Saturday, September 25, 2010
Scott D. Parker
I recently watched Kiss Kiss Bang Bang again mainly because I wanted to watch a movie we owned and that the wife would also watch. But I also wanted to see it again because it gets referenced a lot when talking about modern noir on film. So it was with this in mind that I watched it, looking for those things that make it noir.
That is, I looked for those noir elements only when I wasn’t laughing my face off. I mean, this movie is flat-out hilarious. It makes you want to have a half dozen movies with Robert Downey and Val Kilmer just riffing off the original script. I loved the constant grammatical references throughout the film. It brought a tongue-in-cheek literary sophistication to a paperback-original-type movie. Honestly, however, some of the plot points important for the average viewer (or first-time viewer) was buried in dialogue so quick that it’s easily missed. That’s a downside to the film
As far as the noir elements, they’re all there: private detective, Hollywood, hot chicks that may or may not be who they seem, old loves, complicated mysteries, duplicity, nighttime locales complete with shadows, men with guns. You can’t help but wonder how many Gold Medal paperbacks the director, Shane Black, read back in the day because he distills all the elements down into a wonderful homage.
But it’s not just noir elements that Black uses. KKBB is a buddy film. Black, the creator of the Lethal Weapon series, still has the knack of making you laugh even when you know the character types he presents. I mean, Downey and Kilmer are not Mel Gibson and Danny Glover but the archetypes are there: uninitiated rookie and seasoned veteran. You know it going into the movie but there’s still enough of the "new" in KKBB that you go along for the ride and laugh anew at recycled jokes. It’s just a fun film.
KKBB is one of those films that breaks down the fourth wall, the wall between the movie’s participants and the viewers. Downey does the voiceovers and, at the beginning, actually ‘stops’ the film and takes us back to some crucial point. He’s self-aware but that’s nothing new in crime fiction. I mean, honestly, every first-person POV book is, in effect, self-aware. The main character, the “I” in the story, is telling you the story. The “I” is telling you what he wants you to know and when. And, of course, the "I" has to live through the book because he is, uh, telling you the story.
Speaking of crime fiction, this movie is a loose and updated adaptation of Brett Halliday’s “Bodies are Where You Find Them,” one of Halliday’s Mike Shayne stories. I haven't read any of the Halliday books yet. Any particular one better than the others? Should I go ahead and start with the one Hard Case Crime published last month?
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wears noir and hard-boiled fiction on its sleeve. It’s a loving tribute and an update and, most importantly, a funny, funny movie.
Any more like this y'all can recommend?
Friday, September 24, 2010
A young-adult title that dealt very specifically with rape. That confronted what it was like for a victim who felt they couldn’t speak out.
Tough to read.
Unsettling.But essential in many ways. Yes, we want to protect children from the realities of life, but we also have to educate them about the truths they will face.
Unless, of course, we live in Republic, MO, where a Dr Wesley Scoggins has asked that this book – Speak – be removed from the school libraries on the grounds that it is “soft pornography.”
A book written from the point of view of a victim of sexual abuse, written to show that silence over this kind of event is wrong, is “soft pornography”. Its something we do not want our children exposed to.
Not because they’re offended, but because it brings up uncomfortable issues. And because, in Mr Scoggins world, even a rape scene is “pornography”. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t pornography designed to titillate? I never much doubt that the scene in question was designed in such a way. Particularly since the theme of the book is speaking up about an issue everyone else would rather not talk about.
I think that “soft pornography” line says more about Scoggins attitude than anything else. Also, his reaction to Slaughterhouse Five *in the same article* is wonderful. “The f-word is plastered on almost every other page,” apparently.
Did we read the same book?
(and while I’m at it, you want to go and read The Good Son, Mr Scoggins. I’ll show you language that could make a sailor blush… also, I remember a good friend of mine at school chose Trainspotting as his review of personal reading in fifth year… now there’s a book I would say you might have some point in worrying about, although I’d still disagree with you if a teenager is ready to read such a book)
Look, here’s the thing: we can object to the realities of life all we like but we cannot hide from them. And fiction is one of our ways of dealing with issues. I know everyone likes to talk about “escapist” fiction, but serious fiction that tackles unsettling issues head on can be absolutely essential to dealing with everyday life. And even more-so for the “young adult” market. Yes, such books have to be handled sensitively. But just because the idea of the topic upsets you does not mean you should call for a banning of the book.
A book like Speak can – if well done, and I’m giving the book the benefit of the doubt that it is well done since I am not familiar with it myself – open teenage reader’s minds to the idea of what someone else might be going through, give them an empathy and an understanding of other’s experiences. Or it can perhaps persuade someone who is going through a similar experience to have the courage to speak out rather than hide what happened because this is an issue that no one talks about.
Fiction has to deal with issues.
It can’t all be about escapism.
I have a memory of a book I had in my early teens called something like, “My Mate Hamid”. I can’t find a trace of it now, but I remember it was a story about a white kid at a UK school who makes friends with a Pakistani pupil at his school, the only kid of a different skin tone in attendance. Simple, right? Except it wasn’t. It was about racism. I remember the sheer anger I felt at reading about other kids taunting with, “Paki-lover” and trying to figure out why some people would attack someone else just because they came from another place. I have memories of the two characters running away from bigger kids who were hurling bricks. That angered me, and made me start to realise things about how some people could be cruel for the most ridiculous reasons. The book, from what I recall, wasn’t graphic or adult in a way that might have truly upset or confused, but it was pitched just right for my development at that stage.
What I’m saying is that books can deal with tough issues for teenage and young adult readers without us necessarily screaming “oh, but its too much for the darlings!” Young people aren’t as daft as we give them credit for and whether you like it or not they’re going to deal with some very tough issues in their day to day life, and fiction can help them to deal with that. As it can help adults, too.
And you know what, instead of banning books, maybe it would help if parents and teachers talked to children about books and about the issues raised. A book like Speak isn’t pornography. It’s the start of a debate and a learning process. And, sure, I wouldn’t want younger children reading it, but when it comes to the older teenagers… how long do we protect them from the world? Because whether we like it or not, sooner or later they will encounter harsh truths about the world and I would rather they were prepared for them than not. Even if its simply through fiction that helps them understand experiences they hopefully will not encounter but that others they meet will have.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
The Private Investigator is dead.
About 3 years ago, I got into one of those online arguments where no one is ever right, about whether or not the private eye is dead. WHEN ONE MAN DIES was about to be released and I had a stake in the subject. Of course, I argued the PI wasn't dead.
I may have been wrong.
What was the last best breakout traditional PI series? Dennis Lehane? Laura Lippman? Robert Crais?
It seems the traditional PI is fading and being replaced with another kind of PI. The slacker PI. Don Winslow's THE DAWN PATROL, Huston's MYSTIC ARTS, and TERRIERS are all slacker PIs. Guys who really don't want to be PIs but need a way to pay the bills. They'd rather be hanging on the beach or drinking a beer or cleaning up dead guy parts than solving cases.
But the case falls in their lap and they're drawn into it. Finally, they're in so deep they have no choice but to follow through.
I love the idea. It's the same, but different. No longer is the PI there was wants to be the shining white knight, instead it's morally ambiguous character who has no choice, but to do well. I feel it adds to the suspense. Will the PI do what's right and solve the case? Or will things get so bad he'll just walk away.
It also adds a comic flare beyond the typical wisecracking. The PIs have friends who are just as bizarre as the PI themselves. Gone are the psycho sidekick, and hello are friends who are willing to joke their way through the case.
The PI is fun again.
There are some very good traditional PI series still out there. Chercover, Michael Harvey, our own Mr. MacLean... well worth checking out.
But it seems the PI is changing again. And that's okay. It started out with a man doing a job. Chandler made him a white knight. MacDonald pushed their further, a man with a social conscience. Parker made him a family man. In the late 90s, PI novels became thrillers.
And now we're slacking.
The PI series is dead.
Nahhhh, he's just resting. Maybe he'll come out. If he feels like it. When the tide rolls out.
Long live the PI series.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Okay, after the very interesting discussion Steve started with something dumb someone said on the internet, I’m going to use something here that I stole from the internet that I think is smart.
In a discussion on Adrian McKinty’s blog, I forget where the discussion started, but like all good conversations it went off on a lot of tangents and at some point, a guy named “Richard L” posted this:
The trouble I have with most genre fiction is that the bad guy is the projection of the Other. In older westerns, the Other was the fierce savages. The Huns became the Other in World War I genre fiction, then the Nazis. Raymond Chandler wrote some novels in which the Other were pornographers, off-track gamblers, and marijuana smokers--all tame stuff today.
In recent times, the Other of choice is most frequently the serial killer, or as is the case in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, rapist child-abusers. Whenever a novel begins with some hidden secret in the past, and it turns out to be incestuous child abuse, it is like saying the butler did it.
There is another way to proceed, without cliche, but it requires recognizing the truth of our common animal nature and also the truth of our common humanity. Not too many novels published today do that, but there are some.
In the best crime novels, the protagonist discovers the greater complicity.
I like that, the greater complicity.
In Steve’s discussion about morality in crime novels my contribution (such as it was) was that because laws change all the time (booze is legal then illegal then legal again) and different places have different laws (prostitution is apparently illegal in Las Vegas but legal a certain number of miles outside of Vegas but then illegal again in the next state) we can’t rely on laws to set any kind of moral standard and that’s where fiction comes in.
With crime fiction we can see moral boundaries being stretched and we can see consequences. Which I think is a lot more interesting than laws being broken – or not broken depending on where and when the story is set.
But even stretching those moral boundaries can become cliche.
So, is Richard L right, is the only way to avoid cliche if the protagonist discovers the greater complicity?
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
Before I get to complaining about whatever stupid crap some idiot on the internet said this week, you should be sure you've checked out what our own Jay Stringer has been up to at MatineeIdles. He talks and writes about movies. This week he writes about Maria Bello's Mummy movie. Yes, the nice woman Jay and Russel love in that delightful Mel Gibson movie.
Speaking of Russel, he's planning to panel at Bouchercon.
Also, seems we're about a week away from our own Joelle Charbonneau's SKATING AROUND THE LAW. Did you pre-order yours yet? Call your local bookstore to make sure they have it in-stock. Go ahead.
So this week's stupid thing said by a person on the internet was this (and I paraphrase): "The main character in your book should be moral."
Character. Morals. Characters with morals. OK. Let's go.
Bucket o' crap, right? Many years ago I sat in the office of my faculty advisor as he explained to me the difference between having character and being one. (One day I'm sure I'll find out what the hell he was going on about.) But this characters with character stuff? Uh, wha?
I think it works like this. The main character fights for 300 pages (or 180 if it's noir or Graham Greene. (Why are noir books so short? My guess is that the publishing houses did focus groups and found that anyone who could read such despair for longer was likely to eat a Glock soon (and not buy more books) or so sad as to be unemployed soon (and not buy more books.))) In case I lost count on the parentheticals, here are some extra parentheses. Take what you want and leave the rest. Like most folks do with The Bible.
So the character fights for 300 pages to get the MacGuffin. Then at the end he is in a burning building and has to either grab the MacGuffin or the one-legged orphan holding a blind puppy.
Or he's involved in something bad and turns on his partners when it counts. I think I saw this movie. They robbing an armored car. Or at least I saw the previews. And the guy has to make a decision. He sacrifices something he had valued at the beginning of the movie for something his new morals tell him is valuable now.
Like in the Maria Bello movie PAYBACK. Parker has his own "code," but whether that would be considered "moral," um, I'm thinking probably not. Of course, in the movie he's not called Parker; he's called "Adolf."
Do we feel better about a character when she is doing the right thing? Do we want our heroes to be the people we aspire to be? What the hell does that even mean? What the hell is a hero?
If the main character kills a few bad guys along the way in order to save the world, that's fine. But it seems that the bad guys have to kill themselves most of the time. Like that scene in a billion movies in which our hero is fighting the bad guy and our hero has won. But he allows the bad guy to live. Because that's what good guys do. Then suddenly the bad guy isn't dead at all. No, he was faking, because that's what bad guys do. Then he gets up and dives at our hero. But our hero moves and the bad guy ends up falling on big pointy thing and dies. Phew. Dead bad guy and unsoiled good guy.
Do morals change from one book to another? Are morals relative to the story at hand? You know, is it wrong to snap the neck of a nun in a Robert Langdon book, but OK in the world of Cal Innes?
Does the character's "code" stand in for "morals"?
What does it mean to be a "moral character" anyway? Isn't it more important to be interesting?
In the world of fiction, is having "character" less important than being one?
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Life is full of firsts. First steps. First kiss. First time you hold up a convenience store and steal all the Hubba Bubba bubble gum. (Okay, the last one never happened to me, but I’m sure it was a first for someone.) This week I had two firsts. Last night I went to my first Dave Matthews concert. The cannabis-scented air was a touch chilly at Wrigley Field and the sound guys had some issues during the first couple of tunes, but Dave was great, the band was awesome and the crowd was engaged. What more could you ask for?
Of course, the bigger first for me this week came three days ago. The doorbell rang and when I opened the door, a padded envelope sat on the stoop. The package was from my editor. Inside the envelope was a congratulatory note and a hard cover copy of SKATING AROUND THE LAW. If I hadn’t been in the middle of teaching a voice lesson, I probably would have cried.
Part of me wants to sit down and read the book cover to cover just for the experience of reading it like a real book. Funny, but until it arrived, I’ve had a hard time thinking of it as a ‘real’ book. I’ve read thousands of ‘real’ books in my life. Books have always been one of my great loves. Never in my childhood dreams did I think I could write a ‘real’ book. Even after getting my first contract and going through the editing, copy editing and page proof process, I found it hard to call myself an author. Then the doorbell rang and the postman delivered a book with my name on it to my door.
Holy crap. This is real. I’m an author.
The book hits shelves in 9 days. Then the rest of the journey begins. Will readers love or hate the book? Will they recommend the book to friends or lament the loss of their hard earned money? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.
While I’m waiting for that part of the journey to begin, tell me – what is your favorite “first” moment thus far? (Let’s try to keep it clean, kids. You know who you are.)