Book Review: Heaven’s a Lie

Wallace Stroby knows his way around writing tough and tight crime thrillers. His latest, Heaven’s a Lie speeds along at full tilt. The storyline is old, a young woman, Joette Harper, finds a bag of money after attempting to save a man from a burning car. She knows she should leave it in the car and either let it burn or wait until the cops arrive and confiscate it. But Joette has money problems and three hundred thousand dollars can be a big leap in helping out. She knows the money has to be dirty (the cash belongs to a brutal and violent drug dealer), but Joette is desperate. What follows is a high-speed chase and who knows where or how it will end. Stroby likes powerful women characters (check out his excellent Chrissa Stone series) and writes them well. Joette Harper fits the role. The author does not waste words and what he uses is sharp and pointed. Heaven’s a Lie is a book you won’t be able to put down.

Update on My Latest Short Story Collection

With the pandemic raging on, I hope everyone is staying safe and being diligent. On a personal note, I have received both doses of the Moderna vaccine. No side effects other than a sore arm for a day or so. I continue to follow CDC guidelines and Dr. Fauci so I’m still wearing a mask and staying socially distant, but I have ventured out a little more. Still, many more people need to get vaccinated. We all need to do our part if we are going to be successful in getting through this.

On the writing front, I have been concentrating on putting together my next short story collection, which I hope to have out in the summer or early fall. It has been a bit of an ordeal working on this project. For a long period, I had writer’s block. My mind seemed to just go blank, creatively. Part of the reason, if not all, had to do with the pandemic which I felt sucked the creative energy out of me. Why, I’m not sure. I was spending more time than ever at home and sure had the time to write. But in the back of my mind, COVID-19 was lurking.

I admit it; COVID had me worried. Worried I would catch it and worried my wife would catch it. We both have underlying conditions that could have made it worse. Fortunately, we did not.

One day, searching for inspiration, I searched through my files of stories I’ve rejected because I felt they were not good enough. I came across this one story written a few years back and thought, hey, this is worth revisiting. I worked on it until I got it to a point where I said to myself, “YES!” This will work. That spark reignited my creative juices, and I have been on a roll. As I continued to write fresh stories, I realized a similar theme was emerging in everyone. Wow!

Soon, I will reveal the book’s title and a list of some of stories that will be included, all connected by this one theme.

I’m excited. Stay tune for more.

Abel Ferrara’s The Projectionist and Me

Got my copy of Abel Ferrara’s recent documentary, “The Projectionist,” which includes a photograph I took back in 1976 of the Coronet/Baronet theaters in New York City. “The Projectionist,” debuted at the New York Film Festival in 2019. Late last month it was released on Blu-ray and DVD. Ferrara’s films include “Bad Lieutenant,” “King of New York,” and Ms. “45.”

National Vietnam War Veterans Day

Today is National Vietnam War Veterans Day

First Blood is the first and best of the Rambo movies. Each sequel in the series became more simplistic and excessively militaristic. Based on David Morrell’s novel, First Blood has a dark somber tone and subtext completely missing in the other later works. The violence here is not exploitive but allows the viewers to enjoy the film on the surface as nothing more than an action/thriller. Howwever, there is a deeper level with something to say about returning war veterans and their problematic adjustment back to civilian life. The Vietnam veteran had the additional burden of facing a hostile homecoming. Unlike all previous veterans from earlier wars, the Vietnam veterans were not treated as heroes, instead they were met with disdain, spit upon, and even called baby killers.

Like many Vietnam Veteans, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has PTSD that went undetected. A former Green Beret, Rambo was the perfect fighting machine in Vietnam, but back home he can’t hold a job. He’s lost and travels aimlessly. In a small town in Washington State, he meets a hostile sheriff (Brian Dennehy). Rambo has a rebellious streak in him and it doesn’t sit well with the lawman and his crew. When cornered, he fights back the only way he can, the way they taught him.

First Blood, in its own crude way, shows why Vietnam Veterans deserve a day of their own. It may be hard to believe today that Veterans were treated with such scorn.

Having a day of their own is the least that we can do all these years later.

Read more about Vietnam Veterans War Day here.

Valentine’s Day – 1929

On Valentine’s Day in 1929, Al Capone allegedly sent a surprise gift to his Chicago North Side enemy Bugs Moran. Capone and Moran were in the middle of a gang war over territorial rights involving bootleg booze. On that romantic holiday, four men posing as police officers, entered Moran’s headquarters. They lined up seven of Moran’s thugs against a wall (Bugs wasn’t there) and emptied their machine guns into them. While it has never been completely proven that Capone was behind the massacre, he is generally credited with the bloody gift. Photo is from Roger Corman’s 1967 film, THE SAINT VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE.

My Favorite Private Eye Films

Here we have my top ten, plus six HM’s, of my own personal faovorite P.I. eyes. I’ve always had a soft spot for the anti-hero types, though you will find Nick and Nora Charles on the list. It was Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe who cemented my love for the mean dark streets of film noir where many of the best P.I. films are set. Please share you own favorites if you so desire.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

There are lies, deceit, sex, betrayal, murder, a stay true to the source screenplay by John Huston, a supporting cast that includes Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorr, Elisa Cook, and of course Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade all add up to make this film the epitome of Private Eye films.

Chinatown (1974)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

A multi layered, satirical, witty send up, and as you would expect from Robert Altman, a breakdown of genre conventions. Still the film keeps many of Chandler’s archetypal characters (wives stuck in loveless relationships, low-rent hoods, and cops too bored to do the job right) but he does it with a twist. Altman’s Marlowe is not the hard boiled knight in 1940’s armor living by his own moral code. In fact, this Marlowe seems to lack a moral center. Altman, along with screenwriter Leigh Brackett, turned our anti-hero into a man who is out of his time. He is the complete outsider; from the law, the hoods, even to his neighbors..

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was never better served than in Kiss Me Deadly. Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer is a cold, brutal, sneering, amoral, narcissistic, and sullen dark knight dealing out revenge as his own form of hard-nosed justice. He’s a “bedroom dick” who easily confesses to some irksome cops to his own repugnance (you’ve convinced me, I’m a stinker). After giving a lift to a psychiatric ward escapee (Cloris Leachman) Hammer finds himself involved in a mystery where radioactive material is the prize. Director Robert Aldrich has delivered a cynical, fatalistic, and apocalyptic noir masterpiece.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Harper (1966)

With the making of Harper, based on Ross MacDonald’s first novel there was a definite connection to the past. First, there’s author MacDonald who writer Michael Avallone once wrote that Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald were the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” of the hard-boiled school of fiction. MacDonald himself was a major influence on many of the mystery writers we read today including Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker and Robert Crias. Next was Warner Brothers, the same studio that brought you The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, released the film. Finally, there is Lauren Bacall. Bogie’s Baby herself who taught Bogart how to whistle. Paul Newman’s Harper is cynical and quick with the wise cracking, snappy comebacks. Like many classic P.I. films, it all takes place in California, land of off-beat cults represented here in the face of Strother Martin as a phony guru who runs a cult called Temple in the Clouds.

The Thin Man (1934)

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Farewell, My Lovely (1975)

I always ranked Humphrey Bogart as my favorite screen version of Philip Marlowe with Robert Mitchum a solid number two. Mitchum plays an older version of the P.I., but just as cynical. He’s backed up by a nice group of supporting actors including the beautiful Charlotte Rampling, Sylvia Miles, John Ireland, Harry Dean Stanton, Anthony Zerbe, Jack O’Halloran with a minor role by still unknown Sylvester Stallone. Look for the great hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson in a small role.

Marlowe (1969)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetically order)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Klute (1971)

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

Night Moves (1975)

Shaft (1971)

Vaccine Blues

Like many folks who fall into the age categories that are open to receiving the COVID vaccine, I have been trying to get an available appointment. Crashed systems, unavailability, lack of a simple implementation have all added up to a frustrating time for many of us.

Here in Florida, right now you have to be 65 and older to qualify, and yes I’m in that age bracket. Since the vaccines became available, there have been outcries about poor planning; website crashing, being disconnected on the phone after waiting for hours. Appointments filled up fast. Only the other day on the news I heard that in one county here in Florida they had 1,000 vaccines available and all were gone in three minutes.

Where are the vaccines people cry out? The state blames the feds, and the feds blame the states.

Here in Florida, selected Publix Supermarkets are now giving out the vaccine. This past Saturday morning the website opened, enabling folks to register for an appointment beginning at 6 AM. My wife and I were up and on our computer. After a 40 minute wait, my wife managed to schedule an appointment. After she was all set up, they asked if another household member wanted to register and I got an appointment. She was scheduled for Sunday, the next day, and I had my appointment for Tuesday.

We were ecstatic and grateful.

Both appointments went smoothly. They were quick, efficient, and we were in and out in 35 minutes, including the 15 minutes after you receive your shot.

There are many snags with the rollout of the vaccine. One of the key problems is the confusion because of a lack of a federal mandate on how to distribute the vaccine. Everyone knew the vaccines were coming. There was plenty of time for the federal government, the state, and counties to be better prepared.

Here in Florida, each county is doing their own thing from having to register by computer and/or telephone. County websites are all different, requirements are inconsistent including a few counties that are not doing by appointment only, but are on a first-come, first-serve basis until we run out. This situation has resulted in having a senior population standing in long lines or parked in long lines overnight, hoping to get a vaccine. Sadly, there won’t be enough for all and at some point, they will run out of doses and there will be folks who waited in line for eight hours or more and will go home still searching for vaccine relief. 

It’s a frustrating experience, hours are spent online or on the phone attempting to get an appointment only to receive a message that there are no more appointments available at this time or are disconnected. That said, please don’t give up. Keep pushing on and on and there will be that one time when you will scream out YES!    

Stay safe !and keep on pushing!

E.J. Bellocq, Storyville and Pretty Baby

E. J. Bellocq is best known today for his evocative photographs of the prostitutes of Storyville, the notorious section of New Orleans where prostitution became legal in the late 1800s and lasted through the early years of the 20th century. Bellocq was a native of New Orleans and began his photographic career, first as an amateur photographer then turning professional, shooting mostly ships and machinery for local companies in the area.

However, Bellocq had a private side to his life that few people knew about. He would travel across Basin Street to Storyville, where he turned his 8×10 camera on the ladies of the New Orleans night. It is for these photographs Bellocq today is best remembered. The portraits at first seem standard portraits of the women of the day, except that in many pictures the ladies are nude, though not always. Some women seem uncomfortable in the photos, not because they are naked, but more likely because they do not know how to pose in front of the camera. Yet, others come across as very comfortable, posing with an innocent grace. Bellocq was no pretentious artist; his work is very informal, almost anti-artistic. They have an old world charm; the women are plump, the clothes almost 19th century. The photographs become even more intriguing for the details they reveal about the interior living conditions, what it looked like inside these “specialty” houses. For example, in one photo we surprisingly see college banners (Louisiana, Michigan and Missouri) hanging on a wall.

By 1978, the JAWS and STAR WARS blockbuster mentality had taken over from the sophisticated, artistic, personal films of the early 1970s. Out of synch with the new Hollywood trend, French New Wave director Louis Malle (MURMUR OF THE HEART, LACOMBE, LUCIEN) released his first American film, PRETTY BABY in 1978, with Keith Carradine as E. J. Bellocq. The film also stars Susan Sarandon and a young Brooke Shields as mother and daughter. Sarandon is a prostitute named Hattie with a 12-year-old daughter (Violet). The story opens with Malle playfully seducing the audience’s expectations as we first meet Violet in an extreme closeup of her face. On the soundtrack, we hear what sounds like a woman approaching a sexual climax. However, as Malle soon reveals, the woman is really in the middle of child birth.

Bellocq comes to the house of ill repute one day requesting to photograph the “employees.” The cocaine sniffing Madame Nell (Frances Faye), agrees only after Bellocq agrees to pay for the privilege. Bellocq befriends Violet as he goes about meticulously photographing the ladies of the house.
Soon after, Madame Nell decides Violet is ready to enter the house business raffling off her virginity to the highest bidder. A celebratory ceremony accompanies Violet’s delivery to the winner. Both Bellocq and the black piano player known as the Professor (Antonio Fargas) stand off to the side from the “festivities” effectively reflecting their unease with the perverted ritual, yet both remain quiet, no attempt’s made to stop it, knowing this is Storyville and that’s the way it goes.

Hattie wants out of the business and marries a financially well off customer, leaving New Orleans and her past behind, moves to St. Louis. Violet refuses to go. For her, this house is her home, she stays behind. However, Violet does eventually go to live with Bellocq and they soon marry. Yet Bellocq’s genuine passion in life is his photography, which frustrates Violet, who though so experienced is still a child of 12 and acts that way. Hattie, now a proper lady, returns. Against her daughter’s marriage, she has come back to New Orleans to take Violet with her back to St. Louis. Realizing the young girl needs a more normal life than he can ever provide, he lets her go.

Though Bellocq was an actual person, the story of PRETTY BABY is fictional. It was a controversial film from the beginning. Even during the filming, rumors flew about what was being filmed and how explicit it would be. The controversy continued after the film’s release, some calling it child porn, mostly by folks who did not see the film.

Malle’s intent is to present a particular period and place in time. Not a good time, a sad one, but unique and one that happened. Malle and cinematographer Sven Nykvist take an unpleasant subject and handled it with taste. There is nothing neither salacious nor explicit in the film. Adding to the atmosphere is the excellent soundtrack filled with ragtime tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, and others.  

Many of Bellocq’s photographs are recreated in the film; much of his original work has been destroyed or lost. That said, some of his Storyville negatives survived over the years. What remains a mystery is why some surviving works, the original glass plates, contained damaged faces that are scratched or obliterated. Whether this happened on purpose and by whom remains unknown.

Bellocq’s work remained unknown until Lee Friedlander, then a young photographer, purchased the surviving glass negatives. He first became aware of their existence in the late 1950s. An exhibit of Bellocq’s work with new prints by Friedlander became part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1970s. Fame came to Bellocq twenty years after his death.

History know’s little about the real Ernest J. Bellocq except that he had a slight physical impairment. He was short and did not indulge in any sexual activity with the women in the profession. He’s been compared physically to Toulouse-Lautrec, but how true that is, I do not know. Bellocq spent his last years roaming the streets of New Orleans, going from one camera store to another, becoming a fixture in some establishments. His Storyville photographs were unknown to all except for a few people, and the idea he someday would be considered an artist with his work hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art would have been laughable to those who knew him.

Besides the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Louisiana Tech University honored Bellocq by naming a photography gallery after him. Bellocq’s work has also appeared in books like STORYVILLE, NEW ORLEANS As a character Bellocq has appeared in various novels, including Peter Everett’s BELLOCQ’s WOMEN.

E. J. Bellocq died in 1949. He was 76 years old.

Happy Holidays

It’s been a rough a year and I think I’m safe in saying we’re all looking forward to a brighter 2021.  Too many people have suffered heartbreaking losses of family and/or friends, lost jobs and more. It’s been a struggle for us all in one way or another. I want to take this moment to wish everyone during this holiday season peace, happiness and a reason to believe. Thanks to everyone for taking the time to stop by and please stay safe.