A Walk Among The Tombstones is a movie many crime fiction fans have been waiting for. It is one of the more admired books from Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, and one of the touchstones of modern private eye writing. The adaptation was placed into the hands of writer-director Scott Frank, who is responsible for two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations out there (Get Shorty and Out Of Sight), while his directorial debut, The Lookout, is one of the best crime films of this century so far. On paper, it was a tantalizing match, but there were also some reasons for trepidation. The book is the seventh in the series with Scudder in mid-transition, making it an odd choice to adapt to film. It is also close to 400 pages with an important sub-plot involving Matt’s girlfriend, Elaine, that contributes to that arc. On top of that, you have a lead character who is incredibly internal. After viewing the film and especially thinking about it after, one realizes that Scudder was in the right hands.
The film starts with a well executed and defining gunfight for Scudder. Then, after one of the most disturbing opening credit sequences you’ll see, the plot begins much like the book. Scudder, an unlicensed P.I. and recovered alcoholic (one of the main differences in the movie is he quits the day after that shoot-out) is approached by a fellow AA member to work for his brother. The brother, a drug trafficker, paid a ransom for his kidnapped wife, only to have her returned in pieces, wrapped like butcher meat. He wants Scudder to find the men responsible and bring them to him. Matt turns him down first, but takes the job, realizing the perpetrators are psychopaths, in it for the hunt and torture, and that they will do it again.
Most of the changes from page to screen come from Scott Frank’s compression of the tale to reach a manageable running time. A sharp bit of craftsmanship comes in reshaping a part of the book where a witness mistakenly believes there was a third suspect during the abduction of an earlier victim. Instead of this, Scott creates an unsettling yet utterly human character who gives Scudder three leads in one scene, though it took Scudder close to hundred pages to gather these in the book. Frank also had to jettison two supporting characters, a hooker who survived the psychos and the lawyer who represents her. Both alone are worth picking up the novel for.
Another character missing is Elaine, the call girl Scudder is at the start of the relationship with. She helps Matt in the investigation and his involvement with her marks a particular turning point in the series. It is in this book where Scudder makes the choice to truly connect with someone again or not.
Here, Scott Frank does something interesting. Instead of using the arc from the book, he tackles a small step in Scudder’s stumbling soul search. This is dealt with in his relationship with T.J., a street kid who acts as Matt’s Baker Street Irregular, portrayed without sentimentality by Brian “Astro” Bradley. He also uses a device employed by Block, where the shoot outside the bar becomes clearer as Scudder tells it in a more honest way. We’re seeing a man as he begins to realize his position in the dark world he has chosen for himself.
Fans will truly appreciate Liam Neeson’s performance. The actor allows his presence and natural gravitas do much of the work for him as he underplays with a worn and weary edge. He and Frank take a cue from the author, realizing the hero’s complexity’s and subtle contradictions, they simply let the character run and let the audience, like the reader, bring themselves to him. Early on we get to witness Scudder’s detached realism when he is asked if the corruption on NYPD made him quit the force and Neeson delivers the line. “No, I couldn’t have supported my family without it,” with perfect tone. At that point, we know we have our Scudder.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is a harsh film. I flinched at things I knew were coming from having read the book. With little gore and violence, we get the the the full impact of the very mean streets this private eye walks down. Much like Lawerence Block’s series, it pulls no punches, telling a very adult story and treating its audience as such. That alone makes it a film worth supporting.
Seems like dogs are marking their territory (so to speak) on crime fiction as of late. With the popularity of the Chet and Bernie series and Dennis Lehane’s short story Animal Control being turned into the film, The Drop. A few years back Thomas Pluck wrote this pitch black hard boiled for Plots With Guns about the love between a tough guy and his dog. Not for the squeamish.
“I like hard work. It keeps my mind right. A cool day’s best for it.
It’s cool this morning and still dark when I park by Earl’s house. He’s got a place on Frelinghuysen. He’s not on the porch like he usually is, waiting to waddle to my truck in his overalls, with a list of jobs on a scrap of yellow paper. Not today.
I eyeball up and down the street. It’s quiet, barely dawn. I like this hour, have since I was a boy. Feels like it’s just me in the world, and nothing hurts. I climb out, and a lady hurries into her car, fear in her eyes.
I don’t blame her none. I know how I look. Six and a half. Three fifty. And I got a dent in the side of my head like a bruised apple. But I never hurt no woman.
I walk up Earl’s driveway slow. Maybe he’ll come out, tell her I’m good. I slap his front door, her car squeals off. It needs a fan belt. I could fix it. She won’t let me.
‘That you, Denny?’
‘Yeah.’ I put my face by the little hole he looks through.
His locks open, sound like a good break in pool.
Earl’s a head shorter than me. Big belly fills his overalls. Horseshoe of gray hair on his shiny brown head, and a beard to match. I shave everything clean; probation officer said it made me less scary. I been with Earl six months now, moving junk and scrap. Officer Fiore was right…”
On September 24th, the Hard Word Book Club goes overseas and back in time with Martin Limón as he helps us discuss his novel Jade Lady Burning. The book is the first in the series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, two CID Army cops stationed in Korea during the Seventies. In Jade Lady Burning they are assigned the case of a murdered Korean girl with a G.I. as their prime suspect. They soon discover the soldier isn’t as guilty as he looks and both the US and Korean governments want the murder swept under the rug.
Not only does the book introduce us to Sueño and Bascom, but everything that makes this series great. Limón was stationed in South Korea and always gives an authentic look at Army life overseas. His love of the country’s culture comes though as it clashes with Americans dealing with it. He uses the setting and cases to show how justice gets lost in bureaucracy and politics.
Martin Limón will be joining us, via conference call for our discussion of Jade Lady Burning. The discussion will start at 7PM, Wednesday , September 24th. Copies of Jade Lady Burning are 10% off to those who will attend.
In Blindspot, Reed Farrel Coleman takes over Robert B. Parker’s
alcoholic small town police chief Jesse Stone. He puts Stone in the
middle of a case involving the mob, revenge, and some folks from in
days as a Minor League baseball player. Reed answered some questions
through e-mail we had about the book and his approach to this
MP: I’m sure there are challenges about taking on an established
character, but what’s fun about it?
RFC: The fun is the challenge of respecting the characters and the history
of the series while carving out a piece of it for yourself. It is both
yours and not yours and that is unique.
MP: Was there an aspect about Stone that gave you an “in” to approach him?
RFC: Indeed. It was his unresolved regret over the injury that ruined his
baseball career. Dealing with unresolved regret is something we all
can relate to and gave me my in to Jesse’s spirit.
MP: I heard that Parker wrote Jesse Stone to push himself into
different territory with third person omniscient. It has also showed
off other aspects of your writing we haven’t seen often. What muscle
did you enjoy exercising the most?
RFC: I am known for my intimate first person, which is in some ways the
polar opposite to how Mr. Parker wrote Jesse. The thing I enjoyed was
trying to bring an intimacy to Jesse, but not by being as intimate as
I am used to being with my own characters. Moe Prager, for example,
wore his heart on his sleeve. Jesse barely wears his sleeve on his
sleeve. So I had to learn to reveal Jesse through his actions. It’s
made me a better writer. At least I hope it has.
MP: One thing you get to do is cover the criminals point of view. Did
you notice anything different in writing for the bad guys?
RFC: Well that is one great advantage of third person omniscient with
multiple points of view. You can, if you so choose, get into the bad
guys’ heads. But the great pleasure for me in the book was getting
into all the bad guys’ heads, not just one. I think readers will be
surprised to see how not all bad guys are the same. How even the most
cold-blooded killer can change, even grow. I believe that subplot is
my favorite piece of BLIND SPOT. Jesse is such a great character:
complex, brave, stubborn. He is a study in strengths and foibles. But
it is writing the bad guys that was the most fun.
MP: You use a reunion of Jesse’s minor league baseball team as a
starting point. What drew you to that part of his past?
RFC: See my answer to your first question. It’s his biggest vulnerability.
MP: It seems that we get to see more of your humorous side than we
normally get to. Do you think there’s something about Stone or the
series that lends itself to that?
RFC: Absolutely. Jesse is actually quite funny in a kind of wry, quietly
sarcastic way. And I like that he can see his own follies as well as
others. I believe you will only laugh along with others who laugh at
MP: Can you tell us about your original series your launching in the spring?
RFC: The novel is titled WHERE IT HURTS and it features retired Suffolk
County (New York) cop Gus Murphy. Gus is a guy who thinks he
understands the ways of the world, but when tragedy strikes his family
he realizes he understands nothing. It is the story of Gus healing
himself as he solves the murder of a petty criminal.
Today is the release of our MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month, Cry
Father. It’s Benjamin Whitmer’s follow up to his brilliant debut, Pike,
and will definitely be be seen on my year end top ten list as well as
many others. It deals with Patterson Wells, a tree cutter in disaster
areas whose grief over his dead son leads him into violent
circumstances. It is a brutal and beautiful book. Ben was kind enough
to take some questions from me on it.
MP: Pike and Cry Father seem like two twins raised differently, you see
the shared DNA, yet they both successfully achieve different things.
What do you see the main difference being?
BW: Well, Cry Father was written right on top of Pike, so it made sense
that a lot of the things I was thinking through got carried over. The
first draft was actually finished in 2010, it just took a long time to
get it published. If Adam Wilson at Gallery Books hadn’t seen
something in it (and, for that matter, if Sophie Littlefield hadn’t
suggested I send it to him) it probably wouldn’t even be published in
English. I’d pretty much decided to skip America and go straight to
France when Adam called my agent.
To me, the main difference is that Cry Father seems more open. I was
less scared to hit on the themes I was interested in. I don’t know if
they came through, but I hope so. In Pike I was more just trying to
establish a kind of tone — I’m new at this book-writing thing, and
still trying to figure out what I’m doing — and in Cry Father I felt
like I had a little more room to move.
MP: Patterson’s job as a tree cutter is both unique and a perfect
metaphor for what he’s going through. How did you choose that
profession for him?
BW: That was actually a gift given to me by one of my oldest friends,
Lucas Bogan. He’s the real deal and actually does what Patterson does.
(I should note that the similarities end right there: Patterson’s
faults are all his own.) Like you said, it seemed like the perfect job
for Patterson. And for me, I like characters who are grounded in the
work they do. It seems to me that a lot of novels skirt work. I’ve
always had a day-job and hated them all, but they consume the greatest
part of your waking hours whether or not you like it.
MP: The idea of fatherhood comes up in many forms. What did you want to
explore about it?
BW: Fatherhood’s probably never gonna be far from anything I write. I’m a
single father with two kids, and my relationship with them is the most
important thing in my life. But it’s a constant game of
second-guessing, doubt and guilt, as you understand all the things
you’ve done wrong. Not to mention all the things that you can’t
protect them from or do for them. It’s a fairly brutal crash course in
understanding how inadequate you are. Likewise, as a father with a
male child, I’m always thinking about the constructions of masculinity
that get passed down from father to son. That was a lot of what I was
trying to think through. As you can probably tell, though, I’m better
at negative examples than positive ones.
MP: There is always a lot of talk about the violence in your books, but
you use very little dramatic embellishment on it. How do you try to
treat it when writing?
BW: I think violence can reveal character just as surely as sex, love,
parenthood, or anything else. I try to write violence in a way that
people feel it. I don’t know if I succeed, but I don’t want anyone to
skim a violent scene. I want it to be ugly and heartsick. And in the
same way, to show that it’s attractive, too. It’s a balancing act. I’m
never gonna write it the way everybody wants it written, because it’s
such a touchy subject for people. But the attraction and repulsion has
to be there, I feel.
We’re more conflicted about violence than anything in this country.
Even sex. We’ll expel a kid from school for a fistfight, but there
hasn’t been a single year in my lifetime where we haven’t been bombing
the hell out of somebody and gloating about it. And we won’t even get
into what we’ll put up with from our police, like in Ferguson. I’m not
a pacifist, but the separation between what we tell ourselves we
believe and how we actually behave is so wide that I wonder that
folks’ heads don’t just start exploding from the cognitive dissonance
of it all.
MP: Many of the characters in Cry Father talk about freedom. Do you
think that’s what they are really looking for or is it something else?
BW: I think it’s a question they’re asking themselves. It’s a question I’m
always thinking about, anyways. I believe in freedom, the real
tangible kind. And I’d argue that we have less of it, in the real
tangible sense, than any of us would like to think. Most of freedom in
this country is just talk, and that disturbs me. When you’ve got more
people in prison than any other country in the world and every move
you make is legislated, I don’t know how the hell you can talk about
freedom with a straight face. I know that’s not a real popular
opinion, and we’re supposed to believe freedom is some kind of
metaphysical quality that we receive by virtue of being able to vote
once every four years, but I have trouble buying that.
Still I’ve also been around long enough to see how people get
destroyed by freedom. And I’ve come close myself at points in my life.
So I don’t know. For me freedom is a question, not an answer. I think
my characters are as lost in the question as I am. I think a lot of
people are right now.
MP: Can you tell us what your next book is and please promise it won’t
take four years before we get to read it?
BW: I have two in mind, actually. One is a jailbreak novel which I’m
really enjoying. I can’t promise it won’t take four years to get it
published, but I can say that it’s about half done and I should be
finished within the next year. I’m also working on a proposal for a
non-fiction book about one of my best friends, Paul Schenck, who was
killed by the police after a shootout last year. I’m not sure anybody
will want it – or either one of them, I guess – but I’m hoping so.
Minerva Koenig has just published her debut novel, Nine Days, and will be speaking and signing her book on Friday, September 12, at 7pm, on BookPeople’s second floor. Minerva Koenig, when not writing mysteries, works as a licensed architect in Austin, and spends her days engaging in numerous activities, including wrangling cats and fighting the patriarchy.
Nine Days announces a great new voice in Minerva Koenig. The story sweeps in like a southwest breeze, dry in wit and hot in attitude. It is a book that embraces its characters, warts and all. It even goes so far as to practically celebrate their warts.
The lead heroine, Julia Kalas, is particularly unique. Short, round, and pushing forty, Julia used her California building renovation business as a cover for her husband’s gunrunning trade for decades. After the Aryan Brotherhood assassinates her husband, she finds herself in Witness Protection in a small Texas town, in a nice twist on the typical California-to-Texas move, stuck with a tough female marshal she refers to as “The Amazon” looking over her shoulder.
Julia finds work at a local bar owned by Hector, a man with his own dark past, and sparks between them soon fly. When a body turns up on top of the bar, Hector becomes the main suspect. To clear his name, Julia gets involved, using her own criminal contacts. She crisscrosses the state and the Southwest, getting in deeper and deeper, eluding The Amazon and a few bullets along the way.
It is Koenig’s love and respect for her characters that make this book pop. Many are unconventional and few are pretty. They and Koenig don’t ask you to like them and that’s why you love them. Julia herself makes no apologies for who she is and proves she can get a man as easy, sometimes easier, than some teen centerfold. Koenig understands that the way to her characters’ humanity is through their unconventionality.
Nine Days introduces us to a fresh hard-boiled voice. Koenig embraces the genre, yet doesn’t completely play by its rules. I can’t wait to see what other conventions she’ll break.
Minerva Koenig will be speaking and signing her latest novel, Nine Days, Friday, September 12, at 7 pm on BookPeople’s second floor. You can find copies of his new book on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.
We’ve already become fans of Mike McCrary with his novel, Remo Went Rogue. Check out the full review of Remo Went Rogue on this blog for more. Beyond the humor and fast-pacing, you’ll quickly learn that whether in the novel or this story from Out of the Gutter, McCrary is able to grab your attention immediately and have you follow a character, even if you don’t necessarily like them, to the very end. A nasty, gritty, though perhaps deserved, end. With McCrary, we are in good hands. Now, enjoy the ride.
“Let’s be clear. I am not a bad man.
A desperate man? Sure. A drunk with his fair share of struggles? Absolutely, but not a bad man.
A bad man is cruel. He profits from the weak, takes more than he gives and cares nothing about other people.
I have stolen from such a man…”
Reviewed by Scott
Some of the most entertaining crime fiction is simply about nasty people trying to get one over on each other. There is a visceral charge to get out of people unrestrained by morality. Mike McCrary understands this completely in his new novel, Remo Went Rogue.
The first chapter is a story of violence, told during sex. The violence involves a bank robbery committed by the Mashburn Brothers, who leave no witnesses. The sex is between Remo Cobb, their defense attorney, and the assistant district attorney. Remo has got the Mashburns to tell him where the money is and now he’s throwing the case, with the plan they’ll get either life or death.
But they don’t. When they get out they go looking for Remo with a Jesus loving psychopath and a lot of guns. Remo finds refuge with a contract killer he’s defended.
McCrary knows exactly what kind of book he’s writing and he delivers. He gives us a tight read, under 200 pages, that never stops moving. The action is clear, punchy, and visceral. All of of the conniving and brutality is viewed with a jaundiced eye that barely blinks. Any time the story seems to veer towards sentimentality, Remo’s slimy viewpoint swings it back on to the rough road.
Remo Went Rogue is a fun, fast ride. It is a mean, hard boiled novel with a fresh spin on the genre and filled with rich black humor. Now if someone will make the movie.
You can find Remo Went Rogue on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.