In Down the River Unto the Sea, Walter Mosley takes a break from his series built around Easy Rawlins, the character Denzel Washington played in Devil in a Blue Dress. This is the story of Joe King Oliver, who gets framed, fired from the NYPD, and becomes a private detective.
As in so many P. I. novels investigating a small crime leads to discovering profound corruption. There are plenty of reversals and double-crosses here to satisfy fans of the genre.
In some ways, Down the River is not so far from the Easy Rawlins books. Rawlins and Oliver are both reluctant private eyes, forced into the trade by circumstances. And both have sociopathic sidekicks. Rawlins's associate, Mouse, has a habit of accidentally shooting people. Oliver teams up with Mel, a retired career criminal as dangerous as he is devious.
The chief pleasure of this book is the story-telling voice. Though the narrator is our hero, Joe King Oliver, the voice is that of the author of nearly fifty novels. It compels belief. Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master in 2016.
The Concrete Blonde is a "perfect crime" story. As such it is comparable to Williams's A Touch of Evil and The Hot Spot, and to James M. Cain's Double Indemnity and many others. In this kind of story, it goes without saying the perfect crime will not go as planned, and it is excruciating to watch it unravel.
Predictable though the direction of the story may be, endless variations are possible with the motive behind the crime. A thief may want to make one, last, big score and retire. Lovers may want to run away together and be happy. A drifter on the run may want to escape for good. People who have been wronged may want revenge.
Likewise the relationships of the characters are variable. They may be in love or they may may be forced to work together though they hate each other.
In The Concrete Flamingo, Charles Williams comes up with a combination of motive and relationship I haven't seen anywhere else, and this gives the ending its own peculiar flavor. This is my sixth novel by Williams, and so far what Bill Crider said about him proves true: "Anything by Williams is good."
When their regular babysitter is not available, a couple hires a friend of a friend to watch their three kids so they can have their anniversary dinner out. They should have checked references.
When the dad brings the new sitter to the house, he swaggers a bit too much. The mom is a bit too needy about her concern for the children. The eleven-year-old brother is a bully. They will suffer for their flaws.
The new sitter arrives with an eerie detachment. When the parents leave, and we find out what she's up to, the fates of the little brother and sister hang in the balance.
This is a psychological thriller, not a horror movie. Violence and gore are minimal. The sound editors do not resort to startling us with loud noises. The chills come from revealing the characters' intentions.
The movie has its flaws. Some minor characters are forgotten in the second half. There are some continuity errors in the run up to the climax. But the writing is better than average, and the performances, even from the little ones, are compelling.
Veteran crime-fiction writer, Lawrence Block, had the idea for this book of short stories: invite great writers to write a story inspired by a painting by Edward Hopper, and publish the results as a collection, entitled In Sunlight or in Shadow. Each story has a fine color plate of the painting facing its first page. In each instance the title of the story is the title of the painting.
The writers draw inspiration from the paintings in different ways. Warren Moore in "Office at Night" unfolds an anecdote that accounts for each detail in the painting. Michael Connelly in "Nighthawks," writes about two people sharing their thoughts on the painting.
There are some big-name crime-fiction writers here, including Jeffrey Deaver, Lee Child, and Block himself. There are also some all-around big-name writers, including Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates.
I'm grateful to the collection for introducing me to writers I didn't know. One of them, Joe R. Lansdale, wrote my favorite story in the book, "The Projectionist." He's the author of 63 novels in several genres: horror, western, science fiction, mystery and suspense, plus short stories, comics and screenplays.
Story guru Matt Bird says your story is not about your hero's life; it's about your hero's problem. The first half of Three Peaks comes close to breaking this rule.
A mother, her son, and her new boyfriend vacation at a cabin in the mountains. We watch them live their lives for several days---cooking, sleeping, playing music---all made awkward by the son's unresolved resentment over his father's absence. The film seems to be showing us what life is like in a new family.
The boyfriend does his best to include the son in manly activities such as cutting firewood and hiking to the peaks. The son starts to threaten the boyfriend. This is where the film starts being a story. The boyfriend (hero) now has a problem. Still, what can a boy do against a grown man?
Quite a bit, it turns out, when that man feels protective toward the boy for the sake of his girlfriend, the mother, and when they hike to the top of a mountain and the fog rolls in. Trapped in a dangerous situation, the boy now has all the advantages.
The final third of the movie plays like a Jack London story directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
In a neighborhood called Pacific Heights, Upper Fillmore, or Western Addition, depending on who you talk to, this hospital replaced two blocks of Victorian homes. It was designed in the Brutalist style, which is the architectural term for unbelievable masses of raw concrete.
It's not a hospital any more. Sutter Health/CPMC built an even bigger hospital eight blocks away. This building is now used for a variety of outpatient services: dialysis, cancer treatment, podiatry, etc.
One might wonder what is going on upstairs in all those old hospital rooms. A Google search of the address, 2333 Buchanan Street, yields this from AirBnB: "Rent Apartments in CPMC Lab from $20/night." Just for the record, that works out to $600 per month in a city where small studio apartments go for around $1,500 per month.
I wonder if the neighbors in their stately homes dream of getting rid of this monster. Could it even be done? How does one take down a building made of poured concrete? Dynamite?
While taking a walk in the Presidio the other day, I was treated to this spectacle. Looking through the trees along the path and over Presidio Parkway, I watched fog slide in from the straits, slip under the Golden Gate Bridge, and cover the north side of the bay. Eventually it covered the roadway of the bridge, leaving the towers visible.
Meanwhile the south side of the bay, where I was walking, stayed clear. In fact I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Presidio and enjoyed warm, sunny weather, while the bridge and the bay remained shrouded. Sometimes the fog does that: goes just so far and stops.
Fog's gotta do what fog's gotta do.
Most of us first learn about Alcatraz Island from movies such as Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood and The Rock with Nicholas Cage. Most of us think of it as a prison. But, as the National Park Service delights in telling visitors, it is also a sanctuary for endangered species of birds, a museum of military history, an ancestral site for the Ohlone people, and often recently, an art museum.
Thanks to the Presido Trust, we rode the ferry out to the island to see an exhibition called "Future IDs at Alcatraz." The work shown is the result of helping people in prison imagine replacing their prison ID with another ID card when they are released. The project challenged them to imagine a new identity and create a pictorial representation of it.
I'm no expert in this field, but intuitively it seems right to add this exercise in imagination to the job-training, counseling, and parole-supervision that help people re-join society.
Four years ago, we visited the island for another art exhibit "@Large". That one featured work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was then under arrest in his country. He sent instructions for the installation, without sending any art objects. There have been other exhibits on the island, but those featuring art that comes out of imprisonment have a special resonance.
By the way, I did not use any filters to create the photo, taken from the boat on the way to the island. There was some mist in the air that morning, and it created the impressionist style.
This low-budget film was made in the year World War II ended, the threshold of film noir. Only 67 minutes long, it is not one of the great films in that genre, but it was favorably reviewed when it was released and each time it was rediscovered. In 1992 it was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Most of the critical raves focus on the director, Edgar G. Ulmer. In his review, Roger Ebert said Ulmer "was an assistant to the great Murnau on 'The Last Laugh' and 'Sunrise,' and provided one of the links between German Expressionism, with its exaggerated lighting, camera angles and dramaturgy, and the American film noir, which added jazz and guilt."
This film could be a textbook on making a low-budget film without disappointing the audience. Street scenes in New York show two characters standing under a street sign surrounded by fog. Stock footage of a switchboard operator tells us the hero is making a long-distance call. Visually it's minimal, but enough.
I must say the acting was the least enjoyable part of the movie. For whatever reason, the two main characters were reduced to a single attitude and every line is delivered in the same tone.
The story is perhaps the most interesting and most noirish part of the movie. A singer decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood. Her boyfriend, a fine pianist, decides to follow her. His luck goes from bad to worse as he hitchhikes across the country. As he says at the end, fate can destroy anyone at any time.
The film is based on Martin Goldsmith's 1939 novel, Detour, adapted by him and Martin Mooney.
The film is in the public domain and is freely available from online sources. Be sure to look for the restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2018. available from the Criterion Collection.
The original Petit Trianon was built in the 1760s by Louis XV of France for his chief Mistress, Madame de Pompadour, though she did not live to see its completion. Upon ascending to the throne, Louis XVI gave it to his chief mistress, Marie Antoinette.
This copy of the Petit Trianon stands in the Presidio Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. It was built from 1902 to 1904 by a husband and wife who came from merchant families. At their housewarming they dressed as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
One wonders why they chose to identify with the king and mistress who presided over the collapse of the monarchy and were beheaded, rather than with the king who built the original Petit Trianon and his mistress.
In the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, now being written, some of the action centers around this house and its fictional occupants.
Sam's Grill has been around in one form or another since 1867. It's one of a handful of businesses remaining from the Gold Rush era. There's also Tadich's Grill, The Mechanics' Institute, and, of course, Levi Strauss.
A few years ago Sam's was set to close and a group of customers banded together to buy the business. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, they remain anonymous. Since then there have been management changes and even a lease to renegotiate, but Sam's endures.
Stories like this keep turning up. Borderlands Books on Valencia Street was set to close when customers and neighborhood folks showed up with cash and expertise to keep it open. At the time this was referred to as "the public radio model."
We may be witnessing a merger of the non-profit and the for-profit. Sometimes, it seems, we don't believe in survival of the fittest. Maybe we don't want to live in a world populated entirely by the fittest.
This recent (2017) suspense novel compares well to classics such as I Married a Dead Man (film version: No Man of Her Own) by Cornell Woolrich, After Dark My Sweet by Jim Thompson, and Nothing in Her Way by Charles Williams.
In each of these, the hero struggles not only with adversaries (law enforcement, con artists and thugs), but also with her or his own defects that result from a traumatic past. The conflict is both internal and external. The hero's problems are both in the present and the past.
Greyson's The Girl Who Lived is a pleasure to read not only for the complexity of the puzzle and the intensity of the hero's struggle, but also because the prose reads effortlessly. To use a figure of speech, not an ounce of fat.
We celebrated the holiday by going to hear the Golden Gate Park Band play "Music Celebrating American Independence." This year that included "America Forever" by Malinda Zenor, "Lassus Trombone" by Henry Fillmore, "Armed Forces Medley" arr. by Roc McNaughton, and others.
Now in its 137 season, the band is sponsored by San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department and is compromised of members of American Federation of Musicians Union Local #6. It plays free concerts on Sundays from May through September. To my ear they sound mighty fine.
It is such a pleasure to hear instruments play without amplification. The soft passages are perfectly clear; the loud passages are easy on the ears. The band shell lets them be heard perfectly throughout this section of the park.
I sat back and felt proud of my country.
Originally titled Hell Hath No Fury and published in 1953, The Hot Spot is "what many consider to be the ultimate Charles Williams book" according to Rick Ollerman. That may be true, but the other novels by Williams I have read are not far behind.
The Hot Spot includes all the tropes that made the paperback originals of the 1950s a commercial success. A drifter down on his luck, a get-rich-quick scheme that can't miss (until it does), a villain we love to hate, a good woman who could make our hero happy, and a bad woman who takes him for everything he's got.
The Hot Spot has the intricate plotting of Nothing in Her Way and Dead Calm, and excels in evoking the the hero's terror as he struggles to carry out his schemes.
Despite excellent storytelling, Williams never became a household name. There was no major Hollywood film adaptation of his work in his lifetime. Even now, it's difficult to find used paperback copies of his novels. Most are available as ebooks.
A lot of people in San Francisco and Oakland see the clock tower of the Ferry Building more often than the Golden Gate Bridge. After all, this is where you get on the ferry to cross the Bay.
The building itself (behind the palm trees) was completed in 1898 and survived the earthquake and fire of 1906, and the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. It has had a checkered history, but since a renovation in 2002 has been a great hall of restaurants and vendors of locally produced foods.
Justin Herman Plaza, seen here in front of it, is controversial both for its modernist fountain and because Herman presided over redevelopment in the 1960s that displaced many residents in poor neighborhoods.
About halfway through the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, Nicole and Pat walk through the plaza and turn north from the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero to watch the light show installed on the western span of the Bay Bridge, glimpsed just to the right of the clock tower. Then they come back to the Ferry Building to have dinner overlooking the Bay.