Wednesday, June 29, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — City Lights in North Beach

This begins a series of short articles on independent San Francisco bookstores. While their numbers are dwindling, there are still many colorful, one-of-a-kind bookstores in various colorful, one-of-a-kind San Francisco neighborhoods.

When I was in high school I discovered the Beats — Corso, Ginsberg and a whole slew of writers and poets that were unlike any I had read in literature class. In fact, these writers who were obviously treading on the established views of everything, weren’t even mentioned in the classroom. However, because of a smart, brave and progressive librarian — thank you Ms. Cohen wherever you are — I found them.

Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, more than any other book, set my mind on fire. So years later, many years, when I learned that St. Martin’s Press was going to publish my first novel, The Stone Veil, I was thrilled. But for some reason I hadn’t grasped the notion that I had actually become a writer. The New York Times gave the first book a short, but generally favorable review and that too made me feel good. Borders had my books on the shelves in my hometown and I was even nominated for a prize. But the feeling of legitimacy didn’t arrive until I found a copy of my third novel, Eclipse of the Heart, in the downstairs mystery section of City Lights Bookstore in the Italian San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach.

Though I was never to be on the cutting edge of much of anything, let alone literature, I had long admired those who were. And those who were riding that sharp edge had roots in that specific bookstore. Perhaps even more important to me was the fact that City Lights published Ginsberg’s Howl and fought against attempts to ban it all the way up to the Supreme Court where the bookstore’s fight helped preserve freedom of the press for all of us.

City Lights is still publishing books others might consider too controversial or not commercial enough for mass distribution. The second floor is dedicated entirely to poetry. The main floor shelves are full of fine, timeless literature from around the world. There is also a section of limited distribution, hand-made independent magazines and collections of prose and poems. Down a narrow stairway, into the cellar, are mysteries and science fiction as well as the best picks of books on a wide range of subjects.

The North Beach bookstore is a San Francisco historic landmark, anchoring a neighborhood full of historic landmarks. It should be designated a national treasure. While most of the City Lights authors — Rexroth, Burroughs, Bukowski, Shepard and Bowles to name a few — are gone, the poet and painter Ferlinghetti, born in 1919, can still be seen bicycling on Columbus and Grant.

261 Columbus Avenue (415) 362-8193

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Blatant Self-Promotion — New Book, Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin

As e- and self-published books flood the marketplace, I’ve decided to jump in and start swimming. I just went through all the licensing procedures to establish Life, Death and Fog Books and its first order of business was to publish Mascara, Death In The Tenderloin. It’s quite likely that, at least initially, all the books the new company publishes will be by the author who created the company. (There is a nasty word for this and I won’t repeat it.) Some of the company’s books will be new mystery novellas like Mascara. Others will be reissues of some of my earlier Shanahan mysteries originally published by St. Martin’s Press and currently out of print.

Mascara, just now available as an e-book and trade paperback, has characters familiar to those who have read books in the Paladino/Lang San Francisco mysteries (Death in Pacific Heights and Death in North Beach). However the action takes place years earlier when Lang first meets the gender-bending Thanh and before he meets his investigative partner, Carly Paladino.

Dennis Gallagher and John Sullivan are responsible for the book design of Mascara and for the Life, Death and Fog Books logo. Their firm, Visual Strategies (, is located in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.

Related Update: Severn House, Ltd., the London-based publisher has recently made Bullet Beach (the tenth in the Deets Shanahan series) and Death in North Beach (the second in the new Paladino/Lang series) available as e-books and trade paperbacks. (You can order any of these books from Amazon through my website or this blog.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Film Pairing — The 1970s, Mods, Rockers and Men Without Navels

If I told you I’m recommending two films, each starring an iconic rock star, you might think that I had gone off my crime-fiction rails or that I was focusing on films so bad, they were good. Not true. Director Nicholas Roeg made a film in 1970, Performance starring Mick Jagger and another in 1976, The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring David Bowie. They were good then, though hardly mainstream, and it appears that, put in the context of their times, they are well worth watching now.

Among other things, Performance is a crazed, dark, violent, arty and druggy gangster film. It is vintage 1970s; but not the same '70s earlier described in the Frank Sinatra/Tony Rome double feature. Co-directed by Donald Cammell, and also starring James Fox, Performance could easily be the regular Saturday midnight movie for those who have finally grown weary of the much more light-hearted Rocky Horror Picture Show. While the mood is entirely different, there are a surprising number of similarities.

I must like moral tales because Man Who Fell to Earth has, in my mind, much to teach us. In addition to Bowie, Rip Torn and Buck Henry star in the film about a creature who comes to earth, not to harm it, but on a self-less mission to help his fellow beings back home. His work must be done in secret because the fear of aliens would likely cause his capture if not his death, which, in turn, would doom his planet. The unfortunate result of his taking a human form is that his transformation becomes too successful.

In these two films, the roles played by Jagger and Bowie are ones they seem meant to play. The characters appear to be extensions of the stuff of their own iconic celebrity.

Thinking about what to serve with the double feature, I’d like to call your attention to the mushroom scenes in Performance. Or you can take a hint from the alien’s alcohol addiction. I believe I recognized a Beef Eaters bottle.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Opinion — E-Books & Self-Publishing, Re-Re-Visited

The publishing model that has served us for hundreds of years has splintered. Folks who participated in or gained, or suffered from that model are running in all sorts of directions to pick up the pieces and build a new model. Or, more likely, several new ones.

The detonating device, of course, was the e-book. The only part of the publishing process that hasn’t changed with its introduction is the writing — and editing, where it exists. There is no printing, no physical distribution and no requirement for a bricks and mortar retail outlet. This has cut costs significantly and has potentially given an immense amount of power and control to the writer.

With power and control comes responsibility. For now, there is still the option of going to a mainstream or an independent publisher and letting them handle the whole process. And I suspect that these publishers are working on their own models for survival. Writers who decide to create their own model will have to deal with parts of the process for which they may have little talent and/or interest — design as well as coding the document for e-book formats, and then marketing it to the masses. In terms of design and conversion, they will have to either to do it themselves or hire it done. These are not huge expenses and there are talented folks out there eager to take them on. However, in terms of marketing — oh shit — marketing.

Let’s look at the current situation. Veteran writers, many of them top-notch talents, are putting their old, out-of-print books back on the market, (I’m doing the same) not to mention a few favorite unpublished manuscripts (Yep, that too). That’s a sudden infusion of titles into the marketplace. Next, there are all the newbies who want to bypass the interminable and depressing process of getting their book over the transom of the traditional publishers. They simply go straight to e-books. Younger, more engaged in technology, they are likely to be genuinely at home with the technology and don’t have the sentimental attachment to paper. Among this group will be some great new talents and, just as likely, a tremendous number of truly wretched wannabes. That means still more books for the public to sort through. And of course, we can’t forget all the best selling and near best-selling authors whose books are being released as e-books by the major houses and independent publishers. In addition to the regular release of books the big, old houses have a backlist that has never seen an e-reader. This might be their last chance to earn new money on an old investment. Lots and lots of books all of a sudden.

Unfortunately people can read only so many books. And while e-readers may, in fact, increase readership because of convenience, there is a big problem: How do readers know which books they want to read? Or a more personal way for the supposedly newly empowered writer to phrase the question: “How can I get them to pick mine?” Oh shit, marketing.

Some writers, not content to stop at web sites and blogs, are tweeting like hell. Some are actually marketing their books successfully this way despite an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Another example of a new approach is the formation of a marketing coalition. For example, 12 award-winning crime writers formed what is, in essence, an on-line bookstore. allows its writers to rightfully say, “Buy from us because the quality is guaranteed.” Unlike a random pick off Amazon’s Kindle list, this group offers a vetted group of writers for a public that has to find the selection process more and more confusing. The writers also share in the marketing costs to promote the bookstore that sells only their e-books.

Without some sort of creative approach, many who publish their own e-books, will find it extremely difficult to stand out and could, in the end, search for a substitute for the old publishing houses.

In this context, players —large and small — are scrambling. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Amazon is working hard to become a traditional (sort of) publisher itself, buying new work from writers and using its existing leverage (and no doubt other strategies) to market books. A large media company is courting Barnes & Noble, probably not for its retail locations but for its e-book capacity, which not only includes the second most popular reader, but also revenue from downloads ordered by an existing, engaged customer base.

Otto Penzler, who is a remarkably successful and respected publisher, editor and bookseller, continues to adapt to the marketplace as well. It has been reported that he has partnered with a company that will provide a slick, professional multi-media marketing platform for books Penzler brings them. As I understand it, these are to be reissues of classics as well as contemporary, original work that a company called Open Road Media will digitize and, more importantly, market.

As one might imagine, ingenuity and entrepreneurship have begun to blossom in the staid and stodgy publishing world. But some of these new approaches can’t please writers who had thought e-books (and especially self-publishing) opened the door for them to finally own their own career. What they may find is that publishing isn’t changing as much as it is merely shifting. Where, among the winners and losers, will writers land?

And what about the big houses? Are they all slow-walking dinosaurs? Or are some of them cleverly working behind the scenes with expert techno-oriented marketers in order to continue to dominate the marketplace? Certainly some are part of mammoth, multi-media empires with complex inter-corporate relationships and have access to resources we writers, sitting alone in our rooms, can’t even imagine.

It is still early in the game. Not all the players have made themselves known. But the early reports of large corporations loosening their grip on writers may have been grossly exaggerated — by me.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On Writing, Part XII — Sins: Feeding the Ego and Other Unsavory Acts

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

Mea Culpa. There is no writing sin that I have not committed sometime before this, and should I live long enough, will no doubt commit all them again sometime in the future. If you write for a living, you will too. But that’s no excuse for not trying to eliminate them from your daily routine. As I mentioned in an earlier article, that beautiful but unnecessary paragraph on page 22 may have to go. So might that bit of poetry on page 211. There will be many blows to your ego.

Yet, one has to acknowledge that without a certain level of ego, it’s difficult to continue. When you check Amazon rankings to discover that your book is now 2,456,512th on the list of best-selling books, it might be hard to keep your spirits up. But up you must keep them (let’s hear it for a little sentence structure freedom).

And reviews? Frankly I believe one in twenty writers who say they don’t read reviews of their work. But if you do — and you will — use the reviewer as you would any critical reader. Read the review critically. Was the criticism specific? “The secondary characters lacked depth,” for example, is relatively specific. Maybe that’s something you should think about. “The book lacked excitement,” is personal but not very specific. Maybe the reviewer just doesn’t like the kind of books you write and doesn’t know how to separate personal preferences from the real question: did you successfully accomplish what you set out to do?

You might have said something in one of your books — or one of your characters might have said something — that really put off the reviewer. Reviewers are human and fallible just as we are. I was once criticized for one of my characters saying something unflattering about Jack Kerouac. On the other hand, I have felt that there were times when the reviewer had been charitable — that perhaps their familiarity with my characters moved their wavering thumbs slightly up rather than down. Just as you shouldn’t take glowing reviews as unequivocal proof of your literary genius, don’t let a few knocks keep you on the mat.

Because you are a mystery writer, does that mean you are only sort of a writer? I once attended a Private Eye Writers of America annual get-together. In the course of leaving the buffet area, plate in hand, I was invited to sit down with a couple of writers I knew of, more than I knew. They were both seriously credentialed, talented veterans of the genre. Though I suspect I was actually older, I felt a bit junior in their company.

At some point, one of them asked why I decided to write mysteries. Not particularly used to using words without a keyboard at the tip of my fingers, I responded by saying: “Because I couldn’t write….” Before I could find the next word, they were laughing. What I had implied, having gone momentarily adrift mentally, was that I believed it took no writing talent to create mysteries — that it is something we do because we cannot write “literary” fiction. Just so it isn’t left there, the rest of the explanation, probably unheard because of the laughter, was that my attempts to write other kinds of novels had been difficult because with so much freedom in the form I wandered about on all sorts of tangents (as I am now). Without some form of discipline I could write forever but complete nothing. I found that having some rules helped me write. My initial foray into mysteries was to submit to the St. Martin’s Best First Novel Competition. This gave me some rules. So many words, completed by such and such a date — specific goals. Also, inherent in mysteries, there are expectations, such as creating and solving a puzzle, which is what most novelists do, “literary” or otherwise, but one that required doing it in a less abstract fashion.

However, despite my long tangent, the point is relatively simple — there is no such thing as a literary novel as a separate art form from the mystery novel or science fiction. There are books that seem to transcend what preceded them, that take us to new places, show us new things, allow us to think in new ways. Some are so good they will be read for the next thousand years. Most not. They might even involve a murder or two.

Odds are that you and I are not going to create that kind of classic. But it doesn’t mean we are not writers and that we cannot aspire to that goal. And it means that if we truly want to write, while we will keep our minds open, we can learn from, but will not be held hostage by, all the noise that surrounds us.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Film Pairing — You Might Want to Rent Mamma Mia Instead

L.I.E. and Hard Candy are not for the faint of heart. This has nothing to do with blood and guts or making puppies suffer — though there is suffering. These two films are about very difficult subjects and while they will make you think, they might also make you wonder why you would subject yourself to such discomfort. So with the disclaimer that this double feature is not a night of carefree merriment, consider this as much a warning as it is a dare.

It’s not giving anything away to say that L.I.E. (2001) is about an older man who seduces an underage boy and the consequences of their relationship. The movie goes a long way in the undoing of stereotypes yet will likely still shock you — in ways you might not anticipate. Fine writing and fine acting support a taboo but sensitive subject. The film won several international film awards.

Sexual predators and underage sex is the subject of Hard Candy (2005) as well, though this film goes in a completely different direction. Juno star Ellen Page dominates — truly dominates — scenes that some have described as torture porn. Whether you agree with that description or not, this psychological thriller walks a fine line. I nearly walked out of the movie because of the unrelenting brutality but was held in my seat by the suspense.

Obviously, these aren’t “feel good” movies. As a double feature, they make for a provocative, dark and unsettling evening. For this dark night, I’d suggest hard liquor, but I’d also recommend you don’t start the self-medication too early in the evening.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Notes — French Noir, Blanchette & Capitalism

We found out banks encouraged mortgage applicants to exaggerate their income to qualify for a new home loan. The same bank would collect a bonus for packaging the bad loans and selling them to a company that didn’t know what hit them. Neither did the original loan applicants who were tossed out on the streets. We watched as a major energy corporation forced blackouts up and down the West Coast in order to increase profits, all the while laughing at the havoc they caused. We saw car manufacturers neglect to warn customers about fatal flaws. And cigarette makers testified before Congress that they didn’t know nicotine was addictive. This is the dark side of capitalism — putting the “anything goes” free-market “survival of the fittest” philosophy in play for pay.

This is, in a fashion, a prelude to the story of Aimée, a hard-working entrepreneur, a sharp opportunist and mind-bogglingly good sales person. A rugged individualist, she not only provides a service, she creates the need for the service, which turns out to be a simple, low-overhead operation. After all, how much does a bullet cost? The saving moral grace in Aimée’s case, if there is one, is that she targets only those who also practice the same cold-blooded form of capitalism. This might put her a step above Enron, some auto manufacturers and most financial institutions. Her clever, money-making machinations also make for an interesting read.

The late, leftist French writer of Fatale, Jean-Patrick Manchette is often credited with re-inventing crime fiction just when it was needed and is just as often cited as a true embodiment of Noir fiction. Certainly, it is French and dark. Whether you agree or not about how highly Manchette should be rated, Fatale is not likely to disappoint anyone who enjoys bleak, lean, unsentimental stories told in bleak, lean, unsentimental prose.

Manchette wrote Fatale in 1977. It is one of only three of his novels currently available in English. City Lights (San Francisco’s legendary bookstore and publisher) offered 3 to Kill and The Prone Gunman in English a few years ago. Fatale, just released by the book-publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, may be the least of the three very short novels; but if you like noir, this one, along with the others, belongs on your “must-read” list.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Writing — Part XI, Publishers, Agents and Publicists

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

The sad truth that most new writers are surprised to discover is that finding an agent is as difficult as finding a publisher. Any agent worth his or her salt is picky. They get paid when they sell a book. They are not likely to spend a lot of time with writers they don’t believe are marketable or with manuscripts that require work before they are sellable. And one can’t really fault them. They have to earn a living.

You should understand that. They are not, primarily, there to help you.

What agents have brought to the equation is damn near a requirement. Unless you are established, most publishers will not even entertain the idea of your manuscript unless it has been through a recognized agent. Why? For many reasons. For one, an agent is an unpaid filter. If they send schlock to publishers, they won’t last long. So a good agent will gain the trust of acquisition editors. A book they suggest will at least get read. Also, a good agent has good connections. They know who buys what. They are also in touch with the marketplace, understand when the publishing community goes batty over vampires or Swedish authors and cold over serial killers in Omaha and detectives who also happen to be archangels. Also, they know — and you should know — that publishers don’t want to deal with the petty, whiney demands writers may make or the hurt feelings when that particularly beautiful chapter about lilies of the valley has to be cut. Publishers don’t want to spend hours talking to a writer, who has yet to sell one book, about why the cover should have a dachshund featured prominently. The agent often takes the heat from both sides.

Both the agent and the publisher are engaged in a business. And whether you like it or not, or want to be or not, so are you. So when that day comes and you get an agent and/or a publisher, don’t let that happy drug that washes over your brain keep you from reading sub paragraph 302(a) in the agent contract indicating that you may be liable for photo copy costs and messenger fees. The same goes for contracts with the publisher. READ every single word.

The unfortunate truth is that you have little power as an unknown writer. But there’s really no excuse for not understanding the exact limits of your power and a cold, hard acceptance of that reality before signing your name to an agreement that could affect you for years.

Finally, don’t confuse the roles of agents, publishers and publicists. It is not the agent’s job to promote you to the public. Also, unless it is in the contract — and it isn’t — there isn’t a word about the publisher doing ANYTHING to promote or advertise your book. They might. They might not. Chances are if you want your book promoted, you will have to do it yourself or hire it done. And now you are back at square one. If you hire a publicist, you will have to sign a contract and you will have to read every word. Unlike having your house painted the end product is not likely to be clearly defined. In the case of a publicist’s work, one might be able to measure the effort, but they will not guarantee results because they cannot guarantee results. If your book doesn’t sell despite your PR expenditure, you will have no argument against theirs: “We did the best we could.”

To contradict my earlier cautions regarding a community of writers (though I stick to them regarding the act of writing), being able to communicate with your peers can be very helpful in such practical matters as contracts, copyrights and picking a publicist. Joining such organizations as Mystery Writers of America (they have chapters all over the US) and/or Sisters in Crime might be a great way to gain greater insight into mystery writing as a business as well as a passion.

Even if you get by the gatekeepers, you might not be allowed in. What do you do? Easy, if you are a writer, you keep writing until your scrawny, bony, wrinkled fingers can no longer tap out your name as author.

The image is the Mystery Writers of America logo.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Film Pairing — Three Views of the Not So Perfect Crime

Clarence Darrow might be the most famous real attorney in American history. In addition to his legendary defense of evolution in the Tennessee “Scopes Monkey Trial” (made into the play and film, Inherit the Wind), Darrow also defended the notorious young geniuses Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold who killed a third young man to make manifest an intellectual theory that if one is smart enough, common morality no longer applies. If, then, you can commit the perfect crime, you are, in effect, entitled to do so.

The killing of young Bobby Franks in 1924 is believed to have inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 experimental film, Rope, and it was most certainly the basis for the 1959 award-winning movie, Compulsion, as well as the 1992, edgy and award-winning film, Swoon.

Despite having the same crime as the basis for the drama, the three films are nothing alike.

Rope, starring Farley Granger and James Stewart, is largely regarded as Hitchcock’s foray into experimental filmmaking and the famous director himself, thinking he’d failed, kept the movie from circulation for twenty years. Happily, time proved him wrong. It is a fascinating movie, cinematically as well as dramatically. It is hard to tell whether the real genius in the film is the cinematography or the clever subtext that allows the homosexuality of the main characters to ride just below Hollywood’s stifling puritanical code. Highly recommended.

Sadly, Compulsion, which was more faithful to the facts of the actual crime and trial, wouldn’t or couldn’t reveal the full, complex nature of the characters about whom the film was made. Though the crime was murder and not a sex crime, the relationship between Loeb and Leopold, their shared philosophy and love or obsession for one another, is at the heart of the matter and made their defense — in front of a jury of their “peers” — much more difficult because there were no peers. Whether, as a film, this was any better than a standard episode of Law & Order is a question in my mind. However, it is a pleasure to see Orson Welles, however briefly, and E. G. Marshall engaged in courtroom battle.

Swoon is something else altogether. It neither shies away from the characters’ sexual attractions as Compulsion did, nor did it turn a gruesome murder into an interesting intellectual parlor game as was done — and done well — in Rope. At the time of its release, Swoon was heralded as a landmark in the “new queer cinema” and might still have the capacity to shock some viewers. Director Tom Kalin, who later would direct another real life crime story, Savage Grace, seemed to focus on the homosexuality of the characters and the homophobia of both the prosecution and the times rather than the crime for which they were indeed guilty. However, looking at how the other two films evaded or avoided the boys’ relationship altogether lends a bit of credence to the film’s innate criticism — or perhaps over compensation.

Pick any two of the above black & white films; but remember, in the 1920s, Prohibition was still in effect. You may have to settle for bathtub gin or something illegally purchased in a foreign country. Absinthe, perhaps. Or do we have to save that drink for the trial of Madame X?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Opinion — The Art of the Insult & the Demise of Literary Feuds

It doesn’t seem so long ago when we were entertained with the antics of literary lions. There was Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, all hanging out in Paris. That was followed by witty insults zinging back and forth among the next crop of well-known writers — Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. Time passes, however. If there are literary lions, they remain in the shadows as the media focuses on the wit and wisdom of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. Vidal, the last of the living titans, has had to be content with just tossing his feisty and smart criticism at ghosts.

(A brief aside: Vidal has not only outlived his literary enemies, he has also lived long enough to see his stint as a mystery series writer re-Boxed so to speak. His three mystery novels — Death Before Bedtime, Death Likes It Hot and Death in the Fifth Position were recently redesigned and republished by Vintage/Black Lizard in a boxed set under Vidal’s mystery-genre pen name, Edgar Box.)

However, even Vidal wouldn’t have picked this fight: V. S. Naipaul, apparently having just made up with literary foe Paul Theroux, decided he wasn’t going to be so petty as to single out an individual author for his scorn. Instead he picked half the world’s population to insult. That would be women, women writers in particular and apparently all of them, dismissed as “sentimental” with a “narrow view of the world” and his “inferiors.” The New York Times mentioned it in passing; but it isn’t worthy of any national coverage. Such a comment by a Nobel Prize winner just doesn’t have the gravity of Mr. Weiner’s tweet.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On Writing, Part X — The Other Taboos, Politics & Religion

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

Over the years I’ve attended a number of writers’ panels. And I can’t count the times I’ve heard a mystery writer say: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union,” Loosely translated, it means: “Don’t preach.” I agree — for the most part.

It is an understatement to say that your protagonist is likely to be against murder and kidnapping of innocents and corruption in general. There is widespread adherence to the notion of genuine law and order as well as the so-called Judeo-Christian ethic even among those who prefer not to think of themselves as law and order types, or Christians, for that matter. But we send messages whether we want to or not.

To the extent that the message you send is little more than a propaganda statement for your belief system, the Western Union warning is apt if slightly anachronistic. On the other hand, when writing about crime, aren’t we writing about, in some fashion, right and wrong? Or more to the point, good and evil? Is there any kind of book available in the marketplace innately more about politics and religion than crime fiction?

Many writers, except those whose goals are to simply create wonderfully clever puzzles, set their dramas in as real a world as they can manufacture. And those of us who attempt to create real worlds do so from a world view, maybe an accurate one, maybe not. Who’s to say? It’s a personal world view. And that is my point. We cannot help but drag our political and religious beliefs into our writing. What we must be wary of is letting them lead. For a reader, it is still the story and the characters. It is still the suspense and the sense of place. If telling a good story takes a backseat to creating advocates or followers of certain political or religious outlooks, it is doubtful you have a good book. You might as well have written a manual. However, if your view of the world is subtly and well-woven into a fine story, then you may have created a real winner, perhaps a book that is not only enjoyable to read but also worthy of discussion.

Not too incidentally, when I was young and in high school getting my heavy, mandatory dose of Western European literature, we spent a huge chunk of the time with the plays of George Bernard Shaw. What I admired most about his writing was that he gave the “bad” guy not only most of the good lines, but also a very convincing argument in support of his evil ways. If nothing else, Shaw made wrestling with the devil a fascinating challenge. We must do the same whether it is because of or despite the message.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Film Pairing — Reel Life or Not

Who killed Hogan of “Hogan’s Heroes?” Did Superman Kill Himself? When I was a little kid, the toy cars I played with had to be roughly the same size. For some reason scale was important. Perhaps it is a character flaw. When I read books or watch movies, I’m similarly wary of mixing fact and fiction. I’m not sure I want historical figures playing a role in a work of fiction, no matter how well it is done. I realize that there are unkind names for people like me. But in not fully recommending two crime movies that, on the surface, seem to be perfectly matched, you might want to consider that I find creatively forged endings to real life dramas a bit like a judge giving this instruction to the jury in a murder trial: “Please feel free to speculate.”

Auto Focus (2002) is the movie about Hogan’s Heroes TV star Bob Crane and the disintegration of his life and career, ending in a violent death. It is not speculative to say that he was, in real life, murdered. However, in addition to the liberties the moviemakers took to depict his early career, the writers also identified the killer, a person who existed in real life, but who wasn’t even brought to trial. Directed by Paul Schrader and starring Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe, Auto Focus is a strangely compelling, though extremely discomforting, work that may be somehow appropriate for an actor whose career is based on a successful, lighthearted TV comedy set in a German prisoner of war camp.

Hollywoodland (2006) also follows the real-life career of an actor sidetracked by success. George Reeves played Superman in the 1950s and in a direct parallel to Bob Crane as Hogan, could not escape the role he played so successfully. Reeves, who considered himself a serious actor, could not find work despite and because he was so successful playing Clark Kent/Superman. The movie, directed by Allen Coulter and starring Ben Affleck (perfectly cast), Diane Lane and Adrien Brody, is a solid film. The troubling part of doing a real life drama is that in cases like this, so much of it isn’t real. One major character didn’t exist. And George Reeves’ death — suicide or murder — remains in question by the filmmakers, while real life police, coroner and D.A. have decided.

You might want to make screwdrivers for the evening. You’ll need your strength and perhaps the sugar to keep you from falling into the abyss.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Opinion — Parker, Mankell? Who Got It Right?

It’s not a new question, but it came up recently. Thinking about the idea of a recurring protagonist in a mystery series, how many books are too many? I happened to tune in on the PBS documentary called “Nordic Blast.” The program discussed the current popularity of mysteries set in Scandinavian countries. And while I believe the Irish will challenge the Swedes in the end, the usually dark, cold and brooding mysteries of Scandinavia seem to be on a roll, and, in fact, were gathering fans and starred reviews even before Stieg Larsson set the world on fire.

In the documentary, there was a brief mention of the earlier and much heralded Martin Beck series and how it had started a Swedish tradition of authors voluntarily ending their series at 10 books. Swedish writer Henning Mankell, who created the Wallander series seems to abide by the idea, He recently published his last Wallander — the 10th of the internationally successful series.

As Mankell is getting the buzz about the last Wallander, much is being written about the recent release of the late Robert B. Parker’s Sixkill, the last Spenser to be written by Parker, but the 39th in the series. Over the years — at Bouchercons and Edgar Award ceremonies — there seemed to be resentment among more than a few writers who suggested Parker had been phoning it in for years. Was this just jealousy over such an obvious (and seemingly effortless) success? Or was it because it was so difficult to believe that anyone could sustain a series for so long without running out of steam or ideas?

Actually, Parker is not alone in this prolificacy. The highly respected Bill Pronzini is about to release Camouflage, the author’s 38th and always well-received Nameless Detective book. Rex Stout created 47 Nero Wolfe novels and 40 more Wolfe novellas. Sue Grafton is at V for Vengeance. X, Y and Z cannot be far away. (What she does at the end of the alphabet is anyone’s bet; but the periodic tables have already been taken.) And it’s not just American overachievers. Of the more than 200 novels Belgian Georges Simenon wrote, 75 of them featured Maigret.

I suspect that any debate about how many books in a series are too many can be rationally debated and might very well conclude that there should be no maximum number, provided the author can maintain the quality that allowed the series to be that popular in the first place. No doubt my curiosity about the subject is predicated on my own series. Bullet Beach is the 10th Shanahan. Keeping in mind I’m 1/8th Norwegian, what should I do?