One Bite at a Time




Sunday, April 28, 2013

Deadwood

I re-read Pete Dexter’s Deadwood last week. Enjoyed it even more than before, which says something, since I knew what to expect. I’m sure to read it again in a few years. If you haven’t read it yet, I feel bad for you, though I’ll feel jealous when you pick it up, as you get to read it for the first time, a treat I’ll never have again.

As a hard-core devotee of the HBO series Deadwood, I found myself comparing creative decisions Dexter made with those of David Milch, the limber-dicked cocksucker who got us all wrapped up in one of the finest shows television ever produced then, through his own hubris/hardheadedness/dickishness, didn’t see it though, even though HBO offered him a a couple of movie-sized slots to do it. (It’s interesting that Dexter receives no mention as a source from either Milch or HBO. Milch claimed he never read the book. This is hard to believe, considering the amount of research he obviously did. Dexter’s novel did win the national Book Award, so it’s not like it was under the radar. Dexter is understandably bitter, though some of his evidence against Milch—“they obviously stole at least the first scene from the book”—doesn’t hold up, no matter which “first scene” you look at, Dexter’s or Milch’s.) It‘s interesting stuff, well worth the time of anyone interested is how to make story decisions. Not that either is right or wrong—I have opinions both ways—creative decisions that seem inevitable to the reader or viewer were not at all that way at the time of creation.

Two differences stand out as pivotal. It’s hard to say which is most important, so let’s start with the treatment of Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon. Milch makes him the counterweight to Sheriff Seth Bullock. Their yin and yang relationship frames the series. Each has a vision for the camp, and each has different ideas about how to get there. Their shifting relationship, and how the grudging respect they come to have for each other, is the centerpiece of the show.

Dexter’s Swearengen is completely different. A minor character who can be described as a “whore man” who is a bully and a coward. Not at all how Milch wrote him, or how Ian McShane played him. Dexter’s version is much closer to the real Swearengen. It’s hard to imagine Milch’s character dying broke while hopping a freight train.

Dexter doesn’t need Swearengen and Bullock to carry as much weight. His story is told primarily through the eyes of Charley Utter, Wild Bill Hickock’s friend. (Another piece of Dexter’s evidence of Milch ripping him off. He describes the real Charley as an historical “dot;” and claims Milch’s elevation of him is a sign of the novel’s influence.) Charley is a key, yet supporting, character on the show. In the book, everything that happens is described either through Charlkey’s eyes, of by how the outcome affects Charley, though sometimes he serves as the representative of the rest of the settlement. (Another interesting difference. Milch’s characters perpetually refer to Deadwood as a “camp;” Dexter’s think of it as a town.)

Dexter uses only actual people, with one exception: Charley’s brother-in-law, Malcolm. The events he describes all pretty much took place, though not necessarily to, or by, the same people. Milch is far more apt to roam. Brom and Alma Garrett, whose gold claim is the primary means of displaying Swearengen’s character early and how the camp evolves as time goes on, do not appear in Dexter’s book; they are wholly fictional. George Hearst was not the rapacious sociopath Milch makes him out to be.

These approaches allow the two creators to use the same setting, characters, time, and many of the same actions to create two stories that resemble each other only where characters and events intersect. Dexter’s book is more easy-going in its way, describing peoples’ lives, and how they adapted to the conditions they found, using Charley Utter as the (flawed but reliable) moral compass. Milch’s series is about bringing order to lawlessness, and the struggle to decide how much order is enough. It’s also about power and how to wield it.

Each version is equally entertaining, on different levels, making different points. Anyone who is a fan or either owes it to himself to take a look at the other. (Especially if you’re a writer, or someone interested in how stories are told.) Remember to leave any preconceptions behind when you do.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Hard Bounce

Todd Robinson has been known for years to those on the inside as Big Daddy Thug, the founder and driving force of Thuglit, one of the most respected noir fiction web sites. (Also the only man alive cool enough to close a rejection letter with, “I’ll go fuck myself now.”) Few have spent the time, effort, and dedication to create not only their own vision, but to help other writers create theirs. There had to be a book of his own in this guy somewhere.

You bet your ass there was. He called it The Hard Bounce. Ain’t nothing easy in a Big Daddy Thug joint.

Boo Malone runs a bar security company with his partner, Junior. Raised in the same orphanage, Boo and Junior have had each other’s backs for as long as either needed someone to have his back. It’s a shoestring operation, working out of the back of one of the bars, but business is growing and both are about as well satisfied as these two are likely to get. They’re irritated when a good-looking but stiff young woman comes to them with a job, but won’t tell them who the real employer is. They’re pissed when they see she came with an ex-cop for backup. It’s a wandering daughter job they know they shouldn’t accept, but the money—and other considerations—are too good.

The Hard Bounce is a PI story without the PIs. The bows to Hammett at the outset set the tone. (Robinson never uses the phrase “wandering daughter job,” but that’s what it is: a powerful man’s kid is missing. No one ever says, “We didn’t really believe you. We believed your two hundred dollars,” either, but that’s exactly what happens. They were offered more than the job should have been worth, but enough more they didn’t mind.) On the plus side, Boo and Junior don’t have to worry about losing their licenses; they don’t have any. Armed with their wits and a small cadre of friends from the orphanage, they’ll find the girl, and, as in any great PI story, a lot more.

The core that holds the book together is the rapport between Boo and Junior. There is nothing they wouldn’t do for each other, though neither can assume sacrifices will be made without comment. They’re funny in the male-bonding, insulting way, even in dire circumstances, though Robinson know the way to keep The Hard Bounce from becoming another cookie-cutter buddy action story is to keep the humor when under the gun more along the lines of whistling through a graveyard.

The characters around them play well. Each fills a role; none were obviously created to do only that. Boo and Junior have the psycho sidekick, but he’s used mostly as an advisor, or a reminder of how they don’t want to handle the problem.

Robinson is also able to avoid the primary pitfall of so much neo-noir, writing The Hard Bounce with sufficient darkness to be taken seriously, not so much you’ll feel dirty after reading it. The bad guys are no more gratuitously bad than is believable. Robinson’s not in the titillation business. He is in the grit business, and no one gets through the story without at least some sticking to them.

Robinson spent almost ten years to find a publisher willing to give The Hard Bounce a chance. It was time well-spent. Such a road is an honorable beginning for a writer. James Lee Burke had the same book rejected 111 times over a period of nine years; Elmore Leonard endured 84 rejections to make the move from Westerns to crime. Robinson has not only created a story and characters to fully engage even a picky reader, he may well have created a franchise with some legs.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

I Hear the Sirens in the Street

Since New Mystery Reader got me the book, it’s only fair they get the review. Here’s a tease:

I live to cite Raymond Chandler to buttress my points. In his classic essay, ”The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler wrote:

I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight-deductive or logic—and—deduction novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colorful prose simply won’t be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis. The master of rare knowledge is living psychologically in the age of the hoop skirt. If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework, you don’t know anything at all about the police. If you know that platinum won’t melt under about 2800 degrees F. by itself, but will melt at the glance of a pair of deep blue eyes when put close to a bar of lead, then you don’t know how men make love in the twentieth century. And if you know enough about the elegant flânerie of the pre-war French Riviera to lay your story in that locale, you don’t know that a couple of capsules of barbital small enough to be swallowed will not only not kill a man—they will not even put him to sleep, if he fights against them.

Chandler was wrong, but we may excuse him his error; Adrian McKinty had yet to be born.

* * *

I’ll post the link to the review when it’s available, but there’s no reason for you not to pre-order your copy now.

Monday, April 15, 2013

What the F*ck Is All This Sh*t?

Few things irritate me more than the faux civility of political correctness. Comedian Louis CK—the closest thing we have to George Carlin right now—does a great bit about how much he hates “the N word.” Not “nigger;” the phrase “the N word.” Excerpting his bit:

“…literally whenever a white lady on CNN with nice hair says: “The ‘N’ word.” That’s just white people getting away with saying nigger, that’s all that is. They found a way to say nigger. “N word.” It’s bullshit cause when you say the “N word” you put the word nigger in the listener’s head. That’s what saying a word is. You say the N word and I go oh she means nigger. Your making me say it in my head. Why don’t you fucking say it instead and take responsibility.”

Exactly. It’s the same with things like the twitter feed and book, Sh*t My Dad Says. I love SMDS. The book is even better than the feeds. The author has to use the asterisk so as not to offend large parts of the population, just as movie maker Kevin Smith had to call his book Tough Sh*t. Those on the right complain about “the Nanny State,” but they won’t let you put “shit” out there for public consumption; kids might see it. Some born-again family values guy—who, by the way, will only defend and promote his personal family values, whether he practices them himself or not—will have a hissy fit. These people apparently believe people see “sh*t” and their mind says, “Shasteriskt,” after which they immediately wonder what the f*ck that means.

We’re all adults here; no one is being fooled. (If you’re not, get your underage ass busy on your homework like your mother told you an hour ago.) “Sh*t” means “shit;” “f*ck” means “fuck.” “The N word” means “nigger,” just as “the F word” means “fuck.” (There sure are a sh*tload of f*cking ways to get around saying the F word.) We’re also not doing anyone any good.

There was a time when those with abhorrent views on race or homosexuality were easy to spot. Everyone knew the meaning of the words they used, even if there was some mealy-mouthing around the pronunciation of “nigruh” so they had the deniability of pleading they actually said “Negro” but the grits in their mouth made it come out that way. Now they have code words and will be shocked—shocked!—at even the implication you took offense at what they said. In fact, it is you who must be the racist, to assume an allegedly denigrating comment referred to “those people.” Air and sunlight are helpful in combatting any infection. Pretending things don’t exist doesn’t make them go away; it makes them stronger.

I’m not advocating coarse language in polite company. There are obviously places where “shit” and “fuck” and “nigger” are inappropriate. When in those situations, don’t use them. They generally have no reason to come up at all, and, when their definitions might be suitable in context (“He called Darnell out and Darnell fucked that nigger’s shit up”), work around it. (“Darnell gave him a beating.”) The only thing saying “Darnell f*cked that N-word’s sh*t up” accomplishes is insulting everyone’s intelligence.

If you don’t like foul language, don’t use it. If you don’t want to hear it, don’t go places where it’s likely to be used, and don’t be bashful about pointing it out to those who use it at inappropriate times and locations. Just don’t get cute with asterisks and first letters. Too many issues in this country—on both sides of the political spectrum—are exacerbated by people using words to mean what they want them to mean, and not what they really mean. You may claim you use “the N word” or “the F word” because you’re too polite and genteel to speak so coarsely, but you’re not sh*tting anybody.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Cheapskates

Cheapskates is Charlie Stella’s fourth novel. I want to say it’s his best, but my opinion of which of his books is best is closely tied to which one I’ve read most recently. They all have multi-dimensional, tight plotting and fly-on-the-wall dialog. The characters are all bent to some degree, each in his or her own way, even when they’re legit. That’s not the same as saying all the books are the same, except when comparing relative quality.

Peter Rizzo and Reese Waters are friends in Fishkill Penitentiary, scheduled for release on the same day. The two got tight when Peter protected Reese during a gang fight and was shanked for his trouble. Neither is a hard-core criminal—it can be argued whether they’re criminals at all. Now they’re about to get out and Peter has developed an unhealthy obsession with fifty thousand dollars his ex-wife cheated him out of. He doesn’t want revenge or violence. He just wants his money.

Unknown to Peter, Janice, his ex, has taken up with Jimmy Valentine, consiglieri to the Vigneiri crime family. Janice knows every fold and crease of every bill that’s ever passed through her hands. There’s no way she’s giving up fifty large. She has plans for Peter when he gets out.

Stella has a gift for knowing exactly how much writing to do. The story and characters are plenty to maintain interest. The players are who they are, helped—or done in—by their own traits. No one’s stupid. No one is as smart as they think they are, either. Things are in play only the reader is fully aware of. The characters react to the bits they know, filtered through their personal strengths and weaknesses. The climactic scene, told from multiple, overlapping points of view, is virtuoso writing, as it needs to be to keep all the balls in the air.

The key to telling a story well is to make as much of it as the characters do. I recently read a review of the movie 42 that identified the problem with most biopics as the characters speak and act as if they know a movie is being made and they need to make sure everyone gets the import of what is going on. Good point. People rarely know where their comments and daily actions stand in the context of history. A Brazilian friend of mine who had never seen a baseball game before was ecstatic over the pre-game warm-ups; “they never drop the ball!” To me, meh. I can catch. What’s the big deal?

To a fiction writer, this means not to overemphasize comments or emotions the character isn’t likely to think much about in the moment. A housewife talking about the best way to boil an egg so the shell doesn’t stick may make an instructional point; she’s not going to get moist about it. If the characters tend to be cops or criminals, violence and harsh language are likely to be all in a day’s work. Write it that way. Purple prose is not required to describe a hit man putting three in some poor jerk’s chest. The hit man doesn’t feel any emotion; the victim doesn’t have time. There’s no need to drag it out, and over-the-top writing would only gild the lily. A man was killed. For money. Any reader who can’t pick up on the inhumanity without being told how to feel has problems we can’t address in a blog.

Stella’s solution is simple: trust the reader.

..It was a navy blue Chrysler. An old man with gray hair was driving. He motioned at [ ]to come closer as he held up a piece of paper.

“You know where this address is?” the driver asked. He was holding the paper awkwardly with his left hand.

[ ] froze where he stood, about five yards from the driver’s door, but it was already too late. The driver braced the silencer against his left elbow to steady his aim. He fired three times in quick succession. All three bullets found their mark.

[ ] barely heard the phutlike sound. His eyes opened slightly between the first and second shots. He was already dead on his feet before the third one exploded through his chest.

(Yeah, like I was going to tell you who this is getting clipped. )

That’s it. A man is gone. The killer doesn’t feel much different from the victim, who doesn’t feel anything. You can feel however you want. You’ve been told what happened, and how. That’s everything you need.

Cheapskates is also laugh out loud funny at times. Janice’s father is a construction millionaire who lives on out-of-date pastries. The banter between the cops is always spot on, and there is a lot to smile at done by people who would see you laughing and say, “What?”

It’s hard to pick one best thing about Cheapskates. Good thing you don’t have to. Read it all.

(Full disclosure: Charlie Stella and I are good friends. To say he has been encouraging and supportive of my writing is like saying Warren Buffett makes a nice living.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Is Crime Fiction Socially Aware?

Last week’s major topic in several blogs I read had to do with whether crime fiction was socially aware, at least as much as, say, science fiction or fantasy. (Jay Stringer looked at it on Do Some Damage here, after Steve Weddle got the ball rolling in response to multiple posts across the blogosphere; Steve provides the links.) I tend to be a few days late with my responses to the affairs of the day, so it won’t kill me to wait a few minutes while you read what Steve and Jay had to say, even though my two cents’ will probably then be a disappointment.

To me, this breaks down into two questions: Is crime fiction socially aware, and are science fiction and fantasy more so? Based on my reading, crime fiction is well aware of social issues, and discusses them well. I don’t read as broadly in the genre as some, so my perspective may be a result of a skewed perspective, as the writers I tend to come back to definitely have social perspectives they consistently work into their books: Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Adrian McKinty, Tim Hallinan, John McFetridge, and Leighton Gage (among others) all take the time to point out social inequities.

Crime fiction lends itself well to this, as so much crime comes about, directly or indirectly, from unfortunate social circumstances. I’m not apologizing for anyone here. Two guys grow up in almost identical situations. One goes to work every day, pays his taxes, and never ask for anything from anybody; the other robs liquor stores or sells drugs. Choices were made. Good crime fiction can provide insight into how difficult those choices may have been, and what other options may have been available.

The trick is to keep the story satisfying and suspenseful, not slip into melodrama. In one of his Derek Strange books—I forget the title—Pelecanos communicated his views on gun control so plainly I was repeatedly distracted from the story—“enough, already”—even though I agreed with everything he wrote. Moonlight Mile is Lehane’s weakest book, in large part because his politics are so overtly displayed. Both have served their views far better in other books—Pelecanos in the Turnaround and The Night Gardener; Lehane in The Given Day. The points are better made in the latter examples, in large part because the reader was not beaten about the head and shoulders with them.

As I said above, my perception may be skewed because this is the kind of crime fiction I like to read. Still, it’s not like these books aren’t readily available.

Let’s turn now to science fiction and fantasy, and how much better they supposedly deal with social issues. I will begin by stating I can provide no examples. The closest thing I’ve read to science fiction in twenty-five years is Slaughterhouse-Five. Still, having read a reasonable amount of it as a younger man—both good and bad—there is one comment I feel comfortable making: sci-fi and fantasy writers have an easier go if it, because they get to create their own worlds.

If a sci-fi writer wants to talk about child labor, he can create a world where the conditions exist to make exactly the points he wants to make. The rules of this world must still be evenhanded enough to keep from straining the readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief too hard, but it’s a big advantage. Crime fiction writers—to paraphrase Chandler—have a not very fragrant world, but it is the world in which they live, and they must do what they can with it. It won’t do to set a novel in the current day that has draconian penalties for gun ownership. To address the other side of the spectrum, legal heroin is also not an option for the crime writer. True, crime fiction can be written in a dystopian (to the author) future, or in an alternate reality, but then the story becomes borderline sci-fi/fantasy, if it does not cross the line altogether.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Philip K. Dick blended noir and science fiction brilliantly in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. (Made into the film Blade Runner, screenplay by Hamilton Fancher and David peoples, directed by Ridley Scott.) Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shussett, and director Scott mix sci-fi and horror in Alien. The list is lengthy, and distinguished.

I guess what I’m getting at—you knew there had to be a point sooner or later—is comparing the social awareness of crime and sci-fi/fantasy is like comparing the amount of scoring in baseball and hockey. The contexts are different enough to make meaningful comparison virtually impossible. Add in the added complication of what can get published and read in a certain genre, and it’s safe to say any genre is as socially aware as its readers allow it to be.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Vivid and Continuous

The problem with many writing books—and writing teachers—is they tell you How it’s Done, sometimes in stentorian tones of great implied import. The end effect is too often to overwhelm the reader/writer, especially those still looking for their own way. There’s too much to remember, and it’s too hard. Some are deterred. Others decide rules are made to be broken, so I might as well start now.

John McNally’s Vivid and Continuous is an excellent entry point for a startup writer. It combines brevity (147 pages, not counting index and reading list) with a conversational tone to move the reader through key considerations in any type of fiction. Though the professed thrust is for those interested in literary ficiton, the lessons and examples will be useful to anyone.

The book breaks into fifteen chapters, each with its own topic. Ranging from The Ideal Reader, Beginnings, Titles, through Minor Characters, Humor (his “Sure-Fire Formula for Becoming Funnier in Thirty Days” alone is worth the price of the book) and wrapping up with Gestation and Humility. Each chapter describes a little of why it’s important, cites examples, but never becomes pedantic. If ever a writing book read like you were talking to a guy at a bar, this is it.

The examples are deftly used and should incline the reader to want to further explore many of them. The chapter on minor characters details how, in The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger uses a large number of characters who appear for too short a time to require—or even deserve—detailing to characterize Holden Caulfield through his descriptions and reactions to them. Salinger’s gift for putting the character’s image into the reader’s head with a single sentence. (Faith Cavendish, who “wasn’t exactly a whore or anything but that didn’t mind doing it once in a while.” Or Sally Hayes’s mother, who’d do charity work only if “everybody kissed her ass for her when they made a contribution.”) We may not have Holden’s background, but we all know these people.

The two final chapters stick out. In Gestation, McNally discusses the idea of each story needing its own time to be told. Some may flow, while others may need years to come together, left fallow for extended period until the writer’s experience or cultural events reach a point where the story opens itself to the author. The catch with fictional gestation periods is, no one knows how long they are, and they’re different for each story.

The final chapter is titled Humility. Cautioning young writers against hubris, McNally cites giants such as Thomas Pynchon looking back with dismay at some older stories, and John Steinbeck’s despair over how he had failed with The Grapes of Wrath. (“It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is the absolute best I can do.”) A caution to all fledgling iconoclasts who would break new ground because the world has never seen a talent such as yours: get over yourselves. If Pynchon and Steinbeck harbor doubts about their results, you should at least consider yours could be flawed.

McNally is not above using his own writing for example. This is often a turn-off. Here, it’s done with a difference. Instead of using his work to show How It’s Done, he uses what led to a piece of his to describe how it got there, warts and all. The lessons is not, “Listen to me, for I am great,” but, “You don’t to make some of the same mistakes I did. Take this for what it’s worth.” The engaging writing style and regular dollops of humor make everything do down with a smile.

Vivid and Continuous is an excellent book for fledgling writers, as well as those more experienced who need an occasional reminder of things to be aware of. It would be perfect for an adult education class that included student of various levels of ability, as its lessons apply on multiple levels. I learned a lot, was reminded of more, and had a great time reading it. My only disappointment came when I realized I had come to the end, a feeling that can be easily remedied with another read, if only to cherry pick the bits that most appealed to me.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Big O Revisited

I recently extolled the virtues of Declan Burke’s The Big O on the occasions of its re-release as an e-book. It occurred to me while writing that blog my original reading of The Big O was five years ago. It might be time to see if I’d still agree with my original assessment.

I read it again. Liked it even more.

Much of that is due to my maturing as a reader and writer myself. (it’s not like the book changed in the interim. It’s the same copy I read in 2008. Any changes must be some Harry Potter shit.) Now I can see how Burke pulled off much of what he did, mainly in how responsibly he sets up things that may seem off-the-wall later. Far from limiting my enjoyment, this understanding enhanced it. Listening to Tower of Power is always a pleasure, but understanding how the horn lines and rhythm sections are put together adds a level of appreciation for whoever wrote the chart, and his ability is take the same musical tools available to everyone else and make something unique from them.

Burke’s work is like that. He operates on multiple levels in what is admittedly a “screwball noir,” using everything in the toolbox to good effect. He knows there are some things he can get away with because the book is, in effect, a comedy, so he weaves the characters’ lives more closely together than might seem plausible in a more “serious” work. The effect created is not unlike classic comedy films, where complication after complication turn out to be related somehow until you have people leaving rooms half a second before someone looking for them enters through another door. Knowing how hard it is to pull off—trust me, I do know—makes it that much more satisfying to see it done successfully.

It is, unfortunately, not uncommon to re-read something and wonder, “Why did I do that?” After giving The Big O a second going-over, I was left thinking, “What took me so long?” Now my task is to work Eightball Boogie and Absolute Zero Cool each into the To Be Read list before too much time passes. I don’t like to make the same mistakes twice.