Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sunday Buffet

• Iowa business writer and blogger John Kenyon does double duty with Laura Lippman this week. As he explains in an e-note, he originally set out to interview the author of Another Thing to Fall for a new Cedar Rapids-area online arts and entertainment site, Corridor Buzz. But, he notes, “We got to talking so long ... that I had twice as much stuff as I could reasonably use there, so I wrote second piece with some of the less general, more specific things we discussed,” and he posted it in his own blog, Things I’d Rather Be Doing. You’ll find the first part here, and the follow-up here.

• TV Squad’s selection ofThe Top 10 Toughest Bald Guys on TV” is dominated by characters from crime fiction, including Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci) and Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali) from the original, 1996-1996 run of Murder One; Hawk, the smiling but deadly back-up muscle (played by the incomparable Avery Brooks) in Spenser: For Hire, who was later spun off into his own short-lived series, A Man Called Hawk; and of course, Lieutenant Theo Kojak--“Undoubtedly, the godfather of all bald tough guys,” as TV Squad’s Paul Goebel editorializes--the police detective whom Telly Savalas played in Kojak for five years, 1973-1978. One glaring omission: This list doesn’t include Michael Chiklis from The Shield, certainly one of the baddest baldies you’d ever want to meet in a dark alleyway ... or in line at your local Starbucks, for that matter. (UPDATE:Top 10 Toughest Bald Guys on TV--Another View,” by Debra McDuffee, TV Squad.)

• The ubiquitous Sarah Weinman has begun a series in the online mag Barnes & Noble Review about historical mysteries. She commences with an overview of the numerous books set in ancient Egypt and Rome. Click here.

• To celebrate the April release of Hard Case Crime’s first back-to-back “double-format” novel, featuring a pair of Robert Bloch books--Spiderweb (1954) and Shooting Star (1958)--Bill Crider today posts a back-to-back comparison of the new and original book jackets (see here and here). Unfortunately, it’s not a unique idea: Nathan Cain already installed the older covers on his own blog, Independent Crime.

• Speaking of Bill Crider (Of All Sad Words) he’s grilled today by fellow novelist Steve Hockensmith (The Black Dove) as part of a new series in Marshal Zeringue’s Author Interviews blog. In the second part of this turnabout format, Crider will quiz Hockensmith. Part II is due for posting tomorrow.

• If you haven’t caught it before, Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers International site has been pairing up crime writers in the same way for a while now, the most recent match being between Steve Hamilton and William Kent Krueger. Their discussion can be found here. To catch up on MRI’s previous pairings, scroll down to the bottom of that page.

• It had to happen eventually: The 1987-1992 crime series Jake and the Fatman starring, respectively, Joe Penny and William Conrad, is being released in DVD format. Season 1, Part 1 is due in stores on July 8. That’s the same date on which Conrad’s older private-eye series, Cannon (1971-1976), is set to go on sale. And now that I think about it, shouldn’t Frank Cannon have been listed among TV Squad’s toughest skintops, too?

• Two new guest-blogging stints worth noting: Cara Black (Murder in the Rue de Paradis) goes scouting for murder locations in Paris for Murderati, while Reed Farrel Coleman (Empty Ever After) weighs the upsides and downsides of attending crime-fiction conventions in the First Offenders blog.

• Forty-six years after its original publication in Playboy, prolific TV scriptwriter Charles Beaumont’s nostalgic essay about the value of pulp fiction is available (in PDF format) on the Web. Click here to indulge yourself. (Hat tip to Pulp 2.0.)

• If you’ve been missing Australian actor Simon Baker since the cancellation of his legal drama series The Guardian back in 2004, you’ll be happy to hear that he might be returning to the small screen next fall in a CBS show called The Mentalist. It’s “the story of Patrick Jane,” reports TV Squad, “a man with heightened skills of observation who uses his talents to solve crimes.”

• South African writer Deon Meyer talks with The Wall Street Journal about social criticism in crime fiction, the alcoholic detective cliché, and his latest novel, Devil’s Peak. Read the results here.

• Scottish writer Allan Guthrie offers a video preview of his “dark ... brittle, but .... also very, very funny” new novel, Savage Night.

• It seems as if there are a lot of TV-related bits in today’s round-up of news items, but here’s another: At his blog, the oddly named Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot, critic Marty McKee is busy reviewing individual episodes of James Garner’s 1974-1980 detective series The Rockford Files. As one who’s still making his way through the six years of Rockford episodes already available in DVD format, I welcome a few suggestions as to which eps I should watch first, and which can be viewed later.

• Nine whole months have passed since the Webzine Nefarious was last updated--long enough that I was ready to dump it from this page’s blogroll. But editor R.K. Foster has recently updated his ’zine’s look and is promising new content anon. Let’s hope so.

Cosmos magazine considers the question, “Was Sherlock Holmes the original forensic scientist?” (Hat tip to In Reference to Murder.)

• And talk about delayed reaction! Eighty-five-year-old actor Jack Klugman is suing American TV network NBC over profits from his medical examiner mystery series, Quincy, M.E.--a quarter-century after that show ceased production. Quincy, you’ll recall, debuted in 1976 as part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotation, but was soon spun off as a separate series, remaining on the weekly schedule until 1983. People who remember Quincy fondly, or simply want to know more about it, are recommended to a rather ambitious online project called The Quincy Examiner.

Time’s Running Out

Don’t forget that we’re still looking for nominations to The Rap Sheet’s “Crime Life List” of mystery and thriller novels that you think every fan of this genre ought to read before he or she dies. Simply e-mail the title and author of the book you’d like to nominate, plus two or three sentences explaining why you think it deserves a place on our roster, to And in the subject line, please type “Book List.”

The deadline for submissions is this coming Friday, April 4.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Some Like It Hammett

The Mercantile Library Center for Fiction is kicking off “The Big Read” in New York City with a months-long celebration of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 private-eye novel, The Maltese Falcon. Big things have been planned, including the following events:

• A special screening on April 12 of The Maltese Falcon, John Huston’s 1941 film version, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. The screening will be held at The Campbell Apartment at Grand Central Terminal. This is one of my favorite bars in all of Manhattan.

The Mystery Writers of America, New York Chapter, will host a series of panel discussions about author Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, and his book’s influence on subsequent crime-fiction novelists. These panel presentations will take place at the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction, an intimate space and a great setting for discussions.

-- April 3. “Authors Talk: The Influence of The Maltese Falcon on Your Writing.” Moderated by Chris Grabenstein and featuring panelists Peggy Ehrhart, Jack Getze, Chris Knopf, and S.J. Rozan.
-- April 8. “Tough Gals: The Influence of Sam Spade on the Contemporary Female Detective.” Moderated by Jane K. Cleland and featuring panelists Jillian Abbott, Alafair Burke, Cordelia Frances Biddle, Karen E. Olson, and Sharon Linnea.
-- April 15. “Letting Go: Books into Film.” Moderated by Jonathan Santlofer and featuring panelists Megan Abbott, Charles Ardai, Lorenzo Carcaterra, and Jillian Abbott.

• Two evening reading group discussions at the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction that will feature mystery writers as guests. All are welcome to come and share their views on this seminal novel. The reading groups will take place on April 10 and April 17.

B.J. Rahn will offer walking tours through Midtown Manhattan, visiting locations influential to Hammett’s life and work. Tours will be held on April 19 and 26, and they will be approximately two hours long. Walking tours are one of my favorite ways of getting inside the skin of a character or real person, or events.

• On Tuesday, April 29, there will be a live performance of a Hammett story featuring New York stage actors. This performance will be done in the style of a 1930s radio broadcast and will be recorded for Black Mask Audio Magazine.

• Volunteers will read and discuss The Maltese Falcon with classes from various New York City public schools in conjunction with the Everybody Wins Foundation and Page Turners.

There are also other events planned in celebration of this gorgeous hard-boiled novel. Check out the Big Read home page for the complete schedule, which features a number of fun activities for children and families.

One of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers, being celebrated all over the city. Baby, it doesn’t get better than this.

READ MORE:Great Writing Is No Mystery,” by Matt Eagan (The Hartford Courant); “Hello to ‘Goodbye,’” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).

Citizen Phillips & Co.

The creator of private eye Ivan Monk, that fine Los Angeles crime writer Gary Phillips--who is currently writing a serial novel called Citizen Kang at The Nation magazine’s Web site--is the best person in the world to have put together Politics Noir: Dark Tales from the Corridors of Power, a sharp collection of new stories about the link between crime and politics. He might not have invented Eliot Spitzer or the mayor of Detroit, but he could have.

Phillips’ own contribution to this timely anthology is a thing of beauty. “Rudy Garza broke a shoelace as he tied one of his Botticellis,” Phillips writes at the start of “Swift Boats for Jesus,” a wonderful tale of crooked cops, bent politicians, warring gang leaders, and assorted hustlers like Garza, all doing their worst to protect their own part of the L.A. dream.

John Shannon, Mike Davis, Twist Phelan, and Sujata Massey are among the other topnotch collaborators in Politics Noir. Shannon, whose newest Jack Liffey book, The Devils of Bakersfield, is due out from Pegasus at any minute, offers up a story here about the real price of illegal immigration, called “The Legend of Bayboy and the Mexican Surfer.” Davis, best known for his non-fiction (City of Quartz is arguably the best political history of Los Angeles), offers “Negative Nixons,” a jaunty look at the reviled former president. Phelan, certainly the fittest member of our original Suicide Club, has a wise and funny story about a 40-ish female Secret Service agent. And Massey shows that Iraqi politics are as vicious as the homegrown version in “The Mayor’s Movie.”

I hope that Phillips has remembered to send Senator Barack Obama a copy of Politics Noir.

READ MORE:Tales of Power (Senor?),” by Kevin Burton Smith (The Thrilling Detective Blog).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

99 Down, One More to Go

As is the case with most of you, I presume, I have a list of crime-fiction-oriented blogs and Web sites that I visit regularly. Spots where I expect to find interesting material. Among my ever-dependables is Bruce Grossman’s Wednesday column at Bookgasm, “Bullets, Broads, Blackmail & Bombs.” I still don’t know how he does this (he must be a reading fiend), but every week he reviews a trio of older--not necessarily classic--paperbacks, usually from the crime/mystery/thriller genre. Many of these are obscure, and some are downright trashy, but Grossman always has clever or enlightening things to say about them.

This week’s column, for instance, covers three novels “dealing with women and their troubles.” No, these aren’t angst-ridden yarns; rather, they’re testosterone- and danger-fueled outings from Mona Williams (The Company Girls, 1965), Day Keene (To Kiss or Kill, 1951), and the ever-popular Brett Halliday (Counterfeit Wife, 1947). That last book, by the way, is merely the latest of several private eye Mike Shayne novels that have come under Grossman’s scrutiny, though some were ghosted under Halliday’s name, without his actual involvement. In the past, Grossman has also reviewed Bodies Are Where You Find Them, Guilty as Hell, and Never Kill a Client.

After sucking up all of this dusty old pulp, you might expect Grossman to be headed for the Emergency Room. But instead he’s putting the final touches to his 100th “Bullets, Broads, Blackmail & Broads” column for next Wednesday. He is a bit circumspect as to exactly what he has planned, but will say that it features “guest stars galore: Quint, Zardoz, Mrs. Peel, Seymour Golfarb Jr., Mitchell!, and the bad guy from Hot Fuzz.” Hmm. If you analyze those names and think about they all have in common, you’re more than likely to discern next week’s theme.

The Briefing

• The last week hasn’t been a good one for contributors to crime-fiction. First, novelist Arthur Lyons died. Then, just yesterday, actor Richard Widmark gave up the ghost at age 93. And now Jiro Kimura’s The Gumshoe Site (which has been particularly newsworthy of late) alerts us to the demise, on March 25, of American film writer and producer Abby Mann. As Kimura notes, Mann won an Oscar for penning Judgment at Nuremberg (in the 1961 film adaptation of which Richard Widmark did such an outstanding job as an obsessed prosecutor) and an Emmy Award for the screenplay of The Marcus-Nelson Murders, which served as the inspiration for the 1973-1978 CBS-TV series Kojak, starring Telly Savalas. Mann was also responsible for the screenplay of The Detective, a 1968 film (adapted from Roderick Thorp’s 1966 novel of the same name) in which Frank Sinatra played a police detective juggling marital issues and a murder investigation. Mann was 84 years old.

• Two recent offerings worth finding in Marshal Zeringue’s Campaign for the American Reader “network” of blogs: Irish playwright-author Declan Hughes submits his third and latest Ed Loy book, The Price of Blood (aka The Dying Breed) to the Page 99 Test. The results are available here. Meanwhile, Australian author Peter Corris, creator of the P.I. Cliff Hardy series (Appeal Denied), reveals the contents of his to-be-read pile, which include a novel about the infant colony of New South Wales and Stieg Larsson’s much-ballyhooed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

• Designer Will Staehle’s evocative jacket for the American edition of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won The Rap Sheet’s first-ever Book Cover of the Year competition. But the front of the new British paperback edition of Chabon’s book definitely rivals it for intrigue and excellence.

• Could P.D. James’ dystopian 1992 novel, The Children of Men, and the terribly under-rated 2006 movie made from it spawn a TV series? Cinematical says “yes.”

Margot Who?

• And while we haven’t been watching, Allan Guthrie has slipped a couple more excellent essays onto his Noir Zine page. In one, Harry J. Lerner considers Jonathan Gash’s 1985 novel, Pearlhanger, as a work of noir fiction. That essay is here. Editor Guthrie’s own new contribution is an interview with Tom Piccirilli, horror writer turned crime fictionist and author of the new book The Fever Kill.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Gentle Giant Gone

This is very sad. Only three months after we celebrated the 93rd birthday of Academy Award-winning American actor Richard Widmark on this page, we hear that he has passed away at his home in Connecticut. We’ll remember Widmark for many things, but perhaps most for his portrayal of a sadistic killer in Kiss of Death (1947) and his performance as jaded New York cop Dan Madigan in both the 1968 film Madigan and its too-short-lived NBC-TV spinoff series. In its Widmark obituary, The New York Times recalls that
Well into his later years, the nonviolent, gun-hating Mr. Widmark, who described himself as “gentle,” was accosted by strangers who expected him to be a tough guy. There is even a story that Joey Gallo, the New York mobster, was so taken by Mr. Widmark’s performance in “Kiss of Death” that he copied the actor’s natty posture, sadistic smirk and tittering laugh.

“It’s a bit rough,” Mr. Widmark once said, “priding oneself that one isn’t too bad an actor and then finding one’s only remembered for a giggle.”
The full Times article can be found here.

LISTEN UP: In her Escape and Suspense! blog, Christine A. Miller gives a list of Widmark’s guest appearances on the old-time CBS radio anthology series, Suspense, and even offers two of those episodes for your listening pleasure. Click here to tune in.

READ MORE:Richard Widmark, R.I.P.,” by Steve-O (Noir of the Week); “Richard Widmark, 93; Actor Played Both Heavies and Heroes,” by Dennis McLellan (Los Angeles Times); Richard Widmark Photo Gallery; “Screen Legend Richard Widmark Dies,” by Robert Siegel (National Public Radio); “Richard Widmark, R.I.P.,” by Marty McKee (Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot); “Actor Richard Widmark Dies at 93” (Associated Press); “Widmark Left Indelible Impressions,” by William Goldman (Variety).

Out of the Cradle, Into the World

After hearing and reading so many favorable responses to Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, Child 44 (see here and here), I was delighted to receive an invitation to one of the hottest literary events in London, Simon & Schuster’s launch party for the book. It seems that a great deal of money has already been invested in this novel, with more to be spent, as Sarah Weinman reported recently in The Guardian’s books blog:
Over the Christmas holidays [American novelist Jed] Rubenfeld’s dissector, Jeffrey Trachtenberg of the Wall Street Journal, fixed his reporter’s eye on 2008’s first Buzz King, Tom Rob Smith. Once again, the madlib theory holds: he’s “a little-known, 28-year-old British screenwriter whose credits include working on a Cambodian soap opera” (check), his debut thriller Child 44 garnered $1m and a slew of foreign rights sales from its U.S. publisher, Grand Central (check), the movie rights have been sold to Ridley Scott (super-check) and Grand Central plans an ad campaign that includes New York city transit, television, radio and of course, the internet (ultra-check!). Dear oh dear, it’s going to be awfully hard to make money back on Mr. Rob Smith in America, never mind what Simon & Schuster--his UK publisher--will face having forked over “merely” £200,000 for the privilege of publishing Child 44 this March.

The problem with articles such as this is that they reinforce the short-term amnesia that has become frightfully common for off-the-page books coverage. The reader is supposed to be impressed with the news that Grand Central printed up over 3,000 galleys of Child 44--despite the fact that this is exactly the same number that was printed for [Rubenfeld’s] The Interpretation of Murder, and roughly one-third the number printed and circulated for The Da Vinci Code long before it became a bestselling phenomenon.
With Smith’s Stalinist-era serial-killer thriller having finally reached UK bookshelves (and due out in the States in late April), Simon & Schuster must be relieved that reviewers are giving it their thumbs up. Profiling its 29-year-old author for The Observer, Peter Guttridge calls Child 44 “a thrilling, intense piece of fiction” that had an unlikely start and a not altogether smooth entry into the world:
‘I was reading about real-life cases,’ Smith says. ‘And I stumbled upon Andrei Chikatilo.’ Chikatilo, the Ripper of Rostov, murdered and cannibalised around 55 women and children over a 13-year period beginning in 1977.

Smith makes his protagonist a policeman at first reluctant to investigate, then stymied in his work by the way the state views crime. Kafka in a crime novel is pretty much a first, but Smith thought of his idea originally in film terms. He wrote a treatment for his agent who decided that a spec script from an unknown set in Stalinist Russia would be a hard sell. He suggested Smith write it as a novel.

‘I wondered if I could do it. Then I read Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow [about the horrors of the famine imposed on the Ukraine by Stalin and his policies] and thought, well, if the rest is going to be as good as this ...’ For the next two-and-a-half years, Smith researched and wrote ‘in the background’ to his regular freelance work in TV.

‘Although I did visit Russia, my research was absolutely based on the books I read. It helped that I focused on people’s emotional states rather than on physical or geographical detail.’

When he’d finished Child 44, his agent ‘told me it wasn’t finished at all and made me write it again’.
Meanwhile, for The Independent, Barry Forshaw picked Child 44 as one of his 10 favorite crime novels, and The Telegraph’s Susanna Yager called it “a memorable debut,” adding that “The atmosphere of paranoia and paralysing fear is brilliantly portrayed and unremittingly grim.” And the student newspaper at Cambridge, his alma mater, looks toward young Mr. Smith’s future plans:
For now, Smith has put aside screen and TV writing to concentrate on the follow-up to Child 44. Could a classic detective series be in the works? “Possibly there’s a third book there, [but] it’s not something that could go on for, say, seven books. It’s not like you have a protagonist and everyone else disappears and you have a new book with a new adventure and all new people, like a James Bond. The first book is about Leo [Demidov]’s relationship with his wife; the second book is about the family--there’s only so many times you can twist those relationships.” Moreover, he doesn’t see himself specifically as a crime writer: “If I was going to talk about the future, what appeals to me is a good adventure.” He cites Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and Graham Greene, as well as filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as influences. “The crime element might be important, but the adventure side is the key.”
So, on the evening of the Simon & Schuster launch fête--and with a strong feeling of déjà vu--I sauntered over to the Marques of Granby pub in Shaftsbury Avenue to meet novelist Nick Stone (Mr. Clarinet) and his wife, Hyacinth, along with my Shots colleagues Mike Stotter and Ayo Onatade. After some beers, as well as talk about Smith’s novel and its promotion in London tube stops and at bus stops around town, we headed across to Soho and the Union Club, which I seem to have seen a lot of lately (what with the John Harvey launch and the more recent Penguin Books party there). After being herded to the rear room, we were greeted by the Simon & Schuster crew and joined both Forshaw and critic-bookseller Maxim Jakubowski, who had brought his wife (another Child 44 fan, it turns out; she was brought to tears by Smith’s authentic depiction of Russia in the 1950s). We also had the chance to talk briefly with the star of this show, Smith, who looked shell-shocked by all of the attention he’s receiving.

Once we were all gathered, with drinks in hand, Smith’s editor, Suzanne Baboneau (who is also Simon & Schuster UK’s publishing director), took to the podium. She recalled how she’d received the manuscript of Child 44 last year, and despite it having been a rough week, when she dove into Smith’s single-spaced pages her eyes widened and she became trapped in this dark tale. She said, “I just had to have it, as it was like discovering Gorky Park!” She then spent a long time telling everyone how much Simon & Schuster was investing in pushing this book out to readers. I have rarely witnessed such enthusiasm from a publisher translated to commercial actions, especially on behalf of a writer of such youthful years. Baboneau let us know, too, how happy she was to see S&S UK beating Smith’s U.S. publisher, Grand Central, to market with an English edition of this new novel. (She added, however, that the first edition of Child 44 was actually produced in Germany.)

Somewhat nervously, Tom Rob Smith delivered a short speech, in which he tried to thank everyone behind the success of Child 44. He was clearly not accustomed to being in the limelight, but nonetheless seemed happy to have people enjoying his work.

After a rousing and deserved toast to the author, we refilled our glasses and proceeded to mingle, as one must do during these affairs. I got the chance to chat with S&S senior editor Kate Lyall-Grant, who told me that she was the second person to read Smith’s novel--and was no less dazzled by it. We went on to discuss the continuing success of U.S. writer Vince Flynn (Protect and Defend), and how much she had enjoyed seeing Mike Stotter huffing and puffing through Simon & Schuster’s “combat day” last year. Lyall-Grant mentioned, too, that she is very excited about Kitty Sewell’s follow-up to Ice Trap (2007), which is scheduled for publication in Britain later this year.

Finally, after thanking Simon & Schuster’s tireless Joe Pickering for the invitations to this party, Nick and Hyacinth Stone surprised Stotter and I with a treat. Knowing that I was a big fan of singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, the Stones had booked a table for the lot of us at Lee Hook Fook’s Chinese Restaurant in London’s Chinatown. That eatery was of course immortalized by Zevon in his popular 1978 song “Werewolves of London.” What else could I order, while we talked about the often frustrating vagaries of publishing, but a plate of beef chow mein?

To see more photographs from the Child 44 launch party, click here.

Cooking Up Crimes

Most people these days probably associated actress Jane Seymour with the 1990s TV series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Or their memories might be long enough to remember her as the seductive psychic Solitaire in the 1973 James Bond flick Live and Let Die. If they’re really lucky, their minds will turn immediately to Seymour’s semi-nude Playboy pictorial from 1987. But for some reason, I remember her best from the 1984 film Lassiter. Playing thief Tom Selleck’s winsome dancer girlfriend, Sara Wells, in that feature, she embedded herself deep in my dreams, and hasn’t left yet.

Now, TV Squad reports that Ms. Seymour is returning to television as a “crime-solving Martha Stewart-type celebrity” turned sleuth.
Dear Prudence will be co-authored by Les Alexander, who will also executive produce the picture. The story revolves around Prudence, star of a house and garden TV show, who has an eagle eye for detail. While vacationing in Santa Fe, she “stumbles on a murder mystery”--just like Jessica Fletcher did on Murder, She Wrote. Using her skills at observation, she sees things that even forensic experts miss and helps catch the killer. It’s Martha Stewart meets Monk without the neuroses!

If the first film scores, Hallmark would be likely to put the group into production for a few more after that. This is especially true because Hallmark’s executive vice president is behind the project and is talking about a major marketing push for an August premiere. The late summer date is intentional; to take advantage of the plethora of reruns the networks will be broadcasting then.

Dear Prudence could be slotted in the Hallmark mystery movie wheel which now includes Dick Van Dyke in Murder 101, John Larroquette in McBride, Kellie Martin in Mystery Woman and Lea Thompson in Jane Doe.
Hmm. I’d forgotten that Hallmark even had those other revolving mystery movies, so underwhelming have been the promotional campaigns for all four. Maybe Seymour’s show can give a boost to the whole set. That would be a good thing, no?

Watch a preview of Dear Prudence here.

The Big Give

Well, it seems no sooner did Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine announce the recipients of its 2007 Readers Awards, than Crimespree Magazine let loose with its rundown of Crimespree Award winners. These commendations also honor books published in 2007. “It was a good year for books and we had a lot of votes,” editor Jon Jordan writes, before introducing the victors:

Favorite Book of 2007: The Unquiet, by John Connolly (Atria)

Also nominated: What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); The Watchman, by Robert Crais (Simon & Schuster); Priest, by Ken Bruen (St. Martin’s Minotaur); and Thunder Bay, by William Kent Krueger (Atria)

Best Ongoing Series: Peter Robinson’s Inspector Alan Banks

Also nominated: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, John Connolly’s Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Barry Eisler's John Rain

Favorite Anthology of 2007: Expletive Deleted, edited by Jennifer Jordan (Bleak House Books)

Also nominated: A Hell of a Woman, edited by Megan Abbott (Busted Flush Press); and Chicago Blues, edited by Libby Fischer Hellmann (Bleak House Books)

Favorite Comics Writer of 2007: Brian Azzarello

Also nominated: Ed Brubaker, Jason Aaron, Greg Rucka, and Garth Ennis

Best First Book of 2007: Big City, Bad Blood, by Sean Chercover (Morrow)

Also nominated: The Blade Itself, by Marcus Sakey (St. Martin’s Minotaur); Head Games, by Craig McDonald (Bleak House Books); Stealing the Dragon, by Tim Maleeny (Midnight Ink); and On the Ropes, by Tom Schreck (Midnight Ink)

Doing Time in the Springs

Editor’s note: Last Friday’s unexpected death, at age 62, of California novelist Arthur Lyons (shown below) sent me back into my old files, looking for a transcript of an interview I conducted with him almost 30 years ago and the subsequent correspondence between us. While searching, I also turned up an essay I penned about Lyons and his fictional private eye, Jacob Asch. I remember composing this piece, probably for Stephen Smoke’s short-lived Mystery magazine (to which I’d submitted other pieces), but don’t think it was ever published. Judging by my reference to Lyons’ approaching 36th birthday, I must have written this sometime in late 1981. It shows some of the editorial rawness of my youth, but still provides a decent overview of Lyons’ career and fictional output up to that point. I’m posting the article below, in hopes that it will inspire younger readers and others who haven’t been exposed before to this author’s once-praised stories to search them out and enjoy them now. There can be no greater tribute to a writer than to read his or her work.

* * *

As we swing through the streets of Palm Springs in his little Italian sports car, Arthur Lyons talks about the hidden side of this desert town, about the cocaine trade and high-priced prostitution.

“The tourists don’t see the half of it,” he explains, turning down a quiet street and passing a clutch of well-tanned teenagers. “They see the fancy stores and Elvis Presley’s house. They don’t see the rest, but the crime is here.”

This town presents a different image to a casual observer. On its surface, Palm Springs has all the trappings of wealth, privilege, and stability. Its streets are decorated with chic boutiques and restaurants that cater to every taste and bank balance. Society soirées up on Frank Sinatra Drive and elsewhere are well attended, usually by people you just saw on The Tonight Show and by aspiring starlets clad in more diamonds than duds. Coming in off the purgatory of the surrounding desert, this burg is a flamboyant oasis to which the rich and retired retreat, leaving sparkling slicks of suntan lotion on heart-shaped swimming pools.

The idea that such a place could have a clean face but dirt around its ankles must be appealing to somebody with a perverse picture of modern society. Somebody like Lyons. It’s a perfect spot for a mystery novelist to live, a microcosm of modern California life--nice but a little bit nutty now and then, proper yet not above testing the limits of morality when the moment suits.

Here Lyons thrives. The author of seven novels featuring private eye Jacob Asch, he needs societies with depth, complexity. In the same way that Asch wanders the streets of Los Angeles in search of murderers and bent politicians, Lyons prowls the alleys of contemporary behavior and style in search of the profound statement and the ideal analogy. Drawing on his experience in this desert microcosm, he sees with an irreverent eye. People become caricatures and cities are reduced to profane simplicity.

In Dead Ringer (1977), his client
looked as if she had pushed well into her sixties, although she was not ready to admit just how far. Her platinum hair sat on her head like a swatch of bleached cotton candy. She wore a lot of makeup, but none of it was having the effect she hoped. Her false eyelashes only made her small eyes look smaller and narrower than they were; her plucked and repenciled eyebrows drew attention to her prominent brow and the bright-red lipstick only managed to make her thin lips look even thinner. But there was something underneath the makeup and the flamboyant pink pants suit that made it all something less than pathetic. Something in the way she stood or maybe the cool, cynical confidence in the shiny, indestructible eyes that straight-armed you and said: “Don’t worry about it, buddy, I can still take care of the likes of you,” and you knew she probably could.
Earlier, in The Dead Are Discreet (1974), his first novel, Lyons writes that Hollywood in the daytime is “like a man in the advanced stages of syphilis who has been caught with his pants down.”

Evocative writing. No question about that.

What Lyons picks up from his world seems very much like what California crime novelists have been describing for the last 50 years. So, naturally, critics have likened Lyons to people such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Many point to the way he uses language, his settings and his philosophies, and say, “My God, we’ve found a successor to the Old Masters.”

But while such comparisons can be made, they’re often made without due consideration or thought to the consequences. Sure, they sound good in The New York Times or in blurbs on the backs of books, but they might prove harmful in the long run, affording this author too little credit for creativity and only narrow leeway for development.

Like several other modern detective-fiction writers, including Robert B. Parker and Gregory Mcdonald, Lyons is suffering from what might be termed “The Crown Prince Syndrome.” The critical clerisy watches his work closely for flaws; they like his style the way it is, and don’t want it to change. If he slips up and writes a book of admittedly lesser quality, or dares to try reworking his hard-boiled form, those commentators might jump on Lyons faster than they would on somebody else. He is an heir-apparent to the throne of hard-boiled mysterydom, after all, and as such he’s expected to adhere to the rules of the game.

There must be some old saying to describe Lyons’ dilemma, something on the order of “Nobody can be toppled quicker than the man at the top.”

What’s worrisome is that Arthur Lyons isn’t the crown prince type. Thirty-six years old in January, he’s a muscular blond with an easy-going style and a mouth full of clever lines. On the morning I meet him in Palm Springs, he’s suffering the painful half-existence of a hangover. Last night, he went out for a good time and some casual affection. But the partying ended when a minor-league Marlboro Man tried to test his pugilistic talents. Lyons walked away from the fight, pissed off and without the lady he says he “could’ve made if I’d stayed with it.”

All of this goes to prove that Lyons isn’t Mr. Macho of the Year, no matter what he looks like. He’s just a writer and a businessman. His background is in the restaurant trade. Taking the lead from his parents, he now manages a pair of eateries in downtown Palm Springs, Lindy Lou’s and the swanker Lyons English Grille. Of course, his business hasn’t left him a lot of time for creative writing--but it hasn’t stopped him from writing, either.

His first book was a non-fiction study of Satanism and cult development. Titled The Second Coming: Satanism in America (1970), the work gained its author critical praise, the position of occasional consultant to law-enforcement agencies working cult cases, and more than one good idea for his fiction.

The Dead Are Discreet was a direct outgrowth of the research he’d done on cults and ritual murder. A well-paced, if still rather unrefined, entry into the mystery-fiction genre, The Dead Are Discreet involved the Los Angeles drug scene, kinky sex, and the occult. Private eye Jacob Asch was hired by a lawyer to discover whether his client was guilty of murder, but found more than he’d asked for in the way of brutality and deception.

Asch in that first story was a 34-year-old ex-newspaperman, divorced with no children and an uninspiring history (not unlike Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in his own premiere adventure, 1949’s The Moving Target). “Your father was a tailor who had a little shop down on Fairfax,” a woman reminds him in the course of that tale. “You graduated from Fairfax High School and then went on to UCLA and quit after two years. You started working for the Chronicle in 1960 and were let go in 1969 after being jailed for refusing to reveal your news sources on a story you did. Since that time, you’ve been working as a private detective.”

Asch had been incarcerated after doing a series of articles on an armed-robbery case. “I had dug up evidence that the prosecution’s star eyewitness had been sixty miles away from the scene of the crime on the day in question,” the gumshoe explains early on. Like Myron Farber, the New York Times reporter who was jailed for withholding the names of his sources in a 1978 murder investigation, Asch did the honorable and ethical thing, but isn’t remembered as a hero. He was instead blacklisted in Los Angeles press circles for long enough, that he hasn’t been all that interested in going back to a Fourth Estate job since.

“Doing time” in L.A.’s New County Jail left Asch an interesting psychological specimen. The experience seems to have weakened a bit of his confidence. He was frightened by prison (easily understood) and has no qualms about admitting to it:
I was not one who handled jail well. Spending six months in County had left emotional scars on me that split open every time I got near a cell, never mind in one. I’d never been claustrophobic before then, but six months had left me that way.
As a detective, Asch is a deliberate plodder, much as he must have been during his reporting days. Rather than fight his way through an investigation, breaking arms and bashing heads to collect information, he hangs out in county records offices and libraries, pouring over title deeds and marriage certificates in search of the clues that could break open his latest case. Still, he retains a certain unspoken toughness that clients often find helpful. “You want me on this case because you want somebody who can wade through it up to his eyeballs and not puke from the smell,” he tells one employer.

Although he avoids violence whenever possible--just like his creator--there’s an inner anger in Asch that comes out when he’s pushed too far. In Lyons’ second novel, All God’s Children (1975), the story of Asch’s pursuit of a missing girl who has fallen in with face-stomping bikers and Jesus freaks, the sleuth’s patience is tested over and again. In a final effort to regain control of his situation, Asch runs his car headlong into a biker who tries to block his path. The tough guy is flung up onto the hood of the car, and stays there for a while, clinging to the windshield wipers in desperation. All the while, Asch seems to enjoy the hazardous exhibition:
My attention was focused on the face staring at me through the windshield, shouting for me to stop. I accelerated to fifty and jerked the wheel back and forth, sadistically savoring the abject terror in the face as the car swayed from side to side.
All in all, Jacob Asch is probably a very frustrated man. Too many times his spirit has been broken and his dreams flogged. He’s tired of always fighting so hard for things and of the loneliness that seems a permanent pattern in his life.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Asch doesn’t have phalanxes of beautiful women flinging themselves at his clean bedsheets. He rarely wakes up in the morning with the obligatory note left in reminder on his spare pillow. Only once (in 1979’s Castles Burning) do I remember him lamenting the loss of a recent lover. He doesn’t even have stunning clients waltzing through his office door. In Hard Trade (1980), for instance, Asch is hired by a “Munchkin” of a lady who wants him to run a check on her betrothed. The detective doesn’t seem to mind, though, that she is less than a looker:
Marlowe and Spade could keep the breathless blondes, I thought. They were nothing but trouble anyway. I’d take the Munchkins any day. There were no legs to get distracted by and I didn’t have to wait for the check to clear.
Asch accepts his troubles better than many of his predecessors. He isn’t always feeling sorry for himself the way others do. Well, maybe once in a while ... Most of the time, though, he directs his energies to his cases, plowing as fast as he can through the crimes, even popping speed when he needs it to keep going.

His investigations are certainly outré enough to keep him interested. In The Killing Floor (1976), he’s hired to find the co-owner of a meat-packing business whose gambling problems may have led to his sudden disappearance. Dead Ringer, which author Lyons declares to be his “best book,” places Asch in the testosterone-pumped world of professional boxing. A brassy whore wants him to protect an Argentinean prizefighter who has been receiving threatening phone calls. And in Castles Burning, the detective sets out to find the wife and son of an artist who abandoned his family eight years before. Asch traces the wife to Palm Springs, but the case doesn’t simply end there. Before the book’s closing pages, Asch is offered murder and kidnapping to spice up his life.

Just like his contemporaries, the author of these books is given to elaborate scene setting. Although often more crass and explicit than someone like Chandler, Lyons’ storytelling style is nonetheless refined and provides some wonderful imagery. The kick-off to Castles Burning, when he describes a bizarre painting, is at least equal to the much-respected opening scene in The Big Sleep (1939):
The blonde was bent over the chair, precariously balanced on ten-inch platform heels, looking at me through her legs. Her miniskirt was hiked up past the tops of her black nylons, exposing a patch of purple-pantied pudenda, and she wore a faintly surprised expression on her face, as if she had been expecting someone else. She may have been at that, but I had the distinct impression that as long as I had my wallet with me, I could have been the Hunchback of Notre Dame. She looked as if she would be a good sport about little things like that.
Lyons has been criticized for being too explicit in his image-making, for explaining just what a mutilated corpse looks and smells like, or for expressing his anger in a torrent of four-letter words. But for most of us, his blatancy is refreshing.

He makes use of short sentences and simple words to draw you quickly into a scene. “Vernon stinks,” he writes in The Killing Floor. “It always stinks.” That’s a fine base for further description.

It took years for Arthur Lyons to gain much of a following. Part of the fault for that may be that the critics, while enthusing over his California style and witty phraseology, made the books sound like nothing new in this genre, like imitation Chandler or wannabe Hammett. Who wants to read something that’s a close copy of the classics, no matter how much they might enjoy the classics? More of the fault may lie with Lyons himself. The extent of his writing and plotting talents only really began to show through with the publication of The Killing Floor. Now, he insists, he’s starting to enjoy something of a cult following. There’s even talk of a TV movie being made from Castles Burning, which might lead to a series. Maybe he can fit that in around his writing of more Asch adventures--a couple more of which he’s already noddling over.

Life for a crown prince is hectic. Between restaurant management, novel writing, and nursing the occasional hangover, there’s not much time for Lyons to be worrying about thrones. Besides, out amidst the lush palm trees and desert winds of Southern California, a crown would only make his head sweat.

* * *

A full rundown of Arthur Lyons’ Jacob Asch series:

The Dead Are Discreet (1974)
All God’s Children (1975)
The Killing Floor (1976)
Dead Ringer (1977)
Castles Burning (1979)
Hard Trade (1981)
At the Hands of Another (1983)
Three With a Bullet (1984)
Fast Fade (1987)
Other People’s Money (1989)
False Pretenses (1994)

READ MORE:Arthur Lyons, 62; Detective Novelist and Founder of Palm Springs Film Noir Festival,” by Mary Rourke (Los Angeles Times); “Last Exchange with a Literary Lyon,” by Mark Coggins
(Riordan’s Desk).

Foreign Bodies

Critic Stephen Miller goes globetrotting for his latest review in January Magazine, tackling a couple of crime-fiction works from arguably opposite ends of the earth.

The first is Adrian Hyland’s Moonlight Downs (which, under its original title, Diamond Dove, won a Ned Kelly Award last year). It focuses on Emily Tempest, “a half-Aboriginal roustabout” who returns home to the Australian Outback, only to become involved in the murder of her surrogate father, tribal leader Lincoln Flinders--a seeming victim of organ harvesting. Miller knocks Hyland for his heavy application of atmospherics, “so thick that not one but two glossaries are in the front of this book.” However, he finds in Tempest a protagonist worth getting to know better. “She’s tough as nails and vulnerable to a fault,” he writes, “not a bad combination for an intriguing amateur sleuth.”

No matter Moonlight Downs’ strengths, though, Miller still prefers The Fourth Man, by K.O. Dahl. Introducing Oslo, Norway, Detective Inspector Frank Frolich, “a sad sack of a man with little going for him other than work,” Dahl’s tale finds Frolich becoming obsessively involved with a woman named Elisabeth Faremo--only to discover that her brother is a chief suspect “in the murder of a young security guard working at an abandoned warehouse.” Complications increase in number when Elisabeth disappears, “after first providing her brother with an alibi for the warehouse crime--an alibi that is more than merely suspect, since Frolich knows she was with him at the time, instead.”

You will find Miller’s review of both novels here.

By the way, author Dahl is blogging all this week at St. Martin’s Minotaur’s Moments in Crime site. All of his posts can be found here.

By Popular Demand

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine has announced the recipients of its 2007 Readers Awards, given to stories published in that monthly mag and chosen by readers. And the winners are ...

First Place (tie): “The Theft of the Ostracized Ostrich,” by Edward D. Hoch (September/October 2007), and “Ibrahim’s Eyes,” by David Dean (June 2007)
Second Place: “The Book Case,” by Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu (May 2007)
Third Place: “Stone Cold Christmas,” by Doug Allyn (January 2007)

(Hat tip to The Gumshoe Site.)

Book ’Em

I missed noting it before, but The Seattle Times over this last weekend published an interesting and sometimes funny piece about the books real-life cops read. Predictably, many of the choices are from the crime-fiction category, but not all.

Click here to find the full article.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Lyons Ends His Roar

Somebody said to me not long ago that the majority of her regrets pertained to things she had done during her life. I admitted to the opposite--that most of my regrets are related to things I did not do, chances I did not take, people I did not get to know better. I was reminded of that conversation this morning, as I read at Jiro Kimura’s The Gumshoe Site about the unexpected death, at age 62, of detective novelist Arthur Lyons, the creator of Los Angeles gumshoe Jacob Asch. He and I had been planning to do a telephone interview in the near future, but I’d had to put it off while trying to finish a non-fiction book about San Francisco’s history. I guess our conversation is now off permanently. The Desert Sun, covering the Palm Springs, California, community in which Lyons lived, provides the basic facts of the case:
Arthur Lyons, a man as colorful as the characters in his film noir books and films, died early Friday at Desert Regional Medical Center at age 62.

Part of the family that owns and operates Lyons English Grille in Palm Springs, he was a former city councilman, co-founder of the Palm Springs Festival of Film Noir and a popular writers conference, and a successful novelist and nonfiction writer.

His wife, Barbara Lyons, said he suffered head injuries from a fall and had a stroke this past week.

A private celebration of his life is being planned at his home.

“He’s really been a force in this community for a long time,” said Camelot Theatres owner Rozene Supple, who hosted Lyons’ Film Noir Festival.

“He was always great to work with and we hope to continue the Film Noir Festival indefinitely.”

Barbara Lyons said her husband had already booked the films for this year’s festival, May 29-June 1.

“This is going to be a tribute to Arthur,” she said. “He had everything in line.”
I was lucky enough to meet and interview Lyons in November 1980. Not long out of college, and only months after I’d taken a bus from my home in Portland, Oregon, down to Santa Barbara, California, to talk with distinguished private-eye fictionist Ross Macdonald, I hopped aboard another bus headed south. This time my destination was the chic desert town of Palm Springs. By then Lyons had written five novels featuring Asch, a half-Jewish newspaper reporter turned private eye. The most recent of those was Castles Burning (1979), but it would soon be followed by Hard Trade (1981).

The blond and muscular Lyons was then just reaching his 35th birthday, as I remember, and he greeted me cordially. My memory is that we started out talking at his well-appointed trailer home, sharing glasses of white wine, but eventually moved to dinner at his family’s restaurant. I had packed along a tape recorder, and wound up with several tapes of terrific material, most of which I published as an interview in Willamette Week, an “alternative paper” in Portland. We talked about Lyons’ early and frustrating efforts to publish science-fiction short stories. (“I wrote to a throwaway, mimeographed little magazine in Regina, Saskatchewan--I don’t even remember the name of it,” Lyons said. “And the guy wrote me a letter back saying, don’t ever send him anything again; it was the worst story he’d ever read in his life, and I had the nerve to send him this.”) We discussed the dubious value of censoring violence in crime fiction. (“To portray violence in a non-violent way, to me, is doing a disservice to people, because that’s when you start getting people responding to violence. The whole thing on TV about not showing violence, cleaning it up, is more harmful, I think, than making somebody ill with it.”) We talked about the need for at least some realism in fictional portrayals of private investigators. (“You’ll never find Asch doing anything unlikely. He will not usually find stuff through coincidence. He’s a plodder. That’s what private detection is, going through papers. All of Asch’s cases come out of paper. He works with paper more than he does people, whereas in Ross Macdonald and with most of those guys, they do it with information people tell them. But there aren’t too many people out there who are going to spill their guts to an investigator, unless the guy has a handle on what’s going on.”) And I asked Lyons at one point whether he saw a resurgence of the hard-boiled hero in detective stories. His response (most of which didn’t make it into print):
If so, it’s because people want to fight back. They’re tired of being victimized by the violence of people who have decided to be predators. That’s why we’re going to see a resurgence of capital punishment. Consequently, there probably is a resurgence of the hard-boiled hero, because people would love to punch a few faces in, and the only way most of these people are ever going to do it is through literature and through the movies. They’d be scared to do it in real life. This is not an age for Agatha Christie.

The anonymity of society also makes it worse for people. The cultic response is a searching for power. I don’t believe, like Ross Macdonald and the Freudians, that sex is the major driving force in our lives. I think it’s power. ...

There was a story I wrote into The Dead Are Discreet [his first novel, published in 1974], the best cop story ever. A guy in the [Los Angeles Police Department] with the most kills on the force, told me how he and his partner went down to El Dorado [Street], or something, where they were getting little old ladies mugged, all over 60 years old. So this guy puts on hose with hair sticking through, high heels, [and] a gray wig, and he and his partner [dressed in a similar way] get their little shopping baskets and go down there between 9 and midnight. One guy’s walking down one side of the street, the other goes on the other side.

Finally, they’re walking down and this car pulls up slowly on one of them and [the man inside] says, “Hi, honey, why don’t you get in the car?” And the cop looks in and the guy isn’t the guy they’re looking for, so he says, “Fuck off,” and he keeps walking up the street. And [the cop] says the car sat there idling for a second, then just tore away from the curb. It goes screaming up the street at about 50 miles an hour, flips a U, jumps two wheels on the other side of the sidewalk, and starts mowing down parking meters heading at the back of his partner, who’s just walking on the other side of the street. Bang, bang, bang, bang go the parking meters.

The cop says, “I grab my purse, and I shake the goddamn .357 out and go into a stance and open up. My partner hears the roar of the motor behind him, he jumps into a doorway and takes out his .357 and starts pumping into the car. You should have seen the look on this guy’s face, two old ladies opening up on him from two sides of the street.” They caught him in Hollywood five minutes later, which means he was going 120 through the city streets. They pulled him over, goddamn bullet holes all over the car, and they asked why he did it. He said he’d gone from bar to bar all night long, trying to pick up a girl, and everybody kept shutting him down. He saw this “old lady” on the street, and that was his last resort. He says, “When she told me to fuck off, I saw this other one on the other side of the street, and said, ‘I’m going to kill her.’”

That’s how ineffectual we all feel.
As I read through The Desert Sun’s account of Arthur Lyons’ life and career, as well as the reader comments attached to it, I learned several things I didn’t know before about this author. For instance, how he served for four years on the Palm Springs City Council. How he was given a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars last May. And that he was married--and a grandfather, to boot. When I talked with Lyons 28 years ago, he was definitely a bachelor enjoying the blessings of serial female companionship. I was reminded of his books, not only the 11 Asch novels (beginning with The Dead Are Discreet and concluding with 1994’s False Pretenses), but also his non-fiction works about Satanism and film noir. Kimura’s brief obituary recalls that during the time he was still writing the Asch adventures, he took time out to pen a couple of non-Asch novels (Unnatural Causes and Physical Evidence) with former Los Angeles County chief medical examiner-coroner Thomas Noguchi. And one of his Asch books, Castles Burning (1979)--which I chose last year, for a special Rap Sheet feature, as the “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated” crime novel in memory--was made into a 1986 TV movie called Slow Burn, starring Eric Roberts as Asch. I don’t think I have ever seen Slow Burn, but Lyons seemed high on it in a note he wrote me in the early ’80s:
There is additional good news. Universal [Studios] has optioned CASTLES BURNING with the view of a two-hour pilot for a TV series. They would be putting Jacob Asch in Palm Springs permanently and we would be shooting down here. I’ve come to terms with them and would be acting as script supervisor, location advisor, et. al, as well as doing the screenplay for the pilot with Joel Schumacher, who would be producing the show. (He did “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and “Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill.”) Of course, all that means nothing if the networks don’t bite, but with Universal behind it, we’ve got a better shot. The only trouble is, all three networks’ time slots are just filled to the brim with stupid, gimmicky, pure-shit detective shows. When will they learn and go for quality and not quantity? Are we forever doomed to be subjected to “Charlie’s Angels”?
Unfortunately, despite Schumacher’s involvement, Slow Burn didn’t spark any enthusiasm with the networks. You can still buy it on videotape, however.

After hearing this morning about Lyons’ demise, I dug out my file on him, filled with newspaper reviews of his books, a pencil-marked transcription of our long-ago interview, and a profile of him and his work that I wrote but apparently never published. There were also a couple of black-and-white studio shots of him from the early 1980s, one of which I have installed at the top of this post. Back then, I imagined Lyons becoming a star of the genre, right along with Robert B. Parker, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Stephen Greenleaf, and Tony Hillerman. Yet he disappeared from the world of crime fiction during the early Clinton era, turning his attention instead to film.

Over the last two years, though, I’ve been reminded of Arthur Lyons on a number of occasions. The first time was in the fall of 2006, when we polled Rap Sheet readers to find out which long-missing crime novelist they would most like to see turning out new books again. While Lyons’ wasn’t the name most often mentioned (that honor went instead to Jonathan Valin), he ranked high among the runners-up. His name was highlighted most recently for me when author Mark Coggins (Runoff) wrote a series of posts for this page about the short-lived, 1980s resurrection of Black Mask magazine. The first issue of The New Black Mask featured a short story, “Trouble in Paradise,” by Lyons. In it, Coggins explained, “Lyons’ Los Angeles gumshoe, Jacob Asch, investigates the scuba-diving death of the son of a wealthy commodities brokerage firm owner. Although he had eight novels to his credit at the time it was written, ‘Trouble’ was the first Asch short story Lyons had written.”

During the course of my editing Coggins’ series, he and I talked about the possibility of my finding Lyons again and talking him into a new interview, 28 years after my original one. With Coggins’ help, I found an e-mail address for the author, and shot off an invitation, hoping he would remember me from Willamette Week. His reply was quick and encouraging. He said that “I am still writing, but I am writing a new character.” And though he insisted, “I hate computers and e-mails,” he gave me a telephone number at which I could call him sometime. “I would be more then happy to answer all of your questions,” Lyons wrote in conclusion. I immediately dashed an e-mail note back, saying I would be contacting him as soon as I was finished with or at least nearing the end of my San Francisco book.

I was still looking forward to doing that interview when I read of Arthur Lyons’ passing.

Detective fiction has lost a once-important contributor. Palm Springs has lost a favorite son. Film noir has lost a champion. I regret now not having jumped on the chance to interview Arthur Lyons again. And there’s nothing I can do to change that.

Talk about feeling ineffectual ...

UPDATE: The Desert Sun reports that “A celebration of Arthur Lyons’ life will be held from noon to 5 p.m. [on] April 5 at an ‘intimate gathering of special fans, friends, and family’ at the Lyons home in Palm Springs … Anyone interested in attending can RSVP at [760] 864-9760.” I wish I lived anywhere nearby, and could attend.

READ MORE:Death Noted: Arthur Lyons (1946-2008),” by Steve Lewis (Mystery*File); “Arthur Lyons, R.I.P.,” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges).

“Less Cake, More Blood”

For Shots, Tony Black (Paying for It) interviews his fellow UK crime novelist, Martyn Waites, about his history as a stand-up comedian, the far-right’s nefarious influence on poor white communities in Britain, and Waites’ new Joe Donovan novel, White Riot. At one point, Black asks what Waites thinks of the “current state of health of the crime genre,” only to elicit this response:
I think it’s at an interesting stage. The traditional lines of cosy vs. noir have blurred with the cosy being reinvented as the forensic novel--less cake, more blood--and also as a novel of social commentary in some cases. This has made the noir side either retreat into pastiche or try to find genuine ways to reinterpret the genre. It all seems to be up in the air at the moment. And that, I think, is a good thing.
You’ll find their full conversation here.


That’s how many U.S. soldiers have been killed already in George W. Bush’s disastrous occupation of Iraq. And that doesn’t even include the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died. Why any American would even consider voting for old, cranky Bush clone and warmonger John McCain for president is beyond me. The last thing the United States needs is 100 more years of this insanity.

READ MORE:Milestones,” by Barbara Fister (Barbara Fister’s Place).

Friday, March 21, 2008

It’s the Cumming Thing

(Editor’s note: This is the second and final installment of Ali Karim’s report on the recent Penguin crime-fiction party. Part One--which includes an interview with Nick Stone--can be found here. To read about last year’s Penguin soirée, click here.)

So, after knocking back our drinks at London’s Marques of Granby pub, Penguin authors Nick Stone and Charles Cumming joined the Shots Webzine team of Mike Stotter, Mike Ripley, Ayo Onatade, and I, as we traversed Charing Cross Road and headed to the Union Club in Soho to attend the Penguin fête.

Upon arrival, we quickly doffed our jackets and headed for the bar. There we encountered the usual suspect reviewers, writers, and critics, among them Peter Guttridge of The Observer, Crime Squad editor Chris Simmons, and author Natasha Cooper, as well as men-about-town Barry Forshaw and Maxim Jakubowski.

Penguin senior editor and publisher Rowland White and I chatted about his success with the non-fiction book Vulcan 607, having to do with a British military mission to destroy an Argentinean-held airstrip during the 1982 Falklands War. And I went on from White to strike up a conversation with journalists-turned-crime authors Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, who write under the pseudonym Nicci French. They let me know how impressed they had been to read in The Rap Sheet that poet-crime novelist Sophie Hannah (The Point of Rescue) is a fan of their work. I first met the French duo at Dead-on-Deansgate in 2001, and have enjoyed their paranoiac view of urban relationships and madness ever since. I just received their latest tale, Until It’s Over, and am looking for a chance to read it. (You can catch the first chapter of Until It’s Over here.)

Other Penguin stalwarts in attendance were Andrew Taylor (Bleeding Heart Square), who has recently joined us in the blogosphere, and Jim Kelly, author of the journalist Philip Dryden series (The Coldest Blood). But there were some bright newcomers scattered among this crowd as well, including R.S. “Ruth” Downie (Terra Incognita) and Caro Ramsey (Absolution). The Penguin editorial and publicity staff of Alex Clark, Clare Pollock, and others did their usual bang-up job of keeping us well fed and watered (never let it be said that book critics can’t put away the victuals), and also pointed me to several up-and-coming authors. Among those was the delightful Felix Francis, the son of equine crime-fiction master Dick Francis. It seems that since the loss of his wife, Mary, in 2000, Francis Senior has brought his younger son into the writing fold. Last year they jointly produced Dead Heat (due out presently in paperback), and Felix told me that he’s relishing working with his father on their next novel, Silks, which is due out this coming summer.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a friendly face emerging from the throng. With his Steve Hamilton-style haircut, Marcus Sakey (At the City’s Edge) was easy to spot; but then again, as a man of color, so am I. I was a bit surprised to be shaking Sakey’s hand. It seems he was Penguin UK’s sole American author in attendance at this year’s party (his debut novel, The Blade Itself, having just been released in Britain), and he came over with his charming wife to spend a week in London. While we all chattered away, Stotter tottered over to join in. Since Sakey found Stotter’s cockney rhyming slang a bit of a tough go, I volunteered to interpret. Stotter wanted to give the Sakeys a few tips on where to go while they were in the British capital, including forays to the metropolis’ darker edges, which might be useful for Sakey’s research. (Being a writer is a full-time occupation, after all.) I, meanwhile, was just as interested in talking about plans to turn The Blade Itself into a movie.

Finally, I sought out the inscrutable Charles Cumming once more, hoping to corner him for a quick interview. After ordering a couple of pints of Guinness, we retreated to a private book at the back of the Union Club, where I placed my trusty tape recorder on the table and got down to the tough questioning. No need for the Bush White House’s favorite sport, water-boarding. Cumming cracked like an egg on every subject from his reading history and his association with British Intelligence, to his passion for chess.

Ali Karim: I see you studied English Literature at university. Did you come from a bookish family?

Charles Cumming: Not at all. There were very few books in either house (my parents separated when I was 7). I can’t remember ever seeing my mother reading a novel during my childhood, probably because she was working so hard. She ran a small catering company, then a hotel, so there wasn’t much time for reading. My father read political biographies and Frederick Forsyth, but that was it. For about 15 years all he had beside his bed were three well-thumbed copies of The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, and The Fourth Protocol--and [British politician] Nigel Lawson’s memoirs.

AK: And what of your own early readings?

CC: I tried The Day of the Jackal in about 1982, but I was too young for it. Before that there was Willard Price and Ian Fleming. To be honest, as a child I was a very lazy reader. I much preferred television. At school we would be assigned a book to read over the holidays and the thought of getting through it was almost debilitating. Mansfield Park springs to mind. I remember being dazzled by [Scott Turow’s] Presumed Innocent at 16 or 17. I can still recall the first line: “This is how I always begin.” Then Catcher in the Rye, Less Than Zero, Macbeth, Equus. Those were the books and plays that got under my skin at school. The single most important book of my adolescence was Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. A friend leant it to me the summer I left Eton and it was a complete revelation. I suddenly understood the power of language.

AK: Who encouraged your own writing?

CC: Three people, in particular: my father, who recognized that I had talent and never once, God bless him, advised me to get a proper job; my English teacher at Eton, Angus Graham-Campbell, who was so enigmatic and inscrutable that I wanted to get his attention; and my wife. I wrote A Spy by Nature [2001] to impress her. She says that from a young age she always knew that she was going to marry a writer in a garret …

AK: Are you an aficionado of espionage fiction?

CC: Not really. After what happened with SIS [aka MI6] I read a lot of [John] le Carré, but I really don’t know [Len] Deighton at all, nor the big Americans—[Tom] Clancy, [Robert] Littell, and [Robert] Ludlum. I love Charles McCarry, ditto Dan Fesperman. On a research trip to China I discovered Eric Ambler, who is amazing. Graham Greene is a hero of mine, on and off the page, but obviously his range went beyond pure espionage.

AK: Who have you read that you consider influential not only in your own work, but in the espionage-fiction genre generally?

CC: This might sound strange coming from a spy novelist, but the books which have most inspired me are [John] Updike’s Rabbit novels, late Philip Roth, Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, and everything by Martin Amis up to London Fields. Aside from those, Le Carré is obviously the single biggest influence on my work. If you accept that there are two strands in spy fiction, an escapist strand and a non-escapist strand, then Le Carré is the godfather of the latter. Like Ambler, [John] Buchan, and Greene before him, he has used the world of espionage as a platform for examining issues of morality and conscience, human weakness and personal ambition. That’s definitely what I’ve set out to do. All of us in the present generation--Fesperman, Daniel Silva, Henry Porter--are indebted to what Le Carré has achieved. By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that serious themes are not touched on in the escapist tradition, just that they are not touched on for very long. [For] Ian Fleming and Ludlum, for example, excitement is everything; what you might loosely call emotional or psychological content is sacrificed to the demands of the story.

AK: The last time we met was during ThrillerFest in New York, where you, Barry Eisler, and Nick Stone all ended up drinking Mike Stotter’s malt Scotch. So, apart from that night, please tell us about your highlights from ThrillerFest.

CC: I don’t remember anything after I drank all of Mike’s Scotch.

AK: I read that A Spy by Nature was influenced by a real-life encounter with British Intelligence. Are you still in contact with MI6?

CC: I have a very good friend who works for SIS, who wouldn’t thank me for saying too much about our relationship. Let’s just say that he/she has been very helpful all the way through my career.

AK: I wonder if your public-school background, or your remarkable height had anything to do with SIS’s interest … [In the photo at left, Cumming is the towering presence on the right, while I’m the other bloke.]

CC: The Foreign Office still drools over public schoolboys. There’s a certain sort of very charming, very bright old Etonian (David Cameron is the archetype) who reminds the Foreign Office of what it used to be and therefore allows for a certain continuity in style. The British military is also very pro-public school, possibly for the same reasons. The other day somebody told me that 60 percent of the commanding officers in the SAS [British Special Air Service] are old Etonians. As far as my height is concerned, I don’t think SIS ever had me earmarked for surveillance work, but there’s no doubt I would have stood out from the crowd at a cocktail party in, say, Lima or Seoul. “He’s the spy,” they would have said. “The one who looks like Peter Crouch.”

AK: A Spy by Nature was your first novel published, but was it the first written? Do you a few unpublished manuscripts in your desk drawer?

CC: A Spy by Nature was my first novel and it was bought as a completed manuscript. However, Penguin signed me to a two-book deal. The Hidden Man [2003] is a version of a screenplay that I wrote immediately after leaving university. The screenplay was about a man who walks out on his son and then comes back into his life 20 years later. It wasn’t a spy story. Most of the building blocks of The Hidden Man--the espionage, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Russian mafia in London, the relationship between the two brothers--came later as I was writing the novel.

AK: I really enjoyed The Spanish Game [2006], which featured Alec Milius, who was also in A Spy by Nature, whereas The Hidden Man and your latest novel, Typhoon [2008], are standalones. Which do your prefer--the palpable freedom of a standalone or the comforts of continuity, in series novels?

CC: Of the four books I’ve written, The Spanish Game was by far the easiest to write because I knew Alec Milius already. That made so many decisions so much easier. I didn’t have to ask myself, “How would Alec react in this situation? What would he feel?” I just instinctively knew. Typhoon was by far the hardest, because I was writing about a new character that was the deliberate flip of Alec. Joe Lennox is noble, patriotic, heroic. Also, I had never written a book about a serving SIS officer; up to that point my characters had always been on the outside of the secret world, looking in. Typhoon was also difficult because China is a massive subject in terms of research. With The Spanish Game, I lived in Madrid for three years and knew the city inside out. For Typhoon, I spent less than two weeks in Shanghai, five days in Hong Kong, and five days in Beijing. The rest of the time I was stuck in London with two small children keeping me up all night! I would never have taken on such a big challenge if The Spanish Game hadn’t given me the confidence to write about a foreign country.

AK: Your work has been highly acclaimed for its authenticity and take on the “Alice through the looking-glass” world of espionage. Tell us about your research methods.

CC: A lot of it is common sense. How do you earn someone’s trust? How would you follow a person from A to B? How do you know when a person is lying to you? But I also read a lot, watch a lot of documentaries, and have good contacts in the intelligence community. For example, in The Hidden Man, MI5 break into an office. A friend at Thames House [MI5’s London headquarters] told me that such operations are undertaken twice: once as a dress rehearsal, to iron out any potential problems, and then as the real thing, when they go after the information. There’s no way a layman would know that; as a strategy, it doesn’t seem to make sense. It surely doubles your chances of being caught. But MI5 see it as doubling their chances of being successful.

AK: There was a three-year gap between The Hidden Man and the appearance of The Spanish Game. What happened during that period? Or did the Madrid adventure just take longer to write?

CC: The simple answer is that I don’t find writing particularly easy. It usually takes me two years to write a novel. From memory, Spanish Game was ready for publication in 2005, but was pushed back by six months for marketing reasons. I was relieved to see Nick Stone … saying that he would find it impossible to write a book every year, which is what is now being asked of thriller writers. I would find it very difficult, too, at least in the long-term. Artistically it’s impossible to maintain a level of quality without burn-out unless you’re supremely talented or blessed with extraordinary reserves of mental and physical strength. I also think the reading public will eventually tire of writers who churn out essentially the same book year after year after year.

AK: I notice that like your fellow espionage writer Robert Littell, you are a chess player. Tell me about your relationship with chess.

CC: I love it. I was taught at the age of 10 by a beautiful Scottish babysitter and never looked back! I started up a club when I came back to London from Madrid in 2004. It’s called The Jose-Raul Capablanca Memorial Chess Society. Boris Starling (who wrote Messiah) is a fellow member. I beat him in the quarter-finals at the last tournament. He still hasn’t properly recovered.

AK: Fancy a game, as I am a little bit of chess player myself? It would give us the chance to record a lengthier interview in the process of your defeat.

CC: [Laughing] That is a challenge you will regret. Bring it on, Ali. I will destroy you.

AK: [Laughing] In your dreams! Anyway, back to the subject of your work … Your latest novel, Typhoon, is backdropped by the friction between the United States and its biggest trading partner, China. Can you give us some background on that work?

CC: When I finished writing The Spanish Game in 2004, I started to look around for a new subject and China just seemed the obvious choice. The economic boom, the Olympics--it was obviously going to be The Next Big Thing. Editors were sick of Al-Qaeda, sick of 9/11, and I was aware that nobody had really touched China since The Honourable Schoolboy [1977]. Thematically, it was also riveting: the West’s economic greed versus its commitment to human rights; Britain’s colonial past in Hong Kong and Shanghai; the apparent decline of the American empire and the rampant growth of 21st-century China.

AK: Were you nervous writing about something so topical, especially in light of the U.S. economy’s recent financial problems, linked as they are to the weakness of the American dollar and that nation’s relationship with China?

CC: The hardest problem was finding a way to make China interesting to western readers. Writing about people making money isn’t particularly fascinating, and China is all about people making money. That’s where [the] Xinjiang [region of northwestern China] came in. As soon as I learned about the plight of the Uighur people, and Xinjiang’s strategic importance in what Lutz Kleveman calls “the New Great Game,” I was in. If it doesn’t sound too grandiose, Typhoon became a metaphor for the lunacy of American intervention overseas, a way of talking about Iraq without actually writing a novel about Iraq.

AK: When is Typhoon due for release? And are there any plans for a Chinese edition?

CC: Typhoon is out in June [in the UK]. If the Chinese have any sense, they’ll ban it.

AK: What books have passed over your reading table recently that you’ve enjoyed?

CC: I absolutely loved The Ghost, by Robert Harris, and said so in a review I wrote for The Mail on Sunday. Harris gave me a wonderful plug for A Spy by Nature, so it looked as though I was scratching his back. But I genuinely thought it was first-class: funny, smart, gripping, and very well-written. I’m also reading Putin’s Progress, a fascinating biography of the all-new “Vlad the Impaler,” by Peter Truscott. It’s research for a novel I’m planning.

AK: And lastly, considering your own education, when you see fellow public-school boys such as Jeremy Irons and Alan Rickman--both featured as baddies in the Die Hard films--why do you think the British public school boy makes such a wonderful movie bad-guy?

CC: It must be something to do with the gap between an audience’s expectations of a well-spoken, impeccably dressed, refined English gentleman and the reality of their behavior. You only have to think of Kim Philby: charming, witty, attractive, well-connected--and yet underneath it all, completely ruthless and amoral.

* * *

After this grilling, Cumming and I returned to the party, where a number of us toasted to the success of Typhoon, before thanking the Penguin team for their hospitality and heading off for our various destinations. I knew this wouldn’t be my last encounter with Charles Cumming, however. There’s still that chess challenge to be had.

If you would like to see all of the photos from the Penguin crime-fiction party, click here.