Wednesday, October 25, 2006

From the Thrilling Detective Vault #1: Joe Gaylord

As has been pointed out several times -- a blog is hard work. And I've been sadly derelict of duty.

So I've decided to rip off a few entries from The Thrilling Detective Web Site and post them here, sort of as a tease for the site, and as a way to satisfy those folks who complain I don't blog often enough.

And so, without any further ado, here's our first-ever entry from the Thrilling Detective Vault (Number one in the series -- Collect them all!!!!)

Created by M.S. Marble

If your name is Gaylord, you better be one tough joe.

And Joe Gaylord is just tough enough to make the cut in DIE BY NIGHT (1947), his sole appearance.

Don't get me wrong -- even if it was eventually reprinted as a Graphic Mystery in 1955 and was presented in its artwork and back cover blurb as a hard-boiled romp, this one owes at least as much to Agatha Christie (and romance novels and possibly a few mind-altering substances) as it does to the hard-boiled school.

The set-up is pure Christie at first glance -- a private investigator for Gaylord Research in San Francisco is visiting his wealthy, eccentric Aunt Hattie in Hollywood, who runs a sort of rooming house for assorted screwballs she's befriended. But that's nothing compared to Olympus, the estate next door, where "girls frolick in the gauzy costumes of nymphs and goddesses" and "men cavort... in the robes of Jupiter, Mars and Pluto."

Suffice it to say that Aunt Hattie disapproves of the neighbours.

Of course, everyone here -- in both houses -- is a "type," drawn in sometimes very broad strokes, and everyone has a deep, dark secret tucked away. And eventually murder rears its ugly head, leaving good nephew Joe to try to make sense of it all.

Fortunately, our man Joe's up to the task. Although he tries to pass himself off as a mere researcher who doesn't even tote a gun and spends most of his time in libraries, he displays a suitable amount of sang-froid when things turn nasty.

And of course there's a girl. This one's called Stevie, and Joe describes her as "a hell of a good-looking girl with plenty of it." She in turn thinks he has a "stern and stormy soul " but that she's "madly in love" with him anyway. As the book opens, Joe and Steve meet "cute" on the train to Los Angeles, unaware that they will soon be neighbours, with Steve staying next door at Olympus. In fact, she's the one who discovers the first body and comes running to Joe for help. In true hard-boiled, red-blooded he-man tradition, Joe kisses her to calm her down. I mean, gee, what else can a guy do?

And it's those little eyeball-rolling touches of hokum, plus a few shrewd observations and some deft passages that make this book such a pleasant way to kill a few hours.

Die By Night (1947)

Well, that's it. If this little exercise floated your boat, lemme know. And if your interest is piqued, rest assured that there's plenty more where that came from.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Obsession: These Books Stink of It

Three new books, all dealing, one way or another, with obsession.

Three new books I just couldn't put down.

Three new books I should have just left on my shelf, unopened, until I had a bit more free time.

When will I ever learn?

I feel especially bad getting sucked in by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr. Cos, like, I know these guys.

I mean, gee, like last spring's BUST, their recent co-written romp, wasn't bad enough?

I mean, don't get me wrong. BUST was fine, it was fun, a (relatively) harmless little diversion -- a fast, hard blast of noir chicanery and egoless literary tag-teaming that left me flipping pages back and forth and scratching my head, not just over the antics of a bunch of manipulative scam artists and other assorted losers all trying desperately to out-waltz each other, but by the burning question of who wrote what.

Was that Ken? Or Jason? Or Ken doing Jason doing Ken? Or Jason doing Ken doing Jason? Or had they gone off and had some diabolically conceived unholy lovechild/clone who could also write?

It didn't really matter in the end, because ultimately I just got so wrapped up in it that I didn't care.

But now they've really done it, going off to their separate corners and releasing new books almost simultaneously.

AMERICAN SKIN by Bruen is just staggering, a road trip so dark and skanky you just have to keep laughing because the alternative is assuming the fetal position and bawling like a baby -- or maybe just crawling into the grave and pulling the earth over yourself. (Ken, didn't anyone ever tell you that Springsteen's NEBRASKA is not a comedy album?)

The alleged hero (are there ever really heroes in Bruen's books?) is Stephen Blake, a more or less almost decent (but not particulalrly bright) Irish guy who finds himself on the run after a fucked-up bank heist, caught up in his own runaway American dream, hoping to start a new life with his way too-good-for-him girlfriend Siobhan (and a shitload of money) in Arizona. She's back home in Ireland laundering the money, waiting for the "all clear" signal. She'll have a long wait.

Meanwhile, Stephen figures all he has to do is learn to "pass" as an American and he and Siobhan -- when she finally arrives -- will have it made. He's wrong.

His partner in the failed bank job is Stapleton, a former IRA boyo who wants his cut -- and his pound of flesh. Stapleton's a shark -- a cold, relentless killer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. And he's not even the most dangerous character in this book -- that would be Dade, the Tammy Wynette-loving psycho who kills without thinking (or even blinking). Dade has decided that Stephen must die. Toss in a few more maladjusted carnivores, including a whacked out drug dealer and a seriously deranged femme fatale, and you've got one hell of a roadtrip -- with one nasty impending head-on collision lying in wait like a killer in the sun. You know it's going to be messy and bloody, but I defy you to look away.

(By the way, it's nice to know Canadians aren't the only ones obsessed with the U.S. -- although I suspect Ken wears his "American skin" a little more easily than I do).

Meanwhile, Jason's LIGHTS OUT is, is, is... WHAT? I'm still not sure if it's a tragedy or a comedy or both. Granted, it's decidedly more sedate than Bruen's book, but it's every bit as dark and disturbing. It also left me feeling extremely pissed off at the characters. I mean, shit, how could they be so stupid? So selfish? So oblivious? So cold? So callous? So hard? So soft? So weak? So fucked?

So human?

I wanted -- several times -- to just scream at these people. "What the hell's wrong with you?"

Jake "JT" Thomas is a superstar fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, an almost universally beloved sports hero -- and a prime asshole, a conceited, self-centered jerk who thinks with his dick -- when he thinks at all. Jake's obsessed all right -- with Jake.

His boyhood friend and rival, Ryan Rossettii, never quite made the majors. A career-ending injury in the minors took care of that. He coulda been a contender but now he's scraping by as a Brooklyn housepainter, still living for now with his parents, obsessed with the career he never had. And with Jake.

It doesn't help matters that Ryan's become romantically involved with Christina Mercado, JT's long-time "fiancée" -- or that JT's coming home to Brooklyn to announce -- finally -- his and Christina's much-delayed wedding date. Suffice it to say that things go bad -- very bad -- for all concerned, and we end up with a sort of noirish, pro-sports version of BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, complete with sex scandals, gangbangers, murders (both attenpted and otherwise) and batting statistics.

And then there's RIPPEROLOGY by Robin Odell, a prime ode to obsession if ever there was one. I'm not generally much of a true crime guy, but this one suckerpunched me.

Subtitled "A Study of the World's First Serial killer and a Literary Phenomenon," this is a truly fascinating glimpse into the world of those who study the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Author Odell, who won an Edgar for The Murderers' Who's Who, hauls out every "solution" that's been floated in the last 120 years or so, presents each as objectively as possible, and then proceeds to blow each one out of the water. Odell tries to take the high road, but sometimes he can't help but let a little bite into his bark (don't get him started on Patricia Cornwell's book on Jack a few years ago). And that's really what's so compelling, at least to me -- the surprising heat and animosity these "Ripperologists" occasionally display towards each other's pet "theories," and the depth of their obsessions. They're like the Trekkies of true crime, locked into their own world, speaking Klingon to each other.

The only difference? I've never wanted to learn Klingon, but damn if I could put this one down.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

America's Top Sleuths: I Was There

Well, the long wait is over. For those of you who have been waiting with bated breath -- and for those whose breath just smells like bait -- here are the results of SLEUTH-TV's "America's Top Sleuths," as selected by voters in their on-line poll:

25) Marge Gunderson (Fargo)
24) Clarice Starling (Silence of the Lambs)
23) Irwin Fletcher (Fletch)
22) Lt. Frank Drebin (Police Squad)
21) John Shaft
20) Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon)
19) Maddie & Dave (Moonlighting)
18) Sabrina, Jill, & Kelly (Charlie's Angels)
17) Baretta
16) Detective Andy Sipowicz (NYPD Blue)
15) Mulder & Scully (The X-Files)
14) Det. Sgt Joe Friday (Dragnet)
13) Riggs & Murtaugh (Lethal Weapon
12) Harry Callahan (the Dirty Harry movies)
11) Lt. Theo Kojak
10) Sherlock Holmes
9) Detective Lenny Brisco (Law and Order)
8) Gil Grissom (CSI)
7) Remington Steele
6) Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote)
5) Dr. R. Quincy (Quincy M.E.)
4) Crockett & Tubbs (Miami Vice)
3) Jim Rockford (The Rockford Files)
2) Columbo
1) Thomas Magnum (Magnum P.I.)

MAGNUM? It all comes down to Thomas friggin' Magnum?

Yeah, that's what I thought. But what were you expecting? This is TELEVISION!!!!

It's just a popularity contest, fer cryin' out loud, and an amiably hinky one, at that.

Voting was done via the internet only (so right off, say goodbye to entire segments of "America"). Absolutely anyone with a few minutes and a mouse could vote -- regardless of their knowledge or background.

The producers were further curtailed by what they could -- and couldn't -- get the rights for, so even the short-list that people were asked to vote on was less than all-encompassing.

So what we were left with was not the best or even necessarilty the most popular of all TV and film detectives, but the most popular among a short, pre-selected list of TV and film detectives, as voted upon by a relatively small segment of the population that possessed both internet access and the knowledge and inclination to use it (ie: middle-aged and younger, generally), which would also likely skewer the results to those shows in more recent memory. Which may in turn explain why we have one movie from 1941, one movie series mostly from the forties, one TV show from the fifties, one (arguably) from the sixties, and everything else from the seventies onward.

So anyone thinking we'd get some sort of iron-clad blue ribbon critical list is bound to be disappointed. This is a popularity contest, plain and simple, with some serious limitations. Things like quality or artistry or influence and impact don't even come into it necessarily -- just the lowest common denominator of popularity and recent memory. So while many of the choices are certainly of merit, this is closer to the Anthonys, say, than the Edgars. There are no judges, only voters.

Having said that, though, I thought it was FUN -- and I think that's all the producers had in mind. And on that level they succeeded -- in spades. As a detective geek, I have to admit It was a genuine pleasure seeing those old clips, and some of the talking heads offering commentary were fun, as well -- even as I admit that I myself was one of those talking heads (I think I was there to cleanse the palate between those who actually knew what they were talking about).

Yep, while not in anyway involved (except by voting -- and I'm not even American!) in the selection of the winners or the choosing of the nominees, I must confess that I did willingly and with forethought aid and abet the producers by offering my two cents worth on-camera. ("Yeah, they grilled me for an hour and a half, but I swear, I didn't tell 'em nothin'!")

Even though I never ran into any of the others when I headed went down to Hollywood for a taping (except for a brief hi/bye moment with Paula Woods), I still feel honoured to have been in a group that includes TV creators (Stephen J. Cannell), crimewriters (Jason Starr, Sara Paretsky, Scott Turow, and Michael Connelly), actors (Peter Falk, Jesse Martin), and critics (Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, Leah Rozen from People), plus assorted comedians. I guess web monkeys fit into the last group.

Anyway, as I was saying, it was fun. No great deep thoughts from anyone -- just light, breezy commentary, for the most part, with an ocasional zinger and a few insights -- and hey, who knew Connelly was such a chatterbox?

Still, it was a genuine hoot seeing some of those old clips, both from the shows themselves and from old interviews, such as James Garner explaining why THE ROCKFORD FILES had to end.

And now the REAL FUN begins.

The arguing.

MAGNUM? Yikes. I mean, I know it was popular, but THAT popular? The critic in me just can't let it go. Everytime I caught an episode it seemed to be one of the Higgins nagging/Thomas whining-and-smirking episodes. The most sustained gay fantasy ever on American television. Why do you think none of those women lasted?

COLOMBO and ROCKFORD I can live with, although I think Rockford should have been number one. Both great, great shows.

MIAMI VICE? At number four? Get outta here! Popular once, fer shur, but last summer's movie probably did more for its ranking than anything. A quick glance at the show itself (coincidentally SLEUTH is currently re-running it) reveals it as mostly empty style and severely dated, something the far more popular in its time and stylish PETER GUNN -- which should have made the list -- never was. You wanna talk cool music and sharp clothes, those wimps from Miami wouldn't last a night at Mother's.

QUINCY? Was it really so popular? Why not BARNABY JONES, then, which ran even longer?

And if doctors, why not lawyers? PERRY MASON and RUMPOLE immediately spring to mind.

Ah, but RUMPOLE was British, you say? Well, so was SHERLOCK HOLMES. So, was was America's Top Sleuths supposed to be America's Top AMERICAN Sleuths?

If not, what about JANE TENNYSON? HERCULE POIROT? MISS MARPLE? CRACKER? All very popular in these here United States.

REMINGTON STEELE, MURDER SHE WROTE and CHARLIE'S ANGELS I can live with. Not my favorites, necessarily, but obviously wildly popular shows.

And it was nice to see Farrah Fawcett's major, uh, assets still as perky as ever.

And so it goes. Some of the choices seem downright peculiar (the LETHAL WEAPON movies, but not JAMES BOND?) And were the FLETCH movies really that popular and well-regarded? Ever?

Indeed, if they were going to include comedy why not the far superior, far funnier and far more popular BARNEY MILLER?

And if they were going to include SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and FARGO (both fine films, mind you, but top twenty-five?), what about THE BIG SLEEP or CHINATOWN or HARPER? Or THE THIN MAN (imagine MOONLIGHTING with brains and class and very little shark-jumping)?

And what about the great (and popular) TV shows that were skipped over? MANNIX? The afore-mentioned PETER GUNN? Pembleton from HOMICIDE? MIKE HAMMER? CAGNEY AND LACEY?

Even 77 SUNSET STRIP can still make a bigger case for its "popularity" than some of the shows that made the cut.

And Mrs. Thrilling wants to know what happened to McMILLAN AND WIFE and SIMON AND SIMON.

HARRY O wasn't even included, and it could easily have made -- at least in a just world -- the top ten. Maybe the top five.

And was it really necessary to mention Mel Gibson and Robert Blake's recent tabloid-ready escapades at all, or were their recent travails actually the reason they made the list? I mean, does anyone really think BARETTA will stand the test of time? (Except in a car crash way?)

Nope, the criteria for inclusion seemed too willy-nilly and wonky for my liking. Mixing TV and film was one major hurdle (does one popular film trump a long-running series?). Never quite defining what a "sleuth" is was another.

So this poll will never be more than a curiousity, a simple, enjoyable diversion.

But so what?

It was fun.

Now if only SLEUTH would air some of these.

But don't get me started on what SLEUTH should be airing. That's a whole other column...

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Jiggetty Jig (Bouchercon 2006 Part One)

As in "Home again, home again..."

I never thought I'd say it -- or at least out loud -- but it's good to be back in Palmdale. After the whirlwind tour that was Bouchercon 2006 in Madison, Wisconsin, I'm put in mind of "Home for a Rest" by Canadian Celtic rabble rousers Spirit of the West:

"You'll have to excuse me
I'm not at my best
I've been gone for a month
I've been drunk since I left."

Not that I was actually gone for a month, or that I was even drunk for the four days and change that comprised Bouchercon 2006 -- it just felt that way by the time the cab finally dropped the lovely and talented D.L. Browne (AKA Diana Killian, AKA The Girl Detective, AKA Mrs. Thrilling) and I off late Sunday night.

In fact, I don't think I ever got more than a slight buzz on. But there was sure a hell of a lot of social (some of it very social) drinking there. Because for many of us, the bar is the de facto heart of these things. It's where you meet friends and agents and publishers and the like, catch a quick bite, sit and sort out your schedule or your book bag in between the numerous panels, appointments, parties, dealer's rooms and award ceremonies. And, of course, have a drink.

But hey, it was good beer (local brew Capital Amber Ale on tap is more than decent). And the company was even better.

It was great to see so many old pals, and even make a couple of new ones, including the elusive Tribe (a dynamite writer who's been MIA from TD and elsewhere for far too long), Shannon Clute (of Out of the Past podcast fame) and Declan Hughes (possibly the illegitimate child of Ken Bruen and Ross Macdonald).

One of the few disappointments (besides the stunning lack of people wearing cheese on their heads) was the non-show of Dave White, having been arrested on some sort of New Jersey morals charge involving squirrels and rubber undergarments or something that prevented him from flying to Wisconsin.

But Ken Bruen, Al Guthrie, Jason Starr, Donna Moore, Max Allan Collins, Jim Doherty, Gary Phillips, Sam Reaves, Richard Moore, Sarah Weinman, Simon Wood, Gary Neihbuhr, both Teds, assorted Jordans, Duane Swierczynski, Maggie Griffin, Brian Thornton, Laura Lippman, Bill "International Love God" Crider, Jan Long, Art "Great" Scott, Russel McLean, Reed Farrell "Mr. Hattrick" Coleman, Jack Bludis, Richard Helms, Luci Davin, Lee Child, Kate Stine and crew and a cast of thousands did make it.

Drinks were drunk, stories were swapped, backs slapped and accomplishments hooted. And even a few deals made.

Of course, a good con should be about more -- at least so I've heard -- than just drinking. Fortunately, the panels were also definitely a cut above the usual convention fare, full of well-chosen panellists and lively topics, for the most part. Evidently Jon and Ruth Jordan (of the Anthony-winning CRIMESPREE) had a big hand in that, so my fedora's off to them. My own panel, "I Could Kick Your Ass," went over pretty well, thanks to a large and lively Saturday morning crowd -- and John Connolly calling us a bunch of wimps beforehand certainly didn't hurt.

No, there's no feud going on. John simply heard the title of our panel and remarked that it would "probably consist of the biggest wimps here." It's the sort of crack I probably would have made myself, so I wasn't upset at all -- in fact, I ran into him later and thanked him. Because it did give us a handy peg to hang our panel on, especially since we'd decided that we would talk about "toughness" in crime fiction. I was the moderator but it was the panellists (Brett Brattle, Michael Black, J.D. Rhodes and my homey John McFetridge) that really kicked ass. And whenever things started to lag, we had good ol' Connolly to kick around.

And damn it, but I feel recharged. It's no secret I've been sorta lost in the wilderness the last few months or so, not quite sure where I or the Thrilling Detective Web Site stood, but I must say that this year's Bouchercon really brought it all back home. Time and time again, people said kind things to me about the site and the work we do there. And it was great to be introduced to people as "the guy who does The Thrilling Detective Web site," and not "the guy who was kicked off of DorothyL."

I mean, that story's so old even I'm bored with it (although, of course, there is a certain reality-challenged wingnut who denies it ever happened).

I even came back with a little good news. It looks like maybe, just maybe, there will be some sort of Thrilling Detective print anthology somewhere in the future. I have been approached by publishers before, but they've invariably been of the shifty, fly-by-night POD varety ("Hi! We really really love your work! Pay us $500 in small, unmarked bills and we'll publish it!").

This time, though, it was a legit (a very legit) publisher I met with, one that publishes some of the best crime writers around. Ones you've even heard of. No, really. I'll keep you posted on that.

And of course, this month also marks my boob tube debut, when I'll appear as one of several talking heads on SLEUTH's upcoming special on favourite TV and film detectives. Back in August, they took me into a small Hollywood hotel room and grilled me for over an hour and a half under the bright lights, so I figure there's at least a fifty-fifty chance that I coughed up at least one semi-intelligible sound bite they could use. And naturally, if I do make the final cut, will run below my puss, so hopefully that will get the site some more attention.

Which always gets me hyped.

In fact, the way things are going, it looks like we'll have -- I hope -- a new issue before Christmas, complete with some really great stories. Yeah, Gerald and I will have to really get cracking, but I think we can pull it off.

So things are popping, as far as the site goes.

Well, maybe. After all, you all know what they say about the best laid plans of mice, men and me.

COMING SOON: More on Bouchercon. The awards, the tears, the books, Randisi over an open flame and the benefits of having a cop as a chauffeur (or how I got a police escort back to my hotel).