Friday, October 20, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Big Fix,” by Roger L. Simon

(Editor’s note: This is the 153rd installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
From the get-go, Roger L. Simon’s The Big Fix (1973) is not your father’s private-eye novel; nor is Moses Wine—a 30-year-old, down-at-the-heels Los Angeles gumshoe—anyone’s idea of a leading man. It’s the early 1970s. Wine, divorced with two young boys, his ex-wife shacked-up with a California love guru, drives a 1947 Buick in which he lugs around the corpses of 1960s idealism and his youth. A generation or two removed from the masters—Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald—The Big Fix is a book worth noting. No mash-up of tropes, in The Big Fix Simon had the chutzpah to ditch the fedora fetish many neo-noir writers employed, but which only kept the genre embalmed, and instead updated the field with subtlety and wit, making it relevant to a time when the P.I. is a character who’s in flux as much as the era in which he lives. As one character remarks to Wine:
“You don’t look like my idea of a private detective,” he said. “But then nobody looks like anybody’s idea of anything anymore …”
Wine is smoking dope and playing Clue by himself late one night when there’s a knock on his door. Nothing good ever comes of these kinds of entrances, but he answers the summons anyway. Impatiently waiting on his threshold is Lila Shea, “a barefoot Grace Kelly” who’d “moved through the sixties like a wine taster, sampling each vintage and moving on.” The last time Wine saw Lila was in 1967, when they were in flagrante delicto in the back of his hearse during a protest turned violent at Berkley. Now, though, she’s campaigning for Democratic presidential contender Miles Hawthorne, and she needs more than Wine’s vote.

It seems that Howard Eppis is causing trouble. The leader of the Free Amerika Party and author of Rip It Off, Eppis is a thinly disguised version of ’60s radical Abbie Hoffman. To everyone’s consternation, he’s planted the kiss of death on Senator Hawthorne’s political aspirations by endorsing him. Sam Sebastian, Hawthorne’s L.A. County campaign manager, wants Eppis found and silenced. But Eppis has gone to ground and no one can locate him, except maybe the “People’s Detective,” Wine. Our hero starts out well enough; however, before he can earn his fee of $300 a week plus expenses, pretty blonde Lila Shea and her car sail over a cliff near Wine’s home. Suddenly the task of tracking Eppis seems to be the least of this P.I.’s problems, as he goes all in to find Lila’s killer—if only to save his own skin.

Simon’s plot components exhibit all the weirdness Southern California has to offer, and are as entwined as pythons around their prey, beginning with the dysfunctional family of Oscar Procari Sr. After the wealthy Procari pulls the plug on a devil-worship church fronting his gambling joints, his son is found dead and Eppis really goes missing; yet their presences are still felt, keeping the reader confounded as to whether they are MIA, DOA—or perhaps living under assumed identities. Procari stays in the gambling business, and bets heavily when he changes the game to politics.

The loose acquaintanceships that introduce new characters in this tale bedevil any linear path to crime solving, keep readers on their toes, and put Wine’s patience and sleuthing to the test. Wine does uncover plenty in the course of his investigation—except the whereabouts of Eppis. And things turn deadly when Eppis announces his plan to blow up a Los Angeles freeway in the name of candidate Hawthorne. Now that his actions appear more like sabotage than support, Eppis’ very existence comes into question.

Hawthorne’s Democratic primary opponent, California Governor Arthur Dillworthy, is supernumerary, and never makes an appearance in the book. However, Simon knows when not to leave well-enough alone and describes the hapless pol with a vividness that is spectacular, calling him a man who “looked like an interior decorator from a smallish Midwestern city whose clients were beginning to desert him.” Timidity and desperation were never combined with such clarity and imagination, and this portrayal would likely turn any noir writer, whether dead or alive, green with envy.

With 10 novels to his credit—eight of which have starred Moses Wine—as well as two non-fiction works and a handful of screenplays (including one for the 1978 film adaptation of The Big Fix, starring Richard Dreyfuss), Simon is a deservedly acclaimed contributor to the modern detective-fiction genre. He’s also a Hollywood insider who knows the territory, and those who might inhabit it, such as the notorious Procaris. Wine, we learn, was sent on a fool’s errand in The Big Fix. It’s not until well into this yarn, after the P.I.’s Buick dies suddenly and he abandons it in California’s Mojave Desert, along with its cargo of memories, that clues finally start to add up for Wine in this oft-neglected, yet still-fresh gem of a novel.

READ MORE:Has Anyone Here Seen My Old Friend Moses?” by Kevin Burton Smith (January Magazine).

Treat Yourself

I didn’t realize that choosing a book to read specifically for All Hallow’s Eve was a popular thing. Apparently, I was out of the loop—again. As Rap Sheet contributor Ali Karim explained in a Facebook post yesterday, “Each Halloween, I plan to watch a scary film or read a scary book.” His scheduled novel this year? Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, a first U.S. edition of which he owns, signed by the author during “his last visit to the UK.” Ali says he intends to follow that up with a rewatch of Mary Lambert’s 1989 big-screen adaptation of King’s yarn, just to keep the fright alive.

Coincidentally, I had already dived into a novel selected for its association with Halloween: H.G. Wells’ 1898 alien-invasion thriller, The War of the Worlds. You may not be aware of this, but October 31, 2017, will mark 79 years since the 1938 broadcast of Orson Welles’ radio drama based on that book scared many American listeners (though it may not have led to widespread public panic, as some sources claim). I think the last time I read The War of the Worlds was in high school, so I was overdue to be reacquainted with Wells’ sixth novel. And though there are parts of the first-person narrative that require more patience than today’s readers have been trained to expect, I am enjoying this Victorian yarn immensely. At my current pace, I should be done with it well in advance of October 31.

If you’d like to embark on a Halloween reading experience of your own, but are stymied for ideas, consider consulting Janet Rudolph’s list of crime and mystery novels appropriate to this spirited occasion. She offers the titles of more than 240 works, everything from Stacey Alabaster’s The Pumpkin Killer and E.J. Copperman’s Night of the Living Deed to Kathi Daley’s Trick or Treason, David Robbins’ Spook Night, and Agatha Christie’s 1969 Hercule Poirot whodunit, Hallowe'en Party. Mentioned, too, are more than a dozen anthologies of haunting short stories to sample when you’re not handing out candy or trying to keep your pumpkin lit amid crepuscular breezes.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Story Behind the Story: “Ravenhill,”
by John Steele

(Editor’s note: This is the 73rd installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s contribution comes from Belfast-born author John Steele. In 1995, at age 22, he traveled to the United States and has since lived and worked on three continents, including a 13-year spell in Japan. Among past jobs he has been a drummer in a rock band, an illustrator, a truck driver, and a teacher of English. Steele now lives in England with his wife and daughter. He began his writing career producing short stories, selling them to North American magazines and fiction digests. This year’s Ravenhill—the subject of his essay below—is his first novel, and a second Jackie Shaw yarn, Seven Skins, has already been signed for publication by London-based Silvertail Books. Steele is currently composing a third, set in northern Japan.)

I have a scar on the back of my head, a fat white maggot squat below my crown which appears each time I visit my barber, then disappears in a week or so as my hair grows. Various people in various bars—or classrooms throughout my years as a teacher—have asked about that scar. The truth is pretty mundane, but I noticed the heady light of anticipation in the eyes of some of the inquisitors: Was it the result of a knife fight? A war wound? The legacy of some dark episode in my life?

We’ve all got one, whether big or small, and a scar is almost always the result of violence in some shape or form, whether a pratfall, a pot-burn acquired while cooking breakfast, or the legacy of a 9x19mm Parabellum round.

I was born in 1972 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. That was the bloodiest year of what has come to be known as the “Troubles” and I grew up in a city which today has more than its fair share of scars, both physical and those more insidious and unseen. I wasn’t exactly a war-child dressed in rags, walking to school on streets strewn with broken bottles and rubble, but everyone who lived through those dark years was informed to some degree by the relentless, often senseless, tit-for-tat violence that was a daily occurrence across the city and beyond. You probably know the history. A dizzying smorgasbord of terrorist acronyms, sectarianism, nationalistic hubris, and vicious, murderous gangsterism. Both republican and loyalist groupings preyed, to a large extent, on their own communities as well as taking potshots at each other and the security forces. Atrocities proliferated. Hotels—and the guests within—blown to pieces; the bombing of a war memorial, a bus station, a fishmonger’s shop. Bookies and bars were sprayed with bullets, even the congregation of a Pentecostal church.

So much for the history lesson.

In the 1990s, I left my homeland and spent time in the United States and Hungary before finding work, and my soulmate, in Japan. Then, 10 years ago, I went home.

To quote the author Kiran Desai, “The present changes the past,” and to paraphrase Lionel Shriver when discussing Belfast, where she lived for a number of years, all the wrong people did well (out of the peace agreements) in the city. Of course, a lot of very bad people did very well for themselves during the years of assassination and terror, too, and are still unwilling to let go of the godfather status such activities brought. So now we have terrorists and paramilitaries stripped bare, the causes for which they claimed to fight left to inept and corrupt politicians, sniping with school playground insults rather than AR-18 ArmaLite rifles. The populace is more interested in paying rent and holding down a job than chucking bottles and petrol bombs and taunting “the other side” (although, being Northern Ireland, periodic outbreaks of the old habits still occur). In short, Belfast is like many other cities in the UK or the Republic of Ireland, with an added sectarian undercurrent, a flourishing gun culture among the criminal element, and the odd homegrown dissident terrorist group thrown in.

In 2011, I was on the move again, finding employment in England.

By 2014, my wife was pregnant.

It was around this time that I was having a couple of beers with a mate, a Londoner who shares my love of ’70s crime movies and TV shows, both British (The Sweeney, The Squeeze, The Long Good Friday) and American (The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Prime Cut). We were gabbing about movies and books. I was proselytizing on the virtues of crime writers Ted Lewis, who wrote Jack’s Return Home—later filmed as Get Carter with Michael Caine—and the venomous tour de force GBH, and Derek Raymond, author of the harrowing Factory novels (The Devil’s Home On Leave, I Was Dora Suarez, etc.). If you’ve never heard of these guys, check them out—but be warned, it’s pretty strong stuff. Gut wrenching in Raymond’s case. Anyway, several beers in, my mate bet me I couldn’t write a crime or thriller novel set in Belfast before I became a full-blown daddy. Never one to run from a drunken challenge, or the promise of an all-expenses-paid night in the pub if I won, I took the bet.

(Left) Author John Steele

The result is Ravenhill (Silvertail). Its protagonist, Jackie Shaw, has his own scars, including one on his arm where a terrorist tattoo was removed. The novel is split between contemporary Belfast and the city of the ’90s—back when Jackie was a getaway driver on a planned assassination. He disappeared 20 years ago under mysterious circumstances, but returns to Belfast for a funeral, only to be confronted by the long-buried violence of his past. Old cohorts are now drug dealers and gangster-barons of their patch in the east of the city, and the spoils of criminality drive the remnants of paramilitary groupings. Jackie is caught in the middle of a murderous struggle for ultimate control of one such organization.

As I said, I enjoy the hard stuff. The aforementioned Derek Raymond devotes the opening chapter of I Was Dora Suarez to the deranged inner workings of a killer’s mind. Ted Lewis’ most famous protagonist, Jack Carter, is a bastard of the highest order, and the narrator of GBH is a brutal pornographer in love with a sociopathic femme fatale. So it was with some satisfaction that I read a review of Ravenhill from the London Times newspaper praising the “palpable sense of menace” and the intensity of the “up-close violence” in my first novel. I had wanted to infuse some of the seamy grit of past crime and thriller novels into the book, and to portray the violence as adrenaline-fuelled, desperate, perhaps exciting and, importantly, ugly.

The novel unfolds within Protestant east Belfast. I was born and reared there, by fiercely anti-sectarian parents. I know this part of the city, and many beyond Northern Ireland don’t. Hollywood, and the media in general, has a lot to answer for in its portrayals of the mayhem in Northern Ireland’s past and has all but ignored the community in which Ravenhill is set, preferring a puerile IRA-vs.-British didactic. I know many people from Ireland, on both sides of the religious and political divide, who scoff or despair at past and present cack-handed attempts to set fiction within the context of the Troubles. So I gave it a shot. The result is one story and one perspective among many of the Troubles and of Belfast, of a man who returns home after a long absence and finds that home doesn't feel like home anymore, and that confuses him. The novel contains scenes between Jackie and his father that were very personal to write, at times cathartic. My father, unlike Jackie’s, wasn’t a drinker; but there’s a passage in which Jackie and his da drive around the city, his father relating stories about old Belfast back in the 1940s and ’50s, old characters, the bare-knuckle boxing that used to be held at Chapel Fields, as father and son strive to bond. That could have been my dad and I, sitting in his Ford, taking a tour of the old town to heal some father/son rift during my teenage years.

By the time I’d sweated a first draft, my daughter was a couple of weeks away from her grand entrance into the world. So, to a large extent, this book is for her. With a Northern Irish father, a Japanese mother, and being born and brought up in England, there’s going to be a lot to get her beautiful wee head around in the future. She’s been to Belfast a few times already and loves it, especially the attention of her large, extended family, but the city—thank God—is unrecognizable from my younger days. Like the city, I and the vast majority of those within, have moved on. But perhaps Ravenhill, when my daughter is old enough to read it, will help her understand a little more of where the old man is from, and how far her daddy’s homeland has come. Help her grasp what he’s droning on about when he has a couple of Bushmills and starts rolling out some old stories of life back in his day.

When the drink, or the long winter nights, or age stirs his Celtic blood and takes him back and he lets memories get the better of him, and shows his scars.

Everyone’s a Critic

It’s a thankless task to create an “essentials” list for crime, mystery, and/or thriller fiction. Inevitably, people are going to question your choices, your experience with the genre, and perhaps even your very intelligence. Nonetheless, used-books retailer AbeBooks is just out with its selection of “Thirty Essential Mystery Authors.”

Many of the usual suspects are included, from Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler to John le Carré, Mickey Spillane, Elmore Leonard, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, and Patricia Highsmith. But as other readers have pointed out in the still-growing comments section at the bottom of that post, the AbeBooks folks somehow managed to leave out important wordsmiths on the order of Ross Macdonald, Georges Simenon, Ellery Queen, Anne Perry, Alistair MacLean, Ian Rankin, Jim Thompson, Minette Walters, David Goodis, Walter Mosley, and … well, you get the idea. Whoever compiled this rundown must now be thinking it wasn’t worth the grief.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Revue of Reviewers, 10-16-17

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.







Sunday, October 15, 2017

Who Won the Anthonys?

Today’s cheers-filled, brunch-time issuance of the Anthony Awards was the final prize presentation of Bouchercon 2017, which has been taking place in Toronto, Ontario, since Thursday. It also completed a “triple crown” win for Canadian author Louise Penny, whose 2016 Chief Inspector Armand Gamache yarn, A Great Reckoning, not only scored the Best Novel Anthony, but had already captured this conference’s Macavity Award and Barry Award in the same category.

Below you will find the full list of 2017 Anthony Award recipients.

Best Novel: A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)

Also nominated: You Will Know Me, by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown); Where It Hurts, by Reed Farrel Coleman (Putnam); Red Right Hand, by Chris Holm (Mulholland); and Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman (Morrow)

Best First Novel: IQ, by Joe Ide (Mulholland)

Also nominated: Dodgers, by Bill Beverly (Crown); Decanting a Murder, by Nadine Nettmann (Midnight Ink); Design for Dying, by Renee Patrick (Forge); and The Drifter, by Nicholas Petrie (Putnam)

Best Paperback Original: Heart of Stone, by James W. Ziskin
(Seventh Street)

Also nominated: Shot in Detroit, by Patricia Abbott (Polis); Leadfoot, by Eric Beetner (280 Steps); Salem’s Cipher, by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink); Rain Dogs, by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street); and How to Kill Friends and Implicate People, by Jay Stringer (Thomas & Mercer)

Best Short Story: “Oxford Girl,” by Megan Abbott (from Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin; Akashic)

Also nominated: “Autumn at the Automat,” by Lawrence Block (from In Sunlight or in Shadow, edited by Lawrence Block; Pegasus); “Gary’s Got a Boner,” by Johnny Shaw (from Waiting to Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by The Replacements, edited by Jay Stringer; Gutter); “Parallel Play,” by Art Taylor (from Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, edited by Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, and Marcia Talley; Wildside Press); and “Queen of the Dogs,” by Holly West (from 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul, and Payback, edited by Gary Phillips and Robert J. Randisi; Moonstone)

Best Critical Non-fiction Work: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin (Liveright)

Also nominated: Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life, by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese); Letters from a Serial Killer, by Kristi Belcamino and Stephanie Kahalekulu (CreateSpace); Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, by David J. Skal (Liveright); and The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury/Penguin)

Best Children’s/Young Adult Novel: The Girl I Used to Be,
by April Henry (Henry Holt)

Also nominated: Snowed, by Maria Alexander (Raw Dog Screaming); Tag, You’re Dead, by J.C. Lane (Poisoned Pen Press); My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier (Soho Teen); and The Fixes, by Owen Matthews (HarperTeen)

Best Anthology: Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016, edited by Greg Herren (Down & Out)

Also nominated: Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, edited by Eric Beetner (Down & Out); In Sunlight or in Shadow, edited by Lawrence Block (Pegasus); Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens, edited by Jen Conley (Down & Out); and Waiting to Be Forgotten: Stories of Crime and Heartbreak, Inspired by The Replacements, edited by Jay Stringer (Gutter)

Best Novella (8,000-40,000 words): The Last Blue Glass, by B.K. Stevens (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, April 2016)

Also nominated: Cleaning Up Finn, by Sarah M. Chen (CreateSpace); No Happy Endings, by Angel Luis Colón (Down & Out); Crosswise, by S.W. Lauden (Down & Out); and Beware the Shill, by John Shepphird
(Down & Out)

The winners of these Anthony Awards were selected by a vote of the approximately 1,800 attendees at this year’s Bouchercon. Congratulations to the winners and other nominees!

(Hat tip to Classic Mysteries.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Bullet Points: Bouchercon Week Edition

• Denise Mina’s latest novel, The Long Drop, doesn’t lack for honors. In addition to its win, in September, of this year’s McIlvanney Prize, the book has now nabbed the Gordon Burn Prize. That report was made on Thursday during England’s Durham Book Festival. The Long Drop bested five other shortlisted nominees to win the commendation, which was named in honor of Gordon Burn, the British author of such books as Alma Cogan and Sex & Violence, Death & Silence.

• Among this year’s 24 recipients of MacArthur Foundation “genius grants” is Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Vietnam-set spy novel, The Sympathizer, which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a 2016 Edgar Award. To learn more about Nguyen, refer to this “By the Book” piece that ran in The New York Times in early 2017.

• “Now that Robert Downey Jr. and HBO are prepping a new cable take on Erle Stanley Gardner’s iconic Perry Mason, this may be a good time to consider the famous defense attorney’s many and various appearances other than between book covers.” So opines Dick Lochte in a Mystery Scene article that looks back at how Mason was portrayed not only on TV, but on radio, in movies, and even in comics.

• Speaking of the TV series Perry Mason, here is MeTV’s list of unusual episodes from that 1957-1966 legal drama. “Have you seen the one in color and the one starring Bette Davis?” the story asks in its subhead. Or how about the one starring Mike Connors?

• There have already been multiple big-screen and TV adaptations of Wilkie Collins’ 1859 “sensation novel,” The Woman in White, including what I remember was an estimable, 1997 BBC version (watch the trailer here) scripted by Dark Water author David Pirie. Yet now comes BBC One with yet another, five-episode dramatization of the spooky tale, this one starring Ben Hardy (EastEnders) and Olivia Vinall (Apple Tree Yard), and due for airing in the UK in 2018.

• Well in advance of that will premiere Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive, a documentary film—part of PBS-TV’s American Masters series—that “draws on Poe’s evocative imagery and sharply drawn plots to tell the real story of the notorious author …,” according to a news release. “An orphan in search of family, love and literary fame, Poe struggled with alcoholism and was also a product of early 19th-century American urban life: depressed from the era’s culture of death due to the high mortality rate and the struggles of living in poverty. Poe famously died under mysterious circumstances and his cause of death remains unknown.” Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive is scheduled for broadcast on Monday, October 30, beginning at 9 p.m. ET/PT—a pre-Halloween treat! The trailer for this presentation is embedded below.

video

• Yes, All Hallows’ Eve is now a little more than two weeks away. So expect plenty of related features to show up online, such as this BookBub Blog post recommending “20 Creepy New Books to Read This Halloween.” Also check out this Literary Hub offering of “40 of the Creepiest Book Covers of All Time.” Meanwhile, the New York City-obsessed blog, The Bowery Boys, has put together what it calls “brand-new, mysterious podcasts that will send a shiver down your spine.”

• I mentioned on this page in July that Tom Nolan, who edited the Library of America omnibus Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels: Black Money/The Instant Enemy/The Goodbye Look/The Underground Man, was composing essays about all of those Lew Archer private-eye stories. I see that three of them are now available for your investigation—his thoughtful takes on Black Money (1966), The Instant Enemy (1968), and The Goodbye Look (1969). I look forward to reading what Nolan has to say about The Underground Man (1971), which is one of my favorites among Macdonald’s Archer yarns and was adapted as a 1974 TV pilot starring Peter Graves.

When James Bond didn’t like The Beatles …

… And how he was deeply affected by World War II.

• In a diverse recent blog post, Max Allan Collins mentioned that he has delivered the manuscript for Killing Town, his 10th Mike Hammer novel developed from fragmentary material Mickey Spillane left behind at the time of his death in 2006. Collins goes on to explain that Killing Town (due out from Titan next April) is “chronologically the first Mike Hammer novel,” and that he composed it based on “a substantial (60 double-spaced pages) Spillane manuscript from around 1945 … before I, the Jury!! It has an ending that will either delight, outrage, or disgust you … perhaps all at the same time.” Killing Town, concludes Collins, “will join The Last Stand [due out from Hard Case Crime next March] in the celebration of Mickey’s centenary, the first Mike Hammer novel bookending the final Spillane solo novel.”

• Sometime Rap Sheet contributor Mark Coggins sent me a notice he discovered recently in the newsletter Publisher’s Lunch:
Following the death of [book agent] Ed Victor (and before that, in fall 2016, the death of [UK publisher] Graham Greene), the Raymond Chandler estate has selected new representation. They are working with Peter Straus at Rogers, Coleridge & White for publishing, and Stephen Durbridge and Katie Haines at The Agency for film and TV. Greene’s son Alexander, director of Raymond Chandler Ltd., says in the release: “In choosing Peter and RCW and Stephen and the Agency we wanted to reintroduce Chandler to an audience who perhaps recognize his style but don’t immediately associate it with him or his archetypal character Philip Marlowe.”
One can only speculate as to the eventual results of these altered business associations. Could we be provided more literary revivals of Los Angeles private eye Marlowe? Another crack at a Marlowe TV series, or more new Marlowe films?

• Let’s hope this eventually reaches the United States! From Mystery Tribune: “Scandinavian crime fans will be pleased to know that Sagafilm’s new drama Stella Blómkvist, starring Heida Reed (Poldark) and directed by Oskar Thor Axelsson (Trapped), will soon come to life via Nordic streaming service Viaplay. The series is based on a series of novels that follow a hard-nosed lawyer named Stella Blómkvist as she takes on mysterious murder cases.”

• Gadzooks! The DVD release of C.S.I.—The Complete Series will be a “93-disc set includ[ing] 19 hours of special features, all 15 seasons, and all 337 episodes, plus the 2-hour finale.” I’m not sure I can even accommodate such a sizeable package among my DVD collection. This CBS Home Entertainment/Paramount Home Media set will become available as of November 21, according to TV Shows on DVD.

• For the Mulholland Books site, Portland, Oregon, science-fiction author Fonda Lee (Jade City) has cobbled together a rundown of what she says are the “Top Ten Fantasy Crime Novels.”

• David Cranmer is doing a bang-up job, for Criminal Element, of celebrating the centennial of Robert Mitchum’s birth. He’s written over the last three months about Mitchum’s Western films, his noir pictures, and yesterday he recalled the actor’s war movies (including the 1983 TV mini-series The Winds of War). Mitchum, writes Cranmer, projected “the great inner strength of tight-lipped heroes who fought the good fight, usually against staggering odds.”

• Linwood Barclay talks with Suspense Radio about his latest novel, Parting Shot, which is due out on October 31. Listen here.

• Hard to believe, I know, but it has been a full decade since the debut of Chuck, NBC-TV’s action-comedy/spy series starring Zachary Levi as computer-service specialist-turned-special agent Chuck Bartowski, and Yvonne Strahovski as his CIA protector, Sarah Walker. In honor of this anniversary, TV Guide created a video compilation of their most romantic moments from the show’s five seasons.

From In Reference to Murder:
Fox has given a script commitment plus penalty to The Dime, a crime drama with a lesbian cop at the center that’s based on bestselling author Kathleen Kent’s new novel, from Hell on Wheels creators Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton, feature director Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes), and 20th-Century Fox TV. Written and executive produced by the Gayton brothers, The Dime follows Brooklyn cop Betty Rhyzyck, a tough-as-nails firebrand who moves with her girlfriend to Dallas to lead a group of detectives. Their more traditional sensibilities are a far cry from her blue-state mentality, and in order to survive, Betty and her team will have to put aside their differences.
• Marty McKee has an excellent piece in Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot about the reworked sixth and final season of 77 Sunset Strip, which starred Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Los Angeles private eye Stuart Bailey. To give that season “a kickstart,” McKee recalls, Warner Bros. “gave it a radical reboot. Everyone but Zimbalist was fired, and Bailey moved into a new office in the Bradbury Building as a solo act. New producers Jack Webb (Dragnet) and William Conrad … made the series less glossy and more noirish. While the new approach didn’t work—the series was cancelled after 20 episodes—it did give 77 a creative shot in the arm. To begin the sixth season, producer Conrad hired screenwriter Harry Essex (credited with Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, and I, the Jury) to concoct an ambitious five-part story that Conrad would also direct. The result was ‘5,’ which aired on consecutive Fridays in September and October 1963. Loaded with guest stars ranging from Richard Conte and Cesar Romero to Diane McBain and William Shatner, ‘5’ yanks Bailey out of L.A. to New York and even all the way to Israel to solve the case.” I wrote about that same multi-part episode of 77 Sunset Strip in this 2012 post.

• Congratulations to The Spy Command on its ninth anniversary!

• I know it seems a bit early yet to talk about next spring’s Florida SleuthFest (March 1-4 in Boca Raton), what with Bouchercon 2017 still underway in Toronto. But the deadline for discounted early registration for SleuthFest is this coming September 30. And would-be authors who wish to arrange manuscript critiques must submit their work by January 31—just over three months from now. More generally, this annual writers’ conference (sponsored by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America) will have as its 2018 keynote speaker Andrew Gross, and Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., has been tapped as forensic guest of honor. Other special guests will include James R. Benn and Hallie Ephron. More information can be found on the SleuthFest Web site or by contacting co-chairs Victoria Landis and Michael Joy via e-mail at Sleuthfestinfo@gmail.com.

• While we’re on the subject of near-future mystery-fiction festivals, I should also point out that discounted early registration for Left Coast Crime 2018 (March 22-25 in Reno, Nevada) is available only through December 31 of our present year. The guest of honors at that gathering will be Naomi Hirahara and William Kent Krueger.

• And let’s conclude here with links to a few author interviews worthy of your attention: John McFetridge, who played a large role in organizing this week’s Bouchercon in Toronto, talks with S.W. Lauden about his very underappreciated novels; MysteryPeople chats with both Adam Sternbergh (The Blinds) and J.M. Gulvin (The Long Count); Lisa Scottoline (Damaged) and Jussi Adler-Olsen (The Scarred Woman) field questions from Crimespree Magazine; J.J. Hensley discusses Bolt Action Remedy with the UK site Crime Fiction Lover; and Paul Bishop grills Greg Shepherd, the publisher of Stark House Press. Although it’s an essay rather than a Q & A, I want to mention as well Russian writer Polina Dashkova’s piece for BoingBoing about how she came to concoct her new-in-America thriller, Madness Treads Lightly.

When You Want the Barry Best

In addition to the announcement of this year’s Macavity Award recipients, last night’s opening ceremonies at Bouchercon Toronto brought us the winners of the 2017 Barry Awards, sponsored by Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. They are as follows:

Best Novel:
A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)

Also nominated: Where It Hurts, by Reed Farrel Coleman (Putnam); The Wrong Side of Goodbye, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown); The Second Life of Nick Mason, by Steve Hamilton (Putnam); Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman (Morrow); and The Second Girl, by David
Swinson (Mulholland)

Best First Novel:
The Drifter, by Nicholas Petrie (Putnam)

Also nominated: Dodgers, by Bill Beverly (Crown); I’m Traveling Alone, by Samuel Bjork (Viking); IQ, by Joe Ide (Mulholland); I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid (Gallery/Scout Press); and Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner (Random House)

Best Paperback Original:
Rain Dogs, by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street)

Also nominated: Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry (Penguin); The Heavens May Fall, by Allen Eskens (Seventh Street); The Queen’s Accomplice, by Susan Elia MacNeal (Bantam); The Darkest Secret, by Alex Marwood (Penguin); and The Girl in the Window, by Jake Needham (Half Penny)

Best Thriller:
Guilty Minds, by Joseph Finder (Dutton)

Also nominated: Overwatch, by Matthew Betley (Atria); First Strike, by Ben Coes (Minotaur); Back Blast, by Mark Greaney (Berkley); The One Man, by Andrew Gross (Minotaur); and Collecting the Dead, by
Spencer Kope (Minotaur)

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Handing Out the Macavitys

During tonight’s opening ceremonies at Bouchercon in Toronto, Ontario, the winners of the 2017 Macavity Awards were announced.

Best Novel: A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)

Also nominated: You Will Know Me, by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown); Dark Fissures, by Matt Coyle (Oceanview); Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley (Grand Central); Real Tigers, by Mick Herron (Soho Crime); and Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman (Morrow)

Best First Novel: IQ, by Joe Ide (Mulholland)

Also nominated: The Widow, by Fiona Barton (NAL); Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry (Penguin); Dodgers, by Bill Beverly (No Exit Press); and Design for Dying, by Renee Patrick (Forge)

Best Short Story: “Parallel Play,” by Art Taylor (from Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, edited by Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, and Marcia Talley; Wildside Press)

Also nominated: “Autumn at the Automat,” by Lawrence Block (from In Sunlight or in Shadow, edited by Lawrence Block; Pegasus); “Blank Shot,” by Craig Faustus Buck (from Black Coffee, edited by Andrew MacRae; Darkhouse); “Survivor’s Guilt,” by Greg Herren (from Blood on the Bayou: Bouchercon Anthology 2016, edited by Greg Herren; Down & Out); “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” by Paul D. Marks (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], December 2016); and “The Crawl Space,” by Joyce Carol Oates (EQMM, September-October 2016)

Sue Feder Memorial Award for Best Historical Novel: Heart of Stone, by James W. Ziskin (Seventh Street)

Also nominated: A Death Along the River Fleet, by Susanna Calkins (Minotaur); Jane Steele, by Lyndsay Faye (Putnam); Delivering the Truth, by Edith Maxwell (Midnight Ink); The Reek of Red Herrings, by Catriona McPherson (Minotaur); and What Gold Buys, by Ann Parker (Poisoned Pen Press)

Best Non-fiction: Sara Paretsky: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction, by Margaret Kinsman (McFarland)

Also nominated: Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories that Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats, by Jane K. Cleland (Writer’s Digest); Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin (Liveright); Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula, by David J. Skal (Liveright); and The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, by Kate Summerscale (Penguin)

Contenders for the annual Macavity Awards are selected by members of Mystery Readers International, the subscribers to Mystery Readers Journal, and “friends of MRI.”

Congratulations to all of this year’s nominees!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Variations on a Theme: Stormy Forecast



Damage Control, by Denise Hamilton (Scribner, 2011); The Stolen Marriage, by Diane Chamberlain (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

Party Time in “The Big Smoke”*

Look out, Toronto! Crime-fiction authors and mystery fans by the hundreds will be descending upon Ontario’s largest city this week for Bouchercon 2017: Passport to Murder, the 48th World Mystery Convention, named in honor of American critic, author, and editor Anthony Boucher. Sadly, I won’t be on hand for those festivities, but The Rap Sheet will be most ably represented in Toronto by Québec-based contributor Jacques Filippi.

The schedule of events is here. Convention registration begins tomorrow, Thursday, at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel. Other Bouchercon highlights will include: Thursday night’s opening ceremonies (during which the recipients of this year’s Macavity Awards and Barry Awards are to be declared); a Friday Pub Quiz Night, hosted by Crime Writers of Canada; and Sunday morning’s brunch, which will feature announcements of the 2017 Anthony Award winners.

If you’re wondering which authors you might bump into during this three-day event, check here. Almost as interesting is the list of writers who had to cancel their participation.

The Rap Sheet will do its best to keep track of the awards presentations and other news coming out of this Toronto convention. And the aforementioned Mr. Filippi has promised me a wrap-up feature in the wake of the festivities. Stay tuned.

* “Ask Torontoist: Who You Calling ‘The Big Smoke’? by John Semley.

Get an Eyeful of More Peeping Toms

Anyone who’s worked with me knows my perfectionist tendencies. I generally hold myself to standards just shy of unreasonable, whether in my news reporting, my interviewing, my book criticism, or my blog designing. When laboring on behalf of print publications, my habitual desire to tinker with my work is restricted by deadlines and the fact that once a magazine or newspaper article (or a book, for that matter) goes to press, I can no longer polish sentences, sharpen my analysis of a subject, or correct errors I failed to spot originally. However, such limitations don’t necessarily exist in the world of Web publishing. Even after a piece is presented in The Rap Sheet or Killer Covers, I can return to it hours, days, weeks, months, or years later to make improvements or additions. And I often do.

This flexibility has served me well in regard to themed galleries of vintage book fronts I’ve assembled for Killer Covers. Over the last couple of years, I have gone back to several early collections of paperback covers—including those having to do with suburban sleaze, summertime sex and scandals, captivating blondes, and showcased legs—and improved their look, beefed up their diversity, or both. This week I finally found the opportunity to enhance and expand a feature I put together a full eight years ago, about Peeping Tom covers.

I haven’t done much to that post in terms of its text, but I have greatly expanded its visual presentation. When the Peeping Tom gallery first went up in October 2009, it comprised a modest 33 book covers; now, with my having spent a few extra years collecting specimens of this breed, it has almost quadrupled in size, boasting 121 fine façades—a new Killer Covers record. There are likely other handsome examples out there waiting to be discovered. For the present, though, I declare this set pretty darn perfect.

Click here to see if you agree.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

“Devil” Receives Its Due

California writer Domenic Stansberry has captured the 2016 Hammett Prize for his thriller The White Devil (Molotov Editions), as reported by The Gumshoe Site. The Hammett Prize is given out annually by the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers for “literary excellence in the field of crime writing by a U.S. or Canadian author.” The choice of Stansberry, who previously won an Edgar Award (for The Confession), as this year’s Hammett recipient was made yesterday during the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association’s Fall Conference, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Also in contention for the 2016 Hammett were The Second Life of Nick Mason, by Steve Hamilton (Putnam); The Drifter, by Nicholas Petrie (Putnam); Revolver, by Duane Swierczynki (Mulholland); and The Big Nothing, by Bob Truluck (Murmur House).

Congratulations to all of this year’s nominees!

Friday, October 06, 2017

Revue of Reviewers, 10-6-17

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.









Thursday, October 05, 2017

Bullet Points: Phooey on Rules Edition

That’s funny, I didn’t know there were any rules to follow when crafting “link posts” such as this one. I rarely see such compilations, and can think of only two other crime-fiction Web sites that regularly carry them: B.V. Lawson’s wonderful In Reference to Murder and the publisher-backed Criminal Element. So imagine my surprise at discovering, in The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder’s “Practical Guide to Developing Your Weekly or Monthly Link Post.” Coincidentally, I already follow his first two guidelines; but I regularly break the latter pair, especially Rule No. 4: “Keep it short. No one wants to read a link post with 30 links; readers’ eyes will glaze over by the tenth link, or they will be interrupted, or they’ll simply be overwhelmed. Try to aim for links to six to ten stories.” Hah! Anyone who’s been enjoying The Rap Sheet for a while knows that my “Bullet Points” gleanings of news from the world of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction can run on for 2,000 or more words, with dozens of Web links. And from what I’ve heard, that’s just the way most readers of this blog like them.

Now on with this week’s links compendium ...

• In Reference to Murder brings news that “BBC One has given the greenlight to an eight-part crime drama, The Dublin Murders, based on Tana French’s award-winning series of mysteries. Sarah Phelps, who recently reimagined several Agatha Christie novels for the BBC, will adapt the first two books about the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, drawn from French’s In the Woods and The Likeness. Blending psychological mystery and darkness, each novel is led by a different detective or detectives from the same Dublin squad.” Sounds terrific!

• I have to admit, my interest in another motion picture featuring Ernest Tidyman’s renowned black Manhattan private eye, John Shaft, waned seriously after it was announced that the film—tentatively titled Son of Shaft, and beginning production later this fall—would be an action-comedy, rather than a straight action pic. However, Steve Aldous, the UK-based author of The World of Shaft, continues to keep track of the venture, reporting in his blog that Netflix has agreed “to fund half the [movie’s] $30m budget in exchange for international rights. The deal reportedly means Netflix will be able to stream the movie just two weeks after its release.”

• Speaking of crime-related films, Criminal Element’s Peter Foy chooses his 10 favorites from the 21st century. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2010), The Departed (2006), and Kill Bill (2003) all made the cut. Sadly, other likely suspects, such as The Killer Inside Me (2010), Hart’s War (2001), and Road to Perdition (2002), did not.

• The mail recently brought me the Fall 2017 issue of Mystery Scene magazine. Beyond its well-executed cover profile of author Attica Locke (Bluebird, Bluebird), written by Ross Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, this mag features Mark Mallory’s rewarding examination of Mark Twain’s crime fiction; a Martin Edwards piece about the revival of Golden Age mystery novels; Craig Sisterson’s fine report on New Zealand thriller writer Paul Cleave, a three-time winner of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel; a new column by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, in which they eulogize the late Ed Gorman; a look at James R. Benn’s World War II mysteries (the latest of those being The Devouring); and the inevitable much more. Mystery Scene is widely available at newsstands, but can also be ordered through the magazine’s Web site.

• In other print-publication news, this is the first and only review I have seen thus far of Down & Out: The Magazine, which debuted this summer. Although it fails to comment on my “Placed in Evidence” column, it is complimentary of both Reed Farrel Coleman’s original Moe Prager story, “Breakage,” and Michael A. Black’s “punchy Ron Shade tale,” “Dress Blues.” I’m not sure when, over the next three months, the second edition of Down & Out: The Magazine will appear, but editor Rick Ollerman has already gathered together its contents.

• The Houston, Texas-born Attica Locke makes another appearance, this time in the slick cyberpages of Literary Hub, writing about “her roots, the blues, and cowboy boots.”

• I won’t be attending next week’s Bouchercon in Toronto, Ontario, but Québec-based Rap Sheet contributor Jacques Filippi has been asked to represent this blog at those festivities, complete with his trusty camera. I hope Bouchercon-goers will offer him the same respect and assistance they would me.

• Since we’re on the subject of Bouchercon, remember that attendees of that convention will have the opportunity to select the winners of this year’s Anthony Awards. The contenders are listed here. If you haven’t read (and judged) the five nominees for Best Short Story, and would like to do so before leaving for Toronto, simply click here for links to PDF versions of those abbreviated yarns.

• Have you heard of Medium, a partial-subscription site that blends wide-ranging original content with stories picked up from elsewhere on the Web? Yeah, neither had I, until I stumbled the other day over its readers’ picks list of “350 Mysteries and Thrillers to Read in a Lifetime.” There are many obvious selections among this bunch, including Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, and John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see the list make room as well for such works as S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, Richard Hoyt’s Whoo?, Kate Ross’ Cut to the Quick, Arthur W. Upfield’s Man of Two Tribes, Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare, Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge!, and Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Crocodile. There are lots of ideas there to build up your to-be-read stack.

• That reference to Alistair MacLean reminds me: Not long ago I came across, on YouTube, the much-lauded 1971 British thriller film Puppet on a Chain, based on MacLean’s Amsterdam-set novel of that same name. At least for the time being, you can watch the entire movie for yourself right here.

• And here is a better-than-average Eurospy flick, 1965’s Our Man in Jamaica. Wikipedia explains the plot this way:
Agent 001 Ken Stewart [played by American actor Larry Pennell] is sent to Jamaica to locate the missing Agent 009, who vanished [while] investigating an arms-smuggling operation. After two of Stewart’s friends are found dead of electrocution, 001’s investigation leads him to an expatriate American criminal who was sentenced to the electric chair but escaped from prison. Seeking revenge, he assembles an army of terrorists based on an island seven miles from Jamaica called Dominica. His arms smuggling is the beginning of a scheme to attack the United States with the aid of Red China and Cuba.
• Seattle Mystery Bookshop shut its doors this last weekend, after 27 years of business in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square area. But some of its employees have launched a post-store blog. It will be interesting to see how that develops. Meanwhile, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop—Hardboiled page, which focuses on covers from vintage crime novels and magazines, continues to be active on Tumblr.

• Here’s some exciting news: Tour guide/author Don Herron reports that Dashiell Hammett authority Richard Layman and Hammett’s best-known granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett, have co-edited The Big Book of the Continental Op (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard), which he says will, “for the first time ever … [gather] all the Op stories in one place.” This 752-page paperback collection is expected to reach bookstores by late November—conveniently in time for Christmas gift giving.

• In the latest edition of her newsletter, The Crime Lady, Sarah Weinman writes that “Max Haines, the dean of Canadian true-crime writing, has died. I grew up reading his columns [in the Toronto Sun], which were smart, incisive, and always worth reading.” Haines succumbed to progressive supranuclear palsy at age 86.

• The October number of Mike Ripley’s “Getting Away with Murder” column for Shots includes observations on prolific author James Hadley Chase, the “rediscovery” of Golden Age novelist Christopher Bush, Minette Walters’ turn toward historical fiction, and new books by Christopher Brookmyre, Margaret Kirk, Chris Pettit, and Ben Aaronovich. Read all of Ripley’s musings here.

How’d you like your own Jim Rockford business cards?

• Oh no, Charlie’s Angels is back, this time in film form, with notoriously wooden Twilight star Kristen Stewart tipped to play one of the curvaceous crime solvers.

• Los Angeles history specialist Larry Harnisch worked for many years as a copy editor at the L.A. Times, while simultaneously producing a Web-based feature for that newspaper called The Daily Mirror. In 2011, the Times killed his blog “because of low Web traffic,” but let Harnisch continue his history-journaling as a personal project—which is exactly what he’s done, writing about photos, intriguing myths, curious characters, and ephemera from L.A.’s past. Harnisch has also made himself an expert on the January 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, aka “The Black Dahlia.” And he’s become a frequent critic of books and other reports claiming to have solved that sensational homicide. Those include documentary producer Piu Eatwell’s Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America's Greatest Unsolved Murder (Liveright), which goes on sale next week. Although he remarks in a new post, “I don’t plan to do a line-by-line debunking,” Harnisch observes that there are “two elementary blunders” on the first page of Eatwell’s preface, which suggests “that poor work is ahead.” He promises further observations on the book, “as time allows.”

• Much has been said over the decades about plot holes Raymond Chandler left in his first novel, 1939’s The Big Sleep (see here and here)—enough that some clever soul decided to redesign the 1958 Pocket Books edition of Chandler’s yarn with a title reflecting such confusion. The artwork for both this modified cover, on the left, and the original paperback, is credited to Ernest Chiriacka, aka Darcy. (Hat tip to J.R. Sanders on Facebook.)

• I don’t think I mentioned this previously, but English actress Claire Foy—perhaps best recognized of late for her starring role as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crownhas been tapped to play a much rougher role, that of abundantly tattooed Lisbeth Salander in a film adaptation of David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Set for release in October 2018, this movie will launch Sony Pictures’ reboot of its Millennium series, which began with the 2011 American film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on Stieg Larsson’s 2007 novel of that same name.

• It sounds as if British author Anthony Horowitz is moving right along with his second James Bond novel, the as-yet-untitled follow-up to 2015’s splendid Trigger Mortis.

• Congratulations to Bill Selnes, the lawyer who blogs at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, for producing his 1,000th post.

• With the 168th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth coming up this Saturday, October 7, Criminal Element is hosting a poll to determine that author’s most popular short story.

• Augustus Rose’s premiere crime novel, The Readymade Thief (Viking), is one of seven finalists in the running for the 2017 Chicago Review of Books Award for Fiction.

• The Web site Cinephilia & Beyond revisits the 1981 motion picture Thief, exploring “how [director] Michael Mann’s cinema debut stole the world’s attention.” Which reminds me, I really should screen that movie again sometime soon.

• Who remembers Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, the 1951-1955 NBC Radio drama series starring William Gargan as a Manhattan private eye who, explains The Thrilling Detective Web Site, was “your man when you can’t go to the cops. Confidentiality a specialty”? Well, I certainly did not. But the classic-radio blog Down These Mean Streets recently posted this fine profile of Gargan (who also portrayed P.I. Martin Kane), and I tracked down 59 episodes of the Craig series online. That’s plenty of listening pleasure for yours truly.

• I don’t usually say much here about The Rap Sheet’s presence on social media—Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Those other pages exist primarily to promote this blog, not to substitute for it. And they all register fairly high traffic volumes, but I was surprised to see that a post noting the 60th anniversary of Have Gun—Will Travel’s debut on September 14, 1957, received much more attention than any other I’ve ever posted on Facebook. At last count, it had “reached” 9,474 people. It seems there’s a huge crossover between Rap Sheet readers and fans of that long-ago Richard Boone Western/detective series.

• Felix Francis, whose latest novel, Pulse, is out this month in the States, recalls for Shotsmag Confidential how he started taking over the family business of mystery writing even before the death, in 2010, of his famous jockey-turned-novelist father, Dick Francis.

• And here are a few crime fiction-related interviews worth your time to check out: Diane B. Saxton (Peregrine Island) and Brad Abraham (Magicians Impossible) are Nancie Clare’s latest guests on her podcast, Speaking of Mysteries; reviewer Alex Hawley presents his conversation with Craig Sisterson, the founder of New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh Awards for crime fiction, over the course of two blog posts—here and here; Sujata Massey, author of a forthcoming Bombay-set mystery, The Widows of Malabar Hill, talks with her editor, Juliet Grames, about that novel’s background; the blog Black Gates chats with Grady Hendrix about his distinctive new non-fiction work, Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction; among the guests on Episode 9 of Writer Types are Attica Locke, Frank Zafiro, Emma Viskic, and Andrew Nette; and during lawyer F. Lee Bailey’s 1967 conversation with Sean Connery, the actor who had by then portrayed James Bond in five films says he has finally tired of the role: “It’s some sort of Frankenstein,” he groused.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“LaBrava,” by Elmore Leonard

(Editor’s note: This 152nd entry in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books welcomes Craig Pittman to our league of contributors for the first time. A native of Pensacola, Florida, Pittman is an award-winning journalist who covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. His non-fiction books include Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species [2010], The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid [2012], and Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country [Picador], which was released in paperback earlier this month.)

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, prolific author of thrillers, Westerns, and screenplays, hailed from Detroit, Michigan, and set quite a few of his novels there. But Leonard also had a strong connection to another state—Florida. He began visiting the Sunshine State in the 1950s and lived part-time in Palm Beach County.

“I bought my mom a four-unit motel in Pompano Beach,” he once told Rolling Stone. “She lives in one unit, rents out the others. Visiting her, I found Miami a great locale. The high crime rate, the contrast in people—rich retirees, Cubans, boat-lifters—all kinds of good things are going on there for me.”

Leonard got to know Florida’s geography, its weather, and its many oddball characters pretty well, and he used that knowledge in some of his best work.

His Florida books include Pronto and Riding the Rap, the two novels that first introduced the character of Raylan Givens, the deputy U.S. marshal featured on the TV show Justified. His novel Out of Sight, later made into a Steven Soderbergh film, begins in Florida and ends in Detroit. Rum Punch was set in Florida, too, but Quentin Tarantino moved the action to Los Angeles when he turned it into the movie Jackie Brown.

But I think Leonard’s finest Florida-set novel is one that never made it to a theater, although a love of movies seeps from every page. I’m talking about LaBrava, which was published back in 1983 and won an Edgar Award in 1984.

I first read this book 20 years ago after reading a bunch of other Elmore Leonard works, and that time it didn't do much for me. All of his unusual characters and dialogue-driven storytelling had begun to blur together. However, I read LaBrava again recently while poring over a collection of novels about Florida and revised my opinion dramatically upward. This book really stands out amid the other Leonard thrillers, both for its themes and its sense of history.

The title character is Joe LaBrava, a guy in his late 30s who put in time at the IRS and the Secret Service. It sounds glamorous, but it wasn’t. The low point of his Secret Service career was serving as part of Bess Truman’s protective detail in Independence, Missouri.

LaBrava’s Secret Service experience helped train him to read people and catch details about their faces. He enjoyed hunting counterfeiters out of the Miami field office, shooting surveillance photos. Now, he’s decided that what he really wants to do is be a photographer. In seedy Miami Beach he finds a plethora of things to shoot.

LaBrava becomes friends with the old ex-bookie who owns the ancient hotel where he lives. Maurice Zola can see LaBrava’s talent. He knows talent, because Zola shot photos all over Florida in the 1930s for the Farm Security Administration.

“He’s got the eye,” Zola tells a gallery owner about LaBrava. “He’s got an instinct for it, and he’s not afraid to walk up and take the shot.” Then Zola goes off on a tangent about the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that obliterated the Overseas Railroad in the Florida Keys, and how shooting that disaster was his break as a photographer.

Throughout this book, Zola pops up repeatedly, offering rambling recollections of his life. Through him, Leonard sprinkles in references to various events in Florida history that helped make the state a magnet for outsiders, such as LaBrava, who are trying to catch a break.

Parts of the book comes across as a love letter to the Art Deco shabbiness that was early 1980s Miami Beach, before Miami Vice turned it into a neon-lit star. Here’s LaBrava looking out a window, feeling the history of the place:
What he saw from the window was timeless, a Florida post card. The strip of park across the street. The palm trees in place, the sea grape. The low wall you could sit on made of coral rock and gray cement. And the beach. What a beach. A desert full of people resting, it was so wide. People out there with blankets and umbrellas. People in the green part of the ocean, before it turned deep blue. People so small they could be from any time. Turn the view around. Sit on the coral wall and look this way at the hotels on Ocean Drive and see back into the thirties.
One night, Zola asks LaBrava to help him retrieve a woman who’s been brought in drunk to a Palm Beach County crisis center. She turns out to be Jean Shaw, a 50-ish faded star of classic noir films. LaBrava saw one of her movies when he was 12 and was instantly smitten. Now he feels protective toward her. He’s so protective, in fact, that he tangles with a security guard named Richard Nobles, “the kind of guy—LaBrava knew by sight, smell, and instinct—who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.” Nobles is after Shaw too. LaBrava takes away Nobles’ gun, sits on him and sticks the gun in Nobles’ mouth. Nobles vows revenge.

One thing I didn’t like about this book on first reading was Nobles, because he’s a Florida native, like me. There’s a similar character filling the villain role in Leonard’s novel Maximum Bob, a “Florida Man” type before we ever knew that term—a big dumb guy who thinks he’s got the world licked. (The one in Maximum Bob is part of a family of Florida lowlifes, the Crowes, who show up in several Leonard novels.)

As I was re-reading LaBrava, though, I realized Nobles is no mere redneck stereotype. His character provides Leonard with an artful way to slip in some more Florida history. We learn about Nobles’ role in a well-known DEA bust that took down a major smuggling ring in the apparently sleepy fishing village of Steinhatchee—another signal from Leonard that nothing in Florida is what it appears to be.

Leonard fills in his canvas with such off-kilter characters as Franny Kaufman, a frizzy-haired cosmetics saleswoman; Johnbull Obasanjo, a sarcastic Nigerian cab driver; and Paco Boza, who travels around in a wheelchair he stole “because he didn’t like to walk and because he thought it was cool, a way for people to identify him.”

Soon LaBrava is drawn into an extortion scheme involving Shaw, Nobles, and Cundo Rey, a Cuban killer who arrived with the Mariel boatlift and likes performing as a male stripper as a sideline. Eventually, LaBrava realizes Shaw is so caught up in her noir past, she’s confused it with her present reality. LaBrava’s ability as a photographer to see the truth about people eventually helps him pierce the cloud of artifice and nostalgia so he can unravel the scheme. When the time comes, he is definitely ready to take the shot.

In the end some of the right people get punished and some don’t, and I think that was the other thing that bothered me about this book the first time. But now it doesn’t, and I think it’s because that’s what happens in real life, especially in Florida.

A postscript: LaBrava almost became a movie—a Martin Scorsese picture, in fact. According to a 2013 story at New York magazine’s Vulture site, Dustin Hoffman wanted to star as the title character, and held a series of meetings with Leonard and movie execs—meetings that Leonard found more and more frustrating. That film was never made, but Leonard used the experience as fodder for his 1990 novel, Get Shorty, which of course did become a movie. Hoffman reportedly asked Leonard if Danny DeVito’s egotistical actor character was really based on him. “Come on, Dustin,” Leonard said. “You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”