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 Carré – 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 (Audible.com, 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.