Thursday, September 20, 2007

I'm off to liberate Paris

I'm not sure anyone will notice, but I shan't (as Maxine would say) be blogging for awhile. The brunette and I are off to Paris, where I will attempt to mend relations between our two great countries and consume more French wine than is strictly necessary.

Adieu. I'll post a comprehensive discourse on the state of French crime fiction (and French wine) when I return. Or maybe I'll just steal something off Peter's site. Evidently, this Fred Vargas has written a book or two...

CSI: Cambridge, circa 1171

Normally I'd wait until finishing a book before commenting on it, but since I'll be reveling in France for the next few days, I'll mention Mistress in the Art of Death, one of those books that looked intriguing at the bookstore, but not quite intriguing enough for me to lay out the price of a hardcover. Once again, my local library branch comes through. I'm about halfway through it now.

Briefly, the book is about a female forensics expert investigating a series of gruesome child murders in 12th century England. Yes, that sounds anachronistic -- my limited study of Medieval history somehow omitted all the women doctors of that time who tracked down serial killers with suspiciously up-to-date forensics techniques.

At least the protagonist is not beautiful; she's short, plain-looking and rather abrupt. And author Ariana Franklin has given her a plausible, if not entirely believable, back story: the doctor majored in "the art of death" at a medical school in Salerno, Italy, which evidently did exist and took a more liberal view of what women could do in those days. She's in England trying to prove that the child murders are not the work of the local Jewish population, and thus stave off a bloody insurrection.

It's audacious plotting, and mostly it works. There's a wealth of historical detail, and Franklin has taken care to weave real people, locations and events into her yarn. What bothers me most so far are little anachronistic slips in the writing. At one point, the protagonist Adelia reflects on how the Catholic Church is "raking it in" by exploiting the ignorant populace. At another, she recalls her days studying the decay of corpses at a body farm in Salerno. Was there such a thing in 1170? Somehow, I doubt it.

The book is interesting enough to finish, but it does remind me why I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell and watching all those CSI shows -- finally, serial killers and forensic probes are no longer all that interesting. It also reminds me of books that did this kind of thing better: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose comes to mind, or Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Those who annoy us must be Tasered

Ahem. I'm among those who thought Andrew Meyer had it coming when security officers applied a Taser to his struggling form at the John Kerry town hall event on Monday. My deepest regret is that they didn't hit him a couple more times to drive the point home.

The point? It's this: Even in America, even at this late date, there's a remote chance you might pay a certain price for being an asshole. I defy anybody to watch the various videos of the incident and say Meyer was a victim of anything besides his own extreme assholeness.

The president of the University of Florida called the incident "regretful." Uh, yeah. The most regretful thing is that this guy Meyer, a prankster by trade, has just secured a bit of YouTube immortality, which has a half-life of at least two weeks. What's a few thousand volts compared to that? The injustice!

One other regret: "Don't Tase me, bro." I have a feeling we're going to be hearing that phrase quite a bit more. It's the 2007 version of Rodney King's immortal "Can't we all just get along?"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Who is John Galt these days?

Ayn Rand once referred to her novel Atlas Shrugged as a mystery, "about the murder -- and rebirth -- of man's spirit." If so, it's far and away the most plodding and preachy mystery you'll ever read. It's 1,200 pages long and the approximate weight of a Volkswagen. I burned as many calories just lugging this book from the parking lot as I did on the YMCA Stairmaster where I made myself read it over the course of a week.

Nevertheless, the book continues to sell well 50 years later. The New York Times revisits the tome in a weekend piece headlined "Ayn Rand's literature of capitalism." It will come as no surprise that the book's biggest fans today are corporate executives, who like the part about naked self interest but overlook the part about inventing things of public value. Let's just say Kenneth Lay was no John Galt.

As someone who experienced the Bolshevik revolution firsthand, Rand may be forgiven for her hatred of collectivism. She was unstinting in her contempt for parasitic mobs who preyed on the productivity of others. But all these years later, I wonder if the situation hasn't been reversed. Aren't today's hedge-fund managers, and others of their ilk, the biggest parasites of all?

Bottom line: Atlas Shrugged was an important book in 1957, and remained so for a couple decades. Now, along with the socialist absurdities it railed against, it just seems hopelessly naive.

Friday, September 14, 2007

An Ozark odyssey you won't forget

Here's another johnny-come-lately endorsement for Daniel Woodrell, whose 2006 novel Winter's Bone is a great piece of writing. I'd never heard of this author until Uriah at Crime Scraps mentioned Woodrell's novel Tomato Red in a post the other day. The passage he quoted was so evocative that I decided to investigate.

Woodrell is a superb stylist, and with this particular protagonist, plot and setting, he's created something that reads a lot like literature. A 16-year-old Ozark mountain girl has become the de facto head of the house since her no-account dad decamped to parts unknown. He's put up the house and land as bond, and unless he can be found, the girl and her young brothers will be left homeless during a particularly bleak winter.

The story reminds me of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain -- a noble quest in a brutish world -- and I've not seen characters so sharply and economically drawn in a long while. While the milieu of rural crank labs and amoral tribalism is pretty grim, there is also enough humor to humanize it.

I'll be reading the rest of Daniel Woodrell's novels in the weeks to come.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A new look at an old serial killer

I've long been fascinated by unsolved crimes. So the other night I watched "Zodiac," about the serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area beginning in 1969 and was never caught.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., the film didn't do all that well at the box office -- maybe because the murders attributed to the Zodiac seem too few (only five confirmed) and too pedestrian compared to the atrocities we've seen nearly 40 years on. Maybe it also has to do with the film's length -- two hours and 20 minutes may be on the outside edge of most attention spans.

It's worth renting though. As near as I can tell, it stays fairly true to the facts of the case, and those facts haven't gotten any less eerie with the passage of four decades. What elevates the Zodiac killer from his deadlier brethren since are the taunting letters and cryptograms he sent newspapers and police during his brief reign of terror. Since he was never caught, those communiques today seem to confirm the mythic status the killer craved. That's too bad, since publicity often seemed more of a motive for Zodiac than any particular compulsion to kill.

The movie made me curious about the case. In the course of looking around online, I came across crimelibrary.com, which offers a factual, unbiased overview of this and several other unsolved crimes. It's compelling reading. If you haven't seen this well-written site, check it out. There are entries on a host of famous cases, including JonBenet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson -- even Lizzie Borden.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The bittersweet smell of not-quite success

Two things relevant to my writing aspirations just came in the mail: My author copies of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (containing my latest short story), and a membership renewal notice from Mystery Writers of America. Both were kind of bittersweet.

Don't misunderstand: I love seeing my stuff in print. I love it more than the tiny checks I get from the aptly-named Penny Publications when I sell one of my stories, and I love it a lot more than actually writing. Maybe that's the problem. For me, writing is hard. Even if I'm writing crap. It's so hard that when I've actually sold something, I feel like I deserve a major award. Instead, I get the pleasure of rereading my so-so prose in print and confronting life's persistent question: But what have you done lately?

Which brings me to the MWA renewal notice. It's $95 a year. Subtract that from the paltry pay, add Uncle Sam's insistence that I pay a self-employment tax, and watching junk TV suddenly seems like a lot better use of one's time. To hell with this novel; the MTV awards are on! That Britney's putting on some weight!

I don't know. I'll probably renew, for the same reason I joined in the first place: I like telling people I'm a member of something, and Mystery Writers of America sounds better than the Elks Club. Also, I get my name in the monthly newsletter on those rare months when I have something new in print. Finally, there are no meetings. If they'd only give me a cool jacket with a logo on the back, or some MWA coasters, it would be a no-brainer.

Anyway, if you get the chance, check out my story "Strange Days" and tell me what you think. It may not be literature, but it's short.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Ozymandias is the name

There's a reason I don't call it Dave's Nonfiction Warehouse: Of the 50 or so books I've read so far this year, only a few have been nonfiction, most given to me by friends or family. But the best of those, The World Without Us, is just as compelling as any mystery or thriller I've picked up.

You've probably heard of it: What would happen to the Earth if all humans vanished? Maybe there's something in all of us that likes to imagine a world all to ourselves -- even as we ignore the basic premise that none of us can be around to see it. Who wouldn't like a stroll through Times Square without the crowds, and no sound but the wind?

But if you ever do wake up as the only person left on the planet and have a hankering to see the Big Apple, you should get there pretty soon. According to author Alan Weisman, things will start going to hell in about two days, starting with the flooding of the subway system. In just five years, the city could be ablaze, thanks to lightning and ruptured gas lines.

The book isn't just about the collapse of all man has wrought in modern times, although those sections are the most entertaining. It also examines the things that are likely to survive for millennia, none of them good: greatly elevated levels of CO2, and a whole lot of PCBs, plutonium and plastic.

Oh, and maybe four very worn faces at Mount Rushmore. I like to think of some alien archaeologist happening on those and thinking, "Hmmm. These must be the Beatles."

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Not your father's cliche. Oh wait; it is.

Maybe it's time to retire the phrase, "This is not your father's [blank]," where blank is the latest piece of obsolescent consumer goods some company is struggling to rebrand. I see it about four times a day, most recently in this New York Times story about the latest effort to hawk one more thing I hate: an electronic book reader. Amazon is reportedly set to unveil the Kindle next month. It will cost upwards of $400 and will feature wireless connectivity. (Doesn't everything feature wireless connectivity? One of these days, I'm pretty sure even my toothbrush will be set up for Bluetooth.)

“This is not your grandfather’s e-book,” said one publishing executive who did not want to be named. Hey, I wouldn't want to be named either, trotting out cliches like that. Google the phrase and you'll get clever headlines like these:

"Not your father's encyclopedia."
"Not your father's sex shop."
"Not your father's Mario Kart."
"Not your father's neanderthal."
"Not your father's robots."
"Not your father's Talmud."

... and about 3 million other gems that must have seemed quite jaunty at the time. It's odd that this phrase is so durable, considering that it didn't help save the Oldsmobile when the slogan was rolled out in 1998. In fact, some say it actually helped hasten the car's demise by reminding buyers of its longstanding appeal to querulous geezers.

But is this post about e-book readers or dead slogans? I'm not sure; I'm just blogging here. Let's just say anybody who uses either deserves to be thrashed. Perhaps with your drunken stepfather's shillelagh.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Things I hate. Chapter 37.

I hear they had to hire extra custodial help at the Moscone Center in San Francisco today: too many people were having spontaneous orgasms over the appearance of Steve Jobs and his latest array of iParaphernalia. That kind of thing can get messy real fast. Or so I'm told.

You know, this happens on a pretty regular basis; you'd think people might now accept that there will be always be incremental improvements in Apple's product line, and just move on with their lives. But no. Whenever there's a slightly easier way to watch useless little videos or download generic, DRM-ridden music you'll never listen to, that's huge, baby. It's big enough for his Steveness to descend to Earth for a brief time to accept the blood sacrifice of his disciples. I just wish they'd bring some tissue or something.

This is going to sound like Andy Rooney, but I don't get it. Best Buy tells me I need a 52-inch plasma screen to really enjoy "The Office," but Apple tells me that's meaningless if I can't view the same episode on a 2-inch screen that also features a smudged reflection of my zombie-like visage staring back. And I really can't enjoy it if it hasn't come to my logoed talisman through the miracle of wi-fi.

I enjoy acquiring useless crap as much as the next guy. But can't we do it with a little dignity?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The last person to see 'Lives of Others"

This blog is about as far behind the curve as it can get, so I suppose I shouldn't be too embarrassed to heartily endorse a movie everyone's already seen. Regarding all those great reviews you've seen for The Lives of Others, let me just say this: Me too.

I pushed it up to the top of the Netflix queue after both my son and my mother-in-law recommended it within a couple of days of each other. I appreciate such advice, since the rest of my queue generally consists of movies I've already seen.

This film, about life under perpetual surveillance in pre-Glasnost East Germany, works as both a sober character study and political thriller. That's probably why it earned the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2006. While maybe 15 minutes too long, the superb writing and cast (if not unknown, let's just say there's nobody who's been in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel) make The Lives of Others worth more than a single viewing.

There was a time when I wouldn't have watched a non-English film; now I sometimes feel that I shouldn't watch anything but. Movies made outside the American studio system are nearly always more authentic, meaning much less susceptible to focus-group twists and endings. I'd prefer all films to be in English, of course, but the subtitles are a small price to pay for watching something without gratuitous CGI effects and stars you're sick of seeing on the cover of Us magazine.

Monday, September 3, 2007

36 mystery tales for the price of none

The problem with buying anthologies of mystery stories is that if you love them as I do, you'll find quite a few you've already read. So it is with A Century of Great Suspense Stories, edited in 2001 by Jeffery Deaver. Of its 36 stories, I recognized maybe half a dozen, by such luminaries as Ruth Rendell, Lawrence Block, Harlan Ellison, Fredric Brown.

So right away, I'd be slightly annoyed at having forked over the cover price of $29.95. Fortunately, I checked it out at the library. A great thing, is the library. Even when you end up with a bad book, you can't complain about the price.

And this isn't a bad book. I don't know if the collection represents the very best of the genre in the last 100 years, but there are very few duds. Unlike novels, short stories can stand or fold on the strength of their opening lines. There are some real gems here:

"It's hard not to believe in ghosts when you are one. I hanged myself in a fit of truculence -- stronger than pique, but not so dignified as despair -- and regretted it before the thing was well begun." -- Donald E. Westlake, "This is Death."

"If God (or Whoever's in charge) had wanted Dr. Netta Bernstein to continue living, He (or She) wouldn't have made it so easy for me to kill her." -- Harlan Ellison, "Killing Bernstein."

"You can live your life through and try hard to be a decent sort, but trouble might still come to you." -- John Lutz, "So Young, So Fair, So Dead."

You get the idea. Most of these yarns are definitely noirish in tone, but that's what happens when you're trying to assemble the best tales of mystery and suspense. Among the authors represented is James M. Cain, whose The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity practically defined the genre.