997, to begin contributing to her online review/author interview site, January Magazine, I was thrilled. It gave me a soapbox from which to comment regularly on crime fiction (though my first review for January was actually of Larry McMurtry’s Comanche Moon). Within a couple of years my contributions to the publication increased, when I launched what was originally an e-mail newsletter about the genre called The Rap Sheet. I took responsibility, too, for building up January’s crime-fiction department, which in 2005 won the Gumshoe Award, presented by David J. Montgomery’s then-substantial Mystery Ink Web site.

Around the same time I received that commendation, I concluded that The Rap Sheet needed to be something more than a newsletter, and that I needed to have more design control over the product if it was ever to fulfill what I imagined was its potential. Coincidentally, in 2005, my technophobic copy-editor colleague and longtime friend, Charles Smyth, asked me to help him figure out how to use the Blogger software. He wanted to create his own blog (then still a new idea—imagine!), but didn’t know how. In the course of assisting Charlie, I realized that blogging could be the way of the future for The Rap Sheet. It would allow me to update the information
J. Kingston Pierce
I wished to convey in a more timely fashion, and lift the burden of putting The Rap Sheet together off Linda, who was already buried in other work on January, as well as her fiction-writing.

So on May 22, 2006—10 years ago today—after several weeks of experimenting with the Blogger software, trying to adapt elements of the Rap Sheet newsletter design to a blog format, I finally began publishing on this page. The site has grown tremendously since then, recording its 500th post by November 2006, and its 1,000th post by April 2007; registering half a million page views by March 2009, and a cool million two years later; attracting a small but enthusiastic lineup of guest contributors; winning a Spinetingler Award in 2009; and in 2008 being nominated for an Anthony Award for Best Web Site/Blog—the first of two times that commendation was dangled in front of me, the second occasion being in 2011. (Sadly, in neither case did I actually take the Anthony home, and now the Best Web Site/Blog category seems to have been eliminated from the competition.) Oh, and when I checked this morning, Blogger’s statistics-keeping software told me that almost 6,400 posts have gone up in The Rap Sheet, and the site has exceeded 3.8 million page views. Not bad for a little “Weblog” that rose out of my enthusiasm for crime fiction of all sorts and wasn’t intended to be much more than a hobby.

Over the last 10 years, I have sought to make The Rap Sheet something I’d want to read, even if I weren’t responsible for its production. Because I have spent my entire professional career as a writer and editor, somebody more interested in finely crafted and thoughtful prose than in brief and pithy reportage, I have pretty much ignored the advice dispensed by “experts” who claim that people are too busy in the 21st century to read anything online that’s longer than 500 words, or that forces them occasionally to refer to a dictionary. I want to create here a spirited, lasting, non-academic resource for readers interested in gleaning more than a shallow understanding of this genre’s depth and breadth. The fact that many of our articles have won considerable attention suggests we’re on the right track. The following 10 posts have been, by far, the most popular:

1. NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40: “Banacek” (December 7, 2011)
2. The Return of Lisbeth Salander (January 2, 2009)
3. Distinction by Design: Best Crime Covers, 2015 (January 7, 2016)
4. Say Good-bye to Kolchak’s “Father” (July 27, 2015)
5. But Really, Sally McMillan Is Ageless (August 14, 2006)
6. “Money,” Shot (December 4, 2007)
7. NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40: “McMillan & Wife”
(November 10, 2011)
8. Happy Birthday, Doctor Watson? (March 31, 2009)
9. The Book You Have to Read: “Tapping the Source,” by Kem Nunn (March 15, 2013)
10. Quinn’s Border Blues (October 15, 2013)

(I won’t clue you in here to what these posts entail, but will instead let you explore and enjoy them for yourself.)

It’s also interesting to see who’s paying attention to this blog. As might be expected, the overwhelming majority of readers hail from the United States, where I also live, with the United Kingdom holding second place. After that, the countries most often clicking over to The Rap Sheet rank in this order: Germany, Canada, France, Russia, Ukraine, The Netherlands, Poland, and Australia.

When I first took up this venture, I was editing and contributing to a wide variety of publications, all of which kept me busy and intellectually stimulated. Nowadays, I spend far too many hours working by myself, and my outlets for journalism and other writing have been severely reduced in number. I’d expected by this stage of my life to have moved confidently from writing non-fiction to penning novels. But my labors in that direction have proven … well, frustrating at best. Alternatively, I imagined The Rap Sheet might become a well-paying enterprise, perhaps an adjunct to some book-publisher’s Web site, but that hasn’t come to pass, either.

Producing The Rap Sheet has gone from being a sideline to being a central occupational endeavor, perhaps a legacy of sorts. And while there are often moments when I feel the blog doesn’t quite measure up to my (admittedly unrealistic) ambitions for it, I have drawn tremendous energy from some of the supportive notes I’ve received during these last 10 years. One reader, for instance, wrote to say, “The Rap Sheet is, in my opinion, by far the best of the best in the mystery-fiction blogging field.” Another remarked: “After reading your latest Rap Sheet, I wanted to convey how much I appreciate all your efforts in producing that blog. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am stuck in southeast Georgia. The Rap Sheet is a true highlight for me. When I lived in Berkeley and in New York City, I was active as a fan in the crime-fiction scenes there. To say The Rap Sheet ‘keeps me in touch’ only scratches the surface of how it functions for me. Thanks again for your efforts!” No less heartening are compliments I have received on occasion from writers whose work I’ve edited over the years, either at January or The Rap Sheet. Read one: “You have made me a better writer, my friend.” And in a post highlighting blogs that provide “good crime-fiction recommendations,” critic/anthologist Sarah Weinman described The Rap Sheet as “one of the oldest [such sites] ... and still one of the best—plus editor J. Kingston Pierce was the first person to seriously edit my reviews, for which I am forever grateful).”

I can’t tell you what I shall be doing in another 10 years, or whether The Rap Sheet will still be around to celebrate its 20th anniversary. But I can say that this last decade has brought unexpected treats and memorable successes to yours truly. It’s through The Rap Sheet that I won my column-writing gig for Kirkus Reviews, and it is because of this modest blog (and my work with January Magazine) that I established some of my most prized friendships, including those with Ali Karim and Linda Richards. If I had to give it all up tomorrow, I’d be more heartbroken than I might’ve expected back in 2006, but I would also be extremely proud of what has been created here.

Thank you, everyone, for following along on this adventure.

SEE MORE: Killer Covers joins this anniversary celebration with its own “Rap Party” countdown of vintage paperback fronts.


Bill Crider said...

Congratulations on 10 big years . . . and more to come!

Lesa said...

Congratulations! It's not an easy task to write a blog for ten years. And, you've brought so much to the field in that time. The world of crime fiction would be much poorer without The Rap Sheet.

michael said...

Thank you for being here and making the internet a little more classy. I found the number of stories about the NBC Mystery Movie on your most read surprising.

Steele Curry said...

Hi Jeff,
Congratulations on 10 years of keeping the mystery/thriller community on top of the most important news, reviews and author interviews. Your blog is a must-read for me and I value your recommendations on books, films and TV series highly. Thanks very much for all of your efforts in keeping all of us so well-informed about our favorite subject.

With warmest wishes for 10 more years of good health, lots of enjoyment, and happy blogging,

Steele Curry
Calgary, Canada

Ronald Tierney said...

EVERY morning, with coffee, I check my email, then click on The Rap Sheet – even before I find out if the rest of this world still exists. It is my main contact with the mystery writing community. Thank you for all of your comprehensive, high-quality work. Congratulations!

TracyK said...

Thanks for this review of the history of the Rap Sheet and your work before the Rap Sheet. I cannot say I have been reading the Rap Sheet for ten years, but certainly for the last eight years. You have always been a great source of information for crime fiction books new and older, and for TV and movies related to crime fiction.

Paul D. Brazill said...


Ali Karim said...

lovely sentiments and a privilege to contribute as well as call you my friend - CONGRATULATIONS

noirencyclopedia said...

Congratulations on the milestone!

Art Taylor said...

Congratulations! As you know, I've long been a huge ran of The Rap Sheet, and it was fascinating to read the post here and learn more about the origins of the site, your own path here, and some of the highlights over the years.

A virtual toast your way here--and a real one at Bouchercon later this year, I hope! And best wishes for many, many more year ahead for The Rap Sheet—of course!

David B. said...

Thanks very much for this site, which I have read regularly for nine years. The best on the web.

Robert Haffner said...

Congratulations. Ever since Bouchercon here in St Louis, The Rap Sheet has been a daily visit for a wealth of entertaining comment and news.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Happy anniversary! Here's to 10 more years.

Steve Aldous said...

Happy 10th Anniversary for The Rap Sheet, Jeff. Here's to many more.

Karl-Erik Lindkvist said...

Congratulations! Your blog is always enjoyable and educating. Keep on!

Bill Selnes said...

Congratulations. I appreciated the depth and breadth of your compilations of information on crime fiction.

I have found that one of my most frequently viewed posts is related to T.V. I wrote a review of the CBC TV movie, Still Life, based on Louise Penny's first book in the Armand Gamache series.

It still seems ironic that a post connected to TV on my blog about books is one of my most viewed.