Monday, October 16, 2017

Zero Avenue: Dietrch Pulls a Fast One

In the halycon days of pulp back in the thirties, Paul Cain, best known for a handful of hard, fast short stories that appeared in Black Mask, cranked out an equally jacked-up novel (his one and only) full of treachery and throbbing energy with the tell it like it is title Fast One.

Fast One? He wasn't kidding.

And now Vancouver crime writer Dietrich Kalteis has pulled a fast one of his own, that takes the fire and fury of early pulp and adds the magic ingredient we didn't even know was missing: punk rock!

Zero Avenue is a balls-to-the-wall last chance power drive through the turbulent 1970s punk scene of that fair city. By now, it should be no surprise that Dietrich can pull it off  -- he's already spat out several turbo-charged standalones, including Ride the Lightning (a personal fave of mine), The Deadbeat Club and Triggerfish, and he's had almost fifty of his short stories published around the world. 

But this Zero Avenue is something else again.

I loved it. It’s like the Ramones covering Elmore Leonard covering the Ramones; so hard, fast and funny I almost expected each brief chapter to kick off with a 1-2-3-4! count out and end with a big fat drum roll and a crash of angry, buzzing power chords. (Coincidentally, one of Cain's short stories is called “One, Two, Three.” Coincidence? I think not).

Yet it's not all bang-bang-bang-bang — like any truly great punk song, there’s melody tucked in there somewhere too, in the nuances of characterization, and the kind of sly wit that pervaded the early days of punk, before it became so po-faced (a lot of folks seem to forget how funny punk rock was, but Dietrich remembers).

Frankie Del Rey is a rocker with a heart of gold, or at least some sort of shiny metal; her guitar slung low like some hip-chick gunslinger. All she cares about is her music and her band, Waves of Nausea, and to that end she's slinging dope for -- and reluctantly "dating" a true and proper scumbag, club owner and drug dealer Marty Sayles, who's got his fingers in an awful lot of pies. He owns a couple of clubs, and several pot farms scattered around the area, including a grow patch and barn situated out in the boonies further south on Surrey, B.C's notorious Zero Avenue, which straddles a mostly unprotected and little watched stretch of the U.S./Canada border. Marty's crew uses the barn to process the drugs; and allows Frankie and her band to use it as a rehearsal spot.

But it gets even more incestuous -- Johnny, who's taken a liking to Frankie, tends bar and runs Falco’s Nest, a struggling punk dive that Marty owns, while Frankie’s bass player, Arnie Binz, who sleeps in the Nest's backroom, comes up with a half-baked (literally) scheme to rip off Marty's unprotected grow patch, not taking into account Marty's psycho enforcer Zeke Chamas, or Marty's not-quite-right pot farmers Sticky and Tucker.


They could all have so easily become jackhammer cartoons, but somehow Dietrich manages to imbue each one -- even the minor ones -- with just enough
grit and wit to make them count. Not always an easy task when your cast features a bunch of punk rockers and other assorted dreamers and schemers: wannabe crimelords, bartenders, bouncers, bikers, skizzy moneymen and a couple of doofus drug dealers whose last functioning brain cells lit out for the territories years ago.

And the setting! I was 3000 miles east, but everything Dietrich describes reads a lot like a postcard from the Montreal punk scene I flopped around in back in the day:  the swirl of punks and metal heads and disco clowns fighting it out in dubious clubs, each seedier than the next; a ramshackle world of beer-sticky floors, pot smoke-filled johns and jury-rigged sound systems, always one police raid away from being boarded up, full of misfits and malcontents not quite sure what was happening, but aware something was happening. Dietrich gets it all right.

I caught up with the man himself recently via the interwebs, and asked him how he did it.

Q: Hey, Dietrich. It’s not like this is the first crime book to use the punk scene, but it’s the first I’ve read that gets it right. How involved were you in the Vancouver punk scene? Or were you?

A: I wasn’t in Vancouver at the time. I was living in Toronto in the late seventies, and I was aware of the punk scene there, as well as with what was going on in the U.S. and the U.K. Aside from D.O.A and The Subhumans I wasn’t familiar with much of the Vancouver sound until after I moved here in the early nineties. And I discovered more of the long-gone local punk bands once I started researching for the book.

Q: You’ve written five books now, all standalones. Ever thought of doing a series? Will we ever see Karl the bounty hunter turned process server from Ride the Lightning again?

A: I love a good series, and I have thought about it. I did borrow a minor character, Dara Addie, from my first novel Ride the Lightning, and made her a main character in The Deadbeat Club. That’s as close to a series as I’ve come. Usually by the time I get halfway through one novel, I’ve got a couple of ideas brewing for the next one. And so far there just hasn’t been anything that would play out as a series.

Q: What inspired Zero Avenue?

A: I liked punk’s rawness, anger and edge, and the way it threw a middle finger at the establishment. And Vancouver was this backwater place back then, a sharp contrast to what it is now. All of that just seemed to make the right setting for a crime story. And the late seventies were also a time before Google Earth, Google Maps and satellite imagery, back when pot fields were a lot easier to hide.

I knew some guys who tried to rip off a field back in the day and had rock salt shot at them. I always loved that story and wanted to include elements of it, although the way it plays out in Zero Avenue sure has a different outcome.

Q: Marty, the club owner, is a particularly odious weasel. Was he based on anyone in particular?

A: No, he’s all fiction. Marty Sayles just unfolded into the kind of protagonist he needed to be to allow the conflict to grow. Along with madman Zeke Chamas and Tucker and Sticky, Marty and his crew were more than enough for Frankie and Johnny Falco to take on.

Q: You also name-check various real-life characters and bands, like Joey Shithead of D.O.A. and Teenage Head. Were you concerned about weaving them into your story? Did you ask permission or just roll with it? How many did you catch?

A: I tossed in a few real-life characters to lend some realism to the story, just enough so I wouldn’t need to worry about getting permission. And how could I make the story sound authentic without at least mentioning a local legend like Joey? He was like the godfather of punk in these parts. And there are a few others that I wanted to pay tribute to with a mention.

Q: Your characters seem to be folks from the fringe, or straights who fucked up. Or fuck-ups trying to go straight. They’re dealers or ex-cons or failed bounty hunters or brain-fried bozos — never captains of industry or movie stars or big shots, which really harkens back to classic noir and pulp. But they’re never really cartoons — do the characters shape the story, or does the story create the characters?

A: It’s true, my characters are often marginal, folks from the fringe. At times I like them to be unwitting, just pulled into a situation they’re ill-equipped to handle. That can make them seem both believable and vulnerable, and perhaps less predictable. And these characters often bring some sense of levity in their thoughts, words and actions which creates a nice balance in a tense situation.

But the characters definitely shape the story. When I start writing a novel, I start with a scene which might be inspired by something I’ve heard, read in the paper, or seen on TV — ideas that get me thinking well, what if this happened … I drop in the kind of character I’d like to see handle the situation, and as the character takes shape, I let them roll with it and see what comes next.

Q: Your style reminds me of a boiled-down, rawer Elmore Leonard, particularly in the way the dialogue and action moves. Which writers influenced you?

A: Definitely Elmore. He was the master of character and dialog. And there was the early stuff by George V Higgins, another master of dialog. And I love anything by Don Winslow, James Crumley, Charles Willeford. And there’s Robert B. Parker, particularly his Jesse Stone series. And James Lee Burke, James Ellroy, Ed McBain, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, and Canadian great Marc Strange. There are also many greats outside the genre: Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Jack Keroac, J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck. Suffice to say, I’m inspired by what I consider great writing, those voices that resonate with me.

Q: Hell, so many of the characters are so spot on, I’m beginning to wonder if any of your characters were based on real people. Personally, I think I dated Frankie, but it might have been her cousin from Montreal.

A: Sorry, Kevin, but Frankie is pure fiction. My characters are all made up and aren’t based on anybody I know. But I do like to observe people, the way they speak, their quirks and tics, and I often attribute some of these characteristics to my characters. Sort of mix'n'match.

Q: What do you listen to these days?

A: I listen to a wide range of music, from classic, to jazz, to folk, to blues, to rock — once in a while taking a stroll (or pogo) down memory lane and playing some old-school punk. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen are my favorite songwriters. And I love to listen to anybody that can play like Hendrix, Miles Davis and Robert Johnson; or belt it out like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin or Freddie Mercury.

Q: Do you play music when you write? What were you listening to while writing ZERO AVENUE?

A: I always listen to music when I write. When I started writing full time I found distraction in the usual sounds of a household: kids, cats, dogs, ringing phones, dinging doorbells, trucks and sirens going by. So I played music through my headphones. At first I thought I would go mad, or at least I wouldn’t be able to write, but I got into the rhythm of whatever music I was listening to. It was a constant sound, and it had a way of blocking out the white noise. So, I kept doing it, picking music that went with the vibe of what I was writing. And for the nine months it took to write Zero Avenue, that’s what I listened to, punk.

Q: If you had to compile a playlist for Zero Avenue, what ten songs would be on it?

Sadly there are no tunes from Middle Finger or from Frankie’s band Waves of Nausea. Just Frankie’s lyrics at the front of the book:


Oh baby, got to find a new space’cause everything’s shittyand I’m feelin’ out of placein this no fun city.

If we’re talking strictly Vancouver songs from back in the day, I’d include “World War Three” and “Disco Sucks” by D.O.A, “Barbra” by The Modernettes, “Out of Luck” and “What do you want me to do?” by The Pointed Sticks, “Past is Past” by The Dishrags, “Hawaii” by The Young Canadians (formerly the K-Tels), and I can’t forget Vancouver classics like “Firing Squad” and “Fuck You” by the Subhumans. And let’s add one by Vancouver’s first punk band, the Furies, and their song “No Fun City.”

If we stretch the playlistI’d add songs from Toronto bands: The Viletones, The Diodes, The Ugly and The Cardboard Brains. And why not throw in some by the major punk bands from around the globe who were around in the late seventies: The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, The Stooges, Black Flag, The Buzzcocks and so on.


Q: Is punk dead? Who killed it? Who killed Bambi?

A: I’m not sure about Bambi, but when punk came along, there was a certain shock that came with it. Although its fanbase grew in various cities around the globe, punk was never well received in the mainstream. Major labels were reluctant to sign punk bands, radio stations wouldn’t play their music, and clubs wouldn’t book the acts. 
When I first heard it, though, I immediately liked its edgy sound -- a welcome change to disco, but if truth be told, I thought it was a fad that would burn out fast. It turned out the only thing that died was that initial shock from when it started over forty years ago. Punk-laced bands like Rise Against, Bad Religion, Blink-182, Rancid and Green Day are still going strong. And it’s interesting to note that Johnny Rotten, Iggy Pop, Joey Shithead, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith and Mick Jones are still standing and still involved in making music. So, although punk’s changed over the years, it’s still  kicking.

Q: What’s next?

A: Poughkeepsie Shuffle is next and due out from ECW Press in June, 2018. The story takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the infamous Don Jail. When he lands himself a job at a used-car lot, he finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, living by the motto “Why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.”

I also have a story called Bottom Dollar included in the upcoming Vancouver Noir, part of Akashic Books’ Noir Series, edited by Sam Wiebe.



You can visit him at dietrichkalteis.com or at ECW Press. He blogs regularly at Off the Cuff and at 7 Criminal Minds, and he’s also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Tracing Skip Tracer (1977)

Hey! Did I just dream this? Or did I really see this obscure bit of Canadian nastiness?

It was a bleak, decidedly non-glamourous, low-budget character study released in 1977 that did zip and was (mostly) immediately forgotten, featuring a cast of unknowns and starring David Peterson (who?) as John Collins, a low-key, taciturn debt collector "hero" prowling the streets of a gloriously seedy Vancouver, hunting down deadbeats.

Make no mistake -- Collins is no goody two-shoes. In fact, he's a cold, heartless son of a bitch.

Or maybe just an asshole, as a commenter on IMDB put it.

But however you put it, it's that trait that has made him the top skip tracer for GSC, a Vancouver loan company.

In the course of this fragmented and episodic little gem, Collins must deal with an ambitious young associate, viscious death threats, physical violence, and a suicidal debtor, not to mention severe job burnout. All this while vying for GSC's coveted "Man of the Year" award for an unprecedented fourth year in a row. And discovering that maybe, just maybe, he is human after all.

Yeah, it sounds like a downer.

And it is.

But oh, what a downer.

This is noir in its essence. No fedoras, no fancy lighting tricks, no smoke machines, no jaw-dropping camera work -- just a bleak, no-frills x-ray of a man's soul as he circles the drain.

Despite it's obscurity (it did very little box office during its short theatrical release in Canada, and it aired maybe twice on British television back in the early eighties), it continues to rate highly among those lucky few who have seen it. Peterson's performance as Collins has been praised as being "wonderfully sustained," and the film itself has been compared to everything from Across 110th Street and Superfly to On the Waterfront and, of course, Repo Man, while Collins' obsession with tracking down and collecting from one elusive skip has been likened -- I shit thee not -- to Ahab's quest in Moby Dick. Me? For some reason it reminded me of Drive, that Ryan Gosling flick from a few years ago, based on the James Sallis' book.

But whatever, Skip Tracer's got a pretty good rep for a cheap little flick that hardly anyone saw.

It's too bad it's not available on DVD. I saw it years and years ago on VHS, rented from some hole-in-the-wall Montreal video store back in the mid-eighties that seemed to have a lot of videos of dubious provenance. Yet it's haunted me ever since.

Was it as cheap-looking as I remember it? Was it as unapologetically morose and bleak? As creepy and unsettling? I'm almost afraid to find out, but I'd really love to know.

Alas, as far as anyone can tell, the film was never released on DVD or Blu-Ray. And of course, it never occurred to me, when I was updating this entry on Thrilling Detective, that it might be on YouTube.

Turns out it is. Now to see how much I've misremembered...

Monday, May 23, 2016

Don't Call It a Bargain!

You see 'em everywhere online.

These big, dirt cheap e-compilations of novels and short stories by some of the better known (but not A-list) authors of the genre. Twenty-Five Hard-Boiled Classics, Volume Eight! The Amazing Sherlock Holmes and Watson Megapack! Gritty Crime from the Pulps, Collection 15! Five More Great Awesome and Amazing Crime Novels by Whomever!

Stories or complete novels by some really great and/or popular P.I. writers. William Campbell Gault, Thomas B. Dewey, Robert Leslie Bellem, Stewart Sterling, Spencer Dean, John Carroll Daly, George Harmon Coxe, Norbert Davis, Raoul Whitfield and the like.

Some of the writers in these books are personal favourites; some are of historical interest; some are just fun to read. But what they do all have in common is that the authors (or more importantly their copyrights) are all dead.

Which means some publisher can grab a bunch of stories and squirt out an ebook without ever having to pay any of the writers a cent. Amazon and the other online enablers are littered with these things, generally selling them for as little as 99 cents.

Yeah, I know the price is right, but I’m not a fan.

There are some publishers who do reprints right: they offer class, not crass. They edit, they commission artwork, they introduce new and relevant material into the mix. They treat the material with respect. They curate. They care. They actually edit. Outfits like Hard Case Crime, Stark House, Crippen & Landru -- they do it right. (And let's have a moment of silence for the late, great Rue Morgue, who rescued so many classics from obscurity. Tom and Enid? Thank you. Particularly for the Norbert Davis stuff).

Mind you, all of these publishers charged more than 99 cents a book. But their books were worth it. Well worth it.

These cheesy public domain hit-and-run e-compilations, though? At 99 cents, they can ship an awful lot of units, without ever having to pay anyone a damn cent. At 99 cents, you might even call it a steal.

But I think they devalue, if not outright disrespect, the act of writing and creativity, and lower the reader’s expectations of what writing is truly worth. It may look like a boon to non-discerning readers, but in the long run it hurts both writers and readers.

Or at least the ones who can tell the difference between shit and Shinola. Believe it or not, there are still some of us out here. Even in the era of La Donald.

But beyond the dubious ethics, if not legality, of these books, these quickie cyber-turds are poorly curated (if at all), often lack any thematic or editorial cohesion, generally sport lousy generic covers, and are often riddled with typographical and formatting errors. So we're not exactly talking quality control here. I also doubt any effort is made to share the profits with or obtain the cooperation of the estates of any of the now deceased authors. And often they mix in stories by their own “authors” to make it look like they’re in the same league; another rather dubious tactic.

Erle Stanley Gardner. Joe Phlegminski, Jr.. William Campbell Gault. Which of these things is not like the others?

Anyway...

What prompted this? A reader of my site recently contacted me, asking me to explain a story by Thomas B. Dewey that he'd just read in one of these collections. He complained that it just didn't make any sense.

Now, Dewey's one of those P.I. writers I really like, and his plots are generally well-constructed, with all the loose ends neatly tied up; solid, dependable fare that's always a bit more clever and insightful than you expect. I know this because I’ve read a lot of his stuff over the last few years, in preparation for that book I’m working on.

But I hadn't read that specific story in decades. So I told him it’s possible it didn’t make sense because the publisher had inadvertently left out part of the story. I’ve seen this happen before with these sort of collections. The publisher grabs (or scans) a bunch of old stories and slaps ‘em together for a quick buck, without any real editing.

In fact, this particular publisher apparently expects typos and errors, because when I checked out the free sample, I noticed that they apologize for typos  right on their copyright pages. Think about that. What sort of legit publisher apologizes in advance for errors? "Don't worry about them," they say, in essence, "We'll probably fix 'em with the next upload."

But these bottom feeders can’t just lay it off on poorly scanned source material (assuming they actually scanned the original material -- I suspect many of these clowns simply rip off their fellow e-scavengers. Besides, looking at the copyright page, it was clear they’re fully capable of introducing plenty of their own errors. So if they don't even bother to edit their own material, should we really expect them to be any more conscientious with other people's work? Especially if those authors have already shuffled off this mortal coil?

And if they can't be bothered to treat their authors right, what do you think they'll care about treating you right?

So it’s not exactly a stretch to believe the "publisher" may have lost a few paragraphs along the way. Ooops.

So, yeah, the price may be right, but as both a reader and a writer, I just think these guys are all wrong.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bouchercon 2014: Never Can Say Goodbye, No No No...

Check out time at the Are You Okay? Corral. From left: Roger, Mike, me, Ali and Diane. Just when we thought we'd get out, Ali pulls us back in.

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Bouchercon 2014: it’s said that they got off with quite a haul...

Part of the haul, a combination of book bag loot and multiple visits to the Dealer's Room. Can you guess which are mine and which are Diane's? I'll spot you one: I am giddy with the ARC of Laura Lippman's new one.

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Bouchercon 2014: There Are Faces I'll Remember

Top row: Mike, Ali. Second Row: Rob, me, Jeff, Jodi, Scott, Roger, Tanis. Third Row: Diane, Jodi, Linda, Heather, Connie


... and there were no survivors.

Or at least that's how it feels from this desk. There are so many faces and names, so many memories, thoughts, events both large and small still being sorted and sifted that it feels like Diane and I were away for months, not a few days.

It was a big deal for us. We hadn't been to a Bouchercon together since Wisconsin (I'd done a few quickie hit and runs to Bouchercon in San Francisco and Left Coast Crime in LA; she'd been to a few Malice Domestics), and we both felt it was high time to reconnect with the mystery community; to sniff the air and test the waters. Mr. and Mrs. Detective stepping back into the ring.

Yes, we also had ulterior motives.  I was anxious to see if Thrilling Detective still mattered to anyone but me; Diane wanted to relight the pilot light under her pen name of Diana Killian (aka "The Girl Detective;" aka "D.L. Browne") with which she'd written eight or so mysteries. We've been awful busy over the last few years on life and other projects (some classified; some about to be announced) but we wanted to get back to where we once belonged.

But mostly we wanted some time together that involved more than the two of us passing by the coffee machine, sleep drunk, on the way to our computers. To reconnect with old friends and to make new ones. And each other.

We succeeded.

Bouchercon 2014 was a riot. A head-spinning kaleidoscope of fictional murder and mayhem; of quick chats and long discussions, warm hugs and cold beverages; an orgy of books and words and the rush of knowing, for a few days anyway, that we were surrounded by people who were as passionate and obsessive (or flat out mentally unstable) about crime fiction as we are. As Ali Karim put it, after a particularly passionate discourse on the bleak, nihilistic philosophical underpinnings of HBO's True Detective, "If you talked about all this fuckin' biff anywhere else, we'd all be arrested."

Like I said, it's all still being processed, but here are a few thoughts and memories. Scrambled, with a dash of pepper.

The panels and official whoop-ti-doos were fine, but by far the best time was the time spent in conversations, over drinks, at meals or just standing in the hall ways getting in the way of everyone else. Let's face it -- that's really what Bouchercon does best. And why it's so important to have a decent bar open from about midday and easily accessible to all attendees. One that offers not just booze but good coffee and other non-alcoholic beverages for the four attendees who don't drink, light meals and snacks, and plenty of seating. Woe to any Bouchercon organizing committee who thinks they can skip this step. Remember the notorious shoe store-turned- bar in Vegas, which, when it was open (which, rumour has it, it was occasionally), had all the charm and conviviality of, well, a shoe store?

But man, reconnecting with friends, getting -- in some cases -- the first chance to really talk with people I've "known" on the internet for years? That was the main deal, right there.

There are tons of folks it was a delight to hook up with -- once again or for the first time. I know I'm gonna screw this up and leave out someone really important to me, but man, what a show. What great people!

But then, like almost everything that matters, it's always, when you get right down to it, about people. 

That crazy Canadian Content Wednesday night with Jacques Filippi (Cowansville!) and John McFetridge (my eternal homie, connecting at not just the Canadian and Montreal level, but right down to the sub-nuclear, Greenfield Park level), meeting Peter Rozovsky (Montreal!) of Detectives Beyond Borders, Thrilling Detective contributor Scott Adlerberg, Tanis Mallow (Ontario!) and Cara Brookins (winner of The Best-Dressed Grease Monkey Award five years in a row). Even Sara Henry (honourary Canadian outta Vermont) dropped by. And wouldn't you know it? We all ended up talking at one point about hockey.

Americans worried about some covert Canuck takeover need not worry, though... President Weinman will explain it all.

Or how about Thursday night, meeting my panelists Rex Burns, Thomas Sawyer and Cathi Stoler (who, it turns out, is the right Cathi) to prep for our early the next morning panel, as well as Kathy Bennett, the temporarily wrong Kathy, former LAPD cop turned writer, who turned out to be just right (Honest, Kathy, I was on my way back!). And then being bumped at the bar by my old pal Terrill Lee Lankford, asking me to scoot down a little so some guy called Michael Connelly could sign some books. Meeting the Legendary Lisa, the events manager from the Barnes and Noble at The Grove. In Palmdale we consider ourselves lucky to get self-published local wingnut slogging poetry or a self-help manual; Lisa had not only had Connelly sign so often there they were friends, but she had Jimmy Page there signing HIS book the other night. THE Jimmy Page!

In Palmdale, we're apt to land the replacement drummer for a Motley Crue cover band selling a cookbook for sushi.

Friday night was the Shamus Awards Dinner put on by the Private Eye Writers of America, where Diane and I ended up at what they should have called the press table. Sitting with Jeff Pierce of January Magazine and The Rap Sheet, Ali Karin and Mike Stotter of Shots, and Peter Kozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders. Just an awesome night. Back at the bar, Diane and I met old Wicked Company buddies Rick (and Elaine) Helms and Jack Bludis, and then later, a rematch with Ali, Mike and Jeff, where we were joined by January Mag founder (and freshly-minted poker hustler) Linda Richards.

And oh the hit-and-runs! Knowing nods and bursts of chatter. Jan Long (aka "Steve Hamilton"); running into (and then losing again) Em Bronstein; comparing hair styling tips with Reed Farrell Coleman; and questioning the peculiar American dislike for rodent-mentioning titles with Ian Hamilton. Chatting about the Great Lost White Whales of crime fic with Jim Huang and Austin Lugar. Hooking up and talking software (I kid you not) with crime author Rob Brunet (Toronto via Ottawa and Montreal). Maggie Griffin, publicist to the stars, and some guy she was with called Child. Gary Phillips, whose voice can still manage to shake a building shake like it's 1977 and it's half an hour to closing at the disco... and somebody just turned the bass way way up. Max Allan Collins, writer, director, musician, collector, fountain of knowledge, uber-fan and my crime convention go-to since 1992, when I first embarrassed myself in front of an author, gushing about how much I loved their stuff. And speaking of stuff, then there were the Mysterious Boys, Richard Brewer and Bobby McCue.

Not that I've become cool and jaded, mind you. There were still plenty of other times I know I embarrassed myself this time out, gushing  without even actually explaining what I the hell was talking about. David Morrell and Jason Pinter are probably still scratching their heads. And possibly considering hiring some personal security for their next convention.

I also got to see some of my old DAPA-Em buddies! Art Scott, whom I spotted before we'd even checked in, and has an awesome new book on cover artist Robert McGinnis. The two Teds, Ted Fitzgerald and Ted Hertel. Steve Steinbock. Also spotted Marvelous Marv Lachman, but couldn't nail him.

And then there were the panels. The most rollicking one by far was the LA Noir at the Bar group reading, a high-energy tag team of mostly great writing; marred only by a few too many juvenile -- but well-written -- attempts at shock-and-awe. Granted, with only 60 seconds to read, context was mostly tossed aside, but is the overuse of the word "Fuck" and the lovingly detailed descriptions of dripping viscera really the essence of noir? As the Divine Ms. Christa Faust put it as she wrapped up her own excellent (and far from genteel) little snippet, "Is that the best you can do?"

The difference, gentlemen, is writing.

The Forgotten Pulp Writers of the Pulp & Paperback Era was another great panel, moderated by Peter, featuring Gary, MaxCharles Kelly, Sarah "I do all my own stunts") Weinman and Sara Henry, scratching just the surface of overlooked, obscure or forgotten writers. Anyone in the audience whose want list didn't grow by a few sizes after that one shouldn't have been there at all.

But by far the greatest, most amazing time happened after the conference was over. Diane and I stuck around, used the hotel pool, had a nice quiet lunch, figured we'd drive home Monday. Ran into Ali that afternoon sneaking out for a smoke. He invited us to dinner with "four or five" other people. At Gladstome's, the scene of the crime for the Shamus Awards a few nights earlier. But by the time we got there, the four of five had grown a little. We ended up back in the private room where the Shamuses themselves had taken place -- there was no room for us anywhere else.

It was a wonderful evening, a fantastic meal, a booze-prompted (but not booze-fueled) panel round table about books, literacy, rock'n'roll, technology, writing, Robert Parker, publishing and passions, moderated by an equally booze-prompted Ali. Perhaps all Bouchercon panels should be held in bars. 

It truly was a magical evening, starring Ali (aka "The Hardest Working Man in the Crime Biz") and co-starring Diana Killian, Heather Graham, Linda S. Richards, Jeff and Jodi Pierce, Mike Stotter, R.J. Ellory, Tanis Mallow, Peter Rozovsky, Rob Brunet, Connie and fellow bookseller Scott Montgomery. Look at the grins plastered across those mugs at that picture up there.

Man, those people.

In my life, I'll love them all.

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Saturday, November 08, 2014

Location, Location, Location: Bouchercon 2014


Noir at the Bar: Bouchercon 2014


Thursday, February 27, 2014

William S, Burroughs, Private Eye

Sure.
The Dapper Daddy of the Beats.
Spat out wisecrackery prose like Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe on a speed jag, all clipped and terse and hard as nails, but going further -- way way further -- in his imagery  than Mr. "Tarantula on a Slice of Angel Food Cake" ever dreamed of, using words Gentleman Phil would never utter.
Especially in front of a lady.
But the influence was there.
From the age of eight or so, when little Willie began writing his earliest fiction safe in the confines of stately Burroughs Manor, his little stories were all in the adventure and crime vein. And throughout his life he remained a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, keeping book by Hammett, Chandler et al in his library, sharing them with his Beat buddies like Kerouac and Ginsberg. He even worked detectives into his fiction. One of his most enduring characters, Clem Snide, who appeared in several of his books and stories including Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961) and perhaps most notably Cities of the Red Night (1981), was a private eye.
"The name is Clem Snide -- I'm a Private Ass Hole -- I will take on any job any identity any body -- I will do anything difficult dangerous or downright dirty for a price..."
But -- hold your horses -- Burroughs went beyond writing about gumshoes. He actually became one.
I kid you not.
Burroughs was born into a wealthy St. Louis family, and was given a generous allowance for most of his life. But he also worked a wide variety of jobs before he eventually turned to writing.
He was rejected for service during World War II, but before, during and after the war, he was a bartender, a reporter, an advertising copywriter, an exterminator and briefly -- get this -- a private detective.
In 1944 he applied for a job Merit Protection Services of Chicago (offices were at 612 North Michigan). He was hired to do security work for stores, verifying the honesty of employees, and was dispatched to work the Iowa and Ohio area with the rest of his team (two women and a male supervisor.) 
Their would try to catch suspicious cashiers stealing from the till, using the women on his team to pose as customers, and then swooping in verify the drawer tallied up. It wasn't exactly mean streets stuff -- he didn't carry a gun. He didn't become any more tarnished than he already was, nor was it's likely he was ever afraid.
The problem was that he soon grew bored with the work, He quit after three months.
But twenty years later he savaged his former co-workers in Nova Express (1964), where he dismissed his boss as a badge-carrying Fascist and his two female workers as "cunts."
A class act all the way, this father of the Beats.

SUGGESTED READING
Cities of the Night (1981; by William S. Burroughs)
Call Me Burroughs: A Life (2014; by Miles Barry)

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kreegah! Kevin Bundolo! (or "John Carter: The Post-Mortem")

True confessions. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan of the Apes, just then re-released in paperback, was the gateway drug. But soon I was enthralled by all of Burroughs' universe, both the steady stream of reprints that started appearing everywhere (Ace and Ballantine must have kept the presses running 24/7 for a few years -- there seemed to be new Burroughs reprints every month), and DC Comics' masterful adaptations that started filling the spinner racks at local newstands, particularly Joe Kubert's raw, visceral version of the Ape Man. Weird words and place names soon began to pepper my vocabulary (Barsoom, kreegah, Pellucidar, tarmangani, Opar, etc.), as a steady stream of Burroughs pulp began to fill my pre-adolescent brain,competing for space with a swelling interest in girls. For a few years, my dreams were as much about Carson of Venus, the Mucker, John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Korak and all the other manly men of adventure and derring-do as it was about Susan in History, Diane in English, or Pam in art. 

Of course, in the end, the girls won, but then they always do. And to tell the truth, a steady diet of Burroughs for a few years eventually wears thin, and that adolescent rush of fantasy quietly slipped into its cave.

But it emerged periodically, that heady mix of awe and discovery, of heroes and perfectly realized new worlds to discover, mostly unleashed by film: the first Star Wars, Bladerunner, the first Alien, the occasional Stephen King novel, Lord of the Rings, Justin Cronin's Passage. The whole sparkly vampire thing didn't do it, and I thought Avatar was lunkheaded and self-conscious, high-minded silliness and self-indulgent ego wrapped up in the Emperor's new 3D clothes.

Last year's JOHN CARTER from Disney brought me right back. It was a hoot. It might not have always been faithful to the text, but the magic was. It wasn't as awe-inspiring as A New Hope, perhaps, and I could have done without the cutie-pie dog beast (although from a marketing standpoint it makes sense -- after all, R2D2 was cute too), but there was enough rousing action, imaginative artistry and oh-my-god-is-that-cool! moments to keep both my the Girl Detective and I mesmerized -- with ot without 3D. 

The "critics" hated it. Well, not real critics, for the most part, who were mixed about it, but those bandwagon jumpers who think they're critics simply because they have a blog or Twitter account and an over-developed sense of snark. The same high-minded critics who drool regularly all over such sub-par but superbly hyped flicks as Sin City and The Avengers. No, John Carter wasn't perfect, but the vitriol unleashed against it -- even before it was released -- via Twitter and the blogosphere and in second rate "review" sites all over the web was spectacular. 

It was like a concerted effort to destroy the film. Bad press piled upon bad press. Almost every "review" I read rushed to mention how much it cost , how much it was losing and how poorly it did on its opening weekend. It was like a sports analyst describing a hockey game by reading only the final score.

I mean, really. "Taylor Kitsch is no Mark Hammil"? Is that the best you can do, kid?

In his new book, John Carter and The Gods of Hollywoods, film makmer Michael Sellers contends that yes, there was indeed a conspiracy to destroy this film, and most of the damage was done long before most of the Blogosphere Sheep got their bleats in. Not so subtly subtitled "The True Story of What Went Wrong With Disney's John Carter and Why Edgar Rice Burroughs Original Superhero Isn't Dead Yet," it's a sobering tale told by an insider of corporate stupidity, inept marketing, studio politics and petty rivals and jealousies, and an angry indictment of all that's wrong, not just about Disney, but Hollywood (and corporate America) itself. 

For those of you who defied the Snark Week Attacks and the Gods of Hollywood and saw the film anyway, and enjoyed it (or even if you didn't), this is still a fascinating and intriguing look at the inner workings (or non-workings) of Hollywood's Dream Factory. And for Burroughs' fans, it's worth it just to bear witness to the long, sad march to the screen of a much-beloved book written over a century ago. 

It will leave you wondering not why Hollywood makes so many God-awful movies but how they ever manage to make any good ones. 

A version of this post appeared originally on Books of Interest and Other Stuff...