Thursday, February 21, 2013

Of Concrete Blondes and the Garden of Earthly Delights

"Try The Concrete Blonde," the homeless guy told me. "It's really good, and, besides, Slick Willie likes it."

"Slick Willie?"

"Yeah, Slick Willie...ya know -- Clinton," he said with a deep chuckle. "Some popza snapped a pic with the Blonde under his arm. At least Hillary can't chuck him in the doghouse 'bout this babe cuz she's just a book; Connelly's books don't suck."

It was sometime in the mid-90s, dusk had settled on the City by the Sea, and the homeless guy was a fellow I often saw at the Library on Fridays, which was when the Friends of the Library had their book sales. Larry, the homeless guy, and me might be worlds apart on most everything, but we could talk books, and often did.

As usual, I was extolling the virtues of mystery writers decades entombed, and venting about the lack of good modern writers. Sure, you had your Joe Wambaughs, Elmore Leonards, and Robert Parkers. but where were the Ellery Queens, Rex Stouts and John Dickson Carrs? Where were the J.J. Marrics? The Leslie Charterises? The Raymond Chandlers? Sure, thrillers and action and bloodletting by the gallon, but where were the writers who still practiced in the classic mode, still believed in fair play, still had their knights of justice patrol mean streets without themselves being touched by the darkness? So, he suggested The Concrete Blonde, Michael Connelly's third book chronicling the world of LAPD Detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch, the first two being Black Echo (1992) and Black Ice (1993). I read it, and Larry was right -- Connelly's book didn't suck.

Michael Connelly (l), playing poker with (l to r) James Patterson, Stephen J. Cannell,
and the supposedly fictional mystery author Richard Castle.
Michael Connelly, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has managed to write a Harry Bosch novel every year or two, totally to 19 with the publication of The Gods of Guilt in 2013. In a recent interview with Mystery Scene Magazine, Connelly said, "When I wrote my first novel twenty years ago, I never guessed that I'd be writing about the same character twenty years later."

Two paintings by artist Hieronymus Bosch, after whom Connelly's detective was named. Though
Bosch lived hundreds of years ago, one could almost believe he had seen modern Los Angeles.
Harry Bosch, a Vietnam vet, has a moral code that has kept him out of trouble as often as it has plunged him into trouble. When Connelly wrote Black Echo -- he was still a crime reporter with the Times who depended upon the good will of the LAPD for him to do his job -- he worried that the book might alienate his police contacts, but, as it turned out, the opposite was true. The good cops either saw themselves in Harry Bosch or saw someone they would want to be, a modern knight errant who walked through tides of evil without being sucked under.

Over the years, I've read all the Harry Bosch novels, though not always in the order written (there were some spoilers but nothing egregious), and I have to admit to being very fond of Harry. Bosch is yet another example of why our best heroes are fictional. And he's become quite real to many people.
Harry Bosch's house overlooking the Hollywood Freeway.
Not only is Harry Bosch fully fleshed out as a character, but the Los Angeles through which he moves is the same darkness-infested city in which Connelly worked as a crime reporter, a city revealed to perfection in the video Blue Neon Nights: Michael Connelly's Los Angeles, a promotion received by those who bought The Narrows (2004); one of the most interesting moments in that video is when Chief of Police William J. Bratton announces at an official function that Harry Bosch, who had retired due to moral conflicts, would return to the LAPD thanks to a special program that allowed recently retired detectives to work for a limited time at their old jobs. As far as I know, that is the only time a fictional character (or is he fictional?) was asked by the LAPD to return to duty. If that does not impart a sense of verisimilitude to Harry Bosch beyond what can be reasonably expected through an author's mere words, I don't know what does. Unlike other series detectives (such as Nero Wolfe or Ellery Queen), Harry Bosch always works in the present, and ages at a normal rate -- the debacle with Rodney King happened just as long ago for Harry as for us. Lacking flashbacks and stories set in earlier times (as Conan Doyle did with The Hound of the Baskervilles), we can expect the last Harry Bosch novel to be sometime around 2016, when his new retirement date (it has already been extended twice and is at the maximum allowed) goes into effect. One hopes that it will not, of course, be the end of Harry Bosch, but all things, good and bad, must eventually's the way of the world, even, it seems, in Harry Bosch's world.

Harry Bosch's Los Angeles is so real, you can map it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

It's a Noir Noir World

Akashic Books is an independent publisher based in Brooklyn, N.Y., so it's quite appropriate that in 2004 it started its widely acclaimed noir anthology series with a collection of short stories set in their own backyard. Since then, the company has published about fifty anthologies set in various cities in the US and around the world; some cities are so filled with darkness, crime and desperation that Akashic has re-visited them with a second anthology -- San Francisco, Los Angeles (of course!), Manhattan, Brooklyn (three, actually), Boston, and Washington D.C.

Noir is from the French and means black, (you know, like how real coffee is supposed to be) and was first applied to pre- and post-war crime films that abounded in shadows, dark streets, femme fatales, and world-weary gumshoes willing to battle evil for thirty bucks a day, plus expenses. From the silver screen, it's just a hop and a skip down a grimy alley to the printed page. It's no use trying to define what noir is, if only because everyone has his own idea of what it is (and isn't), what is central to the genre and what's out of bounds, so anyone who tries to pin it down is a fool...but we're all fools from time to time, especially me. All that anybody can be sure of, if you're a fan of noir fiction, you need a steady and reliable supply, and if you don't get it, you're like a grifter without a con, or a tout without a racing form.

If you're looking for noir fiction to go along with your bourbons on the rocks, there are always plenty of novels from which to choose, from the works of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith to modern practitioners like James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly. But for short fiction? We find our way back to Akashic Books. Since the anthologies are themed by geography, the stories are a form of regionalism, but with the emphasis on crime, hustlers and dames, the stories are not the sort likely to ever have come from the pens of Robert Frost, Edith Wharton or August Derleth. The appeal of Akashic's approach is that you can probably find the city you live in (or near), a city you've visited (or wanted to), or a city that is the equivalent of a "soul-mate." The drawback, of course, is that if you go solely by city preferences then you might miss a killer story.

The world being what it is, the United States is not the only place you'll find desperate characters, and Akashic has several titles to prove it. Now, an argument can be made that it's all really just a marketing gimmick, a ploy to get you buy books that you might otherwise pass by, that since every story must have a setting, it really doesn't matter where they're set. But that's not the case when regionalism and noir collide, for a tale of lust and desperation set among the surfers and dog-walkers of San Diego's Ocean Beach can't be transplanted to Brooklyn's Brighton Beach with its middle class Jews and Russian Mafia ex-pats; a crime story with the tempo of Soho  neon just doesn't work in Istanbul's ancient backstreets. When regionalistic noir works (and it does in Akashic's series much more often than not) we end up with a gritty and fascinating tale that could not be set anywhere else but where it's set, a story where the city is integral to the plot and is just as much a character as any guy or doll. Several volumes are in the planning stages at Akashic, with one, USA Noir, scheduled for release on 5 November 2013. Until then, find your noir city and settle down to some great reads. After all, it's a noir noir world...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Honoring Local Authors: San Diego

Me and a defenseless sign that could not run away

Last night (1 February 2013), I attended a reception at the San Diego Public Library. The occasion was the 47th Annual Local Authors Exhibit, recognizing those who had had books published (including e-books) during 2012. I was in good company, as there were some 330 authors, representing more than 400 books. The display is open to the public 1 February 2013 - 3 March 2013, and the Library is located at 820 E Street, downtown San Diego.

Yes, there it is, the real reason everyone was see
a copy of Paws & Claws: A Three Dog Mystery.
The range of books was nothing short of amazing -- fiction of all sorts, memoirs, biography, satire, history, science, cookbooks, children's and Young Adult, self-help, health, religion & spirituality, geography, crafts, animals, literature, poetry, and politics. The writers themselves were just as varied, of all races, religions, creeds, and classes. Experience ranged from the professional with dozens of best-sellers under his belt, to the first-time author. The youngest of the group was a lad of just 9 years, and the oldest was...well, the truth is, as long as it wasn't me I'm just fine with any geezer who wants to claim that title. Though I am not much of a schmoozer, I did get a chance to talk with a great many people in attendance, and like all authors they were more than happy to talk about their creations, very much like proud mamas and papas attending the school play, and seeing their own child as the best of the lot.

G. George, the author of Another Job, and me, standing in front of
a promotional banner for his book outside the Library.
One of the beaming writers was G. George, who wrote the spiritual novel Another Job, the story of a family who suffers through the sort of trials and tribulations that afflicted the Biblical Job, a man whose faith in God was tested sorely, who not only had to suffer the ills tossed him by the Devil, but also the best intentions of his friends. G is a good example of the writer who believes in himself and his book, and is not shy about promoting both. Outside the Library he erected a very large promotional screen and displayed some posters, and was passing out some very well-designed book-markers to everyone as we waited in line to be processed in. No matter what you think of his book (and it seems great to me from what I've read so far) it's hard to argue with such enthusiasm and confidence. G's book is available in hardcover, softcover, and as an e-book, from your local bookstore (if you still have one near you) and the current Goliath of booksellers, Amazon.

Most books were displayed flat in  floor cases

The Pros
Some of the books were spotlighted in smaller cases

Someone mentioned "free food" and authors came running; the only thing that would have caused a bigger rush is if someone had said "free booze"
The medal

More display cases, and the authors in line to be awarded their medals.

The most interesting aspect of the evening to me was the increase in the number of writers present and books written over years past. When I was still with the Friends of the Library and was responsible for writing the checks (neither the City nor the Library uses tax money for this), the number of books submitted was well under two hundred, and had decreased from the previous year. Not being involved with the planning of this year's event I was caught unawares, and was a little shocked, by the increase. What's the reason for it? Well, it's certainly not the economy -- moribund is much too optimistic a description of current conditions, and at least 40% of the population is unemployed. And it can't be because of a surfeit of bookstores -- Borders bit the dust, as did Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble just announced they're closing at least 60 stores. Are people reading more? I know that people who had given up reading are now getting back into the habit, and mostly because of e-books. And self-publishing is now easier and more economical (especially on Amazon's Create-Space platform) and is not considered such a banal act of vanity as it once was. Then there's social media, which can spread information about a new book just as fast as friends, and friend-of-friends-of-friends, can click "like." Even well-established authors find it beneficial (even necessary) to have a Facebook page. Regular readers know I have often decried the rise of electronic publishing, considering it a factor in the end of civilization as we know it; while my Luddite heart still tells me I am right, it also seems to be whispering, "It may not be all that bad after all."