Thursday, November 29, 2012

Skin Deep

Among the benefits of electronic self-publishing is the ability to discover books you missed the first time and have gone out of print. They’re inexpensive to bring back, and authors never sold the electronic rights because there were no electronic rights to sell. Timothy Hallinan, creator of the successful series of Poke Rafferty thrillers as well as the soon to be wildly successful Junior Bender series, which will be (hopefully) coming to a theater or television near you before too long.

Before Hallinan thought of Rafferty or Bender, there was Simeon Grist, LA private investigator. Grist was as tough as he needed to be, but no more, and he didn’t care much for it then, though it wouldn’t do to mess with him too much. The series did relatively well, but the publisher lost interest, and the books languished in the nether regions of out of printdom until recently.

Skin Deep was the first Grist book written, but the third to see print. (Publishing works like that a lot. Plotting the history of many books from completed manuscript to copy in hand often resembles one of those old Family Circus cartoons, where Mom has called Billy to come home right away and it takes him fifteen stops to get there, well intentioned though he might be.) In it, Grist is hired to keep a television star out of trouble while a syndication deal is struck for the star’s series. Toby Vane is handsome, charming, abusive to women, and as vile a character as I’ve read in a long time who still remains believable. Grist is repulsed by him, yet takes the case for the money after finding out how much the syndication rights are worth to the producer.

The plot moves well, but, like Hallinan’s later work, the characters are what make the story. Grist is cynical enough to take the job for money, and sensitive enough to be sold on it by convincing him he’ll be protecting women as much as shielding Toby. The producer who would sell his soul for the deal, and the PR man who did. Nana, the half-Korean nude dancer with a Texas accent who is as hard as she needs to be, which is more than she wants to be.

Everything that happens is believable, which makes much of it even more disconcerting. The dialog is each character’s own, clever and witty, never going for a laugh, though there are several in there. The prose propels the story at a less than breakneck pace, exactly as fast as it needs to go. Little gems are everywhere, such as how the strip club where Nana works, The Spice rack, got its name: Used to be a restaurant, and neon’s expensive.

Putting together a successful series is hard; ask around. Hallinan has done it three times. The fading away of Simeon Grist says much more about the publishing industry than it does about the quality of the stories. Take advantage of their resurrection to discover some underappreciated gems, and Skin Deep is as good a place as any to start.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Took The Beloved Spouse to see Argo over the weekend. Good, solid, picture with a well-written script, excellent casting, and solid performances throughout. There was the usual amount of license taken, most of which was understandable, given the constraints of time and how much the audience could be expected to keep in their heads in a fast-moving plot. The ending got a bit Hollywood, but the movie as a whole holds up well.

What you’ll remember are the performances. Bryan Cranston as a CIA manager and Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador hit all the right notes, character actors who have been around forever getting a chance to shine. The movie would be worth seeing just to watch John Goodman and Alan Arkin, two old pros who, fortunately, share virtually all their scenes, as they’d steal them from anyone else. Every time they appear is great fun. Ben Affleck—a better actor than he’s generally given credit for—keeps his CIA exfiltration expert understated and believable throughout.

What Argo does best, and what most thrillers would do well to emulate, is use humor to keep the tension moving between peaks and valleys. Not gags, or Schwarzenegger-ian catch phrases—though the catch phrase they use is spot on—but the humor of witty men under pressure. Applied with a delicate brush, the laughs are genuine and the contrast helps to accentuate the seriousness of the overall situation.

The ending was juiced more than it had to be, and there were ways they could have acknowledged the contributions of Great Britain, New Zealand, and Canada without complicating matters too much, but as a movie it’s a fascinating look at one of the great rescue missions of (most of) our lifetimes. Director Affleck acknowledges Canadian cooperation in an end note, but the British and Kiwis are openly disparaged in the film, for no good reason.

That being said, I’m a little puzzled by some of the over-the-top receptions Argo has received. It’s good, but I’ve read reviews that make it sound like voting for the Oscar is a formality. It might win, and far worse movies have won, but if it does it will be more of a reflection of a relatively weak year than of the timeless brilliance of Argo. It’s an entertaining two hours, and worth ten bucks as much as any other movie you’ll find. Let’s not get carried away, is all.

Monday, November 19, 2012

LA Confidential – The Movie

Saw LA Confidential in the theater. Rented it a few years later. Liked it maybe more. Decided to read the book. Library didn’t have it. Library had The Cold Six Thousand. Borrowed The Cold Six Thousand. Didn’t realize the title described the page length. Hated it. Most unpleasant reading experience ever. No more Ellroy for me.

Fast forward. I’m asked to review Blood’s a Rover. What the hell. It’s been a few years. My tastes evolve. My consciousness expands. I’ve showered. I devoured Blood’s a Rover. Rolled in it. Now I dig the devil dog. He hears his own drummer. Marches to it. Calls it names. Peeps on it. He’s hip. He gets it. He speaks truth. Added American Tabloid to the list. Have to read the LA Quarter in order. Work my up to LA Confidential. Settle for the movie for now.

Enough of that shit. The Beloved Spouse and I re-watched LA Confidential over the weekend. Damn near a perfect movie. Hard. Violent. Venal people. Tough language. (I said to stop that!)

Every time I see LA Confidential I like it a little more. I look forward to the favorite scenes like a Pulp Fiction fan boy. Good cop, bad cop, hanging the DA out the window. Rollo Tomasi. That is Lana Turner. Hold up your badge so they’ll know you’re a policeman. Even better, I learn a little about storytelling every time I watch LA Confidential. Getting into and out of scenes economically. Even more important, knowing how long to stay.

Not having read the book but having some familiarity with Ellroy, screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson must have done some major surgery to get the movie down it its fast-moving 138 minutes. The screenplay is seamless. Even if it’s not, Hanson’s direction, combined with a cast full of spot-on performances, keep any blemishes from sticking out.

The casting is inspired. Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger were the names at the time, though Hanson had to fight the studio to use the 44-year-old Basinger. (Yeah, she was 44, kids. Can you spell MILF?) Two relatively unknown (at the time) Australians play the leads (Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce). Veteran character actor James Cromwell is a villain for the ages, only two years removed from his first starring role as the farmer in Babe. Danny DeVito was born to play Sid Hudgens, and David Straithairn can play just about anything well. All brought their A games.

If you haven’t seen it and are into crime fiction, hasten thee to Netflix post haste, though I wonder how into crime fiction you can be and not have seen LA Confidential. I’m a little jealous of you, getting to see it for the first time. While Hanson has done good work since—Wonder Boys and Too Big To Fail come to mind—LA Confidential stand above his work like the Hollywood sign. Everything else look up at it, and it will always be there. He made Ellroy’s work, never readily accessible to most readers, part of the mainstream, though a very strange and alternate route sort of part.

Still, no fucking way am I reading The Cold Six Thousand ever again.

Monday, November 12, 2012


I‘m not sure what to call Jochem vanderSteen’s Noah Milano stories. They live in a niche between short stories and novellas, reminiscent of what Raymond Chandler used to call “long stories” when he was serializing some of them for Black Mask. This is appropriate, because vanderSteen is writing throwback PI literature for the 21st Century and doing it quite nicely. His newest effort is Scoundrel. (Or is it “Scoundrel?” Where is Ms. Hutchison to tell me when to italicize and when to enclose in quotes when I need her?) In it, vanderSteen continues to build on the advancements of the previous stories.

Noah Milano is the son of a mob boss and was following in the family business until he promised his dying mother otherwise. No dummy, he didn’t become a scuba instructor or high school art teacher, where what he’d learned and who he’d met before getting straight couldn’t help him; he put out a shingle as a private investigator. This places him on a thin and moving line, having to decide how much help he needs—and is willing to accept—from his old life. The police don’t buy his story of having seen the light and harass him while they try to figure his angle.

In Scoundrel, Milano is helping a young, pregnant woman. Her pregnancy is the result of a one-night stand with a man who gave her a fake name. She wants to keep the baby, wants no part of the father in their lives, but does think he should have to pay her something for child support. If Milano can find him.

Well, he does—not much of a story if he didn’t, right?—after following a trail of used and abused women long enough to have legitimately titled the story Piece of Shit, “scoundrel” not a strong enough word for this guy. How he does it, and what happens after he does it, are the kinds of things you find out by actually reading the story, so hustle on over to Amazon and pick yourself up a copy.

Each of the Milano stories I’ve read get a little grittier and a little more involved. vanderSteen is more willing than many to draw characters who aren’t bad, but live lives no one would be proud of, and to describe them unapologetically. He has worked hard to overcome the disadvantage of writing highly vernacular prose in his second language; little of the early self-consciousness remains in his word choices. His love of the genre is evident, both in the Milano stories and in his blog, Sons of Spade. He’s going to keep getting better, and where he takes this could get even more interesting.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

An Interview With Declan Burke

New Year’s Eve, everyone makes the obligatory noises about how glad they’ll all be to see the current year end. Declan Burke won’t be among them come December. In May he won the Goldsboro “Last Laugh” Award at the Bristol Crimefest for Absolute Zero Cool. This fall saw the release of Books To Die For, a huge addition to the literature about crime fiction, which he edited with John Connolly. Today he’s agreed to answer some questions about his newest novel, Slaughter’s Hound (for Kindle here) which I reviewed a few days ago.

One Bite at a Time: I finished reading Slaughter’s Hound last week and bits of it keep coming back to me. Not just scenes, but things to think about. What made you decide to bring back Harry Rigby?

Declan Burke: “Well, I’m hoping the bits that keep coming back to you aren’t keeping you awake at night! I guess the honest answer to why I brought Harry Rigby back is that, for me, he’s never gone away. He first appeared in Eightball Boogie, in 2003, and due to his less-than-legal activities in that story, he has spent the last eight years or so incarcerated in a mental institution. I wanted to be true to him, and to reality - if I’d allowed Harry to skip free on what he did in Eightball, it’d all have been a bit of a nonsense. And what he did in that story would have a huge and profound impact on virtually any normal human being, so I wanted him to be a different person, fundamentally changed by his experience, and I wanted to explore how that kind of experience might damage or toughen or change a person. Harry had been prowling around in the back of my mind for a couple of years before I finally let him off the leash and started writing about him again.”

OBAAT: I don’t know your middle name; I wonder if it might be Ray, as Slaughter’s Hound combines many of my favorite things about Raymond Chandler and Ray Banks. Are either of them conscious influences on your writing?

DB: “I love Ray Banks’ books - Ray has that raw quality that appears to be rough ‘n’ ready on the page but is in fact the product of a writer who has fully mastered the craft. I can’t claim him as an influence for the Rigby stories, though, because I’d established that particular voice long before I’d come across Ray’s work. As for Chandler, well, absolutely. I wake up in the night in a cold sweat sometimes, having a nightmare that the Chandler Estate is suing for plagiarism. I wrote Eightball originally as a homage to Raymond Chandler’s books - I loved (and still love, and always will) that combination of tough-guy hardboiled attitude and overly ornate, cynical, wise-cracking prose. I did try to tone down the wisecracks for Slaughter’s Hound, because Harry is a little bit damaged, and not so prone to shoot from the lip, but there’s no doubt he’s very much made in the image of Philip Marlowe, that knight errant who is obsessed with justice, no matter how ridiculous it makes him look or act.”

OBAAT: I don’t know a writer so willing to change direction as you are, nor dexterous enough to pull it off. The Big O resembles Eightball Boogie not at all. Absolute Zero Cool has no comparable book in my experience, and Slaughter’s Hound, while more traditional than AZC, is still a departure in depth and darkness form anything else you’ve written. When coming up with ideas, do you consciously set out to make each book as different from its predecessor as you can, or does it just work out that way?

DB: “I do set out to write something different from the book that has gone before, that’s definitely part of it, although I’m nowhere as calculating and thoughtful about it all as I should be. There’s a few reasons why I write the way I do - one is that, as a reader (and every writer is first and foremost a reader), I have pretty catholic taste; I don’t read the same kind of book twice in a row, I like to mix it up as dramatically as I can. And if that’s what works for me as a reader, it stands to reason that it should work that way as a writer too, even if doing so is a kind of shooting myself in the foot in terms of commercial success. It’s also true that I’m more than happy to follow the logic of a story to its end, even if that’s a bitter or dark end - I’m not saying that I allow the characters to tell me how it works out, or any of that kind of faff, but if you put together a particularly dark set-up, and lead the reader to believe that it’s all going to end pretty cataclysmically, and then pull back from that to provide a palatable, saccharine-sweet ending - well, you’re cheating everyone, aren’t you? Yourself, the reader, the characters, everyone.”

OBAAT: Crime fiction aficionados love to talk about first sentences setting the hook in the reader. You do it beautifully in Slaughter’s Hound, and but in a unique way. Tell me where that sentence came from.

DB: “Well, that’s an odd one to answer, because the first sentence of Slaughter’s Hound was one of the last things I wrote for the book. It’s a long sentence, I think that’s what you’re getting at here, and it just felt right to allow it run on, because as I was writing it, it seemed to encapsulate the mood of the book. It’s also true that I’d read Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red not long before, which also opens with a pretty long sentence, and I do love a challenge … But in part, too, it’s a reaction against the conventional wisdom you’re given as a writer, that the start of a novel should be made up of short, declarative sentences, a single-image hook to grab the reader’s attention. I hate most of the advice young crime / mystery writers are given these days, not least because most of it seems to presume that the crime / mystery reader is a drooling idiot who can’t deal with complicated concepts and ideas, or styles - or sentences that are more than eight words long.”

OBAAT: Christa Faust has said—and I’m paraphrasing—the difference between hard-boiled and noir is, in hard-boiled you’re in a fucked landscape, but you’ll be okay. In noir, the landscape is fucked, and so are you. Slaughter’s Hound starts off as a classic hard-boiled story, full of sardonic comments, but morphs into bleak noir so elegantly I didn’t realize what was happening until a key event in the second half, which caught me unawares until I thought about and I realized it had to be that way. Did the tone evolve as you wrote, or was that always part of the plan?

DB: “I’ll have to be honest and say that it ‘evolved’, which is a fancy way of saying that I wrote myself into a certain position and then had to obey the logic of what had put me there. I don’t plot in advance, not to any great degree, partly because I believe that if I don’t know what’s coming next, the reader is unlikely to second-guess what’s going to happen. I knew Slaughter’s Hound would be darker in tone than Eightball Boogie, simply because of what Harry had done in that story, and the impact it had on him, but I didn’t set out to write a hardboiled novel that would morph into noir, or anything like that. I’m a big fan of writing a story to the best of your ability, and then letting other people decide what it is or isn’t, or what you’re trying to do or say. Maybe I should put more thought into all of this sort of thing before I start out, but I’m not sure I’d be all that interested in writing to a formula, even if it’s one that I’d prescribed for myself.”

OBAAT: I understand you’re not allowed to have a cat, but you clearly have a thing for big dogs. Both Anna in The Big O and Crime Always Pays and Bear in Slaughter’s Hound are huge. Is there some hidden significance to you in enormous dogs?

DB: “Ha! This is a very strange aspect of my books, because I’m not actually all that fond of dogs at all - I much prefer cats, possibly because they’re closer in personality to my own, the selfish buggers. And as for the size of the dogs, well, if you’re going to have a dog in a crime / mystery novel, you don’t want to be fucking around pretending that anyone is really interested in reading about a Pekinese or a Chihuahua. No, the dogs in both The Big O and Slaughter’s Hound were employed to represent a particular facet of contemporary society - they’re domesticated, civilised, conditioned to obey orders, but they’re both throwbacks to a pre-civilised society (Anna’s three-quarters wolf, Bear is an ├írch├║, or Slaughter’s Hound, a Wolfhound that used to accompany warriors into battle in Irish mythology, and subsequently in Irish history). In a sense, the dogs are there to mirror their human counterparts - apparently civilised and domesticated, until you push them too far and have your head snapped off.”

OBAAT: I’m almost afraid to ask, as I’ve come to look forward to not knowing what a book of yours will be like until I’m somewhat into it, but what’s next?

DB: “Right now I’m in the process of redrafting a sequel to The Big O, a caper comedy set in the Greek islands - it’s light and humorous in tone, as a reaction to the darkness of both Absolute Zero Cool and Slaughter’s Hound. Once that leaves the desk, I’m planning on writing a story set on Crete, which is a kind of spy story incorporating a war crime, or atrocity, committed on the island during WWII. It’ll be much closer to AZC in tone and form than the Rigby books, or the caper comedies, and I’m hoping it works out.”

OBAAT: Thanks, Dec, for taking the time to chat. I know how busy you are and appreciate you stopping by.

DB: Much obliged, Dana, as always. Really appreciate it.

Note:  My review of Books To Die For and another chat with Dec on that topic can be found at the New Mystery Reader web site.