Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Good Stuff: Books of 2011

The notion of a year-end best-of list strikes me as particularly arbitrary this year. I have a stack of 2011 books that I haven’t gotten to yet, any number of which might warrant a place on this roster. (See below.) Two of the titles that made the cut I actually read in 2010. But I have a blog, therefore I must list. It’s in the terms of service, people. I don’t make the rules.

Here, then, are ten titles I recommend unreservedly, in the order read.

Beast of Burden, by Ray Banks. The Saturday Boy shows how to ring down the curtain on a series. Brother Innes, I’ll keep a light on in the window for ye.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block. The Grand Master shows how to keep a long-running series coursing with life. New York in the bad old days of the 1980s never looked so good.

We pause at this point in the countdown for what I’m calling the Vince Van Winkle Award, given to the previous year’s title that would have been on that list had I read it then and would easily win a spot on the current one. The recipient: Rock Paper Tiger by Lisa Brackmann. A thriller with a fresh, engaging voice set in a brave new world.

One True Sentence, by Craig McDonald. Hector Lassiter is the gift that keeps on giving.

Crime, by Ferdinand von Schirach. A collection of dark, deeply human crime stories cum case studies that leave scars.

The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino. If I had to pick one book from 2011, this would be it. Classic in its structure, unerring in its aim, unforgettable in its result.

So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman. Wildly ambitious. A maddening, haunting piece of work from a talented new writer.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran. Another book that respects and embraces the traditional mystery form, only it does so by turning the genre inside out.

The Adjustment, by Scott Phillips. This scabrous, profane romp reveals the dirty secret of the Greatest Generation: they’re just as venal and sex-crazed as the rest of us.

Choke Hold, by Christa Faust. She calls it pulp. That’s because it’s what you’ll be when you’re done reading it.

As a bonus, a related title that remains the strangest book I read this year: Bill James’ crackpot chronicle Popular Crime.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Music: Woody Allen & His New Orleans Jazz Band

It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into. The posters for the concert trumpeted Woody Allen & His New Orleans Jazz Band in the same font used on the titles of his films. The band’s standing Monday night gig in New York – and Woody missing out on accepting his Annie Hall Oscar to keep the date – is the stuff of legend. Still, I was astonished at the unabashed thrill I felt seeing Woody walk out onto the stage at the Paramount Theater last night. The scandal, the inconsistent movies of recent years, none of that mattered. That was Woody Allen, in person, and I was happy to be in the room.

The band plays what Woody described in one of his few comments to the crowd as “New Orleans music ... whorehouse music.” There’s no set list; bandleader Eddy Davis on the banjo calls out a song and the group launches into it. Monday’s repertoire included “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” a melancholy “Once in a While” and “Girl of My Dreams,” which I always think of as the tune Johnny Favorite took to the top of the charts in Angel Heart. The lack of chatter and the band’s practice of playing straight through applause gives the show the feel of a rehearsal that’s open to the public. Clarinetist Woody is easily the least of the capable crew, which includes Conal Fowkes on piano and Jerry Zigmont on trombone, but he makes up for it in enthusiasm. His joy in performing a school of music that he clearly loves comes across. He didn’t want to leave the stage; after two hours and multiple encores he said, in his only line of the night, “I have to get eight hours of sleep or I start to look my age.” Woody and the boys will be playing in Portland tonight.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book: Dove Season, by Johnny Shaw (2011)

It would be wrong to call Jimmy Veeder, protagonist of Johnny Shaw’s debut novel, a ne’er-do-well. He’s more of a ne’er-do-much, living up to the Veeder promise of “slapdash but not half-ass,” drifting from place to place with few responsibilities and into his thirties with not much to show for it. When his father Jack finally lets him know he’s dying of cancer, Jimmy prodigals back to California’s Imperial Valley. Turns out there is something Jimmy can do for his old man. He can get him a prostitute. A very specific prostitute.

Shaw’s sharp sense of humor and way with a phrase hooks you in the opening sentence – “There is something about the desert that pisses everything off” – and never lets up. There’s a laugh on damn near every page, which gives the almost-as-frequent dramatic moments that much more impact. Dove Season dishes up the good stuff in abundance and even excess; it runs a little ragged at 378 pages. It’s essentially two books, the first a better-late-than-never Bildungsroman and the second a Joe R. Lansdale-style Baja barnburner with Jimmy and partner in crime Bobby Maves meting out Mexicali justice. The byplay between these two misfits is one of the book’s strengths, especially Bobby’s colorful approach to the English language.

Mainly, Dove Season is a hugely affectionate, warts-and-all portrait of an overlooked place and the people who tough it out there. As Shaw puts it, “A hometown is a lot like a younger brother. You can ... give him a hard time, but you’ll always love him and stick up for him.” Shaw does his old stomping ground proud in this one.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Keenan’s Klassics: It’s a Shane Black Christmas

From December 2009. You know you love it.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year.

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Noir City: Mark Your Calendars

Another sign of the season is the release of the schedule for Noir City. This January marks the film festival’s tenth anniversary, so it’s only fitting that the lineup is the most impressive assembled to date. Highlights include:

* A tribute to Angie Dickinson, with the lady herself there in person!

* New prints of long-lost films, including the rarely screened 1949 version of The Great Gatsby starring Alan Ladd and the huge personal favorite Three Strangers!

* A 1940s-style nightclub with live entertainment open for a single evening!

* A closing day salute to Dashiell Hammett!

My favorite double-bill on the roster, for personal reasons, is the January 23 tribute to Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth pairing Gilda and The Money Trap. The latter is the only American film noir that I have ever introduced to Eddie Muller instead of the other way around. As such, I feel somewhat proprietary toward it. I’ve been agitating for these two movies to be shown at Noir City together for years, and I’m thrilled it’s finally happening.

Naturally, I won’t be there for that screening. But I’ll be in attendance at several others, and had the privilege of contributing to the souvenir program again this year. If you find yourself in San Francisco late next month, make it a point to stop by.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Drink: The PDT Cocktail Book, by Jim Meehan

Here’s the perfect gift book for the holidays – only you’ll never find it in time. The initial print run sold out instantly, the next batch won’t be available until 2012, and if you look online you’ll find used copies selling for around a hundred bucks. I had to borrow a copy to get a look at it. But it was worth it.

In 2007, I was in New York soon after PDT – or Please Don’t Tell – opened, and was able to score a reservation. The ultimate in modern speakeasies, PDT is inside a hot dog stand on St. Mark’s Place. You step into a phone booth, speak to a host, and the rear of the booth opens Get Smart-style to allow entry to the bar. The highest compliment I can pay the cocktails found therein is that they live up to the setting.

PDT’s chief mixologist Jim Meehan has collected 300 recipes in this book. There are a handful of classics – the Diamondback, the Vieux CarrĂ© – scattered throughout, but the emphasis is rightly placed on newcomers and innovations. Many of them feature ingredients than even the most spirited spirit enthusiast won’t have readily at hand, a point brought home in this vaguely ridiculous New York Times article. We bought a liquor cabinet not long ago and haven’t seen fit to stock it with 12-year-old Japanese single malt whisky and absinthe so that we could whip up Shiso Malt Sours at a moment’s notice. That’s one of the reasons for going out and for this book, which draws back the curtain and shows how the magician pulls off his tricks.

Meehan also includes brief, informative sections on professional and home bar essentials and an overview of must-read books. Best of all are the witty illustrations by acclaimed artist Chris Gall. The PDT Cocktail book has the feel of a modern classic. It’s the ideal thing to give your bibulous buddy ... next Christmas.

Here’s an interview with Jim Meehan and the book trailer bringing Gall’s work to life.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Guest Post: Standalones and the Movies, by Reed Farrel Coleman

The main thing you need to know about multiple Shamus Award winning novelist Reed Farrel Coleman is that he is a fellow Mets fan. For that reason alone, I’m happy to turn the blog over to him for the day. Special note to New York readers: the launch party for Reed’s latest Moe Prager book Hurt Machine is tonight at The Mysterious Bookshop at 7 PM. Go and commiserate with Reed about Jose Reyes donning a Miami Marlins uniform.

To date, I’ve only sold the movie rights to one novel. That novel, Tower, co-written with Irish author supreme Ken Bruen, was, until now, the only standalone novel I ever did. Ken’s agent swears the movie is going to get made. Believe me, no one hopes it does get made more than me, but I’m not spending the cash just yet. For now, I’m happy with the option getting picked up. My second standalone, Gun Church (, Nov 2011) is also a book I think has potential movie legs. Why? Because unlike some of my other novels, it played in my head as a movie and was written as if I were simply putting into words the movie in my head. In fact, its first incarnation is not as a traditionally published novel at all, but as an exclusive audio download. The novel is more performed than read by two voice actors/narrators.

Gun Church features a book within a book format. One of those books is largely written in Irish dialect and Audible has one actor to do just those sections of GC. Pretty cool, huh? So, let me tell you why, beyond the book playing like a movie, I think GC has movie possibilities. No, let me give you a brief summary. That will tell you what you need to know:

Kip Weiler is a former 80s literary wunderkind. As a result of his own foibles and insecurities, he’s fallen on hard times and is twenty years removed from his last novel. He’s exiled to a rural mining town, teaching creative writing at a community college. One day, Kip saves his class from a potential blood bath. Because of his heroics, he gets a second fifteen minutes of fame and, more importantly, the urge to write once again. Little does he know the book he is writing may be the blueprint for his own demise. He gets deeply involved with two of his students and a cult-like group obsessed with the intrinsic nature of handguns. Things really get weird when art starts imitating life imitating art. Think: Wonder Boys meets Fight Club with guns.

And for the first time in my career, I have another novel, Hurt Machine, the 7th in my Moe Prager Mystery series, coming out at roughly the same time as GC. Two novels at once. The thing is, they couldn’t be more different than one another had I tried. Oddly, Hurt Machine is no less cinematic than GC. Because in HM there is both an internal and external struggle that dovetail in the end. Moe Prager is two weeks away from his daughter’s wedding when he receives grave news about his health. To make things worse, Moe’s ex-wife and former PI partner, Carmella Melendez, shows up after a nine year absence asking for a desperate favor. It seems her estranged sister has been murdered outside a popular Brooklyn pizzeria, but no one, not even the NYPD, acts very interested in finding the killer. Why? That’s the question, isn’t it.

So it’s strange for me to have these two pieces of my work floating around that have movie potential. We’ll see.

Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman has published fourteen novels. He is the three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year and a two-time Edgar Award nominee. He has also won the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards. Reed is an adjunct professor of English at Hofstra University and lives on Long Island with his family.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Me Elsewhere: On L.A. Noire

Just how noir is the video game L.A. Noire? I answer that question in an article in the newly launched Continue magazine, devoted to gaming culture. The debut issue including my article Pixels & Shadows is now available in preview form online.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Book: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (2011)

Remember nostalgia? They don’t have it like they used to. Back when I was a kid, they knew how to yearn sentimentally for the past.

A strange kind of nostalgia fuels Ernest Cline’s debut novel, set in 2044 during the third decade of the Great Recession. Society has largely migrated online, with most human interaction occurring in OASIS, a virtual environment designed by the late James Halliday. Upon his death, he released word that he’d hidden a series of puzzles in his creation – and that whoever solved them would own OASIS. After an initial frenzy of activity Halliday’s “easter eggs” have become the stuff of cyberlegend, forgotten by all save hardcore “gunters” like lonely Oklahoma teenager Wade Watts, aka Parzival. Then Wade discovers – and cracks – the first of Halliday’s puzzles, and finds himself racing his friends and an evil conglomerate for control of the only world that matters to them.

The story is Joseph Campbell by way of Willy Wonka, more involving in detail than incident. There’s much to admire about Cline’s worldbuilding both inside OASIS and out. But reading the book bore uncanny similarity to playing a videogame. I marveled at the inventiveness of the design, shrugged at the narrative, and felt jittery and hollow when I set it aside. Which may be a sign that I am not the target audience.

Except I am. Down to perhaps the very minute of my birth.

Halliday based his easter eggs on the pop culture of his adolescence. Meaning the pages of Ready Player One are steeped in references to the 1980s. Highlander, The Last Starfighter, Family Ties. The secret to saving the universe – OK, a universe, but you get my point – lies in a familiarity with John Hughes films so intimate as to be unseemly. And I got all the references. Or most of them, at any rate. I cheerfully confess that I have never played Dungeons & Dragons, and find the appeal of Rush to be utterly elusive. But every other throwaway line, I caught.

I found it exhausting.

There can be no more dystopian future than one in which people are still watching episodes of Riptide thirty years hence. Worse, Wade doesn’t even enjoy what he’s watching. One of Halliday’s challenges requires Wade to know every line of Matthew Broderick’s dialogue in WarGames without prompting. No sweat for our socially maladroit hero, who’s seen the movie several dozen times because it was a Halliday favorite. But he has no opinion of or reaction to it. It’s not kitsch, or a window into the early days of home computing. Wade’s triumph is a feat of simple if freakish memorization. Which depresses me, as someone who watched WarGames more than is medically advised.

Still, Cline is right about the direction we’re going in. It’s been said that we no longer live with pop culture, we live “in” it. Remember Diner? (Jesus, now I’m doing it.) In a 1982 movie set in 1959, a character who obsessively quoted dialogue from Sweet Smell of Success was considered so unusual as to be worthy of mention. Now it’s the way we all are. (Ironically, I walked around quoting dialogue from Diner all through high school.)

Maybe my problem is that I’ve never longed for the detritus of my youth. Like Wade, I’m immersed in entertainment of a bygone era. (See: Exhibit A.) But those works aren’t static. They’re alive to me, opening up parallels between then and now. They aren’t items to be collected but experiences to be shared, often with people who are long gone. Or maybe it’s that in-jokes always seem suspect to me, as if I’m being flattered for my good taste instead of being engaged in the moment. The self-esteem boost as entertainment.

Ready Player One embodies two mutually exclusive ideas at the core of modern popular culture. 1. Nothing is special. Not when it’s all accessible online and a long weekend with a Kindle or Netflix Instant can turn anyone into an overnight authority. That thing you love? I now know as much about it as you do. (Patton Oswalt wrote a Wired piece on society’s growing otaku nature and the pending pop culture singularity.) 2. Everything is special. That thing you used to love? It mattered. Hell, it can save the universe. Or at least a digital facsimile thereof, featuring entire planets based on Blade Runner. Again, I say this as someone who once appeared on a pop culture game show and recalled the name of the female doll in the Child’s Play movies.

Cline closes his book by saying that he hopes it inspires others to seek out the creations that inspired him. I hope it does, too. But I have my doubts.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Book: Lucky Bruce, by Bruce Jay Friedman (2011)

The era that Bruce Jay Friedman’s “literary memoir” covers isn’t that far in the rear view mirror. But the world that his book describes – one in which novelists had cultural currency, and a writer could sustain oneself, a family and a handful of carefully selected bartenders with a combination of short fiction and journalism – seems every bit as remote as the Middle Ages.

As is often the case in autobiography, the early years of struggle register the most strongly. Friedman genuinely means the “lucky,” though, because his version of hardship is running what used to be known as men’s magazines, replete with yarns like “G.I. King of Nympho Island.” Three of the rags under his stewardship were Male, Men, and Man’s World, which must have made trips to the newsstand confusing. His high point was editing Swank, which wasn’t pornographic when he was in charge; his boss’s edict was, “I’d like it to be classy but not too classy,” which gave Friedman license to pursue a “mix of hernia ads, starlet interviews and unpublishable stories by great authors.” My favorite incident from this period is when Friedman is visited by Leicester Hemingway, spitting image of big brother Ernest, who offered Friedman a story called “Avast.” The first line was “Hi, ho, me hearties.” Friedman passed.

Friedman would go on to the kind of long and successful career that verges on unimaginable now, spanning novels (Stern), theater (Steambath) and film (an Academy Award nomination for Splash). He considers his triumphs with the same air of amiable bemusement as his failures. Best of all are his recollections of his fellow writers, many the lions of an age of letters that still had vitality. It’s brazen name-dropping. Friedman admits it. More to the point, he’s very good at it. Mario Puzo was one of his first magazine hires; Friedman told his friend not to call his novel in progress The Godfather because it sounded “too domestic.” He feuded with Joseph Heller and got into a fistfight with Norman Mailer. Kurt Vonnegut asked Friedman to teach him “how to hang out.” The crime writer Henry Kane, “always thought of, unfairly I felt, as being a notch or two below Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in ability,” was a figure out of his one of his own stories, hiding from his third wife and sending a Chinese valet out for Scotch. And for weeks the great Richard Yates would turn up at the magazine offices, sit down at a desk as if he worked there, then head out with the staff at the end of the day for cocktails. The chapter on Elaine’s, the fabled Manhattan restaurant where many literary lights including Friedman held court for decades, is a marvel.

The book has the feel of a conversation that unfolds over several hours and bottles of wine. It’s convivial and hazy, full of digressions and tales with misplaced punchlines, sly observations that you know you’re going to forget even as you vow to remember them. Friedman is often described – and dismissed – as a funny writer, but don’t let the lightness of tone fool you. Of his first play Scuba Duba Friedman writes, “Though the play had a comic veneer, there were powerful emotions boiling up beneath the surface. Or so I thought.” The same is true of this book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Books: Rolling in the Isles

In light of the holiday, it’s time to be thankful for two new books by two favorite authors. Neither of whom is American and will consequently be celebrating Thanksgiving, but that’s beside the point.

The first two novels by Stuart Neville prominently featured Gerry Fegan, a one-time IRA gunman plagued by unearthly visitations. Stolen Souls shifts the focus to Fegan’s pursuer, Ulster cop Inspector Jack Lennon. Galya, a young Ukrainian girl smuggled into Belfast and forced to work as a prostitute, kills one of her captors and escapes. The dead man’s brother swears vengeance. Galya, meanwhile, seeks refuge with a man who offered to assist her – only to discover that her savior has his own definition of help. And Lennon, the one person with a chance of actually doing Galya some good, is dealing with fallout from his earlier actions that threaten his family.

With this book, Neville doesn’t change protagonists so much as acknowledge that his real character is Belfast itself, a city riven by corruption and mistrust in the wake of the Troubles. The plot is complex but never confusing, the action brutal and grim, the pace lightning fast. And Neville still manages to include notes of the supernatural that feel organic and uniquely Irish. It’s a potent combination and a ferociously good book.

Dead Money, the latest by your friend and mine Ray Banks, represents something new and something old. One of the maiden releases from ebook publisher Blasted Heath, it’s also a complete revision of Ray’s first novel The Big Blind. Alan Slater has a job he’s not particularly proud to be good at (double-glazing salesman), a wife to whom he’s not particularly faithful, a dog of which he’s not particularly fond, and a best friend in Les Beale who gets on his fucking nerves. All of them will have a role in Alan’s downfall. Foremost among them Les, who hatches a foolhardy scheme to get ahead that Alan will end up participating in whether he wants to or not. There’s great sales material here, especially Alan’s “sugar sit,” that turns the book into a kind of Glengarry Glenfiddich. There’s also a steadily escalating sense that Alan is on his way to hell, and it’s because he wants to be. It’s Banks, so there’s an annoyingly perfect balance of humor and darkness. It’s Blasted Heath, so it’s yours for a song. And it’s good, so you should be reading it now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Theater: Newyorkland

Going to the theater twice in a week? I don’t know who I am anymore.

Years ago I spent the better part of an hour running through the Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) at the New York Police Museum. An NYPD officer gave us a brief weapons course and then put us through our paces, replaying scenarios with subtle variations so that we could understand how little information cops have when they walk into a situation and how quickly an encounter could escalate out of control. It was a powerful experience – I still brood over a split-second hesitation that resulted in my partner getting shot – one that made it impossible for me to make knee-jerk judgments about the actions of law enforcement officers.

Those memories came back to me last night during Newyorkland, an intense theater piece by the company Temporary Distortion at Seattle’s On The Boards. An assemblage of live performance and film, Newyorkland aims to illuminate the challenges of police work, specifically the psychological distance cops often feel from the people they are charged with protecting.

The presentation is immersive and assaultive. The audience walks in under the disinterested eyes of the cast in uniform, the Beastie Boys thrumming overhead. Everyday squad room sounds like keyboards and telephones are amplified. There’s a roll call, a litany of radio requests, and heartbreaking monologues drawn from interviews with actual New York cops.

Inventive use of lights, sound and staging create an endlessly fluid production; Newyorkland isn’t directed so much as misdirected, the theatrical sleight of hand continually impressive. The closing moments are somewhat muddled, but the overall effect reminds you that there is an individual inside every police officer’s uniform.

Temporary Distortion will perform Newyorkland, appropriately enough, in New York in January. See it if you can. Here’s the preview trailer.

Newyorkland Trailer from Temporary Distortion on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Theater: Double Indemnity

The biggest surprise about ACT Seattle’s world premiere of the adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity was finding excerpts from my Noir City interview with playwrights David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright and director Kurt Beattie in the official program. If you want to know how the creative team approached bringing Cain’s novel to the stage while dealing with the long shadows cast by Billy Wilder’s landmark film, then join the Film Noir Foundation and get yourself a subscription to the magazine. (Or you can wait for Noir City Annual #4, coming out early next year. The interview will be included.) I attended the play last night in the company of FNF honcho Eddie Muller, whose full review will appear in the next issue of Noir City. Until then, you’ll have to make do with my thoughts.

It’s a good show, a truly theatrical experience that is also faithful to Cain’s book right up to its baroque ending. (The plot in brief: insurance agent meets femme fatale, they off her husband, recriminations follow.) The production is inventively staged, making smart use of the theater’s space as the story unfolds as a series of memories in the mind of its doomed protagonist. The sequence depicting the murder, including both car and train travel, is particularly thrilling.

The cast is uniformly solid. John Bogar makes a brash and confident Walter Huff, the salesman who has to sell his ideas to himself first. Richard Ziman shines in double duty as the ill-fated husband and Keyes, Huff’s boss. Ziman comes up with a gleeful slant on the character that never draws parallels with Edward G. Robinson’s brilliant performance in the film.

The script could have used more of the framing device established in the opening scene, with Huff on a boat making his escape. Whenever the ship’s rail reappeared, I thought, “Oh, right.” There isn’t much sexual chemistry between Bogar and Carrie Paff, who plays Phyllis, which may be deliberate; as Muller and I discussed after the show, sex ultimately doesn’t matter in Cain’s story, which is about two broken people bent on doing wrong who, once they meet, bring out the worst in each other. What the script does maintain in spades is the queasy, relentless inevitability of the novel. Double Indemnity runs at ACT through Sunday, and the production moves to the San Jose Repertory Theatre in January.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Q&A: Christa Faust

What can I say about Christa Faust? I can admit that I brazenly stole the idea for my Noir City posts from her. I can reveal that on the day we first met she told Rosemarie, “I assumed you were a fictional character.” I can remind you once again to read her latest book Choke Hold, then I can get out of the way and let the lady speak for herself in another VKDCQ&A.

Q. Tell us about Choke Hold.

It’s my second Angel Dare book. For those who haven’t read Money Shot, Angel’s a former porn star who gets raped, beaten and left for dead so she hunts down and kills the responsible men. In Choke Hold, she’s on the lam from her violent past when she runs into an old flame. Bullets fly and she finds herself mixed up with a pair of MMA fighters. One is the teenage son of her old flame, a cocky kid who’s just getting started in the fight game. The other is an older grappler who is suffering from the early onset of CTE, also known as “punch drunk syndrome.” As they so often do, complications ensue.

Q. Did you plan on bringing Angel Dare back for an encore? Will we be seeing her again?

When I wrote Money Shot, it was intended to be a standalone. After all, that ending is pretty final. I never had any intention of writing a series, but people really seemed to like the character and kept asking me when the next Angel Dare book was coming out. I like a challenge and so I found myself thinking of ways to get her out of the corner I’d painted her into and on the road to further adventures. Now I’m pretty sure there’ll be at least one more Angel Dare book, but I have no idea where (if anywhere) the series will go from there. You’ll just have to stay tuned for the next exciting episode ...

Q. What is the greatest public misconception about mixed martial arts? What impression about the sport do you want people to take away from Choke Hold?

In this country, MMA mostly means the UFC, which started off almost like a kind of wacky, sideshow offshoot of pro wrestling. You know, a guy wearing one boxing glove versus a sumo guy. The human version of a great white shark vs. a grizzly bear. It’s come a long way from that, but still retains a little bit of that naughty-but-tasty, carnival junk food flavor that it never had in countries like Brazil or Japan. In a weird way, MMA is like a hooker dressed up like the girl next door. A slut they can take home to Mama. It’s a way for men to indulge in all the trash-talking testosterone opera of pro wrestling while assuring themselves that it’s okay to watch because it’s legit and not “worked.”

Thing is, MMA can also be very cerebral. There’s a chess-like element to grappling that many casual American fans don’t even notice. They love the beatdowns, the big haymakers and showy knockouts but when the fight goes to the ground, that’s when things can get really interesting.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that all fighters are dumb-ass palookas and all fans are beer-guzzling rednecks. Kind of like the idea that all porn stars are pathetic, exploited bimbos and all guys who watch them are raincoat-clad perverts.

Q. Can you talk about the parallels you draw in the book between MMA and Angel’s former career in pornography?

Both MMA and porn involve young bodies being pushed to the edge of physical endurance and beyond to provide entertainment for the masses. Both offer the potential for wealth and stardom but often deliver the ugly reality of being ground down and broken by the time you’re 30. Some people make it through unscathed and start their own grappling school or production company. Others are pulled under by drugs, daddy issues, and low self esteem. There’s also a disturbing parallel in the fact that so many otherwise unskilled, under-educated teens see fighting or fucking as their only option, the only way out of poverty and broken homes. Their bodies are all they have to offer. I think there’s a powerful, seductive fantasy element as well. Becoming a fighter is seen as a way to be the “ultimate” man. Almost like an over-the-top caricature of alpha manhood. Becoming a female porn star has that same appeal. To become the “ultimate” woman, every man’s dreamgirl. It’s hunger for that elusive fantasy that makes so many young people ignore the warnings about brain damage or prolapsed rectums and all the other potential pitfalls of those professions.

Part of what I tried to do in my books is balance that fantasy with the harsher reality. In Money Shot, I didn’t want to portray the adult film industry as all sexy flash and glamour but I also didn’t want to make it all ugly, evil and soul-killing. Porn’s always been such an easy target in classic hardboiled and noir fiction. The worst possible fate that could ever befall a female would be to end up in porn. I wanted to show it more like it really is. A job. Some good, some bad and a whole lot of in between. I tried to do the same thing for MMA in Choke Hold.

Q. Your cult classic Hoodtown (reissued earlier this year as an ebook) is set against the backdrop of lucha libre. What draws you to sports that are a bit off the beaten path?

It’s not just sports, it’s any kind of unusual, insular subculture that has its own rules and slang. One of the things I enjoy as a reader is being invited by the protagonist into a hidden behind-the-scenes world that I may not normally get to see. Obviously, in Hoodtown, I take the real sport of Lucha Libre and turn it up to eleven, incorporating many of the fictional conceits of the Mexican Masked Hero films of the 60s and 70s, but there’s an underlying truth beneath the mask.

Q. You’ve spoken about your affection for Richard S. Prather, creator of Shell Scott and the man who dubbed you “the First Lady of Hard Case Crime.” What about Prather’s work spoke to you? How do you see his influence in your own writing? If you had to choose, what’s your favorite Shell Scott novel?

I like the fact that out of all the popular hardboiled dicks back in the day, Shell Scott seemed to be having the most fun. By proxy, it seemed like Prather was also having the most fun writing about him. Sure Scott got mixed up in all kinds of violent action, but you got the feeling that he loved his job and didn’t take himself too seriously. Don’t get me wrong – I love the darker, more serious stuff too. But there’s something really charming and addictively readable about the Shell Scott books. I think you can see Prather’s influence on my writing in my dark humor and love of the first person narrative. Strip For Murder would have to be my favorite, because of the whole outlandish naked hot air balloon business. But I also have a soft spot for Dig That Crazy Grave, because that was not only the first Shell Scott book I read, it was also the first hardboiled pulp novel I ever read.

Q. What’s next for you?

I’ve got what I like to refer to as a “toy truck” project that I’m working on right now. The kind of project that isn’t very commercial but really fun to play with. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for more than a decade, but no one was ever interested in publishing it the old-school way. When the whole eBook thing came along, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to get this little toy truck on the road.

It’s an erotic hardboiled lesbian PI series. Imagine Shell Scott as a butch dyke and all the sex is explicit. It’s a hat-tip to Prather, but not a send up. I want to keep that same wacky, light-hearted sense of humor without ever poking fun at the source material. I’m calling the series Butch Fatale: Dyke Dick.

Movie Q. You’re a New York girl now living in Los Angeles. What are your favorite movies about your adopted hometown?

In a Lonely Place is high up there, as is Sunset Boulevard. Targets is another fave that deserves to be more widely known. Mi Vida Loca is full of great pre-hipster Echo Park locations. Bad 80s soundtrack not-withstanding, I still love To Live and Die in LA. Gods and Monsters never fails to break my fucking heart no matter how many times I see it. Of course, we can’t just be highbrow, can we? I also love films like It Conquered the World and Them (okay, so that’s only half LA) or pretty much anything shot at Bronson Cave. And Showdown in Little Tokyo, because Dolph Lundgren has the biggest dick Brandon Lee has ever seen on a man.

Baseball/Foodie Q. Have you ever had a Dodger Dog?

My mom’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen is just down the block from a now long-gone garage where hotdog carts used to go when their shifts were over. Every night, they would dump gallons of nasty day-old hotdog water into the gutter. The powerful memory of that stench has kinda soured me on hotdogs. I loathed them as a kid. As an adult, I’ve learned to get over it to some degree, but that smell is always there in the back of my mind.

I’m also not into baseball, though my Pop is a die-hard fan of the Bronx Bombers. (No offense, since I know you’re a Mets man.) He took me to Yankee Stadium plenty of times as a kid, but I always got peanuts there, not hotdogs. I’ve never been to Dodger Stadium, but I’ve been stuck in the traffic around it when games let out. Does that count?

Cocktail Q. You don’t imbibe. How are we friends? And what makes for a good mocktail?

I’m not a dry drunk or anything like that. I have no moral issue with the idea of drinking, I just never cared for the taste or the effect of alcohol. Also, I have no inhibitions to shed, so there’s really no point. I’d rather spend my money on shoes.

As far as “mocktails” I tend to like intriguing, unusual flavor combos that are not too sweet or syrupy. I’ll never forget that astounding gingery concoction I got that night you took me to the Zig Zag. I have no idea what was in it, but it was the single best beverage I’ve ever had.

And we’re obviously friends because every tippling gadabout needs a reliable getaway driver.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book: It’s All About The Dress, by Vicky Tiel (2011)

Some phrases automatically conjure up feelings of retroactive jealousy, a nostalgia for something you weren’t even around to experience. One such phrase is “jet set.” If you want a sense of the heyday of international playboys and globetrotting decadence, you could do worse than read memoirs by people in the fashion business.

Vicky Tiel went from a fairly middle-class upbringing to the full bohemian life in 1960s Greenwich Village, where she passed the hat for Bob Dylan and developed the scandalous alter ego Peaches LaTour. While studying design she met Mia Fonssagrives, whose worldly background provided an entrĂ©e into fashion circles when they moved to Paris to start their own business. Soon the twosome, credited with creating both the miniskirt and hot pants, were plucked to design costumes for What’s New, Pussycat?

What follows is a catalog of sex, food, clothes and general fabulousness, the kind of life that simply doesn’t exist anymore. A night with Vicky is the prize in a contest between Pussycat director Clive Donner and co-star/writer Woody Allen. (Read this article if you want to learn the winner, complete with great Woody Allen punchline.) She becomes part of the famous Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton entourage, wandering the world with the tempestuous couple and eventually becoming business partners with Taylor. Only Tiel could be captured with actress Romy Schneider while trying to buy caftans in Jordan in the wake of the Six Day War during production of a Richard Harris movie no one has ever heard of.

Put it another way: you know you’re dealing with a woman who has an in with the universe when she takes up painting as a hobby, develops a coffee-table book featuring her work, has it rejected by New York publishers – so Connecticut neighbor Martha Stewart can snap it up.

The book is dishy, breathless and hugely entertaining, thanks to Vicky’s flair for the dramatic. She’s convinced she warped Woody Allen for life and offers the final scene of Manhattan as proof, believes a single romantic indiscretion on her part is indirectly responsible for the entire Arquette family, and thinks that her late life successful marriage to a man outside her social circle inspired Liz Taylor to hook up with Larry Fortensky. The book is punctuated with original Tiel illustrations, recipes, and life lessons from luminaries. (Kim Novak says foot massages are key, while Ursula Andress suggests foregoing undergarments.) Vicky joins Oleg Cassini as fashion demimonders who recount their charmed lives very well.

One side note: as Tiel reels off the list of truly horrible movies that Burton and Taylor made during her time with them – Burton was personally convinced by Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito to play him in a film that would only screen in the Soviet Bloc – I realized that I have no sense of them as actors. Taylor won two Oscars and Burton was nominated multiple times, but their proto-Brangelina status dwarfs those accomplishments. La Liz is the woman who married eight times, and while I love Dickie in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold I confess my first image of him is the star of crap like The Medusa Touch. I need to change that. Maybe I’ll start with this book. Vicky liked it.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Miscellaneous: Words of Cocktail Wisdom

Anyone who has spent any time pondering the origins of the Cocktail – be it for the months or years it takes to write a book or seconds it takes to internalize a Dry Martini – will agree that it’s a quintessentially American contraption. How could it be anything but? It’s quick, direct and vigorous. It’s flashy and a little bit vulgar. It induces an unreflective overconfidence. It’s democratic, forcing the finest liquors to rub elbows with ingredients of far more humble stamp. It’s profligate with natural resources (think of all the electricity generated to make ice that gets used for ten seconds and discarded). In short, it rocks.

- From Imbibe!, by David Wondrich

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Book: Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit, by Darwyn Cooke (2010)

Cooke follows up his critically-acclaimed graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter (aka Point Blank, aka Payback) by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) with what amounts to a double dose of the steely professional thief Parker.

Part one of The Outfit is based on 1963’s The Man With the Getaway Face. Parker’s got a new look but the same old problems, forced into an armored car heist fated to go south. In the rest of the book, drawn on the ’63 novel of the same title, Parker finds himself hounded by the Mob. He responds the only way he can: by arranging for his criminal cohort to take down every connected establishment they know of.

Cooke’s illustrations are, as ever, gorgeous, steeped in period detail. One of the great pleasures of this series is seeing Stark’s flinty narratives play out in the era in which they were written. In adapting the traditional third-person section of the novel Cooke truly gets inventive, recounting multiple heists in an assortment of styles including the pages of a crime confession magazine using Stark’s prose as copy. Cooke would seem to be tacitly admitting that the words need little adornment, but then you turn the page to find a brooding double truck panel of Parker sitting by a shuttered pool at an upstate New York motel and are reminded again of what Cooke brings to the table.

Reminder: Hell & Gone Giveaway

Go read last week’s Q&A with Duane Swierczynski. Then enter the contest to win a signed copy of Duane’s book Hell & Gone. U.S. residents have until noon PST on Wednesday, November 2 to email their name and postal address to with Hell & Gone as the subject line.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Q&A: Duane Swierczynski

Duane Swierczynski is a busy man. He writes novels and comics. A few weeks ago he picked up an Anthony Award for his book Expiration Date. His latest, Hell & Gone, is a follow-up to Fun & Games and will be published on Halloween. Duane not only took time out of his schedule to submit to a VKDCQ&A, he was also gracious enough to provide the prize for this website’s first-ever contest. Details follow Duane’s wit and wisdom below.

Q. What can you tell us about Hell & Gone?

I can tell you it's the first sequel I've ever written. Well, besides Dark Prophecy, which was a sequel to Dark Origins, my collaboration with CSI guy Anthony Zuiker. But that was Zuiker’s idea; I always thought I'd be writing stand-alones. But when I pitched Fun & Games to John Schoenfelder at Mulholland Books, he took me out for whiskey at this Irish pub near Grand Central Station and asked, “What do you think about turning this into a trilogy?” I’ll admit, I responded to the challenge of it. (I’ll pretty much write anything on a dare.) And the more I plotted, the more I realized that this story was itching to be bigger, badder and weirder, and that it absolutely *had* to be three books. Then again, it could have been the whiskey.

Q. H&G is the second part of the Charlie Hardie trilogy, with all three books being released in less than a year. How did this old-school pulp publishing schedule affect both the structure of the books and your working method?

As I started thinking Hardie’s story as playing out over three novels, I was adamant about one thing: that each had a specific reason for existing on their own. I didn’t want to write two carbon copies of the first novel -- that would be boring. (And it’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of long-running series.) Once I embraced the idea, though, I started having fun with the idea of recurring elements in all three books. For instance, each installment opens with a sequence featuring a woman in jeopardy. Each installment is roughly 33 chapters. (There’s an extra chapter in F&G because I wanted the total trilogy chapter count to be 100.) The quotes at the beginning of each chapter follow patterns ... and so on. I also wanted to follow proper movie sequel traditions -- where the second installment is almost always darker than the original, and the third tends to be the most bugfuck insane.

As for working methods... well, writing three novels back to back was more of a challenge than I anticipated. I learned that I really need mental downtime between projects like these. Especially while writing comic books and those Zuiker novels and a bunch of other things at the same time. If I could go back in time, I might have suggested that I give myself a bit more time with the trilogy; as of right now, I'm running behind.

Q. Fun & Games introduced “The Accident People,” assassins who specialize in staging the deaths of public figures. What did you think when, just prior to F&G’s publication, Randy Quaid and his wife started talking about the “star whackers” out to kill Hollywood celebrities? Have you read much about their take – or seen their movie?

When I heard about the Quaids, I was very bummed that F&G was so many months away from publication -- it would have been a great news hook for the novel. I haven't seen their movie, but I did read quite a bit about their ... um, “case” ... while I was writing H&G, and it had a direct influence on the plot. Life is so wonderfully weird sometimes.

Q. While Fun & Games is a thriller, Hell & Gone introduces science fiction elements with the finale, Point & Shoot, going even further. Blending genres isn’t new to you. Do you worry about how your novels will be categorized? Do you find readers are more accepting of these kind of mash-ups than the publishing industry?

Actually, there's nothing sci-fi about the finale – it’s all grounded in real science, honest! As for genre-blending, I used to worry about it... especially when my first novel, Secret Dead Men, didn’t sell for that reason. (Editors said they wouldn’t know where to put it in the bookstore. And they were probably right.) But as you say, I *do* think readers are more open to genre-blenders these days. Guys like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont and Fredric Brown were blazing the trail back in the day, followed by Stephen King and Dean Koontz -- and they were almost always marketed as “horror” or “fantasy” authors. I think it was acceptable to blend genres in that direction -- meaning, you could write a horror novel with elements of hardboiled crime and mystery and science fiction. But a hardboiled novel with huge dollops of horror or sci-fi? That used to be a much tougher sell.

I used to love the idea of being known for a certain genre (“Hey, it’s that Polish guy who writes hardboiled stories!”), but now I’m starting to realize how limiting that can be. Especially considering the next few novels I have in mind ...

Q. As usual with your work, the Charlie Hardie books feature a strong Philadelphia connection. What do you want to impress on readers about the City of Brotherly Love?

I’m not trying to preach the good gospel of Philly so much as I'm trying to satisfy my own curiosity. The more I dig, the more I discover how much I *don't* know about this crazy town. One of those future novels I mentioned will be a proper historical novel, set in Prohibition-era Philadelphia -- an era that fascinates me on multiple levels. I started doing serious research about two years ago, and I've been revisiting that time on-and-off ever since. I wrote 100 pages of the novel before I realized I was going about it all wrong, but that's fine, because now I know *exactly* where it went off the rails. (I also wrote a related story from the same era, “Lonergan's Girl,” which appeared in last year's Philadelphia Noir.)

Movie Q. You’re working on Birds of Prey as part of DC Comics’ “The New 52” relaunch. What is the most underrated comic book adaptation?

The original Punisher (1989), with Dolph Lundgren. Pleasantly dark, violent and at times very funny. I used to quote Dolph’s Punisher speech to friends out of nowhere: “Come on, God, answer me. For years I’m asking why, why are the innocent dead and the guilty alive? Where is justice? Where is punishment?” (Oh, I was great fun at parties.)

Baseball Q. Five straight NL East titles for the Phillies. Does that matter to you at all?

*rouses self from a deep sleep* I’m sorry, you started talking about sports there, and such talk drops me into a coma within seconds. It's better than chloroform!

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

I’ve been on this rye kick lately, and really enjoy a good Manhattan. But I’d be open to the bartender suggesting something else rye-based. Especially a concoction that hasn't been in vogue for, say, 50 years. What can I say? I relish any chance to get buzzed *and* feel like I've slipped into a time machine.


I promised a contest, didn’t I? Rye drinkers will never let you down. I am pleased to give away, with Duane’s help, a signed copy of Hell & Gone. Simply send your name and postal address to, with Hell & Gone as the subject line. The contest is open to U.S. residents only, and entries will be accepted through noon PST on Wednesday, November 2, 2011. Which, aptly, is the Day of the Dead. The winner will be selected at random and announced here. Good luck!

UPDATE 11/2/11: And we have our winner, Bill Simms of California. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Movie: Margin Call (2011)

No doubt a slew of Occupy Wall Street movies will be in release next year. Odds are they won’t do as good a job of explaining how we got into our current fiscal morass than J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call. And it makes its case the hard way, showing compassion for those on the other side of the desk.

In 2008 Peter Sullivan, a young analyst at an investment bank (Zachary Quinto, who also produced), celebrates surviving another corporate bloodletting by wrapping up a project begun by his downsized mentor Stanley Tucci. Peter adds up the numbers only to discover the numbers don’t add up. He spends the rest of the night explaining to his superiors just how screwed the firm and the economy will shortly be.

Chandor’s compression of the financial collapse into a critical day and a half allows him to do the unthinkable: he humanizes the Masters of the Universe who currently find themselves occupied. His script, full of smart dialogue and galvanizing scenes, is by turns darkly comic and deeply terrifying. The higher Peter goes in the bank’s structure the more he has to simplify what he says. A bland HR rep apologizes to Tucci for what seem like punitive measures when he’s terminated only to have those precautions, like shutting off Tucci’s phone, render him inaccessible at the very moment he’s needed most. The film approaches Joseph Heller levels of absurdity when bank president Jeremy Irons decides to stage a fire sale of toxic assets knowing it will trigger a meltdown (“It’s not panic when you’re the first one out the door”) and you find yourself agreeing with his sensible approach.

A top flight cast makes the most of the material, particularly a stiletto-sharp Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey as a salesman clinging to the belief that there’s still honor in his profession, and Irons, who closes out the proceedings with a chilling rationale of how we got to this point, what will follow suit, and why it’s destined to happen again. Margin Call is in theaters and for rent via iTunes and on demand, so you’ve got no excuse for missing one of the best movies of the year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book: The Night and the Music, by Lawrence Block (2011)

I could begin this post by talking about how essential Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books were to getting me hooked on crime fiction as a teenager, but I won’t. In part because I’ve mentioned it almost every time a new Scudder title comes out – Block’s still writing ‘em, so I’m still reading ‘em – but mainly because screenwriter/director Brian Koppelman does a better job covering the same ground in his introduction to this new collection of Scudder short stories.

The pieces appear in the order of publication. The first entry, “Out the Window,” has a strong 1970s vibe, while “The Merciful Angel of Death” vividly captures the desperation of the early years of the AIDS crisis. But the stories ultimately mirror the arc of the Scudder series, with the ex-cop and occasionally licensed private investigator making peace with his alcoholism and reflecting on his past. The last two, “Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen” and “One Night at Grogan’s,” have the unmistakable air of valedictory about them. But then I’ve thought that Block was bringing down the curtain on Scudder before only to be happily proven wrong.

In fact, if I have a complaint about The Night and the Music it’s that it comes hard on the heels of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, a particularly strong outing published only a few months ago. A year from now I’ll be desperate for more Matt and would have paid a king’s ransom for this collection. But who knows? Maybe there’ll be another Scudder book by then. Stranger things have happened. In the meantime, pick up The Night and The Music right now for a song.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Miscellaneous: Words of Cocktail Wisdom

... we are still of the opinion that decent libation supports as many million souls as it threatens; donates pleasure and sparkle to more lives than it shadows; inspires more brilliance in the world of art, music, letters and common ordinary intelligent conversation than it dims ... We view the subject with clinical interest, continued joy and extreme toleration. We feel that so long as it is an existing part of human life, too strong and too important for prohibition, we should make the enjoyments as apparent and as controlled as possible; the tastes crisp, the compounding as intriguing as far ports of the world can afford.

Charles H. Baker, Jr., The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. II (1939)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Movies: In Theaters Now!

Illness, new projects and a surfeit of pennant race baseball have kept me from my rounds. (Allow me to pause at this point and say that this past Wednesday was one of the greatest nights I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan. I’d also like to extend my congratulations to your 2011 National League batting champion, Jose Reyes of the New York Mets.) I have, however, been to the movies a few times.

Drive. This adaptation of James Sallis’ brief, brilliant novel, written by Hossein Amini and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, begins as a lost Michael Mann movie circa 1982, right down to the pink title font. But it soon develops a hypnotic, doomy rhythm all its own. Ryan Gosling is a wheelman of few words but eloquent, minimalist gestures. It’s a great film about Los Angeles as a capital of both self-invention and self-abnegation. (Future double bill: this and The Lincoln Lawyer, two movies set in L.A.’s less showier precincts featuring terrific Cliff Martinez soundtracks.) It’s a dream-like fantasia about vanishing into the bloodstream of a city punctuated by nightmarish bursts of graphic violence. For all the stylization and bravura performances – who knew Albert Brooks could be scary? – my favorite moment is a quiet conversation between Gosling and Oscar Isaac in an Echo Park hallway.

Moneyball. As referenced above, I am a baseball fan. And as I’ve stated more than once, Michael Lewis’ look at the rise of sabermetrics is one of the three greatest books of all time. (The others, if you’re interested, are Nick Tosches’ Dean Martin biography Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, and The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook.) I was rooting for the movie before the lights dimmed, so you won’t be surprised to hear I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lewis’ sprawling story is smartly condensed to focus on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his (then) unconventional approach to running the Oakland A’s. I apologize to everyone at the screening I attended for laughing hysterically whenever Philip Seymour Hoffman turned up as A’s manager Art Howe, but Hoffman absolutely nails the face Art regularly made during his two dismal seasons as skipper of the Mets.

Also still in a handful of theaters, the excellent and sorely neglected Warrior, which I reviewed for Crimespree.

Want more? Fine. At the work blog I write about Electronic Detective, a treasured game of my youth. Or you could just watch this commercial featuring paid endorser Don Adams.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon (2011)

Screenwriting guru Robert McKee has his prominent disciples and, even more impressively, has been incarnated onscreen by the great Brian Cox. Personally I found his magnum opus Story to be an impenetrable brick, full of charts and jargon that made no sense. My copy came with an Allen wrench. I still have no idea what it’s for.

Actors/writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon have written a riposte not only to McKee but every other screenwriting manual. They tell you up front they’re not interested in helping you realize your vision. They want to write movies studios want to make, and they have the credits (both Night at the Museum films) to prove it.

The book is funny, studded with irreverent footnotes.* One section consists of nothing but the addresses of every In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles, along with a glossary of secret ordering terms. Another offers the hidden hierarchy of studio parking passes.

Of course, this information is actually useful. That’s the secret of the book: it’s relentlessly practical about the very specific business of writing big-budget Hollywood movies. The vast majority of which, as the authors state repeatedly, “suck donkey balls.” They include some of their own work in that category. There’s very little here about developing characters, yet plenty about how to take notes from executives and stars (two very different tasks), how to handle getting fired off a movie – the authors stress “there is a 99 percent chance you will be fired off of EVERY SINGLE SCRIPT YOU EVER WORK ON” – and then how to get hired back on. The brief section on plot, in which the boys claim that every studio movie from Casablanca to The Matrix has exactly the same structure, may be a work of genius. And several of the “free movie ideas” scattered throughout I could easily see opening at a multiplex. I probably wouldn’t go to them, and odds are they’d suck donkey balls, but they could get made. Dismiss it as a joke, but WMFFAP is the rare instructive book on writing movies.

* I once had dinner at a New York restaurant next to Thomas Lennon. He seemed very Thomas Lennony.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Miscellaneous: Met Them in St. Louis, Louis

It wasn’t until we were on the plane en route to the annual crime fiction writers and readers convention Bouchercon that we learned St. Louis was also playing host to over 40,000 Christian women attending various conferences the same weekend. This sets up any number of obvious jokes. But after listening to Rosemarie and her seatmate, who was bound for one of those conferences, have a long conversation about their favorite mystery writers, I’ve decided to take the high road and focus on what unites these groups. St. Louis was full of people inspired enough to get out into the world and meet with like-minded individuals. I can only hope the ladies returned home as I did, with a satchelful of memories, an inexplicable minibar bill (we didn’t HAVE a minibar!) and a hacking cough so dry it merits a brushfire warning.

(With that ecumenical moment out of the way, I will say to the women wearing sweatshirts reading “God’s Love is Better than Life” that that sentiment chills me to the fucking bone. I know what it means. I do. But I can’t help thinking there’d be an unholy uproar if hundreds of members of a different religion – no names; just pick another of the major ones – walked around an American city similarly attired.)

The trip kicked off with one of STL’s fabled Noir at the Bar readings. Among the evening’s line-up were soon-to-be Crimespree and Anthony Award winners Hilary Davidson and Duane Swierczynski, John Rector, and Matthew J. McBride. Plus the St. Louis Walk of Fame ran down the sidewalk, honoring local luminaries like Buddy Ebsen and James “Cool Papa” Bell, who legend has it could throw a pork chop past a wolf.

We came, we saw, we paneled. Rosemarie and I split the duties again this year to take in as many relevant ones as possible. Some of my favorites included:

• The fight panel, with themed moderation by Eric Beetner and savvy comments from Frank Bill, my secret sister Christa Faust, Jamie Freveletti and Tom Schreck

• One on Hitchcock’s enduring legacy, disappointing only in that nobody named Strangers on a Train as their favorite

• The comics panel, with panelist Duane Swierczynski ably doubling as emergency moderator and Max Allan Collins (a ubiquitous presence whose band provided the closing night’s entertainment) provoking an interesting conversation about why graphic novels were separated from an author’s other work

• The first “Bouchercon After Dark” panel, with a battery of reprobates and S. J. Rozan discussing “Sex, Violence and Everything That Makes a Book Great”

I’d suggest to future organizers putting Christa Faust on as many panels as possible, but that might cut down on her time intimidating tough guy writers at the bar, which offers tremendous entertainment value.

But for my second Bouchercon I spent more time prowling the halls and the book room, which yielded terrific dividends. Like meeting Robert J. Randisi, one of this year’s local living legends and author of the Rat Pack mysteries. (I read the latest entry, Fly Me to the Morgue, just before the con and as usual enjoyed the hell out of it.) He even sang an Elvis song with Max Allan Collins’ band. And hearing firsthand James Crumley stories from the con’s unofficial mayor Scott Phillips and the inimitable Robert Ward. And having a long conversation with the gentleman of the genre and my favorite blogger Bill Crider. And getting to say hello to Craig McDonald.

Then there’s the bar. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy until next year in Cleveland, when I certainly hope to be in attendance. It was here that I learned Megan Abbott shares my obsession with reality TV’s staged trainwreck Ryan & Tatum: The O’Neals. That I shook hands with Johnny Shaw, like me a hugely talented man hoodwinked into writing for Ray Banks’ movie blog for free. That I bore witness to Martyn Waites’ uncanny imitation of Brian Cox in The Music Man and glimpsed the performance of Renfield in Dracula that made Martyn the gay icon he is today. That I shouted at Wallace Stroby about ‘70s New York movies. That I saw Reed Farrel Coleman bust out his Mr. Met moves at the mere mention of our shared home team. That I gaped in amazement as Lisa Brackmann chowed down on scored sheep’s head brought from Iceland by Yrsa Sigurdardottir and choked down some sheep’s head pate myself. That I lost sight of Rosemarie for a moment only to realize she was tugging Laura Lippman’s boots off. It was here, then, that I became a man.

All praise and credit is due to Jon and Ruth Jordan, Judy Bobalik, Jeremy Lynch, and the many volunteers. I also have to acknowledge the sterling work of the staff of the Renaissance Grand Hotel, especially the crack team in the bar. And I salute the winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, your friend and mine Ed Gorman.

It was raining when we left St. Louis yesterday, so I put on my cap as we walked to the train to the airport. Two stops later a group of people on a scavenger hunt yelled, “Is anyone here wearing something sports related that’s not from St. Louis?” With a sigh I walked to the rear of the car. Somewhere out there is a photograph of me in my Mets hat, pretending to be at home plate alongside four total strangers wearing neon deely bobbers. I will never see this photograph. Somehow it seemed the perfect way to end the weekend.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Me Elsewhere: On Warrior

One of the best films of the year is in theaters begging for an audience. At Crimespree, I tell you why you should do yourself and moviegoing a favor by going to see the brilliant MMA/family drama Warrior.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Me Elsewhere: On Coldblooded

If you’ve been paying attention you know about Norma Desmond’s Monkey, the movie blog set up by novelist and recovering male model Ray Banks. All the kids are talking about it. Ray just wrapped up a terrific week of posts as part of the Nicholas Ray blogathon.

For some reason, he’s allowed me to play in his sandbox. Go read my post about the forgotten 1990s hit man comedy Coldblooded, the real remake of The Mechanic which features one of my all-time favorite supporting performances.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Book: The Killer is Dying, by James Sallis (2011)

The latest novel from James Sallis – who will be receiving plenty of deserved attention when the award-winning adaptation of his book Drive opens shortly – tracks three individuals adrift in Arizona. Christian, the aging assassin of the title, in town to do a job only to get beaten to the punch. Sayles, the detective assigned to the case, treating the investigation as a respite from a personal life that is falling apart. And Jimmie, a young boy abandoned by his parents and unseen by nearly everyone, who for some reason is experiencing Christian’s dreams.

As a crime story Killer is lean and involving. As a portrait of Phoenix, a sprawling city of brownouts that’s all cracks and no sidewalk, it’s without peer. But it’s primarily a strange yet compelling book about connections, the overall lack of them and the ultimate severing of the few that matter. The imminent death of Sayles’s wife might seem one grim specter too many but Sallis finds ways to sidle up on the subject, as when Sayles reads hospice brochures. “Declining years. Family ties. Waning faculties. Terminal care. Parades of word pairs that reminded him of comedy teams, one straight man earnest as the day is long, one innocent who just never quite gets it.” The magic realist element of Jimmie’s subconscious link to Christian makes emotional but not narrative sense; there’s no reason for Jimmie to be present other than to illuminate the story’s larger issues. Yet it works:

All our lives are a going-away. Maybe we have to pretend that we’re going toward something, hang the image there in the air ahead. A better, more equitable world. Life everlasting in a place that looks like Scottsdale only better. A desert oasis with seventeen virgins. Because we can’t bear the thought that this is all there is. All there was.

The pieces don’t fit into a seamless whole. They suggest one, and that’s enough. Like all Sallis books The Killer is Dying is spare and not so much written as composed. It reads like a poem and has that kind of impact as well.