Showing posts with label Lawrence Maddox. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lawrence Maddox. Show all posts

10 May 2019

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

by Lawrence Maddox
Gary Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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






19 April 2019

Edward S. Aarons and the Great Spy Series That Never Came in from the Cold

by Lawrence Maddox
Sam Durrell nears the end of his run in Assignment–Sheba
Cover Art by Richard Kohlfield

Many of my dad's generation we're in for a culture shock when the '60s rolled around.  Remember the moment in Cheech & Chong's "Earache My Eye" when the dad drags the needle across his son's rock LP? That really happened in my household in the early '70s, to my older brother when he was cranking Hendrix in his bedroom. My dad had great taste in music (R&B, Jazz, Big Band ), but he was pretty much done with Rock once the British Invasion took hold.

During the British Invasion, maybe earlier, Rock n' Roll drew a line in the sand for baby boomers. If you were on the wrong side of it, you were probably listening to your parents' music and reading Archie Comics. To varying degrees the Rock'n'Roll hegemony stuck, sustaining like Nigel Tufnel's guitar in This Is Spinal Tap ('84). The Beatles versus Stones argument drags on, even as the Rock Hall of Fame scrapes the bottom of the barrel to remain relevant.

Bachelor pads were serving up Mai Tais
Les Baxter once again
When all the other stuff that seemed so un-cool by comparison roared back with a Martini-swilling vengeance at the dawn of the '90s, I couldn't have been happier. Suddenly the Rat Pack, Tiki Culture, and dinner jackets were back in business. Sure, there was a downside. After Swingers ('96), the Dresden in Los Feliz was packed to the gills with wanna-be rat packers and it took forever to get served.

It's my impression that this nostalgia for the once-irredeemably square extended to crime genre paperbacks from that era, too. Second-hand books by the likes of Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald and Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) that once sold for a buck-or-under were now going for way more. The cover art, created by illustrators like Harry Bennett, Victor Kalin, and Robert McGinnis, was itself becoming imminently collectible–and influential.  Advertising and the burgeoning Low Brow Art Movement borrowed heavily from it.

In that era of comebacks, when Arthur Lyman, Donald Hamilton, and Robert Goulet (via Will Farrell on SNL) were once again orbiting the zeitgeist like re-launched Sputniks, there was one glaring omission.

Assignment– Sorrento Siren
Edward S. Aarons' Assignment series started in 1955 with Assignment to Disaster, two years after Ian Fleming's like-minded Casino Royale debutedAssignment's hero is Sam Durrell, a tough, resourceful Cajun who works for a shadowy component of the CIA. Durrell's assignments take him to vividly-rendered faraway places, tantalizingly dangled before the reader in book titles like Assignment–Sorrento Siren, Assignment–Sulu Sea, and Assignment–Cong Hai Kill. Beautiful women, power-hungry villains, and violence are always part of the equation. Aarons ratchets up the tension, and the Assignments build to frenzied, action-packed climaxes.

Aarons was a prolific author of hardboiled crime fiction by the time he wrote Assignment to Disaster at the age of 40. His New York Times obit states Aarons "sold his first story when he was 18 and his first novel at 19. And, before turning solely to the novel form and the Assignment series, he had written 200 magazine stories and novellas." If WW2 hadn't intervened, no doubt the count would've be higher.

Assignment– White Rajah
From 1955 until his death in 1975, Aarons wrote 42 Assignments. Two were published posthumously. The series continued without him into the early '80s with six more Assignments, but it wasn't as good. Sergio Rizzo, in his New York Times biography of Aarons, writes that "the Assignment series sold more than 23 million copies and has been reprinted in seventeen languages."

The switch from detective to spy fiction was a good move for the industrious Aarons, and not without precedent. Arthur Conan Doyle did the same with Holmes in stories like "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," in which Holmes and Watson track down submarine plans stolen by a German secret agent.

For a run that stretches from Elvis to the Ramones, with Aarons writing 2 or 3 Assignments annually, the quality is consistently high. For anyone who has attended Bouchercon or is voting on the Anthony Awards (Schmooze Alert-my novel Fast Bang Booze is Best First Novel eligible), take note: Anthony Boucher judged the Assignment series "among the best modern adventure stories of espionage and international intrigue."

 In his excellent essay "Edward S. Aarons and the Sam Durrell/Assignment Series of Spy Novels" (found at ExistentialEnnui.com), Nick Jones argues that the Assignment series is important for reasons besides its longevity and popularity, writing "Sam Durrell is arguably America's first proper postwar fictional series spy." Jones suggests that Aarons may have created Durrell without direct inspiration by Fleming's Bond. "Casino Royale wasn't published in the US until 1954 and didn't sell terribly well," Jones writes. If Aarons did indeed set the framework for American spy fiction to come, his importance cannot be denied.

I've been on some memorable Book Benders, when life has given me time to catch a ride with a book series or a particular author and hang on for numerous stops.  I think a lot of book lovers read that way. For me this may have started with Tolkien. Kerouac was also an early addiction. I loved them so much back then I'm afraid to re-read them now, in case one of us hasn't held up over time.  I spent one of my longest Book Benders reading Ross MacDonald's Archer novels. That's series locks you in.
Assignment–Sulu Sea

I had the same Bender experience with the Assignment series. Just like with the Lew Archer novels, you don't have to start at the beginning. I think the books get better as they go along, and that Aarons hit his stride in the '60s and early'70s.  My favorite is Assignment–Sulu Sea ('64). Here's how it kicks off:

Holcomb did not know how long he had been running or when the sun came up, or when he fell at last in the sandy debris of coconut husks and rotting palm fronds. He was afraid off the light. The screeching of the birds and the grunting of a wild pig somewhere in the vine-shrouded wilderness beyond the beach terrified him. He knew he was being followed. The sounds of the birds and monkeys and pigs mingled with the sigh and crash of the surf of the Celebes Sea on the beach. There was a kind of madness in the noise that balanced the gibbering in the lurking shadows of his brain.

Ian Fleming is famous for researching, in person, the settings of 007's adventures. He even wrote his own travelogue, Thrilling Cities ('63), though he seems a little grumpier than in the Bond books.  Aarons' methods have been lost to time, at least until a serious biographer gets on the case.  Sergio Rizzo writes that the Assignments "were most often set in the faraway places that Aarons researched on annual trips in search of new and vivid material." I reached out to an Aarons family member, who said, "My understanding is that his research was primarily book research."

There's no doubt Aarons did his research. I also like to think that Aarons really did travel to some of the many places he wrote about, having his own adventures before sitting down to the lonely task of writing multiple novels annually. His setting descriptions are lush and evocative, written with the confidence of one who experienced them firsthand. If he visited these places or not, chalk up the immersive writing to pure craftsmanship.

Matt Helm creator Donald Hamilton
I think there are a couple reasons why Aarons is unknown to the general reading public after having been so popular in his day. Unlike Fleming, or Matt Helm's creator Donald Hamilton, Aarons never left his mark on Hollywood. Low budget flick Dead to the World(1961) is based on State Departments Murders, a hardboiled novel Aarons wrote using his pseudonym Edward Ronns.  Dead to the World is directed by Nicholas Webster, best known for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), and it's not a career maker. I couldn't track down any other films Aarons is connected to.

Another issue is the way Aarons was marketed. I couldn't find any photos of Aarons on the internet. More importantly, I also couldn't find any on the paperbacks themselves. Many genre series authors were smartly branded, and it helped create a mystique around them. Micky Spillane looms large on many of his covers, wearing a porkpie hat. Fleming holds a gun. Donald Hamilton wears bitchin' sunglasses. Aarons, like a spook from one of his own novels, is nowhere in sight. He deserves to be rediscovered.

I already mentioned Sergio Rizzo and Nick Jones and their excellent essays on Aarons. Randall Masteller, writing at SpyGuysandGals.com, offers an amazing resource for spy fiction fans and has a synopsis for each book in the Assignment series. Doug Bassett provides many insights into Aarons in his piece at MysteryFile.com.

29 March 2019

My Dinner With Lawrence Tierney — Part 2

Born to Kill...me?
by Lawrence Maddox

I'd been warned.

In my defense, when Lawrence Tierney threw his first punch at me, many of his current lunacies weren't yet public knowledge. Reservoir Dogs had just wrapped production the previous month and Tarantino was still piecing it together in the cutting room.

Tierney's fight with Tarantino and his subsequent firing wouldn't become part of the Tierney mythos until Reservoir Dogs made its big splash the following year, 1992. Sure, Tierney nabbed some TV roles in the '80s, but until Reservoir Dogs brought him back, he was known (mostly to film buffs) as that actor who scared off stardom with booze-fueled mayhem.

Lawrence Tierney, dead center,
making his comeback in Reservoir Dogs (1992)



Still, when filmmaker Steve Barkett invited me to have dinner with the star of not only Dillinger (1945), but of my film noir fav The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1946), I knew things could get interesting.  I'd read about Tierney's exploits in Barry Gifford's love letter to American crime flicks, The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films (1988).  "Tierney, famous for his role as Dillinger," writes Gifford, "and for his barroom brawls (he was stabbed in one as recently as 1973), and drunk driving arrests, is the wickedest looking big lug in B-movie history."

Steve gave me plenty to think about during the drive to Hamburger Hamlet to meet Lawrence Tierney. "I don't want to scare you. Lawrence can be a little weird," Steve said. "Sometimes he likes to mess with people." Steve told me that when he'd first met Tierney in 1990 at CineCon, Tierney was living in a halfway house.

Jason Alexander

Steve also told me that Tierney had vaguely mentioned an incident on the Seinfeld set that happened earlier in the year.  It involved a butcher knife from the set of Jerry's apartment, and Tierney told Steve that he'd only been playing around but the cast took it way too seriously. Tierney was originally considered for a recurring role, but was never asked back.

It ended up being perhaps the most well known story about Lawrence Tierney ("it scared the living crap out of us," Jason Alexander recalled), but it wouldn't become famous until Tierney made his comeback.

There were funny Tierney stories too. Steve said they'd once gone to a cafeteria together. "We got in line and Lawrence loaded up my tray with all kinds of food. All he put on his own tray was a small salad. When we sat down, Lawrence started eating most of the food he'd supposedly picked out for me," Steve said. "When Lawrence was done eating, he excused himself to go the restroom. Lawrence didn't know I saw this, but he went to the cashier and paid for only the small salad, stiffing me for all the food he ate." Steve said Tierney already owed him $50. Steve had driven Lawrence to the cafeteria, and when it was time to leave, he wouldn't let Lawrence get in his car unless he forked over the fifty bucks right there on the spot.

Lawrence Tierney and Elisha Cook
in Born to Kill (1947)

At first things were going great at the Hamlet. Tierney saw that I'd brought Barry Gifford's book, in which Tierney figures prominently. Tierney said he'd read it and didn't care for it. He took humorous exception to Gifford's essay on Born to Kill (1947), in which he writes "there's no decency at all in Lawrence Tierney's face." Tierney, whose face seemed to be naturally fixed in a scowl under his wide, bald dome, mugged menacingly for Steve and I. "Look at me! Is this a face without decency?" He asked. We all cracked up.

Steve and I were relieved that Tierney didn't order any alcohol, and we didn't either. "I'm buying tonight, fellas! Order anything you want," Tierney proclaimed in his gravelly voice. Steve looked at me dubiously.

Not so promising was Tierney's treatment of our waitress. He peppered her with personal questions, many in French. Nothing he said was lewd or profane, but he took it right up to the line.  I figured he was showing off for Steve and I, but it got uncomfortable. We told him that it was time to let her leave and do her job. She hurried away, clearly annoyed.

Steve got up from the table. When I phoned Steve a few weeks ago, he told me he'd left the table to  apologize to the manager for Tierney's behavior, and to warn him that it would likely continue.

I was across the table from Tierney, and if I had to guess, I'd say it was a left jab. It was quick and sharp and I could feel the air hit me on my nose. It had come short of my face by two inches at the very most. In less than what screenwriters call a "beat," he threw another. I was paying attention now and I blocked it hard with my forearm. It felt like a real punch.




I did some quick calculus.

What just happened?

If I pop him I could get arrested. 

I'm broke and I'm going to have to call my parents to make my bail.

I don't wan't to clock an old guy. Even one that has been getting arrested for hurting people since Truman was in the Whitehouse.

That first punch was close, but I bet he missed it on purpose. He's messing with me. Right?

Getting up and leaving would've solved everything. I didn't want to do that, though. Maybe it was the burgeoning writer in me, but I wanted to see how it was going to play out.

If he'd actually tagged me square in the face, I guess I would've countered. I'm not kidding when I say I had this thought: I'm not going down like all those other clowns. I also remembered thinking one thing for sure;  He's messing with me. He purposely didn't hit me. He's trying to push me. He wants to see me get mad. 

"Looks like you've still got it," I said, doing my level best to look unfazed. Tierney did a double take. For some reason this really pissed him off. "Damn right I still got it!" Tierney said loudly. "Make any quick moves like that again and you'll see. I'm just trained that way. I can't help it." I remember that I actually laughed at him. I hadn't made any quick moves, not that that mattered. "Try it and you'll see too," I said. It felt like low budget dialogue from one of his early noirs. My whole demeanor threw him off.

That's when Steve came back. "We we're just messing around. I like your friend here," Tierney said. Steve could sense something was up.  Along with Steve came a new waitress. This one seemed like a tough Hamlet veteran.  She didn't take any of Tierney's guff and shut him down when he wanted to chit chat. "Bring back the other waitress, you're no fun," Tierney said. "And remember fellas, I'm buying."

Just like that Tierney was holding court again. I kept a close eye on him as he reminisced about his Hollywood heyday. He gave his earlier directors bad reviews, except for Robert Wise. "Wise knew what he was doing." I was kind of bummed to hear he didn't have a good time on my favorite, The Devil Thumbs a Ride. "They shot it too damn quickly," he said.

A pattern to our conversation developed, which involved Steve or myself saying something, and Tierney disagreeing. Even if we agreed with something Tierney said, he'd still disagree with us.  Without warning, he would recite stretches of poetry, or break out in French. I wish I could recall what the poems we're. For all Tierney's bluster and volatility, it was clear he was a well-read guy who valued intelligence in others.

Also without warning were Tierney's continued jabs. He threw two or three more, but these were just for show and didn't come as close to hitting Steve or I as that first one had. I scooted my chair an extra inch away from the table. I also kept one hand free, and I rarely let my eyes off Tierney.  I've never had a harder time cutting a steak.

When Tierney finished eating he said he had a phone call to make. "I'll be right back," he said. The check came, but no Tierney. Steve ended up picking up the tab. "I knew he wasn't going to pay," Steve said. After a long wait, Tierney reappeared. "I'm buying next time, fellas!" He picked up my book. "Got a pen?" He asked. I'd given up hope of getting him to sign my book after that first jab. He stood next to me, patting my back like an old pal. I handed him my pen.

Larry - May your fondest dreams become realities. Your friend, Lawrence Tierney.

Almost thirty years later, I'm still proud that I stuck around and finished having dinner with Lawrence Tierney. In hindsight, considering that very same year he'd pulled a knife on Seinfeld and got into a fistfight with Tarantino, I came out great. I got a free meal, a signed book, and an experience I'll never forget. I felt that I'd passed a test that others, both in real life and on the big screen, hadn't. It happened when I didn't have much else besides dreams and ambitions. When I see the inscription that he wrote for me, the nearly elegant handwriting, I'm touched.


Epilogue

One of the best parts about writing this was catching up with filmmaker Steve Barkett. He has a contagious love of cinema and remains an encyclopedia of film knowledge. He's retired now, though he's working on a new release of Empire of the Dark (1990).  Alamo Drafthouse Cinema plans on releasing it later this year. If he ever stops by LA, I'm taking him to lunch at the Hamlet.

I reached out to author Barry Gifford, whose engrossing The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Movies made such a big impression on me, and inspired Lawrence Tierney to mimic his own mean mug over dinner. "My mother told me that when she was in Hollywood in the 1940s Lawrence Tierney made a pass at her but didn't throw any punches," Barry Gifford wrote back. "She declined his advances."  The Devil Thumbs a Ride has been expanded by the University of Mississippi Press as Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir. 



Lawrence had two brothers, Ed Tierney and Scott Brady, who were also actors. Scott Brady didn't have the self-destructive bug that his brother Lawrence did, and was an instantly recognizable face on '60s and '70s TV. I know him best from The Rockford Files and his last film, Gremlins (1984). I asked Scott's son Tim Tierney if he had any thoughts on my dinner. "Larry, congratulations on surviving your encounter with my uncle unscathed when many others have fared much worse," Tim said. "Congrats also on spotting that he was much more than a brawler. Most people don't."


Lawrence Tierney with his nephew Tim Tierney.
Photo courtesy of Tim Tierney




Hey Fellow Anthony Voters! There's still plenty of time to get your ballots in. Gabrielswharf.wordpress.com lists the 2019 Anthony Awards Eligible titles. I found it very helpful. Shameless Plug Alert-My debut novel Fast Bang Booze is listed in the, well, Debut Novel Category.
Any Lawrence Tierney stories of your own? 
Tweet'em at me-Lawrence Maddox @MadXBooks 

08 March 2019

My Dinner With Lawrence Tierney - Part 1

by Lawrence Maddox
Lawrence Tierney's break-out role

There's an irresistible draw to crime fiction authors whose lives resemble the dark, edgy characters they've created. The extra thrill of reading the likes of Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim and Edward Bunker is that some of the blood spilled in their books may have coursed through real veins.

I met Edward Bunker at a 2000 signing of his autobiography Education of a Felon. It's a harrowing, exciting read that covers his criminal career, his 18 years of incarceration, and his redemptive plunge into writing. Like his fiction, it's not for the squeamish.

Edward Bunker
I grew up in the same part of Northeast Los Angeles that Bunker had decades earlier, walked the same off-limits train trestle, and we talked about the neighborhood. At one point I asked him an innocent question that he took exception to. Bunker looked at me in a way that made me understand why he'd once been declared criminally insane. Spooky.

With Bunker's literary fame came the occasional acting gig, and he landed the role of ill-fated Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs (1992)Bunker wasn't the only ex-con in front of the camera in that film. Playing crime family patriarch Joe Cabot was Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose legendary–and violent– collisions with law enforcement mirrored the bad guys he played on the big screen, just as Bunker's fictional characters could've escaped from the pages of Education of a Felon.  Quentin Tarantino gave Lawrence Tierney a fitting bookend to his career with Reservoir. It seems even more fitting that Tierney punched Tarantino for his efforts and got himself fired off the film.

Probably the most famous example of Lawrence Tierney's bad boy shenanigans is the Seinfeld knife incident. In the season two episode "The Jacket," Tierney plays Elaine's dad, a tough, imposing vet who is also a successful novelist that Jerry and George admire. It's hilarious. Tierney delivers, intimidating the daylights out of Jerry and George yet believable as an intelligent writer. It's a rare comedic turn for Tierney, and he pulls it off.
Elaine-benes-3707.jpg
Not a Lawrence Tierney fan

Sometime during shooting, Tierney apparently stole a butcher knife from the set of Jerry's apartment. "Hey Lawrence, what do you got there in your jacket?" Seinfeld asked him. Seeing he was busted, Tierney tried to play it off as a joke and started waving the knife around.  What was supposed to be a recurring character for Tierney on one of TV's all-time sitcoms turned into a one-off right there on the spot. "I'll tell you something about Lawrence Tierney," Julia Louis-Dreyfus said. "He was a total nut job."  It was typical Tierney, snatching defeat from the jaws of success. Crazy as the knife incident sounds, it wasn't close to the violence that marred Tierney's early career.

Lawrence Tierney was just another RKO contract player until the studio loaned him out to Monogram to play the eponymous bank-job king in Dillinger (1945). It didn't matter that Dillinger played fast and loose with the facts. What mattered was how Tierney embodied low-budget noir bad-assery. Dillinger was a hit. Crime flicks followed, including Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947), and the cult-classic The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947). I don't remember the first time I saw The Devil Thumbs a Ride or why it made such a big impression on me, but it did.

The Devil Thumbs a ride DVD cover.jpgDogging Tierney's legit shot at stardom was a growing rap sheet for booze fueled fights and assaults. Here are some headlines he generated: "Actor Taken Away in Straight Jacket." "Actor Tierney Must Sleep on Jail Floor." "Tierney Goes to Jail Again." Tierney brawled up and down the Sunset Strip, dusting it up at the legendary Mocambo, and at the home of original Hollywood Hellfire Club member John Decker. When in Hollywood, or New York, or Paris, or anywhere he went, Tierney got drunk, violent and incarcerated.

It's tough to call Tierney a bully, because he got into too many fights with those who stood a reasonable chance of kicking his ass. In 1953 he duked it out with a professional welterweight on the corner of Broadway and 53rd Street. Back in New York in 1958, Tierney was arrested for brawling with cops outside a Manhattan bar.

One of Tierney's prime targets was often the police. I can only imagine what the police would do to you in those days, in the back of a police car or in a lonely holding cell, after they'd arrested you for trying to beat them up. Tierney's career did a slow fade in the1950s, and his comeback didn't happen until he found work on the small screen in the '80s. A turn as Ryan O'Neal's dad in Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) didn't hurt. Since were talking fighting and film, Mailer can be seen in a disturbing real-life fight with actor Rip Torn in Mailer's Maidstone (1970).

In an earlier blog (guesting for Paul D. Marks - thanks again Paul!) I wrote about my day job as a film and TV editor and how those skills helped me with my novel Fast Bang Booze. In 1991 I hadn't cut anything but a short film or two. My first screenwriting credit, a martial arts flick, was four years away. Published crime fiction was still a Hail Mary pass that wouldn't be caught for years. Times were lean. AM PM was fine dining.

That year I often assisted filmmaker Steve Barkett, an actor/writer/director who was tying-up loose ends on his self-produced horror film Empire of the Dark. Steve has a genuine love of film history (I consulted with him before writing this piece, and he remains a fount of celluloid knowledge), and we'd sometimes discuss our favorite eras of movies. Obscure poverty-row film noir was a passion of mine. I loved films like Detour (starring Tom Neal, whose own off-screen violence lead to a murder rap), and Tierney's The Devil Thumbs a Ride. Back in '91 when Steve asked me if I'd like to join him and Lawrence Tierney for dinner, I almost hit the roof.

I met Steve at his place in Tarzana, the San Fernando Valley neighborhood once owned by pulp icon Edgar Rice Burroughs. "I don't want to scare you," Steve said as we drove to Hamburger Hamlet. "Lawrence can be a little weird. Sometimes he likes to mess with people." Steve said that when he first befriended Tierney at the previous years' CineCon, held at Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, Tierney was on probation and was living at a halfway house. "He shot up his nephew's apartment," Steve explained.

Hamburger Hamlet was bustling. I brought one of my favorite books, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Movies by Barry Gifford, hoping Tierney would sign it. The cover depicts a prototypical 1940s dashing Tierney-esque tough guy, driving at night. Next to him sits a prototypical noir blonde, dropping a flask of booze as she looks frantically over her shoulder. And no wonder, for they're being pursued by the devil himself.

"Larry, you found us," Steve said, rising to his feet.  "Sit down. You don't have to get up for me," Lawrence Tierney said in a gravelly voice. Tierney was a big guy, his face fixed in a scowl. He was wearing a t-shirt, and I couldn't help but notice he was using a thin piece of rope for a belt.

Steve introduced me as another Lawrence, and Tierney and I shook hands. Tierney had a strong grip and I could tell he was sizing me up. I had a few inches on him and age was definitely on my side, but you never know. Tierney saw the book I'd brought and launched into a discussion about the making of Thumbs a Ride (not a great experience according to Tierney), and about the merits and shortcomings of some of the directors he'd worked with. He was charming, holding court. Out of nowhere he recited random lines of poetry. I wish I recalled what they were.

When the waitress arrived to take our drink orders, Tierney did not order alcohol, but opted for a soda. Steve looked relieved. I was tempted to get one of the Hamlet's renowned Schooners of Ale,  but Steve and I both followed Tierney's example. Tierney flirted with the waitress, asking her questions in pretty good French. I don't think she spoke French and she was getting irritated. Tierney was keeping her at the table longer than she appeared to appreciate. "Okay Larry," Steve said. "I think she needs to go do her job now."

Tierney laughed good-naturedly as the waitress walked away. I felt since booze wasn't going to be a factor, there was nothing to worry about. I'd get to hang out with a screen legend and learn about an industry I was just breaking into. Then Tierney threw a punch at me.

Stay tuned for Part 2, dropping March 29. Only here at Sleuthsayers.org. You can also visit me on twitter, Lawrence Maddox @Madxbooks.



15 February 2019

The Manual of Mindfulness: Thinking Like Sherlock Holmes

by Lawrence Maddox

Sherlock Ommmms
The modern concept of mindfulness seems as far from Victorian England as Optimus Prime does from Robbie the Robot, yet maybe it's most ardent fictional practitioner shot out of that era like a bullet from a Webley Bulldog Revolver.  Roughly 2300 years before the Victorian Age's namesake took the throne (and about 2420 years before The Kinks sang her praises in "Victoria"), the seeds of what we now call  "mindfulness" started with Buddha himself, passing into the west largely through meditation, yoga, and for me as a kid, the TV show Kung Fu.

The western medical community began picking up on these stress-reducing practices as an alternative to the drugs, booze, and all the other fun stuff we westerners use to to chill out. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to do so and call it "mindfulness." "Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally," said Kabat-Zinn. "And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom."

Basil Rathbone being iconic
Jeremy Brett being brilliant
So who is this Victorian-era Buddha I mentioned earlier? His black shag tobacco is still sprinkled all over pop culture, one hundred and twenty-two years after he first appeared in print. We just can't seem to get enough Sherlock Holmes, be it in print, radio, theater, TV or movies. Holmes has been played by actors as varied as Basil Rathbone (my childhood favorite), Jeremy Brett (my all-time fav), Hammer Horror heroes Peter Cushing AND Christopher Lee, Robert Downey Jr, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Mr. Spock and Dr. House certainly share much of the Holmes DNA, as does last year's animated hit Sherlock Gnomes. I bet if you looked long enough, you'd find Holmes porn floating around the internet. Please don't forward any links.

What is it about Holmes that still fascinates us? The knowledge, the reasoning, the braininess of Holmes is what most consider Holmes' primary traits. Fans of the detective know there's so much more. Holmes' imagination, his ability to be present and live utterly in the moment, his awareness of his own thought processes, his mindfulness, are perhaps his greatest and most impressive gifts.

If Doyle meant the Holmes stories to be idle entertainment only, he was wildly successful. What if Doyle was also showing us a better way to live? Maria Konnikova thinks that's exactly what Doyle was doing, and she teaches us how to think like Sherlock Holmes in her fascinating manual-of-mindfulness Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013)

Maria Konnikova first caught the Holmes bug when her father read Holmes stories to her when she was little. She eventually earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia and has published extensively about science, yet she owns up to the role that reading fiction has played in her life:  "I think the best psychologists are actually fiction writers. Their understanding of the human mind is so far beyond where we've been able to get with psychology as a science."

Mastermind presents the two different ways in which people use their brains. There is the Watson system, which is our default system. The Watson system makes all the mental errors that Watson, Lestrade, and the rest of the bumblers make in the Holmes stories. The Watson system jumps to incorrect conclusions, is influenced by appearances, and isn't really paying attention, either to the outside world or to it's own mental workings.

The Holmes system will have none of that. By dent of effort, it takes the Watson system offline and installs a new operating system in our consciousness. "Checklists, formulas, structured procedures: those are your best bet," Mastermind explains.  Through practice, habit, and the pursuit of mindfulness, Mastermind claims that the Holmes system opens up a new world of thought: it forces us to be neutral in our observations; it cajoles us to be doubtful of first impressions and of our own minds; it commands us to be superior observers; it directs us to engage the world with all of our senses; it frees up our imaginations; it forbids multi-tasking and it demands focus on the job at hand.  Be present, it shouts, like a teacher to a student drifting off in class.

Mastermind backs up its precepts with science, and it can be a little dry. Having said that, I think Doyle (and Holmes) wouldn't have had it any other way. Konnikova digs into the science, but there is never any doubt that her inspiration for Mastermind is the fiction of Doyle. I really enjoyed Mastermind when it uses the Holmes stories to illustrate a point.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson and Holmes take turns deducing the biographical details of Dr. James Mortimer by examining the absent doctor's walking stick. Watson makes his usual mistakes, and Holmes "embarks on his own logical tour de force." Holmes goes on to deduce much about Dr. Mortimer's background, age, habits, ambitions, and pet ownership.

According to Mastermind, this scene "brings together all of the elements of the scientific approach to thought that we've spent this book exploring and serves as a near-ideal jumping-off point for discussing how to bring the thought process together as whole." Some of the thought-practices Konnikova garners from this episode are: being aware of our environment; the value of thoughtful observation; and allowing the imagination, maybe the most powerful tool in our mental arsenal, to tangle with life's problems.

It wouldn't be fair to boil Mastermind down to only one mental habit, but if forced to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, I'd say it's the same exercise that's at the heart of mindfulness. "Holmes' mental journeying goes by many names, but most commonly it is called meditation," Konnikova writes. "Holmes is neither monk nor yoga practitioner," Konnikova adds, "but he understands what meditation, in its essence, actually is–– a simple mental exercise to clear your mind."

Konnikova argues that meditation trains our brains to be more Holmes-like. She discusses studies that show that meditation boosts concentration, learning,  memory, and even brain density. Meditation "can help you create the right frame of mind to attain the distance necessary for mindful, imaginative thought."

I expect some eye rolls at this connection of Holmes and meditation, mindfulness, and anything that smacks of New Age mysticism. First I'd say that meditation has been moved out of the realms of eastern tradition and into medical practice by western science. Don't be put off if your MD prescribes a shot of meditation for what ills you, with a tai chi chaser.

The biggest complaint about Mastermind could be that it's taking Sherlock Holmes too seriously. Doyle conjured the stories while his medical practice was slow, and surely he meant them only as idle entertainment. An argument could be made otherwise. Holmes is, after all, largely based on Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor at The University of Edinburgh Medical School who Doyle assisted. Bell was a doctor, a scientist, a teacher, and Doyle's mentor.

Like Holmes, Dr. Bell is purported to have had the skill of being able to tell a person's job just by looking at him. Bell once said "...we teachers find it useful to show the student how much a trained use of the observation can discover in ordinary matters such as the previous history, nationality and occupation of a patient." Perhaps Doyle is using Bell, a brilliant teacher, to create his own fictional teacher. After all, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes did write a magazine article on his methods for the public edification. He even gave it the rather self-important title "The Book of Life."

Maria Konnikova calls your bluff

After Mastermind, Konnikova wrote The Confidence Game (2016). In it she discusses the history of con artists and the reasons why people can be so easily duped. It's a great resource for crime writers, and a kind of sequel to Mastermind and its mindfulness techniques. Though continuing to write, Konnikova is now a professional poker player. Considering her interests in Holmes, that should scare anyone with a handful of cards and secrets to hide.

Lawrence Maddox and Samuel Gailey
waiting to read at LA's Noir at the Bar
Thanks to everyone who not only blew off one of the lamest Super Bowls ever, but also braved a stormy night to hit LA's Noir at the Bar at Mandrake. It was a great evening with myself, Gray Basnight, Eric Beetner, Samuel Gailey, Nadine Nettman and Wendall Thomas taking turns at the mic, and Eric Beetner and Steve Lauden  hosting. Afterwards I somehow ended up clear across town at the Altadena Ale & Wine House discussing all things lit. See ya at the next one!

25 January 2019

The Earl Javorsky Interview / Stop Meddling in My Genre Part 2

by Lawrence Maddox

Let's get clear on my condition. I don't know what it is, but I know what it is not.  I am not a vampire, or a zombie, or a ghost. I'm not a thousand years old, I have no superpowers, and I've never been a hero. What I do have is a broken life, a broken family, and, so far, an inexplicable inoculation against dying.  

Author Earl Javorsky
That's Los Angeles PI Charlie Miner explaining the inexplicable in Earl Javorsky's Down to No Good (2017), the second and latest installment in Earl's multi-faceted genre-bending series about an un-killable sleuth who can't kick his addiction to heroin–or life. It also reads like a Who's Who of cross-over character-types who have been ripped from the fantasy and horror genres and placed in the nuts-and-bolts world of crime fiction. In Part 1 (from Jan 3rd) I preached that mixing genres got its start in Pulp magazines, where brilliant, genre-defining authors like Dashiell Hammett, H.P. Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick cut their teeth, and culminated with popular Pulp characters like The Shadow and Doc Savage. These Pulp heroes combined elements of crime, horror, sci-fi, romance, and you-name-it in a cross-pollination of Promethean Pulp parentage. The above passage from Down to No Good stakes out  Charlie Miner's rightful place among the best of these hybrids. It's also telling the other cross genre characters to step aside (I'm talking to you, Joe Pitt. You got something to say, Harry Dresden? You looking at me, Batman?), because there's a brand new character on the scene who's kicking it up a notch.

Before Charlie Miner became indestructible, he was a PI who worked mundane fraud cases for insurance companies. He was also a hopelessly addicted junkie. Desperate to kick his heroin habit, Charlie tries out the Second Chance at Life clinic, illegal in the US and located "somewhere south of Juarez." Their cure, a ritualistic use of ibogaine and other psychotropic drugs, gives Charlie an out-of-body experience but unfortunately leaves his addiction intact.  Back home and working a case, Charlie is shot in the head, stone-cold murdered, while riding his bike home.

Charlie wakes up on a gurney in the morgue, disembodied like he was during his Mexican drug cure.  "I roamed around the room," Charlie explains at the start of Down Solo (2014), "light as a whisper, fast as a thought."  Charlie discovers he's not only impervious to death, but he can astral project at will. This comes in handy when he wants to spy on people. Charlie also has a mysterious spirit guide named Daniel who helps Charlie skate the thin edge between life and death.

With a bullet in his brain, Charlie is understandably foggy on the details of his death. In Down Solo, Charlie seeks out his killer. A kidnapped daughter, lethal con men, and a frightening vision of death itself await in a hard boiled detective yarn that effortlessly doubles as a supernatural thriller.  Charlie wakes up dead once more in Down to No Good. This time Charlie, along with Homicide Detective  Dave Putnam, must stop the apocalyptic vision of a murderous psychic from coming true.

The metaphysical is another ingredient in the Charlie Miner stew, and I see visionary fiction as an influence. It's a gutsy amalgam,  clearly the work of an author who has read widely, and Earl Javorsky makes it look easy.  Earl generously agreed to discuss how he did it.

Lawrence Maddox: Can you talk about your reading life?

Some of Earl's favorite comic books.
Courtesy of The Maddox Archives.
Earl Javorsky: I fell in love with kids' classics around seven: Doctor Doolittle, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, then Treasure Island and Kidnapped. After that I discovered my dad's stash of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Fantasy and Science Fiction and I was hooked. I was also addicted to comic books. My friend had a basement full of boxes of old DC and Marvel comics. My favorites were Dr. StrangeHouse of Mystery, ROM Spaceknight, and The Silver Surfer.

In high school and college I went through my elitist phase and read stuff like Antonin Artaud and Sartre, followed by an about-face with Robert Ludlum and Stephen King. Randomly, Chandler, Graham Greene, Elmore Leonard, Iain Pears, Walter Mosely, and Ursula K. Le Guin come to mind, but that leaves out so many writers whose work I love. Somehow I digested all of this strange brew and came up with Charlie Miner.

LM: What are the beginnings of Charlie Miner?

EJ:  The premise, which just spilled out of my brain on its own, was so foreign to me that I didn't know how to proceed after the first paragraph, which went like this:

They say once a junkie, always a junkie, but this is ridiculous. I haven't been dead more than a few hours and I already need a fix. It doesn't make sense; my blood isn't even circulating, but it's the process I crave–copping, cooking, tying off, finding a vein, the slow, steady pressure of thumb on plunger, and now it's my first order of business. 

Okay, clearly a throwaway idea. Who cares about dead junkies? And if he's dead, how do we account for him narrating? At best, I had a sketch for a story that would appeal to a very narrow slice of the general readership. But then the character's predicament stuck with me. How did he get that way? Maybe he had been murdered. Hmmm...Maybe he was a private eye. On a case. A case that got him killed. A detective story! A noir gumshoe tale, where the gumshoe has to solve his own murder. Noir, as in dark, and what could be darker than death?

LM:  Did you have reservations about mixing genres?

EJ: Genre bending can be risky and exciting–for the reader as well as the writer. The questions for both, I suppose, are: Does it work? Does it pay off? When my first book came out, I wrote to my editor, saying "I'm aware that my combination of hard-boiled plus supernatural is a possible turnoff to both camps, thus a potential marketing problem. I'm thinking that 'drug noir with a metaphysical twist' might be a way to spin it–unless you have thoughts to the contrary."

Lou wrote back succinctly with "I'm not convinced that 'drug noir' is a way to sell anything, at least to a mainstream audience. I actually think the hard-boiled/supernatural angle makes Down Solo distinctive. We're not planning to shirk from it."

LM: Are you reading any genre-mixing fiction right now?

EJ: One of my favorite books in the last few years is Michael Gruber's Tropic of Night.  This detective thriller involves Siberian shamanism. Yoruba sorcery, powerful psychotropic agents, and ritual murder. It takes us from Miami to Africa and back, delving anthropology, ethnography and madness as we try to unravel, along with Detective Jimmy Paz, the mystery of a serial killer of pregnant women.  There are passages that test the limits of the psychological and take us into the spooky realm of darker possibilities than we admit to in normal life. Is this a transgression, a violation of a genre boundary? If so, it is done so compellingly that I welcome it at every juncture.

Alternatively, all the strangeness might simply be a matter of altered perception: smoke and mirrors and a few hallucinogenic powders sprinkled into the atmosphere, skewing reality for our protagonist.  Tropic of Night teases the edge between the world as we know it and the supernatural and keeps a tight grip  on the reader's attention without requiring a leap of faith or even suspension of disbelief.


Here are some other great genre mash-ups: Gabino Iglesias' Zero Saints; T.E. Grau's I Am the River; and, of course, Lawrence Maddox's Fast Bang Booze.





Earl Javorsky is also the author of the suspense novel Trust Me.  To learn more about Earl Javorsky,  stop by EarlJavorsky.Com.





Come enjoy libations and watch the Superbowl! The Superbowl of Crime Fiction, that is. Join me this February 3rd as I, along with Gray Basnight, Eric Beetner, Samuel Gailey, Nadine Nettman, Tom Pitts, and Wendall Thomas read from our works at the Los Angeles Noir at the Bar. No refs, no replays, no over/under regrets.
7 PM Mandrake 2692 South La Cienega