07 December 2014

A Mixed Bag


In the realm of teen music, nothing is sacred. It began with the DJ-as-artist movement. Once upon a time disc jockeys with an entertaining line of patter were fêted: Wolfman Jack, Casey Kasem, and America’s television DJ, Dick Clark. Some might suggest that as consumer music became less creative, DJs became more so. They ruled their club kingdom and, for a few hours each night, they became stars.

FL Studio
FL Studio
DJs began to ‘remix’, then ‘scratch’, laying down alternate tracks, overlaying dance rhythms like dubstep, adding percussion, reverb, echo, sampling, hip-hop lyrics, and autotune. Some remixes became B-sides of the originals. Remixes were seldom improvements over the underlying works, but they proved popular.

Kids emulate their heroes. They download bootleg copies of FL-Studio, a powerful program to create music, but also remix beyond the recognizable. Confined to garages and high school dances, there isn’t anything overtly criminal, not counting the illegality of purloined programs and pirated music.

But kids learn one thing, to take someone else’s work and make it their own.

Hegemann
Helene Hegemann, 17
Bagged in Berlin

Imagine such activity in the literary world. Aspiring authors combine plots from Rob Lopresti and John Floyd, then set them in Stephen Ross’ New Zealand. They borrow a lingerie-challenged character from Fran Rizer and crib entire pages of humour from Melodie Campbell. Because they can’t grok the tradecraft details from Dixon Hill and RT Lawton, they copy them verbatim.

They call that work their own, no credit given. They win acclaim, they win awards, they win movie rights.

When caught and challenged, they not only claim everyone does it, they insist Rob, John, Stephen, Fran, Melodie, Dixon, and RT nobbled their ideas from others.

One of our readers pointed out this is happening in Germany and, instead of being punished, the young authoress is being honored. Seventeen-year-old Helene Hegemann filched phrases and pages from others including passages from the novel Strobo by pseudonymous author ‘Airen’. Helene says everybody does it, that’s what kids do these days. She calls it ‘mixing’, not plagiarism. She has her defenders, including the finalists committee for the $20,000 prize at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Sandbagged by Bitches

Readers might remember famed romance writer Cassie Edwards, author of a hundred novels which resulted in ten million copies sold. Ms Edwards, noted for her research, lifted paragraphs, passages, and poems from the non-fiction material of others and offered no attribution. Romance reviewers ‘Smart Bitches’ ripped her throat out, ruining an otherwise envious career.

Defenders of new age appropriation point out Cassie Edwards was a different generation, that those were the dark ages of six years ago.

Returning to the music comparison, I suppose one might argue the anthem America the Beautiful was the result of a remix. A third party combined the poetry of Katharine Lee Bates with the melody separately composed by Samuel A. Ward and arrived at a composition greater than the sum of its parts. The difference is that the ‘remixer’ neither claimed credit for the work nor pretended to wield a talent greater than the original authors.

Bagging the Question

Hegemann
If there was one statement that caused me to entirely lose respect and sympathy for Helene Hegemann, it was this jaw-dropping, in-your-face sentence: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.

I kept returning to her words, trying to forgive by asking what the hell does she know at seventeen? Other than residing in a moral vacuum, of course. I take pride in creativity and originality and my colleagues do as well, chosen for those very qualities.

But this is my unoriginal opinion. What is yours?


06 December 2014

Today’s Phones are Ruining Crime Fiction!


(Yes, this post actually gets around to mentioning crime fiction.  Wait for it…)
I’m getting awfully tired of ads for phone companies, begging me to switch, hounding me to spend more money for their latest plan, month after month after month.

Frankly, I’m longing for the good old days, when all you could get from a phone company was an ugly black rotary phone.  And by gawd, you were grateful for it too, because you had to sweat to get it.

Remember those days?  You would move into a new apartment in November, and you would phone up some snotty service rep at Ma Bell, who would treat you as if you were some sort of macrobiotic slime culture.  <Sniff – sorry!  I’m becoming nostalgic.>

You:  I’d like to get a phone as soon as possible, please.

Rep:  Let me see…how about…say…July 2017?  We can send a man out sometime between the 4th and the 28th.  You’ll have to make sure that someone’s home every second.

You:  Yes!  Oh Yes!  I’m so grateful.  Thank you!

Rep:   The colour will be black.

You:  Great! Black is cool.

Rep:  Okay, now we’ll need your first born as a deposit.

I really liked those old back dial phones.  I mean, those phones had substance; they had weight.  You could do a lot to them and they would bounce back.  I remember once playing kickball in the hallway at university, and our team would have won, but the darn ball (phone) started ringing and some fool on the other team picked it up.

Try playing kickball with a smartphone.  It ain’t so smart after a play or two.

Take my word for it: today’s flimsy phones are simply wuss. Not to mention, they are ruining crime fiction. 

At this point, I know readers are going to say, ‘Of course they are ruining crime fiction!  You can’t isolate your protagonist anymore.”  And yes, this is a problem, unless your protagonist has the intelligence of a demented chipmonk and perpetually forgets to charge their phone just before the climax in every book you write (cliché alert).

But I’m thinking beyond the obvious here.

Think of how those old black phones had significance in old black and white movies.  Remember Jimmy Stewart with the broken leg in Rear Window?  Remember those desperate calls he made over the heavy 1950s telephone…would they really be as fear-inducing if he was using an iPhone with a ring tone of ‘La Bomba?’

I mean, really.  How can you commit a really good murder with a receiver that weighs less than a padded bra?  What are you supposed to do…stuff it down someone’s throat until they choke on it?

What’s more, who can get really excited about an obscene phone call made over a cellphone the size of a playing card?  Come on now…do I really need to spell out the symbolism?

Melodie Campbell writes funny books, like the award-winning mob comedy, The Goddaughter’s Revenge.  You can buy them in stores and online at all the usual sources.

05 December 2014

Piano of Mystery Sold


The Monday before Thanksgiving, a very special piano was auctioned off at Bonhams in New York.
Yes, this is primarily supposed to be a mystery writing web site, but sometimes inanimate objects are central to mystery plots.  Small, odd little objects may sometimes even point a detective to perceive the complex Rube Goldberg device behind a locked-room mystery.

Pianos also fit here in SS, I believe, because we have authors here who are just as passionate about their music as they are about their writing.  This auctioned piano combines mystery, adventure and music -- along with love.  In fact, it played a central role in all four at one time.  A seminal role, one might say. Which is perhaps not abnormal for certain inanimate objects.

This is the small, 58-key upright piano, probably made in 1927, that a production company altered slightly in 1942, by relocating some hinges, so that the character Rick Blaine could hide letters of transit inside.

That's right.  It's the piano that drummer Dooley Wilson, playing "Sam," sat at when Ingrid Bergman, as "Ilsa Lund," told him, "Play it, Sam.  Play, 'As Time Goes By,'" in the movie Casablanca.

This is the one.  He's not really playing, but he is singing.
Hiding the Letters of Transit

How central can an inanimate object really be to the heart of a film, or the plot of a novel?

Well, let's look at just a few of the roles this piano (and its brother) played in Casablanca.
"Play it for me, Sam."

The movie's "brother piano" used in flashbacks.




In the end, the piano reportedly sold for $3,413,000.00 which included a 12% commission.

I have no idea who bought it, though I've searched the web.

You can click on this New York Times article here for more details.










Mystery lovers might also like to know that a certain Maltese Falcon has the honor of having grossed more at auction, than any other movie prop, reportedly landing  $4,085,000.00 during Bonham's TCM auction last year. (This statistic should not be confused with the "overall record for a piece of movie memorabilia," which goes to the Aston Martin [$4.6 M] driven by Sean Connery's "Bond" in Gold Finger.

See you in two weeks,
— Dixon

04 December 2014

The Surplus Population


by Eve Fisher

First off, Bouchercon was great. It was so good to finally meet in person fellow SleuthSayers Brian Thornton, Rob Lopresti, R. T. Lawton, and Melodie Campbell. Huzzah! I went to panels, wandered the halls, talked to all kinds of people, and I got a chance to hang out with Linda Landrigan and do a podcast for AHMM. Believe me, I'll let everyone know when that's up.

It was also interesting being back in California. I grew up there, but hadn't been back in 40 years, for a variety of reasons. Other than the fact that almost every square inch has been built up, upon, and over. Okay, the Pacific Coast Highway used to be a two-lane ribbon of road, running with a clear view of the ocean everywhere, and innumerable places where you could stop for a dip or a stroll on the beach. Now it's solid developments on both sides, at least down to Laguna Beach, and try to find beach access. [Sigh.]

But California's always been multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and quirky, in everything from people to food. Surfers with dreads were around back then, too, although 40 years ago it was just called snarled. And there were homeless people everywhere then, too. It's a warm climate. You can live without much shelter, thank God. Up here in Sioux Falls, right before we flew out for Bouchercon, a 46 year old homeless woman froze to death in an outside stairwell.
      At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge… it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
      “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge… "And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?” … “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
      “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
      “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
— Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

What do we do about the homeless? Well, the city of Manteca, California, passed two laws that will go in effect today, December 4th, just in time for Christmas. The first one outlaws any type of shelter that might be used by the homeless - including public porta-potties, by the way - whether they are on public OR private property, and even if the owner of said private property gave the homeless person permission to put it up and/or use it. The second ordinance outlaws any public bathroom behavior on any public or private property. And, to put the cherry on that cake, the city closed all the public restrooms. (I wonder where non-homeless people - especially small children and the elderly - are expected to go when they're downtown?) Manteca's government is very creative, by the way: in order to discourage the homeless from camping in Library Park, the city purposely changed the water sprinkler schedule so that people couldn't sleep in the park without getting wet.

Venice, California, has outlawed sleeping in RVs. In fact, 81 cities around the country have banned sleeping in cars or RVs, and enforce the laws by arresting people and confiscating their one and only major possession, the car - thus making them even more homeless than before. The Joads would never have made it to California in the first place if their old jalopy had been confiscated in, say, Arizona...

Sarasota, Florida, outlawed smoking first in a public park that was notoriously used by the homeless, then expanded it to all public parks. Fair, right? But they gave an exemption to golf courses because "golfers are so often smokers." In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they banned alcohol consumption in Van Eps and Tower Parks, where it's mostly "the wrong type" of people who are drinking (there are rooming houses all around these parks, and for those renters the park is basically their living room). Meanwhile, almost every other Sioux Falls park allows drinking. Especially in the "nice" sections of town.

In Houston, Texas, it's illegal for people to go dumpster-diving for food. (So much for freegans and Food Not Bombs.) And, of course, there was the 90 year old man in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who along with two pastors was arrested for feeding the homeless (November 4, 2014), because "the provision of food to vagrants in public" has been outlawed there, along with 33 other cities in the US. Fort Lauderdale also made it illegal for homeless people to have possessions with them, and to sit or lie down on sidewalks. Sitting or lying down in public, by the way, is illegal in 70 cities.

Here's quote from a supporter of the Fort Lauderdale ban on feeding the homeless: "The people feeding them are enablers, and they enable the homeless by making their lives easier... Hunger is a big motivator. Are people more likely to seek help when they're hungry or when they're fed and happy? Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness... Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing."

Who knew that homeless people choose the lifestyle for the food?

Look, let's be honest: homeless people are a pain in the ass. They're often dirty, smelly, crusty around the edges. They're generally not pretty. They're often mentally ill. They mutter and they wander and they stare and sometimes they beg. But above all, they're inconvenient. And they're there. Right in your face. But let's face facts: the real reason that all these laws are passed isn't because people don't want to enable them, it's because people - especially businesses - want them out of sight. And they come up with all sorts of reasons why we need to move the homeless along, away, out of town. And they always have.

Read Charles Dickens: in his books, the rich were always talking about how dangerous it is to create "dependency" among the poor, and that only the deserving poor should be helped. Of course, one of the ways to tell the deserving from the undeserving poor is that the deserving poor never want help, but only want to work hard and starve quietly. Now, remember, back in Victorian times, ALL help was private. The national government did nothing to help the poor. The local government offered only workhouses and orphanages, and no one wanted to go to either. The workhouses were literal prisons, where families were split up forever. And orphanages... well, orphans were sold out to the highest bidder as slave labor (think Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, etc.), until they were old enough to run away.

And today... we're back to Victorian times. Now I could perhaps be persuaded that it's not the government's job to take care of the poor or the homeless. Maybe. (Maybe not.) But the new crop of laws are making it illegal for one private person to hand food to another. Private charity is being made a criminal offense, city by city. Which raises the question, what happened to my right to feed the poor? Even Scrooge bought a turkey and gave it to Tiny Tim…

God help us, every one.

03 December 2014

Short thoughts from Long Beach


I was in Long Beach, California back in mid-November for Bouchercon, the International Mystery Convention.  Attached is a photo of the SleuthSayers who were in attendance: Rob, Eve, Melodie, and Brian.  R.T. was apparently  demonstrating his skill at disguise.

Bcon - four days of 2000 readers and writers - is overwhelming, so I don't know what to cover.  One highlight, new to me, was Speed Dating.  A continental breakfast was provided.  You picked yours up, sat at one of about seventy tables and every five minutes a bell rang.  When it rang two writers would trot over to your table and each would have two minutes to explain why you wanted to read their book.  I definitely copied down some names for future purchase. 


But my favorite parts of the Dating event were two:  Lisa Fernow describing her book as "sexy cozy."  Doesn't that exactly capture it?  And Michael H. Rubin was able to rattle his elevator speech off so perfectly that it was as if a trained actor was reading it off the book cover.  He got applause at every table.

Another highlight for me was the panel  "Short but Mighty," in which I discussed  short stories with Travis Richardson, Barb Goffman, Art Taylor, Paul D. Marks, and Craig Faustus Buck.  During a discussion of Plotters versus Pantsers (do you plot or fly by the seat of your pants?) Barb Goffman took a firm stand:  "I'm a plantser."  

Plus I got to chat with my two of my favorite editors, Linda Landrigan and Janet Hutchings, and meet another: Andrew Gulli.  

 And I have to admit it was a great joy to pick up my Derringer Award (as I'm sure Melodie would agree).  Thanks to everyone at the Short Mystery Fiction Society for making that possible.  If you want to hear my brief acceptance speech, here it is.


As you probably know, I love a good quote, so I will leave you with a bundle from Bcon.  Each was copied feverishly into my notebook at the time so I apologize to anyone whose words I garbled. Some of the quotations would benefit from context, but I am not going to give you any.  Here's why. 

By the time you are halfway through a Bouchercon you are so overstimulated that everything seems out of context.  (Notice our picture above seems a little blurry?  That was taken on the last day and we really were blurry.)  So consider this an accurate reenactment of the experience.  Enjoy.

"All great novels are mysteries."  - Sharon Fiffer

"Short stories exist only to stun you." - Jeffrey Deaver

"Does this novel make me look fat?" -Mara Purl

"I write short stories for the purpose of procrastination."  - Craig Faustus Buck

Moderator: How do you avoid cliches?
Brad Parks: I take it one day at a time.

"This is a really British novel.  Not cute British.  The other British.  Everyone's got a bad cough and a brown couch."  - Catriona McPherson

Waitress: So you're with the mystery convention!  Are you writers or readers?
Steven Steinbock: We are all murderers.

"I got a letter that said 'are you retired or are you dead?'" -Thomas Perry

"I have a short attention span.  I'm like a goldfish on cocaine sometimes." -Jay Stringer

"Nonfiction is about facts.  Fiction is about truth." - Mara Purl

"I'm the wrong person to ask about that, but I'll answer it anyway."  - Steven Steinbock

"If my story featured a hemophiliac it would take place in a razor blade factory." - Simon Wood

"Put him down for a whimper, not a bang." - Brian Thornton

"The story is not the plot."  -David Rich

"Westlake said to the movie producer: 'If you don't like the book why did you buy it?  Do you want to punish it?'" - Thomas Perry

"Don't kill your darlings.  Just lock them in the basement."  - Jon McGoran

"Panelists, do you have any questions for the audience?"  - Kevin B. Smith

"Everyone's in the cake.  No one's in the frosting." - Seth Harwood

"You don't choose your obsessions.  They choose you."  - Jodi Compton

"I'm not ashamed to say I write to a formula.  We don't get into a car that hasn't been designed to a formula."  - Jeffrey Deaver

  "Good storytelling requires that you be a good listener." - Steve Steinbock

"I had ethics in those days." - Thomas Perry

 "I'm going to turn it over to the crowd.  They're dangerous because they're hungover and they're punchy." - Claire Toohey

Craig Faustus Buck: How many lungs do you have?
Max Allan Collins: How many do you need?

Next time: the odd phenomenon of books, those flat dead tree things, at Bouchercon.

02 December 2014

Early Christmas Present: A Short Story


Hey, all. Jim here. On my blog, I have a feature called Get Into Jim's Shorts, where I run a new short story every month. This being Christmas, I went with a seasonal theme. As an early present, I'm going to share this month's story here as well. So without further ado…


SUNNY ACRES CHRISTMAS

Frank knew he had exactly four hours to clean out Sunny Acres Trailer Park on Christmas Eve. He figured an hour for people to grab dinner and make their way to Willowbrook Methodist Church, an hour for the first act of the annual Christmas pageant, half an hour for intermission (cake and punch in the church basement during a meet-in-greet with Joseph, Mary, and the Angel of the Lord), one hour for the second act, and half an hour before the faithful returned home. In the meantime, his name was not Frank.
He was Santa Claus. The idea came from seeing Jim Carrey in How the Grinch Stole Christmas a couple of weeks earlier. Only Frank’s idea was better. The Grinch had a dog. Frank had a 1998 Crown Victoria with a huge trunk and only minor engine problems.
The job, of course, could not begin until Amon Yoder, the police chief, left with his wife and kids piled up in their aging minivan. On Christmas Eve, the Willowbrook Police Department shut down, leaving the Sheriff’s Department to patrol the town. That meant the deputy who drew the short straw would park his cruiser downtown and keep an eye on the storefronts until about midnight, when his overnight relief would simply make a few passes on their way through town. But until Yoder and his family drove out to the Cracker Barrel on Route 20, Frank had to stay hunched down out of sight, eyes peering through the steering wheel with endless Christmas music playing on WJLB.
By 6 PM, half the trailer park had emptied. The other half – the heathen half, Frank had come to call them – were getting blissfully drunk on Big Muskie beer and watching whatever movies they’d seen a dozen times before on Christmas Eves past. No one would notice Frank trudging about Sunny Acres in the dark.
They would notice Santa.
To Frank’s surprise, the Santa suit did not keep him warm. Willowbrook, along with the rest of Musgrave County, lay under two feet of snow. While Sunny Acres did a good job plowing and salting the lot, it did not keep Frank from freezing his nuts off in the get-up. No worries. He planned to knock off about ten trailers, all double-wides, before the Virgin Mary gave birth over at the Methodist church.
He picked the locks easily enough. Had it not been for a four-year stretch in Mansfield, he might have made a decent living as a locksmith. More than one cop had given him a pass if he promised to use his powers for good instead of evil, but one day, that luck ran out.
“Yeah,” said Frank, muttering as he worked a particularly stubborn lock, “you try to make a good living without that badge, motherfuckers. Fucking Nissan moving, switching their brake supplier to Mexico.”
As the door swung open, he stepped inside, turned on the lights, and bellowed “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in as deep a voice as he could muster. He’d been practicing all week as a shopping mall Santa in Milan since Thanksgiving. When no one responded “Who’s there?”, he opened his sack, swept as many of the presents from under the tree as could fit, and headed back out, locking the door behind him. Frank, after all, was a thief, not an asshole.
On his third house, he almost did not get the door locked. Whoever lived there kept a huge Doberman. In the dark, the dobie looked like a beast from Hell. As he ran from the double-wide, the dog still barking loud enough for anyone in the neighboring trailers to hear, he wondered what idiot kept a dog that big in a home that small?
He moved onto the fourth trailer, a single-wide going to seed in this otherwise neatly kept trailer park. The old lady who lived here was the church organist. He knew her husband had left her a bundle, which she stretched by living in a dump like this. Nonetheless, she had lots of grandchildren who would want lots of presents. Frank could pawn those presents for hundreds if he were discreet enough. He filled his sack, locked the door, and headed back to the Crown Vic across the road. Six more trailers, he told himself. Empty the sack, hit six more trailers, and he could go have a beer at Mort’s out on Ashland Pike.
As he trudged back out of the park, his feet freezing, he heard a small voice call out to him. “Hi, Santa!”
The girl, no more than six, wore pink feetie pajamas and had her blonde hair in pig tails. She stood on the tiny porch of her family’s single-wide under a naked bulb.
Frank slowly raised his hand. “Uh… Hi?”
“Whatchu doin’, Santa?”
“Um…” He realized he needed to go into Santa mode or this kid would think something was wrong. “Ho! Ho! Ho! I’m taking these presents out to the sleigh to be inspected. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
The little girl jumped up and down, clapping her hands. “Is Rudolph out there?”
“Why, no, little girl. Rudolph retired. He trains the newer reindeer now.” He’d made that story up on the spot one Saturday as some brat sat in his lap telling him Rudolph wasn’t real. “What’s your name, little girl?”
“Taylor,” she said. “Taylor Mills. You know that, Santa.”
“Well, I don’t have my crystal ball with me.”
“Crystal ball?”
“How do you think I see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake? Ho! Ho! Ho!” He needed to get this kid back in the house or three trailers would be all he hit tonight. The dog had already cost him one place. “You should be inside, Taylor. It’s coooooolllllld out here. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
“Taylor,” said a woman from inside the trailer, “what are you doing out there?”
“I’m talking to Santa!”
“Well, come in the house. You’ll catch pneumonia out there.”
You ain’t kidding, lady, Frank thought. “Well, Taylor, you head off to bed, and I’ll be back later with your presents. But remember, you have to be asleep. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Taylor ran back into the trailer, slamming the door behind her. “Mommy! I saw Santa!”
Frank hurried across the street to his car. He still had a lot of work to do.
Popping the trunk of the Crown Vic, he dumped his latest haul inside. Slamming it shut, he patted the deck lid and said, “Thanks, Donner.”
Dashing back across the road, he made a bee line toward the most expensive home in the park. He had seen this one towed in halves through downtown Willowbrook. The man who lived there was a church deacon, and his wife sang in the chorus. If he could hit this one, he could count this as a good night. He wouldn’t have the haul he wanted, but he’d have a respectable amount.
About halfway back to the double-wide…
“Hey, Santa!”
Frank looked up. His heart sank when he saw an adult version of little Taylor Mills standing on the same porch. She wore black yoga pants and a Cleveland Browns jersey.
“Um…” Ho-ho-ho would not work, he knew. “Hi?”
“You playing Santa for the neighbors tonight?” she asked, cradling a mug in her hands.
“Yeah,” said Frank. “Just picking up a few bucks and doing something nice for the kids.”
“That’s sweet,” she said. “I’m Denise. Denise Mills. You talked to my daughter earlier.”
Okay, lady, I talked to your kid. Ho ho ho. Tell her Santa will be back later. “My pleasure.”
“Listen,” she said, “it’s just me and Taylor tonight. Her daddy’s gone.”
“He left?”
“Afghanistan. His chopper went down in the mountains six months ago.”
Oh, boy. “That’s rough, Mrs. Mills.”
“Please. Denise. Look, could I ask you to come in for a few minutes and give my daughter a special visit from Santa? It’d mean a lot. I could give you some hot chocolate with something a little extra in it.” She made a drinking motion with one hand, then mimicked pouring something into her own hot chocolate.
Well, it was freezing tonight. He wasn’t sure if he had much energy left to go beyond the next trailer.
“Please?” said Denise, her lips threatening to pout.
All Frank’s defenses melted. “All right. One cup of cocoa. Is the girl still up?”
“Yes. Come on in.”
Frank climbed the steps and followed Denise into her single-wide. It was cramped like any other single-wide trailer, but neatly kept. Places like this made Frank think of a submarine, everything smaller and either stacked or recessed. Denise dumped a packet of Swiss Miss into a mug and poured hot water onto it. She then reached into the cupboard and produced a half-full bottle of peppermint schnapps.
She held it up with a playful smile. “Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“Well, that’ll make for a warmer sleigh ride.” He accepted the mug as soon as she put a shot of schnapps into it.
“Taylor,” she hollered, “Santa’s here!”
For a six-year-old girl, Taylor certainly thundered down the trailer’s narrow hallway like an elephant charging. She stopped when she emerged into the kitchen. Seeing Frank in his Santa suit, she barely gave him time to put down his hot chocolate before she leapt into his lap. “Santa!”
“Well, ho ho ho, Taylor,” said Frank, adopting his mall Santa voice. “Your mommy thought I should pay you a visit since you’re all alone on Christmas Eve.”
Denise raised her phone and snapped a picture of Taylor on Frank’s lap. “Her grandmothers will love this.”
Frank said a silent prayer of thanks that he’d done a reasonable job on his beard. “Well,” he said in his best Santa voice, “maybe you could send a copy north for Mrs. Claus.”
“Please, mom,” said Taylor. “Please.”
“You just want an edge over all the other boys and girls,” said Denise. “Listen, can you watch her for a second? I gotta hit the little girls’ room.”
“Mommy’s gotta tinkle!” Taylor giggled at her own joke as her mother blushed.
“Taylor Anne Mills,” said Denise, “you behave in front of Santa.” That only made Taylor laugh more loudly. “I’ll be right back.”
Brave woman, thought Frank. Unless she recognizes me from the mall. If she does, I am royally screwed. “So, Taylor, have you been a good little girl this year?”
“Don’t you know, Santa?”
“Well, I have my list that I check twice, but it’s in the sleigh.”
“Can I see your sleigh?”
“Oh, I wish I could show it to you.” Because that’s what every little boy and girl wants to see, Santa tooling around in a 16-year-old Ford. “But I have new reindeer this year, and they spook so easily.”
“What about Rudolph?”
He had to admit he was enjoying this, making up new pieces of the Santa myth on the spot. “Ho ho ho, well, Rudolph’s been with me a long, long time. He’s retired now and trains all the new reindeer.”
“Why does he have a red nose?”
Vodka, thought Frank, who would need a couple extra shots of the stuff when this was over. “Magic. Rudolph’s nose is magic.”
“Magic?”
“How do you think they fly and pull a sleigh behind them without it falling. Christmas is magic, Taylor. Wonderful magic.” Wherein an unemployed factory worker spirits your stuff away to fence after the New Year. But let her figure that out when she grows up.
“The man on the news said the North Pole might melt,” said Taylor. “What will you do then?”
“Why move to Antarctica. Do you know where that is?” And is your mommy pissing a whole two-liter back there?
“The South Pole.”
“Yes. And just like the North Pole, I can get to anywhere in the world from there. Only the South Pole is on land.”
“Are there reindeer?”
“I have them brought in from Finland, which is waaaaay up north.”
The front door opened and in walked a sheriff’s deputy. “Honey, I’m… Oh, hi. Who are you?”
Frank tried very hard not to crap his pants. Gently, he put Taylor down before standing. “Why I’m Santa Claus! And who are you, Officer?”
“‘Deputy,’” said the cop. His phone buzzed, and he looked down at it.
“Is it cold out, Daddy?”
Daddy? Oh, shit. “Well, I must get back to my sleigh,” said Frank, trying to make it to the door.
The deputy blocked his path and had his hand on his weapon. He held up the phone, which displayed a picture of Taylor on Santa’s lap. “Cute. You work out at the Edison Plains Mall, don’t you?”
“Er…”
“And do you drive a 1998 Crown Victoria with a primered fender and a bad set of rocker panels?”
“Daddy, what’s wrong?”
“That’s not Santa, Taylor.”
Denise emerged from the bathroom. “You got here quick.”
“Well, someone called in about an abandoned car across the street, and someone else said the Mrs. Perkins’s Doberman was going berserk. Then I got your text.” He looked at Frank and said, “I’m going to assume that was you, wasn’t it?”
“Er…”
“What happened to ‘Ho ho ho’?”
“I thought you went down in Afghanistan.”
The deputy smiled. “I did. They gave me a discharge as soon as they rescued me. Who told you?”
“I never said he was dead,” said Denise. “I just said he was gone and that he went down in Afghanistan. He was gone; now he’s here.”
Frank looked at the gun on the Deputy Mills’s hip. He could charge. He could grab the gun, threaten his way out, and run for it. But then how far could he go running away in a Santa suit that did not even warm him? He looked down at Taylor, who looked confused. “So, Deputy, are my reindeer all right?”
Deputy Mills hand now rested on his weapon. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to…”
“Because if there’s a problem,” he continued, “we should go. I have some very special presents for Taylor.” He winked at Mills. “So… Shall we go?”
Mills’s hand relaxed on his gun. “I think Rudolph might have sprained his ankle landing on one of the trailers.”
“Daddy!” said Taylor. “Rudolph retired.”
Frank needed a story fast, or both he and Taylor’s Christmas would be ruined. “I believe you mean his son. Adolf. Ho, ho, ho.”
“Um… Yeah. Adolf. Anyway, he looks like he hurt himself. Could you come with me?” Deputy Mills had his hand his gun once more and gestured for the front door. “Shall we?”
Frank turned and knelt before Taylor. “No matter what happens, Taylor, you be a good girl. Listen to your parents. And have a merry Christmas.”
Taylor threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Bye, Santa!”
Frank got up and said, “Let’s go, Deputy. I’ve got a lot of houses to visit tonight.”
“Including the big one in Norwalk,” said Mills with a smirk. To Denise, he said, “I’ll be off about three, maybe sooner since I’ll just have to do paperwork on…” He looked over at Frank. “…Adolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“Be careful, honey. Try not to hit any reindeer out there.”
Outside Frank gave one last “Ho! Ho! Ho!” for Taylor’s benefit, then held out his wrists. “Let’s get this overwith before your daughter realizes I’m the mall Santa.”
“Save it,” said Mills. “You could have run, you know. Told my wife you were busy, hopped in your car, and made off with your take. Why’d you do it?”
“Why does a burglar ever…?”
“I mean my daughter. Why did you come in to talk to her? You know you blew your cover the moment my wife invited you in for hot chocolate.”
Frank thought about his own childhood. He remembered that scene from The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson rants about getting a carton of cigarettes for Christmas. That was his childhood. Broken toys from Goodwill when he was a child, cartons of Camels from the age of 12 onward. Things did improve when Frank got his driver’s license. His old man would give him whiskey.
“I’ve never had a good Christmas,” said Frank as he got into Mills’s cruiser. “And this Christmas, I’m going to jail. At least your daughter would have a happy memory.”
Mills shut the door on him. Climbing in the front of the cruiser, he said, “Well, ‘Santa,’ I thank you for that. Seems you did some good tonight after all.”
As they pulled out of Sunny Acres, Frank saw the tow truck backed up to his Crown Vic, another Sheriff’s Department cruiser parked alongside.
He began to cry.

01 December 2014

Holiday Blues


Jan Grape
My good friend, Harlan Coben had an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times on Thursday and he graciously gave me permission to quote from it. I'll actually take advantage and use the whole article and  along the way make comments.
RIDGEWOOD, NJ - THANKSGIVING weekend in1990, I spent two hours at the loneliest place in the world for an obscure novelist  -- the book signing table at a Waldenbook in a suburban New Jersey mall.

[Have any of you had this experience?]

I sat at the table smiling like a game show host. Store patrons scurried past me, doing all they could to avoid eye contact. I kept smiling.

[If I had know Harlan back then, I would have advised him to try his best to speak to people as they walked by. It's not easy if you're shy, but you just have to push yourself. Think of yourself as an actor playing the part of a well-known author signing books.]

I straightened out my pile of free bookmarks for the umpteenth time, though so far none had been taken. I played with my pen. Authors at signings like this get good at playing with their pens. I pushed it to and fro. I curled my upper lip around the pen and made it into a makeshift mustache. I clipped it to my lower lip, in an almost masochistic way, and was able to click the pen open by moving my jaw and pressing it against my nose. You can't teach that skill, by the way. Practice. At one point, I took out a second pen, rolled up a spitball, and then let the two pens play hockey against each other. The Rollerball beat the Sharpie in overtime,

[Maybe offer to give each one walking by a free bookmark and sign it for them. One of my big show stoppers is to ask someone, "Do you read mysteries?" If they say yes, then I point to my book. If they say no, then I say, I'll bet you know someone who does. This will take care of your Christmas list or their birthday list or Father's, Mother's Day? You know, improvise your holiday.]

During the first hour of my signing, a grand total of four approached me. Two asked me where the bathroom was. The third explained his conspiracy theory linking the J.F.K. assassination with the decision by General Mills to add Crunch Berries to Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal. The fourth asked me if we had a copy of the new Stephen King.

I kept smiling. Four copies of my brand-spanking-new-first novel -- Waldenbooks knew not to order too many -- stood limply on the shelf behind me. I missed the Barcalounger in my den. I longed for home and hearth, for stuffing my face with leftover turkey, for half-watching football games in which I had no rooting interest. Instead slow-baked under the fluorescent Waldenbook lights, the early Hipster booksellers glaring at me as though I was some kind of pedantic squatter. I had become the literary equivalent of a poster child -- "you could buy his book or you could turn the page."

Time didn't just pass slowly. It seemed to be moonwalking backward.

Then, with maybe 15 minutes left before I could scrape up the scraps of my dignity and head home., an old man shuffled toward me. He wiped his nose with I hoped was a beige hankie. His eyes were runny. Odds were this was going to be a where's-the-bathroom question, but this guy had all the makings of another conspiracy theorist.

The old man's gaze drifted over my shoulder, "What's that like?"

"Excuse me."

He gestured at the four books on the shelf behind me.

"Right," I said.

He shook his head in awe. "That's my dream, man. Seeing my book on a shelf in a bookstore." He lowered his gaze and met my eye. "So what's that like?"

I paused, letting the question sink in, but before I could reply, the old man lifted his eyes back to the bookshelf, smiled and shook his head again. "Lucky," he said, before turning and walking away.

He didn't buy a book. He didn't have to.
 [Harlan Coben is the NY Times best-selling author of   MISSING YOU, TELL NO ONE and the forthcoming title THE STRANGER]

And I know for a fact that Harlan doesn't sit unnoticed anymore at any book signing. When you feel alone at a book signing, think about what you MUST do to make it a fun experience. Bring along a bowl of chocolate kisses or some peppermint candy. Have some ball point pens made with your name and book title printed on them and hand those out when you catch someone's eye. You don't have to give out everyone of them but one every ten or fifteen minutes or so won't wreck your pocketbook.
Have some free bookmarks or postcards to give to everyone. You have to do more to promote yourself than just sit there like a bump on a log. Get creative. If you can't think of anything ask a friend or relative who is a craft person. You know...sell your book.

That's my best advice for the moment. See you next time.

[Harlan's article used with permission from Mr. Coben.]

30 November 2014

The First Female Detective


In my August post, “An Homage To Poe,” I discussed Andrew Forrester (pen name of J. Redding Ware) and his short story “Arrested On Suspicion.” I also mentioned The Female Detective, a collection of stories that he supposedly edited. I couldn’t find the book on Project Gutenberg. I found and downloaded it from Google Play. Because I couldn’t increase the small text in the scanned edition, I bought a print edition (released in 2012). The Female Detective was originally published in 1864.   
In the introduction to the 2012 edition of The Female Detective, Mike Ashley accepts Forrester as the author of the stories, though the scanned edition shows him as the editor. When  the book was published, there were no women detectives, either private or police, in Britain. It would be 50 years before women detectives appeared. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Pinkerton agency employed a woman detective in 1856, and the first policewoman appeared in 1908 in Portland, Oregon.
However, women as amateur detectives had appeared in stories prior to 1864, but “These works...involved women who, by circumstance, were forced to investigate matters.” According to Ashley, THE FEMALE DETECTIVE features the first professional woman detective: "Whether inspired by real events or entirely fictional it is clear that the mysterious 'G' is first and foremost the pioneering female detective.” 

G, as the police refer to her (she calls herself Gladden), is retired from the detecting business and was wise enough to allow a “literary editor” to revise her manuscript. G wrote the “book to help show, by my experience, that the detective has some demand upon the gratitude of society.”
The first case in the collection, “Tenant For Life,” is about a five year old inheritance fraud that G feels she must expose. Her round-about way of telling the story at first annoyed me until I accepted that she, like many of us old folks, likes to talk. She considers herself “a good talking companion, and “women are in the habit of talking scandal, with me for a hearer, within three hours of my making their acquaintance."
From a cabman and his wife, she learns the story of how, five years earlier,  the cabman bought a baby from a poor woman who appeared to be in distress. Shortly after the transaction, a lady ran after him looking for a woman with a baby and hears the baby crying in the cab. She offered him thirty pounds and he sold the baby to her. After hearing the story, G suspected the lady wanted to substitute the child for one who had died and that possibly an inheritance fraud was involved. She feels it is her duty to “deal out justice” and see that the property is return to the rightful owner, if it is in fact an inheritance fraud. 
I like the story for the way in which G goes about the investigation. Researching the birth and death records of the village where the cabman had sold the baby, she discovers it was born close to the same time a wealthy lady, Mrs. Shedleigh, in the village died. Armed with this information, she locates a family consisting of a five-year-old girl, her father Mr. Newton Shedleigh, and his sister Miss Shedleigh. Disguising herself as a seamstress, she gains entrance into the Shedleigh household and learns all she can about the Shedleighs. 
From her research on the law on inheritance, she learns that if the children of a husband and wife die before the wife, and she dies before the husband, he inherits her possession and becomes a “tenant for life.” If she dies without children, her property passes to her father’s brother. Her investigation of the Shedleighs leads to the dead wife’s uncle, whom she suspects is the rightful heir.
I like G even though she seems to be a meddlesome woman who interferes in other people’s lives to prove that detectives are necessary. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the remainder of her sleuthing adventures.

So long until next month when I must say goodbye.

29 November 2014

Based on the Novel by . . .


I'll start off with a fact gleaned from writer Stephen Follows's blog: More than half of the top 2000 films  of the last twenty years were adaptations. The rest, of course, were original screenplays and remakes. I see a lot of all three, and I plan to see a lot more--but with regard to movies adapted from novels, I do always try to read the book before watching the movie.

Why? Simple answer: Because the book is usually better. Also, I like to be able to picture the characters, settings, etc., in my own mind first, rather than seeing instead the result of what was in someone else's mind.

If all that's true, one might ask, why bother to watch the movie at all? That's an easy one, too: I want to see how the filmmaker's view compares to my own. Besides, as I've said, I just like movies. And sometimes--not often, but sometimes--what I see on the screen turns out even better than what I saw on the page.

Which brings up another question. What makes for a successful movie adaptation? Is it good simply because it remains faithful to the book? Not necessarily. I heard Twilight was faithful to the book, and look what happened there.

I think a good adaptation is when a piece of fiction, novel-length or short, great or terrible, is transformed into a good film.

Several categories are involved, here. And--as always--the following lists are based on my opinion only.

The four possibilities

1. Disappointing book becomes a disappointing movie: Dreamcatcher, Scarlett, Eragon, The Bridges of Madison County, The Reivers (I know, I know, it won the Pulitzer--but still), The Time Traveler's Wife, Battlefield Earth, Love Story, The Da Vinci Code, Message in a Bottle, The Betsy, The Valley of the Dolls. (NOTE: "Disappointing" doesn't necessarily mean "of poor quality." It just means "disappointing." To me.)

2. Book is better than the movie: The Stand, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Great Gatsby, Congo, One for the Money, Great Expectations, The Haunting of Hill House, Ender's Game, The Golden Compass, Dune, The Hobbit, Mind Prey, Live and Let Die, StripteaseTell No One, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, It, The Pillars of the Earth, Sphere, The Scarlet Letter, Timeline. 

3. Movie is better than the book: Dances With Wolves, Die Hard, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, Forrest Gump, Les MiserablesCasino Royale (2006), Cape Fear, The Bourne Identity, The Graduate, Psycho, Heaven's Prisoners, Blade Runner, Thank You for SmokingThe Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Interview With the Vampire, L.A. Confidential.

4. Good book becomes an equally good movie: Mystic River, The Searchers, The Silence of the Lambs, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jaws, The Dead ZoneThe Caine MutinyThe Eye of the Needle, Shane, Rebecca, From Russia With Love, Misery, Giant, Papillon, The Maltese FalconThe Princess Bride, Magic, HombreOut of Sight, From Here to Eternity, Cool Hand Luke, Sands of the Kalahari, The Cider House Rules, The Big Sleep (1946), The Hunt for Red October, Gone With the Wind, A Time to KillPresumed Innocent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Old Yeller, The Guns of Navarone, Life of Pi, The Lord of the Rings, The Green MileJurassic ParkThe Hunger Games, The Hustler, The RoadOn Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Prince of Tides, Jackie Brown, The Day of the Jackal, The Help, Holes, Flight of the Phoenix, Appaloosa, Third Man on the Mountain, No Country for Old Men, Get Shorty, Death Wish, The High and the Mightry. (And, according to R.T. Lawton's SleuthSayers column yesterday, Enemy at the Gates. I've seen that movie but I've not read the book.)

There are obviously many, many more, but my head's beginning to hurt, and yours probably is too. Can you suggest others, in the above categories? Do you disagree with some of my choices? (My wife certainly does.) Should I stop buying books at garage sales and cancel my Netflix subscription? All opinions are welcome.

Observations from the cheap seats

Note 1: A lot of outstanding films have been adapted from--believe it or not--short stories. Examples: Rear Window ("It Had to Be Murder"), High Noon ("The Tin Star"), It's a Wonderful Life ("The Greatest Gift"), 3:10 to Yuma, Brokeback Mountain, Duel, Stagecoach (The Stage to Lordsburg"), Bad Day at Black Rock ("Bad Day at Honda"), The Swimmer, Minority Report, It Happened One Night ("Night Bus"), 2001: A Space Odyssey ("The Sentinel"), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Fly, Don't Look Now, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Note 2: Good novellas usually make good movies. Why is this true? I think it's because a novella-length story most closely fits the length of a screenplay. Short-story adaptations (unless they become short films, or "episodes" in TV shows like Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents) require the screenwriter to add a lot to the originals--and novel adaptations (unless they become TV miniseries like CentennialRoots, and Lonesome Dove) require the screenwriter to leave a lot out. Examples of excellent novella-based movies: The Old Man and the Sea, Double Indemnity, The Mist, Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness), Stand By Me (The Body), The Shawshank Redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), The Thing (Who Goes There?), The BirdsThe Man Who Would Be KingThe Third Man, Hearts in Atlantis (Low Men in Yellow Coats), The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Most of these were able to remain fairly true to the source material.

Looking ahead . . .

I'm hoping that movies will one day be made from the following novels: The Bottoms (Joe Lansdale), The Given Day (Dennis Lehane), The Quiet Game (Greg Iles), Rose (Martin Cruz Smith), Plum Island (Nelson DeMille), The Matarese Circle (Robert Ludlum), 11/22/63 (Stephen King), The Two Minute Rule (Robert Crais), A Cold Day in Paradise (Steve Hamilton), Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Tom Franklin), Booked to Die (John Dunning), Cimarron Rose (James Lee Burke), Destroyer Angel (Nevada Barr), Killing Floor (Lee Child), Time and Again (Jack Finney). I'm keeping fingers crossed--I'd miss an episode of The Walking Dead to see one of those.

At the moment, I'm looking forward to watching several recently-released and upcoming films based on novels: Gone GirlThe Maze RunnerMockingjayThe Hundred-Foot Journey, and Horns. Will they be good or bad? Better than their books, or worse? 

Who knows. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Maybe that's part of the fun.

28 November 2014

Three Books by David Robbins


by R.T. Lawton

A few weeks back when I was looking for something new to read, I stumbled across The Empty Quarter (2014), the latest book by David Robbins. Its title intrigued me. I opened the book and scanned the inside. The offered sample read well, so I made my purchase.

The Empty Quarter opens in Afghanistan with a team of para rescuers from the Air Force's SOE branch being landed in an open field by a Pave Low helicopter, protected by a gunship. Their mission is to locate, treat and evacuate three wounded British marines whose patrol is pinned down by the enemy. In the process, the reader gets introduced to some of the main characters and finds out what makes them do the hazardous job they do. I then expected the rest of the book to take place in Afghanistan with that war. It didn't.

The story next moved to Yemen where the reader is introduced to Arif, a Saudi who returned from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan twenty-five years previously. Having returned to his native Saudi Arabia, he found he no longer fit into that society. Didn't help that he married a Saudi princess and became embroiled in conflict with her father, the prince. A short prison term for our likable antagonist soon followed. Then, acting upon the words from the prophet Muhammad from his own troubles centuries before, Arif and his wife fled to Yemen. Now, Arif uses his software programming skills to anonymously harass and embarrass the Saudi government through the internet.

      "When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen." ~ The Prophet Muhammad to his followers
       after retreating from Mecca.

Tension remains taut throughout the entire book, all of which is leading up to an escape and chase into The Empty Quarter, a vast desert in Yemen controlled by various tribal factions who often set up road blocks on the desert highway and demand bribes for any wishing to pass. Tribal bonds and blood feuds soon affect both the escapers and the pursurers. The escapers are an American low level diplomat (ex-Army Ranger Captain) who wrongly believes that Arif's wife is trying to go back to her father, a slippery Yemen Intelligence Colonel who lives in the world of spies, and Arif's wife who is strangely silent on the entire matter. The pursurers are a desparate Arif, a Yemen family of brothers who owe a death bed vow to assist this Saudi mujahedeen who has lived in their village for many years. A SEAL unit is on standby for extraction and the para rescuers are prepared to assist, but the plans of men often go awry with events beyond their control. It all collides at the ruins of an ancient building just off the desert highway, and it sometimes becomes difficult to tell who the real bad guys are.

The ending was not what I expected. If you don't get a lump in your throat at the conclusion of this book, then you are made of stern granite.

Enjoyed that novel so much that I went back to see what else David Robbins had written. To my surprise, I had already read one of his earlier books years ago, War of the Rats (1999) which is set in Stalingrad during World War II. Hitler has decreed that his army will capture this city named after the leader of the Soviet Union, while Stalin for his part has sent Krushchev to bolster the city's defenses down to the last man, woman and child, no surrender. The war for ground in the city slowly grinds down to a virtual stalemate. Snipers are called in to assist both sides.

If you are starting to think this scenario sounds familiar, you're correct. Robbin's book, War of the Rats, was made into a movie, Enemy at the Gates. I liked them both.

Realizing that Robbins likes to base his characters and story backgrounds on real people, events and existing organizations, I decided to try a third novel, The Assassin's Gallery (2006). This one is set in 1945 with most of the story taking place in the U.S. During the dark of night on New Year's Eve, a swimmer comes ashore from a submarine. She successfully lands on a beach outside a small town in Massachusetts and starts walking up the beach road to go to the house of her American contact. Unfortunately for her, two civilian coast watchers are parked up that road in an old pickup. Now, she must use all her talents as a professional assassin to cover her tracks.

Meanwhile in Scotland, an American who teaches at a university also secretly trains Jedburgh teams to be dropped behind German and Japanese lines to operate as assassins and saboteurs. This professor gets recalled to America by a member of the Secret Service whom he once trained as a Jedburgh. This particular Secret Service agent believes an assassin is en route to Washington, DC to kill the president.

The rest of the book matches wits between the alleged assassin and the professor. As the story progresses, the calendar keeps moving closer to April 12, 1945, the actual date of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death at the Little White House in Georgia. If you think you know the ending, you should consider two facts to go with this tale of fiction. One, shortly after Roosevelt's death, Josef Stalin sent a telegram to the U.S. State Department requesting that an autopsy be performed to determine if Roosevelt had been poisoned. And second, no chemist's report concerning what may or may not have been in Roosevelt's last meal is available even though the Secret Service ordered a test on the contents of that meal.

Ah, happy reading.

27 November 2014

Giving Thanks


by Brian Thornton

Wha-huh? It's Thanksgiving again ALREADY?

Where the heck did thus year fly off to?

Ah, well.

Here's what I'm grateful for (in no particular order):

My wife.

My son.

My parents.

My brother.

The rest of my far-flung, crazy family.

Wonderful friendships higher in terms of quality and sheer numbers than I have any right to command.

My two jobs. One I like, the other, I love. I'll leave it for you to sort out which is which.

Health, welfare, sense of humor. The whole package.

And lest we forget, you, the reader, for bothering with a trifle such as this little confection, on a day when there is so much heavy lifting to do on the eating side of things.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all!

Brian

26 November 2014

Tinker Tailor, Soldier Sailor


Musings, perhaps, less than a coherent whole, but bear with me.
I was a big fan of LeCarre's from the get-go, with THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, although I remember throwing the book across the room when I finished it. I later liked A SMALL TOWN IN GERMANY a lot, because by then I was familiar with the turf, both physical and internal, but I didn't much care for THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and actually for similar reasons - I knew sources and methods, and I found the tradecraft in the book unconvincing. Then came TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, THE HONORABLE SCHOOLBOY, and SMILEY'S PEOPLE (collectively, the Quest for Karla), and next, my own personal favorite, THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL. "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name."

LeCarre's been well-served, by and large, by movie and television adaptions.  THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, with Richard Burton and Oskar Werner, is bracing and intelligent. THE DEADLY AFFAIR (adapted from CALL FOR THE DEAD) is even better - James Mason as George Smiley, although the character's given a different name. LOOKING GLASS WAR? Well, okay, it's got Tony Hopkins, but I think it's a dud. LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, the movie? Not a failure, by any means, just a little out of focus, and abbreviated, of necessity, with a 130-minute runtime. Which brings us to the two back-to-back triumphs, Alex Guinness playing Smiley in the BBC miniseries, first TINKER TAILOR and then SMILEY'S PEOPLE.

What did I think of the more recent feature version of TINKER TAILOR, with Gary Oldman? I have two contradictory reactions. If you didn't know the story, you'd get lost in the thickets. On the other hand, not knowing the story, you wouldn't realize what you're missing. Having read the book more than once, and seen Guinness more than once, I kept noticing holes in the plot - how did Smiley get from Point A to Point B, when they left out the roadmap? But again, if you came to the movie without preconceptions, it might slide right by, nothing in your peripheral vision. The biggest weakness of the Oldman feature isn't Oldman, of course: he's terrific. And the compression, eh, you can't do much about that. The real weakness is in the supporting characters, not the actors, but the parts they play.




Maybe it's comparing apples and oranges. Let's face it, if you give yourself two hours (the movie version), vice five (the BBC version), a lot of stuff is bound to fall by the wayside, but in the TV production, you get a very strong sense of Toby Esterhase and Bill Haydon and Roy Bland, and each of them seem solid, probable suspects - each of them having something to hide, of course - not to mention what a snake Percy Alleline is. That's really what I missed most in the picture, not the careful chess game Smiley plays, but the feeling he's up against a real adversary, or several of them, conspiring.

Obviously, it's easy to take shots at a movie when you don't think it measures up to the book, and there's the obverse, that you can make a better picture out of a generic potboiler than you can from a more heavyweight source. They're two very different mediums, anyway. If you've ever tried to do a screen treatment (I've done a couple), you find out first thing that you're in a foreign country, the environment is at right angles to a novel or a short story. But in either case, it seems to me that it's about gaining the confidence of the audience - maybe with a movie, the audience is more passive than a reader is, if your ideal reader is engaged, but you can't let them slip through your fingers, either way. They surrender their trust, and you have a responsibility to play fair, and give as good as you got.


I'm not, in this sense, complaining. I respected the Gary Oldman picture of TINKER TAILOR - I just wasn't invested in it.  It's likely I was just too ready to find it wanting, compared to the longer Guinness version, which has a lot of room to breathe. And maybe that's the issue. It's the difference between total immersion and a quick, chilly dip in the pool. Both have their virtues. In the case of TINKER TAILOR (and SMILEY'S PEOPLE, as well), I think the stories are better served by a circular, more ambiguous method. It's a matter of pacing. Not the shortest distance between two points, or the most direct, but the long way around, a different rhythm, where time is elastic, and memory an unreliable witness.

DavidEdgerleyGates.com