17 June 2024

Reverse Bucket List

Things I will never do (in some cases, again):


Jump out of an airplane, with or without a parachute.

Eat an insect, even if cockroaches are more closely related to lobsters than spiders.

Drive 100 miles an hour, even on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Climb Mt. Everest.

Climb a ladder to change a light bulb more than eight feet off the ground.

Sing Karaoke.

Descend in a submarine of any type.

never-do item

Pose naked in a figure drawing class.

Ever spend another minute in:

  • Hampton, New Hampshire
  • Camden, New Jersey
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Altoona, Pennsylvania
  • A 6th grade talent show

Compete in a talent show.

Celebrate New Years Day in Times Square.

Buy a lottery ticket.

Greyhound bus

Check into an ashram to find enlightenment.

Ride a Greyhound from New York to California.

Bungie jump.

Go to Disney Land. Disney World. Birthplace of Walt Disney.

Run a marathon.

Run for political office of any kind.

Run with the bulls.

never-do item


Dive off a ten-meter platform.

Learn Mandarin Chinese.

Complete my own federal tax return.

Program a universal remote control.

Rebuild an automatic transmission.

Hike the Appalachian Trail.

Reason with a teenaged girl.

never-do item

Saw off a body part to free myself from a boulder (easier than the above item.)

Roof the house.

Paint the house.

Paint my nails.

Paint still lifes.

Perform origami. Or auto harp.

Attend a concert in a sports stadium.

Ride a unicycle.

Ride a roller coaster. Luge.

never-do item

Descend into a coal mine.

Change genders.

Take up gourmet cooking.

Publish a cookbook.

Hang glide.

Drive a motorcycle.

Drive an 18-wheeler.

Ride a mechanical bull.


Drink a glass of tap water in Tijuana, Mexico.

Spend more than one hundred dollars in a casino.

Try to play a violin.

Be rude to a checkout clerk/waitress/flight attendant/bouncer.

Cut down a tree with a diameter greater than 12 inches.

Change my own oil.


Remove my own appendix (maybe in a pinch).

Dye my hair.

Tap dance.



Buy bitcoin.


Go to a sporting event with my face painted in my team’s colors.

Understand quantum mechanics, though I keep trying.

Sail to Bermuda.

Or across the Atlantic Ocean. Or the Pacific Ocean. Or any other large body of water without a helicopter on the foredeck ready to fly me to dry land.

Stop opposing racism, sexism, fatism, ageism, culturalism or any other ism that threatens or demeans any distinct group of people.

Stop opposing political correctness or any other curtailment of free speech.

Have cosmetic surgery.

Swallow a sword.

sword swallower

Eat a glass.

Watch daytime television (even worse).

Join a fraternal organization.

Affiliate with a political party.

Attend a fundraiser for a political candidate.

Assert the merits of a political position with a stranger.

Mountain climb.


Dress up in drag.


Get a tattoo.

Travel to Moldova.

Open a retail outlet.

Teach kindergarten, or any course south of post graduate.

Compete in a hot dog eating contest.

disgusting hotdog eating contest


Slaughter a pig, or any other animal.

It might be hypocritical, since I eat meat, but I couldn’t do the deed myself. I can’t even catch a fish or step on a bug.


Write a negative book review (if you can't write anything nice, don't write anything at all).

16 June 2024

Darkling at Dawn

I was adopted.

No, I don’t mean I was abandoned or orphaned, although strictly speaking, most of us are as parents pass on.

Melayna plays the horns
Melayna as Valkyrie

My adoption happened a mere 3-4 years ago. At the time, not only was I supposedly, theoretically adult (adulterated?), but so was Layna. Words like putative, ostensible, and purported might be useful here when talking about grown-uptitude.

Before we met, Melayna told her mother not to expect her to like me, but soon my charm, my wit, and my bountiful modesty won her over.

Frankly, she won my respect and admiration. I’ve mentioned elsewhere she saved a man’s life one stormy night at no small risk to herself.

Convenience Store

While she was pursuing her medical education, she briefly worked the night shift at 7-Eleven north of Orlando’s main airport near the East-West Expressway. I worried about her safety and picked her up one night.

She puzzled me by spending a few minutes buying a hot sandwich, a cold juice, chips, a candy bar, and an apple. I knew her mother had dinner awaiting her at home, but I said nothing.

As I headed toward my car, she swerved toward the dumpsters. There she handed the food she’d bought to a homeless man, a derelict who thanked her by name. He was a man others mistreated, but not Layna. I thanked him for keeping an eye on her.

Melayna as biker chick

Grocery Store

So here’s a girl, my polar opposite in many ways, an Illustrated Woman whose fifty-some tattoos could have inspired another two Ray Bradbury novels. This photo from an earlier article shows one side, but she’s one ruff-tuff creme puff.

When she grocery shops, she enquires what I might need. She’s even careful about date stamps on milk.

On forms that ask for emergency contacts, I list her as number one. If hospitals want to pull the plug, Hell will freeze before she allows that to happen. As Erma Bombeck noted, as we age, the child becomes the parent and the parent the child.

My friend Steve is the same way. His ancient, creaking, blind and deaf dog was like a pet out of a Vincent Price reanimated movie. The line between living and taxidermied became thinner than a microtome slice.

Daddy Tissues

I’m not sure when Melayna began calling me Dad… Daddy. The first time, I wasn’t certain I heard right, but I was flattered.

Lil Darkling baby vampire tattoo design

I skipped the Terrible Twos and dodged the Know-It-All Nines. I didn’t suffer through those fractious teenage years. I missed all that floor-pacing at 2am wondering where my child was. Arguably I’ve unduly benefited.

Or course when I say we’re opposites, it’s only superficially true. I admire her kindness and consideration. She loves animals. Like my brother, she knows music well beyond her decades.

We share the same twisted sense of humor. Many times, one of us will remark sotto voce. Nobody else gets it, but I catch her eye in the rearview mirror, a quiet joke shared. Her mother thinks we should DNA test to be sure we’re not related.

For her birthday, I tentatively created a tattoo for her. Her mother opposed tats and had made her promise not to increase her art count until mama was long gone. So I showed her mom what I’d created and braced for the firestorm. The conversation went,

Never, ever! Over my dead body will I allow… Oh, my God, it’s so cute. It’s her! She’ll love it. Yes, okay this once, yes.”

I assigned the Lil Darkling baby vampire copyright to Melayna to share or not as she wishes.

Follow the Bouncing Balls

Josh, Katrina, Ezra infant trying to talk cartoon

Melayna came with a couple of hatchlings of her own. Her XY offspring recently adopted an infant. I sketched a cartoon for the happy couple. Before giving it to them, I asked others to critique and comment in an effort to nail the humor. To my dismay, no one got the joke. I began to consider adding a caption, when someone sent a draft to the parents… and they got it immediately. They’re the ones who counted. Yay, win!

And me, I’ve leapt from zero kids to a multi-generational great-grand-something. And that’s great-great.

Just in case you have a life outside of texting on your phone, many message apps, sensing the person on the other end is preparing a message, display an indicator of three dots rotating on the screen. For this article, I animated the dots, an advantage my poor test subjects didn’t have.

15 June 2024

Go Do That Voodoo That You Do So Well

For those who are wondering what kind of instruction that might be, my title today is a quote by the goofy character Hedley Lamarr, in the goofy movie Blazing Saddles.

What made me think of it was a post I saw on Facebook the other day from my friend and former Criminal Brief colleague Melodie Johnson Howe:

"Blazing Saddles has just been edited for television. It will air tonight from 8:00-8:07 PM."

The point, of course, was that cutting out the offensive parts for network TV did away with most of the movie. And if you doubt there were a lot of those parts, watch it again sometime, intact. Remember, Blazing Saddles came out exactly fifty years ago--I saw it with several buddies during my first class with IBM (a six-week course on the West Coast in '74)--and we thought it was HILARIOUS. I still think so. But that was a far less politically-correct era, back then, and movie directors, like authors, were able to more freely do that voodoo they do so well.

We all know that moviemakers and writers have to be more careful these days about what they show or say in the course of the story. Sometimes it's about offensive content, but it's also about plain old mistakes in logic or continuity or geography, etc., which I think were more often forgiven in the past than they are today. Most movie addicts know about the gas canister in Gladiator, the bulletholes in the wall in Pulp Fiction, the hands-over-the-ears before the gunshot in North by Northwest, the snow-capped peaks in Arkansas in True Grit, and many others, and mystery novel fans still complain about Raymond Chandler's chauffeur-murder plot hole in The Big Sleep

I myself make plenty of mistakes in my stories, in the plot and elsewhere. I've usually been fortunate enough to find and correct those during the writing process, but sometimes the editor discovers them, for which I'm always grateful but always embarrassed. Especially if the editor is also a friend, like Barb Goffman or Josh Pachter or Michael Bracken. I should know better, and they know I should know better. On a very few stories, I've made mistakes and editors did not catch them, and I found out about those screwups only after a reader told me about them or I spotted them myself in the magazines after publication. That's really embarrassing. 

I hate to admit this, but in one of my stories in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post, I mentioned that a certain horse was a mare, and then, two thousand words later, said one of the characters "led the horse over to a fencepost and tied him to it." Tied him to it, not her. I can picture Mr. Rogers now, smiling in his sweater and sneakers and saying, "Children, can you say, 'proofread'?"'

For those of you who write shorts, have you ever committed that kind of error? (I'm referring mostly here to plot mistakes, factual mistakes, continuity mistakes, switching tenses, switching POVs, etc.--serious flubs, not grammar/style errors or typos.) If so, did the editors catch them? When editors find problems of any kind and recommend changes, do you always welcome their suggestions? Have you ever refused them? Can you list any examples?

In closing, I recall a piece of unrelated advice given to me long ago by an old friend from Alaska. My wife went with me on one of my IBM trips to Anchorage in the 1980s, and while we were there, a co-worker of mine took us with him for a week on his boat to some of the wild and seldom-visited islands in Prince William Sound. As we were trudging through those woods one day after sighting a bear in the distance, he told us there was a rule hunters follow if they're ever in a situation where they're forced to shoot a grizzly to defend themselves. He said, "You shoot him as many times as you can, then shoot him again, and when you're sure he's dead you shoot him again. Then, when you're positively, absolutely sure, beyond all possible doubt, that he's dead, you shoot him one more time.

That sounds brutal, but it ensures that you won't be dead, which should be your top priority. And that kind of thinking can also apply, in a far less serious way, to one part of writing. When you finish reading your final manuscript and you're convinced it's free of mistakes, read it again, and then when you're absolutely certain it's free of mistakes, before you submit it anywhere, read it one more time.

Now, if only I could make myself do that.

14 June 2024

So damn tired of politics

Turn off the TV. Get online and mute everything about politics.

Try this one.


Best parts:

Cowboy rolling yarn.

Cowboy – "Anybody can herd cattle."

Cowboy – "His face is just ripped to shreds."

Cowboy – "I'm livin' a dream."

And this one.


So many good parts:

"Duel Bag."

"Not a big fan of that look."

"All I did was tell my wife that her mom looked hot in a bathing suit."

"Trick question."

Another one.


Can't stop laughing:

"Don't feed him yet."

"This is sand. You know what its gonna be in a hundred years from now? It's gonna be sand!"

One more.


Just watch it. Every second is spectacular.

This last one is a Kristen Wiig skit from Saturday Night Live.

I should get back to blogging about writing next time.

That's all for now, folks.



13 June 2024

The Timeless Advice of Dylan Thomas

We have all run across people who ask us the damnedest questions, sometimes so stupid they beggar belief:

"How do I write a bestseller?" Look, if I knew, I'd be doing a tour of morning news shows.

"Do you have Stephen King's address and phone number?" No, and I doubt if he has mine, either.

"Could I make more money writing spy thrillers or horror stories?" Flip a coin, flip a coin.

"I have a great idea - do you know a good agent?" No. The only people who get to pitch ideas are Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, James Patterson, et al, and all they have to do is whisper, and the contract shows up.

"I have a great idea - you could write it, and we'd split the profits 50/50." Better yet, you write it and I won't read it.


But sometimes someone writes the most brilliant response to all these questions. Back in 1951 or thereabouts, the editor of "Circus" asked Dylan Thomas "to describe the steps which help to establish a popular poet in England today. It was an opportunity for irony which he has not wasted."


How to Be a Poet or the Ascent of Parnassus Made Easy
by Dylan Thomas

Let me, at once, make it clear that I am not considering, in these supposedly informative jotrhythmic, Poetry as an Art or a Craft, as the rhythmic verbal expression of a spiritual necessity or urge, but solely as the means to a social end; that end being the achievement of a status in society solid enough to warrant the poet discarding and expunging those affectations, so essential in the early stages, of speech, dress, and behavior; an income large enough to satisfy his physical demands, unless he has already fallen victim to the Poet’s Evil, or Great Wen; and a permanent security from the fear of having to write any more. I do not intend to ask, let alone to answer, the question, “Is Poetry a Good Thing?” but only, “Can Poetry Be Made Good Business?"

I shall, to begin with, introduce to you a few of the main types of poets who have made the social and financial grade.

First, though not in order of importance, is the poet who has emerged docketed “lyrical,” from the Civil Service. He can be divided, so far as his physical appearance goes, into two types.

He is either thin, not to say of a shagged-out appearance, with lips as fulsome, sensual, and inviting as a hen’s ovipositor, bald from all too maculate birth, his eyes made small and reddened by reading books in French, a language he cannot understand, in an attic in the provinces while young and repellent, his voice like the noise of a mouse’s nail on tinfoil, his nostrils transparent, his breath gray; or else he is jowlcd and bushy, with curved pipe and his nose full of dottle, the look of all Sussex in his stingo’d eyes, his burry tweeds smelling of the dogs he loathes, with a voice like a literate Airedale’s that has learned its vowels by correspondence course, and an intimate friend of Chesterton’s, whom he never met.

Let us see in what manner our man has arrived at his present and enviable position as the Poet who has made Poetry Pay:

Dropped into the Civil Service at an age when many of our young poets now are running away to Broadcasting House, today’s equivalent of the Sea, he is at first lost to sight in the mountains of red tape which, in future years, he is so mordantly, though with a wry and puckered smile, to dismiss in a paragraph in his “Around and About My Shelves.” After a few years, he begins to peer out from the forms and files in which he leads his ordered, nibbling life, and picks up a cheese crumb here, a dropping there, in his ink-stained thumbs. His ears are uncannily sensitive: he can hear an opening being opened a block of offices away.

And soon he learns that a poem in a Civil Service magazine is, if not a step up the ladder, at least a lick in the right direction. And he writes a poem. It is, of course, about Nature; it confesses a wish to escape from humdrum routine and embrace the unsophisticated life of the farm laborer; he desires, though without scandal, to wake up with the birds; he expresses the opinion that a plowshare, not a pen, best fits his little strength; a decorous pantheist, he is one with the rill, the rhyming mill, the rosy-bottomed milkmaid, the russet-cheeked rat-catcher, swains, swine, pipits, pippins. You can smell the country in his poems, the fields, the flowers, the armpits of Triptolemus, the barns, the byres, the hay, and, most of all, the corn. The poem is published. A single lyrical extract from the beginning must suffice: —

The roaring street is hushed!
Hushed, do I say?
The wing of a bird has brushed
Time’s cobwebs away.
Still, still as death, the air
Over the gray stones!
And over the gray thoroughfare
I hear — sweet tones! —
A blackbird open its bill,
— A blackbird, aye! —
And sing its liquid fill
From the London sky.

A little time after the publication of the poem, he is nodded to in the corridor by Hotchkiss of Inland Revenue... Hotchkiss, lunching with Sowerby of Customs, himself a literary figure of importance with a weekly column in Will o’ Lincoln’s Weekly and his name on the editorial list of the Masterpiece of the Fortnight Club (volumes at reduced rates to all writers, and a complete set of the works of Mary Webb quarter-price at Christmas), says casually, “You’ve rather a promising fellow in your department, Sowerby. Young Cribbe. I’ve been reading a little thing of his, ‘I desire the Curlew.’” And Cribbe’s name goes the small fetid rounds.

He is next asked to contribute a group of poems to Hotchkiss’s anthology, “New Pipes,” which Sowerby praises — “a rare gift for the haunting phrase” — in Will o’ Lincoln’s. Cribbe sends copies of the anthology, each laboriously signed, “To the greatest living English poet, in homage,” to twenty of the dullest poets still on their hind legs. Some of his inscribed gifts are acknowledged. Sir Tom Knight spares a few generous, though bemused, moments to scribble a message on a sheet of crested writing paper removed, during a never-to-be-repeated week-end visit, from a shortsighted but not all that shortsighted peer. “Dear Mr. Crabbe,” Sir Tom writes, '’I appreciate your little tribute. Your poem, ‘Nocturne with Lilies,’ is worthy of Shanks. Go on. Go on. There is room on the mount.” The fact that Cribbe’s poem is not “Nocturne with Lilies” at all, but “On Hearing Delius by a Lych-Gate,” does not perturb Cribbe, who carefully files the letter, after blowing away the dandruff, and soon is in the throes of collecting his poems to make a book, “Linnet and Spindle,” dedicated “To Clem Sowerby, that green-fingered gardener in the Gardens of the Hesperides.”

The book appears. Some favorable notice is taken, particularly in Middlesex. And Sowerby, too modest to review it himself after such a gratifying dedication, reviews it under a different name. “This young poet,” he writes, “is not, thanks be it, too ‘modernistic’ to pay reverence to the shining source of his inspiration. Cribbe will go far.”

And Cribbe goes to his publishers. A contract is drawn up, Messrs. Stitch and Time undertaking to publish his next book of verse on condition that they have the first option on his next nine novels. He contrives also to be engaged as a casual reader of manuscripts to Messrs. Stitch and Time, and returns home clutching a parcel which contains a book on the Development of the Oxford Movement in Finland by a Cotswold Major, three blank-verse tragedies about Mary Queen of Scots, and a novel entitled “Tomorrow, Jennifer.”

Now Cribbe, until his contract, has never thought of writing a novel. But, undaunted by the fact that he cannot tell one person from another—people, to him, are all one dull, gray mass, except celebrities and departmental superiors — that he has no interest whatsoever in anything they do or say, except in so far as it concerns his career, and that his inventive resources are as limited as those of a chipmunk on a treadmill, he sits down in his shirt sleeves, loosens his collar, thumbs in the shag, and begins to study in earnest how best, with no qualifications, to make a success of commercial fiction.

He soon comes to the conclusion that only quick sales and ephemeral reputations are made by tough novels with such titles as “I’ve Got It Coming” or “Ten Cents a Dice,” by proletarian novels about the conversion to dialectical materialism of Palais-de wide boys, entitled, maybe, “ Red Rain on You, A If,” by novels called, maybe, “Melody in Clover,” about dark men with slight limps. And he soon sees that only the smallest sales, and notices only in the loftiest monthlies of the most limited circulation, will ever result from his writing such a novel as “The Inner Zodiac,” by G. H. Q. Bidet, a ruthless analysis of the ideological conflicts arising from the relationship between Philip Armour, an international impotent physicist, Tristram Wolf, a bisexual sculptor in teak, and Philip’s virginal but dynamic Creole wife, Titania, a lecturer in Balkan Economics, and how these highly sensitized characters react a profound synthesis while working together, for the sake of One-ness, in a Unesco Clinic.

No fool, Cribbe realizes, even in the early stages of his exploration, with theodolite and respirator through darkest Foyle, that the novel to write is that which commands a steady, unsensational, provincial and suburban sale and concerns, for choice, the birth, education, financial ups-and-downs, marriages, separations, and deaths of five generations of a family of Lancashire cotton brokers. This novel, he grasps at once, should be in the form of a trilogy, and each volume should bear some such solid, uneventful title as “The Warp,” “The Woof,” and “The Way.” And he sets to work.

From the reviews of Cribbe’s first novel, one may select: “Here is sound craftsmanship allied to sterling characterization.” “English as Manchester rain.” “Mr. Cribbe is a bull-terrier.” “A story in the Phyllis Bottome class.” On the success of the novel, Cribbe joins the N.I.B. Club, delivers a paper on the Early Brett Young Country, and becomes a regular reviewer, praising every other novel he receives— (“The prose shimmers”) and inviting every third novelist to dine at the Servile Club, to which he has recently been elected.

When the whole of the trilogy has appeared, Cribbe rises, like scum, to the N.I.B. committee, attends all the memorial services for men of letters who are really dead for the first time in fifty years, tears up his old contract and signs another, brings out a new novel, which becomes a Book Society choice, is offered, by Messrs. Stitch and Time, a position in an “advisory capacity,” which he accepts, leaves the Civil Service, buys a cottage in Bucks (“You wouldn’t think it was only thirty miles from London, would you. Look, old man, see that crested grebe.” A starling flies by), a new desk and a secretary whom he later marries for her touch-typing. Poetry? Perhaps a sonnet in the Sunday Times every now and then: a little collection of verse once in a while (“ My first love, you know”). But it doesn’t really bother him any more, though it got him where he is. He has made the grade!

But let us look, very quickly, at some other methods of making poetry a going concern.

The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach. This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential. Before you swoop and burst upon the center of literary activity — which means, when you are very young, the right pubs, and, later, the right flats, and, later still, the right clubs — you must have behind you a body (it need have no head) of ferocious and un-understandable verse. (It is not, as I said before, my function to describe how these gauche and verbose ecstasies are achieved. Hart Crane found that, while listening, drunk, to Sibelius, he could turn out the stuff like billyho. A friend of mine, who has been suffering from a violent headache since he was eight, finds it so easy to write anyway he has to tie knots in his unpleasant handkerchief to remind him to stop. There are many methods, and always, when there’s a will and slight delirium, there’s a way.) Again, this poet, must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo’s hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and — most important of all, this can never be overestimated — a home to go hack to in the provinces whenever he breaks down.

White Horse Tavern (NYC)
The White Horse Tavern in New York City
where Thomas was drinking before his death

Of the poet who merely writes because he wants to write, who does not deeply mind if he is published or not, and who can put up with poverty and total lack of recognition in his lifetime, nothing of any pertinent value can be said. He is no businessman. Posterity Does Not Pay.  

Also, and highly unrecommended, are the following: —

The writing of limericks. Vast market, little or no pay.

Poems in crackers. Too seasonal.

Poems for children. This will kill you, and the children.

Obituaries in verse. Only established favorites used. Poetry as a method of blackmail (by boring). Dangerous. The one you blackmail might retaliate by reading you aloud his unfinished tragedy about St. Bernard: “The Flask.”

And lastly: Poems on lavatory walls. The reward is purely psychological."

Thomas' writing shed
Dylan Thomas' writing shed.
photo by Richard Knight

To read the whole article, go HERE.

12 June 2024

The Big Sleep


I was sitting at a light, and the guy in front of me had a “Dude Abides” bumper sticker, and having just watched The Big Lebowski not long before, I couldn’t help thinking that the Dude doesn’t, really.  All due respect to Jeff Bridges – who’s terrific in pretty much everything he does, Hell and High Water only the most recent example – Lebowski dates really badly.  On the other hand, Miller’s Crossing seems timeless.  This is to take two examples from the Coen oeuvre.  Robert Towne.  Tequila Sunrise, from 1988, is stuck there; Chinatown, released in ‘74, has no such issue.  Why is Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Chandler updated to the contemporary L.A. of 1973, left behind, but the Chandler of The Big Sleep (1945) as present and real as a dime?

You could say that Miller’s Crossing and Chinatown are intentional period pieces, yes, and that Tequila Sunrise and 1973’s Long Goodbye are trying intentionally to be timely, but we should remember that The Big Sleep, in 1945, was in fact contemporary.  Take a look at the Woody Van Dyke much-celebrated adaption of Hammett’s The Thin Man, in 1934, Powell and Myrna Loy.  The leads are terrific, the dialogue snappy, the runtime comes in at an hour and a half, but you’re still completely aware that you’re watching a picture from 1934.  Not nearly as true of John Huston’s adaption, in 1941, of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, which still reads as immediate.  But so does Casablanca, in my opinion.  Maybe the difference is Bogart.

Bogart went from second leads to movie star with High Sierra, in 1940 (even if he’s actually billed second, after Ida Lupino).  He did Falcon in ‘41, and Casablanca in ‘42. He worked with Hawks for the first time – and famously, met Bacall – in To Have and Have Not, in 1944.  Bogart and Bacall fell in love while they were making the picture, you can see it happening.  The Big Sleep was the second movie they made together; it wrapped in early ‘45, but released a year later.  Thereby lies a tale.

The first cut of the picture has more Martha Vickers (the little sister), and less Bacall.  Hawks went back and shot extra scenes, and recut the movie.  Vickers got less screen time, Bacall got more, by about twenty minutes.  It made Bacall’s career, and Martha Vickers never got another part as good, to make it up to her.  The plot actually makes less sense, in the re-edited version; Carmen, the baby sister, turns out in the book to have murdered Sean Regan (spoiler alert), but they had to change the ending for the movie, so the whole thing doesn’t hang together.  None of this matters.  The picture is dreamlike: Hawks later remarked that the audience reaction made him realize that if you kept things moving fast enough, nobody cared whether any of it made sense.  This isn’t quite true.  The plot almost comes together.  You paper over the holes because of your giddy pleasure in its exhilarating surface tension.

My point about The Big Sleep being contemporary to its own era is that an audience back then would recognize both specific detail and things left unspoken.  They’d notice, for example, the gas ration stickers on Marlowe’s windshield – the war was only just over.  They’d realize that when Dorothy Malone pulls the shades and pours Marlowe a drink, there’s more on offer than just what’s in the glass.  They’d know what the cop, Bernie Ohls, was on about when he says about Sean Regan, “Oh, you mean the ex-legger Gen. Sternwood hired to do his drinking for him?”  (They weren’t that far removed from Prohibition, and Repeal.)  They could figure out what kind of books Geiger was selling, in brown paper wrappers, and why Carmen was vulnerable to blackmail, and what the relationship was between Geiger and Carol Lundgren, the kid who cleans up after the murder, and dresses the dead man in his Chinese pyjamas, and lays him out on the bed.  None of it had to be spelled out.

There’s also the still-shocking violence.  The death of Elisha Cook.  The moment in the garage, Canino flipping the roll of coins in his hand, Marlowe taken by surprise, his arms pinned to his sides with the spare tire, and Canino with the sucker punch, straight to the jaw – Canino opens his balled fist, and the loose coins spill out.  And the killing of Canino himself, as cold-blooded as anybody could get away with, at the time. 

The test, I think, is whether we recognize their attitudes as like ours, their choices, their motives, their reactions, not so much the fashions in clothes, as their manner.  Do they feel genuine to us?  I think Marlowe does.  I’m not a big fan of Chandler’s down-these-mean-streets prescription, but if anybody can live up to it, Bogart certainly can.  And he does it without being performative, or self-conscious – it’s natural and lived-in, someone he’s familiar with.

Bacall, too, is a very assured presence.  You get the feeling that the characters, as thin as the script is, have a sense of their own back story, and don’t need to fill it in for us.  Hawks, knowing he’s onto a good thing, gives her the last word.  Bogart is finishing up the story, what’s happened and what has to happen next, and Bacall tells him he’s forgotten one thing: her.  What’s wrong with you? he asks her.  “Nothing you can’t fix,” she says.

11 June 2024


     The television western, Gunsmoke, was a staple at my childhood home. Weekly, we watched Marshal Matt Dillon face down an outlaw during the opening scene. To a heavy and threatening drumbeat, the marshal stepped out onto the main street of Dodge City, Kansas. The camera focused on the revolver hanging low on his hip, the sheriff's right hand held steadily above the pistol grip. The music built as the camera panned to show the sheriff striding determinedly and wordlessly forward. His opponent, the outlaw dressed in black, entered the street from the opposite side. The two men squared to face one another. The music built to a crescendo. When they drew pistols, the camera angle shifted. Through the cloud of white smoke, we watched the grim-faced sheriff. We never saw the outlaw fall, but we knew the marshal had outdrawn his opponent. As the camera held the sheriff's world-weary expression, the announcer solemnly intoned, "Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Matt Dillon." 

Marshal Matt Dillon
Marshal Matt Dillon, Gunsmoke
© CBS Television, public domain

    CBS Chairman William Paley, reportedly was a great fan of Raymond Chandler. Beginning with the radio show, ;Gunsmoke, and later with the television adaptation, he wanted to create a series centered on the "Philip Marlowe of the old West." The opening scene, with the stylized code duelo showdown, set a tone. It cemented the single combat gunfight in the middle of the town's dusty street as a trope of the American West.

    Such gunfights, however, rarely occurred. 

    The West had its share of violence, typical for a frontier. But the formality of the single combat duel was primarily the product of dime novelists and film directors. 

    There were, of course, exceptions. 

    In 1865, Wild Bill Hickok squared off with Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri. The two quarreled over gambling. To secure a debt, Tutt took a prized watch belonging to Hickok. Tutt prominently wore the watch, embarrassing Hickok. Later, the two men advanced on one another. Tutt reportedly drew first, fired wildly, and missed. Hickok shot more steadily and hit Tutt in the chest. History does not record whether the watch was injured. Tutt, however, died. 

    In his subsequent trial, a jury acquitted Hickok of manslaughter. In 1867, a story describing the event appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. The exaggerated tale helped form the myth about Wild Bill Hickok and the single combat duel. Today, readers can get the details on the official Springfield, Missouri website.

    On March 9th, 1877, Jim Levy (sometimes Leavy) and Charlie Harrison argued over a game of cards in Cheyenne, Wyoming's Shingle and Locke's saloon. Levy challenged Harrison to "take it outside." There, as Bat Masterson, the western lawman, gunfighter, and writer, described the event, Harrison drew quickly. He fired five shots. Levy took his time and needed only one. (Although he only required one, reportedly Levy stood over the downed Harrison and shot him a second time in the stomach. This fact tampers with the honorable gunfighter trope but, perhaps, more accurately portrays the times.) Masterson used the Levy/Harrison battle to illustrate the importance of a gunfighter's need to remain calm and take one's time. In 1907, Masterson wrote in Human Life magazine:

    That Harrison was as game a man as Levy could not be doubted; that he could shoot much faster, he had given ample proof, but under extraordinary conditions he had shown that he lacked deliberation and lost his life in consequence.

    My adopted town, Fort Worth, also helped create the myth of the Western gunfight. Although the facts bear little resemblance to the stylized book or movie version.

    Longhair Jim Courtright had been the first marshal of Fort Worth. He was tasked with keeping the peace in Hell's Half Acre. The murder rate plummeted on his watch. He also, however, likely used his badge and gun to extort money from saloon owners as part of a protection racket. Following an election defeat in 1879, he moved to New Mexico. There, a dispute over land and cattle led to an accusation of murder against Courtright. There were, it seems, lingering questions about whether Courtright's involvement in the shooting had been as law enforcement or criminal participant. He returned to Fort Worth, a place far enough removed from New Mexico to avoid extradition. In 1884, he established a private detective office here. Besides investigative services, the office resumed operations as a protection racket. 

    Luke Short, another man experienced with guns, worked as the manager of the White Elephant Saloon in Fort Worth. Short refused Courtright's offers of protection. Allowing business owners to decline, however, would be bad for the detective's business. On February 8th, 1887, a drunk Courtright called out Luke Short. Together, they walked down the street on Fort Worth's north side as they attempted to settle their disagreement. Outside a local brothel, the negotiation apparently reached an impasse. The two men stood three to four feet apart. Courtright drew his gun. Short, however, fired first, and his bullet tore off Courtright's thumb. While Longhair Jim Courtright attempted to switch his weapon to his other hand, Short fired again. His subsequent shots killed Courtright, the former lawman, detective, and extortionist.

    Luke Short was investigated for the shooting. The charges were subsequently dismissed. The Courtright/Short gunfight is one of the legends of Fort Worth. This town's stories are part of why I like living here. When the local chapter of Sisters in Crime began compiling an anthology, Notorious in North Texas, I used this tale as my jumping-off point. This week, we celebrate the release of that anthology. Many of the fine authors who contributed tales set their stories in Dallas. But I wanted to put my story here in Fort Worth, where the West begins.

(Thanks to Legends of America for the details about the gunfights.)

    Until next time.