Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

Don’t blame Robert Downey, Jr., if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle forgot one of the ingredients from which he invented Sherlock Holmes. In Chapter 2 of “A Study in Scarlet,” the first Holmes novel and debut appearance by the great detective, Watson makes a list of Holmes’ attributes. Number eleven is this: “Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.” In the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 3, resident Sherlockian Leslie Klinger notes that there is no instance of Holmes actually displaying his singlestick prowess. Since I haven’t read the entire canon (yet), I had to rely on The Source of All Truth (Wikipedia) to determine that the short story “The Solitary Cyclist” is an example of Holmes the Boxer. Neither Wikipedia nor Klinger’s footnotes indicate an adventure where Holmes uses a sword.

The point is this: The Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Downey reconstitutes a part of the character Doyle originally intended to write about but seldom did. Since Holmes is one of the world’s first superheroes, it stands to reason that he’d get himself into some situations that require more brawn than brain. What the new film illustrates, however, is that Holmes deploys both in the solving of a crime.

I won’t lie: when I first learned that Downey was going to play Holmes, I was skeptical. I appreciate Downey for the great actor that he is but I didn’t think Holmes was the part for him. Up until Christmas Day, Jeremy Brett is, for my money, is the quintessential on-screen Holmes. Brett still is the quintessential Holmes if you take into account the stories Doyle wrote. However, what Downey captured--with the able assistance of director Guy Ritchie and Jude Law’s Watson--is nothing less that the heart and soul of the Sherlock Holmes character.

Any true iconic character withstands the test of time. Batman went from detective in the 1940s to the guy who fought aliens on alien worlds in the 1950s to the guy who delivered punch lines in the 1960s to a return to his darker roots in the 1970s. James Bond has a similar character arc and, many would argue, it wasn’t until 2006’s “Casino Royale” that the true, literary Bond emerged on the silver screen. I won’t go so far as to say Downey’s Holmes is the true Holmes but he is a reflection of what’s on the page taken to a new level.

Besides, we’ve already been here before. Over the weekend, Turner Classic Movies ran a Holmes-movie marathon, showing many (all?) of the great Basil Rathbone films. As Robert Osbourne pointed out after showing the first two films, the Victorian setting of the traditional Holmes stories was just too quaint while Nazi planes dropped bombs on London. The first film studio, 20th Century Fox, dropped the franchise and Universal picked it up. The first thing Universal did was plop Holmes and Watson in 1940s war time. They fought Nazis! At least Downey had the decency to remain in Victorian England.

With these paragraphs as prelude, on to the film. As you can gather, I consider Downey’s portrayal of Holmes to be excellent. Holmes the Man is a genius. As such, he is cursed by his genius. Downey’s take on how a man like Holmes would live his life is spot-on by modern standards. I’ll admit that seeing Holmes as a dirty person, devoid of basic hygiene, shocked me. I’m used to the meticulous detective (a la Brett’s version of Holmes or television’s Monk) who is so neat and ordered as to be obsessive. However, if you take one of Holmes most famous quotes as truth (“I abhor the dull routine of existence.”), then you can easily see how Holmes would consider bathing to be a bother. Downey’s accent does go in and out but what do you expect from an American doing a Brit. At least it was better than Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. Holmes’s arrogance is on full display as well as his deviousness. In one of the best exchanges, Watson offers a meta-question to Holmes. He asks, basically, with all that Holmes does to him (and here he lists many of the little scenes from various stories), why he, Watson, still remains by Holmes’s side. It’s an honest question for a modern audience, one Watson doesn’t answer in the film.

Watson. If the new film does anything lasting, it showcases that Watson is a capable partner of the great detective. The biggest flaw in the Basil Rathbone films is Nigel Bruce. I hate the way Bruce plays Watson as a fat, bumbler not even having the intellect enough to wash Holmes’s clothes. The man’s a doctor. He has to be smart enough to attend school. Up until Jude Law (happy birthday!) donned the tweed, Jeremy Brett’s first Watson, David Burke, was my sole choice for Watson. Jude Law is now the quintessential Watson. He plays Watson as a man of action, a trait straight from all the stories. Where Holmes thinks, Watson wants to *do something.* In many a story, the only thing for the duo to do is wait, something at which Watson always chaffed.

Not so in this film. Jude Law clearly shows that Watson is a torn man. He’s fallen in love with Mary Morstan (a character from The Sign of the Four) and wants to marry her and have a normal life. He’s also in love with the life of adventure Holmes provides. (And I’m not going into the whole homoerotic thing here. All you need to know about two men who care for each other was taken care of with William Shatner and James Spader in “Boston Legal.”) More than once, Law’s facial expressions show the torment and joy Watson experiences, often simultaneously. Law also shows the smile as Watson removes his coat and prepares for a fight. He makes his choice by the end of the film but, as you know from the stories, he keeps knocking on the door to 221b Baker Street.

The story in the film is chocked full of good old pulp and adventure storytelling devices. Lord Blackwood (played by Mark Strong, a man who resembles the original artist’s interpretation of Holmes from the Strand magazine) is revealed to be the leader of some mystical cult and is hanged. No sooner is he dead than rumors of his resurrection spread. His tomb is empty so it must be true. There's a bit of "Da Vinci Code" in here as well. Ironically, it takes half of the film before someone actually hires Holmes to stop Blackwood. Up until then, he’s been working “for” Irene Adler.

Another character to jump from one of my favorite stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia”), Adler is the only (?) person to beat Holmes at his own game. That Doyle chose to make this character appear in the first ever Holmes short story (and why) is clearly an area for further study. Adler, here, is a twice-divorced thief and former lover of Holmes. I didn’t have a problem with indicating Holmes loved a woman. In the story, he falls in love with Adler’s mind. Here, in the movie, he just included her body as well. I’d have liked to see more Adler, to be honest, but I thoroughly loved the mysterious person for whom she worked. Rachel McAdams did a fine job here and I’m looking forward to future appearances.

Now, I’ll admit that the story in the middle part of the film was quite thin. Yes, it all connects at the end but the whys and wherefores were a little lacking. Suffice it to say, Holmes and Watson do their thing and London is saved...or is it?

Two more points to make. The narrative mystery involves the construction of a Victorian, steampunkish, weapon of mass destruction. Said device uses technology that was brand-new in 1891. That Holmes and Watson could be so clearly perplexed by the new device was stellar. It was something they could not have imagined and, thus, made it an excellent harbinger of the second movie.

If you watched “The Sixth Sense,” you might’ve had the same reaction as I did. Once the twist was revealed, you immediately wanted to watch the film again and see if you could spy the clues. You’ll have the same reaction with “Sherlock Holmes.” As in all good mystery films, the detective has his moment in the spotlight. As TV’s Monk used to say, “Here’s what happened.” When Holmes does this, he reveals all the clues (with visual flashbacks) that led him to the culprit. As soon as he did this, I wanted to watch the movie again and see if the visual clues were present. Can’t wait for the DVD and my pause button.

“Sherlock Holmes” is a terrific film, full of modern action-movie splashes with heaping helpings of witty, tête-à-têtes from Holmes/Watson and Holmes/Adler. As with “Star Trek” earlier this year, I laughed out loud more than I expected. The scenery is rich and detailed and you are reminded of how dirty late Victorian London really was. And the scenes that set up the sequel are splendid. The performances by Downey and Law are nuanced and well-done. They capture the spirit of their literary forebears well and I eagerly await their next film together.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Book Review: The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Tell the truth: if you go see the new Sherlock Holmes movie today and Robert Downey, Jr., appears in only half the film, you’d demand your money back. Am I right? I wonder if the readers in 1915 wanted some of their hard-earned cash back as well.

The Valley of Fear (1915) is the fourth of four Sherlock Holmes novels written by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Valley of Fear was published thirteen years after the third novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and only a year after the completion of the fourth set of short stories, His Last Bow. Instead of setting The Valley of Fear (Valley) in the then present, Doyle told yet another story of the early days of Holmes and Watson.

Like many of the tales, Valley opens with Holmes and Watson mulling over some intellectual problem. Holmes has received a cipher from an informant in Professor Moriarty’s organization. Unfortunately, the informant, Porlock, fears his discovery and has called off the solution to the cipher. Undeterred, Holmes and Watson deduce the book from which the coded message emerges. Once translated, the message is a warning that one Mr. Douglas of Birlstone Manor is in danger of being killed. No sooner does the dynamic duo read the message than MacDonald, from Scotland Yard, arrives at 221B Baker Street. He’d like Holmes’s help with a peculiar problem: a man named Douglas from Birlstone Manor has been killed by a shotgun blast to the face.

Well, how’s that for coincidence? Holmes and Watson accompany MacDonald to Birlstone Manor and then stumble into a traditional British mystery of manners. How else to describe the chapters that follow? Holmes is all but reduced to mere spectator as various members of the household are questioned and cross-examined. Holmes asks a question here and there but, frankly, I forgot he was in certain scenes. Sure, at the end, he blurts out a seemingly esoteric question and you remember why he’s so good but it comes at the end of the sequence.

Needless to say, the truth emerges and all because of Holmes. Like the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes reveals the killer halfway through the novel. Again, like the first book, Valley then throws the reader across to America of the 1870s and we basically get a novella that has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes or the first half of the story. Well, it does have everything to do with the killing of Douglas but it isn’t until the Epilogue--when Holmes returns to center stage of his own book--that we are told how everything fits together. It was rather unsatisfying.

That’s not all I found dissatisfying about Valley. For this fourth novel, Doyle all but ret-conned his Holmes chronology with the inclusion of Professor Moriarty. When it came time for Doyle to kill off Holmes in “The Final Problem,” he invented a nemesis worthy of Holmes. It was in this story, set around 1891, that Watson first learns of the dreaded Napoleon of Crime. If you take “The Final Problem” as gospel, then The Valley of Fear belongs in the apocrypha. The reason is that Valley takes place before “The Final Problem” and Watson is fully aware of Moriarty. It’s almost as if The Valley of Fear takes place in some alternate universe.

Okay, so Moriarty is in the Valley of Fear. Except that he’s not. He makes no appearance at all in the novel. His existence is hinted at by Holmes, explaining that nearly all nefarious activities in London all have their genesis with Moriarty. We even get a fun little story of how Holmes infiltrated the professor’s inner sanctum. Clever, fun, but, in the end, not too important in this novel. Even at the conclusion of the novel, when one of the characters is murdered off-screen, Holmes attributes it to Moriarty’s influence. It’s seems a stretch.

Now, as to the second half of the novel, if you take it alone without the framework of the larger novel, it’s dang good. It tells the story of John McMurdo and how he came to work in the Vermissa Valley in Pennsylvania. It’s a coal-mining town and it’s controlled by the Ancient Order of Freemen. These guys are bad ass. They extort, assault, and murder. They’ve got the town in their grip and no one has the stones to stand up to them. McMurdo has an interesting backstory and he assimilates himself into the gang with ease.

Doyle’s tale-within-a-novel is dark and grim. Valley has been called the first hard-boiled novel (take a look at what Hard Case Crime did with this novel) and with good reason. In one scene, the men who have just killed another victim gather in a bar to celebrate their success. They take turns with the bottle and also take turns mimicking the cries of their victims or widows. I was shopping for Christmas when I heard that passage and my blood got chilled. It’s the utter disregard of human life that was surprising and unsettling. I'd almost go so far as to say there are some serious noir elements in here, too.

I pondered what had happened to the author who brought us fun tales tinged with a dark edge of the 1890s. I remembered that Doyle’s son died in World War I but the novel was published before that. In addition, I thought the war’s atrocities might indicate where this darkness came from but that’s not it either since the publication of the first installment of Valley coincided with the outbreak of hostilities (and, thus, Doyle wrote it before the war started). It makes me want to read a biography of Doyle to find out if there was some personal tragedy that led to the darker material. It also makes me want to read the Holmes tales that were written and published after The Valley of Fear and see if the grim outlook continued.

Now, my stated goal is complete. I have read (or re-read) all four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of today’s premiere of the new Sherlock Holmes movie. For those who may have missed the earlier reviews, here’s the list and the links. I’ll have my say on the film later next week. And I’ll also recap my thoughts on all four novels in a later post as well.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas!

4 December - A Study in Scarlet
11 December - The Sign of (the) Four
18 December - The Hound of the Baskervilles
25 December - The Valley of Fear

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My favorite Christmas television specials

For anyone out there actually online tonight*, my contribution to BSCReview's "Favorite Holiday Specials" is now up at BSCReview.

*Let's not discuss the fact that I'm *posting* at 6pm on Christmas Eve...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Six-Word Story

Via my Google Alert (yeah, I search for my name*), I just discovered that the six-word story I sent to S. J. Rozan was posted on 9 December. Here's the link. Have to laugh at the title she gave the story.

BTW, this is the year I first read an S. J. Rozan book, The Shanghai Moon. Here's my review. It's a fantastic book, easily one of my three favorites of the year.

*When I leave the "D" out of the search, I get to follow the exploits of "Scott Parker," a soccer player in the UK. Pretty fun to see how good a soccer player "I" am.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(This review is Part III of my examination of the four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of the new movie debuting on Christmas Day. For other books that are actually forgotten, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third novel in the Sherlock Holmes canon by his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After his first two Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of (the) Four (1890), Doyle set about writing a series of short stories during the 1890s. As is well known, Doyle became disenchanted with his fictional hero and killed Holmes in 1894. The public clamor for more Holmes stories could not be sated and, in 1902, Doyle wrote his best novel and, arguably, one of the greatest novel in the history of detective fiction.

Although published in the 20th Century, The Hound of the Baskervilles (Hound) actually takes place before Holmes's apparent death in 1893. The novel opens with Holmes and Watson examining the walking cane of a visitor. The man is Dr. Mortimer, a country doctor from Dartmoor. He relates the strange circumstances surrounding the death of Sir Charles Baskerville a few months prior and how it may involve a curse on the family of Baskervilles. Holmes listens patiently until he comes upon the obvious question: how can he, Holmes, a man of cold reason, assist Dr. Mortimer on a case with apparent superstitious qualities? It is not Sir Charles that Mortimer is worried about. It’s Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir. He’s to arrive in London that very day and Mortimer wonders what to tell the young man.

Naturally, Holmes takes the case and, more than once, seems to relish the mental exercise of the problem. Like a master plotter and storyteller, Doyle plants seemingly random pieces of evidence (Sir Henry’s missing boot, the man with the black beard who follows Sir Henry in London, a letter composed of words cut out of a newspaper warning Sir Henry of impending danger) and leaves it up to the reader to sort it all out. Holmes, of course, is ten steps ahead but keeps his thoughts to himself.

Holmes also decides to take a breather during the middle part of his own book. He sends Watson to Baskerville Manor to look after Sir Henry while staying behind in London. But, like Count Dracula in the book that bears his name, Holmes is ever present, even when not on center stage. What Holmes’s absence does for Watson, however, is give the good doctor a chance to be the star of the show. He takes his charge to protect Sir Henry to heart, rarely leaving the young baronet’s side. Reading the story in his own voice, Watson is modest but you can tell he takes great pride in doing his duty.

Although not specifically named “Part II,” the Dartmoor section of the book is distinct from the scenes set in London and contains it’s own set of oddities. Why is the butler, Barrymore, sneaking around the house at night? What is the fate of the escaped convict now sleeping somewhere in the moor? Who are the neighbors of Sir Henry and how might they play a part in the greater story? Most of all, however, is the mystery of the baying hound, its ululations flowing over the moors like the fog, chilling the bones of all who hear it?

For those who have not read the book, I shall go no further. Doyle’s storytelling muscles are at their peak with this novel. Chapter after chapter, he builds mystery upon mystery, laying them until they become somewhat complicated. He lets the reader have a few moments of satisfaction when he reveals certain mysteries along the way. Even so, the larger questions still remain unanswered and it is up to Holmes himself to reveal the entire truth.

Perhaps the years of writing short stories helped Doyle with pacing. Where his first two novels bogged down with slow story lines, Hound all but hurries through the prose. Like a good page turner, Doyle packs a good deal of information into each chapter and leaves the reader with cliffhanger chapter endings that force you to keep reading and find out what happens next.

An underrated trait of Doyle’s writing is his excellent descriptions. At one instance, where Watson meets a certain character for the first time, he spends an entire paragraph describing the person before ever a word is uttered. Much of the action takes place outside the rooms in Baker Street or in the Baskerville Manor. This allows Doyle’s descriptive writing to shine as he illustrates the countryside with words. One of my favorites is Watson describing part of the moor upon first seeing it.
“It is a wonderful place, the moor,” said he [Stapleton], looking round over the undulating downs, long green rollers, with crests of jagged granite foaming up into fantastic surges.
I first read this novel back in ninth grade and loved it. Hound was my introduction to Holmes and I quickly read the first two novels and short story collections. It’s been upwards of two decades since I last read this book. I was curious to see how it held up, particularly in light of my burgeoning writing career and all that I have learned along the way. Splendidly, in fact. Even though I knew the plot points going in (or remembered them as the story progressed), I still had a blast re-reading this novel. It’s still my favorite Holmes novel and one of my favorite mystery novels of all time.

4 December - A Study in Scarlet
11 December - The Sign of Four
18 December - The Hound of the Baskervilles
25 December - The Valley of Fear

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic Interview Each Other

Head on over to CastleTV.net for short AOL-sponsored video of the two leads from ABC's "Castle" interviewing each other. And you thought that on-screen chemistry was mere acting. Cute and fun.

CSI: Miami - "Delko for the Defense" - Review

My review of last night's CSI: Miami episode is up now at BSCReview.com. Eric returns. Is that why Horatio and Jesse look sad in this picture? Find out in my recap.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Seattle Seahawks - Haiku

We beat losing teams.
Winning teams show what we lack.
When will Texans learn?

Seattle Seahawks - 7
Houston Texans - 34

Friday, December 11, 2009

Book Review: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(Today, Patti Abbott is conducting a Forgotten Children’s book week. My contribution is The Little House, a book I reviewed earlier this year. This review is Part II of my examination of the four Sherlock Holmes novels in advance of the new movie debuting on Christmas Day.)

In our modern age, the maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies to many of the things we consume as entertainment. How else can you explain all the slasher flicks festered upon us or the innumerable “Law and Order” episodes on television. Back in 1889, when Arthur Conan Doyle set about to write his second Sherlock Holmes novel, suffice it to say he had that maxim in the forefront of his mind.

To a large extent, The Sign of (the*) Four is a lot like A Study in Scarlet (Scarlet) both in structure and overall storytelling. There is a contemporary crime and mystery set in London in the 1880s and a flashback sequence that ties up all the loose ends at the conclusion. But, like any good writer, Doyle learned from the things that didn’t make Scarlet all that it could have been, and he produced a novel quite superior to the first.

The Sign of Four presents Sherlock Holmes and John Watson with a most singular mystery (to use a word Watson writes often). Ten years prior to the start of the story, Miss Mary Morstan’s father, on leave from the army, returned to London to meet her. He disappeared without a trace. Four years later, Morstan began receiving rare pearls, one a year, for these last six years. Only now has her mysterious benefactor asked to meet her. She comes to Holmes for consultation and, after learning that she can bring two friends with her, wishes him and Watson to accompany her to the rendezvous. In addition, Morstan tells the duo of her father’s sole friend in London, one Major Sholto, and how he never knew Morstan’s father was in London. Holmes discovers that Major Sholto died a mere week before Miss Morstan began receiving the pearls.

At the secret rendezvous, Holmes, Watson, and Morstan meet Thaddeus Sholto, one of twin sons of the late Major Sholto. Thaddeus tells them of his father’s discovery of a treasure and how Major Sholto was fearful of anyone discovering him, including a man with a wooden leg (shades of Treasure Island...). When the quartet arrive at the Sholto manor, they discover that the twin brother, Bartholomew, is dead of a poison dart.

To go any further would ruin some great plot points. The Sign of Four is chock full of fantastic adventure tropes: mysterious maps, legends, conspiracies, double-crossings, a hunt through London for a boat by the irregulars, and a pretty darn exciting boat chase on the Thames. It also has a woman, Mary Morstan, for whom Watson falls in love. And in a day, no less. We get our first true glimpse at Holmes' attitude towards women. We also get--in the opening paragraph of the book, for all to see--Holmes cocaine use.

Doyle has matured as a writer and creator of a story in this book. He gives the reader some esoteric details (man with wooden leg; man without shoes; the words “the sign of the four” on various documents; locked room murder) and leaves the reader and Watson to wonder about them. Holmes, in this second novel, is more disdainful of Watson, dismissive at some parts. Watson (and us) take umbrage at the slights, a sign that he can have his fill of Mr. Sherlock Holmes while, simultaneously, admiring the great detective.

One thing Doyle repeats is the giant wrap-up. This time, however, instead of breaking the flow with a POV shift, he lets the character in the story tell the tale, complete with breaks when Holmes asks a question. When you hear motivation directly from the character’s mouth, it’s a much more personal way of tying up the loose ends. Granted, it’s still basically a short story within a novel but you get the sense that you are in the room with the perpetrator as he explains all the details of how he came to be a “guest” at 221B Baker Street.

The Sign of Four is much more enjoyable than A Study in Scarlet. In many respects, it’s a modern, 21st Century mystery complete with the typical rules for a mystery story firmly in place. However, Doyle’s crowning achievement in the novel format arrives next week: The Hound of the Baskervilles.

*The "the" in the title was not part of Doyle's original title but added when the story was first published as a book in 1890.

4 December - A Study in Scarlet
11 December - The Sign of Four
18 December - The Hound of the Baskervilles
25 December - The Valley of Fear

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

CSI: Miami - "Count Me Out" - Review

My review of last night's CSI: Miami episode is now available at BSCReview.com. I found that explosions and the aftermath holds good potential for one character. Let me know if you agree.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor - Front Page, 1941

The New York Times runs a On This Day feature every day with its e-mail newsletter. Each event is coupled with the front page of the Times of the event in question. December 7 will always look back to 1941.

Here's the link to the New York Times lead story from December 8, 1941. Notice all the rumors and things we knew and didn't know. Fascinating.

Book Review: The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

New Mystery Reader has posted my review of Matthew Pearl's The Last Dickens. This marks the second novel of the year in which The Mystery of Edwin Drood has been featured, the other being Dan Simmons' Drood (my review). Here's the funny thing: I haven't read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Yet. I plan to rectify that deficiency early next year.

In the meantime, have a read at my review and let me know if you agree or not. Thanks.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Forgotten Books: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

(This is my latest contribution to Patti Abbott's Friday Forgotten Books project. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

I think it’s safe to say that Sherlock Holmes will never be forgotten. New editions of his stories are published every year, with Hard Case Crime being the latest. This month, we have a new movie based on him, one that could start a film franchise, with another on the way. Holmes has also made his way into comics this year with Dynamite Comics’ “The Trial of Sherlock Holmes.”

In advance of the new movie, I decided to read the four Holmes novels: A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and The Valley of Fear (1915). I’ve read the first three before but it has been many years.

A Study in Scarlet (Scarlet) is Holmes first adventure. Upon re-reading it, I realized I had forgotten lots of the nuances of the book. I also realized that, had it been published today, for modern readers, it might not have caught on. Well, let me back up: it may not have gotten passed the editors.

Dr. John Watson, as everyone knows, is the chronicler of his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. As Scarlet opens, Watson recounts his deployment and wounding in Afghanistan and his subsequent recovery. Running out of money he received from the army, he’s looking for a roommate. A fellow army buddy, Stamford, comments that he knows of another man also seeking a roommate. Upon seeing Watson’s eagerness, Stamford makes the following reply:
Young Stamford looked rather strangely at me over his wine-glass. “You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” he said; “perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.
It’s a wonderful way to set up Holmes’ introduction later in the chapter. For those of us now, more than a century removed from Holmes’ arrival on the world stage, the line of dialogue comes across with a wink and a sly grin. For Doyle’s contemporaries, it was something altogether different.

The two men agree to take rooms at 221B Baker Street. The second chapter is a dissertation on Holmes’ methods. Like any student in geometry class, one Holmes explains his methods, they seem easy even though Watson scoffs at them more than once in this novel.

The heart of the book is the mystery brought to Holmes by the Scotland Yard detectives Gregson and Lestrade. In a house in Brixton there is a corpse of a man. On the wall, above the body, written in blood, is the word ”Rache.“ Holmes invites Watson to accompany him. With Watson, we see Holmes’ methods up close, his minute inspection of seemingly random objects as well as the contempt Holmes has for the London police.

The bulk of this section is pretty standard (although, at the time of the writing, there was barely a standard created). Holmes’ reveal of the killer is showy, sudden, and out of thin air. This happens at the end of part one.

My biggest beef with Scarlet is the second part of the book. In an attempt to give background to the killer, Doyle breaks with the established train of the story, shifts to third person POV, and throws the reader across the Atlantic and into the wilderness of the American Rocky Mountains. What the hell? For five chapters, we get the background of who the killer is and his relationship with the the victim. Only in the last two chapters of the book do Holmes and Watson reappear.

This kind of storytelling would never fly in the modern world. Part way through Part II, I kept thinking ”I know this has a point but I can’t figure out what it is.“ Gradually, the names that you’ve read in Part I show up and you figure out what Doyle is doing. Late in Part II, when the focus shifts back to our heroes, the killer speaks and confirms the data in the five preceding chapters.

Doyle was twenty-seven when he wrote this and it was his first novel. However, the book would have been so much more powerful if the killer had told the story, adding the backstory along the way. The big shift totally throws the reader out of the moment and it’s the biggest flaw in the story.

Unlike so many other adventures (A Scandal in Bohemia, Blue Carbuncle, Silver Blaze, Red-Headed League, The Final Solution, The Hound of the Baskervilles), A Study in Scarlet is not one of the stories to which you’re likely to return over and over. Nonetheless, this is how the Holmes phenomena started. For that alone, it’s an important book. It’s definitely worth reading for anyone who enjoys Holmes, Watson, and their adventures.

P.S., this review is part 1 of 4.
Part 2, The Sign of Four, will be published 11 December.
Part 3, The Hound of the Baskervilles, will be published 18 December.
Part 4, The Valley of Fear, will be published Christmas Day.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Doyle vs. Dickens: Who is more real?

Over at David Cranmer's The Education of a Pulp Writer on Tuesday, he posted a few quotes from Rex Stout. One of Stout's comments was his take on the differences between the works of Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes. I responded to the thread. David liked my comment and, today, has posted it up on his blog to generate some additional discussion.

Head on over to his site and let him know what you think.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review Club: Holmes for the Holidays

(The latest contribution to Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the link at the end of this review.)

With less than thirty days until the unveiling of the new iteration of the famous detective, there is one overriding reason why Sherlock Holmes is so popular over 120 years after his first adventure: we love the atmosphere of Victorian England. The sounds of the clip-clop of horseshoes on cobblestones, the sights of men and women dressed in late-Victorian finery, the smell of a crackling fire in a tavern, they all go together and form something special and unique. It’s a nostalgia for a time we’ve never known but, through the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, we can know and come to love.

With all the emotion surrounding Sherlock Holmes and his redoubtable friend, Dr. John Watson, it is no surprise that, of all the stories, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is constantly mentioned as a perennial favorite. I consider it among my favorite Holmes stories and I can find little to dislike about the story. One aspect of the story, however, always saddens me: it’s the only Christmas Sherlock Holmes story.

The editors of Holmes for the Holidays must have experienced the same sadness. Martin Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh, with the blessing of Dame Jean Conan Doyle, commissioned fourteen authors to try their hand at a Holmes and Watson story set during the last week of December. The results are all quite good.

And how could they not be? Just look at some of the names: Anne Perry, Loren Estleman, Jon L. Breen, Bill Crider, Carole Nelson Douglas, and the late Edward D. Hoch. As you read these stories, take special note of the historical details about Christmas itself. Remember, these are stories written by authors in the 1990s about the late 1800s. Moreover, the 1880s are forty years after the publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the book credited with changing Christmas to what we know it today. Different authors focus on different aspects of the Christmas season, all with two men who are proper English gentlemen. It’s a telling trait, yet a fun one.

Speaking of Dickens, two of the better stories both concern themselves with Scrooge, Marley, Tim Cratchit, and a certain set of three ghosts. Loren Estleman’s “The Adventure of the Three Ghosts” concerns itself with Lord Chislehurst, a Member of Parliament, and in need of Holmes’ assistance. You see, three ghosts have visited the Lord, just like his father’s old boss. Know where this is going, don't you, and the true identity of the Lord? Yeah, he’s the grown-up Tiny Tim who now owns Scrooge old counting firm. In this story, Dickens is real and is the man who “chronicled” the story of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim. Watson’s read the book but Holmes knows nothing about it. In fact, Lord Chislehurst/Tim Cratchit doesn’t like the book. Holmes and Watson take the case and, in their usual élan, solve the case…although the ending is not entirely predictable.

Bill Crider tackles the same material but puts a different spin on the story. In “The Adventure of the Christmas Ghosts,” three ghosts are besetting the grandnephew of Ebenezer Scrooge, Franklin, as well. Holmes suspects foul play—natch—and lands his suspicion on Timothy Cratchit who still works in the counting house. Crider highlights Holmes’ often eccentric qualities, including his acting ability, in this fun little story also with an ending that’s not entirely expected.

With any anthology, you don’t often have to read the stories in order. I’d recommend reading these two Scrooge stories back-to-back. You’ll get a sense of how the two authors both treat the same subject, how they see the original Dickens tale, and how the perpetrators in each story use similar methods. Estleman’s story references other Holmes stories that’ll be sure to garner a smile as you read it. Crider’s piece is funnier in that, with a wink and a nod, he inserts famous lines that’ll pull a chuckle from somewhere inside you.
“Let us not get our stories out of order,” said Holmes. “Marley first. He died. Is that not correct?”
“Yes [Franklin said]. Marley was dead. There can be no doubt about that.”
Just as I have my Christmas music CDs that I store for eleven months out of the year, I have some favorite anthologies of Christmas stories that share space in the same box. Of all them, Holmes for the Holidays is my favorite. It evokes certain images, particular Christmastime feelings, that I, as Texan don’t always get to experience. Why not find a copy and make a new tradition of reading these stories in December. You won’t be disappointed.


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Monday, November 30, 2009

Traditional Mysteries - A Request for Lists (TV and Books)

Last night in Houston, there was no Masterpiece Contemporary aired on our local PBS station. The previous two weeks had the riveting "Collision" by Anthony Horowitz, creator of the always fascinating "Foyle's War." I have to admit, I was seriously hankering for a traditional mystery, British or not. I scoured my local Blockbuster and found hardly any. When I tried to explain what I was looking for to the helpful Blockbuster employee, he thought I was referring to shows aired in the 50s and 60s.

Which brought me to a quandary: what is the "official" definition of "traditional mystery"?

Here's my take: I've always taken it to mean there is a murder, usually off screen (or off page). A detective is brought in to solve said murder. The detective can be a police official or a private detective. Usually there is more brain power used rather than bullets. The creators of said traditional mysteries give the reader/viewer all the clues at the same time as the detective and the reader/viewer can solve it ahead of time, given the right amount of deduction.

While I struggled over that definition, I wanted to know what other kinds of TV programs were available. I checked the Masterpiece Theater's website and only got previews. Hulu doesn't have much. So, my next question:

What are some good television shows and books that fall under the definition of "traditional mystery"?

Regarding TV, it seems the British have a lot going for them, what with "Prime Suspect," "Foyle's War," "Inspector Morris (?)", and others. Oh, and, of course, Periot and Marple. What are some other good ones?

Regarding books: I know about Christie, James, and the like. What are some other good authors and titles? And I don't mean just British ones either. I'd like to know some American authors/books, too.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Indianapolis Colts (2nd Game) - Haiku

First half beautiful.
Went shopping for second half.
Should have stayed longer.

Enjoyed first half.
Got worried as game went on.
End not surprising.

Genius in Football -
One name stands above all else:
Sir Peyton Manning.

Indianapolis Colts - 35
Houston Texans - 27

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Five Favorites from 2009

I'll be posting later in December about my favorite things of the decade (yeah, I'm a list maker) but I think I'll follow Patti Abbott's lead and list five things I loved this year.

TV: "Castle" - If I have to pick a Favorite Among Favorites, this is it. I have not been as entertained as I am with this show in a long time. The chemistry between the leads is gold and clearly the star of the show. That the sophomore season is tightening the writing is so much the better.

Honorable Mention TV: PBS's "Little Dorrit" - While not new for 2009, it was new for us Americans. I considered "Bleak House" to be the quintessential modern Dickens presentation. Well, it now has company.

Books: Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity by James Reasoner - I haven't had this much fun reading a new* book in a long time. Well, in at least a year (since Don Winslow's The Dawn Patrol and Christa Faust's Money Shot). Highly entertaining with its whimsy on its sleeve, the adventures of Gabriel Hunt is my favorite new* book of the year.

Honorable Mention Books: Trust Me by Jeff Abbott - Like I wrote in my review, sometimes summer blockbusters arrive in bookstores. This thrill-a-minute roller coaster of a book propels you from page one to “The End” faster than pretty much anything. Of all the books I read this year, this was the one I couldn’t wait to start reading again.

*This was the year when I finally read some classics: Treasure Island and Tarzan of the Apes. Reading these books made me feel twelve years old again. They have already vaulted into All-Time Favorites status. I also read The Man of Bronze (Doc Savage #1) and saw how much fun it is to read his adventures. Together, these books have already had an influence on my writing.

Comics: Wednesday’s Comics - A 12-issue mini-series, this title was published in the summer and was printed on paper the size of newspapers. The art and writing talent alone was enough to bring in readers (Azzarello, Gaiman, Bermajo, Kubert). The presentation, the tactile feel of newsprint under fingers, made it a joy to read.

Movies: Star Trek - When I saw the first trailer, I, a Trekkie, went “meh.” I saw the second one and I thought the show would be pretty good. By the third, I was making plans to take off work a half day and see this thing on the IMAX. Yowza what a movie! It didn’t bother me in the least that it screwed with all that we knew before. This new cast was stellar, the show highly entertaining, and I laughed so much more than I ever expected.

Honorable Mention Movies: Sherlock Holmes - Yeah, I know I haven’t seen it but it’s the movie that’ll make me break my Don’t-See-Movies-On-Christmas-Day Rule. I know I’m going to love it. It’s just a matter of time.

Music: Since I’m limiting myself to things released this year, this category, ironically, is the most challenging. Thanks to NPR’s survey of the best music of the decade, I’m currently digging in a huge way The Bad Plus’s 2003 CD “These are the Vistas” but it’s an old record. The year started with Andrew Bird’s “Noble Beast,” one of the most intellectual albums of the year. It’s opening track, “Oh No,” makes me want to start whistling better. In a year when Springsteen releases a record, he’s usually the default winner. “Working on a Dream” is a good record but not the best of his 00s releases. This was the year The Decemberists followed up their spectacular album (“The Crane Wife”) with “The Hazards of Love.” It’s a good CD but not my favorite.

Late this year, I’ve got a strong contender from an unlikely source: classical. The Orange Mountain Music (free at Amazon) samples some of the best (?) works by Philip Glass (see Honorable Mention #2). Glass has been a mystery to me for almost his entire career. I love this collection and have already scoured my local libraries to find two full albums of material. I especially appreciate that he writes for saxophone.

The one CD I can pretty much cast my ballot towards is Roy Hargrove’s first big band CD, “Emergence.” This record, eleven tracks in all, is a rich blend of old and new. On certain tracks, “Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey,” you’d think you were in the 1940s. Other tracks, like “Tschpiso” and “Requiem,” remind you that you are firmly in the 21st Century. Hargrove, however, never forgets when he comes from, as you can tell in the opening track, “Valera,” that pays homage to Miles Davis’s “Nefertiti.” I don’t usually listen to instrumental music on the daily commute and I almost always listen to my music on random. This CD changes things. I let it play. And play. And play.

Honorable Mention Music #1: Radiolarians II by Medeski, Martin & Wood - David Cranmer posted a link to “Amber Gris” on his blog and I was hooked. The odd time signature leaves you off-kilter with a beat that pushes you towards the end. The rest of the CD is a smorgasbord of rhythms, sounds, and textures sure to suck you in and leave you wanting more.

Honorable Mention Music #2: John Adams “City Noir” - If you needed the reason I actually downloaded that Philip Glass compilation, this is it. I happened upon an episode of PBS’s “Great Performances” when they showed the debut concert of the LA Philharmonic conducted by the exciting Gustavo Dudamel. The second piece was Mahler’s First Symphony. The piece that got me listening was the work Dudamel commissioned from Adams. “City Noir” is that wonderful type of modern classical music: melodic, with rhythms that were born in the 20th Century, and yet different enough that you know you’re not listening to Mozart. I recorded the rebroadcast of “Great Performances” and have watched it a couple more times. I eagerly await the release of the John Adams portion of the concert (oddly, not available but the Mahler part is). If it’s released in 2010, I already have a strong contender for Best CD of 2010.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

CSI: Miami - "Kill Clause" Review

My recap of last night CSI: Miami episode, "Kill Clause," is available over at BSCReview.com. See if you don't think it's a step in the right direction for storytelling and new guy, Jesse (Eddie Cibrian).

Houston Texans vs. Tennesse Titans - Haiku

One, simple vic’try
Is all we ask for in games
That go national.

Wide left. Wide left. Twice!
We sure Kris Brown’s not kin to
Norwood? Is Brown gone?

Vince beat us again.
Why the hell do we have to
Play him twice a year?

Tennessee Titans - 20
Houston Texans - 17

Monday, November 23, 2009

Variations on a Theme

In the music world, composers often take one theme--be it theirs or the melody of a previous composer--and write a new piece. This new piece that emerges can be a variation on the original theme. Sometimes, the new composer enjoys the theme so much that he creates more than one new variation. Here's The Source of All Truth (Wikipedia) on "Variations."

Last night, while watching the conclusion of the compelling "Collision"* on PBS's Masterpiece Contemporary, an idea struck me. Hey, what if...and I got Idea #1. I put it on a notecard and finished the program.

Afterward, while getting trounced in Scrabble by my wife (you don't want to know the score. Really.), I scribbled down a few more thoughts on Idea #1. That, of course, led to a modification of Idea #1, thus creating a new, separate notecard containing Idea #2. Both are decent and, undoubtedly, a third idea could emerge.

Thus my question: is there, in literature, a series of works that take the same basic premise and create variations? Variations on a Mugging? Variations on a Robbery?

Just wondering...

*"Collision" was created by Anthony Horowitz, the man who gave us "Foyle's War." I can't recommend "Foyle's War" highly enough. I've written about it before (here and here). Get thee to your local library and see if they have any of the seasons available. Or, of course, you could just buy it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Forgotten Books and Upcoming December Events

I'm currently reading the second Doc Savage novel, "The Land of Terror," but didn't finish it by yesterday. Look for that review next week.

And tune in on Fridays in December when, in honor of two things (Mystery A and Mystery B), I'll be reviewing a special four-book series. I don't think it takes a huge leap of logic to let you know what they are.

And check back on 2 December when I'll throw up a Christmas-related book for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

CSI: Miami - "Point of Impact" review

My review of last night's CSI: Miami episode is now posted at BSCReview.com. Take a read and see if you agree with my conclusions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Batman/Doc Savage - First Wave

I'm a newcomer to Doc Savage. I've only read the first story, "The Man of Bronze," (my review) and I'm reading the second story, "The Land of Terror," right now. Me and Bats go back a long way.

Still, this pairing has got me drooling. And check out the writer for this one-shot: Brian Azzarello. Yeah, it just got better.

Head on out to your nearest comic shop. I am...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

CSI: Miami - "Bone Voyage" Recap

My recap of the first part of the CSI Trilogy is now posted at BSCReview.com. See if you picked up a musical reference from "The Dark Knight" and let me know what you think of this November sweeps event.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Indianapolis Colts - Haiku

I'm sick of almost!
Good drives killed by penalties.
Now, a loooong fortnight.

Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap!
Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap!
Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap!

Indianapolis Colts - 20
Houston Texans - 17

Non-haiku thoughts:
They say that the Texans can play good against anybody any given Sunday. And we can. Just look at today. Someday, we're going to have prove it on the scoreboard.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Lone Ranger: Now and Forever

(This is my latest entry for Patti Abbott's Forgotten Books Project.)

Reboots can be a tricky thing. When you get it right (Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Star Trek), it’s fantastic. When you get it wrong (Terminator 3; Terminator: Salvation, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [not a true reboot but it keeps with my thesis]), it’s horrible. Thus, when I learned that Dynamite Comics was re-introducing The Lone Ranger, I was hesitant. This is one of the longest and storied franchises in pop culture.

Most everyone knows at least one thing about the Lone Ranger, even if it’s tangentially. Would the writers and artists update this beacon of goodness with a bunch of violence and language (in short, would they “Deadwood”-ify it) or make it too cheesy? Curious, I bought volume 1 trade paperback and cracked it open.

Boy, was I worried for nothing. I haven’t read anything this entertaining since Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity or Tarzan of the Apes. As Geoff Johns writes in the introduction, this new comics adventure of the Lone Ranger and Tonto is an updating to the legend but all the aspects of the legend remains intact and in place. What writer Brett Matthews has done, however, is give order and an origin to just about every aspect that we know about the Lone Ranger.

This is an origin story, plain and simple. Texas Ranger John Reid is the lone survivor of an ambush. Fellow Rangers perish including his older brother and father. Reid himself is barely alive before Tonto, a Native American Indian, nurses the dying Ranger back to life. Here, Tonto’s origins are merely hinted at in off-hand references and stoic silences. You get the sense that Tonto is older and wiser than the young Reid who has to come to terms with what happened and his desire for single-minded revenge.

One by one, all the elements that make up the whole of the Lone Ranger legend gets a spotlight shined on it. Why Reid wears a mask. Check. Where he gets the silver. Check. How he finds his horse, Silver. Check. And, in a touching moment, why he says “hi-yo Silver.” It’s all here. Oh, and Butch Cavendish is here, too. Of all the things changed, Cavendish is the one. I can’t quite remember what he was like in the old radio shows or the TV show but, suffice it to say, he probably wasn’t what he is here. There’s also a hired killer and he’s a bad ass.

The relationship between the Lone Ranger and Tonto is the best part. Tonto keeps prodding the young Reid to be the man he knows the west needs. He does it by teaching, sometimes with words, sometimes with fists. There’s a lot more light-hearted banter and comedy than I expected but it doesn’t detract from the sobering themes of revenge and justice and finding one’s place in life. A nice touch in the dialogue bubbles is the use of smaller text to indicate whispering or off-hand asides. It brings the entire story that much more into realism.

The art by Sergio Cariello is fantastic and quite detailed. There are whole pages and panels where you can see and feel the dirt and grit of the old west. Others are the mark of subtle artist, displaying all the emotions in the eyes. The giant splash pages and covers are magnificent and really evoke that old-school charm of the Lone Ranger.

I only started reading westerns last year and already I’ve been bitten by the western bug. I’ve read a few since then (I’ve even written one with more to follow) but I’d have been reading westerns for a couple of years now had I read The Lone Ranger when it debuted in 2007. Do yourself a favor: pick up this trade paperback and return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book Review Club: Heat Wave by Richard Castle

(This is the November entry in Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

The concept of the ABC television program "Castle" is straight-forward. Richard Castle, world famous mystery novelist, pulls strings and gets himself assigned a tagalong role with the NYPD, specifically Detective Kate Beckett and her squad. Beckett, in turn, serves as the inspiration of Castle's new book series starring Nikki Heat. As season two opens, the first Nikki Heat book, Heat Wave, is on the shelves and making waves.

In a clever bit of meta-promotion, ABC hired someone (createor Andrew Marlowe?) to write the actual Heat Wave book and attribute it to Richard Castle. Nice, huh? Being a huge fan of the show (my #1 favorite show on TV; send me an e-mail and I'll wax poetic on why I love it so), it was a no-brainer that I'd buy the book via Audible and give it a listen.

In Heat Wave, Nikki Heat and her squad have Jameson Rook tagging along. Rook is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is doing some background research on the NYPD and Nikki's squad drew the short straw. The rest of Heat's squad is Detectives Raley and Ochoa, mirroring Detectives Ryan and Esposito on the show. When Heat refers to or thinks of her partners together, she gives them the nickname "Roach." Dang clever again. The one thing you don't have in the book (with Rook) is the father/daughter dynamic that is one of the most charming aspects of the television show. Rook's a bachelor, a "doable" bachelor as Heat's friend, Lauren, later tells her. And, just like Fillion says in the pre-credit sequence, Rook is "rougishly handsome."

Like any good police procedural on television, the story starts right off with a death: a real estate tycoon who met death via the pavement under his sixth-floor window. For those of y'all in the back row, he was thrown out the window. In the pages that follow, Heat, Rook, and her squad investigate a myriad of clues, some unreleated, and we get a parade of suspects, colorful and ordinary.

The mystery wasn't earth-shattering although it did involve a few interesting turns. What drives the book and the television show is the chemistry of its two leads. In this case, Heat and Rook have their various tete-a-tetes in situations that are funny and irritating. The book is entirely from Nikki's POV so we get her internal thoughts on why her stomach flutters when Rook's near, the likelihood of her and Rook acutally getting together, and her utter exasperation when Rook doesn't listen to her orders and gets himself into one dire situation after another. It's a nice addition to the what we get on screen with little looks, eye rolls, and awkward moments. In a sort of reverse extrapolation, I now see TV's Beckett in a new light.

Middle way through the book, there's a scene of genuine tension. I don't want to give too much away but let me just paint the scene. Nikki's alone in her apartment, naked, having just taken a bath. An intruder's in her apartment. He's after her. What follows is a great scene, full of tension, action, and gumption. Very truthful, if you ask me, and I was roundly happy for how the writer ended the scene.

In a nod to what everyone wants to know about the TV show--will Castle and Beckett get together or won't they--Heat Wave answers the question for Nikki and Rook. And I'm not telling which way it went, either. You'll have to read the book to find out and make your own conclusion on what happened.

I've read on various websites (best one is CastleTV.net) that the novel is doing quite well, As of Tuesday, it's #23 on the Amazon bestseller list, #2 on Barnes & Noble's website, and #6 on the New York Times Bestseller list. That's got to be good news for the series and it's staying power. I can't help but think if it'll spawn another book. I'd read it in a heartbeat.


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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

CSI: Miami - Recap

My recap for last night's episode, "Dude, Where's My Groom," is now posted at BSCreview.com.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers - Haiku

Hung on by teeth's skin.
Have to say it: confidence
is up in H-Town.

Houston Texans - 24
San Francisco 49ers - 21

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Castle" - Picked up for full season

Michael Ausiello, from Entertainment Weekly, is reporting that ABC has picked up "Castle" for a full 22-episode season. Best news I've heard all day.

If you haven't been watching my favorite show* of the season, head on over to Hulu.com for the latest episode.

I think ABC has done well to pick up Castle. The writing improves every week and last night's episode marked a high point with the chemistry between Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. I don't usually record Castle. I should have recorded last night's episode. It was that good. Come to think of it, I'll just watch it again on Hulu.

If you want a top-notch weekly recap, head on over to BSCreview.com and read Elena Nola's column. For more news, CastleTV.net is the place to go.

*Favorite new show: Flash Forward

CSI: Miami - Recap - "Bad Seed"

Why does last night's episode of CSI: Miami make me leery of eating salad at a restaurant? Find out in my recap over at BookspotCentral.com.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Cincinnati Bengals - Haiku

Consistent offense.
Consistent defense. Good win.
Next step: repeat it.

Houston Texans - 28
Cincinnati Bengals - 17

Saturday, October 17, 2009

On writing in books

After reading the responses to the recent reading meme that went around the net (here are my answers), I was surprised to discover I am in the minority when it comes to writing in books. I share my thoughts on why I do it over at Do Some Damage.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Forgotten Books: Batman and Tarzan: Claws of the Cat-woman

(My latest entry in Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

One definition of a forgotten book is forgetting you even have a copy. As I leafed through all of my graphic novels, I stumbled upon Batman and Tarzan: Claws of the Cat-woman. Since I’ve read and written about the first three Tarzan novels, of course I’d select this book. This is the new Tarzan Blog. (No, not really, but those of you who only read my FFB entries certainly might think so.)

In comicdom, Dark Horse Comics owns the rights to Tarzan nowadays. Ten years ago, they teamed him up with DC’s Batman. Hmm: two rich guys, both lost their parents early on (at least Bruce knew his), both patrol their respective “jungles,” what’s not to like? I have to say, going in, I was wondering how much of the Burroughs world was going to make it in the book. A good amount, really.

The story takes place in this kind of nether world: the time is vague, Batman exists in Gotham, and John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, aka, Tarzan, is a famous figure, having had his exploits written by “a writer” (that’d be your ERB wink). Bruce Wayne has financed an expedition to Africa and Finnigan Dent (note the name) brought back some rare artifacts to be displayed in the new Thomas and Martha Wayne wing of the natural science museum. Later that night, a person dressed as a cat breaks into the museum and Batman stops her. And then Tarzan, decked out in a white (!) loincloth *in Gotham*(come on, at least let it be leather; and why a loin cloth? You’d think he’s just take off his shoes or something.) waylays Batman. No sooner does Tarzan figure out who Batman really is (can’t hide your scent) than a band of Masai warriors attacks them. Battle ensues.

Here’s where we get the typical posturing when two characters meet for the first time. If you’ve read the Tarzan books, you know he kills his enemies if that’s the only way to protect those around him. In Gotham, he’s about to throw a warrior off the roof when Batman stops him. “No murder in my city.” (You know where this is going, right?) The different dynamic duo win and discover the “cat woman” is Princess Khefretari of the hidden city of Memnon. Mr. Finnigan Dent (there’s that name again) looted the city and plans to return to finish the job. To the Batplane, Tarzan!

Predictably, Batman and Tarzan have to travel on foot to get to the hidden city. There are some humorous (and weird) episodes along the way. When they first land, Bats is taken aback with Tarzan’s pet lion. I mean, really! If Bats knows who Greystoke is, then he’s got to know the man is at home with wild animals. Cut to a later scene when Bats thinks the bull ape is friendly...and gets himself nearly beaten to death. It takes Tarzan’s fighting abilities to save the day.

Naturally, Finnigan Dent tries to kill our heroes but not before said lion rends one half of Dent’s face. Yes! Now I know where I know the name. Dent now has, say it with me: two faces. There are enough escapes and fights to make any fan of pulp fiction happy. The best one is when our heroes are chained together and thrown into the alligator pool. After their escape (giving nothing away here), you have the single best frame of the book. Tarzan, bleeding from a shoulder wound, is stopped by Bats for a field dressing. Igor Kardey’s art shows Tarzan, eyes rolling, head tilted, assenting to Batman’s ministrations, with one line, “Very well.” This from a man who had part of his scalp torn from his head in the first book. Next, Tarzan compliments the field dressing. Batman’s reply: “I’ve had practice.” So much said in so few words.

It’s a fun story although far from earth-shattering. The art is well done. Kordey gives Batman black eyes most of time, a neat take on the standard white. Tarzan is rendered fantastically, all muscles yet haunted eyes. You have a lot of little moments (like the field dressing scene) that pay homage to various things in each character's past. I remember reading it back in the day but, as I mentioned before, forgot I even had it. Come Christmas, I’ll probably forget it again. But, as part of my All Things Tarzan mode I’ve been in, I enjoyed it and would like to read another adventure with these two quintessential heroes.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reed Farrel Coleman and Ken Bruen - Interview Link

Crime writer Keith Rawson has posted an interview he conducted with Reed Farrel Coleman and Ken Bruen in support of their new novel, Tower, the first original work from Houston's own Busted Flush Press. The Farrel part is a video; the Bruen via e-mail. Both wonderfully revealing.

Check it out. I plan to get my copy of Tower this weekend.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

CSI: Miami - Recap - "In Plane Sight"

How was last night's CSI: Miami episode similar to a fantasy many defrauded investors have about Bernie Madoff? Find out in my recap over at Bookspotcentral.com.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Arizona Cardinals - Haiku

A tale of two halves.
The game lasts sixty minutes.
Clock's ticking, Coach K...

A second Haiku:

Third-and-inches. Failed.
Fourth-and-one on the goal line.
Stuffed. Make one, we win.

Houston Texans - 21
Arizona Cardinals - 28

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Reading Habits Meme

Saw this going around so I thought I'd join.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack?
Rarely. If anything, I drink something: ice water, iced tea; hot tea

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
Frequently. I'll mark passages, either in fiction or non-fiction, I like, mostly to help with my reviews.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?
I remember the page number. If not, anything to put in the book, often the pencil I use to mark passages.

Laying the book flat open?
Not usually. I like the book in my hands.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?
Both. Lots of history on the non-fiction side. Pulp, crime, SF, etc. on the other.

Hard copy or audiobooks?
In recent years, I have been favoring audiobooks. I still like hard copies (ebooks included) but audiobooks allow me to read many more books than I otherwise would. Plus, I get the story read to me. How cool is that?

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?
At any point. With audiobooks, often, I arrive at my destination at points other than chapter breaks so I pretty much read that way with a hard copy, too.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?
Pretty much never. I might make a mental note (if listening) or underline the word on the hard copy but I never stop reading and look up a word. It breaks the flow.

What are you currently reading?
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.
Gabriel Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear

What is the last book you bought?
Gabriel Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear

(Via New Mystery Reader, I've just been sent The Last Dickens and Bury Me Deep)

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?
I read at least two books at a time, one audio and one (or more) in hard copy. Last week, I was reading Gabriel Hunt, listening to The Lost Symbol in the car, and listened to The Beasts of Tarzan at the office.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?
Any time, any place.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?
With my introduction to Tarzan this year, I'm see the fun of series books. There's something nice about familiar characters returning. However, I like the clean slate of a stand-alone, too, the unpredictability.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?
The Shadow of the Wind
Gabriel Hunt books
Mystic River
The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow
Money Shot by Christa Faust
Ender's Game

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)
On the shelf. Paperbacks stacked horizontally; hardbacks/trade paperbacks stacked vertically. All my Hard Case Crime books are together on the shelf or displayed on my wall. Other than that, no order at all.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Book Review Club: The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski

(This is the October edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list, head on over to her blog or click on the icon at the end of this review.)

The movie "Fatal Attraction" was visceral warning to any guy who merely entertained the notion of cheating on his wife. Duane Swierczynski's "The Blonde" chalks up another visceral: if you're thinking about hogging a stool in an airport bar on the night before you're to meet with your wife's divorce lawyer, just don't do it. Really. It's not safe. And it could get you in a world of trouble.

Jack Eisley clearly never read Swierczynski's book. Well, how could he? He's the main character. He goes to the bar and the cute blonde, the one that probably trolls around all the airport bars looking for lost travelers, lays a line on him he doesn't believe that starts this exchange:

"I poisoned your drink."
"Excuse me?"
"You heard me."
"Um, I don't think I did."
The blonde lifted her cosmopolitan. "Cheers."

In the annals of hooks that grab you by the lapels and dare you *not* to read anymore, this one is quite clever. Jack and "The Blonde" (who gets a name later on in the book but I'm not going to spoil it here) have some confused, yet witty repartee that actually had me chuckling all throughout the book. Jack uses logic, as would anyone, but the Blonde has all the comebacks. Aside from the blue ribbon pickup line, the Blonde has something else to lay on Jack: her little secret. If she doesn't keep someone within ten feet of her, she'll die. The Blonde is a modern day femme fatale, the way she cleverly runs circles around Jack's questions and disbelief. She's a winner. She leaves Jack in the bar with the best thing she could: doubt.

Mike Kowalski is the other main character in the story. A government agent, he's gone off the rez and made himself a one-man vengeance squad looking to take out the hoods that killed the lady he loved. He's got one of the goons in the sights of his sniper rifle, ready to pull the trigger and add a little brain matter to the goon's pizza, when his cell rings. It's his handler, former handler, thank you very much, and former something else. She's got a job for him, two actually. Fly to Houston (Yay! My town!) and retrieve a man's head. Yes, Mike, the whole thing. Sheesh, man, you got static on the other end of the line? Job #2: find a woman named Kelly White. She may have come in contact with the headless guy and we need her corralled.

With these two (three, now) strands started, Swierczynski slams the pedal to the metal and roars out the gate at breakneck speed. The bulk of the story takes place in a little less than twelve hours. Swierczynski shifts from Kowlaski's POV and storyline to Jack's (and the Blonde, who is Kelly White, natch). Thus, after awhile, you get what you'd expect: Kowalski the government agent hunting down Kelly White "and the new guy she met at an airport bar." (See, Jack, stay away from airport bars, man!).

Swierczynski's style is light, filled with fun pop references, and is pretty dang funny. I found myself laughing aloud more than once. Like his third book, Severance Package (my review) the pace is relentless, giving you (and Jack) few pauses to catch your breath. It makes for an exciting and thrilling read. And, with the trade paperback edition, you get the equivalent of a DVD extra: the short story, "Redhead," the sequel. I'm not saying anything about that story. You'll have to read "The Blonde" first. Go ahead, read those first few lines, then the first few pages. You'll not want to have this book farther than ten feet away until you've plowed your way to the end. It's worth it.


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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

CSI: Miami - Recap - Episode 03 "Bolt Action"

My recap of last night's CSI: Miami episode is up at Bookspotcentral. Have a read and see if you don't agree with my comment about cameos.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Music of 1999 - Brand New Day by Sting

Sting’s 1999 CD, “Brand New Day,” was released ten years ago last Monday (28 September). Coming three years after “Mercury Falling,” Brand New Day (BND) was the return of Happy Sting. For many, the 1996 Mercury Falling was a somber collection. Yes, it had its downer songs—what Sting CD doesn’t?—but his Motown influences certainly made the CD unique among Sting’s oeuvre. You cannot miss the lightness with BND. If you’re like me, most of Sting’s music reminds me of seasons and weather. If Mercury Falling was a “winter” CD, BND was all summer. Musically and lyrically, Sting was in a sunny, warm, and often inviting place.

Coming mere weeks before the millennial calendar change, Sting channeled the anniversary with his first track, “A Thousand Years.” Not one to shy away from grandiose themes, Sting’s meditative singing is almost a devotion to love and longing. Evoking lovers who exist in some sort of transcendental plane not our own, Sting sings of love lost, regained, and cherished. If the album BND is a summer day, “A Thousand Years” is the darkness before the dawn.

If BND is known for one thing, it’s “Desert Rose” (introduced to the world via the Jaguar commercial). The compelling, fast-paced song is intoxicating in its rhythms, beats, and feel. Cheb Mami, an Algerian vocalist, sings the Arabic lyrics that act as counterpoint to Sting’s English lyrics. Interestingly, when Sting asked Mami if he’d like to sing with him, he sent Mami the instrumental track. Both men listened and wrote essentially the same song. How’s that for synchronicity? This is a happy, fun song, even if the lyrics speak to the lost. More than one critic, in 1999 and beyond, have noted the over synthesized nature of BND. It’s certainly here in “Desert Rose,” but the layers merely add to the overall effect of what is, in my opinion, the best song on the album. I’d rank it in the top two or three of all time. Here's the video from his live concert.

If there is a secret weapon on BND, it’s trumpeter Chris Botti. For Sting, jazz has always been a major influence on his music (remember Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland in the 80s?) and one of his jazz heroes is Miles Davis. With Botti, playing with a Harmon mute, dancing in and out of the shadows of songs, Sting is essentially playing with Davis’s heir. Botti first shows himself in “Big Lie, Small World,” a nice little Brazilian song. Botti’s trumpet flits in and around the melody, sometimes complimenting a lyric, other times doing his own thing. He closes out the song with a solo that, in 1999, had me scrambling for the liner notes to figure out just who this guy was. On tour, Botti played on almost every tune, bringing nuances to the songs that I don't think Sting knew existed. Brilliant trumpeter who knows that silences and rests are just as important as thousands of notes. I have followed his career ever since.

The remainder of the album has the types of songs you’d expect from Sting’s experiemental mind. “After the Rain Has Fallen,” (video) with its call for a life of adventure and romance, is a story song not unlike “The Pirate’s Bride,” a European-only cut from the previous album. With tongue firmly in cheek, Sting sings from a dog’s POV (for the second time; bonus points if you know the first time*) in “Perfect Love Gone Wrong.” Botti’s all over this song. In a fun treat, when the POV shifts to the dog’s owner, the music not only shifts from its jazzy jaunt to deep funk but the lyrics are rapped (by a female vocalist). Yeah, really, but it works. “Tomorrow We’ll See” has Sting singing about a prostitute, bringing out his clever use of vocabulary, rhythm, and rhyming. Sting returns to his country & western vein (that he tried out on Mercury Falling’s “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”) with “Fill Her Up” (Video) It’s a fun, up-tempo tune with steel guitar, fiddle, cat calls and a gorgeous backing choir. If you could say any song is jarring, it’s this one. Not to say it’s bad; it’s just a little off-putting when you’re in music and rhythms that are decidedly European in origin to be jettisoned to Memphis, Tennessee. The message, however, is all Sting: pure optimistic joy at the power of love.

Effervescent, joyous, jubilant, infectious, “Brand New Day” is one those quintessential Sting songs (the video). You can’t help but smile as the song just bops along while Sting tries to get all the words out of his mouth in time and on beat. Stevie Wonder contributes harmonica on the album, something Sting mimics during the tour. As the song fades away, the theme from “A Thousand Years” returns, bookending a fantastic CD. With its exhortations of turning the clock to zero to start a brand new day, it’s no wonder Sting sang this song at midnight of 1 January 2000 in New York’s Times Square.

There isn’t a Sting album I don’t’ like (yeah, even “The Soul Cages). The first album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is a milestone in my musical evolution as I was introduced to jazz in a big way. "Nothing Like the Sun" and "Ten Sumner’s Tales" are classic examples of nearly perfect pop records that speak to love and world issues. Brand New Day can sit right besides those albums. While it’s not as perfect as those first three, it’s a very good piece of music by one of the more erudite and searching songwriters of our times.

Extras:

The Brand New Day Era was capped with a concert he performed at his home on 11 September 2001. If you remember, he was to simulcast the concert on the 11th via the internet, with many of the BND songs reworked and reinterpreted. In preparation of this event, Sting had a documentary crew film him and his band. The resulting DVD, “All This Time,” showed the rehearsals and gathering of friends, family, and fans at Sting’s Italian home. We know what they didn’t: the attacks were coming. It’s fascinating to watch artists deal with the violence in their own way. In the concert that night, Sting chose to play a reimagined “Fragile” as a tribute to the victims. Here’s the video. What follows, on the DVD, is proof of the things Sting sings about: the power of music and love to deal with unimaginable grief. As the concert progresses, song by song (truncated though it was by the exclusion of certain stables like “Desert Rose” and “Englishman in New York”) you see and hear this band of musicians and audience members find joy despite sorrow and power through music. As much as the song “Fragile” was dedicated to the victims of the attacks, the rest of the concert was as well. For the reworked songs, the DVD (and CD) is worth the price. For the joy you will get by the concert’s end, that’s priceless.

Extras, part 2:

In 1999, many songs found themselves remixed for discotheques all over the world. Usually, this entailed putting backbeats to the song, no matter the original rhythm. Some of the Brand New Day tracks have that. “A Thousand Years” is different. Bill Laswell takes the nearly six-minute song and *doubles* it’s running time. The opening is orchestral, introducing the theme with Middle Eastern effects subtly playing in the background. Back beats do start and Sting’s wispy voice seemed even more ethereal here. But it’s Chris Botti’s trumpet that get all the glory. The vocals end with over four minutes left, leaving Botti time to play with the melody. One could argue that this version of the song should have made the album.

*1987’s “Conversation with a dog,” available on the “We’ll Be Together” single.

The Music of 1999 - Introduction

Ten years ago, I finally grew up.

While that may be a harsh thing to say about a thirty-two-year-old person, it was true. After many years in college and graduate school, I managed to claw my way out of school and into a real life. I had met a new lady in 1998 and we were still dating. In late December 1998, I moved back to my hometown. I looked for and found a job. I courted that lady and we married in August 1999. As the fall of 1999 crept onward, the millennial rush started. Remember Y2K? Remember all the End of the World books and movies? Remember all the Best of lists? As a historian, the ending of 1999 brought a confluence of eras. You could have the Person of the Year (can't really remember), the Person of the Decade (Bill Clinton is my vote, for better or worse), the Person of the Century (Gavrilo Princip; think about it: who else affected the 20th Century more?), and the Person of the Millennium (Johannes Gutenberg). It was an exciting time.

On my car stereo back then, I was being introduced to new music by artists I had never heard of and older artists I knew and liked were creating some of their best music. For me, 1999 was a very special year and the music is an integral part of it.

So, I'm sharing some of my favorite albums and songs from a decade (!) ago. It'll be an on-going series for the next several Mondays, at least through November. Maybe you liked some of these albums, too. Maybe you hated them. I'd like to hear from you.

First up (a bit later today): Sting's Brand New Day.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Houston Texans vs. Oakland Raiders - Haiku

A win is a win,
But it felt like pre-season
In rainy H-Town.

Houston Texans (2-2)- 29
Oakland Raiders (1-3) - 6

Friday, October 2, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

You have to give Edgar Rice Burroughs credit, the man knows how to start a story. When we last saw our hero in The Return of Tarzan, John Clayton had married his true love, Jane Porter. The sweeping soundtrack played in your mind and the sun set on the Atlantic Ocean. You might be tempted to think that the opening scenes of the third book in the series, The Beasts of Tarzan, would show Lord and Lady Greystoke and their gushy love at peace in Scotland.

You’d be wrong. Chapter one’s title, “Kidnapped,” provides the first hint, paragraph one gives you all you need to know about this book: Tarzan arch enemy, Nikolas Rokoff, has escaped. Three pages later, the final piece of the plot: a piece of paper, written by his wife, to Tarzan: “Jack [Tarzan’s infant son] stolen from garden through complicity of new servant. Come at once. Jane.”

And we’re off. I don’t know enough pulp history to determine who was the first author to give a readership a series of cliffhangers but ERB is a likely candidate. Through manipulations a plenty, Tarzan finds himself captive on a boat headed to...Africa! No, seriously. I tell you what: if I’m Rokoff, I’m taking the Lord of the *Jungle* to Antarctica or the Sahara, anywhere but the very same jungle from whence he came. Now, truth be told, Rokoff maroons him on a jungle island (later named Jungle Island) where hoards of wild beasts have never heard of Tarzan. They must challenge the white man. They do.

They lose. Tarzan still knows how to speak ape and tussles with the king ape of a different tribe. Tarzan kills said ape and, after a bit, wins over the allegiance of the rest of the apes, about a dozen or so. At this stage, Tarzan becomes a cross between Dr. Doolittle and Aquaman: he recruits the apes (that's Akut on the cover image), Sheeta the leopard, and an African, Mugambi. We won’t even discuss the fact that the beasts of Tarzan include a man. Nevertheless, When Tarzan’s in trouble, he can send out a signal and his hoard come to his rescue.

With his posse in tow (literally, these apes help Tarzan row a boat from Jungle Island to the African mainland), Tarzan hunts Rokoff. Tarzan thinks Jane is in London but that his boy is with Rokoff. Jane, meanwhile, really *is* in Africa, having been captured by Rokoff but then escaping from him. Along the way, she gets an infant she *thinks* is hers but doesn’t find out the truth until later (i.e., daylight). The poor baby dies and, when Tarzan hears the news, he thinks it was his kid that died, not even knowing that the white woman is, in fact, his wife.

Burroughs packs in a lot of chases, near misses, deadly battles, into this book. With all the misdirection and mistaken identities, it’s almost like an episode of the old TV series, “Three’s Company.” As I mentioned earlier, ERB knows how to grab a reader and keep those pages a’ turnin’. At certain places, just when one hero is at the highest danger, ERB shifts focus to the other hero. He brings the second hero to death’s door...and then throws you back to the first hero. It’s Saturday morning serial storytelling at its best.

The kicker is the last chapter, when you learn about the fate of the infant and what he’s been doing while his parents are fighting wild beasts and crazed Russians. Granted, glancing at the title of the fourth book pretty much laid your fears to rest, but, still, it was kind of funny the way the whole thing turned out.

Burroughs writes in the omniscient narrator POV all the time and he breaks the fourth wall on the last page. “Possibly we shall see them [Tarzan, Jane, et. al.] all there amid the savage romance of the grim jungle and the great plains where Tarzan of the Apes loves best to be. Who knows?” Like Tarzan’s first two adventures, The Beasts of Tarzan was serialized first (in All-Story Cavalier magazine) and later published as a book. Burroughs knew what he was doing when he wrote those last words: leaving it up to the readers to demand the next exciting adventure of Tarzan.

Writing note: Burroughs started writing this third adventure of Tarzan in January 1914. He finished one month later. One. Month. Later.

Wow.