Mystery Scene, Winter 2020
In the world of crime fiction, the name James M. Cain is as ubiquitous as the crisp pop-pop-pop of gunfire and the discovery of a dead body in the opening chapter of a crime novel.
Cain’s writings about rough-edged men, women who are craftier than they appear, and themes like adultery, blackmail and murder, made him the go-to guy for thirties-era fans of the un-put-downable quick-read. He also became known for hot-to-the-touch topics: at a time when few others would dare, Cain didn’t hesitate to write about incest and homosexuality.
But it isn’t easy to compile a dossier on James M. Cain. He defies encapsulation.
An essay — March 19, 2020
As the world grapples with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic there’s been considerable attention paid to fictional storylines. The now familiar roll call includes films like “Outbreak” (1995), starring Dustin Hoffman and an escaped monkey, and Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011) and books by Dean Koontz, Stephen King and Michael Crichton (who had a day job as a doctor). But let’s not forget the granddaddy of the contemporary genre: the novel “Earth Abides.” Published in 1949 – in the shadow of George Orwell’s masterwork “Nineteen Eighty-Four” – “Earth Abides” asked the unsettling question, “what if…” in the devastating wake of a global killer virus.
Mystery Scene, Spring 2020
Quaint villages shadowed by secrets. A roster of eccentrics. Murders most bizarre. Not to mention all those teapots and taverns. During its 20-plus years on TV, “Midsomer Murders” has quietly staked out its own territory – think of it as Agatha Christie with a dash of “Twin Peaks” – and in doing so, it has quietly become a genre classic. Circumventing casting changes and controversy, the popular British series has attracted viewers the world over – in some 200 countries to date. Not bad for a contemporary crime drama about cops without guns. (Unlike US police officers, the majority of UK police do not carry them.) Inspired by the Inspector Barnaby books by Caroline Graham, the series is set in fictional Midsomer County, where veteran Detective Chief Investigator John Barnaby – who took over when his cousin, Tom Barnaby, retired – probes mysterious deaths that occur in the county’s quirky, picturesque villages.
Mystery Scene, Spring 2019
The opening music is lush but ominous. As the movie credits roll, strains of carnival music break through, accompanying the camera as it moves in on a barker, doing his best to entice crowds outside a tent with a sign that reads GEEK. GEEK? To modern audiences, a geek is someone with minor social skills – possibly combined with extra-ordinary intelligence. An eccentric. An oddball. A dweeb. Back in the 1940s the term implied something else – something dark. And tragic. Something within this movie tent, where a striking looking man, wearing a white T-shirt and great physique, watches and waits. “This exhibit is being presented solely in the interest of education and science!” claims a handler, who points to an unseen figure below. “Is he the missing link? Is he man or beast?” The man in the T-shirt – his name is Stanton Carlisle, and he’s a newcomer to the carnival biz – stands, appalled, among the gaping onlookers. When the (unseen) geek is tossed live chickens to eat, Carlisle walks away from the squawks of brutalized poultry, and the resulting gasps from the crowd. He goes on to say, incredulously, “I can’t understand how anybody could get so low.” It’s a prophetic line that serves as a dirty welcome mat to “Nightmare Alley,” a weird, unsettling 1947 movie about an enigmatic grifter who uses the women he meets to con his way to the top.
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June 28, 2017
For fictional sleuths, location can be as revealing as crime solving techniques … Rich in geographic diversity, So Cal also affords plenty of … characters. Hollywood helps, in that regard. But don’t think of all our residents as just another pretty face, and cosmetically-enhanced bod. The (many) crime novel protagonists who live and work in So Cal must deal with folks given to despair and heartbreak and dark doings–along with the usual Seismic activity– beneath the seemingly perfect surface.