Showing posts with label Ian Fleming. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ian Fleming. Show all posts

10 May 2018

Actor, Writer, Catcher, Spy

by Eve Fisher

I just heard that Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, and Jeff Daniels are all joining in a movie about Moe Berg (1902-1972), professional baseball player. He played pro for 15 seasons (1923-1939), mostly as a backup catcher. But he was called "the brainiest guy in baseball," and I can see why.  An Ivy League graduate, attorney, and baseball player who spoke nine language?  Well, of COURSE he would be a prime candidate for a spy with the OSS. 

MoeBergGoudeycard.jpgBerg began his work in 1934, when he was touring Japan with the American All-Star team. In 1943, he parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia to determine which of the resistance groups was the strongest.  (He decided for Tito, and he was right.)   He was also sent around Europe in the 1940's to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atom bomb. If he believed the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, he had orders to shoot the lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He decided they weren't. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1945, but declined.

Things changed, though.  In the early 50's he worked for the CIA, very briefly, because they quickly decided he was "flaky". For the next 20 years, he lived with his brother, Samuel, reading and snarking and unemployed. Sam evicted him, and he lived with his sister Ethel in Belleville, New Jersey until he died.


There's a long list of unlikely spies, if you think of spies as being a specific, separate job, as in a Le Carré novel or Ian Fleming novel.  But the truth is, writers (including Le Carré and Fleming) and entertainers have been the first choice to hire for years.

The first recorded one is Thessalus, a tragic actor in Hellenistic Greece, who accompanied Alexander the Great on the long expedition to conquer the Persian empire (and, as far as Alexander could, the world). He served as an envoy (and probable spy) for Alexander to Pixodarus of Caria (southwestern Anatolia, current day Turkey) in 336 BCE.

Geoffrey Chaucer was another one.  He has a surprisingly well-documented life for the medieval son of a vintner.  Let's put it this way:  vintners were simply wealthy peasants in the view of the aristocracy.  And being a poet - well, anonymity was the order of the day for artists of all kinds.

But somehow, Chaucer got placed a page in the house of the Countess of Ulster.  He married Philippa de Roet, the sister of John of Gaunt's 30 year mistress Katherine Swynford, who eventually (through what many people of the day believed had to be either witchcraft or a miracle of God) became John of Gaunt's third wife.  In other words, Chaucer had connections:  and besides becoming one of the great poets of the English language, he became a courtier, diplomat, soldier, lawyer, and civil servant.  And spy.  

He spent a tremendous amount of his life traveling on either King Edward III or Richard II or John of Gaunt's shilling:  France, Spain, and Flanders, the Italian states, perhaps in pursuit of a princess for the young Richard to marry; and/or to negotiate peace; and/or to borrow money from the Visconti and/or Sir John Hawkwood in Milan; and/or for who knows what?  We're all guessing when it comes to what medieval potentates (or modern potentates) really wanted.  (For a great study of the actualities and possibilities of Chaucer's role as diplomat and spy, read Monty Python alum and medieval scholar Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer?  Mesmerizing.)  

Some other writers are more surprising.  Graham Greene, John Le Carré and Ian Fleming make sense, because they all worked for British intelligence at one point or another.  But Roald Dahl?  Julia Child?  Harry Houdini?

Roald Dahl.jpg
Roald Dahl
Both Scotland Yard and the American Secret Service used Houdini's escape artistry for their own ends.  Houdini was notorious for going into police stations around the world - including Russia (hint, hint) - where he insisted on being locked up so that he could prove he was the greatest escape artist in the world!  The locals were wowed!  He did it again!  And he left town with his reputation intact (he always escaped), and a lot of information.  (No, I don't know what kind.)

Roald Dahl was a three time Edgar Award winner, who wrote the classic "Lamb to the Slaughter" (short story and immortal "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode), as well as dark children's masterpieces like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and The Witches.  During WW2, he worked with Ian Fleming and others to write propaganda to help the war effort.  He also was attached to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was stunned by American luxury: "I'd just come from the war. People were getting killed. I had been flying around, seeing horrible things. Now, almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a pre-war cocktail party in America." Dahl later said: "My job was to try to help Winston to get on with FDR, and tell Winston what was in the old boy's mind."  (see Wikipedia)

And then there's Julia Child, who started out as an OSS research assistant and definitely moved up the ladder.  According to Wikipedia

Julia Child at KUHT.jpg"In 1944, she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon, where her responsibilities included "registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" for the OSS's clandestine stations in Asia.[9] She was later posted to Kunming, China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.[10] When Child was asked to solve the problem of too many OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks, "Child's solution was to experiment with cooking various concoctions as a shark repellent," which were sprinkled in the water near the explosives and repelled sharks.[11] Still in use today, the experimental shark repellent "marked Child's first foray into the world of cooking..."
While I couldn't find a playable video of The Bobs' "Julia's Too Tall" song about her, I did find a couple of lyrics: "She's too tall to be a spy. But not too tall to bake a pie..."  But I disagree. I think her being too tall made her a perfect spy.  No one ever thought of Chaucer, Child, Houdini, Berg or Dahl and instantly went, Spy! which is probably part of why they were so successful.  

Which raises the interesting question of why Ian Fleming - who certainly knew better - made James Bond so damned obvious.  Apparently, on November 29, 2016, Anthony Horowitz and David Farr got into a 90 minute debate as to who was the greatest spy novelist of all time, Fleming or Le Carré.  (Full Transcript.)  Horowitz' summation was that ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’

And that's largely true, despite the fact that James Bond was actually a horrible spy. Think about it:  He uses his real name.  All the time.  He blows his cover, every time.  He gets captured.  All the time.  And he destroys everything he touches...  There's a whole lot of things get blown up, run over, caved in, and I'm not just talking about the women.   (10-reasons-james-bond-worst-spy-.) 

I don't know if John Le Carré and Ian Fleming ever met, but I do know that Le Carré had his own problems with James Bond.  In an interview in 1966 with BBC's Malcolm Muggeridge, he said, "I dislike Bond. I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he is more of some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill...  he is a man entirely out of the political context.  It is of no interest to Bond who for instance, is president of the US or the Union of Soviet Republics."

Reflecting on the interview in 2010 he said : " These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we have lost sight of the books in favour of the film versions, haven't we ? I was a young man and I knew I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a fantasisation of his own experiences written from the safety of New York."  (Citation)

La nuit de Varennes (1982)Then again, maybe it's not all fantasisation.  Fleming was notoriously heavy drinker, smoker, and womanizer.  Or perhaps he was channeling another great spy, whose womanizing, gambling, style, and sheer effrontery made him welcome everywhere, even after it was known he was a Venetian spy.  Who else, but Casanova?

It's amazing that, of all the spies, Casanova has the worst movies made about him.  With one brilliant exception.  If you get a chance, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of La Nuit de Varennes, where Thomas Paine, Restif de la Bretonne (pornographer, journalist, and philosopher, often called "the Voltaire of the chambermaids"), and Casanova and others all chase down Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as they desperately try to escape Paris and their coming doom.  It is comical, philosophical, sexual, historically accurate, beautiful, horrific, and constantly entertaining.  The highlight is Marcello Mastroianni as Casanova in old age - still stylish, still courteous, still gallant, still arrogant... and ruefully, wearily truthful, even to himself.

I'd love to see a movie with James Bond in old age - see if he has the same grace and presence.  But then, icons don't change.  Fascinating characters do.

Oh, and yes, that's a young Harvey Keitel as Thomas Paine - it's a hard movie to beat.  Enjoy!















16 April 2016

The Man With the Golden Typewriter


by John M. Floyd


A couple weeks ago I did something unusual: I chose to ignore all the novels and short-story magazines in my towering to-be-read stack and bought a book of nonfiction. Or maybe not that unusual, since this was the third time this year that I've delved into NF. But the first two books were In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and Cities of Gold by Douglas Preston, and I knew before reading those that I would enjoy them because they were true-life adventure stories, sort of like Unbroken and The Perfect Storm. I had doubts about this one.

The book turned out to be a good choice. It's called The Man With the Golden Typewriter, a 400-page collection of letters from and to Ian Fleming. The letters begin in 1952, when he started work on his first book, and continue until his death in 1964, at the age of 56. During that time he wrote two works of nonfiction, a three-volume children's story, twelve James Bond novels, and two collections of Bond short stories. All the Bond books were created at Goldeneye, Fleming's vacation home in Jamaica. The letters, compiled by his nephew Fergus Fleming, provide a fascinating look into the working life and the personal life of a bestselling author at the peak of his success.

To me, the most interesting of the letters were those to and from his publisher, Jonathan Cape of London, and the editors and agents who worked with him on the novels. Other exchanges included those with readers and fans; with friends like Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, and Raymond Chandler; and with film producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Here are some excerpts:


To Michael Howard, editorial director at Jonathan Cape, April 22, 1953:

"In the course of the innumerable editions of Casino Royale which will now, I presume, flow from your presses, could you please correct a rather attractive misprint on page 90, line 13, and make the 'Ace of Spaces' into the 'Ace of Spades'?"

To Sir Winston Churchill (along with a gift copy of Live and Let Die), April 1, 1954 :

"It is an unashamed thriller, and its only merit is that it makes no demands on the mind of the reader."

From friend and editor William Plomer, May 31, 1954:

"Dear Ian . . . I have been through it [Moonraker] with minute care and a pencil & have applied both to your punctuation and spelling . . . you have a tendency, as the climax approaches, to increase the strain on the reader's credulity . . . Not pleased with the title. I should like Hell Is Here . . . I think you should be careful about letting your characters grunt, bark, and snarl too freely."

To actress Claudette Colbert, April 28, 1955:

"I am very sad that you will not be in Goldeneye next winter . . . I have little hope of getting out to Los Angeles this year. I was there in November and I have absolutely no excuse for another holiday unless Hollywood decides to film one of my books."

To Michael Howard (who'd just designed the cover for Diamonds Are Forever), February 14, 1956:

"Forgive the tropic scrawl. I am sitting in the shade gazing out across the Caribbean & it is heroic that I am writing at all."

To Raymond Chandler, April 17, 1956:

"Dear Ray . . . You after all write novels of suspense--if not sociological studies--whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang kiss-kiss variety."

From editor Daniel George, regarding From Russia With Love, June 7, 1956:

"Similes should be used only when they are helpful . . . in the first chapter . . . you say the man's eyelids twitched suddenly like the ears of a horse. Up to that moment I'd visualized the scene perfectly. You destroyed my illusion by bringing in a horse . . ."

To Michael Howard, Feb 4, 1957:

"I have done nearly 40,000 of No. 6. . . Set near Jamaica. Called Doctor No, I think. A simple tale. It shouldn't be longer than 60, you'll be glad to hear."

To a complaining reader who knew his trains, July 19, 1957:

"Your quick eye has missed one grievous error [in From Russia With Love] pointed out by another train enthusiast. I gave the Orient Express hydraulic brakes instead of vacuum."

From William Plomer, June 28, 1958:

"My dear Ian, I have just finished Goldfinger, and it stuck to me like a limpet, or limpet-mine . . . I found the tension of the [golf] game tremendous. In fact I believe you could create extreme anxiety out of a cake-judging competition . . ."

To Plomer, March 29, 1960:

"I have just finished a giant Bond, provisionally called Thunderball . . . I have just begun correcting the first chapters. They are not too bad--it is the last twenty chapters that glaze my eyes."

To Robert Kennedy, June 20, 1962:

"Thank you very much for your charming note of June 1st . . . Over here we are all watching with fascination your gallant attempts to harass American gangsterism. If James Bond can be any help to you please let me know and I will have a word with M."

To William Plomer, regarding You Only Live Twice, September 11, 1962:

"I have no idea how Bond in Japan will turn out, but I have in mind an absolutely daft story in which Blofeld meets his match."

To Aubrey Forshaw, head of Pan Books, Ltd., May 20, 1964:

"I don't think much of Harry Saltzman's new jacket for Goldfinger. The golden girl looks like a man and there is far too much jazz about the film. Why the hell should we advertise Saltzman and Broccoli on one of my books? And on the back I see that Sean Connery gets at least twice the size type as the author."



The book is full of these little glimpses into the world of Fleming and Bond. I loved it.

If anyone's interested, here's a list of Ian Fleming's works:

Casino Royale (1953)
Live and Let Die (1954)
Moonraker (1955)
Diamonds Are Forever (1956)
From Russia With Love (1957)
Dr. No (1958)
Goldfinger (1959)
For Your Eyes Only (1960)*
Thunderball (1961)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963)
You Only Live Twice (1964)
The Man With the Golden Gun (1965)
Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966)*
The Diamond Smugglers (1957)
Thrilling Cities (1963)
Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (1964-65)

*short-story collections


And here are the Bond movies, so far:

Dr. No (1962)
From Russia With Love (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
Thunderball (1965)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Moonraker (1979)
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Octopussy (1983)
Never Say Never Again (1983)
From a View to a Kill (1985)
The Living Daylights (1987)
License to Kill (1989)
GoldenEye (1995)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Die Another Day (2002)
Casino Royale (2006)*
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Skyfall (2012)
Spectre (2015)

*Casino Royale also appeared in 1954 as an episode of the TV drama series Climax! (Barry Nelson was Bond) and as a spy comedy in 1967.


Most readers know that Fleming picked the name of his hero from a real book called Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, but there are a Bentley-load of other interesting facts about him as well. And Fleming did actually own a gold-plated typewriter--a gift to himself for having completed his first novel.

Part of my interest in all this came from the fact that I had read all the Bond books when I was in high school--my mother made me hide them if the local minister came to visit (because, I guess, of the cover art)--and I've seen all the Bond movies, several times each. Apparently I'm not alone: In the book, Fergus Fleming says it has been estimated that one in five of the world's population has seen a James Bond film.

I now plan to re-read all the novels and re-watch all the movies, in order--I have all of them right here on my shelves--and I'm already halfway through Casino Royale. I don't have any caviar in the house or an Aston-Martin in the garage or any Turkish-and-Balkan-blend cigarettes to smoke while I read, but I do have a tux in the closet if I need it, and I try to imagine that my glass of orange juice is a medium dry martini with a thin twist of lemon peel.

And my OJ was shaken, not stirred.




15 November 2015

Spectre

Spectre
© MGM and Kotaku
by Leigh Lundin

My friend Geri is a movie fan and yesterday she and I saw Spectre. British reviewers loved it; American critics– not so much. That surprised me because Geri and I found ourselves in the British camp.

Getting the Critics Out of the Way

To be fair, one critic (Bob Grimm, Reno News and Review) writes “I don't need to know everything about James Bond and his upbringing. A little depth is fine, but this one goes too far. Just blow things up.”

Okay, one mindless drivel fan upset by thought processes. But Grimm’s claim is spurious considering Spectre claims the largest screen explosion ever recorded. Maybe he stepped out for popcorn.

But even American critics who liked it were critical. “Entertains even at its fails to reconcile its disparate goals. It just feels like a missed opportunity for something special.” (Greg Maki, Easton Star-Democrat) “What starts as a fast and loose adventure begins to creak and groan as it tries to tie everything together…” (Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects) And one critic called it “the worst 007 movie in 30 years.” (Scott Mendelson, Forbes) Oh, harsh. Ouch! And wrong.

I haven’t forgotten all those middling movies between Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, and Spectre shines against most of those. The main reason is that Bond is a sociopath. Sure, he works for Mother England, dutifully exhibits loyalty and women find him sexy, but he’s an assassin, which takes a sociopathic man or woman. Of the Bond wannabes, only Connery and Craig pull that off successfully. Indeed, even one of the movies critics recognizes this while failing to grasp the essence of thrillers. “Daniel dagger-eyes Craig … seems biologically incompatible with camp entertainment.” (Luke Buckmaster, Crikey) One of Fleming's novels portrays Bond with a masochistic streak that helps 007 survive torture and might fit Craig's image as well.

A heroic character can be no greater than the sum of the bad guys he faces. And here Spectre goes a little soft. The very best of the Bond films drew out the meanest bad guys. In Spectre, the heavy henchman, a brute named Hinx, proves physically imposing but you get the feeling Odd-Job could have eaten his lunch. The major antagonist has psychological problems, but he’s no Dr. No.

Hans and Franz

Did you notice that pussycat-stroking Blofeld has been missing in the Bond series for decades? Four-and-a-half to be precise? There’s a sound reason for that– Blofeld was held hostage by Spectre– and Spectre was controlled by lawyers. Really.

Remember the 1983 Never Say Never Again that brought back Sean Connery? Recall that remake of Thunderball didn’t feel like the other Bond movies but did feature Spectre and James Bond’s persistent nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld? Most viewers shrugged it off to Connery getting too old to play an action figure, but there’s more behind the story.

In high school, I read the 007 books and a short story or two, novels which included Spectre and Blofeld, but until today, I hadn’t realized author Ian Fleming didn’t own the rights to them. A screenwriter named Kevin McClory did.

In mid-1958, Fleming and his friend Ivar Bryce decided to hammer out a film treatment of Fleming’s works. Bryce introduced him to two other men, Ernest L. Cuneo, an American writer, intelligence liaison, and war hero, and Kevin McClory, an Irish screenwriter and director. McClory brought in his friend Jack Whittingham, a British playwright.

The five developed the plot for the movie Thunderball. Meantime, McClory’s own feature film, The Boy and the Bridge, did poorly as the official British entry to the 1959 Venice Film Festival and it tanked at the box office. Right or wrong, Fleming lost confidence in McClory.

Spectre logo
Without consulting anyone, Fleming turned the movie script into his 1961 novel. The author credited Cuneo with much of the plot for Thunderball (and later Goldfinger) but not McClory and Whittingham. They sued.

During the lengthy trial, Fleming suffered a heart attack. He offered a settlement to McClory, which resulted in Fleming keeping the novel and McClory winning film rights for the screenplay as well as screen rights to Spectre and Blofeld. Nine months later Ian Fleming died from another heart attack.

Two years ago today, McClory’s estate finally settled their legal issues and MGM acquired the copyrights to Spectre and Blofeld. For the first time in forty-four years, Bond could battle those nemeses on the silver screen.

In the storyline, Spectre gives the Blofeld character a twist. The movie Octopussy bears little relation to Fleming’s short story of the same name, which mentions a character, Hannes Oberhauser. In this reboot, Oberhauser’s envious son, Franz, kills his father and rebrands himself as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, master criminal.

Spectre poster
Homages

One of the most interesting aspects of Spectre is that it was made by people who know and love movies, especially the early Bond films. Scenes and sentences reflect references to other films and even my favorite television drama, The Prisoner.

In numerous ways, Spectre harks back to the earliest Bond films including Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. Notice the Rolls-Royce Phantom at the train station looks a lot like that of Auric Goldfinger's. The MI6 safe house bears the name Hildebrand & Company — Rarities & Antiquities, a reference to Fleming’s short story ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ in the 1960 For Your Eyes Only. Beyond those canon references, other film nods leaped out at me.

The opening shot in Mexico is evocative of the famous extended opening shot in the 1958 Touch of Evil. (Whereas Orson Welles used a single camera, Spectre cheated a bit with CGI.)

It could be argued that Spectre’s secret meeting place in Rome is reminiscent of the coven’s secret lair in Eyes Wide Shut.

The most obvious film hinted at is Casablanca. I need not say more.

Spectre pays its respects to Hitchcock from the romantic ’40s casting of Léa Seydoux to the train scenes found in numerous Hitchcock films (not to mention From Russia with Love) including The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, North by Northwest, and of course Strangers on a Train.

Similarities to the brilliant series The Prisoner struck me more than once. (“We want information.”) Note the information gatherers in the Moroccan desert, which seem slightly dated compared to Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 television series.

What homages did you catch?

29 September 2014

Genre-Jump

By Fran Rizer

Back in the '60s (when I was young, dumb, and having fun), youth of America followed Holden Caulfield's early '50s search for life's meaning and found themselves in fields of flowers and hippies. Now that I'm in a different kind of '60s, I seem to be seeking myself in other ways.

Some of you (hopefully most of you) are familiar with my six Callie Parrish cozeysque novels.  Fewer people have read my first two books.  Aeden's Two Homes is a children's picture book, and Familiar Faces & Curious Characters is a collection of dramatic monologues for intermediate-age drama students.  Both are out-of-print, but a new regional publisher has agreed to take a look at them.

What does this have to do with my search for self now that I'm entitled to the senior citizen discount where I shop?   I'm changing genres. (Not genders, genres!) I will now reference a few of the many others who have done this:

Lawrence Block - Crime fiction author, including Matt Scudder novels and the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels.  Quite successful in this genre, but back in the '60s and '70s, he wrote more than a hundred books of soft-core erotica, including seven "sensitive evocations of lesbianism" written as Jill Emerson.

Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG (Stephen Spielberg is filming this favorite of mine for release in 2015.) are examples of his fantastically successful children's books.  "Lamb to the Slaughter" (woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to the policemen who investigate the killing) is an example of his classic crime stories.  Macabre stories in Kiss, Kiss and salacious ones in Switch Bitch and the novel My Uncle Oswald (about "the greatest fornicator of all time") illustrate Dahl's versatility and comfort in many genres.

Ian Fleming - Author of both the James Bond spy series and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - nothing else needs to be said.

Stephen King - Best known as a writer of horror and sci fi, King's recognition as MWA's Grandmaster in 2007 was based on his crime fiction, including "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and The Green Mile.

A. A. Milne - Creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, he also wrote The Red House Mystery, proclaimed by critic Alexander Woolcott as "one of the three best mystery stories of all time."  This classic English country house "locked room" tale of murder has been in print continuously since its first publication.

Philip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint and two dozen other literary novels won him numerous awards. In 2004, he took his first stab at the branch of sci fi called "alternate history," about the fictional results of anti-Semitic American hero Charles Lindbergh being elected president.

E.B. White - Successful and memorable for an unusual combination:  Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, both widely beloved children's books, and the classic reference work on the subject of clear writing - The Elements of Style.  Written by William Strunk, Jr., one of White's college professors, this style guide was edited and revised by White.  His publisher released it as by "Strunk and White."  E.B. White is as well known for this handbook of grammar and style as he is for that spider and pig.

Please note that I listed these gentlemen in alphabetical order. (I promise I'm not compulsive, but I tend to alphabetize all lists except for groceries.  I think it's my way of not showing favoritism as well as a hold-over from my days in the classroom.) I am not comparing myself or my writing to any of those writers, but they do demonstrate that authors aren't limited to one genre, and I am using them as an introduction to my own genre-jump.

Joanne Fluke, author of more than twenty highly successful Hannah Swenson cozy mysteries about a lady baker, has had five suspense novels released by her publisher, which happens to be Kensington. I've long admired Ms. Fluke as having reached my idea of the height of accomplishment. Though I've had the pleasure of book talks, readings, and signings in Borders, BAM, B&N, and Indies as well as libraries and book clubs, Callie never achieved my goal.  Those Hannah Swenson books get displayed right there on the book racks I yearn to occupy:  Publix and BiLo.

When I bought Fluke's The Other Child, I found "A Letter from Joanne Fluke" explaining her venture into this new genre on the very first page. (My apologies for putting that heading in quotes but not printing it exactly as it is in the book:  All caps.)  At the risk of being called a copy cat (I've been called worse), I borrowed that idea, and the very first page of my soon-to-be-released new book appears below:


A Note from Fran Rizer

A very  special thanks to all the readers of my previous books, the Callie Parrish mysteries, which are cozyesque---not quite cozies, but no overt sex, profanity, or described brutality.  For this reason, Callie has had some youthful readers, whom I appreciate.

KUDZU  RIVER is different.

It’s a much grittier book about three women whose lives become entangled as a serial killer leaves a trail of murdered teachers up and down the coast of South Carolina.  At times the writing goes beyond gritty to raw. It is not meant for children.  This is a tale that could not be told in cozy style, but it’s a story that I feel compelled to share.

I cannot think of better words to describe the differences between  Callie’s books and KUDZU RIVER than these:

KUDZU RIVER is to cozies what a great white shark is to a guppy.
                                                         -------Richard D. Laudenslager
                                                                      Author of Wounded


I'll be back in two weeks and tell you more about KUDZU RIVER. Meanwhile, if you have the time and are interested in reading and reviewing this for SSers, email me.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

03 November 2013

Old Characters, New Novels

by Leigh Lundin

Criminal Brief readers might remember pastiches have to be damn good to win me over. That doesn't mean I dismiss or entirely dislike old heroes brought back to life by other than their original authors, but they must attain a high standard. One of our own, Dale Andrews with his thorough research, sets a high bar with his Ellery Queen stories.

Pastiche authors also have to capture the flavor of the original stories, the era, the settings, and especially the characters. More often than not, one of these will fall flat. Then the question becomes whether readers (and movie viewers) accept the character.

The Saint
The Saint
Saintly Motives

Often acceptance hinges upon what a reader or viewer is first exposed to. I recall an English friend complaining bitterly about the Roger Moore version of The Saint. At first blush, what wasn't to like? The cast and crew were British and whilst the series wasn't as good as anything the Patricks  appeared in (McGoohan and MacNee (not to mention Diana Rigg's Emma Peel)), it was a good diversion.

And then I started reading The Saint novels and became properly hooked. I understood ITC failed to capture the period and much of the ambiance of Leslie Charteris' characters.

Shelfish Motives

One other reason I'm slow to embrace pastiches is the abundance of fresh and perhaps unique stories that might never see the light of day (at least a bookstore day) thanks to being elbowed aside by better known heroes and authors. It's bad enough movie makers recycle characters and plots, but it seems a shame when book publishers do it.

Yes, I can understand hankering and hungering for more of characters one's grown to love. Perhaps for this reason and because it's not my chosen genre, I'm less critical of classic romance characters resurfacing than I am of mystery reprises. Recycle the Janes (Austen and Eyre) but don't touch Marple!

(Romance fans might be interested to learn new Jane Austen novels are in the pipeline including updates of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. And for the particular attention of our friend Travis Erwin, not all fans are pleased one of those authors is male, Alexander McCall Smith.)

If anything, romance fans are even more engaged and critical. You might remember the harsh criticism of Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind. The music field witnessed bitter, even vicious comments about Hayley Westenra covering Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. While I rarely prefer remakes to the originals, I compliment Bush's creative genius but I find her little-girl performance a bit shrill for my ears, although I seem to be an exception.

Solar Powered

Okay, I confess a bit of tongue in cheek (cheeky lad, that!). There is another way: I very much like the Solar Pons stories. August Derleth was such an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote Conan Doyle for permission to pick up pen and continue the series. Doyle declined, but not to be entirely put off, Derleth invented the great detective, Solar Pons.

The character became so popular, that when an edition came out that edited some of the Americanisms and timelines, the fan base reacted harshly, and an omnibus correcting the corrections soon followed.

But here it gets curious: A few years after August Derleth died, British author Basil Copper began writing further Solar Pons stories. In other words, Copper wrote pastiches of Derleth's pastiches! (And to be perfectly clear, Basil Copper was the editor who'd corrected Derleth's occasional Americanisms.)

Bonding with Fans

Only recently, we learned Jeffrey Deaver was engaged by the Fleming estate to write an 'official' new James Bond novel. Deaver, an American as you know, received not unpleasant mixed reviews for his effort, some positive, some not so much but they were better received than his immediate predecessor, Sebastian Faulks (who rather sounds like a Bond bad guy). As some have pointed out, Deaver is a better writer than Ian Fleming was, but critics are tough when it comes to capturing the essence of a character.

Deaver wasn't the first American appointed to write official 007 tales– that was novelist Raymond Benson– but I was surprised to learn we're about to see another new pastiche, this one by British writer William Boyd.

Wait, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Samantha Weinberg's chicklit trilogy, The Moneypenny Diaries. And I should mention internationalism works both ways: Irish author John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black, is channeling Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

James Bond is hardly the only character brought back to life. I do my best to ignore the Batman-like parody of Sherlock Holmes that Robert Downey, Jr came up with. But other works have either arrived or are on the way.

British children's novelist Anthony Horowitz was licensed to write a new 'official' Sherlock Holmes with an Edith Wharton sounding title, The House of Silk.

Bourne Again

Apparently Robert Ludlum's estate didn't feel the Bourne Trilogy satisfactorily wrapped up the series. They've authorized yet another retake called The Bourne Dominion by Eric Van Lustbader.

And finally, we return to Agatha Christie, not Jane Marple but Hercule Poirot. You may remember Christie hoped to prevent pastiches following on her novels, but her estate had other ideas. They've contracted with writer Sophie Hannah to produce a new novel featuring the egg-headed Belgian detective.

While I may criticize errant pastiches, one parting thought occurs to me: Wouldn't we authors like to reach that pinnacle, one where readers love our works so much, they can't get enough even after we're gone?

21 September 2012

To Weave a Tangled Web

E.B. White
by Dixon Hill

When is a children's book not just a children's book?

When it was written by E B White.

My youngest son and I are reading Charlotte's Web. And, to be frank with you, I probably hadn't looked at the thing since I was in the 4th Grade myself.  Maybe even the 3rd Grade; I'm not sure when we read it in class.

Why address a children's book on a mystery blog?

Because I wish, now, that I'd re-read it several years ago.  There's so much to learn about writing, inside.  And, so much the book keeps reminding me about.

A Bit of a Shock

"Well, pull the book out of your backpack, little buddy, and let's take a look at it."  That's what I told my son, when he said he had to read Charlotte's Web for a school book report.

A moment later, the book was in my hands -- and I was floored!

I'd read the book as a kid.  But, it was only as an adult that the author's name lept off the cover at me.  "E B White?" I cried.  "Son!  This is written by E B White!"

As if that would mean anything to him.

My wife stared at me, too.

I stared back, mouth open, no sound coming out, except a very thin: "But . . .  It's E B White."  How could I explain? How could I make them understand about those three or four copies of Elements of Style that I'd murdered over the years -- not through book burnings or neglect, but through long, hard, rough use.  Those little white paperbacks had been literally "dog-eared to death."

I felt a bit as if I'd just learned that God, himself, had taken pen in hand to write the Mother Goose Stories.

It was a much more powerful surprise, even, than the time I bought Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! at a garage sale, only to discover it had been written by Ian Flemming.  That's right.  In case you didn't know,: the same Ian Flemming who wrote the original James Bond novels wrote  Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang!Which makes sense in the context of the book, because -- when you think about it -- Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang! (the car in the book) is really a kids' version of a James Bond spy car.  And, the novel (obviously quite different from the movie) reads (IMHO) as a children's spy or mystery/suspense story.

Further: For those who think only "little old ladies" write mysteries with recipes inside, I think it might be interesting to note that my copy of the book came with a recipe for brownies on the back page. And, clearly, Ian Flemming put it there, because, when the kids eat brownies, in the novel, there is a little aside explaining where to find the recipe, so the reader can try them him/herself.

But, what gets me about Charlotte's Web has nothing to do with flying cars or brownies.

It's the Subtext

Several SS writers (myself included) have touched-on or examined differences between "literary works" and what are often referred to as "genre" works.  But, one element I don't recall seeing explored in enough depth is that of subtext, or multi-layered meaning.  This concept is very near-and-dear (let me know what you guys think of the hyphenation there) to those who love so-called "literary works", and it's one of the hallmarks critics point to, in order to determine if a work has literary merit.

I'm not talking about "Theme" here.  I'm talking about the ability of a written passage, or passages, to be understood in an entirely different way, depending on the reader's viewpoint and experiences.  On the most superficial level, the passage is an integral part of the work, and reads and functions that way: it moves the plot forward, and characters continue to grow or change.  Perhaps the reader gets a better feel for important setting details, or clues. Yet, at the same time, the passage is also open to interpretation, as a metaphor for one or more other ideas; ideas quite different from the surface action or meaning.

My son and I have only made it to Chapter 4 or 5, so far.  Wilbur the pig just recently met Charlotte the spider.  And, this is a children's book; it's simple.  Or, at least, appears to be simple.  Yet, I was surprised to find several elements that veritably screamed at me with different meanings, all in such a short span of pages.  Leave it to E B White to sew this incredibly rich subtext in such a small plot of fertile words.

  But, a person may well ask, did E B White intend us to see this subtext?  Or did he write a simple children's story and I'm loading it down with ideas that were never planted by the author?  According to the literary critics:  It doesn't matter.  The fact that a reader can view subtext -- even if that reader had to bring his own baggage along, to do so -- is what counts.  Subtext is different for each reader, the idea goes, because everyone brings his/her own experience to the table, and this is how readers interact with literature.  It's an important part of what makes Literature literary.

So, please permit me to examine a little of Charlotte's Web in these terms.

Lassie?  Or something darker?

When Wilbur temporarily escapes from the barn, for instance, the farmer lures him back into his pen with a bucket of slop while the goose screams words to the effect: "Don't fall for it!  It's the old Slop Bucket Trick!  You'll be sorry."

My son, who looks at the book through the lens of an innocent nine-year-old, sees the farmer as acting in Wilbur's best interest.  The farmer cares about the pig, and worries about him -- for Wilbur's sake. He helps Wilbur by returning him to the safety and security of the barn, and by feeding him warm food.  My son equates the farmer with the way he would see a police officer or collie dog that helped him get back to the warmth of family and home, were my son to get lost.

As a nearly-fifty-year-old, who once had the dubious honor of slaughtering a cow with a sledge hammer, and has interacted in the sometimes (though not nearly as often as Hollywood would have us believe) duplicitous world of Military Intelligence and Special Operations, I understand that the farmer's caring has less to do with helping Wilbur, than it does with not letting Christmas dinner get away on the hoof.  The farmer only cares about Wilbur, at this point, in the context of the pig's usefulness. The return to warmth and security is important because these elements are necessary if the farmer is to get the ham he plans to harvest near the holiday season. And, the slop bucket that Wilbur is lured back by, is an important part of that plan.  Thus, Wilbur is lured back to a false security by his very love for the thing that will increase the value -- in the farmer's eyes -- of Wilbur's eventual slaughter.

So, my son views this passage in terms of Lassie Come Home while I view it as something more akin to Orwell's Animal Farm, in which (if I recall correctly) the leader-pigs sell the old draft horse to the glue factory.

Is Charlotte a Capitalist  . . .  Or just industrious?

Cavatica or "Barn Spider"
Shortly after Wilbur's return to captivity, he hears a disembodied voice that promises to be his friend.  The next morning, he discovers that this voice belongs to Charlotte, the spider who built her web overhead, in the eaves of the barn.  Her full name is Charlotte A. Cavatica.

Now, I'm constantly fascinated by the thought process behind naming fictional characters, and may explore the field more fully in a later post.  In this case, however, a quick online search yielded a photo of a Cavatica spider -- otherwise known as a Barn Spider.  Thus, Charlotte's name tells the reader (and the pig, if he has internet access or a good encyclopedia at hoof) what Charlotte is.  At least on the surface.

But, what is she really?

Almost immediately after meeting Charlotte, Wilbur is horrified to watch as she sews-up a fly that got stuck in her web.  And, he's further shocked and disgusted when she tells him that she plans to suck the fly's blood.  When the little pig expresses his feelings, however, Charlotte basically tells him:  "Well you may talk.  You have your food brought to you.  But, I suffer a much more precarious existence than you do, and have to work for my food.  It may seem mean and vicious, but it's what I have to do to survive."

On the surface, a main character is introduced and we learn about her.  We also see the beginnings of Wilbur's horrified loss of innocence.  And, a key theme -- the seeming necessity to kill for nourishment -- is introduced.

Just beneath that surface, however, the two passages -- which comprise two back-to-back chapters -- can be read as a metaphor similar to The Ant and the Grasshopper.  Here, Wilbur is an ignorant version of the lazy grasshopper, in pig-form ("swine-a-morphised" perhaps??), while Charlotte is cast in the industrious ant's role (aracnimorphised? ;-). And, Charlotte is trying to explain these facts of life to a lazy (or simply ignorant) little pig.

On a third level, however, (And perhaps my earlier comparison to Animal Farm, which sprang during the reading from I know not where, contributed to this interpretation.) the two chapters can be seen as an allegory for political, social or even economic ideas.   Charlotte and Wilbur, who live in such close proximity, yet experience life in vastly different terms, may perhaps be considered to represent citizens of Capitalist nations (Charlotte), who have to fend for themselves and face the reality of quite possibly starving if they don't work hard and effectively to secure food and shelter, and citizens of Communist or Socialist nations (Wilbur), in which people tend to be more state-reliant for their sustenance

That Charlotte has to build and maintain her own web (which might, therefor, be seen as belonging to her), while Wilbur is housed and fed by an authority figure (the farmer, who clearly owns the barn and food, which  keep Wilbur alive and well), lends further credence to this view.

A right-wing reactionary might even view Wilbur's state of false-security (He's warm and happy now, but the farmer will kill him when the time is right) as being illustrative of the "evils of communism."  Wilbur has been "tricked," in this viewpoint, into surrendering his freedom for what seems like security.  Meanwhile, Charlotte is the rugged individualist who stands on her own eight legs.

A left-wing radical, on the other hand, while still viewing the selection as a comment on Capitalism vs. Communism, might note how it stresses the innocence and trusting nature of the (socialist) pig, versus the greed and callousness of the (capitalist) spider.

Two chapters in a simple children's book.  But, at least three or four different ways of looking at it.  Such a tangled web of meaning, in so few words.  Now that, to me, is Subtext.

Deconstructing a children's book may seem ludicrous on a blog that's about writing for adults. . .

But Charlotte's Web has reminded me that my favorite books are those loaded with subtext.  Books and stories that have several layers of meaning; layers I can sit back and consider, weigh and examine, long after I've finished reading.

If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that my writing suffers from a certain lack of subtext.  And, putting it in there is a tricky business -- to say the least!  I'm reminded now, however, of the importance of trying to get it in there, of trying to push the boundaries of the meaning behind the words on the paper.

We often speak of the necessity of making words carry as much work as they can -- particularly in short stories, where the space is so limited.  But, are we succeeding to the best of our abilities if we don't try to make the work of those words include creation of subtext?  I can only answer -- with a guilty "No" -- for myself.

Meanwhile, my son and I will continue to read Charlotte's Web, and we'll continue to discuss the surface context, while I gently try to get him to consider subtext as we go along.

He wants to keep reading because the little girl who rescued Wilbur from being slaughtered as a runt hasn't visited Wilbur in quite some time.  My son and I both think she'll return for a visit before the book is over.  He wants to see this happen, so he can learn why she disappeared for so long, leaving the little pig lonely and sad.

I'm nearly fifty, and I've known a lot of little girls.  I'm not surprised by her disappearance. Yet, I too, await her return -- with great anticipation. Because I want to see how both the pig and the girl have changed in the interim.

See you in two weeks!

--Dixon

17 January 2012

Gone South

by Dale C. Andrews


To my old friend John Cruickshank Rose
With happy memories of my visit to the West Indies
                            Agatha Christie
                            Dedication, “A Caribbean Mystery”


     The regular contributors here at SleuthSayers have an on-line staging area where we can compose our articles, and then edit and tweak them before they are finally scheduled for publication.  There we each can see not only our own articles as they develop, but also the titles and publication dates for upcoming articles by other SleuthSayer contributors.  If you were to look at this collection of works in progress you would come away with some basic information about the various authors.  Principally you would note that some schedule articles way in advance – sometimes three or four are sitting in the queue, just waiting for 12:01 a.m. of their designated day to arrive so they can strut and fret their day in the sun. 

    That, my friends, is not me.  I usually spend the days just before my every other Tuesday posting looking (sometimes frantically) for an idea that will grow into an article.  I mention all of this because I am going to be battling some challenges over the next few months.

     Let us back up.  My wife Pat and I live in Washington, D.C.  Summers are nice here.  Not so winters.  January is depressing enough, but February – no matter that it only has 28 days – is the longest month of the year.  So we decided years ago that if we were lucky enough to celebrate early retirements (which we did in 2009) we would absent ourselves from Washington every winter for as many weeks as possible.  Lucky for us we have adult sons who can be left behind to take care of the house and the cats.
   
Royal Clipper
    All of this leads up to the fact that this is being written in early January, but by the time it is posted, on January 17, we will already be six days into a three week trip, including two weeks on board the tall ship Royal Clipper, sailing from Barbados to the leeward islands and then down to the Grenadines.  We have other less grand southerly sojourns scheduled for February and March, but more on those later.
   
The library on Royal Clipper
    Whenever we head south in January I try to go armed not only with a good deal of reading material (made easier now that I read almost exclusively on my Nook, which tucks nicely into carry-on luggage) but with a plot outline as well.  So my hope is to make the trip a bit productive.  . 

    Even though I am every bit as retired at home as I am abroad, I still seem better able to adhere to the discipline of writing when we are away.  The Royal Clipper works well for this – while it is a sailing ship, it is very well equipped, and has a nicely appointed library where I can find a desk for my laptop.  There I follow Ian Fleming’s model – I write for an hour or two and then take the rest of the day off. 
      
Goldeneye -- Ian Fleming's Jamaican home
     Thinking of Ian Fleming brings to mind authors who have retreated to the Caribbean not only for inspiration but also in search of a conducive place to write.  Fleming, famously, wrote all of his James Bond novels at Goldeneye, his vacation home in Jamaica.  He refused to write any fiction elsewhere.  It was at Goldeneye that he died of a heart attack in 1964, just after finishing the first draft of The Man with the Golden Gun.

      On at least one occasion Agatha Christie also sought out the Caribbean for literary stimulation and found there  the inspiration for A Caribbean Mystery, as the above dedication indicates.  Apparently she was looking for something of a jump start when she headed to the West Indies.  Christie had received lukewarm reviews for her previous two novels, The Mirror Crack’d  and The Clocks.  The jinx was broken with A Caribbean Mystery, however.  In its December 11, 1964 review of the novel The Guardian  noted
 "Mrs Agatha Christie has done it again. In A Caribbean Mystery she tells the reader explicitly what is going to happen; and yet when it does, nine out of ten will be taken completely by surprise – as I was. How does she do it? For the rest, it is Miss Marple this time who is in charge of the story; and all one can guess is that the setting is a Caribbean island."

    Herman Wouk also went south for the inspiration for his cautionary serio-comedic classic Don’t Stop the Carnival.  The novel tells the story of the hopeless and hapless Norman Paperman, who deserts the bright lights of Broadway to purchase and then attempt to run a small hotel on the imagined Island of Kinja (short for “King George Island").  The book inspired a musical by Jimmy Buffett (sound track highly recommended) and on a more personal note provided the name for our cat, Kinja, who is wandering around my ankles as I type.  The model for Norman Paperman's Gull Reef Hotel in the book was the Royal Mail Inn, now long gone, but which was once was located on Hassell Island in St. Thomas across from Charlotte Amalie, and which Wouk managed for a short time in the early 1960s.  While it can be hard to find Don’t Stop the Carnival in State-side bookstores (and the book has yet to come out in an e-publication) you will find it everywhere in the Caribbean – even in convenience stores.  In the Caribbean it is the ex-patriot’s Bible.

    Who else can we add to the list?  Certainly Graham Greene, who wrote Our Man in Havana after a prolonged visit to Cuba.  And The Comedians, one of the finest novels I have read and a brilliant and scathing send-up of the Duvalier government, was written by Greene following his numerous visits to Haiti.  Reportedly the owner of Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where Greene frequently stayed, named a room in his honor.   

    I do not know for certain that the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson frequented the Caribbean, but I suspect that he must have as evidenced by the beginning section of the second book of the Lisbeth Salander trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire.  There, in a rather strange stand-alone prologue to the book, Salander has traveled down the leeward islands until she reaches Grenada, where we find her, at the beginning of the book,  lounging on Grand Anse beach -- surely one of the finest beaches in the Caribbean. The descriptions of Grenada there, and in the action that follows before the actual book kicks in, are wonderful, and ring true.  Certainly Larsson must have walked Grand Anse himself before he allowed his greatest creation, Lisbeth, to do so.

    We can also add to the list James Michener, who returned frequently to the Caribbean and who lived for some months on the island of  St. Lucia, which is the counterpart for his fictional island of All Saints in his 1989 novel Caribbean.

St. Lucia is also where I will be on the day this article posts.  I should make it to Grenada and Grand Anse the next week. This list of authors who have retreated to the West Indies could go on, but I need to pack!

    It is now several days later. Updated material follows:

Sea U Guest House, Barbados  January 14, 2012