Category Archives: Jonathan Hayes


by Jonathan Hayes

The arrival of autumn has put me in a mood of mellow introspection. I think I’m going to go ahead and launch a project I’ve had in the back of my mind for some time: The Bestiary of Death. Bestiary will be a monthly 5 minute or so audio podcast (maybe video, eventually) about a forensic topic – rigor mortis, say, or Jonathan’s sense of blood. It’ll be factual, but it’ll also be impressionistic, tinted by my own reactions and experiences. It’ll showcase my delightful speaking voice, plus feature groovy cover designs. I’ll let you know more about it as my plan solidifies.

Someone asked me the other day what I’ve learned from my time as an M.E. – actually a fairly pointless thing to ask a resolutely non-spiritual person. I do think that Warren Zevon’s answer to Letterman asking him what he’d learned from life (“Enjoy every sandwich”) covers it nicely, but I also have been thinking lately about achievement.

Objectively, human endeavor has delivered many astonishing achievements – the elucidation of the structure of DNA, putting a man on the moon, Sofia Vergara – but most of these things seem like almost inevitable byproducts of history. Sooner or later, we’d have figured out the wheel, and iron, and the Butterfinger bar. I feel the same way about personal achievement. Maybe because I have a doting mother and a competitive father, most of the things I’ve done with my life – becoming a doctor, becoming a forensic pathologist, writing for magazines and newspapers, becoming a novelist – don’t feel like achievements so much as they feel like stages of a life. 

But Xevious? Xevious was an achievement.

Xevious poster, c. 1982

I first encountered Xevious, an early 16 bit Namco videogame, in a Leicester Square coin arcade in the early 1980’s, while I was in medical school at the University of London. It’s a vertical scrolling spacecraft game in which you pilot a craft over a foreign terrain, bombing structures on the ground below while fighting off ferocious air attacks. The graphics – risible in the age of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 – just blew me away. To play Xevious in1983 was to really embrace the cutting edge of technology, to experience the joy of becoming cyborg, part man, part machine. At least, for as long as you could make your ten pence last.

At first, I was mediocre – much as I love them, I’m not intrinsically a good videogame player. But over countless hours of gameplay, I got better, and eventually I edged my way onto the leaderboard, and finally experienced the satisfaction of using the joystick to type out JAH into a Top 10 slot. Gradually, other arcade players gathered to watch me fly my solvalou spacecraft through the Baculon resistor shields, a barrage of slowly rotating metal slabs the size of skyscrapers you have to dodge to strafe and bomb the buildings below. It was an exhilarating experience, for I’d always been the admiring onlooker, never before the admired player.


The summer of my Year of Xevious, I traveled a lot. After finally entering my initials at the very top of the Xevious leaderboard in London, I flew home to Boston, where I sought out an arcade,  and found Xevious. I banged out my initials there, too, and again, in Philly. Now I had my name right at the top on Xevious games in three major cities; I also had calluses on my knuckles from repeatedly smashing them against the smooth bolts that held the joystick to the cabinet.

A week later, I went on to Bangkok. I knew Bangkok quite well, but wasn’t sure if I’d find a Xevious there. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered one in my hotel lobby. But it wasn’t the upright arcade cabinet I was used to: the BKK incarnation was a bar table version, played seated at a video screen covered with a sheet of glass.


Watching the young Thai dudes play, I experienced the rush of derision known only to the superb player – these guys were pathetic, dying off while they were still around the 40,000 mark! My top scores? Well, they were in the high 180’s, low 190,000’s – enough to justify that blast of disdain for lesser players, a fresh and exciting sensation for me.

They pretended not to see me waiting my turn for a long while, but ultimately they could ignore my hulking presence no more; finally, the crowd parted, and I got my shot at the machine.

I didn’t know how I’d fare on this low screen – I’d never played sitting, the way these kids were doing it. And I wasn’t about to start: I grabbed the chair, and shoved it away. I accidentally pushed it harder than I needed, and it shot a good fifteen feet across the lobby.

Immediately I was someone to be reckoned with. When I stepped close to the table, the throng closed in around me. When it became apparent that I was going to play the game standing, the hum of excited conversation grew loud. Would this unlikely-looking, chair-flinging farang be any good at the game?

Well, yes, actually. I played calmly and aggressively, piloting that spaceship like no one there  had ever piloted itbefore. Waves of sparkly diamond rockets fell to my guns, I reduced the missile and fort installations hidden in the woods below to charred pits. None of the players there had ever even seen the second wave of Baculon resistor shields, let alone the ancient Aztec-style carvings on the plains beyond.

I was too tall for the game table; hunched over, banging and mashing, dodging and decelerating, I took that fighter ship way further than anyone ever had, but, my back fully locked by muscle cramps, I finally crapped out; when my last ship was destroyed, I had earned just over 150,000 points. A loud “OHHHH!” went up from the crowd.

The leaderboard screen came up onto the console, the Number 1 slot occupied by some guy with a measly 47,000. I wasn’t proud of my score, and felt a little awkward in the hot press of bodies, so I straightened with a casual shrug, and pushed my way out of the scrum without entering my initials. There was another roar as the crowd sealed behind me, the players determined to go further now that I’d shown them all what time it was.

I didn’t play Xevious again until I traveled to West Berlin, a few weeks later. In the morning, I crossed through the Wall to visit the East part of the city. I ate venison in a gloomy old restaurant, supposedly the city’s best. But I loathed the oppressive, monochromatic dullness of the East German half of the city, and quickly made my way back through the drab, rainy streets to West Berlin.

Back in the American section, I found a bar near Checkpoint Charlie, and ordered a Coke. The lights were low, the crowd mostly soldiers, and the music was expat-oriented Classic Rock. I sipped my Coke, sitting there happy to be people-watching back in the Capitalist world.

And then I saw it in the corner: a Xevious machine.

I hadn’t played since Bangkok. I finished my Coke, got change for the machine from the barman, then headed over. I slotted in a coin, the screen lit up and the familiar opening chimes sounded.

And I started to play.

It took me a couple of seconds to lock into my groove, but once I did, I was on fire. On fire. Nothing could touch me – not the ground fire, not the crystal rockets, not the Baculon resistor shields, not even the random exploding cannonballs that are the lethal outriders of the Genesis mothership. I played on and on, taking the thing further than I’d ever gone, seeing forests and lakes and Aztec carvings I’d never before seen.

It was amazing. Off-duty soldiers gathered to watch me play; I barely noticed them, for I was now truly fused with the machine, the joystick an extension of my wrist, the BOMB and FIRE buttons my new fingertips.

On and on I went, shattering all my previous records. 

And then something magical happened: my favourite song of the era, David Bowie’s “Heroes” came onto the radio. But it wasn’t “Heroes” – it was “Helden”, the German version. And I kept playing and playing in the shadow of Checkpoint Charlie, Bowie screaming in German about the guns going off by the Wall, a crowd of GI’s cheering me on.

My right wrist felt wet; a quick glance showed me I’d played so hard that my knuckles had torn open. Blood was dripping onto the console, smearing down my wrist and arm, flicking up onto my clothes as I slammed the joystick back and forth.

And I just kept going, and going, and going, moving forward slick with blood, tears streaming down my face, Bowie singing that we could steal time (just for one day), the sensation in my heart of escape from oppression while in my head I knew I was still right in the middle of of it, a few yards from the Wall, the barbed wire and spotlights and machine guns that separated freedom from asphyxiating totalitarianism.

And I went on, and on, up past 200,000 and on. I floated up through the tropopause, all the way out into the mesosphere, where around me comets burned up into streaks of pure white light. And still I kept going, on into the thermosphere, surrounded by the shimmering curtains of the aurora borealis, where the 3,000 degree air temperature felt cold against my skin.

I went on and on, and in the end, I never stopped.

There’s a theory that since energy is never destroyed, sound never ends; the sounds of the musicians playing on the deck as the Titanic sank are still echoing around that ship, just infinitely quietly. In the same way, thirty years later, somewhere deep inside, a part of me is still playing Xevious in that bar, still piloting that ship further and further out as David Bowie sings that we could be heroes, if just for one day.

So, yeah, Xevious. Xevious was an achievement.

And that’s what I have to say on the subject of achievement.

Oh, and also: auf Wiedersehen.  

And thanks for playing along at home.







Naked City

by Jonathan Hayes


Love at first sight is always followed by a period of recognition of initially unnoticed flaws, with subsequent acceptance or rejection of the hastily beloved. I fell wildly in love with New York City when I was a young child; decades later, I still feel like kissing the sidewalk of this sainted isle whenever I launch myself from my doorstep into the world. I’m well aware of the city’s complexities – sometimes brutally aware, given my work as a medical examiner here – but I embrace it in all its beautiful, thorny glory.

One way of managing things with dark and light sides is to mythologize the dark; it’s a way of controlling it, making it attractive. New Yorkers still take huge pleasure in the image of this town as a violent, crime-riddled hellhole where only the tough survive, despite the fact that this is one of the safest large cities in the world. Perhaps my favourite of the city’s great propagandists was Damon Runyon, whose stories about the antics of charming petty criminals and hoodlums delighted me as a boy. Weegee, a darker contributor to the lore of Gotham, delighted me as an adult.

Usher Fellig – dubbed Weegee because of the Ouija board-like prescience that had him showing up at murder scenes often before the police – was a crime beat photojournalist who became world-famous during the 30’s and 40’s. His was the unflinching eye that splashed Skid Row murders and high society drunks in paddy wagons over the front pages of the morning paper. His photographs have a stark urgency that underscores one of the things that New Yorkers love most about their city: it’s realness. In this town, we abhor the inauthentic. For example, most of us despise the changes that have taken place in the Times Square and 42nd Street areas – it has been transformed from the gritty neighbourhood of the 70’s into our own little pocket of fake. We accept it because we understand that it wasn’t put here for us: it was put here for the tourists.

Weegee’s photographs – the line-ups of arrested transvestites, the children sweltering on a fire escape late on a roasting summer night, the bodies of the dead sprawled in doorways, on sidewalks on saloon floors – show the harsh conditions of real life in the real city. But they also bring to their subject the gloss of myth, the blessing of everlasting life, the confirmation of a moment as legend. Some of this is the gloss of time, certainly, amplified by the fact that his images were a visual touchstone for the brooding noir films that spread like black mold over the post-WWII American consciousness – it was, in fact, Weegee who coined the term “the Naked City”.

Weegee lived above the John Jovino gunshop

“I would drop into Police Headquarters at around 7:00 p.m. If nothing’s stirring and my elbow don’t itch – and that’s not a gag, it really does itch when something is going to happen – I go on back to my room across from Police Headquarters and go to sleep. At the head of my bed I have a hook-in with the police alarms and fire gongs so that if anything happens while I’m asleep, I’m notified…When I get my pictures I hurry back to Headquarters. There is always a follow-up slip on an accident (or crime) with all the names and details coming in over the teletype. I found out who were injured, where they lived, and on what charges they have been arrested, so that I can caption my pictures correctly. Next I go back to my darkroom and develop my prints. By this time it is around six in the morning and I start out to sell my prints.”

Weegee quoted in “Free-Lance Cameraman,” by Rosa Reilly, Popular Photography, December 1937

Weegee’s apartment, police radio by his bedside
Here are a few of his iconic images:

“The Critic, Metropolitan Opera”

“Balcony Seats at a Murder, 10 Prince St” Weegee was more interested in the onlookers from the windows than the corpse in the doorwell


Weegee, a tireless self-publicist, wasn’t above adjusting the scene for a better photo

Charles Sodokoff and Arthur Webber Use Their Top Hats to Hide Their Faces, January 27, 1942. The caption from the New York Daily News read: “In Top Hats – In Trouble, Charles Sodokoff, 28, and Arthur Webber, 32, both Broklynites, use their toppled toppers to hide faces as they take free ride to Felony Court. Boys were tippling at Astor Bar Saturday night when they decided to slide down banisters for fun (???). Cop was called and they assaulted him. Funsters then went from mahogany bar to iron type.”

“Cop Killer”, 1941“Heat Spell”, 1941. Newspaper caption: “The hot weather last night took Weegee, the photographer, to the Lower East Side, where he found these children sleeping on a tenement fire escape at Irving and Rivington Streets. Weegee says he gave the kids $2 for ice cream. But their father took charge of the dough.”

Weegee actually played an important role in my life in New York City. When I first moved here in 1990, I knew no one. A couple weeks after my arrival, I saw an ad for an unusual item: someone was selling a Weegee portrait of the notorious pin-up model Betty Page. It turned out that the seller lived two blocks from my apartment; it also turned out that the photographer was the notorious glamour and fetish photographer Eric Kroll. When I arrived at his studio to see the print, I was met at the door by a corseted dominatrix; they were in the middle of a shoot. I watched until they finished, then the three of us pored over some of the domme’s clothing designs. And then we looked at the Weegee photo.

Betty Page by Weegee – the only of his photographs that I own


It was a wonderful afternoon, a signal moment in my life in the city, one of those days that underscore the whole “only in New York” thing – a forensic pathologist, a dominatrix and a naughty photographer having a convivial afternoon. I’d always assumed that my life in New York would be extraordinary, and barely a fortnight in, it was exceeding all my expectations.

I wasn’t sure I could afford the print; I said I’d think about it. A few days later, I called back and asked if I could have another look at the photograph. Eric invited me to his studio; this time, the door was opened by a woman naked except for a narrow leather belt and fetishy black leather pointe shoes with 7” tall heels. It was the sort of coup de théatre that I came to expect from Eric, a deliberate attempt at manipulation of one friend using a model or another friend. I’m a physician, and am completely used to naked bodies –  Eric was expecting me to be flustered, or embarrassed or excited, but instead I found it amusing, and sweetly flattering.

So we became friends. For the next ten or so years, until Eric moved to the West Coast, I occasionally helped him with his shoots, helping move the lighting in his studio, schlepping equipment to professional dungeons and burlesque clubs around town. It was an interesting education, and had a huge and unexpected benefit: my first circle of NYC friends came from the city’s odd sexual demimonde – strippers, dominatrixes, pornographers – some of whom are still my closest friends today. 


Here’s an interesting bit of lagniappe: the New York Times’ John Strasbaugh narrates a downloadable podcast walking tour of Weegee- related NYC sites.

By the banks of the Big Muddy: Bouchercon 2011

by Jonathan Hayes


Warning: This post contains a somewhat whimsical graphic of an active penis.

Here’s some simple advice: when you live in the Greatest City on Earth, never leave it.

Never go on vacation. Never fly somewhere to meet someone you met on the Internet, no matter how incredibly hot they are. Refuse all invitations to weddings and funerals. If you get the urge to leave, lie down and order Chinese for delivery.

The honest truth is that no good can ever come of leaving the earthly Eden that is the island of Manhattan.

However. If you absolutely must leave the island, the annual Bouchercon crime fiction festival is a fantastic reason to go. What’s not to love? A couple thousand bloodthirsty readers, writers, agents and publishers marooned in the middle of an unfamiliar city is a surefire recipe for hilarity. Oh, the days start off innocently enough – friends hugging, a Who’s Who of international crime fiction doing panels and interviews, hilariously awkward authors having “casual chats” with fans, that sort of thing. But after dark, the event transforms into something dark and glittering – if you’ve seen the grainy snapshots and Paris Hilton nightvision-style cellphone videos taken in the hotel bars starting around 2 AM, you’ll know what I mean. Really, this conference should be called Debauchercon. 

I’m sitting in St. Louis Airport, on my way home after B’con11. O St. Louis, City on the banks of the mighty Big Muddy! How you have abused me! It wasn’t the conference – Bouchercon was as great as ever. It wasn’t your citizens, charming and polite to a tee. It wasn’t the packed hordes of fundamentalist Christians in my hotel, surging through the halls and elevators of my hotel in a tsunami of sensible clothing and “Love Life” badges (even though my neighbors did insist on rising at the crack of dawn – every. freakin’. day). Your streets are handsome, your Downtown has some of the best-looking old skyscrapers and covetable factory spaces I’ve ever seen.

It’s your food. And I know that you can’t judge a city’s food by its Convention District fare – if you visit NYC, and eat only in the Times Square/42nd Street area, you’d probably eat pretty poorly too. But by God I had some appalling swill here!

The gold standard seemed to be the sort of cuisine generally served heaped on platters in front of the TV on Game Night: battered, fried to a crisp, dipped into Ranch dressing mix blended with mayonnaise and blue cheese. Never before have I seen such liberties taken with produce – hey, chef who came up with“Fire-roasted artichoke hearts, served with sweet chili sauce and chipotle sauce”? They’re putting together a tribunal in the Hague to investigate your kitchen crimes.

What’s so frustrating about this was that there’s clearly good food to be had. The town lies on a river in the middle of fertile plains, surrounded by vegetables and some of the country’s best pigs. There’s no need for everything to be a variation on Buffalo chicken wings – that’s what Buffalo’s for!

The wrongness of this state of affairs was proved by dinner at Niche, where the food was so good I almost wept. The maple custard with roasted chopped porcini mushrooms and a dashi “caviar” was one of the few validations of this whole vogue for making little membrane-clad spheres of liquid, and the Jonah crab appetizer (crabmeat, flaked pink grapefruit, shiso leaf, mint, avocado panna cotta and shards of cocoa glass) was revelatory. The ingredients are there, and the cooks are there, too – Niche chef Gerard Craft has said that there’s a thriving food culture there, with serious cooks and fantastic food blogs; given the culinary wasteland that was downtown, I’m sure he’s right, since people here must be forced to fend for themselves.

Gerard Craft of Niche:

Of course, I’m exaggerating wildly (not about Niche, though, which is excellent), but, still: too often the food across this great land of ours looks right, but is miles away from tasting anywhere near decent. The word “fusion” has been used to justify some of the worst atrocities of this young century; if you don’t know how exotic flavours go together, why not work with the flavours you do know? There’s nothing wrong with American food – and so much right with American produce! Or buy a copy of Dornenburg and Page’s excellent Culinary Artistry, which clearly outlines which foods go well together, and (just as importantly) which are in season at any given moment.

Anyway, Bouchercon.

Bouchercon is always a fantastic conference – tightly plotted and elegantly executed. I spent quite a lot of time hanging out with Chevy Stevens, who is as wonderful as she is Canadian. It was her first B’con, my third, but we agreed: for authors, at some level, it’s a bit like high school. There are all sorts of competing hierarchies, some based on obvious metrics (book sales and fame, mostly), others on less readily quantifiable criteria (coolness, edginess, connectedness, attractiveness). The bar where the authors gather is like a lava lamp of cliques, clots of friends and colleagues forming, gradually budding off other little blobs which then merge to form new, bigger blobs.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s ruthless or exclusive – on the contrary, it’s actually a pretty friendly bunch, particularly if you can prove your worth. And even if you can’t, most of the authors I know are pretty good about supporting newer writers.

But there’s a very clear sense of who’s made it and who hasn’t, and all sorts of confident assertions of advances and sales and print runs for this guy’s or that gal’s books. The talk is often fairly gloomy these days, with authors worrying about declining advances and print sales, and how to negotiate the ebook market. This is one of the reasons it’s kind of nice to hang out with the best-selling crowd, for whom life seems to be an endless series of expenses-paid readings in Amsterdam, Rome and Mumbai, options moving quickly into production, or how a new Twi translation means that their sleuth can finally reach the Akan people of Southern Ghana.

I was on three panels. The first was a forensics panel, with Jan Burke, Marcia Clarke, Stefanie Pintoff and Doug Starr, ably chaired by Leslie Budewitz. There was a decent crowd, and the discussion was vivid and spritely, with Marcia talking about how hard she had to push to get blood on OJ’s socks tested for DNA, and me trying delicately to explain that the OJ Simpson trial was one of the best things to happen to forensic science in the last century, since it caused us to radically tighten procedures for obtaining, securing and storing forensic evidence.

The music panel – Mark Billingham, Roger Ellory, Brian Glimer, me and Rochelle Staab, with Wallace Stroby cracking the whip – was altogether more rollicking. An enjoyable portion of the session was spent dissing the music of Phil Collins, and, eventually, Paul McCartney, comme il faut. Actually, the Macca stuff wasn’t so much a diss of the music (anyone who hates Band on Run is a bad person) as a diss of the man himself. There was music love aplenty, and some feisty Brit-on-Brit badinage (between Mark, Roger and myself, there were enough Englishmen to start shifting that Boston Harbor tea back up into the boat), but at the end of the day, it was a bunch of middle-aged white people sitting around talking about music, which only gets you so far before the nostalgia begins to clot thick and lumpy.

The next day I signed with Joe Finder at the Crimespree booth. The wonderful Denise Hamilton, celebrated noir author and LA Times perfume columnist stopped by with perfume samples, at which point I learned that Joe, too, is a scent aficionado – he’s even friends with Luca Turin, the brilliant sense scientist and perfume critic, a personal hero.

Some weeks back, Denise had introduced me to the Perfumed Court, a kind of samizdat distributor of perfume samples and decants. I try consciously to develop my sense of smell – something I’ve done since my food writing days; my interest is mostly in smelling things analytically, rather than in perfume. I collect essential oils, but my attempts at perfumery have mostly served to remind me how gifted real perfumers are (like the amazing Swiss parfumier Andy Tauer – if you can, try and find his L’Art du Désert Marocain, a heady exotic, warm with coriander, rock rose, jasmine and cedar).


I went a bit wild at the Perfumed Court, buying about 20 different samples, of which the most interesting was Sécretions Magnifiques. succes de scandale from the punkish French perfume house l’État Libre d’Orange, SM is inspired by bodily secretions – breast milk, blood, semen. Denise had pronounced it “unwearable”, so I ordered it immediately. But the sample I’d received wasn’t at all offensive – it was powdery and dry, and smelled quite nice when my friend Jill modeled it for an evening. So I’d asked Denise to bring some of her official sample to B’con just to make sure I’d got the right thing.

Sitting at the booth, chatting with Joe and the occasional passerby, all was fine and dandy. Denise arrived with her little sack of product, and I wasted no time dousing myself liberally with the magnificent secretions. Both arms.

And that was when my troubles began.

Within seconds, notes of half-cleaned fish bones, curdling milk and blood-spattered abattoir floor swum around me, underneath them a dank plateau of metal, stale sweat and flesh fold grime. I was near-gagging as the smell intensified; it occurred to me that the perfume was a synthetic, and that it would be impossible to scrub off. I leapt to my feet and lurched through the hallways to the men’s room, spent 10 minutes washing and soaping and scrubbing, my arms shocked pink, my head spinning with nausea as I tried to sluice the vile syrup from my skin.

It may have been post-traumatic stress, but for the rest of the day I kept getting Magnificent Secretions flashbacks.

Nonetheless, the afternoon was fun. Maddee James, who designs web pages for many in the mystery community, gathered writers up for a game. The audience was small, but select, including power book bloggers Erin Mitchell of In Real Life, and Chantelle Aimée Osman of Sirens of Suspense. Let’s see: Brett Battles, me, Will Lavender, Boyd Morrison, Stefanie Pintoff and Eric Stone all played this game where Maddee gave us a book title and author eg James Lee Burke’s Rain Gods. We each had to write what we thought would be the first line. All the first lines – including Burke’s original – were read to the audience, who had to guess which was the real one.

It sounds a little involved, but it was actually pretty simple, and really hilarious, mostly because the participants were so funny. My favourite line was Eric’s, for Rain Gods, in fact. It wasn’t the entire sentence so much as his creation of the phrase “displaced Vietnamese shrimper woman” that just killed me…

After that, my panel obligations were done, so I hung out and schmoozed, in the tremendously inept way in which I “schmooze”. I spent a lot of time saying hi to people, including finally meeting David Corbett and JT Ellison and Zoe Sharpe, among the Murderati. I hung out with old friends, made some new ones and caught a few panels. There were so many great authors there, but I’m trying to work on my new book, so I limited myself to buying just three books, picking up Will Lavender’s Obedience, and John Rector’s The Grove and The Cold Kiss. And I have a list of other people I want to read. We’ll see.


Anyway, all in all it was a great Bouchercon. 

And in truth, I even enjoyed the bad food. Something one of my old girlfriends never quite understood was that an appalling meal is much more satisfying than a mediocre meal, since then you get to really tear it apart.

Anyway! Another sprawling post from me. David Corbett, if you’ve made it this far, I owe you another drink. I was ready to pay out in St. Louis, but you were all over the place! Next time, buddy.

Anyone else have any Bouchercon reminiscences they’d care to share with the class?


Cult Crime


by Jonathan Hayes


There’s been a recent flurry of activity over the Brian De Palma-directed, Oliver Stone-scripted, Al Pacino-larded Scarface. The celebrations, complete with cast reunion and one-off screenings nationwide, are not about an anniversary (the movie came out in 1983), but release fanfare for a new Blu-ray edition. In truth, Scarface has such a huge following that no particular special occasion would be necessary to celebrate it.

The film, released to middling reviews and decent box office, has flourished over the last almost three decades as a burgeoning cult obsession, driven by VHS, then DVD releases. Its popularity was particularly obvious among rappers – every hip hop star showcased on MTV Cribs had that poster of a brooding, Hamlet-esque Tony Montana, on the edge of darkness and light, hanging on his media room wall; indeed, this is probably how the film’s following was sustained, with younger fans picking up on the endlessly repeated meme.

The movie’s appeal is obvious, particularly to disadvantaged young men. The American Dream writ large, Scarface tells the story of Tony Montana, a Cuban thug ejected from Havana during the Mariel boat lift. Landing in Florida, through ambition and ruthlessness, Tony becomes a cocaine kingpin, becoming hugely wealthy and losing everything in the process. It speaks to the disenfranchised directly, celebrating the outsider, implying that even the marginalized can have whatever they want, if they have the drive and the cojones.

Tony’s rewards are the dream of any 14 year old boy – fountains of money, amazing cars, a mansion, cool guns, and Michelle Pfeiffer at her most luminous. As a movie, Scarface is a pop song, an agglomeration of hooks – Tony’s sexy toys, the graphic violence (including an impressive chainsaw dismemberment in a shower in a pre-gentrification Miami Beach), Stone’s quotable dialogue (“Say hello to my li’l friend!” alone is probably uttered hundreds of times every day) and Pacino’s manically bizarre take on the Cuban accent – Stone may have written “cockroaches”, but with “CACK-A-ROACHES!!!!”, Pacino made it his own. Much as he did with “HOO-AHH!!!” in the abysmal Scent of a Woman. (A side note: why did the Academy acknowledge him for that performance? Giving him the Best Actor Oscar was like injecting the Tasmanian Devil with coffee and methedrine and setting it loose in Disney World on Orphan Visiting Day; since then, with every one of his performances, Pacino may not actually say “HOO-AHH!!!”, but you can feel him thinking it…)

As a kid, I spent a lot of time in art house and rep cinemas – the Coolidge Corner, the Harvard Square and the Brattle in the Boston area, the Scala and the Ritzy in London – enduring endless double bills of Kurosawa and Truffaut, the Marx Brothers and Bogart. When I was growing up, the big cult movies were countercultural/alternative, like King of Hearts and Harold and Maude. If Scarface is something of an evergreen, what are the current cults? 

Wait: I want to mention one film that is, I think, both a cult film and a classic, in the non-ironic sense. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released the year before Scarface, is sci-fi noir, an existentialist picture from a Philip K. Dick short story about a detective assigned to track down androids who are “more human than human”; in the process, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is forced to question his own humanity. The film’s philosophical themes are buried in a glorious miasma of visionary filmmaking, centered about Syd Mead’s concept – which felt unprecedented at the time – of a future not all slick and shiny and “futuristic” in that smooth, modern Kubrick’s 2001 sense, but of a civilization that had progressed technologically but not ideologically, developing organically in the ruins of its own crumbling cities, consuming the environment, exterminating natural life on earth until it’s forced to flee the planet.


With unparalleled art direction, sound design and special effects, Blade Runner is, for my money, a great film. It’s flawed, though, which is why it remains mostly a cult object – cost and time overruns, endless arguments with the studio, which took control away from Scott to deliver an aggressively edited release with an overdetermined noir voice-over, and the existence of seven different release cuts have all interfered with the film’s establishing itself as a true classic. Blade Runner is more worthy of a Blu-ray edition than Scarface; thankfully, it is the object of a five disc Blu-ray set, containing several different cuts of the film. You’ve probably seen it, but if not, watch it before the arrival of Scott’s new “installment” of the “Blade Runner franchise”, a project announced a couple of weeks ago.

To my eye, the two contemporary films that command the biggest cult following among Millennials (aka Generation Y, aka Generation Next, aka Generation Net) are Fight Club and Léon (released in the US as The Professional). I base that opinion both on the multitude of references to them rattling around on Twitter and Facebook, and because I’ve been surprised by how frequently I encounter them when I’m looking at tumblrs (tumblrs are blogs which make it particularly easy to share photographs and videos and audio, rather than being text-oriented. My own tumblr is a repository for images and sounds I’ve come across that I want to share; they may be beautiful, arresting or disturbing, but they all evoked a reaction in me).

Citations of the two films break down along lines of sex; unsurprisingly, Fight Club shows up mostly on dude tumblrs, whereas it’s (usually) the chicks who post from The Professional. Both films are very strong visually – something I think is key in catching the attention of the post-MTV generation.

Fight Club is David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel of the same name. You’ve probably seen it, but if not it’s a lacerating satire about… well, a lot of things. An insomniac traveling salesman who feels emotionally disconnected from the world meets a handsome, id-driven stranger. They become friends, and together start a “fight club”, in which men meet for no-holds-barred bareknuckle fist fighting. The club, lead by the homicidally reckless Tyler Durden, evolves into an anti-corporate movement, pranking companies and attacking consumerism head-on, with each episode of sabotage more destructive than the one before, everything leading up to an explosive twist ending.

At its core, the film grapples with the classic post-modern anguish over the Death of the Real. The members of the fight club are responding to a prevalent sense of alienation from reality, from real feeling. They live in a world where values are dictated by marketing, where advertising is treated as art, and where high end consumption is considered a valid life goal. For young men who’re increasingly realizing that their lives will never be like the lives they’ve been shown on TV (they’ll never live in a loft in New York City with seven attractive strangers, they’ll never drive a Bentley convertible, and, even though they “think she’s a skank”, they’ll never get the chance to fuck Snooki) the anarchist message is an instant hook. If you can’t have something that you’re constantly being shown as visible and imminent, the fantasy of burning it all down is incredibly seductive.

An awareness of the shallowness of the goals of the generations that immediately preceded them – Generation X, the Baby Boomers – is said to mark Millennial thinking. Millennials want careers – want lives – that have meaning and richness. It’s not about money, but about valid experience. This extends into the realm of physical action: I think that one of the reason that extreme sports, sports with a high risk of physical injury, like skateboarding and ultimate fighting, are popular now is because pain is an immediately and undeniably real experience. I think this is part of the reason why the 2000’s were the era of Jackass, the era of the emergence of the Modern Primitive culture of piercing and tattooing.

Fight Club scratches this itch for young men. They watch the film, relate to its seditious messages, accept the homoerotic undertones of the unreliable narrator’s relationship with Tyler Durden. And at the end of the day, the movie looks fantastic, and Tyler Durden looks just so freakin’ cool in those shades and bro shirt and red leather jacket, up there on that glossy 42” Sony LED screen in the living room.


One of the major ways in which experience for the Millennials has been mediatized and mediated is in the experience of love and sex – the latter far more than the former. Any 13 year old boy or girl can show you how to access hardcore online pornography for free, and a huge percentage of teens have sent or received photographs of themselves or their peers naked or having sex. I’m fascinated by the amount of erotic material in their tumblrs, both the stuff that’s on the edge of hardcore, and the frankly pornographic, with visible penetration. This goes for both the male and female bloggers. And while some of the females may be using porn to catch the attention of the boys, I think that many young women like/embrace/are aroused by it.

I’m not interested in questions about the morality of pornography, but I do find its embrace interesting and problematic, particularly in terms of the expectations young people will have in terms of how sex will work inside (and outside) their main relationships.

Blogs – tumblrs perhaps even more so than traditional text blogs – are declarations of both identity and aspiration. The blogger filters the internet, sharing material to show how the blogger wants to be seen, the things they fear, the things they want for themselves. They can be endlessly engrossing, particularly when you come across a blogger who shares your world view. I’m the same way – my tumblr (which I assemble almost at the level of spinal reflex, grabbing and posting images and music that have triggered something in me, knowing that I’m disclosing complex but pretty legible truths about myself) is my way of filtering my experience of the world (as viewed through the fish-eye lens of the internet). I see my tumblr as a visual and acoustic form of DJ’ing, of imposing order on a world out of control.

The Professional (aka Léon) is a stylish crime film by the prolific lowbrow pulp French director Luc Besson (The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita), who must never be confused with Robert Bresson, the highbrow French director of such films as 1951’s The Diary of a Country Priest and 1959’s Pickpocket. A little girl (Natalie Portman) witnesses the killing of her entire family by a bunch of corrupt, drug-dealing DEA agents led by Gary Oldman. She is saved by the intervention of a neighbor, a bearish, taciturn hitman (Jean Reno), who hides and protects her. He becomes a father to the orphan, and she in turn brings him out of his shell, freeing him from the rigorous code of living he’s adopted to survive all these years. Of course, her involvement in his life compromises it, with ultimately disastrous results.

I like this film a lot, but largely for visual reasons – Besson’s films tend to poke around notions of crime and redemption without doing much with them, but at the end of the day, he inherited the mantle of beautiful, advertising-inspired filmmaking from Jean-Jacques Beneix (Diva, Betty Blue), and strong visuals work for me 

The essential relationship in the film – between Mathilda Lando, the appealing, inquisitive 12 year old and Leon, the grunting, barely socialized hit man – is, I believe, at the root of the appeal for the girls who post stills and clips. It’s an odd, uncomfortable relationship, hovering between the childlike, the revelatory, the protective and the incestuous. Leon (the hitman) is the ultimate father figure – he’s a kind of indestructible machine who will protect the little girl against any attack. He is strong, silent and, in his ultimate self-sacrifice, the epitome of the loving father.

In turn, Mathilda looks after him, this brooding, homicidal manchild, making sure he’s fed and watered, defusing his alienation and isolation, abnegating his nihilism to connect him once more to the world. And, once his feet touch the ground, he is no longer an immortal, but human, vulnerable in every sense of the word.

I suppose that’s part of the character’s romantic appeal: he is one particular ultramasculine male archetype, and she comes along, with her innocence and love, and unlocks his armour to reveal the loving Daddy within. And he loves her, and protects her, at extraordinary cost to himself.

But I also found their relationship a little creepy, the way she becomes his mother, almost his wife in the process. It has that tang of incestuousness, that little echo of the taboo – particularly when you come across photographs of Mathilda and Leon right next to a hardcore animated gif of a couple having violent sex.


I think Mathilda herself – an avatar of innocence, of vulnerability in the face of an ugly, brutal, monstrous world – is another reason the film is so appealing to young women. Millennials, I believe, relate more to the romantic notion of the childlike waif, the orphan, than have previous generations. I don’t know if this is because the world is a more frightening place now than it was before, or if it is because changing patterns of child raising have resulted in timid, cosseted children.

Anyway, I’ve droned on long enough about this. Both films are worth your time. And so are tumblrs! They’re a fascinating lens onto what people are thinking and doing these days. You can start with my tumblr, if you’d like: Millennials are nothing if not democratic, so tumblrs are really hyperlinked – the photographs I post are usually linked to the original poster. This way, you can click on an image that appeals, track it back to the original tumblr, then page through that person’s tumblr looking for more images that you like, and in turn track those back to their original pages, bookmarking the ones you like. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Oh, a note about navigating tumblrs: they all have different layouts, but if you click on the tumblr’s name at the top of the page (eg, mine is AFTER THE TORCHLIGHT), that will take you back to the current front page of the tumblr. Some tumblr layouts show 15 posts at a time, others let you scroll infinitely. To quickly view all of the posts in a particular tumblr at once, type /archive after the tumblr name eg ).

Finally! One tumblr I occasionally look at, apparently belonging to a young woman in Sweden, is . I realized just now that the page name she’s now using for her tumblr is… Mathilda Lando. And her bio is Mathilda’s. Have a look at her page – I think it’s fairly typical of a certain type of tumblr – a curious mixture of photos of herself, celebrities, fashion, cute things, animals and hardcore pornography. I’ve posted the link to her archive view; to see any individual post, just click on it. Or, to see it as she’d like you to see it, click here.

Again: I think I’ve made it clear by now that many tumblrs contain hardcore pornography: if this offends you, there are plenty of other places to visit on the net. Or so I’m told.

Thanks for joining me on another weird meander! If you see me at Bouchercon, and made it this far, hit me up and I’ll buy you a drink! In the meantime, what are your prognostications of current films that will be cult hits down the road? Any personal favourites?











Structure and Function

Structure and Function

 by Jonathan Hayes


A song’s structure is readily apparent in minutes, unlike, say, that of a movie or a book, where it slowly heaves into view over the course of hours or even days. Pop songs are almost instantly comprehensible because of their repeating structures: intro/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/instrumental break/verse/chorus/outro. 

With music, though, the immediate legibility that makes the songs accessible can also make them facile and disposable – what I like about most of the music I love is that each time I listen to it, I hear something new there. Indeed, I might not like it much at all the first time I hear it. Really well made pop music – U2, say, or the Beatles, or the Beach Boys – keeps rewarding the listener, but most has a pretty short expiration date. And that’s okay: one of the things I like about pop is that it is definitively of its era, sometimes going so far as to define that era.

I listen to a lot of music – indeed, I got my start as a professional writer by writing a montly music column – and can usually find something to enjoy in everything, but most of what I listen to generally falls under the rubric of alternative or indie rock (with a healthy dose of everything else, particularly electronic music, dance music and modern classical music). I posted my five favourite songs of 2010 on my blog; for me the clear #1 was “Helicopter”, by the Athens, Georgia band Deerhunter:

Now I grew up in a classical music family; at some point I pretty much stopped listening to lyrics, because I tend tend to find them both similar and facile. I listen for melody, but  even more for texture and timbre, and I thought “Helicopter” was just magnificent – that point at the 0:31 second mark when the song suddenly opens into an infinite ocean of space and possibility just blows me away. How is it possible for something to be so exquisite?

For all its radiant beauty, “Helicopter” is lyrically a grim thing. The song is inspired by (or inspired, I’m not sure of the order) a narrative by the transgressive (do we still use that word? is it still possible to transgress in 2011?) writer Dennis Cooper about a 14 year old boy who becomes a male prostitute in Russia; for a while he’s feted and sought after, but eventually his moment passes, and he’s routinely abused and raped. Finally, an embarrassment to the powerful men who once desired him, he’s taken by helicopter over a remote forest in northern Russia and thrown out. (This is probably one of the reasons I don’t listen to lyrics much.)

I love all four of Deerhunter’s albums, and their various singles, and collect their cover versions of other artists’ songs – I’ve not been as excited about a band in years. But I saw them live for the first time last night, and they were astonishing. Their songs share my obsession with texture and sound colour – they tend to the psychedelic, a post-Phil Spector wall of sound, welling chords from the two guitars meshing into thick waves of melody and noise, digitally processed, shaped and augmented. Their song structures are generally fairly classical, but they often smear the verses into the choruses, and use odd time signatures and unexpected tempo changes.

When they play live, they rework the song structures aggressively. A somewhat trite pop song turns into punk thrash, the singer’s voice drowned out by fast, grinding guitars. And the fast songs get split wide open, the instrumental breaks stretching out to swallow the last verses. For me, the highlight was a transcendent moment when they snapped the spine of “Nothing Ever Happened” open into an roaring two-guitar symphony, and then laid Patti Smith’s “Horses” on top. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and, when the song coalesced again and its original structure reemerged, I had tears in my eyes.


(I’m grinning now because I know that if you watched that entire video, some of you might have tears in your eyes of a different sort, but trust me: it was transcendent last night!)



I really admired their willingness and ability to play with time-tested structure; it’s not something genre writers in particular often do. Part of the stricture of genre is that there are certain conventions of the form that must be satisfied for the story even to qualify as belonging to a particular genre. Indeed, before we even reach the level of genre, the vast majority of stories hew to a classic three act structure, breezily summarized as “get your characters up a tree, throw some rocks at them, then get them back down”.

The problem is that stories, and genre stories in particular, have a certain narrative sameness. And the corollary of that is that, for the experienced reader, these similarities make books blur together, make them predictable. Similarly, I think most of us have gone to the movies, and found that what we’ve just seen was decent, but pretty much the same as the last 20 films we’d seen.

What this sometimes leads to is “forced twists” – events inorganic to the story, placed by the author just to cobble up a little surprise. Personally, I hate it when the killer turns out to be – gasp! –  the detective’s brother or what have you. In Precious Blood, I quite deliberately set out to write a forensic thriller with a direct linear narrative, a serial killer story where the case progressed as cases have always progressed in the hundreds of murders I’ve worked on: methodical police work, a little intuition, a little luck, eventually the different elements coming together like ice floes to form solid footing. (A note: I’ve never worked a case where the killer turned out to be the lead detective’s brother. Not that it couldn’t happen, but you’re going to have to work pretty damn hard to convince me.) For most readers, Precious Blood worked as a strong, unusually vivid procedural, but some felt it needed more twists.

I’d chosen a serial killer story for my first novel not just because the story came to me cut almost in whole cloth, but also because the serial murderer brings his own instant ticking clock, allowing me to focus on the mechanics of character and scene and dialogue. With A Hard Death, the sequel, I expanded the number of characters and points of view, and rather than having one protagonist and one antagonist locked in life-or-death pursuit and combat, I put Jenner in a town seething with bad people. I think of A Hard Death as following in a noir tradition; Jenner finds himself in a world of festering moral decay, and while he is ultimately infected by this amorality, he’s not consumed by it (which would be the true noir outcome). 

Precious Blood, since it gave me a way of dealing abstractly and somewhat discreetly with some of my post-9/11 experiences, is a deeply personal book, and I love it, but I think that A Hard Death is the stronger of the two, at least at the narrative level, and readers seem to agree. I don’t think it’s simply because of the increased complexity of the story, and the broader vista of its setting; I think that with each book you write, you understand the mechanics of story better. At least, I damn well hope so.

At the end of the day, genre fiction is a bit like reggae: there may be certain formal criteria for making a song a “reggae song”, but within that rubric, there’s a huge range of possibilities, from the stadium pop of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” to the drek pop of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” to Burning Spear’s mesmerizing “Marcus Garvey” and its dub version, “The Ghost”. There is life even in the most familiar formula, and it’s up to the writer to tap that; the art of genre is to transcend its formal limitations.



And of course there’s plenty of room to mess with the structure of a story/novel – I’m just not well-read enough to know who’s doing it well in crime fiction. In, uh, “literary” fiction, three books I have loved did just that:

Georges Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual bases its narrative structure on a physical structure – an apartment building – with each chapter built around the inhabitants of a particular unit, the stories gradually interlocking to become a woven narrative (Perec is also famous for A Void, a book written entirely without the letter E; I think the more astonishing achievement was that of Perec’s translator, who took the French original, Un Nul, and converted it into similarly E-less English.)


Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad dedicates different chapters to different points of view, each chapter taking place at a different time and place; over the course of the book, recurring characters (not always immediately identifiable from their previous appearances) help the reader construct the core narrative. It’s a beautifully written book, and one of its most beautifully written chapters takes the form of a Powerpoint presentation.


David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest I liked more than loved, in part because DFW insists on punctuating his narrative with voluminous foot notes; the print book is over a thousand pages long (at least, it feels like it), and flipping back and forth is a royal pain in the ass. If you’re going to read this book, for crying out loud, read it on an eReader! 

I’m sure there are some really strong crime fiction authors using unusual structure in their work. Anyone care to recommend something a bit different, and help me out of the shadow of my ignorance?








Neveldine & Taylor

By Jonathan Hayes


I was sauntering (yes, I saunter) down Fifth Avenue one beautiful day this spring when I spotted Michael Weston walking with a friend. Weston’s name might not be familiar, but if you watch movies or TV, you’ll recognize him – he’s one of the finest character actors around. You might remember him as the young psychopath in Six Feet Under who carjacks David Fisher, dousing him with gasoline and torturing him brutally:



When I saw Weston on the street, I wanted to approach him and tell him I’d just seen one of his movies, and that I thought he was great in it. I decided not to interrupt his morning, and I’ve regretted it ever since. In Pathology, Weston plays a psychopathic junior pathologist who persuades other young residents to kill people and then challenge their colleagues  to figure out how they did it. It’s a typically arch slice of gonzo exploitation from the writer/director duo Neveldine & Taylor, whose films are so over-the-top that they make the bloodiest Tarantino flick look like a PBS documentary on the history of the finger sandwich at Wimbledon.




In Pathology, for example, it’s not enough to have doctors on a murder spree, their moral decay must be underscored by autopsy room slaughter orgies, with the pathologists smoking crack while shagging hookers and each other on the dissection tables. (Don’t click on the following, more representative, clip if you’re delicate, btw.)




I wanted to tell Weston that I was a forensic pathologist, and that I’d just seen Pathology, and just how wrong everything about it was, and just how much I’d loved it.


Writers and lay people often ask me just how realistic shows like CSI are. I think that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have the right attitude: who CARES? If the story really moves and the dialogue is strong, the only people who’re really going to sweat the forensic science will be the occasional entomologist, pissed off by the misrepresentation of scene interpretation by arthropod succession. It’s all make-believe – you just have to decide on what your own tolerance for the improbable or impossible is. And in Crank 2, even the characters are aware of the absurdity of their narrative, commenting frequently on its implausibility.


What I love about Neveldine & Taylor is their unapologetic embrace of excess – not just the extreme violence that is a hallmark of their work, but the excess sex, the excess swearing, the formal excess of their visuals and soundtrack. We all know what “good films” should be like – take the slate of any Best Motion Picture Oscar contenders and you’ll see nearly identikit films about decent heroes or heroines struggling nobly against overwhelming odds. And the closer the films come to the ideal of “goodness” – which is to say, the more they resemble a period Merchant and Ivory production, ideally plus Nazis, or a physical disability, or both – the more likely they are to win. The 2010 nominees were far more interesting than usual (in part because there were ten of them, which let weirdness seep in at the margins) but seriously: do you think any movie other than the anodyne The King’s Speech ever stood a chance?

It’s not that The King’s Speech was a bad film – on the contrary, it was very good. But sometimes, you just need someone to come along and gut the plump burgher of Good Taste.  We need someone to validate the flawed and the profane. Vulgarity and tastelessness provide an important balance for etiquette and decency, and they work best when delivered without apology. So we have South Park, one of the funniest, most incisive forms of social critique we’ve had in decades, half the dialogue bleeped for obscenity, rendered in primitive cut-out blobs. 


Most of all, raw, deliberately graphic and extreme work that flies in the face of traditional notions of decency and “art” is exhilarating – it’s fun to see someone speak the Unspeakable. Even when it misfires horribly, as it usually does, I’m grateful when writers and directorss say Yes to risk. Case in point: in Crank 2, we are shown the genitals of a horse (erect!), a ferret and Jason Statham; it’s delightful.


Neveldine & Taylor have now finished five pictures: Crank, Pathology, Crank 2: High Voltage and Gamer. They also wrote the script for Jonah Hex; they were slated to direct, but walked away from the project over “creative differences”. Hex, a flaccid commercial failure, is interesting, since it shows how critical the team’s creative visual approach is to the written material. Pathology is satisfying, but I think much of the pleasure I took in it related to its scabrous trashing of my profession. Gamer, a sci-fi thriller set in a future where video gamers play first person shooters using living people as their combat arena avatars, had some good ideas, and looked great (a lot like the amazing Xbox video game Gears of War, actually), but ultimately failed to connect. The heavy material and the presence of “real” relationships (the major warrior and his wife and daughter) dragged the narrative down.


The masterpieces of the Neveldine & Taylor oeuvre are unquestionably Crank and Crank2: High Voltage. And I think they are legitimate masterpieces, particularly the sequel. The title is a polyvalent pun – “crank” can mean variously to move quickly, to intensify, an irritable eccentric, an aggressive rotational action, and methamphetamine, all of which apply to these movies. 


This is high concept cinema at it’s finest. (I’ll now spoil a little here, although nothing you wouldn’t guess from the fact that there’s a sequel). In Crank, anti-hero Chev Chelios (a ridiculous name, and one of my all-time favourites) is a professional hit man who wakes up to discover that his enemies have poisoned him with a drug cocktail that’s shutting down his adrenaline system. Unless Chev Chelios manages to keep his heartbeat rocketing through constant stimulation (exposure to drugs, pain, danger and, of course, sex) his heart will stop. And there you have it: Speed in a thorax.


Chelios (Jason Statham) is a defiantly one-dimensional character. Told by his drug-abusing, defrocked physican/pimp friend Doc (Dwight Yoakham) that there’s no cure for the “Beijing cocktail”, Chelios chooses to spend his remaining time on the planet exacting revenge. What follows are 90 minutes of the most intense, obscene, violent action captured on film. (On video, actually – the films are shot in high-definition video, many by Neveldine himself on rollerblades with a hand-held consumer grade video camera, dragged behind a car unprotected at 50 mph.)



Crank is a cathartic, noisy blast of pure adrenaline, a sky dive with a malfunctioning shute distilled into two drops of pale yellow liquid, cut with bleach and blown up your nostrils by an Indonesian shaman while a Latvian dominatrix screams for her money. It’s disorienting, exhilarating and incredibly, exaltingly, blindingly fast.


But if the first film was a complete rush, Crank 2 is a hurricane blast – faster, denser, harder, stronger. The yellow liquid is now shot into your veins by syringe, and the dominatrix has found a gun. At the end of Crank, Chev Chelios plummets 10,000 feet from a helicopter over L.A., managing during freefall to snap the neck of his worst enemy and to leave a farewell message on his girlfriend’s voicemail. He smashes into the roof of a car and ricochets off onto the street, facing a camera, inert; we hear his last two heart beats, see his pupils dilate, and then he’s dead.


Crank 2: High Voltage kicks off with a squad of triad goons scooping Chelios’s body off the street with a shovel, and rushing it off to a lab for resuscitation. Learning that the plan is to keep him in suspended animation, harvesting his impressive organs whenever a crime lord needs replacement tissue, Chev Chelios escapes. He discovers that he’s been fitted with an artificial heart; Doc informs him that to stay alive, he’ll have to recharge himself constantly with electricity. Chelios races off to recover his heart, along the way repeatedly zapping himself with any current he can get his hands on. Or his tongue. Or his nipples – you get the picture.



The other characters are as one-dimensional as Chev Chelios – effectively, this is cartoon violence, so it makes sense to have a cast of caricatures. The film is a delirious picaresque set in a Los Angeles populated exclusively by ne’erdowells and demimondaines – all the men are homicidal thugs, all the women are whores or strippers, even Chev Chelios’s girlfriend (Amy Smart). The language is graphically sexist, racist and homophobic, and yet the film revels in its population of misfits, rewarding the audience with a final climactic Battle of the Marginalized on Catalina in which an army of Latino gang-bangers confronts armies of gay, black leathermen in body harnesses and studs, and multiracial prostitutes in almost nothing.


Crank 2 is a completely postmodern film, the purest exercise imaginable in speed and surface, sound and fury signifying nothing but sound and fury. As a formal composition, it’s an astonishing achievement – it’s hardly surprising that the film was screened at the Whitney Museum of Art.


Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone will love these films as much as I do – I’m sure many will absolutely loathe them. But for me, these things are an astonishing blast of fresh air.


So, what about you? Do you ever find extreme things can be completely refreshing, or is that just me? Remember: there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure.





Epic Poem Post

by Jonathan Hayes


When I was in medical school in London, I traveled a lot. I’d decided that while I was young, I had no money, but I had time, and that once my career kicked into gear, my opportunity to rattle around the world would be lost. Whenever possible, I took electives in foreign countries, and every school vacation, I tried to get away somewhere interesting.

So it was that I ended up in Cairo, in a squalid little concrete block hotel not far from the endless deafening, traffic jam that is Tahrir Square (next to which, by the way, is the Egyptian Museum; I don’t know if they’ve renovated it since my last visit, but it was astonishing in a Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of way, a handsome old building with sandstone walls and marble floors, stuffed with huge, ancient statues and sarcophagi and dusty wood and glass display cases holding 5,000 year old cat statuettes and canopic jars and whatnot. I recognized many pieces from the archeology books in my father’s study; around each corner was an exhibit even more amazing than the last.)

It was a memorable stay. I was paranoid about theft, so one of my Third World hotel protocols was to hide my passport on top of the largest piece of furniture. When I reached up onto the armoire, I felt something smooth under my fingers; I took down the filthiest pornographic magazine I’d ever seen, a glossy German language celebration of a very pale, blonde dwarf and her obsession with huge, impressively-endowed black men. The porn mag was an exhilarating find – a number of the activities contained within were outside the realm of what I’d previously thought of as “sex”.

In the hotel’s lounge, I met a young Japanese guy – I’d been studying Japanese at night school, and, since he didn’t speak English, I banged out a few of my best verbs and nouns, and found to my amazement that we were actually able to communicate. He was one of the most unusual people I’ve met while traveling. No, he hadn’t visited the Egyptian Museum. No, he hadn’t seen the pyramids. How long have you been here? Five weeks, he said. He had no interest in Cairo as a place; he just wanted to be there. Why?, I asked. 

He explained that he was following the footsteps of his hero, the French Decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud, who had apparently spent seven weeks convalescing in Cairo in the 1880’s. In another two weeks, my new friend hoped to go on to Ethiopia by land, although he was having some difficulties because of unrest at the border. When he got to Harar, where Rimbaud had lived, he intended to spend a month there. Again, he’d stay in a hotel, lying on his bed and smoking Marlboro Red Label 100’s, concentrating on being in the place his hero had once inhabited.

Rimbaud was a fascinating man. One of France’s greatest poets, he stopped writing before he was 21, and got a real job. He scandalized literary Paris by his affair with Paul Verlaine, who ended up shooting him. Rimbaud turned out to be not really the job-having type; he spent much of his time walking around Europe, then took work that would get him abroad. In Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), he worked as a gun-runner; claims that he was also a slaver have been rejected in recent years, but were still part of the man’s mystique at the time I met his Cairo Superfan.

At the end of the week, when I left for Luxor, the Japanese guy was still lying on his bed, his door cracked half-way open to the hall. I stuck my head into his room, stifling in the heat and cigarette smoke, to say goodbye; he was hopeful that his visa for Ethiopia would come through at the end of the week.

Over the years, I’ve thought about him often. There was something both pure and absurd about the conceptual plane on which he’d chosen to exist. To travel 6,000 miles and skip the Great Pyramid of Giza (the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing, fer chrissakes!) seemed a little nuts, but I liked his dogmatic insistence on using his travel time for what he wanted it to be, not for what he was expected to do.

The next trip I made – a week in Paris – was largely influenced by his example. Indeed, my travel patterns since probably owe him a debt, as I have evolved into primarily a sensual traveler. I don’t feel a pressing need to see or do anything in particular when I’m at a destination. I’m there for the physical experience of the place, not the tourist highlights – I don’t get up at the crack of dawn so that I can fit in the Baths of Caracalla before I hit the Coliseum. I’m much happier sitting on a bench in a park, watching the people go by, or, better yet, enjoying a three hour lunch at a café, chatting with the waiter, reading a book, enjoying being not where I normally am.

Anyway, my post-Cairo Rimbaud fanatic trip to Paris: I decided to devote my week there to the study of early Modernism. I’d stay in my hotel and listen to and read about Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, and read and read about T.S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land. I’m not sure why I chose the Wagner – probably because Eliot had quoted from it in The Waste Land, and because Wagner had a reputation as being difficult (I was a cultural snob back then, predisposed to like something if it was challenging).

I took the train to Paris, and checked into the frumpiest of single-starred hotels by that glum industrial estuary of railroad tracks that fan out behind Gare du Nord. I unpacked my suitcase, arranged my books carefully on the battered desk and setting out my Sony Discman, a stack of batteries, and the 1981 Leonard Bernstein recording of Tristan, with Peter Hoffman singing Tristan and Hildegard Behrens singing Isolde. I had a shower, went down to the street and bought a croquet monsieur and a bottle of Orangina, ate my dinner, and then began.

I don’t have that much to say about the Wagner – it’s an astonishing piece of music, almost four hours of flowing and ebbing music centered around a theme of love, ecstasy and death, culminating in the infamous “liebestod, where the protagonists die while in a transcendent state of love, a recurrent theme in classical literature. Tristan is a tragedy in the grand tradition, with a mass die-off at the end, tonally somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and Reservoir Dogs. The opera is still important to me – indeed, my next tattoo will be a quote from it.

Here’s Jessye Norman singing the final aria as the dying Isolde, consumed by love for her dead Tristan:

Mostly, though, the week was dedicted to The Waste Land, the 434-line poem written by the American/English poet Thomas Stearns Eliot, first published in 1922. The first time I had encountered it (at a poetry reading competition when I was about 15), it had blown me away. I thought it was one of the most astonishingly beautiful things I’d ever heard – and I had no idea what it was about.

A sidenote: In England, you decide what you want to do with your life when you’re about 13, and then tailor your classes appropriately. Since I was going into medicine, I’d abandoned my favourite subjects (English, French, Latin) to concentrate on Chemistry, Physics and Biology. I felt cruelly deprived of an arts education; it didn’t seem fair to me that other students got to sit in class and learn about stuff like The Waste Land, while I had to study frog reproductive systems and the structure of benzene. So I tracked down a copy of the poem, and read it earnestly.

Now The Waste Land is an almost postmodern tapestry of quotes and allusions, with every quote and allusion tacking the interpretation to fairly specific meanings. There are quotes from Dante, Wagner, Rimbaud-shooter Verlaine, from Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religious texts, and references to anthropologic works on ancient fertility myths. In short, I was way out of my depth. But the language was magnificent, lyrical and lapidary. And much of the poem is uttered in snippets of dialogue or monologue, the words so precise that the characters, undescribed and unsignalled in the text, spring vibrantly to life.

Here. From the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead”:


Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee


With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,


And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.


Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.


And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,


My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,


And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.


In the mountains, there you feel free.


I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.



Beyond any deeper meaning, the language is vital and immediate, completely enchanting. I read it over and over, accepting that I didn’t understand it, accepting that Eliot’s abundant annotations were also beyond my scope, just thrilling to the words, to the sounds, to the imagery.

By the time I got to Paris, I was older, and maybe a bit more world-weary; after all, by that point, I had delivered babies, and watched men die. In my hotel room, I read about The Waste Land late into the night, going beyond the text to develop a deeper understanding of the origins of the work in the years following the maelstrom of death and ruin that was the First World War, a recent event at the time Eliot was writing. And I read about the fertility rituals that inform the poem and its sources, about the wounded Fisher King. I understood Eliot to be presenting European civilization as almost zombie-like, decayed but refusing to die, endlessly revived to stagger on without beliefs, without the succor of religion or myth. I was able to synthesize the poem better, to recognize its referents and their meanings.

But along the way, the poem seemed to dull for me. It might have been recognizing the anguish it contained, or becoming too conscious of its complex infrastructure of invoked works, but the poem lost a little of its life, a little of its ecstatic beauty. I returned to London, set it aside, and went on with my life. I liked recognizing the poem when it was cited in song lyrics and magazine articles and book titles (Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward, and many others), but for a long while, I rarely looked at the work itself.

Luckily, over time I’ve forgotten much of what I’d learned about the poem. The Waste Land gradually resumed its potency (a phenomenon which is the reverse of the poem’s main theme), and I treasure it again. I read it once every six months or so – fairly often for a poem from which I could probably recite long passages from memory.

Recently, Faber has released a fantastic iPad app, The Waste Land. It’s a labour of love, and it’s really wonderful. It includes the entire poem, and is beautifully designed so that you can effortlessly appreciate the text in a number of different ways. By sliding your fingers across the screen, the published poem is replaced with a scan of the original manuscript, heavily marked up by Eliot, the poet Ezra Pound (to whom Eliot gave a huge amount of credit for his work on the poem) and Vivien Eliot (who recent scholarship suggests had a much larger part in its creation than has previously been supposed).

But that’s not all! When you tap on a particular line of text, generous annotations appear in a side panel; the annotations are much more accessible than Eliot’s original notes. And there are a series of video interviews with prominent literary or cultural figures discussing different aspects of the poem.

But wait – there’s more! Tired of reading? Just let any one of five (5) famous people read the poem to you! The words scroll slowly by as you enjoy listening to recordings of Eliot himself (two different), Ted Hughes, Alec Guinness and… Viggo Mortensen as they bring this magnificent work to life!

There actually is still more: the prominent Irish actress Fiona Shaw (Marnie on the current season of True Blood) does a filmed dramatic reading of the piece in a battered but very lovely house. All of the readings have their different strengths; Eliot’s own recordings have never made the poem sound as good as I hear it in my head. (Or out loud – somewhat embarrassingly, I’ve read this poem. To chicks. In bed.) Hughes’s reading is reverent and workmanlike, but poor Guinness is hard for me to listen to – I keep waiting for him to say something about Mos Eisley Spaceport, or using the Force. Viggo’s reading is surprisingly good – again, reverent, but modest and earnest. He’s not as strong at the monologue/dialogue parts as is Fiona Shaw, but she’s a stage actor. And also, she overdoes the bits with the – what, omniscient narrator? – who hovers in the background as the poem’s spine.

Anyway, I highly recommend the app; it’s the perfect introduction to one of the most important pieces of literature of the 20th Century — and one of my fondest artistic epiphanies. I can’t help but think that it would’ve really enriched my cloistered week in Paris. Then again, I suppose that finding unfamiliar pornography on the armoire might also have done the trick; an epiphany of an altogether different sort.

So, what about you? Have you had any (preferrably youthful and embarrassing) artistic epiphanies? Has a book or play or piece of music given you sudden insight into a universe you’d barely understood before?









If you happen to catch me testifying, perhaps in court, or in an old case from Court TV, you may notice how very precise – finicky, even – I am in the words I use. In court, every word counts – every sentence is transcribed, kept forever in a searchable database, pored over and used to attack or support opinions as the trial or legal process continues, sometimes for decades.

Largely because of this, forensic pathologists are very specific in their language; our terminology is consistent throughout the forensic community, with some definitions that don’t necessarily translate cleanly into the civilian arena. For example, an emergency room physician examining a man with a slashed throat might describe the injury as “a transverse 5 inch laceration below the level of the thyroid cartilage”. For forensic pathologists, the term “laceration” refers exclusively to tearing of the tissues caused by blunt trauma; we would say the man with the cut throat had a “5 inch incised wound”.

We’re also specific in how we describe ourselves professionally. I’m a forensic pathologist, a New York City medical examiner for over 20 years now: I am not a coroner. The positions are fundamentally different and have a very different history.

The word coroner (from the Latin corona, “crown”) is a title that goes back to medieval England, to just after the Norman invasion in 1066 (illustration below: King Harold dies at the Battle of Hastings, nailed by an arrow in the eye). The coroner was the King’s agent, originally responsible for protecting the crown’s interest in legal matters. England still has a coronial system; English coroners hold both medical and law degrees. The coroner considers all the information from the investigation, and then decides if there are grounds for a legal trial. The evidence is presented in a court-like setting in a procedure known as an inquest, over which the coroner presides.


By contrast, in the US, most communities consider the basic facts of a murder in a Grand Jury, in which the prosecutor has a series of witnesses testify to civilian jurors who must then decide whether or not to indict a suspect on the basis of the evidence presented. In some areas, prosecutors have a larger amount of discretion in deciding whether a prosecution will go forward, and gather evidence in a series of depositions.

In contrast with England, where the court appoints the coroner, the American coroner is an elected official. Because this country is vast, with huge, sparsely populated rural areas, which see few deaths each year, local counties may not be able to adequately fund medicolegal death investigation. The quality varies widely across the nation – I highly recommend the recent NPR series about the state of death investigation in the US; if you’ve been bred on a diet of CSI and The Forensic Files, I think you’ll find it quite an eye-opener. There may be a slight bias towards the sensational, focusing almost exclusively on epic failures in the system, but I think it’s great that someone’s shining a light on a critically neglected issue.

As the NPR report indicates, both coroners and forensic pathologists vary widely in competency and experience.  Medical examiners must be pathologists formally trained in forensic pathology; coroners don’t have to be medical doctors – indeed, in some jurisdictions, the coroner may be the guy with a truck large enough to move a body. The coroner often has a tightly limited budget, and with each case, he must decide whether he can afford to pay for an autopsy; the financial and political pressures can be extreme.

In situations where he or she deems an autopsy necessary, the coroner refers the autopsy to a local or regional pathologist. Again, the amount of forensic training that coroner’s pathologists have had is very variable; the worst-case scenario involves doctors with minimal experience forced to rely on pictures in forensic textbooks.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably know this, but I suppose I should go over some basic definitions. A pathologist is a physician who makes diagnoses by examining specimens taken from patients. A surgical (aka an anatomic pathologist) is the person who examines the biopsy of that arrestingly odd-looking growth on Aunt Tillie’s face; surgical pathologists also do autopsies. An autopsy is an examination of the body after death performed in order to get as much information as possible about the cause and circumstances of that death. The body is examined externally for evidence of disease or injury, and then is opened, and examined internally. Further studies may be performed, and when the pathologist has enough information about the cause of the death, they’ll issue an autopsy report.

Forensic pathologists practice a subspecialty of pathology. For the most part, we do autopsies in cases of violent, unnatural, suspicious or unexpected death. Because of our expertise in the evaluation of trauma, we may be called on to examine living victims of assault, prisoners who complained of brutal treatment, victims of sexual assault, abused children, etc.  Properly, the evaluation of injuries in living victims is referred to as forensic medicine, whereas autopsy work is forensic pathology.

To become a forensic pathologist, I went to medical school in England at the University of London. In England, medical school takes five years, and I did an honors year in addition to that. (Below, a photo of St. Thomas’s Hospital, my alma mater – an august institution, described as already “ancient” in 1215 AD, it’s mostly cool because that was where that dude wakes up at the beginning of the zombie movie 28 Days Later.)


After graduating, I did internships in medicine and surgery before moving to the United States.  I did a three-year residency in anatomic pathology at Boston University Medical Center and then moved to Miami to train in forensic pathology. I was an Associate Medical Examiner for Dade County for one year prior to taking my current position as a medical examiner for New York City. New York has been great, but Miami was insane – it was while I was working in Florida that I thought of the story that would become A Hard Death.

I’ve been extremely lucky in my training, working with two of the greats of American forensic pathology—Dr. Joe Davis in Miami, and Dr. Charles Hirsch in New York City. My 20 years in New York City have been a fantastic experience working with devoted, super bright, super-competent colleagues.

Reading this over, I’m alarmed at how harsh I sound on coroners. Most coroners do great work with very limited resources. Just as with medical examiner systems, the quality of death investigation in coroner systems ultimately depends upon the people who do the work, and I’ve encountered many superb coroners and coroners investigators who go the extra mile in really difficult conditions to make sure they get it right. Just recently, working with a team to refine our approach to deaths among the elderly in NYC, I was really struck by the excellence of the Sacramento Coroner’s office. And last month I reviewed a very difficult case from a rural jurisdiction in Pennsylvania and was completely blown away by the quality of the investigation, by the thoroughness of the autopsy report, and by the self-critical, carefully circumspect approach the investigator and coroner took to their own conclusions. Because, pathologist or coroner, you want someone who is willing to question their own results. 

New York is actually a hybrid state with co-existing systems, specifically coronial systems in the more rural areas, and medical examiner systems in the more populous ones. Since full-time medicolegal death investigation is an expensive proposition, and more readily bankrolled where there’s an adequate tax base, if you live in a big city, you probably have an ME office, rather than a coroner’s office.

At the end of the day, though, even forensic pathologists can be pretty inconsistent – this morning I was reading Michael Jackson’s autopsy report (knowing L.A. County autopsy reports are public record, I just Googled it), and noticed that the autopsy report is signed by Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, the office’s chief. The title he uses? “Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner”…

But I suppose the coroners in L.A. have always been a little bit different…


So – what do you have in your region? Do you know if you have a medical examiner system or a coronial system? How much do you know about your Chief ME or Coroner? Here’s a hint: generally, the less you hear, the better the system…

“Allow myself to introduce… myself.”

by Jonathan Hayes


Hi there – I’m the Second Murderati New Arrival, Jonathan Hayes. Technically, I’m John Hayes, but so is my father, so everyone except for telemarketers and pollsters has always called me Jonathan. And lots of people also call me “Jaze”, after an old email address. I’m not picky – I’ll answer to anything.

I’m going to softball my introductory post – in the months, years, millennia to come, expect some forensic stuff, some writing stuff, some musings on the sweet mysteries of life, etc., but my first Murderati entry is just going to be a gentle “Getting to Know You” thing.

Mostly because I’m feeling a bit burnt out – it’s been a rough few weeks here at Stately Jaze Manor. My cat Bates died last month, which was surprisingly painful, and when I got back from my tour for A Hard Death, Petey, my back-up cat, welcomed me by developing a urinary blockage. I don’t propose to dwell on my cat’s urinary tract health (“my cat’s urinary tract health” – is there a more American phrase?), but suffice it to say the last fortnight started with fervent prayers for cat piss, then rapidly devolved into a blur of taxis, vets, animal emergency rooms, horribly invasive manipulations of poor Petey’s naughty bits, and salty tears as I watched the zeros line up on various cash registers (so far, we’re in for about $6,000. My friend Sue, an old medical school chum in London, tells me that’s more than the National Health Service charges for a heart transplant – a human heart transplant.)

Anyway, Petey’s back home now, and peeing, sort of, so I’m coming up for air, and writing my softball introduction.

I found Gar’s journey through the Vale of Publication really riveting – it’s great to hear an experienced writer talk about the ups and downs of life in the biz. Alafair interviewed me here before A Hard Death came out, so I don’t think there’s any need to go over my Epic Origin Story again.

In brief, I am a forensic pathologist; for the last 15 years, I’ve had a second career as a freelance food and travel writer, before switching to thrillers, starting with Precious Blood in 2007. 

Forensics still takes up the majority of my time. There are about 500 Board Certified forensic pathologists in the USA, which is too few for such a vast expanse. The upside of this situation is excellent job security (unless you’re an epic screw-up – and there are a few out there). The downside? The quality of medicolegal investigation in this country is spotty at best.

I’m likely, then, the only forensic pathologist that you know. (I’ll get into what forensic pathologists are in a later post, and, also, what separates them from coroners.) The combination of our often high-profile work and our real world rarity has made us a fairly exotic species: if you turn on a TV, you’re almost sure to land on a forensic show – CSI, NCIS, various reality shows, etc. Indeed, a couple years back, a glossy magazine pronounced forensic pathologists “the new Super Models”. So, yes, a sexy, glamorous profession that has caught the public’s eye in recent years.

The reality is that forensic pathology is tough. It’s hard work – physically exhausting, intellectually demanding, emotionally draining. And staying in general pathology is far more lucrative than specializing in forensics – after all, state and city governments are not known for their largess, even at the best of times. The thing is, at the end of the day, forensic work is really fascinating stuff; not a day goes by when I don’t learn or see something i’d never known or seen before.

I live and work in New York City. Ours is a large, busy office, and I think that we’re just about the best in the country. Of course, I don’t doubt that other offices think that they’re the best, but that just makes me nod and smile indulgently.

We have almost 30 pathologists staffing five offices (one each in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island), which means that cases are managed expeditiously and thoroughly. Usually, the work day is 8AM to 4:30PM, but if there’s a mass fatality incident, for example, the hours instantly elongate. I’ve done autopsies at all hours of the day and night, typically after things like plane crashes. We try to avoid this, because when you’re exhausted, your judgement becomes impaired. And when you do things in the middle of the night, under pressure, without adequate support staff, the chances of a screw-up increase; the JFK autopsy, for example, was done well after normal business hours. One understands the huge pressures the pathologists were under, but that autopsy has been torn apart, time and again, and one can’t help but wonder whether things might have gone more smoothly if they’d waited to do the autopsy under normal circumstances in the full light of day.

So, yes, fairly regular days. Our facility is open seven days a week – another luxury of having a big city office – so I work quite frequently on weekends and holidays. I’ll get more into the nuts and bolts of what we do in later posts, but for now, here’s where I spend most of my days:



This is the main autopsy room in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in Manhattan. There are eight autopsy tables here; the perforations alongside the tables create negative pressure, hoovering up any potential pathogens that might be released during the procedure. Next to each table is a scale, for weighing organs. This photo is a still image from a kind of cool New York Times panoramic image – if you click on this photo, it’ll take you to the original, and you can gaze at your screen as the image pans vertiginously around the autopsy room.

I live in Downtown Manhattan, near Union Square, a 25 minute walk from my office, which I love – both the walk, and getting the distance from my office. My apartment is a small loft, converted from an old brick warehouse that was originally built to house carriages and stable the carriage horses. I have high ceilings and great light, and, most precious of all in Manhattan, real tranquility. 

Which is important, because I write mostly at home. I write in bed, formerly surrounded by cats, now abutted by cat. (I got the owl from an old girlfriend, a piece of Victorian taxidermy she’d inherited from her grandmother.)



Actually, mostly, I write the first draft in bed: when the deadlines become crushing, I move to my living room table. I find the cold, industrial aluminium chairs (from an insane asylum upstate) help me concentrate on writing.


When I absolutely, positively have to buckle down and get a draft done, I go to the Writers’ Room. It’s a cooperative space on lower Broadway, with cubicles, wifi, Lexis-Nexis access and Silence Nazis – seriously, you get fined, like, $100 if your cell phone rings. The gulag feel is perfect for finishing a book, plus it’s fun to watch liberals behave like fascists.

My final writing place is in Paris. A Francophile all my life, I finally broke down and bought a tiny (250 sq ft) attic apartment in the Marais, the city’s medieval center. I know this is going to sound insane, but, between my tight schedule and my v. French contractors and the standard disasters that accompany working on a 200 year old building, I’ve been renovating this miniscule studio for over 3 years. It’s under the eaves, with big French windows that open onto a stunning view. Most important of all, it has a diminutive elevator! A real find, since elevators are very rare in this arrondissement, where the streets are so old that they’re designed for horse-drawn carts. My dream is to write in Paris instead of the Writers’ Room, but so far, the only thing I’ve written here has been huge checques to various contractors.

Really, it is very lovely, and I hope to visit it someday.

OK, so I’ve bounced about inside this blogging software, and posted a few photos, and stuck in a few links; I think I have a rough sense of how this all works, so I’m going to stop here. 

I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone. I won’t be talking about my own cases (for obvious reasons), and I won’t really be commenting on other high profile cases (actually, I will have something to say about the Casey Anthony case, but not about the forensics).

Oh! You should friend me on Facebook – I post the best stuff, if I do say so myself. Or at the very least, follow my Tumblr, which is mind-blowingly phenomenal, if occasionally Not Safe for Work. Or don’t – but if you choose not to, just know that you’ll be constantly missing out…

OK now, let’s see if that worked…