Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rant — Tales of The Home Invaders

Because I could not hear my ringtone above household ambient noises, I changed it to something jarring enough to get my attention. There was a particularly annoying sound of crows screeching that guaranteed I’d hear the phone even if there was a war on TV.  I had not considered that my neighborhood is home to a murder of crows who now have me answering the phone when it doesn’t ring. What I’ve accomplished is to add the sadistic, ventriloquistic calling of the crows to the hordes of robocallers, the recorded voices of actors wanting to cure my pain, send me on a river cruise, or refinance my mortgage. Occasionally there will be a live human at the other end.

My 30-year old clock radio is by my bed.  It is lit with large digital numbers that are very easy to read in the dark even when awakened, bleary-eyed at 4:43 a.m.  When the call came, I was scared and angry, I hoped no one had died, that my building was not on fire, and I was not called to bail someone out of jail.  Had to be something like that.  4:43 a.m.

“Your computer has been hacked,” the male voice said after I had quieted the crows and said “hello.”  The caller was male who spoke English with a thick accent.

“It is 4:43 in the morning,” I said with as much outrage as possible.

“It is 4:43 in the morning. You’re computer has been hacked.”

“You are a sick @#%$#&,” I said and disconnected.

The phone shrieked again.  I should have ignored it, but I had thought of a few more obscenities. I don’t often get a chance to use them. Most of my calls are from robots. This was a live creep.

“You are a sick @#%$#&,” he said in a thick accent.

I disconnected and shoved the phone under a pillow.

I’ve not heard from him again. Perhaps others are helping him expand his vocabulary. These people should be locked in a room full of angry crows. But he is not the only home invader.  Several grocery store chains – none of them I frequent – send me pages of brightly covered coupons to save on products I don’t use.  On Tuesday, every Tuesday, the postal worker wads them up and shoves them en masse through the small metal mail slot so that the mutilated paper tears, crumples and becomes stubbornly stuck in the slot.

My insurance company, my telephone company and my bank seem to think I need a near daily reminder of their existence or just want me to know how much they love me. My mother, bless her, used to do that by phone, but I never saw my bank in those terms. Perhaps I should send them a Whitman’s Sampler or a dozen roses. Maybe a murder of crows— ravenous, rabid ravens.

Perhaps I should apologize to that sick @#%$#&. It would show I have evolved spiritually. Nah.  

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Film Pairings — Two Approaches To Serial Killer Tales

Not all serial killer movies are born equal. The Calling grossed roughly $3 million, a fraction of the $73 million spent just to make The Bone Collector, which ended up with $151 million in box office receipts. Yet structurally, the two have a lot in common. In each, a former star cop forms a team to piece together mysterious but similar clues to what otherwise appears to be random killings.  They must do so quickly to stop the quickening mayhem. Also in both cases, protagonists must solve the puzzles despite the obstruction of incompetent higher-ups. Sounds like a formula to me.
Gil Bellows and Susan Sarandon

The Calling — I usually love high-quality low-budget crime films.   They are often projects driven more by love than money. Because they are a result of personal passion, they may not have that blockbuster appeal.  Yet, they often provide a deeper glimpse into the characters. They are everyday folks like us, and we accept that such horror could happen in our own ordinary lives. Susan Sarandon, Donald Sutherland, Christopher Heyerdahl and Ellen Burtstyn bring a level of gravitas to a story that is more personal than suspenseful. Jason Stone directed The Calling, which was based on the novel by Inger Ash Wolfe and released to video in 2014.

Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie
The Bone Collector — I’d like to root for the underdog; but The Bone Collector is the better movie.  In this case, money made a difference.  Its plentitude here is apparent in every scene, in the sets, the lighting, the extras, even the camera angles. The plot, the dialogue and the acting aren’t necessarily superior; but the environment in which that all takes place is more seductive and where needed far more terrifying. This 1999 movie also has box office star power — Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. Given the somewhat sappy Hollywood ending, there was no need to kill off the film’s most likable and most intriguing character. The Bone Collector was based on the book by Jeffery Deaver and directed by Phillip Noyce.

In both films, a chill is in he air. You might want a little warmth.  So I’m suggesting a glass of decent whiskey as an accompaniment. Or, maybe a cup of hot chocolate will do as well.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book Notes – Trace Conger And The Arrival Of The Questionable Mr. Finn

Trace Conger

The Shadow Broker by Trace Conger is a good read. What it did, in addition to providing the satisfaction of reading an interesting and innovative crime tale, is re-ignite in my mind two on-going debates in the publishing world.

The first is independent publishing, the new and kinder word for self-publishing, which replaced the even worse sounding “vanity press.” The Shadow Broker is proof that it is possible for a well-written book to make it to market and have an impact without the backing of a major publisher.  Might the book have been even better had it gone though the traditional publishing process?  Maybe, but I doubt it. It’s solid as is.  Well-written and edited, with a great cover.

Might it sell more if it were traditionally published? I don’ know, but I’m guessing,  “yes.” Though I know from experience that an independently published book can sell better than one published by one of the big five that didn't provide adequate marketing support.  In this case, the book is doing well on Amazon, both in reviews and sales. Out of 45 reviews, more than two-thirds give the book five stars. It is also attracting Shamus Award attention, tough enough for any new writer.

As I said, Conger’s first novel brings other questions to the surface: one is: Can we justify rooting for a seriously and I mean seriously flawed human being? Mr. Finn, the main character, is likable only in as much as everyone else is less so. As we often do in the political arena, we go for the lesser or least evil. We can’t help but root for Mr. Finn and his irascible father. Everyone else is worse.

Final question: Is there such a thing as the pornography of violence?  When does excessive, graphic blood and guts become merely obscene? This is a violent book. The thing is: it is no more violent than most of the books and films we buy into every day.  Personally, I would not, could not make a steady diet of reading at this level of violence. But just as sex-related obscenity is in the eye of the beholder, so too are graphic portrayals of violence. And, it is fiction. Depiction of violence in contemporary crime fiction often seems to be obligatory. There is no shortage here either. However, the strength of the story and the heightened level of suspense pulled me through my prudish, anti-gore preferences. The violence is organic, essential to the plot and to the development of character. In short, Conger has a winner.  

In fact, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t the first of many adventures of the easily compromised Mr. Finn. I would also be surprised if his series isn’t picked up by one of the big five publishers should Conger want to go in that direction.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Film Pairings – Danger In Small Places

These two crime films run against the trend. No special effects. No gratuitous violence.  And only one pitiful car chase between them. Instead we get literate, intimate stories about how crime affects those whose lives are intertwined with the victims, and stellar casts to tell the stories.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Torturo
In God’s PocketPhilip Seymour Hoffman, who died shortly after the film was released last year at Sundance, plays the guy who tries to clean things up after his particularly nasty stepson is killed. While director John Slattery fails, in my mind, with the humor side of dark humor, he does effectively render the culturally incestuous city neighborhood, God’s Pocket, as a place where murder, racism and xenophobia rule. Hoffman captures the well-intentioned but powerless poor soul with every movement and every utterance. His every action makes a bad situation worse.  John Torturo, and Richard Jenkins give their usual fine performances. The film is based on Pete Dexter’s novel.

Sissy Spacek
In The Bedroom — This is about as literary as a film can get.  I didn't read Andre Dubus’ short story, “Killings,” on which this film is based. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson play the parents of a young man who is about to embark upon his life. The youth, played by Nick Stahl, is killed by his girlfriend’s (Marisa Tomei) ex-husband. The event is devastating as we witness, moment by moment, the collateral damage. The killer, whose defense is self-defense, is out on bond and is hardly invisible in the tiny town. His presence and the likelihood his sentence will, if he is convicted at all, be light, is beyond the grieving parents’ ability to cope. I mentioned this film to a friend of mine.  A parent herself, she said this was one of the best movies she’d ever seen and that it is on her list of films she’d never, ever see again. Field, Spacek, Wilkinson and Tomei were nominated for nearly every award imaginable. The film was directed by Todd Field and released in 2001.

Refreshments: We can go from beer – PBR is okay – for the first film, which takes place in a seedy, insular, explosive city neighborhood to, considering the change of scenery, a modest white wine for the second, which has a charming emotionally repressed northeast lobster-trapping village as a backdrop.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

More Shanahan Shameless Self-Promotion

Often books by non-best selling mystery writers like myself slip into the marketplace and out of it without leaving a footprint (or a fingerprint, for that matter). Killing Frost, the eleventh and last book in the Deets Shanahan series was noticed. And I deeply appreciate it. Highly respected Publisher’s Weekly and venerable Kirkus Reviews gave it high marks. J. Kingston Pierce’s indispensable blog, Rap Sheet, recommended it. George Easter, editor of Deadly Pleasures, perhaps the most compre-hensive review publication specializing in crime fiction, recommended not just this last book featuring the aging P.I. from Indianapolis, but the entire series.

Current Issue
A couple of days ago, I received the latest copy of the popular Mystery Scene magazine. Kevin Burton Smith, keeper of all things private eye and founding editor of the web site Thrilling Detective, contributed a feature to the current issue of the magazine about the Shanahan series and the future of its author.

I’ve pulled a quote from the article not only because it puts the new book in a desirable, but conflicting light, but also because I hadn’t realized I could drive a reader to drink. Is this good?

Killing Frost is a beautiful, bittersweet farewell, both depressing and uplifting.  It made me want to hug my wife, or buy a dog. Or maybe just drink a lot. You think crime novels are hard boiled? Try growing old.” — Kevin Burton Smith, Mystery Scene.

I suspect the review season is over. I feel honored and lucky.  It also means I can get back to writing. The first book in a new mystery novella series comes out in September. I’m working on a third. I’m working on a standalone mystery as well.

Summer days in San Francisco are unpredictable as tourists from the Midwest waiting for cable cars in their shorts and sleeveless t-shirts can attest. For me, on the cold and dreary days nothing is better than a cup of coffee and my keyboard. On the sunny, warm and breezy days, there is nothing better than a stroll around town thinking about plot and characters.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Rant – Sinking Into the Summer Doldrums

Hello.  My name Ron Tierney, and I am addicted to cheap crime show reruns. You know what I’m talking about – grainy episodes of TV programs from 10 to 20 years ago with talking heads, reenactments and sometimes real life footage of court proceedings. The stories appear on strange channels –14.4 in my case — found by accident.  This one is the Escape Channel. And I find on it “American Justice,” “Snapped,” “FBI Files,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Forensics” among others. Sometimes you get flashes of real history – Jack Ruby, Daniel Ellsberg, Patty Hearst, J. Edgar Hoover.

Somehow I’m not able to find a suitable film on Netflix these days. I’ve consumed plenty of crime films and reviewed them here. I’ve obsessed over series like The Wire and House of Cards.  I can’t find a moment these days on Public television, when it is not playing “The Best of Pledge Week” after several pledge weeks. God Bless Suze Orman; but would she please shut up.  Regarding network TV, summer brings an over dependence on people losing a hundred pounds or more and other forms of torture and deceitful behavior disguised as “reality.” I really can’t stand seeing people cry because they can’t sing or dance well enough. I’ve seen every “Law and Order’ in existence and in all of its configurations several times. I’ve even watched reruns of “Blue Bloods,” enduring yet another Sunday dinner with the aptly-named Reagan family. I’m afraid “The News Hour” and “Jeopardy” are not enough to get me through the summer doldrums.

So I’ve turned, hopefully for just a brief spell, to real crime, case by case by case. I sit in my half-darkened living room drifting off during the commercials for all sorts of miracle products only available through an 800 number. When I awake, the narrator reminds me of what has already happened and provides titillating information about what’s to come, a bribe for me to stay awake for a “shocking” or “startling” piece of evidence.

As a crime fiction writer, I’ve found some of the information useful. I don’t know all there is to know about forensics, even old forensics.  Sometimes, the show provides insights into methods of investigation or how prosecutors determine who, when and if to prosecute. What seems common here is that the murder victim is almost always killed by a spouse or family member, and that it often — more often than not — takes years from the time of the crime to bring a defendant to court. And just when you think it’s over, it isn’t. There are a surprising number of mistrials or hung juries in capital cases. At least this is what my addiction has led me to believe.

I do learn a few things of value for my craft, but learning about clever murderers isn’t one of them. First, a deadly crime of passion is almost impossible to conceal. Blood splatter, DNA, forensics trip up the perp when he or she forgets the Boy Scout oath. No time to plan. Not enough time or skill to cover up what’s been done in a senseless rage. Eventually, the resources and bureaucratic stubbornness of the authorities yield sufficient data in these cases. Someone will be arrested.  In crime fiction, this amounts to a police procedural kind of story. It can be interesting, especially if the solutions are new or are especially creative. In my mind-numbing marathon of true crime dramas, it has much more to do with “how” rather than “why.” And while that is less interesting to me as a writer, it I important and has spawned a whole sub-genre of popular writers and best-selling books.

However, even when perpetrators have all the time in the world to plan a murder, it rarely goes well. The only time murders are unsolved, it seems, is when they are random – that is, there seems to be a ratio that the more random the choice of the victim, the less likely the perpetrator can be found. But a good fictional mystery or crime story demands, except in serial killer or horror stories, a connection between the criminal and the victim. How else can the reader participate in the solving of it?  Why else would a reader care?  And if the criminal isn’t a whole lot smarter than who we see on these true crime shows, there’s very little challenge for the reader. What I’ve noticed may be obvious to others — and this is true of more recent crime stories on the far slicker “48 Hours,” “20/20” and “Dateline”— in real life, sometimes the cops are bone-headed, but the murderers are almost always astonishingly stupid. When, on occasion, that’s not the case, even after the trial ends, we’re not sure beyond a reasonable doubt that justice was done. (This happens more often when the defendant can afford a good attorney.)  I can’t tell you how often I wasn’t convinced that the verdict was the right one. Of course there weren’t eleven other people in my living room pressuring me to agree with them or waking me up, for that matter. The blessing is that fiction writers can make the case airtight.  Or not.

As far as the addiction is concerned, I know I should do something about it. I should read some Mark Twain, listen to Beethoven, or take a walk. However, when I do these things, I’m still spinning plots and creating characters. Can’t escape it.