Wednesday, April 29, 2015


You know it's been damn near a year since I hosted a N@B event in St. Louis? There've been reasons for that, and, without going into them, lemme just say it's not at all been because I don't enjoy the colossal holy crap out of em. I love seeing you guys. I love hearing your performances and hanging out. I love the events and I'm damn happy that the rest of you have been picking up the slack. The next several weeks I'm getting my chance to take part in several and this is my happy face.

First up is N@B-Chicago this week. That's right, come see me Thursday night along with Dan O'Shea, Heath Lowrance and Libby Fischer Hellmann. Also looking forward to hanging with Jake Hinkson, Kent Gowran, Kevin Lynn Helmick, maybe Julian Grant, Robb Olson, Livius Nedin, Richard Thomas... Theresa Schwegel? And I hear rumors of Tim Hennessey and his lovely wife making an appearance though apparently Frank Wheeler Jr. has no sense of priorities and should go ahead and kiss my ass.

And less than a week later I'll be at N@B-Oxford where William Boyle has whipped up a killer lineup that makes me feel funny in my pants. So if you're in or around the Oxford, Mississippi area come by Proud Larry's on Wednesday, May 6 to catch me with Boyle, Tom Franklin, Ace Atkins, Jack Pendarvis, Chris Offutt, Scott Phillips, Mary Miller, Melissa Ginsburg, Lisa Howorth, Derrick Harriell, Joe Atkins, Tyler Keith and Jimmy Cajoleas in a Battle Royale-style reading where we shout over the top of each other and throw our weight around until there's a single upright, heaving, bloody-hoarse-throated reader commanding your attention while the EMTs take care of everybody else... Or something like that. Shit, if you've ever been in that place with the specters of Larry Brown and Barry Hannah and some guy named Faulkner hanging around... it's kinda special. Hey, Stephen Usery - you in the area?

Then in June I'll be headed back to N@B-Indianapolis (a town that's becoming one of my favorites to visit). Be good to see C.J. Edwards, Alec Cizak and Dan O'Shea and Jake Hinkson (again- pshhh).

Sunday, April 26, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks: March

Best Seller - John Flynn - Brian Dennehy plays Dennis Meechum, a cop who's book about a famous robbery has made him a lot of money, a good reputation and the target of a professional killer named Cleve (James Woods). Cleve doesn't want to bump off Meechum - he wants Meechum to write the story of life in a tell-all book designed as a tell-all revenge bomb for the powerful man he's been working for, only Meechum is tough to convince. He's a grump. He's Brian Dennehy for fucks ache. Cleve tempts Meechum with tasty crumbs of the story and the two hit the road for a tour of Cleve's secret life's work while a string of heavies sent from Mr. bloody white collar (Paul Shenar) try to keep it all buried. It begins with a tense, gritty, no-flash heist sequence that had me hoping the film was going to amaze me, but five minutes later features one of the strangest action set pieces this side of Prime Cut that introduces Woods and after that? Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag ping-ponging between gutsy moments and gonzo ones. Always love Woods and shit, can I just say that I love living in a world where Brian Dennehy was a fucking movie star. In the body of Flynn's work this one lands in the middle... Which is saying something. Best moment: the opening heist.

Gone Girl - David Fincher - The Dunnes (Rosamund Pike & Ben Affleck) have a model marriage - not in the sense that it's one folks should model their own upon, but in the sense that I once had model airplanes. It's a replica. Something a collector might appreciate. Looks good and accurate from all the outside angles, but does not function like the thing it apes. When she disappears one day, his life falls apart in a very public way. First he's under pressure then suspicion and finally the thumb... only... whose? As the details of their rather sordid inner lives are exposed to the viewer, our sympathies never solidly latch on to either character - one is a sick pup and the other might have coming what they get (or at least you don't feel too awfully bad for em when it comes) - and pulling that off while pulling us in? That's a neat trick and I kinda hate that it automatically qualifies it as ballsy for a tent-pole release from a major studio, but it is. Does it work? Sure. Yeah. I think so. Though, it's essentially a '90s straight to video sex thriller with A-list talent in front of and behind the camera. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I happen to like sex thrillers from the 90s. I'm just saying... if it were Joanne Whalley and Michael Madsen in a flick directed by John Dahl (still based on the novel by Gillian Flynn)... I might've been a lot more excited by the results. Still - damn, what a cast. Solid lead performances and top-notch supporting turns from Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes and Tyler Perry (no, really). Best moment: probably the only NPH sex scene outside of another Harold & Kumar flick I'll ever need.

Safe House - Daniel Espinosa - Called this one one of my favorite flicks of the year a couple years ago and upon revisit... it stands up. Deep as a puddle, but man, it makes a great splash. Solid, hard-nosed action that snaps, crackles and pops like a Michael Mann or a Peter Berg joint and a good cast not embarrassing themselves. However... since I already spent a post or two praising this one, I'm gonna give a couple of suggestions as to how it could've been even better. Ryan Reynold's character is our eyes in to this situation. He's as close to an everyman as this film has and they play him as that for our sake - they focus on his relationship with his lady and his career frustrations in order to... have us identify with him somehow? As the film roles on he's revealed clearly to be not an everyman... which is the point. Or should have been. If the flick did that other thing that Michael Mann films do well - show us professionals being professional and not over-explain anything to us - this would've been even sharper. Shit, the closer it could be to a silent (or really dialogue-less) picture the better. And there's the other missed opportunity... cutting out all the expositional chatter within the CIA operation and just observing would've made the flick feel much smarter. Action, like humor, shouldn't have to be that explained - both lose impact with over-explanation. Then switch the roles Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga are playing and bam - super awesome flick. But these are nits that I'm picking at. Espinosa made a very impressive English language debut with this one - after his truly great Swedish flick Easy Money (from the Jens Lapidus book) - here's hoping his next project, Child 44 (from the Tom Rob Smith novel) makes him three for three. Best moment: this time around I was particularly electrified by the safe house shootout sequence with Robert Patrick's team.

Son of a Gun - Julius Avery - A bright young kid in prison (Brenton Thwaites) is taken under the wing of a professional thief (Ewan McGregor) who protects him on the inside in exchange for the kid executing a plan to break his mentor out once his brief sentence is over. Once everybody's outside it becomes a heist flick and a double-cross-a-thon. Sure it's not new territory, but it is fertile, if not hallowed, ground and covered with competence, conviction and a minimum of bullshit. Hard edged and nasty, but not overly hardboiled or cartoonish, this picture has prison fights, shootouts and armed robbery, but has chops enough to make each fresh and intense - wait, lemme put it this way: this film has a genuinely thrilling car chase. I just said car chase and thrilling in the same sentence. In a non automobile-centric film that's damned impressive. It's because the action is integral to the story and a natural part of the characters' lives which we're invested in and not (only) because it's so well executed. Adding tremendously to the atmosphere are supporting turns from Matt Nable, Eddie Baroo, Sam Hutchin, Tom Budge, Jacek Koman and Damon Herriman in full Dewey Crowe drag, but feeling dangerously unbalanced rather than pathetic. The soundtrack, the photography and the unforced atmosphere that manages to simultaneously hold excitement and dread, cold-bloodedness and tenderness point to a sure hand's crafting. No idea if Avery's interest lies in crime specifically, but here's hoping. It's a kick ass debut. Best moment: Sterlo (Nable) gives the kid life advice.

Wolf - Jim Taihuttu - A first generation immigrant to Denmark fights for his place in the world through petty crime and kickboxing. But damn. It plays better than that. Just... trust me. It does. Love the black and white photography, the familiar/exotic urban setting, and the assurance that the character's struggles are universal. For Majid (Marwan Kenzari) the biggest obstacle to his own happiness and success is himself. He's stronger in character, smarter, more level headed and patient than his friend Adil (Chems Eddine Amar) who wants everything he believes comes easily to Majid, but Majid is a dumb fuck to most of the world - hotheaded, ignorant and brutish. The balance of perspectives is well handled and Majid's confusion in the world and horror at his own self-destructive actions are shared by the audience. Every opportunity looks very different from the base and the summit, as does every price and consequence. Kind of an anti-RockyBest moment: the armored truck heist is pretty great - ballsy, tense, sloppy, brutal. 

Young Adam - David Mackenzie - Joe and Les, two barge workers in 1950s Scotland (Ewan McGregor and Peter Mullan), pull the body of a young woman out of the river one morning and provide a brief interview for the police, before getting on with their work. Joe is restless. He works for Les, whose family owns and lives on the boat, and shares a mutual sexual attraction with Les's wife Ella (Tilda Swinton). Soon Joe and Ella's affair is too flagrant to ignore and Joe takes Les's place in the world. Rather than satisfy Joe, this only makes more apparent the great sucking void at his core and soon Joe is following his dick whatever direction the erotic wind blows. A crime story on some level, it's better described as a noir - a cynical look at the character's drive and ultimate solution for pain-coated emptiness: indifference. Downbeat, elegantly drab and nasty, it may not have needed the NC-17 rating to make it instantly evaporate from popular consciousness, but it's these elements coupled with an amazing cast (including Emily Mortimer), the well-deserved critical lauding of director Mackenzie's latest flick (the prison drama Starred Up featuring Ben Mendelsohn and a breakout performance from Jack O'Connell) and the new medium of streaming video that make it ripe for a rediscovering (which may extend to the source novel by Alexander Trocchi). Best moment: Les confronts Joe and Ella.

Young Ones - Jake Paltrow - A community of hardy and resilient, if desperate, folks eke out a hardscrabble existence in a drought-plagued near future. Among them, Ernest (Michael Shannon) who runs a mobile mercantile with which he supplies the government workers who divert the water supply to more populated areas, Flem (Nicholas Hoult) an ambitious farmer with a vision to make the land fertile again and Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) the son of Ernest, torn between his father's and Flem's ideas and ideals. The film's structure gives each character their own chapter in a more or less linear narrative that adds up to something resembling a novel more than a film, but holy crap, what a movie. Couldn't believe I'd not heard of this one at all before it popped up on Netflix, but I gave it a blind try and watched it in a single sitting - more and more rare, kids. Afterward I looked for reviews and was puzzled by the tepid to cool critical response I found online. Sounded like folks were disappointed that it didn't do more large-scale Hunger Games-style dystopia world-building - something the film clearly has no interest in doing. Did they see the same film I did? Maybe it's just the onslaught of YA-future-scape pictures souring their appetite for anything not set in the here and now, but I'd say this has far more in common with say John Steinbeck than Suzanne Collins. It's a small-scale, lived-in, neo-dustbowl sci-fi/western family saga full of great visual touches, wide-open spaces and dark implications. Do yourself a favor and get on this one pronto. Best moment: Ernest and Flem speak plainly.

Monday, April 20, 2015

I Warned You Not To Blog Tonight: The Maniac - Joe Spinell

Adam Howe writes the kind of gleefully fucked up crime fiction guaranteed to never make him a best selling author (that's a recommendation, kids). His characters are generally clinging to the bottom rung or already in free-fall and destined to knock a few more souls off the ladder on their way down. His book of collected novellas, Black Cat Mojo is available from Comet Press, and I enjoyed the hell out of it (as well as the hell within it). I asked him for a guest piece and he delivered this beaut on the character actor Joe Spinell. If you're a film fan and especially if you're drawn to those 'that-guy' faces, then you know we've lost some classic character actors just recently. Geoffrey Lewis, Robert Z'Dar and Tom Towles made contributions to some of my favorite corners of cinema and I think this piece on Spinell is a timely reminder to appreciate who we've lost and who we've still got.

By Adam Howe

My whole life’s like a book.  I go shootin’, ridin’, and fishin’.  Listen, I’m a roper, I’m a doper, I’m a lover, I’m a fighter, I’m a rodeo rider… — Joe Spinell

Most of this article, I’ve shamelessly cribbed from The Joe Spinell Story the great documentary featured among the extras on the Maniac DVD, and essential viewing for Spinellophiles. I’ve played fast and loose with the facts. Between truth and legend, I’ve printed the legend. And in all likelihood, I’ve disparaged the good name of Sylvester Stallone. But what the hell.
If you don’t know the name, you know the face.
Greasy, pockmarked, in later performances often oozing pure alcohol.
Nasty-looking mustache.
Unashamedly out-of-shape.
His New York delivery slightly slurred by drink and dope.

In Billy Friedkin’s Cruising, the sight of Spinell (playing fag-bashing repressed homo flatfoot DiSimone) clad in bull queer biker leathers, as he attempts to solicit ass from Al Pacino – I’m assuming Joe’s pitching – is more nightmarish than anything the director conjured up for The Exorcist.
   He’s hitman-turned-fink Willie Cicci in The Godfather I & II.
   Travis Bickle’s cab rank boss in Taxi Driver.
   Asthmatic loan shark Tony Gazzo in Rocky I & II.
   Darth Vader clone Count Zarth Arn in Italian Star Wars knock-off Starcrash.
   And my personal favourite: serial killer Frank Zito in Maniac.

Born Joseph J. Spagnuolo, Spinell was raised by his mother in Queens, New York. Apart from a few lost years in Hollywood, the doting son would live with her in the family home. A chronic asthmatic, and hemophiliac, he found solace in the arts; a true Renaissance man, Joe was an accomplished painter, poet, and could act up a storm.

As a struggling young thespian – choosing the snazzy-sounding ‘Spinell’ as his stage name – Joe paid his dues in off-Broadway theater, making ends meet with the usual shit – waiting tables, tending bar, driving a cab – before muscling his way to his first movie role: playing button man Willie Cicci in The Godfather (who turns fink in Part II). Coppola took a shine to Joe’s larger than life persona and adopted the young actor for the duration of the shoot. Receiving a day player’s full salary, Joe hung out on set: cracking wise, busting chops, boosting morale with an impromptu game of craps; often kept Coppola company behind the camera; and at the end of filming, was voted MVP by the cast and crew.

Despite being just a bit player on his first motion picture, Spinell became – after Brando – the highest-paid actor on The Godfather; until his untimely death, Joe would continue to receive residual checks in the thousands of dollars, and be forced to hide the cash from his lifelong nemesis, the IRS.

Hitting the ground running with his first movie role, Joe never looked back.
   Taxi Driver (Scorsese).
   Sorcerer (Friedkin).
   Big Wednesday (Milius).
   Sharing the screen with such legends as De Niro, Pacino, Oates, Scheider, Dean Stanton, Plummer, Stallone, Dee Williams, and Hasselhoff.

Beloved by cast and crew, the life and soul on- and off-set, Joe’s reputation as a party animal soon became infamous.  Filming William Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration in Soviet Hungary, Joe and co-stars Jason Miller and Stacey Keach were arrested following a drunken bar brawl with a mob of Russian hoods. Chairs were busted over Russkie heads; bottles smashed – by the hemophiliac Joe, hinting at Spinell’s self-destructive tendencies. Tossed into gulag, things might have turned nasty for the Americans, but Joe charmed their jailers with stories from his time on The Godfather – a sleazy variation on McCartney being forced to perform Yesterday for the Jap cops following his Tokyo drug bust – and secured their release.

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely pairing than straitlaced Steven Spielberg and notorious party animal Joe Spinell, but there they are; in home movie footage, we’re treated to the surreal sight of Lil’ Stevie and Big Joe chilling in Spielberg’s bungalow on the Universal lot. The 1975 Oscar nominations are about to be announced live on TV, and Spielberg has invited Joe to watch Jaws sweep the board.  (Joe was originally cast as the “Swim, Charlie!  Don’t look back!”-guy on the fishing dock in Jaws but had to turn down the role due to other commitments; the actor cast does a fine job, but Jaws fans and Spinellophiles can only wonder what Spinell would have done with the role.) When Spielberg fails to receive a Best Director nomination, Spinell covers his embarrassed ass by launching into a tirade at the Academy. “Who made the movie?  The shark?  Some guy’s mother?  This man made Jaws!” He then vows to get Spielberg drunk. Perhaps he succeeded. They would never work together.

Joe’s experience on The Godfather is memorable for another reason. During auditions, he had met a struggling young actor named Sylvester Stallone.  Seeing something no one else did in The Kid – as Joe dubbed him – Spinell took Stallone under his wing; kept him fed, clothed, helped out with the rent; knowing Joe he probably got The Kid drunk and laid too; even bought Sly the typewriter on which Stallone would hammer out a little screenplay called Rocky.

Stallone returned the favor by casting Joe as asthmatic loan shark Tony Gazzo in Rocky (which would become, after The Godfather I & II, Spinell’s third film to be awarded the Best Picture Oscar) and Rocky II, as well as bit parts in Paradise Alley (as a character named Burp…some favor) and Nighthawks (a more respectable role as Lt. Munafo).

By this time, Stallone was a big star with a bigger ego. As Spinell’s reputation as a wild man became legend – the drink, the drugs, the women; and that’s just on-set – at the behest of his management, Stallone turned his back on his friend and mentor, and the godfather to his son, Sage. They would never work together again. For Spinellophiles, this is a criminal neglect of Spinell’s talents; it is impossible not to imagine Spinell as The Night Slasher in Cobra, Bull Hurley in Over the Top, even the Brion James role in Tango & Cash.

At his regular hangout bar, Friar Tuck, Joe refused to hear a bad word spoken about The Kid. Inspired by Stallone’s success with Rocky, Spinell embarked on his own passion project. Writing, producing, and – most importantly for a character actor – starring in what would be his own Rocky.

That film was Maniac.

Watching Spinell act like a psychopathic killer with a mommy-complex is like watching someone else throw up.” — Vincent Canby, 1981 New York Times review of Maniac

Rightly lauded by horror fans as a classic of slasher cinema – trashed by pretty much everyone else – Maniac tells the tragic story of Frank Zito. The neglected son of an abusive mother, Frank grows up to become a serial killer, scalping women to decorate his harem of mannequins in his shithole NYC apartment.

That’s the plot covered.

To achieve his vision, Spinell surrounded himself with a team of hungry young filmmakers, including debutant director Billy Lustig – whom Joe auditioned at a 42nd Street porno theater in which his new bride was starring in Confessions of a Flea – and special effects maestro, the Wizard of Gore, Tom Savini. Though keen to work with Spinell, Savini was leery of the violent script - he would later dismiss the finished film as “sleaze,” despite Maniac containing some of his best SFX work – and had to be tempted with an acting role: the show-stopping scene in which the Maniac decapitates a male victim with a shotgun blast to the head.

Savini is right; the film is “sleaze.” It is also awesome. Depicting a New York which, sadly, no longer exists – streetwalkers, pimps, porno theaters – as an American Giallo, Maniac is genuinely effective at times – particularly the subway sequence, which remains influential to this day. But it is Spinell’s committed performance that anchors the picture, and makes it one of the best horror flicks of the 80s.

A character actor is never better than when given a starring role in which to shine, and Spinell pours his heart into Frank Zito. At times, his shambolic performance is one of the most devastatingly accurate portrayals of a serial killer ever committed to celluloid, right up there with Rooker’s Henry; at other times, it is hysterical. The Oscar clip is a booze-soaked monologue – Spinell called it his 100-proof performance – in which Zito rages to camera about “fancy girls in their fancy dresses and their lipstick, laughing and dancing.” Joe based his performance on David Berkowitz – one sees shades of the Son of Sam as Frank rants at his mannequins in his squalid apartment – and less successfully, Ted Bundy.  Frank’s radical transformation from drooling lunatic to ladies man strains credibility, though it’s amusing to watch Spinell wine and dine the beautiful Caroline Munro, who is, of course, powerless to resist his rat bastard charm.

Upon release, Maniac was a huge financial success, and caused a shit-ton of controversy. Banned outright in many countries, in the UK it didn’t even make the notorious ‘video nasty’ list; our censors simply buried it, refusing the film classification until the millennium, when even then many scenes were butchered. Outraged women’s groups picketed the movie and painted over the poster which depicted the Maniac clutching a victim’s bloody scalp in one hand, a Buck knife in the other, a hard-on bulging in his jeans like a Rolling Stones album cover, and the tagline I WARNED YOU NOT TO GO OUT TONIGHT. Spinell was dismayed by the reaction – The Kid never had this trouble with his pet project – particularly from feminist groups calling him a woman-hater. For all his sins, Spinell was a great lover of women, and a regular at Gallagher’s topless bar.

The Maniac controversy was perhaps more damaging to Spinell’s career than his increasing reputation as a party animal.

Hollywood stopped calling.

Spinell threw himself into B-movies, and partied harder than ever.

During filming of The Last Horror Film, shot largely guerilla-style at the Cannes film festival, the half-mil budget ballooned to over two mil as Joe and his cronies hit the town. The nightlife began taking its toll on Joe. Friends warned him he was living dangerously close to the edge. When his beloved mother died, the wheels came off completely. On the rare occasions he was offered work, he wasn’t fit to act, turning down roles for the first time. Billy Lustig recalls a heartbreaking moment when a shabby-looking Spinell, drunk and still grieving for his mother, visited his office with a wizened old woman in tow. The old broad began singing in Italian. Joe leaned his head on her shoulder and wept.

As his health declined, and hurting for money despite those Godfather residuals, Joe made a last-ditch effort to launch a comeback with Maniac II, Mr. Robbie. Determined to answer critics of the first film, in Mr. Robbie Spinell would play the beloved host of a children’s television show, who brutally slaughters the parents of abused children. A promising promo was filmed, but alas, Joe died before shooting could commence.

The circumstances of Spinell’s death are as colorful as his life. Worried friends hadn’t seen or heard from Joe in days. The cops were called.  On gaining entry to his apartment, they discovered a massacre.  Joe was slumped on the living room couch, wearing only a towel. The room was a bloodbath. A disembodied head was perched on the TV like something from Jeffrey Dahmer’s crib. On closer inspection, the cops noticed the head bore an uncanny likeness to Joe; it proved to be a prop from Maniac he had kept as a souvenir. Joe had slipped in the shower and cut his head, managed to stagger from the bathroom to the living room couch, where he passed out and died of hemophiliac blood loss.

I like to think that had he shaped up and lived longer, audiences would have been treated to Spinell chewing scenery in a Tarantino flick. Given his success with Maniac, it’s possible he may have become a latter-day horror star, Chris Lee or Pete Cushing without the social graces, Vinny Price with a little less ham; he sure would’ve kicked ass at the horror conventions. In my own work, I often ask myself: Is there a role for Joe in this? There usually is. And if there isn’t? Then there’s always the rewrite.


Adam Howe writes the twisted fiction your mother warned you about. A British writer of fiction and screenplays, he lives in Greater London with his partner and their hellhound, Gino. Writing as Garrett Addams, his short story Jumper was chosen by Stephen King as the winner of the On Writing contest; the prize was publication in the paperback and eBook editions of On Writing, and an audience with The King, where they mostly discussed slow vs. fast zombies. His short fiction has appeared in places like Nightmare Magazine, Horror Library 5, Plan B Magazine, One Buck Horror, and Mythic Delirium. His debut collection of offbeat crime novellas, Black Cat Mojo, is available NOW from Comet Press. Coming soon are new novellas Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, and Damn Dirty Apes. He is currently working on his first novel, One Tough Bastard. You can Tweet him @Adam_G_Howe.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Nightmares of My Choosing

Words to Die For from New Pulp press is the new book out by Lynn Kostoff - something I get to say far too infrequently. Last time this happened Late Rain was one of my favorites of the year. I've not yet read the new one, but here's a piece I wrote upon the release of Late Rain a few years back for another site...

I confess that I don’t often remember too much about the plots of books that I read. I’ll have some vague outline preserved usually, (started at point A and ended at point Z, the middle is a blur), but the fine points, the mechanics and details that, let’s face it, lots of mysteries turn on, don’t commonly stick with me. What I tend to retain are memorable characters. In critical essays and reviews I read the phrase “character driven” too often. I roll my eyes a lot because it sounds, to me, like code for “it’s okay to like this” as opposed to that lower form of literature, “plot driven.” I love plots. Books need them. Movies need them. I’ve read some awfully dull books and endured some terrible films that obviously disdained them, and I would prefer a solid, if cookie-cutter, procedural to dynamic prose that amounted to literary navel-gazing any day. But again, it’s the characters that tend to stay with me.

I’d like to use the term ‘character driven’ here, to recommend Late Rain by Lynn Kostoff, and before you roll your eyes, let me explain exactly what I mean. Things happen in this book. Lots of things. It’s packed with scheming, intimidation, betrayal, and murder, and it features an actual detective working an actual mystery. But rather than the players being stand-ins, whose sole function is to move along a convoluted story and amuse us with a one-liner now and then, the characters are so vividly rendered that throwing them together couldn’t help but produce circumstances and consequences similar to what we’re given.

The story involves three different stubborn old men who won’t do what everybody wants them to. Stanley Tedros wont sell off his soft-drink company, Sonny Gramm wont sell off his strip club and Jack Carson wont remember the physical description of a killer. Alright, Jack can’t help it, he’s in the advanced stages of Alzheimers, but Stanley and Sonny? They can be dealt with. And they are.

Late Rain is populated by one of the most colorful character casts this side of a Carl Hiaasen novel. But where Hiaasen gets the most from his creations by pushing them into cartoonishness, Kostoff has taken great care to keep his lunatics grounded in reality and the payoff is nice. I could have spent entire books with the sleazy lawyer Raychard Balen, he of the asymmetrical mustache, or Jaime, the low-rent criminal with big ideas and a bigger mouth. Even minor characters, like teenaged Paige Carson, or elderly Stanley Tedros, showed glimpses into deep wells of creepiness and self-congratulation that I’d like to have more time to explore.

But the most memorable passages were told through the eyes of a (autistic?) criminal named Croy Wendall who is constantly doing rhymes, numbers, and free association to soothe himself. He’s often derailed by these trains of thought in the middle of carrying out some job he’s been hired for, and we’re treated to an inside-out view of the crimes that add macabre humor, (especially to a particularly gruesome killing). He also appears to be named after the alias Linda Fiorentino’s character from The Last Seduction takes on, (Wendy Kroy—New York backwards). It’s a clue to the way Croy relates to the world, obsessively restructuring words and phrases, or alluding, off the cuff, to pop-culture landmarks; everything relates to everything else somehow.

And speaking of names, or aliases, one character’s previous moniker was April Rayne, the none-too-subtle missing element from the book’s title. As Mother Nature obstinately holds back the rain and the South Carolina spring heat goes unabated, wildfires ravage the countryside, (a natural consequence of the missing precipitation). Likewise, as the stubborn old men refuse to comply to the wishes of others, murder and mayhem ravage Magnolia Beach, (a natural consequence of not getting our way).

I’ve only just come to read Kostoff this year as his 1991 debut A Choice of Nightmares was reprinted by New Pulp Press, but based on the strength of these two offerings, I’ve added his name to my watch-for list. Better late than never.

*** end reprint ***

By the way, I heard from Lynn after that piece ran initially and he said that the whole Fiorentino connection was un-intentional. I don't care - it added something to my experience of the book... and helped me self-diagnose my own condition and get me some special drugs. You want to know more about Lynn? Check out this interview he did with Keith Rawson over at LitReactor.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Little Girl Cut Me: Bruce DeSilva, Narrative Music

Bruce DeSilva has been doing it longer than you. In that time he's picked up a thing or two. So, when I asked him for a Narrative Music piece, he came back with a damned tutorial. Got some well observed... observations about voice and tone and style and how they can all play the same story for wildly different effect. Pay attention, you might learn a thing or three (then go visit his website). You're welcome.

Ladies, germs, I give you Bruce DeSilva...

The languages of writing and music have many terms in common: tone, mood, pacing, style, movement, rhythm, voice... It is only natural, then, that music is central in my series of hard-boiled crime novels featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island. Blues artists including Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, and Son Seals provide the soundtrack of his life.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when I teach prose writing in college and professional workshops, music is one of my most important tools.

Take voice, for example. Readers think they read with their eyes, but they really read with their ears. They hear the writer speaking to them from the page. The appeal of that voice has everything to do with whether they will finish a book or ever want to read anything else by that writer.

The late Robert B. Parker, one of the best-selling crime novelists of all time, once told me that readers enjoyed his books for the same reason they love certain songs. They like the way they sound. The same story can sound very different, depending on who is telling it. I like to make this point to writers by having them listen to the same song performed by different artists.

Consider Hound Dog, for example. Elvis Presley’s recording, the version people are most familiar with, tells the story of a guy who’s annoying him by sniffing around his girlfriend; but in his hands the tune is so goofy that it’s almost a novelty song. Big Mama Thornton’s earlier version, however, is deadline serious. She angry at some jerk who won’t leave her alone. Pots and pans-throwing angry. Now give a listen to what Koko Taylor does with it. She’s so furious that she’s ready to cut somebody.

Or consider Respect, a song most people associate with Aretha Franklin. In her version, she demands respect from her husband when he comes home from work, but he’s so thick-headed that she has to spell it for him: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. To a guy, the chorus provided by a platoon of background singers sounds like all the women in the world yelling at him.

But the song was written, and originally recorded, by Otis Redding. In his version, the word is not spelled out. Instead, it tells the story of a black man who doesn’t get much respect when he’s out there in the world trying to make a living. So when he comes home, by God he better get respect from his woman.

When Redding first heard Aretha’s version, he is said to have muttered, “The little girl cut me.”
This is what we want from musicians—individual interpretations only each of them can give us. It’s also what we want from writers.

I also use songs to illustrate how writers can develop characters and build story arcs—something the best song writers manage to achieve with very few words.

Not every song tells a story, of course. “Nah Nah Nah Nah, Nah Nah Nah Nah, Hey Hey, Goodbye”—not a story. But a lot of songs have perfect story arcs.

The one I use most often when I teach characterization and storytelling is Love at the Five & Dime. It was written by Nanci Griffith, although Kathy Mattea’s version probably sold more copies.

It begins when a guitar-player named Eddie meets a sixteen-year-old girl named Rita at the Five & Dime. When we are told that she “makes the Woolworth counter shine,” we know that means she does more than just polish it with a rag. And Eddie? He’s “a sweet romancer and a darned good dancer.”
That’s characterization.

But what’s the story? Rita’s parents don’t approve of Eddie, setting up an immediate conflict. So what do these two kids do? They run off and get married.

We’re rooting for them now, but in the second verse, there’s more trouble. 
They lose a baby, a tragedy that can put immense pressure on any marriage. Then, in the third verse, things get still worse. When one of the guys in Eddie’s band flirts with Rita, Eddie gets jealous and “runs off with the baseman’s wife.

But before long, he comes crawling back to Rita.

In the final verse, they’ve both grown old. Eddie’s arthritis “took his hands,” so he can’t play his steel guitar anymore. He sells insurance now. And Rita? She spends her days keeping house and reading dime-store novels.

But through it all, Eddie and Rita have remained together; and every evening, they dance, because “love’s for sale tonight at this Five & Dime.

That’s a perfect story arc about two characters the song writer made us care about, all of it told in just four lyrical verses.

This song always leaves me wanting more—just as any good song should.

You could tell the same story in a 400-page dime-store novel about Eddie and Rita. Who knows? Perhaps one day, some novelists will.

Bruce DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press's award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won every major journalism award including the Pulitzer. His fourth novel, A Scourge of Vipers, has just been published by Forge in hardcover and e-book editions.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

By the Number

A few weeks ago Brian Lindenmuth posted a picture on his FB page of books from his shelves with numbers in the title and asked for others to do the same. I've wasted many a Saturday afternoon compulsively combing my shelves to keep up with his challenges. Anyhow, when my pile was assembled (incomplete of course, but pictured above) I turned to movies... because apparently I've got some OCD issues.

Tried to make the crime flick list go to 100, but lost my way somewhere in the 60s. You can see that list I posted at Letterboxd right here. Please go visit it and tell me how fucking clever I am. I need that kind of validation.

I wanted to post something better about books than my stupid picture on Brian's page, but I ran out of steam to go beyond what I actually had at home. So below are a quick one-to-ten (a cut-off which keeps me from including stuff like Ed Kurtz's The Forty-Two and Thomas McGuane's 92 in the Shade - I'll leave that for a bigger nerd). Obviously there are plenty of titles that I could have included in the one-ten slots that I dig - Eric Beetner's Dig Two Graves, Daniel Woodrell's The Ones You Do, Grant Jerkins' The Ninth Step come to mind - but these stood out for some reason and that there's all there is.

One to Count Cadence - James Crumley - Been saving this one for a long time. I love several of his crime novels - The Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear, The Wrong Case - and his short story collection Whores, but I've held off on reading his Viet Nam novel, not because I doubt the pleasure I'll take from it, for unknown reasons. Finally having read Kent Anderson's Sympathy For the Devil I think I'll probably dig into this one soon. Still, it's always comforting to look at your bookshelf and feel certain that you've got plenty of ammo for apocalyptic ice storm that knocks out power and keeps you from traveling, affording you no activity but reading and boardgames for a month.

The Two Faces of January - Patricia Highsmith - Highsmith's one of those names I pick up whatever I find by in the library sales, and I've had this one on stand by for a couple of years, but having very much enjoyed the recent film version from Hossein Amini, I've bumped this one to a higher spot on my TBR list.

3 Steps to Hell - Arnold Hano - I'd never heard of Hano (or his pseudonyms Mike Heller or Gil Dodge) before Stark House put out this omnibus. I read Flint and dug hell out of it. It's hardboiled and unsentimental and just cold as fuck yet manages to have a real, beating heart beneath its surface. Check it out.

Four Corners of Night - Craig Holden - Had this one on my shelf for years and still haven't got to it, though based on the recommendations from many sources I trust (Craig McDonald, Peter Dragovich, Brian Lindenmuth, Keith Rawson, Eric Beetner) I am pretty fucking sure I'm going to love it when I get there.

I-5 - Summer Brenner - Holy hell, I loved this one. Story of a Russian girl forced into sex work in the US, part of an underground hidden in plain sight. Bleak, yes, but tough too. Neither hand-wringing victim-exploitation, nor cartoonishly hardboiled, this is a survivor's tale with a human and enigmatic protagonist. Apparently a sequel coming soon. Fuck yes.

The Cold Six Thousand - James Ellroy - Middle chapter of the Underground USA trilogy. What? You haven't read it? Go away and come back when you've rectified that shit.

The List of 7 - Mark Frost - I picked this up after eating up Twin Peaks, the landmark television program Frost was co-creator of alongside David Lynch. I enjoyed it enough as a Sherlockian adventure mystery in the vein of Caleb Carr's The Alienist (which I'd read about the same time), but not enough to make me read the sequel. I'd like to revisit Frost's directorial effort, Storyville - adapted from the novel The Juryman by Frank Galbally & Robert Macklin. Seems I liked that one back in the early 90s.

Pop. 1280 - Jim Thompson - Stands alongside The Killer Inside Me at the top of the psycho law man genre that Thompson made his name synonymous with. Daniel Woodrell wrote the intro to the new reissue from Mulholland Books, so there's that. If you dig this kind of thing and haven't read Frank Wheeler Jr.'s The Wowzer or The Good Life, you really ought to. Pretty swell film adaptation of this one too - Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon.

Unknown Man No. 89 - Elmore Leonard - According to the author's intro, Neil Diamond was once interested in starring as Jack Ryan in the movie version. Hmmm. Couldn't have been worse than the Ryan O'Neal or Owen Wilson vehicles turned out to be. Could it?

The Tenth Man - Graham Greene - Not one of his best, but even this slight volume gives the reader some moral dilemma worth chewing on. I love Greene. Have I said that before? Movie version had Anthony Hopkins front and center. I haven't seen it.