Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Stuff

As Bill Crider indicated on his own fine blog the other night, there's a very snazzy new edition of the novel Detour, on which the classic cult film was made. I read it straight through and was impressed by the fact that Martin M. Goldsmith, author of book and screenplay, was able to do what Horace McCoy did in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?--give you a much more open ended novel than just a narrow pulp tale. Goldsmith gives us a true road tale, a true look at the post-Depression as it effected the west coast, a true ballbusting romance, and his own idiosyncratic take on the promise of the Hollywood of his time. You'll find some interesting differences between book and script. This is a winner.
Detour is published by O'Bryan House rdoody@ix.netcom.com According to publisher Richard Doody, it's his plan to publish a number of "great books from the (Depression) era." Order from him or Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble and Target.

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Re the Orson Welles entry the other night:
In the 1970s Orson Welles was the spokesman for Gallo wines. He did a great job. The problem was getting that great job on film and on audio tape.

One of his recording sessions became the most listened-to private tape of the year. You know how geniuses are supposedly unable to work in any kind of "team" way? Well, he starts calling the advert guys various names because they made a few suggestions about his reding of a line. Then he tells them that the copy stinks. He refuses to read it. He wants to rewrite it himself. On and on freaking on in one of the most juvenile and nasty personal attacks I've ever heard in a studio.

From most excellent writer Norman Partridge:

Hey Ed:

I never heard this story, but it must have been the inspiration for a funny bit on the old SCTV show. One of their holiday episodes had a skit with John Candy appearing as Orson Welles on a Liberace Christmas special. It was hilarious, with Candy screwing up his lines and berating the camera crew as he sits before the laden Xmas table. Finally, Candy stalks off, but not before ripping a leg off the roast turkey!

Boy, do I remember those Gallo commericals--they were always in heavy rotation out here in California. Too bad they didn't let Welles do one as Hank Quinlan; I can (easily) picture him wandering those TOUCH OF EVIL streets with a bottle of Gallo screwtop in his hands....

Norm

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Michael Stern wrote to remind me that writing novels that don't quite fit neatly into any one genre was the path followed by "the writer you always sight as being a major influence on you--Fredric Brown." Excellent point, Michael. Brown sure did take a lot of liberties with each genre he worked in. And speaking of whch, weren't there two publishing programs that were going to put all of Brown's major work back into print? Anybody know what happened to those?

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People have been betting on the net all day (no money--just guessing) as to how long it will be till bushie cites 9/11 tonight. My bet is 47 seconds. My friend Sarah thinks his first words will be, "9/11 was meant to stop America from expressing itself in speeches like this...blah blah blah." I think she may be on to something.

Monday, January 30, 2006

What is it?

A woman I went to college with sent me an interesting review of my Dark Fantastic collection that appeared in some kind of French magazine. Beth has lived in Paris for years and e mails me reviews from time to time.

For the most part the review is more than favorable. The problem the reviewer has with my material is that while it is billed here as horror it's not exactly that nor is it exactly crime fiction.

A long time ago I joked that I was a nobody in three genres and that holds true today as well. After a dozen or so mystery novels, I'm pretty much unknown in the field except for those who remember me vaguely from Mystery Scene. My books are rarely stocked in mystery stores. Same for horror. I'd say the same for western stores except there aren't any.

Tempting as self pity is, my obscurity is my own fault. Every book I write, with the exception of the Sam McCains, fails to fit tidily into the genre it's billed as. I don't do this on purpose. It just sort of comes out that way. And this is true of my short stories even more than my novels.

I'm not alone in this. Jack Ketchum, Bentley Little, Tom Piccirrilli, Rich Chizmar, Billie Sue Mosiman and several other writers inhabit this no man's land somewhere between crime fiction and fantasy/horror. This my favorite kind of reading. I like crime fiction tinted with the supernatural. Or crime fiction so strange--Jack Ketchum's great novels and stories, for instance--that in places it seems otherworldly.

The thrust of the review Wendy sent me is that the reviewer really likes my work. He just wishes he knew what to call it. I wish I knew what to call it, too.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Touch of Death by Charles Wiliams

I once read an unfavorable review of a Charles Williams novel that said the protagonist was unbeleivably naive. How could he not know know that the people he was getting involved with were criminals? Which, to most Williams fans, has to sound unbeleivably naive on the part of the reviewer.

In his exceptionally fine piece on the work of Charles Williams, poet, journalist and editor (the Library of America) Geoffrey O'Brien notes that of all the paperback original writers, Williams' protagonists are the ones most predisposed to criminality themselves. If they are naive, it's only in the women they choose to hook up with. And they are rarely naive even about the ladies.

Madelone Butler, in Williams' A Touch of Death (Hardcase, $6.99), is the kind of woman most men would run from. It's too easy to say that Madelone is a deceitful, duplicitous shrew, which she is of course. But that's putting too much on her. She presents Lee Scarborough with the chance of stealing $120,000 in stolen cash or just walking away. Which he could easily do. But--and this is the point many reviewers miss about many of Williams' men--his boys are a lot like his girls, the one difference being that they generally don't betray their partners.

Williams has always been my favorite of the Gold Medal writers. As John D. MacDonald said of him, "Nobody can make violence seem more real." The reason for this is that Williams' men are violent themselves. Not predatory. But certainly tough men, usually from workingclass backgrounds, who use violence when it becomes necessary. Another point too seldom made about his work. He was the master of the slow-build suspense novel; he clearly enjoyed twisting every aspect of the treachery and surprise that fill his books.

This isn't always true of Williams' work. The sea novels for which he's most famous (the excellent film Dead Calm was based on a Williams novel) are usually told by men who, if not heroic, are not crooked. But I've always preferred the deep South, small-town novels usually set after the big war when our wandering boy meets our wandering girl and together they decide to make a little money.

Line by line I think that Williams is by far the best of all the early Gold Medal folks with the exception of Vin Packer and Malcolm Braly. There's real beauty in his descriptions of nature and a true feel for the hypocrisy of small towns. And there is that great frantic sense of being unfulfilled--of looking for something, a woman, a gig, a place, anything that might offer him peace--that always eludes. Williams is the great melancholic, especially his men whose two dominate emotions seem to be remorse and a paranoid sense of betrayl.

Hell, yes, they know what they're getting into, his people, and they get into it gladly. As Sartre once said, go figure.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Genius; the Edgar nominees

Last night I finished Always Magic in The Air, the book about the famous Brill Building that produced so many of the important--even seminal--song writing teams of 1950s and 1960s rock and ryhthm and blues.

Don Kirshner, a key player in Brill Building successes, became the producer and overseer of the Monkees when Brill Building teams began working in LA as well as NYC. The Monkees, based on the material here, were a group of vainglorious no-talent morons who never did appreciate the name and money that other people earned for them. Kirshner was able to keep in them in check only so long. Screen Gems, who owned the Monkees, decided to send in one of their own to be Kirshner's co-producer. Kirshner couldn't deal with a co-producer. He was a lone gun who generally did things his way. He claims he quit; Screen Gems says he was fired.

The other day I watched a biography of Orson Welles. The point made about Welles was pretty much the same point made about Kirshner. Lone gun. Worked best when he had total control. And, in Welles' case, that he was a genius. A true genius.
It was the confluence with the Kirshner material that made me think about genius. (Kirshner went on to work in various systems not of his own making and has done right proud by himself.)

I don't think you can argue the last point when you're talking about Citizen Kane and probably the Magnificent Amerbersons and (close call) maybe even his own cut of Touch of Evil. Genius. From what I could gather the rest of his career was an attempt on his part to reach the level of Kane again.

A sidebar here. When I worked out of Chicago producing radio commercials and soundtracks for TV spots, it was common for recording studios at that time to put together gag reels for holiday parties. Catching stars in awkward moments usually provided the most fun. There was an abudance of such reels in NYC and LA because of the heavy concentration of well-known actors who did voice overs.

The late Herschell Bernardi wrote, acted in (along with others) and produced the best reel I've ever heard. He created a pretty standard recording session play in which the ad agency dude Milltown Jag directed the actor. (Milltown was the most prominent tranquilizer of the late 50s and early 60s; and Jag of course was for Jaguar, the kind of car Milltown drove.) Bernardi spoofed ad agency folks about as well as I've ever heard them skewered--Milltown was stupid, vain and insecure.. His first instruction to the actor was "Bloopers soap is real good. All we want is a simple throwaway reading. Bloopers soap is real good. Nothing dramatic." So the actor, who knows what he's doing, gives Milltown exactly what he asked for..

One hour later, take #73 or thereabouts, Milltown keeps saying 'You're not hitting the word `good' hard enough. The client tried t copywwrite that word last year." Bernardi: "Milltown, I don't think you can copyright words." The tape is about an hour long and believe it or not it manages to sustain itself as everbody in the studio (I believe it's Christmas Eve) just wants to get out of there--and they've 73 great takes to choose from. Everybody but Milltown just wants to get home.

The point of me retelling the story is that I've been in many many tense recording sessions. Everybody who works in the biz has been in them. The wrong actor was cast. The studio guys just can't give you the effects you want. The product song produced by some LA hotshot that sounded so good at first hearing sounds like hell now. Or you realize that you've written copy that not even Olivier could bring to life. And you're spending hundreds of dollars an hour (maybe thousands today).

So most pros--studio guys, actors, agency people--try to remain civil, focused and just get the job done. The job has probably been bid out and the client ain't gonna pay you five cents more if you run over. And then the agency is gonna be on your ass.

So. Come prepared. Spend 20 minutes or so off the clock with the studio effects guy listening to everything he's got for you. Be civil. Run through the copy with the actor three or four times before the clock starts ticking. And get ready for ten takes max.

In the 1970s Orson Welles was the spokesman for Gallo wines. He did a great job. The problem was getting that great job on film and on audio tape.

One of his recording sessions became the most listened-to private tape of the year. You know how geniuses are supposedly unable to work in any kind of "team" way? Well, he starts calling the advert guys various names because they made a few suggestions about his reding of a line. Then he tells them that the copy stinks. He refuses to read it. He wants to rewrite it himself. On and on freaking on in one of the most juvenile and nasty personal attacks I've ever heard in a studio.

I'm not here to defend ad people. I hated 98% of them I had to work with. My feeling is you go into advertising when you can't do anything else, the exception being the art department. That's the only place you find real talent. While I'm sure that some novelists didn't mind their tenure in advertsing, most of them I've talked to hated it and the people as much as I did.

However, Welles was broke. The ad agency agency was paying him tremendous bucks. He owed them a professional performance.

The tv biography I saw of Welles implies that geniuses just simply can't work with lessers. They implied that Weeles could never work in the movie studio system because only hacks survived.

That's the point that made me bristle about Welles. How many men and women working wth studios have turned out excellent pictures--importtant, true, powerful pictures? Hundreds if you include wroldwide. Hundreds. Few if ny even approach Citizen Kane. But I feel pretty sure that Welles' failure with the studios was largely his own doing. I'm sure there were scenes in the front office where Welles went after studio heads the same way he went after the Gallo advert Nobody in the bio ever mentioned that he was self-destructive but how else would you characterize that kind of behavior? I'm not defending the dopes who run Hwood but who's going to put up with that kind of abuse just so you can say you worked with Orson Welles?

The Edgar nominees

Dear MWA Member:


Image Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce its Nominees for the 2006 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2005. The Edgar Awards will be presented to the winners at our 60th Gala Banquet, April 27, 2006 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.

BEST NOVEL

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)
Red Leaves by Thomas H. Cook (Harcourt)
Vanish by Tess Gerritsen (Ballantine Books)
Drama City by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown)
Citizen Vince by Jess Walter (Regan Books)

BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR

Die A Little by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster)
Immoral by Brian Freeman (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Run the Risk by Scott Frost (G.P. Putnam's Sons)
Hide Your Eyes by Alison Gaylin (Signet)
Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel (St. Martin's Minotaur)

BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL

Homicide My Own by Anne Argula (Pleasure Boat Studio)
The James Deans by Reed Farrel Coleman (Penguin - Plume)
Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford (Dark Alley)
Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie (Hard Case Crime)
Six Bad Things by Charlie Huston (Ballantine Books)

BEST FACT CRIME

Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick (HarperCollins)
The Elements of Murder: The History of Poison by John Emsley (Oxford University Press)
Written in Blood by Diane Fanning (St. Martin's True Crime)
True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel (HarperCollins)
Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans by Jed Horne (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

BEST CRITICAL/BIOGRAPHICAL

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'em Dead with Style by Hallie Ephron (Writer's Digest Books)
Behind the Mystery: Top Mystery Writers Interviewed by Stuart Kaminsky, photos by Laurie Roberts (Hot House Press)
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels edited by Leslie S. Klinger (W.W. Norton)
Discovering the Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade: The Evolution of Dashiell Hammett's Masterpiece, Including John Huston's Movie with Humphrey Bogart edited by Richard Layman (Vince Emery Productions)
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak (Harcourt)

BEST SHORT STORY

"Born Bad" – Dangerous Women by Jeffery Deaver (Mysterious Press)
"The Catch' – Greatest Hits by James W. Hall (Carroll & Graf)
"Her Lord and Master" – Dangerous Women by Andrew Klavan (Mysterious Press)
"Misdirection" – Greatest Hits by Barbara Seranella (Carroll & Graf)
"Welcome to Monroe" – A Kudzu Christmas by David Wallace (River City Publishing)

BEST JUVENILE

Shakespeare's Secret by Elise Broach (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers)
Wright & Wong: The Case of the Nana-Napper by Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz (Penguin Young Readers – Sleuth/Razorbill)
The Missing Manatee by Cynthia DeFelice (Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers)
Flush by Carl Hiassen (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
The Boys of San Joaquin by D. James Smith (Simon & Schuster Children’s Books)

BEST YOUNG ADULT

Down the Rabbit Hole by Peter Abrahams (HarperCollins – Laura Geringer Books)
Last Shot by John Feinstein (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Quid Pro Quo by Vicki Grant (Orca Book Publishers)
Young Bond, Book One: Silverfin by Charlie Higson (Hyperion/Miramax Books)
Spy Goddess, Book One: Live & Let Shop by Michael Spradlin (HarperCollins Children’s Books)

BEST PLAY
River's End by Cheryl Coons (Book and Lyrics), Chuck Larkin (Music) (Marin Theatre Company)
Safe House by Paul Leeper (Tennessee Stage Company)
Matter of Intent by Gary Earl Ross (Theater Loft)
Mating Dance of the Werewolf by Mark Stein (Rubicon Theatre)

BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAY

CSI – "A Bullet Runs Through It, Parts 1 and 2", Teleplay by Richard Catalani & Carol Mendelsohn
CSI – "Grave Danger", Teleplay by Anthony Zuiker, Carol Mendelsohn, Naren Shankar. Story by Quentin Tarantino
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – "911", Teleplay by Patrick Harbinson
Sea of Souls – "Amulet", Teleplay by Ed Whitmore
Wire in the Blood – "Redemption", Teleplay by Guy Burt

BEST MOTION PICTURE SCREENPLAY

Crash - Story by Paul Haggis; Screenplay by Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco (Lions Gate Films)
A History of Violence - Screenplay by Josh Olson, based on the Graphic Novel by John Wagner & Vince Locke (New Line Productions)
The Ice Harvest - Screenplay by Richard Russo & Robert Benton, based on the Novel by Scott Phillips (Focus Features)
Match Point - Screenplay by Woody Allen (BBC)
Syriana – Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, based on the book by Robert Baer (Warner Brothers)

ROBERT L. FISH MEMORIAL AWARD

Eddie Newton
"Home" – EQMM May 2005 (Dell Magazine)

GRAND MASTER

Stuart Kaminsky

ELLERY QUEEN AWARD

Brian Skupin and Kate Stine, Co-Publishers of Mystery Scene Magazine

RAVEN AWARDS

Black Orchid Bookshop (Bonnie Claeson & Joe Gugliemelli, owners)
Men of Mystery Conference (Joan Hansen, creator)

THE SIMON & SCHUSTER-MARY HIGGINS CLARK AWARD
Breaking Faith by Jo Bannister (Allison & Busby Ltd.)
Dark Angel by Karen Harper (MIRA Books)
Shadow Valley by Gwen Hunter (MIRA Books)

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Mystery *File; Lawrence Tierney

Sandra Scoppettone pointed out that the correct link to Mystery*File should be http://www.mysteryfile.com/ Sorry I got it wrong.




From Turner Classic Movies (the best channel on the dial) website:

Lawrence Tierney is THE HOODLUM by Glenn Erickson



Tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney is enjoying a renewed popularity thanks to last summer's Film Noir 2 releases from Warner DVD. A good actor who spoiled a promising career with arrests for boozing and brawling, Tierney was a genuine bruiser and all-around dangerous character.

The Wade Williams Collection presents a rather beat-up copy of The Hoodlum, an inferior crime melodrama distributed by United Artists in its first year of reorganization. More a continuation of the Eagle-Lion label than the Chaplin-Fairbanks-Griffith tradition, UA in 1951 was a home for all manner of independent films. Some were artistic, and a lot weren't.

Synopsis: Against the strenuous objections of the prison authorities small-time hood Vincent Lubeck (Lawrence Tierney) is paroled after serving half of a ten-year armed robbery sentence. Bitter and maladjusted, he rejects the kindness of his mother (Lisa Golm) and grudgingly pumps gas for his brother Johnny (Edward Tierney). Vincent is soon seducing his brother's girlfriend Rosa (Allene Roberts) while planning a major armored car holdup. As part of his scheme he also romances Eileen (Marjorie Riordan). She works at the bank across the street, and knows of some large cash shipments coming up.

The Hoodlum begins intriguingly with a sweating Vincent Lubeck being taken for a ride in the dead of night to the city dump. It then flashes back to retrace a gangster plotline already twenty years out of date. Ma Lubeck has two boys, one an honest garage owner and the other a vicious criminal. Ma's special pleading wins Vincent an early release from jail but the hardened thug has no intention of going straight.

Sam Neuman and Nat Tanchuck's simplistic screenplay leans heavy on the proposition that all prison inmates should remain locked up for the protection of society. Selfish and violent, Vincent boasts that he's learned a lot in prison and is ready to go for a big score. He flies off the handle when anybody tries to give him advice. He's just an angry guy, as seen in an unintentionally silly scene where he loses his cool over some innocent guff from a dissatisfied customer. "What's in it for me?" is his basic motto.

Director Max Nosseck had helmed Tierney's breakthrough picture Dillinger but returned to poverty row productions after only a few bigger studio assignments. His clumsy direction keeps The Hoodlum at a comic-book level. We have to believe that Lawrence Tierney directed himself - his hammy theatrics at the tearful ending will give some of his ardent fans second thoughts. The other actors are left to their own devices. "Helpless old lady" specialist Lisa Golm (So Ends Our Night, A Place in the Sun) overacts ridiculously as the suffering mother. Billed as a new "discovery," Edward Tierney has almost nothing to do. He was the third Tierney brother to try his luck as an actor. The second was Scott Brady, who ended up with the most satisfying career.

Although cameraman Clark Ramsey's lighting is consistently good, the movie looks cheap. Audiences in 1951 must have laughed derisively at the scratchy 1930s-vintage stock shots of police vehicles and gangster action. The big robbery set piece is ineptly staged - it looks as if a dozen people are shot dead but we lose track amid the confusing coverage.

(spoilers) A potentially interesting romantic angle is woefully undeveloped. Vincent uses bank employee Eileen in his robbery scheme but she has already used her charms to tap her boss for expensive luxuries and is too slick to be taken in by his games. We never find out the full extent of Eileen's conniving. Given slightly more time is a subplot in which Vincent seduces his brother's sensitive girlfriend Rose, who becomes pregnant and suicidal. From the standpoint of the Production Code, it's odd that the makers of The Hoodlum would billboard out-of-wedlock pregnancy and suicide as key plot points, after being so careful to maintain a conservative take on law and order. One can almost see where Southern parishes would have made their censor cuts.

Image and Corinth's DVD of The Hoodlum is from the Wade Williams Collection; he provides some awkward package copy. The splicy print is regularly interrupted with breaks that lop off a word or two and occasionally create glaring jump cuts that bounce actors around the frame. We're told (through the IMDB) that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences restored the film in 1999 but the copy on this disc is mediocre. There are no extras.

For more information about The Hoodlum, visit Image Entertainment.

by Glenn Erickson


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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mystery File; Judi Rohrig on John D. MacDonald

Hi Ed

Thanks for the plug (but is there any way you can change Crime*File to Mystery*File?)

Anyway the link is correct, and the number of hits since yesterday is about double the usual daily average. It had to be you.

Best

Steve Lewis

Last night I promoted Steve Lewis great blog by the wrong name: It's Mystery*File www.mystery*file.com
---------------------------
There's been a lot of talk about John D. MacDonald on the blogs lately. Here's Judi Rohrig's take from her much-admired e magazine Hellnotes.


Here 'tis!

Love Judi

---

THE NUMBER ONE QUESTION FOR WRITERS

Introduce yourself as a writer, and then brace yourself for the obvious first question. Where do you get your ideas?

Not why on earth would you be idiot enough to waste all those hours one-on-one with a keyboard/pen and paper when you could be playing basketball, knitting, watching TV, listening to ambulance runs on the radio, petting the cat, or (insert -ing action-word here followed by noun)?

The better question would be where "don't" ideas come from?

One of my favorite writers is John D. MacDonald. Dean Koontz turned me on to him. (In fact, I blame Koontz for all the hours I've spent with the pens drippings from John D., Ed Gorman, Joe Lansdale, Norman Partridge, and James M. Cain.) Koontz -- in his biography -- claimed MacDonald's writing had a profound effect on his own storytelling.

MacDonald obviously plucked his ideas from life. His is the eye focused well on the 50s and 60s, moving from post WWII male-domination mind-set to the burgeoning sexual revolution. Sometimes he did this through his continuing character Travis McGee.

"Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn," Carl Hiassen says in his Introduction to a reprint of MacDonald's DEEP BLUE GOOD-BYE. "Every McGee saga guarantees such splendidly mordant commentary. The customary targets are greedhead developers, crooked politicians, chamber-of-commerce flacks, and the cold-hearted scammers who flock like buzzards to the Sunshine State. For John D. MacDonald, these were not just useful fictional villains; they were villains of real life."

Inspiration? Where is it not?

Yet even the master had his walls. It was said John D. would begin typing somebody else's story word for word until his own story took form in his mind. Whatever stokes the creative fires.

Every writer would well to study MacDonald's way with words. The Late Richard Laymon thought so. In fact, he shared his own joy at reading John D.'s stories several years ago in Baltimore with some young writers gathered in Brian Keene's living room during KeeneCon 2000, the precursor to the HorrorFind Weekends.

Laymon wasn't alone in his feelings for MacDonald. Most every good writer I know readily names a favorite MacDonald title. Joe Lansdale claimed SOFT TOUCH as his favorite; Ed Gorman named DEAD LOW TIDE. Koontz offers out SLAM THE BIG DOOR; CRY HARD, CRY FAST; LAST ONE LEFT, and THE END OF THE NIGHT. Add to that list Dallas Mayr (Jack Ketchum), Jay Clarke (Michael Slade), the late Ian Fleming, and scads of others. And don't forget to include Stephen King on that list.

King has said that MacDonald was "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller."

What can be learned from John D. MacDonald is.. well, most everything: style, plot, character, description, suspense, location, politics, tenderness, and capturing much like a photographer, a period of time. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. said: "To diggers a thousand years from now... the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."

MacDonald zeroed in on Florida at a time when the place was being mined for its riches: its lush paradise of clear water, sandy beaches, and plenty of warmth year round. And yet for every manatee slipping through sparkling waters, John D. held up Lysol-pungent backwater motels, stiletto-heeled Trixies, and furtive-eyed, underhanded operators. The seamy side, the lost side of paradise exposed on those sandy beaches.

Even his hero, Travis McGee, was eventually unleashed, revealing his full unbridled torrent of personal and most savage revenge in THE GREEN RIPPER. The novel won both awards for such a well-told story and scorn for its violence. Many fans claimed Trav would never had acted like that. I trust the author knew precisely what he was doing.

But this is about ideas, and John D. was all about that. Seeds of birth for THE EXCUTIONER, which eventually was renamed CAPE FEAR, came from another writer's taunt that John D. couldn't write a bestseller or a story that would become a film. He dashed those notions in one work.

But really, why do people want to know where your ideas come from? Writing is creating, and "creation" remains mysterious. Or… they think they want to write. Fame and fortune and all that.

John D. MacDonald did a truly wonderful job of handling that hot potato as he offered in his Introduction to Stephen King's NIGHT SHIFT:

"I am often given the big smiling handshake at parties (which I avoid attending whenever possible) by someone who then, with an air of gleeful conspiracy, will say, 'You know, I've always wanted to write.' I used to try to be polite. These days I reply with the same jubilant excitement: 'You know, I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon.'"

You may try that answer on for size, though please remember that most people aren't being snarky. They actually might envy you for entering where they fear to tread.

Seek and find stories by John D. MacDonald. You won't regret it. In fact, you just might be inspired. Reading does that.

+++

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

This and That

There was such a response to my entry on Harry Whittington's A Night for Screaming that Greg Shepard of Stark House and I decided to try and get it back in print. We've reached an agreement in principle with the Whittington estate and hope to bring it out yet this year paired wth another Whittington novel, Any Woman He Wanted, an obscure book but a good one. I'll keep you posted.

CrimeSpot is a new and excellent website that gives you a daily sample of what's on other crime sites and blogs. Then it gives you a direct ink to the site just quoted. This is one of the best ideas I've seen since serious blogging began. http://www.crimespot.net/

Crime*File is another site you should check out frequently. Excellent pieces on all matters mysterious. I like the fact that every sub-genre of mystery fiction is covered. I know that all readers quickly get classified cozy or hard-boiled. While I'm not much for cutesy poo books of any kind, there are many cozies and traditionals that not only have something to say but that are also very well written. Likewise, traditional cozy readers are missing some excellent novels if they pass by the darker side of the mystery genre. Right now on the site, there's the long (and some would argue deservedly) forgotten Edward S. Aarons and his Sam Durrell series. I read them in the Fifties but gave them up when Matt Helm came along. The Aarons books that I really enjoyed were all the one-shots he did in the late Forties and early Fifties. His novels set along the Atlantic coast were espcially strong on local color and atmosphere. The esteemed Alan Hubin and Jeff Falco do a wind-up piece on Aarons that is interesting and informative. Here's Crime*File http://www.mysteryfile.com/

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Michael Dirda on Robert E. Howard--James Reasoner responds

Hacking his way from one crisis to another -- the quintessential fighting man.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 22, 2006; BW15 The Washington Post

THE COMING OF CONAN THE CIMMERIAN

By Robert E. Howard

Illustrated by Mark Schultz

Del Rey/Ballantine. 457 pp. $29.95

THE BLOODY CROWN OF CONAN

By Robert E. Howard

Illustrated by Gary Gianni

Del Rey/Ballantine. 366 pp. Paperback, $15.95

THE CONQUERING SWORD OF CONAN

By Robert E. Howard

Illustrated by Gregory Manchess

Del Rey/Ballantine. 393 pp. Paperback, $15.95

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), the creator of a blue-eyed Cimmerian fighting man, who wandered the ancient Hyborian age as a thief, pirate and mercenary, before finally seizing the royal throne of Aquilonia. In the course of many adventures, this axe and sword-wielding battle-machine was to encounter Stygian demons, a lonely being from another planet, vampiric witches and saturnine sorcerers who possess the elixir of life, a seraglio's worth of scantily clad slave girls, more than one haughty but secretly hot-blooded princess, and, not least, many, many, indeed hordes, of bloodthirsty, blood-crazed Picts, Kushites, Shemites, Vendhyans and Hyrkanians. Even more remarkably, this indomitable warrior earned the love of both Belit, the notorious corsair Queen of the Black Coast, and the deadly Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Such a hero could obviously be no one but Conan, King Conan, Conan the Barbarian.

To most of us these days, Robert E. Howard's Cimmerian is rather a joke. During the 1970s, the Depression-era hero evolved into a comic-book icon and was later literally embodied by the young Arnold Schwarzenegger in a pair of exceptionally good sword-and-sorcery films. Soon thereafter appeared both the bookish Conan the Librarian and Terry Pratchett's mangled and bitter old bandit Cohen the Barbarian. Many an older reader must still recollect the Frank Frazetta paperback covers, top-action portraits of a massive half-naked fullback with a broadsword, either in full berserker fury or standing triumphantly upon a mound of dead enemies, his mighty thigh caressed by an adoring Playmate of the Month. Or two. Of course, none but the brave deserve the fair.

Are the tales of Conan then what a female friend would call "boys books"? Testosterone-driven daydreams for 15-year-olds? Pulp schlock with titillating suggestions of sadomasochism, rape and sapphism? (Many of the stories were originally illustrated for Weird Tales by the legendary Margaret Brundage, who specialized in kinky cover art.) The answer to all these questions is, obviously, yes.

Yet without making grandiose claims for them, Howard's Conan chronicles are also a bit more than that. They are, as Patrice Louinet demonstrates in his forewords and afterwords to these three volumes, studies in the clash of Barbarism and Civilization. In Howard's grim and all too realistic view, the barbarians are always at the gate, and once a culture allows itself to grow soft, decadent or simply neglectful, it will be swept away by the primitive and ruthless. As a character insists in "Beyond the Black River," the most deeply felt and complex Conan story, "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. . . . Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph."

To Howard, however, this isn't wholly a bad thing.
to read the rest of the article read here http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/19/AR2006011902754.html

Michael Dirda is a book critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Reviewing a review is perhaps an uncommon thing to do, but Ed asked me for a few comments on Michael Dirda’s review of the three Del Rey editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, taken from either Howard’s original typescripts or the appearances in the pulp WEIRD TALES for the stories for which typescripts are not available.

Considering some of the press that Howard and his work have gotten over the years, Dirda’s column is fairly even-handed. There’s no dwelling on Howard’s personal life, no amateur psychoanalyzing, no grinding of axes. I give Dirda credit for concentrating on the stories themselves, as is only proper, since in the end they’re really all we have left of Bob Howard. (Well, other than the poetry, the letters, the articles and fragments and . . . )

Yet like many critics, Dirda can’t help but damn with faint praise. Are the Conan stories “pulp schlock”, he asks, and then he answers, “ . . . obviously, yes.” He refers to the character as a joke because of the movies, the comic books, the multitude of pastiche novels . . . none of which make the original Conan stories anything more or less than exactly what they were when Howard wrote them. Now that the original texts are available again, this is an especially important point. Readers can go back to the stories as Howard wrote them, as if none of what came after ever took place. The best way to experience the Conan stories is to read them in the pages of WEIRD TALES, I suppose (and facsimile reprints of them will be available in the future – without, unfortunately, the smell of decaying pulp paper, unless the book manufacturers have come up with something I don’t know about). The next best is to read them in these Del Rey editions, or in the ten-volume set from Wildside Press that reprints all of Howard’s stories from WEIRD TALES, not just the Conan yarns.

I would take issue, too, with Dirda’s assertion that Conan’s only solution to any problem is to hack his way through it. Yes, there’s plenty of swordplay and action in the stories. But Howard also emphasized Conan’s cunning, as well. There’s a great deal of political intrigue in many of the stories, and no one is better at pitting one faction against another and manipulating his enemies into destroying one another than Conan. The reason Conan is so dangerous is that he isn’t just a mindless, hack-and-slash barbarian. He can out-think his foes as well as handle a broadsword.

And of course, bringing up the so-called racism in the stories is old news in critical circles. Howard was no more racist than anyone else living in a small town in the Thirties. It’s probably safe to say that he was no more racist than most people who lived in big towns then, too. In fact, reading his letters leads one to believe that he was probably less racist than many people of his era.

I agree with Dirda’s comments about the appeal of Conan’s indomitable spirit. And he’s certainly right about the story “Beyond the Black River” actually being a Western. Take away the slight fantasy trappings and it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read about Texas frontier in the 1840s, when the first settlers were beginning to make their way into a vast land ruled by the Comanches. It’s been said that no matter what the setting of a Howard story, he was actually writing about Texas, and there’s some truth to that.

So I would hope that Dirda’s readers would come away from his column with a desire to actually read the stories and judge for themselves whether they’re “pulp schlock”. I think they’re more than that. A lot more.

Monday, January 23, 2006

From Stephen Marlowe

THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT
Early in February, Stark House will be publishing a double volume containing two of my early novels, VIOLENCE IS MY BUSINESS and TURN LEFT FOR MURDER, one from the Chet Drum series, the other a stand-alone gangster novel. Several weeks ago, just before the book went to press, the publisher e-mailed me wanting to know if I'd like to include a short story in the volume because it was running a bit short. I declined with thanks, saying that each novel was the length it decreed itself to be, and short–-hopefully–-meant terse and even, with luck, riveting.
At about the same time, you ran a thoughtful piece about how you preferred short novels to long. In fact, you said that you rarely read long novels. And I began to do some thinking about the short and the long of novel writing.
I've written both. The Drums and most of my stand-alone noirs are short, rarely more than, say, 75,000 words, often a deal shorter. But I've written what the French call pavées--paving stones--that is, really long novels. For example, my antihistorical take on Columbus, THE MEMOIRS OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, runs a quarter of a million words, and so does THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MIGUEL DE CERVANTES, my fantastical biography of the creator of Don Quijote.
Their subject matter decreed their length, just as the subject matter of the two novels in the Stark House double volume decreed theirs. A novel is as long or as short as it has to be, and I'll always let the writer–-or the book itself–-make the decision. The novel's subject and substance determines its length, and the wise novelist not just necessarily but willingly goes along with it. It is much like the novelist's need to make the reader suspend his disbelief.
Here are a couple of pairings of novels to show what I mean.
THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE by Stephen Crane and GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell.
MOBY DICK by Herman Melville and and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway.
Is Stephen Crane's novel, for its brevity, the better Civil War novel, or is Margaret Mitchell's, for its length? The first deals with a single battle from a single viewpoint, the second with what happens to an entire culture when engulfed by war. Which is the superior work of fiction ? I'll make no value judgment here, but I'd go to the wall saying neither the shortness of the first nor the huge length of the second would affect my judgment if I did.
Melville's long novel is about men and the sea, and about so much more than that–-the almost metaphysical confrontation between good and evil without the author ever saying which is which, the tragedy of revenge served not cold but hot, even the moral significance of the whiteness of the whale. Is Captain Ahab evil? The whale? Both? Or is it the dance of death between them that is evil? It is for us to decide.
Hemingway's short novel is about one man and the sea, but it is also about one of Hemingway's "double dichos"–-man can be defeated but not destroyed or man can be destroyed but not defeated.
Each of these exemplary sea novels reaches down to a more profound depth, a truth, that its words alone can't touch, and each is successful in its own way, and in its own length.
Is the short better, or the long?
The only answer I can give is that length has nothing to do with quality except to verify it by being the right length for the particular novel.
And the long and the short of it is that I'm happy to go with the writer every time–-provided the writer knows what he's doing.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Murder By Decree

Ed,

You've made three hundred and some blog entries and have never yet mentioned Sherlock Holmes or Conan Doyle. Don't you like the Holmes stories?

Ben Adamson

I'm pretty sure that I've mentioned both somewhere in the past, probably in connection with the DVD appearance of Bob Clark's Murder by Decree, which I consider not just the best Holmes picture I've seen but also one of the best suspense films of any kind I've seen.

As much as I love the Doyle stories, what Clark brought to them was socio-political context. He used Jack The Ripper to examine how the various aspects of Victorian London reacted to the killer. He didn't turn it into a screed, either. The film moves arrow fast and arrow true, making its points dramatically rather than shoehorning them in as audio pamphlets. And has there ever been a better Watson than James Mason?

Have you ever seen photos of White Chapel? Remember Jack London said that it was worse than Calcultta; in fact, London had been in White Chapel for somthing like five days when he had a breakdown and was put in a hospital. Look at the scenes in the film, the madhouse, repellent and heartbreaing at the same time; the faces of the prostitutes who looked to be carrying every disease young girls could; scurrying about of the underclass, like rats darting from one hole to another. . All this was contrasted with the lives of the upper classes. Clark didn't trowel the contrast on. He again let it speak for itself. The dandified men of the leisure class contrasted witht the ragged disaesed men who sold their ten year old daughters into prostitution as way of getting food and shelter for their family. (Upper class men worried that their wives would be unfaithful had surgeons make sure their wives could never enjoy sex gain with anybody.)

Many of the critics disliked the movie. I remember Richard Shickel saying that it demonstrated "the pornography of violence." I thought it was just being true to what we know of Victorian London. If anything, Clark held back. Read about White Chapel and how the lowest of classes sold their children to the highest of classes; and how killing prostitutes became a form of sport.

None of this made me think less of the Doyle stories, which I revere. But Doyle's London was in many respects his own creation where Murder by Decree is what Clark is both great storytelling and at look at how life back then really functioned.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Night for Screaming cont'd

Eight of you wrote me today asking where you could get a copy of a Night For Screaming. I gave away my duplicate copy last year. Here's what I found on abebooks.

A Night For Screaming
Whittington, Harry
Bookseller: James H. Tinsman - Bookseller
(Topton, PA, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 37.50
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Book Description: Ace Books, New York, 1960. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: Good. First Edition. D-472. Crease across front cover but it does not mar picture. Bookseller Inventory # 13238

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2.
A Night for Screaming
Whittington, Harry, Illustrated by Pictorial Cover
Bookseller: Wild Hills Books
(Town 'n Country, FL, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 40.00
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Book Description: New York: Ace D-472, 1960, New York, 1960. Paperback. Book Condition: Good+. Pictorial Cover (illustrator). First Edition. Good+. First Edition. 192 pages. A scarce Paperback Original (PBO). Tanned pages, spine lean, light reading crease and some general wear, but overall an attractive copy. Scans or Pics available. Bookseller Inventory # 001128

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3.
Night For Screaming
Whittington, Harry
Bookseller: Green Lion Books
(St. Paul, MN, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 50.00
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Book Description: Ace D-472, 1960., 1960. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: Very Good Minus. Paperback Original/First Edition. Great cover of a woman being run down by a car. Sitcker pull on front and some rubbing, still fairly attractive. Bookseller Inventory # 002546

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A Night For Screaming
Whittington, Harry
Bookseller: GRAHAM HOLROYD, BOOKS
(Webster, NY, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 71.00
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Book Description: Ace D Series. New York: A.A. Wynn/Ace Book, Inc. , 1960 ed. D-472 , vg, rear 1 inch square corner missing, some spine roll PBO. paperback, Bookseller Inventory # 198704

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A Night for Screaming
Whittington, Harry
Bookseller: Memories Lost and Found
(Avondale Estates, GA, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 80.00
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Book Description: Ace Books, New York, 1960. Original Wraps. Book Condition: VG+. No Jacket. First Edition. 16mo - over 5¾" - 6¾" tall. Reading crease at spine, otherwise light edgewear, store stamp inside front cover. Bookseller Inventory # 002382

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A Night for Screaming
Whittington, Harry
Bookseller: The Book Bin
(Salem, OR, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 80.00
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Book Description: Ace D-472, New York, 1960. Paperback. Book Condition: Good+. 16mo - over 5¾" - 6¾" tall. 192pp. cover has creases and light wear. scuffs and light soiling along back hinge. paper starting to yellow. otherwise clean and unmarked. binding tight. an attractive copy. Bookseller Inventory # 028872

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A Night For Screaming
Whittington, Harry
Bookseller: GRAHAM HOLROYD, BOOKS
(Webster, NY, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 87.00
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Book Description: Ace D Series. New York: A.A. Wynn/Ace Book, Inc. 1960 ed. D-472 vg, some spine slant, reading crease PBO. paperback, Bookseller Inventory # 198703

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8.
A Night for Screaming
Whittington, Harry
Bookseller: Lofthouse Books
(Ashtabula, OH, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 100.00
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Book Description: Ace Books, 1960. Soft Cover. Book Condition: Very Good. No Jacket. Author's most scarce title. Creasing to sides of spine, shelf wear, rubbings. Bookseller Inventory # 15235

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9.
Night For Screaming
Whittington, Harry
Bookseller: Green Lion Books
(St. Paul, MN, U.S.A.) Price: US$ 100.00
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Book Description: Ace D-472, 1960., 1960. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: Very Good To Fine. Paperback Original/First Edition. Great cover of a woman being run down by a car. Nice clean and bright copy with a slight cover pullback. Bookseller Inventory # 002545

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Ed here: $37.50 to $100. Pricey. Greg Shepard (Stark House) and I are going to see if we can reprint some of Harry's best books. Well just have to see how it goes.

Meanwhile here's Bill Crider's take on Night, taken from his blog and published last summer.


A Night for Screaming -- Harry Whittington




The other day Lee Goldberg asked me which of Harry Whittington's novels was my favorite. That's an impossible question for me to answer, since I like so many of them. Certainly A Night for Screaming is right up there, so I decided to re-read it. It's the story of Mitch Walker, ex-cop, on the run from a murder he didn't commit, who winds up in Kansas, working on a huge farm that's run like the prison camp in Cool Hand Luke. The complications include Walker's relentless pursuer, the beautiful but nutjob wife of the farm's owner, the owner himself, the brutal overseers, and more.

One thing Whittington can do about as well as anybody ever could is begin the book with a tense situation and then dial up the tension on every succeeding page. He can put his protagonist into a situation that seems as bad as it can get, and then he can make it worse. And after that, he can make it worse still. In this book he takes a seemingly simple situation and complicates it more with every chapter, throwing in a few reversals and surprises along the way. If you ever run across a copy of A Night for Screaming, don't pass it up. You'll be sorry if you do. It's a dandy story, and it has a great cover, besides.




posted by Bill @ 12:49 PM

Friday, January 20, 2006

Harry Whittington's A Night for Screaming

Richard Moore's article about Ralph Dennis will appear here soon. He wanted to update certain portions.

A Night for Screaming

In virtually every interview that Harry Whittington gave, he talked about the time in his career when he really discovered how to plot. Writers being writers, they love epiphanies because of the high dramatic content.

Last snowy night I read Harry's A Night for Screaming and I tell ya true, he indeed learned how to plot. Night is the one about the drifter wanted for murder and on the lam who finds himself hiding out in a work camp that is one half volunteer workers and one half prisoners from the county jail. There is the fetching wife of the man who owns and runs the camp, to be sure. And there is the enigmatic friendly boss who seeems to befriend our fugitive. Day Keene wrote this book four times and four different ways, most successfuly in Sleep With The Devil, in which the work camp is an Amish-like farm.

The book is pure Harry. The damned thing is almost on fire, it reads so fast. My only disappointment is that the waitress in the first chapter never reappears. Interesting quick sketch of her.

There are three midle chapters that sort of drag for me. Nothing wrong with them but nothing remarkable with them either. Then we come to the third act. You want twists and turns? You want to be knocked out of your seat not three but four times in about the last forty pages? You want to change your politics and take up with a chick with Hooters and run away to the sunny beaches of Indiana and hold yur breath for six days? Well, this slender little novel with one of the truly classic cover paintings will make you do all those crazy things and more. I promise.

This is an example of taking a familiar set-up and turning it into a novel you've never read before. I'm in the process of outlining it now. I want to see how he did it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Ralph Dennis

Tommorrow night I'm going to run a piece by the writer Richard A. Moore on the subject of the most beloved obscure private eye writer who ever lived, that being Ralph Dennis who published eleven novels in his Hardman series in the early 1970s.

The books are short enough that I was able to read two of them last night preparing for this entry. The story goes, and the story is wrong, that maybe just maybe Robert B. Parker read one these got his idea for a white p.i. with a black superdude buddy. That is the one similarity the two series share and it's not much of a similarity at all. To me, on a lesser level, the mixed race buddies go back to at least The Lone Ranger.

Where Parker is resolutely BWM and upscale, Dennis is resolutely blue collar (or below). Both men prefer the worlds of their invention to the worlds most of us would call reality. Both the are very good at giving the patina of reality to their respective worlds but their wise enough not to give us naturalism in their books. Chandler was very real either.

Dennis coulda been a contender. His was a narrower fix on the p.i. field than Parker's but if he'd lived longer that might have changed. Parker is a great mass entertainer. A true and enduring star. I'm not sure that Dennis, or most of us, have that quaity in us. That's not to lessen Dennis' achievements, which are considerable. It's just that he never takes us anywhere different. He pretty much lives on the mean streets with down and outers. Parker takes on life in pro sports, life on a college faculty, life on tracking a serial killer. He's like great and classic boxer. He knows enough to keep moving.

Richard Moore is a fine writer in his own right and brings all his gifts to this intriguing piece on the sad life of another fine writer, Ralph Dennis.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Monk Goes to The Firehouse; Stephen Marlowe

There was a time when writing TV or movie tie-ins was considered slumming. And most of the tie-ins read like slumming, too. But several years ago, when writers as good as Max Allan Collins, Thomas Cook and Lee Goldberg started writing tie-ins, the field changed. They took their assignments seriously. Tie-ins were no longer just sketchy impressions of movie scripts but fully realized novels that just about any type of reader could enjoy. Many of the tie-ins were better than the movies they promoted.

An example is Mr. Goldberg's new Mr. Monk Goes to The Firehouse (Signet, $6.99). Monk being my favorite crime series on the tube, I was interested to see what Lee could bring to it. It had to help that he's written scripts for the show.

Firehouse is as witty, inventive and just plain fun as any episode I've seen. Narrated by his long-suffering assistant Natalie Teeger, the storyine has Monk's house being fumigated and poor Natalie taking him in for a while. Not surpisingly, Monk finds her home to be a house haunted by germs of every kind.

The mystery here involves a dog dying in the local firehouse and its strange connection to a housefire the same night. Solid as the mystery is, the telling is even better. Lee has found the perfect voice for Natalie's first person narration--sweet, exhausted, frustrated, exasperated and sweet again. None of these feelings have to do with the mystery. They're all reactions to Monk's standard behavior as he wars with all the ways nature is trying to kill him.

Lee Goldberg has managed to concot a novel that's as good as--maybe even a bit better--any of the Monk scripts I've seen on the tube.


--------------
From Stephen Marlowe

Hi Ed-
Good piece about sci-fi was also weaned on, and even made some contributions to.
For pure space opera I was kind of partial to Eando Binder too. But wasn't Henry Kuttner Leigh Brackett's husband, or have I got that wrong?
Cheers,
Steve

Catherine Moore was Kuttner's wife and Brackett Hamilton's wife. The four of them turned out their generation's best fantasy and horror. And both Brackett and Kuttner were Ray Bradbury's mentors. Now that's a group of people that would be pretty cool to be part of.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Stark and The Star Kings

If you ever had the inclination to find and look through the juvenile-oriented science fiction magazines of the mid-to-late Fifties--Amazing, Fantastic, Imagination, Imaginative Tales, Other Worlds--you would find the letter columns filled with names you would probably recognize today, among them Roger Ebert, Greg Benford, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ed Gorman and, I believe Bill Crider. Yes, we were all fans of the thunderous outer space tales better known space opera.

There were two gods of space opera, Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett (who wrote, among other screenplays, The Big Sleep with Wm. Faulkner). They did it all and they did it brilliantly. I feel guilty for not adding Henry Kuttner to this list but by the mid-Fifties he was writing mysteries with his wife, another excellent writer of space opera and fantasy, C.L. Moore.

Now Haffner Publishing in an extremly handsome oversized collection gives us both Hamilton and Brackett in Stark and The Star Kings (Haffner, $45).

Pretty clearly Brackett is the superior writer. There's a gritty emotionalism to her work that you just don't find in most pulp stories of any kind. I'd say she learned at least some of her craft from Robert E. Howard but her prose can be so stunning and truly poetic that it leaves Howard far behind. She pretty much defines what I found exciting about space opera--desperate noirish heroes, exotic worlds, serious man-woman relationships and even, now and then, downbeat endings. Somehow her worlds had more substance than any others. You would find this quality in most of the adventure scripts she would later write for Howard Hawks.

Edmond Hamilton didn't have the literary or psychological range of his wife but he sure knew how to hook you in the first sentence and never let go of you till the very end. And he did this at every length. This is in no way to denigrate him. In fantasy/horror stories I think he was the equal, or maybe even the better, of his wife, especially in the material he wrote for Weird Tales. Strong, gripping, human stories. In the early Fifties he shocked everybody by writing half a dozen short stories that were as good as the best science fiction of that decade, original, dramatic and haunting stories that hold up well today .

You've got two novels here by Hamilton, three long stories from Brackett and one collaboration. You've got a beautifully made book and knockout covers. If you have any fondness for the old pulp days, this is the collection for you.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Lemons Never Lie

Lemons Never Lie
I've been saying for a long time now that Donald Westlake is the most accomplished crime fiction writer not only of his generation but of our era. I reread his Richard Stark novel Lemons Never Lie last night and believe even more in my opinion.

Back in the late sixties and early seventies I could seldom afford to buy a hardcover book--had to save my money for liquor and drugs; the important things first, right?--but one day in (probably 1971) I found a copy of Lemons in a small bookstore, read twenty or thtirty pages and just had to have it. While most of of the other books I bought during that time are long gone, I kept my copy of Lemons on my keeper shelf in my office. The holy books go there.

While this is a Stark novel, it's about Parker's pal Grofield rather than Parker. Grofield is a stage actor (thinks film is slumming) who supports himself and his summer theater by a) having his wife work in a supermarket and b) him robbing anything he thinks he can get away with.

When Lemons opens up, we see Grofield at low ebb. No money. How's he going to operate it with no money? Fortunately, he's asked to take part in a robbery. He flies to Vegas to meet the guy who is setting it up but while there Grofield's enthusiasm for the caper dies quickly.

Andrew Myers is a sharpie, an amateur and one of those people who seem to have no hesitation about killing people. Myers is the most intriguing and amusing character in the book. The robbery he pitches to Grofield and the other men in the Vegas room would entail, according to Myers, killing something like ten-twelve people. Dan Leach, a friend of Grofield's, agrees that Myers is a maniac. No reason to kill one person on a caper like this let alone as many as Myers hs in mind. Grofield and Leach walk.

Later on that night, Leach gets in a craps game and and wins twelve grand. Afterward, he and Grofield walk back to their respective rooms. Then intruders crash Grofield's room, slap him around, demanding the twelve grand. They've obviously followed the wrong guy from the game. They want Leach. Later, they get him and their money. Leach can't identify them but Grofield knows it's Myers and his buddy.

This sets up a book of cross and criss-cross that is rich in surprise, droll moments in a whole bunch of carnage, and some of the best writing I've ever read. The way Westlake chooses to write is extraordinarily difficult, the way John D. MacDonald always did. Most writers try to write around or minimize such difficulties. Westlake takes them head on and wrestles them to the ground. There are at least three set pieces in this book good enought to build a writing class around. Writers should study the way he incorporates exposition in a dramatic scene without slowing the scene at all.

The prize here for me is Myers. I always remember when I was staying in a motel one night. The film crew and I were sitting in the lounge drinking some beers when there was this explosion of noise from somewhere out in the rather lavish lobby. Screams. Cries. Angry shouts. We stayed right where we were. The upshot being that two masked robbers had stuck up the place and killed three people for no reason at all. There really are Myers in the world and they are so reckless and at times so insane that they are at moments amusing. You're not dealing with human behavior as most us know it; you're dealing with phenomonolgy at a terrifying level.

A final point. Since I'm inclined to be tentative about a lot of things, Grofield's easier for me to identify with than Parker. I'd like to be Parker but it ai't ever gonna happen. I'm not that tough or that competent. Grofield, if I wanted to use him as a role model, is a little more within my reach.

This is one more Westlake masterpiece that goes on the shelf wth The Seventh, The Ax, Adios Scheherazade, High Adventure and several others.

----
You'll probably have a difficult time finding Lemons Never Lie. But I'd heardthat Charles Ardai at Hardcase was reprinting it this year. Got this e-mail from him today:

Ed,
We've got it scheduled for July, which means that the book should start showing up in stores at the end of June. (It's one of my very favorite Westlakes too.)

posted by Gormania at 3:02 PM 0 comments

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Great news for Hardcase fans; Filmfax

 
Charles Ardai e-mailed me this morning to tell me that Hardcase will definitely be back in '07 with its ample supply of great noirs. Congratulations, Charles and gang. You're a vital part of the mystery scene.


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Some people consider Filmfax (now merged with Outre) to be a standard "nostalgia" magazine. It's anything but. Within the past few years I've excellent SERIOUS articles on composer Bernard Herrmann, the reality of working in the old Poverty Row studios, the too short life of Charles Beaumont and several informative articles on early television. What follows is an excerpt from an article that talks about the Beats adnd popular culture. http://www.filmfax.com/ Log on to read the entire article.


The Beat Generation


by James J.J. Wilson


Dig: The Beat Generation. Bongos, Goatees, berets, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and sandals. Incomprehensible painting and poetry. Maynard G. Krebs and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes. That's what most people thought it was. People who said things like, "Well, she flipped my wig but she split the scene and I blew my cool...I wasn't about to dance to that jazz!"


Jack Kerouao said that "Beat" doesn' t just mean "beaten" or a musical beat; it means "beatific": the quest for joy. Kerouac struggled to express his thoughts in words. He tested all the standard forms but it wasn't until he heard Charlie ("Bird") Parker play the alto sax that he found his style.


In the early 40's, some of the best musicians got tired of playing the same old pop so they stretched out in post-gig "jam sessions". Bird, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonius Nonk, and Charlie Ningus created a new sound and called it "Bebop". As soon as Kerouac dug Bop, he understood how to pattern his words. Why shouldn't language flow like music?


What Kerouac and the rest of the Beats knew in the 40'. finally seeped into pop culture in the late 50's. Naturally, everybody wanted to be "hip" but by then it wasn t "cool" to be "hip" anymore. Eventually, the Beats gave up and became Hippies.


The Beat Generation was a blueprint for psychic survival with The Bomb hanging over all of us: an individual's search for happiness amidst chaos. The sound of a Parker solo was the cry of a bird flying where no one had been before. That's what Kerouac did with words, along with William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Alan Ginsberg (the raw nerve of the Beats) and their apostles: Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and The ~les.


Vivid images of reality and abstract constructs melted into a wonderful vision that any open mind could see. And the vision warn condensed and homogenized and dehydrated and sold to the public in .1001 Ade powder form or as "Fizzies" to be dissolved in water and yet, the essense was still there.. and the people dug it, Del Close and John Brent, Chicago's "Second City" gurus, put out an album called ~STC HIP as a guide. It starts like this:


"Hey, look, uh, you know, like, if you bought this record to learn how to speak Hip from a ~ man, that is the squarest thing I ever heard of. I mean, NQRI But look: so, like, you bought it so you must need it. So, that was a smart move. You know what I mean.. .or something?"


Continued on Next Page


 

Director Walter Hill on westerns

From NewJersey.com TV by Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall

All things pass'

Director Walter Hill (“48 Hours,” “Wild Bill”) appeared at a Television Critics’ Association press conference to promote his upcoming AMC film “Broken Trail,” which debuts in July. The four-hour, two-part film stars Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church (who were also present) as a veteran rancher and his nephew. The characters drive a herd of cattle from Oregon to Wyoming, then get sidetracked into trying to rescue five immigrant girls who have been sold into prostitution.

Asked why westerns had nearly disappeared from popular culture – particularly on TV, where the genre is represented only by the occasional TNT movie and HBO’s “Deadwood,” for which Hill directed an Emmy-winning pilot – the filmmaker said, “You’d probably need a sociologist to answer that.” Then he took a shot at it.

“When I was a kid, there was a tremendous saturation of westerns on television,” said Hill, who was mentored by Sam Peckinpah and wrote Peckinpah's 1972 thriller "The Getaway." “All things pass.”

Hill suggested that the Western’s slow decline was probably due to two factors: its fairly strict requirements as a genre, and America’s transformation from a rural to an urban society.

“I think the deepest reason for the decline is probably that the audiences of the '50s and '60s were probably the last audiences that identified their own lives with an agrarian past, that either their lives or their parents' lives had begun on farms and they moved to cities.”

That is not true of contemporary audiences, Hill said, and that meant “… to have a western is now a special thing. I think they can work. I love them. But I think as a genre, what they were will probably never again come to pass.”


Ed here: I think Hill nailed it when he said that audiences today don't identify with an agrarian past. Cops are our cowboys now. Remember what Hammett said in the `30s, that private eyes were the transplanted western heroes of the 1800s. What he didn't point out was that the change to the city gave adventure-detective fiction a gravity it had rarely had before. Because most early hard-boiled was written by Irish and Jewish immigrants, crime fiction got really dark quickly. Immigrants saw how corrupt the cities were. The rich and powerful could get away with anything. Gangs and crooked cops ruled the streets. The reason I've always prefered Elmore Leonard's westerns to his thrillers (and face it, his thrillers ARE westerns) is that he was one of the first signifcant western writers to deal seriously with the public corruption of the old west.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Popcorn books

"Popcorn books" is Bill Crider's apt description of books that are fun if you're in the right mood for plot stories that are entertaining to read despite all their failings. I hope I'm doing service to Bill's phrase anyway.

I used to read Stuart Woods until one of his Stone Barrington novels had a scene (from memory so don't hold me to exactitude here) where at something like midnight he decides he needs an armor plated Mercedes Benz. He's in Manhattan. Somehow he contacts the dealer and, assuring the man that price is no object, says he needs it the very next day. The dealer is in a tizzy. Who stocks armor plated Benzs? Stone leans hard and the guy has one flown in from somewhere. Now I don't mind larger than life every so often but man an armored plated Benz in a few hours? Uh-huh. And the fact that STONE BARRINGTON (how's that for a soap opera name?) needs one in the US of A...where he's going? Newark?

A slight jag here. Whenever I'm facing a day of medical tests, I usually take a popcorn novel with me. Last week I stopped at the library before hitting the oncology building and just grabbed a large print book quickly and took off with it. James Patterson and Howard Roughan's Honeymoon. I hadn't tried a Patterson in a long time, not since he had some dude living in an air conditioning duct above a teenage girl's bed for many many nights..and she didn't hear him. Right.

Honeymoon surprised me. This is larger than life I can accept. It's all impossibly plotty of course--I'd hate to have to outline this baby--and some of seems (but maybe not) influened by from the Debra Winger-Theresa Winger movie (which I really liked) Black Widow and there's more sex in the first hundred pages than most people have in ten years and just about everybody's rich and beautiful and trendy...

But there's bad bad and good bad and this is excellent good bad. I flew through it because if you accept the premise then it offers real suspense. And the extensive dialogue scenes read like reasonably good TV dialogue, something ole Stone Barrington never quite mastered. But mostly it's the suspense I liked and the killer, the beautiful Nora who in places is ALMOST a real human being, and the Sidney Sheldonesque world they all live in. It's sorta fun to see it if you live somewhere where your house is surrounded by cows.

What can I tell ya? I have to take back at least a few of the derogatory things I've said about Mr. Patterson over the years. Either his standards have gone up or mine have gone down. Or maybe it's this Roughan guy. Maybe he took the Patterson formula and gave it a little more style and humanity.

Whatever, this is a just about perfect popcorn novel.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Paying to learn

A retired man who has started writing fiction wrote to ask me if I thought paying $100 per "consultation" with a writing instructor was too much. Holy moly. It's way too much. On a novel you'd likely use up your advance just for the "consultation."

I'm not philosphically against paying for writing instruction. Courses taught by published writers, on line or in person, can be helpful. But note I said "published writers."

A friend of mine went through a two year university writing workshop. He told me that even though the workshop offered all these name writers he never had an instructor who'd actually sold anything. They were graduate students. I'd ask to see credentials before I signed up. I would make sure these are professional credits, not self-published or one of the myriad scams that seem to be out there these days.

Next I'd consider the fee and look around for some comparisons. And third, I'd see if the instructor's credentials have some bearing on the kind of writing you do. Most of the writers I know, myself included, write modern variations of pulp fiction. A well published poet or a non-fiction writer, good as they may be, probably wouldn't be much practical help. If you write fiction, look for somebody who writes fiction, too.

Finally, if it's off-line, ask if you may sit in on one session. This will allow you to assess the instructor as a teacher. If he rambles on with personal stories about the cruel-hilarious wold of publishing, you're paying to be entertained, not educated. Make sure he has an outline for the course and stricks to it within reason.

None of my suggestions are absolute law but I do think they lay some reasonable expectations before you hand over any money.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

More on "Memoirs"

This morning from the NY Times:

When a Memoir and Facts Collide

By EDWARD WYATT



And on the second day, Doubleday shrugged.


Two days after an investigative report published online presented strong evidence that significant portions of James Frey's best-selling memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," were made up, the book's publisher issued a statement saying that, in essence, it did not really matter.


"Memoir is a personal history whose aim is to illuminate, by way of example, events and issues of broader social consequence," said a statement issued by Doubleday and Anchor Books, the divisions of Random House Inc. that published the book in hardcover and paperback, respectively. "By definition, it is highly personal. In the case of Mr. Frey, we decided 'A Million Little Pieces' was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections.


"Recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers."


As far as the charges, which were made by the Smoking Gun Web site, "This is not a matter that we deem necessary for us to investigate," said Alison Rich, a spokeswoman for Doubleday and Anchor Books.


Doubleday's response underscores the gap that has emerged between book publishing and the rest of the media, which in recent years have been under increasing scrutiny over the accuracy of their reporting. Other high-profile media outlets have been criticized for reports whose truth was later questioned, including Stephen Glass's fabrications at The New Republic, Jayson Blair's reporting for The New York Times and CBS News's reporting on President Bush's National Guard record.


According to police reports and other public documents unearthed by The Smoking Gun, as well as interviews the site conducted with people who encountered Mr. Frey during the events he describes in his book, much of his story is fiction. Though Mr. Frey in "A Million Little Pieces" and the follow-up memoir, "My Friend Leonard," paints himself as having committed numerous felonies and as having spent three months in jail after leaving rehab, The Smoking Gun said Mr. Frey himself acknowledged that those things were not true.

read the rest here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/11/books/11memo.html

This afternoon from the N Times::

Random House will refund readers who bought James Frey's drug and alcohol memoir "A Million Little Pieces" directly from the publisher, a move believed to be unprecedented, after the author was accused of exaggerating his story.


Readers calling Random House's customer service line to complain on Wednesday were told that if the book was bought directly from the publisher it could be returned for a full refund. Those who bought the book at a bookstore were told to try to return it to the store where it was bought.


---------------------

Ed here: Here's a letter I got last night which you may or may not have seen. I'm not sure I agree with every single point but it's coherent and well-written and interesting.

Ron Franscell said...

From author/blogger Ron Franscell at http://underthenews.blogspot.com ...

American literature -- considered an oxymoron in the rest of the world -- has gone downhill fast since New York surrendered America's storytelling standards to Hollywood, where illusion -- EVEN IN TRUE STORIES -- is exactly the point. Today, the "perfect" story is determined by its film-worthiness more than its literary quality. In the name of creating Californicated literature, New York editors have blurred the line until even they don't know what's true. "It's a good story," they'll say, "so who cares if it's an utter and ballsy lie?"

I care. Capote admitted on the bookjacket that "In Cold Blood" was fictionalized in some part. Coleridge's definition of fiction was "the willing suspension of disbelief." What if it's not willing? That's the difference between making love and rape, albeit without either the exhilaration or violence. If you thought you were reading a true story, you were conned. What if we found out next week that the famous Zapruder film was, in fact, a Hollywood dramatization passed off as a real eyewitness home-movie and, oh, isn't it funny how we fooled you??

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

"Autobiographies"

From Salon: . 10, 2006 | Not much business got done in the world of publishing on Monday. Editors and writers all over New York spent the morning poring over the Smoking Gun's lengthy, meticulous exposé of the fabrications and exaggerations in James Frey's bestselling addiction memoir "A Million Little Pieces." The afternoon they devoted to e-mailing and phoning friends and colleagues to discuss all the gory details./

Because I've ghosted a couple of "memoirs" myself, I'm cynical about virtually all of them. On both books I was asked to come up with a hook that could translate into radio and tv interviews. "Dog shoots three then takes own life." That's enough to get you on the Today show.

In the 70s Norman Mailer wrote The Armies of The Night, his contribution to the so-called "non-fiction" novel. In the 60s, God was dead. In the 70s, the novel was dead. Mailer's book is for me one of the great American reading experiences however you choose to label it. But given Mailer'ss love of mischief and melodrama, you can bet some if not many of his encounters on the bloody hippie streets of 1968 were hyped. Hype is what writers do, especially fiction writers who turn to memoir. Hell, Lillian Hemman's An Unfinished Woman was 99.5% bullshit. Never happened. But for years it was extolled for a truthful and shacking lot it took at Fascist Europe just before the war.

Back to the hook idea. Publicists need hooks. Now I'm going to say something that most of you will argue with me about. I spent four years researching my novel The Marilyn Tapes. The premise (and it turned out to be true) was that both J. Edgar Hoover and the Kennedys buggd Monroe's bedroom and that both teams had to get to those tapes first so they could (Hoover) blackmail Kennedy) and Kennedy (avoid being blackmailed by Hoover). In my book I give both teams 36 hours to get in and get out of her house. The notorious private eye and fixer Fred Otash claimed that he'd bugged Monroe's bedroom an got in and out witin eight hour of her death. I tend to believe him. He was a sleazy guy but I don't think he was a liar.

But the story about J. Edgar Hoover being a cross-dresser? Bullshit. I don't believe that for a second. I read three long books about Hoover. Nothing in those hyper-critical books suggested anything like that. But when the creep who wrote the cross-dresser book came out, he'd given the publicity department the hook of all hooks. Hoover was a cross-dresser. (The writer has done several books where the hook is dubious at best.)

Or how about the despicable (and inadvertently hilarious) Charles Higham. Earl Flynn a gay Nazi spy? Who in God's name would entrust him with vital secrets? He was known to drink a little more than two fifths of scotch and/or vodka a day. This is a guy you'd hire as a spy? Either he'd forget the secrets because he was so soused or because he was so soused he'd tell EVERYBODY. As for gay...when would he have had the time between all the fifteen year old girls he was pumping? But there you had another brilliant if prepostorous hook. Guaranteed slots on both big time tv and big time radio.

I haven't read Frey's book but when I read the review in the NY Times I remember wondering how much of it was true. I'm an alcoholic (thirty two years dry) and a former drug user (last use 1976) and so I have some sense of being down and out. And I know that some human beings can endure astonishing damage to their bodies. But this dude sounded super-human to me. It wasn't necessarily untrue but it sure pushed at the borders of reality. I'm not kidding when that given all he ingested and lived though would have put me in my grave before chapter five. And it's a long book.

I'm not shocked. If I'd bought the book I wouldn't ask for my money back. And I'm sure there's enough powerful truth in it to make it a good cleansing read for me and a true purgation for James Frey. But as for strict truth...publisher's still prefer half-truths and great hooks to strict truth. I SLEPT WITH MOTHER THERESA! ("I always thought she was a slut!") It's publishing, folks, get over it. We're no longer in the arts (major or minor take your choice) we're in show-biz ad that's a whole different task master.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Long novels

As usual I'm out of my time. I keep trying to enjoy long books and in general I can't or don't or won't. Take your choice. Sometimes there's a good reason for books to be long. I just finished California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker and really enjoyed and admired it. The excellence of concept and execution justified its length. I also recently read The Road to Paradise by Max Allan Collins. More than justified its length. Wonderful novel. There are always exceptions.

But with most long novels--and I mean anything over 85,000 words--I usually see ways the book would have been stronger if it had been shorter. The eighties were the doorstop decade. Heft for the sake of heft. In one of my old Mystery Scene columns I invented an example of heft for it's own sake: "He touched his hand to the doorknob, remembering as he did so a an odd fact he'd read once about the history of doorknobs and how the first of them to be decorative appeared in the Ming Dynasty of..." This may be an exaggeration but not by much.

At least we've left that period of heft behind us. But there are still a lot of long books that are long for reasons of marketing rather than literary quality. Two or three sub-plots, great. Five or six, I can't follow. Or simply get tired of. I'm back in college plowing through War and Peace.

Maybe all this is peculiar to me. When I think of my favorite novels, they're all pretty short. Off the top of my head I'm thinking of Gatsby, Appointment in Samarra, Ethan Frome, Valdez is Coming, I Am Legend, the Ax, The Chill, How Like An Angel...I could probably think of thirty or forty of my favorite novels and most of them would be uner 85,000 words.

I'm not saying I'm right about this. I'm just saying that's my preference.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Bogart; review

Watched my favorite Bogart movie tonight, The Harder They Fall. I read Budd Schulberg's great novel when I was in ninth grade and while I didn't understand a lot of it, it made me a Schulberg fan for life.

I've never cared much for Bogart as a tough guy. I don't believe him. Lawrence Tierney is a tough guy, Robert Ryan is a tough guy, Michael Madsen is a tough guy. Hell, I never believe Clint Eastwood as a tough guy. Way too mannered and theatrical. There's got to be something crazed in tough guys to work.

The Bogart pictures I like best are In A Lonely Place, High Sierra, The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Harder They Fall. Oddly, what Bogart's best at is not playing tough but playing vulnerable. In Lonely, Sierra and Harder he's not only vulnerable, he's compromised. In each of these he reminds me of the Deke Thornton charcater Robert Ryan plays in The Wild Bunch.

In these pictures he conveys male grief about as well as I've ever seen it portrayed on the screen. He was dying when he took on Harder. He was heavier than usual and the booze had certainly taken over his face. Those are the sad dead eyes of the drunk you're seeing there. For me, Harder is every bit as magnificent a work as On The Waterfront. I'd give Bogart the crown for turning in a better performance than Brando did because it was, quiet, insular and painful. No Brandoesque bravado and innumerable curtain calls. Bogart makes you share his weariness and what selling out has done to his soul. He's a hell of a lot more interesting and unforgettable here than he was in his fake performance as Sam Spade.

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A plug for our latest book from the Chicago Tribune this morning by Dick Adler:

he Adventure of the Missing Detective

Edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg

Carroll & Graf, $16.95 paper

The name might be changed, but the annual series previously known as "The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories" continues with its collection of useful--some might even say invaluable--information as well as fiction. An important addition to the book's detail-packed surveys of all aspects of the crime field is a new one by Sarah Weinman (whose blog "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind" is a daily part of many word-lovers' lives), who explores the online world with deft depth. She has also selected the three stories here that were originally published on various Web sites--including one called "Just Pretend" by a Brit named Martyn Waites whose novel "The Mercy Seat" will be out in April. Other notable stories of the print-and-paper persuasion include impressive efforts by Robert S. Levinson, Duane Swierczynski, Val McDermid and Laura Lippman--all of whom also managed to come up with solid crime novels in 2005.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Max Allan Collins

I wouldn't be blogging today if it weren't for Max Allan Collins. Twenty five years ago, I made a cold call to him to tell him how much I enjoyed his novels. Getting together wasn't tough. We live about an hour apart. Carol and I drove over one Saturday night and met not only Al but his truly beautiful and talented and very funny wife Barb.

Naturally, we talked about writing and why I, who'd sold a lot of short stories to magazines of varying repute, hadn't ever written a novel. I told him l I'd started about a hundred of the damned things but that I always got stuck at some point and started backtracking and then just gave up. He gave me the single most useful piece of writing advice I've ever ever received. Don't look back. Finish the first draft straight through and then go back and do whatever needs to be done in the revisions.

Al not only got me through the first draft of my first novel, he introduced me to his agent and then ended up giving me the title, mine being pretty bland.

But Al is the gift that keeps in giving. He's helped me with advice, tips and slots in his anthologies. He's also done one more thing. He's given me instant inspiration many times over.

I recently heard John Updike interviewed on NPR. I was a big fan of the early Updike so gave it a listen. While he was there ostensibly to talk about his new book on art, the subject of writing inevitably came up. He said one thing that I think is profound, even if it sounds ridiculously simple. He said that all good writing needs energy. Through sheer force it has to carry you on from sentence to sentence, paragraph to pargraph, page to page.

He said something about activity isn't to be confused with energy. There aren't any tricks to it. The best writing just has this driving force. He said he felt his own work sometimes suffered from lagging energy.

This is where Al Collins comes in again. I keep a shelf of some of my favorite novels on a shelf above my computer. There you'll find King, Koontz, Pronzini, Didion, O'Hara, Margaret Millar, Dorothy Parker, Westlake, Block, Lutz, Rendell, Dolores Hitchens and several others. These are books that always have something to teach me and I look at them constantly in the course of writing a novel.

But there is also the right hand drawer of my desk. This is where I keep Al's Quarry novels. To me Al is one of the two or three best storytellers of my generation. He is a magnificent plotter, stylist and delineator of character. I have a pretty complete collection of his books in my general library. I look on his body of work with true awe. And envy. Would that my own stuff be as good, diverse, witty, informative and timeless. I think it's one of the major bodies of work in contemporary crime fiction and should be acknowledged as such by many more writers and reviewers.

But the Quarry books in my right hand drawer are special. Whenever I feel my own material lagging, I take one of them out and read twenty pages or so and go back to work, refocused and refreshed. The Quarry's are so tightly told, so stylistically vivid and so damned relentless that these tales of a melancholy hit man take on iconic force. And the writing--for me it's like taking vitamins. I have power, focus and new raw enthusiasm for my writing after only a few pages of Mr. Quarry. He's so damned sarcastic, so damned observant, so damned clever, he's bound to get reinvigorate your own storytelling.

As I said, Al Collins, the gift that keeps on giving.

Friday, January 06, 2006

From Alison Kent's great blog--John D. MacDonald

If you want to write, you write

The following is John D. MacDonald’s introduction to Stephen King’s NIGHT SHIFT.

I am often given the big smiling handshake at parties (which I avoid attending whenever possible) by someone who then, with an air of gleeful conspiracy, will say, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to write.’ I used to try to be polite.

These days I reply with the same jubilant excitement: ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon.’

They look puzzled. It doesn’t matter. There are a lot of puzzled people wandering around lately.

If you want to write, you write.

The only way to learn to write is by writing. And that would not be a useful approach to brain surgery.

Stephen King always wanted to write and he writes.

So he wrote Carrie and Salem’s Lot and The Shining, and the good short stories you can read in this book and a stupendous number of other stories and books and fragments and poems and essays and other unclassifiable things, most of them too wretched to ever publish.

Because that is the way it is done.

Because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way

Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite. You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.

You read everything with grinding envy or a weary contempt.

You save the most contempt for the people who conceal ineptitude with long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace, or character.

Then you have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet.

Okay, then. Stupendous diligence, plus word-love, plus empathy, and out of that can come, painfully, some objectivity.

Never total objectivity.

At this frangible moment in time I am typing these words on my blue machine, seven lines down from the top of my page two of this introduction, knowing clearly the flavour and meaning I am hunting for, but not at all certain I am getting it.

Having been around twice as long as Stephen King, I have a little more objectivity about my work than he has about his.

It comes so painfully and so slowly.

You send books out into the world and it is very hard to shuck them out of the spirit. They are tangled children, trying to make their way in spite of the handicaps you have imposed on them. I would give a pretty to get them all back home and take one last good swing at every one of them. Page by page. Digging and cleaning, brushing and furbishing. Tidying up.

Stephen King is a far, far better writer at thirty than I was at thirty, or forty.

I am entitled to hate him a little bit for this.

And I think I know of a dozen demons hiding in the bushes where his path leads, and even if I had a way to warn him, it would be no good. He whips them or they whip him.

It is exactly that simple.

Are we all together so far?

Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what?

Story. Story. Dammit, story!

Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about. It can happen in any dimension -physical, mental, spiritual - and in combinations of those dimensions.

Without author intrusion.

Author intrusion is: ‘My God, Mama, look how nice I’m writing!’

Another kind of intrusion is a grotesquerie. Here is one of my favourites, culled from a Big Best Seller of yesteryear: ‘His eyes slid down the front of her dress.’

Author intrusion is a phrase so inept the reader suddenly realizes he is reading, and he backs out of the story. He is shocked back out of the story.

Another author intrusion is the mini-lecture embedded in the story. This is one of my most grievous failings.

An image can be neatly done, be unexpected, and not break the spell. In a story in this book called ‘Trucks,’ Stephen King is writing about a tense scene of waiting in a truck shop, describing the people: ‘He was a salesman and he kept his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep.’

I find that neat.

In another story he demonstrates his good ear, the ring of exactness and truth he can give dialogue. A man and his wife are on a long trip. They are travelling a back road. She says: ‘Yes, Burt. I know we’re in Nebraska, Burt. But where the hell are we?’ He says: ‘You’ve got the road atlas. Look it up. Or can’t you read?’

Nice. It looks so simple. Just like brain surgery. The knife has an edge. You hold it so. And cut.

Now at risk of being an iconoclast I will say that I do not give a diddly-whoop what Stephen King chooses as an area in which to write. The fact that he presently enjoys writing in the field of spooks and spells and slitherings in the cellar is to me the least important and useful fact about the man anyone can relate.

There are a lot of slitherings in here, and there is a maddened pressing machine that haunts me, as it will you, and there are enough persuasively evil children to fill Disney World on any Sunday in February, but the main thing is story.

One is led to care.

Note this. Two of the most difficult areas to write in are humour and the occult. In clumsy hands the humour turns to dirge and the occult turns funny.

But once you know how, you can write in any area.

Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field of intense interest.

One of the most resonant and affecting stories in this book is ‘The Last Rung on the Ladder.’ A gem. Nary a rustle nor breath of other worlds in it.

Final word.

He does not write to please you. He writes to please himself. I write to please myself. When that happens, you will like the work too. These stories pleased Stephen King and they pleased me.

By strange coincidence on the day I write this, Stephen King’s novel The Shining and my novel Condominium are both on the Best Seller List. We are not in competition for your attention with each other. We are in competition, I suppose, with the inept and pretentious and sensational books published by household names who have never really bothered to learn their craft.

In so far as story is concerned, and pleasure is concerned, there are not enough Stephen Kings to go around.

If you have read this whole thing, I hope you have plenty of time. You could have been reading the stories.