I recently published a novel entitled The Con Man's Son, but I've just discovered a book which is apparently an important source of information on the type of criminal called a "confidence man."
First published in 1940, it offers a detailed study of con artists and their trade based on extensive interviews with practitioners.
It gives a historical survey of how simple street games like three-card monte developed into more elaborate "long cons" requiring establishment of a "store," a rented space set up to look like a betting parlor or stock brokerage.
There are also chapters on the crooks themselves, their social norms, the psychology of their victims, their cooperative relationships with law enforcement, and more.
Since the author was a linguist, the book makes use of the con-man's vocabulary ("rope a mark," "cop a heel," "steer against a store," etc.) and a glossary is provided.
I have no doubt The Big Con was a source for another book I have consulted, The Confidence Game. And anyone familiar with The Sting will recognize pages 31 through 52 as a description of the game operated by Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford).
More and more I am convinced that when writing fiction, it's helps to know the facts.
Run is the latest thriller from writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, who made Searching, which played in theaters in 2018. Run made its debut on Hulu, November, 2020.
Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson) does everything for her daughter, Chloe (Kiera Allen). Everything includes among other things managing a long list of medications, caring for a teenager bound to a wheelchair and motivating her to high academic achievement through home schooling.
The story begins, as so many good thrillers do, when Chloe notices some things that don't quite make sense. When she looks for answers, her mother restricts her access to those things. The exciting part of the movie is watching this "rebellious" teenager outwit her mother in her quest to take control of her life. The scary part of the movie is watching the mother go to ever greater lengths to control her.
Ultimately Chloe learns, as we've suspected all along, that her mother needed to do things for her more than Chloe needed to have them done. The ending is dark, but stops just this side of horror.
Like Searching this is a well-crafted machine that works through an average person's struggle to regain what matters most.
Since 1915, the station next to the Bay Bridge has been home to the San Francisco Fire Department's boats and firefighters who respond to fire alarms near the water's edge and calls for water rescues.
Last week it's replacement showed up, a new fire station built on a barge and brought to town from Treasure Island by a couple of tug boats.The new station is permanently moored and will float up and down with the changing tides. The old station will be maintained and used for storage.
In a way this is the latest phase of a process that began with the Gold Rush in 1849. A long wharf was built to cross the mud flats that separated dry land from the deep water where ships could anchor. Over time oyster shells and other refuse were used to fill in the flats and create dry land between the shore and the ships. Today, about seven city blocks separates the sea wall from the former shoreline.
Even in recent decades there have been proposals to fill more of the Bay to create valuable real estate next to downtown. They have all been rejected. But occupying more of the Bay by building barges looks like it may have a future.
The Undoing is a murder mystery driven by the strangeness of the victim, a young mother, whom we get to know in the first of six episodes. In her scenes with Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), she seems to call out for understanding, help, and affection.
Jonathan Fraser, (Hugh Grant), is a suspect because he was the oncologist for the victim's child and had an affair with her. He is arrested and held on $2 million bail. The case seems open and shut, but Grace, Jonathan, and Grace's father (Donald Sutherland,) behave in unexpected ways.
As I write this, I've watched four of the six episodes. The suspects are multiplying and I'm eager to find out who done it, but I'm more eager to find out what would explain the things the victim does in those early scenes. The Undoing generates all the suspense of a traditional murder mystery without sticking to the usual formulas. It puts more emphasis on the characters than on the logistics of how the crime was committed.
One week in 2018, I checked the listings of movies, saw there was a new thriller called Searching, found the nearest theater showing it, and went with friends. Back then, we did that.
I was not particularly drawn by the idea that the story played out entirely on electronic screens. The hero (John Cho) searches for his missing daughter on her laptop, and later on a phone and through TV news broadcasts. We never see the characters directly. Mostly I hoped this gimmick would not get in the way.
For me at least, the gimmick adds a little to the suspense. Best of all, it's a good story. I cared about the teenager in distress, I was pulling for her father to find her. The dark twists the story takes in the second half were satisfying.
Writer-director Aneesh Chaganty has a new suspense film about a disabled, home-schooled teenager whose mother may not have her best interests at heart. Since theaters are not up and running, it debuts on Hulu today---Friday, November 20, 2020. The title is Run.
Based on Searching, Chaganty is good with parent-teenager relationships and he tells a good story. You might want to watch both Searching and Run this weekend, in either order.
The National Cemetery in the Presidio of San Francisco looks over San Francisco Bay to Angel Island and feels like the heart of this army post turned national park. .
Starting from the Main Post, with its barracks, Officers Club, and office buildings, housing of all kinds fans out over the hillsides: houses, duplexes, unit blocks, apartment buildings. To the west are the stables that were once home to the equine members of the cavalry. To the north is the strip of land along the bay that was once a busy military air strip .
In the center of it all is this resting place for veterans of the War between the States, the Buffalo Soldiers, War in the Phillipines, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and more.
My family has no military history, and I am not a veteran, but this place fills me with awe. If being part of something larger than yourself means anything to you, it will affect you the same way.
After visiting the well-advertised exhibit of Frida Kahlo's personal effects at the de Young Museum, we wandered into a wonderful exhibit called, "The de Young Open." As described on the museum's website:
"Works of art in The de Young Open are hung 'salon-style,' installed edge to edge and floor to ceiling, which enables a maximum number of works to be displayed. The de Young filled the 12,000-square-foot Herbst Exhibition Galleries with 877 artworks by 762 Bay Area artists."
It was exhilarating to walk through room after room of paintings and one room of sculpture. Each room was devoted to a subject (portraits, landscapes, social satire, etc.) Because the exhibit was curated by a panel all the works were at least competent and some were inspired.
Over the years, I've enjoyed marvelous solo exhibitions---Salvador Dali, J. M. Turner, Elsa Schiaparelli, etc.---and shows focused on a theme such as Impressionism, Expressionism, and others.
To see this volume of work and such variety in a single visit is a different and wonderful experience.
The Lumiere Theater used to be our preferred venue for seeing the Oscar-Nominated Shorts each year. We were never attracted to anything else in this neighborhood on the western side of Nob Hill. Seeing the shorts here was like a two-hour vacation from our usual orbit. I always liked the idea that its name referred to those pioneers of Cinema, August and Louis Lumiere. Since it closed, another Landmark Theater, Opera Plaza Cinema, has become the place to go for the shorts.
The building started as a firehouse and at different times housed restaurants and retail stores. It opened in 1975 as the Lumiere Theater and showed its last film in 2012. It had a room seating about 300. At different times in its history, it had a second and a third screening room according to San Francisco Theatres .
As the marquee says, it is now the Marine Layer Workshop. Marine Layer is a designer clothing label based in San Francisco. Reviews say the workshop is a combination workplace, retail outlet, and entertainment venue. Apparently they still offer popcorn and run movies on the wall as kinetic art.
You might think the apartment building on the left and its pedestrians are victims of erosion. But the nearby wall of rock has been that way since the Gold Rush days.
Starting in 1849, ships came to San Francisco (known then as Yerba Buena) from around the world bringing mining equipment and people who wanted to get rich by filling their pockets with gold nuggets.
Since the town was a small fishing village, there was nothing for the ships to carry away. Some were anchored offshore and used as housing. When more than a hundred blocked the port, some were burned.
Some of the ships managed to sail on to other ports by replacing their cargo with ballast in the form of rocks created by dynamiting Telegraph Hill, leaving it with a flat side.
So it would seem that apartment building and its pedestrians are the victims of building too close to a known hazard.
Not to worry: management has "solved" the problem but installing a sign.
Like most people, I can't say I have a single favorite movie. But, if I had to make a short list of favorites, this would be on it. Mostly I am awed by the story in the original screenplay by David Peoples.
William Munny (Clint Eastwood) hears of a bounty offered for killing two cowboys who have cut up a prostitute's face. Though he was a thief and a killer in his younger days, Munny reformed and swore to his wife he would never go back to his evil ways.
But his wife has died, he has two children to care for, and his farm is failing. Also, the cause is just: the law (Gene Hackman) has compensated the owner of the brothel but has done nothing for the prostitute. Munny decides to make one last score.
A lot goes wrong. Through it all, Munny and his friend (Morgan Freeman) prove themselves deeply flawed men who behave with honor while carrying out a mission they don't believe in. Sometimes life is like that.
A bright light flashes in the sky. Shortly after, everyone's power goes out, and cars won't start.
When the neighbors on a suburban street compare notes on what might be happening, a teenager says he read a story about aliens who take over earth by first sending spies who look like humans to live among us.
His mother says those are just silly comic books, but people start to speculate whether any of the more eccentric residents on their street could be aliens. Things do not go well after that.
"The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" aired in 1960 as part of the first season of The Twilight Zone. Many episodes are scary. I found this one disturbing because it seems so familiar: unusual events are "explained" by a far-fetched theory and people start hunting monsters. If we re-wrote this to include social media, we would have a story from today's news reports.
This is what we call normal traffic on San Francisco's one-way streets. There are lanes for parking on either side. There are lanes for double-parking on either side. There is one traffic lane in the center.
San Francisco has pairs of one-way streets, one east bound, one westbound. The lights are timed to keep traffic moving at around twenty-five miles per hour. Used properly they would be efficient means of moving around a city with the worst traffic congestion in the USA (yes, worse than you, NYC).
They are not used properly. People try to drive forty miles per hour on them and end up creating stop-and-go traffic. And people double-park. Delivery trucks double park because alleys for making deliveries are extremely rare. Also, Uber and Lyft started here, seemed to assume they could double-park, and no one ever told them they couldn't.
When I call this "normal traffic," I am not exaggerating. Mid-day, you cannot drive more than three blocks in any direction without encountering the kind of situation shown here. Doesn't this make you want to ride an electric scooter on the sidewalk?
This is what I call a coffee shop. It has a machine for roasting coffee beans. Not surprisingly, it's called Coffee Roastery.
It doesn't look nearly as inviting as usual with the chairs and tables stored at the end of the room. When it is again safe to sit indoors together, this room will again invite patrons to linger while enjoying a cup of coffee.
Coffee Roastery has several locations around San Francisco. Each shop has its own machine to roast the beans used and sold in that shop. Does it make a difference whether the beans are roasted within hours of being brewed? It can't hurt.
Sudden Fear is classic mid-century noir. The men wear hats and suits and ties because men did back then. The women wear silk stockings and have elaborate coiffures because women did back then. People travel cross-country by train and the automobiles are enormous. It's all filmed in glorious black and white.
Joan Crawford and Jack Palance make a quirky romantic couple. She plays an heiress and successful playwright. He plays an aspiring actor. She fires him from her Broadway show. He seduces her and plots to kill her, aided by an old girlfriend played by Gloria Grahame.
Crawford's acting style recalls the silent films in which she started with close-ups that allow her facial expressions to reflect sequences of thought and emotion. Palance's style exemplifies modern realism. Grahame's acting transcends style.
Much of the film recalls Alfred Hitchcock's criticism of what happened initially when sound was added to movies: they became "photographs of people talking." However, in the final quarter of the film, when Crawford and Palance launch their deadly schemes, director David Miller and cinematographer Charles Lang put on a tour de force of visual storytelling that Hitchcock might have envied.
I thought twice about whether to review this movie on the Dark Stories blog because it's a documentary on current events. There are plenty of real dark stories in the news. You don't come here to read about them.
But I've written about another documentary recently, Three Identical Strangers (2018), and a docu-drama, American Animals (2018), because they are as suspenseful as any of the fiction on this blog. The Social Dilemma is too.
On one level, it's about white men around 30 years of age trying to put the genie back in the bottle. These are men who made social media what it is today: ubiquitous, addictive, powerful, and unregulated. They no longer work for companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
They know they created the most powerful propaganda tool in history and made it equally available to marketers and dictators. They relate their own struggles with setting aside their phones and explain why they don't let their kids have phones until they're teenagers.
A dramatization is threaded through the documentary. Mom, Dad, and three children all have different attitudes about cell phones. The oldest daughter worries about her younger siblings. The teenage brother is helpless without his phone. The pre-teen daughter knows people only through social media. It's an uncomplicated but effective illustration of the growing problem.
The suspense comes from the way each topic leads to the next as the former titants of tech testify to what they have done and what can be done about it. Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist, is in effect the moderator of this discussion put together from interviews with the others. By the time you've heard what they say about each topic (surveillance capitalism, conspiracy theories, rising teenage suicide rates, etc.) you are desperate to hear them address the next.
Fact-based dark stories feel different from fictional dark-stories, but when well-made can be just as suspenseful and just as scary.