Friday, December 30, 2011

Film Pairing — Mystery Women, Are They Only A Dream?

Film critics generally agree these are two of the best films ever made — certainly in the mystery genre. The American Film Institute ranks Laura fourth in best all-time mystery movies. Vertigo is ranked number one. Laura, released in 1944, starred Gene Tierney, (no relation), one of the great, talented beauties of the era. Vertigo, released in 1958, starred Kim Novak, no doubt one of the most beautiful and most box office pleasing movie stars of hers. Both actresses portray illusive, mysterious women, pursued by investigators who fall in love with what is little more than an aura. Unlike standard noir, which Laura seems kin to and the usual Hitchcock approach to suspense, these have an added romantic dimension.

Last October, I listed my top nine crime films — a set of criteria that makes it different from “mystery” movies. If the list had just one slot more, Laura would have been on it. And if I had a vote on anyone’s list, I’d rank Laura higher than Vertigo. The film is based on the book of the same name by Vera Caspary Laura and was nominated for several Academy Awards, winning one for Best Black and White Cinematography. The film was directed by Otto Preminger and has a solid cast. In addition to Tierney as the title character, Dana Andrews plays the police investigator called in to solve Laura’s death, Vincent Price portrays her playboy lover and the incomparable Clifton Webb (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) plays her mentor. As the story begins we learn that the beautiful Laura has been found dead in her home, shot in the face with a shotgun. Andrews, as an NYC homicide detective, after seeing a portrait of the victim and finding out about her life, slowly falls in love with her. This is a pure mystery. We only know what the investigator knows and we can, in who-dunnit fashion, try to figure out who did it before he does. Though suspenseful, there is considerable wit and humor as well, thanks largely to Webb’s impeccable performance as Waldo Lydecker.

While Andrews becomes entranced with Tierney in Laura, former cop Jimmy Stewart becomes absolutely obsessed with Kim Novak in Vertigo, all the while dealing with guilt over the death of his partner and his increasingly paralyzing fear of heights. Though many film experts claim this is Alfred Hitchcock’s most accomplished film, Hitchcock himself didn’t care for it at the time of its release. In my mind Vertigo is not nearly as good as the more grounded Dial M For Murder. On the other hand it is far better than The Birds and it is a Hitchcock film. What makes it worthwhile for me are Novak, Jimmy Stewart and the rich, San Francisco setting. The film was based on D’entre Les Morts, a novel (The Living And The Dead) by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. According to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, Hitchcock had originally wanted to buy the rights to another novel by the French duo, which was later made into Les Diaboliques.

As far as accompanying libations, if you watch Vertigo first, maybe a dry red wine and then a switch to a nice dessert wine for Laura.

CAPTION: (Top) Gene Tierney with Vincent Price in Laura. (Bottom) Jimmy Stewart recues Kim Novak in Vertigo.

P.S. The New Yorker’s film critic Anthony Lane dabbles in film pairings in the January 2, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. He too picked Laura to exalt. But he paired it with Rebecca. Laura is playing now at the Film forum in NYC, he said.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Opinion — Dog Day Years, Me And The Cajun Cur

In all the mysteries I’ve written, only two of the characters are real. Some are an amalgam of people; but usually even if I intend to steal the soul of a living being as grist for the mill, the characters take over and, in the end, they possess only the slightest traces of the original DNA.

The two who are real appear in the Shanahan mysteries. Einstein the cat, whom I’ve mentioned before and Casey, the dog. Neither of them solves murders, nor do they talk. They do not engage in super heroics. They are who they are. They keep the old private eye company. (And he is not me — I am not him?.) I mentioned Einstein in an earlier post along with his alleged murderous past. This post, though, is about Casey, who has been in all ten Shanahan mystery novels. Everything I’ve ever said about him is, or could easily be, true.

Casey and I became close friends and housemates. We got along very well after an initial period of adjustment. He arrived one early spring morning. It was Saint Patrick’s Day. The strange, not quite fully–grown, spotted and flecked dog sat in a patch of sun on my lawn. A good friend had arrived days earlier to spend the summer at my place to rest from his world travels and create art. We noticed the dog as we left to pick up some groceries, figuring he belonged to someone in the neighborhood and that he would have moved on by the time we came back. We were gone a couple of hours. He was still there when we returned. And he was still there as the afternoon rolled into evening and the spot of sun where he rested was gone.

We approached to make sure he was all right. He looked up calmly as if he was expecting us. All he had to do was wait and we would come around.

“I’ll get him some water,” my friend said. The dog, incidentally without a collar or tags, was all right. He was alert and friendly. He followed us through the gate into the inner yard. That, of course, was the beginning of the occupation — a sort of houseguest who never left, who never intended to leave. The dog, later named Casey, had determined — probably well before we did — that he was home.

His meeting with Einstein, who had been with me at least ten years by then, wasn’t as bad as it could have been. After the cat provided a few uppercuts to the curious dog’s jaw, Casey gave Einstein the respect and distance the cat thought was appropriate. As the days progressed, it was clear that the dog was house-trained and that he was an incredible infielder, snagging rough hops of the tennis ball with incredible ease and bringing the ball back to me again and again, for as long as I cared to throw it.

I took him to the vet, where he was given various shots and a good health report. What kind of dog was he, I asked the vet. “Some kind of hound, I’d guess,” he said. There was a hunting dog look to him. A Blue Tick Hound, I thought, but Casey seemed stouter and sturdier. His ears were shorter. His coloring was also puzzling. He didn’t just have spots, but big patches of color and tiny flecks all in brown-gold, black, gray, and white, all irregularly placed on his 65-pound frame. The idea that he was a hound mix seemed right. I found out he howled like a hound when sirens were near. With the proper coaxing he and I would sing a duet. It was the Casey who had to be coaxed. There was no “America’s Got Talent” then. Otherwise we would have been that homely couple singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”

What isn’t always understood by those who live without a close relationship to other species is that we humans are not the only beings with complicated natures. At the other extreme, my older brother believes that animals are superior to humans. I disagree. I pretty much think that we are all equal. That doesn’t mean we are the same. I cannot discern thousands of different smells and even if I could I doubt if I could make sense of them. I can’t catch a tennis ball in my mouth. On the other hand, I can open a can of dog food. Opposable thumbs. And while this may disturb dog lovers, in truth I’ve met dogs I don’t like, just as I’ve met humans I could do without. And there are dogs and humans here and there who have taken an immediate dislike to me.

But Casey and I got along very well pretty much from the beginning.

He had a sense of humor. Many times he would hang around while I dressed in the morning. And quite often, waiting until I was balancing on one leg to put my pants on, he would give me a forceful nudge. I swear I could see him smile as I toppled.

He hated baths. I would have to pick him up, his back to my chest and my arms wrapped around his chest. As we approached the bathroom doorway, he would push his legs straight out, paws on the doorframe, preventing me from getting him through. I eventually won the struggle. Afterward, he seemed to appreciate it.

He was jealous. Attempting to nudge Einstein off my lap usually met with severe resistance from the cat. That didn’t keep him from trying. And I was not permitted to pet other dogs. If I did I put their health and safety in jeopardy.

He was also sneaky. In the early days, not wanting to keep him all cramped up inside during the summer while I was at work, I’d leave him outside during the daylight hours. He always had water and there were plenty of trees to get shade or shelter. I thought I was doing him a favor. I had no idea how big a favor it was.

One day I got a call at work. It was from the vet. Casey was seen racing around on the Butler University campus a few blocks away from where we lived. Someone had taken the trouble to retrieve the doctor’s number from the dog tags and reported Casey’s no doubt carefree excursion. I excused myself from work and drove to Butler. I spent hours trying to find Casey, driving around the neighborhood. No luck. When I got back to the house, there was Casey, inside the fence, wagging his tail enthusiastically, welcoming me home just as he always did. The gate was shut. All was normal.

What I didn’t know was that Casey was a climber. He climbed the fence every day after I left for work, wandered around the neighborhood, and returned home before I did, always showing his happiness at my arrival.

Casey and Einstein moved to San Francisco with me. We moved into a small apartment. Casey’s wandering days were over. It wasn’t just the adjustment to urban living. He was getting older. Even before we moved, the green, smelly tennis ball — one he could find in a blizzard — had lost its allure. Now, as a city dweller, taking Casey for a walk became a regular routine. One day we passed a man sitting out on the steps in front of his house.

“You got yourself a Catahoula,” the man said. He had an accent that I couldn’t identify. It sounded like a cross between Brooklyn and the Deep South.

“A what?” I asked. I had no idea what he meant.

“Catahoula. Your dog is a Catahoula.”

I nodded and Casey and I kept walking. I was pretty sure the man was about to spin a tall and perhaps long tale about cats and hulas. Usually I listen, but I must have been in a hurry. I moved on.

The name “Catahoula” stuck in my brain. I still suspected it was a joke, but during a trip to the bookstore I came across a huge book about dogs. It boasted that it was the most comprehensive book of breeds ever published. I thumbed through it. And there was Casey. A Catahoula, also called a “leopard dog.” The breed, as it turns out, is the state dog of Louisiana.

Casey never lorded his newly found proper breeding over me. He remained humble. If he had ever been too uppity, I would have reminded him that he was a “cur” after all, not even a hound. But the Catahoula was recognized as a breed, one favored as a hunting companion by Jim Bowie, who lived in Louisiana’s Catahoula Parish, and Teddy Roosevelt, when he went after wild boar. The point is that Casey and I remained great friends throughout our ten years plus of living together. Our worlds overlapped easily. Though, it was obvious to me that from time to time, Casey lived in a world very different from mine, or any human’s. I doubt if we’ll ever know exactly what that world is like.

However there is a book I’d like to recommend to dog lovers. Author Alexandra Horowitz wrote a fantastic attempt at knowing: Inside Of A Dog, What Dogs See, Smell and Know. It’s well worth reading if you want to know more about your dog’s mind.

PHOTO CAPTIONS: (top) Casey the Catahoula in front of the house he chose to live in. (bottom) A highly recommended book about the mind of dogs

Monday, December 26, 2011

Opinion — Kurt Vonnegut, Christopher Buckley, Class Warfare And The Meaning of Genre


A couple of Sundays ago there were three letters criticizing a bio of Kurt Vonnegut in The New York Times book section. Christopher Buckley, son of William, but a bonafide conservative wit in his own right, is accused of mischaracterizing Vonnegut’s often-repeated phrase “And so it goes.” Buckley’s take was that Vonnegut meant it as a form of “apathetic shrug.” Instead, a letter writer said, it was the fatalistic admission of the “randomness of death.” That we can do nothing about it doesn’t mean we don’t care.

One of the other criticisms of the review (not the book but the review of it) was that Buckley categorized some of Vonnegut’s books as “sci-fi (esque).” The letter writer took offense, suggesting that this description perpetuates the erroneous notion that because Vonnegut is regarded highly in many literary circles, he couldn’t possibly have written a lowly science fiction novel, only a book with science fiction overtones.

Having read a lot of Vonnegut, I think Buckley was wrong about the apathy question. Very wrong. Anyone who read Slaughterhouse Five would understand that Vonnegut wrote with deep compassion. Having read (and enjoyed) Christopher Buckley’s writing, which intended or not, seems to take root from a position in the privileged class, I would infer that he was projecting his own feelings. But isn’t that what we do when we read books? Each reader has a different relationship with the writer, interpreting those words on paper in different ways. The reader fills in the gaps. Each of us sees the rooms that the characters pass through very differently. We might miss the sarcasm in a bit of dialogue. We might interpret motives differently. It is, in a way, the beauty of reading and writing fiction. The act of reading (whether on paper or screen) is a highly interactive and very intimate experience. Though, I know from comments and reviews that readers of my books don’t always see what I intended them to see. That is not a reader failure, of course. If there is blame to be attributed, it is on me. That is the nature of the reader/writer relationship and, I believe, it will always be so.

Buckley’s other comment, apparently attempting to flatter Vonnegut by saving him from any embarrassing accusations that he might be a “mere” science fiction writer, is also a result of a class system — this time in the landed gentry in the “literary” hierarchy. Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis. Though he was not born in a poor or uneducated household, he wouldn’t have been too concerned about being a member of one of the “right” families. In fact, the whole idea of proper ancestry in a city like his (and mine) was not much of a consideration culturally, certainly not in the same way as the Brahmans of the East considered “breeding.” It is also doubtful that this former soldier (prisoner of war) and journalist looked at literature as having higher and lower forms, determined by genre. I seriously doubt if he would want Buckley coming to his defense over Cat’s Cradle or any other book by claiming it was “sci-fi-esque."

Once, listening to a talk show about current events, one talking head suggested to the others that a certain subject wasn’t a concern for the American people. How did she come to that conclusion, she was asked. “No one’s talking about it at the dinner parties.” And so it goes.

CAPTION: (Top) Kurt Vonnegut, (Lower Right) Christopher Buckley

Friday, December 23, 2011

Film Pairing — Hard Boiled Private Eyes

Standard American private eye requirements: Down and out, hard drinker, personal demons, undisciplined pursuit of the truth. Unexpected nobility of purpose, maybe. Meet John Rosow of The Missing Person and Harry Angel of Angel Heart. They both meet the requirements. There are other similarities in the films. Both private detectives are hired by mysterious clients to deal with missing people. And, as each film develops, it becomes clear that they might not want to do what they were hired to do.

The Missing Person (2009), starring a rock-faced Michael Shannon as a dissolute P.I., is a stunningly moody, artful film, heavy on style, but pretty damn good on content as well. A man, too strung out to even consider killing himself, takes a case that seems both easy and rewarding. All he has to do is follow a man on a train and report what he sees. The simple assignment gets more complicated as you would expect. What these complications include are a fascinating 9-11 connection and an important philosophical question. In the end the cynical P.I. must make decisions that calls upon a sense of right and wrong. Is he up to the task? I’m not sure where this film came from, or where Michael Shannon has been all these years for that matter. With very little exposure, the film and the actor nonetheless gather praise whenever they are noticed and rightfully so.

There is a philosophical turn in the second feature as well. But Angel Heart (1987) is infinitely more visceral and heavy handed. In light of Mickey Rourke’s considerable talent as revealed in his recent performances, The Wrestler for example, we might want to take a look at just how good he was early in his career. And he was. This is Mickey Rourke before whatever happened to him mid-career happened to him. As a scruffy and apparently not too successful P.I., Harry Angel is made a financial offer he can’t refuse though, in fact, his instincts tell him to refuse it. We move from New York to New Orleans, where the P.I. tries to find a missing person and where, it seems, at each turn there is a bloody corpse. It becomes clear to Angel that he is, in the eyes of the Big Easy’s homicide cops, the most likely suspect in each murder. His client, played by Robert De Niro, is obviously holding out on his young hire, and the Louisiana’s mysterious connections to voodoo makes Harry’s life an increasingly terrifying experience. Lisa Bonet (No Cosby kid here) provides enough steamy (and brutal) sexual energy to send a rocket to Mars. The film was based on the novel Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg.

If you drink — and Michael Shannon’s early scenes might put you off the sauce forever — the mood set by both these films calls for whiskey on the rocks, or some form of hard liquor. No Chardonnay. And if you’re inclined toward something non-alcoholic, water for example, at least make it unfiltered. No fancy bottled stuff.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Opinion — Male and Female Crime Fiction Writers: A Level Playing Field?

I don’t socialize a great deal. When I do it usually ends in some sort of minor disaster. I prefer small get-togethers to parties. Even then, I’m not what you’d call a conversationalist until at least the second glass of wine. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a writer and not an actor, politician, realtor or event planner.

Occasionally, I do push myself out into the larger world. Professionally, I know I am supposed to go to book signings, conferences, workshops and other events to “network.” So, I’ve attended a half dozen Bouchercons since I began writing mysteries. And I’ve attended a few meetings of the Northern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and their joint annual holiday party with Sisters in Crime at the incredible “M” is for Murder book store in San Mateo a couple of times.

At the holiday party last year — I think it was last year — I chatted with another writer who encouraged me to investigate Sisters in Crime. I had heard a lot of good things about the organization, but because of the name, assumed that I wasn’t a likely candidate for membership. Being as uninformed as I was, I was surprised at the recommendation because it was a male writer making the enthusiastic suggestion.

I checked their web site and, on the surface, it wasn’t real clear about welcoming male membership, but it did have this statement: Our mission is to promote the professional development and the advancement of women crime writers to achieve equality in the industry!

Nothing wrong with that. Women are among the categories (the largest actually) of populations suffering from discrimination. Recent reports indicate that women earn 75 cents on every dollar a male earns. Though it’s changing, women do not have a proportionate share of top executive positions in business, government, politics or the military. Are women writers — in this case crime writers — discriminated against as well?

I decided to do a little informal investigation. So I began my Googling. Hidden Stairway Mystery Books listed best-selling mysteries for the week ending December 16 of this year. Women wrote five of the top ten sellers. The Seattle Mystery Bookstore’s top ten hardcover sales in April 2011 indicated seven were written by women. The American Booksellers Association did a survey of 100 independent bookstores. During an eight-week period ending September 29 the results showed that four of the ten best sellers were by female authors. I checked my handbook from the San Francisco Bouchercon I attended a little more than a year ago. Of the roughly 389 crime-fiction panelists, the vast majority of whom were authors, 186 were women — a fraction over 50 percent.

I also checked MWA’s Grand Master Awards. Since they began in 1955, there have been 56 awards. Only 17 women have received the honor, though in the last 20 years, nine women have received the award. This shows some improvement. On the other hand, since 2000, only two of the prestigious “Best Novel” Edgars have been bestowed upon books written by women. Imagining a third hand, the Anthony Awards, also given out by the Mystery Writers of America, but determined by attendees at the annual convention, have honored 26 best novels over the years, 15 of which were written by women.

What does this all mean? What’s my point? So far it’s more an attempt at observation than conclusion. But it does seem that because of the efforts of organizations like Sisters in Crime, female mystery writers seem to be faring better than their counterparts in other careers. I suspect that in addition, readers (book buyers) are responsible for narrowing the gap as much or more. The other reason that I’ve tackled the subject is to seek information. How big is the disparity between male and female mystery writers today? Is there one? Are there subtle forms of discrimination that I’m missing and should see the light of day? Are there other forms of discrimination in the mystery-writing field that need to be examined? Or is the marketplace taking care of the issue?

Of course, even bringing up the subject may be one of the reasons I do so poorly in social situations. And as I suggested earlier, the investigation was hardly scientific. Comments — arguments, corrections, and other perspectives — are not only welcomed, but encouraged.

CAPTION: (top) Agatha Christie, first winner of MWA’s Grand Master Award; (bottom) Sue Grafton, a more recent winner.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Opinion — Free Books, Invitation to Writers and Other Blog Surprises

DOWN THERE ON A VISIT: During just the first two weeks of December, among the visitors to this strange little blog from the U.S., Canada and other English speaking countries, were people living in or visiting these countries or cities: Tasmania, Fez, Sicily, Andalucía, Verona, Buenos Aires, Pakistan, the Czech Republic, the Russian Federation, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Warsaw, Germany, Greece, Paris, Mumbai, Qatar, Taiwan, Belgrade, Madrid, Latvia, Lebanon, Berlin, Munich, Argentina. Austria, Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Ukraine, Belgium, Bulgaria, Manila and Rotterdam. I am amazed.

LOOKING FOR CRIME FICTION WRITERS WHO WANT TO PROMOTE THEIR EARLY WORK: The blog feature — OLD GOLD — is open to writers of mysteries, suspense and thrillers who are bringing their early, traditionally published works back in trade paperback or ebook formats. Looking for roughly 300 words about your first book or first series. If you are interested in promoting your reissued classics here, please drop me a line. I’d love to help bring attention to your early work. And if you want to read previous Old Gold posts from other writers, click here or on the Old Gold icon to the right.

FREE BOOKS: Speaking of promotion and first books, a four-book, newlyminted, matched trade paperback set of my “Early Shanahans” will be sent to the lucky winner of a drawing (one entry per person). To enter, please email me through my web site or at : lifedeathandfog@gmail.com with your name and snail mail address before January 31. “Drawing” should be in the subject line. If you would like them autographed, please advise. AND THAT’S NOT ALL, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. TELL YOU WHAT I’M GOING TO DO. I will add Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin, the prequel to my new San Francisco series. (I thought about throwing in an oven mitt and a tea cozy, but decided against the idea.)

OTHER BLOGS: I’ve decided not to put together a list of all the blogs and web sites you might want to visit. One of the best, the rap sheet, has an incredibly comprehensive and well-organized list of crime-genre web sites and blogs — a tremendous resource. To do so here would be redundant. I also pay the rap sheet a daily visit to keep up with what’s going on in the crime-fiction world as well. If you want a deep resource specifically for fictional private eye info — writers, books, radio, TV, movies — The Thrilling Detective is top of the heap. I check into many other blogs from time to time. At the moment, in addition to the rap sheet, I regularly sip my morning coffee while reading blogs by Bill Crider and Ed Gorman as well as Murderati and Tipping My Fedora. If your tastes are international in nature check out The Crime of It All and You Would Say That Wouldn’t You.

SAN FRANCISCO BOOKSTORES: I was also surprised with the number of Google searches for San Francisco bookstores that ended up here at my fog blog. With the closing of all Borders and Barnes & Noble stores in the city and the disappearance of many of the larger independents, there is a scramble to find out what’s left. To support independent bookstores in San Francisco, I put together a comprehensive list and description of the bookstores and their neighborhoods. It’s in random order, however. Unfortunately, while there are a surprising number of specialty bookstores here in the city, none specialize in crime fiction. Hint, hint. I’ve also added a button for a list of independent mystery bookstores throughout the country.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Film Pairing — The Lighter Side of Espionage

Espionage. What a rich source of mystery and intrigue. I remember reading and then watching The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré. There was the riveting Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. And of course, Ian Fleming’s James Bond. I read every book by Fleming and have seen nearly every film. The movies seemed to take on the character of the actors who played Bond. Sean Connery played Bond seriously, with the driest of humor. Roger Moore came at it a little more tongue in cheek — he was in on the joke — maybe adding a bit of wonderful British silliness. And Pierce Brosnan walked a line somewhere in between as the screenplays became more about special effects and were more preposterous. The new guy, Daniel Craig is great, perhaps bringing Bond more gravitas than Connery.

On the other hand, “preposterous” isn’t always a bad thing. In 1958, former real-life secret agent Graham Greene wrote Our Man in Havana, which poked fun at the inefficiencies of his country’s intelligence operation. In 1959, he wrote the screenplay, which was set not long before the fall of Fulgenico Batista’s Cuba and Fidel Castro’s successful takeover. The movie, in black and white, captures corrupt, pre-revolutionary Cuba and has an all-star cast — Alec Guinness, Noél Coward, Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ralph Richardson, and Ernie Kovacs.

Guinness plays an unassuming character who sells vacuum cleaners for a living. He is in need of money to support his daughter, over whom he dotes, and is convinced to act as a spy for the British so she can have a first-class education. His spy mentor is an ineffectual, but stubborn dandy played by Coward. In order to meet his new employer’s expectations, the vacuum cleaner salesman finds it helpful to make up stories about threats to Britain to prove his worth, which in turn inflates his income. Seems harmless enough. But, of course, it isn’t.

The Tailor of Panama (2001) is based on a novel by John le Carré. The parallels between the novelists, the books — and the subsequent movies are strikingly similar, yet expected. John le Carré, who wrote the Tailor of Panama, made no secret that his novel was inspired (probably a little more than “inspired”) by Greene’s. Like Greene, he also co-wrote the screenplay for the film based on his own book. Also, like Greene, he spent part of his life as a secret agent (MI5). The movie, which changes the scenery slightly — though still in a hot, tropical climate — also changes the times. We move to the post Panama Canal turnover for this film, but the politics in the era of Manuel Noriega are still iffy. Obviously Western powers are interested in knowing what’s going on and are willing to pay dearly for information, however made-up it might be.

In this case a tailor is recruited to provide the local spying. Geoffrey Rush plays the Guinness role. Brosnan, who might have taken smugness to an entirely unparalleled level, gave a far more heavy-handed interpretation than Coward’s light and subtle (by comparison anyway) portrayal of corruption. Jamie Lee Curtis and Brendan Gleeson also star.

What these two comedies have in common, besides the Graham Greene novel as inspiration, is that its silly believability stems not so much from “it could happen,” to “how many times this sort of thing has happened.” The British and Americans have fumbled foreign affairs for centuries. The West has installed and removed dictators, supported and withdrawn support for insurgents and undertaken regime changes, invasions and denials. We have, in a way that mirrors the Greene tale, believed a local agent’s contention that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction with a photo of an ice cream truck as proof. How many times have our (and our British cousins) interference made a mess of things? Chile anyone? Then there was that nice fellow, the Shah of Iran!

In the spirit of the two movies: Daiquiris all around! And I’ll begin the first draft of Our Good Humor Man in Bagdad.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Courtship — Crime and Punishment, A Quick Read

This is a short story I wrote several years ago.

The man had an incredible garden. He had immense talent, an immeasurable understanding of flowering plants. He had them growing up walls, through fences, out of windows, the likes of which no one had ever seen before nor will likely see again.

He was a large man, handsome in a kingly way. His voice was soft and his speech halting. Some took those qualities as a sign of humility, others caution and still others as a sign he had the profound patience to wait for the beauty of his own words to pass between his lips.

He was self-sufficient to a fault and capable of deep concentration, even in the most hysterical situations. While others argued or cried, he could calmly open his mail, rearrange his books, jot down a note or two about the care and feeding of some orchid or other, and always depart when he felt it time, no matter what time others considered it to be.

One Sunday afternoon, during a walk through the countryside, a habit that was his only sport and his only strenuous exercise, he did not turn back at the decrepit stone bridge as was his custom. Instead, he carefully made his way across it. He wasn't quite certain what it was that made him want to flirt with danger.

Perhaps it was the sun. It stood straight up in the sky and cast no shadows. Perhaps it was only that his life had become so predictable, easy. There were no challenges left. That had to be it. He allowed himself this small and admittedly childish prank. No one would see. No one would know. Besides, the increased palpitation in his heart felt exhilarating. He would have a brandy when he returned home. And he would nap comfortably.

Once on the other side, the man continued to walk. Just as he was about to turn to go back, he happened upon a scraggly garden. In that scraggly garden of insect bitten, disease ridden, barely blossoming flowers, he saw one plant that was extremely healthy.

But it was not just that this plant was healthy that the man could not take his eyes off it. It was because it was the most beautiful specimen of the plant he had ever seen. In fact, it was the only live specimen of the plant he had ever seen. It was the one plant that he could not grow, try as he had.

He first learned of this plant many years ago from a drawing in an ancient botany book. However, despite his wide travels and numerous inquiries, he had never come across it, never discovered a place where they grew. He bartered with a wizard once. For a few seeds. But he used them all in failed attempts to grow one.

And because of this singular failure in his otherwise most successful and fulfilling life, he valued this plant above all others. Until now, he had managed to hide the memory of its existence in the vast recesses of his mind. But its very presence before him in this squalid garden revived those horrendous feelings of failure.

He stood, now, on the outside of a dilapidated stone wall, gaping miserably at this incredible plant living defiantly in a garden of someone who obviously knew nothing about making flowers grow. He stood for several minutes debating with himself. Should he move on and forget what he had seen? Or should he knock upon the door that stood by the garden that contained this quite exotic object of his obsession.

Just as he decided to head back and drown his memory in brandy, then nap to convince himself it was only a dream, the door to the house opened and out of it came a rather haggard woman. She rushed, small pot in hand, directly to this symbol of fascination and regret.

At first, she did not notice him. She placed a reed into the curved pocket of the pot and by sucking upon it, pulled a liquid up into the reed. Then she placed the reed into the soil near the base of the plant and forced its contents down, into the earth. She did this several times, then quickly moved inside the house, returning again with another container and a soft cloth. He noticed she applied this new liquid to the leaves of the plant with great care.

When finally she noticed him, she nodded politely. Bringing herself to her feet slowly and with difficulty, she asked him how she might be of service.

"I am a man of considerable wealth and have, as well, a full appreciation of the art of horticulture. I have been admiring your plant at some distance for some time and am willing to purchase it from you at a price far greater than most could afford and most probably at a price far greater than even those who could, would be willing to pay."

"For this? You are most generous. No doubt you can see that money and I are not companions. Though sometimes I lament the fact, this plant is my life and it would be for something much more than money I would seek to take the place of what has become so much a part of me."

He paused for a moment and most would have surmised by the face he put on, he was deep in some extraordinarily painful and profound thought.

"I'm so embarrassed," he said finally as a mild blush, the color of a nearly ripe peach, came to his cheeks. "It is not the plant to which I have become so attracted. It is, I fear ... oh ... I am unable to continue. This is doubly embarrassing. For someone, like myself, from whom words so naturally flow to be struck speechless! Would you permit me to visit you tomorrow, for there is, indeed, something I feel I must tell you."

The frail woman nodded her agreement. He walked home more quickly than he had left it, going immediately to the library where he searched among his many books for the one book of love sonnets hidden among the scientific journals.

The next day he returned to the woman's garden and again found her there, toiling dutifully at the plant in question.

"Please be kind enough to indulge an old man his request. I promise to leave quickly if you wish it so, though in my departure I would carry with me a much greater burden than I bring to you now."

He recited the sonnet he had learned, taking great care that it sounded both elegant and spontaneous.

On his several following visits, his mellifluous voice captivated her. The sonnets, a new one each day, were quite beautiful; and while he carefully avoiding speaking to her directly, he spoke the words with eloquence. After each recitation, he would encourage her to continue to care for her plant.

He explained that it gave him great pleasure to watch her movements. He allowed her to believe what she chose. He despised lying, so he was careful always to tell the literal truth.

He watched how she bathed the plant, shielded it from the sun between the times of an hour before and an hour after the noon. He watched her stretch fine cloth over the plant to protect it from hard rains. He was amazed at how much time she spent nurturing this plant. Even when she was not caring for it directly, she was preparing the fine, dark liquid she would later inject into the soil and the milky white fluid she brushed upon each leaf.

He could not tell by examining the containers, by smelling, by tasting or by any other means, how these two liquids were made; but he was sure they were vital to the growing of the plant. And so, slyly and casually, he would ask her a question or two as she worked.

"What an interesting texture," he would say about an ingredient. "What is it, may I ask?"

And she would reply absently, "marrow from the bones of a freshly killed rabbit."

And on another day, he would ask, "what a wonderful fragrance, whatever in the world is it?"

So pleased with the company and flattered by the attention, she would reply without hesitation.

"It comes from virgin clover, picked on the first day of the no-moon, dried and then finely ground."

It did not occur to her what was happening until she had answered the very last question many days later.

"What is that? It is so delicately latticed and transparent. Is it a cobweb spun by fairies?"

"Oh, no, no, no," she giggled. "It is a web of a black widow spider. You know," she said, suddenly puzzled, "I do believe I have told you so much that you know as much about this plant as I."

The look of happiness upon the man's face at first delighted her. Then as sharp as a wasp's sting, she understood the reason for his constant attention.

The man, so pleased with himself and with his cleverness — for he was sure she would never have revealed so much if he had simply asked — did not notice the momentary look of hurt, followed by anger that crossed her face. Both expressions came and went so quickly, followed then by a broad smile, he was sure her deception of herself was complete.

"As a reward for being so constant a companion," she said, "I have just now decided to give you my plant. I am old and surely cannot care for it so very much longer. Would you be of such a mind as to accept my offering?"

"I feel I know you so well, I know you would not permit me to refuse. I promise to give it all the attention is possible to give," he said already thinking what a magnificent achievement the plant would be to his magnificent garden and how ownership and perhaps offspring would enhance his already splendid reputation. "I can assure you I will maintain its beauty if it is the last thing I do."

"I feel I know you so well," she said with the appearance of sweetness, "that I do believe that will be the case."

He had never worked so tirelessly. Obsession drove him beyond his normal endurance; though it was not long before other flowers in his garden began to show signs of neglect. Spending so much time preparing potions, hunting for just the right ingredients at the right time, guarding his new plant from the sun and the rain and from the coolness and from any other variation in weather, he did not notice how badly the remainder of his garden needed attention. And so jealous of his find, he would permit no one to help him for fear to others would discover the secrets of caring for this remarkable and nearly extinct plant.

As the years passed, the vegetation in his garden either died or grew so wild they uprooted the fine stone walls and crept through the mortar that held his home together.

One day, completely exhausted, the man, now very much older than he actually was and in very ill health, sat down in his garden and noticed a woman pause before the ramshackle gate to his property. She was just a silhouette against a soon-to-be crimson sky.

"Your flower has bloomed," she said. "It is so beautiful and so sad."

He turned immediately to the object of his obsession.

"So it has!” he exclaimed. "I was so busy caring for it, I hardly noticed. Isn't it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?"

"Yes, it is."

"But tell me, why is it sad?"

"Because it blooms only once and the flower lasts only until sunset."

"Why it is nearly that now," the man said looking at the red light advancing across his devastated garden.

CAPTION: Van Gogh, Autumn Landscape.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Opinion — On Writing: Pieces That Don't Fit Anywhere Else

I suspect most people who have been writing for a long time have pages and pages of unpublished work, not just on discs and hard drives, but also in drawers, boxes, perhaps in a rusted old filing cabinet in the garage, or in unruly stacks on the floor. I do. I also have dozens of paper notebooks, my form of Blackberry, which have story ideas, snatches of dialogue, doodles, strange phone numbers and grocery lists.

Someone said — it is variously attributed to John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard and Stephen King — one must write a million words before he or she can be considered a writer. Counting my early years at the Army Home Town News Center in Kansas City and my many years writing newsletters, newspaper articles, (My favorite: “No Sex Please, We’re Hoosiers”), ads, brochures and speeches, even if I don’t count college term papers and answers to high school essay questions, I’ve put a lot of words on paper. If you add the mystery books that have been published, 15 of them so far, I’ve no doubt met the million-word requirement. Having written a million or more words doesn’t mean I’m a good writer, merely according to the standards set forth, a writer. (Incidentally, there are many writers out there who have written hundreds of books and short stories, well more than I’ll achieve in my lifetime. But still, I’ve put a lot of words together and told a number of stories.)

There may be as much as a half million more words — in various states of existence — that, in fact, merely exist. I’m in the midst of gathering them up. They have been tucked away in various places (some still only on paper) and I’m putting them in an electronic file titled “Pieces That Don’t Belong Anywhere Else.” In or soon to be in that file are a few short stories; a 20,000-word novella (scaled down from 35,000 for a failed Nero Wolfe competition entry); a 50,000-word mystery novella (it’s either too long or too short — I like it, but I’ve never sent it to anyone because it is probably too long or too short); a children’s book (text only); some poetry (at least that’s what I call it); a few thousand scattered words that describe memories of growing up and growing old that might make it into a memoir some day. I also have a couple of one act plays and a draft screenplay of my recently released novella, Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin.

Separately, I have two finished manuscripts, one sitting at my publisher that’s part of the San Francisco series, and a manuscript for a full, standalone mystery that was almost published a couple of times. In fact, of all the books I’ve written, I thought this one would be the most commercially successful. While it would be creatively suicidal for me to think in those terms as I write, in the end this book has the makings for a broad appeal. It has family drama, romance, a suspenseful trial and a few diabolical twists. At one point, the manuscript was so far along at a publishing house. I was asked to write the catalog copy. The decision was made, I thought. All I needed was the contract. It had to be merely days away. “Oops,” as Governor Perry would say.

These days, I think about publishing it myself, but without reviewers, some sort of marketing support, or at least an active tweet system (I’ve been too little and too late with regard to social networking), might not the launch of the book be little more than a tree falling in the woods? On the other hand, it would be something to do, wouldn’t it? And I like the process of publishing. Maybe it’s just an e-book sitting out there in a cloud waiting to be discovered by some unsuspecting soul.

So, what do I do with the book and with Pieces That Don’t Belong Anywhere Else? Maybe nothing. Just have them available. Maybe I’ll publish a couple of short stories here on the blog. Maybe, some afternoon, with nothing else to do, I’ll start looking at publishers of books for kids. Maybe some publisher somewhere will read this and decide he or she wants to put together a few mystery novellas that take place in San Francisco or Chinatown and I could join the group.

In the end, having my own slush pile is comforting and perhaps a curiosity for a Kepler 22B, 22nd Century researcher investigating obscure writers from earth.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Film Pairing — Tales of Two Fathers and Two Sons

By putting Perrier’s Bounty and City by the Sea together, we have a pair of father-son crime stories, both films with highly talented casts. While one is a dark comedy and the other merely dark, we have similar sensibilities at play. We also have, in my opinion, a similar sensitivity in the bright, young actors who play the wayward but highly redeemable sons — Cillian Murphy in Bounty and James Franco in City by the Sea.

Perrier’s Bounty (2011) is a twisted, quirky tale directed by Ian Fitzgibbon and narrated admirably by Gabriel Byrne. Set in Dublin, it stars Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) as a crime boss who takes his own cruel actions as if they are personal affronts. “It’s devastating,” he says time and time again after doing something horrible. Jim Broadbent, convinced that if he goes to sleep he will die and that he will eventually sleep, believes he has nothing to lose by putting his life in danger. He is as hilariously courageous as he is a bad influence on his son, Murphy, who by fate and misjudgment makes all the wrong moves.

City by the Sea (2002) is a dark, violent thriller, sensitively set up and perhaps a bit too rushed at the end. Robert De Niro and Frances McDormand star in this gritty film that has more depth and less levity than Bounty. Set in New York — primarily a tremendously unap-pealing Long Island — the film is directed by Michael Caton-Jones who sets the action against this stark, desolated backdrop. Franco, who plays the son of a seasoned street cop, gives a moving portrayal of a young, petty criminal in way over his head.

It is not only interesting to compare the two young sons, but also the two fathers. Both of them seek some sort of redemption. Broadbent’s character is all too willing to help his son out of deep trouble as repayment for his own failure as a parent. De Niro, as Franco’s father, is a character with a lot of extra ethical baggage. Yes, ethical baggage. He is not at all eager to do the same for his lost son despite the fact the son deserves salvation.

Neither of the films received rave reviews when they were released. The comments were mixed at best. However, from my comfy sofa and flat screen TV, they were more than satisfying. I enjoyed the fine acting, the gritty cinematography and the drama much better than I would a couple of hours of long-in-the-tooth Law and Order SUV or the over-DNA’d CSI Miami.

It doesn’t matter which one you watch first. But, if you want to end on a lighter, more comedic note, do Perrier’s Bounty last. To accompany the evening, why not pour some Guinness? It works in New York and most certainly works for Dublin. And I’ve found a good, dark beer can add depth to the sadness and enhance the laughter.

CAPTION: Cillian Murphy (top), James Franco, (bottom).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Opinion — Standing Naked In Front Of My Clothes

Writers are not supposed to talk about what we are writing while we are writing it. It is considered by some to be a jinx. As I wait for word from my publisher on whether they want the third in my San Francisco mystery series, and after a debate with myself about continuing the Indianapolis Shanahan series beyond its current ten books, I’ve decided to start the eleventh because there is a story that wants to be told. I have no clue whether I will finish it or if I do, whether it will be published. The upheaval in the publishing community has upheaved us all.

The subject for the new Shanahan seems right for a mystery involving the aging private eye, Deets Shanahan — Alzheimers. It is — as the disease has been described — “the longest goodbye.” What happens is that people with Alzheimers forget. If we humans are merely a collection of our memories, and not much else, as some believe, then Alzheimers may sadly be the most poetic of deaths. Our memories are disassembled, little by little. We forget what happened a minute ago, then what happened yesterday and eventually, if we don’t die of something else along the way, we forget how to breathe.

When I was in college so many years ago, I changed the focus of my studies, as I did later with careers, many times. I was interested in theatre, then journalism. At one point, I went off on another tangent, briefly, to religious studies. I remember failing Buddhism. I believed then as I do now that the more you say about it, the less you understand it. Taking this position in his course didn’t impress the professor. Hinduism is something else. It is a very accommodating philosophy, worthy, if not demanding, many words. All roads lead to Nirvana. One could be an ascetic or a hedonist and still find his or her way. The whole idea appealed to my independent nature. But now I am digressing, not necessarily inappropriately, though.

There are two other thoughts from those years and those studies. One was a phrase neti neti, which I believe translates to “not this, not this,” or slightly more loosely, “not this, not that,” meaning you keep searching for the TRUTH and discover that whatever you find isn’t it. The theory works no matter what path you’re on. Again, a digression, but not completely irrelevant.

The other thing I remember from studying the Hindu philosophy back then was a story about finding truth, liberation or the divine, whatever you choose to call it. It was about a man who thought he saw a snake, when, in fact as he realizes later, what he actually saw was a rope. If he could have seen what truly is, he would see that it wasn’t a rope either. Ultimate reality is like that, the story suggests. We think we see things as they are. We don’t. What is really there is neither a snake nor a rope, neither this nor that, but something we have mistaken in a similar way. It remains, for most of us, a mystery.

There is a scene in the early pages of the working Shanahan manuscript. An elderly Alzheimers patient sees and is terrified by a leopard she believes will attack her. It is an image on the wall formed by daylight drifting down from the skylights, through the trees. The leaves create the leopard’s spots and the slightest breeze gives the appearance of the predator moving.

I live alone. On Halloween day, oddly enough, I stepped out of my shower and, after drying off, went naked into the hall. What I caught in a flash of the eye was terrifying. — a stranger lurking there. It turned out to be a clothes rack. But what was it, really? Apparently I haven’t gotten very far in my search for truth. I’m still seeing snakes instead of ropes.

You’d think as I get nearer and nearer to 70 that I’d be done with such things as scaring myself to death but no…I never seem to be done with anything, including the Shanahans. He will have another death to investigate, this one much closer to his own. Perhaps the story will teach me something.

CAPTION: The Stranger in the Hall, originally posted on my Facebook Page a couple of months ago.