Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mystery History - The Silence Of The Lambs

It was 24 years ago today that The Silence of The Lambs was released on Valentine's Day. It had a difficult birth.

The film's predecessor, Manhunter, based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, had bombed at the box office and lost millions of dollars. Both Michelle Pfieffer and Sean Connery turned down the lead roles after reading the script, disturbed by the dark storyline. But it went on to gross 272 million dollars and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) and Best Actress (Jodie Foster).

Jonathan Demme agreed to direct the film even though financing had just fallen apart, and the studio was scrambling to find money for the project. Jodie Foster, who had been pushing for the lead role of Clarice Starling all along, was finally cast after Pfieffer turned it down. Anthony Hopkins won the role of Hannibal Lecter based on his performance in The Elephant Man.

Critics praised the film, in particular the dialogue and interaction between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. But the acclaim was not universal. Gene Siskel, one of the most influential movie critics at the time, gave it a thumbs down.

Much of the filming took place near Pittsburgh, PA. Ted Levine, who played the role of serial killer 'Buffalo Bill', later went on to star in the television comedy Monk as San Francisco detective Leland Stottlemeyer.

For more about this ground breaking movie, check out this article by Roger Cormier, 18 Things You Might Not Have Known About 'The Silence of the Lambs'.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Writers Born Today - Michael Lister

It's the birthday of award winning novelist Michael Lister. More than just a crime writer, his work transcends the stereotypes usually associated with mysteries and thrillers. Publisher's Weekly said of his prose "it ranks with the best of contemporary noir fiction", and best selling writer Michael Connelly added, "Lister takes a poet's view to the novel. His words skip on the waters of the imagination like well-polished stones."

Born and raised near the Apalachicola River in Florida's Panhandle, most of his stories are based in the region. He worked in the Florida Corrections system as a prison chaplain for many years, and this provided the fodder for his early work. His first novel in the successful John Jordan series, Power In The Blood, was well received and led to six more books in the series.

He also wrote a historical thriller series featuring Jimmy Riley, a PI from Panama City, including The Big Goodbye and The Big Beyond. Writers who have influenced his style include Ernest Hemmingway, Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, and Cormac McCarthy.

Lister won the Florida Book Award for his novel, Double Exposure, in 2009. Set in the Florida panhandle, it revolves around a photographer whose camera captures a murder scene and puts him in mortal danger when the killer returns. His latest novel in the John Jordan series Innocent Blood, comes out this month.

To read my review of his chilling suspense novel Double Exposure, click here.

You can read an excellent interview with Michael Lister at Jen's Book Thoughts. And to learn more about this outstanding writer and his work, visit his website.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mystery History - The Petrified Forest

It was 79 years ago today, February 8th 1936, that The Petrified Forest made its big screen debut.  The story centers around Alan Squier, a carefree drifter (Leslie Howard) and the waitress Gabrielle Maple (Betty Davis) he falls in love with at a remote diner in Arizona.  They, along with other unlucky patrons, are held hostage in the diner by notorious gangster Duke Mantee, played by Humphrey Bogart. Alan waxes philosophically about Mantee, society and the choices people make. In the end, he sacrifices his own life for Gabrielle so she can pursue her dream of living as an artist. Bogart brought an intensity and gritty realism that was a perfect foil to Howard's dreamer character. Critics raved about the new "tough guy" in Hollywood.

Although the role of Duke Mantee was a breakthrough role for Humphrey Bogart, his name wasn't prominent on movie posters since this was his first major film. Top billing went to Betty Davis and Leslie Howard, who were much better known at the time.

Bogart wasn't even the first choice for the gangster part. The studio wanted Edgar G. Robinson, who was already established as a gangster in films such as Little Caesar and The Hatchet Man. But Leslie Howard wanted Bogart to repeat the role he had played so well in the Broadway production with him. Howard was a leading man and he got his way. Bogart even studied film clips of notorious bank robber John Dillinger in an effort to learn the gangster's mannerisms for the movie role.

The part of Duke Mantee propelled Bogart from a character actor to a major star, and Bogart never forgot Leslie Howard's efforts on his behalf. He even named his daughter after Leslie Howard. In 1955, Bogart played the role of Duke Mantee one more time in a television adaptation of The Petrified Forest for Producer's Showcase. The role of Alan Squier was done by Henry Fonda and Gabrielle Maple was played by Lauren Bacall, Bogart's wife.

The Petrified Forest was one of the biggest gangster films of the decade, and Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press ranks it in their list of the Top 101 Greatest Films of Mystery and Suspense.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Writers Born Today - Harley Jane Kozak

It's the birthday of actress and mystery writer Harley Jane Kozak, born January 28, 1957 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She was raised in Nebraska, but went to New York to study acting after appearing in numerous local plays. She credits her upbringing in an interview with BookGuide, where she stated "I found that Nebraska has a very open heart when it comes to the creative arts, without the intensity and competition that comes with the territory in New York and L.A. So it was a wonderful pace to come from". She graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts in 1980.

She appeared in soap operas before moving to the big screen, where she starred in numerous films including Parenthood, Arachnophobia and Necessary Roughness.

She turned to writing fiction after a successful acting career and her first novel, Dating Dead Men, won the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. It's been followed by three more novels in the series featuring greeting card designer Wollie Shelley, Dating Is Murder, Dead Ex, and A Date You Can't Refuse.  Her short fiction has also appeared in such anthologies as A Hell of A Woman and Body Counts.


You can watch an interview Harley gave for The Patti Gribow show below, where she discusses her writing and acting career.




Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wicked Wednesday - Villains We Love: Edgar The Bug

Some villains capture our imagination because they are attractive, smart, or because we empathize with their human side. Heck, we might even want to have dinner with the really charming ones
(provided that we're not on the menu, of course).

Then there's Edgar. He doesn't have a human side. He's a bug. A really, really big one.

He's the main villain in the hit scifi comedy Men In Black, which also star a couple of guys named Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. But don't concentrate too much on them. Sure, they put in pretty good performances, but Edgar's the real star, and he makes the movie what it is...a lot of fun to watch.

Edgar is, as Jones describes him, "a massive cockroach with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper". But that doesn't mean he lacks a sense of humor. He's quick to dispatch a joke or a wisecrack, usually just before he dispatches with some pesky human that stands between him and his goal.  Edgar has come to earth from another planet seeking a small galaxy the size of a marble, a source of incredible power being held by some Arquillian Prince hiding on earth. Seems our planet has become a favorite destination for all kinds of illegal aliens (and I don't mean the kind that wait on our tables and pick our vegetables).

Smith and Jones, as agents J and K, have the unenviable task of stopping Edgar before he captures the galaxy and destroys earth. Not an easy task, since earth is still a big planet and Edgar is wearing a disguise. Edgar is played by Vincent D'Onofrio in a brilliant performance, and he handles the not so subtle personality of an insect with creepy humor and skill. This bug doesn't just make your skin crawl...he tears it off and wears it like a suit (it's his disguise). It's somewhat effective, although as time passes the flesh begins to peel and decay (the makeup artist for this movie has won seven Academy awards).

By the time the MIB's catch up with Edgar, he looks like he needs a lot more than just a shower and a shave. Once he's tracked down the galaxy, he heads for the nearest unlocked spaceship to make his getaway, hauling along an unwilling Linda Fiorentino, who plays the medical examiner. As Edgar explains to her, "It's a long trip. I'll need a snack".

All great villains have at least one redeeming feature, and Edgar is no exception. He's a family man and has quite a large one...75 million to be exact. He doesn't hesitate to stand up for the puny bugs on our planet either, and when some insensitive human kills a fly or sprays some insecticide around, Edgar squashes them like...well, like a bug. It isn't pretty, but it's kinda fun to watch.

In this scene where Edgar finally tracks down the galaxy, we get a look at most of the major characters at their best, with snappy dialogue and great acting.



In the end, the Men In Black rescue the galaxy, save earth and send Edgar to that big garbage dump in the sky. I was hoping he'd be resurrected for the sequel, but alas, it was not to be. The MIB franchise has three movies under it's belt, but the first one is still the best, in large part due to D'Onofrio's portrayal of Edgar. 


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Writers Born Today - Harlan Coben

It's the birthday of writer Harlan Coben, born January 4, 1962. Best known for his nail biting thrillers, he is the first author to win the Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony Awards. His novels have won praise from, among others, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, and of course, millions of readers. His likable protagonists and numerous plot twists stand out in much of his work.

Yet the man whose books have been published in 41 languages didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. After graduating from college he worked in the family travel business as a tour guide. This experience led to his first piece of writing, an autobiographical novel that was "self absorbed" and "pompous" as he described it in an interview with The Telegraph, and the manuscript failed to find a publisher. He scored modest success with a mystery featuring sports agent Myron Bolitar and wrote seven books in the series. His achieved best seller status when his switched from mystery to thriller with Tell No One. Since then his novels have been consistent best sellers.

Universal Studios bought the rights to Tell No One and rumor has it they are trying to sign Liam Neeson for the starring role. A French production was released in 2006 and garnered a positive review by Roger Ebert.

For a look at how Harlan writes a twist ending, read his tips in Writer's Digest. And check out The Atlantic magazine article for an in-depth look at his writing career.

And the three things you need to be a great writer, according to his interview with the Wall Street Journal? Inspiration, perspiration...and desperation.

"I love stories," he says. It shows.




Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year 2015! Toss some of these into your resolution list.


101 Things To Do Before You Die - For Crime Writers.

  1. Write a minimum of 500 words a day, every day of the year, every year, until you die.
  2. Subscribe to Crimespree magazine.
  3. Make the pilgrimage to Bouchercon.
  4. Take the Konrath Quiz!
  5. Read The Rap Sheet and then visit the links listed on the right sidebar…all 511 of them.
  6. Join Crimespace. Then go to Australia. Track down Daniel Hatadi (creator of Crimespace). Buy him a beer. Praise him highly in front of the other bar patrons (while you’re still sober, so they know you really mean it).
  7. Write your own obituary. It's your last chance to promote yourself (and keep the skeletons in your closet hidden).
  8. Read agent Janet Reid’s blog. If you get a chance to meet her at a writer’s conference, introduce yourself, and thank her for the priceless advice. Then shake her fin.
  9. This year, query three agents a week until you snag one. Start here and here.
  10. Get your mystery novel published.
  11. Then, join the Mystery Writers of America.
  12. Interview someone who is behind bars because of his/her crimes, OR interview a member of Congress who got elected because of his/her crimes.
  13. Visit San Francisco and stop at all the landmarks mentioned in the novels by Dashiell Hammett.
  14. Buy a bottle of Maker’s Mark. Sip it while you read the August Riordan PI series by Mark Coggins. Note: There are several books in the series…you may need more than one bottle.
  15. Get on a panel at a writer’s conference, as a moderator or participant & teach your fellow writers about a topic you’re an expert on or excited about.
  16. Learn how to kill someone with poison and get that story published.
  17. Read the noir novels of Dorothy B Hughes, including In A Lonely Place.
  18. Contact your local coroner and ask to witness an autopsy. Go on an empty stomach and take nose plugs.
  19. Write and publish a story from the killer’s point of view and make him/her sympathetic.
  20. Ditto from the victim’s point of view, but make him/her despicable.
  21. Meet Sarah Weinman, editor, crime fiction critic and commentator extraordinaire. Prostrate yourself before her while you chant “I’m not worthy!” Follow her on Twitter and browse her blog.
  22. Write a book review and get it published in your local newspaper, whether it’s the New York Times or the Small Town Gazette.
  23. Attend the Love is Murder conference in Chicago. If you see Hanley Kanar, the conference organizer, say hello and tell her "Thanks".
  24. Participate in National Novel Writing Month. One month...50,000 words. You can do it. More important, you'll learn from this.
  25. Read all of JA Konrath’s Jack Daniels novels. As you read each one, have a drink from the recipe in the front of the novel.
  26. Post a large map of the United States on your wall, cover your eyes, and throw a dart at it. Drive to the spot you struck, then write a crime story about the trip. Please note: The high cost of travel is not technically a crime.
  27. Join Sisters In Crime. They take men too.
  28. Meet Ben LeRoy of Tyrus Books (and the founder of Bleak House Books). Tell him thanks for publishing some great novels. Then buy a few and read them.
  29. Attend a pitch session at every writer’s conference you attend.
  30. Send an autographed copy of your novel to David J Montgomery, because those are the ones he keeps. Thank him. Read his blog, the Crime Fiction Dossier.
  31. Write a cozy, a police procedural and a thriller and get them each published under different pen  names.
  32. If you’ve never tasted it, try absinthe.
  33. Visit Hemmingway's home in Cuba.
  34. Research a high profile criminal case in your city. Go to the courthouse and arrange to see the trial transcript (it's in the public record). Then read it cover to cover.
  35. Learn to read a foreign language. Read a foreign language mystery novel in the original. Then translate it into English, or your native tongue.
  36. At your next writer’s conference, go to the lobby or main meeting room after all the panels are done and read one of your favorite mystery stories out loud, even if no one is listening.
  37. Meet Julie Hyzy and chat with her. Be inspired by her optimistic and bubbly personality (you can actually hear the bubbles in her voice…it’s quite amazing). Oh, and read her books, starting with State of the Onion. Ask her about being interviewed by the Secret Service. (This will happen when you do extensive online research about the layout of the White House).
  38. Visit the grave of Edgar Allen Poe, at night. Leave a rose.
  39. Write a story about your boss. Use a pen name (trust me on this one).
  40. Read Vanish by Tess Gerritsen. It’s the one she’ll be remembered for a hundred years hence.
  41. Create your own blog. Promote your writing. Don’t forget to credit the other writers who helped you along the way.
  42. Attend at least one writers conference a year. If you go to two or more, choose at least one you’ve never attended. The fresh faces you meet will energize your writing.
  43. Visit your local police department and ask to participate in a ride along one night to see your hometown through the eyes of a cop.
  44. Read Spinetingler Magazine.
  45. Each December create your own Top Ten List of favorite mystery novels published that year and post it on your blog. Exclude the best sellers. Give us something new.
  46. Plan the perfect crime...with one flaw. Then write a story about it. Hide the fatal flaw that catches the bad guy/girl until the very last sentence.
  47. Go to the library and stroll down the fiction aisles. Find a novel or collection of stories by a writer you’ve never heard of until this moment. Then check out the book and read it.
  48. Subscribe to the DorothyL website, or follow them on Facebook.
  49. Throughout the year keep track of all your writing-related expenses, including membership dues to MWA and SINC (yes, they're legitimate business expenses). Use them to reduce your writing income. Don't forget to calculate self-employment tax. Here's are some handy references, Schedule C Profit or Loss From Business and Instructions For Form 1099-MISC, compliments of the IRS.
  50. Send a copy of your published book and a handwritten fan letter to your favorite author, with return postage, and ask them to autograph it.
  51. Make a movie trailer for your first/next book release and post it on your blog and on Youtube.
  52. Check the obituaries to find recently deceased authors whose stories you've never read.
  53. Enter one writing contest a year with a novel length unpublished manuscript from your drawer.
  54. Serve on a jury.
  55. Read Sandra Scoppetone's Jack Early or Lauren Laurano series. Check out her blog, Sandra Scoppetone's Writing Thoughts.
  56. Join a writer's group and actively participate.
  57. For one month, take the bus or train to work. This alone will give you enough material for three  novels.
  58. Read A Newbie's Guide To Publishing, an invaluable guide for beginning writers. It's free and written by a published author who's paid his dues. 
  59. Ask your family doctor the most effective way to kill someone. Explain that you are a mystery writer before he/she reaches for the phone to dial 911.
  60. Send the FBI a request to see your file. (Don't laugh...you may have one). If you have one, they must give it to you by law.
  61. Subscribe to Mystery Scene magazine.
  62. Learn how to pick a lock. Warning: Practice on your lock only, or you'll be getting an FBI file sooner than you think!
  63. Teach an adult to read.
  64. Interview a member of your local law enforcement...a police officer, detective, prosecutor or judge. Publish the interview. If you can record the interview, post it as a podcast.
  65. Write a story in which the victim is murdered by a member of the animal kingdom.
  66. Every month, read at least one newspaper from each continent. For some suggestions, start here: AfricaAsiaAustraliaEuropeNorth AmericaSouth America, and Ireland (OK, so Ireland isn't a continent, but we have expats on every continent). Wants more choices? Click here for dozens of world newspapers.
  67. Pick one novel or story that the world cannot live without, and commit it to memory.
  68. Get your PI license. Fill out the application, study for the exam, and pass it.
  69. Write a crime story in which the weapon of choice is a computer connected to the internet.
  70. Take a literary vacation and visit the homes of your favorite authors.
  71. Review the police logs in your city. You may have to request these in person, so if you go to your local police station, make sure you have no outstanding warrants. (You would not believe how many people fumble this one).
  72. Go into the attic and dig out an old family photo that has a scene or family member who no one remembers or can name. Study the photo. Write their story. Include a crime.
  73. Eat right and get enough exercise. Writing takes stamina and besides, you'll need to live a long life to finish all the items on this list.
  74. Take a train trip across America. See this country from a vantage point other than an interstate highway. You'll see railroad yards, bustling factories, mighty rivers and breathtaking natural wonders. Gotta be a story in there somewhere.
  75. Take a tour of Alcatraz.
  76. Go to your local library and give a talk about your book or the mystery genre.
  77. Find an obscure and irrelevant law that is still on the books and write an article about it in your local paper. Try to get it repealed. (Eg: In Kansas City, MO, Minors are not allowed to purchase cap pistols, however they may buy shotguns freely.)
  78. Volunteer at your local church, homeless shelter or women's shelter.
  79. Learn to shoot and handle a gun. Take a gun safety course. Get your concealed carry permit, even if you don't own a firearm, just because you can.
  80. Spend a full day at the New York City Public Library main branch, browsing the shelves. Take a map, so you don't get lost.
  81. Who gets your royalties...Spouse? Children? The dog? Write a will, before you die. It's really hard to write one after. Do it now, or some stranger in a black robe will decide who gets what.
  82. Read Lee Lofland's blog, The Graveyard Shift on a regular basis. The tips will make you a better crime writer.
  83. There are over 10,000 pieces of artwork still missing from the looting of Europe in World War II, by both Allied and the Axis nations. Behind each one is a crime story. Write one, fiction or non-fiction.
  84. Keep a journal.
  85. Learn how to identify edible plants and poison mushrooms. Go on a mushroom hunt. Cook your harvest (have an expert check it). Write the story. Include a crime.
  86. Broaden your horizon by following the blog, Detectives Without Borders.
  87. Write a crime poem.
  88. Visit the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, D.C. 
  89. Listen to some Crime Jazz while you write. Click here for a good example, from the original movie version, The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three.
  90. Commit to memory the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution (the Bill of Rights). Pick one and use it as the basis of a crime story.
  91. Write a story about international smuggling, using one of the Big Three: Drugs, Wildlife, or People.
  92. For a fascinating look at the history of crime in America, check out the FBI's website, especially the page on Famous Cases and Criminals. For a current look at crime in action, stop by Congress while it's in session.
  93. Keep a copy of George Orwell's Essay, Politics and the English Language, at hand while you write. Re-read it as needed.
  94. Take a class at your local college in Criminal Justice. If you have some expertise, try to arrange to teach a class.
  95. Once a year, check out Writer's Digest list of “101 Best Websites For Writers”.
  96. Interview a power line repairman or telephone repairman. Ask them to tell you their stories. You'll be amazed at what they've seen.
  97. Go on a writer's retreat for at least a week. Leave the retreat's phone number with family for emergencies only. Turn your cellphone off. Do nothing for 7 days but write, eat, sleep and occasionally walk around. No internet, no TV. (You can read the local paper). Just write. Oh, and don't forget to breath...deeply. Very important.
  98. Don't give up on a novel or story until you have at least 50 rejections. Then set it aside and work on something else. Let it ferment (better yet, use it for compost).
  99. Learn to accept constructive criticism. Your editor and agent are not the enemy. Your enemy is that blank screen in front of you.
  100. Got your epitaph finished? Keep it simple, but memorable. Inject some humor. Here's mine:

 SEE YOU SOON.