Mistletoe and Mayhem: Christmas Crime Time

Mysterious

It’s the time of the season where I like to indulge myself in a little holiday criminal activity… on the written page only of course. Over the past few years I read one or two mysteries set during the Christmas season. This year’s top choice is Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop.

As a way to give back to his customers for their support and loyalty, The owner of The Mysterious Bookshop,  Otto Penzler, commissioned an original short story from a top notch crime writer each year that he would give away to his devoted customers. Penzler gave the authors three rules; first the story had to be a mystery, second it had to be set during the Christmas season, and finally The Mysterious Bookshop had to be included in some way. Over the years, writers have included Lawrence Block, Anne Perry, Mary Higgins Clark, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, and  Meagan Abbott among others.  In all, 17 stories were written. 

In 2010, Penzler published the complete collection of short fiction under the title Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop.  Recently, I purchased a copy and am ready to sit down by the fireplace with a hot chocolate and dive in. Okay, I live in Florida and I don’t have a fireplace! It will be more like turning on the air conditioning and a cold drink, but a fireplace and hot chocolate sounds more cozy and seasonal.

There are plenty of Christmas crime tales to keep you busy for many seasons to come, especially if you read cozy’s. I rarely do, but admittedly I have indulged Lea Wait’s Shadows on a Maine Christmas is a favorite.

I have listed below a partial list Christmas themed mysteries I’ve read in past years, and I am always looking for suggestions for the future.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (aka A Murder for Christmas & A Holiday for Murder) – Agatha Christie

The Spy Who Came for Christmas – David Morrell

A Christmas Tragedy (short story) – Agatha Christie 

Silent Night (Spenser) Robert B. Parker and Helen Brann

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries – Otto Penzler (editor)

Visions of Sugar Plums – Janet Evanovich

Deck the Halls – Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark

Merry Christmas, Alex Cross – James Patterson

Shadows on a Maine Christmas – Lea Wait

Sanity Clause – Steve Brewer

King’s Christmas (short story) – Richard  Neer

 

 

Interview with author D.H. Schleicher

Then Came Darknesf Front Cover

The Great Depression has been the setting for many novels, notably John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, films (Wild Boys of the Road, There Will Be Blood) and in photographs by artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. It’s a fascinating period that is brought to life in author D. H. Schleicher’s second novel, Then Came Darkness.

Schleicher’s work has appeared in Underground Voices, Scratch, The Eunoia Review, Lit Noir, and Wonders in the Dark. He blogs about books, movies, and travel at The Schleicher Spin.

David was gracious enough to take some time out from his busy schedule and for this interview. 

Can you tell us a little what Then Came Darkness is about?

This is always a loaded question – talking about your own work, but I’ll give it a shot.

On the surface level, it’s about the Kydd family struggling to survive in the aftermath of the poor decisions made by the father, Samuel.  He’s brought all kinds of hardships on his wife, Evelyn, and their children, and it culminates in the return of his former business partner Joshua Bloomfield (a greedy, petty, misogynist, racist, revenge-fueled sociopath) who brings darkness and destruction everywhere he goes.

But apart from their family centered stressors, there are these cataclysmic world events weighing down on the family as well – the Great Depression, and the global rumblings that would bring about World War II.  I wanted readers to think about this family, and especially the kids, and wonder, “If they survive Joshua Bloomfield, and the Great Depression…what’s next?”  I wanted that to be part of the suspense.  Tyrus Kydd would be old enough to be drafted towards the end of WWII.  That sense of an always increasing impending doom…that even if they survive this immediate threat…there’s always more darkness creeping around the corner, looming on the horizon, ready to suck them right back into chaos.  I wanted to explore what kind of resilience a person would need in a world like that, and the types of decisions they would be forced to make.

What was your inspiration for the novel?

The Great Depression always fascinated me.  I always wanted to write a period piece that took place during the Great Depression.  Meanwhile, Upstate New York is one of my favorite places on earth, and I knew that I wanted to set a story in those fabled hills, with the Cooperstown area serving as the model for the fictional towns of Fenimore and Milton.  The idea of that dramatic and beautiful setting, and that traumatic milieu (the Great Depression) naturally brought to life the characters that would inhabit the world of Then Came Darkness.

I know you’re a big movie fan. How much influence did film have in the creation of the book?

I try to write in a vivid, cinematic style and I always imagine how my stories would work if they were to be movies.

If one were to boil down the main plot of Then Came Darkness, it could sound like a retread of The Night of the Hunter.  I saw that film for the first time as a child and it haunts me still.  Its influence is clear.

Another film that greatly influenced the style and tone of the novel is There Will Be Blood – that definitive sense of doom and fate and events put into motion by the minds and hands of misguided, greedy men.  I initially imagined Joshua Bloomfield as a broken-down, unsuccessful version of Daniel Plainview.  As I wrote the story he morphed into something a bit different, but that was my initial impression.

Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill was also an inspiration for the similar Depression-era setting and its depiction of the relationship between the two young brothers.

What kind of research did you do to capture the feel of the Depression era?

Every setting in the novel is based on places I have visited and researched.  Also, as I wrote the novel, I was constantly researching things like “what songs or radio programs were popular then?” to add layers to the characters by giving them favorite books, songs, and shows.  I also researched other events that were happening on the periphery that would be of interest to the characters (i.e. Lou Gehrig’s 1936 MVP campaign which was of great interest to Tyrus Kydd).   The heat wave in the novel is also based on the real record-breaking heat wave from that year.

Any real life people who inspired you in developing your characters?

The character of Myra Long has a brief affair with a photographer, and the works of this fictional photographer that are described in the novel are directly inspired by actual photographs taken by renowned Depression-era photographer Walker Evans.

The family dog Sue (a pivotal character) was inspired by a border collie my roommates and I rescued while in college.  She was a great dog but a restless soul, and we eventually had to give her away to someone who owned a farm so she could fulfill her life’s mission to run wild through fields and herd things.

What are your currently reading?

I normally read literary and mainstream fiction (an old Michael Ondaatje book is in my queue right now) but I’ve been on a weird kick lately.  I just finished the sci-fi novel, Artemis, which I didn’t care for, and I’m about 100 pages through the prequel to Dracula that just came out called Dracul, which I’m finding far more entertaining than I thought it would be.  To balance that, I’m also reading the annual Best American Short Stories (chosen by Roxane Gay).

Would you tell us a few of your favorite books?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Light in August by William Faulkner

Jazz by Toni Morrison

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (my favorite writer, I love all of his work)

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Recent Read: The Thin Man

Thin

“Nora: “How do you feel?”

Nick: “Terrible. I must’ve gone to bed sober.”

If you drank as much as Nick Charles does in The Thin Man, Nora does pretty well herself, you would never get passed the first few chapters of this or any other book. AA or even an early death would be in your future. The generous amounts of drinking may signal more about the author’s appetite for booze than anything else. The Thin Man is a decent mystery, but it’s most enjoyable for its sophisticated bantering and witty dialogue.

Nick and Nora Charles have come to New York for the Christmas holidays. Nick, the son of Greek immigrants, is a former Private Investigator who has given up his career after marrying socialite Nora. Nick rather spend his time drinking which he does in ample amounts. He is drawn unwillingly into a case involving a missing inventor and his dead mistress.  While solving the case, there is plenty of drinking, bantering, drinking,  smart dialogue and still more drinking.

The Thin Man is a  fun mystery but not in the same class as The Maltese Falcon. There is an odd break about halfway through when Hammett goes into a long, detailed story about the Alfred G. Packer (first name is sometimes spelled Alferd) cannibalism case which extends for quite a few pages and breaks the rhythm. The Packer story is interesting in itself but seems to have no relationship to the rest of the book and goes on for way too long. I have to wonder why Hammett included it, what was the point?

 

Book Review: Fugitive Red

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Jack Harper is  stuck in an unhappy marriage. He and his wife Maria have been  in a downward spiral for years. Jack is an ex-alcoholic and former musician who is now a real estate broker. Maria has a corporate job and is the main bread winner in the family. They have an eight year old son, Jacob, who they both love, but he is their only connection these days. They barely talk and their sex life went down the tubes years ago.

When an old friend of Jack’s, a hot shot in the music industry, comes to town and brags about his extra-marital affairs meeting women through a dating website strictly for married people in unhappy relationships. Unhappy Jack reluctantly takes the plunge. On the website he “meets” Sophie  whose on line name is Fugitive Red. They have a few steamy conversations, she likes rough sex, and Jack’s soon convinced they made a real connection. The two agree to meet at her Manhattan town house  for a get together. When Jack arrives, he find Sophie dead…her head bashed in and a red tie around her neck.

He calls the police to report the crime and quickly becomes their number one suspect. Jack’s life quickly spirals out of control with not only the police on his tail, but after Maria discovers his involvement with the dead suspect she tosses him out on the street, changing locks on the door of their apartment, cutting off his credit cards and getting a restraining order. When two more bodies show up, one Sophie’s husband, Jack is in for a complete meltdown.

Jason Starr writes brilliantly flawed characters. He captures the grit and nuance of New York in this twisty suspense filled thriller. You will find Fugitive Red hard to put down.

 

Book Review: The Man Who Came Uptown

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Both crime fiction and book lovers will rejoice after reading George Pelecanos’ latest novel The Man Who Came Uptown. He not only gives us a character dictated crime story, but  pays tribute to book lovers and the joys of reading.

Incarcerated in a Washington D. C. prison,  Michael Hudson discovers a love of books thanks to Anna, the prison’s librarian. Michael’s love of reading opens up new worlds and possibilities that he never imagined. Anna encourages Michael and other prisoners at their weekly meeting to not only read but understand and discuss what the author is saying.

One week Michael does not show up. He’s been unexpectedly released from prison. Charges have all been dropped due to a shady P.I. named Phil Ornazian  who convinced the witness in Michael’s case not to remember a thing. Suddenly, Michael is no longer wearing an orange jumpsuit and is a free man. Phil lets Michael know that he owes him and some day payback will be requested. A free man, Michael is determined to go straight. He gets a job, buys himself a bookcase and books to read.

Ornazian is the kind of P.I. who walks the edge when it comes to good and bad, He wants to provide for his wife and kids and sometimes that means taking a walk on the wrong side of the law. He hates pimps who live off women and helps one hooker get out of the life by robbing the pimp and giving her enough of the money he stole for her to get out of town and start a new life some where far away.

When Ornazian needs a wheel man for one of his jobs, he calls in his favor with Michael Hudson; the dude knows how to handle cars. Michael doesn’t want to get involved, but Ornazian lets him know that the witness who forgot everything he saw could suddenly have an epiphany.

The Man Who Came Uptown is a tale about the love of books and about making choices. The kind of choices we all have to make in life. Sometimes we learn from them and sometimes we die.

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Years of Our Lives on TCM


the-best-years-of-our-lives-still-526x295William Wyler’s superb film about returning veterans will be broadcast on TCM tonight at 10 PM eastern. The brilliant cast includes Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Theresa Wright, Virgina Mayo, and Harold Russell, A must see!

Read about it and more than 30 other important films in my my book, Lessons in the Dark. Available at Amazon. Just click here.

Lessons Dark Final Book Cover

Recent Read: Big Driver – Stephen King

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Stephen King’s novella, Big Driver, originally part of King’s Full Night, Dark Stars collection is a tale of not so sweet revenge in line with the film I Spit on Your Grave.  Tess Thorne, an author of cozy mysteries, is attacked, brutally raped repeatedly and left for dead, on an empty back road while she is on her way back home from a speaking and book signing engagement at a library. Afraid to tell anyone about her rape she seeks revenge on those responsible, two brothers and their mother (the mother it turns out is the library’s event planner and recommended the shortcut to Tess). With the help of her inner voice and a GPS named Tom, The author’s perpetrators get their bloody revenge.

The horror in this King tale is more grounded in reality, or as close to reality as King can get, along the lines of Dolores Claiborne and one of my favorite of King works, Misery (another story about a writer).

 

Recent Read: November Road

November

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was one of the most devastating events to hit this country. Anyone alive at the time remembers where they were and when they first heard the news. I was in a high school classroom when a school administrator walked in and informed the teacher what happened. The teacher then solemnly announced the tragedy to the class. I don’t think any of my fellow students knew how to react or realized the enormity of what happened. One kid, not the brightest bulb in the class, yelled out Nixon got him! Some classmates laughed until our teacher started shouting at us screaming how this was a tragedy and there could be global consequences no one could imagine.  Soon after, the school suspended all classes and sent everyone home.

Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended hours later after killing police officer J.D. Tippet. That Sunday on live TV as Oswald, in police custody, was being transferred by the police. Out of the shadows a gun shot was fired and Oswald went down, The shot was fired by  sleazy nightclub owner Jack Ruby. They apprehended Ruby, and he was put on trial. He was found guilty, but while waiting on an appeal, he died from a pulmonary embolism due to lung cancer.

With  this as the background, author Lou Berney’s third novel, November Road lays the groundwork for a magnificent  read combining conspiracy theories, history, road trip and a tense thriller all rolled up into one superb crime novel.

Frank Guidry is a trusted member of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello’s crew. He knows his way around the club scene and with women. One night, Frank has an awakening of sorts. Though he is a loyal and well thought of member of the family, he is also a loose end connecting Marcello to the assassination of JFK. Marcello, if nothing else is thorough. That makes Frank expendable. Realizing this, Frank decides its best if he leaves town and disappears. But where to go and who can he trust.

Then there is Charlotte Roy, a mother of two young girls, married to a hopeless drunk. Charlotte lives a dead-end life in a small dead-end town in Oklahoma. Charlotte’s mother’s lessons taught her to hold on to what you got and never look beyond. But Charlotte hungers for something more in life for her and her daughters. With her two daughters in hand, Charlotte packs up and takes off for a new life heading for California.

These two divergent souls will find each other on America’s open roads, both looking to escape their past and search for new starts in life. Berney has created three dimensional, fully developed characters and though the story plays out more than 60 years in the past, you can relate to them. Especially Charlotte, a woman who wants more out of life and does not want to settle for the nothing life of her past. Though Frank is on the run, he too, after meeting Charlotte, dreams of a new life, a good life away from the mob, but the question remains, is it too late, especially for him.

November Road is a must read and will rank up there as one of the best reads of the year.

Recent Read: Colorblind

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Colorblind is Reed Farrel Coleman’s fifth book since taking over Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series. It’s his best. Coleman has taken Stone, and while preserving Parker’s essence, made him his own. It’s a winning combination.

After a few months in rehab, Jesse  gets a second chance as police chief in the small Massachusetts town of Paradise. He is still struggling, both emotionally and mentally, to recover from the death of his murdered love, Diana.

When Jesse first became police chief of Paradise, years ago, it was a small town with not much happening. A far cry from his days with the L.A. Police. But like so much of America, Paradise has grown and changed. Barely able to settle back in to his job, there‘s a rape and death of  a young African-American, Felicity Wileford, who was jogging alone on the beach.  A few nights later, a burning cross is planted on the property of Dr. Ron Patel and his wife. The home was previously owned by Jesse. What the incidents have in common is Felicity was in a relationship with a white man and Dr. Patel, an Indian, has a wife who is white. Not long after these incidents, flyers are found on many parked cars placed there during the night. They are credited to an extremist right-wing group called  “The Saviors of Society.” A few nights later, the group targets Jesse’s deputy, Alisha, the first black woman ever hired as a police officer in Paradise, framing her for a bad shooting.

In this book, Coleman brings to the forefront a series of timely issues turning this story into a much darker version than earlier books in the series. Like the rest of America, Paradise is dealing with issues that have divided us. Don’t let that discourage you, just think about it the same way as if you’re watching a movie franchise and different artists have taken over from the originals. It’s different, but the same.

My Book Covers, My Photography

Book Covers1001I have been designing my own book covers, for better or worse, except for my first ebook of fiction (Murder with a Twist), and have been using my own photographs for the covers. Professionals say this is a potential road to disaster. I assume that may be true, but as a  photographer with a backlog of thousands of photographs available, it seemed to me I should be able to find suitable cover photos if I gave it the thought and time.  That said, in this post I thought I’d share some of the creative process involved in selecting the right photograph or photographs that work with each book’s subject matter.

Film Noir at Twenty Four Frames Per Second

My first ebook, Film Noir at Twenty Four Frames Per Second, consist of a collection of film articles from my film blog Twenty Four Frames. When I first became interested in photography, back in the 1970’s, I lived in New York City and many weekends were spent roaming the streets photographing. I sometimes merged my love of movies and photography by photographing the movie theaters that were all over the city. This was before the bland, box cutter multiplexes we have today.  Over the years, whenever I traveled I continued to photograph  classic  movie theaters that have managed to survive the onslaught of multiplexes.  One of these survivors is the Tampa Theater.

My wife and I moved to Florida some twenty years ago and we have attended many film showings at the Tampa Theater (built in 1923). I had photographed the exterior on a few occasions, but wanted to photograph inside the theater. One afternoon, with camera in hand and between film showings I took a series of shots including the one that graces the cover of Film Noir at Twenty Four Frames (I did ask for permission to shoot). The original photograph was in color but keeping in line with the book’s dark theme of film noir, I changed it to black and white giving it a darker look in line with the subject matter.  Below are both the original photo and as it appears on the book cover.

                    Tampa Theate-Aud - Book Cover    Book Cover_DSC_0583-005

 

Lessons in the Dark

Skipping over my first work of fiction (Murder with a Twist), Lessons in the Dark was the second book where I used my own photographs. The cover is a collage of multiple photographs of various New York movies theaters now all sadly gone except for the Paris theater on 58th street. Most were shot on black and white film which I did a lot of at the time.   Lessons in the Dark is collection of article  on films  that hold up a mirror to both our past, and our lives today. These are films though made thirty, forty or fifty years ago remain relevant to our world today. Life and art repeat themselves. The fear mongering, the racial hatred we hear today from plastic gods promising greatness  for America feeding the hate. I knew that I wanted to use a movie theater photograph and began searching through my files. I came to the decision the one theater would be too bland but realizing I have many  photographs of movie theaters and a book that looks back in time I felt a collage might work. I began arranging and rearranging my various theater photographs. There were multiple versions until I came up with the final cover. Below are a few of the original photographs used followed by the final book cover.

        Baronet & Coronet Theatres_CR1-001 Book Cover   Loew's S-002 book cover

42nd Street-003 book Cover    Loew's Oriental -1971 Book Cover

 

Lessons Dark Final Book Cover

Devious Tales

Devious Tales needed something dark and maybe a bit mysterious considering the subject matter. The original photo was taken in 2016 along Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, known for being a street filled with art gallery after art gallery, many artist owned and run. The photograph was taken outside the entrance way of  one of those gallery’s. The image was all shadows reflecting off the gallery’s adobe building. The photo came across to me as somewhat dark and shadowy. Below is the original photo, a black and white version followed by both the final ebook cover and paperback cover.

        Wall Shadow_DSC655_CW-6555          Wall Shadow_DSC655_CW_B&W-6555

 

                     Devious Tales Book Cover - Final (1 of 1)-001           Devious Tales Paperback Cover

In a future post, I will take a look at the making of the book cover for Bitter Ends, my upcoming collection of short stories.