Friday, July 31, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Eighth Circle,” by Stanley Ellin

(This marks the 59th installment of The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Previous recommendations can be found here.)

“[I]s this a suspense story, or is it at last a serious novel about a private detective?” asked New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in his October 1958 review of The Eighth Circle, by Stanley Ellin. “I’m not sure it’s 100 percent successful as either: as suspense it’s a little slow and almost unpardonably long; as a serious novel it solves its problems a mite hastily and overoptimistically. But such reservations come only from the attempt to judge the novel by standards of perfection, such as Mr. Ellin sets in his short stories. Imperfect, it is still one of the most absorbingly readable books of the season.”

I must confess, for many years I confused Stanley Ellin with the now-better-known Stanley Elkin, whose satirical novels (such as 1991’s The MacGuffin) never really appealed to me all that much, despite their being repeatedly acclaimed by other reviewers. (I generally prefer serious fiction to the humorous variety.) But periodic references to The Eighth Circle by knowledgeable readers, topped off with my recent re-discovery, in the Tony Hillerman/Otto Penzler-edited collection, The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, of Ellin’s brilliantly wicked little tale of arrogance and jealousy, “The Moment of Decision” (1955), finally solidified in my mind this author’s individual identity, and I set out to find what is probably his best-remembered novel, The Eighth Circle.

Thank goodness I did, for despite Boucher’s half-serious reservations, Ellin’s 1958 novel about a top-of-the-heap private eye whose over-involvement in his latest case threatens to ruin his career and result in his client’s conviction, ranks among the finest examples of detective fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Murray Kirk, The Eighth Circle’s protagonist, is the son of a New York City grocer and wannabe poet. He used to be a lawyer, but wasn’t terribly successful at that. So he follows a colleague’s recommendation and applies for a job with Frank Conmy’s upscale Manhattan private investigations firm, only to be hired on the spot. The work turns out to be better than clerking in a law office, but it doesn’t quite fit his preconceptions of life at a detective agency. Early on, he remarks to Conmy’s personal secretary, the steadfast Mrs. Knapp, that
“It’s not much like the movies, is it?”

Mrs. Knapp looked at him shrewdly. “No, it isn’t, Mr. Kirk. We don’t supply booze, blondes, or bullets. As a matter of fact, no one here is licensed to carry firearms except Mr. Conmy himself, and I very much doubt if Mr. Conmy knows one end of a gun from the other. Get it into your head, Mr. Kirk, that we are a legitimate business firm, authorized by the New York State Director of Licenses to perform certain lawful services. And you, young man, are as much bound by the laws of this state as the next person. I trust you’ll always keep this in mind.”
Readers who like their P.I. stories plump with fisticuffs and firearms might be disappointed with The Eighth Circle. There isn’t even a gun drawn until deep into Ellin’s story—and it turns out to contain no bullets. It’s just a threatening tool.

But there are plenty of compensations here for the lack of weaponry.

For instance, Ellin’s observations about the generally routine nature of P.I. work: prospective-employee background checks for companies, clipping and filing potentially useful stories from newspapers, etc. “It sounds like a nice day’s work,” Kirk tells one of his fellow operatives, not too enthusiastically. The response:
“Oh, you’ll get used to it. Anyhow, it keeps you off your feet, which is something. And it’s a hell of a lot better than writs and subpoenas. You’ve never been baptized, have you?”

“In what way?”

“That’s what they call it around here the first time a woman spits in your eye because you hand her a writ. There’s something about a legal paper that just makes a woman’s mouth fill up, and then, brother, you’re in for it. You’ll find yourself ducking like an expert after a while.”
Kirk needn’t bear up under such mundaneness for long, though. He establishes a friendship with his boss that results in Kirk becoming a partner in the firm and, 10 years after applying for a job there—and following Conmy’s death—he takes over, even moving into Conmy’s apartment, 30 stories above Central Park. It’s a most favorable arrangement, complete with pricey brandies, sharp suits, and comfy furniture on which to read books, watch television, or listen to the troubles of Didi, his garrulous, gorgeous, and upwardly mobile divorcée friend, who seems to fall in love with every man except the one she actually needs to be with, who is of course Murray Kirk.

All that is back-story, though. What’s in the foreground here is the case of Arnold Lundeen, a cop attached to the Vice Squad, who’s caught up in a huge corruption scandal linked to a city-wide betting ring. Lundeen’s idealistic lawyer comes to Kirk for help, and he makes a decent case for why Kirk can do some good for the accused patrolman. But what finally secures the sleuth’s involvement is Lundeen’s fiancée, schoolteacher Ruth Vincent, an ebony-tressed, long-lashed lovely (“it was incredible that a cop, a dumb, dishonest New York cop, should ever have come into possession of anything like this”). The trouble is, Murray Kirk slowly but surely becomes more interested in being with Ruth than he is in helping her boyfriend. In fact, he reasons that if he could get Lundeen out of the way—somehow reveal the man’s guilt without leaving too many of his own fingerprints behind—he could have Ruth all to himself.

Unfortunately, Kirk’s professionalism gets in the way of his selfish scheme. He learned well from Frank Conmy. He’s turned into a fine detective and a fine man, despite his own doubts. The more Kirk tries to redirect things to his advantage (something that isn’t entirely lost on his veteran employees), the more he learns to respect—even envy—Lundeen’s attorney, and the clearer he recognizes his cop client’s innocence. How does he then live with himself, if not with Ruth at his side and in his bed?

This is a novel far richer in character development and exposition than it is in the conventions of modern gumshoe fiction. But I don’t think it was meant to transcend the genre, to be “at last a serious novel about a private detective.” Ellin simply brought to this yarn his own tastes and expectations. As Kevin Burton Smith explains at The Thrilling Detective Web Site, “Ellin studied several P.I. agencies before writing the novel, so The Eighth Circle is a far more authentic look at real P.I. work than most P.I. novels.” The author also imbued this book with his interest—often on display in his abundant short stories—in the high and mighty of Gotham, people whose veneers he relished ripping away to expose the conflicts, fears, and hatreds that lay beneath. His efforts were rewarded; The Eighth Circle won the 1959 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Mystery Novel. (Twenty-two years after that, New Yorker Ellin was presented with the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award, its greatest honor.)

It’s too bad that Stanley Ellin—who died of a heart attack 23 years ago today—abandoned Murray Kirk after Circle. That protagonist had so much potential, especially on his way down in the world. Ellin did, however, go on to pen three more P.I. novels: The Bind (1970), Star Light, Star Bright (1979), and The Dark Fantastic (1983). The Bind showcased another Manhattan-based investigator, Jake Dekker, working in that story with a beautiful young confederate to get to the bottom of a questionable insurance claim in Florida. (The Bind was subsequently turned into a mediocre 1979 film called Sunburn, starring Farrah Fawcett and Charles Grodin.) The second and third books took as their lead Johnny Milano, “a shrewd detective, specializing in high-price (and high-stakes) recovery work for insurance companies.” I’ve never had the opportunity to read those three, but after being so captivated by The Eighth Circle, I think I need to do a little detective work of my own and find copies.

READ MORE:The Murders in Memory Lane,” by Lawrence Block (Mystery Scene).

The More the Merrier

Beyond my own modest contribution this week to the Web-wide “forgotten books” series, there are numerous other nominations popping up. Here are a few more drawn from the crime-fiction/thriller/suspense category: Love Me--and Die, by Day Keene and Gil Brewer; From Doon with Death, by Ruth Rendell; The List of Adrian Messenger, by Philip Macdonald; The Investigation, by Dorothy Uhnak; The Whaleboat House, by Mark Mills; They Thirst, by Robert R. McCammon; Shadow Boxer, by Eddie Muller; A Twist of Sand, by Geoffrey Jenkins; and Naked Came the Manatee, Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry, et al.

Patti Abbott has posted three more picks in her own blog, plus a complete rundown of today’s participating writers.

Every Job Has Its Perks

Would that every crime-fiction columnist could find even half as much joy in practicing his art as Shots’ Mike Ripley so obviously does. In his latest installment of “Getting Away with Murder,” the thoroughly pampered (You have “under-butlers” fetching you frothing pints? What are the regular butlers doing?) M. Ripley opines on the controversy surrounding this year’s International Dagger Award winner, the oddity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being nominated as Best British Crime Novel (since it was originally published in Scandinavia), the latest work from Scottish author Denise Mina, and Thomas Pynchon’s dip into the dark and turbulent waters of contemporary detective fiction.

Indulge The Ripster even further. Check out his new column here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bullet Points: Sweating in Seattle Edition*

I’m working on something larger for tomorrow, and dealing with a remarkable new project for next week. So postings today will be more limited than usual. Let’s begin with a round-up of news bits:

• This is surprising news: Variety reports that David Shore, the creator and executive producer of House, has been signed to “shepherd a redo of the classic 1974-80 gumshoe drama [The Rockford Files] that starred James Garner and put Stephen J. Cannell on the map as a writer-producer.” The paper adds that “Shore’s just starting to think about an approach to bring The Rockford Files into the present day, but he intends to stick with the basic foundation of a private eye in L.A. just trying to make a living.” Who knows? Maybe this won’t be the disaster of a TV remake that The Night Stalker and Knight Rider both were. But I won’t bet on its success, even with Shore in charge. And frankly, I’d prefer that my fond memories of Rockford not be disturbed by somebody else’s interpretation of the material. (Hat tip to Lee Goldberg.)

• Just last night, while watching the latest episode of TNT’s Leverage, I was thinking about the 1970s TV series Switch. It seems to me that, as much debt as Leverage obviously owes to Mission: Impossible and It Takes a Thief, it’s also indebted to Switch, which starred Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner as private eyes who employed con games to solve crimes--not unlike the premise of Leverage, right? Switch started out strong in 1975, its stories of illegalities and investigations tinged with humor. But sometime in the second season, the show started to become more conventional, and I lost interest. Anyway, I bring this up because this morning, when I clicked over to Marty McKee’s blog, Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot, what should I find but the main title sequence of Switch. (Actually, it’s not the original opening, which I thought was more playful, and which can be seen here in French translation; this is the one that was substituted early on in the series.) Pardon me for a few minutes while I get all weepy and nostalgic ...

• Dan Wagstaff’s The Casual Optimist points me toward this collection of vintage Swedish book fronts that includes what he calls a “vampiric cover for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep” and more dramatic jackets from novels by Ed McBain, Cyril Hare, and others.

• Be on the lookout for a new blog called Do Some Damage, which promises “an inside look at crime fiction” (as if this and every blog listed in the right-hand column of this page isn’t determined to bring you that very same thing). Steve Weddle, Jay Stringer, John McFetridge, Dave White, Russel D. McLean, Scott D. Parker, and Mike Knowles are all on tap as posters. Parker writes in his own blog that regular contributions to Do Some Damage will begin running on Monday of next week. Welcome to block, guys.

• They’re getting small: Allan Guthrie and Ray Banks talk in Pulp Pusher about their respective short novels for Crime Express.

• It sounds as if Steven Spielberg might be interested in directing a new movie based on Donald Hamilton’s famous Matt Helm spy novels. More on that here. Meanwhile, Ron Howard has signed up to direct a film based on Robert Ludlum’s 1982 novel, The Parsifal Mosaic. And Sony Pictures will adapt Michael Dobbs’ 2007 thriller, The Lord’s Day, for the big screen--the first in a series of pictures featuring Harry Jones, an ex-SAS member of the British Parliament.

• The UK version of Life on Mars is now available on DVD.

• If Elmore Leonard can have his 10 rules for writing, then why not Irish blogger-novelist Declan Burke? Number 6 on Burke’s list:
2. Use Simple Grammar
Go easy on complicated sentence construction. Ration yourself to three commas per page and you won’t go far wrong. Apostrophes are the Devil’s own invention--first-time writers should always try to avoid plurals and possession. Unless your story is about multiple exorcisms. Or multiple orgasms.
• Speaking of Leonard, it seems that “FX Networks has ordered 13 episodes of Lawman, a series based on a character, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens,” that Leonard used in his novels Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995). The show will star Timothy Olyphant of Deadwood fame. Click here for more info.

Thanks to Bill Crider for the reminder that today happens to be the 76th birthday of Edd Byrnes, who played hipster and private-eye wannabe Gerald Lloyd “Kookie” Kookson III on 77 Sunset Strip.

• Apparently, the Kindle just can’t get respect. From Barbara Fister, I hear about a humorous project, mounted by San Francisco’s Green Apple Books: a video “smackdown” between the Kindle and traditional books. And over at The New Yorker, Nicholson Baker launches an assault on Amazon’s electronic reading device that’s guaranteed to upset Jeff Bezos’ carefully planned sales projections.

• PulpFest 2009 begins tomorrow in Columbus, Ohio.

• We’re more than a year away from NoirCon 2010, but Lou Boxer is already writing hard on a new associated blog, NoirCon.

Here’s another show that ought be out on DVD, but isn’t.

• I didn’t know until today that my friend Gary Phillips was writing a regular column, Donuts at 4 a.m. (great title!), for the Web site Four Story, but he is. His latest contribution insists that “ Drawing Comics Ain’t for Sissies.”

• Two talents at one low price: Beginning today in the Author Interviews blog, Timothy Hallinan (Breathing Water) and Brett Battles (Shadow of Betrayal) quiz each other about their respective series and their individual writing processes. A second part of that exchange is still to be posted.

• And it was on this date in 1975 that Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.

* That’s right, it’s been frickin’ hot at Rap Sheet headquarters.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Taste of Honey

I’m not old enough to have been a Honey West watcher back in the mid-1960s. But when the full run of that short-lived ABC-TV series was released on DVD last fall, I immediately rented it from Netflix. I wanted to better understand what all the fuss was about.

Honey West proved to be unlike most of the other American TV series that debuted in 1965 (I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space, F Troop, The Wild Wild West, My Mother the Car, Green Acres, etc.), if only because it was a dramatic series with a female lead (played by Anne Francis) who could handle herself even under the diciest circumstances. And of course, the show had all those marvelous high-tech spying gadgets--exploding gas earrings, microphones secreted in lipstick tubes, and my personal favorite, Honey’s garter-belt gas mask. (James Bond never had one of those, now did he!) Then there was the speedy little Shelby Cobra that Honey drove, and her pet ocelot, Bruce. Those weren’t necessarily components of the 11 novels written by Forrest E. “Skip” Fickling and his wife, Gloria, who’d created Honey West back in the late 1950s. But they helped make the Aaron Spelling-produced TV series hard to forget.

John C. Fredriksen remembers Honey West well. Better than just about anyone else you’re likely to meet in this lifetime. The 56-year-old Rhode Island historian is the author of Honey West, a new non-fiction tribute to that long-gone Friday night program. In his introduction to the book, Fredriksen writes:
Compared to the staid female role models preceding her on television, Honey West was everything that the emerging social paradigm allowed a woman to be. Hence, my reminiscences about the series are couched in a unique dichotomy. Having shed and evolved beyond the social conventions of my youth, I freely acknowledge Anne Francis for her demonstrated intelligence, varied acting talents, and the impressive longevity of her career. But in Honey West she was also an in-your-face, male-wish fantasy and I embrace my inner Neanderthal by forever cherishing those daunting blue eyes, the sexy mole, the sixties flip-do, flipped to perfection, that husky voice, and pantherine form lurking beneath a skin-tight suit. In sum, Anne was the first smokin’ hot babe I ever beheld, gloriously female in appearance, speech, and deportment. In fact, her portrayal of Honey West remains appealing simply because she never forsook her femininity, even in the rough-and-tumble world of private investigating.
Fredricksen’s volume has just about everything a Honey West enthusiast could want, including interviews with both Francis and her co-star, John Ericson, who played Honey’s hunky, overprotective partner, Sam Bolt; a profile of Irene Hervey, who filled the mostly comic-relief role of Honey’s aunt Meg; and extensive synopses of all the Honey West episodes, as well as “Who Killed the Jackpot?” the episode of Burke’s Law, starring Gene Barry, in which Anne Francis made her original TV appearance as “private eyeful” Honey West. It’s a pretty phenomenal collection of material, the work of someone obviously devoted to his subject.

I took the opportunity recently to ask the author a variety of questions, via e-mail, about how ABC’s Honey West came into being, distinctions between the TV series and the Ficklings’ novels, why the show disappeared so damn fast, and what has become of both its stars and the car Honey wheeled about in so attractively. Fredriksen’s responses carry the same playful tenor as the text of his slim (228-page) new book.

J. Kingston Pierce: What first got you interested in Honey West?

John C. Fredriksen: I was only 12--you know, that impressionable age--when I first saw Honey West and, for reasons then unknown to me, I was simply captivated by Anne Francis. I had never quite beheld as woman like her before, especially in such a forceful, commanding role. I’ve been hooked ever since!

JKP: Tell us how the character first came into being, in print.

JCF: In the mid-1950s Forrest “Skip” Fickling was an aspiring fiction writer and, to be different, he toyed with the idea of a sexy female private investigator, something that had never been done before. When several of his writer friends declined to take up the mantle due to projects of their own, Skip wrote the first novel [1957’s This Girl for Hire] himself with some input from his wife, Gloria.

JKP: I’ve read more than once that Honey was based, in part, on Gloria Fickling. Is that correct?

JCF: Gloria tells me that Skip was the brains behind Honey West, although he patterned her to a degree after this wife of his. Gloria is something of a character in her own right, so I can see why he used her as a template.

JKP: In what way is she “a character”?

JCF: Gloria is very outspoken, and when she was young she dealt with rambunctious young men at parties with a good kick or an occasional shove. In sum, short but fierce--not unlike Honey.

JKP: Do you know anything about how the Ficklings penned their novels together? Did they both develop plots and characters, or did they have separate responsibilities?

JCF: As far as I know, Skip wrote the stories, which were then proofed by Gloria, who then tendered suggestions and modifications. I consider both of them essential to the process that crystalized the Honey West “character.”

JKP: Have you read all 11 of the Honey West novels? And do you have a favorite among those?

JCF: I was too young in the 1950s to have read the novels, and if I tried bringing them home in the 1960s, my mom would have batted me over the head for reading such “racy” materials. So, no, I am aware of the novels, but have yet to leaf through one.

JKP: I’ve never seen the 1965 episode of Burke’s Law in which Honey West was introduced to TV audiences. Can you tell us something about that episode? And what about it made it so successful in selling the spin-off series?

JCF: In casting Honey West, Anne’s natural dynamism fit like a hand in a glove. The story was engaging, like all Burke’s Law episodes, but Anne and John were clearly giving their all in developing these new screen personalities. Everything just clicked.

JKP: How did the Honey West TV series differ from the Ficklings’ books starring that same character?

JCF: From what I am told, the TV series is considerably toned down. Honey is sexy but never comes close to removing her clothes--something she did repeatedly in the novels. Nor does she have an on-screen affair with Sam Bolt, which in the novels she had and apparently enjoyed several paramours. Given the mindset of 1965 America, this was about all that networks were willing to show.

JKP: I understand that the Ficklings never had much contact with star Anne Francis. But did they like her portrayal of their character?

JCF: Gloria tells me that they loved the choice of Anne as Honey West--it remains her best-remembered role outside of Altaira in Forbidden Planet [1956]. In fact, I cannot think of another actress, before or since, that could fill her high heels!

JKP: Do you think that Honey, as the Ficklings created her, could have worked on television? And if she couldn’t have been herself in the ’60s, could the “real” Honey West work on TV nowadays?

JCF: These days anything goes. I consider popular culture so debased by sex and violence that, if they left them out of a proposed new series, I do not think that the networks or cable channels would buy into it. For that reason I would actually hate to see a new series; it would probably have little or nothing in common with the old, “fun” one. That being said, I waited all 30 episodes for Sam and Honey to kiss, if only once--and they never did!

JKP: In the novels, Honey West’s love interest and occasional rescuer was actually a bounty hunter named Johnny “Doom” Dombella. In the TV series, John Ericson played her “cantankerous sidekick” and, as you note, not-quite-ever lover, Sam Bolt. [The two are shown together at left.] Why exchange one character for the other?

JCF: I believe they tried to break clean from the novels. In the novels, Johnny was actively known for cavorting with Honey. Sam, however, is square and totally professional towards her--much safer from a broadcasting perspective.

JKP: High-tech gadgets were a big thing on Honey West, just as they were in the contemporaneous James Bond films. Do you have any favorites among Honey’s gizmos?

JCF: I really dug those radio sunglasses with the little antenna on the side. Face it, how many people can be seen these days talking into their shades and not get carted away?

JKP: As was so often the case in those days, I understand the Ficklings didn’t benefit as much as they should have by selling their character to television. Correct?

JCF: Welcome to Tinseltown. The Ficklings were victimized by the Hollywood mentality and the machinations of their attorney, who I am sure got an even bigger pound of flesh by denying them theirs. Pure slime at work--but then they should have known this going into the belly of the beast.

JKP: Honey West didn’t last long--just a single season. But can it be said to have had a lasting influence on television?

JCF: Honey West enjoys the unimpeachable quality of hosting TV’s first liberated women, at least from an American standpoint. The same can be said for Cathy Gale [played by Honor Blackman] from the first season of The Avengers in the UK, but those episodes never made it over here. Honey certainly cut the template for strong female leads to follow. And Anne did it in her own sexy style.

JKP: How do you think Honey West might have developed, had it been allowed to go on to second, third, even fourth seasons?

JCF: First of all, they would have gone color and possibly adopted a one-hour format. I believe that, over time, as tastes evolved in the later ’60s, Honey may have cavorted with Sam in much the same way as the leads of Moonlighting did [in the 1980s]. I also feel that the role of Aunt Meg, a comic prop, would have been written out.

JKP: Was the half-hour format simply too short to accommodate everything the series was trying to do?

JCF: No, the series remains crisp and watchable to this day, so I do not think that 30 minutes or black and white did them it. The program failed because a bunch of suits at ABC felt they could save money without it.

JKP: So why did the network cancel Honey West?

JCF: Two reasons. The first was programming. The biggest hit on Friday nights turned out to be none other than Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.--it literally clobbered all the competition. The second was money: ABC decided that they could dress Diana Rigg up in black leather and have her beat up guys for less money than they were shelling out for Honey West.

JKP: Do you think that last fall’s release of Honey West on DVD will bring in a new generation of fans, or is the series now too dated?

JCF: The response to the DVD has been overwhelmingly positive among fossils/viewers of my generation. However, the lack of overt sex, vulgarity, and mindless violence may alienate younger viewers who are inured to it and have come to expect it.

JKP: There’s been talk of making a Honey West movie. Do you think that will ever happen? And I know you said before that no other actress could fill Anne Francis’ high heels in the part. But if a movie is made, who do you think ought to star? Surely, not Reese Witherspoon, right?

JCF: I hope not. Hollywood has lost its ability to tell a coherent story for the past two decades or so. Face it, the talent simply does not exist anymore. Today’s politically correct Honey West would probably be a lesbian or closer to a whore than a private investigator. I, for one, remain true to the original series. As far as casting goes, forget it. There is not a single actress in Hollywood today with the combination of grace, grit, looks, and class of Anne Francis. Reese Witherspoon would be terribly miscast in my opinion--which is why she’d get the role.

JKP: You interviewed Anne Francis for your new book. How hard was it to set up that interview? And was she happy to talk about Honey West after all these years?

JCF: Talking to Ann was a snap. She is very polite and considerate toward her fans, and freely gave me an hour of her time on the phone. Just a class act.

JKP: Does Francis look back fondly on Honey West?

JCF: She loved being cast as Honey West. Prior to that she was always just another “pretty face” on the screen. Anne wanted a chance to demonstrate her range of skills, and she did so quite memorably. And, coming off a second bad divorce, she was probably glad to take it out on the male of the species by knocking them about each episode.

JKP: Didn’t Francis have to do karate training and some of her own stunts for Honey West?

JCF: Anne studied Okinawa Tai under Sensei Gordon Doversola for several weeks and acquired some of the basic moves necessary to make her look proficient. Quite a change from June Cleaver!

JKP: I understand that Francis and co-star John Ericson made a pact early on to not smoke or drink on Honey West. Why was that?

JCF: Again, this is a reflection on Anne the person. She realized that Friday night scheduling has a large youthful audience and she did not want to smoke or drink in front of youngsters. John agreed in principle; they are both classy, thoughtful people.

JKP: Most of us just know Anne Francis from Honey West and a succession of guest-starring roles on everything from Columbo to Ellery Queen to Fantasy Island. But you had the opportunity to interview her. Any personal impressions?

JCF: Anne is a typical New Yorker of her generation. Classy and gutsy in the same breath. As an actress she always battled against her looks, for no studio exec in the 1950s believed that a women that beautiful could actually act! She also sought out “bad girl” roles like prostitutes and drunks just to prove that she could act convincingly.

JKP: You interviewed John Ericson as well. I didn’t even realize he was still alive, at age 82. What did you think of him, both in his role on Honey West and in talking with him for your book?

JCF: Like Anne, John considers Sam Bolt one of the highlights of his lengthy career. He and Anne had been good friends since Bad Day at Black Rock (1952), they got along well, and both appreciated the sheer physicality involved in Honey West. Both of them liked their fight scenes!

JKP: While Francis has gone into semi-retirement, I understand that Ericson is still working. What’s he been up to lately?

JCF: John is still active on stage, although he limits himself to local theater in New Mexico. He still enjoys good health, loves life, and would very much want a cameo role in any new Honey West television show or movie. I found him to be a very nice, friendly person to deal with.

JKP: Why do you think neither Francis nor Ericson ever went on to star in other American TV series?

JCF: Probably because few people can handle the 15- to 18-hour workdays needed to produce a TV series. They both knew this going into Honey West, but the roles they were offered were so intriguing from what they had done previously, they considered it a
good trade-off.

JKP: There’s a section of your book devoted to Sharon Lucas, who did some of Francis’ stunts. Most stunt people don’t get much credit. Why write about Lucas?

JCF: According to Gene LeBell, stuntman extraordinaire, Sharon Lucas was one of the most talented stunt women in the business and, in some respects, was equal to or better than most guys. She was a real Honey West, as some of those intense fight scenes demonstrate. Anne loved her as a person, they were very close on and off the set. I felt it was time that this individual, who did so much for the series, get the credit she deserved.

JKP: One of the most memorable things about the small screen’s Honey West was that little Shelby Cobra she drove. Do you have any idea whatever happened to that car?

JCF: It is in the hands of Joyce Yates of Nashville, Indiana, a private collector, who keeps it well-maintained. Cobras have quite an automotive legend to them and are quite sought-after as collectibles. A less imaginative producer might have settled for a Mustang or an XKE (as in the Burke’s Law episode) but, hey, this was the height of the British invasion and the sexy British Cobra was right on the mark!

JKP: You must have had to watch all 30 episodes of Honey West in order to write the synopses at the back of your book. Did you enjoy the experience, or were your memories of the show somewhat better than the reality? And do you have favorite episodes of Honey West?

JCF: I had a hell of as good time freeze-framing Anne Francis just to behold her, or sometimes just watch her move in that slinky fashion of hers. I am especially drawn to the pilot, “The Gray Lady,” as that had a bigger budget, extreme imaginative photography (including a vertical wipe!), and a fantastic fight scene with Sharon Lucas. The later ones got sillier in order to compete with Batman, but the first five episodes are very noir-ish and stylish.

JKP: I understand that, in 1994 when Burke’s Law was revived, Anne Francis guest-starred in a role that was obviously that of Honey West, but she was called “Honey Best.” Why the name change?

JCF: What else? To avoid being sued. Too much money involved.

JKP: Your Honey West book was published by a small press in Albany, Georgia, called BearManor Media. Why go with that house?

JKP: I chose BearManor because it is a high-quality press that specializes in media titles and sells them at very competitive prices. There are others that do likewise, but they charge so much money--even for softcover titles--there is no way a book can sell in sufficient quantity to make any profit.

JKP: Finally, is it true that Honey West was your first love interest? How did Anne Francis react when you told her that?

JCF: She hit me with a decidedly New York snicker, followed by a sympathetic, matronly “Awwwwwww!” I am sure she hears this from guys my age all the time!

READ MORE:Honey West,” by Joel Sternberg (The Museum of Broadcast Communications); “Honey West: A Fresh Look,” by Gary Warren Niebuhr (Mystery*File).

Manson Is Back!

Ivor Davis, a veteran British journalist who did the first reporting on such huge stories as Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Manson murders (prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi credited Davis with much of the material on which he based his case), has updated a book he published 40 years ago, Five to Die. Anyone who remembers Charles Manson will find much new and surprising information contained in this update.

Another Death in the Family

Via Sarah Weinman comes news that New Hampshire author William G. Tapply, creator of the Brady Coyne and Stoney Calhoun series, died last night at age 69. His fans can look forward, though, to more of his work. Tapply’s third Calhoun novel, Dark Tiger, is due out from Minotaur Books in September.

UPDATE: Jiro Kimura of The Gumshoe Site notes that Tapply has yet another novel in the publishing works: The Nomination, a suspense thriller due out next year.

READ MORE:Author William Tapply Dies,” by Marshall Cutchin (MidCurrent); “William Tapply, 69, Prolific Writer of Mysteries, Non-fiction,” by Bryan Marquard (The Boston Globe).

All the Rage in Harlem

Blogger Jake Murdock reminds us that today would have been the 100th birthday of African-American author Chester Himes, who wrote the Coffin Ed John and Grave Digger Jones police series as well as other non-crime books. Poet-novelist Ishmael Reed has been quoted as saying that he “taught me the difference between a black detective and Sherlock Holmes.” Himes died in 1984.

Have These People No Shame?

Off topic, but ... it’s astounding to me how willing the right-wing is to lie, if that’s the only way it can destroy any chance that the United States will reform its overpriced, restrictive, and economy-busting health-care system and thereby prevent President Obama and Democrats from being credited with helping millions of people stay healthier, longer. Telling folks that health care reform will be used by their government to put seniors to death? Or that health care will be rationed in order to pay for abortions? How gullible do Republicans believe Americans are? They think we’re idiots!

READ MORE:Bipartisanship ‘Ain’t What It Used to Be,’” by Steve Benen (The Washington Monthly); “Is GOP Using Race to Block Obama Agenda? Ya Think?” by Joan Walsh (Salon).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

No Stain Removers Necessary

I should learn never to go looking through my files on old TV crime-dramas unless I’ve set aside a few hours for that task, and then promise to refrain from reading everything as I go along.

While looking today for some information I needed to flesh out Wikipedia’s entry about the 1976 Wayne Rogers historical gumshoe drama, City of Angels, I stumbled across an intriguing spread from the July 27, 1974, edition of TV Guide. (What, you thought I only saved books?) It’s a feature about how costumers created those rumpled raincoats that Los Angeles police Lieutenant Columbo wore during his original seven years of action on NBC.

Simply click on the image below to make it readable.

READ MORE:Style Points,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).

The Movie You Have to See

With thanks to The Rap Sheet’s Jeff Pierce and blogger-author Patti Abbott, who invented the “Book You Have to Read” (aka “forgotten books”) feature, I offer this cinematic version.

Chinatown (1974) arguably presented Jack Nicholson’s best movie role, director Roman Polanski’s best work, and Robert Towne’s best writing. John Huston and Faye Dunaway weren’t too shabby, either, and Jerry Goldsmith’s music, John A. Alonzo’s cinematography, and Sam O’Steen’s editing were all superb.

I saw Chinatown for the second time this weekend, after watching a preview of a terrific, forthcoming PBS-TV documentary about Los Angeles’ newspapering Chandler family, who--with help from engineer William Mulholland--stole water from Southern California’s Owens Valley and diverted it to the San Fernando Valley. That theft lay at the heart of Towne’s fictional story, and Polanski and his crew created an evocative picture of 1930s Los Angeles to bring it to life.

If you haven’t seen Chinatown recently, do your good taste a favor and rent it. The movie trailer is here.

Have You Entered Yet?

In case you have been preoccupied with other things lately (the progress of U.S. health care reform, Sarah Palin’s comical departure from the Alaska governor’s office, the continuing tabloid feast on Michael Jackson’s death), and have missed news of The Rap Sheet’s latest book giveaway contest, here are the details again.

To help celebrate the publication of Joseph Finder’s Vanished on August 18, Minotaur Books is offering Rap Sheet readers in the United States and Canada three free copies of that new novel. To enter our contest, just answer this simple question:
Which of Finder’s previous novels was made into a film starring Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman?

(a) High Sierra
(b) High Noon
(c) High Crimes
(d) High School Musical 2
Send your response, along with your mailing address, to: And write “Vanished Competition” in the subject line. Submissions will be accepted between now and midnight on Sunday, August 16. Winners will be chosen at random from among those who submit correct entries, and their names will be announced on this page the following day.

Again, this competition is open only to U.S. and Canadian readers. But Rap Sheet followers in the UK shouldn’t lose heart: The e-zine Shots, in conjunction with publisher Headline, is planning the same sort of competition to benefit three of Finder’s British/Irish fans. Keep checking Shots for details of that contest.

Monday, July 27, 2009

From the Observatory

I don’t usually play hooky from The Rap Sheet for two whole days in a row, but I was feeling particularly rebellious this last weekend. An impromptu vacation seemed in order. But now it’s back to the business of news gathering.

• Bill Crider mentioned this already, but that won’t stop me from doing the same. Today is the 80th birthday of Harry Patterson, better known as Jack Higgins. I haven’t read a lot of Higgins/Patterson novels in recent years, but I still count his 1975 novel, The Eagle Has Landed, as one of my favorite World War II thrillers.

• Pop Culture Nerd catches Robert Crais spilling some passages and other information about his January 2010 Joe Pike novel, The First Rule. Get the scoop here.

• This week’s new short story at Beat to a Pulp comes from southern Arizona writer Keith Rawson. It’s called “Marmalade.”

• Editor Geoff Eighinger has decided to fold together his two Web sites. As he explains in Eastern Standard Crime, “I have a new plan for this site, which will now incorporate my sister site Crooked Web Zine. Starting on August 5 (or maybe later that month since this is kind of short notice), Eastern Standard Crime will become a bi-weekly .PDF publication.” He’s now looking for crime-fiction submissions of 500 words or more, as well as some new book reviewers. More information here.

• Winners of the 2009 Scribe Awards were announced last Friday Friday at Comic-Con in San Diego. The Scribes, of course, honor excellence in movie and TV tie-in writing. Among this year’s prize recipients were Greg Cox and James Rollins. A full rundown of victors, nominees, and their works can be found here.

According to Euro Crime, Scottish novelsit Stuart MacBride (Blind Eye) has been named as the program chair for the 2010 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Dreda Say Mitchell will serve as program chair for that same delightful event in 2011.

• Nominations are in for the 2009 Davitt Awards, given out by the Australian division of Sisters in Crime. Forty-one books are under consideration in the Adult Fiction, True Crime, and Young Adult categories. A full list of contenders is here.

He does have a point.

This is a Jim Thompson novel I’ve never seen.

• And in anticipation of the release next month of Tower, by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman, novelist and veteran interviewer Craig McDonald has interviewed both authors for the Busted Flush Press blog. You’ll find his discussion with Bruen here, and the one with Coleman here.

Time to “Panic”

Burglar Carlos Sanchez isn’t expecting anyone to be home, when he breaks into a brownstone in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, at the beginning of Jason Starr’s new thriller, Panic Attack (Minotaur). Much less is Sanchez expecting to have an entire ammo clip emptied into him as he reaches the top of that residence’s staircase. The shooter, psychologist Adam Bloom, has his own surprises in the aftermath of this incident. Instead of being hailed as a hero for defending his wife and daughter in their own home, the media blast him as a vigilante. Even worse, the sociopathic Johnny Long, who’d tagged along with his pal Sanchez for what they figured was an easy score, decides--after escaping into the night--that the Blooms should pay in more blood for what they did to his partner.

Once again, Starr (The Follower, Fake I.D.) succeeds in scaring the stuffing out of his readers.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Woman Chaser,” by Charles Willeford

(Editor’s note: This is the 58th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s choice comes from Pennsylvania author, actress, and playwright Kathryn Miller Haines. She writes the Rosie Winter historical mystery series, the most recent installment of which is Winter in June [2009]. You can watch a video trailer for that book here.)

I came upon Charles Willeford’s The Woman Chaser in the usual way. A friend sent me the Pocket paperback with a note that said he had read the book and thought of me. And how couldn’t he, with such passages as this:
It was best to get Laura off the subject of the movie. On the dance floor, with her well-cushioned breasts pressing hard against my chest, I wondered why a woman who was so obviously a woman wanted to be so intelligent. Women are made for bed, and men are made for war. Life would be simple if both sexes could only remember these basic facts of life.
I tell you: it’s like looking in a mirror.

Willeford (1919-1988), for the uninitiated, was the author of the hard-boiled Hoke Moseley novels, which began with the amazing Miami Blues (1984). The Woman Chaser (1960) was written in the same vein as those later police procedurals--not really a traditional crime novel, the book reverberates with a wicked sense of humor that insists you go back and re-read passages just to confirm that the prose really was that outrageous. The Woman Chaser is the tale of one man’s downfall in post-World War II Los Angeles. As characters go, Willeford’s used-car salesman, Richard Hudson, doesn’t leave much to admire, especially when it comes to his interactions with women. He’s harboring a nasty Oedipus complex for his ballerina mother (with whom he shares an intensely sexual pas de deux in her basement studio--yes, what’s more hard-boiled than a man who knows ballet?). He beds his teenage stepsister in an attempt to turn her off men until she’s old enough to handle them (in his defense, he also gets her an IUD). And when he finds out that another one-night stand has a bun in the oven, his response is to punch her in the stomach.

Clearly, he’s just misunderstood.

Women aren’t Richard’s only problem. Having mastered the used-car biz, he thinks he’s destined for something better in life, better at least than the “feebs” he sees around him who accept lousy jobs and monotonous lives without complaint. He’s stuck in post-war America where the cookie-cutter construction ruining Los Angeles has become emblematic of the cookie-cutter lives returning veterans are happy to sink into. We never learn how Richard spent the war years, but it’s obvious he has nothing but disdain for what veterans are willing to accept now, and he doesn’t harbor much respect for what they went through to get here. He sees only one way out of the malaise: Art.

And that’s where things really get interesting. Determined to write the great American movie to rip the lid off the big lie that is post-war America and make everyone realize that they’re settling for crap when they should be demanding more, he teams up with his one-time producer stepfather. Together, the two hammer out a screenplay, the brilliance of which lies in its simplicity. Remarkably, they get studio funding. Or at least some studio funding provided by The Man, a bigwig who expects you to laugh when he laughs and to bend over when he tells you to. The rest of the cash comes from money Richard steals from his used-car lot boss and from hocking a valuable painting of his stepfather’s.

That’s OK though. The movie’s going to be a big hit, see? And
no one will be the wiser.

Remarkably, all of the pieces fall into place. Richard’s stepfather is a whiz with numbers and makes sure they stay within the tight constraints of their budget. They recruit the perfect star--rugged and unknown--and a decent co-star who, while not an actress, is able to perform as needed when Richard beds her. Hudson proves himself not only a capable writer, but an intuitive director (see: bedding the actress). The three-week shoot goes off without a hitch, until they end up in the film-editing suite. That’s when Richard realizes that he needs to cut, cut, cut to make the film stronger and tighter. What he ends up with barely lasts over an hour. It wouldn’t be a problem except that Hollywood, like the rest of post-war America, has rigid expectations. All films must be an hour and a half long. That’s what a movie is. No exceptions.

Richard wasn’t prepared for this. Art, after all, shouldn’t have rules. When did it become a commodity like everything else?

Richard’s given the chance to do one of two things: either pump the film with filler so that it fills out those six required canisters, or slash it further (to allow for commercials) and let it be the first piece the studio airs as part of a new TV series. But he refuses to compromise--after all, isn’t that the problem with America? And that’s when things get bad. Very, very bad.

Throughout it all, Willeford punches up his prose with Richard’s wry observations about life in America and his careful attempts to make sure that he’s a better class of human than the feeble-minded idiots around him, despite what his actions might indicate. The Woman Chaser itself is structured like a screenplay, a knowing wink that the best story contained within it isn’t the film Richard Hudson is creating, but the mess he is making of his own life.

READ MORE:Doing Right by a Poet of the Pulp Novel,” by Jesse Sublett (The New York Times).

Back from the Grave

The latest blogosphere-wide supply of posts about “forgotten books” worth reading seems a bit sparer than usual. But there are certainly some gems that crime-fiction fans will enjoy digging up. Among those: Hare Sitting Up, by Michael Innes; Charlie Opera, by Charlie Stella; The Given Day, by Robert van Gulik; Crossroad Blues, by Ace Atkins; The 31st of February, by Julian Symons; Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg; The Dark Side of the Island, by Mark Hebden; The Hidden Stone, by Fran Striker; and Death Rides the Pecos, by Davis Dresser (aka Brett Halliday).

Patti Abbott has a full list of today’s recommendations in her own blog, plus three more “forgotten” finds, one of them being Jon L. Breen’s collection of criticism, A Shot Rang Out.

Book ’Em, Bond, James Bond

I’m an unapologetic trivia enthusiast, so could have been guaranteed to latch onto The HMSS Weblog’s new post about connections between the James Bond film series and the long-running U.S. TV crime drama, Hawaii Five-O. Just one link among many:
Jack Lord: played the screen’s first Felix Leiter in Dr. No while also playing Five-O’s Steve McGarrett through the entire run of the series. Rose Freeman, widow of Five-O creator Leonard Freeman, told fans attending a 1996 Five-O convention in the Los Angeles area that Lord was cast only five days before production of the pilot began.
You can read the whole post here. A follow-up post is here. Oh, and there’s even more on the subject here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Story Behind the Story:
“Hogdoggin’,” by Anthony Neil Smith

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series. Today we welcome Anthony Neil Smith, editor of the Webzine Plots With Guns and author of the new novel Hogdoggin’ [Bleak House Books]. The sequel to Yellow Medicine, one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2008, Hogdoggin’ is a violent yarn about motorcycles, murder, and cold-blooded revenge. How could one hope for a better storytelling mix? Smith also blogs at Crimedog One.)

Let’s back this up a minute.

In the summer of 2005, I moved to rural southwest Minnesota, which felt more like Iowa and South Dakota, with their vast prairies and corn and bean fields, than this “Land of a Thousand Lakes” I kept hearing about. I rented a house on the river in Yellow Medicine County from a colleague at the university where I worked. A couple of months later I sold my second novel, The Drummer, to indie publisher Two Dollar Radio. And a few days after that, Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast, where I had been born and reared and where my family still lived.

My parents and sisters had fled Slidell, right across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, for my grandmother’s house on the eastern edge of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, which looked like it would avoid the strike. They were wrong. Two feet of water got into their house--and nearly half the city’s other homes--and the storm surge wiped out almost all the residences on the beach. They lost power. They were hungry. Their cars were flooded. And all I could do was listen to their horror stories … when I could connect with them at all. In fact, it took my uncle and grandmother nearly 12 hours to make what was usually a two-and-a-half hour drive between her house and Baton Rouge, because the only way to get gasoline was to drive four hours north to Jackson and then wait in line for two or three hours. I finally got back in touch with them while I was in Chicago for Bouchercon a week later.

When I said I was coming down to help, they said, “You’d just end up as hungry and miserable as we are. Stay put.”

So I did. Until Christmas.

What I finally saw in New Orleans and along the coast over those few weeks of my visit was reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic video game. Burned-out houses. Abandoned neighborhoods. Cars and boats heaped together as if made of paper. An entire community of fishing cabins along Lake Pontchartrain erased as if they were never there. My parents had finally come back to Slidell after several months to find that their neighborhood had been flooded--nearly seven feet of standing water in their home, everything on the first floor completely wrecked and unsalvageable. By choosing to return when they did, my folks had to agree to get tetanus shots and wear surgical masks. A truck carrying food came by occasionally, and that’s when they found out who was still in the neighborhood. They had to sleep lightly, on guard for looters.

Still, they were determined to make the house livable again, and they even refused one of the infamous FEMA trailers. Good thing, too, because those became a crutch for many people in that neighborhood who were either too shell-shocked or unable to move as quickly as my folks did. On my visits over the next several years, those trailers remained parked on front lawns, becoming people’s main residences while the homes behind them rotted away.

As cold as it may sound, I knew pretty quickly that I would never want to live on the Gulf Coast again. Not so much for the fear of hurricanes--I’d been through several as a child, and we persevered every time--but rather the sense that so many people in my hometown and in New Orleans had just given up. Their spirits were broken. Sure, on the surface it’s great to think that New Orleans will return to her former glory and status, and that the Gulf Coast’s best days are ahead of it. But with so much abandoned wreckage still polluting the scenery four years later, that might not be the case--although I wouldn’t be disappointed if I were proven wrong.

Following my initial post-Katrina trip to Mississippi, I returned to my little river home and began to write Yellow Medicine, about a disgraced and dirty cop from the Gulf Coast, Billy Lafitte, who took advantage of the chaos and need in Katrina’s wake and got popped for it. After he was bounced from the force, Lafitte’s ex-wife took pity and had her brother hire Billy as a deputy in Yellow Medicine County, all the way up in Minnesota. Lafitte moved into a little river home and immediately went back to his old ways, turning the lucrative backwoods methamphetamine economy into his private savings account.

One thing I realized while writing the book was that even though the Mississippi and Minnesota accents were very different, rural was rural. I began to break through the surface and get a feel for how people here viewed family, the land, their town, and other aspects of rural life. We had more in common than we had differences.

Unfortunately, one of those aspects of rural life is the same thing I noticed along the Gulf Coast in the years following Katrina: the slow death of the small-town existence. Although Minnesota hadn’t been swamped by a hurricane, I had a sense of decay and abandonment as I traveled around this area and discovered many small towns on the way to somewhere else. The emptiness hits immediately, like hunger, and just from a look around the town square you can tell there used to be more people here. The local bar, the gas station, the co-op and grain elevator, they all look … done. As bad as a meth addict’s teeth. Old before their time, just waiting for it all to be over. I’m sure the locals would argue with me about this, but my response would be, “Then do something. Make it look the way you think it really is.”

People in the town where I live and work really treasure it. So I wonder why the Christmas decorations strung along the light poles each year are in such lousy shape--dirty, torn, and with some of the lights not even working. Is that pride? I’m told over and over again by residents that this is one of the best places to live. OK, so what’s with all the empty downtown buildings, their signs left to molder even after a sprucing-up of the sidewalks and roads? A strange contradiction, it seems to me. Why is it that the same buildings that were for sale or rent along the main drag when I arrived four years ago are still sitting empty, waiting for someone to do something?

But guess what? There’s not much to be done about it. Just hunker down and wait it out.

So if Yellow Medicine was about the exile experience and the clash with one’s new surroundings, then Hogdoggin’ is about realizing you can never go home again.

* * *
I began Hogdoggin’ before we’d even sold Yellow Medicine. While I wasn’t usually a “series guy” in the stuff I’d written to that point, Billy Lafitte drew me back as I was driving through a small Minnesota/South Dakota border town, rusty and fading, and saw that the “Welcome to ...” sign was surrounded by gnomes. Your everyday garden gnomes, welcoming you to town. For some reason that brought up the contrasting image of Lafitte riding through town on a tricked-out chopper, his return to Minnesota after being out on the run. But that left me with two questions: 1) Why was he back, and 2) where had he been?

The motorcycle answered the first question for me, and it made sense. Out on the road, alone, being hounded by the law, of course Lafitte would turn to a place where his talents could be useful while also giving him shelter. So he joins a new family, Steel God’s splinter motorcycle club--more like a cult out in the wilderness--as an enforcer. But he doesn’t quite fit in. Although he was a bad cop, he had still been a cop, and the line between right and wrong was visible even if Billy had skipped back and forth across it willy-nilly. Now that line is so far behind him, he can’t see it over his shoulder.

In order to get him back, it takes a distress call from his family--his ex-wife and the kids he abandoned in Mississippi. Behind that call, though, is really rogue FBI agent Franklin Rome, beaten to a pulp by Billy at the end of Yellow Medicine, who threatened Billy’s ex if she didn’t cooperate. Rome knows his prey. Knows Lafitte can’t resist a chance to feel normal and right again. It barely takes a second thought for the man to hop on his hog and roar back into town, planning a trip to the Deep South.

He doesn’t get very far. Though not for lack of trying.

But let’s leave it at that for now.

To tell the truth, after one Minnesota winter, the Southern Guy in me wanted to make a break for warmer climes, too. I applied and interviewed for a job in Arkansas. Didn’t get it, but that was OK. By then I’d fallen in love with a Minnesota woman who began to show me what I was missing across the state. We took road trips. We went camping at several different state parks. We toured Minneapolis and she showed me the shortcuts through traffic, plus all the nooks, crannies, and neighborhoods that put Minneapolis on top of my list of cool big cities. We eventually got married in Itasca State Park, where the Mississippi River begins, and it had been a long trip, beginning at the mouth all those years ago and winding my way to the source. I wasn’t so eager to leave anymore. I was beginning to love the place.

Now, I can’t say that Billy Lafitte ever came to love his place in the world, but he did learn to accept it. He’d observed enough of southwest Minnesota and South Dakota to understand that he belonged here. Me? Well, I came to realize that I was a former Southerner, only going back to visit family and friends for short stints. And I was OK with that.

Still, the wanderlust hasn’t left me. Of course, my wife and I are part of our community. The reason we can criticize it is because we care. We’re invested here. We want to see the potential for this town that everyone else tells us is right in front of our noses. Really, we’re rooting for this place. But you’ll find us planning lots of little adventures up to the lake country, Duluth (my idea of heaven, really), the Twin Cities, Sioux Falls, Fargo, Omaha, and wherever else we can drive off to for a while. We pass through so many small towns along the way, wishing we’d seen them at their peaks. Wishing we didn’t have to witness the decline. Crossing our fingers for some miracle but also reading the lay of the land.

After all, I am a noir writer. I’m sure I’ll squeeze plenty more dark and twisted stories out of this landscape.

Top Billingham

Euro Crime reports that Mark Billingham has won the 2009 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for Death Message (Little, Brown, 2007), the seventh installment of his series featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. This announcement came during the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, which is being held today through Sunday in Harrogate, England.

Death Message was one of 14 books shortlisted for the Old Peculier prize. The other nominees were: The Accident Man, by Tom Cain (Bantam Press); Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child (Bantam Press); Gone to Ground, by John Harvey (Heinemann); Ritual, by Mo Hayder (Bantam Press); The Garden of Evil, by David Hewson (Macmillan); A Cure for All Diseases, by Reginald Hill (HarperCollins); The Colour of Blood, by Declan Hughes (John Murray); Dead Man’s Footsteps, by Peter James (Macmillan); Broken Skin, by Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins); Beneath the Bleeding, by Val McDermid (HarperCollins); Exit Music, by Ian Rankin (Orion); Friend of the Devil, by Peter Robinson (Hodder & Stoughton); and Savage Moon, by Chris Simms (Orion).

Death Message has already been released in paperback in the UK. But it isn't due for its hardcover release in the States until October. Harper will be the publisher.

So Much for the Gumshoes

I was extremely proud in 2005 when January Magazine’s crime-fiction department--of which I was (and still am) the editor--won the Gumshoe Award for Best Web Site. That was the fourth year in which the Gumshoes were dispensed by the Web site Mystery Ink and its editor, David J. Montgomery. Since 2002, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Henning Mankell, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Robert Crais, and Sarah Weinman have all picked up Gumshoe Awards.

But, after realizing yesterday that there had not yet been an announcement of Gumshoe nominees for 2009, I wrote Montgomery to ask when that might come. His response:
No Gumshoe Awards this year. Given the glut of mystery/thriller awards that now exists, we probably won’t be doing them anymore.
This is too bad. Although there are certainly abundant commendations given out these days to people laboring in the mystery/crime fiction/thriller field, tastes and reading experiences always differ among judges. Reducing the number of prizes will consequently limit the range of books and authors being applauded--and thus promoted to readers. I’d hate to see a day when all of the smaller awards programs disappear, and only the big-name writers receive recognition.

Of Fests, Films, and Fools

• England’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival begins today. As The Guardian explains, “Novelist Mark Billingham opens the event and is joined over the weekend by Barry Norman, Reginald Hill, and Stella Duffy. Saving perhaps the best until last, the event closes on Sunday with The Wire creator David Simon teaming up with novelist George Pelecanos, who is also one of the show’s writers, for a discussion about the series with Laura Lippman.” Tonight, as part of the Harrogate festivities, the winner of the 2009 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award will be announced. The shortlist of nominees can be found here.

• Talk about important days! As The Writer’s Almanac reminds us,
It’s the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler, ... born in Chicago, Illinois (1888). He’s known for his novels about the private detective Philip Marlowe, such as The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1954). He’s one of the originators of hard-boiled detective fiction, and he’s known more for the style and atmosphere of his novels than his plots.

He said, “The things [my readers] remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.”
B.V. Lawson has more background on Chandler here, including mention of two Raymond Chandler tours of Los Angeles taking place later this year. And of course, much more about Philip Marlowe’s creator can be found in The Rap Sheet’s back files.

• As much as I enjoyed the previous trailer for Whiteout, the forthcoming movie starring the captivating Kate Beckinsale and based on Greg Rucka’s much-praised graphic novel Whiteout (1998), I like this new one even better.

• Rap Sheet contributor Ali Karim talked last year with spy novelist Charles Cumming. Now, Wesley Britton of The Spy Wise Blog questions the author again. Could even James Bond have held up under such persistent interrogation?

This seems to me like an underhanded promotions scheme.

• Although I have yet to actually see a copy of Tower, the new paperback novel about friendship, fate, and treachery written by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman, Pulp Serenade’s Cullen Gallagher has not only read the book, but extols its use of language and rich narrative in a new review.

• For the e-zine Pulp Pusher, Danny Hogan interviews Warren Roberts about his new, Florida-set novel, Kill City USA. I hadn’t heard of this private eye Joe Milo novel before, but it sounds like a most entertaining summer diversion.

• In a fairly good-sized interview, Megan Abbott talks with the Barnes & Noble Review about her sad but seductive new historical noir novel, Bury Me Deep.

• Janet Evanovich will publish her next Alexandra “Alex” Barnaby (aka Metro Girl) novel as a comic book. Is nothing sacred any longer?

This is for fans of historical true-crime. (Hat tip to Bill Crider.)

• “Don’t call me Angel. I loathe it.” That’s a quote from the latest film in focus at Noir of the Week: Crime of Passion (1957), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Sterling Hayden.

• Richard Lange submits his new novel, This Wicked World, to the notorious Page 69 Test.

If only the clocks could be turned back ...

• And I don’t know about John Stewart being “America’s most-trusted newsman” in our post-Walter Cronkite world, but he sure can be funny. And sometimes more honest because of it. Particularly priceless was his put-down yesterday of the idiotic Birthers--you know, those conspiracy theorists who perpetuate the odd myth that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and therefore cannot be president. Click here to watch the video. (More on the Looney Tunes Birthers here and here.)