Thursday, August 25, 2016

Film Pairings — The Young, The Pretty And The Mysterious

You’ve met the young, haven’t you?  If you haven’t this double feature will go a long way to making introductions.

Wicker Park — Though not exactly a crime film, it is a mystery.  Adapted from the French original, L’Appartement. We follow Josh Hartnett as he bounces around from his wife-to-be, his former lover and an interloper.  Flashbacks are dizzying as we are theoretically given all the pieces we need to figure out what’s going on.  It’s fascinating and frustrating, if not altogether fulfilling to watch. In the end it is a somewhat clever exercise.  Hartnett is good, sexy and vulnerable. Rose Byrne is sexy and loony and Diane Kruger is lovely and cool, just short of cold.  Paul McGuigan directed this 2004 film with critics not necessarily fully on board. I suspect those watching at home will find it entertaining enough, having not spent the going rate for in-theater viewing. Wicker Park is officially set in Chicago, where there is a Wicker Park.  But you will be forgiven if you recognize a glimpse or two of Montreal.

Jack Ryan, Shadow Patriot — Also sporting young and pretty main characters, this 2014 release was a pleasant surprise.  Not a big fan of movies based on Tom Clancy novels despite the usually excellent plotting. However, this one had a touch of warmth as well as all the hallmarks of a thriller.  It is a solid and under rated film starring Chris Pine and Keira Knightly. It also has strong supporting performances by Kevin Costner and particularly Kenneth Branagh, who also directed. Given the current visibility given to Russia’s increasing involvement in U.S. and world affairs, including Vladimir Putin’s keen interest in covert and overt aggression, the film is also timely.  Ryan is embroiled in a Soviet plot to destroy the U.S. economy through stock market manipulation and terrorism.

Tonight’s double feature is a perfect compromise for those couples whose preferences are split between romance and action thrillers. I think the drink to accompany the entertainment should be wine.  A sweet white for the first and a hearty red for the second.  (I’d also advise watching Wicker park first, and not just because of the wine selection.) For the non-imbibers, try fruit-infused sparkling water.

Friday, August 19, 2016

On Writing – Ramblings

I read a story the other day about a meeting in 1922 between James Joyce and Marcel Proust — two members of literary royalty and authors of the often-compared classic novels many consider the best of the 20th Century, Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time.

Though the recollections of their only and very historic meeting vary a bit from one witness to another, a general truth emerged. They had nothing to say to each other.

Mr. Proust
It’s not surprising to me.  One of the writers I admire, Truman Capote, never failed to deliver truly elegant prose. I believe I’ve read all of his work, certainly most of it. And while I don’t put myself in that league (nor would anyone else), I wouldn’t have chosen him for a lunch companion any more than he would have chosen his arch enemy Gore Vidal. Unfortunately, having witnessed him in person as well as watched a few interviews on television, I prefer the beauty of his prose to his presence. And given my status in the world, no doubt he would wonder why I was in the same room.

On the other hand, I would have enjoyed a conversation with another of my favorite writers, Paul Bowles, not because he is an author, though.  Here is a bright, observant man who lived half a century in Morocco.  I would have liked to learn more about what he thought about that part of the world and what perspective he could provide on world affairs as Eastern and Western cultures appear to clash.

I suspect Joyce and Proust, unless they shared some passion such as gardening or sausage making, would not spend a lot of time with each other. Would we expect them to share exchanging writing tips?
Mr. Joyce

“Marcel, I think you should use less description and more action verbs.”

“You could be a little more cheerful, Jimmy.”

Many observers were interested in what these contemporaries thought of each other. They are both credited with revolutionizing the novel. Both created at least one interminable book, which few have actually read and a style some critics of the time found unintelligible. What would these two giants discuss? 

Again, I’m not surprised they had nothing, or at least very little, to say to each other.    
For me, writing is a solitary undertaking not a gang-related activity. For better or worse, I have no doubt absorbed lessons in the craft, or the art, by simply reading.  But aside from Elmore Leonard’s funny and elementary advice (Essentially, Don’t write what people don’t want to read.), my contention is one must learn by doing.  Then again, the Parisian moveable feast attendees – Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Baldwin and others – might disagree.

Comments, agreeable or disagreeable (though hopefully civil) are welcome.  Also, if you could sit down with an author – dead or alive — who would it be? And why if you have the time.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Rant — Our Own House of Cards

When a presidential candidate makes a veiled suggestion that gun advocates might use their passion to eliminate the opposition, you might have greater drama in the real world than the darkly humorous piece of fiction about the Presidency, ‘House of Cards.”  Some of what happens in the Netflix series seemed preposterous. No more. It is reality that is unbelievable.

Narcissist In Chief (Donald J. Trump)
One could believe a conniving politician and his equally avaricious wife team up to gain the most powerful positions in the world. We’ve had time to adjust to it in a kind of parallel reality filled with all sorts of drama – accusations of illicit affairs, claims of murder, potential violations of national security, illegal quid quo pro deals and actual impeachment. While TV’s “Madame Secretary” shines a golden light on the Hillary Clinton type, “House of Cards” seems to have been inspired by the shadowy side of Bill and Hillary.

Though trending upward, Former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton is regarded unfavorably by more people than almost any other presidential candidate in history.  ALMOST, I repeat.  Even less liked and trending downward is the pretend billionaire, foil hatted conspiracy theorist, fake patriot, race baiting, incredibly uninformed and unhinged Donald Jong Trump.  His antics have set up a scenario more bizarre than Doctor Stangelove. He is a misogynist with videotapes to prove it. He makes fun of the disabled. He has a history of bad business practices and failed casinos, though he runs by peddling his success as a businessman, and refuses— unlike every modern presidential candidate before him — to make his income taxes public. Why? Will they reveal his real income?  How little taxes he pays? Will they show that his very public promises to charity have gone unfulfilled?  Trump is currently on trial for fraud and racketeering for operating a bogus university.  He promises to bring jobs home though nearly every product with the Trump brand is outsourced. He is anti-immigrant, though he employs them en masse at his various golf resorts and spas. 

He has picked as his running mate a failed governor of Indiana who believes the earth is little more than 6,000 years old and that human activity is not affecting climate despite overwhelming scientific proof to the contrary. This at a time NASA is sending back photographs of Jupiter? How could this not make an uproarious satirical comedy much more interesting than “House of Cards?”

This does not mean Donald Trump is without savvy. Even a ten-year-old can be cunning. Trump has the knack for self-promotion. Like the jokester in the back of the classroom or the bully on the playground, he has discovered the art of disruption. “Pay attention to me!”  But if you do, you realize he has nothing to say. As people tire of his tantrums, Trump has had to escalate his threats through calculated, carefully worded statements. About Hillary, he said:

Frank J. Underwood (Kevin Spacey)
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

The meaning is clear to anyone who has half a brain. Through ambiguity, he has deniability. He was only encouraging them to come out and vote, he said. Trump has one more protective layer. If he’s caught, as he was here, he claims the “liberal media is after him.  The bully is the victim.  He whines.  The system, through which he purportedly became rich and certainly famous, is rigged against him. 

The only constant is that it’s all about him. However, in the end, he has no substance anyway. Even his words are empty.  He rarely uses words let alone sentences that have substance. They are exclamations. Everything is incredible, fantastic, unbelievable, amazing. Especially him. True. An “amazing “number of “ditto heads” (remember them) follow him, some with their confederate flags and some with their pointy hats.

Unfortunately for Trump, the very people who were drawn to him because “he tells it like it is,” haven’t been told anything useful. They simply worship a man who worships himself.

Yet the world quakes, awaiting his spontaneous threats and insults. Leaders from major countries —many our long-term allies — cringe, not because they fear his strength as a leader (or negotiator), but because they fear his stupidity in a nuclear age. He is our Kim Jong Un, a thin-skinned egomaniac who inherited his position in life, and who now masquerades as savior.

We haven’t had such a threat to global stability since Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini.  The thing is: we truly don’t know whether to laugh or cry. He is a truly dangerous clown.  Who could make the movie of a man who once was the playboy of the western world and became someone who could actually destroy it? Mel Brooks?  The Coen Brothers?  John Waters? David Lynch?

“Certainly House of Cards,’ clever and seductive as it is, collapses as cutting edge political theater in the face of the surreal nature of the 2016 U.S. election. Yes, yes, and with irony, Hillary represents the establishment, the “good old boy” network. Not my first choice, or second, but we’re down to two. The former secretary of state is intelligent, experienced in world affairs and most important, not a nutcase.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

On Writing – Short San Francisco Mysteries And Shameless Self Promotion

New Release – Pre-Order
Even before my Shanahan series came to an end, I was investigating, experimenting and completing shorter mysteries. The standard mystery novel is somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words.  Short stories probably average around 5,000 words. The novella, or short novel, usually comes in around 20,000 allowing, in my opinion, the writer to develop both substantial character and plot development without fluff.

I’ve written two of these novellas for the Lang-Paladino series — Death In The Tenderloin and Death In The Haight.  More recently I participated in Canadian publisher Orca’s Rapid Reads program, easy-to-read short novels. I think of the series of books by popular authors as the perfect read for that flight from Denver to New York or while you under the covers for bedtime but can’t afford to stay up all night. The first novella, The Blue Dragon, received a genuinely warm welcome.  Here is what an early reviewer had to say about the book and the program:

"What an incredible beginning to a new mystery series by Ronald Tierney...This cover art also provides a capsule view of the multi-dimensions of the novella and becomes more meaningful as the reader progresses through each chapter...[This was] my first introduction to “Rapid Reads” and I am enthralled not only by the individual title selection experience but also for the incredible discovery of this reading series...(LibraryThing Early Reviewer 2015-08-23)

Now, we’re ready for book two, The BlackTortoise: When a low-key forensic accountant with a private investigator’s license is asked to investigate a San Francisco-based nonprofit arts organization, he meets a cast of quirky characters who all seem to be hiding a secret. There is evidence of a probable fraud, but when fraud leads to murder, the reluctant P.I. is drawn deeper into the murky waters of a criminal undertaking and shocking personal revelations.
The Black Tortoise, now available for pre-order, is the second novella featuring Asian American private eye Peter Strand. The Blue Dragon is available in paperback and digital. Both books are part of Orca Publishing’s Rapid Reads series.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Notes: A Chandler-Parker Welcome To Poodle Springs

Robert B. Parker

There has been an ongoing battle between the Raymond Chandler fans and those who prefer Dashiell Hammett about the invention of the modern P.I. in fiction.  I confess that I’m not well enough read to come down on one side or the other. However, spending a couple of decades in San Francisco, I’m more likely to favor Hammett.   It’s a matter of the sprawling suburbs that surround Hollywood versus the mysterious, exotic neighborhoods of the foggy City By The Bay. I prefer the walkable streets of S.F.

Used to be walkable, anyway. In the last few years, age and declining health nudged me from my third floor apartment at the top of a long and high hill.  The cost of relocating in one the world’s most beautiful but expensive cities pushed me out, and I’ve ended up in Chandler territory, two hours out of L.A., in Palm Springs. Here I expect to spend my golden years, or platinum years or titanium years. I also expect to murder someone here literarily, perhaps more than one.

Raymond Chandler
Now, after settling “Down Among The Sheltering Palms,” I wanted to read something that took place in my new town to help get my bearings — preferably a P.I. story.  And there it was — Poodle Springs, the last of Chandler’s eight Marlowe novels. It was left undone at the famous author’s death in 1959, and finished in 1989 by the popular and prolific Robert B. Parker.  I’ve read more than a few of Parker’s Spenser novels over the years. This one reads a whole lot like Spenser, caught in a time machine, a time when Palm (Poodle) Springs was the resort playground for movie stars and gangsters.  In this case, a guy fails to pay off a $100,000 IOU.  Marlowe is hired to collect. Murder ensues in the town of the rich and playful.

Chandler wrote the first four chapters, Parker the rest. Things have changed in the Marlowe series. The heretofore single-guy and L.A. P.I. has suddenly married.  He’s suddenly married a rich woman who delights in trying to make him a “kept-man” (as they used to say) — a theme that would repeat itself in the story.  What it reminded me of was Nick and Nora Charles, Hammett’s lovely, witty couple, so witty they turned The Thin Man series of films into a goldmine for Hammett. What was Chandler thinking? Was it simply the time for Philip Marlowe to settle down? Or did Chandler expect to hit the comedy-romance-mystery jackpot? The main difference between the two couples  —and Marlowe’s comes more than a decade later — seems to be that while Nick liked the good life provided by his wife, Marlowe was a tad threatened by it. And I’ll give Hammett the edge in the witty repartee department. How does it end? That’s for you to find out.  

Poodle Springs is a good, fast read and just what I wanted, a glance at my new home through the eyes of a couple of classic writers and an era I like a lot.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Notes: John D. MacDonald At 100

If you are not a critic, or an academic specializing in crime fiction or a reader obsessed with it, you are forgiven if all the MacDonalds are just a bit confusing. In addition to John D. MacDonald, there is Ross Macdonald and Gregory Mcdonald. What they have in common, besides ever-so-slightly different last names is that they are all critically acclaimed crime writers, and all three have sold a helluva lot of books.  I once thought that I should change my last name to McDonald if only to capitalize on the magic of the name. Because my first name is Ronald, I quickly gave up on the idea.

John D. MacDonald
The reason I am focusing on John D. is to honor on the last day of a two-week celebration of the centennial of his birth and the appropriately timed, handsome reissues of some of his work. Perhaps his most esteemed work is the 1957 thriller, The Executioners, better known to moviegoers as Cape Fear, a film so good they made it twice.  MacDonald is also the creator of one of America’s most popular fictional P.I.s, Travis McGee, who works out of his a boat in Florida.

If you are a new reader though, it’s probably a good idea to start with this first of his 21 Travis McGee novels because The Deep Blue Good-By is the series exposition — building the character, painting the setting, and developing the mechanics, which is how this P.I uniquely goes about his business.  The year is 1964, and McGee is a tough but conscientious man of his times. Though we are not mired down in his philosophy of good and evil, we are dealt at least some thoughtful, literary exposure to the subject as the P.I. sees it.  In this first of his series, we witness a strange kind of murderer: A monster, maybe, but not a sophisticated, brilliant Ripley or a sophisticated, obsessed Hannibal Lecter, but a coarse, rough-hewn charmer, whose motives include but go well beyond self-enrichment, at least in the monetary sense.

“There are men in the world who are compelled to destroy the most fragile and valuable things they can find, the same way rowdy children will ravage a beautiful home. Look at me, they are saying.”

In The Deep Blue Good-By, McGee hunts for such a man, a twisted Romeo who sees fragile women as an object to dominate, extort, and ravage. To break. If Travis McGee can be warm and compassionate, he can also be vicious in pursuit of justice. After a long sea-chase, the finale is a testament to up-close and very personal violence.

Though John D. is not my favorite of the various McDonalds, there is no doubt he is one of the masters of the genre. The good looking cover of the recent rerelease shows the high regard in which he is held by current crime-writing luminaries. Praise comes from Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark and Jonathan Kellerman.  Lee Child wrote the introduction to this edition.

Final note: Though a promised Travis McGee film is in dry-dock, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt — all of them — flirted seriously with the P.I. role in The Deep Blue Good-By.  Also, over at The Rap Sheet, there’s more interesting stuff on the 100th birthday of John D, especially a gallery of old John D. covers.

Happy birthday, John.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Film Pairing — Inner Directed, Outer Directed Movie Making

I grew up with adventure movies. The action was the plot.  The characters were essentially good or essentially bad.  We rooted for a good outcome. Good prevailed after a suitable period of doubt and fear.  This is the core of American movies in particular, which was all I saw before my teens and a little independence fueled by curiosity. The French not only introduced me to nudity, but to more complex characters.  Lately, American audiences have fallen in love with the cold, barren landscapes of Scandinavian countries and the complex emotions emanating from the darkness of the soul, sometimes ameliorating the significance, or enhancing the understanding of good and evil. Unlike the American products that focus on the external circumstances, the meat of many Scandinavian dramas comes from plunging into depth of character.

Point Break — This is an American film and surprisingly good, though relatively superficial.  I say surprisingly “good” because it is also a surfing and sky diving film with a series of powerful bank-robbing scenes.  Director Kathryn Bigelow makes the odd mix work, putting together an exciting couple of hours of adrenaline-infused sports adventure with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves as criminal cat and FBI mouse on the thriller side.  The film, also featuring Gary Busey and Lori Petty, was released in 1991.  It was a major financial success and has evolved into a cult favorite. Ample male and female pulchritude. This is not to be confused with the remake.

The Absent One — Unlike the outer-directed Point Blank, this intense crime drama is focused on and propelled by investigating the depth of its characters, particularly a neurotic and obsessive cop brought in for cold case murders and a witness traumatized by the murder who is in hiding.  The film, released in 2014, is based on the novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen. It was directed by Mikkel Norgaard, and stars Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Pilou Asbaek, David Dencik and Danica Curic, is set in Denmark. As we have come to suspect of Scandinavian crime films, the movement is slower, the screen is darker and the emotions richer than most of its American counterparts. Incidentally, there are three films in the Department Q series.

What to have while watching these two films: Akvavit or for something lighter, Carlsberg beer, which, very chilled, would also work for the beach scenes in Point Break. For the non-imbibers, we can always fall back on lemon and tonic water.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Rant — Crime Reduction for the One Percent: Make Bribery Legal

In the Citizens United Decision, The U.S. Supreme Court somehow came to he conclusion that corporations are people AND money is speech.  To put limits on corporate donations to political candidate is to therefore limit free speech.

It is apparent now — if the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United didn't clue you in before – that bribing government officials is quite all right. The U.S. Supreme Court said so, and has just said so, again. There is no intellectual or common sense argument that justifies these decisions.

Here is what The New York Times had to say then.

It’s that tortured logic that led to the conclusion that money is speech.  We’ve known this for a long time.  Except it used to be said in a less constitutional way that “money talks.” And while practiced widely, it was illegal.  But now that it’s “speech,” bribery is legal.  So if you are the P.R. czar for a big company or an organization that wants to sell guns or pills or food or without regulation you can pay congressional representatives to pass laws to help you succeed.

George W. Bush And Pro-Bribery Justice Alito
I don’t know about you, but my twenty bucks isn’t going to buy much influence; whereas the NRA can buy off congress who might otherwise regulate the sale of military assault weapons to the public; whereas big food corporations can pay off reps to prevent full and honest product labeling; whereas Nestle can continue to use public land for free to sell your water back to you.

If we were naive enough to believe that Citizens (money is speech) United was a one-off, here’s a case (taken from a story by Jon Schwarz at Intercept) that shows this is the direction of the ultra-right leaning Supreme Court, who like their Republican friends believe it’s only fair the rich get richer – no doubt because they are so kind to  the rest of us.

Former Virginia Governor Bob  McDonnell

“In the McDonnell case, it was proven that Jonnie Williams, the CEO of a dietary supplement company, gave McDonnell an engraved Rolex watch, took McDonnell’s wife Maureen on a $20,000 shopping spree at Louis Vuitton and Oscar de le Renta in New York, loaned the couple over $100,000, and much more. In return, McDonnell set up meetings for Williams with Virginia officials that Williams used to push for the state to fund studies on the effectiveness of his supplements, pestered his staff about it, let Williams throw a product launch lunch at the governor’s mansion, and allowed Williams to add himself and associates to the guest list for a reception for state healthcare leaders. Williams himself testified that the gifts he gave the McDonnells were ‘a business transaction.’”

Yet the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the conviction. The Justices, as well as many of McDonnell’s friends and associates, believe that he simply did what friends do for friends.  We’d like to think that when a judge gets to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, the last chance for justice, you really try to find your higher self.

The Supreme Court is determined to make bribery not only legal but also an enforced right, therefore an integral part of U.S society.

Young Justice Alito is one of the prime players in this mess. I’m not sure he’s bright enough to figure he is largely responsible for legalizing pay-offs.  He actually denies it. He should brush up on his Shakespeare: A rose by any other name….”

Meanwhile, this far right George W. appointee will be around awhile. And if the next president provides him with some allies on the bench we will have a even smaller voice in our government for years to come — unless of course you, like Trump, have a few million tucked away for such incidentals as bribing senators.