Monday, September 29, 2008


I sang the praises of AMC's MAD MEN back in September of last year after watching the first few episodes of Season One. I've just now caught up on watching the current episodes and, as much as I enjoyed (with some reservations) that first season, I think Season Two is a quantum leap forward. With the departure of THE WIRE, MAD MEN is now, in my opinion, the best-written show on television. Though it's taken a somewhat soap-operay turn this season (which I don't really mind), the show is full of narrative surprises that make perfect sense in retrospect. It also has some wonderful character moments, as well as spot-on depictions of 1960s parenting. And is there another show on the air with as many interesting - and unpredictable - female characters?

I was going to write more about it, especially in light of this week's episode, which focused in part on war-hero-turned-lush Freddy Rumsen, one of my favorite characters. But my Star-Ledger colleague (for the moment) Alan Sepinwall is doing a much better job over at his blog than I could hope to. See you over there.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Forgotten Book Friday Vol. 2 ...

... continuing Patti Abbott's tag-team effort of assembling a list of books which, in her words, "we love but might have forgotten over the years."

My previous Forgotten Book Friday choice was Donald E. Westlake's THE RARE COIN SCORE, written under the pen name "Richard Stark" and featuring Parker, the solo-named professional thief and protagonist of (so far) 24 lean and mean crime novels.

When I first discovered the Stark books in the late '70s, they were like nothing I'd ever read before. There was a certain terseness to them I recognized from Hammett and Cain, and a laconic coolness reminiscent of the quirkier '50s film noirs, but they seemed like a totally new animal. I was amazed by their compactness, their narrative drive, their swift declarative sentences and their objective amorality. They were something no one had ever done before, I assumed. They had sprung into the world fully formed, unique creations owing nothing to anything that went before them.

And then I discovered Peter Rabe.

Between 1955 and 1974, Rabe wrote more than two dozen novels, many for Fawcett Gold Medal. Five of these, beginning with 1956's DIG MY GRAVE DEEP, were the adventures of an ex-gangster named Daniel Port, who leaves "The Stoker Mob" to strike out on his own. The cold-coffee-swilling Port is tough, agile and intelligent, but unlike Parker, he's one of the more compassionate animals in his particular jungle. In 1957's THE OUT IS DEATH, the second book in the series, Port comes to the aid of an ill and aging safecracker named Dalton, who's being strong-armed into doing one more job for a brutal young gang leader named Corday (shades of Westlake/Stark's THE JUGGER eight years later, although in that case the safecracker is dead before Parker can get there).

I came to Rabe's novels late, when Black Lizard Books reprinted a handful of them in the late '80s and early '90s. I had burned through all the Starks by then, and the Rabe books were more fuel for the fire. They were clearly the direct forerunners of the Stark novels, and shared a lot of the virtues I'd found so startling - their brevity (they almost all ran under 150 pages), the precision and clarity of the descriptive passages and the refusal to engage in simplistic genre stereotyping of good and evil. THE OUT IS DEATH, while not the best of his novels, is a quintessential slice of Rabesian pulp, hard-boiled in an understated way that Westlake would polish to perfection just a few years later. Here's Port trying to make his escape out the side door of a nightclub, with a menacing group of thugs at his heels and a lone obstacle at the door:

Port headed for the nearest exit guarded by only one man. The band stopped before he made it, and the sudden quiet was unearthly. After the silence there was bedlam again; chairs scraped, people laughed, and a buzz of voices rose from the tables.

The kid at the door saw Port coming, but he didn't expect much from a man running away.

Then the kid's arm was suddenly bent double. The pain grew like a fire running up his arm and bursting hot and big in his shoulder.

"It hurts less if you walk," said Port's voice close beside him, and they moved out of the door and into the alley.

Some of Rabe's novels were recently reprinted as double editions by Stark House Press (though, so far, not the Port novels). When the bottom of the paperback original market fell out in the early '70s, Rabe went back to his other profession, teaching psychology, a subject in which he had a Ph.D. Two of his final novels were the Fawcett GODFATHER cash-ins WAR OF THE DONS (1972) and BLACK MAFIA (1974). He died in 1990 at age 68.

There were other antecedents to the Westlake/Stark books, of course, notably Lionel White's CLEAN BREAK (aka THE KILLING) and W.L. Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY, both of which were also reprinted by Black Lizard and are terrific novels in their own right. More on them at some point in the future.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Big Sky blues

I was going to post tonight about Jim Crumley, who passed away Wednesday in Montana, but I've decided to hold off a little and get my thoughts in order. I didn't know him well, but did get to spend a little time with him a couple years back, including a memorable tour of Austin's Highway 35 with Jim at the wheel, trying to reach a hotel that could be seen - but not accessed - from the roadway "(Goddamn Texas!").

In the meantime, my thoughts go out to his wife, Martha Elizabeth, his family, and his many, many friends, of which I was lucky to count myself one, if only briefly. Jim was a big-hearted guy. And that Washington Post headline couldn't be more accurate.

Also, I held off on mentioning this until contracts were in place, but St. Martin's/Minotaur will publish my new novel, GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER, in January 2010.  I won't say much more about it at this point, except that I originally pitched it to my agent rather grandiosely as " 'ONE FALSE MOVE'  meets THE WIRE. " It's a standalone, set in Florida and New Jersey, and the main characters are a woman and a black man, intentionally moving me out of my comfort zone of writing about depressed white guys at the Jersey Shore ... 

 And speaking of THE WIRE, for those attending Bouchercon in Baltimore next month, I'll be taking part in the panel  "DOWN IN THE HOLE: Authors Discuss Their Love of 'The Wire' and 'Homicide'," along with Harry Hunsicker, Scott Phillips and Peter Robinson, Thursday Oct. 9 at 4:30. I've also contributed a "Greetings From Asbury Park" gift basket to the convention's charity auction, featuring some books, a pair of personal-mix CD compilations from the Asbury Park music scene (past and present), postcards and a box of Jersey Shore salt water taffy, which I'm sure will be stale by then, if it isn't already, making it an authentic Shore experience.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

State of stress

A new University of Cambridge study shows that New Jerseyans are among the most-stressed people in the nation, ranking fourth in neuroticism but way low in agreeableness (34th) and conscientiousness (45th). No surprise, of course. I was traveling recently and it always occurs to me when I arrive back at Newark Airport from some friendlier, less-congested state, that there should be a sign on the concourse that says "WELCOME TO NEW JERSEY: WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU LOOKING AT?"

And speaking of Newark, this isn't helping the state's stress levels much either. It's certainly playing hell with mine.

And updates on that situation here and here.