Sunday, December 21, 2014

Observations — 1947, Some Fine Books and Plays, And Last Stand Of The Big Band

Steve Reeves
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  India and Pakistan gained independence from Great Britain.  The Hollywood “Blacklist” was created by The House of Un-American Activities Committee.   Prussia ceased to exist.  Arabs and Jews rejected proposal to split Palestine.  Carbon dating was first used. Microwaves were discovered. The transistor was invented.  Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific in the Kon Tiki.  Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Meet The Press” debuted on NBC.  John D. Rockefeller donated the land for the U.N. building. John Paul Sartre wrote Existentialism. Charles Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for Symphony No. 3.   Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway. André Gide received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for All The King’s Men. In 1947 we also read Saul Bellow’s The Victim, Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano and Dr. Faustus by Thomas Mann.  We watched Out of the Past, Odd Man Out, Crossfire, Black Narcissus, Miracle on 34th Street, Gentleman’s Agreement, Brighton Rock, Nightmare Alley, The Fugitive and Body and Soul.  We listened to “The Old Lamplighter” by Sammy Kaye, “I Love You For Sentimental Reasons” by the Nat King Cole Trio, “Open The Door, Richard” by Count Basie, “Managua, Nicaragua” by Freddy Martin, and “Heartache” by Ted Weems.  Among those who died this year were Al Capone, Aleister Crowley, Bugsy Siegel, Henry Ford, Max Planck, Willa Cather and Man O’ War.  Taking their first gasps were:  Iggy Pop, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elton John, Mitt Romney, David Bowie, Stephen King, Hillary Clinton, Carlos Santana, David Letterman, James Patterson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Nolan Ryan.  If you were around during this year of the pig, what were you doing?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Writing — Ch-ch-ch-anges, Now and Then

When you are born as the change is happening, you may not notice it.  Smart phones aren’t too smart for an eight-year-old.  They are simply telephones as expected. They are not too far beyond me even though I am a few days past 70, but I work it at the speed of a tortoise.

Editing — The Old-Fashioned Way
I am going through a manuscript written some years ago.  It is unpublished.  It is one of my favorites and one I have always believed was the most accessible, the one with the broadest appeal, of all my mysteries.  I thought it was my “big “ book, my best seller.  I received the most complimentary rejection letters on this one.  In fact one of the big publishing houses made an offer, but rescinded it before the paperwork was processed. I believe the company’s second thoughts were based on two ch-ch-ch-changes in the marketplace.  This was about the time the big box bookstores took over book retail, but long before Amazon and the arrival of e-books. The big boxes would order high numbers of each book because they could return the ones that didn’t sell. That meant publishers had to print 25,000 copies of a book to meet the chain’s demand, though books prior to this one sold 5,000 or so. It doesn’t take much to do the math. This big box killed many of us midlist writers who had good reviews and a modest but consistent following and whose sales only a few years earlier were profitable for writer, retailer and publisher alike. Some of those who slipped into near oblivion were multiple award winners. Also, about this time, as Borders swept across the land, publishers gained the ability to track book sales of any author in the marketplace. The sales figures of my books (The Shanahan series primarily), once acceptable, were not only transparent but didn’t meet the new number-crunching criteria set by the mega-stores. Even though this new “big” book of mine was a standalone and stood a chance of breaking out, I believe my sales record haunted me. My name didn’t inspire enough confidence. 

Though I was glad I kept my day job, I kept writing and kept looking for publishers. Good thing.  After a decade of writing and submitting, I found a home for my initial series, and in fact for what would be the next eight Shanahans. Incidentally, the latest, Killing Frost, is due out May 1.  I’ve also had others published, and my most recent books are also available in newer technologies — all the formats, including e- and audio books.  In the fall, a mystery novella will be released from a different publisher.  This shows a certain amount of adaptability to the ch-ch-ch-anging times. The idea of novellas or novelettes appears to be gaining popularity, perhaps boosted by the availability of the Kindle and its cousins and various reading habits of new readers.

However the “big” book was never published. It occupied a storage box in the basement until recently. Time has passed, and the book is almost a fresh read. Fresh in the sense that is almost new to me.  That holds promise. I can make what I consider a good book better.  Not so fresh in the sense that it takes place in the present moment. It’s a decade-old present. In a dozen or so years the world around us has changed, subtly perhaps. but changed.

Since that was written, what didn’t exist or was incredibly exotic is now common place — the aforementioned smart phone, plus battery operated cars, GPS, Google and its search capabilities and multiple view (satellite or street level) maps, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Spotify, not to mention the way we get news. In the scheme of things, all this is relatively recent.  The major TV networks are calcifying. We don’t need to wait for the six o’clock news and we don’t. We get 24-hour news on cable and streaming video to our phones. Moreover, everyone armed with a smart phone is a reporter. Everyone with a blog is an editor of a magazine, of sorts. We have aggregators funneling information to niche interests. We have video capability on our iPads and phones, allowing folks to report instantly from streets around the world.  They report riots, rebellions, and weather catastrophes.  The act of reporting may play a major role in world order and disorder, catch bad police behavior or catch a thief, overthrow a government or laugh at silly cat antics. One person with exhibitionist tendencies may take a “selfie” that is viewed by a million folks.

Whether or not all of this is utilized in a novel is far less important than the notion that this is our culture now, an aspect of the environment, even when we’re not actively using the technology or even aware of it.

In short, my “big “ book, written when there were still public telephones, when a criminal needed to be tailed physically instead of electronically, and when half the population smoked.  No texting or tweeting. Tattoos no longer mean you’ve just been released from prison. Even though the plot works and the characters have substance, this means my book needs at least some subtle updating to have the immediacy of now. The reader needs to feel he or she staying in the world he or she knows.  

On the other hand, I have another, smaller book, also pillaged from the paper- picture- and book-strewn cellar It is also old enough to be more retro than current.   In this one, however, there is benefit to its age, to its innocence of the passage of time.  It is life as it was, that is when life was at a slower, less complicated, and less efficient pace.  The patina adds dimension to the story, which is as much about an isolated small town stuck in time as it is about a solution to a crime.  Unlike the big book, which is meant to be immediate, this one is best left as is. 

I suspect many publishers and their acquisition editors think writers aren’t always the best judges of their work.  Noted.  But, after examination, both of these, in my less-than humble opinion, are worth getting out there in the marketplace, one in an updated fashion ready for a broad, mainstream audience and the other, a kind of retro rural noir, certainly quirky, probably more suited to a smaller, independent press, and to readers who appreciate quirky.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Rant — High Crimes And Misbehavior: Don’t Bother Calling The Authorities!

It is probably unwise for me to delve into politics on a blog that is also used to increase awareness of my mystery novels.  But I haven’t misled you.  I promised occasional rants.  And while my books are not lectures on social mores, they are about the world we live in as I perceive it.  You may not share my perspective, but as potential readers you deserve to know how I feel about such things as law and criminality. The comment section is open and I welcome disagreement as much as I do “amens” provided, of course, your comments are at least relatively civil.

Even if you are not a young Black man, and even if you are not fair-minded, or consider yourself to be your brother’s keeper, you should be concerned.  Even if you are what Tom Wolfe used to refer to as “master of the universe,” you are quite likely not rich or powerful enough.  The mix of corporate influence and government obeisance is the recipe for true Fascism and unless you are at the very top you will be ground up in its machine. One slight slip and you are at the mercy of “the authorities.”

Recently, from somewhere, down deep in my Hoosier roots, came the word, “cahoots.” It strikes me that I might have heard this word from Gabby Hayes, but it is so fitting now.  Unfortunately we have no Hopalong Cassidy to save us from rampant corruption and deepening injustice.  Corporations and your government representatives are in cahoots to maintain the status quo — low minimum wage and a reduction in benefits while executive salaries soar. There are more tax breaks for the rich, and banks are allowed to gamble taxpayer funds for their own profit, but never their loss. Meanwhile the highest court in the land says money is speech and the uninhibited purchase of our politicians may continue hidden by the rules enforced by the authorities.  In that case the wealthiest will have more to say and say it more often.

In fact, as I write this, there is a bill, guaranteed to pass that will raise limits on campaign contributions thus further promoting bribery. The bill also means less vigilance over Wall Street allowing them to return to their pre-crash ways. Yet we have no Roosevelt, Teddy or Franklin, to reign in the unmitigated transgressions the mighty have inflicted upon the powerless. We have Obama agreeing to sign the legislation. What does Wall Street have on the President that he would sell out in this way?  Who is running this country, anyway, Jaime Dimon? I voted for President Obama twice and am pleased that he has taken on some serious challenges.  What I don’t understand is his ongoing coziness with Wall Street. Have the bankers kidnapped his dog?

The bill allows banks to make risky investments backed by taxpayer dollars.  This is like you lending someone a thousand dollars to make bets in Vegas.  The guy loses half of it and then says you owe him $500 to make up for his losses. Big banker Dimon called legislators personally and it is reported the bill itself was written in language nearly identical to Citigroup’s proposal. Essentially, Republicans threatened to close down the government if Dimon didn’t get what he wanted. A banker — a friggin’ banker is running the show. 

In a related note, NSA chief James Clapper lied to the congress about government spying on U.S. citizens. Nothing happened to Mr. Clapper. Not even a time out.  Edward Snowden, who acted as whistleblower, was vilified by nearly every top politician as well as many in the corporate media, and was pursued doggedly for letting us know our private lives weren’t private. You are not supposed to know that.  Who do you think you are?  A citizen?  Is there any doubt he would face serious charges if he were apprehended? Corporal Chelsea Manning is serving 35 years for the part she played in shining the light in that very dark place.  Why would Snowden come home to tell his story? Anything he might say in his defense would be classified or redacted. He would be convicted before the trial began. In fact, he has been already. The authorities want to crucify him for questioning authority.

Now we know the CIA engaged in torture.  They called it “enhanced interrogation techniques.” They too appeared to lie to congress without repercussions.  But they didn’t do it all by themselves.  They hired and paid millions to a private corporation to do it for them. Cahoots is the word. In fact, aren’t we at least a little wary of hiring professional torturers after our private army debacle in Iraq with Erik Prince and his army of mercenaries? Remember Blackwater?  (In a P.R. move, Prince is now doing business as Academi.) There are also serious questions about Vice President Cheney, who called the CIA report “hooey,” as well as his former corporation, Halliburton. Cheney was chief architect and proponent of our “mistaken” invasion of Iraq, a war of convenience that was incredibly profitable for Halliburton. I guess if I can use the word, “cahoots,” Deadeye Dick can use “hooey.” Now, AGAIN, no one is being prosecuted for the torture. However, former CIA staffer, John Kiriakiu is in prison for 30 months for shining a little light into that particular dark corner.  (It’s sad to see Cheney walk free while we stop and frisk random black kids without cause.)

I’m not at all sorry to see Attorney General Eric Holder go. No one among the rich and powerful, even during all the crooked bank and Wall Street antics, has been pursued for breaking the law.  A few firms paid fines out of their petty cash drawer. No one is being seriously questioned for breaking the rules of the Geneva Convention, let alone the gross violation of the values we think we hold dear.  

This isn’t conspiracy theory.  This is out there for those willing to look, listen and put the pieces together. The impact of the intimate friendship among government agencies and branches and global corporations manifests itself on all levels.  Do we really want private corporations running our prisons and schools?  When the prisons are low on prisoners, the corporation will find compliant or indebted legislators, pass some laws extending prison terms or put some new crimes on the books. Corporate earnings will go up. Stockholders will be happy.  Teachers will lose their pensions.  And students will be good, little corporate dweebs.  What better way to validate a corporate privatization vision than to inculcate it in the school’s lesson plan? First eliminate the arts from the curriculum so students won’t learn to think for themselves.  Oh, that’s already done.   Once upon a democracy, some things were meant to be public institutions — schools, prisons, and roads. And what about private armies? I can see it now — Wal-Mart’s Fifth Infantry Division.  Impossible? No. The word is out that the new congress will attempt to privatize the post office.  A 222-year old public institution, once headed by Benjamin Franklin, will be corporatized.  Who, do you think, wants that to happen?

We also believed that our representatives shouldn’t be pawns of corporate interests. Yet, under current law, the purchaser and purchase price of a legislator do not have to be disclosed.  Did I just dream bribery was illegal?

What we have, as I suggested, is not new.  People in power have always wanted to consolidate and preserve that power.  It’s natural.  Many just see it as part of the game.  But it is insidious when allowed to go unchecked.  As it was when Teddy Roosevelt used anti trust laws and Franklin Roosevelt went after the banks to level the playing field, we need some reformation. Capitalism is fine until those at the top of the heap crush those below. They are doing so now with the blessing and kindly cooperation of the authorities.

We’re seeing abuses not only nationally and internationally, but locally when police departments, often in cahoots with prosecutor’s offices, fail to acknowledge, let lone fix ubiquitous bullying, corruption and unnecessary force used by a seemingly growing number of those in the thin blue line.  When the prosecutor acts like a defense attorney in a grand jury deliberation, is it any wonder the case doesn’t make it to a real court where due process can happen?

The notion that the authorities are allowed to act without accountability leads to local police using deadly force for minor infractions and powerful office holders and mega billionaires excused from the laws the rest of us must obey.  

Because the power is in the hands of the few is why we have such a huge income gap, a shrinking middle class and increasingly unequal access to quality education. It isn’t in the corporate interest to have the masses educated. They might figure out what’s going on.  They may read the fine print. It is the greedy consolidation and immoral protection of wealth, no matter how it is accumulated, in the name of “trickle down” that will eventually ignite real and justifiable class warfare.

Unfortunately the electorate is asleep.  Minorities most likely to suffer oppression from the authorities, women who see their rights backsliding while disparities in their health care increase, and people being paid below a livable wage did not fully participate in the last election.  Congress, in a few months, will be run by those who nakedly favor the rich, who believe in taxpayer subsidies for hugely successful global corporations while defunding, if not eliminating programs that provide help for those who have either stumbled on hard times or were pushed into a hole by changing business models.  And the elderly, who have paid into Social Security and Medicare all their lives voted for the very people who would deny them the fruits of that investment. How unaware can the electorate be? Will it be only the most destitute and oppressed who will finally, pushed to their limits, rebel as peasants did against their feudal lords?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Notes – The 30 Best Selling Crime Writers Of All Time

Edgar Wallace
Gérard de Villiers

Judging by my headline, I must be auditioning for the job of headline writer for The Huffington Post.  Yes, such a list is a stretch and certainly the results are debatable for many reasons.   There are many influential crime writers missing from this list — Cain, Thompson, Hammett, Chandler and all the Mac and McDonalds, not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself. True, but this not a list of best, but a list of the bestsellers.  And how, in this case, is a crime writer defined?  I did my subjective best with a list of best selling authors of fiction on Wikipedia.  The link and some additional notes are below.

Frédéric Dard
There were many surprises here.  Apparently a little too Euro-centric, I wasn’t at all familiar with a few of the Japanese novelists on the list. There were some other surprises.  Who is Edgar Wallace? I Googled. He’s real. Some seemed too young to be in the running.  For a fellow not yet 60, John Grisham’s appearance is pretty impressive. One reason for his success, and others, I suspect, is translations.  Grisham’s books have been translated into 42 languages.  Young as Grisham is, compared to the old and the dead on this list, Patricia Cornwell is 58, even younger. David Baldacci is 54, and Dan Brown is only 50. 

The key to this list is the total number of books sold. Each of the writers listed below has sold at least 100 million books.  Dame Agatha Christie has sold 4 billion. Here’s the list:

1  Agatha Christie
2  Georges Simenon
3  Sidney Sheldon
4  Erle Stanley Gardner
5  Jirõ Akagawa
6  Edgar Wallace
7  Robert Ludlum
8  James Patterson
9  Frédéric Dard
10  Jeffrey Archer
11  John Grisham
12  Irving Wallace
13  Mickey Spillane
14  Kyotaro Nishimura
15  Dan Brown
16  Arthur Hailey
17  Gérard de Villiers
18  Michael Crichton
19  Ken Follett
20  David Baldacci
21  Evan Hunter
22  Robin Cook
23  Ian Fleming
24  Rex Stout
25  John Creasey
26  Yasuo Uchida
27  Seiichi Morimura
28  Mary Higgins Clark
29  Patricia Cornwell
30  Tom Clancy

There are writers who straddle genres and questions about how to define crime fiction.  I didn’t include “horror,” for example.  Certainly Stephen King would have been high on the list.  Do Alistair MacLean and Clive Cussler belong in this category? Perhaps. How about the James Patterson factory?  What about Vampire fiction? Wikipedia, which has listed them by number of books sold, also notes that Jack Higgins would have likely made the list but sales records are incomplete. To see the list from which this sublist was was culled, go here.

Because there is an obvious level of subjectivity in defining qualifications for this compilation, your comments are especially welcome.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Film Pairings — Two From Texas, Young And Old Sam Shepard

Brooke Adams And A Young Sam Shepard

What these two films have in common — Texas and Shepard — is more contrast than comparison.   In one we see a wide-screen beautifully photographed drama lazily unfolding with a young Sam Shepard. In the other, we see an almost claustrophobic film, moving quickly and eventually explosively with an aging scruff of a Shepard.

Not well received when it was first released in 1978, Days of Heaven is, in my mind, a modern classic.  It is rare to see such a small story fill such a vast space.  But therein lies its beauty.  Sit back, relax.  Every slow moment is worthwhile.  Richard Gere plays a grifter on the run. He and his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) leave their shady big city-lives to become migrant workers. They find work in Shepard’s vast farm estate. The two also work Shepard’s character only to discover the cruel new con eventually conflicts with the heart. Shepard, who plays a genuinely decent human being, can say more without dialogue than most can with page after page of it. The film was written and directed by Terence Malick.

Michael C. Hall And An Older Sam Shepard
When I sat down to watch Cold in July (2014), I was immediately seduced. A father shoots an intruder in the middle of the night. The moment the homeowner, played by Michael C. Hall, fires the fatal shot is excruciatingly real.   It is also, as people say a righteous killing. The police agree.  It is dark.  Wife and child are in serious danger. The ordeal appears to be over.  But soon a strange and frightening older man appears to be stalking Hall and his family. We feel the terror. This clearly a hardened criminal, one upon whom neither emotional nor logical appeals can appease the deadness of his soul. The scruffy old man wants payback for his son’s death — perhaps the son of the man who killed him. Then, the artful twist. I didn’t see it coming.  (No spoiler here) Nor did I realize until the credits ran that this superbly ominous character was played by Sam Shepard 36 years after Days of Heaven.  The twist is worthy or perhaps better than those of Alfred Hitchcock or Patricia Highsmith and it immediately made me curious about the author of the book on which the movie was based — Joe Lansdale.  On this matter, I am inexcusably behind the times.  However — and it is a however — the first third of the movie made brought out envy. I want to have written those early scenes.  A nightmare had happened to an ordinary family. They did nothing to bring it on. It could have happened to any of us.  As I said, we have a kind of Hitchcock moment here.  The second third we meet the bigger-than life Don Johnson and some nasty but funny, off-the-wall, Elmore Leonard kind of characters show up. We’ve somehow slipped into a different movie.  During the final third, we enter still another film this time with a Sam Peckinpah influence, effective but with improbable heroics.  The film was directed Jim Mickle.

Despite a few dings on Cold in July, both films are well worthwhile.  Michael C. Hall (Dexter) shows that he is an actor with range.  Don Johnson is a lot of fun. For me though, the reason to pair these films for an evening of quality filmmaking is Sam Shepard.  For spirits to consume to accompany this doubleheader, let me suggest whatever it is they drink in East Texas.  Any suggestions?