Thursday, July 24, 2014

Forgotten Books: The Dead Beat by Robert Bloch

I've always admired the novel that Robert Bloch wrote immediately following publication of Psycho. I am one of four people on the planet who can make that claim.

What I've always liked about it is the way Bloch took a sleazy no-good psychotic bastard and set him right down in the middle of a Midwestern family that could have doubled as sit-com people. Bloch really makes you care about these folks and how they are so slow to catch on to the psychotic jazz musician they make the mistake of trying to help.

The title signals the era, the early sixties when the Beats were so much in the news. Bloch shows us a kind of faux beat existence with the musicians we meet early on. Bloch gets the one night stand life (in both meanings of that phrase) down just as well as he gets the middle-class days and nights of the family the musician will ultimately turn on. For Bloch this is a return of sorts to his Fifties paperbacks such as The Will To Kill and The Kidnapper. Jim Thompson country before anybody knew who Thompson was. (Bloch bristled when I asked him once if Thompson had ever been an influence--he said he'd never heard of Thompson until much, much later.)

Reviewers of the time didn't like the relatvely slow pace. They also complained that the novel didn't offer the shock or sass of Psycho (I say sass because the novel is very funny in places--something Hitchcock picked up on immediately). I like the treachery and the darkness here. I didn't used to believe in evil. But now I do. Robert Bloch brings to life the kind of evil all around us.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pro-File: Ariel S. Winter

Ariel S. Winter
August 2012
ISBN: 978-0-85768-581-0
Cover art by Chuck PyleRead A Sample Chapter
Order Now

1. Tell us about your current novel.

It's a bit of a stretch to call The Twenty-Year Death current since it came out in the summer of 2012, but it's just come out in a completely new format that I'm very excited about. The book as a whole tells of the twenty-year descent of the great American novelist Shem Rosenkrantz from bestselling literary darling to out-of-work Hollywood hack. The story is told through three separate mystery novels each in the style of the greatest crime writer of the decade in which that part of the story is set: Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. It was important to me that each of the books operated independently from each other, as though each section was a lost novel of its respective era. That way if a reader read just one portion of the novel, he would feel as though he had read a complete novel, but if he read the whole thing as intended, it added up to a greater work. My original vision of the novel was as a boxed paperback set, and my editor Charles Ardai agreed. For cost reasons, however, and to make the biggest splash, we put it out as a single hardcover. This month all three books were released as independent mass market paperbacks. Now some readers might only experience a part of the story, or read the books in a different order than in the single-volume edition, and it will be interesting to hear how those experiences are different.

2. Can you give a sense of what you're working on now?

My next novel is a robot romance in the Bronte tradition. Set in a dystopic future in which humans are a small minority, it tells of an aged robot who rents a beach-side cabana to contemplate his future. He's been in a terrible accident, and the societal expectation is that he should deactivate himself, but he's not ready to die. While at the beach, he becomes obsessed with the robot family that lives in the big house that overlooks the beach from the top of the cliff. Through a series of interlocking narrators, he learns the terrible secrets that separate this family from robotkind.

3. What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?

Now that I have a real published book out, there's some comfort that there's tangible evidence that I existed. If I die tomorrow, even if my book goes out of print, it still exists out there, to be found, worthy of a footnote at least.

4. What is the greatest DISpleasure?

The years and years of toiling with very little encouragement, and the shock that even after you publish a novel to critical acclaim and with good sales figures, it doesn't mean that anyone will rush to publish you again. The uncertainty with the years and years between paychecks.

5. If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?

Don't forget the booksellers. The booksellers are who sell the books. Not only is it important to cultivate a relationship with as many booksellers as possible, but publishers should help to publicly champion booksellers, emphasizing the role they serve in the literary culture. If the general public began to feel that a bookseller should be consulted like a sommelier, it would help save bookstores, and it will ensure the understanding that there's a reason that 99% of books that should be read are published, not self-published.

6. Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you'd like to see in print again?

I'm not knowledgeable enough to know of any forgotten mystery writers. NYRB, Hard Case, and other presses like them seem to be doing a great job of bring deserving authors back into print.

7. Tell us about selling your first novel. Most writers never forget that moment.

I was cooking dinner when my agent called. I don't remember what I was cooking, but I remember I was using a frying pan on the front right hand burner, and it was something time-sensitive, and there was a lot of noise in the kitchen, my daughter, my wife at the sink, so I was distracted. The months of trying to sell had worn me down, so that it was almost as though the news passed right by me that it had happened. There was a delay in the excitement for some reason. Of course, my wife would probably tell me that I have all of these details wrong. In any event, the moment is hyper-real for me, like the world shrunk into me at that moment. You're right that you don't forget it, but I'm not sure I remember it either. It was epochal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

One of the great B movie series THE WHISTLER


For the entire piece go here:
“I am The Whistler. And I know many things for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak!” -intro to each iteration of The Whistler
In 1943 Harry Cohn was seeking a successor to Ellery Queen, Columbia’s detective series that cranked out ten features from 1935 – 1942. Noticing the popularity of the violent radio show, Cohn purchased the film rights to The Whistler  in ’43, and bequeathed production duties to Rudolph C. Flothow, who had recently completed the Columbia adventure serial The Phantom. Much of that same team came along on The Whistler, including cinematographer James S. Brown, Jr. and art director George Van Marter. To retain the flavor of the radio program, the show’s creator J. Donald Wilson contributed the story (Ellery Queen veteran Eric Taylor wrote the script). Wilson’s creation was more dark and adult-themed than some of the other radio hits like The Shadow. One of his stories entitled Retribution  “was a tale of revenge and murder involving an evil man who hacked up his wife and stepson in order to lay claim to their money.” That according to Dan Van Neste, who literally wrote the book on The Whistler film series.
The first feature has Dix play a grieving husband who schedules his own date with death. Terminally depressed following the tragic passing of his wife, which may or may not be his fault, Dix puts out a hit on himself. He puts out the contract through an interlocutor at a dingy seaside dive called The Crow’s Nest.  The payment is delivered by a deaf and dumb kid whose nose is forever buried in a Superman comic, foreshadowing the blindness of all the characters in this cruelly ironic tale. For one of the things The Whistler knows is that Dix’s wife is alive – and his attempts to call off his own murder put all of his family and friends in jeopardy. Especially when the hitman is a self-styled intellectual reading a book entitled, “Studies in Necrophobia”. He wants to use Dix as a test case for a new kind of murder – literally trying to scare him to death. The film was a sizable critical and commercial hit for a B-movie, garnering positive notices across the board, as the studio crows in this two page advertisement (click to enlarge):

This guaranteed more work for everyone involved.  The Power of the Whistler (1946) is a slow-burn thriller about an amnesiac who may or may not be a homicidal maniac. This entry, written by Aubrey Wisberg, exemplifies the storytelling ethos of the series, which is: give away as little information as possible. The idea was audiences would have to guess at whether Dix would end up hero or villain, alive or dead. The search for backstory becomes an active goal of the plot, instead of information dumped early on. So in The Power of the Whistler Dix and his latest twenty-something love interest criss-cross NYC (including a “bohemian” Greenwich Village cafe called The Salt Shaker) for clues to his identity. The film sustains this mystery for most of its running time, despite Dix’s penchant for leaving dead animals in his wake. Directed by the insanely prolific Lew Landers, The Power of the Whistler is littered with uncanny images. One is a reflection of a little girl in a taxicab mirror as she cradles her dead kitten, as Dix and his latest love interest move forward in their investigation of his past. Richard Dix is something of an ideal actor for these games, as at this point in his career there was something wounded and slow-moving about his performances. He had lost his matinee-idol looks as he entered his fifties (though The Whistler’s women beg to differ), a heaviness added to his face and his walk, giving him a blankness well suited to the series’ goal of motivational ambiguity.



James Garner


Like most writers who’ve had any sort of success – and this seems to apply particularly to mystery writers – I get questioned frequently about influences. If you’ve followed these updates or seen me on a convention panel or maybe just chatted with me, you know the list: Hammett, Cain, Chandler, Spillane, and a bunch of others. Writers all.
And I sometimes mention – as do such contemporaries of mine as Bob Randisi, Ed Gorman and Loren Estleman – the impact that series television had on me as a writer. Not every writer is secure enough to admit being influenced by what we used to call the boob tube (I always hear Edith Prickley saying that). But those of us who grew up in that wave of TV private eyes in late fifties were probably as influenced by such shows as Peter Gunn77 Sunset StripMickey Spillane’s Mike HammerPerry Mason and Johnny Staccato (among others) as we were Hammett, Chandler and Spillane.
More often (though still relatively seldom) you’ll hear a mystery writer admit to having been influenced by filmmakers. I frequently mention directors Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph H. Lewis, and such movies as Kiss Me Deadly andChinatown. Add Vertigo to those last two and I would challenge you to find many novels that stack up, even by the masters.
But it’s rare that any writers think to mention the influence actors have had on their fiction. I know that Italian western-era Lee Van Cleef influenced my Nolan series, for example, and Bogart is someone that writers sometimes aren’t embarrassed to cite as influential on their work. Not often, but it happens.
For me, the passing of James Garner – a man I never met and never had contact with – reminded me how big an influence this actor was on my life and my work. Before the TV private eye fad, there was the western craze, and discovering Maverick at a very young age shaped me in a way that rivals any parent or mentor. Now of course Roy Huggins had a lot to do with that, as the creator and frequent writer on the series, but it was Garner who brought life to the character, whose like we’d never seen.
Bret Maverick was a big, good-looking guy, able to handle himself with his fists and passably well with a gun (despite his claims at being slow on the draw). But he would rather charm or con his way out of a jam than fight or shoot. He was quick with a quip but never seemed smug. He was often put upon, and didn’t always win. Though he was clearly better-looking and more physically fit than your average mortal, he conveyed a mild dismay at the vagaries of human existence. And he did all of this – despite (or in addition to) Roy Huggins – because he was James Garner.
Garner’s comic touch was present in much of his work, and of course Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were essentially the same character. And no matter what literary influences they may cite, my generation of private-eye writers and the next one, too, were as influenced by The Rockford Files as by Hammett, Chandler or Spillane. The off-kilter private eye writing of Huggins and Stephen Cannell made a perfect fit for Garner’s exasperated everyman approach, but it was just notes on a page without the actor’s musicianship.
Not that Garner couldn’t play it straight – he was, in my opinion, the screen’s best Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun, and as early asThe Children’s Hour and as late as The Notebook he did a fine job minus his humorous touch. But it’s Maverick and Rockford – and the scrounger in The Great Escape, the less-than-brave hero of Americanization of Emily, and his underrated Marlowe – that we will think of when Garner’s name is mentioned or his face appears like a friendly ghost in our popular culture.
Garner’s attempts to resurrect Maverick were never very successful – Young Maverick a disaster, Bret Maverick merely passable, though his participation in the Mel Gibson Maverick film was on target. I was fortunate to get to write the movie tie-in novel of that and – despite an atypically mediocre William Goldman script – had great fun paying tribute to my favorite childhood TV show and to the actor I so admired. (If you read my novel and pictured Gibson as Bret Maverick, you weren’t paying attention.)
Like all of us, Garner was a flawed guy, though I would say mildly flawed. Provoked, his easygoing ways flared into a temper and he even punched people out (not frequently) in a way Bret Maverick wouldn’t. He never quite came to terms with how important Roy Huggins had been to the creation of his persona, and essentially fired him off Rockford after one season. The lack of Huggins and/or Cannell on Bret Maverick was probably why it somehow didn’t feel like real Maverick.
Garner had great loyalty to his friends, however, and as a Depression-era blue collar guy who kind of stumbled into acting, he never lost a sense of his luck or seemed to get too big a head. He resented being taken advantage of and took on the Hollywood bigwigs over money numerous times, with no appreciable negative impact on his career. He was that good, and that popular.
When he gave a rare interview, Garner displayed intelligence but no particular wit, and it could be disconcerting to see that famed wry delivery wrapped around bland words. Yet no one could convey humor – from a script – with more wry ease than Jim Garner. Perhaps he was funny at home and on the golf course and so on. Or maybe he was just a great musician who couldn’t write a note of music to save his life.
It doesn’t matter. Not to me. He influenced my work – particularly Nate Heller – as much as any writer or any film director. He was a strong, handsome hero with a twist of humor and a mildly exasperated take on life’s absurdities. I can’t imagine navigating my way through those absurdities, either in life or on the page, without having encountered Bret Maverick at an impressionable age.
Watch something of his this week, would you? I recommend the Maverick episode “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres,” which happens to be the best single episode of series television of all time.
J. Kingston Pierce has a wonderful post on Garner at the Rap Sheet, with links to his definitive (and rare) two-part interview with Bret Maverick himself.