Dark Picasso, the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, is now available on Amazon. I think it’s fun to go to my author page and see the three books (so far) in the series lined up together: Dark Mural, Dark Exhibit, and Dark Picasso.
In Dark Picasso, Nicole winds up her third academic year on the fictional campus in southeastern Ohio where she teaches. The college has a new name and Nicole has a new boyfriend.
Her new adventure takes her into the world of top-tier donors on which private colleges depend. This is fun for Nicole, since people with big houses tend to have big art collections, but not so much fun when someone gets killed.
As usual, solving the mystery involves interpreting the art, and Nicole does her best to tell law enforcement what the art says. In this adventure, the work of art is by . . . Spoiler alert! . . . Picasso!
Along the way, her duties as a professor of art history and director of the college’s gallery are complicated by the squabbles of her colleagues. She is three years into her career and still amazed that professors are long on expertise and short on common sense.
If you are enjoying the series, please tell your friends, and please consider leaving a rating and review on Amazon. Your review can be a single sentence. In the world’s largest bookstore, what matters most is how many people respond.
Having recently read Samuel Fuller’s autobiography, I jumped at the chance to see one of his best films on the big screen at the Castro Theater.
Pickup on South Street (1953) starts with a scene worthy of Hitchcock. On a crowded subway train in New York City, a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) lifts a wallet from a woman’s (Jean Peters) purse.
Two men watch the theft unfold without interfering. Since they seem to have no interest in arresting the thief, why are they following his every move?
In the next few scenes, we learn that the wallet contains a formula stolen by a Communist cell bent on compromising America’s security. The men watching the pickpocket on the subway are FBI agents searching for “Commie” sympathizers.
Pickup on South Street was showing as part of Noir City, an annual ten-day festival. It is regularly cited as a classic film noir, as are some of Fuller’s other films.
And yet, I couldn’t see this film as noir.
The pickpocket and the “B-girl” ultimately give up selling the formula and work with law enforcement. Order is restored and all’s right with the world because two unlikely souls look past their own interests to serve their country. And their idealism is rewarded.
How can we reconcile this with Roger Ebert’s definition of film noir as "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending?"
Or with Otto Penzler's description: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Pickup on South Street has all the furnishings of film noir---fedoras, slang, street-wise characters, beautiful black-and-white photography---but it’s really a morality play. Good is rewarded and evil is punished.
As such, I really enjoyed it. Fuller’s storytelling craft is impeccable. And it’s always nice to have an excuse to go to the Castro Theater, San Francisco’s last art-deco movie palace.
When I read that Serenity is “a daringly original, sexy, stylized thriller,” starring Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey, I moved it to the top of my movie list.
Then I noticed its scores on Rotten Tomatoes: 22% critics; 31% audience. Ouch! But I’ve learned to read the quotations from top critics on RT.
It seems Serenity has a problem with its twist, which is a revelation of something previously only hinted at. This new information changes the meaning of everything you’ve seen so far.
Several critics say the twist which comes about halfway through Serenity only makes the movie more confusing. Others say the entire movie makes no sense.
And yet, the minority of critics who like the movie write for the L. A. Times, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, and The Globe and Mail---credible sources.
And they say things like, “One of the most ambitious, one of the most challenging - and one of the most entertaining thrillers in recent years” (Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times).
How could a few top critics think so highly of a film most others describe as nonsense?
To begin with, the craft in this film---acting, design, directing, writing---is all top notch. It’s a quality film.
If you accept the twist, it’s a brilliant film; if not, you’re disappointed. And, of course, as in all thrillers, I can’t discuss the twist without spoiling it for you.
But I will say this: if you go to see it, notice how little difference the twist makes. In a plot borrowed from Double Indemnity, it’s not surprising to hear characters talk about “what game we’re playing,” and how, “the rules have changed.”
The twist gives these metaphors a new meaning, but the original meanings still apply.
I agree with Katie Walsh, L. A. Times, “The off-kilter, colorful, cartoonish fantasy of "Serenity" is just so odd and appealing that you want to spend time with the characters . . . in this crazy, upside-down world.”
San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department takes care of big things like Golden Gate Park, Dolores Park, several golf courses, and a marina, as well as medium-sized things such as Alamo Square, Alta Plaza Park, and Lafayette Park.
Then there are the mini parks, nameless patches of green that turn up in residential neighborhoods inviting the passerby to pause and take a breath before moving on.
This one occupies about two building lots. On the left of the photo you see the wall of an adjacent house. to the right, just out of view, is the small Victorian house I wrote about recently. In fact, you can see a bit of this park in the photo of that house.
Though I have no credentials in landscape architecture, I will say these mini parks seem to be little masterpieces of design. In the photo you see a densely planted area. It has a path meandering through it. Behind me as I took the photo, the rest of the park is a a sparsely planted shade garden beneath mature trees.
I found no list of mini parks on the website for Recreation and Parks, but a search for "Mini Park" turned up a long list of articles about individual minis. The variety is amazing.
As I prepare the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery for publication, I am thinking about how the series will sell on Amazon. For one thing, the books must look good when shoppers use the "Look Inside" feature.
That means the potential reader must see Nicole discover the murder at the end of about twenty pages. With this in mind, I checked my new book and saw the murder was discovered on page thirty-one.
So I picked up my pen and marked everything that could possibly be removed from those pages or postponed until later in the story. I found that by doing so I could make the murder visible in "Look Inside."
I don't mind rewriting for the sake of marketing. Writers have always had to do so, especially writers of genre fiction.
By the way, traditionally there is no hard and fast rule about when the murder must be discovered. Agatha Christie puts the murder on page forty of The Murder at the Vicarage. Of course, she wasn't publishing on Amazon.
I’ve read some silly things about this movie. I saw it yesterday, enjoyed it, and wondered why some critics were disturbed.
For instance, Peter Rainer in the Christian Science Monitor writes, “This is one of those radical change-your-image performances that tries too hard to defy our expectations.”
Actually, I thought it was one of those performances in which an actor changes her appearance and changes the way she thinks, walks, and talks to fit the character. In other words, acting.
Peter Keough in the Boston Globe writes about the movie’s “confused, convoluted chronology.” Through most of the movie there are two parallel timelines: the present and fifteen years ago when the conflict began. It’s not that hard to follow. Her hair is longer in the past.
The ending surprises the viewer with a series of flashbacks to earlier scenes in the film. We realize these scenes did not mean what we thought they meant. The flashbacks are surprising, but we saw this done at the end of The Usual Suspects (1995).
Other reviewers wrote that Destroyer did nothing that hadn’t already been done in the rogue cop genre, which has been owned by male actors. Robert Horton in HeraldNet writes, “Switching the sex around doesn’t make it fresh.”
Actually, it does. Remember when Jodie Foster played the lead in a remake of Charles Bronson’s revenge thriller, The Brave One (2007)? I was much more enthusiastic about watching her take revenge on those who victimized her than I was watching Charles Bronson, and I wondered why.
I had a similar reaction to Destroyer. Director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi deserve credit for meeting viewers’ expectations of the genre while expanding it to work with a woman in the lead.
Most critics liked Destroyer It scored 71% on Rotten Tomatoes, but deserves better. Some praised it as a good neo-noir. Sure enough, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Plus, this one has that tragic dimension in which a character with noble ambitions never has a chance to realize them.
San Francisco is famous for its grand Victorian houses. For instance the "Painted Ladies" around Alamo Square are three and four stories tall, have become a tourist attraction, and are featured in an annual open-house walking tour.
But throughout the city there are pockets of lesser Victorians. On a walk yesterday, I chanced upon this little gem, just one-story tall and probably 25 feet wide. Nonetheless it has a fancy cornice to make it look taller, a hood over the door, a bay window, and lots of trim. The proud owners have given it a three-color paint job.
Local historians can date a house by its decorations. After the Gold Rush of 1849, the city was built up with plain square houses. In the decades that followed, as businesses flourished, new houses became more ornate.
Bay windows became popular after small factories were set up south of Market Street, where they could be fabricated. They were then carted to the building site and attached to the front of the house.
It's amazing to see so much ornament lavished on such a small house. It's even more amazing to see a one-story house surviving in a city where every square foot becomes more precious every day.
Successful writers seem to agree that to be a writer you must be a reader. For me, this becomes more urgent as I write more. Even re-reading an old favorite yields revelations. "So that's how she does it!"
Usually I read what I write, mystery and suspense, but a friend recommended this book (Thanks, Doug!). It's full title is Colorless Tsukuru Takazi and his years of pilgrimage.. I think it's fair to call it literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction (mystery, suspense, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, etc).
Opinions vary on what makes a novel literary or genre. I got my definitions from an article by Laura Miller, book critic at Slate. Here's my summary of her discussion. In literary fiction, the action is like real life: mostly things happen to people. In genre fiction, the action is what life would be like if we had control over our lives.
In this novel, things happen to the title character. The first half of the novel describes the things that happen from the time he is in high school until he is in his mid-30s. At that point, he discovers something that changes his and the reader's understanding of the earlier part of his life.
If this were a suspense novel, it would start with this discovery. Tazaki now has what one genre writer calls a story question. What really happened when he was in high school?
In the second half of the novel, he talks to his friends from high school and comes to understand what really happened, just as the hero of a suspense novel would do. But he does so while continuing to accumulate experiences, as he did in the first half.
The author, Haruki Murakami, has an impressive list of published novels and awards. Clearly people enjoy his books. Those people might find a suspense novel too focused on action. Readers of suspense might find this book too leisurely in its descriptions. We all get to like different things.
I admire Murakami's writing, though I can't see myself writing what he writes. And, by the way, the English translation by Phillip Gabriel is a pleasure to read.
I've already posted a map of Fuchs College and a map of Blanton, Ohio. These are fictional places where most of the action in the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries takes place. This map shows the spatial relation of the college and the town.
I imagined a rural campus located about ten minutes by car from the nearest town. The dotted line indicates a footpath across an open field. Students use it as a shortcut for walking into town. This is central to the plot of Dark Mural, the first book in the series.
The road shown in the upper-left corner crosses a creek and leads to Chillicothe, the only real place indicated on these maps. This fictional road would take the driver to the real route 35.
This area of Ohio is in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, very pretty country with winding roads through wooded hillsides. The land further south flattens out. It would have been farmed by the first Europeans to arrive here, who were English.
The German settlers who came later would have made do with the steeper land. In my imaginary history, they formed a commune, as was frequently done in the mid-1800s. By the late 1800s, their descendents left communal life, sold some of the land, and devoted the rest to establishing the Eden Independent School, which later became Fuchs college.
When we first walked down this section of Pine Street, I wondered why the builders of these houses put the front door so far above the street level. Why not just put it down one floor and call it a three-story house?
I met some folks who are local history buffs and asked about this. To begin with, those garages are not original. These houses were built in the late 1800s. Cars showed up about 40 years later, and garages were added.
Furthermore, these houses were built at the peak of a hill. At that time, the street was higher, much closer to those front doors. Later, the city re-graded the streets to flatten the peaks and make this neighborhood less hilly. For the homeowner that meant, "Build a longer stairway!"
At my library the other day, I was working on publication of the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery (more on that later this month). I needed to be sure about the physical dimensions of the book, but I hadn't brought a copy with me.
Then I remembered the library has a copy in its collection, so I went downstairs to the second floor where fiction is shelved alphabetically by author. After scanning past "Hoffman" and "Holmes," I came to where "Homan" should be and found . . . "Hopper."
After wondering why my book wasn't on the shelf, I ran to the catalogue, looked up "Dark Mural," and discovered it is "Due 01-18-19." It's checked out. Someone is reading it. The first Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, published last September and placed in the collection shortly after, continues to attract readers.
I know this is what we expect books in libraries to do, but this was the first time I became aware of my book doing it.
Last fall I was thrilled every time someone emailed a photo of paperback copies of Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, along with the padded envelope they arrived in.
I've been thrilled every time someone tells me they got the ebooks.
I've been over the moon when someone says they stayed up late to finish one of the books so they could find out who done it.
Compliments and favorable reviews on Amazon are great, and it's nice to sell copies. But the real thrill is just knowing that people are reading them.
There is much to be said about this delightful little book. For now, I'll focus on the most wonderful thing about it, IMHO: it got published!
At about 30,000 words, it is half the length of Stephen King's Carrie. It is also around half the length of most of Agatha Christie's novels. Though it is labelled "a novel" above the author's name, a work of this length has traditionally been called a novella.
For instance, Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is about the same length. It was first published in Liberty magazine and then in a book entitled Three of a Kind, containing three novellas.
In a previous blog post, I wondered why traditional publishers currently demand longer books. My guess: big books justify big prices.
So how did Elevation get published? Stephen King has earned a large following. He sells lots of books. Even if this one is less profitable than, say, The Outsider, the publisher will do just fine.
And that's wonderful! Short books are enjoyable in their own special way, and anything that delivers an enjoyable experience for the reader is good.
Can an author who is not a superstar write and publish a novella? Yes! Look for them wherever ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks are sold.
Recently I saw a description of The File on Thelma Jordan that called Barbara Stanwyck "the Queen of Noir." Her performance in Double Indemnity opposite Fred MacMurray alone would nominate her for that title.
A few days later, walking through the library, I saw this biography propped up, facing out. Unlike the many private eyes who say, "I don't believe in coincidence," I do. This book is proving to be a revelation.
As Wikipedia succinctly puts it, "Orphaned at the age of four, and partially raised in foster homes, by 1944 [at age 37], Stanwyck had become the highest-paid woman in the United States." She made eighty-four theatrically released films in thirty-eight years, playing the lead in all but three, and went on to a long and distinguished career in television.
According to Callahan, Stanwyck's acting was so expressive that in Ladies They Talk About (1933), her character was "a three-dimensional, finally unknowable person, even in the confines of a movie that can only claim to be a first-class, churn-them-out entertainment. Stanwyck dominates the whole film, and it's a classic case of the star as auteur (this picture had two credited directors and a lot of writers)."
And then there's this detail. Stanwyck made five films with director William Wellman, whose "best-known film is probably the first official version of A Star is Born (1937), a property that was based on the embattled marriage between Stanwyck and Frank Faye, a union that Wellman was able to witness firsthand during the filming of the first three movies he made with her." Thus, while making movies with Stanwyck, Wellman also made a movie about her, starring Janet Gaynor.
As the current version of A Star is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, wins awards, the press is full of comparisons with the previous three film versions. So far, I've seen only one other reference to the real-life story that probably started the phenomenon.
I went to Shoplifters expecting a crime-caper, a film full of ironic humor about a rag-tag bunch who survive through petty crime, but are good people underneath it all. I was not expecting noir, but I'm forced to the conclusion that's what I saw.
I doubt anyone thinks of noir when they see the trailer or advertising for this award-winning Japanese film. Most of it happens in broad daylight. The colors are pretty. The people are happy. Where is the darkness that gives noir its name?
Without wading into the quagmire of defining noir, I will recall that in noir films, novels, and stories, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. This is where Shoplifters throws us a curve. The tone is not grim. It is upbeat.
But the morality is ambiguous to say the least, and . . . well, you'll have to see it and decide for yourself whether the worldview is ultimately pessimistic. A case could be made for that.
At the beginning, it appears to be a crime-caper film. A man and a boy move skillfully through a grocery store plying their trade with hand signals and deft deceptions. It's hard not to celebrate with them when they go out for snacks afterward.
On the way home, they come to the aid of a little girl crying outside a house where adults are having a violent altercation. When they take her home with them, it seems obvious they are rescuing her. But soon the question arises: is this a kidnapping?
Throughout the film, we are accomplices in each of the survival schemes, and we cringe as we learn more about what is really going on beneath the pleasant exteriors.
It's noir enough for me.
We were walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco when we came upon this. The Embarcadero is where you embark. Once upon a time that meant getting aboard all kinds of ships. Today that means boarding a ferry to take you across San Francisco Bay.
The whole point of building (and rebuilding, and maintaining) the Embarcadero was to let you keep your feet dry while walking to the dock and stepping aboard the boat. As you can see, that's not working so well any more.
That fence between us and the splashing water is a recent addition. Behind it is a set of stairs that used to descend to sea level so you could tie up a small boat, step out of it and walk up to ground level. The city fenced off the stairs because now it's a rare day when more than two of them are dry.
To be fair, this picture was taken on a day when we had a king tide, defined by Wikipedia as ", , , the highest tides. They are naturally occurring, predictable events." So the Embarcadero is not like this every day. On the other hand, this is now predictable.