Saturday, December 26, 2015

George Clayton Johnson: 1929-2015

George Clayton Johnson, the last surviving member of the murderers row of The Twilight Zone writers of the early '60s (which included Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Rod Serling himself), passed away today (Dec. 25) at age 86. Some of the classic TZ episodes he wrote included "Kick the Can," "The Four of Us Are Dying" and - appropriately -"Nothing in the Dark" (that's him with star Robert Redford on the set of that 1962 ep). He also wrote the first STAR TREK episode "The Man Trap," co-wrote the novel and film LOGAN'S RUN, the original story behind OCEANS 11, episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, KUNG FU and much more.

Here's the VARIETY obituary.

Below is a clip from an amazing five-hour interview Johnson did with the Archive OF AMERICAN TELEVISION site about THE TWILIGHT ZONE and his television work.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A very Dali Christmas

You may think you have the Christmas spirit, but you don't have Salvador-Dali-at-a-booksigning-in-a-Santa-suit-eating-caviar Christmas spirit... .

Dali and his wife, Gala, signing books at Manhattan's Doubleday Bookstore, 1954. Photo by Philippe Halsman. Dali and Halsman's collaboration, DALI'S MUSTACHE (Simon and Schuster), had just been published.

There are 8 million Santas in the Naked City ...

... and here are two of them.

Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig) was probably on his way to photograph the aftermath of a mob rubout when he spotted these two sidewalk Santas coming out of the subway at Manhattan's West Fourth Street station. The photo appeared in the Dec. 27, 1954 issue of LIFE magazine with the following caption:

"The spirit of Christmas sometimes produces disquieting moments. In New York the Volunteers of America Inc. hires more than 50 men a day to dress up as Santa Claus and go out to the street corners around town soliciting contributions for the poor.

When their posts are in the same vicinity, the men often travel together. Emerging through the sidewalk exits, they give New Yorkers the shattering, if brief, illusion that Santa Claus not only comes in pairs but comes on a crowded 15¢ subway ride at that."

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Favorite Neo-Noir: Michael Mann's THIEF

“Keep in mind, kid, until your dying day, the only crime anywhere in the world is being broke.“
– “Oklahoma” Smith, as quoted by Frank Hohimer, in THE HOME INVADERS: CONFESSIONS OF A CAT BURGLER (1975)

“I am the last guy in the world that you want to fuck with.”
– “Frank,” as played by James Caan in THIEF (1981)

Michael Mann’s THIEF is the rarest of creations, an almost-perfect marriage of character, narrative and action. It gave James Caan what is probably the best role of his career. And, as Mann’s directorial debut, it announced his presence in the feature film world with authority.

THIEF centers around the single-named “Frank,” a Chicago jewel thief and safecracker who reluctantly agrees to take down some high-end scores for a mob fence and loan shark named Leo (Robert Prosky in his screen debut). Frank hopes this last string of lucrative robberies will help him create the life he aspires to, with a wife, Jessie (played by a weathered-but-still-luminous Tuesday Weld), an adopted child and an extended family that includes his mentor-in-crime, the imprisoned “Okla” (Willie Nelson in one of his first film roles).

Frank, who’s spent nearly half his life in prison, sees no reason why he can’t have these things, or why committing serial felonies isn’t the road to Happily Ever After. He wants to assemble his life the same way he organizes a heist, and he carries the blueprint around with him in the form of a childlike collage of Polaroids and pictures cut from magazines.

That new life is easier envisioned than realized though. As the stakes get higher and both the mob and crooked cops close in on him, Frank finally explodes, and embraces the nihilism he adopted in prison (what Mann calls his “Darwinian adaptation”). It’s his armor against a brutal world where, as Bruce Springsteen sings in “Something in the Night,” “As soon as you’ve got something/They send someone to try and take it away.”

THIEF is based on the book THE HOME INVADERS, a 1975 memoir by Francis Leroy Hohimer (left), a career criminal and burglar from Chicago who wrote the original manuscript while still in prison. It was eventually published by the indie Chicago Review Press, and soon optioned by Chicago native Mann for his feature debut. Mann had previous experience with the subject matter, having directed the acclaimed ABC-TV movie THE JERICHO MILE (1979), starring Peter Strauss and filmed at California’s Folsom Prison.

In commentary and interviews – most recently on the Criterion Blu-Ray of THIEF released in 2014 – Mann says after optioning THE HOME INVADERS he “threw the book out” and wrote the screenplay from scratch. However, significant parallels remain between the two. Both Franks own car dealerships and nightclubs, and have a mentor in prison (the character of Oklahoma Smith is carried over from book to film, as is much of the wisdom he imparts to Frank). Both are vocational criminals whose young adulthood was spent behind bars, and both work for brutal mob figures who eventually turn on them.

The differences, though, are major. The real Hohimer was primarily a cat burglar who, as the title of his book suggests, specialized in home invasions, targeting wealthy families. The film’s Frank excels in high-tech safecracking and sophisticated industrial robberies (depicted in rich detail by Mann, informed by a crew of Chicago “advisors”). Frank utilizes burning bars, magnetic drills and electronic countermeasures to commit his crimes. Hohimer’s method of opening a safe was to have the owner do it, on pain of injury or death. And most of Hohimer’s entries were by key, not by force, those keys having been provided to him by the notorious Chicago fence and mobster Leo Rugendorf. In THIEF, Caan’s Frank makes the distinction clear when he tells the film’s Leo what he will and won’t do. “No cowboy shit.” he says. “No home invasions.”

(Wikipedia and IMDB entries for both the film and Hohimer himself incorrectly state that “Frank Hohimer” was a pen name used by another convict named John Seybold. That’s untrue. As many sources have confirmed, Seybold and Hohimer were two different men).

Despite its urban nightscapes, rain-swept streets and atmosphere of claustrophobia and impending doom, THIEF is not a film noir, according to its director. In an interview taped for the Blu-Ray, Mann describes Frank as “a rat in a maze, the three-dimensional maze of the city,” but asserts that “I wasn’t thinking consciously about film noir at all. I think in true film noir there’s a sense of hopelessness, a sense of ennui ... that’s not THIEF.”

One might argue that THIEF certainly *looks* like a film noir. The art direction and cinematography, by Mary Dodson and Donald E. Thorin, respectively, lovingly depict a city gleaming with reflected neon, where shiny dark cars prowl wet streets, all of it set to an otherworldly electronic score by the German band Tangerine Dream.

With its glowing neon palette (including title credits that Nicolas Refn Winding obviously paid homage to in 2011’s DRIVE), THIEF does feel dated in a certain ‘80s way, but only in its stylistic tics. In one sense, it’s a throwback to American cinema of the 1970s, when even crime and action films tended to be character-driven. Caan’s Frank is fully realized, a man with a past, if not much of a future. He’s charming, but dangerous when cornered. On one level he’s a classic existential noir hero, yearning for things he can never have, and eventually dragged down into a hell of his own making.

When his partner Barry (played by Jim Belushi, in a role that seemed to promise a better film career than he actually had) is killed, and Leo threatens everything he loves, Frank again becomes the caged animal he knows he is at heart. He casts off his connections to the civilian world, and reverts to his prison mindset in order to become a man with nothing to lose, who can wreak vengeance without concern for its consequences. He tells Jessie that, in prison, “You gotta forget time. You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die.”

Leo begs to differ. “You one of those burned-out, demolished whackos in the joint?” he says. “Don’t come at me now with your jailhouse bullshit, because you are not that guy. ... You got a home, car, businesses, family, and I own the paper on your whole fucking life.”

But Leo’s wrong. As Frank proves at the end of the film, he *is* that guy. When he eventually takes down his tormentors in a brutally efficient gun battle at a suburban Chicago home, there’s nothing triumphant about it. His victory is both cathartic and tragic. Frank surrenders his hard-won humanity and post-prison achievements in order to survive. This rat escapes by blowing up the maze.

(Continue reading PART TWO here.)

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY magazine as part of its "My Favorite Neo-Noir" series.)

My Favorite Neo-Noir: Michael Mann's THIEF (Part Two)

(This is Part Two of an essay that originally appeared in an earlier form in the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY magazine.) You can find Part One here.

Though a centerpiece heist takes place in Los Angeles, THIEF is very much a Chicago film, shot mostly on location and steeped in local history. In addition to being Mann’s feature debut, it’s also full of local actors he’d use again. The late Dennis Farina, a former Chicago cop, plays one of Leo’s henchman. William Petersen (who starred with Farina in Mann’s MANHUNTER four years later) has a bit role as a nightclub bouncer. The leader of the corrupt cops is played by John Santucci, a real Chicago jewel thief who lent the production both his expertise and his burglary tools. Busy character actor Ted Levine (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, MONK, THE BRIDGE) plays one of his partners. Another real-life Chicago cop, Chuck Adamson, is seen as one of the officers who give Frank a station house beating in an attempt to shake him down.

Farina, Santucci and Levine would go on to star – and Adamson write and produce – Mann’s TV series CRIME STORY in 1986, a period piece set in Chicago in the early -60s that eventually migrated – as did the Chicago Outfit itself – to Las Vegas (in the series, Levine played a career criminal named “Frank Holman,” perhaps an homage to the author of THE HOME INVADERS). Other THIEF actors, such as Tom Signorelli and Nick Nickeas, eventually appeared in other Mann projects, including his breakthrough show, MIAMI VICE. Prosky, here alternately avuncular and terrifying (he smoothes the way for Frank and Jessie to adopt a baby, then threatens to kill all three of them), went on to a long career in film and TV.

Mann would revisit the world of professional thieves in his 1995 film HEAT, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, based on a 1989 TV movie he’d written and directed called L.A. TAKEDOWN. One thing all three films have in common is a long dialogue scene set in a coffee shop, in which the characters explain their philosophies, what’s important to them, and how far they’ll go to protect it.

Of the three, THIEF’s version is far and away the best, as Frank tells Jessie about his wasted prison years, and his hopes for the new life he plans to build piece by piece. She’s intrigued, and a little freaked out, but she’s had a rough time with men up until now, and though Frank is no prince himself, she’s ultimately won over by
his sincerity. He tells her about his first year in Joliet Prison, after being convicted on a $40 theft charge, and how he survived the abuse of guards and cons alike – though fighting back cost him another eight years behind bars. Caan and Weld are in top form here, and he brings it all home by giving us a glimpse of a “state-raised” kid who caught one bad break after another. It might be his finest moment on screen.

Unlike Caan’s character, the real Frank Hohimer eventually turned and became a government witness in 1974, after being prosecuted by a federal organized crime strike force in Chicago. He was being groomed by the Justice Department to testify against Rugendorf, who died before he could go to trial. His later years found Hohimer in and out of prison on a variety of charges. He died in 2003.

In retrospect, THIEF may or may not, as its director contends, be a film noir. But there’s no question it’s one of the most vivid cinematic renderings ever of the criminal life – and one of the best films of the decade.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Talking with Germany's Polar Noir magazine (Part Two)

Part Two of an indepth interview with Sonja Hartl from the German crime fiction magazine/website Polar Noir, tied to the release of the first Crissa Stone novel KALTER SCHUSS INS HERZ (aka COLD SHOT TO THE HEART) in a German translation from Pendragon Verlag.
The German translation of the interview can be found here.
Part One of the original English version is here.

SONJA HARTL: You have worked as a journalist – does this experience help you?

WALLACE STROBY: Yes. It’s no coincidence that a lot of crime fiction’s most successful authors – Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, John Sandford, Gene Kerrigan, etc. – are former journalists. Working in journalism teaches you how to write under deadline pressure, how to organize information properly and also how to handle the editing process – you build up a very thick skin working in journalism. You also look at the writing as a product of effort, rather than strictly inspiration. You often find that, even on what seems like uninspired days, if you just do the work – one foot in front of the other – the inspiration will come. But sometimes it doesn’t, and you just have to deal with that as well.
In the end though, all writing routines, systems, etc. are about the same thing – the illusion of control. As Stephen King says, there are only two pieces of advice to give to aspiring writers – read a lot and write a lot. That’s it.

SH: When you started writing novels, why did you choose to write a crime novel at all?

WS: I think what you write chooses you more than you choose it. When I was younger I read a little bit of everything – fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc. But in my later teen years, I found crime fiction was something that seemed to speak to me more, especially once I discovered the work of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and others. Those books felt like real life.

SH: In your blog "Live at the Heartbreak Lounge“ you write a lot about noir in literature and film. What is noir for you?

WS: I like to go with James Ellroy’s (possibly apocryphal) definition: “Everybody’s fucked – and then it gets worse.”

SH: A lot crime fiction aficionados (among them myself) like to say, that a crime novel is the best way to describe and analyse our society. What do you think about this?

WS: Crime stories have been around as long as there have been stories, beginning with Cain and Abel. So yes, I think they do give you a handle on addressing certain societal issues. Greed, corruption, jealousy and violence are the darker parts of human nature, but they’re always there, always have been and always will be. In traditional crime and detective fiction, order is restored out of chaos. In noir, chaos is the norm.

SH: Which noir writers have influenced you? (Please tell me something about them and how they have influenced you.)

WS: A long list. As I said above, Hammett and Cain at first, then Chandler to a certain extent, mainly for the way he evoked time and place. I loved – and still love – the dark prose-poem novels of Cornell Woolrich. Later I discovered more contemporary writers, such as John D. MacDonald, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake and others, who all seemed to come from that tradition, but were taking it in new directions. Then George V. Higgins’ THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE ushered in an ultra-realistic style of crime fiction, which influenced a whole generation, from Elmore Leonard to George Pelecanos.

I’ve also been influenced by many non-crime writers. For story, I always go back to Rafael Sabatini (CAPTAIN BLOOD, SCARAMOUCHE, etc)., who was a master at combining character and action. The opening line of SCARAMOUCHE – “He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” – tells you almost all you need to know about the main character.

SH: In most articles about your novels, Richard Stark and Garry Disher are mentioned. What do you think about this reference?

WS: Both are excellent writers. Westlake’s “Richard Stark“ books are master-classes in terse writing and narrative drive. I reread them often. They were out of print in the U.S. for many years, so I always kept a lookout for them in used book stores. I wasn’t able to read the complete series until years after they were first published.
I enjoyed Garry Disher’s Wyatt books very much in the 1990s, during that long break when Westlake had retired his Richard Stark persona. I’ve read all of them, and originally acquired them on-line as imports in the early days of internet shopping. Most of them are out of print now, and quite valuable apparently.

SH: Do films influence your writing? (If yes, how?)

WS: To a certain extent, yes. More for visuals than for story. Certainly anyone who’s written crime fiction since the 1930s has been influenced by the hundreds of crime films that have been made since. The visual component of modern crime writing is strong, and I think that’s the direct influence of films. For a lot of authors working today (myself included), one of the biggest influences are probably the character-driven crime films of the 1970s, such as THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE GETAWAY, SERPICO, etc.

But I’m also a huge fan of the westerns of Sergio Leone, and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, as well Vittorio DeSica’s neo-realist dramas, and almost anything by Samuel Fuller. Among current directors, Martin Scorsese, of course, as well as James Gray, Johnnie To and many others.

SH: Which are your favourite film noirs? 

WS: From the classic period – say 1940 to 1958 –- one of my favorites is a low-budget film called ARMORED CAR ROBBERY from 1950, which packs a great story, characters and action into 67 minutes. Also from that period, Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956), and Robert Wise’s THE SET-UP (1949) and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959).
From the ‘70s and ‘80s – what you might call the “neo-noir” period – I’d list TAXI DRIVER, CHINATOWN, THIEF, MANHUNTER and others.

SH: And are there any plans to adapt the Crissa Stone novels into a film? 

WS: Showtime Networks optioned the character for a possible series in 2012, and Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for adapting SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, wrote a pilot script. Like the majority of cable projects in development, however, it never went to pilot, and the rights reverted back to me last year. There has been a lot of interest since, but no commitments.

(In the interim, Pendragon Verlag created this full-cast trailer for KALTER SCHUSS ENS HERZ).

SH: My last question: Who are in your opinion the “unsung heroes” of noir?

WS: So many! I’ll stick with those who are no longer with us though, so as not to leave out any of my contemporaries.
Foremost, I’d say Malcolm Braly, who was probably America’s greatest prison novelist. His 1967 novel ON THE YARD is a masterpiece. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Eugene Izzi wrote a great series of crime novels set in Chicago, which are sadly out of print now. And although he’s best known for THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY?, Horace McCoy’s KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE (1948) is a brilliant noir novel, told in first person by a psychopathic career criminal. W. L. Heath’s trio of long out-of-print crime novels – VIOLENT SATURDAY, ILL WIND and BLOOD ON THE RIVER – are also forgotten classics. As far as one-offs, Dan J. Marlowe’s THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH is hard to beat for sheer cold-bloodedness.

I’ll mention one author who is still alive, though not writing and publishing fiction anymore. Poet and educator David Bottoms – once Georgia’s poet laureate – wrote two excellent crime novels in the late ‘80s, set in the rural South, ANY COLD JORDAN and EASTER WEEKEND. Both are beautifully written, but his only forays (so far) into fiction.

Talking with Germany's Polar Noir magazine (Part One)

Sonja Hartl from the German crime fiction magazine/website Polar Noir interviewed me indepth recently on a whole array of topics, tied to the release of the first Crissa Stone novel KALTER SCHUSS INS HERZ (aka COLD SHOT TO THE HEART) in a German translation from Pendragon Verlag.
The German translation of the interview can be found here. What follows is the original English version.

SONJA HARTL: How did you develop the idea for COLD SHOT TO THE HEART? Why is your protagonist female?

WALLACE STROBY: I’d always wanted to write an entire novel from the point of view of a career criminal, but someone with whom the reader might have a certain amount of sympathy. Part of my third novel, GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER, was written from the perspective of an aging black hitman, while the rest was from the point-of-view of a female sheriff’s deputy and single mom in a rural Florida town, the only woman in an otherwise all-male department.
With COLD SHOT TO THE HEART, I wanted to combine those two ideas, and have my criminal also be a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment. That raised all kinds of interesting possibilities.

SH.: I have to admit that I am a little skeptical when male crime authors have female protagonists. Was it difficult for you to write a crime novel with a woman as a main character?

WS: Actually, I found it freeing in some ways, because a woman in that position would handle things differently than the traditional lone wolf male protagonist. She’d make alliances, would have relationships, and would refrain from violence unless absolutely necessary. I’m neither a woman nor a professional criminal, but I did find common ground with her nonetheless. She’s careful, hyper-alert and painstaking to a fault, but at the same time capable of bursts of near-recklessness.
On the more practical side, my first reader, my agent and my editor were all women – and single moms at the time as well – so they were able to supply some guidance when needed.

SH: I like Crissa a lot because she is a woman in a very natural way and does not have to emphasize her “femaleness.“ How would you describe Crissa Stone? And how would you describe the role her mentor and lover Wayne has in her life?

WS: She’s a self-made woman to a certain extent. She had a rough upbringing in a small Texas town, was involved with drugs and petty crime, and thanks to Wayne was able to leave all that, and in the process become part of his world of high-level professional thieves. In COLD SHOT TO THE HEART, all Crissa’s actions revolve around trying to get Wayne out of prison. By the second book, KINGS OF MIDNIGHT, she’s starting to realize that isn’t going to happen. So I think in the four books it’s been a process of her accepting that she’s on her own now. In the most recent one, THE DEVIL’S SHARE, she’s ostensibly become Wayne, setting up the heist herself, recruiting a team to carry it out, etc.

SH: And what about her daughter's role in her life?

WS: Her daughter Maddie is a reminder of what might have been. Part of Crissa’s income goes to her cousin, Leah, who’s raising Maddie as her own. Through much of COLD SHOT, Crissa’s aspiring to a semi-normal life, imagining Wayne out of prison and the two of them raising Maddie. By the end of that book, she realizes the life choices she’s made will never allow that.

SH: In many heist books (or films) the big robbery is in the center of the story. But COLD SHOT TO THE HEART is more like a novel about a certain time in Crissa’s life. Why did you choose this style?

WS: Reading about heists – or watching them on film – can be fun, because it’s like watching machinery at work. At the same time, personally I’m much more interested in the people involved, the run-up to the crime and the aftermath. I'm less interested in the heist itself than the conversations between the thieves immediately before and afterward.

SH: In one dialogue, the importance of paying taxes for thieves is emphasized. What is the background of this?

WS: The classic example is the prosecution of gangster Al Capone in the 1930s. He was one of the nation’s largest bootleggers and mob bosses, who had orchestrated countless murders, but prosecutors could never win a case against him. That was until the Internal Revenue Service was able to prove that he hadn’t paid sufficient taxes on any of his income – legal and illegal – in years. That eventually earned him a long prison sentence.

SH: The first lines are – in my opinion – very important for a book. Why did you choose this particular opening?

WS: I’m very big on opening lines, and I spend a lot of time on them. I worked on this one until it felt right. I wanted something straightforward and direct, but which also raised questions – who is this woman, what is she doing, why is she armed? At the same time, it drops the reader right into Crissa’s world, in the middle of a robbery.

SH: I would like to know something about your writing process: When you write novels, do you develop the plot in advance? What does your writing routine look like?

WS: I don’t plot in advance, because that takes a lot of the energy and fun out of it for me. I think it’s just a question of what works best for your process – there’s no hard and fast rule. With me, I find if I know who the main characters are and what the story is, I can start writing. Then, as I go along, other things – specific scenes, etc. – will present themselves. Sometimes, when the story is complex, I have to work out plot points in the middle of the writing process, but I generally never do that beforehand.

As far as my routine, I try to write every day – if only for an hour – but don’t always succeed. Life sometimes intervenes. I almost always write at night though – usually ten p.m. to two a.m. or thereabouts. Fewer distractions then.


Ennio Morricone's pure pop gem

Friends know my obsession with the music of composer Ennio Morricone, who turned 87 November 10. This is a pop song he wrote in 1966 for the Italian singer Mina, with lyrics by Maurizio Costanzo and Ghigo De Chiara. A hit in Italy again this year in this version by Nek, who goes big without ever going over the top. Still a great song, and it doesn't hurt that just about everyone in the video is beautiful. Here's a brief synopsis of how the song came to be.. And here's a version with different lyrics that was a hit for French singer Francoise Hardy.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

German book trailer for COLD SHOT TO THE HEART

Crissa Stone on film for the first time (sort of).

My German publisher, Pendragon Verlag, launched their translated edition of the first Crissa Stone novel, COLD SHOT TO THE HEART (aka KALTER SCHUSS INS HERZ) at the Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this month.

As part of the rollout they commissioned a full-cast book trailer that can be found here.

Not sure who the actress is playing Crissa - and not quite the way I described her - but she still looks the part.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Answering some Bloody Questions from Germany

The German crime fiction website Krimi-Welt interviewed me as part of their "Bloody Questions/The Crime Questionnaire" series of Q&As with authors (the first Crissa Stone novel, COLD SHOT TO THE HEART, has just been reissued in a German-language edition from Pendragon Verlag publishers as KALTER SCHUSS INS HERZ). The German version of the interview is here. I won't attempt to translate interviewer Marcus M├╝ntefering's introduction, but here's the interview below, in the original English:

1: Have you ever thought about committing a crime/committed a crime?

As far as the act, nothing significant, fortunately. In regards to the thought, who hasn’t? The question is why some people follow through on it and others don’t. Is it conscience, fear, upbringing? All good questions for crime fiction.

2: Who is the worst villain of the history of (crime) literature?
A great crime novel – or any novel for that matter – will create a certain amount of sympathy for even its worst villains. That’s what gives the stories resonance (Thomas Harris’ RED DRAGON is a perfect example). Who’s the most unsympathetic villain in crime fiction? I’m not sure, maybe Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. He’s certainly one of the most enigmatic.


3: Do you remember the first person you ever killed in your novels?
Yes, a major character toward the end of my first novel, THE BARBED-WIRE KISS. I was surprised at the sense of loss I felt. That scene was difficult to write.

4: The Beatles or Stones question: Chandler or Hammett?
Both great writers, but I will always prefer Hammett. Discovering his books in my teenage years changed my life. His novels felt like they were set in the real world, one I recognized. THE GLASS KEY will always stay with me. I think it’s his masterpiece, even more so than THE MALTESE FALCON. 

5: Have you ever seen a dead body? And how did it affect your life?
Everyone has. If nothing else, it reminds you that time is finite and the carnival always ends, usually before you’re ready.

6: Have you ever witnessed a crime?
 Yes, and we’ll leave it at that.

7: Is there anybody in the world you’d rather see dead?
No, but there are quite a few people who have passed on that I wish were still alive.

8: How did you make a living before you became a success as a writer?
I worked in daily newspapers for 23 years as a reporter and editor. I still freelance for magazines and newspapers when possible. 

9: If you wouldn’t write crime novels – what would you (like to) do?
Direct films. But in one sense that’s what I’m already doing with the novels, except I have an unlimited budget and no one to second-guess me. 

10: Do you listen to music when you are writing? And if this is a yes: What music? 
Off and on. I did a CD playlist for my third novel GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER which included some of the music I listened to while I wrote it, mainly old-school soul and R&B, which figured into the plot. But I wrote the first three Crissa Stone novels listening exclusively to the music of American minimalist composers Philip Glass and John Adams. I found their work beautiful and hypnotic in a way that seemed to aid the writing process.

11: Do you prefer to write at day or at night? At your desk at home or everywhere you go?
I write at night, usually from ten p.m. on. I have to write at my desk at home, or someplace similar. I have a laptop but don’t really do much first-draft writing on it because it feels a little awkward. I can’t work in public – coffee shops, libraries, etc. – at all. Too many distractions. I know several excellent writers who do though.

12: Are the any days where you can’t write a word? What do you do then?
Collate and recopy notes, look up visual references, handle correspondence. Those days come more often than you’d think. A lot of times it’s fatigue-related though, and in those cases short naps seem to help. 

13: What happens after death? And: What should happen after death?
I like to think we go back into the universal soup we came from and are reunited with everything that is, ever was, and ever will be. 

14: Crime and Punishment: What do you think of capitol punishment?
I’m generally opposed to it, although it can be hard to make that argument when the crimes are as horrific as they sometimes are.  But it’s never been applied fairly in terms of class, and the astonishing number of Death Row inmates who have been freed and exonerated based on new evidence indicates the process is far from foolproof. But it is final.

15: What do you make of Bert Brecht’s statement: What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?“
As James Lee Burke has answered eloquently in his "Bloody Questions" interview, banks helped create the middle class by granting access to money to those who didn’t have it. However, that concept of banking – and the IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE version of the “good ol’ Savings and Loan” – is a far cry from the current monolithic financial institutions whose greed and recklessness sent the world’s economy into a downward spiral that will be felt for generations. 

16: What should be written on your tombstone?
“Wow, he was old.”

Friday, August 28, 2015

My Audrey Totter tribute

Audrey Totter, one of the great Hollywood femme fatales (as well as one of the last of Eddie Muller's "Dark City Dames"), passed away in Dec. 2013, at age 95, while I was writing THE DEVIL'S SHARE, and I was inclined to pay a little homage to her in a scene in the book. Few people have noticed it - it's around page 70 in the hardcover edition - but I'm happy to have gotten it in there, a little tribute from one tough fictional dame to another. The clip I referenced wasn't on YouTube, so I went ahead and uploaded it myself. It's from one of my favorite movies of hers, 1949's TENSION.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Born to Run" at 40

It's hard to explain what it was like - 40 years ago - to first hear the songs from Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" on the radio (WNEW-FM!) while growing up in Long Branch, N.J., next to Asbury Park. Those songs invested the places I knew so well - Palace Amusements, The Circuit and more - with an almost mystical presence, and elevated them from the prosaic to the poetic. Forty years - and more than 100 shows - later, I'm still along for the ride.

Here's one of my favorite outtakes from the album, an early acoustic version of "Thunder Road."

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mystery People on THE DEVIL'S SHARE

"Hard-boiled heaven ... a fresh take on the tropes we love with more depth than you might expect." MysteryPeople on THE DEVIL'S SHARE. You can read the full review HERE.

Kemper's Book Blog on THE DEVIL'S SHARE

"Stroby has written a top notch crime novel without an ounce of fat in it that still finds time to develop its characters in the midst of its fast paced action." Many thanks to Kemper's Book Blog for this thoughtful review of THE DEVIL'S SHARE.

THE BACKGROUNDER podcast interview

I was interviewed by Paul Brubaker for his podcast THE BACKGROUNDER last month, and it was probably the best interview I've ever had. Paul proved himself a pro by really doing his homework, and the result was a career-spanning interview that dealt witb everything from my overnight reporter days to interviewing Stephen King, my adventures with Showtime, THE DEVIL’S SHARE, and casting Crissa Stone. The interview was conducted at the historic Stephen Crane House in Asbury Park, N.J.

Names were named. No one was safe. You can listen – or download to listen later – HERE and via iTunes. (Thanks to Tom Chesek for making the Crane House available).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Book Reporter on THE DEVIL'S SHARE

"Sets the standard for the contemporary crime novel ... pitch-perfect in every way ... a riveting, unforgettable symphony." with some more-than-kind words for THE DEVIL'S SHARE. (You can read the full review HERE)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Crime Fiction FM podcast

Thanks to Stephen Campbell for inviting me to take part in his Crime Fiction FM podcast, talking about THE DEVIL'S SHARE, journalism, crime fiction, Crissa Stone and how to plan a heist. You can listen - or download to listen later - here.

My 'Bookshelf' and more

Many thanks to Patti Nase Abbott for including me in her ongoing "Bookshelf" feature, in which I manage to namecheck Lorrie Moore, Rafael Sabatini and Yukio Mishima, among others. You can read it here. Above is the accompanying random bookshelf photo I took in my office last week.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

THE BIG THRILL interview

My thanks to author Scott Adlerberg and the International Thriller Writers Organization for this interview in the new issue of their magazine THE BIG THRILL, talking about THE DEVIL'S SHARE, Iraqi artifacts, ISIS and much more. You can read the interview here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Read the first chapter of THE DEVIL'S SHARE

Thanks to the folks at Macmillan, you can read the first chapter of the fourth Crissa Stone novel, THE DEVIL'S SHARE, for free here.

N.J. launch for THE DEVIL'S SHARE and THE FRAUD 7/8/15

Come celebrate the release of Wallace Stroby's THE DEVIL'S SHARE and Brad Parks' THE FRAUD at the Moonstone Mystery Bookstore in lovely historic Flemington, N.J. July 8, 2015. Special offer: 20% off all pre-orders through July 1 (see details below).

When Bernie met Crissa?

Lawrence Block's legendary burglar/bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr a Crissa Stone fan? Apparently so. You can read all about it here.

( You can pre-order THE DEVIL'S SHARE, the new Crissa Stone novel, here.)

Thursday, June 04, 2015


Here's the cover for KALTER SCHUSS INS HERZ - aka COLD SHOT TO THE HEART, the first Crissa Stone novel - being released by German publisher Pendragon Verlag this August. It's the first in their series of German editions of the Crissa Stone books, expertly (and laconically) translated by Alf Meyer.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The beautiful abyss

(This essay originally appeared in the Star-Ledger of Newark Aug. 21, 2005 as part of the series "The Muse of New Jersey: Writers on the Roots of Inspiration in the Garden State")

It was a bad way to die.

The evening of Friday, July 22, 1977, my father, William Wallace Stroby, was piloting his 36-foot boat, the Dawn I, a few miles off Monmouth Beach. He'd gone fishing with a friend that afternoon, and as the day wore on the water had turned choppy, the horizon gray.

He was up on the flying bridge, steering the boat, when the buzzer went off indicating the engines had stalled. It was a fairly common occurrence, usually requiring only a quick manual restart.

Later, we would try to piece together what happened.
Maybe he climbed down the wooden ladder from the flying bridge too quickly, the steps slick from spray. Perhaps the boat rolled and he lost his balance, struck his head on the way down.

His friend was inside the cabin and saw nothing. All he heard was the splash. He ran on deck to find himself alone.

He had no idea how to operate the boat or the ship-to-shore radio. The night was closing in and the boat was drifting. He tossed a life preserver into the water, hoping my father might surface, see it and swim to it.

He never did, of course. He was gone.

It was a week before his 55th birthday. I was 16.


There is always risk in being on the water. But my father had met the sea once, on its own terms, and bested it. During World War II, he'd been a signalman onboard a destroyer, the USS Cushing, serving in the South Pacific. In the early hours of Friday Nov. 13, 1942, the Cushing was leading a formation of U.S. ships when it was unexpectedly caught up in a chaotic night battle with a Japanese task force off the coast of Guadalcanal.

Pinned in a crossfire, disabled and burning, the Cushing was finished off with a point-blank salvo from the Japanese destroyer Terutsuki. Many of the crew were killed outright. Others were trapped in the battered ship as it slipped beneath the waves. Wounded by shrapnel, my father abandoned ship with the other surviving crewmen, leaping into the water and making for the few lifeboats that had been launched.

The Cushing was the first casualty of a battle that lasted well into the next day. With no chance of rescue while the fighting continued, my father and his crewmates spent 14 hours in the water. When the Pacific sun rose, it illuminated a seascape of burning ships, oil slicks and floating corpses.

American aircraft would eventually drive the last of the Japanese ships away, and boats were launched from Guadalcanal to rescue the men in the water. Once on the island, my father was able to write a quick V-mail letter to his mother on November 18, telling her he was safe. Others were not so lucky. Almost half of the Cushing's 150-man crew had been lost. When the battle was finally over, more than a dozen ships from both sides had been destroyed or disabled in a stretch of water that would come to be known as Iron Bottom Sound.

My father had faced death that night, and he knew it. Though he stayed in the Navy, serving on other ships until war's end, in some ways, those days off Guadalcanal were the most vivid of his life. The official Navy photograph of the Cushing would hang on the wall of his office for the rest of his life.

When he eventually returned to the States, he met my mother - Inez Dorothy Morelli, a nurse from Long Branch. My father had been raised in a rural farm community in western Monmouth County, but after they were married, he moved to Long Branch and became an apprentice to his uncle, Curt Reid, who ran a land-surveying business. My father would succeed him after his death, and in the development-crazed decades that followed, William W. Stroby & Associates would become one of Monmouth County's best-known - and busiest - surveying outfits, with offices in our house in Long Branch.

But my father never lost his love of the sea. We lived only blocks from the beach, and when the business was doing well enough in the early 1970s, he allowed himself his first real toy - a 22-foot cabin cruiser named the Tyella. During the summer, he'd go fishing every weekend and would often spend the night onboard dockside, lulled to sleep by the motion of the water.

When he was able to, he bought a bigger boat - the Dawn I - for $10,000, an unheard-of expense for the time. And it was that boat he was piloting in July 1977, when the engines gave out and the sea called for him again.


My father was a rough-and-tumble farm boy, a bar brawler on occasion, but he was a reader. It was a habit he'd picked up in the Navy, where long voyages often meant hours of boredom. He read everything he could get his hands on, and I learned by his example. In the year or so before he died, I'd discovered the great hard-boiled writers of the 1930s and '40s - Hammett and Chandler and, my father's favorite, James M. Cain - and we'd found common ground there.

I had favorites of my own - the pulp action novels of Don Pendleton and the terse, hard-edged crime tales Donald Westlake wrote under the pen name Richard Stark. My father borrowed and consumed these just as eagerly as he did a historical novel by Frank Yerby or a scholarly work by Samuel Eliot Morrison. On the day of that final fishing trip, the Stark novel "Deadly Edge" lay open and face-down on the bookshelf in the headboard of his bed, where he'd left it the night before.

I was the youngest of four children, and by 1977 my older brothers and sister were already out of the house, raising their own families. My mother and I were accustomed to my father's fishing trips lasting well into the night, so I'd gone to bed that Friday unaware anything was wrong.

The next morning I was woken by my oldest brother, Bill, who lived an hour south. He told me what had happened. They were still searching, he said. They might yet find him.

I got dressed and went downstairs to find a houseful of people, my mother sobbing at the kitchen table. The calls had gone out to friends and relatives, and my father's disappearance was already on the local radio news, WJLK out of Asbury Park, the station we listened to in the kitchen every morning as we had breakfast.

The boat had drifted for much of the night, eventually beaching at Gateway National Recreation Area at Sandy Hook. There my father's friend told the park rangers what had happened, and the Coast Guard was called in. Patrol boats and a helicopter were sent out to search.

Later that morning, Bill and I drove up to Sandy Hook. It was low tide and the Dawn I sat high on the beach, battered and abandoned, surrounded by the curious.

On Sunday, they called off the search.

It was weeks before they found the body.


I still live near the beach. Closer now than ever, actually. I'm a few towns south of Long Branch, but a block's walk takes me from my front door to the ocean. Most of the seven crime novels I've published have been set at least partially at the Jersey Shore, and the ocean figures in each.

The sea gives me my bearings, geographically and philosophically. I miss it when I'm away, and I feel an edge of nervousness when I'm somewhere that's totally landlocked. I need that unending horizon, that sense of limitless space close by. Living near the ocean is like living on the edge of forever, a beautiful abyss. Eternal but ever-changing, hypnotic and merciless.

But I have no fear of the sea - of swimming or boats or drowning. My father would not have stood for that. The sea was his life. It carried him to adventures far beyond the New Jersey farm he'd grown up on. It was the place he felt most alive. And though I don't own a boat and have little interest in them, I keep the sea close at hand.

What I do have is a sense of impermanence, of the futility of planning too much, or taking for granted the days to come. Of the finiteness of time. I've been told it's a theme in my books, and though I don't think I was aware of it, I have no doubt it's true.

I do know that much of my philosophy and behavior - for better or worse - was shaped by what happened on that summer day 28 years ago. And in those intervening years, nothing has convinced me otherwise. The truths I learned that summer were simple ones, but truths nonetheless, and I can't turn away from them. Like the ocean, they are always there.

We make our plans, we build our nests. We live our lives. And then one day the sea calls.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Why pre-order?

Regarding pre-orders, for those who asked: They've become increasingly important in the current publishing environment, as they help to build momentum both in-house and with retailers. They also count toward that crucial first week of sales, which affects store placement, print run, media coverage, etc., and helps bookstore owners with their stock planning. Also, with on-line preordering from some of the larger retailers, you get guaranteed delivery on the day the book's released.

You can preorder copies of THE DEVIL'S SHARE here via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound. But you can also preorder through your local bookstore, or any other book retailer.

Whether on-line or via a physical bookstore, preorders really do make a difference. And, of course, they make Bela happy ... .

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Publishers Weekly on THE DEVIL'S SHARE

"Razor-sharp ... wastes no words and packs a huge punch." Publishers Weekly weighs in on THE DEVIL'S SHARE.
(Click on image to enlarge)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews on THE DEVIL'S SHARE

"Readers hungry for an old-fashioned double-strength heist gone wrong could hardly do better." Kirkus Reviews has an early look at THE DEVIL'S SHARE.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


"Stroby is regularly compared to Elmore Leonard and other greats of hard-boiled crime, and THE DEVIL'S SHARE will only burnish that reputation."
BOOKLIST with an advance review and some kind words for THE DEVIL'S SHARE.
(Click image to enlarge)

Barry N. Malzberg on THE DEVIL'S SHARE

Legendary science fiction/suspense writer Barry N. Malzberg, author of the novels BEYOND APOLLO,THE RUNNING OF BEASTS (with Bill Pronzini), GUERNICA NIGHT and many, many others, had some kind words for the new Crissa Stone novel THE DEVIL'S SHARE:
"Goes like the wind. (Stroby is) the living master of this genre. (The novel) goes and it goes and it goes and it goes and then in one shudder it stops. ... This is a major talent and a tour de force."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Shore music essay in INSIDE JERSEY magazine

Here's a preview of my essay on the Shore music scene in the May "Down the Shore 2015" issue of INSIDE JERSEY magazine, on the stands next week. (And yes, that is my own personal copy of Clarence Clemons' rare single "Summer on Signal Hill.")