Saturday, September 18, 2021

Favorite Movies and TV Shows Featuring Railroads


Scott D. Parker

Earlier this week, over at the Western Fictioneers blog, I posted this column. It served as a fun list of my personal favorite movies and TV shows that feature trains, but it also revealed the cover of an upcoming collaboration with David Cranmer, aka Edward A. Grainger.


When you think of what makes a western a western, railroads and trains naturally make it onto the Top 10 list. They may not be in the Top 5, but they certainly play a significant role. I know they did when it came time for me to write my own western stories, especially with the creation of Calvin Carter, Railroad Detective. You see? It's right there in his title.

David and I emerged on the scene more or less at the same time, now over a decade ago. We each ended up creating a western hero. He created Cash Laramie, the Outlaw Marshal, who, along with his partner, Gideon Miles, deal with outlaws and desperadoes wherever they rear their ugly heads. For me, I spawned Calvin Carter, a former actor who, in the course of tracking down the man who killed Carter's father, learned he had a knack for detecting. He often dons disguises and uses his acting abilities to bring a certain amount of flair to the role of his lifetime.

A while back, David suggested we team up our heroes and, after a decade of stops and starts, the first pairing of Cash and Carter will be published this fall. In Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express, owlhoots have hijacked the inaugural run of the fastest train in the west, and it's up to Cash and Miles to retake the train. Unbeknownst to them, Carter is on board, in disguise, as he, too, attempts to thwart the hijackers while saving the passengers, including the renowned actress Lillie Langtry.

David thought it a fun idea if I made a list of favorite trains in movies and TV. I agreed, but then quickly realized something. Not only did my list almost instantly get filled with non-western ideas, but some of the more well known westerns to feature trains were movies or TV shows with which I am not familiar. Thus, you won't find Hell on Wheels on this list because I simply haven't watched it. And while I have watched both versions of 3:10 to Yuma, I can't speak with any authority because I can't remember a lot of the plot. 

So, with these caveats in mind, here's my list.

The Great Train Robbery (1978)

If I'm being honest, this might be the first heist film I ever saw. From the opening of Sean Connery's voiceover explaining how the gold is transported and secured, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if he and his team will pull off the robbery from a moving train. 

Many of the scenes I first saw in my youth remained with me, but two always rose to the top. The ending, when Connery's Pierce, escapes on the police carriage as he was destined for jail, smiling all the way, his arms extended in a sort of bow, really stuck with me. Only now that I think of it do I think a part of Carter's DNA must have emerged from Connery's performance.

The other scene that has always stuck with me is Donald Sutherland's Agar as he runs into the train office and makes wax impressions of the keys, all within 75 seconds. I was enthralled by that kind of thinking and ingenuity. I think this film might've set the stage for my continued enjoyment of heist films, and it undoubtedly enamored me with the charming con man.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

I only saw this film for the first time this century as it is my wife's favorite western. And really, what more is there to say about this Sergio Leone epic that hasn't already been said? Ennio Morricone's score is brilliant, giving the film not only its epic feel but saying, through music, how the modern world is encroaching on the frontier in the form of the railroad.

I appreciate how the locomotive and the building of the railroad serve as the central character in this film, a character that is, in effect, the march of time and we people must adjust to it or get out of the way. And, unlike many westerns that feature railroads, it was a dirty, hot, and mind-numbingly brutal job, but a job that needed to be done, no matter the cost. Of all of Leone's films, this one remains a favorite.

From Russia With Love

I love James Bond and nearly all of his films, but as I've gotten older, I've become more interested in the movies with smaller stakes. This film, the second in the franchise, has a pretty spectacular train sequence that the historian in me loves. 

After Bond and Tatiana Romanova have escaped with the Lektor cryptograph machine, they flee on one of the most famous trains: the Orient Express. In these scenes in the middle of the film, you get to see what it was like to travel in style in what is probably the last major decade where train travel was considered a viable economic means of transportation before planes surpassed it.

Key to my enjoyment of the train sequence is the fight between Bond and Red Grant (Robert Shaw). It is the close confines of a train compartment that give the fight its brutal nature. No gadgets, just fists and brawn and brains. A different Bond (Roger Moore) would again fight in a train (Moonraker), but this Sean Connery version--look at that; two Connery films--is my favorite.

The Wild Wild West

No discussion of westerns and railroads would be complete without a mention of The Wanderer, the train and tricked out rail car of James West and Artemus Gordon. Again, TWWW was my first, favorite western TV show. Being a Star Wars kid, I loved the gadgets, the steampunk-before-steampunk-was-a-thing vibe, and West and Gordon's "home." No matter how many time owlhoots or Dr. Miguelito Loveless boarded the train, you knew there was something the Secret Service agents could do to get themselves out of any predicament. 

Not only the gadgets, but I also appreciated how there was science equipment for Gordon to do his investigations and his disguises. 

Like the bridge of Star Trek's Enterprise, so many episodes either began or ended on board The Wanderer that it became a crucial component of a wonderfully entertaining TV show.

Back to the Future: Part III

When David asked me the question about railroads in the old west, this is the first one that came to mind. 

I consider the first film to be one of those perfect films not only as a time capsule of its time, but the storytelling mechanics within the movie itself. The second one gave us three looks: their future (2015, now our past), an alternate 1985, and a trippy return to the events of the 1955-part of the first film. 

But I have a special love for Part III. Set almost entirely in the old west, director Robert Zemeckis basically made a western that held true to all the aspects we have come to love about westerns, but with a twist. Doc Brown not only makes a steam-powered ice machine but he also gets a delightful love story.

Act III's central action sequence is on a train, one they have to get up to 88 MPH as it pushes the futuristic Delorean down the tracks and back to the future. Plus we get a spectacular crash as the locomotive in 1888 falls off the incomplete bridge and crashes into Eastwood Ravine.

As fun as that is, however, it's in the movie's closing moments when we get a truly over-the-top train. Doc Brown, his wife, and two boys (Jules and Verne) return to 1985 to say good-bye to Marty McFly in a *flying train*. 

Mic. Drop

Well, those are my favorite trains in movies and TV. What about yours?

Friday, September 17, 2021

Can We Stop The Game?

 By Jay Stringer

These days I aim to be a ray of positive sunshine. I learn from Beau's example. Build people up. Share the things you like. Carry around a murderous mannequin. But the old demons are in there, still wanting to come out and growl. So I better put them to good use. 

Here today is a list of crime fiction talking points I don't give a shit about. Things that seem to crop up on the regular on the socials, and burn a hole in the conversations. I'm going to make this an airing of the grievances thing. What talking points do you no longer give a shit about? What should we cleanse from the timeline? 

1. "Transcending the genre."

Straight in with the curve here. You think I'm going to say how sick I am with reviewers or haughty writers saying a book transcends the genre. Nope. I'm saying I don't give a shit when people use that phrase. Who cares? Really? Do you? Really? 

Are we that fragile in our own confidence and our own genre that someone using a trite old phrase can send us into a tailspin of twitter outrage? 

Here's the thing. Reviews have tropes. Same as crime fiction. Sometimes we subvert the tropes, sometimes we play to them, sometimes we ignore them. But they're there. And reviews are the same. Reviewers are taking time out of their day to tell the world about books. And they usually only have a small word count to play with. Sometimes you have someone knocked unconscious as a way out of a stalling chapter, sometimes a reviewer needs to reach for an established old phrase. No big whoop. 

But also, its often meant as praise. They're saying the book is good. They're saying the book is literature. And....aren't we all, really, aiming to write literature? If you see someone else being said to transcend the genre as a slight on you, then I suggest the problem is not with the reviewer. 

I know why I got into crime fiction. I know why I stay in crime fiction. And I know what my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. And nothing a reviewer says about somebody else's book is going to change any of that. 

2. "Social Fiction."

There's a scene in the movie Seven Psychopaths when Colin Farrell's screenwriter is called on his poor handling of female characters. He pauses, thinks it over, and says that what he's really trying to say is that it's a difficult world for women. It is, the other person agrees, but most of the women they know can still string a sentence together. 

Here's the thing. I'm exceptionally guilty of throwing the 'social fiction' tag around. Go back over a decade to when this here website started, and I was loud and leading the charge. Crime fiction is social fiction. Crime fiction reveals truth. Crime fiction shows us how the world is. 

Yeah, yeah yeah. 

Seven Psychopaths

I mean...I still believe that. But I think the writers who are genuinely doing all of that don't go round shouting about how they're doing it. As the genre finally opens up to new and diverse voices, we're starting to see more and more truths. 

But I'm am so fucking done with a parade of middle-aged leather-jacketed white men using the "social fiction" phrase as a get-out-of-jail-free card when they're called on being sexist, racist, homophobic, or just plain nasty. You're telling on yourself. You're not writing the world the way it is, you're writing the world the way you see it. 

3. Noir vs Cozy.

WE ARE AT WAR, PEOPLE. The cozies hate the noirs. And the Noirs hate the cozies. And the cozies are making nice with the historicals to bring them onside. IT'S WAR. 

Except...none of that is real. Cozy writers don't hate noir writers. And, in my experience, most cozy writers can actually drink noir writers under the table. There's no issue there, no grudge, no problem. We ARE ALL FUCKING CRIME WRITERS. The only people keeping this going are noir writers, who seem to need to exist in some permanent state of "nobody likes us and we don't care" in order to validate their self-worth. 

And....combining points 3 and 1.....


You don't have to go far at a crime fiction convention or festival to find someone complaining that crime fiction is looked down on. That the literary world are all snobs about our genre. That we just can't get a break, just can't be taken seriously. Often, and most amusingly, this complaint will come from someone who regularly sells over fifty thousand copies a year, gets five-to-six figure deals, and has possibly even paid off a mortgage with the proceeds of crime fiction. 

Just stop it, will you? 

Genre fiction in general is what keeps the publishing industry afloat, and crime fiction is often -in whatever form the popular version of it takes at any given moment- filling out a number of spaces in the bestseller lists. Stop pretending like there is some huge thing pushing down on you. 

There are people who have genuine hurdles to overcome in order to even get a seat at the table. People who have systemic issues holding them down. People who can't even keep a seat at the crime fiction table for more than one or two book deals. And to hear your complaints that "people just don't like my genre" while all of that is going on is, frankly, insulting. 

Truth time: The highest contract I received was for 12,000 dollars, and that was for two books. And I don't say this to complain. I was very happy to receive 6,000 for a book, and I had many friends at the time who were on fractions of that. But to hear people who are on multiples of my 6Kx2 -and more importantly, know they will remain on that with future contracts for books they haven't written yet- complaining that they don't get taken seriously is simply ridiculous. Look, if you want the praise that gets heaped on literary books, often with lower advances and lower sales, then go write a literary book. If you pick a lane, don't complain about not being in the other lane. 

Why do we need to play these games? Why do we need to play these games while there are so many people having to fight to even get in to our genre? 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Stop being a baby about spoilers

By Steve Weddle

Ted Lasso comes out on Fridays. If you don't want to be spoiled about Ted Lasso happenings, mute "Ted Lasso" on your social media until you can catch up.

Or "Lego Masters" or whatever it is you're watching.

Some of us want to talk about those things, and it's silly for us to stop talking about those things because it's Sunday and you haven't had a chance to watch Ted Lasso yet.

You can mute phrases on social media until you've caught up.

You can stay off social media until you've caught up.

You can bury your phone until you've caught up.

We're standing around the water cooler on Monday morning talking about the movie or show we all saw over the weekend. You want us to stop talking about that because you haven't seen it yet? In an office setting, we'd have to stop while you got your coffee, which would be fine. But then you'd head to your desk and we'd get back to talking about the movie we all enjoyed as soon as we were done making fun of your wrinkled shirt. Honestly, buy an iron. They're like fifteen bucks.

On social media, you can't get people to stop talking about shows or movies you haven't seen. You just can't. And it's unfair to try to stop folks from sharing with each other because you haven't been able to see the movie or show or match yet.

If I'm out and about volunteering at the orphanage on the weekend, I'll try to avoid scrolling through social media until I can watch Arsenal lose to Brentford on the DVR. Or I could mute certain phrases: Arsenal, Gunners, chokers, artetaout, etc.

You can mute phrases, while we talk about the show you've missed. Just mute. The "mute" option is a wonderful tool for this. The responsibility is yours.

You have the tool. Don't be a tool.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Back to a Somewhat Spartan Mindset

After 14 months of working four days a week at home and one in the office, and 4 months of working either two or three days a week in the office and the other days at home, I began yesterday my official return to working full time in the office. It's quite a change after a year and a half, and I have to say it will take a bit of readjusting to what was a routine I followed for years until the pandemic hit.

It's not as if during my time working from home, I had a lot more free time than otherwise to write. I still worked set hours at my job and put in a day of the same length as I do when working in the office. But there can be no doubt that working from home provided a certain sense of flexibility that the rigors of an office schedule, with a daily subway commute to and from work, cannot match. I don't even have an especially long commute -- about a ten-minute walk to the subway and then a 25-minute ride to the office -- but as anyone who rides a subway daily knows, five days a week of taking trains, with their delays and irritations, sap one's energy. Then there's the imperative of being at work by more or less a specific time each day, and the aggravations that can come on occasion, let's face it, with normal office interactions. The solitariness of working from home, the ability to communicate with fellow workers about only the essential things relating to the work at hand, was, I found, a pleasure. Again, it's about mental energy. And I found that waking early, writing, and then slipping directly into work mode, or that waking, working, and then taking a break before slipping into writing mode at night, both suited me.

I guess I got spoiled. A life in pajamas or in clothes like sweats, with full attention and focus on work, whether job-related or writing, it's something I never would have expected to happen and it goes without saying that it's most unfortunate that it happened for the reason it did, but it did happen, and I tried with writing to make the most of it. I got a novel finished. The extra time available around the workday meant I could get more sleep on a nightly basis. I could get more sleep and still wake naturally, without having to set the alarm every single day.

Now I'm mentally gearing up to do things the way I did before the pandemic and the working from home. I'll be either going to bed early to wake in the pre-dawn hours to write or spend the day at work, come home and eat, and write late at night. Time will be more constrained again, the schedule tighter and more rigid. I'll sleep less on weekdays and try to get decent nights of sleep on the weekends. I've done it before, for years, but returning to that rather austere routine will take effort. Maybe I'm just older now? I'm sure that's part of it. But what else can you do? It's how it goes for most people who write, or paint, or play music, or whatever. You have to squeeze in that prime activity when you can and how you can.

At least until retirement, if that day ever comes.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Because I don't want to forget.


I was working at a small fashion company in midtown on Tuesday, September  11. It was my second day and I was just returning from delivering clothes to a magazine nearby when I heard about the first plane. My first thought was a small plane hit it by accident.  

It was when I got back to the front desk and answered call after call for staffers from their mothers that I realized something was horribly wrong. It was an office of eight salespeople and I had five moms on hold looking for their daughters. Thankfully, they were all at their desks. Then my mom called.

“My God! They’re trying to kill us.” She sounded like she was singing.

“It’s okay. It was just an accident.”

“Not the second plane. Oh God.” I heard the phone change command.

“Honey.” It was my dad. Lifetime military and one tough fella.

Behind me, the office began to buzz. The sales pool was getting louder. It sounded like they were crying. I turned on the computer. Images of the burning buildings from a helicopter. All I could think of was the people. All of those poor people. Please, God let them get out.

“Get yourself together and get out of there.” My dad cut into my thoughts with his serious dad voice. It wasn’t until noon, our boss wasn’t in the office and no one was telling us what to do, that we all filed into the stairwells and out into the streets.

I headed west to catch a ferry to New Jersey. People were huddled around cars, listening to the radio. In front of stores watching the news. An older woman in a burqa was walking alone and so I joined her. She said she was afraid because there had been reports on the radio of people attacking mosques in retaliation for the attacks. Arm and arm, we looked south as we crossed to the promenade to join the miles long line stretching north; the air left my lungs. There were tanks on the West Side Highway. 

Quickly, we headed to the gate. A Port Authority employee was counting passengers in her bright yellow vest and sunny sweet smile. When we stopped to ask instruction, she hugged us. Just for getting there. We all talked for a moment, because the line wasn’t moving, and she knew it was a scary situation for my new friend.  She took her from me and accompanied her onto the ferry, with the elderly and endangered. I joined the line.  


Early on the morning of September 12, 2001 I took the Boonton into the city because I didn’t know what else to do but go in, I couldn’t be alone all day with the news and my thoughts. The train schedules were off, of course. There were delays and incidents. Once at the station I noticed the trash cans were chained closed, most stores were dark and there were police everywhere. Station parking lots were full, a car in every spot, but the trains were nearly empty.

There was only one other passenger in my car. He watched me board and waved me over. We introduced ourselves and I sat down.

“Where’re you from?” He was holding his briefcase so tight his hands were red. I think I understood how he felt. Or how he wanted to feel. I think we needed to feel normal.


“No. Before here.” He looked like every fortyish, hard-working Dad type in every movie and show. Balding on top and big round glasses. “I’m originally from Florida. Long line of Gators.”

“From Virginia, originally. With a little bit of everywhere thrown in.”

The train curved wide to the right and we looked out of the window at the same time, sitting across from each other, not talking but still not alone. Taking in the big view, he took a deep breath before his voice cracked.

“I guess we’re all New Yorkers today.”

We made more friends on the train that week as the city tried to keep moving. There were nine of us, meeting on the train in the mornings and at the station in the evenings, most of us with a hot dog and beer in hand. We were loud and boisterous, trying so hard to be happy. When the train would pass the station parking lots, now cramped with tow trucks moving cars belonging to victims from the towers, we were always quiet. The streets of our towns crowded with funerals every weekend. The pictures of those lost remained on the walls of stations and stops.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

"What Are We Going to Say?"


By Claire Booth

There is a homage to character and story and a great actor today in the New York Times. Michael K. Williams, who played Omar Little on The Wire, died this week. And showrunner David Simon remembers him through the lens of his commitment to the story they were trying to tell. 

“What are we going to say this year?” Williams would ask Simon at the beginning of every season, as the show shifted from the Baltimore streets to its port to its city government, schools and newsrooms. And Simon had to answer Williams’s question, had to articulate his vision and his reasoning. What a gift for a writer to have a person like that in her or his corner—one who forces you to explain yourself. I know my stories are better when I have to do that for someone. I can only imagine if that person was someone of Williams’s exceptional talents.

Read the whole essay in the New York Times here: