Monthly Archives: September 2011

Friday finds

I couldn’t care less about the Emmy awards, but the nominees for “Outstanding Main Title Design” were pretty amazing. The design for Game of Thrones is my personal fave, but The Art of the Title has a rundown on them all. Beware: This beguiling site is one of the most fiendishly irresistible time-sucks on the Internets.

A handy guide to the characters of Charles Dickens.

Lectures by well-known writers, now available online.

No, Mr. G, no! I’ll be good, I promise! Just don’t play that country music again!

A set of Spotify playlists for writers, including Thomas Pynchon, Ann Patchett, and Haruki Murakami.

Have you visited the High Line yet? You really owe it to yourself.

Looking for Proust and finding Verlaine.

What All My Children has in common with the Icelandic sagas.

“I don’t recall all the particulars of my first [science fiction and fantasy convention], but it was held in Baltimore at some point in the early 80s, I believe, and coincided with Poe’s birthday. I attended with a friend of mine. One high point was watching Fritz Leiber read ‘The Raven’ at Poe’s grave. One expected him, when finished, to open up a casket and crawl inside. Another was attending a panel that featured Stephen King, among others. He sat down with a brown paper bag, opened it, and pulled out a six pack of beer, which he proceeded to drink from as the panel progressed. I’ve often thought in the years since, when I’ve been trapped on hijacked or just plain boring panels, that I should have followed his example.”

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Target of clickage

The local Internet-based newspaper just posted an article about me and my crime novel We All Fall Down. Why not send some clicks their way?

Cliff Robertson

Today’s viewing assignment, to mark the passing of actor Cliff Robertson, is to watch The Best Man, the best and least known movie about American politics. The film, drawn from Gore Vidal’s 1960 stage play, harkens back to the days before national political conventions turned into media kabuki, with everything choreographed and the party nominee already lined up. Cliff Robertson makes good use of his trademark laser-beam glare as Joe Cantwell, a shiv-wielding demagogue who comes across as a venomous blend of Estes Kefauver and Richard Nixon. I think it’s Robertson’s single best screen performance, with plenty of unexpected nuances beneath the menacing exterior.

His opponent, Bill Russell, is played by Henry Fonda as a troubled intellectual in the Adlai Stevenson mode, who may not have the carnivorous instincts needed to break the deadlock with Cantwell. There is juicy supporting work from Kevin McCarthy as Russell’s campaign manager, Broadway veteran Lee Tracy as the outgoing president (a canny cornball in the Eisenhower mold), and blacklist survivor John Henry Faulk as a rival candidate. There’s also a great cameo by comedian Shelley Berman as a potential source of dirt against Cantwell, documentary-style cinematography by Haskell Wexler, and canny direction from Franklin Schaffner that gives even the most intimate moments the feel of something taking place in the eye of a political hurricane.

Minnesota down and dirty

Normally I put down what I’m doing whenever a new John Sandford crime novel comes out, but last year was anything but normal and somehow I missed Storm Prey, the 2010 entry in Sandford’s long-running Lucas Davenport series. Having just knocked off the latest title, Buried Prey, and found it good and flavorful, I jumped back to Storm Prey and found it . . . well, pretty great. In fact, it’s the best one for my money since Secret Prey back in 1998.

Last month I talked about Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series and how the formula lost its fizz after the tenth entry. Meanwhile, Sandford has 21 Lucas Davenport titles under his belt (as well as two other less extensive series and a couple of stand-alone novels) and not only has he yet to repeat himself, he’s still getting better just about every time out.

A big part of the reason, I think, is that in his previous life, Sandford was John Camp, a journalist serious enough to bag a Pulitzer for a series on the decline of family farms in the high plains, and he’s kept the best habits of the trade. He stays fresh and keeps new information coming in: the Minneapolis-St. Paul setting has changed since the series launched in the Eighties, and the novels have subtly kept track of those changes. He’s as comfortable depicting corporate skullduggery as he is surveying hairbag bikers in shithole roadhouses, and this gives the series admirable range and depth. The guy knows stuff, and he keeps up with what’s happening out there.

Part of what made Secret Prey such a dazzling performance was the way Sandford  played a baffling murder investigation against an equally intricate round of maneuvering to line up the next CEO of a major regional bank, with both strands unexpectedly tying into the identity of one of the more original serial killers put to paper. Storm Prey goes Secret Prey one better by giving the multiple plotlines additional thematic roles. The story begins with the robbery of a hospital pharmacy, one that goes bad when a staffer gets killed. There is a witness who is also a member of the surgical team about to separate Siamese twins in an exceedingly delicate and risky operation. The robbers are an unlikely alliance of dumbass bikers and a cokehead inside man: the dumbasses try to cover their tracks with a series of inept murders, and the lethal comedy of the subplot (which at times brings to mind the Coen Brothers in their pitch-black Fargo mode) plays off the spectacle of surgeons bringing their formidable intelligence and training to a lifesaving mission.

Along with details on the finer points of drug trafficking and fencing stolen goods in the rustic hills of Minnesota, Sandford gives us a knowing look at the social caste system within a hospital (a surgeon would never be caught dead wearing crepe-soled shoes, and Sandford tells us why) and makes the surgical team a mirror image of the robbery team. There’s also a quietly heartbreaking moment in which the infants, spotting the surgeons who are there to help them, start wailing, because all they understand is that more pain is on the way.

Another hallmark of the Davenport series is the villains: Sandford differentiates between those who are dangerous because they’re stupid, those who are dangerous because they’re stuck in a corner, and those who are dangerous because they are missing the crucial elements that separate full-fledged humans from two-legged monsters. The bad guys in Storm Prey are mostly a rum lot, but black-comedy aspect comes into focus with the arrival of Cap, a youthful psychopath whose mere existence is a mortal threat to everyone in the Twin Cities region.

Sandford always goes the extra mile with his bad guys, a trait which helped elevate the series from its early status as a Thomas Harris knockoff, complete with  tough-cop hero whose mental state was only slightly less scary than that of his quarry. While this gave the first five or so “Prey” titles an appealingly nasty edge — particularly Winter Prey, the first perfectly realized Davenport novel — Sandford was savvy enough to recognize that no protagonist could exist for long at such a full boil intensity. So he lined Davenport up with a soul mate — you knew they were perfect for each other when she performed a tracheotomy on him in the middle of a blizzard — and gave the supporting cast a good share of the spotlight. The result is that the series has become more of a harder-edged police procedural while keeping the focus on Davenport. If you’re looking for comparisons, triangulate between the Helen Mirren Prime Suspect series and Ed McBain. If you agree with me that that’s a pretty high standard, then it’s time to start reading.

Tagged , , , , ,