Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Miscellaneous: Noir to Spare

Time for another post on the whole “wonder of me” thing. Bonus points to the first person to name the movie I just quoted from.

To begin, the latest and dare-I-say greatest issue of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, is out today. Donate to the FNF and a copy will be winging its way to you. It’s gorgeously designed by Michael Kronenberg and brother, is it packed with goodies. Including:

- A lengthy tribute to the King of Noir, Robert Ryan

- Alan K. Rode on boxing noir

- Dan Akira Nishimura considering the dark side of Joan Bennett

- Jake Hinkson’s appraisal of Mickey Rooney’s noir career

- Eddie Muller interviewing Daniel Woodrell, of Winter’s Bone and presidential reading material fame

As for yours truly, I’m represented by not one, not two, but three pieces. For the Ryan salute I take a look at my favorite of his performances in Act of Violence. I review the video game L.A. Noire. And I interview the creative team responsible for the new stage adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity premiering at ACT Seattle in October. If I do say myself I’m proud of the range of these articles, showing noir new and old taking root in different media.

Speaking of which, last week I posted the trailer for March 32nd, the video game on which I’m toiling as head writer. We spent the weekend promoting the game at PAX, complete with green screen studio. The Escapist was there, and their correspondent calls our supernatural noir detective game “one of the strangest, most intriguing titles I’ve seen in quite some time.” Go read the article and stay tuned for updates.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book: Choke Hold, by Christa Faust (2011)

If you read the unassailably kick-ass Money Shot, you remember Angel Dare. A former porn star turned vigilante is not the kind of protagonist that slips one’s mind. In Choke Hold Angel is still on the run from the heavies she tussled with before, and after a brief stint in WITSEC she’s living off the grid and looking over her shoulder. But she’s blindsided by her own past when former flame Thick Vic Ventura turns up in the Arizona diner where she’s slinging hash. He’s there to meet his son, an MMA fighter with championship dreams. Then three guys show up armed to the teeth. Thick Vic is dead, his son is in danger, and Angel’s got a new set of problems to go with her old ones.

Let’s loop back to that early description, “porn star turned vigilante.” That may sound like it’s crying out for caricature. But the genius of Christa Faust is that Angel Dare is never less than real. A woman who has always fended for herself, resourceful yet resigned. The book is a hell-for-leather ride filled with almost relentless action, but it’s in those brief moments when Angel gets to catch her breath that things turn truly tough. That’s when she’s forced to admit how life as a fugitive has worn her down to damn near nothing, how she fears feeling anything for anyone again.

There’s pulp vigor to spare, all kinds of mayhem, and some sensational no-fuss wordsmithing on display. The sections recounting Angel’s unsuccessful WITSEC sojourn, her lingering, clear-eyed affection for the pornography biz, the sharply drawn parallels between the worlds of skin flicks and MMA, both trafficking in fantasies of gender perfection. And the ending is brutal.

In the interests of full disclosure, I point out that Christa is a friend. But that doesn’t matter. Choke Hold is a back alley scrum of a book. It’s nasty, it doesn’t fight fair, and when it’s over you won’t quite know what hit you. Get yours when it comes out in early October.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion: March 32nd Teaser

I’ve spent enough time telling you people about good books and movies, providing interviews with talented authors. It’s high time this blog focused on its most important subject. Me.

Among the assorted irons I have in various fires is March 32nd. I am inexplicably the head writer of this video game, a wildly ambitious project that will tell a single story over the course of multiple episodes. We’ve assembled a terrific team of writers, designers, coders and filmmakers. We’ve started production with a talented cast of actors. And, after four years in development, we finally have a teaser. One that showcases our signature art style.

March 32nd Teaser from Chromed on Vimeo.

The full March 32nd crew including yours truly will be at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle this weekend. Stop on by the booth – you can’t miss it, it’s a portable green screen studio – for your chance to be a character in the game. Time it wrong and you may even be directed by me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Q&A: Lawrence Block

Truth be told, I didn’t think the man was serious. And yet here we are.

When Lawrence Block turned up on Twitter I began following him at once. But then I’ve been following him for years, ever since I picked up Eight Million Ways to Die when I was in high school and read it twice in one summer. That book served as my gateway to crime fiction, and I’ve never looked back. I read every other book Block wrote about Matt Scudder, the recovering alcoholic ex-NYPD detective turned occasionally licensed private eye. Not to mention the ones about genial thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, and the professional killer Keller, and many more, some published under other names. He picks up one of those names anew with Getting Off, which I reviewed last week.

On Twitter, he said he was looking for opportunities to guest post. I responded at once. As I said, I didn’t think the man was serious. And yet here we are, with another VKDCQ&A. The world is a mysterious place.

Q. What can you tell us about Getting Off?

That I can’t recall ever having more fun writing anything. I fell utterly in love with my lead character, and enjoyed every minute I spent with her. That doesn’t always happen.

Q. You’re returning to the Jill Emerson pseudonym after several decades. What made this a Jill Emerson book, as opposed to an Andrew Shaw or a Sheldon Lord? Are these alter egos at all like characters? To put it another way, do you know what Jill has been doing these last few years? Teaching at a small liberal arts college in New England, perhaps?

Andrew Shaw and Sheldon Lord were just pen names. Jill Emerson was something beyond that, though it would be hard saying just what. Add in the fact that I liked – and indeed still like – all seven of the Jill Emerson books.

I wanted an open pen name for the book for the same reason I wanted the “A Novel of Sex & Violence” subtitle: so that no one would pick up the book by mistake, hoping for something fluffy about a charming burglar and his stubtailed cat. This is not to denigrate the Burglar books or their readers, and indeed I’m sure there’ll be plenty of overlap. But I got email calling me to account for the erotic content of Small Town, by people who felt they’d been ambushed, and I didn't want that to happen again. I want to sell books, but only to people who are likely to enjoy them.

Still, I could have managed that without a pen name. So I think what it comes down to is I just plain wanted to be Jill again. Go figure.

And it’s given me the opportunity to have dialogues with Jill, which I then get to post on Jill’s page of my blogsite.

Q. Getting Off is subtitled “A Novel of Sex & Violence.” And brother – or sister, as the case may be – that ain’t the half of it. In your experience, are readers more comfortable with violence than sex? How has writing about sex changed since Jill debuted with her lesbian novels? Who in your opinion writes about sex particularly well?

Some don’t mind sex, some don’t mind violence, and I have to hope there are some who can stand a healthy helping of both. The sex was very discreet in the first two Jill Emerson novels. It got a little more intense later on. I think the big change in erotic realism, if you will, happened in the late ‘60s, when a lot of mainstream novelists began writing far more candidly about sex. That was around the same time Jill published her middle three books with Berkley.

I don’t read enough these days to say who writes well about sex. Sixty or more years ago, without running into censorship problems, John O’Hara was writing scenes I found intensely erotic. He did it almost entirely via dialogue. You want a master class in the subject, that's where to go.

Q. Getting Off closes out what’s been a remarkably busy 2011 for you. Earlier this year you published A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the latest Matt Scudder novel, set in the early days of Scudder’s sobriety. You’ve written elsewhere about the challenges of revisiting the New York of the 1980s. But what about your own work? How much research did you have to do into what you’d already written about Scudder?

None that I can recall. I was writing about an unrecorded period in his life, so that gave me a lot of leeway.

Q. Your short story “See The Woman” appeared in the companion anthology to the videogame L.A. Noire. Did you see the game before you wrote the story? What kind of experience did you have with video games in general? Care to share any high scores? You’ve been an early adopter of many publishing advances – audiobooks, e-books. What do you think videogames have to contribute to storytelling?

No, I didn’t see the game, or even bother reading the descriptions. I just wanted to write a story that would work, and one that was right for the period. As for video games in general, I’ve had zero experience with them – unless you count a video matching game that I use as a form of time-passer to punctuate stretches at the computer. That is to L.A. Noire and Grand Theft Auto what simple solitaire is to tournament-level Duplicate Bridge.

Q. Perhaps your most impressive writing this year has been in your embrace of Twitter and blogging. What have you learned in your Year of Social Networking?

That the entire landscape of publishing has already changed beyond recognition, and that only an idiot would hazard a guess as to what the future holds. And it’s not just publishing and its world. That’s just the part of change that’s most evident to me. All changed, changed utterly – and it ain’t done yet, either.

Cocktail Q. In Getting Off, Kit Tolliver changes her cocktail of choice as quickly as she changes identities. Do the drinks tell us something about her persona of the moment? What can you infer about a person from what their poison is?

Good question, but I’m not sure I know the answer. Back in my drinking days I recall we attached significance to that sort of thing, but I don't know that it was warranted. You might even warm to someone because he smoked the same brand of cigarette. Does seem silly in retrospect, but then I’m talking from the standpoint of someone who hasn't drunk or smoked in a good many years, so what do I know?

I recently wrote something that called for the name of a trendy cocktail, and had no idea what’s new in that realm. So I Googled “trendy cocktails” and a couple of candidates presented themselves. (What did we do before Google?) Later I realized I should have done what Raymond Chandler did in respect to slang. He made it up so he wouldn't have to worry that it would be dated.

Movie Q. What movie best captures Hard Stuff-era New York?

Two Sidney Lumet films come to mind right away, Prince of the City and Q&A.

Baseball Q. There’s only one question I can ask an inveterate New Yorker like yourself, and I hope you don’t take Hillary Clinton’s politic way out. Mets or Yankees?

I don’t know that Hilary was being politic; my guess is she doesn't pay any attention to baseball. I pay more some years than others, and in either league I’m a New York loyalist, but my dad was a Yankees fan all his life, and so, albeit in a lackadaisical way, am I.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Movies: Recent Release Round-Up

There are some good movies in release now. But you may have to work to find them, and you’ll probably have to act fast.

Dominic Cooper made a splash in the best of the summer blockbusters, Captain America, as Iron Man’s dad Howard Stark. But he’s giving the performance(s) of the season in The Devil’s Double. In this liberally adapted true story Cooper plays both Uday Hussein and Latif Yahia, the lookalike soldier compelled into his service. Cooper’s Uday is an unusually vivid psychopath with absolutely no impulse control. The movie, directed by Lee Tamahori, is charged with a feverish paranoia that conveys the sense of life under a dictatorship, with the entire country held hostage to the whims of a madman and his deranged family. For once, the Scarface excesses are come by honestly. Here’s the excellent trailer.

Character of the summer honors go to Gerry Boyle, the drinking, drugging and whoring hero of The Guard. Played by the brilliant Brendan Gleeson, Gerry is the law of Connemara in the west of Ireland. FBI agent Don Cheadle arrives to track down a massive drug shipment – the actual size is in dispute – and a mighty culture clash ensues. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh and produced by his playwright brother Martin (responsible for In Bruges, one of my favorite films of the last few years), The Guard packs every kind of humor into 96 minutes: running jokes, shaggy dog stories. All of it seen through that uniquely Irish sensibility that is at once angry, profane, highly verbal and attuned to the absurdities of life. Gerry himself is a fully developed, vastly interesting character, and the scenes between him and his terminally ill mother (Fionnula Flanagan), while hilarious, are also poignant. The accents are a wee bit thick; I howled all the way through a scene between Gerry and the local head of the IRA (“There’s still a high command?”) only to discover that Rosemarie didn’t catch a word of it. Of course, that meant I got to perform the scene in its entirety on our way to the cocktail bar. I described the movie to a friend and he said it sounded like a comic version of One False Move, which in a sense it is. It’s also the best thing currently in theaters.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book: Getting Off, by Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson (2011)

My short review: Damn, this book is fucked up. Would that Kirkus could be so succinct.

Getting Off is a landmark in a number of ways. It relaunches the indispensible Hard Case Crime after the line’s hiatus. It’s Hard Case’s first hardcover. It’s the first original novel Lawrence Block has written for them. And it marks Block’s return to the Jill Emerson pseudonym he used for a number of shall-we-say earthy novels several decades ago.

The protagonist is Kit Tolliver, although she so scarcely uses that name it’s strange for me to do so. She dons a new identity, chooses a man, has sex with him, and then kills him. It’s a pattern of behavior that erupts out of a childhood trauma. Then Kit realizes that there a few men – five, to be precise – who have bedded her and lived to tell the tale. And she decides that’s five too many.

It’s a testament to Block’s skill that you end up embracing Kit’s lunatic logic. But you do; you want her to track down those five men who are at once lucky and hugely unlucky. The book has something of a picaresque structure, with Kit moving around the country and acting as a magnet for trouble, attracting people who are even worse than she is. Getting Off is frequently very funny, with a sharp satirical edge that cuts into sexual mores and the notion of healing through closure. But it also has real insight into Kit’s state of mind. The prose is smooth – no surprise there; this is Lawrence Block, after all – which lends an added kick to the plentiful sex and equally plentiful violence. And above all it’s a non-judgmental book, which for some may be the biggest shock of all. Compelling and fascinating, it’s a welcome return for both Hard Case and Jill Emerson.

UPDATE: Here’s my Q&A with Lawrence Block.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Q&A: Ray Banks

The last time I saw Ray Banks we were standing a few blocks from the Louvre at 3AM, recovering from French beer and Lawrence Tierney. It was also the first time I saw Banks, the payoff on years of correspondence that covered subjects ranging from Johnnie To films to easy listening music, and include an alarming number of references to the Carry On movies. (Those are all Ray’s.) He’s one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary crime fiction. His new book Beast of Burden is officially published in the U.S. tomorrow; I was fortunate enough to read it last year. I exploited our friendship and subjected him to a VKDCQ&A, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

Q. You’ve been a busy boy lately. Let’s start with the print stuff. What can you tell us about Beast of Burden?

Well, Beast of Burden is the last of the Cal Innes novels, and in it we find our battered hero with aphasia and a limp thanks to a massive stroke, a dead brother and not much in the way of prospects. The poor bugger can't even get a job as a barista. Then good old Uncle Morris turns up and asks him to find his wayward psychotic son, Mo. Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Donkin sees an opportunity to finally put Cal behind bars and grabs it with both scarred fists.

It's kind of a romantic comedy.

Q. You ring down the curtain on the Cal Innes series with this book. Was it a conscious choice to stop with four titles? When did you realize you were ready to walk away from the character?

Originally it was a conscious choice to stop with five titles - all the Scottish stuff in Beast of Burden was originally going to be its own book (even had a working title of Sunshine on Leith) - but I realised I was repeating myself thematically and plot-wise with the last two books, so rather than string it out for another 300 pages, I thought I'd roll them both into one. So yeah, it was definitely a conscious decision to write a limited series. Cal isn't the kind of character who could carry on indefinitely, and I very much doubt either of my publishers would consider the books mainstream enough for an ongoing series.

So bearing all that in mind, I was ready to walk away from Cal about a chapter from the end of Beast of Burden, which is lucky. I'd been writing him on and off since 2002, so it was definitely time to take stock and move on, try some other voices for size.

Q. Innes is a singular interpretation of the private investigator, an ex-con who at times is reluctant to own up to the job. What was it about the P.I. form that spoke to you? What did you want to bring to bear on it?

The P.I. is the happy medium between the amateur sleuth (which is incredibly difficult to do with any kind of realism) and the police procedural (which requires far too much research, is too crowded a market, and didn't hold much interest for me). Besides, while I loved the American P.I. novels, I thought there was something decidedly lacking in their British counterparts, notably a sense of how strange and untenable the American P.I. archetype was in a British setting. So I decided to do something about it, and along the way mess with some of the more egregious clich├ęs. It's a pretty negative starting point for a series, I know, but I hope it led to some positive results.

Q. As dark as your books can get, they’re always deeply funny. Why is a sense of humor – or, if you prefer, humour – a necessity in noir? Who’s another cut-up in this current class?

First off, thank you. Very kind indeed. I think a sense of humour is absolutely vital if you're writing noir because otherwise you're just writing about a series of terrible events that lead to inexorable doom, which isn't so much tragedy than monotonous nihilism. Comedy is the yang to tragedy's yin; they're absolute co-dependent. You can't have an effective comedy without tragedy, and you certainly can't have an effective tragedy without comedy. Humour at its best - when it isn't a call to poke fun at a parade of grotesques - is empathetic, it allows us to connect with characters we wouldn't otherwise find attractive. Without empathy, comic characters like Steptoe and Son, Basil Fawlty, Norman Fletcher, Alan Partridge and David Brent would be absolute monsters.

Currently, I think Allan Guthrie writes noir farce beautifully, Donna Moore is the Queen of the one-liner, and Charlie Williams has an almost Thompsonesque sense of the Absurd. I don't think Stuart MacBride gets enough credit for the kind of quotidian comedy he presents in his novels, either. There's a big dose of Galton and Simpson in there.

Q. Take a moment to pimp your wares on the e-book front. You’ve been vocal about the opportunities presented by the changes in publishing to return to an older model of pulp fiction. Is shorter better? Discuss.

Brevity is the soul, just like time is the secret of comedy ing. For some odd reason, the book buyer has been taught to think that bigger is somehow better, that they're somehow getting more value for money in a 600-page novel they'll read once, than a 200-page novel they'll read time and time again. I know for a fact that one very popular author who started off writing shorter books was advised to write longer otherwise he'd never be taken seriously. I know of others who have word counts of over 100k written into their contracts. That kind of demand can only lead to padding.

With the advent of e-books, content is king. So if something is padded, by God, it reads padded. I’m hoping this will result in a revival of shorter, faster books that, with the price points dropping, will be ultimately pretty disposable. That, to me, sounds like the perfect circumstances for the emergence of a new pulp. And like any pulp, there’ll be a plethora of rubbish, but it’ll also let less obviously commercial writers get their stuff out there and build an audience that may ultimately sustain them.

At the moment, it’s slim pickings from me – just the one. I released an e-book version of my novella Gun, which people have been very kind about. I’ll be doing the same with California some time early next year, and have a few ideas for some e-only releases. We’ll see.

Q. What prompted you to start Norma Desmond’s Monkey, your new blog about movies?

I used to write reviews and what-not on the old blog, but it never felt particularly relevant to the overall point of the site, which was primarily self-pimpage, so when I decided to get back on the blogging horse last month, I also decided to separate the movie stuff out. It just feels more natural to ramble on in a movie-centric environment than it did under the old regime. It’s also more attractive to any guest posters (hint, hint) that may want to chip in.

As for content, I have a few more Forgotten Films to look at – I think the next one on my list is Looking for Mr. Goodbar. A few Neo- and Classic Noirs, and I may even get a couple of Top Tens in there – I know how much the interwebs loves a good list.

Q. What can we expect next from you?

After Beast of Burden? I wish I could say with any confidence. I have a book under consideration with my publisher at the moment, which is a page-one rewrite of my first novel. I’ll probably be bringing out a collected version of Wolf Tickets at some point in the future, and I’m currently up to my eyes with a casino robbery novel. Then there’s the e-only novella thing and a couple of screenplays I’m messing with. Nothing is solid at the moment, though. Give me another couple of months and I might have something concrete to tell you.

Movie Q. Best UK horror film, in both Hammer and non-Hammer divisions?

Best Hammer – The Devil Rides Out. Sixties Hammer was the best Hammer and The Devil Rides Out (along with The Nanny) is the best of the best. You have Christopher Lee battling Charles Gray, a Richard Matheson script and Terence Fisher in the director’s chair – what’s not great about that? It also scared the everlovin’ shit out of me when I was a nipper. Remember kids, don’t mess with Mr S. On The Buses is also a terrific horror film, which isn’t much of a compliment, considering it’s based on a sitcom. Still a Hammer movie, though.

Best British non-Hammer is a tough one. Nothing recent springs to mind. I have an abiding fondness for the Amicus portmanteau horrors like Asylum and Tales from the Crypt (some excellent gurning from Patrick Magee in “Blind Alleys”), as well as the quieter British horror movies like The Innocents and The Haunting (which I’m not actually convinced is that British, but hey ho …). But if I absolutely had to pick one to watch over and over, it’d have to be Theatre of Blood. Vincent Price as ham actor takes Shakespearean-flavoured revenge on the critics who scorned him, with the help of his chorus of meths-drinking vagrants and Diana Rigg in male drag. Hell of a cast – where else could you see TV’s Miss Marple and the British Marilyn Monroe in the same movie? – and everyone appears to be having so much fun. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Which is probably a good thing, because they’d fuck it up.

Baseball Q. The GM Maxi Senior Cricket Bat may be “the bat of choice for awesome hitting,” as you claim in Saturday’s Child. But better for doing GBH than a baseball bat? C’maaaaaan.

A cricket bat has a bevelled edge. It gives an assailant a choice of attack - flat or choppy - and can break the skin and bones a lot quicker than your average cylindrical baseball bat. It's also more patriotic than a baseball bat, Gawd bless yer, marm.

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

A single malt, probably a nice big Bunnahabhain, ideally twice as old as me. I know you enjoy your umbrella drinks, but I have trouble ordering something with more than one mixer. Makes me feel ... unusual.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Recent Reading: Ace and a Joker

Ace Atkins takes a break from his brilliant period crime thrillers like Infamous and Devil’s Garden to work in the here and now. Quinn Colson is the title character of The Ranger, who leaves patrol in Afghanistan for territory almost as treacherous: home in Mississippi. He’s there to lay to rest his uncle Hamp, the sheriff, dead by his own hand. Or so goes the official story. But Quinn’s in no hurry to leave – considered too old to “storm the castle,” he’s about to be pulled from active duty and made an instructor – so he starts digging. Soon he turns up a nest of trouble involving a meth dealer preparing for end times and a local power broker who covets his uncle’s property.

As usual Atkins conveys a tremendous sense of place, here a stretch of Northern Mississippi were the land “had always seemed used up.” In Tibbehah County everyone knows everyone else, which makes the betrayals that are all too common cut deep. That sense of old entanglements wrapping themselves around Quinn anew is present on every page. The book’s pace occasionally flags – when I hear “trailer fire” in a rural crime novel I don’t need a thorough investigation to know that a pan of eggs is not the cause – but Atkins’s vigorous prose powers through those patches. Atkins will be taking over the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. I have reservations about continuing those books, but there’s no doubt that Atkins is an inspired choice; Quinn’s rapport with his one-armed ex-Army buddy Boom owes a lot to Spenser and Hawk. While I’d prefer another Colson novel, I’ll have to give one of Atkins’s Spensers a try.

Wayne Ogden was a different kind of soldier in a different kind of war. He has things pretty sweet at the start of The Adjustment by Scott Phillips. WWII is over. He’s back in Wichita, the nominal head of Publicity and Marketing at Collins Aviation. His real job is making sure company chieftain Everett Collins has a good time, all the time. But Wayne’s feeling chafed at even that much responsibility, hemmed in by his wife Sally and the prospect of fatherhood, and nostalgic for his glory days as a crooked supply sergeant and pimp during his Army hitch. And someone is sending him anonymous threatening letters, intent on settling his hash for one of the countless crimes he committed during the war. It’s enough to drive a good man crazy – or a bad man to plot for a better tomorrow.

A truly reprehensible character, Wayne is conniving, opportunistic, utterly unfeeling. And I loved every minute in his company. Scott Phillips has crafted one of the finest contemporary versions of a classic pulp novel that’s also a savage send-up of the American dream. The Adjustment reads like Jim Thompson’s version of Revolutionary Road. Profane, perverse, startling and always funny, it’s one of my favorite books of the year.

Monday, August 01, 2011

On The Web: Bill James

Once again I am temporarily hanging my hat at the Abbott/Gran Medicine Show, the fabulous blog co-hosted by Megan Abbott and Sara Gran. My post this time around is about Popular Crime, an obsessive and compelling overview of true crime stories from a somewhat unlikely author: baseball stats guru Bill James. I call it “one of the strangest books I’ve ever loved.” Read the post to find out why.