Sunday, December 27, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Kirkus' last gasp

As most of you know, the venerable Kirkus Reviews, part of Nielsen Business Media, is shutting down for good this month after 76 years in the business (also folding is its sister pub., Editor and Publisher, after 108 years). However, Kirkus did manage to sneak a review of GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER into its final issue.

Wallace Stroby
(Starred review)

As if it weren’t nerve-wracking enough to be a deputy and a mom, suddenly she’s a target.

Privacy’s a joke in tiny Hopedale, Fla. So when Deputy Sara Cross and Deputy Billy Flynn become lovers, everybody knows it almost before they do. Nor does it stay news long when two years later they break up. Sara’s coming to her senses, conventional wisdom maintains, since everybody also knows that for all his charm and good looks, Billy lacks substance, whereas all you have to do is watch Sara mothering her ailing six-year-old son to know that she’s a rock. But rock or no, Sara is one of those women who all too often lets her heart rule her head, and on the night of a fatal shooting, part of her senses that it’s a mistake to accept Billy’s version of how it all went down. Yes, the explanation is plausible; yes, there are weapons stashed away in the young black man’s car; and yes, when Billy fired it might well have been by the book. But soon enough strangers arrive in Hopedale—hard, big-city, dangerous men following stolen money, who are after Billy because they’re sure he knows where it is. And after Sara, certain she does, too.

A strong cast and energetic storytelling. But it’s Sara, so human and so beset, who makes this another standout for Stroby.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Spam, spam, spam, spam ....

... so I'm going to turn Comment Moderation on until this storm of Asian spam and escort service links blows over.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Quick updates, Pt. 2

+ My piece on the 1973 film THE OUTFIT, based on Donald E. Westlake's third "Richard Stark" novel, is up over at Steve-O's Noir of the Week blog (that's the film's Italian poster above). Some great stuff there, including a pair of excellent essays by Megan Abbott on CLASH BY NIGHT and PRIVATE HELL 36.

+ The tour is shaping up like this (some details tentative, more to come):

JAN. 29 - Book People, Austin, Texas, 7 pm.
JAN. 30 - Murder by the Book, Houston, Texas, 5 p.m., with James W. Hall and Bob Morris.
FEB. 5 - Mysterious Bookshop, N.Y.C., 6:30 p.m.
APRIL 13 - New York Public Library, Fifth Ave. and 40th, 6:30-8:30. Panel discussion on "Crime Scenes: From Cities to the Back of Beyond; Why and How Mystery Writers Choose Their Settings," with Lorenzo Carcaterra, Peggy Ehrhart, Henry Chang, Julia Pomeroy and Laura Joh Rowland.
OCT. 14-17 - BoucherCon, San Francisco, Calif.
NOV. 4-7 - NoirCon, Philadelphia, Pa.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Quick updates

A little stopgap news as we head toward the end of the year and into 2010:

- Tantor Media will release an unabridged audio version of GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER in January, read by actress Karen White.

- Thorndike Press will publish a Large Print edition of GTN in 2010 as well (might be needing that one soon myself).

- I'm now on Facebook!

- I'll have a poem, titled "Independence Day, 1976," in the next edition of THE LINEUP: POEMS ON CRIME, due out in April. That issue will also include works by James W. Hall, James Sallis, Reed Farrel Coleman and Patti Abbott, among others.

- On Dec. 14, I'll be guesting on Steve Eifert's great Noir of the Week blog, with a piece on 1973's THE OUTFIT, the Robert Duvall film based on the Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark novel of the same name. All I have to do now is finish writing it.

- There's a little bit of a tour taking shape, bit by bit, more info soon.

- Speaking of noir, this week I finally caught up with Peter Yates' THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (also released in 1973, a good year for noir and films in general - SERPICO, BADLANDS, CHARLEY VARRICK, DILLINGER, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, THE LONG GOODBYE, MEAN STREETS and THE SEVEN-UPS all came out that year). I'd seen bits and pieces of it on television, but never the film in its entirety. Criterion just put out a DVD version a few months back, with a restored print and a commentary by Yates (he also directed BULLITT, the Brit noir ROBBERY and Westlake's THE HOT ROCK, and was developing the Stark novel DEADLY EDGE before the project fell through).

COYLE is the antidote to most gangster films - it's low-key and downbeat, as chilly as its late-November Boston locales. But it's quite brilliant too, and steadfastly faithful to the George V. Higgins novel. It does for the underworld what REQUIEM FOR A DREAM does for heroin addiction - it makes you very happy not to be part of it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


On an impulse last week, I picked up the new 50th anniversary edition of Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Hadn't seen it in decades, and then only on commercial television, so the restored 2-disc DVD set gave me an excuse to take my first look at it in years.

It's a great movie. Or maybe that should be, it's a great movie.

That's because, watching it, it occurs to me it's as close to pure cinema as most films get. It's a confection that works only as a movie. As a novel, it would make no sense. As a television series, it would seem redundant and silly (though shows like CHUCK and BURN NOTICE owe a debt to it). On radio, it would be absurd. But as a film, it's an almost perfect merger of images and sound, expertly used to evoke emotions. It's funny, it's suspenseful, it's beautiful to look at and, despite its two-hour-plus length, it moves like lightning.

On the face of it, Hitchcock's tale of an advertising executive (Cary Grant) mistaken for a spy and chased cross-country by enemy agents, police and his own government, bears no resemblance to reality. In the first place, it's Cary Grant, not exactly the American Everyman. Secondly, the plot mechanisms that launch the chase are outlandish bordering on ludicrous. An assassination in the U.N. lobby is nearly a parody in itself, and fifteen minutes into the film, when the villains have poured a bottle of bourbon into Grant and set him behind the wheel of a sports car careening along a cliffside Long Island road, one wonders why he doesn't just pull over to the shoulder. But they're both great sequences, rich with color and detail and enhanced by Bernard Herrman's iconic score (for an earlier variation on it, check out his orchestration for Nicholas Ray's 1952 noir ON DANGEROUS GROUND).

The same applies to the film's most famous sequence, in which a crop-dusting plane chases Grant's Roger Thornhill along an empty Indiana road. It's one of the great scenes in cinema, despite the fact it makes little sense. Why lure a man out into the middle of nowhere and then try to kill him with a plane, of all things? (Not to mention, if the plane had actually hit him, it would likely have crashed). Certainly a bullet in the head and a quick drop in Lake Michigan would have been a more efficient - and cost-effective - solution. And what does "North by Northwest" mean anyway? The chase takes Thornhill south before it takes him north, though it does end, memorably, at Mount Rushmore (actually a cleverly painted studio backdrop) in South Dakota.

But in the end, none of this matters. You could say NXNW is greater than the sum of its parts, except those parts are all pretty great on their own. Eva Marie Saint is luminous as Eve Kendall, Thornhill's love interest/nemesis, delivering some pretty risque (for 1959) sexual innuendo without ever breaking eye contact. James Mason is smooth and charming as the chief villain, Martin Landau subtly menacing as his henchman, and Ernest Lehman's script is full of sparkling dialogue ("That wasn't very sporting," Mason's character deadpans at the finale. "Using real bullets.").

Few films utilized the VistaVision/Technicolor process as well as it was used here, and this restored/remastered print is a sheer pleasure to look at, with its vibrant colors and perfectly framed shots, whether they be wide masters (the many action scenes) or detail inserts (Landau's eerily blue eyes). The art direction and wardrobe are practically characters themselves - check out Eva Marie Saint's black and red dress in the Chicago auction house scene. And when was the last time you saw bright green used so well in a title sequence?

The special features on the set are excellent as well, including lengthy documentaries about Grant (a frank and forthright one), Hitchcock and the making of the film. Also included is a feature-length commentary by screenwriter Lehman retained from an earlier release (he died in 2005 at age 89). Newark, N.J., native Eva Marie Saint appears prominently in all the features and is still going strong at age 85 (she gave an interview to the San Francisco Chronicle about the film on Friday, and there's another recent one on Kim Morgan's Sunset Gun blog.).

In some ways, NXNW marked the end of Hitchcock's "Old Hollywood" period. It was his final film (of four) with Grant, and though he would continue to use soon-to-be-major stars (Paul Newman, Sean Connery) in his remaining seven films, it's the last gasp of the man who made TO CATCH A THIEF, REAR WINDOW and other thrillers steeped in Hollywood glamor. The next year, he would get down and dirty with PSYCHO.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I don't write many book reviews these days. I use to do quite a few during my newspaper years, but now I only dabble with the occasional freelance piece, usually for nonfiction works, such as the recent biography of actor Warren Oates. I shy away from reviewing fiction now, especially since I've had my own books published and reviewed. Part of that is karmic fear (what goes around comes around) and part is that I now realize how much work it is to actually write a book. As a result, I'm more reluctant to be critical of someone else's work (plus, the odds are greater now that I might actually bump into the author at some point).

However, while on the road the last two weeks, I read James Ellroy's new novel BLOOD'S A ROVER, the conclusion of his "Underworld U.SA." trilogy, and feel inclined to say a few things about it (coincidentally, one of my first reviews for The Star-Ledger was of Ellroy's memoir MY DARK PLACES).

First off: BLOOD'S A ROVER is long - that's looonnnnggg - topping out at 640 pages. THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, the previous book in the trilogy, published in 2001, was a little longer, but seemed to read tighter. Ellroy's writing style in BAR is probably more accessible than it was in CST - there are fewer three-and-four-word sentences filled with punchy alliteration ("The Deuce was dead. The dealers yawned. The barman yawned. Stray dogs meandered through. They beat the heat."). But Ellroy's headlong pace lags several times in BAR, and I sometimes felt myself stopping to take a breather before gathering the energy to read on.

It also feels slightly padded. Ellroy often halts the narrative to insert diary entries from his main characters. However, a lot of those entries seem to be written in the same voice, despite the fact they come from characters with varied backgrounds. At least three of them use variations on the phrase "I ride the zeitgeist" at one point or another. That is to say they speak like no one else in the world - except James Ellroy.

BAR is also a direct follow-up to CST, and if you're not familiar with the previous book, you may find yourself a little lost, even though Ellroy helpfully drops in several pages of backstory early on. BAR opens in the aftermath of the MLK/RFK assassinations, which were orchestrated by some of the major players in the trilogy, a few of whom are now seeking redemption. Others, like the French/Corsican mercenary Jean-Philippe Mesplede, who took out JFK with a shot from the grassy knoll, have moved on to other evil business, including illegal commando raids and scalping expeditions on Castro's Cuba. Rogue FBI agent Dwight "The Enforcer" Holley (a nickname recycled from Ellroy's 1992 novel WHITE JAZZ, whose main character was rogue L.A. cop Dave "The Enforcer" Klein) is regretting his career as a "right-wing thug," yet planning another assassination and setting up a likely fall guy to take the rap - and a bullet. Ex-Las Vegas cop Wayne Tedrow, son of a white supremacist hatemonger, is racked with guilt over his own role in the killing of MLK. And young "peeper" Don Crutchfield (a name Ellroy borrowed from a real L.A. private detective) is learning at the feet of them all. And like them, he's soon obsessed with the mysterious Joan Rosen Klein, the left-wing radical at the center of all the mysteries, who men kill and die for without ever really understanding.

Throw in Haitian voodoo, the mob, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, Dominican Republic casinos, anti-Castro extremists, black revolutionaries, various psychedelic drugs and a 1964 armored car robbery that somehow sparks the whole plot and you have an idea of why it took took Ellroy 640 pages to get it all in, in a way that makes sense. Well, sort of makes sense.

Still, BAR is a James Ellroy novel, and there's only one writer in the world who can pull that off. For scope, complexity and breadth of ambition, no one else comes close. He doesn't always succeed in his efforts, but the arrogance and energy of them can be invigorating in itself. BAR would work better if it were tighter - 100 pages could have been easily chopped - but it's still unlike anything else out there.
Some other quick notes:

- The title comes from an A.E. Houseman verse ("Clay lies still/But blood's a rover"). That's also the long-announced title of Harlan Ellison's yet-to-be completed novel about the adventures of Vic and Blood, the post-apocalyptic duo from his award-winning novella "A Boy and His Dog."
- Dwight Holley is haunted by the death of George Diskant, a Nyack, N.Y., man whom Holley killed in a drunken driving accident. George Diskant is also the name of a celebrated cinematographer who shot some of greatest films noir of the 1940 and 50s, including THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, THE NARROW MARGIN, ON DANGEROUS GROUND and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.

- Ellroy isn't always so good with technical details. He repeatedly has his characters use "silencered" Magnum revolvers. Silencers/suppressors don't work on revolvers (what law-enforcement types call "wheel guns"), much less with high-powered Magnum rounds. Any noise abatement at the silenced muzzle is more than canceled out by the blowback through the open cylinder.

Still, like him or not, if you're attempting to write serious crime fiction these days, you have to read Ellroy. His slow output and occasional stumbles aside, the Demon Dog still leads the pack.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

First reviews

Publishers' Weekly, Nov. 2, 2009
(Starred review) Gone 'til November
Wallace Stroby.
Minotaur, $24.99 (304p)
ISBN 978-0-312-56024-9

Tormented lives brutally intersect in Stroby's powerful thriller, the possible first in a new series to feature Sara Cross, the lone woman sheriff's deputy in Florida's St. Charles County. One night, Cross, a single mother who's coping with her son's leukemia and the remnants of a two-years-gone postdivorce fling with fellow deputy Billy Flynn, arrives on the edge of a cypress swamp where Flynn has just shot a 22-year-old black man from New Jersey allegedly fleeing a traffic stop. Sara tries to smother her still-simmering lust for no-good Billy, but her cop instincts drive her toward a dismaying truth that hurtles her into a violent showdown with an aging New Jersey contract killer stricken with a rare cancer. While relentlessly probing the eternal mystery of why bright and capable women fall for dangerous losers, Stroby (The Heartbreak Lounge) explores moral choices that leave his devastatingly real characters torn between doing nothing and risking everything. (Jan.)

Booklist, Dec. 1, 2009 issue
"GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER is rock-solid crime fiction that melds compelling characters, crisp writing, and a finely rendered portrait of Old Florida, the state's thinly populated, less-storied interior. Sara and Morgan, an aging career criminal who has just been diagnosed with cancer, are Stroby's best creations. Morgan is ruthless and resourceful, but he also has a quite dignity and a streak of humanity that may have readers picturing actor Morgan Freeman."

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Final cover and early words

Here's the final, slightly tweaked, cover for GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER (due out from St. Martin's/Minotaur Jan. 19), along with some very generous early responses from a trio of terrific writers:

"In GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER, Wallace Stroby’s mastery of character and dialogue is mated to a hellacious narrative engine. His heroine, Sara Cross, is a wonderful creation.”
- George Pelecanos, author of THE WAY HOME and producer/co-writer of THE PACIFIC and THE WIRE

"Just when you think that you can't be surprised anymore, a writer like Wallace Stroby ups the ante, finds a way to use familiar elements in new and surprising ways. This is a first-rate novel, with characters who live on in the reader's mind long after the book is finished. I always expect great things from Stroby, and GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER is a significant addition to an already impressive body of work."
- Laura Lippman, author of WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and ANOTHER THING TO FALL

“In these days of mega formulaic blockbusters, it seems almost impossible to find a novel that not only has depth of characterization, but a compelling plot. GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER achieves both and seamlessly. The novel takes off like a freight train... the writing is a joy, full of beautiful asides, an almost weary compassion and some passages that literally break your heart. Sara Cross is a wondrous character. This novel sings, darkly and irresistibly.”
Ken Bruen, author of LONDON BOULEVARD and THE GUARDS

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Random Readings, Vol. 8

This uplifting installment of Random Readings comes from Don Carpenter's brilliant 1966 novel HARD RAIN FALLING, recently reprinted by New York Review Books. In this passage, a down-on-his-luck ex-boxer named Jack Leavitt - who's gone from orphanage to reform school to penitentiary in short order - contemplates the ironies of lust late one night on his bunk in San Quentin. HARD RAIN is only peripherally a crime novel, but this passage is a noir as it gets:

"It struck him with horrible force. His parents, whoever they were, had probably made love out of just such an itch. For fun, for this momentary satisfaction, they had conceived him, and because he was obviously inconvenient, dumped him in the orphanage; because he, the life they had created while they were being careless and thoughtless, was not part of the fun of it all; he was just a harmful side effect of the scratching of the itch; he was the snot in the handkerchief after the nose had been blown, just something disgusting to be gotten rid of in secret and forgotten. Cold rage filled him, rage at his unknown parents, rage at the life he had been given ....
Fifteen or twenty minutes on a forgotten bed between two probable strangers had given him twenty-four years of misery, pain, and suffering, and promised, unless he were to die soon, to go on giving him misery for another forty or fifty years, locked up in one small room or another without hope of freedom, love, life, truth or understanding. A penis squirts, and I am doomed to a life of death. It has got to be insanity; there has got to be a God, because only an insane God could have created such a universe."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #5: THE KILLING

The fifth installment of my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperback reprints from the late 1980s and early '90s (for the others, just click on "Black Lizard Books" in the labels at bottom).

THE KILLING by Lionel White



THE STORY: A group of criminals band together to pull off a $2 million racetrack robbery.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A seminal heist novel from one of its greatest practitioners.

"That's why this thing is going to work. We don't want a lot of hoodlums in on it. ... It's what I've been telling you guys since the beginning. We aren't a bunch of dumb stick-up artists. We aren't tough guys. We're supposed to have brains."

So says ex-con Johnny Clay to the crew he's put together for a racetrack robbery in Lionel White's 1955 novel THE KILLING. And he's right, his co-conspirators are pretty much a bunch of Average Joes in need of money, albeit with unique skills and special access. One is a track cashier, trying to support a high-living wife. Another is an aging bartender plagued with gambling debts. A third is an otherwise good cop in deep with a loanshark. Bringing them all together is veteran criminal Johnny Clay, fresh from a four-year stint in prison and now imbued with "a sort of grim purposefulness which he had always lacked."

Johnny's purpose is to rob the racetrack during the "Canarsie Stakes," gaining entrance to the money room while a sharpshooter picks off one of the horses to create a diversion. It's an operation that should work like clockwork - and does until that trouble-making wife entices her petty criminal boyfriend into robbing the robbers.

THE KILLING is probably best remembered for its 1956 film adaptation, written and directed by then-neophyte Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialogue by novelist (and Black Lizard favorite) Jim Thompson. It was originally published under the title CLEAN BREAK, as part of Dutton's "Guilt-Edged Mystery" line, though all of the post-1956 editions - and there were many - retitled it as per Kubrick's film. For the prolific White, a former crime reporter, it was the first of his novels to make it to the screen, though others would follow, notably Jean-Luc Goddard's 1965 PIERROT LE FOU, based on White's 1962 book OBSESSION. Aside from the ending, the film of THE KILLING is amazingly faithful to the book, with much of White's dialogue intact.

As the novel begins, the planning of the robbery is already under way, with an address scrawled on the back of a winning ticket leading to a late-night meeting in a furnished room on New York's East 31st Street (in the film, the racetrack is located in California, in the novel it's on Long Island). It's not until Chapter Two that we meet Johnny, just out of jail and reunited with his faithful - and patient - girlfriend, Fay. In some ways, the characters are archetypes, but they're sharply drawn. White has only to sketch them quickly and, for the purposes of the plot, they're good to go. All the backstory is conveyed through dialogue, or brief interior thoughts.

THE KILLING is a lightning-fast read, only 155 pages in the Black Lizard edition, and as lean and mean as they come. One can see the influence it had on Donald E. Westlake's "Richard Stark" novels, which were to begin seven years later. Reading it in 2009, it doesn't seem dated at all.

The book's manipulation of time - with multiple versions of the same events told from different viewpoints - is retained in the film, though its best-known homage would come almost forty years later, in the fractured chronologies of Quentin Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. The novel is crafted as carefully and painstakingly as the robbery itself - though much more successfully, of course. It seems effortless, the work of a total pro, and it ends, as does the movie, with a nerve-wracking near getaway at an airport (LaGuardia in the book), though the finale lacks the ironic twist - and classic last line - of Kubrick's film.

Even more than W.R. Burnett's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE KILLING is the granddaddy of modern heist stories, and the blueprint for dozens of novels and films that came after it. Fifty-four years after its publication, it remains a cornerstone of American crime fiction.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thought for the day ...

"To buy books would be a good thing, if we also could buy the time to read them."
- Arthur Schopenhauer 1788-1860

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Summer (and fall) in Asbury

And if you didn't take my word that the Asbury Park Boardwalk came back in a big way this summer (and continues to this fall), here's another Shore native to give it his endorsement. That's the Wonder Bar behind him. No word if he stopped in for a cold one.

Also, to update the availability issue, signed first editions of both THE BARBED-WIRE KISS and THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE are now available at the Asbury Galleria, inside the Grand Arcade between Convention Hall and The Paramount Theatre.

The Galleria also has an ongoing Morro Castle exhibit, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the fire that claimed 137 lives on the passenger liner. The smoking hulk beached just outside Convention Hall on Sept. 8, 1934 and remained there for six months until it was hauled away and cut up for scrap metal. A monument to the disaster was unveiled on the boardwalk last month, along with some rare home movie footage (below) shot from the beach after the ship came to rest.
Home movie footage of the luxury liner Morro Castle disaster

Monday, October 05, 2009

Marlowe and more

I've been on a campaign recently - not always a successful one - to stop bringing more books into the living quarters, at least until I've created additional shelf space. Things are already out of control, and though I've been gradually selling books off on eBay, it doesn't seem to have made much of a dent in the overall situation. So why did I go to this year's NYC Collectible Paperback and Pulp Fiction Expo this weekend? Just to look, I told myself, walk around a little, enjoy an Indian Summer day in the city.

Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, I walked out with the above. No regrets though, especially since, as the expo wound down, the dealers were eager to strike bargains before packing up. It was tough to turn away from these, all vintage Fawcett Gold Medals with McGinnis covers, from two of the hardest of the hard-boiled writers.

They are:

THE BLACK ICE SCORE By Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake). (1968). First printing of the 11th Parker novel. The third after Westlake/Stark moved over to Fawcett from Pocket Books.

OPERATION FIREBALL By Dan J. Marlowe. (1969). The third in the "Earl Drake" series, after THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH and ONE ENDLESS HOUR. With FIREBALL, Drake began his transformation from professional criminal to government agent.

FLASHPOINT By Dan J. Marlowe. (1970). The fourth Drake book, and the winner of that year's Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

I'd read the Stark before, in another edition, but neither of the two Marlowes. This time, unfortunately, neither of them were autographed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (or however it's spelled)

My Quentin Tarantino jones is fading.

Late to the party as always, but I finally got around to seeing INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS this week (I'm still not sure what the deal is with the wonky spelling). Despite the mostly glowing reviews, I'd shied away at first, worried it would follow the trend of recent QT films, ie. non-stop homages to other movies and directors and lots of "cool" flashy violence, none of which seemed to involve characters recognizable as actual human beings.

I thought RESERVOIR DOGS was brilliant when I first saw it (though I watched it again recently and didn't feel it aged well, perhaps a consequence of it having been imitated so often). I thought PULP FICTION was one of the best films of 1994 - and one of the best dark comedies ever. I loved JACKIE BROWN, in which it looked like QT was moving in a new and exciting direction, marrying his hotwired idiosyncratic direction and dialogue to a story about real people. Samuel Jackson's Ordell Robbie is funny and profane through much of the film, but by the end, he's scary and dangerous - as he should be (that's the film Jackson should have won an Oscar for. It's a beautifully nuanced and textured performance). Sure, there were references to other films (including borrowing the title song from 1972's ACROSS 110TH STREET), but they never got in the way of the story.

I found the two KILL BILL films diverting but empty. My friend, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, perfectly summed them up when he said it was like having Tarantino show you scenes from his DVD collection at random. Look, there's a reference to Brian DePalma! Hey, it's got the old Shaw Bros. logo! Isn't that the theme song from LADY SNOWBLOOD? Wow, he's using Ennio Morricone's NAVAJO JOE score here!

Like the cliche about Chinese food, KILL BILL 1&2 mostly left me wanting to see a real movie an hour later. Or just watch LADY SNOWBLOOD again.

Then came DEATH PROOF, QT's half of GRINDHOUSE, which, despite some great car stunts and authentic '70s ambiance, seemed endlessly dull and talky, filled with dialogue no one would ever speak except in a Tarantino film (when was the last time you heard a sweet 20-something make a ZATOICHI reference in casual conversation?).

So I approached INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS with some trepidation. Well earned, as it turned out. I thought parts of it were brilliant in a meta sort of way, especially the idea of cinema as a metaphor for war ("Film is a battleground," director and WWII vet Sam Fuller used to say). The performances were almost uniformly excellent, especially Christoph Waltz (right) as Col. Hans Landa, "The Jew Hunter," who all but steals the film. That opening scene in a French farmhouse is a brilliant model of quiet suspense punctuated with humor. If it feels a little familiar, it's probably because it seems to be patterned after an early scene from Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, in which Lee Van Cleef quietly menaces a Mexican family on their sleepy farm. Tarantino even layers some Morricone on the soundtrack to cement the connection.

A scene in a basement tavern midway through the film is another terrific set piece, building the tension as a clever German officer become suspicious of a soldier at a nearby table whose accent is just a little off. It's a great scene, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense (why would a double agent plan a secret meeting with undercover Allied commandos in a rathskeller that just might be full of German soldiers at the time?)

Not that I expected the film to be much concerned with verisimilitude. It begins with the title card "Once upon a time in Occupied France ...." so we know right away what we're getting into. Certainly, 64 years later, there's no reason not to make a fairy tale about WWII, or, more accurately, about WWII movies (though the nod is to Leone as well). The film never really overtly references the Holocaust though, and wisely so. The whole ridiculous souffle would collapse in the context of that reality. Instead, we have a troop of mostly Jewish-American commandos killing, scalping and mutilating German soldiers as revenge for the generic crime of "killing Jews."

Despite the title, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS doesn't really spend much time with the commandos themselves. And what we see is pretty thin. They're essentially ciphers led by a caricature, Brad Pitt as "Lt. Aldo Raine." The only one we see much of is Sgt. "Donny" Donowitz, played by HOSTEL director Eli Roth (in fact, we see too much of him, while real actors like Til Schweiger are mostly wasted in minor roles). In an early scene, Roth's character graphically beats a helpless German soldier to death with a baseball bat, and then cheers as if it were a home run at Yankee Stadium. All that's missing is a 1940's-era high-five with his fellow GIs. Are we supposed to laugh at this? Cheer him on? Should we be equally amused when Pitt uses a bowie knife to carve a swastika into the forehead of a pleading prisoner who's already given them the information they want? (I'm curious how the film plays in Germany). Is that sort of cruelty on the part of the film's ostensible heroes meant to be entertaining? Invigorating? Instead, it reeked to me of the phony fanboy violence so many of Tarantino's imitators have indulged in for the last 15 years.

It's obvious Tarantino is aware of these ironies. He gives the doomed soldier some moments of silent bravery before the bat connects with his skull, and a later scene has a German audience cheering and laughing at a propaganda film depicting American soldiers being gunned down by a German sniper. But is INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS "morally complicated," as QT maintains in interviews? Or just "morally bankrupt," as my former colleague Stephen Whitty would have it? I'm leaning toward the latter.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Almost a book

Also, I'll be dusting off and updating the site over the next couple months. If you have any suggestions for something you'd like to see more (or less) of there, or have ideas for possible additional features, drop me a note either here or there (I'll be turning comment moderation back on for this one. I'm no fool).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jim Carroll 1949-2009

Teddy sniffing glue, he was 12 years old
Fell from the roof on East Two-nine
Cathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
On 26 reds and a bottle of wine
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked like 65 when he died
He was a friend of mine

Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died

– Jim Carroll, "People Who Died"

Who would have thought a punk song reciting a litany of tragic deaths could be so macabre and touching at the same time?

"People Who Died" was the best-known song from Jim Carroll's 1980 album "Catholic Boy," and sadly it's the one that springs to mind after hearing of his death from a heart attack Sept. 11 at age 60. A privileged prep school kid and star athlete who fell into heroin addiction and gay hustling before resurrecting himself as a poet and punk rocker, Carroll wrote songs about surviving. There's nothing ironic about "People Who Died." All the names belong to real people, and the song is Carroll's tribute to them. He lived the same lives they did. He just lived long enough to tell about it.

Most people know Carroll - if at all - from the 1995 film THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, based on his 1978 autobiography of the same name (Leonardo Di Caprio played him in the film). In addition to two memoirs, Carroll published six books of poetry. And although he made a half dozen albums, his first, "Catholic Boy," is the rawest expression of his talent. The playing isn't always inspired (it sometime sounds a little too much generic bar band proto-punk), but the lyrics snap and tear. I haven't listened to the album in years (I only have it on vinyl), but complete verses are still lodged in my memory.

For example, from the title song:

"I make angels dance and drop to their knees
When I enter a church the feet of statues bleed
I understand the fate of all my enemies
Just like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane ....
I was a Catholic Boy
Redeemed through pain, not through joy."

Why Abel Ferrara didn't work this into the soundtrack of BAD LIEUTENANT will always be a mystery to me.

Carroll's history and past lives are well documented. He hung out with Andy Warhol, partied with Lou Reed and was close friends with Patti Smith, who encouraged his music. Allegedly, it's Carroll's voice that can be heard during between-song chatter on The Velvet Underground's classic "Live at Max's Kansas City" album from 1970, inquiring after some Tuinals and a double Pernod. Though he'd kicked heroin in 1973 after nearly 10 years (he'd started at age 13), Carroll was always gaunt and pale, and had become even more skeletal and haunted in recent years. If anyone had been casting a film about the last years of noir writer Cornell Woolrich, they would have needed to look no further.

But what I'll always remember Carroll best for is a poetry reading he gave at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1983. The buzz over his first two albums had died out and he was still in the studio recording the third, so he'd faded from public view. The reading was held in a tiny room in the old College Avenue Student Center, about 30 chairs in all, only half of which were occupied when he took the small stage. To everyone's surprise, he brought along Lenny Kaye, guitarist with the Patti Smith Group (and a Rutgers grad), who'd been working with him in the studio that afternoon.

After reading several poems (the one I remember best was titled "Your Clitoris," the final lines being "Your clitoris/Is a monument/To my boredom"), Carroll brought Kaye on stage. He plugged his electric guitar into a small amp and they proceeded to premiere songs from the still-in-progress album, "I Write Your Name." This to a room of 15 people, Carroll gripping the mike and prowling the stage, Kaye playing scorching guitar behind him through a single tiny amp. When the power outlet to the stage blew out with the overload, Carroll continued to sing a cappella, moving out into the audience, snarling his lyrics, any dividing line between poet and rocker long shattered. It was one of the seven top music moments of my life.

**** Above, Patti Smith, left, and Jim Carroll in 1969. Photo by Wren D'Antonio.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Just an American Boy

It's a brief scene, barely four minutes long, but it's one of the most memorable in American film.

A slowly unraveling New York City cab driver (Robert De Niro) meets a sleazy, motor-mouthed gun dealer in a cheap hotel room. The dealer reels off the attributes of his various armaments (".380 Walther ... isn't that a little honey?") while the camera lovingly lingers on all that gleaming steel and wood. De Niro's character buys four guns and accoutrements, to the tune of $900. But even while the dealer's packing them up in a handy gym bag, he continues a steady stream of pitches for other contraband ("Crystal meth? I can get you crystal meth. Nitrous oxide, how about that?").

The movie of course, is Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic TAXI DRIVER, and the scene offers one of the few laughs in the film. The dealer - referred to as "Easy Andy, the Traveling Salesman" - is played by Scorsese's friend and collaborator Steven Prince, a non-actor whom the director brought in for a cameo, and in doing so immortalized in film history. But Scorsese wasn't done with him. The following year he made Prince the subject of a documentary, AMERICAN BOY, filmed over the course of a single evening at the L.A. home of actor and Scorsese regular George Memmoli.

Shot handheld by cinematographer Michael Chapman (who also lensed TAXI DRIVER), the documentary is essentially 55 minutes of unfiltered Prince, interspersed with home movies and photos from his childhood. He talks about being a 21-year-old road manager for Neil Diamond, a nightclub and concert promoter and all-around show business jack-of-all-trades. He speaks equally candidly about his years as a heroin addict, recounting an incident where a woman overdosed at a shooting gallery and he revived her with an adrenaline shot to the heart, a story Quentin Tarantino borrowed in its entirety for a scene in PULP FICTION. Most harrowingly, Prince recalls shooting a man to death at a Barstow, Calif., gas station, where he worked during an Easter vacation from college.

For many years, AMERICAN BOY has been Scorsese's lost film. It didn't get a theatrical release and, outside of poor-quality bootlegs, hasn't been available on home video since the days of laserdisc. Plenty of filmmakers have seen it though. In addition to Tarantino's lift, director Richard Linklater got Prince to repeat the gas station story verbatim for his 2001 digitally rotoscoped film WAKING LIFE.

For the last year, AMERICAN BOY has been available in its entirety on YouTube, divided into six parts. It's compulsive - and compelling - viewing, especially for its behind-the-scenes look at Scorsese and company (in addition to Memmoli and Chapman, also visible on screen is MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL co-writer Mardik Martin). It's of a piece with Scorsese's 1974 doc ITALIANAMERICAN, and was often paired with it at film festivals.

Thirty years later comes director Tommy Pallotta's follow-up, AMERICAN PRINCE. A sometime Linklater collaborator, Pallotta stumbled upon Prince by accident in Austin, Texas, a couple years back. Pallotta befriended Prince - who now works as a general contractor and manages a medical marijuana shop - and eventually convinced him to sit for another filmed storytelling session.

As opposed to the rail-thin, hollow-eyed Prince of 1977, the 2009 version is amazingly healthy-looking and youthful (he's 61). His nasal New York whine has softened somewhat, but he's as animated as ever when it comes to talking about his eventful life, his friendship with Scorsese and Band frontman Robbie Robertson (at one point all three shared a house on Los Angeles' Mulholland Drive) and his own responses to the 1978 documentary. He also dishes some less-than-flattering stories, especially one about star Liza Minnelli having affairs with both Scorsese and De Niro while shooting 1977's NEW YORK, NEW YORK, a film Prince appeared in and crewed on.

Without a distributor or theatrical release (or rights clearances), Pallotta's film has been kicking around on the web, and is on-and-off YouTube (currently on, you can see it here).

The two films are excellent companion pieces. Both are light on biographical details, aside from the brief unconnected anecdotes Prince relates about his childhood and parents, but the stories speak for themselves (watch BOY first though, as Pallotta's film contains spoilers for stories in the original documentary). Seen back-to-back, they're amazing time capsules as well as oral histories. And for anyone interested in Scorsese or Hollywood in the 1970s, they're required viewing.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Big Apple Time Capsule Pt. 4: SHAFT'S BIG SCORE!

The fourth in an occasional series of posts about New York City in the 1970s as seen through the prism of that decade's shot-on-location crime dramas ... (for the complete series so far, click here).

"Stay outta Queens!"

- A gangster's warning in SHAFT'S BIG SCORE!
Fortunately, the makers of SHAFT'S BIG SCORE! (1972), the sequel to the previous year's blockbuster SHAFT, didn't heed that warning. This time, instead of restricting their cameras to lower Manhattan and Harlem, they ventured into the Outer Boros for some gritty on-location filming along the Brooklyn/Queens waterfront during a snowy New York winter. With director Gordon Parks Sr. again at the helm, the film was shot by Urs Furrer, the DP on SHAFT as well as another essential '70s N.Y. film, THE SEVEN-UPS.

SHAFT'S BIG SCORE! is far from a great movie. It lacks some of the first film's freshness, and seems to have been hastily shot and edited (it opened in June 1972, less than a year after the first film was released). In addition to directing, Parks also composed the jazzy score (and has a cameo as a croupier at a mob casino). Unfortunately, though Isaac Hayes contributed an already-recorded instrumental ("Type Thang") to the soundtrack, his iconic "Theme from Shaft" is nowhere to be found.

What did get better this time around was Richard Roundtree in the title role. He's much more confident and natural here than in the first film (his debut), really coming into his own as leading man and action hero (he also gets to show off a lot of great '70s leatherwear and turtlenecks). Also returning were Moses Gunn and Drew "Bundini" Brown as Harlem mob boss Bumpy Jonas (loosely based on real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson) and his sidekick Willy, who provides much of the film's comic relief.

Not all the performances are at that level though, and the film sometimes seems indifferently directed. There's an odd extra beat after many of the line readings, and what should have been a brutal and kinetic hallway fight is shot in slow motion. Some of this may be due to the film's relatively low budget and tight schedule. After the success of the first film, one imagines the race was on to have a sequel in theaters by the following summer (in the liner notes to the soundtrack album, Parks says the entire score was "conceived, written and recorded in a little over two weeks, an exhausting two weeks.")

The screenplay was written by Oscar winner Ernest Tidyman, Shaft's creator, who later novelized the script and went on to write five more Shaft novels as well. As in the first film, a brewing white-black mob war is at the center of the plot. A pre-credits bomb blast kills a Queens funeral home director and numbers kingpin, who also happens to be Shaft's girlfriend's brother. Soon, gangsters are after her as well, and Shaft suspects her brother's shady partner is as much to blame as the white mobsters "from downtown" who want to move in on the Queens numbers racket (in the novel, the bombed office is located on Myrtle Avenue).

The chief mafioso is played by soap opera star Joe Mascola (whose character is named, cleverly, "Gus Mascola"). His right-hand man is played by the late, great character actor Joe Santos, a familiar face on television for nearly 40 years, most recently in the 2004 season of THE SOPRANOS. Mascola gets to show off his clarinet-playing talents in the film, as well as model an assortment of dressing gowns and smoking jackets. The imposing Julius Harris pops in occasionally as the obligatory hard-boiled police captain trying to get Shaft to cooperate with the authorities.

Though much of the film takes place in Queens, we also get another look at Shaft's ridiculously large Greenwich Village apartment, complete with fireplace, spiral staircase and a bookshelf well-stocked with African-American literature (Frank Yerby's novel FAIR OAKS, Henry Seaton's LION IN THE MORNING and Earl Shorris' OFAY are visible, along with Theodore White's THE VIEW FROM THE FORTIETH FLOOR). Behind the bookshelf is Shaft's Secret Stash, including a new-at-the-time-but-now-obsolete High Standard HS-10B automatic shotgun, which he unleashes on the mobsters during a chilly standoff at Queens' Cypress Hills Cemetery (in the novelization, he wields a plain old sawed-off 12-gauge pump).
At times, SBS! is more James Bond than Shaft, a shift in tone emphasized by the film's poster (top). But whatever its flaws, the movie redeems itself in its final half-hour, with an expertly filmed car chase along the Brooklyn waterfront (with Shaft riding shotgun - literally - in a red 1972 Plymouth Sebring) that turns into a boat chase and ends with a Bondian man-vs-helicopter duel in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Though it may not have had the cultural impact of its predecessor, SHAFT'S BIG SCORE! is actually a very entertaining New York crime/action film. In some ways, it's looser and livelier than the first film, downplaying the racial aspects and avoiding some of that film's stiffness. And Roundtree is a pleasure to watch - cool, calm, collected and dynamic. Even without Isaac Hayes' theme behind him, he's still the man.

**** Above right: Roundtree and Parks on location filming the Cypress Hills Cemetery shootout.

NEXT TIME: "The French Connection"

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #4: THE OUT IS DEATH

The fourth installment of my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperbacks from the late 1980s and early '90s (for the others, just click on "Black Lizard Books" in the labels at bottom).

THE OUT IS DEATH by Peter Rabe


ORIGINAL PUBLICATION: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1957

THE STORY: Ex-mobster comes to the aid of an aging safecracker being manipulated by a gang of young thugs.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Classic hard-boiled pulp from one of the masters.

I've written about Peter Rabe before, most recently for one of Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Fridays. THE OUT IS DEATH was Rabe's third novel featuring masterless hood Daniel Port (I think it's the third, they were written and published in such a short period of time that it's hard to tell). A sort of American ronin, Port first appeared in 1956's DIG MY GRAVE DEEP, and TOID continues his adventures after leaving "The Stoker Mob" in some unnamed major American city. An amoral gangster battling even worse bad guys, Port is one of the predecessors of Donald E. Westlake's Parker, who would come along six years later, in 1962's THE HUNTER. Westlake often sang Rabe's praises in interviews, and rightly so. Along with Dan J. Marlowe, Rabe was one of the architects and greatest practitioners of post-war hard-boiled paperback-original noir.

In THE OUT IS DEATH, Port tries to rescue an old and infirm safecracker named Dalton from the clutches of a brutal young thug named Corday, who wants Dalton to go on one last job for him. It's a generational thing, as it turns out, with old school gangster Port going up against the '50s-style juvenile delinquents of Corday's gang. Doesn't take much to figure out who comes out on top. Suffice it to say that there were five Port novels in all, the last being 1959's TIME ENOUGH TO DIE. Black Lizard reprinted three and most have remained out of print since, though some are now showing up on Kindle.

TOID does bear similarities to Westlake's 1965 Stark novel THE JUGGER, the sixth book in the series, in which Parker travels to Nebraska to find out what happened to his contact and go-between, an aging safecracker named Joe Sheer, who's fallen prey to a corrupt small-town cop (in that sense, THE JUGGER also owes a debt to Marlowe's THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH). In THE JUGGER, though, Sheer is dead before Parker arrives (and Parker was prepared to kill him as a security measure anyway). In TOID, Port comes to Dalton's aid in time to save him from that fate, though he also has selfish reasons for getting involved, including Corday's va-va-voom girlfriend.

Here's a slice of classic Rabe understatement, as Port barrels his way through some thugs blocking his exit from a nightclub:

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.

If, like me, you've read and reread all the Stark books many times over (and sadly, there will be no more), be on the lookout for Rabe's Daniel Port novels. They're worth the effort.

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: Lionel White's THE KILLING (aka CLEAN BREAK)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Book of books

Back in June 1982, when I was attending college and living in St. Augustine, Fla., I decided to begin keeping an ongoing log of every book I read, noting the title, author and whether it was fiction or non-fiction.

Why I did it, I'm not sure. But I still have that original black-and-white composition notebook - even though it's falling apart slightly - and list every new book as I finish it. I break the lists up by year, drawing a demarcation line every June to make it easier to keep track of the titles and be able to tell what books I'd read in a given (June-to-June) year. Nowadays though, when I look back at earlier pages, I sometimes see titles I have no memory of reading at all - they ring not even the slightest bell.

Looking through the lists now, I can see that I read a lot of junk over the years - paperback action series, movie tie-ins and the like - but a lot of good stuff too. It's also a walk down Memory Lane. I can remember where I was and what I was doing in specific years based on the books I read. I see the first book I ever reviewed (Stephen King's THINNER, review published in the Asbury Park Press in Feb. 1985, shortly after the news of the "Richard Bachman" pseudonym broke). I also see books I remember vividly - as if I'd read them yesterday, instead of 20 years ago - listed right next to books I have absolutely no recall of whatsoever, and if you'd asked me if I'd read them, I'd answer no.

Here are some sample pages (click on images to enlarge):

From 1987-'88:

From 2001-'02:

And here's a quick by-the-numbers run-down:

Total Number of Books (June 1, 1982 to Aug. 10, 2009): 1,358

First Book Listed (June 1982): THE WAGES OF FEAR by Georges Arnaud (French suspenser about dynamite-hauling truck drivers, basis of 1953 film).

Most Recent Book Listed (Aug. 10, 2009): BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS by Barry N. Malzberg (a collection of essays by the N.J. science fiction/mystery author).

Most Read Year: June 1985 to June 1986, 81 books. (I had a lot of free time on my hands, I guess).

Least Read Year: June 2005 to June 2006, 20 books (Hey, I had other things going on).

Yearly Average: 50.2 books

Ratio of Fiction to Non-Fiction: 21 to 1

Complete Listing of Titles From a Single Page Chosen at Random, in the Order I Read Them:

From 1983-'84:

THE SIEGE OF TRENCHER'S FARM (source of the Peckinpah film STRAW DOGS) - Gordon M. Williams
THE TIN CRAVAT - Jack D. Hunter (second sequel to THE BLUE MAX)
THE REVOLT OF THE COCKROACH PEOPLE - Oscar Zeta Acosta (fictionalized memoir by Chicano activist immortalized in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS)
I MARRIED A DEAD MAN - Cornell Woolrich (deep into my Woolrich phase by this point)
ASSIGNMENT: BLACK VIKING - Edward S. Aarons (No. #25 in the Sam Durell action series published by Fawcett Gold Medal)
MASTER-AT-ARMS - Rafael Sabatini (one of my favorite novelists)
TOMOE GOZEN - Jessica Amanda Salmonson (samurai fantasy fiction)
THE OUTRIDER - Richard Harding (first of a futuristic series in a ROAD WARRIOR vein)
SCOUNDREL TIME - Lillian Hellman
THE STRANGER - Albert Camus
GONJI #3: SAMURAI COMBAT - T.C. Rypel (more samurai action)
THE BIG GRAB - John Trinian (pseudonymous caper novel by screenwriter/author Zekial Marko. Filmed in France as ANY NUMBER CAN WIN)
THE HUNTER - Richard Stark
THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE - Richard Stark (the Avon Stark reprints were starting to come out)
THE DOGS OF WAR - Frederick Forsyth
HORRIDO! - Col. Raymond Toliver and Trevor Constabile (profiles of WWII Luftwaffe fighter pilots)

I guess it doesn't get more eclectic than that. And that's just one page.

Anybody out there do something similar?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Signed firsts and summer in Asbury

For those who've asked about signed copies of my first two novels - THE BARBED-WIRE KISS and THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE (both of which have slipped out of print in recent months) - I'm told that Don Stine at Antic Hay Books still has some in stock, in both hardcover and paperback editions. I signed all of Don's stock back when he still had a physical store on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park, the site of one of my favorite signings ever, as part of a late night Asbury Park "Art After Dark" festival in 2005.

Though Antic Hay no longer has an actual storefront, Don continues to stock books on Shore authors and topics though, and has an extensive collection of memorabilia from the city's glory days (he'll probably have some signed firsts of GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER come January as well).

If you haven't been to Asbury lately, it's definitely worth the visit. The revitalization that has taken place, on the beachfront at least, is amazing. Where the boardwalk area was once a ghost town of ruined buildings and empty storefronts that brought to mind CARNIVAL OF SOULS, it's now lined with restaurants, shops, food stands and a water park.

Because of the stunted economy, not everything has come to fruition (an unfinished condo building on Ocean Avenue stands on the site of a previous unfinished condo building), but this has been the most concerted effort to bring Asbury Park around in decades. You can find hundreds of people on the boardwalk and beach any given day this summer. There's even talk of reopening the legendary Upstage coffehouse at Cookman and Bond, which should have been named some sort of musical landmark years ago if nothing else. Instead it sat empty and deserted for more than three decades.

So, to quote another Shore resident, here's one for Asbury, hoping that the best may be yet to come.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER: The Video (sort of)

Courtesy of Newark's own Wyclef Jean. This song, from his 1997 album "The Carnival," was a sort of spiritual inspiration for the novel in the very early days.

A remix can be found here. And here's a live version of the song featuring Soul Asylum.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cover preview

It won't be out until January, but here's an early look at the cover of the new novel (due out Jan. 19.), courtesy of the good folks at St. Martin's/Minotaur. Thoughts?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mann's world

Over at THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR (and originally at the Museum of the Moving Image site), Matt Zoller Seitz concludes "Zen Pulp," his five-part series of video essays on the work of director Michael Mann. The final installment is devoted to my favorite pre-WIRE TV crime series, CRIME STORY.

Matt's entertaining and incisive essay (which, in full disclosure, I did contribute to slightly and I mean slightly) looks back at Mann's retro crime drama, which ran only two seasons in the mid-'80s, but whose multi-episode story arcs helped pave the way for shows such as THE SOPRANOS, DEADWOOD and the above-mentioned WIRE (echoes of it can also be seen in Mann's own HEAT).

The show made a star of Dennis Farina (above), and rightly so. As Chicago Major Crimes Unit Lt. Mike Torello, Farina brought just the right combination of charm and toughness to the role. In general, it had to be one of the best-cast series ever. Both seasons were packed with actors who went on to major careers, including Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, David Caruso, Gary Sinise, Ving Rhames, Lili Taylor, Michael Madsen and dozens of others. And, of course, the two-hour pilot (startlingly violent for network TV at the the time), was directed by the great Abel Ferrara.

I used to own the entire show - both seasons - on VHS. A few years back, during a bad attack of the flu that left me wiped out and sleepless for more than a week, I watched almost all the episodes back-to-back from my living room couch. I think if my downstairs neighbors heard "Runaway" one more time they were going to kill me.

I'd always hoped there would be a follow-up two-hour TV movie tying up the show's loose ends (the second season ended with a silly cliffhanger that felt like it belonged in a 1930s serial), but it was not to be. All we're left with is a not-so-great DVD set with poor picture quality, almost no extras and some of the original music removed for legal reasons. Hopefully, someone will get around to doing this right someday. It deserves it.

Matt's previous entries in the series look at MIAMI VICE, Mann's iconic male heroes, the role of women in his films, and Mann's use of doppelgangers and mirror images, especially in his film MANHUNTER. If you're even a moderate Mann fan, they're all worth checking out.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New short story

My short story "Heart" appears in the new (Aug. 2009) issue of INSIDE JERSEY magazine, currently on N.J. newsstands and home-delivered (in certain zip codes) with today's (7/19) copy of the Newark Star-Ledger. Individual copies are also available by calling (800) 876-2326.

The story is a prequel of sorts to the new novel, GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER, which will be published Jan. 19 by St. Martin's/Minotaur. They both feature Morgan, an aging enforcer for a Newark drug gang. "Heart" is set at N.J.'s Monmouth Park during a summer stakes race. It's accompanied by a terrific illustration from artist Andre Malok.

Readers with good memories will recall an earlier version of a short story with the same title that appeared in Maggie Estep and Jason Starr's excellent anthology BLOODLINES a few years back. The new version is much improved, albeit slightly cleaned up in terms of violence and profanity. Many thanks to INSIDE JERSEY editor Rosemary Parrillo for taking a chance on it. It's the first piece of fiction the magazine has published, though hopefully not the last.

And totally unrelated:
There have been many great interpretations of the songs of Bruce Springsteen. But this one, from actress Mary-Louise Parker, has to be among the best. She does leave out a few verses though. 

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thought for the day ...


... from the new album, "Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women," featuring Alvin and seven of America's premiere female folk musicians and songwriters. The lyrics are from Alvin's soulful version of "These Times We're Living In," written and originally recorded by the late singer/songwriter Kate Wolf:

If I could, I'd tell you now,
There are no roads that do not bend
The days, like flowers, bloom and fade
And they do not come again.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Sisters in crime

For those in the N.J./N.Y. area, two of the brightest new voices in crime fiction will be hosting a launch party/signing event Tuesday, July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at New York's Mysterious Bookshop. Appearing will be Megan Abbott, author of the new BURY ME DEEP (Simon & Schuster), and Theresa Schwegel, whose novel LAST KNOWN ADDRESS (St. Martin's Minotaur) is just out as well. Both are Edgar Award winners (Abbott for Best Paperback Original for last year's QUEENPIN, and Schwegel for Best First Novel for 2005's OFFICER DOWN) as well as being lovely and charming. The Mysterious Bookshop is at 58 Warren Street in Tribeca, a short walk north from the WTC Path station. (212) 587-1011.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Black Lizard Lounge #3: VIOLENT SATURDAY

The third installment of my ongoing occasional look back at some vintage Black Lizard paperbacks from the late 1980s and early '90s:




THE STORY: A bank robbery throws a small Alabama town into chaos.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A major Southern novel disguised as a crime thriller. Or maybe the other way around.

"The three men arrived in Morgan Friday afternoon on the two-thirty train from Memphis. They were the only strangers to get off the train that day, and several people noticed them but didn't pay them much attention. They might have been salesmen or minor businessmen of some sort. They only reason they were noticed at all was because there were three of them."

So begins W. L. Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY. The three aren't salesmen, of course, or minor businessmen. They're big city bank robbers who descend on the small town of Morgan, Ala., to plunder the local Savings and Loan. As their plans proceed and the titular day looms closer, the town itself seems to tremble with anticipation, as if a storm were gathering on the horizon. But before that happens, Heath delves "Peyton Place"-like into the passions and private dramas of Morgan's citizens, none of whom are very innocent themselves. When the run-up to the robbery leads to the kidnapping of the book's ostensible hero, an "expediter" for the Fairchild Chenille Company, things start to go badly wrong. And the book earns its title in a climactic shoot-out that's startling in its realism, especially by 1955 standards.

One of the great things Black Lizard did during its original run was bring near-forgotten novels like this back into print (even if they promptly fell out again), and VIOLENT SATURDAY is maybe the best of the bunch. Unlike most of their reissues, it wasn't first published as a paperback original. Though it was Heath's debut novel, it was bought and published in hardcover by Harper, and the film rights sold almost immediately. It was filmed later that year at 20th Century Fox, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Victor Mature, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin in an early role. The story was transplanted to Arizona, with Borgnine as an Amish farmer (!) who helps foil the robbery. The film isn't available on DVD, but can be seen in its entirety on Hulu.

VIOLENT SATURDAY is very much a novel of its time, and the casual racial epithets can be a little jarring, even in context. But the finely nuanced social observations and expert build-up of suspense put it right in the forefront of American crime novels of the 1950s.

William Ledbetter Heath has become something of an enigma in the decades since the book was published. He wrote at least eight novels, three of those for younger readers, but all remain out of print. The Black Lizard edition of VIOLENT SATURDAY also contains a great introduction by Ed Gorman, with plenty of biographical details about Heath, who was still alive at the time (he died in 2007). Black Lizard also reprinted Heath's follow-up, the excellent ILL WIND, which again takes place in the fictional town of Morgan, though it's only marginally a crime novel. Last year, browsing in a used book store, I found a British edition of Heath's third novel BLOOD ON THE RIVER, which, as far as I can tell, has never have been published in the U.S. at all. Like those two earlier books, it's an almost flawless merging of character and action, deeply evocative of small-town communities in the rural South.

Next time at the Black Lizard Lounge: Peter Rabe's THE OUT IS DEATH