Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Gang’s All Here

Last night, my wife, Daniela, and I sat through the widely acclaimed, 2008 Italian Mafia movie Gomorra for the fourth or fifth time. Each time we watch it, we rate it more highly than on the occasion before.

So, why didn’t Gomorra win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, or even Best Film? Why didn’t it so much as make the shortlist?

Because after decades of Italian cinema of a certain type, starting out with the tragic Bicycle Thieves (1948), moving on to the work of that lovable genius, Federico Fellini, coasting through the BAFTA and Academy Award-winning Il Postino (The Postman, 1994), and ending up with a banal pastiche such as cuddly old Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), America was simply not ready for Gomorra, Matteo Garrone’s film based on Roberto Saviano’s 2006 semi-documentary “novel” about gang life in modern Naples.

That is, Hollywood wasn’t ready, and here are some reasons why:

1. Americans judge Mafia films by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (Parts 1 and 2 of which are tops, while Part 3 was a total washout). That series was all about the members of a large family of Italian immigrants, and their second-generation children, doing the wrong things for the right reasons (i.e., honor, family unity, friendship, etc.). By contrast, Gomorra has no identifiable hero, no reluctant Michael Corleone stepping into the limelight to avenge his father, no “noble” code of omertà (that is, “right” behavior among the criminal class). It is all about the mean, dirty business of scraping by in a society (southern Italy) which is barbarous, totally corrupt, and without any hope of possible redemption.

2. There is no story, no significant development, no grand conclusion which leaves you pondering how things might have been in a better world. There is no worse world possible than the mean streets of Naples. The five stories that make up the mosaic of this movie are all dead-end options--you give in to the inevitable, or you die. The only character who says no--Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) rejects the chance of a job dumping toxic waste--is dismissed with the following comment: “Go on then, fuck off, go and be a pizza-chef.”

3. There is no moral to Gomorra. People kill and are killed because of the world they live in. Among the things Daniela and I do is teach writing to “lifers” in the high-security prison in Spoleto, Italy, most of whom are unrepentant “associates” of the Camorra, ’Ndrangheta, Sacra Corona Unita, and similar Mafia bands. They say, and Gomorra confirms, that you have no choice if you happen to be born into that world. As the film puts it, “Are you with us, or against us?” If you choose the latter option, you don’t live long.

4. Gomorra makes no concessions to the audience. The language is incomprehensible, even for Italians. The Italian print of the film is subtitled! You are in a jungle where the baboons act out their nasty rituals, no explanations given. Why do so many people die? Because they are expendable worker ants. The Camorra can find a thousand new soldiers every week in a world where there are no jobs, and every man is desperate to provide for his family.

5. Director Garrone (a genius, if ever there was one) simply watches what goes on. There is no tension, no controlled build-up, no narrative “style” in a “story” where anything can--and does--happen at any time. This is the film equivalent of Raymond Chandler’s maxim about pepping up a dull scene by throwing in a guy who jumps through the door and starts shooting. Remember how quickly Chandler gave up on Hollywood, where everything had to be carefully structured? In Gomorra, random shooting is not a device to avoid boredom; it reflects a fact of life. At least four or five shootings in southern Italy are reported every day on the national TV news.

6. The actors in this film are not actors. With the exception of Toni Servillo, there is hardly a professional face on the set. And yet, paradoxically, the performers are all brilliant, simply being themselves. Indeed, since this film came out, at least five of the “actors” have been jailed for belonging to “Mafia associations.” Why use actors when the street is full of criminals who will play themselves for a fair day’s pay? Isn’t this neorealism?

7. The situations described in the movie are devoid of all romance. Is there a love scene? A kiss? Perhaps a helping hand offered to somebody in distress? The film is totally driven by money, what it means to have it, or not have it. Sex is bought, not won. It is, therefore, and by definition, a squalid life. Think of the saccharine Life Is Beautiful and you will see how far the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is prepared to ignore historical truth in the interests of palatable fiction!

8. Where are the mandolin players? The spaghetti eaters? The tarantella dancers?

9. What happened to friendly smiling Italians? Ice cream? Pizza?

10. And what about the Italian landscape, art, and culture?

As you will realize, I gave up trying very hard at about point #7. For any Italian, or anyone who has lived in Italy for 29 years, as I have, Gomorra is a riveting reflection of the bad news that we hear every day on television and radio. It is the Italian film of the last 50 years!

Just to put all of this in context: This morning I went swimming. Everyone at the pool was adorable, friendly. Then I went shopping, and I chatted with half a dozen people. Outside the supermarket a gypsy in a straw hat was playing the accordion beautifully (begging, of course, but, well, the scene was chockfull of folklore). I returned home, saw my 90-year-old neighbor, Signora Orlanda, and we had the same conversation that we have every morning. “How are you?” I ask. “How should I be?” she answers. Then, she wishes me “buon pranzo,” which means “Have a good lunch.”

It isn’t even 10 o’clock in the morning.

But there you go, that’s the “real” Italy ...

A Spin Around the Web

• We’re probably all familiar with the film adaptations of Eric Ambler’s espionage novels. A few examples: Journey into Fear went to celluloid in 1943, A Coffin for Dimitrios became The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Epitaph for a Spy was filmed as Hotel Reserve (1944), and The Light of Day became 1964’s Topkapi. But for Mystery*File, Tise Vahimagi looks back at the treatment of Ambler’s work on television. Not only did Ambler do some work for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), but as has been noted previously on this page, he also created the 1960-1962 TV series Checkmate, which starred Doug McClure, Anthony George, and Sebastian Cabot as San Francisco sleuths. You’ll find all of Vahimagi’s excellent post here.

• Since I made such a big deal last year of Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, I opted to not mention his 101st. However, the HMSS Weblog exercised no such restraint. On Thursday, it posted a video that I’d never seen before in which Fleming himself explains the origin of James Bond’s moniker.

• This week in Beat to a Pulp: Kieran Shea’s “Maintenance.”

• Nostalgia alert: Before she did her purr-fect turn as Catwoman on Batman, Julie Newmar was My Living Doll.

• It looks as if Murdoch Mysteries, the Canadian-made historical detective series that debuted “north of the border” in January 2008, is finally going to be seen on U.S. television screens. American Public Television is offering the show--which is based on Maureen Jennings’s popular series of Detective William Murdoch books--to public stations nationwide with a series start date of June 30. Watch your local TV schedules for more information. For a taste of Murdoch Mysteries, just click here.

• Corey Wilde interviews author Dave Zeltserman (Pariah) in his blog, The Drowning Machine.

And a happy 100th birthday to bandleader Benny Goodman.

Beauty Is Only Page Deep

Anybody who reads this blog on a regular basis knows what a big fan I am of vintage crime-fiction book covers. So allow me to enthuse just a bit over Dames, Dolls, and Gun Molls: The Art of Robert A. Maguire (Dark Horse, $24.95), by Jim Silke. American Maguire, who died in 1995, was one of the foremost paperback illustrators of the mid-20th century. “His classic period ...,” explains the artist’s official Web site, “grew out of his skilled female images, some of the best and most memorable of the period. Maguire’s mastery of the ‘femme fatale’ created a vintage paperback icon: his women are passionate yet somehow down to earth, approachable, though sometimes at your own risk. These images compel one to wonder what led up to that instant in time and where it will lead next, the very stuff of timeless art.”

Writer and artist Jim Silke, who created the memorable Rascals in Paradise series for Dark Horse Comics in the 1990s, and more recently gave us Pinup: The Illegitimate Art (2005), loads the 96 pages of Dames, Dolls, and Gun Molls with large-scale reproductions of Maguire’s arresting artwork, as well as essays about his life and his illustrating process, some of the sketches he later turned into book jackets, and a few photos he used to capture reality on the tip of his pen. If you’d like to see some of the results, check out the flip-book sampler here.

This book might be an ideal companion to Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks, 1900-1972. But it would also be well paired with the forthcoming (in July) Dames, Dolls, and Delinquents: A Collector’s Guide to Sexy Pulp Fiction Paperbacks, by Gary Lovisi. What riches for the eyes as well as the imagination!

Oh, and if you’re wondering where you’ve seen the cover illustration of Dames, Dolls, and Gun Molls before, it’s comes from 1956’s The Bad Blonde, a Father Shanley mystery by Jack Webb.

He’s Got Glass

Courtesy of Barbara Fister’s Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog comes the news that Swedish writer Johan Theorin’s Nattfåk (Night Blizzard) has won the 2009 Glass Key Award, given out by the Crime Writers of Scandinavia. A full list of nominees can be found here.

By the way, Theorin’s Night Blizzard--the sequel to Echoes from the Dead--is scheduled to be published by Delacorte Press in late September as The Darkest Room.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Playing the Field

• Australian crime-fiction fans can look forward next month to a TV production called 3 Acts of Murder. As AustCrime explains, “In 1928 Arthur Upfield, Australia’s premier crime writer, plotted the perfect murder for his novel The Sands of Windee. Meanwhile, one of his friends, stockman Snowy Rowles, put the scheme into deadly effect, even before the book was published. This true story resulted in one of Australia’s most sensational murder trials of the 1930s and catapulted Upfield’s name onto the world stage.” More background about this story and a trailer for the film are available here.

• Last night saw the dispersal of the 2009 Lambda Awards, sponsored by the Lambda Literary Foundation. Whacked, by Josie Gordon (Bella Books), was chosen as Best Lesbian Mystery, while First You Fall, by Scott Sherman (Alyson Books) won for Best Gay Mystery. A list of all the nominees in these categories can be found here.

• A week before the expected announcement, by the British Crime Writers’ Association, of this year’s International Dagger Award nominees, EuroCrime’s Karen Meek has a list of works eligible for the commendation. And an impressive list it is indeed.

• Most of the crime-fiction-oriented blogs that usually contribute to Patti Abbott’s “forgotten books” series (including The Rap Sheet) are taking this as a vacation day. But Bill Crider soldiers on, suggesting that readers give Ford Clark’s The Open Square a shot, while Paul Bishop wants you to run down the sports mystery Two Wheels, by Greg Moody. The series should resume next week.

• Issue #2 of The Lineup: Poems on Crime has only just been published, but already editor Gerald So is soliciting contributions for the third edition. The submissions process, he reports, will begin next month: “From June 15 to July 31, both solicited and unsolicited submissions will be considered. From September 1 to October 31, only invited submissions will be considered.” The guidelines for submitting are here. So & Co. are shooting to have The Lineup #3 out in April 2010 “to coincide with National Poetry Month.”

Ian Rankin chats on with Scottish TV about The Complaints, his forthcoming Edinburgh-set police thriller due out in the UK in September (and the start of a new series?), as well as his debut singing back-up vocals with the Scottish band St. Jude’s Infirmary. (Hat tip to Big Beat from Badsville.)

• Guest blogger Brian Ritt has posted a fine backgrounder about 20th-century American pulpmeister Orrie Hitt in Rough Edges.

Sara Jane Moore, the nurse turned revolutionary who tried to shoot U.S. President Gerald Ford in San Francisco in 1975, gave an amazing interview to Today this week.

• John Lithgow is joining the cast of Dexter (he’ll play--what else?--a serial killer) for its fourth season on Showtime.

• National Public Radio’s Maureen Corrigan has put forward her five picks for reading in the crime and mystery fiction area this summer. No real surprises.

• And hard as it is to believe, actress Annette Bening--who first caught my eye in The Grifters (1990)--turns 51 today.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tech Terrors of Tomorrow

Daniel Suarez appearing in London

In addition to feeding my Stieg Larsson addiction, Quercus publicist Nicci Praça recognizes my fondness for techno-thriller fiction. So she was kind enough to send me a copy of American writer Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, which was released earlier in the year in the States, but just reached British shores this spring. When it comes to novels that alter my perception of reality, Daemon definitely delivers. It was odd at first to see Suarez likened to Neal Stephenson and the late, great Michael Crichton--authors whose work has permanently stained my mind over the years. Fortunately, though, such comparisons aren’t without merit. Not only is Daemon a violent and thought-provoking work of thriller fiction, but it’s a loud warning about the threats posed by “bot nets.”

My receipt of Daemon could hardly have come at a better time. I’d just finished a fascinating collection of essays titled Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by academic scientist and literature graduate David Eagleman. He’d been inspired to write that book after engaging in a rather surreal e-mail exchange with a colleague. Apparently, Eagleman had sent this person a note asking him to contribute to a scientific project. The message he received in response went something like this:

Thank you for your request, and as much as I would like to participate in the project you outlined, unfortunately I died two weeks ago, so I will be unable to contribute. However, if there are other questions or projects that I may be able to contribute to in the future, please feel free to contact me, or extract what you need from my life’s work that is archived online at the following locations ... or contact my agent, who is managing my estate.

Again I appreciate your interest in my work,

Digging further, Eagleman discovered the existence of businesses that, for a fee, will manage your “online” persona, faithfully updating your Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace pages, as well as your blogs, after you pass away. This they accomplish with the help of sophisticated botnets and robotic algorithmic programs. (I was so blown away by this enterprise, that at CrimeFest earlier this month, I engaged authors Declan Burke and Steve Mosby in a very late, beer-fueled discussion on the subject of botnets--a conversation about which Burke later wrote in his blog.)

That same sort of technology--computer programs that run continuously in the background and perform specified operations at predefined times or in response to certain events--lies ominously at the center of the plot in Daemon. (The title is a condensation of the term Disk And Execution MONitor.) In Suarez’s story things have taken a decidedly peculiar turn, for as time progresses and technology motors on (fueled by Moore’s Law), it becomes harder to distinguish a “real” human being from a robot, or someone who may be dead in real life but remains “alive” online.

Daemon opens after the brain-cancer death of a highly successful gaming software producer, Mathew Sobol. He was the force behind Cyberstorm, a company that found its sales niche in the world of “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPG). After introducing such profitable entertainments as The Gate and its predecessor, Over the Rhine, Cyberstorm has become a major user of Internet bandwidth, inviting millions of people to escape their reality and venture into exotic worlds on the Web. But the company’s progress is about to come to a screeching halt. It seems that Sobol wasn’t a very nice person, and his passing has automatically unleashed a connected array of botnet programs designed to wreak havoc. Their electronic tentacles creep out through Cyberstorm’s hosted servers as well as from hidden corners of the Internet. The intersection between reality and cyber-reality blurs, and as it does, Sobol’s botnets start killing people and sabotaging the “real world.” Having to deal with the consequences of all this is a large array of distinctive characters, among them down-on-her luck TV anchorwoman Anji Anderson, aging British actor Lionel Crawley, and the detective team headed by Peter Sebeck and his software consultant, Jon Ross.

If you can’t tell already, I was captivated by Daemon. Written in a frantic, what-the-hell-could-go-wrong-next style, and blessedly light on the techno-babble, it’s a powerhouse of a novel that tingles the imagination at the same time as it warns against heedless technological advancement.

After finishing the book, I was pleased to learn that author Suarez was due to visit London and talk with a few selected journalists about his mind-bending tale.

I met the 44-year-old Suarez at his London hotel, where he had kindly organized coffee and a quiet table at which we could chat. He laughed as I explained that I’d left my trusty tape machine at home in error, so would be exercising a few creaky mental and physical muscles to take notes about our conversation. We talked for a while about our common histories as writers, scientists, and businessmen. (Suarez has “designed and developed enterprise software for the defense, finance, and entertainment industries.”) I learned that the author came originally from a family of six children in New Jersey, and he contracted the writing and reading bugs from his father. Suarez relocated to America’s West Coast to pursue his interests in the world of relational databases and consulting, and has now lived in California for many years.

When I got to talking about David Eagleman’s Sum, Suarez was not only intrigued, but explained that Daemon started from a similar place. Reporter Claudine Beaumont, who had come to join us at our table, later related Suarez’s story in The Daily Telegraph:
The epiphany for Suarez came in the late 1990s when he was writing a program called Weather Master, which created weather patterns for fictional worlds. He sold the program online, offering users a free 30-day trial before they had to buy the software. Payments were automatically swept in to an account, which Suarez left unchecked for several months. When he finally did remember to see how much money had accrued, he was struck by the strangeness of the situation.

“I realised--if I kicked the bucket, this thing would keep going, all automated. In modern society, a lot of what we do is impersonal, you’re not present. It’s really almost an avatar of yourself carrying out these transactions,” he recalls.

“It really played on my mind and I started to consider the outcomes. That’s when I started to get alarmed, and noticing more and more in my work that everything is being connected and it’s being done so to maximise efficiency.”

Efficiency, says Suarez, is all well and good, but there’s a fundamental need to balance it with a robustness and resilience that means society can benefit from the interoperability of systems without ever becoming entirely reliant on a single set-up.
As our conversation went on, we reached the subject of Suarez’s start as a novelist. Now, we often hear horror stories about self-publishing and the “vanity press.” Only occasionally is there an example of a writer who went that unconventional route, and managed to succeed. Suarez is one of those authors. The idea for Daemon began gestating in his mind in 1999, after he’d earned a college degree in English Literature, but he didn’t actually begin writing his book until 2002. Working on it in his spare time, he finally finished the manuscript two years later. “Look,” he told me, “I was a busy guy but the idea for Daemon kept nagging at me; and in fact as the book mushroomed in terms of scale and size, up to 140,000 words, I realized I was writing this for myself.” Once he completed the work, though, he figured he might as well try to get it published. So he put in another year seeking a literary agent. Everybody told him the novel would need shortening, so he cut Daemon down to 100,000 words. But even then, he was unable to land a publishing deal.

So he decided to produce Daemon as a print-on-demand (POD) novel through a company called Lightning Source. In December 2006, Daemon was brought out under the pseudonym Leinad Zeraus, and went on to sells “in the hundreds,” which was OK with Suarez; he was just happy to have it done and available to the curious.

However, things suddenly changed two years ago, as reported by Wired magazine:
[I]n April 2007, Rick Klau, head of publisher services at [the Web feed management provider] FeedBurner, got a copy. Two things happened: Google acquired FeedBurner, and Klau, electrified by Daemon’s all-too-plausible IT scenario, began pushing the book on anyone who would listen.

“I just felt it would be a travesty if a lot of people didn’t read it,” Klau says. A new colleague at Google, algorithm wrangler Matt Cutts, gave Daemon a shout-out on his blog. Cyberwar pundit John Robb mentioned it on his site, and [Japanese entrepreneur Joi] Ito wrote that it was “believable and realistic and still mind-blowing.” [author-editor Stewart] Brand blurbed it on Amazon, saying Suarez was “better than early Tom Clancy.” ... “When I finished the book,” Brand says, “my feeling was that the sequel is not only desirable, but necessary.”
As favorable word-of-mouth about Daemon spread, close to 4,000 copies of the book were soon brought into print. Suarez finally managed to find an agent, and a film-rights option was purchased by U.S. producer Walter F. Parkes (Men in Black, The Kite Runner). Suarez says that the movie version of Daemon is currently in “pre-production,” and though he has high hopes, he’s familiar with the vagaries of the Hollywood machine.

Suarez kindly ordered more coffee, and we talked about the central premise and principal threat contained in Daemon: the increasing use of botnets on the Internet and within software architecture. I remarked to Suarez that much of the Internet is held together by kids working with “sticky-tape and chewing gum,” which caused him to roar with laughter. He provided me with this link to a YouTube video, which finds him offering a fascinating overview of the threat.

I asked him about that Daemon sequel Stewart Brand suggested. Suarez laughed again and explained that such a sequel has all ready been written. Because his original manuscript was so long, he basically cut it into two volumes, with Daemon being Part I. The follow-up, Freedom, is anticipated in 2010.

As we said our good-byes, I was struck by how modest Suarez has remained, despite his recent publishing success. Too often, authors become swell-headed after receiving contracts and being courted by the media. None of that seems to have happened to Daniel Suarez. Let’s hope it doesn’t in the future--whether good or bad.

If you’d like to sample a slice of Daemon for yourself, click here.

Definitely an Occasion Worth Toasting

This certainly seems to be a week of prominent birthdays and anniversaries. A comment left here reminds us that today would’ve been Dashiell Hammett’s 115th birthday. He died in 1961.

READ MORE:Happy Birthday, Christopher Lee” (CinemaRetro).

Bullet Points: Hump Day Edition

• Three crime-fiction-related birthdays of note today: Miss America-turned-actress Lee Meriwether, who took the part of Buddy Ebsen’s daughter-in-law on the private-eye series Barnaby Jones, turns 74 years old. Louis Gossett Jr., who you’ll remember--from among many other roles--playing restaurateur/detective Ray Alexander in a couple of 1990s teleflicks, an anthropologist/sleuth in the short-lived series Gideon Oliver, and The Rockford Files’ Marcus “Gabby” Hayes (a P.I. part he was hoping to continue playing in a spin-off series called Gabby & Gandy, co-starring Isaac Hayes), will be confronted with 73 candles on his birthday cake today. And Bruce Weitz, probably best-remembered as the scrubby, irascible Sergeant Michael “Mick” Belker on Hill Street Blues, celebrates his 66th year on the planet today. In addition, our best wishes go out to Richard Schiff, who starred as Toby Ziegler on the terrific series The West Wing; he’s 54 years old today.

• Permission to Kill has posted two parts of an article by lawyer Narayan Radhakrishnan that looks closely at Indian crime fiction translated into English. You’ll find Part I here, with Part II here.

• A reminder about Patti Abbott’s latest flash-fiction challenge, this one built around the idea of “a wedding cake in the middle of the road.” As she explained earlier this month, “The ‘wedding cake in the road’ can be the main idea or a sidebar--so long as it’s in there, like the gun in Plots with Guns.” The date for posting stories will be next Thursday, June 4. If you don’t have your own blog in which to post, Aldo Calcagno will host your story at Powder Burn Flash. Let Abbott, Calcagno, or Gerald So know in advance, if you want to participate in this challenge.

• Donald E. Westlake, science-fiction novelist?

• There are many reasons to be pleased with President Barack Obama’s choice of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace the retiring David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. But one of particular note to this audience: She’s a big Nancy Drew fan. (Hat tip to Elizabeth Foxwell.

Some people seem just to have been born idiots.

• I was amused to discover, in Patrick Balestar’s still-developing list of “things to do before you die,” this assignment: “Read The Rap Sheet and then visit all of the links that J. Kingston Pierce lists on the sidebar ... all 656 of them.”

• There’s a nice piece about Georges Simenon’s The Rules of the Game (1988) on The Neglected Books Page.

Stephen J. Cannell will release seven of his less-well-recalled TV crime dramas on DVD this fall, including Booker, a 21 Jump Street spin-off. More information here.

• Tod Goldberg talks with BiblioBuffet about writing Burn Notice TV tie-in novels, the newest of which is The End Game.

• As reported by In Refernce to Murder, “the well-regarded mystery conference Hard-boiled Heroes and Cozy Cats, held annually in Dallas, Texas, has had to cancel their program this year. It was scheduled for June 19-20, and all those who had already registered will have their money refunded. Hopefully, if the economy picks back up, the conference will return in 2010.”

• With brothers Joel and Ethan Coen preparing to turn Michael Chabon’s 2007 novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, into a feature film (look for it in 2010), Irish author Adrian McKinty (Fifty Grand) reposts a review of that wonderful book that appeared originally in Declan Burke’s Crime Always Pays.

• Author Beth Groundwater reviews last weekend’s Mayhem in the Midlands conference.

• Usually, when somebody mentions an American TV program from the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s, I can at least remember it, though I may never have watched the thing. But Fitz and Bones? No memory of it whatsoever. Which is funny, since it was produced by Glen A. Larson and starred the Smothers Brothers. As Wikipedia explains, “In 1981 Tom and Dick Smothers played non-brothers in a light drama, set in San Francisco, titled Fitz and Bones. Both characters worked at a Bay Area television station; Tom played cameraman Bones Howard and Dick played Ryan Fitzpatrick, an investigative reporter. The show was canceled after five episodes.” Hmm. Still nothing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Happy Birthday, Rico

How can this be? Philip Michael Thomas, the Columbus, Ohio-born actor and singer who played undercover cop Ricardo Tubbs, opposite Don Johnson (as Sonny Crockett), on the style-setting 1984-1989 TV series Miami Vice, turns 60 years old today.

After NBC-TV canceled Vice, Johnson went on to movie roles and a six-season stint playing another detective in Nash Bridges. Thomas, meanwhile, hasn’t remained nearly so visible. His Internet Movie Database (IMDb) page says he guest starred in a 1991 Perry Mason movie and played a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent, Cedrick “Rick” Hawks, in a couple of Nash Bridges episodes, neither of which I remember seeing. For a time, he worked as a spokesman for the Florida-based Psychic Reader’s Network, and then later voiced a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

In this video, Thomas reflects on his experiences with Vice:

Today also happens to be the 85th birthday of James Arness, who played Marshall Matt Dillon for 20 years on Gunsmoke, and later appeared in two other series: How the West Was Won and a not very good 1981 cop drama, McClain’s Law. (Hat tip to David Cranmer.)

End of the Beginning

Michael Connelly’s new Jack McEvoy novel, The Scarecrow, is out today. And so is the third and final chapter of Conflict of Interest, an online film that tells an intersecting story, one that follows FBI Agent Rachel Walling before she enters the action in Scarecrow. You can find Chapter 1 of Conflict here, and Chapter 2 here.

It’s One of Those Days ...

... when the good news must be taken with the bad.

Blood Will Tell

It was on this date, back in 1897, that the horror novel Dracula first saw publication. It was written, of course, by Bram Stoker, the business manager at London’s famed Lyceum Theatre and the personal assistant to actor Henry Irving, who apparently served as the model for Stoker’s nocturnal Transylvanian count. In that epistolary novel, explains The Writer’s Almanac, Stoker “added several chilling details to the age-old vampire tale: that the undead show no reflection in a mirror, that they shun garlic, and that they can be killed only by a stake through the heart.”

Reviewing Dracula on August 23, 1897, The Times of London noted--with what now seems like remarkable understatement--that it finds “a young solicitor sent for on business by a client in Transylvania [going] through some unusual experiences.” Indeed, over the course of Stoker’s thrilling tale, that lawyer, Jonathan Harker, is spellbound by a trio of lubricious female vampires, sees his fiancée’s friend succumb to Dracula’s attentions (and, ultimately, be killed by a stake to her heart and beheading), and tries to head off a vampiric invasion of Britain.

Explained The Times:
The only chance of stopping [the spread of vampires] was to kill the Count before any of his victims died, and this was a difficult job, for, though several centuries old, he was very young and strong, and could become a dog or a bat at pleasure. However, it is undertaken by four resolute and highly-principled persons, and how it is managed forms the subject of the story, of which nobody can complain that it is deficient in dramatic situations.

We would not, however, recommend it to nervous persons for evening reading.
You can enjoy all of that 1897 book review here.

And if you’re in the mood for an extension of Stoker’s blood-and-garlic-scented yarn, look for the publication of Dracula: The Undead. It was written by his great grand-nephew (with help from Dracula historian Ian Holt) and is being touted as “the first Dracula story to be fully authorized by the Stoker family since the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi.” As The Guardian explained last year,
Dacre Stoker delved into his ancestor’s handwritten notes on the original Dracula novel to pen his sequel, Dracula: The Un-Dead--the original name for Dracula before an editor changed the title. The novel, out next October, draws on excised characters, existing character back-stories and plot threads that were cut from Stoker’s original novel, first published 111 years ago.

The new book is set in London in 1912, a quarter of a century after the Count apparently “crumbled into dust.” Vampire-hunter [Abraham] Van Helsing’s protégé Dr. [John] Seward is now a disgraced morphine addict, and Quincey, the son of Stoker’s hero Jonathan, has become involved in a troubled theatre production of Dracula, directed and produced by Bram Stoker himself. The play plunges Quincey into the world of his parents’ terrible secrets, but before he can confront them his father is found murdered, impaled in Piccadilly Circus.
I understand that vampire novels are all the rage nowadays, but do we really need a sequel to Stoker’s classic work? I’m almost afraid to witness its fate. Can it possibly live up to its renowned predecessor? More than likely, critics will say it sucks by comparison.

READ MORE:The Literary World of Bram Stoker,” by Jennifer Dorn (Historic Traveler); Dracula The Undead: The Official Blog.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Asta and You Shall Receive

Thank goodness for Ivan G. Shreve Jr.’s blog, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. Had it not been for his latest post, I might have forgotten that it was 75 years ago today that the movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s final, 1934 novel, The Thin Man, was released in theaters. As he recalls, the film was “a delightful comedy-mystery that spawned a successful series of six films in total and made stars William Powell and Myrna Loy the celluloid epitome of ‘the perfect couple.’”

For your viewing delight, some choice quips from that film series:

READ MORE:Merry Mystery from The Thin Man,” by Gary Arnold
(The Washington Times).

Kai Zen: The Future of Publishing?

It was during this spring’s A Qualcuno Piace Giallo crime-fiction festival in Brescia, Italy, that I had the opportunity to sit down over breakfast one morning with the four young Italian guys who make up the extraordinary “narrative ensemble” known as Kai Zen.

Jadel Andreetto, Bruno Fiorini, Guglielmo Pispisa, and Aldo Soliani have been writing together via the Internet since 2003, though they didn’t actually meet until the publishing party for their 2007 debut novel, La strategia dell’ariete (The Strategy of the Ram), an “epic novel of adventure and history.” It was principally about that work that these four were invited to speak in Brescia. However, they also filled their audiences in on the publication in book form of two other online “experimental” thriller-writing projects, La potenza di Eymerich (Bacchilega Editore, 2004) and Spauracchi (Bacchilega Editore, 2004). The latter work is described as “a horror western set in Alto Adige,” a quiet little region in the Italian Alps (aka South Tyrol or “Heidi Land”)--which gives you some idea of just how wacky Kai Zen are. But the plot of La strategia dell’ariete also reflects their idiosyncratic writing tastes. Here’s a translation of that novel’s cover notes:
What is a hit man of the Triads doing at the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 1920?

Does the recovery of two ancient vases from the China Sea by tormented archaeologist, Professor Heinrich Hofstadter, have anything to do with it? And what is Hofstadter’s son, a Nazi freemason, doing in the rain forests of the Mato Grosso 20 years later?

Shelley Copeland of the CIA is racing across the Texas plains one night in 1957 with a mysterious container in her luggage, a million dollars waiting in a deposit box, and a murder on her mind.

Al-Hàrith is the name of the secret.

Al-Hàrith is protected by centuries of silence.

Al-Hàrith: the strategy of the Ram ...
On the day I spoke with this group, Pispisa (the most prolific member--he’s published several novels under his own name, in addition to those he’s penned with Kai Zen) was not present. He was home in Sicily attending to his pregnant wife, Germana, who had to undergo some clinical tests--the “creepy details,” according to Pispisa, involved a lengthy syringe, various injections, and the extraction of a fair amount of amniotic fluid.

It’s hard to give a sense of what it’s like to meet Kai Zen. Let’s call it an enjoyable nightmare for an amateur interviewer like me, because they take the piss out of each other (and their questioner) all the time. Imagine Bedlam, and you’ll have a limited idea of the experience. I taped our whole exchange, and what follows is the English-translated version. I admit to having edited it for the sake of some degree of clarity.

Michael Gregorio: How did Kai Zen come together as a writing team?

Aldo Soliani: Quite by chance, really. Three of us took part in an Internet writing experiment. We didn’t know each other. We just sent in material to a Web site. It was a story with multiple characters, including a fictional Japanese “industrial rock” group called Kai Zen. …

Jadel Andreetto: Talking about industrial rock, do you know the Nine Inch Nails? Kai Zen are a bit like them--mixing, spreading, manipulating, sharing, and working within a Creative Commons license. Nine Inch Nails do it with sounds; we do it with words. ...

Soliani: When we did eventually get together, we needed a name, and Kai Zen was as good as any other that we could come up with. It’s meaning in Japanese is “continuous improvement,” which seemed about right for us. [Hilarious laughter ensues--the members of Kai Zen laugh a great deal]. In Japan and lots of other places, they use Kai Zen philosophy as a company training method to persuade factory managers to work harder. We liked the idea. We found it ironically well-suited to what we were doing, so we just picked it up and used it.

MG: So, how did you guys physically meet?

Bruno Fiorini: Destiny played its part. The other three had taken part in this collective online writing experiment, and their chapters were selected as part of the final work, which resulted in a printed book, Ti chiamerò Russell [Bacchilega Editore, 2003]. The whole thing was organized by Wu Ming, the best-known Italian writing collective; they first published Q as “Luther Blisset” in 1999, and Manituana in 2007. When Ti chiamerò Russell was finally published, the three of them met up for the very first time at the launch party in Bologna in central Italy. ... I had been invited to the party, I met the others, and we became friends. On that occasion, the four of us decided to launch a writing project together. We wanted to work on some­thing historical. A novel ... That is, I was really interested in the history angle. So, we decided to have a go, and see
what came of it.

MG: What did that Wu Ming writing project involve?

Andreetto: Just to finish off a story: Paolo Bernardi, an editor with the publisher Bacchilega Editore, and Wu Ming had this spy-thriller story idea. Giovanni Cattabrigha [aka Wu Ming 2--there are five members of that writing collective] had written Chapter One of a novel featuring a spy named Russell; it was a sort of international intrigue set in an unspecified foreign country. They invited anyone to submit the next chapter, selecting the “best” chapter each time, then adding on to that one, building the book up step by step. The first experiment was pretty rough, but we were keen. It was, more or less, a test run to see if the thing was possible, using the Internet as a means of creative collaboration. It ended happily enough by creating a master­piece! [Lots of laughs.] Well, OK, it was an interesting document, and it produced ... Ti chiamerò Russell. That’s how we started out ...

Soliani: Every one of us has his own version of the story ...

MG: Let’s talk about the first novel you wrote together as a group. La strategia dell’ariete was published by Mondadori in 2007. In Italy, this sort of collaborative authoring has been quite successful. It has led to Wu Ming, Kai Zen, and several other similar partnerships. However, the idea hasn’t really taken off in other countries, leading to publishing contracts and books on store shelves. How would you explain that fact?

Fiorini: Let me clarify by saying that Wu Ming don’t do much on the Net. Russell was a one-off thing. The fact is that they all live in the same city [Bologna], while we live in different towns from one end of Italy to the other. We have no choice. If we want to work together, we have to use the Net. I live in Bolzano, while Guglielmo lives down in Sicily. That’s a million miles away ...

Andreetto: We are conditioned by our circumstances. Living in distant places, the Net was the ideal communications system for us. And at a creative level, we’ve been greatly inspired by Net-writing. We started out as Kai Zen in 2003, coinciding almost precisely with the explosion of the Internet in Italy--Web 2.0 has led to an immense expansion of the possibilities in a very short time ...

The members of Kai Zen (left to right): Guglielmo Pispisa, Jadel Adreetto, Bruno Fiorini, and Aldo Soliani.

MG: Yes, but why do young Italians write together on the Net?

Soliani: My partner is from Northern Europe, so I think I can add to what Jadel was just saying. In my opinion, it all ties in with the Italian “character.” Italians are sociable; the question of friendship and belonging to a family type group is incredibly important for guys like us. In other countries, maybe, individualism is the big thing. Here, instead, it’s second nature to share what you’re doing with your pals--it makes what you’re doing even more interesting. I write something, and I think: Hey, I’ll show this to Jadel, Bruno, and Guglielmo and see what they think. Obviously, they write back. ... This sense of fraternal belonging isn’t so strong in most other European countries. OK, on the one hand it is a great feeling, but maybe it’s a weakness too. But that’s the way Italians are. It may be a limitation in the sense that we can’t work alone; we need someone close, someone to trust, someone to lend you a hand and offer you their support.

MG: I want to talk about your “total novel” (il romanzo totale) project. I understand that every year you put one of these together, and anyone can take part via the Web. They get to write sections of the thriller with you. How did that come about, and how does it work?

Soliani: We started out by working on the Net, developing a story which already had a starting-point--the incipit, or opening chapter. So, after we met, we decided to specialize in this sort of experimentation. We liked the idea, and we started talking about what would be the best way to organize the work. In the first place, we set up a Web site dedicated solely to the “total novel” project.

MG: Does that mean that there is a different Web site developed for every new project/book?

Soliani: Ideally, yes. Every book of this type has its own characteristics and peculiarities; each story has a developing history of its own ...

MG: So each new site details the step-by-step development of how the story unfolds?

Soliani: Right. For example, you can consult the version of the total novel as it was in, say, 2003, if that’s what you want to do. You just go to the online edition of La potenza di Eymerich [the story was published as a book by Bacchilega Editore in 2004], and you can check out how it was at any time during its creation [see here and here].

MG: Because it was always evolving and changing online?

Soliani: Right again. And it is always going to be there in that “historical” form. If you want to access it and see how things stood then, you can. And you can intervene if you want to. Now we are trying to launch an international edition. The idea is so vast, why limit it only to Italy?

MG: What would you do in that case? Write a first chapter in English? I mean to say, is your English up to it? Then again, I suppose the limitations and style of your English would affect the direction that the work takes, wouldn’t it? English is no longer a national language, but a lingua franca, an international shorthand for ideas, a means to an end, not the end in itself.

Fiorini: We all use English in our jobs and in our lives. It isn’t
really such a problem.

MG: Jobs? What do you do when you aren’t writing?

Fiorini: I’m a video technician.

Soliani: I work as an accountant for a British law firm with branches all over the world. Honest!

Andreetto: I am a journalist, and Guglielmo is a lawyer. I should also add that the next edition of our total novel will be in Spanish. It will be set in Argentina, and we’ll be working with the guys from [a Buenos Aires-based writing-collective called] FM la tribu. English is not the only lingua franca. I mean, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

MG: Let’s move on and talk about the second, unfinished Kai Zen book. What can you tell us about it?

Fiorini: We are working on [he lets out a whooping laugh] ... eh, different hypotheses. Some of us are busy on Book 2, while others are already looking beyond it. To be honest, we’re in a bit of a mess at the moment, what with jobs, families, and so on, and we’ve got so many ideas and projects lining up for the future. Regarding Book 2, my colleagues [there’s such a sudden uproar over this highfalutin word, that a waitress in the hotel lobby drops a pot of coffee] ... yep, my colleagues are working away on Book 2. They’re about halfway through it, and Book 3 is also off the ground. The historical research is piling up. Fresh ideas just keep coming!

MG: How does each new project start? Does one of you propose an idea, then see how the others react?

Andreetto: It’s a matter of intuition, the way it happened after we’d finished La strategia dell’ariete. The second book--the working title is Mi Buonos Aires querido--was conceived as a sequel, and the third (still untitled) follows on from there, though each book was meant to be quite distinct. You know, a totally different, wholly
independent story.

We start by working on a general theme: blood in the first book, metal in the second. OK, the themes are different, but the idea is to handle them with the same driving impulse through Books 1 and 2, look­ing at the world from a certain point of view. Book 3 was a new development; it just fell into place. It’s theme is money. ... We were invited to a literary festival in Benevento [Italy], and we were reading and talking about an article in the daily newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, which spoke about the origins of today’s multinational enterprises ...

Soliani: Colonialism!

Andreetto: You know, the East India Company, the South Sea Bubble, that that sort of thing. We’d been talking about the economy--times being what they are--and the article had caught our attention. So we started to work on this theme, too. Who knows what will come of it? [Here he looks pointedly at Bruno Fiorini, the historian of this group, who champions Book 3.] Still, it is an incredibly interesting historical moment--AD 1600, exploration, automata, the start of the Enlightenment, Descartes, money being made all over the place--the whole world changing overnight--and then there’s a moment when money is no longer weighed or made in gold, and the whole thing explodes, and implodes, all the way up to the present global crisis. [Again, he looks at Bruno.] We’ll see. We will see ...

MG: Publishing a book, and publishing online, are presumably totally different things. For the book you need the backing of a publisher; online, you are free to do whatever you want. Which do you prefer?

Andreetto: We enjoy trying to do both. We still live in a world where paper rules, of course.

MG: Though you publish your books under a Copyleft licensing scheme, don’t you?

Soliani: La strategia dell’ariete was published in Creative Commons or Copyleft, which means that the text can be used in whole or part by anyone at all. Even you, Michael! You can download the book from the Internet, and do what you like with it. But not for profit-making activities. You can chop it, change it, do whatever you want to do ...

MG: Did publisher Mondadori like the idea of Copyleft?

Soliani: We insisted, and they accepted, though they didn’t seem to know what it was all about. They realized that it was part of the Kai Zen project, and that it is how we work. It’s our history, if you like. Maybe they understood that it was a frontier that they had to cross. Maybe they were looking towards the future, too. La strategia dell’ariete was, however, the first book that Mondadori had ever published with this particular kind of license.

MG: Have they continued with the trial?

Andreetto: With another pair of writers, I think, though I’m not certain. So far Mondadori have only published one short graphic novel written by Wu Ming 2 for an anthology entitled Alta criminalità.

Soliani: Most people don’t know what it is, or how it works.

MG: Me, for example! How does Copyleft work? What are the advantages for you, the authors?

Soliani: We don’t believe that the printed book will disappear and be replaced by PDF files, but as a way of sampling a book, of getting a first “taste” of a story--a bit like hearing a song on the radio--Copyleft is a new approach, and we think that it is positive. A lot of people do buy the book after playing around with it on the Net.

MG: We promote our new book [A Visible Darkness] by offering a sample chapter on our Web site. [This “old-fashioned” approach incites loud and riotous laughter from the Kai Zen guys.]

Fiorini: We work with readers and writers who are more--extreme, let’s say, more radical. For them, it’s hands-on, and start ripping! But we believe that the exposure and the Web interest more than cover the risks ...

Andreetto: And it is a form of intellectual honesty, too. The printed edition of our book costs €16.50. Not everyone can go out and spend that much money. But if they read the book [online] and like what they read, they may just buy it anyway. In the second place, if you decide that you want to give it to someone as a gift, then you have to go out and buy it! Remember, readers, if you print it out from the Net, use recycled paper. If you don’t, then you’re a bastard!

Soliani: In many remote places, out in the mountains, for example, and in small towns and villages in the country, there are no book­shops, no libraries; but there is the Internet.

Fiorini: Our “shelf-life” is unlimited! Right now, the printed edition [of La strategia dell’ariete] is momentarily out-of-print. ... People did buy it! But you can download it, if you want. You can read it, review it. Just yesterday, we were talking to classes of teenagers, school kids, and we advised them to read it online. Maybe in the future, when they start earning money ... Who knows?

Andreetto: In this form the book has an unlimited print run.

Fiorini: Wow, worldwide and virtually free!

Andreetto: Then again, the reader can alter the online version. In our books, the story is central, not the writer. Anyone can take a bit out of our book--a character, a place, or an idea--and use it in the novel or story that he or she is writing. They can change it, write a new ending, do whatever they like with it. We really are the literary equivalent of the Nine Inch Nails. They publish their music free on the Net, and they still sell CDs--not only in MP3 format, but in “Garage Band” format, too, so other musicians can remix, reuse, add, take away, elaborate, or rewrite the original material. Then they publish the fans’ remixed versions of their music on the Nails’ Web site. Now, that means that there are literally thousands of versions of their songs going around. That’s what I call publicity! In our case, there’s a creative exchange between the writers and the readers; in their case, it’s between the listeners and the musicians. This is what using the Net in a meaningful way amounts to.

Fiorini: Jadel’s right. I mean, this is the great advantage of working and writing via the Net. It’s totally unrestricted, and that can be a strength. Can you imagine how many people have “lifted” a character or an idea from a story or a novel, and then they’ve been made to pay for it by some guy’s lawyer?

Andreetto: Look at you two. I mean, you stole Immanuel Kant [for the first Michael Gregorio novel, Critique of Criminal Reason, 2006].

MG: Oh yeah, right. Still, it’s a bit late for legal action now. Kant’s been dead for over 200 years.

Fiorini: Anyway, that’s what we do with the total novel and on the Web. We create a character, an idea, a story, and we offer it to anyone who is interested. You can add to his life, his back story, you can give him a new life, a new career, or make him move in a totally different setting. That’s our contribution, let’s say.

* * *
For more information about Kai Zen, check out the ensemble’s official website of the ensemble (where you can download the novels); the official Web site of the novel La strategia del’ariete; the official Web site of romanzo totale; and the blog of the Kai Zen narrative ensemble.

Bruno Shows Up

My critique of one of this year’s best crime novels--Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker--has finally put in an appearance in The Barnes & Noble Review.

Bullet Points: Memorial Day Edition

• Swiss crime fiction? I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Fortunately, Bob Cornwell is helping to fill that hole in my education with his third nation-focused special for Crime Time, this one focusing on Switzerland. There’s a fine overview of the field, a list of useful Web sites, a selection of Swiss contributors to the genre, and much more. Cornwell tells me that this information was “compiled by Paul Ott, Swiss novelist and short story writer (as Paul Lascaux), critic, bibliographer, and founder of Mordstage, Switzerland’s major crime-fiction festival.” To read Crime Scene: Switzerland, click here. And if you’d like to catch up with the two previous installments of this series--about France and The Netherlands--simply go here.

• Did you know that author William Landay (Mission Flats, The Strangler) has begun writing a blog of his own? “I have always avoided writing for the Web because I was afraid it would suck away some of the creative energy I need for my novels,” he explains in his debut post. “Novel-writing is grueling. It demands long periods of quiet and concentration. The Web, an endless stream of flashing, hyperlinked calls for your attention, is lethal to that sort of sustained focus. ... But, after The Crash in publishing, midlist (or downlist) writers like me simply cannot afford to ignore the Web. Toxic as it is to book-writing, the Web is essential to book-selling.”

• More Moore, please. That would be Donna Moore, the author of ... Go to Helena Handbasket, who has just thrown the doors open on another new blog, Big Beat from Badsville. She’s styling it as “the home of Scottish crime fiction--news, interviews, reviews, book-related stuff, non-book-related stuff, and any other random nonsense that takes my fancy (there, that should stop me getting done under the Trade Descriptions Act).” Drop in here and have a few pints. (Hat tip to Peter Rozovsky.)

See what you can learn by reading?

• In her new column for the Baltimore Examiner Web site, Sandra Ruttan coaxes Craig McDonald into talking about “the intrigue of writing about other writers” in his new book, Rogue Males. You’ll find Ruttan’s column here.

• Meanwhile, New Jersey novelist Jeffrey Cohen yaps it up with Jen Forbus of Jen’s Books Thoughts on subjects ranging from his lifetime interest in writing (“I’ve always had an internal story going on, and at some point, it has to come out”) and his sense of humor to his attention to character development and his pun-titled mysteries (the latest of which is A Night at the Operation).

• After seeing his 100th book published, the novel Far Cry, This Is Nottingham apparently couldn’t wait to ask 70-year-old British author John Harvey when readers can expect the appearance of his next book. Laughing, Harvey says, “It does get harder, I’ll be honest. To think of a different story and a different angle. I think it’s one of the things about writing crime fiction. This year I’m taking a sabbatical. I have done a book a year since the first [Charlie] Resnick [novel, 1989’s Lonely Hearts]. And I’d like to slow down to the point where I’m doing a book every two years. ... There are other things I want to do.” You’ll have to read the full article to see what those are.

• And for Pulp Pusher, Ray Banks interviews Edinburgh journalist David Lewis about his new book, Beast of Burden.

• This week’s CrimeWAV podcast comes from UK writer Gary Dobbs. It’s called “Rhonda Noir,” and CrimeWAV honcho Seth Harwood says it “will make you think of Guy Ritchie, Tarantino, and all the goods!”

• In the lead-up to spy novelist Eric Ambler’s 100th birthday next month, Sarah Weinman reconsiders Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, “which 70 years after its 1939 publication holds up as a startling, elegant masterpiece of espionage fiction.” That same book was reviewed not long ago as part of The Rap Sheet’s “forgotten books” series. (Hat tip to Patrick Balester.)

• By the way, were you aware that Christopher Fowler, author of Bryant and May mysteries, has been writing a series for Britain’s Independent newspaper about “forgotten authors,” some of whom--like Robert Van Gulik and H.R.F. Keating--are crime writers? You can find that whole series reproduced in Fowler’s blog.

• I can’t believe I’ve never seen this movie.

• Not content with producing one award-nominated blog, Crime Always Pays, Irish author and Rap Sheet contributor Declan Burke writes today that he’s “been thinking strongly about starting a new blog ... called Green Streets, as in, ‘Down those green streets a man (or woman) must go ...’ and making that one the news/gossip/slander venue for Irish crime writing, while I toddle on with Crime Always Pays as a personal blog. It probably all sounds a bit messy, but in the long run I want to establish Green Streets as an online magazine, and a proper Web site, for Irish crime writing--novels, movies, journalism, non-fiction/true crime, and theatre.” He’s now looking for writers to lend him a hand. Any takers? Let him know here.

• Speaking of the able Mr. Burke, I really ought to follow up on a story from earlier this week about his conducting a poll to identify “the sexiest Irish crime writer.” The full results are here, but you might as well know up front that John Connolly and Alex Barclay came in their respective sex categories. (Is that a proper way to phrase it?)

• Ken Bruen’s 2008 novel, Once Were Cops, appears headed for big-screen Hollywood treatment.

• And Philadelphia is the place to be this coming Halloween.

Robert McGinnis Would Look So Good On You

This may not be quite in keeping with Memorial Day, but we were thrilled to see that Hard Case Crime is venturing into the world of fine fashion. Starting today, some of the fantastic retro cover art designed by Robert McGinnis, Greg Manchess, and Glen Orbik that fronts HCC’s great tales can now be worn on your own hard case selves as T-shirts. See details here.

(Hat tip to Jason Starr via Facebook.)

Worth Another Look

It seems I’m not the only one who has grown fond of In Plain Sight, the USA Network Sunday series that stars Mary McCormack as a prickly, cynical, and personally troubled U.S. Marshal with the Witness Protection Program. “If you haven’t been watching In Plain Sight,” writes Allison Waldman at TV Squad, “or you have and didn’t think it was worth sticking with it, here’s my recommendation: Try it again. It’s getting better and better.”

Learn This

My, how times flies. Actress Karen Valentine, who was just 22 years old when she began appearing as pretty, lovable teacher Alice Johnson in the ABC-TV comedy-drama Room 222, today turns 62.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

“Romeo and Juliet in a Getaway Car”

As Nobody Move! blogger John DuMond reminds us, today is the 75th anniversary of the ambush slayings of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, known to history as the Depression-era gangsters Bonnie and Clyde. “Their exploits were known nationwide,” explains their entry in Wikipedia. “They captured the attention of the American press and its readership during what is sometimes referred to as the ‘public enemy era’ between 1931 and 1934. Though their gang was notorious for their bank robberies, Barrow preferred to rob small stores or gas stations. The gang was believed to have killed at least nine police officers, among several other murders.”

As Joseph Geringer recalls in a satisfyingly long article for the TruTV Web site:
Bonnie and Clyde were meant for each other. And they clung to each other while they fought back against the elements. These elements were destitution and a government they took for its face value. They were children of a nationwide economic depression that not unlike France in the late 1700s had its upheaval--and those who tried to keep small the size and impact of the upheavals.

An anger dwelt within Clyde, having been born ragged and made more ragged by the Depression. He sometimes killed in cold blood, and always tried to justify the murders as if he had a right to pull that trigger, thus releasing somehow the seething that built up like a volcano deep inside him. Perhaps he actually believed in his own special privilege. As the fame of Bonnie and Clyde grew, they shot their way out of police loops, each time growing tighter and tighter, and claimed that the “laws” they killed just happened to get in the way between their fiery outcry and the rest of the country. Their killings were not personal, they contended. But, the government took them personal. And Bonnie and her man were marked for death. ...

While they terrorized banks and store owners in five states--Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, and New Mexico--Americans thrilled to their “Robin Hood” adventures. The presence of a female, Bonnie, escalated the sincerity of their intentions to make them something unique and individual--even at times heroic--and above similar activities of all-male motor bandits like John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson and “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
However, that notoriety ended suddenly in a screaming hail of bullets on the morning of May 23, 1934, when a posse of six lawmen, four of them from Texas, two from Louisiana, opened fire on the couple as they drove along a quiet northern Louisiana road in their new Cordoba gray, four-door Ford V-8. In his book, Ambush: The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde, Ted Hinton, one of the officers who took part in that bloody incident, recalled what happened next:
“Bonnie screams, and I fire and everyone fires ... My BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle] spits out twenty shots in an instant, and a drumbeat of shells knifes through the steel body of the car, and glass is shattering. For a fleeting instant, the car seems to melt and hang in a kind of eerie and animated suspension, trying to move forward, spitting gravel at the wheels, but unable to break through the shield of withering gunfire. ... My ears are ringing, there is a spinning and reeling in my head from the cannonade of bullets and the clank of steel-jacketed metal tearing steel. ...” And when the firing subsided ... “Clyde is slumped forward, the back of his head a mat of blood ... I scramble over the hood of the car and throw open the door on Bonnie’s side. The impression will linger with me from this instant--I see her falling out of the opened door, a beautiful and petite young girl ... and I smell a light perfume against the burned-cordite smell of gunpowder ...”
Estimates of the ammunition emptied into that Ford sedan vary from 130 to 1,500 rounds (the latter being most dubious). The film embedded below, supposedly taken “by an amateur photographer five minutes after the shooting,” gives you a pretty clear idea of the violence involved in the ambuscade.

Today, the spot where Bonnie and Clyde ended their lives--on Louisiana Highway 154 south of Gibsland--is marked by a small stone monument, put up in 1972, five years after the release of the movie Bonnie and Clyde, which starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. That marker “has since been covered with graffiti, gouged with axes, and blasted with gunfire to the point where its inscription is barely legible,” according to an article at the travel Web site Roadside America. “The many hearts and intertwined initials scrawled on the monument suggest that young couples often make pilgrimages here, digging the Bonnie and Clyde outlaw vibe. The romantic vandalism somehow seems appropriate. Bonnie and Clyde would have defaced monuments too.”

In recent years decades, Gibsland has become home to a well-touristed Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum, particularly popular with families, we’re told. And every year, that town of just over 1,100 people hosts a Bonnie and Clyde Festival--the latest version of which began today. With a new big-screen feature about the “rogue Romeo and Juliet of Depression America,” this one headlined by Hillary Duff and Kevin Zegers, set to begin filming in central Louisiana in late July, one can only assume that Gibsland will have even more to celebrate next year.

READ MORE:Adios, Bonnie and Clyde,” by Thomas Pluck (Criminal Element); “Bonnie and Clyde Redux: The Year of the Gangster, Part 3” (U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation).