Friday, May 29, 2009

Depp Jam

There's a thread going on right now over at Wicked Companya mystery writing discussion group started by D.L. Browne (aka Diana Killian, aka Mrs. Thrilling) about reviewing and cruelty and what constitutes a personal attack in a review.

Should a writer's personal life be fair comment in a review?

My first instinct is to go all Nancy Reagan and just say "No.".

But how about if that said writer has used his or her personal life to sell or promote a book?

That's the connundrum that faces me here. And I'd have to say, upon further consideration, "Sometimes."

Not that screenwriter and first time P.I. writer Daniel Depp has gone overboard with the personal stuff, but it's virtually impossible to read his new novel, Loser's Town without becoming painfully aware of who his famous half-brother is. But it's also glaringly obvious that's the way the author and his publishers and publicists want it.

Aging former stuntman turned Los Angeles private eye and weekend rodeo cowboy David Spandau knows more than he ever wanted to know about the movie biz, which may not make him the happiest camper around Tinsel Town, but sure adds an edge and a delightfully skewered "insider's" view to this 2009 debut.

Spandau works for Coren Investigations on Sunset, a swanky "boutique" detective agency that caters to the rich and powerful. Despite his misgivings, Spandau agrees to go to work for heart-throb actor Bobby Dye (a party-loving, good-looking man-child, with a skinny model girlfriend overly fond of recreational drugs in tow -- remind you of anyone?) who's caught up in a nasty Hollywood blackmail scheme. The preliminary buzz on this one made it feel like the start of a beautiful friendship... but actually reading the book harshes that buzz pretty quick.

Not that there isn't some really really good stuff here. Spandau himself is a carefully crafted and intriguing character, with some decidedly Macdonaldesque overtones (the detective, for example, still yearns for his ex-wife), and some of the quirky lowlifes (agents, publicists, gangsters, etc.) who flesh out the story are surprising vivid, suggesting Depp hasn't been neglecting his Elmore.

But all this great characterization (Spandau's sometime assistant is a real piece of work, for example, and the lovesick thug Potts is alternately disturbing and heart-warming) goes for naught because Depp isn't sure where he's going. Sub-plots burst into narrative flames, only to puff out like a wet birthday candle a few chapters later, and Spandau, the alleged hero of the story, is curiously absent -- and not even involved -- in much of what takes place. Not that all major sub-plots simply fade away, though -- some suddenly reappear, long after we've almost forgotten about them. And certainly after we've ceased to care about them.

Which is a real shame. There's plenty of good writing here, and some delightfully wicked takes on the industry (although, honestly, nothing particularly new). But the Johnny Depp-like Dye is curiously flat, as though the author wasn't quite sure how to handle him; worried on the one hand he'd offend and on the other that he'd be accused of sucking up. As it is, whatever resentment and jealousy and contempt might be brewing right under the surface is held in check. After all, everybody loves Johnny, right? It wouldn't do to piss off all those fans. And just to be on the safe side, Depp dedicates the book to "John."

Too bad he hadn't paid as much dedication to his story.

My guess? The Depp name got Daniel's manuscript in the door, even though it was probably good enough to be accepted anyway, but as a result the book got vetted more thoroughly by publicists than actual editors. Because a sharper editor would have insisted on the story being tightened up and would probably have suggested that the author remove some of the more glaring repetitions of descriptions and phrases (sometimes only a few pages apart). And maybe, just maybe, urged the author to drop the kid gloves and just go for it.

As it is, this books reads like a disjointed and failed opportunity. now that the roman à clef trick has been played, Depp is going to find it difficult to build a series around a character who ends up being an extra in his own debut.

The author was born in Kentucky, read Classics at university, and has worked as a journalist, a bookseller and a teacher, and now divides his time between California and Europe, writing and producing screenplays. Maybe he and Johnny have matching villas in France.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On the Street Where You Live

There's a reason cops don't like going out on domestics. It gets messy.

Thieves, killers, dealers, gangsters,whatever -- you pretty much know what to expect.

But family squabbles? Runaways? Missing children? Custody battles? Abuse?

It's enough to tear your heart to pieces.

Which is why, as far as the curious sub-sub-genre of domestic noir goes, there’s really no need for lower-than-low life forms or exotic serial killers and hit men to set off fireworks. For most of us, noir hits us hardest when it hits us where we live. Which explains why the domestic noir has enjoyed such a long, thematically unwavering history, stretching from James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce right up to Harlan Coben’s latest tangled family drama. There's a world of hurt out there, and much of that hurt is done in the name of love.

The books of Harlan Coben are ample proof of that. In fact, he's pretty much nailed the market lately. It's been a conscious reinvention, as he puts it, of his "brand" -- moving from his glib, popular Parkesque tales of hands-on sports agent Myron Bolitar to his hyper-popular thrillers full of parents and children, husbands and wives and neighbours and friends all being bashed around by the inevitable revelations of deep dark secrets from the past. The first of these domestic noirs (or whatever you want to call them) was Tell No One in 2001 (which has recently been made into a rather effective French film -- they "get" noir over there). But hints of what was to come in Coben's work were already creeping into the increasingly dark Bolitar series by then -- and Coben has, in fact, occasionally revisited his series character (although even Myron's adventures seem wrapped up more and more in domestic and familial angst).

There are bystanders a-plenty in Coben's work these days but few are innocent. Nuclear families seem to always be heading for some sort of nuclear accident or another. Husbands, children, wives -- they all disappear, and thise who remain must sort out the pieces, the lies, the deceptions, the secrets. If there's a common theme in Coben's work these days it's that the truth will eventually come out -- and it will fuck you up. Guaranteed. All secrets do is delay and increase the damage. It's generally great stuff; gripping and nasty, and the generally easily identifiable family settings hit home hard.

I said "generally." We recently chose Hold Tight, Coben's 2008 ma-and-pa thriller, for Murder Ink, our mystery reading group that meets once a month at the local Barn O' Novels, and I've gotta admit I was a little disappointed. Part of the appeal of Coben's latest works has always been how accessible they've seemed to me; how well he's mined that "just regular folks" vein.

But in Hold Tight, it seems the vein is tapped out. It's definitely worth a read, and there's definitely some hard questions asked, but there's something a little too forced, a little too irregular, a little too Huxtable about the Bayes, the beleagured family around whom the action swirls. Does Daddy Mike really have to be a former pro athlete turned brilliant surgeon? Does Mommy Tia really have to be a brilliant lawyer? Does kid sister Jill really have to be such a perfect little precocious princess?

Even the New Jersey suburb it all takes place in seems a little too tidy.

Perhaps the squeakiness of the Yuppie family unit here has a point -- maybe how too successful a career or at least pursuit of that successful career can damage a family? - -but the actual story doesn't need it. It becomes window overdressing. When the sixteen-year old son Adam goes missing -- a moody sixteen-year-old whose best friend recently committed suicide -- it seems sufficient enough to me. After all, what parent wouldn't feel their guts twisting at that?

And the fact Adam's disappearance may have been sparked by Mike and Tia's own attempts to spy on him, using surveillance software on his computer, makes for plenty of guilt to go along with their growing apprehension. And begs some serious questions about privacy versus parenting.

The parents' desperate hunt for their son sets is gripping enough, and there's a nifty sideplot as well, concerning an outraged sadistic killer out there out to defend the honour of a hurt little girl. That the two seemingly diverse plots -- and that the themes, of honour betrayed, of promises broken, of love polluted, will all ultimately converge -- is a given.

But what might have been a hard, tough exploration of these themes is amped up to the breaking point, as though Coben was trying to get too much off his chest at once. Make no mistake -- there's plenty of great stuff here, but it's diluted by the high-flying upper middle class family life, by a criminal conspiracy that lies at the root of it all that's just a little too over-the-top to fully buy and by a plot that tries too hard at times to twist and turn. Sometimes larger-than-life isn't as large as life.

It's like Coben turned it all up to eleven, and forgot to turn it back down at least occasionally.

Canadian author Linwood Barclay’s latest, Fear the Worst, also hits the eleven mark, but fortunately the author remembers the importance of dynamics. It's a solid addition to the suburban noir sub-sub-genre, and bears more than an echo of Coben's recent work. But it’s the sheer nothing-specialness of most of its characters that really brings it back home.

A divorced couple, a good daughter, a wild friend, a fragile ex-wife, new relationships, the shards of old ones, a mopey stepbrother, office squabbles, slick salesmen, a cookie cutter sub-division – if there’s anything vaguely exotic about any of this, I sure missed it. Even the broken couple at its core, used car salesman Tim Blake and his ex, Suzanne, aren’t the perpetually squabbling wolverines so often depicted in literature and film, but normal, battered adults simply trying to rebuild their lives, hoping they haven’t messed up their seventeen-year-old daughter Sydney too badly. They carry on, trying to do as right as they can. Just like you, just like me. Good intentions all around.

But we all know where they can lead. And for Tim, it’s the moment Sydney doesn’t come home from her summer job at a local hotel. She’s no angel, Tim ruefully concedes, but things take an abrupt turn when the hotel staff claims to have never heard of her, and Tim’s increasingly frantic search eventually strips bare the safe, smug patina of banality that passes for the pursuit of happiness. Lies, hate, deceit, shattered families, fraud, alcoholism, jealousy, prostitution, loneliness, rape, even murder – none of it is quite as far away as you might think. By the time Barclay jacks up the tension to Hitchcockian (or at least Cobenian) levels, you’ll be peering through the shades, wondering what the neighbour’s doing in his garage this late at night.

And where your own daughter is.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

OOOH! Look! Excrement! (And Nazis!)

Manny Rupert is your typical circling-the-drain gumshoe with serious substance abuse problems.

After making his debut as a self-loathing ex-junkie cop in Jerry Stahl's Plainclothes Naked (2001), Manny returns as a self-loathing, full-fledged (and supposedly clean and sober) private eye in Pain Killers.

Guilt and self-loathing? This guy mainlines them.

Clean and sober? Yeah, right!

Of course, he's still got a rather large monkey on his back, and when he falls off the wagon, he really falls off the wagon. Which means no degradation, no debauchery, no wallow and no metaphorical shitty diaper is too disgusting to rub our faces in.

All of which should probably be expected. Manny's creator is, after all, Mister "Permanent Midnight" himself.

This time out, Manny is hired to go undercover, posing as a drug therapist counselling San Quentin inmates, in an effort to expose an elderly prisoner with a German accent who just may be notorious Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele. 

And, oh! the irony! Did I mention Manny's Jewish?

This is the flimsy, alleged laughfest of a foundation upon which Stahl builds his story, which consists of a series of loosely connected, deliberately squirm-inducing little set pieces, from lovingly recited Nazi atrocities to various sexual, chemical and scatalogical abuses, occasionally leavened by some genuinely funny -- if rude --wisecracks. Whether that will be enough to keep you reading will depend on your stomach for high concepts in low places.

You've heard of black humour? This is brown humour.

I dunno -- I think most people already agree the Nazis were pretty much pure evil, but there's something so wearisome and tired and forced about this book that I had real difficulties reading it right to the end. The real outrage I felt was at how predictable and shallow and juvenile it all felt. Stahl may have inadvertently given Holocaust deniers and their ilk a helping hand.

After all, it's hard to be outraged when you're yawning.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Down These Mean Streets A Man Must Go. Wear comfortable shoes.

Doing anything this Saturday, May 30th?

In the LA area?

Not afraid of the big bad city?

If you answered "No," "Yes" and "Bring it on, dude!" to those questions, you really ought to consider The Raymond Chandler Walking Tour. Brian and Bonnie Olson, the authors of the popular guidebook Tailing Philip Marlowe will be conducting a free hard-boiled detective tour of downtown Los Angeles. Included in the tour are the Bradbury Building, City Hall, Bunker Hill, the Oviatt Building and other historic downtown landmarks mentioned by Raymond Chandler in his mystery novels.

And the price is right, too. It's free!

Mind you, you may want to snatch up a copy of the guidebook -- they'll be on sale for a measly ten bucks and will include a complimentary copy of Brian’s new mystery novel To Fetch a Pail.

The tour kicks off at 10:00 AM at Caravan Books, 550 S. Grand Avenue, downtown Los Angeles, and will last approximately two and one-half hours, ending at the Spring Street steps of City Hall.

This sounds too good to pass up. I'm definitely going to try to make it myself, one way or another. Hopefully some of you can make it too. And maybe after we make our rounds, we can find an honest glass of beer somewhere downtown, and pressure Brian and Bonnie into doing a walking tour of Marlowe's Hollywood next...

For further information e-mail Brian or call (213) 626-9944.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Who's Afraid of Big Bad Jack?

The private eye, at his best, is and always has been a man (or woman) of his times and his world. And you can’t get much more man-of-his-times than John Shannon’s Jack Liffey, who makes his 11th appearance in the just released Palo Verdes Blue.

Me, personally, I think this is one of the finest, most sustained and boldest detective series to ever be set in Los Angeles -- an extended valentine to a battered, tattered City of Angels and its citizens that never fails to entertain and to challenge. But imaginative plots, rock-solid writing, living breathing characters and an unwavering intelligence and compassion evidently aren't enough for mystery readers these days.

What more do they want?

Tits? Beheadings? Torture?

Maybe John isn't quite the man of his times I thought, because if there's one recurring theme in the reviews of his last few books, it's the nagging mysteryn that keeps turning up. As a recent Booklist review (starred, of course) so succinctly put it, “With a hero as brainy, compassionate, and conflicted as this, the only real mystery is why these books aren’t bestsellers.

Even I'm getting a little cranky waving the flag here. My guess is that, in an increasingly polarized cultural and political landscape where opposing political, cultural and social philosophies are too often endlessly smacked together for simple entertainment value under the guise of “news,” and the “analysis” offered is really just a dumbed down demolition derby, Jack scares people.

i mean, this is a culture where a large segment of its citizens, if they even care about the news at all, turn on the boob tube to hear the president referred to as "Hitler" by camera-sucking "patriots;" where a beloved commentator publicly hopes the entire country's economy will crash and burn to prove some dubious political point, where namecalling and bullying have replaced rational debate. So, a series that dares to ask people to think for themselves, to not jump to conclusions, to look at multiple sides of an issue instead of jumping on the bandwagon du jour -- yeah, I guess I could see how that might unsettle people. I guess, for some people, Jack is scary.

Which is a laugh. Jack’s probably one of the most soft-spoken and least threatening private eyes around. Not that he’s a wimp, or that he doesn’t display rather amazing resilience at times, but this Los Angeles-based finder of lost children has never met a one-sided argument in his life.

For some readers – particularly those more accustomed to having their opinions (and their crime fiction) pre-digested and spoon-fed to them, that can be heady stuff. And possibly a little bewildering.

So maybe it’s simply commercial frustration, but this time Shannon pulls out all the stops. Everything that is wonderful about this series is cranked up a notch – there are even more memorable characters, even more So Cal weirdness, even more of LA’s endless sub-cultures to explore, even more ideas fleshed out and stamped with a human face. Shannon doesn't so much offer talking points as thinking points.

As a favor to his ex-wife Kathy, Jack reluctantly agrees to look for her best friend’s precocious, idealistic teenage daughter. But what at first seems like just another wandering daughter job soon has the detective bumping up against the spoiled, territorial surfer brats of the swanky Palos Verdes enclave, not to mention cranked-up white supremacists, burnt-out cops, the obscenely rich and the murky world of illegal immigrants who serve them -- including a young Mexican day laborer who just wants to hang ten. Meanwhile, Jack’s own precocious, idealistic teenage daughter, Maeve, hits another speed bump on her ongoing journey to define herself. That the author is growing impatient (critical acclaim and rave reviews don’t pay the rent) might be guessed by the defiant, almost surreal, even more-audacious-than-usual vaguely apocalyptic conclusion with which he wraps things up. But somehow, once again Shannon manages to pull it off with his by now trademark wit and compassion.

Scary stuff, indeed.

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