Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Homes of Holmes and Papa


Arthur Conan Doyle’s home in Hindhead, England, Undershaw (seen above), is under attack by a developer who has owned the property since 2004 and wishes to build on the 3-acre site. Previous attempts to subdivide the 36-room residence itself have met with resistance from fans and the local government. Undershaw was built in 1896 as a place where Conan Doyle’s wife, Louise (suffering from consumption), could end her days, which she did, 13 years after her diagnosis. Bram Stoker was among the literary luminaries who stayed at Undershaw. Read the news report here.

In a related story, though one step removed from crime fiction, Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, Florida, which has withstood God knows how many hurricanes, is under siege from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The problem seems to be cats.

Hemingway’s home is sanctuary to more than 50 six-toed cats, many of which are reportedly descended from Hemingway’s original polydactyl, given to him by a sea captain.

The USDA claims that Papa’s home, a major tourist attraction in Key West, is in effect an “exhibitor” of cats--which means it needs to have a USDA Animal Welfare License. But that drunk-with-power bureaucracy has repeatedly refused to grant such a license, and now threatens “to charge the home $200 per cat per day for violating the act.” The whole story can be found here.

The Hemingway matter is now in the hands of a federal judge.

Then Roll the Closing Credits

Those folks over at FilmCritic.com have compiled their list of the “Top 50 Movie Endings of All Time,” which includes a number of crime-fiction offerings:
46. Dead Again (1991)
45. Pulp Fiction (1994)
44. Fargo (1996)
39. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
29. Wait Until Dark (1967)
21. The Usual Suspects (1995)
15. The Godfather (1972)
9. Don’t Look Now (1973)
5. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
3. Chinatown (1974)
But the movie with the most “classic ending,” according to FilmCritic.com? Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Read the whole rundown here.

These Blondes Are No Joke

Back at the start of this month, in a post I wrote about Hard Case Crime, the highly regarded publisher of pulpy paperback hard-boiled fiction, I quoted HCC honcho Charles Ardai on the subject of what is and is not permissible on modern book jackets.
“It’s ironic,” said Ardai. “You could show a completely naked woman on a paperback cover in the 1950s, as long as she was facing away from the viewers, but today, covers that risqué wouldn’t fly with at least some retailers.”
I was reminded of that comment just recently, as I was fishing through an online collection of cover illustrations by renowned artist Robert McGinnis. Among the many wonderful--dare I say “alluring”?--jackets I discovered was that of a 1967 Signet paperback called The Blonde, by Carter Brown (the pseudonym of Australian writer Alan G. Yates, whose myriad works were always big on sex, action, and humor). Sure enough, it shows a naked woman facing away from her viewers (click on the image at left to enlarge it). Brown’s story, according to his book’s teaser, is plotted around a “party girl [who] was going to tell everything about the Hollywood scandal, the orgies, and so on. Right on TV. But she was scooped--by her own murder.”

Now, as it happens, I’ve just finished reading another novel called The Blonde, this one by Philadelphia writer and newspaper editor Duane Swierczynski, and due out in November from St. Martin’s Minotaur. (One of the perks of being a critic is you get to read books way before everyone else does.) Swierczynski’s yarn is a tumbling-paced thriller that begins with a beautiful young woman--a blonde, as you might’ve guessed--allegedly poisoning the drink of an airport bar patron; leads to a beheading, self-replicating nanomachines, and wild craziness in a Philly swingers club; and concludes with healthy doses of revenge all around. It’s a crackling account of love, loss, and lunacy; and though it requires that the reader accept a rather outlandish premise, once started, The Blonde is as hard to put down as chilled beer on a sultry day.

Swierczynski declares himself thrilled with the “kick-ass cover” of his latest novel, in part because it bears a stylistic resemblance to the jacket of his previous book, The Wheelman. And yeah, there’s something very cool about how the designer has employed handcuffs in spelling out the title. But what might sales have been like, had Swierczynski’s The Blonde been allowed to sport a front as artistically racy as Brown’s older book by the same name? Too bad we live in a time and country where people resign themselves to White House domestic spying and lying about war, but where showing a little skin on the cover of a book will incite protest. There’s something backward about that, don’t you think?

READ MORE:Blast from the Past #2: The Blonde” (The Nick Carter & Carter Brown Blog).

Miami Voice

In association with the release of Michael Mann’s big-screen version of Miami Vice, The Atlantic Monthly has reposted Marshall Jon Fisher’s terrific profile (from 2000) of Charles Willeford, the late creator of Miami homicide detective Hoke Moseley (Miami Blues) and “the progenitor of the modern South Florida crime novel.”

Read the article here, while you can.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Back from Blazes

As I write this, the forest fire on British Columbia’s Galiano Island is finally and completely under control, and all the evacuees (yours truly included) have been allowed to return to their homes. Over the last several days, I found writing about this frightful experience somewhat cathartic. As well, my personal blog allowed me to keep in touch with a much larger number of people than would otherwise have been possible: friends, family, and even fans who had heard about the Galiano fire in newspapers or on television and knew that I lived out here on this tiny island.

At one point, through all of this writing about fires, I asked if the freakish winds we were experiencing on the day the fire broke out might have been caused by the fire itself.

Dave Hugelschaffer, a novelist and ex-firefighter in Alberta, e-mailed me with an answer:
If the fire was large enough, it certainly could create its own wind. In fact, firefighters sometimes use the wind effect as a tool--the fire will suck air into itself after a convection column is created in the center. Smoke flares are placed in front of the fire, along a dozergaurd, and when the wind shifts and begins to pull into the fire, a line of new fire is ignited along the inside of the guard. This new fire is pulled into the main fire, obliterating the intervening forest fuels and starving the mainfire, while creating a wide, black firegaurd--the best kind. This is literally fighting fire with fire.
Hugelschaffer’s recently released novel is Day Into Night, and its cover is so graphic, I can barely look at it right now, after all we’ve been through. I hope to read the book sometime soon, but, meanwhile, here’s the synopsis:
When a raging forest fire cannot suck in air quickly enough, smoke turns black, blotting out the sun and turning day into night. To a firefighter, this false dusk is a sign of conditions turning rapidly from bad to worse. But [protagonist Porter] Cassel has more than just fires to contend with--he is a man with a tragedy in his past and the situation becomes more complex when he is framed for the murder of a suspect.
It might be a while before I can read it, but author Nevada Barr (Hard Truth) doesn’t share my hang-ups. She blurbed the book enthusiastically, saying, “It was the Forest Rangers’ equivalent of CSI. I liked the realistic descriptions of the work and an interesting plot. A good read.”

Day Into Night is available in trade paper from Cormorant Books.

Keeping It Reel

In addition to writing the Nick Madrid comic crime series (Cast Adrift, Foiled Again) and reviewing crime fiction for The Observer, British novelist Peter Guttridge has just introduced a column in Shots about “new crime and mystery releases on the big screen and on DVD.” “Screen Crime,” as that offering is called, is starting out slowly, with Guttridge commenting on Elevator to the Gallows (1957), Hidden (2005), and other July DVD releases, but he promises more next month, including a focus on warm and cuddly films starring Mickey Rourke. Though, since Angel Heart (1987) is scheduled to be among his topics of commentary, perhaps “warm and cuddly” isn’t the right description to use.

The Disappointed Fans

Sigh ... When is Jonathan Lethem going to take another shot at writing crime fiction? He already proved, with his 1999 Gold Dagger-winning novel, Motherless Brooklyn, that he can turn the conventions of this genre to his advantage. Yet he tells Laura Miller of Critical Mass that he’s just completed work on “a short and deliberately foolish novel called You Don’t Love Me Yet, set in Los Angeles in the (approximately) early nineties, about discombobulated twenty-somethings in Echo Park who form a band and then accidentally steal the lyrics to their only good song.” Fine. OK. Get that out of your system, Jonathan, along with your planned project to revive the Marvel Comics character Omega the Unknown. But then, how ’bout another yarn about crooks and crazies?

Your fans are out here waiting ...

Friday, July 28, 2006

Turn It Up, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

There’s no question that motion pictures can be enhanced by the proper music. Think of the da-dum, da-dum, da-dum John Williams gave us in Jaws, or the shrieking violins that accompanied the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But what about pieces of orchestral music that serve not as an accent, but as accompaniment to the action onscreen? And what about music from crime films? I thought about this recently as I pulled Terence Blanchard’s Jazz in Film CD off the shelf for the first time in far too long.

Blanchard was born in New Orleans in 1962, and paid his musical dues playing trumpet with the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers. Unfortunately for Blanchard, that nearly damns him to obscurity, as Wynton Marsalis has nearly an identical pedigree. Blanchard started setting himself apart by getting involved in film music, first as a featured musician on films like Do the Right Thing, eventually progressing to composing scores such as one for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Blanchard’s association with Lee continues to the present day, with the 2006 heist-gone-awry film Inside Man.

In 1999, Blanchard released Jazz in Film, which featured his interpretations of classic film scores, three of them from crime films--Anatomy of a Murder, Clockers, and Chinatown.

Anatomy of a Murder, the 1959 Otto Preminger film, featured music by Duke Ellington. The story is the quintessential courtroom drama, and Ellington gave it an urban feel with the driving beat of his score. Blanchard’s take starts with the trombone of Steve Turre, best known to Saturday Night Live fans as the guy who occasionally plays conch shells. The music bustles with activity, and you can almost hear someone say that there are eight million stories in the naked city. It jumbles, it cartwheels, and it propels the listener forward--just like a crime film should.

Blanchard takes his score for Clockers (directed by Lee and based on the Richard Price novel) out for a second spin. Kenny Kirkland sets the stage with ominous left-hand bass chords, followed by Blanchard and tenor sax great Joe Henderson in near unison duet. The restlessness of the characters comes through as Henderson takes over, wailing plaintively and sounding as though he’s sitting on the stoop of a Brooklyn townhouse. Blanchard returns periodically for musical conversations with Henderson. Two friends looking for something to do.

The crown of this CD, though, is the treatment Blanchard gives to Jerry Goldsmith’s main theme from Chinatown. Kirkland once again opens with delicate keyboard work, letting us know the fragility of the story that’s about to unfold. (Kirkland, a ferociously talented musician who worked with band leaders as diverse as Marsalis and Sting, died soon after completing his work on this CD, and it is dedicated to his memory). Blanchard’s soft trumpet fades in and manages to both cry and soar. You hear it all--the hopeless situation of Evelyn Mulwray, the grinning ghoul that is Noah Cross, and the great pawn J.J. Gittes, whose good intentions are not only futile, they’re destructive.

There are other fine cuts on this CD from films as diverse as Taxi Driver, A Streetcar Named Desire, and another Ellington selection from the uncompleted Degas’ Racing World. It’s a marvelous disk, perfect for a summer night with stars in the background and wine in the foreground.

Mr. Monk Meets “Longstreet”

In a post on his Writer’s Life blog, novelist-screenwriter Lee Goldberg tells the story behind tonight’s episode of the TV series Monk. It seems the basic plot comes from Goldberg’s TV tie-in novel Monk Goes to the Firehouse, released earlier this year, but a central concept change (suggested by the show’s creator) ultimately “meant throwing out just about everything in [the] book.” For those of us who abhor the task of rewriting anything longer than a grocery list, this sounds like a nightmare. But Goldberg pronounces himself pleased with the results.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Femmes Fatales Go to the Wall

I’m not usually big on wall calendars, but Bill Crider’s mention today about a new flip-up bevy of babes for 2007 from the pen of Robert McGinnis caught my eye. (Hey, I’m a guy--what can I say?)

McGinnis, an Ohio kid who began illustrating paperback covers for Dell way back in 1958, has recently gained a whole new set of fans, thanks to the work he’s done on several Hard Case Crime fronts, including those of Plunder of the Sun, The Girl with the Long Green Heart, and The Last Quarry. But, now in his 80th year, he already has more than 1,500 paperback covers to his credit, produced for series by Erle Stanley Gardner, Brett Halliday (aka Davis Dresser), John D. MacDonald, Carter Brown (aka Alan G. Yates), and many others. (An outstanding array of his past covers is available here. For more, check out the artist’s own Web site.) In addition, McGinnis has painted movie posters for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Barbarella (1968), and the 1971 James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever. In 1993, he was elected into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, to join the likes of Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington, Al Hirschfeld, and Maurice Sendak. More recently, two books have celebrated his artistic contributions--Tapestry: The Paintings of Robert E. McGinnis (2000) and The Paperback Covers of Robert McGinnis (2001).

Since McGinnis is best known for his illustrations of slinky, seductive, and often perfidious women, it’s not surprising that a wall calendar of his work would boast the appearance of a pin-up scheduler. But “Dangerous Dames,” described by retailer BudPlant.com as “a hard-boiled collection of femme fatale paintings,” shouldn’t get your wife’s or girlfriend’s panties in a twist. Its dozen illustrations, borrowed from the covers of novels such as Take a Murder, Darling, Girl in a Shroud, and No Tears from the Widow, are a tribute to American pulp fiction of the mid-20th century. This isn’t about sexual exploitation; it’s about history. If they ever existed, most of the women McGinnis based his paintings on are probably grandmothers by now. That’ll dash cold water on one’s fantasies about these “Dangerous Dames,” if nothing else does.

Copies of the calendar can be had here for $12.99 apiece. Cheap for a year’s entertainment.

Prose and Cons

With Austin, Texas’ second annual, all-star ConMisterio convention now behind us, Graham Powell has posted an interesting photographic record of those doings at CrimeSpot (see here, here, here, and here). Now for the bad news: the festivities apparently generated much more fan and writer interest than they did money, at least according to organizer Karen Meschke. A press release posted at the ConMisterio Web site says that the event “will not have an encore performance in 2007.” Because the convention “still has not shown a profit ... the staff has decided they cannot continue at this time, and is regretfully retiring the name ‘ConMisterio.’”

And while we’re on the subject of conventions, Olen Steinhauer (author of the forthcoming novel Liberation Movements) has posted, on the Contemporary Nomad blog, a series of reports from last week’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. You can read them here, here, here, and here.

Um, Let’s Try That One Again

Sorry. Due to a computer glitch, the link I provided to the Sleuth channel’s new poll asking viewers to select their favorite TV and film detectives was incorrect. The survey can actually be found here. I have now corrected the link in my original item on this subject.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Fletch Reborn

Just a day after I dissed Chevy Chase’s performance in two movies, Fletch and Fletch Lives, based on Gregory Mcdonald’s popular comic thrillers about an investigative journalist named I.M. “Fletch” Fletcher, ComingSoon.net brings news that the character is destined for more movie adventures. Only this time without Chase’s involvement.

The site reports that “Spin City co-creator and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence will write and direct the next two Fletch films for The Weinstein Company, of which the first remains Fletch Won,” based on Mcdonald’s 1985 novel of the same name (the eighth in a series that began with 1974’s Fletch). Screenwriter/director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma) had previously been associated with the project, but has apparently tossed it over. ComingSoon adds, “Smith had wanted to cast My Name is Earl star Jason Lee in the title role, but Scrubs star Zach Braff was reportedly also a frontrunner for the role. Now that Lawrence is indeed on board, Braff definitely has an edge over other actors.” Shooting on the film--Lawrence’s first big-screen effort--is expected to begin in April 2007, while the producer is on hiatus from Scrubs.

It’s always dicey to translate a character familiar from books onto the screen, and Chase--while I respect much of his work--didn’t measure up to my vision of Fletch. He was broadly comic, rather than understatedly so, as Mcdonald’s tales really demand. I could see Lee in the part, sure, with his look of perpetual bewilderment at being caught up in the whirlwind of life. But I can imagine, too, Braff stepping into Fletch’s shoes. Although he strikes me initially as rather too young-looking, his role in Scrubs over the years has helped distinguish that NBC-TV sitcom as a smarter-than-average example of a pretty atrocious breed. What’s more, his work with the lovely Natalie Portman in Garden State (2004) shows he has the chops to pull off the sort of nuanced performance that could set Fletch Won apart from its more slapstick predecessors.

(Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)

READ MORE:Will Fletch Finally Be Made, Starring Zach Braff?” by Jen Creer (TV Squad).

Mansions and Murder

During an interview with blogger David Thayer, Shamus-winning novelist Daniel Judson is asked about setting his new novel, The Darkest Place, in the Hamptons area of East Long Island--a place usually associated with vacationing rich folks, not killers and private eyes. Judson responds:
There are back streets in every town, and Southampton is no exception. It just amazes me that some people refuse to believe that the East End of Long Island has a seedy underbelly simply because it’s a playground for the wealthy three months out of the year. Like the wealthy are somehow above crime. And Southampton really isn’t all mansions and polo grounds. Working-class people live there year round--struggle to live there, to make a living and raise their kids and keep their homes. When I was out there I lived in border-line poverty, a wannabe writer scrambling to make rent. I saw my share of desperate people, felt my share of desperation. So for me writing about the back streets isn’t working against type, it’s telling it more or less how I saw it.
Read the whole interview here.

Two Sides of the Coin

Editor’s note: Once more, The Rap Sheet is delighted to welcome the work of veteran Chicago Tribune books critic Dick Adler. Following yesterday’s post on how he has just created a blog about contemporary thrillers to accompany his previous blog about mysteries, in general, Dick sent along a note saying, “there’s a serious discussion to be started as to what’s the difference between mysteries and thrillers. I'll be happy to kick it off ...” We invited him to do so with this submission. Your responses are invited.

* * *
I called my first blog Paperback Mysteries because it had a ring to it--better than Paperback Crime Fiction, anyway. I figured that people who read mysteries also read thrillers. In the 30-plus years I’ve been reviewing crime fiction, nobody has ever complained to me about not enough thriller reviews--or too many. A good read is what we’re all after, or so I thought.

But that was then. After Paperback Mysteries appeared, a small but loud contingent of folks complained that they never read “mysteries”--and where were all the great thrillers? An equally small but even more noisy group said, how dare I pollute the crystal waters of the mystery genre with thrillers? So I’ve tried to solve the problem by starting another blog, called Paperback Thrillers.

The line between mystery and thriller is certainly a vague one: as I said in my introduction to Dreams of Justice, to my mind, mysteries most often have continuing casts of central characters who reach some solution to the crimes committed by a mixture of rational deduction and inspiration. Thrillers more often deal with larger, single events, occasionally political, and usually end in scenes of violence. The folks over at the International Thriller Writers Saloon seem to agree.

When Diane Vogt of ITW asked me, I said that I think readers love thrillers because of 1) The “What If?” factor: what if a famous painting held a clue to the fact that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a baby? and 2) The “What the Hell Do We Do NOW?” syndrome: those damned dinosaurs in the theme park seem to have developed minds of their own. One hopeful trend is “The Thriller as Samidzat” (or perhaps “The Thriller Writer as Tom Paine”): a growing realization that just because our government says something is true, it ain’t necessarily so.

Does that mean thrillers are the wave of the future, and that mysteries will disappear? You tell me ...

UPDATE: In response to Dick’s comments on mysteries vs. thrillers, novelist John Shannon (Dangerous Games) writes:
Here’s another definition for you, not really universal but interesting--from a one-minute corridor seminar at a Bouchercon given me by Barbara Peters [of Poisoned Pen Press]. Mysteries are about something that has gone wrong and then hunting down the big rock that caused it and turning it over to find out what happened--or something like that. A thriller is a duel. You know the good guy and bad guy at the beginning and you watch them both move toward each other and a final collision. As I say, not universal, but it does account for a lot of them.

And from my point of view, the best mysteries are rooted in place and deal with the social history of the time and place. Thrillers tend to exoticism rather than place and almost never touch on social history. Thrillers are fundamentally more conservative, about crushing some “other” so we can return to the status quo (as are police procedurals.)

Pelecanos and What It Means to Write

There’s a nice article in today’s New York Times on George Pelecanos and his particular struggle to find commercial success, and the hopes that he and his publisher have for his newest novel, The Night Gardener. Written by Motoko Rich, the article details facts regarding Pelecanos’ sales figures and advances. It notes that “according to Nielsen BookScan, none of his last five books have sold more than 13,000 copies in hardcover ...” The article goes on to state that Michael Connelly has sometimes sold “as many as 30 times” that amount, and Dennie Lehane’s Shutter Island sold “about seven times the number of copies of Soul Circus.” It also recounts the smaller advances paid to Pelecanos years ago by St. Martin’s Press ($7,500), compared with the current higher advances he receives from Little, Brown ($1.5 million for a three-book contract). The article also mentions Little, Brown’s $150,000 marketing campaign to push The Night Gardener.

Rich’s piece is about more than facts and figures, however. It is about heart and soul. He covers brief bits on Pelecanos’ private life, and his desire to write characters that matter and stories that are authentic. He mentions that the novelist finally got permission to spend time with a homicide unit, and the value that leant his fiction in depicting detail. But this article also brings out the heart of the writer: the man laboring away in an attic room, writing stories, all the while wondering if he should be separating himself from his family for a pursuit that is giving back scant reward. That’s what Pelecanos’ early days were like, and his experience resonates with all beginning (or not so beginning) writers who work to be recognized: the soul of the author determined to write fiction that challenges, his unwillingness to change that style, and clearly how much he loves both writing and his family. Jim Born talks a bit about family on his Web site. Pelecanos talks about family, too (he keeps hardback editions of his books on a living room shelf, each with a picture of his three children taped inside its front cover). Family matters to Pelecanos and to his fictional creations.

You’ll learn much about Pelecanos from this article. And you’ll maybe get to challenge yourself, as well. How much are you willing to sacrifice as a writer? How long will you be willing to deal with low (or no) money and meager sales? How high will you place commercialism over craft? Pelecanos does have critical recognition--duh. He writes brilliant novels--duh. He did eventually find the bigger money, and he wrote for the critically successful HBO-TV series The Wire. Still, that elusive commercial success factor is not in his pocket. Is that what really matters?--Anthony Rainone

(A version of this post appeared originally here.)

Hit Me, Baby, One More Time

In the competition between Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who wins? Chandler, at least according to Google. Mark Coggins has the skinny here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Watching the Detectives

I’ve been around journalism long enough to know how smart publicists use reporters, editors, and, nowadays, bloggers, presenting them with “special projects” or pseudo-news items that look like interesting story leads. One such instance involves the in-progress online survey hosted by cable-TV’s Sleuth Channel. Ostensibly, the goal here is to accumulate public input as to which film and TV detectives have been most memorable. But, of course, this is hardly a new idea (in fact, TV Guide produced its own such list only a few months ago.) And Sleuth execs can’t honestly expect to get an accurate representation of public opinion via a Web-based survey. No, the real reason Sleuth has mounted this poll is merely to generate early buzz about its “first original production,” a 90-minute show called America’s Top Sleuths, which is slated to debut in the fall.

All that said, however, the Sleuth crew has put together a generally decent list of nominees:

• Detective Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet
Lieutenant Columbo from Columbo
• Lieutenant Theo Kojak from Kojak
Jim Rockford from The Rockford Files
• Lieutenant Tony Baretta from Baretta
• Dr. R. Quincy from Quincy, M.E.
Thomas Magnum from Magnum P.I.
• Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote
James “Sonny” Crockett & Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs from Miami Vice
Irwin M. “Fletch” Fletcher from the Fletch movies
• Detective Lenny Brisco from Law & Order
Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon
• Harry Callahan from the Dirty Harry movies
• Martin Riggs & Roger Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon films
Sherlock Holmes from various movies and TV series
Remington Steele from Remington Steele
• Detective Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue
• Fox Mulder & Dana Scully from The X-Files
• Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs
• Marge Gunderson from Fargo
Maddie Hayes & David Addison from Moonlighting
• Lieutenant Frank Drebin from Police Squad
• Gil Grissom from C.S.I.
John Shaft from the Shaft movies and TV series
• Sabrina Duncan, Jill Munroe, & Kelly Garrett from Charlie’s Angels

Had I been consulted, I would undoubtedly have added some names to this rundown, not the least among them being Harry Orwell from Harry O, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin from films and television, Mike Hammer from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse from Inspector Morse, J.J. “Jake” Gittes from Chinatown, and Nick and Nora Charles from both films and television. I might even have salted the mix with Pete Ryan and Frank McBride from Switch, Moses Wine from The Big Fix, Paladin from Have Gun, Will Travel, Spenser from Spenser: For Hire, Thomas Banacek from Banacek, Mike Longstreet from Longstreet, and, because I think this tally needs a bit more female representation, Claire McCarron from the underappreciated Leg Work and Honey West from--you guessed it--Honey West. Oh, and what about Philip Marlowe, who’s appeared in both TV series and films? How in the hell could Sleuth have put together this poll without including Raymond Chandler’s flawed knight errant? The only reason I’m not suggesting Travis McGee here as well, is that the character hasn’t been represented on screen either often enough or well enough (although I did have high--and ultimately dashed--hopes for a 1983 teleflick of The Empty Copper Sea, starring Sam Elliott). Same goes for Lew Archer, who was denied his own surname in Paul Newman’s Harper (1966), the best-yet interpretation of one of Ross Macdonald’s private detective yarns, and wasn’t done justice either by Peter Graves (in the 1974 TV movie The Underground Man) or Brian Keith (who starred in the short-lived 1975 series Archer).

Of course, installing any of these characters on Sleuth’s ballot would require booting off one or more existing nominees, if the total number is to remain at 25. OK, fine. Start by getting rid of Baretta (who didn’t wear well with me, week to week, although I liked Baretta’s theme song, by Dave Grusin). Then pitch Police Squad’s buffoonish Drebin from the bus, and, right behind him, Fletch (who was much better in Gregory Mcdonald’s series of novels than he ever was in the two Chevy Chase films). Joe Friday always came off as too damn wooden (heck, the guy didn’t even know how to run without looking like he had a stick up his butt!), so out he goes, too. And don’t get me started on Jessica Fletcher, who never measured up to another, more eccentric (but considerably less heralded) pair of TV novelist-detectives, the irrepressible Ernesta and Gwendolyn Snoop from The Snoop Sisters.

Even making all of my changes, however, doesn’t alter the fact of who deserves to win Sleuth’s survey: Los Angeles private investigator Jim Rockford, created by Roy Huggins and played by one of the smoothest-appearing actors in the biz, James Garner. With the exception of Sherlock Holmes, who was so ably portrayed by British actor Jeremy Brett in a decade-long (1984-1994) series of telefilms from Granada Television, and Spade, who has since become synonymous with Humphrey Bogart’s performance in The Maltese Falcon (1941), the nominees who were born in books haven’t fared as well on television or in films as those whose careers began on the screen. And Rockford is by the far the best of that latter bunch. He was resourceful when necessary, understandably self-protective (no rash heroics for Jimbo), and while he fit the profile of American P.I.s being successful with the opposite sex, Rockford never disrespected or took for granted the women with whom he kept company. In a medium that has sprouted copycat gumshoes by the closetful, Rockford was, and remains, an original.

After Rockford, my four other nominees from Sleuth’s line-up would have to be Columbo, Spade, Holmes, and Crockett and Tubbs--in that order. If I had a sixth choice, it would probably be Sipowitz (played by Dennis Franz), who grew from being a co-star on NYPD Blue to being the rock on which the whole show found its balance.

To vote in Sleuth’s poll, simply click here. This may be an example of a TV promotion masquerading as “news,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an element of fun involved.

Taking on Crais

Kevin Burton Smith put together, for January Magazine, what I have long thought was one of the best interviews ever with novelist Robert Crais (The Two Minute Rule). However, Ali Karim’s new exchange with the same author, this time for Shots, is well worth reading as well. In it, Crais recalls how he was in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina struck there last year, shares his boyhood fondness for comic books, talks about his early days of writing for television, and reveals--gasp!--that he almost killed off Joe Pike in his very first Elvis Cole book, The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987).

Read the whole interview here.

All Mystery. All the Time.

(Editor’s note: Rap Sheet contributor Linda L. Richards has asked that I post this item on her behalf. She’s currently hold up as an evacuee, having been forced from her British Columbia island home as a result of a raging wildfire. To learn more about her plight, see here and here.)

It’s astonishing how prescient Bruce Springsteen has turned out to be. Remember “57 Channels (And Nothing On)” from way back in 1992? Now, a lot of us actually have hundreds of channels available via cable and satellite, not just a piddling 57. And lots of the time? Still nothing on.

But mystery enthusiasts found their selection improved earlier this year with the launch of NBC Universal’s new crime and mystery cable channel, Sleuth.

The Sleuth Channel brings viewers a blend of classic mystery and crime programming--The A-Team, Knight Rider, Simon & Simon, The Equalizer, and Miami Vice among them--as well as movies such as Casino and The Take, and original programming.

A 90-minute show called America’s Top Sleuths is currently in development and will premiere on the Sleuth Channel this coming fall. You can help with the selection process by throwing your two cents into the mix. The Sleuth Web site is currently hosting an online poll that allows visitors to choose their five favorite sleuths from television and film, out of a shortlist of 25. (Though, inexplicably, options like “Sabrina, Jill, & Kelly” and “Mulder & Scully” only count as one sleuth apiece. So, feasibly, your five choices could buy you nine favorite sleuths, if you chose right. Also, I’m sorry: it’s very difficult for me to think of Crockett and Tubbs as sleuths. But that’s likely a personal thing.)--L.L.R.

If at First You Do Succeed ...

Longtime Chicago Tribune mystery columnist Dick Adler, who’s put in a few months now on his Web log, Paperback Mysteries, has decided already that it’s time to branch out, to create a second blog, this one “concentrating on books on the other side of the razor-sharp line between mysteries and thrillers.” His new Paperback Thrillers site can be found here.

Keep up the good work, Dick.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Doing Boucher Proud

And the awards nominations just keep on coming … This time, we have contestants for the 2006 Anthony Awards, selected by Bouchercon attendees and named in honor of prominent critic Anthony Boucher.

Best Mystery Novel:
Bloodlines, by Jan Burke (Simon & Schuster)
Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)
Mercy Falls, by William Kent Krueger (Atria)
Red Leaves, by Thomas H. Cook (Harcourt)
To the Power of Three, by Laura Lippman (Morrow)

Best First Mystery:
The Baby Game, by Randall Hicks (Wordslinger Press)
Die a Little, by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster)
Immoral, by Brian Freeman (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
Officer Down, by Theresa Schwegel (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
Tilt-a-Whirl, by Chris Grabenstein (Carroll & Graf)

Best Paperback Original:
The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, by Susan McBride (Avon)
The James Deans, by Reed Farrell Coleman (Plume)
A Killing Rain, by P.J. Parrish (Pinnacle)
Kiss Her Goodbye, by Allan Guthrie (Hard Case Crime)
Six Bad Things, by Charlie Huston (Ballantine)

Best Short Story:
• “Driven to Distraction,” by Marcia Talley (in Chesapeake Crimes II, edited by Donna Andrews and Maria Y. Lima; Quiet Storm)
• “House Rules,” by Libby Fischer Hellmann (in Murder in Vegas, edited by Michael Connelly; Forge)
• “Killer Blonde,” by Elaine Viets (in Drop-Dead Blond; Signet)
• “Misdirection,” by Barbara Seranella (in Greatest Hits, edited by Robert J. Randisi; Carroll & Graf)
• “There Is No Crime on Easter Island,” by Nancy Pickard (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September-October 2005)

Best Critical/Nonfiction:
Behind the Mystery: Top Mystery Writers Interviewed, by Stuart M. Kaminsky; photography by Laurie Roberts (Hothouse Press)
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak (Harcourt)
The Heirs of Anthony Boucher: A History of Mystery Fandom, edited by Marv Lachman (Poisoned Pen Press)
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, edited by Leslie S. Klinger (Norton)
Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, by Hallie Ephron (Writer’s Digest)

Best Fan Publication:
Crimespree Magazine, edited by Jon and Ruth Jordan
Deadly Pleasures, edited by George Easter
Mystery News, edited by Lynn Kaczmarek and Chris Aldrich
Mystery Scene Magazine, edited by Brian Skupin and Kate Stine
Mystery Readers Journal, edited by Janet Rudolph

Special Service to the Field:
• George Easter, Deadly Pleasures
• Janet Rudolph, Mystery Readers International
• Maddy Van Hertbruggen, 4 Mystery Addicts
• Sarah Weinman, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

Winners will be announced on Saturday, September 30, during the Bouchercon festivities in Madison, Wisconsin.

Color Him Memorable

Weird, isn’t it, that Raymond Chandler’s birthday should be followed the next day by the birthday of yet another giant in 20th-century crime fiction, John D. MacDonald? Yet, there it is. The Pennsylvania-born creator of “salvage expert” Travis McGee would have turned 90 years old today. However, he died in 1986, not long after the release of his 21st McGee novel, The Lonely Silver Rain.

In 1984, Mystery Scene editor Ed Gorman asked the author what he would like his epitaph to say. MacDonald’s response: “He hung around quite a while, entertained the folk, and was stopped quick and clean when the right time came.”

READ MORE:John D. MacDonald’s Lush Landscape of Crime,” by Jonathan Yardley (The Washington Post).

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Razing the Bar

The Summer 2006 issue of Bryon Quertermous’ Demolition magazine is finally up, including pulpy short stories by Jeff Shelby (“Twisted Sister”), Paul Guyot (“The Law and the Order”), Gerald So (“The Observer”), and Stephen Blackmore (“Breaking in the New Guy”). Hmm ... The last edition contained nothing but tales by female writers. This time, not a women in the bunch. Can’t we all just get along?

Yet More Mickey

Although they come five days after Mickey Spillane’s death, two pieces in today’s Los Angeles Times remain worthy reads. The first, “On a Mickey Spillane Thrill Ride Through Life,” is a wonderful expansion of a tribute Max Allan Collins (Road to Paradise) wrote for Sarah Weinman’s blog. In it, Collins remembers how, as a boy of 13, during a family vacation, he ventured into a newsstand in America’s “heartland” to buy a Spillane paperback:
Back home, at Cohn’s Newsland, I’ve been eyeing the lurid covers of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels--“I, the Jury,” which ends with a striptease (“And she was a real blonde!”) and “Kiss Me, Deadly” (“The flames were teeth that ate, ripping and tearing!”). Back home I didn’t dare a purchase. Here I risked “One Lonely Night,” with its cover of a mostly nude damsel, her wrists bound, hanging helpless.

“How old are you?” the vendor asks.

“Sixteen!”

“Are you sure?”

I throw down 35 cents and soon am devouring fever-dream prose in the backseat of a Pontiac. The vacation, I forget. The ride of the Spillane novel stays with me.
(This reminds me of the time, as a pubescent nerd in the early 1970s, that I went to buy a paperback copy of Spillane’s The Erection Set, the standalone novel fronted by a photo of the author’s second wife, model Sherri Malinou, naked. As I stood in line at the sales counter, I was relieved to see a teenage boy not so many years older than I was, manning the cash register. But then, as the customer right before me completed her purchase, the teen was suddenly replaced by an older woman with half reading glasses strung around her neck and a face so pinched that it probably restricted her breathing. I thought I would die from shame, as she pulled from my reluctant grasp what I was sure she presumed to be a soft-core porn novel. She didn’t whistle up any cops, but as she took my money and bagged the book, the cashier shot me a glance I’m sure she reserved for sexual deviants and habitual wearers of miniskirts.)

In an accompanying Times piece, “A Shot to the Gut of Fiction,” novelists Robert B. Parker, George Pelecanos, and Janet Evanovich are asked to assess Spillane’s influence on modern crime fiction. But the best quote may actually come from the article’s author, Scott Martelle, who at one point muses on “the coldblooded toughness of Spillane’s work”:
[I]t’s likely that had Spillane not spilled the literary blood, someone else would have. Art is propelled by its edges, and about the only edge left to the genre [in the 1950s] was to make it sharper, and harder. In that regard, Spillane was to detective fiction what punk would later become to pop music--a hard kick at the door of social convention that in retrospect seems inevitable.

Both punk and Spillane coarsened their art forms but also centered them. In
[Dashiell] Hammett’s books, scant sexual encounters were mostly implied. In Spillane’s books, the sex was overt, often more an act of aggression than love. And when Spillane’s characters were shot, they bled painfully and profusely.
Based on this, a cheeky chap might wish to tack an addendum onto Raymond Chandler’s statement, from “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he says that “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse ...” Spillane, in turn, gave the kind of people who commit murder permission to do so without either guilt or emotion. “I, the Jury” means never having to say you’re sorry.

READ MORE:Mickey Spillane Wrote Here,” by Alexa James (Times Herald-Record).

The King in Perpetuity

Editor’s note: I actually wrote this short piece last year for my other blog, Limbo. But since most of you probably didn’t read it there, and since I don’t think I can outdo myself on this subject, I’ve decided to rerun the item here--of course, updating it slightly to match the number of birthdays this author would now be celebrating.

* * *

Today marks the 118th birthday of American detective-story writer Raymond Chandler. Of course, the author himself died way back in 1959, not long after the publication of his seventh novel. But that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating this occasion. After all, Chandler was one of the foremost authors (not merely one of the foremost mystery authors) of the 20th century. Without him, what we know today as the hard-boiled crime tale might be quite different--probably less literary in aim, if not always in execution. Chandler took the raw, realistic intrigue style that Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and others had begun cooking up in post-World War I America, and gave it an artistic bent, filling his fiction with evocative metaphors and sentences that refuse to shed their cleverness with age (“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window”; “She sat in front of her princess dresser trying to paint the suitcases out from under her eyes.”). Like Ernest Hemingway, Chandler had an idiosyncratic prose “voice” that is often imitated but rarely duplicated. “He wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a wonderful gusto and imaginative flair,” opined Ross Macdonald, who was among those influenced by Chandler’s work, and who would go on--in novels such as The Chill (1964) and The Underground Man (1971)--to further elevate crime fiction’s reputation and increase its popularity.

Although he was born in Chicago in 1888, Raymond Thornton Chandler moved with his divorced mother, Florence, to England in 1895. After attending preparatory school in London, he studied international law in France and Germany before returning to Britain and embarking on a literary career that produced, early on, mostly book reviews and bad poetry. However, he did manage to publish 27 of his poems, as well as a short story called “The Rose-Leaf Romance,” before returning to the States in 1912. He then labored at a variety of jobs (including as a tennis-racket stringer and as the bookkeeper for a creamery in Los Angeles) until 1917, when he enlisted as a private in the Canadian Army and was sent to the French front lines during World War I. Discharged at Vancouver, Canada, in 1919, he moved back to L.A., and in 1924, wed Pearl Eugenie “Cissy” Pascal. Already twice married and divorced, she was also 18 years older than the future novelist, yet “was a lively, original, intelligent, mature, youthful-looking woman who seemed precisely right for a man of Chandler’s age and experience ...,” according to biographer Jerry Speir. By this time, Chandler was on the payroll of a Southern California oil syndicate, just as the oil industry around L.A. was starting to, well, gush. He originally signed on with that syndicate as a bookkeeper, but--despite his distaste for an industry he believed was dominated by corrupt opportunists--eventually rose to the position of vice president.

However, as business pressures intensified during the Depression, and Cissy’s health began to fail with age, Chandler commenced drinking heavily and engaging in affairs with office secretaries. In 1932, he was fired from his job with the oil syndicate. To ease the consequent drain on his savings, he turned back to fiction writing, and in 1933 saw his first short story published in Black Mask, the most noteworthy of America’s cheap, mass-market “pulp magazines.” Speir explains:
It was an 18,000-word story called “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” and caused the editorial staff to wonder if this unknown man were a genius or crazy. The story was so well polished that not a phrase could be cut, thus the praise for his “genius.” But in his compulsive drive for perfection, [Chandler] had also tried to “justify” the right margin, as printers say. He had tried to make the typed page appear with even margins on both the left and right, like a printed page--thus the concern for his possible “craziness.”
Chandler relished mystery writing because it seemed to lack pretension, and the pulps’ restrictions on word length and subject matter compelled him to master the art of storytelling. Never a past master of plotting, Chandler found his own strengths instead in creating emotion through description and dialogue, and in presenting a prose idiom that melded the precision of his prep-school English with the vigor of American vernacular speech.

His first novel, The Big Sleep (which he wrote in three months), hit bookstores in 1939 and introduced the character who would come to be synonymous with, and long outlive, his creator: wisecracking, chess-playing, late-30s L.A. private eye Philip Marlowe. Marlowe embodied the author’s conception (spelled out in his classic 1944 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”) of the gumshoe as “a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor--by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and good enough for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.”

Chandler hadn’t intended to write mysteries for the rest of his life, but that’s exactly what he did. Thank goodness. After Sleep, he penned six more Marlowe adventures, including what are arguably his finest two: Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Long Goodbye (1953). He also took a turn in the early ’40s as a Hollywood scriptwriter, contributing to such films as Double Indemnity (1943) and writing The Blue Dahlia (1946), the screenplay of which received an Oscar nomination, before he soured on the whole enterprise. (He later worked with Alfred Hitchcock on a movie adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train; but the renowned director was apparently not fond of the results, and replaced Chandler.) In 1954, just a year after The Long Goodbye was published, Cissy died from fibrosis of the lungs, sending her then 66-year-old husband into a “long nightmare” of mourning that left him with severe depression and resulted in at least one suicide attempt. Biographers like Frank McShane (The Life of Raymond Chandler, 1976) have remarked on the mixture in Chandler’s stories of toughness and sentimentality, and how “the emotional sensitivity that made [Chandler’s] literary achievement possible also made him miserable as a human being.” That miserableness was much in evidence during the last five years of Chandler’s life. He survived it, in part, through the ministrations of Helga Greene, his London literary agent and friend (and, in the months prior to his death, his fiancée), and went on to compose Playback, which was based on a screenplay he’d written in 1947. That novel reached bookstore shelves just 16 months before he passed away on March 26, 1959.

When Raymond Chandler died, he left behind an unfinished manuscript titled The Poodle Springs Story, which Robert B. Parker (a novelist who shows distinctive Chandlerian influences in his own novels, featuring a Boston P.I. named Spenser) would complete and see published, as simply Poodle Springs, in 1989. The author left in his wake, too, a stylistic legacy that has inspired successive generations of detective novelists; without Chandler (along with Hammett and Macdonald) having shown them the way, people such as Parker, Michael Connelly, Timothy Harris, Arthur Lyons, Max Allan Collins, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and Loren D. Estleman might never have found their way into writing crime fiction. The success of movies made from Chandler’s stories (especially Humphrey Bogart’s 1946 The Big Sleep and James Garner’s Marlowe, a 1969 flick based on The Little Sister), as well as radio shows, television series, and even comic books based on his work makes us forget that he only ever published seven novels and 24 short stories during his lifetime.

The impact of his legacy has far exceeded the limits of his artistic fabrication. He gave the world an indelible image of mid-20th-century Los Angeles as a city where lawlessness and luxury were old drinking buddies, and trust was a rare commodity--a rather different place from what Chandler himself had encountered during his first, pre-World War I foray to Southern California. (In The Little Sister, he has Marlowe say, “I used to like this town. A long time ago. ... [It] was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful.”) This author also bequeathed us an archetype of the fictional private eye as a tired latter-day knight who, though he has traded his helmet for a fedora, still knows how to rescue a damsel in distress. That archetype has been altered in the decades since Chandler’s demise, but its shadow can still be seen behind many of the crime-novel protagonists working today.

As McShane put it in his introduction to the wonderful 1988 anthology, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration, “Chandler was a real artist. He created a character who has become a part of American folk mythology, and in writing about Los Angeles, he depicted a world of great beauty and seamy corruption--the American reality. He made words dance, and readers continue to respond to his magic.”

So, on the occasion of the man’s 118th birthday, let us drink a toast to Raymond Chandler: an unusual man, but one of the best writers in his own world and good enough for any world.

READ MORE:Raymond Chandler: An Appreciation,” by George Pelecanos (Your Flesh Magazine); “45 Calibrations of Raymond Chandler,” by Peter Straub.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

An Actor of Class and Character

Although crime-fiction fans might not recognize his name right off the bat, most would certainly identify the distinctive voice and mug of veteran actor Jack Warden, who died on Wednesday of natural causes at a New York hospital. He was 85 years old.

Warden’s film career spanned five decades, beginning with a role in 1951’s The Man With My Face and followed quickly by a three-year stint on the TV sitcom Mr. Peepers. His first memorable role, however, came in 1957 when he played a salesman who was anxious for a quick decision in a murder case, in the film 12 Angry Men.

The Washington Post brought a personal note to its own coverage of Warden’s death. The actor had played a Post editor in 1976’s All the President’s Men, the film version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about their breaking of the Watergate scandal.
Harry M. Rosenfeld, the Post metropolitan editor played by Mr. Warden, recalled last night how the actor “sat in my office” in the newsroom, watching him at work as part of his preparation. ...

While in Washington, Rosenfeld said, Mr. Warden made friends quickly and beat the editor badly at tennis. He said news of the death left him “deeply saddened.”
Over the course of his long career, Warden had roles in over 100 movies, including including From Here to Eternity (1953), The Thin Red Line (1964), Shampoo (1975), The Verdict (1982), Heaven Can Wait (1978), The Presidio (1988), While You Were Sleeping (1995), Bulworth (1998), and The Replacements (2000).

POSTSCRIPT FROM J. KINGSTON PIERCE: Despite all the prominent film roles Jack Warden had, probably my fondest memories of this actor come from a pair of TV crime series in which he starred. The first was 1976’s short-lived Jigsaw John, a Carroll O’Connor production in which Warden acted the part of Los Angeles Police Department special investigator John St. John (“called Jigsaw because of his methodical way of piecing together clues,” recalls Richard Meyers in TV Detectives). Introduced in a 1975 teleflick called They Only Come Out at Night, St. John was supposed to be famous for his crime-solving acumen, but audiences didn’t find his escapades quite as awe-inspiring as the crooks he put behind bars; Jigsaw John was cancelled after 25 weeks. Warden, though, came back to series television a decade later in Crazy Like a Fox (1984-1986). Here, he played a seat-of-his-pants, almost-anything-goes, adventure-loving San Francisco private eye named Harrison “Harry” Fox Sr., who was always looking for legal help and free legwork from his son, the far more conservative attorney Harrison Fox Jr. (John Rubinstein). The pairing of these two characters was absolutely terrific, even if the plots of their comedy-drama series tended toward the outrageous at times. All Harrison Jr. wanted, it seemed, was to put food on the table for his wife and young son, while Harry was all about the thrill of the chase and the clever con that would expose a criminal--and inevitably cause his son to cringe before his white-shoe lawyer buddies. For his Crazy Like a Fox work, Warden was twice nominated for Emmys in the category of Leading Actor in a Comedy Series. He should’ve won.

READ MORE:Jack Warden, 85; Prolific Film, TV Actor,” by Valerie J. Nelson (Los Angeles Times); “Jack Warden,” by Ed Gorman (Mystery*File).

Rookie of the Year

TV Squad reports that Brett Ratner, the Cuban-American director behind this year’s film X-Men: The Last Stand, has been asked to develop a new FOX-TV series based on Edward Conlon’s 2004 authobiographical work, Blue Blood. That book looked back on Harvard graduate Conlon’s wide-ranging experience during his early years with the New York Police Department, working in the Bronx. In reviewing Blue Blood (which was named one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2004), Anthony Rainone wrote that the book
is perhaps the finest, most eloquent portrayal of life on “the Job,” disdaining heroics for the give-and-take of unforgiving streets. ... An intelligent man who can combine the grandiosity of police theory with the nuts-and-bolts daily grind of the street cop, Conlon articulates not merely the gruff law officer’s take on things, complete with police vernacular and acronyms, but he’s unafraid to offer a glimpse into the gamut of emotions that cops go through, as well. One learns quickly that the Job is frequently mundane and fraught with red tape; that the “bosses” hold their officers accountable at all times; and that most cops hope for a good collar, which usually translates into a gun arrest. Conlon is a dedicated policeman with good instincts, and he makes enough collars (including successful gun arrests) and has connections with the right people in the department--often the only way to rise up through the NYPD hierarchy--that he achieves detective rank in one of the city’s busiest precincts. Blue Blood is filled with accounts of frustration (a gun raid that turns out bogus, due to a lying informer), horror (having friends killed in the World Trade Center attacks) and elation (the chance to work directly for the police commissioner). ... Ed Conlon showcases the humanity of the NYPD in all of its glory and with its abundant foibles, and the reader gains a truer sense of what it really means to carry a gun and a shield--and the awesome responsibility it puts upon men and women who, more often than not, are just like you and me.
Given that FOX tends to seriously underestimate the intelligence of its audience (with a few notable exceptions, including the Hugh Laurie series, House), and that X-Men III drew very mixed reviews, there’s every reason to be cynical about the prospects for this series. Also, because decent TV cop shows come few and far between; for every Homicide: Life on the Street or Crime Story, you get five or six T.J. Hookers. Still, Blue Blood gives Ratner and his writing partner, Neil Tolkin, good “bones” to start with--a behind-the-scenes perspective on life as a rookie cop--and viewers might finally be hungry for a police drama that’s not a Law & Order or CSI spin-off. Cross your fingers.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Evidently Worth the Torment

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid has won the 2006 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for The Torment of Others (2004), her fourth novel to feature criminal psychologist Dr. Tony Hill and his police colleague, Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan. The announcement was made last night during the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

In association with her victory, McDermid received £3,000 and a handmade oak beer cask (fortunately, not a full-size specimen).

The Torment of Others was one of five books shortlisted for this year’s commendation. The other nominees were: Strange Blood, by Lindsay Ashford; One Last Breath, by Stephen Booth; The Coffin Trail, by Martin Edwards; The Various Haunts of Men, by Susan Hill; and Fleshmarket Close, by Ian Rankin. Votes for the winner were cast online by interested readers.

My Wit Is Quick

Mickey Spillane speaks from the grave! Well, sorta. Today’s installment of Fresh Air on National Public Radio will repeat an interview that host Terry Gross did with the creator of Mike Hammer back in November 1989. In addition, books critic and crime-fiction fan Maureen Corrigan will comment on Spillane’s place in the genre.

If you’re unable to listen to the show, the audio should be available here at about 3 p.m. ET.

(Thanks to Bill Crider for the heads up.)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Welcome, Amanda!

There was a delicate sound reverberating through the crime-fiction blogosphere today. All of of us standing together and sending a warm welcome out to Amanda Montgomery, the new daughter of critic David Montgomery.

Congratulations David and Maili!

Amanda shares her birthday--July 20--with some other noteworthy women, including Scout Larue Willis (daughter of Bruce and Demi, 1991), Julia Syriani, Miss Universe-Lebanon 1996 (born 1977), marathoner Jenny Spangler (born 1963), actress Donna Dixon, aka “Mrs. Dan Akroyd” (1957), singer Kim “Betty Davis Eyes” Carnes (1946), Dinner Party artist Judy Chicago (1939), actress Natalie Wood (1938), U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (1936), British historian Cicely Veronica Wedgwood, (1910) and silent-film-era sex symbol Theda Bara (1890).

Happy birthday, Amanda, and thanks to Brainy History for the dates.

Ali’s Excellent Adventure



I confess, when January Magazine contributing editor Ali Karim (shown on the left in this photograph, with novelist James Rollins) sent me his 5,792-word report on the first annual ThrillerFest, hosted earlier this month by the International Thriller Writers, I was at a loss as to how best to treat it in either The Rap Sheet or January proper. However, George Easter, editor of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, has saved me the trouble by publishing Ali’s piece in its entirety on his own Web site. Although much has already been written about ThrillerFest (see examples here, here, and here), I think you’ll agree that this account is among the most comprehensive, as well as the most entertaining. Included in its numerous highlights: Jeffery Deaver’s admission that he’ll likely be remembered best for his 2004 historical thriller, Garden of Beasts; Lee Child’s witty comment about how he “names most of his secondary characters from stationary items”; and Ali’s clever scheme to shoot a photograph of ITW Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Clive Cussler sitting down to lunch with Easter. All in all, a delightful recap.

Read Ali’s ThrillerFest report here.

Mrs. Peel, You’re Still Needed

Kudos to novelist Bill Crider for reminding me that actress Diana Rigg, who played curvaceous spy Emma Peel in The Avengers, appeared as James Bond’s wife (yes, you read that right--wife) in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, for several years hosted the PBS-TV series Mystery!, and in 1999 was named to the top spot on TV Guide’s list of the “Top Ten Hottest Stars of All Time,” celebrates her 68th birthday today.

Boy, do I feel old all of a sudden ...

READ MORE:Top 10 Kick-Ass TV Divas” (E! Online); Memorable Quotes from The Avengers (International Movie Database).

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Verdict on Spillane

Contributing nicely to the veritable landslide of obituaries and encomia arising from Mickey Spillane’s death earlier this week is Steve Holland’s new Mystery*File essay, “Mickey Spillane: Hard-boiled’s Most Extreme Stylist or Cynical Exploiter of Machismo?” In it, Holland recounts the critical denunciations of The Mick’s early Mike Hammer novels (beginning with I, the Jury), provides historical context for Spillane’s stories, analyzes his attitude toward literary distinction (“I’m not an author, I’m a writer”), and looks back at the phenomenon of Spillane’s initial book sales (“[H]is first seven novels still rank in the top fifteen sellers of the past fifty years. ... He is the fifth most translated author in the world behind Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorki and Jules Verne.”) Like a skilled lawyer laying out the defense of a client, Holland doesn’t so much state his own conclusion as let the reader judge for him- or herself the merits of Spillane’s work, employing a few expert witnesses to help steer the verdict--among them, critic Anthony Boucher, who in a 1966 New York Times Book Review, wrote: “For almost twenty years I have been one of the leaders in the attacks on Spillane; but of late I begin to wonder whether we reviewers, understandably offended by Spillane’s excesses of brutality and his outrageously antidemocratic doctrines, may not have underestimated his virtues.”

’Nuff said.

ADDENDUM: Actually, there’s a wee bit more. In light of Spillane’s death, Jiro Kimura of The Gumshoe Site asks whether a much-anticipated 18th Mike Hammer novel, The Shrinking Island (“in which Hammer is supposed to marry [his secretary/partner] Velda”), will see print in the near future. Does anybody have more information about this book? If it’s unfinished, perhaps Spillane pal Max Allan Collins could take a whack at completing the story and bringing it to the reading public. Just a thought ...

Who Knows What Novels Lurk ... ?

I’ve read parts, but not yet all of Paul Malmont’s new debut novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, which follows rival 20th-century pulp scribes Walter Gibson (creator of The Shadow) and Lester Dent (creator of Doc Savage) as they compete in 1937 to solve real-life mysteries: the supposed murder of H.P. Lovecraft and a killing in New York’s Chinatown. However, I may have to carve some time out of my schedule for that book, after reading Bookgasm’s delightful interview with the author. My favorite part, guaranteed to yank at your heart strings, is Malmont’s answer to a question about when, with a full-time job in advertising, he finds time to write:

Well, I don’t. I do it when I get up. I used to be a 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. writer, but when our son was born, I had to give that up fast. After about a year, he got into a groove where he would wake up at 5 a.m. consistently, and I’d get up with him so my wife could sleep before I went to work. After about a couple of weeks, I saw that my laptop wasn’t doing anything so I thought I’d sit down and write Chapter 1 just to see how it would come out. If it matched the idea I had been kicking around in my head for a couple years, I thought maybe I’d keep trying. Because I had never written a novel before.

I didn’t even tell my wife I was doing it. I had involved her in too many crazy schemes already, so I just kept it secret and wrote from about 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. Finally, after a year, I gave her the title page on Mother’s Day. She looked it at and said, “You’re writing a book?” And I said, “No, I already wrote it! It’s finished.” Before I had thought about making it into a screenplay, but that’s the wrong kind of medium for telling this story. I’d have to give up too much. But I finished it in May 2004, had an agent in October, sold it April of 2005 and it just came out in May.

Lucky bastard. And he says he’s working on a second novel now, again featuring a prominent historical author: Jack London. “In some ways, he was the first writer to become a huge success because of the magazine industry,” Malmont explains. “It was a new mass media and he sold and sold and sold and made a lot of money. So in researching these writers and their macho manly adventures, I found they all had their roots in Jack London, who had done it first and better. ... So I’m going to tell the story of his last year. Here’s this incredibly famous man--the first writer celebrity--and [he] makes a fortune, loses a fortune, and is dead at the age of 40. Today he’s mostly known as “the wolf guy,” but he wrote science fiction, fantasy, sports tales--he was a Socialist with an agenda, and I think there’s a great love story to be told there.”

I look forward to finding out.

Now You See It

The Scotsman delivers a fine profile of Glasgow writer Louise Welsh, whose first novel, The Cutting Room, won high praise from January Magazine, and who now has a third, The Bullet Trick, out in bookstores on both sides of “the pond.” The piece tells something of Bullet’s plot, which finds a down-at-heel magician on the run, escaping into the squalid exoticism of Berlin’s burlesque scene, after he picks the pocket of a Metropolitan Chief Inspector at an innocent retirement party. But it spends at least equal time tracing the influences and sights that led Welsh to concoct her latest story.

Explains writer David Robinson: “Some small part of her latest novel, The Bullet Trick, began the first time she visited Berlin. She had another novella to write first, and Tamburlaine Must Die meant steeping herself in 17th-century London. She wasn’t thinking about Berlin, about cabaret, and a trick--like the one in the title for which the magician’s assistant has to catch between her teeth a bullet aimed at her head--that could so easily turn to murder. She was, however, dreaming of it. ‘I had this recurring dream about the last scene of the book for well over a year,’ she explains. ‘These things are a bit odd, but your mind doesn’t shut down when you go to sleep, so maybe it’s natural.’”

Read the whole article here. And The Scotsman offers an “exclusive extract” from The Bullet Trick here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Slippin’ Heaven a Mickey

First it was Dorothy Uhnak, suddenly gone at age 76. Now it’s Mickey Spillane, who was 88 years old at the time he died, on Monday, in his hometown of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. The passing of two such heavyweights in the crime-fiction field during a single week’s span is somewhat alarming. Though, of course, many people thought Spillane was already gone, many years ago. This was in fact a tribute to his longevity and impact: How, readers figured, could someone who’d been at the crime-writing game for so long (his first private eye Mike Hammer novel, I, the Jury, was published back in 1947) still be batting out stories on his old Smith-Corona typewriter?

But others saw “The Mick,” as he was known, as a permanent fixture in the pantheon of crime novelists. “I guess I never thought he would die. Really,” writes veteran novelist Ed Gorman (Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, Save the Last Dance for Me) at the Mystery*File site. “I started reading him when I was in sixth grade and I’m now in my early sixties and he was always there. Until today.”

The author’s full name was Frank Morrison Spillane (“Mickey” being a nickname derived from his baptismal name, Michael). He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 9, 1918, though he grew up in a “tough neighborhood” of Elizabeth, New Jersey, southwest of Manhattan. He claimed later to have read all of Herman Melville and Alexander Dumas before he was 11 years old, and frequently mentioned Anthony Pope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) as his favorite novel. After high school, he briefly attended Kansas State College (now Fort Hays State University) in Hays, Kansas, without graduating. He returned to New York and began writing for comic books, among them Captain Marvel and The Human Torch. (It was “a great training ground for writers,” he’d remark in years to come. “You couldn’t beat it.”) Right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1941, Spillane joined the U.S. Army Air Force, serving as a cadet flight instructor and eventually earning the rank of captain.

Prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, Spillane had created a tough-guy private eye for the comics named Mike Danger, but couldn’t sell his adventures in an age when powerful costumed superheroes dominated center stage. After the war, however, Danger was able to make a comeback, this time with a new last name and a new home in novels. Editors Max Allan Collins and Lynn F. Myers Jr. recall this transformation in their 2004 collection of The Mick’s short fiction, Byline: Mickey Spillane.
In 1947, Mike Hammer was born in a tent in Newburgh, New York, where the recently discharged ex-Captain Mickey Spillane was trying to build a house through the G.I. bill during a particularly bitter winter. Spillane changed Mike Danger to Mike Hammer (the Hammer came from Hammer’s Bar and Grill, a Newburgh tavern), added Hammer’s secretary/P.I. partner Velda (derived from Wilma, a former Spillane girlfriend with a pageboy hairdo) and remembering both Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams from Black Mask and the sexy underpinnings from the Spicy pulp line, he sat down for nine days to write I, the Jury. The rest, as they say, is history.
In Jury, Hammer’s wartime best friend, former cop Jack Williams, who had lost an arm saving the gumshoe’s life in battle, is murdered while investigating a Park Avenue psychiatrist with criminal connections. After seeing his buddy’s corpse, Hammer vows to find and execute the murderer himself in the same manner that Williams was taken out, with “a .45 slug to the gut, just a little below the belly button.” Hammer and his New York cop pal, Captain Pat Chambers, probe this killing, while Williams’ slayer sets about to “remove” anyone capable of exposing her. The book is a complicated whodunit, filled with death and sex--sometimes linked--and concluding in a scene that’s often been cited as the height of nihilistic brutality. The Los Angeles Times recounts:
After discovering the killer is the seductively beautiful woman he has fallen for, Hammer plugs her with a .45 slug to her naked belly. The book’s final three lines:

“How c-could you?” she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.

“It was easy,” I said.
This was considered downright shocking in 1947, even after two decades and more of hard-boiled pulp stories, many containing shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later protagonists. No less than critic Anthony Boucher denounced I, the Jury as a “vicious ... glorification of force, cruelty, and extra-legal methods.” Others, write Collins and Myers, “condemned Mike Hammer’s creator as a vulgar pulpmeister who degraded the hard-boiled field that Hammett and Chandler had elevated. ... [Yet] the hysteria of the offended on both the left and the right only attracted attention to Spillane’s novels--i.e., you had to read them to see what the fuss was all about.” Although Jury didn’t do so well in hardcover, it attracted worldwide attention after being released in a 25-cent Signet paperback edition. “By 1952,” notes the L.A. Times, “4 million copies reportedly had been sold,” and the public’s appetite for Hammer had only been whetted.

Spillane quickly commenced satisfying that hunger, churning out a single standalone (1951’s The Long Wait, concerning an amnesiac who finally discovers his identity--as a murder suspect) and five more Hammer outings: My Gun Is Quick (1950), Vengeance Is Mine! (1950), One Lonely Night (1951), The Big Kill (1951), and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), that last reportedly being the first mystery novel to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Spillane had an “astonishing impact ... on post-war popular culture,” Ed Gorman recalls. “Hammer had enormous appeal to the vets trudging home from the war because he got things done. Period. Where many vets faced a stagnating economy, families they no longer felt a part of, and an inability to work through their war mentality--Mike Hammer, arrow-true, arrow-swift, solved all problems with fists and guns. A fantasy, yes, but an appealing one to disenchanted vets and my generation of boys that venerated those old Signet paperbacks.”

But then, Spillane suddenly stopped writing novels, supposedly because he wasn’t feeling “the urgent need for money” any longer, and because he wanted to explore other interests. For the next nine years, he composed fiction and non-fiction for magazines, many of which couldn’t pay the top dollar he’d been receiving for his work. He penned short stories for the fiction digest Manhunt, mused on the “enjoyment of women” for Man’s Magazine (“As long as you don’t try to understand them, you can probably enjoy them fully.”), and wrote non-fiction articles about car racing and scuba diving for the male adventure mag Cavalier. (According to Byline: Mickey Spillane, the author’s scuba-diving training for that piece led some years later to his uncredited appearance on the TV series Sea Hunt, when he “substituted for two actor/divers who refused to swim in a tank stocked with real sea life.”) In 1954, he even played himself in a circus movie called Ring of Fear, accepting no fee for his additional massaging of the script, but accepting a then new Jaguar convertible from producer John Wayne.

The first attempt to bring Mike Hammer to television came in that same year, 1954, with Brian Keith in the starring role and Blake Edwards (who would go on to create the landmark series Peter Gunn) in the director’s seat; the pilot wasn’t picked up. Four years later, Darren McGavin began portraying the Gotham shamus in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958-1960), though with some interpretation. “I thought it was a comedy,” McGavin later said of the show. “In fact, I played it camp. [Hammer] was the kind of guy who would’ve waved the flag for George Wallace.” (In a later series of the same name, Stacy Keach played the part with equal toughness but a less tongue-in-cheek air.)

It probably wasn’t his displeasure with McGavin’s Hammer that drove Spillane back to novel-writing, but it could well have been. The timing was right. In 1962, he resurrected his by-then-notorious P.I. in The Girl Hunters, which was filmed a year later with Spillane himself (no great actor, as it turned out) playing Hammer. Over the next quarter-century, the author produced six more Hammer novels, including The Snake (1964), Survival Zero (1970), and his last, Black Alley (1996). He also penned Day of the Guns (1964) and three other books starring a James Bond-ish figure named Tiger Mann, who works for an espionage agency funded by a radical right-wing billionaire. (Spillane, a sympathizer with “red-baiting” Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, friend of minarchist author Ayn Rand, and self-described super-patriot, was “perceived as right-wing. The vigilante approach Hammer used turned the stomachs of many liberals,” Collins explained in a January Magazine interview from a few years back.) Helping to round out Spillane’s oeuvre are The Erection Set (1972), an unusually long, Harold Robbins-esque work (with easily the best cover of any Spillane novel, featuring the author’s second wife, model Sherri Malinou, in the nude); a young-adult novel called The Ship That Never Was (1982); and his final published book, Something’s Down There (2003), a trouble-in-paradise yarn that January reviewer and private-eye fiction authority Kevin Burton Smith said “mixes a little Ernest Hemingway and Peter Benchley with a dash of John D. MacDonald and even a sprinkling of middle-aged romance.”

Despite the venom cast upon him at the height of his career, as Spillane progressed into his 80s--outliving most of his better-respected contemporaries, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, among them--a younger generation of men and women who’ve followed in this author’s footsteps finally started to give him some of the recognition he’d long deserved. Notable on that list of champions is Max Allan Collins, who worked with Spillane on collections of his work, a comic-book series starring a futuristic Mike Danger, and two independent films. In a message posted today on Sarah Weinman’s blog, Collins writes, in part:
What contemporary mystery readers (and writers) need to know about Mickey Spillane is simply this: he was the most important American mystery writer of the 20th century. Note I didn’t say “best,” or even “most popular,” though cases could be made in either case. ...

His Mike Hammer novels revitalized the mystery field in the post-war period, in particular the private eye story. The books were so hard-hitting and (for their time) sexy that the standard for what was acceptable in popular fiction changed drastically--once Mickey opened the door, a franker treatment and escalated level of sex and violence were the norm. ...

Hammer himself, with his vigilante tendencies and willingness to sleep with women, changed the tough guy hero forever. Without Hammer there is no Dirty Harry, certainly no James Bond, and SIN CITY is Frank Miller doing Spillane outright (and not getting called on it, because reviewers today have the sense of history of a gnat).

Spillane was the first author of popular fiction to achieve massive celebrity. He posed in Hammer mode with fedora and guns on book covers. John Wayne starred Mickey AS Mickey in the 1954 movie, RING OF FEAR (out on DVD just recently). Mickey appeared as Mike Hammer in THE GIRL HUNTERS (1961). Did Agatha Christie ever star as Miss Marple? Are there any movies with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle playing Sherlock Holmes? Don’t think so. ...

Finally, though he is dismissed as a misogynist (by critics who never read him), Spillane created strong women characters--villains sometimes, but also Hammer’s P.I. partner, the beautiful Velda.

He created a fever-dream noir New York that, thankfully, we can visit again and again.
Gorman adds that, though he found the “shoot-’em-stuff” in Spillane’s work “fun but not very believable,” what he “did take seriously was the mood set by the writing. For me, the best Spillane novels function as glimpses of American urban life as a new addition to Dante’s circles of hell. They are great cries of pain, greed, violence, loneliness, terror, deceit, perversion and mindless rage. Everybody Hammer meets--even the good people--is in danger of being consumed by the madness of simply trying to survive. It’s always midnight in Hammer-land, no matter what the clock might say otherwise.” In a subsequent note Gorman sent to yours truly, he calls Spillane “one of my generation’s true gods.”

Mickey Spillane didn’t see much promise in his efforts, initially. “I never thought anything big would come of all my writing,” he told a Washington Post interviewer five years ago. “I just always wrote the kind of stuff I like to read.” As it turns out, what he wanted to read was what many other people wanted to read, too: Some 200 million copies of Spillane’s novels have reportedly been sold over the last 50 years. (A famous anecdote has this author responding to “some New York literary type guy,” who’d remarked that it was “disgraceful that of the 10 best-selling books of all time, seven of them were written by you.” To which Spillane replied, “You’re lucky I’ve only written seven books.”) In 1995, the Mystery Writers of America named Spillane a Grand Master.

Now that he’s gone, now that it’s too late to try and understand him, maybe we can at least try to appreciate better what he left behind.

READ MORE:The Final Chapter for ‘Mick,’” by Johanna D. Wilson, Zane Wilson, and Steve Palisin (Myrtle Beach Sun); “Mickey Spillane, 88, Critic-Proof Writer of Pulpy Mike Hammer Novels, Dies,” by Richard Severo (The New York Times); “Mickey Spillane: Bestselling Writer of Shoot-em-up Crime Novels,” by John Sutherland (The Guardian); “‘Hammer’ Author Mickey Spillane Dies at 88,” by Neda Ulaby (National Public Radio); ); “The Mickster and Ideology,” by Tribe (Tribe’s Blog); “Hammer and Tongs,” by Bruce Grossman (Bookgasm); “Mickey Spillane Remembered as Inlet Booster,” by Clayton Stairs (Georgetown Times); “RIP: Mickey Spillane,” by Martha Fischer (Cinematical); Interview with Mickey Spillane, by Michael Carlson (Crime Time); “The Tough Guy Vanishes,” by Maxim Jakubowski (Sunday Times); Mike Hammer Trivia Quiz.