Black & White on the Silver Screen

New Plaza Cinema hosted a presentation last week by film historian Max Alvarez on how the movie industry has portrayed black-white relations for roughly the last sixty years. For decades, Hollywood had chosen the safe path and avoided interracial stories, but toward the end of the 1950s, cracks started appearing in the film industry’s wall of opposition.

In both the United States and Europe, the trail-blazers were often independent filmmakers, who were less hampered by the challenges Hollywood faced. Independents were not as concerned about running afoul of local and regional censorship offices and, as a result, did not fall prey to the pattern of self-censorship affecting the big studios. It wasn’t just political timidity that made Hollywood reluctant; there were economic considerations as well. They were simply not willing to risk losing the Southern U.S. market. All of this conspired to create what Alvarez called “an untenable atmosphere for artists.”

The emergence and popularity of Miami-born actor Sidney Poitier helped shatter many taboos. The doctor he played in No Way Out (1950) and his breakout appearances in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958) showed that movies involving Black characters could be financially (and artistically) successful, even when they tackled sensitive topics. While his award-winning performances broke ground for Black characters (Lilies of the Field, 1963; A Patch of Blue, 1965; and To Sir with Love, 1967), he was criticized for taking on roles that were “too nice.” By the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released (1967), a white woman marrying a black man—especially if that man was Sidney Poitier—didn’t create the shock it would have a decade earlier; more important, it was a hit in Southern states too.

By 1967, Hollywood could no longer ignore the Civil Rights movement, and Black characters began having a more realistic edge. Tougher stories appeared. Although five years earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) had tackled the issue of Southern racism, it was set in the 1930s, letting audiences reassure themselves that “that was then.” In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Poitier and Rod Steiger (pictured) brought viewers up-to-date. The film included “the slap heard around the world,” when Poitier’s character, police detective Virgil Tibbs, returned the slap of a racist white plantation owner (an action Poitier insisted be in the script if he were to play the part).

The trope of the racist Southern sheriff was revisited in the 2018 film, Green Book, set in 1962, when classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver are arrested. Unlike Virgil Tibbs, Shirley doesn’t hit back, he simply gets in touch with Bobby Kennedy. There still are racial justice stories to tell. Two brand new films available in streaming that delve into racial politics are HBOMax’s Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (trailer), and, on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday (trailer).

Hotel Cartagena

Hotel Cartagena, award-winning Hamburg-based author Simone Buchholz’s new novel, with English translation by Rachel Ward, is an edge-of-your-seat carnival ride (more on that later) featuring Buchholz’s spirited series character, public prosecutor Chastity Riley.

Because her chapters are told in first-person, you’re well aware of her wry sense of humor and her dread of an after-hours birthday celebration at a hotel’s 20th floor bar. Not that she doesn’t favor a drink after work, but the ten celebrants include two of her ex-lovers. Before her current sometimes lover, detective Ivo Stepanovic, can arrive, the bar is invaded by a dozen well-armed men, and escape is cut off.

Before you find out what this is all about, the book skips back a couple of decades to tell the story of Henning, a young man from Hamburg’s sketchy St. Pauli area, who relocates to Cartagena, Colombia. He becomes involved with a Colombian drug trafficker wanting to expand his German market. The money is simply too tempting, and Henning identifies a couple of appropriate contacts. The lucrative kickback he receives continues for years until Hamburg police catch on. Henning flees to Curaçao, where he’s safe from the authorities, but not from the past.

Henning’s story alternates with Riley’s. The hostage-takers seem reasonable and have declared an open bar. Riley sliced open her thumb on a piece of pineapple, and while she drinks the first of a goodly number of gins and tonic, she immerses her injured thumb in vodka.

Over the course of the next few hours, the captors reveal their game, as her thumb steadily worsens. She spikes a fever and sees everything through a hallucinatory haze. I really enjoyed the sense of  teetering on the edge of disaster, which Buchholtz handles deftly.

Riley, especially, but Stepanovic and Henning too, are interesting characters with lots to command your attention. While the situation doesn’t seem too overtly dangerous for the hostages, with so many men armed to the teeth, the police massing downstairs itching to do something, and possible plotting among the police attending the birthday party (who they are is something the assailants still don’t realize), so much can go wrong. The situation is as wobbly as the swirling carnival ride—the ‘chairoplane’—Riley believes she’s riding.

Stellar New Crime Novels from South America

Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosenda

Uruguay probably isn’t at the top of your list of places clever crimes are hatched—with cleverer police detectives on the prowl—but Mercedes Rosenda’s new book, admirably translated by Tim Gutteridge, will clue you in. It’s dubbed ‘a blackly comic caper in the style of Fargo.’ You may object to the descriptor, caper, as being too weighted on the comic rather than the ‘blackly’ side. But if you think of a caper as involving slightly dim criminals who can’t quite get anything right, this is surely one.

The story begins in confusion. Diego is in an overcrowded and dangerous prison, charged with a recent kidnapping. The slippery lawyer Antinucci promises to spring him. It seems that Ursula López, wife of the kidnapped man, says Diego never contacted her, never asked for a ransom. But the ransom was paid, and Diego’s partner absconded with it. Still, without Ursula, he can’t be convicted.

Before long, you realize two very different women named Ursula López are intertwined in the story, and it’s hard to see how everything can work out well for them both. The situation looks increasingly perilous for Diego too, when he’s forced to participate in an ill-conceived armored truck robbery.

I found Ursula and the female detective, Leonilda, especially interesting. They’re women whom the men dismiss as unimportant, yet they keep the events of the story moving in unexpected directions and provide much of the wry humor. Glimpses of life in Montevideo peep through too.

Repentance by Eloísa Díaz

Eloísa Díaz’s riveting new political thriller takes place during two tumultuous periods in Argentina’s history. The present-day of the story is December 2001, when riots in Buenos Aires and elsewhere will lead to the president’s resignation. These events alternate with flashbacks to 1981 and Argentina’s Dirty War, a terrifying era in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of supposed left-wing sympathizers. Among the murdered was the younger brother of the book’s protagonist, Inspector Joaquín Alzada of the Policía Federal.

Alzada has a new deputy, Orestes Estrático, eager to please, alarmingly wet behind the ears, and insufferably by-the-book. A young woman from one of the country’s wealthiest landowners is reported missing, and Alzada’s superiors don’t want him spending time on the case. After all, what kind of investigation is it? A missing person? Not enough time has elapsed. A murder? There’s no body. Unless . . . Alzada and Estrático recall the body of an unknown woman discovered that morning in a dumpster behind the city morgue. Could they pretend she and the disappeared woman are one and the same?

Alzada is an engaging character, and how he goes about discovering what happened to his family in 1981 and to the missing woman in 2001 is told from close-in point of view. You’re privy to many of his thoughts and wry observations at odds with the politically correct demeanor that’s his survival strategy. Especially enjoyable is young Estrático, who has talents Alzada doesn’t expect.

The Survivors

By Jane Harper – Award-winning Australian crime writer Jane Harper has done it again. Her Harper’s latest crime mystery, now out in hardcover, revisits the perils of small-town life so expertly deconstructed in The Lost Man (audiobook reviewed here) and her first novel, The Dry, recently released in its film version (trailer), with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (15 reviews).

For The Survivors, the setting is the village of Evelyn Bay in coastal Tasmania. Kieran Elliott, has reluctantly returned to there to help his mother pack up the family home. His father has Alzheimer’s disease, and Kieran’s mother, Verity, needs help. I wondered at the naming of this character. Are we to suppose that Verity is a reliable truth-teller?

Kieran’s older brother Finn was one of the storm’s victims, along with Toby, older brother of Kieran’s friend Sean. Kieran blames himself for the tragedy and many locals do too. He’s borne an agonizingly heavy burden since the tragedy and every bit of shoreline, every sound and smell and photo in the family home bring it all back.

The killer storm was much worse than expected, and Kieran, then 18, was not as cautious as he should have been. He was down in the shoreline caves, romancing the beautiful Olivia, ignoring the strength of the incoming tide that would fill the caves, drowning anyone inside. When he and Olivia finally tried to leave, their exit was almost cut off, and he put out a call for help. Finn and Toby headed out to rescue him, but their boat capsized, and they were lost. Kieran and Olivia swam and climbed, barely reaching safety. Olivia’s younger sister Gabby was seen on the shore rocks around that same time; her body was never found. In a small town, so much loss is hard to get past. And harder to forgive.

Olivia now lives on the beach with her tiresome summer roommate Bronte, and is dating Kieran’s long-time friend Ash. This tight circle of friends welcomes him. But Kieran picks up persistent hostility from Toby’s son, among others. Then Bronte’s body is found on the beach and a new round of recriminations begins.

Author Harper has nicely paced this novel, with each bit that is removed or clarified providing new insights into the town’s tragedies. I especially like how she develops such strong characters and realistic dialog. You understand them, yet they retain the capacity to surprise. They seem to be involved in real relationships, stretched a bit taut at times, but these times are demanding.

Harper has received much praise for the quality of her writing, and this novel does not disappoint. It seems a good many compelling stories are bottled up inside her, and I’m grateful she shares them with us.

Murder on the Iditarod Trail

Iditarod

By Sue Henry — To gear up for cold weather, you couldn’t do better than reading Sue Henry’s first Alaska mystery, Murder on the Iditarod Trail. Whatever winter throws at us in the lower 48, compared to the people who race the Iditarod, our situation is positively toasty. First published in 1991, the story won Macavity and Anthony awards. It has aged well and is worth a fresh look.

Pretty much all I knew about the race when I turned the book’s first page is that it is a thousand-mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome that you’d have to be near crazy to undertake. For from eight to fifteen days or more, mushers compete through blizzards, white-out conditions, below zero (F) temperatures, and brutal wind-chill. They traverse sea ice, travel through tricky areas that look frozen solid but may not be, and drive on in gale-force winds. There’s little (but mandatory) time to rest for dogs or humans. The fact that many mushers continue to compete year after year means . . . Brrr-r-rrr.

The story begins when the centrifugal force of a sharp turn sends a sleeping musher flyikng from his sled and crashing into a tree. The stub of a broken branch enters his skull. Accidents on the trail are inevitable, but death is not. This was a first, and Sergeant Alex Jensen, an Alaska State Trooper, is called in to investigate. An autopsy reveals the dead man’s coffee had been laced with a powerful barbiturate.

Because Jensen is new to Alaska, he doesn’t know a lot about how the race is run or the single-mindedness of the competitors. Over the next week, he finds out. He begins his inquiries at the Finger Lake Checkpoint, where the high temperature for the day will be a balmy 5˚ F and the low -3˚. There he meets many of the leading mushers and several race officials, people he will encounter repeatedly over the next nine days, as he and his colleagues leapfrog ahead to farther checkpoints.

If that first death unnerved people, a few hours later a sled careens off the trail north of Finger Lake and musher Virginia Kline plunges to her death. The gang-line on her sled snapped, and when Jensen arrives, he observes that the line had been cut nearly through. These apparent murders have occurred near the beginning of the race, when the sled teams are relatively close together, but as the race continues, the teams spread out, the number of people with the opportunity for sabotage shrinks, and the dangers mount.

Henry steers the novel’s tension as deftly as an experienced musher traversing Rainy Pass. On the one hand is the tension of the fiercely competitive race, with mushers determined to win despite the hazards of weather and terrain and exhaustion. On the other hand is the pressure on the investigators to identify the culprit or culprits before more deaths and injuries can take place.

A budding romance between Jensen and musher Jessie Arnold gives her the chance to explain what the race means to participants. This aspect of the story is a bit dated, with Jensen’s patronizing advice she should quit, but Arnold doesn’t let him get away with it. All told, it’s a thrilling adventure.

The Iditarod (the Athabascan name of one of the small villages the race passes through) was never more than of transient interest to me, but Sue Henry brings it to life. In recent years, animal rights groups have objected to the treatment of the dogs, which has resulted in some rules changes. By telling the race’s story so fully, she provides perspective on that issue, as well.

Photo: skeeze for Pixabay.

My Friends Write!

Despite Covid, my friends who are writers are coming out with new books, but with fewer—or at least vastly different—strategies to let us know about them. I’ve joined any number of their ZOOM and Facebook book launches, followed their social media announcements, and read their marketing emails. By and large, these strategies are interesting and not totally satisfying. Better than nothing, I suppose, if frustrating for them.

Here are three recent books by writer friends not reviewed here before. Dick Belsky and Al Tucher I know from crime writing conferences and events sponsored by the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I haven’t met PA De Voe in person, but we’ve bonded over a shared passion for Robert van Gulik’s Tang Dynasty magistrate, Judge Dee Goong An. I mentioned James McCrone’s new political thriller yesterday. Click on the book’s title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Last Scoop

RG Belsky is a former New York City newsman who’s turned his intimate knowledge of the city and its characters into a number of engaging crime novels. In this story, harried Channel 10 news director Clare Carlson is in the middle of both a puzzling murder story and a potential exposé of city political shenanigans. In following clues left by her late mentor, she gradually uncovers what would have been his last scoops: a previously unrecognized serial killer on the loose and a pattern of mob payoffs. Clare is a bull in a china shop, but she has a powerful, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the demands of the daily news cycle keep her plowing forward at speed. Read my full review here.

Pele’s Domain

A novella set in Hawai`i is almost too appealing. This new story by Al Tucher brings the lore, the multicultural mix, the unique foods, and the island attitude front and center once again. Pele, the volcano goddess, is acting up, and the volcano that’s her home, Kilauea, is erupting spectacularly.

For residents of the raggedy communities in the path of the searing lava, the eruptions are more deadly hazard than spectacle. Trees, houses, cars—all incinerated. Perfect places to hide a couple of murders. The ironic contrast between tropical paradise and dirty dealing in Tucher’s novels is always fun and, here, Kilauea itself is added to the detectives’ adversaries. Read my full review here.

Judge Lu’s Case Files

If a Hawaiian escape isn’t quite distant enough, go back to Ming Dynasty China where PA De Voe channels what must be an earlier incarnation to write with such authenticity her novels and short stories set in that period.

The twelve short stories in this collection have straightforward plots, partly a result of their length and party the reality that cases in that era had to be wrapped up in a day or two. Plus, miscreants were expected to confess, and “encouraged” to do so by their jailers.

Although the stories take place more than 600 years ago, they provide timeless insights into human behavior. Read my full review here.

Foreign Intrigue

If domestic intrigues are giving you fits, you might try some stories set in other countries. What you’ll find, of course, is that there’s no end to the shenanigans people get up to. But you knew that, right? Here are three award-winners from France, Germany, and Japan. In general, crime novels by non-American, non-British authors have a different style. They often have subplots that leave you to draw your own conclusions. Personally, I like that extra dose of mystery. These three happen to have wonderful cover art too!

Summer of Reckoning

Summer of Reckoning, Marion Brunet

Some teenage summers are just too awkward and painful to revisit. Marion Brunet’s novel expertly describes a summer exactly like that. When I say it’s set in the south of France, you’re thinking Provence. Lavender and cabernet. The bleak, poverty-stricken village where sixteen-year-old Céline and her fifteen-year-old sister, Johanna, live with their brutish father, Manuel, is not that. Céline is pregnant, and Manuel insists she reveal who the father is. From his drunken determination, much tragedy ensues. Winner of the French Mystery Prize (the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière), it was translated by Katherine Gregor. Read my full review here.

Mexico Street

Simone Buchholz, Mexico Street

Simone Buchholz’s street-smart Hamburg public prosecutor Chastity Riley works closely—in some cases intimately—with the local police. Her cast of well characterized lovers, former lovers, and police colleagues is investigating the latest in a rash of car fires. This one is different, there’s a dying man inside, a member of a notorious Bremen gangster family.

That connection leads Riley and her crew to some dark and lawless places, to a world and family life that operate under their own unforgiving rules. Winner of the German Crime Fiction Prize in 2019, translated by Rachel Ward. Read my full review here.

The Aosawa Murders

Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda

In the 1970s, an Aosawa family birthday party ends with 17 people poisoned to death. The only survivor is teenage daughter, Hisako, who is blind. The evocative, layered story by Riku Onda is created retrospectively from interviews with the principals, starting with Hisako’s memories, the ruminations of the police detective who is convinced Hisako somehow must have been involved, and the author of a best-selling book about the murders.

Was this the perfect crime? As the book blurb says, “Part Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Part Capote’s In Cold Blood.” Winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Best Novel Award, and translated by Alison Watts.

Reading in the Time of Covid

chalk outline, body

A new approach to book reviews: In the past, I’ve reviewed almost every book I’ve read. My thought was that even a so-so review could be helpful to you. The aspects that bothered me might not be issues for you. And, if they are, then a lackluster review might save you the time and trouble of delving into a book you probably won’t like. Going forward from September 2020, I’m abandoning that approach. If you see a book here, it’s because I do recommend it.

Since my last book review post on April Fool’s Day, I’ve read at least 40 books and listened to a dozen more. Many of them were crime fiction, and full reviews on CrimeFictionLover.com are linked below. Click the book title for my Amazon affiliate link. Here’s the first three among the very best, in print. Audio on Thursday.

Rules for Perfect Murders

In this entertaining novel, Peter Swanson has concocted the perfect plot for lovers of classic mysteries. Malcolm Kershaw, the widowed part-owner of Boston’s Old Devils Bookstore wrote a blog post some years ago that described what he considered the best depictions of ‘the perfect murder.’

Now, it seems, someone has taken up his challenge and is recreating those scenarios. Or are they? Is he a suspect or the next potential victim? Desperate for answers, he launches his own investigation and, as the pages fly by, you’ll find there’s more to this bibliophile than you may have assumed. Read my full review here.

Little Altar Boy

John Guzlowski’s riveting new police procedural takes you back to the time before sustained pressure on the Catholic Church brought to light its widespread and systemic problem of child sexual abuse. It’s the late 1960s, in the post-Christmas dark night of winter, and Chicago police detective Hank Purcell is at home, waiting for his 19-year-old daughter Margaret. She has new friends, new habits, and new attitudes, none of which make him happy.

Hank and his partner are trying to resolve not one, but two compelling dilemmas: they’re clearly outraged by the evidence of child abuse among the clergy, but, while they’re trying to save the world’s altar boys, what about Hank’s own child, beset by a whole different class of predator? Hank’s wife Hazel is a useful foil for the two detectives, pressing for handling Margaret’s situation differently. But it seems there are no right answers; each course of action threatens consequences more chilling than the wind blasting off Lake Michigan. Full review here.

Nine Tenths of the Law

This literary crime thriller by Claudia Hagadus Long is part treasure hunt, part family story, part romance, part tragic history woven together in a complicated plot through the strong voice of the story’s sympathetic narrator, Zara Persil-Pendleton. At a Manhattan museum show, Zara and her sister Lilly spot a menorah the Nazis stole from their family many years before. Lilly wants it back.

The women embark on an ill-conceived plot to obtain it, which leads them into some sticky situations. At first these are awkward and funny, but gradually, they become potentially dangerous. Zara, with all her on-point observations and clever asides will keep you amused and interested. Long strikes a nice balance between describing Zara’s inner conflicts and maintaining the action of the story. My Crime Fiction Lover review is here.

Dust Off Your Library Card

chalk outline, body

You see so many reviews of brand new crime novels on this website because, as you may know, I read and review them for the fantastic UK website CrimeFictionLover.com. Occasionally, I dig into my book pile and find something not suitable for CFL. Possibly it’s a book that’s been out a while, a new book already reviewed by CFL or in one case below, great non-fiction. A post for another day is a list of not-crime books. There is such a thing!

***Identical
By Scott Turow (2013) – if you want a novel full of twists and turns, this one has it. If you want a novel that stretches the bonds of plausibility, you have that too. Twin brothers Cass and Paul (Castor and Pollux, get it?) couldn’t be more different. One is running for city mayor, the other about to be released from jail after 25 years. He pled guilty to the murder of his girlfriend Aphrodite Kronon. Confusions worthy of the ancient Greeks and arising from twinhood are here, fairly predictably.

****Statute of Limitations
By Steven F. Havill (2006) – This is one of Havill’s meticulous police procedurals set in small-town New Mexico. I’ve read three of them, and I love them! A retired police chief abandoned after collapsing from a heart attack, a body in an arroyo, a late-night attack—this Christmas season is certainly not filled with goodwill toward mankind. Under-sheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman doesn’t miss a beat.

****The Aosawa Murders
By Riku Onda (2005), translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts – Newly published in English, the scenes in this prize-winning book are like a set of still lifes. Different points of view describe a crime in which 17 members of a single family were murdered, with only one survivor, a young blind woman. Gradually, the crime is pieced together. Lovely writing, stellar cover.

***False Light
By Claudia Riess (2019) – This is the second outing for amateur sleuths, art experts, and randy spouses Erika Shawn and Harrison Wheatley. Their challenge this time is to decipher a coded message from a famous art forger, now dead. Supposedly, it will identify some of his works masquerading in prestigious collections as the real thing. It’s a great set-up, and if you’re a fan of art world skullduggery, you may enjoy this, but I found the denouement implausible.

*****Breaking and Entering
By Jeremy N. Smith (2019) – Subtitled “the extraordinary story of a hacker called ‘alien,’” this is the nonfiction story of a woman’s career from her exploits as an MIT undergraduate through to her current role consulting with banks, government agencies, and others on security issues. Cybersecurity is their big concern, and she and her team are cyber experts, but they also routinely prove to clients that good old humanware can be their weakest link. Fascinating.

How Authors Get Police Procedures Right

Guest Post: Author John Schembra

Are you writing police mystery-thrillers? Want to get the policing details right? I do too, though I may have an advantage, having been a police officer for 30 years in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco.

The home setting for my books is the San Francisco Police Department, but sometimes my characters must seek the help of or coordinate with other departments or federal agencies. Cross-jurisdictional situations present a challenge for writers, as not all law enforcement agencies conduct investigations the same way. General investigative protocols are roughly the same, but every department will have its own set of procedures. These differences may affect evidence collection, interrogations, interviews, use-of-force policies, and so on. The list is long.

Meanwhile, your readers have diverse backgrounds, which means there is always that person out there who will know if you make a mistake—and probably tell you so. Research is critical. Knowing how a particular agency conducts investigations, along with its personnel’s everyday duties, adds realism and actually makes the writing simpler, helping you manage the possibilities.

Getting police procedures right has other benefits too. It can make a difference in whether readers believe your story, which has a big impact on whether they like your work overall. If they do, your book could show up in a favorable review, and your fans can give it good marks in discussions with other potential readers. Unfortunately, if you get those details wrong, it could mean a less than sterling review, and none of us want that.

But how do you conduct the research you need? The best way is to talk to a police officer from the agency you are writing about. In my books, set in the SFPD, I was lucky that my best friend’s son and daughter-in-law were SFPD officers, and the wife was a forensics and crime scene technician. They were a big help whenever I needed answers to a procedural question.

In addition, I’m a member of the Public Safety Writers’ Association, whose membership is made up of people from around the country with police, fire, emergency medical service, and military backgrounds and the people who write about them. That network is unfailingly helpful to writers.

If the agency in your book is fictitious, model its procedures after an agency that resembles it. Look for one of similar size, serving a community with similar demographics, and use its procedures.

Very likely the agency you’re using as a setting will have a website, and you can contact (via email) the public information officer. I have found them to be very accommodating and willing to help. They want policing information to be correct too!

Bottom line: getting it right is satisfying and enjoyable for readers and, I believe, makes the story easier to write. It enables you to cover the all-important details that will make your readers feel they were there.

John Schembra spent a year with the 557th MP Company at Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1970. His experiences as a combat MP contributed to his first book, M.P., A Novel of Vietnam. Upon completing his military service, John joined the Pleasant Hill (California) Police Department in Contra Costa County. In 2001, he retired from there as a Sergeant, after 30 years of service. His second novel, Retribution (2007), describes homicide detective Vince Torelli’s hunt for a serial killer. Since then, he’s published two more novels featuring Torelli—Diplomatic Immunity (2012)and Blood Debt (2019)—as well as the stand-alone, Sin Eater (2016).