Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Hell of a Thing

Yep, it's a hell of a thing.

Megan Abbott's recent book, A Hell of a Woman, which bills itself as an "anthology of female noir," is just the sort of book I'd love to sink my critical teeth into, and let rip.

But that devious Abbott dame (Queenpin, The Song Is You, Die a Little) is no patsy. She shows she has what it takes to make a great femme fatale -- she outsmarted me. She actually invited me to contribute, thereby puncturing any chance I'd ever really, honestly review it.

Granted, my paltry contributions -- two small "appreciations" of forgotten hard-boiled women writers -- pale in comparison to all-new new stories by the likes of Sara Gran, Vicki Hendricks, Alison Gaylin, Cornelia Read, Naomi Hirahara, Zoë Sharp, Sandra Scoppettone, Charlotte Carter, Lynne Barrett, Annette Meyers, Vin Packer and Libby Fischer Hellman.

Just to rub it in, Pat "Ma" Abbott (no small slouch of a writer herself) became not just a contributor to but an advertiser on the site.

And now, just to pour a little salt in the wounds, I'm invited to attend a couple of signings this Saturday (December 1) in the LA area -- not as a reader but as a writer. Talk about an offer I can't refuse. So there's no way in hell ow that I could ever be fair and balanced about this book.


So, uh, let's cut to the chase. it's the greatest book ever written, makes an ideal Christmas gift, and it's perfect for just about anyone who gives a damn about hard-boiled fiction, female noir or just quality writing. Hell, it's even got a few male authors in there (Ken Bruen, Al Guthrie, Charlie Huston, Eddie Muller and Daniel Woodrell) and an intro by Val McDermid, a fairly dangerous dame herself.

So, if you're in the LA area, I'll be at Mysteries to Die For in Thousand Oaks at 10:30 AM and over in Westwood at The Mystery Book Store around 2:30. I'll be joining Meagan, Christa Faust, Naomi Hirahara, Charlie Huston, Eddie Muller, Cornelia Read, Theresa Schweigel and Robert Ward to scrawl on your books.

In such august company, I'm sure I'm only there to cleanse the palate, or maybe to garner a few sympathy purchases, but it should still be fun.

Hope to see you there.

But watch that Abbott twist... I tell ya, she's up to something.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

The Return of Crimes on .45: "Spillane" by John Zorn

Like some particularly cranky elf I'm toiling away in preparation for the holidays. The Holiday Issue of The Thrilling Detective Web Site is slowly coming together --only continents move slower -- so once again this blog is being neglected.

All apologies and all that, and in the meantime here's a bone for you. A few years ago I started a column for Jon and Ruth Jordan's great Crime Spree mag that managed to combine two of my favourite passions -- crime AND music, and a few columns did make it in.

But it seems to have fallen by the wayside -- mostly my fault, I admit. I DID love writing that sucker, though. So I thought I'd give it another shot, this time as an occasional blog right here. I'll recycle some of the old mini-essays, both the ones that were published and some of those that never saw the light of day, and I'll try to do a few new ones every now and then, when the spirit moves me.

As always, for those of you with an overabundance of moral rectitude, please try not to get your panties all twisted. As the late, great Johnny Cash said, “(Here are some) songs of robbers, liars and murderers. These songs are just for listening and singing. Don't go out and do it."

And so, without any further ado, here's the first little ditty from the Thrilling Detective Web Site jukebox, number one in a series. Collect them all.

Written and performed by John Zorn
From the 1987 album Spillane

As Mike Hammer, the avenging angel of the Cold War, might have put it, "What is this stuff?" But trust me, this disjointed twenty-odd minute (some of it very odd) performance piece from jazzman and pop culture plunderer John Zorn grows on you. It’s a brain-spinning melange of musical outbursts, spoken dialogue (by actor John Lurie), sound bites and other aural debris (including wailing sirens and the blood-curdling woman’s scream that opens the piece) all evoking the late, great Mickey Spillane and his fifties pulp fiction world of hard-bitten detectives, dead-end bars and mean streets. Zorn scribbled assorted ideas on note cards which he then shuffled and cut-and-pasted together to form this piece. The brief musical excerpts swing from country-fried road house stomp to strip joint burlesque, weaving in and out of the piece as though somebody slipped Zorn a Mickey, with some tasty back alley sax and other musical notions occasionally wandering in, only to be interupted by some of the most over-boiled narration I’ve heard (“I felt like I’d smoked a whole deck and forgot to blow out the smoke”).  It doesn’t always make much narrative or musical sense, and some of the juxtapositions are jarring. Yet it has a fierce, almost surreal gravity all of its own, and ends up a fitting tribute to late author; a hard-boiled fever dream whose passion and drive can’t be denied – sort of like the work of Spillane himself.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

The World is Black, The World is White

Everything they say about Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent movie three-hour plus masterpiece depicting the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, is true: it's about as racist and ignorant an American movie as I've seen, insulting to anyone who ever had a heart or half a brain. Yet its historical cinematic importance can't be denied either.

Based on the play and novel The Clansman by Thomas F. Dixon Jr., it follows the story of two families, predictably one Northern, one Southern who meet, make nice and ultimately get torn apart by the war.

It's got a great cast (Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Ralph Lewis, Spottiswoode Aitken, etc.) and technically it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. The first part (the "war" section) is impressive in its ambitions, particularly the battlefield scenes, albeit story-wise it drags after a while. The “reconstruction” half is far more interesting, as the characters from the introduced previously finally start to be fleshed out. Unfortunately, the racist overtones only hinted at previosly also come home to roost so that even as you become caught up in a decent (if melodramatic) adventure, you can’t help but squirm at the hateful (and historically dubious) propaganda being dished out.

I mean, in the end it's the Klan coming to the rescue on white (of course) horses, to save white women from fates "worse than death" and white men from the vengeance of them uppity freed slaves.

If you're at all interested in American film, history or the long, sad ocean of racism we're all swimming in, see this film. It's occasionally a long hard slog, but ultimately worth seeing.

Censor it? Hide it from view like a particularly ugly child? No. Rather it should be seen and discussed openly. It would be a start...

And speaking of racism, it has been a long, strange trip, hasn’t it? From Birth of a Nation to American Gangster, which I also caught recently, and is probably played at a multiplex near you.

Once again, the theme of American racism and its attitude towards blacks and lawlessness are explored, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Anyone who whines that nothing's changed in the almost hundred years since Birth was made is someone who probably needs to examine his own issues with race -- or has a vested interest in Racism, Inc.

Birth of a Nation was breath-taking in its hate, depicting blacks as little better than animals (the black congress scene is right out of a white supremacist's nightmare and so over-the-top it's tempting to laugh it off -- almost). American Gangster, by contrast, is a finely wrought, morally ambiguous, extremely nuanced film that raises questions instead of proffering slack-jawed hatred.

In the guise of a typical rags-to-riches success story, wrapped up in a flag by far more than simply its title, this flick charts the real life journey of Frank Lucas who, in the seventies, became the druglord of New York City. Sure, there’s racism here (everyone assumes Lucas is working for somebody), but anyone looking for the simplistic hate-mongering of Birth of a Nation just isn’t going to find it here. Instead, we get a rich, character study of two oddly moral men in professions where such moral conviction aren't always expected. Denzel Washington, in an role that's pure Oscar bait, is a buttoned down, self-driven black man who inherits the Harlem drug trade from his former boss through a mixture of cold-blooded violence and good ol' American business savvy, ultimately building a vast empire by smuggling heroin in the coffins coming in regularly from Vietnam (Frank Lucas, father of globalization?).

Pitted against the stick-up-his-ass Lucas is New Jersey Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a heavy set mess of a man, going through a nasty divorce and custody battle, a loose cannon and self-centered womanizer whose own personal (and often misguided) sense of ethics nonetheless rivals that of Frank's.

Black? White? Hah! The sheer vastness and range of grays in this film are staggering. The closest the film comes to a simplistic character is one crooked NY cop whose pure, unadulterated wrongness is the one false note I could spot -- and yet even his dramatic preposterousness is ultimately at least artistically justified when you read the epilogue's stats on police corruption in the era and realize that cops like him almost had to exist.

And that's not even the best part of the epilogue -- there's one final sucker punch in the wrap-up that will have you shaking your head, and almost laughing out loud at a especially ironic twist of fate.

That's how engaging this film is -- after a couple of hours of treachery, violence (mostly dealt with quickly) and plowing through an ocean of moral ambiguity and outright corruption, you end up identifying -- whether you want to or not -- with both leads, even as you despair at their very real flaws, and the sheer cost in lives and moral wear and tear of their ambitions and convictions.

Let's make this clear -- like David Simon's masterful The Wire, this film does NOT glorify the drug trade. Yos and other brain-dead wannabes going to see Denzel as a bad ass bling bling gangstas are going to be solely disappointed -- in one pivotal scene, Lucas puts such buffoons firmly in their place. Nor is it a heavy-handed thumbs-up for the ideals of law enforcement -- the whole notion of effectiveness and justification of the then-new War on Drugs is called into question at one point by Richie -- and indeed, by the entire film.

And that's the real point: American Gangster raises questions. Hard, intelligent questions. Questions we should all be asking.

Birth of a Nation gave answers. Stupid, slack-jawed answers.

But man, I'm glad I saw both these films. These are both films worth seeing, and well worth discussing.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Tonight We Ride...

LIVE! FROM PALMDALE! It's the Fall issue of The Thrilling Detective Web Site!

Yep, it's the big number 43, by my reckoning, and it's officially up.

Naturally, it's much delayed, but we're here. And we even have enough good stuff in the can for another issue in December (touch wood), our annual Holiday issue.

I've whined elsewhere about the latest stumbling blocks, so I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say, though, that we're here, got beer, get used to it. Or, er, something like that.

As usual, fiction editor Gerald So has weeded through the slush pile to come up with a fistful of hard-boiled gems. We kick off with Richard Helm's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO GORDON BLACK, a tough nugget featuring his series eye Eamon Gold that shows exactly why he keeps getting nominated for Shamus Awards. Mark my words, it's only a matter of time.

From Stephen Blackmoore, making his TD debut, is SUMO, a taut little tale from Hawaii of greed, drugs and a 500-pound corpse. This is paradise?

Another newcomer to this site is Gary Alexander, who coughs up HUMPTY DUMPTY, a sucker punch of a period piece that recalls the glory days of Gold Medal. Don't let the nursery rhyme title fool ya -- this is the real deal. You can practically smell the Brylcreem. And the treachery.

We also have a couple of interesting excerpts this month, both with back stories. Seth Harwood's THIS IS LIFE, featuring former actor Jack palms, was actually first published as a podcast. In fact, the first novel in the series, JACK WAKES UP, was the first crime novel to ever be serialized as a podcast. We're proud to present the first prose publication of THIS IS LIFE, and look forward to (literally) hearing more from Seth.

(By the way, Seth has also contributed a recent review of Richard Aleas' SONGS OF INNOCENCE for this site. Check it out.)

Last issue, we published "Mickey Spillane," fiction editor Gerald So's moving ode to the late, great author. This issue we have something even better: an excerpt from Spillane's latest novel, DEAD STREET, prepared for posthumous publication by Mickey's fellow crime writer (and good friend) Max Allan Collins. A special thanks to HardCaseCrime, the Spillane estate and Max for allowing us to run the excerpt.

And an extra thanks to Charles and the gang at HardCaseCrime, as well as illustrator Athur "Marvel Zombies!" Suydam, for allowing us to use the bitching cover art from DEAD STREET for our cover as well.

Sharp-eyes viewers may have noticed that there's no P.I. Poll this time out, but our annual Thrillies will be returning in December (promise!), and of course we're constantly adding, updating and tweaking our ever-growing database (check out our recent rash of Joes, fer example) , which now numbers somewhere around 2600 entries, and that includes well over two hundred new or revised pages on the site since we last spoke -- and in the next few weeks, there'll be more on the way -- so feel free to browse. And keep coming back. Novembers a catch up month, and I'm aiming for daily updates.

Of course, as always, I couldn't do this alone. This sucker takes a lot of time and money, so I'd like to take this moment to thank all those who make it all possible: Gerald, of course, but also our contributors, the long-suffering Girl Detective and especially our sponsors for this issue, who include Patricia Abbot, Dave White, Anne Sladovich and Rich Harvey. Your support is much appreciated, guys.

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