Friday, September 30, 2011

Film Pairing — Off the Wall Films, David Hyde Pierce and Woody Harrelson

There are plenty of vetted, mighty fine crime films out there. And eventually, I hope to get around to most of them, putting them together for interesting double features. In fact while we may not agree on which films are classics and which are simply good, there is probably a lot of agreement about which films are worthwhile. But if you want to have an out-of-safe experience, you might try these two films starring actors who got their start in successful sitcoms and have perhaps stepped outside their — or our— comfort zones.

If you want a bizarre, very off-the wall film that seems to have quietly slipped into streaming video, check out David Hyde Pierce in The Perfect Host. According to Wikipedia, the film took only 17 days to shoot. Basically, it is the dinner party from hell. I don’t know what to say. I laughed at it, with it and couldn’t take my eyes off it. This may be unfair and a personal problem, but I had the sense that Pierce is playing Niles Crane’s extremely evil twin —not that there's anything wrong with that.

Woody Harrelson has come a long way since “Cheers.” He has shown himself to be, at minimum, a credible actor, and often more than capable of handling a wide range of parts. Did he take one step too far in this one? I think Harrelson’s characterization of a wittily engaging gay man who maintains a comfortable life by establishing “friendships” with wealthy Washington DC woman of a certain age seems a little forced. Nonetheless, The Walker, directed by Paul Shrader is a well-done and certainly a more traditional mystery

It also stars Lauren Bacall, William Dafoe, Ned Beatty and Lily Tomlin.

A slight warning, the evening promises to be emotionally disruptive. The two stories exist in completely different realities. I’d save The Walker for last and I’d move from some exotic, frivolous cocktail with The Perfect Host to a more subtle mixed drink for The Walker.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Bibliohead, Great Overland Book Company, Both in the Hearts of Vibrant Neighborhoods

The Bibliohead Bookstore is located in one of my favorite neighborhoods. I lived there for five years, back when Hayes Valley might have been called “Needle Park.” I saw more guns at the local laundromat than I did during my time in the Army. It is no longer that way. The easily walkable area is not too precious, but it is trendy. A few blocks from theOpera, Symphony and Ballet, the neighborhood where Bibliohead resides hosts all sorts of interesting shops and restaurants. The sun and business came to Hayes Valley when the overpasses were ripped out and the neighborhood is witnessing a grand renaissance. The bookstore, small and smart, is after six years, still a baby if we were doing San Francisco bookstore history. But it doesn’t act like it. The shop is fully packed with used books and interesting remainders of all types. If there were a special emphasis, you could say it tilts toward the nearby classical arts culture. Expect to find a great collection of books for opera, ballet and symphony lovers. On the other hand, if you want just great detective fiction or edgy literature, you’ll find yourself right at home.

334 Gough Street, (415) 621-6772,

The Great Overland Book Company is located down the hill from the giant UCSF campus in the bustling Inner Sunset. The crossroads are located at Irving and 9th Avenue. Restaurants and bars of all types mingle with well-established storefronts for hardware items, shoes and shoe repair, tattoos, and baked goods as well as beauty and fitness. There is also a magic shop, a frame shop and of course, a great store for used books. While Bibliohead is in a neighborhood favored by both tourists and locals, this area of the Inner Sunset is not likely a tourist mecca and this bookstore has that sort of non-slick nonchalance that is essentially native San Franciscan. Though the shelves are well-organized, you do have to watch where you step. There are stacks of books everywhere. One of the stacks had a note on the top — “Bugs.” There are two stories of books that seem to favor literature with a capital “L.” This isn’t necessarily the best place to go for that worn copy of a Sue Grafton novel — though they have those as well. You might want, for example, to check out the whole section devoted to “award winning” authors. But don’t let this put you off either. This is a comfortable place where the staff, like those in most good bookstores, welcomes you and lets you know they won’t be following you around, but that they are there when you need them.

345 Judah Street, (415) 664-0126

Monday, September 26, 2011

OLD GOLD — Lev Raphael's Nick Hoffman, Academic, Not Elementary

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 Lev Raphael’s story in his own words.

The Edith Wharton Murders was my first “crossover” book. It was my first to be reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, with a rave. And in many bookstores, it got shelved in Mystery sections and Literature, sometimes side-by-side with books by Edith Wharton. All of that delighted me, since it featured a sleuth who loved two things: teaching and books.
I was freaked out to have a lifelong dream come true, and when the fax came from my agent the Monday before the review was going to run, I literally jumped up and down before calling friends. If there'd been a football field nearby, I would have been celebrating in the end zone. Then a doubt hit me: what if they changed their minds? Was that possible? My patient spouse assured me the Times did not retract reviews. Whew!

The novel's sleuth is an Edith Wharton scholar corralled into organizing a Wharton conference at his Midwestern University. His colleagues don't want the work or responsibility, and he doesn't have tenure, so the promise is that he'll get it if things go well. Of course they don't. As I heard at a mystery conference in Oxford from a sociologist: “Academics don’t have good means of crisis resolution.” The conference brings together two rival Wharton societies whose members loathe each other. Murder is the only possible result.

If you think academia is lightweight, you haven't experienced it. The academic world is piratical and dehumanizing. It has the vanity of professional sports; the hypocrisy of politics; the cruelty of big business; and the inhumanity of organized crime. All of that makes it a perfect setting for murder and satire.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Film Pairing — Two Different Worlds, We Live in Two Different Worlds

These two films are on my personal “top ten” crime movie list. But they couldn’t be more different. The only thing they have in common is that they incredibly well made — fantastically well written, finely acted and brilliantly directed. Too many fabulous adverbs here. I apologize. Let’s just say that the ultimate noir meets the ultimate cozy. Why not make them a double feature some Friday or Saturday night?

No Country for Old Men (2007), directed by the Coen Brothers, is a desolate, violent, base story of nihilism on celluloid. Good and evil isn’t a result of who you are or what you do, but on the toss of a coin — heads or tails? Based on the novel

by Cormac McCarthy and starring, among others, Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Barden, Josh Brolin and Woody

Harrelson, we find ourselves in West Texas, where a drug deal has gone gruesomely bad and an unclaimed, bloody bag of money makes keeps the grotesque game going.

In Gosford Park (2001), we find ourselves attending a dinner party, where we are privy to the antics of the privileged class and the people who serve them. There is a murder. Directed by Robert Altman and written by Julian Fellowes (he authored Downtown Abbey), this is a story that suggests Agatha Christie, but is better than any films adapted from her books. Gosford Park is rich, stylish, subtle and sophisticated. It is a murder mystery that will be solved. The list of fine actors is too long for a short article. But among the many talents are Alan Bates, Stephen Fry, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillippe, Maggie Smith and Kristen Scott Thomas.

Leaving the theater after watching No Country for Old Men I was disoriented (not a totally foreign feeling, some might say). I didn’t feel as if I saw the movie as much as I felt the movie and was still in shock at the meaningless of it all when it was over. Actually, it wasn’t over when it was over, and that was the problem. I could not walk steadily for a few blocks, and I will never forget it. I’ve seen Gosford Park half a dozen times, not to glean new meaning or to gain greater insight into class differences , but to have that sense of satisfaction of having visited a curious time and place, and understanding how that world worked — and finally, pleasantly, having the story all wrapped up in the end. There is peace of mind in having things make sense even if, one concludes, it’s not entirely fair and that it’s probably not the way things are.

I’d watch No Country first while sipping straight tequila. Then, for Gosford Park, I’d switch to brandy, preferably having someone bring it to me as I recovered from the desolation that was and still seems to be West Texas. Having the pieces all put together in the second film might make it easier to sleep.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

OLD GOLD — Janet Dawson's Jeri Howard is Back in a Big Way

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 Janet Dawson’s story in her own words.

As I proofread e-book files of my backlist Jeri Howard novels, I was struck by how many of my fictional outings had their genesis in real events. We mystery writers like to have loose ends wrapped up, even if real life doesn’t work out that way.

Kindred Crimes had its roots in real-life murders in Colorado – a husband and wife killed by their son. After years of asking myself why the crime occurred, I wrote my own version of the truth.

Another Colorado crime led to Till The Old Men Die. A professor and his wife vanished. A mystery woman claimed to know what had happened to them. She never told anyone the truth, then she was confined to the state mental hospital, where she died. In my book the professor has been murdered. My mystery woman has her own agenda. The crime is solved; the real-life case was not.

I once read a newspaper article about a man in Missouri who had been killed on a public street with lots of witnesses. The dead man was so thoroughly disliked that no one would give the police any information on the shooter. This was the impetus for Take A Number, in which the murder victim was so nasty that anyone who wanted to kill him would have to take a number and get in line.

I once worked at a corporation that went through a leveraged buyout – an experience that would provide fertile grounds for murder. So I wrote Where The Bodies Are Buried – after I’d left that particular job.

For more information on award-winning author Janet Dawson, her new novel, Bit Player, and the e-book versions of her earlier classics, go here.

San Francisco Bookstores — Heart of the Mission, Modern Times, Adobe Books, Forest Books

For some, the Mission is just the street — a long, bustling, wide-sidewalked avenue with boarded up movie house, pawn shops, produce markets, tacquerias and brightly colored bargain products spilling out of store doorways. It is much more. Well beyond the loud and somewhat gaudy main thoroughfare is a rich and vibrant Hispanic neighborhood. To the west of Mission, you meander along Guererro and Valencia with their upscale restaurants, galleries and trendy shops. If you stroll east of Mission you’ll discover the authentic Mission, both residential and not generally trendy commercial areas on tree-lined streets. As far as Mission bookstores go, too many have closed their doors; but a number still remain. Among the survivors are:

Modern Times — After years on Valencia, the progressive collective moved deeper into the Mission, taking with them their concerns for the most vulnerable, or at least, most misunderstood populations. New and used books about gender and sexual orientation (fiction and nonfiction) are highlighted. So are books on philosophy and progressive politics. Modern Times also carries literature for children and many Spanish language books as well. As it did before, the bookstore acts as community center and holds many events of interest to writers, readers and political activists. Check out this San Francisco treasure.

2919 24th Street, (415) 282-9246,

Adobe Books — Almost synonymous with the Mission, Adobe Books has been on 18th near Valencia for years. Its narrow aisles are crowded with books (I will have to lose a few pounds). If I were younger, I’d gobble up the wonderful ‘70s and ‘80s mass paperbacks if for no other reason than an as investment because pocket-sized books are becoming extinct. They will be, if they aren’t already, collectibles. There is an eccentric sense about the place. While this isn’t a bookstore dedicated to religion, for example, there’s a complete section of Bibles. Bibles? Why not? There are comfortable chairs in which to read at your leisure (or doze off) and at the very far end, an active art gallery.

3166 16th Street, (415) 864-3936

Forest Books — This simple, unpretentious but elegant store carries a full range of used books and exudes a strong spiritual ambiance. Clean, spacious, ordered and filled with soothing music, the bookstore specializes in poetry and art as well as Asian culture and Eastern philosophy. There are many books about Buddhists and Buddhism. They also have a collection of rare books. This quiet place in the midst of the busy Mission should definitely be on any booklover’s list of places to check out.

3080 16th Street, (415)863-2755,

Monday, September 19, 2011

Opinion — Ray Bradbury, Libraries, Budgets and Bureaucrats

"I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it's better than college." — Ray Bradbury

Not nearly as dedicated, talented or prolific, I nonetheless identify with Mr. Bradbury’s comments. Like most people, I’ve lived through periods of my life where I’ve had greater and lesser financial security. But I will never forget the years I lived in a studio apartment at the Ambassador on Ninth and Pennsylvania in Indianapolis.

I had just returned from a stint in the Army, had very little money, but wanted to spend my time writing. The city’s Central Library was, for all practical purposes, in my backyard. I could see the back of the stately building from my window. I spent hours there, wandering around the beautiful balconies, up and down the grand steps and into and out of the various rooms. Spending hours amidst all those books reinforced my belief that knowledge is important. I spent a lot of time in the stacks discovering authors who taught me about philosophy, literature and the cultures of other places in the world. The place made me feel rich even when I went home to my single-room apartment for a dinner of bologna and eggs.

Now that the national economy is struggling there are calls for cutbacks in city services. Libraries are having their budgets cut and that usually means closing library branches, reducing hours and cutting back on staff, not to mention books. However while we steal from valuable public resources, ones that enrich the community, the handsome salaries and pensions for legislators (city, state and national) continue. A U.S. senator, after one term, can receive a couple of hundred thousand a year for the rest of his or her life, which often means they can add that to the millions they will get as lobbyists, having an inside track to lawmaking as they do. The specific public resource available to those struggling at the lower end of the huge income gap — but who are determined to learn and improve their lives — is being choked.

I don’t know much about his private life, but I suspect Mr. Bradbury hasn’t had to worry much about money most of his long life. He is 91. What I do know is that he wrote many great books and provided inspiration and knowledge to millions. Where would he and so many others have been without a library? Where would any great civilization be, for that matter?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Film Pairing — Three of a Kind: Blow Up, The Conversation, Blow Out

Blow Up (1966) — Michelangelo Antonioni directs David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles in what becomes a preview of the modish, faux glamorous seventies that would follow. A famous celebrity and fashion photographer discovers he has accidentally captured a murder on film. It is barely visible at first, so he begins to blow up sections of the image. It takes awhile to put the pieces together and the process (interrupted by some silly cavorting with giggling models) sets up oddly captivating unraveling of the mystery. Nominated for several international awards, including two Academy awards and the Cannes Grand Prix, Blow Up was the inspiration of at least two other films, one great, and one certainly good enough.

The Conversation (1974) — Francis Ford Coppola directs Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and Harrison Ford in a movie no doubt inspired by Antonioni’s classic. The key element here doesn’t come from a small, almost hidden element in a photograph taken in a London park, but from untangling sound snippets on tape. Each fresh revelation of this conversation between two people in San Francisco’s Union Square leads to an eventual truth. Though the technology used in the film is now more than 30 years old, the current, extraordinary ability to invade privacy for good or evil and the unexpected consequences of doing so, is foreshadowed here. The story is intricate. The sensibility is realistic. The tension is palpable. Hackman is one of those actors who can make a mediocre movie good. Here, his talent and the movie itself are finely matched. The Conversation was nominated for three Academy Awards and received the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

If you have the time and inclination, consider a third movie for the evening. Not quite as history making as the first two and possibly more derivative than inspired, it is nonetheless a tightly woven and worthwhile thriller.

Blow Out (1981) — Brian DePalma directs John Travolta, Dennis Frantz and John Lithgow in a film that has elements of both its predecessors. Travolta plays a sound technician for a sleazy sex and horror moviemaker. In the course of trying to record ambient sounds out beyond the Philadelphia suburbs, he accidentally picks up a sound that suggests that the presumed accidental death of a presidential contender is, in reality, an assassination. The powerful are at play and Travolta possesses dangerous knowledge. No award nominations here. In fact, Blow Out was pretty much a loser at the box office. But don’t let that put you off. While DePalma seems to have made a career of aping others, often in a more violently and sexually exploitive style (Hitchcock’s Psycho versus DePalma’s Dressed to Kill, for example), this one works. Travolta’s performance exceeds expectations. DePalma’s real-life wife, Nancy Allen — also in Dressed to Kill — does a fine job in this film.

The evening libations? Perhaps a little champagne with Blow Up. While it is a great film, there is something a little too bubbly about the times. The Conversation is serious and, so something on the rocks here. You choose. With Blow Out, go back to the champagne. Now that a few bubbles have expired, it may be a match.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Bird & Beckett, A Glen Park and City Treasure

I really don’t know what to call them. They seem like more than neighborhoods, villages really, yet within the city limits. We didn’t have many of them where I grew up in Indianapolis. By the time I was moving around the city, what few defined areas that once existed vanished or became homogenized. Most neighborhoods looked pretty much like the others.

However, in San Francisco, there are still self-contained, one-of-a-kind, self-sustaining neighborhoods, places with their own character and spirit. One of these places is Glen Park. If you live there you have what you need — a hardware, barbershop, fitness centers, restaurants and coffee shops. It is a hub for Bay area public transportation, including its own BART station. But Glen Park has some very special places as well. There are a couple of incredibly fine, special-night-out kind of restaurants (Chenery Park and Le P’tit Laurent) and a pizza place (Gialina) so good that it draws from miles around. Add a cheese store, a wine and oyster bar, one of the best gourmet groceries (Canyon Market) in a gourmet city and a really, really good book store. Lunch, on the other hand, might be hard to find.

It’s a small community. The commercial district is little more than a “T” street crossing. And the bookstore I mention is relatively small as well. But if you are serious about serious books, you have struck gold. Not room enough for every kind of book, there is a preference for quality in a carefully selected blend of new and used books. We’ve all had the bookstore experience where we feel as if we are interfering with the staff’s personal interests. Bird & Beckett manages to be welcoming without hovering.

The new books and magazines are in the front along with some fascinating remainders. Farther back in the store are the used books — international fiction, poetry, philosophy, history, politics — and some comfortable chairs. There is also a raised area, a stage of sorts, where, on occasion, there is jazz (every Friday night), and panel discussions on literature, as well as poetry and prose readings. There is a sense that Bird & Beckett is also a community center. The entryway is plastered with posters, business cards and announcements. However, it’s important to note that the bookstore is not just for the locals. It is a worthwhile destination for the city at large.

Like San Francisco’s other out of the way villages — Potrero Hill and Bernal Heights, for example — Glen Park isn’t likely on the standard tourist itinerary; and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it has slipped the minds of many San Franciscans as well.

653 Chenery Street, (415) 586-3733,

Monday, September 12, 2011

Opinion — Brand Name Writers, Stand Alone Novels, Early Work and E-Books

During my first few cups of coffee in the morning, I meander through various news sites on the Internet and then on to the crime fiction related blogs. After I make my first stop, RapSheet, I visit many of the blogs on their blogroll. I have a few regulars. Bill Crider’s, Ed Gorman’s, Tipping My Fedora among others. And now Murderati has become part of that ritual. Zoë Sharp, a crime writer and regular Murderati contributor, recently discussed two subjects that seem particularly relevant to my writing and perhaps to crime writing and reading in general.

The first is making early and usually out-of-print books in an on-going series available. While there are sometimes copies of these early books on Amazon or E-Bay, they may be expensive. They are rarely available electronically unless the author makes an effort to get them in that format. This often requires a bit of work. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, this work is fulfilling. In a month or two, I hope to announce the reissuing of the first four Shanahans. In the case of Zoë Sharp, she has just announced the availability of the early “Charlie Fox” series, beginning with her first, the highly touted Killer Instinct.

The second subject in her recent post was the conflict that I think both the author and the reader experiences when an author known for his or her series work writes a stand-alone novel. It’s kind of like taking a sip of a drink you thought was a Coke and you find out it was iced tea. It can be a shock. It’s hardly life threatening, but it can be disappointing if you were really looking forward to that Coke. That’s why many publishers look at a writer’s work like as a brand. Readers get comfortable with a series and they have expectations — familiar characters, time, place, tone. To change any of those requires some adjustment on the reader’s part.

This also holds true for writers of more than one series. There are ten Shanahan novels in a series that I began 21 years ago with the most recent one published last year. A couple of years ago, I began a new series, this one set in San Francisco with a whole new set of characters and a different tone. So not only have I fractured my “brand,” such as it was — and we’re not talking Coca Cola here, more like RC Cola — by going out of the comfort zone with a second series, I have also engaged in stand-alone mystery novels. Good to the Last Kiss received a starred review from Kirkus, but I have the impression that its far darker, bleaker tone is not what readers of the Shanahan series have come to expect, nor would any new readers of the Carly Paladino/Noah Lang San Francisco mysteries find even the same San Francisco, let alone the same measure of light and dark in the story telling. Selling novels that vary from the brand can be like trying to break into the market all over again.

For me, and I suspect many other writers, there is something comfortable and reassuring about returning to series characters. They are like old friends. In that sense we can relate to the reader. I found revisiting some of my earlier work to prepare text for the e-book format to be inspiring, educational and, surprisingly, fun. However, creating a new series and the standalone books allow the writer — and the adventurous reader — to really spread the wings of his or her imagination, to take a chance. And a chance it is.

If you want to read a few brief articles by other writers reissuing early books, click here for the collection of Old Gold.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Film Pairing — "The Big Lug," Sterling Hayden, Classic Noir Star

I was pretty young, maybe six, when I began riding the electric bus from Indianapolis’ Eastside to the city’s downtown on the weekends. Under the watchful eye of my older brother we would take in lunch and at least two films. Sometimes we’d see a double feature or we’d go to two of the half-dozen grand old movie theaters to extend our escape from reality for as long as we could.

I was always more attracted to adventure films — especially westerns and crime. But who was in the movie was important. I was attracted to movies starring Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, David Niven, and Humphrey Bogart. If I saw Sterling Hayden in those days — and I must have — he made little or no impression. I understand why he didn’t make an impression then and why he is much more interesting now. His characters, while they were tough, didn’t come across smart or in control. He was a “big lug.” At 6’5”, he was big. And in the films I’ve seen he wasn’t the smartest man in the room. He was kind of a lug.

And that’s it. He wasn’t leading man handsome, but ordinary. He was never really in charge of anything. As a character, he played along with people he trusted. He had his own code, but it wasn’t set up so he could get ahead. If he made a promise, he’d keep it, whether that promise was to himself or someone else. But he wasn’t charming and sophisticated like Grant and Niven or as tough and smart as characters played by Mitchum and Bogart or Edward G. Robinson, for that matter. Hayden’s characters weren’t extraordinary. They were regular guys who seemed confused by and caught up in the system. They were, perhaps, a little too true-to-life.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) — A weakness for the horses puts the big lug in debt. A blow to his pride causes him to borrow some money to pay off the bookie. In his own honorable way, to pay off what he borrowed from a friend means taking a job to rob a jeweler. And when it’s over, he thinks, he’ll leave the big city and go home to a happier place in Lexington, Kentucky. He’d hang around racehorses rather than bet on them — all in beautiful blue grass country. John Huston directed the film, based on a novel by W. R. Burnett, who also wrote Little Caesar. It’s an extraordinary black and white film that focuses on the layers of corruption and hypocrisy among respected business leaders, corrupt law enforcement and most certainly members of the criminal class. Marilyn Monroe has a small role in this classic.

The Killing (1956) — This is also classic noir. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick who, along with Jim Thompson, adapted the screenplay from Clean Break, a book by Lionel White. The film has Hayden in a role very similar to the one he played in Asphalt Jungle. It is another heist film, and the story follows a similar pattern. Our guy is going to do one last job and then he’s going to put it all behind him — the crime and corruption. How it ends is how it has to end. These are the rules. There is no escape. But this time it’s the ingenious heist itself that makes the movie. Stunning timing, stunning cinematography and brilliant directing.

What to drink? Cheap whiskey, probably. Not beer though. Not tough enough.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Opinion — Ten Little Republicans, Or Who Killed the Elephants in the Room?

What about this as a remake of one of Agatha Christie’s classics? Someone invites ten prominent Republicans running for president to a big Texas ranch house. And they die off — one by one. Who killed them and why? You’ll be able to follow the story in the next few months. Here are the characters. Perhaps you know who could best play these parts.

1. A rich (trust fund baby), good-looking Mormon with a tan and a great haircut who constantly changes his mind. To show his great empathy, suggested dialogue: “Corporations are people too,” or “Forget what I said when I was running for office in a liberal state. I have.”

2.ELIMINATED January 16. A rich (trust fund baby), good-looking Mormon with a great haircut who doesn’t change his mind all that often. Suggested dialogue: “I believe in evolution and in science. Call me crazy.” Music inserted here that indicates he is doomed. He departed with the name of the other rich, pleasantly coifed Mormon on his lips.

3. A crazy, God fearing housewife who has five answers in her head and chooses one of the five no matter what she’s asked. Suggested dialogue: “I’m at the tip of the spear,” repeated every three minutes. Or, “To me, being submissive to my husband is the same as being respectful.” Also, “God wants me to be the first submissive president.”

4. A chubby, rich adulterous intellectual, who has been married several times and now lives with his party-going trophy wife, and who professes a strong belief in family values. Suggested dialogue: “Breakfast at Tiffanies? Hell, lunch and dinner too.” He could also say: “Let them eat cake,” or maybe “Give me the cake. Now!”

5. A slightly addled uncle, who says crazy but strangely consistent things about how to run a country: Suggested dialogue: “Whatever regulations you want to pass, don’t. Whatever regulations are on the books, abolish. Now we got ourselves a country. Wheeeeee!”

6. A southern, county sheriff type (central casting) who believes if you think a guy might be guilty of a crime, you ought to be able to kill him and that old people are generally greedy bastards out to steal the tax subsidies from big oil. Suggested dialogue: “I sleep well at night,” or “What we need is barbed wire, drones and electric fences to keep the Mexicans out. I ain’t a molly coddler.” God Ronald Reagan wants me to be president.

7. ELIMINATED December 3, 2011 A tall, rich black guy whose favorite poet is Donna Summer. Background in Pizza, Whoppers and cookie dough. But surprisingly shows his willingness to go against the rich if need be. Suggested dialogue: “Even rich gay people are evil.” God ordered him to be president. God also ordered a large Pepperoni.

8. A tall, goofy Catholic choirboy, terrified of gay people, who thinks everybody should be a tall, goofy Catholic. Suggested dialogue: “Stay away from me Sheriff, I prefer to shower alone.” Also, “God wants me to be president because I can’t get elected to congress from my own state. And I need a job bad.” Also “Hello! I’m over here! Hello?”

9. ELIMINATED October 5, 2011. Another (recently rich) housewife; but this one isn’t submissive, just a crazeee diva. An addicted bromide user, this maverick is as attractive as she is simple-minded, except when it comes to publicity. At some point in the movie she is asked what newspapers and magazines she reads. Offended, she claims this is a “gotcha” question and goes medieval on the media for asking it. Suggested dialogue: “Maybe I’ll be there. Maybe I won’t,” she says while batting her eyes. “But remember, I’m the only one who can ask me questions.”

10. A shadow appears after all of the others are dead. There is evil laughter. As my brother always said, “Stragedy. Damn fine Stragedy.”

Caption: Scene from Ten Little Republicans. Sheriff admonishes crazy uncle: Down here in Texas, things can get pretty ugly.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Three Bookstores, All in the Family

Phoenix Books, Noe Valley — Though it recently changed storefronts, moving further into the Noe Valley shopping district on 24th. Phoenix is the oldest of three small, independent bookstores owned by Kate Rosenberger and George Kirby Desha. In the heart of the “baby district,” this one is the most family oriented of the three, though you’ll find an eclectic collection of books well suited to adults with discriminating tastes as well. The location is also great for wandering, shopping and eating. Great restaurants and bakeries add to an essentially full-service neighborhood, which serves increasingly young, affluent baby-bearing, child-rearing residents.

3957 24th Street, (415) 821-3477

Dog Eared Books, The Mission — Founded in 1992, the store at Valencia and 23rd Street has great windows and offers a range of books befitting the highly diverse neighborhood, which is often described as the epicenter for the city’s avant-garde. Despite all the emerging writers, artists and chefs, particularly on or near Valenica, the last few years have witnessed the closing of many of the neighborhood bookstores. Dog Eared dominates the English-language readers in the Mission. Great selection of magazines and don’t forget the boxes of cheap books out on the sidewalk.

900 Valencia Street, (415) 282-1901

Red Hill Books, Bernal Heights — Once a communist stronghold (thus Red Hill, suggests the bookstore’s web site), Bernal Heights is a pretty substantial little hill town within a hilly city. Like Potrero Hill, the remoteness of this neighborhood means we can go there and feel we’ve actually left town. Because many of the great restaurants there are only open for dinner, you might want to consider an evening visit to dine well, stroll the busy main street and browse through the cozy, warm and inviting bookstore at the western end of Cortland.

401 Cortland Avenue, (415) 648-5311

All three stores carry new books, but most of their books are used or are well-chosen remainders — meaning great bargains on great reads. Also check for author events. For more information go to:, where you can learn about all three stores.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Opinion — Can you Sell a Book by Its Cover?

How important is a book cover? In a crime writing discussion group recently organized by Len Wanner, interviewer, blogger and author of Dead Sharp, this question was raised. Several writers posted their thoughts. Most, if not all of them agreed that a good cover is not only important, but even more critical now that ebooks are a huge chunk of book sales.

I’d guess that it probably matters less to the brand writers of the world — Forbes Magazine’s top earning authors —James Patterson and Janet Evanovich, for example — because people will buy their books because they buy their books. I do the same with some authors. I’d read the next Michael Connelly if it came in a brown paper wrapper. But if you are one of the many unknowns or not particularly well-known writers vying for attention, the cover is one of the few opportunities you have to stand out and court the potential reader from your spot in or near oblivion. And this is true whether your potential reader is browsing in real or virtual space.

However — and this is for readers, rather than writers — before the question of what makes a good cover, I want to mention what one author experienced. She heard from an angry reader who claimed the writer was a fraud who conspired with the publisher to make more money by releasing the same book with different covers. Apparently, the reader bought a book at an airport store and got the British cover and later bought the same book with the American publisher’s cover thinking they were two different books. The fact is that the author probably played no part in it.

It was an accidental deception on the part of the publishers too. It’s just that even in countries speaking the same (nearly the same anyway) language, there are enough cultural differences for publishers to take different approaches to marketing. Sometimes not only is the cover different, but the name is changed. A German translation of my short novel, Eclipse of the Heart, set in Mexico, caused marketers to determine there was a need for a drastic change in cover art. Not only that, but the title was also changed. It became Die Tequila Falle, or “The Tequila Case” — though a case of tequila was never mentioned in the book. If my royalty statement was any indication, the name change didn’t increase sales. Perhaps they should have called it “The Taco Caper,” or the “Sinister Sombrero Stereotype.”

At any rate, unless you are a Patterson or Evanovich or are self-publishing, you probably have no say in what the cover will look like. The early Shanahans, published by St. Martins, had covers that completely perplexed me. Frankly, I wouldn’t have looked at the books and therefore, would not have purchased them. Whether the covers were smart choices or not, the point is that, like most authors, I had not been consulted. And maybe, just maybe, I shouldn’t have been. In theory, publishers have professional marketers who have the training and resources (focus groups, for example) to guide them through these competitive, though I suspect still very subjective, waters.

However, if you do have some say on your cover, what would make it “good?” First, stating the obvious, it should be a visual statement that encourages the browser to do something more than glance at it in passing. You want them to pick it up, look at the flap, read a few paragraphs. On a bookstore shelf, for the most part, that means the spine of the book needs to have appeal. Hard to do, but some definitely stand out while others don’t. Second, if the writer is lucky, the book will be face out on the shelf or face up on a table. In that case the browser will see something in roughly a rectangular space of eight inches by five inches. This is good — a kind of miniature poster. However, on Amazon, as seen on my relatively large computer screen, the cover image is slightly less than one and a half inches by less than one inch. I keyed in “mysteries and thrillers,” on Amazon’s “search,” and 12 of the nearly 68,000 results were displayed on the first screen. I breezed through several pages. I could not read the title of some books, or the author’s name, let alone get a sense of the tone of the book. In some cases, the image was no more than splotches of color. And this is on a large desktop computer. How about an iPad, Nook, or Kindle? So, the ebook phenomenon suggests we create covers with those graphic limitations in mind. Perhaps we should look at postage stamp designers.

While the most important thing about a book is the story, the second most important thing about a book, in my mind, is the cover. Maybe you can or maybe you can’t tell a book by its cover, because the cover can be dishonest, actually downright deceitful. But you can sell a book by its cover — or at least initiate a possible sale. So, don’t skimp. Work with a talented graphic designer. I hope that you and your designer make it an honest reflection of what’s inside. The quality and style of the cover speak volumes about the quality and style of the writing. Honesty is the best policy if you want to build an audience. Yet not all writers have the interest or innate skill to make their crime fiction stand out graphically among the 68,000 other books in the mystery and thriller category without a little help. But if we as writers are involved, we need to at least know what the cover is supposed to do: Call attention to our books, and make the potential reader want to know more.

Caption: Here's an old cover that works well in the virtual world. Thanks to Killer Covers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Film Pairing — Boys Will Be Girls, Is That A Problem?

If your Macho score is really high on the Bell Curve, these two films might not be for you. The subject matter might very well make you uncomfortable. Then again, I’m not a psychiatrist — nor a movie critic for that matter, but I do like to come up with interesting ideas for double features. These two movies were about a subject that was rarely talked about at the time of their making — and is still likely to raise eyebrows in some circles.

Perhaps too simply put, Dog Day Afternoon starring Al Pacino, is movie about a man who is desperate for money so his biologically male lover could complete the transformation to womanhood through surgery. A young Pacino plays the lover who decides to rob a bank. Based on a true story, the film has an almost journalistic sensibility brought to an increasingly tense conclusion. The main thrust of the movie is the bank robbery, but the underlying motive for the robbery was pretty provocative for 1975. Even so, it worked — critically and at the box office. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the movie was nominated for several Golden Globe and Academy Awards, and Dog Day Afternoon continues to be held in high regard 36 years later.

The Crying Game (1992) may be a little more complex. Less a fast-paced thriller, it nonetheless covers more emotional ground. The main character, played by Stephen Rea is involved with the Irish Republican Army and in the kidnapping and killing of a hostage. Fed up with the cold violence of his comrades and initially motivated by promises he made to the hostage, Rea’s character checks on the welfare of the dead man’s girlfriend. He falls in love with her. Who wouldn’t? But that of course is the question. This could have been the end of the movie. However, much to our protagonist’s dismay, it is only the beginning. He must somehow deal with the threats made on his life and his identity. Like Dog Day, The Crying Game, which was directed by Neil Jordan, was nominated for several Academy Awards. Both films won for “best original screenplay.”

In order to continue to stir up controversy, at least among the Irish, I’ll suggest that the drink for the evening’s double bill be a “Black and Tan.” It is made from pale ale and a stout, often Bass Pale Ale and Guinness. If poured correctly, the two will form layers rather than mix.