Monday, December 26, 2016

A tribute from the Boss

Bruce Springsteen celebrates my hometown of Long Branch, N.J., in his new autobiography BORN TO RUN (click above to enlarge). Harsh, but not inaccurate.
(I loved the book.)

See also: "My Dinner with the Boys"

Monday, December 12, 2016

A kinda, sorta Year in Review

Each year, my German published, Pendragon Verlag, asks its authors to contribute a freestyle year-in-review column for the CrimeMag website. This year I chose to write about films.

Here in the States, 2016 was a challenging year in many respects, and I’m happy to see the end of it. However, it was a pretty good year for movies. Here are four that stood out for me:

HELL OR HIGH WATER – Dir: David Mackenzie. An almost-perfect character-driven crime film about two brothers who go on a bank-robbing spree to buy back their late mother’s ranch. As the Texas Ranger pursuing them, Jeff Bridges gives another of his great late-career performances. Chris Pine (top, right) and Ben Foster are terrific as the brothers, and Brit director Mackenzie (STARRED UP) has the sharp eye for American landscapes and situations that sometimes only non-American directors can bring to the game (ie. Louis Malle’s ATLANTIC CITY). HELL OR HIGH WATER could have easily been a classic 1970s film – think Ben Johnson as the Ranger, and Alan and Jesse Vint as the brothers.

BLOOD FATHER – Dir: Jean Francois-Richet. Another European director’s take on an American genre film. It faded quickly at the box office, but it’s a short, sharp crime thriller, clocking in at a cracking 88 minutes of pure pulp pleasure. Mel Gibson gives one of his best performances in years as an ex-con trying to protect his teenage daughter from a criminal gang that’s marked her for death. Richet (MESRINE) handles both the character scenes and action setpieces with equal confidence, including a major MAD MAX homage about halfway through the film. Michael Parks, as a burned-out Vietnam vet/neo-Nazi, steals every scene he’s in – as usual.

ARRIVAL: Dir: Denis Villeneuve. Canadian director Villeneuve (SICARIO) crafts an original sci-fi thriller with Amy Adams as a linguistics professor tasked with trying to communicate with a race of alien beings who’ve sent 12 ships to Earth for unknown reasons. A quiet, somber, sometimes frightening and always fascinating film that also uses music (including Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight”) to great effect. It’s a movie rich with ideas and mystery, and an ending that sneaks up on you. I found it deeply moving.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Dir: Kenneth Lonergan. Finally an American director. Lonergan has only made three films (YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, and MARGARET are the first two), but they’re all great, and MANCHESTER may be his masterpiece. Casey Affleck, in a career (so far) performance, is a troubled, self-isolating loner charged with taking care of his teenage nephew after his brother’s sudden death. A life-affirming film about grief that doesn’t shy away from some brutally emotional moments, but also reminds us that the little sweetnesses of life that sustain us can sometimes be found in the least-likely places – including playing with your teenage friends in a terrible punk band. Be warned though: It’s a stone heartbreaker.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

A conversation with Gerald Petievich, May 1988 Part One

This interview with ex-Secret-Service-agent-turned-novelist/screenwriter Gerald Petievich was conducted on May 13, 1988, shortly after the release of his sixth novel, SHAKEDOWN. The interview was conducted by phone from his home in San Marino, Calif.

(Above, William Peterson in poster art from the 1985 film TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., directed by William Friedkin and co-written by Petievich, based on his novel).

WALLACE STROBY: Why was it so hard to find your books for awhile?

GERALD PETIEVICH: I had a number of my books first purchased and published by a place called Pinnacle Books, and they went bankrupt. So I was in litigation for years trying to get (the rights) back.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1984) was an Arbor House book – they owned all the rights – and they sold softcover rights to Pinnacle like two weeks before Pinnacle went bankrupt. That meant they could not resell those rights again to someone else. So here you had a movie out that had $5 million worth of advertising, and there was not one book in any store. I was real overjoyed about that.

Q: Do you mind if I tape this?

A: No, sure. Go ahead.

Q: Good, because I actually started a few minutes ago.

A: (laughs) You got me.

Q: So you’re just writing full-time now?

Q: Yes, I am. I quit the Secret Service three years ago.

Q: How long were you with them?

A: Fifteen years. I was assigned to the Los Angeles Field Office. I was assigned to the Organized Crime Strike Force for five years, and to the Paris, France, field office for two years.

Q: What did you do there?

A:I was working with Interpol on international counterfeiting cases. I traveled all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East. You work out of an embassy and you travel most of the time, so what I was as doing was coordinating counterfeit cases. Sometimes I worked undercover when they needed an American to work undercover somewhere.

(At right, Petievich's jacket photo and bio from the hardcover edition of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. Click to enlarge)

Q: Did you do protection duty when you were in the Service?
A: Yeah, all Secret Service agents do that, but I did my best to avoid it as much as I could, because it’s the most boring job in the world. People think that when you’re on the running board it’s like this exciting job. Well, it can be for about five minutes at a time. But the rest of the time, like between midnight and eight when the president is sleeping and you’re standing in a hallway, that’s not exactly a real charge.

Q: Did you do any presidential duty?

A: Yeah, I had various temporary assignments with various presidents from Nixon on. I went to Russia with President Nixon in 1972 on a round-the-world tour. I protected Marshal Tito, and Mrs. Marcos of the Philippines, Somoza of Nicaragua. Just endless numbers of people, like the president of Fiji and various details like that. I did a lot of work on Henry Kissinger when I was in Europe, because he was traveling a great deal there at the time. So everybody gets assignments like that. But it wasn't my specialty, which was working counterfeit cases.

Q: Did your duties rotate, is that how it worked?

A: You just get assigned temporarily. For instance, during the campaign of 1980 I was on the Reagan detail for six months. I was a supervisor at that time, and I had a shift of agents that would go all around the country living Reagan’s life, working an eight-hour shift wherever he is.

Above, Petievich (upper right) keeps a watchful eye out while guarding Henry Kissinger in Europe in the 1970s.

Q: Why’d you leave the Service?
A: Well, you know I started getting up at 4 a.m. in about 1976 to write fiction. And I finally got to the point when the movie (of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.) came out that I could afford to live a good life without my government paycheck, so that’s why I left.

But I always wanted to be a writer. I came on the Secret Service in 1970, and I really made my decision when I was in Europe. I just decided that I wanted to be writer. And at that time, you know, I had to learn how to write.
So I started taking classes. I took classes at the Paris Academy of Fine Arts , and then when I was transferred back to L.A. I took classes at the UCLA Writers’ Program at night. On weekends I’d set up a writing schedule, and I spent a number of years writing my first novel.
The Secret Service is a demanding job with odd hours, and I figured the only way I could write was to get up at four in the morning, so I did that. I did that for ten years.
Q: Had you done any writing at all before that?

A: I always had a way with words and I think in high school I‘d written for the high school magazine and and so on, but no, I was really full-fledged law enforcement. I went into the Army and I was in Army Intelligence, so I was an investigator there. Then, when I got out, I went into the Secret Service.

(Below, the omnibus edition of Petievich's first two novels, MONEY MEN and ONE-SHOT DEAL)

Q: What years were you in the Army?

A: From 1967 to 1970. I was regular Army. I joined and went into the Army Intelligence Corps and I was stationed in Fort Holabird, Maryland. Then I went to language school at the Defense Language Institute, where I learned German. I spent nine months there, and the rest of my tour was in Europe.

Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I grew up in Los Angeles. My father is a retired policeman from the Los Angeles Police Deportment. My brother now is a detective for the LAPD, so I come from a police family.

Q: How come you didn’t end up in LAPD?

A: After being in Army Intelligence, I was qualified to get a job in the FBI. I had a college degree when I went into the Army, and I talked it over with my dad, as a policeman, and he said “Don’t waste that college degree. Go ahead and get something in the federal government that pays more.” And that’s pretty much why I did it.

I could have though. I could very easily have been an L.A. policeman.

My father and brother are both in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. My father had a walk-on. My brother had a speaking part. He says the first words in the movie. He played the part of a Secret Service agent who is relieving Bill Peterson in the hotel scene when the movie first starts. Subsequently my brother's been in, I believe, three other movies with speaking parts.
I was in the film too. I was in the scene in the field office where there’s an agents meeting, and the agent-in-charge announces that an FBI agent has been killed.

(At left, Petievich with Ronald and Nancy Reagan and a copy of the MONEY MEN/ONE-SHOT DEAL omnibus).

Q: Your first novel, MONEY MEN, was published in 1979. What possessed you to try to write a novel, and how long did it take you?
A: It took me a couple years. I tried to write it, and I realized you can’t do it without some form of training or help, so I took classes for a long time and I continued to work on the manuscript. I probably worked on it for well over two years. Then to get it published, I just sent the manuscript in to six publishers at once, and I had offers from three of them.

Q: How happy were you with the book when you were finished with it? It must have been quite a struggle.

A: It was, but I felt confident I would get it published. Mainly because I think before I started writing police procedurals, I read every police procedural in the library. I just felt I knew the genre and I also felt that I could certainly write as well as the worst police procedural writers. So I was confident I would get it published. (MONEY MEN was filmed in 1993 as BOILING POINT, starring Wesley Snipes and Dennis Hopper).

Q: At that time, Pinnacle was best known for its “Executioner”-style macho series-type books. Did Pinnacle just happen to be the place that bought it, or were you actively trying to write for them?

A: No, MONEY MEN was not anything like that. It was a sophisticated crime novel. The only reason it went to Pinnacle was that Pinnacle was the only publisher in L.A. at the time. I also sent it to some New York publishers. But I figured Pinnacle was here, and they were the first one that called me up. I also had an offer from Harper & Row, and then, I believe from a paperback outfit also.

Q: You did all this without an agent?

A: Yeah. Once (Pinnacle) made the offer, I went down and hired Joseph Wambaugh’s attorney, and he represented me in the negotiation.

Q: When you started writing, was it with the idea that you were going to be able to work up enough money to quit the Service, or did you plan to do both?

A: It was just a goal. I wanted to write a book. And I knew most novelists don’t make enough money to live on. It was a hobby, then it became an obsession.

I got very good reviews on my first book, and then I said “I’ll try it again.” And then with the third one and the fourth one, I said to myself, “I want to be a writer.” I preferred writing to doing law enforcement work.

I knew the only way you could do that was to build up a body of work, and that’s what I did. Once you have a movie you can survive out there. And now I do both movies and I’m writing books.

(Above, Petievich's cameo in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. He's center frame in tie.)

Q: Are you getting savvy as far as show business is concerned, or are you mainly there for technical reasons, consulting?
A: Well, I've written screenplays and served as a supervising producer. And what I’ve found about the show business world is that there’s not a great deal of difference between the underworld and the overworld.

Q: What do you mean?”

A: The rules are pretty much the same. It’s all very Machiavellian. It’s very competitive. But I’ve never been shocked by anything I’ve seen in Hollywood because, you know, I had worked in law enforcement for 15 years. You meet a lot of sociopaths there too (laughs). Just like in Hollywood.

PART TWO: Working with William Friedkin, the allure of Hollywood and why truth is stranger than fiction.

Personal photos courtesy of

(Interview copyright Wallace Stroby 2016. All rights reserved)

A conversation with Gerald Petievich, May 1988 Part Two

This is Part Two of an archival interview with ex-Secret-Service-agent-turned-novelist/screenwriter Gerald Petievich. It was conducted on May 13, 1988, shortly after the release of his sixth novel, SHAKEDOWN. You can read Part One of the interview HERE.

(Above, Willem Dafoe as Rick Masters, the brutal counterfeiter and career criminal from the 1985 film version of Petievich’s novel TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., which he co-scripted).

WALLACE STROBY: TO LIVE AN DIE IN L.A. at first had some problems with the Treasury Department, regarding the film’s detailed depiction of counterfeiting. In an interview I read with (director) William Friedkin, he said some of that had to do with an attempt to get back at you. Do you think that was true?

GERALD PETIEVICH: Let me just put it like this: Every writer who has ever worked for a bureaucratic agency has had problems. And the problems come when you have success. I had no problem with my first book, when it sold 5,000 copies a number of years ago. They kind of looked askance at it, but let’s face it, bureaucracies aren’t set up to tolerate people who write books or make movies, particularly about the agency they work for.
But I hold no grudges against the Secret Service. It’s a government agency and there’s a lot of nice guys in it, and I still have a lot of friends there and I keep in touch with them.

Q: There’s a long sequence with no dialogue in the film in which Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) basically takes us through the process of counterfeiting money, making the plates, etc. (you can watch that sequence HERE.) Personally, did you have any qualms about showing that on-screen?

A: No. not at all, because there’s no one who can learn to print from watching about two minutes of film. Besides, every printer in the United States – and there’s probably 200,000 of them – has the ability to print counterfeit money. It’s a very easy run. In fact, I’ve arrested counterfeiters who’ve learned to print from a book in the library. So you could make the same analogy.

(Right,the Arbor House first edition, published in 1984).

Q: Overall, how did you feel about the film?

A: I’m not one of these writers that cries about the film. I’m glad it was made. If I wanted to do it myself, I probably would have done it a little bit different. But I thought it came out to be a better–than–average police film. It got a lot of good reviews and it won a couple of film festivals in Europe, and it’s in art houses now and is shown very frequently on cable. So it was actually a popular movie (Shout Factory released a special edition Blu-Ray of the film in November 2016).

But my books speak for themselves. Writing is pure art. Movies are neither art nor science. ... They never reflect the true art. They can’t. They’re an hour and a half of visual media.

Q: What was it like on your first theatrical film working with a heavyweight like Friedkin? I imagine you’d seen THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

A: I learned a great deal. I would say that in a certain way I was able to learn the business with that one film. We certainly saw eye-to-eye on the basic structure of the film. Looking back on it now, I wish I could have had a little more say-so in it, but when you’re the writer, you don’t. The writer’s the last guy anybody talks to in Hollywood. And I thought I was treated very well with the movie and the production of it. They took a great many of my suggestions, so I have no complaints about that.

(Left, a rare Pinnacle movie tie-in edition from 1985, with a blurb from Elmore Leonard).

Q: The overall tone of the movie is much, much darker than the book. Jimmy Hart, the hero of the novel, is killed off early in the film. Is that Friedkin’s influence?

A: Virtually everything Friedkin has done in quite a few years has been extremely dark. He controls his films from beginning to end, from story to the cutting room, and I think what you see is his personal imprint. I also think you have to give the guy a certain amount of credit for being willing to take whatever happens – whether failure or success – to his films by putting his own personal imprint on it.

Q: My feeling about the film is that in 20-25 years people are going to be talking about it the way they do about certain film noirs of the 1950s now.

A: You know, I actually think that’s going to be true. The way the film was made – the work that went into it, the story that came out of it – I think it fits right in with American film noir. I think it fits in very well, and I think it stands up to a lot of the best of American film noir. I agree with you. I think the film will hold with time.

Q: To get back to your novels, a lot of them are moral tales and have a lot to do with corruption and – especially in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. – the dangers of becoming what you’re supposed to be fighting. Was that a constant threat while you were in the Treasury Department? And how does an agent cope with that, especially when there’s large sums of money involved?

A: In creating drama, you have to pick something that’s compelling. What could be more compelling than good and evil? That’s what every novel that has ever been written is about. And when you’re writing straight crime novels, that’s what you have to deal with.

My life’s view of that world is probably opposite of someone like Joseph Wambaugh who – at least it’s my opinion – thinks that policemen are like these normal guys who just happened to have that job and then their morals disintegrate and they become different people. Well, I don’t believe that.

Having come from a police family and being around it since I was a kid, and spent 18 years carrying a badge of one kind or another, it’s my belief that policemen are different. Policemen are a different kind of guy. The chicken came before the egg. And the guys that I know that are policemen, they’re not quite like everybody else. They had to wait in line to get this job, and then they stay with the job and there’s a reason for that.

So when I show people that are in this environment ... they place themselves within this environment. And it’s something to do with a desire to see the bizarre and experience the bizarre, and it’s something to do, I think, with their own self-esteem. It has something to do maybe with seeking out rare status. I don’t really understand it all, and all I can do is write about it as I see it.

Q: How much personal experience do you think works its way into your novels in terms of actual events, things you saw or heard about?

A: There are very few things that occur in life that are translatable into fiction exactly as they occurred. There’s two reasons for that. Number one, the most bizarre events that occurred during my time in the Secret Service are too bizarre to be believed in fiction. And then on the other hand, some of the biggest, most important cases I ever made were very dry. They were made by someone calling me up and telling me who did it, or watching a place and seeing a guy move a press into it, something like that. So you have to pace the drama differently.

But I like to think that the people are pretty true to life, the crooks, the bureaucrats. And a number of the events have happened. For instance, (as in) TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., there were some agents for a certain federal agency who did steal some money from a dope dealer. And one of these guys was a base jumper, a parachutist. And he ended up getting killed jumping off a mountain with some friends shortly after the crime had occurred. These are stories that I kind of mixed in and changed around.
Q: Did you personally know anyone like (agent Richard) Chance in the novel, who had a lot of those qualities?

A: Yes, I’ve met people like Chance many times. You could probably find him in the military, his name would be Ollie North. And it doesn’t make him a nice guy or a hero.

Q: What do your former colleagues think of your books? Are there any that think they’ve seen themselves in the books and aren’t happy about it?
A: oh yes, without a doubt, particularly some of the efficiency-motivated bureaucrats I write about. I can assure you that they hate me. But let me tell you, the guys that make the cases in the Secret Service, the hardworking guys I know, certainly like the books, and my books are read extensively in the Secret Service. But you won't find too many of them at headquarters.

It was a very fine line that I was riding. It was unheard of, I mean, no one’s ever written a book in the Secret Service, much less fiction and much less criticize supervisors and the system. I felt the heat, I can assure you, from the first book.
It’s nice to be freed from that, but that doesn't mean I’m going to tell any secrets. I would never tell any secrets about the politicians that all Secret Service agents know. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

Q: Was it difficult making the jump to the lonely discipline of writing, as opposed to being a field agent? Do you miss that at all?

A: I have to say I’ve never been happier, because I’m doing what I want everyday. But every once in awhile you miss the excitement of serving a search warrant or chasing somebody down the street or that sort of thing. But I did have 15 years of it – I worked in the field for 15 years, I wasn’t a bureaucrat – so there’s virtually nothing I hadn't done in Secret Service work. I had a full career.

The thing that you miss is these bizarre people that you meet in the underworld. The only reason I miss it is it’s great food for my novels.

PART THREE: Moral ambiguity, and when to be ruthless.

(Above from left, director William Friedkin, and actors Michael Chong, William Peterson and John Pankow on the set of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.)

(Interview copyright Wallace Stroby 2016. All rights reserved)

A conversation with Gerald Petievich, May 1988 Part Three

This is Part Three of an archival interview with ex-Secret-Service-agent-turned-novelist/screenwriter Gerald Petievich. It was conducted on May 13, 1988, shortly after the release of his sixth novel, SHAKEDOWN. You can read Part One of the interview HERE, and Part Two here.

(Above, Dennis Hopper plays a counterfeiter being pursued by two Treasury agents, played by Dan Hedaya and Wesley Snipes, in the 1993 film BOILING POINT, based on Petievich's novel MONEY MEN).

WALLACE STROBY: I noticed in your work you seem to have – if not affection but maybe a fascination – with your villains. There seems to be more characterization done of them than of your heroes sometimes.

GERALD PETIEVICH: I do have an interest in fleshing these people out, mainly because I think I’m one of the few writers in the world who actually knows what criminals are like, because I’ve talked with them and dealt with them on a daily basis for such a long time. That’s an opportunity for me to, I really think, show something different about human nature.

Q: In SHAKEDOWN, even though Eddie Sands is the villain, we feel sympathetic toward him in a lot of ways, if only because of his personal relationships. Do you still see your novels as morally ambiguous? Is that something you try for?

A: Yes, it is. And the reason I specifically go for that, and probably always will, is because life is morally ambiguous. The decisions that people make in their lives to determine which way they went, whether they became a crook or they became a cop ... It’s fate and it’s human nature at its best and at its worst.
I do show a gray line between the cops and the crooks, because they're in the same world. Cops are just part of the underworld. The underworld there first, and everything (cops) do is in the context of that particular world. There are no rules – you make up the rules as you go along. And frankly, the guys that are occasionally the best cops on the street are the guys that are the most unscrupulous and the coldest. That’s a dichotomy that’s still interesting for me to study.

Q: Is that an existential threat when you’re a law enforcement officer? That you’re waging a war inside yourself about whether or not to be ruthless? Or do the people who are that way not even think about it?

A: Well, I like to think of myself as one of the better and more successful agents. I made a lot of big cases when I was in, and I was always very active. And I was ruthless.
To me, it was never a game. A lot of times it was life and death, when you’re making a buy or covering another agent. I always took it as a very serious thing, because somebody could get killed.

When you’re dealing with the real underworld – and I’m not talking about people that commit misdemeanors, I’m talking about the real underworld of people who commit felonies for a living and never hold employment of any kind in their entire life – you’re dealing with sociopaths. You’re dealing with people who really do nothing but harm other people every day of the week in one way or another. After awhile, if you’re successful (in law enforcement) you lose your sensitivity for these people. I couldn't care less – and I still couldn’t care less – if they took lifetime career criminals and put ‘em in jail forever. Or gang members that are out shooting people and killing innocent people. I mean, I could pull the switch on all of ‘em and go eat a sandwich afterwards.

But what happens in law enforcement is you start out and you get real tough, and then after awhile you get real smart. You know who you should be tough with and who you shouldn’t. You know it doesn’t work sometimes and after that point – unfortunately for everyone I know in law enforcement, including myself – you get burned out. You can only work so many hundred weekends without getting paid for it, and then you realize that you’re arresting the same guys over again.

The first week I was a Secret Service agent I arrested a guy for counterfeiting, and that guy was arrested again a couple weeks before I left the job – the same guy. He’d been committing crimes the whole time and getting caught. So you say, “Should I really work Saturday night to try and catch this guy for the eighth time?” And the answer is “No, let somebody else catch him.”

Q: Was there a lot of frustration on that front?
A: Well, there’s no more frustration in the Secret Service than there is in any police department or (law-enforcement agency). I actually think it’s better in the last five years in particular. I think there’s more people in prison and the crime rate is actually going down.

The secret of it all is that there are only so many actual career criminals. And if you put them in jail, each one that you put in jail stops thousands of crimes from occurring. For instance, the average burglar commits sometimes 20 burglaries a day, year-round. So you put him away, look what you’ve done. So prison is the answer for the career criminal.

As far as the narcotics problem, every case I ever had had something to do with narcotics. That’s an unanswerable problem , and one that is not being dealt with at all by anybody right now in the government or outside the government. Because the only answer is to arrest all the users. And as soon as you went to a middle-class party in some suburb and you arrested the users and they all got a year in jail, I think shortly after it would be legalized. Which is basically what happened with marijuana.
I laugh when I read in the newspaper about (imprisoned ex-Panamanian president) Manuel Noriega (being a drug kingpin). Like Manuel Noriega is the guy that’s causing our narcotics problems here in this country? He has nothing to do with it. Somebody’s always going to supply contraband, and it’s going to be a guy that wants to make money. If it’s not Noriega, it’s somebody else. We have a country that has an enormous demand for narcotics. I don’t think you can blame these people in South America for doing that.

Q: You say you made a lot of big cases. How many counterfeiters would you say you arrested in your time?

A: Thousands. There were years I was working the counterfeit squad in L.A. where we’d arrest 500 counterfeiters a year. These are people that either passed counterfeit money, dealt counterfeit money or printed it.

Counterfeiting is a very minor crime. Compared to the amount of money that’s in circulation, it’s negligible, and counterfeiting is under control. The reason it’s under control is that, Number One, the Secret Service is very effective. Number Two is because of the type of crime it is. It’s not a consensual crime.

In narcotics, the guy that’s buying wants to buy – he’s not going to say anything. The seller, he wants to sell. In counterfeit money, the only way you make a profit is to take a counterfeit bill and pass it at a hamburger stand. Well, that guy loses $20. So therefore you have a victim, and the victim points to whoever gave him the bill, and you arrest the one that sold it to him. Then you go up the ladder. It makes it an easier law to enforce. Dope is virtually impossible to enforce.

Q: You say counterfeiting is a minor crime compared to others, but at the same time you’d be just as dead if something went wrong making a buy or an arrest. Was there ever any worry as to the risk involved compared to what the final outcome might be, someone getting probation or a minor sentence?

A: No. Because what happens is you get caught up in it. It becomes You against Them. It’s combat. You’re out there and you’re going to get this guy no matter what. And he wants to get away no matter what. I guess you could call it a macho thing. But you need that feeling out there. Otherwise, what you see is a lot of guys who just retire on the job, show up every day and they go home at five o’clock. They’re not going to go out and work overtime to get the bad guys. It's easy to understand why that would happen.

Q: Reason I ask is that in the film TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. – though this might be more Friedkin than you – you almost get a feeling at the end of the film that there’s a touch of absurdity about it. Because all these people are killing each other and doing all these terrible things over what are essentially worthless pieces of paper.

A: Well, that’s actually part of the theme of my book too. (The money’s) counterfeit, it’s not real. And when a counterfeiter makes a million dollars and he sits there in his little print shop and puts it in a big trunk ... They always make a million dollars, by the way.

Q: Why is that?

A: I don’t know, but they always make a million dollars. It’s just as easy to make a million as it is $100,000, so they want to have a million dollars. But it’s nothing more than printed pieces of paper, and all you have to do is get caught once and you go to jail. So it’s a belief in a fantasy – “gee, I just sat here in my print shop and made a million dollars.” When actually he didn’t make anything.

Q: You say the character of (Secret Service agent) Chance is made up of people you’ve known, people you’ve seen, people you’ve heard of. Would the same hold true of the Rick Masters character (played in the film by Willem Dafoe)? Is he based on one character or a composite?

A: Rick Masters is based on kind of an amalgam of two or three guys. But believe me, Rick Masters lives. Guys that are just that cold and just that calculating are in every city in the country doing rotten things.

These are the people that the average citizen will never ever come across, the lifetime career sociopath, clever, who goes out and makes a living at crime, and very seldom gets arrested. These people do exist.

Information on – and availability of – all Gerald Petievich's novels can be found HERE.

(Interview copyright Wallace Stroby 2016. All rights reserved)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Dark Decade revisited

Thanks to everyone who showed up  for "The Dark Decade" panel last week at NOIRCON 2016 in Philadelphia, celebrating some of the unsung American crime films of the 1970s. Special thanks to panel members Jennifer DeanScott Adlerberg, Cullen Gallagher and Dennis Tafoya. I'd prepared a selection of  hi-res trailers of some of the films we were likely to touch on to show before the panel, but time and technology conspired against us. Here are five of them, complete with their very '70s voiceovers ("Mitchum, the last of the tough guys, meets Rampling, the hottest of the new broads!")

  (Click the icon at bottom right on each to watch full-screen):


Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween!

Wishing everyone a happy and safe holiday (all that and nosferatu):

Friday, September 23, 2016

When in Kuwait ...

… visit the Heartbreak Lounge coffee shop.

This is an actual ad/photo from a new coffee shop in Kuwait City, Kuwait. No connection to my novel of the same name, as far as I know. But maybe I have a fan base in the Middle East I wasn't aware of.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Where I'll be at Bouchercon 2016

Bouchercon 2016 kicks off in New Orleans on Wed. Sept. 14, and I'll be out and about a bit there. On Thursday (9/13) at 9 a.m., I'll be part of a panel titled "Another Tricky Day: Problems All Authors Face," with moderator Scott Adlerberg,and fellow panelists J.T. Ellison, Sharan Newman, John Billheimer and Peter Swanson. Signing to follow.

On Friday afternoon, I'll take part in a group signing for the new Mulholland Books anthology THE HIGHWAY KIND: Tales of Fast Cars, Desperate Drivers and Dark Roads, which features my short story "Night Run," as well as contributions from Michael Connelly, Diana Gabaldon, George Pelecanos, C.J. Box, Ace Atkins, James Sallis, Joe Lansdale, Gary Phillips and many more (check out a cool Spotify playlist editor Patrick Millikin put together for the book).
Box, Atkins, Lansdale, Philips, Sallis and Millikin will also be on hand for the signing, which will be held at Mystery Mike's table in the book room, from 3:30 to 4:15.

And on Thursday at 5:15, I'll be contributing – along with many other Minotaur authors – to a one-sentence-at-a-time collaborative short story effort.

Hope to see some folks at all three.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rudy Van Gelder: 1924-2016

You may not know the name, but you know the music. Rudy Van Gelder, who died Aug. 25 at age 91, recorded some of the greatest names in jazz at his Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs, N.J., studios, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane ("A Love Supreme" was recorded in Englewood), Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Wayne Shorter and many, many others. If you have a classic Blue Note LP, he probably recorded it.

Here's the njonline version of the obituary.

Van Gelder is famous for working with Coltrane, but he also recorded maybe my favorite jazz saxophonist, Newark's own Ike Quebec.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

COLD SHOT TO THE HEART unabridged audio on sale thru 7/4/16

The unabridged Blackstone Audio edition of COLD SHOT TO THE HEART, the first Crissa Stone novel, is on sale at through July 4 ($4.99, as opposed to the regular price of $19.95.) It's read by the Audie Award-winning Coleen Marlo, who's voiced Crissa in the Blackstone editions of all four books in the series. You can find the link to the download here.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A conversation with Donald E. Westlake July 1986 – Part Three: The outtakes

Posting the interview last week I did with Donald E. Westlake for The Asbury Park Press back in July 1986 (you can read Part One HERE, and Part Two HERE) brought to mind some other highlights of the conversation that didn't make it into the final version for space or contextual reasons. Here are a few:

– In the mid-1970s, pre-production began on a film adaptation of the 13th Parker novel, 1971's DEADLY EDGE, to be directed by Peter Yates (BULLITT, ROBBERY, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE). Yates had previously directed the film version of Westlake's first Dortmunder novel THE HOT ROCK. Westlake told me he and Yates spent a day driving around northwestern New Jersey scouting locations for the lake house where Parker and Claire live in the novel. The project was eventually abandoned.

– Bill Cosby optioned Westlake's Edgar-winning 1967 novel GOD SAVE THE MARK with the intention of producing and starring. He later dropped the project after deciding he would only "make films for posterity." Westlake wouldn't name Cosby when he told me the story, but there were clues aplenty. When I asked if the unnamed actor currently had a hit show on NBC, he laughed and said, "How'd you get there from that?" He later named Cosby in other interviews.

– His 1962 novel 361 (reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2011) was directly influenced by the work of Dashiell Hammett."I was interested in the way he conveyed emotions strictly through action," Westlake told me. "Instead of explaining how someone was feeling, he'd just say,'He gripped the chair'."

– When I asked him who was the current mystery/suspense novelist more people should be reading, he enthusiastically sang the praises of Lawrence Block, and said he had recently introduced Stephen King to Block's work.

– I mentioned that it always seemed to me his 1968 Parker novel THE BLACK ICE SCORE and his 1970 Dortmunder novel THE HOT ROCK were two sides of the same coin, both involving diamonds being stolen from a New York museum for an African diplomat. "Huh" he said, perhaps a touch disingenuously. "Never thought of that."

– The tough-talking and larcenous businesswoman Josephine Carol "J.C." Taylor, introduced in the 1986 Dortmunder novel GOOD BEHAVIOR, was originally conceived as a foil for Parker in a "Richard Stark" novel that was never completed.

– The working title of his 1975 novel BROTHERS KEEPERS was THE FELONIOUS MONKS.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A conversation with Donald E. Westlake July 1986 - Part One

The following story first appeared in The Asbury Park Press, July 27,1986. It was based on two phone interviews I did with Westlake from his NYC home earlier that month, shortly after the release of his Dortmunder novel GOOD BEHAVIOR.

Forget what your parents and grade school teachers told you.

Crime pays.

Just ask Donald E. Westlake. With more than 60 books to his credit. Westlake has proven that crime, or at least crime-writing, can be a profitable business.

One of the most prolific authors in the mystery/suspense genre for more than a quarter of a century, Westlake is perhaps best known as the originator and chief practitioner of the comic crime novel – a genre he created in 1964 with THE FUGITIVE PIGEON and which he has nearly perfected in his six novels about not-so-professional thief John Archibald Dortmunder. Dortmunder’s latest adventure, GOOD BEHAVIOR, has just been published by The Mysterious Press, and HIGH ADVENTURE, a novel about artifact smuggling in Central America, has recently been released in paperback by Tor Books.

In addition, about 12 of Westlake’s books (that’s right, 12) have already found their way to the screen in such films as THE HOT ROCK, with Robert Redford as Dortmunder in 1972; COPS AND ROBBERS in 1973; and, in a more serious vein, POINT BLANK in 1967.

But how can someone write so gleefully and entertainingly about characters who rob and steal as a profession?

“You have to keep a certain level of unreality to it,” Westlake says. “I write these types of books because these are the types of books I enjoy writing. I know I can have fun with them. That’s all there is to it.”

Westlake has apparently had a lot of fun over the years. Although he never graduated form college, in the 26 years he’s been a full-time writer, Westlake has written more books than half a dozen other authors combined, (“More than 60 at least. It’s hard to keep track of them, because the number’s always changing”) as well as a slew of short stories, a handful of screenplays and even a children’s book.

On top of that, his short stories appear frequently in Playboy and his prolific pace hasn’t slackened at all since his first novel, THE MERCENARIES, was published in 1960. Throughout it all, with some notable exceptions, his forte has been crime and criminals: all seen through an incisive, perceptive and sometimes very funny eye.

“Crime novels are one of the basic story forms. Always have been,” Westlake says. “The genre gives you the framework, and the plot gives you the thread, the sequence of events for the characters to operate with. The theme itself is just a skeleton to hang the characters on; they’re always more important than what’s going on with the plot. The crime thing is just a device I use. If I didn’t use it, then I’d just have to think of something else.”

The crime genre has indeed proved to be fertile ground for Westlake. In THE HOT ROCK, one of Westlake’s most popular books, Dortmunder and his band of misfit felons steal a priceless diamond for the leader of an African country and then lose it, a cycle which repeats itself throughout the novel as Dortmunder and crew are forced to re-steal the diamond from a variety of increasingly bizarre places, including a museum, an insane asylum and a New York City police station.

In THE HUNTER, written under the pseudonym “Richard Stark,” a cool, ruthless professional thief cuts a bloody swathe through the New York organized crime world, seeking revenge on a former partner who double-crossed him and left him for dead. Although the tone and style of the two books have little in common, both are graced with an eye for the details of everyday life and a narrative momentum that never sacrifices characterization or logic, yet is as quick and compelling as anything being written in the mystery/suspense field today.

But as to why his caper novels are so popular, the man who has made a career out of chronicling the larceny inside us all is not altogether sure.

“Guessing why other people like what they like is a tricky business,” he says. "I think one of the basic interests is in watching machinery at work; things like wind-up dolls and mechanical clocks. The crime novel, specifically the caper novel, is a lot like that. The crime itself is the machinery and the plot combines that machinery with puzzle and human movement all at once. There’s a certain amount of escapism involved for the reader as well. We all like to think we can get away with the crime, whatever it is.”

For someone who turns out as much material as he does, Westlake says his writing schedule is actually far from disciplined. Although he tries to write every day, he will sometimes work for no more than an hour, “just to keep the characters alive in my head.”

His actual writing times have also fluctuated greatly. One of his most recent novels, KAHAWA, about a plot to hijack a train load of coffee in a remote African nation, took 13 months to write, “the longest I’ve ever spent on a book.” On the other hand, PITY HIM AFTERWARDS, a suspense novel Westlake wrote earlier in his career, was finished in a record 11 days (“The title was appropriate," he says).

(PART TWO: Westlake on movies, television and killing Parker).

– Top photo credit: The Associated Press

A conversation with Donald E. Westlake July 1986 - Part Two

This is Part Two of my profile of Donald E. Westlake that first appeared in The Asbury Park Press, July 27,1986, shortly after the release of his Dortmunder novel GOOD BEHAVIOR. You can find Part One here.

Like many of his characters, Westlake has been known to operate under a variety of aliases. He has written nearly 30 of his books under assorted pen names, including a series of hard-boiled crime novels about a professional thief known only as Parker, written under the pseudonym "Richard Stark."

Inspired by the tough, terse detective novels of Dashiell (THE MALTESE FALCON) Hammett, the Parker books themselves have gone on to inspire a whole generation of suspense and crime fiction, as well as spawn half a dozen film adaptations – including the aforementioned POINT BLANK starring Lee Marvin, THE SPLIT (1968) with Jim Brown and THE OUTFIT starring Robert Duvall in 1973. One of the most recent was 1983’s SLAYGROUND, loosely based on Westlake’s 1971 Parker novel of the same name.

All 16 of the Parker books, written between 1961 and 1973, were reissued in paperback last year by Avon Books, and although the actual writing of them is now ancient history to Westlake, he says he’s “delighted” by the continuing interest in them.

“I’ve had a standing offer from a couple of publishers who said they’ll give me a contract if I write another one,” Westlake says. “But I just haven’t been able to. I’m not exactly sure what happened, he just sort of faded away for me as a character.”

In fact, Westlake says, portions of the plot and several characters from his newest novel, GOOD BEHAVIOR, are taken from an unfinished Parker novel that never saw the light of day.

“I’d made several attempts after the last of the Parker books (BUTCHER’S MOON in 1973) to write another one, but nothing ever came of them,” Westlake says. “I think that by cannibalizing one of the unfinished novels and adding humor to it, I was acknowledging the fact that there weren’t going to be any more. I don’t think we’ll be seeing him again.”

Perhaps the final nail in Parker’s coffin is the dedication at the beginning of GOOD BEHAVIOR, which reads “In Memoriam: P., 1961-1973.”

The winner of an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his comic novel GOD SAVE THE MARK, Westlake also shares the dubious honor of having one of his novels (the Dortmunder novel JIMMY THE KID) become a film vehicle for Gary Coleman. Westlake admits to never having seen the film and harboring no desire to do so in the near future.

“The films (of my books) cover a wide area from pretty good to terrible,” Westlake says. “The best of them is probably POINT BLANK (based on THE HUNTER) and the worst – well, usually I’m warned away from them beforehand by people I know. Most times, after hearing about them from someone else, I have no desire to see them, because I know they’ll only make me angry.”

Westlake is currently adapting two of his own novels for film, WHY ME?, a Dortmunder novel scheduled to begin shooting in New York next year, and A LIKELY STORY, a tale of a struggling writer who is drawn closer to his estranged family while working on an anthology of Christmas stories. No crimes and no capers this time; maybe, one wonders, even a touch of sentimentality?

“I like it,” Westlake says. “It’s as different from some of my other stuff as you can get, so I expected to have some problems adapting it. But so far it’s going pretty smoothly. I’m really enjoying it.”

Westlake is also working on an original screenplay for an upcoming television film. Although he won’t reveal much of the plot, he describes it as “another comic caper,” this time written expressly for the small screen. Although he has written for television in the past, Westlake says the inherent limitations of the medium have kept him from doing much work there.

“The best thing you can say about working for television is that’s good money for easy work,” he says. “When you’re writing a novel you’re deeply involved; you’re part of it. When you’re writing for the movies on the other hand, it’s more like you’re working on the surface. With television, that’s even more so, except that it’s a false surface. The books are the real love. That’s where my heart is.”

But after 26 years and more than 60 novels, could Westlake stop writing tomorrow and still be happy?”

“No way,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

NOTE: Parker did return, of course, in Westlake's appropriately titled 1997 novel COMEBACK. He went on to appear in seven more novels before Westlake's death in 2008.

Part Three: The Outtakes

Thursday, May 19, 2016


My short story "Night Run" will appear in this upcoming anthology from Mulholland Books, due out in October. It's expertly edited by Patrick Millikin of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Ariz., who was a real pleasure to work with. Other contributors to the anthology include Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Diana Gabaldon, Ace Atkins, James Sallis, Gary Phillips, C.J. Box, Joe R. Lansdale, Sara Gran, Luis Alberto Urrea and others.
You can preorder online here.

Friday, April 22, 2016

New MYSTERY SCENE interview

The new issue of MYSTERY SCENE magazine (#144, Spring 2016) includes an interview with me conducted by the legendary Ed Gorman, in which I talk about creating Crissa Stone, current works in progress and some favorite forgotten authors.

(Click on images below to enlarge)