Friday, August 01, 2014

No. 1 on the “77” Hit Parade

I can’t say this for certain, but I do not believe I ever saw the pilot/opening episode of 77 Sunset Strip until earlier today. Titled “Girl on the Run,” it first aired on ABC-TV on October 10, 1958. The screenwriter was Marion Hargrove (who’d go on to script episodes of several James Garner series, as well as I Spy, The Name of the Game, and The Magician). However, the principal driver behind “Girl on the Run” was writer-producer Roy Huggins, whose private-eye creation, Stuart Bailey--introduced in Huggins’ 1946 novel, The Double Take--served as the protagonist in “Girl on the Run” (played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and was carried over into the series.

As Paul Green explains in his recently released biography, Roy Huggins: Creator of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, the Fugitive and The Rockford Files (McFarland & Company), in 1958 the Warner Bros. TV studio commissioned a pilot from Huggins for a gumshoe series he proposed titling 77 Sunset Boulevard. So pleased were Warner execs with the results, “Girl on the Run,” that they asked him to expand it beyond its 60-minute length. This gave the studio the option of releasing “Girl on the Run” as a theatrical feature; it eventually showed for a single week in a West Indies theater before introducing ABC’s retitled 77 Sunset Strip. (You will see a promotional poster for that film on the left. Note its “Not Suitable for Children” warning.)

Huggins was concerned that such a release represented part of a Warner Bros. scheme to cut him out of any royalties for the future small-screen series, by claiming that 77 Sunset Strip had been inspired by the film, rather than Huggins’ own literary efforts. Warner Bros. “was also planning another move to enforce [its] ownership of Huggins’ creation,” Green explains. “His third novel, Lovely Lady, Pity Me [1949], was bought by Warner Bros. and a script written [for 77 Sunset Strip] that included Stuart Bailey even though there was no private eye in the original novel.” It seems Huggins’ fears were justified; the studio ultimately refused to pay him royalties for his creation, and he took the studio to legal arbitration over the matter. After Huggins lost, he bowed out of the weekly series 77 Sunset Strip. But the show went on--through six seasons, in fact, the last one being a noirish departure from its predecessors.

Not long ago, I happened across an abundance of 77 Sunset Strip episodes on YouTube (watch them now--while you can!), and the 71-minute version of “Girl on the Run” was among that trove. I’ll let you watch the show for yourself, below, but will offer this synopsis of the plot from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb): “A private investigator is hired to find and protect a singer who witnessed the murder of a union official and is being stalked by the killer. What he doesn’t know is that he has actually been hired by the killer himself.” Just wait until you see which subsequent 77 Sunset Strip cast member plays the vicious, hair-obsessed shooter, Kevin Smiley!

Burning Rubber

It should come as no surprise that, when The Guardian’s Anne Billson picked “The Best 13 Car Chases in Film,” she was drawn to Steve McQueen’s speedy tour of San Francisco in Bullitt and Gene Hackman’s roadway pursuit of an elevated train in The French Connection. But there are enough other, less-obvious clips embedded in Billson’s compilation to make visiting it a bit of good fun.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

An August Turnout

Is it just my imagination, or is Mike Ripley’s new “Getting Away with Murder” column for Shots longer than usual? It certainly packs a groaning tableful of tidings and witticisms, including: word of a new, “unofficial and unauthorized guide” to the 1960s British TV series The Avengers; praise for Maurizio De Giovanni’s Commissario Ricciardi mysteries; fond mention of the late Ariana Franklin’s final and forthcoming novel, Winter Siege; a look at UK publisher Hutchinson’s revamped “bull” logo; and a vintage photo of Ian Dickerson, “all-round expert on ‘The Saint’ and editor of the latest reissues of the whole Saintly canon … in very distinguished company.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Seeing All the Sites

• The Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival and the Deanston Distillery have jointly announced their shortlist of nominees for the third annual Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year:

-- Flesh Wounds, by Chris Brookmyre (Little, Brown)
-- Falling Fast, by Neil Broadfoot (Saraband)
-- The Amber Fury, by Natalie Haynes (Corvus)
-- Entry Island, by Peter May (Quercus)
-- A Lovely Way to Burn, by Louise Welsh (John Murray)
-- In the Rosary Garden, by Nicola White (Cargo)

The winner is scheduled to be declared on September 20 during a special Bloody Scotland event. (Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

• And recipients of the 2014 Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense competition were announced last week during the Romance Writers of America national conference in San Antonio, Texas. Click here to see the winners in half a dozen categories.

• I respect Will Ferrell as an actor, but I think this idea is dumb: It seems he is among a group of film folk determined to revive the 1983 TV series Manimal as a big-screen picture. For those of you who don’t remember the NBC’s Manimal, Wikipedia describes it succinctly as centering on “the character Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), a shape-shifting man who possessed the ability to turn himself into any animal he chose. He used this ability to help the police solve crimes.” Flavorwire is not wrong when it includes Manimal--along with Cop Rock and My Mother the Car--in its new list of “The Most Ridiculous TV Show Concepts in Pop Culture.”

• British author Martin Edwards, who writes quite often about classic crime fiction, has posted a rundown of his 10 favorite Golden Age mysteries. It includes Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge, and several books I have not yet read. I guess I have my reading work cut out for me--as usual.

• Meanwhile, Jeffrey Marks names his five favorite Agatha Christie novels. No shock: He also mentions And Then There Were None.

This is the first trailer I’ve seen for Pierce Brosnan’s new film, The November Man, based on the late Bill Granger’s 1987 novel, There Are No Spies. I really enjoyed Brosnan’s James Bond films, and The November Man returns him to that dimly illuminated world of espionage. It also features the lovely Olga Kurylenko, who starred in the 22nd Bond flick, Quantum of Solace.

• Here’s a headline I thought I would never witness in the 21st century: “Typewriter Manufacturers See Boom in Sales.” It seems the U.S. National Security Service (NSA) is to blame.

• I used to love TV movies-of-the-week, which showcased familiar small-screen actors and actresses in unfamiliar roles and often served as pilots for prospective new series. Nowadays, it seems the Big Three American networks have given up on such expensive projects, leaving them to cable-TV networks. Just as in the old days, some of these teleflicks deserve accolades, while others--including these “35 Campiest TV Movies Ever Made”--are best forgotten.

• Max Allan Collins has wrapped up a week’s worth of posts from Comic-Con International in San Diego--an event during which he won a 2014 Scribe Award for Best Short Story. You’ll find Collins’ Comic-Con coverage in five parts: here, here, here, here, and here.

• Happy 12th birthday to Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine. As Crider explains, “[the blog has] been a good distraction for me over the years, so I’ll keep it going for a while longer. So far there have been 41,725 posts prior to this one. That’s kind of scary. Maybe I should just get a life.” The Rap Sheet celebrated its eighth anniversary in May. If I can keep it going as long as Crider has been writing his blog, I might impress even myself.

• In case you didn’t notice, I spent the last two weeks posting summer-related (and occasionally lascivious) paperback fronts in my other blog, Killer Covers. Enjoy the whole set here.

This is one hell of a Raymond Chandler book collection!.

• Can you ever have too many books? Yes, insists Rachel Kramer Bussel in an essay for The Toast that begins: “Nothing brought this home for me like watching paid professionals cart away hundreds of books--read and unread, purchased lovingly or attained at book parties or conferences--when I hired a trash removal service last year upon moving from my two-bedroom apartment after 13 years. The most heartbreaking part was seeing anthologies I’d edited, with my name right there on the cover, being swept away into giant garbage cans. This was reinforced when I moved again this year, and was told by the movers, multiple times, that my boxes of books, rather than furniture like a bed and a couch, was what was weighing down their truck.”

• B.V. Lawson’s In Reference to Murder provides this tidbit: “Angus Macfadyen (Turn) will star in The Pinkertons, a 22-episode series based on the real-life cases of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which premieres in first-run syndication in the U.S. this fall.”

• Mary Kubica, author of the suspenseful new novel The Good Girl (Mira), talks with BOLO Books’ Kristopher Zgorski, who says she “seem[s] poised to be a bit of an overnight success.”

Casablanca--“Hollywood’s greatest film”?

• And I’m sorry to hear that American actor James Shigeta has passed away at age 85. As the blog A Shroud of Thoughts recalls, “In the Seventies Mr. Shigeta appeared on such TV shows as Emergency!, Kung Fu, Matt Helm, Ellery Queen, S.W.A.T., The Streets of San Francisco, Little House on the Prairie, Police Woman, The Rockford Files, and Fantasy Island.” Shrouds’ Terence Towles Canote adds that “With the looks of a matinee idol and considerable talent as both an actor and a singer, James Shigeta might well have been a major star had he been born in a later era. Unfortunately, in the Sixties and Seventies roles for Japanese Americans were even rarer than they are now. Regardless, Mr. Shigeta had a very impressive career.”

Monday, July 28, 2014

Shaft and the Ghosts of Ernest Tidyman

(Editor’s note: The following article comes from Steve Aldous, who works in the banking industry in Great Britain and has concocted a number of well-received short stories, two of which--“Lightning Never Strikes Twice,” an affectionate parody of the pulp private-eye novels of the 1940s and ’50s, and its follow-up, “Fork Lightning”--were shortlisted for prizes in Writer’s Forum magazine. A longtime fan of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft novels, he wrote three years ago in The Rap Sheet about Shaft Among the Jews and has since undertaken extensive research on Tidyman’s career in order to pen a book titled The Complete Guide to Shaft, which is currently seeking a publisher. Aldous lives with his wife and two sons in Bury, Lancashire, UK. He also has a daughter and granddaughter.)

The recent announcement that publisher Dynamite Entertainment will, firstly, reissue Ernest Tidyman’s 1970s Shaft novels and, secondly, produce new novels and comic books featuring his black New York City private detective, came as a most pleasant surprise. The books have been out of print since the late 1970s in both the United States and the UK. Only Germany has kept the seven Shaft novels in circulation, with Pendragon re-publishing the series between 2002 and 2008.

Dynamite’s decision was also confirmation of a view I have held for a long time, and indeed have promoted in The Rap Sheet previously--that there is still an interest in and a market for this culturally iconic character. Whilst the image of Richard Roundtree dressed in a leather coat, strutting through the streets of Manhattan to Isaac Hayes’ funky score is most people’s image of John Shaft, his genesis was on the written page. Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft series is in need of re-discovery and re-appraisal.

Over the last two years I have been preparing a book, provisionally titled The Complete Guide to Shaft--a history and analysis of the series in print and on screen. The aim of this work is to introduce the character and, in particular, Tidyman’s books to a new audience, as well as furnish longtime Shaft fans with new details about the series.

I started by re-reading all the novels, which I bought during the 1970s and still possess in their original UK Corgi paperback editions. I then undertook extensive research, initially online, to compile as much information and history as I could. This research also suggested a suspicion in some quarters that a number of the Shaft books had been ghost-written, and the name Robert Turner came up from a couple of sources. That initial research, however, proved sketchy and inconclusive.

It was earlier this year that I made a breakthrough when I discovered Ernest Tidyman’s papers had been stored in the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie. On approaching the Center I learned there was a vast amount of material covering Tidyman’s professional career, with the inventory containing 180 boxes of items: correspondence, financial records, and manuscripts. There then came a problem of logistics. Being based in the UK, I was unable to travel to the Center to undertake the research personally, so I obtained an inventory breakdown and hired a proxy researcher to work with me on honing the material down to what I needed. Over a period of two to three months, we identified the elements specifically relating to the Shaft series. I obtained copies of key pieces, such as Tidyman’s original character outline and handwritten notes.

Also during this period, I managed to enter into an e-mail correspondence with Alan Rinzler, who was publisher Macmillan’s mystery department editor in the late 1960s and commissioned Shaft (1970), the series’ initial installment. Alan was able to provide me with insight into the genesis of that first book.

These two new sources, therefore, gave me much of the detail I needed to fill in the gaps and finally answer many of the outstanding questions concerning the creation of the John Shaft character and the writing of the seven Shaft novels.

* * *

It was in late 1968 or early 1969 that Rinzler touted the idea for a black detective hero to literary agent Ron Hobbs. Rinzler had been involved in the changing social culture of that era, initially through his work fundraising and ghost-writing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in New York in 1964. He also worked for Simon & Schuster at the time, editing, promoting, and publishing works that highlighted the plight of black America--including Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), which detailed the struggles of growing up in Harlem. These books helped inspire the equal-rights movement for African Americans.

Hobbs was the only African-American literary agent in New York City, and Rinzler figured he could come up with the necessary writer to fulfill his brief. Hobbs, however, suggested a white writer by the name of Ernest Ralph Tidyman, who had only recently set up as a freelance writer, after previously enjoying a long career in newspaper journalism in Cleveland and Manhattan.

Tidyman was keen, too, to tap into the social mood of the time. His first novel, Flower Power (1968), was the tale of a runaway teenage girl who joins a hippie camp and is introduced to sex and drugs. It didn’t sell well, and despite his having contributed articles to magazines and written a non-fiction book (1968’s The Anzio Death Trap) about a controversial Allied assault in Italy during World War II, Tidyman was close to being broke when the opportunity to take Rinzler’s commission was presented to him.

Hobbs arranged a meeting between Rinzler and Tidyman. Rinzler was initially reluctant, but he allowed Tidyman to work up some sample chapters of the prospective novel. Tidyman duly obliged, and whilst Rinzler was impressed with the writing, he felt the story was too soft. He suggested a show of violence to emphasize the hero’s no-nonsense approach to solving problems. Following up on Rinzler’s suggestion, Tidyman re-wrote those early pages to include the fight in which the detective hero ends up throwing a hood out of his office window. Rinzler was pleased with the re-write, and offered Tidyman a $10,000 advance to complete the book.

Thus was John Shaft born.

Tidyman finished his draft and synopsis for Shaft on July 3, 1969. Keen right away to promote his property to filmmakers, he circulated galley copies of his novel. One interested reader was producer Phil D’Antoni, who was impressed by Tidyman’s use of dialogue and his knowledge of New York. D’Antoni thereafter recommended Tidyman to director William Friedkin as somebody who could adapt Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book of the same name into the film The French Connection (1971). Later, Shaft was picked up by MGM’s new head, Jim Aubrey, who--due to his studio’s financial difficulties--was looking to produce lower-budget movies, and Shaft seemed a perfect fit for his new vision. A deal to turn the novel into a big-screen picture was signed in April 1970.

The novel version of Shaft was first published by Macmillan in the United States on April 27, 1970. (A UK hardcover edition, from Michael Joseph, followed on June 24, 1971.) It was well-received, and Gordon Parks was hired by MGM to direct the movie adaptation. Tidyman formed Shaft Productions, with initial producers Roger Lewis and Stirling Silliphant acting as equal partners. However, production responsibilities were later passed to Joel Freeman, after Lewis moved to Warner Bros. Richard Roundtree beat out 200 other potential John Shafts to grab the title role, with which he would forever be associated. The resulting 1971 film, Shaft, became a smash hit across the world and was a major inspiration for the so-called blaxploitation movies of the early to mid-1970s. A deal was executed between Tidyman and MGM for options to adapt future Shaft novels.

Tidyman had already written a screenplay for a sequel, which MGM initially accepted on May 28, 1971, before the movie Shaft even reached theaters. The story was based on an article Tidyman had read in 1968 about the mysterious deaths of three diamond merchants. He folded that idea into a larger plot concerning an Israeli fugitive and his formula for the production of synthetic gems.

Meanwhile, after rejecting a screenplay proposal from B.B. Johnson, the writer behind the Superspade novels (Death of a Blue-Eyed Soul Brother, Black Is Beautiful, etc.), Tidyman’s partners at Shaft Productions had developed their own story for the sequel, which found Shaft having an adventure in the Caribbean. With the approval of MGM, Roger Lewis developed a screenplay entitled The Big Bamboo, and Lewis and Silliphant sought Tidyman’s approval to proceed. Tidyman, however, had commenced work on adapting his original sequel proposal into a follow-up novel--Shaft Among the Jews. Tidyman did not like, and subsequently rejected Lewis’ screenplay, and he would eventually submit a new original story himself in which Shaft seeks out the killer of an old friend whilst infringing on a gangland turf war for the control of Queens. It was developed between October and December 1971 under the name Gang Bang, but was later retitled Shaft’s Big Score!

The original crew from Shaft, including director Gordon Parks, returned to commence filming Shaft’s Big Score! in January 1972. Tidyman set about writing the novelization, which was scheduled to be published in May 1972, a month ahead of the film’s proposed release date. A disagreement over royalties with both MGM and his partners in Shaft Productions, though, resulted in the book’s publication being postponed, and Tidyman threatened to withdraw the novel altogether. After some prickly negotiations, an agreement was finally reached and the book was published on August 7, 1972, in paperback--the hardback publication of Shaft Among the Jews having preceded it on June 29.

The second film was also a box-office hit and it seemed the franchise had a strong future. Like the James Bond films of the 1960s, Shaft had also inspired many imitators. However, Tidyman’s disagreement over the royalties for the novelization of Shaft’s Big Score! led to a cooling of his relationship with his partners. Lewis and Silliphant were left to continue work on Shaft’s big-screen adventures, the third of which--Shaft in Africa--went into development in late 1972.

Tidyman, meanwhile, was keen to maximize the future earnings potential from his creation by adding to the series of Shaft books and hoping MGM would take up options to film those new stories. Also during this period, he attempted to launch a daily Shaft comic strip. Test panels had been drawn by Don Rico, who had worked for Marvel Comics, and were circulated to the big newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, but they failed to attract interest.

* * *

The success of the films Shaft and The French Connection--for the latter of which Tidyman received an Academy Award (as well as an Edgar Allan Poe Award)--significantly increased demands for his time and encouraged him to branch out further into other film writing and production. He set up Ernest Tidyman Productions and began to spread his time across a number of developing projects. The increasing workload encouraged Tidyman to hire writers to help out--particularly with continuing the Shaft book series.

video
Tennessee Williams presents Ernest Tidyman with the 1971 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The French Connection.

Tidyman had sketched out story ideas for three further Shaft books, which he wanted to produce in quick succession so they would fall within the timeframe of MGM’s options agreement. He recruited two writers to help: Robert Turner, a vastly experienced author of pulpish fiction (The Girl in the Cop’s Pocket, etc.) and a contributor to many of the pulp magazines of the 1940s and 1950s; and Phillip Rock, a screenwriter who had also worked on a number of novelizations in the early 1970s (including an adaptation of Dirty Harry). Tidyman had previously used Rock on his novelization of High Plains Drifter, the screenplay Tidyman had written for Clint Eastwood’s 1973 Western.

Robert Turner took up the first book, based on an outline Tidyman had written for a work titled The Gang’s All Here, Shaft. Turner developed Tidyman’s story, which centered on the planned heist of half-a-million dollars in laundered Mafia funds from a hotel that was hosting a gay convention. The resultant Shaft Has a Ball was completed in August 1972, having been heavily edited by Tidyman, and was published in paperback on April 2, 1973. Turner then moved on to compose Shaft’s Carnival of Killers (1974).

In September 1972, Rock had started to develop a book Tidyman called Shaft’s Last Goodbye. Tidyman had initially intended to end the series at that point, but once he’d conceded to involve other writers in his work he abandoned the idea. This latest story saw Shaft in action in a location outside New York City for the first time, in this instance London, where Tidyman and Rock had both lived for a time. The idea of shifting locations mirrored what Lewis and Silliphant had done with their third film, Shaft in Africa, directed by John Guillermin and released in the summer of 1973.

The plot of Shaft’s Last Goodbye centered on a kidnapping aimed at preventing Senator Creighton Stovall (who had also appeared in Shaft Has a Ball) from becoming the first black vice president of the United States. Shaft is hired to bodyguard Stovall’s young sons, who are moved to London in order to reduce the risk of their being snatched. Rock completed his writing on December 22, 1972, and Tidyman finished his editing on January 29, 1973. The book wound up being retitled Goodbye, Mr. Shaft as a nod toward James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934), acknowledging that the Stovall boys had attended an English public school during their stay in Great Britain.

Meanwhile, in August 1972, Turner had also commenced working on Shaft’s Carnival of Killers. This time Shaft would go to Jamaica in an attempt to discover who is responsible for a plot to assassinate that country’s prime minister. The story was rooted in a non-Shaft screenplay Tidyman had originally written in 1971 entitled A Carnival of Killers, featuring a private eye named Francis Clifford. John Shaft effectively replaced Clifford as the tale’s lead. Turner struggled, though, with the work due to illness, and deadlines were missed. The final manuscript, delivered in March 1973, was rather subpar and required heavy editing by Tidyman before publisher Bantam accepted it for American release.

Goodbye, Mr. Shaft reached U.S. bookstores on December 28, 1973, whilst Shaft’s Carnival of Killers, with its relatively short page-count, followed in paperback nearly a year later, in September 1974.

Around this time Tidyman had become disenchanted with the treatment of his creation on screen. Shaft in Africa had received his blessing, if not his approval. The film did not match the success of its predecessors, though, and in 1973 John Shaft made a move to television, instead, with Richard Roundtree reprising his role in Shaft, a series of seven watered-down movies for CBS-TV. At least that short-lived Tuesday-night drama returned Shaft to his New York City roots. But Tidyman had by then become tired of his creation and resolved to kill him off in the last book of the series, appropriately titled The Last Shaft.

(Right) The final page of 1975’s The Last Shaft. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Phillip Rock started converting Tidyman’s outline into a full novel in October 1973. The plot finds P.I. Shaft avenging the murder of his friend Captain Vic Anderozzi, who had arrested the Mafia’s bookkeeper and was looking to turn that man and his account ledgers over to the district attorney. Rock finished his manuscript on January 11, 1974, and Tidyman his edit on January 22. Shaft was killed off in a random mugging in a coda to the book that had no link to the story itself, providing a disappointing conclusion to the series. Bantam passed on publication in the States, but the book was later released in hardcover in the UK on March 27, 1975, with a paperback publication two years later.

* * *

Despite a couple of attempts to restart the Shaft movie franchise--first by Tidyman himself in 1979, after the expiration of his deal with MGM, and later (in 1985) by the author’s widow, Chris Clark-Tidyman--it wasn’t until director John Singleton’s Shaft, in 2000, that the character was finally reintroduced to the public. That film found Roundtree’s role being reduced to little more than a cameo, while the focus was on Shaft’s “nephew” played by Samuel L. Jackson. Disagreements between director, producer, and star meant any potential franchise relaunch was doomed.

Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft books are a product of a time when men’s adventure novels and film novelizations dominated the paperback racks. The first three books, written solely by Tidyman, had a distinctive hard-edge, wit, and style reminiscent of Mickey Spillane and, to some extent, Raymond Chandler. Those were the strongest entries in the series. The later books still carried Tidyman’s house style, due to his heavy editorial input and story outlines, but they suffered from a more formulaic approach to the writing and plotting, as well as an increasing level of absurdity. Throughout, though, Tidyman heavily protected his detective creation, and despite the tough exterior presented by John Shaft, the character remained real as a result of his fallibility. He is a hero of his time but also a hero who can transcend time, in the same way Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe can, due to his iconic status.

The books remain eminently readable and well worth revisiting. I hope their reappearance under the Dynamite banner, along with a new series of adventures, will reignite interest in the literary version of John Shaft. He has been absent for too long.

READ MORE:Beyond Shaft: Black Private Eyes in Fiction,” by Kevin Burton Smith (January Magazine).

Better Connected

This last weekend’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, California, included a presentation by the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers of the 2014 Scribe Awards, “honoring excellence in media tie-in writing.”

Mr. Monk Helps Himself, by Hy Conrad (Signet), and Leverage: The Bestseller Job, by Greg Cox (Berkley), tied in the Best Original Novel category, while “So Long, Chief,” by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane, won for Best Short Story. Science-fiction and fantasy author Diane Duane was chosen as the IAMTW 2014 Grandmaster, “the highest honor awarded by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writing, recognizing her achievements writing novels based on movie and television shows.”

You will find all of the nominees and winners here.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bullet Points: Gray Cells and Spurs Edition

• With the second series of Shaun Evans’ Endeavour having concluded its PBS-TV run last weekend, going out with a quite thrilling episode abundant in cliffhangers (stay tuned for next season!), actor David Suchet will return this Sunday to the Masterpiece series in “The Big Four,” the first of five new episodes of Poirot. A second installment of that long-running UK program, “Dead Man’s Folly,” will air next Sunday, August 3. Three final Poirot films--“Elephants Can Remember,” “Labors of Hercules,” and “Curtain” (adapted from Agatha Christie’s last Poirot novel)--are going to be available during the later weeks of August, but only through the British subscription streaming service Acorn TV. Agatha Christie’s Poirot finished its 13-series run on the other side of “the pond” last November.

• Also to look for on Sunday: Down These Mean Streets promises to post two episodes of that classic radio drama The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, one from 1949 (“The Dancing Hands”), the other from 1950 (“The Glass Donkey”). This is the blog’s belated way of celebrating Marlowe creator Raymond Chandler’s birthday, July 23. UPDATE: Those two episodes are now available for your listening pleasure here.

• Saddle up! Whether you knew it before now or not, today is America’s National Day of the Cowboy. What better time to read (or re-read) Bill Crider’s piece about Western/detective crossover novels, which first appeared in January Magazine back in 2003?

• This news comes a bit tardily, but I thank Mystery Fanfare for alerting me to it at all. It seems the International Latino Book Awards were handed out on June 28 during the American Library Association’s 2014 conference in Las Vegas. Below are the recipients in the Best Mystery Novel category.
First Place: Te Espero en el Cielo, by Blanca Irene Arbeláez (Book Press)
Second Place: Every Broken Trust, by Linda Rodriguez (Minotaur)
Honorable Mention: Desperado: A Mile High Noir, by Manuel Ramos (Arte Publico Press)
James Garner’s demise earlier this week distracted me from mentioning that Thomas Berger, the reclusive New York author of Little Big Man (1964), Neighbors (1980), and the 1977 “P.I. parody/travesty,” Who Is Teddy Villanova?, also died a few days ago. He was 89 years old. Read more about Berger’s career here.

Nicole Jaffe, James Garner, and Rita Moreno in Marlowe.

• And don’t forget that this coming Monday, July 28, the U.S. cable-TV network Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has scheduled a 24-hour James Garner film marathon. It will begin at 6 a.m. ET with Toward the Unknown (Garner’s 1956 movie debut) and conclude with a 4:30 a.m. ET showing on Tuesday of Marlowe (1969).

• In case you’re interested, author Max Allan Collins (King of the Weeds) is in sunny San Diego, California, this weekend, posting to his blog about the latest Comic-Con International. His initial remarks can be found here; his second post is here. Additional updates should appear at this handy link.

• If you’re in the area of Seattle, Washington, on August 9, you might want to attend a Mystery Writers of America-Northwest Chapter workshop titled “The 21st Century Author: How to Connect With the Publishing Industry and Build an Audience.” Led by novelist and “marketing genius” Simon Wood (No Show), it promises to “reveal the techniques that have served Wood well in more than a decade of work as an author who’s been both traditionally and independently published. It’s aimed at authors in any genre who are struggling to find readers and attract agents in a time of rapid change in the book-publishing industry.” This seminar will be held at Bellevue College’s Paccar Auditorium, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The entry fee is $50 for MWA members; $60 for non-MWA members; and $75 for everyone after July 26. Click here to register.

• I don’t usually think of Jules Verne’s lengthy 1870 tale about Captain Nemo and the Nautilus as a “beach read,” but The Guardian’s Sian Cain states the case in its favor: “I can’t think of a better thing to read on the sands. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is arguably Verne’s masterpiece. As a classic it has aged wonderfully well: it is escapist fun, but still retains its literary and scientific significance. To dismiss it as simply an adventure story does it a disservice. Yes, Verne’s oceanic journey around the world is a ripping yarn, but it is also an eerie tale of isolation and madness, packed full with geographical and scientific accuracies that make the fantastic uncomfortably believable.”

• Has it really been 25 years since the Billy Crystal/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally, debuted in U.S. theaters?

• Ohio engineering consultant D.M. Pulley has been selected as “the Grand Prize winner of the seventh annual Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest for her mystery novel The Dead Key.” A press alert says the book “is expected to be released in early 2015 by Thomas & Mercer--an imprint of Amazon Publishing--and Pulley will receive a $50,000 advance and publishing contract.”

• Back in 2009, when Hard Case Crime issued its distinctive paperback edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, editor Charles Ardai told me he had long wanted to repackage that 1914 novel as the hard-boiled detective story it is. “Not because Holmes is a hard-boiled character himself,” Ardai explained, “but because half the book isn’t about Holmes at all--it takes place in the U.S. and tells the story of a Pinkerton agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a corrupt fraternal organization that rules a dirty mining town in Pennsylvania. It’s violent and cruel and dark, and it leads to an ending that’s as despairing and doom-laden as any Cornell Woolrich novel.” Valley found another champion this week in blogger Nick Cardillo, who writes in The Consulting Detective that it is “arguably the most forgotten of the original Sherlock Holmes novels” and “more entertaining than its similar predecessor [The Sign of the Four]. Not only does it have a more interesting mystery, but a back-story which is arguably more interesting and better crafted than the bits with the world’s greatest detective.” Maybe it’s time I re-read that fourth Holmes novel.

• How did I not hear about BBC America’s Intruders until now?

• Yikes! Another of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels I have not yet found time to read: The Case of the Ice-Cold Hands, a 1962 Perry Mason outing that blogger Vintage45 describes as “a fun entry in the series and … [f]or those who have never read a Mason book, this is a good one to start with.”

This comes from The Guardian: “J.K. Rowling has said she plans to pen many more crime thrillers [like her newest, The Silkworm], and to create a series that will run for even longer than her seven hugely successful Harry Potter books, which over a decade have proved to be one of the bestselling book series in history.”

• Jeri Westerson submits her new Crispin Guest novel, Cup of Blood, to Marshal Zeringue’s famous Page 69 Test.

For all you Mickey Spillane fans out there!

• Parker Stevenson, the onetime TV heartthrob (who I recently spotted doing a guest-star turn on Longmire) talks with the Classic Film and TV Café about his days on The Hardy Boys and Probe, and his developing interest in photography.

• British journalist-author Ben Macintyre, whose new book is A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Crown), submits a list to Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog of history's most notorious double-crossing spies. Not surprisingly, Philby--“the greatest double agent in history”--finds a place in that rundown. UPDATE: You can now listen to an interview with Macintyre by clicking here.

Can this be for real?

• And I’m easily seduced by National Public Radio interviews with authors, immediately wanting to rush out and buy whatever book was just discussed. A case in point: This morning’s chat, on Weekend Edition Saturday, between host Scott Simon and Stephen L. Carter, author of the new thriller Back Channel (Knopf), which finds a brilliant, black 19-year-old student and clandestine operative caught up in the drama of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Since I very much liked Carter’s previous, speculative novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), there doesn’t seem much chance that his latest work won’t be mine in short order. Listen to the interview here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Eyes in the Rearview

Following James Garner’s death last weekend, I started rummaging through my storage room for a particular edition of Mystery magazine that I remembered featuring Garner in one of his most famous TV roles, that of Los Angeles gumshoe Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. Naturally, this was no easy endeavor; it required my unpacking and then repacking more boxes than I (or my sore muscles) care to recall. But I did finally find the item I sought.

For those who don’t remember Mystery, it was founded as a full-size mag in 1979 by Stephen L. Smoke (who, under the pseudonym Hamilton T. Caine, went on to produce at least two novels about Southern California gumshoe Ace Carpenter). The contents combined non-fiction and fiction, and there were several contributors to the publication whose names are still familiar, among them Robert J. Randisi and Paul Bishop. Mystery’s other claim to fame might be that it was headquartered in downtown L.A.’s landmark, 1893 Bradbury Building, which had featured prominently in Garner’s 1969 film Marlowe, and provided office space for the protagonists in such small-screen gems as Banyon, City of Angels, and 77 Sunset Strip. I was pretty young at the time, but I managed to get two profiles into Mystery after it shrank to digest size (and before it folded in 1982), one of Stuart M. Kaminsky, the other of Collin Willcox. (I’ll have to dig up both of those sometime, too.)

Anyway, the January 1981 edition of Mystery boasted a cover story, written by Bob Randisi, that looked back at “the best TV private eyes of the 1970s.” He highlighted a number of prominent shows from that decade, including Mannix, Barnaby Jones, Harry O (“my personal favorite of all the TV P.I.s I’ve seen”), Charlie’s Angels, and Cannon. He also noted, however, that a survey taken of “writers, readers, editors, and TV viewers from all sections of the country” had determined that the most popular shamus of the ’70s was … Garner’s impecunious but loyal Rockford. Randisi explained:
The reason for the success of [The] Rockford Files was simple: James Garner. Rockford was probably one of the more humanly portrayed P.I.s of all the TV “eyes.” He was not a superman, and preferred to talk his way--or con his way--out of a tight spot rather than fight his way out--which doesn’t mean he didnt fight when he had to. He just preferred not to.”
I’m embedding the whole story below, just for your entertainment. Click on the images to open more readable enlargements.



Picky, Picky

Adding to the anticipation surrounding this year’s Iceland Noir festival in Reykjavik (November 20-23), organizers have announced their finalists for the inaugural Icepick Award celebrating translated crime fiction. They are:
La Vérité sur l'affaire Harry Quebert [The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair], by Joël Dicker; Icelandic translation by Friðrik Rafnsson
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn; Icelandic translation by
Bjarni Jónsson
Panserhjerte [The Leopard], by Jo Nesbø; Icelandic translation by Bjarni Gunnarsson
Människa utan hund [Man Without Dog], by Håkan Nesser; Icelandic translation by Ævar Örn Jósepsson
Veljeni vartija [My Brother’s Keeper], by Antti Tuomainen; Icelandic translation by Sigurður Karlsson
The winner will be announced at Reykjavik’s Nordic House on November 22 (which, were he still alive, would be author Raymond Chandler’s 126 birthday).

(Hat tip to Shotsmag Confidential.)

Charging Into the Darkness

I didn’t even have this birthday marked down on my calendar, but Criminal Element contributor Jake Hinkson evidently keeps better track of some things than I do. He explains:
This year film noir turns 70. While there had been some intermittent films leading up to the birth of the classic noir, in 1944 the dahlia bloomed with six key films: Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, When Strangers Marry, and The Woman in the Window. In these films you have many of the key figures in noir making some of their first forays into the genre (directors Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, and Robert Siodmak; writers Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Vera Caspary, Phillip Yordan; actors Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett, Dana Andrews--just to name a few). This onslaught of darkness came in the wake of the bleakest days (from the American perspective, anyway) of WWII. The basis of many of these films were older properties, but it is the way these films came out--physically darker, psychologically denser, and ultimately more pessimistic--that marks the real birth of film noir.
By way of celebrating, Hinkson today posted the first of half a dozen articles, this one recalling the many strengths of Double Indemnity, the Fred MacMurray/Barbara Stanwyck/Edward G. Robinson picture that he says “might well be the most famous of all film noirs.” Stay tuned for the remaining installments of Hinkson’s series.

READ MORE:When Lightning Strikes,” by Thomas Kaufman
(The Rap Sheet).

Help Making the Leap

Are you an aspiring crime, mystery, or thriller writer looking for professional assistance to get you on the right literary track? Then the 2014 Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference--to be held in Corte Madera, California, from July 24 to 27--might be an event worth your attending. Writers and others leading workshops will include Ace Atkins, Cara Black, David Corbett, Anne Perry, literary agent Amy Rennert, and Judge Peter J. Busch of the San Francisco Superior Court. The conference schedule is here. To register, click here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

An Author Returns to Familiar Ground

Richard Hoyt holds the distinction of being the crime/thriller writer I have known longer than any other. I met him back before he was even concocting fiction, when he was still a professor of communications at Lewis & Clark College, a private liberal-arts institution in Portland, Oregon. This would’ve been in the late 1970s, when I was an undergraduate at L&C and a resident of its compact forested campus on Palatine Hill. Hoyt joined the Communications Department during my sophomore year, and served as faculty adviser to the weekly student newspaper, The Pioneer Log, in addition to teaching journalism courses. He was unlike any professor I’d encountered before: irreverent, habitually sarcastic, prone to raucous cackling at his own jokes, and comically eccentric in the way he twisted the ends of his handlebar mustache while either ruminating over knotty topics or slyly appreciating the assets of a coed half his age. Although Hoyt didn’t get along particularly well with his superiors, he was a favorite of many students, particularly those--like me--who worked long, hard hours to give The Pioneer Log a professional journalistic edge.

(Right) Richard Hoyt, 1982

His first novel, Decoys, saw print in 1980--by which time Hoyt had already decided to abandon the academic sphere. The book introduced readers to John Denson, a journalist turned private investigator in Seattle, Washington, who’s every bit as gonzo in his behavior and as contemptuous of convention as his creator. Kevin Burton Smith remarks in The Thrilling Detective Web Site that Denson “marches to the tune of a different drummer.
Denson’s a thirty-something Aquarius with a yen for darts, cheap screw-top wine and raw vegetables, especially cauliflower. And he’s not adverse to a little bit of good ol’ sex, either, although he does spare us the slo-mo replays. He’s an earthy type, crude, but not rude, given to sometimes erratic behavior, but loyal to his friends. He’s been known to wear bright yellow boxer shorts with a smoking, very long-barreled gun on front. He keeps a stuffed English pit bull in his apartment who answers the doorbell with pre-recorded barks. At last, a private eye who’s not ashamed of having a good time! A nice change of pace from the usual gloom and doom.
Critics quickly labeled Denson a “soft-boiled” gumshoe, for his disinterest in guns and the humor Hoyt brought to his adventures. The P.I. went on to star in nine novels, including 30 for a Harry (1981), Fish Story (1985), Whoo? (1991), and the last one, Pony Girls (2004). His cases variously involve a con man and killer at a big-city newspaper, an engineered outbreak of anthrax, Native American fishing rights, and the future of the Pacific Northwest logging industry. The early Denson books clung fairly close to the genre’s traditions, though they also made good use of the Northwest’s distinctive environment. In The Siskiyou Two-Step (1983), for instance, the shamus is fishing the North Umpqua River in southern Oregon, when he spots what appears to be a corpse floating facedown midstream. Wading out in the water for a closer look, he gets caught in a dangerous tumble of rapids and must ride them spread-eagled atop a very naked and very dead young woman. Later books in the series find Denson taking on a Cowlitz Indian partner, Willy Prettybird, and the plots becoming more philosophical, spiritual, and surreal.

A prolific wordsmith, hungry to make a name and profitable career for himself in the book biz, Hoyt soon created a second oddball protagonist, CIA agent James Burlane. Introduced in Trotsky’s Run (1982), Burlane eventually featured in eight additional novels, among them Head of State (1985) and Red Card (1994). What depths of his writing energies still went untapped by producing those works, Hoyt brought to standalones such as The Manna Enzyme (1982), a weird Amazon escapade called Darwin’s Secret (1989), a couple of novels (1984’s Cool Runnings and 2000’s Vivienne) showcasing journalist-spy novelist Jim Quint, and two other books penned under the pseudonym Nicholas van Pelt. (A catalogue of Hoyt’s novels is available here.)

But as I explain in my latest column for Kirkus Reviews, “Hoyt’s run of good fortune didn’t last. After peddling 21 novels in 20 years, since 2001 he’s found publishers for only five more. Two of those starred John Denson, but his latest, Crow’s Mind, welcomes a new shamus into the club: Jake Hipp.”

Hoyt calls Hipp “a jazzed-up and I think more fun version of John Denson.” Both men are stoner private eyes, fond of sexual antics and classic Volkswagen microbuses. Hipp, however, lives in a remote lakefront cabin west of Portland and is the son of “certified-on-the-lam-in-Canada hippies.” He’s given to quoting Heraclitus, Henry David Thoreau and Carl Jung, and is easily recognized by his ponytail and waxed handlebar mustache, as well as by uniform of choice: “Goodwill jeans, running shoes, a herringbone tweed jacket, and an Irish walking hat.” (That this description might just as easily have fit a younger Dick Hoyt surely violates the bounds of coincidence.) In Crow’s Mind--the first entry in what this author hopes will be a new series--Hipp investigates the killing of a statuesque stripper, whose body he stumbles across in the deep woods. It’s a grotesque sight; she’s already been vigorously nibbled at by crows. So even before he has a paying client, our hirsute hero determines to find out who took this young woman’s life, a task that will lead him to more than a few peculiar suspects and find him a curvaceous new partner, Nehalem Indian computer whiz Willow Blackwing.

Until recently, I hadn’t corresponded with Hoyt in almost two decades, ever since he ditched Portland and moved to the Philippines, where he got married for the third time and helped rear a daughter. The release of Crow’s Mind a few months back, though, coupled with news that the now 73-year-old author had returned to the States and settled in Vancouver, Washington, made me want to reconnect and ask him not only what had happened to him during those intervening years, but where his new novel might lead his career. I e-mailed Hoyt dozens of questions, and he responded in short order. The first part of our exchange appears today in Kirkus, while the balance is posted below.

J. Kingston Pierce: Do I remember correctly, that you grew up somewhere in northern Oregon?

Richard Hoyt: I grew up on a small farm on the banks of the Columbia River about a mile from Umatilla. I was by myself. No neighbors. I played by myself along the river. Maybe that’s how I came to like solitude.

JKP: Were your parents big readers? Or, when you were young, were there other people in your life who got you interested in reading?

RH: My mother was a high school graduate. My dad made it through the fifth grade. They weren’t educated, but they were smart people. I got my atheism from them. My uncle Frank, a Communist with a young wife (shock! shock!) who was apparently under FBI surveillance (triple shock!), lit out for Mexico. Before he left, he built a small shed on my parents’ property where he stored his books, hundreds if not thousands of them. That’s where I started reading. I started reading mysteries when I drove truck during wheat harvest time outside of Pendleton. I was 16 years old. The hired hand had a huge cardboard box full of mysteries. I think I read all of Mickey Spillane’s and Richard S. Prather’s stories up to that point.

JKP: How early on did you entertain the notion of writing fiction?

RH: The idea of writing fiction was a fantasy, like wanting to be an astronaut or something. I knew I wanted to somehow write for a living, which is why I majored in journalism. I was the only male in a shorthand class in high school because I thought it would be useful for a reporter.

JKP: One of the credentials you often mention is your having worked as an “army counterintelligence agent.” When did you take on that task, and how long were you engaged in such an enterprise? What did the job entail, specifically?

RH: I joined the army [in the early 1960s] to dodge the draft. The army recruiter tried to discourage me from taking the qualifying exam, saying it would be a waste of everybody’s time. The odds were I wouldn’t pass. I insisted on taking the exam, given at a small army post in Vancouver, and I passed.

I didn’t do anything exotic. I mostly ran background investigations on people, although I helped follow people around a few times. The army intelligence school, then at Fort Holabird, Maryland, was fun. Great sport for somebody 23 years old. I learned all kinds of spook stuff, picking locks, installing bugs, and so on.

JKP: So you started as a journalist after your U.S. Army stint?

RH: I got out of the army, then got a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.

JKP: Did you begin your newspapering career at the old Honolulu Advertiser, or had you held jobs with newspapers before that?

RH: After finishing my master’s degree, I scored a fellowship at the Washington Journalism Center [in Washington, D.C.]. As part of that I served as an accredited Washington correspondent for A. Robert Smith, who then wrote for The [Portland] Oregonian and other papers in the Pacific Northwest. I used to write stories in the Senate press gallery. The correspondent for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the afternoon paper in Honolulu, used to lurk behind me, reading my stories as I wrote them. One day he asked me if I would like to be a reporter in Honolulu. I said, yes. Hey!

JKP: How long did you work for the Hawaii broadsheets?

RH: I worked for the Star-Bulletin for two years, then switched to the morning paper, the Honolulu Advertiser. It was my last job as a reporter.

JKP: But your résumé also includes a turn writing for Newsweek magazine. At what stage of your early career did you do that work?

RH: I was the Honolulu stringer for Newsweek. I got that gig while still working for the Star-Bulletin. My editor was in the San Francisco bureau. I wrote profiles of Clare Booth Luce, Arthur and Kathryn Murray, and Wendell Phillips, among others. (Phillips, of oil company fame, was then said to be one of the richest men in the world and the last of the swashbucklers. He wouldn’t talk to the local journalists, but talked to me, never mind that I also worked for the morning paper. That interview is a novel in itself.)

JKP: You hold a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii. Were you working toward that doctorate at the same time as you were writing articles for newspapers? And why choose American Studies as your field of expertise?

RH: The first week that I was with the Star-Bulletin, my city editor sent me out to interview Reuel Denney, a poet and professor from the University of Chicago, who went to the University of Hawaii as a visiting professor then was given an endowed chair. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a great honor. When I got to his condominium at the base of Koko Head, he had a pitcher of martinis, caviar and crackers, and was writing the libretto for an opera by George Barati. We started bullshitting and didn’t stop. Maybe four hours later, totally blasted, I got up, and he said, “I would like for you to study for a Ph.D. in American Studies under my direction.” I didn’t want to offend him. I said, “Sure, but I am a reporter. I have to earn a living.” He said, “I’ll take care of that with Bud”--A.A. “Bud” Smyser, editor of the Star-Bulletin.

The next morning I arrived for work with a hangover. I was called into Smyser’s office. I thought I had fucked something up. He said Reuel Denney had called him. He said the paper would feel it was an honor to have one of its reporters study under Denney, and the paper would like me take time off any time of day for classes and whatever. That’s how I got started. Charmed life.

JKP: So when did you leave the Hawaiian Islands and become a professor at Lewis & Clark College?

RH: I left Hawaii in 1973, but first to become an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maryland in College Park. I think it was three years later that I moved on to Lewis & Clark, because I wanted to be back in the Northwest.

JKP: You taught journalism classes at L&C and served as the adviser to the college’s newspaper, The Pioneer Log. But as I recall, you weren’t the go-along-to-get-along type. You often disagreed with your colleagues in the Communications Department. How long did it take you to realize you might not be cut out to be a college professor?

RH: I knew almost immediately. I liked the students OK, but I didn’t like judging them. Who knew what sleepers were out there? I thought faculty politics was dumb. I used to correct the grammar of faculty notices and send them back anonymously. I think people knew it was me having a stoned giggle. I just wanted to write, not try to tell other people how to write.

While I was teaching at Lewis & Clark, I went on a trip with Reuel on Vancouver Island [in British Columbia, Canada]. We went salmon fishing on the Campbell River. We were in a bookstore in Victoria on the way back, and he bought me Enquiry and Bonecrack, both by Dick Francis. He said, “Dick, I think you should be writing books like this. Teaching will rot your brain.” Correct and correct. That’s when I conned Lewis & Clark into letting me teach a course in the history of British and American suspense fiction. It was a course where freshmen were supposed to develop their writing skills. To prepare for the course, I read almost all the titles in the index of Julian Symons’ Mortal Consequences [1972]. I started with Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins and kept on reading. When I was finished, I started what would become Decoys.

JKP: Considering your background in newspapers, let me ask: What do think about the present state of American journalism? Some people voice regret at the shrinking market for print journalism, while others see this as a “golden age” of journalism, a time when unpaid “citizen reporters” have stepped up to fill the gap left by professional news gatherers. What’s your take on our present situation?

RH: I think our best journalists are [political satirists] John Oliver and Jon Stewart. I am disgusted when mainstream journalists, in an effort to be “objective,” give equal time both to what they know is preposterous bullshit by right-wing morons and to sensible suggestions by people who are actually trying to govern the country. Everybody on the Internet has an opinion. Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one. I like journalists who ask real questions and don’t worry about offending readers or viewers.

JKP: When did you leave L&C? And what was it that finally drove you out?

RH: I left in 1982, I think. My department chairman had tried, unsuccessfully, to get me sacked, saying that I was not a “team player” and did not attend regional academic gatherings, among other offenses. (Drinking beer with students while they put the Pioneer Log together was not an academic gathering?) I’ve never been a team player. I thought those meetings where people mill about with little plastic name tags on their chest and drink coffee out of Styrofoam cups are totally dumb. I was not a team player because I advised students not to declare a major until they had a chance to take some courses other than communications. No telling what might grab their imagination. My department chairman got furious at me for doing that. We needed majors in our department for larger budgets and an additional faculty member.

JKP: It was during your time at L&C that you began composing fiction. Your first protagonist, John Denson, debuted in Decoys. But just two years later, you introduced another series lead, offbeat CIA agent James Burlane, in Trotsky’s Run. Did you need a second protagonist just in order to sell more books every year?

RH: I imagined Burlane because I thought he would be fun. I didn’t want to forever write mysteries. That’s like chewing on the same bone for year after year. Burlane is similar to Denson because they are both me (or guys that I would like to be). Their observations and way of thinking are pretty much mine. I also wanted to travel under the guise of doing research.

JKP: You certainly did do that, going to Jamaica, Brazil, Siberia, the Netherlands, and other far-flung spots to check out settings for your future tales. But you always returned to Portland. Until the day you finally left. When was that?

RH: About 1990. I went and stayed in Hong Kong for a while, then went to Singapore, then the Philippines. It was easy living there because so many people speak English.

I wrote eight novels in the Philippines, including Japanese Game [1995], one that I really liked. I lived there for 12 years in all. I liked being an expat. It was fun getting blotto and bullshitting with lunatic Aussies and Kiwis and Krauts and Canucks. Guys we called Birmingham Dave or Hamburg Hans. You name it. There was this Aussie who brought these salted peanuts with him up from Down Under. They were sensational.

JKP: So, let’s talk about Crow’s Mind. It’s a P.I. yarn again, but the protagonist this time is Jake Hipp, an Oregon-based gumshoe. Is this the same Jake Hipp who featured in The Mongoose Man--one of your “Nicholas van Pelt” books, from 2000--as a “former American sociobiology professor turned oddball international antiterrorist agent”? Or are you simply using the same character name?

RH: I didn’t remember I had used that name before, until you mentioned it just now. It lurked in my subconscious, I suppose. This is good for a laugh. Me be dum fuk.


The author today, photographed by Teresita Artes Hoyt.

JKP: Native American history and myth figure into many of your private-eye excursions, as they do into this latest novel of yours. Have you done a great deal of research into those subjects?

RH: Well, no, I can’t say I have done a whole lot of research beyond what I did for my doctoral dissertation [which focused on myth and Northwest history]. If you ever get a chance, read Ella E. Clark’s Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, published in the early 1950s. Win Blevins, who was an editor at Tor and Forge Books for years, is one-half American Indian and goes to pow wows around the country as a shaman, pounding his tom-tom or whatever. He liked my stories.

JKP: One of the curiosities about Crow’s Mind is its employment of ornithopters, mechanical birds that--at least in your story--come equipped with guns. Have you flown such devices yourself?

RH: I’ve never flown one, no. I didn’t know they existed until I blundered onto some Internet articles. I thought, wow, I have to work those into a story.

JKP: There’s a scene late in the book that finds computer whiz Willow Blackwing guiding Hipp through a drug-assisted hallucination in which he “flies,” hoping to get a better handle on a case that is so much about birds. Have you experienced such a “flight” yourself?

RH: I certainly have. I once took a wild journey on the back of a snake that was as large as a highway. Some of my best flying took place after drinking Miss Mary’s Most Special Tea in Negril, Jamaica.

JKP: I must say, the lithe Willow is one of your most magnetic female characters, a woman who knows herself well, has no problem competing against men, but isn’t above using her feminine wiles. She performs a dance of seduction with Jake Hipp through most of Crow’s Mind. Is Willow based on anybody in particular?

RH: She’s based on a woman that I wish I had met when I was younger.

JKP: If you’re able to write more installments in the Jake Hipp series, how do you see his relationship with Willow progressing?

RH: They’ll be partners and lovers.

JKP: As much as I enjoyed the often madcap story line in Crow’s Mind, I was disappointed in the number of typos, missing words, uncaught errors (“Henri Poirot,” for instance, instead of Hercule Poirot), and occasional repetitions of lines to be found in it. Was this a consequence of your publisher, South Carolina’s Moonshine Cove, rushing the book to market?

RH: No, it is a consequence of dubious editing. This is not Random House, remember.

JKP: How long ago did you relocate from the Philippines to Vancouver, Washington? And why settle in that town north of Portland?

RH: I moved here last year so my daughter could attend Washington State University Vancouver. I’m a native Oregonian and was educated and lived there. I identify myself as an Oregonian. I landed in Washington by accident, but I like it here. It’s cool. Weed is now legal here, so it can’t be all bad. The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl last year, and the Mariners are winning some games. Amazing!

JKP: In addition to a possible Crow’s Mind sequel, are you working on any other books?

RH: Well, hey, Jeff, I have a motherbleeping sensational novel, a thriller, Enter the Gladiators, waiting to be read by a fancy New York agent. If you only knew what was in that book, pal. I can’t even tell her what it’s really about without giving away a spoiler that would destroy the suspense. Well, OK, it’s about a prelude to Civil War II.

JKP: What’s still your greatest weakness as an author?

RH: My greatest weakness is that I cannot imagine so-called thrillers that purport to be “reality.” Intelligence agencies with super technology and hot-damn heroic studs like Jack Ryan who save the day. That’s a total crock. Those are not “thrillers.” That’s a joke. They are reassurers. They reassure readers. The reader expects the good guy to triumph and get the pretty girl. In fact, fuck-ups and idiots almost always carry the day. We can spend trillions on national defense, but in the end some asshole or unexpected glitch will cause us much pain. I am sardonic by nature. I see irony everywhere. The great mass of readers don’t want that. They want “serious” that is in fact wildly comic. I cannot begin one of those “serious” thrillers or mysteries without bursting out laughing. I know they make a lot of money. People apparently read them for the same essential reason they go to church. They want super-heroes to give them deliverance. I just cannot take such bullshit seriously. The book I have now waiting to be read is a genuine thriller. I do not expect the great Flying Spaghetti Monster to save me from anything.

JKP: You used to be a big reader of crime and mystery fiction. In fact, you introduced me to James McClure as well as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Do you still read heavily in the genre? If so, which authors do you find yourself following most closely nowadays?

RH: I re-read Elmore Leonard. He wrote terrific dialogue and imagined wonderful characters. I say when you’re bored, pick up an Elmore Leonard title and have some fun. He knew how the world works.

JKP: Finally, if you could lay claim to having penned any book that does not already carry your byline, what would it be?

RH: The Magic Christian [1959]. I envy Terry Southern for having imagined the scene where Guy Grand buys an empty lot in Chicago and builds a huge, raised, heated swimming pool on it. He fills the pool with cow flop and urine from the Chicago stockyards and heats it. When the yuck gets burbling nicely, he scatters $100 bills on it and drives away laughing. But hey, I imagined a dude surfing a beautiful corpse through horrific whitewater. That’s pretty cool.

Don’t Move That Dial!

Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper brings the welcome news that cable-TV network Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will honor actor James Garner, who passed away last weekend at age 86, with “a 24-hour film marathon starting at 6 a.m. Monday, July 28.” Among the dozen big-screen flicks to be broadcast are Grand Prix (1966), The Wheeler Dealers (1963), Mister Buddwing (1966), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Victor, Victoria (1982), and Marlowe (1969). Click here for a full schedule of that day's showings. And if you can’t reach me by phone or e-mail on the 28th, well, you’ll know why.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reflecting on Garner’s Life and Career

Two days after James Garner’s death at age 86, accolades continue to roll in for this charismatic actor who seemed to bear the weight of stardom with such grace and humility.

Charles P. Pierce (no relation) writes on the Esquire site:
[W]hat connected Brett [sic] Maverick with Jim Rockford, and what allowed Garner to send convention for a loop was the fact that, while not being cowards, both Brett and Jim were unconvinced that violence was necessarily a part of being either a Western hero or a private eye. They never saw the logic in it. This doesn't make sense. Somebody might get hurt here. And it might be me. QED, let's try to think our way out of this mess. It took a rare actor to turn that trick without appearing either cowardly or unpleasantly conniving.
After acknowledging Garner’s “crucial” role in the 1969 film Marlowe, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Little Sister (“The script wasn't vintage noir--there was a martial arts scene--and Garner was not exactly Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but he was droll and melancholy”), Britain’s Guardian newspaper notes that
His second breakthrough came in 1974, when Huggins still in the business, assigned a pilot script to the writer Stephen J. Cannell, who decided to break as many rules of the TV private-eye genre as he could. The obvious casting was Garner: Jim Rockford, the ex-prisoner hero of The Rockford Files, was a downmarket Marlowe, with no office but his mobile home at the beach, an answering machine instead of a secretary. His gun was stored in the biscuit jar. Rockford had a paunch from tacos and beers; he was lazy; and, except for his retired trucker dad, he knew mostly bums, losers and put-upon LAPD cops.

As
Maverick had done, the series pushed the televisually possible further. Storylines could be serious--Garner was proud of an episode based on a New Yorker investigation into the grand jury system, so acute that it helped change the law. But it was the sense of a weird Los Angeles, sundried as a lizard up canyon roads, that was new and different. Critics panned it, but the first season was a ratings hit; then [co-creator Roy] Huggins was pushed out, and Garner confronted Universal Television over an enforced change in tone. Rockford lost 20% of its audience but continued for five seasons (Garner won his Emmy in 1977); then it ended suddenly in the sixth season, when Garner told the crew on location that he was exhausted and had no intention of dying early, and walked out.
Garner grew up in Oklahoma, so it’s natural that the state’s major newspaper, The Oklahoman, should devote space to celebrating his long career. Its obituary is here, but the paper also offers a more in-depth look at the actor’s life here. Written by entertainment editor Gene Triplett, the article draw heavily on The Garner Files, the 2011 memoir Garner wrote with Jon Winokur, but notes some discoveries Winokur made while collaborating on that book:
“I had no idea how extensive (Garner’s Korean [War] service) was,” Winokur said in a recent phone interview. “He was in a unit that was thrown into the front lines when the Chinese Communists crossed the 38th Parallel in 1951, and his unit was the first thing they ran into, and they were decimated. They had something like 60 percent casualties in a very short time, and (Garner) was wounded a couple of times … and got a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster, which he never talked about very much.” …

Another revelation for the author, from interviews with Garner’s friends and associates, was “the number of people whose lives he has enhanced through his generosity. … Something that came up again and again was how tremendously generous he is, both financially and in other ways.”
(Click here to see The Oklahoman’s front-page tribute to Garner.)

Eric Deggans writes in National Public Radio’s Monkey See blog:
I didn’t know, watching Isaac Hayes push James Garner around on The Rockford Files, that I was seeing a special character continue an important television legacy.

All I knew, as a devoted fan of Garner’s put-upon private eye, was that Jim Rockford seemed like a kind of hero you never saw anywhere else on television.

Perpetually strapped for cash and working a case that wasn’t likely to change that situation, Rockford was a wrongly imprisoned ex-con who cloaked his heroism in a cynic’s quips and world-weary attitude (Hayes was a physically intimidating fellow ex-con who always mispronounced his name as “Rockfish”).

“Rockfish” rarely pulled a gun or won a fight with his fists--which could be a little frustrating to those of us weaned on more, say, direct TV private eyes like Mannix or Shaft. Instead, he maneuvered among a seedy universe of corrupt cops and crooks, lame hustlers and earnest victims, using his street smarts and an unerring sense of justice to save the day.

He wasn’t an anti-hero as much as an “unhero”; a regular Joe with a sardonic sense of humor who stepped up when he was needed.
CelebStoner mentions Garner’s support of legalizing marijuana:
“I don’t know where I’d be without it,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir, The Garner Files. “It opened my mind to a lot of things, and now its active ingredient, THC, relaxes me and eases my arthritis pain.”
And this story from The Washington Post’s obituary is one that I’ve heard before, but it is worth repeating here:
Mr. Garner said he most valued collegiality on the set, and it tended to bring out his best performances. One case he cited was “Murphy’s Romance.”

Co-star [Sally] Field told a CBS News reporter of the making of that movie, “He’s so profoundly sexy, and maybe the best kiss I ever had in my life, which was on camera, believe it or not.”

Mr. Garner replied, “I think she’s had a very sheltered life. I mean, poor baby, if that’s the best.”

Thinking further, he added, “I’ve had a couple of them say that. I might not be a bad kisser at all.”
UPDATE I: I want to add another voice to this chorus of praise. In A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence Towles Canote writes:
What always appealed to me about James Garner was that while he was incredibly handsome and charming, at the same time he seemed entirely approachable. Unlike many movie stars James Garner came off as “just one of the guys.” I always imagined that if someone met Mr. Garner in a bar that he or she could sit down with him and talk about the weather, sports, television, and all of the other things about which everyday people talk. Indeed, James Garner treated acting as if it was simply another job. In his memoir, The Garner Files he wrote of acting, “Be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something it isn’t.”

While James Garner may have treated acting as just another job, there can be no doubt that he was great at it. While he will forever be remembered as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, he played a wide variety of roles throughout his career. Many of them were similar to his two best-known roles, men who preferred to use their wits instead of their fists. There is a marked similarity between Bret Maverick, Jim Rockford, Lt. Hendley of The Great Escape, and Jason McCullough of Support Your Local Sheriff. And while Mr. Garner played such charming rogues well, he was equally adept at the sometimes very different roles he played. He played tough as nails lawman Wyatt Earp not once, but twice, and did so convincingly (once in Hour of the Gun and once in Sunset). And while most of the characters James Garner played were nice guys, he was capable of playing characters who were not so nice. In the television movie Barbarians at the Gate he played real-life millionaire F. Ross Johnson. Like many of James Garner’s characters, real-life F. Ross Johnson is charming, but at the same time he had no problems with thousands of Nabisco employees losing jobs if it made him millions of dollars.
UPDATE II: Meanwhile, author Max Allan Collins remembers the influence Garner had on both his life and work:
Garner’s comic touch was present in much of his work, and of course Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were essentially the same character. And no matter what literary influences they may cite, my generation of private-eye writers and the next one, too, were as influenced by The Rockford Files as by Hammett, Chandler or Spillane. The off-kilter private eye writing of Huggins and Stephen Cannell made a perfect fit for Garner’s exasperated everyman approach, but it was just notes on a page without the actor’s musicianship.

Not that Garner couldn’t play it straight--he was, in my opinion, the screen’s best Wyatt Earp in
Hour of the Gun, and as early as The Children’s Hour and as late as The Notebook he did a fine job minus his humorous touch. But it’s Maverick and Rockford--and the scrounger in The Great Escape, the less-than-brave hero of [The] Americanization of Emily, and his underrated Marlowe--that we will think of when Garner’s name is mentioned or his face appears like a friendly ghost in our popular culture. …

Like all of us, Garner was a flawed guy, though I would say mildly flawed. Provoked, his easygoing ways flared into a temper and he even punched people out (not frequently) in a way Bret Maverick wouldn’t. He never quite came to terms with how important Roy Huggins had been to the creation of his persona, and essentially fired him off
Rockford after one season. The lack of Huggins and/or Cannell on Bret Maverick was probably why it somehow didn’t feel like real Maverick.

Garner had great loyalty to his friends, however, and as a Depression-era blue collar guy who kind of stumbled into acting, he never lost a sense of his luck or seemed to get too big a head. He resented being taken advantage of and took on the Hollywood bigwigs over money numerous times, with no appreciable negative impact on his career. He was that good, and that popular.

When he gave a rare interview, Garner displayed intelligence but no particular wit, and it could be disconcerting to see that famed wry delivery wrapped around bland words. Yet no one could convey humor--from a script--with more wry ease than Jim Garner. Perhaps he was funny at home and on the golf course and so on. Or maybe he was just a great musician who couldn’t write a note of music to save his life.

It doesn’t matter. Not to me. He influenced my work--particularly Nate Heller--as much as any writer or any film director. He was a strong, handsome hero with a twist of humor and a mildly exasperated take on life’s absurdities. I can’t imagine navigating my way through those absurdities, either in life or on the page, without having encountered Bret Maverick at an impressionable age.
READ MORE: James Garner: 1928-2014,” by Ronald Tierney (Life, Death, and Fog); “James Garner, 1928-2014: Remembering Rockford,” by Craig McDonald; “Remembering James Garner and The Rockford Files,” by Julia Buckley (Mysterious Musings); “James Garner, R.I.P.,” by Mitchell Hadley (It’s About TV); “Tribute: James Garner, 1928-2014,” by Christopher Lyons (The Westlake Review); “James Garner: Cowboy, Soldier, Detective, Astronaut, Race Car Driver,” by Susan King (Los Angeles Times); “Yeah, Look, Jimmy: 7 Reasons We Loved James Garner in The Rockford Files,” by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper (Today); “James Garner: R.I.P. Rockford, You Maverick” (The Scott Rollins Film and TV Trivial Blog); “James Garner Was the Perfect Fit in Rockford Files,” by Robert Lloyd (Los Angeles Times); “An Ode to Jim Rockford’s Answering Machine,” by Helen A.S. Popkin (ReadWrite).