Thursday, September 17, 2020

NYPD Blue

 

The Beloved Spouse™ and I rarely leap into the hot thing du jour. We let things breathe and gauge the reception over time before devoting any of our precious remaining hours to something. Ergo, we recently binge-watched NYPD Blue fifteen years after it went off the air. All 261 episodes. In a row. We didn’t watch anything else.

 

We don’t fuck around.

 

What a great show. Like any property that runs twelve years, it slows down a little toward the end, but not a lot. The entire cast turns over except for Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and the producers use that turnover to shift the squad’s internal dynamics so you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, but you have an idea how events will affect the characters.

 

If I had to pick one thing that stands out, it’s how the rest of the squad, including the bosses, come to respect and gain affection for Sipowicz. He’s a racist asshole when the show starts, and he’s never cuddly. He struggles with multiple demons and keeps them at bay while understanding they are never defeated. He learns when and how to ask for help, never more touchingly as when he calls his wife to come get him in a bar. “No, I’m not drinking. But if you don’t come for me I know I will.” Not an order; a plea. Early in the show the only person who has the time of day for him is his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso.) By the end the entire squad will do anything for him.

 

All of the characters’ histories have their places, but not in a manner that the show becomes about their flaws; it’s still about the whole person. What turned me off of Rescue Me was that every episode became a test of whether Denis Leary would drink. After a while I didn’t care anymore, and there wasn’t much else to him. That’s never true of NYPD Blue. Everyone is a well-rounded person and personality. The characters never become stale because there’s always fertile ground to be worked, between New York situations (“Everything’s a situation,” said Sipowicz’s second partner, Bobby Simone) and the depth of the characterizations.

 

Since I brought him up, let’s talk about Bobby (Jimmy Smits). He’s only in a third of the episodes, but he leaves his mark on the rest of the show. His replacements, Sorenson (Rick Schroder) and Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are well-developed, well-acted characters, but they’re not Bobby. It’s Simone’s understanding and empathy for Sipowicz that turns the rest of the squad around. Not because Simone says or does anything, but everyone loves Bobby, and if Bobby feels this way about Sipowicz, then he can’t be all bad. The show is still good, but not so often transcendent after Simone leaves..

 

It’s a cop show and I haven’t said a word about the crimes. There’s no big deal made of stories “ripped from the headlines,” but former NYPD detective Bill Clark had a hand in breaking the overwhelming majority of stories. It shows. The weird crimes all have a “no one could make this up” feel, and the painful stories are never melodramatic. They just tell the story. Make of it what you will.

 

No show has better exemplified Joe Wambaugh’s mantra that a good cop story is more about how the cases work on the cops than about how the cops work on the cases. NYPD Blue is a procedural without much procedure. Only what you need to understand what’s going on. Nothing easy about that, and it’s more than worth your time when executed this well.

 

(I also recommend David Milch’s book, True Blue, about the first two seasons of the show, including the transition from Caruso to Smits. As good a behind the scenes book as I have read.)

 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Cold Six Thousand

My first exposure to James Ellroy was the movie LA Confidential. That sent me to the local library, where only Ellroy available was The Cold Six Thousand. It was the most unpleasant reading experience of my life. I vowed never to read Ellroy again.

 

A few years passed. Stephanie Padilla, then editor of the New Mystery Reader web site and the person responsible for many of the good things in my life as a writer, asked me to review Blood’s a Rover, which picks up where The Cold Six Thousand leaves off. I accepted as a favor to Stephanie. Turns out it was she who’d done me a solid. I loved the book, which taught me

1. The Cold Six Thousand is not a good point of entry into Ellroy’s work.

2. I needed to go back to The Black Dahlia and read him in order.

 

I revisited TC6K a couple of months ago. I revised my original assessment by the end of the first page. By Page 100 I understood why it’s a masterpiece, though I stand by my opinion it is not the place for the uninitiated to learn about Ellroy. There are no good guys, only shades of bad guys, and they’re not just bad guys, they’re bad people. Racial epithets, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments, the dialog and internal thoughts of the characters show much of the worst of human nature. The subject matter aside, the best word to describe the writing style is, “brutal.” The sentences are short and percussive.

 

The story draws heavily from the FBI’s attempts to discredit Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. The hatred for the Kennedy brothers shown by organized crime and J. Edgar Hoover in American Tabloid is now secondary to civil rights matters, but the inciting incident for the book is John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

 

TC6K reads like a description of what one might find after overturning a rotting stump, told in stark, unapologetic language. Human empathy is well down the list of “virtues,” and it’s most often dealt with by crushing its bearer. It’s a dog eat dog world, and the main course doesn’t need to be dead for the feast to begin.

 

And yet it’s a glorious read, as daring a book as I have ever encountered. Ellroy’s vision of America in the 60s turns a negative light on events we have struggled for years to describe either positively or as aberrations. Ellroy is having none of that. To him, the events described, factual and fictional, did not happen in spite of America’s greatness; they are part and parcel of the illusion of American greatness.

 

It’s also a much timelier book now than when I first read it. The current political climate has allowed the kinds of people depicted in TC6K as working underground to surface and thumb their noses at ideas of decency. Lots of people write of dystopian futures. Ellroy pulls the covers off our dystopian past.

 

Through all of that, the ending shows a little light. Not so much for the situation as a whole, but for how people can find a little justice for themselves, so long as they don’t hope for too much of it. Even that is eventually doled out in a brutal, too little too late, manner.

 

There won’t be any moves made of The Cold Six Thousand, though the storytelling virtues of streaming services make one wonder what Netflix or Amazon Prime could do with the material. I have no idea how TV would handle the pages of “transcripts” and “internal reports” that give the book such a documentary feel in places. Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks have both tried, and failed, to get series on the air.

 

It’s just as well. The Cold Six Thousand may be a story best saved for those willing to invest the energy to reads them. No skimming here. A proper encounter gets the reader dirty with the characters or the point is missed. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Irish Alzheimer's

My friend and outstanding writer Dietrich Kalteis asked me to contribute my “favorite” rejection story for an article he’s putting together. He only wanted a paragraph and I had a good story for that level of detail. I have another story that’s more along the lines of writers’ nightmares I can share here.

 

Nick Forte was originally a tongue-in-cheek protagonist of a not quite cozy about a former musician turned PI who worked cases that involved the music business. His sidekick fancied himself as Hawk but was universally known as Wren. I had an agent—the late and sorely missed Pam Strickler—who enthusiastically pushed the book to the major New York houses, where it received encouraging rejections.

 

Pam turned to a leading second-tier publisher of crime fiction. They asked for an exclusive, then sent it for a round of readers’ comments. I made some edits, and they sent it around again. More comments. More edits. Then it went through what sounded like a painfully detailed evaluation process with the house editors. No news. Pam sent a gentle prod. They put us off. Pam send another note. The runaround again. I forget how many of these we went through, never rejecting us, but not sending a contract, either.

 

Pam and I finally agreed it was time for the “piss or get off the pot” letter. That received a blow-off: a two-line e-mail with grammatical errors even I recognized, back when I chose to write in the first person because I lacked confidence in my grammatical skills. Total time waiting: almost two years.

 

The story has a happy ending. I used the time to take Forte in a different direction, which led to two Shamus nominations. Still, I have a fantasy I think most writers can relate to.

 

I sell a book that generates enough buzz I get to make a national tour. When the publicist tells me I can have a spot in [city name redacted] speaking at [prominent bookstore associated with the publisher mentioned above redacted] I tell her I wouldn’t appear there if the owners kissed my bare ass on the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl during the coin toss. The publicist would be encouraged to relay my comment to [publisher name redacted] in those exact words. I’d then ask her to spare no effort to book me into that bookstore’s closest competitor, where I’d be happy to bring food and beverages, stay as long as anyone wanted, and sweep up after.

 

(*--Irish Alzheimer’s: A condition where the afflicted party remembers only the grudges. My mother’s maiden name was Dougherty.) 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The French Connection

 

I suppose it’s telling that, facing a rare free weekday afternoon and looking for a feel-good movie, I chose The French Connection.

Regular readers know I am a devotee of Seventies crime movies. I rarely pontificate on the “importance” of films, but I do believe The French Connection is a seminal event in the genre. Crime movies were different after this. They had to be.

A problem with seeing anything as often as I’ve seen The French Connection is that little flaws become more obvious and TFC has its share.

·         Cloudy (Roy Scheider) asks Popeye (Gene Hackman) how he was supposed to know a guy they busted had a knife when it was he who hollered, “Watch out, Jimmy! He’s got a knife—” when the action went down.

·         Why do the smugglers leave the Lincoln with the drugs at the waterfront? I’m willing to say the plan was to have it picked up to transfer the drugs, reported as stolen, and returned intact, but there are far easier ways.

·         Why do they buy the junker car to store the money? Why not just put it back in the Lincoln?

·         Why take Doyle and Russo to the site of a horrible car crash to take them off the case? They’re Brooklyn narcotics detectives. Why are any of them even there?

·         How does the conductor (or whatever he is) of the subway train not know the Transit cop has been shot? What happened to all the people who fled toward the front of the train?

·         Why doesn’t the dead man’s switch engage when the motorman passes out? (Yes, I read The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three.)

                                                

None of that matters.

There are lots of movies where any of the above would take me out of the story. Not here. I saw The French Connection for the first time in a theater (a double-feature* with M*A*S*H, no less) and noticed none of those things. The film engrossed me from the opening credits. Martians could have delivered the drugs and I wouldn’t have cared.

 It’s the attitude. It sweeps you into Popeye’s world to see things through his perspective, even when he’s not ion camera. As great as the chase is—and it still has to be in the top five ever—the scene I remember best is the two cops walking into the bar and Popeye says, “All right, Popeye's here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!” Every line in that scene shows Popeye controls the situation less because he has the badge than because he has the will.

 The original heroin test. (“Blast off: one-eight-oh. Two hundred: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”) Picking up the initial thread while out for an after work drink. (“He’s spending money like the Russians are in Jersey.”) Tearing apart Devereaux’s car. Stalking Frog One through the abandoned crematorium with Russo darting from cover to cover while Popeye walks right up the middle. Popeye and Frog One getting on and off the subway train and Frog One’s little finger wave goodbye. Popeye mimicking that wave when the cops come for the arrests. The continuation of Popeye’s obsession even after he learns it’s Mulderig he shot. (“That son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I'm gonna get him.”) The film keeps you in the moment, and in the moment it all makes sense.

 And Don Ellis’s soundtrack. So far ahead of its time we’ll never catch up. Never intrusive, always uneasy, propulsive when necessary. There are less than 25 minutes of music in the movie and every second has a purpose. Ellis was an innovator throughout his career but his soundtrack for The French Connection may be his masterpiece. (Ellis died in 1978 at the age of 44. I’ll always be sorry I never saw his band in person.)

The French Connection and the first two Godfather films hold positions in the cinematic pantheon of crime stories not unlike the relationship of Beethoven symphonies to Mozart’s. The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 perfect the conventions that have come before. The French Connection throws open the door of what is to come. There is a little overlap, but once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no going back.

 (* - Note to readers not of a certain age: There was a time when a person could pay for one movie and legitimately see two.)

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Have a Nice Weekend

Life has intervened. I got nothing for you this week. See you next Friday. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

First Cousins

“Write what you know” is the hoariest piece of writing advice. Also the worst, when taken too seriously. Used responsibly and wisely it can add depth and nuance to any project.

 I got comfortable writing what I knew when I began the Penns River books. Previous efforts involved things I’d learned or come to know. Penns River I knew. I never had to learn it. I grew up there. Many of its qualities, better and worse, are as ingrained in me as my hair color.

 Like hair color, what you “know” changes over time. Perspectives that made perfect sense in your twenties now seem silly or even embarrassing. That doesn’t mean you deny their existence. Keep them in your toolbox. A character come along sooner or later who suits your discredited ideas. Not only can you use them, you get to look at them from the outside. There’s potential gold there.

 I wrote a few weeks ago about David Milch’s talks on “The Idea of the Writer.” In one he discusses the concept of looking for the first cousins of ideas. I’m still finding my way around this at the story level, but it’s already paying dividends on the character level as a great way to keep from being too “on the nose.” It’s particularly useful when dealing with a personal experience too painful or too close to write as well as you’d like. Often those situations become either preachy or heavy-handed, or the characters start to wallow in the writer’s self-pity.

I moved back into my parents’ house a few years ago when my mother couldn’t handle the day-to-day needs of Dad’s home hospice care. I wouldn’t trade most of that month for the world, as it was an opportunity for a son who’d moved away to show he cared about, and for, his parents. That said, I wouldn’t wish Dad’s last few days on anyone. Nor would I wish it on anyone’s family. (Home hospice care is a wonderful thing. The doctors, nurses, and clergy truly are angels on earth. There also comes a time when the professionals need to take over, both for the comfort of the patient and the sanity of the family.)

 I can’t write that story, nor work it into a larger piece. I can find its first cousin. I know what it feels like to watch someone you love become les vital until what’s left is hard to remember as anything except what he’s become. I know the odd mixture of relief and guilt that comes when he finally dies. That’s the “what I know” to write about.

 A friend of mine wrote a first-rate story for our writers’ group years ago about a homeless man. The story gripped everyone from the start until the ending, which fell flat. The consensus was to leave everything else alone and fix the ending. Suggestions flowed like a spring, as so often happens when critiquing something that’s thisclose.

Within minutes, our friend was almost in tears. It was a true story. The homeless man was her brother. She was way too close to make any changes without feeling like she was betraying him.

 The ending was weak because it was too on the nose, which made it land heavy. What she needed was the first cousin for it to kick ass. I wish I’d known about it then. Everyone could’ve left happy that night. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

What to Write?

“Don't ever write anything you don't like yourself and if you do like it, don't take anyone's advice about changing it. They just don't know.”

 --Raymond Chandler

 This applies on both the macro and micro level. You’re going to spend a lot of time with whatever project you select; it better be something you’ll enjoy reading. And reading. And reading again. I went through my most recent book nine times, with another pass pending when the edits arrive. How can I expect someone else to enjoy the read if I felt it a chose to write?

This is the primary reason I’ve never tried my hand at a thriller. I don’t often read them. I like more realism than contemporary thrillers tend to provide. I’m not ripping those who do enjoy them—we’re all entitled to our own tastes—but the work would be drudgery, which means the reading will almost have to be.

 (Editor’s Note: He does sometimes entertain the idea of writing a satirical thriller, but he hasn’t even bought it a drink yet.)

 The micro level is just as important. I recently wrote about the inherent conflict between authors and editors. I stand by everything I said there, but I should have been a little more resolute myself. I sent an e-ARC to a loyal reader (yes, I have some) who wrote back to express his appreciation of a particular line, which I had cut from the final version at the editor’s suggestion. I liked the original better myself but I didn’t stick up for it. That’s my fault but it’s okay for two reasons:

1) I learned my lesson and will not make that mistake again;

2) I was able to get it changed back before the book went to press.

 “Maybe your books don’t sell because you obstinately avoid the mainstream of public taste,” id the obvious question.

 Maybe. Probably. So what? Not everyone has the skill set to write in a certain genre or style. Leonard Bernstein is possibly the greatest musical polymath this country ever produced. He went to his grave lamenting his inability to write a hit song, and had great respect for those who could do it. No one is going to ask Tom Brady to play linebacker; that’s not where his gifts lie. Even if he wanted to and was young enough to learn the position-specific skills, that’s not what he was born to do. As Captain Dudley Smith said to Bud White when White asked if he was going to work cases in the Homicide Division: “Your talents lie elsewhere.”

 I am a massive fan of Dennis Lehane’s The Drop, both the book and movie. They’re master classes on how to develop and tell a story. The movie had a small budget and still lost money in the United States despite having Tom Hardy (when the movies on either side of The Drop were The Dark Knight Rises, Locke, Child 44, and Mad Max: Fury Road)and James Gandolfini in his final role. Foreign receipts pushed the film into the black but the money men can’t have been happy.

 This is what Lehane said about the film in an interview with Boston Magazine: “Everybody was always on board to kind of make a gritty, down-and-dirty, 1970s-influenced film. The commercial considerations didn’t override the film. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, we have to slap on a happy ending,’ or ‘Oh, we have to do this because market research.’”

 I get that. I love 70s crime movies. That’s probably why, without any conscious thought or effort, I write novels that could easily be 70s movies. I’m well aware the population at large isn’t much interested in seeing films like that anymore. This is my wheelhouse, for better or worse.

 Maybe my favorite book I’ve written is the standalone I wrote between the Nick Forte and Penns River series, Wild Bill. It’s the story of how a mob war in Chicago ruins a large FBI investigation. I showed it to an agent everyone thought I should work with. Met her a Bouchercon where she told me she liked the book but

1) No one cares about Italian gangsters anymore. Maybe if they were Russian.

2) It needs more unexpected violence.

(She also didn’t like it enough to send me any of this feedback. I had to find out at the bar.)

 Maybe it did need more unexpected violence to sell, but that would have been a different book. It did have half a dozen corpses but they weren’t the point. What mattered was how and why they got that way.

 Could I have re-written it to accommodate her suggestions? Sure. Would that have increased its changes for a sale? I think not. I’d be writing someone else’s book, and I give readers credit for being smarter than that. They’ll know something is a quarter bubble off level. Wild Bill was the book I had in me and I wrote it the best I know how. I still think it’s the best constructed book of the eleven I’ve seen published.

 I sometimes toy with the idea of getting an agent to shop the Penns River books for a streaming series. My ego is large enough to think they’d make a good one. What’s tricky is that I’m the square peg in the round hole. I have no screenplay, so I have to go through literary agents who will look at my sales figures and pass unless I want to try something else. Down & Out Books lets me write what I want. The books are better, and I’m happier, because of it.