Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's Been a Long Time Coming

Okay, the hiatus is over. Well, for now, anyway. The new "issue of The Thrilling Detective Web Site is live.

Some hiatus. Of course, I didn't get half the things done I'd hoped for -- a new job and a new work schedule (and yet another job) pretty much sucked up all the free time I thought I'd have to wrap up a few projects (more about those a bit later), so what was supposed to be a few months ended up being a few more months. And then a few more. But we're back.

We've got some new stories, and with any luck, I/we'll be back up to speed within a week or so.

In the meantime, thanks for your patience and support and your kind letters. And a special shout-out to my partner-in-crime, Gerald So, and the contributors for this issue, all of whom waited -- and waited and waited -- for me to get my act together. At times, I think you guys had more faith in me than I did.

Anyway, for this issue, once again Gerald has acted as gatekeeper, only letting in the worthy.

We kick off with another gem. Site favourite Stephen D. Rogers makes his sixth (SIXTH!) apearance in these pages and once again, he offers a dark little nugget of ethical and moral murkiness that'll keep you scrolling. "Discharged" offers a gambler running the bluff of his life.

Andy Carruthers, the reluctant hero of Kieran Shea's "Shot Back," has his own bluff to run, but shows shows a rather amazing amount of true grit, all the same. Hopefully we haven't seen the last of either Andy or his creator.

Former private detective August Hanrahan displays similar reticence in "Pandora" by Patrick Shawn Bagley, a sordid little vignette that'll have you reaching for the soap -- and wondering about the neighbours.

But don't despair. Mark Troy's "Horns" wraps things up on a (relatively) upbeat note, when Honolulu good time gal and crack P.I. Val Lyon is hired to find out who's taking the wrong bull by the, uh, horn.

Meanwhile, we've got the just-released list of 2009 Edgar Nominations, a list that will once again remembered as much for its exclusions as its inclusions.

And it somehow slipped between the cracks, but Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce's heartfelt tribute to P.I. writer Arthur Lyons is well worth another look.

And, uh, there's other stuff coming, including about six months of bits and pieces that have accumulated in my in box.

Thanks. And I hope we've passed the audition.

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He Who Will Be Missed


First Donald Westlake. And now Sir John Mortimer, who died on Friday at his home somewhere in England. He was 85.

Yes, yes, yes, I know Mortimer did lots of other things. Tons of things. He was a crusading lawyer and a beloved novelist, a gadfly and a warrior of the literary trenches, a knight and a court jester, a respected man of letters, and a bit of a rake, perhaps. But to me and millions of others he'll always be simply the man who created Horace Rumpole.

Anyone who thinks literature is somehow inherently superior on some intellectual level to television has never really watched an episode of Rumpole of the Bailey, one of the cleverest, most literate and most sustained lancings of society's boils to ever come from the ranks of crime fiction. In ANY medium.

That most of those marvelous television scripts were eventually -- and quite successfully -- turned into prose stories and novels by Mortimer is practically moot.

It's just too bad too many American's unease with and/or aversion to British accents and customs prevented this PBS staple from reaching a larger audience, because there have been damn few crime shows to have ever maintained the level of quality Mortimer achieved with Rumpole, on television and later (after the death of beloved character actor Leo McKern) in print.

Hypocrisy, class and racial prejudice, the insufferable smugness of the powerful, the all-too-human-sized holes in the legal system, the nature of "justice," and even the on-going tug of war between the sexes-- all were pierced, time and again, by Mortimer's scathing but somehow gentle wit.

There was rarely any sign of mean spiritedness about the Rumpole series. For all their faults and foibles, there was an obvious, almost Wodehouse-like fondness on Mortimer's part for Horace, Hilda, Guthrie, Old Tom, the Mad Bull, the Timson clan (criminals one and all) and all those other endearingly flawed miscreants who populated the Old Bailey.

Which is without a doubt one major reason I and countless others were drawn back again and again to that world. Sure, we could empathize and even sympathize with the various trials and tribulations, both personal and professional, of one old Bailey hack, but it was Mortimer's genius and obvious affection for his characters that drew us back.

Perry Mason? LA Law? Damages? Grisham's latest attorney-in-peril? Pheh!

All better, smarter lawyers, perhaps, but who would you rather spend a long lunch hour at Pomeroy's Wine Bar with?

So please, for those of you lucky enough to have had the pleasure of having encountered Mr. Rumpole over the years, let's all raise a glass of Chateau Thames Embankment, light up a short, smelly cigar and toast his creator, He Who Will Be Missed.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Donald Westlake

It seems almost impossible that Donald Westlake is no longer with us -- or that the shuffling off of one single mortal coil could also pull the plug on the impressive and respected literary careers of his contemporaries Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, Samuel Holt, and God only knows how many others.

Westlake's classic tales of John Dortmunder, the affable criminal genius whose brilliant schemes are particularly curveball-prone, and the grim, gritty adventures of professional thief Parker, written Richard Stark (one of the greatest pseudonyms of the genre ever), will be read for a long time to come. And his 1997 standalone The Axe is some kind of timeless classic; a decidedly black pot shot at corporate soullessness -- a favourite Westlake target. 

My sorrow for those who have not yet discovered Westlake is only tempered by the considerable envy I have for them: they're about to discover a new favorite author. Or authors.

My personal favorite, though, remains the private eye series Westlake wrote as Tucker Coe, featuring guilt-ridden ex-cop Mitch Tobin. The Parker novels showed how fast Westlake could get you to turn pages, and the Dortmunder tales proved Westlake could make you laugh, but it's the five Tobin books that could make you cry. More than any of his other novels, those are the ones I treasure the most. They're beautifully written -- haunting, compassionate, brooding examinations of a man slowly rebuilding himself. And kick-ass mysteries. Go out, find them and read them. It's a true crime they all seem to be out of print.

But it's not just his work itself that Westlake has left us to deal with. It's the huge mark he's also left on the crime fiction genre, and those who have followed. As recently as a day before his death, there was one of those unplanned moments of synchronicity that makes you wonder if God shares Westlake's warped and wicked sense of humor.

It was an episode of a new USA Network show, LEVERAGE, about a gang of scam artists and former criminals who pool their talents under the guidance of Timothy Hutton to right injustices --usually at the expense of corporations. Anyway, the episode began with a scam already over, and the gang on their way out of the bank with a briefcase full of loot when -- in a moment right out of a Dortmunder caper, the bank is robbed. The plot twists and turns and winds its way to a clever, sly ending -- every move and every wink and nudge is like something right out of one of Westlake's comic capers, making it easily the best episode of the show to air so far.

But it's not mere coincidence of plot alone that had me thinking about Westlake -- it was the episode's title: "The Bank Shot Job," as obvious wink to Westlake's 1972 Dortmunder novel Bank Shot as you can get. And if that's not enough to convince you, how about the name of the all-business bank robber member of the team whose expertise is called upon so heavily in this episode? 

Yeah, it's gonna be a long time before Westlake and his legacy truly leave the building.

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