Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Twisted Shikse: Charlie Birger, The KKK and the Book of Judges

Hey if you're gonna be at Bouchercon in Raleigh, NC this week, come say 'hi" at the Noir at the Bar Eryk Pruitt is hosting on Thursday night where I'll read with some of my favorite writers. Or Friday morning check out the Jewish Noir panel with Jason Starr, Kenneth Wishnia, Travis Richardson and S.A. Solomon. I might make that one as it's about a book of the same name that I have a little piece of.

Over at her blog, The First Two Pages fellow Jewish Noir contributor B.K. Stevens has been running a series for the anthology's contributors to talk about their contributions. Go check em out - here's fellow St. Louisan Tasha Kaminsky's piece about her story Your Judaism.

And here's me flapping my yap on the multifaceted origins of my story, Twisted Shikse.

So, Jed - you're not Jewish and you're probably best known for writing a book about rednecks in Southern Missouri... how the hell did you end up included in a book called Jewish Noir?

Great question.

First off, my name is Jedidiah and while these days it may be most associated with reality TV types from Arkansas or cement pond swimming hillbillies out of place in Beverly Hills, it's actually a Hebrew name. Jewish Noir's editor, Kenneth Wishnia noted that 'Jedidiah' meant 'Beloved of Jaweh'  (2 Samuel 2:25) and teased me that it wasn't very noir of me to have that moniker.

After I punched him in the nose and said, how noir am I now, motherfucker, I pointed out that as a preacher's kid my work is very influenced by the Bible and that I'd once aspired to write a book of short crime stories adapted from or inspired by selections from the old testament (I've had one of them published so far - The Adversary originally appeared in Surreal South '11 edited by Pinckny Benedict & Laura Benedict, and is based on King Saul's encounter with the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28). Ken stuck a tampon in his bloody nose and said I might be 'brew enough for a project he was working on after all. Could I get him a story in a couple of weeks?

I probably could.

In fact I had an idea already. The story of Samson & Delilah (Judges 13-16) always struck me as a prototypical noir story - tough guy, arrogant, the kind of asshole who'll murder a bunch of folks if he thinks people are laughing at him - meets a lust bucket he's got such a raging hard on for it hardly matters to him at all that she's actively trying to do him harm... or maybe that's part of the appeal. Scratch that, it's definitely part of the appeal.

So yeah, I had a crime story based on literature of Hebrew origin. I also had a title that got at the heart of the matter - Twisted Shikse. 

Saint Kate, the titular redheaded firecracker who so thoroughly bonerfies our hero against his own best interests, sings for a band called The Taoist Cowboys - a cow punk outfit based in my mind on the wonderful and much missed 1990s outfit Pamper the Madman from Kansas City. I play with time a little bit by having the Cowboys play shows in a St. Louis locale alongside current Missouri billycrack rock acts like The Hooten Hallers at Carl's Bad Tavern, a venue mentioned in a few of my short stories, and the place our ex-con, Jewish redneck Charlie Malmon works.

Now... how about some Jewish rednecks? What - not a thing? Pssh. When Kate and Charlie bond over references to the James McMurtry song Choctaw Bingo, she asks him, "What kind of Jewboy likes country music, anyway?" and Charlie shuts her down with "You never heard of Kinky Friedman?"

But you don't have to go to a flamboyant showman casting his dual heritages in stark relief for maximum conundrum. Nope around St. Louis you have to look no further than prohibition-era gangster Charlie Birger. Birger was a soldier turned bootlegger whose territory was just across the Mississippi river in southern Illinois. The wars he fought with rival gangs included homemade armored cars and aerial bombings (seriously somebody hire me to write a TV show about St. Louis gangs like Egan's Rats, Birger's crew and the Shelton Brothers - Boardwalk Empire meets Justified - that's my pitch).

Two things that me and my protagonist (who is named after "the tough old Yid") admire about Birger...

1) When the Ku Klux Klan, acting as under the table or at least blind-eye deputies of the federal government, started going door to door enforcing prohibition in southern Illinois (largely as a way to suppress immigrant influence on the lily-white power structure), Birger's gang and their rivals The Shelton Brothers teamed up to kick the Klan's ass in an honest to goodness tommy-gun firefight in Herrin, Illinois. Of course they went back to fighting each other as soon as those asshole vigilantes in hoods were out of the picture, but hey, that story's awesome.

2) Charlie was the last legally hanged man in the state of Illinois in 1928 (he's buried in Chesterfield a town just beyond the western suburbs of St. Louis). He was hanged after spending a year in jail for ordering the killing of Joseph Adams, the mayor of West City, Illinois, whom he believed to have taken up with the Sheltons. He had a rabbi with him at the gallows and, after making a hell of a show of bravado, smiling at the assembled crowd, insisted on wearing a black execution hood rather than the commonly used white - in order not to look like one of those hated Klansmen.


All of these elements swirled together in my mind last year as my city was under national and international spotlights after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer and the resulting riots that polarized the community and country in general. A buddy of mine who's an ex-con, a convert to Islam, a cab driver and a community activist was down on the front lines of that scene peaceably demonstrating and getting arrested. Night after night after night...

And that's not all. My friend's family started being harassed. People were calling his day job trying to get him fired (and he was finally fired a couple months ago over his political image). There was organization to the anti-demonstrators demonstrators. Fuckin "I am Darren Wilson" T-shirts were sold (almost exclusively in the south and western suburbs), the KKK did a fund-raiser for the guy... Armed militias started arriving on the scene to intimidate demonstrators and "uphold the constitution." It was an ugly time. The pent up violence was palpable and not just in the city. It was in the suburbs. A million crazy white folk preparing for the outbreak of a race war that their darker-skinned neighbors knew had started generations ago.
The story began to stray from the strictly Samson-&-Delilah-femme-fatale-mutilation-and-revenge narrative to incorporate a counterpart to Charlie. A secular Jew and a backslid Baptist meet in prison... they emerge a shamed sell-out who needs to get his swastika tattoo obscured and an educated and impassioned Muslim with a social conscience.

Twisted Shikse is a story of the fringe violence that connects to the larger picture when the whole town loses its damn mind, and it incorporates all these elements.

Shabbot Shalom, motherfuckers.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Something Along the Lines of the Fourth Movement of Beethoven's Ninth With a Crushing Body Count: The Kieran Shea Interview

A few months back when George Miller's post-apocalyptic man-without-a-name-except-that-he's-got-a-name franchise made a stunning return to mainstream consciousness, Mad Max: Fury Road ruffled a few sensitive masculine feathers by having the ovaries to place a lady front and center in the action. The collective "Dey takin our jerbs!" from fragile-minded masculinity that rang through the web was a hoot, and then it wasn't. It went from amusing to embarrassing to a little alarming when it wouldn't stop.

If it served any positive purpose it made your purchase of Kieran Shea's Koko novels (Koko Takes a Holiday and the just released Koko the Mighty) a progressive political act. In fact reading and enjoying the hell out of these books may be your duty. Does Shea have an opinion on that?

People of all stripes take issue with just about everything these days. A crisis of identity? Whatever, man... take a number. Women, men... for me what's important for entertaining fiction is to have characters who take action. Period. 

Well the Koko books have got the entertaining bit down for sure. They're bloody, profane, irreverent pieces of futuristic pulp that turn their own pages and tickle your frontal lobe with speculative wit.  (You want a few more suggestions for kick-ass lady-led sci-fi books? Check out this piece by Joel Cunningham)

I've known Shea's work for a while now. His crime fiction appeared in terrific venues for years (Crime Factory, Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, Needle, Ellery Queen and many more) and his voice was one of my favorites, but nothing he'd previously produced quite prepared me for the propulsive stylistic kick in the nuts of Koko's world. So I asked him...

What accounts for the change of gears?

I was provoked. Right around the time Koko made her first appearance in Plots With Guns, several writing friends told me that my sallies into detective fiction (while amusing) seemed to lack the spark of my darker, down-the-rabbit-hole crime stories. Since some of these lackluster detective stories came with an actual paycheck, I think I fell briefly into a habit of playing it safe--treading water in the duck pond, so to speak. Treading water in the duck pond is fine, but even the best of swimmers will drown sooner or later. It was time to release the alligators and scare myself.

How soon was there thought of making Koko a series character?

To be honest, it wasn't my intention of doing a series at all. It's weird, but you write these things never knowing if your work will ever see the light of day. It's best to keep your expectations low. That's probably the scariest thing about writing, that nine times out of ten all your effort will be in vain. When Titan initially requested a double-shot, I was floored. Of course, Koko the Mighty has a squeaker ending so I'm angling for a third installment. In this age of binge media intake, you want to stay fresh. As for the larger narrative...I'd like to see a final triumph for Koko for all she's been through. Something mentally along the lines of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with a crushing body count.

Drugs play a major role in both books - will they be a series-long theme? 

Can't say. Psychoactive substances and euphoriants have been around since our species got a good look at reality, didn't like what it saw, and decided to ingest the best tonics available. And medicines designed to make the intolerant tolerable? Are we really talking science fiction or are we talking about the local liquor store, house of worship, smart phone app, fad, or prescription? Maybe it's excessive, but honestly I don't think so. In the same vein, I've had readers ask me about the violence, like, isn't it all a bit much? People don't read a lot of history.

About the violence - I would like more, please - I'm assuming that you get those notes too (I really would like more violence - don't hold back, now). Has interacting with new readers shaped your vision for Koko and her world any? 

More? Well, sure, if that's what you want. After Koko the Mighty, I think my plan is to go bigger, more unhinged, and bloodier. A sanguinary trip through a burning funhouse. Not to get all cheeky, but only Koko shapes Koko's world. Readers have championed her innate dynamism, so that keeps me on track.

Koko may shape the world, but she's got a good foil in Flynn and dark mirror in Wire that help shape and define her - what does the supporting cast bring to the table and do they ever threaten to take over?

There were moments when drafting Koko the Mighty that I needed to step back because I was having so much fun with Wire. And Flynn, he's become Koko's conscience in many ways. Supporting cast and foils should broaden, buttress, and stretch the central protagonist if possible. It's a tricky balance. But now I think Koko getting called out and tested will electrify her even more. Lone chargers who never stumble or lose or doubt themselves bore me. The other day I was re-watching The Shootist with John Wayne, you know? What made that movie and Wayne's aging gunfighter so compelling was that he had regrets and flaws. He was dying and, in truth, Wayne was dying. I just like to let Koko loose and see what happens when things in her world don't go as planned. 

Wire was a lot of fun to read in Koko the Mighty. The more punishment she goes through the harder it is to hate her. Is that intentional?

Hate to love, love to hate. If anything, she's amoral, skilled, and relentless. Let's not forget, originally Wire is of the same background as Koko, and her commitment to following through no matter what gets thrown her way is a much a part of her code as it is Koko's. Ruthlessness, however, is what Wire dines out on. It’s her greatest asset. That same ruthlessness is something I think Koko has tried to put aside, but it's becoming clearer in order to persevere Koko can't deny that part of herself. I will say this though--it was a fun handing Wire an epic raft of shitstorms, because I love vicious, black comedy. 

Right here is where Hardboiled Wonderland make its pitch to Hollywood - Gina Carano as Koko and Ronda Rousey as Wire in a balls-out day-glo gore-gasmic metric-fuck-ton of cinematic TNT. Get back to me soon!

Have you got any non-Koko projects you'd like to take on soon? Comics? Crime? Cookbooks?

I'm working on a standalone crime novel that might be three quarters in bag, so there's that. I don't know. I may just either work on my devil traps or my tennis backhand. Hey, Jed, what time do you have?

Did you just slap me?

Turns out he's got a shiny new Koko short story called The Meat Clock at i09. Go get some and keep up with Kieran on Twitter @BlackIrishBlarn.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Noirth Carolina

Looking forward to seeing everybody at Bouchercon. I'm not registered for shit, but I know where the bar is. In fact if you can stagger around the corner on Thursday night, come join me a N@B shindig Eryk Pruitt is throwing and watch me fight Les Edgerton, Eric Beetner, Christa Faust, Thomas Pluck, Eric Beetner, Joe Clifford, Jen Conley, Ed Kurtz, Tom Pitts and Steve Lauden for any spot in the lineup that isn't after Johnny Shaw. Nobody's gonna want that mic - just leave it on the floor and back away. He's one of the best live readers I've never read with, but it appears my streak is ending.

If you've got a copy of Noir at the Bar vol. 2 you bring to get signed - Les and I'll deface your shit gladly and I'm hoping to see St. Louis to Raleigh transplant and N@B alum Shaw Coney at the event too (check your book for the story Dead By Dawn - and Les's story A Streetcar Not Named Desire - which is probably the reason his novel The Genuine Imitation Plastic Kidnapping seemed familiar). 

I've got good news for those of you who can't get to Bouchercon, but are dying to hear me blather. Monday morning (10am EST) I'll be on this here The Crime Scene radio show with senor Pruitt and David Terreniore. We'll be talking southern crime stuffs in order to prepare all the tenderfoots coming to B'con the week after.

Want some more good news? Branfuckingnew motherfucking Scott Wolven motherfuckers! Check out his story Playboy in Playboy (which gives me a swell idea about where to pitch my story Black Tail!) or hey you can read it online at the website. Now it's a weekend. You're welcome.

Oh and check this the hell out - James Patterson was asked to name some of his favorite books and... there're some pretty damn good books on his list - notably The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips, Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg, The Wanderers by Richard Price and Night Dogs by Kent Anderson. It's been a long wait for another from Anderson, but it loooooks like the wait could be over soon. Dennis McMillan (who says Patterson used to buy Rick DeMarinis from him too!) mentioned Green Sun would be coming next year (wait... did he say next year or was that wishful hearing on my part?) Anywho - if you can't wait, Gonzalo Baeza tracked down this link to the first chapter online. Thanks, man.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Only IFF

The Partisan - d: Ariel Kleiman w: Ariel Kleiman, Sarah Cyngler

Very Big Shot - d: Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya w: Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, Alain Saadeh

Hardcore - w/d: Ilya Naishuller

Monday, September 21, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks

Belly - Hype Williams - The actual fuck? This flick has it all and not nearly enough. Not really sure what I was expecting, but this story of boyhood friends whose neighborhood alliance grows into a criminal empire that eventually topples making way the barbarians at the gate plays like a pastiche of every crime flick, music video and ecstasy/acid vision you've ever entertained blasting hip-hop in your car. It's gorgeous and stylish as hell, makes very little sense and its impact is like a cubist ode to Scarface and Donald Goines. Some sequences are brilliant and others are so amateurish they'd make Mallrats era Kevin Smith cringe. The fluidity and versatility of the visual sensibility is juxtaposed with leaden, whispery narration so heavy and uninspired you'll be rushing for the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. The film jumps from groovy club vibes to hallucinatory encounters dripping with real menace in exotic Jamaican locale to scenes of domestic melodrama worthy of Tommy Wiseau to action set pieces part John Woo and part The Last Dragon. I honestly can't decide if Williams is a hack or a visionary director, but it's an experience I will try again some time, though maybe 3am, failing-cognitive-functions viewings are the best way to experience it. Best moment: I loved every moment of the Omaha scenes, especially when Method Man crashes Tyrin Turner's club. Fucking nuts.

Black Sea - Kevin McDonald - What ever happened to the adventure movie? Why don't we see more fare like this? A dirty dozen of out of work sailors put together a crew in a hurry to recover Nazi gold from the bottom of the ocean under the nose of various world governments. It's a dangerous, dirty job, but the recovery is the least of their problems - once recovered, can they survive each other? Damn, this one was a breath of fresh air. Great cast - Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy and Michael Smiley and a crew of 'that guy' faces. Great premise. Great looking small-scale, large-scale adventure/thriller. I want more. Best moment: just the shot of the whole crew riding a bus on the way to the job - everybody lost in silent contemplation of their lot or goal or absolutely nothing - they got me. Probably haven't responded to a sequence like that since I saw Reservoir Dogs as a teenager.

Casino Royale - Martin Campbell - Honestly I've never been a big James Bond fan. That either elevates the importance of my opinion here or completely discounts it. Either way, this is easily in my top two favorites of the series (the other being From Russia With Love) as it appeals to what appeals to me generally - as opposed to specifically about Bond. For the franchise it's low-fi and nasty and packs a sucker punch of an ending. It works on a meta-level better than Skyfall did, has fun with its own tropes while hitting all the fan-base expected beats. Looks terrific, has great and very silly action set pieces that it manages to convince you are gritty, is populated by always welcomed faces like Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Wright and Judi Dench and sets up Daniel Craig's run in the role with a through line of both plot and character arc. Nice. It's got to be said though - that long poker sequence represents the worst of the franchise's pandering, the worst of gambling movies in general and is so terribly paced and structured I'm tempted to think of it as the film makers going all Andy Kaufman on our collective asses. Best moment: the opening chase sequence is a thesis for the producer's intent for the picture and the future of the franchise.

Chappie - Neal Blomkamp - I'm a defender of Elysium - Blomkamp's critically panned sophomore effort - believing that the exciting bits of that picture (specifically the amazing world-building, the look, feel and tactile immediacy of everything on screen) far outweighed its flaws (heaviness of hand, and casting - Matt Damon was probably just the wrong guy for the role - but I actually loved Sharlto Copley as the heavy - he was terrifyingly incomprehensible), and I reserved the right to remain excited for Chappie despite all the terrible reviews. Holy crap, though, this is a disaster. Disaster may not be the right word. 'Disaster' should be reserved for something that seems like a good idea and goes terribly wrong. I'll give you that making a robo-centric futuristic crime film by the guy who made the 'bots in Elysium is a promising premise, but a RoboCop/Short Circuit mash up (which it is so embarrassingly clearly meant to be) sounds awful from jumpstreet. Still - it's not without bright spots. I submit for your consideration: the world - gah - makes it more the pity such wonderfully realized setting was created in service of shit snack. Also: Hugh Jackman's haircut. It's awesome. I'd like some industrious fans to recut and re-dub this thing and see if there's something salvageable, but they'd have their work cut out for them (probably a kick-ass half-hour short film in there without all the Pinocchio shit). Best moment: any time you can arrange for Die Antwood to shoot neon-colored machine guns in a Jo'burg slum I'm down.

Empire State - Dito Montiel - Director Montiel has got an admirable sensibility. He makes the kind of low-budget crime pictures of appealing scope with a focus on character and atmosphere that I wish we got more of, but intent and taste alone a masterpiece do not guarantee. This story of neighborhood schmoes knocking over the armored transport business is charmingly low-fi and rooted in characters none-too-smart, but not quite farcically portrayed which I appreciate, but the cast is mismatched to the material. Liam Hemsworth is a little bland at the center (could see Channing Tatum or Boogie Nights era Mark Wahlberg being good fits for the role), and Dwayne Johnson is too big and anachronistic a presence in his supporting role (in an 1970s period drama) which causes the film to wobble some. The biggest problem is probably Michael Angarano's big swing at the juiciest role as the fuck up best pal of the main character. He's alternately likable and (appropriately) pathetic, but trying so hard his acting muscles show through some pretty flimsy material at times. Swing and a foul tip here. Props to Hemsworth for moving toward material like this one and this year's similarly-scaled-in-ambition Cut Bank (maybe we'll get a compelling presence molded from him yet), as well as Johnson for the same reason. Paul Ben-Victor is always a welcome presence and Chris Diamantopoulos is effectively menacing. Best moment: Eddie crashes the shift.

Furious 7 - James Wan - Is it nitpicking to criticize the seventh installment in an over the top action franchise about superheroes who drive cars for being a bit bloated and indulgent? Well. It's still a gas and a laugh, but man, the climax of this one was like some Return of the Jedi shit cutting back and forth betwixt foot chases, car chases, helicopter chases and computer hacking. It lacks the clarity of the action in say Fast Five's climactic heist/chase or even the highway tank chase of installment six. But the parachuting cars/mountain convoy assault was inspired and the jumping between sky skrapers was some laugh out loud shit. If a hateful eighth is on the way, they may as well collect my money now. Best moment: Roman don't want to fly.

Killers - Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto - I'm over serial killers. Or though I was until The Chaser and I Saw the Devil took me around blind corners at a relentless pace and revealed exciting new places to take the genre. This one is stylistically assured and a good looking horror show, but it's back to diminishing returns on torture and the 'relationship' of a thrill killer and his internet apprentice. If I never see a pretty lady in negligee screaming in anticipation of mutilation again I'm fine with that. Best moment: the reporter's sexual assault is an off-balance set piece and weirdly compelling. Too bad the rest of the film didn't jump sideways the way that scene did.

Penny Dreadful Season 1 - John Logan - This mashup of gothic horror stories is a pretty brilliant premise, but placing characters from the works of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson and probably several I'm not even picking up on into supporting roles in crisscrossing narratives only opens the door. Once through the looking glass the writers and cast have to make the audience stick around with original material or at least new wrinkles. It's a lush production supported by a game cast and a central story compelling enough to warrant my return for the second season (already aired - anyone? Bueller?). Best moment: couldn't pick just one, but I'm sure it's somewhere in Eva Green's eyes.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Massachusetts Black

James 'Whitey' Bulger has long been a looming figure in popular crime fictions much like Carlos the Jackal  was in the 70s and 80s - a larger than life living legend, romanticized, mythologized and loved to be hated - the subject of numerous true crime books and many more speculative fictions - a stand in boogie man to fit the author's fiendish needs. Real life Keyser Sozes. Until they were captured. When Carlos was apprehended in 1994 and the world got a look at the paunchy terrorist some of the air was let out of the reputation. This was the guy?

When news broke in 2011 that after more than 16 years in the wind Whitey Bulger had been arrested - the era of anything goes Bulger fiction appeared to be over and the new age of reckoning with the devil we knew was going to get messier. Bulger's Winter Hill Gang ruled south Boston for decades, making copious monies from bank robbery, vending machines, drugs, racketeering and uh, jai alai. To further and protect their interests violence, including murder, was employed. But what made Winter Hill, and Bulger in particular, so notable to those who spin stories were three factors:

His brother - William Bulger was a lawyer and eventually a Massachusetts State Senator whose influence was speculated to have been achieved and maintained through a symbiotic relationship with his brother's. This has not been proven, but the suggestion has proven fertile soil for the imagination of writers of fact and fictions.

His accomplice - Special Agent John Connolly of the FBI was a Southie kid who grew up in the shadow of neighborhood big shot Bulger and who became Bulger's handler (though flunkie is the popular portrait). Bulger informed to Connolly on rival criminals, including The Angiulo brothers (and Connolly received a lot of credit in helping to dismantle la Cosa Nostra in Boston), in exchange for tips and protection from prosecution. Through the interference of Connolly on their behalf Bulger's and the Winter Hill gang's operations effectively had free reign with assistance from the federal government.

His disappearance - Tipped off by Connolly of his impending arrest in 1995, Bulger got the fuck outta Dodge and lived in the ether for a decade and a half. With his seeming clean getaway he appeared to have gotten away with everything and he shared a long-term slot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List alongside the like of Osama Bin Laden. Who knew what he was up to in the meantime? That's where the fictions really got rich.

One thing was clear - Bulger left a lot of friends and associates holding the bag. Many of them have told their own stories and all "true accounts" should be taken with a mountain of salt, but they do make for interesting reading and, in their corroborations and contradictions, add dimension and color to what will eventually be the accepted definitive history.

Check out

Brutal by Kevin Weeks

Deadly Alliance by Ralf Ranalli

Howie Carr has written several non-fiction books on The Winter Hill Gang's exploits - The Brothers Bulger, Hitman about Johnny Martorano and Rifleman about Steve Flemmi

Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill wrote The Underboss about the North Boston mafia as well as Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss

Lehr and O'Neill also wrote the book that's just been adapted by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth and directed by Scott Cooper, Black Mass

Whitey - the documentary directed by Joe Berlinger

But... I've got a special affection for the straight-up fictions inspired by the debacle... like -

Pariah by Dave Zeltserman - whew! Blaaackest novel of his Man Out of Prison thematic trilogy. Zeltserman lets his inner psychopath off the leash creating monsters clearly inspired by the Winter Hill cast's exploits and late celebrity. You've been warned.

Martin Scorsese's The Departed was an American remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, but Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello was screenwriter William Monahan riffing on Whitey's two faces.

Showtime's Brotherhood created by Blake Masters was looking to fill the soon to be appearing gap in pop culture by the final exit of HBO's reigning organized crime family drama The Sopranos and told the story of the Caffee brothers - the younger, Tommy (Jason Clarke), is a politician and the older, Michael (Jason Isaacs), is a gangster who come out of hiding and returns to Providence after the last witness against him turns up dead. The Caffee's resemblance to the brothers Bulger is well...

Brotherhood isn't the only Showtime program to wear its Bulger influence on its sleeve. The first season of Ray Donovan features none other than James Woods playing cold-blooded Boston gangster in hiding Patrick 'Sully' Sullivan who risks blowing his cover by coming out in the daylight to kill Jon Voight. Sully is even traveling with his girlfriend who's driving him crazy on their cross country trip overly-fond of her dog. Bulger's lady on the lam friend Catherine Elizabeth Greig was reportedly an animal lover and authorities speculated that the couple may have been visiting animal shelters wherever the blue hell they were in the world.

With it's Boston locale and cast of criminal losers ratting each other out in exchange for favored treatment from law enforcement it's tempting to throw George V. Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle into the mix here, but its 1970 publication predates the unholy alliance of Bulger and the FBI by a couple of years, so we'll just call it inspired by prophecy (Higgins, as a prosecutor, was perhaps bearing witness to what was a more common occurrence than the official record would have us know).

I haven't read it yet, but Howie Carr is returning to Bulger-land with Killers, a work of fiction that imagines fallout from the scramble to fill the power vacuum left in southie after the downfall of the Winter Hill gang.

The truth is ugly, and the consequences of corruption won't be played out for generations, but the story of what went down in Boston, the black mass, the deal with the devil, is the rich narrative stuff we tell ourselves again and again to explain our own complicity, worst impulses and possible fates.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

And Make it Snappy: The Legend of 'The Alligator Man' Joe Ball

A couple months ago Adam Howe published a terrific guest piece here about the late actor Joe Spinell, whom he claims to always be writing roles for. I'm happy to say he's back today with another piece about another influence - the legend of The Alligator Man Joe Ball. Howe's writing is steeped in the influence of trashy exploitation cinema, but the temperature of his interest, purity of his appreciation and the keen, empathetic, critical eye he applies to the subject elevates the material out of the rubbish bin it is sometimes relegated to. Comes through in his writing too. Earlier this year Comet Press released a collection of novellas from Howe, Black Cat Mojo, which read like exploitation fiction accidentally infused with soul. His latest novella, Gator Bait is a straight-up crime story that isn't fucking kidding around.

So check out this piece on Ball and then get your eyes on some of Adam's fiction (perhaps his story Clean-Up on Aisle 3 in the latest issue of Thuglit alongside another ace HBW guest contributor, Eryk Pruitt, as well as Thomas Pluck, Mike Miner, Don LaPlant, J. David Jaggers, Nikki Dolson and Brandon Patterson)

The Legend of ‘The Alligator Man’ Joe Ball
By Adam Howe

Name’s Buck,” says the whorehouse john as he unzips his fly: “an’ I’m rarin’ to fuck.”  Buck (played by a pre-Freddy fame Robert Englund) likes it the French way – that’s in the ass, non-French speakers. The whore ain’t happy about it and she puts up a fight… So begins Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, the director’s follow-up to his 1974 breakout hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  (Though chances are you’ll remember the line from movie magpie Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol.1)
In this sleazy Psycho riff we meet ole Judd, batshit-insane owner of The Starlight, a tumbledown bayou hotel cum scuzzy menagerie. Judd’s star attraction is a giant Nile crocodile he keeps well fed on his unsuspecting guests. (Although one look at the place and they shouldn’t be too unsuspecting.) When the whore from the opening scene finds herself a guest of the Starlight, it isn’t long before the psychotically repressed Judd starts reaching for his weapon of choice, a big-ass Grim Reaper scythe, and carves her into chunks of gator chow.

Compared to Hooper’s classic Texas Chainsaw, which has retained its power to disturb decades after its release, Eaten Alive is – frankly – a piece of shit. The direction is uneven at best. Performances range from bad to worse. Actors vie to out-improvise each other and at times appear to be acting in completely different movies. The sets are clunky and visibly wobble. The fake crocodile sucks…
Watching Eaten Alive, and much of the Hooper’s subsequent output, you can’t help but feel the director caught lightning in a bottle with Texas Chainsaw. He never quite repeated the trick, despite showing flashes of brilliance in his TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and killer carnies flick The Funhouse. (Let’s face it, Spielberg at the very least quarterbacked Poltergeist.) And yet, for the connoisseur of good bad movies, Eaten Alive is not without dubious charms.
Highlights include:

Neville Brand as ole Judd – whether he’s chasing victims through the ramshackle hotel with his unwieldy scythe, or just shambling about the shithole delivering boozy monologues, Brand’s committed performance rivals Joe Spinell in Maniac for bug-eyed intensity.

William Finley’s insane improvisations as a feckless husband and father who might be even crazier than Judd. (Hooper appears to have fed Finley a hit of acid and then let him rip.)
   The nightmare image of a monkey slowly dying in its cage.
   Judd’s giant croc devouring Finley’s daughter’s dog, plus a whole host of human folks – for a backwoods hotel, the Starlight has an unfeasibly high turnover of guests.

Like Texas Chainsaw before it, which was inspired by the exploits of everybody’s favourite grave-robbing ghoul Ed Gein, Eaten Alive takes its cue from another real-life monster: Joe ‘The Alligator Man’ Ball.  For the most detailed account of the case, I urge you to read the Texas Monthly article by Michael Hall: Two Barmaids, Five Alligators, and the Butcher of Elmendorf.
But here’s the skinny:
The most widely published photo of Joe Ball shows a rough n’ tumble sumbitch wearing a strongman leotard and clutching a pint bottle of hooch. After fighting on the front lines during World War I, Ball made his living as a Prohibition-era bootlegger. When Amendment 18 was repealed, he opened a tavern in Elmendorf, South Texas: The Sociable Inn. Place had good liquor and pretty waitresses – Ball had an eye for the ladies – but what really drew the crowds were the alligators Ball kept in a pit out back. He’d entertain folks with live feedings of cats and dogs to his pets. When a number of women were reported missing – including Sociable waitresses, Ball’s girlfriends, and his wife – the law arrived at the tavern to question Ball. Agreeing to accompany the cops into town, Ball first asked permission to empty the cash register. Instead he pulled a pistol and fired a fatal shot through his own heart. In the investigation that followed, a handyman named Clifford Wheeler confessed to being Ball’s accomplice in as many as twenty murders, with the gators devouring the evidence. The San Antonio zoo later adopted Ball’s reptilian accomplices and the gators became macabre tourist attractions.

Despite there never being any concrete evidence that Ball ever fed his victims to the gators, once the pulp writers got their grubby mitts on the story, tales of ‘The Alligator Man’ tossing live victims to his ravenous reptiles became legend.
A legend that endures to this day – inspiring Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, soon to be re-released as a Blu-Ray Special Edition…and more recently, a limey punk named Adam Howe, whose new novella Gator Bait is available now.