16 April 2024

Seen in Seattle


I just spent a long  weekend in Bellevue, WA for Left Coast Crime: Seattle Shakedown, and I had a great time. More than 500 mystery writers and readers. Saw a lot of old friends (including SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and Brian Thornton) and made some new ones.  Excellent organization and a very nice hotel.

If I have a complaint it is that the out-of-staters will get a completely false idea about our weather.  It was dry and fiftyish the whole time.  I don't suppose the committee is responsible for that, though.

A few things you should never miss at LCC: The first is Author Speed-Dating. Forty writers have two minutes at each table to explain why you should buy their books.  Having been on both sides, I can tell you that listening is a lot more fun than being the one giving the same speech 20 times.  On the bright side you really hone your speech, because you get to see exactly what holds people's attention.

Next is the New Author's Breakfast. Each novelist gets one minute to dazzle you.  To me the standout at both events was Jason Powell, a young New York City firefighter whose novel about that occupation  sold out before I could get to the dealer's room. My wife ordered it from our local bookstore that day.  

And then there's the banquet.  I co-hosted a table with Steve Steinbock, who reviews books for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  Notice the cool display of mag covers he provided.  One of our fellow diners told me "Your novel Greenfellas is on my bedside table. I read two pages every night and fall asleep."  I said: "Thanks?"

But most of the wisdom is imparted at panels.  The ones I attended included: two on short stories (yay!), politics, social issues,  humor, slang, historical (2). villains, and editors.

A favorite moment from that last panel.  The moderator began by asking if there was anyone who had no idea what an editor did.  Zoe Quinton, a panelist, raised her hand.  Turned out she was lying.

Hennrikus, Witten, Other Guy, Corbett, Byron
And speaking of panels I got to moderate one.  We struggled for a title that was clear and came up with 20 Panels in One: YOU Choose the Topics.  But when I told people about it someone made a suggestion that was brilliant and I will use it if we ever do it again: Panel Improv!  

The idea is, audience members write  topics in a hat and we discuss whatever happens to be drawn out.  My intrepid associates were Ellen Byron, David Corbett, J.H. Hennrikus and Matt Witten and they were all brilliant.

Our brilliant audience

The first topic we received was "The Trials and Tribulations of Squirrels." With some anxiety I asked if any panelist wanted to discuss that.  David explained that his dog had killed  a squirrel and they had to hire a lawyer to sue the dog. And we  were off and running.  Got a lot of compliments about it.  

That's enough.  Next time I will, as usual, provide you with brilliant quotations from the authors I encountered. 

Killing in Different Ways

Recently, Agatha Award-winning short-story author Toni L.P. Kelner asked if she could run a guest post here on SleuthSayers, highlighting this year's Agatha Award finalists. Toni will be moderating our short story panel next week at Malice Domestic. I happily agreed.
— Barb Goffman

Killing in Different Ways
by Toni L.P. Kelner

Television performer Stephen Colbert says, “I used to write things for friends. There was this girl I had a crush on, and she had a teacher she didn’t like at school. I had a real crush on her, so almost every day I would write her a little short story where she would kill him in a different way.”

Since not all of us had crushes on people who hated their teachers, we’ve had to look elsewhere for our inspiration. In my case, I’ve written a story inspired by Scooby-Doo (“Pirate Dave’s Haunted Amusement Park”), another set in the restaurant where my grandfather ate breakfast every single workday for decades (“Kids Today”), and one after reading a book about life as a carney (“Sleeping With the Plush”). And I’m always inspired by the stories nominated for the Agatha Awards.

In preparation for moderating the panel “Make It Snappy: the Agatha Short Story Nominees” at Malice Domestic, I asked this year’s nominees about their inspirations. Every answer was different and pretty darned inspiring.

Shelley Costa

Author of “The Knife Sharpener”

My inspiration to write short stories came in waves. When I was five, I took my pencil and paper, set down some words, and was amazed that I could make thing up. Things that had nothing to do with lullabies before bed, or struggling to learn to tie my shoes, or dealing with offending vegetables on my dinner plate. It was a kind of magic, or maybe a kind of power. In my high school creative writing class, the teacher was inspiring because she gave me a lot of latitude to write tortured love poetry and tortured love stories that even had a bit of suspense. I loaded all the poetic forms and devices she taught us into a speedy little vehicle for my imagination. And this teacher spent time exposing us to great stories, which was followed up with assignments to write “in the manner of” Salinger, Hemingway, Faulkner.

nominated book cover
"The Knife Sharpener" appeared
in the July/August 2023 issue of
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

I believe it was during my junior year at Rutgers when something changed in me about writing stories. I felt it became more than a pastime. I had a glimmer of a life’s work. I declared an English major and got serious. One prof in particular, David Burrows (a ringer for D.H. Lawrence) was an inspiration to me just then. I took his Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner course, bedrock American fiction masters, and asked the prof if, instead of essays, I could write short stories inspired by their work. I got the go-ahead. We’ve all had profs that come at just the right time for us. In the Tao Te Ching, one of the teachings says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Because Prof. Burrows could tell he had someone on his hands who needed to show understanding of the subject in a different way from what was on the syllabus, I wrote a story inspired by the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, set in Paris of the 1920s...and that story, “Cup of Kindness, Cup of Cheer” was my first story sale. I was 22 when I sold it to the start-up Oui Magazine, a subsidiary of Playboy, and felt a professional writing career was unfurling right before my eyes. Could it be that kind of easy? No, it couldn’t. When the magazine underwent a big editorial change, my Scott and Zelda tale fell to the wayside, and the story has never been published. But that, too, became part of the professional writing career.

Although we can find inspiration in stargazing or surfgazing or a Beatles lyric, it really all comes down to the people along the way. It doesn’t take many. Just a few. The ones who hand you the pencil and paper at five, accept your earnest excesses at fifteen, nod at your bushwhacking your way into real storytelling at twenty-one – the ones who, all along, look at you and know. I’d like to think that inspiration goes both ways.

Barb Goffman

Author of “Real Courage”

When Toni asked us to write about someone or something that inspired us to write short stories, I’m sure she was expecting positive, heartfelt responses. Essays that would uplift the readers of this blog. Perhaps she’ll get that from the other finalists. But I’ve always liked to take the road less traveled, to quote a famous poet who truly knew about writing short. 

nominated book cover
"Real Courage" appeared in issue
14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine

So, my inspiration? It was, simply, revenge. I took off an expensive ring while washing my hands in a public restroom at Sleuthfest in 2004 and stupidly forgot it on the sink. In the ten minutes it took me to realize my blunder, it was found by someone who never turned it in to the hotel or convention organizers, despite my pleas in every session. I took that bad incident and turned it into something good, my first professionally published short story, “Murder at Sleuthfest,” in which I killed off the person who found my ring. I received my first Agatha nomination for that story, and it inspired many more involving revenge. These days, I don’t write a lot of revenge stories, but every now and then I do because payback can be fun. (For the recipients, it might be a bitch, but who cares about them? Wink.) 

Now that you’re hopefully smiling—I do love writing humor, even though “Real Courage” isn’t one of my funny stories—I’ll quickly mention a couple of people who believed in me long before I started writing crime fiction: First, Frank Scoblete, who was my high school newspaper advisor. He told me that there was always room at the top, and that’s where I belonged. Perhaps he said that to a lot of students, but he still buoyed my confidence. Second, one of the editors at the Cincinnati Enquirer, whose name I can't remember, but whose words I do. I was an intern, and when he asked about my plans for after grad school, I mentioned that I’d loved living in DC, but I couldn’t expect to find a reporting job there. It was the big league. He looked at me with a confused expression and said, “Why can’t you be in the big league?” These two men believed in my writing talent, and their faith in me gave me confidence when I decided to try writing fiction. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I thank you.

Richie Narvaez

Author of “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective”

One day my brother brought home a book he had been reading for a class on crime fiction: The Great American Detective (New American Library, 1978), edited by William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer. The class was done, and since he was more concerned with car payments than collecting books, he said I could have it. The book changed my life. Oh, I had read some mystery and murder fiction—mostly comics. And I had seen my fair share of Cannon, Columbo, Baretta, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Streets of San Francisco, Barney Miller, etc., etc. Hell, even every episode of The Snoop Sisters. But this book was a revelation. I dove into crime fiction and never surfaced.

nominated book cover
"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective"
appeared in Killin' Time in San Diego

The subtitle on the cover reads “15 Stories Starring America’s Most Celebrated Private Eyes.” I had to look that up because my well-worn copy no longer has a cover. And, while they’re not all strictly PIs, the short story collection does feature some of the most famous detectives who ever existed on the page, from before the Golden Age and up to the ’70s: Nick Carter, Race Williams, Sam Spade, the Shadow, Hildegarde Withers, Philip Marlowe, Ellery Queen, Lew Archer, even Mack Bolan (think Jack Reacher, but shorter). But one particular sleuth stands out, in light of my story getting nominated for an Agatha.

“Bullet for One,” by Rex Stout, was no doubt my very first exposure to Nero Wolfe. In it, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the murder of an industrial designer. It’s long, it’s talky, but Wolfe fiercely leaps off the page. Which is about as much moving as he ever does, but it’s immensely impressive. It was Wolfe who inspired my story, “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective” (published in Killin’ Time in San Diego, Down & Out Books, edited by Holly West). “Shamu” features what you might call a Nero Wolfe from the multiverse—a killer whale who, through the use of cybernetics, is not an armchair detective but a poolside detective, and whose tough-talking assistant, Angie Gomez, does all the (literal and figurative) legwork. If not for encountering Wolfe, et al., in The Great American Detective, I might never have become as obsessed with the hard-boiled and clue-laden flummery of crime fiction as I am today.

Kristopher Zgorski

Co-author of “Ticket to Ride”

As a former English major, I have read hundreds of short stories. So many of them impart lessons about the craft of writing—as well as about life, in general. There are probably about fifty of them that attached themselves to my soul and to which I continue to return to over and over again.

nominated book cover
"Ticket to Ride" appeared in
Happiness is a Warm Gun

“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker (of The Color Purple fame) is one such story. This story first appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1973. I am touched by its subtlety. In just a very honest exchange between family members, readers learn so much about Black culture and the nature of family dynamics. In the story, Mrs. Johnson is waiting on her lawn for a visit from her older daughter, while her younger daughter, Maggie—who is disfigured by burn scars and has never left home—waits by her side. College educated Dee is coming over to collect some “artifacts” from her Mom to display in her new home. Once she arrives, Dee informs her family that she has changed her name to a more “traditionally” African name (Wangero) and introduces her new Muslim husband. Eventually, a conflict arises over some heirloom quilts that Dee (Wangero) wants to take to hang on the wall. But Mrs. Johnson says she promised those to Maggie. Wangero’s argument is that this is crazy, since Maggie would just put them on the bed and use them—which the mother points out is the true “purpose” of a quilt. 

What is fascinating about this story is that while it is told from Mrs. Johnson’s point of view, readers who spend the time imagining themselves in each character’s place will see that they all have valid arguments and reasons for their beliefs. It is with that realization that the story elevates from a domestic squabble into a cultural study. In just a few short pages, Alice Walker weaves in the legacy of slavery, loyalty to family, generational trauma, and above all Love (with a capital L). It’s a beautiful short story that is not easily forgotten.

Dru Ann Love

Co-author of “Ticket to Ride”

I never had a desire to write, but when given the opportunity, I had to take it. My inspiration for writing the short story was my collaborator, Kristopher Zgorski. I knew he had the writing bug and if I could help him get a short story out to the world, I was going to help him achieve this goal.

nominated book cover
"A Good Judge of Character"
appeared in Mystery Most Traditional

Tina deBellegarde

Author of “A Good Judge of Character”

Unfortunately, Tina was unable to participate in this blog. If you read her work, you can tell she’s got plenty of inspiration, but what she’s short on right now is time. As I write this, she’s preparing a wedding reception for her son and new daughter-in-law. But don’t worry. After the festivities, she’ll be attending Malice Domestic.

If you’re coming to Malice Domestic 2024 and want to hear more from these inspired—and inspiring—authors, come by Ballroom B/C at 2 PM on Friday, April 26.

And Malice Domestic attendees, don’t forget to read these authors’ stories before the Agatha Award voting deadline (1 PM, Saturday, April 27). To read each one, click on the story titles below.

"The Knife Sharpener" by Shelley Costa

"A Good Judge of Character" by Tina deBellegarde

"Real Courage" by Barb Goffman

"Ticket to Ride" by Dru Ann Love and Kristopher Zgorski

"Shamu, World's Greatest Detective" by Richie Narvaez

15 April 2024

Time to Say Adios

Okay, I haven't known Marcia Muller for 47 years but perhaps a little closer to 37 years. I'm sorta on shaky ground but reasonably sure my first Bouchercon was 1989 when I met Ms Muller. By 1992, I knew her well enough to invite her to come do an author signing at Mysteries and More bookstore, which Elmer and I owned from 1990 to 1999. Or maybe it was 1995, when she and her husband Bill Pronzini came for a duo signing.

They drove to Austin from Houston where they had done an event earlier at Murder by the Book store. It was a Saturday and our event wasn't scheduled until Tuesday as our store was normally closed on Monday. The next day happened to be Easter Sunday when we understandly were closed. It all turned out fine as they joined us at Elmer's niece's house where we had family and a delicious Easter dinner.

The next day we took them to see our beloved Hill Country where the Texas bluebonnets and other wildflowers made it a fabulous weekend. Elmer and Bill bonded then which led to visits back and forth through the years. On one trip to CA, I was able to finagle a plane ride with Marcia and her flying instructor. Another time, a drive with Marcia along the coast, led to a visit to the "real week-end getaway belonging to Sharon McCone & Hy Ripinski."

I read EDWIN OF THE IRON SHOES soon after it came out and decided then and there I'd be friends with Sharon McCone through all her adventures. I am totally thrilled she found true love and is happy with her life. Although it makes me a little sad to know CIRCLE IN THE WATER is the last Sharon McCone book, as a fan and a friend, I can totally understand. I will advise you readers and fans to get your copy on the 24th. However, I'm also sure you can pre-order now.

— Jan Grape

by Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller

Creating a long-running series –47 years– has been a pleasure. Also frustrating. Maddening. Crazy-making. All those story lines to remember. All those characters to make toe the line. All those real-life locations to check out for changes.

Story lines: many of them in my Sharon McCone series are intertwined, dating back to 1977.

Characters: they've moved residences, switched jobs, married, divorced, even– *shock!* –changed their hairstyles.

novel cover

Real-life locations: throughout California and many other areas, they're radically different from those I started out with, particularly in San Francisco.

Which all adds up to why, in my current and last McCone novel (Circle in the Water, Grand Central Books, April 23) I've written an afterword, bringing the reader up to date on where the characters are now and the good things their lives will lead them toward in the future.

I emphasize good things. After all, for 47 years they've been good to me. Why shouldn't I be good to them?

And of course, the book is dedicated in part to my readers, who have made my long career possible. Thanks to them all!


14 April 2024

Kinsey Millhone: a fantasy character with fantasies.

Recently my six-month-old Bouvier puppy mistook one of my Sue Grafton books for a chew toy. I apologize to anyone who is squeamish about crime scene photos, but this is what I had to deal with.

During her life and since her death, I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had about Sue Grafton and her character, Kinsey Millhone.

Women detectives in novels get me every time. My bookshelf and bank account concur. Like any love affair - I’m committed, invested and have opinions.

After I taped the cover of the book, I looked at Sue Grafton’s site and found a quote from N Is for Noose about Kinsey, that reveals why she is so compelling as a character:

“Get close to someone and the next thing you know, you've given them the power to wound, betray, irritate, abandon you, or bore you senseless. My general policy is to keep my distance, thus avoiding a lot of unruly emotion. In psychiatric circles, there are names for people like me.”

It is followed by this explanation: 

“Those are sentiments that hit home for Grafton's readers. And she has said that Kinsey is herself, only younger, smarter, and thinner. But are they an apt description of Kinsey's creator? Well, she's been married to Steve Humphrey for more than thirty-five years and has three children, four granddaughters, and one great grandson.  She loves cats, gardens, and good cuisine—not quite the nature-hating, fast-food loving Millhone. So: readers and reviewers beware. Never assume the author is the character in the book. Sue…is only in her imagination Kinsey Millhone—but what a splendid imagination it is.”

There’s an old adage that writers should write what they know because readers have a nose for  inauthentic writing and there’s nothing inauthentic about Kinsey. Every woman can agree that people can wound, betray and bore you senseless. It reads as authentic and passes the sniff test. So, I argue that Sue Grafton knew Kinsey well enough to write about her. Kinsey’s rant about people didn’t even fit with the way her character lived because one of the staples of the series is her close relationship with Henry, her elderly neighbour and landlord. She even likes Rosie, who runs the local restaurant and bar, despite her serving odd and often repulsive food. If Kinsey Millhone is Sue Grafton’s alter ego, then Kinsey Millhone has her own alter ego and this is why readers felt her to be such a credible character. 

Just as writers write what they know, I suspect readers read what they know as well. I simply cannot read certain books. If a female detective (again, big fan) shows herself to be incapable of forming relationships and lacking in empathy on any page in the book, that’s the page I stop reading. This isn’t a judgement thing. It’s about reality. I have known many women as friends, as patients, heck, I even raised a woman, and I have never met one who doesn't form relationships and has no empathy. Not one. So when I read about tough women detectives (again big fan of tough women) who have no empathy, I can’t relate. Can’t read. They don’t seem real. 

Yes, there are people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) commonly known as psychopaths or sociopaths, but they account for 0.2% to 3.3% of the population. People overestimate their numbers in part because so many crime novels feature them and also because it has become in vogue to diagnose those one dislikes as a one of these. Kinsey has many dimensions but she does not fulfil the criteria of antisocial personality disorder. As I said, I have opinions and this is one of them.

Why Kinsey is so loved as a character is that she, like many of us, has fantasies. Sue Grafton’s readers understand this. I’m fiercely protective of my husband of over 30 years and have also, when annoyed, politely asked him to find me my book of poisons so I can make him dinner. If the former weren’t true, the latter wouldn’t be funny.

Kinsey as a character is so authentic that she, like all of us, has fantasies of being something worse than she is and then, she comes to her senses and hangs out with Henry or eats Rosie’s vile food without complaint. I can relate. No matter how annoyed I have been, I have never actually added poison to my husband's food and he eats the meal I prepare with gusto because he knows this. He does occasionally feign a near death experience while eating and it's hilarious, because it's all fantasy. 

13 April 2024

Adventures In Spelling (Or, An Author Gives Up)

Words. They're kind of important in writing. Words are comprised of letters, optimally in the correct order. I'm a liberal arts major and know these things. And yet. The mind and typing fingers can struggle.

I'm actually a darn good speller, or I was. I hung in there on spelling bees as a kid, and nobody geeked out more on PSAT vocabulary than this guy. One thing the young me could've learned better was typing. My mom considered typing a life skill and made us take runs at her IBM Selectric. A sweet machine, the Selectric. The clack of keys, the thump of ball element, precision stuff engineered to sequence manual keystrokes just right, and it never stood a chance. Not with me and my pecking method impervious to parental correction.  

Not all letter combinations are kind to the pecking method. Here are the dreaded words that get me every time.


Every time. Every time I want to type camouflage, I type "camoflage." If I'm overthinking my dropped vowel, I type "camoflague." Maybe it's an extension of living in the South, all these folks in daywear camos. Maybe it's the pronunciation. Said lazily, it can come out as all different kinds of ways. Said correctly, there's no "o" in there anywhere. It's a sneaky little unstressed "uh" vowel that, ironically, blends in with mastermind stealth. YouTube has videos on this pronunciation trick. 

Or maybe lifestyle is my problem. It's not a word that comes up much. I try to live a life neither hiding from anyone nor fixing to bushwhack them, either.


This is less of a misspelling routine than willful disregard. I understand full well the English language contains both the words "farther" and my habitual "further." Farther, a grammarist will tell you, means at a greater distance or to a greater extent. Further covers that but goes, well, further. The adverb and adjectival forms denote something additionally or an additional amount, to include extents and distances. 

This distinction can become fighting stuff, but only for word nerds. Many people go through entire lives not caring about nearly interchangeable word nuance. The difference doesn't matter when writing dialogue unless the character is a fellow word nerd. I hear "further" much more than "farther" in conversation, but that could be a personal filter. "Further" sounds everyday. "Farther" sounds like Thurston Howell asking if you have Grey Poupon.


This is a simple enough word. 9 letters. Pronounced how spelled. And yet. My fingers type it "hypocrasy" or "hypocricy" or the double-up "hypocracy." I'm old enough to know when things aren't gonna get better. It wouldn't be honest to skip this on my typing issues list.


I literally just mistyped that subtitle as "manuever." Frankly, I'm not sure I'm to blame. The second syllable of maneuver (I just mistyped that, too) rhymes with true and blue. Same diacritical marks. The U before the E? Nope, and maybe just what I expected the spelling to do. Anyway, thanks spell check.


"Publically." In the hunt and peck storm, "publically" is what flows. The hodgepodge we call the English language has a rule. A rule, folks, and it says adverbs made from adjectives ending in "ic" get an "ally." A rule, specifically. Except. Oh, the exception. I give you the adverb "publicly." The real lesson is to avoid adverbs. Except in speech because people use adverbs non-stop in speech. And dialogue is done publicly. I have to edit hard, is what I'm saying.


This one is a different glitch. It's tactical somehow, like how my hand positioning gets pulled wide chasing each next letter. Whenever I hunt-and-peck any word with the prefix "semi," things go haywire. The "semi" part is fine. What comes next breaks down into stray characters. The entire remaining word plunges into babble until a rally when some vague semblance of meaning returns. But too devoid of meaning for spell check to fathom. Microsoft Word flags the babble as if a hell-if-I-know shrug. 

If anyone out there wonders who is holding natural language algorithms back from brilliant adoption of "semi" words, it's me. Not sure I can explain it. Only semi-sure I should explore it.


True story. 

Once, I argued at length that superseded was--and could only ever be--spelled "superceded." This wasn't in the spelling bee or PSAT days, either. I was then a young paid professional with a liberal arts education, and I was arguing the pure necessity of "superceded" in my workpapers. "Super," of course, meant the act of revising or replacing. "Ceded" meant the ceding of that ground. I could not have been more wrong. What has me laughing years later isn't that. It's that my boss didn't interrupt. She let me go on. 

Superseded is correct spelling. I know that now. I knew it then, too, except in the moment my better judgment was revised or replaced. The struggle is real and continues. My left index finger--the one in charge of "c"--still gets the itch. 

There It Is, Then

I crank through the typing well enough. With corrections. Sometimes, the head gets in the way, or the method. Sometimes, it's a mental thing, the misspelled word so engrained that I'm head-cased and doom-looped. But some words are writer kryptonite, and I've given up pretending otherwise. Writing is nothing if not a learning process, and that includes accepting the trick words.

12 April 2024

Paperback Writer

When I dreamed of writing a novel in high school – my goal was to be a paperback writer, like the song.

Twenty years after graduating from high school my first novel was published as a paperback original – GRIM REAPER. An early definition of a paperback book said it was of lower quality than a hardback original books and written for mass consumption. Yep, that was GRIM REAPER

I've been a paperback writer since (with occasional hardback editions of my paperbacks and lots of eBooks), so I hit the mark.

Along the way I learned how to write a short story and have had many published.

Trivia note: A Lennon-McCartney composition, written primarily by Paul, PAPERBACK WRITER was the first Beatles hit not about love. It was No.1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in 1966. I loved growing up with 60's music (and some 70s).

With 48 books published (36 novels, 10 short story collections, 2 non-fiction books), I'm still a paperback writer (trade paperbacks now). #49 coming out this summer.

A quick word of caution to writers like me who have a number of books available for sale online. Expressing your political views can drop your sales dramatically and keep them down indefinitely.



11 April 2024

Crime Scene Comix Case 2024-04-023, Outcome

Once again we highlight our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube. We love the sausage-shaped Shifty, a Minion gone bad.

Yikes! In this Crime Time episode, only one outcome is possible.

  © www.FutureThought.tv


That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

10 April 2024

Speculative Cinemas

“We were just leaving the movies - Casablanca, with Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan…”  I had the idea one time to use this as the opening of a story, to signal it was alternate history.  This casting was supposedly floated, at some point, but it was a public relations stunt; Hal Wallis, the producer, later said he never wanted anybody but Bogart. 

Quentin Tarantino published a book, year before last, called Cinema Speculation, and my first thought was that he’d speculate.  For example, Howard Hawks once claimed that he was set to direct Casablanca, and Michael Curtiz was assigned to Sergeant York, but Curtiz wanted to get out of doing a picture about “hillbillies” and he, Hawks, was uncomfortable making a “musical,” (I’m not sure what he means by that, La Marseillaise, As Time Goes By?) and they switched movies.  I don’t know whether to credit this.  Hawks is clearly the right guy for Gary Cooper, and Curtiz is just as clearly the right director for Casablanca.  In 
fact, Warners kept two crews working simultaneously, so Curtiz could prep his next picture while he shot the current one: he was that efficient – or ruthless, some would say.  All the same, Tarantino is nothing if not a fanboy, you knew that, and you can imagine how entertaining he might be with What Ifs. 

Sam Peckinpah was fired from The Cincinatti Kid about a week in.  Ostensibly, because he was making a dirty movie; he did a scene with Rip Torn and a naked girl in a fur coat.  (“Oh,” Peckinpah says, “and I was shooting in black-and-white.”)  Not to mention, Sharon Tate got the boot in favor of Tuesday Weld, and Spencer Tracy was signed to play Lancey Howard, but Edward G. Robinson came off the bench when Tracy had health issues.  Norman Jewison gets the director credit, and Cincinnati Kid is a halfway decent picture – Robinson is terrific, too, he steals the movie – but you can’t help wondering.  In the aftermath of the Major Dundee disaster, The Cincinnati Kid could have put Peckinpah back on the map, Steve McQueen a brand name already, even if shooting a major release in widescreen color is the better box-office call.  McQueen and Peckinpah of course did Junior Bonner and The Getaway later on. 

Here’s a story Quint does tell.  McQueen passed on Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, after Paul Newman had been signed.  They offered Sundance to Warren Beatty, but Beatty wanted to play Butch, and he wanted Elvis as Sundance. 

A lot of people probably know that Dirty Harry started out as a Frank Sinatra vehicle - the original pitch for Columbo had Bing Crosby to star, too – but after they settled on Clint Eastwood, he brought Don Siegel over from Universal, to direct.  Siegel, at one point, wanted to cast Audie Murphy as Scorpio, the serial killer, because Audie Murphy had a baby face and didn’t look the part (although he’s credited with killing 241 enemy combatants in WWII).  Siegel had made two pictures with Audie, one, The Gun Runners, a remake of To Have and Have Not.  Also, if you think Audie can’t act, you should check out The Unforgivenhis second picture with John Huston.

*As a footnote, Andy Robinson, who
did play Scorpio, has a good hundred credits under his belt, but it took him twenty years to shake his association with the part (he’s really  that good in Dirty Harry), and even then, it was because he wore heavy prosthetics in Deep Space Nine.

Nobody but Gable was ever going to play Rhett Butler, but there are dozens of surviving screen tests for Scarlett.  Everybody wanted the part.  1400 interviews, 400 callbacks.  Katherine Hepburn.  Paulette Goddard had a good shot, but she was shacked up with Chaplin, and not married to him, which gave Selznick the jitters.  Tallulah Bankhead.  Susan Hayward, Frances Dee, Jean Arthur, Lucille Ball, Miriam Hopkins, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Joan Bennett.  Bette Davis was an early favorite, but Warners wouldn’t lend her out.  She was chafing against studio discipline, and Jack Warner wanted to teach her a lesson.  She did Jezebel at Warners, which is basically the same story as GWTW, and the better picture, for my money.  The question is whether you can see her as Scarlett.  Or if you can see anybody else as Scarlett, once Vivien Leigh is in the room.  She takes up all the air.  You may or may not actually like the movie, but she surely makes it hers.

Cutting back to Quentin, he does get up to some mischief, not so much in
Cinema Speculation, but in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you have Leo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton playing the Steve McQueen part in The Great Escape, and Damian Lewis, as McQueen, bemoaning the fact that he’s not getting into Sharon Tate’s pants. 

The question isn’t whether it’s real, but whether it’s convincing.  I personally can’t conjure up Brando or Albert Finney in Lawrence of Arabia, but they were both offered the part.  Lee Marvin walked away from The Wild Bunch to do Paint Your Wagon.  You just never know.  Somewhere out there are these ghost pictures, that never got made, or got made with the wrong talent, or somehow went off the rails. 

We’ll never get to see those movies, running in the private drive-in of our mind’s eye.  But maybe we’ve been spared.