Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Resolutions for 2012

I don't believe the world will end in 2012 (no matter what the Mayans predicted), but I don't think it's a bad idea for me to live as though the world is ending. What changes might I make? Ironically, probably not that many.

1. I'll spend time with my family (which is what I do now--but perhaps I can make more of that time: really look at my sons and my husband and dialogue with them in a way that is not distracted).

2. I'll stop criticizing myself. If the world were ending, what would be the point? And if the world weren't ending, what would be the value?

3. I'll stop swearing. I don't do it constantly, but I do it under stress. It's a bad habit rather than an expression of just indignation. I need to let go of some crutches.

4. I'll still try to sleep eight hours a night. People who give up sleep remind me of those drivers who speed past me in traffic to end up waiting at the same red light that I reach seconds later. Losing sleep, I believe, takes off years in the long run. Besides, I love sleeping. Hamlet gave it a bad rap. :)

5. I'll try to make some wise financial decisions. I haven't been much good at this in the past, not being all that interested in any aspect of money aside from the spending of it. But the world is in a precarious financial situation, and I need to start being vigilant about all of my accounts (even if the world were ending, I wouldn't want someone taking advantage of me--as my bank has started doing of late).

6. I'm going to keep losing weight. This is always a good idea, apocalypse or not. :)

What are your resolutions for the new year?

A HAPPY 2012 to all!!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Pondering Voltaire as I Turn Older

Happy birthday to me, Suzy Bogguss, Tracey Ullmann, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, two of the Monkees (Davy and Michael), and the late Rudyard Kipling.

Today I will reflect on the words of Voltaire:

"God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well."

Since my birthday is on the cusp of the New Year, I am always mulling over the best ways to live well, and I continue to do so.

I'll start by having lunch with family--that's always a good way to spend my time. :)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mark Stevens on the Toughness of Women, the Beauty of Colorado, and the Greed That Threatens the West

Journalist Mark Stevens has written two books in the Allison Coil mystery series; his current title is BURIED BY THE ROAN, which is set on the Roan Plateau in Colorado.

Mark, I’m intrigued by your protagonist: Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman—they’ve got nothing on Allison Coil, the earthy and unsinkable heroine who rides the trails. Is this an idealized woman, or are women in Colorado much hardier than those, say, in my town?

No question about it. I’ve met them. Allison is tough, unflappable and unafraid of a challenge and there are many out there just like her. I think the key to Allison is she doesn’t think of herself in any way that would require a pair of tights and a cape. She has taken to the woods and the wilderness and finding a way to get things done is just, quite simply, what you do. Men and women who spend the bulk of their time in the woods and wilderness are common in Western Slope of Colorado, where Allison lives, and they are a tough, hearty breed. In fact, Allison is based on one of these women. I met her. I’ve gone riding with her in the Flat Tops Wilderness. She’s completely at home and completely at ease in the big outdoors, no matter the conditions. The real-life “Allison” doesn’t just love the Flat Tops—she knows it inside and out. The bugs, the flowers, the trees, the plants, the cloud formations, the geology, the history. Fictional Allison has this keen awareness of her surroundings, too.

She's cool. Your story is set against a beautiful Colorado backdrop that is itself in danger of being murdered. Are Colorado environmentalists concerned about the state of the water in drilling areas?

So is the federal government.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently linked bad water in Pavillion, Wyoming to nearby hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” to use the shorthand term. The water was so bad in Pavillion health experts warned residents to not drink what comes out of the tap only shower if with good ventilation. In other words, don’t trap yourself in a closed shower stall drawing from the local well.

If you watch the movie “Gasland,” there are several scenes in Colorado, including one outside Rifle, Colorado where a landowner who lives near a drilling pad lights his tap water on fire.
I started work on “Buried by the Roan” because one of the Denver newspapers—the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News—produced a five-part series called “Beyond the Boom.” That series came out four years ago, just after the publication of the first Allison Coil mystery, Antler Dust. The series looked at all the impacts of drilling along the Western Slope—and up on the Roan Plateau—in Allison’s backyard. Given the controversy, I figured there was a way to have the friction and tension wind its way up the trail and into a group of hunters camping in the Flat Tops.

One of your characters sums up the conflict implied in your title, BURIED BY THE ROAN, which references Colorado’s Roan Plateau: “Find yourself some friends if you can. Make sure they’re in high places and do what you can to save the Roan. If we lose the Roan, you may as well kiss the West goodbye.”

Was this character an extreme, or does he reflect a growing concern for the exploitation of the Roan Plateau?

The Roan Plateau is one of those treasured spots that everyone is watching, but it’s not the only one. It’s seen as a symbol, in a way, of the battle. It’s the Old North Bridge or Maginot Line. It’s highly visible along Interstate 70 running west from Rifle and it’s also home to one of the most biologically diverse environments in western Colorado. The feeling is that if The Roan Plateau is overrun, so much will be lost.

Several of the (non-speaking) characters in this novel are horses, and you describe them like one who knows his way around an Equus. Do you ride?

Bicycles, yes.

I also ride the Internet and/or books from the library and do a lot of research.

I have ridden horses from time to time over the years and have some pictures to prove it. A big group of us went up in the Flat Tops a couple years back from a horsepack camping trip and had a great time but nobody would confuse me with, say, Robert Redford in “Jeremiah Johnson.”

Your book put me in the mood for winter—I could really see and feel the swirling snows on the endless expanse of the Roan. There are certain characters who end up in battles for survival in the harsh elements, and I was put in mind of Jack London stories, especially “To Build a Fire.” Were you influenced by London at all?

You nailed it. I am not a Jack London aficionado by any means, but Call of the Wild and that short story are right up there. “To Build A Fire” is classic. Can we just stop right here for a second and admire those opening lines?

"Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland."

I mean, who doesn’t want to follow him? I love the repetition of ‘cold and gray’ and the simple, clear imagery.

Earth-bank. Little-traveled trail. Fat spruce. Great stuff.

There’s so much wondering temptation in this opening. It’s a lure. You’re hooked.

It is great. I mentioned in my interview with Craig Johnson that his character, who spent so much time outside, seemed to adopt an existential view of the world. I often felt this way about Allison, whose job is so much influenced by the whims of Nature. I loved this line: “Allison rode to Trapper’s Lake in a daze. The snowfall held steady. The afternoon light matched her dim view of the world—vague and in-between.”

Does being outdoors inform your character’s view of reality? Have you felt this way on outdoor expeditions?

Definitely with Allison and the same is true for me. Who doesn’t feel refreshed on a hike? Fresh air, wind in the trees, a view. Nature is such a big part of Allison’s world. She has found her healing spot in the Flat Tops and really sees no need to go back and risk experiencing what she went through in the city. The accident she endured led her to the Flat Tops and she is not going back. I think Allison realizes that when you spend time around the life and death in nature that you start to take a bit more of an existential view of the world and your place in it.

One of your characters, in dialogue about The Roan, suggested that people are short-sighted in the choices they are making now, despite the long-term repercussions. A second character adds, “The greed gets sick.” Do you think the Colorado landscape is falling victim to greedy and unscrupulous people?

I think there is always that risk and, right now, I do think there’s a risk. We’ve been on the bubble of that risk for many decades now. It’s only a few short decades ago when the aerial view of Weld County and Rio Blanco County or Mesa County (to name just three) would have been vastly different. Industry has left behind their messes and it’s not just oil and gas—it’s mining, too. I appreciate that there will be development and cities and I’m not arguing we all head back to the cave. But I think we have to be extraordinarily careful with Colorado and the environment here—it’s truly a one-of-a-kind place and put me down for siding with those who want the best-trained, most scrupulous government regulators and hope that every single industrial initiative is undertaken with extreme sensitivity to the water, soil and air. Is that too much to ask?

No. What should people do if they want to lend their voices to the dialogue about the Roan Plateau?

Stay in touch through the Colorado Environmental Coalition ( or the Western Colorado Congress ( Or subscribe to High Country News ( And I’m not just mentioning High Country News because they wrote a very kind review of Buried by the Roan. It’s an amazing and unique publication.

Have you always lived in Colorado?

Since 1980. Drove to Denver from L.A. in a small Toyota pulling an even smaller U-Haul trailer. But I’m originally from Massachusetts. I grew up in the town of Lincoln, which is right next to Concord. We used to drive to Concord frequently right past Walden Pond, which always fascinated me.

What made you start writing mysteries?

I grew up in a world of books—both parents were librarians and I enjoyed a good book from early on. But when I discovered the tremendous variety of stories and styles within the broad “mystery” genre and then when I came across an idea for a first book, I thought I’d give it a whirl. It took me six years to put that first novel together (this was the 1980’s) and I kept writing.

Antler Dust, the first in the Allison Coil Mystery Series, was published in 2007 and Buried by the Roan in 2011. The third in the series is on the way and I hope to go back and blow the dust off the earlier projects. I’m glad those weren’t published, however. I look back on the earlier attempts and cringe.

What do you like to read in your spare time?

I’m all over the place—a firm believer in variety. Straight-up literary fiction to non-fiction and mysteries. I don’t read much paranormal or horror, but I’m not opposed. I just finished Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending and more recently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Enjoyed both. I’m reading Wade Davis’ Into the Silence, about the early explorations of Mt. Everest and the British empire and its role in India and Tibet in the early 20th century. Riveting.

Where can readers find out more about you and your books?

Simple: I also keep a book review site here:
Thanks for the virtual conversation!

Thanks for chatting, Mark! I enjoyed reading your book with its beautiful Colorado setting.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Marilyn Stands Eternal

I went downtown today on a school trip and finally got to see the Marilyn Monroe statue on Michigan Avenue. Response to the art has been lukewarm, but I thought it was wonderful. This shot is my homage to the artist and to beautiful Chicago.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday at Last

"Middle age is when you're sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn't for you."

~Ogden Nash

Oh, Ogden--I couldn't agree more.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What I'm Reading

In addition to Jonathan Gash's FACES IN THE POOL, I'm reading BURIED BY THE ROAN, Mark Stevens' atmospheric mystery set in the Colorado mountains. I'll be interviewing Stevens in a later blog.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Hollywood Native Laurie Stevens Talks Indie Books and L.A. Noir

Amy Edelman of THE HUFFINGTON POST called your book “a frighteningly great indie.” What’s the premise,

The plot revolves around a troubled Los Angeles Sheriff’s detective, Gabriel McRay, who is terminated for police brutality. Gabriel suffers from rage, aggression, nightmares, and memory lapses. He is court-
ordered to seek therapy. During therapy, he discovers he is plagued by a suppressed memory of a childhood trauma. When a serial killer begins leaving personal notes addressed to Gabriel on the bodies of his victims, the notes begin jarring his memory. Gabriel soon realizes the killer’s identity lies within the blocked memory. He then runs two parallel investigations: The first, a dark journey into the terrifying recollections of his past and the second: a search for a killer who seems to know more about Gabriel, than he knows himself.

and why does she call it frightening rather than “mysterious?”

The method in which the killer dispatches his victims could easily fit a horror novel!

Would you put your book in the mystery or the horror genre?

The book has elements of horror, mystery (because it is a who-dunnit) and most definitely is a psychological thriller.

Your website mentions “Follow Your Dreams Productions.” What is that?

Follow Your Dreams Productions is the company I created to produce the stage play, “Follow Your Dreams” and to also fund the publishing of this book.

You have written for both television and movies. With what shows have you been affiliated?

Regarding television and film, two credits of which I’m proud to be a part are “Chris Isaak’s Guide to the New Orleans Jazz Fest,” which was the last footage shot of New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina hit, and “The Ghost and the Gangster,” which I wrote for the late, Academy Award- winning producer, John Daly. Just to be associated with him was a kick. The stage play, Follow Your Dreams, which ran for two months in Los Angeles, gave me the opportunity to co-write with director, writer and producer Ronald Jacobs (That Girl, The Andy Griffith Show, The Mod Squad). Mr. Jacobs is not only a co-writer, but he’s been a wonderful mentor to me in regard to my writing. Working with him allows me to exercise my funny bone. Writing comedy is a wonderful break from the dark side of writing mysteries.

How did you go from writing in Hollywood to writing mysteries?

I actually started off writing short horror and mystery stories – they were my first published items. I turned to scripts because the opportunities came along. For me, writing mysteries is a solitary endeavor and I enjoy stepping out and co-writing in other genres when the opportunity knocks.

You mention that your favorite pastime is to “pick the brains of therapists.” How exactly do you go about doing that? Did you arrange interviews with therapists in order to research your novel?

Most people, even psychologists, like to be interviewed about their work. Before I bother anybody, I will research all I can on the internet. After that, when I have specific questions that need answering, I’ll seek out the opinion of professionals. I think they appreciate that I look like I know what I’m talking about (even if half the time I don’t!) Now I have a wonderful pool of psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists who are willing to help me out with my work. Taking people out for coffee is a great way to keep the conversation casual. I’m very excited about an upcoming event in which psychology students at a local college will actually be analyzing the antagonist from The Dark Before Dawn!

You live in L.A., and that’s the setting of your novel, DARK BEFORE DAWN. Many famous mysteries have been set in L.A. Did you find this intimidating when you chose your setting?

I myself am a big fan of L.A. mysteries and noir. There is something about this city that just begs to be a setting for trouble. I’m a second generation Californian, so I was not in the least bit intimidated to set my plot down right here in Los Angeles. The Santa Monica Mountains are both eerie and beautiful, deeply imbedded with various facets of the Old West, the American Indians, Hollywood movies, the Pacific Ocean, and New Age lifestyles. I couldn’t think of a better place in which the characters could operate.

Will there be a sequel to your book?

Oh, yes. The next novel, Deep into Dusk, is ready to roll. In it, Gabriel continues to deal with the “trauma” he has now recalled. The new case to which he is assigned perfectly correlates with where he is in his psychological progression and, unfortunately for him, features a femme fatale.

How did you come up with Gabriel McRay, the name of your Sheriff’s detective?

The name just seemed to come, and it felt right. Sometimes I think writers are open conduits – we get these ideas, sometimes out of nowhere, and then the characters write themselves.

Did you interview people in the Sherriff’s office in order to research McRay?

Okay, here’s a real mystery. I wrote the original draft some years ago. At that time, I had interviewed a detective who gave me a tour of the Sheriff’s substation in my area and answered a lot of questions for me. Unfortunately, I lost contact with him in the interim. So now the book is published and his name makes the acknowledgement page and I go to the Sheriff’s substation to hand-deliver a copy of the book with my thanks. Only nobody there knows him. They look up his name in the database, thinking that maybe he was transferred or retired. He’s nowhere to be found. It’s as if he never existed.

That is so bizarre!

The good news is, the Lieutenant and other officers are so mystified by the missing detective, they’ve become solid supporters. The only thing they ask is that I keep the police procedure as real as possible. On an interesting side note, my husband and I once snuck into the county morgue to do research. Thankfully, my niece is studying to be a forensic anthropologist, so I no longer need to trespass in order to research the forensics.

That’s good! What are some of your own favorite mysteries?

Thomas Harris’s books are a big influence and some of my favorite reads. Red Dragon is truly one of the most frightening books I have ever read. I grew up on Stephen King. Not exactly mysteries, but I was practically addicted to his books, and that’s probably where the horror comes from. I admire Jim Thompson’s books like The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m a fan of old L.A. noir, like the works of Raymond Chandler.

Chandler is the name I think of when I think of L.A.

Good luck with your publications, Laurie!

Thanks so much, Julia, for the opportunity to appear in Mysterious Musings!


Congratulations to Linda, who won the free Kindle version of THE GHOSTS OF LOVELY WOMEN.

I hope you enjoy it, Linda!

Friday, November 04, 2011

Win a Free Kindle Book!!

The Ghosts of Lovely Women is climbing the Kindle charts! Click on the cover at right to get the Amazon Link.

English teacher Theodora "Teddy" Thurber is shocked to find out that a former student of hers--a bright and beautiful young woman named Jessica Halliday--has been murdered.

Soon afterward, Teddy discovers some cryptic messages that Jessica left for her, and she begins to try to follow the trail in order to find the truth about her former student's death. In the process she must delve into the literature that Jessica loved best, since it is from these literary masterpieces that Jessica has derived her clues.

Helping Teddy is the new history and psychology teacher, who seems fascinated by Teddy, despite her conviction that she leads a dull life. As her search for Jessica intensifies, she must also deal with the unwelcome advances of an old boyfriend, complicating her life even further.

Teddy's persistence puts her and the ones she loves in danger; but she can do no less than try to avenge the murder of a promising young woman whose future success had been assured.

At her side throughout this mystery is her faithful beagle, P.G.


And don't forget to turn your clocks back this weekend. :)

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

November's Reality

"Dull November brings the blast,
Then the leaves are whirling fast."

--Sara Coleridge

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Have a devil of a good time!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Would He Think of Kindle?

In Josephine Tey's THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, Inspector Alan Grant, grumpy because he is confined to a hospital bed with a broken leg, says this:

"There are far too many people born into the world, and far too many words written. Millions and millions of them pouring from the presses every minute. It's a horrible thought."

Oh, Alan Grant! What would you (and Tey) think of Kindle and Nook and blogs and the entire virtual world of words?

I'm guessing he would say it was EXTREMELY horrible. :)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Two for One Monday

Today at Dames of Dialogue I'm talking about my menagerie of pets and how each of them is worthy of a Marley and Me-type memoir.

And at Poe's Deadly Daughters, I'm talking about my new book, THE GHOSTS OF LOVELY WOMEN.

Stop by and say hi!

Friday, October 21, 2011

On My Christmas List

I love the idea of this Haiku helper. What a fun way to pass an idle moment! The link to the catalog is here:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Louie Flann is a Funny Fellow

The following is a guest blog by Louie Flann, whose book NEXT TIME WE STEAL THE CARILLON is available now on Kindle. Louie's slightly skewed view is at the center of his humor, and he shares his outlook for writing fiction here.

See, writing is like talking, with one notable exception. When people ask questions, there is usually only one answer--one truthful answer. In fiction, a question has an unlimited number of answers. For example: where did you grow up? Spain, The south of France, Berwyn, back of a Ford pickup, Tuesday. Good answers. In writing, one of them stands out as the best (Tuesday).

I either have a turn of plot or want to show a character's traits that interest me. After figuring out the things that make the character who he is—-could be his job, his interests, his hates—-the character writes his own story, almost. We know what he will do next because that is the only thing that he would do in that circumstance. Predictable, evolving into boring.
Slip him a curve—-he breaks his thumb, or his laptop. Ruffle his feathers. You can't imagine how this guy is going to get through this dilemma.

His name is Eric; he's twenty, a student, spends his time on videogames and gets a letter for jury duty. He never has enough time for his schoolwork, and now this. Of course, blow it off. No wait; get someone, pay someone to do the jury thing for him. Great, but who? And where will the money come from? Poor Eric.

How did it end for Eric? He tried to explain to the jury master on the phone that he was too sick to go. The guy didn't buy it, so Eric went for two days and met a girl on the first day, took her out for coffee that night, and got dumped on the third. Oh well.

Now for the good stuff. My book, Next Time We Steal The Carillon, is about college students in the Midwest in the nineties. I would have set it ten years later, but there is not a name for those years. The oughts, the pre-teens, the tweens? Come on! We'll have to wait another ninety years and hope that our great-great grandkids will be more serious about addressing this terrible problem. But, I digress.

Our student detectives have been tasked with the job of finding the stolen school antique. Signs point to witches or some magic people. Then, some other signs point to collectors, and yet other signs point to thieves. Too many signs!

You'll be pleased to know that in the end, they sort all the signs out. Yes, there is a little innocent flirtation going on, and yes, there are some college hijinx going on, and yes, there is some serious detecting going on. These are kids you'd be proud to have as your sons or daughters or mothers or fathers or pastors.

Please note: No animals were injured in the writing of this book.

Check out Louie's website at

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Super New Cover

This book goes on Kindle soon--I'm very excited about the cover art by Ivan Diaz! It captures that mythological/Underworld feeling that I wanted. The girl in the picture is drawing night around her like a cloak.

Look for it on Kindle in about a week!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Suspense Writer Stephen Brayton Explores the Publishing Paradox

This guest blog was written by Stephen L. Brayton. Check out his new book, Beta, at

More Than Pretty Wrappings

Opening a new book is like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning. You see a pretty dust cover over the formed cardboard like shell and you wonder what’s inside. Will it be a story to excite you or make you laugh? Will the hero be fearless and the bad guys extra evil?

Many times, the book ends up being the annual Father’s Day tie. Nothing special, same unexciting characters, standard plot with a few new twists. Once in awhile, however, you do get something shiny and fresh and worth buying.

As writers, we’re faced with a dilemma--one I think is confusing and somewhat unfair. We’re asked by publishers or agents to create something new, to have a fresh voice, because as we all know, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same plots have been rehashed and rebuilt and remodeled every year, but we’re expected to slap a different coat of paint over them, mix up the action a bit, conjure up new surprises.

Then after months or years of blood, sweat, and tears, those same publishers and agents ask us, “So next to whose books would yours sit on the store shelf?” or “To which authors is your book similar?”

What? We’ve spent countless hours trying to come up with something outside the box and you ask us who we write like? I write mysteries and horror, but I’m not supposed to write in the same vein as Robert B. Parker or H.P. Lovecraft, yet some person to whom I pitching my story at a conference asks me which authors’ novels mine might be next to in the store? Can you say, “Oxymoron?”

So, let’s tackle one thing at a time. How do we write in a different voice than everybody else? It can start with plot, but there, you might be limited. Only so many of them to go around. You can combine genres if you think you can make it ‘believable.’ Zombie romance in space with a few cowboys thrown in for added flavor.

Setting: New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago have seen more than their fair share of stories. Try something in Alaska or rural Montana. Or strike out across the ocean to Galapagos Island or Guam. Is your alien planet a desert Vulcan or the mega-metropolis Coruscant?

Character: Here is where you have a plethora of options. Everybody knows the hard-boiled detective, but does he limp, have one eye, stands only three feet tall, was once a nuclear scientist? What new spin can you make on the leader of the religious cult? Could he be Australian or Nigerian? What personal problems can your protagonists and antagonists have? A lisp? The product of a brother/sister relationship? Dealing with the loss of a dog?

Of course, in certain genres, there are standards you have to meet, and some, like romance, you do not have much room for radical creativity. Romance publishers and readers want the same limited buffet every time. That’s okay.

In Beta, I tried to be different with my heroine, Mallory Petersen. Yes, she’s tall, blonde, and beautiful. She’s also a taekwondo instructor with years of training under her black belt. She’s a Sam Spade fan right down to the Bogey trench coat and hat. Many of her cases are fraught with goofiness.

I also placed her in Des Moines, Iowa, because I’m familiar with the area and it’s very rare to see a story set there.

Plot: She’s takes on the serious case of finding a kidnapped eight-year-old taken by child pornographers.

The second question, of how your writing is similar to other authors, can be tricky, because you shouldn’t sound like others; you should sound like yourself. There are aspects, however, you can pinpoint as being influenced by others. Is the humor akin to Evanovitch? Do you have a serial killer a la John Lutz? Did you attend the course on short chapters instructed by James Patterson?

If you’ve done enough reading–and as writers you should be reading–you are familiar with authors you enjoy and probably are somewhat influenced by them when writing your own stories. Certainly you can learn how to improve your writing.

So, how is Beta similar to others? Who do I sound like? Well…I choose to let you decide. I just hope you enjoy the book and you won’t think of it as a Father’s Day tie.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Art's Preference and Mine

"I'd rather be a forest than a street;
Yes I would! If I could, I surely would.
I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet--
Yes I would! if I only could, I surely would."

--Simon and Garfunkel, "El Condor Pasa"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fun Recent Reads

My three latest reads were all terrific in their own ways. DEATH AND THE PENGUIN, a suspense novel set in Kiev, reads sometimes like a mystery and sometimes like existential poetry, but its premise and characters are so unique and fresh that the story stayed with me long after I put away my Kindle.

THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS is not one of John Connolly's famed mystery novels, but an examination of myth, folklore and fairy tales in a WWII England setting. The first page made me cry, but the story never went where I expected it to go, and I became lost in the labrynth of his tale as surely as Hansel and Gretyl were lost in the dark, endless forest.

I chose to read A RELIABLE WIFE on a long busride, and it was the perfect way to pass the time--the conflict is established in the first two chapters, but surprises continue along the way, and I really could not put this down.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memoriam

"In love longing
I listen to the monk's bell.
I will never forget you
even for an interval
Short as those between the bell notes."

~ Izumi Shikibu

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Belated Anniversary Wish

I began posting in the summer of 2006, and now here I am, more than 1000 posts and 200 interviews later!

Please stop by and share the virtual champagne.

I am in good company, as Sisters in Crime is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year.

Here's to happy milestones.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Cool Winds Approach

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."

--George Eliot

Yes, autumn is on the way, and welcome to it. The soul-crushing heat of last week has me ready to carve pumpkins and hike through the fall foliage. Thank you, God, for the cooler weather and the lovely fall which is surely on the way!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mother Issues

I'm exploring the idea of absent mothers in Hollywood scripts over at Poe's Deadly Daughters today. See if you agree with me: every other story seems to have a conveniently dead mother.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Today Is Beautiful

"Summer afternoon - summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

~Henry James

While many people are still suffering the ravages of Hurricane Irene, Chicago has at last achieved that rarity that is a perfect summer day: it is sunny and comfortable, and a cool, friendly breeze is blowing.

I am so grateful for these rare and perfect days that I feel obligated to spend as much time outside as possible. Hence this short post!!

(Photo: by Julia Buckley, 2006).

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Value of Reading--Now More Than Ever

“Resolve to edge in a little reading every day, if it is but a single sentence. If you gain fifteen minutes a day, it will make itself felt at the end of the year.”

--Horace Mann

Friday, August 12, 2011

Raymond Benson Chats About Books, Bond, and The Black Stiletto

Raymond Benson is an American author best known for being the official author of the adult James Bond novels from 1997 to 2003. His new mystery, The Black Stiletto, will be available next month.

Hi, Raymond! Thanks for talking with me on the blog. THE BLACK STILETTO has an interesting premise: that a middle-aged man, going through the belongings of his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, finds out that she is The Black Stiletto—a masked avenger from the mid-20th century, similar to Batman in terms of her legendary status.

How did you come up with this idea?

You know writers can never answer the question “how do you come up with your ideas?” ! I’m not really sure where the idea came from. I can remember talking to my literary manager/agent Peter Miller over a meal and we were discussing what I should attempt next. This was a few years ago. He kept telling me how most of the book-buying public were women, so I should come up with something that would appeal to women. Right then and there, I facetiously said, “How about a female superhero? It could appeal to the geek crowd; go for the ‘True Blood’ and ‘Twilight’ audiences.” Afterwards, I started thinking about it, and the story just flowed out of me. It was one of the easiest books I ever wrote.

You write the novel from the point of view of Judy Cooper (The Black Stiletto), her son, and an antagonist. What made you choose these particular vantage points?

It had to be from Judy’s point of view, naturally, since she’s the protagonist. Since I was telling two parallel stories, one in the past and one in the present, it made sense for the second narrator to be her grown son. So really, there are two protagonists and two different storylines. The third voice, the antagonist, was brought in primarily to give the reader a different perspective on what was going on. Knowing what Roberto is doing builds suspense because the reader suspects there will be a clash at the end. Each book in the series will always have the two protagonist voices—Judy and Martin—but there will be a different third voice in each book.

It’s interesting that you allow Judy’s son to discover her superhero status not after she has died, but certainly after she is able to talk about it with him. This makes the story almost more heartbreaking for me. Was that your intention—to enhance the pathos by making Judy close, yet far away?

Absolutely. I wanted a contrast between the Judy of the past and the Judy of the present to show what Alzheimer’s can do to someone. It also creates conflict and tension between Judy and Martin.

Judy’s son, for me, is not that likeable a character. Is this intentional, and will he, if the series continues, evolve into more of a hero himself?

Sorry you felt that way, but I did want Martin to go through a lot of changes as the series progresses. He’s just a regular guy trying to cope with everyday crises—losing his job, dealing with being divorced, fighting with a teenage daughter, and, most importantly, taking care of his elderly mother who has Alzheimer’s. Then we lay on him the knowledge of who his mother was. Any man would go through all kinds of emotional swings with all that going on. Ultimately, while there is nothing “heroic” about Martin in the same way that Judy was heroic, he will become more heroic in a very human, normal way with the decisions he makes regarding his mother and his own life. The first book is just the beginning!

You do leave the reader with some unanswered questions. So there will be a sequel?

The sequel The Black Stiletto: Black & White will be published in May 2012. I plan for The Black Stiletto to be a five-book series.

Have you experienced Alzheimer’s Disease with a friend or family member? You seem to know it from the inside.

Yes. My mother-in-law had it, and my wife and I experienced it from its onset until her passing—a period of 11-12 years. It’s a horrible disease and I wanted to try and show what it’s like not only for the patient but for the caretakers and family members.

I think you captured that well.

The main settings of the story are in Texas, New York and Illinois. Have you been to the locations you write about, or just researched them?

These are all places where I lived at one time. I grew up in West Texas, specifically Odessa. I had to do a little research on Odessa of the early 1950s, but it wasn’t much different from the 60s, when I was there. I lived in New York during the 80s, and a place like that sticks to your DNA. Again, the bulk of the research was capturing New York of the late 50s; luckily the geography of New York hasn’t changed! Finally, I’ve lived in the northwest suburbs of Chicago since late 1993, so I know these places pretty well. When one examines my backlist of original thrillers, you’ll find that I use these three locations a lot—Texas, New York, and Chicagoland. They say, “write what you know.”

On your Facebook page are pictures of you partying at the Playboy Mansion. How did that come about?

I’m happy to say I’m a friend of Hugh Hefner and the Playboy “family.” When I was writing the James Bond novels back in the 90s, Playboy published excerpts and original short stories. I got to know Hef slightly earlier than that, when my non-fiction book The James Bond Bedside Companion came out in the 80s. So now my wife and I (and son!) can visit the Playboy Mansion any time we’re in L.A.

What, if anything, did you learn about Hugh Hefner that people might not expect?

Hef’s a great guy, very generous and kind. We both have a love of film history in common. He likes board games and he likes jazz. He’s loyal to his friends. He’s also extremely intelligent and, at 85, still sharp.

You have written several James Bond novels. Will you write any other James Bond fiction?

As Bond (Sean Connery) says to Professor Dent in Dr. No—“You’ve had your six.” My run was between 1996-2002; six original novels, three movie novelizations, and three short stories. The Ian Fleming Estate (and its publishing arm) tends to hire one author at a time, and they don’t go backwards. So, no, it’s doubtful I’ll do any more. I’m not sure I’d want to. However, two anthologies of my 007 work were recently published—CHOICE OF WEAPONS and THE UNION TRILOGY—and they contain the six original novels and the short stories.

I can imagine The Black Stiletto as a movie. Any talks about that in the works?

Every author hopes his/her book will be a movie or TV series. One can only cross fingers and hope!

Good luck, and thanks for chatting, Raymond!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Noble Man

A special tribute to my father appears at Meanderings and Muses today.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

An Early Halloween Treat?

Just click here and get a head start on fall. :)

Sunday, July 31, 2011


Since a new PRIME SUSPECT is in the works (with Maria Bello in the role made famous by Helen Mirren), I've been revisiting the first episodes from the early 90's, produced by Granada television and written by the talented Lynda La Plante.

I had never heard of Helen Mirren before I watched this series, and I've been a fan of hers ever since. Looking back now, I can see why Prime Suspect got so big, and why the San Francisco Chronicle called Detective Jane Tennison "perhaps the greatest role and performance of a female police detective, ever."

Mirren is utterly assured as the cop who wants to prove herself to a slew of sexist colleagues, but her performance is nuanced enough to show us her moments of vulnerability--moments that never happen in front of the men she must lead. I still love this series after 20 years; it is a testament to the fact that good writing and good acting produce a chemistry that lasts.

I fear the new cast has impossibly large shoes to fill, and the comparisons to Mirren's version will be inevitable. In any case, I highly recommend a look back at the original series, which you will want to plow through with obsessive speed (or at least I did). :)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

For Norway

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Oslo, Norway today.

In their honor I share two quotes by Anne Frank:

"I don't think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains."

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death."

In all of the helping hands that surround you today, may you see the beauty that remains beyond the horrifying acts of one man.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mystery Writer Clare O'Donohue Chats About Rediscovering Chicago, Playing in the Ocean, and Getting Free Food

Clare O'Donohue's Kate Conway mystery, Missing Persons, is available now.

Hi, Clare! Thanks for doing an interview. Your book, MISSING PERSONS, is set in Chicago, with many recognizable locations. Are you a Chicagoan?

Yes, I grew up on Chicago’s South Side and have lived in several neighborhoods throughout the city as an adult. But I also spent years living away from Chicago – in London, Los Angeles and New York. I sometimes feel I know those cities better so setting the Kate Conway Mysteries in Chicago has meant taking the time to rediscover my hometown.

Your hero, Kate Conway, must investigate the death of her estranged husband, which creates plenty of drama beyond the standard murder mystery. Did you like this premise because of all the possibilities for conflicting emotions?

In a divorce, the tendency is to focus on the negative aspects of the former partner. But in death, the tendency is to focus on the spouse’s most positive traits. I loved the idea of Kate being caught between the two opposing narratives. Ignoring her feelings would be her first choice, but once she becomes a suspect, she has to deal with them – and solve two mysteries. The overload of emotions, plus her in laws, the husband’s girlfriend, a job she’s conflicted about – piling it all on her seemed like a great way to introduce her to the world.

Kate works for a company which makes exploitative television programs, and she is the first to admit that people’s pain makes for good tv. As a television producer, do you experience crises of conscience about whether or not your work is exploiting people?

Sometimes. Unlike Kate, I usually warn people how their interviews will be used. I don’t want to see anyone blindsided, and I don’t want to deal with the angry phone calls. On true crime shows, victim’s families are always treated well, and should be, but sometimes “suspects” aren’t. The shows are on the air, and available for viewing so I have the opinion that people know what they’re getting themselves into. While I am always respectful, even with killers, I have a job to do.

One of the characters owns a bakery and is always giving people free baked goods. Is she based on someone real, and if so, where can I find this person?

I’ve done a number of Food Network shows and whenever I’ve produced an episode in a restaurant, whether it’s a pizza joint, a bakery or a high end five-star place, the owner is always giving us food. My advice is take a camera crew into a restaurant and shoot an episode for the Food Network. You’ll eat yourself silly.

Time for a career change! Seriously, though, you have some neat details about running a bakery. Did you observe in one (and write off any cake consumed as a professional expense)?

My familiarity comes from working on episodes of TV shows set in bakeries – so I’m truly stealing from my own experience there. And I’ve eaten my fair share (or more) of baked goods both on and off the job.

Kate meets her almost-ex-husband’s girlfriend and actually starts to like her. This makes for some fictional surprises; do you know of people who have been achieve this sort of friendship?

I don’t, though I think Kate’s reluctance allows for that aspect of the story to feel real. She doesn’t want to like her, but Vera is very likeable. I think Kate also has the agenda of wanting to understand why Frank chose Vera over her and uses the guise of friendship to get that access, then discovers – to her dismay – the many reasons why he might have loved Vera.

Kate is producing a television show about a young woman who has been missing for almost a year. Sadly, it often IS young women who are missing, and the rhetoric of missing woman, slain woman, molested woman, has become constant news fodder. Do you think there’s anything that can be done in the world of television to somehow change our perception of women as perpetual victims?

Years ago I read a study about what men and women fear from the opposite gender. According to the study, a man most fears a woman laughing at him, and a woman most fears a man killing her. TV plays to those fears – men on sitcoms portrayed as emasculated idiots being laughed at by their wives, and women on TV movies and true crime shows are shown as victims of violent crimes. There are lots of shows where this isn’t the case, thankfully, but I think some TV shows play to these fears, because we’re drawn to them, wanting to tell ourselves, “that isn’t going to be me.”

Interesting that the people in charge of programming are interested in perpetuating some of these destructive ideas.

On a different note, when on a shoot, Kate rides around with a sound guy and a cameraman who are pretty fun companions. Would you say they are realistic depictions of a camera crew?

Very realistic. When I’m working I almost always travel with crew. It’s just easier to get to locations, parking etc…if we’re together. We talk about our lives, the story we’re working on, and lots of conversations about where we’ll have lunch. On true crime shows, my camera man and I will go through the case as if we’re detectives, much like Kate and Andres. The sound guys, like Victor, are frequently musicians, though not always as adorably sensitive. But it’s a team, and often a close team. Between the hours and the intensity of the work, you get to know each other well, and if you’re lucky, become good friends.

On your website you suggest that freelancing creates a lot of “downtime.” Has this been a perk, in your experience, or just a time to worry about finding more work?

It’s both. I love having free time. It’s made writing books, and especially book tours, possible. But being freelance is, in many ways, an endless search for jobs. The oft-spoken truth of freelancing is that when you have time you have no money, when you have money you have no time.

MISSING PERSONS is the beginning of a series; I felt that in the book Kate formed a sort of bond with the detective who was investigating her husband’s death (or at least I got the sense that he was interested). Am I barking up the wrong tree, or might Kate at some future time meet up with that policeman?

It’s a funny thing. You create a small character, and then some of them become real, like a character actor in a movie who steals the scene. At the beginning of Missing Persons, I saw Det. Podeski as a one book guy, as I did with Det. Yvette Rosenthal, who worked the other case. Both could come back in future books and probably will. I don’t see anything romantic with Podeski, if that’s the question, but I do think that Kate has a friendship with him, and if she gets into trouble, she might be willing to ask for his help.

You’ve written a series about quilting and now a series about a television producer, both of which are topics with which you’ve had some experience. So I’m curious—-as a writer who is all Irish, do you envision ever setting a series in Ireland?

I was just talking today with my cousin, Patrick O’Donohue, who lives in Galway City, about heading there next summer to “research” a possible book aka hang out and have fun. I would love to set a series, or at least a book, in Ireland. So often it’s depicted in books and movies as cute and magical, as if leprechauns pop out of teacups, and not as a modern country with ordinary people just living their lives. I’d like to show that Ireland – the real Ireland.

And on another note of heritage: were you named for County Clare, or did your parents just like the alternate spelling?

I’m named after the county. My father was born and raised on a farm near Lahinch, Co. Clare. Lahinch is a lovely town on the Atlantic Ocean and some of my favorite childhood memories are walking on the beach with my brothers, sister and cousins, and playing in the ocean. It was so calm, so beautiful. Of course now I would think – what a great place to set a murder.

Thanks so much for answering my questions, Clare!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy 4th

However you celebrate Independence Day, may you enjoy this great American weekend and the freedoms that come with being American.

Today at PDD, I'm discussing this sad percentage: more than 20 percent of Americans interviewed were uncertain of the country from which we had won independence. Check it out here.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Falk's Fond Farewells

A lovely tribute to Peter Falk and his much-loved tv detective, Columbo, appears at The Rap Sheet today.

I'm sure all mystery lovers are saying fond farewells to Falk these days, whether on blogs or merely in their hearts. I loved the character of Columbo and the way Falk gave life to him. Even in the 21st Century I was showing Columbo clips to my students to enhance our study of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, since Columbo was loosely based on the investigator Porfiry Petrovich and his methods of detection.

Falk was not a one-dimensional actor, but all of his roles were invested with a sort of crusty charm. My husband loved him best as Vince Ricardo in The In-Laws; I have happy memories of him as Max, the assistant to Jack Lemmon's cartoonish Professor Fate in The Great Race; and of course we both loved him as the gruff grandfather reading a book to his sick grandson in The Princess Bride.

It is sad and sweet that we don't want our television and movie heroes to ever grow old and die, as though they are beloved members of our own families. Falk died of Alzheimer's--the same disease that claimed my mother-in-law--and therefore I can guess at his slow decline, his gradual separation from life, his growing emaciation. I'm sure for all that were near him, it was clear that it was his time to die.

How lucky we are that his memory is preserved in many wonderful movies and youtube clips that we can watch forever. I wish that I could say the same about some of my family members.

(photo link here)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Craig Johnson on The Bighorn Mountains, The Third Man Syndrome, and "The Bulwark Between Justice and Chaos."

Hi, Craig! Thanks for agreeing to chat once again.

Your new Walt Longmire mystery, HELL IS EMPTY, is a fascinating read, especially, for me, because of all of its literary parallels. Dante’s INFERNO plays an important role in the story. Did you have the idea that you wanted Walt to go, symbolically, through many levels of hell?

It’s a novel that I’ve had in the works for a few years now, and it took that long to get all the pieces into place. I knew when I introduced Virgil White Buffalo in Another Man’s Moccasins that I was committed to the idea of an allegorical tale that would utilize Inferno. I knew that Walt was going to return to the Bighorn mountains, specifically to the area where he ventured in my first novel, The Cold Dish—but I didn’t want the book to simply be another manhunt in the snow (I figure that’s been done to death), so I started thinking about which works of literature explored the things I’d be dealing with in Hell is Empty.

Two things most people aren’t aware of are that there are only one or two sentences describing hell in the Bible--that the majority of the images we have of hell actually come from Dante, and that the further you go down into Dante’s hell, the colder it gets, the epic poem finally ending in a frozen lake with snow and wind. The parallels were there--I just had to find a way to use them so that people who were familiar with Inferno weren’t bored and so that readers who weren’t wouldn’t be intimidated.

Even though you reference Dante continually, the title is taken from a line in Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, one of my favorite plays. I see many parallels between your book and that play—specifically the recurring theme of illusion versus reality. On Shakespeare’s magical island, one can rarely tell what is and what is not. Did you try to use that idea in your mystery?

Yes, illusion and reality is certainly primary in Hell Is Empty, but its discussion was also a problem in the sense that I didn’t want to replicate what I’d done in The Cold Dish. Taking the idea in a new direction was challenging, so I decided to use Walt’s disbelief. The main question at that point was when was Virgil there, and when wasn’t he? It’s called ‘Third Man Syndrome’ when you’re out on the trail and suddenly feel as if someone is there with you, even to the point of pouring them a cup of coffee or offering them your canteen.

Because this mystery takes place almost entirely outside, in the vast wilderness, it is not so much a who-dunnit as it is an odyssey. Did this make it easier or more difficult to maintain the tension in the plot?

Well, it’s an odyssey disguised as a thriller with mystery elements to the plot; questions not so much about who done it, but more of why or how. It’s pretty obvious who the bad guys are in Hell is Empty; something is going to happen, it’s just a question of the inevitable when, and that defines the momentum.

The outdoors setting wasn’t a hindrance to the tension of the plot—hell, most of the exciting times in my life have been out of doors! The location of the novel was crucial in that the setting becomes a character unto itself. I know that phrase sounds a little hackneyed, but it’s true. The spiritual elements of The Old Cheyenne are tied to the land. My type of people have only been in this country for a couple hundred years, whereas my Indian friend’s ancestors have been here for thousands—is it hard to believe that they might know a little more about the place than we do?

No--but fascinating! Walt experiences several existential yet beautiful moments in which he questions the meaning of it all. One of my favorites is this: “Maybe our greatest fears were made clear this high, so close to the cold emptiness of the unprotected skies. Perhaps the voices were of the mountains themselves, whispering in our ears just how inconsequential and transient we really are.” This is lovely, and again has me thinking of THE TEMPEST and Prospero’s realization that everything fades (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on . . . “)

So here’s the question: Does the experience of being in nature for a long period of time make one aware of his or her lack of importance, or even make one question the reason for existence?

Thank you. I’ve often described the eastern part of the US like an oil-painting, whereas the high plains are more of a charcoal sketch, and that’s okay because things become clearer in a sparse environment. The landscape is humbling and introspective, but it’s also invigorating. As Wallace Stegner said, “We must protect and preserve the open spaces if for no other reason than the way they make us feel when we look upon them.”

And here’s the answer: It’s an amplifier for whatever your particular philosophies might be. I do know that it changes you; we go through our lives believing in the artificial world, the man-made world, but every once in a while we get a glimpse of something more. For me, a lot of the time, that’s in Wyoming ’s Bighorn mountains .

A beautiful answer.

Eyes are a recurring symbol in the novel, especially those of Reynaud Shade, your disturbing villain. I read significance into the fact that Shade had only one working eye, but that it was the “dead one” that seemed to be looking at Walt. How did you come up with Shade; did you always envision him as a one-eyed man?

“In the land of the blind…” Well, you get the point. His perspective of humanity is unfinished, uneven, out of balance—so I thought it was a way of expressing that in a physical sense. His past and the cycle of violence that produced him is one of the mysterious elements I mentioned before. I take the antagonists in my books very seriously. I’m not particularly a fan of the bad man character; there has to be a reason for this monster: how was he assembled, who assembled him, and where did he come from?

The Cheyenne say you can judge a man by the strength of his enemies, and Walt is pushed to his limits in confronting Raynaud Shade, a man whose glass eye shows more life than his own biological one. My favorite quote, of course, is Vic’s—“The voices in that fucker’s head are singing barber shop.”

Speaking of Shade, I love your character names, as you know. Walt Longmire is a terrific moniker for a tragic hero, and Reynard has come to be a word for “fox” in French. Did you choose the name to suit the man who outfoxes Longmire (and everyone else)?

Yes. I like playing with names; it’s just too much of a temptation. If this fox was going to play halfway between the lands of the living and the dead, what better last name than Shade (an archaic term for a ghost)?

And a mythological one! Walt has good friends and loyal colleagues, but he is ultimately a solitary man. Did you purposely create a protagonist whose essential loneliness is a reflection of his landscape?

One of the first images I had in assembling the novels was a vertical figure against a horizontal landscape. So I think, yes, Walt speaks to the place and the Western genre as a whole in that sense. And, there’s a percentage of crime fiction that derives its impact from some very basic questions about existence—who are we, why are we here, what are the rules, are there any rules? I think the sheriff walks that cosmic line and provides a bulwark between justice and chaos; that’s a pretty lonely beat.

But nobly so. At many points in the book people advise Walt to stop his quest. Aside from the fact that he is the sheriff, what quality is it that most pushes Walt forward into further conflicts?

It’s almost easier for Walt to keep moving than it is to stop; he’s definitely the unstoppable force. I think there’s a responsibility that comes from inheriting the mantle of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the rest of those white hats. Walt is a product of a more sophisticated time, but he still adheres to the cowboy code of ethics. He’s aware that, at times, he’s putting his ass on the line, but it’s who he is and what he does. There’s a chivalry to the man that’s inherent, a trait you can trace through crime fiction from Sam Spade, Spencer, Joe Leaphorn and Walt Longmire.

In every novel, Walt learns more wisdom and legend from Native American characters. Did you research these ideas in books, learn them from friends on the reservation, or make them up?

You can pretty much tell from my acknowledgements that I’m indebted to my Northern Cheyenne and Crow friends for allowing me access to their lives and culture. Most of the Indian characters in my books have a basis in individuals I know up on the Rez. I research the living daylights out of everything, but it’s the primary research of talking to my friends that trumps it all. Sometimes its not big, textbook history, but rather, small, social history that finds its way into the novels just because those moments can be more informing.

I was driving up on the Rez with my buddy, Marcus Red Thunder, and we came upon this ten-year-old kid walking along route 212 with only one shoe.

Marcus told me to pull over because he knew the kid. I stopped, and Marcus said, “Hey, you lost your shoe!”
The kid turns around with this beatific smile and says, “No, I found one!”
Now, that says a lot.

It does. Walt has difficulty switching from wilderness and isolation to civilization and other people. Have you ever experienced this phenomenon?

Oh yeah. I’ve mountaineered my whole life, and I don’t know how many times I’ve come out of the mountains, unlocked my truck and just sat there in the seat trying to remember what all those switches and buttons do. It’s the same with people; a lot of times I’ll go to a restaurant or café and just sit there and listen to people, attempting to reacquire my power of speech.

How do you feel about the casting of your Walt Longmire television series, and when does it come out?

It’s been a phenomenal experience; Shephard/Robin and Warner Television have pretty much kept me in the loop, which really isn’t something I expected. They made me an executive creative consultant and had me on-set for the entire shoot. The casting, the direction, just about everything has been amazing.

The pilot, which will become the first episode if the project is picked up, was shipped from Warner Horizon over to A&E this week. A board will have input, and it’ll be shown to a number of test audiences. By September we should have a definitive answer on whether it is that ‘Longmire’ will ever see the light of day.

Keep your fingers crossed.

I will! Thanks for a great series and a fine interview.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Books and Summer

"There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work; and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs."

~Henry Ward Beecher

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Journalist Mark Seal on The Notorious Clark Rockefeller, The American Dream, and The Notion of Having It All

Mark Seal was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his new book, THE MAN IN THE ROCKEFELLER SUIT.

Your publisher compares Clark Rockefeller to Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley, and a person in the book compares him to Swift’s Tom Jones, but he reminded me of another fictional character: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, who changed his name (from James Gatz) as a mere boy:

“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time . . . His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all . . . . So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end,” in pursuit of “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

I thought of this every time I read accounts of people who felt Rockefeller was an egotist, or that he seemed desperate to appear not just like them, but better than them. Did the parallel ever occur to you in the years that you did this research?

Yes, you are absolutely on target. Gatsby, like Rockefeller, is about a man nobody truly knew, who hid behind façade of wealth and taste that really wasn’t really real. As you note, Gatsby was a boy named Jimmy Gatz from North Dakota without connections, money, or education. He invented himself as Gatsby, much the way Christian Gerhartsreiter did as Clark Rockefeller.

Throughout all of his identities, “Rockefeller” never seemed to do actual work, other than the task of manipulating other people, their homes and their money. So where did he get his impressive art collection—or, if it was fake, how did the art itself fool so many people?

It’s one of the big mysteries of the book, and everyone seems to have a different answer. Some say the art was loaned to him by a friend, others insist that he had the copies done by some unidentified copyist somewhere, someone else insisted that he possibly painted them himself (which I found difficult to believe, considering the quality of the paintings). His attorney told me the paintings were derivatives, worthless, really. But they were indeed done so well they fooled artists, art experts and galley owners.

How do you account for the fact that some very smart people were utterly bamboozled by Rockefeller, while others (including one notable woman who compared the story to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) said they never for a moment believed in him or his ridiculous persona. What might have accounted for the difference?

Of course, many who say that they knew now may not have been as vocal back then. So it’s difficult to say who really knew and who didn’t. He was extremely believable, at least in the beginning, and people are willing to believe things when they are said by some one who is seemingly educated, erudite and, most importantly, has a famous name.

To a certain extent, Rockefeller’s wife seemed to buy into his fiction because he filled a requirement in terms of her own aspirations. Do you think her ambition was the major reason that she never seemed to question all of the inconsistencies in her husband’s life?

She is a very smart, educated woman. I believe she was taken in for the same reasons as everyone else, and she insisted in the trial that she didn’t use his name for career advancement.

You met Clark Rockefeller. What was your own feeling after your meetings? Did you feel his charisma, or did he seem pathetic?

I was not able to interview him. The book is built on interviews I conducted with those who knew him, police reports, court transcripts, television and other media documents. And, of course, I was able to observe him day after day in the month-long trial.

Ah. If we viewed Rockefeller in terms of the Tragic Greek Hero, what do you think would have been the primary flaw that led to his downfall? After all, he managed to live his false lives for a very long time. Was it Clark Rockefeller who brought down Clark Rockefeller?

The flaw that led to his downfall is that he wanted it all: the $800,000 divorce settlement from his ex-wife and his daughter, even though his ex-wife was granted custody. He brought himself down by kidnapping his daughter.

Does Rockefeller embody a twisted version of The American Dream?

Yes, in the sense that he was like so many immigrants who came to this country: reinventing himself for the new world. However, in Clark’s case, somewhere along the line he forgot about facts and embraced a life of fiction.

Do any of Rockefeller’s friends visit him in prison?

Yes, several of them have said they visited him in prison.

Interesting! Were there people who testified on his behalf in court?

There were psychologists and psychiatrists who testified on his behalf.

Now that Christian Gerhartsreiter has been charged with murder, do you anticipate that he will be in jail for life, or do you think that he might charm a jury into acquitting him?

I wouldn’t want to second-guess a jury. But like everything about this case, I will be riveted to the trial and its outcome.

Mark Seal, thanks so much for letting me read this fascinating book and for answering some of my burning questions.

A journalist for thirty-five years, Mark Seal is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of THE MAN IN THE ROCKEFELLER SUIT: THE ASTONISHING RISE AND SPECTACULAR FALL OF A SERIAL IMPOSTOR, now on sale. Seal was a 2010 National Magazine Award finalist for his Vanity Fair profile of Clark Rockefeller.

He lives in Aspen, Colorado. View Seal's website at

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mark Seal's Clark Rockefeller

I just finished THE MAN IN THE ROCKEFELLER SUIT by Mark Seal. It explores, in great detail, the story of Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German immigrant and con man extraordinaire, who lived under a progression of pseudonyms among America's powerful and wealthy. Gerhartsreiter used some sort of alias from the early 1980's until his arrest in 2008, and he fooled many intelligent people into believing his illusions--including, perhaps, himself.

Some of the reviews on GOODREADS express disappointment with Seal's book, claiming that it doesn't reveal anything about the real Gerhartsreiter and his motivations. But that's exactly why Gerhartsreiter remains a compelling mystery, even to Seal, who researched the elusive con man and his trail for YEARS and still came away knowing the facts and little more. Seal admits as much up front, saying that the book is based on court records, testimonies, public documents, and interviews. It goes without saying that one would finish a book like this with a whole lot of questions--that's what makes the book (and Gerhartsreiter) so fascinating.

"Clark Rockefeller" is not the first con man who fooled a whole lot of people who should have known better. Leonardo DeCaprio made Frank Abagnale's story famous in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and if one were to Google phrases like "famous American con men" one could encounter a whole list of people who told big lies and got away with them. The biggest question, for me, is whether this lying is a compulsion--an almost biological need that makes the quest for fame or money secondary to the satisfaction of having lied.

I hope to ask my questions to Mark Seal himself in the near future; I'll keep you updated on this blog.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

THOR and Shakespeare

At first I wondered at the choice of Kenneth Branagh, Shakespearean actor and director nonpareil, to direct the latest superhero flick. But having seen THOR, I understand the pairing of Branagh and Marvel: this is a tale with many Shakespearean elements.

For one, just about every Shakespearean play has some sort of political wrangling--often a major betrayal within a dynasty. In THOR, there are similar troubles within the ruling family of Asgard (led by a predictably regal Anthony Hopkins).

For another, Shakespeare loved to play with luscious and evocative settings: think of THE TEMPEST or A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Shakespeare himself would have loved to don his 3-D glasses and get a load of the art in THOR--it's a Norwegian wonderland and a treat for the eyes.

Chris Hemsworth is a worthy THOR, investing his role with the pathos of a true Shakespearean tragic hero; one of the most crucial elements of Shakespeare's hero is that he must recognize his flaw and then see that it has brought about his downfall. Hemsworth accepts his fate with appropriate gravitas. His face is unbelievably beautiful, but it isn't a Hollywood mask--it conveys surprising facility with the various emotions THOR must display.

THOR also contains the obligatory Shakespearean love subplot, and like Romeo and Juliet, Thor and his earthly girlfriend are unlikely to forge a successful relationship.

The only flaw in THOR is that, while the gods in Asgard are carefully developed and characterized, the people on earth are little more than stereotypical movie scientists, and there is nothing in Natalie Portman's physicist that would appeal to Thor's eye aside from her basic good looks. This should be a meeting of minds and imaginations that would explain a passion that could span universes. Instead, it is too mundane for the audience to believe in it.

Still, I'll be in line for the next installment of Thor, and I take my hat off to Kenneth Branagh--thanks for making this movie like a good Shakespearean play.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SOUND PROOF Brings Murder to a Pastoral Setting

I just finished SOUND PROOF, a mystery by Chicago author Barbara Gregorich. The book is the second in a series starring Frank Dragovic, a Chicago PI who is dragged to the country to investigate the mysterious goings-on at Midwest Music Madness, a folk festival with an assortment of eccentric musicians. One of those musicians is a thief, and Dragovic needs to find him or her.

Dragovic is not unused to the country; when he was a child, he tells the audience through a first-person narration, he was sent to the country every summer, learning to appreciate what was produced by the land, and to admire a structure as simple as a barn: "Massive. Permanent. A shelter for animals, harvest and humans. A place warm with the smell of living creatures and the gentle tang of cured hay."

Dragovic has some poetic moments like this, especially when he talks about the land, but in general he narrates with the terseness of a man who is observing rather than talking: he is a watchful man until the moment is right, and then he is a man of action.

Gregorich's PI is a likeable and believable investigator, and her setting, filled with country air and folk music created by hammered dulcimers, hurdy gurdys, autoharps, fiddles and banjos, is refreshingly different.

I look forward to the next Dragovic mystery, especially because I need to know what will happen in his relationship with his girlfriend Suzanne. Even with the promise of a relationship, Dragovic retains some of the loneliness that always seems to cling to the American P.I.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

A Long Time Coming

So many people will be remembering with the news announced tonight by President Obama: remembering that dreadful day in 2001 when everyone was convinced the world would never be the same again; remembering the people who staggered through the poisoned air and sought their loved ones; remembering the brave ones, living and dead, who followed their instincts of compassion.

This does not change the past, but it answers a deep and burning need for restitution.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Thurber on Crime

I'm revisiting the book, so I thought I'd revisit the review that I did in 2006.

Donald Westlake writes the Foreword to this fun volume of Thurber's crime-related humor, and he is obviously a Thurber fan. Only Thurber fans really "get" the idea that the little bland man with a shy manner and a deeply repressed desire for revenge can be amusing. Thurber is, of course, the author of such famous stories as "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (once made into a movie with Danny Kaye that was nothing like the original and became something Thurber himself would have quietly parodied) and "The Night the Bed Fell," which are not mysteries at all. But in this book, Thurber's daughter Rosemary provides stories that can be linked by Thurber's bent toward the sly, the mysterious, even the subtly macabre.

Westlake writes, "Gentle comedy is the hardest to make work." This a good assessment of Thurber, whose jokes are not always obvious, but become funnier the more one thinks about them, the more his dialogues roll around in the back of one's mind. "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife," seems to be much more an indictment of marriage than of murder, and "The Catbird Seat" continues the theme of the henpecked man, although both men get their revenge in the end, despite their mild-mannered reputations. In "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" a misguided woman decides that the solution to Macbeth was all wrong, that Macbeth didn't do it, and that she, a rather dubious sleuth, has it all figured out.

Added to the wonderful stories are Thurber's famous cartoons. Westlake writes, in the foreword, that a critic once called Thurber, whose cartoons famously appeared in The New Yorker, a "Fifth Rate Artist." Harold Ross defended him, saying "You're wrong. Thurber is a third-rate artist." Thurber's art, though, has an undeniable charm, and is even more impressive when one considers that toward the end of his life Thurber was almost totally blind, and had to create his cartoons on huge sheets of paper that were later photographed and shrunk down to size. Thurber once joked about this, saying he intended to title his autobiography Long Time, No See.

The cartoons, the vignettes and the stories all capture Thurber's sense of irony (and his capable use of parody) as well as his appreciation of crime fiction. Donald Westlake summed it up the best: "Thurber on Crime. There's nothing in the world quite like it."

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Good Friday Reflection

"Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection, not in books alone but in every leaf in springtime."

- Martin Luther