Category Archives: Other Stories

Reviews of non-book storytelling

The Profiler, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, The Maltese Falcon

Pat Brown, The Profiler
As you know, Bob, I have both a ridiculous fascination with true crime stories and a distaste for sensationalizing, victim-blaming crap. Profiling books are the best of both worlds: lots of serial killers, little to no sensationalizing crap. Pat Brown is a self-made profiler: she started when she became convinced that a boarder in her house had killed a girl in her hometown. Now she’s a successful private detective and independent profiler. I have to compare her book to John Douglas’s, since I’ve read so many of his, and the biggest contrast I found was that Douglas refuses to talk about cases that haven’t been closed. He only names killers he’s profiled where the case ended in a conviction. None of Brown’s cases (that she talked about in the book) ended in conviction; most of them didn’t even end with the arrest of the person she names as the probable killer. I can see the ethical arguments behind both approaches, and it’s an issue I’m glad I don’t have to deal with personally.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
I think this is where the series really starts to get its feet under itself. This is a book with themes, with a solid and complex mystery, and with a truly impressive cast of characters. (I did miss Miss Climpson, though.) General Fentiman is found dead in his club on Armistice Day (which must have been a much different thing in 1928 than it is now) and a large inheritance turns upon the exact time of his death, which Lord Peter investigates (until he is investigating, of course, the murder). It’s very much a book about the aftereffects of the War; nearly all the members of the club are veterans, but the younger men who served in the Great War have a vastly different perspective than their older colleagues (and ancestors — one of the most interesting characters is George Fentiman, the General’s grandson, who suffers spectacularly from shell-shock).

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
I am absolutely astounded at how close the movie is to the book in almost every way. Of course, Hammett’s dialogue is incredible, why wouldn’t you lift it directly? (I noticed the same thing in the film version of The Thin Man.) The plot gets a little twistier in the book in the last half, but it’s definitely one of the most faithful film adaptations I’ve ever seen. …Sorry, this is a book review, not a film review. Hammett practically invented the hard-boiled detective genre with this book, and while Chandler and many others have done it differently, I’m not sure you could say they’ve done it better. It’s not so much the mystery that’s compelling in this book – by halfway through all the players have been introduced and there’s no real question of who killed Archer and Thursby – but the way Sam Spade plays with the other characters. He’s profoundly in control of himself, in the face of two of the most profound (and classic noir) temptations: sex and money. But then, as he says, when a guy’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.

Chinatown, The Two Jakes, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

So a couple of weeks ago I realized that I needed a plot for a story I was writing, and that the plot of Chinatown would work perfectly well. “Hey Jen,” I said to myself, “aren’t there sequels to Chinatown that you’ve been meaning to watch?” And there are. So I had a Chinatown marathon last week. It was awesome.

Film buffs don’t need me to say anything about Chinatown, it’s a classic, and deservedly so. Non-film-buffs, particularly people like me who distrust the “classic” label on movies, should know this: it’s amazing. I mean, enthralling and mindblowing and a really, truly excellent piece of noir fiction. Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective in 1930s Los Angeles, who stumbles upon something a little bit bigger than his usual divorce-investigation cases. And, being the heart-of-gold kind of bastard that he is, he just can’t let it go. If you like hardboiled detective stories and have never (for some unfathomable reason) seen Chinatown, go out and see it right now.

And it’s technically perfect, too. Say what you will about Roman Polanski (and there are a lot of things to say about him, many of them horrible), he’s a brilliant director. Chinatown is an amazingly taut piece of filmmaking; there is not a single frame, not a single line of dialog, that isn’t necessary. It makes it a little brutal to watch – particularly with that ending – but unmistakably genius. I have to say I didn’t realize how excellent it was until I started making notes on the plot structure. It’s seamless, despite the severe tone shift in the last third of the movie that turns it from a noir to a gothic piece. (That was where I first saw Chinatown – in a class on Gothic literature.)

Much less well-known are the sequels to Chinatown. The first is The Two Jakes, starring and directed by Jack Nicholson some sixteen years after Chinatown was released, and it bombed in the theaters. I can see why, to be honest. The problem with The Two Jakes is, like the rest of its structure, twofold. First is that it makes no sense unless you’ve seen Chinatown, and fairly recently. It’s a direct sequel, and most of Jake Gittes’ reactions are meaningless unless you recognize his flashbacks. And the second problem is that The Two Jakes can only suffer by the comparison. It’s not nearly as tight as Chinatown, rambling a little more between its converging plot arcs and incorporating more characters. And Gittes is, if anything, much less likable than in the first movie, and he wasn’t that charming to begin with.

That’s a problem with the movie qua movie. The other problem I had with it was that I just didn’t care about the two main characters at all. It is, at heart (without spoiling too much of the story), a movie about two guys trying to protect a woman by not telling her anything. And I keep looking at the woman and thinking, She deserves better than this. I have to say, at least it is a solid enough piece of writing that you don’t have to ignore anything or do damage to any of the characters to read it that way; everyone in the movie is a very realistic person. But the movie wants you to sympathize with the men, and I just can’t.

Enlightened readers are now looking at the title of the post and thinking, really? Really. The third planned film in the trilogy was to be called Gittes vs. Gittes, and follow both Jake’s divorce and another Los Angeles public works nightmare – a land grab. This second plot was turned into the villain’s motivation in the spectacular Disney live action/animation squish Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

(The clerk laughed at me when I checked all three movies out at the library, saying I was going to have a noir movie marathon. I was serious!)

I have to say, although Who Framed Roger Rabbit? isn’t strictly a noir picture (it has too happy of an ending), it does a credible job. You’ve got your seedy detective with a tragic past, your femme fatale, your ignorant but useful client, and an over-the-top villain with a wonderfully mundane evil plan. Using the third Chinatown plot for a movie about cartoon characters at war with one another? Genius. And then there’s that ending. Sure, it’s a happy ending in the world of the movie…but the evil plot they subverted there is one that came to pass in the world we live in. It’s nothing like as brutal as the end of Chinatown, or even The Two Jakes, but it does have a little sting in the tail, nonetheless. If you haven’t seen this movie since you were a kid, I highly recommend checking it out again.

30 Days of Books: Day Fifteen

Day 15 – Your “comfort” book

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse. There is nothing, nothing in the world happier than Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, and when I’m feeling at my absolute worst, I turn to Wodehouse. (Most often it’s Code of the Woosters, but I’m also fond of the collection Carry On Jeeves.) 

I read an article once where the author said that he did not think he could remain friends with someone who didn’t like Wodehouse. He could forgive not having read Wodehouse yet, but if you’d read him and disliked him, well, that was it. I read another article once where someone mentioned that if Oscar Wilde put all his genius into his life and only his talent into his art, P.G. Wodehouse put both his talent and his genius into his art, and we are all very grateful for it.

Wodehouse stories are wonderful, charming, entirely inconsequential tales of the lives of wealthy young people in a mythical England sometime in the early part of the twentieth century. Their lives are never interrupted by the War, and they are almost universally either silly, foolish, or downright idiotic. The genius is in the plotting: each story starts out with one small disaster (a romantic crush, or an unwanted engagement, usually) and snowballs from there until it seems impossible that anyone should survive (without being thrown in jail overnight, forced to marry someone who wishes for them to read improving books, or being fined five pounds for the theft of a policeman’s helmet). And yet, somehow, they always do, usually through the offices of the inimitable Jeeves.

The other genius is in the dialogue; Wodehouse has a firm grip on the slang of the nineteen-teens, and he never lets go of it. Bertie Wooster in particular shows all the signs of having had a classical education without it ever having really sunk in properly. (My absolute favorite of his is an abbreviation of Kipling — “The F of the S is more D than the M, wot?”) As a result, he comes off as some combination of well-read and a bit dim, and absolutely charming. Bertie’s greatest enemies are aunts, and his worst fear is their collaboration, “aunt bellowing to aunt like mastadons across a primeval plain.” 

I must also recommend the Granada TV series (like Nero Wolfe, I discovered these books through the adaptations first), with Hugh Laurie playing Bertie and Stephen Fry as Jeeves, but only the first three seasons of such. The fourth season does not exist.

30 Days of Books: Day Four

Day 04 – Your favorite book or series ever

Whoops, missed a day, largely because we’re coming up to a series of prompts I don’t really know how to deal with. Remember how, on Day One, I said that I’m really bad with “favorite”s and not to believe anything I put down as one? This would be one of the prompts I stared at for hours thinking “I DON’T EVEN,” and eventually I decided the heck with it, I’ll just write about something I’ve been reading lately. So just throw out the “favorite ever” part of this prompt and bear with me while I ramble on about books I like.

I’ve become enamored lately of John Douglas’s books about being an FBI profiler. Co-written with Mark Olshaker, these go into the basics of criminal profiling and break down categories of profiles. I’ve always been kind of interested in true crime, largely because I’m interested in people, and I think you can’t really understand something until you understand how it fails. Serial killers pretty much qualify as the failure state of humanity. Most true crime, though, particularly books about serial killers, tends to be really exploitative; they’re not about people, they’re about blood and guts and shocking! truths!

Though he gets a little melodramatic at times, Douglas is really good at treating people like people. It’s part of the reason I like profiling so much, even though I’ve read the studies that say it’s never actually been all that useful in criminal investigations or prosecutions. Most of the criminal justice system functions in one of two modes: either you’re Putting Bad People Away, or it’s a kind of game, a system where you get points for winning at something. Profiling is about treating everyone, criminals and victims alike, as people who had reasons for whatever they were doing, even if their reasons, quite frankly, sucked. It makes the monsters human again, and I think it’s important to remember that people we can call monsters are not necessarily that different from us. (It also makes the victims human again. My favorite Douglas book for this is Obsession, which my roommate and I call The Rape Book. Douglas’s rage about victim-blaming, particularly the type that happens in the courts, is righteous and amazing.)

And, okay, I would not be honest if I did not admit that I started reading these books because I freaking love Criminal Minds, and David Rossi is clearly based on John Douglas. (I swear I can hear Joe Mantegna in my head when I read them.) If I do a 30 Days of Television when I’m done with 30 Days of Books, like I’ve been thinking about doing, there’s a real chance it’ll be All Criminal Minds, All The Time. But I’ve never seen another crime show that so consistently treats every single character as a human being, with writing so consistantly challenging and demanding and downright awesome. So, if you are like me and find serial killers morbidly fascinating (and not just for the blood), a dual recommendation. Start with Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (Seriously, John, Mindhunter? What a terrible title), and continue with Criminal Minds. Start with season one and give it at least a full disc of episodes. You’ll thank me for it eventually.

Book of the Month: The Unicorn Evils by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull

I looked through the books I’d read last month, and it turns out that this was the one I enjoyed the most. It’s not a traditional book, you won’t find it in a library or a bookstore (at least not yet), but it is the latest installment in one of my favorite new series.

Followers of fantasy & speculative fiction should know Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull already. Bull basically invented the genre of urban fantasy with her 1987 War for the Oaks, and Bear has been churning out revolutionary work for the past several years. (Her latest, Chill, is finally out!) Together they are two of the co-creators of Shadow Unit, a free online fiction project that combines an interesting new use of social media for storytelling and some really, really good writing.

Shadow Unit ScreenshotShadow Unit is a little hard to describe, although it makes plenty of sense if you just dive in. (Start with the Getting Started page — the homepage lists the most recent works first.) It’s kind of like a fake TV show: each large installment is an “episode,” and there are deleted scenes posted as “DVD Extras” in between episodes (and sometimes as hidden links within them). At the same time, some of the characters maintain personal blogs on LiveJournal — but the LiveJournals are contemporary with the current date, while the episodes are often dated a year or more in the past, so although the characters don’t discuss plot points explicitly before they happen, these things will influence their conversations (and give readers plenty of hints to drive themselves crazy with while waiting for a new episode).

The Unicorn Evils is one of several novel-length episodes of Shadow Unit, the premiere of the third season, and a stellar example of serial storytelling done well. Over the previous dozen episodes and hundreds of LiveJournal posts we’ve grown attached to these characters, come to know them and feel for their problems, and now they’re beginning to take it all apart. (Both Bear and Bull tend to be horrible to their favorite characters, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of their other work; Shadow Unit is no different.) This isn’t an episode to start with, but it is one to look forward to. While Shadow Unit is a crime procedural (in the spirit of Criminal Minds rather than CSI), and there’s a great deal of grotesque fun in cataloging serial killers, the real heart of the project is the characters. Oh, it’s a terrible cliche to say it, but it’s true — I could care less about the plot of the next episode (I know it’ll be good), but I want to know if Reyes and Chaz are getting along this week, how Sol is taking retirement, how much Daphne’s improved at taking herself seriously in the field.

I know it’s hard for libraries to collect digital works: they don’t go through the same kind of quality control process that print does, and they’re not listed in catalogs or purchasing orders. If a library wanted to start collecting online fiction though, or was just interested in more intense, thoughtful speculative fiction with plenty of racially, sexually and gender-diverse characters, written by award-winning authors, they could do a lot worse than by starting with Shadow Unit.

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