Showing posts with label series. Show all posts
Showing posts with label series. Show all posts

05 October 2020

A Touch of Frost


Inspector Frost with one
of many new sergeants
One of the downsides of advancing age is an inability to read as much as one once did. This is a nuisance for everyone, but especially for writers, for whom the written word is up there with food and drink. Lately of an evening, I have found myself looking at wavering lines of print and clicking on the TV to Britbox, a combined service of the BBC and ITV which was a Christmas present last year.

The service has an assortment of good programing, but, especially in this time of virus and isolation, I've been favoring Gardener's World and A Touch of Frost. The latter was a long running UK favorite, originally from Yorkshire TV, starring David Jason as Inspector William "Jack" Frost, a self-described street copper with a nose for crime and good-sized problems with bureaucrats and authority.

He's old fashioned and quick-tempered and not altogether loath to cut corners, characteristics that look less desirable in cops these days than they probably did back at its debut in '92. His saving grace, besides being an excellent, even obsessive, investigator, is his sympathetic knowledge of his community, including the many poor but decent folks who wind up in difficulties.

David Jason in A Touch of Frost
Inspector Frost, himself is often in trouble, especially with his ambitious and rather dim Superintendent Mullett. Out of the office, Frost's absorption in his cases drives any number of nice women out the door, even while his grumpy charm attracts new ones. As played by David Jason, this character proved durable and extremely popular.

And he had good scripts. These are formulaic, unsurprisingly, given that some 42 episodes were made, but well done, nonetheless. Most episodes had two cases running simultaneously, one involving a death, the other less serious. Although there was a solid cast of regulars, the Inspector was frequently paired with new sergeants and constables, some of whom seem to have been assigned with the express purpose of exasperating him, others for whom he comes to feel genuine affection.

Frost expects all of them to work hard, and there is a good deal of cooperation and delegating of duties except for the last twenty minutes of most episodes, when, despite his years of experience, Inspector Frost rushes off on a hunch of his own, confronts various bad guys and winds up in an obstacle laden chase or facing a gun or a serious fight.

Even at the start of the series, Jason, small and a bit plump, was getting up in years, so it is not too surprising that he finally retired from the role at 68, noting that a real detective would have been off the force eight years earlier. During his long run with A Touch of Frost, however, Jason managed to finesse the problem of his advancing years with the vigor of his performances and the robust physicality of his acting – catch the pop eyes and flushed face when he's angry or the sly twitch of a smile when he has outsmarted some crook.

Frost's nemesis,
Superintendent Mullett
He's good in quieter scenes, too, suggesting a genuine sympathy that counterbalances his brash personality and impulsiveness. This sense of balance is reflected in the scripts, too. They are clever without being obscure; the perpetrator's motivations are plausible, and at least some of the criminals are in morally complex situations.

There's enough surprise to keep the stories interesting, and enough familiarity in Frost's unending struggles to thwart Superintendent Mullett, to rescue the romance of the moment, or to finish his mostly rushed and unwholesome meals to make the show relaxing of an evening. This is definitely one of the better mystery imports.

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land


I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






stephenross.live/
facebook.com/stephen.ross.writer.etc/
instagram.com/__stephenross/

19 April 2019

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


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.

24 November 2018

ACK Not Again! Five Crime Series Plots that Deserve to Die


You have to admire the Brits.  If they have a successful crime series, they don't automatically grow it
beyond one season (Midsomer, excepted.)  But the trouble with most crime series filmed, and also successful crime series in print, is they go beyond their best before date.  And by this I mean, they start to run out of plots - healthy original plots - and search madly for something, anything they haven't done before, including things that have been done to death <sic>.  The following tropes drive me crazy.

1.  The protagonist sleuth is the murder suspect.
By far, this one has me fired up to throw things.  Inevitably, every long-running series has one episode where the Detective Inspector, the PI or the well-respected amateur sleuth, becomes the prime suspect for a murder well into the series.  Into jail they go.  They've done it with Father Brown.  They've done it with Don Matteo.  Hinterland.  You name it.  Whenever I see this happening, I grit my teeth.  Why?

That plot is boring, man.  Obviously, they didn't do it.  If they did, then it is 'series over'.  And it can't be series over, because there are several episodes left, or a new season to download, and I can see that right on the screen.  So all we're doing is tediously waiting for the sidekicks to get proof that our beloved protagonist didn't do it.

2.  The protagonist and/or sidekick is held hostage.
This is the second plot trope that has me screaming Italian curse words at the screen.  This month, it was Don Matteo and Rosewood.  You can name others.  And again, this is boring. If they are all killed and don't get out, end of show.  But there are more episodes, so they obviously get away.  If we know the ending at the beginning, what's the pleasure in watching?

3.  The police officer protagonist is hated by his immediate superior.
One of the reasons I like Endeavor is because Morse's boss Thursday is such a good guy to young Morse.  In so many shows, including the original Morse, the detective superintendent or chief constable behaves like an out-of-control teen, lambasting our hero with manic fury.  He hates the protagonist, for no good reason we can see.  Or is it that he is so insecure, he can't stand someone who makes him and his department look good?  How demeaning.  By all that's holy, make this stop. 

4.  Young female sargeant has affair with older boss.
Okay, we all learned in the 80s and 90s: you don't have an affair with your boss.  It's stupid. It's career-killing.  It's also unethical, if he's married or you're married.  And yet, time after time we see this on the screen.  STILL.  IN 2018.

I cringe, because it perpetuates the ancient stereotype that young female police officers are not serious about their jobs.  They are slaves to their emotions.  They are willing to risk all for romance.  Writers, DON'T take me back to the seventies.  Just don't.

5.  The male Detective Inspector invites prime female suspect/witness to a romantic dinner.
Similar to the 'affair with the boss' above, this scenario gives high-ranking police officers I've talked to apoplexy.  No police officer is that idiotic.

Look, we all understand that tension is ramped up if there is personal involvement.  But come on, writers!  Don't make our extremely professional boys (and girls) in blue look adolescent.  It's insulting.

Just do the right thing.  Tell us a damn good story. And wrap things up before you sink to these tropes.

Melodie Campbell writes seriously wild comedy. You can find her latest crime books (The Bootlegger's Goddaughter and The B-Team) at all the usual suspects.  See this latest ad in Mystery Scene Magazine.   www.melodiecampbell.com




21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises


Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

21 January 2018

Lost in the Eighties


Scarecrow and Mrs King
Nope, not touching upon the implications here.
Last week, I reviewed Gin Phillip’s Fierce Kingdom.

The protagonist makes several references to a mid-1980s television spy series, Scarecrow and Mrs King. I’ve spent decades without television, so the program was unknown to me. Gin Phillips managed to sufficiently interest me, I streamed the first (out of four) seasons.

The principals, Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner, are attractive and humorous. John le Carré this is not, but it is fun, especially when housewife Amanda King cleverly thwarts baddies and their plots.

For those unfamiliar with the series, I offer this condensed version.
The Spy Who Came In From the Mall

June, 1983, Washington, DC. Intelligence Chief Billy Melrose calls an emergency meeting.

“A dastardly foreign-looking, culturally sophisticated attaché…”

“Culture, that’s suspicious,” says Agent Lee Stetson, aka Scarecrow. “And attaché… that seals it. Only foreigners use diacriticals.”

“Anyway, an undercover operative has stolen the last Galactic Man action figure in Washington.”

“Someone stole it?” Scarecrow asks.

“Well, not if you’re going to be technical. They used a coupon on top of a Toys-Я-Us diplomatic immunity discount card.”

“So what does that mean, boss?”

“It means I have to drive to Baltimore to buy another one for my nephew. The Soviets bought it as part of an incomprehensible kidnapping scenario. I’m foggy on the plot but their operatives, Putin and Pulitov, plan to sabotage national elections. That could never, ever happen, but we have to stop the kidnapping. I mean to send you, Scarecrow, but we need someone to pose as your wife.”

Scarecrow and Francine Desmond
Scarecrow and Francine Desmond
“Me, me! I can do it.” Agent Francine Desmond frantically waves her hand in the air.

Scarecrow’s handsome brow furrows as he stares off in space. “Who could do the job?”

Francine jumps to her feet. “Me, me! I’ve worked here nine years; I can do the job.”

“I don’t know who,” Melrose says. “Barbie’s pregnant and Paula’s on assignment.”

“Me, me! I’ve got two masters and a doctorate in spyology.”

Stetson snaps his fingers. “What about Petunia Oggleswort?”

“Out sick. The entire steno pool fell ill. We’ve run out of options, Lee. Who do you think, Francine?”

“Oh, Chief, I’m so glad you finally asked…”

Whump! The door swings open. Amanda King bouncy-steps in carrying a tray.

“Hi everyone. I brought fresh cookies.”

Francine mutters under her breath. “Oh, no. Go away, you b-b-bitc—.”

Chief Melrose brightens. “Oh hi, Amanda. I’m afraid we’re too busy to chat. We’re in the midst of a crisis trying to figure out who…” He stops and looks significantly at Stetson. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Scarecrow selects an oatmeal chocolate chip. “I’m thinking we need coffee with the cookies.”

“No, I mean the op. Right in front of our noses: Amanda! We use Mrs King! She could pose as your wife.”

“Oh no,” says Stetson, vigorously shaking his head. “Not a civilian.”

Francine nods. “Exactly. She’s just a silly suburban tw—“ She stops as everyone turns to stare at her. “… uh, twenty-nine year old housewife.”

Amanda distributes more cookies. “Twenty-six and no, I don’t want the job. I have to run home to head up the birthday party for my son, uh, whats-his-name and my other boy, um, er… His name will come to me too. And my mother’s babysitting right now although she’d rather be cleaning the refrigerator and I have to take my station wagon in for the twenty-two thousand mile oil change and visit the book store where we killed that mafia guy and grab lunch at the tea shoppe where those foreign agents shot at us and and buy vegetables although I can’t understand why people like broccoli or eggplant, and do my nails and watch my soaps and MacGyver and Cheers and I never miss Columbo so you see I’m very busy.”

“Hmmph. Busy seeking endless praise and admiration, you attention craving c—…” Francine suddenly realizes she’s mumbling aloud. “Er, I mean cunning manipulator, just too perfect for poor spies like us.”

“It’s settled then. Scarecrow, you and Mrs. King check into the resort as a honeymoon couple. Francine, see to the details.”

Francine throws up her hands. “Oh, no, no. I’m not covering for that skinny-ass—“ She stops. “… assiduously slender housewife. Okay, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll do it. Then shoot me.”


In his subtle silver Porsche 365 with NOT•A•SPY license plates to disguise the car, Lee Stetson speeds with Amanda to the Lake Coochy-Coo Resort. At the bar, he orders a ’78 Grand Cru des Saults Ste Marie.

Amanda sips a glass. “I’m afraid I don’t know these fancified wines and stuff. Now my mother loves colorful booze, pinks and pastels. I feel so outclassed. Really, that time you bought me steak tartare I thought it was raw hamburger, but that shows you my taste or lack of taste, as I’m sure you already know because I’m happy with Burger King where they cook the steak tartare and put it on a sesame seed bun with pickles and onions and…. Oh, look! There’s our quarry.”

“Shh, Amanda. Don't stare."

“But he looks so much like Francine.”

“It is Francine. She slipped into disguise to fool the bad guys. Let’s find our room and get some sleep.”

Once they unlock the door, Amanda protests.

“There’s only one bed.”

“Yes, of course. We share one bed in episodes 2, 20 and 33. Our cover is we’re on our honeymoon.”

“Not me, buster. I wasn’t raised that way. Maybe Mr. King said my notion of oral sex was endlessly talking, but that’s why he’s the ex-Mr. King ’cause he expected hanky-panky on our honeymoon and I’m not that kind of girl, I mean he’s still Mr. King I guess but I’m not his Mrs ’cause that’s not my sort of thing although you and I glow with repressed sexual attraction and everyone except McMillan & Wife has been bangin’ since the 1960s, well, 1920s and before, I mean look at the court of Louis XIV, but anyway I’ll take the sofa because you won’t fit, on the sofa I mean, or you can stay up and hide in the hallway closet– there’s a metaphor if I ever said one– and spy on the guy about to be kidnapped, anyway I think it’s wrong of the agency to put us together like this and… Are you snoring? Hey, are you awake? Well, I’ll just slip out and look for the kidnappers on my own.”


Next morning, Lee Stetson awakes to the sound of the telephone.

“Scarecrow, where are you? The kidnappers nabbed their victim along with Amanda. They made a run for the get-away limo, but they couldn’t unlock it. They’re headed for their escape chopper.”

“I’m on my way, now.”

Stetson arrives in time to see the helicopter start to lift off. Abruptly its engine chokes, coughs black smoke, and the whirlybird settles back to the ground as it backfires and dies.

The kidnappers fire several machine gun rounds before the doors burst open and the bad guys fall out, knuckling their eyes. Amanda steps down, holding a can of hair spray.

“Hi everyone! I haven’t been trained with mace, but I had my big-hair-spray can and let ’em have it. And I put fingernail polish in the limo locks so the bad guys couldn’t get in and I borrowed, well, purloined actually, maple syrup from kitchen and poured it into the helicopter gas tank. I didn’t know if it would work, but figured it worth a try, and it did pretty well, didn’t it? Didn’t it?”

“Congratulations, Mrs King,” says Chief Melrose. “I’m sure the President wants to award you another secret commendation.”

Francine stares daggers. “Why you scheming, sleazy, slu…” She stops under the glare of Melrose and Stetson. “I mean sultry, sultry and silky Mata Hari.”

“Matty Harry who? I’m just a simple suburban housewife and mother of uh, two, I think, let’s see… one… yes, two, and I’m so pleased I could stop the bad guys and speaking of stop, I should be at the bus stop to pick up my kids, no wait, maybe Mom will pick them up or they can walk. But any awards should go to Lee because he’s the best secret agent ever and I’d do him if we didn’t work together and I love Francine who alerted the bad guys we were on to them spooking them with that innovative disguise that put them on the run. Anyway, I promised to make meatloaf for next week’s royal heiress episode.”

“You’re adorable,” says Stetson.

“Winsome,” Chief Melrose says. “Isn’t she a darling, Francine? Francine?”

“Uh-oh! Francine’s choking,” cries Amanda. “Quick, I learned Cub Scout CPR.”

09 January 2018

Rest In Peace, Major Crimes


SPOILER ALERT. If you watch the TV show Major Crimes and haven't seen the episodes that aired on December 19th, stop reading and go watch. Then come back.
For nearly thirteen years, I have been invested in the Major Crimes squad of the Los Angeles Police Department--the fictional one, as depicted in two series on TNT: The Closer, which ran from 2005 - 2012, and its spin-off, Major Crimes, which began in 2012 and which will air its final episode tonight. I have loved these two shows because of the writing and the acting, because the audience was allowed to become invested in the characters as well as the cases, and because the people behind the show--until recently--were able to give the audience a good balance of episodes, some serious, other lighthearted. Put simply, these shows made me happy.

But with the final episode just hours away from being aired, I must confess I'm not happy anymore. I'm not happy that the powers behind the cable network apparently put pressure in the last year on the people behind Major Crimes to make the show darker and edgier and to come up with story lines that wouldn't be resolved in a single episode but instead dragged on and on and on.

While I'm okay with overarching character issues that continue throughout a series--seeing Sharon and Andy, for instance, grow from friends to husband and wife--and while I'm okay with larger plot issues that reoccur from time to time (such as the ongoing case involving serial killer Philip Stroh), I didn't like that Major Crimes changed its format recently from having a murder that was solved each week to a murder case that would take several weeks to be solved. Those multiple-episode cases became too hard to follow, and they were all so so dark and serious.

I'm also unhappy because Major Crimes killed off the star of the show, Sharon Raydor, a few episodes ago. It was shocking and heartbreaking and completely unnecessary. When a canceled show goes off the air, I like to think that the fictional characters are still out there, doing their jobs, living their lives. I might not get to check in with them anymore, but in my mind, they are riding off happily into the sunset. But when the main character of a TV show is killed off, there is no happily ever after. There is no joy any longer.

I read a Variety article a few weeks ago in which the amazing Mary McDonnell, who played Major Crimes's star, Sharon Raydor, talked about the decision by the show's executive producer and creator, James Duff, to kill off Sharon. The death wasn't done for shock value or as an F.U. to the network. It appears the decision was made thoughtfully and with the audience in mind. Duff wanted to allow the audience to grieve, and he thought this would be a good-send off for the character. Maybe there are viewers out there who enjoyed this closure. But for me and for every person I've talked to about this, it was a kick in the gut--a major miscalculation. I didn't want grief forced on me. I wanted to believe Sharon and Andy would live happily ever after. I wanted Sharon to continue leading her squad. If I had to put up with the show being canceled, I at least should have been given the ability to believe that everything would continue to be well with all my favorite fictional police detectives. That would have left me satisfied.


All of this agita leads to an interesting question. When a series is ending, be it a TV show or a mystery novel series or any other type of series, how much does the author/showrunner owe to the readers/audience? After nearly thirteen years as a viewer of these two TV shows, I feel ownership of the characters and want them to have a happy ending, as I expect most loyal viewers do. But if I put on my author hat, I realize that my reaction is quite presumptuous. I might be a loyal viewer, but these are not my characters, not my story lines, not my shows. I don't own the copyright. I didn't dream up these dramas. I didn't bring the characters to life. As an author, I own the stories I write, and while I keep my readers in mind as I write, I choose the twists and the endings, and I would be aggravated if readers started telling me that I should craft my stories differently. My stories are mine. So from this perspective, I can understand Duff's desire to end the show on his terms. I just wish his terms weren't so different from mine.

Major Crimes certainly isn't the only series (TV or books) to end on a note that readers didn't like. (And I should add that while I'm unhappy with Duff's choice to kill off Sharon, the episodes since then have been wonderful, and I expect the final episode tonight too will be good.) The final episodes of other shows and books have not been so well received either. The last episode of Seinfeld, for instance, was terrible. Viewers wanted to imagine Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer living out their lives in New York, going about their days where nothing happens in an amusing manner. No one wanted to imagine those characters in prison. And when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, readers were so unhappy, thousands apparently canceled their subscriptions to The Strand magazine, in which the offending story appeared. I read that Conan Doyle wanted to send Holmes off with a bang. But what about what the readers wanted?

It's a hard line for writers to walk, wanting to keep strong to your artistic vision as you wind up a series, yet give your readers/viewers the payoff they want. It must be especially hard when the decisions are made with care, yet they aren't received as expected, at least by some.

So it will be with a heavy heart that I watch the last episode of Major Crimes tonight. I expect that the serial killer Stroh will finally be caught. I expect that justice will prevail. I expect that no other characters in the squad will die. And I expect that no matter what happens in the episode, I will be in mourning as the final credits roll, because these are characters whom I've grown to love, and I'll miss them. And that is something Duff and McDonnell and everyone involved in Major Crimes and The Closer before it can be proud of. It's no small thing to create a world that brings others joy, even if some readers/viewers don't love every aspect of the way the story comes to an end.

24 December 2017

A Holiday Gift Puzzle


by R.T. Lawton

In the old days, or at least about a decade and a half ago, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine used to publish a column in which the reader was presented with a logic puzzle. After I finally figured out how the logic puzzle worked, I wrote a story in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series where the characters used that same type of logic to solve the story puzzle. The reader got a chance to solve the puzzle before the story characters did. So, in honor of that past tradition, here's part of the story, and your own Happy Holidays logic puzzle for you to solve. Don't worry, hints are provided in the story to guide you through the logic process to find which person is the designated hitman.

"Yes sir," said Theodore, the bail agent. "it seems by the descriptions I was given, that we have one man with short, curly red hair, one blond male with a crew cut, one with medium brown hair and a man with black hair. Their names are Erikson, Zanos, Harris and Robertson. Their occupations, again in no particular order, seem to be a Stock Broker, a Car Salesman and an Insurance Salesman. The fourth is unknown and therefore obviously our Contract Killer, but I don't know which of these men has which occupation."

"I really hope you have more than that for me to go on," replied the proprietor.

"Well, there are a few more items of information that might help:
   1) the man with the unknown occupation, beat Zanos at golf a couple of days ago.
   2) Harris and the Car Salesman play poker once a week with the brown-haired man and the black-          haired man.
   3) Erikson and the Insurance Salesman dislike the brown-haired man.
   4) The Stock Broker has red hair.
and that's all I managed to get. The gift shop girl and the maids talked for free, but I had to cough up twenty bucks apiece to the others before they'd tell me anything. A bunch of crooks is what they are."

"Hush for a minute, I'm thinking."

The proprietor gazed off into the dark recesses of the inner sanctum's high ceiling. As the clock on the wall ticked off the minutes, he slowly began to stroke the silky sides of his long, black Bandito mustache. In time, he spoke.

"From what your interviews tell me, we know that Harris is not the Car Salesman and has neither brown nor black hair. Also that Erikson is not the Insurance Salesman and does not have brown hair. But, we do know the Stock Broker has red hair. And we know that Zanos is not the Contract Killer. The rest is a matter of logical thinking, thus we know that the color of the hair of the Car Salesman is..."

At this point, Theodore rubbed the tips of his pudgy, almost webbed fingers over the top of his bald head.

"Excuse me, sir. I kept up with you until you got to the logical thinking part, but I can't do this stuff in my head the way you do. Is there, perhaps.....an easier method?"

The proprietor removed paper and pen from the top drawer of his desk. Rapidly, he prepared a grid, which he then pushed across the desk to Theodore, along with a pen.

"Study this, then you fill in the blank spaces with an "O" for a positive and an "X" for a negative fact."

Theodore stared at the chart.

                    red   blond   black   brown    Stock Broker   Car Salesman   Insurance Salesman   Killer

Erikson                                          X                                                                        X

Zanos                                                                                                                                                X

Harris                                X         X                                             X

Robertson
_________________________________________________________________________________

Stk Brkr        O

Car Sales                            X         X

Ins Sales                                         X

Killer


"Okay, sir, I understand where the facts are on the chart, but can you give me a little boost on the logical thinking part?"

The proprietor sadly shook his head.

"Theodore, if you know that the Stock Broker has red hair, then you can place an 'X' in that row under "blond', 'black' and 'brown.' Those are negative facts. Go ahead and mark those in. Now, reading down the brown column, you see that the Stock Broker, the Car Salesman and the Insurance Salesman all have negative X's in their rows, therefore the Killer has brown hair. Put an 'O' in his row. You can figure out the rest."

Five minutes later, Theodore put down his pen.

"Okay, boss, I worked it out that the Car Salesman had blond hair and the Insurance Salesman had black hair, but I'm not sure where to go from here."

CAN YOU WORK IT OUT FROM HERE ?
(if not, then keep reading)

"Now it is a matter of simple elimination," said the proprietor. "Take Harris for example, his row has several blanks You know by those blanks that he can have red or blond hair and he can be the Stock Broker, the Insurance Salesman or the Contract Killer, but blond hair only goes with the Car Salesman as you determined earlier. Thus you eliminate the 'blond' in that row and you now know that that Harris has to be the Stock Broker, the only one with red hair. Keep working on it."

Ten minutes later, after several cross-outs, much scratching of his head and a few "Oh's", Theodore quietly laid down his pen. A self-satisfied smile radiated from his round, lumpy face.

"I figured out who the Contract Killer is. He's....."

DID YOU FIGURE IT OUT ?
(the answer is below)


"Ah, the Contract Killer is Mr. Robertson."

Happy Holidays from our house to yours !!!

29 January 2017

Titles & Expectations


by R.T. Lawton

In days of yore, people used words and phrases that have fallen out of usage in modern times, but words and their use were as powerful then as they are today. Change one word in a phrase or a title and the whole meaning can change.

Take for instance, the medieval era where titles let everyone know what position in life a titled person had and therefore gave expectations as to how you perceived that person and what their duties were. At the top of the hierarchy were the kings and queens. Everyone expected that the ones holding these titles would rule over the people and lands where they held dominance. Next level down were dukes, barons and others, depending upon how the king set up the organizational chart. Your next class of titles, if you will, were more of a job description than a rank, but they still gave everyone an expectation for what the person with that title did in life. These titles fell into labels such as blacksmith, huntsman, cook, scullery maid, etc. However, you add one word to the front of that title, such as head or assistant and that huntsman can move up or down in job position. The power of words and the receiver's expectations.

This brings us to story titles. When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, the book became a bestseller. The author then put out two more books with titles which started with the same first two words. Next thing you know, there are lots of titles starting with The Girl... Agents, editors, publicists and yes, even authors, quickly realized the potential salability of a book with a title starting with the words The Girl... So now you have The Girl on the Train, The Girl in the Spider's Web, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, The Girl With No Past, The Girl with The Lower Back Tattoo, The Girl You Lost and several others. The marketing thought here being that there would be a positive carryover from the success of Stieg Larson's novels to the expectations in potential buyers of books with similar sounding titles. And, that marketing thought seems to have some credibility. Once again, the power of and  the expectations of words.

Thus, the words you choose for your story titles should produce the type of expectations you want in potential buyers of your works, plus help convert those buyers into becoming continued readers of your future publications. A kind of gather ye fans while you may, sort of thing. Naturally, to do this, it's best if you have a title that's intriguing, gives the reader an idea of what's in the story and maybe even brands the stories (assuming they are a series) for the author.

In my case, I tried to do all three for the ten titles in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. All of these titles have either the word bond or bail in the title. In these stories, the firm's proprietor and his bail agent manage to obtain some high value collateral from dastardly criminals and then render these clients as deceased, thus making extravagant profits from their demise. The one story with the word bail in it, "The Big Bail Out," is a play on words, since it involves both bailing out a financially troubled corporation and the crooked officers of that company having a fondness for their hobby of skydiving.

"Resolutions"- 9th in Holiday Burglars
AHMM Jan/Feb 2017 issue
In the fourth of my five series in AHMM, the Holiday Burglars series, each story is connected to a caper during a holiday. In this series, I put a play on words in each title. For instance, "Click, Click, Click," the first in the series concerns Christmas. Many of you probably remember some of the words to the song Up on the Housetop. "...up on the housetop, click, click, click, down through the chimney with good Saint Nick..." Well, in this case, Beaumont and Yarnell dressed as santas have entered the back door of a residence in order to steal the cash a drug dealer temporarily conceals in Christmas packages under the tree. Unfortunately for them, the counted houses from their position in the alley instead of from the street side like their informant gave them the information, therefore they have now entered the home of a fanatical NRA member. The clicking sound the two burglars hear is not reindeer hooves on the roof, but rather the clicking noise a big handgun makes when the hammer is being cocked.

For anther title in the series, Labor Day," yep you guessed it. Beaumont, Yarnell and their protege The Thin Guy are descending in a creaky old elevator from the penthouse they just burgled while its owner was off on a Labor Day excursion. The elevator makes a few stops on its way down to take on and unload passengers. Shortly after a very pregnant lady gets on, the elevator becomes stuck between floors. The baby picks this time to enter the world. Firemen, police and news crews are soon aware of the stuck elevator and the pending birth. The only person on the elevator who is remotely qualified to assist in procedures involving anatomy is The Thin Guy who used to be employed as an assistant mortician. The words are all done in fun.

So how do you create your titles? Do you brand? And how? Do you find particular words as powerful or intriguing or more likely for potential readers to buy your story? Or, even for you as a reader to pick up a book in the store and open it to see if your interest continues beyond the title? Do words commonly seen in titles, words such as devil, blood or murder affect your thinking in titling or purchasing a book?

Chime in on your opinions, creative thoughts and branding ideas through titles.

09 February 2016

No, Please Don't Go ... When Series End


While I love a good stand-alone novel, like many people, I adore a good series. I love finding characters who come to feel like family, a town that feels like home. I love the comfort of returning year after year to a new book in the series (though sometimes the books come more or less frequently--Julia Spencer Fleming, write faster!).
Alas, with every good series, readers are forced to face The End. Sometimes authors die. Sometimes series end because the author has decided she's written those characters' final tale. Sometimes an author is willing to write more books in the series, but her publisher has pulled the plug.

I am not good with facing The End. And that is why, if you look at  my bookcases filled with yet-to-be-read novels, you will find the final book or final series book by several authors. I love each series, and I long to read these books, but I can't bear to read them knowing that would be it. The End. There would be no more. I would rather have the books sit unread, a promise of delight waiting for me, even though I may not ever crack open the spines. It's like knowing old friends are still out there.
Just some of my unread books


But now, thanks to the rise of self-publishing, my dilemma may partly be solved. Once upon a time, if a publisher dropped an author or series, that was it. It was rare another publisher would pick up the series. But now, those authors can write new books, hire an independent editor, a graphic artist, a proofreader, and get those new books out to their adoring fans. Like Sleeping Beauty once kissed, those series rise from dormancy, alive once more!

You might think the same possibility wouldn't exist for authors who have actually died, but you'd be wrong. Today several series originally written by authors who have passed on are continuing, written by a family member or authors chosen by the deceased's family to continue the legacy. John Clement is continuing the pet-sitter series that his mother, Blaize, began. Felix Francis is continuing the horse-racing series that his father, Dick, created. Reed Farrel Coleman is continuing the Jesse Stone series begun by the late Robert Parker. And there are lots more examples. Do the new books capture the same feeling, the same essence, as the ones written by the original author? Is reading these new books still like going home? Each reader has to decide for himself. But it's a chance for each series to continue, and that's wonderful.

So maybe one day I will crack the spine of Blood Knot, the third novel in S.W. Hubbard's Adirondack-based mystery series. The author has self-published a fourth book comprised of three short stories in the series. Is there another novel on the horizon, too? I hope so.

And maybe one day I'll read the final few books by author Barbara Parker. But maybe not. The author died in 2009, and it doesn't appear her family will have her series continued. So I will let those books sit on my shelf, particularly Suspicion of Rage, the final book in Parker's Suspicion series featuring attorney Gail Connor. I like knowing the character still has a chance to live on in another tale I haven't read, that a promise of delight still awaits me.

Do you have favorite series that have ended? I'd love to hear about them. If the authors are living, maybe we can persuade them to bring those characters back to life.

21 April 2015

Publisher Changes Titles, Author Doesn't Mind! The World Turns...


by Elizabeth Zelvin

I completed the first draft of my first potentially publishable mystery in October 2002. (The less said the better about three manuscripts in the 1970s, although an agent who's eminent today tried to sell them.) Since 1993, I'd been running around saying, "Some day I'm going to write a mystery titled Death Will Get You Sober." I finally did it after I left my last day job directing an alcohol treatment program down on the Bowery, which was slowly morphing from New York's Skid Row to the gentrified neighborhood it is today. My protagonist, Bruce Kohler, was a recovering alcoholic with a New York attitude, a smart mouth, and an ill-concealed heart of gold.

Everybody who heard the title loved it except my first agent, who specialized in romance and cozies. She thought she'd have less difficulty selling a series with punchy one-word titles like Carol Higgins Clark's, which include Decked, Snagged, and Iced. (Not to be snarky about the Clark women, who are lovely, she'd have sold it a lot more easily if I'd been Mary Higgins Clark's daughter.) I remember pacing back and forth in my living room, phone to ear (quite a feat, since this was long before I had a cell phone), begging her not to make me change my title. Not only was Death Will Get You Sober clever and memorable, it told the reader exactly what the book was about. I had a long string of unwritten sequels lined up that did the same: Death Will Improve Your Relationship, Death Will Help You Leave Him, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, Death Will Forgive Your Debts. I won the argument, but she failed to sell the book. After many rejections, Death Will Get You Sober ended up, by a fluke and sans agent, with legendary editor Ruth Cavin at St. Martin's, who fortunately loved the title. The book was published in 2008, just before publishing began to change in the vast paradigm shift in technology, books, and the nature of reading and writing that we all know about.

Cavin rejected Death Will Improve Your Relationship but took Death Will Help You Leave Him, which appeared under the Minotaur imprint in October 2009. At that very moment, the economy tanked, and Minotaur, disappointed by advance sales and evidently blaming the author rather than the changing market, dropped me a week before the book came out. Death Will Extend Your Vacation finally sold to a smaller publisher known for picking up abandoned series. I'm grateful for that. For their decision to bring the book out as a $25.95 hardcover in 2012, when the e-book revolution was in full swing and their target market, libraries, reeling from huge budget cuts--not so much. Assuming the series was dead apart from short stories, I turned to other projects.

Enter Julie Smith, Edgar-winning author of the Skip Langdon mysteries set in New Orleans, who had recently started a small e-press, BooksBNimble. I'd known Julie since I interviewed her for the Poe's Deadly Daughters blog years before, and she'd been kind enough to blurb Death Will Get You Sober. Julie loved Bruce and his sidekicks Barbara and Jimmy and wanted to bring out the series as e-books. I tried to get her to give me final say on the titles in the contract, but she wouldn't do it. Luckily, she was happy with the titles of the three novels that had appeared in print. By this time, I had cut Death Will Improve Your Relationship by 50,000 words, and with Julie's skillful edit, turned it into a 20,000-word novella about the murder of an obnoxious relationship guru, author of a bestseller called How to Improve Your Relationship. I was not happy when she insisted on changing the title to Death Will Save Your Life. It was reasonably apt, since the denouement involved a lake, a canoe, and a Klepper kayak. But it wasn't as transparent as my title, with which I'd been living for ten years. On the other hand, it fit better on the postage-stamp-sized cover of an e-book.

Julie's done a great job of promoting the series, which would have been long dead by now in the era of traditional publishing only. But she thinks the books could do better. She's had success at boosting sales by changing the titles and covers of other authors' books (and some of her own backlist) to attract a different readership. So in the fall of 2014 she proposed that we give Bruce a new look and the books new titles. We both knew she'd win, but I think she was surprised that I didn't put up a fight.

Like every writer of fiction except James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and a handful of others, I've had to revise my fantasy of success, ie, my expectations, as the rollercoaster that publishing has become swoops and twists around. So when my mystery e-publisher is willing to invest in transforming my modest midlist novels and put her full energy into promoting them seven years after the first hardcover came out, I don't think, Oh, no! If she changes the titles, the books will be ruined! I think, Wow! I am so lucky!

So now the e-book versions of the Bruce Kohler mysteries are Dead Sober, Dead Wrong, Dead in the Hamptons, and Dead Guru. (The short stories in the series have kept their original "Death Will" titles.) And now there's a new novel: Dead Broke, in which Bruce and Jimmy need a twelve-step program to help them deal with their money issues. The new covers feature an animé version of a sardonic, sexy Bruce. Now, there's something I'd never have come up with on my own. So far, people seem to like Bruce's new look, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Elizabeth Zelvin is a former SleuthSayers regular and author of the historical novel Voyage of Strangers as well as the Bruce Kohler mystery series. Her short stories have been nominated for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. Most recently, Otto Penzler included her story, "A Breach of Trust," in the list of "Other Distinguished American Mysteries" for 2014. Dead Broke, the first Bruce Kohler novel since 2012, is available for preorder now and will launch on May 1. Liz is also a psychotherapist based in New York, an established poet, and a singer-songwriter with an album titled Outrageous Older Woman.

01 February 2015

Ending a Series


Gypsy's Kiss by Jim Winter
by Jim Winter

Leigh graciously gave me his slot today (we have a special guest coming in on my normal Tuesday slot) to talk about ending a series. And, let's be honest, I'm here to pimp my latest work, Gypsy's Kiss. But it's the end of Nick Kepler. For now. Maybe.

When I thought about writing about this, what came to mind was the end of a series. They all eventually end. Sometimes. I'm not so sure if it's wise to continue them beyond a certain point, but success often makes that decision for writers. It's clear Robert B. Parker had finished telling Spenser's story around the time of Ceremony. The novel had a certain finality to it as the consequences of the previous A Savage Place presented themselves. But Spenser and Parker continued. Within a few novels, it was clear he was just having fun now, making good money having that fun, and giving readers something nice and comfortable. But what if Parker had decided to end it all right there? Could he have continued as a writer?

My beloved 87th Precinct series ended when Ed McBain, AKA Evan Hunter, passed away. He wisely opted not to allow publishers to continue his series after his death (except for a posthumous release or two.) Sue Grafton has said that Kinsey Millhonne will also end with Z is for Zero. We are up to W now with X due out this year and Y in a couple of years. Sue Grafton has publicly stated that Z is for Zero will take place on Kinsey's 40th birthday so we won't have to watch her go through menopause. Hey, she said it. I didn't.

Which brings us back to Gypsy's Kiss and the end of Nick Kepler. Maybe. If I don't get the itch or a request to do it again. There are a lot of reasons for closing the book on Kepler. For starters, all but the first novel are independent releases. Mainly, I was burning off a couple of finished novels in various late stages of editing. I thought about returning to Nick's story again as I prepped a new novel (and potential series) to send to an agent. So I sat down to prep Kepler #4 and found he's stopped speaking to me. I hadn't written anything but a short story called "Gypsy's Kiss" in years. I liked the idea of Nick and Gypsy moving on, but I hated the result. So I hit on the idea of making it a novella, long enough to make the premise - call girl Gypsy wanting Nick for her final client - work while not taxing the reader with a long novel. Besides, I'm busy.

So what's it about? Gypsy is Nick's favorite informant. She's taken a bullet for him and even risked her own life to trap a sexual predator he once followed. Like Elaine in Lawrence Block's Scudder series, she's used her income from the sex trade to escape a life of being used. Now that she's ready to move on, and to celebrate, she wants a dollar from Nick to be her last "client," nothing outrageous (though it's pretty clear she's game even if Nick can't see it), just a quiet evening splitting a bottle of wine and watching old movies. But someone doesn't like Gypsy leaving the skin trade and leaves her a violent calling card.  This being early spring, Nick stashes Gypsy on an island in the middle of Lake Erie, guaranteed to make her hard to find during cold weather. He digs through her past to find who wants to hurt her all the while trying to save his business from closing.

I wrote Gypsy's Kiss for a number of reasons, not the least of which was working with this form. I've done novels. I've done short stories. I've never done a novella. Also, even though all the Kepler novels were released, I wanted to give the Kepler series some closure. I didn't just want to walk away with Nick confused and angry at the end of Bad Religion. Since this was going to be my last original independent release (not counting short fiction), I wanted to go out with a bang. What happens to Elaine? What happens to Nick? Is it really safe to go to New Orleans in 2005?

It's left open-ended. Nick could appear again, either back in Cleveland or someplace else. But if I never pen another line of Kepler again, I've left him in a good place.

Gypsy's Kiss is available for order today.

26 December 2014

27.3%


by R.T. Lawton

     Okay, so I fudged a bit on the math by rounding up for the title, but it's close enough for government work. Anyway, my point is that three of the eleven stories published in the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine were written by members of the SleuthSayers blog. That's a nice percentage, and one of these days, the way we're all going, it may get even higher.

 Eve Fisher leads off this winter double issue with her story, "The Headless Horseman." How would you like to live in a small town where you were known by your nickname of The Headless Horseman, or even Headless for short? Clarence, a young man who lives two blocks away from the young female protagonist, is stuck with that nickname because of an earlier incident with the  protagonist. In time, the young girl believes Headless is involved in some not-so-nice activities, so she shadows him around town and starts collecting information about anything he does. Headless soon notices that he's being followed and tries to discourage her. This all comes to a head when the girl walks in on Headless standing beside the freshly dead body of a woman he worked with at a local restaurant. Headless must now decide what to do about the girl. It's another excellent story set in small town South Dakota.

     For "The Irish Boy," Janice Law continues the adventures of Nip Tompkins, the orphan boy who works for Madame Selina, one of the city's most famous mediums. Madame allegedly has the services of Aurelius, an old Roman emperor, to assist her in answering people's questions or in finding people or lost objects. In this episode, the brother of one of Nip's female friends has gone missing. Madame locates the missing brother in another town where he has joined a rough crew of Irishmen who are about to cross the river on a dangerous and violent mission into Canada. The problem soon becomes how to convince both the girl's brother and the Irish crew he has become a part of that he shouldn't cross the river on this mission. Are Madame and Aurelius up to the situation and if so, how can they do it? Read the story and find the outcome. As for me, I can scarce wait for the next episode of Madame Selina and Nip.

     The third contributor is...well...me, with "Elder Brother," the second story in my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. [NOTE: The editor of AHMM has already purchased the third story, "On the Edge," so this is officially a series, plus Rob Lopresti recently critiqued the fourth story, "Merit Making," which is now on it's way to the e-submission slush pile.
     In this series, two half-brothers constantly jockey to be first in line to inherit the title of opium warlord upon the demise of their mutual Chinese father. The elder brother, Kang, is the offspring of a hill woman of the Shan tribe. Kang has grown up in the savage jungles of East Burma, while the younger brother is full-blood Chinese educated in the private British schools of civilized Hong Kong. At this point, a White Nationalist soldier under the command of our protagonist (the younger brother) has been kidnapped by some of Elder Brother's men from the Shan Army. This kidnapped soldier knows secrets that younger brother would prefer to be kept quiet. A squad of picked men is quickly formed to go on a rescue mission. But, in the deadly wilderness of the Golden Triangle, anything can happen.

Have some Happy Holidays, enjoy your reading and I'll see you in a couple of weeks.

11 October 2014

Selling Out to Hollywood! (In which our writer goes temporarily nuts)


I read one of those self-help books the other day, and I’m beginning to realize why I’m not getting very rich. (For one thing, I’m not writing self-help books.)  It is patently obvious that nobody is going to get wealthy writing zany crime novellas unless they whack somebody over the head with them during the course of a bank robbery.

So I’ve decided to switch media here and become a screenwriter.  I’m a natural.  I can sit in those funny collapsible canvas chairs just as well as the next guy, and besides, I know hundreds of unbelievable plots; I live in Ford Nation <Toronto>.

So here goes: for my first screamplay <sic> I’m going to do something made for TV; specifically one of those romance-suspense-action-thriller-northern-southern-civil war epic-type things, maybe a miniseries.  It would have everything – sex, violence, sex, betrayal, sex, revenge, sex - and maybe even some dialogue.  It would star a ravishing but thoroughly spoiled female lead, maybe called Sapphire, and her male lead, Rot.  Here’s a preview:

Sapphire flings herself up the sweeping staircase, catching bottom of skirt on knob of banister.

Sapphire (yanking at fabric):  Go away, Rot!  Just go away!

Rot:  I’m going, I’m going.  But one last thing, Sapphire honey, I’ve got to know.  How do you manage to go to the bathroom with that bloody hoola- hoop attached to your skirt?

Sapphire (rolling downstairs on her side):  Don’t go, Rot!  Please don’t go.

Rot (doffing hat):  Frankly Sapphire, I don’t give a hoot.

(From outside, several barn owls hoot.)

I predict a blockbuster.  But just in case, I have a second one planned.  It’s a 1960s historical spy flick, based on the true-to-life adventures of very bad people who might possibly be Russian.

First Spy (possibly named Boris):  Gee comrade, do you theenk perhaps we are raising peeples suspicions speeeking English with Russian accent?

Second Spy (also named Boris):  Especially seence it is very BAD Russian accent, comrade?

Okay, so it needs a bit of work, and maybe some more sex.  I’m thinking of calling it Czech-mate. And if we bring it forward to modern times, the possibilities are endless.  What about a ‘Spy of the Month’ reality series?  Boris could live in an LA frat house with nine other comrades named Boris, and the survivor…

Or I could go back to writing silly novels.

Melodie Campbell continues to write the zany Goddaughter mob caper series for Orca Books.  There appears to be no cure.

11 March 2014

Women Sleuths of the Silver Screen


In a recent post, I considered some minor mystery movie series, closing with the promise that I'd follow up someday regarding movie series featuring female detectives.  A more recent column by Leigh Lundin reminded me that March is "Women's History Month" and, more specifically, "Women in Mystery Month." So why not "Women in Mystery Movie Series Month" as well? It seems like a good fit.
I know of three such series from the 1930s, and each is worth a look.  (Each shows up on TCM from time to time.) All three series had literary antecedents, two now obscure and one still famous.  The three protagonists are surprisingly diverse, given that they were battling crime at more or less the same moment in time. 

Hildegarde Withers

A Boston school teacher turned amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers was the creation of Stuart Palmer, novelist, short story writer (including two Sherlock Holmes pastiches), screenwriter, and president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Withers debuted in The Penquin Pool Murder in 1931.  Withers reappeared regularly through the early fifties and even had two titles released in the sixties, with Palmer sharing credit with writing partners, including Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig).  Withers, a comic take on Miss Marple,  is a busybody crime solver.  Much of the humor derives from her clashes with a tough New York police inspector, Oscar Piper.

With RKO producing, Withers made it to the big screen only a year after her literary debut, in a film version of that debut, The Penquin Pool Murder.  She was played by the great Edna May Oliver, an actress with a long face and a great way with an acerbic line.  A native of Massachusetts who specialized in independent and cranky characters, Oliver was born to play Withers.  She followed up Penquin Pool with two more, Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935).  All three benefit from James Gleason's performance as Piper.  After Honeymoon, Oliver left RKO for MGM, where she graced big-budget costume pictures like Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice until her untimely death in 1942, age 59.  Following Oliver's departure, RKO tried three more Withers films, staring first Helen Broderick (not good) and then Zazu Pitts (worse).  Later, there were two television Withers, Agnes Morehead in a failed 1950s pilot and  Eve Arden in a 1972 television film, A Very Missing Person.

Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) and Oscar Piper (James Gleason)

Any of the Oliver films is worth catching.  My favorite is Murder on a Honeymoon, which features location footage shot on Catalina Island, an uncommon thing in a film of that period.

Torchy Blane

One of old Hollywood's favorite stock characters was the plucky female reporter.  She could pop up in A pictures like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in the person of a genuine star like Jean Arthur or in B pictures like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) in the person of a contract player like Glenda Farrell.  Farrrell was a member of the Warner Bros. stock company, and as such was as likely to play a gold digger in a Busby Berkeley musical as a gun moll in a gangster picture.  The Warners films of the early thirties were known for their rapid pacing and general brassiness.  Farrell, a brassy blonde who was to wisecracking what Edna May Oliver was to superciliousness, fit right in.  Warners eventually gave Farrell her own series, in which she played a crime-solving newswoman, Torchy Blane.

The series was inspired by a story Warners had purchased from Fredrick Nebel, a pulp writer who published in Black Mask alongside Hammett and Chandler.  Nebel's original story featured a hard drinking male reporter who competed against and knocked heads with a cop named McBride.  Warners switched the reporter's gender, renamed him (or rather, her) Torchy Blane, and started cranking them out.  McBride was played by Barton MacLaine, and he became Blane's love interest as well as her professional rival.  Blane would stop at nothing to solve the crime and get the story, including exploiting her relationship with McBride. The films were light and, at around an hour each, lightning paced.  Of the nine films released between 1936 and 1939, seven starred Farrell, with Lola Lane and future Oscar winner Jane Wyman each stepping in for one.

Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) and Steve McBride (Barton MacLaine)

Farrell's take on the wisecracking blonde went out of style when the thirties went west, but she kept acting, sometimes in smaller movie roles, sometimes on the stage or on television.  She died in harness in 1972, age 66, and was buried at West Point beside her second husband, an army doctor who had served on Eisenhower's staff.

Leonard Maltin calls Smart Blonde (1936) the best of the Torchy Blane films, and I'll bow to his expertize.

Nancy Drew

Carson Drew's only child debuted in book form in 1930 and has been solving crimes (and lying about her age) ever since.  The brainchild of the genius book packager Edward Stratemeyer, the books, written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (originally by Mildred Wirt Benson) were an immediate success.

In 1938, Nancy Drew made it to the big screen courtesy of Torchy Blane's studio, Warner Bros. She was played by a young actress with a name that always sounded to me like it should have belonged to an old actress:  Bonita Granville.  Granville was a movie veteran in 1938, having made her debut in 1933 at age nine. (Her most famous child role was an Oscar-nominated turn in These Three, the original film version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.)  Granville first played the girl sleuth in Nancy Drew, Detective, based on The Password to Larkspur Lane.  Three more films followed in 1939, the last being Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  Carson Drew was played by Warners regular John Litel, and Frankie Thomas played Nancy's boyfriend (with his book name, Ned Nickerson, changed to Ted Nickerson for reasons best known to Warners).

The films were short, fast-paced, and Nancy was both the brains and heart of the outfit (though some critics found Granville insufficiently intrepid).  I'd recommend the last one, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  (And not just because it has a title I remember fondly.)

Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville)

Though she remains a publishing franchise and has spun off into new areas like video games, Nancy Drew's screen afterlife hasn't been much more impressive than Hildegarde Withers'.  There would be only one more big screen attempt, Nancy Drew, a 2007 film released by her old studio, Warner Bros., starring Emma Roberts.  There also was a television show, which premiered in 1977, with Pamela Sue Martin in the role.  (Drew was eventually squeezed out of that by her co-detectives, the Hardy Boys.)  A 2002 made-for-television movie, also simply called Nancy Drew, starred Maggie Lawson of Psych fame.      

Granville would remain with Warner Bros. long enough to appear in support of Betty Davis in Now Voyager.  When her acting career wound down, Granville became a television producer. She died (just when she was getting old enough for her name) in 1988, age 65, of lung cancer, like fellow Warners alumnus Glenda Farrell.