Saturday, January 13, 2018

River TV Series

Scott D. Parker

Hot on the heels of watching the excellent Broadchurch, my wife and I decided on yet another program she discovered. The one aspect of this six-episode series (really, just a six-hour movie broken up into six parts) that got her attention was the star: Stellan Skarsgård. I first saw Skarsgård in The Hunt for Red October back. He's a good actor, but not on my list of actors of whom I will see anything they do. This was likely off my radar but, again, I'm so glad it found its way onto my Netflix cue.

If you’ve seen the trailer or read the description, it’s giving nothing away to relate the basic gist of this story. Skarsgård plays DI John River, a man whose partner, DS Jackie "Stevie" Stevenson, was recently murdered. He is haunted by the event, but also by Stevie’s ghost…because River can see her and interact with her. And not only her but other ghosts—“Manifests” as he dubs them—all the time. What is fascinating is the more he digs into the truth about Stevie, the more he realizes there were shades of his former partner about which he never knew.

The plot could come across as rote or mundane, but the acting, especially Skarsgård, allows River to rise above other television programs of the same. It’s not just a crime story; rather, it’s more a nuanced examination of the character and how one violent moment—the murder of his partner—can have such profound impacts on his life. Skarsgård is excellent in this role. More than once, River would be in some dark place, like punching a wall he thinks is a ghost, only to have the character turn on a dime and smile like nothing’s wrong. It’s a bit disorienting for us viewers to say nothing of the supporting characters, especially Adeel Akhtar, who plays Ira King, River’s new partner. We viewers felt for King in the beginning, but he, like us, began to adjust to River’s bizarre behavior. I’d go so far as to say that King is the grounding character River needs to keep one foot on this side of sanity. While King doesn’t necessarily have an arc, he comes across as very sympathetic the longer the story goes on.

Lesley Manville, who plays Chrissie Read, River’s superior officer, also shines. Halfway through the story, it dawned on me that in many of these BBC shows I’ve watched, there are women in powerful positions. Prime Suspect, Broadchurch, The Fall, and Fox’s The Killing. The thing is, in these shows, it’s no big deal. It’s refreshing. Watching Manville’s character react to the events of this story is fantastic.

This is a show of nuances. Little facial tics or a half smile. Of small moments of growth or pain or a character willing to open up a part of themselves.  When you watch this—and you should—do not be distracted by your phone or anything else. If you want to find out just where you know Eddie Marsan from—Sherlock Holmes and Little Dorritt for me; there; I helped you—wait until the end of an episode. Devote your full attention to “River” and you will be justly rewarded.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Crime Wave in Charlottesville

March 21-25 this year is the week for the Virginia Festival of the Book, an annual event punctuated on that Saturday by Crime Wave.

This year, Rob Hart, Alex Segura, Alison Gaylin, Steve Weddle, Kate Moretti, Attica Locke, Deanna Raybourn, Lyndsay Faye, and many others will be empanelled for your pleasure. Check speaker list here and select by letter.

You have no chance to survive make your time

Crime Wave Brunch with Attica Locke

Sat. March 24, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Omni Hotel - Ballroom A

212 Ridge McIntire Road, Charlottesville, VA 22903

Sponsored by: University of Virginia Gamma Knife Center
Join hundreds of other Crime Wave readers for Saturday morning brunch with Attica Locke, the New York Timesbestselling author of Bluebird, Bluebird and winner of the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.
Additional Crime Wave authors will join readers for the Brunch, and book sales and a signing by Ms. Locke will follow.

Why should you attend?

“Attica Locke has both mastered the thriller and exceeded it… I loved everything about this book.”—Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
“Locke, having stockpiled an acclaimed array of crime novels, deserves a career breakthrough for this deftly plotted whodunit whose writing pulses throughout with a raw, blues-inflected lyricism.”―Kirkus Reviews starred review
“Attica Locke is a must-read author who writes with power, grace, and heart, and Bluebird, Bluebird is a remarkable achievement. This is a rare novel that thrills, educates, and inspires all at once. Don’t miss it.”Michael Koryta, author of Rise the Dark

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Research Without a Cause

by Thomas Pluck

Today I visited a neglected cemetery and the site of an assassination.
No reason.

Well, other than to satisfy my morbid curiosity. The cemetery is sometimes called the Mulatto Bend cemetery because it sits at the south end of the road with that name, in Port Allen, Louisiana, over the magnificent Huey Long bridge from Baton Rouge. It is also called the Benevolent Society Cemetery, and searching for either of those names will get you sent to the West Baton Rouge History museum, a ten minute drive away. So, don't use Google.

Last night I read the book Fragile Grounds: Louisiana's Endangered Cemeteries, by Jessica H. Schexnayder and Mary H. Manhein, which had been sitting on the night table in my mother-in-law's guest room, and learned that Slim Harpo was buried not far from where they lived. Maybe you don't know Slim Harpo, but he's most famous for the deliciously salacious blues tune "I'm a King Bee," which the Rolling Stones covered, but did not improve upon. The original is here, and Slim really slings the innuendo in it, and his nasal voice gets sweet as honey as the tune goes on. His other killer hits include "Rainin' in my Heart," "Got Love if You Want It," and "Shake Your Hips," which cement him as a blues king in my book. So I went to see where he was interred, and had a little adventure.

First, Google sent me to the museum, where I saw some wonderful restored Louisiana buildings, like a Creole Cottage, a shotgun shack, and so on. But no Slim. So I choogled and I Googled, and found an article by an LSU music historian who found Harpo's final resting place. Even after reading it, I made the same mistakes the author did, and took a right on Mulatto Bend Road and followed it past settling old shacks and rusty playgrounds and one dive called Leroy's Lounge, with the Lounge crossed out and reduced to Bar, maybe when Leroy tired of customers lounging around and not drinking. The cemetery is at the end of the road on the other side of the highway, so I had to race across traffic, right past the historical marker that Baton Rouge residents erected a few years back to honor the native musician.

At the end of the road I found the cemetery, and walked its length several times in the cold. The cold? What did you say, Tommy? You're in Louisiana! And yes, the state is under a five day cold snap that's got them under a hard freeze warning, and covered them with four inches of snow last week, during which residents delighted in sledding and making snowmen. And me without my peacoat! I walked until my hands were numb, eyeing the concrete sarcophagi, looking for James (Slim Harpo) Moore. I used Find a Grave to no avail. I read the LSU article closely, and followed his footsteps. He found a small section dedicated to the Allen family, and said he saw a tomb covered in harmonicas along the fence from that vantage point. When he visited, there was a sign saying that the eldest Allen was a straw boss on a plantation, but that sign is long gone.

But I found a few Allen headstones, and on tiptoe, spotted the only white tomb decorated with mementos. I had walked past it at least five times, but from the path, you can't see the engraved marker or the harmonicas. It was a little anticlimactic, but it got me to visit parts of town I'd never have found before, and Leroy's Bar will help my description of a similar place Jay Desmarteaux makes himself unwelcome in. And I haven't listened to Slim Harpo in ages, and now I have him on repeat. The cemetery itself is good story fodder as well, and I got a feel for the city I'm writing about. All because I wanted to give my respects to Slim Harpo.

After seeing the King Bee, I went to see the Kingfish. That's Huey Long, of the eponymous bridge. He commissioned the new Louisiana State Capitol Building, the tallest such state building in the United States, finished in seventeen months, but not soon enough for him to still be governor when they cut the ribbon. Pity, because he had a Governor's Elevator built that runs to the top of the 29 floor monstrosity, the Empire State Building of the South, as no one but myself ever called it. Mr Long was a populist politician who inspired the novel All the King's Men, and ran on the slogan "a chicken in every pot, and every man a king" ... until he was assassinated in the new capitol building, just outside the Governor's Elevator. Long shifted taxes from the working people to businesses and the oil barons, was impeached, but kept fighting until they murdered him. His legacy includes free schools, abolishing the poll tax, free school busing, charity hospitals, infrastructure, and of course some patronage, but anyone hated by rich men and the Klan can't be all bad.

The hallway where he was gunned down is pocked with bullet holes, as his bodyguards fired 60 rounds into the assassin, who was killed on the spot. Long died two days later. The bullet holes are patched except for one in a column, which you can see here. Today Louisiana is back to being "business friendly."

I didn't get quite as much inspiration visiting the capitol building, but from the observation deck I got a wonderful view of the city, and noticed that the park around Huey Long's statue looks like an ornate symbol of power meant to keep him imprisoned... so maybe there is a story in there, somewhere. When I got home, my mother-in-law told me that her husband's uncle Owen had been in that hallway when Huey Long was gunned down and saw it all. I wish I'd gotten to meet him. This family's steeped in Louisiana history. My wife's memaw saw Bonnie & Clyde's corpses paraded through town after they were ambushed. Her cousin was one of the sheriffs who killed them. I wrote about that for Criminal Element.

So the point of this is, get out of the house and do frivolous things, especially if you haven't been writing as much as you'd like. I've been averaging 500-1500 words a day for the past two and a half months, taking some breaks here and there, but steadily chunking along with Riff Raff, Jay Desmarteaux #2. I'm enjoying it, but I recharge every once in a while by getting out and doing things, whether it's shopping, stopping in Bowie's Outfitters to buy a knife for no reason, or visiting a bluesman's grave. Some people can write inside a cell using only their imagination. I won't do that until I have to.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Joan Didion's Control

Over the weekend, on Netflix, I caught up with the documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.  The film was made by Joan Didion's nephew, Griffin Dunne, who also serves as interviewer.  Didion now is 83 years old, and Dunne covers her whole life. We follow her from her California childhood to her non-fiction collections like Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, through her later political writing and finally to her life in New York City. It spends much time on the death of both her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, Quintana, events Didion wrote about in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. I enjoyed the movie a lot, and I'd especially recommend it for anyone who writes, whether you're  a Didion fan or not.  Among the film's pleasures: getting to hear many passages read from Didion's work - that crystalline prose with its unerring rhythm.

But the key moment during the movie has to be the one that occurs when Griffin Dunne and Joan are discussing a piece she wrote in the late sixties in the Haight-Ashbury.  Drugs are everywhere, as are disaffected people of all sorts, and one day, we hear from the piece, when Joan finds her contact, the contact says that he has something at his place that will blow her mind.  She goes with him. He takes her to a room, and Joan describes how when they get there, she sees a child on the living room floor licking her lips with concentration.  The only thing off about the girl is that she's wearing white lipstick. 

"Five years old," the contact says. "On acid."

Griffin Dunne asks Joan what it was like to be a journalist in that room to see the little kid on acid. Didion's response is delayed.  "Well, it was...." she says, and then gestures with her hands, saying nothing, looking down a bit.  A couple of seconds go by.  There's a tension and suspense as you wait, and you picture how grotesque that scene with the child must have been.  And then Joan says, "Let me tell you, it was gold."  There's a brief hint of a smile on her face, and a gleam in her eye. As she says, "You live for moments like that if you're doing a piece."

It's a startling moment, and a reminder of something that seems not to get discussed as often as it should when people, including writers, talk about the qualities needed, or at least very helpful, for writing.  That quality is detachment.  Going further (at least as it applies to Didion), some might call it coldness.  "There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer," is how Grahame Greene puts it in his autobiography, A Sort of Life, and I've never seen that idea so clearly on display as when Joan Didion lights up and describes as gold the moment she came across a five year old girl on acid.  Horrible, of course, but also the type of find that dispassion can transmute into memorable art.

That transmutation is something Joan Didion has done time and again over the course of her remarkable writing life, and this film examines that life well. The movie also served to fire me up to go back to reading Didion again, and that can only be a good thing.  

That prose with every sentence just right, that emotion and intelligence all controlled by a beautiful coldness...

Monday, January 8, 2018

Night of the Flood, a Novel in Stories.

Fourteen of the edgiest contemporary-crime writers want to take you to the fictional town of Everton, where things are about to get dangerous.

THE NIGHT OF THE FLOOD takes place the evening Maggie Wilbourne is to be executed, the first woman put to death by the state of Pennsylvania in modern times. On this night a group of women rise-up to protest Maggie's controversial imprisonment and impending execution. In a rage, the women blow up the local dam, flood their small town and set off a hellish night of crime and chaos.

The stories featured in this brilliant collection shine a light on the tensions between the rich and the poor, the insider and the outsider, the innocent and the guilty. Whether it’s a store owner grimly protecting his property from looters, an opportunistic servant who sees her time to strike, or two misguided youths taking their anger out against any available victim, THE NIGHT OF THE FLOOD is an intricate and intimate examination of the moment when chaos is released—in both society and the human spirit.

This highly anticipated collection is co-edited by E.A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen, both of whom also contribute a story.

Ed is the author of I'LL SLEEP WHEN YOU'RE DEAD (2013) and YOU'RE AS GOOD AS DEAD (2015), both from Black Opal Books. He also writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and is the Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins (for the International Thriller Writers.)

"My story, The Orphans," kicks off the collection and the characters were originally for another group project, but the other writers flaked." Ed mutters something about Tom Sweterlitsch and Liz Heiter then, thankfully, continues. "But something about those two lost, violent siblings stuck with me, and I'd always wanted to revisit them. THE NIGHT OF THE FLOOD gave me the opportunity to do so. Putting those two desperate characters in a drowning town made sense physically and metaphorically. It's nice to see them finally breathe, even as they struggle to do so."

Co-editor Sarah M. Chen is a rising star in crime-fiction. Her debut novel, CLEANING UP FINN, is a Lefty and Anthony finalist and IPPY award winner. Sarah's short stories have been accepted for publication by All Due Respect, Akashic, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Dead Guns Press and Betty Fedora.

"A trucker hell-bent on making her delivery in time detours through Everton. An eye doctor stands guard outside his clinic with his sociopath buddy. It's a night of chaos, retribution, and second chances," Sarah Chen says of TNOTF.

Jennifer Hillier, author of the successful novels CREEP, FREAK, THE BUTCHER and WONDERLAND, ties this collection together with a dark and intriguing tale. Jennifer, whose latest book JAR OF HEARTS will be available June 12, 2018, is known for her wicked way with words, so this promises to be a tremendous read.

The exceptional contributors include; Rob Brunet (STINKING RICH,) Gwen Florio (DISGRACED.) Elizabeth Heiter (SEIZED,) J.J. Hensley (CHALK’S OUTLINE,) Jennifer Hillier (WONDERLAND,) Shannon Kirk (METHOD 15/33,) Sarah M. Chen (CLEANING UP FINN,) Wendy Tyson (A MUDDIED MURDER,) E.A. Aymar (YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD,) Jenny Milchman (AS NIGHT FALLS,) Angel Colon (NO HAPPY ENDINGS,) Mark Edwards (THE LUCKY ONES,) Alan Orloff (RUNNING FROM THE PAST,) Hilary Davidson (BLOOD ALWAYS TELLS.) With an introduction from bestseller Hank Phillippi Ryan (SAY NO MORE.)

THE NIGHT OF THE FLOOD will be available March 5, 2018. You can pre-order your copy today.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A New Year's Goals, Not Resolutions

We’re a week into the new year, and have I made any resolutions yet? Nope. I’ve never really been into that sort of thing. I think that’s because I’m very aware that life can throw you curveballs – good and bad – and to navigate them requires a certain amount of flexibility that a resolution doesn’t give you. (You pass or you fail. The end.) 
Resolutions: Carved in stone.
Now I do have goals for the coming year. Finish the book I’m writing and start another one. Train the new puppy. Go to crime fiction conferences. Plant a garden.
But notice how those are goals, and not set-in-stone promises? Maybe I’ll decide to enroll in classes that will use up my budget for conferences. Maybe I’ll break my leg and be unable to plant that garden.
(Okay, I’ll admit that the puppy training isn't something that can be modified or exchanged for something different. It must be done. She’s currently gnawing on my slipper.)
I don’t like being pinned down, and I’ve always felt that resolutions do that. So instead, I’ll go into 2018 with some flexible goals and an appreciative anticipation of the unexpected.