Monday, October 31, 2011

Blatant Promotion — The Rebirth and Design of the Deets Shanahan Series

The first Deets Shanahan novel, the Stone Veil, had a great launch back in 1990. The New York Times said the “pragmatic investigator makes a good first impression.” The book was a finalist in a national best first novel competition and was nominated for a Shamus Award by the Private Eye Writers of America. The hardback went into a second printing and was optioned for a movie.

Yet, the Stone Veil was never released in paperback, never hit the mass market.

Time went on. So did Shanahan though the series — after a considerable sabbatical after Book Four — switched from a New York publisher to one in London for Book Five. That same publisher, Severn House, has published the Shanahans since then, including Bullet Beach, the tenth in the series, earlier this year. The publication of the hardback was followed by trade paperback and e-book editions. But what about the beginning? What about those early Shanahans? A couple of them had paperback incarnations — one in Italian. That one made me a millionaire (in lire). But they have been out-of-print for years.

Working with designers Dennis Gallagher and John Sullivan at Visual Strategies in their studio in San Francisco’s legendary North Beach, we decided to get not just the first book back in print and on e-book, we decided to reissue the first four cases, which includes Steel Web, Iron Glove and Concrete Pillow, none available in e-book until now. To do this I formed a new publishing company, Life Death and Fog Books, and the designers recreated these books inside and out. As we did, we decided to go against conventional publishing wisdom and not only release all four of the early Shanahans at once, but number them.

The modest marketing campaign will emphasize the notion of reading the Shanahan series “from the beginning.” The reason, frustrating to readers, that publishers prefer not to let you in on which books came first, second, and so on, is that if book three is the only one on the shelf, the reader might pass it up in order to read them in order. They do this even though usually, as is the case with the Shanahans, one can read them and enjoy them out of order. What a reader might miss, though, are subtle changes in the backstory. However, with much of the ordering coming off the Internet one way or another, all the books are always available? Why not let the readers control what they read and when? So we made it easy.

We’re also sending Deets Shanahan out into the broader reader public by making the books available and affordable in both print and electronic formats. Start with Book One, the Stone Veil, a book Publishers Weekly called, “Intricate, lusty, funny, moving adventure about believably vulnerable characters,” and read all four of the early Shanahans, from the beginning.

Update: At this moment, ebooks are available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, which has the trade paperback as well. Soon to be available from iBook.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Film Pairing— Wall Street, Not All Crimes Are First Degree Murder

As the current crop of folks who want to be president talk about how we have too many regulations, we must try to remember that some of the most brutal crimes are not committed at night in alley behind a cheap bar on skid row or in the shower of a sleazy motel. Some of the biggest crimes —the ones with the most victims — are committed by guys in suits on their Blackberries.

Two relatively current documentaries examine what many would like us to forget — the bullying by some members of the rich and powerful class and how their actions are destroying the middle class and leveling more punishment for the working poor.

The first film is Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Before Bernie Madoff took the crown for high-stakes, extremely damaging criminal business behavior there was frequent Bush White House visitor Kenneth Lay and his crew at Enron. Lower-level employees were encouraged by management to sink their retirement into Enron investments. Shareholders were told lies about the worth of the company, and continued to support a house of cards. And the incredibly cynical behavior of some of the company’s top executives (they even played with the energy grid, causing blackouts, in order to increase profit) was enough to put long-trusted accounting and auditing firms out of business and force congress to pass laws to protect the public from this kind of avarice. But memories are short — and so-called conservatives are climbing over each other to rescind those regulations. (Apparently those damned rules inhibit creative accounting.) The movie was released in 2005 and should be a cautionary tale about greed and energy.

A few years later, lessons unlearned, the economy goes on the skids. Enron’s debacle, which should have been a serious warning, was merely a blip when placed in a global economic perspective. U.S. banks and other financial institutions engaged in some monumental hanky panky. Inside Job (2010), which won an Academy Award for best documentary feature, sets the broader stage by a explaining the period of deregulation that began in the 1980s, filling us in on how bad (and predatory) mortgage loans were made, bundled, bought and sold. It seems quite clear that the foxes were hired to guard the henhouses.

I’d love to lay all the blame for Wall Street and K-Street corruption on the Republicans. Certainly they have had the heaviest hands in the transactions and remain among the most vehemently opposed to oversight of our financial and investment institutions. However, it is not possible to overlook the fact that many of the same Wall Street characters played and are still playing significant cabinet, czar and consultant roles in Clinton’s and Obama’s administrations as well. And, in fact, the old-boy quid pro quo goes back to Reagan and Nixon. Now, with the endorsement of the U.S. Supreme Court — the Citizens United decision specifically — high public office will continue to accept what is little more than bribes to do Wall Street’s bidding.

In any event, there is a surprising amount of drama and suspense in these documentaries. They are worth watching. It’s all right to drink Scotch while you watch these two crime movies. Scotch may be the capitalist’s drink of choice. The thing is: it’s all right to be a capitalist. It’s just not all right to be a criminal. Kind of makes you want to Occupy some place.

Caption: Inside Job, starring Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Opinion — "Self-Publishing," Still A Dirty Word

I sent an inquiry email to a small public relations firm specializing in book promotion. Judging by the client list (which included an Irish bar, a good sign I thought) on the company’s web site, the firm appeared pretty strong in the genre. I explained that I was seeking their help for books I was reissuing — books originally published by St. Martin’s Press, but now out of print. I explained there would be a modest advertising campaign to support the rollout and that I might seek support later for my other books published through traditional channels.

I received a prompt reply. They were “unable” to represent “self-published” work. They were able to represent a local bar, however. I tried to make sense of supporting an Irish bar and rejecting a series whose main character is named “Shanahan” written by a man named “Tierney.” What was the difference, I wondered. Just as the bar owner, I had a licensed business, Life Death and Fog Books. And my product was certainly more attuned to their core clients. It was, I know, the dirty word, “self-published.”

I have a great deal of sympathy for nonprofit author organizations and book reviewers that tow a discriminatory line in this regard. They face a terrible gate-keeping problem if they let the floodgates open. They haven’t the resources — staff and time — to make judgments on each, individual book and must rely on the preliminary work of others to qualify or disqualify. Most would probably be among the first to admit that this system does allow for drivel to advance and good work to flounder. But there may be no other way for the moment. The prejudice will go away, I’m convinced. But for now the world hasn’t fully adjusted to the tremendous and ongoing shakeup in the publishing world.

However, if I can be indulged a mixed metaphor, “self-publishing” remains a dirty word in the eyes of many. Even independent bookstores, businesses that should understand more than most what it means to be a mouse in a house full of cats, approach self-published books with trepidation. In addition to the shelf-space issue, there is the problem of separate accounting, not to mention dealing with author egos. Even traditional (or legacy) publishers have problems with that, which is a major reason why agents exist. I understand the wariness.

I admit I was angry when I received the email. It wasn’t so much the dismissal (writers get used to that) as the wording of it. “Unable.” Can’t be true. “Unwilling,” perhaps. But the company is a public relations firm. It is practicing its craft. “Unable” likely seemed a kinder word. It was as if representing self-publishers was beyond their physical capability or maybe against the law. How could you be mad at them? It wasn’t their fault.

The truth is, of course, they have a perfect right to establish their own business model. And I maybe I’m just parsing the word “unable” a little too closely. More than anything, besides venting, I wanted to let writers know that many doors remain closed to us if we step outside the system. No big surprise, I guess. At least this firm was kind enough to reply.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — Borderlands, Other Worldly on Valencia

This is part of a series about San Francisco’s independent bookstores and the neighborhoods they serve. For previous articles please click here.

If only we crime writers had a local San Francisco bookstore specializing in the kinds of books we write. I hope that writers of fantasy, science fiction and horror appreciate the jewel of a store that is Borderlands Books on Valencia.

The day I visited, the staff was setting up for an author event. There was a sense of enthusiasm in the room — people with good cheer, enjoying their work. I wandered through the aisles of bookshelves, gazing at the collection of new and used books. These were for serious readers of the genres. The shelves were neatly kept, the categories clearly identified. This isn’t a place deeply engaged in pop-culture — no super-sized superhero character cut-outs or Star Trek memorabilia, just books and more books. However, one of the big draws is Ripley, a sweet mild-mannered, and lovely, hairless felinean from the planet Sphynx.

I’ve written about the Mission neighborhood before. It may be the city arts and letters central. There are a number of bookstores and galleries in the area. Valencia Street, in particular, continues its dynamic growth — with shops selling mid-century furniture, stuffed antelope, vintage clothing as well as restaurants (trendy high-end to deliciously low-end) springing up near its start at Market Street and stretching almost all the way to Cesar Chavez. This is the neighborhood of around the block lines waiting for Bi-Rite ice cream and mile-high meringue on Banana pie. This is a great walk or bike ride that includes a couple of alleys with spectacular murals.

While its doubtful you could call Borderlands Books trendy (they sell books on paper, after all), they are doing what great independent bookstores are supposed to do. They have a staff that knows the subject matter. They hold many author and other book-related events and participate in a thriving, creative community. They also make you feel welcome.

Maybe they should add a mystery annex.

866 Valencia Street, (415) 824-8203,

Monday, October 24, 2011

Opinion and (Subliminal) Promotion — Noir and Me Revisited: Urban Noir, Rural Noir, '50s Noir, Pre-School Noir, Glee Club Noir

“Good God Man!” exclaimed the colonel as he nearly stumbled over the corpse. He handed his glass of sherry to the butler and straightened his blazer. “Have you no shame?” The man on the floor with the knife in his back didn’t answer.


She looked out of her swollen, soulless, drunken eyes. “You don’t even know you’re a bottom-feeder, do you, pal? You knew you were about to take a trip, but you didn’t know where.” She coughed. The empty hypodermic slipped from the bruised, blue and yellow flesh of her arm and her eyes began to roll back. “Well, sucker, you’re five minutes from the tropic of Hell. Hope you brought your shorts.”

That was fun. I don’t know if it was helpful, let alone publishable, but I wanted to make a point. The extremes may be clear, but within the genre many of the lines are fuzzy. Cozy, soft-boiled, suspense, thrillers, hard-boiled, noir are genres or subgenres or maybe sub-subgenres. Noir is a subgenre of crime novels — at least that’s my understanding. But then there are books described as urban noir, rural noir, ‘50’s noir, neo noir. Can you say “neo noir” five times really fast? Are these sub-subgenres? The problem for me is that I’m not really sure what I write. (Don’t take advantage of that straight line in the comment section. Too easy.)

None of my books are cozies. That much is clear. And because any sense of doom is dealt with before the last page, I’m not writing noir. With the exception of the standalone Good to the Last Kiss, there’s not a whole lot of nihilism going on in anything I write. Well maybe a little. In the end though, I’d even have trouble convincing anyone that the Shanahan mysteries are hardboiled. Shanahan is no Mickey Spillane or Jack Reacher. He can’t take out 15 guys in a bar all by himself. And he doesn’t relish killing people, even people he dislikes. He likes to solve cases. He’s 70. He’s smart and determined. But he’s not likely to scare a room full of ex-cons.

“Wry,” the critics often say of the Shanahan books. He is often described as “curmudgeonly.” The stories aren’t soft-boiled either. Nor are they sunny-side up. More like over not too easy. So, if Agatha Christie’s books are poached eggs and, say Mickey Spillane’s are ready for the Easter basket, maybe my Shanahan novels are “scrambled with onions and mushrooms.” Add a little basil and you have my San Francisco series, Death in Pacific Heights and Death in North Beach. Because they take place in Northern California, we’ll add some wine as well and call them Pinot Noir.

But the news of the day is that the first four in the Shanahan series will be re-released in trade paperback and for the very first time in e-book. You should see the announcement here — along with new covers — in a couple of weeks.

Caption: Bullet Beach is the tenth and most recent Deets Shanahan mystery and is now available in hardback, trade paperback and e-book.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Film Pairing — Atlantic City and Key Largo, Dangerous Destinations

Last week I splurged on films, providing the sure-to-offend “top best” crime movies and TV lists. Both Atlantic City and Key Largo were honorable mentions, so I’ll trot them out again as a potential double feature for some rainy Friday night. What we have in this pairing are portraits of old gangsters. Lou Pascal, in Atlantic City is an aging gangster who remembers being a big-time gangster and Johnny Rocco, in Key Largo who thinks he still is. Both are wrong. An accompanying similarity is the fact that both movies use their geographical locations as key characters in the drama. One more thing they have in common — both are also based on plays by lauded American playwrights.

Atlantic City, the old Atlantic City that is, is withering away, with, as it turns out, symbolic appropriateness. Louis Malle’s sensitive and somewhat quirky film released in 1980 was based on a script by the highly regarded American playwright, John Guare. Burt Lancaster’s Lou Pascal was fading as fast as the old neighborhoods he inhabits, but he is given a chance to be the person he always thought he was. It is a poignant portrayal in a film that received Academy Award nominations in the top five categories — winning none. Viewers will get a chance to see the pre-Trump and legendary East Coast city that no longer exists as well as seeing an unusual and unusually good film that also stars Susan Sarandon.

For the second feature — how could you go wrong with tough guys Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart? Key Largo (1948) was the fifth time they performed together and apparently their star status (relative to each other) in film advertisements was settled by Bogart’s name being to the left on posters and Robinson’s occupying a higher position in the middle. In the film, Johnny Rocco and his equally nasty crew take over a small hotel in Florida’s Key Largo, where they are threatened by a rival gangster, the police, one of the hostages and a hurricane. Directed by John Huston and based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, the cast includes Edward G. Robinson (as Johnny Rocco), Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor. Trevor, called the Queen of Noir (says Wikipedia) was nominated three times for an Academy Award and won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Rocco’s alcoholic and abused girlfriend.

The two fading gangsters couldn’t be more different. But we need some sort of tough-guy drink to accompany the double feature. Another question to consider: What should you drink during a hurricane? Rum may not be appropriate for New Jersey, but remember, you’ll be heading for the sultry Keys.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Opinion — Counter-Promotion, Noir and Me, or Is It Noir and I?

Most of my books have a slight uptick at the end. It’s as if I mean to say is that despite all the murder and mayhem, “all is not lost.” Generally speaking the bad guys pay. The main characters, including many supporting players, survive for another book. On the other hand, the stories have occasional bursts of violence and the general flow of the narrative may have a dark overlay. I don’t decide to write this way. It’s just the way it comes out.

If I’ve ever written a book that could be considered noir, it would be the most recent, Good to the Last Kiss. It belongs to neither of my ongoing series’. In Good to the Last Kiss, the world isn’t a nice place. The characters are having a terrible time convincing themselves there is a reason to go on. There is an end to the story. Everything is wrapped up. The reader knows who did what to whom. But there is a sense that the only thing that has changed is that a few more ounces of hope have been drained from their souls.

That ought to get you to go right out and buy it, right?

That’s the thing, isn’t it? Especially in mysteries, from noir to cozy, there are expectations. Some readers not only want things wrapped up but given some assurance that the world is all right again. A brave and honest cop, a clever private detective or a heroic vigilante eliminates evil. In best of noir, as I understand it (I might be oversimplifying the definition a bit), we are reassured everything is hopeless, perhaps the characters are punished for having hope in the first place, and when fate deals its final blow, we can just go on about our business, shaking our head at the futility of it all. That’s not quite what happens in Good to the Last Kiss, either.

As is the case with all my books, I ask a few people to read the manuscript before my final edit. These are friends who have read many of the near-to-last drafts and pretty much know what to expect. They generally like the books, some more than others. And generally they know what to expect. Comments may range from “she wouldn’t wear that perfume” or “too many lunches” (I have a tendency to write about what I know) or possibly so and so “should be a little tougher” or “you don’t walk ‘down’ that street, you walk ‘up’.” But Good to the Last Kiss was different. This time I got an intense reaction. A few hated the book. Some were shocked or even embarrassed by it. Still others thought it the best book I’ve written. What came out is an ending that probably doesn’t meet any of the usual expectations — pleasing neither one camp nor the other.

I think that’s good. But even if it isn’t, it is what came out and what felt real to me.

San Francisco Bookstore — KAYO, Pulp Fiction, Pulp Non-Fiction

Walk through the doors, the owners say and you will have a “glimpse of the lurid past of dime store novels, sleazy 1960s exploitation and 1970s pop culture.” It’s true. This small store in downtown San Francisco specializes in vintage mysteries, science fiction, westerns and erotica.

Not inappropriately, the KAYO Bookstore is located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin — an area often thought of as sleazy — drugs, prostitutes, massage parlors and strip joints. All of that is in the midst of transformation. The store is located at the base of Nob Hill. The streets here are gaining a new, more trendy status with real estate agents suggesting a new name, The Tendernob.

New name or not, KAYO visitors are not far from emerging galleries and only a few blocks from downtown shopping or from the Civic Center. There are an increasing number of interesting restaurants and bars populating the area. While the down and out character is disappearing, there is enough grittiness left to complement the great pulp novels, posters and vintage magazines in the store — a kind of pulp museum.

814 Post Street, (415) 749-0554,

Incidentally, for those interested in great pulp covers — covers for the kind of books found at KAYO, check out Killer Covers.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Opinion — The Amazon Factor, E-Book & Self Publishing Revisited

Having my own publishing company, Life Death and Fog Books, came about because of a confluence of needs and events. Ebook technology, in particular, provided both a threat to and an opportunity for many of us who have been writing for a while. The threats were that we could no longer rest on our knowledge of publishing as only a print medium because that was no longer true, and we could not depend upon others to carry us along into the new world. The opportunity we had was to engage the medium as best we could.

So, it is a thrilling, but uneasy time. Many of the best-selling crime writers have the luxury of simply staying with what some are now calling “legacy” publishers — Houghton Mifflin, Random House, etc. They are moving, some might say at glacial speed into the new publishing mediums, but bring with them the traditional attitudes. Other writers are opting to publish their own work. Some are mixing and matching. Some writers are publishing their own but forming collectives or working with others in various ways to tackle the difficult task of marketing. There is something else now that is happening — and it is open to immense speculation.

Amazon, a giant buster when it came to the bookstore business and a boon to many of us who want to publish our own books as well as work with traditional publishers, has again “frightened the horses.” The company, an online rival for every business imaginable, has formed its own publishing subsidiaries. One of them is Thomas Mercer, an Amazon imprint that will publish mysteries and thrillers in all formats. They will sign the writers, allow them a great voice in the creation of the book, give them higher royalties and will promote them with all the resources of Amazon has at hand. This is good. Probably.

However, it may not all be good. What this reminds me of is Safeway or Whole Foods, or Costco. They buy and brand products, sell them for less and soon Safeway Select or Whole Foods 365 or Costco’s Kirkland begins to appear prominently on these mass merchandiser shelves with the predictable impact of nudging others off. Several writers have already signed up, even some who have previously made a big deal about standing up to the traditional publishers, promising to publish their own books. And I have to admit that at this point in my life, given the opportunity, I might sign on as well. I’m not sitting in moral judgment just in practical observation. However, practically speaking, this new twist in the game might not be great news for those of us who are trying to get on or stay the shelf while the horses are snorting and raring.

Let me end with a small bit of blatant promotion and a suggestion for further reading on the subject.

Life Death and Fog Books published Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin a few months ago. It is available with irony here. In November, the first four books in the “Deets” Shanahan series, published to great reviews in the early ‘90s, will be released in trade paperback and in various e-book formats.

If you want to understand more about the Amazon factor, there is a great, honest explanation and discussion between self-publisher extraordinaire Joe Konrath and new Thomas Mercer author Barry Eisler here (Scroll down to interview with Joe Konrath). The New York Times has today's story here.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Opinion — My Own Version of Nine, Nine, Nine

A couple of weeks ago, at Murderati, writer David Corbett revisited a scholarly panel discussion held at the recent St. Louis Bouchercon. The topic was best crime films of all time. At the Tipping My Fedora blog, there are the results of a huge undertaking: A list of the “Top 101 Film and TV Mysteries.” Both are well worth reading. As you might expect there isn’t 100 percent agreement. I’ve been playing with various “top” lists over the years and thought I’d throw my lists into the mix.

With apologies to Herman Cain, I’ve come up with three lists of nine. But first, some caveats. My list is biased. It is based on my relatively late in-life-arrival on the crime fiction scene, a general lack of awareness of foreign crime films, and an inexplicable disinterest in movies made before 1940. The other point to be made is that this is a list of what I think are the “best” crime movies, not necessarily a list of “my favorite” films. And while best and favorite are still only opinions, I believe there is a difference. If it were a list of my favorites, the list would look a little different. For me “best” means that they are something beyond just damned good. They break new ground or exemplify a complete and perhaps overwhelming mastery of the form they chose. I love the American-made Alfred Hitchcock movies, for example, but, in my opinion, many of the ones I really like, are seriously flawed, which brings me to this: I know making lists like these is no way to make friends. Here they are, anyway.

Opinion — Nine, Nine, Nine Part One: Top Nine Crime Films

1.Blade Runner — Is it possible for a robot to have a soul? Director Ridley Scott builds a fantastic marriage of noir and science fiction. Just as L.A. Confidential recreates the recent past, Blade Runner creates a believable near future. (Based on a book by Philip K. Dick)

2.No Country for Old Men — Heads or Tails, die now or later. It makes no difference — what you do, evil stalks you and yours. The typical Coen Brothers dark humor rides a desolately thin line as the movie tells us there is no escaping evil or the collateral damage it brings. (Based on a book by Cormac McCarthy).

3. Gosford Park — This is an Agatha Christie on steroids, though, of course it was not based on an Agatha Christie story. Before he created television’s “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes created Gosford Park, a kind of murder-in-the-parlor mystery that tops the sub-genre. Robert Altman directs a sterling cast.

4. Fargo — The Coen Brothers do it again and again. They can make you believe in the absurd. Unlike No Country, Fargo’s dark humor is laugh out-loud. The people are so real and yet what they do is so insane. That’s why we laugh. It’s so true.

5. The Godfather: This is the standard for “mafia” movies. However, it is much more than that. Francis Ford Coppola sets up the relativity and the complexity of right and wrong in a powerful, richly told tale. (Based on a book by Mario Puzo)

6. The Maltese Falcon —What can I say? As a mystery writer, this just might be as good as it gets. Unlike the uneven screenplays based on Raymond Chandler’s classics (with the possible exception of the Bogart version of The Big Sleep) this Hammett private eye tale is perfectly rendered. (Based on a book by Dashiell Hammett)

7. The Talented Mr. Ripley (also Purple Noon) The first is the American version, starring Matt Damon; and the second is the same film done earlier by the French with Alain Delon. Both are perfect portraits of a charming, ingenious sociopath. The films are intricate, fun, and stylish. Cynicism at its best. Timeless. Ripley’s Game, with John Malkovich as Ripley, is also a fine crime film. (Based on books by Patricia Highsmith)

8. L.A. Confidential — You can choose to watch a movie made in the 1950s. Or you can watch a 1950s film from the perspective of the late 1990s. Oddly, the rear-view mirror approach gives us a rich cinematography not available in the fifties. (Based on a book by James Ellroy).

9. ChinatownRoman Polanski may be one of the most underrated directors. However, this film shows up on nearly everyone’s list. There’s no question about its qualifications. It’s Los Angeles a couple of decades after L.A. Confidential. A lesser-known Polanski film, Frantic, is also well-worth watching.

Opinion — Nine, Nine, Nine Part Two: Top Nine Crime Film Honorable Mentions

This second group of Best Crime films allows me not only to extend the list, but to give me the chance to push some favorites.

1. Atlantic City — Burt Lancaster proves he was more than a big star — he is a fine actor. This is an unlikely, unpredictable some would say “quirky” film about a gangster sent out to pasture. Directed by Louis Malle,

2. Key Largo — Edward G. Robinson steals the movie from Bogart and Bacall, though it wasn’t fun seeing the old gangster in a bathtub. Black and white never looked better. Directed by John Huston.

3. Laura — Gene Tierney (no relation, unfortunately) may have been the draw, but Clifton Webb makes a really good film extraordinary. Vincent Price also appears. Directed by Otto Preminger.

4. Red Rock West — Of all the definitions of noir — and I admit a bit of confusion — this one seems to hit all the marks. One bad, desperate, but seemingly harmless decision, leads to trouble, followed by more trouble. Directed by John Dahl.

5. Blood and Wine — It’s worth watching if for no other reason than to see Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson compete for the nastiest character in an entertainingly nasty film. Directed by Bob Rafelson

6. The Good Thief — A sometimes dark, sometimes hilarious and often sexy caper movie. No one could have played the thief better than Nick Nolte. Directed by Neil Jordan.

7. The Thin Man — The best light-hearted mystery movie (or series of movies) ever made. It is often discounted because it has more humor than suspense. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.

8. Twilight — In a sense, this is a small, but well-constructed film that may be the best P.I. film in decades. Add to this the performances of Paul Newman, James Garner, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon, and you have a jewel. Directed by Robert Benton.

9. To Catch a Thief — Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are arresting, fascinating. But none, in my opinion, combine acting, story and setting in as polished a way as To Catch A Thief.

Opinion — Nine,Nine, Nine, Part Three: Top Nine Television Crime Dramas/Series

There were some great network television crime series. Many of them, like Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond, were must-sees when they came out. I was hooked. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I tried to get the barber to cut my hair like Craig Stevens. Unfortunately, most of these old shows don’t seem to stand the test of time. Even so, as it turns out most of my list is comprised of more recent dramas mostly from network TV or PBS. I may have overlooked some worthy cable crime dramas. Your comments, as always, are welcomed.

1. The Wire — Nothing touches this. It is miles ahead of the rest of the pack, of everything, even films. Tough, gritty, real. A mix of crime and politics that made me feel like I was eavesdropping on the real thing.

2. Prime Suspect (English Version)A pioneer in realistic police dramas with vulnerable characters in believable relationships. It doesn’t hurt to have Helen Mirren as the central character, who must fight old boy police as well as criminals.

3. Homicide, Life on the Street — I see this as a predecessor to “The Wire.” Not being a cop, I couldn’t know for sure; but this appeared to be authentic — lives on the edge of surreality, the kind of day-to-day that the police must face. The effective use of dark humor sets it above most TV dramas.

4. DaVinci Inquest — This is “The Wire” in realistic, but less intense situations. In “The Wire” we spend most of our time in the poorest and most violent neighborhoods. In “DaVinci,” we are exposed to a broader range of crime and class with that same sense that we are not viewing a program, but are somehow privy to the unvarnished ins and outs of crime and politics.

5. NYPD Blue — Fine acting, fine stories. While I have little other than good to say for a series that showed cops as screwed up as the rest of us, I tired of a steady diet of anger and sadness. I believed Andy Sipowicz, but he and the others could have used even the slightest sense of humor. As nurses, firefighters and cops will attest, there are at least flashes of comedy, dark as it might be, in the worst of human situations. “NYPD” didn’t quite get that.

6. Sherlock Holmes (the Benedict Cumberbatch series) All right, all right, it’s too early to tell. Three episodes. That’s not enough. But the show was so bright, so fresh and so much fun, it’s already earned its place on my list no matter what they do next.

7. The Rockford Files — Perhaps I’ve let a little sentiment sneak into my evaluation. What I can say is that it holds up very well, the best of the vintage TV private eyes. I’m in the midst of watching them all again. As of this writing I am at episode 83 and I’m enjoying it. What I liked about James Garner’s “Maverick” is what I like about his Rockford. Here’s a man who is not afraid to run away and fight another day. (But if I were Rockford, Angel would be dead.) Even at its weakest moments, “The Rockford Files” easily remains the best fictional private eye series ever on American television.

8. The original Law and Order (first few seasons)For a while there, I thought there would be a spin-off showing the drama surrounding the lives of the parking meter police. But when the original came on some years ago, it was a fresh idea — from police investigation to the courtroom — and the stories and acting were top notch.

9. The Good Wife — Another surprise. Just when I was about to give up on network TV, “The Good Wife” comes up with fascinating characters, people who deal with crime, law, political corruption, private detection, and flawed moral fiber. A fine mix.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

San Francisco Bookstores — "M" Is For Mystery, San Mateo

The purpose of this series is to support San Francisco bookstores and neighborhoods. This is a week for exceptions, it seems (Friday’s Film Pairing will be lists of best crime films and TV Shows rather than a suggestion for a double feature). Less than a year ago, the San Francisco Mystery Book Store, one of the oldest shops in the country specializing in mysteries, closed its doors, leaving a city used as a setting for hundreds if not thousands of crime films and books, without a single bookstore specializing in crime fiction. So, we’re asking the charming city of San Mateo to share “M” is For Mystery with its neighbor to the North. This is also the beginning of a series stories about San Francisco bookstores that target special interests — you know what I mean.

“M” is For Mystery is a familiar destination for addicted crime fiction readers throughout Bay Area. It has a huge inventory of popular new and used books — including a broad selection of British mysteries and imported paperbacks. The downtown San Mateo store is also a regular stop for best selling authors. Even if you miss one of the many readings and book signing events, you’ll be able to find autographed copies and signed first editions from highly respected authors. You can even order a signed copy before the book is released. A chance glance at the bookstore’s web site, shows you can pre-purchase signed copies of not-yet-released books by such authors as Lawrence Block, Rita Mae Brown, Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Val McDermid and George Pelecanos.

Whether you are a serious collector or enthusiastic fan of mysteries, this is a must stop. You are likely to find things you didn’t know existed. Not to diminish the charm of the bookstore, but a visit to San Mateo is worthwhile all on its own, especially along Third and Fourth Avenues — great restaurants, antique shops and other retail. However, there is clearly another major destination — Draeger’s Supermarket, one most incredible food stores in the Bay Area. Nero Wolfe would approve. If you are both an avid mystery reader and a foodie, an afternoon or evening in San Mateo could be heaven.

86 East Third Avenue, San Mateo, (650) 401-8077,

Monday, October 10, 2011

Opinion — E-Book Publishing, Small is Beautifull

There always seems to be a dark side to technical advances. Nuclear fission, pretty fantastic. Atom bomb, not so good. With the skyrocketing success of e-books we’re witnessing the downfall of big brick and mortar bookstores. Initially the technology also appears to be a threat to smaller independent and specialized bookshops and is causing a confused scrambling among those throughout the publishing business. Traditional publishing is still trying to find a little topsy in the midst of tumultuous turvy.

The absolute truth is that none of us really knows exactly how all of this will turn out and what it will mean to any of us — writers, readers, distributors or publishers. But many of us are encouraged in one area — ebooks not only allow writers to publish their own out-print books, but package their work in different ways and, in fact, manifest work that quite likely wouldn’t be welcomed by publishers forced to tailor products for mainstream markets. Bookstores too. It’s difficult to imagine any bookstore owner looking forward to selling short stories, one at a time— except maybe City Lights in San Francisco.

Recently, I published a novella-length prequel to my San Francisco series, Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin. This is a book most publishers would not even consider because of its length. The agent I had at the time I submitted the manuscript simply responded: “What am I supposed to do with this?” He had already found it worthwhile in screenplay form. But as a book? It was clear that 40,000 words fell short of the bar and therefore it wouldn’t make the rounds of Manhattan’s coterie of acquisition editors. However, because ebook technology exists and is (relatively*) easily accessible, writers are able to publish their writing in the manner and form they prefer. Short-story writers can publish their work, one story at a time, if they want. And they do. And novella writers can gamble that the public might find this length appealing, especially if it is priced accordingly. Putting it out in paper might be cost prohibitive for the writer as well. But ebooks? We’re seeing a bunch of 99-cent “books,” these days.

In August Michael Z. Lewin wrote a small piece for this blog’s Old Gold section about how he planned to use the new medium “I intend,” he said, “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.”

The “Samsons” referred to Lewin’s private detective series featuring Albert Samson. One book in the series, Eye Opener, set in Indianapolis, has been made available electronically and he has now made good on his promise to release a new book on his own, directly and electronically. Family Trio is a small book, three stories really, about the Lunghi family, who operate a private detective agency in Bath, England. And, as a side note, just as Lewin was a pioneer in the creation of regional American private detectives, he might be able to claim another first. Carol Harper, of Deadly Pleasures, said of the Lunghi stories, “I can think of no other series, anywhere, which features a family which owns and works from a private detection firm…. Highly recommended”

The beauty of Family Trio for this posting, though, is that Lewin uses the ebook format as a chance to offer readers a collection of short stories not just as part of his highly regarded series, but also as standalone tales. These are complete reads, just the right length when you’re not in the mood to commit to a 500-page blockbuster, perfect for a short flight, an afternoon at the beach or at bedtime when you don’t want to stay up all night to get closure. The fact that this brevity can be and often is proportionally priced as well — a mere $1.25 in this case — is another benefit that ebooks can offer the reader.

It’s important to note that many of us who are expanding our offerings in various ways aren’t abandoning conventional publishing. Family Way, Lewin’s third Lunghi novel in a series Booklist called “…mordantly funny, beguiling in the extreme” will be published by Five Star and released in December. It’s good to know that there will be more than one way to read a Lunghi mystery. Of course, there are many readers waiting for the next Albert Samson novel as well.

There are several other writers doing this, offering great writing in various lengths and various formats. If nothing else, the ebook revolution has been a boon to the reader and writer, both of whom want choices.

For other ebook choices, you might want to visit Top Suspense Group, a collective of 12 highly respected crime writers offering dozens of e-book titles.

*The word “relatively” is important. Ebook publishing is not as simple as some have suggested.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Film Pairing — Murder & Politics, Not So Strange Bedfellows

Mixing politics and murder often makes for a great story. There are real life dramas surrounding the assassination of the Kennedys. Certainly the New Orleans-connected killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby could be the basis for a fascinating film if we every figured out what went on. And fiction pales against the stories of the killing of Martin Luther King, the disappearances of James Hoffa and Judge Crater as well as the attempt on George Wallace’s and Ronald Reagan’s lives.

But there are a number of films that deal with the mix of murder and politics. And given that we are subjected to politics, politics, politics all day long, here are two movies — studies in corruption — that can accompany today’s news.

The first is City Hall (1996). It is based on an original screenplay, and is set in contemporary New York. John Cusack, Danny Aiello and Bridget Fonda join Al Pacino. (Also, there is a brilliant appearance by Martin Landau.)

Some of the mystery blogs are listing the all-time great over-actors. Pacino is listed in the top ten. Admittedly, he chews a bit of the scenery in this one as well; but I don’t know who else could have played the savvy and charismatic mayor of New York as convincingly — and the ability to be both a saint and Satan is essential to the plot. Whether you figure it all out or not before the film let’s you in on it — and you might — it’s worth seeing if for no other reason than to be reminded how idealism is smashed in a sacrifice to the reality, perhaps necessity, of compromise. Someone once said that to fall in love with a politician is to have your heart broken.

LA Confidential (1997) has it all. It is based on James Ellroy’s book and has one of the best casts money can buy. Instead of 1990s New York, we visit 1950s L.A. The cast includes Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Bassinger, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell and David Stratham — all dealing with scandal, sleaze, crime and corruption. Much of the film’s action hovers around the needs of a magazine called Hush, Hush. I remember when I was twelve or thirteen. With some degree of embarrassment, I would go to the magazine section of the drug store and open up the pages of a sleazy scandal sheet called Confidential to see what lurid activities Hollywood stars were engaged in. Afterward, I’d feel I’d looked into a world I wasn’t supposed to see. I remember feeling a mix of excitement and disgust. That is pretty much what L.A. Confidential, nominated for nine Academy Awards, is about. It is also very much about L.A. In that sense, there might be a case for pairing Confidential with Chinatown. Not a bad idea, either, but it might be too much L.A. for one evening.

It’s whiskey on the rocks for the entire evening. No soda.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Opinion —Ten Little Republicans

Sarah Palin Off the List — and then there were nine. The remake of Agatha Christie's classic with a contemporary cast.

San Francisco Bookstores — Two Shops Straight Out of Central Casting

This is the last in a series of short articles on independently owned San Francisco general interest bookstores. Soon, this space will host a series on the many special interest bookstores in the city.

When one goes into most used bookstores, there is a set of expectations. One is that staff tends to leave customers to their own devices. Two is that whether or not the store is very well organized or has a more casual approach to the idea of book categories, the place is not lit like a science lab. Signage, if it exists, is pretty much scrawled by hand. And no one really cares how long you stay. It’s the way it ought to be. It’s a place to escape from the world at large and enter into your own private fantasy — food, mysteries, romances, history, etc. If you were going to shoot a scene from a movie that took place in a used bookstore, you could easily use the Russian Hill Bookstore or Aardvark Books.

There are three commercial patches along the commercial stretch of Polk Street. The first, just up from the Civic Center, has been trying to change its image to Polk Village. But many of us remember it as Polk Gulch or Polk Strasse. This used to be a tough, wild area of the city. In the 70s and 80s, gay culture dominated and the brand practiced here was often outlandish, unlike the staid Marlboro country of Castro of this era. This, the south end of Polk, is no longer all that wild, but is has resisted attempts at total gentrification. The north end of Polk, on the other hand, is very gentrified. Restaurants and wine shops cater to more expensive tastes. Between these two Polk Streets is a stretch that is, in fact, very much in between. This neighborhood has good, but less expensive restaurants, interesting, but more practical shops and a well established used bookstore that has not only weathered changing retail habits, but has done so without changing itself. The Russian Hill Bookstore not only has a large and ordered selection of used books, but also offers a huge section devoted to greeting cards.

2234 Polk Street, (415) 929-0997,

I am among those who think that used bookstores should have a resident dog or cat. Most stores selling old books have that slightly frumpy feel. In this case comfort trumps style. And this is a good thing. Looking for a good book should be a warm and comfortable experience. Aardvark Books is just that with Owen the Cat, hanging around to make you feel at home. The medium-sized store is just off Market Street on Church — officially in the Castro, but equally close to both the Mission and Lower Haight. It is also incredibly accessible to all forms of above- and below-ground public transportation. The corner of Church and Market also hosts a variety of interesting restaurants and coffee shops, not to mention the gargantuan Safeway.

227 Church Street, (415) 552-6733

Monday, October 3, 2011

Opinion — Feeding the Franchise: Co-Authors, Pen Names and Ghost Writers

We have a famous thriller writer who is putting out what — five or six novels a year with the help of a team of co-authors. We have famous characters — James Bond and Mike Hammer — who, like immortal energizer bunnies, just keep popping up though their original creators are dead. And Spencer is about to join the club. We’ve got writers who have a literary reputation to uphold so they change their names in order to write genre fiction. Gore Vidal did it as Edgar Box. The lauded John Banville is doing it as Benjamin Black. We have some writers who write so much and so often they have to have a couple of names so we don’t tire of them or because one series is so vastly different from the others that to use the same name — the real name — would confuse the public — or perhaps the publishers. Then we have someone who is famous as hell, but can’t write. But they figure if they can attach their names to perfumes and clothing lines that they had nothing to do with, why not put their high Q-rated names on the covers of books they didn’t write?

Then there’s Castle. Heat Wave, the book on the store shelves, is written by a fictional character on TV. Not a ghostwriter, but a fictional character. Even on Amazon, the writer is described as Richard Castle and there is a picture of the actor who plays Richard Castle posing as Richard Castle, when he obviously isn’t Richard Castle even if there were a Richard Castle. The book is published by Hyperion (a publishing house owned by Disney). The TV show appears on ABC (owned by Disney). Both the book and the TV show take place in New York City (possibly owned by Disney). The saving grace here is that there is a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor in the show as well as in the pretend-deceitful promotion of the book. Everyone is laughing and some are laughing all the way to the bank. Ah, the conceit of it all! But talk about branding, franchises and cross promotion! This has to be some new high or low.

Franchises, celebrity, and brand names — that’s the name of the game. If Sarah Palin wanted to write a mystery — say How’s that Bullet Working for Ya? — someone would write it for her and it would be published. And it’s doubtful a ghost writer would get any credit. The stamp of fame on unrelated products isn’t entirely new, I confess. Some have said that Elliot Roosevelt, son of Franklin Delano was the most prolific dead author who ever lived or died or something. Books kept coming out, long after his demise. Another presidential offspring, Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry, did the same, another Truman following another Roosevelt. The question is, did any of his or her semi-famous fingers ever touch a typewriter key? Not only are there questions whether Roosevelt and Truman actually wrote their books — they might have — but they continued writing them long after they shuffled off their mortal coils.

Popular TV celebrity Steve Allen was a gifted writer, but his ghostwritten mystery series (Die Laughing and Talk Show Murders among them), featured himself and his wife Jayne Meadows as protagonists in a series of books gladly autographed at bookstores. Did he accept congratulations without disclosing the actual author? I don’t know. Did Gypsy Rose Lee write the G-String Murders? Doesn’t seem so. But no one exposed her. Pun intended.

What about Spenser, Bond and Hammer and their hyperactive afterlives? Are there any ethical guidelines being trammeled? What do readers have a right to know or expect, if anything? Personally, I would shy away from a James Bond written by anyone but Fleming; but there is no wrong doing here. If the real author’s name is on the book cover or there is some other form of genuine, upfront disclosure, then what’s the problem? James Patterson has been open about the factory nature of his book writing and provides at least “co-author” credit on the cover of his co-created books, which is more than Andy Warhol and Michelangelo* did. To me it’s a bit like vegetarian hamburger. Nothing wrong with tofu. Yet, there has been no deception. And there are indications that the new Bonds and Hammers are really good and will make millions of readers happy by keeping the spirit and beloved characters alive. It is also clear, in the case of Spillane, that the writer who extended Mike Hammer beyond his creator’s grave had a collaborative relationship with Spillane and may well be doing it with the tough guy’s blessing.

Further, if famous “literary” novelists use a nom de plume for their mystery books, good for them. If a professional writer uses more than one name, why not? They, like the literary novelists operating on the down low, are showing a willingness to re-enter the marketplace as an unknown and compete with the others on a level playing field. If a writer can hit the bestseller lists using two different names, that’s quite an accomplishment — though often a subtle, well-timed leak can help with the promotion.

The only deception or misdirection that I really can’t abide are the celebrities who put their names on something they had nothing to do with and that has nothing to do with the fame they’ve achieved. In a way, it’s a form of bullying, or thievery — at least fraud. But then, there are some interesting possibilities. How about a dark and bloody murder novel by Justin Bieber, secretly written by Ken Bruen or George Pelecanos? That would cross some line, wouldn’t it?

*How’s that for name-dropping — Michelangelo in bold face?