Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Agricultural Noir

Today is Cesar Chavez day, a state holiday in California, where our Golden State bounty still depends on migrant farm workers, willing to do the back-breaking work of gathering lettuce and hand-picking tomatoes for urban and suburban dining tables.

Now, film noir has always tackled serious issues ... from antisemitism (Crossfire) to rampant materialism (The Prowler), it's embraced themes bigger budgets wouldn't touch (and thereby earned some of the genre's best writers and directors a spot on the McCarthy-era blacklist).

So if you've already seen The Grapes of Wrath--surely one of the most elegiac films ever made--and you're not close enough to drive to Salinas and the John Steinbeck Center--you might want to consider watching an actual agricultural noir in honor of farm workers.

First choice is 1949's Thieves' Highway, which I've blogged about before. Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb ... and magnifcently directed by the brilliant Jules Dassin, whom we lost just last year. This film is one of my favorite twenty-five noirs of all time ... and written by the equally brilliant A.I. "Buzz" Bezzerides, who also penned Kiss Me Deadly and They Drive By Night, among other classics. Renowned for its realistic depiction of the produce market in San Francisco, this film will never let you look at apples the same way again.

I'd also recommend Border Incident (also 1949) with George Murphy, Howard da Silva and Ricardo Montalban, also previously discussed and readily available on DVD ... it will never let you look at threshers the same way again, either.

But for those of you who look for the truly esoteric ... which would probably include everyone reading this ... try to find Juke Girl (1942), the noir I mentioned last week. It's the oddest, most bizarre little film I've seen in years, and not the least so because it stars Ronald Reagan as a rabble-rousing farm/unionist/cooperative worker fighting a corrupt business monopoly.

Yeah. I know. I remember the '80s, too. But this was Reagan's flirtation with leftist politics, pre agro-business. The script, not coincidentally, was also written by Bezzerides (his first film credit), and reads like a poor man's (make that a very poor man's) version of Thieves' Highway.

Ann Sheridan, George Tobias, Gene Lockhart and Howard da Silva round out the noir cred cast ... though its cred was never in question with me because it came recommended by Eddie Muller. I finally caught it on TCM when it aired a few weeks ago. Ably directed by Curtis Bernhardt (an under-appreciated stylist of noirs Conflict, Possessed and The High Wall), the relentlessly swing-filled score--which continues to jump, jive and wail even in dramatic moments--will make you scratch your head in wonder, when you're not wondering at Reagan as a leftist farmer.

So tonight--when you're digging into some organic greens or slicing a cherry tomato--think about the people who helped get it there, and kick back and watch a noir.

With fresh produce and lines like this: "Look bud, every time a freight train shakes itself fleas like you come hopping out" ... you won't go hungry.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sisterhood in the Blogosphere!

I was delighted and honored to get a Sisterhood Award nomination from PK the Bookeemonster and her wonderful, always insightful blog!

Herewith are my nominees (wonder women all), and the directions:

1. Put the logo on your blog or post.
2. Nominate up to 10 blogs which show great attitude and/or gratitude!
3. Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.
4. Let them know that they have received this award by commenting on their blog.
5. Remember to link to the person from whom you received your award.

And the nominees are:

1. Laura Benedict's Notes from the Handbasket (a fascinating blog, stunning writer, and dear friend)

2. Linda L. Richards (fellow Deco-loving pal from the NW, and a great writer and journalist)

3. Sophie Littlefield's Can't Stop, Won't Stop (good friend and debut novelist--watch for her terrific BAD DAY FOR SORRY, coming out in August)

4. Kaye Barley's Meanderings and Musings (a graceful, lovely presence wherever she is, with a blog to match!)

5. BookBitch (one of the best thriller/mystery review sites around--thanks, Stacy!!)

6. Becky LeJeune's No More Grumpy Bookseller (Becky is a fabulous reviewer and speed reader!)

7. Jungle Red Writers (amazing writers and amazing women all)

8. Working Stiffs (always fun and interesting, and a truly great community)

9. Poe's Deadly Daughters (the name says it all!! another wonderful group of writers)

10. Sarah Weinman's brilliant, must-read blog for all crime fiction news and observations, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

Next post, a crazy little noir starring Ronald Reagan as a farm worker organizer, fighting corrupt monopolies in the burgeoning agro-business of 1942. Yeah, you heard me. It's called JUKE GIRL, and features Ann Sheridan in the titular role.

BTW--March 26th is the anniversary of Raymond Chandler's death. If you love crime fiction, remember the master with a nod of your fedora.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mahalo Morning

The last few days have been blurry. Of course, it could be that I need a new eye prescription, but I don't think so.

Hawaii lingers on the mind, the odor of plumeria and tropical breeze, the song and raucous cries of mynah birds. Black earth, white coral, both scorched by the sun, but gently ... gently.

Wednesday morning I woke up and stared out at the view from my room lanai ... the mountains in the distance, the palm trees--somehow more fragile there than in California--waving against a bluing sky.

A little later, I ate breakfast--how I miss the papaya!--and attended the awards brunch, loving Lee Goldberg's humor and Rhys Bowen's wonderful version of "I'm Evil" (she's also a fabulous singer!) and Barry Eisler's story about taking a long, hard fall in Japan. And jumped up with everyone, cheering on Bill and Toby Gottfried to a so well-deserved standing ovation. Then my world erupted into a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, and absolute wonderment.

I was, and am, immensely honored at my nomination, and so proud to be listed among writers whom I admire so much as artists and people and friends. I can't really remember anything except the kaleidoscope and somehow making it to the stairway of the podium (thanks to the kind souls in the audience who were shouting "Go around, Kelli!") ... and wondering how I'd keep from either crying or imitating Sally Field or just freezing. I don't remember what I said -- it was a moment when words fail wordsmiths.

All in all, it felt a little like some kind of wonderful, spectacular concussion ... and it was a moment I'll treasure the rest of my life. Thank you, LCC and the amazing, incredible mystery community--and thank you, Hawaii. :)

I managed to get home on the red eye, red-eyed, no sleep. Slept a bit on Thursday, a little more on Friday, and then it was off to Sacramento and Authors on the Move, a formal gourmet dinner fundraiser for the Sacramento Public Libraries. Great fun, getting to drink Buena Vista pinot noir, meeting lots of other authors from all genres, and talking to three different tables of patrons about books and writing. Borders handled the book sales, a percentage of which went to the library, along with the profits from the live auction ... all in all, a spectacularly fun and exciting event in California's capital.

My luck held on the way back ... after a drive of more than 90 miles, our front tire went flat as we pulled into a Trader Joe's parking space. So it was an emergency visit to Sears Auto Center (Sears is a kind of family tradition), the only one open on a Sunday. We made it home, bedraggled, with my mom (who attended the Sacramento event), and dog in the back seat. And a lot of not-so-fresh produce from the Valley. You should see the size of the oranges!

And now back to work and focus ... though at the moment, I'm enjoying the blur. :)

Mahalo ... and aloha!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

LCC Hawaii Top Ten

It seems as if I've just arrived, just adjusted myself to a warm, slower and less hectic environment, and now--Wednesday--I go back to my beloved San Francisco and embrace the cold and the stress and the bustle all over again.

I'm not complaining--Noir City is my physical and spiritual home--but let's just say I understand the allure and hospitality of the Big Island--and I plan to return with my family for a vacation.

It's been a wonderful, wonderful conference--and I thought I'd share my top ten reasons why Hawaii makes for a really special LCC conference destination ...

1. It's warm, but not too warm. Yesterday the sun fully embraced us, and it was magnificent. The humidity isn't overbearing, the sunshine gentle, and the mountains in the distance still have snow.

2. Relaxation. I'm not actually sure if I've ever relaxed at a conference before this one ... at least without alcoholic help ... and a constant state of motion and excitement is its own fun (Thrillerfest in New York, for example). But it's wonderful to be able to relax without falling asleep!

3. Nature. Conferences tend to be held in urban centers, from New York to Chicago to San Francisco. The only kind of wild kingdom we usually get to see is the kind we write about in crime novels. To catch a glimpse of a mongoose in a parking lot--fish slipping between rocks and darting out of holes in ancient fish ponds--multi-colored birds flitting from fronds or to wake up to the myna birds outside your lanai--you instantly feel more connected to the Earth. And that's a good thing. You may even see wild goats and donkeys on the road between Kona and Waikoloa ... instead of the familiar deer silouette on the highway warning sign, you'll notice longer ears and shorter legs.

4. Culture. It doesn't take long--maybe two minutes?--to immediately feel the unique and special cultural heritage of Hawaii, and its genuine, welcoming spirit.

5. Waikoloa Marriott. A fabulous, open resort hotel, with a good restaurant and beautiful grounds.

6. Fresh papaya and passion fruit juice. Where else can you get served exotic fruit for your continental breakfast? Where else can you where fragrant flowers around your neck?

7. Diversity. In culture, nature, and things to do ... you can venture up a volcano, go horseback riding on a ranch, bird watch, take a sub tour, and get up close and personal with whales.

8. Luaus. On Sunday night we saw dancers, fire throwers/eaters, drummers, and enjoyed a veritable feast. If it's not in Hawaii, it's not a luau--it's just Grease II.

9. Cocktails. All those fruity drinks with the paper umbrellas actually belong here. I enjoyed a Blue Hawaii last night in honor of Elvis.

10. When you wake up, you're in Hawaii! And that's enough.

I'll blog tomorrow after I recover from the red-eye and share a wrap-up of my final day today ... but right now, I'm going out on the lanai and listen to the myna birds.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Aloha Spirit ... Left Coast Crime

So it's my first time in Hawaii, the conference is fabulous, and now that my cognitive abilities are reasonably restored (though never reasonable), some of my impressions ...

I arrived Sunday morning, amazed to land on the tarmac (yay for tarmacs!) rather than one of those long airport tubes. It was raining, a mystical, tropical warmth of big drops falling with a gentle touch on the black, rugged land all around the tiny airport.

The airport itself consists of small brown wooden buildings with open air exposure, dark brown, more like what I'd imagine as tasteful amusement park architecture, if that's not an oxymoron.

I bought a lei of plumeria and orchids (amazing fragrance) at the airport ... and yeah, I've heard the joke about sixteen times now, so quit sniggering.

Volcanic mountains rise up in the distance ... to the south, the island is green and lush. To the north, black sharp rocks--a more than century-old lava flow--drape the land, creating a disconcerting contrast to the pre-formed ideas of paradise. But then -- the aloha spirit. On the way to the Waikoloa Marriott -- a mostly new complex of hotel, garden, pool, beach, palm trees and shopping malls called the King Shops and the Queen's Marketplace--you see words spelled out in white shell against the sombre lava-black. Words that pay tribute, words that honor and remember, words that testify to love, whether it's Angie plus Daniel or in memory of someone lost.

No "graffitti". That wouldn't honor the land. That wouldn't honor the people. And that wouldn't, from my limited experience, seem to be Hawaiian.

People are friendly here, aloha and mahalo not just words in a tourist booklet or left on a recording when you're on phone hold. I've learned that Hawaii is a beautiful place with an ugly epidemic: crystal meth, called ice on the island. There's also an older crisis, the disparity of wealth between the land-owners and the poor, a demarkation of inequity that stretches back to the plantation era.

Hawaii is a land of contrast. Like aloha written in shells on the black, sharp rock.

I want to learn more about it ... and will.

And in the meantime, the conference is amazing. Louise Ure and Gillian Roberts and Bill and Toby Gottfried and Janet Rudolph, and all the dedicated volunteers have done an incredible job ... fascinating panels, exploratory side trips, movies, even a Sunday night luau.

Yesterday morning we enjoyed a spectacular debut author's breakfast sponsored by Mystery Scene ... followed by two debut panels. People are talking, sharing, drinking mai tais, admiring the flora and fauna (I saw a mongoose!) ... and relaxing. The rain has stopped.

And underneath it all, the aloha spirit ... a specific and special evocation of the generosity and humanity that always defines the mystery writing community. Hawaii and Left Coast Crime belong together. I'm so glad I'm here.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Unconventional Convention!

I'm on my way to Hawaii tomorrow--first time there. This year's Left Coast Crime is the "unconventional convention" and it promises to be a slap-bang load of fun and frolic and originality ... and with events like movie nights and a theatrical production and a dessert spectacular, it truly is unconventional.

While I'm flying tomorrow--in between writing deadlines--I'll be thinking about the journey that brought me to Kona. NOX was nominated for the Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award, and what an amazing, incredible honor to be listed with fabulous writers I admire so much: Rhys Bowen, Laurie R. King and Tasha Alexander. And I'll be thinking about my family and friends, and how they teamed up to figure out the economics of getting me to the Big Island. And I'll be thinking about the writing community, and what a wonderful, generous and supportive group it is, and how privileged I am to be a part of it.

I'll be thinking about noir, too--I'll be giving a talk about film noir for one of the "Talk Stories" at LCC, fifteen minutes of author freedom. And I'll be researching and writing, too.

Above all, I'll be giving thanks. No, it's not November ... and yes, I'm a noir writer. But writing about noir also means being able to appreciate what we have and how lucky we are to have it.

I'm also thankful that I wasn't a writer when Dorothy Parker was a reviewer ... I came across this quote the other day: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." I don't know the book she was describing--and that's exactly the point. ;)