Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Guy Who Hated Columbo

That's not me, the guy who hates the series Columbo.  Far from it.  I watched the series as a kid and through the Seventies especially and enjoy turning it on now from time to time.  It's a comfort food series at this point,  But when I was younger, about 14, I had a friend, a few years older than me, who hated the show.  He's one of the few people I've ever met who disliked it so much.  I remember having a discussion with him about this, one day in warm weather at an outdoor gathering with our parents and several other people there, at a state park by a lake near where I lived, probably in the summer.  I don't recall how the subject of the show came up, but I remember expressing my affection for it, and for Peter Falk, and my friend said he didn't like it because of how right from the start of every episode, without fail, as soon as he shows up at the crime scene, Columbo recognizes who the killer is. "He's never wrong," my friend said, or something to that effect.  He understood that the show is an inverted mystery, a howcatchem, though neither he nor I would have called it that, its structure one where the viewer knows who the killer is at once and then watches Columbo solve the crime, and did not mind that aspect, but he objected to the apparent infallibility of Columbo, his ability to show up at the crime scene and sniff out the culprit, as he does, so fast. He doesn't immediately reveal his suspicions to the guest star murderer, of course, but the audience can see the wheels turning in Columbo's head as soon as or soon after he meets that person. 


This attitude struck me as odd, almost willfully resistant to what the show and its appeal are, but as the saying goes, there's no accounting for taste. In this genre anyway, my friend strongly preferred what he would have considered crime shows (or films) with more verisimilitude than what you get in Columbo, which includes, I suppose, detectives who are more fallible than Peter Falk's character, investigators who go off on wrong tangents sometimes and make their share of errors.  My arguments to make him change his mind about the show went nowhere, and I laugh about this talk now, still shaking my head. To be so adamantly opposed to a show as winning as Columbo!  But I'm thinking of this whole conversation again, wondering what my friend, a childhood friend who I've fallen out of touch with in an odd way (but that's another story), would think of the new Peacock show Poker Face. If he hated Columbo, how much would he dislike Poker Face, with its detective, Charlie Cale, who has an inborn ability to detect when another person speaking to her is lying? It's not quite a superpower, but it's something decidedly unnatural, an ability that means she will rarely, if ever, unless the show comes up with a way someone can trick her, screw up in an investigation. 

Are we in the land of fictional realism? No, again, we are not.  But that is clearly beside the point, and you're not watching Poker Face for that any more than you were when watching its main inspiration, Columbo.  Charlie Cale's ability, really, is just a literalization of the capacity Falk's Columbo has, the very thing my friend criticized. No one could lie to Columbo without him sniffing out the untruth. He'd show up on the scene and hone in on the killer fast. Charlie's similar, except that her truth detector component is now spoken of outright as a kind of condition, not a negative one, that she lives with.


I don't know whether my friend, wherever he is, has Peacock or has watched any of Poker Face.  If he does and hasn't changed in his tastes, I'm sure he'll hate it. I could see us meeting again after all these years and, if he had watched an episode or two, he and I discussing it. We'd be having the same argument we had decades ago about Columbo, him against, me in favor.  Oh well.  It's a conversation I'll have to content myself with imagining.  Meanwhile, I've watched two episodes of Poker Face so far and I'm looking forward to the rest of them.


Saturday, January 28, 2023

Reading Into the Dark


By

Scott D. Parker

At least nine times a year, I start a book with zero knowledge about it. And it’s wonderful

We’re all readers here, right? How do you usually pick that next book to read? If we’re in a brick-and-mortar store, we look at the cover, we note the author, read that all-so-important description, and then maybe a few pages of chapter one. If we’re online, all of that is still present, but we get the added bonus of that preview. We can actually read the entire preview before we make that purchase decision. Oh, and then there are the reviews—from professionals as well as amateurs.

In every step of this process, we constantly build on what we think the book is going to be about, especially if you’ve got a good book description.

When’s the last time you started a book without any of that? Okay, you can throw in the author, title, and book cover because you actually have to pick it up or download it, but nothing else.

For me, three out of every four months, I get to do that.

I’m in a four-guy science fiction book club that has lasted now over twelve years. We take turns picking the book, we read it during the month, and then gather on the first Tuesday of the next month to discuss. It is at the meeting where we offer our grade and then the Picker gets to explain why he picked the book. When it’s my turn to assign a book, I’ve already gone through every step mentioned above.

Sometime in 2021 (or maybe 2020), I started going into the books picked by the other guys cold. Nearly every selection is on audio so the day the new book is picked, I download it (via Libby and my local library or Audible) and start playing. In this manner, I experience pure story. Sure, I’ve seen the cover and read the title and author, but that’s it.

I love it. With so much of our lives dictated by a myriad of decisions—including the books we read—it’s great to have that choice offload three out of every four months.

What I really love is when there’s a book by an author I don’t know. It happened with this month’s selection: Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes. Knew nothing about it and it is the book to beat for 2023. It’s a rare trick when a book’s spooky nature and a narrator’s excellent performance literally gives me chills and compels me to turn around on my nightly walks to make sure I’m alone.

I find having a book picked for me quite fun. It also happens every month with my cozy mystery subscription through Houston’s Murder by the Book. I do read those book descriptions because I think they are among the best, pun-filled descriptions out there.

With the monthly SF book and the cozy book already picked for me, it frees me up to make my own selection with more care. After all, even with audiobooks, there is only so many story hours in a month.

Note: since there are so many hours in a month to read or listen to stories, if the book is bad or isn’t capturing me, I pull the rip cord and stop. I do not feel compelled to finish. The other guys in the club used to question me and my response remained constant: Life’s too short to read bad books or books you don’t enjoy. Thus, when I give it a grade—officially an I for Incomplete—I’ll explain why the book failed me.

So, have you ever read a book without even reading the book description or reviews or anything? You should try it sometime. Get into a book club, but if that’s not an option, have a spouse or friend select your next book and just read.

Photo: Mo Eid via Pexels.com

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Beau chooses Hell

 


This week, Beau takes a look at Angel Luis Colón's HELL CHOSE ME.


“Equal parts profound and profane, HELL CHOSE ME is a damned good read—a vividly imagined pulp nightmare best read through splayed fingers.” – Chris Holm (Anthony Award winning author of THE KILLING KIND)


“Angel Luis Colón levels up in his first full-length novel with superb writing and a voice that seizes you from page one. A dark, dirty, gritty delight.” — Jennifer Hillier, author of JAR OF HEARTS


Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Never Let Go

A former crime reporter, Lori Duffy Foster knows her way around a strong story.  She has invented one in her new book, Never Let Go, and she tells it with the swiftness and efficiency of a consummate professional.

The novel opens with a woman called Carla taking a bath and thinking about her baby with much anxiety.  When a voice comes through the room's walls asking her "What do you think you're doing?", we know something is seriously wrong and that she has an immediate reason for being so tense.  Over the first chapter, we learn that in the small town where they live -- in rural western New York State -- Carla and her six-month-old named Christopher have been kidnapped by Carla's best friend, Rachel.  Rachel is Carla's childhood friend, in fact, someone who spent many hours of their childhood in Carla's house.  Rachel has sold Christopher off to people as part of an illegal adoption and, obsessed with Carla's husband, as she has been since their high school years, though she's hidden this obsession for a long time, she plans to use Carla's absence as a means of replacing her in her husband's life.  She needs Carla alive, though, at least for the time being, to give her exact tips on her husband's likes and dislikes.  She needs specific details on things like how to kiss him, how to touch him, what to say to him, so that she's all but guaranteed to turn him on sexually. The husband, Nick, has no idea what happened to his wife and son other than that they were abducted -- he doesn't even know whether they are still alive -- and seducing a man in that state will take guile.  Of course, Nick has no clue that Rachel, always coming by the house ostensibly to keep him company and bring him food, is the one who took his wife and kid.  He doesn't know that Carla is a short drive away, locked in a soundproof basement Rachel devised beneath her house. Nick never was all that keen on Rachel, to be truthful, but in a time of such anguish, he could be vulnerable.  He could be open to the affections of someone who appears to be upset herself and who's pretending to be helpful in any way she can.

Scherezade had to tell stories to keep herself alive.  Carla finds herself in the horrible position of having to coach her abductor on how to excite her husband.  This is valuable information to Rachel, and without it, Carla might lose all worth to Rachel, become expendable. It's a situation that in the hands of the wrong writer could become melodramatic and far-fetched, but Foster makes it all plausible.  It's actually the kind of story you do sometimes come across, in all its craziness, in true crime shows on channels like Oxygen.  Except instead of the breathless and hyperbolic narrator, we get Foster's even and forward-moving narration, a seamless flow of ever-increasing suspense.  She knows exactly what she's doing, and through third-person narration, she's adept at getting into the thoughts and emotions of both Carla and Nick.  They are intelligent yet ordinary people caught up in a horrific situation, and their fear, rage, equivocations, and reversals of thought are captured with precision.  We care about these very relatable people suffering through about the worst situation any parents could suffer, and we want them to vanquish Rachel, a cunning and twisted foe, and get back their child.  And even if they do all that, will their marriage survive?  They love each other, but their marriage, like most marriages, had subtle fault lines before the crisis ensued.  After everything they have to go through, no matter how it turns out, positively or disastrous, will they be the same people as they were before, a couple who can just pick things up after the abduction and carry on?  And what about their son?  What about Christopher? If they get him back alive and in good health, will he even remember who they are?

Foster has a second plot interwoven with the double kidnapping plot, and this one involves a murder, the discovery of the remains of a teenage boy killed years ago. The town's police chief, Sawyer Hamill, investigates, and this thread of the novel is quite interesting in and of itself, with Sawyer poking around into the victim's past, the town's past.  The intercutting between the two plots is skillful, the respites from the kidnapping strand making you eager to get back to it, while at the same time, you want to find out what happened to the teenage kid.  He was a somewhat mysterious kid who seemed to be a misfit when he attended high school, but as Sawyer finds out, to his surprise, the victim may not have been a weirdo at all.  Things come to a head with Sawyer involved on both fronts, and both plots, I should say, have satisfying payoffs.

In Never Let Go, Lori Duffy Foster has written a book that one zips through feeling the most basic reading instinct one can have: you want to find out what happens next.  She combines a pure suspense tale with a murder mystery, and with an effortlessness that is admirable, she pulls the whole package off quite well.  

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The End of New Amsterdam and the Twilight of Network TV for a Gen Xer

by

Scott D. Parker

One of my favorite TV shows ended its five-year run on Tuesday and I’m wondering if it’ll be the last great network show I watch.

New Amsterdam


Like Castle, New Amsterdam had me at the trailer. The show starred Ryan Eggold (whom I knew from The Blacklist) as Max Goodwin, the new medical director at New Amsterdam, the oldest public hospital in America (based on the real Bellevue hospital). Eggold’s performance on The Blacklist stood out, especially when he was in the same show as series star James Spader, but with Max, Eggold had a role to which he could bring his considerable charm and humanity. It didn’t hurt that he had Max’s mantra as a north star: How can I help?

If you watch the trailer, you get what the series was about: helping people despite the massive forces standing in the way. Over five years, and through a pandemic, Max and his colleagues kept running up against seemingly insurmountable odds. Sometimes they’d win, other times they’d lose, but they kept trying, striving to do what they can.

New Amsterdam ran on Tuesday nights on NBC right after the massive hit This is Us. My wife watched that show from the jump and, like many viewers, often ended episodes with tears in her eyes. I didn’t watch that show, but New Amsterdam proved to be my weekly dose of heartwarming tears.

Storytelling-wise, the writers of New Amsterdam often used a very small story—often a single patient—to tell a larger tale. Like all good TV shows, the supporting cast each had their time the spotlight. A particular favorite was Tyler Labine's Iggy Frome, a psychiatrist, who often ran up against the pillars of big medicine just as much as Max did. A season 5 recurring theme for Iggy was the crumbling of his marriage and having to come to terms with himself before reaching out to his ex-husband and asking him for a simple date, to try again.

Sandra Mae Frank's Dr. Elizabeth Wilder was the Chief of Oncology. The actress is also deaf. She became a love interest to Max in the last season and I found it wonderful not only to see how a deaf surgeon navigated the world of the hearing in the operating room but also how the writers showed a burgeoning love often in silence and sign language.

I enjoyed seeing Jocko Sims's chief surgeon come to terms with things he could not easily fix--like his personal life as well the relationship with mostly absent father--and how Jocko imbued Floyd Reynolds with deep grace and understanding. And Janet Montegomery's Lauren Bloom, a character who grappled with addiction and showed how the messiness in life can be dealt with, but that it's hard and it takes one day at a time, one decision at a time, and the struggle never ends.

The writers and directors brought all their resources to bear in fun way, sometimes using time-honored tropes quite effectively. They did so for the finale episode, adding a nice twist that pulled all the tears from my eyes. [I’ll add my thoughts about the finale at the bottom of this post.]

But what really got me thinking about the end of New Amsterdam is what it might signal for me as a viewer: Would this be the last network TV show I watched on a regular basis?

Network TV for Generation X


Born in 1968, I remember when there were three networks, PBS, and a local UHF station here in Houston. By the time I got to middle school, we had two more local stations, but that was it. Every fall, the three networks would roll out their Saturday morning cartoon lineup, showcasing them in specials that aired the previous night. There'd be articles in the local papers for the new fall TV shows (including a side-by-side grid) and big splashes on TV Guide. I remember scanning all those resources and then making a schedule for what I'd want to watch.

This practice pretty much continued through the publication history of Entertainment Weekly and the birth of the internet when information was much easily found. I'm always game to see what the Big 3 had planned.

With the birth and rise of streaming TV, however, things began to change. Netflix would drop every episode of a new show and you could binge them all in a weekend. Other services followed suit. It was a different way to watch TV. Not wrong, mind you, but different. Just because I grew up in the weekly format doesn't mean I don't appreciate having all episodes of a season at my fingertips. Ever since last summer, my family has been watching the entire run of Friends, an episode a day at dinner, something that would have been difficult prior to streaming. But there is something to having a week to think about and digest plot elements and revelations of any given episode. I remember when Lost was airing, the morning after, a group of us would discuss the newest episode over coffee. It was quite fun.

Things change and I change with them. That's how life is, but I will say I dug when Disney+ opted to drop episodes of its Marvel and Star Wars TV shows on a weekly basis. Sure, it meant the company would secure subscriptions for a longer time, but it was fun to think and read about what the latest revelation about Wanda (WandaVision) or The Mandalorian or Andor might mean.

As Fall 2022 approached, I did my usual thing that I've done all my life: I scanned what was returning and what new shows would debut. New Amsterdam was top of my list even though I knew going in it would be its last. And a shortened 13-episode season at that. It was, however, the only returning show I watched and cared about. The only other network show I watched live--SyFy's Resident Alien--wouldn't be returning until 2023.

That left the new shows. As I read about them and watched previews, I experienced something foreign to my experience: none of the shows appealed to me. Granted, I'm a middle-aged guy now so that might be a thing, but you'd think the shows at CBS would be in my wheelhouse. Some of them probably should be. I'm looking at NCIS or FBI, but for whatever reason, I just never started.

The Future of Network TV


So what's next? Network TV is not going away, but perhaps that majority of its viewers are. The Boomers are slowly dying and us Gen Xers are now in middle age. Millennials grew up in the 1980s and 1990s so they remember what it was like to be in front of a TV on Thursday nights (or set the VCR) but for Gen Z, the ones born in the late 1990s, I don't think network TV barely registers. My son, now twenty-one, rarely watched anything on "live" TV after he stopped watching Blue's Clues. His network is YouTube and streaming. When he moved out of the house, I made sure to load the apps of the local TV stations on his smart TV. "It's for the weather at least," I told him. He just showed me his phone. "I get the weather here."

And he gets his TV there, too.

Now that New Amsterdam is gone, network TV is now the place I watch Stephen Colbert every night. And football until the Super Bowl and then golf on Sunday afternoons without football. If you throw in ESPN, it's also the place I'll catch NBA games, but I think you're seeing the trend. Network TV might become the place for live events where scripted TV shows are things I'll catch on a streaming service.

Might network TV have lost a viewer? Unlikely. Come next fall, I'll still read about the new shows. There might be another New Amsterdam, a new This is Us, or a surprise sitcom that comes out of the blue. I will always be curious to see what network TV has to offer.

But it has been a fascinating realization that the end of New Amsterdam likely marks a point in my lifetime of TV watching.

What about you? Do you still watch network TV or are all your favorite shows on a streaming service?


The New Amsterdam Finale with Spoilers


One of the tropes the writers used in the finale was to give each character their origin story via flashbacks. We see how Max, Elizabeth, Iggy, Lauren, and Floyd each found their way into the practice of medicine. I'll add that I kind of hoped for a flashback to Anupam Kher's Dr. Vijay Kapoor but, as my wife suggested, perhaps the show and the actor didn't part well. Ditto on both accounts for Freema Agyeman as Dr. Helen Sharpe, Max's previous love interest.

In one of those tricks via editing, you see Max's last day at New Amsterdam with his young daughter, Luna, as they try and get out of the hospital. Max has resigned the position of Medical Director in order to spend more time with Luna. There is, of course, a major emergency that will harness the powers and abilities of all the staff and it forces Max to miss the mermaid parade yet again (it's something Luna always wants to attend but they kept missing it because of Max's job, thus the resignation).

 


The editing trick is where you see what is presented as the next medical director, a young woman who showed up and has to deal with whispered rumors about her. Halfway through the show, as Max's edict of "How can I help?" has been uttered more than once, I looked over to my wife and said, "If the final four words of this entire series isn't 'how can I help?', then the writers will have missed a golden opportunity."

They didn't, but they went one better. My wife figure it out first and suggested it: "I think that new medical director is Luna all grown up."

Boom! That is exACTly what it was. Some writer I am. I didn't even see it coming (although, to be fair, I rarely try and guess stories while I'm in the middle of them because in that moment, I'm a viewer/reading rather than a writer).

Turns out, Luna's origin story was Max's last day at New Amsterdam. And it is she, looking directly at the camera, who speaks those famous four words: How can I help? Cut to black and cue the tears.

Oh, and props to the writers for not showing us older versions of the same characters. I first thought I might've wanted to see a gray-haired Max, to see him be proud of his daughter, but then realized my error. And here's the veteran writer tip: you don't have to see Ryan Eggold in old person makeup to know he's proud of his daughter. If you've written characters well, stuff like that is understood and doesn't always have to be shown. Besides, New Amsterdam no longer belonged to Max. It's Luna's story now.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Beau recommends Laird Barron

 

This week, Beau takes a look at Laird Barron's Black Mountain

When a small-time criminal named Harold Lee turns up in the Ashokan reservoir--sans a heartbeat, head, or hands--the local mafia capo hires Isaiah Coleridge to look into the matter. The mob likes crime, but only the crime it controls . . . and as it turns out, Lee is the second independent contractor to meet a bad end on the business side of a serrated knife. One such death can be overlooked. Two makes a man wonder.

A guy in Harold Lee's business would make his fair share of enemies, and it seems a likely case of pure revenge. But as Coledrige turns over more stones, he finds himself dragged into something deeper and more insidious than he could have imagined, in a labyrinthine case spanning decades. At the center are an heiress moonlighting as a cabaret dancer, a powerful corporation with high-placed connections, and a serial killer who may have been honing his skills since the Vietnam War.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The joys of the slush pile

It's my first post of 2023 and I'm going to spend it looking backwards. 

Maybe it's not the right time of the year for that. You, surely, want to hear about my resolutions and goals for 2023. You want to hear about why I think this year is going to be the best year ever. And, shit, it might very well be, but that's not what this is about. 

Three years ago I started as an Editor for venerated crime fiction site Shotgun Honey. But on January first, my watch ended. 

I have no idea how many stories I read over the course of those three years. A lot, I'm certain. One thing about Shotgun Honey: as soon as they open, writers come out swinging. 

Most of the stories, I think, were okay. Some were good. A few were excellent. A surprisingly small amount were out and out bad (though when something is a stinker - the kind that makes you close your laptop and go give the dog a few pets? that hangs around in your head a bit). We published the good ones and cherished the excellent ones, but the thing I didn't know about being an editor? Each and every story sticks with you. Not the plot. Not the names of the characters of the specific twist at the end, not even the aesthetics of the story. It'd take a superhuman memory to remember all those details. But every single story I read as an editor taught me something. Every single story added to the membrane in a writer's brain, the fatty muscle between the ocular fibers and the ether in which creativity breeds itself in to a new form each day that says, "see? This is how that works," or, "Oh, this isn't working because of what happened here" until the writer can recognize the structures and patterns and techniques subconsciously. 

That seems obvious. Writers learn by doing and by reading. But the thing about a slush pile (especially a near never-ending slush pile like Shotgun Honey has) is that there's a LOT of reading. An amount of reading that can feel overwhelming and insurmountable. If that seems like a complaint, it's not. It was an opportunity. A challenge. And an education. My writing is better because I read so many stories. Because I read so many good stories. Because I read so many stories that didn't quite work. 

And, ultimately, that's the reason I stepped aside.

My life is really busy. I've got a wife. A kid. A dog. A house. A job. Family. And hobbies other than writing and reading (someday I'm going to do posts on the Zen of painting Warhammer and the storytelling rules you learn playing Dungeons and Dragons). But I made it work for three years. And I could have made it work for more. But if being an editor is a constant education, an always repeating exposure to what works and what doesn't work about storytelling, it's also not fair to hoard that knowledge for myself. 

It was time for me, in a lot of ways, but that also means it's time for someone else. I've come to truly believe that anyone who wants to improve as a writer needs to read a slush pile; that nothing will make you sharper about story and more certain of aesthetics, and more aware of the power of structure than reading a whole lot of stories that do things well and reading even more stories that don't. After long enough you'll be able to recognize whether or not a story is going to work within the first sentence. And after that, you'll learn to be on the lookout for those marvelous, rare, stories that show you a sentence that doesn't seem like the rest of it is going to work, and then the joy when it comes together to pummel you in the face. 

I have no idea whose name will be on the editorial masthead of Shotgun Honey when they reopen later this year, but I'm certain, whoever they are, that when they eventually leave, they'll be a better writer than when they started. The lessons of the slush pile are myriad and contradictory, but when enough time, they become one of the most powerful educations a writer can have.