Thursday, October 30, 2008

Double Feature: Degenerate Gamblers

I could not stand Matthew Broderick when he was young; after Election, I’m cheered whenever he waddles onto the screen. Since bulking up and slowing down, he’s become ridiculously smooth and low-key, a great comic actor. His boyish face, changing slowly from one bland expression to the next, makes for a perfect mask for the degenerate gambler he plays in Finding Amanda. There are some comedy set pieces in the film, but that’s when the film is least funny (with the exception of Steve Coogan’s first scene). The real laughs are kind of painful, but it’s funny nevertheless to watch the matter-of-fact way Broderick lies to everyone. When he develops an interest in his runaway niece Brittany Snow, a twenty-year old prostitute, it is also seems natural that there’s nothing sexual about it: Being interested in anyone is a new experience for him. The small-group swing and light tone is a perfect mask for a lonely and cutting little movie. Lose the scenes with the wacky dealer and the funny pimp and you’d have a minor gem.

In Cassandra’s Dream, the indispensible Tom Wilkinson has a small role which haunts the entire film, much as he did in Michael Clayton. Here, it’s the moment of rage his character allows himself (directed at Colin Ferrell; the audience sympathizes) that stays in the mind, and keeps the movie from drifting away. It’s noir, all right, but held at a distance, with pretty surfaces and a soundtrack by Phillip Glass and characters theatrically declaiming what’s eating them, and Woody Allen just doesn’t have the stomach for this high-style low-life stuff the way David Mamet does. Oh, listen, it’s better than I’m making it sound. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Former Detroit Mayor Reports To Jail Today

I’m tempted to say that I will miss him…

How could I not? In some ways, the last six years in Detroit have been like living inside a really good James Ellroy novel.

…but he won’t be gone that long.

Upon his release: Talk radio show? Pulpit? Both?

(Wikipedia has the Kwame Kilpatrick story well-covered.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Thurston Ray

This is the first of two stories that appeared on the Muzzle Flash site, which is No More.

The ground above, the sky below.

Lloyd looked through the spiderweb crack in the windshield and the dead branches and ditchwater that crowded it and thought the horizon was the strangest thing he had ever seen.

He fell back to sleep for a minute.

He woke up still behind the wheel of the overturned Lincoln, suspended a few inches below the seat by the seatbelt and shoulder harness.

Lloyd thought of cars flipping over in movies, how they burst into flame, annihilating everything.

He braced himself and wrestled with the seatbelt release and fell onto the roof of his company car.

***

Out of habit, Lloyd reached for his business cards, which were somewhere else, with his belt and his shoes.

He wiped his palm on his pant leg before extending his hand and saying his name.

“Thurston Ray,” his cellmate said. His hand was a dead fish.

***

Thurston Ray was Drunk and Disorderly. He was a gangly local kid with hair that hung in his eyes, jeans gone in the knees, and dirty fingernails.

“How’dya get soaked?”

“I ran,” Lloyd said. Thurston Ray beamed at him. “I ran into a field, but the moon was behind me, and I ran into a fucking swamp.”

“Pond,” Thurston Ray said, and laughed.

***

After Lloyd vomited, he began to worry. He worried for his job with Sunblessed Seed. He needed to get out of the lockup, see to the car repair himself, phone in excuses to his regional manager and to the farmers and greenhouse owners expecting him the next few days.

He could be released on his own recognizance if he paid the bail, Thurston told him; but Lloyd was cash poor, thanks to the titty club his last customer had insisted on visiting.

Thurston Ray had a proposition, which began, “Let me call my mother.”

***

Thurston Ray’s mother was nineteen at the outside. She had short-cropped hair the color of beets, and a wide mouth. She wore capri pants that could have been a tattoo.

The desk cop knew her, Lloyd thought, but he couldn’t say for certain.

In the parking lot all she said was “That’s eight-fifty.”

Lloyd climbed in the aging Camaro and gave the name of his bank.

***

“Fuck!” Thurston Ray’s mother said, shaking the gun at him.

Lloyd explained about his credit limit, slowly, carefully, but she did not want to hear about it.

He had been able to extract enough cash to pay his own bail and Thurston’s – twice over – but fell short of the sum Thurston had, in his phone call from the police station, instructed her to extort.Her bitterness over this shortfall seemed heartfelt. Lloyd guessed the kids planned to blow town on their profit from his misery, and he felt a tremor of the empathy that had led him to discuss his circumstances with Thurston Ray in the first place: for he was also a drunk trying to get down the road.

“What about tomorrow?” she said.

“Tomorrow?”

“Can you get more money out of the ATM tomorrow?”

***

Her name, she said, was Kimberley.

It started when, not wanting to let him out of her sight, she followed him into the motel bathroom.

They were drinking heavily and he could not say how he got the gun away from her.

At 4 AM, he moved her to the trunk of the Camaro.

He parked in the woods, vomited, walked to the other motel in town, and took a room.

***

He drank more and used the phone. He had the Lincoln towed from the impound to the town’s sole garage. He called missed appointments and was mellifluous and cajoling. He was on his game, on the phone.

***

He drank more and used the phone. The garage said their man was devoting all his time to the Lincoln . He called his office, forgot to mute the violent movie on HBO, slurred on “Good morning”, and hung up.

***

On the fourth day he walked to the garage. “Still waiting on a part,” he was told by the mechanic, a gangly local kid with hair that hung in his eyes, jeans gone in the knees, and dirty fingernails.

Muzzle Flash RIP

Muzzle Flash has followed Murdaland and Demolition and Hard Luck Stories (and Flashing in the Gutters, and...) to the netherworld.

Hopefully Plots With Guns and Thug Lit will soldier on.

Thanks and best of luck to MF editor DZ Allen.

The two stories of mine that DZ was kind enough to accept for Muzzle Flash will turn up here soon.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hardboiled v. Noir

Hardboiled: "Somebody's going to pay for this."
Noir: "I am going to pay for this."

Monday, October 20, 2008

EVENT: Wednesday, Temperance, MI


I thought the Detroit Noir editors were kidding when they asked me to join them in temperance.

After a few moments of ugly confusion, though, we got things straightened out:

Detroit Noir editors John C. Hocking and E.J. Olsen, along with contributor Joe Boland, will be speaking at the Bedford Branch of the Monroe County Library.

The event takes place on Wednesday, October 22nd, and starts at 7 p.m.
We’ll talk about the book, Joe will read from his work, and we’ll take questions afterward.

We’ll also have books for sale, so please join us!

The Bedford Branch is located at 8575 Jackman Rd. in Temperance, MI.
Call the branch for more details at (734) 847-6747.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Nightstand

Read:
The Moving Target, Ross MacDonald
Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley
A Diet of Treacle, Lawrence Block
Shooters, Terrill Lankford
Slide, Jason Starr & Ken Bruen
Fright, Cornell Woolrich
Consider The Lobster, David Foster Wallace
Protocol For A Kidnapping, Oliver Bleeck

Reading:
Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker
Born Standing Up, Steve Martin

Re-Read:
Put A Lid On It, Donald Westlake

Re-Reading:
Deadly Honeymoon, Lawrence Block

On-Deck:
The First Quarry, Max Allan Collins
The World in Six Songs, Daniel J. Levitin

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Character in Two Sentences

Joanie settled in with her face in her palms and her eyes shining and for a while I said whatever came to mind. Joanie loved stories –- she probably lived her life the way she did because she loved stories –- but she didn’t necessarily listen to them that closely.

--Max Phillips, Fade To Blonde (p.149)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Nobody Home

I wrote this flash fiction in July and sent it to Muzzle Flash. I didn’t hear back from editor DZ Allen and, in fact, the Muzzle Flash site went dormant for a month or more. (DZ recently resurfaced there, explaining -- possibly tongue-in-cheek, possibly not -- that he’d been locked up.) Long and short of it, the story is probably not Muzzle Flash material anyway, and I don’t know of anywhere else to send it -- so I’m putting it up here, because I need some action.

NOBODY HOME

Devin was supposed to be looking for a job, but Rachel wasn’t convinced. He never got out of bed before she left for work, and when she came home, to an empty apartment, the TV was warm to the touch, the game controller in a different spot. When he returned in the evening, after she’d eaten dinner alone, there was always beer on his breath and smoke in his clothes.

The promise to look for work was ripped out of him on Valentine’s Day, and now Mother’s Day was around the corner. Rachel tried once again to convince him to work at the florist, just for the holiday.

“We always need delivery help for Mother’s Day. It’s something. They pay cash!”

“Cash?”

“I told you last time. Five, six bucks a signature.”

“Five bucks,” Devin said.

“You know your way around,” Rachel said. “You could make ten, twelve deliveries an hour, sixty, seventy bucks.”

“What happens if there’s nobody home?”

“You try next door, on either side, across the street. Get someone to sign for it. We have these red tags for the front door that say, Flowers for you, you weren’t home, we left them with – and there’s a space where you write the address.”

“What if nobody’ll sign for ‘em?”

“Yellow tag for the door that says, Call us, we’ll bring your flowers back when you’re home.” She could see Devin was losing interest.

“Then you gotta make a second trip for five bucks,” he said.

Rachel and the other floral designers usually ran those deliveries back out on their way home, for no extra money, but she didn’t say anything more to Devin. She knew he wouldn’t understand: People working together, busy times, pulling more weight than usual.

Ann, one of the designers, was the first person to guess Rachel was pregnant. They were greening the stupid FTD Mother’s Day baskets, production-line style, and she caught Rachel sobbing.

“I am,” Rachel said. It was the first time she’d told anyone at all.

Ann told her to go home.

Go: That much sounded good to Rachel. She washed her face in the restroom and walked out to the garage, where the temp drivers shuffled around with maps and clipboards and boxed roses. They were drinkers and deadbeats, and she admitted to herself that Devin wouldn’t have looked out of place among them.

A funeral spray she’d made before starting on the FTD crap was still here. Hard to get a five-dollar signature from a dead man, she guessed. She carried it to the company’s panel van.

At the funeral home, the name of the deceased didn’t appear on the blackboard in the delivery room. It was late in the day, visitations in progress, but she pushed through the door that opened into the main hallway off the parlors, to double check.

The first parlor on the left was unoccupied, and Rachel ducked in, sat on a couch. The empty stillness promised quiet, but she could hear a constant low murmur of voices from the other rooms. It was not that different from sitting alone in the apartment.

What kind of home did she have?

It was night when the designers finished stocking the cooler with arrangements. The deadbeats had cashed out, left behind the usual half-dozen soggy-looking packages. Rachel took two with addresses on streets she recognized, said something reassuring to Ann, and carried the flowers to her car.

The people at her first stop had seen the door tag and phoned, expected her; the second stop was a stab in the dark. The house was in a neighborhood where friends had lived when she was little: Shingle Victorians and Tudors on large lots along the curving streets, separated from the city grid on three sides by a shaded creek. She’d daydreamed about living here when she grew up.

There were lights on inside the house as she pulled up to the detached garage. When she got out of the car, the lights on the ground floor went out, and lights came on upstairs. She hurried to the side door to the house, hoping to catch them before they went to bed, when she saw the yellow tag hanging from the doorknob, bright as day.

So they returned home and walked fifteen yards out of their way to use the front door… Odd, but there were many other explanations, and it was the end of a long day. She rang the doorbell.

A floodlight on the garage clicked on, showing her car to the people in the house. Long minutes passed before the room behind the door filled with light. Then a silhouette loomed behind yellow half-length curtains no hand reached to part.

Rachel forced a smile and gave the package a meager hoist, a gesture she hoped looked friendly, even as cold sweat glued her blouse to her spine.

Devin opened the door, stood there with a weighted-down bag in his hand.

He was listening to me, Rachel thought. Yellow tags. He was paying attention.

Rachel still wore her florist apron. Blade in the pocket.

Devin never let go of the doorknob. When he finally dropped the bag, heavy crystal shattered and spilled at her feet

Friday, October 3, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: Protocol For A Kidnapping

Oliver Bleeck is the pseudonym Ross Thomas used to publish four books of the adventures of professional go-between Philip St. Ives. Ah, Ross Thomas and his names. (Bleeck, Oliver=bleak all over, anyone?) Given the nature of the books, I like to imagine he chose the name thinking of the nursery rhyme/riddle:

As I was going to St Ives
I met a man with seven wives
And every wife had seven sacks
And every sack had seven cats
And every cat had seven kits
Kits, cats, sacks, wives
How many were going to St Ives?

In general, the books he published under his own name are more character-driven and the books published as Bleeck are more plot-driven. Anything by Ross Thomas is highly recommended (well, you may want to save The Money Harvest and The Seersucker Whipsaw for emergency use only) but since his non-Bleeck books have already had some representation here I thought I’d shill for St. Ives. (When St. Martin’s Minotaur launched QP reprints of Thomas earlier this decade – they stalled out after five or six – the Bleeck titles were missing from the ad card. Come on, Hard Case Crime!)

Like Travis McGee, if somewhat less so, St. Ives is a male fantasy of the late-60s early-70s. He doesn’t bed every woman he meets, I don’t think, and he doesn’t belittle women in asides to the reader as McGee does. He lives in a New York townhouse rather than a moored houseboat. But he does share with McGee 1) a preference for working only a few weeks every year and 2) a rather high-flown wit (and St. Ives’ has aged better.)

As his job title suggests, St. Ives is a professional ransom-dropper, but of course none of the jobs he accepts (or is coerced into doing) turn out to be anything so simple as a plain-old kidnapping.

All four of Oliver Bleeck’s books are worth tracking down; I chose Protocol For A Kidnapping because I’m reading it right now, and whichever Ross Thomas you’ve read most recently is your favorite Ross Thomas.

For all of Friday's Forgotten Books, see Patti Abbott's blog.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Double Feature



The Bedroom Window has the kind of premise that’s hard to resist: Our na├»ve hero tries to do good by telling a lie, and quickly finds himself on the Road to Hell. I saw this in a theater 21 years ago (?!) and thought it was like an American version of one of Truffaut’s Hitchcock homages –- an impression obviously fostered by the presence of Isabelle Huppert, but supported by the film itself and by a second viewing on DVD this week. As with Truffaut, the movie goes limp somewhere after the halfway mark, even though the story remains involving. It would be easy to blame this failure on the star, Steve Guttenberg, unless you have happened to see him in the movie Diner and thus realize that he gets a Lifetime Pass. No, it’s his character –- he’s an Architect, which in movies means Underwritten –- that lets some of the tension dribble away. Director Curtis Hanson, who would go on to adapt and direct the sublime L.A. Confidential, doesn’t fix the character into the story the way that Hitchcock or DePalma or David Lynch did in films with similar premises. Even when the guy is sitting up all night in an alley, staking out a killer’s house, there’s no sense of what’s driving him; when, late in the film, he tells Elizabeth McGovern that he has a “crush” on Huppert, it sounds about right -– and completely wrong. It’s just a lark? Don’t tell that to the villain! (It’s a master stroke by Hanson that the villain has only one line in the movie. He makes the most of it. You laugh, realizing -- “Hey! He spoke!” -- and then your blood runs cold.)

The much-lauded second-person voiceover narration in Blast of Silence left me feeling churlish. The style is so hardboiled you could crack a floor tile with it, and it has more than a touch of Nietzche -– the Nietzche who so impresses undergraduates. That aside, the film’s a gem, a terrific specimen of the lonely-stunted-life-of-the-contract killer sub-genre. You could draw a straight line from Blast of Silence through The Prone Gunman through Grosse Point Blank to Who Is Conrad Hirst? and come out with a pretty good essay. I’ll expect it on my desk next week.

The Boogey Man

I was watching baseball and trying to read during the commercial breaks, looking up whenever a campaign spot ran.

During one break, I heard the ominous music and superior, threatening narration I’ve come to associate with Republican ads, and thought, Wonder if I've seen this one yet? and looked up from my book:

Saw V is in theaters later this month.