Thursday, March 30, 2023

Winter's Favorite Reads

 The Dramatist, Ken Bruen. It’s hard for a Jack Taylor novel not to make this quarterly recap. Bruen has as unique a voice as anyone, and I read mostly for voice. The books are more character studies of Jack Taylor than they are mysteries, yet Bruen keeps them fresh throughout.


Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli, Mark Seal. Outstanding history of how The Godfather came to be one of the greatest films of all time. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for film buffs, or those who are into The Godfather.


The Dawn Patrol, Don Winslow. I finally caught up with Winslow, once again proving I am ridiculously slow on the uptake. I’d been put off a little by the length and topics of his more recent work; thanks to the friends who suggested I look earlier. Winslow has a gift for dialog, as well as providing exposition in such an entertaining manner you look forward to it. A lot funnier than I expected, which is never a bad thing.


Criminal Economics, Eric Beetner. I finished this one and thought, “This is Shakespearean noir.” I’d tell you why, but that would spoil the ending. Read it yourself. It’s well worth your time.


God Save the Mark, Donald Westlake. Begun as a Richard Stark Parker novel, Westlake shifted gears and turned it into a comedy. Not as funny as some of the later humorous novels, it’s still a delight. Easy to see how this same story could have been very dark.


The First World War, Basil H. Liddell Hart. Still considered the gold standard after 90 years. While there are things here I could investigate in more detail, my key takeaway was that this was a pointless war with needlessly horrific casualties that didn’t accomplish much except to light the fuse for WWII.


Jimmy the Wags, James Wagner. I forget how many times I’ve read this book; I turn to it when I want to get in to a PI frame of mind. Wagner was a decorated NYPD officer turned private investigator; this is his PI memoir. It’s hilarious and cautionary at the same time.


Shotgun, Ed McBain. To say this is a typical Ed McBain novel is to say it’s better than just about anything else out there. This is a typical Ed McBain novel. The high expectations he developed should not detract from its evaluation.


Muscle on the Wing, Daniel Woodrell. Volume 2 of The Bayou Trilogy. Woodrell is best known for books such as Winter’s Bone and  Tomato Red, but these early works are outstanding and deserve more appreciation.


The American West, Dee Brown. A broad history of the frontier from before the Civil War till about the turn of the 20th century. Outstanding in its own right, and a treasure trove of information on where to take research for the Western that is gestating in my imagination.


We Own This City, Justin Fenton. Man, has the Baltimore Police Department been fucked up for a long time. (The whole city, for that matter.) The parallels to the Rampart scandal in LA that formed the basis for The Shield are disturbing. WOTC is the source material for David Simon’s recent HBO series of the same name (what some are calling season 6 of The Wire) but with far more detail.


Thursday, March 23, 2023

Suffolk Mystery Authors Conference

 The Suffolk (VA) Mystery Writers Festival took place Saturday, March 11. This was my first chance to attend in person after having participated the past two years virtually due to covid restrictions. It was worth the wait, though it would have been nice not to have had to.


No offense to other events, but the Suffolk festival (hereafter referred to as “SMAF”) is the best-run author event I have ever attended. The organizers, led by the tireless and ubiquitous Katie Kelley, thought of everything.

·       The hotel is part of the conference facility, so we didn’t even have to leave the building.

·       We didn’t have to bring or sell books; they pre-ordered everything for us and handled all sales.

·       Our books were already displayed on our tables when we entered the facility, along with 8.5 x 11 inch color photos of each author and a little “Will return at” clock in case we needed or wanted to attend a panel. (My panel was Keeping it Snappy: Writing Short Stories, moderated by Shawn Reilly Simmons and including Teresa Inge, Nan O’Berry, Josh Pachter, and Art Taylor.)

·       The event was free to the public (about 400 came to see us); those who paid a fee received a swag bag of author gelt (I provided a short story) and an invitation to a private reception with the authors.

·       The authors got swag bags of their own, including a Moleskin journal and a small desk clock.

·       Authors and their families who chose to stay afterward were treated to a fine meal.

Everyone was in a great mood and if there were any hitches, I was unaware of them. Bonus coverage came in the form of the bar being well stocked and relatively quiet, which allowed me to catch up with friends including Ellen Geib Butler, John DeDakis, John Gilstrap, Jeffery James Higgins, and Con Lehane. As might be expected from this group, I had a ball.


Bonus bonus coverage came from getting to visit with longtime and dear college friends Dan and Micki Knipple after a 40-year interregnum. They’re the kind of friends you can not see for half a lifetime and pick up with as if it’s only been a week.


The next SMAF is March 16, 2024. I plan to be there and encourage anyone available, reader or writer, to do the same. You won’t be sorry.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Eryk Pruitt, Author of Something Bad Wrong

 Eryk Pruitt is someone I’m proud to know. Writer, filmmaker, bar owner, and raconteur, theirs is always something going on with him that’s worth knowing about, which means it’s worth talking about. Eryk’s newest book, Something Bad Wrong, drops this month from Thomas and Mercer. I was lucky to score an advance copy and I can say with confidence that, much as I enjoyed his previous work, he’s taken a step to the next level here. I could go on for a while about this book, but it’s always best to let the writer do it, and no one can explain Eryk’s thought processes better than Eryk.


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back to the blog. It’s been a while. Tell the readers a little about the story in Something Bad Wrong. Great title, by the way. (We’ll get to the background behind the book in a minute.)

Eryk Pruitt: Something Bad Wrong is the story of Jess Keeler, a woman who once aspired to be a journalist until life gets in the way. Then, after the COVID pandemic, while reevaluating her career choices, she stumbles upon her grandfather’s notebook and discovers he was once a legendary local lawman who was haunted by his inability to solve a sensational crime. In attempting to finish what she started, she uncovers a trove of family secrets that threaten to tear their community apart.

OBAAT: I’m a huge fan of your podcast, “The Long Dance.” How much of what you learned from that investigation found its way into Something Bad Wrong?

EP: Thank you very much, Dana. I think the biggest effect that producing the podcast had on my fiction was my access to real police work. Previously to that experience, my fiction had primarily focused on the exploits of criminals, because criminals were all that I had been exposed to. After working on “The Long Dance” for two and a half years next to (retired) Major Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (NC) I learned not only how investigators work a case, but also how investigators balance real life scenarios. Tim sent me to DNA collection classes, allowed me to process a (manufactured) crime scene, and enrolled me in the local citizen’s academy. Because of all of this, I was able to feel more confident writing about the other side of the law for once.

BAAT: What was the trickiest part of working the podcast into a novel?

EP: Anyone who’s listened to “The Long Dance” knows there are some pretty insane twists

and turns in the story. The craziest part is that we never would have included them if they weren’t true. So when it came time to loosely adapt these events into fiction, there were so many real life incidents that were cut from the book because it would require too much suspension of belief for audiences to buy it—EVEN THOUGH THEY REALLY HAPPENED!!!  

 For instance, in real life, a former ADA and a retired homicide detective were both so obsessed with solving the real-life murders that they gained control of the law enforcement arm of the Department of Motor Vehicles and, after equipping their agents with Tommy guns and radio wrist watches, took over investigations of the double homicide. The fallout turned out to be North Carolina’s own Watergate scandal, as this law enforcement arm was also being used to spy on political opponents when they weren’t investigating murders. Again: This was the Department of Motor Vehicles. (this entire situation is detailed in the seventh of eight episodes of “The Long Dance,” one we titled “Evidence and Information.”

 Obviously, for the sake of the narrative, page count, and my own credulity, I cut stuff like that out. But the story that is told in Something Bad Wrong is complete fiction.

 OBAAT: You’ve earned quite a reputation as a novelist. What made you look into true crime, and then decide to base a novel on it?

EP: I was always fascinated by the storytelling in the podcast “Serial,” and wanted to see if there was a way I could engage an audience in a similar way. The stories of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane, which were the foundation of “The Long Dance,” is a crime that, many years ago, shocked my community. The more we researched it, the more we felt it was a duty to try and tell the story, bring it to a wider audience, and tell it in the right way.

 To loosely adapt that story into fiction? Well…That’s tricky. For one, it was a story that I could not get out of my head. They say the way to get a song out of your head is to learn the lyrics. I investigated this story and every single nuance and detail for 2.5 years, and it’s failure to result in a prosecution was one of the biggest heartbreaks of my entire life. I became close with the surviving family members and the investigators who had worked this case even longer than I had, and that heartbreak was shared. So I wanted to give a sort of ending to the story and by writing a fictional account that was very loosely based on fact, I was able to give a sort of ending that the real life story wasn’t able to achieve.

 But again, Something Bad Wrong is a complete work of fiction.

 OBAAT: It has been said that fiction is the art of using lies t tell the truth. What was the core truth, or truth, you wanted to express in Something Bad Wrong?

EP: That's a really good question, Dana. We live in the age of Wikileaks and #TimesUp and #MeToo, which is supposed to make it that much more difficult for people to behave poorly without being called out. In so many of these cold cases from decades gone by, the bad actor wasn't necessarily some master villain or evil genius, but just some asshole whose bad deeds never got publicly exposed. The villain in Something Bad Wrong had lived his entire life as an asshole, terrorizing co-workers and women and innocent bystanders, but was allowed to keep on keeping on because [spoiler redacted]. However, if someone had documented or exposed this behavior, then perhaps the victims would still be alive. But that's the way it was for men/women in the days gone by. They were allowed to act up with very few, if any, repercussions.

 It was fun to juxtapose that against the present day storyline, where Dan Decker is a character who has been called to task for his bad deeds. I am not going to try and place his inappropriate behavior anywhere on a scale against the deeds of the main villain, but the main difference is that Decker was called out and "canceled" for what he did.

 Have times changed? Does transparency equal a step towards a more perfect society? Who the hell knows, man. But there is, thankfully, a difference between what activities people (men) were blindly allowed to get away unnoticed with in the 70s than they are today.

 OBAAT: You manage to keep busy. Between owning and operating Yonder in Hillsborough, setting up the almost nightly events there (including several Noir at the Bar readings each year), reading at Noirs at Bars from New York to Dallas, and editing the new neo-noir magazine Dark Yonder, how and when to you find time to write?

EP: By throwing elbows. There are a lot of things competing for that time, focus, and energy, and I make sure to defend that time vociferously. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little boy and sometimes it takes reminding that the whole reason I do anything else is to do that.

 OBAAT: Let’s talk a bit about Dark Yonder, which you edit with Katy Munger. Whose idea was that, and what did it take to get it off the ground? (Editor’s Note: In the interests of full disclosure, the interviewer has a vested interest in getting the word out about Dark Yonder, as he has a story in the inaugural issue.)

EP: It was kind of a mutual idea. I had wanted to do a quarterly through the bar, mostly because my community of Hillsborough, NC, is such a fervent supporter of the arts. They pack the house for our Noirs at the Bars. They tip very well to musicians. They buy the art off our walls. So I wanted to give back to the writing world by bringing them to some new and passionate patrons, as well as provide my friends at the bar with some highly entertaining stories.

 Katy Munger, the former Piedmont Laureate and author of “Tart Noir,” runs her own Thalia Press with Lise MacClendon, and she is a regular reader at our Noir at the Bar. She wanted to team up and do something and pitched a couple of ideas. We ended up merging our two ideas and found ourselves very lucky to have been able to marry our two skill sets and passions.

 For our first issue, we selected ten stories out of 250 submissions. We are very fortunate to have the same result for #2, which will be published on April 13.

  OBAAT: This post will drop on St. Patrick’s Day. As you and your lovely wife, Lana Pierce, went to Ireland last fall, what stuck with you most about the trip, both personally and from a writing perspective?

EP: It was great to get away. I had once tried to live in Ireland after college and experienced that country alone as a penniless ex-pat. It was nice to go back with a bit more of a budget and with the wife. Some of the biggest takeaways cast our own country in a darker light, and I spent a lot of my focus studying their War for Independence as well as their Civil War. Irish history is so fascinating to me and how they overcame centuries of oppressive religious rule, only to be thrust back into conflict with each other, is a huge lesson that I doubt our country can learn by example. We’ll see…

 OBAAT: What’s the current writing project?

EP: My awesome publishers at Thomas & Mercer have contracted me for a follow up book to Something Bad Wrong which they intend to be published in the Spring of 2024 which means I need to get back to work now.

 Thank you, Dana! It’s always great talking to you!!

Thursday, March 9, 2023

My Favorite Westerns

 A few weeks ago I listed my favorite crime movies, films that I never grow tired of while seeing something new each time. That got such a nice response (especially on Facebook), I decided to do it again, this time with Westerns.


Here are the criteria I set out in January for the crime films:

1. I have to like the movie.

2. It has to bear up under repeated viewings.


With that in mind, here are my personal prejudices:

I don’t generally care for what I call “good haircut” Westerns. The American West was a grungy place; there’s a high bar to clear if everyone looks too well groomed. One movie listed cleared that bar; a few others have questionable grooming, but make up for it elsewhere.


I’m also not crazy about movies that perpetuate the myth of The West. More than a few of the problems we have today can be traced to what people think actually happened back then. The last thing I want to see is something that reinforces that. Again, a couple of those listed do that in their own way, but they’re so good I get over it.


Here's the list. As before, it’s in chronological order, so no valuation is implied.


Shane (1953)

The quintessential “mysterious stranger rides into town, does what has to be done, and leaves” film. Alan Ladd was short, but he was badass. His minimalist speech is not the affectation of the stereotypical laconic cowhand; it’s the language of a man who does not intend to repeat himself. Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are perfect as the homesteaders, and Jack Palance sets the standard for hired guns.


The Professionals (1966)

Another classic Western plot: rich man (Ralph Bellamy) hires four mercenaries (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode) to get back his age-inappropriate wife (Claudia Cardinale) who has been kidnapped by a Mexican bandit (Jack Palance). Things aren’t quite what they appear, though the mercenaries make sure justice is done. The stars have a ball working with each other (Editor’s Note: Woody Strode was born 30 years too early or he would have been a big star himself), the sets are appropriately grimy, and the right note is touched in every scene. Has what might be the greatest closing line in Western history.

[Name redacted to avoid spoiler]: You bastard.

[Name redacted to avoid spoiler]: In my case, an accident of birth. You, sir, are a self-made man.


Hombre (1967)

Maybe Elmore Leonard’s best novel, and quite possibly the best Western ever. Paul Newman plays John Russell, a white man captured by Apaches as a child and raised on a reservation, who inherits his white foster father’s boarding house. That sets up a stagecoach trip with Russell and a motley band that leads to not only a tense and well-crafted plot, but can provoke long discussions about what people owe each other. Richard Boone cements his place as one of the all-time bad guys, and Frank Silvera as the vaquero creates a minor role that lives forever.


The Wild Bunch (1969)

Westerns could never be the same after The Wild Bunch. Sam Peckinpah’s hyperviolent (for the time) ode to the closing of the frontier is, in its way, a buddy movie. What each member of the gang feels he owes the others eventually takes control of the film, as they understand their day is ending and decide to meet it on their own terms.


The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976)

Interesting that a film released in the year of the American bicentennial takes such an uncompromising and harsh look at the nation’s history. Clint Eastwood’s breakout film as a director, he also plays Josie, who wanted nothing more than to go home after the Civil War until a Union officer betrays his men at their surrender and murders Wales’s family. Revenge is delayed as Wales accumulates a ragtag band of followers that provide detail of actual life on the frontier while the revenge story plays out.


Unforgiven (1992)

Eastwood again, deconstructing more of the Western myth. This time he’s a reformed gunman turned farmer who needs money so desperately he accepts an invitation to kill a couple of men who disfigured a whore. Morgan Freeman is his partner, and Gene Hackman was never better than as Little Bill Daggett, the local sheriff who has many admirable qualities, though not enough to offset his darker nature. The scene where Little Bill tells a journalist (Saul Rubinek) how English Bob (Richard Harris) truly earned his reputation as a gunfighter should be required viewing for those who still subscribe to The Myth.


Tombstone (1993)

Yes, it’s a myth perpetuator, but it makes the list for four reasons:

1. Wyatt Earp is not portrayed as the classic white hat good guy.

2. The gunfight at the OK Corral is as well-done and likely realistic as has ever been filmed (though that scene in Wyatt Earp is also excellent).

3. Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

4. It’s just so damn much fun to watch, primarily due to Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.


Open Range (2003)

Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner star as the last of the open range cattle operations, matched against a ruthless English transplant who’ll draw no line in his efforts to put them in what he considers to be their places. Lots of good subtext here with the competing ranch operations as well as a look at PTSD in the post-Civil War era.


Appaloosa (2008)

Ed Harris wrote the screenplay, directed, and stars in this adaptation of the first of Robert B. Parker’s Cole and Hitch Westerns. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as Hitch, and Harris and co-screenwriter Robert Knott were smart to leave Parker’s dialog as intact as possible. In some ways it’s Spenser and Hawk in the Old West with even harder edges, but the plot and byplay make this one that bears up under repeated watching. My only quibble is that I have a hard time believing a man such as Virgil Cole would fall so hard for Renee Zellweger. Diane Lane was originally cast in Zellweger’s role; her and Cole I could understand.


True Grit (2010)

I get that the 1969 version is very good, maybe even John Wayne’s best. I’ll even go so far as to say he earned his lifetime achievement acting Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn; Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper is tough to beat, too. Then again, Jeff Bridges is better than The Duke, Barry Pepper is no slouch, and let’s not even try to compare Matt Damon and Glen Campbell; Hailee Steinfeld is also more believable as Maddie. The Coen brothers are far more loyal to the book, and to good effect. Both versions are worth watching, but if you can see only one, this is the one to watch.


That’s ten, and I’m sure I’ll do an honorable mention list down the road. That said, there’s one more I can’t bear to leave out of my personal Pantheon. It doesn’t have the weight some of these others do, but I love it so much it gets a pass.


Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

The ultimate buddy movie, which happens to be a Western. As the beginning states, much of what happens is true. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katherine Ross are a trio for the ages. I will never get tired of watching this movie. In fact, if you told me I could only watch one film for the rest of my life, this might be it. If you gave me five, I guarantee it makes the list.


(People are going to ask about Blazing Saddles. It’s in the comedy list I’ll do in a while.)

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Art vs. Craft

 My friend Benoit Lelieve recently posted a review of the movie Tar on his Dead End Follies blog. My response was that he and I would have to agree to disagree on this one. He loved it; I thought it was three hours of my life I’ll never get back, though it seemed longer.


I’ve read enough of Benoit’s work to know that if we disagree I should probably take another look to see what I might have missed. Fair warning: what follows is less a review of Tar than of my thought processes and sensibilities.


The film is the story of the internationally-renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and the tribulations of a career dedicated to producing art at the highest level. We’ll talk more about that later.


I didn’t hate everything about Tar. An early scene shows Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) running a master class for young composers and explaining the facts of life to a student who can’t be bothered with Bach, basically because Bach had too many kids. She explains that he will severely limit himself as a musician to ignore such a giant of the art, and also tells him why. She does it in an inexcusably harsh and belittling manner, but her sentiments are spot on.


I also liked the ending, where she [spoiler redacted].


The production values and acting are outstanding. There was also a good line where she describes herself as a “U-Haul lesbian.” I laughed out loud at the reference to Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony, as I have some inside knowledge of what happened there.


That covers what I liked.


What didn’t I like? Pretty much all the characters, especially Tar, who is a narcissistic bitch who not only thinks the world revolves around her, but that this is her due because of her genius. She treats everyone, including her daughter, hideously, often just because she can get away with it.


Those around her don’t come off much better, as they’re either duplicitous, toadies, or objects of sympathy. There’s no one to like in this movie, and few to even empathize with for more than a minute or two.


Why does this bother me so much? A lot has to do with my upbringing. I was raised working class. Had an aptitude for music and earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, my Master’s from New England Conservatory. I was good, but not good enough to play at that level. To use a baseball analogy, I was a solid AA player. I did some things very well, but there were holes in my swing that prevented me from making The Show. I learned much about art, but through the prism of working-class craftsmen.



While not all craft is art, there can be no art without craft. The greatest musicians still routinely practice their scales and other fundamentals. Artists work on their brush technique. Dancers hit the gym to keep their bodies tuned. Art results from the mastering of craft combined with a divine spark one either has or does not, which allows the craft to reach a level that transcends its origins. Spend enough time with artists of the highest order and you’ll see this is true.


What breaks my balls about Tar is the multiple layers of pretentiousness it includes. Lydia presents herself as a servant of art, but the primary thing we see her do artistically is to have the opening trumpet solo of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony played offstage. No one wrote more detailed instructions in their scores than Mahler. If he wanted the trumpet off stage, he would have said so. He did say so in the First Symphony, where the trumpets play three fanfares off-stage before joining the rest of the orchestra. The only purpose moving the trumpet off-stage will serve is to generate critical buzz regarding Tar’s “brilliance.” (There are also logistical issues I’ll not go into here.)


The film suffers from much the same pretentiousness. In some ways it reminded me of The Power of the Dog, where a good story was crushed beneath the weight of its too obvious efforts to be “artistic,” or, worse, “important.”


I am not immune to art. While I abhor melodrama that tries to manipulate my emotions, I am moved by many books, movies, and music. The art must be organic, springing naturally and without effort from the mastering of the craft, something that rests transparently on the spirit that gives it rise. (Props to Kierkegaard via David Milch for teaching me that.) A presumed artist can no more force art into a project than he or she can decide to be taller. Lifts can be added to their shoes, but close examination reveals the artifice.


Just as melodrama tries to manipulate your feelings, Tar beats you over the head with its “art” rather than trusting the audience to decide whether it is, isn’t, or just the auteur engaging in three hours of cinematic masturbation.