Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Beast

It's been a tough week for certain people who, at whatever level they existed, wielded a degree of power over others.  And I'm not even talking about the ever growing list of men who've groped, fondled, harassed, raped, etc.

So who are these people?  Well, there's Charles Manson, of course, who, on Friday, Renee Pickup on this site prematurely announced as dead.  I can't blame her for the mistake; the guy apparently took his time dying, though he didn't linger as long as Francisco Franco.  Now we know he definitely is dead, and the papers and Internet have been filled with stories about him.  For my money, the most complete and well-rounded take on the entire Manson family story is the one that Karina Longworth did on her podcast You Must Remember This.  It's a 12 part masterpiece that puts Manson, the family, and the murders in a specific historic and cultural context with a detail and insight I haven't encountered anywhere else.  I've mentioned this series here before, and again, if you haven't listened to it yet, now is the perfect time to do so.

But with all the attention on the Manson story, which never ceases to fascinate Americans, the death of another criminal seemed to get short shrift here.  At least, I didn't see that much about it, and maybe that's not surprising because the man's actions impacted another country more than it affected the US.  I'm talking about "The Beast", "the Boss of Bosses", Salvatore Riina.  A Sicilian Mafia chief from the 1970s on, Riina died Friday at the age of 87.  In jail since 1993, he had been serving 26 life sentences.

Riina is infamous for employing a strategy of violence that included killing Italian judges, prosecutors, and police.  He had absolutely no qualms ordering the deaths of women and children.  Tommaso Buscetta, a vital Mafia informant who gave the Italian government loads of information during the long Maxi Trial in Palermo, knew this as well as anyone.  Riina ordered the murder of Buscetta's two sons, his brother, and 33 of his other relatives.  The Maxi Trial ran from 1986 until 1992, and it's after this, from hiding, that Riina really unleashed his wrath upon the state, ordering the killings of Anti Mafia commission prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Falcone was killed in a bombing on a highway outside Palermo with his wife and three policemen. According to an informant's story, Riina threw a party after the killing, toasting Falcone's death with champagne.   A couple of months later, Borsellino and five policemen were killed in a car bombing near Borsellino's mother's house in Palermo.  

In the continuing crackdown against the Sicilian Mafia after these assassinations, Riina went so far as to order bombings against Italian tourist sites in Florence, Rome, and Milan, and after he was finally caught in 1993, prompting a day when Sicilian children were let out of school to celebrate, he ordered the indiscriminate bombings of Italian churches and art galleries. Giovanni Brusca, killer of many for Riina and later an informant, stated that at one point Riina was considering the idea of bombing the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  On Riina's orders, Brusca was also involved in the notorious kidnapping of the 11 year old son of a Mafia informant.  For 26 months, Brusca and the other kidnapppers held the boy, torturing him at times in an attempt to get his father to retract his testimony.  The informant's testimony, however, was already considered legally binding, and eventually the kidnappers strangled his son, now 14. To destroy evidence and prevent the boy's family from having a proper funeral, they then dissolved his body in acid.  

What's amazing is that when the authorities caught Riina after his 23 years as a fugitive, it turned out he'd been living all along at his house in Palermo. That he'd avoided capture for so long while hiding in plain sight, as it were, prompted many speculations over the extent to which the Sicilian Mafia and the Italian government, over the years, had worked in some sort of mutually beneficial symbiosis.  

There's much more to the Riina saga and quite a bit of it is byzantine, this being an Italian story, after all.  For one thing, there's the question of how much cooperation there was between the authorities and other Cosa Nostra bosses in effecting Riina's final capture.  One plausible version has it that Bernardo Provenzano, himself a fugitive boss for 43 years in Sicily, and in hiding during all the time we're now talking about, sold Riina out by providing, from hiding, a map showing the exact location in Palermo where Riina was.  Provenzano, who advocated a less violent approach to running the Mafia, would become Riina's successor until his capture in 2006.

But I'll leave it to Riina to have the last word here.  You can always count on the most brutal criminals to be utterly self-serving, and in this regard, Riina fits the bill.  From the New York Times story about him published after his death, there is this:

But the specter of Mr. Riina, who rarely spoke in public, hung over the country. In one of his 1993 trials, he refused to address the allegations of one of his accusers.

“He does not have my moral stature,” Mr. Riina said.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Character Actresses

I love Mr. Kaplan. I was binging The Blacklist when I was sick recently, and on top of all of the other things about the show that I enjoy I found myself wishing there had been a whole series devoted to Mr. Kaplan.

Susan Blommaert, the actress who portrays Mr. Kaplan, is a stand-out for me. Whatever role I've seen her in she's completely embodied, from the first time I recall seeing her in The X-Files.

She got me thinking about the fact that, while there are many men known as character actors, I couldn't think of many women known as character actresses. The only other one who comes to mind is Margo Martindale.

These are women who make every show better just by showing up in the credits. They show tenderness. They show tenacity. They show a total commitment to portraying the character for the good of the story, rather than for seeing their roles as opportunities to be idolized.

They're about the craft rather than the glory.

It occurs to me that a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that in order to be a strong woman the woman needs to try to act more like a man. One of the things that's true of both of these character actresses is that they've taken on superior roles where instead of being women who tried to fill the shoes of men they showed they were more than equal to their male counterparts and in many circumstances superior.

Can you think of other great character actresses? Worthy roles that should be celebrated? I will now (spoiler.................................................................................................................................)
mourn the passing of Mr. Kaplan and the fact that it will be a while before I see Susan Blommaert on the screen again, and hope to see Margo Martindale when The Americans returns.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Documents and Artifacts and References, Oh My

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an “archives crawl.” It’s like a pub crawl, but with less booze and more criminals.
"This man is a smooth talker and when he gets into jail takes up religion and cries his way out. He can’t keep out of Jail, so let your Jailers see this. He was convicted of Burglary and Grand Larceny here and escaped from the officer at San Francisco about a year ago while enroute to the State Prison at San Quentin to do six years.
I am very anxious to get this man and will pay the above reward for his delivery to me in any Jail in the United States.
Dated August 5, 1908"
Several Sacramento institutions band together and do this every year. They pull out items in their collections that are otherwise inaccessible. This year was the first chance I had to go. A friend and I started at the California State Archives, which houses everything from Spanish and Mexican land grants to state and local government records and genealogy information. It also has – right in my wheelhouse – extensive court and prison records. And some other items that bring the past alive in great ways.
This lock was as big as my fist.
Unidentified California state prisoner.
For a non-fiction book proposal I wrote several years ago, I spent a great deal of time in the archive’s big circular reading room. I was able to go through the entire original handwritten trial transcript of a death penalty trial from the 1880s. (Penmanship was WAY better back then.) For another project, I read the capital trial transcript of a 1950s killer and subsequent prison records and court appeals. (Sadly, they’d moved on to typewriters by this point.)
Next, we moved on to the California State Library, across from the Capitol. It’s the central reference and research library for state government and the Legislature. Okay, that’s not terribly exciting. But this is: it collects and preserves priceless historical items. And many of those are on display to the general public only this one day a year. It also has fun with its enormous accumulation of knowledge.
Top Ten Most Notorious California Criminal Trading Cards!
These naturally caught my eye. Here’s a sampling:

They had the newspaper microfilm archive room closed. Closed! I spent a lot of time there researching the same two capital cases I talked about above. I’ll admit, it’s not the most thrilling
room, packed with nothing but filing cabinets and microfilm readers. Oh, but the information! The collection has more than 2,200 newspapers, and it includes at least one title from each of California’s 58 counties. It dates back to 1846. It’s heaven, to me, at least. 
The other two majors organizations that participate are the Sacramento Public Library and the Center for Sacramento History. Next week, I’ll show you some of the non-crime related wonderfulness that was on display. (Hint: some of it relates to a jumping frog from Calaveras County.)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Writing Within the Guardrails

Scott D. Parker

Do you like driving inside the guardrails?

Earlier this week, I watched The Terry Kath Experience. It’s a documentary about one of the founders of the band Chicago. Kath was the only guitar player and he sang lead. I’ve long zeroed in on Kath as my favorite member of the original group of seven guys who made up the band with Robert Lamm a close second. This despite me, a kid who ‘discovered’ Chicago in 1985 and wondered why their ‘newest’ album was named ‘17.’ Anyway, when I learned Kath’s daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, was making this documentary to learn more about her father, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I thought I was going to have to purchase the DVD, but the channel AXS aired it. Lo and behold I actually get that channel and viola! I got to watch this wonderful film.

When you trace Terry Kath’s life, you see a truly remarkable musical genius. If you listen to any studio album, you can hear Kath’s intricate soloing. His talent for lead guitar playing was even more on display on any of the live albums featuring the original seven. With the advent of YouTube, I have been able to see live footage from the 1970s and the manic energy Kath brought to the fore as the only guitar player in the band. One of the all-time best shows available is the 1970 concert from Tanglewood. They open with my all-time favorite song, “Introduction,” and the group rarely slows down.

Speaking of “Introduction,” one of the reasons I love it so much is that it is track 1 of side 1 of Chicago’s first album. It’s the ‘mission statement song,’ the one song that encapsulated what Chicago was back then. In the documentary, there’s a segment that I hadn’t heard before. You see, Kath couldn’t read music, at least back then. He enlisted trombonist James Pankow—the third member who helped shape the sound of the band in the beginning(s)—to write down the chart for everyone. When Pankow complied, he was astounded that a song as intricate and complex as “Introduction” was all there…in Kath’s mind.

Many folks might chalk Chicago up to a band who excelled in mid-tempo hits in the 70s and ballads in the 80s. That’s true, but that isn’t how they started. For the time, they were a progressive band, their song often involving intricate arrangements and constantly shifting time signatures. Guys like Lamm and Kath loved that part of the early tenure of the band. But fame and fortune did the same thing it did to many artists: it began to suffocate them. The more hits the band produced, the more audiences expected to hear certain songs. Where Kath was able to put “Free Form Guitar” on the first album (a 6-minute track with just Kath, his guitar, and the amp) and the band opened side 1 of Chicago VII with a bunch of experimental instrumentals, gradually the pressure to play “Saturday in the Park,” “Just You n’ Me,” and “If You Me Now,” every single night began to weigh on him.

As the documentary relates, by the last tour, Kath was all but ready to bolt. He missed playing whatever he felt like playing. You get the impression that Kath’s mindset was akin to “Look, I’m gonna play what I’m gonna play, the audience be damned.” In that spirit, he’s in the same boat as Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix to name just two. Chicago did that for the Chicago VII tour…and they’ve never done it since. They saw the audience reactions to their long solos and instrumentals. It wasn’t why audiences came to their shows. They wanted the hits and little else.

Thus, we have the age-old conflict between artistic vision and commercial expectations. Sure, you can play whatever you want on an album, but if you don’t give the listeners what they want, then you’re albums sales will fall and your concerts will be less attended.

The very same thing applies to us writers (and artists and other creative types), too. We can be perfectly happy to write some genre title that no one has ever seen, but you have to put yourself out there and suffer the consequences. Sometimes, you can strike gold and be an outlier. For the majority of us, however, it seems like we need to drive within the guardrails already laid out by writers before us. Some days, you might chaff at the guardrails, but they’ve been laid by not only writers but readers. They are there to help steer you straight.

I count myself in this latter group. And I’m perfectly happy to be there. Are you?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Manson is Dead, Long Live Manson

Charles Manson is dead.

Good news, right?

I know we're not supposed to take joy in the deaths of others, no matter how evil. I know some would say that makes us "as bad as them." I don't know that I'm feeling happy Manson is gone, but it's the end of an era, isn't it?

His influence on our culture is deep, and it's permeated in part by the news stories about his possible nuptials, his health, parole hearings, and any statements he makes during these times. It's ridiculous to think Charles Manson's influence will disappear with him, but at least it will stop growing and wrapping itself into our popular culture.

The people still fascinated with him, who attempt to send letters, try to get on his visitation lists, and otherwise speak of him like a misunderstood demi-god will have to move on, or at least focus their efforts on the past, rather than the present.

I wonder, too, if with his death we will see a brief resurgence of fandom for him. If there will be flowers and photographs left at Corcoran prison. I imagine there will be. The talk of the Tarantino film drew a lot of conversation, and I imagine there will be TV movies, documentaries, and more going over his life. In some ways, the people who loved him will probably only love him more now t hat he is gone. We won't ever be rid of him - but for a moment, he is dead, and we are rid of him.

People like Manson hold a strange, uncomfortable place in our public consciousness. If we cannot stop people like him from existing and doing damage, then perhaps we can at least feel relief when they are no longer able to actively participate in our culture.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

My Big Ol' Texas Book Tour

by Eryk Pruitt

When a lot of people think about Texas, they think of crazy people chock-full of beef brisket and state pride. I was born and raised in Texas, and recently returned for a two-week book tour to promote my latest novel What We Reckon and I can tell you first hand…

…all that shit is true.

Yep, Texas is a place like no other. There have some of the friendliest people in the country, but also some of the strangest. From tacos to barbecue to kolaches to spare ribs and sausages, the varying cultural influences can be felt in their "native" cuisine all throughout the state. And speaking of culture, Texas sure lays claim to some top notch literature.

Which is why Texas is the perfect place for a small book tour.

1. INTERABANG BOOKS: 10720 Preston Rd. Ste. 10009B – Dallas TX

The newcomer to the Dallas lit scene has announced its arrival with a wallop. Featuring Big D's best stocked mystery section and a lively social media presence, it's a no-brainer for a crime fiction author to try and score a reading here. General manager Jeremy Ellis has a top-notch event staff working for him, including Carlos (who's guiding hand helped launch Wild Detectives into a south Dallas literary powerhouse the past couple years) and Tom, who knows how to make an author feel like a movie star.
Michael Pool (Debt Crusher, Texas Two-Step) co-hosted the event with me and provided plenty of questions and material to introduce my work to the audience which included some of my best friends of all time, as well as my first kiss, my junior high girlfriend, my former boss, and my high school bully. 
As of this writing, there were still autographed copies of my novel on their bookshelves. Order here: https://www.interabangbooks.com/book/9781943818648

2. NOIR AT THE BAR: Texas Literary Festival Edition – Weather Up, E. Cesar Chavez, Austin, TX

Mike McCrary is STILL waiting on a drink.

Imagine the hipster-est bar of all time. Staff it with guys too busy waxing their facial hair or muddling their basil. Sprinkle in a healthy dash of DGAF and you have the location of Austin's Noir at the Bar, held during the Texas Lit Festival weekend. BookPeople's Scott Montgomery was the perfect host as he introduced a packed house to the dark fiction stylings of Gabino Iglesias, Meg Gardinier, Bradley Spinelli, Jeff Abbott, myself, and the aforementioned Mr. McCrary. What a crowd! They reacted perfectly to every reader with a mixture of laughter, gasps, and revulsion and the only other thing they needed was a goddamn cocktail.

3. BOOKPEOPLE: 603 N. Lamar, Austin, TX

Once again, Scott Montgomery was the perfect host, but this time with a panel discussion inside Texas' largest independent bookstore. Scott curates the mystery section—known as MysteryPeople—so he knows how to partner authors for fun and exciting literary discussions. This time, he treated the audience to a conversation about noir and hardboiled fiction with Down & Out Magazine editor Rick Ollerman, Steady Trouble author Mike McCrary, and myself. An enthusiastic audience was encouraged to participate, and afterward, Scott organized a book signing.
Autographed copies of mine and McCrary's books can be found on the shelves or online. http://www.bookpeople.com/book/9781943818648

4. MURDER BY THE BOOK: 2342 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX

Houston still recovers from the damage Hurricane Harvey caused, as well as the hangover from their World Series win, still less than a week old by the time I arrived to promote my book. Still, the folks that made it out on a Tuesday night asked plenty of questions and showed genuine interest. It's no wonder, since the shelves at Murder by the Book are stocked with the local Who's Who of crime fiction. A noir author will find plenty of his friends on the wall and event coordinator John Kwiatkowski and Sam Mayer were very generous hosts, especially for directing us to the neighborhood bar for pre- and post-event cocktails.
They brought plenty of stock for me to sign, which can be found on the shelves at  http://www.murderbooks.com/book/9781943818648

5. THE BOSSLIGHT: 123 E. Main St., Nacogdoches, TX

I finally found the building I want to haunt when I die.
It's a gift shop, a bookstore, and a community gathering space all nestled inside a historic, quaint, downtown Nacogdoches storefront. Owner Tim Bryant—himself an accomplished fiction author—hosts a perfect evening and bought several copies of What We Reckon, Dirtbags, and even a Southern Gothic anthology (New Lit Salon Press) featuring my 2014 short story, "Them Riders." I was in the middle of signing books and lively conversation with Bryant's guests when I look up to see the Piney Woods poet laureate Joe Lansdale had joined us. The Stone Fort's hotel bar provided an excellent atmosphere for a nightcap in this otherwise wild and raucous college town. Nacogdoches is the perfect stop between the larger cities during a book tour.
Of course, they have autographed stock on their shelves, as well as a full library of Mr. Lansdale's work, including a T-shirt!

6. WILD DETECTIVES: 314 W. Eighth St., Dallas, TX

I'm a sucker for a good Noir at the Bar.
Since Wild Detectives serves coffee and booze as well as books, it was the ideal choice to host Dallas' second Noir at the Bar. This incarnation delivered gritty, gripping fiction from Big D's own Harry Hunsicker, Kathleen Kent, and J. Suzanne Frank (and myself),but also fellow Texans Max Booth III, Michael Pool and, once again, Mr. Mike McCrary, who's selection from Genuinely Dangerous killed both nights and gets better each time I hear him read it. WD had books on hand for buyers to purchase, and will buy you a drink if you order the book from them:  http://thewilddetectives.com/gustavo/initiatives/the-wd-bring-you-the-book-buy-you-the-drink/

One thing I took away from my trip to Texas is that moderation is highly overrated. Don't order a half-pound of BBQ when a full pound is available. The liquor tax is lower there, so go ahead and buy the 1.75 liter bottle, and don't visit one bookstore when you can visit them all.

Holler at me for dinner recommendations.