Suburban Dicks

Several times a week, I encounter every gas station, restaurant, and road in this novel. So that feeling of being able to visualize the story’s setting? This was its epitome.

Early one weekday morning, massively pregnant Andrea Stern screeches into a gas station and emerges from her minivan carrying a toddler desperate for a pee. With the mom-urgency of the situation and the distraction of four wailing children inside the vehicle, she’s overlooked the parked police cruiser and the two officers standing around uncertainly. Nor does she initially see the sprawled body of the South Asian station attendant who’s been shot in the head.

The female officer won’t let unlock the restroom for her, because it’s a crime scene, but Andrea, who trained to be an FBI behavioral analyst, four and three-quarters kids ago, instantly sees that the two young patrol officers have already hopelessly compromised the scene. Held out at arms’ length by her mother, the little girl gives in to the inevitable and lets loose. So much for preserving evidence. Andrea squeezes back into the minivan and speeds away before detectives arrive with lots of questions.

Andrea is famous for solving a difficult serial murder case in New York. She gave up that work, to her lasting regret, to become a suburban mom. She loves her kids but doesn’t romanticize motherhood, and her wry comments about the job are ones any honest parent can identify with. Later the day of the murder, in talking with several South Asian women at the community pool, Andie has an idea about the murder and is determined to investigate.

Disgraced journalist Kenneth Lee arrives at the crime scene to get the story—the first murder in West Windsor Township in decades. He once won a Pulitzer Prize, but several serious judgment errors have moved him down the reportorial food chain, and he now scrapes by, writing for a flaccid weekly newspaper. There’s more to the station attendant’s death, he senses, and this story excites him as nothing has in years. He too is determined to investigate.

Andie and Kenny meet up on the steps of the police station. They knew each other in school, but have lost touch. While their motives and approaches are vastly different, they have one belief in common: the police are lying. But why?

Author Fabian Nicieza does an admirable job describing the social dynamics of this multicultural area of New Jersey. He tells the story with great good humor, sometimes at the expense of one ethnic group or another. In the acknowledgements, Nicieza thanks his multicultural reading group for advising him about the cultural portrayals in the book and for “understanding that its intent was to be an equal opportunity mocker.”

Born in Buenos Aires, Nicieza grew up in New York City and New Jersey. For decades he worked in the comic book industry. He co-created the character Deadpool, who has appeared in three X-men films, and after a lengthy stint at Marvel, he’s done work for almost all the major comics companies. This is his first novel and one you may find supremely entertaining.

Get Your Motor Running

Fifty-two years ago, Columbia Pictures released the low-budget film, Easy Rider (peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) and saw its $400,000 investment balloon into more than $60 million in box office. Never an industry to ignore the possibility of a big payday, Hollywood got its motor running and two years later, the studios offered American audiences a rich diet of long hair, antisocial behavior, and oddball relationships.

With predictable results.

Despite the tepid audience reaction, in 1971, the industry here and in Britain produced intense, dramatic, even arty films that defy the year’s overall poor box office numbers. Film historian Max Alvarez highlighted a number of them in a Zoom program yesterday. Here are the ones I remember seeing that year. Remember these?

A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of a book by Anthony Burgess starring Malcolm McDowell. In a dystopian London, a crime spree is led by a young man obsessed with “ultra-violence” (everyday fare in 2021). Warner Brothers.

Klute – Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland star in this noir drama about a high-priced call girl who helps a detective solve the case of a business executive who’s gone missing. Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and I fell in love with Donald Sutherland. There’s a talkback about this film on Sunday, 6/27. (free, but register)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth – starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. What I most remember about this were complaints about “so much blood.” 1971 was the year Charles Manson and his family were convicted of multiple murders, including that of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His response was that he’d seen that crime scene: “I know about blood.”

The French Connection – a crime thriller directed by William Friedkin, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as NYPD detectives in pursuit of a wealthy French heroin smuggler. Even if you’ve never seen the whole movie, you’ve probably seen the car chase. Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best actor (Hackman). 20th Century Fox.

The Last Picture Show – based on a book by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), with Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, and Cloris Leachman. Shot in black and white, it well portrays the bleakness of small-town life. Leachman and Johnson won Academy Awards for their supporting roles.

Harold and Maude – starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. This film was among the year’s subversive comedies that Alvarez highlighted. A flop at the box office, it found its way to college campuses where it became a cult classic.

The Hospital – this satire, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, starred George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, and Robert Walden. Academy award for best original screenplay. Here’s a great scene.

The film was inspired in part by the poor hospital care his wife received, and Chayefsky became so leery of medical treatment that he didn’t get optimal care for his cancer and died at age 58.

Streaming Movie Picks

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

We liked this unusual Hungarian romance written and directed by Lili Horvát and starring Viktor Bodó and Natasa Stork, one of the most pleasant-looking actresses around (trailer and interview with the filmmaker).

Márta Vizy, a successful 40-year-old neurosurgeon, working in the United States, meets a man at a conference in New Jersey, and they agree to meet a month hence. She abandons her prestigious position in deference to romance, but when she encounters him again in Budapest, he claims they’ve never met. This confuses her to the point that, while she rebuilds her career in her home country, she has to sort out where reality and wishful thinking collide.

While the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it an 88% score, the few audience ratings averaged out to only 55%.  I suspect what American audiences didn’t like were exactly the features that made us admire the film—primarily, the unexpected plot twists. Certainly (and thankfully) it follows no familiar, superficial formula! Oh, and there are subtitles. “A very engaging film to watch,” says Cinetopia’s Jim Ross

The Outside Story

This drama/comedy is kicked off when Charles locks himself out of his New York apartment. He’s a screen-obsessed introvert (a video editor, who assembles online obituaries for people not quite dead yet). He just broke up with his girlfriend and doesn’t know any of his neighbors. Well, he meets them now, and quirky and charmingly human they are.

Brian Tyree Henry is a genial if befuddled Charles, Sunita Mani, is a parking enforcement officer who’s hilariously suspicious of him, Sonequa Martin-Green is the super-glam former girlfriend. Numerous others turn even the smallest roles into gems. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. This is a lot of fun (trailer)!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audience rating 79%. The critics consensus: “A refreshingly optimistic look at urban community life.”

Murder on the Island

By Daisy White – If you like to be in on the very beginning of a new cozy mystery series, you should know that Murder on the Island is billed as the first book in the Chloe Canton Mystery Series. At Chloe’s 50th birthday dinner, her husband of some years announced he was leaving her. Impeccable timing.

Soon thereafter, she learned her grandmother had died and left her the house and horse stables she owned in Bermuda. The timing of that is pretty spot-on, too, as Chloe definitely needed a fresh start. The story begins on the airplane ride taking her from the UK to her new life.

Thirty-some years earlier, Chloe spent time in Bermuda with her grandmother and the beautiful island is still somewhat familiar. But still, it holds surprises. Not all of them pleasant. On an early-morning trail ride, she discovers a dead body on her property. The victim turns out to be an up-and-coming artist showing at a gallery in town. Chloe is a bit of a busybody—ok, more than a bit—and, as the investigation seemingly bogs down, starts asking questions herself. Always a risky proposition.

Is her curiosity the reason for her escalating troubles? There’s a break-in at her home, rampant rumors her business is going under, and the horsenapping of a palomino scheduled for a high-profile photo shoot. Or, are other stable owners on the island concerned she’ll be too successful? Or, does someone want her to leave Bermuda altogether? Author White has an easy writing style that keeps the story pinballing among these possibilities with alacrity.

Helping Chloe sort out her increasingly fraught situation, as well as trying to assure that she stays safe are her jovial neighbor, her conscientious stable manager, and a detective from the local police—her age, handsome, and widowed. Romance is definitely on the turquoise horizon.

Chloe takes oddly unnecessary risks, as heroines in the cozy genre do, and you may be puzzled as to why she’s thinking whatever she’s thinking at a particular moment. And, while you may not be surprised at the whodunnit solution, getting there is definitely a pleasant ride. One of the strongest features of the book is author White’s depiction of Bermuda. She became acquainted with the island in real life while working as a flight attendant, and her descriptions are so lush and vivid, this book is like a vacation between covers.

Order here from Amazon or support independent bookstores by ordering here from IndieBound.

I Love Streaming!! Recent Finds

News of the World is a 2020 movie starring the ever-genial Tom Hanks and 12-year-old Helena Zengel, directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Greengrass and Luke Davis (trailer).

The Civil War is over, and former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is traveling between the ramshackle towns of north central Texas entertaining the (mostly illiterate) residents with his readings from newspapers. It is, literally, the news of the world he brings to their muddy doorsteps.

Traveling between gigs, he encounters a busted wagon, a hanged man, and someone running through the trees. It’s an eight-year-old (approx.) girl, kidnapped by the Kiowa years before from a German-speaking settlement in the Texas Hill Country. She speaks only Kiowa. With little exposure to white culture, she longs to return to the Indians, while he’s determined to return her to her family against her will, and her will is formidable.

Together, they encounter a number of fairly predictable lowlifes and have some nevertheless tension-filled adventures. The depiction of immediate post-war Texas was of particular interest, as much of my family moved there from Central Tennessee and other places in the South. The rougher elements are not folks you’d want to tangle with!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 89%.

Les Parfums (Perfumes) is a 2019 French romantic comedy (subtitles) we watched through our local independent movie house’s website (trailer). Written and directed by Grégory Magne, it stars Emmanuelle Davos and Gregory Montel, who played Gabriel in the wickedly funny tv series, Call My Agent.

She’s a “nose”—someone who’s cultivated her sense of smell to the point that she’s created perfumes and developed scentscapes for boutiques. It’s a job that requires high sensitivity, and she’s afraid of losing it. Meanwhile, she’s very much the diva. Montel plays her much put-upon chauffeur, desperate to hang onto his job so he can gain partial custody of his daughter.

Unlike so many American shows, she’s a person with a real job and an interesting one, and you see her doing it. Montel is his bumbling self, who brings unexpected skills to the task of accommodating her.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; no audience rating.

Ellery Queen Strikes Again!

The short stories collected for the bimonthly editions of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine are always entertaining and diverse. The current issue has some classics as well as brand spanking new ones, though I don’t recall any actual spanking. That must be some other magazine. Here are some of the stories I enjoyed best:

“Pink Squirrel” by Nick Mamatas – Stories with clever Lithuanian grandmas are always entertaining. “Welcome to America! Where you can drink ice cream and alcohol simultaneously!”

“Stray” by debut author Ken Lim – What if what you’re running from isn’t really after you?

“The Interpreter and the Killer” – There’s a big international drug-trafficking case that takes an unexpected courtroom twist for Jeff Soloway’s Spanish-language interpreter. The plot hinges on a single word.

“Boo Radley College Prep” – Karen Harrington’s heartfelt tale about how a young boy learns not to make assumptions about people. This one will stay with me a long time. Excellent characters.

“Curious Incidents” – Steve Hockensmith devised a clever girl who is a Sherlock Holmes devotee, of course, for his latest Holmes on the Range story about Big Red and Old Red and a disappearance out west. Funny and true to the master of detection.

Many of the authors in this issue write novels as well. You can get the flavor of the way they think and write in these short, pleasurable bites.

Rekindling a Love Affair with Television

Somebody Feed Phil

Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:

Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)

The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)

Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)

The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)

****Naked Came the Florida Man

By Tim Dorsey – “ʻDon’t shoot guns into the hurricane.’ Elsewhere this would go without saying, but Floridians need to be told,” this antic crime novel begins, as Dorsey takes the familiar Florida man premise to absurd heights (or is it depths?). His hero, the aptly named Serge A. Storms, who has no discernible occupation, has plotted a picaresque adventure for himself and his dim friend, Coleman. Serge will drive them around Florida in his 50-year-old gold Plymouth Satellite, visiting the graves of past Florida luminaries.

Enlightening Coleman along their route, Dorsey/Serge painlessly and idiosyncratically covers Florida’s history, sociology, meteorology, and biology. Before long, you know quite a bit more about this quirky state than you did on page one. Florida with its extreme weather, its swarms of insects, its snakes and gators, its cultural hodgepodge, its tony suburbs and ramshackle sugar cane towns lend themselves perfectly to Serge’s non-stop snarky commentary

Several other plot threads, past and present, weave throughout. First is the story of the deadly 1928 hurricane that created a massive storm surge—not in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, where you’d expect, but in Lake Okeechobee—that killed some 2500 people. Pertinent to Dorsey’s tale, a rich sugar baron’s fortune in gold coins was lost in the calamity. The fate of the gold is one of the riches of this tall tale.

Most of the novel is devoted to Serge and Coleman’s adventures and clearly channels Serge’s manic psyche. His mind is like a rambunctious puppy, dashing here and there, nibbling this and that. At times the two men launch into a jag of childishness, racing and chasing each other, finger-painting murals for their motel walls, dressing as clowns, and generally acting up.

It’s hard to reconcile that light-hearted Serge with the man who plans (elaborately, of course) and carries out four diabolical murders. His victims aren’t blameless, but the gruesome methods by which they die almost put me off the book. But I hung in there, and I’m glad. Dorsey was a reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune for twelve years and has twenty-two previous novels. The Boston Globe calls him “compulsively irreverent and shockingly funny.” A trip with his man Serge is most definitely a wild ride.

Order from Amazon here.

Goodnight Nobody

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., presents a stunning new play by Rachel Bonds, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, that opened January 18 and runs through February 9. The play’s five characters have fifteen relationships among them, relationships with the power to sneak up on you and knock you out of your seat.

The play takes place in a “lovingly restored” upstate New York farmhouse, surrounded by trees—a nice metaphor for the quest for comfort in a wilderness of emotion. Its first scene reveals the inauspicious love affair between a young painter, Nan (Saamer Usmani), and a successful older sculptor, Mara (Dana Delany) who owns the farmhouse. He’s made her breakfast, and the scent of bacon wafts over the audience.

You don’t know whether this secret relationship will or can survive, when the second scene begins at some later point. Mara’s son Reggie (Nate Miller) has brought his two closest friends to the farmhouse for a getaway weekend. They are K (Ariel Woodiwiss) and, again, Nan. Nan is having some artistic success; Reggie is a comedian just coming off of a brutal national tour; and K needs a break from the demands of her infant son and recently widowed mother. They have a pretty good time of it. Nan is a fantastic cook, there’s plenty of booze and beer and a freezing lake to swim in, though Nan is the only one to take the plunge (a recurring tendency).

Unexpectedly, Mara appears with the current man in her life, the age-appropriate Bo (Ken Marks). Everyone—Mara and Nan, especially—puts on a game face, but the undercurrents the newcomers set in motion are practically visible. When the group decamps outdoors to enjoy an evening bonfire, several relationships go up in smoke. To enable this scene, Kimie Nishikawa has created a spectacular set that opens like a birthday present.

Bonds writes realistic, witty, endearing dialog. The laughs—and there are plenty of them—are a pleasing surface, though pain and disappointment gradually float into view. Though you may feel you know these characters well, Bonds has the power to surprise you.

The combination of Bonds’s writing, Rafaeli’s inspired direction, and the excellent performances of the entire company make this multi-layered, complex drama a compelling experience. Its title comes from the children’s classic, Goodnight Moon, and as K riffs on the story’s tedium, wonders aloud about its sorrowful line, “Goodnight nobody,” the line that transports a simple story from the realm of the predictable into the unknown.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s arts district, as well as two innovative restaurants in the buildings of the old train station. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Spies X 3

spy, espionage, reading

****Spy’s Fate

Overhearing someone talking about you can be both unsettling and revealing. Arnaldo Correa’s novel, full of observations about the US and its spycraft, from the point of view of a Cuban intelligence operative, is another such revelation. While there’s plenty of ineptitude and bureaucratic blindness on one side or the other, the main character, Carlos Manuel, is an expert at exposing and outwitting it. For a book about a Cuban spy stranded in Miami with a vindictive CIA agent on his trail, there’s quite a bit of humor and a heartwarming romance too. I really enjoyed this book. First published in 2002, it was Correa’s first novel translated into English. Available here from Amazon.

***Spies

This Fiction River special edition, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, includes 15 short spy stories by a range of authors. If you think the short story form doesn’t provide enough space to explore the long con of espionage, these tales may change your mind. Rusch says that what links them, besides their topic, is “their willingness to look at the world in all its messiness,” without flinching from the corrosive effects of secrets on everyone involved. My favorites included two historicals—the clever and very British “Our Man in Basingstoke” by Sabrina Chase, set during World War II, and “The Message” by CA Rowland, set during the Civil War—and Ron Collins’s “The Spy Who Walked into the Cold,” set in racially divided Chicago a few decades back. Get it here.

****From the Shadows

Spies needn’t be government agents or involved with great sociopolitical questions. Spanish author Juan José Millás’s novel (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn) barely escapes the bedroom. Damián Lobo, a youngish man down on his luck and out of work, entertains himself by carrying on pretend conversations with a famous talk show host. This fantasy so preoccupies him that, in a rash moment, he steals a tie pin he believes the tv star would like. The police chase him through an outdoor market and he ducks inside an old wardrobe on display. Before it seems safe to emerge, the wardrobe is trundled away, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to its new owners’ bedroom, with Lobo still inside. As it turns out, there’s never a good moment to climb out, and through an elaborate ruse, Lobo makes his home there, listening in on all the family’s intimate secrets. An amusing tale that Kirkus Reviews calls “spectacularly bizarre.” Millás has won numerous literary prizes; this short novel is his first published in North America. Loved it! Available from Amazon.

Photo: David Lytle, creative commons license