Saturday, November 16, 2019

Defending Jacob by William Landay

William Landay’s 2012 novel, Defending Jacob, was on the reading list of my wife’s book club. The tastes of the club almost never coincide with mine. But this one was different.

Defending Jacob is the story of a suburban family torn apart when the 14-year-old son is accused of murdering a classmate.

First-person narrator, Andy Barber, is the dad and central character in the story. He is the prosecutor overseeing the investigation into the stabbing death of a local eighth-grade boy, Ben Rifkin.

Andy knows the dead boy and the Rifkin family. His son Jacob is the same age as Ben and they went to the same school.

Clues and even motivations start coming in and they point to Jacob. In one of the many twists of this book, Ben was a bully and his frequent target was Jacob.

Andy refuses to see any connection. His words are 100 percent in Jacob’s corner. His thoughts betray his suspicions.

Defending Jacob is a novel that snuck up on me. I was caught up in the father’s anguish. Could Jacob have actually killed the other boy?

There is a bit of weird science woven into the tale concerning bad genes which can be passed down. But overall, this is a solid suspense story.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Accused is a series to watch

In the 1990s, British writer Jimmy McGovern created the character Fitz Fitzgerald for television. Played by Robbie Coltrane, Fitz was a psychologist with loads of personal problems who worked with the police solving crimes. The show was Cracker, one of our favorites of that decade.

Looking for more shows by Jimmy McGovern, this month I came across Accused, an anthology series from 2010-2012.

Each of its 10 one-hour episodes is a different story with a different cast.

All were written or co-written by McGovern. All feature average folks in trouble, violence, danger. All involve crime and punishment.

Sometimes characters are done in by the system. Other times they are victims of their own corruption, obsession, criminality or stupidity. On rare occasion a character is exonerated.

Last night, we reached the half-way point in the series and every episode has been top-notch TV.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick

For Halloween, I read a novel whose story people may remember from a 1947 movie of the same title starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.

The book was The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick, which was the pen name of writer Josephine Leslie.

Frankly, I was expecting a lot more from it. There is nothing scary or even chilling about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It is a genteel novel from 1945 written in a style better suited to the previous century.

Lucy Muir, a young widow with two small children, needs to find a less expensive place to live. She buys an English seaside house called Gull Cottage. The price is right because the place is said to be haunted by the original owner, Daniel Gregg, a ship’s captain who died in the house.

Instead of haunting Mrs. Muir, he is attracted to her, and she to him. He serves as her guide through life, helping her get rid of bossy relatives and unsuitable suitors.

The story is told in three parts: the young Lucy Muir, the middle-age Lucy, and the old Lucy who passes away and finally joins Captain Gregg on the other side, which is not a spoiler. Anyone could see that resolution coming from the earliest pages.

Gene Tierney & Rex Harrison
The author handles several things well: the appearances and disappearances of the captain, the visit by an overbearing woman, and the subtle death of Lucy Muir.

Although time is vague and the story is a fantasy, it was odd that in a book covering about 40 years of the main character’s life, from the early to the mid-20th century, no mention is made of any outside events, like World War I and World War II, which would have had an impact on Lucy Muir. But, I suppose I am being too literal and not playing the author’s game.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is short, easy to read, and not my kind of book.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Silver Street by E. Richard Johnson

The 1968 crime novel, Silver Street, is a simple story but it has a gritty reality and the smell of the city streets.

Tony Lonto grew up a tough kid from the slums of an unnamed American city. He went into the Army, fought in Korea, returned to the city, joined the police force, and found himself assigned to a beat in the very neighborhood he worked to get away from.

A dozen years later, he is now a detective. But when anything happens in his old neighborhood, known as “the Strip,” Lonto is sent in because he knows who’s who and what’s what down there.

This book begins with the murder of a pimp, described by Johnson in gruesome detail. Lonto is sent to the Strip to investigate, and even though he is a guy from the neighborhood, no one will talk to him because he is a cop.

Making Lonto’s life more difficult is the newly appointed, lazy but politically connected, detective assigned to work with him.

The investigation is just getting underway when a second pimp is killed.

The killer is known from the beginning of the story. He is a young solider who acquired a taste for killing in Vietnam, and feels justified in murdering pimps.

Further complicating Lonto’s life is his girlfriend, Anna, a woman with a secret who seems to be stringing him along while he has dreams of marrying her and settling into an orderly suburban life.

Silver Street won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Photo of Johnson found at Listverse credited to Babelio
There is not much information out there about Emil Richard Johnson (1937-1997). He served in the Army in the 1950s, held a variety of jobs, got involved in crime, killed someone during a robbery and was sentenced to a long stretch in the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater. He wrote Silver Street and several other novels while serving his time. A short biography of him can be read here.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dunkirk, the 1958 movie

Two years ago, critics fell all over themselves praising director Christopher Nolan's film about one of the 20th century’s great stories of heroism – the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

But current audiences might not know that there is an earlier movie of this story.

The 1958 film, “Dunkirk,” is not one of the great war films, but it is a darn good one, and far more clear in its story telling than the 2017 version.

Three well-know English actors of the 1950s starred in three parallel stories which come together in the rescue operation.

John Mills plays a British sergeant leading a squad separated from the retreating army. He and his men fight their way through the countryside and back to the coast of France only to wind up on the beach at the town of Dunkirk with thousands of other soldiers and not enough ships to carry them away.

Richard Attenborough (who played the leader of the escape plan in 1964’s "The Great Escape") here is the meek owner of a company making military belt buckles. He also owns a small motor boat. When the boat is requisitioned by the Navy in an attempt to get everything that floats over to pick up the soldiers, he reluctantly and under a bit of peer-pressure agrees to pilot his own craft.

Bernard Lee (who was 007’s boss in the early James Bond films), plays a journalist frustrated by the lack of information coming from the military but suspecting the British troops were in trouble in France. He too owns a small power boat and willingly volunteers to sail it with the Navy.

The film is at its best when showing the size of the operation, the number of men on the beach, and the struggles of the Navy and the civilians to reach and help them.

In May 1940, British, French, and Belgian troops were pushed back to the shore of northern France by the advancing German army. The British Navy with the help of privately owned boats launched a rescue operation. Pleasure crafts, fishing boats, ferries and yachts accompanied Navy vessels from England to Dunkirk, picked up as many soldiers as they could, returned them to England, and then went back to rescue more. The operation continued from May 26 to June 4.

The 1958 version of “Dunkirk” was directed by Leslie Norman and produced by Michael Balcon,who was the head of England’s Ealing studio. Ealing is best known for its light comedies often starring Alec Guinness, but it also turned out war films, including 1953’s “The Cruel Sea,” which is one of the best pictures about World War II.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Darkest Hour by William P. McGivern

William P. McGivern’s 1955 crime novel, The Darkest Hour, is a version of “On The Waterfront,” but with a lot more action and a lot less angst.

The book fits squarely into the noir category as an urban crime novel set mostly at night on the cold, dark streets along New York City’s waterfront, with a damaged and angry main character.

Steve Retnick used to be a good guy and a good cop who was promoted to detective at a young age. But gangsters framed him for the killing of a dock worker and Retnick spent five years in Sing Sing prison.

When the book opens, Retnick is out of the can and back in the city, using his street-smarts and detective skills to find the real killer and administer a little of his own justice on the men who set him up.

Retnick inflicts some physical punishment on thugs who deserve it, but he also puts innocent people in harm’s way. He knows what he wants and he also knows he is doing wrong. He has been warned off by his former police supervisor, but he presses on. This kind of destructive obsession is real noir territory.

A man who can give him the proof he needs to nail the hitman and his boss, is killed just as Retnick returns to the old neighborhood. The boss is a local gangster who is muscling his way into a dock-workers’ union.

McGivern’s story, despite an authenticity in the location, the people and the way things work on the waterfront, has a few weak spots, mostly in the subplot concerning Steve Retnick’s bitterness toward his wife, who did him dirt while he was in the joint.

Overall, The Darkest Hour (also called Waterfront Cop), is another good yarn from an author who was on a hot streak in the 1950s. Some of the other books McGivern published in that decade were: Shield for Murder (1951); Blondes Die Young (1952); The Crooked Frame (1952); Margin for Terror (1953); The Big Heat (1953); Rogue Cop (1954); Night Extra (1957); Odds Against Tomorrow (1957); and Savage Streets (1959).

William P. McGivern worked as a newspaper reporter and also wrote many short stories for the pulps. He served in the Army during World War II. After the war he turned to novel writing. In the 1960s and 1970s, he wrote for the movies and television, while continuing to turn out books. He died in 1982 at age 63.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Friday, September 20, 2019

Zero Avenue by Dietrich Kalteis

This post is what you might call, coming late to the party.

Most already know what a terrific writer Canadian Dietrich Kalteis is, but I’ve just got to heap on a little more praise.

My introduction to Mr. Kalteis was his 2017 novel, Zero Avenue.

Set in Vancouver’s punk rock scene of the late 1970s, the book is a kick-ass crime story.

A singer and guitarist, a punk-rock club manager, and a drug-dealing gangster all have great ambitions to get ahead.

Frankie, a young woman with an electric guitar, a decent voice, and a don’t-mess-with-me attitude, leads her own band. But the group struggles to get noticed and to get paying gigs. She makes ends meet by making deliveries for Marty, the local drug kingpin.

Marty’s business is expanding almost as fast as his own drug habit and he now allows his crazy right-hand man to handle things he used to take care of himself.

Johnny owns a grubby little club and is always in the red. His biggest headache is his landlord – Marty.

Part of Marty’s business is muscling farmers outside the city into allowing him to grow pot in the middle of their corn fields. He has a couple of dim guys with guns stationed at the farm to protect his crop.

The book’s title comes from the name of a street on the Canadian-U.S. border where the farm is located.

Frankie has a thing going with Marty until she catches him being serviced by a woman in the grungy, grotesque restroom of Johnny’s club. The woman takes issue with Frankie’s attitude only to have Frankie beat the crap out of her and leave her bloodied on the floor.

In need of money, Johnny hits on the insane idea of ripping off Marty to pay Marty.

Frankie and her band members wind up in the middle of the mess.

Kalteis remembers and recreates the era and has a ball naming the fictional bands and songs. But, readers do not have to be into punk to appreciate the rip-roaring story.

Zero Avenue is written in an edgy, staccato style that warns: Better keep up, ’cause this author ain’t waiting for you.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(And please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Friday, August 30, 2019

Gumshoe Blues by Paul D. Brazill

Funny and noir are two words not frequently linked. But Paul D. Brazill, master of the comic crime novel and short story, pulls it off. His writing has you laughing while it leads you down a dark alley and punches you in the gut.

In his new book, Gumshoe Blues: The Peter Ord Yarns, Brazill tells four tales of his unlikely private detective. The stories are: “Gumshoe Blues,” “Mr. Kiss and Tell,” “Who Killed Skippy?” and “The Lady and the Gimp.”

The first, “Gumshoe Blues,” is long enough to qualify as a novella, or at least a novelette. At first it seems to be a rambling, episodic excursion through a “seen better days” English city.

Ord picks up odd jobs – very odd for a PI – then often gets sidetracked, drinks too much and has a tendency to screw things up. Anyone who has ever had a blistering hangover will get a charge out of Ord’s morning afters. The writing puts you in the head of Peter Ord. By the end, the loose threads are all neatly pulled together and tied into a satisfying knot.

The fun of a Brazill story is not only in the plot and the unique situations, but also the kaleidoscope of characters. Everyone of them is vivid and comes with a unique history. Brazill provides all this in a few seemingly simple strokes creating places and lives, while he cracks you up with his observations. He is a magician who diverts your attention with humor while he works his craft.

Gumshoe Blues: The Peter Ord Yarns was published today (August 30). Paul D. Brazill sent me a copy a few weeks ago. Other Brazill books are Last Year’s Man, Guns of Brixton, Too Many Crooks, A Case Of Noir, Kill Me Quick! His short stories have appeared in many anthologies.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

“Where'd You Go, Bernadette” is a Movie to See

Catch “Where'd You Go, Bernadette” before it disappears.

Films like this generally don’t last long in theaters. I was going to say, little films like this, but “Where'd You Go, Bernadette” is not so little. There are some amazing scenes filmed in Seattle and the Antarctic.

But the scenery is not what this movie is about.

It is about Cate Blanchett, one of our finest actresses, and the performance she turns in as Bernadette Fox.

Bernadette, a once rising star and award winning architect of modern structures, quit the designing of buildings and has lived in near seclusion in Seattle for two decades with her husband, a wildly successful computer game creator whose company was bought by Microsoft, and her teenage daughter.

Why did Bernadette quit? Why is she so anti-social? Why is she becoming a problem to her family and neighbors? That is the story, and to add any spoilers to this post would be to spoil the joy of watching Bernadette work through it all.

“Where'd You Go, Bernadette” was directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, someone whose films I will always go out of my way to see. The movie is based on a 2012 book of the same title by Maria Semple. Billy Crudup plays Bernadette’s husband, and Emma Nelson plays her daughter. Also in the cast are Laurence Fishburne as a former colleague, and Kristen Wiig as her neighbor.

The beautiful cinematography was by Shane F. Kelly (who also photographed one of my all-time favorite documentaries, “Tim’s Vermeer”).

Friday, August 23, 2019

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Beautiful Beggar, a Perry Mason mystery

On a folding table at a book fair sat an old, but never read, hard cover collection of three Perry Mason novels from late in the series.

It didn’t take a Perry Mason to figure out the book had never been read. The pages were too clean and some of them were stuck together at the edges the way they will in some brand new books.

The collection was marked $1 – a deal too good to pass up.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s simple, direct writing style, his twisty plots and his fictional lawyer’s quick thinking and sometimes questionable actions are always a pleasure to read.

The last novel in this Perry Mason collection was The Case of the Beautiful Beggar, from 1965.

In it, a 22-year-old woman returning to Los Angeles after a three-month trip abroad, finds the wealthy and elderly uncle she lived with all her life has been forced into a sanitarium by relatives. The uncle’s greedy half-brother is now the conservator of the uncle’s estate by order of a local court.

The woman turns to Perry Mason for help. She knows her uncle is not senile or violent, as the relatives claim. The relatives are out for his money.

Having a person committed against his will to a prison-like hospital is a plot device I seem to recall Gardner using before, and the Perry Mason television show of the 1950s and ’60s used it several times. In fact, the plot of this story is nearly identical to one of those episodes. Gardner’s original stories were often adapted for the series.

Although all the Perry Mason novels are breezy and light, this one seemed even lighter than usual, and a little thin. There were fewer characters – fewer suspects – involved than in earlier Mason books. The author also padded the page count by repeating himself unnecessarily, going over the same elements of the story several times, when the events were not that complicated or hard to remember.

This story could have been set in one of the previous decades – which is part of the charm of the Mason novels. But the character of a young woman in 1965 was out of step with the times. She did not have to be a hipster from Haight-Ashbury or Carnaby Street, but even the most strait-laced girl of that era would not be as square and old-fashioned as this character.

Still, the Gardner style was on display and the crafty maneuvering of Perry Mason was fun to read and exciting to anticipate, especially in the early chapters – like the lawyer’s moves to have a large check cashed for his client.

All the usual characters appear in the book: Della Street, Mason’s confidential secretary, Paul Drake, the head of a private investigation company, Detective Lieutenant Arthur Tragg of the Los Angeles Police Department, and L.A. District Attorney Hamilton Burger, who Gardner (and the TV show) were always careful to refer to by the character’s full name, in order to avoid the comical nick-name, Ham Burger.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

(Also, please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)