Wednesday, August 31, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Readers Cafe and Bookstore, Bay Views to Die For

Though at the edge of Marina district, Fort Mason Center is its own neighborhood. The former military base — its historic landmark piers, offices and barracks — was converted decades ago and now houses several nonprofit organizations and hosts hundreds of events, ranging from wine tastings as well as live theater and dance to major art and antique shows.

Inside Building C is one of the city’s most
interesting used bookstores — Book Bay recently renamed “Readers Café and Bookstore.” The space has a friendly, homey atmosphere with comfortable chairs for browsers who aren’t in a hurry. It also has a coffee shop, where if you like, you can enjoy a cup of Blue Bottle Coffee, a sandwich or a pastry. Or, if you are so inclined,
you might have a beer or glass of wine.

But the real reason you are there is to take advantage of a huge selection of books, from vintage and other collectibles to more recent “previously owned” selections. You might also find sheet music, comics, videos, and magazines — all at incredibly reasonable prices. To make you feel better about any purchase, you should also know that the bookstore is operated by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. Sales revenue supports the city’s library system.

Once a year, the bookstore holds a giant sale of used books in one of the Center’s huge pavilions. People line up hours before the doors open to reveal shelves and bins offering from 300,000 to 500,000 books and related items. Admission is free. The books are inexpensive. Shopping carts are available. One could stock several used bookstores from what is available during the big sale.

Keep in mind that Fort Mason Center is a destination in itself. While no one lives at the Center, there is plenty to do. Among the places to visit are The SFMOMA Artists Gallery, The Magic Theatre BATS Improv, the Mexican Museum, the Long Now Museum and the Museo Italo Americano. One of the city’s legendary vegetarian restaurants — Greens — has been there since the center opened in the late ‘70s.

If you visit on a Sunday, you can stop in the bookstore, walk around the piers, and enjoy the stunning Bay views and outdoor art. You can also check out the Farmer’s Market and pick up fresh baked goods and freshly picked produce for dinner.

Building C, Fort Mason Center, (415) 771-1076, web site

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Little Promotion, a Little History — Shanahan, Then and Now

St. Martins Press published the first “Deets” Shanahan mystery, The Stone Veil, in 1990. Despite the fact that it was critically well received, a nominee for a Shamus, went into a second printing, and briefly optioned for a film, the book never came out in paperback. (It was serialized in a Latvian magazine, I’m told.) And, of course, an ebook wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye at the time.

Lately, I’ve been working on the four “early Shanahans” (1990-1995, St. Martins Press), getting them ready for release as both trade paperbacks and ebooks. Because there were no “electronic” versions of these books, they had to be scanned into electronic files. I’ve been going through them, correcting what the scanning process misread, “litde” for “little,” for example, as well as fixing odd line breaks —getting them in the best shape possible before the book designers do their magic.

This means I’m reading them again — 21 years later. And oddly, while I’m taking this trip down Memory Lane, I’ve just begun the first draft of what might be — if the Gods are kind — the eleventh Shanahan.

The reissuing process puts me face to face with the character on page one of book one — at the moment of his birth full-grown, and too soon old. I was a little apprehensive. How much has he changed over the decades? Surprisingly little. He is slightly mellower, but only slightly. That was to be expected. In The Stone Veil, after having been bitterly separated from his wife and child for many years, Shanahan met the love of his life, Maureen. She has accompanied him through every volume and every crime.

Though 21 years have gone by, Shanahan has only aged a few. During this time warp the real world has changed. Things have appeared and disappeared. In today’s Shanahans, there are smart phones, but no telephone booths. No VHS. No typewriters for the most part. People don’t light up a cigarette every five minutes. Can you buy a pack of Chesterfields? Social media has emerged, giving writers a new dimension in which his or her characters might live. So has Google, not only helping the writer with his or her research, but an obvious boon to the P.I., real or fictional. DNA has become a big deal in crime solving. While this has freed some innocent people from prison and even death row in the real world, many a fictional murder is solved these days with a strand of hair, which makes crime solving no more interesting than a math test. Also, many of the casual references to ‘90s pop culture in the early books are now candidates for trivia games as are certain brand names. Shanahan’s favorite bourbon, for example, J.W. Dant, once available in every liquor store at least in Indiana, is now very hard to find.

Many of the places in ‘90s Indianapolis are gone as well. This is especially true of restaurants, but also of department stores, grocers, pharmacies and movie theaters. Local stores were replaced by local chains, and local chains by national and international ones. This leaves early books a bit dated. The upside to having these books in print is that they have inadvertently, and maybe entertainingly, recorded a bit of history. The idea that making old books available through new technology has made me more aware of what else is new and what else is gone, or slipping away.

The other consideration for those wonderful readers who have followed Shanahan through the decades is that there is a serious time warp between book four and book five. In the more recent books, all six of them published by Severn House, Shanahan still lives in Indianapolis. However, he no longer lives in the ‘90s. Readers, who have read only the more recent books and who volunteer to travel back to the beginning, will have to do a little time-traveling. I hope they will enjoy it as much as I have. Revisiting these early books turned out to be a productive exercise for me, informing what might be the eleventh Shanahan.

UPDATE: Good to the Last Kiss (not a series book) will join the list of my recent mysteries to be available on Kindle. Others are: Bullet Beach (latest Shanahan), Death in North Beach (latest Paladino & Lang) as well as Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin, a novella that acts as a prequel to the San Francisco mysteries and that reveals how Lang and his gender-bending pal, Thanh, met — a secret never explained in the series.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Film Pairing — Nazis, Criminals, Casinos and the Women the Tough Guys Wanted to Forget

When the love of your life breaks your heart, you never want to see her again. You become cynical, tough — nothing to lose because you already lost the most valuable thing in your life. So you either open a casino or go work in one, right? That’s what Humphrey Bogart does in Casablanca. It’s also what Glenn Ford does in Gilda.

The women, Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa and Rita Hayworth as Gilda, inadvertently happen upon the nightclubs of the guys they jilted. More bad luck, so do Nazis. Danger lurks in Casablanca where Bogart and Bergman fight against their impulses. It also lurks in Buenos Aires, where Ford and Hayworth try to hate each other.

I couldn’t help being a little flippant here; but of course, we’re dealing with a genuine classic with Casablanca (1942). Bogart is accompanied by his Maltese Falcon mates from a year earlier — Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. He is also sharing the big black and white screen with Claude Rains and Paul Henreid. With Bergman, this is a first-rate cast. The movie, directed by Michael Curtiz, is a tight and cinematically elegant story set against the advancing Nazis. The chances are that you know all of this. There are few people left who haven’t seen the movie at least once. And it’s likely to be on just about everyone’s ten best list.

Lesser known is Gilda (1948), but only slightly. Like Casablanca, the cinematography is . . . well . . . stunning. Though Glenn Ford does a great, cocky tough guy, Rita Hayworth is Gilda and pretty much the movie. She is not at all like Ilsa who suffers in silence. Gilda hides her suffering as well, but is hardly quiet about it. She pretends to be a brazen, brassy (use another “b” word here). This big budget (for its time) film was directed by Charles Vidor. It must have knocked post-war audiences out of their seats.

Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman drink a lot of champagne at Café Americain in Morrocco. They also drink Cointreau, Brandy and Cognac. If you are leaning toward Gilda, the Argentinians make great wine. Cheers. And thanks to Baby Dave for the tip.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Opinion — British Pie in the Sky Not Just Pie in the Sky

My top pick for the best television crime drama ever is easy — the mind-blowing, hyper-real American series, The Wire. Has there ever been anything better? I was also very fond of the DaVinci Code and recently the slightly retro George Gently. Earlier I was fixated on Homicide: Life on the Street and Prime Suspect. What all of them have in common is that they are grounded in reality. On the other hand, I watched all 19,000 episodes of Midsomer Murders, as light and silly as they often were.

Somewhere on the light side, but not quite as lightly or redundantly on the village green as Midsomer, Pie in the Sky provides us with a smart, honorable homicide detective, who, when he can, is a smart, talented chef. If it is not the murder investigation that holds the viewer’s attention, it’s the sitcom in the kitchen of Pie in the Sky, a restaurant dedicated to fine English cuisine. (Pause for those who are determined to laugh) The combination is golden, though I admit, it took a couple of episodes to begin to appreciate the premise and warm up to what turned out to be an excellent cast.

Netflix tells me there is a long wait before I receive the first episodes of the series’ fifth and final season. I could spend that time sorting through recipes for steak and kidney pie. But that’s not likely. For capsule opinions of other rentable British series, go here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — West Portal's "Book Shop" Center of Community

This is the eighth in 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.

It’s essential that just about any of San Francisco neighborhood worth its salt, have a bookstore. And for the most part, the many great city neighborhoods do. So it becomes a matter of neighborhood. I would contend that, unlike any other, if you were dropped in the middle of the West Portal village-like main street you wouldn’t know what state, let alone what city, you were in.

This is not because there is an abundance of chain stores that makes it indistinctive from others. There are few, if any, national chains. On the other hand, there seems to be a lack of San Francisco’s wonderful weirdness, quirkiness, or even a cultural definition that one might find in Bohemian North Beach, the Hispanic-oriented Mission, or the young, upscale Marina. West Portal’s main street, which appears to serve the affluent neighborhoods of Forest Hill and St. Francis Wood as well as Ingleside, is filled with independent stores that provide products and services — everything and anything you might need — in a plain and practical manner.

One of the most important products (and services) West Portal offers is a book store, simply, and given the neighborhood, not unexpectedly called the “Book Shop.” It is a few blocks from the junction of Muni’s K, L and M Lines as they emerge from the tunnel underneath Twin Peaks. The Book Shop, a family-oriented store, garners tons of praise from Yelp reviewers, who invariably compliment staff on their friendliness and knowledge. In addition to books — all new — they have active programs — yoga and knitting classes and frequent author-related events. It can’t help but be a, perhaps “the,” center for West Portal community activity.

80 West Portal Avenue, (415) 564-8080,

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Notes — Cotterill Joins Burdett, Hallinan in Thai Crime Fiction Writing

Just as crime readers’ tastes may vary from cozies to horror, there are favorite locales as well. In recent years, murders in cold, dark Scandinavian countries seem to have exploded on the criminal landscape. My brother has taken a sudden and almost obsessive interest in what dark things happen in Istanbul. I’m drawn to stories that take place in Thailand.

A good portion of the most recent Shanahan book, Bullet Beach, is set in Thailand. The Bangkok and Phuket setting was very important to me. But because my understanding of what it means to live in Thailand is as shallow as an urban puddle, the story is told from the point of view of someone visiting for the first time. This is a valid and possibly interesting point of view. I hope so. However, readers who seek a deeper understanding of the nature of the country they will inhabit for 300 or so pages will find their expectations met by reading John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan and now Colin Cotterill. Though not Thai themselves, they have lived in that part of the world and have developed an intimacy that a mere Western traveller cannot. Oddly and wonderfully enough, though, these three don’t write about the same Thailand.

I was first introduced and seduced by books set in Thailand by Alex Garland’s The Beach. Garland wasn’t creating a series, though — simply a fine book. So, where was I to get my fix? When I was told about Burdett, I jumped into his first Thai-related book immediately. Unfortunately, Burdett doesn’t write fast enough for me. Just in time, I was introduced to Hallinan and his Poke Rafferty series. Completely different. It took me a while to adjust to this other Thailand. Soon, I became addicted to this new drug. Unfortunately, even the combination of Burdett and Hallinan couldn’t deliver stories fast enough. Now, I’ve found Cotterill’s first in what is most likely a new series — and his very different Thailand. Perhaps now, there will be a sustaining flow of stories. But whose Thailand is the real one?

For me, Burdett captures his reader by using the spiritual, if not the dark side of that Thai spirituality, to cast his mystery. Ghosts and superstition play regular roles in what seems to me to be the most haunting of the three approaches. (Vulture Peak, the fifth in the series, will be released in January 2012.) From this fan’s point of view, Hallinan’s books present a more tangible danger. The evils here are more earthly than Burdett’s and they appear to surface in the midst of or as a result of social injustice and corruption. His main character’s family is at the center of his stories. When Rafferty’s family is threatened — and they are, of course — we care and we keep turning the pages until they are safe. (The Edgar-nominated Queen of Patpong is Hallinan’s most recent.) If Cotterill’s first in his new Thai series, Killed at the Whim of a Hat, is any indication of what’s to come, we are going to experience a more whimsical Thailand, though no less deadly. There is humor throughout his lively, song-like prose and in the creation of wonderfully, quirky and entertaining characters.

Perhaps that is why I’m so taken with Thailand as a setting. It can be seen in so many different ways — all of them fascinating.

P.S. It should be noted that another veteran writer of crime novels set in Thailand is the internationally read Christopher G. Moore, though until now he’s been comparatively invisible in the US. I’ve not yet had the privilege of reading any of his books. Asia Hand, recently released in the U.S., features private eye, Vincent Calvino. The book has just been nominated for a Shamus Award for best Paperback Original. Someone else to add to the list.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Film Pairing — Kidnapping as Comedy, Sort Of

Sometimes its fun to pair crime movies by the type of crime it is. In this case we have a whole lot of kidnapping going on. It’s also fun to have two movies that are wonderfully “off.” By “off” I mean these are not films that satisfy conventional cravings: Good guys win; bad guys lose, for example. I’m not even sure that either of these films offers any other sort of moral. I’m not so sure audiences walk out with any sense that justice was done — or even could have been done. For me, they are more like situations in real life — sometimes it’s just absurd.

The Way of the Gun, (2000) directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who directed The Usual Suspects, gives us two reprehensible people who kidnap a pregnant woman. She, for a sum of money, is carrying the child of someone who is equally or even more reprehensible than the kidnappers. No good can come of this, one thinks. One would be right. The critics at the time of the movie’s release were not favorably impressed; but I suggest that if you enjoy particularly twisted comedy,you might like this nearly Kill Bill kind of violent story in part because of the dark, comedic performances of Benicio del Toro, Ryan Phillippe, James Caan and especially Juliette Lewis.

Violence and action take a more subtle turn in 44-Inch Chest (2010). A group of old codgers (are there young codgers and if not, why not?) kidnap a young man who is having an affair with the wife of one of their friends. The theory is that if the husband has a chance to torture and otherwise humiliate his wife’s lover, a bit of self-respect can be regained. While there are those who might argue that the real torture for the young interloper is being talked to death (this is a British film after all), there is a great deal more to it. And most of it is credit to the great actors — Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson. The film, which could have just as easily been a stage play and possibly should have been, is nonetheless well worth the time and the talk.

Both are worth it if you are in the mood for something just a little “off.” Perhaps you shouldn’t start drinking until the second feature. In honor of the codgers, how about some lukewarm Guinness?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Subtler Form of Self Promotion — Of Cats, Mysteries & Murder

Einstein is the name of the cat in the Deets Shanahan mysteries. He, like Casey the dog in the series, is real. Neither of these characters, the only ones in any of my books based on real, live beings, solves murders. However Einstein committed a serious crime that has not been written about because I don’t write True Crime.

I had recently moved back to San Francisco and had taken a job with Levi Strauss & Co. The boss’s secretary was a nice woman whose cat had kittens and she was desperately trying to find homes for them. At the same time, a friend of mine had decided to move to San Francisco and found a studio in my building and on the same floor — at the other end of the hall. Seeing the photograph of the kittens the woman had given to me in the event I might weaken and save a kitten from orphandom, my friend decided to take one — the white one, with one blue eye and one brown eye. I reluctantly decided to go ahead and take a kitten as well, and picked the smallest, a big-eyed, coon-cat looking tabby on the gray-brown side of the color scale. Brother and sister would be neighbors. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The day came when the kittens could be separated from their mother and I brought them back home with me in a old shipping box. It had flaps that one could interlock in such a way as to secure the opening against escape.

At home, I opened the box, but only one corner, and the tiny gray cat jumped out, followed by his much larger sister. There were a few moments of orientation as the cats scanned the room and measured potential threats. But it became clear early on that the sister was a bit of a bully. No doubt her tougher attitude contributed to their relative sizes. Three of the four flaps at the top of the box remained secure; but in an attempt to hide from his tormentor, I thought at the time, the cat later to be named Einstein jumped back in the box. The white cat, later to be named Agatha, followed. No escape, I thought. The little one was doomed. However, Einstein re-emerged, pushed the flap shut and sat on it, thereby imprisoning his sister.

He became “Einstein” at that moment. Not long after, Agatha was carried in the box to her new home with my friend down the hall, where she seemed to be happy. And Einstein, free from the bullying, would make up for any food deprivation he had experienced by eating gigantic quantities of 9 Lives. He was a gravy kind of guy.

Unfortunately, a few months later, there was bad news. My friend’s mother had died unexpectedly and the need to rush home to the Midwest turned out to be a permanent decision. Agatha was back with me. Fortunately Einstein had modeled himself after Charles Atlas and Agatha could no-longer kick sand in the face of a metaphoric 99-pound weakling. Perhaps because she was no longer able to control her brother, certainly unable to take his food, frustration worked its evil ways on Agatha’s psyche. She began a campaign of destruction that, among other lesser acts of vandalism, saw a mirror pulled from a wall creating splintered reflections on the floor, a heavy, antique acid jar pushed from a deep shelf in the bathroom, which not only took strength but determination, onto the commode, shattering the porcelain and spilling water throughout the small apartment. Perhaps there was a need for a period of adjustment, I thought. But one afternoon, while I held her, she bit my lip— without any kind of provocation I could perceive — drawing blood. Now, it was getting personal and just a little frightening. Would I be attacked in my sleep? A quick bite to the throat? The vampire cat from hell!

Einstein looked at me as if to say, “I could have told you all this that very first day. We’ve got to get rid of her.”

A few days later, when I came home from work, the first thing I noticed was that one of the windows was open. Einstein sat in the middle of the small room and looked at me. I don’t know if cats can express satisfaction, exactly, but if they can, he did. Agatha was gone. I went to the window, the one window that didn’t open onto a fire escape, looked down the two stories to the alley beneath. No Agatha.

Did she jump and escape, commit suicide, or was she murdered and her corpse hauled off? Those were the questions I had on my mind when I went to sleep that night and remembered Einstein trapping his sister in the cardboard box on that first day of their arrival.

The promotion part? The “Early Shanahans,” (books one through four) originally published by St. Martins Press, beginning in 1990, will be reissued as trade paperbacks and as Ebooks before the holidays. Einstein and Casey play minor, non-investigative roles.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores —Book Passage, for Ferry Travelers and Tourists on the Embarcadero

This is the seventh in 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.

It’s the kind of bookstore you’d expect to find on the concourse of a busy airport. If this sounds negative, it’s not meant to be. Clean, well organized, busy, Book Passage at San Francisco’s Ferry Building has a similar clientele — tourists and commuters as well as a splash of locals who come down because getting there is easy and, depending on the time of day and day of the week, there is a major Farmer’s Market under way.

What you’ll find in the store are the standard bestsellers and other popular books on a variety of subjects. The environment feels commercial — and no doubt it is. Book buyers are likely to be daily commuters from the East or North Bay, picking up something to read on the ferry, tourists buying something for the plane and San Franciscans who have come to the spectacularly restored building to shop or dine who can’t resist the urge to browse book shelves.

The Ferry Building, a grand historic landmark. houses gourmet everything — from chocolate to mushrooms. There are bakeries, a wine shop and bar, teahouse, specialized meats, cheese and gelato. There are restaurants — A Japanese deli, a high-end, world-renowned Vietnamese restaurant, a great oyster bar, as well as places to dine outside under umbrellas with views of the elegantly unfolding Embarcadero or in the back with views of the Bay.

In this sense Book Passage is the “neighborhood” bookstore, meeting the needs of its readers. What one might miss is a sense of the bookstore being an escape from the outside world. It should also be noted that the Ferry Building Book Passage is owned and operated by one of the premiere bookstores in Northern California. The flagship store in Corte Madera is famous for it’s comprehensive collection of books, its popular author events and highly respected writer workshops.

One Ferry Building, (415) 835-1020,

Monday, August 15, 2011

OLD GOLD — Terence Faherty's Retro Hollywood PI Back on Top

Sometimes a great series character slips from the limelight. Sometimes we are fortunate to witness their return. “Old Gold,” in addition to featuring reissued crime classics from current writers, looks at new releases featuring the resurrection of classic characters. Here's the story in the author's words.

Writing Dance in the Dark, the fourth novel featuring my Hollywood historical PI Scott Elliott, was a return to familiar ground for me. Before I started the book, in the fall of 2005, it seemed as though the Elliott series would end as a trilogy, at least as far as novels were concerned. I was having some success with Elliott short stories (reprinted earlier this year in a collection called The Hollywood Op), but the most recent novel, 2000's Raise the Devil, had disappeared with scarcely a ripple.

Then in 2005, Jim Huang's small press, The Mystery Company, brought out a stand-alone novella, In a Teapot, which garnered some nice review attention and received the series' third Shamus nomination. That encouraged me to start another Elliott novel. I wanted to get him to the wild Altamont concert of 1969 (or a reasonable facsimile of it) and I'd been kicking around a plot idea that would do it. The writing took a long time — ten months for a first draft — because I interrupted the process four times to write short stories.

Once completed, Dance in the Dark spent a while making the rounds before finding a home with Five Star, but I'm very pleased with the resulting book, especially its haunting cover. One reviewer wrote of the novel's "valedictory sadness," which may reflect the fifty-something Elliott's sense of things falling apart. Or the book's fifty-something author's sense of it. If Elliott knew what lies ahead for him and Hollywood — disco — he'd be even bluer. — Terence Faherty

Friday, August 12, 2011

Film Pairing — Take Two, Dark, Foggy, Hilly and Dangerous Trips to San Francisco With Mr. Bogart and See Me in the Morning

Themes we are embark-ing upon — 1940s Noir Classics, Humphrey

Bogart and the City by the Bay. All right, there’s nothing novel about a double feature with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Dark Passage (1947) but we’re creating a mood here and we’re doing it in San Francisco.

The Maltese Falcon is often regarded as one of the best films ever made, usually after Casablanca, Citizen Cane and The Third Man. And it may very well be: A plot that twists, a clever protagonist, and an end that goes against the standard Hollywood formula. Surely I’m not going to spoil anything by saying the girl, the love interest, comes to a bad end.

There is a quick intro featuring San Francisco landmarks in The Maltese Falcon. However, once the film begins, its clear the movie could have been filmed anywhere. In Dark Passage San Francisco plays a significant role. Anyone who lives here knows what Bogart’s character, post surgery, felt like climbing and climbing and climbing these damned beautiful hills. Overall, the cinematography in Passage may actually be better than in its more famous counterpart. The innovative first-person cinematography as the film opens is odd, but effective. Bogart’s grit and Lauren Bacall’s elegance create more heat, light and magic than Bogart and Mary Astor. Another plus for Dark Passage.

In my mind though, while these are both excellent films the nod goes to the Maltese Falcon because Sam Spade has more formidable opposition in this one. Sydney Greenstreet is a superb heavy, pardon the play on words, and Peter Lorre seems to steal every scene he’s in. It is their challenge — as actors and characters — that elevates Bogart’s classic portrayal of a cynical private eye and therefore his bittersweet victory.

They are both must-sees. I’m not quite sure what the Fat Man offers Spade that knocks him out. I suspect that whatever drug he used was slipped into a glass of Brandy — not a bad choice on a foggy San Francisco night. Just skip the Mickey Finn part. And if you are not in San Francisco, pretend you are for a few foggy hours.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Alexander Book Company, Downtown, And Then There Was One

This is the seventh in 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.

Watching the demise of San Francisco’s downtown bookstores was like watching Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. After Rizzoli’s led the decline by abandoning the city a few years ago, two downtown Borders were boarded up and another South of Market store closed. Cody’s fled, Stacey’s retired and the Virgin Store slipped away. Would Union Square and the financial District area be left to linger in illiteracy? No. There is the Alexander Book Company, on the quiet side of Market (at Second).

It is a deceptively large store with perhaps a too modest street presence. What might have been the least visible of downtown bookstores, The Alexander Book Company, turned out to be the most enduring. It has weathered the murderous anti-brick and mortar climate. And the store has plenty to offer — 50,000 books on three floors. It has a strong student following especially for those studying graphic arts. They have a broad collection of African-American literature and a large section devoted to children’s books. And few will be disappointed in the selection of best sellers — new fiction and nonfiction. They also have an interesting selection of remainders and an eclectic collection of magazines.

The neighborhood is about as urban as it gets — on the edge of one of the world’s most famous shopping districts and in the midst of God knows how many Pacific Rim corporate headquarters, The Alexander Book Company is now the only place to look for books downtown. They are also on the edge of SOMA and its restaurants and museums. Downtown living is on the rise as well — literally. Construction of condo towers continues despite the uneasy real estate climate; so a whole new group of residents will find the store a safe haven from the fast pace that surrounds them.

50 Second Street, (415) 495-2992,

Monday, August 8, 2011

OLD GOLD — Michael Z. Lewin Brings Back Classic Indianapolis P.I. Albert Samson

Early works by some of our best, current crime writers have been out of print for years. But times are changing. Many of these highly praised novels are available again as e-books and or trade paperbacks. “Old Gold,” is a periodic blog feature that focuses on these reissued treasures. Here's the story in the author's words.

I find the new technologies that are transforming access to the written world really exciting. I love that electronic platforms make it possible for books — OK, my books — to come out again when, for so long, they’ve been staying in. For me this currently applies only to the most recent of my eight Samson novels, Eye Opener. But I have every intention of putting the other Samsons back into the realm of the available.

The first time Albert Samson plied his PI trade in Indianapolis was in 1971. That’s forty years ago. It’s amazing I’m still alive, don’t you think? And that he is — because at least a couple of new Samson stories will emerge in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the first in December, 2011.

I intend to put more than just the Samsons out there electronically. Other older books too, but also new work. The book I’m working on now will go straight to electronic formats without even being offered to conventional publishers. Assuming I can work out the how-to part of the process….

I’ve been inspired to do this by a friend and neighbor, the brilliant Liza Cody — author of the Anna Lee PI books, the Eva Wylie trilogy and other novels. She’s just published Ballad of a Dead Nobody herself, not least because she could fix the price of the electronic edition at $2.99. And this point in my life and career I — like Liza — am far more interested in having new readers than in having better-filled pockets. Michael Z. Lewin

Friday, August 5, 2011

Film Pairing — Naked City, Sense of Time and Place

If you’re watching at home, whether or not what you see was made for the big screen or the little one doesn’t matter much. At least, that’s true for Naked City. Time is another matter. If you want to visit New York City and have a sense of what it was like in 1948, you’ll get the view of an award winning cinema-tographer’s black and white portrayal of the nation’s largest metropolis and one of the Naked City’s eight million stories. William H. Daniels won an Academy Award for this strange, fascinating murder mystery with a documentary feel. The city is the star, even during the obligatory chase scene that brings the movie to a close. The journeyman cast is headed by the scene stealing and delightful Irishman, Barry Fitzgerald.

Ten years later ABC had the bright idea — with a little tinkering — to do a network TV series on the same premise with the same characters, but different actors. A half-hour Naked City series, starring James Franciscus, premiered but failed to make it beyond the first season. As if to prove the good don’t die young after all, in 1960, Naked City was revived and expanded to 60 minutes. This new version, still using NYC as a main character and clearly the stylistic offspring of the original film, took advantage of an obvious resource — the talents of young New York actors. The episodes, at times heavy handed, but with great camera work, featured such future stars as Christopher Walken, Peter Falk, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Kim Hunter and Dustin Hoffman. Naked City holds up better than most of the network crime shows from that era.

Netflix also has the movie and a few discs featuring episodes from the hour-long series. They might be available elsewhere as well. This means you can do a little mixing and matching for an evening in vintage New York. Now, about what to drink. No debate here. Though some might consider it a little hoity toity, why not have Manhattans? Fashionable then. Hip now. Is “hip” hip?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Notes — The Quick, The Not So Quick And The Dead In Indiana

This new book takes me back to familiar places in Indiana, where I spent a good deal of my life. I recognize the characters too. They have familiar, Hoosier ways. But fortunately for me, not too familiar. We’re talking horror here.

Sex, blood and rock ‘n roll. Lots of blood. Well-drawn characters are caught in a gruesome nightmare. Rohn’s Hang on Sloopy is seductively easy reading, funny and terrifying. Just when you think the story is drifting back to a calm, thoughtful investigation of the mysterious disappearances and bloody crimes — something else happens and it’s neither nice nor over.

Rohn’s writing style is lean and straightforward. His story, which moves quickly, reveals a unique mix of the shyly romantic and the deeply cynical as well as characters that evolve from the sadly troubled to the bitterly sadistic. These elements form a completely distinctive and interesting voice.

Randy Rohn is best known for his short stories. His “The Man Who Fell in Love with a Stump of a Tree” appeared in the Best American Mystery Stories 2009. Hang on Sloopy, published by L & L Dreamspell, is his first novel. And it’s mostly likely not his last. Might this be the beginning of a series?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Christopher's Books, Potrero Hill, The Land That Tourists Forgot

This is the sixth in 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.

Look down the hill from 18th, the neighborhood’s main street, and you’ll have a striking view of San Francisco’s skyline. It’s as if Potrero Hill isn’t in the city, but above it and that the “City by the Bay” is another place altogether. In a way it is. If you were a resident, you might want to leave the Hill from time to time. But you wouldn’t need to. The neighborhood is self-sustaining.

It’s also an unlikely place for tourists, which is a good thing only because many of the great places on Potrero are small, very small. It’s “supersizing” in reverse. You will not go to Baked for a warm welcome, but this tiny bakery delivers the goods. Try the Ricotta cake. Chez Maman may be one of the smallest restaurants in the city, but also one of the best — a glorious hamburger is just one reason to dine there.

Certainly, Christopher’s Books falls into this “good things come in a small packages” category. They have a carefully cultivated, high-quality selection of books, just right for a beautiful neighborhood that also has other great small places — a wine shop, coffee shops and more than their fair share of excellent restaurants, grocers and bakeries. It has a bar that looks like it just emerged from an old PI movie (with a second-story window that reads “Golden Gun Investigations”) and a great renovated public library with million dollar views.

Have a drink, have lunch, grab a dessert and buy a book.

1400 18th Street, (415) 255-8802,

Monday, August 1, 2011

OLD GOLD — Bill Crider's Truman Smith, Texas Private Eye Goes Digital

Early works by some of our best, current crime writers have been out of print for years. But times are changing. Many of these highly praised novels are available again as e-books and or trade paperbacks. “Old Gold,” is a periodic blog feature that focuses on these reissued treasures. Here's the story in the author's words.

I always wanted to be Raymond Chandler. Or Dashiell Hammett. Ross Macdonald would have suited me just fine, too.Things didn’t work out like that. The first book I published under my own name was a third-person narrative about Sheriff Dan Rhodes. The setting was a small Texas county far from the mean streets of Los Angeles or San Francisco. That was back in 1986, and the series continues today, so I really can’t complain.

After a couple of books about the sheriff, I got my chance at a private-eye novel. A new editor at Walker Books liked the idea, so I set out to do my Chandler bit. It didn’t work out that time, either, because as much as I’d have loved to write like Chandler, he was the only one who could. The same with Hammett and Macdonald. Everything I wrote came out sounding like me.

And that was just fine, too. I wrote five books about a Texas private eye named Truman Smith who in the first one, Dead on the Island, returned to his hometown of Galveston to try to find his missing sister. The books got good reviews, the first one was nominated for a Shamus Award, the editors (I went through two of them) loved the books, and I loved writing them. What could possibly go wrong?

Sales, that’s what. Not the sales of the hardbacks. Those were fine. But there was no paperback deal. That wasn’t fine. The publisher was making money on the books, but not enough money. So after five titles, the series disappeared. Truman Smith had a good run. He never found his missing sister, but he investigated the killing of an alligator and a prairie chicken, not to mention tangling with a couple of killers of people. Now he’s found a new life in e-book format, and all five books will eventually be published in that form. I hope he’s going to stick around for a while. — Bill Crider