Thursday, August 30, 2007

A walk in the dark with Joyce Carol Oates

I became a fan of Joyce Carol Oates' short fiction in November 2003, when one of her stories appeared in the same issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as one of mine. If you missed it, too bad. Though it pains me to say so, I guess I can now concede that her story was better.

But that's the reason I picked up The Museum of Dr. Moses, her latest collection of short stories, as soon as I saw it. That and the subtitle: Tales of Mystery and Suspense. As you may have guessed, I'm a sucker for just that sort of yarn.

Ms. Oates does not disappoint. With the exception of the almost upbeat opening piece, "Hi! Howya Doin!" (written as a single, very long sentence about a particularly annoying jogger), these are some dark, dread-filled stories that tend to linger long after you've read them. The creepiest thing about them is that they are so utterly believable. Oates has a firm grasp of what drives normal people to do abnormal things, and she is such a master of foreshadowing that those things loom as eerie shadows long before they become tangible. There are 10 tales here, the best of which might be the novella-length "The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza."

I sometimes complain that nobody writes or publishes good short fiction any more. With The Museum of Dr. Moses, I'm happy to be proven wrong.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Say hello to the other Ben Kingsley

The other night I was still tossing and turning at 1:30 a.m., as is often the case, so I grabbed the remote. The chance of finding something decent to watch at that hour is right up there with winning it all at Powerball, but this time I got lucky: Sexy Beast was on one of the HBO channels.

This is the movie to watch if you always think of Gandhi whenever you think of Ben Kingsley. His performance here is nothing less than anti-Gandhi -- utterly crude, ruthless and intimidating. I don't know if he and costar Ray Winstone were friends off the set, but if they never spoke again I can understand why.

Winstone plays soft-in-the-middle ex-criminal "Gal" Dove, who is trying to enjoy his retirement in sunny Spain. Kingsley is the lean, lethal and certifiable Don Logan, who wishes to enlist Gal for a risky bank heist back in London. Let's just say Don is not the sort of man who takes no for an answer.

This is a great movie, with high tension throughout, but be warned that it's disturbing in so many ways you definitely won't want to watch it with the kids. As a late-night rental -- or a serendipitous cable choice -- Dave-Bob says check it out.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A little writing advice from Papa

As a younger man I was a great fan of Ernest Hemingway's early stories -- stuff like "The Three Day Blow" and "The Big Two-Hearted River." And like most young men who think about writing, I shamelessly aped his style in community-college writing classes, cobbling together a bunch of pointless stories that I never got around to finishing. Only later did I hear the old joke about American writers consisting of two groups: Those trying to write like Hemingway, and those trying not to.

I didn't worship Hemingway's longer works quite so much. In fact, the only ones I'd read until recently were A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. But with the upcoming Paris trip in mind, I decided to try A Moveable Feast. In case you haven't read it, it's a surprisingly sentimental memoir of Hemingway's life in Paris in the 1920s -- the exact time and place he was writing those short stories I used to admire.

I picked it up for its descriptions of Paris, but A Moveable Feast also contains a lot about writing. For all his reputation as a drinker and brawler and all-around bon vivant, Hemingway was quite disciplined about his writing. Often it seemed to come easy to him, but he persisted even when it didn't. He didn't spend a lot of time waiting for inspiration:

"I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence and then go on from there."

At this late date, I don't know if I'd recognize a true sentence if I saw it. But trust Hemingway to reduce the problem to its essentials. There can be no paragraphs, or chapters or books without that first sentence. Probably a good idea to make it as honest as you can.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cartoon books in a cartoon world

Here's the kind of raucous good times you can have in Second Life: nothing like a few cartoon marionettes spazzing out on a pixelated dance floor that looks like it was rendered in Microsoft Paint sometime in 1995. Nice title, too (see link). They have virtual dances in Second Life, but they don't have virtual classes in remedial spelling.

Evidently they do have virtual bookstores, though. mentions one run by somebody named Coelacanth Seurat (that's another thing to hate about Second Life; everybody has names like Coelacanth Seurat. Why? If you can't spell "dancing," the word "Coelacanth" is not going to roll effortlessly off the keyboard either, is it?) Anyway, here's Coelacanth's take on selling virtual books in a virtual world:

“In RL a bookstore is a place to browse and buy books & magazines. But in SL I think the definition has to be expanded a bit: compensating authors as they desire, but focusing on aggregating SL text-based content and providing a portal to information on books in general. This bookstore is an ongoing “thought experiment,” and I welcome all comments.”

Here's a comment: What the hell did you just say? Beyond that truly profound first sentence, I mean. Upon further analysis, maybe it's a tacit admission that nobody's going to be stupid enough to actually read virtual books in a virtual world, but if they ever grow weary of virtual dancing they can check out some text-based content. Very short excerpts from The Secret might be a good start for the Second Life "community." That's all bullshit too.

Friday, August 24, 2007

'Dallas' redux, without the shoulder pads

It's good to see Hollywood finally talking about making good movies again. I'm referring, of course, to "Dallas," which is technically the last American television series not to have been made into a feature film (except for "My Mother The Car," a Viacom release scheduled for 2009).

Variety reports John Travolta has been signed to play J.R. Ewing. That's some casting genius, since Travolta radiates just the sort of overfed smugness and limited range that Larry Hagman brought to the TV show. Not sure about Shirley MacLaine as Miss Ellie (what, Judy Dench was not available?) or Meg Ryan as Sue Ellen. Ah, Meg. It's but a short step from here to the Home Shopping Network. How are those collagen lips holding up?

No word on who will play the randy Lucy, a role that earned Charlene Tilton the affectionate moniker "Stumpy."

No matter. I've already reserved balcony tickets, even though I'm kind of worried that it's now being cast as a comedy, instead of, say, a searing metaphor for corruption in the Bush White House. I'd much rather laugh at an unintentionally hilarious drama than an unintentionally sober comedy.

What does this have to do with fiction? I don't know. I was just assuming the film would be based on the book.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On the Beach? Nope, on 'The Road'

Cormac McCarthy will be pleased to learn that he has earned the coveted Dave's Book Club award for his 2006 novel The Road. I know there have been other, lesser honors, such as the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, but that's no reason to stint. C.M., I now bestow a lifetime membership in Dave's pantheon of pretty good writers. (Your seat is right up there, third row left.)

While perhaps not the best book ever written, and despite a plot that can be summed up in a single sentence, The Road is carried along by McCarthy's haunting prose and an idea that never fails to capture this writer's imagination: eluding cannibals in a post-apocalyptic America. The whole last-people-on-earth concept has fascinated me since I read Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon as a kid, and since then I've read any similarly-themed book that has come my way. McCarthy fans might cringe to hear me say this, but I'm also a big fan of Stephen King's The Stand, which is arguably the thickest post-apocalypse book ever written.

In many ways The Road is the polar opposite of The Stand. It's 287 pages, for one thing, compared to about 700,000 and counting for the King opus. And there are only two real characters, compared to King's sprawling cast of thousands. While King cast his yarn as an epic struggle of good vs. evil, McCarthy's work is a meditation on survival against a chaotic and indifferent universe. The horrors his two protagonists encounter derive not from some tangible force of evil, but from other survivors who face the same struggles they do -- and opt for a somewhat more convenient means of putting food on the table.

For all the simplicity of its plot, The Road is a fascinating read. The journey entails hundreds of challenges, great and small, and the way these tests are met or circumvented is just as interesting as the effects they have on the father and son. I was reminded at one point of the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, in which the simple logistics of survival drove the story on without dialog or change of setting.

Having just read McCarthy's Blood Meridian before picking up this book, it was interesting to note what seems a fundamental change in the writer's world view between 1985 and now. While The Road will never be hailed as the feel-good book of the decade, its hint of hope and redemption is positively upbeat compared to the steely nihilism of Blood Meridian.

But now I'm getting too windy. Bottom line: Two thumbs up. Dave-Bob says check it out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

All you need to know about blogging

I recently read somewhere that there are now more than 70 million blogs. I can't confirm this, because my own efforts at a hand count have stalled at around 37. But let's say it's true. And let's say that I am correct in assuming that about 98.8 percent of these blogs consist of mindless blather, narcissistic ruminations and erroneous conclusions -- which is to say, they are a lot like this one. That means there are roughly 69,160,000 blogs out there that really, really suck. Even if nobody reads them, that's still a lot of productivity down the toilet. Somebody should do a study.

When they do, I'll blog about it. In the meantime, some more mindless blather: Why do so many people take it upon themselves to write a blog? I'm glad you asked.

1. Because they can. Lore Sjöberg of Wired put it best (much as I'd like to take credit for the line myself): "Creating your own blog is about as easy as creating your own urine." So true. Look, if it wasn't easy, I wouldn't be doing it. Unlike the desktop publishing phenomenon 20 years ago, blogs require no equipment beyond a Wal-Mart computer and free wi-fi. Nor do they require any design sensibility, as you can verify by clicking the "next blog" button. Or, for that matter, remaining right here. All you need is some time on your hands and at least one acquaintance with an e-mail account so you can send them the link. Unless you're satisfied, as I am, just to have the blog all to yourself.

2. For the money. Everyone knows the riches that can accrue through Google's AdSense program, which promises "a way to both monetize and enhance your content pages." Uh, yeah, content. But let's get right to the monetizing. I'm no math major, but if I were to fully AdSense this site, based on the flood of traffic I'm getting right now, I calculate I could afford a seven-year-old Honda Civic in about 4,000 years. That's some righteous monetizing, friends.

3. For the lasting relationships. Nothing warms my heart more than the close personal connections I've formed over these past two months of blogging. Recently I received a comment from Cyndi, who in just that short a time felt she knew me well enough to make her hot and nasty sex videos available to me at a discounted price.

Comments are the coin of the realm in the blogosphere; nobody (except Cyndi) gives you one unless you first leave one, preferably expressing solidarity with their views. Even when people don't comment, you can still get to know them through Sitemeter, which lets you see the location of the ISP from which a visitor reaches your blog. Thus I have become fond of Duluth, Minn., who drops in periodically and stays an average of 2 seconds. Hail, Duluth! Let's have coffee sometime.

4. It beats watching TV. Seriously, have you tried sitting through "John From Cincinnati"? If I'm going to sit around watching crap, I prefer it to be crap I can massage and polish ... oops, bad metaphor. What I mean is, I get more pleasure out of tweaking my excellent blog and resizing its stolen jpegs than I'd get in a whole season of "America's Got Talent." But that's just me.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Crime writers, there's a new sheriff in town

Just when I thought it was safe to put my long-delayed book on the front burner, comes this devasting news: J.K. Rowling is writing a crime novel. This information comes to the Washington Post by way of Ian Rankin, who said his wife spotted Rowling at work on the new project in Edinburgh.

"It is great that she has not abandoned writing or Edinburgh cafes," said Rankin, barely concealing his own fear.

Talk about bad timing. At this point Rowling could pen 900 pages of bad haiku and sell a million copies -- why must she suck all the air out of crime-fiction manor just when I'm trying to break in? (Yes, in answer to your next question: It is all about me.)

(UPDATE: Turns out Ian Rankin was having us on. Those crazy Scots. Here's what J.K. Rowling is really working on.)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A quick snack called 'Calibre'

Just finished Ken Bruen's Calibre, and I'm not sure what to conclude, beyond that I liked it. It's certainly an easy read -- stripped-down, lean and mean, slick as polished steel. And I'm pretty sure it will be the shortest book I've read all year -- although I do have Ammunition waiting on the bedside table.

Maybe it's because I've lately been reading authors who tend to the other extreme, but it's almost as though Bruen has invented a new class of book here -- the crime novel for people who don't have time for crime novels. I guess those were called novellas, back in the day. His characters are perhaps too economically drawn; their motivations lean too heavily toward untroubled self-interest; their dialog comes in glittering little shards, sharp enough to put an eye out. I've heard some describe Bruen's stuff as hardboiled, but it seems almost too cheerful for that.

I'll try a few more -- I'm particularly interested in American Skin -- but my verdict on this one: It's not quite as filling as I'd like. It's a cup of strong coffee and a donut as opposed to a dinner. And probably not the kind of book I'm going to be thinking about much later than today.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Says here the Arc de Triomphe is that way...

The brunette and I are going to France next month. She prepares by buying numerous guide books and boning up on her French; I prepare by looking around for a spy novel set in Paris and wondering if I should lose a couple of pounds.

Which led me to The Foreign Correspondent, by Alan Furst. Like nearly all of Furst's novels, it's set during the tense years in Europe just before World War II. This one opens with what seems a murder-suicide at a Paris hotel in December 1938. As it happens, Mussolini's agents have eliminated the editor of a clandestine newspaper that is backing the Italian resistance. Correspondent Carlo Weisz takes over the job. (Man, I'd hate to work the desk on that newspaper).

The plot sounds fine, but I was more sold by the map of Paris on its opening pages. Better than a guidebook: How much can the City of Light have changed in 70 years? Furst is known for the authenticity with which he renders cities like Prague and Budapest; so far, I'm learning quite a bit about Paris.

I've enjoyed half a dozen of these books, including Blood of Victory, Night Soldier and Kingdom of Shadows. They sometimes move a bit too slowly to be called thrillers, but they're so moody and atmospheric they do pull you along.

Now if I can just find that beret.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I can't wait until Batman dies

But that's never going to happen, is it? Not with yet another sequel, The Dark Knight, in the works for the summer of '08.

What's up with this American fascination with comic-book movies in general and Batman movies in particular? Let's see, The Dark Knight will bring us up to six Batman films in the modern era -- seven if you count the 1966 film featuring the cast of the campy TV series. I don't know, maybe I'm forgetting a few. It sure seems like there have been more.

Each new entry is invariably described as "darker" and more serious than the others, but they're all fundamentally the same: the guy in the cape suffers a few setbacks from costumed villains, and eventually prevails. We get it, already. It's like if they kept making the same Rocky movie over and over. Oh, that's right: They did.

Anyway, how dark and serious can a movie be if the protagonist has to run around in a hood with the maneuverability of a salon hair dryer and a cape that would surely be sucked into the wheels of the Bat Cycle every time he took it out? Hey, Dark Knight: hope you packed some scissors in the utility belt.

The advance word on The Dark Knight is that the script focuses more on his detective skills. Good idea. Maybe they could also lose the costume. Give him a rumpled suit and half bottle of cheap whiskey in the desk drawer. Send in a leggy blonde to ask if something can be done about her husband. Now that's dark.

I've got nothing against comic books and graphic novels. But I sure hate the movies they inspire.

(One interesting tidbit from the Web site: the movie will include Heath Ledger and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Think if they could have signed Jake Gyllenhaal. Nothing like a homoerotic subtext to pack the seats of a summer action movie.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Me and Oprah and the books we like

Well, I've finally done it: I'm finally a member of Oprah's Book Club.

At least I assume that I am. Doesn't membership come free with ordering one of the titles she recommends? If not, I'll be returning Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Only reason I bought the damn book was to attain a closer connection to the Queen of All Media. If that isn't going to happen, then I'm really not interested. Pulitzer, schmulitzer. This is all about Oprah.

Forgive the sarcasm. I've done my best not to read any book recommended by Oprah, but it was bound to happen that someday my interests would coincide with the interests of the loyal staffers who do her reading for her. The fact is, I do try to pick up the odd Pulitzer-prize winner, just to see what all the fuss is about. Although the timing is suspect, I really wasn't waiting for O's seal of approval. I was just waiting for it to come out in paperback.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Staying up late with "Every Secret Thing"

It's the summer of new authors for me, even though they'd be annoyed to find themselves referred to as "new." What I mean is, authors your host has never read. I've been trying to widen my scope, in an effort to move up the crime-fiction ladder from poseur to dilettante. It was in that spirit that I picked up Laura Lippman's Every Secret Thing a couple of days ago.

A hundred pages in, I'm impressed. The story is fresh: two 11-year-old girls serve seven years in juvenile detention for their roles in the death of an infant, then are released into a hostile world. The plot thickens.

Lippman has this deft way of gradually revealing more details about the central death to make this a page-turner -- it feels a little like Dennis LeHane's "Mystic River" that way. I meant to read just a couple of chapters last night but didn't stop until I'd read six. Also, it's somehow refreshing that every major character thus far is female, convincingly drawn and with distinct motivations. The single male character I've seen is one of those guys who make you ashamed of the gender.

So. Of the three books I bought at Border's the other day, this first one seems a good investment. Since this "new " writer has eight other novels in print, I've got another good author to browse on my next trip to the store or library.

For those more widely-read than I: What about Lippman's series novels? Do they hold up as well?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

It's just one click. But nooooo....

It has come to my attention that almost no one is voting on my film noir poll. Normally I'd consider this a personal affront and ample cause for a profanity-laced rant on how nobody cares anymore, nobody. But my wife Tess has pointed out it's probably because I didn't include her personal favorite neo-noir: The Grifters, from 1990.

OK, it was a glaring omission. Any film that has somebody beating up on Angelica Huston with a sack of oranges -- that's some serious noir. And if it's based on a novel by Jim Thompson, with a screenplay by Donald E. Westlake, it definitely has the street cred. In hindsight, maybe I should have killed Memento and added The Grifters.

Too late now, though. All I can do at this point is drink cheap whiskey and, later this evening, probably decide to quit blogging forever. Hope you're happy.

Let us consider the best of the worst

Yesterday, in search of inspiration for my own writing, I reread one of the best and bleakest books of 2005: Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. There are many things to praise about this book, including the haunting title drawn from the Yeats poem "Sailing to Byzantium." But as crime fiction, one of its strongest elements is its villain.

Anton Chigurh stands out for several reasons, not least of which is the unconventional device he uses to kill people and open locked doors. If you've never heard of a captive bolt pistol, I guarantee you'll know all about it when the movie opens in November.

Chigurh is a completely evil man, of course, all the more so because he doesn't believe in evil. He sees himself as a kind of cosmic cashier, one who totals up all the bad choices you've made and tenders the bill. Plus tax. If he decides to kill you, it's nothing personal -- blame instead the various paths you've taken that put you in front of him at that particular time and place. In one of the more chilling passages in the book, a victim takes issue with the death verdict Chigurh has delivered by coin toss:

You make it like it was the coin. But you're the one.

It could have gone either way.

The coin didn't have no say. It was just you.

Perhaps, but look at it my way. I got here the same way the coin did.

She sat sobbing softly. She didn't answer.

For things at a common destination there is a common path. Not always easy to see. But there.

Don't you hate it when evil disguises itself in bland existentialism? I know I do.

But the point of this post is villains in crime fiction. Which ones spring immediately to mind, and why? To narrow the field, let's leave out compulsive serial killers. I'm thoroughly sick of that whole subset of the crime genre.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The dog days, and "August Heat"

It's a slow day in the blogosphere, so let's go to the mail bag. Wait a second ... I don't have a mail bag. I suppose that means it's time to pull something out of the air.

Here in Wichita, we are in the middle of a string of 100-degree days, a string that seems likely to continue through next week. It's a daunting thing to look at the five-day forecast and see a row of identical suns perched over identical sets of three-digit numbers. We have central air here at the ancestral manse, of course, but we can't help but think of the time when people didn't.

And if you're me, you can't help but think of the creepy little short story "August Heat," by W.F. Harvey. I think I first read it in high school, as part of an English class. Like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," it is a dark and subtle gem. It must be, or how else would I have remembered those last two lines more than 40 years later?

"But the heat is stifling.
It is enough to send a man mad."

Excuse me now, while I adjust the thermostat.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Read any good cell phones lately?

As a disciple of the written word, I found this New York Times piece interesting: All about the joys of reading books on your freaking cell phone.

I love this quote from trend-setting New Jersey lawyer Paul Biba: “Once you get use to having books with you, you get used to reading in places where it never occurred to you. If I’m waiting in line at the supermarket counter, why not read one of my science fiction magazines? Believe it or not, I’ll sit down in my chair at home, pull out my phone and read a book.”

Oh, I believe it. I just don't know why it strikes me as pathetic. Hey Paul, they have this great new thing for reading in the checkout line. It's called a magazine. But then, maybe those who like to be seen shouting at their phones in every conceivable venue also like to be seen reading them.

OK, I'll concede it could make some kind of sense: you already have your phone permanently affixed to your body, it's lighter than a paperback and it has its own light for reading in darkness. But has it really come to this? That we would enjoy fiction as particularly long text message, on a page the size of a matchbook? Maybe my earlier lament about the demise of short fiction was premature.

James Ellroy unleashed -- and unfinished

As long as I'm on the subject of the few books I never finished, a few words about James Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand, published in 2001 as the sequel to American Tabloid. I tried to read it a few years ago, and have never since seen a book quite like it. Here's an excerpt:

The Casino Operators Council flew him. They supplied first-class fare. They tapped their slush fund. They greased him. They fed him six cold.

Nobody said it:

Kill that coon. Do it good. Take our hit fee.

The flight ran smooth. A stew served drinks. She saw his gun. She played up. She asked dumb questions.

He said he worked Vegas PD. He ran the intel squad. He built files and logged information.

She loved it. She swooned.

"Hon, what you doin' in Dallas?"

He told her.

This isn't just hard-boiled; it's granite pressurized to the density of neutronium. While the staccato style is kind of fun in the early going, it just keeps going. And going. On and on. For 700 pages. Dave got through 200 of them. Dave gave up.

Even though I'm interested in the milieu of both American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand -- corruption and intrigue surrounding the Kennedy assassination -- the style of the second book struck me as an endless affectation, and I could not keep turning the pages.

That said, I may attempt it again one of these days; it's one of those books that has since done pretty well with the critics.

Those are my unfinished books. Anybody else have an example?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

An abrupt U-turn off "Damnation Street"

I don't know; maybe I'm really not such an aficionado of crime fiction. Occasionally, a well-reviewed book just hits me the wrong way, and I toss it aside about 40 pages in.

Such is the case with "Damnation Street" by Andrew Klavan. I picked it up at the library a couple of days ago, on the strength of his excellent 1997 thriller "True Crime."

Where do I start with this book? First of all, the dopey conceit that this is a true story, starting with an author's note that he personally knew both of the hardboiled protagonists, but will be inserting himself into the tale "only at those moments when I become and integral part of the narrative." So right off, something I hate: a narrator who makes himself part of the story but also claims an omniscient point of view when it suits him. Must be nice to have it both ways. But it sure doesn't do much for a reader's suspension of disbelief.

Secondly, the characters. I understand Klavan has used them before, including "the Shadowman," who is supposed to be the embodiment of evil -- "the man has the eyes of a ghost" -- but emerges as a plain-vanilla serial killer from central casting, distinguished only by an imaginative method of concealing a backup piece. The protagonists aren't much better, two investigators supposed to represent yin and yang, the cerebral and the brutal, but neither displays more depth than one of those Roy Rogers cutouts.

And finally, the fulcrum of the plot: a hooker "with the face of angel." You don't see many of those in real life, and when you do they usually have the voice of Nancy Grace. I now call for a moratorium on the use of lovely prostitutes in crime fiction.

When I start a book I usually finish it, but this one outmatched my attention span early on. If anyone else has finished it and liked it, I'd be happy to entertain opposing views.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A tip of the hat to my Scottish brethren

Here is one of the reasons I think Scotland might be a fun place to visit (as long as I don't set myself alight or otherwise create the impression that I'm a terrorist). Although the headline is something short of poetry -- it's one of those situations where a long count actually works against you -- I admire the joie de vivre with which the Daily Record copy editor approached the subject. Would a more subtle approach have worked better in a story about kicking a burning terrorist in the balls? I don't think so.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A thrice-told tale -- but it's told pretty well

Unsure of the proper sequence of titles, my wife recently referred to this latest entry as "The Bourne Redundancy." Ha ha. But I have to admit, it's not too far from the truth.

The story of Jason Bourne, the ex-CIA assassin with no past -- and, his ex-handlers hope, no future -- has now been told three times with minor variations. Bourne wants to find out how he became such a capable killer. And if that means a violent chase through every major world capital, then so be it. "The Bourne Ultimatum" offers everything in the first two movies, just more of it. A couple of scenes are almost identical to the first, just with a different girl.

But you know what? I don't care. If you're a fan of smart action movies, this is as about as smart and as pure action as you can get. Paul Greengrass' jerky, documentary style gives a visceral punch to every scene; his claustrophobic framing puts you right in the middle of every chase or fight. (I suspect it also helped contain the budget -- a lot of wide-angle action choreography can get very expensive in places like Manhattan or London.)

So, Dave-Bob says three stars. Only one other minor quibble: Where's the sense of humor? A subtle touch of comic relief here and there would not have gone amiss with this kind of picture.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Crime writing by the rules

As a reader and part-time writer of crime fiction, I'm familiar enough with most of the rules of the genre -- for example, your story had better have a corpse in it. But if you'd pressed me on it, I would have listed maybe five such rules. Turns out there are 20, at least according to this list, first published in 1928 by mystery-writing legend Willard Huntington Wright. (Don't know WHW? Then you don't know jack.)

Actually, by today's standards, just about five of the rules still seem to be in force -- including the one about the corpse. Some of the others might be a little dated. No. 11, for example:

"A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion."

Oooh-kay. No servants. What else should the aspiring mystery writer guard against? Rule No. 20 is a handy guide to keep by the desk:

"I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. ... To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se'ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in." (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth."

Hey, is this a list of no-no's, or really great ideas? I've never even heard of "the dummy-figure alibi." Although I will own up to considering a few of the other devices listed above, at some point or other. So that's why those stories didn't sell...

Friday, August 3, 2007

From Ian Fleming, with love

I suppose you have to be a certain age to have read a lot of Ian Fleming. I went through every one of his James Bond books as a teenager, starting with Dr. No when I was about 13. I found the sex and violence and diabolical plots so intoxicating that I quickly located the first Bond book, Casino Royale, and read the rest of them in the order they were written. I may be one of the few James Bond fans who can honestly say he read each book in the series before seeing its corresponding movie.

The movies were mostly terrible and eventually devolved into self-parody, but I loved them too. Objectifying women, killing uniformed minions by the dozen, and outwitting all manner of exotic assassins, usually while wearing a tuxedo -- just the sort of role model a teenage boy can unabashedly embrace.

I got to thinking about Bond after seeing this post by my friend Peter at Detectives Beyond Borders. He's talking about John LeCarre, and "that golden era of international spying." LeCarre's spies, of course, were far more cerebral than Bond, and the conflicts they faced were far more ambiguous. Teenage boys are not big on ambiguity. I didn't read LeCarre until much later in life.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

A good writing tool, and the price is right

While I'm trying to think of something better to write about, here's another plug for, the freeware, open-source "productivity suite" that does pretty much everything Microsoft Office does at less than a fraction of the price.

Since my new laptop came without much software installed (and what was installed I immediately deleted), was right up my street. I use it exclusively for writing, but the spreadsheet, database and presentation modules get good reviews too. I can honestly say I don't miss a thing about MS Office, MS Works or Corel Wordperfect, all of which I've used extensively in the past.

If you've already got one of those, or some other commercial software that's working, there's no compelling reason to switch. But if you get a new machine and you're a writer, save a few bucks and try I like it so much I might actually donate a bit of cash. I don't see a downside to this open-source movement.

Beating the heat with ice-cold fiction

It's another hot and muggy afternoon in Wichita, which got me thinking about books that feel cold. Not emotionally cold, necessarily, but evocative enough of snow and ice and winter wind to put a chill into even a stifling summer day in the Midwest.

One of the chilliest books I've ever read is "Smilla's Sense of Snow," written by Peter Hoeg in 1993. Here's how it starts out:

"It's freezing --an extraordinary 0 Fahrenheit --and it's snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is 'qanik' --big, almost weightless crystals falling in clumps and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost."

And it doesn't get any warmer after that. On this August day, I'm wishing I hadn't loaned that book out. I never did get it back.

How about the other extreme, oppressive heat? One title comes immediately to mind: Robert Wilson's "The Big Killing," set in West Africa. Sweat and humidity drip from every page. If you haven't read it, I'd suggest waiting until sometime next January -- or stocking up on cold beer and antiperspirant.

Any other suggestions for books that accomplish climate change all by themselves?