Thursday, May 30, 2013

San Francisco Neighborhoods — Divisadero And The Birth of NOPA

The New, Trendy Bi-Rite

There was SOHO in Manhattan, WEHO in L.A. and SOMA in San Francisco. Now there is NOPA — also a San Francisco neighborhood.  NOPA stands for North Panhandle.  For the uninitiated, the panhandle is a pleasant, green, well-traveled thin strip of park that eventually leads to the much larger Golden Gate. The main street for the gentrifying neighborhood is Divisadero, once the dividing line between San Francisco proper, to the east, and the Outerlands, once barren sand dunes that extended west to the ocean.

NOPA is the new “cool” if “cool” is still cool.  The restaurant called NOPA is one of the trendiest brunch and dinner places in town.  Other restaurants and bars have followed and are in the works, including a high-class “mezcalaria.”  Bicyclists have settled in. A low-key, live music nightclub — Justice League — dominates the night. Though in all fairness, the club was there before all the hoopla.  During the day, the first adapters are trying out a coffee shop famous for rye bread and the chic Bi-Rite market, which has set up its second store here selling its pricey products, among them its obsessively sought, eccentrically-flavored ice cream. Pleasantly odd shops are also popping up on the quickly evolving block.
What lurks behind the barricade?

The city prepared for the rebirth with a lamp-lit street island planted with trees and flowers as well as sidewalk cut-outs with tables and chairs for that sidewalk café ambiance.

Predictably, neighborhood homes are being renovated and rents are going up. It’s also quite likely that some of the older businesses will not be able to adapt to the new pedestrian street traffic consumer profiles.  This seems to be a childless, younger crowd.  The baby stroller operators are elsewhere — The Marina, Noe Valley, Fillmore and Union.

NOTE:  When I moved back to San Francisco 16 years ago, I moved to this once more rugged neighborhood, then called “The Western Addition.” This is where my San Francisco my fictional P.I., Noah Lang, partner of Carly Paladin in the San Francisco mysteries, lives — though he has more creative digs as well as a more exciting life.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


The 69-year-old semi-retired private detective reluctantly takes the case of a Mrs. William B. Stone who seems to have lost track of her husband. Shanahan, who finds his once lonely life complicated by an attractive younger woman, nevertheless finds his client's husband almost immediately. But the job isn't over. The problem is the man is dead and buried in his own back yard. Who did it and why leads the detective to the city's meaner streets where the veil of secrecy is finally lifted.  Available here.

“Intricate, lusty, funny, moving adventure about believably vulnerable characters.” — Publishers Weekly

"The interest in this fine novel its characters, especially the appealing Shanahan, keenly aware of death's proximity as he re-engages with life." — Houston Post

"The pragmatic investigator makes a good first impression." — The New York Times 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Crime Films – Two You Might Not Want To See

I’m not recommending these movies to anyone.  One is so sleazy that a hot shower is in order after viewing.  The other is amateurish and pretentious.  Yet, there is something bold and original about both.  If you are an adventurer in your film going and want to witness how much risk some off-the wall creative minds will take for their vision, you may want to see The Paperboy and Arc.

The Paperboy has an all-star cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Macy Gray, Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, John Cusack and Scott Glenn.  They all sweat convincingly in the Florida humidity. Efron (clad only in his tighty whities for half the film) and McConaughey  (a noted shirtophobe) provide enough male pulchritude to suggest soft porn while Kidman, fully clothed, mimes a sex act so graphically that the scene could qualify for a triple x rating. Some call it “air sex.”

The story is about two ambitious reporters trying to keep a convicted murderer from execution. Kidman excels as the aging vamp drawn to the convict, though she’s never met him. As the reporters attempt to gather the facts about the trial and arrest, Kidman joins the team and inadvertently seduces Efron, the virgin younger brother of one of the reporters. Cusack provides a quiet, dumb menace that reflects, it seems, the character and atmosphere of the film. Lee Daniels (Precious) directed this 2012 film that accumulated awards and accolades as well as considerable criticism.

Arc (2006) cannot boast the cast or the production quality of The Paperboy. One wonders what rookie director Robert Ethan Gunnerson could have done with the resources available to Daniels.  Corrupt police, drugs, prostitution of all type and kidnapping form the backdrop for a heroin-addicted young man called “Paris,” played by Peter Facinelli (in his pre-Goth days) as he attempts redemption.  The film is an unconventional take on a conventional story.  A fundamentally decent guy caught in a dangerous underworld, Paris wants to redeem himself with a noble deed.  He decides to find a kidnapped child.  With the help of a newly recruited prostitute, he begins his search for the boy. In an attempt to make the film seem higher-minded than it is, the dialogue is filled with out-of-character quotes from famous writers and philosophers.  Dialogue courtesy of Bartletts.

It’s impossible not to pay attention to the peculiar, seemingly random, cinematic style.   I’m guessing one hand-held camera, using available light, did the job.  From time to time we see the film in black and white, then for no apparent reason, in color. A spotlight (or flashlight) is used to follow the actors when natural light isn’t enough, achieving a strange, moody effect.

Both films use the hokey split-screen device. And both leave a lingering, though not necessarily pleasant aftertaste.  However, both are provocative. If that’s enough, perhaps they are worth a few hours of your time.

To accompany these hardcore movies, (if you are not driving anywhere) go for the straight stuff— whiskey, gin, etc. — keeping in mind that you’ll be spending some time in a sweaty swamp with mosquitoes, alligators, water snakes and worse, soulless humans.

Monday, May 13, 2013

On Writing — When Secondary Characters Want More

I don’t pay attention to trends in crime writing.  I figure that by the time I’d finish writing a book in concert with what was popular when I began, the hordes of readers who appreciated the trend will have moved on to the next one.  The truth is I’m still writing private eye novels, which proves how disconnected I am to pop culture.  But I’ve read recently that one current trend is to have mysteries with characters who may play a minor role in one book take the central role in the next.  This creates a blend of the series approach to writing with that of standalones, or one-offs as some call them.  The benefit for the reader and writer is continuing to visit old friends, while also infusing a large measure of freshness. Not a bad idea.  And while it is not a new approach, it is heartening that we’re looking at structure and technique rather than something more ephemeral, such as introducing angels or vampires.

Louise Penny. It takes a village.
I’ve not done that exactly.  But I’ve had secondary characters steal the limelight from the intended principals.  For example, I’ve had a number of readers suggest that if something should ever happen to aging private eye Deets Shanahan, protagonist of 10 of my novels, his girlfriend, Maureen, could take over all the private investigating and all novels after the old man’s demise.  In fact, some readers went further.  They suggested I take Shanahan out next time around, leaving Maureen to find out who did it.  I’m glad they like her, but her rapid ascension wasn’t anticipated. And I have a soft spot for the septuagenarian, especially as I approach the category.

This kind of pleasant surprise turned out to be true of the second series, too.  Two private investigators —highly professional Carly Paladino and street-wise Noah Lang —anchor the San Francisco mysteries. However it is clear to me that Thanh, a smart, unconventional gender-bending assistant to the firm and SFPD Homicide Inspector Vincente Gratelli, the veteran, world-weary widower are just as, if not more, popular with readers.  

Oddly enough, Thanh’s story was told in Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin.  That short novel not only preceded the Paladino and Lang books, it was the backstory for all the books in the series.  And Gratelli was a major player in my unrelated mystery Good To The Last Kiss before becoming a regular in each of the Paladino-Lang stories.   In all cases these “supporting” players made the books better. Their prior and independent appearances, I believe, provide additional depth not only to their character but to the subsequent books in which they appear. 

What am I trying to say?  That I understand the appeal of an interlocking cast. Those trend-setting or trend-following writers may be onto something when they revisit and expand the roles of minor characters, especially those who show promise.  It is a form of repertory, not of actors, in this case, but of characters. 

Secondary Character — William H. Macy is Lincoln Lawyer's P.I.
This isn’t new, of course. For example, Michael Connelly has cross-pollinated his protagonists.  Tormented cop Harry Bosch has worked cases with Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller and former FBI agent Terry McCaleb — all leading men.  However, in this case, a better example of tis particular trend might be Louise Penny who has focused on the potential contribution of a realistic, yet conveniently captive, supporting cast.  She has exploited the benefits of murder in a tiny village, where all the minor characters know each other — and there are plenty of them — and MUST reappear from book to book, climbing into or shrinking from the limelight, depending on the story. Though Penny appears to be more in tune with the current trend, Connelly has nothing to worry about.  Between the two of them, they are the bestseller list.  For good reason.  Even so I’m still pissed that Connelly whacked the Lincoln Lawyer’s P.I., a great secondary chararacter.

In the end, though, a trend is a trend.  I don’t believe one writes to a trend successfully, nor starts one intentionally.  It’s serendipity. And once established, good writers are trend resistant. For the new and struggling it’s not quite the same. One must deal with publishers and agents who are dazzled, if not outright hypnotized by the most recent fashion turn in mysteries.

In my case, would it help if I explained that I’m one-eighth Norwegian?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Novella Makes Comeback, Plus A Not So Subtle Self Promotion

Novellas, even mystery novellas, are not new. Crime fiction critics make the case that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness  (1899) was not only a mystery novella but noir as well.  And there are many writers, many still doing this short crime fiction, though they weren’t often branded with the somewhat precious term, “novella.”  Too French, I suspect, for the tough guys.  Also, if you look at the length of much of the now revered pulp fiction, most were pretty short —novella length.

Somewhere along the continuum, the expectation for successful crime fiction went from a pocket book you could pluck from a swiveling metal rack to a doorstop.  So, while novellas have never died, there is a revival of interest in a book that won’t keep you up all night or one you could start during a flight from San Francisco and finish before your touchdown in Chicago.  I am convinced that the birth of the e-book is largely responsible for the renewed interest. The idea that a reader need not make a commitment to a 500-page novel and that one can buy a few hours of escape for less than $3.99 for the digital version rather than $16.95 for a slim trade paperback reinvigorates reading in a culture increasingly addicted to a hand-held world.

The publishing business, no doubt still dazed by the speed of the digital revolution that permeates all aspects of our lives, has taken notice.  Amazon, the elephant in everyone’s room, created Kindle Singles, which is dedicated to shorter works, including crime fiction.  Dutton, a subsidiary of Penguin, revived an old imprint, Guilt Edged Mysteries, to address this market.  William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins, is introducing Witness, a kind of sub-imprint for e-book mysteries.  Though they will publish, or in some cases, republish full-length books, they will be releasing shorter works as well — what they also call singles.  Sounds like a an appropriately appropriated music industry term.

For me, this is a good thing.  I have never been able to write the 120,000-word blockbuster — “the big book” my former agent pleaded for.  Nor do I have what it takes to write short-story crime fiction, only increasing my admiration for those who do. The novella is the perfect length for me, a Goldilocks syndrome sufferer.

With that said, I am finishing the first Indianapolis novella featuring my best-known character Deets Shanahan and his lovely girlfriend, Maureen.  And I’m in the last throes of production of the third novella in the San Francisco mystery series.  Private eye Noah Lang dominated the first two novellas.  His partner, Carly Paladino, takes the lead in this murder case, working with Inspector Gratelli.  More on these soon.

Meanwhile, let me push both Death in the Haight, published by Dutton (Penguin) $2.99 and Mascara, Death in the Tenderloin, published by Life Death & Fog Books $3.99 — two novellas that will engage you on your flight to Philadelphia or on the train from Union Station in D.C. to Grand Central in Manhattan.

A REMINDER: E-books have become available at many libraries and through Kobo at independent bookstores.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opinion — The Side Effects Of Product Placement

Below is an updated blog post from a couple of years ago.

The extinct Studebaker
From time to time, I’ve been chastised for using brand names in my writing. I often identify the brand of beer, the make of car and, where I can make positive or at least neutral observations about the place, the name of the restaurant where the characters dine. For me, what a person chooses in his or her life helps define the character of the person I’m describing. For example, one of my characters in the San Francisco series, Noah Lang, drives a beat-up, old Mercedes. Here is a man who likes quality but can’t afford it. His specific choice — it’s kind of ratty looking — suggests that he really doesn’t care what other people think about him. He is comfortable with who he is. I could have said that he drives a “beat-up, old luxury car.” But I want to help the reader come to terms quickly. What if I used the generic “luxury car,” the reader rightfully thinks, “Could be an old Cadillac.” Well, no, that wouldn’t do what I want the description to do. I like old Cadillacs, but they are big and showy. Old Mercedes aren’t, and neither is the character.
The compact  Princess telephone
I can tell you I’ve never received a penny for naming a product, never so much as a free cup of coffee for mentioning a restaurant. Most writers pass through life anonymously — especially those of us who live well below the New York Times bestseller list. No one knows who I am. However, in an era of paid product placement, I can’t blame a reader for being suspicious of brand names appearing in the story. And it is possible to write by saying “she lit a cigarette,” or “he jumped in his convertible,” and get the job done. But truthfully, did anyone else wince when it showed James Bond driving a BMW? Could Rockford have driven a Chevette? A woman wearing a Hermes scarf or a man driving a Dodge Ram provides more telling glimpses of those character’s lives than using either the simple “scarf” or “pickup truck” or a dozen adjectives. Using a brand name can be an effective shortcut and make it real to the reader.
Again, there are no rules, only choices. A reader might have a greater sense of the timelessness of the story if those kinds of specifics are spared. Twenty years from now there may be no such thing as a Blackberry. Culturally, though, might it not be particularly rich for the writer to reflect the times with greater specificity? And would the potentially banned brand name require writers to replace Blackberry with “a versatile communications device?"

They say that if you look real hard you can still find them.
UPDATE:  In the short time since this was published, the Blackberry has nearly become an anachronism, which shows how the use of products can date a work and do so quickly.  This can be good or bad.  For me, I like to freeze the story in the time period it was created, though a young, new reader of the early Shanahans might find it hard to relate to such a world. Stone Veil was published in pre-smartphone 1989.  For me though, the real danger of using real products is that the mention is possibly a tacit endorsement or, at minimum, provides increasing awareness of the product.  And this means I may be promoting a product from a company that I believe is, to put it dramatically, doing evil things to civilization.  I hadn’t spent much time thinking about this early on.  I had no idea then that there were corporations or individuals whose lobbying budgets are bigger than the GNP of many countries. Do I really want to boost the sales (however miniscule my power to do so may be) of companies like Nestle or tycoons like the Koch brothers?

Then again, reality is reality. Most of us don’t know that when we bought this or that product we were contributing to the destruction of the rain forest, causing farmers in India to kill themselves or supporting the inhumane treatment of animals, let alone helping companies purchase legislators who will do their bidding. Nor do our characters.  But the issue is worth thinking about.