Cats and writers have a special bond. Their connection runs deep. Maybe it’s a meditative thing, maybe it’s inspirational or spiritual. Whatever it is, for many authors cats are an essential part of their lives. Continue reading “Authors and Cats”
Officially, the tall season is a little more than a week away. However unofficially, Labor Day kicks off the beginning of fall in the arts. We read in newspapers and magazines about all the new films, television shows, theater, music and of course books that will be coming out over the next few months. Similar to what I did back here for summer reading releases here are some of the books currently on my list to read this fall. Continue reading “Fall Reading”
One of my favorite crime writers is the late Donald E. Westlake. Westlake was awarded the title of Grand Master by The Mystery Writers of America, as well as a three time Edgar winner. He wrote over 100 novels and numerous short stories and screenplays.
Westlake was a prolific author, best known for two long running series, one featuring the dark anti-hero known only as Parker, written under one of his many pen names, Richard Stark, and the lighter comedic mysteries featuring John Dortmunder. By 1977, both characters had already made their way to the movie screen. In 1967, the first Parker novel, The Hunter, appeared under the title Point Blank (1) with Parker’s name changed, inexplicably, to Walker. The film featured Lee Marvin in the lead role. Five years later John Dortmunder hit the screen with Robert Redford in The Hot Rock.
Back in 1977, the author published a book called Enough. It consisted of two novellas, the longer of the two was called A Travesty, and the second, shorter story, was Orb. Enough may be one of the toughest of Westlake’s works to find a copy. I was fortunate enough a few years back to discover a copy at a local library. A Travesty is a dark, comic tale involving a sexually insatiable film critic, Corey Thorpe, who during a heated argument with one of his lovers accidentally kills her. Having seen too many movies, instead of calling the police, Thorpe decides to cover up his involvement in the transgression. Unfortunately, Thorpe’s lover was under surveillance by a blackmailing private investigator. Additionally, the investigating police detective takes a liking to our “‘hero,” and admires his amateur detective instincts. He’s also a frustrated screenwriter and would like Corey to take a look at what he wrote. Along the way, Corey is “forced” to commit a couple of more murders. Regrettably, for the film critic, his voracious appetite for sex does him in when he spurns the wrong woman.
Let’s fast forward more than 30 years to 1999 and the premiere on TNT of a film called A Slight Case of Murder. It’s not to be confused with the 1938 Edward G Robinson film with the same title, but a made for TV film starring William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, James Cromwell and Adam Atkin. The film is based on A Travesty and adapted for the screen by Macy and director Steven Schachter. The duo faithfully captures the humorous essence of Westlake’s novella. The film critic’s name was changed in the movie from Corey to Terry, but much of the tale stays close to Westlake’s original work. It’s smart with plenty of visual and verbal nods to the noir films it’s sending up including Terry talking at times directly to the camera (in place of a voice over). It’s filled with murders, sleazy characters and plenty of twists wrapped up in a funny script that film lovers, like myself, will especially love.
The performances by the four main actors are all of high quality, though William H. Macy gets a special nod in a role that some may find reminiscent of his Jerry Lundgaard role in Fargo. Also noteworthy is Julia Campbell’s work as Arkin’s amorous wife, whose affair with Macy leads to his downfall.
I am a big fan of two of the author’s stand-alone books, The Ax and The Hook, both wonderful satires. In The Ax, the main character is Burke Devore, a quiet company man who after twenty-five years of service becomes a victim of corporate downsizing. After two years of unemployment, his life falling apart, Burke comes up with what he considers the ideal solution, eliminate his competition by killing them off.
The Hook is a devious tale about author Bryce Proctor, a mediocre but best-selling author. Then there is author Wayne Prentice, a more accomplished writer than Procter, but his books no longer hit the best sellers list. Bryce has been going through a rough stretch including a divorce which has led to a bad case of writer’s block. To make it worst he has a deadline quickly approaching on his next book. Wayne comes up with a plan that would help them both. He’ll write the book, give it to Bryce to publish under his name, and they split the royalties 50/50. Bryce is all for it except he has one caveat, Wayne needs to kill Bryce’s wife.
Many of Westlake’s books have made it to the screen, unfortunately not always in a good way. The previously mentioned Point Blank, The Hot Rock, and A Slight Case of Murder are on the plus side. However, more often than not, there were mediocre films like Cops and Robbers, The Twin, The Split, The Bank Shot, and the awful and misguided Jimmy the Kid which was turned into a vehicle for Gary Coleman. Interesting enough, a few of Westlake’s books have been made into films by foreign filmmakers including Costa-Gavras whose 2005 film, Le Couperet, is based on The Ax. In 1966, Jean Luc Godard loosely adapted Westlake’s The Juggler (a Parker novel) turning it into Made in the U.S.A. (2) No one connected with the Goddard film, including Goddard, at the time, bothered acquiring the film rights. Westlake eventually sued and won.
As a screenwriter, Westlake was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1990). He also wrote the screenplay for the original The Stepfather film which was adapted from a short story he wrote with co-writers, Brian Garfield and Carolyn Lefcourt. For a full list of Westlake’s film credit’s check here.
If you like reading crime fiction and have not read Donald Westlake, get down to your local independent book store or anywhere books are sold and start catching up. If you like hard boiled fiction, the Parker books written under the name of Richard Stark are must reads. On the lighter side are his John Dortmunder books. Dortmunder is a cool, criminal mastermind, brilliant at planning heist. Unfortunately, his luck is not as good as his talent. Inevitably something always goes wrong.
(1) In 1999, Point Blank (The Hunter) was remade as Payback with Mel Gibson in the lead role. Once again Parker’s name was changed again, this time to Porter.
(2) Wikipedia Donald E. Westlake.
I find inspiration can from anywhere and at any time. Many times it happens when you least expect it. For Life Lesson, one of twelve short stories in my new e-book, Devious Tales, it came from the above photograph I took back in 2015 in Vermont. My wife and I did a photographic road trip that began in Burlington. From there we made our way to Woodstock, St. Johnsbury and eventually back to Burlington; making multiple stops to photograph what caught our eye along the way. One day during this road trip we found ourselves on a dirt road. Instead of turning around, we decided to see where it would lead. There was actually little to see or photograph except for this old boarded house. I took a few photos from different angles and we went on our way.
The house intrigued me. I wondered who built it way back in 1924? Why in the middle of nowhere? Who and how many people have lived here since? What happened to them? It all stayed buried in my head. As the idea for Life Lesson began to take root, this house was the image that suddenly appeared in my head, and where most of the action in the story takes place.
Like any creative individual does, no matter what form your art takes, you observe, you listen and you store away information into a mental or physical file for possible future use. That’s where it remains, waiting for that spark of creative juice to bring to life something new.
You can read Life Lesson and other short stories in Devious Tales. Currently, available as an e-book on Amazon. Click here.
It will soon be available as a paperback. More on that later.
Four classic novels that should be read or re-read during these strange days. All of these books have seen an uptick in sales. George Orwell can thank Kellyanne Conway and her ”alternative facts” for a recent 9,500 percent increase in sales of his dystopia novel 1984 on Amazon.
Other books that have seen sales rise include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale which looks at a totalitarian society that has women forced into secondary status as citizens.
Then there is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. Published in 1936, the novel is a satirical look at what if? What if FDR lost a reelection bid to a charismatic and power hungry politician who ran on a campaign of fear and social reform. Promising great economic reform and running a platform of so called “traditional” values and good old fashion patriotism. Sound familiar?
After winning the election, the new President quickly turns toward a totalitarian rule backing it up with a guerrilla style military.
A few other books with similarly unsettling themes that are worth reading include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Kurt Vonnegut – Photo by Jill Krementz
Edgar Allan Poe
In Sunlight or in Shadow – Lawrence Block – Editor
A compilation of short stories all centered around the work of artist Edward Hopper. It’s an intriguing premise and for the most part the authors pull it off with style. Hopper’s work is filled with images of isolation, loneliness and voyeurism, each lending itself to much interpretation. That’s just what all of these authors do and most do well. There are a couple of mind numbingly dull entries, but overall this is a worthy collection. Special raves to Stephen King, Jill D. Block, Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Connelly and Nicholas Christopher.
Robert B. Parker’s Debt to Pay – Reed Farrel Coleman
Robert B. Parker was one of my favorite authors. His passing back in 2010, needless to say, left a void in my reading. The Parker estate, and Parker’s publishers, chose to continue three of his series characters: Spenser, Jesse Stone, Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch with other authors. Debt to Pay is Coleman’s third book in the Jesse Stone series. Michael Brandman wrote the first three, Coleman has been an improvement and this latest entry is his best so far. He has managed to keep Parker’s essence yet make the characters his own.
Shadows on a Maine Christmas – Lea Wait
Around Christmas time I always like to find a mystery or two with a holiday theme. While surfing the internet, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, I came across author Lea Wait and this entry in her Antique Print series. The story is set along the coast of Maine, and frankly, that was part of what attracted me to read it. I have visited Maine many times over the years and honestly, its one of my favorite states. Wait’s characters are well developed and I have come to like the author’s main character, Maggie Summer, very much (I am currently reading another book in this series). Additionally, her well defined description of life in Maine adds to the pleasure. If you looking for a page turner, this book won’t satisfy you. It’s leisurely paced giving you time to soak in the atmosphere. Yes there is a murder, but it is just as much about the characters and the space they inhabit.
Home – Harlan Coben
The drought is over! After at least five years, Harlan Coben has finally brought back Myron and Win in this fast paced thriller about two young boys who have been missing for ten years. Both wisecracks and thrills fly at a fast speed. Coben’s book are always filled with plenty of unexpected twists and this one is no exception.
The mall was jam packed with holiday shoppers. Christmas music from the likes of Perry Como to Elvis to Brad Paisley and the latest rapper blared out in no particular order. With only three shopping days left before the big day, last minute shoppers were scurrying all over from one shop to another. The line of young kids waiting to tell Santa the list of toys they wanted, no it was more like demanded, to see under the tree was staggering. It was the best time of the year.
I was standing just inside the entrance way to Jordan’s Jewel Factory, one of those large chain stores that clog up space in most of America’s malls these days. In jewelry stores it’s not unusual to see beautiful young women. If they are not rich and buying the diamonds, they are looking and wishing they could. Hoping to find some kind of satisfaction by just looking at the necklaces, rings, earrings and other accessories. That in itself is a common occurrence. What was uncommon happened when my eyes caught the attention of this one young woman. Yes, she was beautiful. That was obvious even from the distance between us. However, I was more interested in how quickly she picked up a particular necklace, slipped it into her coat pocket and dashed out of the store disappearing into the crowded mall. She did it with such precision, grace and speed that the employees behind the counter didn’t realize the necklace was gone until it was too late.
She didn’t quite disappear. I moved quickly myself following her as soon as she left the store. I caught up with her as she was heading toward the mall exit. I gently placed a hand on her arm.
“Excuse me a minute, miss,” I said.
She froze, but kept her back to me.
I walked around her so I could face her directly.
“We need to have a little talk. Could we just walk over to the side here so we are out of the way.” I said.
“I don’t talk to men I don’t know,” she said with a chill in her voice that would have given Frosty the Snowman a shiver down his spine.
“Well, I think this time you will.”
Her eyes were darting around until she found what she was looking for. “There’s a security guard right over there. I have no problem calling him over if you don’t leave me alone right now,” she said.
I followed her eyes and sure enough there was a security guard standing by the crowded food court. He was looking right at us.
“Miss, we just need to have a little talk,” I said, “No need to…”
Before I could finish, she waved the security guard over. In a moment the six foot two or so guard was between us.
“Everything okay here?” he asked.
Before she could get another word out, I said, “It’s okay, Damon. This young lady and I are just having a little talk.”
She looked at me and then at Damon.
“Yes. I’m sorry… I just.”
“Thanks Damon,” I interceded. “If we need you, I will give you a call.”
With that, Damon moved on walking slowly away from us and back toward the crowded food court.
“You’re a cop?”
“Retired cop. Now I’m head of security here at the mall,” I said.
“What do you want?” she said.
“I was in the jewelry store at the same time as you.”
“So,” she said, keeping her cool.
“I saw what you did.”
“I didn’t do anything!” she said defiantly.
I managed to steer her away to one of the few spots in the mall where there wasn’t a crowd of Christmas shoppers. I stared at her for a moment. She was only about twenty-three or so, very attractive with shoulder length brown hair and green eyes.
“You don’t look like the typical jewel thief,” I said.
Her face remained frozen. She was still trying to tough it out.
“What are you accusing me of?”
“Why don’t we just drop the pretense? I was there. I saw everything. Just empty your coat pocket, the right one specifically.”
She was trapped and she finally gave in to the inevitable. She pulled the necklace out of her pocket. I took it from her.
“Nice.” Must be worth a couple of hundred bucks,” I said.
“Seven hundred,” She said.
I smiled. “I see you do your homework.”
“Let’s see some I.D.,” I said.
She pulled out her wallet from her handbag and handed me her driver’s license. I put the necklace in my pocket for safekeeping and examined her license.
“Julia Ross?” I asked. I pulled out my cellphone and snapped a photo of the license. I then handed it back to her.
“Look, I’m sorry, really sorry. Isn’t there some way we can make this go away?” she said. “We could go somewhere quiet, somewhere private, my car and…”
“Miss Ross, or is it Ms. Ross. I am a married man with two beautiful kids. In thirty-five years of marriage, I never, not once, cheated on my wife.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say anything to upset you.”
“Do you have a record?” I asked. “Don’t lie because I can easily check it out and I will. Remember I have a photo of your license.
“No, no, I don’t. I have never been in any kind of trouble.”
I smiled. “You know, I’m not surprised. I was watching you for a while in the store and you’re pretty smooth. You must have gotten away with plenty of good stuff in the past. You just knew when to make the snatch and split without anyone noticing. That is, except for me, of course. I am pretty good myself at my job.
“I know…couldn’t we just let this go? Just this one time,” She asked.
“You’re young and you have got your entire life ahead of you,” I said. “A criminal record could really screw your life up.”
“I’m really, really sorry,” she said.
“I don’t like people stealing stuff on my watch. It pisses me off. Especially at this time of the year. Families are out there shopping. Looking for the right gift. Working their way through the crowds. That’s why I’m out here. As head of security, I’m usually not out here pounding the beat so to speak. But the holidays bring out more lowlife’s and crooks than usual so I put myself out here too. Another pair of eyes for the holidays.”
She was shaking a bit now and on the verge of tears. “I’m so sorry, please…”
“Well,” I sighed, “as it stands now, no real harm has been done. I got the jewelry back, so therefore you didn’t steal anything which means I have no reason to arrest you.”
She looked up at me in shock. “Really? Oh, God, thank you so much.”
“I guess I am getting soft. Maybe it’s my old age. Maybe it’s the holiday season, I don’t know. I just don’t want to see a pretty young thing like you get in so much trouble that would ruin your life.”
Oh, thank you so, so much!”
“You’ve got to promise me something though,” I said.
“Anything, anything. What is it?” She said.
“You’re not going to do this anymore,” I said.
“Yes, yes, I promise. Never again,” She said.
I knew that was a lie. Once a thief, always a thief.
“And if you do it again… do it somewhere else other than my fuckin’ mall!”
She looked at me. A bit in shock. Not sure how to respond.
Merry Christmas,” I smiled.
“Merry Christmas,” she smiled back and took off through the exit door and out into the snow.
I felt good. I gave the kid a break. Why not, it’s the holidays. Hopefully, she takes my advice and stops her little crime spree or at least stays away from my mall. I looked around at the crowds. Yep, it was only three days before Christmas and the place was packed. Frank Sinatra was now on the sound system singing, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I put my hands in my pockets. That’s when I remembered I still had the necklace. I smiled and thought, yes it will be a merry little Christmas. The wife is gonna love this!
A Merry Little Christmas Gift is part of my new collection of short stories that will be published as an e-book in 2017. Keep an eye out for further details.
Okay, I admit I am bias about New England. It’s my favorite part of the country. There’s a quaint historical feel to almost everywhere you go. It’s in the architecture, the landscape, the air and the people. Adding to my bias is the fact my wife was born and raised in Marlboro, MA. Over the years, we have travelled to every state that makes up the geographical area known as New England. Some states like Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine are particular favorites, but I have found something fascinating and stimulating in all of them. So when I came across Jacqueline T. Lynch’s collection of essays on what it means to be a New Englander I knew I had to read it. Lynch writes in her introduction, “This is not about New England the place as it is about New England the idea…” She focuses on ideas that came out of the nineteen century and moved us into the twentieth century.
We meet many well-known figures like Annie Sullivan, Louisa May Alcott, Lizzie Bordon and other historical figures. There are also articles about lessor known individuals particularly women who became an important part of the workforce during the Industrial Revolution. We also learn about historical landmarks such as Norman’s Woe, a small uninhabited island just off shore from Gloucester, MA. The island and its waters are noted for a series of shipwrecks over the years. Maine poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, immortalized it in his poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus.
Lynch writes passionately about her subjects and New England in general. Her love for New England shines through on every page. Anyone interested in the history of New England and its influence will find these essays an absorbing read.
“Write what you like; there is no other rule” – O. Henry