Monday, July 21, 2014

More Movies, Movies, Movies

Picking up where I left off last week:

Farewell, My Lovely. (1975) I never did find a DVD here, but a friend posted a YouTube link and I watched it there. More than a little disappointing. No one, to my knowledge, has ever filmed a Chandler book that did justice to the original material. The first attempt, Bogart’s The Big Sleep, tip-toed around what the Hayes Office would allow as well as it could. This did not allow it to include underground
pornography, Carmen Sternwood getting away with killing Rusty Regan (who is conveniently omitted), or Eddie Mars continuing to live a life of crime; the workarounds are top notch. Farewell, My Lovely, made in 1975, had no such excuses for combining and simplifying subplots: the running time is only 95 minutes, so length was not an issue. What’s left lacks any of the impact of what Chandler tried to project. The effort to recreate 1941 is too forced—Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak is shoved down your throat at every opportunity—and nothing flows. Robert Mitchum is good as a world-weary Marlowe, though his heart doesn’t really seem to be in it. The film does feature a perfectly cast 29-year-old Charlotte Rampling, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.
                       
Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (1991) This was another HDNet flick, so I recorded it, as I think it’s one of the small handful of best action movies ever made. I still do. The special effects hold up well, and the chase scenes are spectacular, especially the tow truck chasing the dirt bike through the LA River. Just enough references to the original to let its fans feel like they’re on the inside. A great movie, not using “great” to mean “deeply moving” as in Schindler’s List  or Lawrence of Arabia; more like, “God-damn, that was a great movie!”


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) This one didn’t hold up nearly as well. Leaving aside the scenery chewing (Leonard Nimoy and Kirstie Alley excepted, but they’re Vulcans, and overacting is not logical), the plot holes are too large to be ignored. What I remembered most were the “submarine movie” aspects, the cat and mouse of the two ships; what I forgot
was, this only takes about fifteen minutes. From how Paul Winfield could have confused which planet they were on to the creature that should have killed Chekhov abandoning him instead to the scanners that would not work in the nebula—except well enough to pick up Reliant’s critical turn—this one no longer works. The best part is Spock’s final scene, the quiet dignity he shows in adjusting his tunic when he realizes Kirk has come to him one last time.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Movies, Movies, Movies

It’s been a while since I last commented on movies, and, of course, I’ve seen a few more than usual since then. This post got out of hand in length, so I’m breaking it in half. I’m sure you’re heartbroken.



The Outfit. (1973) Chosen by George Pelecanos during his night as Turner Classic Movies programmer, the second film in which Robert Duvall received top billing. A treatment of Richard Stark’s eponymous novel, Duvall plays the Parker character—here named Earl Macklin—unapologetically straight, probably as close to how Stark envisioned him as anyone has. (I need to see Point Blank again to be sure.) This has all the virtues of 70s low-key filmmaking and few of the downsides. The excellent cast is character actor heaven: Elisha Cook, Jr., Richard Jaeckel, Henry Jones, Jane Greer, Sheree North, Robert Ryan, and Joe Don Baker were the ones I recognized. Karen Black is the girl, and Joanna Cassidy makes her debut as Ryan’s girlfriend. Pelecanos says this has been a hard film to get hold of, and he’s right: Netflix doesn’t even have a listing for it. If you have a chance, don’t miss it.

Margin Call. (2011) J.C. Chandor said that he wrote the script in just four days; it shows. The story of how a venerable investment bank can unravel over a 24-hour period when traditional controls are ignored, the film misses several bases by trying to touch them all. It’s a shame, because a great story was there to be told, had Chandor gone for something more along the lines of the excellent Too Big To Fail, told from the bank’s side. An excellent cast—including Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci—gives their best efforts, but there’s no there there.

Saving Private Ryan, (1998) Re-watched it on June 6, the seventieth anniversary of the Normandy landings. Loosely based on the true story of the Niland brothers. I learned all I cared to know about what it must be like to be in a war in the first 25 minutes. The battle scenes—especially the opening on Omaha Beach and the bridge at Ramelle—are graphic and as intense as anything ever filmed. Difficult to watch, even when you know what’s coming, and I can’t do it very often. Still, I’ll do it again. Congress should be required to watch it before voting to send troops into harm’s way.

Monte Walsh, (1970) Another of Pelecanos’s picks, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, and Jeanne Moreau star in an “end of the old west” story that evokes the viewer’s empathy without creating melodrama. Another of those borderline minimalists 70s movies, Lee Marvin’s title character is sad for what he’s lost and is losing, but never feels sorry for himself. The scene of Marvin breaking a horse in the main street and destroying the town to do it is worth watching the entire movie for, but watch the whole thing. One of my favorite Marvin performances.

Pitch Black, (2000) The original Riddick movie, predating Chronicles. They should have made it more about him. Vin Diesel hits the right pitch in this Aliens knock-off about a space ship that crash lands on a planet with three suns, treading a line between the John Malkovich and Nicolas Cage characters in Con Air. There’s an eclipse every 22 years, casting the entire planet into darkness (they actually show how this would work pretty well), and they’re unlucky enough to land there just as it’s getting dark, which is when horrible creature that cannot bear light come out and eat every living thing, including, apparently, each other. The usual chase scenes, dumb choices, and bad consequences result. Could have been a lot better.

The Terminator. (1984) Happened to be the next movie on HDNet after Pitch Black, and I couldn’t resist. (I never can.) Say what you want about him, but the Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger is as perfect a matching of actor and role as Larry Hagman and JR Ewing or Ian MacShane and Al Swearengen. James Cameron made three of the greatest action movies of all time (The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and will be remembered for that crappy thing he did about the boat and the ice cube.


More next Monday.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Herbie's Game

I first became aware of Tim Hallinan’s writing when I was asked to review the first Poke Rafferty thriller, A Nail Through the Heart, in 2008. The Rafferty books became staples of my reading; The Queen of Patpong is a book I’d like to see taught in schools.

The Rafferty books are pretty dark, though Hallinan knows how to add touches of humor to provide patches of blue sky and hope. These bits of humor are genuinely funny, so I was happy to hear he’d decided to write something intended to be humorous from the get-go, and started the Junior Bender series. The fourth Bender book, Herbie’s Game, launches tomorrow.

Junior Bender is either a burglar with a difference, or a private investigator with a difference. A burglar nonpareil, he’s fallen into a side gig of being PI to the underworld. All the guile and guts he’s used to make a living and stay out of jail as a burglar are put to good use, Hallinan’s tongue always buried in his cheek.

Herbie’s Game begins with Wattles, a crook who sets up hits as a matter of routine business. He uses an elaborate series of cutouts who pass instructions through blind drops so, theoretically, no one knows who ordered the hit and no one—except Wattles—knows who’s doing the actual killing. Until one day Wattles comes to work and finds his office burglarized; his chain of cut-outs’ names is all that’s missing. This is not the kind of thing one takes to the police, which means Junior gets the call.

This case is tough for Junior on two levels. He generally prefers to avoid the most of the people he’s dealing with, as they kill people for a living, and are not amused to have their activities looked into. Closer to home, references to Herbie Mott—Junior’s friend and mentor, whom he idolizes—turn up everywhere. Working his way through the chain one piece at a time, Junior learns things about Herbie he never suspected, and isn’t sure he wants to know.

The book works on multiple levels. As always, the humor is spot on, allowing Hallinan to have fun with his plotting in a way that would come across as inappropriate in the Rafferty books. Herbie’s Game, like The Fame Thief before it, also goes deeper, as Junior is forced to examine things about his life he wouldn’t have thought of, and might prefer to leave unexamined.

This is the most ambitious of the Bender books, and most resembles the Rafferty series in its introspection at times, but it’s still Junior Bender all the way. Hallinan has a gift for exploring similar themes from widely divergent contexts. As with all his books, Herbie’s Game is about the responses of people when relationships are unexpectedly and dramatically stressed. Herbie Mott was not at all who Junior thought him to be, and neither was their relationship. How this resolves, and how Junior gets his head around it, leads to an ending Westlake would have been proud of.

I discovered Hallinan’s writing through the Rafferty series, and still drop everything to read the newest Poke book, no matter how many titles are backed up on my increasingly OCD To Be Read List. I’ve come to like Junior maybe even a little more. I doubt any Bender book will have the visceral impact of The Queen of Patpong—they’re lighter by nature—but the message of Herbie’s Game is something more people have experienced, which will increase the impact while leaving a smile. That’s damned hard to do. If you want to see it done well, Herbie’s Game is the book for you.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

True Detective

HBO made its programs available again on Netflix just as it released True Detective available on DVD far sooner than its previous practice. Once again my clean living and purity of mind pay off.

My impression of True Detective during its run, based on what I read in social media, was it was a groundbreaking series that had viewers shaking their heads in wonder and admiration after each episode. After its eight-week run had ended, I found a more mixed collection of opinions, so I was eager to give it a try.

First, an overarching opinion: I believe the limited duration television series with at least one continuing story arc, used for years by the Brits, is the highest form of visual storytelling. The creators can take the time they need, and only that much, to go as deep into their characters and subject matter as they wish. The Wire was sometimes describes as a “television novel,” but the mold wasn’t broken. It’s still there, and it works. Brilliantly, when done right.

That being said, True Detective is good, often excellent, sometimes brilliant, but uneven as
an old mining road. The conceit of the early episodes—modern detectives interviewing Rust Cohle and Marty Hart about a case from seventeen years ago, intercut with scenes of the actual investigation—was brilliant, and well done. Especially successful are scenes where the previous events show how Cohle and Hart lie to the detectives. I have no idea how to do that in a novel and make it half as effective. (There’s also a scene—I think it’s in Episode Four—where Cohle goes undercover and winds up in a stash house robbery gone bad that runs as a single shot for over six minutes. That was filmmaking of a level Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas at the Copa) and Orson Welles (opening to A Touch of Evil) would be proud.)

The acting is uniformly excellent. I have long been a Matthew McConaughey basher, but he’s taken his craft seriously and come a long way. Having seen him in Mud before this, I wasn’t as shocked as I might have been. It’s his performance that carries the series. Woody Harrelson is also excellent; we’ve come to expect that. McConaughey’s Cohle is a fundamentally good man beset by demons; Harrelson’s Hart is an asshole who must find his own redemption. What’s best about True Detective is how their interactions bring this out, building a strong friendship built on an apparent foundation of antagonism.

What throws the show off-kilter are the domestic scenes of the Hart family, and of Marty’s inability to stay faithful to his wife, played by Michelle Monahan, whose talents are largely wasted. While the plot line of trying to include new partner Cohle into Hart’s life works well in spots, most of the Hart family scenes serve to show Martin is an ever-enlarging asshole, and his wife is a vindictive shrew. That’s important to know, as it has implications for the partners’ relationship, but it went on way too long.

Watching the back-and-forth of today’s investigation with the original was fascinating, though the momentum was too often disrupted by the detailed examinations of the Hart family travails. Things really start to roll when the focus shifts to today, as Cohle and Hart take it upon themselves to solve the original case. The ending is pitch perfect, on multiple levels. (Don’t ask. You know I don’t do spoilers. All I’ll say is, David Chase’s idea of a personal hell must be to have to watch the final episodes of True Detective and The Shield for eternity, to show him how not to cop out on an ending.)


Was it worth watching? Absolutely. Did it blow me away? On occasion. Did it leave me with my mouth hanging open in slack-jawed admiration? No. Will I watch it again? Almost certainly, but not for a while. Will I buy it so I can drop it into the player whenever the mood hits me? Probably not. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Twenty Questions With Susan Elia MacNeal

I first became aware of Susan Elia MacNeal at Bouchercon (where else?), when she appeared on a panel that discussed wartime mysteries, moderated by Peter Rozovsky (who else?).  Susan is the author of the popular and acclaimed Maggie Hope series of novels, set in World War II-era Britain and Europe. She has won a Barry Award, and been nominated for—take a deep breath—Edgar, Macavity, Dilys, ITW Thriller, Sue Feder, and Bruce Alexander awards.

Susan graduated cum laude from Wellesley College, with departmental honors in English Literature and credits from cross-registered classes at MIT. She attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Harvard University.

Her first job was as an intern at Random House for then-publisher Harold Evans before moving her way up the editorial ladder at Viking/Penguin and McGraw-Hill, and then becoming an associate editor at Dance Magazine.

Her writing has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Fodor’s, Time Out New York, Time Out London, Publishers Weekly, Dance Magazine, and various publications of New York City Ballet. She’s also the author of two non-fiction books and a professional editor.

Susan is married and lives with her husband, Noel MacNeal—a television performer, writer, and director—and their young son in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her new book, released last week, is The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent.

Susan Elia MacNeal: I‘ve come to think of it as “How Maggie Gets her Groove Back.” (A reviewer came up with that one and I love it).

But here’s the official description: “World War II rages on across Europe, but Maggie Hope has finally found a moment of rest on the pastoral coast of western Scotland. Home from an undercover mission in Berlin, she settles down to teach at her old spy training camp, and to heal from scars on both her body and heart. Yet instead of enjoying the quieter pace of life, Maggie is quickly drawn into another web of danger and intrigue. When three ballerinas fall strangely ill in Edinburgh—including one of Maggie’s dearest friends—Maggie partners with MI-5 to uncover the truth behind their unusual symptoms. What she finds points to a series of poisonings that may expose shocking government secrets and put countless British lives at stake. But it’s the fight brewing in the Pacific that will forever change the course of the war—and indelibly shape Maggie’s fate.”

OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)

SEM: Well, at the end of His Majesty’s Hope, Maggie was in a dark place, and I didn’t want her to be some sort of a “Jane Bond,” with no physical and psychological effects from her experiences and actions in Berlin. So, for The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, I brought her back to a place where she thinks she’ll be safe and protected — her old training camp in Scotland. Only it’s not really all that safe and protected — because what she’s fighting is in herself. And because nowhere really is safe anymore.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, start to finish?

SEM: I think it took about a year, more or less.

OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?

SEM: Well, Maggie is fighting her inner demon, or as she comes to think of it — her black dog of depression (an image she’s gotten from Winston Churchill). Her father’s more or less abandoned her, her mother tried to kill her, her fiancé also comes back from Berlin traumatized.
And worst of all, she’s not sure that she did the right thing herself when she was in Berlin and that eats at her.

But when a friend of Maggie’s in in trouble, Maggie drops everything to help her — and ends up saving herself as well as her friend.

OBAAT: In what time and place is The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

SEM: It’s set in the winter of 1941, leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Things look bleak for the United Kingdom, really and truly bleak. Maggie’s emotional state in some ways mirrors England’s — they are both at the end of their proverbial ropes.

OBAAT: How did The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent come to be published?

SEM: Well, I’m happily under contract to Random House for (at least) six Maggie Hope books, and this is number four so….

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

SEM: I love early Ken Follett, in the World War II period. Outside of historical thrillers and mysteries, I’m reading Karin Slaughter and George R.R. Martin. I’m really looking forward to the next Sarah Waters novel, which is coming out soon.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?

SEM: I’m influenced by a lot of writers who write strong women characters — everyone from Louisa May Alcott to Charlotte Bronte to Joss Wheedon.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

SEM: I wear pants! (Although they may be pajama pants….) I usually have an arc in mind and an outline, but then things seem to happen….

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?

SEM: I just write and write and write at first. Editing comes much later, once there’s something on paper to edit… I do a lot of rewriting when I edit. So the first draft is like a big pencil sketch, and then I fill in and fill in and fill in….

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

SEM: Write! Don’t talk about writing and don’t stress about writing. Just write. Give yourself a daily word count.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

SEM: I really just like hanging out with my family, cooking, and having people over. I’m also getting back into yoga after a long time away. It feels good. Oh, and love to travel whenever possible. I think I may be a travel addict!

OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?

SEM: Oh, money and reviews don’t have anything to do with what I do, truly. I love having touched people and vice versa. I’ve met the most amazing people on this adventure. The people and the places I’ve traveled to are what I think of.

OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?

SEM: I don’t think I could ever stop writing, certainly not now. Maggie still has so many adventures before the war ends! I’m committed to seeing her through.

OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.

SEM: I’m going to go with Big Six, since that’s been my experience and Random House has been very good to me.

OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?

SEM: Mixed drinks (dirty martini) once in a while, but I like wine.

OBAAT: Baseball or football?

SEM: Figure skating. Or hockey, if the Buffalo Sabres are playing.

OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?

SEM: I think you asked it with the “Do you even wear pants?” question…

OBAAT: What’s the answer?

SEM: Yes, I wear clothes when I write! Sometimes, I’m wearing pajamas, but definitely something!

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

SEM: I’m working on Maggie Hope’s next adventure, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. This will bring Maggie back to the U.S. with Winston Churchill post-Pearl Harbor. It’s a lot of fun to write, as now we get to see the Brits in America, instead of an American in Britain.


To learn more about Susan, visit her website, which has what might be the coolest home page I’ve ever seen.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

June's Best Reads

June was a good reading month; not great. There are a couple of books I could have added but I didn’t feel quite made the cut, possibly because the three that did were so good. (Plus one non-fiction book that was one of the goofiest things I’ve ever read, where the author seems to seek out examples that weaken her hypothesis.) I know that’s not fair, but life is not fair, and I’m not running one of those blogs where everyone who tries out for the team gets a uniform.

Rogue Island, Bruce DeSilva. This rated its own post; more detail can be found here. Suffice to say DeSilva is the goods and I’ll be keeping up with him.

Killer’s Choice, Ed McBain. Amazon had a deal around Christmas time, twenty 87th Precinct novels for some stupid cheap number like 99 cents, so I bought all twenty of them to parcel out over a period of time. Killer’s Choice is from the late Fifties, and introduces Cotton Hawes, whom no one can stand going in. Carella is married, but he and Teddy have no kids. As usual, there is more than one crime to be solved, and, also as usual, there’s no weird twist. Just solid investigations of realistic events by people any of us might know, who happen to be cops. McBain was still using graphics of forms and paperwork as part of the story at this time. I’ve never read an 87th Precinct novel I couldn’t recommend, some more enthusiastically than others. This rates about a 6.5 on the ten-point McBain scale, which means it’s better than two-thirds of all the other books you’re likely to read this year. What’s amazing about McBain is how his voice and style remained consistent, yet evolved over time. Note: the opening, where McBain describes the struggles with his publisher over the directions the characters were to take, is hilarious.


Pronto, Elmore Leonard. Been meaning to re-read Pronto ever since Justified came on the air; finally got around to it. The hat is different, and the book’s Raylan is older and has two kids, but the attitude and tone will be familiar to fans of the show. Leonard goes on a bit much about Ezra Pound—unusual for him to violate his most famous dictum like that—but that’s a cold sore on Charlize Theron; the rest is a blast. Written in the early 90s when Leonard was at the peak of his power, I’d share a favorite line or scene, but there are too many. One of my favorite Leonards.

Monday, June 30, 2014

An Overwhelming Success

Well, that was fun.

Last week’s free e-book promotion resulted in 12,824 downloads, about half of which were for A Small Sacrifice. This is way more than the 300 – 500 I’d been hoping for. For a brief moment Grind Joint was the #1 hard-boiled free download, #3 in Police Procedurals. A Small Sacrifice cracked the Top 100 overall at #75, and was the #2 Mystery.

The lion’s share of the credit goes to those friends and friends once (or more) removed, who accepted my request to help with the promotion and ran with it beyond my wildest expectations. My reaction moved from happy through flattered to humbled as more people tagged me in Facebook posts and folks I’d never heard of posted comments and Likes and indicated they’d downloaded at least one book. The only occurrence on my writing career that exceeds it is the launch of Grind Joint last November, and that had cake, so the comparison isn’t really fair. I mean, you know, there was cake.

Several stepped up to offer guest posts on their blogs, even though they may already have given me a push there: Paul Brazill, Ben Sobieck—who also alerted me to the rankings on his own initiative—Laura Roberts, Gerard Brennan, and Patti Abbott; my visits to Holly West’s and Jay Stringer’s spaces are upcoming, as is an interview and blog post for Lance Wright on OmniMystery Magazine. Laura is also providing an interview opportunity.

I know I didn’t catch everyone who extended themselves on my behalf, as random comments came in that made me wonder, “How the hell did this person find out?” No matter how; I’m grateful.

It’s no news to anyone that writing is a solitary endeavor, but no one, with the possible exception of J.D. Salinger, wants to write in a vacuum. Some level of public presence has to be obtained, and maintained, not the easiest of tasks for a profession tailor-made for introverts. I began writing crime because that’s what I read, having no idea what kinds of people I would eventually come into contact with. This is no news to anyone who’s been around, but crime fiction writers are, by an overwhelming majority, the most benevolent and generous group of people I have ever come in contact with. To all of you, I am profoundly grateful. Don’t be bashful about making sure I know of anything you’re promoting; I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get to return the favor.

Breaking News: Patti Abbott has had a story chosen for the 2014 Bouchercon anthology. Congratulations to Patti, and to everyone who had stories selected. Hopefully, she’ll be at the conference so The Beloved Spouse and I can congratulate her in person.