Monday, December 31, 2018

Movies Since Last Time

L.A. Confidential (1997). Yes, Mike Dennis. Again. When things need put right in the world and I don’t mind if a few rules get bent, this is my go-to movie.

The Post (2017). There’s enough material here for two really good movies. Unfortunately, this is neither. It’s not bad, but the story of Katherine Graham’s decision to fully take the reins of the Washington Post deserves a film of its own, as does how the New York Times and the Post broke the Pentagon Papers story. Putting both together only broke
up each story’s momentum as it was getting going. Meryl Streep was brilliant, as always, and the supporting cast was solid, led by Bob Odenkirk. Tom Hanks—who I usually love—stepped all over his role as Ben Bradlee, never quite deciding whether to use an accent, or which to use. He started out in a hole—I’m sure even people who knew Bradlee remember him as looking like Jason Robards if they saw All the President’s Men—so Hanks would have been better off plying it straight. (Speaking of All the President’s Men, OBAAT wishes calm seas to the late William Goldman, who may have been the greatest screenwriter ever.)

Hickok (2017). Jesus Christ is this a bad movie. I don’t mind historical inaccuracy—I revere
Deadwood—but, damn, make it entertaining and at least have it fit in with the history of you’re going to use its façade. Luke Hemsworth plays the shortest Wild Bill Hickok in history. (Think Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher except Cruise actually pulled it off.) The dialog is shitty, the action timing is off, and the continuity is inconsistent. (Hickok’s badge disappears and re-appears as he walks across the street. Another character’s wound magically moves from leg to leg.) This film’s primary virtue is its brevity, coming in at 88 minutes.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) The Coen Brothers meet Netflix, which means no studio interference. This sequence of six vignettes—essentially a collection of short stories—sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t, on multiple levels. Dead End Follies does a much better job than I have space (or talent) for here, but suffice to say the little stories told herein are the kind that will stay with you. It’s a film that has made more of an impression on me than I thought while watching it, and isn’t that what a truly outstanding movie (or book) should do?

The Ice Harvest (2005) Too often overlooked when crime fiction aficionados discuss Christmas movies, this adaption by Harold Ramis (director), Richard Russo, and Robert Benton (screenwriters) of Scott Phillips’s novel hits every note while maintaining perfect balance. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton play affluent losers who rip off mob boss Randy Quaid. Dark humor abounds and the plot twists are more like elisions so everything remains believable throughout.  

Elf (2003) Relatively recent but still a holiday classic. Will Ferrell plays a mix of sweet and naïve without being stupid, James Caan is just hard enough that you can believe his transformation at the end, and Zoey Deschanel is (as The Beloved Spouse™ puts it) as cute as she wants to be. Made for kids but a good choice for an hour and a half where you can just turn off the stress and be entertained. The special features on the making of the film are first rate, too.

Big Trouble (2002) This movie flew under the radar and lost a fortune, probably because of the timing of its release. (Originally scheduled to come out right after 9/11, pushed back into early 2002 because of terrorist plot overtones.) Based on Dave Barry’s novel, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty, Men in Black) and featuring a top-rate cast that includes Tim Allen, Rene Russo, Stanley Tucci, Dennis Farina, Tom Sizemore, Janeane Garofalo, Ben Foster, and Zoey Deschanel (among other recognizable faces). The Beloved Spouse™ and I discovered this as one the added trailers in the special features of The Ice Harvest. Laugh out loud funny throughout.

Die Hard (1988) Because, Christmas, man.

Mississippi Burning (1988) Not as compelling as when I first saw it in a theater, but maybe
that’s because I’m hip to a lot of things I didn’t know then. This is the kind of film we all need to watch periodically, as it makes its point with a minimum of preachiness, letting the conditions tell you everything you need to know. Interesting point: The “interviews” with locals used actual people from the area and were largely ad-libbed. This cause director Alan Parker some discomfort, as he was never sure when they were “in character” or telling him what they actually thought. This was in 1988. They’re out there, folks.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

An Excerpt From Ten-Seven Now Available for Pre-Order. Release Date January 21.

Happy Boxing Day. As part of the Christmas spirit (and because I don’t feel like being overly creative as I type this), I have a gift for you: a sample chapter pulled directly  from Ten-Seven, which releases January 21 from Down & Out Books.

Doc called the examiner in Pittsburgh on his way back to the interview room when the PA speaker told him of a visitor at the same time Stush asked for a minute. He asked Shimp to wait with Virdon. “You’ve taken polygraphs. Everyone thinks they’re no big deal until they’re strapped into the machine. Let him know what to expect. Bullshit around, see what his interests are. Come up with a couple distracters the examiner can use. If he lets something slip, fine, but we’re not trying to break him. That’s what the test is for.”
Shimp nodded, went on her way. Doc noted she never needed to be told anything twice, entered Stush’s office.
Stush cut right to it. “Stirnweiss died about fifteen minutes ago. The hospital called while you were scheduling the examiner.”
“He ever wake up? Make any kind of statement?”
Stush shook his head. “Doctor said he didn’t know why he wasn’t dead when they brought him in. What they told you before, about how if he made it through another night he had a chance? They couldn’t believe he made it through last night. Figured if he lasted one more, he might be immortal.”
“I’ll call for the autopsy.”
“Already done. You were busy, I had the phone in my hand, so I called Pittsburgh.” Penns River in Neshannock County—pretty much was Neshannock County—had no medical examiner of its own. Farmed the work out to Allegheny. “They’ll pick him up, said they might even get to him this afternoon.”
“Slow day?”
“Must be. When’s the examiner due?”
“Probably an hour, hour and a half.”
“What’s up with your suspect?”
“I sent Shimp in to relax him, tell him what to expect. I don’t want anyone coming back later saying he blew the machine because he was nervous.”
Out of Stush’s office, down the hall, through the locked door to the waiting room. Doc’s visitor a fireplug of a man starting down the road to fluffy. A double chin covered most of the knot in his tie. Doc identified himself, asked what he could do. The man handed him a business card, said, “I’m here to see Robert Virdon.”
“And you…Mr. Crenshaw, are?”
“I’m Mr. Virdon’s counsel.”
“He didn’t say anything about a lawyer. I’m not arguing—he’s certainly entitled to one—I’m wondering why he didn’t say anything before.”
“Can I see him?”
“Sure. Wait here while I find a place you can talk. He’s in an interview room now, with a two-way mirror. We’ll put you someplace more private.”
“You don’t have a room for client consultations?”
“We do, but I don’t know if anyone’s using it.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Uh-uh. You have a right to a confidential meeting with your client, not to roam our halls. I won’t be a minute.”
Doc found the small consultation room unoccupied, put up the “In Use” sign. Walked into the interview room where Shimp and Virdon talked about decks. “Mr. Virdon, your lawyer’s here. I found a room where you can speak privately.”
“Huh? I don’t have a lawyer.”
“You didn’t call a…Alvin Crenshaw?” Doc as confused as Virdon seemed to be.
“How could I call him? I been here with you all morning.”
“You didn’t call him before you came in?”
“No. I didn’t figure I needed one.”
“You want to talk to him?”
“Uh-uh. He sounds like some kind of ambulance chaser. See what he wants.”
In the visitor’s area, Doc said to Crenshaw, “Mr. Virdon says he never heard of you. Who retained you?”
“That’s between Mr. Virdon and myself.”
“Well, Mr. Virdon doesn’t want anything to do with you until he knows who you are. He sent me back to find out.”
“Are you denying me access to my client?”
“No, sir, I am not. All I’m trying to do is find out if you have a client in the building. Mr. Virdon says no.”
“This can be easily settled, Detective. Let me explain to him why I’m here, and he’ll know I’m legitimate.”
Doc wondered if these things ever happened to Lennie Briscoe or Andy Sipowicz. “Counselor, I’m good with that but for one thing: if he didn’t ask for you, doesn’t want you, I don’t know if there are legal ramifications for any potential prosecution down the road. I can go next door and get the city solicitor to give me an opinion. That might take a while. He’s been known to research things to within an inch of their lives.” Doc sensed a Constitution citing about to spring forth, said, “Give me some little thing to tell him that’ll set his mind at ease. I mean, it’s not like we won’t know who hired you sooner or later.”
Crenshaw glowered as if debating the likelihood he’d get to argue the matter before the Supreme Court. “Tell him his mother hired me. Alice Virdon.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place? I’ll be right back.”
Through the locked door, down the hall, into the interview room. “Is your mother’s name Alice, Mr. Virdon?”
“Yeah. So?”
“This lawyer—Crenshaw—says he was hired by your mother. Alice Virdon.”
“How’d she know I was here?”
“You didn’t tell her?”
“I told you I came over soon as I heard you were looking for me. I didn’t call anybody.”
“Well, he’s here and she appears to have paid for him. You want to talk to him, I’ll take you right over.”
“I wouldn’t talk to Patty Hewes if my mother paid for her.”
Doc damn sure Vic Mackey never put up with this kind of shit. “Who’s Patty Hewes?”
“On that show? Damages? The actress with the man’s name plays her?”
Doc watched network television about as often as PNC Park allowed dogs to watch Pirate games. Looked to Shimp for help. “Glenn Close.”
Deep breath. “So you’re saying you don’t want your mother’s help.”
“That’s right. I didn’t shoot this guy at the casino last night, but if anyone ever shoots that bitch, I’m the one to look for.”
Out of the interview room, down the hall, through the locked door. “He doesn’t want to see you.”
Crenshaw failed to hide his amazement and disdain. “You told him his mother sent me?”
“Yes, sir. I told him. Do you know who Patty Hewes is?”
“Glenn Close, on Damages. So?”
“She any good as a lawyer?”
“Yes. So?”
“Then you’re in good company. Virdon says he wouldn’t talk to her, either. Not if his mother sent her.” The polygraph examiner came through the main entry door. Doc held up a finger for him to wait. “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
Crenshaw so mad his wattle trembled. “You can’t prevent me from seeing my client! He has rights!”
Doc’s voice icy calm. “That’s correct. He has the right to an attorney. You, however, do not have a right to a client. I know you’ve been on the clock since you got up from your desk to come over here. My advice is to explain the situation to Mrs. Virdon and move on.” Turned toward the examiner, came back. “I’ll call her later and will damn sure take it to the solicitor if I hear you tried to run up a bill on her. We’re done here.”

Ten-Seven is available for pre-order now from Down & Out Books, who will cut you a deal while they’re at it—that’s the kind of folks they are. It’s the Holiday Season®, after all.

Friday, December 21, 2018

We're Mad as Hell and We're Not Going to Take it Anymore (Or Something)

Lot of outrage going around for the holiday season. I’ve been pretty good at staying out of it for the most part, but I don’t maintain a blog so I can keep my opinions to myself.

The biggest recent furor focuses on the Mystery Writers of America naming Linda Fairstein a Grand Master. Then un-naming her. (Or un-mastering her. Whatever.) I pretty much kept my head down over the whole Central Park Five ruckus, mainly because I found a more fundamental reason she should not have received the award: I never heard of her before that day. Not that I should be the official arbiter of who’s a Grand Master, but I am pretty well engaged in crime fiction writing; I’ve heard of a lot of people. When my first thought is, “Who the fuck is Linda Fairstein?” and half a dozen more deserving names pop into my head, that’s a tell.

I’m not going re-litigate the whole Central Park Five thing. Fairstein was the prosecutor, the people she (wrongly) convicted got a $41 million settlement, she’s expressed no remorse, maybe she is prohibited from expressing remorse by the terms of the settlement, maybe she should then have just shut the fuck up and not defended her dubious record there, MWA should have known this about her, why would MWA look if they felt her body of work was deserving, should non-writing actions be disqualifying factors in award giving out…it’s a long list and both sides have been argued to death.

I’ve taken no pro-MWA or anti-MWA position because my interest pretty much died with the “Who the fuck is Linda Fairstein?” question. What she did interests me less in this context than what she didn’t do, which was to earn the award. What has struck me over the past few weeks is this: the vast majority of people arguing either side have been assholes about it.

Those who don’t think the MWA should have revoked the award have called the board everything but pussies for rolling over for a vocal minority, not knowing whether the protest comes from a minority or not. Those who had protested Fairstein’s award then turned on this group with the attitude that anyone who sees any nuance here at all are at best racist apologists who can go fuck themselves. It’s like watching a bunch of permanently adolescent gamers argue about whatever it is gamers argue about. (I have no idea what gamers argue about and I don’t want to know, I just know they do, and they are generally permanently adolescent, especially if they’re arguing about gamer shit.)

Here’s some advice that will serve both sides well: shut the fuck up. There is nuance to everything. Nothing is exactly and completely as it appears on the surface. Did MWA fuck up? Maybe. In my eyes, probably. Did they fuck up again when they revoked the award? Maybe. Saying they should have stuck their guns, right or wrong, is hardly taking an objective look at the situation. Nor is demeaning those who disagree with you because the purity of their progressiveness is insufficient. I’m learning a lot more about the antagonists on both sides than I am about Linda Fairstein and MWA, and very little of it is good.

Todd Robinson posted a video on Facebook the other day talking about the fiction of a writers’ community and how the writers at most conferences fall into two categories: those who will cut your throat to get your little niche of success and those who will cut your throat to protect their little niche. I have as much respect for Todd as I do for anyone in the business, but that hasn’t been my experience. I go to Bouchercon and Creatures, Crimes, Creativity mostly to hang with my tribe (to borrow Reed Farrel Coleman’s term), people who know what it’s like to spend so much time in a room alone and hope some acclaim will come two years down the road. (Maybe a few shekels, too.) I learn about my craft and spend time with people I genuinely look forward to seeing.

Maybe my situation is different because I pretty well dismissed the notion of writing for a living quite a while ago. I’m as close to following Todd’s prescription of why one should write (“to tell your stories”) as anyone, so the potentially vicious networking he refers to passes right by me and my too small to bother with footprint. Yay me. What I do see, though, is that there are people in the industry—I’m not crazy about the term “community,” either, for reasons of my own—who are more interested in telling you why you’re a piece of shit for disagreeing with them than in talking to you about it, and this is on both sides of any argument. There are a couple of writers I don’t read much anymore because they were so virulent and dismissive of legitimate but contrary positions, and a few people I’d probably prefer to spend less time with the next time I see them.

So it goes. It just seems to me that people who spend their lives writing stories to share points of view as a way of broadening their readers’ horizons might want think about the narrowness of their own.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Femmes Fatales

I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way.

I’m not as much of a noir writer as I’m sometimes accused of credited with being. For example, I’ve never written a femme fatale novel.* Femmes fatales are a staple of noir and have provided bestselling material ever since the Bible. It’s perpetually fertile ground. (At least as long as it’s done properly.)

Femmes fatales are somewhat in disfavor in the era of #metoo. I understand why, but respectfully disagree. (Again with the caveat “the story needs to be done right.”) There is a perceived undertone of misogyny in stories that draw their existence from the concept of a duplicitous woman leading a good man to his demise. There’s more than that to it, though. As the great W.C. Fields once said, “You can’t cheat an honest man.” The key thing femme fatale stories have in common are strong women and men who are weak (at best) or low-lifes (more likely and more believable). Say whatever you want about the woman’s character, but a characteristic all femmes fatale share is a distinct lack of frailty.

Since time immemorial men have taken what they want from women by force. A femme fatale turns that same desire against the man to take what she wants by wit and wile. What a good femme fatale story is really about is how a clever woman can use a man’s willingness to be led around by his dick to her advantage.

This makes her neither better nor worse than a man who uses a woman’s weaknesses against her. But that’s what equality is all about.

Isn’t it?

*--I’ve never written a femme fatale novel—not that I won’t ever, who knows?—but the first story I ever got paid for was one. (“Green Gables,” published in the third Thuglit anthology, Blood, Guts, and Whiskey.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

And So It (meaning the promotion) Begins; Ten-Seven Drops January 21

The relentless self-promotion for my next novel (Ten-Seven) begins now. Hide the children.

The promotion in general began last month with the able assistance of Debbi Mack, who kindly invited me to chat with her at her Crime Café podcast. Debbi’s good people and a fine writer her own self. We chatted for about 25 minutes and I had a ball. Many thanks to Debbi and I look forward to running into her again at the usual places.

Just a couple of weeks ago Nick Kolakowski had me for my first solo gig as part of the Authors on the Air network. I only met Nick in the run-up to the interview and found we have quite a bit in common. Exactly how much, and how entertaining we were in the discussion thereof, you can judge for yourself. As for me, the time flew by. Thanks to Nick for having me on and for being such a gracious host.

This is obviously not the sum total of Ten-Seven’s pre-launch. There will be guest blog posts, at least one other podcast interview, and (hopefully) a live event after the holidays. Stop by the website for updates.

Ten-Seven drops January 21 but if those holiday checks and gift cards start to burn holes in
Kudos, as always, to Eric Beetner for another kick-ass cover design.
your pockets, despair not: it’s available for pre-order RTFN. (That’s “right now” for the more sensitive among you.) For the lowdown on how to score a free digital copy with the purchase of a trade paperback, scoot on over to the
Ten-Seven page on the Down & Out Books web site.
It’s also available from the following retailers …
• Amazon — Trade Paperback | eBook
• Amazon UK — 
Trade Paperback | eBook
• Barnes & Noble — 
Trade Paperback | eBook
• IndieBound — 
Trade Paperback
• iTunes — 
• Kobo — 
• Play — 

Ten-Seven breaks things up a little in Penns River. Doc and Stush and Mike Mannarino and Wilver Faison are still there, but change is in the wind. A consent decree brings in three new cops no one is quite sure what to think of. Their entry is counterbalanced by the departure of two series regulars and a new tidbit of knowledge about a third. There’s a bridge jumper and some changes in the Dougherty family.
Here’s a sample:

Doug Stirnweiss hadn’t made much of an impression on the employees of Allegheny Casino. Some recognized him, coming in every couple-three weeks, seemed like a nice guy. Only two knew his name. One said, “So he was the guy got shot the other night.”
Judy Abramowicz tended bar four to one, Tuesday through Saturday, the steadiest shift of any employee. Five-foot-ten, frosted blonde hair and ice blue eyes, high cheekbones. Worked the large bar closest to the gaming tables. Men preferred table games to slots, and Judy Abramowicz behind the most convenient bar had to be good for business all around.
Doc had been at it for three hours, nineteen interviews. Any potential to be entertained by proximity to who was, without doubt, the most attractive person in the casino had left him at least forty-five minutes ago.
“Ms. Abramowicz, do you recognize this man?” Handed her Doug’s cropped DMV photo, showing wear at the edges.
“That’s Doug Stirnweiss.” Doc’s hopes rose. “I saw him on the news.” Doc’s hopes fell.
“You ever see him in here?”
“A time or two. That’s why I noticed him on TV. I knew the face, just never had a name to go with it.”
“Ever talk with him?”
“See him talking with anyone else?”
“Well, yeah, but nothing that sticks out. He’d talk to dealers, customers, whoever was around. Seemed friendly enough.”
“Ever hear anyone talk about him?”
“Not so it sticks in my mind. I know you’re trying to get some idea of who might’ve wanted to shoot him, but he was just a guy. There’s a hundred of them out there right now, just like him. Nice guys, no trouble. They come in once in a while and have a little fun. I don’t want to sound like a bitch, but there’s nothing memorable about them.”
She did sound a little like a bitch, but she had a point. Doc handed her a business card. “Thanks for your time. Can you do me a favor and send…” scanned the list, “George Schaffer in?”
Judy would. Walked to the door—Doc not too tired to notice an ass with the rare combination of tightness and breadth—turned before she reached for the knob. “If I tell you something, can it stay just between us? No one else can ever know.”
“Depends what it is. If you’re about to tell me you saw who shot Doug Stirnweiss, then, no, almost certainly not. You’re going to have to testify, at least in front of a grand jury.”
Judy returned to the table. Doc gestured for her to sit. She rested her hands on the back of the chair, unsure, then swiveled around it and parked herself. “I could get fired for telling you this.”
Doc said, “Then why are you telling me?” in a voice calculated to convey trust.
“There’s a guy, drug dealer. He hangs around sometimes.”
There didn’t appear to be more. “Did you see him with Doug that night?”
Judy shook her head. “I don’t think I ever saw them both together. This guy—he’s nasty, you know what I mean?” Looked up at Doc like she wanted him to, so she wouldn’t have to explain it.
“Nasty how? Like he stinks? Or he’s dangerous?” Judy nodded. “You ever see him hurt anybody?”
“I heard stories. People owe him money, he hurts them. Bad temper. I saw him go off one night. Took three security guys to get him out.”
“Was he here the night Doug Stirnweiss was shot?”
“He’s banned from the casino since that other time. They found out he sold, so Rollison put him on the list.”
“What made you think to bring him up if he hasn’t been in?”
“He still hangs around. Does his business in the parking lot.”
“You’ve seen him?”
She nodded three times, quick. “I heard he was, and…I think it was him I saw one night.”
“You think?”
What little eye contact there had been disappeared. “There are some guys, you know, you don’t want them to notice you.”
“You know what he sells?”
“I ain’t had anything to do with him, you understand?”
Doc stuck out his lower lip, shook his head. “I’m not thinking anything like that. You work at the bar. What do you hear?”
“Coke. Some grass. Crystal, of course. I guess he can get about anything.”
“You have a name for him?” She shook her head. “Who else can I talk to? You can’t be the only person here knows about him.”
“No one else will talk to you. Not about this. They’re either afraid of him, or they’re afraid of the casino—you know, for bringing suspicion around the place—or they’re doing business with him.”
Doc leaned in, lowered his voice. “Why are you telling me?”
Judy looked away, then made eye contact for a second—damn, almost like Doc could see through the blue and there was white behind, they were so pale—swallowed once. “He scares me. I mean, really scares me. I kind of figured he could hurt someone bad. Now that someone’s been shot—right outside, where I know he hangs out—I wonder was it him, and what else he could do. I don’t want to sound like some conceited twat, but I know people notice me. I’m not complaining. I got the best job here, make the most tips, and I can go out with anybody I want to, pretty much. I know a lot of girls would trade with me. But, you know, people noticing you isn’t always a good thing. Not if it’s the wrong people. Or for the wrong reasons.”
She looked at Doc again. He saw it this time, behind the blue. The fear. “Okay. We’ll check him out.”
“You won’t let anyone know it was me that told?”
Doc shook his head. “Send Schaffer back. I won’t say or do anything that might bring any suspicion until after I talk to everybody. There’ll be no way to know where I got it.”
Her smile was gone before it could take root, as if she were embarrassed to have done it. Doc spoke when she reached the door. “Thank you.” She nodded and left.
Doc’s cell phone in hand before the door catch clicked. “Teresa? Do me a favor. Find some subtle way to work drugs into the conversation with Doug’s friends.”

Friday, December 7, 2018

S.A. Cosby, Author of My Darkest Prayer

S.A. Cosby is another one of those writers who hovered around the periphery of my consciousness for quite a while, then burst into my sphere of attention like the Kool-Aid pitcher through a wall at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. (I felt purple. Sue me.) We spent some quality time there, followed up by sharing a panel and more discussion at Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity as month later. Best known for his short fiction, Shawn’s first novel in several years, My Darkest Prayer, ushers in the new year on January 1, courtesy of Intrigue Publishing. Reading what he has to say in an interview doesn’t do him justice, as there’s no way to capture the enthusiasm he brings to any conversation. Use this to whet your appetite and make a point to catch him at a conference or signing near you at your earliest opportunity.

One Bite at a Time: Your new novel is My Darkest Prayer. Give us a tease on what to expect.
S. A. Cosby: Well I think the main thing you can expect from My Darkest Prayer is a good time. I'm not trying to re-invent the wheel but I did my best to craft an exciting engaging detective story set in the rural South that is infused with a little down home flavor filtered through the prism of an African American viewpoint. The main character Nathan Waymaker is a flawed and damaged man but also intelligent, fiercely loyal with a quick wit and fast hands. He is trying his best to bring some semblance of order to his chaotic world as he seeks a bit of redemption for his own sins.

OBAAT: Nathan Waymaker works at a funeral home and as a bouncer. Is he based on anyone you know, or how did you come up with such a unique experience set? (Great name, by the way.)
SAC: Nathan is an amalgamation of a few people I grew up with and how I see myself in my pulp fantasies. His personality can be best described as if Elvis Cole Eazy Rawlins and Spenser created a fully formed clone using all of their DNA...

OBAAT: We both like to set our stories in small towns. My first panel ever discussed the possible limitation of setting stories in small towns, which I thought was odd because I don’t think of a small town setting as limiting a crime story. For every big-city possibility that doesn’t really work there are at least as many possibilities that just can’t happen in a big city. My Darkest Prayer is set in a small town. What attracted you to the location?
SAC: I've always been a fan of pastoral horror and mystery. Growing up in a small town I had an appreciation for the history and banality that exist in hamlets and rural communities. Setting a mystery story in such an environment gives me a chance to let the good guys win and overcome the machinations of local villains and sometimes the very nature of the town itself. That rarely happens in real life. Plus I'm a country boy at heart. So my work is as much a love letter to my upbringing as it is a condemnation of its flaws.

OBAAT: Let’s run with that a little. People tend to think of big city crime organizations as being powerful, but in a place like New York there’s so much going on there are limits to how much of the city they can run. To me the idea of a small town crime boss is scarier, as he can literally run the town.
SAC: I think the concept of the small town " boss" can carry a much more immediate threat for your characters. In a big city if the mob bosses want to whack you they have to get you to come to a sit down at a place they control but they still have to be wary of the police, random witnesses etc. In a small town a crime runs the cops. He runs the town council. He owns a farm with a pig trough and he has enough cousins and hired hands to make sure you disappear. Outside of the direct violence they also usually own the bank or the wetlands board. They have so many ways to completely destroy you.

OBAAT: My Darkest Prayer is your first book with Intrigue Publishing. How did you get together with Austin Camacho? He and I go way back and it’s a treat to see such good people find each other.
SAC: I was really lucky to meet Austin and everyone at Intrigue. I was attending a Noir at the Bar in DC hosted by Ed Aymar and Austin read an excerpt from his book. We struck up a conversation and I mentioned I had a mystery novel looking for a home and the rest like they say is history.

OBAAT: You and I are both Thuglit alumni with something in common there. I had a story in the last of the anthologies and you had one in the last edition. I don’t think that’s why he shut things down. At least not because of your story, which was outstanding. I can’t be 100% sure about my possible effect on the anthologies. I know the story of how you and Todd Robinson met, but it’s too good not to share.
SAC: So a few years ago when there wasn't as much gray in my bead I had a friend who was a belly dancer who was performing in New York. After her performance she went to bar with her troupe. That bar was Shade where Todd works. During the night she mentioned she had a friend who was a writer and Todd mentioned he published a magazine. He told her to tell her friend (me) and in that indomitable Todd Robinson style said, "If it ain't crap I might put it in my magazine.“

I'd written a few crime pieces but my main interest at that time was horror but no one was buying my horror stories so I thought what the heck? I'll write a hardboiled southern crime story. That story became “The Rat and The Cobra” ….a few weeks later I got a terse but exciting email from Todd:

“You're in issue #10 Bruddah.“

I owe a lot of who I am as a writer to Big Daddy Thug
OBAAT: Who are your major influences and how has each of them influenced you? Doesn’t have to be another writer. Could be film, TV, whatever.
SAC: As odd as it may sound my major influences on my style are movies. Hell or High Water, Gator, To Sleep With Anger, films that juxtapose growing up in a rural environment with existing in modern society. But if I had to vote an author or authors I wish I could emulate I'd have to say my two biggest influences are Walter Mosely and Jim Thompson. Walter for his lyrical exploration of the American dream as seen through black eyes and Jim Thompson for his fearless appreciation of the downtrodden and the dispossessed. They are the bar I'm trying to reach

OBAAT: Here it comes, the standard final question to an author interview: What’s next for you?
SAC: Well I'm currently working with Josh Getzler and the fine folks at the HSG Literary agency to bring my second full-length novel to life. Tentatively titled Blacktop Wasteland….in December my story “Sweet Baby Jesus” will be published in a Christmas anthology from Coffin Hop Press entitled Baby It’s Cold Outside. Other than that I'm working on a third novel that I think can be best described as The Defiant Ones meets Rolling Thunder. Other than that I'm reading a lot and trying every day to be a better writer. Or as I like to say telling lies to find the truth….

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Eryk Pruitt and The Long Dance

Eryk Pruitt is an impressive fellow. He’s rapidly gaining acclaim as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, does voice work for television and movies, and has won so much cutlery at DC-area Noirs at the Bar that Ka-Bar calls him when they’re short of inventory. I don’t spend a lot of time in the car, and I prefer to read things rather than listen to them, but hearing Eryk had a true crime podcast piqued my interest, especially after The Beloved Spouse™--a/k/a Eryk’s beloved Aunt Corky—heard a couple of episodes and suggested I make some time for it.

Well, now.

It was not what I expected at all. I ran some sections through again to make sure I heard that right. Eryk and Drew Adamek hit the right tone and the right medium; The Long Dance wouldn’t have been as good as either a documentary or a true crime book. I thought of writing a review but knew I didn’t have the chops to express what I thought of it, not knowing enough about the inner workings of podcasts, so I got Eryk to sit for an interview.

One Bite at a Time: Let me start with how impressed and moved I was by The Long Dance. I kept jotting down questions and I can’t decide which to ask first. When in doubt it’s always good to start at the beginning, so I’ll try that. You’re a Texas native—Dallas area, I think—now living in Durham, NC. When did you leave Texas and what was about Durham that got you to settle there?
Eryk Pruitt: After college, I moved around a bit (New Orleans, Ireland, etc) and discovered that not everybody in the world suffered Texas summers, so I found myself a bit spoiled. I moved to North Carolina in 2007 where I’ve since enjoyed four seasons per year and I don’t think I could handle anything else. I love the American South, and we discovered Durham by happy accident. It’s close enough to New York City, DC, and Atlanta that I can drive there if I’m needed, but far enough away that I don’t have to deal with any of their riff-raff.

OBAAT: How did you hear about the Mann/McBane murders? You weren’t in the Durham area when they took place—hell, you weren’t born yet—and you’re not native to the area. What brought this case to your attention and what drew you in to spend so much time and energy on it?
EP: We bought a house smack dab between the landmarks of that case. I can’t drive to town without passing where Pat and Jesse were abducted, nor can I go to the grocery store without passing by where their bodies were found. We’re out in the woods, so more “town” than Duke’s “gown,” and everyone can still remember this ghost story from their childhood. It’s almost become urban legend, because it faded so far into obscurity. But still, everybody had questions. I could hardly believe that something so tragic had happened and then disappeared from the collective consciousness with no answers. In the beginning, that was the question I wanted to answer: why was no one talking about it? It developed into much, much more.

OBAAT: You have a lot of irons in the fire and are constantly on the move. How long did it take to put The Long Dance together and how did you find the time?
EP: Two years and counting. Due to recent developments in the case as a result of our podcast, we are still working on it. But the initial eight episodes took two years to research, write, and produce. I did all this in my spare time because I was also writing a novel (What We Reckon), producing a short film (Going Down Slow), and managing a bar.

OBAAT: What were some of the logistics involved in getting the interviews? Things like setting them up, locations, getting there, how the recordings were done. Stuff like that.
EP: The hardest part was getting people to trust us enough to open up to us. It took six months to convince Captain Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office that we were serious about the case. Then we needed to talk to the family members and friends of Pat and Jesse. Each interview subject needed their own reassurances, but once we got there, the process took off. I never knew what to expect. No matter how much research I did, we always learned something new. We recorded off a Zoom recorder with a shotgun microphone. I would man the equipment and take notes while Drew Adamek would interview the subject. Once it was finished, I would transcribe the interviews and file those away for construction of the episodes.

OBAAT: Not to minimize the horrific nature of the murders, but what struck me most about The Long Dance was the lack of communication and coordination between the police departments. It was almost as if some of them didn’t want to see the case solved if they weren’t going to be the ones who solved it. What are your thoughts on that, and what was your biggest takeaway from spending so much time immersed in the project?
EP: It's very hard to measure law enforcement standards of 1971 against the standards of today. It's difficult to remember that communication was not as easy back then as it is today. I was told one story by Major Horne about Chapel Hill's "Coke bottle dispatch" system. Since CHPD didn't have radios yet, they would require all units to drive past the station every 30 minutes and if the window was propped open by a Coca Cola bottle, the responder was required to run inside the station and find out where they needed to go. That was in the late sixties. These days, as you can imagine, it's completely different. While I'd be on a ride with Horne, he'd field texts and phone calls from agencies across the state. A homicide investigator in Durham would ask him a question about a suspect who lived in Horne's jurisdiction, or a detective in Onslow County might need some further information about a case out there. Back in 1971, yes, there were a lot of communication and competition issues. Horne was the first to combine all the information from the six (six!) different LEOs who investigated the case, and only then did a complete answer present itself. Unfortunately, that was forty years after the murders. These days, I strongly believe the killer would have been caught much quicker. But like (former journalist) Cornelia Olive said in Episode Two: in 1971, everyone wanted to be the one to solve it, so they kept a lot of information to themselves. It would never have happened today.

OBAAT: I’ve read your stuff and heard you read at Noirs at the Bar. You’re the goods. What led you to decide to create The Long Dance as a podcast instead of writing a non-fiction book? This in no way disparages the podcast—more on that later—but I’m a printed word guy and I’m curious.
EP: After our first interviews with the friends and families of Pat and Jesse, I knew that I would never possess the vocabulary to articulate the pain and heartbreak I heard in their voices when they spoke of the tragedy that befell them in 1971. The fear when the nurses knew that one of their own was missing and they wondered if they might be next. How many times would I be able to describe a person breaking down into tears at a forty-seven year old memory? I am not the smartest man in the world, but I’m smart enough to delegate when a task gets to be too Sisyphean, like this one was. I decided to let the voices do the heavy lifting.

Lucky for me, I had Serial to lean on. The twelve-part investigative series from This American Life was a huge influence on me. I’d be hard pressed to think of a greater storytelling feat in our century. I always wanted to tackle something with the depth and narrative power that Serial had, but never thought I’d find a story worthy of it. Then along came the North Carolina Valentine’s Murders of 1971…

OBAAT: As I mentioned above, I’m a printed word guy. I’d almost always rather read transcripts of interviews because…well, because I’m busy and I read faster than I listen and can skip over things that don’t interest me. That said, The Long Dance had me riveted from early in the first episode. Your voice and skill as narrator was compelling and using clips from the actual interviews demanded my full attention in ways I hadn’t expected. What were some of the considerations that went into the editing and pacing?
EP: I knew Drew Adamek had to lead. He had a journalism background and no accent, so it’d be best to have him do most of the intro. We could lean on my Southern drawl for history and “color commenting.” It was my opinion that too much Southern would make it difficult for the LA and NYC types to comprehend. (I was shocked to find that my voice is what’s earned me the most money from the project, as I’ve gone on to be hired to narrate a documentary—Trouble Will Cause by Wreak Havoc Productions—and a voice role in an NBC sitcom, Trial & Error, as well as other roles.) We structured the episodes into eight subjects and we followed the typical rising and falling action arc, and tried to let each episode unfold, then wrap up into a cliffhanger at the end. We were lucky to have Piper Kessler of Velasquez Digital Media edit our sound and make us sound pretty, as well as Michael Rollin who developed our creepy score.

OBAAT: Have you heard from Dr. Britt since the podcast came out? For that matter, have you received feedback from any of the principals who listened to it?
EP: I have not heard from The Good Doctor. He does not return any of my letters or phone calls. I am anxious to hear what he thinks.

However, I remain close with some of the family members, who have given me a seal of approval. That was very, very important to me because a large part of what I wanted to do was tell the story of Pat and Jesse, because they cannot speak for themselves. What happened to them was so horrible and, behind all the sensationalist trappings that true crime offers the audience, I wanted that to remain at the forefront.

I teased it earlier, but there have been new developments, which could result in more than a follow-up episode, but hopefully an arrest. That would be the greatest success that anyone could possibly ask for.

Also, other people have reached out to me about cold cases in the Carolinas. I am anxious to discover where any of this might lead The Long Dance!

*  *  *

Hopefully this interview leads you to The Long Dance. It’s available at all the better podcast services and at its own site here. You won’t be sorry and it will haunt you, maybe forever.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Movies Since Last Time

Following up on clearing out the backlog of movies I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The Constant Gardener (2005) I forget why this was on the Netflix queue but I’m glad it was. Ralph Fiennes was outstanding (as always) in this adaptation of a John leCarré novel on the effects of Big Pharma in the developing world. A seamless blending of love story and political statement, director Fernando Meirelles weaves the flashbacks in Jeffrey Caine’s script in such a manner that interest is heightened with no added confusion. Fiennes and Rachel Weisz have an odd chemistry that suits the two main characters perfectly. A film that deserves more attention than it receives.

Seven Days in May (1964) A good old-fashioned John Frankenheimer political thriller based on the blockbuster novel by Charles W. Bailey and Fletcher Knebel III as adapted by Rod Serling. An A-List cast including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Frederic March, Edmund O’Brien, Ava Gardner, and Martin Balsam give this oldie but goodie impact 54 years after its premier and is still a timely reminder of how fragile democracy can be.

Silent Movie (1976) Mel Brooks is a national treasure. Here he revisits every sight gag from the golden age of silent comedies and invents a few of his own. Brooks plays director Mel Funn, who drank his way out of the movie business. With his two goofy “associates” (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman), Funn proposes an idea to save the studio to magnate Sid Caesar: a silent movie with the world’s biggest stars. In 1976 there were no bigger gets than Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Anne Bancroft, or Paul Newman, and that’s who Brooks got. (Bancroft was easy. She and Brooks were married.) Famed mime Marcel Marceau makes a cameo and has a nifty surprise. If you haven’t seen this one you should, even if you’re too young to remember what a big deal all these actors were.

The Nice Guys (2016) I don’t care if it died at the box office; I like this movie. A lot. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have a chemistry that’s right for their roles even if most critics didn’t think so. They’re supposed to have rough edges that bump up against each other. A Shane Black film worthy of the name, and keep an eye open for young Australian actor Angourie Rice.

Ocean’s 8 (2017) So long as one doesn’t try to make too much of them, the Ocean movies are fun and this is no exception. The all-woman crew led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchette has a ball and the gags all work, so long as one isn’t dissecting them. (Which one can never do in any caper movie.) And it’s only fair after women got to see George and Brad that we men get to spend some quality time with Sandra and Cate.

The Hunt for Red October (1990) There’s something about submarine movies and this is a good one. Alec Baldwin plays Jack Ryan the way Tom Clancy wrote him, as a young man in over his head making do with smarts and balls. Sean Connery conveys all the gravitas the Russian commander needs, and the supporting cast of Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Stellan Skaarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, and others plays off each other with aplomb. It’s a shame John McTiernan is such a shitgibbon because no one made better action movies (Die Hard and Predator come to mind right away).

Becket (1964) Edward Anhalt’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh and Lucienne Hill’s play of the political and personal drama between English King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his best friend turned antagonist Thomas Becket (Richard Burton.) Two magnificent actors given a worthy script that resulted in Oscar nominations for both actors (plus a supporting nod for John Gielgud as the king of France) and an Oscar win for screenwriter Anhalt. Factually flawed, the film still captures the gist of the history and well within the confines of having only 2:28 in which to tell the story. Two hours 28 minutes may seem like a long movie when all that happens is talking, but Becket shows how propulsive “just talking” can be when done at this level. Highest marks.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Beau Johnson, Author of The Big Machine Eats

Beau Johnson is carving out a sweet niche for himself in a sometimes forgotten area of crime fiction: short stories. Crime fiction grew from short stories and just because I can’t write them worth a shit doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them. Beau was here last year to talk about his first collection, A Better Kind of Hate, so I looked forward to continuing the conversation as his new collection drops November 26.

One Bite at a Time: Before we even get to talking about the stories involved, where did you
get the title The Big Machine Eats and why can’t I think of titles like that?
Beau Johnson: Ha! Yup, soon as I wrote that line it stuck with me. It’s from a story in A Better Kind of Hate called Bobby Charles. In that story an eighteen-wheeler hits and obliterates another vehicle, and as it goes: the big machine did eat. The line stayed with me for quite some time too but morphed as this new collection came together. On one hand I see the title as a reference to life, as it is always hungry, starving in fact, and if we aren’t as careful as maybe we should be it can swallow us whole. On the flipside is Bishop Rider, and yup, he is just as hungry.

OBAAT: Tell us a little about the stories in The Big Machine Eats. (Man I love that title. I even like saying it. ”The Big Machine Eats.”)
BJ: Hmmm…let’s see. I wouldn’t want to give too much away so let’s maybe go with a cannibal or two. Add a couple of direct sequels to stories in A Better Kind of Hate and then perhaps we’ll finish with the continuing struggle of Bishop Rider and friends. Hell, there may even be cake!

OBAAT: Bishop Rider is back. Tell us a little about him and why you like to return to him in your stories.
BJ: Funny thing, that. I never thought he’d be back. Thought I was done with him in fact. Wasn’t until I broke a collarbone and my butt got put in a chair for roughly eight weeks that he returned. It’s nice he came back, even nicer he has remained, but man, I really hope to never go through that again.

OBAAT: You’ve established yourself as a short story writer. What is it about them that keeps bringing you back? Any plans to write a novel? I don’t say that to in any way give short stories short shrift. To me writing a good short story is the hardest things to do as a writer.
BJ: Great question, Dana. Excitement. That’s what it comes down to for me. I get such a rush when the idea I have comes together and gels on the page. As for a novel, I will never say never, but no, I still seem unable to crack that particular code. I am what I am: a short story writer.

OBAAT: When you were here last we took a brief digression into the inherent good of cheese. Knowing what a cheese aficionado you are, does it bother you when people use the term “cheesy” as a put-down?
BJ: I can’t say that it does. And hey, sometimes a little cheesy is good!

Beau Johnson, author, cheese aficionado, and Mark Harmon impersonator
OBAAT: Sharp cheddar, mild cheddar, or Colby Longhorn?
BJ: Havarti, m’man. The King of cheeses!

OBAAT: Does cheese figure strongly into your stories? If not, why not?
BJ: As of yet, no. And yes, I will admit that is weird. Lemme see what I can do.

OBAAT: Okay, enough about cheese. I hate it when interviewers ask me to “Pick your favorite” or “What are your top three” of anything, so here goes: Pick your favorite short story, with the understanding that by asking for one I know and fully accept that I’m going to get at least three. What is it about it (them) that resonates with you so strongly?
BJ: “Survivor Type” by Stephen King blew my mind when I read it all those years ago. First, it’s just f’in bonkers that someone could even think of something like that. Second, that the man could pull it off and ground it. Third, lady fingers! They taste just like lady fingers! In my best Chandler Bing voice: could there be a better last line? Anyway, I could go on and bore you with my love for Mr. King as well, but I believe that’s old hat by now. As for stories 2 and 3? Let’s go with “The Raft” by King as well and end things with “Tell Her” by Marietta Miles. She might not want to admit it, but that short piece of flash is a how-to of emotion. Everyone should give it a read.

OBAAT: What’s next, now that The Big Machine Eats is out there? (See how I found an excuse to use that title again?)
BJ: Ha! I’m working on a few things. Rider is involved in a couple of them and there are also a few stories slated for publication over at Story and Grit. Besides that, I live until the next idea hits. Ah, the life of a panster!