So far in my stint here at Murderati, I’ve largely refrained from what my cohorts refer to — with a merry wink and a mischievous grin — as BSP: Blatant Self-Promotion. Well, today’s the day I lose my cherry — on that front, anyway.
I want to share with you news of a short story collection — with a notable Murderati pedigree — to which I humbly, which is to say proudly, contributed, and which came out just last week.
Story collections are a lot like rock albums. Two classics trailed by a mediocre bunch of the dithering and the damned. Welcome to the editing savvy of Brian Thornton. When you see BT is the editor, you know it’s the gold guarantee and is it ever.
Michael cut his teeth as founding Vice President of Research for GigaOM Pro, the research division for GigaOM, a market technology research firm that sought to rethink the whole world of market analysis, and in his work he realized that technology-driven markets were changing things far faster and more completely that the old school could comprehend—and this was nowhere more true than in book publishing. (Check out this interview with Michael—or this one, if not this one —for his vision for the industry and his company.)
Michael tapped Brian Thornton to edit his first anthology, and Ken had it absolutely right. Brian did a masterful job, not merely due to his grace and intelligence but his sheer tenacity. He managed to herd a uniquely rabid crew of cats — including a scientist who clones and patents ”human immune system hormone genes” and “produced the first commercially successful nanotechnology device,” and an academic renegade with a Ph.D from Yale (call us the not-so-dithering and quasi-damned) — and we set our tales in an intriguing array of west coast locales, from Alaska to Los Angeles:
Authors whose names are highlighted, including me, have interviews or story excerpts posted on the anthology website, with more to come.
BAD HISTORY, by Jim Winter — San Francisco, California
BRIDGET’S CONCEPTION, by Doug Levin — Portland, Oregon
DETOUR DRIVE, by Terrill Lee Lankford — Los Angeles, California
PAPER SON, by Brian Thornton — Seattle, Washington
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If you want to give West Coast Crime Wave a spin (and I truly madly deeply hope you do), it can be had for a proverbial song — said song now being valued at the insanely reasonable price of $3.99 — can you believe it, people! — from both Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes and Noble (Nook).
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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: A bit of hip-hop promo for my real hood, Vallejo, CA, from a succession of homegrown rappers. I acquired the link in doing research for my next novel, from a detective on the Vallejo PD Major Crimes Unit, who was more than grateful for the unwitting gang intelligence it provided.
There will be some no doubt who think I should say Jukebox Zeroes, but I wish the suits at the local Chamber of Commerce or even the Progressive Posse felt half this much passion and love for this town.
I’ll be traveling from 4 AM my time until late afternoon, en route to the Creative Lives Writing Away retreat in Breckenridge, Colorado. I therefore will be largely unavailable for responding to comments for at least the first half of the day — sorry.
I’ve therefore chosen a light topic, pure entertainment, beaucoup de fun, for your enjoyment. Chime in, please — “feel free to converse among yourselves” — and I’ll try my best to get back to everyone before the end of the day.
I wonder how much the music we associate with any particular type of story influences our attraction to it.
For example, I grew up when westerns seemed to be everywhere, and though there are memorable themes from such movies and TV programs — most notably those for Rawhide(composed by noted Cossack cowpoke Dmitri Tiomkin), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly(by the fabled spaghetti saddle-buster Ennio Morricone), and my personal favorite, The Magnificent Seven (above, composed by Elmer Bernstein, the High Plains Hebrew) — by and large the tunes didn’t stick. They were as wholesome and hokey as the programs themselves. (I tried to go back and watch an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel, for example, which I loved as a kid, and found it godawful: predictable, sentimental, and paced like a glacier).
And though movies based on WWII were still all the rage — Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape (all, interestingly, with themes by Mr. Bernstein again) — and the music from those films not just inspired me but often brought me nearly to tears (cut me some slack, I’m a boy), it also had a back-glancing quality, straining for epic, as though to say the best of manhood was a dead letter.
Not exactly what a guy teetering on the brink of his teens wants to hear.
In contrast, the music for more contemporaneous crime and espionage shows always seemed to be sleeker, hipper, edgier — more conspicuously if fatalistically alive — even for a show that actually reached back further in time than the war, The Untouchables:
This theme was written by the ubiquitous Nelson Riddle, also famous for the quintessential road theme of the early 60s, Route 66:
Or consider the quirky, short-lived Johnny Staccato (“TV’s jazz detective”), featuring John Cassavettes, who played a jazz pianist PI — a program so forced in its artiness it was often unwatchable — but what a perfect theme (by Elmer Bernstein again; the dude got around):
I was a boy in central Ohio, I’d already found my way to a guitar, I had garage band aspirations and far-away dreams. I wasn’t looking to the mythic cowboy past for inspiration, but to the cosmopolitan present, and the music I heard on crime shows spoke not of mesquite canyons but smoky barrooms and shrill casinos and deadly back streets, of twisted hearts and savage dreams, of power lurking in a shadowy boardroom I’d never know, of lonely men and lovely women and an itch you can’t scratch, a hunger you never satisfy, an empty palm at the end of the mind.
Everybody tap your toes!
Where did it begin? All roads lead back to Perry Mason, I suppose, with a theme that managed to be driving, lyrical, passionate and dissonant all at once — and distinctly urban:
Little did I know that Paul Drake would be the model for my later incarnation as a real-life private investigator — and Drake is to my mind the most accurate portrayal of a PI ever on TV (though a little dim-witted and unambitious next to the massively mental Mr. Mason).
Henry Mancini’s vibe was a bit more cool and urbane, but he provided two of the most seminal inner anthems of my boyhood. I loved (and envied) the effortless masculinity of Mr. Lucky, despite — or perhaps because of — the ice-rink organ effects:
A spin-off tune from Mr. Lucky was Mancini’s sumptuous “Lujon,” which has inspired filmmakers ever since, cropping up in movies as diverse as Sexy Beast and The Big Lebowski:
And no kid who picked up a Gibson didn’t rush to learn the opening riff from Peter Gunn, a bit of reverb-cranked Mancini-esque testosterone reminiscent of John Barry’s 007 theme:
Guitars, of course, lead us to the Ventures, and though I was far more enamored with hits like “Journey to the Stars” and “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” their theme for Hawaii Five-O had a hook so compelling it’s single-handedly responsible for the show’s current reincaration on network TV (imho):
That theme would become almost as much a part of that time’s aural fabric as the theme from Mission Impossible:
Argentinean exile Lalo Schifrin — who in Buenos Aires played piano for the master of the nuevo tango, Astor Piazzolla, and went on to work with Clint Eastwood on the Dirty Harry films — was responsible for the MI theme, which was ripped off shamelessly for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a second-rate show in almost every regard (which I loved, naturally).
As testimony to the power of music, the most memorable part of the film version of Mission Impossible for me was the midpoint action sequence when this theme finally kicks in with a vengeance — I got chills the instant I heard that unforgettable intro. Still do.
But the shows that truly registered with me came from Britain, and not surprisingly their music was very much a part of that impact.
The first was Secret Agent, which ironically changed both its name (from Danger Man) and its original theme — which emphasized a somewhat manic harpsichord rather than the distinctive, slicing guitar of Johnny Rivers:
Even more compelling was The Prisoner, like Danger Man/Secret Agent starring Patrick McGoohan, and perhaps the darkest, strangest, most paranoid show from that era — or any era:
But the show that stole my boyish heart was, of course, The Avengers.
I wonder how many boys, sitting enraptured before TVs around the world, had their erotic imaginations seared into focus by Diana Rigg:
The show played on Friday nights, I always watched it at my best friend Mike Enright’s house, and when that theme played over the ending credits I always felt a wistful sense of loss and longing. The weekend lay ahead but The Avengers was over, at least for a week.
How would I live until then?
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So, Murderateros — what music from childhood stirred your imagination, quickened your pulse, insinuated itself into your dreams — marinated the twtchy tedium of puberty?
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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: On a much, much goofier, weirder, cheesier level, there were freakish “supermarrionation”action shows when I was growing up, such as Supercar:
And Fireball XL5:
which in turn inspired the demented imaginations of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, with their singularly perverse and perversely wonderful Team America:
We broke the history of film into five time periods (see below), picked three films from each era, then named our absolute favorites. We then bickered and snickered about each other’s picks, and had a generally grand old time.
The hour deadline prevented us from discussing all but the first two time periods, though, and the last two “conceptual” categories, which we added for fun: Sacred Cow I Would Most Like to Gore and Little Known Film Worth Seeking Out (go to the end for these categories, which are probably the most fun).
The great joy of the panel was shooting ideas back and forth with other obsessive film lovers whose tastes both conformed and contrasted—or flatly contradicted—my own. And I was often glad someone brought up a particular film because it got so close to being one of my top three, and I hated not being able to include it. I wish we could have just hung around and talked movies for hours, because what everyone had to say about film always got my engine running.
But it was also fun to see how vehemently perfectly bright, well-informed people can disagree: Todd praisedThe Silence of the Lambs while Megan considered is a sacred cow in need of goring. Todd reveres Rear Window while that was my sacred cow, etc.
I thought you might enjoy seeing which films got chosen by whom and why. I’ll go through my fellow panelists’ picks after naming my own, which I chose largely to play the crank, the iconoclast, the connoisseur of the obscure—I know, you’re stunned.
Note: This is a tediously long posting, so just scroll through till you see a title you either know about or would like to learn about, or something else catches your eye. Where a film title bears a link, it leads to a trailer or other video concerning the film.
M (1931) Director: Fritz Lang; starring Peter Lorre
The reason this is my top pick is because it provides one of the greatest performances on screen, ever: Peter Lorre’s confession as the child killer during the trial sequence near the movie’s end. This feverishly impassioned monologue is one of the most psychologically and morally complex in all of film, combining dread with self-pitying manipulation and the very real horror of helpless self-recognition. The film also fuses a brilliant story with a stunning visual technique without sacrificing a gritty urban realism. The irony at the heart of the film—that a child killer so energizes the police, without making them efficient, he obliges the city’s criminals to search for him themselves—is compounded with the resonance of the rise of Nazism. M is by no means an allegory—Lang was far too sophisticated a storyteller for that—but on reflection, even as one continues to root for the criminals, who seem to provide the ironic moral anchor for the film, it’s hard not to recognize an unsettling subtext: The social element that proclaims to want to protect children (while secretly pursuing its own illicit agenda), that goes about it with efficiency and skill and even with the trappings of due process, may in fact be, well, a bunch of criminals. (The fact Lang’s first film in the US after fleeing the Nazis, Fury, would focus on mob justice is hardly surprising.)
Remaining Two of Top Three:
Le Jour Se Leve (1939) Director: Marcel Carné; screenwriter: Jacques Prévert; starring Jean Gabin, Arletty
From the same director/screenwriter team who created Les Enfants du Paradis, a beautiful, tough love story that begins with a murder and ends (surprise!) tragically.
Scarlet Street(1945) Director: Fritz Lang; starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea
Another offering from the great Fritz Lang, this one made in America, and a gritty, uncompromising remake of Woman in the Window (1944), which Lang felt had been sentimentalized and sanitized by studio bigwigs.
Other Panelist Picks:
Top Pick: Double Indemnity (1944) I was with Megan all the way, until she brought up the “vaguely homoerotic rapport” between Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. What can I say, I just can’t go there, even on a bet, when very drunk. But Barbara Stanwyck is breathtaking, even when she’s guilty as, well, sin. Maybe especially then.
Remaining Two Picks: Roaring Twenties(1939) and Laura (1944)
Top Pick: Public Enemy (1931) Russel, a Scot, said his idea of America and Americans was largely formed by this film and others like it. “No list is complete without it.”
Remaining Two Picks: Murder My Sweet “Dick Powell brings a very different kind of Marlowe to the iconic one we all know from Bogie’s performance.”
The Maltese Falcon“With apologies to all those who have recently jumped on the cool-to-bash-the-falcon bandwagon” (meaning David Corbett, who considers it a sacred cow).
Top Pick: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) “Hitchcock’s warped love letter to small-town America. Joseph Cotten has never been more menacing and Theresa Wright never more plucky.” (Todd’s a Hitchcock scholar, btw.)
Remaining Two Picks: M“Fritz Lang’s dark procedural makes criminals the cops on the hunt for child killer Peter Lorre in pre-war Berlin. No one comes out looking good.”
The Thin Man “As effervescent as champagne and as snappy as a stick of Wrigley. The plot is a throwaway. The keepers here are the dialogue and the chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell.”
Top Pick (tie): Public Enemy(1931) and Dead End (1937): “Crime in a social context: Prohibition and the Depression, and how American gangsters are made.”
Remaining Pick: The Maltese Falcon (1941): “Dashiell Hammett’s world view invades popular culture. An obvious pick, but any film you can easily name multiple characters from 70 years after its release deserves to be included.”
Cold War Crime (1945-1965)
Il Bidone (“The Swindle”—1955) Director: Federico Fellini; starring: Broderick Crawford, Richard Basehart, Giulietta Masina
Filmed between the shooting of La Strada(1952) and Nights in Cabiria (1956), with a typically beautiful score by the incomparable Nino Rota, it tells the story of an aging smalltime hustler plagued by his own feckless past who seeks to redeem himself by supplying the money for the schooling of a daughter he has rarely met. The story was inspired by anecdotes Fellini heard from a petty thief on the set of La Strada. Bogart was Fellini’s first choice for the film’s “intense, tragic face,” but the actor’s lung cancer made that impracticable. The director recruited Crawford after seeing his image on a poster for All the King’s Men (1949). Plagued by Crawford’s alcoholism, shooting was difficult and critical reception scathing. The film did miserably in Italy and was not distributed abroad until 1964. Pity—it’s a rare gem.
You can watch the movie online in nine ten-minutes segments, starting here.
Remaining Two of Top Three:
Night and the City (1950) Director: Jules Dassin; starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers)
Seriously, this might be my true favorite from this era. A visually stunning film with crackling dialog and mesmerizing performances from some of the greatest British character actors you’ll ever see. But it’s Widmark’s film, and he’s incandescent.
Okay, it’s not a crime movie, so shoot me. It sure feels like one. Criminals could learn a few things from J.J. Hunsecker (modeled after Walter Winchell) and Sidney Falco. Absolutely some of the best dialog ever written. (“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”… “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie filled with arsenic.”) Stunning visually, with Lancaster and Curtis in their best roles.
Other Panelist Picks:
Top Pick: In a Lonely Place(1950) A subtle exploration of post-war male violence. Megan admitted this might just be her favorite film of all time, even though as an adaptation from the Dorothy Hughes novel it veers off-track to the point the two versions are irreconcilable. But Gloria Grahame was never better, and Bogart got to play a bad guy (almost).
Remaining Picks: Naked Kiss (1964) —“The eeriest, sexiest first five minutes of a film you’ll ever see,” from the great Sam Fuller—and Gilda (1946).
Top Pick: Psycho “With apologies to Todd but to my mind its a goddamn perfect movie.”
Remaining Picks: The Killing “The heist is perfection.”
A Touch of Evil “Yes Charlton Heston plays a Mexican, but what an opening…”
Top Pick: Rear Window “Hitch’s finest hour, with James Stewart and a never-more-luminous Grace Kelly watching the neighbors across the way. Pure cinema. Pure fun. Pure suspense.”
Remaining Picks: The Third Man “A zither-scored tour of war-ravaged Vienna, full of shifting alliances and looming shadows. Orson Welles’ entrance is one of filmdom’s most memorable.”
Sunset Boulevard “Gloria Swanson’s titanic performance anchors this dark-as-night Hollywood noir. Maybe the most cynical movie about the movies ever made.”
Top Pick: Rififi (1955): “Influenced by American gangster dramas, this brilliant French heist film (directed by Jules Dassin, by then blacklisted from America), it went on to influence a generation of crime novelists (Donald E. Westlake, etc.) and filmmakers (Stanley Kubrick), who in turn influenced more French films, etc., etc.”
Remaining Picks: Kiss Me Deadly (1955): “Atom-age noir: Thuggish detective Mike Hammer chases the “Great Whatsit” and nearly unleashes the Apocalypse.”
The Killing (1956): “The heist as a complex machine, slowly breaking down. Stanley Kubrick plays with time, directing a cast of noir veterans in a script co-written by Jim Thompson.”
Chinatown (1974) Director: Roman Polansky; starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
My one safe, obvious pick. But it’s a no-brainer. Polansky and screenwriter Robert Towne argued violently over the ending, and parted ways. Polansky’s ending won, and became iconic. (Towne mocked it as “the tunnel at the end of the light,” but decades later conceded it was the right choice.) The story is based in part on Oedipus, with art direction that makes the most of the self-blinding that serves as the core metaphor of the Sophoclean version (note how many times eyes, eyeglasses, windshields, etc., are key to the film—and foreshadow the ending). But the most important and impressive aspect of the film is the way it turns the detective genre on its head. Instead of the PI hero digging deeper and deeper until he uncovers the truth, we see him as intrinsically self-deluded, uncovering clues and unraveling the scam but always missing an essential truth, until he winds up once again in Chinatown as though driven by Nietzsche’s dictum of eternal return.
Two years later, Penn would direct Beatty again in the spectacular Bonnie and Clyde. But this remains a sentimental favorite of mine. With Penn’s stunning photography and buzzsaw editing, Eddie Sauter’s brutal score (with Stan Getz on sax), it was called French New Wave from Hollywood (and yes, that was intended as a compliment). I saw it maybe five times over a marathon weekend of TV showings in LA, and was mesmerized. Beatty’s performance is every bit as electric as Widmark’s in Night and the City, but in much tighter confines. He plays a stage comic who—for reasons he’s never able to determine—has alienated someone in the Detroit mob, forcing him to flee. He’s trying to pick up his career in Chicago, hoping for the impossible—that he can both be a success and not be noticed. Guess what happens.
Cassavettes is one of those directors you’re supposed to like even if you don’t. The “art as medicine” metaphor—even if you hate it, it’s good for you. Normally I loathe such nonsense, and parts of this film are damn near unwatchable. (If you ever go to a strip club in LA and a guy named Mr. Sophistication is introducing the girls? Run.) But the film is also frightening in ways more conventional films never get to. The emotions are genuine and therefore shocking in places—as when, at an underground casino, a wife derides her dentist husband when they’re brought before a roomful of gangsters to discuss the extent of the man’s losses. She’s clearly, viscerally terrified, and her contempt for her putz of a hubby crackles. So too, the actual murder scene and the subsequent attempt by the gangsters to clean up a situation they thought they had under control—all these scenes generate a kind and a level of fear I just don’t feel often at the movies. So I forgive a lot of cinematic sins that maybe I shouldn’t, especially given how many other great films came out during this era (like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarecrow, Cool Hand Luke, King of Marvin Gardens, Serpico, The Godfather—all brilliant.)
Other Panelist Picks:
Top Pick: Chinatown (1974)
Remaining Picks: Mean Streets (1973), Badlands (1973)
Top Pick:Point Blank “Lee Marvin embodies the tough guy aesthetic in a way no one else can match.”
Remaining Picks: Get Carter“The ultimate in so-called Brit Grit – “Your eyes haven’t changed, still two pissholes in the snow”
In the Heat of the Night“They call me MISTER Tibbs – a perfect film that’s stood up to the test of time, imo.”
Top Pick: Chinatown “Forties noir as seen through the haze of the seventies. The script is genius, Polanski’s direction rules and Nicholson and Dunaway have never been better. A masterpiece, pure and simple.”
Remaining Picks: The Conversation“Sound is a character in Coppola’s other classic from 1974. Captured the paranoia of the Watergate years right as it was happening.”
Dressed to Kill “Violent and absurd. There’s not a subtle bone in Brian De Palma’s body, and thank God for that. A film worthy of the era in which it was made.”
Top Pick:Get Carter (1971): “Brit gangster Jack Carter (Michael Caine’s greatest performance) comes home to Newcastle to avenge his brother’s death. An almost perfect film, without a single false note.”
Remaining Picks: Mean Streets(1973): “Dead End, 70s style. Smalltime hoods in Little Italy make choices that seal their fates.”
Rolling Thunder(1977): “Vietnam vet returns to a world he doesn’t understand, hits the vengeance trail with a sawed-off shotgun and a sharpened hook for a right hand. Half arthouse, half grindhouse.”
Reaction: Reagan, Glasnost and the Tech Boom (1980s & 1990s)
Bellman & True (1987) Director: Richard Loncraine; screenplay: Desmond Lowden; starring Bernard Hill, Derek Newark, Richard Hope
I have sung my praises of this film, and the novel on which it’s based, before on Murderati. It’s not just one of my top five favorite crime films, but one of my top five favorite films of any kind. A British bank caper with a father-son love story at its heart, it’s smart, brisk, unique and moving, with gripping and at times heartbreaking performances from a cast comprised largely of character actors, and a script that strips bare the folly in all human longing but leaves the odd, chimerical dignity of its characters fully if tragically intact.
Remaining Two of Top Three:
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) Director: James Foley; screenplay: David Mamet; starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey)
Again, not really a crime film—though, unlike Sweet Smell of Success, a crime actually does occur and get investigated in the course of the story—but it qualifies because it strips bare the greed, hunger, envy, deceit and rage that motivate so much of the behavior we think of as criminal, reveals how embedded that behavior is in human affairs—specifically business—and shows us how intrinsically human, if also shameful and repellant, those motivations are. When I first saw this movie, I told a friend, “I just saw a monster movie, and all the monsters were salesmen.” Substitute “crime” and “criminal” for “monster” and you’ll see why I include it in this list.
(A note on the director: James Foley did indeed direct crime films, including two of my favorites from this same period: At Close Range (1986)—with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken, call it Redneck Noir—and After Dark, My Sweet (1990)—with Jason Patric (in his first lead role), Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern, my personal favorite Jim Thompson adaptation.)
Garde à Vue (1981) Director: Claude Miller; starring: Michel Serrault, Lino Ventura, Romy Schneider
Another tense, poignant, gripping film that shamefully remains an obscurity. A wealthy socialite, dragged in his tuxedo from a New Year’s Eve Party, is interrogated for the murder of a teenage prostitute. It was remade as Under Suspicion with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, but this version is almost unwatchable. The remake removes the key element that makes the original so compelling: It takes place almost entirely at night in the cramped confines of the police station. The claustrophobic effect of that setting is crucial, especially with the chiaroscuro lighting and the spider-with-a-fly patience of the cops. Heightening the tension is the portrayal of the cop by the legendary Leno Ventura, and the socialite by an arrogant, restless, übermasculine Michel Serrault, most famous (ironically) for his quirky, super-femme turn as Albin in La Cage aux Folles. Romy Schneider appears late and only briefly, but she is deadly.
Other Panelist Picks:
Remaining Picks: Blue Velvet(1986) and Dressed to Kill(1980)
Top Pick: Midnight Run “One of my ultimate comfort movies.”
Remaining Picks: Shallow Grave“D’you think I wouldn’t sneak a Scots film on here? For my money the only truly decent film Danny Boyle made.”
LA Confidential“Filming the unfilmable and doing it well.”
Top Pick: The Silence of the Lambs “Much ink has been spilled about the cat and mouse game played between Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. The emotional resonance, though, comes from watching Foster as a damaged striver facing down inhumanity everywhere she turns.”
Remaining Picks: Fatal Attraction “The thriller that defined the eighties. It wouldn’t be nearly as good without Glenn Close, who infuses a madwoman with humanity while simultaneously scaring the shit out of every American male with a libido.”
Wild Things “The greatest movie Russ Meyer never made. Look past the lesbian liplocks and teacher-student threeways and you’ll see a film that sets the bar low but clears it by a mile. Brilliant.”
Top Pick: At Close Range (1986): Crime as a family affair. Sean Penn and Christopher Walken give two of their best performances as father and son criminals who come to a violent parting of the ways.
Remaining Picks: Goodfellas(1990): The greatest film about workaday gangsters ever made. Brutal, funny, invigorating, exhausting.
Thief (1981): Michael Mann’s first look at the inner life of the high-end professional criminal, vastly superior to his later Heat.
Quite possibly my favorite film of all trime. Despite having so many elements of a crime picture—bank robbery, corrupt cops, underground dog-fighting with gang members putting their pit bulls in the ring, and a former revolutionary turned hired assassin—it’s actually a drama of the human heart. (I seem to possess an undying quest to see a crime film where none exists.) But like the other great films from this director—21 Grams and Biutiful—without the crime elements, the movie would lack much of the tension that makes it work. Narratively ambitious—without the preciousness that sometimes mars Tarantino’s efforts—it’s a multi-layered, intertwining story of two couples and a broken father, all searching for, trying to preserve, or hoping to reclaim the great loves of their lives. As the title suggests, it takes an almost dog-like ferocity to pull it off. Because, as the title suggests, love is a bitch.
Remaining Two of Top Three:
The Secret in their Eyes (2009) Director: Juan José Campanella; starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Francella
This time period (2000 to present) presented my biggest problem in picking a top film, because so many of the good films were great, and equally stunning. I love this picture, and consider it almost flawless. Its wedding of past and present into a single seamless narrative, and its subtly underplayed portrayal of political events at the time of the Peron restoration in Argentina, give the film its intelligence, while the love stories at its core, one tragic, one bungled but not yet lost, give it an elegiac heart. Ricardo Darín, like Vincent Cassel, is one of those leading men in the Bogart tradition with an intrinsically flawed face you can’t take your eyes off of. His performances (see also El Aura and Nine Queens) are understated, intelligent, witty and mesmerizing. But it’s not just Darín who makes this film work. The performances are stellar across the board—especially that of Guillermo Francella, an Argentinian comedian in his first dramatic role; and if you don’t fall in love with Soledad Villamil, you just might be an alien life form.
Sexy Beast (2000) Director: Jonathan Glazer; starring Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, James Fox
Another flawless film, imho. The old trope of the gangster who’s left the trade only to get sucked back in gets a stellar makeover in sunny Spain and rain-drenched London. Witty, brutal, gorgeous, with some of the best dialog ever written and Ben Kingsley’s most stunning performance ever—call it the anti-Ghandi—it’s another British bank caper but so much more. Just slightly less narratively innovative than Memento (which came out the same year), it nonetheless moves in and out of present and past with deft fluidity, creating suspense, not confusion. Ian McShane has never been so steely or menacing, James Fox more weasly, Ray Winstone more endearingly rough—and Amanda Redman, as “Dirty Deedee” Dove, will steal your heart, even after the shotgun scene (maybe because of it).
Other Panelist Picks:
Top Pick: Zodiac(2007)
Remaining Picks: Mulholland Drive (2001) and American Psycho (2000)
Top Pick: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang “Perfection – the Russian Roulette scene alone is worthwhile.”
Remaining Picks: Narc “The kind of gritty crime drama it feels like we’ve forgotten how to make now.”
The Limey “Essentially an update of Point Blank in style – Stamp’s the toughest guy on screen since Marvin.”
Top Pick: Zodiac“Not so much about murders than about how those crimes can burrow into the consciousness of a city and stay there for years. Gorgeous and terrifying in equal measure.”
Remaining Picks: Match Point “Woody Allen transplants the plot of An American Tragedy to modern London and lets our anti-hero get away with it.”
Mulholland Drive “Wonderful weirdness from David Lynch. It could be seen as the flipside to Sunset Boulevard. Or it could all be a dream. I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
Top Pick: The Pusher Trilogy (1996-2005): “Three films about the Danish drug trade, following different characters in the same environment, hot-wired and supercharged by Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn.”
Remaining Picks: Zodiac(2007): “Real-life noir, scrupulously faithful to the facts of the case. It gets under your skin in a way few movies do, not immediately, but stealthily and insidiously. A puzzle without an answer, a door without a key, an obsession with no catharsis.”
Gomorrah (2008): “The real Godfathers. A multi-storyline crime epic, based on a nonfiction book, about how organized crime corrupts nearly every strata of Italian society.”
SACRED COW I WOULD MOST LIKE TO GORE
Rear Window (1954) Director: Alfred Hitchcock; starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter
My problems with Hitchcock are that his films, despite their flawless pacing, brilliant cinematography, heart-stopping surprises and witty repartee, are too cerebral, too contrived, too conspicuously “artful” for my tastes. I rarely stop realizing I’m watching a movie. (I have this same problem with a lot of Tarantino’s films, and with Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, even though I enjoyed them all.) As I said on the panel, Hitchcock has never broken my heart—though he came close in Vertigo—and this for me is the bright line between very good and great. Admittedly, he’s scared the bejeebers out of me once or twice, largely because I know he doesn’t give a damn about human beings, and will toss a character off a cliff—or Mount Rushmore, or the Statue of Liberty—in a heartbeat. But in Rear Window he completely lost me. I just don’t care. It’s all set-up without a payoff I can buy into, a contrivance not a story, too precious, too neat. I don’t hate it. I just don’t care if I never see it again, and wonder why everyone else seems to venerate it. (It’s Todd Ritter’s favorite Hitchcock film; he considers it “perfect” in every way. That’s why there’s horse races, as they say.)
P.S. Hitchcock’s taste in blonds tends toward the impeccably bland. I loved a woman who called herself a dirty blond mutt, and she was sexier in a heartbeat than Grace Kelly, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh combined.
Other Panelist Picks:
Megan Abbott:Silence of the Lambs (1991) “Phony feminism.”
Russell McLean:Lethal Weapon “The movie that typifies Mel Gibson’s career; a film that somehow blinds people to how truly muddled its plot is and more importantly how clearly awful Mel is in a part that might have been amazing if given to another actor – say Bruce Willis or Jeff Bridges. Its just a mess, and I will never understand how people could have fallen for it at the time and how it spawned so many goddamn (increasingly worse, too) sequels.”
Todd Ritter:No Country For Old Men“Sometimes a movie should deviate from the book, even if said book is written by Cormac McCarthy.”
Wallace Stroby:The Usual Suspects (1995): “Half-smart, and nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Doesn’t play fair narratively. A piffle of a film, hanging on a single fine performance by Kevin Spacey.”
LITTLE KNOWN FILM WORTH SEEKING OUT
Well, my whole list seems to fall into this category. But for the sake of adding one more—because few joys are greater than discovering something rare you never knew about, but wonder how you missed it:
Cry Terror (1958) Director: Andrew L. Stone; Starring: James Mason, Rod Steiger, Neville Brand, Jack Klugman, Angie Dickinson, Inger Stevens
How, I hear you ask, did a film with a cast like this ever fall between the cracks? Blame the vagaries of corporate distribution. I forget the particulars, though Eddie Muller explained them to me once, but it had something to do with the rights lapsing and the successor no longer existing so no one could assert ownership of the rights to the film—ergo, it languished. Pity. Eddie’s shown it twice at the LA Film Noir Festival, and I saw it on TV when I was a kid. Rod Steiger leads a group of extortionists who kidnap a whole family to dragoon the husband/father (Mason) into their scheme. Neville Brand has never been more sub-humanly creepy (with Inger Stevens in a slip), Rod Steiger scarier, James Mason more haplessly heroic. And Angie Dickinson as the moll: Now there’s a blond you can sink your teeth (or whatever) into.
Good news: The film’s once again available, on DVD, as of September 30th. (I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.)
Other Panelist Picks:
Megan Abbott:Fingers (1978)
Wallace Stroby: One False Move (1992): “Flawless blend of character and action in Arkansas-set crime story about a trio of killers coming home one last time, and a local sheriff (Bill Paxton) who’s in way over his head.” (I totally agree with Wallace on this.)
* * * * *
So, Murderateros—did we miss a crucial film you believe deserved mention? Do you disagree with our logic or our choices? What film would you have fought for had you been on the panel?
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: Well, if you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a cookie. To redeem myself just a bit among those who think of Hitchcock as God—and consider me an apostate, a heretic, a heathen for refusing to genuflect before the altar—and to mend a fence with Gar, who listed Vertigo as a romantic touchstone, let me concede that Hitchcock had, among many other virtues, the best scores of any filmmaker of his time, due to the inimitable Bernard Hermann, my favorite composer of film scores ever, and that the love theme from Vertigo is a particular favorite:
It’s Wednesday, which means I’m packing my writerly clothing—anything that looks okay wrinkled (jeans, a denim shirt, a Hawaiian shirt–what I wouldn’t give for a decent bowling shirt), a pair of suitably retro spectators, the blue guayabera from Mexico—and getting ready to rise tomorrow morning at 4:00 AM to join my fellow crime-writing heathens as we descend en masse on poor, unsuspecting St. Louis to attend the year’s grand event for crime writers: Bouchercon.
As Captain William Lewis gaily quipped when happening upon the same territory after Thomas Jefferson’s unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase:
“These are the vilest miscreants of the savage race, and must ever remain the pirates of the Missouri, until such measures are pursued, by our government, as will make them feel a dependence on it…”
Prescient bastard. But I digress.
Sadly, only a handful of the Murderati Mob will be there: Alafair, Alexandra, JT, Zoë, and Jonathan. But a great many other first-rate writers and fans and assorted publishing wonks and weasels and wonderful joes are migrating in, and I’m on two great panels with a number of folks I admire, as well as a few writers who are new to me and whom I’m incredibly jazzed to meet.
Trust me: This panel is going to be an unqualified kick in the pants.
We’ve divvied up the history of crime film into five time periods:
Cold War Crime (1946-1965)
Reaction: Reagan, Glasnost and the Tech Boom (1980s & 1990s)
The Reign of Terror (2000 to present)
And added a final category titled:
Sacred Cow We Would Love to Gore
Each of us gets to propose three films from each time period and one sacred cow, and we’ll slug it out as to who has the savviest take on cinematic crime. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ve suffered over my choices, and agonized over the ones that didn’t make the cut.
I don’t want to give anything by away blurting out here the films I’ve chosen but let’s just say I intend to be the panel’s contrarian. Unless Stroby beats me to it.
But here’s a sampling of the films that made my final cut:
Double Indemnity FuryM
La Bete HumaineScarlet StreetWoman in the Window
Cold War Crime (1946-1965)
RififiLe SamouraiTry and Get Me!
Asphalt JungleOut of the PastForce of Evil
Il BidoneNight and the CitySweet Smell of Success
Pickup on South StreetNightmare AlleyOdds Against Tomorrow
ChinatownMickey OneThe Killing of a Chinese Bookie
The GodfatherBonnie & ClydeTaxi Driver
The ClockmakerCoup de TorchonMean Streets
King of Marvin GardensDog Day Afternoon
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Reaction: Reagan, Glasnost and the Tech Boom (1980s & 1990s)
Donnie BrascoThe GriftersAfter Dark, My Sweet
Mona LisaBellman & TrueThe Long Good Friday
Glengarry Glen RossGarde à VueFollowing
LisboaLA ConfidentialReservoir Dogs
Pulp FictionTrue RomanceJackie Brown
Out of SightThe LimeyDrugstore Cowboy
The Color of MoneyPrizzi’s Honor
The Reign of Terror (2000 to present)
Mesrine, Parts 1 & 2Red Riding TrilogyMemento
El AuraAmores PerrosThe Secret in their Eyes
Sexy BeastAnimal KingdomThe Town
Dirty Pretty ThingsTraining DayLondon to Brighton
The ProphetTrafficIn Bruges
Sacred Cow I Would Most Like to Gore:
InceptionRear WindowMaltese FalconNorth by Northwest
Whew! See what I mean? Hard work. Now—I need a nap and a bowl of Wheaties.
The second panel (Saturday, 1:00 PM) is titled WITNESS TO AN INCIDENT—The Human Element, and will focus on the role of human witnesses—not forensics or other techy whoop-de-doo—in both the real world and crime fiction. And the panel features some of the most impressive bios it’s ever been my privilege to be humbled by, belonging to: Deborah Crombie, Clea Koff, Taylor Stevens and Amanda Kyle Williams, with Meg Gardiner serving as moderator.
The keen observer will have noticed that all of the panelists are women, with the sole exception of you know who. Fear not, brave brothers: I fully intend to hold my own. (Wait—not quite sure I worded that as well as I might have…)
I know Deborah, having met her at the Book Passage Mystery Conference a few years back, where we became fast friends. She’s not just a brilliant, best selling writer with an international audience, she’s one of the most charming, generous, sweet-natured human beings you will ever meet. (If only all Texans were the same.)
Clea Koff likes to pretend she’s nervous to be the “newbie” on this panel—afterall, the only thing she’s accomplished in life is getting chosen by the UN International Criminal Tribunal to join a crack team of scientists to go to Rwanda to unearth physical evidence of crimes against humanity. Oh, and she was twenty-three at the time. Her book, The Bone Woman, recounts her experience in Rwanda and also additional work she did in the Balkans on behalf of the UN. (I know. What a lightweight.)
Taylor Stephens is another slacker whose bio is an utter yawn. She grew up in an apocalyptic cult, begging on city streets from Zurich to Tokyo, culminating in four years spent in East and West-Central Africa—the primary setting for her critically acclaimed first novel The Informationist.
Important note: The woman who will be appearing on the panel is Taylor Stevens, the author:
Not Taylor Stephens, the porn star:
If this news comes as a disappointment, my guess is you’re not much of a reader.
Amanda Kyle Williams also likes to play the neophyte debutante, claiming she’s just happy to be on a panel with such experienced old hands—despite having written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and working as both a private investigator and a court-appointed process server.
Oh, and who gets to corral this herd of cats? Meg Gardiner, another underachiever—Stanford Law grad, Edgar winner, author of nine novels.
What a pack of wannabes.
Seriously: I can only imagine what the visual experience will be for the audience, looking up at four smart, witty, accomplished and attractive women—and wondering who invited Uncle Fester.
If you’re coming to Bouchercon, make sure to come up and introduce yourself. If not, stay tuned. I’m sure one or more of the Murderati Poohbahs will be letting you know right here how it all panned out.
So, Murderateros: What films would you pick as the best in each of the time periods I and my fellow Shadow panelists have designated? What sacred cow crime film would you most like to gore?
What would you like to ask my world-wise partners-in-crime on the Witness to an Incident panel? (I’ll try to sneak them in, if Meg will let me.)
Jukebox Heroes of the Week: Well, Bouchercon is one big unabashed bash, more or less, so why not have a party anthem—say the theme from Psycho Beach Party, by the one and only Los Straightjackets:
One of the most gratifying compliments I ever received was from fellow writer Jane Ganahl, who remarked that I was one of the few men she knew who could actually be friends with a woman. One always loves to hear “one of the few” in the context of a pat on the back, and yet on reflection, I wonder if what she said is true.
I know a great many male-female friendships, and my own life is full of them. The writing community is rife with cross-gender friendships—I’m close to several of my fellow Murderati members, for example, as well as numerous other writers, and several frequent commenters here, like Shizuka and Allison Davis. I work with a local neighborhood watch program, and I have several women friends there, not to mention my neighbors, etc. I bet if we poll those reading this blog, we’ll learn of dozens if not hundreds of such friendships (please feel free to Comment re: same).
And yet, you’d hardly know such friendships exist from what one finds in books and films.
The frisson of romance, if not rampant sexual tension, routinely hovers about a man and a woman in fiction and cinema like a cloud of static electricity. The great Stella Adler, in a drama workshop I attended in my twenties, chastened two students who were tiptoeing through a courtship scene: “Every time a man and a woman are on stage they are totally in love. All they’re discussing is terms.”
This is an incredibly powerful insight. And yet it also seems like a great loss—unless one views male-female friendships merely as romances in which the terms are somehow less than “totally in love.”
My life would be severely impoverished without my women friends. Yes, there’s an element of flirtation about many of them, and every peck on the cheek provides a whiff of perfume, the brush of skin against skin, a hint of la difference. But they are not “friends with benefits” (or the possibility thereof), or “romances in limbo,” any more than my marriage was “sex with equity.”
Why is this seemingly ubiquitous aspect of modern life so absent from films and fiction?
In her novel Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris provides a fascinating psychological portrait of Nayir, an orphaned and unmarried Palestinian Bedouin living in Saudi Arabia. Ferraris, who was married to such a man, knows intimately not just the misconceptions that a strictly segregated society creates between the sexes, but the longing for a better understanding felt on both sides. In particular, Nayir wishes he had a sister, for that relationship would provide him with someone he could talk to about a woman’s thoughts and feelings, subjects Saudi culture strictly forbids he so much as bring up with a woman who is not a wife or a family member.
In the contemporary West, we can often be far more candid with our cross-gender friends than we are with a lover, at least in the early stages of a relationship. I think that male-female friendships serve a serious purpose in this regard, though many I’m sure never plumb the depths Nayir was hoping for.
Marriage, of course, is the great opportunity in this regard. George Eliott remarked, “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” To which Louis de Bernières, in his novel A Partisan’s Daughter, somewhat savagely added, “Sooner or later, at best, your wife turns into your sister. At worst she becomes your enemy.” Both these statements get at the singular intimacy a good marriage provides a man and a woman. Men are particularly needy of such intimacy, which is why so many widowers marry soon after a wife’s passing or pass away themselves.
But like Saudi Arabia, fiction and film discount the possibility of this nearness occurring anywhere else but with a sister or a wife.
And gay male/straight woman friendships skirt the core issue (as it were), which is the possibility, despite all that the sexual divide entails, to bridge it like responsible adults, to put aside or control the erotic charge we are expected to experience, and play nice.
But perhaps my belief that such friendships are easy and frequent is misguided. In an intriguing article for Slate on this issue, Juliet Lapidos expresses bewilderment and frustration at why male-female friendships seem so problematic in the culture. And rare.
Lapidos outlines the reasons men and women routinely give for their cross-gender friendships—men cite the ability to talk about feelings without judgment, and women cite the ability to discuss topics most women find irrelevant or boring, or the chance not to obsess on the emotional connotations of what does get discussed. She then suggests that only “less-gendered” men and women can enjoy such connections, citing her own experience. In her cross-sex friendships, “the traits that supposedly make men and women so separate (excluding physical differences) are hardly in evidence.”
To which I can only scratch my head. Are we really so devoid of self-control or insight that we can’t enjoy each other’s company without neutering ourselves?
I’ve asked a number of friends to come up with examples of cross-gender friendships in film and fiction, and boy, are the pickings slim.
Allison Davis suggested Dorothy and the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. I like that, but would their friendship abide if Dorothy were just a wee bit more, shall we say, developed? Maybe. I want to think so. And yet there’s also a kind of big-brother aspect to these friendships. That’s not so bad—Cara Black, one of my best friends on the crime fiction beat, routinely refers to me as her “little brother.” And my nickname for Harley Jane Kozak is “L’il Sis.” I like that. I love it, in fact. And yet it also screams to everyone who might misunderstand: It’s okay. We’re not up to anything …. Like it’s anybody’s business in the first place, or they can’t tell just by seeing us together. Sheesh.
Catherine Thorpe, another good friend, brought up True Grit, but there again Mattie is fourteen. Does a woman lose her friendship cred once she clears puberty?
Jane Austen abounds with some very tender friendships—but they are almost always romances-waiting-to-happen. And in Remains of the Day, Stephens and Miss Kent share a lovely friendship—but it’s only because the romantic longing goes only one way.
The same is true of Midge and Scotty in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This sort of romantic gridlock has been codified, one might say cheapened, by the modern put-down, “He’s just not that into you.” Hitchcock, a devotee of Freud, knew there was a great deal more to it than that (why else would Midge say, when caring for Scottie after his breakdown, “You’re not lost. Mother is here”?).
In Peter Carey’s Theft, the connection between the mysterious Marlene and her lover’s brother, Hugh, is one of the great joys of the book: “And there she was—a type—one of those rare, often unlucky people who ‘get on with Hugh.’” As you might guess, Hugh is troubled. As in violently insane.
Two of my own favorite depictions of male-female friendship are in fact chaste romances. The major attribute of both stories is how and why the sexual tension is controlled: one through Victorian rectitude—Charlie Allnutt and Rose Sayer in C.S. Forester’s The African Queen—the other through a nun’s vows—Sister Angela and Corporal Allison in Charles Shaw’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. (Apparently such tales had a particular appeal for the director John Huston, for he brought both to the screen: with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in the one, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in the other.)
In the early stages of my last big romance, my lover and I sent pseudo-questionnaires back and forth, purportedly from the HR Department, seeking to determine whether the respondent was “right for the position.” One such question was: favorite love scenes. And I listed two from Heaven Knows, Mister Allison. It really is a love story, a very touching one for all the schmaltz, precisely because they cannot be together “that way.”
The workplace generates a great many cross-gender friendships, in both life and fiction, but there again the issue of repressed sexual tension heads its ugly rear due to the frequency of office romance.
The introduction of women into police forces has been particularly generous, inspiring a whole new onslaught of buddy storylines, with men and women fighting crime shoulder to shoulder: Mulder and Scully of X Files, David and Maddie in Moonlighting. Of course, both these pairings ended up in romance, to the fatal detriment of both shows.
A far more intriguing example appears in Tana French’s In the Woods.
The friendship between Dublin homicide detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox begins with the former remarking, “I had no problem with the idea of Cassie Maddox.” First, he disdains the “New Neanderthal” competitive locker-room overtones of the job, and he in general prefers women to men. Secondly, she’s not his preferred type physically—she’s boyish, slim, square-shouldered, where he’s always preferred “girly, bird-boned blonds.” (All of this would seem to corroborate Juliet Lapidos’ contention that only “less-gendered” men and women can truly connect non-sexually.) Even so, Rob becomes vaguely attracted and lets it slip out backhandedly in a feeble attempt at banter, to which Cassie responds that she’s always dreamed of being rescued by a white knight, only in her imaginings he was always good-looking. This snaps Rob out of his dog-on-the-hunt thinking, and he “stopped falling in love with her and began liking her immensely.” It’s a friendship developed deeply and satisfactorily throughout the book, until the inevitable night together near the end, when the sexual tension breaks and they make the awful mistake of, as Pinter would say, “going at it.” Things are never the same, and it is a testament to the hunger we have for such connections that we feel this shipwreck of affection viscerally, as the great loss it is meant to be.
In the end, the best example I could find—maybe I should say only example—was the novel The Chess Player by Bertina Heinrichs, adapted for the film Queen to Play.
It’s about the cerebrally intimate, sexually charged but ultimately Platonic bond that develops between Hélène, a Corsican maid, and her chess tutor, an American widower. The sexual tension is there from the start—Hélène’s first glimpse of chess takes place as she’s cleaning the room of a honeymoon couple playing a game on the deck, and the man and woman clearly share an intriguing intimacy. Hélène’s own marriage has reached that sister/enemy impasse, and this sets the stage for a possible affair.
But something far more interesting happens. (One of the best lines in the film is when, after her husband has followed Hélène and seen she is not having sex with Professor Kröger, her tutor, but simply playing chess, he confronts her, and tells her that what he saw was “much worse.”) Hélène becomes intrigued with chess for reasons she cannot explain, and reveals an innate gift for the game that cannot be taught. As for Professor Kröger, he remains haunted by grief; though he has lovers, he sees in Hélène something else, something more unique and impressive. And yet she also reminds him of his late wife—a gifted woman who struggled to accept her very real talent. His fondness for Hélène is tragic, tender and genuine, and she for the first time pursues something that is not for the sake of others—her employers, her husband, her daughter—but hers alone.
Murderateros: Do any of you have a favorite story about male-female friendship—or any at all? Fictive, fact, filmic. Were they with “less gendered” men or women? Or have your most gratifying connections with members of the opposite sex always been with lovers, siblings, spouses?
Jukebox Heroes of the Week: On the theme of cross-gender friendship, here are Rodrigo y Gabriela, a pair of guitar gypsies who gave up playing in Mexico City thrasher/metal bands and now play acoustically together. All friendships should make music like this:
I’m what’s prosaically referred to as a lapsed Catholic (think laissez-faire agnostic with sloppy Buddhist hankerings). So I’m not sure how the Mass begins anymore, but last time I attended Sunday services, the first exchange between the priest and the congregation quoted the 43rd Psalm:
I will go to the altar of God
To God, the joy of my youth
Or, for those who gaze back longingly at the Latin Liturgy:
Introibo ad altáre Dei
Ad Deum qui laetíficat juventútem meam
I puzzled over this line when I first heard it, wondering why God evoked—or might even be equated with—the happiness of childhood. And I assumed it meant that beholding the sacred is much the same as the sense of astonishment that characterizes our earliest perceptions, that sense of boundless wonder, both inviting and frightening in its mystery.
But if I’m perfectly honest, the joy of my youth was largely defined by cartoons.
Of particular influence was the inimitable Michigan J. Frog:
(YouTube won’t let me embed the video, but to watch the full cartoon, click here.)
Among all the cartoons I watched as a kid, this one stuck with me more than most, because of its cosmic punch line: Every silver lining has a cloud. Somehow, even at the wee age of whatever, I was already an ironist.
My oldest brother, who ultimately became a research psychologist—excuse me: Human Factors Engineer (ahem)—for the Defense Department, said it was “frightening” to observe how much of my personality was formed by Rocky & Bullwinkle:
I’m not sure how “frightening” I was—or am—but I’m a little stunned at how unfunny that cartoon clip is. (I included this particular one because it has two characters named for my original and current hometowns, Columbus and Vallejo—again, that little noodge of irony).
As I grew up I put aside childish things—yeah, right—until college, when I discovered you can indeed learn a lot from Lydia:
Groucho, Chico and Harpo reacquainted me with the daring face-slap of the absurd, the mad grand fun of chaos—the sanity of craziness—and did so in a way that Duchamps and Breton and Artaud couldn’t touch. I realized that in the eternal bout between scholar and clown—I mean, come on, is it even fair?
Later, I’d become entranced with The Simpsons, of course, the best satire ever to appear on TV:
But I don’t think I ever quite understood the full, life-affirming, soul-saving necessity of cartoons until I met my late wife Terri.
Terri left home at the age of fifteen for reasons too personal to disclose here, but as she was big sis, and big sis was basically mom, her younger brother and sister trailed along, and she supported them all by working as a piece-rate seamstress, the same trade as her beloved Italian grandmother.
But Terri’s brother John was troubled, and when he unwisely dropped a tab of acid at age sixteen it caused a psychotic break. His incipient schizophrenia came on full-blown, and as the only responsible adult in the family anyone could locate, Terri had to go to Herrick to approve treatment. The doctors wanted to give John electroshock, and trusting them, she gave her consent—resulting in her little brother’s now being not just schizophrenic but brain-damaged.
This threw Terri into an emotional tailspin she would spend the next ten years trying to pull out of. And John’s schizophrenia didn’t drop out of the sky. The term “schizophrenogenic mother” has fallen on hard times, diagnostically speaking—no point blaming the primary caregiver for the patient’s illness—or, as one researcher put it:
From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the concept of the “schizophrenogenic mother” was popular in the psychiatric literature. Research later confirmed that the mother who could cause schizophrenia in her offspring did not exist. Such a blame-levelling concept, which had no basis in scientific fact, may have caused a great deal of harm.
All of this is true, I suppose. But Terri said when she read the diagnostic description in a textbook she suffered an epiphany: That’s Mom. (I had the same experience when I saw the DSM précis for Borderline Personality Disorder and thought it read like my mother’s bio, but I digress.)
I don’t mean to hammer Terri’s mom. She had her own broken soul and deserves as much compassion as anyone. But what Terri found familiar in the diagnostic description was the pendulum swing between distant and judgmental on the one hand, and overly involved, even intrusive and oblivious to boundaries on the other. Nothing was ever quite what it seemed, words often meant nothing, and emotional ambiguity was coin of the realm. “I love you” could be rendered with such indifference or even jealousy that it was easier just to wait, watch and live in a shadow state of denial—until that was no longer possible, as became the case when Terri, at age eighteen, had to deal with the guilt being the one who’d approved John’s destructive “treatment.”
Terri’s ten-year emotional deep freeze only thawed after intensive therapy, aided by—you’re way ahead of me—cartoons.
You never have to guess what a cartoon is feeling. No ambiguity here. When Bugs is happy, he’s reeeeeaaaalllly happy. When Sylvester the Cat is sad, the slobbering tears can’t come fast enough. And when Yosemite Sam (or Riff-Raff Sam, as in the above clip) is mad, well, you get it.
Through this ingenious if unorthodox psychoanalytic technique, Terri got back in touch with her emotions. And it gave her a marvelously goofy quality. One day, puzzling over the curious fit of a real-life PI with a closet cartoon character, she confronted me with: “What you need is a moxie moll. What are you doing with a goonybird like me?”
And I thought: God save me from moxie molls.
To the horror of her more uptight lawyer friends, we spent one of her birthdays roasting weinies and eating frosted animal cookies. “David didn’t take you out to someplace nice?” one woman asked. Terri almost bounced: “Nope. It was so cool.”
Don’t get me wrong, Terri was as down-to-earth a person as I’ve ever met, congenitally practical in the way only Italian women can be. And she was smart—she didn’t just sofa-surf cartoons, she read Nietzsche and Toni Morrison and Edna St. Vincent Millay. (I led her astray, turning her on to Robert B. Parker and John Harvey.) But cartoons saved her life.
Not surprisingly, her favorite movie was Roger Rabbit:
Terri was an estate planning and probate lawyer, married to a man who, like Eddie, has a short fuse, so you can imagine how much she enjoyed that ending. And I sometimes wonder if that scene weren’t a reasonable facsimile of the world Terri inhabited most days, at least until ovarian cancer made foolery a bit less fun. Still, even as death crept closer, she retained a pretty good sense of humor, despite the fear, the disintegration of her body and her hope, the dementia. Cartoons couldn’t save her then.
She loved life like no one I’ve ever met, which made seeing her lose her life so young feel so cruel. She was the bravest, kindest, silliest, smartest, most fundamentally honest person I’ve ever known. She remains my hero. I hope, in some small way, I live up to her example.
But there’s a coda, and it involves a caramel-colored pound poodle named Bugsy. (Please excuse the small image; Squarespace and I are having our issues over photos.)
We adopted him and soon discovered he was, to quote Groucho, “the most glorious creature under the sun.” He looked like a Paddington bear. I have friends who still talk about him glowingly–he was that kind of dog. He bounced. He buried his ball in a blanket so he could pretend it was hidden, then dig it up. His stubby tail wagged like a hummingbird. He was the closest thing to a living cartoon I’ve ever known.
Bugsy survived Terri by five years, and was as clownishly sweet as she was right up until the end. The circumstances of his passing eerily mimicked hers, so much so I wrote about it in the following poem, and I add it here not to crank the sad into maudlin, but to add a final and appropriate touch of wonder. These two incomparable beings returned to me the joy of my youth. I’m grateful.
Same disease, same lousy luck.
Dogs get cancer, who knew?
Worse, poor guy’s resistant to his chemo,
like you were, all that muck rattling in his lungs.
And it’s that time of year, so close
to the five-year mark of your death.
To be fair it’s not so terrible. Not yet.
Credit the steroids, I suppose.
Got the appetite of a hobo,
still fetches his ball some, nuzzles my hand,
but his hair’s going, each breath brings a cough.
As for me, in five years I’ve learned to let go.
I get it, the finger-snap of life, drinking
from the dharma’s clear, cold well
or whatever Buddhist bullshit applies.
I recall your take on such things.
Phooey, to be brief.
I wonder if that’s changed,
where you are. If anywhere.
I remember the last place you were too well—
tube jammed up your nose, down your throat
into your gut to pump out the shit-brown sludge
that would rot your insides if not drained away.
Belly like a watermelon, your gaze a howl—
you wandered the cancer ward day and night,
bed to chair to hallway to bathroom to bed again,
tidal surge of morphine in your veins,
the doctors baffled by your pain.
Vomiting, pissing yourself. My bride.
For all that, though, I pity
those unscathed by great love.
What I know of things divine, I learned
from you. You and this rascal dog:
rescued from the pound, spared
the killing needle and nursed back
from kennel cough and garbage gut
and, once, less ominously, a bee sting to his nose—
taffy colored, the moist rough flesh ballooned—
then, in later years, pancreatitis, viral warts.
The whole doggy diagnostic, now this.
Through it all, he’s been gentle, honey-hearted.
He’s grateful—freed prisoners don’t forget—
but uncanny as well. After you died,
he began each day by crawling onto my chest,
curling his paws onto my shoulders, licking my nose.
Slowly. Mindfully. Old dog, new trick.
It’s what the holy rollers crow about,
ripping open their hearts to the Lord.
That aching, mad want: He listens.
He watches. He knows. Loves.
If true, pity it didn’t count for more
when you were dying, or now,
as this minor, magical creature
noses toward his own death.
I promise I’ll hold him at the end,
stroke his head and flank and
tell him he was the best damn dog,
remind him that you thought so, too.
Then, if you can—though the smart money
says you can’t—guide him to wherever you are,
call his name (he’s hard of hearing these days—
will death cure that?) and open your arms
as he steadies his legs and shakes and
cocks his head, then figures it out,
starts to run.
* * * * *
So, Murderateros: What was the joy of your youth? Have you revisited it — or it you — in adulthood? Does it carry for you an element of the divine? Has it, in even some small way, saved you?
No need to stick to the Q&A. Feel free to make any comments you please. I’ll be happy to respond however, to whatever.
BTW: For a fictional version of a gifted young woman saved by cartoons, check out Nadya Lazarenko in my second novel Done for a Dime, most of which was written after Terri’s passing. My attempt at homage.
Jukebox Hero of the Week: Terri didn’t live to see the Scissors Sisters, but I think she would have approved of dancing eggs, singing watermelons, and a giant pink goonybird:
Alexandra and Allison this past week blogged about heroes, and I mentioned in a comment that my favorite heroes are seldom the kind so many others seem to find so compelling. I realize this may seem like apostasy, but as much as I enjoyed Reacher and Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux (my favorite series hero), I felt no great need to revisit them. One bite of the apple and I was pretty much sated.
I know. Shoot me.
What can I say—I prefer the muckabout or lost soul, the guy down on his luck and wildly imperfect but not contemptible or contemptuous, the despised or disregarded outcast who comes through in a selfless act of courage.
Not only does this sort of hero feel more real and thus convincing to me, his arc is more gratifying because it travels a more difficult and unlikely trajectory. I can’t buy in to a final victory if it’s foretold all along by the hero’s too-conspicuous strengths and virtues.
And the hero I’m talking about can’t just possess a flaw, or a haunted past, or a lack of foresight. The flaw has to undermine his abilities or his will in such a way the climactic confrontation is realistically in doubt until the very end. That’s what creates suspense for me—not plot twists or overwhelming odds. The sheer complicated noble blind perversity of the human heart.
This type of hero appears in more permutations that one might think at first blush—everyone from Gal Dove in Sexy Beast:
To Kid Collins in After Dark, My Sweet:
To Freddy Heflin in Copland:
To Mickey Ward in The Fighter:
To, yes, Seabiscuit (the horse everyone gave up on):
I think heroes reflect a kind of love affair. We don’t choose who we’re attracted to, who we fall in love with. That’s done for us by forces in our hearts and minds—and bodies—far beyond the radar’s sweep. And what can I say, the heroes so many others love often leave me cold. They remind me too much of the star quarterback, whereas I’ve always admired the guys in the trenches, the big uglies with muck and blood on their faces and hands, who fight and claw with little recognition, out of honor or pride or just cussed meanness. The Grunt, not the Officer & Gentleman. Sergeant Rock, not Captain America.
Now, it may well be that this love affair I’m describing is self-love. The kinds of heroes I like best are an almost embarrassingly obvious reflection of myself. They strike a chord because I see You Know Who in them.
But they also remind me of my father, whom I loved deeply and admired, whom I watched every morning dress for work like a warrior putting on his armor—this man my mother savaged with ridicule throughout their marriage, and left to die alone in a nursing home thousands of miles away. I wanted to rescue this proud man from his lovelessness, to redeem both him and me.
But I’m not sure pursuing this from an overly personal perspective gets us anywhere, so I’d like to discuss it in terms of one particular book and film, a relatively little known crime story from George Harrison’s HandMade Films titled Bellman & True (1987), and the novel by Desmond Lowden on which it’s based.
Here’s a trailer for the film, and the similarity to Sexy Beast should be obvious.
They’re both British crime capers with a bank heist at their cores, with similar themes of the hero being drawn in against his will. But Bellman & True‘s Hiller lacks Gal Dove’s fallen-angel sex appeal — something that, in the end, strangely works to Hiller’s advantage.
The title comes from an old Cumberland song titled “D’ye Ken John Peel,” specifically the lyric:
Yes, I ken John Peel and Ruby too.
Ranter and Ringwood, Bellman and True.
From a find to a check, from a check to a view,
From a view to a death in the morning.
But there’s a pun in the term “bellman.” It also refers to a criminal who specializes in getting past bank alarms.
As good as the movie is—and it’s not just one of my favorite crime films, but one of my favorite films, period—I recently spent a sunny Sunday reading the book on which it’s based. I’ve now ordered everything else I can find that Desmond Lowden’s written—most of which, sadly, is long out of print and can be had for a song.
Don’t confuse obscurity with lack of talent—in writers or heroes.
This book provided me with one of the most gratifying reading experiences I’ve had lately. As I said, I read it in a day—it’s a mere 183 pages—almost in one sitting. (I’ve only done that with two other books: Double Indemnity and Kim Addonizio’s brilliant poetry collection, Tell Me.)
The book is briskly paced, deftly executed, with brilliant dialog and a well-researched and richly detailed high-tech heist at its core. But what makes it truly unforgettable is the writing, especially the characters.
Consider the following sketches, which are deceptively simple:
Of Hiller, the hapless hero: He was middle-aged, with thinning hair, but there was something of the schoolboy about him. It was the tweed suit, ready-made, from a High Street tailor’s. The sort of suit you bought on leaving school for your first job. The man had kept to the same style ever since, though heavier now in the stomach and seat. And he’d looked after them well, as he walked he kept the suitcases carefully away from his trouser creases.
Of Hiller’s stepson, known only as the boy: He was small, the back of his head was soft and rounded. But his face was pale, sharply pointed with the effort of being eleven years old.
Of Anna, a former high-priced call girl (“on the game, what you’d call the big game, South Africa and the Bahamas”): She wore no make-up, she was strangely neutral, like a fashion model walking from one job to another, her face and hair in her handbag, and no expression for the journey in between.
Of a minor character, a shop clerk: The man was grey-haired. He had bacon and a suburban train-ride on his breath, and he caught the smell of whiskey on Hiller’s.
Even the setting descriptions enhance character, in this case Hiller’s again:
The room, when they reached it, was small. There was an old striped carpet, and a basin in the corner held up by its plumbing. Hiller went straight to the window. He stood close to the glass and smelled the sourness of other people’s breath. Across the street he saw the four houses in a row that were empty, their insides gutted and piled at the kerb, their insides dark. And Hiller felt safe. No-one could see he was here.
But the book rewards most poignantly in the interactions between Hiller and the boy, specifically the stories Hiller tells him to keep him entertained—stories about Lulu Land, where they only had Wagner on the jukebox, and about the Princess, who only smoked French cigarettes and was beautiful when she wasn’t looking.
In one particularly revealing bit of storytelling early in the narrative, accomplished with sly indirection, using subtext beneath the dialog, we observe Hiller’s struggle with drink and his tender if troubled relationship with the boy; we see flickers of mawkish anger beneath his wit, especially anger at vapid bourgeois pretension—and resentment of the financial success that has eluded him, or which he himself has sabotaged; we learn of the Princess, who is the boy’s mother, and the infatuation they share for her, despite her cruel desertion of them both; and we feel that desertion bitterly, even though (or perhaps because) its extremes are merely hinted at.
The other great joy of the book is watching Hiller’s character solidify—and his love for the boy deepen. It’s easy to assume that Hiller is doomed, because of the feckless oblivion that’s led to his involvement with men far more ruthless than he realizes. But it’s not as simple as that, and Hiller is not that simple a man. His fondness and concern for the boy crystallize with a mutual realization that they only have each other, and it’s never been otherwise.
Hiller engages me in ways more conventional mystery/thriller heroes just don’t (which no doubt explains a great deal about my career). He’s not just the clichéd “tarnished hero,” nor can he be tidily tucked into the anti-hero drawer. He’s a recognizable man with a complex past and an insidious, almost overwhelming problem in the present, caused by his own thoughtless flirtation with darkness, his ongoing accommodation with despair.
And by the end he isn’t the same just more so, like so many heroes one comes across, especially in the genre. Without giving too much away, he achieves a distinct nobility, that of a man who gets up off his knees—if only to prove he can.
Note: The film was remade (and butchered) for American audiences by the same director (Richard Loncraine) with Harrison Ford in the lead. Curiously, this version, titled FIREWALL, includes no mention of Lowden in the credits. When I mentioned this to Don Winslow, he conjectured that Lowden got paid and “told to fuck off,” an all-too-frequent arrangement in the film world. Oh, and the American version is godawful. Harrison Ford has never sleepwalked through a performance more shamelessly. He looks like he’s expecting every scene to climax in an enema.
So, Murderati: Are you drawn to heroes with a crucial flaw, one that renders the likelihood of their prevailing always in doubt? Or do you prefer knights of a conspicuously whiter and more reassuring shade? In either case — why?
And ever notice how easy it is to mistype herpes for heroes?
Last–yes, I recognize the parallel between Hiller and the boy and my father and me—though I didn’t until Monday, when I wrote this piece. Talk about oblivious. Sheesh…
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: In keeping with my theme, here’s a video of Bettye Lavette, who for almost 40 years wandered the desert of R&B obscurity, until she gave the following performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Lincoln Center, and revealed not just that the woman has a soulful voice, but a cagey, fierce, indomitable spirit:
In over 15 years working as a private investigator, I only faced real physical danger once—and it was a doctor who tried to kill me.
We’ll call him Rob “Doc” Devendra, and in the early 1980s he took a year off from med school to work in a friend’s business. The friend was a San Francisco cocaine dealer linked to the Medellin Cartel. Doc drove 50-100 pound loads of Colombian cocaine from Miami to the west coast. (This was before the Mexican pipeline developed, obviously.)
As job’s went, it wasn’t half bad: The money was unbelievable, and the adrenalin rush as addictive as the coke. But, after only a year, Doc developed an all-too-common medical condition known in layman’s terms as Cold Feet. He realized he could make millions in the drug biz legitimately, writing prescriptions for bored housewives, a future his flirtation with the dark side could ruin. And so he and his Colombian-connected pal parted ways—amicably, as it turned out. Doc returned to med school, became a doctor, and lived a happy and prosperous life—until the summer of 1988.
Doc’s friend the dealer, facing a ten year sentence for trafficking, became a federal informant and began identifying all his past associates and business partners. Interestingly, Doc was not one of the people he named—which is, in legal parlance, a material omission. This made Doc a very interesting fellow to the people the drug dealer did name.
Rule No. 1 of criminal defense: Snitches lie. And in this case Doc was the living proof.
I was retained by one of the defendants, accused of helping the snitch launder his money. My job was to find Doc, interview him, and serve him with a subpoena mandating his appearance at trial.
After weeks of talking with a variety of characters, plus record searches in three states, I tracked Doc down to Hannibal, Missouri, where he had a stake in a small family-practice clinic.
Arriving in town in mid-July, I first drove to his house—common practice, a man at work can always claim he’s too busy to see you—and rang the bell. Shortly his slender, doe-eyed wife appeared, accompanied by a very friendly Dalmatian. I told the wife I was working on a legal matter based out west, and it was important I speak with her husband. I politely declined to say more out of respect for his privacy.
The wife seemed mystified. She told me Doc was out of town but she’d let him know I’d stopped by. I asked when he’d be back. She said she wasn’t sure, then pressed me for more information: Legal matter? Out west? Her husband?
“It really is best,” I said, “if I discuss all this first with Doc.”
I had to assume she was lying, of course, so I kept returning. Sometimes I’d just park down the street, hours at a time, to see who came or went. I followed the wife here and there, noting the make of her car, the one left behind in the garage, where she went, the friends she met. And as I kept re-appearing at her door, she greeted me with increasing alarm. (The Dalmation, curiously enough, always seemed glad to see me.)
Getting nowhere with the wife, I decided to try the father. He owned a small jewelry shop, and had reportedly also, once upon a time, strayed from the law. He was rawboned, blondishly gray with a short-cropped beard. His attitude started out folksy and sly, but when I just kept coming back he grew hostile. He told me to stop pestering him, he’d call the law. I apologized for the intrusions—and called his bluff, returning again and again.
Two days in, frustrated with the direct approach, I decided to get creative. I made an appointment to see Doc at his clinic. Using an assumed name, I complained of lower back pain—which in fact was true, an affliction caused by long hours spent in cars finding, trailing, and surveilling people like Guess Who. I was sitting there in the examination room, complimenting myself on being so doggone clever, when the door opened.
Not Doc. His partner—Asian, soft-spoken, middle-aged. I had—as they say in the biz—been made. The partner asked: “What is this about really?” I calmly, professionally, repeated my spiel. The doctor, feigning puzzlement but clearly disturbed—what kind of trouble was his partner in?—said he would pass word along. I left, sensing I’d at least increased the pressure on Doc to stop delaying and meet with me.
Meanwhile, another far more serious situation arose. It concerned my brother John. He had gone in for an AIDS test, and the results were due. I called, spoke with his lover David, and asked what they’d learned. After a very long pause, David said: “You’ll have to ask your brother.” When I finally spoke with John, he calmly discussed treatments that were available, and assured me there was nothing to fear just yet.
The receiver felt like a stone in my hand. I was devastated.
My love for John had gone through four distinct stages.
One: early childhood—he was my hero, my protector. I adored him.
Two: age 5 or so to 18, he turned on me from guilt and shame, evoked by his homosexuality, his fear of being found out—he tormented me, tongue-lashed me every day, finding fault with every single thing: my daydreaming, my sloppiness, my books, my interest in sports and military history, my music. I hated him.
Three: age 19 to early thirties—John came out of the closet, accepted himself, and apologized to me for all those years of vicious, relentless hazing. I abided him, playing the righteous victim, holding on to my resentment like a trophy, even as we got along better and better.
Four: the final two years of his life—I realized my stupidity, my need to let go of that pointless grudge and forgive. I accepted his need to love me and be my big brother, and accepted as well how much I wanted that.
Desperate to return home, visit John, I became even more obsessive in my quest to nail Doc Devendra. I spent the entire weekend going back and back again—the wife, the father, a lawyer who’d incorporated the medical practice, a realtor who’d brokered the purchase of the clinic, an old business partner in nearby Palmyra, names I’d come up with in my searches—letting everyone know I was going stay in their lives on a daily if not hourly basis until the good doctor met with me face to face.
Come Monday morning—feeling exhausted, outfoxed, emotionally spent—I came up with one final plan. I had my camera with me, to take pictures if he fled, and my tape recorder to record all verbal exchanges, in case he tried to claim I’d threatened or extorted him. I parked my rental car in front of his clinic, slumped down into the seat so I couldn’t be seen, adjusted my rear view mirror so I could observe all incoming vehicles. People walking into the clinic could see me, but that was a risk I had to take. I waited. From previous visits I knew that, if he parked behind the clinic, he was trapped.
About forty minutes later, his wife’s gold Honda sped past me down the small side drive. There was only one person in it. A man. Doc.
I turned on my tape recorder, dropped it in my sportcoat pocket, grabbed my camera and the subpoena, then followed him on foot. I turned the corner just as he was getting out of the car, thirty yards away. Seeing me, he jumped back in, threw the Honda in gear. The car sped toward me.
I blocked the only way out.
One often hears it said that there is a difference between courage and fearlessness. The sheer overwhelming and predictable physicality of fear is something the brutal repetition of combat, police and firefighter training is meant to overcome. Blind habit will take over and push you forward into the teeth of your terror when the mind, the hobgoblins and specters of imagination, will freeze you in place. Fearlessness, in this way of thinking, is foolishness. There is no such thing. The absence of fear is lunacy, and its presence can actually be a kind of animal wisdom, as long as your training is there to save you.
Buddhism has a somewhat different take, as I’ve noted before. Fear is seen as the flip side of hope. When we hope for something we reside in a fictional world, projected into the future, a seemingly benign dream that fuels our initiative. And often we fear that we will do something, or something will get done to us, that will jeopardize this oasis we’ve imagined for ourselves. But it’s a mirage, it never existed in the first place, except as a vessel to hold our wishes. In her book WHEN THINGS FALL APART, which a friend gave to me after my wife Terri died, the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes: “If we want to be free of fear, we must first surrender hope.”
And so, as I stood my ground, waiting to get run over, I suppose it’s fair to ask: Which was I—courageous, fearless, or just out of hope? In all honesty—and anyone who has been in a high speed car crash (or combat) will know exactly what I’m saying—I was none of the above. What I felt was time distortion, the seconds expanding like deep breaths, and a kind of numbness, tinged with my underlying anger. Marines call this Task Saturation, when you are so focused on what you have to do, your emotions lock down—anger, fueled by adrenalin, is the lone exception. In my case, I was simply so focused on serving that god damn subpoena once and for all so I could get home to see my brother, and so enraged I hadn’t done so already—enraged at myself, Doc, his wife, his father, my brother, God, fate—that I simply didn’t care what happened. The car kept coming, faster. I remember thinking, “Be my guest, asshole.”
At the last moment, the Hippocratic Oath kicked in. The Honda screeched to a lurching stop inches from my body, the bumper grazing my legs. Still trying to scare me, Doc revved the engine to its highest RPMs—this would be the only sound on my tape—as I leaned out at full length across the car hood and tucked the subpoena under his windshield wiper.
I stepped aside. Doc sped away. Only then did I notice I was shaking.
When my report hit the office back in San Francisco, the staff regarded me with a new, somewhat hushed respect. They thought I was remarkably—if, perhaps, crazily—brave. Only then did I realize I’d done something out of the ordinary. And though I wanted to give myself credit, I knew it wasn’t courage or even fearlessness I’d demonstrated back in Hannibal—it was fury. I wasn’t even sure I knew what courage was.
A few months later, I was visiting my brother at his house. He was still handsome then, though increasingly gaunt from the wasting, to where his vivid blue eyes looked haunted. He told me he needed to take a bath, and asked if I would help scrub his back. Karposi’s Sarcoma had left large seeping lesions all across his body. He gingerly settled down into the bathwater. I lathered my hands, and gently washed his back. When I was finished, he said quietly, “Thank you.”
I left him alone, went into the kitchen, told David I’d just helped John bathe. Very calmly, he reached for a special soap dispenser at the sink.
“You need to wash your hands with this. It has bleach in it.”
Every day, David risked his life to care for my brother. He would ultimately die from that devotion.
So, Murderateros, who was your tutor in courage? How did your lesson play out?
How have you carried the lesson forward?
Have you been someone else’s mentor in what it means to be brave?
Do you agree that there’s a difference between courage and fearlessness?
Do you think hope is a source of strength, or a house of cards?
Did you ever have your own “trip to see the doctor?”
Note: I’m in a panic today, preparing for the Book Passage Mystery Conference — specifically, getting ready for my pre-conference seminar, Integrating Acts & Arcs (not to be confused with Implementing Snacks & Snarks) — so I apologize in advance for any tardy responses to comments. I’ll do my best to be prompt.
* * * * *
Review Update: Please excuse the BSP, but Len Wanner, whose The Crime of It All is one of the most engaging online sources on crime writing, recently posted his review of DO THEY KNOW I’M RUNNING? If you don’t know the book or my work, this is perhaps the most flattering, humbling, gratifying introduction I could hope for. I can die now.
* * * * *
Jukebox Hero of the Week: I’m a little conflicted. This post made me miss my brother, and I grew up listening to John practicing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” on the piano — in fact, I’m not sure I remember him practicing anything else — but I just couldn’t bring myself to put it here. (“If I never hear that tune again as long as I live …”)
But Terri’s birthday is coming up (July 23rd), and as a small memorial I’ve decided to include a video of a song she loved, Lloyd Price’s “Personality.”
I had originally included a performance she and I once watched together on PBS. It’s one of only a handful of times I ever saw a piece of music reduce her to tears — she trained as a concert pianist, it tends to grind the sentiment out of you. I still choke up when I listen to this music alone. It’s as perfect a performance as I’ve ever heard: Martha Argerich on piano, the second movement to Ravel’s Concerto in G. But today of all days they closed that video down, claiming copyright infringement. Phooey, as Terri would say. My apologies to thos of you who tried the earlier link and came up short.
Wait! As Katherine so kindly pointed out, there’s another YouTube version of the Ravel, for the more classically minded of you. Here tis (THANKS KATHERINE)!
I’m writing this on July 4th, a good day to reflect on heroes. And as has been noted on this blog on numerous occasions, crime fiction without heroes is like porn without fluffers (or words to that effect).
Note: Recent comments regarding the tediously cerebral quality of newcomer postings has not gone unnoticed. I really did try to make this not too “heady.”
But as even the merest glance at my photograph should make plain — I am, if not the ORIGINAL Egghead from Hell, certainly a worthy inheritor of the mantle.
And, as someone far wiser than me once remarked:
I am what I am
And that’s all that I am
—Popeye the Sailor Man
* * * * *
I was not one of those who jumped aboard the whole Joseph Campbell hero’s journey bandwagon, and I resisted the Christopher Vogler adaptation of those theories to writing.
For the uninitiated: Joseph Campbell employed Jungian psychology in a comparative study of the world’s myths, creating a book that became a seminal work in the study of heroic sagas: The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Christopher Vogler adapted Campbell’s work to the writer’s craft in his book: The Writer’s Journey.
Specifically, Vogler took Campbell’s analysis of the hero’s journey:
And adapted it into a twelve-step schema for storytelling.
This schema has been especially influential in Hollywood.
I’ve come around a bit, cottoning to Campbell much more than I used to, and I’ve made peace more or less with Vogler, seeing a great deal that’s commendable in his methodology — though it still makes me itch at times.
First and foremost, I have to admit that Jung has always struck me as a little bit on the ooga-booga side of psychology. If Freud was the Viennese Quack that Nabokov accused him of being, Jung was the misty-eyed myth-monger. (Joyce famously referred to the pair of them as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.) There was just something airy-fairy about the Jungian world, with a lingering whiff of patchouli, an aftertaste of bark tea. Every time I almost succumbed, a redneck sergeant major in the back of my brain caterwauled: Hey, numbnuts! Pull your head out of your–
My basic complaint with Campbell was I thought he cherry-picked his facts to suit his theory, over-simplifying myths to fit his interpretive scheme. Myths are far more complex, varied, contradictory and unique than such a universalist interpretation can allow. (But then, I almost always regale in the trees; screw the forest.)
A number of Classicists I studied (and respected) agreed. Some even claimed Campbell’s knowledge of Sanskrit was so fatally off he’d woefully misread the texts he was citing.
Now, Aristotle’s been thrown under the bus at times for rigging his argument as well. Much of his Poetics is premised on a reading of one play — Sophocles’ Oedipus the King — and consequently his analysis ill-suits a number of other Greek dramas, not to mention more modern ones. But that’s what happens, I suppose, when philosophers go slumming in the arts.
Vogler was even more problematic than Campbell for me, to the point I nearly threw the book against the wall every time he brought up Theseus. And his attempt to use his theory to analyze The Last of the Mohicans was maddeningly — dare I say laughably — overwrought and unconvincing.
In fact, I’ve seldom found Vogler’s approach as a whole useful in analyzing anything. In pieces, this insight or another, sure, I’ve found him helpful, insightful, even profound. But some of his ideas have to be refashioned or reimagined so totally— or tossed overboard wholesale (shapeshifter my ass) — that trying to adapt them to a modern story in the realist mode seems such a wasteful detour you’re better off not to bother with them at all.
In short, I didn’t think there was anything this method brought to the table that wasn’t addressed equally well if not better — and without the spooks and fairies — by Aristotle, Lajos Egri, Robert McKee, and others in the more standard dramaturgical tradition.
I also found the efforts to use myth to demonstrate the fundamental heroic nature of human experience to be at times simplistic, ham-handed, or just plain silly — cheapening the very concept of what it means to be brave.
It’s no accident that Disney has been the most enthusiastic enabler of the Vogler addiction.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cartoons — my brother, a DoD psychologist (excuse me: Human Factors Engineer), has often remarked that it’s “frightening” how much of my personality was formed by Rocky and Bullwinkle — but I don’t look to Loony Tunes for heroic inspiration.
Now, I’m a writer, I believe stories are the best thought experiments there are for understanding human experience. I just don’t think tagging an experience to myth automatically elevates it. [“Crap, he told himself suddenly, with what facility you reduce all things to their arty equivalent.” —Robert Stone, Hall of Mirrors] Nor do I believe the best way to understand a story is to compare it to another story.
My other main complaint with the Campbell/Vogler approach was that, where the method seemed most potentially innovative and rich — adapting the hero’s journey to the psychology of personal trial and transformation — it seemed on fuller reflection to be less capable of offering new insights than merely proliferating terms.
Do I really understand anything more about a person facing a crucible “change or die” experience — an inmate giving up the criminal life, an addict battling his addiction, a neurotic embracing intimacy, a corrupt cop going straight — by likening the ordeal to Jonah in the Whale, St. George and the Dragon, Odysseus in the Underworld? Does this really add psychological, emotional or moral resonance? Or does it instead, ironically, cheapen the experience by denying its unique, temporal and material reality?
Put another way: I’ve never been convinced that going the Campbell/Vogler route produced more compelling results than deep immersion in the realities of a character or a story — not to mention of a person and an episode in her life.
Call it my Aristotelian bias, but for me the dramatic rubber meets the road when you have to deeply consider how the seemingly complex and even contradictory facts before you become intelligible as you probe their core nature and meaning.
If you do that, you’ll arrive at fundamental truths every bit as rich and “timeless” as those of myth — precisely because you’ll be tapping into the same core human truths that myths do. But there’s no shortcut. No cutesy diagram to guide the way. You gotta sweat through the homework, Sparky.
Do some stories possess qualities that suggest a special world, or entering the inner cave, or seizing the sword, or returning with the elixir? No doubt. But a great many do not. And searching for these things in tales that do not obviously possess them creates interpretive convolutions that generate nothing but circular jabber.
Also: The problem with working from myths outward is that it’s an easy trap – you can knowingly or unknowingly begin to resort to the method as a formulaic crutch — and in drama all formulas are false.
Saying we’re all on a journey is somewhat reassuring, but it’s also so vague it could be applied without much of an interpretive stretch to a rock.
Speaking of which: It’s a certain rock from mythology (ironically) that got me thinking about all of this. And the rock in question, of course, belongs to Sisyphus.
This ancient tale returned to modern awareness courtesy of Albert Camus, who like youth itself is wasted on the young. Too many of us read him in college, when the stakes of life have yet to make their most visceral impression. (Death makes life clear. The rest is marginalia.)
Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” is deceptively brief. And I would bet that most of us, given our American optimist mindset, think of the core idea of this essay as: Life is “futile and hopeless labor.” The cheeriest insight to be had is: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
Oh, the frolicsome, fun-loving French.
How refreshing to re-read the thing and find that such a downbeat interpretation is utterly wrong-headed.
In fact, the essay has a great deal to say about heroism.
Camus finds most interesting that moment when Sisyphus sees the rock roll down the hill again, and he begins to descend to retrieve it: “That is the hour of consciousness.” And if the myth is tragic, it is solely because Sisyphus is conscious.
And yet, for Camus, Sisyphus is far from a tragic figure. Instead, he “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
This ethos animates a great deal of modernity — one hears echoes of it in this from Martha Gelhorn: “It is cowardice or laziness to ask: what can I do about it anyway? Every squeak counts, if only in self-respect.” Or even this, in a backhanded kind of way, from Gelhorn’s short-term husband, that Hemingway mope: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”
I hear it in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when Maggie the Cat insists that life must go on even after the dream of life is over.
I hear it in the Zen adage: Death is like the falling of a petal from a rose — nothing more, nothing less. Or this from the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön: To give up fear, we must also surrender hope.
I also catch it in stories I hear from cops. Every crime solved results not in the ultimate triumph of justice, whatever the hell that is, but in going back down the hill to reclaim the rock.
I hear it in war stories, because there’s no concept in the lexicon more wildly misunderstood than that of victory, and no more insidious lie than a “war to end all wars.”
I hear it in stories of the middle-aged middle-class trying to hold on to their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity amid the impromptu experiment in narcissistic sociopathy sometimes referred to as the economy.
I see it in Louise’s accounts of her past year, and now caring for her much-loved father-in-law as he faces death. I hear it in Alexandra’s offhand mention of the incredibly difficult two-year slog she’s just endured, and Stephen’s and Cornelia’s accounts of dealing with their fathers’ suicides. I hear it in Zoé and Gar’s and many others’ tales of their struggle to keep their careers alive in the face of a crumbling and often disingenuous industry. The mountain is scaled by the inch. And gravity and the rock have their own thing going.
Heroism cannot always be measured by its triumphs, if only because they’re such a long way off — sometimes beyond the horizon line. On occasion the heroic lies in the simple refusal to close the book despite the overwhelming evidence that there’s no big reveal at the end of the story. No magic sword. No elixir. There’s just this. And it is everything.
So, Murderateros: Have you employed the Campbell/Vogler approach? Has it worked for you? Do you think I’m just a contrarian crank? Do you think my Sisyphean view of the hero is needlessly bleak? When you think “hero,” who ghosts up from your memory — especially on Independence Day? Chime in, spout off, tell it.
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: I turn this time to Eva Cassidy, who died much too young. (“What is it with Corbett and dead musicians,” I hear you cry.) This is her cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Tall Trees of Georgia,” a haunting song about another type of heroism — the lonely nobility of an honest heart.
Due to conflicting family obligations, Allison and I have exchanged posting days this week. I’m appearing today, and Allison will appear this Wednesday.
In my fifteen-plus years as a private investigator, I had the opportunity to work with numerous detectives, men and women both, but in retrospect I find myself particularly impressed with the latter.
Perhaps that’s because the qualities they brought to the profession weren’t the ones usually associated with it: toughness, intimidation, bravura. Their talents lay elsewhere, and turned out to be perfectly suited to the business.
Three women specifically stick out in my memory.
The most famous, and the materfamilias for the others, is Sandra Sutherland, who was my boss, along with her husband Jack Palladino. Together they lent their names to arguably the best investigation firm west of the Mississippi at the time: Palladino & Sutherland.
Jack was a Bostonian, raised by a shipyard worker, street-smart and book-smart too (brilliant, really, an encyclopedic mind), flamboyant and ambitious, a bully to some but that’s a compliment to others, especially in that field. He’s Sicilian, I’m Irish, and we spent the first year-and-a-half testing each other’s tempers, then settled down into a solid working rapport.
But this about Sandra and she was something else—a diffident Australian, former journalist, single mom (until she married Jack), arch-lefty to the bone, anti-authoritarian and literary and gentle by nature but fiercely proud, savagely loyal—crossing her was madness—and voraciously hungry for the story beneath the story. She was perhaps best renowned for spearheading the firm’s efforts in the Michael Jackson Case.
Some of the things that made her brilliant could not be taught, though in observing them I did lift a few pointers for the old trick bag. She relied on her intuition about witnesses with uncanny insight, knowing what to say, when to say it, and most importantly when to stop.
I once read a government transcript of a secret taping by an informant in a drug case in which Sandra, appearing at his door as background for a grand jury defense, tried to engage him in admissions about events he was concealing from his handlers. She played the dithering blond thing to perfection, priming the pump with harmless anecdotes about this suspect or that (most of them our clients), offering sly little openings for the snitch to fall into, which he did. Liars can’t help but brag. Sandra knew that, knew it in her core.
She taught me that my most essential tool was my own personality, my instincts, my ability to put people at ease. The rest was the easy stuff. Without the gift of being able to get people to open up, though, you were useless.
The second woman who astonished me was Melody Ermachild, another P&S investigator until she launched off to start her own firm with Barry Simon (yes, back then women needed a man in the frame to legitimize their “toughness”).
Melody shared Sandra’s essentially gentle spirit — a perhaps counter-intuitive quality for a detective of either sex — which is what made them both such sly interrogators: People trusted them. And she shared Sandra’s core moral sympathy for the underdog. But that sympathy felt more grounded in Melody—perhaps because of her longtime Buddhist practice—and that was the impression she gave you: This woman is fundamentally decent but also centered, strong, smart.
I worked with Melody on the second People’s Temple Trial. She’d been one of the key investigators in the first go-round, which ended in a hung jury. She’d gone off to form her own firm by the time the second trial commenced, and so we divvied up witnesses for the reconnection necessary to make sure, in the event courtroom appearances were necessary, the Temple survivors were up for it.
This was no small matter. These people were devastated. They had been betrayed by one of the most monstrous religious con men in the history of America, seen their personal histories of abuse and their thirst for social justice turned hideously against them, watched themselves and their families manipulated and brainwashed into unspeakable privations and ultimately death, only to become pariahs to anyone who learned they’d once been associated with the temple. They needed to be coaxed gently into the light. Many refused. I met with witnesses in ghetto coffee shops, condemned buildings, prison—and the Berkeley fourplex where, unknown to me at the time, my wife-to-be also lived in an upstairs apartment.
None of my successes would have been imaginable, frankly, without Melody. She’d paved the way, meeting with many of them in the first round of interviews, building a bridge of trust with these brutalized people that I relied upon each and every time. She was meticulous, thorough, determined, resourceful—but her greatest asset was her simple humanity. She inspired me not just professionally. I think I became a better person, a better man, because of working on that case, working with her.
The last of the three women I want to discuss was also an operative at P&S, but she never went on to glory in the field, never formed her own firm. She in fact left the business shortly after I came on board, moved to New Hampshire (if I recall correctly) and opened a boutique. Her name was Bonnie Ferro, and she was a tiny redhead with paprika freckles and an infectious laugh. I remember her precisely because she wasn’t an investigator by nature—no dogged insistence on the truth, no fierce sense of justice, no uncompromising allegiance to the underdog. She was just brave.
I can’t even recall the name of the case now, but it involved the murder of a Cow Hollow woman whose remains were so water-logged by the time they were found, wrapped in a sleeping bag in the bay, that the brightness of her recently manicured nails stood out as the one recognizably human feature on her corpse.
We were hired by the defense team for her husband, a mousy accountant, who was charged with her murder. The investigation led us to a seedy hotel on Market Street, where there resided a trio of young men with suspiciously precise knowledge of the murder. Bonnie went in undercover to befriend them, get them to open up to her, living in this fleabag SRO for three weeks until she thought she’d go mad. But she didn’t go mad. She got the goods.
And yet that success did not induce a hunger for more. She recognized that, unlike Sandra and Melody, she had no core longing for the work. But she didn’t pack it in until after she’d done the job asked of her, as disturbing and dangerous as it was.
These three were by no means the only women investigators at P&S who also worked hard and well and inspiringly: Stephanie Voss, Jacqui Tully, Dee Modglin, I remember them as well. And though Nancy Pemberton, another San Francisco PI, never worked for P&S, I know Nancy well, know her work—her professionalism, her integrity, her determination and profound sense of morality—and if I were in trouble I’d want her on my team.
As for fictional private investigators? Sadly, there I prefer a man: His name is Jackson Brodie, and he’s the most imaginatively, convincingly and profoundly fleshed-out investigator I’ve ever come across in the pages of a novel. Some consolation: his creator is, indeed, a woman: Kate Atkinson, a literary novelist who turned her hand to writing a detective and struck gold. I’m sure some wag would say her books “transcend the genre,” but that’s a phrase only used by pedants and lit-crit fetishists who wouldn’t know “the genre” and if it came up and bit off their . . .
But I digress.
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So, chime in on your favorite women detectives, flesh-and-blood or fictional. I don’t mean women cops, like Jane Tennison pictured above, but private investigators.
Do the fictional women PIs you love possess the same traits I found in my real-life avatars — specifically, gentleness of spirit, simple humanity, integrity — or are they obliged to bring more traditionally masculine traits to the game?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: The late great Solomon Burke, joining Italian rock legend Zucchero in a rocking stomping bit of bilingual Gospel-soul called Diavolo in Me (I Got the Devil in Me) — and I do.
Please abide about the first 40 seconds or so — the track is live, with introductions, etc. — then get ready to boogie with your bibles and jump up for Jesus — CRANK IT UP!: