Summer of Soul

You may have seen previews for the music documentary Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and think it looks worth seeing. Well, you’re right! There’s a lot packed in there, reclaimed from footage recorded during a series of outdoor concerts held in 1969 in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park (trailer).

Officially titled the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts took place the same summer as Woodstock. But while that event has a movie, soundtrack albums, and innumerable cultural references, the Summer of Soul was at risk of being forgotten altogether. For years, the filmmakers who captured the music and sound tried vainly to acquire funding for a finished film.

Finally, they sold the rights to producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent. They approached Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” He was amazed at the footage of the Festival. Not only was it mesmerizing, he couldn’t believe he’d never heard of these concerts.

What’s to like? The music is terrific. Each week, the concert featured a different type of music—blues, soul, pop—and the performers ranged from gospel choirs and Mahalia Jackson to Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, to the Fifth Dimension, to the Staple Singers to Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. The concerts were organized and mc’d by singer Tony Lawrence, whom you may know as “The Continental Dreamboat” (pictured) and you can justify the price of admission just to see his outfits. 

While the music makes this a must-see, for those who lived through that era, the cultural touchstones are breathtaking. Especially interesting are the reminiscences of people—performers and audience-members—who were there and talk about what the festival meant to them.

The documentary cannot avoid the era’s significant social context, which so strongly reminded of how I felt at the time and my hopes for my country. Yes, it made me feel a little old.

Spectacular! And coming soon, the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 98%.

Managing the Message, 16th Century Style

You think world leaders are using considerable creativity (at times through outrageous lying) to shape public opinion? Imagine the problems of emperors and kings before the 24/7 news cycle, before the Internet, before broadcast, before . . . before . . . before.

No, there weren’t websites and news analysts, and tell-all best-sellers. But that didn’t matter—hardly anyone could read anyway. That’s one reason Shakespeare was such a hit. He told it like it was in a form any rowdy theater-goer could relate to.

Last week, I took a zoom class with art expert and teacher Gene Wisniewski on how Elizabeth I used her portraits to get her political messages across. Today, we’d call them propaganda. She used the portraits to solidify her role as the head of state and the Church of England (after the rather tumultuous succession after Henry VIII) and as a leader on the world stage. Admittedly, she wasn’t in the breaking news business. It takes a while to produce a portrait, especially one where the subject is so elaborately garbed in gems and pearls.

A good example is the portrait above. Gene says to look at it left-to-right, like a cartoon panel. There in the left background is the Spanish Armada, sailing in splendor. Then there’s Elizabeth, dominating the middle, then the Armada on the right, blackened and sinking in defeat. Even subjects unable to read can get the message. Oh, and the hand on the globe. Not just anywhere, either, the Americas. There’s a message.

Gene took us through a succession of the paintings of the queen and what they were meant to convey. Below is was one of my favorites. Do you think Elizabeth wanted her subjects to know she had her eyes and ears on them?

Jewels That Made History

American Ancestors recently featured an entertaining session with author Stellene Volandes, editor-in-chief of Town and Country magazine and author of Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends. As jewelry is considered one of the decorative arts, it often hasn’t been taken seriously. Volandes likes to look below the surface to uncover what the piece was designed to convey. Immediately, you think of Madeleine Albright and her carefully curated collection of pins!

Now I look more closely at Queen Elizabeth II, too. Her predecessor, Elizabeth I, used her jewels to express her power. That association was the reason the Justinian code said only the emperor could wear pearls, sapphires, and emeralds. Charles I was beheaded wearing his pearl earring, a symbol of his power & status. With the development of the cultured pearl industry, which accounts for virtually all pearls sold today, they are less rare and, therefore, less precious.

Volandes credited Queen Victoria with creative use of her impressive supply of jewelry, pointing to her use of a coronet (small crown) as a holder for her hair arrangement, as shown in an 1840 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Not just royalty has made a statement with their jewelry choices. Volander said the development of Art Nouveau, which influenced all the decorative arts, can be linked to the opening up of Japan, which inspired a whole new aesthetic tradition. Receptivity to Eastern influences was, in turn, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

When the French wanted to erase the legacy of their aristocracy, the leaders planned to sell the crown jewels. Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of New York’s Tiffany & Co., palace of breakfasts, bought many of them in the 1800s. He knew his clientele was hungry for items with a royal provenance, and the act brought him the sobriquet “King of Diamonds.”

One of Tiffany’s best-known gems today is the 128 carat yellow diamond that Lady Gaga wore at the 2019 Academy Awards. She was only the third person to wear it. Tiffany paid $18,000 for it (uncut) in 1877. Now, it’s “basically priceless.”

Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, by Madeleine Albright, 2009. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends, by Stellene Volandes, 2020. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

History Mysteries – Part 2

New Orleans-based author Michael H. Rubin attended the Deadly Ink! Conference around the time his historical, The Cottoncrest Curse, was published, and I met him there, then read and reviewed his book. His academic publisher, LSU Press, insisted on historical accuracy of the book’s two time periods, 1893 and the 1960s Civil Rights era. To make sure, they had “a bevy of historians” vet the manuscript. That sounded like a nail-biter to me, because historical events don’t have a single interpretation, and we’re always learning more. Think how, after 3400 years, we’re still making new archaeological discoveries in Egypt!

In the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, Paul Vidich’s essay, “A Personal Historical Murder Mystery,” struck a chord with me. His novel, The Coldest Warrior, was inspired by the death of his scientist uncle who “jumped or fell” from his 13th floor hotel room in New York City. Only years later did the family learn he’d been given LSD in one of the CIA’s ill-considered experiments. He had several false starts in trying to fictionalize this story, mostly because he was too close to it.

It wasn’t until he took a step back and examined the events not from his family’s point of view, but from that of the CIA officers engaged in—“murder, cover-up, and a power struggle over the repercussions of the case”—could he make headway. Ultimately, the story showed the psychological burdens on them, and Vidich makes the broader point that “Honorable men who work in covert operations inevitably bring some of the darkness into themselves.”

This resonated with me after a failed attempt to write a short story that would bring in highlights from the fascinating (to me) genealogy of my great-great grandmother. Like Vidich, I was much too close to the subject, so I sent an early draft to my editor, Barb Goffman, more than a little embarrassed because I knew it was awful! All the elements that engaged me came out, and a completely different story resulted. It’s “The Unbroken Circle,” published last summer in Pulp Modern. Despite the magazine title, this story is a historical, set in the late 1800s. The editors must have found its evergreen themes of family loyalty and connecting to the past “modern” enough.

History Mysteries – Part 1

To be considered a “historical” mystery, a story’s events don’t have to have occurred in ancient Athens or Rome, as long as they happened at least 50 years ago. Lou Berney’s award-winning November Road, involving the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, Play the Red Queen set in the early days of the Vietnam War, and Kate Quinn’s new Bletchley Park spy novel, The Rose Code (World War II), certainly qualify.

In some ways, the difficulty of mastering the historical details—especially for near-past milieus where readers actually remember fashions, transportation, and pop culture references and may be delighted to ding an author who gets it wrong—is balanced by not having to deal with today’s instant communications and surveillance tools.

It’s hard to maintain tension when your reader is thinking, “Why didn’t he just pick up the phone?” This explains why characters are always leaving their cell phones in the truck or losing signal or battery. “Why didn’t he just Google it?” Having to devise plot workarounds for these difficulties makes a writer occasionally long for simpler times, in technology terms, at least. The stories of 12th century Brother Cadfael suddenly gain appeal.

Janet Rudolph’s current highly entertaining issue of Mystery Readers Journal (Spring 2021) takes on Historical Mysteries with author perspectives, articles, and reviews. Rhys Bowen’s essay “Why I Write Historical Mystery” made a number of thought-provoking points. She opts for glamour in her long-running Royal Spyness mysteries and the lure of romance in the popular standalone, The Tuscan Child.

About World War II as a setting, Bowen says it was “the last time when we had a clear sense of good versus evil.” (True, at least, for Eurocentric countries, less so in other parts of the world, I fear.) As Rose Code author Quinn explained in a lively interview with the Princeton Public Library, the main reason she’s not tempted to turn her mountains of research into some even-handed non-fiction account is that in fiction, “you get to pick a side.”

The MRJ essay by Renee Patrick (nom de plume of married couple Rosemarie and Vince Keenan) discusses their series of Hollywood golden age mysteries in “Crimes of Fashion.” The protagonists, New Yorker Lillian Frost and legendary costume designer Edith Head, embody “tenacity, hard work, and an uncanny ability to read people,” which also make an ideal sleuth. It wounds like the duo’s experiences prove once again that “clothes make the man.” Third in the series, Script for Scandal, came out last December.

What are your favorite historicals? Mine include the Maisie Dobbs series (WWI), the early novels of Alan Furst (WWII) and the stories of Ben Pastor from inside the Third Reich and, and, and . . .

Insights from more historical mystery writers in Part II tomorrow!

A Notable True Crime Anniversary

Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photo: Sean Dungan

Shortly after midnight, thirty-one years ago today, two fully uniformed Boston policemen were let into the indifferently secured Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But they weren’t cops; they were thieves. They tied up the two security guards and proceeded to wander the museum, stealing what appeared to be an almost random collection of paintings and art objects, retrieved the video footage from the security system, and departed.

Thirty-one years ago this morning, the daytime security guard located and released his colleagues, the museum staff were brokenhearted, the real Boston police arrived, trailed shortly thereafter by the FBI. While the haul was essentially priceless, it has been collectively valued at more than $500 million. It was the largest art crime and the largest property theft in U.S. history, and it remains unsolved. Netflix is taking it on now; details below.

The museum offered a huge reward—now $10 million. No takers, not in over three decades. From the first, FBI agents theorized the theft was the work of low-level organized crime figures. When the statute of limitations on the theft ran out, the FBI confidently predicted some mug would finally come forward with information. Crickets. Then they said fugitive mobman Whitey Bulger, might hold the key. Whitey was finally nabbed in California in 2011. He died in 2018, without a chirp. They engaged another New England mobster for help, but he died last fall, apparently without providing any. In fact, for thirty-one years, the FBI has periodically predicted an imminent resolution to this spectacular crime, and each time, nothing.

My short story “Above Suspicion” was published in 2018 in the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Issue 26). It suggests an entirely different scenario. My thieves are two Massachusetts General Hospital surgical residents, recruited by a European fence. The docs are impoverished by years of medical training, and, on reflection, happy to have a substantial nest-egg to start their practices. Here’s how it answers the key questions the crime has raised.

1.How did the thieves talk their way into the museum against institutional policy? Do you know any surgeons? If they can’t convey a sense of authority, no one can.
2.Who hired/organized them? A man from Europe, a fence unknown to U.S. authorities or mobsters.
3.Since stealing art is child’s play compared to getting rid of it afterward, what happened to it? They stole items “to order.” The fence pre-sold them to people who aren’t fastidious about provenance.
4.Why did they overlook several more valuable works? Again, the buyers made their choices.
5.Why has no word leaked out? The European believed two doctors, unlike low-level mobsters, would never reveal his crime in a drunken confession or to a stoolie cellmate.
6.Why, with all the valuable art on display, did they steal two low-value Degas sketches? Those works were for them, one apiece, as a reminder.

Fictionalizing a real-life event has constraints. While I could make up the characters and the means for getting the works out of the country (sewn into the upholstery of a couple of showy vintage Cadillacs), I kept the core details of the crime completely true-to-life, fitting my fiction into a box of facts. Each time another FBI prediction falls flat, my theory remains standing. (smile)

I’m eager to see what Netflix does with this story. A four-part docuseries, This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, is coming April 7.

My reading (Amazon has a three-book deal on these books):

The Gardner Heist by reporter Ulrich Boser, Order on Amazon
Priceless by FBI Art Crime Team founder, Robert K. Wittman – Amazon link
Stealing Rembrandts by Gardner Museum security director Anthony M. Amore and reporter Tom Mashberg. Amazon link

Angelino Heights

By Adam Bregman – Quirky thrillers that don’t follow typical “hero’s journey” plotting have great appeal. You really don’t know what’s coming next. Adam Bregman’s debut thriller is one of these books, with the quirkiness intensified by a passion for the Los Angeles of decades ago. The story is set in the late 90s, and the protagonists are on the hunt for classic neighborhoods, bars that have lived through innumerable trendiness cycles, and other vestiges of California when it was still a shared national dream, The Golden State.

You’re first introduced to Nathan Lyme, a youngish man who begins the story with a long rant about the infelicitous changes wrought in his city. “It’s not that I’m opposed to change. It’s just that I prefer they don’t change anything, unless it’s somehow for the better.” Before long, you realize Nathan’s fussiness doesn’t apply to his own behavior, as he rifles the coats and handbags of guests at a house party he briefly attends.

Next up is Dalton Everest, a high school teacher, short to Nathan’s tall, who also prowls for vintage watering holes. Sitting next to each other at a bar one night, they strike up a conversation, then an unlikely friendship. Nathan is everything Dalton is not—good looking, charming, a risk-taker, and street-smart. He’s also very private about how he makes a living.

But Nathan, whose life story you eventually learn, is lonely. He wants a partner in his crimes. And he thinks Dalton is reliable and congenial enough to assist him in his long string of car thefts and home robberies.

At first Nathan uses the heavy-drinking, but beautiful French woman Melanee to lure Dalton in, but that approach goes badly awry, and he ends up making his pitch flat-out. To Dalton’s own surprise, he goes along with Nathan’s proposal to team up, getting in deeper and deeper, terrified every step of the way.

Finally, you meet Orlando Talbert, a morose Black LAPD detective concerned about a career advancing at a snail’s pace who would like to have one spectacular score to jump-start the professional recognition he believes is his due. He makes a success of cases he’s assigned by pursuing them relentlessly, and you recognize him as Nathan and Dalton’s potential nemesis.

It’s a fast-paced read, nicely written, with strong dialog. Author Bregman has brought to the page his own enthusiasm for the remaining old, odd bits of the city and his encyclopedic knowledge about its eccentricities—geographical, architectural, and sociological. Reading the book is like a tour with a most interesting and entertaining guide.

Play the Red Queen & The Coroner’s Lunch

Bust out of your quasi-quarantine and take a trip halfway around the world and decades back in time with crime thrillers set in Saigon in 1963 and Ventiane in 1978. The politics feel tragically quaint, knowing how they turned out, but the settings are ripe for conspiracy, conflicting agendas, and misunderstandings at every level. Yet both books include characters who manage to maintain a sense of humor and perspective, even as their worlds are crumbling around them.

Play the Red Queen

By Juris Jurjevics – This new book has received considerable well deserved attention, bittersweet because the author died suddenly in late 2018, not knowing whether it would even be published. It was his aim that the book would, in his phrase, “bear witness” to an underreported aspect of the Vietnam War: the “elaborate, even treasonous corruption—and our complicity in it.”

He brings all this out in a book that is not a political diatribe but a page-turner of a thriller. American military advisors in Saigon are being killed by a beautiful and mysterious young woman who shoots with unerring accuracy from the back of a speeding Vespa. The U.S. military wants to get to the bottom of it and assigns two genial investigators. They run into countless operational and political obstacles, within the Vietnamese and American bureaucracies. Meanwhile, a powerful sense of foreboding settles on the city, as the corrupt Diem regime loses its grip. Tragically, its ouster opens the door for massive American intervention, which we know as the Vietnam War.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore.

The Coroner’s Lunch

This is the first of Colin Cotterill’s entertaining mysteries about Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old physician appointed to be Ventiane’s coroner in the new socialist Laos. He has a disconcerting habit of saying what he thinks—and one thing he thinks is that he has no training for this role—which doesn’t suit the era of extreme political correctness. Yet, people continue to die under questionable circumstances, and he has to sort it out. Fortunately, his staff is loyal and he finds a few important allies.

In theory, I would expect not to like the occasional excursions into the supernatural that Cotterill deploys, but they are so culturally consistent and believable that I just went with it. And am glad I did. It’s a charming book.

Buy here from Amazon, or Shop your local indie bookstore

(This post is my first try at Indie.Bound, an alternative to Amazon. Let me know what you think! And whether it doesn’t work!!)

A Spy’s Bedside Table

chess

Which espionage books do actual spies read and, ahem, respect? A former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, Emile Nakhleh, kindly provided The Cipher Brief with his list, and I’ve added my own recent faves.

He recommends the first two of these non-fiction books, all three of which have four GoodReads stars:

Non-Fiction

Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad by President Obama’s CIA Director John O. Brennan, a leader who was controversial to both political parties and was “in the room where it happened” when many significant security issues were discussed (not all of which he can talk about).

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future by Chris Whipple. Whipple says the job of CIA Director is “one of the hardest and most perilous in government,” and in this book, he tells you why.

Operation Dragon: Inside the Kremlin’s Secret War on America, by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and former Romanian espionage chief, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking foreign intelligence officer to defect to the United States. They describe Russia’s continuing threat to the U.S., and, in a blockbuster revelation, say Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev personally told Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President Kennedy, then changed his mind, but Oswald stuck to the original plan.

Fiction

The Order by Dan Silva – Nakhleh recommends it, and I listened to it . Fans of Silva’s Israeli intelligence officer Gabriel Allon will be pleased. He becomes involved in a conspiracy within the Vatican to hide evidence that the Jews were not, actually, responsible for the death of Jesus, two thousand years of violence, hatred, and retribution to the contrary. Again, GoodReads gives it four stars, but I’d say three. Not nearly as troubling as the real-life Gods Bankers.

Agent Running in the Field – John le Carré’s last novel, continuing the string of memorable characters he developed, all the way back to George Smiley and Alec Leamus (my review).

Finally, you might want to save a spot on the nightstand for the October 12 literary debut of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For her conspiracy thriller, State of Terror, she’s teamed up with crime novelist Louise Penny.

What You Wear Is Code

Richard Thompson Ford’s new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History was the subject of a recent American Ancestors Zoom presentation, the day the book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. Ford is a Stanford Law professor who got interested in how dress codes (what you wear, your hairstyle) have affected employment opportunities. Plus he admits to being a bit of a clothes-horse himself.

Legal opinion on dress codes’ effect on employment may treat them as if they are trivial. If so, the courts may be missing a lot of what’s important about the issue. What people wear is part of their self-presentation and sense of dignity. Back in Europe’s late middle ages, the puffy pantaloons called Trunk Hose (pictured) became the fashion for men. The upper classes resented their inferiors wearing the style and passed “sumptuary laws” prohibiting extravagant fabrics and attire except for those of high rank—a pure power play. No surprise, then, that in 1700s America, Blacks were prohibited from “dressing above their station.”

Ford noted that Queen Elizabeth I understood the power of fashion—magnificent, otherworldly fashion—to set her apart. Over time, the type of attire that signified the wearer’s importance changed, at least for men. Men’s attire became more sober and conservative. Think of the black-clad Dutch Masters. The culmination of this trend was the familiar business suit we know today.

Intended also to convey the message that men were all equal, of course, little signals continue today to let people recognize the high-value “bespoke” suit versus one from Target.

You may remember the photos from the early Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and his colleagues marching and dressed in suits. They dressed in their “Sunday best” to underscore the validity and seriousness of their quest. A few years later, younger activists wanted to express solidarity with the poor people they hoped to organize, so they dressed in jeans and overalls. The Black Panthers had their own dress code: black trousers, leather jackets, and berets. These were all deliberate decisions related to identity.

Until the 20th century, women wore draped clothing below the waist. Wearing pants was totally unacceptable. A 1903 article called women who insisted on wearing trousers “bifurcated” and clearly suggests they were a threat to the social order. As expressed in an essay for the Metropolitan Museum’s wonderful exhibit: China Through the Looking Glass, “Fashion is the means by which we convey identity and belonging (including nonbelonging),” as in the case of the trouser-wearing women.

By repressing the individuality of the wearer, requiring a certain type of dress can be a tool of degradation or control. The stricter the requirements, the more control exerted. Now, with casual Fridays all week long, new unarticulated “dress codes” still determine what people wear. It will be interesting to see how the extreme informality of working from home and never changing out of our pajamas may persist!