Monday, May 18, 2015

A, B, C, D, E, F, G...

Ten years have elapsed since the events chronicled in The Tragedy of X and The Tragedy of Y. Drury Lane has gotten much older, and is frail and sickly these days. As for Inspector Thumm, he has retired and opened a detective agency, which is doing rather well. More surprisingly than that, we discover that Inspector Thumm has a daughter, Patience, who is the narrator of our story.

It all begins innocuously enough. Elihu Clay, an honest businessman (keep your smart-aleck comments to yourself), comes to ex-Inspector Thumm’s door for help. It seems his business is doing very well… indeed, almost too well. He has a silent partner, Dr. Ira Fawcett, brother of Senator Joe Fawcett, and he suspects the doctor is using his business to pull some financial hanky-panky on behalf of the Fawcett clan. Inspector Thumm accepts the case, but with little hope of success – although it’s widely known that Senator Fawcett is crooked, no one has been able to prove so in a court of law.

Thumm’s daughter Patience comes along for the ride, because even though she has no role in the investigation she’s a Liberated Woman. She hits it off with Drury Lane, making a couple of clever deductions about how the detective is spending his spare time. So when murder comes a-knocking and Senator Fawcett is bumped off, with the police eagerly seizing on the most obvious suspect, Patience consults the Great Detective and brings him onboard to solve The Tragedy of Z.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Twist of Time

When Detective-Superintendent John Cheviot got into the twentieth-century taxi, nothing was amiss. “Scotland Yard,” he told the driver – meaning, of course, New Scotland Yard. He had no frisson of premonition, no encounter with a mysterious stranger… in short there was absolutely nothing to indicate anything unusual was about to occur. But when Cheviot got out of the taxi, he found himself at Old Scotland Yard… in the year 1829.

Cheviot finds himself part of Scotland Yard at its inception. The police are not seen as society’s protectors, but rather as a group of thugs with which high society needn’t bother. Apparently, everyone accepts Cheviot’s presence in 1829—perhaps he is re-enacting the historical role of an ancestor of his?—and it turns out that the original Cheviot was trying to join the newly-formed Scotland Yard.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Talking About the Detection Club

It is often said that the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” took place in between the two World Wars. For my money, such a characterisation is far too simplified and gives rise to a popular narrative Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder sets out, which treats Golden Age fiction like some freak of nature which popped up between the two world wars because [insert pet sociological theory here]. I cringe whenever this view of the genre’s history is brought up, all too often by authors eagerly assuring you that their stuff transcends all that silly puzzle nonsense and Asks Really Deep Questions [translation: There Is No Plot].

The truth is, the Golden Age was a time of great variety and experimentation within the genre, and The Detection Club was formed in the late 20s in England. The exclusive club gave authors a chance to socialize, and since membership was attained only by secret ballot, it was also a way to ensure the quality of the genre remained high. Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder looks at the men and women who were members of The Detection Club during the Golden Age. It’s an enormous project, one which might overwhelm a lesser man.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

"Gone Girl" Meets "Columbo"


In his last post, Patrick discussed the new movie Gone Girl.  A lot of people have a problem with the ending, partly because there is no satisfying sense of justice at the ending.  By “satisfying,” it seems that many viewers are hoping for Oscar Wilde’s definition of fiction, where “the good end happily, the bad end unhappily.”  Personally, I thought that Flynn was being shrewd by ending it where she did in order to set up a sequel in a couple of years.  

My main issue with the ending is that it has to be earned.  At the end, Nick Dunn, his lawyer, his sister, and the detective were all thinking that there was nothing they could do to reveal the truth, but that wasn't so.  I kept thinking that this would be a perfect set-up for a Columbo episode.  Think about it.  We've seen the murder happen, and it's set amongst prominent people.  I know it could never happen, but I was wishing that Peter Falk could shuffle into the house and say, "Excuse me, Mrs. Dunn.  I'm very sorry to bother you, but I just havta ask ya a coupla questions..."  Because there are a few points that, as Columbo would say, "just don't add up."

The first point I noticed is the garage full of stuff that was used to paint Nick as a spendthrift.  The point is that most of the stuff in there was brand new.  I can get that a guy who ran through money like water would buy a robot dog and be tired of it in fifteen minutes.  But would the golf clubs be totally unused?  When a man buys a giant television set, he doesn't keep it in the box in the garage.  He has to watch it.  But even so, I thought of the Columbo episode "Framed for Murder" (Spoilers about the solution if you haven't seen it.  Not the killer's identity– you know that right away.  How Columbo proves it.)  Fingerprints.  If Nick shoved everything into the garage, wouldn't his fingerprints be on everything?  Of course, the absence of his fingerprints wouldn't be proof.  Fingerprints disappear over time, but if Amy's fingerprints, or a hair, could be found on some of the items, that would be indicative– how could she have touched them if Nick had bought them and hid them?

Also, remember that Amy racked up a ton of online gambling debts to frame Nick, but she's shown doing that during the day, often when Nick was probably at work or helping his sister at the bar, so he could conceivably have an alibi for some of the gambling.  Onine gambling should leave a digital timestamp.

And the diary... even after it was burned a bit, you could probably test the ink to see if some entries were written five years ago or five days.  Another problem.   

Next, there's the hair.  Remember that Amy cut and dyed her hair when she first disappeared, and then cut it some more and dyed it back to the original color at Neil Patrick Harris's character's house.  What happened to the hair?  It would probably be in one of the garbage cans at the house.  If she cut it before she dyed it again, there'd be evidence that it was dyed to "gerbil" shade, and if she dyed it before cutting, there'd be evidence of the double-dying.  And there's the length issue.  With most of Amy's hair cut off in the gas station restroom, where's the rest of the hair?  According to Amy's story, it can't have just disappeared.  If her hair clippings are at Harris’s character’s house, they’d be too short to explain the cutting.  If her old boyfriend took it with him for some weird reason, why wouldn't it be found at any of his other residences?

Next, there’s the blood.  Amy drew a large quantity of blood over time, spread it on the floor, and then cleaned it up, though purposely not very well.  The police have evidence that a lot of Amy’s blood was spilled on the floor– at least a few pints.  If she’d been hit hard enough to leave that kind of blood, where is her wound?  Such a gash would probably have needed stitches, and she doesn’t have that sort of injury or scar.  All that blood couldn’t have come from a nosebleed...

And finally, there's the couple that robbed Amy at the camp site.  It's not clear if Amy told Nick about them, so he might not know to look for them, but think about it.  Do you think that the pair of thieves would pass at the opportunity to blackmail Amy?  They'd see her on TV.  They'd see the opportunity to make a few bucks.  More than a few. 

Of course, Flynn might've thought about all of these points, and is planning on incorporating them into the sequel...

Bottom line, Amy’s story just doesn’t add up, and there are enough inconsistencies to raise some eyebrows.  Couldn't you imagine Columbo coming across all of these points to expose what really happened?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gone Baby Gone

Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. On the day of their anniversary, Amy suddenly goes missing. Nick returns home to find evidence of a struggle, and immediately calls the police. Foul play is suspected, and before long, the media decides to publicly crucify Nick on the charge of murder, lack of a corpse notwithstanding. Is Nick truly a sociopath as the media declares, or is he simply handling the situation awkwardly, as best as he can?

This is the plot of the movie Gone Girl, based on the smash-hit novel by Gillian Flynn. Though the plot may seem rather conventional, the story is very cleverly structured, combining the main plot with excerpts from Amy’s diary. The picture the diary paints is one of a marriage which starts as a fairy-tale romance, but with financial troubles come hard times, and before long the relationship is strained almost to a breaking-point. Yet the story that Nick tells is a very different one. This forms something of a he-said-she-said plot which is easily one of the most interesting things about Gone Girl.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Tale of Two Miniseries

2014 brought two critically acclaimed crime miniseries, True Detective and Fargo.  Both developed a strong fanbase, both were nominated for scads of Emmys, and both are expected to return for follow-up seasons with totally different casts.  Yet while one of the miniseries delighted me, the other left me cold.  Ironically, the one that left me cold wasn’t the one set in snowy Minnesota, but in the humid Deep South.

I don’t think that True Detective is a bad production at all, but while it features strong acting and an excellent atmosphere, it doesn’t live up to all the hype that declared that it was the Best. Crime. Show. Ever.  The two leads were both really good, when they weren’t being boorish or spouting pseudo-deep philosophy that eventually bordered on self-parody.  The final half-hour of the series in particular was terrific.  Perhaps the most stunning, original aspect of True Detective was the fact that every episode seemed permeated in foreboding and a growing sense of evil and dread.

And for all that, True Detective never really came alive for me.  The identity of the main villain is not designed to be deduced, so the viewer doesn’t get to play detective.  One character couldn’t possibly be telegraphed as a bad guy any more in his brief introductory scene unless the Darth Vader theme played upon his entrance.  The ending has too many loose threads and unanswered questions.  The show is always well-made, but it’s never truly great or enjoyable.  Without Harrelson and McConaughey to anchor the drama, I wouldn’t have been able to stick with it.  If “camp” is “so bad it’s good,” True Detective is trying so hard for greatness that it often fails to achieve goodness.

Fargo, in contrast, comes across as a love letter to the original source material that draws heavily from the original source material while creating something that stands on its own.  The dark humor is there, and every episode is peppered with Easter eggs to the Coen brothers.  It’s a labor of love, and the obvious affection for the Coens’ legacy makes it clear that this isn’t just a cheap attempt to profit off a classic movie, it’s a desire to expand upon the fictional world without becoming derivative.  In this spirit, it’s in many ways an American answer to Sherlock.

True Detective was written with a “transcend the genre” attitude.  It was produced with the full expectation that it would get the double-barreled HBO press treatment and become an awards darling.  Fargo, in contrast, was clearly made with a lot of people thinking that, “this could be a very bad idea.”  True Detective really played things safe.  It produced a dark, gritty, crime story; peppered it with a little lecturing about moral nihilism, painted Christianity in a sinister light, and set the story around two profoundly flawed and damaged men.  It’s critic and awards bait.  Perhaps Fargo triumphed because it was a terrible risk.  Many scenes and plotlines are a whisker away from being a cheap knock-off, or a lazy homage, but then they take on a life of their own.

While True Detective features men in a downward spiral, Fargo features men on Chesterton’s moral “road [that] goes down and down.”  Thornton and Freeman are equally brilliant as men on the road to hell that turns out to be paved with bad intentions.  Their iniquity is offset by Tolman, Hanks (who completely redeems himself for the sixth season of Dexter), and Carradine, the decent, salt-of-the-earth types that you want as your friends.  I liked these characters so much I could have spent a whole episode watching them run commentary to a Deal or No Deal episode (perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but the point is, I was always compelled). 

True Detective was trying so hard to peer into the darkness that men can do that it wound up missing the point of the human condition entirely.  Fargo showed the world at its best and its worst, and against all odds it created something brilliant.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

An Inconvenient Truth

Harry Vaughan just got a sad piece of news – his uncle has died. But then he finds out that his uncle has left him a massive inheritance! Excitedly, he runs outside… and from there, his memory becomes fuzzy. He doesn’t really remember anything that happened. He was discovered about twenty minutes later by students en route to class. He must have slipped on the icy pavement and knocked himself very solidly on the head. Nobody saw the accident, though…

It all makes sense, of course. That’s why he has that gap in his memory. But something makes Harry very uneasy. Only time will be able to tell whether he’ll ever be able to remember what happened. But in the meantime, he decides to resign from his job and to go back to his roots in Clearwater, a quiet little village just outside of Washington. But no sooner does he arrive, strange things begin to happen. There’s a prowler on the loose, terrorizing the village, and someone seems very displeased that Harry has come back to town…

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Anatomy of Murder: An Interview with Bill Pronzini

Well, ladies and gentlemen, my move to the seminary is now official, which makes this my first-ever blog post coming to you live from there.  (Unfortunately, my Internet access is much more tenuous, which means that I have added less pictures to the post than I'd have liked. I am not sure what this means for future blogging, but I'll figure it out in due time.) It gives me great pleasure to announce that today I am being joined by writer Bill Pronzini, whose work I have tremendously enjoyed and reviewed on this blog in the past. This interview is a follow-up of sorts to my review of Pronzini's Strangers, which I recently reviewed here. Without further ado, below is the interview I conducted, and which Pronzini was kind enough to answer.


1. I have an old paperback copy of your novel Blowback, which features praise from John Dickson Carr on the front cover: “An immensely likable addition to the roster of private investigators.” What was it like being the “new kid in town” in the 70s? Did you ever get to meet or correspond with some of your writing heroes?

When I first began publishing crime fiction, I was one of the youngest writers in the business.  Now I’m one of the oldest…

JDC’s praise for Nameless, in his review of the series debut novel, The Snatch, was the first I received from a major writer in the field and forever endeared him to me.  I had some correspondence with him in the mid 70s, in which he encouraged me to write more detective stories (I’d begun to do standalones by then, with Snowbound), but unfortunately didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him.  I did get to meet and break bread with Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, one of my boyhood idols, Fred Dannay, Clayton Rawson, Kenneth Millar, and William Campbell Gault who became a close friend during the last several years of his life.  The one writer I regret neither meeting nor corresponding with is Thomas B. Dewey, whose Mac series was a major influence on Nameless in his and my formative years.

2. Nameless made his debut in novel format in 1971, with The Snatch. Now in 2014, he’s appeared in his 43rd book. Did you ever imagine the series would be this successful? Is the series as fresh for you to write now as it was then?

No, I never imagined that the series would last anywhere near this long.  Frankly I’m amazed that it has.  The reasons, I think, are two fold:  One, the evolution of Nameless as the focal character and of me as a writer honing (still trying to hone) his craft.  As you pointed out in your review of Strangers, Nameless is not at all the same individual now as he was in the beginning; he’s grown, aged, had his personal and professional life altered by circumstances planned and unplanned, positive and negative.  Just as I have, just as we all have.  He has been referred to, not always favorably, as an Everyman detective – one who does his job without fanfare or glitz, and occasionally in a nonheroic fashion, and whose private life and relationships are given as much weight as the cases he undertakes.  I consider the Everyman tag a compliment.  In my view, the series is an ongoing biography of a decent, compassionate, reasonably intelligent human being (I hope) who also happens to be a detective.

The second reason the series has lasted lies in the fact that I make an effort not to write the same book in the same way twice, but instead try different approaches with each one:  single, double, and multiple plotlines, different formats (the shift from straight first-person narration to a combination of first and third) and stylistic tweaks.   Experimentation helps keep the series fresh for me and thus for the reader.  Of course, this approach isn’t always successful.  In Hellbox, for instance, I combined the detective story with an intensely personal psycho-thriller plot, emphasis on the latter; I thought it worked well enough, but a lot of readers disagreed.  Too emotional, too bleak, they said, and the mix an uneasy one.  They may well be right.

3. One of Nameless’ old friends appears in Strangers, a woman we have not seen in the series for a very long time! It’s not the first time you revisited a character from earlier in the series – you did it in Shackles, for instance. Why did you decide to revisit these particular characters?

Partly for the reason stated above:  revisiting characters from previous books and stories is just one more way in which to experiment.  Also, I enjoy writing stories which have their roots in the past.  The villain in Shackles, the former pulp writer Russell Dancer introduced in Hoodwink, Cheryl in Strangers all interested me enough to want to explore what became of them after their initial appearances, how their lives changed and what happens when they once again intersect with Nameless’s.

4. One of the more cliché questions authors get asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” But not every idea makes it to the page. Once you’ve gotten hold of your idea, what’s the next step? How do you go about transferring those ideas from your head to the page?

My novels are character-driven, so normally I start one with a basic idea or theme, two or three characters, an opening situation, and a vague notion of the direction I want the book to take.  The story’s progression depends on how the principal characters and their interaction with one another develop.  So in effect, writing a novel becomes the same voyage of discovery for me as for the reader.  (The only one I’ve written in which I had the entire progression worked out from the beginning is The Crimes of Jordan Wise, coincidentally one of my three or four best books.)  Utilizing this approach means occasionally writing myself into a corner, which then takes more than a little rewriting to get out of, but that’s a small price to pay.  I do a lot of rewriting anyway before I’m satisfied with any piece of fiction.

My approach to writing short stories is generally just the opposite.  When I get an idea for one I work out the opening and the ending, then draft both before continuing with the rest; that way, with the ending already done, I know exactly where the story is going and the effect I want it to have.  Unorthodox, I guess, but it works for me. 

5. You are married to a fellow crime writer, Marcia Muller, and you recently began collaborating on a series of novels about John Quincannon and his partner Sabina Carpenter (beginning with The Bughouse Affair). What does the collaboration process between you two look like?

Collaborating with Marcia has always been an enjoyable process, since her approach to the craft of fiction is the same as mine.  On the C&Q novels, we do a bit more advance plotting than on our individual books, outlining a few chapters at a time, after which she writes the scenes from Sabina’s point of view and I do those from Quincannon’s.  Since the characters were my creations to begin with, I sometimes do a bit of tweaking on the Sabina chapters for the sake of consistency.  This was the method for the first three books in the series.  I did most of the writing on just finished C&Q #4, The Plague of Thieves Affair, because Marcia has been working on a difficult plot and tight deadline for her next Sharon McCone novel.

6. Do you plan out the events of your series in advance, or do you do it on a book-by-book basis? Will Nameless be returning soon? Are there any other books you have in store?

On a book-by-book basis, except for personal storylines such as Kerry’s breast cancer which carry over from one book to another.

The next Nameless, Vixen, has been delivered and will be published by Tor/Forge in July of next year.  It’s an expansion and revision of the novella “Femme” which Cemetery Dance published as a limited edition in 2012.  Pure noir, this one, very dark, and atypical of the series in that…well, no spoilers here.  Cemetery Dance has another limited edition novella, “Revenant,” scheduled for late this year or early next.  The 2016 Nameless title will tentatively be a collection of four stories, titled Quartet – two novellas, one original to the volume, the other “Revenant,” and two short stories.

In December Perfect Crime Books will publish a collection of my nonseries short stories, The Cemetery Man and Other Darkside Tales; it’ll be available in both trade paperback and e-book editions.

The third C&Q novel, The Body Snatchers Affair, is scheduled for publication in early January.

7. You are recognized as an expert on the crime fiction genre – you’ve written some terrific books on the subject, such as Gun in Cheek, Son of Gun in Cheek, or the massive collaborative project 1001 Midnights. And rumour has it you have a pretty sizable collection of pulps, mystery novels, and other good stuff! How did your love for this fiction start? Any items in your collection you’re particularly proud of?

My passion for crime fiction began at around age ten, when I discovered the Ken Holt YA novels by “Bruce Campbell” – The Secret of Skeleton Island, The Clue of the Marked Claw, etc.  Far superior, these, to the Hardy Boys books.  I graduated to adult fiction a few years later:  science fiction and mysteries from the library, and then paperback originals, especially those published by Gold Medal, in my mid teens.  Also digest mystery and sf magazines, which my grandfather regularly read.

Our house fairly creaks with hardcovers, paperbacks, pulp and digest mags (I have about 3,000 pulps, half the number Nameless owns) – some 25,000 or so at a guess.  Most of the books are crime fiction, with fair numbers of sf/fantasy, western, mainstream, and nonfiction volumes.  Just a few highlights:  a complete run of JDC/Carter Dickson/Carr Dickson first editions in dust jacket; similarly complete FE runs of Fredric Brown and Evan Hunter under all his pseudonyms; and jacketed FEs of most of Chandler’s novels including The Big Sleep, most of Steinbeck, Cain’s Postman Always Rings Twice, McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat (inscribed).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Dragon's Den

There’s no doubt about it, the killer is a madman. He smashed every single mirror in the home, and then proceeded to murder all the occupants, saving the lady of the house for last. He then committed some unspeakable atrocities, crimes so horrific that if I spelled them out I fear Blogger would censor this post. But the most frightening thing is… this wasn’t his first. “The Tooth Fairy” – so nicknamed by the cops because he bites his victims – has done this before, and if the FBI and Will Graham cannot catch him soon, he will do this again.

In order to catch this maniac, Will Graham turns to another madman he helped put away a few years ago – Dr. Hannibal Lecter: psychiatrist extraordinaire, gourmet chef, serial killer, cannibal… Dr. Lecter is delighted to help an old friend like Will… But whenever “Hannibal the Cannibal” offers his help, you should keep on your toes, because there is often a tremendous price tag attached…

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Strangers in the Night

The town of Mineral Springs, Nevada, is a 450-mile drive for the Nameless Detective. But when he got the call, he just couldn’t ignore it. An old flame of his, Cheryl Rosmond, is in trouble… or rather, her son Cody is in trouble. He’s been accused of a series of rapes, and the townspeople have decided he is guilty until proven innocent. As a result, the entire community has banded together against Cheryl, determined to make her life as miserable as possible, whether it be via nasty anonymous phone calls or through acts of vandalism. Desperate, Cheryl turned to Nameless, whom she hasn’t seen in a very, very long time. After consulting with his wife Kerry, he makes the drive to help an old friend…

Unfortunately, it seems the entire community is determined to make his investigation as difficult as possible. Although the local sheriff allows him to carry out an unofficial investigation, so long as he doesn’t push it too far, Nameless has no official standing in Nevada, a California’s PI license being completely useless here. With barely any internet access, all Nameless has are his wits, and he must put those to good use if he is to prove Cody’s innocence.