21 May 2019

Lefty Calls the Shots

by Michael Bracken

Late evening, Thursday, April 11, 2019, I entered the emergency room and spent much of the night there. Temple thought I was having a heart attack. I felt confident I was not, but I knew something was wrong.

Traitor!
Many of my symptoms were consistent with a heart attack—chest pain that extended to my left shoulder and shoulder blade and spread down my left arm and up the left side of my neck—but the pain had begun on Sunday and had grown progressively worse during the days prior to my hospital trip. I had lost grip strength in my left hand, my fingers on that hand weren’t functioning as they should, and my blood pressure was about thirty points higher than my normal.

Were I having a heart attack, many of these symptoms would likely have occurred in a brief amount of time—fifteen to thirty minutes—rather than over the course of days, but that didn’t make them any less concerning. The doctor and the nurses—none of whom appeared to be playing cards—asked questions, poked me with needles, ran tests, and ultimately ruled out a heart attack. Having undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 2008, this was good news.

The prognosis: Chest wall inflammation or costochondritus. The doctor recommended over-the-counter anti-inflammatories and rest.

I returned home in the wee hours of Friday morning having learned that, except for the registration process, a stay in the emergency room is much like a stay at Motel 6: The bed is uncomfortable, there’s no room service, and the people in the next room make lots of noise.

AFTERMATH

For several days, full use of my left hand—regardless of whatever level of pain I felt—was curtailed. I could not, for example, carry a full dinner plate to the table with that hand, and when I attempted to type, those fingers never seemed to strike the keys at which I aimed them.

As a writer, this was, perhaps, what most concerned me about my situation. If the words in my brain never get transferred to a page, am I really a writer?

I attempted to dictate, but this proved as futile now as it did in 2008 when, following bypass surgery, I purchased my first dictation software. The amount of time I spend cleaning up gibberish and reformatting to something resembling proper format makes the process cumbersome and counter-productive, and requires nearly as much use of both hands as straight-forward typing.

Using my right-hand only, I handwrote a fair amount on a notepad. Unfortunately, this requires me to eventually type everything, which is akin to doubling my workload and postponing but not diminishing the use of my left hand.

Thumb typing on my iPhone proved perhaps the best of several bad choices, and I wrote much of the opening scene of a new story this way. Though the file required formatting when copied into a Word document, there was far less gibberish to clean up than when I dictated.

Note of these solutions proved ideal, in part because I tried to force the process to fit my method of writing rather than adapting my method of writing to fit the process.

LOOKING AHEAD

As I write this, about two weeks after my emergency room visit, the pain—except for occasional twinges—has diminished to barely noticeable, and my grip strength has mostly returned, though a bit weaker at the end of the day than the beginning. Unfortunately, the fingers of my left hand continue to vex me.

All of this suggests that I am not prepared for aging. I have not planned for infirmities, lapses in mental prowess, and the like. Despite toying with dictation software and thumb typing, I have no clear plan for how to continue writing when I lose control of my body. And will I someday be tended to by medical personnel who think I’m hallucinating when all I’m trying to do is tell them the cool story I thought up while idling away my time in some home for the aged?

I don’t have answers, and I don’t have solutions, so I suspect these thoughts will occupy a fair amount of my time going forward. I only hope that I’ll not let concerns about the future interfere with today’s production.

Throwback Tuesday: My first novel, Deadly Campaign, released as an audiobook in 1994 and as a trade paperback in 2000, is still available from Wildside Press and can be ordered from Amazon. Covering City Hall during an election year was all the excitement reporter Dan Fox needed—until he discovered Alderman Bill Franklin’s bullet-ridden body. While Fox digs for the story, long-hidden secrets rise to the surface—secrets that threaten the political fabric of the city—and Fox soon discovers he’s caught in the middle of a Deadly Campaign.

NEWS FLASH!

Between writing the above and the date this gets posted, I attended Malice Domestic and returned home as co-editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. A few months ago, Carla Coupe announced that she was stepping away from Wildside Press and, following wonderful discussions with both Carla and publisher John Betancourt, Ive become her replacement.

Wildside Press has published several of my books and Ive had a story in every issue of BCMM, so I have a long and positive relationship with John and Wildside, and Im looking forward to what the future holds. The next few issues will contain stories Carla and John have already selected, so my initial impact may be minimal. Carla and John will be guiding me through the transition, and Ill share important information when I have it.

20 May 2019

Crime Films of Akira Kurosawa, Part 2

by William Burton McCormick

In Part One, I talked about how legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, known to many for his dramas, Shakespearean adaptions and samurai films, also made significant contributions to the broadly-defined crime film genre. I highlighted and provided links to two excellent films from the late 1940’s:
Drunken Angel (1948), the first Yakuza (gangster) film after World War II, and Stray Dog (1949), an early police procedural and the ancestor of the buddy cop film. Both films paired Kurosawa’s favorite actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, showcased the director’s emerging talent and explored the gritty underworld of postwar Tokyo from a Japanese point-of-view.

We continue now into the 50’s and 60’s, Kurosawa’s prime, for three more crime films featuring Mifune and Shumara. Our first is a doozy.

Rashomon
Rashomon (1950)

And then there was Rashomon.

While it was considered too Western for many in Kurosawa’s homeland, Rashomon is arguably the most influential Japanese film worldwide of any genre. It is inarguably one of the most revolutionary crime films ever made.

Based on the 1922 Ryūnosuke Akutagawa short story “In a Grove,” Rashoman features a samurai among its principle characters but this is no samurai film. Instead, Rashoman is a period piece psychological thriller set in eighth-century Japan.

In a framing story, several people take shelter from a rainstorm beneath a ruined city gate in Kyoto. (The famous gate is called “Rashomon”, hence the title.) One of the stranded people, a woodcutter played by Shimura, tells the others via a flashback how he discovered the dead body of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) in the woods. Shimura then details the ensuing trial he attended where the three persons involved in the murder give testimonies: the samurai’s self-admitted killer (the bandit Tajōmaru played by Mifune); the samurai’s wife (Machiko Kyō), who was raped by the bandit but what she did afterwards remains open to question; and lastly the dead samurai himself, who speaks channeled through a medium. All three give conflicting accounts of events in that wooded grove and the actions that lead to murder. In addition to the killing, there is a question of shifting motivations and loyalties by all parties as result of the rape. And the mystery of a missing jeweled dagger.

As the bandit, wife, and the samurai all give their sides to the story, Kurosawa reenacts each version for the audience to see. We are challenged to find reality within incompatible vignettes and ask if such a thing as truth exists. We ponder each speaker’s motivations, wondering at lies and self-delusions told to an unseen judge (indeed, the audience is the surrogate judge). We weigh evidence and probabilities and strain to reach a definitive conclusion. Is there one? And only one? That is the mystery, art and source of enjoyment in Rashomon.

Kurosawa adds fine touches throughout the film. The wife, dressed in a white veiled gown and bathed in radiant forest sunbeams, is one of the most beautiful images put to film. When the bandit sees her, we feel his lust, even as we are abhorred by his actions. In one flashback, told by the victor, two combatants engage in a swashbuckling sword fight worthy of an Errol Flynn film. When an impartial party describes the same scene, Kurosawa shows the combatants as terrified cowards, clumsily hacking at each other, the winner victorious through sheer luck rather than skill. One account is fantastic, the other realistic, but which is true? Or perhaps neither are?

Towards the end, a witness comes forward to present a fourth account of events. But will the witness solve the puzzle for the audience or only muddle the truth further?

In a Grove
So influential was this film that it has entered the English-language lexicon. “A Rashomon” or the “Rashomon Effect” is creative jargon (particularly in film or television) for a story told multiple times from various points of view. Even if you have not seen the original film, it is likely you’ve seen or read a work that uses this device. Maybe the writers reading this have knowingly or unknowingly used the “Rashomon Effect” in their own work? If so, please mention it in the comments below.

Historically-speaking, the release of Rashomon was a watershed event for Japanese cinema. Prior to and during World War II, there was little exposure to Japanese film outside their country. After Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Vienna Film Festival, it was released with subtitles throughout America and Europe, going on to win Best Foreign Language film at the 1952 Academy Awards (a first for any Asian film), Best Director for Kurosawa from the National Board of Review and numerous other awards. In its wake came other Japanese films, including Kursoawa’s own masterpieces like Ikiru (1952), The Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1958). Directors as varied as Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, and Francis Ford Coppola all count Rashomon among their favorite films.

As was much of Kurosawa’s work, Rashomon was remade as Western. 1964’s The Outrage stared Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom, William Shatner and Edward G. Robinson. The original is better.

All Japanese films published before 1953 are in the public domain, so Rashomon can be viewed for free here. (This free link is not a particularly clear print and I would recommend to those genuinely interested to stream a pristine version of this beautiful film from Amazon for less than $4.00 here.)

You can also download an English-language translation of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” for free here.

If you’ve seen Rashomon, please use the comments to tell us which of the four accounts you believe and what you think really happened in those woods.

The Bad Sleep Well
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

We return to the then-present day for a film noir with a plot that is both complex and difficult to discuss without spoiling things. Speaking simply, it is the story of Koichi Nishi (Mifune), a man who marries the boss’s daughter, Yoshiko (Kyōko Kagawa), at a large Japanese land development company in order to expose corruption and murder (and more – but that would be telling) there. Shimura plays Moriyama, one of the executives who comes into conflict with Nishi’s would-be whistleblower. Nishi has an especially difficult challenge getting confessions, as anyone who is even partially exposed has a penchant for rather suspicious suicides (One man tries to jump into an active volcano!)

Like all true noir, no one is completely good. Nishi may be determined to expose the truth, but he’s all too willing to use his bride’s affection as a tool to get access to whom and what he wants. This is doubly tragic for Yoshiko, as she not only loves Nishi, but is physically handicapped, and it is implied she had a difficult time finding a husband. Now, the one she has wants to use her to destroy her father and his company. Layered characters abound.

Kurosawa’s visual touches are as ever strong with sound and shadow used to chilling effect hinting at horrors just off screen. While considered one of his finest films, The Bad Sleep Well is perhaps not Kurosawa’s most accessible. The twenty-minute wedding reception that begins the film is deliberately paced and gives no indication of the thriller that follows. And the ending is very dark. Noir aficionados are known to love it, but general audiences are more divided.

As it was released after 1953, The Bad Sleep Well is not in public domain, so I have no link. You can, of course, stream it or purchase a DVD with English subtitles at Amazon or similar venders

High and Low (1963)

High and Low
Loosely based on the Ed McBain novel King’s Ransom, Mifune stars as a shoe-manufacturing executive named Gondo. Gondo has personally borrowed millions to prevent a hostile takeover of the company by rival executives who wish to oust him. Minutes before he is to purchase the stock that would secure his position, he receives a phone call by someone claiming to have kidnapped his son and demanding the borrowed money and more as ransom. It is soon discovered the kidnappers have errored. Gondo’s son is safe but the boy’s playmate was taken by mistake. Undeterred, the criminals insist on the money from Gondo or they’ll kill their young captive. What ensues is a gripping drama where Gondo wrestles with his conscious. Pay the ransom, and he’ll lose company, position, home, and find himself jobless while millions in debt, the very existence of his family in jeopardy. Refuse to pay and an innocent boy dies, a young life extinguished because someone held a grudge against Gondo. What would you do?

While this crisis of conscience plays out in Gondo’s manor on a hill (the “high” of the title), Inspector Tokura (played by a young Tatsuya Nakadai) attempts to track down the criminals, his investigation taking him into the “low” of Tokyo’s slums and drug dens. The investigation is riveting, a surprisingly modern police procedural where the inspector uses both forensic evidence and mind-games against the kidnappers planted in the media to entrap his targets. Shimura returns in a minor role as Inspector Tokura’s superior.

Kurosawa’s visual flourishes remain ever-strong in High and Low. A black-and-white film, he inserts a touch of color at a key moment to great effect. And a scene in a claustrophobic alley overrun by zombie-like heroin addicts is as chilling as anything George Romero would put to film years later.

One of my personal favorites.

Afterword.

As sixties waned, Kurosawa began to lose popularity in his native land. Japanese audiences found his style too Western for their tastes. From a Japanese point-of-view there is merit to this. Once asked from whom he learned his craft, Kurosawa replied: “John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.” Those same tastes that had made him the leader in breaking Japanese cinema worldwide, now took him out of fashion at home. By the late 70’s Kurosawa had difficulty finding funding – until a new generation of filmmakers who worshiped his work – George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg – helped get the necessary backing.

An emergence of a world media culture rehabilitated Kurosawa’s reputation in Japan. By the time he died in 1998 at age 88, his reputation in the East matched his renown in the West. AsianWeek named Kurosaw “Asian of the Century” for the Arts, Literature and Culture. CNN called him one of the five people of the twentieth century who most prominently improved life in Asia.

In the end, Mifune, whose expressiveness revolutionized Japanese acting much the way Marlon Brando did in America and had occasion to work with directors from Japan and abroad over a hundred-and-fifty-film career, summed up Kurosawa’s achievement best:
"I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him."
William Burton McCormick
William Burton McCormick

19 May 2019

Crime Films of Akira Kurosawa, Part 1

William Burton McCormick
William Burton McCormick

Lenin's Harem
We’re incredibly proud to present author William Burton McCormick (with many thanks to Rob)…
A five-time Derringer Award finalist, Williams's fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Black Mask, The Crime Writers’ Association Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour, Nancy Pickard Presents Malice Domestic 13: Mystery Most Geographical – and elsewhere. His historical novel of the Baltic Republics, Lenin’s Harem, was published by Endeavour Media. A native of Nevada, William lived fourteen years in Eastern Europe including Latvia, Estonia, Russia and Ukraine.
— Velma

The Crime Films of Akira Kurosawa

by William Burton McCormick

Acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is well-known outside his homeland for his samurai films and the Western imitations they inspired. The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven. Yojimbo (loosely based-on the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest) was remade often shot-for-shot by Sergio Leone as A Fist Full of Dollars. George Lucas transferred the plot and characters of The Hidden Fortress from sixteenth century Japan to a galaxy far, far away for Star Wars.

Fans of world cinema know that Kurosawa’s filmography is more varied than the samurai film, making contributions to numerous genres, including powerful dramas and adapting Shakespeare and Dostoevsky for Japanese audiences. No matter the source, the films always remained a product of Kurosawa’s own unique genius. In addition to directing, Kurosawa wrote or co-wrote his own screenplays and did his own film editing. A devotee of Orson Welles and John Ford, Kurosawa’s visual flair matches the former and his ability to capture sweeping landscapes and to film men-in-action may even surpass the later.

The five films we will discuss for SleuthSayers fall into the “crime film” category in some way or another. Noirs, gangster flicks, buddy cops, police procedurals, and Hitchcockian thrillers are found below. All five films feature Kurosawa regulars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.

MIFUNE, Toshiro
Those unfamiliar with his sixteen films with Kurosawa might recognize Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese soldier trapped on a deserted island with Lee Marvin in Hell in the Pacific, as Admiral Yamamoto in Midway, or as Lord Toranaga in the 80’s miniseries Shogun. John Belushi aped Mifune’s mannerisms from Yojimbo (down to the neck twitch and raised eyebrow) for his “Samurai” skits on Saturday Night Live. George Lucas was so enamored with Mifune, he offered the actor his choice of Obi-wan Kenobi or Darth Vader in Star Wars, but Toshiro felt his English insufficient, and not wanting to be dubbed, turned Lucas down.

SHIMURA, Takashi
Takashi Shimura was a veteran of twenty-one Kurosawa films, more than any other actor. A leftist imprisoned by Japan’s militant government before World War II, Shimura brought a world-weariness to his roles. He is weathered-but-tough in the Yul Brynner-equivalent role in The Seven Samurai, weathered-and-dying in the drama Ikiru, which the late critic Roger Ebert considered the greatest of all Kurosawa films. Those in the West might recognize Shimura as Dr. Yamane, one of the scientists trying to destroy the rampaging monster in the first Godzilla film (directed by Kurosawa’s friend Ishirō Honda.)

Drunken Angel made Kurosawa, Shimura and particularly Mifune stars in Japan. Two years later they would release Rashomon, which would break down the doors for Japanese films worldwide and change cinema forever. They are among the five films discussed over this two-part article.

Drunken Angel
Drunken Angel (1948)

In postwar Japan, Shimura plays an alcoholic doctor named Sanada who runs a private clinic in the Tokyo slums. Once a promising physician, drink and a wild past derailed his career, leaving the middle-aged Sanada to eke out a meager existence while his old medical school classmates earn a good living attending to the wealthy. One night, a gangster named Matsunaga (Mifune) barges in seeking help for a bullet wound. Doctor Sanada attends the wound, but when he diagnoses Matsunaga with tuberculosis, the enraged gangster beats the doctor and leaves. Despite the assault, Sanada hunts down Matsunaga, insisting on treating the illness. This is nominally done to prevent the spread of TB to others, but Sanada also sees his own wasted youth in the younger man. By saving Matsunaga, Sanada believes he is in some ways saving himself. And so begins a combative, uneasy friendship between the two men.

There is some great noir-ish dialogue in Drunken Angel. When a thug threatens to murder the doctor, Sanada laughs and says: “I’ve killed more men then you ever will.” It is not only a taunt of the criminal, but a self-effacing commentary on his failed medical career, and more subtly, a partial hint at why he seeks redemption in Matsunaga’s survival.

The film effectively builds suspense and drama with two ticking timebombs. One is the progress of Matasunga’s illness and the challenge Sanada faces in keeping a dangerous, animalistic man on a recovery routine. The other is the pending release from prison of another gangster, Okada (Reisaburo Yamamoto), a cold-blooded murder who previously sexually abused Doctor Sanada’s assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita). She is terrified of his return. Things are complicated further when it is revealed that Okada is Matasunga’s boss.

The story unfolds as a tragedy of shifting loyalties set within a war-devastated Tokyo. The U.S. occupation censors did not allow films that criticized the American presence and discouraged more than passing references to the war. Films of the time were encouraged to ignore the recent past completely. Despite this, Kurosawa’s film reveals the devastating results of the conflict. A mosquito-breeding cesspool, around which much of the drama unfolds, is obviously a crater from Allied bombing. Early Western advertisements are glimpsed on city streets. People talk of ration cards. The brothels, so common in the gangster world, play jazz music and waltzes indicating the “pan pan” girls who work there have an international clientele. The first Yakuza (gangster) movie released after the war, it is a gritty glimpse of the dark side of life in the years of rebuilding Tokyo.

All Japanese films made before 1953 are in the public domain. So, you can watch Drunken Angel with English subtitles online for free here if you wish.

Stray Dog
Stray Dog (1949)

In this film noir, Mifune plays a rookie detective named Murakami, who has his Colt revolver picked from his pocket on the local trolley. Understandably upset, and pressured by his superiors, Murakami goes on a quest through the postwar Tokyo underworld to find his missing gun. Things only worsen, when it is discovered that the stolen Colt has now been used by the thief (or some other party) to commit a series of increasingly dire crimes. Soon Murakami is paired with an older detective, Satō (Shimura), to find the gun and solve these crimes.

Stray Dog is an important work in the history of crime fiction cinema. It is one of the earliest police procedurals with more attention to detail in investigative work than a Hollywood film of the same era. Secondly, it is considered the forerunner of the buddy cop film. Certainly, Mifune’s and Shimura’s chemistry together is never stronger, often funny, sometimes poignant.

Several set pieces display Kurosawa’s mastery. A scene at a baseball game is both humorous and exciting and the way the detectives locate their suspect especially clever. And a late-film moment where a key telephone conversation is in danger of being drowned out by passing thunder or nearby radio speakers is as suspenseful as any Hitchcock piece of the 40’s. The movie’s climax is gripping and beautifully filmed.

Like Drunken Angel, the postwar life is portrayed as unflinching as the censors would allow. People trade their government issued ration cards for a host of illegal services (guns, sex, loan sharking), the cards functioning as a sturdy currency when life is influx.

Shimura, Mifune; Stray Dog
Shimura and Mifune – Stray Dog
Though Stray Dog is cop film and Drunken Angel a gangster film, they make a natural pairing for those who want an excellent cinematic experience and a glimpse into the underworld of postwar Tokyo from the Japanese point-of-view.

Stray Dog is available to view online for free (with English subtitles) here.

If you’ve seen (or watch now) either Drunken Angel or Stray Dog, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

In Part Two, we look at one of the most influential films crime films of all time as well as two excellent Kurosawa noires from the 60’s.

18 May 2019

East Texas Tales, Part 2


by John M. Floyd



Have you ever discovered an author whose novels and stories you like so much you want to find and read everything he or she has written? I've found a few. Looking at the bookshelves in my home office, I can see just about every published piece of fiction by Carl Hiaasen, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Michael Crichton, Nevada Barr, Larry McMurtry, Nelson DeMille, Greg Iles, Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Arthur Hailey, Martin Cruz Smith, James Michener, John Grisham, and Ken Follett--and I have almost everything written by several others: Robert B. Parker, Colleen McCullough, John Sandford, Fredric Brown, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, Dick Francis, Tom Wolfe, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, Frederick Forsyth, Lawrence Block, Scott Turow, and . . . Joe R. Lansdale.

I wrote a post about Joe Lansdale here at SleuthSayers four years ago, called "East Texas Tales," and talked about some of his books that I especially enjoyed. At the time I posted that column, though, I had not yet read most of the novels in his Hap and Leonard series, I had not yet seen any of the movie/TV adaptations of his work, and I had not yet met Lansdale himself. I've now done all three of those things, and my respect for him has continued to grow.

Pulpwood fiction

I can't remember where I first heard that term, but I recently found a blog called Pulpwood Fiction, and it defines PWF as "good old-fashioned noirish pulp fiction with a Southern twist." I think that's a good summary of the kind of stories Joe Lansdale writes. Most of his tales are set in rural eastern Texas, in and around the fictional town of LaBorde. My absolute favorite novels of his are standalones like The Bottoms (an Edgar Award winner), Edge of Dark Water, and The Thicket, but I also love his series of novels featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, two of the toughest and most interesting characters in modern crime fiction.


Without going into great detail, let me just say that Hap is a white, straight, liberal redneck who doesn't like violence and Leonard is a gay black Republican war veteran who doesn't like much of anything except Dr Pepper and vanilla cookies. These two have been best friends since childhood, and despite their mostly-good intentions and Hap's dislike of firearms they regularly wind up in deep trouble and have to shoot their way out.

So far, two feature films have been made from Lansdale's writing: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) with Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis and Cold in July (2014) with Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson. Both movies are worth watching--and Bubba Ho-Tep is hilarious. There's also a Sundance TV series called Hap and Leonard, starring James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams. I've watched two of the three seasons of H&L and I'm about to start the third. Like his words on the page, Lansdale's movies and TV episodes are smart, funny, and action-packed.

Reading list

For those who might be interested, here's a fairly extensive Lansdale bibliography:

Standalone novels:

The Nightrunners (1987)
Cold in July (1989)
Freezer Burn (1999)
The Big Blow (2000)
The Bottoms (2000)
A Fine Dark Line (2002)
Sunset and Sawdust (2004)
Lost Echoes (2007)
All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky (2011)
Edge of Dark Water (2012)
The Thicket (2013)
Black Hat Jack (2014)
Paradise Sky (2015)

Hap Collins and Leonard Pine mysteries:

Savage Season (1990)
Mucho Mojo (1994)
The Two-Bear Mambo (1995)
Bad Chili (1997)
Rumble Tumble (1998)
Captains Outrageous (2001)
Vanilla Ride (2009)
Devil Red (2011)
Honky Tonk Samurai (2016)
Rusty Puppy (2017)
Jackrabbit Smile (2018)
The Elephant of Surprise (2019)

Short-story collections:

High Cotton (2000)
Bumper Crop (2004)
Mad Dog Summer (2004)
Hap and Leonard (2016)

I've left out a few items, but the ones listed above I can vouch for because I've read them and I have them lined up right here on my (groaning) shelves.

Coming up soon: the movie version of The Thicket, to be directed by Elliott Lester and starring Peter Dinklage.

I can't wait.




17 May 2019

Editorial: Stop Insalting Florida

Great Seal of Columbia County, Florida

Special to the Editor from the Office of His Honorable Mayor Beau Daeshus Boondok of Lake Hamlet, Lake Village, Lake City, formerly known as Alligator Town in Columbia County, of the Great State of Florida, to wit:

SleuthSayers has been known to say derogatorian half-untruths about the Sunshine State. To preempt another scurrylus slur, I asked the SleuthSayers Board to present my editorial about certain recent events.

The fine folks of Columbia County don’t understand the hoopla outcry about a recent arrest that somehow made national news. Let’s set the record straight about this libraltarian doonboggle.

Surprisingly animal rights groups haven’t been up in arms over a recent arrest case in our fine Florida county. You’ve read about it, the idiot with the decal on his pick-up. Now I ain’t no vegetarian, but I don’t find that funny.

I eat ass

Many folks might object, especially horse and donkey lovers. Fact is, horse meat is lower in fat than cow meat, although higher in purines. Mules I reckon run about the same gamut of proteins and fats. It ain’t just locals. Chinese also hanker for a taste of fine, fresh donkey meat (活叫驴), slaughtered to order, $5 a pound.

Now I’ve eaten burros, at least that’s what it said on the Mexican menu at Bad Hombres. Their illegal alien cook fills rolled tortillas with, well, I suppose burros. And cheese and enough beans and chili verde you couldn’t tell it was burros. I don’t advertise on my truck though.

I eat burros

If you turn your nose up, chances are you’ve sampled horse without knowing it. The once competitive Burger Chef chain was maybe found mixing equine and bovine products in their ground round. It wasn’t illegal, but it ruined the once successful franchiser.

My 5th grade teacher said the importance of words matters. That horse’s ass of a truck owner was just plain mulish. Nobody puts stickers on their vehicle saying, “I eat bunny rabbit,” or “I eat cuddly little lambs.” They could save screaming children if they said, “I ❤︎ bunnies,” and likewise, “I ❤︎ ass.”

I ♥︎ ass

Even dimmer than the animal abuser, our decent but not-overly swift law officer arrested him, saying he felt offended. Worse, radio dispatch told him, “Tow his shit” and drag the guy’s ass into the station. Poor donkeys can’t get a break.

Nowadays folks gossip about my ladyfriend I met in Tallahassee. We almost didn’t connect because of bad grammar on her bumper sticker. In my ear, I kept hearing Mrs. Prunehilda in 5th Grade English smacking my knuckles and harping that complete sentences require a verb, not just a pronoun and noun. The verb went completely missing, so you might imagine how offended I felt her bad grammar read.

I swallow

At least she didn’t say she ate baby chicks or wrens. As a bird lover, I reckon she meant “I ❤︎ swallows.” Anyway, we’ve been happily seeing one another for the past six months and I’ve never felt more cheerful about bad grammar. I decided bumper stickers don’t matter none.

Now back to the business of mayoring, and thank you SleuthSayers for allowing my little editorial.

The Esteemed Honorable Mayor Beau Daeshus Boondok



charge sheet
charge sheet
Note: Police arrested Dillon Shane Webb, 23 going on 13, on obscenity charges and resisting arrest. The latter came about because the officer ordered Webb to scrape off at least one S, and he refused.

The county prosecutor kept a cooler head and dismissed charges. Webb’s attorney says they’re now switching from defense to offense. Some might argue the he’s gone from offense to defense to offense again.

16 May 2019

Historical Mysteries: Frank Tallis

by Janice Law

First in the series of Vienna mysteries
Although I am as fond as anyone of up-to-date contemporary tales, “ripped from the headlines” as one of my old editors used to say, I’m also beginning to quite like historicals. Lets face it, detectives out and about and asking questions and using their little grey cells have it all over scans of CCTV footage and rows of white-collar coppers studying their computer screens.

Naturally, the historical mystery genre has its difficulties as well, presenting a tricky balance for the writer. From writing a number of novels set in the past, I discovered that readers enjoy only so much difference and strangeness. Local color, odd costumes and odder customs are  OK, so long as the hero and heroines have basically contemporary ideas and attitudes. I learned this the hard way with All the King’s Ladies, a novel about the Affair of the Poisons at the court of Louis XIV.   Only belatedly did I realize it would probably have sold a great many more copies if the king’s mistresses had been more romantic creatures, instead of the cold-eyed business women they were in reality.

So I was pleased recently to discover Frank Tallis’ series of Vienna mysteries, featuring the young doctor (and Freud disciple) Max Liebermann and his friend, Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt. The books hit a good balance between historical accuracy and modern thinking. The result is a detailed portrait of cosmopolitan pre-WWI Vienna in the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. Tallis knows his cultural history, especially music, and has done his research on the tangled politics, secret societies, and threatening undercurrents of what was on the surface, a glittering and progressive capital.

His appealing main characters exhibit a distinctively contemporary sensibility. It is not too surprising that Amelia Lydgate, blood expert and medical student is alert to the misogyny of the medical profession. But it is more surprising that Liebermann, fascinated by Freud’s ideas, should apply them with many critical reservations, especially with respect to his female patients. Or that Rheinhardt, a
member of the conservative police force, should be so open to what amounts to a female forensics expert. Totally plausible historically? I doubt it, but it makes them fun to spend time with.

Tallis has other strengths beyond careful and well-written historical research and good detectives. A clinical psychologist, he puts his medical and scientific knowledge to work to construct elaborate plots and ingenious modus operandi for both his cops and killers. A Death in Vienna features a locked room puzzle – with a locked box puzzle inside. Vienna Blood offers a serial killer with what, in symphonic terms, might be called a program.

While the murders themselves are quite far up on the gruesome scale, the complexity of the plots and the ingenuity of the solutions are in Agatha Christie territory – an interesting combination to say the least.

The social and psychological settings for these mysteries are also carefully done. Liebermann is a member of the prosperous Jewish bourgeoise, comfortable, well-educated, cultured. Although quite aware of a pervasive anti-Semitism, he is personally protected by his status and abilities and optimistic about the future. Interestingly, his father Mendel, a factory owner less educated and assimilated, is more perceptive about what are destined to be increasingly toxic and dangerous political currents.

The series of what are now called the Liebermann Papers began in 2006 and have now run to eight novels; the most recent, The Mephisto Waltz, came out this year. They are well worth a look.

15 May 2019

Today in Mystery History: May 15


by Robert Lopresti

For the second time I am pillaging my files to report on highlights of this day in our field's history.  Enjoy.

May 15, 1923.  The issue of Black Mask Magazine  published on this date featured "Three Gun Terry," by Carroll John Daly.  It's not such a great story, even by Daly's standard, but it is a huge piece of mystery history: it is considered the first hard-boiled private eye story.  "For every man I croak--mind you, I ain't a killer, but sometimes a chap's got to turn a gun--I get two hundred dollars flat."

May 15, 1926.  Two great playwrights were born on this day.  Coincidentally, they were in the same room.  Okay, no coincidence.  Anthony and Peter Shaffer were twin brothers.

Anthony won two Edgar Awards: Best Play for Sleuth, and then Best Screenplay for same. He also wrote screenplays for Frenzy and The Wicker Man.

He co-wrote three mystery novels with brother Peter, who was best known for non-mystery plays such as Equus and Amadeus.

May 15, 1933.  Dime Detective Magazine for this date proudly contained "The Brain Master," by John Lawrence, a pulp writer whom Frances M. Nevins, Jr. referred to as "king of the unremembered."  This was part of a series featuring New York private eye Sam Beckett, not to be confused with the guy who waited for Godot.

May 15, 1948.  Jeremiah Healy was born on this date in Teaneck, NJ.  He was best known for his novels about Boston private eye John Francis Cuddy.  Half of these books were nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Novel.  The Staked Goat won.


May 15, 1961.  The second episode of Whispering Smith appeared on NBC.  This was a western but definitely a detective story.  Audie Murphy played a nineteenth century Denver cop.  (If you aren't familiar with Murphy, look him up.  During World War II he won practically every medal available to a U.S. soldier, including the Medal of Honor.)  

So why should we care about the second episode of a long forgotten TV show?  Well, first of all, I can't tell whether the first episode ever showed.  The source of all wisdom (i.e. the Internet) says the show premiered on May 8 and also says it missed its premiere date.  So who knows?

But more importantly, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was so disturbed by the violence in the May 15th episode, "The Grudge," that they actually showed it at a hearing.  According to Wikipedia the assembled senators got to see: a fistfight, a mother horsewhipping her son, a false charge of sexual assault, a report that a man laughed after shooting another guy six times in the stomach, and a woman accidentally killing her daughter while aiming at someone else.  All it needs is dragons to pass for an episode of Game of Thrones.

Oh, the actor who got horsewhipped was  a kid named Robert Redford.  Whatever happened to him?


May 15, 1993. This date saw the publication of Charles Willeford's book The Shark-Infested Custard.  I know nothing about this crime novel, but I love the title.  Don't you?