Dark Portrait, the fourth mystery featuring Nicole Tang Noonan, is available for pre-order on Amazon pending release on October 31. Here's how it begins:
Out on the trails in the Presidio, a long walk will usually soothe my soul, but it didn’t on that Thursday morning. The winding paths, the smells of the forest, the relief from city noise—all the delights that come with a visit to San Francisco’s national park were not enough to stop my mind from working overtime.
I’d been walking in this section of the park a lot as fire season turned to rainy season in northern California, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. I had enjoyed my research leave up to that point, but each passing day brought me closer to returning to the campus in Ohio where I’d taught for four years. When that time came, I would have some hard decisions to make.
As I rounded a bend, I saw someone lying along a path connected to the trail. He wore a floppy canvas hat, a hiking vest over a denim shirt, loose gray pants, and hiking boots. His backpack and walking stick lay next to him. Since this was an unlikely place to lie down and rest, I wondered if he was injured. “Hello?” I called. “Are you alright?”
I heard footsteps on gravel about forty yards away, down a hill and across an opening in the forest. I looked that way just in time to see a man disappear into some trees. He was going in the direction I had come from.
After walking a few steps down the path, I leaned to one side and looked at the man on the ground. His eyes were open, but they weren’t focused on anything. His skin was gray.
I skipped backward a half-dozen steps without taking my eyes off him. I don’t know why I did that. He certainly wasn’t going to do anything to me. Maybe I was trying to rewind to the moment before I had seen him. Maybe I wanted to go back to the trail I had left, continue on my walk, and enjoy a day that did not include finding a dead body.
Pre-order the ebook or buy the paperback now!
To spend an afternoon watching the Smuin Ballet company dance to the music of Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, and Carl Orff, is to see humanity perfected.
Watching these dancers do such difficult things so that we can feel joy and sadness and wonder makes me think maybe we're not such a bad species after all.
The Fall, 2019, show starts off with new work by Rex Wheeler set to Dave Brubeck's, "Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and other classic recordings. These are fun, full of chuckles and surprises.
The show also includes James Kedelko's "The Man in Black," a suite of dances set to songs from Johnny Cash's last album, The Man Comes Around, (2002). Listening to Cash sing songs like "If You Could Read My Mind" and "Hurt" moves us into the realm of classical tragedy. They are that deep.
Kedelko's dances put three men and one woman into costumes fit for line dancing at a cowboy bar, right down to the boots. Those boot heels play percussion on some numbers. The blending of vernacular dance with the power of classical ballet matches the intensity of Cash's recordings.
The company keeps alive the legacy of its founder, Michael Smuin, with his dance to Carmina Burana, a choral work from 1936, based on a collection of poems from the middle ages. The dance is as startling as the music. I would have to see it again to comprehend its symbols, rhythms, and physical daring.
As usual at a Smuin dance series, never a dull moment.
We enjoy going to the neighborhood movie houses in San Francisco, though there are fewer each year. I've lost count of how many have closed since we moved here twelve years ago. I wrote about one, The Clay, last year. It's still up and running and is thriving on art films and midnight showings of The Room, The Rocky Horror Show, and Halloween.
We recently went to the Balboa to see The Rock, the 1996 action flick set in San Francisco. Among other things, the movie is a contest to see who can deliver the best tough-guy line. Competition was intense between Ed Harris, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery , but, judging by audience reaction, Connery was the favorite.
However, the biggest cheer of the night was for the aerial shot of the bay blanketed by fog. Fog rules!
The retrospective showing was organized by two columnists for the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub. They hosted a trivia quiz before the movie started and handed out prizes. Then a guy in full Scottish tartan marched down the aisle of the theater playing "Scotland, the Brave" on bagpipes.
"Well," I thought, "why not?" Later my dear one suggested to me that this may have been a subliminal effort by local Scots to boost Connery's profile with the audience . . . as if Sean Connery needs an boosting!
This pedestrian mall interrupts Buchanan Street in the neighborhood called Japantown. This is where immigrants from Japan settled in the early twentieth century, but back then these blocks where covered with typical San Francisco Victorian-style houses.
All those houses were bull-dozed as part of an urban renewal project in the 1960s. That was possible because the neighborhood had been ruined by the internment of citizens of Japanese ancestry after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
Today this development covers six square blocks and includes shopping malls, hotels, churches, and cultural institutions. The Buchanan-Street mall includes several sculptures by Ruth Asawa, a renowned artist who as a child was interned along with her family.
Although it was never again a Japanese neighborhood, Japantown became a living history museum for the Japanese community.
The store on the right is Soko Hardware. "Soko" was the immigrants' nickname for San Francisco.
Perhaps because I just finished writing and editing my fourth mystery novel, I am feeling the need for some perspective on the craft. I enjoyed Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print so much when I read it in 2017 that I read it again last year. I thought about reading it again this year, but somewhere I saw that Block had written several books on writing.
At first I wasn't enthused about Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, because it is described as "a collection of his slightly re-edited fiction how-to column from Writer's Digest." But I am finding in this book the same comfortable blend of instruction and memoir that I found in his first book for writers.
For instance, his chapter on "Creative Procrastination" clarifies my thoughts on when to let an idea ferment and when to get on with writing it down. He illustrates with the story of how his idea for Code of Arms was with him for a few years before he wrote it.
You don't have to take my word for the usefulness of this book. In her introduction, Sue Grafton wrote, "In the early years of the Kinsey Milhone series, I made a point of reading Telling Lies for Fun and Profit before beginning each new book."
By the way, my fourth mystery novel, Dark Portrait, will be available next month! I'll send out the details next week.
With Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Robert Crais created a classic crime-fighting duo. Elvis is the all-around good guy who who has mad people skills. Elvis reminds me of Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout and Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
Joe Pike is the eccentric genius who has almost no social skills. He rarely speaks. His only facial expression is when the corner of his mouth twitches. Since Crais's books are set in twenty-first-century America, Joe Pike's genius is for violence. He has elite military training and experience as a mercenary. Unlike Nero, Sherlock, or Hercule, he does not solve the crime by deduction.
Also as in other series, the good guy is the storyteller. Like Dr. Watson and Archie Goodwin, Elvis Cole tells us how he and his friend caught the bad guys. This lets readers imagine what life would be like if their best friend was the smartest guy in the room or, in the instance of Joe Pike, the badest.
Robert Crais's latest novel, A Dangerous Man, drops the good-guy narrator in favor of multiple points of view. Elvis still narrates the chapters in which he takes the lead. When Joe or the bad guys take the lead, their chapters are narrated in the third person. Their actions are not filtered through Elvis's point of view.
I would prefer having Elvis tell me the story. It will be interesting to see what Crais does in the next book.
The Snatch is the first of Bill Pronzini's "Nameless Detective" novels. When he meets another character, instead of saying his name, the detective narrates, "We introduced ourselves." And throughout the novel, no one addresses him by name.
This would seem like a tactical error. Readers are loyal to detectives such as Kinsey Millhone, Harry Bosch, Jessica Fletcher, Sherlock Holmes, and so on. But though he lacks a name, reader's have been faithful to Pronizini's detective. He has published 46 nameless detective novels since 1971.
"Nameless" is in many ways a mainstream American hard-boiled private eye. He struggles with addiction (cigarettes), fails in his relationship with the woman in his life, and is idealistic about his profession.
Mostly, I think, "Nameless" has lasted because Pronzini tells a good story. He had me guessing about who committed the kidnapping referred to in the title. And he creates a realistic feel for San Francisco, where the story is set.
Susan Hunter's Dangerous Habits starts with journalist Leah Nash out in a storm watching to see if a tree floating down a flooded river will destroy a dam that supplies hydroelectric power to a town.
Safety crews drag the tree to the banks in time, but in the process they make a grim discovery. Nash's effort to report that discovery leads to darker revelations that set her on a personal quest.
Perhaps because Hunter is a veteran journalist, Nash thinks like a journalist and the book is written in crisp, efficient prose. I had no hesitation about making the journey with this protagonist.
Hunter gives Nash a fairly long list of suspects and quite a few allies. The book runs about 80,000 words and is well-structured. Complications and revelations happen at regular intervals.
I was most impressed by the subjects Hunter addresses. As Nash whittle's down that list of suspects, she reveals the sources of evil. They are as current today as they were when the book was written in 2014.
On its Amazon page, the logline for Miranda Rijks's suspense novel says, "The one obituary you never want to read is your own." Sure enough, the novel begins with Laura Swallow reading her own obituary in a local newspaper.
Thus the story begins with the hero's problem. And the problem gets worse. As Rijks says in her description of the book, "multiple announcements of her death are followed by increasingly sinister real-life events."
Story guru Matt Bird says your story is not about your hero's life; it's about your hero's problem. But when the story begins by introducing the problem, the hero's life becomes much more interesting. Her relationships, her tragedies, her triumphs---everything about her will affect the way she solves her problem.
So Rijks had me hooked from the beginning. And I stayed hooked because the book is written in clear, simple prose. I never had to mentally diagram a sentence. I was never tempted to pause and admire her "use of language." She told the story.
And, it is an interesting problem. I really wanted to find out who wrote that fake obituary and staged those "increasingly sinister real-life events," and why.
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?