Sunday, November 30, 2003

Black (and white) is beautiful!

The use of black and white film was so important in the history of cinema. Color was actually invented fairly early on, but many films continued to be shot in black and white, as it was considered to be the proper medium for certain kinds of films, particularly the more "serious" stories.

Film noir would never have happened without black and white film. Can you imagine "The Maltese Falcon" or "Kiss Me Deadly" or "The Third Man" in color? The palette of grays reflected the darkness of the world and the souls of the characters. The world of color is a happier world, a more beautiful one -- the world of cartoons, fluffy comedies and musicals. The world of black and white is a world of pain, misery and despair.

There are so many more...the great films of Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane," "Touch of Evil," "The Trial") and Alfred Hitchcock ("Shadow of a Doubt," "Notorius"), classic westerns like "Stagecoach," "Rio Bravo" and "Red River"...even holiday gems like "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Miracle on 34th Street."

Not a one of those films was harmed by being shot in black and white -- they're helped by it! And let me say again, for virtually all of those, the director (and cinematographer) made a conscious decision to use black and white rather than color. They knew the film would work better that way.

For a more contemporary example, look at "Raging Bull," the only film that truly captures the brutality of boxing and the men (and women) who inhabit that world. In color, you have "Rocky" black and white, you have a masterpiece.

You'll never see a mainstream film in black and white these days. (Only Spielberg and Scorsese have gotten away with it in the past 20 years.) That's a shame, too. But the great unwashed won't go see least that's what the Hollywood suits tell us.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Just finished the latest thriller from Gayle Lynds: The Coil (St. Martins, $24.95), due out next April. Helluva good read!

I think it's her best book yet. The characters are engaging, the plot is engrossing, the pacing is tight...It reminded me of vintage Ludlum -- the kind of paranoid, conspiracy, action-packed, on-the-run thriller that Bob made his bones with.

Here's how Lynds' describes the plot (somewhat edited):

Liz Sansborough has built a new and happy life as a university professor. Her specialty? The psychology of violence. In a 180-degree shift, former-CIA agent is so opposed to violence that she won’t even carry a weapon. But then she’s attacked and almost killed, while her cousin Sarah Walker is kidnapped in Paris, and Sarah’s husband, CIA operative Asher Flores, is badly wounded. Suddenly Liz is on the run across two continents, in a desperate hunt for the only ransom the kidnappers will accept -- the long-rumored files of the Carnivore, one of the world's most deadly assassins, and Liz's father.

These secret files are a complete record of his wet jobs, with the sort of detailed, dirty information that topples governments. No wonder the Coil, a clandestine international organization based on a real-life one, will risk everything to find them. But can Liz arm herself, resurrect her old tradecraft skills, and slip back into the dark and treacherous underworld of spies and criminals? And will agent Simon Childs turn out to be friend or foe?

The story picks up where Lynds' first book, Masquerade, left off -- but if you haven't read the earlier one, don't sweat it. I never read it either. (Although, with St. Martins reissuing it early next year for only 4 bucks, there's no reason not to.)

Definitely one to keep an eye out for.

Lee Child has written only his 2nd short story. It will be published in an anthology called Like a Charm, coming out February 5, 2004 in the UK from Century and May 2004 in the US from Morrow. Karin Slaughter is the editor and, in addition to Lee, will include stories by Kelley Armstrong, Mark Billingham, John Connolly, Emma Donoghue, Jerrilyn Farmer, John Harvey, Jane Haddam, Lynda La Plante, Laura Lippman, Denise Mina, Fidelis Morgan, Peter Robinson, Karin Slaughter and Peter Moore Smith.

In Lee's words, it's "a decent little story, set in London, not featuring Jack Reacher. The protagonist is an un-named London copper, there's a hooker called Kelly Key, a madman called Mason Mason, a great little twist, and a slight overall blackly-comic Joe Orton feel. The way the book is going to read is less like a short-story anthology than a noir novel with chapters written by different people. "

Ordinarily I'm not a big fan of short stories, but this sounds as if it could be interesting. I might take a peek at Lee's and Laura's contributions. I'm still opposed to the whole "each chapter by a different author" concept, though. It never works.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Book Club Associates (a UK mail order company) conducted a survey recently to discover readers' favorite crime novel detectives. Here are the results:

Top characters
1. Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell) — 23%
2. Alex Cross (James Patterson) — 22%
3. Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) — 16%
4. Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter) — 14%
5. Temperance Brennan (Kathy Reichs) — 6%
6. Harry Bosch (Michael Connolly) — 5%
7. Miss Marple (Agatha Christie) — 2%
8. Rebus (Ian Rankin) — 1%
9. Poirot (Agatha Christie) — 1%
10. Inspector Linley (Elizabeth George) — 1%

Nothing surprising, I don't suppose. I think of a poll like this as a sampling of the bestseller list. After all, if you're going to ask a broad section of the reading population whom their favorites are, the same suspects are going to appear as do on the charts.

I'm just pleased to see that there are a few good writers on the list, amongst the pablum vendors.

After poring over the most recent issue of The Hollywood Reporter (weekly edition), I compiled this list of upcoming film projects which are based on crime novels. Some of them actually look like they might be pretty good.

The Manchurian Candidate (Paramount)
Start: In production
Book: Richard Condon
Cast: Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Jon Voight
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenwriter: Daniel Pyne
Note: Remake of the 1962 classic which starred Frank Sinatra

The Bourne Supremacy (Universal)
Start: Nov. 24
Book: Robert Ludlum
Cast: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox
Dir: Paul Greengrass
Scr: Tony Gilroy
Note: Sequel to 2002's The Bourne Identity

Tishomingo Blues (Section Eight)
Start: Nov. 30
Book: Elmore Leonard
Cast: Don Cheadle, Matthew McConaughey
Dir: Don Cheadle
Scr: John Richard
Note: Produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh

Sahara (Crusader)
Start: November
Book: Clive Cussler
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz
Dir: Breck Eisner
Scr: Joshua Oppenheimer, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Douglas S. Cook, David Weisberg, Josh Friedman, David S. Ward, James V. Hart
Note: Breck Eisner is the son of Disney Chairman Michael Eisner

Void Moon (Warner Bros.)
Start: December
Book: Michael Connelly
Cast: Al Pacino, Diane Lane
Dir: Mimi Leder
Scr: Michael Cristofer, Michael Connelly

Be Cool (MGM)
Start: January
Book: Elmore Leonard
Cast: John Travolta
Dir: F. Gary Gray
Scr: Peter Steinfeld
Note: Sequel to Get Shorty (1995); Produced by Danny DeVito

Hostage (Stratus)
Start: January
Book: Robert Crais
Cast: Bruce Willis
Dir: Florent Siri
Scr: Robert Crais

Friday, November 21, 2003

The Guardian newspaper picked "The 100 greatest novels of all time" recently. There were half a dozen crime novels on the list:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (23), The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (44), The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (56), The Quiet American by Graham Greene (67), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre (78), and L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy (95).

Not a bad selection, I suppose, although not the ones I'd pick. For one thing, where is Hammett's Maltese Falcon?

Jason Starr, probably the best young noir writer in the business, has an interesting piece about himself and his work in the latest issue of Crime Time. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.) There's a part that struck me:

Books are "still the best form of entertainment because books are light, you can take them anywhere with you -- even into the bathroom. If the book was invented today people would probably be going on about what a great breakthrough they are and there would probably be 'book stocks' selling for ridiculous prices on every stock exchange in the world. It's only because books have been around for so long that they get a bad rap."

It's a shame that books and reading more generally don't get the respect they deserve in our popular culture. What is better than reading? Sex, maybe, but even that might be a stretch.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Although the bookselling landscape is as bleak as ever for the independents, things are looking pretty good for the superstores. [Warning! Lots of numbers ahead.]

Sales at Barnes & Noble rose 9.7%, to $926.2 million for the third quarter ended November 1, with same store sales up 4.5%.

Sales at Borders increased 7.7%, to $807.9 million, although most of that was due to new store openings. Sales at stores opened for at least one year rose only 1.5% as strong gains in books, DVDs and gifts were partially offset by a decline in music sales.

So how bad off is the book business? Good question...who the hell knows.

The New York Public Library has produced a book/software package to help organize your book collection: Your Home Library: The Complete System for Organizing, Locating, Referencing, and Maintaining Your Book Collection. "The volume includes instructions on how to evaluate books and the space available to house them, how to classify the books to suit individual needs and how to create a library catalog. She also offers handy advice on maintaining and expanding a personal collection."

It looks like it could be a very useful tool for those of us who have way too many books piled around the house. (Hint, hint: Santa! Put this one on my Christmas list!)

Stephen King recently accepted his honors from the National Book Awards by "grabb[ing] the audience by the lapel early with a speech that spared nothing."

He "called the crowd to arms by asking them to read more genre books. 'Peter Straub,' he said, 'has just written what is one of the best books of his career. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it?' He ticked off a number of other authors he thought were underappreciated, such as Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, and urged both publishers and prize-givers to pay more attention to them. 'Tokenism is not allowed,' he said."

Bravo, Mr. King!

Put up some new reviews yesterday on Mystery Ink (none of them by me), including pieces on the latest books by Jill Churchill, P.D. James, and Kit Ehrman.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The editors of pick their Top 10 Mysteries and Thrillers of 2003. Some great books on the list, including Pelecanos' Soul Circus, Connelly's Lost Light and Eisler's Hard Rain. Don't you just love end of the year "best of" lists? It's fun to see what other people admired and thought worthy of notice.

Monday, November 17, 2003

The latest issue of the Mystery News has a piece on Ross Thomas, my all-time favorite crime writer. (An excerpt of it can be read on their website.) Here's a choice line: "Thomas burst onto the fiction scene in 1966 with The Cold War Swap, possibly the best first novel of his generation."

What can I say about Ross Thomas? The man, quite simply, was the best. He truly wrote like a dream...never a wasted word, never a bad sentence. Since his death he's risen to near-mythic stature in my mind -- sometimes I start to wonder: was he really that good? But every time I go back to one of his books, I am reminded once again that YES he was.

St. Martins is doing a great job of reissuing his books; the trade paperbacks look great. (Just got the latest 2 last week.) I talked to Ruth Cavin, the editor at St. Martins who's in charge of this, at Bouchercon. She seemed discouraged about how the sales are going. I hope they do well enough to justify the rest of Thomas' backlist being reprinted.

If you haven't read him, I strongly recommend you do. I would suggest you start with Chinaman's Chance, although it can be hard to find. The afore-mentioned Cold War Swap would be a good substitute, as would Twilight at Mac's Place (out in a few weeks).

Publishers Weekly lists their picks for the best mysteries of 2003. Must admit, I haven't read many of the books they list. They do cite Walter Mosley, Robert Crais, Donald Westlake and David Rosenfelt, though, all of whom wrote some good books this year.

In the fiction category they say Odd Thomas is "perhaps [Dean Koontz's] best novel ever" and give a great plug to Lee Child's Persuader, calling Jack Reacher "one of the most memorable heroes in contemporary thrillerdom." They also praise George Pelecanos' Soul Circus, describing it as "one of his best yet."

Gary Phillips gets a nice review in the Sun-Sentinel for Bangers, a book I really liked. The review seems a bit disjointed, but it's good to see Gary getting a plug.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Interesting review of the new Hitchcock bio in today's Washington Post, written by Robert Sklar, a film studies professor at NYU. The book is Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan (ReganBooks, $39.95). Apparently McGilligan goes to great pains to discredit and refute Donald Spoto's trashy Hitchcock book, Dark Side of Genius, which was mostly concerned with Hitch's sexual proclivities (as if anyone would care). It's good to see the man get a decent book about his life and work, since he was one of the most important figures in film. Nobody has ever been able to do suspense the way Hitch did. It's hard to imagine any director today creating as many big films as he did, nevermind as many good ones. The book's on my shelf, although I don't know if I have the stomach to digest all 850 pages of it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Jonathan Yardley has an excellent piece in today's Washington Post about John D. MacDonald and the Travis McGee series. It's refreshing to see a genre author get this kind of critical respect. MacDonald was definitely one of the best, not just in the mystery field, but in fiction generally.

MacDonald wrote in a direct, laconic style that was deceptively simple, using the cynical McGee as his voice to comment on (and criticize) the world as he saw it. Although the books had their share of suspense, sex and violence, they were much more about life and society than they were their relatively simple plots.

Yardley recounts a terrific quote from MacDonald about the state of fiction, circa 1976 (but still apropos today): "I just cannot read people like Leon Uris and James Michener. When you've covered one line, you can guess the next one. I like people who know the nuances of words, who know how to stick the right one in the right place. Sometimes you can laugh out loud at an exceptionally good phrase. I find it harder and harder to find fiction to read, because I either read it with dismay at how good it is or disgust at how bad it is. I do like the guys like John Cheever that have a sense of story, because, goddammit, you want to know what happens to somebody. You don't want a lot of self-conscious little logjams thrown in your way."

Travis McGee (and his creator) are still very much missed.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Publishers Weekly has one of the best articles on crime fiction that I've read in some time. It includes short pieces on a handful of "breakout" authors, including a few friends: Barry Eisler, Jon King, Jonnie Jacobs and Dave Corbett.

It also has some recommendations of new authors from established stars like Mike Connelly, Lee Child and Harlan Coben. Among the people they cite: David Corbett, Jim Abbott, Alafair Burke, Brian Wiprud, Chris Mooney and Eric Garcia.

It's so nice to see mysteries getting discussed in a serious and respectful way -- which is exactly what they deserve. This article is a must read! Check it out.

Finished the latest book from a new author (new to me, anyway) that I had hoped to like, but ended up disapopinted by. Dying for Dana (Forge, $24.95) by Jim Patton is portrayed as being a hard-edged crime novel in the tradition of George Pelecanos (there is a prominent jacket blurb by George), with the humor of an Elmore Leonard.

Sounds like a promising book, right? Unfortunately, the execution doesn't match the hype. The book is the second in a series about Portland Assistant D.A. Max Travis ("one of the country's best prosecutors.") Max is a killer in the courtroom, but a loser in love. Not that he actually does much in the way of prosecuting any crimes and never makes it into the courtoom. Even given that, the plot might have been interesting enough, had the author decided to focus more on it.

The main problem with the book, though, is that Patton seems unsure of what kind of book he's trying to write. There are scenes of hardboiled crime, fairly bloody and shocking even, but then most of the book is given over to long, sappy passages about Max's romance with an attractive woman, who turns out to be a big time loser -- and just happens to be involved in his big case! He moons over her, spoons with her, pines for her, then whines about her. Over and over, on and on. Ugh...It's like the worst Harlequin -- except it's supposed to me a mystery!

I kept reading it, although I don't really know why. This one deserves a pass.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Shannon Zimmerman does a hatchet job on Laura Lippman's Every Secret Thing in today's Washington Post. She starts off with some complimentary remarks and it sounds like she got the book...but then she gets the claws out and really starts to dig in: "pockmarked by contrived suspense"..."structural problems"..."frequently clunky characterization"...and then a capper of a summation: "All told, Every Secret Thing makes it clear that Lippman has an ambitious novel of ideas in her. This one, however, isn't it."

Now if reading that doesn't make you wanna be a writer, I don't know what will. Ouch! Needless to say, I think Ms. Zimmerman has the book all wrong. I found it to be fascinating, touching, of the best things I've read all year. (See my critique in the Sun-Times.) Obviously no two people read the same book (as the old saying goes), but I think this critic missed the boat.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

In today's New York Times, Janet Maslin reports that she has read a whole passle of current bestsellers and found them wanting.

Let's see...she read books by John Grisham, James Patterson, Mitch Albom (!), Ellen DeGeneres, Stuart Woods, David Baldacci...and they weren't any good.

Shocked! I'm shocked to see that gambling is going on here!

Very interesting article on book collecting, discussing the various merits and drawbacks to Signed versus Inscribed copies of books.

Patrick Anderson gave Adrian McKinty's Dead I Well May Be (Scribner, $24) a rave review in yesterday's Washington Post. He had the very same reaction to this wonderful, dark, violent, humorous novel that I did. (For my take on it, check the Sun-Times.) It's great to see McKinty getting the press he deserves because he's one helluva good writer.

Recently posted a fun piece on Mystery Ink: Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing. I don't really believe in rules when it comes to writing...but then again, for most would-be authors, they might come in handy.

Among Dutch's admonitions: "Avoid prologues," "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue," and "Keep your exclamation points under control." Seems like sound advice to me.

I'm reminded of a critique Bill Buckley wrote some years back of Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury. Buckley pointed out that Trudeau used exclamation points on almost all of his dialogue -- nobody just says anything, they exclaim it! Of course, that's back when Doonesbury was actually funny and at least slightly relevant.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Yesterday's New York Times fiction bestseller list was chock full of mystery and suspense titles, including the new Patricia Cornwell at #3 (Blowfly, not as bad a book as you might think -- see my review in the Sun-Times), the only one of them I've read. The rest are by the usual suspects, including Grisham, Baldacci, Clancy, etc. Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code continues its improbable success, proving you don't have to write a good book to sell well, if you write a timely one.

By my count, 8 of the top 16 and 20 of the 35 total books listed were mystery/suspense titles. Just goes to show you that these are the books that people love to read, even if they're not the best exemplars of the genre.

Finished a very good, suspenseful new mystery last night: Alice Blanchard's The Breathtaker (Warner Books, $24.95). Story features a serial killer who preys on victims during tornado strikes. A little improbable, but it creates scenes with lots of tension and atmosphere.

The protagonist, Charlie Grover, is the Police Chief of Promise, Oklahoma and he's a nicely drawn, authentic character. The relationship between him and his 16-year old daughter Sophie is touching and well done. A real pageturner with great characters -- that's a helluva combination. There are several great twists and surprises, most of which are believable.

Typically, books with this much suspense have weak prose, but Blanchard is a real pro, producing some terrific writing. She's definitely one to keep an eye on.