Thursday, November 17, 2016

Queen of Crime

Several weeks early, I offer my New Year’s resolution for 2017: whenever I hear someone is making an enemies list, I’m gonna do what I can to be on it.


There’s still time to go, but it’s entirely possible the best movie I saw in a theater in 2016 will be ... the best movie I saw in a theater in 2015. Seattle’s Cinerama recently wrapped a 10-day run of Mad Max: Fury Road – The Black and Chrome Edition. What better time to revisit the apocalypse! George Miller called this black and white print “the best version” of his action extravaganza, a “more authentic and elemental” experience. I loved the film when I saw it last summer, but this viewing was indeed more intense and emotional. Monochrome is Tom Hardy’s friend, revealing new layers to his performance. Both versions will be available on Blu-ray next month, but I may put Fury Road in the rarified category of movie I only watch on a big screen.


One of the titles I picked up in the self-serve book room at Bouchercon in New Orleans was Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, edited by Joseph Goodrich. As one-half of Renee Patrick, I’m always interested in the working methods of other writing teams.

Rosemarie and I intend to remain married, so we’re not about to follow the lead of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. As Ellery Queen they wrote numerous novels and short stories about a detective also named Ellery Queen, with Dannay responsible for plotting duties and Lee handling the prose. It was a fraught system, each man resenting their interdependence and feeling unappreciated by the other. Their exchanges are charged with recriminations but also hugely instructive. One letter will offer a devastating critique of the work in progress, followed by an equally avid and airtight response. It’s bracing to read correspondence between partners who both have their reasons and are more than capable of defending them.

Here’s where I confess my ignorance of the Queen oeuvre. My experience was largely limited to the TV series from Columbo creators Richard Link and William Levinson, which incidentally is streaming on Hulu. Goodrich culls the letters in Blood Relations from what scholar Francis M. Nevins calls the “Third Period” of Queen, from 1942-58, when Ellery Queen the character was transformed from effete dandy to flesh-and-blood individual. I set out to read the books from Queen’s golden era even though the Dannay/Lee letters made me familiar with their twists and turns. I was curious; having peaked behind the curtain, could I still enjoy the show?

Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) is something of a chamber piece, one of the novels where Ellery retreats to the bucolic hamlet of Wrightsville. As such, it has a small cast of characters and for that reason I couldn’t shake the feeling that even coming to it fresh I would have sussed out the killer. The core idea still strikes me as a shade too intellectual. But the writing is soulful, seeking and finding a deepening of the character, and the mechanics of the final revelation are impressive. The next year’s Cat of Many Tails, in contrast, seemed even more thrilling knowing what tricks the boys had up their sleeves. The gripping tale of a serial killer terrorizing New York, it’s thick with mid-century atmosphere; when handing over his detailed outline, Dannay suggests Lee use the then-in-the-theaters The Naked City as a guide. The Cat’s method of selecting his victims is as diabolical now as it was nearly seventy years ago, the motive behind it every bit as chilling. The psychological explanations tend to be long-winded, understandable given when the book was written. But that gentility also makes the shock easier to take.

It was fascinating to approach a book when its gaff has been blown and look for the seams. Time to read some Ellery Queen where I don’t possess any of their secrets.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Social Media Habits, and How the Coen Brothers Saved Election Night

For some reason I feel compelled to explain why this post exists. I’ll keep it brief. A week before the election, I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter. I realized that, like the rest of the country, I was going insane, and social media was only accelerating the process. I was checking Twitter constantly for updates and new polling numbers, mainlining everyone else’s fears and hopes at the same time. Conversely, I’d stop by Facebook for a break from the news – Post some photos of your damn cats! – only to get sucked back into the maelstrom.

It finally dawned on me that this was part of the problem.

Time for a sabbatical. I still read the news, but in concentrated doses. (Do the republic and yourself a favor: subscribe to a newspaper. Journalism is important enough to pay for.) By election night I felt calmer, I was sleeping better, and once out of the echo chamber I’d unintentionally built I was even somewhat prepared for the eventual outcome. I also discovered I wasn’t in any hurry to get back to my old habits.

I’ve made some resolutions for the coming years. If anything I’m going to spend more time in bars, because what we all need to do now is talk directly to friends and strangers alike in a congenial atmosphere. Engagement must be the order of the day. (Here’s a segment from WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show about the role of the bar as community meeting place on Election Night, featuring the terrific New York Times Magazine writer/bartender Rosie Schaap.)

And I’m going to reduce my social media presence for my own peace of mind. Not eliminate it; the pull’s too strong, and I know how essential it is for promotion. (Did I mention that Rosie Schaap blurbed my book Down The Hatch?) While I am going to scale back, I do still have an overwhelming urge to shoot my mouth off. So I plan on posting here again – I’m aiming for once a week, maybe Thursdays – with recommendations and updates. Why not start with how I spent election night?

No way was I watching returns on television. I gave up TV news, especially the cable variety, a while ago. Instead I tracked the results online and entered the brave new world in the company of Joel and Ethan Coen, who never let me down. I rewatched a trio of their titles that seemed unusually apt, given the circumstances.

Burn After Reading (2008). I have irrational affection for what’s often viewed as a “lesser” Coen film. When it came out, I glibly told people it was about how the United States ended up going to war in Iraq. I never developed the theory in detail; it just felt true to me. This was the Coen movie I thought of the most during the election cycle. Pretty much every character is a self-absorbed idiot, by turns entitled and aggrieved. Empathy ends at their fingertips. They obsess over their own problems and assume the worst about everyone else. The only decent person to be found lacks all conviction, and naturally ends up meeting the cruelest fate.

Plus you have Frances McDormand, looking a little like Hillary Clinton, sobbing about having to build a firewall. So yeah, 2016 in a nutshell.

Miller’s Crossing (1990). The angry man behind the desk is a Coen motif. Sooner or later, their protagonists always have to square off against one. Crossing doubles down on the theme. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan stands before two such desks – Albert Finney’s and Jon Polito’s – as both advisor and adversary. There are valuable lessons here for the next few years. In a harsh and unpredictable world, the only way to win is to play the long game, even if it means keeping your true motives hidden.

Hail, Caesar! (2016). Fourth viewing of their latest movie. I don’t think it’s a minor work. I think it’s a dense, unconventionally structured masterpiece. (My pal Ethan Iverson likes it, too.) The “man behind the desk” evolves in the Coens’ films – when the figure appears in Burn After Reading in the form of J.K. Simmons’ CIA chief, he’s as befuddled as everyone else – and it’s strangely moving that in Caesar, they’ve finally made him their hero. All you can hope for is that, like Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, he has a soul and is trying in his own way to do the right thing. Slapping some sense into wayward movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), he says, “You’re going to do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture, and you’re never going to forget that again.” Finding something larger than you and serving it. Good advice for the week.