Sunday, October 16, 2016

Book Notes — The Whites, A Misleading Title Given The Times, A Powerful Piece of Literature

I’m currently reading The Whites, a highly praised cop/crime novel by Richard Price.  And I’m having trouble.  Good trouble, I suspect; though I can’t be sure. His words send me off on trips unrelated to the narrative.  One detour is that I find myself not reading but wondering, paragraph after paragraph, how he gets it so seemingly right.  I understand how someone like Michael Connelly creates the reality of his acclaimed books.  He spent years as a reporter covering the police and the criminal court beat. But how does Price do it? Some of the great crime writers have been reporters, or cops, or criminal attorneys. Some of them have even done a stint as private eyes.  They rely on what they observed over the years.  It is a mix of imagination, recall and command of the language. Few, I think, achieve this level of realism or grit.
Richard Price

Has Price actually lived this cop life enough to know it so well that he can take me there? I tried to find out. He was one of the writers on the TV series, “The Wire.”  He was a screenwriter for one of my favorite movies — Sea of Love. But then movies and projects like “The Wire” are different. Unlike a novel, they are collective efforts. Yet, it is not a big jump from the highly joint effort “The Wire” to The Whites, an only marginally a collective effort.  Yet the grittiness comes through. And the word perhaps too popular now, “authenticity” rings loudly. I shake my head.  Surely he does not live there.

In an interview in TheParis Review, he said he spent a lot of time researching and hanging out with the police, including ride-alongs in instances where he is not left alone in the backseat while the cops tend to business.  He did (does) his homework. Much like a good reporter or photojournalist, there is a sense of courage and a willingness to impolitely intrude if need be.

So he extends himself, does whatever is necessary for his art. I’m impressed. He brings both journalism of sorts together with the art of literature. I can follow journalism without being taken in unexpected directions.  I can read a straight-forward story, Robert Parker, Dashiell Hammett and the rest.  I like interesting, informing, even puzzle-solving entertainment.  But novels that pick you up and toss you around so much you have to fight your way back to the page is another story.

I’ll not tell you about the plot. That’s available elsewhere and I’m still in the midst of reading it. What I want to talk about is the dilemma a thought-provoking book provides — provoked thought. Sorry.  I needed to emphasize the meaning of the cliché.  Maybe I’m limited by my overall intelligence (stop smirking) or possibly age has shortened my attention span or I’m far too easily distracted. Strange and embarrassing.   Most of the writers I read I don’t wonder how they do what they do. I may appreciate the artistry, even wish I could achieve it, but I’m not usually baffled by them.

So far in this book, one sentence may send me off into some abstract, often unrelated thought.  Instead of going back to the book, I’m forced to leave the book to sort things out.
However, one very selfish question started to dominate my mind as I approached mid-book. Given what he is able to do, plunging deeply into both sides – cop and criminal, I have to ask myself, as a crime writer, what are my qualifications? I have no such courage. My rudeness is rarely constructive. I have not immersed myself in the extreme divide between cop and killer, so divided they are more like each other than they are the folks who are neither.

I console myself with the observation that however passive it might be, I write about the world I know, that I limit my expression to my experiences and that I write honestly about what would be therefore comparatively bland.  I read a criticism once about someone tired of reading John Updike, saying he long ago stopped caring about middle class angst.  While it may not be angst exactly or even all the way up to middle class, my Shanahan series takes place in a more civil, more settled world rather than the tough streets of Baltimore, let’s say. 

I do have a hint at Price’s preparation.  Only a hint.  In Good to the Last Kiss, I ventured out. I did research the personally unlikely topic of serial killers.  I not only spent time with the police in homicide, I spent days reading and listening to tapes of psychological research about this type of crime, as well as the sometimes horrific ramblings of serial killers talking about themselves, their lives and their crimes. I was depressed for weeks, maybe months. But I had ventured out, however briefly.

This is what Richard Price does regularly, it seems.  In fact, this is what his main characters in The Whites do.  After writing my grimmest novel, I kept my distance from the darkest reaches of the soul and spent more time working on books with less sensational crimes and more seductive plots, all in my comfort zone. I still connect my stories to social issues, but less intensely.  And I stay with a reality well within my own experience, enhanced I hope by, a creative imagination. But I cannot regularly go where Richard Price goes.  Maybe it’s the very real darkness he witnesses and translates that sends me away from his writing.

The result is that reading these kind of books has become more exhausting than writing books of lesser intensity. At least writing my own stories, I can adjust the light on reality for my own comfort while admiring a much braver soul in theory.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Film Pairing — Year Of The Con

Seems as if 2016 is the “Year of the Con,” with the election and all these candidates for public office pretending to be honest and competent, if not pious and brilliant. Let me recommend two films that pick up on the theme though in slightly different ways.  The first is light jazz. The second is visceral.  The first will make you smile.  The second will make you wince. Both are blessed with extreme talent. Both garnered film awards and considerable critical acclaim.  Both are based on true stories. The odd observation here is that the actors are pretending to be someone pretending to be someone they are not. Only actors and politicians are allowed to do that.

 Catch Me If You Can — This is the moment, I think, we catch Leonardo DiCaprio make his transition from vulnerable child star to adult without missing a step as a highly talented actor.  Here he portrays Frank Abagnale, upon whose book and life, the film is based. Young Frank grows up admiring his father, a man who despite his talent as a loving parent couldn’t quite make it as a provider despite or because of his con artist ways.  Frank, who occasionally participated in his father’s antics and wanting to impress his dad, took con artistry to a new level of fraud. With fake identities, he scammed millions eventually attracting a bland but determined pursuer, played exquisitely by Tom Hanks. Rounding out the supersized cast are Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, James Brolin and Amy Adams.  The film, released in 2002, was directed by Steven Spielberg.

American Hustle — This is a considerably more down-to-earth film. While Catch Me If You Can has some serious undertones, it is a funny film. In American Hustle, the humor is there, certainly, but it is much, much darker.  Two con artists agree to scam an Arab sheik for a casino development in Atlantic City. An ambitious FBI agent catches on, and will throw them both in jail unless they help him bring down some dishonest politicians who would be caught with their hands in the till thereby helping the FBI agent make his bones at the Agency. If only humans didn’t have human failings. If only good was good and bad was bad and never the twain should met. Damn those gray areas. Damn that we should fall in love with stupid people who think they’re helping us but screw up our lives. Can’t I do a little wrong if the result is a greater good? Lots of questions. But answers?  Who is responsible for the answers?  Not the filmmakers. Based on the famous ABSCAM scandals of the ‘80s and directed by David O. Russell, the film was released in 2013. The gritty film is populated by incredibly fine actors giving fine performances at every level.  Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence and Louis CK are featured. Robert De Niro makes a brief but powerful appearance.

Something to quench your thirst while you watch a couple of hours of disingenuous behavior? Champagne for the first. Light and bubbly, but with an ultimately calming effect.  For the second, you’ll have to get serious. Bourbon with no more than two ice cubes.  Or do what I do these days — some ice, tonic water, and a twist of lime or lemon. No alcohol.  People will think gin and tonic and you’ve pulled of a little scam of your own.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Memories From Third Grade

I had a tough childhood. No kindergarten for me. First grade. Cold turkey.   No practice napping. No half-day classes to get used to what it’s like to be inside the big house.

My first grade teacher was Miss Hoover, a pretty young lady who served graham crackers and milk and begged for silence.  My second grade teacher was Mrs. Sparks, a no-nonsense high-breasted woman who was not particularly electric. She wore printed cotton dresses and looked through eyeglasses that had Coke bottle lenses. She could have been my grandmother’s sister. She was sane and diligently, if not enthusiastically, went about the boring daily business of math and spelling.

Miss Miller was a round, low-breasted woman who always wore a black cotton dress, perhaps the same one every day.  Her black hair was pinched into a tight, little a bun.  Like Mrs. Sparks and unlike Miss Hoover, Miss Miller never smiled.  She kept a yardstick or pointer in her right hand and a Bible in her left. She used them both.  She was a dark presence. Armed and dangerous.

Now I’ve talked with Catholic kids and heard story after story about those ferocious nuns.  Sorry, they couldn’t have lasted 30 seconds in the ring with Miss Miller. Sure the standard crack on the knuckles.  Yes, the ear was not only there for listening, it was also a handle by which Miss Miller could extract you from the classroom.  That’s just the physical stuff. There was a lot more to Miss Miller than the mere threat of, or actual, physical violence.

Every morning, after the pledge of allegiance and a prayer as long as a three-act play in the original Greek, she would read us something from the black book, usually something harsh and bitter showing the vengeful side of God’s nature.  I’ll admit that’s when I began to develop a dim view of the Creator. That and what he did to Moses put me off.  Of course I said nothing at the time. She had a Stalinesque hold on the third-graders. The smart-aleck seeds of my personality had not yet bloomed. The unfortunate thing is that most folks can read my face.

The Bible reading was followed by a moral tale.  One of those stories told to us 64 years ago survives to this day, albeit in tattered form.  I was eight at the time. Seems as if a frail little boy committed a sin, stealing perhaps.  He was caught and found guilty.  He was to be paddled (another weapon in Miss Miller’s arsenal).  “But he was so small and so weak,” Miss Miller said. “Surely there must be a better alternative.”  She looked around the classroom.  No one spoke. “All was lost, it seemed,” continued Miss Miller, “until one boy, a big, strapping child, raised his hand and volunteered to take the beating.” Miss Miller may have actually smiled, having conveyed what in her mind was an important moral lesson.

I think the reason I remember this story is that it never made sense to me. I’ve been trying to figure this out since I was eight. There seemed to be, even then, a simpler solution.

At 3:15 — the end of the day in Miss Miller’s third grade class, she would stand at the door as we all filed through and left for home.

That afternoon, as usual and being the polite child my parents taught me to be, I said to her: “Goodbye, Miss Miller, see you tomorrow.”

Without blinking, she replied, “If there is a tomorrow.”

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Notes — Trace Conger And Mr. Finn, Number 3

Not a lot of moss can grow on Trace Conger’s keyboard. His third Mr. Finn book is out.  I’ve commented here before on the first two – The Shadow Broker and Scar Tissue. I have a feeling we’ll be dealing with Mr. Finn’s fourth sooner rather than later.  The Prison Guard’s Son, just out, continues the adventures of the shadowy former private eye, whose lack of license seems to give him license to do what he deems necessary — legal or not and with moral judgment that is, at best, dicey.
Trace Conger

One of the interesting qualities that comes out of the notion of a series is not only getting to know the main character, a worthwhile endeavor in this case, but also those regular characters that surround him or her. I’m especially fond of Finn’s father, and his ex-love, who may or my not be so ex.  

This tale, full of clever twists, introduces us to a man who suffered the loss of a son in a brutal murder many years ago.  The two nine-year-old boys who were convicted of the crime served their sentences and were released into a federal protection program ostensibly because of how young they were when they committed the crime. The father of the victim has not forgotten nor forgiven, and he hires Finn to find the two so carefully hidden so many years ago.
Questions arise, of course.  How does one find people professionally hidden, given completely new and officially sanctioned identities?  Where does one begin?  More important, what happens if they are found? As it was with his previous books, Conger seems to approach his stories from unexpected angles and forces his readers to contend with the complex moral dilemmas that arise when law, justice and pure vigilantism intersect.

Trace Conger’s The Shadow Broker was awarded The Shamus by the Private Eye Writers of America for “Best First Novel.”

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Film Pairing — Off To The Land Of The Rising Sun and Ken Takahura

Tired of American gangsters? Board a jet in the comfort of your own residence and travel across the Pacific to watch American cops track down Japanese criminals in their own land.  Both are older films; but they hold up very well.

Black Rain — In this 1989 Ridley Scott-directed film two New York cops, played y Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia are assigned to take a Japanese criminal back to Japan.  He escapes and the Americans decide they must track him down despite all the language and cultural barriers.  Douglas does well as the ugly American and Andy Garcia does equally well as the charming sidekick as they sink deeper into the world of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.  The real star is the subdued Ken Takahura who is assigned to reign in the two rowdy and initially out-of-their depth American policemen.  Black Rain makes for a nice evening of quality escapist action.

The Yakuza — Before there was Black Rain there was The Yakuza. Not exactly heralded when it was released in 1974, the film noir directed by Sydney Pollack has more than redeemed itself. The plot is relatively complicated, but introduces the audience to the intricacies of Japanese culture as well as residue from World War II and the ongoing influence of the yakuza. This is an intelligent thriller, with all the violence that goes with it. Robert Mitchum plays a slightly aging, retired police detective who travels to Japan to help an old friend rescue his kidnapped daughter. Paul and Leonard Schrader wrote the screenplay with help from Robert Towne. A younger Ken Takahura is outstanding in a principal role.  Brian Keith and James Shigeta are also featured.

To augment your viewing pleasure – Saki. Cold or warm. For many of us westerners  who have no idea how varied Saki may be, it’s worth investigating.  For those who avoid alcohol, nothing wrong with a plum spritzer. Just remember, it’s a pretty tough night on screen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On Writing — Decanters of the Dubious

The election season has brought about new words and phrases, or at least a bunch of catch phrases that, in fact, seem to be catching, especially in the news media. None are new, but they are used so often they seem to be worn out. The candidates “double down” daily.  And it’s quite often too late to change because perceptions of them are “baked in the cake.”  There is “push back.”  There is ‘lean in.”  I don’t recall “surrogates” being so common.  But the Trump campaign seems to have cloned them.  The clue, is, if it isn’t otherwise obvious, that they call Hillary Clinton either “Hillary “or “Clinton.”  Kaine is “Kaine.”  President Obama is “Obama” despite the fact he is president. Even Pence is merely ‘Pence.”  However Donald Trump is always MISTER Trump. You know that must be in the contract.
MISTER Trump having trouble with younger voters

Now we have “basket of deplorables.” As a reluctant, but now devoted Hillary supporter, I want to comment on this tempest in a teapot by chastising the absolute feebleness (feebility?) of her slur that half the Trump supporters are a “basket of deplorables.” Her speechwriters must be tired.  I’ve written a speech or two.  Maybe just two.  But I think I could have come up with a better line.  Here are some possibilities:

Box of Dispicables
Bag of Undesirables
Bushel of Dim Bulbs
Bowl of the Duped
Barrel of Dummies
Bottle of Dreadfuls
Blanket of Undesirables
Bundle of Irredeemables

My favorite is:
Decanters of the Dubious

In these cases I favor alliteration. And at least half of MISTER Trump’s supporters wouldn’t know they should be offended. It’s baked in the cake.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Rant– No Unsolicited Manuscripts, No Exceptions

I am now qualified to glorify the old days and cast aspersions on the new ones. My first statement is both. At the drugstore soda fountain at 21st and Drexel on Indianapolis’ East side, they served an ice cream flavor called raspberry salad. Raspberry ice cream and nuts. No doubt, the nuts made it a salad. It was delicious. It doesn’t exist today and Wikipedia has no listing for it as an ice cream flavor like chocolate or orange sherbet. A few silly salads with raspberries in it is all.

Now I was victim of old folks like me when I was a kid.  You could go to a movie for a nickel, they said a penny would actually buy something.  And I have my own memories from my childhood.  You could buy a pack of cigarettes, or a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas and have change back from a quarter. None of that really means anything, except for the raspberry salad, of course. 

But what I’m really angry about is that someone could write a book and send it to a publisher.  If you were unknown, your manuscript would be tossed in a slush pile and might not be read right away if you were an unknown.  But there was a good chance your book would get a look at some point; and if they didn't want it, you’d get a letter of rejection.  I have many such letters.  I even have one from The New Yorker rejecting a poem I submitted.  I am grateful they sent a letter, but perhaps more appreciative that they decided not to embarrass me by printing the poem.

The writing community had a name for sending an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher. It was an “over-the-transom” submission.   And it was usually done without an agent. None of that happens anymore now that publishing is in the hands of half a dozen big corporations.

I’ve been dealing with that for the last couple of years. On the other hand, let me start my rant with what really upset me. I’ll get back to the big five publishers and their mimics among the so-called independents.

A few months back, I had a germ of an idea for a story. It seemed to write itself. Oddly though, it came out as a stage play. That’s not entirely silly because that’s how I started writing (and acting)— skits in grade school and plays in high school and college as well as community theatre.  All that happened before I started writing mysteries or helped start an alternative newspaper.

So when I finished my play I decided to send it to a major non-profit theatre company in San Francisco where I had lived for 25 years.  I knew no one at the theatre company, only that it was highly regarded. So I sent a note to the artistic director asking for the appropriate contact.

“We are not allowed to accept unsolicited material,” the director replied, suggesting that they only accept material from those professionally represented (an agent). The phrase “we are not allowed” is bogus from the start. At best, “unwilling” is the word. It also bothered me that a non-profit organization would shut down a member of the community, forcing a writer to go through a for-profit entity to even have a chance for consideration. As many in the book world know, finding an agent is more difficult than finding a publisher.

I replied:

I'm sure this is policy and not necessarily of your making, but the agent requirement is counter-creative and counter community interest.  I'm 71…and have represented myself with Penguin, St. Martin's Press as well as Canadian and London publishers.  It's a bit late for me to find an agent who will take on someone who hasn't a promising future because there's not much of a future left. I think that forced representation (or anyone) is deeply unfair. Again, I'm sure this isn't your doing, so I'm harboring no ill feelings toward you; but policy makers should be reminded how soulfully barren that policy is. It really has no place in the arts.

The theatre company is not alone. I have two novels I’d like to send out, but after the big five closed submissions to non-agented writers, the emerging independents, some of them showing a tremendous spirit and supporting new and old voices embodied a bit of hope that the publishing world was more than James Patterson and the William Morris Agency. However, even many of enterprising newcomers seem to be closing the gates.

“No unsolicited manuscripts.  No exceptions.”

Don’t get me wrong. Over the last 30 or so years, in addition to seeing 18 of my novels published, I’ve accumulated a number of rejection slips. Some, though certainly not all, are variations of form letters.  But the likelihood is that my query, synopsis or a paragraph or two of the submitted manuscript were read or skimmed before the decision was made to reject it. And even if the rejection contained an observation I disagreed with, I did not resent the publisher’s decision, or comments for that matter. That truly is the publisher’s business. What happened was that someone gave it a few minutes and then responded. That’s all any of us are entitled to.

 In the case of the theater company mentioned above it’s a little worse. We have a community–based, nonprofit (tax and grant supported) organization acting like a Monsanto or G.E.   Regarding the book publishers, sadly, the highly spirited folks who set up new, vibrant publishing companies aren’t any different from the big five conglomerate publishers. They are, in too many cases, following in the big guys’ icy footsteps.

“No unsolicited manuscripts.  No exceptions.”

Now it’s true:  I am getting old and grumpy.  It might also be true that my skills, such as they were, are slipping. My days may be numbered, or over.  Then again the play, which prompted this rant, is about getting old and grumpy and irrelevant. And one’s advanced age and history should suggest some level of competence, at least enough for the work to warrant a quick glance.