23 February 2017

In The House of Sick

by Brian Thornton

Now ain't that a catchy title?

It narrowly beat out such colorful runners-up as "The Vomit Wheel," and "It's Thursday, So This Must Be Bronchitis."

This is not what I'm talking about when I say it's time to "Sell the Buick."

In other words, Casa Thornton has seemed more like Casa Enferma lately.

And by "lately," I mean, "Since September."

And what happened in September to get this party started?

You guessed it.

My four year-old started preschool!

And for those of you in the audience who are kid-free (whether by choice or nature, no judgements either way!), that sound you just heard was every parent reading this (all three of them!*rimshot*) saying collectively, "Oh yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh..."

And it's not this type of "Technicolor Yawn"!

Our pediatrician referred to preschool as an opportunity for our child to "build immunity," since he's an only child, and although he has cousins and other kids he plays with, it's not the same as having a sibling at home to help double his exposure to germs that bring maladies such as cold, flu, pneumonia, and bronchitis.

And since we share this home with our child, we get exposed, too. I don't have to draw you a picture for you to visualize what that has been like, do I?

Since September we've had all of the above. Some of them several times (our son has had pneumonia and my wife and I have had bronchitis. We've all had multiple colds and several rounds of several different types of the flu.).
And this? NOT what I mean by "Instant Bootcamp."
What's worse than getting sick yourself?

Witnessing your little boy or girl getting sick.

What's worse than that?

Trying to nurse your sick kid back to health while you've been flat-on-your-back-sick too.

Anyway, we finally all got the flu shot, and that seems to have helped with the colds, and the illnesses that follow in their collective wake. Over the last month, we've stopped playing such fun Cold and Flu Season games as Musical Snot, and Cold, Cold, Who's Got The Cold?

Which left us all down with the stomach flu this past weekend.

But!

(And I knock wood as I type this)

We are all feeling much better now!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don't have a more substantive blog post for you this rotation!

Tune in in two weeks' time for an interview with a very funny man of many hats, comedian, DJ, and crime fiction Bill Fitzhugh!

22 February 2017

Walking the Plank

David Edgerley Gates


I'd like to preface this post by saying it's not meant to be partisan. I'm not taking sides. Everybody's got an axe to grind, but let's check our grudges at the door.


The recent resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor is what started me thinking. More than one train of thought, as it happens. Let's review the bidding, in case you don't know what happened. Flynn was in Trump's kitchen cabinet, and it was no secret he was in line for a red hat. What laid him low, before the paint was even dry, is that he'd had inappropriate contacts with the Russians while Obama's crew, although they were hanging up their cleats, still had the duty watch. They were in fact announcing sanctions against Moscow at the same time that Flynn, through a back channel to the Russian ambassador, was saying they were shooting blanks - once his guy was in office, any sanctions would be rolled back.

Now, first off, this runs counter to good manners, common sense, and longstanding convention, when a new team is relieving an old one. It's also a violation of federal law, the Logan Act. Unauthorized civilians don't make U.S. foreign policy. Period. Another curious thing is that Flynn apparently did it on his own, without telling anybody else. You might find this hard to credit, but you have to look at Flynn's back story. This isn't someone with a modest opinion of himself. On the other hand, there are a fair share of people who didn't think he walked on water, no. The best guess is that he was showboating, or a little too persuaded of his own self-importance.

Here's where I'm coming from. An intelligence professional's job is to give the best possible advice, based on the available evidence. Are your sources credible? What's the collateral? Does the narrative add up? You don't cut and paste the facts to fit a convenient fiction. Bush 43 was ill-served by his Director of Central Intelligence because George Tenet massaged the message. You have to be ready to contradict the received wisdom, or fixed ideas. The problem being, if you keep blowing your nose on the curtains, pretty soon they'll stop inviting you for drinks and dinner.

There's a further corollary. When things go south, which they do more often than not, a good soldier falls on his sword. It's attached to the pay grade. Jack Kennedy famously said to his DCI Allen Dulles, after Bay of Pigs, that if we had a parliamentary system, then he, Kennedy, would have to resign, but the way things were, it was Dulles whose head was going to roll. Presidents don't like being caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

It's important to remember that when you take a job close to the president, you only have the one client. What's called in the intelligence world a consumer. In this case, and I've said this before, you can't be distracted. You have no other constituency. It doesn't matter that State, or Defense, or Homeland Security, or whoever, may have competing interests. You keep your ear to the ground, for sure, but you don't dilute your brand. You are owned. You protect your principal, at whatever cost to yourself.

The other thing I want to say about this episode is that people sign on to government service for any number of reasons, including preferment, connections, expediency, and money, but sometimes they simply choose to serve. Michael Flynn was career military, 33 years. Whatever his politics or his personal ambition, he understood duty. Duty not as an abstract, or background noise, but duty defined as an obligation to something outside ourselves, something larger than our own parochial concerns. I'm probably beating a dead horse here, but this is where my real disappointment kicks in. Michael Flynn had a responsibility, to something larger than his private benefit, and he dropped the ball. Not to mention, I'm kind of taking it personally. The guy wanted to feather his own nest, okay, there's enough of that going around. But why did he have to give the rest of us a bad name? Flynn sold his honor cheap.

21 February 2017

A Rose, um, a Script by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

by Paul D. Marks

Apparently Shakespeare was wrong here. Or maybe it works for roses, but not for scripts because when the name was changed on a couple of different stories, well…so did the response.

This here’s the story of a writer named Chuck Ross who wrote a couple of very well-known tales (sort of). One a screenplay, the other a novel. Well, maybe “wrote” isn’t quite the right word—typed might be more appropriate for as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

But before I get to Mr. Ross…

Haven’t we all felt that if we had Mr./Ms. Big Name writer’s byline on our manuscript it would receive more serious attention than it does when we submit it under our humble names. And haven’t we also felt that if their sometimes mediocre manuscripts had our names on them they wouldn’t get the attention of Big Agent, Big Editor and Big Publisher (or Producer)? But with their names the mediocrity doesn’t matter, whether it’s a novel, a non-blind short story submission or a spec script. Lawrence Kasdan, writer or co-writer of things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, various Star Wars entries and the writer-director of The Big Chill, once said something like “Until they know you, everything you do is shit. Once they know you, everything you do is great no matter how shitty it is.”

So in that sense it’s all in a name and not necessarily what’s on the page. Which brings us back to Chuck Ross, typist:

Once upon a time, there was an unproduced play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by two unknown writers. In the 1930s, it was sold to Warner Brothers for 20K, around $345,000 today, give or take a few pennies, and an amazing price considering the time and the fact that it couldn’t find a producer. The property was developed and given the green light. It became a movie called Casablanca. You might have heard of it…if you’re not a millennial who won’t watch anything in black and white. It had a modicum of success and is considered to be one of the greatest American movies, usually coming in just behind (and sometimes ahead of) Citizen Kane in polls of best/favorite American movies.

Enter Chuck Ross. Mr. Ross typed up a copy of the screenplay for Casablanca in script format, slapped the original title, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, on it, and sent it out to 217 agencies under the name of Erik Demos. The results and responses were interesting to say the least. Several of the scripts were lost in the mail. About 90 were returned unread to Ross with the standard reasons: the agencies weren’t taking on new clients or wouldn’t read unsolicited manuscripts, etc.

However, almost three dozen agencies recognized the script which led to some interesting and even fun responses, such as “Unfortunately I’ve seen this picture before: 147 times to be exact.” Another said something to the effect that he’d like to do it but most of the people he’d cast in it were dead.

Several of the agencies found a similarity to Casablanca without realizing it was Casablanca. And thirty-eight said they’d read it but rejected it. Which meant that they didn’t recognize it and didn’t think it was good enough to represent, so much for them knowing their own Hollywood history. Some of their comments included:

“I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it.” Which is especially funny since if Casablanca is known for one thing it’s its sharp dialogue.

Another said, “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script.”

And there were more along these lines.

Now granted, times had changed and what people look for in scripts and movies has changed. For example, Rick, the Bogart character, isn’t introduced in the movie until about twelve minutes in, if I recall correctly. At least not in the form a flesh and blood actor. That said, we know Rick quite well before Bogart comes on-screen.

And Casablanca wasn’t the first time Ross had tried something like this. In 1975, concerned that the publishing industry looked poorly on unknown writers, he typed up twenty-one pages of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1969 National Book Award winner and best seller, Steps. He sent it to four publishers, including the book’s original publisher. You guessed it, his batting average was 1000. Four rejections.

After being criticized for his process, he decided to try again in 1979. This time typing up the entire book in manuscript form and sending it to fourteen publishers, including the original four again. This time he went under the name Erik Demos instead of his own. Guess what happened?

Unanimous rejection.

Here’s part of one response: “Several of us read your untitled novel here with admiration for writing and style. Jerzy Kosinski comes to mind as a point of comparison when reading the stark, chilly episodic incidents you have set down. The drawback to the manuscript, as it stands, is that it doesn’t add up to a satisfactory whole. It has some very impressive moments, but gives the impression of sketchiness and incompleteness.”

“Evidently, Kosinski is not as good as Kosinski when Demos is the name on the envelope,” was Ross’ response to all those rejections.

No quitter, he started stuffing more envelopes and licking more stamps. This time he sent queries to twenty-six literary agents. I think you know the response. Zero. Zed. Nada. To that Ross said, “[N]o one, neither publishers nor agents, recognized Kosinski’s already published book. Even more disappointing was the fact that no one thought it deserved to see print.”

And to be fair, there was some criticism of his choice of Steps as the book he chose for his experiment. But I’ll leave that for another time.

My point pretty much follows on Ross’s. And to paraphrase from Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that publishers or producers prefer name writers to unknowns.” So keep the faith, baby. Not all rejections are equal. And remember how fleeting glory is.

###

And now for the usual BSP:

Episode 2 of Writer Types from Eric Beetner and Steve W. Lauden is here, with a bunch of great stuff. Interviews and reviews with Reed Farrell Coleman, Joe Lansdale Jess Lourey, agent Amy Moore-Benson, Kris E Calvin, Danny Gardner, Kate Hackbarth Malmon, Dan Malmon, Erik Arneson, Dana Kaye and……….me. Be there or be y'know. 

Also, I’m over at the ITW Big Thrill—Thriller Roundtable this week talking about “How long does it take you to write a book? Why do some stories flow so much faster than others?” along with Karen Harper, Jean Harrington, David Alexander, Heidi Renee Mason, Winter Austin, Adrian Magson, Susan Fleet, A.J. Kerns and Ronnie Allen. – Please come and join in the discussion.

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


20 February 2017

Romancing the Crime

by Steve Liskow

Happy belated Valentine's Day to everyone. In keeping with the spirit, let's talk about love.


When I started writing mysteries, I read several other writers who eventually wrote themselves into a problem. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that it was a problem until I made the same mistake, and now I'm finally working my way out of it.

Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, Linda Barnes and Robert Crais all had their protagonists pursue relationships with lovers they met during various novels, and those couplings eventually caused the same problem: how do you give a lover who no longer influence the plot something worthwhile to do in your story?

Parker had Spenser meet Susan Silverman when she was involved in an early case, and their romance waxed and waned through the rest of the series. Susan left for training on the West Coast at one point and needed Spenser and Hawk to get her out of a jam in the following book, but for several books, her only link to the story is her psychiatric training that allowed her to help Spenser with varying degrees of success. If it weren't for the expert consulting angle, she could have disappeared.

Michael Connelly commented on his website that he doesn't plan very far ahead and that he wishes he had thought more carefully about some character choices. I suspect that Eleanor Wish heads his list of do-overs. She and Harry Bosch met in Connelly's first book and reunited several novels later. But after they married, she became less and less important except as the distaff side of a failing marriage. Now she's out of the picture and Harry is raising a teen-aged daughter alone.

Tess Gerritsen straddles that same line. Jane Rizzoli married Gabriel Dean, an FBI agent she met on a case, and now we see him for about five paragraphs per book, less than the average baby-daddy. At least he shares child-raising chores with Jane, but I wonder how long that will last. And Maura Isles, Jane's co-protagonist medical examiner, finally ended her own rocky romance.

I don't remember if Linda Barnes showed PI Carlotta Carlyle meeting Sam Gianelli, the son of a Mafia family, in an early book or whether they were already a couple when the series started. Either way, Sam has gained age and influence with his peer group and Carlotta, an ex-cop, is too much of an entangling alliance. The star-crossed lovers have gone their separate ways and Carlotta is looking more favorably on Mooney, the cop she's known from the very beginning.

Robert Crais introduced Lucy Chenier in the fifth Elvis Cole novel. Again, Lucy the lawyer was crucial for that story. Crais solved part of his problem by have Lucy, a divorcee with a young son, live in New Orleans while Cole worked in LA, so they talked on the phone but had little personal contact for the following books.

Then Lucy decided to move to LA, partly for a job, but mostly to be with Elvis. Unfortuantely, she could only give him so much legal advice without possible conflict of interest, and Crais finally ended their relationship in one of his best books, The Last Detective, where' Lucy's son is kidnapped while Elvis is taking care of him. There's lots of painful emotional fallout, and Lucy pulls the plug. She still gets cameo roles in later books, but Crais figured out that a romance doesn't fly unless both characters are on the plane.

I've learned that the hard way, too. Beth Shepard, AKA "Taliesyn Holroyd," was a client in Who Wrote the Book of Death? and she and Zach Barnes became lovers before that book ended.
I planned the book as a stand-alone, but reviewers and readers visited my website to ask when Zach and Beth were coming back. Oops. It's hard when the lover is a reporter, cop, or lawyer, but Beth is half of a pseudonymous romance writing team. Her expertise doesn't include chasing bad guys.

So far, that intended one-off has grown to five books, but Beth has increasingly little to do. She does provide a major clue in my WIP when a character is reading a book she's written under her own name, but she never shows up in person in that story. I'm considering having her do research that leads to a crime and plot in a future book, but I don't know the topic...yet.

Dennis Lehane seems to be the only one who did it right, and I'm not sure he knew that at the time. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro were working together as private investigators in Lehane's first book, and they already had a history, even though Patrick was divorced from Angie's sister and Angie's own marriage was beginning to trail smoke. Angie divorced in the second book and her relationship with Patrick has had more ups and downs than the Dow Jones average. The fourth and fifth books (my favorites) were especially painful. In Moonlight Mile, written over a decade later, Lehane gives the married couple closure.

Unless both halves of the team are actively involved in a case, there's a good chance the outsider is going to become excess baggage.

My "Woody" Guthrie books have learned from Zach and Beth. Megan Traine, Chris/Woody's girlfriend, is a computer wonk for the Detroit PD. She can contribute to the story and still bat her baby browns at the good guy.

How about you? Is a series romance turning into a serious problem?

19 February 2017

Florida News — Ebb Tide

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard The weather’s gorgeous. The temperature remains balmy while much of North America is recovering from snow and ice. Alligators are in love, kingfishers and heron trawl the waters, and nearby, Russian warships and airships frolic upon the ocean waves.

Pardon me for not discussing the Winter White House, foreign security sessions in public dining rooms, or Ivanka fashion. That’s outside our purview. The only related [fake] news is that my friend Thrush proposed turning our street into a sanctuary city for the lovely Marla Maples. I’m sure I don’t know what he means by that, other than he’s single.

The One-Day Work Week

Tampa, FL   I will touch on one point of political karma before moving on to recent news. Tampa area State Attorney Mark Ober has run unopposed in the past. According to records, he was so lackadaisical that he showed up for work about five days a month.

Maybe that’s okay if you have nothing pressing, but WalMart, a political donor, brought a $29 shoplifting charge against a 57-year-old wheelchair-bound lady. Ober sprang into action, threw on a bathrobe over his pajamas, found his office phone number in his smoking jacket pocket, and phoned in.

It’s not clear whether Ober’s (a)pathetic work ethic or WalMart donations encouraged him to pursue the case, but prosecute he did at considerable cost to Hillsborough County.

The main obstacle was the lady didn’t do it as proved by WalMart’s own video surveillance. Instead, first-day-on-the-job security guard Arismendy Rosario framed the lady apparently to show what a good little guard he was.

The jury took less than one minute to acquit. Jurors criticized the prosecutor for wasting time and money.

As for the election, Ober lost to US Department of Justice fraud prosecutor, Andrew Warren. At least Ober doesn’t have to get out of his jammies.

Target: Maybe Not the Best Name for a Store


Ocala, FL   The brilliant brain of financial genius Mark Barnett exploded with ideas how to manipulate Target Corporation’s price [TGT] by blowing the floor out of the market… and stores themselves.

According to reports, he didn’t bother leveraging options or short-selling like a really smart, evil guy, but merely planned to purchase stock after it plummeted following the detonation of bombs in a number of East Coast stores. Barnett invested $10 000 in hiring a felon to plant ten of the bombs.

Said felon turned Barnett in. The short-fused Barnett is now sitting firm on rock-solid Florida holdings.

© Orlando Sentinel
Dead Certain

Alachua, FL   Florida troopers came across a single-car accident, a car in a ditch. Inside, they found a woman. Apparently in hope of dodging a ticket, she insisted she wasn’t injured, merely dead.

When asked if she was wearing a seat belt, she replied, “Do I look stupid?” As she tried to buckle her belt, cops kindly refrained from answering.

Alcohol, as you might imagine, was involved.

Ball’s in Their Court

Gainesville, FL   Police officer Bobby White set out single-handedly to ruin my column critical of Florida officials. He defied logic, tradition, and the collective wisdom of his betters by applying gentle common sense on the job.

Answering a demand to deal with kids ‘disrupting’ a neighborhood by playing basketball at 17:00 hours or, to ordinary people, 5pm. Officer White raced to the scene of the alleged crime, leaped from his patrol car… and played a game of pick-up with the offenders.

I’m torn. He deserves a promotion where he might influence incoming rookies and entrenched authorities with his humanity, but doing so might take him off the streets, where he’d loved and respected.

Righteous, Brothers


Hermosa Beach, Ca   This addendum has nothing to do with Florida. Using a criticized DNA data mining technique, police identified the killer in an infamous four-decades-old murder case.

If you’re of an (un)certain age, you’re probably well aware of a talented music duo, the Righteous Brothers. Their ‘blue-eyed soul’ transcended genres and cultures, race and radio waves.

The singers couldn’t contrast more. Bill Medley was tall, dark, slender, and sang booming bass and baritone. Partner Bobby Hatfield was the opposite– shorter, pudgier, blond, and delivered a soaring counter-tenor.

You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling, Ebb Tide, Soul and Inspiration, Unchained Melody, White Cliffs of Dover… you know the songs.

Medley married– and divorced– Karen Klaas. Forty-one years ago, an unknown perpetrator raped and murdered her in her own home. Using mass sampling of familial DNA, police were able to isolate a suspect, a man killed in a 1982 prison escape and shootout with police.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.



† Look for a future article about familial DNA.

18 February 2017

As the Credits Go By


by John M. Floyd


In a column I posted at SleuthSayers several months ago, called "Crime (and Other) Scenes," I listed a hundred or so of my favorite movie moments, and the first category was my pick for the ten "best opening sequences." What I didn't mention, there, was that the music accompanying the opening credits can be as important as the images. Examples: The Magnificent SevenStar WarsThe Big CountryTop GunThe Pink PantherA Fistful of DollarsSuperman, and many others. And while that opening music piece often has the same title as the movie, like "Jaws Theme," "Goldfinger," "The Great Escape March," "Theme From A Summer Place," etc., sometimes the director uses a song with its own name, and occasionally one that wasn't originally written for the film.

Which brings us to today's post, and my challenge to you. Can you name the movies whose opening credits used the following fifty pieces of music? The first half are fairly easy; the rest of them, not so much.
(Warning: No Googling allowed. The Shadow knows.)


Here are the songs. Their movies are included below. Good luck!

1. "The Sound of Silence" -- Simon and Garfunkel
2. "Stayin' Alive" -- The Bee Gees
3. "Up Where We Belong" -- Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes
4. "Gonna Fly Now," -- Bill Conti
5. "Suicide Is Painless," -- Johnny Mandel
6. "When You Wish Upon a Star" -- Cliff Edwards
7. "The James Bond Theme" -- John Barry
8. "Born to Be Wild," -- Steppenwolf
9. "Everybody's Talkin'" -- Harry Nilsson
10. "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'" -- Frankie Laine
11. "The Circle of Life" -- Elton John
12. "The Windmills of Your Mind" -- Michel Legrand
13. "Nobody Does It Better" -- Carly Simon
14. "The Deadwood Stage" -- Ray Heindorf
15. "One Tin Soldier" -- Coven
16. "Holiday Road" -- Lindsey Buckingham
17. "Real Gone" -- Sheryl Crow
18. "Moon River" -- Henry Mancini
19. "Little Green Bag" -- The George Baker Selection
20. "Also Sprach Zarathustra" -- Richard Strauss
21. "The Rainbow Connection" -- Kermit the Frog
22. "All-Time High" -- Rita Coolidge
23. "You've Got a Friend in Me" -- Randy Newman
24. "Seventy-Six Trombones" -- Ray Heindorf
25. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- Marvin Gaye
26. "The End" -- The Doors
27. "As Time Goes By" -- Jimmy Durante
28. "I Can See Clearly Now" -- Johnny Nash
29. "Way Out There" -- Carter Burwell
30. "Misirlou" -- Dick Dale and the Del-Tones
31. "Come Softly to Me" -- The Fleetwoods
32. "Best of My Love" -- The Emotions
33. "The Times They Are A-Changing" -- Bob Dylan
34. "Rock Around the Clock" -- Buddy Holly
35. "Hound Dog" -- Elvis Presley
36. "What'll I Do?" -- William Atherton
37. "Tomorrow Is the Song I Sing" -- Richard Gillis
38. "Wish Me a Rainbow" -- Gunter Kallman Chorus
39. "I'm All Right" -- Kenny Loggins
40. "Sixteen Tons" -- Eric Burdon
41. "The Man Comes Around" -- Johnny Cash
42. "Across 110th Street" -- Bobby Womack
43. "For What It's Worth" -- Buffalo Springfield
44. "The Heat Is On" -- Glenn Frey
45. "The Immigrant Song" -- Led Zeppelin
46. "The Puppy Song" -- Harry Nilsson
47. "Summer in the City" -- Joe Cocker
48. "Dies Irae" -- Renny Harlin
49. "Gimme Shelter" -- The Rolling Stones
50. "It Had to Be You" -- Harry Connick, Jr.


Okay, that's it. Please put your pencils down and step away from your desks.


Answers:

1. The Graduate
2. Saturday Night Fever
3. An Officer and a Gentleman
4. Rocky
5. M*A*S*H
6. Pinocchio
7. Dr. No
8. Easy Rider
9. Midnight Cowboy
10. High Noon
11. The Lion King
12. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 version)
13. The Spy Who Loved Me
14. Calamity Jane
15. Billy Jack
16. National Lampoon's Vacation
17. Cars
18. Breakfast at Tiffany's
19. Reservoir Dogs
20. 2001
21. The Muppet Movie
22. Octopussy
23. Toy Story
24. The Music Man
25. The Big Chill
26. Apocalypse Now
27. Sleepless in Seattle
28. Grosse Point Blank
29. Raising Arizona
30. Pulp Fiction
31. Crossing Delancey
32. Boogie Nights
33. Watchmen
34. Blackboard Jungle (and, later, American Graffiti)
35. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
36. The Great Gatsby (1974 version)
37. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
38. This Property Is Condemned
39. Caddyshack
40. Joe Versus the Volcano
41. Dawn of the Dead
42. Jackie Brown
43. Full Metal Jacket (and, later, Lord of War)
44. Beverly Hills Cop
45. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
46. You've Got Mail
47. Die Hard With a Vengeance
48. The Shining
49. The Departed
50. When Harry Met Sally


Please grade your papers. And remember what happened to #6 when he didn't tell the truth.

Here's the deal. If you failed to answer any of the questions correctly, you need to get out more. My mother's almost 91, she probably hasn't watched an entire movie since The Sound of Music, and I think even she could've answered one or two. If you got 10 correct, that's pretty good, but you're still not up where you belong. If you got 20 right, I'm impressed. (All I had to do was pose the questions--I'd hate to see how few I could've answered without the cheat-sheet.) A score of 30 correct is excellent in anybody's book, and if you got 40 right, please send me your email address so I can get some movie recommendations. And if you correctly answered all 50, you are a certified, card-carrying cinema fanatic, and I'm seriously worried about you. To paraphrase the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, no more Netflix for you, one year! Get thee instead to a psychiatric ward.

A final question: Can you think of other opening songs for the list? And how about songs that play over the ending credits--I didn't even get into those. Or the openings for TV shows. ("Those Were the Days," "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," "Movin' On Up," "Runaway," "Harlem Nocturne," etc.) Quizzes for another day, maybe.


This kind of discussion makes me want to pop something like Escape From New York into the DVD player, put on my wireless headphones, crank up the volume, prop up my feet, and escape from more than just New York. Love that movie music.

No sounds of silence for me.






17 February 2017

Guest Post: Harley Mazuk, author of White with Fish, Red with Murder

By Art Taylor

It's my great pleasure to welcome to SleuthSayers today Harley Mazuk, a good friend and fine short story writer who's making his debut as a novelist at the end of February with White with Fish, Red with Murder. I've been a big fan of Harley's work since his first appearance in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine back in January 2011—his first publication period—with the story "The Tall Blonde with the Hot Boiler," featuring PI Frank Swiver. Swiver became a series character with other EQMM stories and is the protagonist of the new novel as well—a great character springing from Harley's own love for and keen attention to the history of detective fiction.

I asked Harley to give us a glimpse at the genesis for his debut novel and at the origins of the character himself. I'll turn it over to him here—along with a recommendation to check out the book itself, due February 28.


Writing the Book I'd Like to Read

 

By Harley Mazuk

“Write what you like” is common advice to beginning writers. When I realized that I had read all of Raymond Chandler’s novels, and most of his short stories, that I’d finished the Dashiell Hammett canon too, I was at a loss for what to read next. I decided to write the next private eye tale that I’d like to read.

I’m not deluded enough to think I could keep up with Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade. I didn’t want to write fan fiction either, but rather, something new, hopefully original, in the mode of Chandler, in the style of Hammett, a continuation of the work of these masters. I created a new private eye, Frank Swiver, a wino and a womanizer, and I set out to write stories inspired by pulp fiction, the Black Mask tradition.

I never intended to mimic Chandler’s style, with his wonderful over-the-top similes. To do so would be a sucker’s game, or a bad parody. I wanted to think like Chandler, but write like Harley. (This required copious applications of alcohol.) I wanted to create something of my own yet something that would curl into the reader’s subconscious and feel vaguely familiar.

I read The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler, a dandy little book with “Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story,” not to mention the addenda of 13 more including the pearl of wisdom: “The most effective way to conceal a simple mystery is behind another mystery. Make the reader solve the wrong problem.”

I bought a volume of Chandler’s letters, and learned he was rather an opinionated gent. And I read in “The Simple Art of Murder” of his admiration for Dashiell Hammett.

That took me to Hammett’s Moral Vision by Rhino Thompson. I added Hammett’s “24 Commandments” to Chandler’s “Twelve Notes,” (plus addenda). And I learned from an essay by Steven Marcus in The Continental Op that the P.I.’s job, when called out on a case, is to investigate the “reality” that anyone involved in the case will swear to, to deconstruct that account and construct a “reality” of his own, (a true fiction) of what really happened.

Harley Mazuk
What does the writer learn from Hammett? First, keep the prose simple. Use straightforward declarative sentences, like Hemingway might. Second, write in a voice like a private dick typing up his reports for the boss—give meticulous, objective descriptions of suspects, clothing, settings. Third, there’s value in setting your stories in situations where social institutions have broken down. And I added Hammett-like elements to my stories, such as troubled or unconventional romantic relationships, humor—preferably dry, understated wit—and a working class protagonist.

I learned to incorporate the tropes of pulp fiction I enjoy. What’s a novel without a curvy femme fatale with gorgeous gams and straight seams on her stockings? Throw in tough guys, a double cross, gunplay, murder, colorful slang, a sap to the back of the head, a crushed fedora, nefarious schemes, and . . . another double cross.

Where do I stray from the boundaries laid out by Chandler and Hammett? Well, Frank’s not a white knight like Marlowe. He’s a bit more noir-ish in that he’s lost and lonely, driven by lust as much as anything. But Frank Swiver has a moral code; it’s just not Marlowe’s moral code. Frank is non-violent, an observant (though straying) Roman Catholic, and a conscientious objector during times of military conscription. Can a pacifist make the grade as a P.I? After all, being a private dick can be a rough trade. Well, it has been a bit constraining in the types of cases Frank can take and the situations I can put him in—for instance, I don’t want to depend on a deus ex machina with a gun to burst in and save Frank. But so far (after two novels and seven or eight shorter works) putting Frank in jams and extricating him non-violently has been challenging and fun.

The other influence on Frank Swiver has been Ian Fleming’s James Bond. I chose Bond because of his totally inappropriate over-the-top drinking—a 2013 study of Fleming’s novels revealed that Bond averaged 92 drinks per week—and his ability to go into action thoroughly toasted. I also like Bond’s eye for the women, and his zest for sex, an angle I want in my stories, even if Marlowe was a bit puritanical in such matters.

P.I. Frank Swiver, of the Old Vine Detective Agency on Post Street in mid-20th century San Francisco, has turned into my “series” character. I’ve had a lot of luck with him. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine bought my first professional effort—“The Tall Blonde with the Hot Boiler”—in 2010 and put it in their “Black Mask” section. See? If they put it in Black Mask, I must be doing something right, attaining that pulp feel I want. And though it was a long slog, through agents and finally non-agented submissions, Driven Press bought my first novel—White with Fish, Red with Murder. After a long incubation process, my book is finally coming out this month. So if you’ve been waiting for the next installment in the glorious tradition of classic P.I. novels, Frank Swiver may be the shamus for you.

16 February 2017

They're baaaack.... or, Further Updates from South Dakota

by Eve Fisher

Here in South Dakota, we never quite do things the easy way.  As you may or may not remember, last November, we South Dakota voters passed four voter initiatives:

  • Amendment R, which transfers control of tech schools from local school boards to a new... something
  • Initiated Measure 21, which caps payday loans at 36%
  • Amendment S, "Marsy's Law", "creating constitutionally protected rights for crime victims"
  • Initiated Measure 22, on campaign finance reform.

So far Amendment R and Amendment S have been left relatively untouched.  Except that crime victims have to opt-in for their rights under Marsy's Law (something nobody mentioned in the high-profile ads that were running non-stop before the vote), and names, addresses, etc., may continue to be given to news media, insurance companies, etc.

But IM 21 is under challenge, thanks to a House Bill 1090, which - while keeping 36% as the maximum interest a lender can charge, adds all sorts of new fees that a lender can charge, including "fees for optional maintenance agreements and extended service contracts, official fees and taxes, sales tax, title fees, lien registration fees, and dealer documentary fees. Late fees, return check fees, and attorneys' fees incurred upon a consumer default." No wiggle room there, eh?  (Why do I get the feeling that someone in the legislature was trying to text Chuck Brennan - "come back!  all is forgiven!")

Image result for 2017 south dakota legislative session
Governor Daugaard, chastising the voters
And IM 22 - well, we've made the national news with that one. Governor Daugaard, who offered to veto it as soon as it passed, is still in a snit. “They were hoodwinked by scam artists who grossly misrepresented these proposed measures." To be fair, he has some reason to be upset and in a hurry to veto it:  "Gov. Dennis Daugaard has more than a million dollars in his campaign account which, if this law is killed by his legislators, he will be able to put into his own bank account. If IM 22 is able to stand, he will not be able to touch the money." (Argus Leader)

Meanwhile, our legislature is shocked, appalled, and offended that we think so little of them to have passed IM 22.  Some of those ads depicted lobbyists handing out cash!  As if they'd ever do that! After all, there is no corruption in this state.  EB-5, Gear-Up!, and that little sex scandal have all been taken care of.
NOTE:  Under the "you can't make this stuff up" column, our legislature rejected a bill to ban legislators from having sex or sexual contact with interns.  (My favorite defending quote, not to mention defender:  "I'm hesitant to pass something when we get into itemizing every potential wrongdoing that a legislator could commit, lest this become a criminal code rather than a code of ethics," Rep. David Lust, R-Rapid City.)  Seven days later, SD Representative Matt Wollman admitted to sexual contact with two interns and a few days later, resigned. But that doesn't mean we need any laws against that kind of thing...  
Anyway, the SD Legislature would like you to know that there is no corruption, no problems, IM 22 is unconstitutional, that's all (but they won't wait for a ruling from the SD Supreme Court), we voters were hoodwinked by out of town money (not that that's a problem when it's our legislators going to ALEC conferences on ALEC's dime, or when ads starring Kelsey Grammer and paid for by California billionaire Henry Nicholas are pushing Marsy's Law), and so they are pushing their anti-IM 22 legislation "emergency legislation". What's the emergency?  Well, under our constitution, emergency legislation is exempt from any referendum of, by and for the people (Article 3, Section 1).  So...  our SD Legislature's message seems to be pretty much, "sit down, shut up, you had your vote, you were wrong, and we say to hell with you."

IMG_0058
In a strikingly tone-deaf picture, four of our legislators -
who'd just voted to kill a commission to enforce
campaign finance regulations - posing with
make-believe “gold” watches that contained candy.
You really can't make this stuff up.
I understand that attitude has become a trend.  As this GOVERNING  headline says, "Don't Like the Ballot Measure Voters Approved? Just Ignore It, Some Lawmakers Say."  And the article says that we South Dakotans are not alone...

Anyway, on February 1st, our legislature struck down IM 22, taking time to lash back at the IM-22 campaign that painted them as corrupt, self-dealing politicians.  "I've not known anybody to accept a bribe, I've not known anybody to offer a bribe. In South Dakota, while we're not infallible, that has never been a concern," said Sen. Brock Greenfield, R-Clark. "There are no gold watches, there are no bags of cash."  (ARGUS LEADER) 

Really?  First of all take a look at the picture to the right, my friends.  Real classy, huh?

And, for Valentine's Day, South Dakota Senate killed a bill which would have set up a commission to enforce campaign finance law.

And then there are the idiots out there:  Rookie SD Rep. Neal Tapio (R-5/Watertown responded to a question about getting rid of Medicaid by saying (timestamp 54:35), “I want to kill it altogether.”
Three minutes and fifteen seconds later, in response to a follow-up question about how we proposes to take care of elderly, children, disabled, and other folks currently on Medicaid, Rep. Tapio said, “I’m not saying that we get rid of it.”

NOTE:  Rep. Neal Tapio was Presidential candidate Donald Trump's state campaign chairman...

Meanwhile, other times, other scandals...

joop.jpgAllow me to re-introduce you to Joop Bollen (a Dutch foreign national), who somehow was allowed by our own then-Governor Mike Rounds (currently our US Senator) and our current Attorney General Marty Jackley, to privatize EB-5 (cash for green cards, largely used by Chinese investors) and turn it over to himself via his own corporation (SDRC, Inc.).  Last April, AG Jackley finally indicted Bollen, for "misappropriating" funds - at the time counted at $1.2 million.  Yesterday, Mr. Bollen pleaded guilty to one felony count and got... 2 years probation.  ("Authorities" say he paid back most of the money, except for $167,000.)

This might not bother me so much if there still weren't $120 million missing from the EB-5 program, which had to have gone somewhere.

It also might not bother me if a woman in Sioux Falls wasn't facing 10 years for embezzling $57,000.00.  My bet is, she'll do time in prison, not probation.

Well, that's it for now.  More later, from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 




15 February 2017

Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing


by Robert Lopresti

I'm not sure this title fits the subject matter, but it's a pretty song.

As you are probably sick of being told, I review a short story every week.  I try to be a fair judge, treating every candidate equally but I admit that sometimes I will find myself rooting for a story to succeed because of a wonderful opening line, beautiful writing, or a great concept.  It's yours to lose.  Don't blow it!

And sometimes they succeed. But sometimes they blow it.

Recently I read a story with a great premise, one I loved so much I read a few key lines out loud to my wife.  I kept rolling along, having a great time, for the first three quarters of the narrative.  Then all four tires slowly deflated.

I'm not going to get specific because I don't say bad things about individual stories.  (There's a reason I review the best story each week.)  But vaguely, here's the plot:

The author establishes the great premise and deals with it, apparently resolving it.  Then a character is murdered.  The hero, call him Sam Sleuth, starts to investigate.  The character closest to him, call him X, is the Most Likely Suspect.

All of which is great.  Still rolling merrily.  But we are at the three-quarter point.

Sleuth begins to suspect that X really is  the killer.  He digs more, and finds evidence pointing in that direction.  He confronts X who more or less admits his guilt, but not in a way that would hold up in court.  And Sleuth vows to find a way to prove it.  The end.

That's no ending, says me.  Not a good  ending, anyway.  Our hero has been treading water for the last quarter.

So here are some suggestions as to how the author might have created a better conclusion, one which might have made my Best of the Week, if I liked the writing, and was in the right mood, and Saturn was on the cusp of Capricorn.

Good for the Soul.  Sleuth could have tricked/guilted X into a confession that would have held up in court.

In the Pudding.  Sleuth discovers proof that X did the killing.

Had it coming. X reveals (this requires a ton of foreshadowing) that the victim was such a horrible person that he deserved what he got.  Sleuth is convinced and tells him to go and sin no more.

Surprise Party.  It wasn't X at all!  Turns out it was Y, that dirty devil!

Reverse Surprise.  If our author really wants to end with Sleuth vowing to catch X, then Sleuth needs to think it is Y until - Boom - the Big Reveal.

Immune to Murder.  Sleuth is sure that X is guilty but he can never be convicted because he is the nephew of the President/Mafia Chief/Billionaire, or is the Ambassador from Barataria.  Much noirish brooding in bourbon follows.

Any of those had a chance to be better than what I got. But on the bright side, I got a blog out of it didn't I?  Now, back to a hunt for the Best.



14 February 2017

Do You Do Artist Dates?

by Melissa Yi

“The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore
something that interests you.” Julia Cameron

An artist date is permission to play. Every week, you are supposed to explore something that makes you smile.

When I first heard about them, I was excited, but I circled around the idea cautiously, like an animal scenting something new. What is this thing called play? Am I allowed to indulge in it, or do I have to spend every waking moment working as a doctor, a writer, and a mother?

For me, because I live in the country, one of the barriers is physically getting to something that interests me. It takes me an hour to drive to Montreal, 1.5 hours to drive to Ottawa, and more if there’s snow or traffic.

And yet, it’s almost always worth it.

I think this is why writers love conferences. You go from isolation to a collective army of smart, funny people who love the same things you do (reading, writing, and Riesling). You can get some of the same vibe online, but it’s not as fun as in person.

Steve Steinbock & Melissa Yi at Bloody Words 2014
“It’s Brigadoon!” said Steve Steinbock, of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, who suggested I come to Bloody Words, the former Canadian crime conference.

“Huh? What’s Brigadoon?”

He explained that it’s a town that materializes out of nowhere, and then it’s gone. “Brigadoon!”


“Brigadoon,” I repeated, still a bit confused, but enjoying his enthusiasm.

Another barrier for me is that I hate spending money. I went to Left Coast Crime last year, felt guilty about spending money, and quizzed other authors in attendance if they felt guilty, too. The answer: no, with the unspoken corollary of "Why are you wasting your time here worrying about it?" Stacy Allen was kind enough to answer in detail. She said something to the effect of, “You have a gift. Everyone here has a gift. It’s a crime not to use it.”
With thanks to Lisa de Nikolits for the photo!

I just spent a long, long weekend in Toronto. The main goal was speaking at OLA, the Ontario Library Association superconference, through Crime Writers of Canada, on the Friday. I spent my two minutes explaining the genesis of Stockholm Syndrome (chasing after an escaped prisoner, as I explained in my interview with CBC Radio's Robyn Bresnahan here), connected with new readers, learned of literary conferences in Renfrew and Kingston, met James Wigmore, an author who’s a retired forensic toxicologist, and Judy Penz Sheluk invited me to post on her blog.

I stayed extra-long so that I could sing in a mass choir with MILCK, my favourite new singer--a brave, talented, risk-taker whom I'd like to emulate in many ways.

How about you? Do you do artist dates? Do you spend money on your art, and on your writing career?

13 February 2017

Great Short Stories Revisited



by Jan Grape

I've been reading short stories in anthologies published in 1990s and 2000s. I blushingly admit I have stories in them and it started as a project of rereading my stories. Some I had forgotten like "Whatever Had To Be Done" published in Deadly Allies by Doubleday in 1992 and Bantam paperback in 1993. This was the first collaborative anthology by the Private Eye Writers of America and Sisters In Crime. It was edited by Robert J. Randisi and Marilyn Wallace. This story was probably my second story ever published where I actually received money. I had published two or three stories for small indie magazines that were subscription only and I was paid in copies.

The very first short story I had published happened in 1981 or so and I got $100 for it. It was not a mystery but a Christmas story published in the Wichita Falls City Magazine. I don't even have a copy of it anymore because Elmer, our kids and I moved a few times I remember. I think still had copies  on the last move to Austin. When Elmer and I moved out of our house and into our RV full time we ran out of time and I have no idea where my copies of that magazine wound up.

I do remember the story pretty well. My main character was myself and it was about returning to a small town and in every store I entered, people were friendly and full of the Christmas spirit. If I made a purchase the store gift-wrapped my purchase for free. I compared that joyful attitude to major city stores in Houston where I lived at the time. I'm not sure how the story ended and I don't remember the editor's name, gosh it was  35 or 36 years ago. However, I'll never forget her phone call to me. "Jan, I'm calling to tell you we're publishing your short story." I remember gushing a bit and then she said, "Actually, the story has already been published in this month's issue and along with a check for $100 I'm sending four or five copies of the magazine."

I was beside myself as was my family. I had been trying to be published for a couple of years, had a private-eye novel almost finished and this was my big dream. Good thing I didn't quit my day job because I didn't publish anything else for FIVE years and then only a couple of small articles, which I was paid real money for but nothing over the hundred I had first received.

The first, second and third stories I sold happened all about the same time. In Invitation to Murder published first in hardcover by Dark Harvest in 1990, paperback by Diamond in 1993, edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg, featured my story, "A Bunch of Mumbo Jumbo." In  Mary Higgins Presents Malice Domestic, from Pocket Books in 1993, featured "Arsenic and Old Ideas."
I received verbal acceptance, contracts and money all around the same time although Mumbo Jumbo was actually published first.

After than I was in many theme anthologies, in about 10-12 Cat Crime, Partners In Crime, Deadly Allies 11, Lethal Ladies 1 & ll, Santa Clues, Midnight Louie Pet Detectives, Murder For Mother and White House Pet Detective. I was lucky in that I found editors, including Bob Randisi, Ed Gorman and Marty Greenberg who liked what I did and kept buying my stories.

My 1998 Anthony Award winning story, "A Front Row Seat," was in Vengeance Is Hers anthology, edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins published by Penguin/Signet in 1997, featuring all hard-boiled women writers.

Shortly after that I finally sold my first Zoe Barrow, Austin policewoman novel and have only written a few short stories since. I enjoy the short form and have been able to feature my female private-eye characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn in around ten stories. They were characters from my very first novel which never sold.

I am so proud that many of my fellow SleuthSayers are short story writers and are being nominated and winning awards. I think the short story will continue to thrive although at times we think the heydays are over. I do appreciate Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine & Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine who keep publishing wonderful short stories every month. Maybe one day soon I'll crack that market.

12 February 2017

The Aging of Information

by Leigh Lundin

Ada, Countess of Lovelace
What degree of separation lies between the legendary Lord Byron and the developer of the first computer? The answer is one. In writing an article describing the connection, I fell into another story.

Wikipedia appears at the top of on-line searches. I often do quick look-ups because I know exactly where to glance to find a birth date, an affiliation, or a geographic location. As for opinion-free articles, it’s a bit less useful, but it provides links to launch research projects.

Supposedly anyone can edit Wikipedia but, for someone not familiar with the mountain of rules and the complexity of cliques and cadres with their own agendas, adding or modifying an article can drop one into a minefield. So I’m reading the article on Charles Babbage and I see a note questioning a salient point in the article. I knew I’d seen that before and found it in the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition. No harm opening Wikipedia and documenting that, right?

Except it was immediately reverted. What? Why?

“The reference is too old,” I’m told. That made the second time that’s happened to me.

Modern teenagers abhor anything ‘old’… old music, old movies, old technology, even if a song, film, or cell phone is a two-week-old antiquity, and God forbid if a recording or movie happens to be years old. But I had committed the unpardonable… I’d used a reference a century old, because the latest edition resides behind a paywall.

It never pays to argue with rabid Wiki bureaucrats, but I did. I pointed out Wikipedia was founded on the public domain 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. (Trivia: The Britannica was subsequently purchased by Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1920.)

Wikipedia’s administrator replied, “We don’t use it because it’s unreliable, sexist, racist, elitist, ethno-centrist, …” (and a passel of other -ists). In fact, no less than mystery author S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) claimed Britannica was “characterized by misstatement, inexcusable omissions, rabid and patriotic prejudices, personal animosities, blatant errors of fact, scholastic ignorance, gross neglect of non-British culture, an astounding egotism, and an undisguised contempt for American progress.”

Funny, that seems ironically close to the same accusations leveled at Wikipedia. But they try.

For three-quarters of a century, the massive encyclopedia has been lauded “the finest edition of the Britannica ever issued, and ranks with the Enciclopedia Italiana and the Espasa as one of the three greatest encyclopædias.” It was the edition when T. S. Eliot wrote Animula:
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Sir Kenneth Clark referred to Eliot’s poem when he wrote, “It must be the last encyclopædia in the tradition of Diderot (writer and editor of the famous French Encyclopédie) which assumes that information can be made memorable only when it is slightly coloured by prejudice.”

Therein lies the rub. The 1911 edition is prejudiced. Americans were struggling with racism, but Britain lagged far behind and it shows in the articles. Our physical sciences have pushed unimaginably ahead and mathematics was never Britannica’s strong suit.

My own Marshall McLuhan-like rule runs something like “Data is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom.” Data ages. Knowledge can be updated and kept current. But does wisdom age?

Should Socrates be ignored because he’s too ancient to know anything? Should the music of Bach, as I was told, stop being published because it’s ‘old’ and its attention shifted to young, new, upcoming songwriters? Should an entire century-old reference be discarded because some few articles are now out of date, racist or sexist?

What do you think?

Lord Byron and the Analytical Difference Engines

The irascible Lord Byron not only became the focus of modern romantic literature, he was also an example of the picaresque anti-hero found throughout English literature. He bore only one legitimate daughter, Augusta ‘Ada’ Byron, Countess of Lovelace, whom he called ‘Ada’.

Men of science and mathematics respected Ada for her brilliant mind and interest in ‘poetic science’. Starting as a teen, she became acquainted with Sir David Brewster, Andrew Crosse, Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, and Charles Babbage, this last introduced by her tutor, science writer and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville.

Babbage designed what many consider the first mechanical computer. We software people fondly refer to Ada Lovelace as our first programmer. We even named a programming language after her. That she’s not mentioned in the 11th edition might be less a case of sexism (Lord Byron isn’t listed either) and more a lack of prognostication– computers wouldn’t be invented for another half century. But to be sure, Lady Lovelace was well regarded in her own time and remains highly respected today.

Both Ada and her father died at the young age of 36.



Bonus material for picaresque/romance fans: Lord Byron as a Boy

11 February 2017

Remakes, Reinterpretations, and Replies

by B.K. Stevens

When I read that Kenneth Branagh is directing and starring in a new movie version of Murder on the Orient Express, I had mixed feelings. I love just about everything Branagh has done--his Dead Again is probably my favorite mystery movie of all time--and seeing him play Poirot is bound to be fun. But the 1974 movie version of Murder on the Orient Express is so delightful that making another one seems unnecessary. It also seems dangerous: Any new version is sure to be compared to the 1974 one, almost sure to suffer by comparison.

That got me thinking about movie remakes, wondering if it's possible to draw any tentative generalizations about why some work and some don't. I'm no expert on movies, but it seems to me that some of the best movie remakes are more than remakes: They're independent movies in their own right, genuine reinterpretations of an original text, a character, or a central premise. Other movies (or, in at least one case, television series) aren't remakes but seem shaped by an earlier movie in a fundamental way. They may extend some element of the original movie, or they may challenge it. For lack of a better term, I'll call them replies.


And that's my ulterior motive for writing this post. For fear of burying my lede, I'll tell you right now: If you haven't seen a quiet 2012 movie called Liberal Arts, I think you should. Better yet, re-watch Woody Allen's Manhattan, and then watch Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts. I think Liberal Arts is wonderful, and I think it may represent a truly creative way of responding to a classic movie. More about that later.

For now, back to remakes. We often regard them skeptically, partly because there are so many of them: Apparently, 2017 will bring us remakes of everything from The Mummy to Disney's Beauty and the Beast (live action this time) to Death Wish. "Why," we ask, "can't Hollywood come up with something new, instead of recycling the same old plots?" Writers have special reasons for feeling that way. If Kenneth Branagh wants to make a mystery movie, why crank out yet another version of Murder on the Orient Express, when he's more than welcome to the screen rights for our stories and novels?

And we've all seen remakes that disappointed us, irritated us, perhaps left us sputtering with disbelief and indignation. (Obviously, the opinions I'm about to express are my own opinions and nothing more. I apologize if they disappoint you, irritate you, or leave you sputtering.) For example, I was looking forward to the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. I enjoyed the 1960 movie and didn't see any reason not to remake it--after all, it's a remake itself, of 1954's Seven Samurai. Plus, like just about everyone else, I love Denzel Washington. But the remake left me cold. The cast is more diverse than the 1960 one, the acting is fine, the action scenes are well choreographed (and very long), and some details are educational--who knew pioneer women showed so much decolletage? Aside from that, though, not much about the 2016 version is new. And, at least to me, characterization seems weak. In the 1960 movie, each of the seven becomes a distinct, memorable character, often after only a few minutes of screen time. In the remake, as one after another of the seven fell during the final shootout, I had to keep asking my husband, "Which one was that?" And I found myself wondering why the director decided to remake the movie in the first place, since he didn't seem to have anything new to say.

I wondered the same thing when I saw the 2010 remake of 1984's The Karate Kid. (My husband is a fifth-degree black belt, so I have seen every martial arts movie ever made.) The remake takes place in Beijing rather than Los Angeles, and the protagonist is five or six years younger. Other than that, it's almost the same movie. (The director even kept the romantic subplot, so we're treated to the slightly creepy experience of watching two twelve-year-olds kiss. Some additional tweaking of the old script might have been nice.) I'll admit I skipped the remakes of Arthur and The Pink Panther. In each case, I think, the original movie's appeal rests primarily on one actor's remarkable performance, and I doubted the replacement actor could equal it; reviews I've read and comments I've heard confirmed my doubts. I did see the remakes of The Wicker Man and The Haunting, and I wish I hadn't. Remakes that awful feel like insults to the original movies. In general, I think remakes are unlikely to succeed if they feel like no more than attempts to reach a younger audience, promote a promising actor, amp up the special effects, or cash in on a popular movie's name.

But we've probably all seen remakes we enjoyed, too. I liked the 1995 remake of Sabrina and the 1978 Heaven Can Wait (a remake of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan). With both, it may have helped that I hadn't seen the original movies first and wasn't tempted to make comparisons--I could simply enjoy the new versions as clever, well-acted movies. After watching the remakes, I made a point of watching the original movies and enjoyed those, too. So maybe that's one thing to be said for remakes: The good ones may attract some new viewers for classic movies.

And a pretty good remake my help us more fully appreciate the qualities that make the original movie excellent. For example, I think 1998's A Perfect Murder is a respectable remake of 1954's Dial M for Murder. It borrows key elements (yes, that's a pun) from the original movie but doesn't follow it slavishly. For one thing, the newer movie tries to make the wife a stronger, more independent character--she's highly educated, she has an important job, and she investigates the murder on her own and figures out part of the mystery for herself. She can also be unbelievably gullible, though, and she takes foolish risks that seem inconsistent with her character. And when we compare A Perfect Murder with Dial M for Murder, we see how much has been lost. The humor and the irony are gone. The relationships are less complex, and the characters aren't as subtle and fascinating. (A special note to writers: While preparing to write this post, I re-watched both movies, and it struck me that the characters and relationships in Dial M for Murder are more complex, subtle, and fascinating partly because Hitchcock allows himself two long stretches of dialogue we would today disdain as "info dumps." Yes, it's back story. Yes, the characters are telling and not showing. But it's done well, the back story is engrossing, and telling is probably the only concise way of giving the action a depth it would otherwise lack. Maybe we should reconsider some of the current truisms we all repeat with such confidence.) My guess is that fifty years from now--a safe prediction, since I won't be around to have to admit it if I'm wrong--people will still be watching and enjoying Dial M for Murder, and A Perfect Murder will be, at most, a footnote in books on screen history. It's not a bad movie, though, and if you've got a couple of hours to spare, you might give it a try.

Once in a while,  a remake may be even better than the original, or at least so good that it's debatable. I'd put the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate in that category. It follows the general outline of the 1962 movie but makes fundamental changes in plot, characters, and theme. It's an interesting movie in its own right, we can see a legitimate reason for returning to the story and reworking it to comment on contemporary situations, and some viewers (including me) think the overall production rises above the impressive original. This time, Denzel Washington found a remake worthy of his talents.

People can also debate the relative merits of the 1956 and 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and some will stick up for a 2007 remake called The Invasion. The two remakes aren't simply glitzier versions of the original: Each makes major changes in plot and characters, and each develops its own themes. People can debate about the themes, too. Does the 1956 original comment on Cold War tensions, with the pod people representing either soulless Communist infiltrators or followers of Joseph McCarthy bent on suppressing nonconformity? (Each theory has its advocates.) Does the 1978 remake reflect a post-Watergate view of government as riddled with conspiracies? What do we make of all the references to the Iraq war in the 2007 version? The two remakes also offer different ways of resolving a logistical problem the original movie ignores: Once a pod person takes over a human's mind, what happens to the human's body?

All three of these movies, as you may know, are adaptations of Jack Finney's 1954 science fiction novel, The Body Snatchers. So should the two later versions be seen as remakes of the original movie, or as reinterpretations of Finney's novel? I can't answer that question--I don't know if the people who made the later movies even read the novel--but I do think some movies often called remakes might more aptly be called reinterpretations. For example, there's the 2010 True Grit. Like its 1969 predecessor, the 2010 movie is based on a 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name. I haven't read True Grit, but all the reviews and articles I've seen agree the second movie follows the novel more closely than the first one with regard to plot, characters, tone, and other elements. And Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote, directed, and produced the 2010 movie, have said they decided to make it because they were intrigued by the book and particularly by the voice of its narrator, Mattie. In this case, then, "reinterpretation" may be more accurate than "remake."

That may also be the term to use when talking about the many movie versions of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, of other novels and stories, of plays by Shakespeare and others, of legends such as the story of Robin Hood, and so on. It's probably helpful to see most of these as reinterpretations of the original source, more than as remakes of earlier movies. That's what I hope Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express will be--a fresh interpretation of Agatha Christie's novel, not just an attempt to duplicate the success of the 1974 movie. After all, there have been several film versions of Ten Little Indians / And Then There Were None. When a story's so gripping, it's no wonder many moviemakers want to take a turn at telling it.

Branagh still faces a daunting challenge, since the 1974 movie was so good. It's almost like attempting another movie version of The Godfather or To Kill a Mockingbird--probably not a smart move. (People are welcome to keep making movie versions of Pride and Prejudice, though, until somebody finally gets it right. In my opinion--and again, it's merely an opinion--the only movie that does Jane Austen justice is Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility. It still breaks my heart that Thompson and Branagh got divorced.) Anyway, I wish Kenneth Branagh well with his reinterpretation. I can't think of anyone more likely to succeed at the task he's taken on.

And then there are some movies and television series that can't really be called either remakes or reinterpretations but still seem linked to earlier movies, either explicitly or implicitly. I don't know if there's an official term for them, so I'll just call them replies. For example, the television series Fargo isn't a remake, but the movie version clearly supplies its inspiration. The movie and the series share a Minnesota setting and similar characters and plots: People who don't think of themselves as criminals blunder into crime and end up destroying many lives, including their own; ruthless criminals help spread the misery; and ordinary, hard-working police officers restore order, both by bringing the guilty to justice and by providing a redemptive model of decency and simple family joys. The pattern is the same, but each season of the series has introduced new characters and stories. To me, the television series Fargo provides an interesting alternative to remakes and sequels. (It doesn't hurt, of course, that the writing and acting are so consistently excellent.)

Then there's Liberal Arts. I don't have proof--I've spent several hours looking around online but could never find confirmation--but I think Josh Radnor's 2012 Liberal Arts is a reply to Woody Allen's 1979 Manhattan. This has been a pet theory of mine for some time, and I'd love to know what you think. (I'd also love it if you'd give Liberal Arts a try--and I'm not saying that only because writer, director, and star Josh Radnor and I are both Kenyon College alumni, and most of the movie is filmed on Kenyon's exquisite campus. I've never met Mr. Radnor, and I don't own stock in the movie. Wish I did.)

Liberal Arts centers on the attraction between thirty-five-year-old Jesse and nineteen-year-old Zibby. (Sound familiar?) Jesse's a bookish, discontented admissions counselor at a New York City college. He goes back to Kenyon for a favorite professor's retirement dinner and meets Zibby, a sophomore. They strike up a friendship. The next day, they take a long walk around campus, talking about books, music, life. After he returns to New York, they write to each other, and the friendship deepens. She invites him to come back to campus to visit her. When he does, she says she wants to have a sexual relationship with him.

I'll stop the plot summary there, both for fear of spoiling the movie for you and in hopes of enticing you to see it. Instead, I'll mention a few similarities and differences between Liberal Arts and Manhattan--I assume you've all seen Manhattan, so I won't worry about spoiling that. Manhattan is set entirely in--well, Manhattan; Liberal Arts balances New York scenes against scenes set in the nearly pastoral village of Gambier, Ohio. In both movies, the age difference between the man and the woman is considerable, but Manhattan's Isaac is forty-two, and Tracy is seventeen--a significantly larger difference, especially since Tracy's still in high school and below the legal age of consent. Isaac's fiercely solipsistic, almost exclusively focused on his own problems and needs. He cites concern for Tracy's welfare as his reason for breaking up with her, but is his attraction to another woman his real motive? When his relationship with the other woman ends, and a depressed Isaac realizes "Tracy's face" is one of the things that makes his life worth living, he tries to persuade her to come back to him, even though she's about to embark on a journey that could enrich her life.


Jesse, like Isaac, spends time fretting about his needs and disappointments. But he clearly cares about other people, too, including Dean, a brilliant but troubled student Jesse meets during his first trip back to Kenyon. When Dean's life comes to a crisis, Jesse rushes to the college again to help him through. And when eminently desirable Zibby invites Jesse into her bed, he responds with sentiments seldom expressed in movies these days. "I believe in consequences," he says. "No, you believe in guilt," she counters. "Maybe," he admits. "But guilt before we act is called morality."

Well, that's probably a spoiler. But it's one of my primary reasons for thinking Liberal Arts is a reply to Manhattan. Both movies are well-written, well-acted, visually stunning, deliciously witty. Both center on similar situations. But the protagonist in Manhattan is ruled by his desires, and the protagonist in Liberal Arts can put his desires aside and make careful moral choices--again, something we seldom encounter in movies these days. Does Josh Radnor see Liberal Arts as a reply to Manhattan? Did he ever even see Woody Allen's movie? I don't know. If he didn't, it's a remarkable coincidence--the kind of coincidence any good mystery writer rejects as unbelievable.

When I was a freshman at Kenyon College, taking a year-long survey course in the history of British literature, I was often struck by the way the writers we studied seemed to be carrying on a dialogue with each other, a dialogue stretching across centuries. Writers alluded to their predecessors, imitated them, rebelled against them, borrowed from them, reshaped what they borrowed. It's natural for writers to influence each other and try to outdo each other. Moviemakers seem to be engaged in a dialogue with their predecessors, too. At this point, the dialogue often takes the form of remakes. As time goes on, the dialogue may become more varied, as writers and directors discover new ways to respond to movies that inspire or provoke them. In the meantime, we viewers wade through many remakes, avoiding or enduring the mediocre ones, surprised by joy when an old favorite gets transformed into a new delight.


Are there movie remakes or reinterpretations you especially like or dislike? Are there movies you see as replies to earlier ones? If I've maligned a movie you love or praised one you despise, please don't hesitate to say so. People get passionate about movies--that's one thing that makes talking about them so much fun. And I'm sure we'll all be nice to each other.

As others have already noted, three SleuthSayers have been nominated for the Best Short Story Agatha this year--Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, and me. Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell have been nominated, too. I'm thrilled and honored to be named along with these fine writers. You can read all the nominated stories here.