Saturday, July 31, 2021

Fan Backlash in the Mystery Community


Scott D. Parker

Last week, I watched the first five episode of Masters of the Universe: Revelation. Kevin Smith served as the showrunner. He’s a (seemingly) beloved member of the geek community who made movies lots of geek boys and girls enjoyed, but the reaction (among some) to the new MOTU (as the cool kids refer to Masters of the Universe) series was, um, over the top?

I had never seen any of Smith’s films until 2019 when I watched them all. Having been introduced to his style of filmmaking and immensely enjoying the banter between Smith and co-host Marc Bernardin on the Fatman Beyond podcast, I was going to give MOTU: Revelation a look. I had never seen anything MOTU in its forty-year life, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But that got me thinking about the mystery community and if there were any properties, characters, or franchises that generated that kind of vitriol. Honestly, I could think of few if any. Well, until a month ago.

Sherlock Holmes

Two of the biggest reactions that come to mind involves Sherlock Holmes. Back in 2009 when the Robert Downey, Jr. film came out, folks had a few things to say about Downey’s interpretation of the famed detective. As I wrote in my review of the movie, Downey merely went back to the original source material—A Study in Scarlet—to get his inspiration. Don’t blame him. Blame Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for not following up on concepts he originally wrote in 1887.

Cut to ELEMENTARY, the CBS TV show that dared to gender swap Watson. If Jeremy Brett’s version of Holmes is my favorite traditional version of the character, then Johnny Lee Miller’s interpretation is my favorite non-traditional version. And Lucy Liu as Watson more than held her own. In this show, both characters were allowed to grow and evolve, something the original Doyle version didn’t do.

The Shadow

Perhaps the closest in terms of reactions to MOTU is fans of The Shadow.

I’m not sure if you knew this or not but James Patterson has written a new Shadow novel and die-hard fans of the character are losing their minds. Granted, I’ve not read it yet, but fans are chastising Patterson’s choices at just about every turn. I’ll reserve final judgement until I’ve actually read the novel, but I always hang my hat on a standard thought: if The New Thing (which might not be 100% accurate to the original) gets new readers/viewers interested in the Original Thing and go back and read/watch the original, is that a bad thing?

Other Mystery Properties

I know of but haven’t read any of the Ace Atkins-penned continuations of the Spencer novels originally written by Robert B. Parker. Still, I can’t remember any blogger or YouTuber going out into the world and bitching about it.

I know Max Allen Collins continued Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories, but Collins was specifically selected by the late Spillane to continue the work. I can’t remember anyone complaining. It’s more Mike Hammer!

I think, but can’t confirm, that there’s a Hercule Poirot continuation.

Did anyone complain when John Gardner started writing new James Bond novels? 

There might be more, but I think you get the point. By and large, and to the best of my knowledge, mystery fans don’t have a cow when a new person carries on the legacy of an established property. 

No Ruining of Our Respective Childhoods


Well, possibly it’s because many of these beloved characters we discovered are first read as adults, Holmes being the likely exception. There’s no danger of someone like Garnder “ruining our childhoods” by making Bond do something different than original author Ian Fleming. Heck, the movies already did that. 

I’m pretty sure mystery fans loved their characters just as much as geek boys and gals love MOTU or Star Wars, so why isn’t there an outcry when an old property is given new life?

I don’t have the answer, but what are your thoughts?

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Another quick read from Beau


This week, Beau takes a look at Robert McCammon's Swan Song.

An ancient evil roams the desolate landscape of an America ravaged by nuclear war.

He is the Man with the Scarlet Eye, a malevolent force that feeds on the dark desires of the countless followers he has gathered into his service. His only desire is to find a special child named Swan—and destroy her. But those who would protect the girl are determined to fight for what is left of the world, and their souls.

In a wasteland born of rage, populated by monstrous creatures and marauding armies, the last survivors on earth have been drawn into the final battle between good and evil that will decide the fate of humanity.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Writer Meets Writer

Stories about exchanges or encounters between writers are often fascinating. They can illuminate strongly held but contrasting views on life, art, creativity, political engagement and on and on.  At the moment, I'm reading Glenn Frankel's excellent new book called Shooting Midnight Cowboy, about the making of the 1969 film, and in it, Frankel provides a good deal of information about the life of James Leo Herlihy, the novelist who wrote the book on which the film is based. 

Well before he wrote Midnight Cowboy, when he was a college student in the late 1940s, Herlihy met the writer Anais Nin, still obscure herself then but known in certain literary circles. Nin was 44, a good twenty-four years older than Herlihy, and with her reputation and charisma, he was thrilled to develop a friendship with her and to discuss writing.  Frankel describes a conversation they had that I found interesting:

Nin asked him what kind of writer he wanted to be. He cited Upon Sinclair's politically radical, muckraking novel The Jungle as a model.  He wanted to 'write  a book about how cruel we are to one another, a book that tells that in such a way that the whole world will cry.'

And what about you? he asked her in return.  Her answer stunned him: "I want to contribute to the world one fulfilled person -- myself."

For Herlihy, as Frankel describes it, this talk apparently set off in him a "life-long doublemindedness".  In his words, "There was a part of me that wanted to do something for the world, and part of me that wanted to understand what it meant to be a fulfilled individual."

Not that both aren't possible and not that writing about topical social issues and problems can't bring internal fulfillment.  For many writers, clearly, it does.  But what this writer meets writer encounter does get at is the tension that often plays out between a writer's need and desire to engage with the world and make statements about its evils and injustices and cruelties and what might be a pull towards a more inner-directed writing that addresses the writer's internal needs, the tensions within the writer's imagination. 

Both approaches in isolation or ovemphasized have their dangers. On the one hand, with the "I want to make a statement approach", you can get didacticism or a too heavy moralism or just obviousness about a topic.  On the other hand, with the "let me fulfill myself approach", you run the risk of navel-gazing and becoming so wrapped up in your creation and what it means to you that connection with the reader suffers. At worst, you lose the reader.  Fusing the two approaches, if that's a goal, is a challenge, but when that's achieved, the reader can feel it. The writer then has written about something meaningful to themselves and relevant to the world at large.  That writer has found a form he or she enjoyed creating, that brought pleasure to make. The ardor and pleasure behind the book comes across to the reader who gets into a narrative they find that they want to follow.  That doesn't mean the narrative has to be easy for the reader -- there's nothing wrong with making a reader work a little when dealing with a story -- and it doesn't have to be in any particular genre. But however this challenge is handled, the writer has to, as the saying goes, make his or her obsessions the reader's own, whether those obsessions are focused primarily on the outside world and its topical issues or the writer's internal world, which may have much weirdness in it. 

Herlihy and Nin. Writer meets writer, and an interesting contrast of views takes place.  More of these kinds of encounters I come across, if they're interesting enough, I'll post to talk about.


Sunday, July 25, 2021

Getting the Knives Out

By Claire Booth

I’m in the final stages of editing my latest manuscript. It needs to go to my editor this coming week. And this is what it boils down to:

Killing characters is easy. It’s killing words that’s hard.

I’ve trimmed and tightened and now it’s down to slicing off the last bits that aren’t absolutely essential to the story. More often than not, these are my favorites. A turn of phrase here, a witty piece of dialogue there. Slice. Backstory pieces that don’t contribute to the plot. Chop. A great joke about the dog. Gone.

This is the most painful part of the process for me, which I suppose is why I leave it until the end. If you’re a writer, how hard is it for you to kill your darlings?

Saturday, July 24, 2021

New Week's Day: Resetting Your Life One Week at a Time

Scott D. Parker

Sunday mornings have become like New Year’s Day.

For most of 2021, Sunday mornings have developed their own rituals, and the end result has been weekly resolutions.

Monday through Friday have their own schedules. I wake usually between 5:00 and 5:15 and set to work on the latest story. Since last Monday, I’ve been re-reading and reviewing a collaboration with a fellow author. I should finish that up this week and I’ll send it back to him for a final polish and publication soon. When I’m working from home, come 6:25 am, I have to stop the personal work to get ready for the day job. Now, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m going back to the office so that getting-ready schedule is back by half an hour.

Saturdays are the fun mornings. I still wake earlier than everybody else in the house—7:15 or so—in order to have the quiet all to myself. I head on out to Shipley’s do-nuts and buy the same two do-nuts I’ve been eating for over forty years—cherry iced and cherry filled. It’s my big indulgence every week. Coupled with coffee and scrambled eggs, I eat breakfast and watch something no one in the house wants to watch. It was WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier during their runs and, for the past two weeks, it’s been the first two films of the Fast and the Furious franchise. Yeah, I’m just getting around to them. After the family wakes, I head on outside for lawn mowing and whatever else needs doing before jetting off to Trader Joe’s.

And then there are Sundays. I’m a church goer and always have been. During the pandemic, my Methodist church streamed the services live and I shifted from the 11:00 service back to the 9:30 service. That gave me time to participate in the service and then catch The Brady Bunch on MeTV. I’m returning to church in person now, so I’m back to the later service.

But before I get ready for church, I wake around 7:15 and have the quiet house to myself. It’s not like Saturdays. I’m not waking to watch something. I’m waking to read and work. I do a chapter of the Bible everyday—reading through the Apocrypha for the first time ever—and then I start working on my personal projects.

That’s not all I do on Sunday mornings, however. Sunday mornings have become a time to reset. Part of the morning is to review the emails that have accumulated over the week, the ones I didn’t instantly react to, the ones I set aside thinking at the time they were important but didn’t have the time to address them during the other six days of the week. With a clearer head, I will either read and respond or realize I could have deleted them earlier. It’s amazing was a culled email inbox will do for the mind.

Soon after the mind’s cleared, I think back on the past week. How did it go? How well did the personal projects do? How about those day job assignments? Also, the personal interactions. I live with my wife and nineteen-year-old son plus two dogs and a cat. Did any of the humans get into a disagreement over something? What great thing did we do this past week? How’s life going? How well did I eat? How much exercise did I get? Was there anything I wanted to do but didn’t? If so, why?

What these questions do for me is center my mind. I constantly analyze my life to find ways to improve on it. Diet and exercise is a big motivator now that I’m in my fifties. Also the writer life and career. The personal stuff with my family is often a day-to-day thing, but on Sundays, I consider the week as a whole.

Almost always, when the time comes for me to shower and get ready for church, my mind is cleansed. More importantly, however, I have a new set of drivers for the week ahead. Resolutions, if you will.

Like this week. I am going to eat as little processed sugar as possible and just see how the body feels. Also, I plan to complete the review of the collaboration and then get back to my latest book. I’m going to make my day job work better by striving to complete certain assignments in a more streamlined manner. It’ll improve my efficiency and I’ll get more projects out the door. I’m also going to resolve to leave the common areas of our house free from my own personal clutter. I’m talking the latest magazine folded open to the page I’m reading. Ditto for the history book I’m reading, the novel, and the comics I bought at Houston’s Comicpalooza over the weekend. I’m going to do one small thing that’ll help not only myself feel better about the house, but also help the wife and boy.

These weekly resolutions enable to me tweak habits and experiences along the way. New Year’s resolutions are fine and important, but they often get forgotten by the end of January to say nothing of May, September, or December. When you shrink the time down to a week, I can easily remember last week. It gives me the chance to adjust things along the way. And it serves as a positive reminder that if events of the coming week foil my plans, I’ll have another New Week’s Day the following Sunday. That reassurance is a key factor in always picking me up each Sunday morning and helping me face the coming week.

Have you tried weekly resolutions? You should. Pick a day and make that your New Week’s Day. Then you get to make some New Week’s Resolutions and see how you do. I suspect you’ll find the results more than satisfying. And, if you need more incentive, you’ll also get a New Week’s Eve

Friday, July 23, 2021

Nothing Always Happens - The Story of the Doormats, the second-best band of all time.

 By Jay Stringer. 

Rock and roll needs rivalries. It's part of the basic tribal make-up of the genre. Us vs them. Us against the world. The idea off riding with your chosen gang, come what may. And sure, people like to reach for easy comparisons like the Beatles vs the Rolling Stones, or Blur vs Oasis. But all of those bands won, in their own way. The real bittersweet magic is when two bands are locked in a competition that they can't both win. Take the Replacements, paired early on in an indie-band rivalry with R.E.M, the Stones vs the Beatles of the independent labels. And one side categorically won that fight. The duality of success and failure adds something to the story.

There was no more bitter rivalry in music around the turn of the millennium than the one that came to define the whole New York scene for a hot minute. The internet was young. Old media still had it's power, and in music the magazines of the 70's still felt like the real deal. But the new avenues opened up by the internet created opportunities for myth making, for reputations to spread faster than they ever could have back in the sweaty old days of tour vans and sleeping on dirty floors. Someone had to be the first. The one chosen band to capitalise on this perfect moment in time, and break through into the mainstream as cool throwbacks. And the two contenders were the Strokes and the Doormats. History tells us who won. 

The Strokes had the right photograph taken at the right time, looking for all the world like upstart kids from somewhere around 1978, rather than talented hipsters who owned a Tom Petty album. The hidden joke in this famous photograph is that, if the camera had been turned 90 degrees to the right, the snap might have caught the real deal, the Doormats, sitting in a drunken and stoned haze, shouting insults at their rivals. But the Doormats refused to be photographed that day, and it cost them. 

The Doormats were really the first act to recognise the potential of the internet for fanning the flames of a reputation that outstripped their experience. Working a string of packed clubs across the Tri-State area, and affecting a cool distain for the internet, and refusing to do interviews, they built a legend fast. The coolest band in town, the best gig in town, the most drunk band in town. Somehow, despite a growing affinity for inebriation, they always managed to pull it together on stage, never having any of the flame-out performances that had defined the Replacements in the previous generation. With shows that regularly lasted two-and-a-half hours, they delivered value for money even while seeming for all the word to not value your money. 

Perhaps the earliest, and most successful, myth around the group was that they were even a New York band at all. The drummer, Edgar, and the lead singer, Dave Ash, both hailed from Minneapolis. The bass player, Todd Flambé, was really a classically-trained jazz pianist from a family of stockbrokers, successfully rebranding himself at college as a leather-clad Johnny Thunders throwback. 

Ash was always the standout of the group. He had that doomed quality that defines songwriters like Kurt Cobain and Paul Westerberg, the fact that two things can be equally true at once: both the urgent need to be the star of the show and the desperate wish to slink into the shadows. Born to crave and despise success in equal measure. But he owned the stage every night, for north of two hours, and nobody in the crowd really cared about the toll it was taking on him emotionally. 

Ash's songwriting was the driving force of the band. Known for his sly, mocking lyrics that hid bruised emotions underneath, "I used to love her, but now she's blonde. But then she waves like a magic wand. I don't believe me." Or moments of earnestness wrapped up in throwaway humour. "I walked a thousand miles, down every wrong road, but wore my favourite shoes." And moments of startling darkness. "You've got heaven in your eyes, it only shines when you cry.

They came roaring out of the gate on a fun and sloppy debut album, Hot To Trot. 24 minutes of fun, attitude, and mixed emotions. The short running time was taken as a challenge. Right in the middle of the CD era, when music was no longer 'limited' by what could fit on a slab of vinyl, and albums were starting to creep above seventy minutes. The Doormats drew a line in the sand and said enough. And, for a band who could play three hours of original material each night, it served as the perfect marketing approach. A short sample of what would be on offer. None of the songs could have been described as guaranteed hits, but through all of them were clear signs that Ash had some mainstream sensibilities just waiting for the chance to break out. 

Those mainstream sensibilities came to the fore in their second album, Legends of the Mall, released two months before the Strokes dropped Is This It. The lead single became the closest thing the Doormats ever had to a real breakthrough hit. The driving, bass-heavy anthem Runaway Town topped out at 34 on the Billboard singles chart. There was a growing sense that the stale pop charts were ready for a return to indie rock, and label execs at Warners were convinced they had the band to do it. The trouble was, the more money they pumped into promoting the album, the more the band seemed at odds with its own ethos. Everyone had been right, the time was ripe for that breakthrough act. Unfortunately for the Doormats, the spot went to the Strokes. 

The increased spend from the label also brought extra pressures, most of which fell on the shoulders of Dave Ash. Todd just enjoyed playing bass in a band and partying in Brooklyn. Edgar saw rock and roll as a means to an end, the thing he was doing on the way to developing a career as a painter. But Ash was the one who needed a hit. He was the one who needed to prove he could write and sing songs that the mainstream wanted to hear. And, like many young songwriters before him, he dealt with the pressure through self-medication. Drugs. Alcohol. He began ticking off each and every rock star cliche, up to and including a marriage to a divisive public figure, reality-tv star Louisa Mantalos. 

In the middle of all this, and with the Strokes soaring away to worldwide success in a slot Ash was justified in thinking was supposed to be his, the band hit the studio to try and find a third album. The result  became both their masterpiece, and greatest failure. 

Ash channelled his problems into his work, crafting the best songs of his career. The juvenile wordplay was ditched in favour of wry confessions, and the freewheeling nature of the trio's music was replaced by something more somber. Acoustic guitars were brought higher in the mix, bouncing off the fuzz-heavy electric guitars to create a distinctive sound that filled our ears with the double-edged emotions Ash had been living with for so long. Leading off with the title single, a bittersweet anthem to confusion set to a radio-friendly riff, the band were now walking a very different path to their greatest rivals. "Don't ask me for flowers, or other things that die. Don't ask me if the fall will hurt, I don't want to tell you lies. We're here for nothing. For nothing. Nothing always happens."  There was something almost wilful about how far the band veered away from any chance of success, while turning in their best work. The album bombed. 

The label hadn't officially given up on the band. The sunk cost fallacy wouldn't allow them to do that. They'd already lost too much money to not try and lose more. But they weren't going to sit back and let them do things their own way. Ash was heavily man-managed through the process, in addition to being frog-marched into rehab before the recording process began. To avoid losing control, the label shipped in a roster of session musicians, with the Doormats themselves only all appearing together on three tracks. this loss of chemistry was apparent in the songs, and also appeared to break the connection between the three bandmates, with their previously-legendary touring schedule thinning out to just a handful of dates over the next year. The shows themselves were now usually clocking in at around 90 minutes. The release was packaged more as a solo album, with the Doormats name feeling more like a contractual obligation. 

They almost accidentally had a hit. Two songs off the album were featured on low-budget indie films that became unexpected box office and critical darlings, giving the band themselves a second wind as hipster darlings. But the damage had already been done to their working relationship, and the next time we heard Ash it was as a solo act, with slick production and soft-focus photography, showing up on the soundtracks to teen drama tv shows and animated movies. 

Which would have been a strange enough ending for the story of the second-best band of all time, if not for one last cruel twist. Ash went missing six months ago. He got a taxi home from a recording studio, across the river into Manhattan, and dropped off the face of the earth. Nobody knows where he went. Or why. We can only hope that, wherever he is, he's feeling happier and healthier in his skin. 

"My mind slows, attentions come and go, but my heart stays." - Dave Ash.

This post is fiction. The Doormats aren't real. They're featured in my upcoming mystery novel Don't Tell a Soul, released July 26th. If you want to find out what happened to Dave Ash, pre-order a copy now in ebook or paperback.

 Epub Quick Links: AppleAmazon USAmazon UK. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Catching up with Beau


This week, it's time to catch up with what Beau has been reading recently.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Women Who Kill

"So, Morgan, who is your pick?

 "Hottest female serial killer ever.  That's a tough call."

"Kristen Gilbert had that whole boring thing going on that's kind of hot, but Myra Hindley had great style."

"She did. She really did. My vote is for Josephine 'The Clipper' Walker.  Great bone structure, into personal hygiene, highly intelligent."

"Sounds like me."

"Highly intelligent."

"Cool.  So I'm going to go out on a limb, as they say, and put my money on Countess Bathory, even though it's really hard to tell what she looks like."

"Well, you've always been into mystery."

"And yet I dated you."

So goes the exchange between the two women doing a podcast that forms the opening scene of Women Who Kill, a 2016 film, directed by Ingrid Jungermann, that I caught up with recently while watching a slew of romantic comedies for the film talks series I do each week in Manhattan during the summers.  I say romantic comedy, because the film, yes, is that in part, but it's also what you might call a laid-back, though tense and suspenseful, thriller.  The two women doing the podcast, Morgan and Jean, have recently ended a relationship, but they still work together and share an apartment together in Brooklyn.  

Josephine Walker, one of their contenders for hottest female serial killer ever, is nicknamed "The Clipper" because of the toenail clippings she would take as souvenirs from her victims.  When Morgan, at her food coop, meets a dark mysterious woman named Simone, she is enamored of her, and these two start a relationship.  But as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that mysterious Simone may, in fact, be using a false name and that she might be the daughter of Josephine Walker. At least Jean thinks so, though Morgan at first is convinced that Jean is warning her off Simone for reasons having to do with jealousy.  

I don't want to give away too much more of the plot of Women Who Kill because it's a clever and funny one.  Ingrid Jungermann wrote and directed it, besides starring in it, and she has a deadpan way about her that is very funny.  The movie also happens to be, as Jungermann has talked about, a kind of queer riff on Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, a film in which a married couple at a dead end, played by Allen and Diane Keaton, become convinced that their neighbor has murdered his wife and start their own amateur investigation.  As it turns out, the excitement of snooping around and the danger encountered only serves to improve their own relationship.  Jungermann has her own style completely, though, I should emphasize, and is quite trenchant throughout in her observations on love, relationships, self-destructiveness, happiness and unhappiness, and any number of other things. I should add that film has an unexpected and somewhat odd ending, but it's the right one, unsettling and on the cold side.  You watch the closing credits chuckling but feeling a chill, which suits perfectly a film that is a comedy and a romance but doesn't shy away from the dark.  

Ninety-one minutes and it's easy to find for streaming.  You can't go wrong.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Creativity: How a Master Songwriter Does It

By Claire Booth

If my college years had a soundtrack, it was written by Jeff Tweedy. Originally with the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, he went on to start Wilco right smack in the middle of my time in the great music town of Columbia, Missouri, where I saw him perform multiple times with both bands at The Blue Note, one of the best places on God's Green Earth—I’m not kidding here—to see a band.

I’ve seen him perform since, of course, but not often enough. So I was delighted when he showed up as a guest on a podcast I occasionally listen to, The Ezra Klein Show. Turns out that Ezra, when not analyzing politics, is a huge Wilco fan. And he wanted to talk about creativity and what Tweedy says about it in his book How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back.

Tweedy’s specific experience is with songwriting, of course, but what he talked about on the podcast applies equally to fiction writing. For instance:

-      Make it part of your routine

-      Be willing to work at it

-      Take a joy in being bad at it

“Exercise the muscle that pushes the ego out of the way,” he says. That really struck home with me. I’ve often described the switch from non-fiction to fiction writing as learning how to use muscles I didn’t know I had. I had to force them into action in order to get my imagination working. He means it slightly differently and makes a point that’s even more important. Don’t be so full of yourself that you won’t try something you might fail at.

He’ll finish writing a song, even if he thinks he’s not going to like it. “I feel like that frees me up to go to the next song. And so you’ve identified one of the main things, I think, that keeps people from doing creative things, is this idea that it’s bad or that they’re not going to be good at it. And it’s going to hurt to not be good at something. Even today after writing thousands of songs, maybe — I don’t know, at least hundreds of songs — I know that I still have to go through being bad to get to something good.”

“I think people have this mistaken notion that (artists) they admire from the outside, they’ve somehow sidestepped that part of how it works. And I don’t think you ever really do.”

As always, Tweedy is worth listening to. The podcast episode aired July 2, 2021. You can find The Ezra Klein Show wherever you normally get your podcasts.