Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book Review: Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott

What do you do when you get blocked creatively? For Violet Hart, she takes pictures of dead people.
The main character in Patricia Abbott’s sophomore novel, SHOT IN DETROIT, Violet is a thirty-nine-year-old woman whose life seems to have meandered off course. At the start of the book, Violet is seeking “the boost that discovering I could still produce a first-rate photo would give me.” The place where she goes to find this boost is pre-dawn Belle Isle, a location in Detroit threatening to suburbanites for it’s a distant memory of the good years. Two police officers intercept her, questioning her motives and what a nice white woman is doing at a park where vagrants frequent, vagrants the cops are ignoring to hassle Violet. Her answers verge on the babbling as she tries to convince them not only that her art—photography—has merit, but the subjects she shoots—urban settings, including said vagrants—are interesting. “So, it’s art to you, huh?” the redheaded cop interrupted. “The people you snap don’t’ matter more than apples on a cutting board.”
It is a special book that demands a re-reading of the first chapter when you finish the last. You see, Abbott nails her subject, her character and motivations, and the atmosphere right out of the gate. The farther into the book I got, the more the echoes of the first chapter kept coming back to me. By the time I got to the last page, I was dying to return to the first chapter. Sure enough that first chapter is like a short story in itself. It’s all in there. Not surprising since Abbott has written over 100 short stories and won a Derringer Award.
But I digress. SHOT IN DETROIT focuses on a triumvirate of characters. Violet is at the center, the nucleus around which the story turns. Bill Fontenel is her lover. He is a handsome black man, a mortician by trade, who takes wonderful care of his “clients.” In fact, his grace with the dead is his calling card, and it is a simple request by him that sets the story in motion. He asks Violet to take a picture of a dead man because Bill’s regular photographer cannot. This action piques Violet’s artistic eye and she stumbles into the subject of her next project: photographing dead black men.
Ted Ernst owns an art gallery where a dozen of Violet’s photos hang. He’s the upscale bourgeois type that comes across as too cultured for his own good. He’s indifferent to Violet’s existing work—in fact, he returns them soon after the book starts—but is curious about the black corpse project. His only sticking point as the story progresses is to get Bill to sign a contract to protect the gallery when the project goes on display.
But it is Violet’s eyes through which we experience everything. Her backstory is parceled out in bits and pieces, a marvelous technique Abbott deploys. Slowly, over time, Violet’s character, who she is and how she came to be this way, is revealed. Violet’s mother is a waitress, her father, an itinerate jazz musician who bailed on the family soon after Violet was born. She had a sister, but she’s been dead for years. This building of Violet’s biography is done is such a way as to be greater than the sum of her parts. Inextricably the reader is drawn into Violet’s mind, deeper into the story, and deeper into her desire to snap more photos and complete her project.
Alas, her project demands the deaths of more black men. Will she have enough—she’s aiming for ten to twelve with a short deadline? This being Detroit, the reader is inclined to think so. So, too, is Violet. Surprisingly, the bodies aren’t as plentiful, and Violet verges on desperation. Ted is breathing down her neck for the contract to be signed and the project to be fulfilled. Bill grows increasingly reluctant to participate in Violet’s morbid fascination with her subjects. “Don’t call the dead what killed them,” Bill reverently intones in one of the best takeaways of the entire book. But Violet’s tone has already shifted from innocent curiosity to actively mercenary. To one of her subjects, she says, “Buck up, Ramir. I’ll make you a star. And maybe you’ll make me one.”
Abbott’s pacing is gentle and the suspense is a slow burn. The artist in Violet gradually takes over until she’s worried more about her vision rather than her subjects: dead men. Abbott paints Detroit not as the sprawling city most folks like me might think it is but as a small, almost claustrophobic town. Like an expert craftsman, Abbott constructs her novel in such a way that all the pieces fit into place perfectly. The house she has built stands solidly, not a word out of place. She’s a magician. Her sleight of hand technique at showing you what she wants you to see is so good that certain events—especially the ending—I never saw coming.
SHOT IN DETROIT is an excellent book and a nice change of pace from what some readers—me included—think of when the terms “crime fiction” or “suspense fiction” are bandied about. It’s not all cops and robbers, gangs and violence. Sometimes the best crime fiction can surprise you in ways you didn’t expect, giving you insight not only into the mind of a character but in yourself as well. 
Do yourself a favor and add this book to your summer reading list. Pick your format. You're welcome.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Down the Rabbit Hole with Jackie Coogan

By Steve Weddle

So I'm researching lynchings and kidnappings for this dumb book I'm working on and I see Jackie Coogan's name in a story.
Child movie star Jackie Coogan, a friend of Brooke Hart from Santa Clara University, was reported to be one of the mob that prepared and held the rope for lynching.

So, yeah. There's some stuff I didn't know about Jackie Coogan. I'm thinking, "Jackie Coogan. Is that the bully kid from the Little Rascals?" It is not. That's Jackie Cooper Tommy Bond. (Thanks for the note, Anon.)

Here's some of the stuff I found out about Jackie Coogan while researching a book about Arkansas in the 1930s. (Yeah. The rabbit holes on the webbernet are weird.)

* Jackie Coogan was the kid from that Charlie Chaplin move The Kid. I guess I knew that. I dunno, Stuff falls out of my head sometimes. As Homer Simpson once said, "Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain."

Jackie Coogan and Betty Grable
* Jackie Coogan was Uncle Fester. The guy who was the kid in The Kid ends up being Uncle Fester? Uncle Fester was the kid from The Kid. I don't know. How do I wrap my head around that? That television show started because the kid from The Kid passed gas? So weird.

* Jackie Coogan was married to Betty Grable. I know, right? Betty flippin Grable. Was married. To Uncle Fester. The mind it boggles.

* Jackie Coogan survived a car crash that killed everyone else in the car, including his father and his best friend, Junior Durkin. Durkin had been Huck Finn to Coogan's Tom Sawyer in a couple films.

* Coogan volunteered for the Air Force following the attack on Pearl Harbor and served as a flight officer. He was in his late 20's at the time and served as a lieutenant.

Coogan's grandson was a child actor who was in Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, Silver Spoons, and played Brad Anderson in Adventures in Babysitting.

And, of course, there's the thing about the lynching that I didn't know about. The Hart family owned a department store in San Jose, California. In 1933, the owner's son -- 22-year-old Brooke Hart -- was kidnapped and killed. The killers told the family that the son was still alive and worked for a while to get a ransom. Eventually they got caught. People in town broke into the jail where the killers were being held and dragged the two men across the street to a park where they were lynched. The governor said he was cool with it and that none of the lynchers was be prosecuted. Reportedly Coogan, a college friend of Brooke Hart, was one of the lynchers.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dharma Kellher: The Iron Goddess Interview

by Holly West

Dharma Kelleher writes about "renegades, outlaws and misfits," but what's immediately clear upon cracking open her debut novel, IRON GODDESS (out from Alibi on June 28), is that she also writes characters with heart. Shea Stevens is an ex-con who's worked hard to make a happy life for herself, only to be sucked backed in when her bike shop is burglarized and she has to confront her troubled past.

I'm delighted that Dharma graciously agreed to an interview about IRON GODDESS, how her life experiences inform her writing and diversity in crime fiction.

HW: Tell us, briefly, what IRON GODDESS is about.

DK: IRON GODDESS follows Shea Stevens, an ex-con and custom motorcycle builder, whose finds that her shop has been broken into, an employee shot and three custom bikes stolen. She immediately suspects the Confederate Thunder, an outlaw biker club once run by her father.

When Shea reaches out to her sister, who is married to the club’s current president, she learns that the same drug dealers who robbed her shop have kidnapped her niece. Shea reluctantly agrees to join forces with the Confederate Thunder to save her niece and recover the stolen bikes.

HW: There are a few LGBT characters in the book, and Shea herself is a lesbian. While such characters exist in mainstream crime fiction, they are few and far between. Was it important to you to write a character that could serve as a role model of sorts or were you simply interested in writing a good story?

DK: I wanted both. I’ve read a LOT of lesbian fiction where the story focuses on the protagonist’s sexuality. But most thrillers and other crime fiction with a straight protagonist doesn’t focus on their sexuality. I wanted a lesbian protagonist where her attraction to women is not the most interesting thing about her and isn’t a leading part of the story.

Yes, Shea is a lesbian, but she is also an ex-con who grew up in an outlaw biker family. She runs a shop for second-chancers that builds custom bikes for women. Her relationship with Jessica is the least interesting thing about her.

HW: How does your own life experience inform your writing and the themes you want to explore? 

DK: I came out as transgender about 25 years ago in the Deep South, so roughly half my lifetime. My family rejected me and even after all this time, our relationship is troubled. So I wanted to explore the idea of family estrangement, dysfunction, and reconciliation.

Also, I’ve been a biker for several years now and love the biker subculture, though there are some very dark and sinister parts of it that are fun to explore in fiction. There is a lot of camaraderie and solidarity, but also rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia, not to mention a lot of substance abuse and violence.

HW: IRON GODDESS is set in the biker world, so the crime fiction genre seems an obvious choice. But you’ve been writing for years and you’re an avid reader, so I’m curious if you considered other genres for Shea? 

DK: I did write an early attempt at a contemporary, almost chick-lit style novel which featured both Shea and Rios, but the characters were much different than they are now.

I have found, since writing IRON GODDESS, that writing crime fiction is more fun. It’s very cathartic. High-speed chases, gun fights, dramatic rescues? How can I resist?

HW: Who are your influences, both in and out of the genre? 

DK: So many influences. Lawrence Block, for starters. Both his Matt Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr series are wonderfully written. I love Elmore Leonard and the complex characters he creates. Jim Butcher (of Dresden Files fame) has an unrivaled talent for vivid description with an economy of words. And more recently, I have fallen in love with the writing of Christa Faust for her unconventional characters.

HW: Job-wise, your background is diverse: you have a degree in journalism and have worked as a news director, a construction worker, a goldsmith, a caregiver and a web developer. Given the breadth of your experience and interests, is working as a full-time writer something you’d like to do?

DK: YES!!!!! I have enjoyed most of the fields I have worked in for varying reasons, but my first love has always been creative writing.

I first started as a teenager typing out short stories on a manual Smith Corona typewriter and reading Lawrence Block’s fiction column in Writer’s Digest magazine.

Then I fell away from it for the better part of 25 years to get my sh*t together. For the last ten years, I’ve buckled down to master the skills that creative writing requires, so as I turn 50 this year, I finally have a book to show for it.

HW: What’s next for Shea and/or your own writing?

DK: In the next novel, Shea finds herself forced to infiltrate an all-women’s motorcycle club as a confidential informant to find out who’s been selling lethal drugs laced with strychnine. My editor and I are still working on a title, but it promises to be filled with lots of plot twists and action.
I have some ideas for future novels in the series as well. So we’ll see how these first two do and go from there.

Dharma Kelleher writes gritty tales about outlaws, renegades, and misfits. Her hobbies include riding motorcycles, picking locks and getting inked. Her debut novel IRON GODDESS will be published by Penguin Random House’s Alibi imprint on June 28, 2016. Learn more about her and her writing at

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Forty Years of Watching De Palma Films

by Scott Adlerberg

The first Brian De Palma film I saw was Carrie, in 1976, when I was fourteen.  I saw it with my mother of all people; she was already a De Palma fan because she'd seen his Obsession earlier the same year.  I loved Carrie of course, and to this day it remains the only film I've ever seen where I left the theater on trembling legs, courtesy of the final dream scene, still, for my money, one of the greatest pure shocks in movie history.  I remember Obsession being on HBO a year or two after it played in theaters, and in 1978, again with my mother (I should write a book called Seeing De Palma Films with Mom), I saw The Fury, a film as outre as any he's done.  I caught up with earlier De Palma stuff like Hi, Mom and Sisters at New York City revival houses (common then), and in 1980 Dressed to Kill came out (I saw that opening night with a friend).  It's fair to say that by this point, I ranked De Palma among my very favorite directors.

Thirty six years later, his status in my mind hasn't changed.  Through many more films, some great, some okay, a couple disappointing (none dull, not even his failures), my estimation of Brian De Palma has never diminished. He's a great filmmaker who tells stories visually, and the words that come to mind when I think of my forty years watching his films are exhilarating, surprising, disorienting, funny, beautiful, fluid. The split screen shots, the slow motion sequences, the long gliding camera takes -- De Palma's techniques are well-known by now, but he's never failed to keep refining them.  His sense of the bravura has never abandoned him.  You can watch Sisters from 1973, Blow Out from 1981, Raising Cain from 1992 or Femme Fatale from 2002 and see within minutes that each could only be a De Palma film.  Did I mention, too, that he's playful? That his films can be outrageous fun?  That he's one of cinema's supreme tricksters?  Well, hereby mentioned. If ever there was a director who you feel gets a kick from playing with the audience and messing with audience expectations, it's Brian De Palma.

I'm well aware, naturally, that he has his detractors.  In fact, as directors go, De Palma has to rank among the most polarizing.  He's a true "love him or hate him" director, and among friends, people I've seen his films with, I don't think there's another filmmaker I've argued about more. A lot has been leveled at De Palma - the accusations of misogyny, the criticisms for the violence and gore, the claim that he keeps ripping off Hitchcock.  Among friends of mine, the most common attacks have centered around how "illogical" his films are, how implausible the plots, how his films make precious little sense and show no talent for coherent storytelling.  What I've found strange about this critique is that it admits De Palma is not as much like Hitchcock as his detractors state. Hitchcock was big on Fridge Logic. He didn't want you watching his film believing the story but then realizing in retrospect, when you went to your fridge for a snack late at night, that there were story inconsistencies.  In his thrillers especially, De Palma is not that concerned about Fridge Logic; neither are the implausibilities there because it's the best a hack director can do. For De Palma, dispensing at times with narrative logic, it's not linearity that's most important. As he says, what you get with him are reflections and refractions. He's preoccupied with the thin barrier between reality and fantasy, what's before us and what might not be, the apparent and the illusory. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom is an influence. So is the great Spanish surrealist director Luis Bunuel. De Palma incorporates what he's learned from others to make films entirely his own, but somehow for quite a few people, he's still that guy who stole Hitchcock's tricks without having Hitchcock's talent. How this criticism persists is beyond me, considering that, over the course of his career, for better or worse, he's made films in so many genres, from the early anarchic comedies like Greetings to the musical horror film Phantom of the Paradise to the thrillers to Scarface to Carlito's Way to Casualties of War to The Untouchables and Mission Impossible.

I say all this now because I'm in a De Palma state of mind. Over the weekend, I made a point of going out to see the new documentary De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.  It runs 107 minutes and is set up as one long monologue by De Palma, discussing his entire career from his first shorts to his 1968 debut feature, The Wedding Party, to his most recent film, Passion (2012). De Palma proves to be an entertaining and forthright guide to his work; he talks about it without false modesty but doesn't gloss over things in his films he could have done better. With wit and equanimity, he discusses films where the production clicked and the film did well  - Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables - and films that failed for one reason or another - The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars.  And he doesn't stint on the anecdotes about various people he's worked with.  It's a fascinating trip through a long career, and De Palma's own take on Hitchcock's influence on him is the best take on the matter I've heard yet. Then there are his thoughts on the 1970’s and the film culture of that time, when his cinematic pals were Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. I never knew De Palma chipped in on editing a scene from Mean Streets. Or that casting for Carrie and Star Wars went on simultaneously, with Lucas and De Palma testing some of the same actors. Or that a little later Spielberg spent time on the Scarface set, saying "Why not?" when De Palma suggested putting a camera in a certain spot. But Spielberg did. Amusing story.  It's one of several you'll hear if you see De Palma, a movie that's a cinema buff's dream and that for me at least was a perfect way to celebrate four decades of watching and re-watching Brian De Palma's movies.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Brand of Crime

In the wake of the tragic events of the weekend, what can be said? Nothing will bring back the lives lost. Nothing changes that outcome for those individuals and their families.

If I could wish one thing to come out of it, it would be that people understand there is such a thing as a hate crime.

A hate crime is a crime specifically motivated by the perpetrator's prejudices and beliefs. They don't target a lover who's betrayed them. They don't target victims of opportunity because as long as they get the gender or hair color right anyone will do.

They target people who they hate, based on ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion.

And these crimes are so much more dangerous because of the sheer volume of potential targets available to the perpetrators. It isn't okay that a spouse murders their cheating partner, but when that's the motivation the scope of potential/likely targets is narrow.

When a person acts out of hate their attacks could be anywhere they believe people to be what they hate. If that's an ethnic group, anywhere they think those people will be.

If that's gay people that could be anywhere.

There will be questions in the wake of the weekend's tragic events, but there will be no trial. There will be no justice for the families. But if there was, I would hope that there was appropriate hate crimes legislation, because these types of killers will always have more targets to attack, and hate is an extreme viewpoint that is hard to eradicate, and worst of all, these killers feel justified to act because of their beliefs.

They're the fundamental motivation for terror attacks, and the only good thing I take away from this weekend was that the president didn't rush to conclusions but still called this what it was, a terrorist attack.

Some have twisted the events perversely, to make this be about Muslims, instead of this being about an attack on the gay community. This is homegrown hatred breeding homegrown terror, the fires stoked by politicians who want to legislate away individual freedoms while protecting everyone's right to an assault weapon, because it's like that's more important to them than an individual's right to life.

And some will vote for the very politicians fanning the flames of hatred that are part of what's producing homegrown terrorists, and yet take no responsibility for the fact that until each individual - regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation - is treated with respect under the law and by those who govern, there are people in society who see that they'll be defended in their hate crimes.

Maybe the other bit of justice to hope for would be that Dan Patrick be sued the next time someone guns down a bunch of strangers because of their sexual orientation, since he seems to think its okay.

I'm just so disgusted. And appalled that there's even an argument to be had about semantics in the wake of this tragedy.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Glacier's Pace

It worked.
I resolved a thorny plot point in my current manuscript – by not thinking about it. Of course, it took a few scrapes on the knees, innumerable mosquito bites, and several sharp rocks in my shoes. But I was able to stop worrying about my almost-finished manuscript. Views like this helped, too.

This is the Yosemite Valley in California. We got to this vista point by car in less than four hours. It’s an improvement. Almost one hundred and fifty years ago, you had to really want to see this sight.

It has gotten progressively easier to get here, and the crowds have gotten progressively bigger. Coincidence? Probably not.
Last year, 4,294,381 people came to Yosemite. There were 20 fatalities. Hmm. (Okay, maybe I didn’t completely stop thinking about work.) It is steep, sharp, dangerous nature. Which is what makes it such a draw for many of us.

Maybe it was better when you did have to expend a lot more effort to get here. Were you more careful? Did you appreciate it more? I would say no – I appreciated a whole lot, despite my cushy 21st century transportation to the park.

Even though I didn't get there by wagon, I did slow down. And I enjoyed it. Now I'm determined to enjoy writing the end of my book, even if I am moving at the pace of a glacier carving away granite cliffs.