Thursday, December 31, 2009

“Do you fall in love with all of your clients?"


Recently I got an e-mail from a reader that said, in part:

"Eddie LaCrosse with a girlfriend is not the same as Eddie LaCrosse wandering companionless through the world. The lonely but worldwise Eddie LaCrosse seems like a stronger character...Burn Me Deadly starts out great, but as soon as it went to the town scene with his girlfriend it lost something immediately (for me), and I think it was seeing him act like a wuss."
(quoted by permission.)

It got me thinking about why I wanted to give Eddie a romantic partner in Burn Me Deadly, and that made me consider Eddie's literary lineaage. I covered some of this back in June 2009, at a guest post on Erica Hayes' blog, but for this I want to focus a bit more on relationships.

Consensus agrees that Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story with "The Purloined Letter" in 1844, and the hard-boiled detective was created by Dashiell Hammett in his "Continental Ops" stories and novels beginning in 1923. Poe's Auguste Dupin was, as most of his characters, mostly a cipher in service to the narrative, and while the Op definitely liked women, his job always came first. It wasn't until the appearance of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe that the literary detective gained a full-blooded moral dimension in his relationships with women.

Marlowe, who first appeared by name in 1939's The Big Sleep, is cynical, disillusioned and fully aware of the world's evil. Yet he's also capable of comprehending innocence, both in the criminal sense and the moral. He sees the world for what it is, and remains aware of what it could be if the right people were ever put in charge. Marlowe also liked women, a lot, and wasn't shy about expressing it. But he seldom lowered his guard with one, and when he did he ended up regretting it.

Marlowe seems to be a confirmed bachelor, but Chandler actually married him off in his final novel Poodle Springs (unfinished at the time of his death in 1959). In 1989, the man considered Chandler's literary heir was asked to complete it; more on that to come.

Although Marlowe lived and worked through World War II, it took Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer to truly embody and explore the post-war world. Introduced in 1949's The Moving Target, Archer is considerably less witty than Marlowe, but he's also more overtly sympathetic. Marlowe could be dragged into cases he didn't want, but it was in his capacity as a detective; Archer gets pulled into things as a human being. Archer had once been married and occasionally connected with women from his cases, but never for long. Unlike Marlowe, who always saw the world's inadequacies as the impediment to love, Archer accepted that his own weaknesses were to blame.

When Raymond Chandler's estate searched for a contemporary author to take the four chapters of Poodle Springs and turn them into a finished novel, they chose Robert B. Parker. Parker's own Spenser novels combine Chandler's wit and Archer's empathy with a self-conscious literary element (Spenser is incredibly erudite and well-read). Since his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, he has appeared roughly once a year in a series that is still going, if not exactly "strong," at least still capable of pleasant surprises (for example, 2005's Cold Service casts Spenser in the sidekick role in an adventure mainly involving his friend Hawk).

The biggest fundamental change Parker wrought on his predecessors was the addition of Susan Silverman in his second novel, God Save the Child. Susan becomes Spenser's long-term romantic partner, comfortably unmarried yet fully committed to the relationship (as is Spenser). With Susan, Spenser can drop his defenses and reveal his true feelings. But Susan has a deeper function as well: as a psychiatrist, she can give Spenser insights he might otherwise lack, often providing crucial psychological clues.

Eddie LaCrosse could have easily been a loner like Marlowe and Archer, forever mourning the one great love he lost. But in a lesson learned in part from Sam Peckinpah (see prior blog), I didn't want to make Eddie a rigid character; despite his world-weariness and seen-it-all cynicism, he's still capable of learning and changing. I also wanted to give him both someone to talk to, and someone who'd call him out on his mistakes.

I understand my reader's comment above, but I respectfully disagree with it. I don't think having a girlfriend makes Eddie a wuss. Believe me, there are days when I'd rather face big men with swords than work through issues with my wife. But that's as important a battle as anything fought with weapons, and I firmly believe that it makes Eddie (and me) a more interesting character.

(The title quote is from the strange, strange 1947 film adaptation of Chandler's novel The Lady in the Lake. Marlowe's response: "Only the ones in skirts.")

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Robin Wood, R.I.P.

Film critic Robin Wood died on Friday, December 18, 2009. You can read the New York Times obituary here to get an idea of his importance in his chosen field. I want to tell you about his influence on me.

To repeat something I seem to say often here, I grew up in a small, isolated west Tennessee town. I loved to read, but books were expensive and hard to come by, since the town had no library (and barely a school). Movies, though, were free on television. And because my dad loved Westerns, I grew up watching a lot of John Wayne movies. My preferences were always for science fiction and horror, but you can't be constantly exposed to something without developing an affection for it. Thus I love John Wayne Westerns. But as a teen, I started to comprehend that some (True Grit, Rio Bravo, The Searchers) were markedly better than others (Chisum, Cahill: US Marshall, Big Jake).

In college, still enamored of film and toying with ideas of screenwriting, I began to learn why some movies were better than others. I discovered that the Wayne Westerns I loved the most--including Red River, which I'll proclaim my favorite film of all time--were directed by Howard Hawks, a man of such gargantuan talent that he made an acknowledged classic in damn near every genre. And without a doubt, the leading Hawks scholar was Robin Wood.

(the cover of the edition I read in college)

From the library at the University of Tennessee at Martin, I checked out Wood's monograph on Hawks. It had just been republished, I believe, so the edition was shiny and new, lending it an immediacy (and it was again republished in 2006). I learned about Hawks films I'd never seen (the original Scarface, unavailable then) and discovered brilliant connections between films as different as comedy (Bringing Up Baby), wartime intrigue (To Have and Have Not), musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and even historical epic (Land of the Pharaohs).

In other words, I learned why his work, worked.

I never became a screenwriter, obviously. And it took me a long time to become a real writer. But a lot of what I know about how and why a story works (in any medium) comes from studying the films of Howard Hawks, and Robin Wood--ironically best known as an expert on Hitchcock--gave me the key.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Buford Pusser addenda

Thanks to my pal Thom who still lives in Tennessee, here are pictures of the markers from the site of Buford Pusser's fatal car wreck. See my original blog post on Pusser here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Belatedly, Dracula The Un-Dead

Before we start, a caveat. Sequels to classic novels, written long after the fact by new writers, annoy me. It's one thing to be influenced by the classics, it's quite another to co-opt settings, characters and atmosphere (the heavy lifting of writing) to bring life to your own derivative plot. It's worst of all when capped by the hubris to claim something is "THE sequel to..." as opposed to "A sequel to..."

I'm a huge fan of Bram Stoker's original novel Dracula. Not a scholar: I leave that to smarter folk. But I read it at least once a year, usually around Halloween, and when I wrote my own vampire novels (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) I referred to it constantly because it's the gold standard.

Which brings me to Dracula: The Un-Dead, released just before Halloween 2009 and touted as THE official sequel.

It seems to be less a follow-up to Bram Stoker's Dracula than to Bram Stoker's Dracula, Francis Coppolla's 1992 bodice-ripping version of the story. For example, the book accepts the film's connection of Renfield to Jonathan Harker's law firm, something the Stoker novel never mentions. Lucy Westernra's hair is described as red, as in the film but never in Stoker. Some descriptions sound like instructions to the CGI crew: "Their eyes turned black; their fangs elongated." In Stoker, no transformation is so blatantly described, which creates an even more powerful ambiguity. And Mina, who in the novel suffered only one symbolic rape, is depicted--again as in the movie--as having succumbed willingly to Dracula's charms.

Worse is that the authors, perhaps playing into the currently-marketable "dark" trend, have the original heroes who defeated Dracula ruined by the psychological after-effects of their experience. These noble men, who in Stoker always tried to do the right thing even at great risk, are now drunks (Jonathan Harker), drug addicts (Jack Seward), whiners (Arthur Holmwood) and hypocrites (Van Helsing). The authors also manage to throw in random bits of Victoriana and vampiric history; thus Elisabeth Bathory, the "blood countess," is a character, Jack the Ripper is invoked, and even the Loch Ness Monster gets his moment.

Then there's the wink-wink-nudge-nudge series of in-jokes, in which minor characters are named after famous actors who have played the Count: policemen named (Raymond) Huntley, (Louis) Jourdan and (Christopher) Lee, a Dr. (Frank) Langella and so forth. And a final revelation, straight from The Empire Strikes Back, that's so foreshadowed it becomes laughable.

There's a weird "meta" aspect as well. Bram Stoker is a character, and his novel Dracula exists in the story's reality. Quincey Harker, ostensibly our hero, thus reads about his parents' adventures in a book the author (within the sequel to his own book) stresses is a novel. So this book literally can't be a sequel to the original, since the original was not the "true" story. And Dracula, in his guise as the actor Basarab, finagles his way into playing the character Dracula in the stage version of Stoker's novel.

And the thing is, none of this works if you're a true fan of the original book. It becomes a pile of meaningless references, in-jokes and pandering to the current vogue in vampire action and romance. It's a cash-in, packaged and presented as a literary event but, with scenes such as a katana-wielding Mina battling a flying female vampire on the streets of London, plainly more interested in getting that big-bucks movie deal. Hell, it even turns out that Dracula, one of literature's greatest villains, isn't a villain at all but a misunderstood hero. All that remains is for him to start drinking artificial blood and enroll in high school.

So who's behind this? According to the IMDB, co-author/screenwriter Ian Holt has two credits: a 2005 horror film called Dr. Chopper and, "in development" guessed it. In the novel's second afterword (the afterafterword?), Holt confirms that the book was originally planned as a screenplay, which explains its film-treatment feel. And Dacre Stoker, great-grand-nephew of Bram, seems to have been involved mainly because of his DNA. Both authors insist this sequel was a labor of love, but the cynic in me doubts that; this smacks of packaging, from the involvement of an erstwhile screenwriter to the overwhelming marketing push (tie-in Visa and MasterCard credit cards, for example).

I don't mean to say this is a badly written book. It's adequately written, if sloppily edited (on page 15, Elisabeth Bathory makes a small cut on a naked young woman's throat who's then hung upside down, yet according to the text Bathory's "otherworldly eyes remaining focused on the single drop of blood now sliding down her victim's chest." On page 185, someone is referred to in the narration as a "pour soul." And so on). No doubt most readers will find it adequate. If it had been presented as just another vampire novel, perhaps I would've found it adequate, too. Because I wanted to like it.

But at a time when I could've used a reminder that occasionally things are done for something other than monetary profit, that maybe someone wrote THE sequel to Dracula because they loved it as much as I do, I was instead reminded that, for many people, profit is the only reason for anything.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Agent Appreciation Day

Today is Agent Appreciation Day, created by Kody Keplinger.

To celebrate that, I want to praise my agent, Marlene Stringer. Not only is she the best advocate I could ask for, she's unfailingly astute, insightful and honest. She's never given me bad advice, either for my career or my writing, and she's never tried to steer me away from what I wanted to write.

I found her through research in the "Agent" section of the Novel and Short Story Market Guide. I contacted her with a blind query, she asked for sample chapters and, finally, the whole manuscript (see, it really does work that way!). In 2005 I signed with her on the basis of that still-unsold manuscript. For two years (!) she stuck with me without selling any of my novels, for which I am eternally grateful. In that time we got to know each other, so that when she finally did begin to sell my books, we had a good relationship already established. She's never failed to return calls or e-mails, to give advice when asked, and to provide an honest opinion.

I had two other agents prior to Marlene, neither of whom knew what to do with what I wrote. Marlene got it, at once. And she still gets it, along with my lasting gratitude, respect and appreciation.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Giants of West Tennessee: Buford Pusser

NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I'll include links so interested readers can find out more.

There aren't many heroic figures to come out of flat, muddy west Tennessee. Elvis is one, obviously, but he's a special case. Tina Turner, born Annie Mae Bullock in diminutive Nutbush, is certainly heroic, but she's not really associated with the region. But we do have one genuine, larger-than-life hero to our credit: Buford Pusser.

The legend goes like this: former pro wrestler and ex-Marine Buford Pusser returns to McNairy County, Tennessee and is appalled at the rampant injustice. When he's beaten and robbed at a local gambling joint run by the well-connected State Line Gang, he goes back for revenge. At his trial for this assault, his righteousness convinces the jury to take a stand against the gangsters, and he's acquitted. Emboldened, he runs for county sheriff and wins.

As sheriff, Buford doesn't carry a gun. Instead he wields a big stick, literally: four feet long, made of concrete-solid hickory wood. He pursues the criminals and bootleggers that formally had a free ride in the country. He's shot and stabbed, but nothing stops him, until the morning of August 12, 1967. In an ambush, his wife is killed and he's shot in the face. But he survives to continue fighting the good fight, until he's killed in a 1974 one-car wreck that had "suspicious" written all over it.

This is the story you'll find in the trilogy of movies based on his life: Walking Tall (1973, with Joe Don Baker as Pusser), Walking Tall Part 2 (1975, with Bo Svenson taking over) and Walking Tall: the Final Chapter (1977, again with Svenson). The truth, as you can imagine, was quite a bit less black-and-white and can be found in detail in the books The State Line Mob: A True Story of Murder and Intrigue and The Twelfth of August, both by W.R. Morris. As with all real people, Pusser was neither all good nor all bad, and nothing changes the fact that he took a lot of punishment in his capacity as sheriff, not least of which was losing his wife.

If my memory is right, when I was 11 I shook Pusser's hand at the Humboldt, Tennessee Strawberry Festival in the spring of 1974. He was part of the annual parade, along with the governor and various strawberry-related dignitaries. I remember mainly his size, and the off-kilter aspect of his reconstructed face. I was also disappointed he didn't look like Joe Don Baker.

But the public figure of Pusser--an indestructible man with a huge stick, ready to dispense justice--has more reality than the man himself. Elvis may have worn the cape, but Buford Pusser is West Tennessee's superhero.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Julius Caesar, fair and balanced

One of my favorite books to pick up and read random sections from is Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. He means the title literally: "Our ideas as to what makes the self authentically human owe more to Shakespeare than ought to be possible." I don't know if I'd go that far, but no writer can deny the primacy of Shakespeare, and you ignore it at your peril.

In high school, everyone has to read Julius Caesar. It's a perfect introduction to Shakespeare: narratively it's a simple play, it has a speech second only to "To be or not to be..." in the public consciousness, and it features gang murder and ghosts. I remember reading it aloud in English class, and marveling at how the archaic-looking speech came to life when spoken. Then I got beat up for being a dweeb.

But Julius Caesar has a surprising timelessness. Consider the speeches of Brutus and Antony following the assassination of Caesar. Both face a crowd of panicky, easily-swayed citizens (described earlier as "you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things," almost as if they sat home every night watching The Hills and Dancing with the Stars) who demand an explanation.

Brutus speaks first. He is calm, rational, and he lays out the reasons for killing Caesar in a logical fashion. He appeals to the citizenry to judge his actions for themselves ("...censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge."). And then, in one of the dumbest moves ever (right up there with "Put on those gloves, O.J."), he lets Caesar's friend and acolyte Mark Antony address the crowd.

(Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in 1953's Julius Caesar)

Antony, in observing the chaos when Caesar's death is leaked, makes a key observation: "Passion, I see, is catching." In his famous speech, he turns the crowd entirely against Brutus by appealing to their emotions, by producing bogus documents ("But here's a parchment with the seal of Caesar; I found it in his closet, 'tis his will.") and of course by claiming he isn't trying to do exactly what he's doing ("Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny."). The result is civil war.

Not to belabor the point, but Antony would fit right in with the calculating, maniacal voices on the Right screaming about socialism and Gomorrah with virtually no interest in actual facts; Brutus, while he does have the courage to get his own hands bloody, is as effective a public speaker as Al Gore on the campaign trail. And the Roman citizens, as already noted, are just as content to have their opinions handed to them as many of us are.

So what, ultimately, does the 400-year-old Julius Caesar tell us?

About ourselves: that in the war between passion and intellect, passion always wins.

About Shakespeare: that Harold Bloom just might be right.