Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Monday, January 28, 2013

Free Read — New Mystery Novella

The Story Takes Place in San Francisco's Chinatown

This is an experiment in publishing in which you have free access to a complete mystery novella (about 20,000 words) without having to have a special e-reading device or a special program.  It can be read on a laptop, desktop, pad or smart phone. As long as you can log into a website, you can do this.
I’ve posted this short novel for a couple of reasons.  The first is to introduce readers unfamiliar with my work to my writing. The second is to encourage all readers to explore the idea of short novels or novellas.  It is an interesting form and especially appropriate for reading on-line, especially in smaller time windows — on the plane, in the waiting room, or right before sleep.
Simply start at chapter one and scroll down for as long as you enjoy the story.  All the way, I hope.
The Dangerous Secrets of Ted Zheng is a traditional mystery about a young, Chinese American forensic accountant from Arizona who reluctantly gets tangled up in a Chinatown murder case.  There is something more than a murder, or murders, to solve. The investigation leads to a larger and more personal discovery.
At the end of each chapter, there is a comment section. Please feel free to express yourself as you go along or at the end.
If you enjoy this mystery, perhaps you’ll check out some of my other mysteries, many of them available for less than $4 in various e-book formats and some in trade paperback as well.  If you want to explore this kind of short fiction, check out Death in the Haight and Mascara: Death in the Tenderloin.

Click here for the free novella. That’s all you have to do.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Film Pairing — Erotic Thrillers, Emphasis On Erotic And Thrillers

WARNING:  At a time when violence in films is under increased scrutiny, perhaps a warning is appropriate for these two films — Wild Things and Bound. We’ve go an abundance of sex and violence.

A second warning should be sounded for Wild Things — not for sex and violence — but to alert viewers to not give up on it before they catch on.  The film begins as some sort of slick, adolescent comedy, a Mean Girls kind of movie.  It isn’t.  What you think is happening isn’t.  What you figured out is actually happening isn’t. It’s not what you think.  And you need to watch the entire film, including the credits because when the film appears to end, it hasn’t.

Matt Dillon plays a guidance counsel, accused of rape by two young girls — Neve Campbell and Denise Richards. Police sex crimes investigator Kevin Bacon wants to nail Dillon.  And Bill Murray, a sleazy lawyer, is tapped to defend the accused.  There is actually more sex than violence in this one. And the only one who keeps his clothes on is Murray. Wild Thing was directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and released in 1998.

If you think that the sex between Neve Campbell and Denise Richards is torrid, then you must hide your eyes when Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly get into bed.  There are those who mistakenly categorize this as a lesbian film as if that would be the primary audience.  It is that, but it is more than that.  It is a major crime thriller as well.

Tilly’s character is desperate to get away from her gangster boyfriend, but has always depended on the support of men she didn’t love to survive in the fashion she had become accustomed to, feigning empty-headedness and enduring some abuse and humiliation as the price she had to pay.  But she’s tired of it.  When she meets a very butch, gorgeous, independent, and tough Gina Gershon, all hell breaks loose. Joe Pantoliano is exactly right as the boyfriend, who is about to be swindled out of $2 million dollars by the new lovers and who will, therefore, be on the hit list of the mob to whom the money belongs.  Of course, it’s not as easy as all that.

The supporting cast is stellar, including Law & Order’s Christopher Meloni as the son of a mafia boss.  Bound was the first full-length feature by Andy and Lana Wachowski, who also directed Matrix, V for Vendetta and Cloud Atlas.  It was released in 1996 to shock and acclaim.

Bound would rank pretty high on my list of all-time crime films.  And these two are perfect for small-screeen, stay-at-home night.  And if you aren’t driving then a few bourbon on the rocks for the sensuous and suspenseful evening are appropriate.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Observations — Random San Francisco Street Art

Interior, Brenda's New Orleans Restaurant, Tenderloin

Mural, Clarion Alley, Mission

Restaurant Entrance, Mission

House, Near The Haight

Monday, January 21, 2013

Confession — Memoirs Of A Midlist Writer

It may be a silly thing to do, considering my inconsequential position in the universe. But I do more than dabble in silliness.

The first draft of a book with stories from my life is done. I’ve named it Albion and New Augusta, Confessions of a Midlist Writer.  Albion is a small town in Wisconsin where my father grew up and New Augusta is an area now incorporated in Indianapolis where my mother remembers the golden years of her childhood.  Below is the draft of the preface, which I may use if the book is ever published.

I Never Slept With Rita Hayworth
We are told not to write prefaces.  No one reads them, they say.  But I feel the need.  I have a confession to make.  One is that I might not be a “midlist” writer as the subtitle suggests.  It’s probably something not quite “mid.” It’s probably lower midlist.  Even so, I have published more than a dozen books and have almost always received good reviews.  Not always, but mostly always. That, of course, shows that good reviews do no necessarily translate into good sales or being a household word.  And, in fact, the stories about mystery writing are few. It’s simply one little life amidst billions of them. Perhaps you’ll find some of it amusing if it is published and you are stranded on a deserted island when a copy floats ashore.
Also, I wanted to tell you upfront that while I know many wonderful, talented and interesting people, upfront, I don’t know any famous ones. I worry that the word “memoirs” might promise more than it delivers in terms of celebrities or important historical information. The disclosures here won’t make it to gossip TV.  For example, I have to tell you a few things — things like I never slept with Rita Hayworth or partied naked with Prince Harry. You should not expect a lot of juicy confessions that involve people you’ve heard about.   However, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll put my celebrity contacts up front:
Nietzsche On Acid?
I shook hands with Roy Rogers at a rodeo when I was five.  I was once in an elevator with Brenda Lee.  William F. Buckley stood behind me once as I exited a plane.  Clayton Moore winked at me.  Rita Moreno touched my shoulder at a charity affair. I nodded to Kurt Vonnegut at the bar at an event where he spoke.  I was in the lobby of a hotel when both Julian Bond and Roy Orbison checked in. It was night. Roy was wearing sunglasses.  Emilio Estevez and I exchanged polite hellos in an advertising agency once.  I had to dodge Kiefer Sutherland in an Irish bar in L.A. He was headed to the bathroom.  He had just left a booth still occupied by Julia Roberts, who was smoking like a chimney. George Lukas once walked by me during an art show in San Francisco. I may have been a table away from Daniele Steele at a restaurant on Union Street and I may have seen and exchanged nods with Barry Bonds, but I’m not 100 percent sure.  It may have been some other guy who felt awkward that a stranger was staring at him.
Now that the rich and famous and powerful are out of the way, we can proceed with the story with expectations appropriately diminished.
Though, to be fair, drugs and sex are involved.  So is Nietzsche, as well as calling in a Cobra helicopter attack on a porcupine and some dicey adventures in French Lick, Indiana.

The idea was to write about a life.  Not a sensational or famous life — though not really a normal life either, if there is such a thing?

The Authors Guild Bulletin reported that Evelyn Waugh once said, “Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography.” I suspect that is true; but there may be other reasons. Maybe it is to come to some understanding and to wrap things up.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Film Pairing — Relevance, Movies On Worldly Themes

Crime, in the broader context, encompasses wars and other social uprisings that involve deceit and cause death and destruction.  For those seeking an evening double feature that allows us to escape escape from the news — and there are many times I want just that — this isn’t it.  For those with a strong constitution and a desire to try to understand what is going on in the world, these two films will explore conditions that are historically repetitive and provoke at least one question.  Have we learned nothing?

I was watching Charlie Rose a week or so ago. He had a fascinating interview with General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and was forced to resign because of his criticism of the Commander in Chief. It was an interesting discussion of war and torture and trying to win over a country while also trying to occupy it. The interview was worthwhile for many reasons, but for this post what came out of this was an unusual request made by the General. As he tried to educate or sensitize military teams and troops in Afghanistan, he had them watch the film, Battle of Algiers, released in 1966. 

One might call this a dangerous film.  On one hand it shows the effective strategy used by — depending on what side you’re on — the revolutionaries or terrorists.    On the other hand, the film quite clearly shows how the French occupiers continued to make matters worse through torture, intimidation and bombing — with all its collateral damage.

The film was critically acclaimed everywhere, except in France, where it was initially banned.  It was also used as a lesson plan for those fighting insurgents and the insurgents themselves.

In addition to its cinematic brilliance — and its unheeded warnings before the U.S. fully engaged in Viet Nam, it’s hard to imagine a more relevant film, especially as we attempt to disengage in Iraq and Afghanistan and try very hard to make all the right moves in the quicksand of the Greater Middle East.

The Battle of Algiers is a film that has a clear, documentary feel.  Sin Nombre tells a more personal story in a more traditionally cinematic way, but it too rings true.  Both films carry the seeds of much larger thoughts about problems in the world at large.  With Battle of Algiers, we deal with the problems of occupation.  With Sin Nombre, we are looking at escape — from the conditions we were born into, from the choices we’ve made in the past and toward a better life.  But there are all sorts of roadblocks in the path of redeeming the soul — or simply staying alive, for that matter.

In most big cities there are areas, usually poor and usually inhabited by disenfranchised minorities, where children join a gang not just to have an identity, though that may be part of it, but also to survive.  It is the creation of a tribe in order to survive the order and rules of the world they know.

Willy (“El Casper”) is a member of such a gang.  He is not especially enthusiastic about it, but he’s tough enough to deal with it.  He even brings a younger Mexican kid, who is in need of a tribe to protect him, into the gang.  But things go wrong for Willy.  The gang leader kills his girlfriend in a failed attempt to rape her.  Willy tries to repress his anger; but when the gang leader again tries to hurt a young woman during a robbery, Willy loses it and kills the gang leader.  He knows he is a dead man.  He befriends the young woman he saved during the robbery and tries to protect her as they both flee their demons.  They embark on a long trip north to the U.S. during which Willy helps her into a new world he understands he will never see.

This is a well-acted, beautifully photographed film that picked up dozens of international awards.  Cary Joji Fukunaga directed this 2009 film.

A reminder though, this is a reality-based evening.  We have the sense that real, bad things are happening to real, breathing human beings and that the real story doesn’t end when the credits roll.  I’d drink moderately during the films if you drink at all, and consider perhaps tequila straight afterward.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Opinion — My Little Movie, A Very, Very Subtle Self Promotion

A couple of years ago I finally felt that I had enough San Francisco in my soul to use it as the setting, even a character, in a new private eye series.  So far, there have been two books and two novellas featuring Paladino & Lang Investigations. The office is inhabited by Carly Paladino, a fourth generation San Franciscan whose PI background comes from an executive position in a high-toned security firm; Noah Lang, a somewhat lazy, street-wise P.I. who just wants to get by; over the hill Harry Brinkman, an old-school kind of guy who just wants keep his hand in and have a place to go; and Thanh, a gender-bending, multi-talented, part-time operative who keeps everyone on their toes and in their places.

Over the last few years, in my meanderings throughout the city, I’ve taken photographs of the city, and its diverse neighborhoods. And I’ve recorded some of the incredible art that local muralists have given to the public to view.  So I thought I’d put a few of those photographs together to give you an idea of the San Francisco I see and the city where my fiction occurs.  This snippet is roughly three minutes long, including some sneaky shots of book covers from the series.  Let me know what you think.

P.S.  To read them in order, get Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin, Death in Pacific Heights, Death in North Beach and Death in the Haight.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Opinion — Writing With A Point Of View, The Other Kind Of POV

The words “point of view” for the writer usually relates to the storyteller.  We’re talking first person, second person, or third (usually the omniscient).  But that’s not exactly what I mean by POV. 

We live in a contentious world and we live in a contentious country.  The incredibly clear line between what is called red states and blues states, which bears a strong resemblance to the North and the Confederacy, indicates a country almost equally divided with each having passionate opposition to the other.  The closeness of the presidential elections, the stalemate between republicans and democrats in congress, the great gun debate, same-sex marriage and the possible teaching of creationism as a science in public schools seems to have split us pretty wide apart. 

There are a number of non-fiction as well as “literary” works that put these problems before us.  Many of them try to explain the origins of the arguments and some suggest the superiority of one point of view versus another as well as potential paths to victory of one view or other.  These are, some more obvious than others, social commentary. But what about the genre writers?  If we write mysteries are we in any way obligated to keep our stories free of politics or personal opinions?

Focusing on the word “obligated,” I’d have to say, of course not.  But as a matter of pragmatism, perhaps it is wise, in “our entertainments,” to keep from alienating a good chunk of the population.  Readers, or consumers, as they are sometimes called, may very well avoid those views with which they disagree.  

How Do You Take Your Crime Fiction?
In a slight variation of Hoosier philosopher Kin Hubbard’s comment, “You pays your money, you takes your chances.”  If you write a book that is little more than a political diatribe, then that is what you have and you will take your chances with book buyers and reviewers. Most readers, myself included, certainly don’t want political rhetoric in my evening read.  We may have picked up an escapist bit of crime fiction in order to avoid the constant nattering.  At the opposite end, if your book is completely “relevance free,” then you take your chances with book buyers and reviewers, who might see it as without substance. Though we all may differ on our preferences, personally, I want contemporary, realistic crime novels and it doesn’t bother me at all if what I read causes me to contemplate a larger picture. 

What many writers do, I believe, is touch upon something particularly relevant to the times, but gloss over the larger moral or ethical significance. They do so by focusing on the puzzle of the mystery itself or on one person and the wrong done to them, a wrong that by and large, we, of nearly all political persuasions, can agree is wrong — premeditated murder, blackmail, rape, fraud and any kind of deception that takes advantage of the innocent.

But individual writers are as likely to be political as anyone else, though less likely to make their persuasion public.  Would you buy one of so and so’s books if you knew he or she gave $10,000 to the political party or candidate you abhor? Would you suddenly look at the story he or she told with a more cynical eye?  Has the writer’s political point of view crept into the novel? Might we think it has, even if it hasn’t?  And why would you want to provide financial support to someone who gives financial support to those who might be trying to screw you over.

And there is this question.  Is it even possible for our POV not to have some bearing on the stories we tell?  I can’t imagine that one’s views on the issues of our times aren’t a factor in the creative process.  We create situations, or rather define them, and build characters who make choices. And the book ends. 

But one person’s revolutionary is another person’s terrorist.  For one, an immigrant may be a noble being, willing to suffer hardships and risk imprisonment in order to seek a better life for his or her family.  For another, an immigrant may be a criminal. The law is the law.  

One question to ask is:  Do you know the politics of your favorite authors?  Can you tell what they are from his or her writing?  Does it matter?  Even in the slightest?

Since I asked, I’ll try to answer the question.  I don’t know the politics of any of my favorite mystery writers — and by favorite I mean those who I regularly read.  To pick one, I’d be willing to guess that my politics were not far from James Lee Burke’s, though I don’t and probably can’t know that. I pick up something about him as he writes about the people in his novels and the actions of Robicheaux and Purcell.  There is a sensibility to his writing and characters that I find comfortable — essentially a point of view.  Michael Connelly is another prolific writer that I keep up with.  And here, I have no idea of his personal politics or really the POV of his main characters.  Perhaps it is his journalistic background or perhaps it is on purpose, but other than “get the bad guys,” I have no sense of Harry Bosch beyond wrestling with evil and of the Lincoln lawyer himself, who has learned to live with it. 

Because of the fact that I’m fascinated with politics, and even though I have absolutely no right to know, I would find it interesting to know which of today’s popular mystery writers voted for Romney and which for Obama.    But the truth is: Sadly, if I did know what is clearly none of my business, it might very well influence what I purchase.

Incidentally, the notion of relevance plays a part in Friday’s Film Pairings.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Film Pairing — The Young William Petersen, Signs of Things To come

William Friedkin directed the low-budget film To Live and Die in L.A., based on the novel by Gerald Petievich.  It’s a fast moving, stylish piece of cinema — with the notable presence of the music of Wang Chung — about secret service agents and the pursuit counterfeiters. A largely unknown and svelte William Petersen was cast as the primary secret service agent, supported by a cast that included Willem Dafoe, John Turturro and Dean Stockwell.  This is a great Friday night escape, with visually riveting, tense action, but with little to tax the mind.

The success of this film and especially Petersen gave the future CSI principal a second film in which to shine — Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann.  Like To Live and Die, there is what some might say is an overriding sense of style.  It may only have been a little ahead of its time.  The film ages well and is gaining increasing support as a cult DVD hit.  Manhunter, oddly enough foreshadowed two other cinematic events — the first appearance of the character Hannibal Lecktor* and the extensive use of crime scene technology to solve crimes long before Petersen, many years later, starred in a show that would set the bar for such forensics-centered crime-solving drama in the hit series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its impersonators and incarnations. 

Manhunter was based on Thomas Harris’ first book about Hannibal Lecter*, Red Dragon.  According to Wikipedia, Harris was not thrilled with the film, so the book was made into a second film, Red Dragon, in 2002. Anthony Hopkins reprised his stunningly scary Silence of the Lambs role in the remake, which is essentially a prequel to Silence. Brian Cox nonetheless made a fine psychopath as the imprisoned Hannibal in Manhunt, and Tom Noonan, also does a fine job as the current madman and Hannibal wannabe, who must be stopped before he kills again.

The 2002 version (Red Dragon), probably riding on the box office and critical success of Silence of the Lambs and the chilling performance of Hopkins, was a more successful film than Manhunter at the times of their respective releases.  However, time is more than redeeming the earlier version.  There are many who regard Manhunter as the best of the Hannibal Lecter* series even though it not part of the “official” collection.  Petersen, however, did not go on to be a major Hollywood lead. On the other hand, fame did not escape him. As many people know of Petersen’s Gil Grissom on the highly popular CSI for nine seasons as they do of Hopkins’ Hannibal. 

While I am tempted to suggest fava beans and a nice Chianti for the evening, that should be saved for Silence of the Lambs.  However, a hearty red is not out of the question nor is sipping some Scotch on the Rocks.

*The spelling of Lecktor is used for Manhunter.  Lecter is used in subsequent movies

Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Notes — Confessions Of A Discontented Deity, A Different Kind Of Mystery

I asked Michael Z. Lewin about his new book, which is a bit of a departure from his two critically well-received and popular mystery series. Here is Mr. Lewin’s response:

Confessions of a Discontented Deity is a different kind of book for me, for sure.  A novel, yes, but not obviously a mystery except in the mystery-of-life sense.  But that doesn’t mark a sea change in my oeuvre or my interests.  I’ve always been more interested in people than in poisons, more interested in why people do things than how they kill each other.  A writer friend of mine, Carter Wilson, responded to my previous book (Family Way) by saying that as a mystery writer I was like a surgeon who got into the slicing and dicing before he realized blood and guts were involved.

Nor is the God who narrates these Confessions much of a stickler for what one might call the genre of religious forms and practices.  The basic idea is that if God created man then to understand God all you need to do is look at man, men, and work backwards.  That reasoning offers you a geek who likes to play with His toys, get laid, and avoid hassle.

Yet men can change — well, some of them.  So God too can change.  And in Confessions He reconstructs the latest time when He discovered Himself to be changing.  And He tells what He did about it.  In the course of the reconstruction He explains about Life, on earth and elsewhere in the Universe.  And why men (and women) came to be created.  And what’s going to happen next.

There’s even a chapter in which God solves a crime.

Michael Z. Lewin
This is not my first book that has been “different,” and I’ve never been one to stick even to a single series.  In the late ‘90s I published Rover’s Tales.  In that book Rover narrates his adventures as an “independent” dog, but in many ways it’s really a book about humanity, looking up from ground level.  Well, now “dog” has reversed itself and become “god” and instead of looking at man and womankind from below, Confessions is a view looking down from the heavens.  So maybe it’s a new series.  Dog, God…  What’s next?  The Ogds?  Whatever they are.  Meanwhile Rover, though unnamed, does make an appearance in Confessions.

A long time ago it was a revelation to me that for the tax folks instead of being a writer I was a “small business.”  If I were a better businessman I would have been writing versions of the same book over and over, like many of the most successful crime folks seem to do.  But I’m not much of a businessman.  So here, instead of more Albert Samson, is God.  How good a writer I am is up to you to decide.

However, for those interested in Samson, just let me say that I’m just finishing a Samson short story.  It is the fourth in a series in which he has the same client.  The first of these stories, “Who I Am” is the one honored by the Private Eye Writers of America with the short story Shamus this year.  It was followed in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by “Good Intentions” with “Extra Fries” yet to be published.  And, I hope, the fourth and last in what amounts to a mini-series.  MZL

Michael Z. Lewin has written more than 20 novels and numerous short stories as well as stage and radio plays. A resident of Indianapolis for many years, he lives in Bath, England.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Film Pairing — Breaking Up May Be Hard To Do, But Murder Might Speed Up The Process

Oliver Stone, unlike such directors as Spielberg or Capra, has nearly as many detractors as fans.  I’m a fan.  And as such, I understand that I will not necessarily get an uplifting message in the end.  I also understand I might get a flawed film. However, I am pretty much guaranteed a film that will keep me glued to the screen until the credits start rolling.

Some writers have said this was Stone’s homage to the genre, and I’m guessing that U Turn fits the strictest definition of “noir.” Stone manages to turn blinding sunlight into noir.  And you don’t know what having a bad day is compared to these couple of days in the life of small-time operator Sean Penn on his way to pay off his debt to some gangsters.  He cruises down a desolate Southwest highway in his 1964 and1/2 red Mustang convertible.  Penn’s punk character, under a deadly deadline, gets stalled in Superior, Arizona.

The film is based on a book by John Ridley who, along with Stone, wrote the screenplay.  The film is inhabited by an incredible collection of characters — a most disgusting mechanic played almost too well by Billy Bob Thornton, an abusive husband played by Nick Nolte, a game-playing siren embodied by a sexy, sultry Jennifer Lopez and the town tough-guy wannabe, played by Joaquin Phoenix.  John Voight, who was skewered by the critics in this one, plays the wise (or crazy) possibly “blind” Greek chorus in Native American clothing — a kind of “artistic” flourish, possibly. With all the other strange characters, I would ask, “why not?”

We witness greed, betrayal, violence, murder and a whole lot of bad luck. U Turn was released in 1997 to mixed reviews.  I say go for it.  Next time I think I’m having an unbelievably long run of bad juju, I’ll think of Mr. Penn in U Turn, yell an obscenity at the universe and count my blessings.

Body Heat (1981) is modern noir as well.  There is also less disagreement among the critics about it being a genuinely good film.  While not based on a book, the film has its roots in the classic novel and legendary film Double Indemnity.  Fortunately, Body Heat stands on its own with extraordinary performances by Kathleen Turner and William Hurt.

Both U Turn and Body Heat are steamy films and not just because they are in Arizona (not a dry heat in this case) and Florida, respectively, but because the sex approaches soft porn.  You may not want to watch either of these with your kids. 

Again, in Body Heat, we have a nasty, wealthy husband (Richard Crenna), a sex-hungry wife (Kathleen Turner) and a horny man (William Hurt), not tethered by responsibility, who has a compromised sense of morality that is easily tempted into further compromise.  A young Mickey Rourke and a young Ted Danson have supporting roles in this excellent film, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan.

In both films, killing the spouse, seems to be the expedient solution.  So take a few hours off from winter and enjoy the sweaty bodies dealing with lust and greed.  If you turn the heat up at your place, maybe you can make one of those drinks with umbrellas in it to enhance the dark fantasy.