Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Notes — Faraway Places

I want to thank the person who came up with the concept of “crime fiction.”  I’ve always thought that the term“mysteries” was misleading for many books in which there was no mystery, but where crime was central to the story. Now if someone would clear up “literary” crime fiction.

Author Tom Spanbauer
I traipsed around the Internet to find some sort of definition from dictionaries to book discussion groups.  What I found was more confusion. Even so, the term continues to be bandied about by reviewers and readers. During a recent interview with Omnimystery News, James Lee Burke said, “I try to write a book or short story that has literary merit.”  I’m not sure what that means either, though I would imagine that if any of the more popular crime writers fall in the so-called literary category Burke would be one of them.

I don’t believe there is a definition on which we can all agree.  Perhaps it is similar to what has been said about obscenity.  We can’t define it, but we think we know it when we see it. Again, if there is “literary" crime fiction, Faraway Places qualifies.

I suspect that author Tom Spanbauer neither intended to write nor would he now consider his first book, Faraway Places, a literary crime novel or a crime novel at all. Certainly none of the rest of his highly regarded novels has a crime as a central plot point. But this one does, and I believe the powerful story would appeal to many crime fiction readers, especially those who seek a high-quality, out-of-the ordinary read.

Thirteen-year-old Jake Weber lives in an isolated area in the remote state of Idaho. He is a sensitive boy.  Every sensor in his adolescent being is working over time. His mind and pen register the smell of the river when it is full and flowing and the scent of the river when it is shallow and unmoving.  He is aware of the feeling of the wind, the movement of the clouds, the flight of the birds and the sound everything makes.

That place up there in the stand of twenty-two cottonwood trees smelled like the wind  — a hot smell full of dry June grass and sagebrush and big round crusty cow pies and horse turds all mixed ….  Under those trees that sound the leaves made made you feel like you were having secrets whispered to you, and I whispered secrets back — like my secret name that I said aloud there.

One hot summer day and against standing orders from his emotionally distant father, Jake goes for a swim. He witnesses a brutal murder, as brutal as I’ve ever read.   This is only the beginning, however. Secrets are exposed. Nature, human and the rest of it, will have its way. It was particularly grotesque as murder stories go, a hellish epiphany, and a particularly rough rite of passage for young Jake out there in the middle of nowhere, where a crime like this could easily go unnoticed.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Observations — 1978, “Drinking The Kool Aid” And The Bee Gees

908 followers of People’s Temple Leader Jim Jones voluntarily drank lethal Kool Aid. Jimmy Carter convinced Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’ Menachem Begin to join him at Camp David to discuss a framework for peace. Carter said “no” to neutron bomb.  A former Italian premiere and his bodyguards were slain. U.S. agreed to turn over the Panama Canal to Panama. Carter doubled the size of U.S. national parks. The Supreme Court ruled women need not pay more than men for health insurance.  Carl Sagan won a Pulitzer Prize. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was shot. Charlie Chaplin’s coffin (with Chaplain’s remains) was stolen. Ted Nugent autographed a fan with a knife. First “test tube baby” was born.” Balloon angioplasty was developed. Sony released its first Walkman. Velcro was introduced to the marketplace. “Dallas” premiered on TV. One of the Flying Wallendas slipped off the high wire to his death.  Leon Spinks defeated Mohammed Ali. Ali returned the favor before the year ended.  Pete Rose reached 3,000 hits. Al Unser won his 3rd Indianapolis 500.  Bjorn Borg won the French Open and Wimbledon. China lifted its ban on Shakespeare, Aristotle and Dickens.  Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize for literature.  The Pulitzer for literature went to James Alan McPherson for Elbow Room.  The Mystery Writers of America gave its top award to William H. Hallahan, for Catch Me If You Can. We also read And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, The World According To Garp by John Irving, The Snow Leopard by Peter Mathiessen, War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. We watched Grease, Superman, Animal House, Every Way But Loose, Heaven Can Wait, Hooper, Jaws 2, Dawn of the Dead, Revenge of the Pink Panther, and The Deer Hunter.   We listened to “Shadow Dancing” by Andy Gibb, “Night Fever” by the The Bee Gees,  “You Light Up My Life” by Debbie Boone, “Kiss You All Over by Exile,  “Baby Come Back” by Player, “How Deep Is Your Love.” By The Bee Gees, “Thicker Than Water” by Andy Gibb, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey and “Three Times A Lady” by the Commodores.  Among those born in 1978 were Kobe Bryant, Usher, James Franco, Ashton Kutcher and January Jones. Pope John I died after only 33 days in office. Others who departed include Norman Rockwell, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Shaw, Bob Crane, Charles Boyer, Louis Prima, Gig Young, Keith Moon, Dan Dailey, Oskar Homolka, Keith Moon and Edgar Bergen.  If you were around. what were you doing during this year of the earth horse?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Commentary — The Brood Reunion, From 17 To 70

Fifty years ago, or so, seven of us who went to the same high school in the mid-sixties decided we would not lose touch with each other as time marched or meandered on. What we had in common was a lack of interest in sports, the marching band or math club.  Most of us were interested in debate, speech, radio, or theater.  We were an opinionated group and still are.

The Brood In The Beginning
Being too young to drink legally, we met after school at a neighborhood diner for coffee or in Rob’s basement. We hung out together talking politics, ethics, religion and sex, almost all of this in theoretical terms. Especially the sex part.  “What if” games were also popular.  You know, what if you were to be stranded on an island, what three things would you bring along?   I think that our desire to get together  again and again was not so much the loyal warrior brother mentality that some boys engage in, but mere curiosity — a “what if” game realized.  What if we were 70? What would we be like?  How might we have changed?  Would we still be alive?

We were white.  We had no friends of color because there were no students of color in our high school or in our neighborhood.  I remind you this was 50 years ago. We were middleclass white kids, probably somewhat unaware of our privilege, but also pretty much unaware that there were those with even greater privilege. We referred to our little group as “the brood” for practical purposes. This was the name we used among ourselves. However word got out that there was this exclusive club and kids we didn’t know wanted to join.  Join what? We weren’t a club or a fraternity, just a group of guys with common interests who got together to discuss subjects most kids our age weren’t interested in.  There was no application form because there was nothing to join. If we were smarter, perhaps we could have charged a membership fee and sold tee-shirts.  But no doubt we would have been found out and the allure would have returned us to the anonymity we had when it all began.

When high school was over, we began to disperse. College, marriage, and military service, as well as jobs took us in different directions.  Among us are two attorneys, two who did public relations, one a business executive, another a truck driver, and another with a career in the grocery business. Two live in Indiana (Indianapolis and Evansville).  Other hometowns include Springfield, Illinois, Grand Rapids Michigan, Atlanta, San Francisco and a lovely, historic town in Tennessee. Two are gay. There are tons of grand children, great grand children, and more than a few ex-wives. None of us are in poverty, though there is not a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet among us. Three are still gainfully employed. The rest of us are at least semi-retired.

At San Francisco's Magic Flute Restaurant

I am certain that we seven are not the only group that has set out to do this — have our own private reunions.  And probably others have succeeded as well.  I’m not suggesting this is news, merely rare. 

Over the years we have met in Indianapolis (several times), Atlanta, Biloxi, Miami and last week in San Francisco — 50 years since all of this “brood” stuff began.

I do draw a few conclusions.  The main one is that after several days together, it is clear to me the essence of each individual has not changed one iota.  We are merely old 17-year-olds.

As a murder-mystery writer, though, I cannot let this go by without using this set up as grist for the mill. There is a story here. Unfortunately, it presents me with a dilemma: Whom do I kill?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Observations — 1971, Great Books And Movies

Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
U. S. Apollo landed on the moon. Idi Amin took over Uganda. The Democratic Republic of Congo became Zaire.  President Richard Nixon oversaw the arrest of 13,000 anti-war protesters.  He lifted the U.S. trade embargo of China. China replaced Taiwan at U.N. Okinawa was returned to Japan.  A tidal wave and cyclone off the Bay of Bengal killed 10,000. The voting age in the U.S. was lowered from 21 to 18.  The Libertarian Party was formed. The U.S. Supreme Court approved bussing to achieve desegregation. The “Pentagon Papers” were published. The Kennedy Center opened with Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. National Public Radio began broadcasting.  Intel introduced microprocessors. Cigarette ads were banned on TV. “All in the Family,” “McMillan and Wife” and “Cannon” premiered.  “Benny Hill” was the top TV show. Charles Manson was convicted of murder. Vice President Spiro Agnew injured two onlookers with two, separate wild swings during a golf outing. Frazier won over Ali.  Satchel Paige was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Oh Calcutta opened in NYC.   Patton won the Academy Award.   We also watched A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, The Last Picture Show, Fiddler on the Roof and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  In Books & Literature, Chilean Pablo Neruda received the Nobel. The Mystery Writers of America gave its top Edgar to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö for The Laughing Policeman.  We also read Maurice by E. M. Forster, The Tenants by Bernard Malamud, and Angles of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, Wheels by Arthur Hailey and The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles were best sellers.  Simon & Garfunkel picked up three Grammys with Bridge Over Troubled Water. We also listened to “Joy To The World” by Three Dog Night, “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart, “It’s Too Late” by Carole King, “One Bad Apple” by The Osmonds, “How Can You Heal A Broken Heart” by The Bee Gees, “Indian Reservation” by The Raiders, “Go Away Little Girl” by Donnie Osmond, and “Take Me Home Country Roads” by John Denver. The music world lost rock legends Jim Morrison and Duane Allman. The bell also tolled for J. C. Penny (the man), Igor Stravinsky, Audie Murphy, Van Heflin, Harold Lloyd, Pier Angeli, Spring Byington, Louis Armstrong and Edie Sedgwick. Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dog took their first breaths, as did David Tennant, Idina Menzel, Mark Wahlberg, Jared Leto and Mary J. Blige.  If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the metal pig?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

On Writing — The Three Distinctions of Who And A Tiny Promo

O wad some Power the giftie gie us  
To see oursels as ithers see us!
   Robert Burns

There’s likely more distance than we realize between who we are, who we think we are and who others think we are. And perhaps the latter suggests as many different versions of us as the number of people we come across in our lives.

I believe this is a blessing, a challenge and a hazard for writers as it no doubt is for the rest of the population should we choose to think about it.  But for writers, this should be, I think, a consideration when creating characters and having them live and interact during the unfolding and closing of the story.  We have a writer, a reader, a character and how the other characters perceive that character — both physically and emotionally.

My older brother, whom I’ve mentioned before, frequently quotes the above lines from Robert Burns when he senses I’ve said or done something that indicates I must have no idea how I am perceived by others.  He says this in Scottish dialect and with a roll of the eyeballs. I suspect he’s right, but that doesn’t reduce my level of irritation. What I see is that what I am often accused of — pomposity — runs in the family.  I don’t feel pompous and I have friends who either don’t believe I am or are saints to overlook it.  As much as anything, I suspect, I look pompous. And this colors everything I say.

This I know.  Physically, I’m tall, heavy-set.  (I’m trying to avoid the “f” word.) I have a big head. A famous San Francisco hatter told me when I entered her store not to bother. “We don’t have hats for heads that big,” Also, I stand pretty straight for an elderly man. I’ve often been told that I am intimidating, which always surprises me.  I usually tell them that I wished I’d known that when I was younger, when I could have put such a quality to good use.  It’s too late, now. An intimidating old man is simply regarded as crazy.

This combination of unintended intimidation and unrecognized pomposity explains some strange events in my life. But it is a greater challenge to keep all this in mind when you juggle a half-dozen or more characters in a novel. I’m not so sure life is a box of chocolates.  It’s more like a box of onions.

Lately, I’ve been focusing on writing novellas. This form not only means a shorter time in which to frame a story, it pretty much also demands that the writer limit the cast of characters, though, blessedly, not necessarily their characterization. So this is where I spend my time and thought. For me, because my stories, long or short, are character driven, this shorter form has allowed me to focus on the potential subtleties of at least some of the characters.  As in life, some never really bare themselves.  When they do, the revelation may be just as dramatic as a plot twist. The three distinctions of who can help us create multi-dimensional characters who can propel the plot and twists thereof.

At the moment I’m working on the third novella in a new series of novellas. The first is in the pipeline.  The second is completed.  I’m working on the third.  In 2015, I expect to have a new novel and a new novella to promote. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in checking out my novellas here are two relatively recent ones, Death in The Haight, published by Penguin and only available as an e-book, and the unpredictably popular Mascara, Death in The Tenderloin, published by Life, Death and Fog Books, available in trade paperback and e-book.  Both feature San Francisco private eye Noah Lang and his partner in detection, the funny, gender-bending Thanh. Identity plays a significant role in both mysteries.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Observations — 1987, Not Reagan’s Best Year, Lots of Shootin’ At The Movies

A Spoof of Whom?
Margaret Thatcher won a third term. Ronald Reagan’s Contra-Gate exploded. He traded arms for hostages.   His veto of the Clean Air Act was overridden. The Supreme Court upheld affirmative action.  Reagan’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Robert Bork, was rejected by the Senate.  Gary Hart drops his presidential run after being caught in affair aboard ‘The Monkey Business.” Lynette “Squeaky Fromme, who tried to kill President Gerald Ford, escaped from prison. A China Vietnam border conflict killed 1500.  Occupied Palestine initiated an intifada against Israel.  Donald Trump ran a full New York Times ad attacking Japan.  “Jessica” and “Matthew” were the most popular baby names in 1987.  Gari Kasparov became world chess champion. Dow Jones closed over 2000 for the first time.  AZT was approved for AIDS treatment.  Prozac entered the marketplace. Van Gogh’s “Irises” sold for $53.6 million. The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first woman, Aretha Franklin. In 1987 we listened to “Walk Like An Egyptian” by the Bangles, “Alone” by Heart, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston, “Nothing’ Going To Stop Us Now” by Starship, “C’est La Vie” by Robbie Nevil, and “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake.  Platoon won the Academy Award for best film.  We also watched The Princess Bride, Full Metal Jacket, The Lost Boys, Predator, RoboCop, Dirty Dancing, Can’t Buy Me Love, Empire of he Sun, The Untouchables and Some Kind of Wonderful. In books and literature, Joseph Brodsky received the Nobel. The Pulitzer went to Peter Taylor for A Summons To Memphis.  The Mystery Writers of America conferred the Edgar on Barbara Vine for her Dark-Adapted Eye.  The Private Eye Writers of America gave the Shamus for best private eye novel to Jeremiah Healy for The Staked Goat. Stephen King had three in the top ten best sellers for the year: The Tommyknockers, Misery, and The Eyes of the Dragon.  Other big books included Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, Patriot Games by Tom Clancy, Windmills of The Gods by Sydney Sheldon, Kaleidoscope by Danielle Steel, Leaving Home by Garrison Keillor, and Bonfire of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe. A number of fine, famous folks died in 1987.  Here are some of them: Andy Warhol, Liberace, Hermione Gingold, Bob Fosse, Fred Astaire, Jackie Gleason, Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Robert Preston, Mary Astor, Geraldine Page, Rita Hayworth, John Huston, James Baldwin and Danny Kaye. If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the fire rabbit?