Sunday, August 30, 2015

Will Michael Dirda Convince Me to Read Science Fiction?

Michael Dirda and Maureen Corrigan (of NPR) are my two favorite book people.

I avoid the word “critic” here because Dirda insists he doesn’t have the sort of mind needed for literary analysis. However, this collection of essays, which appeared originally on The American Scholar’s homepage, shows a real genius for enthusiasm.

Because we have so much in common, he makes me want to read every single book he recommends. For starters, Mike (if I may be so bold) and I have read the correspondence of George Lyttleton and Rupert Hart-Davis. It is, as my favorite “bookman” describes it, “the book chat to end all book chat.” George Lyttleton is an Eton master who complains that no one ever writes to him and Rupert Hart Davis, publisher, biographer of Hugh Walpole and editor of the correspondence of Oscar Wilde, takes up the challenge of keeping his former teacher amused and informed. 6 volumes (collected in 3 paperbacks) later, I was sad to see George die and the correspondence end. (Though I have to say I never figured out what a “test match” was). Mike and I also yearn to hang with the same English writers: Evelyn (Waugh), Cyril (Connolly), Paddy (Leigh-Fermor) and the Mitford sisters.

Oh, and we both love Wonder Books, a used bookstore I’m familiar with because I’m lucky to have an amazingly wonderful cousin who lives in Frederick, MD. Mike buys collectibles and I do not, but the regular stock is fabulous.

Where Mike really shines is in his championing of books that most people haven’t heard of, much less read. He exhorts us all to look further than the best seller list. He loves classic adventure books, weird tales (what most of us would think of as horror fiction) and science fiction. The organizations he belongs to will give you an idea of his taste: The Baker Street Irregulars, North American Jules Verne Society, The Ghost Story Society, The Washington D.C. Panthans (devotees of Edgar Rice Burroughs) and The Lewis Carroll Society. More recently he has been made an honorary member of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He attends meetings of Capital! Capital!, the Washington D.C. Chapter of the P.G. Wodehouse Society and within the last few years has joined Mystery Writers of America.

Mike and I have one decided difference. I now buy more e-books than “real” books. (Sorry, Mike). He has many lovely things to say about the superiority of print over pixels.

“Michael Dirda still buys books,” I said to my husband. “He has boxes of them stored in his basement.”

“How old is he? Does he have people who help him carry them around?”

I do have a “real book” version of Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural edited by Phyllis Cerf Wagner and Herbert Wise. It’s a favorite of Mike’s and it is absolutely wonderful. I recommend “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” by Robert Hichens.

So while reading Browsings I’ve downloaded collections by M.R James, E.F Benson, Lord Dunsany, Margaret Oliphant and a formerly banned novel of lesbian love called Twisted Clay.

Mike is coaxing me to try science fiction, a genre for which I’ve not felt much affinity. A few of my my dearest and most intelligent friends (That’s you, Bill and Suzanne) are avid readers of speculative fiction. A former boss of mine, known for his odd way of communication, once shouted at me, apropos of nothing, “Philip K. Dick! You’d love him.” I now have a Library of America volume of Dick’s novels.

But I’m trying one of Mike’s recommendations first, Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories by Michael Bisson. The first two stories are among the best I’ve read recently.

When I read books about what other people read, I’m looking for a kindred spirit and book recommendations. In Browsings, I found both.

Thanks, Mike!

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Visit to Ringing Rocks

This week I suspended thriller-writing operations to entertain visiting family from Ottawa. We spent a lot of time eating, because that's what I like to do best, but we also went for walks and hit a tourist spot or two. One of the more interesting places to visit in the Lambertville area is a county park in Pennsylvania called Ringing Rocks, so named because of the curious property of the rocks to ring like iron when struck. A beautiful and not exhaustingly long hiking trail passes by the rock field and leads to a waterfall and a cliff that overhangs a gorge.

The rock field is a terminal moraine left behind by a glacier at the end of the last ice age. Nobody knows why these particular rocks ring like that. If you're young and spry it's fun to hop from rock to rock. We neglected to bring a hammer with us, but many tourists have brought hammers with them over the years and banged on the rocks until cup-like depressions formed in them. Members of the Sierra Club would faint at the very notion of vandalizing a natural formation in this way, but, hey, what do you want? It's Pennsylvania.

We were pleased to find a simulated rescue operation in progress. We had noticed a heavy rescue truck from Virginia in the parking lot, and a pile of large, brightly-colored backpacks beside the trail as we approached the waterfall. When we came to the end of the hiking trail we found a group of men standing on the cliff. They had strung up a zip line leading deep into the gorge, and when they saw us, they promised to give us a show. "We're going to rescue a kid," one of them said jovially, in a thick Virginia accent. You could tell it was just for practice, first of all because nobody seemed upset, and secondly because they had come so far. If a real accident victim had to wait for a bunch of guys to drive a truck up from Virginia there wouldn't be much left of him by the time they got here.

How I cursed myself for having lost the camera before we left the house. All I had was my cheap old IPhone, with no zoom function.

If I were any sort of journalist I would have asked the guys why they came here when there were so many cliffs and gorges in Virginia, whether they were training the locals or simply working out, and a number of other questions that didn't occur to me until just now. I have a confession to make. I am terrified of heights and declivities. Standing by the side of a gorge, and especially watching my beloved relatives teetering on the edge, causes me to feel a nearly intolerable degree of terror. The only thing worse is the presence of small children. So when another family with two small children showed up, and the five-year-old took the three-year-old's hand and skipped up to the edge, I had to leave or start screaming. Luckily they went away again. The rescue began in earnest. Slowly the rescuer and the simulated accident victim in a Stokes basket (a real kid) worked their way back up the zip line to the waiting men on the cliff.

So that was the visit to Ringing Rocks. The gorge is lovely. You should go there. Bring a good camera and a small ecologically approved hammer.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Little-Less-Labor Day

I’m going to rant a little. But there’s booze at the end of it. I promise.

As we head toward Labor Day, I dream of a leisurely transition in which we stretch, take a deep breath of sunblock and bug spray, slowly pull ourselves from lawn chair, beach chair or hammock, and ease back into our work lives, having spent a quiet month because our career workload slows down in August.

But that’s hardly true for anybody anymore.

I read business-page stories now and then about how American productivity has stalled. In them, I rarely find consideration of the number of workers who are already doing the job of three and they just might be tapped out.

We have people who dread vacations because when they return to the office, they’ll have to put in more miserable hours catching up on the work that didn’t get done while they were gone because there isn’t enough staff to do it.

Some companies talk about their commitment to creating a balance between career and personal lives, but for most, it’s largely lip service. I was thinking about that even before I read the New York Times article about Amazon. At least Amazon appears to be upfront: Forget your personal life; if you come to work here, you belong to us 24/7.

And then there’s Walmart’s approach to labor. They recently blamed lowered earnings projections on the increase they made in employee salaries, even though the company hasn’t strayed very far from their old business model, the one where their employees were more like lightly reimbursed volunteers.

If you work in the Consumer sector, don’t even think about getting Labor Day off (or most holidays, come to that). And while you’re on the job, customers will blame you because the place you work is short-staffed and those who are there have been too often astoundingly under-trained. If a business pays low wages, it’s more likely to suffer high turnover. Training new staff well isn’t cheap, so if the company doesn’t want to pay for it, it must rely on overworked employees to carry the new guy till he gets trained by osmosis. There has to have been a cost-benefit analysis done somewhere that says the cost in the number of disaffected customers isn’t great enough to justify adequate training. But I wonder if the people who did the analysis are the same ones who declared subprime mortgages would never default.

Okay, I'm almost done.

The transition into Labor Day ought to be much less stressful for all of us; we ought to have more time to enjoy it.

It seems the least I can do—and it really is the least I can do—is share a recipe for a homemade treat that is easy, easy, and—did I mention—easy. Maybe you'll get to spend a few more precious minutes in the hammock reading a mystery before the guests arrive.

Easy Peasy, Fresh and Squeezy Sangria

Two things to keep in mind: One, if you like your red wine really sweet, this recipe is not for you; two, re-read One.

What you’re going to need.
1 pitcher; a bit of clingy plastic wrap to cover the top
1 ounce of brandy. Use the cognac you bought last Christmas when you planned to look sophisticated
4 tablespoons sugar
1 bottle of red wine (750 ml). Please don’t use any wine you wouldn’t drink straight
1 lemon, cut into 4 wedges; leave rind on
1 large orange, cut into 6 wedges; leave rind on
2 cups club soda (added right before serving)

What you’re going to do
Add the brandy to the pitcher
Add the sugar and stir till the sugar is uniformly distributed
Add the bottle of red wine, pouring slowly down the side so you don’t splatter it all over yourself
Stir till wine and sugar mixture are combined
Add lemon and orange wedges. If the fruit is “seedy”, dig out as many seeds as you easily can with your thumbnail
Stir, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate till well chilled, about 4 hours
When time to serve, uncover the pitcher. Squeeze the fruit wedges’ juices into the pitcher. If the fruit was seedy or you have an abiding fear of pulp, squeeze through a strainer. Discard wedges.
Add the club soda, stir and serve (straight or over ice)

This sangria also goes very well with hearty fall and winter dishes, so you can enjoy it as well at Thanksgiving and Christmas when we get Labor Day on steroids.

Copyright 2015 Sheila York

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bannerman's Island

There is a crime writing and crime scene aspect to this island's story, but let me start with my visit.

Last Sunday, I took the train to Beacon, NY and visited for the first time a Hudson River Island that has been on my imaginative radar for a few decades.  My excuse for going that day was to see the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival's production of a one-man play--An Iliad, starring Kurt Rhoades.  Here is a teaser from YouTube of what I saw:

And here is what the critic from NYT said about it.

HVSF's first solo show stars Kurt Rhoads as the ageless Poet who unleashes the fury of an ancient story he has told for centuries - creating heroes and battles before our eyes, challenging us to contemplate both the heroism and horror of war. This OBIE Award-winning play is " age-old story that resonates with tragic meaning today." - The New York Times

I concur and them some.

The Henry Hudson Bridge from the train.

How one gets to the island

Part of the draw for me was a chance to visit the island, which is about 50 miles north of New York City and about a thousand feet from the east shore of the majestic Hudson River.  Dutch colonists called it Pollipel, presumably because it resembled an upturned ladle.  Right after the American Civil War, a Scots immigrant who pretty much invented war surplus as a business, bought island.  He needed a place to store his inventory, which was explosive and unwanted in Brooklyn, where he lived, or on Broadway in Manhattan where he had his showroom.  He built a fanciful warehouse and an even more fanciful home.

The view as one approaches

Eventually, after his death, the decaying stores exploded.  The island was abandoned and declared off limits for people.  In 1967, the Rockefeller family donated the funds for New York State to buy it and turn it into a state park, which it is today.  The unstable building storehouse suffered another disaster when a winter storm took down about 50% of what was left in December of 2009.

Historic placards are part of the tour

Island view of what is left of the warehouse

The remains of Bannerman's mansion, which he tried make Scottish

The Bannerman's Island Trust has raised money to shore up what is left of the buildings and to restore some of the gardens.  They conduct tours which include stories of the island's fascinating history.

View of the River looking north

View of the Hudson Highlands looking south

The sloop Clearwater at sunset

In crime fiction, Bannerman's Island is featured in Linda Fairstein's Killer Heat and in Jill Churchill's Anything Goes.

True crime:   In April of 2015, Angelika Graswald and her fiancee Vincent Viafore started out for the island on a kayak trip.  When Vincent did not return, Graswald was charged with murder.

To end on a high note, the island is home for the next two hers to a beautiful art installation called Constellation by Melissa McGill.  Seventeen LED lights mounted on metal poles at various heights form a gorgeous constellation of stars over the island.  Look:

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, August 23, 2015

How to Recruit Crime Writers

It might be easier for want-to-be crime fiction writers to file routine applications than to go through the dog and pony show that is often harder than executing a gentle freefall safely from the bar on the 101st floor of the new 1 World Trade Center in dense fog!

Suppose the Acquiring editors of the Big Five Publishers decided to force authors to fill out application forms based on the 3-page questionnaire found in the Al Qaeda applications from Osama bin Laden's compound!

That Navy SEAL raid gives us food for thought!

How many potential crime writers would find this a helpful exercise?

Would YOU be able to get a passing grade? Get hired?

Test your own skills…

Al Qaeda Job Application: In the name of Allah the compassionate and merciful… please write clearly and legibly.

Please answer the required information accurately and truthfully!

1. What are your career objectives?
2. Have you ever been convicted of a crime by any court?
3. Any hobbies or pastimes?
4. What is your favorite material - science or literature?
5. Are any of your relatives or friends in the jihad theatre?
6. List the types of passports you possess.
7. Did you use a real or forged passport for your current travel?
8. Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?
9. What objectives would you like to accomplish on your jihad path?
10. Do you have any chronic or hereditary disease (s)?
11. Who should we contact in case you become a martyr?
Address -------------------------------
Phone number ------------------------
12. What Shayks do you listen to or read often?
13. Do you know anyone who travels to Western countries?
14. Have you ever been in jail or prison?

Please provide some personal background (nicknames are welcome) and core proficiencies. Language skills and extracurriculars are a big plus!

Questions are followed by lines for an address and phone number of the person who will be informed of your not-so-accidental death ...

Hey, friends, who knew that in the dusty, arid mountains around Tora Bora there was a cave devoted to Al Qaeda's H.R. Dept… codifying the skill-sets of every applicant!!

Thelma J. Straw

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Angels With Dirty Faces

How is Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) different than the Dead End Kids movie from the year before, Dead End?

It’s got a kind of hokey love story, like its predecessor, but this time it is between the bad guy, James Cagney (as Rocky Sullivan) and the good girl, Ann Sheridan (as Laury Martin), instead of between the good guy, Joel McCrea (as Dave Conell), and the good girl, Sylvia Sidney (as Drina Gordon). Of course, Connell doesn’t find the really good girl Martin/Sheridan until he gets past the flashy charms of a half bad girl, the semi-gold digging Wendy Barrie (as Kay Burton), but the love story in either movie seems almost grafted on to the story the movie makers really wanted to tell.

And that story, like in Dead End (1937) and Boys Town (Spencer Tracy, also 1938), tells us that there really is no such thing as a bad boy. Angels with Dirty Faces is also a story about friendship, loyalty, and about the limits of both. Finally, it asks the question—just how much do you owe your fellow man?

Rocky Sullivan(James Cagney) has always been the staunch friend of Father Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien). They were pursued by the cops when they were rough and tumble kids, hard cases in the making (with dirty faces and empty bellies), and Rocky got caught, and refused to give up Connolly, and so Rocky went to reform school, where he learned to be a gangster.

Unlike Humphrey Bogart as Baby Face Martin in Dead End, whose entire moral code seems to consist of looking out for himself and the main chance, Sullivan has some feeling for his fellow human beings. He helps Connolly in his attempts to reform the kids, and he protects Connolly when Connolly vows to go after both Cagney and his crooked compatriots (Bogart as mob lawyer James Frazier and George Bancroft as a mobbed up contractor named Keefer, both of whom have gotten their slimy tentacles around the body politic of the city) and Frazier and Keefer decide to bump off the good father for his trouble.

When I say Cagney protects Connolly, of course, it means he kills Keefer and Frazier. And eventually he goes down for it. And up to there you have a pretty good melodrama. But then we get another climactic scene, an encore to the great shootout where they finally get Sullivan (out of bullets, and always with a flair for the dramatic, the stylish and the daring, Sullivan throws his empty weapons at the cops), and it is one of the all-time great ones. Rocky is going to the chair, unapologetic and unafraid all the way to the end. And Jerry, his old buddy, begs him to beg for his life, to play the coward, to turn the boys away from the road they are on, the road to perdition, and Rocky does. When the boys ask Connolly if it is true, what the papers say, that Rocky begged and pleaded for his life at the end, he tells them yes. “Now let’s pray for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

How can you not love that? For all the clumsy groping and pulling at the heart strings, it works. What makes the movie so good, I thought, was not the message, which is at best simple and at worst simplistic—that there but for the grace God go I, go they, go the children, oh dear God save the children— but the two main characters. Cagney, and to a lesser but still considerable extent, O'Brien, carry the movie. Connolly is a priest who genuinely cares in a completely un-sanctimonious way, still loyal to the buddy who was loyal to him, but more loyal to these kids who may be on a dead end, unless he can find an exit for them. Sullivan, who lives by his own code, kind of like save the women and children after yourself, and only kill those who were going to try and kill you, puts Connolly and the kids first at the end.

Cagney is great, charismatic, and unashamed of what he is. He is not entirely happy about what he has become, but he completely accepts it. He is 100% himself. And you can’t help but like him, knowing that he is bad, but kind of good too. You almost want to be him, but when you start to think you do, there will always be Father Jerry there to warn you against it.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, August 21, 2015

When Protagonists Wimp Out

They aren't your children. Really they're not. Not unless you run your family like a Dickensian orphanage, where the little dears are sent out to make a buck for you, and if they return empty-handed they are sent to bed without supper.

No. Your protagonists are characters who must do work. In the case of Belinda Zorn, heroine (or so I thought) of this thriller I'm trying to write, the work to be done is simply to smash a ring of German spies in 1915 New York City. This calls for certain qualities. First of all, she has to be brave, athletic, and clever. Quick-thinking. Active. She had two jobs, basically: defeating the spy ring and making the readers like her. Instead I find her drooping around, falling in love with one of the spies, dropping the ball, bursting into tears for hardly any reason. Ineffective. Unlikeable.

This has got to stop!! For the last time, Belinda, pull your socks up and get to work. Other women would love to have your job, you know. I can think of three or four. Today is your last chance. After that you will be mercilessly replaced. They don't tell us to kill our darlings for nothing, you know.

Kate Gallison

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Little Chill

I’ve been spending some of my summer reading time enjoying The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. What fun they must have had. The format goes from January 1 to December 31. The entries start in the 16th century and go to the late 1990s. For instance, January 7th starts with Fanny Kemble and ends with Brian Eno. Most diarists are British or European, but the collection also includes, among other Americans, Alice James, Henry David Thoreau, and John Steinbeck.

There is a delightful entry from Lord Louis Mountbatten in which he recounts that when he was going to Cairo, Barbara Cartland gave him some of her romances because she had heard that Jehan Sadat was a fan. But President Sadat said, “No, I will read them first. I’m a great fan myself.” He also suggested that Ms Cartland might visit Egypt to do research for a romance. I tried to picture him reading An Unexpected Love from The Pink Collection but my imagination failed me.

We also have Lawrence Durrell reporting from Corfu on the legend of the woman who rises from the ocean and inquires “How is it with Alexander [the Great]?” Wise sailors who do not want their boats destroyed know to answer, “He lives and reigns still.”

But I got a distinct chill when I read the following 1970 entry from Cecil King, a British newspaperman: “Took part yesterday in a radio programme, ‘Speak Easy,’ to be broadcast this evening. The chairman was Jimmy Savile, an unprepossessing figure with long, bleached-white hair, a necklace of painted shells; gym shoes, white socks and a very shabby corduroy suit. But ignoring the trimmings and looking into his face, you could see that here was an absolutely genuine human being. He gets lots of money from the B.B.C. and from a column in the People, lives in a mini-bus or a caravan, (sometimes one, sometimes the other), and devotes his life to good works—particularly at Broadmoor and Rampton. He is indeed a latter-day saint, dressed up in clothes that render him acceptable to the young multitude. He has great psychological insight. I was saying that I wondered why people are uninterested in the old, though they will be all old some day. He said it was ‘conscience:’ the old remind them of their old relatives, who they neglect. He said one of the B.B.C. higher-ups had a mother in Leeds he had not seen in several years. He said also people don’t want good health. He recently broke a finger wrestling and still wears a finger-splint when he wants attention and sympathy. People don’t want to have to cope with someone really ill, but like sympathizing with someone wearing a finger-splint. With all his good fun, he devotes his life to the drearier kinds of good works.”

Mr. King died in 1987, long before the world found out to what uses Jimmy Savile put his ‘great psychological insight.’ Indeed this anthology was published in 2001 when Mr.Savile was still admired for his good works among society’s most vulnerable. It was only a year after his death in 2011 that the British public found out that he was a sexual predator and that his image as a “latter-day saint” gave him almost unlimited access to facilities where he molested the people for whom he also raised money. There were 450 complaints of sexual abuse lodged against Savile. Some of them occurred before his death, but the reports were not believed. What chance did these people have against “this absolutely genuine human being?"

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dead End

Poverty. Like every other thing that blights our existence here on this earth, or at least blights the existences of some of us, we seek to understand it. We do so out of both curiosity and the belief that such understanding will allow us to eliminate it. It seems to me that explanations of poverty fall along a spectrum, with those who feel poverty is the fault of those who are poor (either congenitally or for lack of trying) at the one end of the spectrum, and those who believe it is foisted on the impoverished by circumstance on the other. The Conservatives are on the one end, telling the poor to just go and get jobs at McDonalds and work there 100 hours a week for 1000 years and they won’t be poor anymore, and the Democrats on the other, saying that everyone who is poor is noble and misunderstood and just needs a break, an even break, a new deal, a square deal.

Each side has a political axe to grind. The Conservatives want to not have to feel guilty while not giving any aid to the poor through taxes and the liberals want to feel virtuous by caring for their fellow man, even to the point of paying taxes for the social programs that might help them. The Conservatives claim to be practicing tough love, that they are teaching a man to fish. The Liberals accuse the Conservatives of lying about the existence of, or access to, the fish. Any truly thinking person has to admit that circumstance grows out of nature and nurture, environment and heredity, personal effort and social circumstance. Some people are going to be poor, or even criminals, no matter what—and the only thing that class decides is what kind. If you are born with a golden spoon in your mouth, you become an embezzler or financial adviser, and if you are born poor you hold people up at gun point or become a loan shark or the owner of a pawn shop.

There were class concerns reflected in attitudes towards poverty early in the 20th Century. The WASP establishment was not too happy with the huge influx of Southern and Eastern European and Catholic immigrants to this country around the turn of that century. NINA (no Irish or Italian need apply) signs could be seen in shop windows. The haves did not want to share with the have-nots, even though the have-nots did the work in the factories and built the railroads and died in the wars. Prohibition was partly about this. And there was the old blame the victim thing going on—those lousy Papist, drunk and fornicating immigrants were un-American, and The Establishment wanted to keep them down, or at least not help them get up. These new Americans were either congenitally unable to be good citizens, born without smarts or a moral compass, or they choose to not be good, but either way they were a threat to “our” (good Americans, does anyone hear an echo of all this in Donald Trump?) way of life. Maybe it all comes down to who you identify with—do you feel like an aristocrat who is being held back by the welfare state, or do you align yourself with the downtrodden, and champion unions and governmental control of some aspects of the economy?

DEAD END (1937) deals with the nexus of poverty and crime. And it is decidedly more sympathetic to the downtrodden, even the criminal, than previous movies were. Maybe it had something to do with the Depression, the point of view this movie took. A lot of the people ginning up a quarter for the movies were the very people society had left behind. Certainly, many people who had thought they were above something as unseemly as poverty found out that they weren’t. The country was close to outright rebellion, and some ground had to be given to the have-nots (although they were demonized as communists and anarchists and, worst of all, atheists). The movies had theretofore betrayed poverty as the province of the depraved, as a comeuppance for sloth or moral turpitude—for not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance or giving enough to the collection plate in Church (or for missing church altogether).

DEAD END, starring Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney and Humphrey Bogart, along with the “Dead End Kids” (some of whom would morph into the more comic and benign East Side Kids and Bowery Boys after the war) places the blame for poverty and crime directly at the larger society’s door. Of course, it also, because of the Hays code, couldn’t depict crime as something that ultimately pays. If it was truly true to life, one of the kids would rise up from meager beginnings as a leg-breaker or rum-runner to fight promoter, financial investor or politician.

The “Dead End Kids” live on a literal and figurative Dead End, somewhere in the East 50’s, cheek by jowl with the East River, in what is now probably Sutton Place, at about exit 11 on what is now the FDR drive. The docks that they dive off of are also cheek by jowl with a mansion owned by the Griswolds. When the boys, who are portrayed as high spirited and rambunctious but basically good, mug young blue blood Philip Griswold (an annoying little Lord Fauntleroy type, although he comes across also as just wanting to be one of the guys, and his milquetoast nature can be seen as inevitably arising from his cosseted upbringing), things go from bad to worse. Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop) is collared by Griswold’s old man, and cuts old Griswold with a pocketknife to get away. Tommy’s sister Drina vows to somehow get him out of the city so he won’t end up in reform school, which he is sure to do if he gets caught (Griswold’s brother is a judge).

Reform school is portrayed not as a place for criminal youths but as a place where youths become criminals. And the deck is clearly stacked against the poor in other ways—the Irish cop on the beat knows that he is going to lose his job if he doesn’t find Tommy. Two kinds of justice—that for the rich and that for the poor.

Dave Connell, a neighborhood kid who made good, kind of, is an out of work architect who managed to grow up hard without getting hardened into criminality. Humphrey Bogart is his counterpart, counterbalance, the id to his super ego, a good kid who went bad, a murderer who goes by the moniker Baby Face Martin. He comes back to the neighborhood to see his Ma (Marjorie Main) and his old flame Francie (Claire Trevor). Ma tells him to drop dead, and Francie has turned to prostitution and contracted syphilis: The sainted martyr and the fallen woman who has fallen so hard she is never getting up.

A bitter Martin decides the trip should not be a complete waste, and he kidnaps the little Prince. Connell kills Martin and gets the reward for his capture, which he uses for a lawyer for Tommy, who turns himself in (crime doesn’t pay, even if you are driven to it, let’s not get too truly radical here) hoping that a little money will grease the machinery of justice well enough so that Billy won’t go to the dreaded reform school. And of course, you get the feeling Connell and Drina will get together, and the good man will save the good kid and the trying-to-be-good woman from whatever evil will befall them, including becoming evil themselves.

OK, saccharine, cloying, sentimental, and simplistic. Still, I liked it better than a lot of earlier gangster movies. There is some pathos, some genuine drama. Bogart is a bad man but there is some good in him, and the kids are basically good, trying to hold out against the darkness all around them. The women are either good or bad, with no middle ground, except for Connell’s girl Kay, who loves him but won’t marry him since he is poor. And Connell, although he is pretty saintly, is also dumb enough to not see that Drina is a much better choice for a life partner. She’s not flashy, but she has substance. She can probably bait her own hook, whereas Kay would not even deign to fish. Sylvia Sidney is as pretty as Claire Trevor, I thought, and even if she wasn’t, men don’t have to make their choices in women based solely on looks. (Do they?)

Perhaps the most effective scene comes at the end. Spit (Leo Gorcey, who would later become Slip Mahoney in the series of East Side Kids and Bowery Boys movies) gives up Tommy in order to save himself, and Tommy tracks him down in order to give him the mark of the squealer (to cut his face and leave a permanent scar). But Tommy hesitates, and Connell steps in and stops (and saves?) him. Into that moment of hesitation you can impose your ideas about everything above, from either end of that spectrum. If Tommy does cut Spit, would it be him or poverty or his own congenitally damaged nature that would be doing it, and would he be solely responsible, or would all of society carry some of the blame? No easy answer to that one, which made it the best scene of the movie for me.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, August 14, 2015

Murder Mystery by Committee

At ten in the morning last Sunday a panel called "What If" took place at Deadly Ink, a small conference in New Brunswick for writers and readers of crime fiction. The "What If" panel was one of those where the panelists and the audience make up a whole murder mystery out of nothing, starting by inventing a detective and ending with the solution to the mystery.

I've been to a few of these things over the years, with a lot of bright, famous, witty people on the panels, and I don't recall any of those other panels working quite as well as this one did. Maybe it was the moderator, E. F. Watkins. Maybe it was the panelists, Annette Dashofy, Jane Kelly, the inimitable Brad Parks, and our own Sheila York. Maybe it was the audience members who offered suggestions and plot points, among them Annamaria Alfieri. But when they were finished, all these folks had outlined a good story. It was not a cozy, everyone agreed, although no animals were harmed that we know of.

We began with the detective. Professional or amateur? Amateur, everyone said. A librarian, said Paula Lanier. (I think Paula took the picture above, though I'm not sure. A lot of great panel pictures have been flying around.) A corporate librarian in a drug company, I suggested, figuring that a drug company was an excellent place for evil and chicanery of every sort. (Nobody remembered Jersey Monkey, so that was all right.) And everyone assumed that the librarian detective must be a woman. So they called her Sheila.

Good. The crime? Murder. The victim? The company's C.E.O. The reason for Sheila the librarian to investigate? They were having an affair, and she is a suspect. The means of death? An embolism caused by an injection of air from a hypodermic needle. Roberta Rogow insisted that hypodermic needles were passé. So, okay, the needle, found at the crime scene, came from a museum-type display case in the corporate library. Someone was trying to frame Sheila. Now for the suspects: the victim's wife, their son, the son's wife, and a failed litigant in a suit against the drug company.

And so it went. In the process of putting the story together the panelists and audience members made choices, accepting or rejecting various plot elements according to their own personal tastes and value systems as well as what they perceived to be the generally accepted norms of readers. Annamaria refused to entertain any plot idea that involved harm, or remote threat of harm, to a child. Brad Parks had to point out that as an adulterer the C.E.O. would fall so low in the readers' estimation that no one would care that he was dead. But his wife is sick, someone said. Ah, he said. John Edwards. It was held to be important for the reader to care about the victim. And so a long discussion ensued to figure out how to make the affair okay from the standpoint of the wife.

If you want to know whodunnit, I'll tell you in the comments later. I think the point I'm trying to make is that the character of the writer—the writer's moral nature—infuses the work. What was so delightful and refreshing about this panel, at ten o'clock on a Sunday morning when all of us had been partying until, say, midnight the night before, was the sweetness of character they showed as they crafted the story. It made me want to read their books. (Of course I've already read Sheila's books. And Annamaria's. Great stuff.)

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dare to Dream

DARE to DREAM with Jason Henry…

Building on a groundswell in the New York Chapter of MWA, as chronicled by our own beloved Annamaria Alfieri on the official MWA website, added to by comments of CWC members Sheila York, Thelma Straw and others, bonding with the brand new pristine white T-shirts worn to Deadly Ink this very week by members of Crime Writer's Chronicle, I present another member of the growing mystery community of conferences — Jason Henry, of Colorado Springs, the Director of the Pikes Peak Writers Conference for April 15-17, 2016!

DARE to DREAM is the appropriate title of this friendly gathering at the Colorado Springs Marriott.

In his welcome Jason writes… to each of us writers… "Dreams are the foundation of the world we live in… together, we'll Dare to Dream!"

You and I all started with our little dreams - some became huge and famous, some are still in the womb stages... all are wonderful… they are YOU and ME and all our writer friends and colleagues!

Welcome to Jason Henry!

Thelma Straw

P.S. I admit I have a fond memory re Colorado Springs, as I was privileged to direct their YWCA Camp one summer a zillion years ago ! God's country, that land!

For me, being a writer is a relatively new idea in the grand scheme of things. In fact, the crazy notion didn’t occur to me until, roughly, seven years ago, and I only began taking it seriously in the last five. I suppose there are many reasons why I was a late literary bloomer, but I don’t think those excuses are overly relevant.

I made it.

I’m here.

You see, having been born into small town, Ohio, my horizons as a youngster didn’t appear to be very broad. I was faced with a future as a farmer, a factory worker, or, if my beloved grandmother had her way, I would grow to become a preacher. (Sorry, Grandma. I am an epic fail with that one!) Despite my hometown, I, like all kids, still had fanciful dreams. You know, the usual; a lion tamer, a snake charmer, or Batman.

At the age of nine, I became an Army brat. I was whisked away from Ohio and moved from one location to the next as my step-father’s job dictated. With every move, my horizons broadened and my dreams grew. The world was a much bigger place than small town, Ohio would have me believe. As my view of the world expanded, so did the scope of my dreams.

Of all my youthful fantasies, the grandest was that of being a rock star. And I chased that dream. I grew to become a singer and a guitar player. I was the front man for a couple of bands and, believe it or not, got really close to finding success. Then, the ugly side of the industry bared its fangs and I walked away. In fact, I pretty much ran right back to small town, Ohio and settled into the life of a factory worker. I did well for myself, working my way up to management at a young age, but there was always a void. I was perpetually miserable as I tried to narrow my views and squeeze into a box that was far too small for who I had become. I didn’t fit into the mold of the American dream. A corner house with a white picket fence, a dog, a cat, a wife, and 2.5 kids was too conventional for me. The more I tried to be that person, the more unhappy I became.

Then I began writing. Not song lyrics this time, but stories. Suddenly, I had dreams again. I had aspirations and my love for life was renewed. I was bitten so hard by the writing bug that I was looking for every possible way to scratch the itch. While my creative soul set its heart on being a writer, the rest of me knew I had to return to a place I had fallen in love with. Colorado Springs, Colorado.

One day, I did just that. I dropped everything and decided to start anew in the shade of Pikes Peak. It didn’t take long to find out that my heart was a very efficient tour guide. I found myself joining a little writing group on Thursday nights. Through that group I discovered Pikes Peak Writers and made the best decision I’ve ever made; I got involved with the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. In April of 2016, I will attend my fourth conference. However, I won’t be there as just an attendee. I also have the incredible honor of being the Conference Director.

If you were to go back in time and visit that small town boy, he would tell you that he loved books, that he preferred to read over watching TV, and that (even at a young age) Edgar Allen Poe was his favorite author. However, he would not say that he dreamed of writing a novel, or directing a writer’s conference. Regardless, I am glad that my journey took me in this unexpected direction.

I wish I could answer why I was chosen as the Conference Director. I can say that Pikes Peak Writers Conference has a near twenty-five year tradition of being one of the best and friendliest writer’s conferences in the United States. That tradition was built by people who are passionate about writing, about preserving a place in this world for literature. They are a group dedicated to educating and encouraging writers of all backgrounds and abilities. At every conference, Pikes Peak Writers bringsin some of the best and most successful authors who have already found theirplaces on the bookshelves and introduces them to writers who are striving tojoin them. We do not discriminate, we do not judge. We offer something forevery palate. Each year Pikes Peak Writers looks for new ideas, new energy, andways to keep their conference fresh, current and engaging. Perhaps that’s why Iwas chosen this year. A new face who shares the passion that Pikes Peak Writershas displayed for so long.

I can’t predict my future as a writer. I would like to believe that there is a place on the bookshelves for a cover displaying my name. I want to think that, in the near future, I can completely erase the doubts of a small town boy with narrow horizons and live my dream. I want to find my place in this world as an author, as someone who believes in the beauty of words, of stories, of the imagination. I want to take a copy of my novel and personally deliver it to that small town library back home, thereby proving to everyone that, as long as you dare to dream it, it can happen. No matter your predispositions. That is my overall goal, the legacy I wish to leave in my absence. I want to inspire people to step out of their presumed, preassigned destinies and have the courage to follow their hearts.

As director for the 2016 Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I want to uphold the tradition of encouraging others to pursue their dreams, to let go of their inhibitions and put words onto paper. That is why Pikes Peak Writers feels like home for me. They are family. They don’t just get behind me, they walk with me and continuously tell me that I can. They provide the workshops that teach necessary skills, but that isn’t all. I learn about the life of a writer, about the ever-changing world of publishing, aboutthe inclusion and necessity of a social media presence, and so much more. But,the most important thing I have learned from my involvement with Pikes Peak Writers is that I am not alone. There are so many other amazing writers who are on this journey with me. No matter what stage of the adventure they are on, they turn around and look for me, grab my hand, and pull me forward. They lead me toward the realization of my dreams.

As Director,I would love for everyone to join me in April of 2016. However, no matter what you decide, I hope that you will understand the beauty and importance of what you are doing as a writer. It’s more than the money. It’s more than the notoriety. It’s even more than an ISPN number and a place on a bookstore shelf. Writing is about evolving. We have the ability to prove to children everywhere, including small town Ohio, that the world is much bigger than what they see when they open their eyes. As long as they open their minds, look to that horizon line and run toward the edge of the world, there are no limits to where they can go.

As long as we Dare To Dream, there is indeed hope.

Jason P. Henry
Conference Director
2016 Pikes Peak Writers Conference

When he's not working with the dedicated and passionate people of Pikes Peak Writers, Jason P. Henry is lost in a world of serial killers, psychopaths, and other unsavory folks. Ask him what he is thinking, but only at your own risk. More often than not he is plotting a murder, considering the next victim, or twisting seemingly innocent things into dark and demented ideas. A Suspense, Thriller and Horror writer with a dark, twisted sense of humor, Jason strives to make people squirm, cringe, and laugh. He loves to offer a smile, but is quick to leave you wondering what lies behind it. Jason P. Henry is best summed up by the great philosopher Eminem “I'm friends with the monsters beside of my bed, get along with the voices inside of my head.” Learn more about Jason at

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Killer Elite

Watching KILLER ELITE (2011) made me think about other soldier-of-fortune-mercenary-freebooter-pirate-assassin movies I’ve seen and wonder why they fascinate me.

Part of it is because it must be freeing to have nothing left to lose. When you are that willing to die, you don’t worry about much. And if you are that tough, that manly, you don’t need to be careful about what bars you walk into, or what neighborhoods, or about who you mouth off too. No, you’ve none of the worries an ordinary man has as he tries to negotiate between his manly pride and keeping his blessed hide intact.

Jason Statham and Robert Deniro and Clive Owen could never have had the kind of worries the other little boys had in grade school. Can you see Robert DeNiro worrying about an older kid who is going to hijack him on the way home, sit on his chest and spit a big loogey on his face while the other kids stand around and laugh? No, hell would freeze over first. And Clive Owen’s Dad, I am sure, declined to spank the young savage for his insolence, and if Statham went to Catholic School he gave even the hardest Nun pause when she considered smacking him for taking the Lord’s name in vain (which he does almost like he’s got a tic). Even the most savage bully could be reduced to a lifetime of therapy by any one of these guys.

Not only do these guys not ask for directions, drink milk after the expiration date, tug on Superman’s cape, spit into the wind, pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger—they also take on entire governments and win, or at least fight them to a draw.

And they get the hottest women. It is a truth known to every boy, from about third grade on, that girls will say, and even maybe believe, that they like “nice” guys, but that they really want are the barely civilized brutes, the dangerous ones, the ones who live on the edge and beyond the pale, the ones for whom Cialis will never be a necessity, even in their 90’s. Yes, for whatever messed up evolutionary reason, women usually prefer Bluto to Popeye.

And sometimes, at least in the movies, a guy is a savage brute and a nice guy at the same time. Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) is, and after he and Hunter (Robert Deniro) perform an assassination for hire where they kill a man in front of his kid, Danny decides to get out and live a normal life with his beautiful girlfriend Annie (who is his perfect female mirror image, stunning, but with none of the vanity or cruelty that a truly beautiful woman often possesses).

Danny is genuinely tender with Annie and appropriately contrite when she castigates him for being so mysterious about what he does for a living. Instead of telling her she’s the peasant girl and he’s the King and if she doesn’t shut it it’s gonna be bang-zoom-to-the-moon-Alice he tries to be honest with her, and himself, about what he has done.

Hunter and Danny don’t have a mercenary relationship with each other. In fact, when they get caught between the governments of Oman and Great Britain and must do a lot of killing to get each other out of things alive, they stay loyal to each other all the way, even though it means risking themselves. No, it is the governments of the UK and Oman, and their agents, who are guilty of expedience, of sacrificing valiant men in the name of money and power, of being duplicitous, of brute cynicism and a brand of Realpolitik that makes CIA crimes in places like El Salvador look like kid’s play, and it is the pair of friends who stand for something more than brutality, deceit and the almighty dollar.

As I watched this movie about war crimes over oil and power, about geopolitical and personal savagery on a scale that guys like me can only marvel at, I felt little guilty pleasure at being safe at home in my Barcalounger. What a relief to be all relaxed and mildly lubricated by a couple of beers as these guys did things to their enemies, and had things done to them by those enemies, that would have immediately brought me to my knees begging for mercy. These guys mete out beat downs, and take beat downs, that would cripple lesser men (or even your average gorilla) and they come back and do it again in the next scene! I don’t know who can take those kinds of kicks and punches and stay on their feet, no matter how hard they are. Oh, and they say a lot of really great hard-guy type stuff too. The kind of thing I imagine myself trying to say in a bar, until I realize I would only get laughed out of the place, or worse. My favorite is when one guy asks another who he is, and the guy responds, in a great cockney accent—“call me MFWIC, that’s short for the motherfucker what’s in charge.”

It was an interesting movie, perhaps a little more thoughtful than the usual movie of its ilk. The man against the machine, the individual, the man with true merit, being hunted by governments composed of the mediocre, the cowardly and the evil. The very kind of man that society claims to value, the man of integrity and guts, becomes the enemy of the state. Of course, it is a little silly too. I mean, how do such a couple of nice and loyal guys get into the mercenary business anyway? And what do they do when they get out? Manage a Stewart’s? Sell used cars? Give me a break.

I won’t detail all the crosses and double crosses in the movie here. Clive Owen, as Spike Logan, is an EX SAS (kind of a British Navy Seal) officer who gets annoyed when Bryce starts killing SAS officers in order to get Hunter out of the clutches of a Sheikh in Oman who got annoyed when the SAS assassinated three of his sons. Spike and Danny square off a number of times, and develop a mutual respect of the mercenary kind, not exactly a bro-mance, not the kind of friendship where you punch your buddy on the shoulder, but more the kind where you give him a savage kick in the balls.

Danny tries to convince Logan that they have both been betrayed, and that they should get out now while they still can. Danny tells him that he’s not afraid to fight, but that he would prefer not too, not anymore. He just wants out of all the corruption, the savagery, the chaos, and wants to be with Annie ( who can blame him?)

But I couldn’t help but think that you can’t spend your whole life making love to a woman, even a woman like Annie, and Danny is going to have to think of something new to do. I mean, when she is at yoga class, and he can’t find anything to fix around the house, and Reality TV has him feeling in a really violent mood, then what? In THE GODFATHER, Al Pacino (as Michael Corleone) says “I try to get out, but they pull me back in.” And it’s true to a point, but doesn’t part of him want to get back in? It’s like Bryan Cranston (as Walter White) in BREAKING BAD. After all the horrid stuff he has done, real blood crimes, mortal sins, beyond the pale kind of stuff, and after telling his wife it was all done for her and their kid, he finally admits “all right, I did it because I liked it.” And that is the rub, I think, and what makes these characters interesting—we are drawn to things on one level that repulse us on another, and we have to choose every day which level we are going to choose to exist on.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, August 7, 2015

Today we go to Deadly Ink

Not all of us, just Annamaria Alfieri, Sheila York, and me. We plan to wear our official tee shirts and act like big shots as members of the famous Crime Writers' Chronicle. Everybody else there will be a big shot, too, each in his or her own way; the other writers because they write, the fans because without them we would have no readers (a sad state of affairs), and Debby Buchanan (a bit of both writer and fan), because she put the whole shebang together.

The Deadly Ink conference takes place at the Hyatt Regency New Brunswick, and will be running all weekend. There's still time to pick up a ticket and show up. If you plan to go, here's when we will be on panels, and what panels we will be on:

Annamaria will be on Location, Location, Location at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon, and will moderate the Q & A With some Real "Characters" at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon.

Sheila will be on the Pros vs Amateurs panel at 9:00 Saturday morning, will moderate Ripped from the Headlines at 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, and will be on the What If? panel at 10:00 Sunday morning and the Q & A With some Real "Characters" at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon.

I will be on the Jersey Girls/Boys panel on Friday evening, probably still stuffing myself with Deadly Desserts, and on the Short and Sweet (or Sour) panel at nine on Saturday morning, talking about short stories.

And of course we will be wandering around the conference at other times, perfectly willing to talk to friends, acquaintances, and strangers. You will know us by our CWC tee shirts. All the famous people will be wearing them.

To find out more, visit the Deadly Ink web site.

Kate Gallison

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Girls Gone Wild

Rosemary Harris is the author of the Dirty Business mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Paula Holliday. Her debut novel, the Agatha and Anthony-nominated, Pushing Up Daisies, was followed by Corpse Flower (previously released as The Big Dirt Nap), Dead Head, and Slugfest. She is past president of MWA's NY Chapter and SINC's New England Chapter.

She is a native Brooklynite like some of the characters in her latest standalone novel, The Bitches of Brooklyn, but now splits her time between New York City and Fairfield County, CT. She is currently working on an historical novel — about a Girl.

Girls Gone Wild — and I blame Sonny Mehta. Okay, maybe blame is too strong a word, but ever since the legendary publisher of Knopf saw fit to change the name of a certain book from Men Who Hate Women to Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Girls have been running amuck in book publishing. They’ve gotten on trains, gotten gone and fallen to earth. They’ve been lucky, Chinese and rich, and who knows what the fall list will bring. Admittedly, Men Who Hate Women is an angry, downer title. And Bizarro Revenge Fantasy was probably a little too obvious, but who could have predicted the overwhelming appeal of Girl? Mr. Mehta it would seem. He certainly didn’t invent the word but as an unintended consequence to his ingenious decision he seems to have spawned an entire sub-genre of Girl books. (Not all of them are Knopf, btw although Hornet’s Nest and Fire brilliantly and logically followed Tattoo.)

So why Girl and not Woman? Before you think a feminist rant is coming, that ain’t it. A woman who has published a book entitled The Bitches of Brooklyn has no right to throw stones – and I’m not. This is a legitimate marketing question. I have read three Girl-titled books since GWTDT – and not because Girl was in the title. As I recall most of the protagonists (other than tattoo girl) were on the far side of thirty. Not crones, but hardly the quivering, vulnerable young things the word Girl suggests.

Do publishing execs sit around in editorial meetings and try to figure out how to stick the word in every title? Go Set a WatchGirl? (“Listen, Harper, we’ve done a lot of market research…”) The Girls in the Boat? (“I don’t care if they were boys, we’ll sell more this way…”)

Maybe I should have titled Bitches, The Girls from Gravesend, or The Girls from Greenpoint. Who knows? What famous book title would you change to include the word Girl?

(PS, just as I sat down to write this, The Beach Boys’ California Girls came on the iPod. No kidding. It was a sign.)

© 2015 Rosemary Harris

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Was The Trial More Exciting Than the Book?

During a week when many people were trying to come to terms with two different fictional lawyers, both named Atticus Finch, I was reading the true story of a British barrister who was the pre-eminent defense attorney of his generation. The title, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, does not come trippingly off the tongue, but Thomas Grant, also a barrister, has written a hugely entertaining book. Baron Hutchinson is still alive, at 100, and provides the postscript to this volume. Mr Grant insists he is as sharp as ever though a little wobbly on his pins.

Hutchinson’s mother was the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway and Jeremy is said to be one of the models for John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, though no one would ever accuse him of being a Old Bailey hack and I doubt he’s imbibed much Chateau Thames Embankment.

Hutchinson defended several spies, an art forger and Christine Keeler. He is best known for his role in R v Penguin Books, the most famous obscenity trial of the 1960s (there were quite a few). Penguin wished to publish an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover to mark the thirtieth anniversary of D. H. Lawrence’s death. All prior editions in Great Britain had been pirated. The government believed that LCL was obscene and felt “if no action is taken in respect of this publication it will make proceedings against any other publication difficult.”

The prosecution contended that the book was obscene because “it sets upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse. It commends … sensuality almost as a virtue. It encourages, and indeed even advocates, coarseness and vulgarity of thought and language.” The prosecution even went so far as to let the jury know how many times certain four letter words appeared. Whatever literary merit the book might have was outweighed by its obscenity.

The defense had numerous academics and writers ready to testify that such was not the case. They settled on, among others, Roy Jenkins, Richard Hoggart and E.M. Forster. T.S. Eliot was prepared to follow Forster but his testimony was not needed.

The most effective witness was Richard Hoggart, a university lecturer little known here but famous in England for his book, The Uses of Literacy. In the book Hoggart talks about popular culture (self-created) v. mass culture (imposed from above).

Hoggart, a child of the working classes, comments on the passages that Hutchinson reads aloud in court. He talks about how often four letter words are used in everyday life. He contends that the descriptions of sex are all carefully woven into the psychological portrait of the characters. He calls the book “virtuous and puritanical.”

When the prosecution objects to the word "puritanical," he explains that the distinguishing feature of Puritanism “is an intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience. In this sense the book is puritanical.”

The prosecuting barrister makes many missteps. He feels compelled to explain to the jury what a phallus is (“for those of you who have forgotten your Greek”) and calls not a single witness or expert. The prosecution had considered calling Rudyard Kipling. Alas, at the time of the trial, Kipling had been dead for over 20 years.

Despite the poor performance by the prosecution, a not guilty verdict was not a foregone conclusion. The judge was very clearly on the side of the prosecution and the verdict needed to be unanimous. When it was delivered the judged neither agreed to pay Penguin’ s legal costs nor did he thank the jury.

I’ve not ever finished Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Almost all of Lawrence’s other novels are much more interesting. Then in graduate school I was subjected to a Lawrence seminar. There’s nothing like attending graduate school in English to kill one’s love of reading.

As Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect.”

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, August 1, 2015


Being Irish, or at least Irish-American, and being at least somewhat informed about Irish history, I’m ambivalent about the British. And even if I wasn’t from the auld sod, I think I would feel that way. Tweedy types with pipes, going on and on about stiff upper lips and the Queen, and all that rot. I have, however, developed a fondness for Downton Abbey. And they have The Beatles, and the Stones (and the Who, and later Elvis Costello), and I love all of them. Then again, they play soccer, the most boring game ever invented (cricket being the most confusing), and they eat blood pudding and kidney pie, and Masterpiece Theater and Upstairs Downstairs can both be a snore. They’re pretentious, those Brits, spelling things with re at the end instead of er, and they talk weird. And except for Monty Python, those BBC comedies are mostly awful. I don’t get half the jokes, and I’m sure I would not think they were funny if I did.

But never let it be said that I am not willing to try something new. I really liked Brighton Rock, with Sam Riley, so when I was looking through Netflix for my next movie to review, I saw that he was in a thriller called 13. It’s a remake of a French thriller called 13 Tzameti, and I wondered what it would be like to see a French movie seen through a British lens with my thoroughly American eyes. At least it wasn’t a comedy. I mean, the French like Jerry Lewis, and seeing Jerry Lewis interpreted by people who think Hetty Wainwright in Keeping Up Appearances is funny sounded somewhere beyond absurd, completely inscrutable, a Zen Koan told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying …. Well, it just didn’t sound funny.

And then I realized that just because it had Sam Riley, Ronald Winstone, and Jason Statham in it, it wasn’t necessarily British. It also has 50 cent, Mickey Rourke, and Ben Gazzarra, and was produced in the United States. Maybe Rourke and Statham got to drinking on the set of The Expendables and decided to make another movie where each plays, well, the characters they always play—tough guys. Statham does the Silent Man thing, an angry missile of a man looking to blow up anything he can, and Rourke plays an eccentric whacko who is also pretty damned tough (this time out as a cowboy from Texas). His accent sounds like Texas, or at least like Mickey Rourke doing a Texas accent.

Sam Riley plays an American guy named Vince Ferro who overhears a dying guy talking about making a lot of money, and he impersonates him and ends up in a tournament where groups of guys play Russian roulette for rich sponsors who bet gads of money on them. It was done better in The Deer Hunter. This savage “sport” is open to all comers, so I guess that is why you have that hands across the water thing. And to round things out, the director of the original French movie, Gela Babluani, directed this one too. If the remake was faithful to the original, then the French version was awful. The three countries involved should have to play the game, but instead of a bullet to the head, the loser takes responsibility for the movie.

In bit parts, you have Andrew Skaarsgard (True Blood) and Michael Shannon (from Boardwalk Empire, and who played, in a great turn, serial-killing-hit-man-killer Richard Kuklinski in Ice Man). All the guys in this movie have made great movies, in fact, but like all-star teams often do, they add up to less than the sum of their parts.

There have been movies with great ensemble casts (It’s a Mad Mad World comes to mind) and there have been ensemble movies about people who’ve got nothing to lose risking it all at near impossible odds on the slim chance for freedom or a bundle of cash (The Dirty Dozen, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The Magnificent Seven) but most of these kinds of movies stink on ice (the movie is bloody bollocks, is what I mean to say), like The Poseidon Adventure did, and this one truly does.

There are all kinds of side bets and sub plots in the excruciating “plot”, but they seem like they are there merely to get the flick out past 90 minutes. The thing that can make a movie like this good is caring about the characters, or hating them, or being concerned, anyway, about what happens to them. Of course, Riley wins (the other finalist is Winstone, and of course the plan of an evil plotter, who I will not name, is to not let Riley get away with his winnings. Either the bad guys, or the cops, are going to get Ferro (Ray Liotta turned down the role of the detective, which is a shame, because his turns as a crooked cop in Narc and Avenue of the Pines were fantastic), and there has to be a twist at the end, or two. What they come up with is worthy of an episode of Magnum PI.

Not only are the characters not memorable, they are hardly distinguishable, even as types. At least give each guy some kind of gimmick of shtick to identify him with. The only guy who stands out is Rourke, and that is because of the bad accent (Riley does better with an American one). Winstone and Statham are interchangeable, sinister British guys, except that Winstone is older and not as buff. You know that in the end it is going to come down to two guys, and it does. Will they both make it, like Charles Bronson and James Coburn in The Dirty Dozen, or like Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven? Of course not, it’s Russian roulette.

Maybe these actors all get together and cut deals about which movies they get to live in. Steve McQueen makes it in Magnificent Seven, but not in The Great Escape. And Bronson makes it in Dirty Dozen, but not in The Magnificent Seven. I was not surprised to see who the last guy standing in this movie was. When it was in the theater, I bet no one was either. And instead of trying to be a noir thriller about amoral people who are all doomed, or about existential heroes who are doomed to try and be heroes (and are also just plain doomed), it converts itself into the final scene into a saccharine parable about greed.

The one level this interests me on is that of urban legend. Really rich people can do just about anything they want, but do they do things like this? Do they hunt other humans for sport (see Surviving The Game with Ice T) too? I mean, I don’t believe the one about the gigantic alligators in the NYC sewers, but this seems somehow plausible. I hope it isn’t.

© 2015 Mike Welch