Friday, January 30, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Bigger They Come,” by A.A. Fair

(This marks the 40th installment of The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Previous recommendations can be found here.)

2009 is shaping up to be a year in which I read lustfully from the dusty back files of detective fiction, while at the same time trying to keep up with the seeming surfeit of promising new works expected to reach bookstores over the coming months. If you could see my desktop (and thank goodness, you cannot--it’s a mess), you wouldn’t fail to notice a small but escalating stack of vintage paperbacks, evidence of my having recently shopped too many used bookstores, as well as my curiosity about authors whose works I don’t know all that well. For instance, after being exposed--through Bruce Grossman’s weekly Bookgasm column, “Bullets, Broads, Blackmail & Bombs”--to the work of prolific spy novelist Edward S. Aarons, I’ve finally plunked down hard cash for a couple of his books. I have also picked up two of Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne novels and a collection of early Nick Carter short stories.

But the real treasures here, I think, are my A.A. Fair novels. Fair, you probably know, was a pseudonym employed by Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, when he chose during the Great Depression to embark on a new series, featuring private investigators Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. While I’d read a few of Mason’s courtroom adventures in my younger days, I hadn’t ever picked up a Cool and Lam novel until last year, when I bought and thoroughly enjoyed Top of the Heap, which was published originally in 1952 but reissued in 2004 by Hard Case Crime. Following that experience, I started to look around for other Cool and Lam titles, buying one here, another there, eventually winding up with 14. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I strolled into the venerable Seattle Mystery Bookshop, down in my hometown’s historic Pioneer Square district, and what should I find? Paperback copies of almost every Cool and Lam novel known to man, apparently acquired from someone’s estate. After a trip back home to figure out which books in the series I already owned (but had not yet gotten around to reading), I returned to the bookstore ... and laid claim to the 15 novels I had not previously found, all at prices ranging from $2.99 to $5.99. I suspect that the Klondike gold prospectors who, in the late 1890s, flooded through Seattle on their way to northwestern Canada felt much as I did when they held glittering nuggets in their hands.

While it’s probably not necessary to read the Fair novels in the order they were published, I was pleased to finally catch up with the first Cool and Lam outing, The Bigger They Come, which was released 70 years ago this month. It’s in those fewer than 200 pages, after all, that Gardner originally worked out the back stories and characteristics of his odd-couple protagonists (though he was never much for consistency, and later diddled with a few “facts”). It’s there, too, that he established the relationship between his sleuths--a relationship filled with humor and fast-flowing banter of the sort that I suspect most crime-fiction enthusiasts don’t associate with attorney Mason’s creator.

This tale begins with Lam answering a newspaper ad for an operative at the Cool Detective Agency in Los Angeles. He has no particular qualifications for the job, just an empty stomach, an easy way with prevarications, and no employment prospects elsewhere. It seems he used to be a lawyer, but lost his license after making a foolish bet with a stranger, based on Lam’s statement that “it would be possible to commit a murder so there was nothing anyone could do about it.” Unfortunately, the stranger turned out to be a small-time gangster, who told police after his arrest that he’d been planning to give $500 to Lam in exchange for information on how to kill a rival and get off scot-free. The California Bar Association didn’t look kindly on that alleged breach. Lam didn’t look kindly on the Bar Association as a consequence, and decided to go into another line of work. The private dick game appeared to be a better option, even though Lam (which is an assumed name) lacks a bit in the way of intimidating stature. When the series begins, he’s described as being in his mid-20s, about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and 127 pounds. At one point, Bertha Cool calls him “a brainy little runt.” But, as Lam assures her,
“Everyone has to protect himself in life. When he’s weak somewhere, nature makes him strong elsewhere. I figure things out. I always have. If a man starts pushing me around, I find a way to make him stop, and before I’m through he’s sorry he ever started pushing. I don’t mind hitting below the belt if I have to. I guess I even get a kick out of it. That’s because of the way I’m made. A little runt is apt to be mean.”
Nonetheless, he often comes out on the losing end of fistfights. And there are many of those as this series rolls along. Poor Donald.

Bertha Cool is as big and blustery as Lam is diminutive and suave. Gardner introduces her as “somewhere in the sixties, with gray hair, twinkling gray eyes, and a benign, grandmotherly expression of her face. She must have weighed over two hundred.” (Later in the series, she’s slimmed down somewhat to about 165 pounds.) Money-conscious in the extreme and almost anxious to ding a client for any excusable expense, Cool’s also a world-class cheapskate, often complaining to Lam about his expenses on a case. She evidently took over the detective agency from her deceased and adulterous hubby, Henry, whose repeated cheating she used as an excuse to lose her girlish figure. Though quick to anger, she is also quick to forgive (as long as there are dollar signs for motivation), and is famous for her exotic exclamations. “Kipper me for a herring!,” she might say. Or “Can me for a sardine!” Or “Peel me for a grape!” You get the idea. Gardner must have had fun crafting ever-more-outlandish interjections.

Shortly after Cool hires Lam in The Bigger They Come, she sends him out to serve divorce papers on Morgan Birks, who is wanted in association with a slot-machine scandal that involved police payoffs. Birks’ wife, Sandra, intends to use her husband’s fugitive status as further cause to end their marriage, but first she has to locate him--and do a better job of it than the cops have done so far. Upping the odds in Lam’s favor is Sandra’s longtime friend Alma Hunter, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty with “a figure worth showing.” (It’s not surprising that Lam should fall in love with Alma over the course of this mystery. But then, being a certified romantic, he often finds himself drawn to fetching females, though his relationships don’t last from one book to the next.) And sure enough, Alma does help him track down Birks--at a hotel, where the fugitive intends to meet his not-so-clandestine lover. The situation deteriorates fast, though, when wife Sandra suddenly shows up at the hotel, too, wanting to give Birks a piece of her mind, and is accompanied by her brother, B. Lee “Bleatie” Toms, who was recently in a traffic accident, and is pretty seriously bandaged. Further complicating this situation, Lam has purchased a “hot” gun from the hotel’s bellboy, which he’s given to Alma for her protection.

After managing, amid this three-ring social circus, to serve the divorce papers on Birks, Lam thinks his work completed. However, it’s only begun, for he’s soon kidnapped by a couple of hard-knuckled types whose boss wants to know all the specifics of the detective’s efforts to beard Birks. Then, not long after returning home with a minimum of mortal wounds, Lam has to rush out again, this time to Alma’s aid--it seems she’s plugged a would-be molester in her bedroom, firing the .32 automatic that Lam bought her. When police arrive on the scene, they find that the dead man is none other than Morgan Birks, and he’s been shot in the back--which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, given Alma’s recollection of the night’s events.

Add to this vintage yarn a bunch of missing dough, elusive safety deposit boxes, false identities, and a flimflam more complicated than anything concocted in The Sting, and you’ve got a story that almost demands a flow chart to understand at times. But the rewards of sticking with it are many. Oh, and in the end, Donald Lam even gets to prove that a person really could get away with murder. At least in 1939, in California.

As near as I can tell, most of the 29 Cool and Lam novels fell out of print in the 1970s (though The Bigger They Come saw a new paperback printing in 1984). That’s regrettable, because Erle Stanley Gardner really seemed to have fun with those two sleuths, who at their best were cynically witty, self-effacing, and an excellent team. He really knew how to pack a punch in this series. Even Hollywood took notice. In 1958--almost 20 years after The Bigger They Come was first published, and another dozen years before this series concluded (with All Grass Isn’t Green)--a 30-minute, black-and-white Cool and Lam TV pilot was shot. Undoubtedly, producers hoped to capitalize on the popularity of Perry Mason, which had debuted on CBS the year before and made Gardner’s name golden. That pilot starred former jockey Billy Pearson as Donald Lam, and playing Bertha Cool was singer-performer Benay Venuta (who later appeared as Jean Smart’s mother-in-law in the show Designing Women). There seems to be some question as to whether that pilot was broadcast, but if it ever shows up on television, I’m determined to catch it.

Meanwhile, I only have 27 more Cool and Lam books to read.

Fry me for an oyster! I’m thrilled by the prospect.

READ MORE:Forgotten Books: Try Anything Once--by A.A. Fair
(Erle Stanley Gardner)
,” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges); “Kept Women Can’t Quit, by A.A. Fair (1960),” by Utter Scoundrel (Lies! Damned Lies); “A.A. Fair--Owls Don’t Blink,” by Marcia Muller (Mystery*File); “A.A. Fair--Kept Women Can’t Quit,” by Steve Lewis (Mystery*File); “The Count of Nine, by A.A. Fair (1958),” by Utter Scoundrel (Lies! Damned Lies!); “A.A. Fair--Crows Can’t Count,” by Steve Lewis (Mystery*File).

Bullet Points: Late-Start Friday Edition

• As usual for a Friday, the crime-fiction blogosphere is crowded with recommendations of “forgotten books” worth reading. Among today’s selections: Hoodtown, by Christa Faust; Dark Ride, by Kent Harrington; Gory Night, by Margaret Rivers Larminie and Jane Langslow; Engineered for Murder, by Aileen Schumacher; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, by Horace McCoy; Prester John, by John Buchan; Hombre, by Elmore Leonard; and a Wild Wild West tie-in, The Night of the Assassin, by Robert Vaughan. A full list of today’s participating blogs can be found at Patti Abbott’s site.

• One other blogger who’s contributing today is Cullen Gallagher, touting The Jugger, a 1965 Parker novel by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). But I’d like to draw particular attention to film critic Gallagher’s not-yet-two-month-old Pulp Serenade blog for its consistently interesting series of reviews of vintage pulp works. Among the novels he has written about so far are The Cockeyed Corpse, by Richard S. Prather; It’s a Sin to Kill, by Day Keene; Mourn the Hangman, by Harry Whittington; and Of Tender Sin, by David Goodis. Keep up the fine work, Cullen.

• Also worth recommending: Duane Swierczynski’s “Legends of the Underwood” series, celebrating such speedy and prolific writers as Orrie Hitt, Michael Avallone, and Gil Brewer.

• Finally coming to a DVD sales shelf near you: Our Man in Havana (1960), starring Alec Guinness.

• What’s the rarest and most valuable book in the old Dell 10-cent paperback line? It’s described as “a hard-boiled mystery/thriller that crams tough detectives, con men, beautiful molls, hapless victims and innocent damsels into 64 pages, and it does it in true pulp fashion.” What’s more, it has a title you’re not likely to soon forget.

• “Steampunk detectives”? Who knew?

• Obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe’s 1836 honeymoon visit to Petersburg, Virginia, accompanied by his 13-year-old cousin and new wife, Virginia Clemm, Richmond Magazine contributor Jeff Abugel wound up buying a building. Why? Click here to find out.

• David Fulmer submits his brand-new Valentin St. Cyr historical mystery, Lost River, to Marshal Zeringue’s Page 69 Test. Look here for the results.

From the Stupid Decisions File. (Hat tip to Bill Crider.)

Cathi Unsworth interviews David Peace for Pulp Pusher. Meanwhile, blogger Gerard Brennan chats up Reed Farell Coleman for Crime Scene NI.

• Well, that's funny. I didn’t know that the 1965 film The Satan Bug, adapted from a novel by Alistair MacLean, was scripted by James Clavell of Shogun fame.

• Coming in the fall of 2009: Bloodshot Rainbow: The Life and Work of John D. Macdonald, by James Walling, to be published by Schaffner Press. (Hat tip to Elizabeth Foxwell.)

• To promote his latest book, The Associate, John Grisham has apparently given his first two interviews to blogs. One is at Above the Law, while the other can be found in The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog. The author’s publicists also suggest that readers visit Grisham’s new Facebook page for more information, although Grisham himself conceded on national TV just the other day that he had absolutely nothing to do with setting up that page, and in fact has no idea what its purpose is supposed to be. Hmm. It sounds like even best-selling novelists and their publishers don’t always communicate well.

• And tomorrow will be (sniff, sniff) the last day of business at London’s landmark Murder One bookstore. However, as Shotsmag Confidential’s Ayo Onatade notes, “The good news is that the mail-order business will still be continuing and I understand that there will be a place (not exactly sure, but I believe that it will be in Hoxton) where customers will be able to go and pick up their ordered books.” It just won’t be the same, though ...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #11

Series Title: Ellery Queen | Years: 1975-1976, NBC | Starring: Jim Hutton, David Wayne, Tom Reese, John Hillerman, Ken Swofford | Theme Music: Elmer Bernstein

During the mid-20th century, Ellery Queen was three of the most famous figures in American crime fiction.

Introduced as the protagonist in a 1929 novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen was a New York City-based mystery novelist and amateur sleuth of extraordinary perspicacity. He started out as indolent, condescending, and often mannerless (“one would not mind reading about him, but one would also not particularly want to know him,” opined bookseller-editor Otto Penzler in The Private Lives of Private Eyes, Spies, Crime Fighters, and Other Good Guys, 1977). But eventually Queen became an exemplar of the reliably rational detective, occupying a “genius” category alongside Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, and others. His popularity during the 1900s was furthered by presentations of his adventures on radio and the silver screen, as well as his appearance in four separate TV series--the last of which provides this week’s exceptional main title sequence.

However, Ellery Queen was also the pseudonym shared by two real-life authors from Brooklyn--cousins and former advertising writers Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay. After creating their amateur sleuth in 1928 as part of a mystery-writing contest sponsored by McClure’s magazine, they worked together for more than four decades, writing the acclaimed Queen series, editing collections of their own fiction and anthologies of others’ work, and bringing to press a crime-fiction digest, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, that remains influential and in publication today, 67 years after its launch.

Penzler regards Lee and Dannay’s choice of a nom de plume “as one of the most brilliant and far-sighted promotional decisions ever made ... Noting that many people remember the name of a favorite detective hero, but often forget the name of the author, they decided to give their detective the same name as the one they selected as their byline.” That choice, though, did present the cousins with some challenges. “In 1932,” recalled University of Michigan-Flint student Cathy Akers-Jordan in a 1998 thesis presented as part of her master’s degree studies in American Culture, “Ellery Queen had attained such eminence that he was invited to give a lecture on mystery writing to the Columbia University School of Journalism. Not wanting to give away the author’s secret identity, Dannay and Lee flipped a coin to determine who would give the lecture. Lee lost and appeared as Ellery Queen, giving the lecture in a mask to maintain his anonymity; the audience was charmed.”

The conceit of these stories was that they were written by the young fictional ferret himself, who had agreed ever so reluctantly to record his investigations in print. (That reluctance was further supported by the notion, raised in The Roman Hat Mystery, that “Ellery Queen” was actually a pseudonym adopted by the wordsmith-detective to safeguard his privacy.) The tales portray Ellery as the weapon of last but welcome resort wielded by his father, much-decorated Inspector Richard Queen of the New York City Police Department, to solve seemingly impossible or impenetrable crimes. Both sire and son understand how advantageous Ellery’s intelligence can be in apprehending non-habitual malefactors, who don’t behave according to familiar patterns. Ellery is the one most able to “think outside the box,” to employ an overworked cliché. As their mutual friend, judge and stockbroker J.J. McCue, explained in his introduction to The Roman Hat Mystery,
In matters of pure tenacity, when possibilities lay frankly open to every hand, Richard Queen was a peerless investigator. ...

But the intuitive sense, the gift of imagination, belonged to Ellery Queen the fiction writer. The two might have been twins possessing abnormally developed faculties of mind, impotent by themselves but vigorous when applied one to the other.
As I mentioned earlier, Ellery--like many early fictional sleuths, including snobbish Philo Vance, who may have helped inspire this character--was not at first an especially sympathetic figure. The excellent Ellery Queen: A Web Site on Deduction explains that when we first met the snooper cooked up by Lee and Dannay, he was “a fairly recent Harvard grad wrapped in shapeless tweeds and sporting pince-nez,” something of “a stiff shirt wearing his lorgnet, a thin silver watch and falconer, a gray costume and walkingstick.” Ellery was made somewhat more likable by the fact that he and his stoop-shouldered but energetic father had a relationship that, while it appeared contentious at times, was basically warm and affectionate. We saw their interaction frequently, as they worked together and also shared an apartment on the third floor of a brownstone on Manhattan’s West 87th Street. (Ellery’s mother, said to have been the daughter of a wealthy family, was deceased before this series commenced.)

Only over time did Ellery’s superciliousness recede. “This change came about through the influence of the other media (magazines, movies, radio and TV),” explains the aforementioned Ellery Queen site. “His early days were punctuated by an arrogance that gave way to a sense of humor. The writers made him more human and thus fallible. He even admits what the reader has known from the start--that the human factor in his cases is as important as the logic and deduction--and begins to lighten up. The pince-nez disappears, and there’s more humor in the books, peaking with the two novels set during Ellery’s (frustrating) stint as a Hollywood writer: The Devil to Pay (1938) and The Four of Hearts (1938).”

Filing off some of Ellery Queen’s more unsociable edges undoubtedly also improved this crime-solver’s longevity (unlike Philo Vance--once described by Raymond Chandler as “probably the most asinine character in detective fiction”--who has pretty much disappeared over the last half century).

He debuted as a cinema star in 1935’s The Spanish Cape Mystery, adapted from a novel of the same name and featuring Broadway actor Donald Cook as young Ellery. The character would appear in nine films over the next seven years, the best four of them starring Ralph Bellamy. While those photoplays are hardly considered masterpieces, movie historian Jon Tuska insisted in his 1978 book, The Detective in Hollywood, that at least Ellery Queen, Master Detective (1940) is “an excellent film.” Bellamy, he added, “combined the bookishness of the Ellery of the novels with a worldliness that the character needed to appeal to a larger audience.”

Four years after the first of those movies reached theaters, the author-sleuth became an evening radio star in The Adventures of Ellery Queen, many episodes of which were written by Lee and Dannay, and later by author, editor, and critic Anthony Boucher. That half-hour show remained on the air--although it switched networks--until 1948, with actor Hugh Marlowe (later of the TV soap Another World) being the first performer to fill the title role. Hoping to attract a larger female audience, the show’s producers gave Ellery a love interest and secretary named Nikki Porter (played by Marion Shockley). Nikki appeared, as well, in most of the movie series, being best portrayed by Margaret Lindsay. And I understand that she finally found her way, too, into Lee and Dannay’s novels, debuting in 1943’s There Was an Old Woman. The cousins introduced another recurring woman player, agoraphobic gossip columnist Paula Paris, into the series in The Four of Hearts (1938), but she didn’t win a place in the radio drama. (If you’d like to listen--for free--to some old Adventures of Ellery Queen episodes, simply click here).

“America’s master crime solver,” as Ellery was often promoted in those days, made the leap to television in 1950. Again titled The Adventures of Ellery Queen, the new series gave Richard Hart the part of Ellery; unfortunately, he died of a heart attack after appearing in just a few episodes, and was replaced by Lee Bowman, who would carry on with the show as it made its transition from the old DuMont Television Network to ABC in ’51. Bowman kept the role until Adventures was canceled a year later. (A complete 1950 episode of that series, “The Hanging Acrobat,” can be watched here.) Two more Ellery Queen series came and went during the 1950s, one returning Hugh Marlowe to the Ellery role, the second--retitled The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen--starring George Nader and later Lee Philips. Neither, however, mined ratings gold.

Television hadn’t seen the last of Ellery Queen, though. In 1971, Universal Studios turned Lee and Dannay’s 1949 novel, Cat of Many Tails, into an NBC pilot film entitled Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You. Fans of the books probably looked forward to this movie’s debut, only to be disappointed by the results. Although Harry Morgan of Dragnet fame seemed nicely cast as Inspector Richard Queen (even if he didn’t boast the mustache that was so familiar on that character’s visage in the novels), hiring English-born actor Peter Lawford to play Ellery was a tremendous mistake. Far from being the bookish intellectual of Dannay and Lee’s novels, Lawford re-imagined Queen as an overaged, British “hipster,” with egregious results. The script itself was pretty mediocre. The network had originally hired Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of Mannix and Columbo, to compose the Cat of Many Tails adaptation, but Link recalls that “while Dick and I were on vacation, the producer brought in other writers who changed our script. We thought the script was now inept, took our names off, and used our pseudonym [Ted Leighton].” NBC ultimately chose not to buy the Lawford/Morgan series.

Only three years later, though, Levinson and Link took another crack at adapting Ellery Queen for the small screen, and came up with the foremost results yet. They began by reviving the amateur sleuth and his “pater” in a two-hour pilot film based loosely on a 1965 novel called The Fourth Side of the Triangle, which had been at least partly ghost-written by American Jewish author Avram Davidson. Perhaps the screenwriters’ smartest decision was to make their teleflick a period piece, to set it in the late 1940s--the heyday of the Ellery Queen books and radio show. Cast as Ellery was tall, lanky Jim Hutton (the father of Leverage star Timothy Hutton), who brought charm, engaging innocence, and more than a bit of absentmindedness to the part; while his inspector progenitor was played by David Wayne (who I still remember best as the Mad Hatter on Batman). The pair certainly looked their parts (though, again, Wayne was clean-shaven), and their relationship on screen demonstrated all the warmth that readers of the Queen books had come to expect.

A scene from the March 14, 1976, episode of Ellery Queen, “The Adventure of Caesar’s Last Sleep.”

Following the success of the pilot, Ellery Queen debuted on Thursday, September 11, 1975. It was deliberately old-fashioned, not only by the fact of its period setting in Truman-era New York City, but because it used many of the hoary conventions of crime fiction, to camp effect. A murder was committed, Ellery and his father investigated, clues were sprinkled about here and there for observant TV addicts to gather, and in the run-up to the conclusion of each episode, Ellery would suddenly turn to the camera and announce that he’d figured out the mystery--but, he wanted to know, had viewers done the same? (That “challenge to the reader” had earlier been a factor in the books.) Then, after a commercial break, all the suspects would be gathered into some room, where Ellery laid out how the crime of the week had been committed--and who was responsible.

Although that format struck some viewers as too moss-grown, the series offered ample humor to go along with it. It also boasted an abundance of famous weekly guest stars, including Ray Milland, Murray Hamilton, Geraldine Brooks, Ida Lupino, Donald O’Connor, Eve Arden, William Demarest, Eva Gabor, Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn), Anne Francis (Honey West), Don Ameche, and others. In addition, Levinson and Link introduced a couple of secondary players with tremendous appeal: radio drama host Simon Brimmer (played by a pre-Magnum, P.I. John Hillerman), who was touted as “America’s favorite criminologist, raconteur, and aficionado of the exotic and the bizarre”; and Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford), a corners-cutting newspaper reporter who had the tendency to speak in attention-getting headlines. Tom Reese, a Tennessee-born actor who had appeared in numerous western and crime series over the years, was cast as Sergeant Thomas Velie, Inspector Queen’s right-hand man. He played the policeman just as Otto Penzler described Velie from the novels: “Not overly intelligent, he is less antagonistic than most other cops who have to deal with amateur detectives, even going so far as to call Ellery ‘maestro.’”

And what of Ellery Queen’s main title sequence? It was understated but brilliant. As you can see in the clip topping this post--taken from the episode “The Adventure of the Lover’s Leap”--each week’s installment began with a teaser about the suspects to come. (That teaser has, sadly, been lopped off many subsequent, syndicated presentations of this series, to make room for more commercial interruptions.) After the teaser, the opener commenced with a camera pan shot over an old manual typewriter, presumably the one on which Ellery wrote his mysteries. The jaunty, brass-dominated theme music was composed by Aaron Copeland protégé Elmer Bernstein, who is best remembered nowadays as the man responsible for the themes of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). While the title and credits flashed on the screen, the scene behind rolled across what looked like a black-and-white-tiled floor, but could just as easily have been a giant chess board (suggesting the competitive nature of crime solving). Ripped photos, mementos of Manhattan’s famous Stork Club, and a paperweight shaped like the Statue of Liberty slid past ... along with artifacts suggestive of violence: a cracked pair of spectacles; a telephone receiver, its cord cut; a deadly sharp letter opener; and, last but not least, a chess queen, snapped in half.

Even more than three decades after Ellery Queen’s original broadcast, I still feel a tingle of expectation when I watch that introductory sequence. Its combination of imagery and music sets precisely the right mysterious tone for the show.

Sadly, though, neither that theme nor the big-name guest performers could keep Ellery Queen on the air. As critic Richard Meyers wrote in his book TV Detectives (1981),
All too quickly the thrill disappeared. Even though the new Ellery Queen series had all the complexity it would ever need, it had almost no compassion. For a fictional character who spent most of the sixties and seventies agonizing, the Hutton portrayal was annoyingly lifeless. He just did not seem to care about the victim or the guilty party. Hutton approached each murder as the most boring of mental exercises. Playing Queen as an even-tempered, absentminded bookworm, his apathy soon spread to the audience. After a season, this series was canceled.
I had never read an Ellery Queen novel before the Levinson and Link series debuted, but I was inspired by it to search out the many works of Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed a number of Queen novels. But I still think fondly of the 1970s drama. While some of its plots were too easily figured out, and I agree that Hutton could have brought more depth to his role, Ellery Queen might be said to have left behind a valuable TV legacy. Certainly, the later Levinson and Link-created series Murder, She Wrote followed a similar storytelling pattern and also focused on an author and amateur investigator. That’s true, too, of the Nathan Fillion series Castle, which is set to debut on ABC-TV in early March of this year.

One day soon I expect that TV producers will look around at each other and ask themselves, “Why are we trying to copy Ellery Queen, when we could just as easily revive the character once more on the small screen?” And so, the dogged police inspector and his brainy son will have another chance to inquire, Whodunit?

SEE IT HERE: Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we now have a short clip from the unsold, 1971 pilot film Ellery Queen: Don’t Look Behind You, which starred Peter Lawford as the storied sleuth of the title and Harry Morgan as his “uncle,” Inspector Richard Queen.

It has frequently been said that this movie was developed as a pilot for a series to occupy one of the three “spokes” in the original NBC Mystery Movie “wheel series.” As that story goes, when the network decided to pass on Lawford’s Ellery Queen, it left room--fortunately--for McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James. However, the facts of that story are in doubt. Paul Mason, an early producer and writer of McMillan & Wife, says it’s simply “not true,” that McMillan “was already in talking stages” as part of the wheel by the time Lawford’s film was being made, “and once Rock was involved, it got the highest priority.”

READ MORE:Just Who WAS This Ellery Queen, Anyway?” (Dr. Hermes Reviews); “Nine of the Best by Ellery Queen,” by Cavershamragu (Tipping My Fedora).

Giving Them the Bird

From Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac:
It was on this day in 1845 that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was first published in the New York Evening Mirror. It begins:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door--
Only this, and nothing more.”
Poe became famous almost immediately. Within a few years, “The Raven” had been reprinted in newspapers and magazines across the country, and included in poetry anthologies. Poe became a popular lecturer and dinner party performer, where his recitations of the poem were legendary.
It’s only appropriate, in this month when we’ve been celebrating Edgar Allan Poe’s 200th birthday, that we should also note this milestone for his most famous poem.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bye Bye Book World

Sarah Weinman’s take on the demise of Book World as a special Sunday section of The Washington Post really says it all. But I’d just like to add a personal note.

Book World was my first date as a book reviewer. Byron Dobell, the king of editors, who ran the section from the offices of the New York Herald Tribune (it also appeared in the Post and the Chicago Tribune), asked in the late 1960s if I would like to be his mystery reviewer. I was of course delighted, although my mother said when I told her, “Mystery reviewer? Why can’t you use your real name?”

It was in many ways the best job I ever had. Not only was the legendary Bleeck’s bar of Breslin fame just downstairs, but I got to do a regular crime-fiction column, and also had the chance to contribute (for real money) other pieces. Interviewing Kingsley Amis on his reading habits, I was surprised by his admonition: “Never read fiction before noon.”

So, bye bye Book World--which I’ll continue to read online. And Byron, now a very successful painter, thanks for the memories.

READ MORE:Washington Post Book World, R.I.P.,” by Elizabeth Foxwell (The Bunburyist); “All the King’s Men,” by Linda L. Richards (January Magazine).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Double Take

Like many other readers, it seems, I’m looking forward to Hard Case Crime’s release in October of a never-before-published novel, Honey in His Mouth, by once super-productive Doc Savage creator Lester Dent. But ever since I saw the cover of that forthcoming paperback, featuring an illustration by Ron Lesser, I’ve thought it looked ... well, familiar, though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why.

Then this morning, while shuffling through some vintage jacket illustrations for future mention in The Rap Sheet’s new Killer Covers blog, I came across the front of a 1972 paperback edition of The Decoy. That novel, published originally in 1951, was at one time credited to “Edward Ronns,” a pseudonym of Edward S. Aarons, best known for writing more than 40 novels about international spy Sam Durell (Assignment: Mara Tirana, Assignment: Burma Girl, etc.).

Imagine my surprise at seeing these two covers side by side. If artist Lesser wasn’t influenced by the Decoy front, I’d be more than a little astonished. The captivating brunette in a dance hall outfit on the Aarons front has become a still more lightly clad lovely on the jacket of Honey in His Mouth. The hair is different, and they’re facing opposite directions, but the cocked hips on both long-legged women are identical, as are their facial expressions and casually held cigarettes.

Is this what’s meant by that familiar old saying, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bullet Points: Chinese New Year Edition

• Congratulations to the fine British author Roger Jon “R.J.” Ellory, whom I met at Bouchercon in Baltimore and who seems finally to have negotiated a deal whereby his novels will be made available in the States. According to Ali Karim, “his U.S. publisher is ... the legendary Peter Mayer of Overlook (U.S.) and Duckworth (UK). It appears that Overlook is publishing A Quiet Belief in Angels (Roger’s breakout novel, and a 2007 Richard and Judy selection) in the fall of 2009. A second book (yet to be named) will be released in 2010.”

• With tomorrow being Chinese New Year--the beginning of the Year of the Ox--Janet Rudolph has posted a list of mysteries appropriate to this holiday.

• As part of his weeklong guest blogging at Minotaur Books’ Moments in Crime blog, author Norman Green explains why he thought the world needed another private investigator--Alessandra Martillo, star of his new novel, The Last Gig.

Sandra Seamans’ “Brothel Justice is the latest short story to chew on at Beat to a Pulp.

• For The Week, Charles Cumming (Typhoon) names his favorite literary thrillers. Hint: He already wrote about one of them for The Rap Sheet. (Hat tip to Campaign for the American Reader.)

• It looks as if the legendary Sherlock Holmes is going to be the star of “a thrilling, funny, fast-paced take on the crime drama set in present-day London.” The new series is a production of the BBC.

• Speaking of Holmes, did you know that his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is going to be the subject of a symposium and exhibition at Harvard University? It’s been scheduled in honor of Conan Doyle’s 150th birthday and will be held from Thursday, May 7 through Saturday, May 9, 2009. As a Web site associated with the project explains, “The symposium aims to broaden our understanding of Doyle in light of recent biographical studies; to examine the enduring popularity of the Canon and to revisit the non-canonical fiction, historical and social writings; and to witness Doyle’s literacy legacy as promoted by literary societies and through teaching.”

When he died earlier this month at age 85, British barrister-turned-wordsmith John Mortimer apparently left behind the unfinished manuscript of another Horace Rumpole novel, Rumpole and the Brave New World. The Guardian now publishes the opening three chapters of that book. Meanwhile, The Scotsman’s David Robinson offers up an excellent remembrance of the author.

• Ken Bruen’s 2001 standalone, London Boulevard, is on its way to becoming a theatrical release, according to Busted Flush Press’ blog.

• Culture maven Vince Keenan sat through the first two (pre-Humphrey Bogart) movie adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon so that the rest of us wouldn’t have to. Read his assessments here.

• In Shots, Ian Dickerson presents a fine recollection of the life and work of Leslie Charteris, creator of Simon Templar, The Saint.

• The news about aging and ill Columbo star Peter Falk just keeps getting sadder and sadder.

• Louise Penny submits her latest Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novel, A Rule Against Murder, to Marshal Zeringue’s Page 99 Test. The results are here.

• Blogger Tanner at Double O Section has launched a new periodic feature, “My Favorite Spy Movies.” The first film receiving his seal of approval: Deadlier Than the Male (1967), a British production starring Richard Johnson, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, and Nigel Green. “Of all the imitators 007 spawned in the 1960s,” Tanner opines, “Deadlier Than the Male is the only one that can really go toe-to-toe with Bond.” He has a follow-up to his original post here.

• Irish author-blogger Declan Burke informs us that “Trinity College Dublin is currently hosting an exhibition titled ‘The Body in the Library--the great detectives 1841 to 1941.’” That presentation will continue until June 15.

• And finally, the undercover blogger at Mysterious Matters compiles a list of her (his?) 10 favorite crime-fiction titles. And note that not one of them includes “die,” “death,” “killing,” “blood,” “murder,” or any of the other overused keywords that publishers think are necessary to clue readers (stupid beasts that they believe we are) into the fact that they’re looking at a mystery novel.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Prayers for Lehane

As Britain gears up for a rare visit by author Dennis Lehane, timed with the release of The Given Day on this side of the Atlantic, we’ve already highlighted a Telegraph interview with the author; now, The Guardian comes forth with its own insightful Lehane feature, written by Emma Brockes. It’s a fine piece of work, recounting Lehane’s change of direction from crime-fiction-writing to less genre-style work, his upbringing in blue-collar Boston, and his efforts on behalf of the HBO series The Wire. I guess the extraordinary press attention Lehane is receiving as he prepares to visit the UK makes up somewhat for The Guardian’s bizarre failure to include his work in its “1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read” feature earlier this month.

Lehane proves to be very candid with Brockes:
We are in St Petersburg, Florida, where Lehane lives when he’s not in Boston. His wife is an ophthalmologist here, and he teaches creative writing at Eckerd College. He rents an office in a part of town where the rent is cheap and the views overlook a noir-ish vista of derelict lots and blowsy palms, all the way down to the ocean.

Officially, Lehane’s books are noir, although their success has blurred the boundaries, and with The Given Day he has moved into what he would caustically refer to as literary fiction. He has written three episodes of the TV series The Wire (in seasons three, four and five), and is currently developing a TV show about Boston in the 1970s. On the wall of his office is a photo of him talking earnestly to Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of the latest film adaptation of one of his novels, Shutter Island. For nine years, Lehane built up a fan base in modest increments. Now he can barely write a shopping list without Hollywood optioning it.

Having been poor for a long time, when the money started rolling in he explicitly warned himself: “You could become a real dick.” The greatest thing about having money, he says, is the removal of the worry about not having it. “And that’s huge. As anyone who’s ever stared at the ringing phone thinking that’s a debt collector or had that horror of thinking will my lights go on, will know. All of which I’ve been through. Suddenly that was gone.”

He wrote his first novel in three weeks while he was a student and slung it in a drawer. It was a crime novel, and he knew that if he published it he risked being hemmed in as a “genre” writer. But literary fiction at the time seemed desperately boring, full of “middle-class, well-appointed couples suffering from malaise”. He says: “Don’t get me wrong, I love literary fiction. It’s faux literary fiction I can’t stand.”

He had learned a certain stubborn self-belief at writing school. Lehane himself went to Eckerd, attracted after his freezing Boston childhood by the Florida sun and the fact that Raymond Carver went there. He had already dropped out of two other degree courses and finally stopped pretending he wanted to be anything else; he had been writing short stories since he was eight. The brutal workshop rite of students critiquing each others’ work toughened him up and also, he says, gave him perspective. “It’s good not only to realise that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but that you don’t want to. There’s a certain type of reader that you don’t ever want to write for. And that really helps. I impressed a moron, why should I care? Or I pissed off a moron, why should it bother me?”
You can read the full Guardian piece here.

As you can probably tell, I’m rather excited to see Lehane next month, when he’s in London with his fellow Transworld author Tess Gerritsen. I hope to have more time with him on this occasion than I did during our brief chat during Bouchercon in Baltimore last fall. I also hope he has plenty of ink in his pens, because I have a number of copies of Shutter Island that I would dearly like him to sign.

Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Heart

Fans of noir cinema should note that author Kelli Stanley (Nox Dormienda: A Long Night for Sleeping) is diligently blogging this weekend about the San Francisco Film Noir Festival, taking place at that city’s elegant Castro Theatre. You can look for Stanley’s conscientious coverage here, here, and here.

Who’re You Callin’ Akashic?

I’ve written so often about the amazing imagination, range, and sheer guts of Akashic Books, the paperback-original house started by rock musician Johnny Temple, that some people might think Temple and I are related. Cousin John (just kidding) published my personal favorite novel of 2008, Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming, and other writers (most recently author Tim Hallinan) have said that Dreaming is the book they’ve recommended most often. Now on my soggy doorstep arrives a package of goodies that looks like a literary version of those Omaha steaks gift bundles I used to love.

Akhasic virtually invented the geographically centered noir collection--fine new or neglected stories sharply rounded up by good editors. And there are two new entries to its Noir Series that deserve mentioning: Rome Noir (the names of authors included in that book might not be as familiar as some Roman writers, but the strada-wise scribes certainly know how to capture the city’s darkest corners) and San Francisco Noir 2: The Classics, which follows in the great tradition of George Pelecanos’ D.C. Noir by going back to older stories from such great Bay Area writers as Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, Mark Twain, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, William Vollmann, Fletcher Flora, Bill Pronzini, Joe Gores, Janet Dawson, Oscar Penaranda, Seth Morgan, Craig Clevenger, and many others.

Also capturing the noir tone, this time with a Cuban roll, is Robert Arellano’s Havana Lunar, a book that justifies Akashic’s motto--“reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” From its eye-popping cover to its funny, raunchy prose, this gorgeous new quality paperback keeps the house’s unique list as jaunty as ever. Read it, smoke it, enjoy it.

Another Cuban offering is Ruins, by Achy Obejas, a Cuban American woman who creates a much more tragic and realistic world that has reminded critics of Ernest Hemingway’s work.

As icing, there’s a music-lovers delight: Infinity Blues, the first collection of poetry and short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction by singer/songwriter Ryan Adams. Thanks again, Cousin John. See you at Aunt Rhody’s picnic ...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bits and Pieces

• A crime and justice site called e-Justice Blog includes The Rap Sheet on its list of “The Top 50 Detective Blogs.” Actually, that club is more exclusive than the post title suggests, because most of the sites chosen are associated with real-life law-enforcement agencies and private investigators on both sides of the Atlantic. The Rap Sheet is one of only 10 crime-fiction-related blogs, along with Peter Rozovsky’s Detectives Beyond Borders, Kevin Burton Smith’s The Thrilling Detective Blog, Stephen Blackmoore’s L.A. Noir, the collaborative blog Murderati, and others.

• Today is the 75th birthday of Lou Antonio. The face of this actor turned TV director may be most familiar from a celebrated episode of the original Star Trek series, in which he played a (literally) half-black, half-white alien escapee who brought his world’s racist war aboard the Enterprise. However, he also co-starred with Helen Hayes and Midred Natwick in the under-appreciated NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie series The Snoop Sisters (1973-1974), and with Lee Grant in a 1973 NBC-TV pilot called Partners in Crime, from Columbo creators William Link and Richard Levinson. Antonio later starred with Kim Basinger in a late ’70s crime drama called Dog and Cat. He’s better known nowadays for his work behind the camera, having directed such shows as Boston Legal, The West Wing, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. A full list of his credits can be found here.

• This being Friday, the Web is naturally filled with “forgotten crime novel” recommendations. Among the picks: Murder of a Mistress, by Henry Kuttner; This Girl for Hire, by G.G. Fickling; What Really Happened, by Brett Halliday; The Case of the Angry Actress, by E.V. Cunningham; Tragedy at Law, by Cyril Hare; Murder on the Side, by Day Keene; and The Fabulous Clip Joint, by Fredric Brown. A complete rundown of today’s participating bloggers can be found here, along with a few additional book choices, including The Doomsters, by Ross Macdonald.

• And the short-story site Twist of Noir is holding its first-ever fiction-writing contest. Submissions can run up to 5,000 words in length, and their theme should be alienation. The deadline for getting your work in is March 31. Full details here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Write to Left

“On the whole, the detective story is a conservative literary genre: a law is broken, the truth is uncovered and the legal and moral order is restored …,” contends Philip Green in the extensive new resource book, The Nation Guide to the Nation (Vintage). “There are exceptions, though, most often in subgenres featuring a private eye, a defense lawyer or (less frequently) a minority or female character.”

I’m not so convinced that the detective story is inherently conservative; there are abundant examples of fictional sleuths--professional and not--who act outside of legal parameters (committing misdemeanors of their own in pursuit of the greater good) and fail to bring confirmed malefactors to justice, for one reason or another. Neither of those approaches to crime-solving accords with conservative ideals (which are not always adhered to in practice) that laws are never to be broken. However, Green has put together a fairly interesting baker’s-dozen list of mysteries that he says belong on the shelves of political progressives:

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett (1929), which he calls “the most politically conscious of American detective novels …”

• The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (1939)

• The Doorbell Rang, by Rex Stout (1965): “No doubt about it--the best civil liberties mystery of all time.”

• Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes (1965)

• Death in a Tenured Position, by Amanda Cross (1981)

• Briarpatch, by Ross Thomas (1984)

• Blood Shot (1988) and Burn Marks (1990), by Sara Paretsky: “Between them, the two novels take on the seamy side of American society in the Reagan era.”

• Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley (1990)

• The Rainmaker, by John Grisham (1995)

• The Raggedy Man, by Lillian O’Donnell (1995)

• Apparition Alley, by Katherine V. Forrest (1997)

• No Defense, by Kate Wilhelm (2000): “In this, one of her (so far) nine cases, ‘death qualified’ Oregon attorney Barbara Holloway fights the political establishment, the legal powers that be and a dangerous crime lord to save the life of an innocent defendant: a typical day’s work for her.”

Fiction with Horns

Amid all the recent economic turmoil hitting the publishing industry, I was worried that one of my favorite colleagues, Hector DeJean, the hard-working publicity manager at St. Martin’s Minotaur, might face problems ahead. St. Martin’s is, after all, part of Macmillan Publishing, which like the rest of the sector has been restructuring.

So it was with some measure of relief that I read the following e-mail note this morning from DeJean:
Please be advised that St. Martin’s Minotaur has a new name starting in 2009; henceforth, the imprint will be known as: Minotaur Books.

St. Martin’s Minotaur started in 1999 as the dedicated crime fiction imprint of St. Martin’s Press, and over the last ten years has produced a number of award-winning and bestselling titles often appearing on many ‘critic’s choice’ lists. As you may know, the imprint has traditionally labeled the spines of its book jackets as either: St. Martin’s Minotaur, or, Thomas Dunne Books/Minotaur, depending on internal editorial origins.

“Minotaur Books” is a slight change in our name, but the quality of our crime fiction remains intact.

As always, please be in touch if you have any questions regarding this change or other Minotaur matters. And keep an eye out for exciting novels from Minotaur Books coming out this year and beyond!
To read the Minotaur mystery authors’ blog, Moments in Crime, click here. Norman Green, author of the new private-eye novel The Last Gig, is this week’s guest contributor.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Having Faith

Two recent releases by reporter-turned-author Anna Blundy acquaint us with a fascinating Brit journalist who loves working the world’s most dangerous zones. We first met Faith Zanetti in The Bad News Bible (originally published in the UK in 2004), which has recently been reissued by that ace reprint house Felony & Mayhem. This gorgeous paperback is set in Jerusalem, where the sexy and cynical Faith swaps kisses and gossip with a brutal Israeli general and tries to avenge the death of her best friend. Next, in Vodka Neat (which was brought out in the States last year), we’re transported to Moscow, where Faith, as a teenager, married a Russian gangster. Now, 15 years later, those bad old days are back to get her.

Reviewers and readers in the UK love Faith, whose dialogue and antics might even give journalism a good name.

A new installment of the series, Breaking Faith, is due out on both sides of the Atlantic come July.

The Take-away from “Given”

Last weekend, Britain’s Telegraph Magazine featured a lengthy profile of American novelist Dennis Lehane, whose latest book, The Given Day, is finally due out in hardcover on this side of the Atlantic at the end of January. The piece wasn’t originally available on the Web (though highlights could be read here). However, we can report that it is has now been made accessible online.

In it, reporter Richard Grant describes Lehane and recalls how the author came to write The Given Day:
He is 43 years old with a stocky build, rounded cheekbones, pale-blue eyes and close-cropped ginger-apricot hair. His manner is direct, confident and good-humoured, and, to borrow a phrase from his first book, he looks as Irish as a potato famine. The son of immigrants from Cork and Galway, he grew up in a heavily Irish neighbourhood in south Boston and first heard about the [Boston] police strike as a teenager in a Catholic high school. ‘It lodged in my brain, you know, the idea that the entire police force--it was actually 95 per cent--just walked off the job. It didn’t seem possible and I couldn’t find anyone who knew anything more about it. It was this vague thing that happened way back in the mists of history. Later I looked it up and found out about the riots, which the city seems to have completely erased from its memory banks, and perhaps understandably.’

Civilisation in Boston in 1919 turned out to be a very thin veneer indeed. Would it be any different, one wonders, if the police went on strike in London or Manchester next week? News of the impending strike (a response to below-poverty wages, no time off and vermin-ridden police stations) was all over the front pages, and when the police finally walked out the rioting began within 15 minutes. Huge mobs formed and looted all the shops in their path (except the ones guarded by men with shotguns), smashed windows with extraordinary zeal and thoroughness, and set fire to hundreds of cars and buildings. They poured into bars and saloons, brawled and gambled and fornicated in the streets. It went on for three days. There were multiple beatings, stabbings, shootings, muggings, burglaries, and dozens of women were raped.

‘The events happened almost exactly as I describe them in the book,’ Lehane says. ‘If you read about such-and-such department store window getting smashed at such-and-such a time, that’s what happened. Obviously I’ve got my fictional characters there and I’ve made up what they’re doing and saying, but the city fathers really did arm the Harvard football team and send them out, machineguns really were turned on the crowd and the National Guard really did lead a full cavalry charge down Beacon Hill. That was the image I couldn’t get out of my head, the thing that made me write the book. It was straight out of a western movie but it happened in Boston in 1919, through all the narrow streets and old buildings. I knew exactly the route they were taking. I could hear the hoofbeats on the cobblestones.’
You can read the Telegraph piece in full here. And don’t forget that Dennis Lehane is scheduled to make a rare visit to London next month, together with Tess Gerritsen.

Island Treasures

Following the news earlier this week about nominees for the 2009 Dilys Award, a commendation that will be presented during this year’s Left Coast Crime gathering, organizers have now announced the contenders for the convention’s three principal awards:

Bruce Alexander Memorial Mystery Award
Nox Dormienda: A Long Night for Sleeping, by Kelli Stanley (Five Star)
Touchstone, by Laurie R. King (Bantam)
Tell Me Pretty Maiden, by Rhys Bowen (St. Martin’s Press)
A Royal Pain, by Rhys Bowen (Berkeley Prime Crime)
A Fatal Waltz, by Tasha Alexander (HarperCollins)

Hawaii Five-O Award (for law-enforcement/police procedurals)
Angel Falls, by Baron Birtcher (Iota)
Fractured, by Karin Slaughter (Delacorte Press)
The Black Path, by Åsa Larsson (Delta)
The Angel of Knowlton Park, by Kate Flora (Five Star)
Mahu Fire, by Neil S. Plakcy (Alyson Books)
Death of a Cozy Writer, by G.M. Malliet (Midnight Ink)

Lefty Award (for humorous mysteries)
Thugs and Kisses, by Sue Ann Jaffarian (Midnight Ink)
Six Geese A-Slaying, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
Murder at the Bad Girl’s Bar and Grill, by N.M. Kelby (Shaye Areheart Books/Random House)
Greasing the Piñata, by Tim Maleeny (Poisoned Pen Press)
Getting Old Is to Die For, by Rita Lakin (Dell)
It Happened One Knife, by Jeffrey Cohen (Berkeley Prime Crime)

Left Coast Crime will be held this year on Hawaii’s Big Island from March 7 to 12. Awards are to be given out during a Brunch Banquet Ceremony on the 11th at the Marriott Waikoloa Hotel.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bullet Points: Inauguration Day Edition

I spent most of this day planted in front of a TV set, watching the history-making inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th U.S. president. What a moving presentation. I found myself tearing up at times, as I saw the new young chief executive greeted by an estimated two million well-wishers crowed onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and listened to his hopeful address to the nation. I confess, it was almost near as satisfying to see the execrable George W. Bush relinquish his hold on the White House and America’s future. But Bush is now in the past; the future of the United States at home and abroad is what concerns us still.

Well, that and what’s new in the crime-fiction world, of course. A few recent developments worth noting in that arena:

• In connection with this day’s historic events, Mystery Fanfare presents “a list of mysteries that feature U.S. presidents and presidential candidates.” Not mentioned, but also appropriate for that roster would be David Poyer’s 1995 thriller, The Only Thing to Fear, which features both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a young Navy lieutenant, John F. Kennedy; No Safe Place (1998), by Richard North Patterson; and two novels starring Ulysses S. Grant--The Ambush of My Name (2001) and its sequel, A Good Soldier (2003), both by Jeffrey Marks.

• Permission to Kill suggests a movie, too, that might be right for showing today: The President’s Analyst (1967), “an unusual and amusing spy comedy” that stars James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, and Joan Delaney.

• There’s a short but challenging presidential quiz posted in the Crime Scraps blog.

• Finally, blogger and editor Elizabeth Foxwell suggests that we commemorate this day by revisiting the history of U.S. presidential inaugurations with this video presentation, or watch again some recent inaugurations here.

• A couple of weeks back, I participated in what was then a new meme making the blog rounds. Writers were asked to list 16 random things about themselves, the expectation being, of course, that we had something interesting to say. Since then, more bloggers have joined in this rather fun exercise. Among the participants: Martin Edwards, Janet Rudolph, Bill Crider, Kelli Stanley, and Louise Ure.

• The latest short story to be posted in David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp is “Whiskey, Guns, and Sin,” by Louisianan Charles Gramlich.

• I didn’t remember that 20th-century pulp novelist Lester Dent wrote anything but the old Doc Savage novels. However, Hard Case Crime has acquired rights to a previously unpublished hard-boiled work called Honey in His Mouth, which it will bring to bookstores in October. A sample chapter can be enjoyed here. And it has a beaut of a cover, the work of Ron Lesser.

• Correspondent Ali Karim alerts me to the fact that two best-selling American crime novelists, Dennis Lehane and Tess Gerritsen, will speak at the Borders bookstore in Charing Cross Road, London, on Thursday, February 12 at 6:30 p.m. More information on that event can be found here.

• While we’re on the subject of Lehane, the author most recently of The Given Day-- one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2008--the UK Telegraph published an interview with him this last weekend. Though the piece isn’t available online, a number of choice excerpts can be read here.

• It’s been a couple of years since I last heard rumors about a movie being made from the 1980s TV comedy-mystery series Moonlighting, but the project is being talked about once more. TV Squad reports that former series stars Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd are “both up for a reunion movie (this year marks the 20th anniversary of the show’s end), but they’ll only do it if creator/producer Glenn Gordon Caron is in charge of the show again.” Is this good news?

• Speaking of resurrecting cancelled TV shows, former Veronica Mars creator and former helmer Rob Thomas has announced that he’s working on a VM feature film. You’ll find more information in IFMagazine and at the TV Squad site.

• Raymond Chandler, cameo star? In his own blog, author and Rap Sheet contributor Mark Coggins recently posted three still shots from Double Indemnity (1944) in which private eye Philip Marlowe’s creator can be spotted in the background of a scene featuring lead Fred MacMurray. Check them out here. (Update here.)

• Evidently, Bill Crider has more clout than yours truly, for he’s managed to lay hands on an advance copy of Spade & Archer, by Joe Gores, one of the books I most look forward to reading this season. So what does Crider think of that forthcoming prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon? “Spade & Archer is prime stuff, with pretty much everything,” Crider writes in his blog. “Mysterious women, hidden treasure (sort of), lots of tough guys, and even a dying message. It’s a don’t-miss for any fan of the hard-boiled.”

• Max Allan Collins talks (again) about Mickey Spillane and the posthumous Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone, this time with The Tainted Archive.

• As the Carnival of the Criminal Minds makes its second round of the crime-fiction blogosphere, Julia Buckley contributes the 30th installment in two parts--one focusing on cozies and crafts mysteries, the other mentioning three that have recently struck her fancy. Around the end of this month, the carnival is expected to move on to an Australian blog previously unknown to me, It’s Criminal.

• Terry Teachout remembers his 40 years of reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels.

• I’ve heard more than a few raves about Josh Bazell’s debut thriller, Beat the Reaper. Now the author submits his work to Marshal Zeringue’s Page 69 Test, with intriguing results.

• And after last week’s news that actor Patrick McGoohan had died at age 80, I posted the opening sequence from The Prisoner, his acclaimed late-1960s TV series. Undoubtedly more familiar for its introduction--if only because of its theme music--is another McGoohan show, Secret Agent (shown in Britain as Danger Man). To avoid slighting fans of that show, here is its main title sequence.