Charles Williams wrote crime novels first published as paperback originals in the 1950s. He shares that distinction with Jim Thompson, Robert Block, John D. MacDonald, and Elmore Leonard, among others. Unlike those writers he never became a household name.
I became aware of Williams when I read Bill Crider's article on paperback originals and saw his name on Crider's checklist of lesser-known author's worth reading. Crider's comment, "Anything by Williams is good," sent me to my libraries but I did not find him in the catalogs.
Amazon pointed me to this volume of two novels by Williams. Crider mentions both as being among Williams's best. I've started Nothing in Her Way and am enjoying the lean storytelling and conversational style typical of the writers mentioned above.
On page one, our hero is approached in a bar by a man who seems to be running a scam. A moment later, we're not sure who is scamming whom. Then the man's partner in crime walks in and it's . . . No. I won't spoil that for you.
I ordered this paperback from Stark House Press, which specializes in reprinting vintage genre fiction. Along with the two novels, it includes an introduction of about 15,000 words by Rick Ollerman. I've read only the first few pages, but it looks very good.
This is a privately owned public open space (POPOS) at the corner of Second Street and Mission Street in San Francisco. It occupies most of the ground floor of a twenty-six-story office tower and is open during business hours for anyone to use.
POPOSs have been required by law since 1985 in all new buildings downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods. Along with requiring public open space proportional to the floor space of the building, the law requires a budget for public art equal to one percent of the total construction cost.
Just this morning, I wrote a scene set in the Greenhouse for Dark Video, the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, Nicole meets her friend, Irene Gonzalo, for lunch so they can compare notes on their investigations. Irene is Nicole's sidekick in this book, much the way Abbie is in the first three books.
If you're ever in town, it's fun to walk around to these. Some are indoors, some are outdoors. Some are street-level, some are rooftop. Here's a partial list.
This movie has the plot of a thriller, but it doesn't feel like a thriller.
The opening sequences build a familiar situation. The hero is ready to make a better life for herself but is pulled back into her old life for one last score. The middle of the film tightens the screws. Every time she takes two steps forward she must take one step back . . . and sometimes two steps back. The climax and conclusion are full of breathless suspense and terrifying threats.
And yet, it doesn't feel like a thriller. There is no escapism for the audience. The circumstances are not exotic. The hero has no superpowers, The stakes are personal, not global. It's a movie about a working woman and her sister. They've had some hard knocks, they've made some mistakes, but mostly they've done their best.
In other words it's a movie about real people in real trouble doing what real people do. It is carried by a luminous performance from Tessa Thompson. And, as many critics have said, the fact that this is a debut for Nia DaCosta as both writer and director is astonishing.
Both for its craftsmanship and its realism, it feels more like mid-Twentieth-Century realism from dramatists such as Cliff Odets, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller even as its subject matter seems ripped from the headlines. That is indeed high praise.
Seeing this movie thirty years ago felt like riding a fast elevator down twenty stories. Seeing it again on DVD, confirmed that impression. The combined talents of director John Schlesinger, screenwriter Daniel Pyne, and lead actors Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, and Michael Keaton produced a durable thriller.
Griffith and Modine are a young couple staking everything on buying a Victorian House and relying on income from two apartments in the house to pay the mortgage. One apartment is rented by ideal tenants, an elderly couple. The other is rented by Michael Keaton, and the nightmare begins.
The husband and the wife respond to their tenant's abuses in different ways. Which one will have the best strategy for saving their investment and their lives?
Pacific Heights is a thriller of that era when the leading woman began to take charge. She was allowed to fight back and often did so effectively. To Die For (1995) with Nicole Kidman is such a film, as is Sleeping with the Enemy with Julia Roberts. They are the forerunners of today's female super-heroes.
Anyone who finds the plot far-fetched would be well advised to consult laws regarding tenants' rights in San Francisco. It is still possible for someone to move into a rental property, never pay one dollar for rent, and avoid eviction for a very long time.
Anyone who finds the setting far-fetched would be right. The house used for the exterior shots is actually in another neighborhood. Nothing unusual in that. More to the point, lovely as it is, I doubt there is a house that small in the neighborhood called Pacific Heights.
When the new building on the left was proposed, members of the church on the right fought against approval of its design because it would block sunlight from some of the clerestory windows that let light into its sanctuary.
As you can see, it does. Since the new building is on the south side of the church, the effect is greatest in the winter. You can also see the new building was modified to pull its top story back to let more light in through the windows of the cupola.
Some church members went so far as to say the sunlight was an essential element of their worship and that therefore blocking it compromised their freedom to worship as they pleased. The builders said if that were true the church's architect was wrong to put those windows so close to the property line.
Shade is often an issue for zoning and approval as the city becomes more crowded. It seems a shame for owners of an older building to be told they are losing daylight. But access to sunlight doesn't mean you have partial ownership of the land next door.
Approval of the new building may have gotten a boost from the character of the neighborhood. Across the street are tall industrial buildings housing the Anchor Steam Brewing Company,
The Bay Area Ridge Trail winds through the southern part of the Presidio, a national park within the boundaries of San Francisco. This part is referred to as the Southern Wilds because it is forested, while other parts of the park are landscaped for other uses.
This walk in the Presidio is a small part of the overall Bay Area Ridge Trail. When completed it will allow adventurous hikers to circle the Bay Area using over 400 miles of trails, mostly on ridges that afford a view.
The fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, tentatively entitled Dark Video, opens with a scene on the section of the trail pictured here. Nicole follows a section of the trail for pedestrians only into a densely wooded section where something unpleasant happens.
I am currently writing Dark Video and hope to publish it this summer.
Pop. 1280 occupies a special place in Jim Thompson's catalog of novels. Like The Killer Inside Me, it is about a sheriff in a small town in Texas who convinces everyone he is a fool while cleverly manipulating criminals and upstanding citizens alike to keep the peace and make life as easy and enjoyable for himself as he can.
The two books are so similar it is tempting to think that when Thompson wrote Pop. 1280 in 1964, he was trying to repeat the success he had with The Killer Inside Me in 1952. Whether or not that was his motive, he accomplished much more. Pop. 1280 is a better novel.
Lou Ford, the sheriff in "Killer" is a psychopath. He is consistently cruel and profoundly unfeeling toward his fellow human beings. Many have remarked that Thompson's portrayal of this type of criminal is unequaled, perhaps because the story is narrated by him in the first person.
Nick Corey, the sheriff in Pop. 1280 is more complex. While capable of being cruel and manipulative, he has genuine feelings for the three women he visits for sex. He has a sense of justice and will do what he must to set things right in his town, even if that means breaking some rules. And he feels guilty when circumstances force him to hurt an innocent person.
Perhaps Thompson was able to treat this subject with greater nuance because by 1964, he was a more experienced writer and as a more mature man
These buildings were originally a station of the U. S. Life-Saving Service. In 1890, they overlooked one of the world's busiest ports. When a ship was disabled or wrecked in the swift currents of San Francisco Bay, lifeboats were launched from the building with the watchtower. A dozen shipwrecks still lie beneath the waters around the Presidio.
In 1915, the Life-Saving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the U. S. Coast Guard. Today these buildings are home to the visitor center for the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
For me they are a reminder of how beautiful buildings are when their design is dictated by their purpose and when they employ passive lighting and ventilation systems (windows).
As for the palm trees, remember: there are no native trees in San Francisco.
Readers of the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries know that at the end of the third book, Dark Picasso, Nicole decides to apply for a research leave that would release her from teaching for one semester and allow her to conduct research.
I have now written several chapters of the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery. Nicole was granted research leave for fall semester and has returned to her home in San Francisco so she can work at the Oakland Museum of California, just across the Bay.
Early in the book, Nicole meets her life-long friend, Irene Gonzalo, for coffee at this intersection. Ninth Avenue and Irving Street is in the Inner Sunset District of San Francisco, just a few blocks from her parents' home.
Enjoyable as it has been to imagine Nicole's campus and surroundings in southeastern Ohio, I'm getting a whole new kick out of setting scenes around the city where I live. As Elmore Leonard once said, "I write about Detroit because I live in Detroit. If I lived in Buffalo, I'd write about Buffalo."
We went to see the film based on Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs when it played in theaters in 1991. It featured wonderful performances by Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, and the rest, and it's terrific film-making all around. At the time, everybody was taking about it.
I never read the book because the subject didn't interest me. I've never had a reason to think about serial killers with bizarre fetishes and I hope I never do. Everyday life serves up so many interesting examples of evil-doing that I don't see the point of seeking out the most bizarre examples instances of humanity's failures.
I'm reading the book now because I've recently read two books on writing that recommend it. The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird and Story Grid by Shawn Coyne both speak of it as a nearly perfect example of a hero-solves-a-big-problem type of story.
I'm enjoying it. It exemplifies Bird's point that readers pick up a book because it promises a good story, but they keep reading because it develops rich characters. Harris keeps us waiting for the next revelation of Clarice's personality as much as for the next break in the case.
Just for fun, we streamed the movie last weekend. It holds up very well, and it stays very close to the book.
We watched The Highwaymen and enjoyed it. Then I read the mainstream reviews. The professional reviewers seem preoccupied with how it compares to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the enduring classic starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway by Arthur Penn.
The Highwaymen is a different movie for a different time, as is Gun Crazy (1950), which also dramatizes the real-life crime spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. It's different because it tells the story from the point-of-view of law enforcement, but also because of what it says about America.
This film makes clear that in the 1930s people were desperate for work and desperate to put food on the table. Since hard work and playing by the rules wasn't working, the people loved the idea of breaking all the rules and taking whatever they needed and wanted. Bonnie and Clyde became their heroes.
This film makes equally clear that Bonnie and Clyde robbed and killed poor people as well as rich people. They had to be stopped, and conventional law enforcement couldn't do the job. So the governor of Texas, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), hired a couple of former Texas Rangers to work without official authorization.
Thus, this movie is about outlaws chasing outlaws at a time when the people had lost faith in the law. There is no romance about the real-life law men played by Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner. They're smart and they're tough, but they are thugs hired by the state to kill. They know that's what they are. That's made clear in a speech by Harrelson late in the film.
There are neither heroes nor anti-heroes in this film. There is instead a description of America falling apart as it did in the 1930s. There is also a reminder that, bad as income inequality is today, we have seen nothing approaching the Great Depression in my lifetime.
This row of wood-frame houses bisects a block in the Western Addition of San Francisco. They cannot be reached by car. The paved walk that runs in front of them is designated as Cottage Row by street signs at either end. If you lived in one of them, your mailing address would be, for instance, 3 Cottage Row.
These houses and the Victorian-style houses on the adjacent streets were built as rental properties in the 1880s. Now they are individually owned. Recent listings show them as having either 1000 or 1500 square feet of living space, depending apparently on whether the basement is finished. Prices are approaching $2 million.
One compensation for paying that much for a house with no parking space is the green space that runs along the other side of the paved walk. It is a mini-park, maintained by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.
There are pedestrian-only "streets" (often called lanes) here and there throughout the city. Some are on steep hillsides such as the eastern face of Telegraph Hill. Some, like Cottage Row, are on flat ground. Most are remnants of a time when people mostly got where they were going by walking.
Peter Lovesey has had a long-running success with his series about Superintendent Peter Diamond, set in the historic city of Bath. Throughout his career, he has had shorter series based around other characters, and he has written ten stand-alone novels.
One of those stand-alones, The Reaper, belongs to that peculiar genre in which the hero is the villain. Of course we're appalled at his crimes, yet we empathize because, as Matt Bird says in The Secrets of Story, he is making decisions and attempting difficult things.
The Soho Press paperback describes The Reaper as "A dark delicious tale of a handsome and popular village cleric who has no conscience." Publishers Weekly calls it "An extremely clever, exquisitely written story of a murderous rector who manages to earn a great deal of our sympathy while dramatically whittling down his flock."
Published in 2000, The Reaper, recalls mid-century classics such as Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. It might also be compared to James M. Cain's benchmarks of the 1930s, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. And we must not forget Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2012), which brought this kind of story into the present.
What sets The Reaper apart from the others is its tone. The others are infused with dread, but Lovesey's book is "a bit of a romp," as the Brits might say. It's as if he said, "If we're going to be inside the mind of a psychopath for an entire novel, we may as well have some fun."
The Reaper is an exception to Lovesey's usual novels in which the police do their job and justice prevails. The same might be said of Agatha Christie's Endless Night (1968). Long live the exceptions!
On a recent trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, we came upon this OLEV sculpture. Little is known about the artist, Inda Mira. The name is thought to be a pseudonym.
There is no consensus among critics about the meaning of these parodies of Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculptures. Few have even speculated about Mira's decision to reverse the L and the E.
Mira made many three dimensional OLEVs, but no two-dimensional copes survive. While Indiana's LOVE image was popular in prints and even appeared on a US postage stamp, OLEV survives only in sculptural form.
Perhaps because of Mira's refusal to market the image as prints, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other merchandise, OLEV has never taken its place alongside LOVE as an icon of Pop Art.
Happy April Fool's Day!