This is as fine a piece of noir as you are likely to see. Four people check in at a motel in the mountains near Reno, Nevada. They and the desk clerk are the only people around, and none of them seems to have a good reason to be there.
From the start one asks, "What is going on here?" and throughout the movie the answer comes back, "Not what you think." I won't say anything else about what happens because I hope you will enjoy every revelation, large and small.
This movie fits Otto Penzler's definition of noir as well as anything I know: "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."
I've written several times in the "Reading" and "Writing" categories of this blog about Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson, giants of the noir tradition. Recently, I wrote about a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who, along with James M. Cain, invented American noir.
If you're not familiar with these earlier writers, you might know Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl exemplifies the tradition. As many have remarked, there's not a single likeable character in the book (or the movie version) .
It all sounds very grim, but for some reason I find this stuff entertaining, possibly because it is suspenseful and at its best includes humor. The Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries certainly are NOT noir. They have more in common with Agatha Christie. But I am working on a suspense novel that is noir. I hope to publish it sometime next year.
Those of you who have read about half-way through Dark Exhibit (and I know some of you have) know Nicole takes a weekend break by checking into a bed-and-breakfast in the Short North, a neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio.
I stayed in such a place when I visited Columbus for research on the series. Though none of the houses pictured above is the one I stayed in, it was a house very much like these on a street like this.
Front porches seem to have gone out of style, and that's a shame. Somewhere I read an architect's idea that porches facing the street create community. For one thing, they put lots of eyes on the street, so people behave themselves. Also, neighbors sitting out on their porches are available for passing conversations and casual visits.
Sadly, they don't build them like this any more.
I knew it would be fun to see Tea with the Dames (British title: Nothing Like a Dame), but I didn't know how much it would mean to me.
In this documentary film, four great actresses spend an afternoon talking about their lives and careers. They are: Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench.
It was fun because they and the actors, directors, and playwrights they worked with were the artists I learned about when I took courses in British drama in college and grad school. They were the artists we saw on stage when we visited London.
So it was wonderful to hear them swap backstage gossip and reflect upon the roles they played. It was intriguing to hear them talk about their friendships, rivalries, and husbands.
But the part that mean the most to me began when Eileen Atkins recalled riding to a theater for a performance and feeling so afraid she thought she might rather die in a crash rather than go on stage. In the conversation that followed all the others spoke of feeling terrified every time they went on stage, or in front of a camera for a scene in a film or TV show.
These are the greatest British actresses of their generation, trained in some of the greatest theater schools in the world. If they could feel insecure about their work, I thought, no wonder I've been skittish about putting my first two books out for the world to see.
By the way, it helped that we could see the film in the Clay Theater (1910), a lovely old neighborhood movie house.
In Dark Mural, Nicole and Lionel visit the Columbus Museum of Art. Here's how she describes her visit:
"Lunch at the museum cafe overlooking the sculpture garden was like breathing pure oxygen. After lunch, we walked through the permanent collection, and I made mental notes to return. I liked the way they hung the work of local artists alongside that of recognized masters to invite comparison. The collection was especially rich in the works of George Bellows, who is both a native of Columbus and widely recognized."
My visit to this museum was similar. It's not as grand as the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Cincinnati Art Museum, but they do smart, innovative things. I enjoyed seeing paintings by widely recognized masters such as Edward Hopper hung alongside similar paintings by local and regional artists such as Emerson C. Burkhart.
A few years back I went on a binge reading Cornell Woolrich. I can't remember exactly what got me started. Maybe it was noticing Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Rear Window (1954), was based on a story by him.
I focused on reading his novels and was disappointed. For instance The Bride Wore Black is written in four parts, each part a complete story. The stories are linked (the bride goes from one adventure to the next), but I wasn't learning much about the structure of a novel.
Recently at the library I ran across a nice old collection of short stories entitled Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich, edited by Ellery Queen (1965), and decided to give them a try. I've really enjoyed them and have learned a lot about what Woolrich is most famous for, suspense.
More than any writing I can think of, these stories make me want to know what happens next. They do it by saying, in effect, "He set out to do this. Then this happened." So now what will he do? And as soon as he works around the problem, something else happens or someone else shows up.
In some instances, a story almost becomes a technical exercise in multiplying twists and turns while remaining credible. "Steps Going Up" is one such, in my opinion. But mostly the stories also make us care about the protagonist, by making him an underdog, or by making her a righteous avenger. "The Man Upstairs," I think, is especially good in this regard.
Woolrich is also famous for inventing and adopting motifs that made him "the Poe of the twentieth century" according to his biographer, Francis M. Nevins: "the noir cop story, the clock race story, the waking nightmare, the oscillation thriller, the headlong through the night story, the annihilation story, the last hours story,"
So I have to conclude that, like Flannery O'Connor, his genius was for the short story. He was lucky to live through a time when that's where the money was.
Readers of the first two Nicole Tang Noonan Mysteries will notice she visits a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, called The Short North. She goes there to take a break from the rural campus where she lives and teaches. Unlike her campus, it's a real place.
Along High Street, she finds art galleries and restaurants, just as I did when I visited there. Brew pubs are also well-represented, which is trendy but also traditional for this heavily German part of Ohio. There is another neighborhood on the south side called Brewerytown.
These three-story brick buildings are about 100 years old, with retail space on the street level and two floors of apartments above. Very civilized. The adjacent neighborhood is built almost entirely of red brick, but on this commercial street the builders went for orange and tan and made bold patterns.
I was fortunate to visit on a mild spring evening, and enjoy my dinner al fresco (see below).
This place cracks me up. The words over the door say, "The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute." It is a serious institution in that field. But then there are those oval windows above the entrance.
I've wondered if the institute just happened to buy or lease a building with that eccentric, but strangely appropriate, feature. Or whether they had this one built and went along with a whimsical gesture by the architect.
The history on their website refers generally to raising funds for buildings since its founding in 1959, but makes no mention of this particular building. However, they do use an image of the windows in the background of their header.
Accidental or deliberate, this is another of those instances in which reality is not believable. If any novelist set a scene at an eye research facility and described it as having a pair of oval windows, most readers would say, "Do you expect me to believe that?"
SPOILER ALERT: this blog post gives a general indication of how the film ends.
I loved this movie, and I'm afraid it will be misunderstood.
It's a suspense flick with a story Alfred Hitchcock might have admired. A normal guy--actually gal, played by Anna Kendrick--crosses paths with the wrong person and gets in over her head. She has to investigate and ultimately do some double-crossing of her own to undo the villain and return to her good life.
We could be talking about Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest, only funnier.
It might be misunderstood because some critics are describing it as neo-noir, and it is not noir. It may have some things in common with classic noir novels and films, including a life-insurance scam. But the main character is not a loser ultimately done in by her own greed and stupidity.
So go and see it, and enjoy the chemistry between Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, and Henry Golding.
And don't confuse it with another movie that has a similar title, A Simple Plan. That one really is noir.
The big day has arrived. The first two Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries are available on Amazon. The books I've been writing about in posts on formatting and related issues---Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit---have begun trickling out to people who want to read them.
You can use the Books menu above to get to a quick summary of each.
Publishing two books at the same time seems like a crazy idea, as I said before, but the way it happened was perfectly logical. When I finished my second draft of Dark Mural, I started swapping manuscripts with fellow writers. This not only got me their impressions of the work, but kept me from re-reading it for a couple of months.
While that went on, I wrote Dark Exhibit. By the time it was finished, I was ready to look back at Dark Mural and incorporate all the valuable insights I had gained from others.
While re-writing Dark Mural, I swapped Dark Exhibit with other writers, again to get their impressions. By the time I was ready to rewrite it, I could see I had only a few months to hold Dark Mural so I could publish them simultaneously.
Of course it helped that the articles I read on marketing all said it is easier to sell two books than one. So, why be in a hurry?
They also say it's even easier to sell three. Dark Picasso is scheduled for January, 2019.
Mystery novels written as part of a series let the reader enjoy the same principal characters in a new adventure. If the sleuth is Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Harry Bosch, or Kinsey Millhone, we know each book will be fun in the same way the last one was, even as the plot serves up new puzzles to solve.
So the cover of the next book in the series has to tell the reader this book is the same, only different. I suggested to my designer, Zach McGinnis, that we do this by using the same layout for Dark Exhibit as we used for Dark Mural and changing the details.
In both covers we are looking at a work of art from Nicole's point of view, but this time it's an exhibit of pictures on a wall, rather than a mural. The fonts are the same, but Zach made the letters bright orange instead of white. Zach also gets credit for dressing Nicole in a short-sleeved dress, rather than a sweater and skirt, and showing her hair pulled forward over her shoulder, rather than hanging down her back.
I already have an idea what the cover of Dark Picasso will look like when it's ready for publication.
We may not judge a book by its cover, but we definitely choose a book by its cover. When we take a book off the shelf in a bookstore, and when we shop online, the first things we do is look at the picture..
While preparing my first murder mystery for publication, I learned that the first question a cover must answer is, "What's it about?"
The cover art for Dark Mural, designed by Zach McGinnis, tells the reader it's about a woman looking at a rural scene. Since her back is to us, we are looking from her point of view. The somber colors create an ominous feeling.
All this is true of the story inside. The rural scene is the mural mentioned in the title; the story is told from her point of view; and the action has some fairly sinister twists and turns.
I had spent many months pounding out the story, but I couldn't imagine what the cover should look like. I told my designer about the elements of the story, and he imagined what it should look like. That's what designers do.
It's very exciting to be this close to publishing a story I've lived with for so long. It's even more delightful to accomplish this step in collaboration with such a talented professional.
I've just finished formatting the manuscript of Dark Exhibit for publication with Kindle Direct Publishing. It was so much easier than formatting the manuscript of Dark Mural.
As you may see on my Books page, Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit are the first two books in my series of murder mysteries. I got this crazy idea that it would be best to postpone publishing the first one until the second was also ready.
As a result, I had my first adventure in turning a docx file into some that that looks right as an ebook and as a print book about a month ago with Dark Mural. As always with new software, there was a lot of trial and error.
This week, I gritted my teeth as I set about turning Dark Exhibit into the kind of books you can buy on Amazon. I am pleased to report it went much better. In fact I mostly set aside the directions and worked intuitively.
If I had published the first one six months ago, I probably would have gotten out of practice and had to learn this all over again. Maybe my idea was not so crazy!
Last weekend we went to our favorite place for breakfast. When I was done eating, I looked across the street and noticed the morning light was beautiful on the buildings and the tree.
I started snapping, noticed people were walking by, and managed to catch the woman in the baseball cap in front of the red doorway.
When I got this picture up on my computer screen, I noticed there was a second woman just stepping out of the shadows on the right. She wears a headscarf and carries a yoga mat.
Baseball Cap is wearing yoga pants, so maybe she is walking to a class at the place Headscarf has just left. But Baseball Cap doesn't have a yoga mat. Maybe she's going to another kind of exercise class.
Of course, Headscarf could be carrying that yoga mat as a distraction. She might have been hiding in that dark doorway, waiting for Baseball Cap to walk by, intent on attacking her.
If so, she has a problem. Again, when I got the photo up on my computer, I noticed Baseball Cap is not alone. Look just behind her front foot and you'll see another foot. Someone is walking next to her.
Did Baseball Cap get word that headscarf was laying for her and bring backup?
As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
Argonaut's website says it offers "fine and rare books in most fields." That is a fine business to be in, and a rare one. It's been around since 1941 and is now operated by the son of the founder, Robert Haines, jr.
The shop gets some tourist trade because it appears in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, or, rather, the original Argonaut did. It was six blocks away on Kearny street. And, in fact, they didn't film the scene with Jimmy Stewart in the store. Rather, they recreated the inside of the store on a soundstage in Hollywood. Still . . .
Haines still does a thriving business, as you can read about in this recent interview. It seems that in the era of ebooks, fine and rare books are valued more than ever. Haines tells a great story about the store's more recent brush with fame. It seems Danielle Steele, a San Francisco resident, dropped by one day.
True confession: I've never seen the inside of this store. Most of my books are paperbacks, nothing fine or rare about them, except the stories and thoughts inside. However, I have an idea for getting someone a gift so I just might walk through that door in the next couple of weeks.
I saw this stairway and liked it so much I had to take its picture.
It's in the Metreon, a building in downtown San Francisco where Ann and I had gone to see a movie. The wall of green outside the windows is the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, a lovely place to linger if you're ever in town.
It reminds me of the one in the Museum of the African Diaspora, which (come to think of it) is only one block away.
Stairways like this are not hard to like especially for a guy who prefers to take the stairs and counts himself lucky in being able to do so.
But for me, they are more than just pretty. They are somehow theatrical. When walking on them, I see people outside the building and they can see me. I feel exposed, but somehow aloof at the same time.
Such a stairway might serve well for an important scene in a story. A pursuer (sleuth or assassin) might spot the pursued. The pursued might feel safe from the pursuer, but only if he can get to a higher floor and hide.
Hmm . . .