Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I write every weekday (and often on weekends), but usually on corporate projects. I have a quasi-personal investment in this writing, and it requires some creativity, but it mostly gets done because I have to make a living. By contrast, my fiction writing -- usually crime writing -- is sporadic. I would be a more disciplined fiction writer if (distorting and paraphrasing Flannery O'Connor's Misfit from "A Good Man is Hard to Find") there had been someone there to shoot my every minute of my life.
Two other points: I have gone through periods of filling paper creatively, but such writing comes out poorly -- typing rather than writing. I have also started many stories with good first scenes, and/or strong ideas or hooks, but they often (but not always) fall apart without planning or forethought. Writing stories is also a way of avoiding working on a novel. (Highsmith, at her most productive, used to write stories on weekends as a break from the novel she was writing during the week.) Apparently writing a blog is a way of avoiding both.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
One interesting point, I think: many of the reviews/blurbs peg Burke as an Irish writer, which he is, but The Big O is not dripping with the overt markers of Ireland -- in terms of landscape, cultural reference, and so on. The plastic surgeon's and his circle's social life generically revolves around a country club. Could be a Dublin suburb -- or a Chicago suburb, perhaps. I recently faced some mild criticism for not geographically locating some stories (and some self-doubt, too), but I like novels (and films) sometimes that seem as if they could be in any city or town, a generic place that could be almost anywhere. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), for instance, depends on its weird surreal, small town setting -- and some of its effect would be mitigated if we all thought the action was isolated to a place like Eureka, California, or Roseburg, Oregon.
A final note: I saw on Burke's blog (Crime Always Pays) that Harcourt passed on publishing his follow-up book, which is a sequel. I don't know that The Big O demands a sequel or a series (which is not a criticism: there is something satisfying in a book that ends, and you know it's going to stay that way), but the publishing industry seems to want them. Maybe Burke stumbled or The Big O has not produced the sales that Harcourt expected, but the situation is depressing. It would be great to see more unusual, crafty crime books out there. My guess is that some other house will pick up the next book, but it might not be one that has the visibility or muscle of Harcourt (which might be less important these days, for all I know).
Addendum: Burke responds to my comments here.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
King's praise seems excessive, but I did enjoy Case Histories quite a bit. The appealing detective, Jackson Brodie, investigates a series of cold cases and a missing cat. While Brodie appears more than other characters, the clients also have chapters from their points of view. Atkinson writes with depth, emotion (but not overwrought or sensational), clarity, and some humor (though the book is sad). The book arguably lacks the pacing (and procedure, perhaps) and of genre mystery or crime fiction. The crimes' solutions present themselves, one feels, more than Brodie uncovers them (though he does still solve the crimes, more or less). Another reader might feel that the novel deserved a certain tightening, but I'm happy to see the genre bent, with characters illuminated against a backdrop of crime, and the muting of a certain breathless sensationalism that infiltrates too much crime fiction.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Christa Faust is the first woman writer published by neo-pulp house Hard Case Crime. Money Shot tells the story of porn industry star and entrepreneur Angel Dare, who is shot and left for dead in the back of a car trunk. With the help of ex-cop/bodyguard Malloy, she hunts down the people who ruined her life and business -- and uncovers deeper crimes along the way. The seedy and close-knit porn world -- treated without moral judgment -- forms a great backdrop for this book's violence and pulp. Angel Dare is a tough protagonist and amateur sleuth, and Malloy is a very sharply drawn and sympathetic second player. I've found Hard Case to be a little hit and miss (though some of their reprints such as Charles Williams' Touch of Death are great). Money Shot arguably stumbles a bit near the end, but it is still a lot of fun and well worth reading.
Two quick takes: Barry Eisler's Rain Fall is the first in his John Rain cool assassin series (which is in film production). Good stuff in the techno-commando, super-hero thriller vein. Set mostly in Tokyo, the book also offers (for a U.S. reader) a welcome immersion in a foreign but accessible culture. Lost Dog is the first novel by Portland crime-writing local Bill Cameron. Bill is a very genial guy who leads the local Mystery Writers of America contingent. In Lost Dog, wayward protagonist Peter McKrall finds a body in a neighborhood park, finds himself a suspect, and becomes the object of obsession of the crazed but sympathetic killer. At times, the book seems a bit weighted by too much detail and explanation -- physical and psychological -- but ultimately Bill achieves a gritty realism often lacking in crime fiction.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Saturday, September 20, 2008
In the hard-boiled crime-writing world, the chatter appropriately is about James Crumley, who died this week. Other people will be saying (and have said) more thoughtful words. I liked Crumley's books quite a bit -- I've read most, but not all, of them. I reviewed The Right Madness for the Oregonian with a very positive review (for me) -- a chunk of which ended up as a blurb in the paperback edition. It's hard to know to what extent one's fondness for a writer corresponds to a broader literary-cultural measure. Crumley appropriately received attention well outside the borders of genre: the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, and other notable papers ran lengthy, celebratory obituaries. Of course, I'm sure the man would've liked more ink before his death. According to the Post, a couple of his kids live here in lovely Portland, Oregon. I had the honor of appearing in the collection Measures of Poison with Crumley. I can flatter myself that Crumley eyeballed the names of the other authors and briefly thought, "Who the hell is this Levin guy?"
Monday, August 18, 2008
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Next, I read Edward Bunker's No Beast So Fierce (my copy, Dustin Hoffman on the cover, is titled Straight Time as a movie tie-in). Ex-con Max Dembo tries to go straight, but he falls back into the life, pulling off an escalating series of heists. Very gritty, this novel draws on Bunker's wide experience with the penal system. The brooding Dembo is also philosophical at times. No Beast (1973) is Bunker's first published novel; he died in 2005.
The real find in my summer round-up was Robert van Gulik's The Given Day. This book had been sitting on a shelf for about four years, and I finally plucked it down. A diplomat, scholar, and polymath, Van Gulik (1910-67) is best known for his Judge Dee mystery novels (which I haven't read), set in first millennium China. Written in the early 1960s, The Given Day is set in post-war Amsterdam. The lone and lonely Dutchman Hendriks, still suffering from his wartime experiences in Java, becomes involved in a violent and mysterious criminal plot after playing the role of a good samaritan. Van Gulik beautifully weaves Zen into the book: Hendriks is trying to cope with the past and mulls over the teachings of his Japanese torturer. To my mind, The Given Day is an exceptional novel of post-war angst and perhaps recovery.
Monday, July 7, 2008
I just read Dirty Money, the new Parker book by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake). At some point when I was taking a greater interest in crime fiction -- and involuntarily drifting away from academia -- I happened upon my first Parker book (which was not the first in the series). At that time, Westlake had taken about a 20-year hiatus from writing about Parker. Then, over a couple years, I read all the Parker books, every last one (about 16). Some I ordered online (in early e-commerce days), and a few I got by interlibrary loan. Parker is a heister, and I just couldn't get enough of watching him plan and carry out heists, and clean up afterwards. It was a sad day when I read the last one (Butcher's Moon, I think). Then in 1997, Westlake brought Stark and Parker back with Comeback, and I've read them all as they've come out.
There have been eight books in phase 2, all of them good, and some of them really good. I thought Parker was disappearing again a couple books back (Nobody Runs Forever), but Parker got back on track (as Westlake has said, everything eventually goes right for Parker -- he finds a parking space when he needs it -- whereas everything always goes wrong for Dortmunder, Westlake's comic heister). Dirty Money is the third book of an impromptu trilogy. Parker is still mopping up and getting out of the mess created in Nobody Runs Forever. Without quite a fresh heist -- and no amateur characters (a misanthrope plays a great part in the second of this trilogy, Ask the Parrot) -- Dirty Money lacks just a little bit of freshness and grounding. That's a very small complaint. Read this book, but if you haven't read other Parker books, maybe start with another. Eventually, I'll write here again about Westlake.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
In the theater, two twenty-something women were sitting next to me, and one of them was a caper junkie. I like capers a lot (the Parker novels by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) are among my favorite crime books) -- and have been trying to write one. I'm still trying to figure out exactly (or generally) why readers like them -- and I'm curious too if they have a strong audience (compared to other sub-genres of crime fiction). In part, people like capers for the same reason they like game shows: the money (and the fantasy of lots of money obtained quickly through smart thinking).
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
On a whim, I picked up a couple of Simenon's Maigret novels (in new elegant little Penguin editions) at the library. Simenon and I have had a thing going for a few years now, and I've read both Maigret and what he called his "romans durs" (hard novels), his non-Maigret, non-genre (called "psychological" by some) novels. Sometimes Simenon's novels lag, but generally, he is consistently vivid, dour, and entertaining.
Maigret novels are, I think, generally admired for their portrayal of Maigret and his odd interior, and they are also cited for their roiling view of a shady Paris (less admired for their mysteries and detecting). That said, I've read several set in different places, where place--country villages, along canals, on the coast--informs character and action in compelling ways. The coincidence of place and character might be a version of Ruskin's pathetic fallacy, but it works well, and Maigret himself succumbs to the recognition that place is influencing his detecting, approach, spirit, and so on. The two I read recently (I'm still reading the second) make a nice contrasting pair in this regard. My Friend Maigret is set on a sunny Mediterranean island off the coast of Provence, a dreamy place that charms Maigret -- though he still reveals its seedy underbelly. The other novel, Inspector Cadaver, is set in a dismal, muddy, foggy village overwhelmed by class distinctions, rumors, and death. In many ways, one Simenon novel feels like the next, but this versatility is something to admire, and place seems to refresh his imagination. (Of course, I say this having read maybe only 15 of his books out of 400, so maybe the other 385 become stale.)
Thursday, April 24, 2008
And so what? Some readers -- myself included -- enjoy certain gothic effects in their crime fiction. Other readers apparently do not. I recently read Louise Welsh's The Bullet Trick. A while back, I read her debut novel, The Cutting Room. Both books are quite compelling, sordid, and always supported by strong prose. They are crime novels with amateur detectives of sorts (a conjurer in Bullet Trick and an antiques man in Cutting Room), police, and mysteries to be solved. Welsh also mines the gothic tradition -- hidden rooms, props, catacombs of a sort beneath a used bookstore, and so on. Some of the emotional drama too seems gothic, as opposed to the cool understated emotion in some crime fiction. All of these elements work well together in Welsh's hands. I am curious though about Welsh's commercial success, particularly in the U.S. (She is a Scottish writer.) I think I happened on her first book because it won a UK award, but I hadn't heard any word of mouth. It might be that her books are victims to quirks in marketing; sadly, it could be that the dual elements of crime and gothic (in a realistic mode), which give her books their strength and originality (in part), also keep the books from finding some readers. It could be that they are not mysterious enough for some readers, not horrific enough for others, and too seedy for yet others.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
To fulfill my (until now unstated) promise not to write a totally wallowing blog (partial wallowing is apparently okay), I will say something on said-blog topic of crime fiction and film (and I have something to say as well about book criticism more generally, but it will take me several months to wind up to it). Anyway, I finally saw There Will Be Blood on the big screen. I have a few quibbles, but as someone who is quite critical (curmudgeonly even), I should say plainly that this film is substantial and riveting -- the best movie I've seen since The Lives of Others (for which I felt more spectator than participant since it's German, whereas Blood is boldly a slice of the U.S.A.). Blood isn't a genre film, though it is rife with crime. It is bleak and stirring and seems squarely aimed at capturing some dark (empty) heart of the American spirit. I liked No Country for Old Men a lot (see previous post), but Blood makes No Country seem like a lark.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Anyway, nearly three weeks ago, I was going to write about No Country, and now that it's won all those Academy Awards (so I read), I'll finally offer a few words. My initial response was that No Country felt like a secular Flannery O'Connor on steroids (which is what I also said about Harry Crews' great novel, A Feast of Sneaks -- which is probably more like O'Connor on steroids, booze, meanness, and PCP, or something). I didn't, however, read the novel No Country, though my dictionary and I have read a couple other books by Cormac McCarthy. Back to my O'Connor statement: the villain with the wacky haircut in No Country is interested in fate and balance, in meanness as a sort of fulfillment (a la O'Connor's Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find.") and justification for this life on earth. He is ostensibly after money, but that seems like a secondary concern. Unlike, O'Connor -- and unlike traditional crime fare -- No Country does not move toward a clean or at least generically expected end. I don't want to spoil that ending, so I won't say anything more specific, but I would add that its narrative line makes it admirable and troubling, but it will make the film less fulfilling for some viewers. It's worth noting that the film looks great, and there are some fine scenes and great Coen brothers' dialogue. No Country may not be warrant the highest praise it received, but it shouldn't be missed by those who like their crime and violence served neat.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Too Late to Die is the first in what has become a long series featuring Bracklin County sheriff, Dan Rhodes. It is a gently humorous, colorful procedural/whodunit that also includes a few good doses of action (I would say it is medium-boiled). The plot revolves around a few strangely connected (or disconnected) murders and some other crimes and shenanigans. Sheriff Rhodes pursues his investigation, his re-election, and a new girlfriend, all at the same time. Rhodes is likable, and he is supported by a cast of quirky figures, some rustic, some smooth, some loony, and some deadly. The book moves at a fast clip, and like the often great Gold Medals paperbacks of yore, it's all wrapped up in under 200 pages. I only mention length because I have become increasingly fond of tight books and increasingly impatient with the bloat that creeps into many books today. Just now, February 2008, the fifteenth Sheriff Dan Rhodes book is coming out; it's called, "Of All Sad Words," and I'm guessing this new one is worth reading, too.
My recent West Texas experience came via the movie, No Country for Old Men. Incredibly brutal, unpredictable, and highly recommended, but I've run out of steam. I'll write about it next time.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
A few weeks back, I caught Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. I have a few misgivings about it, but generally I'd say that it is necessary viewing for crime film enthusiasts (it involves a jewelry store heist). It's really bleak, and in that sense, is ultimately an exercise in brightly lit noir. Also, the writer (Kelly Masterson) and presumably the director (Sidney Lumet) spent some time thinking about traditional -- Greek and Shakespearian -- tragedy. (To emphasize the point, there is a scene with a children's school play -- it's King Lear, I think (which would never be performed by young children).) Of crime films at the end of 2007/early 2008, I liked Eastern Promises better (November 25 blog post) than Devil, but I'm supposed to see No Country for Old Men soon.
Friday, January 11, 2008
For a mixture of reasons (pride, self-motivation, seeking pragmatic information and guidance), I joined Mystery Writers of America (paid my $95) once my story "Wilson's Man" hit the stands in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It is a professional organization, and I qualify because I have been paid cash money by a third party for crime/mystery fiction. I appeared in the January 2008 "Fresh Blood" section (a list of new members) of MWA's newsletter, The Third Degree. I am also automatically a member of the Northwest Chapter, though its activities seem to take place almost exclusively in Seattle (which would mean a three-hour drive for a dinner meeting). I may try to go to the main MWA symposium and banquet in New York in late April/early May. My unlikely goal would be to finish a draft of a full-length caper that I have been working on in advance of the event.
For me, the jury is still out on MWA. I am hoping that it will provide more opportunities to submit to anthologies (I have a few good stories completed and waiting in the wings). I am on one MWA listserv and can get on another (I just have to contact the national office). The organization seems active and positive, a real community--more rewarding than the National Book Critics Circle to which I pay dues as well. Many of MWA's active, visible members seem to be more accomplished versions of myself: published by smaller presses, active as writers in their communities, etc., but not well known and usually without a major publisher.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
My 15 minutes of Ellery Queen fame are over -- the next issue is out. The Oregonian (the state's main paper and, incidentally, owned by Advance Publications (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, etc.)), however, ran a cute story about me, my story, and the difficulty of finding Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine on the newsstand. Here it is, with the paper's three headlines; it's part of a longer neighborhood round-up, so I hope this constitutes fair use; thanks too to Oregonian freelancer David Santen for his legwork:
KEEPING IT WEIRD
Rose City Park >>
Mystery writer's work... vanishes
Northeast Portland resident Doug Levin earns his bread by writing: annual reports, ghost writing, the occasional book review for The Oregonian -- the stuff that pays the bills.
But in each life lies a little mystery. For Levin, it's "Wilson's Man," appearing in this month's issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Levin stands in good company on the table of contents, alongside works by Dashiell Hammett and Joyce Carol Oates.The obligatory "on newsstands now" line should go here, but a cursory search of shelves at Broadway Books, Murder by the Book and The Press Club finds the venerable publication MIA. Thus: on newsstands somewhere. -- J. DAVID SANTEN Jr.