Friday, April 27, 2007

Friday, Light Rain, 46°F

It's Friday. It's raining. And it's book reviews day at the Rocky Mountain News. Today's spotlight section features my review of Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows."An elaborate shot at breathing new life into the code-breaking formula, the book leapfrogs between the 16th-century intrigues of a rakish British spy and the modern treasure hunt for a lost manuscript by William Shakespeare."

My next review at the paper will be Rant by Chuck Palahniuk. Doubleday has put up a nifty flash site to help promote the book. Dig the graphic traffic reports.

Also in the Rocky, you can also find Lisa Bornstein's complementary review of The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander, the celebrated young writer's first novel about a family losing touch in the midst of Argentina's Dirty War. I talked to the author earlier this year about the book.

"In switching from the short story to the novel, I thought a lot about what justifies a novel," Englander said. "Each part should be enough. I thought a story should build. It’s enough that a man who chips names in a whore’s cemetery, you know? I wanted each element of the novel to build that way. The story deserves it.

"It was this idea of the forward-looking search. Thinking about absence, I thought, it can’t be about the hole in the novel. That’s unacceptable. It was really for me the challenge of building the character and removing the character but also the book being about Kaddish, about Lillian, about the forward motion of search as opposed to sadness and even balancing this sadness. It’s not about kindness or what is the right thing to do for a reader, in a sense. I think artistically there has to be this balance between joy and sadness, about bearability."

"This is a heavy story. Obviously, what keeps me interested for a decade are these challenges of writing that I think are impossibilities but working with this absence and this idea and this tonal pressure to have a valve in the novel to release all that pressure in the novel’s heart."

Finally, the Edgar Award winners are in. Jason Goodwin wins best novel for The Janissary Tree and puts a feather in the cap of Sarah Crichton over at Farrar Strauss Giroux, who apparently told her writer not to come. Whoops. Stephen King becomes Grand Master. And our man in Manhattan, Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, wins best short story for "The Home Front." Well done. Drinks all around.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Short Cuts

Right. Palate cleansing is in order. Let us speak of things less grave.

I mentioned Don DeLillo earlier. He’s on the short list for the Man Booker prize, along with Salman Rushdie, Amos Oz, and newly outed crime novelist John Banville, aka Benjamin Black.

Speaking of Banville, he has a long interesting talk with Donald E. Westlake over at Newsweek about crime writing and the perils of multiple literary identities.

Speaking of Westlake, I finally got around to watching the newly released Director’s Cut of Payback.(the “Straight Up” edition, which just sounds stupid). But the film is quite good. Much closer to the literary Parker, the cinematic "Porter" in this version smacks all hell out of Deborah Kara Unger’s junkie doll wife and the ever lovely Maria Bello’s hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is a lot more prickly in this iteration, warning Porter, “Get yourself killed, prick. I ought to tell him you’re coming.” Add to all this a much blacker ending and a great interview with Westlake about the original Parker. Having interviewed Westlake myself covering much of the same ground, it was fantastic recap. Can't beat it with a stick.

On the subject of Director’s cuts, I also spent a long rainy Sunday afternoon with the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It’s an even better deal. The three-and-a-half hour version of Ridley Scott’s blood-soaked passion play about the Crusades is only made richer and more fascinating by the inclusion of a much better explanation for Balian’s rage, a subplot that introduces the flawed heir to the throne of Jerusalem, and a more thorough introduction to Godfrey and his band of doomed knights. Worth every penny.


Speaking of Ridley Scott, the director has optioned a debut novel by screenwriter Tom Rob Smith called Child 44. “Set in Stalinist Russia, storyline revolves around an officer in the secret police who is framed by a colleague for treason. On the run with his emotionally estranged wife, he stumbles upon a series of child killings and launches his own rogue investigation, even though it means risking his own capture.” I’m all over the Russians right now delving into state scare tactics, Beslan and Martin Cruz Smith’s new book for an upcoming column so I’m very intrigued. If anyone knows anything about it, email me the goods.

Speaking of the movies in general, it’s worth a look at Cracked.com’s “30 Strangest Movie Posters of All Time,” many of which feature Mr. Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr. It's just not summer without Burt.

There’s a nice feature on new publishing initiatives within the mystery world over at the Library Journal. Also a list of the top eight mystery blogs, although I have to seriously question the exclusion of The Rap Sheet, one of my personal favorites.

There’s soon to be an RBA International Prize for Crime Writing. 125,000 Euros to the best unpublished manuscript. Uno, dos, tres, vayamos.

John Freeman has the scoop on the London Book Fair. (Note to self: get gig with publication willing to send me back to London for this event on an annual basis. Also win lottery.) Items of interest include short story collections by Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh, a new Bachman book by Stephen King, another Benjamin Black book by that scamp Banville, and the surprisingly gifted Steve Martin delivers a biography.

Finally, congratulations to Sarah Weinman, my illustrious predecessor at Bookslut and killer crime writer in her own right. Sarah has gotten herself a truly sweet gig writing about mysteries as an online exclusive at the L.A. Times. Weirdly enough, her first column includes two books I’ve already reviewed: Gruber’s Shakespeare hunt The Book of Air & Shadows, which should soon be appearing at the Rocky Mountain News, and The Blue Zone by Patterson ghostwriter Andrew Gross, which appears elsewhere.

And I'm spent. Further bulletins, as they say, as events warrant.

Current Events

I'm still swamped but felt the need to catch up with the news of the day.

Here’s the most obvious. I find the crime committed this week in Virginia deplorable. I've been to Blacksburg. It's a beautiful place, well off the beaten path. They filmed Dirty Dancing there, for god's sake.

But watching the media/blogosphere/rapt audience taking in every detail of the incident in open-mouthed absorption is an exercise in futility. People watch because the crime was horrific but they also watch with a queasy fascination for the same reason they watch CSI and Saw.

I’ve made this argument before but I don’t like most true crime stories. I think there's a place for them and I think the principle of great writers tapping the source is a valid one. But the reality of them on a day like today are harsh indeed.

Yes, this site is named after the sound of a gunshot. A fictional one.

I write about crime fiction, among my myriad other interests. I like Black Mask stories about dull-eyed thugs with nickel-plated .45s, the large-scale, high-velocity machine gun firefight in Michael Mann’s Heat, and the enormous “BLAM” at the end of Frank Miller’s That Yellow Bastard. And each and every one of them is as fictional as Tom Sawyer.

I also like tales during which we need to pull back to the Sulaco and nuke the entire planet from orbit. That doesn’t mean I support the proliferation or utilization of nuclear weapons. I don't need to suffer radiation poisoning to appreciate Mad Max and I certainly don't need a preforating bullet wound to enjoy pulp fiction.

The shooter was able to buy a 9 mm Glock high-end semiautomatic pistol for less than a month's rent. It holds 15 rounds and has an option for up to 33 god damned bullets. It takes just five pounds of pressure to fire. And it can easily be converted to be a fully automatic pistol. It’s used by the New York City Police Department and the Shabak (Israeli Security Agency), among other legitimate agencies.

This instrument should never been able to find its way into the hands of an unhinged civilian with a loose credit card.

Will this ignite the debate over gun laws? CNN says no. Why not?

“…public anger is not usually sustained very long, whereas gun owners remember every gun control vote as a threat to their rights. Gun owners vote the issue. Supporters of gun control typically don't. So politicians believe they will pay a price at the polls if they support new guns laws, even when most voters agree with them. When it comes to public opinion, intensity matters. Not just numbers.”

If you happen to be interested in those numbers, you might consider a moment to visit The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. If you insist on rubbernecking, Crimeblog is doing a good job of debunking the idiotic rumor mongering being rushed to air on the networks.

“When a murder is satisfied, it isn’t the beginning of the story; it’s the middle. We shouldn’t forget that fact because murder has ripples. You never go back to being the same. The people that investigate these crimes never go back to being the same as they were before they started the investigation. The people’s whose lives have been affected, the victim’s families, even the murderer themselves are profoundly changed. That’s why murder is still the most interesting crime for us to write about because it is the only crime where something unique is taken away from the world, something that can’t be replaced.” Ian Rankin, in Bookslut

*****************************

Briefly, Kurt Vonnegut. Sorry, not in my orbit. I’m sure I tripped over Slaughterhouse-Five somewhere between Robert Heinlein in grade school and Don DeLillo in college. I do love this elegant illustration on his official website. I think Chris Moore summed it up best for those who loved these books. But the man survived the bombing of Dresden, a house fire, his own suicidal impulses and the majority of old age. It's a damned good run at it. Another soul loosed. And so it goes.

The Raw Shark Texts

Dig this crazy video for The Raw Shark Texts. Clever on someone's part.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cooked

You'll have to forgive my brief absence. I am, to use a technical term, fried. Today, I'm simultaneously juggling a review of Chuck's new book and a number of business articles including a brief profile of a company called (I kid you not) Big Ass Fans. (Yeah, that will drive up the traffic).

I am also playing Waiting for Godot, the home game, with a number of very talented and critically praised authors including a Guggenheim Fellow, a Cold War historian and many other interesting and vibrant personalities who shall, as they say in baseball, be named later.

What else is shaking?

As much as I enjoyed Pat Conroy's heart attack-on-a-plate cookbook, I'm much happier about a 700-page novel full of the southern author's dysfunctional drama. Conroy's a kindred spirt.

I'm not even sure what Miranda July's book is about but anyone who writes on her appliances is cool in my book.

I'm trying resist the urge to drive like a bat out of hell for Mahattan to catch Tartan Noir Night with Ian Rankin and Denise Mina. The Rap Sheet has the goods on this and other literary events (drinking contests) in April.

Like me, Clive James rocks out on International Crime Novels at the New Yorker, specifically the European front Only with, y'know, big words and stuff.

And Queen Latifah wants to be Alexander McCall Smith's uber-popular African detective. You go girl.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

R.I.P. Aurelio Zen

A sad post-script to my recent column about international detectives and their ilk: the BBC reports that Michael Dibdin, the creator of Italian Inspector Aurelio Zen, has died at the age of 60. Here's an overview of the Aurelio Zen series, an interview with the author at January Magazine, a remembrance by J. Kingston Pierce, and an elegantly written obituary at The Telegraph.

Godspeed.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

International Affairs

Hell, there's all kinds of things going on today. The week awakens. Here's all the news from the International Affairs Desk here at the Bang...

First of all, the new issue of Bookslut has gone live. My column for this month, "International Man of Mystery," focuses on international writers and crime novels set in more exotic locales. It includes short takes on Ian Rankin's new Rebus novel as well as hot new reads set in Japan, Italy, Cuba and Berlin. It's cheaper than a passport, I tell you, and not nearly as likely to find you in a compromising position on the metro, facing the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité .

Elsewhere in the issue, you can find my Interview with Tim Willocks, a gifted British crime novelists who has branched out into the warfare of ages past with The Religion. I can't say enough good things about Tim's writing. And that's without even bringing up that he once dated Madonna and was somewhat unfairly nominated for this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. To his credit, Tim praised the Bad Sex prize as “a much better guide to a good read than those purveyors of powerful sleeping drugs, the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Goncourt et. al.” Definitely the literary hero for May.

In other booksluttishness, my colleagues take on Christopher Buckley's Boomsday, the depths of Mila Kundera, and the imagery of Iraq. Interviews abound, including talks with Gillian Flynn, Kevin Sessums, and Hendricks Hertzberg. In columns, the ever-gifted Colleen Mondor takes on "Stories for Boys," including a new young adult title from Robert B. Parker. Jeff Vandemeer rocks out on Top Shelf. And Adrienne Martini takes on the Hugos.

When you can tear yourself away all of our literary nonsense, more news from the wires...

Bill Marx talks with Jonathan Raban about his post 9-11 exercise in well-earned paranoia, Surveillance.

Walter Mosley talks hot sex at the Los Angeles Times. Funny that Killing Johnny Fry has sold 8,000 copies. Somebody's digging some dirty books out there. At least you can get that book from the public library. Try laying your hands on a copy of Shortbus and see how far you get.

The Raw Shark Texts is annotated. And Steven Hall flogs the book.

I can't seem to get into The Wire. Despite a plethora of fine crime writers working on it, I haven't joined cult around the show, although I expect I'll catch up eventually. What I'm eagerly awaiting is the last breaths of The Sopranos, debuting in April. Need to catch up? Try the entire first six season of the series - in seven minutes.

At The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce runs down the most anticipated books of 2007, including a new Arkady Renko title, Stalin's Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith that I hadn't even heard of yet.

Ian Rankin tells The Scotsman that the last Rebus book is done. What's next?

"Poorly written documents cost the government $100 million." Now I know plenty of people who would happily deliver equally bad writing at half that price.

Death of a Citizen

This morning, Charles Ardai sent out a heartfelt tribute to one of Hard Case Crime's most jagged authors, confirming the well-tread rumor that Donald Hamilton died in Sweden last November. From Charles' note:

Don was 90 years old. Though his name may be little remembered today, in the 1960s and 70s he was well known as the best-selling author of the "Matt Helm" novels, a series of well-written and popular stories about a ruthless agent of the U.S. government who fought evil in the Cold War world (and eventually -- briefly -- the post-Cold War world). Helm starred in 27 novels between 1960's DEATH OF A CITIZEN and 1993's THE DAMAGERS; he was also featured in several movies starring Dean Martin, as well as a short-lived TV series starring Anthony Franciosa that reimagined the character as a private eye. More recently, Dreamworks optioned the rights to all the Helm novels for feature film development. A final Matt Helm novel exists but has never been published.

Don also wrote a dozen non-Helm novels, including several popular Westerns (including THE BIG COUNTRY, which became the Gregory Peck movie, and SMOKY VALLEY, which was filmed as "The Violent Men" starring Glenn Ford). And he wrote several outstanding noir crime novels, including one -- NIGHT WALKER -- which we're proud to have reprinted last year in the Hard Case Crime series.

In the last decade of his life, Don moved back to Sweden, where he'd been born, and lived there with his son, Gordon. He died peacefully, in his sleep, this past November. Gordon kept the fact of his death private until today, when he confirmed it in a phone conversation with me.

We've lost a number of giants of the mystery field over the past few years -- Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, and Richard S. Prather, among others -- and Donald Hamilton is very much of that caliber. He sold more than 20 million books during his lifetime. But unlike Spillane, McBain and Prather, all of whom were widely remembered at the time of their death, Don's passing has sadly gone unremarked.


That missing Matt Helm novel is called The Dominators and was completed sometime in 2002. Supposedly there's a copy in the UCLA library, the repository for much of the late authors' papers and manuscripts. At least it's a definitive ending for Matt Helm. Since a final copy exists, it's not likely to disappear or become a 'lost novel' in the manner of the legendary A Black Border for McGee, rumored to lie in John D. MacDonald's safe in Sarasota, Florida.

A moment of silence for Mr. Hamilton, then. He was, after all, one of the greatest things we can be in this life.

A paperback writer.