Posts Tagged ‘The Titanic Murders’

Astaire, the Past, the Ricardos and Nightmares

Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

In last week’s comments, I was scolded for speaking my mind in a way that might alienate my younger fans. I hope I have some, but if they like my work, surely they don’t want me to mimic their political and social points of view, just to curry favor.

I do read (or at least thumb through) Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, and encounter mostly names of artists in film and music that mean nothing to me. Not that those names should. I am just trying, in a half-hearted, half-assed way, to keep up; but that’s a hopeless pursuit, really. We are so fragmented in our popular culture – we have so much streaming, so much popping up on social media platforms, so little Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan shared experiences, that we are all our own little islands.

That has its pluses and minuses. More stuff can get out there, but fewer eyes and ears will share the same or even similar experiences. When I remark that a TV show or movie is “painfully diverse,” I don’t mean diversity is bad – I mean, forced, cynical diversity is at odds with good storytelling. The preview I saw recently of an upcoming new version of Cyrano features Peter Dinklage in the title role – and swapping the original’s big nose for the actor’s diminutive height seems to make sense. Casting a Black actor as Christian who woos white Roxanne jars. Why, because I hate Black people? No, because it’s (a) historically risible, and (b) the whole story is set up around Roxanne being courted by a conventionally boring socially acceptable superficial clod who (to successfully win her) requires the poetic touch of a man considered to be ugly.

I’m not bent out of shape about it – this new Cyrano is a musical, after all, and there wasn’t a lot of Broadway-style singing going on between sword fights in 17th century France, either. I won’t avoid the movie, as I like sword fights, musicals and Peter Dinklage. But must we pretend the past was ethnically diverse?

The other side of the coin is represented by old Hollywood’s shameful mistreatment of minorities, particularly Blacks. That, of course, is a more complicated, even nuanced thing to navigate. On New Year’s Eve, over champagne and party mix, Barb and I watched Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The 1936 film has the usual trivial, even irritating weak comedy surrounding transcendent dance numbers.

Astaire’s solo number is “Bojangles of Harlem,” supposedly a tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whose dancing style has little if anything to do with Astaire’s. It’s an uncomfortable watch, though at times exhilarating (it’s Astaire, after all). But it’s Astaire in black face, and one of the special features on the excellent Criterion disc has Imogen Sara Smith discussing Astaire’s dance routine in terms of minstrel shows and other racially denigrating trends in show business during the first half of the 20th Century (and beyond).

Smith is an excellent critic, whose work on film noir has been commendable, and her discussion here of the shameful history leading up to a moment like the Astaire routine is accurate, even astute…as far as it goes. When the young Black woman lays blame at the feet of the “white men” who ran the studios, she neglects to discuss that white men were in charge of everything back then, and also that these particular white men were Jewish, and the object of plenty of prejudice themselves.

In another Criterion special feature, Gary Giddens – Bing Crosby’s brilliant biographer (like me, an old white guy) – discussing Astaire in black face quotes novelist L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I recall vividly my young-person reaction to minstrel show segments in movies and on television shows (this lasted well into the fifties and even sixties) as something distasteful and stupid. My reactions then – and, frankly, now – to how (what-was-already-yesterday’s) Hollywood handled black talent was a combination of marveling at the artistry of a Mantan Moreland or Tim Moore – two incredibly funny comedians – and how sadly ironic it was that men this talented had to maneuver around white stupidity to work their magic.

But as a kid I already understood that when Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor “blacked up” they were part of a show-business tradition they did not invent; and that – this is key – as Jewish comedians black face allowed them to be cheeky in a way they might not risk otherwise. Jolson and Cantor performed in musicals where their “black” characters were the smartest and funniest and most interesting in the story/cast. They were also the stars.

True, Jolson sentimentalized the Old South in a way that now rather curdles the blood – nobody gets caught up in “Mammy” or “Swanee” anymore. But when Jerry Lewis, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was doing “Jolie” songs (he actually remade The Jazz Singer for TV), he was not saluting the Old South or putting down Black people – he was paying tribute to old show business and his own father, who was a Jolson imitator.

The past is a foreign country.

Writing fiction set in the past has gotten tricky as hell, but it always has been. Since the beginning of writing Nate Heller, I’ve had to consider what Heller’s language should be – in dialogue somebody might be “colored,” but in the narration (presumably written by him years later) he would likely use “black” or even “African American” (although we are now back to Black, albeit capitalized).

I almost always like Aaron Sorkin’s work, and his current Amazon Prime movie Being the Ricardos has its merits, with great performers having a blast delivering the writer’s trademark witty-to-a-fault dialogue. But Sorkin stumbles badly in the writing-about-the-past department. Some of it seems uncharacteristically sloppy – he refers to the “taping” of a show in an era before video tape (shows were filmed, or performed live with kinescopes sent to the west coast), even though the revolutionary multi-camera 35mm film technique developed by Desi Arnaz and cinematographer Karl Freund is referred to later.

Sorkin has Lucille Ball up against Judy Holliday for the lead in The Big Street in 1942 when Holliday didn’t even make her screen debut till 1949. He uses the term “showrunner” when it wasn’t around till the ‘90s. Easy-to- avoid anachronisms litter the screenplay. Perhaps the most egregious instance of Sorkin making no attempt to stay in period has Lucy accusing Desi of “gaslighting” her – a form of the word that dates to 2016.

Sorkin has had his problems with “woke” criticism, and he seems to be trying to court forgiveness here through the characterization of the young Madelyn Pugh (played by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), portraying Pugh as a modernday feminist somehow time-machined to 1952 to confront Lucille Ball about the infantilization of her performances as Lucy Ricardo.

This is exactly the kind of thing that turns my stomach – courting the good opinion of the predominant cultural arbiters and selling out in the process.

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Guess who doesn’t sell out? While the new Reno 911!: The Hunt for Qanon is not exactly a great movie, it’s certainly great fun, if you’re already a fan. With Patton Oswalt along for the ride, we travel with the Reno 911 team as they infiltrate a Qanon cruise in hopes of serving Q with a subpoena. How they endure a thirty-day quarantine on the ship (not Covid –“extreme diarrhea”) and wind up on Jeffrey Epstein’s sex island can best be summed up thusly: Trudy has an affair with a potted plant. It’s on Paramount Plus.

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Nightmare Alley, Criterion release

Among noir fans, I may be in the minority; but for me the Guillermo del Toro remake of Nightmare Alley misses badly.

I have pretty much universally liked del Toro’s other work, and have spoken here of how much I value Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, and The Shape of Water. I sought out William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley in high school after seeing the 1947 film version on TV, and it’s been on my shelf of favorite hardboiled literature ever since. I came to the film as a Tyrone Power fan – based upon such swashbuckling fare as The Mark of Zorro, Captain from Castille and Prince of Foxes – and was gobsmacked by his performance as Stan Carlisle, a carny who rises to prominence as a nightclub mentalist, a grifter who gets out-grifted and falls even lower than the lowly place he started.

It’s a haunting story and works best in its first film incarnation, where Tyrone Power’s handsome charmer makes us root for him at first and even continue caring about him when his flaws start bringing him down. The film is a noir buff’s dream, with Colleen Gray as innocent Molly, Joan Blondell as worldly Zeena, and the wonderful, unjustly forgotten Helen Walker (of Murder, He Says!) as a complex, chilling femme fatale, Lilith Ritter. Written by Jules Furthman (whose screenplays include everything from Mutiny on the Bounty to To Have and Have Not) and directed by Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, The Razor’s Edge), the film is gritty and uncompromising even while dancing around the Production Code. While the novel ends with Stan condemned to the worst job at the carnival, the film has him reunited with his wife in a superficially, censor-satisfying ending, but clearly doomed to reenact the shabby fate of Zeena and her now-dead drunken husband. (There’s an excellent Criterion edition of this, as well.)

Del Toro claims this is a return to the novel and not a remake; however, the last line of his film comes from Furthman’s screenplay, not the novel. The original film ran 111 minutes while the new Nightmare Alley is two hours and thirty minutes, the storytelling basking in itself and refusing to move along on what is, after all, a carnival ride – a story that is essentially an ironic eight-page EC Comics horror yarn.

The new Nightmare’s art direction is ridiculously lavish – the cheap carnival’s fun house set is a visual feast and at the same time all wrong, and psychiatrist Lilith Ritter’s office is an absurdly vast art deco chamber. It’s like a musical where you come away humming the sets. Meanwhile, the director misuses some of our best actors. Bradley Cooper wanders dazed through the proceedings, utterly lacking the charm and charisma that make Tyrone Power believable as a manipulative charlatan and a rogue at times worth sticking with. Toni Collette’s Zeena trades in Joan Blondell’s earth mother for a skank who immediately climbs into a bathtub with just-walked-in carny Cooper. Cate Blanchette may be sending up every femme fatale of real films noir, or she just may be struggling with a script that presents her as an immediate over-the-top cliche. Rooney Mara’s Molly does whatever the script bids her to do at any given moment, obediently going along.

I am usually not this tough on films. There’s a lot of artistry and talent on hand here, but so is a woeful misunderstanding of the source material. Nightmare Alley, both Gresham’s novel and the original film, utilize a technique I heartily approve of: a melodramatic tale with a gritty surface of realism. But Del Toro actually expands and overblows the melodrama, making Carlisle a patricidal sociopath, turning Lilith Ritter into a witchy parody, and evil kazillionaire Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) into a homicidal maniac spouting the f-word as if it was already common parlance in 1941.

I saw this in a theater, wearing a mask, risking Covid – just another sucker taken for a ride at the carnival.

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Ron Fortier has done a lovely review of the initial title in my so-called “disaster” series.

This is a Crusin’ performance from a few years ago that features our former guitar player Jim Van Winkle, his son Teddy on trombone (an impromptu sit-in), and our much missed bass player, the late Brian Van Winkle. This was a benefit performance at the River City Music Experience in Davenport, Iowa (we were one of a number appearing). Goes out of focus for a while but straightens itself out.


Barb’s Mom and Writing From Experience

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021

Barb’s mother passed away last week. I mention this not to initiate a flood of condolence wishes, which since Barb does not use Facebook might fall on deaf ears anyway. Dorothy Carolyn Jensen Mull was 97 and had endured a long bedridden convalescence, although saying Dot’s passing was a “blessing” in a way does not make it any easier for Barb and her six siblings.

I mention it here because Dorothy deserves thanks and recognition for inspiring, to a degree, the character Vivian Borne in the Antiques cozy mystery series that Barb and I write. This is not to say that Dot was a zany eccentric or a local theater diva – neither was the case. But she was highly spirited and for a number of years went antiquing with Barb from this flea market to that garage sale. This led to Barb and her mom running a booth at an antiques mall together for a good number of years, which was a major inspiration for the book series.

And I am happy to say that Dot enjoyed the Trash ‘n’ Treasures mysteries, which in her later years (with her eyesight failing) were read to her by Barb’s sister Anne.

I go into this in part because it speaks to Barb’s methods and mine where it comes to writing fiction. Though we work in a genre with its own conventions and (to use the tiresome current favorite term) tropes, we both instill elements from our own experience in our storytelling. The psychologist character in the Antiques books draws from Barb’s sister Cindi, yes, a psychologist. Barb has an older sister just as Brandy Borne does, although past a few superficial similarities the resemblance ends there. She also has a sister, Kathe, whose work in Broadway theater impacted our novel, Antiques Con. My brother-in-law Gary inspired a friend of Quarry’s who has somehow managed not to get killed, either in real life or fiction.

This kind of thing goes back to the earliest days of my career, when I was first able to inject elements of my real life into my crime-fiction fantasy. Mourn the Living had an Iowa City setting and reflected the hippie era there when I was in college. Bait Money finds Nolan and Jon robbing the bank where Barb was working at the time; she provided me with their security protocols!

Even in writing historical fiction I draw upon my own experiences. I wouldn’t have written The Titanic Murders if I hadn’t read in grade school a Tab book club edition of Jacque Futrelle’s The Thinking Machine. Getting betrayed by my best friend from high school (who embezzled from me) played a part in any number of my novels in the last twenty years, including Quarry’s Ex, which also drew upon my experiences making indie movies.

Anyway, it’s a lesson aspiring writers in any genre should take to heart. Don’t just write out of the books you’ve read and movies and TV you’ve seen. Draw on your experiences even in the context of mystery fiction or s-f or westerns or…really, any genre.

And one last thing – thank you, Dorothy. You inspired me, through your daughter and your own unique spirit.

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Scarface and the Untouchable Cover

Scarface and the Untouchable – the Capone/Ness non-fiction work by Brad Schwartz and me – hit the entertainment news last week. CBS is exercising their option to pick up the property for a series and it’s going to Showtime. We’ll see if it happens.

Read about it here, where you’ll discover my middle name is “Allen” and that apparently no one but me (and you) remembers that this all began with The Untouchables TV series starring Robert Stack.

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Barb and I went to a movie at the local theater for the first time since the pandemic hit – something like fourteen months. We are, as you may be aware, frequent moviegoers and it was definitely strange to be back doing something so familiar after over a year and a half away from it. The theater did a good job with every other row blocked off and masks in the outer areas. We went at an off-time (3:30 pm on a Sunday) and were among perhaps seven other moviegoers.

The film was terrific – Wrath of Man, starring Jason Stratham and directed by Guy Ritchie. I like Ritchie’s films very much – he is essentially the UK’s Tarantino. It’s a very hardboiled crime story and not for the faint of heart (or the five year-old whose parents took her to this screening), minus the humor and quick cutting of most Ritchie films. This has more of a Richard Stark feel than the Parker film Stratham starred in a few years ago.

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Here’s a wonderful review of Shoot-out at Sugar Creek, the new Caleb York.

And another.

Jeez, maybe you guys ought to read this one.


Dispatch From the Bunker

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

The audio book of Scarface and the Untouchable, I am pleased to report, is up for a Voice Arts Award, thanks in no small part to narrator Stefan Rudnicki…assisted by two other narrators, A. Brad Schwartz and Max Allan Collins, under Stefan’s direction.

For those of you attending Bouchercon, look to see Barb and me there, Friday through Sunday. The con begins on Thursday, but that’s Halloween, and my four year-old grandson will be in costume, seeking candy, which I do not intend to miss.

Next week I’ll give you the breakdown on our panels and signings (Barb and I each have a panel appearance).

I have been very much burrowed in on the next Mike Hammer novel, Masquerade for Murder. It will be out next March. This is the second Hammer I’ve written from a Spillane synopsis, with only two scraps of Mickey’s prose to work into the book (including the opening, however). That’s an intimidating prospect, but I think it came out well.

The novel takes place in the late ‘80s and is a follow-up (not a sequel) to Mickey’s The Killing Man. Like the preceding Spillane/Collins Hammer novel, Murder, My Love, the synopsis may have been written by Mickey as a proposed TV episode for the Stacy Keach series. This means I had fleshing out to do, and I hope I’ve done Mike and the Mick justice.

I am working with a new editor at Titan, Andrew Sumner, who knows Hammer well – he was the skilled interviewer for one-on-one interviews with me at the last two San Diego Comic Cons. Andrew knows American pop culture inside out, and this is good news for me and the series. I will, very soon, be preparing a proposal for three more Hammer novels – two of which have considerably more Spillane material to work from.

The 75th anniversary of Mike Hammer looms in 2022, and we are already planning for it. With luck, the long-promised Collins/James Traylor biography of Spillane will be part of that. There will be a role for Hard Case Crime in the mix, too, and possibly even another graphic novel, this one based on a classic Spillane yarn.

For Masquerade for Murder, I spent a lot of time with The Killing Man, assembling typical Spillane phrases, settings and passages for reference and inspiration. I try to incorporate a Spillane feel, particularly in descriptions of weather and NYC locations; but I stop short of writing pastiche – I am less concerned with imitating Mickey’s style and more concerned with getting Hammer’s character down.

It’s somewhat challenging positioning each novel in the canon in proper context. Hammer was a shifting character – shifting with Mickey’s own age and attitudes – and I want each book to reflect where the writer and his character were when Mickey wrote the material I am working from. The last two have been later Hammer – specifically, late 1980s. Next time, assuming I land another three-book contract, I will be writing a story set around 1954. I look forward to that, because it’s the younger, rougher and tougher and more psychotic Hammer that many of us know and love.

I also have gone over the galley proofs of the new Heller, Do No Harm, also out in March (as is Girl Can’t Help It!) (yikes)! It was written a while ago and I was pleased to view it from a distance – and pleased to find I liked it very much.

I hope you’ll agree.

You didn’t have anything else to do next March but read three books by me, did you? You can take April off and dive back in, in May for Antiques Fire Sale.

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Here’s a nice, extensive look at Ms. Tree.

Wild Dog has his own Wikipedia entry now – a good one.

One of our best contemporary crime fiction critics and historians, J. Kingston Pierce, has included The Titanic Murders in a fun look at disaster mysteries.

The late, great Paul Newman is lauded in this write-up about the film of Road to Perdition.

And finally, that man Jeff Pierce is back with a fine piece about the subject of last week’s update, actor Robert Forster.


100 Reasons to Love Mickey Spillane

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017
Spillane 100

How about an advance look at what’s planned for Mickey Spillane’s 100th birthday next year?

Two books will share centerstage – The Last Stand and Killing Town. Both are really special. The Last Stand will feature two novels – a short one circa early ‘50s, A Bullet for Satisfaction, which I co-authored from an unedited rough draft; and a full-length one, entitled (appropriately enough) The Last Stand.

The latter novel is the last book Mickey completed. My contribution has been to give it an edit, based upon comments Mickey made to me when he and I discussed the book shortly after I read it. This was probably around two weeks before he passed. Mickey was working on The Last Stand and two other novels simultaneously, The Goliath Bone and Dead Street (both of which I completed for him).

With his wife Jane Spillane’s permission, I held back The Last Stand until now for several reasons. First, it’s not a typical Spillane novel – it’s more of an adventure novel along the lines of Something’s Down There, the last book published during his lifetime. While we discussed having it published as the first book after his death, ultimately we decided to set it aside, probably for the centenary. I felt it was better to make the Mike Hammer novels a priority – to get them finished and out there. I’ve obviously been doing that, as well as completing (for publication by Hard Case Crime) Dead Street and The Consummata, both crime novels in keeping with a typical Spillane approach.

The Last Stand is a fun novel, a modern-day western and a disguised rumination on the tough guy entering old age, and readers will be very entertained. But I thought for those who might be confused by a lack of certain expected Spillane elements, including the more typical A Bullet for Satisfaction would make for a nicely balanced volume. Satisfaction is a rogue cop revenge tale with lots of sex and violence (the hero’s name is Rod Dexter).

Hard Case Crime will be doing the book in both hardcover and paperback, something they only do occasionally. Publisher Charles Ardai also brought a loving hand in the edit.

So we have the final Spillane novel.

And we have the first Mike Hammer novel.

Wait, what…?

Killing Town is another manuscript I salted away with the centenary in mind. It’s a substantial manuscript, longer than those I’ve been dealing with of late, and it represents Mickey’s first go at doing Mike Hammer, probably circa 1945…predating I, the Jury. I will tell more of the story behind it later, but it’s a novel that takes place in an industrial town in upstate New York with Mike Hammer running a dangerous errand for an army buddy. It could not be more typically vintage Spillane in tone and approach. Titan is publishing in hardcover.

I have not begun my work yet, but it’s the next big project.

We will also in 2018 have the mass market edition of The Will to Kill, the paperback of the Caleb York novel The Bloody Spur, various new audios, and more.

Those of you with blogs might want to think about doing a Spillane piece for 2018. (His birthday is March 9.) I will be writing something for Mystery Scene, and hope to complete a non-Hammer short story for The Strand.

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Here’s a nice piece on Hard Case Crime with an emphasis on comics.

Publisher’s Weekly includes Quarry’s Climax in upcoming books they’re showcasing.

Here’s an audiobook review of The Titanic Murders.

And finally here’s a NSFW link that shows a reader enjoying an advance look at Quarry’s Climax.