Monday, February 28, 2011

Legendary Actress Jane Russell Has Died.

Sad news. The one and only Jane Russell (1921 - 2011) has died at the age of 89. I remember her most playing opposite the shiny blondness of Marilyn Monroe in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953). But also in SON OF PALEFACE (1952) with Bob Hope. Over the years she starred in several dark and moody films noir with Robert Mitchum, Jeff Chandler and other hunks of the era.

Never the best actress, she still had a magical physical presence. She could hold her own with anyone and often outshined her co-stars. She wasn't classically beautiful, but the camera just loved her. She also always seemed to have the look of a good-humored dame about her. Despite her offbeat beauty, it wasn't hard for women to like her.

In GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, obviously a film tailored for Monroe, Jane looked perfectly comfortable playing second banana. (Whether in reality she was or was not, I don't know. But on film I never saw any friction or undercurrent of resentment.) Jane always looked comfortable in her own skin.

R.I.P Jane.
Thanks to the Daily Beast for the heads-up.

Monday Book Review: THE SENTRY by Robert Crais

When I read a terrific book I can't wait to tell everyone about it. (I waited on this one though 'cause I finished it last week and wanted to save it for my review today. But it was hard.) As I've mentioned before, Robert Crais is one of the very best writers working today. His Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books are my favorite modern detective series. There are few writers who can
match R.C.'s talent for quick characterization, breathless plotting and for making the men in his books more than one dimensional killing machines.

R.C. laid the groundwork for Cole and Pike's relationship years ago with books set mostly in L.A. and written in the first person from Elvis Cole's often jaunty point of view. Where R.C.'s series excels is in the book-to-book's unwavering devotion to that friendship. Part of my expectation as a reader of this series is to be reassured by the continuation and strength of Elvis and Joe. It is the hub around which all of these stories turn.

When the vegetables were good to go, Cole went upstairs, changed into a T-shirt, then returned to the deck to fire up his Weber. The sky was a beautiful sangria by then, and inspired him to have another beer.

When Cole went in, Joe Pike was in the kitchen. Unannounced and silent as a ghost. The cat was twined between his ankles, purring. Pike was the only person besides Cole the cat would abide.

"White bean salad with grilled veggies we can share. Maybe a little couscous. Carne asada for me. Sound good?"



Notice how the loyal friend prepares his subject for the evening's festivities.

"I'm having a beer. Get one, then you can fill me in while I'm prepping the coals."

Pike took a beer from the fridge. Cole grabbed a third, and followed him out. The cat trailed behind them. He liked to watch the slope for field mice and gophers.

Cole pushed at the coals, which was a completely unnecessary act. Notice the immaculate technique as the World's Greatest Best Friend stalls the moment of truth.....

Later, that evening, when Elvis is forced to reveal some unpalatable truths to Joe:

...Pike remained motionless, floating at the edge of the deck. Cole wished he could see behind the black glasses, but that view was hidden.

....His phone rang. Cole wasn't going to answer, but decided to give Pike some time. He covered the grill then inside for the phone.

.....When Cole put down the phone, he went back to the deck. He wanted to share the one piece of good news he'd gotten that day, but when he stepped outside Joe Pike was gone.


The cat was gone too.


The canyon swallowed his voice.

I think a great part of what R.C. is writing about is this idea of the bond of friendship and what it means, how it develops. How friendship itself becomes a stabilizing force. Without giving anything away, I can say that the very satisfactory ending of THE SENTRY continues to perpetuate that ideal.

The latest books, begun with THE WATCHMAN (2007), are being told from Joe Pike's point of view but not in the first person. Joe Pike is not a 'first person' kind of guy. A solitary man of secrets, Joe is one of the most centered individuals you will ever meet. He is a warrior honed by years of work, first as an L.A. cop then as a mercenary/soldier of fortune. He lives in L.A. and operates a gun shop. He is enigmatic with a capital E, wears sunglasses day and night and has red arrows tattooed on his deltoids. The arrows point forward, always forward - Pike's philosophy of life. He is the coolest dude you will ever meet. But don't tell him I told you that.

In this series of books, we learn a bit more about what Pike thinks of Joe. For instance:
When in THE SENTRY, Joe mentions that Cole is one of those men who thinks he 's funny, you have to laugh. This is so exactly right on the money. If you've read the earlier books you know this already, so the laugh is one of recognition. But it's said in such a bald-faced way, as fact, Joe's not kidding. That's what makes it even funnier, for me.

The Joe Pike books are each written in the dark form of R.C.'s grim classic L.A. REQUIEM. They feature nasty sorts and some pretty ugly violence that sometimes appears to spin out of control. Why these books work, why they are not just run-of-the-mill thriller-dillers is simply because at the heart of these books there is Joe Pike and Elvis Cole.

If not for Elvis and his influence, Joe would likely be dead by now or close enough as makes no difference. Though Elvis is more adaptable, the same thing probably applies to him.

In THE SENTRY, fate takes a hand: Joe Pike stops his red Cherokee jeep (not new but kept looking new by Pike's penchant for keeping everything just so) for air at a Mobil station and from that moment, events take on a life of their own. Joe is the noticing sort, it's what's kept him alive for years. Well, that and the pure fact that he's totally fearless and competent at what he does.

He notices two Latino guys skulking up the block across from the gas station, and decides to take a look and see what they're up to. Just a look. Afterwards he thinks back to that moment and wonders what would have happened if he'd looked the other way, pretended not to notice or minded his own business. But that's not Joe.

The events unfolding inside the takeout shop had happened quickly. When he reached the door, the two men had an older man on the floor, one punching the man's head, the other kicking his back. The man had rolled into a ball, trying to protect himself.

The two hitters hesitated when Pike opened the door, both of them sucking air like surfacing whales. Pike saw their hands were empty, though someone else might have been behind the counter or in the back room...

"You wan' this, bitch? Get outta here."

Pike didn't get out. He stepped inside and closed the door.

Pike saw a flick of surprise in the kicker's eyes, and the puncher hesitated again. They had expected him to run, one man against two, but Pike did not run.

The victim - the man on the floor - still curled into a ball, mumbled - "I'm okay. Jesus - "

- even as the kicker puffed himself larger. He raised his fists and stomped toward Pike, a street brawler high on his own violence, trying to frighten Pike away.

Pike moved forward fast, and the surprised kicker pulled up short, caught off guard by Pike's advance. Then Pike dropped low and accelerated, as smoothly as water flows over rocks. He trapped the man's arm, rolled it backward, and brought the man down hard, snapping the radius bone and dislocating the ulna. He hit the man one time in the Adam's apple with the edge of his hand, the water now swirling off rocks as he rose to face the puncher, only the puncher had seen enough. He scrambled backward across the counter, and bounced off the wall as he ran out a back door.

The kicker gakked like a cat with a hair ball as he tried to breathe and scream at the same time. Pike dropped to a knee, watching the back door as he checked the man for a weapon. He found a nine-millimeter pistol, then left the downed man long enough to make sure no one was behind the counter or in the back room. He returned to the kicker, rolled him onto his belly, then stripped the man's belt to bind his wrists. The man shrieked when Pike twisted the injured arm behind his back, and tried to get up, but Pike racked his face into the floor.

Pike said, "Stop."

Pike had neutralized the assailant and secured the premises in less than six seconds.

Five years before Joe Pike gets involved, Dru Rayne and her uncle fled New Orleans just ahead of Hurricane Katrina. They were on the run from as mercilessly vile a killer as has ever been created. A killer who never gives up, who five years later is still hunting, still on their trail.

After Joe Pike crosses the street from the gas station and steps in to save Dru's uncle from a savage beating by a couple of L.A. gangbangers, he is immediately taken by Dru's attractive guilelessness. There's something about Dru that penetrates Joe's defenses. There's also something about the uncle's behavior that doesn't add up. Joe decides to get more involved even as their initial story begins to unravel. They are in desperate danger, that much Joe knows. Sometimes that's all he needs to know.

In the course of this story, a couple of old friends, characters from previous books make their appearance. John Chen is back. (It's always good to have an 'in' at the L.A. Medical Examiner's office.) So is Lucy Chenier, Louisiana lawyer and one time girlfriend of Elvis Cole. She's back, to help, at least on the phone.

This is the sort of story in which very few things are as they seem and betrayal is commonplace. We get three points of view: that of Joe Pike, that of the killer and that of Elvis Cole, once he's called in. (I'm not fond of killer points of view, but R.C. makes it tolerable.)

I've rarely seen Joe Pike this vulnerable, this unsure of what the truth is. For Joe things are absolute, either black or white. It's hard to read about him floundering a bit in the murky gray.

As you can tell, I am very fond of these characters, this happens sometimes when you've read every book in a series (most of them more than once) from the very beginning and know the characters inside and out. It's hard on an author too, when his readers expect (demand) so much with each book. When a reader has a lot of affection invested in certain characters they don't want certain things to happen and of course, they're always hoping that what they do want to happen will happen. It's not easy being a writer. It's not easy being a fan. Where there's great story-telling and writing, affection and emotion involved, it becomes a kind of symbiotic relationship. A mutual pact.

Very rarely does R.C. let me down. That's one of the reasons I love these books.

For a quick look at all the titles in the Elvis and Joe series, please check here

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Few of Oscar's BIGGEST Flub-A-Dubs From the Past

Okay, these are all my own personal choices, so take that into consideration. (And done mostly from memory because I don't want to turn this into an Officially Oscar type thing. There are plenty of film websites which will be happy to give you chapter and verse on all this.) Everyone's entitled to their own vision of a perfect world. My own world would include awards given to the correct people for brilliant and worthwhile work - awards given without outside interference or pressure. But since people are imperfect, awards will follow suit. So this is neither here nor there - just a little impromptu treatise of mine on past Oscar failures. I've never had a platform on which to pontificate before. Ha! Actually, this blog is my way of making Oscar conversation. I hope you'll join in.

1) One of the biggest and most egregious Oscar errors I can ever remember was the slight dealt to Peter O'Toole when he did NOT win the Oscar for his overwhelmingly right performance as T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. O'Toole was the heart and soul of that epic film directed by David Lean. He was, in a word: superb. (When 'superb' supposedly meant something.) Not to put too fine a point on it: in that film O'Toole AND Lean turned Lawrence - a little known British player in the Arab turmoil as the Ottoman Empire collapsed after WWI - into a god.

But who won Best Actor that year? Gregory Peck for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. A good performance by a wonderful actor whom everyone loved. So it always seems to me to have been a popularity win instead of a win based on the work. Plus, not to mention, that Harper Lee's book is an American beloved. I suppose it was seen as an insult to Lee's book to have anyone but Peck win the award that year. Yes, Peck was good as Atticus Finch, the stalwart, honorable father. (Physically, he was 'stalwart' personified.)The theme of the book 'tolerance of your fellow man' is, of course, a good one. But performance-wise, I vote for O'Toole. (If I had a vote.) LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is a film I can still watch and marvel at how little it has aged. It still shines. It is my favorite British film of all time. I've only seen TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD once or twice over the years. It's a very good film. It just doesn't stack up to LAWRENCE.

Over the years, Peter O'Toole has gone on to be nominated 8 times and has never won. He was overlooked for his brilliance yet again, in THE LION IN WINTER. That year Katherine Hepburn won Best Actress for her performance in the film - who was she playing against? An empty suit? O'Toole's performance is magnificent. Hers, merely very good. They should have both won.

Let me tell you something, giving this guy an honorary Oscar in 2002 just didn't cut it.

2) When, in 1955, Judy Garland was overlooked for Oscar gold for her magnificent turn in A STAR IS BORN - in favor of Grace Kelly's wimpish, ordinary (she wore a sweater, for god's sake!) beleaguered wife of Bing Crosby in THE COUNTRY GIRL, a soap opera (at best), it was the single most incredible outrage ever perpetuated on an American actress in full view of an entire country. Garland did her best and smiled bravely. She had to. But she knew, I knew, we all knew she'd just been mugged.

Grace Kelly was a beautiful woman playing plain. This is not a good enough reason for winning an Oscar. Sorry. Oh wait, maybe she got it for snagging a Prince? Don't know the timeline there. Still not a good enough reason.

I'm not saying Garland was the greatest actress that ever lived. She wasn't. But at the top of her game, in the several films I remember her best in, she carried the damn film on her shoulders. She made those films her own by sheer force of will and talent. In A STAR IS BORN, she is Esther Blodgett and again, carries the film. NOT a great movie, but her memorable performance outweighed some of the more overwrought faults of the film. James Mason, too, was superb. (But it was Marlon Brando for ON THE WATERFRONT that year and rightly so.)

3) The year that Caleb Deschanel was not nominated for his superbly rich, startlingly imaginative camera work for the film, THE BLACK STALLION, is the year I began to stop paying close attention to the Oscars. It was the year I began to grow up. 1980, I think. Now it was about time I decided to grow up, I mean, I was married and the mother of a ten year old girl. But I still believed in magic.

One reason Deschanel might have been overlooked, I later heard, was because he used natural light and somehow, that was considered unworthy of nomination. An absurd statement on its face. Now, this is just what I read later. Possibly, probably, I heard wrong. I can't find any lists online (well, not easily anyway) of who won for Cinematography that year. (Or any year, for that matter.) But it wasn't Deschanel and he wuz robbed. Even the winner that year, if I remember correctly, mentioned Deschanel's name. What a freakin' travesty.

THE BLACK STALLION, supposed to be merely a kid's film, is on my list of Best Films of All Time. Right near the top. One of the main reasons is Caleb Deschanel's beautiful (I need a bigger word than 'beautiful' but can't think of one) cinematography. This is the kind of camerawork that holds you spellbound - that lifts film from mere entertainment, into the realm of art. There are scenes in this film that live on in my memory precisely because of their artistry and beauty. Scenes that even now fill me with awe. I can recall having seen nothing like this in all the years I'd been going to the movies. I cried at the end of this film, not because I was sad, but because I ached for the beauty I'd just seen. I can't even remember who won the actual Oscar that year. Don't care.

4) The year - 1961 I think - that Elmer Bernstein did NOT win an Oscar for his brilliantly evocative soundtrack for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was a major disappointment because I'd thought he was a shoe-in. I was 18 then and payed serious attention to the Oscars and not just the acting and best picture categories. I knew, even then, that it takes a helluva lot of behind-the-scenes people to make a film. I paid attention.

That year, the music oscar went to, Ernest Gold, who scored the fillm EXODUS. A good score with a powerful main theme, but that was it. How often do you hear it played today? How many hits does it still get on youtube, I wonder. All I know is, I'm still listening to the music from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and still loving it. I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't love it. You hear that music and you instantly think: western! Elmer Bernstein was a prolific composer of memorable film scores. In my view, he was responsible for some of the finest film music ever created. That his finest score was overlooked for Oscar has always rankled. Obviously, for certain things, I have a long memory.

5) In my view, Raul Julia was totally overlooked as an actor in his lifetime. In 1985's KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, he played opposite the eventual Oscar winner for Best Actor, William Hurt - a great performance. But you know, again I say, was Hurt playing against an empty suit? Raul Julia as Valentin was, in my view, equally as good in a very difficult role. Julia did win a Golden Globe that year, but was totally overlooked by the Academy. Not even a Supporting Actor nomination. Inexplicable.
6) Last but not least, I'll just mention my continuing to simmer outrage over the 2006 Oscar snub of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN for Best Film. Oh wait, it won for Best Director - right? Best director of what? How does a guy win a Best Director Oscar and the Film doesn't win Best Picture? Can't figure that out. Maybe it's a parallel universe kind of thing. What film won that year? The memorable....uh, wait, give me a minute: Oh, yeah, CRASH. A film that will be talked about whenever film mavens get togethter to discuss the greatness of films - NOT!

In truth, BBM didn't have a chance when some of the Academy voters REFUSED to see the film. See, if you watch a film about two men in love and you're a man, you might, I don't know, suddenly turn gay! Right? Ernest Borgnine was one of those who refused to see the film. Tony Curtis was another. No comment.

But you know, it's kind of okay, because EVERYONE in the rest of the world knew BBM wuz robbed and knew why. Dear Heath Ledger was robbed as well, but don't get me started on that one.

Do you have any especially ugly memories of Oscar Flub-A-Dubs?

Saturday Salon: A Painting for Oscar Weekend

Art is what you can get away with. Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987)

Not so much a favorite painting, I prefer Andy Warhol's early illustrations, especially the fanciful ones he did of shoes and women - way before he became the King of Pop Art. But like his work or not, he had some interesting things to say about fame, artificiality and the state of art in the 60's/70's.

In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.
Was Andy prescient or what?

(Read more about Andy Warhol here. )

I thought the dollar sign painting of Warhol's was especially appropriate for Oscar Extravaganza Weekend. Will you be watching tomorrow night?

I admit in the last few years I haven't watched. But I did like looking at the Oscar fashion parade - the red carpet. I'm afraid a lot of what Oscar is about can be distilled into those few minutes of ersatz fashion we all love to view in the moments leading up to the Big Reveal.

Usually the Big Reveal turns out to be nothing much but anti-climax. The favorites win and the rest don't. Rarely is there a surprise. But if a surprise should occur, most of the pundits seem affronted. No one likes the length of the show. No one really, it seems to me, likes the whole orgiastic tone of the thing. And now I see, they're trying desperately to attract a 'younger crowd'. Supposedly us oldies are dying off and soon there won't be an audience left who cares about the Oscars. I assume that's the reason for the two young actors playing hosts this year. Young actors whom I've never heard had more than rudimentary 'real' life personalities. Actors are not the characters they play. But maybe these two will surprise everyone with their wit and charm. (Already, before the show even begins, the NY Times Oscar site was making fun of the two. Honestly, what chance do they have?)

Or maybe the 'younger crowd' today doesn't care about wit and charm. You could easily convince me of that.

The problem has always been, I think, that no one can seem to figure out whether the Oscars is an awards show or a variety show. Combining both as has always been done is RARELY conducive to anything remotely watchable. (Except at The Tony's and nobody watches those except people in New York.) But people tune in the Oscars, I think, to see if or when disaster will occur. (It usually does in some form or fashion at some point.) Or if the show will truly be as boring as the previous year. They watch. And then spend the following week complaining about it. Nobody likes being made a fool of.

Until next year.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Just Wondering: Can a man write a good cozy mystery?

Because the day was so grim, gray and melted snowy, rainy sloppy, I am thinking a good cozy mystery would just hit the spot. (Reading one now, but I need, well...a cozy back-up.) As I'm cruising through my book shelves looking for something appropriately comforting, I notice that, among my 'cozies', there don't seem to be many male writers.

I wonder why that is. Aren't men capable of writing 'comforting' type words? Of course they are. But maybe cozy mysteries require something more than comfortable words. They require a good mystery yes, but they require a certain kind of mystery atmosphere with the murders mostly happening off-stage. But it's the atmosphere that makes for a cozy, I think. At least my kind of cozy. But, surely, men are capable of creating comforting atmosphere and a few 'not in your face' murders.

Let me double check my shelves once more.

Okay, bingo! These men come close. (So the answer to my initial question is yes, but rarely.)

The late Stuart Kaminsky with his Toby Peters private eye mysteries set mostly in and among the quirky movie people of 1940's Los Angeles. Favorite title? Mildred Pierced. Yes, it features Joan Crawford as a murder suspect/actress in distress. Funny.

Ed Gorman with his Sam McCain series set in 1950's small town Iowa. Each title is the name of a rock and roll song of the times. i.e. Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.

Parnell Hall with his Stanley Hastings private eye series set mostly in NYC and also his crossword puzzle lady mysteries. (Full disclosure: I read and love the Stanley Hastings series, but don't read the Puzzle Lady series, possibly because I dislike crossword puzzles.)

Jeffrey Cohen with his wonderful series featuring Aaron Tucker, small town NJ magazine writer and solver of myseries. Also his Elliott Freed movie theater mysteries, set in NJ. One title: For Whom the Minivan Rolls.

Alan Bradley with his multi-award series set in 1950's England and featuring a 12 year old protagonist is the closest to the perfect male cozy writer as I can come. No, not close. He is a male cozy writer, period.

Alexander McCall Smith (I've only read The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, but that qualifies for sure.) So, okay, so there are some who are DEFINITELY writing cozies.

Peter Abrahams (Writing the quirky Echo Falls mysteries.) Yup, definitely cozies. Though not as 'warm' as I would ordinarily like a cozy to be.

These seven series all have one thing in common: humor. Three are private eye series, one - the Sam McCain series, might as well be. Sam is a small town lawyer who solves murders almost against his will. Jeff's two heroes are a freelance writer and a theater owner. Flavia de Luce, Bradley's solver of mysteries, is a budding chemist. In Echo Falls, it's mostly the high school kids who solve the mysteries.

(There's also EJ Copperman, whose NJ cozy I read last year and loved. Not sure if EJ is a man or woman, though since Copperman is a pseudonym. My suspicion is that Copperman is a man.)

But that's it, cozy writer-wise, for the male population currently living on my bookshelves. And really, except for Peter Abrahams, Alan Bradley and Alexander McCall Smith, the others are 'almost' cozies. Not 100 percent sure they qualify. As much as I love these books, they are not what I reach for when I need a 'comfortable' mystery read. What do you think about all this? Do you read cozies? When and where? Must a cup of tea be nearby? Men and cozy cups of tea....not so much. I mean, men drink tea, yes. But, you know what I mean. I like my tea with butter cookes, little crackers with slices of cheese and a strawberry or two. A man usually sneers at this sort of thing. HA!
In contrast here are the women writers all but pushing Stuart, Parnell, Alan, Alexander, Peter, Ed and Jeff off my bookshelves. The following are all read by yours truly and safely vouched for:

  • Agatha Christie (A golden age Dame, but I consider her Queen of the Cozy Mystery even if some of the murders are rather ugly. The Jane Marple mysteries especially, qualify as cozy.)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers ( The Peter Wimsy myseries.Though Sayers is probably turning in her grave over the word 'cozy'.)
  • Nancy Bell (Gotta' love these Miss Biggie mysteries set in small town Texas. Narrator is 12 year old boy.)
  • Charlane Harris (Before the vampires and undead set in, there was librarian Aurora Teagarden.)
  • Susan Moody ( Mysteries set in the world of English Bridge Tournament play. Hard to find, but worth the effort.)
  • Katherine Hall Page (Mysteries set in various localities, but mainly small town Massachusettes. The mystery solver is caterer and minister's wife Faith Fairchild.)
  • Emily Richards (Another series featuring a minister's wife solving mysteries. What is it with these minsters and their wives? Murder seems to follow them around.)
  • Georgette Heyer (Yup, as well as her Regency stuff, she wrote a terrific bunch of mysteries.)
  • Elizabeth Daly (Supposedly Agatha Christie's favorite writer.)
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart (Another Golden Ager. I'm currently reading THE YELLOW ROOM and loving it to pieces.)
  • Elizabeth Peters (Not strictly cozy settings. But I defy anyone NOT to call the Amelia Peabody books cozies. Even if they take place mostly in Egypt.)
  • Jo Dereske (The Miss Zukas mysteries mostly set in and around libraries.)
  • Elaine Flinn (Antiques and murder in, if I remember correctly, California.)
  • Diana Killian (Murder among antiques dealers in the lake district of England.)
  • Jincy Willett (Loved her debut: The Writing Class. Waiting for more.)
  • Lisa Lutz (The loony Spellman clan and their various mysteries.)
  • Laurie R. King (Holmes and Russell. These excellent books take up where Conan Doyle left off. These are 'borderline' cozies though since they do not have a light tone.)
  • Josephine Tey (A brilliant Golden Ager who wrote at least two classics of the genre. Also not known for her lightness.)
  • Ngaio Marsh (A Golden Ager, another creator of borderline cozies since many of her murders are gruesome and not light. But for me, she qualifies.)
  • M.M. Kaye who wrote some terrific romantic adventure novels, only some of them 'cozy' in nature. (I have an anthology of them and love these books written in the 30's/40's, mostly set in places that don't even exist anymore as Kaye envisioned them.)
  • MC. Beaton's Hamish MacBeth series set in the Scottish Highlands. (I think Beaton is a woman.)
And these are only names of the ones I've read. There are many others who qualify as cozy writers out there, I just haven't gotten around to reading them.

The main thing that must happen when I think of a cozy read is this: I must smile. A cozy, above all else, must evoke a smile. Maybe a smile of recognition. A smile that leads to a warmth of rememberance and the promise of comfortable company and a good, well written story. That's it.
Maybe it's just that most writers write to their audience and most males, let's face it, probably don't read cozies. More than likely spy thrillers are to men what cozies are to women. Agreed?

Maybe it's just a girl thing.

Friday's Forgotten Books: HARMONY IN FLESH AND BLACK by Nicholas Kilmer

Author Nicholas Kilmer - an art historian in actuality - writes one of my favorite (and lesser-known) mystery series. It features Boston Brahman art collector Clayton Reed and his art-loving henchman, Fred Taylor. Who knew art collectors needed henchmen? Well, the very eccentric, paranoid and esoterically inclined Clayton Reed definitely does.

HARMONY IN FLESH AND BLACK (1995) is the first in the Reed/Taylor series and a heck of a debut. Kilmer had previously written a memoir about a house in Normandy, but HIFAB was his first fiction attempt. When I first discovered it several years ago, I couldn't help but be thrilled because of my over-fondness for mystery/thrillers set in the art world. There aren't many of them, but the few I've read I've been fortunate to love.

Clayton Reed is the wealthy owner of a Boston townhouse in the famous Beacon Hill district. There he is free to conduct his art collecting and indulge his eccentric lifestyle. Fred Taylor is his business associate and trouble-shooting henchman. He works out of an office in the brownstone when he's not off chasing clues to heretofore undiscovered masterpieces and the mysteries surrounding them. Those mysteries often involve murder and dark doings among the paintbrushes.

Who knew the art world was this violent? Yeah, turns out it's a cutthroat world. The acquisition of paintings in the auction room or elsewhere, is not for the faint of heart.

The stories are told from Fred's point of view. He's a Vietnam vet who owns a house in Boston but doesn't live in it. He allows the house to be used instead, as a rest stop for vets with various problems and lack of funds. Fred currently lives with his sensible librarian girlfriend Molly (a terrific character) and her two kids.

Fred is an enigmatic guy with pesonal connection problems of his own. His understanding and appreciation of fine art is what makes him different from your average tough guy. He is someone who doesn't suffer fools lightly except when he's ferreting out a lost masterpiece. A smart guy who sometimes pretends otherwise and allows his rugged appearance to do most of the talking for him.

"I've come for the painting," Fred said.
Smykal flinched. People often flinched the first time they saw Fred. He was large and had a face that made people remember things they wanted to forget.

In this first book in the series, Fred stumbles over the dead body of a has-been collector just hours after buying an unsigned painting of a nude from him. Fred and Clayton suspect the painting may be that of a major American artist. Once the police are involved, Fred must keep Clay out of the limelight, always keenly aware that Clay doesn't function well under pressure and may say or do something which will put the kibosh on the ultimate prize: the painting.

There are many things I love about these books including the main idea that Fred's basic job, aside from the acquiring of paintings and solving their mysteries, is to keep Clay from being his own worst enemy. These are two terrifically written characters who are not really friends, but who depend on each other for what each of them needs: Clay needs to acquire great art and Fred needs to be around great art. It's an unusual relationship that works.

In the opening paragraphs of HARMONY IN FLESH AND BLACK, author Kilmer offers one of the best descriptions of the art process I've ever read. From these moments on, I was enamored of this series.

The dark-haired woman reaches into the pond to gather lilies, frozen amid slashes of yellow blooming flags, the captured light struggling against cloth, the paint laid out to stretch and dry. That's violence, Fred was thinking. There's nothing innocent about it, nothing safe anywhere in the operation. He looked across the downstairs room he worked in, at the painting he had pulled out of the bins to think about while keeping his mind clear.

Art is violent from its inception. As long as he had worked for the man, Fred had not been able to make Clayton Reed recognize this. It's dangerous, Fred was thinking, not to understand the nature of your opponent, to believe it simply lazy, languid, beautiful, and harmless. It's dangerous to collect and keep it around you, not knowing what it is.

Fred loved pictures, but not the same way Clayton Reed did. Clay acquired them with the enthusiasm of those who collect stamps or rocks or money, as objects they believe have been above the dirty tug of living in the world. For Fred a picture was alive, an animal, something whose design and color had a feral purpose.

This made Fred the hunter, the guide, the beater, out front - with Clayton often hanging back, rising above, perched on his elephant, his rifle ready. These days they were both edgy on account of the big project they were working on, which something, they both knew, could blow out of the water any minute.

Great stuff. A terrific series, too good to be missed.
Link to the fantastic fiction website which has a list of all of Nicholas Kilmer's books.
Link to my own review of Kilmer's latest in the series A BUTTERFLY IN FLAME.
Link to Forgotten Fridays blog contirbutors at PATTINASE (Patti Abbott's blog).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fun Stuff: Cartoonist/Illustrator George Booth.

I seem to be in need of a good laugh today. So George Booth's work popped into my head. Most well known, I think, for his work in the New Yorker, I have loved Booth's hilarious drawings for years. Far as I'm concerned, no one and I mean NO ONE gets the hysterical underpinnings of a cat quite like Booth. And dogs? Forget about it. NO ONE draws disgruntled, sneaky, amused, aggravated, dyspeptic dogs like Booth. He is the master.

Read a terrific interview with Booth and see more samples of his work here.

Crime Fiction Alphabet 2011: the letter G

G is for Gruber. Michael Gruber. Whose book, THE BOOK OF AIR AND SHADOWS is a special favorite. I am a major fan of mystery/thrillers set in the world of literature and/or the 'visual arts'. Gruber has written two. This one and THE FORGERY OF VENUS (set in the art world) which I am saving for the letter V, I think.

Anyway, THE BOOK OF AIR AND SHADOWS (2007) concerns the murderous search for some papers possibly written by none other than William Shakespeare, the one and only. So you can see where tempers and emotions would run high in a chase of this sort. Newly discovered Shakespearean ephemera of most any sort would sell in the millions of dollars at auction. Yes, people will murder for bits of 16th century paper - as long as Shakespeare came remotely close enough to, maybe, sribble something or other in the margins. In this case, there appears to exist much more than just a scribble or two.

The gist of it:

Jake Mishkin (love that name) is a New York intellectual property lawyer with a good sense of the ironies of life who is suddenly thrust into a deadly game of literary hide and seek. The novel is divided into three venues: Jake's wry first person observations as he runs about, often bewildered and in fear for his life, the third person story of two other characters, Alberto Crosetti, rare books clerk from Queens and the enigmatic Caroline, also in search of a mysterious manuscript that might or might not have something to do with Shakespeare, AND finally, the actual 16th century pages themselves, the Bracegirdle Letter. So we also have a bit of an epistolary thing going on as well. Interspersed within this frenetic search is a mysterious and shadowy killer who will - all together now - stop at nothing to get his hands on the elusive, long lost treasure. (IF it exists at all.)

Normally I don't enjoy books that flit from section to section like this, for me, it interrupts the flow of the story. Especially when I am enamored of one particular character, like for instance, Jake Mishkin. But author Michael Gruber knows what he's doing and does this sort of thing very well. His writing talent overrode my initial hesitation.

THE BOOK OF AIR AND SHADOWS also has another major main attraction: a very satisfying surprise ending. At least it was a surprise to me since I was expecting just the opposite.

This is a terrific book. Read it. If you haven't already.
The letter G for Gruber is my entry in Kerrie's Crime Fiction Alphabet 2011 Meme. Please go to Kerrie's site for the rules and for a list of the other contributors and links to their posts.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Better Late Than Never: February is National Library Lovers Month

I'm a little late to the dance, but that's the usual course for me. In honor of all library lovers everywhere (myself included) Murder, Mystery and Mayhem posted a pretty comprehensive list of library mysteries. Here's the complete list on the MMM website.

There are quite a few on the MMM list I haven't read. Time to add to the old TBR list. For my money, the library is always the perfect place for a spot of murder.

My own favorite mayhem in the library books?: The Miss Zukas mysteries by Jo Dereske.

Link to the Fantastic Fiction site and a complete list of the excellent Miss Zukas mysteries. (This is a series that should be read in order.)

A Favorite Film: PIMPERNEL SMITH (1941) starring Leslie Howard

Doing a quick juggling of my blogging schedule: I've moved my Favorite Film post over to Wednesday for the foreseeable future so I can indulge the meme, TOP TEN TUESDAYS on...well, Tuesdays. I'm moving Thursday's Favorite Book post to Friday and leaving Thursday open for the CRIME ALPHABET meme. Any extra book reviews and esoteric stuff, outside of Monday's Book Review will have to be wedged in there somewhere as the mood hits. Don't want to crowd the blog with too many posts in one day. (Though I have been known to do that, anyway) In case you hadn't noticed, I have a tendency to get carried away. Can't help it. I'm just having so much fun with this blogging gig. Fun is contagious. Ha!

Today's Favorite Film is PIMPERNEL SMITH starring the wonderful, understated and remarkably suave, British actor, Leslie Howard (1893 - 1943), who also directed. Leslie Howard was always one of my favorite actors - the personification of British gentility. Howard's life was tragically cut short when his plane was shot down by the Nazis (well, the Luftwaffe) in 1943. Lots of pix of Leslie Howard in this post. Here's the reason: I loved the man. He was always the gentle, yet hard as steel, leading man who did it all with his eyes. That gleam of remarkably pleasing intelligence was just always there.

A personal aside: Here's the difference between Howard and Paul Henreid who was of similar physical type but whom I simply could not stand - the look in the eyes. That's it. Had Henreid had Howard's intelligent gleam, all would have been different. Henreid had two expressions: pained and smug. That's it. Okay, enough of that

PIMPERNEL SMITH is based, as you can guess from the title, on Baroness Orczy's classic, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. The setting for Orczy's book is England and France during the worst of the French Revolution - The Reign of Terror. The Pimpernel (a sort of flower) is by day, Sir Percy Blakeney, the kind of Brit dandy you want to kick in the butt and by night a courageous hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel, spiriting nobles out of France and away from the services of Madame la Guillotine.

They seek him here,
They seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Is he in heaven?
Or is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel.

PIMPERNEL SMITH takes place during another Reign of Terror, that of the Nazis. The setting is perfect: Nazi, Germany before the actual fighting war between England and Germany begins. Howard plays Oxford professor of archeology, Horatio Smith. He and some of his students are in Germany working an archeology dig professing to be looking for the origins of the 'Aryan' race so beloved of Hitler and his evil minions. Of course the Nazis welcome this expedition with open arms and more importantly, the necessary paperwork.
But, what the Nazis don't know, at least in the beginning of the film, is that the 'foppishly foolish' professor is, in reality, a British agent under cover of his Oxford credentials. (He really is an archaeologist and really teaches at Oxford.) His mission (should he choose to accept it, and he does) is to try and save victims bound for concentration camps, spiriting them out of Germany into friendlier hands.

The scarecrow you see in some of the old PIMPERNEL SMITH movie posters makes for one of the best sequences in the films : both spooky and thrilling. The professor turns himself into a scarecrow actually positioned in a field where he can watch what's going on. During this mission, he's shot, still pretending to be a scarecrow. But he manages, nonetheless to get his quarry out of the country.

Once his students find out about the professor's wound, they put two and two together and immediately want to join in the 'game'. Spying is not so much fun, but they're young and spirited and want to help their fearless leader in any way they can.

My quibble here is with the casting. Most of the 'students' look too old to be 'young and spirited' college youths. But other than that, I'm good with this movie. I love it.

Francis L. Sullivan as the hideous Nazi commandant who knows Howard is up to something but has trouble grasping just what that 'something' is, is worth the price of admission on his own. He is truly a large lump of detestable flesh - cunning and nasty as they come.

I like the dichotomy too of the slim and agile Howard vs. the corpulent, bloated Nazi. Good casting there. Sullivan has rarely been creepier. The eerie camera work in the fog at the end is especially good, designed to make the point between the stronger spirit will-o-the-wisp nature of the professor as opposed to the turgid presence of the Nazi. Just wonderful stuff.

There's a vague sort of love interest too, when the professor is called upon to save a Polish woman who's father is being held at a camp. But basically this is a quiet, intelligent thriller with some terrific escapades. An underrated film deserving of a bigger audience. One of its more interesting quirks, at least for me, is that this film was shot before most nations in the West supposedly knew what was going on in the camps. At least that's the excuse for inaction I've always heard.

If you belong to Netflix, here's some good news: PIMPERNEL SMITH is available for instant view through your computer or TV. How great is that? They also have the Richard Grant version (a good one) of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL available for instant view. PLUS the Anthony Andrews version (I love Anthony Andrews) available on dvd as well as the original with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey. I've lined them all up. (No I am not paid by Netflix to say this.) Ha!

Wednesday: Quote for the Day

Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.

George Bernard Shaw

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A New Meme (at least for me): Top Ten Tuesday

Well, once I saw this meme (TOP TEN TUESDAY) originated by Kimberly at The Broke and the Bookish I felt compelled to join in and join up. Tuesdays is going to be a busy day around here from now on. Thanks to Bev at My Reader's Block for cluing me in.

You can check out the specific rules by linking over to Kimberly's blog. But here's the ball park: This is a weekly meme. Kimberly posts her Ten Top something or other every Tuesday and we follow through with our own lists. And you KNOW how I feel about lists. This is going to be fun!

Okay, this week is Top Ten Book to Movie Adaptations: TOP TEN TUESDAY begins on Yvette's blog. Woo-Hoo!


I have a feeling it would be pretty hard to mess up an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's classic book. I've seen two versions I like: The Laurence Olivier/Joan Fontaine film by Hitchcock and the Charles Dance, Emilia Fox version for Masterpiece Theater. Of course this latest version doesn't have Judith Anderson as the really, really creepy housekeeper AND it was done for television.


Though I enjoyed the book by Dashiell Hammett, the father of the modern detective story, I loved the movie more. William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, the perpetually sloshed, fun-loving, detecting couple, reached iconic status in this film directed by W.S. Van Dyke.


Both about equal in my estimation. Great thumping good read by Margaret Mitchell turned into a great thumping good movie with a simply gorgeous music score. Clark Gable was born to play Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh made Scarlett indelibly her own. Three directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood brought this thing to gigantic life. Worth a good look even now.


A lot of people don't like the Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles version of this classic by Charlotte Bronte. I'm not one of them. I like this film because of the creepy mood it establishes and holds almost from the very beginning. I like the way Welles tackled Mr. Rochester, the way his eyes were lit with pin-point lights (it's the thing I remember most about this version.) to accent his mysterious brooding quality. I like Joan Fontaine's wistful expression throughout most of the film. Also, be sure and watch for the very, very young Elizabeth Taylor as Jane's childhood friend at the orphanage. She is unbilled but quite delicately, spectacularly beautiful even then.

I also loved the Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clark version, though that was a multi-episode TV series.


Nothing can match the Gene Barry 1953 version of the H.G. Wells novel. Set in northern California, not Great Britain as in the original story. It's still the only watchable version as far as I'm concerned. I first saw it in theater when it first came out and I've seen it many times since. It holds up well. Still a terrific and terrifying movie - offset a bit by the screaming-meemy female lead. But these were the 1950's. Women did a lot of screeching in movies, then.


Loved the book by Sinclair Lewis, loved the film with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor. Thank goodness for Turner Classic Films. It's where I first saw this film which showcases the disintegration of a long-term marriage. I try to watch it at least once a year. Just an absolutely wonderfully done film. William Wyler directed.


I loved the book by Michael Crichton. I think the Steven Spielberg film does the story justice. Not great literature but then no one ever said it was supposed to be. As a movie, it is an awe-inspiring enterprise. There are a few times I've been in a theater and felt physically moved. This was one of them: I sat there, wide-eyed, mouth open, eyebrows up into my forehead. I love when, as an adult, I have one of those rare 'gee whiz' moments. This film and STAR WARS were two. Also E.T. now that I think on it.


Loved the book by James Fenimore Cooper, yes I did. Not fashionable to say that now, but as I often say: what the heck. The film is much richer and has more romantic entanglements than the book which has very little. But I loved both equally. Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye is superb and quite beautiful to look at. As are Russell Means and especially the young Wes Studi as the tragic Uncas. A violent film full of warfare, but also a dual love story that will leave you breathless.


Such a brilliant, brilliant adaptation by John Schlesinger of the Stella Gibbons (equally brilliant) book. British humor - you either love it or hate it. I love it. Especially when done like this in such a dry, witty, lunatic but literate manner that doesn't stop you laughing up your sleeve until it hurts. Kate Beckinsale is perfection as Robert Poste's child. Rufus Sewell is a gorgeous ham. Ian McKellen is wonderful. Eileen Atkins is superb as the gloom and doom chatelaine of Cold Comfort Farm. I love this film!


Adapted from Annie Proulx's tragic short story, director Ang Lee and his writers enlarged the story to suit the film format. Except for a few tweaks here and there, it is perfection. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal embody the heartbreak of two young men whose great tragedy it is to fall deeply in love with one another. My favorite film of all time, my favorite book to film adaptation.
I thought I'd make mention of two other books which were turned into brilliant film adaptations . They didn't make my meme list because these adaptations were done for television as multi-episode series.


The Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews version for Granada and BBC television is still, startlingly good. To my mind, the best adaptation of a book to TV series ever done. In truth the best television series ever done. The theme music alone can sometimes bring me to tears, still. A perfect cast brings to life Evelyn Waugh's brilliant book. (In truth, makes more of the book.)


The Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version of Jane Austen's classic. My pick for second best book to TV series adaptation. Another brilliant cast brings to life my favorite book of all time.

Happy Birthday, Edward Gorey. (1925 - 2000)

It's Washington's Birthday today of course, as well as Edward Gorey's. Washington's is the more famous name and entity. A Historical Figure - the father of our country. But I'm concentrating on the enigmatic artist, author, black-line specialist and cat lover Edward Gorey - the possessor of a wicked turn of mind and a charmingly twisted sense of humor.

You are reminded of Gorey, of course, every time you watch PBS Mystery and watch Gorey's still macabre-ly amusing opening credits.

The Gorey-Work above is posted in remembrance of his life, his wit and his wonderful talent and imagination.

If you're going to be in Boston, be sure and visit the new exhibition of Edward Gorey's work: Feb. 9 - June 4, 2011 at the Boston Athenaeum.

More about this venerable institution here.