Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts

20 July 2023

The Mystic Chords of (Literary) Memory

Guy Pearce having a completely unmemorable day
 Two things straight from the jump:

First, I have been blessed from birth with an excellent memory.

Second, as a rule, I dislike, unreliable narrators.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that unreliable narrators have their place in literature in film and in art. Look no further than Guy Pearce’s character in Christopher Nolan’s superb Memento. 

That said, it is easy to get the unreliable narrator wrong. No examples of that here, because the point of this piece is not to call out other writers.

Instead, I’m gonna talk about how unreliable memory can be from personal experience, discuss my attempts to document, same, and end with a few recommendations of work by authors, who do seem to get the unreliable, or “memory-challenged” narrator right.

First off, my own experience with memory.

I'm a trained historian. Names and dates are my jam, as are long, detailed event sequences. More than that, I have a sharp memory for sound, especially conversation. If I hear it, I can usually recall it very clearly.

I'm also fifty-eight years old, had COVID fog that took forever to shake not too long ago (a couple of years ago), and am finding myself reaching for words in ways I never really experienced before the past couple of years. On top of that, I have at least three family members in recent generations who suffered from dementia in their golden years. Two of them had scar tissue from brain surgery and the third had other potential outside causes for their dementia. Still makes me wonder and makes me nervous, usually at the same time.

Having a close-up view of family members losing their memories is as good a reason as any for my personal distaste for unreliable narrators with memory problems. Sort of a "there but for the grace of God go I" sort of thing, I guess.

But there's also the fact that the unreliable narrator can be misused to bail a lesser-skilled author out of the requirement that they "play fair with the reader." Again, no names, but I have also read many examples of just this sort of lazy writing.

And even when it's effectively rendered, it can still come across as manipulative in the extreme. Don't get me wrong. I am all for moving the reader. That is the writer's job. "Moving" a reader and "manipulating" them are hardly the same thing. I am aware there might be those who may disagree with this conclusion. I invite them to write their own blog post and expound upon their point of view there (or drop a friendly disagreement into the comment section below!).

Which is not to say that I don't recognize a successful attempt to pull off the unreliable narrator when it's done well. (Again, see Memnto above). In addition to Nolan's movie, I've got three pretty well-done examples for those who might interested in exploring this sort of subgenre of the mystery/thriller world. Two of them I've read myself, one highly recommended by the mighty Jim Thomsen, editor extraordinaire, and his recommendation is good enough for me.

So here they are: one well-known, the other critically acclaimed, and the third, as I said above, new to me:

1. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane 

I'm pretty sure that once I brought up the notion of an "unreliable narrator," many of you immediately thought of this best-selling novel from a best-selling author, and the successful movie it spawned, starring the highly skilled Leonardo DiCaprio. I don't want to say too much for those of you who haven't read it, but suffice to say that I found this a terrific and inventive use of the unreliable narrator (who I really liked.).

Oh, and if you want to see what happens when Christopher Nolan and Leonardo DiCaprio team up to play around with memory, I highly recommend the wonderful Inception.

2. In the Woods by Tana French 

This one won a ton of well-deserved awards (The Edgar, Barry, Macavity and the Anthony, all for Best First Novel) when it was published in 2008. From the outset, French plays fair with the reader. On the very first page she sums up the point of view of the narrator, Dublin police detective Rob Ryan thusly: 

"What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two thing: I crave truth. And I lie."

What follows is a dizzying descent into hell in one of the best psychological novels ever published. Powerful, well-executed, and utterly believable.

And while I admire the work and how French pulled it all off, I can't honestly say that I liked the novel. I sure didn't like the narrator (I hesitate to call him the "protagonist," for reasons I won't go into because I do not want to spoil the story for those who have not read it). I also wouldn't say I enjoyed reading the book. I felt moved and I felt it affected me. For some people that's enough. 

But saying that the book "stuck with you" is not the same thing as saying you liked the book/enjoyed reading it. And all I can admit is that it stuck with me.

3. Oblivion by Peter Abrahams 

This is the book Jim Thomsen recommended, and not having read it, I can't say much about it except that the memory component of it kicks in when the POV character (private investigator Nick Petrov) suffers a brain hemorrhage arising from a tumor. Shenanigans ensue. If Jim says it's good, that's enough for me. It's going on my TBR list and I'll likely report back once I've finished it.

And on that note, it's time to wrap things up here. Thanks for reading, let us know what you think in the comments, and if you have recommendations/reactions to the opinions I've staked out above, would love to see that sort of thing in the comments as well.

Hope you're enjoying your summer, and as always....

See you in two weeks!

06 July 2023

Canada's Finest: An Interview with Vancouver Crime Writer Extraordinaire Sam Wiebe

Long-time friend and much-lauded crime writer Sam Wiebe has a new book out, so I thought I'd take some time to ask him a few questions and put what we came up with out there. I HIGHLY recommend his work.

First, a bit about Sam:

Sam Wiebe is the award-winning author of the Wakeland novels, one of the most authentic and acclaimed detective series in Canada, including Invisible Dead (“the definitive Vancouver crime novel”), Cut You Down (“successfully brings Raymond Chandler into the 21st century”), Hell and Gone ("the best crime writer in Canada") and Sunset and Jericho ("Terminal City’s grittiest, most intelligent, most sensitively observed contemporary detective series").

Now on to the interview!

*     *     *     *     *

Let's start with what makes a Sam Wiebe work of fiction a Sam Wiebe work of fiction. And that goes to influences. Who/what are yours, and what made you want to be a professional writer?

John D MacDonald and Ross Macdonald, Sue Grafton and Walter Mosley, Larry McMurtry, Henry Chang, Ian Rankin, Hillary Mantel, William McIlvanney, Josephine Tey...there are too many.

What are you reading right now?

Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August, and about to start The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt. 

Guns of August is a classic, won the Pulitzer Prize, and rightly so. If you get a chance, her other Pulitzer winner, Stillwell and the American Experience in China, is well worth your time, as is A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, for which she won the National Book Award.

(Sorry! Historian geeking out about one of his heroes.)

--I'll definitely be reading more of her work. My favorite historians are Robert Caro and Doris Kearns Goodwin. I also like Rick Perlstein.

Not familiar with Chris Offutt. What about his work recommends him to you?

Andrew Hood from the Book Shelf in Guelph, Ontario recommended Offutt's Mick Hardin series. The first book, The Killing Hills, really impressed me. Hard-hitting, concise, with a compelling character. 

One of the things many of your readers (myself included) point to when talking about your work is the distinctiveness of your characters. Do you have a process for fleshing them out and making them "authentic"?

I try to give the characters interesting problems and allow them a full range of responses. Wakeland especially.

Because conflict reveals character?

True in fiction and life, I think. 

Speaking of Wakeland, Sunset and Jericho is the fourth installment in the series which bears his name. You have stand alone novels to your credit in addition to this award-winning series. Could you speak to the benefits/challenges of writing a series as opposed to those of writing a standalone novel?

It's weird. There's a certain amount of interest in a first book of a series because it's new...and then there's a drop, where you're not  new and not yet established. But with book four, Wakeland has been around for a while, and has developed a following. The books are getting better, I think. People who started with Sunset and Jericho can go back and read the earlier Wakeland books. Harbour just reissued Invisible Dead and Cut You Down with new covers). More of an investment, but a richer experience, in a way.

The great film director John Ford was particularly effective at making the settings of his films act as a sort of "additional character." Authors too numerous to mention have also used their settings in such a manner. The city of Vancouver is pretty central to your Wakeland series. Is that by design?

By design and by necessity. Vancouver is the city I know best. I admire what Ian Rankin does with Edinburgh, showing not just the dark side beneath the tourist-friendly surface, but the ways they feed each other. So much of a detective story is the joy of navigating different social strata. 

In your opinion and experience, how is Vancouver like other big cities, and in what ways is it its own thing?

Most cities are multicultural and have complex histories. Vancouver's is especially interesting. It has one of the oldest Chinatowns in North America. It's also the home of the first supervised injection site. Finally, a lot of Hollywood films are shot here because it doubles well for other cities--its uniqueness makes it similar to other places, and its similarity makes it unique.

Wow? Well said! And that is a great note to wrap up on. Thanks Sam, for taking the time to sit down and discuss your work. 

And for the rest of you, a belated Happy 4th, and see you in two weeks!

08 June 2023

The Who and the What and the…

 My Uncle Rick was the first person I ever met who entertained aspirations of becoming a writer. My dad wrote poetry. He just didn’t write it for publication. It was personal, not necessarily private, but not intended for eyes other than family.

As my father put it, he was just playing around with words. Not so, my uncle Rick.

I remember the first time we talked about it, because of the manner in which I discovered that my uncle had dreams of writing professionally. 

This make and model.
I was nine years old, and had just gotten a Panasonic tape recorder for my birthday. The cassette kind.
Uncle Rick gave me a couple of his used cassettes and showed me how to tape over the perforated tops of the cassettes in order to be able to tape over what he had already recorded.

As we were testing my new cassette player out, I pushed play on one of his tapes rather than record + play. The following words boomed from my Panasonic’s modest speaker in my uncle’s voice:

“This is a story about a drunk in New York City…”

And that was it.

I looked to Rick and before I could ask, he explained, “Writing a story. Was recording my story notes. I started over on a different tape. Guess I forgot I’d started here.”

I think the above anecdote probably sums up my Uncle Rick just about as well as any other I can think of. The King of Great Starts, Best Intentions & Disappearing Acts Before the Finish, my Uncle Rick was a character.

Rick was the baby in the family. The youngest of five, he was nine years younger than his eldest sibling –my father – and 10 years older than his eldest nephew – me.

With us just ten years apart in age, I grew up with Rick a near constant presence in my life. At least for a while. As an adult Ricky was nearly constantly on the move.

And so of course our relationship pretty much followed the course I laid out above: Great beginning (my childhood, during which we formed a strong bond), best intentions (he was pretty great to me. The elder brother I never had), and disappearing acts before the finish.

This isn't to say that Ricky was a bad person. I'm convinced he wasn't.

But he was an addict.

Coke mostly. Then crank. And finally meth. 

My Uncle Rick shuffled off this mortal coil in a hospital ICU in the middle of this state last Sunday. As far as I know, he had no family around him when he went.

I hadn't seen him in years. Neither had my parents and my brother, uncles, aunts, cousins. The reasons are the ones you've no doubt heard before: lies, theft, more lies, more theft.

No matter how they portray it in fiction and in movies/TV, a drug habit is nearly always that cruelest of mistresses. The human toll of untreated addiction continues to crush us as a species on nearly every front: personal, social, economic, artistic, you name it. Addiction strips away a person's dignity, health, good sense, and hollows them out a piece at a time.

I flatter myself that I have few illusions when it comes to humanity and its many failings. And had I seen Rick in the days before he passed away, I would have had mixed feelings about actually seeing him. There at the end of our time spent in each other's lives his moves had become threadbare, his motives pretty naked. The next high. The next thing he wanted that someone else could put him closer to, should he be able to charm them enough.

I can't choose to look past those moments, the ones that are tough, even painful, to remember. Other people may have that in them, but I do not.

But I can choose to also recall the many good things about my uncle and my relationship with him. The time he, a teenager, invested in a little boy, and made him feel important, and heard, and seen. The time he filled in at the last minute for my dad and took me to my first pro football game (I was twelve). How proud he was of my own writing, and the time he took to read it and talk with me about it. The time he tried to teach me to drive a stick shift (Google it, Millennial- And thanks to my father, who actually did teach me to drive a stick).

There are other things, but I'm not sure the details matter all that much. Save the Who and the What and the Why for the police reports, and let's just leave it at this:

My uncle died. My wife never met him. My son never met him. 

And I will continue to miss him.

25 May 2023

Setting as Character

 This is a piece I wrote shortly after joining the rotation here at Sleuthsayers, just about a decade ago. Reposting at the request of an emerging writer who found helpful and thought others might as well.


Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling. 

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland. Sam Wiebe’s Vancouver.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.

—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poisettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald: 

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.

— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.

While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.

I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.


An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall.  

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.

I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.

I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.


Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!

11 May 2023

Yes, But Is It HISTORY?

What good is a wet blanket against a cannonball?

Not THIS type of "wet blanket"

Yep. You read that right.

What good is a wet blanket against a cannonball?

We'll come back to that one.

Before I decided to try my hand at fiction, I spent a fair amount of time pursuing the tenure track as a "professional historian." I got my MA, published scholarly articles, and strongly considered going on to earn my PhD.

An actual blanket soaked in water

During that time I encountered all manner of apocryphal, anecdotal stories concerning the great and small, the wise and the foolish, the lucky and the unlucky. Some of them were just what they seemed: terrific stories, and nothing more, with little in the way of available evidence to support them. Others were well-documented with all manner of primary sources to serve as bonafides.

The ones that drove me nuts as a practicing historian were the ones I'd find in secondary sources, with primary sources to detail how exactly the incident in question came to be recorded, laid down for posterity, if you will.


Oh, and I should have clarified this earlier for those of you non-historians playing at home: when I say "primary," I mean a source who either witnessed or otherwise participated in the historical events being discussed. "Eye witness" stuff. A journal entry. A letter. A videotape. A blog entry/social media entry. "Secondary" means literally everything else: Someone at a remove of one or of several people in the communication chain. For example, if you're writing about your grandfather's experiences growing up in Seattle in the 1950s and using his diary as a reference, the diary is "primary," and your writing about it, "secondary."

The primary source can also be in certain instances, secondary, as well: like if your grandfather writes movingly about his father's experience as a young immigrant coming through Ellis Island a generation before the grandfather himself was born, your grandfather's account, even though it's related in a source that is mostly "primary" in nature, is in this case, "secondary."

Clear? Hope so.

With that clarifying digression out of the way, back to the type of history that drove me nuts as a professional historian.

Back when I was still working on my Master's (we're talking nearly thirty years ago now), I wrote a paper about the role of the Hudson's Bay Company in the exploration and settlement of the Pacific Northwest. I even got the chance to present said paper at a scholarly conference. I still have a copy. It was good work, solid analysis. I was pretty satisfied with it.

The only problem is that I had a series of events I wanted to include in my paper, but couldn't. Because I could only find secondary sources about them. These events culminated in a bloody confrontation between agents of the Hudson's Bay Company and members of a Native American tribe called the S'Klallam, in Dungeness Bay, on what is now Washington's Olympic Coast, bordering the Straits of Juan de Fuca on July 4, 1828.

I'm talking about the now infamous Cadboro Incident.

The Cadboro was a schooner built in England in 1824, bought by the Hudson's Bay Company, and sent to support HBC activities in the Oregon Country in 1826. The Cadboro will be important later.

As with many things, the causes of the so-called Cadboro Incident were many. The inciting factor though? Really just a single one. A man. a fur trader named Alexander MacKenzie.

MacKenzie was, like so many HBC employees in the Northwest at the time, a Canadian of Scots heritage who came out to the Oregon Country already an experienced fur trader. That's not to say he was good at his job, just that he had experience at it.

He was also possessed of a terrible temper and fiendish disposition. And of course, he viewed Native Americans as inferiors. This much shows in his actions.

In the Spring of 1828 MacKenzie was on a trading mission, having led a party of four men and a woman who walked from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, up to Puget Sound, and all the way to the territory of the S'Klallam (who were widely considered hostile to whites at the time). Once there, he hired two teen-aged S'Klallam boys to carry his party in a couple of canoes to several points in Puget Sound, then across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island, and back to their point of origin at what is now Port Gamble, Washington.

Things did not go well. MacKenzie beat and cursed the two boys when they asked for their agreed-upon pay. That night his party was attacked and all four men killed, with the woman (presumably a Native American) taken captive. It was assumed the attack was undertaken by elders of the S'Klallam, the tribe to which the two boys MacKenzie had so abused belonged to.

The formidable Factor: John McLaughlin

When Chief Factor John McLoughlin, ranking HBC employee at Fort Vancouver, got wind of the attack, he dispatched the Cadboro to punish the killers and negotiate the return of their captive. After all, it would never do for local tribes to think they could kill HBC traders with impunity. Not only was it bad for business, there was also considerable outrage among the white denizens of the Oregon Country (British and American citizens alike) that Native Americans had dared attack a party of white men.

Long story short: the Cadboro arrived at the S'Klallam village on modern day Dungeness Bay, where it rendezvoused with a detachment of sixty-some HBC employees under the command of HBC trader Alexander Mcleod. After linking up, the HBC representatives entered into negotiations for the release of the kidnapped woman. The Cadboro carried three cannon onboard. In the middle of these negotiations, all three cannon opened up on the village.

By the time the smoke cleared the village was leveled. Forty-six of the tribe's canoes were destroyed. Twenty-seven people, men, women and children, were killed. The captive woman was "rescued" and a portion of MacKenzie's trade goods were retrieved. The Cadboro returned to Fort Vancouver by sea, and Mcleod's expedition returned south by the overland route, but not before burning another S'Klallam village for good measure.

Mcleod expected a warm welcome upon his return to HBC Headquarters. Instead the same superiors who had dispatched his force and schooner in the first place were put off by the actual extent of the punishment his men and the cannon of the Cadboro visited upon the S'Klallam. Apparently being too violent when meting out retribution was also considered "bad for business" by the braintrust running the HBC. It later cost Mcleod a promotion to Chief Factor.

I have found considerable evidence supporting the facts as related above regarding this incident. The problem? They're all secondary sources. I've looped in colleagues still in the business over the years: folks with tenure, who know the field, and they have had no more luck than I in tracking down any primary sources about the so-called Cadboro Incident.

So I couldn't justify using it in my paper all those years ago. And it's a shame, because this is a story that deserves to be told. And retold. And remembered.

Of course, I write fiction these days…

Oh, and the question above about wet blankets and cannonballs? The S'Klallam, not at all understanding the destructive power of a cannon, soaked their blankets in water and hung them from the walls of their homes in an effort to defend them from the cannonballs of the HBC.

Let that one sink in.

See you in two weeks.

30 March 2023

Marlowe on TV

And here it is, the fourth installment in my four-part series, delving deeply into the back catalog of Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe across media other than the printed word. You can find previous installments here, here, and here. Now let’s get to it!

As television came to prominence during the mid-20th century, it can be of little surprise that fictional characters and their stories from previously established media (books, short stories, plays, films, etc.) began to find a place on TV.

After all, for a lot of the owners of these intellectual properties, selling the TV rights amounted to so much free money. As was the case with so many who went before him, Raymond Chandler had no qualms about licensing his famous detective for television.

However, television has proven-with one notable exception-to be a problematic medium for Marlowe.

Oh sure, there were the early one-offs. Reliable movie villain–of the effete, cultured variety–Zachary Scott played Marlowe in a 1950 adaptation of The Big Sleep for Robert Montgomery Presents. And four years later Dick Powell reprised the role for the initial episode of anthology series Climax! in a live adaptation of The Long Goodbye (with Caesar Romero as Mendy Mendez!). These were one-offs for anthologies and adaptations of existing Chandler properties (and as nearly as I can tell, unavailable anywhere to view). In 1959 ABC television launched Philip Marlowe a thirty minute crime drama starring Philip Carey in the title role, it lasted a single season.

The coolest thing about 1959’s Philip Marlowe was that fake scar on Philip Carey’s cheekbone.

Carey was a decent choice for Marlowe, and he really gave it his all, but his presence was really all the show had going for it. Filmed using many of the same sets as Perry Mason, the show had a thin supporting cast (avuncular character actor William Schallert played Marlowe's cop pal Lt. Manny Harris), and most importantly, bore nearly no resemblance to the source material. The series clocked twenty-six episodes before being cancelled in 1960.

As was the case with the BBC's attempts at bringing the original Marlowe novels to the radio, TV's second bite at a Marlowe series succeeded where the previous one had failed. It took into the early 1980s for it to happen, and it was subscription cable service Home Box Office that pulled it off, with its first originally produced series, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, with the great Powers Boothe as Marlowe.

Produced at Twickenham Studios in England, the series premiered on April 16, 1983 with a terrific adaptation of the Chandler short story "The Pencil." Where the Carey series suffered from a shoe-string budget and little interest on the part of the production team in aligning the TV show with the source material, HBO lavishly funded Philip Marlowe, Private Eye, and in two separate seasons (1983 and again in 1986) adapted a total of eleven of Chandler's Marlowe stories for the small screen. Here they are:

Season One:

1. "The Pencil"

2. "The King in Yellow"

3. "Nevada Gas"

4. "Finger Man"

5. "Smart Aleck Kill"

Season Two:

1. "Blackmailers Don't Shoot"

2. "Spanish Blood"

3. "Pickup on Noon Street"

4. "Guns at Cyrano's"

5. "Trouble is My Business"

6. "Red Wind"

The definitive TV Marlowe

And there's not a clunker in the bunch. Even weaker, earlier Chandler material such as "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" and "Smart Aleck Kill" gets an effective make-over as part of the screen adaptation process. And through it all Boothe shines as Marlowe. Anyone familiar with Boothe's work will recognize that he was more than capable of playing the good guy who tapped into a darker side. His Marlowe is always engaging, interesting, and when on the screen you can't take your eyes off him.

The series' budget is also evident in the production values, including authentic sets (although they do sometimes seem a bit too clean for 1930s/40s Los Angeles, but that is a minor quibble) and costumes. Solid supporting casts helped round out the product. At a lean eleven episodes, this series really is worth your time. It's not free, but you can stream it here.

Danny Glover as Marlowe in "Red Wind"

At around the same time as the HBO series was running, cable competitor SHOWTIME ran a one-off adaptation of a Chandler story in its crime fiction anthology series Fallen Angels. Danny Glover, hot off his success in Lethal Weapon portrayed Marlowe in another adaption of "Red Wind."

Changing up Marlowe's ethnicity (and that of several other characters in the story) while staying largely true to the action of the original story, really does create a different narrative. Marlowe's motivations change with his identity, and as a one-off experiment, it really does work and is also definitely worth your time. If you're interested, you can watch it for free here.

Jason O'Mara as a modern "Marlowe"

Lastly there is the never-picked-up pilot for a series titled Marlowe, produced in 2007 and starring a pre-Life on Mars Jason O'Mara as a modern-day version of the title character. I enjoyed the story, and the acting was good (especially O'Mara), but this modern Marlowe is very modern (he even has a secretary!), and really bears no more resemblance to the source material than I do to a wire haired schnauzer. In fact, I think the problem with O'Mara as Marlowe (aside from the fact that the pilot does not pay even lip service to the source material) is similar to the one I had with Garner in the role. I saw Jim Rockford in the film. And in this pilot I see Sam Tyler, O'Mara's character from Life on Mars (although his Marlowe seems less bemused/confused, and actually smiled more). Still, if you're curious about what might have been, you can check it out for free here.

And there you have it! As a quick recap, for my money Liam Neeson's turn as Marlowe is a proud entry into the canon, Toby Stephens' turn as Marlowe for BBC Radio might well serve as the definitive take on the character, and when it comes to Marlowe on TV, nobody does it better than Powers Boothe.

Agree? Disagree? Curious? Drop a line in the comments and let us know what you think.

And as always, see you in two weeks!

16 March 2023

Marlowe on the Radio

Welcome to the third in a four-part exploration of the portrayal of Raymond Chandler's iconic private investigator character, Philip Marlowe, in media other than print. Last time out we performed a deep dive into films either influenced by or adapted from Chandler's work.  This time around, we're going to explore Marlowe in radio, and  next time, television.

There have been countless attempts to credibly bring Marlowe to both the radio waves and the small screen. We'll delve into both here. This time: radio, including my vote for definitive performance of the role of Philip Marlowe (if there actually is such a thing).


Powell (Right) with Mike Mazurky in the 1944 film.
Between 1944 and 1951, the character of Philip Marlowe appeared on radio well over a hundred times, both in one-off radio adaptations of films in turn adapted from Chandler's original work, and in a single series that was, in reality, two. More on that below.

Two of the standalone radio adaptations of Chandler's work starred Dick Powell as Marlowe. In June of 1945 Lux Radio Theatre's "Murder, My Sweet" featured Powell recreating the role of Marlowe he'd portrayed on the screen just the year before (if you like you can listen to the Lux Radio Theatre production here). Powell reprised the role a second time in 1948 for Hollywood Star Time's production of "Murder, My Sweet."

Lux Radio Theatre did another adaptation of a film based on a Chandler novel, also in 1948, this one of Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake, adapted from the 1947 film. Montgomery starred, as he had in the film (which had also directed). Earlier that same year Montgomery had appeared as Marlowe in a "cameo appearance" on Suspense (which he also hosted at the time), as part of a crossover with The Adventures of Sam Spade.

Van Helfin - the picture of gravitas
As for the "Marlowe radio series which was really two," the first, a summer replacement for Bob Hope's show, ran from June 17, 1947, to September 9th of the same year. Entitled The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, the series starred Van Heflin as Marlowe, and led off with a cracking adaption of the Chandler short story, "Red Wind" (you can listen to it here). Helfin's Marlowe was terrific. The actor brought a wonderful gravitas to the role that actors such as Powell and Montgomery, neither of them exactly a slouch when it came to acting chops, could match. Powell's light comic touch worked very well with the wise-cracking side of Marlowe's character, and Montgomery played Marlowe pretty straight. But Heflin really seemed to get "both" sides of Marlowe's character. Someone of whom his creator, Raymond Chandler, once famously wrote: "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished, nor afraid." In his brief sojourn as Marlowe, Heflin seemed to really get the character.

Jaunty Gerald Mohr 
The series switched networks from NBC to CBS the following year, with veteran actor Gerald Mohr replacing Heflin, and the scripts nearly all original compositions, with little relation to Chandler's original work. There was plenty of grit and and definite hard-boiled feel to the production, and for the three years (1948-1951) he voiced Marlowe, Mohr was great fun, but his Marlowe started nearly every one of the 119 episodes in which Mohr portrayed him so jauntily he could sometimes make Powell's light comic portrayal seem almost restrained.

This is, however, a small quibble. Of course this "lighter-than-air Marlowe" really only appeared at the beginning and usually (but not always) at the end of each episode.  When things got heavy, Mohr, who himself often played a heavy throughout a multi-decade career that spanned film, radio and television, definitely knew how to bring it. And the scripts were solid, as were the actors filling out the supporting roles. An excellent example of the Mohr Marlowe can be found here, with any number of links to other recordings of most of the show's run.

Once CBS pulled the plug in 1951, it would take over a quarter of a century before listeners would be able to find Marlowe on their radio dial. And then only if they could pick up the British Broadcasting Company. The BBC featured American-born TV actor Ed Bishop as the titular character in The BBC Presents: Philip Marlowe in 1977-78, and again in 1988. The series consisted of radio adaptations of The Big Sleep, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister (all produced and released on 1977), and The Long Goodbye (released in early 1978). A rights issue delayed the release of an additional adaptation, this one of Farewell, My Lovely, for a full decade. It was finally broadcast in 1988. Bishop's portrayal of Marlowe veered from "okay" to quick-talking patter that by this time in the 20th century had become the stuff of parody.

The BBC had better luck when they tried again in 2011. They adapted all of Chandler's novels for radio, including the fragment of Poodle Springs Chandler had begun but never finished (Spenser writer and Chandler superfan Robert B. Parker stepped in and did at the behest of the Chandler estate). James Bond villain Toby Stephens (Dame Maggie Smith's son, and, interestingly enough, BBC Radio's choice to also play 007 himself in the network's radio adaptations of Ian Fleming's original novels) played Marlowe in every episode of the series, from "The Big Sleep" in February, through to "Poodle Springs" in October.

The results were spectacular. Faithful to the source material, a terrific supporting cast, and Stephens delivering every line the way I feel Chandler intended. Just my personal opinion, but that's the wonder of radio, and if anyone is the definitive "Philip Marlowe," it's Toby Stephens.

But don't just take my word for it.  Click here and you can listen to the entire series yourself and make up your own mind.

See you in two weeks!

02 March 2023

The Definitive Marlowe: Revisited

Last time around I referenced the long, long history of the film industry's attempts to profitably bring Raymond Chandler's iconic gumshoe Philip Marlowe to the big (and the small) screen. I promised to watch the new film Marlowe, (not to be confused with the 1969 James Garner film of the same title), starring Liam Neeson and share my thoughts about it, and also comparing and contrasting it with all of the film Marlowes who came before.

A Fistful of Marlowes: clockwise from upper left–Dick Powell (with the always fabulous Claire Trevor in 1944's Murder, My Sweet), Humphrey Bogart (The Big Sleep, 1946), Robert Mitchum (Farewell, My Lovely, 1975)& one shot of the otherwise camera-shy Robert Montgomery (The Lady in the Lake, 1947)

So let's get started!

First: my thoughts on Neeson's turn as Marlowe:

I loved it.

Neeson is seventy, but he keeps himself in pretty good shape (as demonstrated by his participation in some really well-done fight scenes in the this film), and although clearly an aging Marlowe, and not the age the Marlowe of Raymond Chandler's seven novels and countless short stories would have been in the year of the film's setting (1939), he and the film do not attempt to mask the fact that he's not mid-thirties, as the literary Marlowe would have been in 1939.

Also, director and co-writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) further changes things up by making Marlowe Irish-born and raised, at one point referencing the horrors of war he himself had experienced at the horrifying Battle of the Somme in 1916, as a member of the King's Irish Rifles. So this Marlowe is not, specifically Chandler's Marlowe.

Banville & the Black-Eyed Blonde

And that stands to reason, as the source material is not a Chandler novel, but one commissioned by the Chandler estate as a "sequel to Chandler's The Big Sleep," and written by Irish novelist John Banville using his crime fiction pen name Benjamin Black: The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014).

The film is gorgeously shot, with Spain taking the place of 1939 Southern California. The action is set specifically in and around mythical "Bay City," Chandler's fictional avatar for Santa Monica. Cinematographer Xavi Giménez may well be in line for an Oscar nomination. The costumes are period perfect, the acting, by an A-list of mostly Irish actors and headed by Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Danny Huston, and the always entertaining (and Scottish) Alan Cumming, is first-rate. The pacing is spot-on, the film never dragged or got bogged down in explanations of plot points, nor did it blast through pages of the script at the rate of a Transformers movie.

But most of all, with Jordan's sure hand on the tiller and Neeson all-in and game to try to pull the whole thing off, it just… works.

At least it did for me. I highly recommend this film based on a non-Chandler book. Very entertaining!

So was Neeson's Marlowe the "definitive Marlowe"? Of course not. It's a Marlowe for our times, even if it is set in the early 20th century. Any "definitive" Marlowe would need to carry the feel of Chandler's character in the way that Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade was definitive (even if the short, dark Bogart looked nothing like the hulking, slope-shouldered "Blond Satan" of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon).

With that out of the way, let's take a look at the Marlowes come before…

Other Film Marlowes:

Sanders (Center) looking bored.

1. George Sanders (The Falcon Takes Over-1942)" Nope. Not Marlowe, not even an attempt at Marlowe: British actor George Sanders (who was great in many other things, but mostly seems bored here) plays Gay Lawrence, "the Falcon" in the B-movie series of the same name. Not noir, not hardboiled, broad comic subplot played for laughs and with the central character a "gentleman amateur not-quite-detective." Although John Wayne caddy and future Wagon Train star Ward Bond does a pretty fair job of playing "Moose Malloy" in this B-movie take on Farewell, My Lovely (the first, and weakest of three such film adaptations to be featured in this post). With Bond just a year removed from his solid turn as Detective Tom Polhaus in John Huston's seminal The Maltese Falcon, he's clearly better than the material he's given to work with here.

Not Marlowe-says so right on the door.

2. Lloyd Nolan (Time to Kill-1943) Nope. He's Lloyd Nolan playing Mike Shayne. This one, the first, and better of two film adaptations of Chandler's The Brasher Doubloon (published in the U.K. and in later American versions as The High Window) to be featured in this post, is also a B-movie filmed quick and cheap. Nolan, a talented character actor whose Hollywood career spanned most of the 20th century, is delightful as Mike Shayne, and the film sports a solid supporting cast, plenty of humor too, and it is superior in pretty much every way to 1947's The Brasher Doubloon- more on that, below! More on Nolan below as well. And you can watch the whole thing on YouTube here.

3. Dick Powell (Marlowe in Murder My Sweet-1944) in the film that helped him rebrand himself as a noir film hero and ditch his previous career as a(n aging) song-and-dance man. Powell is great, but too perky to be Marlowe. The film itself, directed by Edward Dmytryk, is a solid adaptation of the Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely. This adaptation is more faithful to the subject matter than the Sanders version above (slapped on Hollywood ending notwithstanding). It's also better directed, with a stronger supporting cast (the difference between a "B" picture budget and an "A" picture budget) which included the ever-formidable Claire Trevor, and journeyman Mike Mazurky as probably the best ever film incarnation of the hulking, slow-witted brute, Moose Malloy.

Powell, as Marlowe, with Mazurky (right), about to be taken for a ride, Chauffeur and all.
Bogart is Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946)

4. Humphrey Bogart (Marlowe in The Big Sleep -1946) he's great. One of his best performances. The movie is an interesting mess, plotwise (complete with another Hollywood ending-and not even the likes of of A-list script doctors such as Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner can do much with it). The problem for me is that, as hard as he tries, Bogart still comes across like Sam Spade-his other iconic detective role, and from a much better movie. Great supporting cast: Lauren Bacall (with a teenaged Andy Williams supposedly dubbing her singing voice), Regis Twomey as long-time Marlowe associate Bernie Ohls, the Los Angeles District Attorney's chief investigator, and Marlowe's former boss, the great Elisha Cook, Jr. (riveting as Wilmer Cook, the psychopathic "gunsel" in The Maltese Falcon), and a not-yet-discovered Dorothy Malone sizzling in a single scene with Bogart as the clerk in a bookstore where Marlowe waits out a rainstorm.

Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter, in the mirror.

5. Robert Montgomery (Two on-screen scenes in the camera-as-eyes-of-the-narrating-detective in The Lady of the Lake-1947). Dubbed a "startling and daring new method of storytelling–a milestone in moviemaking." In truth, an ambitious flop that condensed the source material in what is arguably one of Chandler's better novels (with, wait for it… yet another tacked on Hollywood ending). Mongomery directed, and starred as Marlowe in voice-over, using the camera as the eyes of the main character. He only appears in two scenes where he sees himself in a mirror. Definitive Marlowe? Nope. Although the aforementioned Lloyd Nolan steals the show here as corrupt cop De Garmo.

George Montgomery: Swashbuckling Marlowe!

6. George Montgomery–No Relation– (The Brasher Doubloon / The High Window-1947) B-movie effort and Montgomery, who is game and gives it his all (In spite of the fact that Montgomery's "all" seems to include playing Marlowe as if he were a method actor trying to play the hard-boiled icon as Errol Flynn.), is at the mercy of his own limitations and a script that makes his Marlowe far more interested in "love" than in "saving" the victim as was the case in the source material (Complete with, you guessed it: still another tacked on Hollywood ending!). Right age, and aside from the pencil thin mustache, right "look," but no dice. And you can also watch this one on YouTube here.

The wonderful Rita Moreno & Rockf-ermm Marlowe.

7. James Garner (the title character in Marlowe-1969) plays a P.I. who comes across as more proto-Rockford than as Philip Marlowe in this relatively faithful (no Hollywood ending!) adaptation of the excellent and often overlooked Chandler novel The Little Sister. Updated "modern" setting. Great supporting cast, especially Rita Moreno, Gayle Hunnicutt, Sharon Farrell, and H.M. Wynant as mobster Sonny Steelgrave. Bruce Lee is in it, and he's reliably terrible. Then again, the chops they cast him for weren't his acting chops. (*rimshot*).

"That's okay with me." When "okay" is frequently NOT "okay"...

8. Elliott Gould (Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye 1973) as a shambling, tatterdemalion, sort-of hippy Marlowe? NOPE. Hardly "definitive."

The first time I watched this film I loathed it. A few decades and a number of re-watchings later, and this film has much to recommend it. It is surprisingly faithful to the Chandler novel of the same name. Okay, maybe not so surprising, in light of the fact that Leigh Brackett penned the screenplay. Altman's The Long Goodbye bears the dubious distinction of containing a torture scene that still manages to shock the viewer, a half-century after its release.

The cast (including Gould, who is following Altman's direction to a t) is superb. Sterling Hayden was never better (and that's saying something) than in his role of millionaire author and part-time nutjob Roger Wade. Mark Rydell, known primarily for his work as a director (he would go on to garner an Oscar nomination for On Golden Pond.) is unforgettable in his brief turn as vicious thug Marty Augustine (who does not appear in the novel). Henry Gibson (of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In fame) is inspired casting as the drug-peddling quack Dr. Verringer. Baseball player (and author of the unforgettable sports memoir Ball Four) Jim Bouton was not an actor and it showed in his mostly wooden performance as Marlowe's doomed pal Terry Lennox, but they can't all be winners. And lastly, this film actually improves on the ending Chandler penned for the book. it's easily my favorite ending of any Marlowe film ever, and one of my favorite film endings, period, regardless of genre.

Not in any way a spoiler, honest.
Mitchum–absolutely GREAT as Marlowe.

9. Robert Mitchum Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely 1975) The third, and best of the three film adaptations of the Chandler novel of the same name. Mitchum was 58 when he took this on, and does nothing to try to play the part as "younger" (Marlowe in the 1942 novel would have been in his mid-thirties), and his performance is the better for it. this one ranks right up there with the best: Bogart, especially. And yet, I can't help but wonder what might have been, had Mitchum taken on this role in 1948, instead of the overrated (in my opinion) Out of the Past? Such a portrayal may well have been the definitive Marlowe. There was an air of sardonic nihilism that younger Mitchum pretty near perfectly embodied: too cool to care what others thought of him and knowing that his target audience were "guys with dirty fingernails and dirty shirts who have lost at least one job for talking back to someone..." And while late-fifties Mitchum is a terrific actor who gives a dynamite performance, he can't help but be more measured, more caring about the effects of his actions. His very age and him acting it, inhibits that performance, albeit slightly. It's a small quibble, but that's the difference between "great" and "definitive." As for the film itself, John Ireland is terrific as police detective Nulty, Harry Dean Stanton chews the scenery (which is appropriate in this instance) as Nulty's corrupt cop partner (and Marlowe foil) Billy Rolfe. Sylvia Miles scored an Oscar nomination for her turn as Jessie Florian, Charlotte Rampling is deathly dull as Helen Grayle (especially when compared to Claire Trevor), Jack O'Halloran is appropriately massive as Moose Malloy. And a year before Rocky, a young Sylvester Stallone has a "blink and you might miss it" role as whorehouse enforcer "Jonnie."

10. Robert Mitchum (Marlowe in The Big Sleep-1978) The less said about this blatant cash grab, the better. So I'll leave it at this: only three years separate this film from the vastly superior Farewell, My Lovely, and yet in this one Mitchum comes across as past-his-prime. Plus it's a modern update of the source material from 1939 to 1978. And the action is inexplicably moved from Los Angeles to London. ENGLAND. None of this is Mitchum's fault, but there you go.

NOPE. Don't bother.

10. James Caan (Marlowe in Poodle Springs-1998) I really like James Caan's body of work. But at this point in his career I feel he was pretty much just playing himself. He's supposed to be an older, recently married Marlowe, but his wisecracks even sound like a tired James Caan going through the motions. The caged energy of Sonny Corleone is long dissipated. The grim humor of Frank (the title character in Thief) is sadly lacking. And the professional, practiced readiness for controlled violence of Johnathan E. from Rollerball is nowhere to be found. The script (based on Robert B. Parker's continuation of the first two chapters of the novel of the same name that Chandler left unfinished on his death in 1959) is okay, and the supprting cast seems game, but this isn't really a Chandler Marlowe story, and as such, the seams are showing. But don't just take my word for it. You can catch the entire film on YouTube here for free.

Well-done, Liam!
11. Liam Neeson (Marlowe in the creatively titled Marlowe -2023) As I noted above, Neeson did a fine job, and it's a terrific film, with a wonderful and compelling cast. Neil Jordan's direction and collaboration on the script with William Monahan is pretty well pulled off. Spain as 1939 Southern California is gorgeous.

However, Chandler wrote Marlowe envisioning a scruffy Cary Grant playing the role. 40s Mitchum is pitch-perfect. So, short story long: I think there is no definitive Marlowe on film. Nor is there ever likely to be.

And what's wrong with that?

The definitive Marlowe?

And on that note, time for me to wrap it up and pack it all in for now. Tune in next time when I conclude this Marlowe media deep dive by touching on Marlowe portayals in TV and radio.

See you in two weeks!