Friday, September 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

On Writing — Decanters of the Dubious

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

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

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

My favorite is:
Decanters of the Dubious

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Rant– No Unsolicited Manuscripts, No Exceptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

“No unsolicited manuscripts.  No exceptions.”

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

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

“No unsolicited manuscripts.  No exceptions.”

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