Saturday, May 27, 2023

Reading Ernie Pyle on Memorial Day


This Memorial Day weekend, read some of the dispatches of Ernie Pyle.

Born in Indiana in 1900, Pyle was known during World War II as the reporter who wrote about the average G.I. Their stories in his syndicated column gave the people back home a glimpse of the war at ground level.

Pyle was with the U.S. infantry as they fought in the mountains of Italy and, after D-Day, he was with the soldiers fighting in France.

His most well-known dispatch may be “The Death of Captain Waskow,” (which you can read here). Another is, “A Slow Cautious Business” (here).

Pyle later went to cover the war in the Pacific and was killed there in April, 1945.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Favorite Films of 2022

Sunday night the Oscars will be awarded.

But rather than make predictions on the nominees, I thought I would do a short list of my favorite films from 2022.

“The Quiet Girl” (From Ireland and in the Irish language with subtitles.)

"The Duke" (Why didn’t Jim Broadbent get a nomination?)

"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" (Why didn’t Emma Thompson get a nomination?)

"Father Stu" (Wahlberg and Gibson gave good performances)





"The Lost City"

"Top Gun: Maverick"

Thursday, February 9, 2023

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy

Thirty-five years after it hit bookstores, James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere still has the power to thrill and nauseate. So much so that a reader might ask: “What is wrong with this guy?”

All joking aside, Ellroy is a hell of a writer. He mixes a deep knowledge of mid-20th century Los Angeles with an obsession for the crimes and misdemeanors of the old police department. He creates a world based in reality with situations straight out of his own nightmares.

Set in the LA of 1950, The Big Nowhere starts as two parallel stories with three key characters. The characters come together to solve one of the most gruesome and disgusting crimes in fiction.

In the small hours of New Year’s Day, the body of a murdered and mutilated man is found near the Sunset Strip. Detective Danny Upshaw of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department catches the case. Since the body is discovered outside the municipal limits of LA, the case is in the county sheriff’s jurisdiction.

Upshaw discovers the crime was initiated in the city, which is a problem for a sheriff’s deputy. There is outright hatred between officers of the LAPD and officers of the LASD. The city cops, the records department and even the morgue will not cooperate with him.

But this changes due to the other story line.

In the city, an ambitious lawyer in the LA district attorney’s office forms a task force to look into Communist influence in the movie industry.

The lawyer, Ellis Loew, is looking to boost his own political standing. He appoints LAPD Detective Lt. Mal Considine to investigate Hollywood Reds. Considine, who hopes this work will get him promoted to captain, is disappointed to learn he has to work with former dirty cop, Turner “Buzz” Meeks. Loew, knowing the team has to take some short cuts, brings in Meeks. He also appoints the smart, politically savvy, and deeply corrupt Lt. Dudley Smith to work with Considine.

Smith is a fascinating character who appears in several Ellroy novels. The character has the uncanny ability to find weaknesses in other men and to use that knowledge to get what he wants.

In a strange move, Upshaw of the LASD is recruited into the Red-baiting team of LAPD investigators. Seeing his own opportunity for advancement, Upshaw agrees to join, and works the two cases at the same time.

It doesn’t take long for Upshaw to learn that suspects and witnesses in his murder case are also targets of the investigative team.

Ellroy has made a career of telling jaw-dropping stories of the good-old, bad-old days in the City of Angels. He uses the setting to crank out high-octane novels, like this one, told in the voice of a street-smart guy of that era.

The Big Nowhere is not for weak stomachs. The violence and gruesomeness are almost as hair-raising as Ellroy’s use of nearly every racial slur.

The Big Nowhere is Ellroy’s second book in his LA Quartet with includes The Black Dahlia, LA Confidential, and White Jazz.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Jack’s Return Home (aka Get Carter) by Ted Lewis

If you’ve heard that Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home is one of the grittiest British crime novels ever written – believe it.

Is Jack’s... the original British noir? No. Others got there first, including Gerald Kersh’s 1938 Night and the City.

But are any of the other stories tougher than Lewis’ 1970 book? Put it this way, it would be quite a feat to outdo Jack Carter – an enforcer for two London gangsters – for coolness, street smarts, and violence.

Jack must have rocked many a cozy little English village when it hit the bookshelves.

The story opens with Jack Carter returning to his home town, an industrial city in the north of England, after learning his brother Frank died in a car accident. Jack goes up there to bury Frank and to make sure his teenage niece is all right.

The circumstances of the car crash are fishy. Frank was murdered and Jack sets out to learn why and who did it. This takes him through the seamiest places in the city and to some stately places built by local gangsters – men who Jack knows well from the old days.

Jack, the first-person narrator of the story, is an uneducated poet. He tells his tale in a combination of slangy dialogue and impressionistic images of the cold, wet town.

“The misty rain was dense enough to practically obscure the neighboring blocks. Only dull lights separating soft at the edges were evidence of the other flats,” he says while looking for someone in a public housing project.

A horrible scene is coolly described by Jack when goes to see Albert, a once cocky, small-time hood. Albert is now a broken-down hulk living in a dilapidated house next to a steel mill. A disheveled old lady answers the door. The place smells. A sloppy woman sits on a folding lawn chair near two filthy children. The former tough guy – now only about 40 – is rooted in a chair, drinking. All are watching a crummy TV set. A door to a bedroom opens. A man comes out buttoning his clothes. A woman comes out tying a bathrobe and Albert introduces her as his wife.

Jack’s energy is almost superhuman as he moves around the town getting into multiple fights, putting the clues together and taking his revenge on the men who killed his brother.

Jack’s Return Home was later reissued as Get Carter, the title of the excellent 1972 Michael Caine movie based on the book.

Ted Lewis (1940-1982) grew up in northern England, went to art school, worked in advertising and in animation – including the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” – and wrote nine novels before dying at age 42.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Two truly scary films for Halloween

Halloween is approaching, and while there are more than enough slasher films and boogeyman movies to watch this weekend, here are two films that should scare the stuffing out of any viewer.

Free Solo

Mountain climber Alex Honnold goes about his sport without a helmet, without spiked books, without ropes, and without other climbers. He free climbs using just some chalk on his fingers and a pair of sneakers on his feet. In this 2018 documentary, Honnold attempts to climb the sheer rock wall of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park.

The Alpinist

Marc-Andre Leclerc also likes to climb alone. While he does bring equipment with him, his special thrill is climbing in winter on the ice that forms on mountains. This 2021 documentary follows him as he travels looking for greater challenges.

Both of these films have photography that is unbelievable – beautiful, breathtaking – and action to make palms sweat. So chalk up and check them out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Roseanna by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall

Reading Roseanna confirms that Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall were a hell of a great crime writing team.

Their publishers must have thought so, too. The pair went on to write nine more police procedurals featuring their fictional detective Martin Beck of the Swedish national police.

The story opens when workers repairing a set of locks connecting two lakes in Sweden’s inland waterway dredge up the naked body of a young woman.

Local police find no one in their small city who can identify the murdered woman. The investigation widens and Martin Beck is brought into the case.

Beck and his team figure the woman was a passenger on a cruise ship passing through the locks. The woman must have been killed on the boat and then dumped overboard.

The detectives determine which boat she was aboard and set about finding the the crew and other passengers. It is a long, painstaking process. Wahloo and Sjowall take their time yet make the police work fascinating.

Detective Martin Beck is an odd sort of hero. He is good at his job, but rather morose, always seems to have a cold, complains about the weather, and has no rapport with his wife and kids. He only connects with the guys he works with and even then he is a bit chilly.

Wahloo and Sjowall keep the story and its many clues and suspects clear and orderly. The authors had a clean, no nonsense writing style and the Lois Roth translation is well done.

Per Wahloo (1926-1975) and Maj Sjowall (1935-2020) were not only writing partners but also partners in life.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Only Murders in the Building is a series to watch

In this comic mystery series, three residents of an old, stately Manhattan apartment building meet and then learn that another resident died mysteriously. The three, played by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, knew the young man by sight and are sure he must have been murdered. They decide to not only investigate on their own, but also create a day-by-day podcast of their activities.   

Martin plays a semi-retired actor who once starred in a popular TV crime series and thinks he can apply methods from the show to the real murder. Short plays a washed up Broadway theater director who sees the investigation as a way back into the limelight. And Gomez, who was house sitting for a wealthy aunt, has a mysterious connection to the murdered man.

This series, streaming on Hulu, plays out like a well done comic novel – think, A Confederacy of Dunces. And, by the way, why hasn’t Confederacy ever been made into a film or series?

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Six Graves to Munich by Mario Puzo

In 1969, author Mario Puzo hit the jackpot with his blockbuster novel, The Godfather, about the fictional Corleone crime family.

For many years before that, he made a living writing stories for men’s magazines. Then in 1967 he published the novel, Six Graves to Munich, under the pen name Mario Cleri.

Six Graves to Munich
is a short (224-page), fast-paced thriller set in Europe during the Cold War era. It is tale of vengeance, full of sex and violence.

During World War II, Michael Rogan, was a U.S. intelligence officer married to a French woman. He and his wife were captured by the Nazi’s and tortured. His wife died.

Ten years later, after a long recovery, Rogan returns to Europe to find the men responsible – and kill them.

One of the torturers Rogan hunts was Italian army officer. He tracks the man down to Palermo, and learns he is a high ranking mafioso and well protected.

In this section of the book, Puzo’s knowledge of the underworld is evident. It reads like a test run for the sections of his next book in which Michael Corleone hides out in the hills of Sicily. But, in keeping with Puzo’s men’s mag background, Rogan, while on the trail of the man he wants to kill, takes time out for a steamy romp with a beautiful young Italian woman.

Today, with 20-20 hindsight, Six Graves to Munich, with its suspense and period detail, might be taken as Puzo’s warm up for his big novel.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Dead Still is a series to watch

One of the weirdest mystery shows to come along has to be Dead Still.

The six-part series is about a Victorian photographer who specializes in memorial shots – or pictures of dead people made to look like they are still alive.

How some of these dead people got to be that way and why dumps the photographer into a world even stranger than the one he made for himself.

The show was shot in Ireland with a terrific cast, including the superb Michael Smiley as the photographer.

Check out the trailer here.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Two Shots of Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, and an earlier series called, “The Cleansing of Poisonville,” published in the pulp magazine Black Mask, are the same story.

Both tell how the Continental Op – Hammett’s unnamed operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency – comes to a small Western city called Personville (nicknamed “Poisonville”) to help rid it of gangsters, crooked cops and corrupt politicians.

In Poisonville, the young publisher of the city’s local paper is waging a campaign to clean up the town. The publisher’s father owns the paper, the mine, and several other prominent businesses. The father also has the leading citizens and top officials in his pocket. But the father is old and losing his grip. Racketeers have moved in and divided up the city.

Unwilling to side with any one group the Op sets about turning the gangs against one another so they will destroy themselves.

It is a complicated story filled with violence and double crosses.

The four Black Mask stories – “The Cleansing of Poisonville” (November 1927); “Crime Wanted – Male or Female” (December 1927); “Dynamite” (January 1928); and “The 19th Murder” (February 1928) – are included in their original form in The Big Book of the Continental Op (2017) compiled by Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett.

When the stories appeared in Black Mask, they caught the attention of a book editor who approached Hammett with the idea of publishing them as a novel. But first the editor wanted Hammett to make some changes. He suggested cutting some of the violence to make the story more believable, according to Layman and Rivett.

The book, called Red Harvest after Hammett submitted a page of alternate titles, was published in February, 1929, by Alfred A. Knopf.

Reading the stories and the book at the same time shows interesting changes made by Hammett in his transition from pulp writer to novelist.

Key cuts were the dynamiting of police headquarters and the bomb killing of one of the three gang leaders. The Op’s escape over the rooftops from an ambush was also cut. And the shootout at the Silver Arrow Club was streamlined and in the book.

There are small changes on almost every page of the novel. Often they are as simple as a word choice or a rewritten sentence. Most of these changes tightened the writing, eliminating repetitions in dialogue, but they also took away some of the flavor.

Hammett was always good at creating realistic dialogue. In his pulp stories, he used a good deal of the underworld slang of his era. The amount of slang was reduced in the book, or altered to clarify a point. The book editor may have felt that readers of the novel would be less familiar with the slang than the readers of Black Mask.

The changes made the writing a little less colorful and took some of the rough edge off the tale, but did not damage the storytelling. Hammett was still Hammett, and the tough, lean writing style was still there. Even Hammett’s earliest stories showed this talent.

For the slang that remained, Layman and Rivett, the editors of The Big Book..., found some of the words and phrases needed footnotes for current readers to understand them.

Future readers of Hammett may need even more annotations. The time may come when a Hammett story will require as many footnotes as a Shakespeare play.

But with our without the explanations, Hammett’s work is always a pleasure to read.