Friday, September 28, 2012

Film Pairing — Reinventing Sherlock For The Big Little Screen

Sherlock at the BBC — Nobody Does It Better
I can’t think of another series detective that has lasted longer or been the subject of so many recreations.  Seventy-six actors have played the character in stage plays, cartoons, TV shows and films.   They have included Basil Rathbone who did fifteen films as well as actors ranging from John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole to John Cleese and Charlton Heston.  Hollywood recently recreated Sherlock in the spirit of the blow-‘em up, big-budget superheroes.  Personally, that’s been a disappointment.  I would complain that they took what should have been a remarkable exercise of the mind to an exercise in special effects and demolition. But the current TV revivals have taken a few liberties as well.

Last year, the British had the gall to set Sherlock and his loyal companion down in the 21st Century.  During the initial promotional hoopla, I thought it all a cheap gimmick. I vowed not to care.  I was wrong.  It was and is sensational.  That is the correct word. It is sensational in nearly every meaning of the word and is sensational without blowing up half the world. In fact, much of the action is in the words, themselves. Benedict Cumberbatch brings a touch of vulnerability and immense amount of charm to the intended cold and calculating Sherlock.  Martin Freeman is a perfect get-the-job-done Watson to his eccentric and often flamboyant partner, which brings us to the “gay thing.”  As a viewer we do not know, but whatever the relationship is, it is a source of humor as others have their suspicions, as they say, and Watson frets about how it looks.  Sherlock, being the superior human he is, wonders why anyone would worry about what others think.  In its second season, the BBC version’s shock of the new has worn off.  But this Sherlock remains solid and lots of fun.

This fall, American network TV, trying hard to be original — which it rarely is — has come out with a modern day Sherlock of its own.  One of the big differences is that the first episode of the BBC series was big and shocking — pleasantly shocking.  It was bigger than life.  It also had a plot.  The first of the new CBS TV series was done professionally enough.  If the premiere episode is any indication, then what we have is a competent American network hour crime procedural that intends to safely capitalize on a trend. Okay, what’s done is done. We’ve got another Sherlock Holmes.  In the U.S. version we go to New York. Sherlock (Johnny Lee Miller) has a drug problem and Watson (Lucy Liu), his sidekick, is on hand to run interference for Sherlock’s anti-social behavior and prevent her charge’s potential backslide into drugs.
The New American Sherlock — Verdict Is Out

The producers of Elementary, like everyone else, are taking advantage of the copyright status of Sherlock Holmes and the characters associated with him, which is no status at all.  It is in the public domain. For me, the question is that despite the change in century, the BBC version incorporates a lot of the original Sherlock sensibility. The American version doesn’t.  Why did the characters in this show have to be Sherlock and Watson?  Couldn’t they have been Henry and Esmeralda?  Also, the strangely callous behavior of the British Sherlock is amusing.  In the American version, Sherlock’s lack of social skills borders on the irritating.  Maybe we’ll come to like these people.

In addition to these new incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, I think a case can be made that The Mentalist, which debuted a few years ago, has already brought Sherlock to American network TV. It is in the Sherlock tradition. They simply used the classic as an inspiration.  Now in its fifth season, Simon Baker plays Patrick Jane, a completely self-absorbed consultant to the police. Jane’s crime solving skills, like the Sherlock character, are based on his keen skills of observation.  But he too brings charm to a character that could be insufferable performed by someone else.

As far as the double feature is concerned, the idea is to pick an episode of the BBC version, available on disc and a new episode of CBS’s Elementary.  Watch them back to back.  Now, how should you enjoy your Sherlock Holmes episodes?  Absinthe.  There’s no way I’d recommend either morphine or cocaine, though they were likely Holmes’ recreational drugs of choice.  However, absinthe is legal again.  Incidentally, the colorful history of this most mystical, romantic and devilish drink, suggests that real absinthe was not as dangerous as it was portrayed.

Note:  Others who have played Sherlock include Robert Downey Jr., Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Peter Lawford, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Cushing, Stewart Granger, Frank Langella and Jeremy Brett.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Notes — Best Mystery/Crime Books of the 20th Century

Won Three of Four Major Awards

This is the award season. One of the top crime writing awards was made earlier in New York; but with Bouchercon about to begin in Cleveland, and a bunch of awards scheduled to be announced there, it might be good to have a look at award winners from the past. 

Actually, I’m not sure how I feel about book awards.  I’d probably feel better about them if I had received a few.  However, I think we have to recognize that award giving is one way of letting readers know about excellence in the field.  In this presentation I’m listing awards by year.  I’ve tapped the awards from respected organizations in order to provide the broadest possible view of the best novels of each decade.  The compilation will come from the Mystery Writers of America (The Edgar and the Anthony), the Private Eye Writers of America (The Shamus), Mystery Readers International (The Macavity) and the quarterly magazine Deadly Pleasures (The Barry). 

It should be noted, though, that until the 1980s, the only recognized author awards for crime writers was the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgars. It should also be noted that eligibility for the Shamus Award, the second oldest established award for crime writing, is limited to books about private investigators.

Best Mystery/Crime Fiction Novels — The 1950s

1954   Charlotte Jay, Beat Not the Bones, Edgar
1955   Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, Edgar
1956   Margaret Miller, Beast in View, Edgar
1957   Charlotte Armstrong, Dram of Poison, Edgar
1958   Ed Lacy, Room to Swing, Edgar
1959   Stanley Ellin, The Eighth Circle, Edgar

Best Mystery, Crime Fiction Novels — The 1960s

1960   Celia Fremlin, The Hours Before Dawn, Edgar
1961   Julian Symons, The Progress of a Crime, Edgar
1962   J. J. Marric, Gideon’s Fire, Edgar
1963   Ellis Peters, Death and the Joyful Woman, Edgar
1964   Eric Ambler, The Light of Day, Edgar
1965   John le Carre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Edgar
1966   Adam Hall, The Quiller Memorandum, Edgar
1967   Nicholas Freeling, The King of the Rainy Country, Edgar
1968   Donald E. Westlake, God Save the Mark, Edgar
1969   Jeffrey Hudson, A Case of Need, Edgar

Best Mystery, Crime Fiction Novels — 1970s

1970   Dick Francis, Forfeit, Edgar
1971   Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman, Edgar
1972   Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal, Edgar
1973   Warren Kiefer, The Lingala Code, Edgar
1974   Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead, Edgar
1975   Jon Cleary, Peter’s Pence, Edgar
1976   Brian Garfield, Hopscotch, Edgar
1977   Robert B. Parker, Promised Land, Edgar
1978   William H. Hallahan, Catch Me: Kill Me, Edgar
1979   Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle, Edgar

Best Mystery, Crime Fiction Novels — 1980s

1980   Arthur Mailing, The Reheingold Route, Edgar
1981   Dick Francis, Whip Hand, Edgar
1982   William Bayer, Peregrine, Edgar
            Bill Pronzini, Hoodwink, Shamus
1983   Rick Boyer, Billingsgate Shoal, Edgar
            Lawrence Block, Eight Million Ways to Die, Shamus
1984   Elmore Leonard, La Brava, Edgar
            Max Allan Collins, True Detective, Shamus
1985   Ross Thomas, Briarpatch, Edgar
            Loren D. Estleman, Sugartown, Shamus
1986   L. R. Right, The Suspect, Edgar
            Sue Grafton, “B” Is for Burglar, Shamus
            Sue Grafton, “B” Is for Burglar, Anthony
1987   Barbara Vine, A Dark-Adapted Eye, Edgar
            Jeremiah Healy, The Staked Goat, Shamus
            Sue Grafton, “C” Is for Corpse, Anthony
            Faye Kellerman, The Ritual Bath &
                        Marilyn Wallace, A Case of Loyalties, Macavity (tie)
1988   Aaron Elkins, Old Bones, Edgar
            Benjamin Sutz, A Tax in Blood,Shamus
            Tony Hillerman, Skinwalkers, Anthony
            Robert Crais, The Monkey’s Raincoat, Macavity
1989   Stuart M. Kaminsky, A Cold Red Sunrise, Edgar
            John Lutz, Kiss, Shamus
            Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony
            Tony Hillerman, A Thief of Time, Macavity

Best Mystery, Crime Fiction Novels — 1990s

1990   James Lee Burke, Black Cherry Blues, Edgar
            Jonathan Valin, Extenuating Circumstances, Shamus
            Sarah Cauldwell, The Siren Songs of Murder, Anthony
            Carolyn Hart, A Little Class on Murder, Macavity
1991   Julie Smith, New Orleans Mourning, Edgar
            Sue Grafton, “G” Is for Gumshoe, Shamus
            Sue Grafton, “G” Is for Gumshoe, Anthony
            Sharyn McCrumb, If Ever I Return, Peggy-O, Macavity
1992   Lawrence Block, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, Edgar
            Max Allan Collins, Stolen Away, Shamus
            Peter Lovesey, The Last Detective, Anthony
            Nancy Picard, I.O.U., Macavity
1993   Margaret Maron, Bootlegger’s Daughter, Edgar
            Harold Adams, The Man Who Was Taller Than God, Shamus
            Margaret Maron, Bootlegger’s Daughter, Anthony
            Margaret Maron, Bootlegger’s Daughter, Macavity
1994   Minette Walters, The Sculptress, Edgar
            Lawrence Block, The Devil Knows Your Dead, Shamus
            Marcia Muller, Wolf in the Shadows,  Anthony
            Minette Walters, The Sculptress, Macavity
1995   Mary Willis Walker, The Red Scream, Edgar
            Sue Grafton, “K” Is for Killer, Shamus
            Sharyn McCrumb, She Walks These Hills, Anthony
            Sharyn McCrumb, She Walks These Hills, Macavity
1996   Dick Francis, Come to Grief, Edgar
S. J. Rozan, Concourse, Shamus
Mary Willis Walker, Under the Beetle’s Cellar, Anthony
Mary Willis Walker, Under the Beetle’s Cellar, Macavity
1997   Thomas H. Cook, The Catham School Affair, Edgar
Robert Crais, Sunset Express, Shamus
Michael Connelly, The Poet, Anthony
Peter Lovesey, Bloodhounds, Macavity
Peter Lovesey, Bloodhounds, Barry
1998   James Lee Burke, Cimarron Rose, Edgar
            Terence Faherty, Come Back Dead, Shamus
            S. J. Rozan, No Colder Place, Anthony
            Deborah Crombie, Dreaming of the Bones, Macavity
            Michael Connelly, Trunk Music, Barry
1999   Robert Clark, Mr. White’s Confession, Edgar
            Bill Pronzini, Boobytrap, Shamus
            Michael Connelly, Blood Work, Anthony
            Michael Connelly, Blood Work, Macavity
            Reginald Hill, On Beulah Height and
Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone, Barry (tie)

We’ll pick up the best mysteries of the year 2000 next Monday.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Film Pairing — The Lodgers — Laird Cregar, Jack Palance, Simon Baker

Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote a book in 1913 about Jack the Ripper called The Lodger.  It has been made into a movie a number of times, including the very first as a silent film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1926 and later made with sound in 1932.  In slightly more modern times, there are three films that use the book, two of them surprisingly faithfully, as the basis for cinema drama. 

Incidentally, there have been other Ripper movies about or allude to the notorious throat slasher, but the following are based on Lowndes’ classic version of the story.

The Lodger (1944).  I think this is the classic version.  And it boasts a more renowned set of actors.  Laird Cregar plays the Ripper, building the monstrous madness of his character, step by step, until the riveting end.  There are subtle suggestions of love and incest as well as a kind of Biblical madness, carefully and brilliantly hinted at in Cregar’s portrayal. The cast, plucked from the best of the 1940s actors, also includes Merle Oberon, George Sanders and the fine Sir Cedric Hardwicke.  We are definitely dealing with gothic horror and the first glimpses of psycho-sexual aberration as a plot device.  The cinematography by Lucien Ballard and the direction by John Brahm create an eerie environment for the story to unfold.  The suggestion at the very end may, though we know very little, seems to be at odds with what we do know about the real “Jack the Ripper.”

Man in the Attic (1953). We are returned to London of the late 1800s, cobblestone streets winding through darkness only slightly lit by gas lamps, with sets and scenes almost directly lifted from the 1944 film.  While the Man in the Attic isn’t poorly done, it’s difficult to figure out why they made it.  It’s nearly identical — and the first is very well done. There are some shifts.  One is the final horse and buggy chase through the damp streets to the dark waters.  But the main difference is the choice of actors to portray the Ripper. In this one the strange, new lodger is Jack Palance.  Criminally insane is written all over Palance’s face from the start, but then it always is. It was also fun to see Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee) in a significant role in the film. Constance Smith as the female lead is effective and may have been more charming than Merle Oberon.

The Lodger (2009). I liked this, but there were a number of people who get paid for their opinions who didn’t.  In this version, liberties were obviously taken.  The time is now, and the place is Los Angeles.  We are also drawn into two subplots not part of the original story line.  While we are still trying to trap the murderer, we are drawn into the serious relationship problems between the possibly mentally unbalanced landlady and her suspiciously disappearing husband.  Additionally we are compelled to deal with the investigating detective’s troubled private life.   Both of these plots may create mystery as well as horror. Certainly these sublplots were not part of the earlier films, but they do provide an interesting twist at the end.  I’ve always appreciated Simon Baker’s low-key acting.  As the lodger, he is far less the obvious psychopath.  Alfred Molina does his usual fine job of being interesting while not being particularly likable. It works here. Lots of darkness, rain and blood.  Some artistically jumpy camera moves.  Hope Davis does a fine job in the complex role of the landlady.  Perfect film for a rainy night at home.

I think that all three in one evening is way too much.  Choose two.  If it were up to me, I’d choose the 1944 and the 2009 versions, unless you particularly enjoy seeing the same dialogue delivered by a different set of actors.  With regard to what we imbibe during an evening of throat-cutting, my guess is start with Guinness and finish with a hot toddy. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Opinion — Amazon, Apple, Authors And Traditional Publishers

Leaving the high moral ground issues and marketing matters aside for a moment, the book battle between Amazon and several major publishers is initially about the use of different business models, especially as it relates to the burgeoning e-book phenomenon.  Amazon embraces what we have come to know as a wholesale model.  That is, the bookseller pays so much for each book and they may sell it for whatever they want — even use it as a loss leader if they choose.  Most major publishing houses wanted what’s called the agency model — that is they set the cost to the bookseller and also set the price for the purchase.  In other words if the publisher wants the book sold at $12.99, booksellers must do that.  Of course, in both cases, the publishers and booksellers would make a profit, but in the agency model, there wouldn’t be any pricing flexibility for the retailers. No special sales or discounts, unless the publisher approves it.

Legally, the publishing houses might very well have won the day when the dispute went to the court because, while it may not afford the public or in some cases the writer the best possible deal, agency pricing is not illegal. Many companies in many businesses that have strong brand recognition and customer loyalty can and do demand that of their retailers.  But there was something else that the judge didn’t like about the situation.  The publishers, it is alleged, got together with each other and with Apple to set prices and policies.  If it's true, it is collusion and that is illegal.

As of today, three of the world’s largest publishers have settled with the U.S. District Judge, agreeing to end their current agency agreements — for the time being.  MacMillan and Penguin plan to fight the suit with the continued support of the highly respected Authors Guild, an association of published writers, and the American Booksellers Association, whose noble cause it is to support independent bookstores.   They have a counter accusation. They believe that Amazon is guilty of predatory pricing.  And certainly a case may be made for that. Nonetheless most folks, whether they liked the judge’s decision or not, seem to think Amazon won this round big time.

This is generally regarded as a win for readers who will likely benefit from lower prices on reading material.  But there is an argument that it will hurt the quality of the work in the long run because publishers won’t nurture and support their writers if they can’t ask for higher prices on e-books.  And there is also an argument that if Amazon (and perhaps Barnes & Noble) has this advantage, the result will further damage independent bookstores because of these lower prices.

As a writer, surviving as such by the skin of his teeth, I have divided loyalties.  As an older human, a veteran of the print media in many of its forms, a devoted library fan and a more than frequent visitor to bookstores, where I buy books on paper, I want very much to see the sacredness of the book in its traditional form be eternal.

Amazon CEO and Founder Jeff Bezo
As a midlist writer, likely approaching the end of his career, there is a flicker of hope that e-books and booksellers like Amazon will be entirely more friendly to my aspirations than traditional publishers have been.  Publishers, despite arguments to the contrary, are and probably must be dismissive of writers who haven’t achieved a brand name level of recognition. Unless a writer is a big name or can become one quickly, you are not a product that publishers can promote or big booksellers can sell, save Amazon or-late-to-the-game Barnes & Noble. I say this as a member of the Guild, as a writer recently published by Penguin and, again, as a person who buys his books from independent bookstores.  And I say that as someone who has never read a complete book — other than my own during the editing process — on anything battery operated.

However, I like to think of myself as a realist.  While the specific direction of publishing and all its possibilities cannot be foretold, the general direction is clear.  What we are witnessing is an adjustment in keeping with all the adjustments we humans are making in all areas in an increasingly inter-connected world.  Just as third world countries jumped from having no telephones to suddenly having smart ones, just as we are now downloading movies on Wi-Fi, getting our news on i-pads, covering wars with twitter and getting our maps without unfolding that giant piece of paper over the steering wheel, we will eventually get most of our books on a device or on multiple devices.   The transition may not be absolutely total, but it is inevitable.

The battle that we are witnessing has nothing to do with serving you the reader or, frankly me, the writer.  The battle is about who owns the business.  It’s a battle waged by CEOs and boards of directors, shareholders and public relations firms.  It was truly difficult to feel the pain of Borders as a corporation in a capitalist society when they ran aground, when only a short time earlier they cleverly and coldly defeated their competition. They were responsible for shuttering the doors of who knows how many small book businesses, just as Starbucks brought an end to a zillion mom and pop corner coffee shops. 

But consumers embraced the huge bookstores for awhile.  Read a book, have a scone, pick up a date.  Some writers thrived, especially the best selling ones.  On the other hand, many of us, writers with a modest but loyal following, suffered from brand-name dominance the big box bookstores provided. Many of us, successful in the previous book world populated by independent bookstores and libraries, where we could get some attention, were tossed out of our comfy nest by the success of Borders and its big box cousins who lusted after the best selling brands.*
Scott Turow, President, Authors Guild

Then Amazon happened. Live by the sword, die by it.  The big stores were victims of changing times, new technology and, apparently, smarter competition. When the e-book revolution began, Amazon led it.  Now Amazon is threatening to blow the lid off the publishing establishment, not just in the pricing of e-books, but as publishers themselves.  What we are witnessing with these lawsuits is the ugly grappling among corporations, all of them — Apple, Amazon, and half a dozen conglomerate publishers not to mention other vested interests — all larger than you and I — as they play king of the hill.  

As an old-fashioned consumer and a writer in need of occasional inspiration, I am not happy about this.  I love walking into bookstores.  It’s inspiring in a way that searching the pages on Amazon’s web site isn’t.  But as a writer, who likes to write and wants to be read, I have to either give up the idea of being published — or adapt.  And there are some advantages to the average writer when some of the old-fashioned limitations are lifted.  One of them is that we don’t have to sell 100,000 copies to succeed.

In the end, I think, we all have to understand, there are fewer and fewer video stores, very few public telephones, almost no yellow pages and fewer and fewer watches.  The time, like everything else, is on the smart phone.  When travelers pack for a long trip, they don’t have to have an extra bag for their books.  When they drive, they can have their device read to them.  If they are in a strange place with nothing to read and no place to buy a book, they can download one, instantly and for less.  What do we think is going to happen?

I repeat, the battle isn’t about you and me.  It’s about who owns the business.  There is the old guard and the new one.  And as it is in any other business, there might very well be some bright exceptions to the trends — maybe some exciting niche publishers.  Maybe there will be new ways writers can (successfully) get into the marketplace on their own — and it is far more difficult that some would lead you to believe.  But I’m not sure the future of publishing is in the court system or in trying to circumvent the future.  It will come through smart ideas, through innovation.

The times, someone once said, they are a changin’.
*Post script:  Nothing wrong with best selling authors.  I am a fan and regular reader of several of them.  My point is only that when big box bookstores ruled, many midlist writers were dropped because of economies of purchase and difficulties of distribution.  The rise of Amazon, while it doesn’t diminish the sales of the great brand names, allows greater potential for writers with smaller followings to publish as well and continue to gain notice if the work warrants it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Film Pairing — Of Death And Freezers

I’m going out on a limb here.  One of the movies I’m recommending was blasted by the critics when it came out.  The other was hailed, but ended up in small, arty theaters for the most part.  I loved them both and will take the stings and errors of outlandish criticism in stride.

The first is Crazy in Alabama, a movie that nearly earned Melanie Griffith a Razzy.  It is about two parallel plots, each about injustice — a woman abused by her husband who resorts to murder, and Blacks not allowed to swim in a public pool in Industry, Alabama.  It was also noted that roadblocks were put up to prevent African Americans from voting as well in the 1960s.  Seems like so long ago.  Or, does it?

“Crazy” (1999) is an important word in the title.  There is a kind of sensibility that the viewer is going to have to buy into in order to enjoy the film.  Melanie Griffith’s over the top character runs around the country with the head of her dead husband in a hatbox (the body is in the freezer). And there is the matter of her life’s ambition as well, which is to appear on the TV show, Bewitched. This half of the film borders on outright goofy.  The other story is warm, moving, and somewhat more believable.  One of the reasons you might want to take in this unheralded movie is to watch a talented Lucas Black and a surprisingly talented Meat Loaf (as the bigoted sheriff) as well as witnessing Rod Stieger chewing up the scenery as the judge who brings the film to a satisfying but unlikely end.  Just remember this film is rated “S” for silly, not entirely a bad thing. Fannie Flagg and Robert Wagner have cameo appearances.  Antonio Banderas directed.

Bernie (2011) is based on a true story.  It is also silly.  When you switch from Crazy to Bernie, you will not move into a different reality.  What’s odd about this is that Bernie is true — or as true as these things can be.  It is based on a story in the Texas Monthly about a beloved mortician in the East Texas town of Carthage who kills his wealthy companion and stuffs her body in a freezer. The story was entitled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.”

Jack Black as Bernie
The true stars of Bernie are the town residents (not actors) who offer their views on the murderer and the murder in the spirit of such shows as 48 Hours and 20/20, only much better.  Jack Black is the gay chubby charmer who puts a spell over elderly women church goers and eventually charms an extremely prickly Shirley MacLaine, a wealthy and somewhat sadistic 81-year-old widow into an ill-fated relationship.  Bernie, who was drawn to the benefits of the high life her wealth offers, discovers that hadn’t really conned Shirley as much as he’d fallen into her trap.  There appears to be only one way out.

Matthew McConaughey plays it straight and low-key (he never takes off his shirt) as the law, allowing Black to pretty much steal the movie.  In my view, Bernie is not any less silly than Crazy, just because it’s true.  The similar tone of the movies make them a set.  Bernie is directed by Richard Linklater.  Incidentally, the film provides great insight into the various geographical and cultural aspects of the great state of Texas.

For my drink recommendation, let’s stay in the original South and have an Alabama Slammer — equal parts vodka, Southern Comfort, Amaretto, sloe gin and orange juice.  I think this will work for the Texas as well.  For those opposed to alcoholic drinks, remove the alcohol and you’ll have an Anita Bryant.