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.

Paperback

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.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Three Questions for Dana King author of Leaving the Scene

This month, Dana King published Leaving the Scene, the sixth book in his terrific Penns River series of police procedurals. I recently asked him three questions:

EB: Congratulations on the new book. Would you tell us about it and what the police in your fictional Pennsylvania town are facing? 

DK: Leaving the Scene has two meanings in this book. Long-time Penns River police chief Stush Napierkowski has retired, so changes are afoot in the department. The new chief has to hit the ground running when a hit-and-run driver kills a woman. While the homicide takes up more of the story than anything else, mostly the book deals with the conflicting demands on the cops’ time, some humorous, others not. 

EB: You’ve lived with your recurring characters for a while now. Does that make the writing easier? Or is coming up with a new story always a challenge? 

DK: For me it’s easier; others’ mileage may vary. I like having a set cast I can draw from, as I know many of their strengths and weaknesses already. I’ll often get an idea for a story, or a side anecdote, and my first thought will be, “Sisler needs to answer this call,” or, “this can show the differing styles and personalities of Trettle and Burrows.” It opens things up for me. I also don’t have to use every continuing character in every book. It’s a little like the old Mission Impossible TV show, where Peter Graves would shuffle through the photos of his team to choose who he wanted to use this week. As for ideas, Penns River is based on a real place. I just have to read the paper for ideas. 

EB: During the writing of any of your Penns River novels, or your Nick Forte P.I. series, have you ever painted yourself into a corner and had to figure a way out of it? 

DK: Oh, yeah. Two times come to mind. In each I had to throw away tens of thousands of words and go back to a place where things were still on the rails and work from there. I once wrote over 30,000 words of a Nick Forte story, fighting it all the way, when I realized this wasn’t a Forte story; it belonged in Penns River. I threw away everything but one sentence and started over. (It wasn’t the opening sentence, either.) Not coincidentally, these are the only books I tried to write without outlines. Never again. The outline often changes as the book progresses, but I always have some kind of map working. Scrivener is great for that, especially if you need to re-arrange the order of chapters. 

EB: Thanks, Dana. 

For more information about Dana King’s novels, check out his website, and keep up with him on Facebook or his blog.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Mairgret Has Scruples by Georges Simenon

A big mystery in Georges Simenon’s, Mairgret Has Scruples, is: When is something going to happen?

But, wondering about that may miss the point of this 1958 novel featuring the fictional detective, Jules Maigret of the Paris police.

Here, solving a crime seems less important than understanding the culprit and the victim. In this case, no crime is committed until very late in the story.

Nearly three-quarters of the book is a series of scenes involving Chief Superintendent Maigret talking to a married couple.

The man comes to the station to tell Maigret he fears his wife is going to poison him. Later, the wife comes in to tell him her husband is nuts and possibly dangerous.

Several long talks with each follow, while, in the meantime, Maigret sends his detectives off to learn all they can about these people. It turns out the wife has a guy on the side and the husband is in love with his sister-in-law. Still, no crime has been committed.

Maigret briefs the city prosecutor and the lawyer warns him to drop it because there is no cause to be investigating this couple. But the chief persists, knowing he could wind up in legal trouble himself.

As usual with Simenon, this book is a bit of a magic act because not much happens in the 186 pages and yet every page is fascinating.

Maigret, who likes to study and understand the people he comes in contact with, is a study himself. The man is efficient, even swift when he has to be, but he can also be slow and plodding, pondering a case and worrying about the characters involved.

This and other Maigret novels feel almost leisurely. The chief even has time most days to go home and have lunch with Madame Maigret. Although she is used to him eating in silence as he puzzles out a case.

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The prolific author also turned out many stand-alone novels. The numbers vary on just how many books Simenon wrote. Some estimate around 400, including the ones he did early in his career under different pen names.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Film: The New Centurions (1972)


A 49-year-old cop movie that holds up pretty well is “The New Centurions,” based on Joseph Wambaugh’s first novel.

George C. Scott stars as Kilvinski, a veteran patrol officer reaching retirement age whose personal life is empty. While he is weary of life on the street, it is the only thing he lives for.

But the story is really about Roy, who in the film goes from a rookie, under the guidance of Kilvinski, to a veteran, and whose life is going in the same direction as his mentor’s. Roy is played by Stacy Keach.

In the wake of current events, it is interesting to see what policing looked like five decades ago – from the attitudes, to the rogue events, to the simple things like the lack of body armor.

But unlike many police pictures and television shows that age badly – mostly because time has not been kind to the actors playing bad guys who now look like actors playing bad guys – “The New Centurions” stood up pretty well.

One scene that jumps out was when the veteran and the rookie stop a black truck driver on a minor infraction and the situation escalates. The truck driver was played by Roger E. Mosely (who went on to co-star on TV’s “Magnum, P.I.
).

“The New Centurions” was directed by Richard Fleischer, who had a long career and may be forgotten or underrated today. The script was by Sitrling Silliphant and possibly an uncredited Robert Towne. Also in the film were Jane Alexander, Scott Wilson and Erik Estrada.


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Mystery and Action in Hashknife of the Double Bar 8 by W.C. Tuttle

Author, blogger and good guide to Western fiction, James Reasoner, several times has mentioned writer W.C. Tuttle as a favorite.

In one of his posts, he said:

“I love W.C. Tuttle's work for its irresistible blend of mystery, comedy, and Western action...”

And that is exactly how I feel about Hashknife of the Double Bar 8.

Looking for something light and breezy to read last Christmas season, I picked up a copy of this book and enjoyed every page of it.

Tuttle wrote a series of short stories and novels featuring Hashknife Hartley and his sidekick, Sleepy Stevens. They were a couple of cowboys who were also crime fighters and mystery solvers in a current day West – about 1920, in this case.

In this book, Jimmy Legg, a young clerk from San Francisco, quits his job and goes to Arizona to become a cowboy. He arrives in the town of Blue Wells the same night a gang of men hold up a train and steal a local mine’s payroll. Suspicion falls on Jimmy, the stranger in town.

Who stole the money, and who is trying to kill Jimmy are just two of the mysteries Hashknife and Sleepy set out to solve.

Tuttle takes the first third of the book setting up the story before introducing the two cowpokes who are gaining a reputation in the region for figuring out puzzling crimes. And, while they crack the case, the other main characters, Jimmy and Marion Taylor, the lovely daughter of a rancher, meet, have a few laughs, find themselves in danger, and fall in love.

Marion’s attention to Jimmy does not go over well with two big tough suitors, further complicating the story.

Tuttle’s novel has plenty of action and a good deal of humor, mostly concerning city-boy Jimmy’s learning the ropes of cow punching.

The story also features some comical cowhands, a shady lawyer, a dim sheriff, a tough ranch foreman, and a stray dog who adopts Jimmy.

Reading the book, it was clear Tuttle had introduced Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens in earlier short stories. Not a lot of information about them is given in this novel. Jimmy and Marion are really the main characters here.

W.C. (Wilbur Coleman) Tuttle (1883–1969) wrote regularly for the pulp magazines of his day, contributing dozens of stories about Hashknife and Sleepy and other series characters. 


A couple of postscripts here: I had to Google “hash knife” to find out what it was. It was a cowboy’s multipurpose cooking tool. 

The copyright page in the book I read had a 1936 date, but I believe this story was originally published in 1920. In the novel, Arizona is referred to as a state, so the setting, while still feeling like the old West, must have been sometime after 1912, when the territory became a state.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Give the Octopus an Oscar


The Academy Award for Best Picture of the year should go to a movie that is not on the best picture list.

It is, however, on the best documentary feature list.

The film is “My Octopus Teacher.”

This 85-minute movie is a terrific piece of filmmaking.

A man named Craig Foster, a filmmaker taking time off from work, began diving in a rough area along the shore of South Africa. His underwater swims were called “free dives” meaning he went down without oxygen tanks or a lot of other equipment.

While checking out the undersea life, Foster came upon an octopus. The creature fascinated him. Again and again he dove down to watch, study and film the octopus. Over time the creature came to trust him, figuring the man was not a predator and would not hurt it.

Day after day, for about a year, Foster continued to dive and visit the octopus. The footage he got following the octopus is amazing. At times, Foster was in the water near the octopus when sharks came hunting for food. He watched and filmed as the octopus worked to elude the hungry killers.

This was the most stunning documentary I have seen since watching “Free Solo,” the mountain climbing film.

My family and I watched “My Octopus Teacher” together, streaming it on Netflix, and we loved it. But there are some rough and scary moments in the picture that could give small children nightmares.

Foster narrates his own story and Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed directed the film with additional cinematography by Roger Horrocks.

The Oscars are scheduled to be given out on Sunday, April 25.