Friday, April 29, 2011

Film Pairing — Italian Feasts For Foodies

Big Night and Dinner Rush. First, apologies. The only crimes committed in Big Night are those committed by the customers who demand a talented Italian chef put spaghetti and meatballs on the restaurant’s menu. In Dinner Rush, the demands are more serious. It definitely qualifies as a crime film. However, both films are feasts for foodies and are, despite the genre difference, thematic soul mates.

Big Night (1996) features a pre-Monk Tony Shalhoub, plus Stanley Tucci and Minnie Driver. Louis Prima’s presence and music are felt throughout this critically acclaimed movie. Fine acting dominates a perfect film in Dinner Rush (2000) as well. But it’s Danny Aiello’s restaurant and his film.

You will spend the evening in a New York state of mind while lots of people prepare lots of food. You’ll have to have something to eat too. And wine. You must have a few bottles of Italian red ready to uncork. But if you are having a dinner party for friends that evening, be warned. Your fare will be up against some of the finest food footage shown anywhere.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Notes — And All the King's Men

When I was a kid, I started thinking about what life was like for the strangers I’d see. I’d notice the guy in the tie and short-sleeved shirt standing in a used car lot, colorful plastic pennants on a rope snapping in the wind above him. What did this man think about when business was slow? I didn’t know any used car salesmen, but I was vaguely aware that people thought they were untrustworthy. Same for mechanics. They could tell you anything. When my father took his car to a garage for repair a man in grease-stained work pants would talk to him. I remember how not only was there grime under the man’s fingernails, but also in the wrinkles on the his face. Surrounding him was the smell of heat and gasoline and burnt coffee. There was a buzzing, flickering fluorescent light. Somewhere, in all these garages were calendars with happy, half-naked women posing proudly with a wrench or a can of motor oil. What did this guy do when he wasn’t puttering about under an old Pontiac or looking at Miss April? Did he daydream? What did he think about at night before he fell asleep?

I have no idea what thoughts these men had, how fine or noble or petty or mean. But the legendary Philip K. Dick’s posthumously published Humpty Dumpty in Oakland (Tor) addressed those kinds of questions in the author’s own wonderfully strange and quirky way. Al Miller is the used car salesman and Jim Fergessen, the mechanic. They have, by the author’s account, very ordinary existences. One day, a man appears in their lives, stirs something in their beings. They have things to think about — and things to do. They discover they are unsatisfied with who they are and what they have accomplished. They yearn to change their everyday, repetitive, unappreciated lives. They see bigger, more important roles for themselves. And letting their ambition outweigh both their scruples and common sense, they think that they are in some way entitled and that it will be easy.

Monday, April 25, 2011

On Writing, Part IV — Creating Reality. Whose Reality Is It? And Can you Sustain It?

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the fourth in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

Are you God or a mere mortal?

Other than the cover, which you likely had little to do with, the narrative point of view is the first connection you make with the reader. It is also the first thing you choose when you start to write, whether you do so consciously or not. Who is telling the story? At its most fundamental level, there are only two choices.

One is the story told through a single character, many times the main character, either actively or implied. It is his or her voice alone. This can be a powerful way to tell the story. The character is talking directly to the reader. It is intimate. The reader is seeing, feeling, smelling the world through that character. Quite often the reader becomes that character. The downside — and it’s a steep one — is that unless your narrating character is God, him, or herself — anything that happens outside the character’s natural purview cannot logically be told. Switching back and forth can be dodgy for everyone.

The second is the omniscient narrator. This approach provides optimum freedom for the writer, but (and I ask this seriously) how much freedom is too much freedom? How many minds do you feel comfortable wandering around in? When do you, as the writer, know what someone is thinking or doing and when not? What you might lose taking this option is the sense of a personal relationship with the reader. You might also lose the benefit of a single, simple thrust of plot that comes when one human being tells the reader what happened from his or her perspective. However, a complicated story may require greater room to innovate.

There are all sorts of variations on the theme of narration. Some can get pretty tricky. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. My guess is that most beginning writers intuitively know what works best for them. The important thing here is consistency, not just throughout the book, but also throughout the series.

As I mentioned earlier, series readers have a completely different sense of expectation. The reason why they are reading the third book featuring incisive Detective Smith or the bumbling P.I Jones is the comfort they take in the familiar. Just as that includes time and place, it also includes who tells the story and the people who live in that story. This is part of the writer’s construct of a reality that readers choose to revisit.

I have to warn you. This is a half-baked theory; but it is my theory and I’m sticking to it. If a writer sells a million books it is because he or she creates a reality that a lot of people enjoy being in. It may not be a pretty reality or a comforting one and by various standards, it may not even be a well-written reality. Perhaps the literary quality of the writing doesn’t matter if the reader wants to spend time there.

This construct of reality includes all of the characters, especially those who reappear. Maybe the characters are people readers would want to know, personally. They become friends. And the reader enjoys visiting them from time to time. Maybe the readers wouldn’t want your characters in their day-to-day lives, but they are curious about them and, reader-voyeurs, enjoy watching them, the humble or the heroic, vicariously. In any event, characters, their habits and personalities and their voices, must be sustained. And just as you must be careful when killing dogs and children, heaven help you if you kill the wrong recurring character.

Next question on the reality train: In what world does the story take place? Is it a gritty drama on the mean streets of a tough city? Or is it in a polite and quaint village that some ghastly event occurs? In a series, I suspect, readers come to expect a familiar environment. Some readers prefer their murders happen in dark, cold and lonely, places, done in with an axe, others in the parlor, smited by an unexpectedly potent cup of tea.

Many series writers eventually feel trapped by all these expectations, these limitations. And we can get particularly excited when our publisher allows us to do what is currently being called a “one-off,” with a clean sheet of paper. Other writers will do more than one series, often just to have a little more freedom. Unfortunately, another set of characters will upset those readers who have come to know and love the first set. The loyal reader might feel as if the author has betrayed them. And reviewers, too, may have trouble understanding that the writer is going for something different in tone, and yes, “reality.”

But I digress. More About Your Chosen Reality

Riding the buses and trolleys in San Francisco, at my age and combined with my Midwestern upbringing sets me up for the constant shock of seeing and hearing students, many of them in school uniforms talking about sex openly, out loud, in ways I might not have even understood when I was that young. But this is the reality. If I should choose to write a contemporary, young adult mystery, I’d better have a better understanding of that world than I do now.

In that spirit, if you are writing about what goes on in neighborhoods you dare not walk after dark, do you know anything about the people who inhabit those streets? Do you have a sense of how they talk? The same goes for all those who populate your books. Ex-cons, society matrons, soccer moms, the Wal-Mart clerk, Vietnamese immigrants. There might be times when I make smart-ass remarks about people who write about cats solving murders. Objectively, I am wrong to be critical. The point is to write what is real for your characters in the reality you set forth and, I hope, from the world you know. If cats are your world, write about them. It is better to have that smart Siamese discover critical evidence than to embark upon a story about gang-banger killings when you stay locked in your flat, tossing a cloth mouse across the room.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Film Pairing — Cain Was More Than Able

The postman rang more than twice. There were French, Hungarian and Italian versions of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. There was an opera and a Broadway play (starring Val Kilmer). But most Americans are familiar with two Hollywood movies based on the story. One was the highly praised Lana Turner and John Garfield film in 1946 and the less than critically acclaimed Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lang remake in 1981, with a screenplay by David Mamet. Personally, I think the remake might have improved with age.

Maybe the real story here is Cain, the writer. Out of the 22 novels he wrote, there were 17 movies. In addition to the two Postman movies, there were also two versions of Mildred Pierce — the Joan Crawford classic and the current, lauded Kate Winslet HBO production. Of his many fine novels another dark, classic movie was born — Double Indemnity with Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson. Director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler co-wrote the screenplay. The characters went wrong; but the movie didn’t.

In this case, stick to the originals. If you can do three films in black and white in one crowded evening, go for the originals of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity. If not, pick two. Of course, you could always read the books.

In terms of libation, whatever you fix should have gin in it. A high ball maybe. How about a Gin Rickey?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Opinion — The Brits and Crime Tales on the Telly

Midsomer Murders: I’m not sure why this is, but we Americans seem to enjoy British silliness while we spurn our own. But, in fact, the British can over do it as well. After the 50th episode of village festivals all over Midsomer County where someone is perforated by a stray arrow, the fun begins to dissipate. High quality and initially addicting, the Midsomer experience becomes like your old robe. You may end up confusing familiarity with comfort and the fabric starts falling apart before the 70th episode. On the other hand, if you are bedridden, these shows, initially based on books by Caroline Graham, can be a pleasantly anticipated narcotic.

A Touch of Frost: Many episodes, all of them strong well into the 15th and last season. Frost can be a maddening character. If I were working with Frost, played by the talented and comically adept David Jason, I might ask for a transfer. But, of course, having an imperfect protagonist adds believability. Is there anyone you spend a lot of time with you wouldn’t mind editing a bit? Including yourself? Neither the darkest nor lightest of murder mystery series, the gruesome is well mixed with humor. Frost is based on books by R.D. Wingfield.

Cracker: You sit there and yell at the main character, a psychiatrist fascinated with murder. “You’re such a wanker!” (I’ve always wanted to say that, but I’m from Indiana). Cracker, as a character, is frustrating, funny, overbearing and very human. In this, he shares this viewer’s mixed feelings about Frost, who is a bit full of himself in other ways. A little darker in tone and a little deeper in characterization than is realized in A Touch of Frost, this series is also worth the investment. So are the two movies that followed, one set in Hong Kong and the other in the U.S. It’s impossible to imagine anyone but Robbie Coltrane playing the part.

Wire in the Blood There is a personal chemistry that takes place, or doesn’t, between viewer and protagonist. Sometimes it is hard to explain as it is here. In this case I never warmed to Robson Green as the main character; but there is no doubt in my mind that this adaptation of the talented Val McDermaid’s stories of another psychiatrist interested in why people kill other people is as worthy as any of the others on this list to receive the quality British Drama stamp of approval. For those who don’t mind a little extra blood and guts, this series is rewarding. Rumors of an American version have been uttered. That thought is scarier than any of McDermaid’s bloody opening scenes.

Daiziel and Pascoe: Don’t stop after the first episode. The characters, based on the books by the esteemed Reginald Hill, take some getting used to. They are more fun and more likable than they seem at first. Somehow, both rude and bland behavior can be endearing. I’m eagerly waiting for the release of more episodes.

George Gently: One of my favorites and perhaps my favorite on the list. The dark, rich, moody cinematography set in the ‘60s, shares the credit with the actors. The main character (played by Martin Shaw) is magnetic and a joy to watch. His much-to-learn partner (Lee Ingleby) is the perfect foil. If I were in charge of awards, they’d both get them. In tone, the series based on books by Alan Hunter, is a long way from the Midsomer villages. More, please.

Inspector Morse/Inspector Lewis: I came late to Colin Dexter’s creation, Inspector Morse, and I can’t quite share the overriding affection that viewers find for the show. But I suspect I hold an infinitesimally small minority view. I like Morse’s partner Inspector Lewis better, and in the spin-off, Lewis’ partner even more. The newcomer, played by Laurence Fox contributes much needed vitality to the often subdued and occasionally protracted stories.

The Last Detective: Could be for me. Who can complain about the acting? After watching American network crime dramas, almost anything from across the Atlantic seems like a blessed event. In this case, though, the main character shows just a little too much humility for my taste. It is as if he puts the “kick me” sign on his own butt before he goes out to greet the world. While the character, sarcastically named “Dangerous,” always prevails, it’s downright painful to watch him be made fool of nearly every second of an otherwise well constructed drama based on books by Leslie Thomas.

The State of Play: (This is the six-part BBC series, not the Russell Crowe film, though they are related.) Perhaps as much of a journalism story as a crime story, the series is nonetheless a short masterpiece in British story telling. And that’s the only flaw in the series. It is too short. Smart, finely crafted. Not a wasted moment. Highly recommended.

Prime Suspect: All that needs to be said has been said. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a treat.

As any devoted, crime-oriented Anglophile will no doubt point out, there are some notable series missing from this list — the Poirots, Marples and Holmes, as extreme examples. I simply haven’t seen all that many of them. (I know, I know.) But recommendations and comments are always welcome. I’ve purposely left off comment on the new, contemporary Sherlock Holmes, which blew me away the first season. More about that when we get a chance to see the second act.

Incidentally, the above photo is from the George Gently series. I included it because I really like the automobile in the background.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Film Pairing — Devil at Twilight

There aren’t many private eyes on either the big or small screens these days. Police detectives, quite a few. Private ones, no — especially ones in which the story-line takes the genre seriously. Two standouts — and they are not new — are Devil in a Blue Dress and Twilight (we’re not talking vampires here). Devil was released in 1995 and the Twilight in 1998.

Though very different in setting and tone and with the only similarities being that they were about private investigators (with excellent soundtracks by Elmer Bernstein), they would make for a solid evening of — I hesitate to say noir because it is a touchy subject — film that harkens back to earlier P.I. filmmaking.

Writer Walter Mosely introduced Easy Rawlins in his first book, Devil in a Blue Dress. The book won the Shamus Award (Private Eye Writers of America) for Best First Novel and was nominated similarly for the Edgar (Mystery Writers of America) that year. Mosely never had to look back. Devil was an immediate success and spawned a dozen books featuring Rawlins. It was also the basis for an equally successful film, which starred Denzel Washington as Rawlins and a young Don Cheadle as Mouse Alexander, Rawlin’s sociopathic partner.

If you have Gene Hackman, James Garner and Susan Sarandon, you might think having Paul Newman, as the aging private eye was gilding the lily. It’s more like the British filmmakers bringing the best, most experienced power to bear. Paul Newman was great. So was Hackman and Sarandon. Garner was exceptional; but the movie bombed at the box office and its initial critical reception was mixed. Maybe they should have added some special effects for those who require explosions and car chases to stay tuned, but if you prefer a well-acted, quality story to cars flying through the air in slow motion, Twilight will probably top a fine double feature for you.

Though there are plenty of clinking ice cubes in Twilight, it’s really a kind of beer evening.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Writing, Part III — To Outline or Not Outline

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the third in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

A lady came to one of my book signings. She stood in front of me at the table with a serious look on her face. She asked, “Do you outline your novel before you write it?” I told her I never do an outline, which was mostly true. She shook her head and said that she couldn’t possibly enjoy anything I wrote and walked out.

That wasn’t the first time the subject came up. A writer with whom I sometimes did readings and signings not only wrote an outline; but before the outline he wrote a multi-page treatment. He was (and is) a fine, award-winning mystery writer whom I respect. I began to wonder if I was somehow cheating the reader or myself by not always knowing exactly what’s happening next with my own books as I wrote them.

As time went on, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my failure to outline. Among the many who do not use the outline technique are Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Stephen King. On the other hand, there are those who do outline, who must outline. These, I’ve read, include such successful authors as Louise Penny, John Lescroart and John Grisham. Scott Turow, to be completely different, does an outline during his second or third draft.

Using an outline might keep you from going up any blind alleys. Not using one might allow you to find a street you didn’t know existed. I do use a brief outline sometimes when I know what’s happening in the next few pages and I’m afraid I’ll forget what I was thinking. But that is more of a bridge than an outline. The real point of this is that different people write in different ways. Find out how you are most comfortable and most creative. I’d be suspicious of advice that put too many rules down that do not take into account the individual who will need to abide by them. If you’re not sure of the best approach for you, try both. If you choose one, it doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind later. For me, writing by the seat of my pants makes me want to sit down and write to see what will happen next and at some point discover who killed the victim found dead in Chapter One.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Opinion — Honoring Libraries

When I separated from the Army so many years ago, I moved into a studio apartment in downtown Indianapolis. Out of my window I could see the back of a handsome and formidable structure — the city’s Central Library. It was a blessing I hadn’t considered when I moved in. While I’d saved some money from my military pay during my service, I wasn’t in any position to live large. The library rescued me.

As I attempted to write my first novel, eating bologna and eggs and often staying up around the clock typing or reading, my only treat was going next door, wandering into the elegant main room and then back into the stacks of this grand old building. There I met, for the first time, authors who weren’t part of my high school curriculum. There were rows and rows of books by writers from all over the world. Pretty amazing

Those first attempts at novel writing were a bust. I had nothing respectable to submit as my savings ran out. Yet, rent had to be paid. I got a job. I was promoted. I bought a car and later a house. I bought books. Soon, the library became for me what many of the city’s churches were: Beautiful structures that enhanced the city’s architecture, monuments to admire in passing.

Years later, when I decided to change my life, I moved to San Francisco, took a low-paying temporary job, rented a studio apartment, and began writing again. I also tried my hand at the visual arts. Again, in my monetary poverty I found riches at the library. I borrowed novels, records, and was inspired by all of the wonderful books on art and photography. Sometimes, just being surrounded by books is inspiration enough.

Unfortunately, is is not enough for some. There are those still trying to ban Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, among others. This is an old battle, yet one that has to be fought again and again.

And even in this computer age, the library is a place people who can’t afford to have Internet access, can have it. Because of libraries, children of poverty do not have to be denied in their search for knowledge and understanding.

That I now have a few of my own books on the shelves of various libraries around the country is an extraordinary honor. Libraries, for me, are sacred places. They not only provide incredible access to knowledge, provide places for everyone in a community to come together, and add to the physical beauty of the cities and towns they serve, they are also at the forefront in the fight against censorship and its incumbent threat to freedom of thought and the free-flow of ideas.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Film Pairing — Blondes on Telephones

There’s something going on here. Something strange. We have the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Dial M for Murder (1954), starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings. Talented actor John Williams plays the inspector. Now replace Milland with Rex Harrison, Kelly with Doris Day and Cummings with John Gavin and you have Midnight Lace (1960). You don’t need to replace John Williams because he is THE inspector in both films. And British actor Anthony Dawson, known for playing sinister roles, appears in both films as well, doing his sinister thing.

What is one to think? Is Midnight Lace a remake? Certainly not officially. But there was a certain déjà vu in the marketing. And while there are plot differences, there aren’t many. It’s clear to the world that Dial M for Murder is not only the standard, it was the original. One might charitably call Midnight Lace a variation on a theme. Even so, if you can find it (beware, the current DVD won’t play on most American and Canadian players), the movie is worthwhile despite and, to some extent, because of the similarities. And Hitchcock’s Dial didn’t have Myrna Loy.

An added note: Oscar Levant once said that Doris Day was bad for his diabetes. And I read somewhere that some viewers were willing to kill her themselves. But whether the plot was ripped off or not, the casting director did his or her job well. And that includes Doris Day. Her trademark sweetness is right for the part.

Accompanying drink: Your choice — a Tom Collins, or as an antidote, a whiskey sour.

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Writing, Part II —Setting: Time and Place

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the second in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

I am in awe of crime writers who set their books in say, ancient Egypt. Or making a mystery of who killed Polonius. However, I believe the writer who does this has an obligation to get history right. While plots may very well be timeless, setting the historically accurate scene means painstaking attention to detail. In the end it requires a serious scholarship that doesn’t necessarily accompany the ability to write. I am certainly not infatuated with the idea of going through page after page searching for information on Elizabethan underwear.

Recently, I found myself creating anachronisms merely trying to set a story at the end of the last century, which of course, sounds longer ago than it is. Did you know that cell phones in 1988 were gigantic and incredibly expensive? A down and out private eye wasn’t likely to have one. Did you know none of your characters could possibly have driven a Lexus in the U.S. before 1989? I didn’t. Now go back to the 16th Century or 1950 for that matter. It is easy to make mistakes. On the other hand, if you are comfortable in another era and enjoy the pursuit, by all means go ahead. Just be sure you know what you are getting into.

The same goes for location. Some smart writers set their stories in made-up places. Doing so no doubt requires a little forethought as well, but you have all the freedom in the world to create the environment you choose. And unless you contradict your own facts, you are not subject to correction. Much like getting history right, if you choose a specific location, I believe you owe it to the reader to get the cross streets right, to put the courthouse in the right part of town and to even get the color of the police cars correct. If you write about New York, you should be sure your murderer gets on the right subway.

I’ve heard writers, when caught with their factual pants down — and who hasn’t? — offer this excuse, “C’mon, it’s fiction.” I’m wrenched from the story, if only briefly, when I realize that a character in a book I’m reading gets from San Francisco’s North Beach to Potrero Hill in less than five minutes. Maybe readers in Biloxi won’t catch this one; but San Franciscans will and they will think less of you.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Opinion — E-Books and the State of Play in Self- Publishing

This article may be timely, but it certainly isn’t timeless. Technology alters reading habits and reading habits change the marketplace. And this is all happening at a lightning pace. What has emerged as a game-changer, from a book-publishing point of view, are e-books. And e-books present two separate challenges. One is the e-book itself. And the second is that this new medium has turned the idea of self-publishing upside down.

Not so long ago, to self-publish was akin to suicide for those who regarded themselves as serious or professional writers. Publishing one’s own book meant you not only didn’t get the official validation that publishing houses gave authors, you could not benefit by the built-in resources necessary to get your book noticed, hence, sold.

Today, there are stories of self-published authors who have sold many books, enough of them, in fact, to provide them with a standard of living better than many of us who, at least for now, have traditional publishers. But there can be no more profound an example of the change in reading habits and the resulting change in the marketplace than reports of best-selling authors who have decided to self-publish.

This latter development is no doubt encouraged by the fact that an author can provide his or her own work directly, adapting to formats that work with Amazon (Kindle), Apple (ipad) or Barnes & Noble (nook). In this case, if the income derived from the sale of the e-book is equated with a pie, then this pie is divided into only two pieces.

A conventionally printed and published book has twice as many pieces — instead of sharing half a pie, each player gets a much smaller piece. The players: The publisher and its staff of accountants, editors, artists, print specialists, and marketing people; the book distributor who has trucks and staff, the bookstore who has to pay rent and labor; the author; and quite likely the agent (who usually gets 15 percent of the author’s take). For many readers, it might come as a surprise: In the final tally, the author gets very little of the $26.95 that you pay for a new hardback. The author might get $1.50 of that price. If the author self-publishes an e-book and sells it at $9.99, he or she might get $5 or more and the middlemen go hungry.

It’s very clear that all the main players in the publishing world are scrambling. We’ve already witnessed the painful dissolution of Borders. Barnes & Noble investors are no doubt very concerned. What is to happen to the bricks and mortar aspect of the book business? Amazon reported recently that they are now selling more e-books than paperbacks. And that raises the question, what will happen to already suffering independent and the crime writer’s best friend, mystery bookstores?

For those who can hold on and adapt, what I see is that some of the independents will succeed, perhaps flourish. They will inherit the bookstore haunters who no longer can spend an afternoon in Borders. More importantly, specialty bookstores are already showing a cleverness that the big-box corporations didn’t. Some of the more spirited owners are investigating ways for customers to order e-books through them. Customers will have the advantage of knowledgeable book people (which they didn’t always have at the big-box stores anyway) and the ability to get that new book immediately, and I might add at a greatly reduced price.

That last sentence shouldn’t go unnoticed. It is not only the authors who benefit economically from self-published (or even traditionally published e-books to a lesser extent). Because the overall cost of production is usually significantly lower, the e-book customer also gets a deal.

On the other hand, if anyone with a computer can publish — and the field is already crowded — who is the guardian of quality? That responsibility used to fall to the publisher and its acquisition editors, copyeditors and proofreaders. Not every writer has those skills. In many ways publishers are the gatekeepers. Of course, they make mistakes, but they help separate the wheat from the chaff. To the extent that publishers have overhead, they also have resources. They market, they have a sales force, they advertise and they see to it that their books land in the hands of reviewers.

In the end, we don’t know how self-publishing and e-book reading will shake out. Certainly, evolving technology, changing habits and emerging demographics more than suggest the old ways are in decline. What book publishing will look like in the next few years is unclear, but its direction isn’t. The absolute good news out of all this is that the book, no matter what form it takes, is not dead.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Film Pairing — A Seedy Triple Feature

If you like this sort of thing — and I do — three small films combine for a seedy evening of dark and twisted cinema.

Blood Simple was made in 1984 and was the first feature film by Ethan and Joel Cohen. Cheating wives and bartenders and murder in Texas — what more could you want? Frances McDormand is at her usual high level of perfection; but one of the most interesting characters is the sleazy private investigator played by character actor M. Emmett Walsh. He flawlessly reflects the corruption that is at the core of this intense and violent story.

If it hadn’t been for the dueling performances of Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine, Blood and Wine (1996), might not have made my cut for this triple feature recommendation. But they dominate the screen and the fireworks they create are riveting. If only there were awards given for “best scene in a movie.” Sex, violence and plenty of alcohol in Blood and Wine’s tawdry South Florida setting match the sex, violence and plenty of alcohol in Blood Simple and its cheap Texas setting.

The third dark, twisted and seedy film is Red Rock West. Made in 1992, Nicholas Cage drifts into a bar in a small Wyoming town and believes he can profit from being mistaken for someone else. He’s wrong, of course, and things go to hell in a hurry. Dennis Hopper also stars in this tight, fast-moving film.

For those watching these three in one sitting, the drink of the night has to be Southern Comfort. Some might feel a long, hot shower is mandatory as well.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Book Notes — You Have To Go Home Again

It’s not uncommon for a group of young guys to hang out together. It is not unusual for some troubled but basically decent kids to get into a little trouble. But sometimes things don’t go as planned. In this case, things go horribly wrong. For “Handy” White, it was soul-burning incident, a memory that can no longer be repressed. A murder has reopened a 25-year-old wound, and White’s conscience forces him to return to Los Angeles, reenter the nightmare and uncover a truth no one wants him to find.

What follows in Gar Anthony Haywood’s Cemetery Road (Severn House) is a fast moving, tightly plotted, highly literate and serious moral tale that is difficult to put down. Some secrets, the novel tells us without preaching, you are not allowed to forget.

Haywood, a past winner of both the Shamus and Anthony Awards, has received widespread praise from reviewers and other writers for his work.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Film Pairing — To Catch a Good Thief

What these two movies have in common are thieves, the South of France and casinos. What they don’t have in common are leading men and women. At first glance it might be difficult to consider watching Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955) and Nick Nolte and Nutsa Kukhianidze in the Good Thief (2002) the same evening. But while these two movies start from very different places, they end in a remarkably similar way

Grant and Nolte do what they do exquisitely. Grant’s character, the handsome, charming, sophisticate and Nolte’s character, the heroin shooting low-life provide a fascinating contrast. The female leads are also opposites. Kelly plays it cool and hard-to-get in what looks like an audition for her role as real-life princess while Georgian-born Kukhianidze, one of the sexiest actresses around, plays it hot and available.

Drink what you want during the screening, but uncork the Champagne when it’s over.

On Writing, Part I —Back Story

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the first in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

It’s one thing to write a one-off book — that is you create characters you do not expect to revisit. The book ends. It’s over. You needn’t worry about anything you said jeopardizing anything you write in the future. But if you have any notion that you’ll want to write book two about these same characters, you might want to do a little thinking before you cast them in cement, so to speak.

When I wrote the first Deets Shanahan mystery I gave the idea of a second book with him as the main character no thought at all. I established his age at 69. The problem with this wasn’t yet apparent when St. Martin’s Press suggested a second book. But after book four, I began to see a problem developing. Does Shanahan, like Dagwood Bumstead, remain the same age forever? Doesn’t that become problematic after the 20th murder he’s called in to solve? If I had been less specific, I would have less explaining to do. He could have been just an “older” private eye. On the other hand, I do admit that having to overcome challenges is part of what makes writing interesting. And Shanahan, as it turns out (in a compromise I wish I could make), is doing fine, having aged three years since 1990.

However, the point is much larger than just the age of your characters. How you define your main and reoccurring characters may put limits on their growth or on what you need them to do later on. If you give your main character a college education in the first book, you can’t take it away later. Does he or she have children? Parents? Speech patterns aren’t likely to change over time either. Even how he or she views the world will have to carry forward. Is he or she a worrier or carefree? Though there are always creative solutions to the boxes writers put themselves in, you may be stuck with your first impressions of the people who live in your fiction. Are these people you want to live with for the next 20 years?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Film Pairing — Nick Charles and the Talented Mr. Ripley

If anyone can pull off a contemporary Nick Charles, it might very well be Johnny Depp. But the planned remake of The Thin Man is still pretty scary. Updating it for the 21st Century is scarier. At least once a year I begin The Thin Man series all over again. And the question I have is: Why?

Perhaps because sometimes it works. There is much being made of the HBO remake of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, for example. It's a big deal. Unfortunately more remakes come up short than succeed. There are successes, though. Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) was the first film made of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. In 1960 Alain Delon launched his career playing the role that Matt Damon would reprise for an American audience in 1999. In my mind, both films deserve the critical praise they received. And what a great pairing for a lovely, if cynical evening at home — a little wine (American or French or both) and a few hours devoted to bitingly clever and stylish filmmaking.

Incidentally, if you’re viewing The Thin Man series, Martinis are the way to go.