Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lopresti. Show all posts

07 October 2020

The Inspiration Panel


Next week was supposed to be the Bouchercon in Sacramento.  Alas, it had to had to move to virtual  due to you-know-what. Some of you are no doubt mourning for all the panels you won't get to attend in person, the bars you won't get to close, etc.

I can't help you with the bars, but maybe I can cause you to miss the panels a little less. Last year I wrote a play inspired by many panels I attended at mystery, science fiction, and library conferences.    I present it here for your amusement.  (And by the way, if anyone wants to perform it... contact me.)

Jewish Noir panel, Raleigh Bouchercon*

THE INSPIRATION PANEL

The stage is set for a typical conference panel: two tables together lengthwise, covered with black tablecloths.  Water pitchers and five glasses.  Three microphones.  Five chairs behind.

EVE walks onto the stage, with a great sense of purpose. She is forty, dressed flashily, but not expensively.  She carries five name tents which she carefully places on the tables.  From left to right they read: EVE BROCKHURST, CHARLES LEMMON, DEBORAH DRAKE, BILL FONTANA, AMY KITE. 

As EVE is going around the table to her seat DEBORAH arrives. She is in her thirties, dressed in business attire.  She reads the tents, stiffens, and then switches her tent with CHARLES’.  As she comes around to her seat the others arrive, read the tents, and take their places.

After a beat EVE looks down the line, nods at the panelists and then smiles at the audience.

EVE
Welcome, everyone!  Have you been enjoying our annual writer’s conference?  Good, good!  This is the Inspiration Panel, just in case you boarded the wrong flight.  (She laughs at her own joke.)  My name is Eve Brockhurst and I am the author of six books of poetry, including The Falling of the Dew, which our local newspaper called “remarkably sincere.”  The fact is, I was surprised to be asked to moderate a panel, even one as distinguished as this.  I figured the committee would need me to speak on the Poetry Panel, or the Nature Panel.  Or even the Marketing Panel.  (Brightening by sheer will power.)  But Fraser, our dear director, told me that what he needed most was a strong personality who could keep these ferocious characters in line!
Readers Recommends panel, Toronto Bouchercon

She gestures at her panel.

DEBORAH looks irritated. 

CHARLES is slumped in his seat. He is sixty years old and wears a sports coat with no tie. 

BILL is all coiled energy. He is in his thirties, dressed in business casual. 

AMY is glowingly happy.  She is in her late twenties and dressed younger.

EVE
But that’s more than enough about me.  It’s time to introduce our wonderful panelists who will inform and, dare I say it, inspire you today.  First on my left is Charles Lemmon.  He is-

She looks left and realizes for the first time that DEBORAH is sitting next to her.  She does a quick check down the line to see that everyone else is there.

EVE 
Whoops!   My mistake. Someone did a little shuffle on me.  (She sorts her notes.)  First in line is Deborah Drake, the author of the new romance novel—

DEBORAH
Women’s fiction.

EVE
Excuse me?

DEBORAH 
Women’s fiction.  It’s about real-life problems.  Not the kind you can solve by going to bed with a man whose chest size is higher than his IQ.

EVE
O-kay.  I can see you have a lot on your mind today.  Deborah’s woman’s fiction -- Woman’s?

Short story panel, Bouchercon 2017
DEBORAH
Women’s.

EVE
Thanks. It’s about a woman suffering from Reynaud’s Syndrome and it’s called The Girl With Cold Fingers.  The first time I met Deborah was at a conference just like this three or four years ago.  She came up after a panel to tell me how much she had enjoyed my book The Dancing of the Leaves, and I complimented her on her taste.   It’s so wonderful to see a person one has mentored becoming a success.  Deborah, our subject is inspiration.  In general, what inspires you?

DEBORAH
Great question, Eve.  I find that there are sparks all around if you know how to look for them.  I’m thinking right now that my next book might be about a woman with a stalker, maybe a former lover who is too self-centered and frankly too thick to take no for an answer.

BILL is getting more and more agitated.

EVE
Well, that is certainly the sort of real-life problem many of us women have had to face.  Is this based your personal experience or something you’ve heard about or…

DEBORAH
As you said we all face this sort of thing from time to time.  Men who think they have a right to your attention, who don’t understand when they are not wanted—

BILL
What about the men who have been led on?

DEBORAH
Sometimes a man simply refuses to—

EVE
Just a moment, dear.  Bill – this is Bill Fontana, everyone – You had something to add?

BILL
I just think a writer needs to look at all sides.  Modern readers don’t want set pieces with cardboard characters where one person is all right and the other is all wrong.  If you’re writing for grown-ups characters need to be nuanced.

DEBORAH
In your latest book the villain tried to strangle a kitten. How nuanced is that?

EVE
Bill, you’ll have your chance.  Deborah, do you want to finish your thought?

DEBORAH
That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

EVE
I’m sure.  Our next panelist (DEBORAH does a doubletake.) is my dear friend, one of our most distinguished, most senior, a veritable elder statesman-

CHARLES
Please!  I’m not dead yet.

EVE
Of course not.  I just wanted to point out that you have written so many books.  Even more than my six volumes of poetry.  Charles Lemmon, your most recent book is historical fiction, The Battle of Sattleford Creek.  What’s it about?

CHARLES
(Pause.) It’s about the Battle of Sattleford Creek.

EVE
I might have guessed that, I suppose.  So many titles are ironic these days, don’t you think?  My book The Fire Sonnets contains no sonnets, and never mentions fire!  I suppose that’s why the critics found it so surprising.  One of them said “Eve Brockhurst has-”

CHARLES
Eve?

EVE
Yes?

CHARLES
How are we doing on time?

EVE
Good point.  Charles, at this place in your long career, how do you still manage to find inspiration?  What moves you to keep writing?

CHARLES
The credit card companies.  Something moves them to send me bills.

EVE
Oh, come now.  Do you really mean you are only writing for the money?

CHARLES
I’d better not be, because there’s precious little of it.  And security, don’t make me laugh.  You teach English at the college, don’t you?

EVE
I do.  I have the honor of opening up the minds and hearts of—

CHARLES
You can get tenure.  Then you have work for the rest of your life if you want it. What I wouldn’t give for that.  A publisher can kick you out in the snow after you give them the best years of your life.

BILL
Wow, that is one bad cliché.

CHARLES
Shut up, Bill. 

DEBORAH
I’m glad I’m not the only one he interrupts.

EVE 
Actually. I’m an adjunct professor.  No tenure, I’m afraid.

CHARLES
Then you’re in the same boat as us professional writers.  I don’t know how a publisher can sleep at night, when they fire an editor you’ve been working with for – well, a long time, and suddenly you’re an orphan and no one wants to promote your book because the last guy picked it.

EVE
So do you find that—

CHARLES
No ads.  No tours.  No publicity.  And you know damn well that when the book doesn’t sell, they’ll say it’s the fault of the writing.  Never the publisher’s, oh no.  I might as well give up on quality and start self-publishing crap.

EVE
Now, come on, Charles!  That attitude is very old-fashioned.

CHARLES
Don’t call me that!

EVE
Some of the best, most original work coming out today is self-published.  My fourth book--

BILL
And a lot of the worst stinkers, too. 

DEBORAH
You’d know about that.

BILL
Oh, I’d forgotten.  Men aren’t allowed to talk at this panel.  Go right ahead.

EVE
Come on, Bill.  We value everyone’s opinion.

BILL
Hell of a way of showing it.

DEBORAH
Bill isn’t very good at taking cues, I’m afraid.  At understanding what people are trying to tell him.

EVE 
All right, Bill.  Since you’re so eager to talk, tell us.  How do you find inspiration?

BILL
That’s a stupid question, Eve.  Isn’t it really just the old cliché: how do you find your ideas?
Short stories panel at Left Coast Crime, Vancouver

DEBORAH
See?  He doesn’t listen.

BILL
Not so, Deborah!  A good writer, a great writer, is always listening.  That’s how he comes up with dialog that sounds true. 

EVE
So you get your inspiration from the people around you…

BILL
That’s right.  And I get so much more.  Like insight into personality.  How a person will say one thing and mean something completely different.  For example, maybe they’ll claim for months that they want to leave their husband and start a new life, but when their lover offers to take them up on it, it turns out they were just teasing him along—

DEBORAH
And this is your idea of honest observation?  No wonder Kirkus hated your last book.

CHARLES
Kirkus hated everybody’s last book.

EVE
You know, I think we’ve been neglecting one of our panelists.  Amy Kite is a fresh new face on our city’s literary scene.  She is the author of The Dragons of Zanzanook

AMY
(Correcting the pronunciation) Zanzanook.

EVE
Sorry!  Her book is a fantasy novel which has attracted major support from the publisher.  There’s an ad in the Times.

CHARLES
Oh my God.

EVE
An author’s tour.

CHARLES moans.

EVE
And I believe you are booked on one of the morning shows next week.  Is that right?

AMY
Two, actually.

CHARLES
Jesus.

EVE
Sorry.  I must have missed one.  Let’s talk about what inspires you…

AMY
Thank you so much, Eve.  I just want to say how inspired I feel simply by being here with all of you today.  What an honor!  This is my first time at a writer’s conference, you know, and here I am with Charles Lemmon!  I’ve been reading his books since I was a little girl.

CHARLES
Well, that’s wonderful.  You young whippersnapper.

AMY
And Deborah, what was the name of your novel about the girl with Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

DEBORAH
Twists and Turns.

AMY
Yes!  My mother loved that one!

BILL
Oh, I can hardly wait.

AMY
Mr. Fontana.

CHARLES
Here it comes.

AMY
When I needed a break from writing my book I would read your novel in which the psychotherapist turns out to be the serial killer.

BILL
Which one?  I wrote two of those.

AMY
Three actually.

BILL
I didn’t…  Oh yeah.

CHARLES
And there it is.

Setting as Character Panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver, 2019
Setting as Character panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver
AMY
I’m afraid I don’t remember which one I read most recently.

CHARLES
Boom.

BILL
Let’s not forget our moderator, Amy.  What do you think of Eve’s poetry?

AMY
I’m afraid I haven’t read it yet.

EVE
You probably don’t read poetry.  So few young people do these days.

AMY
Oh, but I do!  I must get around to yours.

BILL
Yes.  Do get around to it.

EVE
Well, that’s very sweet, Amy.  Let’s start another round.  Deborah, what is the inspiration for the book you’re working on now?

DEBORAH
We covered that, remember?  Stalker?

EVE
Oh.  Right.  (Checking her notes.)  Well, what inspired you to start writing in the first place?

DEBORAH
I’d say it was Greg.  My darling husband.

BILL
Oh, brother.

DEBORAH
He is my biggest cheerleader.  He knew from the moment we first met that I was a creative soul and he has always encouraged me to—

BILL
Point of order.

CHARLES
Point of order?  Is this a congressional hearing?

EVE
What is it, Bill?

BILL
I’m just wondering if this is the same husband you told me hasn’t opened a book since he got his MBA.

DEBORAH
I never said any such thing.  And frankly, I resent you constantly interrupting me.

EVE
Well, Fraser was certainly right about this group needing a strong hand, wasn’t he?  Deborah, I think it’s wonderful that you have such a supportive husband.

Ecology Panel Audience, Left Coast Crime, Toronto, 2019
Ecology Panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver
DEBORAH
 I can’t imagine how I could go on without him.  We truly are soulmates.

BILL
I thought you didn’t write romance fiction.

DEBORAH
You know, Bill, I think I know why you model all your villains on your psychotherapists.

EVE
I think we’re running out of time, so we had better move along.  Charles, can you tell us a little about what inspires your current work in progress?

CHARLES
I’m not sure I have one, Eve.  I write historical fiction and that means two or three years of research for each book.  By the time my next one is ready my publisher will probably have burned through five or six editors, and all that any of them care about are the latest trends.  The new expert, straight out of some Ivy League day care center, wants me to write a Civil War novel with zombies.

BILL
You’re kidding.  Zombies are like five years past their sell-by date.

EVE 
And Bill, you already talked about your plans, so any other thoughts about inspiration?

BILL
Great question!  As a thriller writer I’m concerned with revealing the truth of the human heart.  By which I mean that people are totally and remorselessly evil. 

CHARLES
Jesus.  I thought zombies were depressing.

BILL
That goes doubly so for the female heart, of course.

CHARLES
And publishers.

EVE
Moving right along.  Amy.

AMY
Yes, Eve?

EVE
Let’s get back to your debut novel, The Dragons of Zanzanook-

AMY
Zanzanook.

EVE 
Thank you so much, dear.  Would you say you were more inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin?

AMY
(Laughing.)   Neither one, Eve.  My starting point was my doctoral dissertation on late medieval monasticism in a military context.  I just threw in dragons to make it commercial.

CHARLES
(Inspired.) Damn it, girl, we have to talk!

Short Story Panel, Left Coast Crime, 2015
Short Story panel, Left Coast Crime 2015
AMY
I’d love that!

EVE
Now we have time for a few questions from the-- Oh, I’m told we don’t.

BILL stalks off in disgust.

EVE
Please join us in the vendors’ room, where all the authors will be happy to sign their books for you, and I will be happy to take pre-publication orders for my seventh book of poetry, Life, Be Not—

The microphone is shut off.  She frowns at it.

*Photo by Peter Rozovsky

30 September 2020

A Data Point in Maryland



I don't think I have ever placed a trigger warning on this page before, but I will make an exception here.  This piece is about true crime.  No humans die but two perfectly nice animals are killed.  Use your best judgment. By the way, I've read a number of articles about what follows, but the best is this one, by Radley Balko. -Robert Lopresti

On the evening of July 29, 2008, a group of home invaders entered the house of Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, a small town in Maryland.  His mother-in-law, Georgia Porter, was cooking artichokes when she saw masked men on the porch, carrying guns.

She screamed.  They smashed the door, ran in, and shot to death the family's two Labrador retrievers, Payton and Chase, one of whom was trying to run away.  Then they bound Porter's hands behind her back, put a gun to her head and screamed: "Where are they?"  She had no idea what they wanted. The intruders placed her face-down next to Payton's body, where she lay for several hours.  

Mayor Calvo was upstairs changing for an evening meeting.  The intruders  ordered him to come down the stairs backwards, in his underwear. "I was fearful that I was about to be executed," he said later. They bound his hands behind his back and knelt him on the floor.  They questioned him for two hours about a cache of drugs they thought he had.

So who were these brutes?  Antifa?  Some Mexican gang?  A right-wing militia?  Al-Qaeda?

Nope.  It was a SWAT unit from the Prince George's County Police Department.

You might say it's wrong for me to call them home invaders since obviously they must have had a warrant.

Yeah, no.  That turns out to be a little squishy.  The mayor naturally asked to see their warrant but it took them three days to produce it.  



After the event hit the fan the Department told the press that they had a no-knock   warrant, then later admitted that such warrants were not legal in Maryland.   (Actually such warrants had been legal for three years, but apparently the cops   specializing in drug raids did not know that.)  They argued that the police had  the right to enter because Georgia Porter had seen them.  They had to kick in the door to prevent the inhabitants of the home from grabbing weapons or  destroying  drugs.  

Neither of which, as it happened, were found. 

But what about the police force of the town of Berwyn Heights?  Why didn't they warn the sheriff that this was the Mayor's house?  They had no chance because, in spite of an existing agreement to alert the locals before engaging within the city's borders, the SWAT team had not done so.

As Berwyn Heights' police chief noted later, it was very lucky that no one spotted heavily armed men in civilian clothing breaking into the mayor's house and called 911.  That might have led to a bloody shoot-out between two law enforcement agencies.  Also, according to the police chief, the officer in charge of the assault gave him an inaccurate report on the event, claiming the mayor had refused to let them in.

So how the hell did this happen?

Well, it started thousands of miles away in Arizona when a Drug Enforcement Agency officer with a drug-sniffing dog located a package containing 32 pounds of marijuana.  It was addressed to Trinity Tomsic, the Mayor's wife.  They notified the Sheriff's office who checked that a car in the driveway of the addressed house belonged to Tomsic.  They never bothered to find out who else lived there.

On the day in question a cop dressed as a deliveryman dropped off the carton on the Mayor's porch.  When Calvo returned from walking the dogs he brought the carton inside.  A few minutes later, all hell broke loose.

During the interrogation, Calvo (still handcuffed in his underwear) told them that he was the mayor.  They didn't believe him and refused to check. (One called him a crazy man.)  Even when they realized he was the mayor and found nothing incriminating they told him he was lucky he hadn't been arrested, partly because his reaction had not been "typical." What would constitute a "typical" reaction to this goat rodeo is beyond the depths of my feeble imagination.  (And the implication that this sort of thing happens so often that there is a typical reaction is horrifying beyond words.) 

Four hours after they arrived the cops left and the family was able to start cleaning up the blood of their pets, which the cops had tracked  through the house.

But at least we know who the culprit is!  The Mayor's wife (who came home during the raid and assumed the cops were stopping a robbery) had caused this disaster by purchasing that illegal marijuana.  

Yeah, no. Tomsic knew nothing about it.

What actually happened was that a criminal in Arizona had arranged to ship packages of the stuff to random houses in Maryland where an accomplice who worked for FedEx dropped them off and another accomplice picked them up, hopefully as soon as they were delivered.  Tomsic and the other recipients knew nothing about it.   

You are probably thinking: Well, everyone makes mistakes.  The important thing is to apologize, make amends as best you can, and learn from your errors so they won't happen again.

Yeah, no. The Prince George's County Police Department seemed to take great pleasure in announcing that they would learn nothing from the event.    When the county chief called the mayor a few days after the raid to tell him his family was in the clear he specifically said that this should not be interpreted as an apology.  He told the press that his men showed "restraint and compassion" by not arresting the mayor's family for, beats the hell out of me. The sheriff said, two years later: "Quite frankly, we'd do it again. Tonight."  The officer who incorrectly stated that no-knock warrants didn't exist was promoted to county police chief three years later.

An Internal Affairs team found the officers innocent of all wrongdoing.  One of the people on that team  was the man who wrote the warrant application, so you know everything was on the up and up.

Mayor Calvo proposed a reform bill to the Maryland state legislature.  He asked that every agency with a SWAT unit be required to report quarterly on how often the team was deployed, to do what, and whether shots were fired.

Not exactly defunding the police, but every police agency in the state opposed the bill.  It passed anyway, with minor revisions.

What brought this incident to my mind was memes I have seen recently on social media that read like this: "Have you noticed that the police don't bother you if you don't do anything wrong?"

I'm not sure Mayor Calvo noticed that.  Nor Breonna Taylor.  Nor James BlakeNor Pastor Leon McCray Jr. Nor Charles Kinsey. Nor Maximo ColonNor Robert Julian-Borchak Williams...

 




16 September 2020

Today in Mystery History: September 16


This is the sixth  in my occasional series on Great Events in Mystery History.

September 16, 1849.  Robert Barr was born in Scotland.  His family moved to Canada, where he grew up.  He was best known as an author of short stories, especially about crime, and wrote the first published Sherlock Holmes parody, in 1892.

September 16, 1874.  This day saw the premiere of the play Colonel Sellers, based on The Gilded Age, the novel Mark Twain wrote with Charles Dudley Warner.  The play concentrates on one aspect of the book: the trial of Laura Hawkins for the murder of her married lover, which was itself based on a true crime.  In a  decidedly post-modern touch, on some evenings she was found guilty, on others she was not.

September 16, 1927.  On this date Peter Falk was born in New York City.  He got his first Oscar nomination in 1960 for Murder, Inc.  His other crime-related movies included Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, and The In-Laws.  But let's not beat around the bush: his great contribution to our field was of course Lieutenant  Columbo.  Did you know that they originally wanted Bing Crosby for the part?  Did you know that a kid named Steven Spielberg directed the first episode?  I'll stop now. 

September 16, 1961.  On this date The Defenders premiered on CBS.  Starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father and son attorneys, it has been called the first modern lawyer series.  The Defenders did not shy away from controversial subjects, with the heroes working on cases that dealt with abortion, neo-Nazis, capital punishment, and jury nullification, etc.

September 16, 1966.  Does anyone else remember T.H.E. Cat? It began on this night and lasted one season.  A half-hour show starring Robert Loggia as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, former circus performer and ex-con, now a cat burglar who prowled for good.

September 16, 1967.  The show that premiered this evening was much more successful.  Mannix starred Mike Connors as a Los Angeles private eye.  In the first year he worked for a large security firm, but for the rest of the show's seven years he was an independent operator with a secretary, played by Gail Fisher.

September 16, 1970.  A lot of TV premieres on this date, aren't there?  Dennis Weaver starred in McCloud, a Deputy Marshal from New Mexico who found himself working for the cops in New York City.  Surprisingly, they acknowledged taking the idea from Don Siegal's film Coogan's Bluff.

September 16, 1975.
  On this date a panic-stricken young woman runs through the streets of Isola, covered with blood.   That's the beginning of Ed McBain's Blood Relatives, featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct.

September 16, 1984.  The premiere of Miami Vice, creating a national fad for pastel suits and cigarette boats.  Anyone remember this Sesame Street sketch?

September 16, 1987.  Yet another terrific TV series previewed on this date.  Wiseguy followed the adventures of an undercover cop, Vinnie Terranova.  It was ahead of its time in that each season consisted of a few "arcs," several episodes in which Vinnie wormed his way into an organized crime group and then betrayed them - which weighed on his conscience more with each season.  Among the guest stars: Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jerry Lewis, Ray Sharley, Patti D'Arbanville, Tim Curry, Paul Winfield...

September 16, 2016.  On this date the Private Eye Writers of America gave S.J. Rozan the Eye for lifetime achievement.
   

02 September 2020

Who is Guarding Your Threshold?


Years ago I explained that the creative process requires two parts of your brain: the Miner (who digs up ideas), and the Jeweler (who turns them into something pretty, or at least sellable).

For the last few days the Miner has been screaming in my ear.  I'm not sure what he wants but it does not pay to ignore him.  (He gets lazy if he thinks you are ungrateful.)  So I am going to use this space to  talk about the subject that seems to be fascinating him at the moment. 

It began when I had the privilege of speaking to Malice in Memphis, a writer's group in New Hampshire.   (Okay, it's in Tennessee.)  You can watch it on Facebook The subject was short stories.

Our own Michael Bracken was kind enough to attend and during the Q&A he mentioned Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheet, a template for plot structure.  I had never heard of it but I have since looked it up and it is quite interesting.  I recommend it.

Not surprisingly, Snyder's template reminded me of another plot outline with which I am more familiar: the Hero's Journey, as explained in Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, which I also recommend.  (And when you finish it you will want to buy The Hero With an African Face, by my friend Clyde Ford.  It fills in a part of the canvas Campbell left mostly blank.)

Campbell uses mythology from around the world to synthesize the key elements of the hero myth.  It is important to realize that virtually no story will have all the elements; the variations are part of what makes them so interesting.  All the stations of the journey are worth pondering, especially for a writer, but  the part that the Miner has been obsessing over since Saturday is the Threshold Guardian.

So what the hell is that, you may ask.

Well, it's like this.  The hero (and it could be male or female.  I'm going to go male throughout because most of the examples that popped into my head are boys) is summoned to adventure (by a client knocking on the office door, scavengers selling droids, a white rabbit with a pocket watch...).  But in some stories before his journey can truly begin there is an obstacle in his way, guarding the threshold he must pass.  This may be a person, an object, or even an emotion (like self-doubt) but until he defeats it, the hero is stuck.

To get metaphysical, the threshold guardian is the champion of the unchanging world which the hero is destined to change.  The guardian's mission is to stop the quest before it even begins.

In Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, think of Vernon Dursley trying to keep Harry from reading an invitation to attend Hogwart's School of Magic (what Campbell would label the Call to Adventure).

 



My novel Greenfellas is about a Mafiosi who decides he needs to save the environment.  The first obstacle he faces is his boss, the capo dei capi,  who forbids his getting involved in such a ca
use.  "We aren't the good guys," he insists.  Before my hero can proceed he needs to find a way to work around the head man.

By the way, if the hero defeats the Guardian he may turn into a strong ally.  Think of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.

I am currently working on a short story which begins with my hero (literally) stumbling over a corpse.  I think the threshold guardians are the police detectives who don't want him screwing up their investigation.  But maybe things will turn out differently.

Is that story what the Miner is trying to talk to me about?  Dunno.  Sometimes he provides the answers years before I find the question.  But the important thing is to keep listening.

 

19 August 2020

Heard Any Crimes Lately?


About three years ago (back before retirement and COVID, when time still had meaning) I discovered a very cool service available through my public library.  LIBBY provides access to thousands of ebooks and audiobooks.  Quite possibly your local library offers it or a similar service.  What I want to talk about here are some of the audiobooks I have listened to; specifically examples where the performance by the narrator improved the experience with the books for me.  I have listed the first book in each series.


Joe Ide, IQ.  Narrated by Sullivan Jones.  At the New Author's Breakfast at a Bouchercon each writer had two minutes to explain their new book.  The most memorable performance was by former screenwriter Joe Ide whose entire speech was: "IQ is Sherlock in the hood.  Thank you."  That's what the movie business calls "high concept."

 The IQ series stars Isaiah Quintabe, a brilliant young African-American man in LA who serves as an unofficial private eye.  They are excellent.

The novels have dozens of characters with different accents and vocabularies.  Sullivan Jones makes them come alive.



Alan Bradley,  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Narrated by Jayne Entwhistle.   Flavia de Luce is an eleven year old girl in 1950, the youngest daughter of a landed (but no longer wealthy) family.  She drives her sisters crazy because she is brilliant, curious, inclined to pranks, and obsessed with her chemistry lab, left over from a long dead relative.

Jayne Entwhistle perfectly captures Flavia's gleeful and dangerous enthusiasm - especially when she is describing poisons in loving detail. 


Dorothy L. Sayers.  Whose Body?  Narrated by Ian Carmichael.  I don't think I need to explain who Sayers is.  Carmichael played Lord Peter Wimsey on television and he doesn't so much read these books as perform them.  Delightful.



John Le Carre.  Agent Running in the Field.  Narrated by the author. At age 87 Le Carre has not only provided a new tale of espionage but also gave us his own reading of it.  The hero is an over-the-hill spy, freshly returned from decades of managing agents overseas.  As he is trying to adjust to running a small hatch of not-very-good analysts in London, he  meets Ed, a gruff, antisocial young man who shares his passion for badminton.  We know Ed is going to get tied up in the spy business but don't know how.  This is not one of Le Carre's best, but it has a few moments that are utterly jaw-dropping.



Anthony Horowitz.  The Word is Murder.  Narrated by Rory Kinnear.  Horowitz created Foyle's War and wrote many episodes of Midsomers Murders.  In this series he is the narrator, and gets invited to serve as Watson to Daniel Hawthorne, a truly annoying ex-cop, now serving as a consultant to the police on difficult cases.  The plots are truly mindboggling and Rory Kinnear does a good job of distinguishing between Anthony and Daniel. 

And a few different experiences available from Libby...



Raymond Chandler, the BBC Radio Radio Drama Collection.  Sure, Chandler spent some of his developmental years in Britain, but that's no excuse for us depending on Old Blighty for creating this excellent collection of radio plays based on all seven of the Marlowe novels, plus The Poodle Springs Mystery, which was finished by Robert B. Parker. 

Biggest surprise for me was Playback, which I had never read, because I had heard it was terrible. I enjoyed it more than The High Window.

Toby Stephens stars as Phillip Marlowe.  I assume that, like him, the rest of the cast is British. But, boy, they have the accents perfect.



Black Mask Audio Magazine.  Stories from the classic hardboiled periodical.  Some are read, some are acted out.  Great fun.


And one more I highly recommend, although it is not crime fiction.


Hilary Mantel.  Wolf Hall.  Mantel's trilogy of novels tells the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's bag man.   It is a stunning tour de force.  On Libby each of the three books has a different narrator.  I prefer Simon Slater, who did the first. 

05 August 2020

Breaking Into Showbiz 3


This is the third time we've played this game.  Rules are simple.  Below is a list of well-known characters from popular culture.  The question is: Where did they start?  For example, the Cisco Kid began life in a short story written by O. Henry, of all people.

On the side in a white box you will see a list of possible origins.  Don't assume there is one-for-one match (one character from radio, one from opera, etc.)
Answers at the bottom of the page.  Good luck!
Paul Bunyan
Charlie Chan


Jiminy Cricket
Robinson Crusoe
Green Hornet
Detective John Munch

Horace Rumpole

Karen Sisco



Staggerlee

Honey West


Ready? Okay, here are the answers:


Paul Bunyan. Folklore. Sure, the giant logger started in oral legends, but as is usually the case with folklore, it's complicated.  The earliest known written appearance is a one-line reference in a newspaper in 1893, a joke that would make no sense to anyone unfamiliar with "Paul Bunion."


He was apparently only about eight feet tall until 1916 when William B. Laughead used him in an advertising pamphlet.  That's when he grew into a man who could lift mountains and make lakes with his footprints.

Because so many of the familiar stories show up late some scholars call it "fakelore," but James Stevens, who wrote a book about our big boy in 1925 argued that making up new tales based on the basic framework is exactly how the stories worked in the lumber camps.


Charlie Chan.  Real Life.  Sort of.  Yes, Charlie Chan made his first appearance in Earl Derr Biggers' mystery novel The House Without A Key (1925), but he acknowledged that the character was inspired by Chang Apana, a famous member of the Honolulu police force.  Unlike his fictional counterpart, Apana was not permitted to work on cases involving White people.  Biggers and Apana met in 1928, by the way.
Chan is considered an offensive stereotype today - less for the novels than for the countless movies starring White men in the part - so it is easy to forget that Biggers was trying to combat the "sinister Oriental" cliche represented by Fu Manchu, by creating a decent and brilliant Chinese policeman.

Jiminy Cricket. Movie. The living puppet began in The Adventures of Pinocchio, an Italian children's book by Carlo Collodi, published in 1883.  In that book the Fairy with Turquoise Hair gave him a talking cricket as a conscience, which the little wooden brat promptly murdered.  So the animal appeared as a ghost throughout the rest of the book.
As part of the Disneyfication of the book, in the cartoon the insect turned into Jiminy Cricket, complete with top hat and umbrella.  (The name, of course,  already existed as a modified swear word.)  Jiminy was voiced by Clifford Edwards, who got to sing "When You Wish Upon A Star," which became the Disney corporation's unofficial anthem.  Until then Edwards was better known as Ukulele Ike, a very popular crooner in the early days of the phonograph.  Among other things, he did the first recording of "Singing in the Rain," and had a hit with "California, Here I Come." 
In a most un-Disneylike twist, Ukulele Ike had also recorded some hokum - which is to say double entendre songs that were only sold to adults "under the counter." 

Robinson Crusoe.  Novel.  Daniel Defoe's immortal novel about a desert island castaway is often linked to the ordeal of Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years on an island off the coast of Chile after being dumped there by his captain.
But Andrew Lambert, in his book Crusoe's Island, argues that the book is a mash-up of the adventures of several maroonees, if that's a word.  Defoe never confirmed or denied Selkirk's influence.

Green Hornet.  Radio.  The masked hero in the green fedora (secret identity of newspaper publisher Britt Reid) came to life on Detroit radio station WXYZ in 1938, as did his assistant and chauffeur, Kato.
I included him here largely because many years ago the NPR quiz show Says You did a round of questions about comic strips, and somehow included one about the olive wasp: "What was the name of the Green Hornet's grand-uncle's horse?" 
I knew the answer.  But I was irritated because GH didn't start in a strip or even a comic book, and you think a radio show would know he came from radio show.  (And by the way, that is a clue to the answer to that question.)


Detective John Munch. Real Life.  Detective (later Sergeant) John Munch entered the world through the wonderful TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, played by Richard Belzer.  When that show ended Munch left Baltimore Homicide and moved to NYPD for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.  Believe it or not the cynical conspiracy-minded cop  also made guest appearnces on The X Files, Arrested Development, The Wire, 30 Rock, and a handful of other TV series.

So why do I say he started in real life?  The TV series Homicide was based on David Simon' award-winning nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.  Munch is clearly (and admittedly) inspired by Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman.

Here is how that book begins:
    Pulling one hand from the warmth of a pocket, Jay Landsman squats down to grab the dead man's chin, pushing the head to one side until the wound becomes visible as a small, ovate hole, oozing red and white.
    "Here's your problem," he said.  "He's got a slow leak."
    "A leak?" says Pellegrini, picking up on it.
    "A slow one."
    "You can fix those."
    "Sure you can," Landsman agrees.  "They got these home repair kits now..."

Inevitably Jay Landsman did some acting, in The Corner and The Wire.



Horace Rumpole. Television. The defender of the British criminal classes  began in TV, although he was later seen in novels, short stories, and radio.  John Mortimer, himself a barrister, claimed he created Rumpole specifically to fund his retirement. 

In 1968 Mortimer wrote a TV movie called "Infidelity Took Place," about a barrister who is a sort of ur-Rumpole.  A few years later he wrote a play about Horace Rumbold, but the name was changed because there really was a lawyer by that name.  (Of course, the name is a pun.  Think of a Cockney saying Rump 'Ole.)
While Rumpole was conceived as a small-timer who lost most of his cases, as the show went through seven seasons he became more and more successful.  And as Mortimer looked farther afield for interesting plots, Rumpole found himself working in a military court, an African court (with the death penalty on the table), an ecclesiastical court (bizarre for an atheist), and, hardest to believe, conducting a prosecution (inevitably he proved the defendant innocent).


Karen Sisco.  Short Story.  Elmore Leonard would sometimes try out a character in a story before trusting her with a whole novel.  Deputy Marshal Sisco began life in a 1996 tale, "Karen Makes Out."

She then starred in the novel Out of Sight, made into a movie in which she was played by Jennifer Lopez.  That led to the short lived TV series Karen Sisco, starring Carla Gugino. And that was the end of the character. Or was it?

In the second season of the TV show Justified, a much more successful adaptation of Leonard's work, Carla Gugino reappears  as the Assistant Director of the Marshal Service, Karen Goodall.  It is mentioned that she had married and divorced.  Was Sisco her maiden name? 


Staggerlee.  Real life.   Alias Stackolee, Stagger Lee, Stagolee, etc.  The song (and its infinite variants) is based on the murder of Billy Lyons, which took place in St. Louis, Missouri in 1895.  Curiously, I have never heard a version that mentioned that the killing happened on Christmas, making this one of the least likely holiday carols since "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."  The murderer was Lee Shelton and there are many explanations for his nickname.

Lyons and Shelton were both criminals, possibly business rivals.  Billy Lyons stole Shelton's stetson hat, Shelton got his gun, and the rest was musical history. Most versions of the song I am familiar with show our hero being executed and end with him telling the Devil "I'll rule Hell by myself."  He was a bad man, that Staggerlee.  But in reality, Shelton spent twelve years in prison, got paroled, and returned to stir one year later, and died there.

Honey West.  Novel. One of the first female private eyes, she appeared in 11 novels written by G.G. Fickling (actually Forrest E. Fickling and his wife Gloria.  She debuted in This Girl For Hire in 1957.

In 1965 Anne Francis guest-starred as Ms. West in an episode of Burke's Law, and that led to a TV series of her own, which lasted for 30 episodes.

29 July 2020

Welcome to the Crime Club


Last year a book by James Curran came out, entitled The Hooded Gunman.  It covers 65 years in the history of Collins Crime Club, a British mystery imprint (not to be confused with the American Doubleday Crime Club).  It tells a fascinating story and it shows that story as well, because it provides the cover of each of the more than 2,000 books published in the series (and even the blurbs from all the covers).

One thing that leaps out is that a lot of the covers were, well, awful.  There were dozens that used the exact same design, just changing the words and the type color.  See Rex Stout below as an example.  No wonder Agatha Christie complained about her covers!

Below are some of my favorites, covers or titles I chose because they were so good or so bad.  Sometimes it was the title/cover combination  that won my heart.  Enjoy.