Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hey Kids! Let's Put on a Show!

There's something endearingly amateurish (and more than a bit inspiring) about The Smiling Man, an indie short now available on DVD and starring nobody you ever heard of.

This moody little bit of cinema -- all 45 minutes of it -- is brought to you by B.J. West and the Bay Area Writer's Group. Last year saw the release of their first anthology, Fog City Nocturne, a collection of short stories all featuring post-WWII San Francisco gumshoe Nick Chambers. It boasted the sub-title: "One Detective -- Six Authors."

Nick was created, appropriately enough, "over cocktails" (possibly several) as a writing exercise in which they could all take part. They came up with a "noir-style anti-hero, with a decidedly post-modern nihilistic outlook that borders on misanthropic."


They figured out his backstory, agreed on what makes him tick and defined his current situation, and then established two unbreakable rules that all the writers would have to follow.

1: Thou shalt not kill Nick. But you can beat him to within an inch of death.

2: No "Big Wins." When the story is done, Nick's situation shouldn't be markedly improved in any permanent way.

The stories intentionally stuck pretty close to the formula, for the most part; Nick's appropriately hard-boiled and appropriately down on his luck, struggling to eke out a living on the "cold, dark, fog shrouded streets" of post-WWII (and appropriately corrupt) San Francisco. Need I mention the fedora and trenchcoat?

But it was a nicely packaged little book, and a pretty solid collection; certainly one of the better self-published efforts I've seen. It was very interesting to me on several levels -- as P.I. fiction, as PR and, of course, as a writing exercise. The stories were, to say the least, all over the place in terms of tone and perspective, and shone a light on how non-fans view the genre.

And now, continuing the DYI ethos of the book, we have The Smiling Man, a short indie film based on one of the stronger -- if quirkier -- stories (by Keoni Chavez). The film follows Nick through the oddly empty (and very, very clean) streets of San Francisco in search of a man only identified by a photograph, on behalf of a smug, enigmatic client, Derek Halycon, who knows more than he's letting on.

The film was directed by West, the book's mastermind, and it stars most of its writers, including Chavez, who plays the mysterious client. As expected, then, the acting varies from okay to great (the bartender's a natural) and the direction is very much fly-on-the-wall and non-obtrusive.

But somehow, it works. Short on thrills, but long on mood, it's an engaging little headscratcher. It wouldn't have been out of place on an old episode of The Twilight Zone or maybe Alfred Hitchcock.

No, it's not going to bump The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown off any P.I. fan's top ten list, but this is a fine little tribute to -- and addition to the genre.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Câline de blues...

Don't get me wrong.. I respect the police. They do a tough job, an often thankless one, but also a necessary one. At least, most cops do.

My uncle was a cop, a true blue cliché if there ever was one, a big burly Irish redhead. Loved to hunt and fish. Coached kids in swimming in his spare time, helped out with the Boy Scouts. Worked as a patrolman, and then as a detective in some fairly tough neighbourhoods in Montreal, an Anglo in a predominantly and increasingly French-speaking force. He was decorated, too, and he was always good for a few stories, too. And he built a mean campfire. He died before I really got to know him as an adult, but the stories remain. He was a good, tough, fair cop. And by all accounts he was a good, tough, fair man.

The other week, I called the local cops here in Poodledale, to complain about some kids who had been zipping up and down and up and down our street on their annoying little pocket bikes, those pissant little unmufflered gnats having buzzed around our house for most of what should have been a peaceful Sunday afternoon.

Of course, these things are as illegal as hell, since they not only lack mufflers, but any sort of lights. And they're so tiny they're almost invisible to the average motorist. Not that I necessarily wanted anyone busted (although a sharp rap with a nightstick on one of those unhelmeted heads might have been amusing), but I figured it would be nice to have at least a little peace and quiet on a rare day off (I usually work weekends).

I finally got through to the local cops. After I identified myself to Officer Mumblemumble, and jumping through all those identification verification hoops (the cops, of all people, don't have caller ID?), I was allowed to explain my problem.

He listened, grunted, listened. "And what do you want us to do about it?" finally came the reply.

A couple of answers sprang to mind, "Your job" being the most obvious. But I simply stammered out the suggestion that they send a car over to check things out. Please?

As far as I know, they never did. The buzzing continued until well after dark. And started up again around noon the next Saturday.

In the ever more-macho-than-thou world of modern policing (and the jacked-up fear factor we keep being sold), it seems to me that the first half of "To serve and protect" is too often being sacrificed.

Society be damned; the new scoreboards on how we're doing are apparently the prisons. The more of them there are, and the more over-crowded they are, the higher we rate.

For all the doom-and-gloom the local paper trucks in, you'd think the Antelope Valley was downtown Baghdad or something, an open, festering sore of gun battles, drugs, rape, child molesters and murder, with the poor, under-armed, under-manned police constantly under seige by barbarians from "down below," as the locals describe Los Angeles -- an euphemism that as often as not simply means "non-white."

Would I have seen action sooner if I'd lived in a better neighbourhood? If I'd been better connected, maybe a real estate developer or one of the mayor's good buddies? If I'd suggested these mini-Hell's Angels were black or illegal immigrants or renters?

Or Democrats?

I don't know. I hardly ever see the cops, as it is, except when they used to park their patrol cars on the closed-off street behind our house to catch a nap, or when they're setting up a speed trap by one of the schools in the west (ie: white) end of town, or when the head cop is on the tube explaining why he decided to spring poor Paris early.

I'm sorry, but if most modern day police work has come down to cops shooting it out with the bad guys on the streets, both sides playing out some bullshit cinematic macho cowboy fantasy, then we've already failed.

Maybe if we were served better, we wouldn't need to be protected so much.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

No Ifs, Ands, or Buts -- They ALL Did It This Time

What's the going price for a murdered child?

After shaming publishers (and the public) over O.J.'s cynical attempt to milk the murder of his ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman by writing a "novel" entitled IF I DID IT, the Goldman family, who sued successfully (and garnered much public support) to gain the rights to the much despised text, are going to publish it after all.

No, really.

Whether OJ did it or not, he's still a scumbag, for even thinking about writing such a book. But given their much publicized squabbling with O.J. over the years and their understandable efforts to block the book's publication last year so, by God, are the Goldmans. And anyone else involved in this.

Including the moral rubberneckers who will buy this book. No matter how much spin the Goldman's and their lawyers put on it.

Let's stop pretending. Maybe we should just scrap that silly "In God We Trust" slogan on the dollar bill and put something people can really get behind.

Something like "Fuck the moral high ground, let's cash in."

Or "Whatever it takes..."

Or "Everyone into the trough..."

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ooops! I Did It Again...

Believe me, my intentions were pure.

It was all just supposed to be fun. Nobody's eye was supposed to be put out.

Or, er, left out.

I've been a fan of MYSTERY SCENE for years. Back in the eighties, when I hadn't even heard of Bouchercon and the existence of mystery bookstores seemed more like a cruel rumour more than anything. issues of MS were hard to come by, particularly in Montreal, but every now and then I'd stumble over a copy (in a magazine store or while visiting my sis in Toronto) and snatch it up. Believe me, I read and re-read those things from cover to cover.

It was in the pages of MYSTERY SCENE that my understanding of the possibilities of crime fiction and crime fiction fandom first took wing, as I discovered that there were other people out there, even writers I'd actually heard of, who were every bit as passionate (and possibly anal) as I was. But, of course, far more articulate.

Naturally, the magazine's founders, Robert Randisi and Ed Gorman were there, but also along for the ride were regular contributors like uber-fan Max Allan Collins, Peter Sellers (who did a regular column on Canadian crime fiction) and Jan Grape who covered the P.I. beat back when the internet was only some geek's wet dream. And a cast of thousands.

These people were huge influences on me, and subsequently on the THRILLING DETECTIVE WEB SITE. And when Kate and Brian, who took over the reins a few years ago, invited me to do a P.I. column and an occasional article, I was over the moon.

In other words, I owe those guys. All of them. Big time. So naturally I wanted to help make the 100th issue of MYSTERY SCENE special. Or more special, I guess.

Kate had some great ideas to mark the occasion, and I figured a list of some of my favourite eyes that had taken the stage since the magazine first appeared, way back in 1985 (the "Mystery Scene era," I called it) would be sorta fun. I asked her what she thought.

"Go ahead," Kate said. Somebody should have stopped me then.

The problem, as Bob Seger once put it, was deciding what to leave in, and what to leave out. I wanted the list to be wide-ranging, including the expected, the unexpected and the inexplicable, a list of eyes whom I felt had somehow bent, folded and mutilated the genre –or otherwise stuck in my craw.

But I've been kicking myself ever since I first sent it off. How could I forget so-and-so? Why on earth did I include whatzizname? Why, why, why?

But worse are the other people -- authors, fans, readers, many of whom I consider friends -- who have volunteered to help out in the kicking department. And in some cases, I agree with them.

I dunno. It was an informal list, not meant to be definitive or anything, more a sort of mix-tape of personal faves than anything.

If you'd like to see the complete list, along with my pithy (and in some cases just pissy) comments, it's over on MYSTERY SCENE's new blog. I'd love to hear what YOU think...

Don't worry. I'm a big boy. I can take it.

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