Monday, July 20, 2015

Finding Jack Lynch is worth playing Truth Or Die.

You don't have to wander the bookshelves or spend hours with Google to find forgotten but great crime writers anymore. Brash Books, a new independent publisher, is doing it for you. One fine example is Jack Lynch.

Truth or Die, the sixth in an eight book series, features California Private Eye Peter Bragg. He's visiting Monterey with his girlfriend when he runs into an old acquaintance, Jo Sommers. Jo's married now, but she can still turn heads, and Bragg's head is ready to spin. So when he learns she's in trouble, he can't resist the temptation to look into it, for old times sake.

Big mistake. Jo's husband has been murdered, and she's the prime suspect.  Instead of running back to Allison, Bragg decides to interview the less than grieving widow. Dr. Sommers was a psychiatrist and many of his patients were ex-navy officers. While the doctor helped them deal with the horrors of war, someone decided to use their secrets for blackmail. That may have gotten Dr. Sommers killed. And Bragg may be next, if he gets too close to the blackmailer.

He has to be wondering what Jo is up she part of the blackmail scheme or an innocent patsy? Was her husband blackmailing his own patients? Is the wife really a black widow? This story will keep you turning the pages to find out and has enough action to keep you entertained along the way.

Lynch has a clean, straightforward prose style that was made popular by Ernest Hemingway, and copied by countless writers. But Lynch is no imitator. He learned to write while working for numerous newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle (Hemingway cut his teeth at the Kansas City Star). They must feed those newspapers reporters something potent, because most of them can write a tight sentence that packs a punch. Lynch was nominated for the Edgar and twice for the Shamus award.

 This is the first of the Bragg novels I've read, but it won't be the last. There's seven more on my list. They should be on yours.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mystery History - Barbara Stanwyck Born Today

It's the birthday of Barbara Stanwyck, born July 16, 1907 in Brooklyn. Her career in entertainment began when she was hired as a chorus girl at the age of 17, for $40 dollars a week, a lot of money at the time. She made it to Hollywood just as talkies began to replace silent films.

No genre was beyond her skill as an actress, whether it was melodrama, comedy or westerns. But she may be best remembered for her work in thrillers, such as Sorry Wrong Number, Crime of PassionWitness To Murder, and Double Indemnity

This last film is considered one of the best noir films ever made. The screenplay was made from the novel by James Cain. Stanwyck was to play the part of Phyllis Dietrichson, an unhappy wife who conspires to murder her husband for the insurance money.  As a femme fatale she had no equal and proved it in this performance. But she almost didn't take the role.

Barbara loved the script when she read it, but was fearful of playing such an evil character at this stage in her career. She was a bonafide Hollywood star and the highest paid actress in America...indeed the highest paid woman in any job. But the director Billy Wilder, who wanted Stanwyck for the part, asked her if she was an actress or a mouse. That put an end to any doubts she had about making the film.

After it was released, critics raved about the movie, and about Stanwyck's performance.  The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Barbara Stanwyck for Best Actress.

"She was as good an actress as I have ever worked with."
                                                                                         - Billy Wilder

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Writers Born Today - Donald Westlake

It's the birthday of Donald Westlake, born July 12, 1933 in Brooklyn.

He started writing in his teens. While working as an usher in a movie theater he would invent different endings for the films in his head. His parents saw him as an architect but he saw himself as a writer.

So he wrote. And collected dozens of rejections. He must have had a tough skin because he kept writing. After 200 rejections his first story was published in a science fiction magazine.

He wrote some more. Along the way he created one of the toughest character in crime fiction, a professional criminal named Parker. Yet Westlake didn't anticipate Parker becoming a series. As Westlake stated "When Bucklyn Moon of Pocket Books said he wanted to publish The Hunter, if I’d help Parker escape the law at the end so I could write more books about him, I was at first very surprised. He was the bad guy in the book."

Eventually, two dozen Parker novels were published.

In addition to his own name, Westlake produced stories and novels using 17 pseudonyms (including a female name, Barbara Wilson). Sometimes his pen names appeared in his fiction as characters. Westlake had a great sense of humor and he used it often in his writing. His most famous pen name was Richard Stark, used to create the Parker novels.

More than a dozen films have been made from his work, starring some of Hollywood's biggest stars. Director Quentin Tarantino has mentioned Westlake's fictional anti-hero Parker as an influence on his films, particularly Reservoir Dogs.

Westlake's screenplay for The Grifters was nominated for an Academy Award, and won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. It was his third Edgar award.  In 1993, MWA made him a Grand Master.

He never made the new York Times best-seller list, but his influence in crime fiction cannot be overstated. Stephen King dedicated his novel Joyland to him. One writer even named his son after one of Westlake's characters...Parker.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Writers Born Today - E. C. Bentley

It's the birthday of Edmuncd Clerihew Bentley, born July 10, 1875 in London. He is considered by many as the father of the modern mystery novel. His stories ushered in the Golden Age of Mystery (generally the period between 1920 and 1945).

After attending Oxford he became a newspaper journalist, but was motivated to write mystery in response to a challenge from his friend G.K. Chesterton. Sherlock Holmes detective novels had been the standard for crime fiction for many years but Bentley felt they were too melodramatic and Holmes was just too perfect. The result of his effort was a mystery that set a new standard for the detective novel...Trent's Last Case.

Published in 1913, it's complex plot twists inspired the writing of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, among others. The novel presented the reader with three possible outcomes to the mystery. It became an international best seller, and was filmed in several movies, including one by Orson Wells.

You can hear a radio broadcast of the novel at the Radio Detective Story Hour.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Writers Born Today - John Ball

It's the birthday of mystery writer John Ball, born July 8, 1911 in Schenectady, New York. After graduating from Carroll College he began his career as a music critic and reviewer. During World War II he was a pilot and flew supplies over the treacherous Himalayas for troops fighting in Asia.

He wrote for magazines and newspapers and even worked as a sheriff's deputy before turning to fiction.

He wrote several novels featuring pilots flying planes under difficult circumstances. But his most famous fictional character was Virgil Tibbs, a black man investigating crime in a white man's world. His first novel featuring the soft-spoken but competent detective was In The Heat of the Night. It won the Edgar Award in 1966 for Best First Novel, and was made into a movie starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967.

Ball wrote 6 more novels featuring Tibbs, including The Cool Cottontail, Five Pieces of JadeSingapore. Johnny Get Your Gun, The Eyes of Buddha, and Then Came Violence.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Writers Born Today - Eric Ambler

It's the birthday of Eric Ambler, born June 28, 1909 in London. Both of his parents worked as entertainers and this eventually led him to begin writing plays, despite an educational background in engineering.

As a writer he elevated the spy novel to an art form that went far beyond the early novels of John Buchan (The 39 Steps) with their chase scenes. But like Buchan, Ambler's hero was often an amateur caught in a web of espionage.

His first novel was actually a parody of the traditional spy thriller. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) The Dark Frontier received good reviews. Prophetically, it had a plot involving the theft of atomic secrets.  He wrote four more spy novels in the next three years, including the one that most consider his masterpiece, A Coffin For Dimitrios.

Many of his novels feature individuals fleeing between countries that appear and disappear during times of war, or refugees who find themselves without a country at all...scenes that are still familiar today in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

Ambler enlisted in the army when World War II started. The recruiter, when he learned that Ambler was a novelist, asked "But is there anything you can actually do?"

There was. He signed up with the army film unit and wrote scripts for propaganda films, encountering along the way David Niven, John Houston and Humphrey Bogart.

After the war he worked in Hollywood for a while, and continued to write spy thrillers. But the idea of a naive or hapless individual falling into the middle of a spy plot or den of secret agents was getting harder to sell as the Cold War deepened. Spy work was becoming more complex and professional espionage was usually being handled by...professionals.

Ambler's greatest legacy is the enormous influence he had on other writers. Graham Greene and John le Carre both praised and tried to exceed his intelligent writing with their own thrillers. Le Carre referred to Ambler's novels as "the well into which everybody had dipped."

He also brought the spy thriller out of the gutter and into the home of millions of grateful readers.

''Dorothy Sayers had taken the detective story and made it literate. Why shouldn't I do the same with spies?''
                                                                  - Eric Ambler

Friday, June 26, 2015

Mystery History - Peter Lorre Born Today

It's the birthday of actor Peter Lorre, born June 26, 1904 in Slovakia. His real name was László Löwenstein, but a stage manager changed it to Peter Lorre. He started his film career in Germany, where Fritz Lang cast him as a serial killer in the movie M. The film was an instant success and it propelled Lorre to stardom. The fame had a drawback. Lorre would be forever cast as a criminal type. Needless to say, he made the most of it.

After the Nazis came to power, he left Germany and headed to the United States. Resourceful and determined, he was cast in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much even though he could barely speak English (he convinced the director that he was fluent in the language). He played a killer again in Stranger On The Third Floor, one of the first movies now considered as film noir.

After numerous B movies, including a stint as Charlie Chan, he was paired with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. These performances, which featured his charm as well as his sinister side, would help cement his reputation as a genius actor.

"Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart, just in case?"

              - Peter Lorre, speaking to Vincent Price at the funeral of Bela Lugosi