Thursday, February 16, 2017

Film Pairing — Cinema Noir, Two More From Orson

As I may have suggested a couple of posts ago, Orson Welles could be the poster boy for American film noir. Personally I would only go so far as to say he is certainly one of the prime contributors. One of his films, Citizen Kane is among those films at the top of everyone’s “best list” and some argue that it is the first American noir. There are those who claim the classic is not noir at all.

For tonight, we’ll leave the sacred Citizen Kane and the noir debate for another day, focusing instead on two other Orson Welles’ films, each with a unanimous noir stamp.

The Third Man — This film is the basis for the novella by Graham Greene in an odd turn around of process. Here, we visit moody post-war Vienna, deep in shadows and shadowy deeds.  Joseph Cotten visits in search of an old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). And the mystery begins. Cotton’s friend is hard to find and the pieces left behind become increasingly suspicious to Cotton. There is evil here; but where does it reside? The authorities or Harry Lime?  The old world backdrop is the the true beauty of the film, and cinematographer Russell Metty takes full advantage of it, including the final scene as Welles, the missing Harry Lime, explains his view of the world to his old friend as they are atop a Ferris wheel observing the people below as ants not particularly worthy of any empathy in their suffering at the hands of Lime, himself.  The film was directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949.  Trevor Howard is also featured, as is Alida Valli as Lime’s love interest.

A Touch of EvilCharlton Heston, as the force for all that is good, never really challenges the slovenly evil Orson Welles for the center of attention in this late noir (1958) film, also shot by cinematographer Russell Metty. The action takes place in seedy adjacent towns straddling the border of Mexico and the U.S. With exception of those scenes in which Welles — bloated, unshaven, sweating and slobbering — held forth as a corrupt border town sheriff, I had the feeling I was watching a film made for television. But when Welles was on, he filled the screen and, well hell, he scared me. Even the sets he chewed were more impressive during his scenes.  No doubt this is a worthwhile film for noir lovers, but there was more ‘60s than ‘40s in the atmospherics and I prefer the latter. The cast was also a curious lot.  In addition to Janet Leigh and the notable performance of Akim Tamiroff, we have brief appearances by Joseph Cotten, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Dennis Weaver. Orson Welles directed the film based on author Whit Masterson’s novel, Badge of Evil.

The dirty sheriff in Touch of Evil drank his bourbon straight up perhaps one too many times.  Don’t be a dirty sheriff. Think Vienna.  As I understand it, the Viennese drink lots of coffee and beer.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On Writing — Reader’s Expectations: To Meet Them Or Not Meet Them

Authors live and die by the reviews. I have been blessed by the attention over the years.  And I thank the highly educated, overworked and often underpaid reviewers who help keep writers afloat.  In my couple of decades I have never argued with or complained about a review. I don’t intend to do that now. But a very recent book review of the second in my new novella series about a forensic accountant touches, perhaps inadvertently, on the topic of authors writing in a different style and or a different genre — meaning he or she is likely not to meet the expectations of a reader familiar with writers most popular or previously accepted work.

This happens to many writers. Some never leave the pattern of their original success. From the readers’ point of view, I understand. It is much like one of those moments when you  expected a Coke and were shocked, even disgusted at the taste of iced tea, though under normal circumstances you like iced tea as well. It was the shock of the unexpected.

 So I’d like to clarify my soon-to-be released novella, The Black Tortoise. For those who followed the more popular Shanahan series, the Peter Strand series is entirely different.  Shanahan is an older man,  former Army sergeant, who came to terms with life and with who he is a long time ago.  The stories are standard book-length and often quirky. They take the tough P.I. approach. The Shanahans are more likely to have violence and, by sheer length, accommodate a more complicated plot.  Peter Stand, introduced in The Blue Dragon, is a young Chinese American, dealing with personal identity as he attempts to solve much more conventional mysteries (almost cozies, puzzles to challenge the reader to find the murder before the book ends) in a quick-easy-to-read style. The Strand series is part of Orca Publishers “Rapid Reads” program designed for the reader who wants a quick read on the flight from Phoenix to New York. Or for a younger reader who identifies with a protagonist still coming to terms with himself and the world around him.

Now, in my world, I can enjoy American Psycho and “Midsomer Murders,” but I would hate to have to watch one when I was expecting the other.

My first real brush with this phenomenon as a writer was when Good To the Last Kiss was released by London’s Severn House.  Compared to the Shanahans, this is a dark book indeed. People I knew and loved, not to mention most critics, didn't want to talk about it.   It hasn’t sold well. Yet I consider it to be my best. I suspect it never got to the readers who might have liked it because my previous books kept me off their radar. On the other hand, this is my problem. I’m not the only one who has to deal with this kind of thing. Writers are finding ways to keep from being completely pigeon-holed. Another book, also one of my favorites, is Mascara: Death In The Tenderloin, a transgender mystery. It was also too different.  Most publishers shy away from books by authors who venture too from the expected.  As have other stubborn writers, I published it myself.  I’ve not gotten rich, but I’m so happy I wrote what my soul was telling me to write because part of being a genuine writer is taking that risk.
Please, read the Shanahans. Perhaps there is a reason why many consider these books the best of what I do (did).  But if you are adventurous, consider reading some of my non-Shanahan work as well.

The inspiration for this post was a negative review from a highly respected source.  The fact is every word in that review was correct, which is why I found it worth comment because it also pointed out the expectation game. While I am working on a new P.I. set in Palm Springs, and a little more in the Shanahan tradition, I’m also working on other mysteries that wander pretty far outside the box.


Thursday, February 2, 2017

On Publishing — Book Covers And A Sly Self Promotion

Much like parents and their children, writers aren’t supposed to have favorites among the books they’ve written.  I do have favorites, but I will, keep those to myself for the time being.  Instead I will focus on the cover design of my books.

For the most part, mid-list mystery writers (and I flatter myself) have very little choice in the covers  I’ve always found that frustrating.  I’ve spent most of my life as an editor of publications where I had much more control over the visuals that accompanied the words.


The world of book publishing is different.  Of the eleven Shanahan novels, the mystery series for which I am best known, I hadn’t even a warning of what the covers would look like before they were selected. The manuscript went into the system and eventually out popped a book with my name on it.  However, the legendary editor Ruth Cavin at St. Martin’s accepted my request to look at artist Janet Woolley for my out-of series book, Eclipse of the Heart.  Woolley and jacket designer Michael Accordino created my favorite cover of any of my books. It’s quite clear that Woolley read the manuscript before doing the illustration.  The whole book is in the illustration, enhanced by the elegant typeface chosen by Accordino. I regret only that I had not contacted her to tell her how much I appreciated her work. I was pretty new to the process. Unfortunately, the book is out of print.

German Cover Got It Wrong
From a marketing perspective I suspect all book covers should entice the potential reader to pick it up and look at it, or click the icon, the first steps in the purchasing process.  However, as all fervent readers have discovered on their own, the cover can be grossly misleading.  As an author I want the cover to honestly reflect what’s inside — all of it, including the tone and the quality of the story and the prose that tells the story. It’s a kind of “truth in labeling proposition. Eclipse of the Heart did it for me. It was perfection. If you don’t like the cover, you probably won’t like the novel.

Bless The Italians
Looking at the cover that way, the book didn't fare so well in the German translation, at least as it applies to cover art.  Die Tequila-Falle, (the Tequila Case) as the title was translated, was interpreted by the publisher as a sexy gay romp. I’d call that somewhat dishonest.  Readers wanting a sexy gay romp won’t find the romp.  And readers wanting a more significant story are likely to skip it altogether. By changing the title and more importantly, the cover art, the German publishers also trivialized Mexico, a rich setting integral to the story. Tequila, I might add, had nothing to do with anything except perhaps the publisher’s thirst.  Fortunately the Italians redeemed my appreciation of translations with this totally appropriate cover of the Shanahan mystery, The Concrete Pillow.  It also brought me my first million (lire, that is — about $600 at the time). Bless them for not calling the book The Spaghetti Caper.

When Severn House, publisher of the last seven Shanahan books, picked up my new series featuring unlikely P.I. partners Noah Lang and Carly Paladino, they allowed me to suggest a cover photograph that inspired the first book, Death In Pacific Heights. They worked it out with photographer, Adam Moore.  With the second series book, Death In North Beach, I submitted a night photograph I had taken that illustrated that historic neighborhood . Both covers met the criteria of matching the stories told between the covers. Now, whether it met the marketing criteria is something else.  Neither zoomed to the top of The New York Times Bestseller list.  Even so, the author is happy.

I was also involved in the reissue of the first four Shanahan novels in e-book and paperback formats, working directly with San Francisco-based as well as talented and experienced Visual Strategies. For me, participating in the bookmaking process adds considerably to the joy of writing. The result, in this case, was a strong and clearly inter-related series of books.

I have a new book, a novella, coming out in March. I look forward to The Black Tortoise, the cover of which will mirror its predecessor, The Blue Dragon. I’m hoping for a third. Even in this late date in my career, there is a temptation to take a new book from manuscript to published novel, with a near complete hands-on approach. I say “near” because only a fool would proceed without some sort of skilled copyediting and design help.