Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Blue Dahlia

Okay, Eunice . . . I know.  I'm on a classic movie kick of late.  That's okay.  A good movie is a good movie, right?  Jes' like a good book is a good book.  Doesn't matter who wrote it.  Or when.  If the damn thing is good . . . well, sister . . . . it's good!  End of discussion.
Naw, not really.  Let's talk about 'The Blue Dahlia.'  In my last blog I said that Robert Mitchum was just about the perfect tough guy.  Especially in the movie, 'Out of the Past.'   And I still do.  But I gotta tell'ya, old girl, Alan Ladd in 'The Blue Dahlia' is just about as good as good can get when it comes to tough guys.

Ladd wasn't nearly as large as Mitchum in a physical sense.  But for projecting on film an iron-will toughness and a savvy, street-smart observer of the human condition, Ladd could hold his own with anyone.  Ladd, among his other talents, had this grin that was kinda like the grin a kid gives to his dad after wrecking the family car.  You know, that kinda grin that says,"Yeah, dad.  I did it.  And willing to take the beef over it."  That grin can get you into trouble--but it has a habit of getting you out of a trouble as well. 

That kind of an actor, working off a great script, makes for memories that never go away.  And the writer for this flick was none other than the master of hardboiled writing, Raymond Chandler.  Chandler was already famous as the creator of Phillip Marlowe--the quintessential tough guy private eye.  I can easily believe the theory that Alan Ladd was the perfect example Chandler had in mind for Marlowe.  That's just my opinion, mind you.  Take it for what it's worth.

Chandler as a script writer was hard to get along with.  A bit wordy in his scripts.  Took forever to get one done.  And to be honest with you, old dog, 'The Blue Dahlia' is the only movie I think Chandler completed.

But there were a couple of other actors in this flick that should be remembered.  One, I believe, probably one of the most underrated American characters actors to ever come down through the afternoon matinee B-reels.  William Bendix.  The guy was just an amazing talent.  He could do drama.  He could do comedy.  He could be a sweetie, a flake, a nice married man . . . but in this film he could be flat-ass crazy.  Mean-crazy.  And sadly few people remember his name.

The other actor in the movie is actually an actress.  Long blond hair.  A body that just made you ache every time you saw her.  A woman with mistique, dearie-o.  Veronica Lake.  She and Ladd teamed up in a lot of Ladd's movies.  That made an interesting pair.  Lots of movie historians lambast her for not having a real talent in acting--but I'm not buying that line, Eunice.  I think Lake was very, very good.  And damn easy on the eyes.

So okay; I can see it in your eyes, Eunice.  "What's all this movie talk got to do with writing?"  Well here it is, kid.  In a nutshell.  Writing novels is an exercise in verbal imagery.  The fewest amount of words to create the most vibrant of mental images you can within a reader's mind.  How do you do it?  Lots of way.  Be a good wordsmith.  Write concisely.  Create a great plot.
And use old movies as visual stimuli for yourself.  If you can 'see' main characters in your own head with  sharp images, you should be able to describe them succinctly.  That's why studying old movie classics, as well as modern movies, should be very important to a writer.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The 'Perfect' Tough Guy

Okay, I'll admit it old girl. I'm a push over. A push over for the old black and white movies of the 30's and 40's.  Especially if the movie is one of the old noir classics.
I'm an even bigger fan to some of the males who acted in these oldies.  Take Robert Mitchum in 'Out of the Past.'  There hasn't been a better big, tough looking, truly dominant male lead since Mitchum, in my opinion.  Nope, not one.  Mitchum had this dry sense of sarcastic humor, this aura of rock hard endurance, this unmistakably broadcast of sheer animal power no other actor since has ever been able to replicate in cinema.  And there has been some damn good actors come along since his time.

In 'Out of the Past'  you see Mitchum at his best.  Smart, savvy in the ways of the wicked; accepting his fate with a defiant shrug.  He knows he's doomed and yet walks straight into ever situation with power and an rough male arrogance only a handful of actors could attempt to mimic.  The guy just radiates a sense of raw energy the camera can't help but illuminate.

And if you want to see what a really really bad guy should act, get a load of Kirk Douglas in this movie.  Suave, sophisticated, elegant; but look at the way he grins.  Look at the eyes.  Listen to the way he talks.  Bad is bad, cupcake.  And Douglas is one bad dude in this flick.

But take a real gander at Jane Greer.  Oh, my god!  When she makes her first appearance in the movie by walking through the front door of a Mexican cantina--two things happen to you.  First, you just KNOW she's bad news.   Secondly, you decide it doesn't matter.  You've just fallen in love.  And you'd be right.  She is bad news--and there isn't a male in the picture who isn't affected by her.  In a very bad sense of the word.

But back to Robert Mitchum.  I think he makes the perfect tough guy image a writer who delves into hardboiled/noir should use as a template.  I may be all wrong.  But for me, there's Mitchum;  and then there's all the also-runs coming up a distant second.

If you can find a copy of this flick, you owe it to yourself to see it.  I'm telling ya' ya won't be disappointed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Anti-hero hero

Okay Eunice, let's begin this conversation on the assumption that we are all human.  (. . . I know, I know.  You've told me enough times already the way I scarf down food at the supper table can't possibly be human!)
Nevertheless, dear, let's make this assumption:  we're all human.

We all have our strengths and our weaknesses.  We need to, occasionally, rely on other people.  Have to rely on other people.  Unfortunately, sometimes.  But here's the point I'm trying to make.  Sometimes . . . perhaps more often that we will admit . . . we want in our lives someone who is invincible.  Omnipotent.  Not a god . . . not some divine creature with supernatural powers.  No.  We want a flesh and blood human being who is our ally and who does things, says things, acts out against those who are unfair to us--in ways we would never do ourselves.

In fiction this is called a hero. But what if we have a dark side to our personalities?  What if we want to bodily harm someone?  What if we secretly dream of having the bad guy getting his just do in a grim, even marginally sadistic . . . . and certainly quite painful . . . .biblical sense of retribution?

Ah!  The anti-hero hero!  The bad guy who doesn't quite fit the normal description of a bad guy!  The killer with a conscience?  A sense of justice due?  We all have read in fiction such characters.  The Punisher in the comics comes to mind.  Maybe even Jason Bourne in the way he takes out his enemies so effortlessly.  There are many examples of this kind of character.

As a writer ( . . . . yes, Eunice!  I call myself a writer!)  the idea of creating an anti-hero hero is quite appealing.  Mine is a dark-eyed hit man named 'Smitty.'  Gun, knife, hand-to-hand, explosives;  you name it--he knows how to kill you.  And so smooth . . . .like the whisper of a thought in and out of your mind before you are even aware of it.  That's how Smitty operates.

And that leads to a problem I'm having.  Perhaps too smooth?  Too efficient?  Perhaps the nemesis of bad guys needs a nemesis himself to confront.  Perhaps make a mistake or two.  Perhaps become . . . . more human?

Hmmm . . . . .

The title shown below is the first collection of a series called Call Me Smitty.  Three short stories of Smitty in each installment.  Five installments so far.  And counting. Sooner or later I'll get some feedback from fans.  Maybe they can help me out in making Smitty more human.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Conundrum of Charlie Chan

A mystery, Eunice.  You know how I like a good mystery.  What mystery, you ask?  Why . . . the mystery about Charlie Chan, of course.

Charlie Chan, you ask.  What so mysterious about a Chinese detective from Hawaii?

This is the mystery, ole' girl.  The mystery is--how does a stalwart, upright, forward minded, honest Chinese cop like Charlie Chan become so reviled and so deeply held in contempt by his fellow Chinese today?  I mean, the fictional cop is like a Typhoid Mary to a whole group of people.  People who should be looking at Chan with admiration--along with the writer who cooked up the character in the first place, Earl Derr Biggers.

I mean---think about it, Eunice.  Biggers comes out with the first Charlie Chan novel, The House Without a Key, in 1925.  Now I know you think I'm ancient, Eunice.  But I ain't that old.  So I can't say I've had first-hand experience in the blatant racism Americans had for the Chinese in that era.  And that's the mystery, love.  Biggers--already an accomplished, and acclaimed, American writer--goes out of his way to create a police detective, a Chinese police detective living in Hawaii, that is just the opposite of the racial stereotypes most Americans had at that time.

Charlie Chan is intelligent, loyal, honest, astute.  And a damn good cop.  So good, in fact, his boss--a white American--thinks Chan is the best detective on the force.  If you read all six Chan novels you quickly notice two facts.  One, most whites look at Chan, in the beginning, as almost less than human.  They are skeptical a Chinese detective can solve a major case.  But the second thing you notice is--Chan's talent wins over his white peers.  His talent, and his infinite patience at confronting racism aimed in his direction with quite, soft--yet unquenchable determination to prove himself to one and all.

And this is the mystery to me.  Chinese-Americans should--we all should, for that matter--applaud and admire a character like this.  We should admire a writer like Biggers who took on racism head on and unflinchingly.  But most people don't.  Thet think of Chan as a stereotype.  A laughable clown.

And that's sad, Eunice.  Just said.  Charlie Chan . . . and his creator, Earl Derr Biggers . . . deserve better than that. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Short story entitled, 'Silence.'

Thought I would share one of my Turner Hahn/Frank Morales stories.  One that I think came out particularly good.  One that shows that homicide detective Turner Hahn, a tough guy by anyone's standards, sometimes isn't so tough.

Turner his the one half of the Turner Hahn/Frank Morales homicide detective team.  Turner isn't your usual cop.  The same can be said about his partner. Frank Morales.

Turner looks like a '30's mantinee movie star.  But bigger.  Meaner.  For most of his adult life he's been a working stiff barely surviving on his paycheck.  But one day serendepity strikes.  He is given an inheritance.  A huge wad of cash that makes him very rich.

Yet he continues to be a cop.  A working cop.

Sometimes the job has its down side.  Hope you enjoy it


I walked into the kitchen, shrugged off the sport jacket and draped it over a chair, then slipped out of the shoulder holster and dropped gun, holster, and webbing on the kitchen table before moving over to the fridge. Reaching inside I pulled out a Boston Lager, flipped the cap off and sat down at the table. From underneath the sink I gripped a small gun-cleaning kit and tossed it onto the table top beside the holster before kicking a chair out from underneath the table and sitting down. Pulling out the 9 mm Kimber I slipped the clip out of the handle and ejected the single round in the firing chamber before laying the gun on the table.

And through all these little distractions I tried not to notice my hands were shaking.

Shaking violently.

Sipping some of the ice cold brew a little of the golden liquid slopped out of the bottle and splashed onto the table top. Setting the bottle down I placed my hands, palms down, onto the surface of the table and held them there. Held them there until they stopped shaking.

I live down in the warehouse district. Up in a long, narrow loft I converted into an apartment. I own the building. It’s a big red brick dump not too far away from the Little Brown River. Used to be a mechanic’s garage downstairs while the upstairs was used as a storage room. But I converted the loft into my living quarters and kept the garage downstairs for my toys. My car collect. I collect Muscle Cars. Have six of’em downstairs. And counting.

The nice thing about living in a loft down in the warehouse district is that there are no neighbors. There’s no lawns to cut every Sunday afternoon. No kids goofing off in their swing sets or trying to run down old people walking on the sidewalks while cruising on their bicycles. No gossiping house wives sitting and talking quietly in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee as they exchange the latest bad news about their ‘other’ neighbors. No boozy ex-jocks lounging round in man-caves watching pro football smoking cigars and reliving youths they really never had.

None of that.

When I come home the district is empty. There’s no truck traffic on the streets. No teenagers cruising around erratically. No mailman walking the sidewalks oblivious to the world around him. Just silence. Silence and emptiness. And there are times . . . like now . . . when I needed silence. When I needed space.

It all began twelve hours ago.

Frank and I were standing in front a Hispanic mother–a woman in her late forties, with a gaggles of small children clinging to her like she was the last life boat on a sinking ship–her hands covering her face and tears making her chubby cheeks glisten under the soft kitchen lights. She was beside herself in agony.

Frank’s my partner in Homicide down at Southside Precinct. We’ve been working together as partners since dirt was invented. First as patrol officers and then as detectives. He’s as big as a Himalayan mountain side with stringy, short, carrot colored hair and tiny little piggish eyes only a mother could love. But he’s married to an Italian that’s stunningly beautiful. And they have kids. Lots of kids.

Lots of . . . kids.

“They have my Jorge,” the woman said between her quiet sobbing. “They took him last night and I haven’t seen or heard from him since.”

“Who is Jorge,” Frank asked quietly. “And who are they?”

“He is my son. My oldest. Only fourteen, officers. Only fourteen. A nice boy. A good boy. But they wanted him. Wanted him to join their gang. Call themselves the Tenth Street Boys. They came and got him last night. Dragged him out of the house. Threatened me and my little ones. Said if I called the police they would come back and hurt all of us. But . . . but I fear for my Jorge.”

We knew the Tenth Street Boys. Boys no more. A pack of wolves now. Snarling and deadly and muscling in on just about street crime they could get their hands on. Heavy into drug trafficking. Extortion. Murder. If they wanted Jorge bad enough to come and drag him out of his house there was more to the story than what the mother was telling us. Glancing at Frank I said nothing. But we both knew.

“Can you find my Jorge and bring him back to me? Please. Please, can you do that for me?”

We heard the pain in her voice. The fear. The ragged fear of perhaps knowing her Jorge was already dead–but she didn’t want to admit it yet. Still held onto a sliver of hope. Looked at us with her big brown eyes filled with tears. Filled with a need for us to come to her son’s rescue. So we told her we would find her Jorge. We would bring him back to her. Bring him back if at all possible.

“Over on the next block, Turn. Three members of a family found in their bedrooms. Dead. Shotgun blasts to their faces as the slept. Should be four bodies. Found only three.”

“Who’s missing?” Frank asked.

“Fifteen year old girl. She used to be the girlfriend for the leader of the Tenth Street Boys. But word has it she told him to fuck off about a week ago. Apparently the new guy doesn’t take bad news too well.”

“New guy? There’s been a change?” I asked.

“Yep. Found Huey Johnson in an alley off Baxter with his throat cut and a bullet in his forehead. Rumor is the new guy didn’t like Huey dissing him in front of the gang members. Decided there had to be a change in the leadership.”

Jesus. Huey Johnson was one crazy sonofabitch. And mean. If someone took out Huey he had to be certifiable psychopath.

“Who’s the new guy?” I asked.

For an answer Flattery glanced at the house and nodded his head in that direction before turning around and walking back to his black-and-white. Turning, I looked at Frank. All the big man could do was shake his head and shrug.

It went down like this.

The Tenth Street Boys owned a garage on the corner of Toledo and Benjamin Streets. The front part of the building was the garage. And like any garage it was littered with junk heaps waiting to be fixed and big open bay doors with cars and trucks up on lifts and people milling about inside. But the back of the building was the hang out for the gang members. Back there maybe ten or fifteen members could be found at any one time. Armed and dangerous. Packing enough fire power to take on a company of marines. It would be suicide for a cop to walk in there alone without backup–lots of backup–and check the place out.

So we called for backup and then drove over to the garage, just the two of us, to check out the place. Climbing out of the car about six of the members came strolling out of the garage. And in the middle of the pack was the new gang leader with a big grin on his young face. Beside him was a girl. A girl much younger than he was. A girl with bruises on her face and terror in her eyes.

“What the hell are cops doing down here in my neighborhood?”

“Came down to take the girl, scooter.” Frank said, nodding toward the girl as we walked around to stand in front of the Mustang we were driving. “And to take you in as well. Seems like you’ve been a bad boy lately. Have some questions to ask you downtown. And then we need to take you home. Get you out of this bad influence.”

“Take me downtown? For what? I haven’t done anything. Get the fuck out of here before you two get hurt.”

“Sorry, scooter. But we’re here for the girl. And for you,” I said, smiling and turning to stare into the face of a particularly large teenage male who carried himself like some kind of wannabe thug. “So how do you want to play it, Jorge. You’re call.”

Behind us came the rumble of a big diesel engine. Turning onto the street leading down to the garage appeared the blocky form of an armored truck with a bumper made of steel plate and about as wide as an aircraft carrier riding on its front.

“I’m not going anywhere! And I’d like to see . . . .”

“Shut up,” Frank grunted, looking at the small kid named Jorge and not looking happy. “Tell your men to look at their chests.”

“What?” the kid asked, blinking in confusion and starting to say something, but glancing at his men and suddenly growing very pale.

Plastered dead center on the chest of the six goons standing around Jorge and the girl were bright red laser dots–laser range finders from six snipers hidden from view. But close enough to drill each of the six with a 7.56 mm bullet with deadly accuracy.

“Make a wrong move and lot’s of people are going to be hurt,” I said, looking over at the fourteen year old killer and straight into his eyes. “And believe when I tell you you will be the first to go down.”

“You wouldn’t kill a kid,” Jorge grinned, dropping his arm from the shoulder of the girl beside him.

“Think so?”

For several seconds I could see it in his eyes. For several seconds his dark brown eyes stared at me, blinked a couple of times, and then glanced over at Frank. Both Frank and I were standing with are feet slightly apart, our hands down by our sides. On either side of the kid his six goons looked scared shitless as they stared first at the red dots painted on their chest and then up and out toward where the dots were coming from.

But Jorge wasn’t scared. He was grinning. Grinning, blinking his brown eyes, and thinking about doing something crazy. I could see he was going to do it. Going to test me.

He shoved the girl toward Frank violently as he dived behind one of his goons, a hand reaching up to yank a .357 out of the goon’s blue jeans. The kid was fast. Very fast. But not quite fast enough. As he dived toward the ground, raising the Smith & Wesson up at the same time, my lift foot kicked the gun out of the kid’s hand. A hand reached out, grabbed Jorge by the collar, and yanked him up to an upright position where it met the boney knuckles of my other hand as it smashed into the kid’s face. The kid’s eyes rolled up into his head but I didn’t let him go. Twisting him around I pulled both of his hands behind his back and slapped cuffs on him before he shook the cobwebs out of his skull.

We arrested them all. Took their guns. Their dope. Their stolen goods. Took the terrified statement of the girl who had seen her family slaughtered. Booked them all for Murder One downtown. And after the paperwork was done I went home. Went to my loft. Went to drink a beer and clean my gun. And found my hands shaking. Shaking violently. Shaking at the thought of the carnage that might have happened.

Went home to sit alone and think about coming oh-so-close in killing a kid with my own hands.

I heard the collective thuds of several people climbing the wooden stairs leading up from the garage floor to the loft. I recognized the sounds. Frank. Frank and his entire family. Without knocking the Morales clan came striding into the kitchen with grins on their faces and plates of food in their hands.

“Thought we’d drop by and sit down and have supper with you,” Frank grunted as he came over and laid a big hand on my shoulders.

“That sounds great, buddy. But right now I’d just like to be alone for awhile. “

”You big dope,” Frank said, shaking his head but speaking surprisingly gentle to me. “When you gonna learn sitting in this dump alone isn’t good for you? Especially so when you know you have family waiting for you. Besides, the little one has a present for you.”

I turned and looked at little Bianca. Bianca Morales. Age six and the spitting image of her beautiful mother. She came walking up to me dressed in a dainty little blue dress, holding in her hands a big yellow envelope. She stood directly in front of me where I was sitting and looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes and smiled.

“I made this for you, Uncle Turn. With my own hands.”

It was a piece of paper with stick figures drawn in crayons on it. One stick figure was labeled ‘Uncle Turn’ on it. Above it was a big red heart drawn in a child’s jagged script.

“Here, take it Uncle Turn.”

A soft voice. A quiet child’s voice. A tender voice. I dunno . . . for some reason I found myself choking up and my vision blurring. It was hard to breath. Wiping moisture from my eyes I reached down and took the card from her tiny little hands and then picked her up and held her in my arms.

And within me, like a violent thunderstorm suddenly erupting, my soul wept.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Recognize this famous writer?

Recognize this bloke, Eunice?  You don't?!  And you call yourself a fan of Fantasy and Science Fiction!

This good ole' Texas boy is Robert E. Howard.  In the 1930's he wrote lots of imaginative tales for the pulp magazines. Especially for one called Weird Tales. In fact it was this mag that got the man started in his brief writing gig.  Yeah, I know you may not be familiar with the guy's name.  But I'd bet your next alimony check, Eunice, you're quite familiar with one of Howard's fictional characters.

Conan the Barbarian.

Big guy with muscles bulging all over his body.  Wore a loin cloth all the time.  Had long brown hair falling past his shoulders.  Used a broad sword chopping down hundreds of his foes at a time.  Even a recent governor of California became an internationally know movie star thanks to Conan.

Conan as the more famous of Howard's many creations.  But Howard created a character earlier in his career that really is more intriguing, more mysterious, than his muscle bound freak show named Conan would ever be.  A dark character with lots of secrets.  A sinful man trying to make good for past sins.  The name of this character?  Solomon Kane.

Kane was a Puritan killer.  There's no other way to describe him.  You could call him a hunter.  His main occupation hunting Evil and dispensing Puritanical justice.  Which made sense, really, since Solomon Kane was a Puritan.  All of Howard's stories featuring Kane were set in the 17the Century--the prime time for Puritan dogma.   Howard wrote a number of short stories featuring this character--and in their time they were quite successful.  But for some reason Solomon Kane's name never developed the buzz . . . or the following . . . as his Conan the Barbarian did.

Which is too bad.  Kane had vastly more potential as a character.  If Howard had become as proficient writing novels as he did in writing short stories, maybe Kane would have become the famous entity and Conan as the also-ran.  But the troubled Howard never developed as a novelist.  Frankly he wasn't around long enough to become one.

The guy was a troubled man who committed suicide when he was 30 years old.  A waste.  A tragedy.  Many think Howard invented the Swords and Sorcery sub-genre found in Fantasy.   I have a tendency to agree with that summation.  Too bad imagination--and a trouble mind--seem to go glove-in-hand with so many brilliant writers.

Go up and read about Howard's life on the link I left.  A fascinating read.  And then go to the library and find the stories featuring Solomon Kane.  You won't be disappointed.