Monday, December 31, 2012

Observations — New Years Eve And The Festival of the Thin Man


At least once a year, I watch all six Thin Man movies.  It is my own little festival.  I have a comfortable chair and a relatively large flat screen TV in my small apartment in San Francisco. I am the only festival attendee, so it’s just me and a bottle of Cabernet.   I don’t come to this subject with any particular expertise, no deep knowledge of Dashiell Hammett.  It’s as much nostalgic as anything else. When I was young these films were on the late-night movies that followed the local news.  A shamelessly self-promoting Indianapolis used car salesman who called himself “The King” hosted the program.  He stood in front of a blackboard (as high-tech as it got in those days) slashing prices on various automobiles as he yelled, “The King don’t care.”  Then we would go back to a grainy but charming Nick and Nora Charles and that wonderful blend of suspense and comedy, bright wit and dark shadows, the high life and the low life.  If that wasn’t the birth of my love for private eye stories, it certainly enhanced it. Such was the life of the young me in a hide-a-bed, with the black and white television flashing noirish shadows on the wall.

New Book From Mysterious Press
This little festival of mine seems particularly appropriate as we usher in 2013 (Year of the Snake, incidentally).  A book of the previously unpublished Thin Man stories written by Hammett has just been published by Mysterious Press —Return of The Thin Man.  What some might not know is that The Thin Man was the last novel Hammett wrote. That lone book was the basis for the popular film that launched five sequels, none of which were based on novels.  However, as we discover now in this new book, he did write two pieces, the editors call “novellas,” that relate to the next two Thin Man films, After The Thin Man and Another Thin Man. My guess is that these pieces weren’t meant as standalone anything, but rather as story maps for the studio to take advantage of the popularity of the first film to create a franchise. There was money to be made for everyone at a time when it was difficult to make money.  The book’s editors, Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, imply this.  The Hammett novellas are essentially treatments.  Fascinating nonetheless.
Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett

For some, the editors’ introduction to the two short pieces will add to our understanding of this stage of Hammett’s life. Surely the Continental Op was most reflective of the famous author’s early Pinkerton days.  And Spade was a loner.  Nick, on the other hand, had found his Nora when he embarked on The Thin Man.  And it doesn’t take a genius to see how Dashiell Hammett and his relationship with Lillian Hellman, however fictionalized and idealized it might be, inspired the hard partying, devil may care Nick and Nora idea. The editors also reveal the studio, writer, actor relationships, including the contributions made by the great screen writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett as well as director W. S. Van Dyke, the people responsible for the first three, and possibly best Thin Man films.

Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nora and Nick
The year 2013 is also the year The Thin Man was to be remade, though it may not happen. Johnny Depp, who was to play Nick, has a complicated life — all sorts of projects and apparent personal issues.  The remake was to go into production in November, I read, after Depp wrapped up his new and apparently expensive Lone Ranger film.  It could still happen.  The search is still on for an actress to play Nora. Another thought, perhaps a descendant of Eddie, from the TV sit-com “Frasier” could play Asta.  After all, the real Asta was a schnauzer, not a wirehair fox terrier as the dog is portrayed in all six films. So what would be wrong with a Jack Russell terrier taking he part?  This is Hollywood.

If you want to have your own festival, here are the Nick and Nora Charles films in the order they were made, noting that Hammett had decreasing influence on the final cut and virtually none for the last couple.

The Thin Man — This is the one that started them all, the one based on an actual Dashiell Hammett novel and made William Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as Nora Charles one of America’s favorite film couples.  The film has a Christmas-New Year’s holiday theme, though I’m happy to say, it’s in the background.  Maureen O’Sullivan plays the only sane member of a crazy family and a young and debonair Cesar Romero plays a gigolo. What else?  The film is a fantastic reflection of the times.  We get a glimpse of post-depression, post-prohibition 1934.

After The Thin Man — This is one of my favorites.  One of the reasons is that the lovely couple return to San Francisco and also because it takes place on New Years Eve.  Perfect for tonight.  Jimmy Stewart co-stars. Look for the usual brawls, a few red herrings, a great nightclub in Chinatown, and glimpse of the city’s bustling Market Street of 1936.

Another Thin Man — Baby makes three.  Sheldon Leonard plays the heavy in this film set in Manhattan and Long Island. A creaky old mansion and creaky old people, says the creaky blogger, as well an elaborately designed murder and a slew of petty ante gangsters inhabit the whodunit.  Watch for the big production number.

Shadow Of The Thin Man — We’re back in San Francisco and off to the races. Donna Reed, Stella Adler and Barry Nelson are in the cast of this mystery featuring such characters as Spider Web and Rainbow Benny (they may be the same person, I’m not sure). Pay attention to the wrestling match scene.  Nice twist at the end.   This time the big brawl is at an Italian restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Thin Man Goes Home — Maybe because it’s the small town backdrop.  Maybe it’s because Nick has given up his martinis for apple cider and it seems to have turned him into Ozzie Nelson.  Whatever the cause, this is my least favorite.  While all the films offer some wonderful silliness, this one just seems contrived without redemption of a knowing wink.  If you had to cut one from this list, this would be it.  Otherwise, it’s worthwhile just to know you saw them all. 

Song Of The Thin Man — It’s nice the series didn’t end on a low note. This one bounces back. New producers, directors and writers. Though the last couple of films were only based on “characters created by Dashiell Hammett,” this one finds the formula. The film also benefits from a great supporting cast that includes one of my favorites from the “B” picture cast of characters, Gloria Grahame, plus Keenan Wynn, Jane Meadows, and a very young Dean Stockwell as Nick and Nora’s son.  We are treated with ‘40s jazz, a floating casino and nightclub (Shades of Mr. Lucky), wet, foggy nights, and a telltale necklace.  One of the pleasures is to see the stylish couple thirteen years after the first film, still elegant, still funny.

If you are so inclined, think about a Thin Man Weekend Festival. Light-hearted, celebratory and certainly old lang syne.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Film Pairing — The Dark Side Of Michael Caine Times 2


What do you do when people get in the way of your happiness and your ambition?  You kill them, of course.  Graham Marshall (Michael Caine) discovers this easy solution by accident when an angry, physically intimidating homeless man in a subway demands respect. Perhaps this hits too close.  Respect was what he wasn’t getting at home or at work.  The vagrant, an obvious failure in Marshall’s eyes, won’t go away.  A train and a little shove, not intended to kill — though it did — and poof, problem solved.  Now, on to other problems, larger, more irritating problems at home and at work.

In Shock to the System, based on the novel by Simon Brett, Caine plays an understated Don Draper, a man trying to advance in an advertising firm full of duplicitous, ass kissing executives.  The first death seems to light the way to the a dormant gene in Mr. Marshall’s constitution. He didn’t know he, who seemed to have a relatively mild, plodding personality, actually possessed the mind of a cold-blooded manipulator. He not only discovered this hidden talent, but now delighted in exercising it.  The cast — Elizabeth McGovern, Swoosie Kurtz and Will Patton — is solid, and the small, smart story is told well.  Is it possible to eliminate so many obstacles and not get caught?  We shall see.

Michael Caine makes so many films, he has to make some of them twice.   Sleuth is based on Anthony Shaffer’s award winning play. In the 1972 film, Caine played the younger of two characters in what turns out to be a deadly pissing match.  Lawrence Olivier played the older man, attempting to recover from the humiliation he felt at the theft his wife’s heart.  In 2007, the film was remade and updated, this time with Caine as the aging crime writer and Jude Law as the young actor or hairdresser (we’re not quite sure), who proves to be surprisingly adept at countering the sophisticated writer’s capricious, seemingly deadly moves.

What we have here is a stylish, mannered and fascinating two-person play in a stunning high-tech home, the third star of the film.  Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay and Kenneth Branagh directed.  Watching a cerebral and cunning Caine and a clever and outrageous Law going at each other is as good as it gets, a genuine championship bout. 

A Shock to the System is a fine undercard to Sleuth, which is clearly the main event.

Scotch would work as an accompaniment to the evening.  Martinis are probably too American for either film.  This is a British battle. By the way, both films, especially the claustrophobic Sleuth, work well on home screens.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012

Film Pairings — Intrigue In The Tropics, Politics And Strange Bedfellows


As cold weather approaches, this might be the time to entertain a couple of politically challenging films set where perspiration is more likely than goose pimples and a dramatic glimpse into recent history provokes thoughts about how our actions in foreign lands are more serious than we might think.  What does our government do when we’re not paying attention?

The Extraordinary Linda Hunt
The Year of Living Dangerously tells the story of an Australian journalist (Mel Gibson) who arrives in Indonesia during increasing public unrest, which finally results in the overthrow of its corrupt President Sukarno.  The question pits a hungry, get-the-scoop journalist against understanding the deeper issues that affect a population being undermined by its leaders.  Not too incidentally, he must choose between his career and the woman he loves.  Tough choices.  Linda Hunt gives her academy award performance as a young male dwarf concerned about the victims of corrupt leadership and Sigourney Weaver is the woman in the ambitious reporter's life.  The steamy, smart sexy, adventurous film directed by Peter Weir was released in 1982.  It was based on the book by Christopher Koch.


The parallels between this film and the film of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American are worth noticing. Director Phillip Noyce initially wanted to do The Year of Living Dangerously before losing out to Weir.  Here, we have CIA intervention in the affairs of 1950s Vietnam while the French were struggling with colonizing it, all supposedly part of domino theory that would again raise its ugly head in the 1960s with the U.S. trying to get rid of the “red menace.”

In this case, Michael Caine plays a cynical journalist posted to Saigon during the French occupation.    The U.S., which escaped culpability in Weir’s version of the Sukarno affair, doesn’t fair so well in The Quiet American.  In fact, this is a remake.  The first film, (1958) starring American war hero Audie Murphy, was virtually disowned by Greene as an American propaganda film.  This one (2002) was more faithful to Greene’s intent.  When we meet Brendan Fraser’s character, we believe he is an innocent do-gooder, a contrast to the older, wizened character played by Caine.  Things, we learn, aren’t always what they seem and right and wrong, as it is in both movies, aren’t necessarily easy to discern. The idea of “collateral damage” is brought up here and is just as serious and controversial today as are CIA dirty tricks. Both films have, a their heart, both doing right on a deeply personal level with those we love and doing right for a cause greater than ourselves.  And when are abominable acts justified in order to achieve a so-called greater good? Do Thi Hai Yen is the beautiful Vietnamese woman who symbolizes both the personal and the universal.

These are two perfect films for those who love history and politics mixed with a little steamy sex.  And if cold, gray winter has descended on your household, take a trip to places closer to the equator.  Turn up the heat and drink something that requires ice and a lime or a lemon.

Opinion — Kobo To The Rescue? We Can Hope.


When I created Life Death & Fog Books, I did so on a shoestring budget.  The point was to reissue earlier works my publisher had no interest in and shorter works that couldn’t find a market because they were short.  My goal was not to skimp on quality, whether that applied to the story, editing or design.  But I could not afford to print thousands of books and store them, risk their return unsold, or incur shipping expense.  So I worked with talented book designers who would do the work on spec with the idea of sharing in whatever profit was made. Amazon was willing to print on demand and distribute the trade paperbacks and ebooks.  No upfront costs.  If there had been, I couldn’t have done it.

But what that did, of course, was bypass bookstores.  And bookstores, to the extent they were aware of my existence anyway, hadn’t been happy with me, because the publisher who picked up new books in the Shanahan series and the first two Lang/Paladino books, had a “no return” policy on hardbacks.  I understood Severn House’s position.  It was, after all and for all practical purposes, my position with my small publishing company.  I also understood why bookstores didn’t order the hardbacks.  I wouldn’t either. It was an unnecessary risk.  There was nothing I could do about either situation. Yet, much like the bookstores, I wanted to stay in business.  That meant getting my books out there as best I could.

The situation was uncomfortable.  I am an avid bookstore customer.  I have visited every San Francisco bookstore, new and used, and have written about them here in an effort to get the word out.  I buy most of my books at a couple of my favorite independent bookstores in the city — and did so before Borders and B&N closed in San Francisco — and feel really good when I visit and the aisles are crowded and the stores are buzzing.  That makes me feel even guiltier when I promote my e-books on-line.

I am happy to report that last August, Kobo announced it would work with independent bookstores in a revenue sharing program that would allow those stores to provide e-books and e-book readers to their customers.  You can find a complete list of independent bookstores and another list of mystery bookstores by clicking the appropriate icon on the right side of this blog.

When my most recent book Death in the Haight was published by Dutton’s Guilt-Edged Mysteries in a recent re-launch of that imprint by Penguin, the novella was made available on Kobo as are the others from Dutton’s new line.  Perhaps this is the kind of thing that will bridge the unfortunate gap created between struggling midlist writers and independent bookstores as both try to adjust to the tumultuous changes in the marketplace.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Blatant Sales Pitch 2 — Holiday Gifts Indy’s Own Fictional Private Eyes


Sam Spade worked out of San Francisco.  Marlowe was based in LA.  Spenser operated in Boston.  Mike Hammer and many other fictional private eyes went about their business in the nation’s largest metropolis, New York.   It wasn’t until Albert Samson came along that Indianapolis had a gumshoe of its own.  In fact, many credit Samson’s creator, long acclaimed novelist Michael Z. Lewin, as a pioneer in a movement that gave “regional private eyes” a national presence.

With no small amount of self-interest, I’m proposing that Indianpolitans who like detective novels explore the fictional sleuths who made their city home.  In addition to the story telling in a place that might be especially familiar to the reader, there is a bit of the city’s history embedded in each book.  While there are other writers who have set mysteries and thrillers in the Circle City, I believe there are only three of us who have created a series private eye protagonist in this setting.


Michael Z. Lewin’s Albert Samson series

Recent Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus award winner Lewin’s first Samson novel, Ask the Right Question, was published in 1971.  I found my paperback copy of The Way We Die Now the other day as I went through a stack of books in a vain attempt to dematerialize.  The book was first released in 1973.  So, I’m able to visit my hometown in a way that my faulty memory won’t allow and see vividly, in some cases, the places Samson visits. One senses that Samson is the kind of P.I. who actually exists.  The stories and the characters are believable. There are eight novels in this highly acclaimed series, the most recent Eye Opener, which has been made available in e-book format.  Many of his earlier Samson novels are no doubt available at your local mystery bookstore and a few are, fortunately, becoming available in electronic formats. There is a great article on Samson on the Thrilling Detective web site, which also points out that Lewin has written other, standalone novels and has two other series. But the Samson novels are an especially great idea for a holiday gift for the reader in your family, especially if he or she has a special affection for the city. To find out more about the author and all of his work, click here and here.

“Michael Lewin has just about the best private detective who has been around in many a day…Lewin has brains and style.”  Los Angeles Times


Ronald Tierney’s Deets Shanahans series

My first P.I. novel, Stone Veil was published in 1990. The book introduced a blue-collar, semi-retired, former Army intelligence sergeant turned P.I. After settling down in Indianapolis, Deets Shanahan meets the love of his life in a massage parlor and the two of them appear, along with a regular cast of characters, in ten novels so far, with the most recent being Bullet Beach in 2011, when in a time-defying fashion he finally turned 70.  He is not so much tough as he is stubborn.  To get a look at the city in the ‘90s, take a look at the early Shanahans, which have been reissued as trade paperbacks and ebooks.  Restaurants, neighborhoods, bars, some of which may be gone now, remain in spirit as ink on a page or light shining up from a screen.  A few are out of print, but many are still available.  You might find, for example, Nickel-Plated Soul and Asphalt Moon in the backroom of your favorite bookstore. All the early Shanahans are available as e-books and in trade paperback.  And your local bookstore can order the latest, Bullet Beach.

"A series packed with new angles and delights." — Booklist


David Levien’s Frank Behr series

The new guy in the city arrived with a bang as well as lots of blood.  Frank Behr is a super tough ex-cop, with a tragic past, who takes on the toughest of the tough on the darkest of the streets of Indianapolis.  Levien, a screenwriter with plenty of credentials, has four books so far in the Behr series, City of the Sun, Where the Dead Lay, The Contract, and The 13 Million Dollar Pop.  His books, which I think feature a kind of super-big, super-hero protagonist similar to the Jack Reacher model have received a number of award nominations and sell a lot of copies.

“Levien is the new must-read thriller writer. — Lee Child

Because we’re entering the last gasps of holiday shopping and there are many desperate folks seeking a quick solution.  How about a sampling of novels featuring fictional Indianapolis private eyes?  Pick one or two from each author.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Film Pairing — Filming George V. Higgins And The Definition of Success


The stories are all over the Internet.  The film, Killing Them Softly, “bombed.”  It only made $7 million the first weekend, a pittance, they imply, compared to such megahits as Twilight, Part 310 and the 2,000th Bond bonanza Skyfall.  The L.A. Times asks, “What went wrong?”

Nothing went wrong.  The way success is measured is wrong. The movie will very likely not only pay its expenses but make a tidy sum for those who invested in it. Skyfall had a budget of nearly $200 million and Killing Them Softly’s budget was $15 million. During its first weekend it made half its cost back.  The film was not intended to be a blockbuster, but a fine film that tells a realistic crime story without superheroes and special effects.  It’s a different kind of movie. Saying “it bombed,” is irresponsible journalism.

What fascinated me about all this is that in a way Killing Them Softly is about how our money-oriented culture corrupts everything, including, I would add, what we value. The labeling of this film as a failure because it didn’t compare well to blockbusters shows how far off the compass of the definition of success is.  I want to yell at the L.A. Times, what’s wrong with you people?

During the opening credits and reappearing from time to time throughout the film, we hear former President Bush talking about the need to bail out the banks. Paulson is heard too, as is Obama.  The gist of what we hear from them is that the banks need to be bailed out, not because it is the morally correct thing to do, or even that they really need it, but they, the rich bankers, need taxpayer money because of an unfortunate perception.  And we can pretty much ignore the crimes the bankers committed for the larger good, the greater perception.  These brief allusions offer a kind of background music, certainly a theme, which the film mirrors.

The story is about a guy (Ray Liotta) who puts together illegal, high-stakes poker games. Let’s call that Wall Street.  The games are real money-makers for a crime syndicate.  At one time, many years earlier, the Liotta character robbed his own game (any number of high-profile CEOs may be substituted) though as years past and players changed, his misdeed though now largely known, but considered a funny story, well in the past.  However, a clever someone figures out the situation offers the perfect set up. It’s a dangerous idea to rob them. He knows that. These aren’t a bunch of mechanics and taxi drivers blowing off steam on a Friday night.  These are genuine tough guys playing the game and even tougher ones running it.  It’s big business to the local mafia.  But the idea is that the tough guys will figure its Liotta who did it again.  The super-tough bad guys would take him out, leaving the real robbers to go free with their loot.

Despite the hilariously inept heist, the concept seems to work.  They get the money and they get away.

The syndicate folks call in a professional hit man to take care of business.  Enter the mightily cool Brad Pitt.  I say that without sarcasm.  We don’t know where he came from.  We know nothing about him except that he seems to be the sanest, smartest character we’ve met so far.  He also advises the mob’s attorney/courier/negotiator, played excellently by Richard Jenkins that it’s not necessary to beat up the Liotta character because they’re just going to have him killed anyway.  Why, put the poor guy through the pain? Pitt asks.  There’s a committee, the attorney said, that wants it that way. “A committee?” Pitt asks, incredulous.  After some thugs beat Liotta mercilessly and endlessly, they conclude he is actually innocent.  But he must be killed anyway. It’s a matter of perception. Some might think he did it and got by with it. It’s crucial that the punishment me quick and severe.  The poker business is way down.  People aren’t showing up and besides, if it appears that the games are such an easy mark, every amateur thug in the area will think they can do it and the players will stay away.  That’s not good for the economy, their economy. So, some of guys are killed because they did it.  One is killed because the perception of his guilt is bad for business.

The movie, based on the highly regarded noir-novelist George V. Higgins book, Cogan’s Trade, is well put together.  The characters are well-drawn and well-acted. Pitt, Liotta and Jenkins, who should be considered for an Academy Award nomination, are joined by James Gandolfini, who, alone, is worth the price of admission as a top-notch hit man, now a dysfunctional alcoholic.  Sam Shepard plays an enforcer in this drama that was moved from Higgins’ Boston in the ‘70s to a desolate New Orleans of 2008.  Purists might object, but it works. Andrew Dominik directed the film.

In the end, we are left at a bar where Jenkins pays off Pitt, but shorts him on the agreed amount.  The television over the bar shows President Obama talking about what it means to be an American.  Pitt’s character sarcastically predicts Obama’s standard line, we are not Republicans and Democrats, but we are one community, one country. 

“America is not a country,” Pitt tells the attorney.  “It is a business. Now I want my money.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that in an earlier film based on Higgins novel, bars play an important role.  And in this one, Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), directed by Peter Yates, the film begins with a heist as well.  Robert Mitchum is at the top of his form as blue-collar worker in Boston, trying to support a wife and three kids with a low-paying job and questionable supplemental income from highly questionable friends.  We all know guys like this.  Basically good guys, but willing to cut some ethical corners for a quick return. Desperate times, desperate measures. But Coyle is getting too old for this.  And he knows it. That doesn’t mean he can do anything about it.  First he gets screwed by the bad guys.  Then he gets screwed by the good guys.  There’s no escape. Peter Boyle’s portrayal of a bartender who knows how to survive in a corrupt world fits right in with the low-life crowd and Steven Keats, in his first Hollywood film, is, as is said now, “spot on” as the gun runner.  Everything about this film screams authentic and is a good match for the more recent Killing Then Softly.

Though the Higgins’ books that formed the basis for these two movies are only a few years apart, there is a huge gap between films.  A third film production, Rats on Fire, had been underway, but was stopped by legal issues. 

Go see the Pitt film, stop by a local dive, have a beer.  Go home, watch Friends of Eddie Coyle with a shot of whiskey and go to bed.

Special alert — Early 2013 films that looked promising in previews:

Side Effects, directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum
Broken City, directed by Allen Hughes, starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine-Zita Jones and Barry Pepper
Gangster Squad, based on the L.A. Times news series, “Tales from the Gangster Squad,” by journalist Paul Lieberman, directed by Ruben Fleischer, starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone and Sean Penn.





Monday, December 10, 2012

Blatant Promotion, Part I — Holiday Sales Pitch? How About Nook And Kindle Stuffers?


Around the holidays, my mother used to search for small, inexpensive items to put in the kids’ Christmas stockings along with hard candy my grandfather made, walnuts, almonds and tangerines.

So, as we are besieged by advertising about Christmas gifts, black Fridays, Cyber Mondays, flat-screen TVs, Hondas and new blockbuster movies, I realized I’ve done nothing to market my books.  Inspired by the stockings that were “hung by the chimney with care,” it occurred to me that many of my books could provide tiny, inexpensive gifts — Kindle, Nook and iPad stuffers. Great last minute gifts for the mystery lovers in your life.

Quick and easy and just in time! Even some of my more expensive e-books have been reduced to a price less than a Hallmark Card and doesn’t even require postage.  And there’s even a place for a message.  All of the books below are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and can be sent, along with a message, as gifts to friends and family. All of them can be found, at this moment, for less than $4.  All you need is the email address your friends or relations use to download books and the source of that download:

The e-book prices below are current as of this posting and are based on Amazon prices, though the books are available elsewhere as well. Buy here or check in with your favorite bookstore or ebook provider.

Death in the Haight, Dutton, $2.99. Fifteen-year-old Michael appears to have been kidnapped, but he is also implicated in the murder of a prostitute. Noah Lang is hired by Michael’s parents to get to the bottom of the situation. Lang wrestles with the moral implications of rescuing Michael, only to have to turn him in for murder; and an increasingly volatile homicide inspector’s behavior may just put Lang’s life in as much grave danger as Michael’s.  This just released, original novella is among the first books released in Penguin’s re-launch of the famous Dutton Guilt Edged Mysteries imprint.

Mascara, Death in the Haight, LDF Books, $3.99. From the very beginning, things just aren’t what they seem. On a late, lonely night, San Francisco private investigator Noah Lang’s eyes deceive him. He makes a mistake. But what should have been simply an embarrassing moment becomes a deadly walk on the wild side. Unfortunately for Lang, before this nightmare is over, he puts his life on the line a second time for a new client who may or may not have a missing husband, who might or might not live on a boat in Tiburon and who seems to have an odd way to settle the bill for services rendered.  Also available in trade paperback.

Good to the Last Kiss, Severn House, $2.99. An Inspector Vincent Gratelli mystery — San Francisco Inspector Vincent Gratelli is charged with finding the killer of young women — all murdered in the same way, all left with an intimate mark. The most recent victim was beaten and raped in her weekend cabin. There appears to be only one difference — she is still alive.  This leaves Gratelli with two questions: how can these murders be stopped . . . and how does the killer feel about unfinished business?

A dark, twisty, little gem.”— Kirkus Reviews


Bullet Beach, Severn House, $2.99. PI Deets Shanahan takes on the search of his lifetime.  When seventy-one-year-old private investigator Deets Shanahan learns from a snippet of news on the Internet that his brother, who disappeared when they were kids, could be somewhere in Thailand, he immediately sets out, accompanied by his lover, Maureen, to find his errant sibling. But it turns out that this is much more than finding a missing person who wants to stay missing. Treasure, deceit and murder soon interrupt their search on the streets of Bangkok and on the beaches of Phuket.  This is the most recent Shanahan mystery.  Order on-line or go through your local bookstore.

“Engaging and entertaining.” — Booklist


Death in North Beach, Severn House, $2.99. The second book in the new Paladino and Lang mystery series.  Sweet William, a professional companion to the wealthy, needs help. A famous, but not beloved, novelist is found dead, and William is the prime suspect. His only recourse is for the real murderer to be found. Working from an impressive list of suspects, all whose secrets were to be revealed in the victim's unpublished tell-all memoir, Carly Paladino and Noah Lang stir up serious trouble on their hunt for the missing manuscript — and the murderer.  Also available in trade paperback. Order on-line or go through your local bookstore.

“…. the makings of a superior series. Tierney, author of the Deets Shanahan series, has a winner here.” — Library Journal


The Early Shanahans, Books 1 through 4, LDF Books, $3.99 each.  These are the first books in the popular “Deets” Shanahan series.  An aging private investigator gets a new lease on life and he along with a host of colorful characters sort out some serious murders in Indianapolis.  The Stone Veil, Steel Web, Iron Glove and Concrete Pillow are also available in trade paperback.

"Tierney's 'Deets' Shanahan series offers characters of depth and sensuality, and well-placed swipes of razor-sharp humor." — Publishers Weekly

I’ll make one more sales pitch next Monday, then I’ll give it a rest for a while.






Friday, December 7, 2012

Film Pairing — Revenge May Be Sweet, But It’s Not As Easy As It Looks


Two very different small crime films tackle revenge and betrayal.  And viewers would be advised to remember the sage advice of Yankee philosopher Yogi Berra:  It’s not over until it’s over.”

In the film Shallow Grave, we are introduced to three Edinburgh flatmates played by Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor.  After a rigorous if not insane interview process they decide on a fourth mate to help them pay the rent. The man dies, leaving behind a suitcase full of money.  The three, not quite self-less, creatures decide to bury the body and, of course, split the treasure. The problem is the money belongs to someone else.  And if the three mates are less than honorable members of society, they are angels compared to the folks coming after the money the dead man had taken from them.  Fear and greed make strange flat fellows and the trio’s attempt to escape danger and keep the money makes for a twisting and turning plot.  The film, released in 1994, was among the first for McGregor.  His work here reminded me a bit of an only slightly restrained Malcolm McDowell in Clockwork Orange.

The Dying Gaul (2005) is downright mean.  One might not think so watching this little drama begin to unfold.  A little love triangle melodrama perhaps? A successful producer, played by Campbell Scott, who in fact produced the film, wants to buy a screenplay from a young and seemingly principled playwright, portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard.  The catch is that the producer wants the play, about two gay men in a long-term relationship, to be rewritten so that the main characters are in a heterosexual marriage. All the playwright needs to do is sell out.  Would a million dollars do it?   Enter the catalyst, the producer’s wife, played by the incredibly talented Patricia Clarkson.  All three characters hit it off.  Perhaps a bit too much.  The producer, we discover, goes both ways. He seduces the emotionally vulnerable playwright, while the producer’s wife, feeling immense compassion for the tragic life of the young man, attempts in a kind, but deceitful way, to help him through his heart-ache.  Both good deeds and bad deeds are punished.  Compassion turns to revenge and this tiny slice of life drama turns into a slice of hell.

These are not big films.  Geographically, you will go nowhere exciting.  There is very little action.  There aren’t great, overarching glimpses into human nature that haven’t been seen before.  However, they are fine, character-driven short stories and certainly a fascinating, eyebrow raising double feature for a quiet rainy evening.

This is a night for wine, a full-bodied red.  Be prepared for some dark humor as well seemingly light story that goes very dark.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Observations — San Francisco Street Art, Around Town

Mural in Clarion Alley, The Mission

Store Delivery Truck, NOPA

Company Headquarters, The Haight

Inside Brenda's, A Cajun Creole Restaurant, Tenderloin

Monday, December 3, 2012

Opinion — “Run With The Painters,” Says Vonnegut


In the late 1960s, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to a fellow novelist, a friend who was about to teach at the legendary Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Vonnegut, who had done so earlier, had some tips about living and working in Iowa City.  He provided some practical suggestions. For example, he told his friend to use the Cedar Rapids airport, not the one in Iowa City.  He commented on the workshop’s staff — who to beware of and who might be of help.  He also told the novelist turned professor not to worry about credentials.  “The University is perfectly used to barbarians in the work shop.” (Vonnegut wasn’t a college graduate either.)  But my favorite line in the letter was that if the new guy wanted to enjoy his stay, he should…”run with the painters.” This seemed odd to say at a place known for its famous writers.

Nightscape by Iowa City Artist
Mark Stevenson (2010)
Years ago, when I first found out it existed, I joined the Private Eye Writers of America and have attended a couple of annual dinners, one at the famous Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis.  It was a combination of awards ceremony and roast. A lot of the writers knew each other.  They had been coming to these dinners for years and it was a chance to catch up, talk about old times.  I also joined the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and have taken advantage of a few of their incredible annual conferences (Bouchercons). They have kindly put me on a panel whenever I could attend.  I was in the midst of all sorts of writers, some of them legends, but they seemed to gather together in groups, calling each other by their first names, again sharing stories and probably pretty often taking a new, young writer under their collective wings.  From all that I could tell, writers are a generous lot and, while seemingly highly competitive — awards, sales, etc. — in many cases very supportive.

I’ve never been hail fellow well met. I’m pretty sure that at these convergences of writers, my stand-offishness was interpreted as aloof or even snobbish by some. I’ve attended a number of meetings of MWA’s northern California chapter.  These were lunches usually and often with a speaker who provided valuable, expert information to crime writers — criminal attorneys, homicide cops, medical examiners. These meetings have been worthwhile, but here again there seemed to be established groups who hung out together, veterans in the cause.  I don’t fault it.  It’s natural. I gravitated to those wanting to write more than those who have already written.  I think it is because they seemed a little lost as well.

Poster from the "red scare"
McCarthy Era of the 1950s
Friendships, I think, are bonds formed by participation in common struggles.  Among writers, especially crime novelists around my age, many came up the same way even if they didn’t know each other.  They knew the publishers and editors and other characters in the game.

This is probably happening now, with younger writers, though perhaps in a slightly different way.  Pardon the cliché, but publishing is in the process of creating its “new normal”.  It has to do with ebooks and social media, tweets, facebook pages and shared blogs and all sorts of stuff yet to be conceived.  As an aside, I was never really part of the older group (though I am certainly enough) and I am stumbling and fumbling in this new publishing world as well.  Another aside, there was a young man on Charlie Rose who invented a new and popular “app.” The kid is now worth millions.  He was fifteen when he developed it.  He predicted that future applications will be developed by 12-year-olds.  And the conservatives want to raise the retirement age?

But back to the point — painters and writers.  I find it difficult to relate to other writers, perhaps for the reasons I mentioned above.  I didn’t come up, to the extent that I have, the same way.  We don’t share the dimly lit past.  And the truth is, as I observe it, that being with other writers prompts a kind of constant evaluation, an ongoing comparison of each other’s work in one way or another.  I’m not sure we can help it.  It is a kind of constant reminder of the business of writing, of getting published. I prefer to think and talk about other things.  For me, writing is not something one does in a group setting. 

My guess is that Vonnegut’s advice to “run with the painters” had something to do with that.  If you are going to spend all day with upcoming writers for months on end.  And your cohorts are also writers, isn’t that a bit much?  Painters are creative folks.  Most of the ones I have known have great minds, provide stimulating conversation and are often inspiring without posing any sense of competition, at least to writers. If I could still run, I’d probably be running with the painters.



Friday, November 30, 2012

Film Pairing — Down Under And Outback, Peter Weir And Nicholas Roeg


David Gulpilil is an actor, dancer and artist who grew up in the Outback, far away from the British influence in Australia.  His performances in director Nicholas Roeg’s stunning film Walkabout and in Peter Weir’s magnificent Last Wave have the ring of authenticity and are breathtaking.

He was only 16 when he portrayed someone much like himself in a movie that powerfully conveys the stark similarity between so-called primitive and advanced cultures.

The story begins with a deranged father trying to shoot his daughter and son after taking them out to a remote, desolate area of Australia. The children manage to escape, but to what? The hot, unfriendly environment of Australia’s Outback. It’s unlikely the two young bourgeois children could survive long enough to find their way back to food, water and shelter. Along comes the young man, who has begun his rite of passage into adulthood by attempting to survive on his own in the wild. It is a tribal ritual called “walkabout.”  Being much more equipped to survive in this environment, he takes responsibility for the lost children.  Jenny Agutter is the coming of age girl.  She is an extraordinary actress playing an extraordinary character. (Roeg apparently suffered some criticism — that he exploited her beauty by including extensive nude scenes.)  It is incredible to me that the human mind would go there. This is what the film is about — humans stripped to their nakedness — in a dangerous Eden.  And Lucien John is the young boy, young enough fortunately, to find the walkabout an adventure. And we believe him too. The film is about the three of them and all three are very much up to the task.

What Roeg has wrought here is much more than a story of survival.  It is setting so-called civilization up against the more primitive lives of those who live closer to the earth.  This isn’t romancing the simple life, though there are occasional glances of paradise amidst nature at its most brutal, which includes the graphic killing of prey in order to survive.  If nothing else, it is shows that the life in high-rises and life out in the brush are in many ways very much the same. We are of the same blood.  We have only created a little distance between the killing and the eating.  And in some ways we have desensitized ourselves from the essential, though often unpleasant, truths of existence, including, paradoxically, the impossible gap between the two worlds, as much alike as they are.

The Last Wave is perhaps a little less visually powerful, but no less thought-provoking. An aboriginal man dies in Sydney. The police believe it is murder and a brief investigation leads to four men, one of them David Gulpilil, older now, but still mesmerizing.  Richard Chamblerlain finds himself, through his association with a nonprofit defense association, to be their defense attorney — a difficult job at best.

Weir, who directed Picnic at Hanging Rock and Don’t Look Now, returns to themes that can be described as otherworldly in as much as one must accept a world of not necessarily complete rationality.  In The Last Wave, there is a suggestion that a great natural calamity is about to take place and that, in order prevent it, Chamberlain’s character, must uncover the mystery at the heart of an aboriginal tribe’s “myth.”  He can only do so — and incidentally free the four wrongly charged with homicide — by risking his sanity as well as his life and quite possibly the lives of everyone. Gulpilil plays one of the young men charged with murder and again he is the guide to the outback of the human psyche, a more reluctant guide this time.  Again, Gulpilil is flawless and Chamberlain reminds us just how underrated an actor he has been during his career. 

The question is what is real?  Is rational thought the truth?  What about dreams?  Premonitions? 

What both films have in common besides aborigines, though they are at the heart of them, is a larger question. What do we make of culture and how it shapes “the truth.” Of the two. Roeg’s film makes a statement and Weir’s poses a question.

Not sure what you should be drinking with this double feature.  Walkabout takes place in a dessert.  You could get heatstroke just watching it.  So beer or a chilled wine.  The Last Wave is interminably cold and wet.  Water, water, everywhere.  And caves and wind.  Perhaps an Australian version of an Irish coffee or a House Cappuccino modeled after San Francisco’s Tosca house specialty, coffee, chocolate steamed milk and brandy.




Monday, November 26, 2012

Observations — Remembrances of Things Beyond My Control


I’m writing my memoirs. 
I know.  Who do I think I am? I am not  famous.  Nor do I know famous people.  And I’ve made absolutely no impact on science or history or anything else that matters.  But I’ve not let that get in my way. 
Here is an excerpt from a draft of Albion and New Augusta (Confessions of a Midlist Writer) about my first, somewhat lonely days at Indiana University.  I had found three other freshmen who knew how to play the card game, euchre.  Having that in common, the four of us formed a tenuous friendship. And that’s how we passed the time, even though studying would have been a better investment.  Of this new group of friends, one stood out.
 I spent a lot of time with Pete, the smart but cynical one.  He was heavyset.  He wore glasses.  He always wore a white, short-sleeved shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, and dark pants.  Always.  He was adamant about having nothing around his neck. During the coldest winter days, he wouldn't wear a scarf.
He was moody, brooding, an avid reader and there wasn’t an easy read in his stack of books.  When we met he was reading Nietzsche, about whom he seemed obsessed.  I wasn’t nearly as well read; but I had devoured plays, especially the "modern" ones, beginning with Shaw and continuing to contemporary British playwrights.   The other two in the Euchre group had no such interests.  Neither did my roommate.  These were the people in my world. I don't believe Pete's social world was any larger. So Pete and I spent time together.
I looked forward to it.  I was more comfortable in matters of the mind as opposed to matters of the heart. I was comfortable with concepts rather than details.  In fact, intellectual matters were preferable given my most recent experience in matters of lovers and family. And like Pete and his Nietzschean mindset, I had no love for the church-going masses.  Right and wrong existed for me, but were notions outside of religion.  And if there was disagreement between Pete and I, we could disagree without a lot of Biblical baggage.  Authority took a back seat to logic.
In other matters Pete was explosive.  He had his personal passion when it came to cards and pool.  A couple of times, when he lost at Euchre, he kicked over the table.  He locked himself in his room once and did not come out for days. I saw that as sulking not depression. On the other hand it was interesting drama in what had otherwise had become a boring routine.  One day he lost a game of pool and snapped the pool cue.  It wasn’t so much that he lost; it was to whom he lost. I was the whom.  Not only were these domains over which he was master, I was just learning the game.  I’ll have to admit that I took some pleasure in surprising him with the notion that luck was sometimes victorious over talent and discipline. He hated the idea of "luck."   It has to do with randomness rather than order.
Despite the flaws, I thought Pete was one of the most formidable and memorable people I had ever met.  That was true until I met his father. I don't remember why I went to Pete's house, but one day, up from Bloomington and back in Indianapolis, I visited Pete at his place.  Maybe school was out. I’m not sure.
Pete's house was in another one of those housing developments in the city with street after street of mostly two- or three-bedroom frame homes. Each had small front and back lawns.  His home, like those of his neighbors, was modest but well built.  If I remember correctly the home was set back, up on a small incline. It had a smooth asphalt driveway, on which was parked a big black two-door Cadillac with black walls and a red light on the roof.
Inside, the rooms were small and seemed even smaller because the furniture was huge. One had to angle through oversized chairs, a mammoth sofa, and a grand piano, not to mention a sweet but overweight Boxer. It was as if Botero was the set designer. Pete’s dad, a doctor, was a deputy coroner for the city.  He was huge and round as well, twice the size of Pete and three times as scary. His hair was closely cropped, he wore a .38, and he smoked a cigar.   Rather, he chewed it.
The three of us had a little lunch.  Pete couldn’t have gotten any smaller.  He — all hunched into himself — looked as if he expected the ceiling to come tumbling down at any moment. He seemed nervous and frightened as his father talked about his work as coroner and as a kind of volunteer physician to the down and out.  As we ate, Pete’s father provided lurid descriptions of prostitutes and the debilitating diseases they were likely to acquire.  At one point, the doctor held up a small carrot stick, using it to show the size of a boy’s penis that he had been describing in a story.  After finishing his sentence, he bit off the tip of the carrot with, I thought, a bit too much exuberance.
This struck me as hilarious. I started laughing, which seemed to further distress Pete. In moments, perhaps realizing what he had done or maybe, fully aware of his purpose and surprised by its effect, the doctor started laughing himself.  He laughed so hard, he turned pink. He lit his dead cigar and invited me to dinner the following Friday.
He would show some family slides, he said, as if this gesture was in response to my questions about his growing up in New York.
When the evening of the dinner came, I was shocked at the way that not only the doctor talked to his wife, berating her, yelling at her in the kitchen, calling her stupid, and worse.  No one came to her rescue. I wanted to say something, but I was sitting next to King Kong.  When dinner was over, the slide projector was set up. There may have been a few photos of the family's earlier days in New York, but the bulk of the show was made up of autopsy slides — graphic, bloody slides of various human organs, sliced and diced, and in various stages in preparation for examination.
I kept a poker face.  I don’t know where or how I learned it, or why I thought it was necessary; but I was determined not to show fear or shock. Another skill I had learned was to go off to some other place in my mind until the unpleasantness had passed. It was a mechanism I would cultivate.  But during the time at the doctor’s house all I really wanted to do was get the hell out of there.
I couldn’t imagine what life was like for Pete and the others in the household.
A lurid torture/murder case that still shocks the city
I had no idea what life was like for the deputy coroner. I didn’t know at the time, for example, that he had been the examiner on the scene when Sylvia Likens’ tortured body was found in an Eastside home.  She had been cut and burned over many days. She died of brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition.  The facts of the story — the chief actor in this horrid drama punished the victim on moral grounds — were so tragic, that the drama was made into films, novels and plays.  The Likens case may have been the most gruesome the doctor had to deal with, but his practice exposed him to the most heinous acts on a regular basis.  He, like police and firefighters, witness the saddest, unluckiest and most depraved moments in human existence.  He saw and knew things too impolite for the general public, but perhaps not too impolite for his family. How much of this he brought home, I’d have to estimate from the entertainment after dinner, probably was more than most families needed to know.
I was content to get back to the university in Bloomington.  I had been cast in a Noel Coward play. Much good can be said about the importance of trivializing existence.