Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Observations — Indianapolis, The Formal Side

The State Capitol

The World War Memorial (As seen from University Park)

Detail of the New Addition of the Central Library

A View of a Section of the Downtown Canal

Monday, May 28, 2012

Observations — In Indy, Not Naptown.

An Italian Poster for "Winning"
Yesterday, the world focused on the city of Indianapolis for the second time this year.  The Superbowl was played there a few months ago.  And on Sunday, there was the running of the Indianapolis 500, the “granddaddy” of auto racing, as it was once called.  It is also called the “Greatest Spectacle of Racing,” drawing as many as 400,000 spectators, roughly 10 times that of the Superbowl.

It is a big event, an international event.  Racing enthusiast Paul Newman once made a movie about the race, called Winning.  And the race itself attracts not only international racing champions but also celebrities from around the world.  When I lived in the “Circle City,” I attended with my father, who considered it a challenge to sneak into the track on race day. An otherwise law-abiding and honorable man he did so in his early days when he was impoverished.  Despite the fact that he could afford it later and against increasing odds of getting caught through better security, my father refused to give up the tradition.  We would sneak in and make our way to the infield where amidst the circus-like environment (this area inside the track was also called “the snake pit) we weren’t likely to be tracked down.

In honor of the celebration of this Midwestern City, I’d like to call your attention to my hometown.  Long ago Booth Tarkington wrote his famous book, The Magnificent Ambersons (later a movie), which focused on the wealthy class that lived in an area known as Woodruff Place. That area of the city, though no longer the home of the city’s current upper crust, still exists — wide streets with center strips of grass and sculptured fountains. The homes, many of them subdivided for inexpensive apartments years ago suggest an earlier grandeur. And, in fact, many are being restored.  Kurt Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis.  His family ran a chain of hardware stores.  Wes Montgomery, considered one of the greatest jazz guitarists that ever lived, anchored Indiana Avenue, the city’s premiere black neighborhood. Some disreputable business folks tore down chunk of this historic district. However, there are bits and pieces left near downtown, including the Madame Walker Theater.  Born in 1867, Madam C. J. Walker was one of the country’s first successful black businesswomen.  She started a cosmetics company in Indianapolis and went on to develop a line of popular beauty products. She later became a philanthropist, using her wealth to advance the NAACP and the YMCA.

Comedian David Letterman as well as actors James Dean and Clifton Webb were also born in what used to be the nation’s largest inland city as was John Dillinger and Dan Quayle.

The First of the Samson Novels
Because this is a crime fiction blog, it’s important we mention a few mystery writers who continue to use Indianapolis as a setting.  The first is Michael Z. Lewin.  Lewin may have invented the regional private eye series with his creation of Indianapolis-based Albert Samson in 1971.  The fictional Samson lived in Fountain Square, another fascinating city neighborhood.  Until that time, private eyes only walked the streets of metropolises like New York, L.A. and San Francisco. The most recent to use of Indianapolis as a backdrop is screenwriter David Levien, who has had a couple of best sellers with his character Frank Behr.  As for me, why have a blog if I can’t engage in a bit of self-promotion.  The 10 novels I’ve written about a P.I. named “Deets” Shanahan take place in Indianapolis. And I’ve just finished a novella with Shanahan at the fore. (More on that later.)

I was back in Indianapolis from time to time — when I can.  I was fortunate enough to get back for the 15th Annual Magna Cum Murder Conference, sponsored by Ball State University in nearby Muncie. (S.J. Rozan is the guest of honor this coming October). It is a wonderful and intimate conference. And in 2009, I was a panelist at Bouchercon, the Mystery Writers of America’s major mystery conference (3,000 or so writers and fans), held that year in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Public Library, Central Branch
What I discovered when I went back was a city that has continued to take its once neglected downtown very seriously.  Instead of a parade of chain restaurants, which used to be the situation, there were a number of fine new eateries, new hotels and all sorts of interesting nightlife.  The Massachusetts Avenue area continues to add a distinctive and exciting flavor to the city once called “Naptown.” The city also hosts a fine zoo, an increasingly bustling and beautiful area area along the canal, museums, and, my all-time favorite — the Indianapolis Public Library.  The central branch was my resource, inspiration and hideaway during my young adult years. Their recent expansion shows how modern and traditional could blend in a splendid way.

Thanks for reading my less than poetic ode.  It just seemed appropriate to honor my hometown on its grandest day of the year and where my first published book took place. By the way, it used to be considered rude to call Indianapolis, “Indy.”  I think those days have passed. It’s a tribute to its reemergence as a destination.  However, of my current town, San Francisco, it’s still not all right to call it “Frisco.”

Friday, May 25, 2012

Film Pairings — Casino Jack, Crimes Against The Country

With the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, lobbyists have never been more powerful and the power of money to corrupt democracy more felt.  So, in some ways, the corruption that surrounded this one super lobbyist Jack Abramhoff less than a decade ago may seem quaint. 

Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramhoff
Essentially Abramoff put the screws to various tribes of Native Americans who were trying to build and operate casinos on their own land.  His purpose was to enrich himself by paying off legislators to pass or kill laws that respectively benefitted or hurt his clients.  Two films, one a documentary, have been made that focus on those years when the young Republican warrior became one of the most powerful forces on Washington D.C.’s all-too influential K Street.  Both films were released in 2010.

Kevin Spacey played Abramoff in the Hollywood version.  There is disagreement among the critics about Spacey and about the film. The actor seemed to soften the hard edges of the character that emerged in the documentary.  The real Abramoff, as portrayed in the documentary, appeared far less likable or even tolerable than the character Spacey drew.

However, for those who shy away from documentaries, Casino Jack is, in my mind, a fine film that nonetheless gets to the core of the kind of corruption that has only escalated after the Supreme Court decision.  It shows how this behavior — the selling of influence — distorts the promise of democracy and especially how we pick a few villains to throw in jail so the public will think the evil that is caught has been dealt with and no longer exists.  Actors portraying Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove and Grover Norquist do a decent job getting the characters across. Barry  Pepper is fantastic as Abramoff’s partner in crime, Michael Scanlon, who has pretty much avoided public awareness, let alone censure.

Jack Abramhoff
If you have the time and have some interest in politics and or how your government works, I’d definitely watch both films, together if possible.  But if you were forced to choose, my suggestion is to see Casino Jack and the United States of Money.  Frankly, Abramoff, Scanlon, Reed, DeLay, Rove and Norquist do a much better job playing themselves. And the road to corpocracy is drawn more clearly.

The time period is roughly the same, though the documentary picks up Abramoff much earlier  — first, his youthful political transformation, and second as he turns his political power into money and money into still more power.  Slices of footage from speeches and interviews move us through these fascinatingly cynical times.
Much is made of John McCain’s leading a committee to ferret out all these evil doings, especially in the defrauding of the tribes running reservation casinos.  However, the documentary shows how McCain, once he found out how many legislators were getting donations from Abramoff, shut down the committee before it could expand its investigation into the behavior of all but one of the U.S. representatives, who was tossed, sacrificially, to the wolves.  After all, McCain would need party support to run for president.  Only a few paid any price for the fraud. Abramoff and a few others went to jail.  Suddenly Abramoff, whose product was access and influence, was later cropped out of photos in which he appeared with Bush the Younger.  Others did the same thing, pretending not to know the man they all but worshipped.  One of the most popular presences in DC suddenly became an unknown.

Clearly, money and favors flowed all too freely, and I seriously doubt if the Democrats are immune from the temptation.  The truth, for me, is that it is hard imagine how we, as society, don’t equate huge donations by corporations as bribery anyway. However in the Abramoff case money for favors was clearly documented. And even a spiritually corrupt Supreme Court wouldn’t have been able to ignore that.

Both films show how greed and ego kill. In an earlier decade (Bonfire of the Vanities) it was called being “masters of the universe.”  Today, the creed that Abramoff and his friends appear to follow is the latest form of Republican politics, the cult that truly embraces survival of the fittest.  In the Republican warrior mentality, as the right-wing religious fundamentalists have yet to learn, right and wrong have no place in the achievement of their goals. And in fact, the “born again” politicians, the Ralph Reeds and Tom Delays of the world, assume the mantle only to dupe the pious.

If you don’t believe me, make sure you watch the end of the documentary when the “join me in prayer” Tom DeLay, shakes his ass on Dancing The Stars to “Wild Thing, I Thing I Love You.”

It is sad that DeLay is considered a celebrity, however minor, that Grover Norquist still dominates Republican legislators and Ralph Reed’s reputation has been rehabilitated to the extent he is currently a talking head on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.”

For drinks, indulge lightly the first film if you plan on watching both, then switch to something like a Martini for the second.  For some reason I think of a Martini as non-sentimental.  It’s kind of “I’ll take my truth straight,” kind of drink — unlike a romantic, sensuous red wine, innocent peach Daiquiri or or a nostalgic (I repeat myself) Old Fashioned.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Notes — A Poor Player Who Struts And Frets His Hours Off The Stage

I have committed a crime.  I have purchased a book on the remainder stack.  As a writer, I am aware that the author will get none of the few dollars I paid for his book.  I can only suggest that Philip Roth is no doubt far wealthier than I am.  Certainly, his sales and public esteem are far, far greater than I can ever hope for. I toss off the guilt.

Though he is regarded by many as one of the greatest living novelists — and I recall seeing his name on the best seller lists many times — I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read Philip Roth before. Correcting that oversight and the fact that The Humbling is a novella — a form I’m obsessed with at the moment — appealed to me. It is fiction, but unlike most books on my blog, it isn’t really crime fiction.  A murder is committed during the course of the story, so I squeeze by here on a technicality.

But about the book? The Humbling is obscene.  I wasn’t offended so much as put off.  That, in itself, caused more than a little introspection.  Simon Axler, the main character and through whose eyes the story is told, is old (about my age).  He is a celebrated actor who has suddenly and shockingly, to him, lost his ability to act. After enduring the pride-shattering period in a mental hospital, he moves away from civilization to suffer his humiliation out of the public eye.

A younger woman (the daughter of a fellow actor of Axler’s vintage) moves nearby. She contacts the old friend of the family and the two begin an affair, explicitly described for the reader’s pleasure or discomfort.  I won’t divulge the end and I have neglected many nuances that add to the rich and unpleasant nature of the book.  In fact, though I didn’t know it at the time of purchase, many respected reviewers were harshly critical of the work.  Some reviewers seemed angry with the author, I suspect for the same reasons I found the book to be a depressing read.  However, like most well told stories, The Humbling asks questions.  The answers are your responsibility.  When I was done I tried to toss it off as an appropriate exposure to a highly regarded talent even though it was, for me, a waste of time.  The book had a mind of its own, it seems.  It stayed with me.  Maybe it’s not the story that was so unpleasant, but the questions it forced me to consider.

One of those questions, less specifically personal than the others that I still think about, had to do with identity.  At some point in a long and dedicated actor’s career does the assumption of fictional roles become real and the real person become fictional, or worse, non-existent?  If something then renders the actor unable to act, what is left? 

Various reports suggest that Al Pacino has bought rights for the book and is planning a film with an expected release in 2014.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Film Pairing: A Night of Icebergs and Sinking Ships

Many thanks to Ron Tierney for letting me play with a variation of his film pairings, which usually look at crime films. My film pairing coincides with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable White Star liner, Titanic. — Janet Dawson

No, I’m not going to discuss that movie from the late 1990s. Instead, I’ll look at two earlier versions of the disaster, both from the 1950s.

The first is Titanic (1953), which stars two Hollywood stalwarts, Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb, giving superb performances as an estranged married couple who’ve been living a life of ease and superficiality in high society Paris. The cast also includes a very young Robert Wagner as a suitor for Stanwyck’s somewhat snooty daughter, played by Audrey Dalton. Brian Aherne plays the ship’s captain, E.J. Smith, and the redoubtable Thelma Ritter puts in an appearance as Mrs. Maud Young. Never mind that character’s name – Ritter is meant to be Mrs. Margaret Tobin Brown of Denver and Leadville, aka the “Unsinkable” Molly.

The film starts with an unsettling image of an iceberg calving, a hint of what’s to come. Then the action switches to Cherbourg, France, where Stanwyck and her son and daughter board the ship. She’s leaving her socialite husband, Webb, and returning to the United States so that her children will have a normal life.

But Webb has discovered this and he’s in pursuit. He manages to buy a ticket from a steerage passenger and boards the ship. He makes his way to first class and assumes his paterfamilias role without missing a beat, convincing his daughter to return to France with him as soon as the ship docks in New York City. The son, who is younger, is another matter. The verbal clashes between Stanwyck and Webb, sparring over the fate of their marriage and their children, provide much of the drama.

Until the ship hits that iceberg. Then it’s women and children to the lifeboats. Faced with the prospect of never seeing one another again, Stanwyck and Webb discover they still care for one another – and things they never knew about each other.

Titanic was directed by Jean Negulesco. Writer Charles Brackett won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. The film, available on DVD, is well worth seeing.

For my money, the best version of the Titanic disaster is A Night To Remember (1958), directed by Roy Ward Baker. This British film is based on Walter Lord’s book of the same name, and the screenplay was written by thriller writer Eric Ambler.

The only actor in the film with what could be considered a starring role is Kenneth More, as the ship’s Second Officer, Charles Herbert Lightoller, who survived and was instrumental in organizing the loading of the lifeboats. David McCallum, who appeared in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and is currently “Ducky” in the popular NCIS television series, plays radio operator Harold Bride. Laurence Naismith plays Captain Smith, while Michael Goodliffe plays the ship’s builder, Thomas Andrews. Tucker McGuire does a notable turn as Molly Brown, as does George Rose as a tipsy baker.

The real star of A Night To Remember is the ship itself, its life and death. This is how it differs from the other version, needing no other drama except that which occurred that night.

The film has a documentary feel to it, full of vignettes of people traveling about Titanic – a pair of aristocrats, some honeymooners, a group of Irish steerage passengers, a professional gambler. The film is full of wonderful bits, showing ordinary people, like the stokers feeding the fire in the bowels of the ship, and the stewards setting tables in the dining room. Many of these bits are based on Walter Lord’s interviews with survivors, which adds to the verisimilitude.

The movie touches on the ice warnings that were ignored, as well as the class distinctions that kept the steerage passengers below while first and second class passengers filled the lifeboats. It also gives glimpses of the ship Carpathia, steaming at full speed to for a too-late rescue, while the Californian, which was closer, doesn’t respond to distress signals and rockets, its crew seemingly unable to grasp the urgency.

A Night To Remember has just been released on DVD in a great new digital restoration. I highly recommend it.

What to drink while watching these films? After several hours in a lifeboat on the freezing North Atlantic, I’d opt for a bracing hot pot of Earl Grey tea, accompanied by scones with clotted cream and a tart lemon curd.

Janet Dawson has written ten novels featuring Oakland private investigator Jeri Howard. Her first, Kindred Crimes, won the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for best first private eye novel and nominated for three other prestigious mystery awards, the Shamus, the Macavity and the Anthony.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Writing — View From the Bottom and Outside, Part II

On Monday, Amazon was highlighted here for the revolution it started in the book business. Barnes & Noble saw the threat, quite late in the game it seems. Nonetheless it developed its own on-line bookstore where you could pick a book and have it in your mailbox in 48 hours without leaving your home.  We asked what else could the book lover want?

It turns out, a whole lot more.  The best, in terms of options, was yet to come.  Amazon, who might have done a few victory laps as they rose to the top of the international bookseller business, was doing nothing of the kind.  They were busy developing a little device about the size of an early cellphone. Readers could pick out a book from the vast array Amazon offered from their on-line bookshop and have it instantaneously on their Kindle. They found a book, pushed a button and in seconds, the product was in the customer’s hands.  Literally.  They didn’t have to have a café in their bookstore, they could have the bookstore in their café.  And in many cases, the cost of the e-book was significantly less than the discounts the Big Boxes and Amazon’s hard copy bookshelves offered.  While hardback fiction bestsellers were going for just under $30 and would take two days to receive, you could have the just released bestseller for $12.99 or less instantaneously through the Internet.  What’s more, while the bookstores had to worry about space and the shelf life of the book, Amazon had no such worries with electronic data.  Many, including the major players in the publishing and bookselling business, pooh-poohed the notion of the electronic book and, I suspect, saw it in the same way they saw audio books — something for a small, specialized market — supplemental but not mainstream. They couldn’t have been more wrong

No one, except Amazon apparently, saw it coming.  Where were the high-paid executives at Borders?  Did the board of directors of the huge publishing houses think their business wouldn’t be affected by the digital revolution?  Maybe they thought they had more time.  Even Apple’s stylishly clever folks, who harnessed the music business, couldn’t and still, to some extent, can’t figure out what’s going on when it comes to books.  What we do know is that all these businesses who depend on books or want a piece of the book publishing market, however, they might be configured, are scrambling to catch up.

The results so far have lawsuits and injunctions flying around. Apple, a company that should have been at the forefront of the e-book wave, is playing catch up. What it has done is attempt to partner with the largest book publishers to work out some sort of an arrangement that would put them back in the game.  Unfortunately, the Feds think there’s something a little funny about that. A couple of publishers have paid fines based on this kind of business practice.  Apple and a couple of the major publishers are willing to have their day in court.  Win or lose, Apple’s emersion in the book publishing business has to be like swimming through mud.

While Borders crumpled, Barnes & Noble did two things that kept them afloat.  They too were playing catch-up; but they did two very smart things.  One is they developed their own on-line purchasing system and two, they created the “Nook,” an e-reader, a better-late-than-never alternative to the Kindle. Even so, B&N closed many of its stores and has now has a new best friend, Microsoft, in an effort to compete with the mystical and perhaps mythical strength of Apple and the vast head start the pioneer, Amazon, had in the book business.

But so far, none of Amazon’s competitors have shown they understand publishing from all the essential angles. Barnes & Noble, Apple and Amazon all have e-book platforms.  Barnes & Noble had made it pretty easy for anyone to publish and order from their platform.  Apple has done the same, but absolutely counter to their reputation, could not or would not make it user friendly.  Nor do they have as much product directly available through their respective devices.  The advantage that Apple still has is that the i-Pad and i-Phone are multi-taskers and infinitely more popular. Even so, the clear winner here is Amazon.  Even Apple product users are downloading a Kindle app.

Another reason for Amazon’s dominance in this particular product line is, I believe, that Amazon has decided to be all things to all readers — and writers, for that matter.  That’s not always a winning strategy, but it seems to be working for Amazon. If you are a writer, Amazon, for a remarkably low fee can publish your next novel for you.  If you want more control over your product, they can support that approach as well. (I’ve reissued my own early books in the Shanahan series as Life Death and Fog Books, essentially using Amazon).

Just as Amazon did to compete with brick-and-mortar bookstores, it makes small business publishing possible by taking out much of the backroom expense.  If you are just publishing e-books, there’s very little cost and little to do.  If you want to offer a book on paper, print on demand (POD) is doing nicely these days and the process is in line with the trend away from hard backs and mass paperbacks toward quality trade paperbacks. The print quality of POD has improved dramatically.  In addition to Amazon eliminating the need to have a distributor, they simplify the accounting.  They handle the charges, returns and provide detailed reports along with a check or a direct deposit for your royalties.  Their take is pretty low.  I found Barnes & Noble easy to work with as well, making it easy to make e-books available on their site with equal back-room capability.  Apple, not so much.

But Amazon is never done innovating.  Not only do they have appeal for the self-publishing writer and the small publisher, they have become a major publisher themselves.  While talented editors at the big publishing houses are trying to determine whether or not they are on the Titanic, Amazon is offering a life raft.  Come work for them.  Amazon’s new publishing imprints are courting popular and talented writers themselves. Amazon has its own imprints for various categories, including crime fiction.  

Tomorrow’s news could turn all of this on its head (I would never count Apple out), but to me, Amazon appears to be several strides ahead and while their competitors are still trying to figure out who or what they are and how they will adjust, Amazon is still innovating.  They have recently announced they will publish Kindle Singles, short works of fiction and non-fiction.  These are inexpensive e-books that are longer than short stories or magazine articles, but far shorter (less than 30,000 words) than the 600,000-word thriller.  Amazon, I think correctly, is looking at fiction or nonfiction that can be devoured while aboard a commuter train coming into the city or a jet ride from LAX to O’Hare.  Good news for those of us who are most comfortable writing and reading novellas, a form most major publishers ignore.  It is Amazon’s willingness to be unconventional that might keep it ahead of the others.

Then there is Google. They are doing something with books that is making a whole bunch of people nervous. I can’t figure out exactly what that is. I suspect that they are secretly scanning the DNA of every human on the planet and will announce a new marketing plan that will produce completely personalized books for its customers that you will read on the inside of your skull. I may be kidding; but seriously, is that inconceivable?

Now all of that is exciting, but where is publishing going?  Which of these teams has the right mix?  Amazon?  Apple plus traditional publishers? Barnes & Noble plus Microsoft?  Google and its Android OS?  As writers, we are trying to figure it all out not because we have tons of money to invest in stock, but because our royalties, reputation, artistic control, quality control and exposure in the marketplace are all mixed up in this mess.   

How important is the traditional publisher to the writer?  The support system — of distribution, marketing, reviews etc. — is still tied to the old world. If we publish ourselves and can we get beyond the vanity press stigma, how do we get our work noticed without becoming full-time promoters?  (Personally, I love the idea of working with artists and designers; but I hate the technological interface to get books in the appropriate format. And I am extremely uncomfortable promoting my own work.) How does an individual writer or a small publisher get noticed?  And for that matter, will a competitive company like Amazon continue to serve its writers and small publishers once they become big-time publishers themselves? Will they still be concerned with a writer who sells 3,000 copies when they can focus on books that sell in the millions?

Thinking about what’s happening, wonderful old words like topsy-turvy, willy-nilly and tizzy come to mind.  And worse, if there is intelligent advice on how to proceed in this environment, you can bet something has occurred or soon will that makes or will make this advice obsolete.

Here are three other views on the subject:  The Financial Times, The New York Times and, by way of Ed Gorman, author Libby Fischer Hellmann’s blog, Say The Word.

Monday, May 14, 2012

On Publishing & Writing — A View From The Bottom And From The Outside, Part I

Someone in an office in Kansas can now put a hit on someone leaving a restaurant in Islamabad. Drones.  It is possible for someone in Switzerland to halt all electronic currency transactions in Iran to crush their economy or for someone in Israel to send a digital disease to rogue governments to disable their nuclear programs.

People — police, your boss, criminals, your spouse, your political opponent — might know where you are now and could look at your email, Twitter and Face Book.  Corporations can and do track your purchases and set up a profile of your interests for marketing purposes.  They will know if you have a special weakness for Prada or Hagen Daz Pistachio. And if your prescriptions suggest the onslaught of dementia, you might be receiving a phone call saying that you inherited a considerable sum of money.  “All you have to do is provide me with your credit card number.”

I mentioned in an earlier post that there are companies that will reduce your credit standing, no matter how good it is, simply by noting that you have shopped where, statistically speaking, people with bad credit ratings shop. Nothing personal. Just crunching the numbers. Could some authority (Homeland Security, Patriot Act) commit an error in surveillance that could result in you being plucked from the world as you know it, face indefinite imprisonment and possibly torture?

No this isn’t Chicken Little talking.  I carry no signs saying we are approaching the end of the world.  But I might carry one that says technology is changing at a speed never before experienced. Of course I’d try to make it a little catchier. But we are rushing into technology faster than we can develop the ethics to manage it, faster than the average human can comprehend its impact.

There has always been change. But how long did it take us to get from the quill to the Selectric?  Now, how quickly have we come from sending a report by mail with a quick 24 to 48-hour turnaround to bouncing information off satellites in nanoseconds?  These changes not only alter the way we work, find information, but how we deal with time. Smart phones enable us to connect with everything instantly.  The Yellow Pages are nearly nonexistent.  Maps? No need to unfold that mile-wide map while you’re looking up a street address.  A voice will give us step-by-step instructions.  We can announce anything at anytime to those in our circle of friends or acquaintances. We have games to play if we’re stuck in a traffic jam, even movies to watch. There’s an app for everything you consider important in your life and some you would never have imagined had they not become available.

Among the most interesting aspects of the change that technology is bringing about is that something as absolutely trivial as Twitter can be absolutely earth shaking.  Oppressive governments are being brought down by the sudden emergence of the cell phone and a 140-word tweet — that silly, little app that allows you to keep track of what Lady Gaga had for lunch. 

These changes are affecting every aspect of our lives.  How much longer will there be movie theatres?  With 46-inch HDTV screens largely affordable to a good portion of the world, why would we pay $20 for a ticket and $15 for a box of popcorn? How do we get our news?  How do we do our banking? How do we stay in touch with friends and relatives?  How do we buy a house? There is a map of all the homes in any given city with its estimated market value just a click away. What’s happening in medicine? A scan of my body can reveal serious problems long before they might become apparent, before I can feel pain or discomfort, or a doctor can figure it out in a standard physical.  This is incredible. Security?  Face recognition. The technology is there for more invasive tactics that can keep you safe or prevent you from dropping out. You cannot leave.  You cannot escape.  Ever.
In that sense, it is surprising that books are still important. Let's go from a wide-angle lens to one that focuses on the details of merely one, relatively benign aspect of our culture — books.  I suspect everyone involved in it is confused.  We are confused because technology not only changes the way books are produced and sold, but for the first time how they are read.

For many years, even centuries, the book business remained essentially the same. There were bookstores. For the most part, people who wanted a book went to the bookstore. If you were in a big city you went to a big bookstore.  I you lived in a small town, you went to a smaller one, or perhaps an area of the local department store that sold books and magazines.

Things began to change some during the malling of America.  Urban flight happened.  People fled downtowns and near-downtown neighborhoods to live in the suburbs and malls grew up overnight to serve them. Lots of light and parking and security. Being able to buy books in substantial quantities, often these mall stores did more aggressive marketing and offered a steeper discount on cost to the customer.  Little bookstores began to feel the pinch of well-branded chain bookstores like B. Dalton and Walden Books. These new chains did fine along side other chain stores offering other mass-produced products.  It was the way the majority of consumers consumed.

After only a few years, the population shifted again. While the suburbs aged, recently graduated young professionals returned to work and or live in an urban environment.  Young singles and young marrieds not only wanted a place to buy a book, but they wanted a place to pick up a cup of coffee, a bagel and possibly a date.  They wanted the biggest possible choice of reading material (and music). The birth of the book superstore emerged.  The breadth of selection, the comfort, the coffee shop and the steep discounts, as developed by Borders and Barnes & Noble, not only continued the onslaught of big business over independent bookstores, they devoured the mall model as well.  Walden Books and B. Daltons, already owned by Borders and Barnes & Noble, went away.  Only the most spirited or most innovative independent stores stayed afloat during this speedy evolutionary process.

With Walden Books and B. Daltons dead or dying, and many of the independent bookstores, large and small, fading fast, the Super Bookstore reigned. But even that reign turned out to be minor and short-lived. Previously the book business saw movement in bookstore size and in book size — packaging. Essentially, the business process remained the same. 

As the big bookstore box chains found out, the Internet introduced capabilities none had apparently imagined and those capabilities would expand exponentially.  First it was fairly simple.  On-line book sales were merely a variation on the mail-order model.  However, there were other business trends happening.  Just-in-time inventories were becoming popular among retailers

Amazon, taking advantage of what the Internet offered as well as such business innovations as just-in-time inventories — that is not having more inventory on hand than you need on a day to day basis — decided to set warehouses around the country, where a single, low-cost building on cheap land could supply a big chunk of geography.  When a single Borders store ordered 200 copies of the latest Stephen King book, some of which they’d keep in the back room, and some they might have to return, the store was using expensive space and far more intensive labor. There would have to be physical inventories, shipping and receiving and sometimes shipping again, as well as complex accounting at each store.  Amazon, on the other hand, could order books as they needed them. As they sold them they could ship direct to the customer, a task that can be handled in assembly-line fashion.  Shipping labels, shipping fees, accounting were done by computers.

Because they didn’t have the overhead of the big-boxes, Amazon could offer even steeper discounts on books.  The customer didn’t even have to leave home. They could browse the stacks (so to speak) on the computer and validate their choices by seeing how the book was reviewed not just by The New York Times, but also by readers like them.  Book lovers could communicate with each other on the Amazon site, find lists, participate in book discussions, while Amazon passed along reading recommendations based on each reader’s very particular reading interests. What else could the book lover want?

Part II On Wednesday

Friday, May 11, 2012

Film Pairings — Crime Novels On Film: James Sallis And Ken Bruen

Criminals with standards?  No, not like “rob from the rich, give to the poor.”  More like “I won’t actually rob anybody, but I’ll drive the get away car.” Once you get beyond the notion of “a little bit criminal” you can’t help but be seduced by the surprisingly similar stories in these two fine films. Each petty criminal, as the pressure escalates to pick a side (good or evil), finds it more and more difficult to resist. And in the spirit of noir, contemporary noir to be sure, they find that noble choices may not be rewarded.

The film, London Boulevard, based on the dark, literary and prolific Irish crime writer Ken Bruen’s novel, was all but panned by American reviewers.  The film Drive, on the other hand, based on the dark, literary and prolific American crime writer James Sallis’ novel, received high praise.  I could perhaps understand why critics might dislike both of them. Dark and violent.  Or love both of them.  Great story telling. What I do not understand is why one is damned and one is praised.  Both stories fascinate.  The acting, directing and cinematography are top-notch in both films.  So, please someone clue me in.

Perhaps it is that London Boulevard (2010) brings with it a British sensibility that Americans may find difficult to relate to.  The gangsters are a little different.  Both the top hood and the young thug talk about literature amidst grotesque and quite often senseless violence.  Colin Farrell, who plays the young, and redeemable thug, is gradually seduced into protecting a beautiful celebrity while also trying (nobly) to avenge the mind-numbingly unnecessary murder of a homeless man he had befriended. Farrell is solid as the young man who tries to find a way to escape his previous entanglements with the mob.  Ray Winstone does his usual fine job, this time as the psychopathic gang leader.  However the grandly indifferent — perhaps most malevolent — character, portrayed by David Thewlis, puts the story over the top (in a good way) — and leaves us with perhaps too much interest in the parts of his life that are untold. I want the next movie to be about him.  Credit goes to the writers who created the character and Thewlis who is pitch perfect.  Keira Knightley plays the delicately beautiful celebrity in need of Farrell’s protection. William Monahan wrote the screenplay and directed.

Drive (2011) was a hit, not the blockbuster producers apparently anticipated, but a tough, tight, compelling movie nonetheless. It made a lot of money.  Credit certainly goes to Ryan Gosling who plays a character in a dilemma similar to Farrell’s in London Boulevard.  In this case we have a seemingly amoral loner whose only passion is driving.  He is a reluctant hero.  The last thing he would ever want is to be put in a position to make a decision having to do with the lives of other people.  In that sense, he is farther removed from society than Farrell’s character. But he makes a serious mistake.  He gets involved.  There are also some very fine secondary characters.  At the top of that list is Albert Brooks, who plays a businessman and second-rate gangster. Like Thewlis in London Boulevard, a whole movie could be made by spinning off Brooks’ complex character.  Ron Perlman does a good job as Brooks’ more violent partner.  And Bryan Cranston continues to show what a fine actor he is as Gosling’s not quite up to snuff mentor. Good to see Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story) play a role in this striking film. Nicholas Winding Refn, a Dane, directed.

There’s no question that Gosling’s character is the strong, silent type (a lot of screen time, but not a lot of lines to memorize).  However, his performance is mesmerizing. His character knows what’s coming. So do we. It’s a fine ending, but no surprise to him or us. Farrell realizes the danger he is putting himself in and does what he needs to do anyway however he is surprised by how it ends.  And so are we.  Two very worthwhile, but extremely violent films that are meant to be seen together or at least discussed in tandem.

Beer, I think, is night’s choice.  Lots of pub drinking in London Boulevard. And if I remember correctly, there were lots of cans of beer in Drive. So this time, just pick your favorite brand.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On Writing — They Call It "Submission," Don't They?

I could be flatteringly described as a “mid-list” writer. I am pretty sure it’s below middle.  I am also of a “certain age,” about which I have mixed feelings. The downside is: I’m too old to be considered promising. The upside t is: I need no longer worry about mid-life crisis.

Recently, after a dozen or so years safely and lazily in the arms of a good UK publisher who regularly publishes my mysteries, I found myself back in the market place with a manuscript they didn’t want. They liked the book — said it was the best of the three — but the numbers for books in this series didn’t add up for them. It was understandable but disappointing news

What I’ve been doing lately is what I haven’t had to do in long time — jumping from web site to web site, searching for possible homes for a new manuscript — Death on the Great Highway. I’m not asking for pity, or even compassion, just emphasizing that’s it has been awhile since I’ve had to deal with the real world and I’m a little rusty. To make matters more interesting, I’m back out there looking for a way to get published during this, the biggest change in the book business since the invention of the printing press. What do I do?

One of the first warnings I encountered was the “We only accept manuscripts from licensed literary agencies.  I thought maybe this was a good idea.  Wouldn’t I need an experienced guide, someone who knew more about the “business” than I did. A friend suggested I check out a high quality agency out here on the West Coast.

According to the web site, this agency represented some highly regarded authors.  I picked out an agent in the group who specialized in mysteries and who wasn’t the agency’s principle owner, thinking that the owner might be too busy for a lesser light like me.  There was a complicated, yet precise format for submission before the applicant (supplicant) could earn consideration a potential client.  I followed the procedure. After getting everything all properly formatted, I pushed the send button.  I did notice that there was this little phrase:  “If you haven’t heard back from us after six weeks…” it wasn’t likely I would.  And I didn’t.

Perhaps I gave up on agents too early. But how many six-week periods, stretched end-to-end, could I endure?  Having to wait for agents and then wait still longer while the agents worked with publishers seemed like a poor use of limited time. I call your attention to the actuarial tables.

When I went back to the Google search, I decided to go directly in search of a publisher.  What I found was that the Internet is full of publishers “not accepting submissions at this time.” I understand.  Given the dramatic changes in the publishing field, it’s likely that I’m not the only one going through reevaluation. At least I didn’t have to jump through hoops and wait six weeks to get the message. After a few moments cursing them, I end up blessing them for not wasting my time. 

There were still publishers who appeared to entertain submissions, even those directly from a writer. Most of them have their own set of standards.  No serial killers, for example, was one admonition.  Books focused on car chases and improbable heroics are no-nos on another.  One publisher warned that they wouldn’t accept any books written in the present tense.  Interesting. Maybe even a little strange; but I completely understand. Publishers who are still in business know what they do well. I wouldn’t expect a vegetarian restaurant to serve lamb shank.  It is also helpful for the writer to know what’s what up front.  Why bother a bunch of nervous, probably overworked professionals in the clearly discombobulated publishing industry with something they clearly don’t want?

Yet, there are standards and rules that strike me as more than a little foolish.  One is that after a cover letter, a sample chapter and a synopsis, and a history of previously published books, the publisher wants a detailed outline of the book.  I maybe tripping over excessive, unearned hubris here, but I don’t do outlines.  There are no outlines for my books.  I have the book.  To make matters worse, some publishers want outlines of different lengths — some prefer a three-page outline, others a five-page outline, some a chapter by chapter outline.  I have the book!  Right here, the whole damned thing. If you liked the writing and the story, why not read a little more.  You can stop anytime you get bored.

However, the one rule that I truly find off-putting is that adding to the cover letter, sample chapter(s), synopses, outlines, publishing history (including reviews), there are publishers who then say,  “Please attach your marketing plan.”  What?  That’s why I’m going to a publisher.  I can do the rest myself if I have to. Sure I want the talented editor.  Sure I want the great book design and sure, I want the legitimacy bestowed upon a book marketed by some respected publisher, but a marketing plan? Would you like me to vacuum your office?  And my question to publishers who want a marketing plan is: what do you do?  I fear that is the problem.  They don’t know anymore.  Who does?

Obviously, I’m not making friends with the traditional publishing community with these complaints.  It is particularly foolish for me to be talking like this when I’m trying to get books published.  No doubt, touchy writers are the reason some publishers demand their authors have an agent.  They don’t want to talk to us.  In this case, I just want to say that in this changing market place, it’s the marketing and sales resources I need.  In the case of printed books, distribution is an important role best filled by a reputable publishing house as well.  If publishers don’t do these things, what do they do?  And if I do all that, when do I write?

Perhaps there is a reason on both agents’ and publishers’ websites, there is a button called “submission.”

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Check Out My Guest Post On Crime Novelist Janet Dawson's Blog

Blatant theft of real-life characters in my Deets Shanahan series. See for yourself at

Silly Saturday

There used to be a store on Market Street in San Francisco that was both a Scandinavian Deli and Shoe Shop. However, this sign, located near the Thomas J. Cahill Hall of Justice, indicates another entrepreneurial approach to a major business.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Film Pairings — Small-Time Crooks And Great Small Crime Stories

When a writer or film director tries to tell odd, little stories, sometimes you end up with odd, little stories.  And Sonny is one of them.  I want to call it experimental; but there is nothing all that new or inventive about it. Perhaps it could be called an interesting exercise.  It is worth-while, perhaps an engaging curiosity.  Yet it is something out of the ordinary, well done and a chance to see what a talented young actor, James Franco, can do when given free reign. It is also a wonderful opportunity to watch the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton in a subtly meaty role.  If it interests you, Nicholas Cage shows what he did with this, his first directorial attempt.  He also makes a bizarre cameo appearance.

James Franco
The story is about Franco’s character, Sonny. He is a young man who returns to New Orleans and his brothel-owning mother after a couple of years in the Army. It appears that his military stint helped the young man sort out his life.  However, Mom, who trained her son to satisfy wealthy women for a fee, doesn’t want to let go of her prime earner, even though he’s decided to live a “normal “ life.  He just came by to say hello and goodbye. The story gets steamy and more complicated when a beautiful and sexy prostitute, played by sensuous Mena Suvari, shows up.  Her surprisingly tender, erotic presence muddies what otherwise would be a clear choice for the troubled young man.  This is Franco’s movie.  However, it is Stanton who makes it more than a high-quality student film.  Sonny was released in 2002.

Willem Dafoe
Paul Schrader directed Light Sleeper (1992), which is purportedly part of a Schrader trilogy that includes American Gigolo and The WalkerWillem Dafoe plays the young man, a Manhattan drug dealer and former addict, who seriously contemplates getting out of narcotics altogether.  His drug business boss, Susan Sarandon, has already decided to go legit and may or may not help Dafoe in his desire to change his life. She implies she might, once she’s settled.  Just one last drug delivery.  That’s all she asks. Yeah, right.  One last heist.  One last hit. As you are likely to guess, the last delivery ends up disastrous and deeply personal. However, the predictable twist has a twist.  Light Sleeper is certainly the stronger of the two films.  Dana Delany plays a central character and, if you don’t make a quick trip to the bathroom, you’ll notice a funny little scene with David Spade — not exactly a man with a thousand faces.

I’m really at a loss to recommend drinks to accompany these films. New Orleans?  New York? I’m certainly NOT going to suggest that things go better with Coke.  You are on your own tonight.