Sunday, May 30, 2021


By Claire Booth

Things I’m looking forward to this summer:

The continuation of Lupin, the French-language heist thriller (June 11 on Netflix; it’s officially Part 2 of Season 1. Whatever. Just watch it. My review of Part 1 is here.)

Finishing Money Heist, the Spanish thriller I just started binging. I’m late to the party and still only on Season 1 (there are four). So far it’s perfect high-stakes, slick-criminals summer viewing.

The Underground Railroad, limited series (out now on Amazon Prime). Colson Whitehead’s book, on which the series is based, was phenomenal. And Barry Jenkins directs.

In the Heights, in theaters June 11. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Enough said.

Black Widow, in theaters and Disney + Premium July 9. This one has an asterisk. Black Widow is one of my least favorite characters in the Marvel Universe and this could be junk. I’ll see what the reviews say before I commit . . .

Jungle Cruise, in theaters July 30. Dwayne Johnson. Emily Blunt. Could be junk. Almost guaranteed to be ridiculous. Will I still see it? Yes. Guaranteed.

Even the poster is deliciously ridiculous!

Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story. (out now)

The Other Black Girl, the debut novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris (June 1)

Finally digging into Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies that Delivered the Opioid Epidemic, by Eric Eyre. (out now) It won the Edgar for Best True Crime this year and has been in my to-be-read stack for a while.

The Eviction of Hope, a crime anthology. (out now)

Laura Lippman’s latest, Dream Girl. (June 22)

And wrapping up the summer, as always, with Louise Penny. The Madness of Crowds (Aug. 24)

And a few non-media things:

Sending my children to camp

Eating at a restaurant (inside even!)

Bouchercon. I get to list this because, while normally it’s held in the fall, this year takes place August 25-29. In New Orleans. So … hot and sticky and hurricane season. But also … people and friends and panels and jazz and travel and socializing. Heaven.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

100 Days: The Summer of Productivity


Scott D. Parker

Here in the US, every new president is judged by what he does in his first one hundred days. It harkens back to 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt entered office in the midst of the Great Depression and accomplished a dizzying amount of laws and regulations in a little over three months. Every subsequent president is measured by that same yardstick even though most haven't experienced the dire circumstances FDR faced. Still, everyone does it and it has become standard. In fact, it shaped President Biden's early agenda, with his administration's efforts all focused on that date.

For us creatives, having bookends by which to measure our creativity is also a good thing, but how often do we start something on any given day and then have to mark a calendar at our desired end point? Often, we literally count days on a paper calendar and do the math in our heads.

But summers provide us with obvious an obvious beginning and an obvious ending. Memorial Day kicks off the summer vibe while Labor Day concludes it. What happens in between is defined as 'summer.' It doesn't matter that summer's heat extends--at least here in Houston--into September and October. What matters is a codifed set of days that counts as perhaps the best time of the year. Yeah, the holiday season is great, too, and it is the most wonderful time of the year, but over the past decade or so, I have really started to enjoy summer. The low-key vibe, the refreshing cocktails, the grilling of anything, the summer movie blockbusters, the beach reads. It's just a great time to kick back and just take it easy.

It is also a time to work and be productive.

For those of us for whom their creative job is second to a day job, our productivity is parceled out among our day job responsibilities. It's why I wake in the 5am hour on weekdays to write and, when I'm at the office, write during lunch on my Chromebook. While doing the creative thing isn't that different during the summer than any other time of year, with a definate beginning and end, the summer season has, by default, a running clock. A countdown if you will. Labor Day can be your deadline. It's real and set in stone and everyone knows it.

So that's why I have, in the past few years, used summer as a time of greater productivity. Often I start and end something fresh. This year, however, I'm still laboring over my current work in progress, so the primary goal of summer 2021 is to complete that manuscript. And publish my next novel. 

Those are my tentpole objectives in the Summer of 2021.

What are yours?

Note: You get a 100 days if you start today. It's 99 if you start tomorrow and 98 if you start Monday. I'm not counting Labor Day as a work day. That'll be a day of celebration for completing that which you accomplished this summer.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Five Easy Rules To Liking Things.

By Jay Stringer

It's been too long since my last confession. 

I've gone through a lot of changes in the last couple of years, some conscious, some less so. I made the decision to re-wire how I engage with media. And in this sense, I'm using the word 'media' to avoid using the word 'art.' 

I realised I was done with analysis culture. But what is analysis culture? To me, it started to feel like a nothing that was taking up everything. The idea of not just engaging with the art or entertainment itself, but also with a whole small industry of things that came with it. Podcasts and think-pieces digging down into each small aspect of the art, exposing 'flaws' discussing casting, talking about structure, critiquing the acting or writing. 

I was an early adopter of podcasts. Going through a marriage breakup back around 2005, I found myself with a lot of spare time, and I had an iPod with a whole category dedicated to 'podcasts' and....what the hell was that? Well, I also had the internet and plugged my iPod into charge when I got home from work each day, so I found out. And I was hooked. Every random taste or subculture I'd been on the fringes of when I was young -and each bringing with it some trek into the city, or obscure bar, or digging around on newsgroups- was starting to coalesce around these weird little radio shows. Except they weren't radio shows, because you couldn't find them on the dial. You had to know in advance what you wanted to listen to, and download them in preparation. And there didn't seem to be any rules. Some people talked for two hours, some people stuck to rigid 45-minute formats. I could hang out with my favourite comic book writers, obscure musicians, screenwriters, or believers in cryptids. And comedians. Oh god, the comedians. Stand-up was possibly my first entertainment love, and suddenly there was this whole world out there where I could listen to comedians talking to each other, breaking down their bits, using their secret language. It was like a drug. 

I was an early adopter of podcasts in crime fiction, too. Here at DSD we began hosting a semi-regular podcast that was supposed to be focused on crime fiction, but usually broke down into long conversations about Doctor Who or comic books. And in this genre we got in near the start. This was over a decade ago now, when there had been Clute & Edwards and Seth Hardwood and...that was about it. 

For a whole generation of people who embraced this era, it's never enough just to watch a forty-five minute episode of television, we need to download the podcast where other fans talk about it as they're experts of writing and producing television, and then rush to see what Alan Sepinwall thought about it. 24/7, 365, for years. Heads full of voices of people discussing a thing. 

You know what? I don't really know what it takes to make a forty-five minute episode of TV. I'm not a screenwriter. I'm not an actor. I'm not a director or producer. I'm not a Best Boy. As a Bike Courier I could probably make claim to using enough gaffer tape to be a Gaffer. So why did I keep filling my head with people who wanted to pretend they were? And not just them, why was I doing it too?

Why did I keep coming back to podcasting and discussing films that I couldn't make, or football matches that I couldn't play, or books I didn't write? How many times in the past forever had I sat breaking apart movies or tv shows or comic books and discussing what worked and what didn't as if taste could be an exact science? Surely I either liked the thing, or I didn't like it, and did I need to spend more time on it than that? 

Why did I want to get into discussions about how to write books, when that was time spent not writing books? And I knew I could write books because I was writing them.

I was a big fan of professional wrestling when I was younger. It's big modern mythology. It's working class opera. It's ballet with punches. It's roots go back to the carnival sub-culture, and it's a world with hidden rules and a secret language. For a kid like me? Catnip. Then I grew up and started to see all the things wrong in the WWE, the bad working practices, the racism, the sexism. Not only that, but my two favourite wrestlers in my late teens and early twenties were Eddy Guerrero and Chris Benoit and....well, time was not kind. So I walked away for a long time. Dipping in occasionally when someone I'd liked back in the day was doing something of note, but always coming away with a sour taste about that fucking company. Then AEW launched. A new company, with the financial backing to actually stick around and make a go of it. And they signed a bunch of wrestlers I'd never heard of, along with some I knew. They had big bold claims of being modern and progressive. And...well, look, in the weird carnival world of wrestling, no promotion will ever be fully progressive and they'll all make mistakes...but on the whole, they delivered. The shows were fun. The style was more high-flying and acrobatic than I was used to, and wrestling is clearly in a different place stylistically to what I grew up on, but I learned and adapted and had a blast. Each week now I look forward to tuning into the show and having fun. And in this past year, we've all needed some fun, right? 

But then the old habits kicked in. It wasn't enough just to tune in and have fun. I needed to listen to podcasts about each episode. And week after week, show after show, I'd come in hot after having FUN for two hours and then be pulled down by listening to men (always men) of my own age (roughly) who never wrestled, all talking about things AEW was doing 'wrong'. 

And finally it clicked. Why was I doing this to myself? Why was I filling my head with these voices? I have enough problem with controlling my own dark thoughts and anxious worries, why drown them out with other peoples? 

So I stopped. I deleted these podcasts. And others. Comedy, comic books, movies. Any that were about 'analysis' and not just about presenting some entertainment. Any that were backseat driving. Any that were about discussing doing a thing and not doing the thing. 

I trace a lot of this change back to doing stand-up. Most of the ways my writing (and my engagement with art, and my mental health) have changed in recent years go back to getting up on stage in Glasgow and telling jokes. Because, sure, I was a craft guy. I spent hours thinking about the jokes and how they worked. What they were about. What they meant. But the thing is...when you're up there on the mic, saying a thing and knowing that at the end of the sentence you're going to leave a silence that will be filled either with laughter or a much louder silence, all that matters is whether the crowd liked it or not. The work stood or fell in that moment. 

Paul Westerberg refused to have the lyrics printed in early Replacements albums because he wanted people to listen and react, because rock and roll was something that happened not something you read. And as a young fan that annoyed me because I loved lyrics, and I wanted to analyse things. But finally, way too late to make a difference, I get the point. 

See...the moment is what matters. Human beings live in emotion, moment to moment. Good art gets emotional reactions in the moment. Good "ring psychology" in wrestling is whatever gets the crowd on their feet. My job as a writer is to get people top feel. My job as a viewer of entertainment is to feel, or not feel. And there's not really any analysis culture I need beyond that. 

I liked it, or I didn't like it. I had fun, or I didn't. I'm a human being who formed an emotional reaction to a thing. Then I can move on to forming an emotional reaction with the next thing. 

Wait....I forgot to write the five easy rules, didn't I? Eh. There's only two. Enjoy it. Be in the moment. 

Beau digs Cannibals


This week, Beau revisits Jen Conley's Cannibals.

“Conley is a wonderful, gutsy writer and her characters ring true, though that won’t help them. They keep getting tripped up by life or by their own poor decisions. And then, every so often, life takes a dip in hope. And when that happens nothing else matters.” — Karen Heuler, author The Inner City.

“Every time I start a new short by Jen Conley, I know I’m in for a treat. Her stories are so good that, even after they hit you in the gut and leave a bruise, you’re thankful for it — so an entire collection is a real gift.” — Rob Hart, author of New Yorked and City of Rose.

Jen Conley’s fiction is quite simply put: masterful. Dark, smart, and deeply emotional; I defy any reader to walk away from her stories unshaken. — Angel Luis Colón, author of The Fury of Blacky Jaguar.

“It’s impossible not to be impressed with Jen Conley’s fiction. You’re destined to have something in her work stay with you, like a scar you lovingly touch over the years. The stories in Cannibals are proof that Conley’s not just one of the best crime fiction writers around, but one of the best writers around, period.” — E.A. Aymar, author of The Dead trilogy, Managing Editor, The Thrill Begins.

Get yours

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Murder in a Belgian Town: The Break

1. A city cop in semi-disgrace after a case gone bad relocates to a small town in the country to resume his career.

2. Young widowhood for the same cop, which leaves him as the sole caretaker for a teenage daughter.

3. A degree of apparent mental instability in this same cop.

4. A lovely-looking small town, the one that the cop moved to, where the murder that is at the heart of the story takes place.

5. Multiple suspects

6. Many red herrings

7. A big financial deal that would involve damning the town's lifeblood, a pristine river.  It is a deal that would benefit the town's mayor and some outside big money interests but which some in the town, though they would be compensated for the loss of their land that would result from the deal, strongly oppose.

Do all of these elements, tropes, whatever you want to call them, sound familiar? Alone or in combination, everyone who likes mysteries has encountered them in series, books, movies countless times. And every single one of them, as I describe them here, make up the Belgian crime series The Break, whose first season (there are two), ten episodes, I recently finished watching. 

The Break is a textbook example of how to use the familiar to make something that works very well.  The setting doesn't hurt; the central village is in the forested Ardennes region of Belgium, which is gorgeous, yes, but also one, at least to me, that is a fresh setting for a crime story.  

Police detective Yoann Peters has moved from Brussels to the Ardennes and his childhood hometown of Heiderfeld after something he did on a case in the city went terribly wrong.  There are actually two mysteries going on throughout the episodes.  One is the murder in the town, which Peters investigates with local police, and the other is what is going on in Peter's unreliable mind.  The psychological mystery portion unfolds through sessions Peter is having in a hospital with a state-mandated psychiatrist after the events of the small-town murder mystery have played out.  So there is a good bit going on and there are jumps back in forth in time, though everything unfolds with utter smoothness and clarity.

Episode one starts with a dead body found in the town's river.  I happen to be watching The Mare of Easttown right now as well, and so I couldn't but think of the Kate Winslet series when I saw this on The Break.  It even brought to mind Twin Peaks, which kicks off in a similar way.  And yet with The Break, for a change, unlike with so many of these type shows, we don't get the body of a dead young girl that's found but the body of a man, and that man happened to be a young black guy named Driss who had emigrated from Africa, Togo, to play soccer in Europe.  In Heiderfeld, where he was adapting to life as best he could, living alone in a rooming house run by an old Belgian guy (who has secrets we learn of), he had become one of the main players on the town's soccer club.

What develops is a wonderfully dark, sinuous mystery that uses the town as a kind of microcosm for Europe.  A number of pathologies lurk here, some historical, some social, some economic, some sexual, some related to race specifically, and as Peters investigates, he comes across and interrogates a number of people who could have been the ones, or one, who murdered Driss. We learn a lot about Driss in retrospect -- he comes fully alive in the flashback glimpses of him -- and when you see the scenes of him skyping back to his family home in Togo, telling his brother and mother how excited he is to have gotten to Europe to play soccer and to be able to send them back money, you will feel a wrenching sadness.  This series has a lot of tension and an emotional punch.  And that quite a few people in Heiderfeld know they did Driss wrong is beautifully conveyed by how almost all the episodes begin, with someone dreaming of Driss in a dream that turns into a nightmare.  A person came to their town to make a better life and somebody killed him and what happened to that person and what it says about their town haunts them.

Last thing I'll say is that in terms of its mystery, The Break plays totally fair with viewers, presenting a culprit in the last episode who has been in plain view the entire time.  No last minute twists or unexpected unveilings occur here.

It's on Netflix, and I'm looking forward to Season 2.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

It Took a Pandemic to Appreciate NCIS

By Claire Booth

I’m sure we’ve all had guilty viewing pleasures during the pandemic. Now that we’re really, honestly coming out of lockdown and getting back to some kind of normal, I thought I’d fess up to one of mine. Pre-Covid, I wouldn’t have been caught dead watching NCIS. There was so much other – better – stuff to watch with my limited time. And then time was suddenly unlimited and every entertainment option but TV was impossible.

I watched everything I’d been meaning to on Netflix and we were still under stay-at-home orders. I watched a few episodes and then it was just on. On in the background, on while making dinner, on when I didn’t have the brainpower for anything that required thought or engagement.

And that’s not a dig at the show. At all. There is a huge solace in comfort food – whether it’s eating chocolate cake, or rereading Agatha Christie, or watching Mark Harmon. Familiar, satisfying, easy.

NCIS checks all the boxes. It has a consistent rhythm and a fairly steady cast, so there are no developments that are too jarring or uneven. It has enough death of key characters to keep things interesting. You don’t have to pay close attention to pick up on the plots. It never takes itself too seriously (I’m talking to you – self-important, pseudo-philosophical Criminal Minds). And it’s endless. Eighteen seasons and counting. 

That rare longevity on broadcast TV has been fueled in large part, I think, by viewers old enough to remember watching Harmon as quarterback for the UCLA Bruins. But I don’t think it’s senior citizens who catapulted the show to the top of 2020’s most streamed list. It came in fourth, with more than 28 billion minutes streamed. I have to think that many of those minutes were watched by people like me. In search of a little comfort food.

Director Vance and Gibbs, probably saving the world or something.