Friday, May 29, 2020

The Times, They are A'Changin'

Otto Penzler opened his annual controversy last week with an intemperate response to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to choose another editor for their Best American Mystery Stories anthology. (Editor’s Note: Otto took down his post so I have included a verbatim copy below so no one can say I slanted his opinion.)

The most charitable spin to Otto’s statement is he is an aging white man who hasn’t evolved with the times. It’s a failure as old as history. Things once commonly accepted prove not to be true. Apollo’s chariot does not traverse the sky to bring daylight. The stars and planets do not revolve around the Earth. The Earth is not flat. White men are not inherently superior in any regard; openly accepting the contributions of others into any aspect of society can only improve it.

It is unlikely HMH would have replaced Otto had they felt his choices reflected the current state of crime fiction. One can argue that his dismissal was a politically correct marketing ploy, but that implies, had Otto opened things up more on his own, they would have felt no need to replace him.

Otto’s own comment allows one to reasonably infer he wasn’t open to accepting more diversity: “This means that stories will no longer be selected for excellence, the major criterion evidently now being the race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of the author.” That’s yet another example of the death of irony in America, as, looking back, it appears race and ethnicity were criteria in Otto’s selections.

There’s another layer of privilege here that hasn’t gotten nearly enough mention: Where does Otto Penzler get off deciding it is his divine right to choose each year’s Best American Mystery Stories in perpetuity? Is he the only person, white or otherwise, qualified to be the arbiter of what is “best?” Even if the Aryan Brotherhood started an annual “Best White American Mystery Stories” anthology, one could argue a different editor each year would create a more representative selection over time.

I wish Otto Penzler no ill will; I’ve never met the man. No one disputes his enormous contributions to crime fiction over the years. That said, publishing, and hopefully society in general, is turning a corner. The new direction is clear. The ruckus raised by those who find themselves left behind is evidence of the desperation born of their realization this is true. The train to a better world is leaving the station, and they lack the currency to buy a ticket. There’s room for everyone, but they’ll have to make some changes in themselves if they are earn the means to ride inside the coach.

(The Facebook post I refer to in this commentary is below:
Hi All--A couple of days ago I posted that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt had decided not to renew my tenure as the series editor for THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES OF THE YEAR. My heart was warmed by the many supportive comments and the kind words about me and the series. I was stunned by the news and didn't understand the motivation for it, and many of you had theories. I now have an answer. According to an announcement from the editor-in-chief of HMH on Monday, the series "is going in an exciting new direction in response to the changing market and evolving readership and with an increased focus on traditionally marginalized voices." This means that stories will no longer be selected for excellence, the major criterion evidently now being the race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of the author. Forgive my bitterness. First off, I published lots of black writers and probably more than I knew since I never required a photo ID. I also published some writers who I know are gay but, again, doubtless others whose sexual preferences were unknown to me--as they should be. No one was marginalized when my first reader Michele Slung, and I, and the guest editors, sought the best stories. I'm now glad that I was not asked to stay on as I never would have agreed to edit a book on these terms. It's not over. I'll make an announcement soon.)

Friday, May 22, 2020

Joe Clifford, A Man With Too Much Good News to Fit Into a Title

It’s not fair to either of them, but people tend to think of Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford in tandem. This is partly their fault, as they’re fucking inseparable. (Yeah, I know. I’m usually pretty safe for work in these interview intros, but Clifford fucking brings it out in people, you know?) So even though it’s not fair and I love both these guys, as soon as I booked Tom for last week’s interview (prodded by the release of Coldwater), it occurred to me I hadn’t had Joe on the blog for a while and more good stuff happened to him in a short period of time than can be grasped by a single human mind, so I got him for today. Which puts them here as a tandem, which is what I just said was unfair. So I’m a prick. Fucking sue me.

Anyway, Joe doesn’t need much more introduction, as the interview touches on just about every aspect of his life except for his unhealthy fascination with Taylor Swift, which I didn’t ask about because…maybe you should seek help yourself if I have to explain it. Here’s Joe.

One Bite at a Time: You probably thought I was kidding on Facebook when I said this would be the easiest interview I ever did. Your life has been so action-packed the questions wrote themselves. Let’s start with congratulations. I have as much respect for you as I do for anyone I know and to say you deserve all this is an understatement.

Joe Clifford: Stop it. You’ll make me cry. Seriously. Why are the insults always so much easier to take than the compliments? But thank you.

OBAAT: The news that probably got the most attention is your fifth Jay Porter Rag and Bone, receiving a nomination for the International Thriller Writers’ Award for Best Hardcover novel. I suspect you’ll admit that the Porter books, while well received, may not have sold as well as they might because a lot of people found Jay to be unlikable. Does this nomination provide some validation, that there are people who get Jay and understand what you were going for?

JC: Dude, that was fucking nuts. The last thing I would’ve expected. I frequently am looking for good news from, as Tom Pitts likes to say, “the e-mailman.” It rarely comes. That morning I got the news from ITW, I was bleary-eyed, Day 39 whatever of Marchtober or whatever fucking month. Gobsmacked. Which is not a word I use lightly. Not a word I use, really, but can’t think of a better one. I sorta keep waiting for a correction email saying they made a mistake!

But to answer your question? Fuck yeah. The books sold okay, but, no, they didn’t earn USA Today Bestseller status, and I think my publisher, Oceanview, would say the same. The books sold fine. We were hoping for more. Which is cool. That’s a lot of books. I was appreciative that I had a nice loyal group of readers who picked up each new Porter, but you’re right, that one criticism I heard, over and over, was “he’s unlikable,” he being my protagonist Jay Porter. And honestly? After a while it started to get to me. I understand the books are not for everyone, but I also feel like, sometimes, that “unlikable” tag can be a copout. No, Jay isn’t likable. He makes some bad decisions. Like a lot of people I know. Like, well, me. I strove less to make him likable than I did “believable.” If there was a silver lining it’s that. I didn’t hear much “Well, I’d never believe someone like him would do that.” It was more, “Yup. Of course he did that. He’s an asshole!”

Anyway, I won’t ramble so much for the rest of the questions. I could’ve just answered yes. Yes, I am very happy that there are some people who “get” Jay Porter enough to bestow upon me this tremendous honor; it’s fucking humbling.

OBAAT: I’ve had a couple of Shamus nominations and, while it’s a letdown to hear someone else’s name, I never felt like the nomination wasn’t sufficient notice, even though I did want each undeserving winner to have an aneurism and die on their way to the podium. (Not that I’m bitter.) I don’t want to jinx you—I’m assuming you’re going to win—but should the unspeakable happen and you don’t, you’re not going to be one of those who feels like you lost something, are you?

JC: There’s not a fucking chance in hell I win. Did you see those other names? Blake Crouch had a show on TV with Matt Dillon. And a second season with Jason Patric. And Baldacci has been translated into more languages than are currently known (I’m approximating that number). And the rest of the writers? Are you kidding me? A who’s who list! I know it’s cliché to say “honor just to be nominated.” I always say shit like that. Like when someone else is sick and you’re like “Aw, I wish it was me not you.” I never mean it. Except when I had kids. Now I really would prefer I got sick instead of them. And I mean it this time with the “it’s an honor just...” And I am fine with that. Of all the mysteries and thrillers released? To be one of the six Best Hardcovers of the Year? Yeah, I won’t go back to shooting heroin if I “lose.” I’ll Gloria Gaynor that shit.

OBAAT: You also have a new book deal, for Shadow People. Tell us a little about the book, the deal, and when we can expect to see it.

JC: When I was strung out on speed, which was in between/during the heroin stuff (and cocaine) back in the 1990s, well, that shit is bad. Obviously. But it makes you see shit. Like really see shit. And you know it’s not there. Except … it is. And I can’t explain that if you haven’t done a shit-ton of meth but something happens. You cross over worlds. And I know that sounds insane, and it is. But that’s the thing with speed: you go crazy. It’s in the minutia. You focus on the dot and the dots that makes up that dot, until you are so zeroed in you’re … seeing … the inside of the inside. And people will call that hallucination. And it was. I’m not maintaining I was in a parallel universe. But as clear as you see that coffee cup or pen, I’d see people who may or may not have been there. And I’d talk to them. And I’d see cats, and they’d be all automaton-ic, dripping green ooze and moving all robotic, and then it would turn out to be a shirt. But the thing is when you are living like that? It’s fucking real. So you live in this Dali painting, and some days, your … mind … takes you somewhere wonderful. But after a while, it drags you to your worst fears, deepest hells. Interestingly enough, this is the same sensation schizophrenics experience. And I’ve known a lot of them. Was married to one. The guitarist in my first band suffered. Horrible affliction. So using my firsthand … experience … with the symptoms, I crafted a narrative about a schizophrenic who witnesses a crime, and then it’s up to his friend to separate reality from fiction. Basically it’s a road trip novel with an uptight college student and the dude’s equally schizo grandpa, who’s made peace with his disease. So, y’know, a laugh riot.

OBAAT: Keeping the roll going, you sold the audio rights to The Lakehouse five months before the book is scheduled to drop. That’s Michael Connelly/Dennis Lehane action there. What’s the scoop and do you know who’d going to read it yet? I have a soft spot for Gilbert Gottfried.

JC: Lol. That reminds me of when Gottfried read 50 Shades of Gray. I’ve been very lucky with narrators. Timothy McKean, who’s done most of my books and is fantastic, and Jennifer Jill Araya, who did a knockout job with The One That Got Away. Dreamscape has the rights to the new one, and they are as big as it gets, so I have no doubt whomever they choose will be equally terrific.

OBAAT: A new edition of Junkie Love popped to Number One on Amazon when it came out. I read the original about five years ago and there are few books that have affected me as much, thanks to its unvarnished look at the life of a junkie and getting clean. What prompted the second edition?

JC: It wasn’t our intention—“our” being me and Fawn Nuen, who runs Battered Suitcase (publisher for JL), but I think it turned into a New Coke kinda deal. So we had the original Junkie Love with the black cover and syringe, and Fawn and I always thought maybe that cover was a little too … graphic? Anyway, I had this old Polaroid taken by Gluehead (my speed dealer, who got his nickname as a kid because of a bad haircut. Pre-destiny, I guess), with my ex-wife (Cathy in the book) and me and there’s fire all around us, a photography trick Glue employed. Anyway after my brother died, I wanted to update JL, and so I wrote a new intro and significant Afterword, and we released a second edition. Which did fine. But then people were all, “I can’t find the original!” Which was funny because I didn’t change the main text, just augmented with additional material, like ten percent more! So then we brought back our original Coke, which I guess people had cued for alerts or some shit, and so the original became a “new release” (like Spinal Tap and the “New Originals”), and we sold a bunch.

OBAAT: I saved this one for last, but you also got a record deal. I’m a recovering musician while you have remained active, but I suspect this might have been the news that jazzed you up more than the rest. Spill so I can have another reason to hate you.

JC: I might’ve oversold that one! Steve Coulter put together a lo-fi compilation record to help benefit musicians out of work because of COVID. Originally it was just this thing going up band camp. Then Big Stir Records picked it up. So, yeah, as I guy who started out wanting to be a rock-and-roll star, desperate to be picked up by a label, and falling far short… Fast forward thirty years, and now I’m a crime writer, and dream comes true. But really it’s a great cause, super cheap, and it was a blast! Some AMAZING company on this one. Not sure Big Stir will be putting out the next Wandering Jews record. But I won’t lie. Each morning, I check my email kinda sorta hoping maybe… Quarantine Sessions

OBAAT: I recently interviewed Tom Pitts and asked him this same question. I’m asking you before his interview comes out so we can get a weird Newlywed Game vibe going: You and Tom go way back, well before you were writers. How did you meet and how did your paths to becoming acclaimed writers vary? Or were similar?

JC: I feel like this is asking for another Batman origin story. Not sure anyone wants to hear it? But … yeah, Tom and I were junkies and we met at Hepatitis Heights and… Tell you what? Let’s just close with a line I wrote about Tom from Junkie Love. Because it was fucking true then. And it’s fucking true now, except minus the dope: Tom Pitts was a rare breed: a reliable doper. Meaning you could trust Tom with you money, your girl, your dope, your everything. He’d never rip you off or do you wrong. He was true blue then. And he’s fucking true blue now. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother...

Friday, May 15, 2020

Tom Pitts, Author of Coldwater

Tom Pitts is one of my favorite people. Even just to see him pass by and exchange smiles at Bouchercon is a treat. His talent as an author is a bonus, but that’s not to say it’s insubstantial. He has his own way of pouring his life into his books without about his life, just letting his experiences inform the writing as few can. His new book, Coldwater, drops May 18 from Down & Out Books.

One Bite at a Time: First, welcome back. I don’t keep formal stats but this is the fifth time you have graced this site and I always look forward to getting a chance to catch up with you. The Beloved Spouse and I aren’t going to Bouchercon this year—decided well before all the coronavirus business started—so this will have to do for this year.

Your new book is titled Coldwater. Give us a two hundred word or less
Tom Pitts: Fifth time? Do I get one of those jackets like they have on Saturday Night Live?
I can answer this one with a lot less than two hundred words. Coldwater is my take on a real-life horror story. What happens when regular people are pulled into a nightmarish pool of criminal quicksand.

OBAAT: Your books tend to deal with criminals, usually drug-related (either users of dealers or both), and sometimes cops. In Coldwater you make a suburban couple the focal point of the action. What was it that drew you to that bit of departure?
TP: I think the Everyman facing insurmountable odds is a powerful theme, and very relatable. I wanted to write something akin to Joe Lansdale’s Hot in December or Cold in July, but my own version. And in Northern California. And I wanted it to play out in a few locations, not just San Francisco. I think the suburban sprawl is under-represented in fiction. Gentrification has made the big cities so banal. Where’s the hunger, where’s the struggle, where’s the passion? In the burbs, baby.

OBAAT: I don’t know of many writers who can make their stories as unique as you do. Knuckleball was a fairly straightforward police procedural. Hustle tells the story of two young street hustler addicts. Your previous book, 101, focused on the marijuana trade as legalization approached. Now Coldwater is kind of a suburban horror story. What is it that draws you to such different types of stories and what kinds of adjustments, if any, are needed to write them?
TP: I grouped my four novels together as a “Northern California Quartet” because I think they do have a common denominator. And not just geographically. Really, what I wanted to do with Hustle is a realistic take on drug addiction, which I feel writers often get wrong. With 101, I wanted to do the same thing with the weed industry. With Coldwater, I wanted to capture my version of Sacramento. I want to show the world the view from where I stand, especially on topics I still feel like I have a little input on. My next book will be my take on the homeless situation, which I don’t think people really understand. Not in an empathetic way. I’ve been down in the trenches, and I want to convey what it’s like to be living like an animal on the streets of a big city.

OBAAT: The only thing I don’t like about your writing is that I get so invested in the characters I want more when the book ends. Have you ever considered even a short series? A trilogy, maybe?
TP: Weirdly enough, I thought about it with this book. Mostly because I like the name Calper Dennings so much. I started another book with Calper as the catalyst, but it crashed at about twenty thousand words. But yeah, I’d consider it. I better stop killing everyone off at the end of my book though.

OBAAT: What do you do when you’re not writing?
TP: These days, not much because of the pandemic, but I’m not kidding in the bio where it says I’m trying to survive. Being on the bottom end of the financial ladder in one of the priciest cities in the world doesn’t leave you with a lot of leisure time. I work too much, I worry too much. Not really pastimes, but they do pass the time.

OBAAT: We talked last time about your love of the Bay Area, though you’re a Canadian native. What part of Canada are you from and what was it that drew you to California so this love affair with San Francisco could begin?
TP: The short story is that I moved here from Calgary when I was 17 to play music. SF was punk rock mecca in the 80s, a very different place. But the truth is, when I was younger, my dad’s hockey team would come to Santa Rosa every summer to play. On one day each trip, we’d drive down to San Francisco, do North Beach, Chinatown, etc. And I remember being up near Coit tower, looking across at the density of North Beach, and I thought, I’m moving here when I grow up. This is America, this is where I belong.

OBAAT: You and Joe Clifford go way back, well before you were writers. How did you meet and how did your paths to becoming acclaimed writers vary? Or were similar? (I’m going to ask Clifford these same questions when I get a chance. Get some Newlywed Game action going.)
TP: Now that’s a loaded question. I really should write the story of the day we met, because it was a perfect snapshot of our lives then. It started with a shot of dope, but it ended with Joe attacking some guy in the house over a deal gone bad. But I digress. Basically, we were both living on the floor of different junkie scumbags who lived in the same flat—this horrific place we called Hepatitis Heights—and Joe was introduced to me by this awful person named Skipper Nick. Don’t get me started on that piece of work. Anyway, Joe was dope sick and bent in half. I’d just copped a gram of junk and a half gram of coke, and I threw most or all of it in a spoon and split it with him. Now, that’s a pretty big fuckin’ dose, and trust me, nobody was sharing. It just wasn’t done. I don’t know why I shared it with him, he seemed like a good guy. But that action started a pact between us, we’d split whatever we had, money or drugs, and keep each other well. You see, in Hepatitis Heights, it was a constant free-for-all. Lying, stealing, begging, borrowing, pawning, whoring, everyone was out for themselves. With me and Joe actually able to trust each other, it gave us half a chance to survive.

OBAAT: We’ve both been around long enough, and written enough books, that we can look back at our books with a little perspective. Which of your books is your favorite and which means the most to you? Doesn’t have to be the same book. I know mine wouldn’t be.
TP: I think Hustle means most to me. Maybe because it was my first novel, or maybe because the movie option made me the most money, but I think it’s because there’s a lot of my personal experience in there. But I think my favorite is 101. I feel like, at least with pacing, I’m at the top of my game in 101. That said, readers seem like American Static the most, so, who knows?
OBAAT: With Coldwater hitting the stores, what’s in the pipeline?
TP: Absolutely nothing. I’m writing, of course, but I’m not sure this next one is truly crime fiction. And I’m not sure what’ll happen with it. It’s a book about a homeless man in San Francisco who thinks he’s a prophet and the lives that intersect because of him. I’m trying a very different approach, so we’ll see if it works. Trying to push the envelope and create something new.

Thank you, Dana, it’s always good to talk with you. Hopefully we’ll both be around for a sixth round.

OBAAT: Always a pleasure, Tom. Come back any time.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Favorite Reads

Though my schedule hasn’t changed much, social distancing has created time for reading. I also read when I used to watch television news. The books chosen were good choices, as well.

The Man with the Getaway Face, Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. I’ve read a small handful of the Stark/Parker books and the only one I didn’t care for was The Hunter. (I’m working on a post that goes into things everyone else loves and I don’t, and why the rest of you are wrong.) Getaway Face (wonderful title) begins with Parker leaving an off the radar clinic with a new face to minimize the chances of being recognized by anyone he offended in The Hunter. Wouldn’t be much of a book if that worked, so besides worrying about that, a member of his new crew has a personal agenda, plus the caretaker from the clinic is chasing the last three new faces to see which one killed the doctor. Well-paced, not a wasted word, and Parker’s personal moral code is easy to understand once you buy into the character, which is also easier here than in The Hunter. There was nothing Westlake couldn’t do as a writer.

Paradise Sky, Joe Lansdale. I liked Cold in July so much I went straight for a Western and found it completely different but just as good. A fictionalized account of the life of Nat Love, aka “Deadwood Dick,” the book traces his life from the day he’s almost lynched for looking too closely at a white woman’s ass, through his time as a Buffalo Soldier, and onto Deadwood, where the obsessed man whose wife’s butt Nat admired catches up with him. Paradise Sky has all the wit and laugh out loud humor Lansdale is known for, but also pulls the reader into the sadness approaching despair Love faces, and the horrific injustice faced by African Americans after the Civil War. Lansdale’s reputation rests much on the Hap and Leonard books, but having read one of them in addition to Cold in July and Paradise Sky, I’d have to say it’s the weakest of the three, which is not to say it’s weak. I have another H&L on my shelf, so a re-evaluation may be in order.

The Promise, Robert Crais. Writers like Crais are why I keep a spreadsheet to track the writers I don’t want to lose touch with. I like the Elvis Cole books best, and I like the parts of this book that are told through Cole’s first-person POV better as well, but the characters are all compelling, even Maggie the K-9. The plot never sacrifices plausibility for surprise, but there is plenty you won’t see coming. I could have lived without the last two denouement chapters, but that’s like saying Charlize Theron has ugly toes. (Full disclosure: I have no idea what Ms. Theron’s toes look like, and I’m not about to add to a crime writer’s already dubious search history by Googling “Charlize Theron toes.”)

Hawke's Target, Reavis Wortham. A modern day Texas Ranger story, and a damn good one. I’m not usually a fan of books that go from one shootout to the next, preferring suspense to build more organically, but Wortham writes such good action sequences I was happy to get to the next. Sonny Hawke is a good ol’ boy trouble seems to find and Wortham makes Sonny capable without being superhuman. I’ll be back.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Pushing Water Drops May 4 from Down & Out Books

I don’t do a lot of blatant self-promotion and my sales reflect it. This being my blog, nothing I say or do here BSP, as everyone is here of their own free will, as opposed to me beating you senseless on Facebook. With Pushing Water dropping on Monday and a blog of my own, where else should people expect to see puffery?

Let’s start with how happy I am over the blurbs this book has received. I have been fortunate over the years to get blurbs from writers better than I deserve. (I’d list their names but they asked me not to. All of them. Every goddamn one.) I try not to go to the same wells too often (at their request), and I wanted to appeal to those who enjoy procedurals with more realism in them. Who better to ask than actual cops who are also writers? The way I looked at it, these were people uniquely immune to bullshit. They knew cops inside and out (literally) and knew the trickiness of balancing verisimilitude and entertainment.

The lead quote on the Down & Out web site belongs to Colin Campbell. Colin is a thirty-year veteran of the West Yorkshire police and author of the Jim Grant series of thrillers, the next of which, Catawba Point, drops June 8 from Down & Out. He hit my sweet spot without me having to tell him what it was.

“An extraordinary voice. A mix of Pelecanos, Leonard and Wambaugh.”

Mark Bergin retired as a lieutenant from Alexandria VA police, a two-time Officer of the Year for drug and robbery investigations. Before that, he was an award-winning newspaper crime reporter. His debut novel, Apprehension, was one of my favorite reads last year and I started looking forward to his next book soon as I put it down.

“Facing a flood of armed robberies – and murder—Detective Doc Dougherty and his partners never lose their professional edge or hometown humanity in Pushing Water. With twists that shock and detective work that rings true, King is among the best cop writers going.”

Adam Plantinga is a 19-year veteran of the Milwaukee and San Francisco police departments and still an active sergeant. His first book, 400 Things Cops Know, earned an Agatha Award and won the 2015 Silver Falchion award for best nonfiction crime reference. I scan it and Adam’s follow-up, Police Craft before I start work on a book to refresh my memory on what I can use to add realism.

“Pushing Water is smart, rhythmic and relentless with a gripping narrative and a keen eye for how cops act and think.”

Frank Zafiro served twenty years in the Spokane WA PD, retiring as a captain. He worked as a patrol officer, corporal, and detective before entering into leadership roles, where he commanded patrol officers, investigators, K-9 officers (and their dogs!), and the SWAT team.

Since retiring Frank has taught, and written police craft textbooks. He’s currently a writing machine who edits the Down & Out series The Grifter’s Song and co-writing with Colin Conway the Charlie 3-16 series of novels. His podcast, Wrong Place, Write Crime has cost me a small fortune buying his guests’ books.

“Pushing Water is an engaging book that gets everything right: the people, how they speak and act, the setting, and the story. The most telling endorsement is this - after I finished reading it, I passed it on to another retired cop to read!”

Thanks to all these fine officers and gentlemen. (Literally.) Asking for blurbs is one of the more difficult aspects or writing for me, as I know how busy everyone is and how many people want names such as these on their books. The generosity they showed with their time and their words ranks high on the list of things that keep me going.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Pushing Water Chapter One

Pushing Water drops from Down & Out Books on May 4; you can pre-order it any time you want. Today’s blog post is the opening chapter, to see if it piques your interest.



Jacques Lelievre pushed a ten across the bar, tapped it with an index finger.
“Thanks, Larry.” Don Kwiatkowski tipped his fresh beer in Jacques’s direction. Under the impression Jacques’s name was Larry Robinson. A reasonable mistake: that’s what Jacques had told him.
“You ever hear of a guy named Elmore Leonard?” Jacques careful to keep his French Canadian accent under control.
Don swallowed. Showed thought. “He a fighter? Sounds like a fighter’s name.”
“Writer. I think he did some time, though. Writes a lot of books about guys who did time and knows how they think.”
Don swallowed. Set the glass on the bar. “You know much about guys that did time?”
“Got a lot of convict friends, do you?”
“Not a lot. Some.”
“Where’d you get to know not a lot, but some convicts?”
Jacques sipped his drink. “Prison.”
Don took his time with another swallow, cagey like. “So you’re saying you’re a convict. That’s how you know about this Elmore guy.”
“I’m not saying anything. Being a con isn’t the kind of thing you brag aboot.” Jacques flinched inwardly.
Don took a few seconds to really look at Jacques for the first time that night. “Where you from, exactly?”
“Vermont. Way the fuck up by Canada. Got tired of freezing my cock off seven months a year and moved to Florida. Got so hot there I had to change clothes three times a day. Now I drive truck and move around a lot. Get a little of everything.” Jacques really had gotten tired of freezing his cock off, though it had been somewhat north of Vermont.
“What’d you do to get put in prison?”
“Does it matter?”
The pause told Jacques snap judgments weren’t Don’s strong suit. “Not really, I guess. No. It don’t matter at all.”
“That’s good,” Jacques said. “I’d hate to think you were close-minded.”
“Not me.” Don finished his beer. Looked at Jacques’s Crown Royal sitting half-full on the bar. Jacques slugged it back and held up two fingers, pointed to his glass and Don’s. Don said, “I’m pretty liberal when it comes to shit like that. This Elmore you mentioned. What about him?”
“He write a book about a guy who has rules for armed robbery. Makes a lot of sense.”
“You know a lot about armed robbery?”
Don welcomed his fresh beer like a cousin he hadn’t seen in years. “Why’re you telling me?”
Jacques pretended to think about what to say. “You’re on strike from that steel mill across the river, right?”
“We ain’t on strike, goddammit. We’re locked out. The union’s willing to work without a contract while things get settled, but those cocksuckers want givebacks. Locked us out and brought in scabs.” Then, into his beer: “Cocksuckers.”
“Pay’s about the same, though. Locked out or on strike?”
“You just now drunk enough to break my balls, or is there a point here?”
“I’m not drunk.” Jacques gave Don time to make eye contact. “Funny thing, towns without much money usually got plenty of cash. Hard to get credit for people out of work or part-time. People who write money orders don’t take checks. Payday loan places have to keep lots of cash on hand. The less money a town has, the more cash is in circulation.”
Jacques needed Don to be stupid enough, but not too stupid. Not as sure now which side of the line he fell on. “All that cash? It’s not nailed down. It has to be available for people to use. That makes it available for everyone.”
The lightbulb came on over Don’s head. Sixty watts, tops. With a dimmer. “That time you did. Wasn’t for robbery, was it?”
Jacques sipped his drink. Smiled.
Don said, “Why are you telling me?”
Jacques let the anticipation build a few seconds. “It takes two men to do it right.”
Don gave a long hard look. “What makes you think I’m the kind of guy robs people?”
“What kind of guy is that? A guy who robs people. They look different? Have three eyes? Gun permanent attached to their hand? You know who armed robbers are? People who need money. You know anyone like that?”
Don’s beer sat forgotten on the bar. “You didn’t say nothing about armed robbery before.”
“You know another way people give you money don’t belong to you?” Left time for Don to speak up. “I didn’t think so. The difference between an armed robber and any of these doncs around us is ambition. You think there’s anyone in here don’t need money?”
Don looked around at Fat Jimmy’s usual clientele. “Some of these guys do all right.”
Jacques snorted. “They wouldn’t drink in this toilet if they had money to go anyplace else. We been talking here over an hour. You got truck payment, you got child support, you got rent. All you don’t got right now is a job.”
“I got a fucking job.”
“I’m sorry. You got a job. What you don’t got is income.” Let that one lay on the bar to see if Don picked it up. “I got an idea for income. But I need another guy.”
Don turned on his barstool to face Jacques, closing them off from the other drinkers. “I ain’t got a problem with…taking some money. But armed robbery? That’s an extra five years in this state, I think.”
Jacques knew he had a partner as soon as the conversation turned to specifics. “Doesn’t matter. No one is going to give you the money if they don’t think you got a gun, and that’s all it takes. Even you put your finger in your pocket like this—pretend gun—if they think you have a gun, the law says you do. Least that’s how it is in Vermont.”
“Yeah. Here, too, I think.”
Jacques sipped his Crown Royal. “It’s funny, when you think about it. They make a big deal about how much more serious is armed robbery, then they write the law so pretty much any robbery is one. You want to call it just robbery? Fine. I’ll be armed. You do what you want.”
Don’s beer sat unattended, nearing room temperature. Jacques finished his drink. Let the warmth flow down his throat. Relaxed and in his element. Hoped Don asked the question before he exploded.
“How do we do it?”
“The first thing is to always be polite on the job. Say please and thank you.”

Friday, April 17, 2020


The Beloved Spouse™ and I completed watching all seven seasons of Sons of Anarchy last weekend. I should have reviewed each season separately; I didn’t. Here’s the Campbell’s version. (Condensed.)

(There are at least the hints of spoilers here.)

Production Values
Outstanding. SOA must have been a high-budget show by FX standards, as the budget for fake blood alone must have run five figures a week. I’m not a vroom-vroom guy by modern standards, but I got into the fishtailing cars and motorcycles darting in between traffic. Full marks.

Generally good. I’ve been a Jimmy Smits fan for years but this was a revelation. His expressions and little mannerisms helped to make Nero the most compelling character in the show for me.

Katey Sagal was very good as Gemma, but the character wore thin after a while, as there are only so many ways to spin Cruella DeVil’s evil sister. By the time she did get to do something with more depth, her acceptance of her fate wasn’t credible. I kept waiting for her to try one more lie. In fairness, that’s not Katey’s fault, it’s the writers’. More on that later.

Dayton Callie maintained the same core of humanity as he did with Charlie Utter in Deadwood, and remained one of the few characters worth rooting for.

Charlie Hunnam was solid as Jax, though he never quite got the hang of the American R at the end of words.

Ron Perlman was born to be Clay. I read several places that they shot much of the pilot with Scott Glenn in the role. I love Scott Glenn—and not just because he’s from Pittsburgh—but Perlman is Clay Morrow.

Uneven. Season One’s dialog lacked life, but as the years moved along the banter and offhand humor between characters improved; maybe Kurt Sutter started watching Justified.

Action was too often a substitute for suspense. Good as the action was, new story lines sprung up and ran their course faster than erections in a whorehouse. Problems that arose ten minutes into an episode resolved themselves by the forty-minute mark, usually in a hail of gunfire.

That brings us to the show’s two greatest failings: timelines and credibility. The Sons—especially Jax—go from mayhem to mayhem at least twice a day. There were time when they stopped off to kill someone on their way to killing someone else. Star Trek doesn’t move people around with transporters any faster. One memorable scene has Jax and the Sons at the marina. Bad guys show up to blow up the boat. The Sons see them. The bad guys split. The Sons give chase, except for Jax and Clay, who still have business at the boat. Next thing we see is Jax leading the pursuit. This is but the most memorable occurrence of a common practice.

What really got me, and finally wore down TBS, is the things that just can’t happen. Twice the Sons are thisclose to going down on a RICO beef based on the testimony of a single witness. RICO cases take years, under the best of circumstances. Trial dates move forward or back to suit the plot. The DA orders around sheriff’s deputies; we never see, or even hear from, the sheriff. All feds are even more vicious and duplicitous than any of the MCs. Or the Taliban, for that matter. About the closest the show gets to actual police procedure is using telephones to speak into. It wore me down after a while.

The weaving of multiple plot thread in Season Seven was outstanding in how they were woven together to credibly solve two problems in one fell swoop. The ending had a certain elegance, as well, though the final chase scene too way too long and the final shot was maudlin. (SOA could have benefitted from a Sopranos ending as Jax raised his arms before driving into the truck.)

There are plenty of other things to talk about in a show that ran seven years. With a few exceptions they’d be more of the same. The show took a detour to Ireland in Season Three and never quite found its way after that. As The Guardian said, “when it existed in its own self-contained Stateside world of dive bars, strip clubs and motorcycle clubhouses, Sons of Anarchy was just fine.” SAMCRO* came back from the auld sod less about mayhem—which is fine—and more about gratuitous bloodletting. The offbeat charm was gone.

I’m not sorry I watched Sons of Anarchy, but I was ready for it to be over and see no need to watch it again. TBS and I started right into to re-watching Justified. The difference between SOA and Justified is that one watches Sons to see what’s going to happen and one watches Justified to enjoy what’s happening.

Three stars of five.

(*--Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals.)