Monday, October 12, 2015

Ray Donovan Season One

(Note: I’m generally able to stay away from spoilers, but I can’t promise it. This review will go where it goes. Consider this fair warning.)

Ray Donovan (Live Schreiber) is a fixer. Think Michael Clayton, unconcerned about some any
legal niceties. Ray’s small company works for big-time Hollywood wheeler-dealer Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould) doing whatever needs to be done to keep the talent earning. Married basketball players finds a dead girl (not his wife) in his bed? Call Ray. Someone’s about to release a gay video of a big action star? Call Ray. What’s really clever is how Ray folds separate problems into a single solution, and everyone comes out ahead, sometimes including Ray, who is not above picking up the stray bag of money. It’s not stolen—the previous owner knows Ray took it—but sometimes he delivers cash and persuades the recipient there’s a better deal to be had. It’s spent to the person who paid it, and the other guy has decided he’d rather have something else. Ray will give that orphaned money a good home.

He also has a unique way of making his points. Early on he has a stalker dye himself green in his own bathtub. Why? To show Ray can get to him anywhere and at any time, and do whatever he wants. The green thing is Ray’s idea of a little joke. When the stalker—still green—scares hell out of the woman again, Ray beats him to death with a baseball bat. Fun’s fun, but enough’s enough.

The show’s greatest success to getting you to root for a sociopath. Ray does what he wants, and his methods are whatever he thinks will work best at the time. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a heart. He loves his family—though he sometimes has difficulty showing it in ways they can understand—and will go out of his way to make things come out right for a person caught in the middle. He saves his less sympathetic ideas for those who deserve it.

His families are key to understanding his character. He and his wife grew up in South Boston, but their two kids know nothing but LA. Abby (Paula Malcomson, Trixie in Deadwood), us still adjusting after what might be twenty years on the West Coast. Her character is harder to pin down than Ray’s. The Beloved Spouse and I are still trying to decide if Abby is bipolar or if the writers manipulate her mood to get Ray to react how they need him to.

The more compelling family dynamic is Ray’s blood family. Brother Terry (Eddie Marsan) is a washed-up fighter with Parkinson’s who runs a boxing gym in LA. Younger brother Brenden—a/k/a Bunchy (Dash Mihok) was molested by a priest and is an eternal emotional adolescent. Baby sister Bridget killed herself while on drugs back in Boston. We’re never told why all the boys came to LA, but it assumed they came with father figure Ray to get as far away from Boston as possible.

Ray is the father figure because the biological father, Mickey (Jon Voight) is as pluperfect a son of a bitch as has ever been created. Just released from 20 years in prison after being framed by Ray for one of the few crimes he didn’t commit, Mickey’s first act as a free man is to kill the priest who molested Bunchy, except—oops—he kills the priest’s innocent brother. Invited to LA by Abby—who knows nothing of the depth of animosity between Ray and his father—Mickey is more like a spear than a thorn in Ray’s side.

Schreiber was born to play Ray. Understated, yet eternally menacing, genuinely tender with his children. He’s the master of subtle expression and delivery, such as the time Ezra’s partner gets up in his face about how he’s tired of Ray not doing his precise bidding and how maybe he should just fire Ray and get it over with. Ray just gives the guy a flat look and says, very matter-of-fact, “I’m not the kind of guy you fire.”

Marsan is spot on as Terry, and Mihok gives an award-caliber performance as Bunchy, whose first purchase after getting $1.4 million as a settlement from the Church is to buy a bicycle with ape-hanger handle bars. Next he buys a house—a dump—and decorates his room as any ten-year-old would. His character is heartbreaking, never maudlin.

They’re all great, but Voight’s Mickey is the straw that stirs the drink. Schreiber is more than capable of carrying the show, but it’s the bad chemistry between Ray and Mickey that sets Ray Donovan apart. The pressure Mickey’s presence and bad influence has on the three brothers—plus half-brother Darryl, who works out at Terry’s gym—keeps the story constantly on edge. Ray has more than enough on his mind with work, the wife and kids, and his brothers, the man who has had to be strong while no one is strong for him. Mickey is the spinning plate too many.

The show is not without weaknesses. Ray’s overload sometimes seems a bit much, and the time frames in which events occur are not always reasonable. These faults are less overlookable than overwhelmed by the good points. Ray Donovan is a worthy successor to such premium cable giants as The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. Maybe not quite as routinely excellent, but when it’s good—as it is a large majority of the time—it’s just as good.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Noir at the Bar - Washington DC

Last Saturday night Ed Aymar hosted Noir at the Bar at the Wonderland Ballroom in Washington. Ed picked a great line-up (plus me), and no one disappointed. (My established standards are such that I rarely disappoint anyone.)

First, kudos to Ed and everyone connected with the venue. The weather was crappy, parking is difficult in that part of DC, and yet the room was SRO. Events such as this sometimes come down to writers reading for their peers on the bill. Not this time. A large and enthusiastic audience was there. This was such a good crowd, I sold a book. Can’t get much better than that.

Lest you think my sale skewed my thinking, here’s who else was there:

Peter Rozovsky (his excellent noir photos of the event are at his blog, Detectives Beyond Borders.)
David Swinson
Ed (E.A.) Aymar
Nik Korpon
Sarah Weinman
Art Taylor
Austin Camacho
Jen Conley

There were a few raffles sprinkled in, with books and booze distributed free gratis to several lucky winners. I was one, scoring an ARC of Davis Swinson’s The Second Girl, scheduled for a June release by Mulholland.

I’m not going to try to sum up the stories. First, I couldn’t do them justice in summary, and, B.) you didn’t go, so it sucks to be you. Suffice to say the standard of writing was high, the atmosphere was perfect, and it’s safe to say a good time was had by all.

Noirs at Bars are popping up faster than Republican presidential candidates all over the country, and gaining a foothold in Europe. If you hear of one near you and are into excellent noir-ish fiction, by all means, go. Admittance is free (of course food and beverage are on you; literally, if you’re not careful around the bar) and you’ll be in the company of others who not only take their crime fiction seriously, but know how to have fun with it.

Ed hopes to make a pre-Bouchercon DC event a regular thing. I know I’ll be there. Whether I get a reading slot, or not.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Twenty Questions With Ed Brock

Ed Brock has been a crime reporter and journalist for more than 15 years, with a two-year break to teach English in Japan. His first novel, Pale in Death, drawn from his experiences as an Atlanta area print journalist, was released September 29 by 280 Steps. Ed was kind enough to take time from all the other things that go along with a new release to submit to Twenty Questions.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Pale in Death.

Ed Brock: Pale in Death is the story of Mark Freer, a disillusioned reporter for a small paper outside Atlanta, who learns that, apparently, the body of his ex-girlfriend, Amelia, has been found in his area. Feeling guilty about his role in Amelia’s descent into drug addiction, Freer investigates her death with much more interest than he would a regular story. Freer learns that the men responsible for her murder are stalking Amelia’s young son, now in the custody of her parents and living in an upscale Atlanta neighborhood. As his investigation continues, Freer is finally forced to confront the culprits.

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.)
EB: I started the book originally as a short story, near the end of my time writing for the News Daily newspaper in Clayton County, Ga. I had just spent five years covering public safety in a county in which the public was frequently unsafe. I covered a lot of homicides, went to a lot of funerals for people I’d never met. Being an observer of tragedy like that makes you more aware of your own perilous position in life, and you always wonder if you will one day be the story. Pale in Death is me putting myself into the story, if only in fiction. Of course, that’s an idea I think comes to most journalists at some point. The story also incorporates my experience in dealing with drug addiction, specifically watching how addiction destroys or damages people indirectly as well as directly. That is something I’ve witnessed personally as well as professionally, and I wanted to address the topic in writing.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Pale in Death, start to finish?
EB: Well, I started it in 2005 and had a first draft done by 2009, but that was not the finish, not by a long shot. I finished the near final version, the version I submitted to 280 Steps, in 2014, a total of nine years of writing. Bear in mind, I did most of that writing late at night after the rest of the day’s work was done. One way I can put that time in perspective on a personal level is the fact that the protagonist’s infant daughter is based on my oldest child, who was just a baby when I started the book. Now she’s ten.

OBAAT: Where did Mark Freer come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
EB: Of course, Mark Freer is my proxy, but probably a little more inclined to take action. Of course, he has motivations and finds himself in a situation I haven’t experienced. He does share my disillusionment with journalism, a sense of dissatisfaction that I was feeling when I started working on the book. Of course, writing a character so similar to my self was a little easier, but I think it limits the story’s appeal to people who also are like me. The earliest versions of the book were exclusively from Freer’s viewpoint, also, so I added a few chapters from other characters’ perspectives just to expand my own view of the story as well as the readers’. The protagonist in my next book will be nothing like me, so that will be more challenging. Also, another novel I have already begun includes several different characters’ storylines, some of whom are very different from me.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Pale in Death set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
EB: The time setting for the book is best described as “the present.” After all, it took nearly ten years to finish the book, so it’s not set at a fixed point in time, and there really isn’t much in the plot to limit its relevance. The place is Atlanta, but the story could easily be transplanted, so to speak. It is an urban story, but includes issues and situations that are found in most cities. 

OBAAT: How did Pale in Death come to be published?
EB: Oh, what a long and winding road that was. I submitted the first, very rough draft to a small publisher in 2009. They rejected it, but the publisher’s assistant who sent the rejection notice was very encouraging, adding a personal note saying he felt like the book should be published and urging me to “go over it with a proverbial fine-toothed comb” so I could resubmit it. That led to a year of editing, by the end of which the publisher’s assistant had left the company. I managed to contact the actual publisher (it was a small company, after all), and he asked me to send the revised manuscript directly to him, promising to read it the next week. That time frame turned into a year and a half of me chasing him and him promising to read the book but never doing so. Finally, I gave up on him and began shopping the book around to various other publishers and agents before finding 280 Steps.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
EB: When I was younger I was a huge science fiction fan, and my favorite authors in that genre included Piers Anthony, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov and the man who started it all for me, Lester del Rey. I’m still a sci fi fan, but I’ve been more interested in literary fiction (mostly catching up on books I was supposed to read in college) and other genres. I’m a relative newcomer to the crime noir genre, though I’ve been a fan of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal series for years now. It’s with great shame that I admit I’ve only read one Elmore Leonard book, Out of Sight. Right now I’m rereading Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney, as well as fellow 280 Steps author Eryk Pruitt’s Hashtag and The Life of Ling Ling, a story from the Iraq war by Jerad Alexander, a coworker of mine. Other favorite authors include John Updike, Anne Rice, Ernest Hemmingway, Charles Dickens and Hunter S. Thompson. Of course there are many more I’ve read and enjoyed.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
EB: I don’t think you could call it a decision. It’s just something I have to do, and since this is my first published book I can only hope it’s something I get to keep doing on a professional level. Of course, I’m also lucky enough to work “day jobs” that I also enjoy, but writing is just the thing I do best and love most.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
EB: Certainly my experience in journalism provides me with the most material. Watching the news is one thing, but reporting it means experiencing the crime in person, albeit usually after the fact. For example, talking to crime victims or their families is a much more visceral experience than just reading their statements in the paper or watching them on TV. The funeral scene in Pale in Death, for example, is a situation I was in many, many times. That’s a very intimate moment to share with so many strangers, and of course I often felt like an intruder. Oddly enough, though, I found that many people are happy to talk to the press after a death because I offered them a chance to talk about the loved one they had just lost. That made me aware of the responsibility I had then to present those stories with fairness and grace, and I tried to insert that same emotion in the book. Of course, I’ve also spent some time breaking minor laws and hanging around with, or “doing business with,” people who broke somewhat bigger laws. I’m not claiming to be some kind of gangster, not by a long shot, but I’ve been just bad enough to gain a little perspective from that angle. No further comment.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
EB: Funny you should ask that, because for a long time before I got published I didn’t really enjoy it at all. I was almost at a point of despair, in fact, and hadn’t really been writing much as a result. Obviously, I feel renewed now and, regardless of how well this book does, I plan to spend much more time pounding the keyboard. Like I said before, being a writer is just something you have to do, you can’t keep it inside for long. For me, it’s more of a “like it or not” situation.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
EB: The Coen brothers are definitely among my idols. I believe “Barton Fink” was the first Coen brothers film I saw and I’ve been addicted ever since. I love their ability to find and tell stories that are on the fringe of human experience. In terms of direct inspiration, I have to give credit to Flannery O’Connor and her focus on the importance of writing strong characters. You have to have real people living in your stories to make them worth hearing.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
EB: I’m absolutely a frequent seat of pants flyer. And I am usually wearing pants when I write, but if my readers want to picture me pants-less, that’s fine by me. The closest I get to outlining is jotting down a few notes when I first have an idea for a story, but I like to let the details come out as I string the actual words together. Considering the way Pale in Death evolved and transformed as I wrote it, I think I would have strayed far away from any outline I could have made. On the other hand, I have a lot of stories and a couple of books that I have begun, only to stall out after a few pages. I generally let them ferment for a while, then come back to them when I realize where they need to go.

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?
EB: I tend to put everything into the first draft, maybe because that’s when I’m telling the story to myself. Later, when I have the whole thing in my head, I can take out things that aren’t necessary, or which should be saved for later in the story, because I have a better idea of where everything fits. You know, maybe I should start outlining things.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
EB: I don’t necessarily listen to music while I write, but I definitely think about music while I write, and I think about what I’m writing when I listen to music. If there’s a theme song for this book, it’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica. I actually mention it at the point where Freer decides to take action.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
EB: Insomnia. Or, get a day job with a shift that leaves you with more spare time in the afternoon, which is what I have now. I’m assuming here that we’re talking about writers who are still working day jobs, of course. I’m also not the best to offer advice like this, since I’ve yet to write a book on deadline. I had plenty of time to finish Pale in Death. When I wrote for the newspaper, of course, I had to produce generally two or three articles per day by the end of the day, but I had an editor to manage my time for me. Then, when I moved to magazines, my deadline was the end of the month, and I had to adjust my pace to avoid procrastinating and putting everything off until a few days before that due date. I imagine I’ll face the same problem if I’m given a year to write a book. So maybe my tip is, write something every day, or most every day, or at least get started a month before your year is up.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
EB: I remember reading the afterword of a Piers Anthony book in high school in which Anthony explained his stock answer to this question. It was, essentially, don’t do it. Being a writer is hard, especially if you want to make your living doing it. I would modify that to say would be writers should gird their loins, check their pride at the door and be prepared tear up a lot of rejection letters (or delete a lot of rejection e-mails, these days). It is a real endurance test, a race I’ve personally been running for more than a quarter century. Be sure this is what you want, and if it is, then never give up. Also, try to be selective in marketing your work, by which I mean, try to find a publisher or agent you think will be the right fit for your writing. That could save a good deal of time and heartache.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
EB: Tough choice, but I would say character, story/plot, narrative, tone and then setting. It’s so hard to prioritize these elements, because they’re so dependent on each other. I would say that you can start with a really great character and write a story for him or her more easily than you can populate a story idea with great characters, and characters are most important because readers want to live inside the book for a while, and they can only do that if they can imagine themselves being at least one of your characters. Also, getting characters right, to make them live, is certainly the hardest job in writing and one that requires the most concentration. The other three components support the first two, though I would say narrative is also very hard. I never feel like I’m choosing the right words, and I tend to rewrite sentences several times trying to get them right.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
EB: Man oh man, that’s tough. It would probably be Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas C. Adams. That book and the entire series that followed are great examples of using humor to reveal and examine humanity’s many foibles. I first read it in high school and it put my world view in focus. It has a regular human character who faces outrageously unusual circumstances, an extreme fish-out-of-water (or human-out-of-the-atmosphere) theme I really enjoyed. It’s also such a great example of satire. Plus, it has spaceships, aliens and robots, some of my favorite things!

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
EB: I know this sounds cheesy, but I have to say hanging around with my kids and watching them play together and have a good time is my favorite non-writing activity. Of course, weekend cocktail hours with my wife usually coincide with that activity, so that helps. I also do a lot of puttering around the house. I really like figuring out the solution to household issues and finishing DIY projects. I made a tire swing for the kids, wove my own net to store inflated pool rafts over the summer, and when we moved a couple of years ago I had to assemble a lot of furniture from IKEA. Ah, the little pleasures of suburban life! Also, cooking is fun, mostly because it’s followed by eating. Finally, I recently took up target shooting with semiautomatic weapons, an activity I hope to do on a monthly basis in the future. Let’s call it research.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
EB: I’ve begun working in earnest on what I hope to be my second novel, an idea I began writing a few years ago as a possible sequel to Pale in Death. It’s since gone in a completely different direction and will be a completely separate story, best described as a criminal family road trip. Like Pale in Death, it will be loosely based on a true story I covered when I worked at the paper, circa 2006, just before I left. I’m still researching that one, but I have a few pages done and a pretty good idea where I want to take the story. That will be another crime noir, but after that (or maybe concurrently, if I can make the time) I hope to finish a book I started 15 years ago, shortly after I returned from teaching English in Japan. That would be more of an international thriller set in Japan and involving Western and Asian characters, with an American expatriate as the protagonist. I recently rewrote the first chapter of that book to revamp the protagonist in a way I think is really interesting, so I’m eager to find out how that story will eventually evolve. I also want to finish some short stories I started a while back, and I have at least two more ideas for books that I’ll continue to develop.