St. George’s Favorite Son

April 23rd has always been a holiday for me. I confess; I’m an Anglophile. But don’t think that mars my noir street cred. Chandler spent most of his boyhood in England, and the “English Gentleman” ideal was inured in his soul. And his books were recognized as literature there — not just thrilling crime fiction.

So I’m in good company. I love the green and pleasant land, even when it isn’t green and pleasant.

So why is today a holiday? Well, it’s St. George’s Day. As a Dragon myself (in the Chinese horoscope), I don’t take too kindly to that dragon-slaying image. But good ol’ George (no report on whether he was curious) is the patron saint of England. But even that’s not enough to make it a real holiday for me.

What clinches the deal is Shakespeare. And no, I’m not talking about Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Queen Elizabeth, or any of the other royals academics and conspiracy buffs have foisted upon the public as the “real deal.” I’m talking William Shakespeare, middle class glover’s son, who ran off to London, became an actor, made a decent enough living and impact to get some royal backing and procure a coat of arms for his dear old dad, and who, incidentally, wrote the greatest literature in the English language.

Shakespeare. The one and only Will. He may or may not have looked like Joseph Fiennes, but the man did exist, and he did write plays. Middle class education and all …

Take a look at Julius Caesar, for example. A long, long time ago (as a student) I wrote a rather extensive research paper on how Elizabeth employed imagery of imperial Rome to help tie her to her father and legitimize her reign; Julius Caesar, performed for Elizabeth in the midst of her troubles with the rebellious Essex, fully supports the legitimacy of princely rule — as heroic as Brutus (or Essex) may have seemed.

In other words, Shakespeare supported a typically middle-class position. Now, since this is a blog and not an academic journal (and huzzah for that!) I won’t go into detail. Just know that good ol’ Will was (I believe) a solid burgher and devoted supporter of Tottenham Hotspur (never Chelsea).

Anyway, here’s the point: today is his birthday. And whether you read noir, cozies, historicals, chick-lit, paranormal horror or romantic humor, you need to hoist a glass to Shakespeare … because, in his thirty-seven surviving plays … the Bard wrote it all.

Paranormal? Try Macbeth. Noir? Othello or Hamlet (yes, both protagonists are #&*%@ on page one). Chick-lit? Well, there’s The Merchant of Venice with the cross-dressing legal eagle, Portia. Historicals are there in abundance, from the John and all the Henrys down through Troilus and Cressida. If you seek a cozy, try the Merry Wives of Windsor … romantic humor? Much Ado About Nothing comes to mind. And of course, for (tragic) romantic suspense, you can’t beat Romeo and Juliet.

So pull out the London Pride and pour yourself a tall one … and on April 23rd, remember St. George’s Favorite Son. “To die … to sleep … to sleep, perchance to dream, aye, there’s the rub … for in that sleep of death what dreams may come–when we have shuffled off this mortal coil– must give us pause …”

Now, that’s noir! 😉

Next week: back to film with #9 on the countdown …

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Of Books and Broads

Old books and old movies. Two passions of my life, and I got a little of both this weekend.

The San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print and Paper Fair was held at the Concourse down on 7th and Brannan this weekend … and in case you think it’s all giant tomes of Vasari or esoteric German philosophers, think again.

These are book collectors, and like book readers, they come in all varieties. Some like cookbooks, some like children’s books, some like art and prints, and some like it noir.

I got to drool over an ARC (advanced reading copy) of Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. Price? $6,500. Still cheap by comparison to a first edition Harry Potter (one pricey version was something like $40,000 … yeah, those were four zeros).

You can drift down the aisles, peeking at booths offering a first of The Maltese Falcon (complete with gorgeous dust jacket), British editions, paperback editions, obscure editions of books that sound familiar because you know the movie better.

There will be authors you know that are still active and writing, like Robert B. Parker, and authors who invented a world that turned into a multi-billion dollar empire, like Ian Fleming. Thriller writers, traditional mystery writers, noir and hard-boiled pulp writers … to quote Hamlet, words, words words … and all of them choice.

It’s a fantasy for me on a lot of levels. First, as a collector and fan –“Wow, look at that pristine copy of Chandler’s Smart Aleck Kill!” — and secondly, as a writer myself. Because some of the books were written by people I know or have met, and you’re thinking … maybe it’s within my grasp. Maybe, one day, someone will have a first edition of my first book at a book fair, complete with mylar cover.

Y’see, the reason the books are valuable is because these are writers who have achieved major success (and for some, a demi-god status). But when they began, they were like every other debut author with dreams of a career … they had high hopes and low print runs. Consequently, as they wrote more and more books, each one building on the success of the next, those early editions became scarce … because the demand outstripped the supply.

And that’s the author’s dream … to sell as many books as possible, and enough to keep getting published and sustain a career … but to always have more demand. Because that’s what sells the next book … and gets you behind a glass case at an Antiquarian Book Fair.

By the way, I picked up a somewhat tattered first edition copy of The Big Clock by the legendary New Yorker scribe, poet and founder of The Partisan Review, Kenneth Fearing. Noir, of course, published in 1946, “the year Hollywood went dark” (the theme of Noir City 4). Filmed in 1948 with Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan and Rita Johnson, and as No Way Out in 1987.

Chandler said this about the book:
I’m still a bit puzzled as to why no one has come forward to make me look like thirty cents. But except for an occasional tour-de-force like The Big Clock, no one has.

I can’t wait to read it … look for the review here. Oh, and the price? I got lucky. I found a booth with a sale, and paid … ten dollars. Yet another reason to go to book fairs!

So where do the broads of my title come in? With the noir I watched this weekend, after my inspirational purchase. Jeopardy (1953) , starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, and a Ralph Meeker as an escaped convict with Stanley Kowalski overtones.

I’ve always figured “broad” to be a rather complimentary term, implying a mutual (and sometimes begrudging) respect … almost a buddy, if she weren’t a dame.

At least that’s how it always sounds to me when Sinatra sings it, and when you hear it applied to Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck — two of the archetypal broads of Hollywood. And in this taut, suspenseful 68 minute film by John Sturges, Stanwyck doesn’t disappoint.

It’s an odd little number. Shown by Noir City this year, I missed it (fell on a weekday), so watched it on the small screen. Barry is a typically bigoted, patronizing and sexist husband of early ’50s film. But that’s only on the surface.

After establishing the attitude early on that Barbara is hopeless, helpless, and that the only family member he really can depend upon to get things right is his seven year old son — because he is, after all, a male (and even a child male is more capable than an adult female) — he gets his foot trapped underneath a fallen pier post, and is in imminent danger of drowning unless his “hysterical” wife can drive for help.

Now, Barbara Stanwyck could play almost anything … except helpless. So the casting belied his attitude, even for the ’50s. Next, up steps Ralph Meeker, murderer and escaped convict, who–unlike her husband–treats her physically rough, but with an appreciation for her strength and toughness. Things happen from there, and the ending is atypical and a little unexpected.

Throw in Mexico, thought of as America’s exotic and mysterious neighbor at the time, and location of many a great noir (Out of the Past, Touch of Evil), and you have a fascinating little film. The tagline was “She did it … because her fear was greater than her shame!”

Watch it … and see if you think that’s what really happened.

Next up: always more noir. I’ll be in Seattle for Valentine’s Day, and will try to blog from the home of the best coffee (and, incidentally, my home state).

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