Monday, February 24, 2020

Revue of Reviewers, 2-24-20

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.

Mbr />

A Dagger Directed at Edwards

Congratulations to author, critic, and genre historian Martin Edwards, who has been named as this year’s recipient of the Diamond Dagger—“the highest honour in British crime writing”—presented by the Crime Writers’ Association.

In its press release about this award, the CWA explains that “Alongside his career as a prolific novelist, Martin is a renowned editor, reviewer, columnist and versatile writer of non-fiction, and is a leading authority on crime fiction. He has also enjoyed a separate career as a solicitor, and is recognised for his expertise in employment and equal opportunities law. … Originally known for his Harry Devlin and the Lake District Mysteries series, Martin is now making waves with his 1930s-set thrillers. His latest novel Gallows Court revived the Golden Age of crime fiction with a unique twist, featuring the character Rachel Savernake, and was last year nominated for the CWA Historical Dagger and shortlisted for the eDunnit award. The sequel, Mortmain Hall, is published in April by Head of Zeus.

“In 2015, Martin followed in the footsteps of Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers by being elected President of the Detection Club, the world’s oldest social network of crime writers. The Club will celebrate its 90th birthday this year by publishing Howdunit (HarperCollins), edited by Martin; a masterclass of crime writing by leading exponents of the genre. He is consultant to the British Library’s bestselling Crime Classics series, and wrote the award-winning companion volume, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. He is also archivist of the Detection Club and the CWA and a former Chair of the CWA. Author of over sixty short stories, since 1996 he has been the editor of the CWA’s annual anthology.”

That release concludes: “The CWA Diamond Dagger is selected from nominations provided by CWA members. Nominees have to meet two essential criteria: first, their careers must be marked by sustained excellence, and second, they must have made a significant contribution to crime writing published in the English language.” Previous Diamond Dagger honorees include Ruth Rendell, Andrew Taylor, Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Ian Rankin, P.D. James, John Harvey, Reginald Hill, Lindsey Davis, Peter Lovesey, and John Le Carré. The 2019 prize went to Robert Goddard.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

April to Bring a Shower of Awards

I’ve tried to focus my limited writing time this week toward the completion of a new piece for CrimeReads—thus the notable paucity of posts in The Rap Sheet. But I can’t ignore today’s news about the finalists for this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. Awards for “outstanding literary achievements” will be given out in 12 categories, with winners set to be announced on Friday, April 17, one day prior to the start of the L.A. Times Festival of Books on the University of Southern California campus.

Here are the five contenders in the Mystery/Thriller category:

Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha (Ecco)
The Night Fire, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)
The Lost Man, by Jane Harper (Flatiron)
Lady in the Lake, by Laura Lippman (Morrow)
Heaven, My Home, by Attica Locke (Mulholland)

In addition, Walter Mosley, best known for composing the popular Easy Rawlins historical crime series, will receive the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. That commendation “recognizes a writer whose work focuses on the American West.”

You will find more about these prizes here and here.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Tuned to Chandler

(Editor’s note: The essay below—a tribute to the must-have 2019 reference work, The Annotated Big Sleep—comes from Janet Roger, the author of last year’s Shamus Dust [Troubador], a noirish yarn set in the City of London in 1947 and introducing Newman, an expatriate American private investigator. Roger lives on a small island off the coast of Africa, and is currently working on a Shamus Dust sequel titled The Gumshoe’s Freestyle.)

Recently in The Rap Sheet I wrote something on historical fiction, about how fast the world of a novel dates, and how soon its commonplaces become entirely lost on another generation of readers. To give an idea of how much gets lost, and how fast, I took one of my for-instances from Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake (1943).

I’d just finished re-reading the book, and noticed something that hadn’t really struck me before. I mean those references to the small matter of a Second World War going on in the background. There’s mention of the dim-out and tire rationing. The military is guarding a dam. A cop shrugs that in two weeks more he’ll be in the army. But they’re passing details. Not more than fleeting color in the welter of Chandler’s fourth Philip Marlowe mystery. Of course they’re not, though. What reader of the time would need it explained that the country was at war, how come or with whom? And there’s the problem, for any novel that stays the course long enough to be read by a later generation. For readers now, not close to the war in Vietnam any longer, let alone to the attack on Pearl Harbor, those details of civilian wartime and a lot else besides, will go flying over their rooftops—until, I wrote, an annotated Lady in the Lake arrives to explain it. After all, don’t we have The Annotated Big Sleep now?

We do indeed. And it’s splendid. Editors Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto have re-tuned us to Raymond Chandler.

How to read The Annotated Big Sleep? Good question. In general, its left-hand pages contain the text of Chandler’s first full-length novel. Right-hand pages feature the editors’ notes and illustrations. Both sides are irresistible. You might decide, I suppose, to read the text through and then get back later to the glosses and commentary. But I don’t have that kind of willpower.

Those right-hand pages are addictive. And since it’s Chandler who’s under investigation, the delivery has proper brio. The Romantic Tradition and Literary Modernism? Philip Marlowe’s debts are noted. Los Angeles’ geography and history? Those right-hand notations illuminate as they should. There are who-knew? asides. One of them recalls that the city once had a world-beating streetcar system, hence the scenes in The Big Sleep where we hear them passing by. And of course we get clarity on legion points of detail. Which reminds me. I have a confession.

In another excursion recently, this time to mark The Big Sleep’s 80th birthday in CrimeReads, I wrote that the first Marlowe novel had been published by Alfred A. Knopf, in October of 1939. Not so. Wherever I got that date from—it’s not one I memorize—it wasn’t from Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto. But it’s to that source I should have looked. Because their edition tells me that The Big Sleep was in fact first published in the United States on February 6, 1939, and then a month later in Britain. It was noon, New York time. Blanche Knopf had breakfasted on her usual honey toast with a glass of Ceylon tea, straight, no milk. Actually, I made that last part up. Mrs. Knopf’s breakfast routine is unknown. I know that because, if it had been known, The Annotated Big Sleep would have mentioned it. It’s that thorough. Now, following confession, a declaration of interest.

Above, left: The first edition of The Big Sleep was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1939. Right: Pocket Books’ 1954 edition, with cover art by Ernest Chiriacka (aka Darcy).

Wouldn’t you know it? When I came to write a dark, hard-boiled tale of my own, Shamus Dust turned out to be a late-1940s cocktail of disillusion, laced with civic corruption, the rackets, murder, and police complicity. The ’40s, of course, being just that decade when Chandler became doyen of the hard-boiled mystery. So, while I get a special glow from being sometimes labelled Chandleresque, it’s no coincidence. After all, if you’ve got a hard-boiled cocktail in the shaker, Chandler pours them like no other. End of declaration of interest.

Chandleresque? I can’t say I ever spelled out what it meant myself. I’d simply read and re-read the Marlowe novels since I was a teenager—not so long after they were written, as I like to remember—until they felt like an element I swam in. But measure by measure, page by page, The Annotated Big Sleep does spell out the meaning of Chandleresque, and makes a case that fascinates just as much as it convinces.

There are the familiar devices, obviously, that orientate the reader. Can’t imagine Chandler without the gumshoe, a femme fatale, the blondes? Fine, you’re up and running. Add blackmail, hard liquor, and the camera eye and you’re still hardly started on the accessories. Really, you’re not. But no matter, The Annotated Big Sleep has them covered. It considers the hard-boiled conventions, before Chandler and since. Along the way it settles that he’s rarely an inventor—not even when he thinks he might be. And it establishes—no question—that he had a genius nonetheless, for shifting those familiar devices up through the gears into art.

Then again, there are the fault lines. The Annotated Big Sleep spells those out too, because Chandler is complicated. A Victorian by birth and by disposition, apprenticed to the pulps in the Depression era, he liberated the hard-boiled form through talent and technique, and at the same time consorted with its casual prejudices. The editors’ analysis of class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity fits The Big Sleep flush in the mainstream of the hard-boiled purview. Simply put, if you’re looking for a fair shake as a developed character in a Chandler story, it helps no end to be straight and white and male. Which can not only make for some queasy 21st-century reading; if you’re thinking of writing something Chandleresque nowadays, there’s a problem to solve.

Let’s end where we started, on those Rap Sheet musings. With Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Thomas Hardy’s Tess (1891) in mind, I wrote: “Read either of them in an edition that supplies an expert guide, and the wonder at being enlightened mixes with being appalled by how much we didn’t know we were missing.” Better add The Big Sleep (1939) to that company. Seriously—and even though we’re scarcely more than 80 years on—don’t skip the wonder of this annotated edition, with its foreword by Jonathan Lethem. You won’t ever know what you’re missing.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Everyone!

Dashiell Hammett’s third novel, The Maltese Falcon, was serialized in Black Mask magazine during the closing months of 1929. However, it wasn’t until February 14, 1930—90 years ago today—that publisher Alfred A. Knopf first released that tale in book form.

Two motion-picture adaptations of Hammett’s only novel starring private eye Sam Spade were made during the 1930s, but it is the 1941 Falcon—directed by John Huston, and starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor (shown above)—that everyone best remembers.

(Hat tip to Up and Down These Mean Streets.)

READ MORE:Happy Valentine’s Day?” (The Stiletto Gumshoe).

Changing Channel

I guess it’s been a while since I checked to see what people are watching most on The Rap Sheet’s YouTube channel, which is devoted primarily to the main title sequences from TV crime dramas—the more obscure or forgotten, the better. And much has changed since I last posted the video standings, almost eight years ago.

According to that channel’s analytics page, the site currently has 6,181 subscribers (up by 196 in just the last month). And it has clocked in what seems a whopping 8,205,190 pageviews since the channel’s inception in 2010. Here are the top 10 most-viewed intros:

1. Quincy, M.E. (349,319 views)
2. McCloud (272,519)
3. The Wild Wild West (236,000)
4. The Untouchables (228,963)
5. How the West Was Won (211,838)
6. Night Gallery (194,718)
7. S.W.A.T. (155,993)
8. Silk Stalkings (152,442)
9. House of Cards (148,527)
10. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (139,195)

Also big draws are the main titles from the NBC Mystery Movie, L.A. Law, Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Cade’s County, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Interestingly, the second-highest vote-getter eight years ago—the opening from Wiseguy—has tumbled to the 20th spot, while the previously top-ranked introduction to Crazy Like a Fox is now in 22nd place. None of the other top-10 videos from 2012 currently appear among the channel’s top 40 most-watched videos.

Our YouTube channel boasts 241 videos, with more to come.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

PaperBack: “Town Quarry”

Part of a series honoring the late author and blogger Bill Crider.

Town Quarry, by “Martin Manners,” aka Margaret Manners (Pyramid, 1963). Cover illustration by Mort Engel.

(Hat tip to Pulp Covers.)

Translating a Japanese Mystery Star

This intriguing item comes from In Reference to Murder:
The stories of locked-room king Seishi Yokomizo, considered the master of ingenious plotting with a reputation in Japan to rival Agatha Christie’s, were long unavailable to English-speaking audiences. The first English version of The Honjin Murders was only published last year when Pushkin Vertigo released Louise Heal Kawai’s translation—73 years after the original novel first appeared in Japan. And now, the indie press is also publishing Yumiko Yamazaki’s translation of ... The Inugami Curse. The Honjin Murders novel won Yokomizo the first Mystery Writers of Japan award in 1948, and its protagonist, the scruffy amateur sleuth Kosuke Kindaichi, went on to star in another 76 novels, selling more than 55 million books and appearing in numerous television and stage adaptations.
Although Pushkin Vertigo’s The Honjin Murders debuted in Britain in December, U.S. book retailers won’t receive copies until June. The Inugami Curse, also starring Kindaichi, will follow in August.

For Love or Murder

Don’t forget that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Have you made reservations for dinner out with somebody special? If you intend to pass around Valentine’s cards, do you have those already in hand? And what book, related to this annual occasion, are you planning to read while you await your date or relax the morning after?

If you need some ideas to satisfy that last (nontraditional) requirement, take a glance over Janet Rudolph’s list of Valentine’s Day Crime Fiction in Mystery Fanfare. Included among her picks are Dorothy Cannell’s How to Murder the Man of Your Dreams, Ethan Black’s The Broken Hearts Club, Rose Deshaw’s Love With the Proper Killer, G.A. McKevett’s Sugar and Spite, Jane Haddam’s Bleeding Hearts, and George Dawes Green’s Caveman's Valentine.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Tough Guy Finally Bows Out

Robert Conrad’s image may have been served poorly by some of his best-remembered TV roles. He came off as too robust, too shallowly macho, and often too arrogant to be very interesting. Yet Terence Towles Canote, writing in his blog A Shroud of Thoughts, says that the 5-foot-8 actor (born Konrad Robert Falkowski in Chicago on March, 1 1935) was also “truly a nice guy. … When he liked you no one could be better to you. He was a man who was fiercely loyal to his friends and very protective of them. Robert Conrad may have been a tough guy, but he was one with an enormous heart.”

Conrad died of heart failure this last Saturday in Malibu, California. He was 84 years old. He’d not set out to become famous; that’s just the way things happened. The Associated Press says Conrad was “a football player in school” and his “first job was loading trucks. Then at 18 he was hired to drive milk wagons. He tried boxing and nightclub singing for a time before drifting into acting and eventually moving to Hollywood, where he found work as a stuntman.” (Even after he established himself as a leading man, Conrad continued to do many of his own stunts. The Hollywood Reporter observes that “He was one of the few actors to have been inducted into the Stuntmen's Hall of Fame.”)

In 1965 the then-30-year-old actor was hired to play U.S. government agent James West in CBS-TV’s The Wild Wild West, a historical adventure series with science-fiction elements that ran for only four seasons, but—thanks to broad and continuing syndication—made Conrad’s face one of the most familiar on the small screen. (Rory Calhoun had evidently also been a contender for that role. How different history might have been had he been cast as West, instead.) Conrad went on to headline several more TV dramas, including Assignment: Vienna, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and High Mountain Rangers (1988); guest-star in shows such as Columbo (on which he played a “loathsome” fitness franchise kingpin), Police Story, the mini-series Centennial, and the Stephen J. Cannell-created crime drama J.J. Starbuck; and feature in numerous TV films, from 1970’s Weekend of Terror to One Police Plaza, based on William J. Caunitz’s 1984 novel of that same name. He also exploited his tough-guy persona in a succession of boob-tube advertisements for Eveready batteries (that had him daring anyone to knock a battery from his shoulder) and with appearances on several Battle of the Network Stars specials, in which he came off as unappealingly hyper-competitive.

Rather than repeat what has been written about Conrad and his career in recent days, let me instead post—below—the main title sequences (where available) from some of TV shows in which he starred.

Hawaiian Eye (ABC, 1959-1963): Conrad guest-starred on a variety of small-screen series, including Bat Masterson, Maverick, Sea Hunt, and 77 Sunset Strip, before joining the cast of Hawaiian Eye. This once-popular crime drama (shot primarily on Los Angeles studio lots, not in the then-new 50th state), found Conrad playing detective Tom Lopaka, the same role he’d filled in four episodes of Strip.

The Wild Wild West (CBS, 1965-1969): As a boy, I was introduced to Conrad’s work through this show (which I watched in weekend reruns, long after its original presentation). Set during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1876), it starred Conrad as an incredibly resourceful U.S. Secret Service agent, James West. Together with fellow agent—and master of disguise—Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), Conrad’s character “solved crimes, protected the president, and foiled the plans of megalomaniacal villains to take over part or all of the United States,” recalls Wikipedia. “The show featured a number of fantasy elements, such as the technologically advanced devices used by the agents and their adversaries.” A full decade after CBS cancelled this series, Conrad and Martin returned to their famous roles in a couple of rather satirical (and mediocre) TV flicks, The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild Wild West (1980).

The Adventures of Nick Carter (ABC, 1972): Wild Wild West ran afoul of the U.S. Congress during its fourth season, when the nation’s elected representatives pronounced themselves shocked, just shocked by the proliferation of televised violence. This series pilot was also caught up in, and doomed by, that extended frenzy. It starred Conrad as Nick Carter, a character who had debuted in 1886 as a “dime novel” detective. Planned as part of a “wheel series” called Great Detectives (which would also feature shows built around Sherlock Holmes and Hildegarde Withers), The Adventures of Nick Carter was set in the New York City of 1912 and co-starred Brooke Bundy as Carter’s quite charming assistant, Roxy O’Rourke. Its plot found Carter searching for the missing wife of a wealthy robber baron playboy, and at the same time trying to solve the murder of a close friend. Unfortunately, ABC declined to pick up Nick Carter as a series character. At last check, this pilot film was available on YouTube.

The D.A. (NBC, 1971-1972): Dragnet’s Jack Webb cast Conrad as hard-nosed Los Angeles assistant district attorney Paul Ryan in two teleflicks— The D.A.: Murder One (1969) and The D.A.: Conspiracy to Kill (1971)—before launching a Friday-night series around that same protagonist. This drama employed a half-investigation, half-prosecution format that had been used in the earlier Arrest and Trial, and would be used again to maximum effect in Law & Order. One regrettabe decision was to make this program only half an hour long, which caused problems when it came to explaining difficult court cases. Only 15 episodes were broadcast before cancellation.

Assignment: Vienna (ABC, 1972-1973): One of three hour-long Thursday-night series rotating under the umbrella title The Men, this spy show-cum-detective drama found Conrad in the role of Jake Webster, the owner of a classy watering hole in Vienna, Austria (the eponymous Jake’s Bar & Grill), who also happened to be a U.S. intelligence operative “involved in tracking down various spies and international criminals,” as Wikipedia explains. Charles Cioffi played his U.S. government contact, Major Bernard Caldwell. I enjoyed this series immensely, partly because of its Vienna backdrop, and was sorry to see it cancelled after just eight episodes.

Baa Baa Black Sheep (NBC, 1976-1978): Taking a break from crime and espionage programs, Conrad signed on with legendary TV screenwriter-producer Stephen J. Cannell to star in this sometimes poignant World War II-era drama about a squadron of fighter pilots, all “misfits and screwballs” (hence their name, Black Sheep), who were stationed in the South Pacific. Conrad portrayed their commanding officer, Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a role based loosely on that of a real-life combat pilot and “fighter ace” of that same name. Among the actors playing members of his crew were James Whitmore Jr., Dirk Blocker (son of Bonanza’s Dan Blocker), John Larroquette, and Larry Manetti. Thirty-seven episodes of Baa Baa Black Sheep (also known as Black Sheep Squadron) were broadcast.

The Duke (NBC, 1979): I don’t remember ever watching this short-lived series, but it was again produced by Stephen J. Cannell, and cast Conrad as Oscar “The Duke” Ramsey, a 38-year old Chicago prizefighter who, following some bad turns of luck, decides to quit the ring and open a bar and grill. But after his business partner is killed, “The Duke swings into action, solving the murder, and finding himself with a new occupation, private eye,” according to The Thrilling Detective Web Site. I wasn’t able to track down this show’s main title sequence online (too bad, since it apparently included theme music composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter), but I did manage to dig up the NBC promo for The Duke embedded above.

A Man Called Sloane (NBC, 1979): This half-season wonder starred Conrad as Thomas R. Sloane III, a freelance spy and “Top Priority Agent” for UNIT, described by Wikipedia as “a secret American intelligence operation run by The Director, played by Dan O’Herlihy.” In these adventures, Sloane was assisted by Torque (played by Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a large man boasting an equally oversize mechanical hand equipped with interchangeable parts (saw blades, drills, and such—often useful in their high-stakes escapades), as well as by Effie, a computer that spoke with the voice of actress Michele Carey. Of Sloane, comic-book writer Christopher Mills recalls: “Though the format harkened back to the ’60s and shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it was still very much a product of its time, with ludicrous plots, lots of cheesecake, and Conrad’s patented macho swagger. Needless to say, I loved it as a kid.” Mills was such a fan, in fact, that he posted reviews of all 12 episodes of this series here. The opening title sequence embedded above comes from the show’s second installment, “The Seduction Squad.” At least one full episode of Sloane is available on YouTube: “The Venus Microbe,” guest-starring Morgan Fairchild as a novice private eye.

READ MORE:Television’s Tough Guy: Robert Conrad,” by David Hofstede (Comfort TV).

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Revue of Reviewers, 2-6-20

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.