Sunday, September 28, 2008

Food Noir

Restaurants aren’t just snow white tablecloths and smiling hostesses. While you’re out trying to have a good time, eat a nice meal, the owner is treading a thin line between giving you what you paid for and making a profit. Sometimes they cross that line. That’s where I come in. My name’s Sundae. I’m a health inspector.

It was hot the way only the Strip District can be hot. The seams in the pavement were as tacky as freshly chewed gum on the soles of my shoes. The smells of Restaurant Row were everywhere, Italian and Chinese, Indian and Mexican, burgers, ribs, and one joint advertising Cambodian hot dogs. No one ate there.

It was a little after two when I rolled up on Manella’s Ristorante at the corner of Grant and Warburton. Complaints had been made about the lettuce in the Caesar salad being old enough to have heard Antony’s speech. It was the kind of call I handle every day.

The place brought back memories. Guido and Sal Manella opened it almost thirty years ago and built it into the capo di tutti capi of Italian restaurants on the Strip. Sal went away a while ago to study large group catering for seven to fifteen years at state expense on a sauce dilution rap. Guido had his fingers in too many other pies to run the place himself, so he had to get a manager.

I pushed through the door and paused inside to let my eyes adjust to the light. It was always dim in Manella’s, but today it was two shades past romantic. Not even the dining room’s murk could disguise the dish standing at the hostess’ station.
She was tall enough without the three-inch pumps that were probably red. Her hair was black and lustrous, hanging past her shoulders and trailing behind her head whenever she moved it. Her almond-shaped eyes made every glance a seduction, even if you could ignore the dress that showed every contour of her body without revealing anything. She was hotter than the plates in a Mexican restaurant.

“Yes? How many in your party?” She had one of those Italian accents that are learned through years in the restaurant business. She’d never been closer to Italy than the bottomless salad bowl at Olive Garden.

“Just me, but I bring my party with me.” I flipped her my tin. “Sundae. Board of Health.” Her smile disappeared quicker than the “all you can eat” buffet at a Weight Watchers convention.

“I get the manager.” The accent was heavier now. She made sure I got a good look at the melon patch when she turned. It had been tried before, by women with more talent for it. Not many, though, and not for a long time.

“That’s all right, I know where to go. I’ll just follow the flies.” I pushed past her and walked toward the kitchen like I had a purpose in life. She was one step behind me all the way.

The kitchen wasn’t any brighter than the dining room and a lot less romantic. The lunch rush had been over for an hour, but any signs of clean-up were as miniscule as the nutrition in a wad of cotton candy. The stainless steel countertops were fighting a lonely battle to remain that way.

“You really should speak with the manager,” she said loud enough for everyone in the kitchen to hear. The accent was slipping. Jersey, maybe. Big surprise.

A busboy moved for a door across the room as soon as he heard her. “You! In the apron!” I called. He stopped with one hand on the swinging door. I crooked a finger for him to come to me. “Over here.”

“Me? Who are you to boss me around?” He had an accent, too, but it was as Italian as a jalapeno.

I got in his face and gave him the look the farmer gives the turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. “Just show me what I want to see, or your butt is lettuce and I’m the Cuisinart. Where’s the olive oil?”

He didn’t want to show me. It was as obvious as a piece of spinach stuck to a tooth at a formal dinner. He was straining himself to think of something to say when another voice cut through the murk like a Ginsu knife through rotisserie lamb.

“Show him the oil, Tino. We got nothing to hide.”

Eugene Coli had started out as a busboy in a hash joint on Newberry and moved up quickly. He earned a reputation as someone who wasn’t fussy about what went in the trash and what got recycled. We pulled him in a few times for sending garnishes out for a second or third go-round, but he always had enough juice to beat the rap. Contact with him was considered bad for your health. Everyone called him E.

The hostess drew in her breath and went from cantaloupes to watermelons. Tino looked at E. Coli, then at me, and smiled his smug little minion smile. “Right here,” he said. “Extra virgin, just like the sign says.”

I had lost interest in Tino as soon as Coli entered the room. “Hello, E. You still trying to pass off crayfish as petit lobster?”

“I heard you were checking the sneeze guards at Denny’s, Sundae.”

I’d heard them all before. “I got a promotion. Now I’m in charge of seeing that the fish aren’t rotting from the head down. That’s how I drew you.”

There wasn’t much he could say to that, I was the one with the cheap star in my pocket. The hostess was watching me now, her tongue running over her lips like she had a bowl of spumoni no one else could see.

I looked at the bottle of oil Tino was holding out for me. “No. Not this one. Back there.” I jerked my head toward a barred door in the back.

That woke up Coli. “Just a minute, Sundae. I’ve been a good host so far, but you can’t have the run of my place without a warrant.”

“A warrant?” My laugh was genuine. “Sure, I got one here somewhere. Betty Crocker signed it.” I turned on him directly. “I’m not looking for criminal activity, just health violations. I don’t need a warrant.” I turned back to Tino. “Open the door.”

He didn’t want to open that door any more than Emeril Legasse wants the Number Four combo at Popeye’s. I didn’t have any friends in the room and a standoff was as imminent as flatulence at a chili contest.

The tension was thick as a Guinness draft when the hostess walked past me and opened the door. Coli gave her a look as hard as a year-old jawbreaker. “What are you doing, Cinnamon?” he asked.

“There’s no need for anyone to get hurt over this,” she said to him, but she was looking at me the way a gourmet eyes the menu at Spago.

I pushed past her before Coli could recover and scooped the first bottle of oil I found. I had my field testing kit with me, but I knew I wouldn’t need it as soon as I opened the bottle. I stuck a finger in and tasted the Pomace used to dilute the oil.

“This stuff’s as virgin as Madonna,” I said to no one in particular, staring straight at Coli. “Lock the doors. Everyone gets the rest of the day off.”

He was still staring at the hostess as the others filed out. “How could you do this to me, Cinnamon?”

I answered for her. “Some restaurateur you are. Everyone knows that cinnamon, when properly prepared, is an effective weapon against E. Coli.”

She and I walked out together. We stopped at the corner where I was parked. The sun gave her cheeks the glow of early-ripening apples. We waited a bit to see who would speak first. Our eyes were exchanging enough heat to broil a porterhouse. I looked at my watch. “I’m through here, and you have the rest of the day off. What say we get something to eat?”

“I’d like that. I seem to have developed quite a craving for dessert. A nice, big sundae, maybe. I just hope it won’t go soft on me if things get hot.”
Her heels made her almost as tall as I was, and I could feel my appetite rising as our gazes met. “Don’t worry, Sugar. I’ll bring the banana, you bring the split.”

(Food Noir was originally published in New Mystery Reader.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Everyone's a Critic. Or Should Be.

As the heading says, I am a humble writer, with much to be humble about. What accomplishment I can point to is largely due to the encouragement and support of Stephanie Padilla, the editor of New Mystery Reader. Through a series of questionable decisions probably attributable to sleep deprivation, Stephanie has seen fit to publish over eighty of my reviews, four short stories, four author interviews, and an appreciation of the late Ed McBain.

In addition to the much appreciated writing credits, producing reviews has definitely made me a better fiction writer. All writers must develop critical reading skills, both to learn what works and to unmask what doesn’t. That’s not news; everyone who read this far knows that. What writing reviews does—or should do—is force you to justify your opinions.

Declan Burke speaks a little of this at Crime Always Pays. To wit:

[Crime fiction as a genre] deserves more from me, certainly, than reviews that run along the lines of, “This is a great book because I liked it and I liked it because it’s a great book.”

No point asking how many of you have read reviews like the one he describes; we all have. Written by well-known reviewers for major publications, too. Maybe that’s enough for the casual reader who wants to be sure the body count meets his standard. Serious readers—and anyone wishing to call himself a writer must, of necessity, be a serious reader—need more. Speaking personally, I can forgive plot holes if I’m enjoying the trip; the more enjoyable the trip, the more holes I can tolerate. True, a point can be reached where there are so many holes the fabric of the story doesn’t hold together no matter how entertaining the reading, but a book that reads more like a chore than a pleasure had better be damn near perfect in its plot.

This is where proper criticism can step up. A bit of synopsis is needed; the reader may be able to eliminate a book from his potential To Be Read pile by that alone, and a reviewer’s first duty is to that reader and her twenty-five bucks. The synopsis alone is but a recitation of facts; a book report. At best, it can tell a reader whether a book is worth reading at all, when placed in conjunction with the reader’s tastes. The reviewer’s real value comes from explaining why, or why not, the reader should invest time and money.

It’s not enough to say you liked the characters; why did you like them? What is it makes them people you enjoyed spending several hours with in the already crowded confines of your head? Did the dialog help or hurt? How? Why? Justify everything. If you think the banter between Parker, Louis, and Angel brings John Connolly’s books alive in a similar manner to the interplay between Spenser and Hawk, then don’t settle for “I liked the dialog. It was good.” Make the comparison. Reversing the situation, if the author is writing in the style of someone else and doesn’t quite pull it off, say so. But tell where he falls short.

This is not an altruistic endeavor; it will improve your fiction. Having to justify your opinions in writing forces you to examine them. This constant re-evaluation can only deepen your comprehension of your strengths and weaknesses, and, hopefully, help you to understand whether to leverage a strength, improve a weakness, or find another way to write a troublesome passage.

Reviewing makes you read for a different level of comprehension, as well as to improve your expressiveness of that new level of appreciation. Opportunities are not scarce; the proliferation of online venues means you should be able to find an outlet. Too busy to add another obligation to your plate? Write them for yourself when you want to think more on a recently read book. Have fun with it. Write it up as a conversation. Compile comments on several books into a manifesto of your writing philosophy.

All writers, especially new ones, search for the voice that will tell their stories in their unique way. How do find that voice—or voices, as different stories may demand different methods—is always vexing. It may be impossible without a more complete knowledge of your own tastes and abilities than can be obtained by reading along. Law school has been said to sharpen the mind by narrowing it; reviewing may sharper your skills by examining them.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Generation Kill

I finished my binge watching of HBO’s Generation Kill over the weekend. (Binge watching is a technique for watching serial programming the Spousal Equivalent and I perfected when catching up on Deadwood after missing the first season. Don’t watch the shows when they’re broadcast; record them, and watch them in chunks of two or three hours—or more—at a time. We spent New Year’s Eve 2007 watching five hours of The Wire and were pissed because we ran out of episodes.) Generation Kill is a worthy addition to the David Simon/Ed Burns oeuvre, not as dissimilar to The Wire as the setting suggests.

First, GK is a well-done drama. It’s scary and frustrating and laugh out loud funny, sometimes simultaneously. The major characters are multi-dimensional and well-rounded. Using real people helps, but we’ve all seen movies—books and television shows, too—where real people were made to look as one-dimensional as any comic book. Evan Wright—who wrote the original Rolling Stone articles—worked hand in glove with Simon and Burns to make sure they got it right. A military advisor made sure the equipment and tactics were accurate, and having an actual member of the 1st Marine Recon Battalion in the cast didn’t hurt. (Sergeant Rudy Reyes plays himself.)

In addition to being a thought-provoking look at our military in Iraq, Generation Kill is highly entertaining. I’ve not read the book, but I understand the miniseries to be a faithful reproduction. There are a few quibbles on the Internet about how faithful Wright’s articles and book are to the events portrayed, but it can be assumed he wrote the story from the perspective of the grunts in his platoon. Complaining about NCOs who are assholes and incompetent officers is a time-honored prerogative of the man whose boots are in the mud. (For a well reasoned and thoughtful second opinion of GK by someone in a position to know, click here.)

Simon and Burns leverage this perspective to make the same point they made so artfully in The Wire, and in their previous television effort, The Corner: the “system” won’t save. Doesn’t matter if it’s the military, law enforcement, or government, the only hope anyone has for redemption is in his or her own hands. The system is the system, and its primary task, almost by definition, is to perpetuate itself. That’s not necessarily bad thing—it depends on the system—but whatever system you’re involved with isn’t likely to save you.

The other great, and more hopeful, accomplishment of Generation Kill is to humanize the Marines, and, through them, all of the military. They’re not perfect. The language is foul, and some of them enjoy the act of killing a lot more than they ought to. Overall, though, their redemption comes in the form of the pride in completing their mission, and in their dedication to their peers. They get tired and scared and angry and profane and violent like anyone would in situations such as they’re exposed to, and consistently acquit themselves well. No one died in the 1st Marine Recon during their involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which shows, as Lt. Colonel Shoup points out in his excellent commentary referenced above, the leadership couldn’t have been as bad as perceived by the men in their positions of limited situational awareness.

Sergeant Major Sixta is a prime example. He’s shown as the biggest asshole in the battalion for most of the series, jerking men around over the grooming standard and the length of their mustaches. He’s missing through much of the middle part of the series, and reappears during a period of questionable morale to ask a junior officer whether it was time to enforce the grooming standard again. Far from being petty, it’s an indication that Sixta knows Marines are always bitching, and it’s better to direct that bitching away from something that would become counterproductive and potentially dangerous down the road.

Lt. Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando, commander of 1st Recon, is shown as a hard-driving, career-oriented, tough, yet compassionate officer, torn between two sensibilities: one to his mission, and the other to his men. He’s not perfect, and he’s been given missions neither he nor his men appreciate, but he’ll do the best he can. We’d all do well to remember this about those who have fought in all our wars. They’re not saints, they’re not wholly selfless, and they’re not a bunch of baby-killing psychopaths. They get tired and cold and hungry and have to go to the bathroom and get horny just like everyone else. Teaching the rest of us how it all plays out day-to-day under the mix of tedium and terror that is military life may be Generation Kill’s greatest accomplishment.