A Wonderful Year

You know the old saw: if you fall off a horse, get back on right away, or your fear will talk you out of it. As someone who grew up with horses, I can testify to the truth of this particular bit of hoary wisdom.

I’ve fallen off of Writing in the Dark of late. And–though it’s partly due to my impacted schedule of writing deadlines (my third novel), book tours, conferences and promotion–not to mention a day job and ubiquitous chores–it’s partly my fault, too. I’m a perfectionist–I like my blog to be a miniature sketch, complete with images, and if I’m too tired or too harried to make it that way, I tend to put it off.

Well, no longer. I’m also not one for resolutions (I detest the damn things), so call this a realization. The truth is that if I wait until I have the time, I’ll never get it done. I’ll be around more often and more consistently next year … and in the meantime, here’s what I’ve been doing:

October was Bouchercon. Crimespree’s Jon and Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobalik did a superhuman and tremendous job–nirvana for a conference junkie like me. I participated in two panels (one as moderator) and a marvelous author’s showcase with a group of buddies. Had a blast with a lot of friends. Attended my first Shamus dinner, paid respects to Mr. Poe. About the only thing I missed was hanging out with Sandra Ruttan and having coffee with Declan Burke–both of which are must-dos the next chance I get.

After B-con I was the guest of the lovely Sisters in Crime in Sacramento, participated in a library panel in Corcord, was the guest on an hour-long radio segment of Goddess Radio (American First Radio and KCAA San Bernadino) with Midnight Bookworm Vin Smith and Panney Wei, was the guest SinC speaker at the Gilroy library, read at the SinC Fall Soiree at San Francisco’s Books Inc, celebrated the 100th birthday of John’s Grill (home of The Maltese Falcon), and rang in holiday cheer at the annual MWA/SinC party at M is for Mystery.

I also finished my third book–a very dark, sweeping PI novel set in 1940 San Francisco. A big book. We’re hoping to see it with a big publisher, so we’re crossing everything that can be crossed, and a few things that probably shouldn’t be.

The year has been capped with a homecoming. I grew up in northern Mendocino/southern Humboldt Counties (northern California)–spent junior high and high school there. My parents live in the northern part of the county now, near Eureka. I had a signing at Borders in Eureka after Christmas that was more like a party and reunion–old friends from high school, former teachers, friends I haven’t seen in more than twenty years, colleagues who volunteer with my mom. David Dun, best-selling thriller author, Treasurer and one of the wonderful founders of ITW (International Thriller Writers) has a home in the area, and came to cheer me on–it was amazing and truly special! The Eureka Times Standard did me the honor of placing NOX on the front page, too–here’s the link:

After the signing, I was the guest at the lovely home of a lovely woman who hosts a book club. In one of those “it’s a small world” moments, I learned that Marsha Hunt–whose grace, radiance and star turn in Eddie Muller’s The Grand Inquisitor I wrote about last January (it’s almost time for the next Noir City!)–had also been a guest. I met a friend of Ms. Hunt’s and an absolutely lovely group of ladies. What a fantastic way to close the year.

For me, 2008 will always be the year my first book was published. It’s been quite a journey. It has been an honor to meet readers, booksellers and librarians–an honor to know people in places I’ve never been and may never see are reading NOX DORMIENDA. It leaves me with a breathless feeling, one of gratitude and humility.

I’m extraordinarily thankful to be a part of the writing community … friends and colleagues so talented, generous and giving that I wind up feeling like George Bailey every day. As I look ahead to 2009–with a new grog to debut soon (more details next week!), more work with MWA and ITW and SinC, another novel to research, and the second Arcturus book to revise–and hope on the horizon for a contract with a bigger house–I’m thankful to be where I am, ensconced in what is–to me–a wonderful life.

Thanks, all of you, for making 2008 a year to remember! Happy New Year–here’s to a great 2009! 🙂

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A Killer Double Feature

This weekend, I was faced with preparing for BookExpo America, for which I am traveling to Los Angeles this week (I’ll be signing and giving away advanced reading copies of my book at the Mystery Writers of America booth). But I also had some fun on Saturday: I traveled to the East Bay, to see a double feature of The Killers (one of the all-time great noirs) and Eddie Muller’s neo-noir short classic, The Grand Inquisitor.

To make the package even more irresistible, the movies were screened at a fantastic theater: the Cerrito, a restored 1937 deco masterpiece in downtown El Cerrito. Saved from the greedy, amoral hands of developers by the Friends of the Cerrito Theater, a grass-roots non-profit, and later purchased by the city itself, the Cerrito is a Speakeasy Theater … and as anyone who knows me can attest, I can’t resist anything calling itself a speakeasy.

What it means in this context is that film-goers have the option of lounging in comfortable couches and armchairs, snuggling and eating delicious pizza or salad or nachos with a big bowl of buttered popcorn. You can even get a bottle or glass of wine or beer, and make it date night–in fact, one of the best packages is “The Cheap Date,” a $35 deal which includes two admissions, a medium pizza with three toppings (home-tossed and delicious!) a big bowl of popcorn and a bottle of wine or two large beers. As they say in Kansas (or should, anyway) — that ain’t hay.

The Cerrito is a model of what can be done to make historic theaters viable business venues, whether for time-worn classics or today’s (mostly forgettable) fare. Of course, it depends on the spirit of the community, and I take my hat off to the can-do citizens of El Cerrito.

Now, I reviewed The Grand Inquisitor back in January, the day after its debut at Noir City. And as great as it was on first showing, the film, like fine wine, only improves with another sip.

Eddie Muller is the most modest genius I know. And I don’t use the word lightly. The man has just finished a run with the Thrillpeddlers’ production of a lost Noel Coward play (also reviewed in Writing in the Dark), writes brilliant fiction (The Distance, Shadow Boxer), classic non-fiction (Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) and knows more about film noir than anyone, with the possible exception of Bertrand Tavernier, though I’d still bet on Eddie for the Jeopardy championship.

In fact, Eddie has just returned from a trip to Paris, where he was feted by the French and where he screened The Grand Inquisitor (the audience included Tavernier). The Distance was recently published in France as Mister Boxe, and Lire magazine called it the Thriller of the Year. His film was also shown three times as part of the prestigious San Francisco International Film Festival. So yeah — I don’t speak lightly. Eddie is not just the Czar of Noir (founder and President of the Film Noir Foundation) … he’s its Leonardo da Vinci.

If you get a chance to see The Grand Inquisitor, don’t miss it. Just to take one element of the twenty-minute film (other than the outstanding acting by screen goddess Marsha Hunt and newcomer Leah Dashe): the mise-en-scene and art direction (please forgive the lack of accents) is amazing. On my first viewing, I was so awestruck by Marsha’s incredible performance (and Eddie’s pacing and framing), that I hadn’t realized subtle clues adding to the film’s mystery and claustrophobic atmosphere … notice the pill bottles here and there in the opening shot’s of Lulu’s bedroom. Notice the dense, smoke-filled, shut-in feeling of the house. Notice the stacks of newspapers, unread, that fill the space behind Marsha as she sits in her chair.

Small things can add up to greatness, and The Grand Inquisitor is one great movie. To make matters even more chilling, Eddie’s short story (published in the sublime anthology A Hell of a Woman, edited by Megan Abbott) upon which the film is based, is, in turn, based on some actual non-fiction discoveries he made while prowling through bookstores. Names have been changed to protect the possibly guilty.

What would you do if you think you may have found the Zodiac killer’s notebooks? See The Grand Inquisitor for a possible answer.

The second half of the evening was filled with magnificent views of a young Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), beautifully directed by Robert Siodmak. The flash back structure of this film makes it a detective story within a noir tale of greed and lust and amour fou.

Siodmak’s camera lingers lovingly on the drop-dead beauty of his stars (and neither ever looked better) … in a memorable shot from the first meeting of Lancaster (The Swede) and Gardner (Kitty) , a burning lamp filament juts phallically between them, glowing violently … and it is the raw, animal charisma of these two that drives the film forward. It’s almost like watching a nature show.

The casting of pudgy, middle-aged Albert Dekker (Big Jim) as Ava’s other love interest makes their relationship feel physically and morally wrong, as if it’s a crime against biology. Other careful casting enriches the minor roles:William Conrad and noir favorite Charles McGraw play the eponymous hired hitmen, Jack Lambert enlivens Dum-Dum, Vince Barnett portrays Charleston, the star-gazing thief, and Queenie Smith gives a touching, memorable turn as the maid. Sam Levene, so memorable in Brute Force, another Lancaster noir classic, and as the victim in Crossfire, makes a likable, believable cop. Virginia Christine, whom you may remember as Maxwell House’s Mrs. Olsen, is the good girl. Even Edmund O’Brien, who often overacts, delivers the goods as the insurance investigator.

This is a film to be savored–like 70-year old Scotch. If you get a chance to see it on the big screen, do … and Eddie reported the good news that the film has been restored by the studio, which bodes well for a future release.

Walking out of the theater–and the movies played to a full house–I overheard a group of people talk excitedly about how wonderful The Killers was.

So move over, Indiana. We love you, too, but when cinema can compel new generations of movie-goers to laugh, cry, bite their fingernails or applaud after sixty years, that’s a real box-office winner.

Next: I’ll be at BEA next weekend, and will attempt to blog if I don’t get lost in all the hullabaloo!

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The Big House … Noir City at the Castro

Back again, with a tale already legendary … and I don’t mean the ones up on the screen.

Saturday, January 26th, was the biggest night in Noir City history … the entire 1,400 seat Castro Theater was sold out. Yup, that many people crawled out on a rainy San Francisco night to pay tribute in the Dark, and boy, were they happy to do it.

Last night was not only the most successful evening in seven years of hot femme and homme fatales serving up cold revenge … it was palpably the most exciting. An embarrassing treasure chest of noir riches awaited the denizens, and it wasn’t filled with fools gold, angel face.

First, the noir anthology of the season, A Hell of a Woman–edited by Noir Queen Megan Abbott and filled with some of the finest writers of this or any era–was on sale in the mezzanine courtesy of the fabulous M is for Mystery bookstore–ready to be signed, sealed and delivered by the editor, publisher Dave Thompson and some of the writers in attendance. Ken Bruen, Cornelia Read, Christa Faust, Donna Moore, and the Czar himself, Eddie, are a few of the authors who contributed … I’m lucky to live in a great writing community in the Bay Area, and even luckier to call some of them friends. They make me proud to be a writer.

Next, The Prowler. This unflinchingly harsh examination of bourgeois materialism and the abuse of authority is one of Dalton Trumbo’s finest efforts. Already blacklisted, his name wasn’t on the screen, but his thoughts, courage and honesty were in every line.

This movie was nearly lost–I saw the unrestored version a few years ago at the Balboa Theater–and, thanks to the Film Noir Foundation and noir-loving ticket buyers, The Prowler is back, better than ever. The restored print was amazing, and Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes give the performances of their careers. If you ever get a chance to see this one … don’t miss it.

But that’s not all! Before the film, James Ellroy (yeah, that James Ellroy) introduced it to the audience. He contributed money to save the movie, and spoke in Ellroyese about many things, mostly sex. Love him or hate him, the truth is you can’t ignore him, and he filled the house with an inimitable energy–all 1,400 seats.

After The Prowler was the main reason I think the house was full: The Grand Inquisitor, and that actress of actresses, the amazing, wonderful and generous Marsha Hunt. Here’s the scoop, if you haven’t heard it. Remember I mentioned Eddie M. wrote a short story for A Hell of a Woman? Well, that was The Grand Inquisitor. And then last year, Eddie filmed it. And it starred Marsha Hunt, who, at 90, returned to the screen after a twenty-five year absence.

It was as if she never left. She is a phenomenal, incredible actress. I mean, we sat through classic Hollywood film noir, but this–this was new. Eddie directed. Marsha and terrific newcomer Leah Dashe starred. And Marsha … Marsha took down the house.

An Oscar isn’t good enough for her.

She was there to see it, to stand up and walk to the stage and feel the standing ovation. There are talented people, beautiful people, morally courageous people and kind, giving generous people. Marsha Hunt is all of the above, and God, how lucky we were to see The Grand Inquisitor with her in attendance.

(On a side note, last year I had the pleasure of thanking her for being a great role model when I purchased her book, The Way We Wore. I had just received my publication news that day, and it was bubbling out of me in every conversation, and I mentioned it to Marsha. She signed the book, “To my fellow author!” … that’s Marsha Hunt.)

Eddie’s direction was nothing short of brilliant. If you get a chance to see this film, do it. And hope that our Czar of Noir will add to his repertoire, as gifted a director as he is a writer.

Finally, the night ended with another Dalton Trumbo treat, Gun Crazy. This daring, adrenalin-fueled romp of sexual symbolism is a classic. The film-making captures the essence of speed and makes you feel like you’re on it … and it offers one of the best lines in film noir, one that will resonate with the slacker generation:

“Two people died so we could live without working!”

Now, that’s noir.

Since I’m a working girl, I can’t use my Noir City passport every day this week … and in fact, I had to skip the Sunday shows. On Tuesday, I’ll be blogging about The Liar’s Club, and why you need to buy it. And I’ll end my dark sojourn next week, with the finale to a sensational year … from the Noir Capital of the World, rainy, cold and foggy San Francisco.

Noir City, baby … are those foghorns or my heart beating?

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An Opening Night in Noir City …

Noir City … where the damned not only don’t cry, but have a damned good time.

This weekend, I’ve not only been writing in the dark, but living in it … ’cause it’s that time of year, folks, when the Czar of Noir pulls out all the stops for the rip-roarin’ hell town at San Francisco’s famed Castro Theater … when fatales rub elbows (and other parts) with suckers and fall guys, and the whole audience looks like it could use a good frisking.

Yup, Noir City. This is my fourth detour into the cinematic mainline of darkness, and January wouldn’t be the same without it. It’s been inspiration, escape, master class and a trip back home. Noir City … I was born there, baby. 😉

So what happened? Two great films, Repeat Performance and The Hard Way, Joan Leslie starring in both (and in the second with Ida Lupino, noir stalwart and hell of a broad). Ms. Leslie was in the audience — I was three rows down– and what a thrill it was to see her speaking with Marsha Hunt, who was sitting behind her. Two grande dames of the real Hollywood, still beautiful, still energetic, still incredible.

I had a chance to thank the still effervescent and gentle Ms. Leslie and say hello again to one of my idols, Ms. Hunt — a more gracious, gorgeous, talented, courageous and intelligent woman you’ll never meet, and at ninety she can out dress and out class women half her age.

You’ve heard it before, but it’s the sad truth: they don’t make ’em like that anymore … the movies or the ladies.

Joan spoke to Eddie “the Czar” Muller about working with Coop and Bogie (Gary Cooper and you’d better know who Bogie is), Ida Lupino, Jimmy Cagney (in Yankee Doodle Dandy) and growing up as a child entertainer in the Depression. It was a conversation to savor. And in a wonderful moment, Eddie led the entire audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to Joan, who was 83 on January 26th. It’s dark in Noir City, but that’s because underneath the burnt-out street lights shines a big, vulnerable heart.

The movies were terrific. Repeat Performance also starred one of Ida’s husbands, Louis Hayward, and featured an incredible, brilliant debut by Richard Basehart, who played, as only he could, a gentle soul just a few seconds off from the rest of the world. A madman and a poet … but that’s a redundancy.

The plot was about a woman who got a chance to live a year of her life over again, one fatal New Year’s Eve. Yeah, it’s holiday noir, all right, but Destiny wasn’t wearing a Santa suit.
A favorite line? Here’s Richard Basehart: “Paula shouldn’t be allowed to drink. Paula shouldn’t be allowed. Paula shouldn’t be.”


Second film: Ida is the Stage-Sister who does whatever is necessary to get kid sibling Joan into the show business big time. She does, in fact, do it the Hard Way, and ’cause it’s Noir City and this was the ’40s (and all about warning those ambitious women who might not want to give back all the jobs to the menfolk), well, Ida pays the price … and it was more than the admission, brother.

Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson round out the cast. Morgan is attractive as a cynical, skirt-chasing cad, playing against his wholesome Irish good looks, and Jack’s dramatic acting prefigures what he does in Mildred Pierce.

How hard is show biz in The Hard Way? Here’s an exchange between a twin sister act and a theatrical agent:
The Morgan Twins: [in unison] Mr. Wade? We’re playing in Jersey City. Can you catch our act? We’re the Morgan Twins.
Max Wade: When you’re triplets, come back and see me.

Ida shows why she was nobody’s second string Barbara Stanwyck, in a role with similarities to the Stanwyck pre-code classic Baby Face.

That’s it from your intrepid reporter at the only film festival that really matters … NOIR CITY. I’ll be back with a report on the second evening, which promises to be the most exciting Saturday in Noir City history.

Who needs Cannes?

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