Friday, October 15, 2021

A Small Sacrifice by Dana King

Dana King’s first detective Nick Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice, was nominated for a Shamus Award, and boy did it deserve the recognition and praise. It is a ripping good tale.

Former Chicago cop, Nick Forte, takes on the job of clearing the name of a man everyone believes guilty of murdering a child.

State and local police bungled the investigation and could not prove the man strangled his own six-year-old son.

The killing made headlines the previous year when the man found the child’s body in the basement of the family’s huge suburban home.

Now, his mother, a wealthy, obstinate, battle axe, wants to restore the good name of the family. She hires Nick for the task.

Nick hates the case, but money is money.

He tells the mother he cannot promise he will get any further than the police. The woman says she does not want Nick to solve the case, just do enough to change public opinion about her son.

Nick barely begins snooping when someone he wants to interview winds up dead in the trunk of a car. Before he can dwell on the odd possible connection to the case, a hired killer attempts to assassinate Nick on the streets of Chicago. The hitman has mob connections.

Once Nick Forte steps into mob territory, the level of tension in the story goes up tenfold. Mobsters get annoyed when outsiders stick their noses into their carefully concealed illegal businesses.

But what is the connection between the mob and his client's arrogant son, Nick wonders?

Dana King spins a complex tale of crime and corruption in a fast paced story with a just the right amount of humor – usually provided by Nick’s first person comments.

At one point, Nick Forte has to talk face to face with a powerful mob boss. Nick says, “I forced myself to make eye contact. It was like looking down the staircase to hell.”

There are four more novels in King’s Nick Forte series.

For a glimpse at Dana King’s other series, the Penns River police novels, look here and here.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho” is a film to see, if . . . . . .

If you can get past the idea that anyone would ask a 90-year-old man to drive down to Mexico to rescue a teenage boy, then you will have a fine time watching the new film, “Cry Macho,” starring and directed by Clint Eastwood.

We did.

Others did not. Some friends and some critics disliked this film.

After starring in nearly 50 movies and directing 45 films – often doing double duty in front of, and behind the camera – if Clint Eastwood makes a picture, I am going out to see it. He is one of America’s greatest living directors. There have been some missteps along the way. “Cry Macho” may be one of them. But I found enough in it to enjoy.

It is hard to think of any one as old as old Clint acting in and directing the same movie.

Mel Brooks comes to mind. But the last film he both directed and starred in was, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” (1995) when he was 69 or 70. Woody Allen both directed and starred in “To Rome With Love” (2012) when he was about 76.

Roman Polanski is someone I think of as appearing in a lot of his own pictures. But that perception is wrong, except in a few instances and a bunch of cameos or Hitchcock-like appearances. The last time he starred in his own film was 1976’s “The Tenant.”

Actors have continued working into their 80s and 90s – the late Christopher Plummer did, and Judi Dench, at 86, is in Kenneth Branagh’s new film, “Belfast.”

Some directors continued working as senior citizens. Ridley Scott, 83, will have two movies out this year.

The oldest director I ever heard of making feature films was Manoel de Oliveira. Five years ago, I did a post about Eastwood and Oliveira (here).

Film Comment magazine published a list of the oldest directors (here).

But, as far as I know, no one Clint’s age has both directed and starred in the same movie.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Another Look at Out of Sight by Elmore Leonard

Twenty-plus years of Elmore Leonard imitators – with Quentin Tarantino at the front of the pack, and imitators of imitators – have taken some of the edge off, and the fun out of Leonard’s dialogue. But not all of it.

His 1996 novel, Out of Sight, is still a fast, breezy read with well drawn characters, tons of suspense, and swift violent action that hits you like a smack in the face.

Out of Sight is the story of wanted bank robber Jack Foley and federal marshal Karen Sisco who is hunting for him.

Jack and Karen first meet outside a Florida prison when she arrives just as he pops up out of an escape tunnel. Jack, and a buddy waiting for him, overpower Karen, put her in the trunk of her own car and then Jack climbs in with her.

Snuggled up to each other for the getaway, they get to talking as if on a date.

This may sound familiar because director Steven Soderbergh made a good movie from it with George Clooney as Jack and Jennifer Lopez as Karen.

Karen gets away from Jack and Jack gets away from the law. But there was a weird kind of connection between them in that trunk and each wants to see the other again.

Jack and his buddy, Buddy, drive from Florida to Michigan and get with some violent gangsters planning to rob a mansion. Karen gets a line on Jack and tracks him to Detroit.

Why two cool bank robbers like Jack and Buddy would get involved with this new plan is the biggest mystery in Leonard’s crime story. But the author’s skill and style makes it easy to overlook that little problem.

The main thing that diverts a reader’s attention from the hitches in the plot is the budding love story between Jack and Karen. The savvy, middle aged, and very smooth bank robber is smitten with the young, attractive fed. The danger of falling hard for her is whether Karen will fall for him or snap the cuffs on him.

At its heart, Out of Sight, is a romance novel and an example of what can happen when the master of one genre dips into another.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Card Counter is a Film to See

Paul Schrader’s, “The Card Counter,” is a raw, yet strangely quiet, movie about a former soldier, psychologically damaged by his time in Iraq. His guilt and fears, which he keeps hidden behind a stony stare and immobile face, are not the result of battle, but of the things he did while a guard in Abu Ghraib prison.

The soft spoken, stone-faced character, who now makes a living as a professional gambler, is played by actor Oscar Isaac, and he is unnerving to watch.

There is a great deal of stillness in “The Card Counter,” but a tremendous amount of inner turmoil, which can set a viewer’s nerves on edge waiting for the explosion.

Schrader, who wrote and directed this film, is the guy who wrote the script for the 1976 Martin Scorsese film, “Taxi Driver.” Here, Schrader uses some of the same techniques in “The Card Counter,” including an alienated protagonist who tells us about himself in voice-over narration.

Unlike Robert De Niro’s edgy taxi driver who observes the world around him and comments on it, Isaac’s gambler is quietly involved in his world of intense card games. He sticks to low stakes games in casinos around the country which, in this film, appear slick, serious, empty and devoid of any kind of fun.

This new Schrader character, like the old one, is compelled to be alone, but longs to connect with other people – and with the viewers of the film. He even tells us how he changed his name from William Tillich to William Tell. Is the name Schrader’s way of letting us know William wants to “tell” us what’s eating at him? Is it a play on the poker term meaning body language that tips other players to the cards one is holding. Is the name a reference to the legend of the archer who shot an apple off his son’s head? In the movie, William forms a dangerous friendship with a volatile young fellow with an ax to grind against the people who plunged the country into the war in Iraq.

The film poses lots of questions. It answers many of them, but leaves quite a few mysteries. (Like, what was up with those bed sheets? Sensory deprivation?)

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Two Harlan Coben Miniseries


Having now watched two Netflix miniseries created by suspense author Harlan Coben, I have a question:

Is it OK, after six hours of damn good, suspenseful entertainment, if the conclusion of a story does not completely add up?

My answer is, Yes. It’s OK with me.

The two shows that my wife and I enjoyed, but some friends had problems with, are “Safe” and “The Stranger.”

In “Safe,” a man who recently lost his wife and is struggling to raise two teenage daughters is thrown into a panic when his older daughter goes over to a friend’s house and never returns. The mystery is what happened to her. What the man finds out in his search complicates everything and shows the safe, gated community in which they live is not safe at all.

Without giving too much away, the first thing the man finds out is that the girl did not go to her friend’s house, but to a wild party at the house of another girl whose parents were away. The man struggles to wring the truth out of the teenagers and their parents, who are all caught up in covering their own asses, never mind that a neighbor’s kid has disappeared.

In “The Stranger,” a young woman approaches a man at a sporting event and tells him some things about his wife no one else could know. The man starts to question, doubt and suspect his wife has been telling him lies. The young woman does the same thing to other people and seems to enjoy watching their lives come apart.

Who is she and how does this stranger know these things? No spoilers here.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op

There is a massive paperback called The Big Book of the Continental Op with all (or most of) Dashiell Hammett’s short stories featuring his investigator for the fictional Continental Detective Agency. Hammett never tells the reader the Op's name.

Editors Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett collected all the Op stories Hammett published from October 1923 to November 1930 in the pulp magazine Black Mask. The book includes the original, serialized stories Hammett later rewrote, edited, and published as the novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. Aside from correcting typos and adding footnotes to explain the slang Hammett used, the editors presented each story as it first appeared nearly a century ago.

The first yarns I read (reread, actually) in the collection were two early linked stories published in 1924, “The House in Turk Street” and “The Girl with the Silver Eyes.” Unlike the ones that became the novels, these two do not have to be read in order. I know, because I read them out of order decades ago, and again this summer.

Chronologically, “The House in Turk Street” comes first. In it, the Op, a 35-year-old, heavy set (he called himself fat in his first person narration of the stories), detective is doing the legwork for a case by going door to door, asking residents of Turk Street if they have seen a certain man reported to be in the neighborhood.

At one door, an old couple invite him into their house and fritter away his time in a scene that is almost comic until a man with a gun enters. It is not the man the Op is searching for, but is the leader of a small band of thieves who are hiding out in the house. The man, along with an ugly thug, a beautiful young woman, and the old couple, have pulled a heist of bonds.

The bonds are in a bag and each of the gang members wants the bag for himself. Each is willing to deceive, double cross, and even kill the others to get it. While their greed occupies them, the Op is able to free himself and get away, but not before guns go off, people get shot, and the bonds go from hand to hand.

While the plotting and the amount of violence in the story may have been what Black Mask required, Hammett through his life experience and his ear for natural sounding dialogue, elevates the story.

“The Girl with the Silver Eyes” is a much longer and less confined story which Black Mask promoted as a novelette.

In it, the son of a rich man wants the Op to find his girlfriend who has disappeared. The Op gets to work and soon learns the beautiful woman skipped out with $20,000 the young man gave her. The guy does not care about the money – which was not all his – he just wants the woman he loves to come back.

The Op does his job, and Hammett lets the reader in on some of the techniques detectives used to track people. For instance, the Op walks over a newspaper office, looks up the weather reports for the last month, notes the days it rained, goes to the taxicab companies and asks them to look for any record of fares on those days going to or from the woman’s apartment building.

“The Girl with the Silver Eyes” is a story with a lot of local color as the Op works his way around town winding up at a night club and gambling joint. Hammett’s observations of the gamblers, the club owner, the cheats, snitches and other assorted creeps, is great fun to read.

My only complaint with it was the use of a corny device to allow the baddies to escape and plunge the Op into a rip-roaring car chase near the end.

The realism of Hammett’s Continental Op stories comes out of the author’s experience working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. While the stories stand up pretty well, they were the training ground for one of the best detective novels ever written, Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Happy Fourth of July!


James Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the perfect movie for the Fourth of July.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman is a writer I have heard about for years but had yet to catch up with her books. Last week, I read Baltimore Blues, thoroughly enjoyed it, and wondered what took me so long to get to it?

This 1997 mystery was the first in Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series. We meet Tess, a reporter without a newspaper after the daily she worked for went out of business – like so many papers, big and small.

Tess is making ends meet with two part-time jobs, one for her uncle, the head of an obscure government department who needs reports and press releases written, and another for her aunt who runs an eclectic bookstore. Tess lives in an apartment above the bookstore.

In the early morning hours, she goes down to the Patapsco River and gives herself a workout rowing a shell. One morning on the river she meets Darryl Paxton, a competitive rower and an old friend everyone calls Rock. After a friendly race back to the boathouse, Rock confides in Tess, telling her that he believes his girlfriend, Ava, is in trouble and that is why she seems to be drifting away from him. He offers to pay Tess to follow Ava and find out what is going on.

For a week, Tess follows Ava every time the woman comes out of the office building where she works for a prestigious law firm. Ava has some peculiar interests, like shoplifting from boutiques in an upscale mall, and going to a hotel during her lunch break. One day, Tess literally bumps into Ava’s boss in the lobby of the hotel, and that makes too big a coincidence for Tess. Instead of reporting her findings to Rock, she confronts Ava herself, setting off a chain of events that land Rock in jail for murdering the lawyer.

Rock’s defense attorney, who is also his friend and rowing coach, hires Tess to investigate the murder, looking for leads that will exonerate Rock.

Tess does her job, and more. Forgetting that she is employed to follow the defense lawyer’s instructions and gather facts, and falling back into her habit of trying to break a story, she endangers Rock’s case and puts herself in the crosshairs of the real murderer.

Lippman’s story is a quick read with a good many twists and turns, action, suspense, and observations about the city of Baltimore and its diverse population and neighborhoods.

There is a lot to like in this book, including a few literary references, like brief mentions of three poems within a few pages of each other: Houseman’s “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” and Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats” and Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.”

Thursday, June 17, 2021

“Shaft” directed by Gordon Parks from the Ernest Tidyman novel

Last week, I wrote about the novel Shaft. This week, a few words about “Shaft,” the 1971 movie.

The story is fairly simple, private investigator John Shaft is hired by a Harlem gangster to rescue the man’s teenage daughter from Mafia kidnappers.

Some of the social and political complexities of the novel are lost, but the action is retained. The movie is nearly wall-to-wall action, with a few lulls while Shaft verbally spars with police Lt. Androzzi, and beds several women.

The movie had some excellent things going for it. It was based on a solid novel by Ernest Tidyman, who co-wrote the screenplay. It had a good cast with Richard Roundtree as Shaft, Charles Cioffi as Lt. Androzzi, and Moses Gunn as the gangster. Gunn has a terrific moment early on when hiring Shaft and trying to maintain his tough front, while his emotions overwhelm him and tears come to his eyes. 

“Shaft also had long-time magazine photographer, writer, and filmmaker Gordon Parks as director. In an interview, Richard Rountree said Parks was so cool, he was Shaft.

And, perhaps most memorable of all, “Shaft” had a musical score and song by Isaac Hayes. Hayes won an Oscar for “Theme from Shaft.” 

Say “Shaft” to people who have seen the movie, and I will bet two things happen, they hear the song in their heads and they picture Richard Roundtree walking through Times Square in that long leather coat. 

I was going to say more about the movie, but I found the following clip which says it all.


Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Surprising novel Shaft by Ernest Tidyman

First edition

Three things surprised me about the book, Shaft:

First, the paperback copy on my shelf, unread until now because I had seen the 1971 movie several times, is not a novelization of the film, but an original novel written by Ernest Tidyman, published in 1970.

Second, the novel is old fashioned and current at the same time. New York City, where the story is set, was on its heels at the time. Times Square, where 28-year-old, black, private investigator John Shaft has his office, was a sleazy place full of crumbling movie houses, porno book stores and strip joints. But, many of the struggles of the African-Americans living in Harlem then, are the same today.

Third: Ernest Tidyman, a man whose name I have seen in movie credits, and who I always assumed was black, was white.

Shaft is the story of Harlem-born, Vietnam-vet, P.I. John Shaft who is approached by uptown’s most powerful and feared gangster with a personal request. Knocks Persons wants to hire Shaft to find out who kidnapped his teenage daughter and where they are holding her.


The Mafia grabbed the girl to pressure Persons into relinquishing control of Harlem. But Persons knew that. He was using Shaft to smoke them out and to settle some scores.

Before the old mob tipped its hand, Shaft tracked down and approached a militant young black leader, Ben Buford, for information. While meeting in a secret and secure building with Buford’s men guarding the place, the place is attacked, killing the guards and nearly killing Buford and Shaft.

Later, in an attempt to negotiate with the mob, Shaft is ambushed, takes a hell of an ass-kicking, and is dumped on Knocks’ doorstep as a warning to the Harlem gangster.

While most men would be rushed to the hospital, Shaft rushes into action with a plan to smash into the kidnappers hideout, rescue the girl and stomp the men who beat him. All of this is executed in a series of incidents even more impossible than the end of the movie based on this book.

Tidyman was very good with action and dialogue, not quite as good with the odd, internal musings of John Shaft. But overall, Shaft is a
well done, fun read, and if I can find Tidyman’s other Shaft novels, I will be reading them, too.

Ernest Tidyman (1928-1984) had a long career as a journalist before writing his first book. His third book, Shaft, was a success, helped no doubt by the hit movie that came out the following year. He went on to write six more Shaft novels as well as other books. He also wrote and produced films. He wrote the script for the movie,“Shaft,” and won an Academy Award for his screenplay of “The French Connection” from Robin Moore’s non-fiction book.