Monthly Archives: September 2008

James Crumley

James Crumley, author of The Wrong Case, Dancing Bear and other great hardboiled crime novels, has died of various health complications. Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind has a gathering of tributes to Crumley, whose influence was far greater than his relatively small output would lead one to think.

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Friday finds

Nick G. knows the simple life is too complicated for his tastes. Call it an “a priory” argument.

Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy, knew his way around haiku.   

Gabriele Campbell knows her way around the Kassel-Wilhemstal. Madam Mayo knows her way around Mexico.

Levi Stahl sadly notes the recent death of David Foster Wallace, as does John Seery, and J.M. Tyree, and Dwight Garner.

Manly men

Stephen King writes about the progenitors of what he calls “manfiction,” along with their (literary) progeny. Can’t argue with his choices, but no list of manly-manfiction is complete without John Sandford. His “Prey” series started out as a sort of high-grade Thomas Harris spinoff, built around a detective with a whole lot of crazy in his own right, and has evolved into high quality police procedurals.

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Me in 3-D

Goodness, how my fall schedule is filling up. In addition to my Oct. 4 visit to the Collingswood Book Festival and my Oct. 28 talk in Jersey City, I now add a speech and book-signing gig set for Sunday, Nov. 16, from 2 pm. to 4 p.m. at the Woodbridge Public Library, 1 George Frederick Plaza off Route 35 North, Woodbridge, N.J. 07095. Call (732) 634-4450 ext. 7126 for more info.

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Beverly Hills ex-cop

Paul Davis interviews Joseph Wambaugh on the occasion of Wambaugh’s latest novel, Hollywood Crows, and their talk is studded with great nuggets. Wambaugh, as you may recall, was one of the first novelists to write about police work frorm the inside — his first novel, The New Centurions (1971), was published while he was still a detective with the Los Angeles police force — and he was startlingly frank about the sordid outrageousness of big-city police work, and the equally outrageous black humor cops develop to cope with it. That makes him interesting enough, but Wambaugh is also a heroic figure for all writers in his early dealings with the movie industry: after his 1975 novel The Choirboys was given a crappy adaptation, Wambaugh self-financed his own film version of The Onion Field, his heartbreaking 1973 nonfiction account of a cop-killing and the grueling trial that followed. That movie, released in 1979, gave breakout roles to James Woods, John Savage and Ted Danson, and remains one of the best true-crime narratives set to film. Someday I’d like to check out Police Story, the short-lived anthology series Wambaugh created in the Seventies: I was a mere tyke when it came out, but I remember “The Wyatt Earp Syndrome” and its portrait of a cop who lets runaway machismo destroy his marriage.

I’m happy to see that Wambaugh likes The Wire, my most favorite TV cop show ever:

Davis: What I liked on The Wire was that we saw a reversal of what one normally sees on TV cop shows. You always saw cops and feds fighting over jurisdiction on most shows. “Back off, this is my case.” On The Wire after a dozen Eastern European girls were found dead in a shipping container, we saw the police agencies fight over not having jurisdiction. The Baltimore homicide chief spoke of his stats going up 12 per cent if they were stuck with the case. I got a kick out of that.

Wambaugh: That was my experience when I was a detective. We were always trying to give away jurisdiction. When the LAPD caught bank robbers, for instance, they would do the fun work – kicking down the door and catching the guys – and then for all the paperwork and the prosecution, the LAPD was only too glad to turn it over to the feds. Let the FBI handle all of that. And then the FBI would take the credit.

This brief exchange really rang a bell for me:

Davis: What kind of man or woman do you think becomes a police officer today? Is there a common dominator?

Wambaugh: I don’t think so. Norman Mailer had a few theories on that, but he was full of bullshit. Someone has to have a bit of assertiveness in their personality, I would think. I’m thinking of women in particular. There has to be a little something there, thinking they can go out and get in somebody’s face and do the job.

True true true. One of the reasons I loved reporting crime and courts was talking to cops. Police always surprised me. There was never a cookie-cutter thing going with them. I remember dropping in on a detective once to talk about an investigation and once the business part of the conversation was over, I discovered completely by accident that he was a bit of a fantasy geek. We ended up chatting about Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber and Clark Ashton Smith.

I admire Wambaugh’s early books much the way I admire police in general, but his greatest strength as a writer — his intimate, hard-earned intimacy with the police mindset — is also his greatest limitation. He can show you the way cops think, but he’s unable to stray beyond that — at least, that was the case in early works like The Blue Knight, The New Centurions and The Choirboys. I trust Wambaugh completely when he describes how it felt to be a cop dealing with the race riots of the Sixties, but he’s not the guy to read if you want to get the other viewpoint — the despair and rage that fueled those riots.

For my money, Wambaugh’s last great one was Lines and Shadows, a nonfiction book about a border patrol unit created not to stop illegal immigrants but to protect them from the predators waiting to rob, rape and/or murder them as they came across the southern border. After that, I thought his novels went wobbly, and the true-crime titles never really grabbed me. Maybe it’s time to give him another look. (Hat tip: Frank Wilson.)

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Since some of my favorite places in the world are bookstores, particularly used bookstores, over the years I had formed a picture of a used bookstore proprietor as a tweedy, amiable type who was in it for love. Whether it was the proprietor of (long-departed) Old York Books in New Brunswick or current fave the Montclair Book Center (which mixes new and used), the people I knew who ran used bookstores seemed like low key types who just liked being around books and had found a way to make it pay, even if just barely. 

Larry McMurtry, author of The Last Picture Show and my beloved Lonesome Dove, has pretty much abandoned fiction to become an antiquarian bookseller. He writes about his new life, and his life as a reader, in Books: A Memoir. This review from my favorite literary magazine uses McMurtry’s memoir to paint a picture of bookselling red in tooth and claw:

People commonly imagine that “bookmen” are shy, harmless folk, absentminded, with thick glasses, sporting tweeds and smoking briar pipes. Not scouts. Go to any big, well-advertised charity or antiquarian book fair just before it opens. If you wander to the front of the immensely long line—full of people with sturdy L.L. Bean canvas bags and carts of various kinds— you will notice men with lean and hungry looks. In buckskin, they might pass for gunslingers out of McMurtry’s own Lonesome Dove. A few might also be built like fullbacks or rugby players, and probably answer to the name Tiny. These are book scouts, men—and they are virtually all men—who roam the world’s estate sales and church bazaars, thrift stores, antique shops, and auction houses, who check out the books for sale in libraries and even those used as accent pieces in furniture departments. They live by their knowledge and their wits and their persistence. It’s as hardscrabble a life as any in a Texas cowtown.

In many cases, scouts will have traveled hundreds of miles for a big sale and then camped out overnight so as to be among the first people in line. When the doors open, they will run, not walk, to the categories where the high-end collectibles might lurk, to the tables marked “Rare,” “Modern Firsts,” “Art and Photography,” “Vintage.” Being at the front of the line may give them only a few seconds’ advantage, but that’s all a professional often needs. Sometimes, though, things can get tense, or even ugly. I once saw a serious fistfight break out over the Olympia Press first edition of Lolita.

At my last yard sale, I became acquainted with this breed of book-pest:

Nowadays at fairs, you see fewer of the old-style scouts, the men with the steel-trap memories for a rare modern high spot, who can tell you—as McMurtry can—that the true first printing of The Sun Also Rises has the word “stoppped,” with that extra p, on page 81, line 26. Instead, you will now notice amateurs and hobbyists typing titles or scanning ISBN numbers into little hand-held computers. Within seconds, they know what any particular book is selling for on the Internet. If it’s underpriced, they buy it for resale. Many of them actually don’t know or care anything about the books themselves. Who needs connoisseurship, who needs the experience of handling and studying and remembering details about thousands of books? Instead of the risk-taking world of scouting, so full of raffish glamor and romance, we now have data-entry.

Doesn’t sound much like 84 Charing Cross Road, now, does it?

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Blue Monday

Not an old school blues tune — merely the greatest pop song of the Eighties. Spike Lee directed the video, as you may remember.

One of my fondest concert memories is seeing Public Enemy at the Spectrum, topping a bill of Kid N’Play, Digital Underground, Heavy D and, of course, P.E. The SWs were all togged out in white Navy dress uniforms. Chuck D marched out onto the stage and everyone in the hockey barn started shouting out the lyrics to “Welcome to the Terrordome” as he rapped. Quite a show.   

The “authorized” history of Public Enemy, Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’, is already out in the U.K., with an American edition slated for March. The reviews overseas have been lukewarm, but I’m still interested. In the late 1980 and early 1990s, hip-hop was virtually the only pop music I listened to, until the rise of gangsta rap, and P.E. was one of the genre’s prime movers.

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Bob Mould, co-founder of Husker Du and Sugar, is writing his autobiography. When it comes out, so to speak, I’m absolutely there. With all the milestone (and pseudo-milestone) rock albums being remastered and upgraded with all the new sonic technology, I wish Rhino or some other outfit would team up with SST Records to spruce up the sound on its Husker Du catalogue. Simply stripping away Spot’s cobwebs and giving New Day Rising and Zen Arcade the same clarity and depth found on Candy Apple Grey would be a service to future headbanging generations.

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David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, author of the novel Infinite Jest and several other works of fiction and nonfiction, has apparently committed suicide. He was 46.

Though I have yet to read any of Wallace’s fiction, I’ve relished his articles and essays for years. The title essay of his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, about the insular, surrealistic world of a cruise liner, is one of the funniest and most closely observed essays I’ve ever read, and the collection also includes “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” his award-winning take on a state fair in midwestern America.

In the literary blog The Valve, Scott Eric Kaufman notes that Wallace was on the verge of what could have been a remarkable middle portion of his writing career — he’d already demonstrated tremendous literary skills and could have taken them anywhere he wished. Apparently his writing output had slowed to a crawl in recent years, and maybe he considered himself washed up as a writer. I have no idea, but I know that depression is the great liar.

Duncan Black, who as Atrios probably did more than any other blogger to hook me on this whole Internet thing, took the name for his site, Eschaton, from the novel Infinite Jest. He explains it better than I could.

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Friday finds

Nick discovers the meaning of curds and whey.

Take a tour of book of 2,500 different book covers from 1926 to 1947.

Bat Segundo comes in torrents. Really.

Doc Mooney marks the premiere of It Might Get Loud, a documentary about the electric guitar featuring Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White, and offers a prescription for electric guitar bliss.

Christian Bauman gets a terrific profile in Acoustic Live.

The Virginia Quarterly Review is sponsoring a contest to pick the best young book reviewer, “young” meaning below the age of thirty. The winner gets a grand plus a publishing contract for three more reviews at a grand each.  

Michael Gray’s excellent biography of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes, is about to come out in a handsome paperback edition in the U.K. Still no sign of a U.S. edition, but I’ve read the hardcover and I can tell you the book is worth the extra freight for anyone interested in blues, American music and, of course, Bob Dylan, who wrote one of his very best songs about the Georgia bluesman.    

Would you like a signed copy of the most dangerous book of poetry ever written?

Some enterprising soul has posted clips from Dead Ringers, which not only gets my vote as one of David Cronenberg’s best films but also signaled the arrival of Howard Shore as a major film composer. A couple of minutes into this clip you’ll find the bondage interlude, in which Shore’s lush, romantic score helps carry the scene from outrageousness to poignance. I’ve held forth at length on Shore’s work before — click here if you want to read the post.

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