Cornelia Street

I read a piece yesterday on Crime Reads about aging your characters over a series, and have to say it was interesting; certainly, it make one Gregalicious stop and think–muse, really.

I was–doubtless like any number of Agatha Christie readers–already aware that Poirot was already elderly and retired from the police force in his first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles; by the 1960’s when he was still solving cases he would have had to have been, per the piece, about 130 years old. Likewise, Miss Marple was already an elderly woman when she debuted in the 1930’s in Murder at the Vicarage, and while later Marple stories talked about how old and frail she was, by the time her last case–Sleeping Murder–rolled out in the 1970’s she also would have been well past one hundred. (The piece also discussed how old Nero Wolfe would have been by the time his final case was published, if the fiction matched reality.)

This is something that has been preying on my mind for quite some time, because of course, Scotty was only twenty-nine in Bourbon Street Blues (published in 2003), which, if we follow linear time, would make him around forty-six now. That’s not terribly bad–he typed as he eyes his own sixtieth birthday coming the following year–but it’s not Scotty’s age that concerns me so much as the age of everyone else in the series. If Scotty is forty six and the youngest Bradley child, and Storm was old enough to be a senior in high school when Scotty was in eighth grade–that puts Storm firmly at around fifty-one, which would put Scotty’s parents into their seventies and his grandparents in their nineties–at the very least. Scotty is actually younger–I didn’t follow linear time in the series (Katrina forced me to start aging him; I had intended for him to be twenty-nine forever)–and so he actually was 29 in 2004 and turned thirty just before Katrina–but that only shaves about a year off his age. I’ve not wanted to deal with the deaths of his grandparents or his parents becoming frailer with age, so I just pretend when I write about them that they’ve not aged. Scotty has, but they haven’t–and also, Frank is pushing sixty himself now no matter how I arrange the ages and timing of the series, and still wrestling professionally. Again, I’ve not really wanted to deal with the age issues–he retired after twenty years of service with the FBI, as a matter of fact–retiring in the period between Jackson Square Jazz and Mardi Gras Mambo, but I have intellectually accepted the fact that Frank is probably going to have to step away from the ring and the bright lights; it’s just a matter of when. I’ve always wanted to do a Scotty case built around the professional wrestling promotion Frank works for and will need to be retiring from; this was always going to be the premise behind Redneck Riviera Rhumba…but a Scotty book not set in New Orleans?

Anyway, I’ve really not wanted to deal with the deaths of Scotty’s grandparents, but I also know I am eventually going to have to–I can’t keep having them be just an amorphous age known as “old” and live to be over a hundred (although people do live that long, but it’s patently absurd that all four of his grandparents are remarkably long-lived; perhaps I’ll start killing off the Bradley side of the family first. I never liked the Bradley side, but have always had a soft spot for the Diderots.)

I can probably get away without killing the grandparents off for another couple of books, but…the clock is ticking. Although a Bradley death being the springboard for another case would be interesting. Hmmmm. *makes notes*

I also discovered an interesting location in Louisiana yesterday, Fort St. Philip. And yes, while that may not be completely factually correct–I’d heard of it vaguely before as one of the Mississippi River forts below New Orleans that were built to help defend the city–I’d never really learned much about it, but yesterday I discovered this weird abandoned location was actually home to a religious cult from 1978-1989, when they all moved away. Interesting, no? I could easily do a Sherlock story back in the 1910’s set there, or even have it be a weird Scotty story, or even simply a stand alone; an abandoned fort once home to a religious cult is like the perfect setting for a horror novel as well, isn’t it? Hmmm. I could also do all three, frankly; a Sherlock story in 1916; a Scotty story in the present; and a horror novel at any time. SCORE.

I did watch The Conversation while I was making condom packs yesterday, and am really glad I did. The film was incredibly timely when it was released back in 1974; the Nixon administration was crumbling because of it’s illegal electronic surveillance of the McGovern campaign, and the ensuing cover-up–although Francis Ford Coppola knew none of that would be the case when he wrote and directed the film. It was also overshadowed by his other film release that year–The Godfather Part II–which is really a shame. The Conversation has a plot, of course–and a pretty decent one–but the film is really a character study of Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who works pretty much alone and is legendary in his field–which few people really know about. The entire film hinges on the performance of Gene Hackman in the lead, and it’s one of Hackman’s best performances, understated and nuanced and completely immersive; I don’t think he got an Oscar nomination for this but he definitely should have–and it should have been a very close race for him. The film opens with Harry and his team–mostly hirelings, as he prefers generally to work alone–following and recording a young couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) as they walk around a crowded Union Square. Harry is also haunted by one of his greatest achievements–he managed to eavesdrop and record a conversation between a corrupt union boss and an accountant about their embezzling of union funds; the boss assumed the accountant had talked and had people kill not only him, but his wife and children in a particularly brutal way. Harry looks at every job as a challenge, and his particular genius is conquering jobs most experts reject as impossible. But after those murders, Harry is beginning to question his own morality and his own ability to distance himself from what results from him doing his job…and as the film progresses, he begins to distrust his own client, and suspects the client (played by Robert Duvall and only ever known as “the Director”) is going to murder the young couple–the woman happens to be his wife. (A beautiful, very young pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford plays the Director’s assistant, and Harry’s contact–and his motivations are also murky and peculiar.) Harry is already paranoid–he refuses to have a phone in his apartment, and early in the film gets a post office box so no one will have his address–and watching the paranoia and fear build in him throughout the film is very impressive. It really captures the cynicism and paranoia of the 1970’s; it could be considered a defining film of the decade, and is definitely an excellent addition to your own Cynical 70’s Film Festival.

I also watched an old horror movie from the 1980’s called Witchboard, which I had enjoyed at the time but now–well, calling it “terrible” is actually a complement. The script is bad, the dialogue is bad, the cast has no chemistry together, and none of the relationships make any sense. The cast, led by Todd Allen (who is supposedly hot and sexy–okay, 1980’s straight masculinity), Tawny Kitaen (perhaps best known for the Whitesnake music video for “Here I Go Again”, for dancing erotically on the hood of a car; this film definitely answers any questions anyone might have about Kitaen’s acting abilities–they are virtually non-existent) and Stephen Nichols, who would go on to great fame on soaps like Days of Our Lives (as Patch) and General Hospital (as a Cassadine in love with Genie Francis’ Laura Spencer), but is frankly terrible in this. It came in late for the Halloween Horror Film Festival, but dear Lord, it is terrible. I have yet to decide which films to watch during today’s condom packing adventures, but I did find some more interesting looking 70’s films–along with some really terrible-looking horror movies from the 1970’s on.

And of course, there is always a lot of writing for me to do; volunteer work, and so forth….but I intend to really enjoy this weekend as much as I can. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, as I put on my helmet and once again head to the spice mines.

Come Back…Be Here

And now it’s Thursday, and we’re sliding into the weekend slowly but surely. I’m just keeping my head down and doing what I need to get through what’s left of my life, frankly. I’m actually, as I near sixty, really grateful for being a gay American, particularly this week–because it means I am used to being disappointed in, and by, my fellow Americans.

I’ve always believed that more Americans than not would be perfectly happy if all queers were put in camps–and would be okay with people of color joining us there. I started writing a book about that very thing back in the early 1990’s–There Comes a Tide was what I called it, which is a great title I should repurpose, as I doubt I will ever write the book–which led me to study the rise of Nazism in Germany, which I knew about but not in any kind of depth. It was really a strange experience–but one I would recommend…because it put me into a mindset of looking around at my friends and family and co-workers and wondering, if they came for the queers, who would avert their eyes? Who would pretend it wasn’t happening? And who would do and/or say something? Who could I count on to hide me?

It was, quite frankly, a horrible exercise in cynicism, human nature and brutal honesty…and I also began, at the same time, to understand why the movie Cabaret was actually so fucking brilliant, and that Bob Fosse was, after all, a genius–something I recognize more and more every time I watch the film again. (Maybe it’s time for yet another rewatch, and it definitely would fit into the Cynical 70’s Film Festival…hmmm. Definitely worth a second thought for sure.) I also want to watch more of Fosse’s films–I don’t think I’ve ever seen All That Jazz all the way through, and there’s also Lenny and Star 80….hmmm some more.

I did make it to the gym last evening after work and it was quite marvelous. I was definitely too cranky, wound up and tired to go Tuesday–and while I did worry that not going was the first step onto that slippery slope of “blow it off once, you’re much more likely to blow it off twice”, I did manage to not only go after work last night, I actually enjoyed it, felt tremendous after I went, and I kind of liked the walk through the neighborhood in the dark. It was a lovely cool evening, and when I walked past Coliseum Square a “piano truck” had parked there along Race Street, and while I did leave my headphones in, I thought it was kind of charming that a freelance pianist was set up in the park. I am still amazed at how much better I feel now that I am working out again–it eases my stress, releases tension in my back and other muscles, and the stretching is simply marvelous. I’m still getting used to my new gym–seeing new people, using new machines that are slightly different from any I’ve used before, and everyone there seems really nice–but it still doesn’t feel like my gym yet; but then we belonged to St. Charles Athletic Club for seventeen years, which is an incredibly long time to belong to a gym. But then again, when you’re pushing sixty, there are any number of things you’ve been doing routinely for a very long time.

I did work on “Condos, for Sale or Rent” for a hot minute last night as well before repairing to the easy chair–I’ve become addicted to a series of Youtube videos called Lost in Adaptation, where the narrator (Dom, a British guy) compares novels to the film adaptations, including “what they kept” and “what they changed.” (My personal favorite with the David Lynch Dune vs. the novel; suffice it to say Dom found the film as ludicrous and silly an adaptation as I did. He also did good ones for Rebecca, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, The Bad Seed, and The Shining.)

I slept deeply and well last night and feel very rested this morning, which is great. While the election still isn’t quite yet over, I’ve reached a kind of zen-like state about the entire thing, and I find that, once again, I was carrying a lot of electoral stress in my subconscious and in my back. I feel a lot more like myself now–indeed, yesterday and today both–like I’ve finally found myself again. There are still some things that I need to handle, but I am feeling better about them–and like I can get everything done that I need to get done, which is an absolutely lovely feeling, quite frankly. This has seriously been quite the year–and that is the definition of understatement, I think. Yeesh, Carnival certainly seems like it was a million years or so ago, doesn’t it? Granted, it was also the “Carnival of Death,” with two major parades ending early after floats killed people (!), which kind of should have let us all know that it was going to be a shit-show of a year; when Carnival sucks and isn’t fun….that should be the indicator that we all need to keep our heads down and try not to attract much attention and just try to endure it all. Granted, there’s still two nearly full months of 2020 to go, of course, and there’s still plenty of time left for sucker punches and cheap shots and low blows from this annus horribilis.

A most unpleasant but highly likely possibility.

Today is a work at home day for me, and I am debating what to watch during the condom packing part of my day. I’m going to check to see if Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation (over-shadowed completely by being released in the same year as The Godfather Part II) is available to stream anywhere–I think it may be on Amazon Prime–and I also have to get my checking account straightened out at some point today; but I also don’t have to leave the house today if I don’t choose–and I am thinking I do not choose. I have stuff to make for dinner, and I can hold off groceries until Saturday, methinks. I really feel this morning that not going outside the house–other than to take out the trash and/or get the mail and/or go to the gym–until Saturday is optimal. I’m just really not in the mood for people, to be honest, and I like this rested feeling I am experiencing this morning.

And now to tackle the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, everyone.

Wanted Dead or Alive

The past month been an interesting one, so much so that I’ve not really been able to get a whole lot of anything writing related finished. This is partly my own fault, of course; I should have repeatedly resisted the urge to continue to read and refresh pages and follow links and so forth; but like a train wreck, I wasn’t able to ever tear my eyes away from the carnage.

As I said to a friend at the height of the drama, “Every time I think the last car of the train has come off the rails and the wreck is finished, here comes another train on the same tracks and I am mesmerized all over again.” I’ve read blog posts and Facebook posts and Twitter threads, over and over again, my mouth wide open and there being literally no way to keep my jaw from its permanently dropped position other than using both hands to push it up and then hold it in place.

I mean, wow. What a month it has been for both the crime and horror fiction communities.

This is a roundabout way of getting to a question that has come up a lot in the last decade or so, and one I’ve thought about a lot, but have never really addressed very much…but with all these shenanigans going on recently, I started thinking about this again, and it also played into my thoughts about reading The Hunter by Richard Stark, and my recent read of I the Jury by Mickey Spillane; two enormously popular novels by well-regarded crime writers that might not hold up as well through the modern day lens as they perhaps did when they were originally released.

And that ever-present question of the artist versus the art.

Probably the first time I’ve ever thought about whether it’s possible to continue to enjoy art despite the artist was, of course, the film Chinatown. I never saw it in the theatrical release, but it’s widely regarded as one of the best crime films ever made; I remember it was nominated for like ten or eleven Oscars in the year it was released (which, if memory serves, was the same year as The Godfather Part II, which pretty much won everything imaginable), and the debate about the movie has raged ever since Polanski fled the country to avoid statutory rape consequences. I find that abhorrent; and any defense of Polanski’s indefensible behavior irrelevant to me. But I wanted to watch Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby is one of my favorite horror movies of all time; I revisit it every now and then. So, how can I justify watching and enjoying these two films directed by someone who did something heinous? When I was finally able to stream Chinatown a few years back, I justified it to myself by saying it was 1. before the statutory rape and 2. if I didn’t review or talk about or promote the film on social media or on my blog, streaming it through a service I already pay for isn’t contributing much, if any, money to Polanski’s bank account.

And yes, I am very well aware of how ludicrous and torturous those mental hoops I jumped through actually are.

There was also the Orson Scott Card debacle a few years back, and I didn’t jump through hoops on that one. I had read and enjoyed Ender’s Game, and had thought about reading more of Card’s work…until I discovered he was a horrific homophobe who actually worked, donated money to, and actively sought to block gay equality in the United States. 

Nope, sorry, done.

It’s one thing to have abhorrent opinions about a minority; it’s another to actively work–and use the money you’ve earned through your art–against the rights of that minority. Fuck all the way off, Mr. Card, and never come back.

Which brings me to The Hunter.

the hunter

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to  hell. The guy said, “Screw you, buddy,” yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the tollbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.

The 8 a.m. traffic went mmmmmm, mmmmmm, all on this side, headed for the city. Over there, lanes and lanes of nobody going to Jersey. Underneath, the same thing.

Out in the middle, the bridge trembled and swayed in the wind. It does it all the time, but he’d never noticed it. He’d never walked it before. He felt it shivering under his feet, and he got mad. He threw the used-up butt at the river, spat on a passing hubcab, and strode on.

Richard Stark is one of the pseudonyms of crime writer extraordinaire Donald Westlake. I will be the first to admit, repeatedly, that my education in not only literature but crime fiction is sorely lacking; there are many authors whose works I should have read and haven’t; Westlake is one. I read my first Westlake a few years ago, a Hard Case Crime edition of The Comedy is Finished and it was amazingly good. I ordered a copy of The Hot Rock shortly thereafter; alas, it is still in the TBR pile., and I do intend to get to it at some point.

Westlake also happens to be an inspiration to one of my favorite queer writers, Rob Byrnes, who writes witty, Westlake-like queer caper novels (if you’ve not already read him, you must do so immediately).

I first discovered that Westlake was also Richard Stark when these Parker novels he wrote under that name were brought back into print recently by the University of Chicago Press, and a crime writer I admire deeply, Chris Holm, announced he’d written an introduction for one of the books. Chris has never steered me wrong in his recommendations (for that matter, neither has his amazing wife, Katrina Niidas Holm, who was the one who steered me to Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, for which I will always be grateful), and so I thought, as is my wont, to start with the first book in the series, The Hunter.

And once I started reading it, as you can see by the opening above, I was caught up in the story and the voice.

But, as I said earlier, The Hunter was very much a novel of its time: 1960.

Parker was considered an anti-hero when the books first started coming into print–although today I suppose he would be considered a sociopath. He does live by a code, even if he is a sociopathic criminal; and one has to admire the dedication to that code, and how he never deviates from it. He doesn’t have an issue with breaking the law–in fact, he makes his living breaking the law–nor does he have a problem with meting out vengeance on those who do him wrong. In The Hunter, he is betrayed–and almost killed–by his partners in a high-stakes robbery; amongst those who wronged and cheated him are his wife–and he kills her without a second thought, and then goes after the rest of those involved in the scam, even though some of them are very well connected with the New York mob. (The mob is referred to as a ‘syndicate’ in the book; an old term I haven’t heard in a very long time, and it was a lovely piece of nostalgia. Organized crime was often referred to as a ‘syndicate’ back in the day.)

It’s tautly written, suspenseful (will Parker get his revenge, or will he be betrayed yet again?) and I kept turning the pages. I really enjoyed the book tremendously, and will go back and continue to read the Parker novels–I am curious to see how Stark developed the character and the continuing story of his life and career in crime, as well as to see how Westlake continued to develop as a writer under the name Richard Stark.

However–the casual homophobia of the time slapped me in the face a couple of times while I was reading the book:

Page Three: On the way, he panhandled a dime from a latent fag with big hips and stopped in a grimy diner for coffee.

p. 38: “She’s dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead, too, if you want.”

Yeah, I did kind of recoil, and in both instances I debated finishing the book. But…it was written in 1960, and the attitude towards homosexuality exhibited in those lines (including the slur pansy, which I haven’t heard in a while) was common. We can’t deny that it existed–we cannot deny homophobia exists today any more than we can that it did in 1960–and it was a sign of the times. Does that mean the book shouldn’t be read? Should it come with a trigger warning? A deep-seated contempt for homosexuality was part and parcel of the alpha male/tough guy persona of the times, and including that language in the book was an easy way to convey the no-nonsense masculinity of the character (it was also there in I the Jury–much more so in the Spillane than the Stark).

The attitudes towards women isn’t much better; but again, a sign of the times:

p. 135 He used one cord to tie her hands behind her, the other to tie her ankles. He found scissors in a desk drawer next to an inhaler, snipped off part of her slip and used it for a gag. She had good legs–But not now. After it was over, after Mal was dead, he’d want somebody then.

Ew, because killing someone is a turn-on? Although it fits with the character Stark has created; this is a man who killed his wife without a second thought.

But…I enjoyed reading the book. I suspect my enjoyment would have been greater in the past–I probably would have loved this series had I discovered it in my late teens and early twenties, but the world was a different place then, too. I am definitely going to continue reading the series; as I said earlier, I am curious to see how the character develops and changes and grows–or if he doesn’t, how bad he becomes. I am intrigued by the character, and of course, the writing is absolutely stellar.

I don’t think, for the record, books from earlier times should be held to the same standards as we would hold something newly published; times and attitudes vary and change over time. It’s hard to read an older book without the modern lenses, however; probably as little as ten years ago I would have dismissed the “pansy” remarks or the misogyny apparent in the character without feeling the need to point it out. I don’t think these books should be cancelled or not read; primarily because it’s incredibly important to have these conversations–as well as these works serve as a time capsule, a window into another time where things hadn’t yet changed but needed to, certainly.

I do recommend it; as I said, I will continue reading the Parker series and I am looking forward to reading more of the Westlake novels as well.