Saturday, February 28, 2015

Looper

The movie LOOPER (2012), written and directed by Rian Johnson, is a dystopian crime-thriller-sci-fi-neo-noir-suspense-coming-of-age-love-story set in 2044. Kind of. It jumps around from 2044 to 2074 and back, as people in 2074 can travel back to 2044, but not vice versa.

The reason people go back is so that they can be killed. Not that they are committing suicide-- they are getting the time travel kiss-off off instead of the old-fashioned-cement-overshoes-goodbye you might get from a twentieth century mobster. You see, as Joe (played by Joseph Gordon Leavitt) tells us, forensics is too sophisticated in 2074, so organized crime sends guys back in time to get whacked, which is the only sure way to disappear them.

When I think of hit men, I think of amoral and scary guys who can kill you eight ways from Sunday without even breaking a sweat—guys like Charles Bronson in THE MECHANIC. It’s both a vocation and avocation for these guys, who might not have grown up wanting to kill for a living, but found somewhere along the way that it was the only thing they were good at. The hired killer, the mercenary, the hit man, the assassin—these are the ultimate noir characters, who live in a world so debased that there is nothing they can do that would make any moral difference. They are not knights, not hard-boiled tough guys meting out rough justice in a rough world, but more like ronin, samurai without a master, killers who kill for nothing but personal gain, for whom everything, even the taking of human life, is just business.

Joe is amoral, certainly, but he doesn’t seem to me to have been “called” to killing. He’s certainly not an artist, or even a competent craftsman. All he really does is wait for guys to fall hog-tied from the sky and then blow them away with a shotgun called a blunderbuss: As he says : “You can’t hit anything further than fifteen feet, and within fifteen feet, you can’t miss.”

Joe gets a shitload of gold or silver bars for each hit, strapped to the back of the victim. He is saving up for some kind of life in the future, although it seems his future life will be as lonely and drug addicted as his present one. In the Kansas City of 2044, most of the city is a third world slum. A small percentage of the population (including Joe) lives a Club Med/Studio 54 kind of existence while the “vagrants” starve. There seems to be no middle class, with the rich and poor both being completely idle—the difference between them being the rich get to eat.

The movie starts to get really interesting when Old Joe is sent back from the future to be killed by Young Joe. For a little while, my mind got bent around the possibilities—if you killed your future self, would your present self die? (apparently not, although if your present self is killed your future one dies, and a new, alternative time line is created). Bruce Willis, as Old Joe, manages to elude Young Joe, who is dead set on killing his older self. He has to, or the entire criminal organization he works for will hunt him down and kill him. I loved the conceit, and thought about how often we mortgage off the future for a shinier, better present—athletes with steroids, Faust by selling his soul to the devil, young drug dealers and gang bangers selling off the future to live large now, all of which is not a new phenomenon, the phrase “live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse“ going back to at least the thirties, I think.

The two Joes meet in a diner, and the old version of Joe tells his former self (who sees the future holds no hair for him) that “The time travel shit doesn’t matter. We could sit around here all day with charts and graphs and it still wouldn’t make any sense.” It didn’t matter to me, either. The idea of your old self meeting your young self fascinates. What would I tell my twenty-two year old self if I could? Certainly, I would say lose the mullet. And avoid that boxing match where you tear the rotator cuff, as the shoulder is going to give you a lot of trouble later on. And certainly I would say stop drinking so much, and stay away from the wrong kind of women, and pay more attention to the right kind. And most of all, I would say stop being such a self absorbed, self pitying, navel-gazing, melancholy and morose fool.

Which is basically what Old Joe tells Young Joe. It’s a great scene. Of course, all this wisdom is lost on the impetuous youth. Wisdom is no match for impulse, the rash and the mercurial stronger than the seasoned and more measured (although maturity is just as capable of violence).

And from there we are off. The action scenes are great, but those are not what kept me in the movie. What did was the fact that there are two timelines at stake here, and in one, Old Joe loses his girlfriend in the future, and in the other, Young Joe loses his in the present. And there is the life of some young kids on the line, all three of them needing killing as an unknown one of them will become a criminal mastermind (somewhere around puberty, I would guess). Or will he? Do we have the right to kill people just because of what they might do? Especially since this differing “time lines” business seems to offer some version of free will?

But it is Young Joe’s movement back to the community of man, however tainted that community is, that really got me. You would think Johnson wouldn’t have bothered with something like that, what with the cool gimmick, the shtick, the conceit, the device, that he has come up with, but he has Joe learn to care for someone besides himself. Young Joe learns to love his girlfriend and her kid, and won’t let Old Joe kill either of them, which Classic Joe feels he must do to alter the terrible future (which contains the mastermind and the death of his girl). Both Joes are acting out of love, even though a complete lack of belief in the power of love is practically a job requirement for both of them.

Is there a third timeline where everything and everyone can be saved? Do people really change? The Future Joe does seem to have become a somewhat different man (although he still can rack up quite a body count). The best scenes in the movie are where Young Joe confronts old, and where Young Joe confronts Cid, his girlfriend’s (played by Emily Blunt) child. Cid is obviously emblematic of the younger Joe, before he was embittered by the loss of his mother, and all the useless death and pointless dystopian butchery and drugging and whoring and general dissipation and debauchery. Can a man choose love in a world where it has not only gone out of style, but seems not only a stupid but a suicidal choice? And will it make any difference in a world that doesn’t seem to care, a world that seems willfully opposed to any happy endings, that seems to insist that even if the two men act out of love, one of the girlfriends must meet a horrible death, and all three kids, including Cid? (Who may, on one timeline, embittered by the loss of his Mom, become the dreaded Rainman, the criminal mastermind with special telekinetic powers who decides to close everyone’s “loops” by having all the future killers go back in time to be slaughtered by their present ones, thereby closing their “loops”?)

No spoilers here. Let’s just say that people, and movies, can surprise you.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, February 27, 2015

Comfort Reading—What Does It For You?

Last Sunday afternoon I slipped a disk. This came on top of a couple of weeks of increasing misery—the abscessed tooth, the itchy skin rash from the medicine for the abscessed tooth, and before that the other thing, what was it? Oh, crap, right, the colonoscopy. Increasing misery. After exhausting all the available reruns of Foyle's War I understood that the time had come to read something, preferably something comforting.

The First World War has always interested me. My grandfather was a Royal Canadian Army officer who fought in the trenches. So I like stories about that, and about spies and sabotage, like the story I told you last week where Werner Horn tried to blow up the Vanceboro bridge. In the course of researching Von Papen the spymaster, Germany's naval attache in the U.S., I came across a wonderful book by another spymaster of the early days of the war, a more competent man than von Papen, or so he says. Captain Franz von Rintalen wrote The Dark Invader: War-Time Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer, about his days in the sabotage business before the United States entered the war.

American munitions factories were in full production, and though the U.S. was officially neutral, the arms were shipped only to the Allies, since the Central Powers were effectively blockaded by the British navy. Von Rintalin recruited an inventor of timed incendiary devices and a ring of Irish dockworkers in New York, who hid the devices on ships in places other than where the munitions were stored. Far at sea, fires broke out. The munitions had to be soaked with water to save the ships, ruining the cargo but sparing the men.

At some point the clumsy Von Papen was exposed and expelled from the country for activities of his own. He claimed diplomatic immunity as he traveled through Britain, but the British made him surrender his papers. The whole network of German spies and saboteurs in America was blown by the fleeing diplomat's check-book stubs, carefully inscribed with names and addresses. Von Rintalin went to jail. The Irishmen went home and started the Easter Rebellion.


But I was talking about comfort reading. My favorite book about spy work in the First World War is Manning Coles' Drink to Yesterday, a bittersweet account of the life of a British spy in Germany, followed by the more upbeat sequel, A Toast to Tomorrow. I could read those again and again, and after I did the thing to my back (it's getting better, by the way, not to worry) I rushed to the bookshelf (as best I could) and got them down to read once more.

I'm proud to say that the best of my own work has been considered comfort reading. My first agent told me she read one of my manuscripts while recovering from gum surgery. You might ask, why don't I write spy stories, if I like them so much? The answer is that the life of a secret agent is completely foreign to my experience. I would have nothing true to say about it. Okay, there was the time forty years ago, at the height of the divorce paranoia, when I dressed up in a wig to take the train to Manhattan and meet a man for a steak dinner. That was good for a couple of sinister thrills. I'll tell you the story sometime.

Or maybe not.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What You Can Predict About the Oscars

Sheila York

Watching: Season 3: White Collar
Reading: The Drop, Michael Connelly   

You knew what was coming. You knew that the second the Oscars were over, the requisite movie critics’ proclamations would begin about how out of touch Hollywood is with moviegoers.

The biggest moneymaker didn’t win Best Picture.  The movie that did had, at that point, been seen by roughly one-seventh the number of people who watched the Oscars (5 million vs. 36 million). 

Many of the most popular movies of 2014 were ignored entirely in nominations.


Great performances; Total number of people who've seen their movies
probably less than saw them win
How can that be? the critics seem to be saying. How can an industry that regards receipts above all things not want to just hand out statues to whoever’s movies made the most money?

And you knew they’d complain about the show. They always do. What’s that line about insanity being when you do the same thing over and over and expect a different result?

I wasn’t bowled over by the show, either, but I don’t expect to be. Producing that show is an enormous task, especially given the limitations and demands (you have to let Travolta present so he can publicly apologize to Idina Menzel). So I lay on the sofa, cheer for my favorites and drink too much wine. But I guess if you’re a movie critic, you’d lose your job doing that. (The low-expectations/laying-on-sofa part; I think getting sloshed would be fine as long as you made deadline.)

I watch. And when something wonderful happens – like John Legend and Common’s performance of Glory – I am reminded what artists can do and shout hallelujah.

I might have let one series of reviews upset me too much: Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes’ in the New York Times continued to report that the orchestra played off two documentary-film winners while they were talking about suicide. Messrs Cieply and Barnes, the orchestra did not play those women off while they were talking about a suicide. The orchestra began to play them off after they had reached the limit of allotted time. Then in wrapping up, one of the women said, “…he committed suicide…”.  The orchestra – as soon as a human being would have had time to process that (maybe two seconds) – stopped playing. I’m giving Messrs Cieply and Barnes the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that they actually watched that part, and have not relied for their opinion on Twitter comments.

All right, let’s move on. David tells me I really need to let go of that one.

I’d like to explain the Oscars’ alleged audience “disconnect” with a bit of (very high-points-only) history.

The Oscars were largely irrelevant to audiences before TV almost killed the movies. The Academy was formed in the late 1920s to negotiate labor disputes and improve the image of Hollywood, which it sorely needed, given the uproar regularly created by the content of some silent films. Ask Kate about that!

But rather quickly, it became American films’ historian, librarian, and artistic arbiter with its awards of merit. Established stars won; A-list pictures did too. It was a party given by Hollywood for Hollywood. Of course, studios and stars liked winning, but by the time a movie won, it was no longer in the theaters, and the studios couldn’t cash in on it.  


Then in the early 1950s, TV began its rampage. Movie profits plummeted. Hollywood began to use the awards as a way to help return focus to the movies – and used TV to do it, by broadcasting the show (beginning in 1953). 

And they made flashy films, the sort of thing you couldn't see on the small screen. Spectacle got rewarded in that decade: American in Paris, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Ben-Hur and The Bridge on the River Kwai (which actually deserved it). 
The Production Code – the censorship that ruled Hollywood beginning in 1934 – had made any forthright examination of complex human emotions and conditions almost impossible. But after WWII, foreign films, mostly European at that time, began getting attention. 

They were experimental, edgy, and dealt frankly with real life – Whoa there, Mr. De Sica, you have a scene in a brothel? No way. Cut that out of The Bicycle Thief, or we won’t show your movie over here in the good old US of A. Still audiences turned out to see it in very limited release – uncut.

The Code continued to weaken as more and more of the US audience wanted more complexity, and Hollywood wanted to find something to get those baby boomer butts into the theaters. In the 1960s, prosperity put considerable disposable income in the hands of teenagers for the first time. And while there were certainly big-budget, broad-appeal films like The Sound of Music, you could also find gritty, brutally honest movies without happy endings – hello, Midnight Cowboy. They got screen time and took home awards.

Then Hollywood discovered the Blockbuster in the late 70s (Jaws – nominated; Star Wars – not) and not long after, Oscar began getting thumped soundly for not recognizing all that money being made.

That thumping, however, coincided with the growth of “small films”.  Producers and distributors appeared for less expensive movies because the audience and available venues were expanding in number.  Then the Oscars, looking to get more big films nominated, expanded the Best Picture nominee list to as many as 10 films. Which resulted in more small films being nominated. And winning. And more of those films' artists being invited to join the Academy, and more small films being nominated, and ... I’m getting a little dizzy from the going round in circles.

Which brings me to . . .

I haven’t seen all of Birdman, which won Best Picture. I did hear all of it, though. The currently very popular loose-camera technique – where the camera joggles and swings as it records action – makes me nauseous. Not figuratively, because I really like the right-in-the-action feel it can give. I mean literally nauseous. After 20 minutes, I'm carsick. In some movies, (and it happened in Birdman) I have to close my eyes, take off my socks and shoes, and put my bare feet on the cold (sticky) floor to keep from sharing my grief with the back of the head of the person in front of me.

I don’t have the same reaction on a small screen, so I can watch the whole movie soon on Blu-ray.

My favorite film of the year was Guardians of the Galaxy. Too bad Groot couldn’t present the best-support Oscar. Now I think on it, if nominees had been required to come from big-money movies, Bradley Cooper would have been nominated twice – for American Sniper and as the “I’m not a raccoon” in Guardians. (Guardians could also have won had there been a category for best use of music from other decades.)

After that, these are the rest of my favorites of the movies I saw in 2014 – in no order whatsoever. I recommend them.
 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Whiplash
Selma
Gone Girl
Non-Stop
Get on Up
The Imitation Game
Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat.)
The Theory of Everything
Big Hero 6
Divergent
Begin Again
Wild
The 100-Foot Journey
Chef

They were among David’s favorites, too, but he’d like to add these:



The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
John Wick
Maleficent
Captain America: Winter Soldier 



Copyright 2015 Sheila York

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dr. Daniel Rinaldi and the Phantom Limb…

Dennis Palumbo's new smooth-as-silk book with psychologist and Police Department consultant Dr. Daniel Rinaldi—PHANTOM LIMB—will knock your socks off! Page one will hook you… and you won't stop for lunch, dinner or sleep! This new book by Hollywood former screenwriter for bigtime shows grabs you by the throat and does not let you go til the end.

Kirkus Reviews said, "Jack Reacher with a psychology degree." I've read all the Reacher books… and Dan Rinaldi has more heart, soul and compassion!

Dennis is the author of a mystery collection, FROM CRIME TO CRIME, and his short fiction has appeared in
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and The Strand.

We are delighted to welcome Dennis Palumbo back to
Crime Writer's Chronicle today!

Thelma Straw




Thelma: Is Lisa Campbell based on a real person? Or a composite? You had me by the throat with her first appearance on p. 1.

Dennis: Prior to becoming a licensed psychotherapist, I was a Hollywood screenwriter for 17 years. During that time I met a number of women like Lisa—women "of a certain age" who were once young, naive actresses exploited for their looks in less-than-meaningful films. In PHANTOM LIMB, the character of Lisa is a composite of such women, for whom I have both sympathy and respect for the fact that they're survivors. Plus, like Lisa, these women tend to have razor-sharp, expletive-laden tongues.

Thelma: You have the cop lingo and mannerisms down pat. Did you train with the police?

Dennis: No, though I've met with a few police detectives over the years. Mostly what little I know comes from research.

Thelma: As a real therapist do you base your characters on real people? Like Noah?

Dennis: Interesting that you should ask that question, since Noah Frye is the only recurring character who is in fact based on a real person. He's loosely based on a patient I met thirty years ago when I was an intern at a psychiatric facility. Like Noah, this person was a paranoid schizophrenic, but as funny, smart and sardonic as a Vegas stand-up comic. Though the details of his life are vastly different than what I created for Noah, he's the source of my character's rueful view of the world and what is commonly thought of as "crazy wisdom."

Thelma: Your dialog and actions move so well - does it come easily or do you re-write a lot?

Dennis: First of all, thanks! I work hard on making the action sequences flow smoothly, which does entail a good bit of re-writing. This is not the case with dialogue. Perhaps because of my former career as a screenwriter, dialogue tends to come easily for me. Plus I love writing it.

Thelma: Daniel Rinaldi is a complex, intriguing man. Where did you find him?

Dennis: Mostly I just looked in the mirror. Like me, he's from a blue collar, Italian-American family, born and raised in Pittsburgh. He's a Pitt grad, a therapist and a bit of a maverick when it comes to some of the more hide-bound beliefs of the mental health profession. We also share the same sense of humor, and a love for the Steelers. Unlike me, he's a former amateur boxer. He's much braver and more resourceful than I am, too. Most of the situations he finds himself in would have me running the other way. Kirkus Reviews calls him "Jack Reacher with a psychology degree." Trust me, that's not a description that would apply to me!

Thelma: You are a superb wordsmith. Your prose is so vivid. I love "Women… defined by their jewelry." Have you always been a writer?

Dennis: Again, thanks for the kind words. Yes, I've been writing since I was in college and worked for the Pitt News. Even after I came to Hollywood to write scripts for TV and film, I was writing prose, mostly mysteries. Fun fact: the same week I was hired to write on staff at the ABC-TV series WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, I sold my first mystery short story to ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. I must admit, that was one of the best weeks of my then-young life, for which I was both grateful and astonished!

Thelma: Why do you write mysteries?

Dennis: I guess because I've always loved them. The first time I encountered them was when I was about 10 years old, stuck in bed with the flu, and my Dad got me a hardbound, illustrated ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Believe me, it was love at first sight. I haven't stopped reading mysteries since. On a slightly more serious note, I think I enjoy reading—and writing—mysteries because they combine my two favorite aspects of story-telling: a compelling narrative and an exploration of the human condition. Which is probably why I'm so grateful for my dual career as a therapist and a mystery writer: both jobs involve this same exploration.

Thelma: You have worked a lot in other teams. Do you see yourself as a team player rather than as a solo artist?

Dennis: If I understand your question, you're referring to the collaborative nature of film and TV writing. If so, the truth is that this aspect of the creative process in Hollywood was the one I liked the least. One of the joys of novel writing is that it is a solo effort. Other than comments and concerns from my editors (which have always seemed to me to strengthen my books), as a novelist I get to write what I want, how I want. So, if I'm being honest, I guess I'm not much of a team player: as both a therapist in private practice and a novelist, I like working solo!

Thelma: Why did you choose the term "phantom limb" as a title?

Dennis: Actually, it more or less chose me. As you know, one of the main characters in the novel is an Afghan vet who lost a leg in combat and suffers from the condition known as "phantom limb." Though his leg is gone, he still experiences it as attached to his body. It itches; it feels cold. In my novel, I use the phrase "phantom limb" both in its literal sense as a medical condition, but also as a metaphor for that felt sense of loss we all experience when faced with a trauma like a divorce or the death of a loved one. That sense that the missing person is still "here," still in our lives. When we find we have to remind ourselves that the person is in fact gone.

Thelma: In your opinion, why do many crime writers , often mild people, choose such strong themes?

Dennis: Because we all have operatic inner lives! No matter how calm and appropriate our outer persona, the face we show the world, we have within us deep feelings of grief, rage, and passion. I know, because I've seen it for almost 30 years in my therapy practice. I also feel it within myself. That's why perfectly nice people can write about psychopathology, sexual crimes, and violence. I believe, as writers, we all have the whole range of the human condition within us: in other words, we can envisage everything from a nun to a serial killer. Most good writers let this rich, dark, troubling inner world run free on the page… which, by the way, is where it belongs!

Thelma: Harper Lee once said that writers have to have thick skins. What is your comment on that?

Dennis: The thicker the better! And I say this as someone who survived the slings and arrows of a Hollywood writing career. The hard part is having enough sensitivity to create living, breathing characters that reflect real life… and yet a thick enough skin to tolerate rejection, criticism, and failure. If you're like me, sometimes I walk that fine line pretty well, and sometimes I don't. I recall once, when I was grieving a rejection of something I'd written, a friend said to me, "Look, don't take it personally." To which I wanted to respond, "How should I take it? Impersonally?" I think the best way to handle the ups and downs of a writing career is to just keep giving them you, until you is what they want.


Thanks, Thelma, for asking me to participate in this interview. I hope your readers enjoyed it. For those interested in learning more about my Daniel Rinaldi series, please go to www.dennispalumbo.com




Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reservoir Dogs


Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs is a simple movie that possesses surprising depth. It is also an homage to tough-guy noir and crime caper movies. It revels in the masculine and the gory; it is blood-soaked and yet about brotherhood. It is about the surprising tenderness that tough guys can feel for each other and the oblique and odd and funny ways they end up expressing it. It is about pop culture, it is a satire, a send up, but also an homage to a certain type of movie making. It is funny and suspenseful and postmodern and, most of all, it tells a compelling story.

The movies, and books and TV are, for me, portals into dimensions, to times and places, where I could otherwise never go. Or to places I would like to go, but will never get the chance. Or to places I don’t know how to get to, or would be too afraid to go to even if I knew the way.

The foreign land this movie transports me to is the macho criminal underworld, a country of only the hardest of hard guys. These guys have balls as big as those of a brass monkey’s, they are alpha males, top dogs, they could survive any prison, being stranded in the desert, the longest forced march, the darkest night time of the soul (if they even possessed one of those). I’m in awe of these guys, at the same time they repulse me—what freedom to not be afraid of the mundane things that frighten us less masculine types—cops, nuns, mother-in-laws, the IRS, mean dogs, the guy on the subway who won’t stop staring at you!

Lawrence Tierney, playing Joe Cabot, is the quintessential hard-boiled character. Even near the end of his life, playing the mastermind of a jewel heist pulled off, or bungled, by a group of criminals right out of the old noir movies Tierney starred in during the 30’s and 40’s, he looks and acts as if he could beat down the lot of them between drinks and telling stories about the other young punks he has beaten down in other buckets of blood in other tank towns, different places all, and yet somehow all the same.

Tierney and the crew he commands are guys who make their living outside the law, who follow an outlaw code, who have pledged to live a life of crime, to live fast and die young and make a good- looking corpse. There are no women in this movie, no girlfriends or wives or mothers, no femme fatales, none. The only time we get even a glimpse of a woman is in a strip club, and when one of the “dogs,” on the run from the aforementioned botched robbery, tries to hijack a car, only to have the female occupant reach into her purse and plug him in the guts with a bullet. He goes from victimizer to victimized in the brutal second it takes for her to pull the trigger.

Even when they haven’t been thrown together to do a job (and certainly not when they are getting gut shot by women) these guys seem to be the kind to prefer the company of other men. And when they are together, what they like to do is tell stories. Interesting that Tarantino makes stories a central theme in his story—this kind of self-awareness and self-commentary is very postmodern, in a movie that is in some ways old-fashioned, and in other ways certainly is not. While the intricacies of the dark plot are pure old fashioned noir, the focus on the gore, and the way that the pain of being shot and tortured robs these men of their prized masculinities, is not.

In reading reviews of this movie, I was struck by how they mentioned it “stylized” and “eroticized” violence. It certainly did! The scene where Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a cop while dancing to Stealer Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” is disturbing, but also gives you a kind of frisson that is undeniably like pleasure. And I felt guilty for laughing when, after cutting the cop’s ear off, Mr. Blonde talks into it, saying “what? Did you hear that?”

Funny also is the way that the gangsters ramble on about pop culture, and have discussions that are of a type that a more metrosexual guy might have. When Mr. Pink won’t give a waitress a tip, Mr. White lectures him on how waitressing is the only way an undereducated single mother can hope to make any type of decent living.
It is funny, but there is a bonhomie to the banter, to the interaction of these boon companions, a kind of fellow feeling, that makes it seem like they, unable to relate to women, or cops, certainly, or civilians (anyone who is not a cop or a crook), find the need for closeness and connection that they can’t find anywhere else in this seemingly casual and offhand repartee.

Another funny thing about the movie is the prickly vanity of these extremely macho guys. When Steve Buscemi’s character learns he is to be Mr. Pink (Cabot decides to give them all code names so they won’t be able to rat each other out later) he is distraught. Mr. White tells him to leave it alone, and he says “that’s easy for you to say, you’re Mr. White, that’s a cool name.”

When Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) infiltrates the gang, he wins their confidence with a story about trying to stay cool with a shitload of drugs on his person while a group of nearby cops listen to one of their number tell a story himself, and the cops’ German Shepherd eyes Mr. Orange suspiciously. Mr. Orange’s mentor tells him he has to own that story, to make it his own, to know every least detail and nuance of it until it becomes real to him. And he does. And Tarantino does it with this movie, which was as real to me as real life. Even when the movie steps back and references TV and popular music, which serves to remind us that the movie itself is just pop cultural entertainment, I was enthralled. I wanted to know if Mr. Orange was going to be found out, if Mr. Blonde was going to kill the cop, if Mr. White and Pink would kill each other.

What of the reviews of this movie, which has gone from cult classic to icon in the twenty odd years since it was made? I read one said that the movie was about homosexuality, another that it was about feminism’s threat to traditional “manhood”, a third that it was about how there is no absolute meaning in a postmodern world, a fourth that its meaning was all about redemption through pain and suffering, and finally one that said it was about how the gangsters want to go “straight” and become real people, but can’t.

Tarantino himself said he wanted only to make a good movie. And he did. We have an instinctive sense of what a story is, and what a good one is. It comes from our unconscious, and the message we get from it is pleasure first, followed by meaning. The pleasure we get from it is clear and powerful if it is a good story, because it appeals to something deep within us. The meaning comes after that initial aesthetic response, and is often not as clear. And if you are a critic, you often want to make the meaning more complex of abstruse or esoteric than it is or has to be so you can justify yourself as someone who has some special insight that the normal moviegoer doesn’t have. This leads to a lot of weird critiques, to be sure.

Is Reservoir Dogs about the male fear of homosexuality? Is the scene about the black woman who crazy glues her abusive boyfriend’s penis to his stomach about the fear of strong women? Are the racist and homophobic remarks the gangsters make a comment on the dominant white male culture, whether it be criminal or not? I would say that it could be all those things, but that Tarnatino didn’t say to himself, before he made the movie: “Ok, now I need a scene where I can comment on homosexual panic, or male fear of the feminine, or about male insecurity about penis size, or on the honor, or lack thereof, among thieves, or on how popular culture may be intellectually barren but is still fascinating, lending itself as it does to a camp treatment that is hard for a movie maker of a certain time and place to resist…” No, he set about simply to make a good story. To shoot good scenes. He may have then chosen and ordered and edited those scenes with some idea of what the “meaning” implicit in those choices and arrangements was, but the story came first. And therein lies art—not in the message, but in the story. The story, of course, contains the message, but it is also more than that. And the “goodness” in a good story is a much rarer thing, and harder to find or explain, than any message. Tarantino knows that.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Night the Dynamite Went Off

Franz von Papen
A hundred years ago, on a winter’s day every bit as brutal as the days we are now enduring, a young man in work clothes stepped off a Maine Central passenger train and onto the snowy platform of the Vanceboro station. His luggage held, among other things, the uniform of a Lieutenant of the German army and eighty pounds of dynamite, enough to blow up a good-sized railroad bridge. Werner Horn was on a mission from Franz von Papen, military attaché to the German embassy in Washington, who ran a network of spies and saboteurs all over the U.S. and Canada. Some believe that it was Horn himself who torched the Roebling plant in Trenton, New Jersey, the week before; if it wasn’t him, it was another of von Papen’s agents.

Werner Horn
After hiding his dynamite in a woodpile, Werner Horn checked into a hotel. From there he skulked about the town eyeing the railroad bridge over the St. Croix River to Canada, with whom Germany was then at war, and checking the schedule of the trains that ran over it. The plan was to disrupt the traffic of war materiel to St. John, New Brunswick, whence it was shipped to Europe. Werner Horn did not want to kill anyone. He may or may not have been accompanied by a mysterious Irishman, a man who was never found. Accounts differ.

The Bridge
Vanceboro was, and is, a small town where nothing ever happens. The presence of a foreigner was a source of entertainment. When anyone asked what he was doing, Horn said he was looking for farmland. In Maine, in the middle of winter, this was risible. My grandfather Gallison was running a little store at the time, the place where the townsfolk used to gather around the pot-bellied stove and swap stories. I can well imagine how they must have laughed at the Dutchman—I think he said he was Dutch—who wanted to farm that rocky soil with its short growing season.

On the night of February second they all laughed out of the other side of their mouths. In the small hours Werner Horn set off his dynamite, damaging the bridge slightly but blowing out half the windows in Vanceboro. The freezing residents wanted to lynch him next morning. By then he had surrendered to the town sheriff, rather than fall into the hands of the Canadians, who would doubtless have shot him out of hand. He had changed into his uniform particularly to keep from being executed as a spy.

The Penobscot Exchange
To avoid a lynching the American authorities hustled him out of Vanceboro and shipped him to Machias to serve thirty days for malicious mischief (for starters. Other charges came later). He stopped in Bangor for lunch, at the Penobscot Exchange, a hotel where I once ate a liverwurst sandwich that made me sick. But I digress. What Werner Horn had for lunch was clam chowder, corned beef, spaghetti and raspberry pie. Newspaper reporters were allowed to talk to him, including one from the Bangor Daily News, which ran a story about the case earlier this month. One tactless fellow asked him what he had been paid to do the job.

“I did not blow up the bridge for money. I am a soldier, not a mercenary. I acted for the good of the Fatherland!” Actually von Papen had written him a check for $700.00, a fact that came to light later that year in the spymaster’s papers, which were confiscated when he was run out of the USA for sabotage. But perhaps Horn had used up the money for explosives, train tickets, and hotel bills, and so didn’t consider it pay.

The bridge was repaired within days. Werner Horn spent years in jail. After the Americans entered the war they turned him over to the Canadians, who, surprisingly, did not kill him. Eventually he went mad due to an advanced case of syphilis which somehow had gone untreated and he was repatriated to Germany, the war being over. Von Papen went on to enjoy a fairly distinguished career in German politics, all things considered, and although he helped Hitler rise to power he was acquitted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials. You can hear him speaking in his own defense on YouTube. I would find his speech more enlightening if I spoke better German.



© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Robin and Winston

Robin Hathaway was working on a mystery set during WWII in the years before she died. She said to me, “You know, if it hadn’t been for Winston Churchill we wouldn’t be here.” I thought I knew what she meant. Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had worked together to defeat the Germans and the Japanese.

But I knew very little really. I read, at Robin’s suggestion, a one volume edition of Harold Nicholson’s Diaries and Letters (I now own a 3 volume set). Churchill emerges as a man who is able to espouse a cause he believes in, no matter how unpopular.

Then I moved on to Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon. Chips was an American who became a British M.P. He wasn’t very influential as a parliamentarian, but he threw great parties attended by everybody and he kept diaries. He records many conversations with people who thought Hitler was admirable. The Lindbergs just couldn’t get over the delights of Nazi Germany. Such energy! Joe Kennedy, the US Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, urged Roosevelt not to help the British. He was sure they’d have to make a deal with Hitler anyway. WWI had been a horror for Europe and efforts were made to avoid another conflict at all costs.

Churchill thought appeasement was the very worst of ideas and through stubbornness and oratory was able to convince the British people that life under Nazi domination wouldn’t be worth living. Churchill, known as a politician, actually made his living as a writer, and was able as Edward R. Murrow observed “to mobilize the English language and send it into battle.” (I have to say I felt outraged when Rudolph Guiliani, during the 2004 Republican Convention referred to Dubya as “our Churchill”.)

This is the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death (a much bigger deal in England than it is here). There are more volumes about Churchill than one could ever read and he wrote many volumes of history himself. He and Robin had in common a love of Treasure Island, and Churchill has a talent for tales of adventure and derring-do. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

But to get some notion of what Robin Hathaway and Edward R Murrow were talking about it is perhaps best to listen to one of his speeches:



I am sorry to say that as I searched Youtube for this particular speech, I made the mistake of reading some comments left by Youtube users. I forget that lots of people seem to be innocent of any knowledge of history, particularly if the events in question occurred before they were born. But if people honestly believe that the only difference between Churchill and Hitler is that Churchill was on the winning side, we're in a great deal more trouble than I thought.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Most Violent Year


I read THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN when I was in college and it annoyed me, after a while, with all that Protestant Work Ethic stuff. The assertion Franklin makes, and the same one others make now, is that you can make it to the top of our capitalist system if you work hard and are smart. He should have added a capacity for self-promotion and the ability to sell people a bill of goods also help. Franklin does both.

Capitalism itself, with all that self-interest (invisible hand, my foot) stuff that people attribute to Adam Smith (I’m not sure he would have approved of all the uses to which his book has been put), is seen as a game of Monopoly—you all start out with the same amount of human capital, and your ability to adjust your economic vision to chance (the toss of the dice) is what determines whether you will make a boatload of money or not.

What a crock. Everyone knows that real life is not a game. Even a lot of those people who claim to be true believers in the system really don’t believe in it. They are the ones who tell us that a rising tide will lift all boats while most of us are stranded on land. They are the ones who have “won” (or cheated) the game and so want us to keep playing it.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is about an immigrant’s (Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac) dream of making it big in America, and doing it by playing fair. Or at least as fair as is possible in a system that doesn’t allow you to win if you are truly fair. Morales tells himself that his wife, who is much more Machiavellian in her approach, is not cooking the books, and that all his success in the heating oil business came because he always moved forward, always found the best path through the economic wilderness, and had the guts to keep going even when the going truly got tough.

Abel is married to Anna (Jessica Chastain). He bought the business from her father when the old man got out. OK, so maybe that is cheating the system a little bit, marrying into money, but still, Morales is not breaking legs or whacking anybody. And he does his work ethic penance every day, running to work with a real ferocity, and then putting on a killer set of clothes and getting down to some wheeling and dealing. He is a very, very handsome guy (once again, real life not as fair as the game) and he has a real eloquence and a belief in himself that is genuine and at least somewhat honestly come by. He is a caring husband and father, and he probably gives to all the right charities (the ones you can write off).

Abel is about to make a deal to buy an old oil storage facility that will really make him a player in the NYC heating oil business. His problem is that someone is beating up his drivers, hijacking his trucks, and even smacking around his sales people, and this is threatening the deal.

Without going into too much detail (the plot gives us just enough information as we move along to feel like we are on the verge of figuring everything out, but we continually find ourselves surprised by the next development), I will say that Abel wants to be a good man. He doesn’t want to arm his drivers with guns, knowing that someone is liable to get killed. Of course, he also knows if one of his guys gets arrested for killing someone the bank will pull the loan he needs to close the deal for the facility. He doesn’t want to kill anybody, bribe anybody, or rig the game in any way (at least beyond training his salespeople in the art of the deal), but how can he make it to the top without doing so?

Then again, Abel is not completely an idealist. He says at one point that the means he uses to an end do matter to him, that he can’t enjoy the end if he hasn’t been scrupulous about using the fairest means possible to get there, but he talks not about using absolutely fair means, but rather the fairest possible ones. He wants to believe that goodness will be rewarded, and there are a lot of people in the movie who believe in him, who want him to make it, even as they shake their heads and tell themselves that this poor schnook is going to get cut off at the knees.

In contrast to Abel is one of his drivers, Julian. Julian’s English is not very good, but he works hard, a fact that Abel acknowledges. Abel encourages his young charge to give it his all and so take part in the American Dream. Of course, Abel doesn’t pay him well enough for him to be living any kind of dream. When Julian’s truck is hijacked and he is beaten, Abel exhorts him to go out there and win one for the gipper, to drive again, and the kid goes. Julian doesn’t realize that it is not his own dream he is working for, but that of his boss. Because that is really how you make money in a capitalist system—you have someone else earn it for you, and then you put on a nice suit and talk about how you earned it yourself, as if you were the guy who went down into the coal mine and dragged the ore out yourself.

Still, both Julian and Abel believe in the dream, and you can’t help but root for Abel to win out against the goons and thugs who run the other fuel oil businesses around the city. In the universe Abel lives in, you grab hold of any edge you can, and fair or foul is a question for losers. Abel never stops believing in the dream, even after a lot of really bad stuff happens. Even if we feel he has compromised himself, he doesn’t think he has.

So there you have it. See this movie. Find out if Abel wins or loses, and decide if the corners he cuts are “fair” corners to cut. He starts out like one of those good kids who listened to his mother when she said doing something just because the other kids are doing it is stupid. I can almost hear her now—“sweetheart, just because the other business owners are using bribery and extortion and price rigging to succeed doesn’t mean you have to do it too.” How does Abel end up? Would Mom approve? Is Abel an American hero or not? Is Capitalism fair? Can any system be fair if the people who function within it are not? These are all questions the movie asks, at least implicitly, and they are questions for which the answers are not clear or easy, even after the credits have started to roll.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Getting Serious


There comes a time in the career of nearly every humorous cozy mystery writer when she says to herself (it's usually she, the men take themselves seriously from the get-go) that it's time to become a Serious Writer and write something Important and True. Yes, my early work was charming, we say to ourselves, but listen, you ain't seen nothing yet. I am about to lay bare the inner workings of the Human Soul.

Then we sit down and undertake to do this.

A number of outcomes can result from our efforts. Hardly any of us actually produce the magnificence we envisioned. Some die before the Great Work is finished. You have to start early, I think. Others produce very long books which the fans and critics find to be bloated and pompous. Others undertake excessively personal works, blowing the whistle at last on their inadequate parents, their disappointing ex-spouses and lovers, their evil bosses, the corrupt System. (Or their sadistic orthodontists. Don't get me started on that.) Some information is better shared with one's therapist, if any, than with the world in general. Bilious rants, while they may be keenly felt, are not Art.

For what we want to do, really, is to make Art. People who want to make money have figured out how by the time they have a couple of books under their belt. You write about things that touch everybody who reads your work, by relating to their own experience or by amazing and thrilling them in ways they never imagined. You find a good agent. Reams have been written on how to that. When your agent sells the book you get busy and promote the hell out of it. Maybe hire a publicist. Soon you're famous, and the money comes rolling in.

Not to disparage the writers who are more successful than others—okay, more successful than me—but what they do isn't always Art. Some of us want to be immortal here. My dad once gave me a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in support of my writing, and though I thanked him profusely, I was thinking the whole time that I didn't want to quote other people. I wanted other people to quote me. That's what I wanted out of a writing career.

So I tell myself it's time to get all immortal, and I sit down at the word processor to let 'er rip. But the results are disappointing. Sometimes I can't help thinking about Norman Rockwell in his declining years, who had himself wheeled out to his studio and put in front of a blank canvas every morning, where he would sit with a brush in his hand and stare until suppertime. I've made a few false starts. From time to time I revisit The Bodice Rip't, a thinly disguised account of the collapse of my first marriage. But it was so unpleasant. Nobody really wants to go there.

Quite probably I don't have an immortal work in me. Let's face it, few writers do. I have a gift of subtlety, but nobody gets it. Though I used to have a gift of venom, thirty years of churchgoing have drawn my fangs. I'm not at all sure anymore what is Important or True. I have no clue even now as to the inner workings of the Human Soul, and I'm much too private a person to let strangers get a look at my own. An Important Work may be out of my reach.

I can always write another funny cozy mystery. This time I'll murder that son of a bitch who straightened my teeth.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Day in La Vita Fiorentina

I am in Florence for five weeks, living like a resident.  Here is a photo essay of a rather ordinary day.  No museums visits.  No shopping in swanky boutiques--not that I ever do very much of that.  This is an account of Monday, when I ate three simple meals, two of them at home, went to straighten out my Italian bank card so I can withdraw funds, wrote two thousand words of my WIP, and puttered around the house.  Here is the best part, how it looks.



A particularly beautiful sunrise from my terrace.


Walking through the Piazza della Signoria on my way to breakfast.
I pass my favorite building in Florence--Orsanmichele.

The choices for breakfast

My favorite coffee bar, the best coffee in the center.

A typical Italian breakfast, delicious.  Euros 2.40. About $2.65

On my block, the store that has all the necessities.  You go in
and tell them what you want and they get it for you.

My bank, just a few steps from my front door in the piazza.

Some crime fighter pass by as I enter the bank



Where I spend most of the day working.

You can tell I think that I love it here.

Annamaria Alfieri




Sunday, February 8, 2015

Down These Mean Streets…


I'm totally hooked on the TV series Blue Bloods. Not just on Tom Selleck, older but more handsome - but his whole family - the cast, the plots, the settings, the music - the whole megillah!

Tom, as the NYPD Commish Frank Reagan, said recently, not only " I will always have your back", but some words crime writers have engraved on their hearts.

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

Hey, you gotta love this handsome guy!

"The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be a man of honor."
Instead of Raymond Chandler, these words could have been written by Tom Selleck (Frank Reagan on the TV screen). This 2010 series is now being rerun on Time Warner's Ch. 31.

Reagan, who had been working in the North Tower on 9/11, is a compelling lead character .A man of few words who quotes Raymond Chandler, completely in character for this mature Tom Selleck.

I refreshed my memory on Raymond Chandler.

"A really good detective never gets married." (Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel.)

"The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evoke the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing." (12 Notes on the Mystery Story)

Ray Chandler and Tom Selleck are not twins. Chandler became a detective writer after he lost his job as an oil company exec. Later he was President of MWA.

Tom Selleck wanted to be an architect. When he tried to sign up for a California School of Architecture, it was full. So he went to the next table and into the School of Acting! After a distinguished career on both screens, in Louis L'Amour's Crossfire Trail and A Thousand Clowns, and as a screen-play writer he became an avocado-growing philanthropist—a member of the Kennedy center, a winner of Emmys and Golden Globes.

What I love in Blue Bloods is Frank's gravitas, his honesty, his loyalty, his warmth.

Chandler created famous detectives, often played by Humphrey Bogart. His masterpieces, Farewell My Lovely, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye—are for the ages. He was also a journalist and a romantic poet. His private life was cluttered with alcoholism, absenteeism and womanizing.

He was a gigantic influence on countless American and British writers. His gravestone reads, "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts." (The Big Sleep)

He is known for his sharp and lyrical similes.

"The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street Tunnel."

"He had a heart as big as one of Mae West's hips."

His essay "The Simple Art of Murder" is considered the canonized essay in the field of mystery fiction.

As the character of Frank Reagan, Tom Selleck has a close family—his father, a former NYPD Commish, his two NYPD detective sons, his daughter, an assistant D.A., and several grandchildren. They often share meals and life's comments on daily life. Those sessions are very touching.

Tom/Frank does not shy away from current problems in a major urban cop city.

It is reported that the real life NYPD officers often salute Tom when he's out on a film shoot as Commish Reagan!

If you are a fellow Blue Bloods devotee, please share your thoughts with me!

© 2014 Thelma J. Straw

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Moonstone: The First Victorian Detective Story

Wilkie Collins’ THE MOONSTONE is a lot of things: a traditional 19th Century British Victorian Novel complete with a marriage plot; the first detective novel in English; a commentary on the social condition of a changing England in the mid-19th century and of English Imperialism; and, for its time, a lurid and sensational thriller about of theft and murder.

Although a work of literature can certainly be judged by “universal” standards—on its ability to portray complex characters that somehow speak to the reality of our shared humanity, on the precision and appropriateness of its form and structure, on its use of metaphor and telling detail—it can also be quite telling, and of no little interest, to see it through the lens of the time and place which at least partially produced it.

England was changing in the mid 19th century—industrialization and urbanization had produced both a miserable abject working class and a growing middle one; THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was followed by violent proletarian uprisings in France and Germany; calls for universal suffrage and equal rights were heard throughout England; and the traditional aristocracy and the clergy felt under attack by: the sensational press; calls for reform; protests against imperialism; demands for the vote; Oriental debauchery and godlessness imported by immigrants from conquered lands; the corruption of the gentleman’s code, which itself was threatened by a system not of a self-contained and semi-autonomous agrarian fiefdom but of one ruled more and more by government and where the voices of the lower and middle classes were now being heard; the city, where con man and card sharks, opium dens and workhouses and brothels and insane asylums seemed to be tearing at the foundations of the Empire….O, God Save the Queen!

The tale begins with one of those families, the Herncastles, who would make an admirable “upstairs” installment on a BBC show like Downton Abbey. We learn, through an unnamed cousin, that one of the five children of Lord and Lady Herncastle, John, a soldier in the British Army in India, has committed a war crime, not by massacring civilians, but by stealing a diamond sacred to the “Hindoos” and by killing fellow soldiers to keep it. So right off the bat we have the code of honor (or should I write honour?) of the British Gentleman transgressed.

The story is handed off to Gabriel Betteredge, a kind of head servant on the estate of Lady Verinder, and boy does he run with it. The technique of having different characters give testimony in this way mimics a courtroom, and seemed modern at the time, but it also allows, through the first person narration of the different characters, for a lot of irony and humor and insight. Betteredge is at one and the same time most loyal servant and one capable of scathing criticism of his betters.

Lady Verinder’s (sister of John) daughter Julie receives the diamond as a blessing/curse from her deceased uncle, who knew that “Hindoo” fanatics were willing to track the diamond to the ends of earth and time in order to return it to its sacred place in India. Two of her cousins, Godfrey Ablewhite (you’ve got to love some of these names) and Franklin Blake, along with a servant girl, Rosanna Spearman, are implicated in the inevitable disappearance of the jewel.

Betteredge is a curmudgeonly old guy who uses Robinson Crusoe as a Bible, and who does a kind of Bibliomancy with it, using it to understand everything that has happened and to divine everything that will. He tells us, when Franklin Blake asks him to recount, in written form, all he knows of the crime (in order to re-enact it, another trope of these detective stories) that he had just read in Crusoe the following “now I saw, though too late, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost….”Betteredge takes this as a sign that the re-telling is going to be a waste of time, but being a good servant, he launches into the tale anyway. He goes on to comically observe that Blake, who has spent a lot of his formative years on the continent, has got a kind of frivolous and fractured personality, doing better when the British part of him is foremost, but getting lost when the French part (too emotional) or the German part (too rational) get the upper hand. Apparently, the French and the German represent two extremes, and the British character the proper synthesis of the two. It is funny, this, and the fact that Betteredge the servant is allowed by Collins to have the longest period of narration in the book is indicative itself of the changes going on in society at the time.

There is also outright, almost slapstick, comedy. Drusilla Clack (another narrator) is a poor relation and true believer who hangs around the family trying to make them more godly, more chaste and meek and pure, all the while missing the fact that she is monstrously prideful in her perception of herself as the savior of all mankind, and in her condescension to all those who don’t share her vision. I got a great laugh out of her loony proselytizing, some of which consisted of this: “Let your faith be as your stockings, and your stocking as your faith. Both spotless and ready to be put on at a moment’s notice.” Collins doesn’t really go so far as to ridicule good old Miss Clack—he lets us see the forlorn and hidden passions that manipulate her from below. She is as unlikely to ever get the man she loves (Godfrey) as Rosanna Spearman is to get Franklin Blake. She tries to tell herself that she loves him only for his virtue, although she is tongue tied and on the verge of fainting from desire whenever she is in his presence.

And so the Diamond goes missing. Enter Inspector Cuff, stage right, a kind of secular clergyman sent to look after the flock, but who also brings city ways to the country estate. He levels the traditional playing field by insisting on interviewing everyone, not just the servants, but the lords and ladies too, about the theft. Cuff is the ultimate outsider, a single man with no apparent emotional connection to anything, or anyone, except roses. And he is a kind of proto Holmes in his obsession with minute detail, with the inductive process, the reasoning from the effect back to the cause (more Baconian and scientific while being less deductive, less in the way of received and traditional wisdom, like that dispensed by the Church and the Aristocracy).

Throw in Ezra Jennings, a mixed race doctor with a mysterious illness and a mysterious past, who is up on psychology and mesmerism and the details of opium use and abuse (another threat to the old order, although a lot of those blue blood types dabbled in laudanum and paregoric, and their use was not yet outlawed, and a lot of the nouveau riche were newly rich because of the opium trade in China) and you have the two outsiders who threaten to, or are needed to, solve the mystery for their “betters.”

There are a lot of side plots here, and cliffhangers, mysteries within mysteries, and it is great fun. And there are great contrasts, some of them critical of the aristocracy, and some of them seeming to champion it. Rosanna Spearman falls in love with Franklin Blake, who of course doesn’t give her the time of day (she’s ugly as well as a servant), not because he is cruel, but because he doesn’t know how to deal with someone below his station, and in her envy of his love for Julie Verinder, she says “it does stir one up to hear Miss Rachel called pretty, when one knows all the time that it is her dress that does it, and her confidence in herself.”

Of course, there are blackguards involved, but in the nature of blackguards (love that word), they are disguised—disguised in a more conscious and ill-natured way than Julie hides her plain-ness with her clothes. The corruption of blackguards is concealed with a veneer of uprightness and piety, and of gentlemanliness.

Delightful is the contrast of the completely evil John Herncastle, who at least has the guts not to hide his true nature, with the members of the family who appear honorable, seem to be good lords and ladies, who look to be following the code. It is part of the fun of the novel to divine the true natures underneath the masks people wear.

Sergeant Cuff and Ezra Jennings exist outside both the older and new orders, and yet perhaps they can see people truly. For those who are lovers of the old order, see if it is upheld in the end, see who is really an aristocrat, and if being one is rewarded or punished. Either way, it’s a ripping good yarn as well as a surprisingly nuanced look at a time in history when it was a mystery to all what would become of the old values in a new world.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Mystery of Safonique

Last month I picked up a new brand of laundry detergent at the Giant. The packaging was a little unusual, a squishy plastic bag with a little tiny nozzle. "Lavender Sea," it said on the bag, together with the usual claims of sustainability and hypo-allergenic qualities, good for babies and old folks alike. Safonique. Sustainability appeals to my earth hippie tendencies. I adore lavender, although in my experience the laundry detergents that say they smell like lavender don't, really. Furthermore I'm allergic to lots of things, some of them found in your average detergent, so hypo-allergenic works for me. Safonique. I thought I'd give it a try.

When I got the little nozzle open, back home in the laundry room, the smell of real lavender just about knocked me over. This was the greatest stuff. It cleaned the clothes brilliantly. Since the clean clothes didn't make me itch I'm sure it's hypoallergenic. (I'll take their word for sustainability.) Only one problem. When I went back to the Giant for some more it was nowhere to be found.

Okay, I told myself, I'll find it online. Amazon has everything. Well, they used to have it. Many rave reviews. The only negative reviews for the stuff were from people who couldn't get it. One lady complained that she was told she would have to wait four weeks for it, so she left in a huff. Hey, if I thought I could get some in four weeks I would be perfectly happy. But, no. It's no longer available on Amazon.

Or anywhere else.

A search of the Internet turned up an interview on MadameNoire.com, an online magazine along the lines of Essence or Ebony, with the head of the company, Patricia Boswell. Ms. Boswell developed Safonique in the nineties, using straight lavender oil, unlike her competitors who dilute it somehow. With a good education and experience in manufacturing she was able to get Safonique up and running, placing it on the shelves of Walmart at first, and then in more and more stores, in spite of the fiercely competitive nature of laundry detergent sales. Safonique looked like taking off.

But that was years ago.

Alas! I seem to have bought the last bottle. What happened?

Since I came late to the party as usual, I have to make it up. I am a fiction writer, after all, with a Poetic License. So, here goes: Five ways a successful little company might disappear:

One. I used to work in software, and I got a pretty good feel for the sort of stuff that went on. Word would get around that a little company in somebody's garage was making a truly great software product. Convulsed with terror and jealousy, rather like the queen in Snow White, the big software company would come and buy them out. Then they would withdraw support from the little company's customers and ultimately declare the little company's product dead.

So this might have happened. It could be that Patricia Boswell is relaxing in the Islands on the proceeds of her formula, and if that's the case I wish her the best, but I feel sorry for myself and the rest of us who really liked her detergent and can no longer obtain it.

Two. Her business model might have been defective in some way. She wanted to sell this elegant elixir in Walmart, for example, whose customers are not known for the refinement of their taste. Maybe she should have been pitching the stuff to aging hippies like me, people who would kill for a snootful of lavender. I bought my first bottle of Caldrea Room Freshener in the museum shop at Winterthur, for example, a hangout for effete old hens. Or maybe the supply of lavender oil dried up, or the price went out of sight, and she was unable to meet the demand and so was forced to fold.

Three. Her factory was said to have been in Georgia, where she had maybe five employees. Maybe the Klan, enraged that a Black woman could be so successful, went out in their robes one night and burned it down. (That could have actually happened a hundred years ago. We hope it wouldn't happen in the twenty-first century.)

Four. The five employees, all young men, saw their beards fall out and their breasts begin to grow due to the pharmacological effects of pure lavender oil, which is known to be feminizing. They filed a class action suit against the company and put it out of business.

Five. The other detergent manufacturers, unable to force Ms. Boswell to sell out to any of them, hired some mob guys from Jersey City to make her an offer she couldn't refuse. "Nice little factory you have here. Be a shame if something happened to it." Then the horse's head in her bed. You know the drill.

Anyway, Patricia Boswell, if you're reading this, whatever happened, if by some chance you should want to start again in New Jersey, there's an empty factory about three hundred yards from my house here in Lambertville with a loading dock and everything. It used to be a small brewery not long ago. My guess is that the city would offer you tax breaks. You would be so welcome here. I'm thinking how nice it would be to wake up every morning to the smell of lavender.

© 2015 Kate Gallison