31 May 2013

How 2 Big Sleeps Taught Me Magic

When Last We Met . . . 

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d seen the “pre-release” of The Big Sleep.

The film classic The Big Sleep was released by Warner Brothers in August of 1946. However, an earlier, slightly different version of this same film was completed about a year before that. This earlier “pre-release” was granted limited distribution for USO use in the Pacific Theater as WWII wound down. Virtually no one would see it again, though, for over a half-century.

Warner sat on that original version of The Big Sleep because they wanted to unload a back-log of WWII films before they became passé, and because Lauren Bacall’s agent wanted to change elements of his client’s performance in The Big Sleep, in order to counter negative reviews she’d received in a recent film.

Thus: Warner re-edited the movie, including about 20 minutes of new footage shot during the film’s year-long hiatus, before releasing the final version -- which is the classic we all (or, at least, many of us) know and love. Meanwhile, that original “pre-release” version -- long believed lost -- was found, late in the 1990’s, sitting in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Almost immediately, funds were raised for restoration, and a re-release was planned for the “pre-release,” which finally came out on video in 2000.

Which is how I happened to stumble across it one night, on a DVD, when I myself was feeling a bit cross-eyed from lack of rest. And, how I realized that a comparison of the two films served to illustrate an important facet of writing for me.

The Not-So-Femme Fatal 

In honor of the multi-layered-mystery element that (imho) helped propel The Big Sleep to greatness, I’ll begin my dissertation by invoking a different famous mystery film, which also starred Humphrey Bogart.

If memory serves me right: In The Maltese Falcon, while Peter Lorre’s character, Joel Cairo, is supposedly cooling his heels outside Sam Spade’s office door, Bogart (Spade) lifts Cairo’s card to his nose and sniffs. A humorous expression instantly explodes across Bogart’s face as he exclaims, “Gardenias!” He turns to his secretary and tells her, “Quick, darling, in with him!” (Or words to that effect.)

The way this scene is played out, a viewer is left with little question concerning Joel Cairo’s sexual preferences. Or, so it seems to me.

A similarly telling scene from the pre-release of The Big Sleep was cut from the 1946 version. At the same time, Marlowe’s search of Geiger’s bungalow -- where Carmen Sternwood (played by Martha Vickers) has been drugged and photographed -- is considerably shortened.

In commenting on my last post, David Edgerley Gates mentioned that the Hayes code (a sort of de facto censorship in operation at the time) made it necessary to change the film’s ending. He also helped explain why the changes in the Geiger bungalow scene were made, when he wrote: …[T]hey already had enough problems with the Martha Vickers character, trying to skirt the implication she was a nympho, not to mention a dope fiend.

I think David's very right. While the book makes it plain that Carmen is photographed in the nude, for instance, Martha Vickers is clothed in both versions of the film. All be it, she’s clothed in a Chinese-looking garment, which -- given social nuances then in vogue -- may have been construed as indicating her photo session involved sexual deviancy. But, there’s more sexual obfuscation than this going on.

After first reading this scene in the book, there was no question in my mind that Geiger was gay. Chandler’s description of Geiger’s bedroom clearly indicated its owner had a strong feminine side, at the very least. And, I’m pretty sure Chandler just about came right out and stated the fact when Marlowe described what the place felt like.

The final cut of the film, however, seems largely to gloss-over this idea. Though, I believe an argument could be made that love would be about the only motivation for Geiger’s assistant to go on his murderous rampage at Joe Brody’s apartment.

But, in the pre-release it’s a different story. After Marlowe finds the drugged Carmen Sternwood, he searches Geiger’s bungalow pretty thoroughly before he manages to discover the lockbox with Geiger’s sucker code. We even see where Marlowe finds the key to that box (a scene that I believe is missing from the final release). And, he goes to greater lengths, when it comes to covering up evidence that the girl had been in the bungalow.

During all this, we get a very good look at the feminine side of Geiger’s bedroom. The femininity is not overdone, but many of the book details do seem to be there. I believe this element, combined with the Chinese or Asian decorative influence, would have connoted the Geiger’s leanings fairly plainly to an audience of 1945. And, for anybody who somehow still missed the implications, the knowing smile on Bogart’s face, when he sniffs one of Geiger’s handkerchiefs, which he finds in that bedroom, would probably open the dimmest eyes.

Yet, almost none of this appears in the general release. Most of it wound up on the cutting room floor during final editing. And, while conforming with the Hayes code may well have played a part in deciding to make these cuts, I suspect another reasoning was also at work.

At first blush, Marlowe’s longer search made a lot of sense to me. To my way of thinking, mysteries are all too often replete with detectives who find what they’re searching for far too easily. So, it was refreshing to see Marlowe search for awhile before locating any valuable clues. Additionally, I remember thinking, “So THAT’S where it came from!” when he found the key to the lockbox, because the origin of this key had never seemed clear to me when watching the general release.

But, my excitement soon waned. I began to notice how long that search seemed to drag on. And, how such a lengthy search slowed the movie’s pace. Before long, I found myself changing my mind. I decided the editor had been wise to cut it -- even if the results left me puzzled about where Marlowe got that lockbox key.

A moment later, icy dread washed down through me.

I’d made similar mistakes in some of my own writing. Seeking to ensure verisimilitude, I’d been guilty of letting details stretch scenes too long. During rewrite, I’d noticed a resulting loss of tension, but my understanding of the mechanism involved was pretty sketchy. Watching this scene, however, and comparing it to the original film in mind, I was struck by a clear and concrete comprehension of the problem.

The solution, though, was still difficult to grasp. How to balance verisimilitude with the need to avoid slowing the action? Another difference between the two films would provide a key.

The Other Office 

There’s a scene in the pre-release that I believe runs about five minutes, and I don’t think it’s in the ’46 release at all -- though there may be a short minute or two that was re-shot to condense it. The stuff that wound up on the cutting room floor was replaced with a new scene, in which Bogart and Bacall enjoy a bit of a tête-à-tête in a restaurant (left), helping to establish a romantic rapport that serves to support the re-edited ending.

In the deleted scene (below) Marlowe meets with his cop buddy, the DA and some other guys, in the DA’s office. There, the PI has to explain why his actions, and letting him remain involved in the case (so he can continue to pursue those actions) would further the interests of justice, and the DA’s reelection. This scene was evidently intended to function as a thinly-veiled attempt to ensure that viewers understood the implications of what had transpired on-screen before it. This mid-film review, however, serves to bring the film’s brisk pace to a near screeching halt. And, it’s much worse than the lengthy search scene above, because there’s nothing new here; it’s all a rehash.

While I’m sure there are those who would appreciate this opportunity to gain a better understanding of the complicated double-or-triple-mystery unfolding before them: For me, the confusion created by unexpected occurrences within the film, is exactly what sucks me into the vortex of the plot’s wildly spinning fabric. In my view, this “review” scene provides such a vast breath of calm, still air, the film’s whirling vortex shatters against it, dissipating. Wildly careening plot elements flutter free and drift down to flop dead upon the ground.

Eventually, I came to see this scene as being somewhat akin to a magician stopping mid-act to say, “Okay. Now see, this is what I’ve really been doing.” When a magician reveals the slight of hand behind the trick, all the magic goes out of the thing. It dies.

Which is why I’m glad I saw this, because there's enough dead writing in this world; I don't need to kill more of it. But, I’m a guy who drives himself nearly crazy, ensuring that ta reader can understand why my characters are motivated to do what they’re doing, because I don’t want folks getting lost, or tossing down a book or story because they think I’ve got a character doing something s/he wouldn’t. On the other hand, I also know it’s important to keep a reader in the dark sometimes, and this why I found this scene so useful.

It serves as a clear reminder that the line between what I can tell and what I have to keep up my sleeve is clearly demarcated by the question, “Will knowing this shatter the magic?” At the same time, I realized this was also the answer to the question: How to balance verisimilitude with the need to avoid slowing the action?

The answer -- for me, at least -- is to keep my eye on the magic. If the magic thrives throughout the action, it’s fine. If it dies, or even just dies-down, I know it’s time to cut.

The trick in both cases is: Keep my eye on the magic. This phrase might not seem terribly concrete to you. Or, perhaps you’re not the sort of writer who needs to bear it in mind. But, for me: The simplicity of that phrase is something my mind can grasp and hang onto deeply. It’s a tool I can carry with me anywhere I go

Keep your eye on the magic! That’s what I learned from watching two versions of The Big Sleep..

See you in two weeks,

30 May 2013

Historical Mystery Novel Review: THE PARIS DEADLINE by Max Byrd

by Brian Thornton

(Note: I know I promised you a post on some of the howlers out there currently passing as "historically authentic period dialogue" in historical fiction, and that's forthcoming in my next posting it two weeks. Today I want to talk about a terrific book by a first-rate author, because, hey, it's almost June, we're on the cusp of summer, and I'm alllllll about the positives!) 

 I read a lot of books.

Okay, check that. I start a lot of books. Most of them are history or historical mystery, or some other subset of the mystery genre (classic hard-boiled/noir, contemporary noir, police procedural, and so on), and I don't finish nearly as many of them as I start. In today's post I'd like to give a thumbnail sketch of one of the books that I did actually finish.

Because, hey, it really was that good.

Yes, THE Max Byrd!
Let's talk Max Byrd. (He's the guy in the spiffy safari jacket to our right.)

Yes, *that* Max Byrd, an Edgar award-winning author who has written a terrific new novel in what I hope might be a new series. It's called The Paris Deadline.

I cannot urge strongly enough those who love historical mystery for both the history and the mystery to pick up this book and give it a try.

I stumbled across Byrd and his work quite by accident. Late last year I read his review of Alan Furst's latest in the The New York Times and liked the writing in the review so much I took a flyer on Byrd's latest, The Paris Deadline. I was far from disappointed.

The book is set in1927 Paris, its protagonist is Toby Keats, an expatriate American who works the rewrite desk for the International Herald Tribune. Keats is a veteran of the Great War: a sapper assigned to Sir John Norton-Griffiths' famed international "sapper" unit, and spent the war working to keep the Germans from tunneling under the Allied lines (sinking mines, then blowing them up, collapsing trench networks, etc.).

Scarred by his experiences during a particularly traumatic cave-in, Keats avoids tight spaces- won't even use the Metro-and quickly informs the reader he is the "only American in Paris at the time who did not know Ernest Hemingway." He does however know and work with both (future food writer) Waverley Root and a particularly ambitious young would-be war correspondent named William L. Shirer.

We're no more than a few chapters into the book than Keats finds himself caught up in the search for an antique automated duck (designed by the famous 18th century inventor Jacques de Vaucanson) whose inner workings might just hold the key to designing guidance systems for a newfangled invention called a "missile." Not surprisingly, the duck goes missing, and equally not surprisingly, a bunch of Germans are dead set on getting their hands on it. Competing with them for this prize are a haughty Wall Street banker living and working in Paris, a beautiful American girl sent by none other than superinventor Thomas Edison to purchase said duck and take it back to America so Edison can study and replicate it.

People get dead. People get beat up. Keats gets thrown together with the aforementioned beautiful American girl a number of times, all in the quest for this duck. And Byrd, who has several historical novels featuring former American presidents to his credit, makes it all come together and sing like, well, like a wind-up nightingale!

Byrd evokes 1920's Paris so successfully that at times I felt like I was reading an unpublished chapter of Hemingway's A MOVEABLE FEAST (and coming from me, that is praise). The story is engaging, the characters charming. The mystery at the heart of the book compelling (after all, it's about a two century old toy duck, of all things!).

Little wonder Kirkus called The Paris Deadline one of the ten best historical mysteries of 2012.

I give it my highest recommendation, and just hope there are more where this one came from!

29 May 2013

Working on my novel

Just bought myself a webcam and guess what I did with it?  Lyrics follow...

When the cop cars finally caught up with me                               
I was down from a nine day drunk                                        
With a side door missing, the radiator hissing                     
And an alligator in the trunk                                                 
The judge said “You’ve got such potential, son          
So why is your life a mess?                                         
You’ll be making, they say, great art one day.”          
“Well, your honor, I must confess.”                                    

I’m working on my novel, (working on my novel) 
Starting on a great career                                                               
Every word rings true cause I’m living ‘em through 
I’m working on my novel here         
My wife hit me, then she hit the road
‘Cause of rumors that flew her way
‘Bout her ex-best friend and a lady bartender
And some games that we liked to play
She said through sobs “I work two jobs
To support you and your art.
Can’t the research cease on your masterpiece?
When will the writing start?”

I said: I’m working on my novel, (working on my novel) 
Starting on a great career                                                               
Every word rings true cause I’m living ‘em through 
I’m working on my novel here         

The outline’s done after years of work
But my agent said, “Hey, boy,
I love the plot but its really not
What sane people would enjoy.”
So I started on a story of the common folk
And the struggles that they go through
So nine to five you can see me strive
With the scum of the earth like you.

I’m working on my novel, (working on my novel)                        
Where'd my alligator disappear?
Every word rings true cause I’m living ‘em through           
I’m working on my novel here         

28 May 2013

The Wordsworth Trap

My first post on SleuthSayers, "Doyle When He Nodded," was about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fascinating lapses. One of the comments I received was from fellow contributor Elizabeth Zelvin, who wondered whether Doyle would have addressed his mistakes if he'd lived long enough to bring out e-editions of his books. (To do this, the long-lived doctor would had to have outlived Sherlock Holmes himself.) Elizabeth reported that she was having fun updating her novels for their e-debuts. That reminded me of an ethical dilemma I faced while working on the e-book editions of my early novels. I call this e-dilemma the Wordsworth trap.

Wordsworth the Younger
The Wordsworth in question is William, dean of the English Romantic poets. Wordsworth was even longer-lived than Doyle, making it to eighty, not a bad trick in 1850, the year he died. It certainly broke the pattern established by his Romantic stablemates Keats, dead at twenty-five, Shelley, dead at twenty-nine, and Byron, dead at thirty-six. Wordsworth should have amassed a much larger body of work than those three, but he really didn't. In my copy of Major British Poets of the Romantic Period, William Heath editor, a survivor from my college days, Wordsworth's poetry fills 224 pages, while Byron's takes up 230. It's true that Keats and Shelley have to team up to top Wordsworth with 245 pages, but William had roughly five more writing decades than either John or Percy was granted.

So what happened? For one thing (the one thing I'm interested in), Wordsworth spent time he might have devoted to new poems tinkering around with his old ones. And not necessarily improving them. This isn't just one mystery writer's opinion. Editor William Heath, mentioned above, noted in his introduction that he went with the later, revised versions of Wordsworth's poems even though, in the case of the longer work now called "The Prelude," the original version was "livelier, less abstract, less conventional in literary form and religious doctrine." Perhaps the revised one was gluten free.

Wordsworth the Elder
The way this tinkering wastes a writer's finite time supply is one objection to the practice. Another, philosophical one is best expressed as a question. Is any human project perfectible? After all, Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa for years and never got the eyebrows right. Say you think perfection is possible or that it's noble to strive for perfection whatever the odds. You're then left with another question. Whose standards of perfection apply? That may seem like an easy one. If the subject is Wordsworth's poetry, then Wordsworth's standards apply, not William Heath's or anyone else's. But which Wordsworth? The Wordsworth who thought The Lyrical Ballads was ready to go in 1789 or the Wordsworth who was still changing a word here and there in 1829?

You may give the nod to Wordsworth the Elder, due to his many years of reflection and his maturing as an artist, but what of Wordsworth the Younger's claims? He was closer in time to the experience that inspired a given poem, "Tintern Abbey," say.  And he was the one who actually wrote it. Isn't he entitled to have it the way he wanted it?

These questions came to mind when I sat down to review the e-edition of Deadstick, my first Owen Keane novel. It was first published in 1991, and I was reviewing it for a twentieth anniversary edition. Twenty years is a long time. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge (or over the damn, if you prefer) since then. I'm not the same person I was in 1991 on any level, not even cellular. I hope I'm a better writer; certainly some of the challenges that seemed daunting when I wrote Deadstick I now take in stride. But I'm definitely a different Faherty. And as such, I felt the temptation to rewrite rather than review. That is, I strayed close to the powerful jaws of the Wordsworth trap.

(I should note here that this ethical dilemma did not apply to Elizabeth Zelvin. She was reviewing a book written in 2008, a mere blink of the eye ago.)

I did make minor changes here and there to Deadstick, of course. Sometimes it was because a sentence that had passed the "What am I trying to say?" test in 1991 didn't seem to now. And I corrected at least one continuity error caused by my failure to write the series in chronological order (from Owen's point of view). But for the most part, I respected my lost self's right to have the book the way he wanted it. And I followed the same rule when reviewing Live To Regret, the second Keane novel, which just made its e-book debut, and the upcoming third, The Lost Keats. (Yes, that Keats.)

If I live to be eighty, I hope my future self will treat my current stuff with the same deference when he's preparing the thought-transference editions--or whatever they have then. I won't be around to write stet in the margins, but I hope he'll imagine me doing it.

Oddly, Wordsworth once explored the concept of the earlier self as a separate person. According to Reginald Gibbons of Northwestern University, he was the first to do so in poetry. Here's a link to Professor Gibbons' essay "Earlier Self is Other." Wordsworth cannibalized an older poem about a childhood experience for his epic "The Prelude," and then, being Wordsworth, he kept tinkering with it. In his early drafts, he's clearly writing about his own lost self; he uses first person. But in later versions, he backs away from the interesting idea that the earlier Wordsworth is a separate person by switching to third person point of view, making the lost self simply a lost boy. And that's a shame. I think he got it right the first time.

27 May 2013

Memorial Day 2013

Jan GrapeToday is the day we honor our fighting men and women, our veterans and mostly it's a day to remember and honor those who lost their lives fighting for our country and our freedom. Yet we also honor those who are still fighting. And in all fairness those who are home but are wounded physically, emotionally and spiritually. Memorial day is for remembrance.

When I was six years old I lived in Houston with my maternal grandmother. My mother, a single parent, worked in an aircraft factory in Fort Worth. It wasn't easy if your child got sick and you couldn't work. If you were late to work or missed work and didn't have a written doctor excuse for being absent you were fired. no excuses, no exceptions. It was easier just for me to live with my grandmother. I was in first grade but I'd been home with chicken pox for about a week. (That chicken pox virus came back to haunt me six years ago in the form of shingles and left me with some nerve damage.)

Ok, back to my story. One day, I was pretty much over my pox when I looked out the window and saw a yellow taxi cab pull up in our driveway. Now we lived ten miles from the city limits (at that time) in Houston on a dirt road. A taxi pulling up was an event in the 1940s but an even bigger deal if you lived out in the country. A uniformed Army soldier got out. It was my father, Sgt. Thomas L. Barrow. He was on furlough and had come to see me. Oh my goodness, I got so excited that my little pox scars turned pink and I thought my disease had returned. Thank goodness I was wrong about that.

I had a wonderful day with my dad, he spent the night with us and the next day when it was time for him to leave, my granddad and I drove with him over to the old Dallas highway and let him out. He was going to hitchhike back to Fort Worth. We sat there just watching from the car for about five or ten minutes when a car stopped for him. This was during World War II and almost everyone would pick up a soldier in uniform. It was almost un-American not to do so. That's only one of the few memories I have of my father when I was little. Since my parents were divorced when I was two years old and he was in the army serving in India and China he wasn't around. But I never forgot that day and still remember clearly that yellow taxi and how handsome my father looked in his army uniform.

Months later, my mother remarried and I went to live with her in Post, Texas. My step-father, Charles Pierce had also been in the army, serving in France and Germany, but the year was 1946 and the war was over or winding down. I remember at Thanksgiving and at Christmas my mother inviting some service men to come and have dinner with us. There was an air force base in Lubbock, forty miles away and these men came from there. I think there were two who came for Thanksgiving and two different one who came for Christmas dinner. Another time a young couple came. They had a baby girl and she was expecting another child. They'd been living on the base and were going to be alone for Thanksgiving.

When my children were about 7, 8 & 9 years old, we lived in Memphis, TN and there was a naval air force base just north of there, Millington. I invited three young men to come have Thanksgiving dinner with us. They were young men, homesick for their families and for a home-cooked meal. They enjoyed the dinner and we enjoyed having them.

Does this happen anymore? I don't know. I haven't had anyone to my house since then. But I have a feeling that people who live near a military base do something like this, at least I hope they do. It's just a small thing to open your home and heart to someone who is alone for the holidays.

Memorial Day is a special day all over our country. Not just for the mattress sales events nor the outdoor BBQs with friends or spending a day at the beach. Hundreds of towns, small and large remember. They have parades and place wreaths on graves and remember the fallen. It's a special day of reverence for everyone who has served our country, those who died and those who came home with wounds that will take years to heal.

I can only hope one day before long we won't be involved in a war. The two wars the United States have been involved in have gone on way too long. I can only hope all our troops will be home with their families soon. And I hope that a little girl or boy somewhere today can see a taxi cab or a vehicle drive up and someone in uniform gets out and looks up and smiles because they are home. I hope that child will run into a parent's arms and hold on forever and remember that feeling, for the next forty or fifty or sixty years. "You're home, Daddy, or Mommy. You're home. I love you."

That will be a Memorial Day to celebrate.

26 May 2013

He Wasn’t The Best But He Was Good Enough

Although Carroll John Daly was one of the pioneer writers for Black Mask, Dime Detective and other pulp magazines and created the archetype for the hardboiled PI, he is not considered an iconic writer of hardboiled stories and is almost forgotten. In most critical essays he is almost always discussed in negative terms--unreadable, not a good writer--when compared to Hammett and other Black Mask writers. He is considered of historical significance because he was the first to feature the hardboiled tough guy in Black Mask magazine in the 1920s.

For this post, I decided to take a quick look at Daly to determine if his prose was as bad as the critics claimed. I began by reading the excellent essay “In Defense of Carroll John Daly” (originally published in The MYSTERY FANcier May 1978, volume 2, number 3) by Stephen Mertz on the Black Mask Magazine website. He Defends Daly against the charge that he is unreadable. Daly, he writes, was the most popular writer for Black Mask, more popular than Hammett or Erle Stanley Gardner, and had greater influence on later writers. When one of his stories appeared in the magazine, sales increased. 

Before the appearance of the hardboiled detective, Daly established the tough guy model in his story “The False Burton Combs” published in Black Mask in December 1922. The story is in the public domain, and downloadable from the Vintage Library website. The tough guy protagonist/narrator would become the tough PI of the later stories.

Daly created three private detectives. The first was Terry Mack in the May 15, 1923 issue of Black Mask in his initial hardboiled PI story “Three-Gun Terry.” The second was the first series hardboiled detective Race Williams, and the third was Vee Brown. None of my anthologies contained the Terry Mack story, and I couldn’t find it on the Internet. I read the very good Vee Brown story,“The Crime Machine” (Dime Detective January 1932) in the Hard-Boiled Detectives anthology.

I read two outstanding stories featuring Daly’s most famous PI, Race Williams. “Knights of the Open Palm” (Black Mask June 1923) in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories is the first story featuring Race. “The Third Murderer” in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps is a novella that was serialized in the June-August 1931 Black Mask.  

While Reading the stories, I kept in mind Dale’s April 23 post on violence. Certainly in some of the hardboiled stories, the violence is gratuitous, but in the well-written stories, it is not out of place. Considering the PI protagonists and the bad guys they face, the violence is inevitable and expected. Daly’s PIs see themselves as gunslingers who never kill a bad guy who doesn’t need killing.

Yes, he wrote clumsy prose. The mixture of slang and formal language at times is disconcerting, especially when it comes from the semi-literate protagonist. His language at times grated on my nerves like fingers scratching on a blackboard. But the stories are still readable, exciting, and enjoyable in their unrelenting tension. The nonstop violence instead of making you want to put down the book, makes you want to keep reading as the tension rises until the shootout.

Although Daly wasn’t the most skillful prose stylist, he was good enough for those readers who, while riding the bus or train to work, could escape for a few minutes into the make believe world of gangsters, crooked policemen, and corrupt politicians. He did what the pulp writers were expected to do, told a good story. He also confirmed my belief that sometimes a good storyteller can overcome bad prose.

25 May 2013

Hit List

I like to hear about favorites, of any kind: novels, stories, authors, movies, TV shows, restaurants, cities, vacation spots. Discussions like that can not only tell you a bit about the person naming the favorites, they can also provide recommendations for your later enjoyment. One of our best family trips —two weeks in DC, with stops at Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, Jamestown, etc. —happened because we had talked with a neighbor who'd been there and done that and said it was her favorite vacation.

That certainly applies to reading material. I like to find out what books my friends have enjoyed the most. That's the way I discovered Harlan Coben's Tell No One, Grisham's A Time to Kill, Follett's Eye of the Needle. And one of the guys in our writing group made what I thought was an interesting observation the other day: he said that your favorite books —not always, but often —are those you occasionally like to re-read. That's especially easy to do with favorite short stories (because, well, they're short).

The same can be true of movies. I have hundreds of DVDs stacked up in my little home office —I absolutely LOVE movies —and there are some that I find myself plugging in every now and then and watching again. I suppose those qualify as my favorites.
Given the theme of this blog (we're all mystery lovers), and the fact that I needed to come up with a topic for today's column, and the fact that my film preferences seem to have a history of violence, I decided to make a list of my most-often-watched mystery/crime/suspense movies. On the off chance that anyone might be remotely interested, here are thirty of them, in no particular order:

Double Indemnity — film noir at its best

Body Heat — neo-noir at its best
The Silence of the Lambs — rookie FBI agent vs. serial killer
Die Hard — New York cop vs. L.A. bad guys
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 version) — Boston bank heist
Crash — different stories that converge and "teach a lesson"
No Country for Old Men — best villain since Lecter (maybe best villain ever)
Dirty Harry — did he shoot six guys, or only five?

Bullitt — best car chase, best McQueen role
Once Upon a Time in America — Sergio's gangster epic
Blood Simple — the first Coen Brothers film
In Bruge — brooding bad boys in Belgium
Reservoir Dogs — colorful characters: Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown, etc.
Death Wish — the only really good vigilante movie
Witness — a Philly cop among the Amish
Psycho — don't take a shower if the desk clerk's named Norman
Pulp Fiction — overblown and complex, but great fun
To Kill a Mockingbird — the education of Scout Finch
Wait Until Dark — blind lady vs. drug smugglers

L.A. Confidential — LAPD in the 30s
Rear Window — a peeping Jimmy in the neighborhood
The Spanish Prisoner — great puzzle, with Steve Martin as a bad guy
Fargo — kidnapping and woodchipping in the Far North
The Godfather — this is business, not personal
Out of Sight — best Elmore Leonard adaptation
The Shawshank Redemption — best Stephen King adaptation
A History of Violence — Viggo without Frodo (the first hour is especially good)
Twelve Angry Men — best courtroom (actually jury room) movie ever
Lethal Weapon — the Mel man goes postal
The Usual Suspects — great ending, another great villain

Remember, these are personal favorites; they are not necessarily the best of the best. Titles like Chinatown, The Big Sleep, Mystic River, The French Connection, North By Northwest, The Maltese Falcon, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, etc., belong on every list of "best" crime/suspense films, and I liked them too. But what can I say? —this is an opinion column, and the thirty movies listed above are the ones I most enjoy watching again and again.
At least for now. Last year my list might've been different, and next year it probably will be different.
Isn't that part of the fun?

24 May 2013

The Bank Robbery

First off, know that drug dealers not only have no scruples about breaking the laws of society, they also frequently have no qualms about cheating their customers. Sad to say, there is no quality control when it comes to dealers and illegal substances. Caveat emptor.

Second, in the old days, if an agent got burned by buying a powder or tablet which turned out not to be a controlled substance, then the agent either got the money back from the dealer, or he made up the lost cash out of his own pocket. (NOTE: In more recent decades, the law was amended to make any distribution of counterfeit substances an illegal act under statutes governing the attempt to distribute a controlled substance or under the appropriate conspiracy laws. But, back then you had to get your money back.)

Third, there once existed an unofficial group known as the Gronk Squad, lads who were usually first through the door on any armed felon arrest. They also acted as backup when it came to making up a burn.

Fourth, we'll call the dealer Larry. It's not his real name, but Larry won't mind.

So here's the tale. A young cop fresh to the fed task force had bought what he thought was coke, but the lab report came back procaine, not a controlled substance. Time to repossess the money.

Late that morning, the young cop and his also young partner drove over to Larry's house. The Gronk Squad set up mobile surveillance on the outside. Young Cop went in alone and was back out in under ten minutes. He got into his car and drove around the block to update us. Seemed Larry was still in bed, wasn't inclined to reimburse the cash and maybe What's His Name should come back some other time.

My partner, a 15 year veteran of the streets, took this response as a brushoff, so he decided to go in the house himself with Young Cop. I had a fair idea what would happen next. Sure enough, two minutes later and out comes Larry, hopping on one bare foot while trying to get his jeans on. Larry gets in the back seat of the two-door undercover car, then he, Young Cop and my partner drive over to the residence of Larry's source of supply. Jake, me and Young Cop's partner follow in my blue Cadillac. We set up surveillance from a location atop a hill where we can see everything.

Larry, Young Cop and my partner soon return to the U/C car from the source's residence. Apparently, the source isn't home. Larry gets in the back seat again. Now, a car of young males shows up and parks behind the U/C car. The driver's window comes down and a long black tube slides out. Looks like they brought a shotgun to the curbside gathering. Larry's friends, who had been left back at his house when Larry got dressed in the front yard, have evidently decided to ride to Larry's rescue. The driver, holding the shotgun, tries to encourage Larry to get out of the car he's in and then get into their vehicle. Larry's not sure he should do that, so he wisely stays where he is. You could aptly call this a Mexican standoff, except only one side has displayed weapons up to this point.

To better balance the scales, those of us on the hill invite ourselves to the baile (that's Spanish for dance). The blue Cadillac rushes down off the hill and sandwiches the vehicle containing Larry's friends. Perhaps feeling a bit cramped in their options, the Friends of Larry abandon Larry to his fate as they depart the scene in great haste. The Cadillac gives chase. No lights, no siren. We don't have the money back yet.

After a few blocks and turns, the Friends of Larry stop their vehicle. I stop the blue Cadillac about sixty feet back. Their driver gets out with his shotgun pointed in our direction. Their front passenger gets out with a pistol. Not to be outdone, I crouch behind my driver's door, automatic in hand in my best Broderick Crawford style. Jake does the same behind our front passenger door. My veteran partner and Young Cop with Larry in their back seat pull up behind us. The tableau becomes a slice of very long Time.

Unfortunately, we are all parked beside a bank on the corner.

The security guard, an off-duty cop working his second job to make ends meet, has been quietly sipping his hot coffee up until now. It's just another slow day for him. He glances out the side window at what has been a nice morning. Startled at seeing all the men brandishing weapons in the street, he spills coffee on himself as he frantically punches the Panic Button. To him, it's obviously a bank robbery about to be in progress.

The tableau breaks when the Friends of Larry's driver declines to make a last stand on such a beautiful sunlit morning. he throws his shotgun into the back seat and prepares to drive off. A blur flashes by on my left side. It's Young Cop on a dead run towards the Friends of Larry. Guess Young Cop had some pent up feelings about how things were going, so he decided to take a more active hand.

Reaching through the open driver's window, Young Cop tries to grab the keys out of the ignition. Unnerved, the driver puts the transmission in gear and steps on the gas. Young Cop, supported by his elbow inside the window frame, is now going for a ride on the outside of the car. I'm not sure who turned the steering wheel, but the vehicle takes an abrupt right turn.

The bank, being on a corner, has its front door located on an angle at that corner of the building. A canopy comes out over the sidewalk from the door and there are large, low-growing evergreens positioned for landscape.

The Friends of Larry's car passes under the canopy and between the front door and the outer canopy uprights. Young Cop realizes there isn't enough room for him to safely pass through, so he dives into the nearest large evergreen. All I see is a pair of brown Dingo boots sticking out. The Friends of Larry disappear down the street at a high rate of speed. I recover Young Cop into my car and we ride off into the horizon.

Seems Larry has seen enough and no longer wishes to participate in further actions. At Larry's request, my partner takes him to Larry's own bank where Larry withdraws sufficient funds to repay the buy money. Larry is then dismissed with an admonition about selling bad drugs. He promises to do better in the future.

We never broke cover. (Didn't burn the informant for other cases, plus who knows, maybe Larry would sell good stuff to us the next time. Dumber things have happened.)

Local police respond to the bank alarm, but the street is deserted.

I still have the newspaper article with the headline: Bank Robbery Thwarted.

Those were exciting days. Fortunately, wiser heads soon prevailed and laws and policies were changed for the better.

PS~ I tell these tales of the street as factually as I remember, just as though we were all a bunch of cops sitting in a bar, swapping stories for laughs and learning from each other, a matter of survival on the street. However, if you as a writer get your muse jogged by anything you think would make a character, a scene, an action from any of these previous or future tales, then feel free to use it for yourself. One way or another, we're all in this together.

23 May 2013

Random Observations

Update:  (This was to have been published on 5/9/13, but current events got in the way.)

I've been on vacation for the last couple of weeks, and I only got a chance to check in a couple of times, but all I can say, from reading my co-writers' blogs, is that (1) they know a lot more about writing than I do and (2) I've got to start writing more.  I don't outline - although I may try to start doing that; I don't journal about my writing - though I may start doing that, too.  What do I do?  Well, I try to write something every day, even on vacation.  (I keep a journal, just not specifically about my writing.)  And I try to pay attention.  I watch.  I listen in.  I mull a lot.  And I try to describe it, at least to myself.

We were on a cruise in the Caribbean, which we had won on our last cruise, playing the cruise lottery.  It was a great cruise, but then I love cruises, because all you have to do is unpack once.  After that, it's up to you when you want to eat, what you want to do, and if you want to do nothing at all, there's the deck chairs, the poolside chairs, the top deck chairs, the library chairs, and, if worst comes to absolute worst, your room.  And I like doing nothing, when this means sitting in a chair and watching the ocean and watching people.

And 1200 people on a cruise ship can indeed represent the entire gamut of humanity.  As opposed to the endless "People of Wal-Mart" photos, the cruise clientele range from the Felliniesque to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and everything in between.  Every weight - which rises over the course of the cruise, as we all know - every age, every height, every nationality.  And once in a while, something unique.  Something that says, check this out:

The very thin Asian girl, who was with a very pasty older Englishman, who came to breakfast, took 2 HUGE pieces of cake, went to a back table, and was gone 30 seconds later leaving an empty plate.  (Obvious questions: Was the cake in her bag or in her stomach?  Was she headed back to the room or to the bathroom first?)

The relentless smile on the face of an Indonesian steward, which relapsed into an existential exhaustion any time he was left alone for a few seconds.

The old man who sat for hours aft every day, looking out at the wake of the boat, with all the hunger of Edward for Bella.

The monarchs of the ship, the headliner entertainment, a married couple, strolling around the ship doing their best to look stylish and hot and powerful and above all the hoi polloi who were their audience.

An older woman, a deep dyed glorious blonde, generously proportioned, lavishly painted, dressed in a rainbow, with a laugh that would have made Bette Davis come over and offer her a cigarette.  (Fun to talk to, too.)

An Aussie who assured me that I needed to make the trip to Australia sooner than later, because time was fleeting...  and later told me the story of his wandering life as we stood thigh deep in the Caribbean.

The last didn't surprise me a bit - I heard a lot of people's life stories on the trip, and I always do when I'm traveling.  Maybe I look trustworthy, maybe not; maybe I just look interested.  (Which I am.  I am insatiably curious, and I am always willing to down tools and listen to someone's story or read a book.)  Maybe it's because I'm a stranger and they'll never see me again.  Maybe it's because they're traveling, and they need to assure themselves of who they are.  Or, in some cases, they're rehearsing a new persona.  Seriously. 

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to go to a writer's colony (one and only time, at Ossabaw Island, Georgia), and while I was there, I had a memorable conversation with a woman.  She was married, and it was the first time she'd been away from the family in years, and she was at first bewildered, then bemused, and then bedazzled by the realization that, since no one knew her there, she could be anyone she wanted.  For the first time, she could choose who and what to be.  (I'd already done that years before, but that's another story.)  We agreed, it was interesting, and she should pursue the opportunity as far as she could.

File:MalteseFalcon1930.jpgHow far was that?  Hard to say.  The flip side of changing who you are - running off and becoming someone knew - is what is called nowadays "The Flitcraft Parable" in Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" - Mr. Flitcraft, who is almost killed by a falling beam one day and leaves his job, wife, children, everything, without a word and vanishes:

"He went to Seattle that afternoon," Spade said, "and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don't think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

Or, in other words, you can run, but you can't hide, at least not from who you really are. Was Hammett right or not?  Can you reinvent yourself, or do you simply put on an existential wig?  Discuss, children, and we will talk more later.