Thursday, March 26, 2015

Commentary – Crime Fiction – Perhaps A Whole New Meaning to Formula


James Patterson

Thriller author James Patterson is famous for many reasons, not the least of which is his prolific output. Checking out his bibliography, it’s clear he could have his very own book of the month club. He is subject to praise for his generosity to independent bookstores and a target for criticism for hiring co-writers theoretically making his name merely a brand.  Is this okay?  After all, Andy Warhol had his  famous factory to produce his work.  And some of the world’s greatest artists had apprentices who could color inside the lines drawn by the masters. In Patterson’s case it is reported he writes a thorough outline, passes it along to one of his co-writers and monitors the progress. This works well with formula writing.

Many commercially successful writers have developed or discovered a formula. A new book is a matter of changing little bits and pieces in a proven format. It’s an almost paint-by-numbers approach.  Many writers have invented a product by doing this. They can teach others how to make it. But the Patterson principle lends itself to the next stage:  Co-writers, schmo-writers… who needs them? The real fun is yet to begin.

But, let me digress a moment.  I’m home a lot.  And I am in the demographic that is highly prized by telemarketers. Old and, according to some marketing folks, more easily fooled. I get the irritating phone calls sometimes four or five times a day. I’ve won a free trip on a riverboat.   Or there’s a problem with my credit card I’m told by an official at some obscure security company. Someone else wants to talk to me about my mortgage. I don’t own a home.  Workers are in my neighborhood, I’m told. They are willing to clean out my heating vents on the cheap. I don’t have vents. I’ve always felt sorry for the individual telemarketers, many selling marginal products or services or maybe not even marginal. I’m not nice to them. I should be.  They are a dying breed.  The sad truth for those who staff the phones, their employers no longer need live employees to disrupt my nap or interrupt a shower with their scams.

“Hello,” I said.

A lovely woman’s voice says, “I’ve finally reached you.  You are hard to find.” She laughs.  She has a lovely laugh.

I am? I thought. I’ve had the same phone number, same address, and the same email for 25 years. I’ve got FB, a blog, and a web site.  I may be many things, but I’m not difficult to find. Good God, woman, I’m even googleable.

While I’m thinking, she politely asks how I am? So warm.  I’m embarrassed.  I don’t recognize her lovely voice, but I feel I ought to.

“I’m sorry, who is this?” I finally ask.

“Sarah,” she said.  “I hope this is a good time to talk.”

Her voice is just a little too good, and the timing seems to be a little off.

“Are you real?” I ask.

“What do you mean?” She laughs. She is amused, it seems.

“You don’t sound real,” I said.

“I am real,” she said.

She wasn’t. It didn’t take much to take the early-stage replicant beyond her capacity to respond. She was merely a series of recorded sentences, strung together in ways to correlate to predictable callee responses through voice recognition software.   This technology, of course, is already at work on car computers, telephone tree responses, smart phones. Human to human interaction is declining. We all know that.

HAL
The digital revolution isn’t all bad. I prefer email to telephones, for the most part. I am my own administrative assistant now.  I like ATMs, and am my own bank teller.  After we learned to pump our own gas, supermarkets decided we could bag and check out our own groceries. The dehumanizing continues. Taxi cab companies don’t need dispatchers and, soon, it appears, they won’t need drivers. We will summon a driverless car with our smart phone. Amazon is testing drone delivery of products. Human labor is expensive.

Now, I’m about to de-digress. A few days ago, electronic information writer Shelley Podolny wrote a piece in The New York Times in which paragraphs from two sport stories, one written by a human and another by a machine (algorithms), were juxtaposed. I couldn’t tell which was written by whom (or by which). But it’s not just robojournalism.  With powerful search engines, and continually refined artificial intelligence, what can’t be written by HAL or Watson? What most of us don’t know, Podolny says, is a bunch of it already is. A French business school has 100,000 such algorithmically written books available now on Amazon, she says.
Watson

Life is change. Change or die. Of course you’re going to die anyway. But until that happens, let’s figure out how this might work.  Let’s take the next step.  Patterson doesn’t really need a human writing partner. Humans are so inefficient.  They have to eat and sleep. They have health problems, want vacations, naps.  Jeez.  So inefficient.  Just feed the machine some variable data, select a genre, a style and push a button.  A book.  You now have the next blockbuster by that prolific author, Ignatious Benedict MacGoogle.

Who needs Patterson? Maybe you’ve never been able to write a thank you note, but with the right software, you can write your own damn novel or create a blend of your favorite mysteries – Murder on the Maltese Express or Farewell, My Godfather, or The Silence of the Mockingbirds.



Sunday, March 22, 2015

Film Pairings – Two Classic Buddy Movies, Crime Included



Davis & Sarandon
This is Women’s History Month.  And even if it weren’t, Thelma and Louise is history-making cinema and a cause to celebrate.  Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are magnificent in this 1991 Ridley Scott film.  Best friends, the two of them. A waitress at a diner and a submissive housewife decide to take a mini-vacation together – just let loose for a while.  Things don’t go well. Thelma (Davis) is assaulted in the parking lot of an Oklahoma roadhouse and Louise (Sarandon) shoots and kills the determined would-be rapist. But that’s only the beginning.  Thinking no one would believe them, the buddies go on the run.  An empathetic cop, Harvey Keitel chases them.  Brad Pitt complicates things, provides comic relief and more than a little eye candy.  Damned and praised as a tribute to the feminist movement, it is a damn fine movie and worthy of the praise heaped upon it.

Redford &  Newman
Country-western gives way to pure western in in one of the most popular buddy movies ever made, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. There are definite similarities.  Both are filmed in big-sky country. But instead of two women fleeing the law in a Thunderbird convertible, the two men do so on horseback.  In both, there are lots of guns, lots of drinking, some sex, some explosions and a constant chase, making sure our eyes stay riveted on the screen. While there is more substance just below the surface in the wonderful tragi-comedy of Thelma and Louise, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is played more broadly, though very well. No message, pure adventure. Producer John Foreman brought top talent from all disciplines to make this 1969 classic. Veteran George Roy Hill directed. William Goldman wrote the screenplay. The music (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”) came from Burt Bacharach. Paul Newman played Butch and Robert Redford was Sundance in a pairing that electrified the media at the time.

Usually crime films are male dominated. This is a perfect double feature for those who want equal time for men and women. 




Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Two Indianapolis Traditions Turn 25, Reflect City’s History

Tackling The Tough Issues

A quarter of a century ago, 1990, my long time dream of starting an alternative news weekly for Indianapolis came true. It was also a passion of another guy, Larry Rainey. I didn’t know him. My good friend, Teri Thompson Crane, who knew of our shared interest put the two of us together.  We visited others who knew something about such an undertaking, content, production costs, marketing, format, design and distribution,  He and I worked diligently as editor and publisher, respectively, to create NUVO Newsweekly, a tabloid weekly that would interrupt the unchallenged dominance of the famously conservative and jointly owned Indianapolis Star & News.
Cutting-Edge Style

As it is with any start-from-scratch publication, the launch of NUVO was rough and wasn’t without its difficulties and soon after, its casualties. Months later, amidst considerable turmoil, Kevin McKinney, who had critical access to funding in the early stages, became publisher and eventually editor as well. He and his staff have given Indianapolis an important alternative voice for 25 years — and counting. Given the entrenched competition and rapidly changing media technology, this couldn’t have been an easy task.  

NUVO is celebrating this unquestionable success this month.  The full story of its birth is worth telling, and I expect to provide perspective on those very early days at some point. But, for now, an unqualified happy anniversary to NUVO!

The Early Shanahans
As NUVO emerged in 1990, so did the Stone Veil. I was honored to have the first in a series of my private eye mysteries set in Indianapolis published by St. Martin’s Press. The book even had the cautious blessing of The New York Times: “The pragmatic investigator makes a good first impression,” it said.  Twenty-five years and eleven Shanahan mysteries later, I can also celebrate its quarter-century anniversary with the release of the series’ last novel  Killing Frost.

Writing the Shanahan mystery novels has strengthened the link I have with the city of my birth.  I grew up on the city’s Eastside and spent many of my adult years working downtown and living in Butler Tarkington and Broad Ripple. I also lived briefly in Fort Wayne, South Bend and Bloomington.  I worked at Merchants National Bank travelling to small town banks all over the state. I worked at Simon during the rebirth of downtown Indianapolis’ Circle Centre Mall project and later still, in state government during the Bayh-O’Bannon administration.  What I observed and experienced in my work and in my personal life became part — ‘grist for the mill” – of Shanahan’s world. The mysteries, taken retrospectively, reflect the history, or at least the feeling of both Indianapolis and Indiana over 25 years as much, I think, as the newspaper I helped bring to life.  Both chronicle the city’s history and — to a greater or lesser extent — are part of it.

I hadn’t thought of the historical aspect when I first discovered that the 25th birthdays of NUVO and the mystery series aligned, but it is clear to me that my connection to the city was at the heart of both undertakings, not to mention that for many of us the cities and towns of our youth are deeply part of who we are no matter where we are.

The Last of the Shanahans
I’ve since moved to San Francisco, writing books set here as well as in Indianapolis. But as I rummage through old photographs, the earliest issues of NUVO and in revisiting my early Shanahan books to prepare them for digitalization, I realize how tethered I am to the people and places in and around the city of my birth.

If the oldest memories die last, then most of mine will be in Indianapolis: Summers at the pool at Ellenberger Park. Cheap matinees at the Emerson Theater.  Being a soda jerk at Laughner’s Steer-In, now Harold’s Steer-In. Crab apples and switches from the tree that bore them. My grandmother’s peonies in May, and the smell of hot starch when she ironed. Riverside amusement park, where water fountains were labeled “ white” and “colored.” My grandfather’s lemonade. Winter nights on my newspaper route, delivering what would be a future rival, the Indianapolis News – Blue Streak Edition. Two little chicks my brother and I got during a supermarket Easter promotion grew up to be large, intimidating roosters that refused to let my mother into her own backyard. It was downtown on Saturday afternoons.  I remember lying about my age and sneaking into the Fox Theater to see the sad, tail end of burlesque, in this case a live show interrupted in the middle by a grainy film, Nudist Colony On The Moon. Other memories: My first visit to the Betty K Club.  My apartment at the Ambassador, where I was introduced to Purple Haze — not the Jimi Hendrix classic, but heroin laced LSD.  My little studio was behind the city’s grand, Central Library, where, in the stacks, I received my real literary education, and a place I still revere as hallowed ground.

There was much more to follow, of course – the Army for one and the whole San Francisco experience for another.  But no matter where we end up, we take with us in one form or another that which moved us  — family, friends, lovers, co-workers, experiences, what we’ve said, what we’ve done and, for better or worse, how we’ve treated others. Roads taken, and so many not taken. 

Twenty-five years ago. Good luck NUVO. Farewell Shanahan. Thank you Indy.





Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Notes – The Tale Of A Tiny Horror


Éric Faye wrote a novella called Nagasaki about a strange but true event, squeezing from a seemingly harmless crime, as crime goes, some extremely thought-provoking observations.  Or perhaps he just allowed us to make them if we would.  The tale was similar to an experience I had when I lived in Indianapolis.  For a period of a few weeks I would find things missing from my home. Aside from my Catahoula hound, I lived alone. At first I chalked off missing beers to my own forgetfulness.   Then an unopened bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin disappeared. A small stash of emergency cash I had stuffed behind my socks came up missing.  Then half a dozen free passes to the movies were gone. There may have been more thefts, too small to notice, and too small to matter.  Though the items were impersonal, it was the violation of my home that bothered me. 

As I put the pieces together, I realized that the thefts usually happened on a Friday while I was at work. One Friday morning I left early, parked my car a block over, went back to the house and stayed in my darkened bedroom, waiting for the intruder.  I waited all day, without TV, a radio, or anything to eat, hidden in the bedroom. Waiting.  No one came that day or, as far as I know, ever again. Based on the fact that my dog, wary of strangers,  apparently didn’t object to the thief, I have narrowed it down to two suspects, one of dubious character, but who had been in my home a couple of times and another, a neighbor’s teen son possibly giving into youthful temptation — the movies, the money, the alcohol. A softcore juvenile delinquent. I left it at that. If one of them had done it, I wouldn’t have done anything about it, anyway, other than scold.

Faye’s story is a bit different and far more interesting (“Thank goodness,” I hear you say). Yet, however strange his short tale is, it is not at all far-fetched. And that is what makes it scary. The main character is a single, middle-aged, middle class, behind-the-scenes high-tech weatherman. He lives a modest, unambitious, orderly life. He discovers that little bits of his food and tea have begun to disappear. The thefts are so small, why would anyone bother? But, unless he’s crazy, someone is invading his private space, spending time in it while he’s gone.   He decides to set up a remote camera in his kitchen that he can access from his work computer. Because he has only noticed food disappearing, he sets up the camera in the kitchen and he watches it on his computer screen at work while he works. His clever ploy pays off. Someone’s there.  The police are called.  Justice seems to prevail.  But the story is far from over.  There are ramifications.

It’s preferable the author take you further with regard to the unknown cohabitant and the effect on his life the discovery causes. But briefly, life as our man so carefully planned it, as he so modestly lived it, and thoughts he had so limited could no longer be contained.

Éric Faye is a French journalist and novelist.  Nagasaki was awarded the 2010 Académie Français Grand Prix du Roman.



Thursday, March 12, 2015

Little Screen – Big Dramas



Many of the great TV dramas have come from Great Britain. There are exceptions — “The Wire,” for example.  Even some made in the U.S.A. classics are Mother country inspired.  One of those is “House of Cards.”  If you haven’t seen the British original, please do.  It is well worth the time.  It is British in the best senses of the word. Smart. Funny.  Droll.  Discreetly nasty. However that does not diminish the expertise of the very American adaptation, which steals the premise and some of the original’s theatrical devices, but gets the behind the scenes, sausage-making aspects of Washington D.C. all too well.  The American version is darker and perhaps grittier. 
Kevin Spacey As President Underwood

All three seasons are available from Netflix, the result of a successful and mimicked experiment whereby content deliverers produce their own content.  Actor Kevin Spacey is the prime player as an amoral, ambitious politician.  It is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.  He is matched well with on-screen-wife and partner in crime Robin Wright. One wonders — and I’m sure there are those who don’t wonder at all — if this isn’t meant to be the Clintons. The events, however, seem psychically current. In the third season President Underwood must confront a bullying thug of a Russian leader who is remarkably Putinesque. The plots and cliff-hanging subplots keep us binging. David Fincher is likely the strongest-behind the scenes presence in the American version. The original was based on the novel by Michael Dobbs.

Felicity Huffman As Victim's Mother In American Crime
No doubt spurred by cable channels producing must-see TV (“Shameless,” “Breaking Bad,” “True Detective”) the networks popped out of their coma.  “American Crime” is the result of ABC deciding quality and originality might be marketable concepts. Timothy Hutton portrays a father whose life has been beaten into near submission, and Felicity Huffman plays his ex-wife, inconsolably unhappy and unbendingly angry that life refuses to live up to her convictions. Performances from the two veterans are top–notch as are those of the supporting cast, though their presence is brief in the first episode. The premiere set the tone for what appears to be an exploration of race and class in America through the drama set up by a horrendous crime in Modesto.  John Ridley, best known for writing 12 years A Slave, created the series, which is, so far, excellent. Tonight is episode 2.

“House of Cards” delivers and “American Crime” promises to deliver what most TV shows can’t or won’t — theater for the small screen that embraces big ideas and wide screen vision. And as we supersize our home screens, the difference is becoming negligible.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Film Pairings — Exposing The Flaws In Our Legal System And Ourselves



The adversary system we use as the means to determine guilt or innocence may be the best we can do. But much like the rest our democratic process, there is considerable room for improvement. These two courtroom dramas deal with the inherent problems and collateral damage of our deeply flawed justice system.

The Verdict — While this tough, taut film focuses more on one attorney’s personal redemption, it also provides a good look at what money can buy. Paul Newman plays the troubled lawyer caught between conscience and success, between alcoholism and altruism.  The cast is superb. In addition to an incomparable Newman, we are blessed to have Charlotte Rampling, James Mason and Jack Warden. Based on the novel of the same name by Barry Reed, The Verdict was turned into a screenplay by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet.  This 1982 film is highly recommended, especially for its uncanny sense of realism.

… And Justice For AllThe Verdict is single minded, intensely focused, dark and gritty. Justice exists in a thinner atmosphere, but has a broader vision. There are moments of humor.  We almost don’t notice as lives are destroyed by injustice, corruption, ambition and greed. We almost don’t notice, much like real life, as the bodies pile up and souls sour. Al Pacino is the prime character in this ironic drama, about an attorney who can’t quite believe there is nothing he can do to make things right. This 1979 courtroom drama was written by Valerie Curtin and Norman Jewison, who also directed. The supporting cast is superb: Lee Strasberg, Jack Warden, John Forsythe, and Jeffrey Tambor.  Recommended

In addition to the courtroom setting and the similar morality tales, we have two of this country’s finest actors as East Coast (Boston and Baltimore) lawyers in somewhat similar roles in movies only a few years apart. For those who imbibe, whiskey was popular then and perhaps even more popular now.  For many, something like a Pomegranate Spritzer might work.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Blatant Promotion

New Books from Severn House – Killing Frost at lower right. Due out May 1.  Pre-order discount here.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Notes – Mysteries As Thought Pieces.



Missing PersonWho are we?  Smoke, perhaps.  Patrick Modiano takes on this question in vague metaphor of how we determine our identity  — slices of memory pieced together to reconstruct, perhaps construct ourselves. 

Patrick Modiano
Here we have the main character who has lost most of his memory and, having worked in a private detective firm to support himself for the last few years, uses those skills to find himself. The world to him and to us is vague and uncertain. He emerges from time to time from the fog of amnesia to recognize something clear enough to warrant continuing his quest, a quest remarkably without passion even in moments of a significant discovery. The author reveals mood in a way a painter might if he or she could hide brushstrokes. The problem for me is that while what he accomplishes seems like narrative magic, I remained uncurious about what he was hiding. It was brilliance without light, without movement.  Without motivation.

However, I fear this is my problem, not his.  He won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.  And this book, in particular, won the Prix Goncourt.  All I’ve ever won was a Kodak camera and some flashbulbs for getting a number of non subscribers on my newspaper paper route to sign up for a subscription to a late afternoon edition. There are opinions and there are opinions.

What I did like about Missing Person and its lack of specific meaning (for me) is that it teased my imagination, stimulated my already overworked speculative nature. There is, of course, the simple plot of a private eye searching for himself.  Other than the premise being ironic, what is there?

Answer: what we all do much of the time?  At any age, recollecting and revaluating our friends, understanding relationships in new ways from a constantly changing perspective. While I may remember and perhaps analyze an event that occurred when I was 11, I may have misplaced memories of many events that preceded it and many that followed. At another time that one event I remembered earlier may slip back into the shadows, perhaps forever. Am I still the same person?

Now I am 70, and in a very literal way I have spent months putting down events of my life, but not only mine, but the lives of my parents and theirs, searching for some meaning in all of that. If we remember only this or that, then we are that person.  If we remember other thises and thats, then that’s who remains.  And if we forget?

In Missing Person, it seems to me, the detective could have just gone on to live his life with a forshortened past and had more interesting times with the years he had left.  It’s a decision that we might always be on the verge of making.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Film Pairings — Two Thrillers From Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski

The director of, Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby is no stranger to horror in the cinematic world or the real one.  He was an all too young witness to the Nazi invasion of his native Poland. In the late ‘30s, his parents were taken to concentration camps. His father managed to survive.  His mother didn’t.  She perished in Auschwitz.  In 1969, Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, and some of her friends were violently slain by Charles Manson’s “family” and, for years now the director has been dogged by U.S. authorities and the international press for an alleged molestation of an underage model in 1977.  Today, at 81, Polanski rarely leaves France or Poland for fear of extradition to the U.S. where he would likely face incarceration.  While in exile, he continued to make movies.  One of them, The Pianist, brought Polanski another Academy Award, one he could not accept personally without risking arrest. The two movies below are not necessarily his greatest work perhaps, but great work nonetheless. They make for a night of intelligent crime films.

From Frantic
Frantic – A physician and his wife visit Paris for a medical conference. When they get to the hotel, they discover she has the wrong suitcase. While he showers, she steps out to replace some items in her lost luggage.  She doesn’t return. Harrison Ford, as the good doctor, gets a cold shoulder from the French police who believe she is not missing, but that there is trouble in the doctor’s marriage. Without knowing the language, or the city Ford strikes out on his own and finds himself in the middle of a smuggling ring with international security implications as well as in the crossfire between Arab and Israeli agents vying for the smuggled item.  Released in 1988, the thriller holds up as well as any Hitchcock film, perhaps better.  One of my favorites. Spending part of the evening in Paris is a bonus.

From Ghost Writer
Ghost WriterAlso a thriller, this 2010 Polanski film is more mental suspense than physical and alludes not so subtly to real life politicos (Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice, for example). Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Kim Cattrall and Eli Wallach are part of the fine cast in this award winning film based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris. McGregor is a ghostwriter helping a former British prime minister complete his memoirs. But the writer digs in a little too deep. Torture, anyone? Other war crimes perhaps?  Conservative Brits were outraged by the film. But that wasn’t the only event connected to the film’s release. Polanski was arrested by the Swiss while he was en route to an award ceremony in Berlin. The arrest was requested by U.S. authorities allegedly because of the previous molestation charges.

For the evening’s libations, perhaps Pernod or Absinthe (it’s now legally sold in the U.S.)  For those not imbibing in spirits, there is nothing wrong with Pellegrino. I know that’s Italian, but it’s better than Perrier and this is a Eurozone evening.