Friday Reviews: Sadie When She Died and Hail To The Chief by Ed McBain

Sadie When She Died

Gary Fletcher comes home to find his wife Sarah dead, a knife sticking out of her belly. Fletcher not only has an alibi, but he’s taken great pains to avoid the crime scene while waiting for the police. He’s also gleefully happy to be a single man again. That bugs Steve Carella of Isola’s 87th Precinct. Even after a junkie confesses to the murder, clearly upset at what he’s done, Carella still thinks Fletcher did it, that the junkie only stabbed the woman. Fletcher finished the job.

Somehow, Carella manages to get a wire up on Fletcher’s mistress and his car. And Fletcher seems to be dropping hints that he may not be entirely innocent. In the meantime, it becomes clear why Fletcher hated his wife so. He knew her as Sarah, but several boyfriends on the side knew her as Sadie. And they had a lot of fun with Sadie.

This is a darker 87th Precinct novel, exploring the dark side of sexuality and adultery. The fifties motif that has run through the 87th Precinct series is rapidly fading. In fact, Carella’s frequent partner Bert Kling gets a little wistful when The Beatles’ “Something” is played on a jukebox. As for Kling himself, he’s finding the departure of Cindy Forrest from his life is a bit messier than either of them would like. It complicates his already complicated pursuit of a new woman, Nora Simonov.

Hail to the Chief

Carella and Kling, who seem to be the stars of this series now, find themselves at the edge of the 87th Precinct, where six nude corpses lie in a construction ditch. From there, the story goes back and forth between the investigation, which includes detectives from the 101st in neighboring borough Riverhead and across the River Harb in a town called Turman, and the long, rambling confession of Randall Nesbitt, the “president” of a “clique” called the Yankee Rebels. What follows is a long, complex war between three gangs in Riverhead. McBain even explains the history of Riverhead, which has no rivers and no headwaters in it. Lest ye think his unnamed city is not an analog to New York, compare Riverhead’s history and name to that of The Bronx.

What makes this story particularly creepy is Nebitt’s confession. Some have likened it to Richard Nixon’s justification for the war in Vietnam. However, Nesbitt comes off as a well-spoken version of Charles Manson. He did little actual killing, but he ordered it for the good of the city. Between Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here, Sadie When She Died, and Hail to the Chief, Kling undergoes a continuity error. In Hail, Hail, he meets and falls in love with redheaded model Gussie. However, in Sadie, he’s making moves on Nora Simonov and trying to get closure from ex-fiancee Cindy Forrest. Then in Chief, he’s contemplating marriage with Gussie without so much as a reference to either Nora or Cindy. Or maybe it’s a function of Kling’s rotten luck with women.

This story is a stretch for McBain. The detectives take a backseat to the drama that is the gangs of Riverhead. Late in the story, he even juxtaposes the final street battle with Meyer Meyer’s rape prevention talk, itself unsettling in its candor and detail. This is a very different 87th Precinct, and it’s clear McBain has left the 1950’s far behind.

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Space Stuff: Damn It’s Cold!

iceworms

Photo: Niccolo Bonfadini via weather.com

Isn’t that an awesome picture for today’s post? I spotted that on The Weather Channel’s site. It’s in northern Norway, and the guy taking the picture was camping(!?). Those worm-like things sticking out of the ground are actually trees coated in snow and ice. What kind of trees? We’ll find out in June. On the upside, the presence of daylight that close to the Arctic Circle means only one thing: Spring is coming.

And not a moment too soon. The first of our now-regularly scheduled polar blasts really knocked the momentum out of the science fiction novel. Yes, even as Dick Bachman, I need to keep going. Getting the car fixed, dealing with other weather-related problems, and the beginning of Spring semester have conspired to slow me down. I’m writing this on Sunday morning. The night before, I’d planned to descend into the Dungeon here at Chateau Nita to get another 1000 words knocked out. After dinner, I… Well….

I’m getting old. I went to bed on a Saturday night. Only a few years earlier, Nita and I would stay out until all hours on Saturdays, watching live bands and hanging out at our favorite haunts.

But when you can’t manage word count, you can manage to finish a scene. So when I know my writing time has been compromised, I simply finish a scene. In some ways, it’s just finishing a thought. This morning, since the aliens are pretty much as faceless as Storm Troopers in Star Wars and not showing any menacing leader, I introduced the human villain. And it’s complicated. The human blames my male protagonist, or rather his Earthbound family, for the sudden apocalypse. It’s a revelation that doesn’t sit well with our friend, and one that’s going to play out over the series.

Of course, it could all be rewritten with this scene disappearing in the summer. I just started rereading Holland Bay in anticipation of the edit for which I’m about to receive. I’m trying very hard not to edit the glaring typos lest I get too involved in this novel and completely lose the SF project. And I’m not making any structural changes. That’s what I’m trading betas for. I am, however, noticing that a rewrite from scratch is the best thing I did to Holland Bay. And as plot flaws and continuity problems pop up in the SF project, having Dick do a rewrite is looking like a wonderful way to spend my summer vacation.

The Compleat Winter: The Heckler, Standoff, In Collections

cover-smallThe Heckler

The second story in The Compleat Winter sprang from my year-and-a-half flirtation with standup comedy. Standup is a strange and bizarre thing that actually terrifies world champion public speakers. Not to mention it has a culture of its own that gives performers in other fields pause. One of the underlying currents in the world of standup is jealousy. Why did the audience laugh at one comic while the other bombed horribly? There is no rhyme or reason to it.

It was during my aborted standup career that I met and married a woman, Nita, who worked in radio. That field has its own culture, jealousies, and pitfalls. Also around this time, I somehow had gained an “mortal nemesis” in a writer who was, quite frankly, far more successful than I ever hoped to be. For some reason, he decided to heckle me on the back blogs under another writer’s name (whose lawyers, I assumed, did not find him as hilarious as he found himself.) A story started to form combining this incident, standup, and radio. It would be a piece of revenge fic, since I was ticked that the guy would not contact me directly (I’d only had the same public email address since the Wilson administration).

But revenge fic is a dicey thing. You often have to toss out the revenge piece to make a story work. Thus, Chris Logan was born. A popular sports radio host in this unnamed city, Logan wants to be a standup comic. One has to ask why. If you have a mortgage, a day job, and a booming career, why would you ever want to go into standup? You work for free for years, then make a pittance until you can score a gig doing corporate functions, cruises, and the college circuit. And radio hosts get to stay put for the duration of their job. Get paid more to live in one city? Sign me up! But Logan wants to be a standup. When he sees a new comer named Andy Carr, Logan can’t, for the life of him, figure out why people find Carr funny. Meanwhile, Logan is relegated to being an emcee. Now, from a business standpoint, emcee is actually a better gig than the opening act. If you’re on a three-act bill, the headliner and the feature act, either a buddy or partner of the headliner or a highly touted local, make all the money. The opener gets beer money to try and not lose the crowd the emcee just warmed up. Emcee gigs tend to be steadier and much easier. Short monologue, a couple of jokes between sets, and introduce the next act. But Logan, like so many comics, see the emcee gig as a slap.

So he starts stalking Carr. I personally have never been stalked, but I know people who have. I’ve also known a few stalkers in my day. The perfectly logical and natural reaction to stalking is fear. But what if someone does not respond with fear, nor do they appreciate the attention? What if the stalker goes too far and learns their target has a really bad temper when messed with? That’s what Chris Logan finds out by the end of the story.

I have to thank Steve Weddle at Needle for suggesting the shorter ending to this. With just a few words, Andy Carr sums up what he thinks of being Chris Logan’s mortal nemesis.

Standoff

Anne Ripley existed in another form in my earlier days, before I started writing for market. However, I did not want to leave her behind. I also wanted a strong female character to anchor a new series. (One cannot write Nick Kepler forever, and I don’t plan to.) So Anne’s past was adjusted to the present day (2001), and transplanted to Cincinnati, Ohio, where I’d lived for a decade at that point. In the 1990’s, I delivered pizza while contracting and frequently delivered in the East End neighborhood. East End was sometimes referred to derisively as “Little Appalachia.” And why not? The Appalachian foothills being in Cincinnati proper. But the neighborhood had color, history, and a kind of faded look I found interesting.

So Anne’s first story would take her to this neighborhood, looking for a girl who had come to her for help. The story has a Congressman as the main villain, but were I to write it today, I’d probably have a politician at a lower level of government, a judge or a state legislator.

When I put the collection together, I reread the final scene where Ripley talks to a reporter from the Cincinnati Post. When I moved to town, I always preferred the city’s afternoon newspaper to The Enquirer, which was always so slanted in its coverage. (Nowadays, it would look apathetic next to Fox News or MSNBC.) The Post disappeared in 2008. The Enquirer, which now does a thriving business online, has been reduced to little more than the local Weekly Shopper in print.

And Ripley? The series I planned for her never came together. So I moved her into another series that may or may not find life in the future.

In Collections

In Road Rules, Miami drug lord Julian Franco has a cold, merciless right-hand man known only as Loman. Late in the novel, Loman dies when Stan Yarazelski drives Franco’s Escalade off Savannah’s Tallmadge Bridge.

Or did he die?

A few years ago, I tried to write a sequel to Road Rules that started with Loman, appropriately banged up and looking almost like a zombie, coming out of the Savannah River. He scares the hell out of a group of college boys drinking beer along the river, then proceeds to lie low to see what happens with Franco.

That novel died. But the idea of Loman stayed with me. What if Loman stayed dead in the eyes of the law? What could a legally dead criminal get away with?

Lots. He could become a professional hit man. After all, he’s dead. Who would suspect him?

This story was my first attempt at a Loman story. I somehow hit on the idea of telling it backwards, where it becomes obvious what happens if you try to stiff the hit man on payment after a job well done. The character of Isabella also came about and was likely to be his partner had I managed a novel about him. (Still may write it. You never know.) I had plans. Isabella would use her position at a presitgious law firm to launder his money, screen clients, and seed the US and Canada with false identities. Loman would hide in, of all places, Cuba. The Cubans don’t care. As long as he doesn’t get his Yankee cooties all over their nice, clean revolutionary island, they pretty much ignore him.

The last scene takes place in a Lake Erie city called “Monticello.” What’s Monticello? I’ll get to that when I talk about a later story.

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All my books are 99 cents on Kindle this month. You have until Friday to get some Winter cheap. As opposed to winter, which we’re getting for free whether we like it or not. Get you come of that here.

Friday Reviews: Meet the Beatles by Steven D. Stark; Read the Beatles by June Skinner Sawyer; Revolver: How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock and Roll by Robert Rodriguez

This semester, I have a cultural studies class called 50 Years of The Beatles. So I read all three books for the class. You get to read the reviews.

Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band That Shook Youth, Gender, and the World

Steven D. Stark

The first book is a straight-forward history of the band in terms of their cultural impact. Stark goes from The Beatles first days as the Quarry Men where they were very much like The Monkees who poked gentle fun at them later. They weren’t very good and often lacked a drummer. But when Paul McCartney and John Lennon formed a partnership, something sparked, solidified by the addition of George Harrison. Their biggest problem was keeping a drummer. They often performed without one, and it would be 1960 before Pete Best and the future Ringo Starr (who started out covering for Best occasionally) would provide stability behind the kit (and, more importantly, the kit itself). Best and Stuart Sutcliffe are often remembered as The Beatles who lost out. While Best was ousted (mainly through the prodding of George Martin and Brian Epstein), Sutcliffe lost interest, drawn more to art. However, their role is almost as important in finishing The Beatles as the arrival of Ringo. (Best, it should be noted, was the only former Beatle to attend road manager and Apple CEO Neil Aspinall’s funeral, the others represented by children, one ex, and Yoko Ono to prevent the service from becoming a circus.)

Stark then proceeds to elaborate how The Beatles phenomenon caused a cultural shockwave. They were the first somewhat androgynous rock stars, well-dressed and rather asexual compared to the raging machismo of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and, to a lesser extent, Buddy Holly. Their encounter with Bob Dylan led to chemical and lyrical experimentation that only enhanced their popularity, which in turn made them trailblazers in the counter-culture.

On the downside, Stark is rather uncharitable to The Beatles’ efforts after their breakup, is dismissive of Abbey Road, and has a bit of a bias against Paul McCartney in his role in the band’s end. Everyone puts the blame at least one of The Beatles, except maybe Ringo. He also ignores the closeness that remained after the breakup. John and Paul made several attempts to bury the hatchet, potshots in the press aside, and George Harrison was extremely distraught over Lennon’s murder.

But where Stark shines is showing where The Beatles came from and why they were who they were. John, Paul, Ringo, and, Stark adds, Pete Best were all from homes where one parent had died or abandoned them. George came from a hard-working blue collar family who saw his efforts with The Beatles as an extension of their Liverpool roots. Moreover, the importance of Stuart Sutcliffe’s presence, particularly his influence on John Lennon long after his death in 1961, becomes crystal clear.

Read the Beatles

Edited by June Skinner Sawyers

Read the Beatles is a different kind of history of the group. Editor Sawyers collects 52 essays from all corners, kicked off with a foreword by Astrid Kirchherr, the band’s ardent supporter in their Hamburg days and girlfriend of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. The essays range from speculation (“The Afternoon Hours” by Jim O’Donnell, a fictionalized account of John and Paul’s first meeting) to eyewitness account (Jim Kirkpatrick’s piece on George Harrison’s first ever radio appearance in America) to fanboyish (Christopher Porterfield’s Time Magazine essay practically drooling over the band’s output and position in culture.)

It’s the interviews that give the best account of The Beatles. Gloria Steinem conveys a sense of confusion after meeting the human whirlwind that was the pre-Yoko John Lennon.More poignant is Lennon’s last interview, give only 48 hours before his death. Perhaps more poignant was the inclusion of a poem by Paul McCartney where he is barely able to convey his grief over the loss of his former partner.

There is, however, an annoying tendency by the critics in this collection to dismiss the Beatles’ solo efforts as lacking or pale shadows. Also, one essayist seems miffed that Abbey Road is as beloved as it is. Despite firsthand accounts by three of The Beatles (Ringo is criminally underserved here.) stating that the breakup was almost inevitable after Sgt. Pepper, many of the writers are very much guilty of asking the same question Robert Plant summed up about Led Zeppelin later. “Where’s my ‘Whole Lotta Love, Parts 2, 3, and 4?” They seem to want Sgt. Pepper, Volumes II, III, & IV. Even if they had stayed together, a 1970’s Beatles would have sounded vastly different from even Abbey Road. (Ironically, the most Beatlesque former member these days is Pete Best, whose output sounds like a fresh take on Beatle co-conspirator Jeff Lynne.)

What really sells the collection, though, is the final essay by music writer Toure. Toure writes about discovering The Beatles as a kid, which seemed odd to him as he is black. But while the racial angle provides a unique perspective on The Beatles, Toure came to the group the same way I did, becoming aware of them after they broke up. The only Beatles tune I remember when it was current was “Something,” which may explain my fondness for Abbey Road. But Toure compares those who grew up watching The Beatles grow into an institution to his early adulthood and Michael Jackson’s rise and fall. Jackson appeared during my high school years and was the closest thing to an Elvis or a Beatles my or Toure’s generations knew.

Revolver:  How the Beatles Re-imagined Rock and Roll

Robert Rodriguez

This last book could a literary version of Sound City, only instead of a bunch of bands trying to get the sounds of their amps onto vinyl, The Beatles attempt what was never attempted before: Putting sounds that can’t be made onto vinyl. Whereas the former derides digital recording as a cheap way to cover the shortcomings of less talented musicians, the latter shows what happens when the studio becomes an instrument. Granted, much of what was accomplished on Revolver could be done in a couple of hours now using Pro Tools, the sounds on that album came about from trial and error. It’s rather telling that Paul McCartney is in Sound City, because much of his approach to creating “Cut Me Some Slack” with the remnants of Nirvana date all the way back to the experiments he did with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr.

Rodriguez also posits that Revolver, not Sgt. Pepper’s, is The Beatles artistic peak. In the first third of the book, he describes the back and forth with other bands that drove the Fab Four to higher and higher creative efforts. There were creative rivalries with the Beach Boys (Brian Wilson was insanely jealous of Paul McCartney), the Rolling Stones (who, despite their friendship with The Beatles, annoyed John Lennon to no end), and The Byrds. They also had a collective man crush on Bob Dylan.

The last third deconstructs Sgt. Pepper’s, which Rodriguez ultimately finds wanting, with the exception of the brilliant “A Day in the Life.” In between, Revolver is a music nerd’s delight, discussing such arcane things as varispeed and ADT. While the book does give insight to the band’s inner workings and politics, it dispels several myths about how the band got along in the mid-1960’s. George Harrison truly came into his own on this album, not only contributing three songs, but providing some of the glue that holds the album together. Also,the importance of Ringo Starr’s presence in the studio is brought into clear focus here. Starr was not the typical rock drummer, who are generally seen as light-headed, unpredictable, and otherwise there for rhythm. Not only were Ringo’s instincts on the drums crucial to nailing the right sound, but he also provided snippets of lyrics and melody that brought many of the songs together.

Remission: Back On The Horse

mostintrunningLate last year, it became apparent that the pounds I’d lost by May were coming back to stay. Rather than let them bring friends, I decided to get ahead of the curve and start running again. Only I remembered two things about running in winter.

It’s dark as hell by 5:30, earlier on the first day of winter.

It’s also cold.

The latter I deal with by reminding myself that having to jog in the cold is a First World problem, you pussy. Suck it up, put on some layers, and go outside. So I did.

And ran smack (literally) into the first problem. Pretty much any short route I take follows a short residential street in neighboring Amberly Village has decided isn’t worth the streetlights. So, one day in early December, I, being a responsible pedestrian, take my jog up into the grass to avoid on-coming traffic. Getting back onto the pavement, I discovered something else Amberly Village, which incidentally, is one of the wealthiest suburbs in Greater Cincinnati, needs to fund better: Pot holes. (Say what you will about Deer Park and Silverton, on whose fuzzy borders we sit, they fill their pot holes rather quickly.) My foot caught the edge of this seismic fissure in the Earth’s crust and…

“Moooooooooooommmmmmmmeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!”

Yes, a 47-year-old man fell down, skinned his knee, bruised a rib, and cried for his mommy. Don’t judge me. After realizing that 1.) I was no longer 10, and 2.) I hadn’t broken anything, I got up and walked painfully back to the house for a shower and dinner. I sat on the couch sulking with a beer when AJ came home from work.

“What happened to you?”

“I fell down.”

“Were you drinking?”

“Of course. I fell down. Why would I not drink after that?”

He rolled his eyes and went off to his room to play Smite. An hour later, Nita came home from school. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

“I went out for a run and fell down.”

Did I get “Poor baby”?

“Oh. Class was horrible tonight…”

Running outside when you can’t see where the hell you’re going was turning out to be a bad idea. But what to do? Join a gym? Nah! That’s too obvious. And really, I didn’t feel like having to fight with them when I wanted to leave after the days got longer again. Then it came to me. Run in the basement.

Yeah…  We live in a small, four-room postwar cottage. So, we’re talking about forty feet of running room. Then consider that you can only run on one side of the basement as the other is the laundry room. On that clear side of the basement sits an old love seat in what’s now our family room. At the other end is my office. So that takes a few feet out. So what did I do?

Booted up the Mac, built a thirty-minute playlist, and started running back and forth. Silly? Yes. Is it working? Who knows. I’m not running outside until February, when the snows starts melting, the daylight hangs out until after 6, and, most importantly, I can see where I’m going.

The Compleat Winter: And on the Seventh Day…

cover-smallThe Compleat Winter kicks off with a story set in the same fictional city as the still-fermenting Holland Bay takes place. The decision to set the story there actually came last. The incident that inspired it took place on a frigid January morning in Cincinnati.

As I recount in the print version, I had gone into work on Saturday morning to clear my plate without the phone ringing constantly. It was only 12 degrees F outside when I left. My car was in the Fountain Square garage, which is best accessed through the Westin Hotel on Fifth Street. So I braved the cold and made my way from the late, lamented Skywalk to the Westin. Inexplicably, a street corner preacher was out, shouting at the few people venturing out downtown.

Under my arm was American Skin by Ken Bruen. I generally ignore the street corner preachers, and I have to question the sanity of someone who would go out in such weather – hatless and gloveless, no less – to deliver a message to a sparse audience more interested in getting to the next warm space than any street corner theater.

Well, he seemed to realize he had an small, apathetic audience, which made me easy to spot. “You! With the red book! You’re reading the wrong book!”

In the story (which takes place on a city square that looks suspiciously like Cleveland’s Public Square), the unnamed narrator loses his cool, walks over to the preacher, and whacks him in the face with his book, its author named for the protagonist in American Skin. In reality, I saluted him the way many of us salute those who show the courage to cut us off in traffic. I wanted to go back and take a swipe at him, but 1.) I’m not violent, 2.) I’m not anti-religious, just anti-dogma, and 3.) there was a mounted cop trotting up the street anyway.

This episode would probably have been little more than a story to tell my wife or over a few beers. But as I sat in the Westin’s lobby restaurant drinking Starbucks and restoring the circulation to my limbs, it bugged me. I was pretty good friends with Ken and knew his history. I also thought it was pretty arrogant of the man to suggest that, since I wasn’t a dogmatic asshole, that I was somehow bad. Sitting at the table, I decided it was going to become a short story. On the way to the car, it was going to end differently. Getting on the freeway home, the book’s name came to me, something someone had said to me once in much warmer situation, with the name of Ken’s main character fixing itself to the fictional author’s name. I had Stephen Blake’s backstory by the time I got home. When I sat down to write, I already decided it would be set in the same city as Holland Bay, becoming an exercise in fleshing out the city.

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