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?

14 May 2019

Hollywood: Land of Broken Dreams

by Paul D. Marks

In the tense opening of my novel Broken Windows, a young woman—Susan Karubian—drives up the windy roads of the Hollywood Hills. She parks. She walks to a huge structure on the side of the mountain. Climbs it. Contemplates a moment. Then jumps to her death from the Hollywood Sign. We’re left to wonder who she is and why she does what she does.


But she isn’t the first person to jump to her death from the Sign. Susan is loosely based on Peg Entwistle. Entwistle came to Hollywood in 1932 to fulfill her dreams of becoming a star. When that didn’t happen she became the only known person to have jumped to her death from the Sign…until Susan Karubian in Broken Windows. But Susan has more reasons than simply not fulfilling dreams of stardom for her jump into infamy in 1994, when the novel takes place.

Here’s some excerpts from the opening of Broken Windows:

Prologue (Disjointed) Excerpts:

The nonstop rain of the last couple weeks had broken. The view from up here was incredible. You could almost see Mexico to the south and the Pacific glittering in the west. The city below, shiny and bright. Pretty and clean from up here. A million doll houses that reminded her of childhood, playing with dolls and making everything come out the way she wanted it to. Little toy cars down below, scooting back and forth. Swarms of ants scurrying this way and that on important business. Oh yeah, everyone here had important business all day and all night. Everyone but her. She gazed down at Los Angeles on the cusp of the millennium. The place to be. Center of the universe…

...The city glowed, shimmering with hope and desire and people wanting to make their dreams come true. She knew this, because she was one of those people…

…If she couldn’t be famous in life, she would be famous in death. But she’d make her mark one way or another. She hoped her fall from grace would be graceful, even if her life hadn’t been.

I’d like to say that the idea for this just popped into my head ’cause it was a cool thing to do – a great hook to open the book. But I’ve always been fascinated by Peg Entwistle and her jump into infamy. One of the themes in my writing that I revisit from time to time is how Los Angeles is the place people come to fulfill their dreams, to start over, to become a new and different person. How Los Angeles is on the edge of the continent and if you go too far you fall into the Pacific, lost to the world forever, at least metaphorically speaking. How many – maybe most – of the people who come here with Big Dreams never achieve them. They become hangers on, wanna-bes and also-rans. Dejected and Depressed. I think Peg Entwistle was one of those people.


Peg (I hope she won’t mind my being informal with her) was born February 5, 1908 and died on September 16, 1932 in that famous jump. She was born in Port Talbot, Glamorgan, Wales, as Millicent Lilian Entwistle. Peg and her father – it appears he’d divorced her mother – emigrated to America, landing in Cincinnati and then New York. Her father died in 1922 and Peg began studying acting in Boston.

Apparently, in 1925 a young woman saw a seventeen year old Entwistle play the role of Hedvig in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. After seeing Entwistle in the play, that young woman told her mother, “I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle.” And ultimately Bette Davis surpassed her inspiration.

Eventually, Entwistle found work on Broadway, performing in several shows. And in 1927 she married actor Robert Keith, father of actor Brian Keith of Family Affair and other TV and film fame. So she became his step-mother for a time. Entwistle and Keith eventually divorced and Entwistle moved west to stake her claim in Hollywood during the Great Depression.

She appeared in several plays, but in only one movie Thirteen Women, starring Myrna Loy.

From here the facts get a little murky. But apparently, despondent over not making it in Hollywood, she made that infamous climb to the top of the “H” in the Sign and jumped into history.

Her suicide note read, “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”

Find a Grave says, “Today she is remembered for being an example of the lost aspirations of many who go to Hollywood to become actors or actresses. Ironically, the day after her death, a letter arrived at her home, offering her the lead role in a stage play about a woman driven to suicide.”

Whether this letter is for real is a matter of dispute. But either way, it says everything about people’s quest for fame and their obsessive desire for their guaranteed (by Warhol) fifteen minutes in the sun and in the news.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

White Heat -- Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller -- is a BOOKBUB Featured Deal on Sunday, May 19th. You can get the E-book for only $0.99.  https://tinyurl.com/y5oq3psq



***

New May issue of Mystery Weekly is out. And I'm honored to have my new story The Box featured on the cover. Hope you'll check it out. -- This link is to the Kindle version, but there's also a paper version available.

https://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Weekly-Magazine-2019-Issues-ebook/dp/B07RC8XS93


***

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

13 May 2019

The Ones That Went Away

by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I got a new computer and did what all writers do before getting rid of the old one. I scoured it for files worth keeping, mostly on flash drives or another external hard drive. I remembered some of those files originally being on floppy discs (Why do I still have them?), possibly from Windows 97.

When I retired from the classroom in 2003, I had five deservedly unpublished books to my credit, but I thought one of them merited another rewrite. I spent the next couple of years reading dozens of books on craft, attending workshops, making new mistakes with new writing, and figuring out most of what I'd done wrong. I went back to that book, my sixth-year project at Wesleyan in (gasp) 1980, and tried to revise it into a marketable product.
My bound project, in Wesleyan's library as "Patchwork Guilt." We've used it as a theatrical prop in productions of Faust and Bell, Book & Candle, hence the pentagram (note the open corner, just in case)

After 60 rejections, I self-published it in 2014 as Postcards of the Hanging, my seventh published novel . Many of the books I released earlier grew from that same work, though, until I learned more about what I was doing. Most of those Ur-books and Ur-characters appear on the flash drives and floppies, and I had forgotten about some of them.

Originally, Woody Guthrie was Robbie Daniels from Postcards, and he met Megan Traine at their high school reunion, a sequel to that book 25 years later. I met a classmate who inspired Meg's character at my own reunion, but by the time the book received its 115th rejection, I bagged that premise because it sounded like Lifetime TV. The story became much darker, too, which may have scared away the agents who thought they were reading a cozy. In my original draft, Robbie Daniels was a journalist, not a private detective, but that changed early in the process.

Characters changed names, and they came and went like professional athletes during free-agency. I found versions of the book under three different titles, and the story moved from 1991 to 2008.

I saw Robbie/Eric Morley/Some other name I don't even have in my notes anymore/Woody Guthrie as a series character and wrote two more books while that first sequel met increasing apathy. Most of the things that changed will never work again, but maybe they prove I actually learned something.

When I looked at old stories to respond to Barb Goffman's post about openings last week, I found a story with Marina Santini, who was Rob's girlfriend in the first version of the reunion novel. He dumped her for Megan Traine. I felt I'd treated her badly so I gave her a starring role in a short story. That ended happily, and she's never come back.

Megan lives in a duplex, the other half inhabited by Blue Song Riley, the chiropractor daughter of an African American soldier and a Vietnamese mother. Blue played a much larger role in two or three planned novels in the series. She even met a boyfriend through her brother Miles Davis Riley, who was in the service with the guy.

That boyfriend and Miles have never appeared, and Blue has never moved beyond cameo appearances, but one novel involved both men--and Blue--helping Meg find the sniper who shot Woody. I have a rough draft of a scene in which Meg shoots the man who is trying to kill her, too. I found notes for a sequel to that book, about 20 scenes, in which Woody kicks the addiction to painkillers that he developed after being shot. Both those fragments are dated 2005, and his name is still Eric Morley. My great aunt's married name was Morley, and I liked the suggestion of "morally."

Rasheena Maldonado was in the shooting book, too, originally a Detroit cop with Max and Lowe. The second Guthrie book was about teen prostitution, and I wrote a novel in which the first half was an inchoate mess and the second half worked well. When the Barnes series took off, I moved the story east and let Barnes investigate along the Berlin Turnpike, a notorious trafficking area. That book became Cherry Bomb. The new setting made everything else work, including Sheena as a juvenile officer.

Sheena  got traded to the East for Shoobie Dube, originally Robbie/Eric's secretary in Hartford until he met Megan at the reunion. I have scenes of Shoobie and Megan meeting in Connecticut, but no longer remember where they might have gone, probably in early drafts of the reunion novel that eventually became a non-reunion novel, Blood on the Tracks.
Both Shoobie and Sheena were too much fun to leave behind, and Shoobie now has a major role in the Guthrie WIP. In Connecticut, Sheena and her lover are house-hunting.

Before You Accuse Me, which appeared in 2018, shows up with that title in notes dated 2004. Chris Offutt and I discussed it at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference that spring, when he critiqued my current version of the reunion novel. I told him the title and he replied, "Take a good look at yourself," which told me I was on the right track. I already knew it would be the fourth in Woody's series, but I no longer remember why. Most of the major ideas are intact, but I didn't write the new second and third (one replaced Cherry Bomb when it moved east) for several years.

Valerie Karpelinska, AKA Karr, was a bit-part bimbo in an early version of that reunion novel, but I augmented her part in revisions. She has appeared in all four Guthrie books and shares major face time with Shoobie in the current WIP. Her IQ and bust size have traded numbers, and she now has a boyfriend and a job with a more stringent dress code than when she first showed up as a stripper.

Detroit homicide cops Jack "Max" Maxwell, who is perpetually trying to quit smoking, and Everett Lowe, the best-dressed detective on the force, appeared in early versions of three short stories that didn't sell until I revised them out of them. I thought Jack would have a daughter who got involved in a story along the way, but I no longer have any notes about it. Max and Lowe still show up in the Guthrie stories, but not as much as I thought they would because Shoobie became more important.

Sometimes, I can get away with recycling. A Detroit novel about a mass murderer didn't work, so I moved it to Connecticut, from Woody Guthrie to Zach Barnes, then to Trash and Byrne. It didn't work there, either, but I managed to use several of the characters with only minor changes in The Kids Are All Right, which became a finalist for the Shamus Award.

Someday, maybe I'll figure out how to do the rest of this stuff. I still have a full version of the Reunion novel and a revision (two different titles, two different major plots) on flash drives. I don't see them ever appearing unless someone does their doctoral thesis on my work.

There's probably a better chance of my winning the Powerball.

What are the first draft skeletons in your closet?

12 May 2019

Epigenetics and Elephants

by Mary Fernando

Most of the time I interview people and allow the things they ponder to guide my writing.  This is not that article. This is about my late night pondering. Excuse the indulgence, but it’s been a a tough year and I’m prone to sleepless nights and thoughts.

Unable to sleep, I was ruminating on epigenetics and elephants. They may seem odd things to stay up at night about, but these are seriously important.


What epigenetics does is shake things up. DNA decides who we are but life turns our genes on and off - impacting everything from the architecture of our brain to the diseases we have. 

If you want to keep up at night too, just read about how this happens and how we can reverse the DNA changes that happened to your grandmother.

What actually jolted me out of a slide into a lovely slumber was a child. In a shopping cart. 

I was young - probably around 8 - and shopping with my mother. A child less than 2 in a cart passed by and she was sobbing. Her mother, her face clenched in that angry way that makes people truly ugly, slapped the child and said, “Cry again and I’ll give you something to cry about.’ As if that poor child didn’t have enough to cry about. I said to my mother, “Do something!” She said, “Shh.” Afterwards, my strong, well-educated mother told me that much as she would like to, it’s impossible to change how people parent.

There are many things that make us decide on our profession and making medicine my choice was about a series of decisions. All of them started at that moment. I was going to get an education that could help that child.


Choosing medicine would never have been something I did if I didn’t see a road to working with the damaged, the broken and, as I eventually did, stop the breaking and beating. I only went into medicine to work in mental illness.  

Let me tell you about mental illness and medicine and the place it has.  Many wonder why anyone would chose it. I have literally had people ask why I gave up medicine and chose to work with mental illness. Let me get this perfectly clear, I am a doctor who works with the mentally ill. As a doctor, I bring skills to the table because no brain tumour masquerading as depression gets past me. So, I am a doctor. Who works in one of the most important fields of medicine: with the mentally ill. I didn’t fall into it. I marched toward it, and went through medical training and 8 years of specialty training to have the privilege of working with patients that I wanted desperately to work for.

And that’s where epigenetic comes back in. Changing someone’s mental illness changes their genes. Leaving it does too. Those illnesses that all doctors battle, well I battle them too. In a different way, on a different battlefield, but it’s all medicine.

This all made me think of Dr. Fraser Mustard, who I had the honour of meeting numerous times. The last time I saw him was in his lovely home in Toronto, where his children lived in the apartment above him. After an illustrious career in medicine he had ended up pondering epigenetics and childhood trauma. He wrote about it brilliantly. He advocated for children. He was very old when i met him but this belief in helping children made him seem ageless. Children do that to you. In his apartment, so full of interesting things, was where I first thought of how he must stayed up at night worrying about children and that made it his life’s work at the end.



Sometimes, at the end of a career, you ponder the beginning. The thing that started it all. The work you have done and the value of it all.

Now I’m writing another book. It isn’t a departure from any of my other work. It is about the lost, the damaged and the suffering. I can’t change course because I simply don’t want to. It is what we see, truly see, that decides our course in life.

There is an African Zulu greeting: “I see you.” It is a haunting saying. When I was young, I visited many zoos around the world because my biologist father would meet other biologists and talk about the conservation efforts they were making at their zoos. I understand the conservation part. I do. But I really didn’t give a damn then, or even now. I hated zoos. Seeing the animals, really seeing them, in cages that were far too small or chained up - because that was the way zoos were then - I could see that the cages and chains around the elephant legs were truly like beatings. They diminished these animals, and their suffering was evident to anyone who bothered to look. In East Africa, where we spent many months on various trips, I saw wild animals on the plains. My first sight of elephants, not in chains but walking and taking such tender care of each other, made me fall in love. For the wildness of them. For the beauty of them. For the tenderness. I saw them.

Medicine or writing or elephants - it is all about seeing. All of it will keep you up at night if you let it. And these days I do.

And that child, being beaten in a shopping cart for all the world to see but not intervene. That too. That always. It shaped my life. I wish I could have told that tiny darling that. 











11 May 2019

Thrones, and other missed items.

by Stephen Ross

I'm putting my hand up. I don't watch it. Game of Thrones. After several years, apparently, of riveting viewing, the big final season is going down in Middle Earth, or Westworld, or where ever it's set. For three days in a row this week, I've heard people discussing it at the office. When I flick open a news site on the web (CNN, The Guardian, Slate, et al) I'll see a link to an article to something about the show; often more than one. Event television, water cooler television, apparently. I have only ever seen ONE episode of GOT (see, I even know the fan acronym) and that was about six years ago, but through sheer force of osmosis of the press and social media, I know more about that TV show (who's in it, plot lines, plot twists, plot holes, spoilers, surprises, murders, deaths, trivia, controversy, and Starbucks' coffee cups) than I know about I Love Lucy, which I did watch.

Some guy and some girl (who has something to do with dragons) and a coffee cup.
Will I ever watch GOT? I have no idea. I might, I've come late to a lot of TV things. Breaking Bad, for example, which I binge watched over the course of a couple of months a year ago, long after everyone else had seen it. The Wire is another example, and I think it's an excellent show, but I've so far only binged the first season; I'm due to watch the second in 2030. The Wire is now so old it's not even in widescreen—it's in that old boxy TV 4x3 format. And then there's a bunch of recent shows I want to watch, but haven't even begun to make the effort, like The Knick, Peaky Blinders, The Alienist.

And then there are movies, and a couple by Orson Welles I've never seen.

I like Welles' movies and have watched many more than once—Citizen Kane maybe thirty times (I was a nerdy, film crazy kid). I think Touch of Evil (1958) is his best, and I recently rewatched it when I discovered Netflix had the HD version. I've seen that movie maybe ten times over the years, and I still come to the same conclusion the next day about why it's not one of the greatest movies ever made: Charlton Heston, the second least convincing actor in history (in my opinion). He was the 1950s' Tom Cruise (the first). Wood. Grade-A certification. Heston's impersonation of a Mexican man in Touch of Evil is about as good as my impersonation of a New York bagel.

Orson Welles in Touch of Evil 
Oh, why couldn't they have cast someone like Ramón Novarro, or Ricardo Montalbán to play the Mexican drug enforcement agent, you know, a real actor (and Mexican)? Oh, yeah. Charlton Heston, that's right. He was the only reason the picture got made at all, and the only reason Orson Welles did the writing, directing, and taking the lead role in it. The studio really didn't want Welles anywhere near the thing. Heston probably laid down one of his you'll have to pry this movie out of my cold dead hands speeches to the studio bosses; such is the clout of a Grade-A certification movie star. I'll give Heston this, he believed in Welles, and Welles gave him his best picture (Welles' best picture, that is).

One of Welles' movies I've never seen is Chimes at Midnight (1965). I've seen several clips, I know it draws upon two Shakespeare plays (Welles plays Sir John Falstaff—Shakespeare's version of Col. Blimp), I've heard it has one of best medieval battle scenes ever put to film, and Welles thought of it as his best film. And that's all I know. Why haven't I seen it? Well, chance would be a fine thing. It's simply never come my way. Citizen Kane was always rerunning on TV when I was a kid. Same too with TOE, and The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, Journey into Fear, Lady from Shanghai, and so on. I suppose, I could simply buy it.

Another of Welles' movies I have never seen is The Other Side of the Wind. I've known about this one for years. And I've never seen it, because (up until recently) almost no one had, because Welles never finished it; he died in 1985. I can now watch this one, and I plan to soon, as it's on Netflix. Somebody finished it; and I believe one of those people was Peter Bogdanovich, who knows a thing or two about movies, was a friend of Welles, and, also, was in the movie. So, there is some authenticity to the completion. I firmly expect the movie will be a strange experiment in film making / mess. But it'll be great to see John Huston, one of my other favorite directors, playing a role in it. John Huston was no slouch as an actor; hell, even he would have made for a convincing Mexican drug enforcement agent.

I've seen almost all of John Huston's films (and a couple I wish I hadn't: The List of Adrian Messenger). And one, The Man Who Would be King, I really wished he'd made earlier, as he had planned, because then it would have starred Humphrey Bogart, and not Sean Connery (the third piece of lumber in the acting yard). Yes, I know it was Kipling and the characters were British Empire, but even Bogart would have made for a convincing Mexican drug enforcement agent. And sergeant in her majesty's army.


I'll shut up now. Forgive my loose ramble. It's the weather here in NZ. Winter is coming and I have a head cold.


Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich in a short scene from Touch of Evil that probably sums up noir in every possible way. Film making, acting, writing. It don't get much better than this.





stephenross.live/
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10 May 2019

The Gary Phillips Interview– Part 1: The Be-Bop Barbarians

by Lawrence Maddox
Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips' crime novels (or short stories, anthologies, comics, or in this case, graphic novels–he really does it all) not only deal with with laws broken, but also with a broken social order where racism and corporate greed run amok.

In Gary's Violent Spring (1994), P.I. Ivan Monk, working in post-Rodney King Los Angeles, must unravel layers of racism to solve the murder of a Korean merchant. The Warlord of Willow Ridge ( 2012) depicts a city where neighborhoods are destroyed by the greed of the housing financial crisis. The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir (2017), an Anthony Award-winning anthology that Gary edited, treats the zany right-wing conspiracy theories flung at the Obama presidency as if they were real, often with comic results. His latest graphic novel is no different. Gary (along with artist Dale Berry) goes back to 1955 to shine a light on the social ills of today in The Be-Bop Barbarians (Pegasus Books, 2019), a wildly successful mixture of jazz, comics and civil rights.
The Be-Bop Barbarians
Pegasus Books, 2019

The Be-Bop Barbarians opens on a jazz-feuled party raging deep into the Harlem night. We meet African American comic artists Ollie Jefferson, Stef Rawls and Cliff Murphy, three friends who lean on each other as they battle racism in their careers. Gary notes in his introduction that these three are inspired by real cartoonists from the same era.

When Ollie, a decorated Korean War vet, is beaten by a white police officer, Harlem's community leaders (and their Communist counterparts) use the incident to ignite a burgeoning battle for civil rights. As racial tensions escalate, our three heroes face life-altering decisions as they get swept up in Harlem's fight for justice. The Be-Bop Barbarians is an engulfing page turner, and Gary deftly brings to life the personal struggles of his comic book warriors as they navigate the rising tides of change.
Kukla, Ollie and Fran welcome you
to the 1950s.

The Be-Bop Barbarians takes place right in the middle of a decade often seen as history hitting the snooze alarm. In other words, an innocuous bore. World War II was over and the '60's Counter Culture was still in its pajamas eating Sugar Jets cereal and watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie.  In reality, much was bubbling under the surface of the Happy Days decade that would change everything.  Jazz, comics, and the fight for civil rights, all so important to The Be-Bop Barbarians, were on the cusp of major cultural eruptions that continue to ripple right down to the present day. Gary placed his tale at the point before all these elements exploded in new directions.

Bebop turned jazz on its head, making the Big Bands of the previous decades look like clumsy dinosaurs. Charlie Parker died in 1955, just as the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane would take the lessons they learned from Yardbird and eclipse him.

The Avengers, straight outta
the Silver Age. Ever hear of them?
Courtesy of The Maddox Archives.
Comic books were entering what collectors call the Silver Age. Marvel's stable of heroes, such as Spider-Man and The Avengers, created by innovators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, would soon revolutionize the medium in a big way. Comic characters would be more human, grapple with real-world problems, and be more representative of minority communities.

Rosa Parks, on the day buses in
Montgomery were integrated in 1956. 
The events in The Be-Bop Barbarians point directly at the civil rights campaign that would occur at the end of 1955 when Rosa Parks would refuse to give her bus seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery Bus Boycott would ensue, led by, among others, Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. Jim Crow Laws would be declared unconstitutional a year later. The Be-Bop Barbarians puts you right there at the beginning, when so much was at stake.

The Be-Bop Barbarians took my breath away. I was excited by it, and when I finished it I felt I'd just put down an important work. I don't feel you can read it without thinking about the tensions, racial and otherwise, that are happening in America now. I couldn't wait to talk to Gary about it.

Lawrence Maddox: Gary, what inspired you to write about Harlem in 1955?

Cartoonist Jackie Ormes, holding
a doll based on her cartoon
character Patty-Jo
Gary Phillips: I have a fascination with history and the idea that there are unsung stories that have not been chronicled. In this case, the three characters in the story are inspired by real life black cartoonists who serve as the models for them. Stef is inspired by Jackie Ormes, who was the first black woman to have her own comic strip, which ran in the Pittsburgh Courier and several other black newspapers as well. Cliff is loosely inspired by Matt Baker, who was one of the first black artists working in comic books. He died young, I think he had a heart condition. Ollie is based on the real life Ollie Harrington, who was kind of a radical cat, who officially left the United States and lived in East Germany.

Zoot Suit ('81), starring
Edward James Olmos, deals with
the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial
LM: I really like your Millie Hanks character, the African American lawyer who takes on Ollie's case and acts as a go-between for the black community leaders and the communists. Is she also based on a real person?

GP: Not particularly. She's an amalgam of different people. There's a little bit of the real life Alice McGrath, the woman who helped the defense in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case. That was a famous case here in LA in the '40s in which some young Chicano Zoot Suiters got railroaded for a murder that happened in Sleepy Lagoon,  which was in East LA.  Alice was in the Communist Party, and she was also a lawyer. Her and people like Dorothy Healey are the inspiration for Millie.

LM: You go into detail on the how the leaders of the black community use Ollie's beating to gain greater reforms. Are you pointing to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that happens at the end of the year?

Adam Clayton Powell Jr
GP: In '41 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,  who was a congressman who represented Harlem, led a week-long bus boycott that was about hiring black drivers and mechanics to work on the bus lines. I allude to this in the book. That resulted in more hiring of black folk in those jobs for the city of New York. That boycott preceded the Montgomery Bus Boycott that was about equal rights and not having to sit in the back of the bus. There had been other kinds of actions before Montgomery.

It is important that  our story takes place when the civil rights movement is starting to ramp up. It's starting to coalesce and things are starting to happen. It's not as if the folks in Harlem or elsewhere in New York had just been sitting on their thumbs. As any good community organizer knows,  you had an incident like what happened with Ollie, when he's beat by the cop, it's only natural that you'd try to use it to highlight important issues.  Ollie himself is seduced into it as well, and then tries to move forward on fairer hiring in places like department stores or police stations that were located in the black communities.

LM: Barbarians has cameos from Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Ditko cracked me up. Care to elaborate?

Ditko-drawn
The Amazing Spider-Man!
The Maddox Archives
Ditko was a big Ayn Rand fan. She's all about elevating the individual and foregoing altruism,  and apparently you see some of that in the early Spider-Man. Ditko must have had some conflicting ideas about that, though. As we know, one of the things that propels Peter Parker to become Spider-Man and use his abilities in an altruistic way, is he's driven by this fantastic guilt. In the beginning when he's trying to make money with his new powers, Parker lets this robber go by him and that robber then kills his Uncle Ben. The phrase that Stan Lee came up with was "With great power comes great responsibility."  He had shirked his responsibility and now he's responsible for the death of his beloved Uncle. This is what sends him to chase the robber down and propels him to become Spider-Man. Maybe that is akin to Ayn Ran but I'm not really a fan of her stuff so who the hell knows.
Steve Ditko's Mr. A

I guess really the more pure expression of that thought from Ditko is the character he created at Charlton Comics, The Question, who had no face. But even The Question was kind of a crime fighter so it is always interesting that Ditko tried to meld Objectivism with the notion of being a superhero. That becomes even purer when he does the Mr. A character. He did several of those strips that were more for fanzines, after he more or less left formal comics. Ditko remains a very interesting character to me, in the sense that on one hand, he was a big believer in that stuff, but then on the other hand some people say he was getting checks for Spider-Man and squirreling them away in his little rent-controlled apartment in Midtown.

In Part 2 of Gary's interview, read about JFK's push for a black astronaut, Nipsy Hussle conspiracies, and Gary's work on the FX crime drama Snowfall.  Drops Friday, May 31, only here at Sleuthsayers.





Gary has edited many anthologies, including the aforementioned Anthony-winner The Obama Inheritance. I was fortunate to have stories in Gary's anthologies Orange County Noir (Akashic), and 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback (Moonstone), which Gary edited with Robert J, Randisi. 
I'm honored my stories passed through his hands before hitting print.