Monday, October 31, 2011

A Little Night Fright

Halloween is a night my kids look forward to all year. Dressing up in costumes. Going door-to-door, trick-or-treating with friends. Lugging home bags full of candy to be examined, traded with others and eaten until the kids are sick.

I won't be escorting my kids tonight and my husband and I aren't attending a costume party. Instead, we're having a few friends over for movies. We'll offer a choice of tried-and-true nail biters: Psycho (has anyone not heard of Janet Leigh's shower scene or how much Norman Bates loves his mother?), Carrie (Sissy Spacek shows everyone it doesn't pay to annoy her), John Carpenter's Halloween (who in the history of movies screams better than Jamie Lee Curtis?), The Shining (Jack Nicholson gets creepier and creepier as the movie progresses) and The Thing (Carpenter's 1982 movie starring Kurt Russell about a shape-shifting alien).

To accompany the movies we'll serve this hummus from Noble Pig and chips.

Pizza Hummus (Makes about 4 cups)
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon dried basil
2 to 3 cloves garlic
3 cups canned chickpeas, drained & rinsed, 1/2 cup liquid reserved
1/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Kosher salt

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tomato paste, oregano and basil, cooking until slightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Transfer the tomato paste mixture to a food processor. Add the garlic, chickpeas, chickpea liquid, tahini, lemon juice and salt.  Puree until smooth and creamy.

If you'd like to read while waiting for trick-or-treaters, you might try one of the books below. I've given a couple of horror and other suggestions.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez. The first sentence of this slim book tells all you need to know: "On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming in." Atmospheric and relentless. By the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Drood by Dan Simmons. People either love or hate this 800-page book of steampunk/horror/historical fiction. Too long, but I enjoyed it. A story unreliably narrated by Wilkie Collins involving Collins, Charles Dickens and a mysterious figure named Drood who materializes from the scene of a train accident.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. Hey, I'm sick of vampires too, but this is the classic gothic fantasy and you must read it. Memorable characters in a tale of ever-increasing tension set in Victorian England and the spooky wilds of Transylvania. I've read it several times and still shiver when the Transylvanian peasants cross themselves.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count by John H. Watson, M.D. as edited by Loren D. Estleman. This is one of those books I had to read based on the title alone but I enjoyed this pastiche. It's for Holmes fans who've read Dracula. In this book, a schooner runs aground in an English harbor. The dead captain has lashed himself to the steering wheel and his cargo is 50 boxes of earth. The only living passenger is a large black dog. Sound familiar? Somebody better alert Holmes, and luckily for London, somebody does.

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler. The Peculiar Crimes Unit investigates London crimes with elements of the macabre or supernatural. This is the first book in an unusual series and it involves elderly detective John May's look back at the first case he and Arthur Bryant investigated during the London Blitz.

Savages by Don Winslow. Ben and Chon are happily supplying marijuana to their customers in Laguna Beach, California until a Mexican drug cartel decides to muscle in. Winslow is a great story teller. This book is thrilling rather than scary. It will keep you reading as you mindlessly reach for candy from the bowl for the little trick-or-treaters. (I hope you bought enough. What kind did you get?)

Appleby's Answer by Michael Innes. Priscilla Pringle is a well-known writer of clerical mysteries and, when a local rector dies mysteriously, her ears prick up and her nose begins to sniff. Her investigations are aided and abetted by the odd Captain Bulkington, who is interested in a real-life perfect murder. Soon Sir John Appleby, retired Commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police, gets an SOS. As usual, this book, the 27th in the John Appleby series, is a witty and literate gambol.

Make sure you put your leftover candy out of reach of your pets before you go to bed. This is a good night to keep your cats and dogs in the house where they'll be safe and where they can protect you from things that go bump in the night.

Oh, yes. You might want to sleep with a night light on, have a garlic clove on your bedside table and a heavy-duty flashlight under your pillow. You never know when some unannounced visitors will come tap-tap-tapping against your windowpane or ooze into the bedroom from under your closet door. It is Halloween after all. Sleep if you can.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Casting the Detectives

When a mystery book's character moves from the page to the screen, a lot of changes may occur. I was reminded recently of the casting issue when discussing the late Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series with some friends. You may have seen the three-part adaptation on Masterpiece Mystery! last season, with Rufus Sewell playing Zen. This casting provoked a lot of howls from the more ardent fans of the Zen books. My good friend Georgette opined that Rufus Sewell was as much Aurelio Zen as Owen Wilson would be Josef Stalin. Hmm.


What do you think?
Were these two separated at birth?

Caterina Murino & Rufus Sewell
Me, I was fine with Rufus Sewell as Zen. He smoldered nicely, looked great in Italian suits and had explosive chemistry with Caterina Murino, who played Tania Moretti. But I've only read a couple of the books in the series and that was a long time ago. Maybe I'd feel differently if I'd read them all and they were dear to my heart.

What makes for a successful acting portrayal of a beloved mystery book character, then? One thing I do know is that a physical resemblance between the actor and the character isn't a prerequisite. Here is Dashiell Hammett's description of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon:
"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."
Humphrey Bogart
David Suchet
That doesn't sound even remotely like Humphrey Bogart, does it? And yet wasn't Bogie near perfection as Spade? Obviously, we need to forget about looks. Instead, the actor must express the essence of the character or make the character his own.

Could there be a better Hercule Poirot than David Suchet? For me, he's Poirot to the life. I didn't dislike Peter Ustinov the many times he played him, but he didn't seem quite right. Albert Finney and Alfred Molina really didn't do it for me. I just hope Suchet gets the chance to achieve his stated ambition to play Poirot in every one of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries.

Margaret Rutherford
Joan Hickson
Agatha Christie's other best-known protagonist, Miss Marple, has also been played by many actors. Just in recent years, PBS has shown productions with Julia McKenzie, Geraldine McEwan and Joan Hickson. They all were appealing to me, though I liked Joan Hickson the best. Going back to the old movies, I just loved Margaret Rutherford, even accepting that she wasn't true to the books' descriptions. She was just so far from even a façade of a retiring nature, and every time I'd see her knitting I'd think that about the only thing I could truly imagine her doing with the needle was tenderizing the rump of a fleeing suspect.

Heston: worst Sherlock ever?
Look on Wikipedia to see the list of actors who have played Sherlock Holmes. The list is something like 70 names long, including such unlikely choices as Charlton Heston and George C. Scott. I remember Rupert Everett's 2004 portrayal of Holmes in the TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stockings was downright painful, though that had a lot to do with the film itself. I think most Holmes aficionados are satisfied with the portrayals of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. They've formed many people's mental pictures of Sherlock Holmes for decades.

Benedict Cumberbatch
The current Holmes depictions by Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr., are a little more controversial. I thought Cumberbatch captured the Holmes disdain for conventional behavior and all lesser mortals (pretty much everybody, in other words), while Downey's willingness to do and try anything was appealing even if he didn't seem all that much like Holmes. But I'm not a hardcore Holmesian, so maybe I'm too easygoing on the subject.

Roy Ridley
I am, however, a hardcore Lord Peter Wimsey-ite. It's commonly said that Dorothy L. Sayers modeled Wimsey's physical appearance on Roy Ridley, who was a Fellow and Tutor of Oxford's Balliol College. In Whose Body, Sayers describes him as having "rather hard grey eyes [and a] long, indeterminate mouth" and adds to that "a long, narrow chin, and a long, receding forehead, accentuated by the brushed-back sleekness of his tow-coloured hair." Wimsey's appearance wouldn't stop a clock, but he's no oil painting, either. As Sayers would put it more elegantly, "[a]t no . . . time had he any pretensions to good looks."

Ian Carmichael
On the screen, the two most well-known depicters of Dorothy L. Sayers's creation are Ian Carmichael and Edward Petherbridge. I don't downright dislike Carmichael's portrayal, but he's too bumptious for my taste. And I can't get the picture out of my head of his somewhat pudgy body in a harlequin costume in Murder Must Advertise. It was just not right.

Jeremy Sheffield
Edward Petherbridge
On the other hand, Petherbridge seemed a closer physical resemblance to Sayers's Wimsey, though I'd say a touch too effete. More important, Petherbridge conveyed Lord Peter's yearning for Harriet Vane and his occasional angst about the consequences of his detective work. I'd love to see a remake of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, but I don't know whom I'd cast as the lead. Maybe Jeremy Sheffield, a British actor who caught my eye recently.

Jason Isaacs
Right now, PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! is televising a three-part series based on Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie mysteries. Jason Isaacs, looking very different from his well-known part as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, plays Jackson Brodie. First off, he looks great, with his penetrating blue eyes and weather-beaten but handsome face. He has a voice as warm as a peat fire and personality that's an irresistible mix of wry humor leavened with an air of lifelong loss. Since I've never read the books, I have no way to compare his portrayal to Kate Atkinson's creation. Thoughts about that or other crime fiction characters portrayed on screen?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Take Me Out To The Ball Game

When everybody else was getting excited about the baseball playoffs, pinning their hopes on their favorites and trying not to be too downhearted when their hopes were dashed to the Diamond-Tex, I decided to check out whether murder and mayhem lurked in the games of summer.

What I found interesting–and I may be in left field about this–was that fictional skullduggery on the playing fields of the major leagues seems to take place almost entirely in Boston. So since there was no way around it, my introduction to the games afoot was Murder at Fenway Park by Troy Soos.

This is a very engaging story of Mickey Rawlings, a 19-year-old utility baseball player who has been hired to play for the Boston Red Sox for the 1912 season. On Mickey’s first day at Fenway he walks down a lonely dark hall on his way to the manager's office and discovers a badly beaten body that had been creamed by a baseball bat. Mickey is made so ill by the sight that it is a while before the next person on the scene finds both Mickey and the dead man. Before you can say Jackie Robinson, Mickey realizes that he is the number one suspect. Fenway Park was opened to the public for the first time in 1912 and owner Jack Taylor was anxious to avoid unpleasant publicity, so he warned Mickey to keep quiet and the affair was hushed up with some collusion from the police.

Mickey, who was young, naïve and not the sharpest cleat in the shoe, was nonetheless aware that as long as the Red Sox and Taylor needed him to help the team win the pennant he was probably OK, but there were incidents that shook his confidence: someone took pot shots at him and he also felt threatened by a strange bat left on his bed as a warning. He felt he had to solve the case because the police were not going to look farther than Mickey himself.

Joe Wood
Murder at Fenway Park takes you back to the days of horsehide balls, afternoon games that could get called on account of darkness and widespread behind-the-scenes gambling, with police and politicians equally corrupt. The same puppet-masters who were active in Boston were later implicated in the White Sox World Series scandal. But one of the best things that happened in 1912 was that toys were first put into Cracker Jack boxes that year. This was the era of Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson and the very unusual Smoky Joe Wood. Joe Wood was only 19 in 1912 and threw such a fast ball he said he thought his arm would fly off his body. He started his career in a mostly female team, the Bloomer Girls. At the age of 17, it was said he could look like a girl, but two years later he took the Red Sox to the World Series. These players are featured in this story.

Soos has a six-book series chronicling Mickey Rawlings's adventures as his journeyman's baseball career takes him to Ebbets Field, Wrigley Field and finally ending up with the Saint Louis Browns. This history is better than the mystery for me.

Other Fenway Park, Red Sox-centric mysteries that I have on my list to read include Rick Shefchik's Green Monster, in which sports detective Sam Skarda tries to find the truth about a claim that the Red Sox victory in the 2004 World Series was fixed. Mary-Ann Tirone Smith and her son Jere Smith write about the 2007 Boston Red Sox in Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery. The team in this case has troubles with an abandoned baby left at the field (naturally nicknamed Ted Williams) and agents gone bad, trafficking in Cuban baseball stars. If you like college baseball, it is covered in Lloyd Corricelli's Chasing Curves. This takes place in Lowell, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. Apparently the rest of the leagues and teams and towns in America need to find a voice to tell their tales or they prefer to keep their secrets hidden.

I did find some baseball stories set outside Beantown, though. Wild Pitch by A. B. Guthrie Jr. brings baseball home in a more personal way, reminiscent of the old "root root root for the home team" sentiment. In a sparsely populated Montana county, 17-year-old Jason Beard is an assistant to the sheriff during the warm summer months when he is not pitching for the high school or the city team. He makes about five dollars a week. I guess the decade to be the '50s. He is getting some renown as a pitcher and has hopes of a limited career in baseball. He is rarely seen without a baseball in his hand that is there for the express purpose of strengthening his hand and arm muscles. As is the way in small towns, most everyone who passes Jase has a comment or a compliment about either the last baseball game or the one coming up. To get the picture, you have to understand that those country-town ballparks have no grandstands or bleachers and only a couple of benches for the players. The audience likes to stand where they can be sure to out-call the umpires and be a part of the game.

When a sniper kills an unpopular man, Jase, acting as the Watson to Sheriff Chick Charleston, begins the investigation that has to dig deeply into town secrets. There are several books in this series as well and Guthrie has such a way with descriptions that I like to think of him as a poet.

If you have ever played ball at any level whatever, there is always a time when your memories bring you back to the feel of your glove and the smell of neatsfoot oil that beckon you back to the fields of play. City or Parks and Recreation softball teams sponsored by local businesses satisfy this yen. These can be single-sex or coed, but no place is safe when there are maniacs about. And I am not talking about loud Little League moms with language that would make a sailor shudder and earn their kids a mouthful of soap if they used it. In Triple Play: A Jake Hines Mystery by Elizabeth Gunn, a recreational league home plate is desecrated by a posed, mutilated young man in a baseball uniform. There are many anomalies, most significant of which is the pair of metal-cleated old shoes that the corpse has on, the likes of which were outdated years ago. What I like about this series is the Ukrainian dermatologist coroner. He was once a teenage Siberian slave (work camp survivor) who has traded one frozen climate for another. How he alternates practicing dermatology, where the use of a scalpel is usually skin deep, with complete autopsies is also a mystery to me. While he speaks five languages he manages to mangle English slang in a ferocious manner. This enlivens the scenes of the deaths a bit. It is par for the course for Rutherford, Minnesota which uses all its recourses imaginatively because it is a small town growing so rapidly that it needs a coroner on a more and more frequent basis. There is on hand state-of-the-art crime-scene techs from St. Paul for the more complex problems, but Pokey (so called because his name Pokornoskovic is unpronounceable to many) gets offended when other experts take over.

I even found a murder mystery about a semi-pro league to round out the menu of baseball samplers. In A Minor Case of Murder, by Jeff Markowitz, the lovable team mascot, Skeeter, dies in what might be an accident, but under some suspicious circumstances. As you might guess from the mascot's name, the minor league team concerned plays on the Jersey shore. Having been to many a game on the East Coast, I can say with certainty that the skeeters leave a lasting excoriated impression.

All in all, while some of these authors hit home runs with their books, and with some I invoked the infield fly rule (the ball was dropped), I am still humming "Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don't care if I never get back...."

Monday, October 24, 2011

What's YOUR Story?

Ever flirt with the idea of writing a novel? Do you sometimes cringe when reading a book, knowing how a scene could have been written or plotted better? Do TSTL* or completely ridiculous characters or stilted dialogue make you grind your teeth in frustration? Your chance to do it better is coming.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an event that occurs, alliteratively enough, every November. The rules are simple, admission is free and unrestricted, and there are helpful online fora where you can interact with your fellow aspiring authors for advice, help, and consolation or cheers. There are even threads offering orphaned plots and characters up for grabs if you don't happen to have what you need right at hand.
National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000-word (approximately 175-page) novel by 11:59:59, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.
NaNoWriMo has even lined up a stable of published authors whose pep talks will be emailed to participants over the course of the month. (If any persp, er, aspiring author has time to read them!)

All participants who meet the requirements by November 30 are declared winners, and earn a certificate and e-badge suitable for display on their websites. Finding an editor and publisher for their deathless prose is up to them, although I'm afraid that I've read a few self-published as ebooks without rewrites!

Those who fall by the wayside get to lick their wounds, wear the Cone of Shame, and brood about their poor choices to sleep, eat, and work when they should have been writing. Maybe next year!

In 2010, 84 participants from around the world wrote over nine million words. Only 44 entrants finished, with the longest entry achieving 175,000 words. That's overkill; the required 50,000 words is about 175 pages, or 1600-1700 words a day for 30 days.

Here are the rules in their entirety, from the website:
  • Write a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
  • Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people’s works).
  • Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you’re writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!
  • Be the sole author of your novel. Apart from those citations mentioned two bullet-points up.
  • Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.
  • Upload your novel for word-count validation to our site between November 25 and November 30.
The prestigious Man Booker Prize was awarded this month to Julian Barnes for The Sense of an Ending, a short novel of only about 50,000 words. While I suspect the author spent rather more time than a month writing and polishing it, every author has to start somewhere. So what are you waiting for?

* Too stupid to live.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sympathy for the Devil

There's a theory that the reason why women supposedly read mysteries more than men is because women like the way mysteries set things to rights. I'm dubious about that, since the implication would be that men don't care much whether order is restored. Actually, now that I think about my husband's untidiness and talent for losing things, maybe there's something to the theory after all.

But I'm getting off track. My real purpose is to talk about a couple of mysteries in which things may not be set to rights. We don't see the story through the eyes of the good guys and follow along as they nab the criminals and restore law and order. In these books, we see things through the eyes of the criminal and we are meant to want him to get away with his crime–or at least to want it a little bit.

One of the first in that vein that I've read is Malice Aforethought, by Francis Iles (one of the pseudonyms of Anthony Berkeley Cox). We know who the murderer is from the very first line of the book, one of the most intriguing in crime fiction: "It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter."

Dr. Edmund Bickleigh is a bit of a milquetoast who is squashed under the thumb of his shrewish wife, Julia. He has played around for years, but now he's stuck. He's fallen in love, or at least an overpowering lust, and his inamorata will not consider marrying a divorcé. Bickleigh is convinced of his own genius when he comes up with his plan to rid himself of Julia by way of a more lethal (and far less legal) method than divorce. If only he'd listened to his wife's assessment of his talents! Things keep going wrong for poor Bickleigh and he comes up with ever-more elaborate and deadly schemes to cover his tracks.

This is a darkly satirical look at a village where all appears placid and respectable, while every deadly sin imaginable teems beneath the surface. Malice Aforethought was made into a 1979 four-part BBC miniseries and a 2005 Granada Television production shown on PBS's Mystery! series.

It's a big jump from the weekend tennis parties and dalliances of the Devonshire village of Wyvern Cross to an assassination plot against General Charles de Gaulle, but strap on your seatbelt, because that's where we're going. Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal is a gripping suspense thriller about a professional assassin, code-named the Jackal, who is hired by a right-wing group to kill de Gaulle, whom they believe has betrayed France by granting independence to Algeria.

We are led to identify with the Jackal through the book's descriptions of his lengthy, methodical and ingenious preparations for the job. We learn a lot about getting fake identification papers and passports, smuggling weapons, tracking a target and laying false trails. This is good educational stuff. After all, you never know when that kind of expertise might come in handy.

The assassination plot is revealed to the French authorities, but not the Jackal's real name or even a description. Now the chase is on. We're introduced to the men who are set on his trail: Claude Lebel, a French police detective, and Detective Superintendent Bryn Thomas of Scotland Yard, who becomes involved when the Prime Minister insists that Britain help foil the assassination plot.

In the cat-and-mouse game that follows, it's hard not to identify with the Jackal, even though he ruthlessly uses and disposes of people along the way in his mission. At the same time, Lebel and Thomas are so often just one step behind and we want their hard work to be rewarded too. The climax will definitely raise your blood pressure, and it's followed by a satisfying puzzle of an epilogue.

The Day of the Jackal was made into a 1973 film of the same name, starring Edward Fox as the Jackal. If you've never seen the movie, you're in for a real treat.

I was going to talk about another classic in the sub-genre of mysteries told from the point of view of the murderer, but then I remembered that we don't realize that's what's happening until the end. Can you identify this 1926 novel? If you need a hint, look down a few lines. (If you don't want to have the plot spoiled for you, in case you don't know this book and might read it later, you may want to avoid reading the comments on this post.)

Hint: The title of a book about the book is in the form of a question.

Musical Mysteries Solved

We have a some musical quiz mavens! Nine out of 12 correct answers on Saturday's Murderous Songs quiz is impressive. Here are all the answers and the names of those who guessed each one correctly.

1. The Stalker Song. The Police: Every Breath You Take
(Hannah got this one)

2. The Lustful Song. Rick Springfield: Jessie's Girl
(Vickie S)

3. The Adulterer’s Song. Mary MacGregor: Torn Between Two Lovers

4. The Murderer’s Song. Dixie Chicks: Goodbye Earl

5. The Hitman Song. AC/DC: Dirty Deads Done Dirt Cheap

6. Victim’s POV Song. Snoop Dogg: Murder Was the Case

7. Crime of Passion Song. Marty Robbins: El Paso 

8. Assassination Song. Dion: Abraham, Martin and John

9. Mass Murder Song. David Bowie: Running Gun Blues

10. Spousal Abuse Song. The Beautiful South: Woman in the Wall

11. Blackmail Song. Donell Jones: Blackmail

12. The Eternal Mystery. Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billy Joe