Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Most Welcome Comeback

It’s amazing what you can miss, just by being away from a computer terminal for most of a week.

I returned to Seattle yesterday morning at an ungodly hour, after spending five days in New Orleans. I’d ventured down south to celebrate my birthday in one of America’s most captivating and distinctive towns. Although this was my third trip to the Crescent City, it was the first time I had been there when there wasn’t some kind of festival going on. (I had previously visited during Mardi Gras and the French Quarter Festival.)

After blogging at length two years ago about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, and George W. Bush’s feeble, too-little-too-late response to one of the worst natural disasters in American history, I was concerned that this once proud and fun-loving burg would now appear withered and defeated. That’s the reason I stayed away for as long as I did, and I’ll wager, why so many of my countrymen who’ve enjoyed New Orleans in the past have likewise hesitated to visit since the fall of 2005: we fear having our hearts broken by what we’ll see of the city in Katrina’s wake.

Fortunately, my worries seem to have been overblown. Although the first official post-Katrina population census estimates that the greater New Orleans area has lost something like 300,000 people (a 22 percent change) since 2000--raising fears about how this shrinking of the state’s most Democratic district might affect Louisiana’s future voting tendencies--and crime has surged in some inner neighborhoods, the city doesn’t give off the air of defeat. Rather, there seems hopefulness in every thoroughfare and public square, often tinged with humor. (T-shirts reading “Make Levees Not War” are big sellers on Decatur Street.) Yes, inside pages of The Times-Picayune--a daily paper that bravely continued to turn out stories (albeit online), even in the thick of Katrina’s violence--are rife with ads for service personnel at hotels and restaurants, confirming the post-hurricane population exodus; and the French Quarter, which is so tourism-dependent, has had a harder time than some other parts of town recovering since the Big Blow. But most of the eateries in that 100-block, wrought-iron-filled historic district look to be in operation again, including the landmark Café du Monde, renowned for its café au laits and plates of hot beignets, heaped with powdered sugar (a genuine hazard in any sort of wind), and K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, where during this trip I savored what may be the best Shrimp Étouffée I’ve had in my life. Musical groups still draw crowds of travelers at street corners; I blissfully exhausted much of one afternoon listening to a lively jazz combo called Loose Marbles (shown at left) play its heart out on Royal Street, in the Quarter. And tours of the town--some of which will take you north of the Quarter to the 17th Street Canal Levee, which was breached after Katrina and flooded adjacent neighborhoods--are in high demand, as visitors check out for themselves what they’ve only previously seen on their TV screens: houses in dire disrepair, streaked with thick yellow lines showing how high the sewage-infested floodwaters climbed, right next to others being gutted by young volunteers and repaired for future occupancy.

I flew out of New Orleans with faith that, despite the ravages of nature, the hollow promises of an incompetent president, and the reluctance of mealy mouthed insurers to actually pay for residential and other property damage they said they’d cover, this city at the southern mouth of the Mississippi River is well on its road to recovery. Maybe sometime soon I can visit again, to take in the other major festival I still haven’t attended: the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Be still, my unbroken heart.

Meanwhile, I’ve been running over the things I missed while I was off shoveling beignets into my maw. There were, of course, the announcements of nominees for this year’s Thriller and Gumshoe awards; the much-heralded (with more to come) 20th anniversary of the publication of Ian Rankin’s first Inspector John Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses; and news that the body of renowned magician Harry Houdini will be exhumed, to answer questions surrounding the circumstances of his 1926 demise (chief among which is, was he poisoned?). My colleague, January Magazine editor Linda L. Richards, did her traditionally fine job of substituting for me whilst I was away. But time didn’t allow for coverage of a few stories that still deserve mention, even days later:

• Thursday, March 22, marked the 95th birthday of Karl Malden, co-star of the American TV series The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977), who was born Mladen George Sekulovich to a Serbian father and a Czech mother in Chicago, Illinois, way back in 1912 (the same year the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, if you want some perspective). After changing his moniker to the more easily pronounced “Karl Malden” at age 26, the tough-looking actor was featured in theatrical films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and Patton. He also worked in such TV flicks as Fatal Vision, The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro, and Call Me Anna, and appeared in one episode of The West Wing in 2000--which the Internet Movie Database lists as his last credited acting job. Yet it’s as Lieutenant Mike Stone in The Streets of San Francisco that Malden is best known by most people. (Those who were too young to catch his performance in that role the first time around can purchase the DVD release of Streets’ first season on April 10.) Malden, by the way, is also notable for enjoying what I surmise is the third-longest marriage in Hollywood history, having wed the former Mona Graham--still his wife--on December 18, 1938. (According to Wikipedia, “actor Charles Lane’s marriage to Ruth Covell Lane, from 12 April 1931 until her death on 30 November 2002, is the longest.”)

• Sam Coates, political correspondent for the London Times, recently listed his six favorite books about political scoundrels--both fiction and non-fiction. Included among the bunch is House of Cards (1989), by Michael Dobbs, which the BBC later turned into a TV series starring the incomparable--and, sadly, recently deceased--Ian Richardson. (Hat tip to Lit Lists.)

• This last week’s edition of Talking Television with Dave White, broadcast on “global radio station,” featured a discussion about actor Darren McGavin and his 1974 cult TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The featured guest was Mark Dawidziak, author of The Columbo Phile and The Night Stalker Companion. “Mark, as I’m sure you know, is the preeminent expert on all things Kolchak,” TV historian and author Ed Robertson assured me in an e-mail note. “Besides The Night Stalker Companion (one of the best TV reference books ever written), his writings include the original Kolchak novel Grave Secrets (Cinemaker Press, 1994) and ‘Cancellation,’ a Kolchak novella which appears in The Night Stalker Casebook (Moonstone, 2007), a collection of original Kolchak short stories.” If, like yours truly, you missed this installment of Talking Television, be sure to catch the archived version here.

• There are myriad reasons to start a blog: your quantity of opinions exceeds your opportunities to vent them; you have a product to flog; you actually think you might add something useful to the electronic dialogue; or you have way too much time on your hands at work, your boss isn’t looking, and you need something else to do. Oh, and then there’s the notion that blogging builds community in an increasingly disconnected world. Surely, that last motive was behind Inkspot, a collective of authors published by Midnight Ink Books. Included in the stable are Keith Raffel (Dot.Dead), Julia Buckley (Madeline Mann), and Tim Maleeny (Stealing the Dragon). “This is, as far as I know, the first group blog with its membership defined by publisher,” remarks Nathan Cain of Independent Crime.

• R.N. (Roger) Morris, whose new historical novel, The Gentle Axe, began appearing in U.S. bookstores this week, writes at M.J. Rose’s Backstory blog about how he came to write this novel featuring detective Porfiry Petrovich, from Crime and Punishment. Incidentally, Morris sent me a note recently, explaining why the novel appears in Britain as A Gentle Axe, but in the States as The Gentle Axe:
[T]he original title of the book was The Gentle Axe and that was how it was sold on to America. Then the marketing and rights people at [the UK’s] Faber said, we don’t like this title, change it. I tried to come up with some alternatives but I didn’t like any of them as much as that one. So I tried to dig my heels in. They then said that it would work better if the definite article was changed to the indefinite, but the American editor preferred the definite. Hence the difference. I’m not very happy about the discrepancy. I think it is confusing people. But what can you do? I’m just the writer, after all!
• We noted in January that the incredibly prolific Max Allan Collins would be publishing “the first-ever novel about his comic book detective ‘Ms. Tree’” with Hard Case Crime later this year. But at the time, we hadn’t yet seen the cover of that book, Deadly Beloved, painted by “Ms. Tree” co-creator Terry Beatty. Only last week did Hard Case release the cover art--and, in typical Hard Case fashion, it’s a winner. Click here to see for yourself.

• And Scottish writer Allan Guthrie, whose new novel, Hard Man, should be out in the UK next month (and in U.S. bookstores come June), is the latest interviewee in Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards’ series of podcasts at Behind the Black Mask. Listen here. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Guthrie ... New features continue to dribble (ever so slowly) onto his Noir Originals site, including the latest: A somewhat belated appreciation, by Patrick Quinlan (Smoked), of James Ellroy’s 1995 novel, American Tabloid. Read his comments here.

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