Reading Outside Our Usual Genres: Northcoast Shakedown by Jim Winter

I first read Northcoast Shakedown by my friend Jim Winter, back in 2005, when it was first released in print by a small press. It’s a fast-paced, engaging story with a quirky main character who’s so real, it’s hard to believe he’s fictional. Upon the re-read, my original opinion stands: P.I. Nick Kepler’s a piece of work (in a good way!) and never fails to entertain.

The majority of my reading consists of romance, suspense, fantasy and science fiction; preferably a combination of two or more of these. However, it’s good to take a departure from the usual every now and then and try something different. For me, the occasional “different” is usually a cozy mystery or straight fantasy, or perhaps something more mainstream. Occasionally, I pick up something more straight-suspense, usually upon the recommendation of a friend, or in this case, something written by a friend.

Northcoast Shakedown is crime fiction, a P.I. story with a bit of noir that doesn’t cross the line into too dark and dreary. Main character Nick Kepler is a P.I. with the perfect, cushy gig of tracking down workers’ comp fraud and the occasional cheating spouse. When the book opens, he’s investigating just that, plus a questionnable life insurance claim that’s more a matter of saving an underwriter’s job than saving the company money. But the more he digs in, the more questionable the life insurance claim appears, and not for the reasons the company thinks. Before Nick knows it, he’s in over his head in a world of swingers’ clubs, political cover-ups, and murder, and finds himself next on a killer’s hit list.

What made this book really enjoyable was Keper himself. He’s a very relatable character, a regular guy who just wants to get his job done and kick back with a beer and watch baseball afterward. His quirky dislike of SUVs and ability to be distracted by an attractive female are among the little details that make him real and fun. He has certain principles that he refuses to compromise, and others that aren’t so rigid, and reading him wrestling with these choices is what really made me want to root for him, especially when he deals with the aftermath of a choice between shitty and shittier. While totally a man’s-man, his emotions are 100% real and believable, and Winter didn’t pull any punches getting them on the page.

I had a few nits with the book, although they may be more genre conventions than anything else. One thing I’ve noticed is that mystery writers sometimes spend a lot of words getting a character from one place to another, nothing street names, traffic patterns, and scenery along the way. For the most part, that stuff works in Northcoast Shakedown, as Nick’s often being tailed (or fears he is). I’ve read other books where the driving becomes a travelogue (and a place to skim).

Another genre thing is the need for suspects and red herrings in a mystery often results in a large cast of characters. Northcoast Shakedown is no exception. However, there are so many minor/extra characters in this book, I found it hard to keep track of them. In this case, I’m not talking about the long list of persons of interest – the book does very well there. But Kepler is a former cop, and has associates in several different departments in addition to other government types and colleages/customers at the insurance company – enough that they eventually ran together in my mind.

Finally, I’ve talked about dated books before here. In his author’s note, Winter mentions that the book was written in 2002. There’s definitely the occasional reference to outdated technology (Windows 2000? Firewire?). Kepler also doesn’t appear to have a smartphone, GPS, or even an MP3 player – and while I can see Kepler as a guy who refuses to use a smartphone, I can’t imagine him not owning an mp3 player these days (or at least using his computer as a stereo while he works). Knowing that the book was written ten years ago, I could deal, but stuff like this did momentarily take me out of the story. Still, these things are minor, and Northcoast Shakedown was as enjoyable a read now as it was when initially published. So if you’re looking for an entertaining, fast-paced suspense, check out Northcoast Shakedown at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Do you stick to mostly one genre when you read fiction? If so, do you occasionally step outside? Do you notice things that you think are probably genre conventions, but clash with what you’re used to?

Guest Blog: Jim Winter

First of all, thanks to Jim for joining us here, and helping to make the mundane magical! I’ve known Jim for a loooooong time – we met my freshman year in college, <cough> years ago, through a mutual friend. I served as an early sounding board for some of Jim’s early Star Trek fanfic (you knew I’d mention that, didn’t you?:)) and later, as a beta reader for his first efforts at publishing crime fiction. Jim returned the favor and gave me some good advice for Time’s Enemy, and assured me that, yes, Tony indeed thought and acted like a guy.

So let’s dig a little deeper, and take a look at what makes Jim – and his characters – tick:

Jim, you’ve been published before by a small press. Your novel, Northcoast Shakedown, was a crime fic piece that I really enjoyed, even though that’s not a genre I read a lot. Please share your publishing experience with us:

Well, when I signed, the publisher was full of energy, and everyone on the roster became everyone else’s cheerleader. There were some hiccups getting Northcoast out, but it was a fun ride. And at the time, I had some money to spend on travel, so I used that to beef up my networking and get to know authors and booksellers. That first year was fun.

The second year was not so fun, but when any business goes under, there’s no clean way to sever ties. It’s too bad, because I really thought they could do something or be a decent launchpad for a lot of the writers. I think that’s true of a lot of small presses when they overreach. I remember UglyTown did not go quietly, despite both the publishers’ and authors’ best efforts, and Point Blank just sort of faded away. But for a short time in the middle of the last decade, it was a wild ride.

There are two more books featuring Nick Kepler, the protagonist of NCS, both of which I also beta-read and really enjoyed. I remember reading Bad Religion at work during a slow period, and having to restrain myself from laughing out loud. IMO, these books deserve to see publication, and NCS deserves another chance. Now that you’ve gone indie, do you have any plans to (re)release them?

Northcoast will definitely be out later this year. Noir master Ken Bruen wrote me a very nice intro, and I found out it was sitting on a shelf he uses for quotes when he writes. So I was very touched by Ken’s intro. He’s been one of my mentors for years, and I have one project under wraps that will bear his name on the dedication page. I’m not saying which one.

The second book, aptly titled Second Hand Goods, is going to get a rewrite and a fresh edit. I’ve evolved as a writer, and since its collected cyberdust for the last five years, I can look at it a bit more objectively.

Bad Religion is just screaming for some fresh material based on my experiences since the early drafts. I’ll likely downplay Nick and Elaine somewhat to focus on some of the other characters.

Road Rules coverWhich brings me to your new release, Road Rules. This book has a history of its own, including snagging an agent’s interest. Can you share a bit of that with us?

The seeds of Road Rules have been around for some time. Tim Mason was the earliest. A mutual acquaintance of yours and mine introduced me to this weird coworker. I’d toyed with making him a lawyer in a standalone (picturing Seth Green in the part) and a thorn in Kepler’s side, a role eventually taken by the Eric Teasdale character.

A couple years later, my publisher and I kicked around the road trip idea. I wrote a short sketch about two guys in a stolen Cadillac trying to get to Miami. Tim Mason sort of attached himself to the story.

After I got orphaned, a few friends prodded me into doing NaNoWriMo in 2006. So I fleshed out the story, hit on the idea of the decadent, yet spiritual drug lord, Julian Franco as the cause of all this chaos, and boom! The story demanded to be written.

Road trip stories are always fun! I love your tagline, “The road to hell begins with a stolen car.” But what really pulled me in were the characters. Were there any particular events, places, things you saw/heard/read that inspired the overall premise of the book, its events, or any of the characters?

The route they took was once the “long way home” from Hilton Head, SC, over a few years last decade. And having visited Savannah a few times in the process left me longing to write something set in that city. I still wanted to write about Cleveland, where I-77 begins, so the setting fell together easily.

I saw a few shows on History about holy relics and one of those true crime things about the theft of one such relic. Put those together in a city with a large Slavic population and you get St. Jakob.

Mike is based on years of working in the insurance industry. Maybe too many years. And Cinnamon was part of my desire not to have a bunch of macho white guys hosing the freeway down with testosterone. Plus, instead of the angsty tarnished knight, she’s someone just trying to prove herself.

Back in May, you released your first indie title, a short story called “A Walk in the Rain” (also a good read). What made you decide to go indie?

Well, crime doesn’t really pay well. Of course, I’ve got a short story in West Coast Crime Wave coming out this month from, which I did get paid for, but the paying markets are few and far between. I decided to get paid for my short work. I also found out that 1.) It’s the cover, stupid (though content still rules), 2.) people don’t really buy a lot of short fiction on Amazon unless it’s a collection, and 3.) it might help if you actually market an ebook.

(Jennette: A Walk in the Rain is available at Amazon for $0.99.)

Now that you’ve tasted the control and flexibility that comes with indie publishing, are you still pursuing a traditional publishing contract, or perhaps another agent?

I think eventually, I’d like to go traditional, but only under certain circumstances. I’m in a position now where I don’t have to make this a career. So the terms have to be right, and I have to be able to keep control of material I’ve already published. But if the right deal can be worked out, sure, I’ll sign.

Are you planning to offer Road Rules in print?

If enough copies sell, I’ll put it on CreateSpace. If a publisher makes a sweet enough offer, I’ll seriously consider it.

Now that Road Rules is out, what’s next for Jim Winter?

Northcoast, as I said, will be coming out. And the other two Keplers will see revisions and fresh edits. Then there’s my “magnum opus,” which I’ve been reworking since the original draft checked in at 105,000 words.


Thanks again for being here, Jim! And to everyone else, Road Rules is a fantastic, fun read that you owe it to yourself to check out, even if you don’t normally read crime fiction. It’s a fast-paced caper that will keep you reading – and laughing – all the way from Ohio to Georgia, along with Mike, Stan, and Cinnamon. Road Rules is available in your choice of e-formats for a knockout price of $ .99 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

Jim keeps a fun, entertaining blog at where he writes about books, publishing, sports, Cincinnati, technology, and whatever else strikes his fancy.

Anyone have questions for Jim? Feel free to ask, or just comment to say Hi!