Saturday, August 19, 2006

My Panel Can Kick Your Panel

Well, it's official.

After being left standing at the altar at BLOODY WORDS, I'm back in the game at this year's BOUCHERCON in Madison, Wisconsin. Yep, I'll be moderating a panel with the promising title of I COULD KICK YOUR...

Yeah, they purposely left out the final word, but you can guess, I'm sure, what it'll be. Unless, of course, the good folks in the Great Midwest don't use those kind of words (beats me, I've never been).

My unwary victims are all manly men, not one of whom has ever been accused of writing cozies.

BRETT BATTLES' first book is coming out this spring from Bantam/Dell, it's called THE CLEANER and it sounds like a real rip-snorter, all about a shady character called Quinn who "cleans" things up. Things like, oh, crime scenes. You know-- blood splatters, fingerprints, incriminating evidence in briefcases. Stuff like that.

MICHAEL BLACK, meanwhile, is a 27-year Chicago cop turned crime author, whose most recent book is a bit of a change of pace. It's called FREEZE ME TENDER (What if they froze the King? What if he defrosted and started whacking folks? What if a snoopy newshawk was on his trail?). Meanwhile, Mike's new one, A FINAL JUDGEMENT, will be out in October (more about that soon). BTW, Michael looks like he could kick all our asses. His biceps -- judging from his photo -- look bigger than my entire head. I think we've crossed paths before, at least by e-mail -- surprise, surprise, he didn't agree with my opinion on the musical/social/cultural worth of Ice-T's COP KILLER in one of my CRIMES ON .45 columns in CRIME SPREE. Even though there are rumours that he has five cats (FIVE!!!) I'm still going to try to be extra nice to him.

In the "It's a small world after all" category, there's JOHN McFETRIDGE from Toronto, whom I just met a few months ago at BLOODY WORDS and whom I recently re-hooked up with a week or so ago, just by coincidence. John's a misplaced Montrealer himself, and studied film at Concordia before "going down the road" to T.O. to work in the film industry. His new book, DIRTY SWEET, rips a hole in the whole Toronto-the-Good myth, filling up that burg with Elmoreesque Russian mafia, bikers and web pornography. I think I owe him a beer.

Nope, come to think of it, I definitely owe him a beer... in fact, by the end of this panel, I'll probably owe them all a beer.

And finally, sneaking in under the wire is North Carolina's own JD RHOADES, another of our pals, whose latest is GOOD DAY IN HELL, the second in the Jack Keller series. Keller is, of course, the kick-ass good ol' boy bounty hunter who's got more than a few, well, personal issues he's working on, in between bouts of kicking down doors and taking names. JD will be in charge of fresh hell.

Right now the topic isn't quite set in stone, but my guess is that the topics of testosterone and manliness will come up, given the panel's title and the evident lack of any female panelists to make us behave ourselves.

See you there. Sit in the front row at your own risk.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

WEEDS: Television reaches a new high....

During my lost week and a half of what now turns out to be not a rotator cuff injury but a major attack of previously undiagnosed bursitis (“bursitis – it’s not for old men anymore”), I have come to realize the redemptive and recuperative powers of good ol’ television. Mind you, it wasn’t like I had much choice -- I was in pretty much constant pain, and couldn’t more my left arm without ending up crying like a little girl (a manly little girl, but still...).

And the painkillers worked to a certain extent, knocking the pain from cries of never-ending anguish to a low-level throb that became my constant companion. And because I’m left-handed even typing on the Little White Wonder for more than a minute of two became a task of Herculean proportions (or sadistic, macho showboating). Even reading became difficult, since by the time I got all settled in and comfortable, it would be time to turn the page – a feat that required more dexterity and strength than you’d expect – or I was capable of.

So drugs and television, my friend, became my good buddies. And, despite the well-known healing powers of the Rockford Files (put your hand in the hand of the man who drove the gold car), my new televised vice of choice is Showtime’s WEEDS.

Yes, WEEDS. The cable show that proudly puts the “herb back in suburb.”

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry -- I can quit it any time. But why should I? It feels good when I watch it, and it leaves me mellow and at peace for a little while afterwards-- less inclined to stomp out on the lawn and heave a brick at the kid next door with his boombox and questionable taste in “urban” music, or his loudmouth doofus little brother whose friends drop him off every morning at 3:32 AM with a regular production just a little less spectacular than Gone With the Wind’s burning of Atlanta or possibly the fall of Saigon, full of lights, sound, action, engine revving, horn tooting, door slamming and “Good Nights” that echo down the 'hood until the sun starts to creep up in the suburban sky.

But I digress... What I wanted to say is that, really, that’s what WEEDS about. The ‘burbs.

Oh, sure, at first glance, it looks like it’s simply another little cable sitcom plot, set out to shock and hopefully offend, about nice white suburban soccer mom Nancy Botwin (is there anyone more button-cute or whiter than Mary-Louise Parker?) in the nice white suburb of Agrestic in southern California with two young sons to raise and a certain style she’s trying to maintain after the unexpected death of her husband. And what better way to keep paying the bills than to deal a little dope?

She is, of course, surrounded by a slew of colourful and peculiar family and friends, including a perpetually horny and confused Silas, her fifteen-year old son, and Shane, his tree-climbing kid brother, a sweet but seriously weird kid who films terrorist videos and bites kids in karate class. Then there’s her ne-er-do-well brother-in-law, Andy, who shows up, insinuates his way into Nancy’s life, profession and household – and just won’t leave; Doug Wilson, her accountant and best customer, whose muddle-headed business acumen seems to have left the building years ago (played by Kevin Nealon, who is – finally, after all these years – funny) and Celia Hodes (played by Elizabeth Perkins who’s just nabbed an Emmy nomination for her efforts), Nancy’s best friend, an over-achieving super mom and control freak, who can’t seem to control anything, including her philandering husband, her daughter’s weight and her house being bombarded by soft drink bottles.

Typical “edgy” cable fare, maybe, except the show’s actually a bit more insidious and revolutionary than that, because what’s really going on is the sharp and incisive skewering of the suburbs. The mind-numbing complacency, the soul-sucking emphasis on homogenity-at-all-costs and the daily hypocrisy that so many North Americans have been brainwashed to aspire to. Oh, and the whole hypocritical and ineffectual war on drugs gets a little well-deserved knock or two, as well.

The tone is set right away, with the opening theme song, the annoying-but-dead-on little pop/folk nugget from the sixties, “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, which plays over the credits and a backdrop of a SoCal ‘burb jaw-droppingly familiar (“Hey, is that Palmdale? Lancaster? Santa Clarita? Simi Valley?”) right down to the row-upon-row of ticky-tack houses, ticky-tack SUVs and ticky-tack clones in white shirt and khakis, morning latte in one hand and cell in the other, streaming out of the pseudo-Starbucks.

What makes this show such a hoot is the way the characters are all so damn recognizable – they are us. And once that self-recognition hook is set, the writers and the talented cast just pump it up to eleven, taking things to their delighfully illogical but always somehow-believeable extremes. And it just keeps getting better, a hilariously savage satire, full of wit and sometimes black humour, of the way we live that makes the crude alleged “adult” humour of Saturday Night Live and much of the Comedy Network’s offerings look like the crude fart-based humour it is. Not since P.G. Wodehouse has a social class been so effectively dinged.

Yeah, yeah, yeah – it’s a bad show: it glorifies drug usage, it casts disrespect on law abiding Americans (all three of them) and, most commonly, that it’s a gateway show that leads to harder, more destructive shows. But I swear, I’ve watched all of season one of WEEDS now (Season Two starts this week) and I still have no inclination to watch Desparate Housewives, American Idol or The O’Reilly Retort.

And I’m apparently not the only one who’s been caught doing WEEDS – the show’s slowly building a buzz, with rumours that even ex-prez Bill Clinton has watched it (although he claims he never listened).

And perhaps the true testament of the show’s growing cult status? There’s a great soundtrack album out now, complete with “Little Houses” and a diverse collection of songs from the show that don’t actually suck, featuring everyone from Peggy Lee and NRBQ to The New Pornographers, The Be Good Tanyas and Flogging Molly. And it’s just been announced that the second season will really rock, at least musically: there will be opening credit covers of “Little Houses” by the likes of the eternally hip Elvis Costello and flavor-du-jour Death Cab for Cutie.

Why, I hear that in the more temperate political climes of Canada, it’s even actually legal for consenting adults to watch this kind of stuff on primetime on a regular network in the privacy of their own homes. Mind you, I can’t confirm that one, although I will venture to say that if you did at least you wouldn’t be thrown in jail.

To paraphrase Celia’s question to a goggle-eyed Silas in a memorable, breast-baring scene scene: “What do you think of those puppies?”

Now excuse me... I’ve got a sudden hankering for a bag or two of chocolate chip cookies.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pain is a Pain/Why Howard Engel Rocks

As Emily Latella would tell ya, "It's always something."

My big weekend of finally beating the new issue of TD into submission was instead spent mostly in Agony. Agony, it's right there between Ouch, Montana, and What-the-$%%#%@%!!!, Texas.

After my first close-up glance at the American medical system yesterday, which doesn't seem all that different from the Canadian one except for a load more paperwork (mostly regarding who will pay or who won't sue who) the ER docs reached their diagnosis:

I've got an "acute sprained rotator cuff."

Don't ask me how I got it -- I dunno. And it doesn't seem very cute to me.

But I've been barely able to function for the last few days. Even typing this is wince-inducing. Shoulder hurt real bad. My left shoulder. And I'm left-handed, my right hand already next to useless when it comes to anything requiring precise manual dexterity. So I've been reading and watching TV a lot .

All these eyes that routinely get beat up and bounce right back? What bullshit.

Pain hurts. And it doesn't go away. Or at least never as quickly as you'd like. It lingers. Makes itself at home. Kicks its muddy shoes off and plops its stinky feet on your coffee table, grabs the remote and asks if there's any beer in the fridge.

Which brings me, sort of, to today's topic:

P.I.s who actually get hurt, and stay hurt. Dick Francis' Sid Halley books are probably the best I've read, as far as showing real pain and its effects. Possibly because Francis was a jock and pain plays a big part in a lot of sports. So he knows...

But a current read which doesn't shy away from the effects of violence and trauma is MEMORY BOOK by Howard Engel, whom many consider the best P.I. writer Canada has produced.

That ignores Ross Macdonald (who wrote about and lived in Southern California for most of his writing life), but there's no denying that Engel's Benny Cooperman is one of the most beloved characters in Canadian literature, a soft-boiled smalltown gumshoe (and nice Jewish boy -- ask his mom) who may be more Poirot than Marlowe, but whose cases are definitely noir-tinged; the sort of dark cosy that operates somewhere between salon and saloon, where tough-talking thugs,corrupt cops and low-lifes of all stripes from the hard-boiled world and the concluding rounding up of the usual suspects so the detective can explain all from CozyWorldcan all exist in the same story.

Certainly the Cooperman books have been a big influence on me -- and just about every other Canadian mystery writer of the last thirty or so years. Or any other "regional" writer, for that matter, who's been told that where they live just isn't worth reading about.

So, when Benny first appeared way back in the late seventies (I think he first appeared in a CBC radio play), there was no English Canadian crime fiction, per se, and certainly not enough to constitute any sort of "scene."

Oh there were a few books here and there, and always had been, but far too often they seemed like they were watered-down for a foreign (ie: American or British) audience, anything too distinctively and obviously Canadian sanded down, or set elsewhere than Canada or jammed full of the most cartoonish of stereotypes: Red-coated Mounties on horses! Hockey players! Lumberjacks! Crazy French-Canadians!!!

But Engel, along with Eric Wright, who appeared at almost exactly the same time, didn't shy away from being Canadian. They wrote, without shame or apology, Canadian stories -- their heroes were Canadian and their settings were Canadian. And if some Brit or Yankee didn't like it, tough.

In those days, before BLOODY WORDS and the CANADIAN CRIMEWRITERS ASSOCIATION, that took real balls.

And so, mild-mannered Benny, with his penchant for chopped egg sandwiches and wisecracks, saddled with a nagging mother and not shy about displaying his love for small town life and his profession became a sort of hero and an inspiration to me. After all, if Grantham, Ontario could have a P.I., why couldn't Montreal? Or Notre-dame-des-grace? (Of course, I later discovered other, earlier P.I.s from "la belle ville" and all across the country, but Engel and Benny, like a first girlfriend, remain -- and will always remain -- dear to my heart.

At first glance, MEMORY BOOK seems to have a classic plot right out of a 1940s RKO flick: private eye Benny comes to in a Toronto hospial, with no real clue as to who he is, after being found unconscious in an alley (in a dumpster, a decidedly modern touch) from a serious whack on ther noggin. He doesn't even remember what case (if there was a case) even brought him to the city.

Unlike about a zillion books, flicks and TV shows, it will take more than a shot of rye and a Camel (or in Benny's case, a chopped egg sandwich) to put things right. Not only has he been in a coma for weeks, when he comes to, he has short-term memory loss and can't remember anybody's name. But even worse is that he's suffering from a bizarre condition called alexia sine agraphia, which means he can still write (which theoretically would be a great boon in restoring his memory, a la MEMENTO) but he can't read!

Yeah, I know, I know... it sounds like hokum except that the condition actually exists and even more poignantly, Howard Engel himself has it, after having a devastating stroke a few years ago, making this book's very existence as much a story as the book itself. It took Engel three painstaking years to write it -- the whole laborious process is outlined in a pithy afterword by Dr. Oliver "Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat" Sachs, and Engel's determination to continue writing is as hard-boiled and worthy of respect as anything I've ever heard a writer do.

Horn-tooting tough guys like Spillane? Hammett? Hemingway?

Wankers all, compared to Engel.

Who'd think a soft-spoken Canadian would turn out to be the toughest guy on the writing block I know?

At 74 or so, he's re-learning to read, and is now at the grade three level, a story which easily trumps any self-promoting tricked up tale of two-fisted manliness I've ever heard. Oh, and he's supposedly working on the next Benny Cooperman book, number 12.

He shrugs it off. "I'm hardwired to writing; it's too late for me to learn new tricks."

So, do me a favor here, guys?

I can barely raise my arm right now (getting dressed will be SO MUCH FUN), so could you all, next time you're in a toasting mood, raise a glass on my behalf for Howard Engel?


Thursday, August 03, 2006

Ready for My Close-up, Mr. DeMille...


Has it really been almost two months since I updated this thing?

Damn. It was never my intention to turn this into a daily journal, but two months? How the hell did that happen?


Anyway, I will try to do better (HAH!). My sojourn to the Great White North is long over, and I'm back (I'm back) in the saddle again, slowly (S-L-O-W-L-Y) putting together the next long-delayed issue of THRILLING DETECTIVE.

But of course, real life, in all its various flavours and varieties, continues to intrude. Like today. I should be working on the site but...

I'm off to the wilds of Hollywood to be on television. Can fame and fortune -- or something like it-- be far behind?
SLEUTH, the American cable and satellite network carried by Time/Warner specializing in crime and detective shows came up with a unique promotional idea -- a viewer's poll on their favourite television and film sleuths, with the results to be televised later this fall.

They've recently presented a list of what they considered the most popular and/or influential sleuths and asked viewers to vote for their favourites. The survey, sure to trigger intense debate among fans, will run until August 21st, 2006, and the results will form the basis of the future special, full of film clips and pontification and nostalgic ramblings on such vital topics as the social significance of Kojak's lollipop and the hidden cultural subtext of Rockford's cookie jar, I'm sure.

But they must be scraping the bottom of the barrel, looking for talking heads.

Because they've asked me to participate. Obviously, they've never considered the ramifications of asking me to talk about a subject so near and dear to my heart.

Or maybe they have. I saw no mention of an open bar.

The nominees are not all P.I.s, of course -- far from it -- but the top twenty-five sleuths from the world of TV and film, in no particular order, as selected by Sleuth, are:

Det. Sgt Joe Friday from "Dragnet"
Lt. Columbo from "Colombo"
Lt. Theo Kojak from "Kojak"
Jim Rockford from "The Rockford Files"
Lt. Tony Baretta from "Baretta"
Dr. R. Quincy from "Quincy, M.E."
Thomas Magnum from "Magnum P.I."
Jessica Fletcher from "Murder, She Wrote"
Crockett & Tubbs from "Miami Vice"
Irwin Fletcher from the "Fletch' movies
Detective Lenny Brisco from "Law and Order"
Sam Spade from "The Maltese Falcon"
Harry Callahan from the "Dirty Harry" movies
Riggs & Murtaugh from the "Lethal Weapon" movies
Sherlock Holmes from the movies and various television series
Remington Steele from "Remington Steele"
Detective Andy Sipowicz from "NYPD Blue"
Mulder & Scully from "The X-Files"
Clarice Starling from "Silence of the Lambs"
Marge Gunderson from "Fargo"
Maddie & Dave from "Moonlighting"
Lt. Frank Drebin from "Police Squad"
Gil Grissom from "C.S.I."
John Shaft from the "Shaft" movies and the television series
Sabrina, Jill, & Kelly from "Charlie's Angels"

WHAT THE @#&#?^$^@&#$%@#$^!!!!!!

Yeah, that's what I thought too, when I first saw the list.

It isn't so much who they included that's controversial, but those who were left out that will be steaming up folks and setting tongues a wagging for months to come. Which means it should be a lot of fun.

What do YOU think?

And what should I wear?