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    Sunday, April 04, 2010

    Book: Faith and Fear in Flushing, by Greg Prince (2009) 

    On a recent evening, Rosemarie and I were strolling around our Seattle neighborhood. A gent who’d gotten in his cups a little early stopped before us, turned to Rosemarie, and said, “What’s a good-looking woman like you doing with a Mets fan?”

    (I was wearing a Mets cap. As is my wont.)

    Rosemarie replied, “This man is my loving husband of almost twenty years. And I’m also a Mets fan.” Appropriately chastened, the interloper took his leave.

    We walked on. “So, uh, thanks for sticking up for me,” I finally said.

    “Forget it,” Rosemarie replied. “He did say I was good-looking, right?”

    Random abuse is part of being a Mets fan. I don’t know how it works between Cubs and White Sox partisans, but in New York you always have to explain why you root for the orange and blue. That’s because the Yankees are the Yankees, and the Mets are the Mets.

    But root for them I do. The Mets have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Before movies, before crime fiction, there was the Mets. Blame growing up in Queens, just a stone’s throw from Shea Stadium. They were my home team in every sense. (Rosemarie, a product of Flushing, would actually walk to games.) Being a Mets fan is an inextricable part of my identity. Ask anybody who knows me.

    Greg Prince is one of the writers behind Faith and Fear in Flushing, a regular stop for me. He’s spun the blog into a book. Subtitled An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, that’s exactly what it is: a look at how supporting a team, through good times and bad, becomes a constant, a way of marking the years. It’s about the twinned joy of giving yourself over to something larger, and the agony of being at the mercy of that which you can’t control. Substitute the names and it could be about your team. But if the phrase Grand Slam Single produces chills in you as it does in me, you’ll love it.

    So as Opening Day dawns on Monday, I will once again don my cap in support of the most dysfunctional team in professional sports. This in spite of the fact that they’re in a division with the Phillies, the National League equivalent of the Yankees and Red Sox: a perennial contender. That everyone expects them to flirt with .500 and place no better than third this season. That sportswriters have taken to calling for regime change as if the front office is part of the Axis of Evil, or comparing Citi Field to the hell of Dante’s Inferno.

    Instead, I’ll focus on the good times. Cementing my bond with my friend Mike, whose blog Metsanity is well worth reading. The 1986 world championship; game six remains one of the high points of my life. Meeting Tom Seaver, the man to this day known as The Franchise. Want to see hero worship? Look at my face.

    Or simply helping out another fan. It’s late 2007. Only a few weeks after the Mets’ storied collapse, blowing a seven-game lead with seventeen to play and missing the playoffs entirely.

    Whoo. Hang on. I need a minute.

    I have to run to the grocery store. It’s raining, so without thinking I put on my Mets inclement weather cap – yes, I have more than one – and head out. I’m in the express line when the guy behind me taps me on the shoulder.

    “I have to tell you, I’m so glad to see you,” he says to me in a quiet voice. “I haven’t been able to put on my cap since it happened.”

    “You’ve got to man up,” I told him. “Next year starts right now.”

    I am way, way too proud of that moment.

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    Sunday, March 21, 2010

    Related: Lonelyhearts, by Marion Meade (2010)/Five Came Back (1939) 

    They make an unlikely couple. Nathanael West, an author whose comic sensibility is so dark it can be difficult to find. And Eileen McKenney, a Midwestern girl whose big city adventures spawned a miniature empire.

    Theirs may not have been a “screwball world,” as author Meade subtitles her joint biography; West and McKenney both died too young in a car accident caused by West’s notoriously bad driving mere days before the debut of the play that would make Eileen’s exploits even more famous. But Meade’s telling has that tone. She writes with an informal, almost jaunty voice that suits what is ultimately a tale of kindred spirits finding each other, and prior to that a recounting of literary circles in 1920’s New York and ‘30s Hollywood. The most interesting material is about those orbiting the star-crossed twosome, like West’s overbearing mother and Ruth McKenney, the staunch Communist who gained her greatest fame chronicling her superficial sibling’s antics in My Sister Eileen (filmed twice, adapted into a play and later the musical Wonderful Town).

    It’s the rare biography that makes you think less of its subject – well, one of them – but it happens here with West, who comes across as pretentious and scheming. Amazingly, a stint in the Poverty Row salt mines matured him. The Day of the Locust, with its parade of grotesques and apocalyptic sense of alienation, is a book I respect without actually liking. Give me the realistically grim but more humane work of West’s Republic Pictures stablemate Horace McCoy.

    West’s greatest success as a screenwriter is, ironically, one of the first disaster movies. In Five Came Back he mixed disparate types – among them a gangster’s young son, his pistol-packing “uncle,” an anarchist and the lawman escorting him to his execution, plus Lucille Ball as a woman who’s been around the block with an EZ Pass – on a doomed airplane. Spoiler alert: five come back.

    The film plods in its early stages, serving as a better showcase for director John Farrow than West. But tropes become tropes for a reason. Once the plane crashes and the action moves to the jungle, the stock characters become more involving. West, expecting to receive sole credit, was dismayed to find himself sharing space with, among others, Dalton Trumbo, who transformed the anarchist villain into the voice of reason.

    Five Came Back was the sleeper hit of 1939, launching Farrow to the A-list. (ASIDE: Want to read about Farrow’s glory days? I wrote an article about them that’s in this book.) He would remake the film nearly 20 years later as Back From Eternity. Guess what else is on my DVR?

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    Tuesday, March 16, 2010

    Book: The Detective in Hollywood, by Jon Tuska (1978) 

    If I’ve learned one thing from the big dogs of the noir circuit, it’s the importance, nay, the necessity of documentation. Talk directly to the people who made the movies, get them on the record, create a body of knowledge. (Exhibit A, as I’ve said before: Eddie Muller’s one-of-a-kind Dark City Dames.)

    That’s what makes Jon Tuska’s overview of the private eye genre so vital. He did the legwork when there were still plenty of people around to interview, like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Montgomery.

    Even more impressive is that he committed to this undertaking in those dimly remember’d days before video and the internet, when research of this kind meant hard work. Tuska sat down with Lloyd Nolan, who played Michael Shayne, and Nolan brought along something a fan sent that might be helpful: a typewritten list of all of Nolan’s films. An asterisk by the title meant the fan owned a print of the movie.

    Tuska’s work is exhaustive but never tiring, guiding you through now-neglected series like the Crime Doctor and Mr. Wong, telling you which Charlie Chan films are worth your while. The chapter on The Thin Man movies also includes their many imitators. Tuska writes with wit and affection, but also a sharp critical eye. Some of his positions I agree with (dismissing all of Boston Blackie), some I don’t (no way is The Drowning Pool better than Harper). And the few stances he cheerily admits are heretical – such as claiming that Montgomery’s subjective camera Lady in the Lake is superior to both Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep – are so persuasively argued that I’m willing to give the movies in question another look. The book ends with an affectionate appraisal of the ‘70s troika of The Long Goodbye, Chinatown and The Late Show.

    I first learned about the book from Ed Gorman, who wonders why it never got its due. Having read it, I’m now asking the same question. Tuska updated it in 1988 as In Manors and Alleys: A Casebook on the American Detective Film. I’m going to need a copy of one version or the other to call my own. Any fan of The Whistler is welcome around here.

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    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    Book: I Should Have Stayed Home, by Horace McCoy (1938) 

    One of the knocks on e-readers that baffles me is, “You lose that new book smell!” To which I say, “What about that old book smell?” A few years ago I picked up a paperback in an antique store containing two novels by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It was only when I got the book home that I realized it reeked, as if it had been used to prop up a leaky boiler in a basement that doubled as a hobo graveyard. Rosemarie, her eyes watering in the next room, announced, “Either you read that one outside or you don’t read it at all.” As I consigned the leathery pages to the flames, I heard them cry out in torment. (Actually, I just tossed the book in the trash. Several blocks away.)

    Since buying my Kindle, I’ve been primarily filling it up with older, somewhat hard to find books. Solomon’s Vineyard and Fast One did not disappoint. Nor did Horace McCoy’s brief and brutal I Should Have Stayed Home.

    McCoy, a journalist and Black Mask writer, moved to Los Angeles in 1930 with hopes of becoming an actor. He would instead become a screenwriter. But the cattle call experience marked his work, especially his best known novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, about Hollywood aspirants participating in a grueling dance marathon, and I Should Have Stayed Home.

    Georgia-born Ralph Carston headed west with dreams of stardom, but he finds himself short of cash, scuffling for extra work, and sharing a seedy bungalow with his Platonic roommate Mona Matthews. A friend of Mona’s is arrested for shoplifting. A chain of circumstance follows that brings Ralph in contact with an older woman who has designs on him, a disillusioned flack, and a host of other Tinseltown types.

    It’s a grim, powerful book. Ralph seethes with desperation and rage. He’s implied in his letters to his mother that he’s already made it in Hollywood, but he soon learns that his accent and his attitude may keep him from success. Scarier is the resentment boiling over into hatred that he feels toward those who have managed to grab the brass ring. (“It made me sore, sitting here looking at Robert Taylor, the biggest star in the pictures, trying to figure out what he had that put him where he was and that, goddam it, one of these days ...”) It’s an unsparing look at the dark reality of show business that deserves to be mentioned alongside Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.

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    Saturday, March 06, 2010

    Miscellaneous: Your Weekend Recommendations 

    Now that Noir City has wrapped, it’s high time for me to get my head back in the twenty-first century. Here are some more contemporary picks.

    Wake Up Dead, by Roger Smith (2010). Roxy Palmer used to be an American model. Now she’s living in Cape Town, South Africa, trophy wife to an arms trafficker. When two street punks jack their car, Roxy takes advantage of the situation. Thus setting into motion a tortured Elmore-Leonard-meets-Robert-Altman chain of events embroiling Roxy, the carjackers, a mercenary known as Billy Afrika, a psychotic gang boss hell-bent on a reunion with his prison “wife,” and an honest bastard of a cop named Maggott forced to investigate with his son in tow.

    The bleakness of this book is, at times, suffocating; each character’s history is so grim that the miasma of misery threatens to become blackly comic. But there’s no denying that every one of Smith’s players pops off the page, and his pacing is relentless. It’s a prison shank of a novel: brutal and hard, driving in deep and leaving a hell of a mess.

    The Ghost Writer (2010). A review described Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel as a “town car thriller.” That how it seems for much of its running time, a well-appointed and smooth ride.

    Ewan McGregor is the title character, hired to punch up the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). As Lang is brought up on charges in The Hague for his role in abetting America’s rendition program, the ghost begins to wonder about the mysterious suicide of his predecessor.

    There are terrific performances throughout, including one from 94-year-old Eli Wallach. The movie’s final revelation is a doozy, delivered in an extended, largely wordless set piece that is a joy to behold. Sly, meticulously constructed, with a perfect visual capper. Days later, I’m still cackling at it.

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    Wednesday, March 03, 2010

    Miscellaneous: Sherman’s March 

    Vincent Sherman had a solid career as a director, making melodramas (Mr. Skeffington, The Hasty Heart) and films of a darker, noirish hue (The Hard Way, Nora Prentiss, The Damned Don’t Cry). But he should be remembered for his autobiography Studio Affairs, one of the most honest and therefore best books about Hollywood ever written.

    Let’s get the prurient stuff out of the way, shall we? Sherman slept with several of his leading ladies and details those relationships. The dalliances strangely parallel each actress’s films; Bette Davis’ is histrionic with a tragic ending, while Joan Crawford’s is brazen and tawdry. (His one night stand with Rita Hayworth is simply sad.) What emerges from the telling is an astonishing portrait of a lasting marriage; Sherman’s wife Hedda knew of his affairs and even became friends with Crawford.

    Sherman is every bit as meticulous when it comes to recounting his professional life. Studio Affairs lays bare how many compromises are necessary for a career in Hollywood, how frequently opportunities fade away. Sherman never forgot his training in the B-movie unit at Warner Brothers, where previous years’ prestige projects were repurposed into programmers. (The first half of The Mayor of Hell plus the end of San Quentin became Crime School, Sherman’s first writing credit.) When a projected adaptation of James M. Cain’s Serenade fell apart, he reworked The Letter into The Unfaithful.

    After reading the book, I caught up with a few Sherman films on DVD. All Through the Night (1941) was of particular interest; Humphrey Bogart in an anti-Nazi action comedy? He plays gambler Gloves Donahue, whose efforts to find out what happened to his favorite cheesecake – I am completely serious – lead him to a ring of fifth columnists. Bogart’s gang includes Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. And yet somehow, the movie is leaden from the jump. Honestly, it’s dreadful. I only kept watching because I was convinced it had to get funnier.

    Still, it does produce my favorite story in Sherman’s book. Peter Lorre, as one of the Nazi spies, has to shoot a lock off a door while Judith Anderson hollers in German behind him. When Sherman requested a second take, Lorre says, “That’s all, brother Vince. I can only do this kind of crap once a day. Besides, it’s six o’clock. Time to go home.” (Can’t you just hear Lorre saying that?) Sherman asks how, if that’s true, Lorre could have made all those Mr. Moto pictures. Lorre retorts, “I took dope!” Later, Sherman learns that Lorre wasn’t joking.

    Next up was the movie that cemented Sherman’s reputation. Underground (1941) was meant to be a B-picture, but a strong script and Sherman’s direction made it a surprise hit. A wounded Nazi soldier, loyal to the party, returns home, not realizing that his older brother is a leader of the resistance. They are quickly set on a collision course.

    Propaganda? You bet. Effective? And how, especially that ending. The idea that this movie was in theaters months before Pearl Harbor boggles the mind. First and foremost, though, Underground functions as a gripping thriller.

    Another good Sherman story: the role of an elderly man who aids the resistance was reconceived for the gorgeous Mona Maris because she was “friends” with the film’s producer – and if he didn’t cast her, she was going to cut up all of his suits. Maris is terrific in the movie, but Sherman never bought her in the part.

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    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Book: Fast One, by Paul Cain (1933) 

    Clearly the universe is urging me forward in my quest to read the novelistic equivalents of the twenty-minute egg. Fast One had been on my radar for some time. I finally acquire a copy only weeks after finishing Richard Rayner’s A Bright and Guilty Place, which lays bare the miasma of Los Angeles vice that inspired Paul Cain; all Cain did was change the names. Then I pick up Max Décharné’s book to learn that Raymond Chandler called Fast One “some kind of a high point in the ultra hardboiled manner.” Décharné, naming Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home (filmed as Get Carter) a spiritual descendant, dubs Fast One a “masterpiece ... another nihilistic train-wreck of a book where virtually every character comes to a bad end.”

    Believe me, those two are not kidding.

    Fast One is the story of Gerry Kells, an East Coast gambler ensconced in L.A. Local kingpin Jack Rose, seeing a gang war coming, wants Kells on his side. Kells is content to stay neutral, so Rose frames him for murder. Kells then decides to seize control of the city’s rackets himself. The only problems are Rose, L.A.’s other crooks, some interested out-of-town players, the deeply bent police department, the equally suspect power structure, a woman he can’t trust, and his own appetites. And he still damn near pulls it off.

    Originally serialized in Black Mask, Fast One is terse almost to the point of incomprehensibility; Cain not only omits needless words, he skimps on a few of the useful ones as well. I had to turn back a few pages on a regular basis. That didn’t diminish the blazing speed with which the book moved, and the fever dream of corruption that it creates. Fast One may not be a good book, but it is a singular one, and it deserves its reputation.

    Cain was born George Carrol Sims but called himself Peter Ruric when he worked as a screenwriter. He had an affair with actress Gertrude Michael, a Chez K favorite, basing the character of the duplicitous and dipsomaniacal Miss Granquist on her. Knowing that only enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

    Update: The Rap Sheet paired this post in its Friday’s Forgotten Books round-up along with another take on Fast One from Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett’s Almanack. More good information over there.

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    Sunday, February 07, 2010

    Book: Hardboiled Hollywood, by Max Décharné (U.S. 2010) 

    My first problem? This new reprint of a 2003 No Exit book is called Hardboiled Hollywood, yet two of the eleven movies in it – Hell is a City and Get Carter – are as English as Bobby Charlton eating crisps at a snooker match.

    The bigger problem? It’s subtitled The True Crime Stories Behind the Classic Noir Films. Which led me to believe that it would be about the true crime stories behind the classic noir films. Silly Vince. In truth not even half the movies covered have specific historical antecedents, and those are dispensed with in cursory fashion. Some prime candidates are overlooked; despite numerous references to James M. Cain there are no chapters on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, both inspired by an actual murder. Instead the focus is on the well-trod ground of the making of the films themselves.

    (ASIDE: In the interests of completeness I’ll also say that it’s appalling publisher W.W. Norton would release a book with jacket copy citing “Anthony Perkin’s” performance in Psycho. Here’s the rule: if you’re not sure where the apostrophe goes, leave it out. Better we think you forgot it.)

    That said ... misleading title aside I enjoyed Hardboiled Hollywood. Décharné knows the terrain, writes with passion, and consistently turns up overlooked perspectives. Here’s a great quote from the Spectator on Nicholas Ray and They Live By Night: “If the director had taken the trouble to be French, we would be licking his boots in ecstasy.” The Get Carter material is particularly strong, with Décharné rightly taking director Mike Hodges to task for his misinterpretation of the word “nails” in Ted Lewis’ source novel Jack’s Return Home. Décharné correctly points out that the Parker in Richard Stark’s The Hunter is smarter and more ruthless than Lee Marvin’s incarnation in Point Blank. And it’s good to be reminded that Bonnie and Clyde were not folk heroes but venal small-time killers.

    There’s some bait and switch involved, but Hardboiled Hollywood is worth reading.

    Miscellaneous: Golden Boot Link

    Author and noir historian Alan K. Rode attends the Golden Boot Award ceremony for legendary stuntman Bob Hoy.

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    Wednesday, February 03, 2010

    Books: Kith and Kindle 

    During the week that Amazon got into a feud with Macmillan (fragging Macmillan’s authors in the process) and Apple introduced the iPad, I finally received my Kindle. Once again demonstrating the flawless timing that has made Keenans valued participants in ballroom dances, cavalry raids and open mic nights throughout history.

    (ASIDE #1: Want cogent commentary on Amazon v. Macmillan? Read John Scalzi. Everyone else is. As for the iPad, I’ve lived to the biblical age of however old I am without buying a single Apple product. I’m not about to start now.)

    I dithered about the decision to purchase a Kindle for months. By rights I should have been an early adopter; I’m e-reading’s ideal customer. I love books but am rigorously unsentimental about them as physical objects. I want the stories, not the pages.

    Money kept me on the fence. Not only the cost of the device but the fact that many of the books I read come courtesy of Seattle’s excellent public library. I can work their hold system like a pinball machine. Graze it with my hip and new releases tumble my way.

    But the SPL, feeling the economic pinch, has been forced to make changes. They’ve capped the number of titles you can reserve. And they’ve added a fee to an essential service for researching: interlibrary loans. I could request titles the SPL didn’t carry and a few weeks later a copy would turn up, marked with an orange band. The book, borrowed from the Cerritos, California library or a small college in Minnesota, would be my responsibility for two weeks, a charge I took seriously.

    A few weeks ago I had my nose pressed to the Kindle store’s window when I noticed that a research book I wanted for a project, unavailable at the library and retailing for forty dollars, could be mine for only five bucks over the ILL fee. Wheels started turning.

    (ASIDE #2: Yes, naysayers, I know that I don’t technically own a book on my Kindle, that I only license it and have therefore allowed the serpent of copyright into my intellectual garden. Or something. For good or ill, this doesn’t bother me.)

    Then another discovery. Years ago I’d had a conversation with a book store owner who told me that the three most hardboiled novels were Green Ice by Raoul Whitfield, Fast One by Paul Cain, and Jonathan Latimer’s legendary, censored Solomon’s Vineyard. (I give you no less an authority than James Reasoner on that last title’s history and worth.) I’d found a copy of Green Ice – truth be told, I didn’t care for it – but not the others, aside from imperfect online and POD editions.

    The Kindle store had both. Total cost: $4.98.

    And so, I placed my order.

    It was strange to fire up the Kindle and see the text of John Buntin’s L.A. Noir, which I’d read in hard copy, without page numbers. The interface was simple and intuitive. The e-ink display was astonishingly easy on the eyes. I opened Solomon’s Vineyard, read the introductory note promising “everything but an abortion and a tornado,” and scrolled to Chapter One.

    From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she’d be good in bed. The silk was tight and under it the muscles worked slow and easy. I saw weight there, and control, and, brother, those are things I like in a woman. I put down my bags and went after her along the station platform.

    I don’t know about you, but if I found that smeared on shopping bags I’d keep reading. Which is what I did, devouring half of the book in a single sitting, never aware that I was looking at a screen, letting words written 70 years ago work their magic.

    And having the text-to-speech voice read that Latimer paragraph aloud? Priceless.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    My friend award-winning sportswriter Mike Gasparino has launched Metsanity, a new blog about our mutual favorite team. Go. Read. Enjoy.

    My friend award-winning author Christa Faust inked her new deal, then inked her new deal.

    Get your genres confused? Donna Moore sorts it all out.

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    Friday, January 29, 2010

    On The Web: Lem Dobbs 

    Sorry I haven’t posted this week. So much time and so little to do.

    Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.

    One thing I have made room for in recent days is this Cosmoetica interview with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, whose credits include Dark City, The Limey, and The Limey’s commentary track, which is so good it deserves to be treated as a separate project. The interview is truly epic – 53,000 words, 90 pages – wide-ranging, and brutally honest. It’s also one of the best things I’ve read in years. Some excerpts:

    Books are published now – crime novels, for example, which is a field I still follow – that are so horrible, it’s mind-boggling. Covered in laudatory review quotes and blurbs, listing all the awards they’ve won – you can’t believe it. It’s quite often impossible to find a bad review of a book, that’s how much of a racket it’s become.

    I agree with him. Which kills me, because when I read a lousy crime novel – and lately I’ve read a few, all blurbed by writers I respect and touted elsewhere – I hold my tongue. Bill Crider recently summed up my feelings on the subject of reviews perfectly. I don’t see myself as a critic. I like to use my tiny corner of the internet to call attention to the good stuff. But every once in a while, when for reasons of my own I finish a book that’s a dud, I question that approach.

    Dobbs on Hollywood now:

    They’d much rather hear what they think is a “cool take.” But not knowing what’s old, they have no idea what’s new. So the whole phony, broken system is an exercise in futility and another reason movies are much more uniform in their awfulness. There’s absolutely no patience for, or respect or appreciation for, ideas outside the airless dome of a very limited frame of reference. If you engage in a discussion of who the “villain” is, for instance, you’d better do it in an excited and animated way (this is why it’s helpful to have a writing partner who’s also wearing big ol’ baggy shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and a turned-round baseball cap and chortling) – because to roll your eyes and sigh and question whether there even has to be a villain would be to challenge the whole current paradigm. And the “villain,” of course, once established, has to be motivated by nothing less than destroying the entire world – and so on – from cliché to cliché. If you’re unwilling to – sincerely – play this game, you might as well stay home ... Who was the “villain” in THE GREAT ESCAPE, or THE DIRTY DOZEN? Remade now – and don’t think they’re not trying – there would have to be an evil, evil, evil, evil Nazi in alternating scenes, constantly snarling, “I want them caught, I want them stopped, I want them dead!”

    Bookmark it. Go back to it in stages. It’s worth the effort.

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    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Book: The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett (2008) 

    Amy Gallup is a middle-aged loner who hates being alone, a once-promising novelist who now teaches adult extension creative writing courses. She’s been at it for so long she can instantly size up each new group during the first session, knowing at once which students are wasting their time and hers. Then someone in the class begins sending odd notes. Biting parodies, obscene drawings, critiques that cut too close to the bone. The notes turn into pranks, then the pranks become deadly. And nobody really wants to the read the surgeon’s medical thriller.

    Jincy Willett’s darkly funny novel is ruthless when it comes to the teaching of fiction. The samples of each student’s work are priceless. But every barb contains useful writing advice. The book is also an affectionate portrait of a prickly character in Amy, and a sly treatise about what motives people to read, to write, to connect. I missed this book when it was published initially. Thanks to my friend Chad Jones for the recommendation.

    Miscellaneous: Elsewhere

    What I Learned on Twitter. I’ve spoken before about The Three Investigators books, which got me hooked on crime fiction as a tyke. Turns out the boys are so popular in Germany that there’s a movie. Here’s the trailer.

    I’d Link If I Could. The article on the cryonics movement in the January 25 issue of the New Yorker (not online unless you’re a subscriber) is fascinating reading. Jill Lepore analyzes several of the Amazing Stories yarns that inspired Robert Ettinger to start freezing people. Ettinger is the kind of crackpot utopian visionary – briefly famous in the 1960s and 70s, interviewed by Johnny Carson, David Frost and others – that we don’t see enough of any more. A taste of Lepore’s article:

    In ‘Man Into Superman,’ Ettinger throws around a lot of Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, but shows more evidence of having whiled away the hours reading Penthouse, which began publication in 1965. The world of tomorrow will be unimaginably better than the world of today. How? There will be transsex and supersex! Scientists will invent “a sexual superwoman ... with cleverly designed orifices of various kinds, something like a wriggly Swiss cheese, but shapelier and more fragrant.” Animals will be bred as sex slaves; even incest might be allowed. Also, scientists will likely equip men with wings, built-in biological weapons, body armor made of hair, and “telescoping, fully adjustable” sexual organs. (Hold on. That last one. Doesn’t the existing model already come with that?)

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    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    Book: Devil’s Garden, by Ace Atkins (2009) 

    Why, oh why, have I not read Ace Atkins until now?

    Devil’s Garden retells the saga of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, one of the first and arguably still the greatest of show business scandals. What’s known is that Arbuckle threw an epic party at a San Francisco hotel in 1921. During the bash, would-be actress Virginia Rappe took ill, dying several days later. Accusations flew, abetted by William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. Arbuckle stood trial for manslaughter three times. He was never convicted, but his career was destroyed.

    With vivid, economical prose, Atkins weaves together multiple viewpoints including those of Hearst and Arbuckle himself. Most impressive is the perspective of young Pinkerton operative Dashiell Hammett, then known as Sam. Atkins incorporates many clues about the writer Hammett would become without detracting from the story at hand. And he finds ways of surprising you even if you’re already familiar with the sad facts of the case.

    Nothing is better than discovering an established author who is new to you. I now have Atkins’ Nick Travers series as well as his other historical novels including Infamous, the upcoming one about “Machine Gun” Kelly, to look forward to. Here’s his blog.


    Saturday, January 09, 2010

    Book: A Bright and Guilty Place, by Richard Rayner (2009) 

    Rayner’s history of 1920s and ‘30s Los Angeles is wrapped, naturally, around corruption and reinvention. Leslie White is an investigator for the D.A.’s office who becomes a pulp author. (When he needs help breaking into the racket, he gets in touch with his old lawyer friend Erle Stanley Gardner.) Dave Clark is a golden boy war hero turned prosecutor who ends up charged with the murder of L.A.’s criminal kingpin.

    The book brims with fascinating information, but it’s also disjointed. There are a few scandals too many. The lives of the two central figures don’t have that much overlap. Clark’s trial is anticlimactic while the bizarre events in its wake are treated as an afterthought. Raymond Chandler is frequently cited even though his relation to the proceedings is tangential.

    Ultimately it’s Chandler’s vision of Los Angeles, seductive and treacherous, that Rayner understands intuitively and captures very well. For all its flaws as a history of a time, the book succeeds as a chronicle of a mood. Many people have contrasted Rayner’s book with L.A. Noir by John Buntin, which picks up the City of Angels’ story where Rayner leaves off. Rayner’s book is better written, Buntin’s more cohesive. Together they offer a compelling account of Los Angeles as it was not only inventing itself, but 20th century America.

    Some of White’s stories are collected in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. I’ll say this for them: they have a certain energy. Here’s the opening line from “The City of Hell!,” published in the October 1935 issue of Black Mask and influenced by L.A.’s endemic graft.

    The piercing screams of a woman filled the awed hollow of silence left void by the chatter of a sub-machine-gun and acted as a magnet of sound to suck the big squad car to the scene.

    Rayner recently led the Guardian on a tour of locations from the book. And here he is on Ben Hecht.


    Tuesday, December 29, 2009

    The Good Stuff: Books of 2009 

    I’ll keep the preamble to a minimum. The books are listed in the order I read them. More detailed posts can be found here.

    Favorite crime fiction:

    Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell
    Safer, Sean Doolittle
    American Rust, Philipp Meyer
    No More Heroes, Ray Banks
    Bury Me Deep, Megan Abbott
    Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
    The Jerusalem File, Joel Stone
    The Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville
    Pariah, Dave Zeltserman
    Losers Live Longer, Russell Atwood

    Favorite not-crime fiction:

    How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely
    Hummingbirds, Joshua Gaylord
    The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter

    Bonus Categories:

    2008 novel that would have been on this year’s list and could have been on last year’s had I read it in time: The Age of Dreaming, Nina Revoyr

    2010 novel that would have been on this year’s list and will probably be on next year’s: Print the Legend, Craig McDonald

    Favorite novels that were new to me in 2009: The Red Right Hand, Joel Townsley Rogers (1945) and Adios, Scheherazade, Donald E. Westlake (1970). Again, a thousand thanks to Duane Swierczynski for introducing me to the latter.

    Favorite non-fiction:

    The Complete Game, Ron Darling
    Methland, Nick Reding
    L.A. Noir, John Buntin

    And finally, the best book I read in 2009 regardless of genre or year of publication is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis (2003). I’ll go you one better. This book – about economics, business, mathematics, baseball and life – goes on the short list of the greatest books I’ve ever read, along with Dino, Nick Tosches’ biography of Dean Martin, and The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook. Illustrious company indeed.

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    Tuesday, December 22, 2009

    Book: Alone, by Loren D. Estleman (2009) 

    Third consecutive book about Hollywood in one form or another. I don’t plan these things, people. They simply happen.

    Any list of crime fiction’s premier stylists would have to include Loren Estleman. His insouciant prose has brightened up many a dark book, but it fizzes like champagne in his lighter tales about Valentino, the UCLA archivist whose business cards read “film detective.”

    A rare treasure is dangled before Valentino by a university donor: the only extant print of How Not to Dress, the brief promotional film marking the first screen appearance of Greta Garbo. But before light strikes frame one, Valentino finds himself amidst blackmail and murder. He’s got other problems. A crooked building inspector has rousted him from the movie palace he’s attempting to restore to its former glory, leaving him at the house and the throat of his closest friend and colleague. And there’s his budding romance with an LAPD forensics expert.

    Alone is a confection, and a good one. Estleman has struck upon an ingenious method for writing about classic Hollywood in a contemporary setting. I will say that the jabs at current films are out of character and occasionally wrong; Brian De Palma’s name is spelled incorrectly, and Pulp Fiction is misquoted in the author’s afterword. It’s important for curmudgeons to get the details right. Still, it’s a minor quibble. Go. Buy. Read.

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    Sunday, December 20, 2009

    Book: L.A. Noir, by John Buntin (2009) 

    John Buntin started with a real-world question steeped in fiction: how did the LAPD of L.A. Confidential become the LAPD of Dragnet? Answering it produced a rich, lively work of history that reads like a pulp novel from the era it covers.

    L.A. Noir is a joint biography of William H. Parker, the chief who made the department what it is today, and Mickey Cohen, the kind of gangster who could only flourish in Southern California. But it’s also a portrait of what Buntin calls “America’s Most Seductive City” from the 1920s through the Watts riots. Like any first-rate Hollywood production it features a slew of cameos, including Billy Graham and Ben Hecht, Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato.

    Some of the most interesting material involves Dragnet and how Parker used the show in all its forms to remold the LAPD’s image. It’s hard to overstate Dragnet’s popularity; at one point it was the most watched TV series in America after I Love Lucy while still drawing a huge radio audience. The next step, obviously, was a feature film. At the time of production, the LAPD’s more invasive tactics were being challenged in the courts; in instances where the department couldn’t get permission to place wiretaps, it would simply break into a suspect’s home, install a dictograph, and record conversations that way. Parker offered Dragnet’s Jack Webb a sensational case file to serve as the basis for the film, which ended up defending the techniques then under siege. The 1954 Dragnet movie, by the way, is uncommonly grim and brutal. Even for Jack Webb. It’s kind of great. It’s not currently on video, but it is available via streaming on Netflix.

    If you’re a fan of Chandler, Chinatown, or Ellroy, L.A. Noir is essential reading. It’s one of the best books of the year.

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    Friday, December 18, 2009

    Book: Hollywood Moon, by Joseph Wambaugh (2009)

    Gaze on in wonder as I split hairs.

    In writing, there’s formula and there’s formulaic. Formula can be good. Formulaic is always bad. With formulaic writing, you know exactly what you’re going to get. With a formula, you get exactly what you want.

    You know who’s got a formula? Coca-Cola. And whenever you crave that particular flavor, you can crack open a can knowing that thirst will be quenched.1

    You know who else has a formula? Joseph Wambaugh in his Hollywood books. Like every good recipe, it’s simple and satisfying.

    Take the regular roster of LAPD officers who work the mean streets of Hollywood – the neighborhood, not the state of mind. The surfer cops Flotsam and Jetsam. Nate Weiss, always ready with his SAG card. Toss in some newcomers to the patrol, like tough single mom/sergeant-to-be Dana Vaughn. Find the right balance of humor and heartbreak.

    Add in some criminals, life-size opportunists and screw-ups. The lineup in Hollywood Moon includes a failed actor-turned-master-of-disguise putting in long days on an identity theft scam; the mastermind he lives in fear of, also his wife; a pair of runners wising up to the operation; and a borderline psychotic teenager desperate for an escape. Slowly turn up the heat. Stand back and watch things explode.

    You have to season to taste. There’s too much of the surfers in this outing – a little of them goes a long way – but the heavies are the strongest yet. Wambaugh could write one of these books a month and I’d read it.

    1Sometimes a successful formula can work against you. I had my first Mexican Coke recently. I didn’t know it when I bought it. I thought, “Cool! A glass bottle!” and only when I opened it did I notice the label was in Spanish. I didn’t like it. It tasted fine. It just didn’t take like Coke, which is what I wanted.


    Monday, December 14, 2009

    Book: Print the Legend, by Craig McDonald (2010)

    Other websites may be offering lists of 2009’s finest1, but around here we’re more forward thinking. Permit me instead to tease you with a word about one of the best books you’ll read next year2.

    Print the Legend is the third novel by Craig McDonald featuring Hector Lassiter, the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives. And it’s a full-on tour de force.

    Hec’s longtime friend Ernest Hemingway is four years in the ground when Hec consents to address an Idaho conference devoted to Papa’s life and work. But Hec’s got more to reckon with than a speech. There are his own unsettled feelings about his compatriot. And the dogged efforts of a scholar intent on proving that Hemingway’s suicide was in fact a coldblooded murder committed by Papa’s wife Mary – a theory that Hec can’t easily dismiss. Plus Hec’s burgeoning affection for said scholar’s pregnant wife. Not to mention Mary Hemingway’s own plans for Papa’s legacy and Hec’s role in it. And above all, the twisted machinations of Donovan Creedy, the hack novelist, government operative and dirty tricks specialist with shades of E. Howard Hunt.

    Not many authors would dare to write a missing chapter from Hem’s A Moveable Feast. Fewer would pull it off as McDonald does here. He then follows up with a beautifully structured section jumping between the POVs of his five major characters at a single treacherous meeting. Late in the book there’s an extended description of let’s say physical courage that Papa himself would approve of. Me, I went pale just reading it.

    Print the Legend moves with the intensity of a fever dream, driven by Hec’s zeal for life. If the book has a weakness, it’s the notion that Creedy’s abstract plan has a hope in hell against the force of nature that is Hector Lassiter.

    Why am I tormenting you with praise for a book that doesn’t come out until February? Because McDonald offers a few tantalizing hints of the next book in the series, set in 1958 Nashville, and that’s at least another year away. It’s only fair that we all suffer together.

    1Don’t worry. Such a post is coming.

    2Yeah, FTC, I got a review copy. Whatcha gonna do about it?


    Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    Book: Ticket to Ride, by Ed Gorman (2009)

    I’ve read quite a few books by Ed Gorman, but somehow the Sam McCain series got by me. So naturally I’m starting with the newest entry, which is also possibly the last. Still, better late than never.

    Sam is a lawyer/investigator in Black River Falls, Iowa. It’s 1965. The local minister is burning Beatles records and people are starting to pay attention to the conflict in Vietnam. Some, like Sam, are doing more. They’re organizing protests, incurring the wrath of more conservative friends and neighbors. Shortly after one such rally goes awry, there’s a murder. As far as the sheriff is concerned it’s tied to the demonstration, but Sam unearths connections to a death that rocked the town several years before.

    It’s a Gorman novel, so you get a well-turned plot, deft pop culture references, and sharp observations on small town life. You also get characters who don’t conform to expectations. The golden boy activist railroaded into jail? He’s something of an operator. The die-hard patriot ready to tar and feather is also a grieving father. Then there’s Sam himself, aware of all these incongruities as he struggles to do the right thing.

    Here’s Ed in conversation with Tom Piccirilli about Ticket to Ride, the earlier Sam McCain books, and other sundry matters.


    Saturday, December 05, 2009

    Book: Losers Live Longer, by Russell Atwood (2009)

    Exhibit A: The rare horizontal cover.

    Like I’m not gonna read that.

    Exhibit B is the setting in Manhattan’s East Village, specifically a few blocks where I’ve spent my share of time. But what cinched it for me was this review by James Reasoner. When he called this Hard Case Crime book “one of the best private eye novels of recent years,” I stopped in at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and picked it up that day.

    Payton Sherwood is the P.I. in question. Down-at-heel (for a few chapters literally), he’s happy to be asked by a legendary retired operative to pitch in for a few hours on a case. When the senior shamus turns up dead on his doorstep, Payton decides to follow through on the job – even though he has no idea what it is. Before his long day is through, he’ll tangle with porn kingpins, indie filmmakers, and, of course, beautiful women. It’s old school pulp served up with a sharp contemporary sensibility. Fast, ferocious and authentically funny. Don’t miss it.

    DVD: Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Offscreen

    Cult director Ulmer was the king of Poverty Row, a man who could stretch a budget to the breaking point and, with 1945’s Detour, created true dark magic. This 2004 documentary reveals that the man who made something out of nothing in his work did the same with his own life story. Stylishly shot, featuring comments from collaborators (Ann Savage, William Schallert) and admirers (Wim Wenders, Joe Dante, John Landis). The best stuff comes late as John Saxon and Peter Marshall, costars of Ulmer’s last film The Cavern, bicker in the back of a convertible before a rear-projection screen.

    As an extra you get an entire Ulmer movie, 1943’s Isle of Forgotten Sins. It’s the South Seas by way of North Hollywood, the ocean-going scenes shot with models and the deep sea diving done by marionettes. Not good by any stretch, but strangely compelling and, as always with Ulmer, done with ingenuity.

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    Saturday, November 28, 2009

    Book: Pariah, by Dave Zeltserman (2009)

    There’s dark, and then there’s dark.

    Pariah, the latest from Dave Zeltserman – the sick puppy of crime fiction, says the Washington Post (sort of) – opens with Kyle Nevin’s release from prison. The South Boston gangster did his full bid, which is more than can be said for his boss, an FBI rat now in the wind. Kyle plans on tracking him down once he pulls off a kidnapping to give him operating capital.

    Things don’t go well.

    You know Zeltserman is up to no good with the page one note from Kyle to his editor. More are scattered through the text. How Kyle ended up writing the manuscript you’re reading is too twisted and too bleakly funny to spoil here.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that genuinely disturbed me, but Pariah takes that crown. Kyle Nevin is a stone-cold predatory sociopath who never dresses up his ruthlessness. I loathed the guy. I also couldn’t stop reading about him. At least Joe Denton, the protagonist of last year’s Zeltserman scorcher Small Crimes, tried to justify his self-serving actions. Kyle can’t be bothered, which makes him either terrifyingly compelling or compellingly terrifying. After all, rationalization is what separates us from the animals. Except for dolphins. Those flippered punks rationalize constantly. And what does it get them?


    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Book: The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter (2009)

    Matthew Prior is in trouble. He’s been downsized from his newspaper job after the failure of his own business venture, a website offering financial advice in verse. A massive balloon payment is due on his house in a matter of days. He hasn’t told his wife about it because she’s busy preparing for an affair with her old boyfriend. Then Matt hits on a way to retain his redoubt in middle-middle class heaven. He’s going to sell primo pot to his fellow boomers. He’s even got a street name. Slippers.

    Jess Walter covers a lot of ground in this novel: the immediate effects of the economic meltdown, the slow death of old media, the perils of social networking. So determined is he to pin down every aspect of life-at-this-instant that the overstuffed plot verges on antic. But each page brings a turn of phrase or an observation about contemporary America that is electrifying, laugh-out-loud funny, or both. And there are poems.

    Walter, an Edgar Award winner, National Book Award nominee and author of the best crime novel you’ve never read, has a sharp yet forgiving eye. Matt notes, “Perhaps the most pathetic thing about long-married guys like me is the delusional list that each of us keeps in our heads, a list of women we think are secretly attracted to us.” He then introduces us to one of the names on his personal roster, an HR gatekeeper whose inappropriate suits are described as “0-2 fastballs – little high, little tight.”

    Over the course of the book, Matt learns that there are no such things as epiphanies. But damned if he doesn’t keep having them even in the midst of the most mundane activities, like ordering dinner for his sons.

    So I make one phone call, and just like that, we’re eating pizza at 6:30. What is this world? You tap seven abstract figures onto a piece of plastic thin as a billfold, hold that plastic device to your head, use your lungs and vocal chords to indicate more abstractions, and in thirty minutes, a guy pulls up in a 2,000-pound machine made on an island on the other side of the world, fueled by viscous liquid made from the rotting corpses of the dead organisms pulled from the desert on yet another side of the world and you give this man a few sheets of green paper representing the abstract wealth of your home nation, and he gives you a perfectly reasonable facsimile of one of the staples of the diet of a people from yet another faraway nation.

    And the mushrooms are fresh.


    Friday, November 06, 2009

    Book: Hummingbirds, by Joshua Gaylord (2009)

    It was always odd to encounter one of my teachers outside the confines of the classroom. I’d be at the mall on Saturday afternoon and run into Mr. Granding, 6th period history. The ensuing conversation would be awkward and brief. For those few moments, he’d no longer be an imposing, vaguely unknowable figure who only had to flip to the back of the book for the answers. He’d become a suburban father, one of legion, pushing a stroller, wearing an ill-fitting sports shirt and ... dude, are those sandals?!?

    That academic overlap of worlds public and private, adult and adolescent is the subject of Hummingbirds, the lovely debut novel by Joshua Gaylord. A new year starts at the Carmine-Casey School for Girls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Two seniors, one popular and one smart, warily circle each other for the last time. Meanwhile Leo Binhammer, for years the only male teacher in the English department, has to make room for an interloper with whom he will develop a complex friendship. Gaylord flits between characters with an almost-but-not-quite omniscient voice that he deploys to startling effect. The result is a novel that, like the girls at its center, is delicate yet surprisingly resilient.

    I had the chance to hear Josh read from Hummingbirds last month in New York, as well as meet his wife, Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott. A literary power couple who have written two of my favorite books this year. I’m entitled to hate them a little bit for this.

    TV: What I’ve Been Watching

    While not tuned to a World Series in which I was rooting for inclement weather, that is.

    Poliwood. Barry Levinson’s loosely-structured “film essay” about showbiz and politics covers no new ground but does include some fascinating scenes. One shows ex-GOP pollster turned consultant Frank Luntz leading a communication seminar for members of the Creative Coalition at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He tells the assembled actors that he admires their passion, but that if they change their language they can reach a wider audience. Several actors immediately take offense and turn it into a First Amendment issue, thus proving his point. Later, Levinson and Luntz arrange a focus group on celebrity at the RNC. One woman tears into the actors with an almost sensual relish. That the person she describes – having millions of dollars, multiple homes and no commonality with regular Americans – sounds more like John McCain than Tim Daly passes without comment.

    Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me. I’m a Mercer fan and this documentary had me saying, “He wrote that song, too?” Factor in his singing, his role in founding Capitol Records and his work as a producer, and it’s clear that Mercer is one of the great men of the twentieth century. For the record, the other names on that list are Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tom Seaver.

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    Thursday, October 29, 2009

    Book: How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely (2009)

    You have no idea how bizarre it was to attend a literary festival after reading this book.

    Pete Tarslaw receives an invitation to his former girlfriend’s wedding and reacts the way many of us would: he vows to become, well, a famous novelist. That way on the big day he can outclass the other guests and make his ex rue her decision. Pete’s not out to write a good book, just a popular one. Armed with a list of what such an opus must contain – lyrical prose, lots of food references, some kind of club and at least one murder – he sets out to conquer the bestseller list.

    Hely, a former Letterman staffer now on 30 Rock, pulls off a singular trick. He manages to send up everything related to publishing. Nothing is spared. Amazon, writing workshops, MFA programs, editors desperate to get into the film business, self-serious book blogs. He serves up a note-perfect parody of Entertainment Weekly’s simultaneously knowing and vacuous house style. The excerpts from other books are particularly vicious; he includes a few paragraphs from a crime novel that aren’t far removed from ones I’ve seen in print. By the halfway point, he was getting me to laugh on the basis of titles alone. (The Widows’ Breakfast? Come on!) Unlike many satirical novels it holds up to the end, which also packs an emotional kick.

    But as funny as the book is – and it is, howlingly so – it’s also chilling. With his clinical determination to anatomize popular fiction and create a Frankenstein’s monster version of his own solely to one-up his girlfriend, Pete Tarslaw is a soulless beast straight out of noir. It’s as if a Patricia Highsmith protagonist took up a pen, or one of Jason Starr’s characters turned reporter. (Jason Starr, Reporter. Get it? Yeah, I knew it was a reach.) That dark drive only makes Pete’s story more hilarious. I can’t recommend this one enough.


    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Report: Seattle Bookfest

    Seattle loves to read. Every year it takes a position near the top of the list of America’s most literate cities. Name me another major burg that turned its chief librarian into an action figure.

    But for some reason – ornery regional independence, I suppose – it has trouble sustaining an annual book festival. Northwest Bookfest went belly-up in 2003. Some enterprising locals rebooted it as Seattle Bookfest. The new version is more low-key, focusing on local authors and independent booksellers. It was held in Columbia City, one of Seattle’s funkier neighborhoods. (Most sections of town aspire to be San Francisco. Columbia City aims to be Portland.)

    I wanted to support Bookfest 2.0. Recent Bouchercon coverage by Christa Faust and Donna Moore had me jonesing for some literary action of my own. And Columbia City is also a stop on Seattle’s new light rail line. The Bookfest provided the perfect excuse for my inaugural trip on Saturday afternoon. I’m a destination-not-the-journey kind of guy.

    The venue was a former school, with the best panels held in a portable classroom. I swore when I graduated that I would never set foot in such structures again, so thanks for making a liar out of me, Bookfest! We missed some of the panel on graphic novels moderated by Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth, but what we did catch was interesting. What I remember:

    - The use of space is essentially a writing tool in comics.

    - Every comic should be read twice, once for the story and once for the composition.

    - If you doubt that we have become a culture that processes information visually, just look at your interaction with your phone.

    Next came the crime fiction panel. The session’s title – The Difference Between Mystery & Thriller – seemed a bit obvious, which raised concerns. As did the I’m-gonna-say indifferent moderating. I’m not going to embarrass the woman by name because she never bothered to provide hers. She sat down, asked the authors to introduce themselves, then turned to the audience and said, “OK. Any questions?” Fortunately the panelists – Robert Ferrigno, Michael Gruber and Kevin O’Brien – were pros and sustained a lively if general discussion about thrillers.

    We wrapped things up with a reading by National Book Award winner Pete Dexter. Only it wasn’t a reading, more of an alphabetical presentation of his semi-autobiographical novel Spooner. Dexter went from A to Z, offering glimpses of what’s in the book. (“A is for anthill.”) Sometimes he’d read a paragraph or two to illustrate, sometimes he’d describe the material off the cuff, sometimes he’d veer into digressions about current events or words he had trouble pronouncing. The approach worked. Whenever Dexter did quote from Spooner the crowd wanted more, and I’ll be reading the book post haste.

    Bumps and glitches aside, it was a promising start for the new iteration of Bookfest. As for light rail: smooth ride, frequent trains, decent fares. I’ll give that another shot, too.

    UPDATE: The Stranger’s postmortem of the event is far more dire - and cites this very post in a vaguely disparaging way, which I consider a moral victory. For the record, their assessment jibes with what I saw.

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    Monday, October 19, 2009

    Book: Blood’s a Rover, by James Ellroy (2009)

    The years: 1968-72. The men: factotums and hoods beset by personal demons and on the precipice of history. J. Edgar Hoover’s pet thug. An ex-cop/chemist with daddy issues aiding and abetting Howard Hughes’ takeover of Las Vegas. A wannabe private eye. This being Ellroy’s scarred funhouse mirror version of reality, at least one of them will wind up dead, and any survivors will be disillusioned and damned.

    American Tabloid, which kicked off Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, remains one of my favorite books. The Cold Six Thousand, which followed, left me colder than the title sum. That’s partly the nature of the epic story Ellroy chose to tell. David Mamet once explained the three-act structure by citing a possibly apocryphal headline: Boy Cuts Off Father’s Head, Cuts Off Parakeet’s Head, Then Cuts Off Lizard’s Head. The key, Mamet said, is to have the kid cut off his father’s head last. Tabloid had the JFK hit as its dark, beating heart. C6K has to grapple with the chaotic ensuing years, and it’s tough to depict a time when the center did not hold. Ellroy’s obsessions, immodest enough as to not go even thinly veiled, and his baroque molecular plotting didn’t help.

    I feared for the long-gestating Rover because the period it covers lacks the outsized events that provided a structure for its predecessors. But the dearth of obvious set pieces spurs Ellroy’s ingenuity. The lynchpins here are an armored car heist in early ‘60s L.A., the Mafia’s attempt to reboot its Caribbean glory in the Dominican Republic, and a left-wing Lorelei known as the Red Goddess Joan. She’s a cipher until the closing section, but when she does finally come into focus she’s quite formidable.

    I liked Rover. It’s no Tabloid, but its “rogue authoritarians” make it a mighty improvement on C6K. Perhaps the books will read differently if consumed all at once, as a single epic narrative. Feature it: the panty-sniffer’s Lord of the Rings.

    Book: You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You, by Robert J. Randisi (2009)

    What are the odds that I would read two novels in a row featuring Hollywood P.I. Fred Otash as a character? Considering my interests, they’re actually pretty good.

    Shamus-to-the-stars Otash is a minor figure in Rover but lands a decent supporting role in Randisi’s fourth Rat Pack mystery. Sands pit boss Eddie Gianelli is again asked for a favor by famous pals Frank and Dean. This time it’s to help a peripheral member of the Clan, Marilyn Monroe, who’s convinced that she’s being followed. We also learn more about Eddie G as he heads home to Brooklyn to deal with his estranged family. Randisi’s take on Marilyn, the sex bomb who becomes everybody’s kid sister, seems spot on. The book is the kind of breezy concoction you’d expect from an author who recently took home a lifetime achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America.

    Here’s a little of Freddy Otash in action, in a Tinseltown dustup involving Peruvian songbird Yma Sumac. Who was not, as urban legend claims, a Brooklyn girl named Amy Camus.


    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Meme: Reading Habits

    It’s been a while since I tackled a meme. I spotted this one at James Reasoner’s Rough Edges and at The Rap Sheet.

    Do you snack while you read? If so, what is your favorite reading snack?

    No. Of course, I do make exceptions. See below.*

    Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

    I have been known to erase marks in library books, so this one’s also a no.

    How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?

    I haven’t made dog-ears in dog’s years. (I cop to doing so as a kid, but I didn’t know any better then.) I’m a bookmark man. I have a stack of them, but keep abusing the same two.

    Laying the book flat open?

    Sure, if the book’s big enough. And if it’s into that.

    Fiction, nonfiction, or both?

    I’d guess a 70/30 ratio of fiction to non-fiction. The former is mostly crime fiction or thrillers, the latter a mix of research reading and whatever piques my interest.

    Hard copy or audiobooks?

    I have listened to exactly one (1) audiobook. My commute’s not long enough. A more interesting question would be: hard copy or e-books? I still don’t own a Kindle, but I’m thinking about it.

    Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?

    I can stop anywhere, but typically I’ll read to the end of a chapter. I color inside the lines as well. What can I say? I went to Catholic school.

    If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

    If it doesn’t make sense in context, yes.

    What are you currently reading?

    Coming down the homestretch on Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy. The last non-fiction book I read, after years of prompting by my brother – hi, Sean! – was Michael Lewis’ Moneyball.

    What is the last book you bought?

    During my recent New York trip I picked up Tower by Reed Farrel Coleman and Ken Bruen, signed by Reed at the Mysterious Bookshop launch party. I also scored a haul at the Strand including Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes, later filmed as Out of the Past, and Leo C. Rosten’s Hollywood, a study of the movie business in the 1930s published in 1941.

    Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?

    Again, I can but I don’t. I’ll read a non-fiction research book at the same time as a novel, but I prefer not to.

    Do you have a favorite time/place to read?

    Every night, I lie on my living room sofa and read for at least half an hour. Reading in a coffee shop, which I did for a while this afternoon, is one of life’s great luxuries. Other settings can be quite nice, too. See below.*

    Do you prefer series books or stand-alones?


    Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

    Lawrence Block. Donald E. Westlake. Richard Price. All these years on the West Coast, and I’m still a New York boy at heart. Speaking of the West Coast, another name I talk up frequently is Jess Walter, whose The Financial Lives of the Poets will be stepping up to the plate shortly.

    How do you organize your books? (by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)

    There’s a very vague system. I can’t really describe it. I barely understand it.

    * My job requires me to meet in the evenings twice a week. Last week I decided to eat dinner beforehand, so I grabbed a Hard Case Crime book and stopped at a pub near the office. There I sat, reading a pulp novel, drinking a Harp, eating the food of my ancestors (a sausage roll), and occasionally checking in on Monday Night Football. In the midst of it, I realized how deliriously happy I was. Seldom, I thought, have I felt more like myself.

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    Sunday, October 11, 2009

    Sort Of Related: The Corpse Wore Pasties, by Jonny Porkpie (2009)/Ladies of the Chorus (1948)

    First things first. Is that a cover or what? Nice work by artist Ricky Mujica.

    Second things second. I won an advance copy of this book, which will be published late next month, in a Hard Case Crime contest on Twitter. That should keep those FTC bastards off my back.

    Jonny Porkpie – I will now go all New York Times and refer to him as Mr. Porkpie – is the burlesque mayor of New York City. This is a self-appointed position, and had I known that I would have claimed it. Therefore, I now declare myself to be the burlesque comptroller of New York City. Wait ‘til you see my ledger bit. Classic.

    The book opens with a letter from Mr. Porkpie to Hard Case impresario Charles Ardai, explaining that everything that follows is true. That’s right, Mr. Porkpie is the detective in his own novel. He’s running a burlesque show when one of the performers, known and loathed for stealing other people’s acts, is murdered onstage. The police view Mr. Porkpie as the prime suspect, and thus is he forced to hopscotch around two of the five boroughs interviewing women in various states of undress in order to clear his good stage name.

    Mr. Porkpie keeps the action rat-a-tatting along with hoary old jokes, comparing everything to either a G-string or an overstuffed corset. The plot is as thin as a dancer’s veil, but that’s not why you’re reading this book. It’s a lark, and a fun one, with Mr. Porkpie getting into and out of silly, sexy trouble. But not too sexy; Mr. Porkpie is happily married to burlesque performer Nasty Canasta – one of the cover models, FYI – and their relationship is the best thing in the book.

    TCM recently aired the oddball burlesque musical Ladies of the Chorus as part of their salute to director Phil Karlson. Marilyn Monroe is one of the titular gamines, working the line alongside her own mother (Adele Jergens, all of nine years older than her screen daughter). Marilyn bumps and grinds her way to the top of the circuit, and a rich boy from Cleveland falls in love with her. Adele tries to kibosh their nuptials, knowing that society types won’t cotton to one of their own wedding a ... burlesque queen.

    There’s virtually no conflict in the movie. It’s like the plot of a social hygiene short – Burly-Q&A – padded to (almost) feature length. On the plus side, there’s a character named Bubbles and another who delivers her sole line – “Awww, shut up” – repeatedly. The entire movie is on YouTube, as are individual numbers like the bizarre “Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy.” The visual quality is poor, so I won’t embed it. But I will link to it.

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    Sunday, September 20, 2009

    Miscellaneous: All Thumbs Up

    Making up for the paucity of recent posts with a slew of recommendations.

    Noir City Sentinel. The latest issue of the house rag of the Film Noir Foundation is now available. This edition has several articles on director André de Toth, a roundup of some recent noir films, an appraisal of actor/wild man Timothy Carey, and more. Go. Give. Get.

    Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn (2009). Libby Day is the sole survivor of the “Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas,” and it’s her testimony that sent her metal-obsessed brother Ben to prison for butchering their mother and two sisters. More than twenty years later, Libby has milked the tragedy dry. Desperate for cash, she agrees to investigate the murder on behalf of the Kill Club, a group of obsessives certain she got everything wrong.

    Some of the final plot turns strain credulity, and Flynn has a thing for coining hyphenated words. On a single page, Libby trance-drives past dusk-black elevators that she views with kitten-round eyes. This koala-cute authorial tic can be cough-syrup-cloying, but it’s a small price to pay for a supple voice that bounces between past, present and three distinctly different viewpoints to tell a haunting story of lives teetering on the precipice of disaster long before any blood is shed.

    The Ancient Rain, by Domenic Stansberry (2008). An elegiac Shamus Award nominee. Ex-cop and ex-spook Dante Mancuso is drawn into an investigation of a 1970s bank robbery staged by political activists, reawakened by and filtered through the paranoia of the months after September 11. Stansberry nails the mood of 2002 perfectly, as well as Dante’s sense of bearing witness to the slow-motion demise of San Francisco’s Italian community.

    The Jerusalem File, by Joel Stone (2009). Europa Editions delivers again, with this posthumous novel by Pulitzer Prize nominee Stone. Retired Israeli state security agent Levin finds himself working as a private investigator when a sort-of friend asks him to shadow the wife he’s sure is being unfaithful. Again, the voice is the draw here, combining the world-weariness of Le Carré with the vinegar of Simenon. Or, to put it another way, it’s a tale told by God if He were in fact George Sanders. (For the record, that’s a universe I want to live in.) This brief novel is one of the best of the year.

    The Informant!, (2009). Proof that Hollywood does sometimes get it right. When I read Kurt Eichenwald’s book, I felt that he didn’t grasp how truly bizarre – and funny – the material was. But Steven Soderbergh, writer Scott Z. Burns and company certainly do, nailing a tricky tone from the outset. Burns’ adaptation is a marvel, deploying voiceover to great effect and paying it off at the end. Extra points for the score by Marvin Hamlisch, the pride of Queens College.

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    Monday, September 07, 2009

    Sort Of Related: Richard Stark Edition

    Effective may not sound like the highest compliment. But it is in the world of Parker, the professional thief created by Donald E. Westlake under the pen name of Richard Stark.

    And the new graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke is brilliantly effective. Cooke’s clean, dynamic art, rendered with a sharp eye for early ‘60s detail, suits Stark’s stripped-down prose perfectly. The result is the best interpretation of the character to date, and that includes the two cinematic versions of this book. It’s a potent moment when Parker finally raises his face to a mirror and we see his grim Jack Palance mug. But it’s the blank eyes of the wife who betrayed Parker and left him for dead that fully reveal the power of Cooke’s style.

    Reading the comic triggered a hunger for Stark in pure form so I read the second entry in the series, 1963’s The Man with the Getaway Face. (Cooke’s take on this book will be published next summer.) Parker’s gotten plastic surgery after the events of The Hunter. Desperate for cash, he signs on for a heist that he already knows comes with a double-cross. His only hope is to beat his supposed partner to the punch. But there are unexpected complications, including one involving Parker’s new look. Do I even have to tell you it’s good?

    Elsewhere, critic Paul Matwychuk goes on a Parker roll, watching three movies about the character in a row.

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    Thursday, August 20, 2009

    Sort Of Related: The Amateurs, by Marcus Sakey (2009)/Julia (U.S. 2009)

    The latest novel by Marcus Sakey nails that stage in life when potential begins to curdle into disappointment. Four Chicago friends meet regularly for drinks every week. All of them unattached, in their 30s, and wondering what happened to the fabulous lives they were going to lead. When one of them is pulled by his boss against his will into a drug deal, they decide to steal the money for themselves. But the job doesn’t go as planned. The foursome may not be as close as they thought. And what they’ve stumbled into is no ordinary drug deal.

    The lead characters are drawn with plenty of shading and rough edges. There are sharp observations about friendship and aging. A passage early on sets the tone, when the sole female member of the group talks about how going out on Saturday night once meant feelings of lightness and possibility. Now she fills days and waits to turn into her mother. The Amateurs also captures the mood of those months in 2008 when Americans felt impotent collective rage at the collapse of the financial system and the associated lack of accountability. A strong piece of work.

    Speaking of people who should not undertake lives of crime ...

    (You see? There are themes to these entries.)

    Julia played the festival circuit, received an abbreviated theatrical release, and is out this week on a bare bones DVD. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour character study-cum-crime drama. And it demands your immediate attention.

    Tilda Swinton plays the title role, a self-destructive L.A. alcoholic blazing her own path to hell. At an AA meeting she meets a fellow sufferer who presents her with a deranged plan: kidnap my son from his wealthy grandfather. Julia, at the end of her long, unraveling rope, goes along with it.

    The crime in this movie is not that of big-budget thrillers or gritty noir novels that tout their realism. This madness is right out of a police blotter, caprice and coincidence colliding with bad planning and poor impulse control. Harrowing.

    Julia is also one of the great depictions of a hardcore drunk. The character is always ready with blame and an excuse. Her highs are believably high, her lows degrading. Swinton is simply astonishing, serving up the addict’s quicksilver shifts from confidence to rage to petulance. It’s a titanic performance.

    The movie is a messy ramble, at times maddening but always fascinating. That’s only fitting for a film inspired by John Cassavetes and specifically Gloria. How odd is it that for all Cassavetes’ influence it’s a movie he tossed off as a lark that has spawned remakes official and unofficial?

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