Thursday, May 29, 2014

Musings on a fifth Thursday

I’m trying to take my writing beyond newspaper reports and blog posts. I’m working on a collection of short stories set in my city. The stories are in the making and I’m still playing around with a few ideas one of which includes an Indian version of an American cowboy, a gunslinger or a marshal, on horseback and in full western gear. He’ll carry six-guns and he'll be fast on the draw. I don't know if I can lasso the character, the story, and the setting the way I imagine but there’s no harm in trying. I want each of the stories to be as outlandish as possible.

I'm also working on a book on self-help that has a huge market in India. Everyone seems to be writing one these days. The problem with writing self-help is that you tend to get preachy and the last thing I want to produce is another cure for insomnia. I'm rewriting the three chapters I've written so far and I’m fighting to keep my eyes open. I'm thinking of consulting other self-help books.

Four decades ago, my late father wrote nearly a dozen short stories, mostly family dramas. He was a fine journalist and a gifted writer. I envied him his language but I was also proud of it. He wrote them with a fountain pen in long hand and typed them out neatly on foolscap paper, on his dull blue Smith Corona typewriter (not the one in the picture). I'd been sitting on this little treasure of tattered and yellowed pages all this while. A couple of months ago, a dim bulb lit up over my head and I decided to transfer them onto the computer, and try and publish them as a book or an ebook. I owe it to him.

I've also been writing something else off the top of my head. I think it could turn into some kind of a story, maybe flash fiction. It begins like this…

I woke up Tuesday morning and finally cleared my bowels. What a relief it was. It’s not the best opening, pun or no pun, but it’s certainly the best way to start the day. I rejoiced in that single act of self-gratification. It beats Christmas morning. If only my ritual the previous day had been as productive, I'd have top-scored at the interview. I was squirming in my seat and my inquisitors, a grim-faced restaurant manager and a mean-looking head chef, took my discomfort for a nervous attack. They looked at each other and telepathised, “This guy is shitting in his pants.” I wish. They said they'd call me before sundown. They never did. That was yesterday.
A paragraph somewhere in the middle of the story goes like this…
I took a bus that dropped me outside the restaurant. I stood there and looked at the place. I didn’t like it. It looked shady and it smelled of vice. It was a bar and restaurant and not the other way around, which meant nice families didn’t go in; only inconsiderate men did, the kind who drank and gambled and thought they deserved a break from their wives and mistresses four times a week. The food was an inducement to drink more booze and blow up more money, and then take an advance on next month’s pay.
By the time I reached 900-odd words, I was in my element…
As we neared the door it was opened by Quasimodo’s twin. We entered the room and the door banged shut behind us. I wheeled around and saw the hunchback in front of the door, his broad twisted frame blocking my escape, a hideous grin pasted on his freaky face. I was trapped and I was very afraid. My mind pressed a dozen panic buttons. I was going to be framed for a crime and spend the rest of my life in prison. Worse, I was going to be sodomised, tortured, and murdered. 
I have no idea where this is going, if it is in fact going anywhere at all.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Abwärts, or Out of Order, 1984

A German entry for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom this Tuesday.

It took me a good ten minutes to trace this little-known film on the internet.

When I googled “Out of Order” I got a film by that name but it turned out to be a British comedy I’d never heard of. It had George Baker whom I know from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), but definitely not from I, Claudius, a BBC adaptation, or Ruth Rendell Mysteries (1987-2000) where he plays Inspector Rex Wexford, or a couple of James Bond films I’d seen.

My search also threw up a namesake Rod Stewart album and a 2003 television mini-series that had some fine actors like Eric Stoltz, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Kim Dickens, Peter Bogdanovich, and Lane Smith. I haven't heard or seen either.

I then looked for movies about elevators and actually came up with two, called Elevator, made in 2004 and 2011. Their plot—stuck in the lift and something happens—was similar but neither of the films was what I was looking for.

There should be a universal ban on the use of the same title more than twice for books, films, television, and music. It’d narrow down one's search.

I went back to IMDb and this time scrutinised the results carefully, and there it was, Abwärts (1984) aka Out of Order. And that was when I found out that it was a German film and not a Hollywood product. Abwärts means ‘downwards’ in German. In this film it could mean anything. I don't know if it was dubbed in English. 
I saw it thirty years ago. 

Directed by Swiss-born Carl Schenkel, Out of Order is a mini thriller about four strangers—three men and a woman—who are trapped in a small high-rise elevator on a Friday evening. The lift has been under repairs, the alarm system is not working, and there is little oxygen. Will the four people come out alive on Monday? And even if they manage to survive the next seventy-two hours, can they survive each other in the interim?

The occupants include an elderly bookkeeper who has robbed his employer and is carrying the stash with him, a middle aged man and his girlfriend, and a young man. Inevitably, tempers fly, egos clash, and conflicts arise. As I remember the boyfriend and the young man quarrel from the start, right through their efforts to find a way out of the lift. The girl flirts with the young man which makes it worse for everyone inside. By the time they're rescued, a lot happens, and it’s no longer about spending a few claustrophobic hours in the elevator without food and water. The end is a bit of a cliffhanger.

An article on Wikipedia sums up the film thus: “The main theme of the movie is the sudden life threatening situation unsuspecting people find themselves in the most normal of circumstances on a most usual day. The film also explores the rivalry between men over a woman and being faced with becoming obsolete, either by being fired like Gössmann, who is too old to learn to adapt to computer bookkeeping and apparently also Jörg, being fired for unspecified reasons and losing his lover to another man.”

Out of Order is a stark depiction of human nature and its shortcomings as evident from the dishonesty, insecurity, and jealousy of the four disparate characters none of whom stand out in the movie.

Apparently, the film and its maker received both critical acclaim and several awards. Carl Schenkel (1948-2003) also made Tarzan and the Lost City (1998), Knight Moves (1992), and The Mighty Quinn (1989), and the television movies Murder on the Orient Express (2001) with Alfred Molina as Hercule Poirot, and Missing Pieces (2000) with James Coburn in the lead.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Intruders by Evan Hunter, 1954

This week’s contribution for Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

I had almost forgotten, when they came and reopened all the old wounds—the woman who swam naked before my unseeing eyes, and the man who had already killed once…

Just over six thousand words, this short story by Evan Hunter (alias Ed McBain) is not as gritty and hardboiled as the blurb hints. Instead, what you get from the legendary crime fiction writer is only a degree of suspense and the atmosphere of a thriller. It’s enough to keep you glued to every word in this cracking story. 

Adventure, April 1954
Jeff Toland is a brave young man, a former soldier, and blind. He is angry and frustrated because he is patronised. His older brother, Tom, treats him like a simpleton and his father follows him around lest he trips and kills himself. Jeff rebels. He wants to be left alone. He decides to go up to the cabin in the woods next to a brook and live there all by himself.

"I had liked the world I made. It was a world of quiet darkness, with no people in it."

And then one day, Jeff is walking along the trail he knows too well and making his way back to the cabin guided by familiar sounds and smells of nature. He steps inside the cabin and makes his way across the room when his toe hits the leg of a chair that isn’t supposed to be there. That’s when he realises something is wrong. The next moment a .45 is rammed into his back.

Sam, the owner of the .45, is hiding from the law. He has killed a man in a fight. He is not really a bad man, only a victim of circumstances, we are told. He and the woman with him, Dot, want to spend a few days in the cabin. Sam is threatening until Dot tells him that Jeff is blind and can't do harm. When Sam mocks Jeff about his blindness, he reopens his old wounds. Jeff seethes with rage and plots his revenge.

Bestseller Mystery,
March 1959
Evan Hunter weaves the suspense nicely into the narrative. Jeff’s furtive search for his rifle in the closet and the hidden chemistry between him and Dot are the notable suspense elements in the story while Jeff’s mental picture of Dot and his exuberance upon learning that she is Sam’s sister and not his wife or lover add a touch of humour to it. None of this means anything for Hunter ends the story on a bit of an anticlimactic note. But he doesn’t leave you in a blind alley.

The Intruders, one of dozens of short stories Evan Hunter wrote in crime, mystery, and science fiction, was apparently first published in Adventure: The Man’s Magazine of Exciting Fiction and Fact, April 1954, and reproduced in Bestseller Mystery Magazine, March 1959. I read the story in the latter, online.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reading Habits #10: Controversial books

I’m currently reading a historical fiction about WWII by a writer who has been accused of never having written it. Do I continue to read it? I know I will because the book is so fascinating in a shocking and terrifying way that I can’t stop now.

The book is The Legion of the Damned, 1957, the first of several WWII novels written by Sven Hassel, a controversial Danish-born writer. His novels have been compared to pulp fiction.

The accuser is Erik Haaest, an equally controversial Danish journalist who apparently hated Sven Hassel and denounced all his books on several grounds.

Both Hassel and Haaest died in 2012.

The Legion of the Damned (‘Fordømtes Legion’ in Danish) is the first-person account of a deserter in the German Army narrated over years. It begins with his arrest by the dreaded SS and incarceration in a concentration camp and later transfer to a penal concentration camp where he is trained like an animal to fight on the Russian front. Anyone who is held captive in a penal camp is better off dead. Not half-dead, but dead. The deserter is a courageous German soldier who is put through weeks of brutal and inhuman training with little water, food or sleep. After the training, which is described in graphic detail, our “hero” is posted to a penal battalion that must fight a terrifying war through Europe and the Russian front. The deserter wears a uniform adorned with ordinary unit badges. He is not entitled to other ribbons even if he has earned them.

I’m still on page 59 of the 186-page novel. In just those pages I have asked myself a dozen times: how can any man treat another like this? Yet they did, in this war and in every other war, or genocide, before and after.

Sven Hassel tells us that the narrator of The Legion of the Damned is none other than Sven himself who came back from the war and recounted his experiences through fourteen translated books which sold very well in the sixties and seventies. He has been forgotten since then.

Hassel’s literary success was, however, marred by the controversy: Erik Haaest, whose father was involved with the Danish Resistance, believed that Hassel never went to war, that he stayed put in occupied Denmark, spoke to those who actually fought the war on the Russian front, had the first book ghostwritten, and got his wife to write the rest. Not only that, Haaest was also convinced that Sven was actually Børge Pedersen, a member of the auxiliary Danish police force created by the Gestapo. Apparently, Hassel did not deny he was Pedersen.

Although the internet gives some credence to Haaest’s version, there is no evidence that Hassel, described as an anti-war writer, did not author the books and tell the world his frightening wartime stories.

For the reader there is a way out of the dilemma: if you even remotely believe Erik Haaest’s account, then read the book as war fiction. All of Sven Hassel's novels, translated into some twenty-five languages and sold in the millions, were immensely popular and at least some of them need to be read. I'm basing my opinion on 59 pages and just this one book.

But would you read a book whose authorship is questioned? I would in this case.

For previous Reading Habits, see under Labels.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, 1953

In celebration of ‘Crime Fiction of the 1950s’ for Friday’s Forgotten Books (and short stories) over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

The room was warm, the curtains were closed, the two table lamps were lit. On the cupboard behind her there were two glasses and some drinks. Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come home from work.

I’m going to keep this review short as Lamb to the Slaughter, an unexpected crime fiction by Roald Dahl, is only 2,393 words long.

Devoted housewife Mary Maloney is beside herself with joy when her husband, police detective Patrick Maloney, returns home after a long and tiring day at the police station. She idolises her husband and looks forward to his company each evening. They sit opposite each other and sip their drinks. 

Mary is glowing. She is sewing, probably clothes, for their unborn child. After finishing his second drink, Patrick breaks the news to her, quietly and gently. He tells her that he has thought about it a lot and that there is no other way. He promises to give her money and take care of her needs. The reader can only infer that he is leaving her for another woman.

Mary is puzzled and shocked. She gets up from her chair, leaves the room, and returns with a big frozen leg of lamb that she and Patrick were going to have for supper. When her husband tells her that he is going out, Mary finds a new, if chilling, use for it.

Lamb to the Slaughter is not so much about the murder of Patrick as about a calm and composed Mary who prepares herself before ringing up his friends at the police station, to report the tragedy that is about to destroy her beautiful life.

I, for one, did not know that British novelist Roald Dahl had written a crime story bordering on noir and police procedural with a strong whiff of dark comedy. Included in Dahl’s anthology Someone Like You, this is probably the best short story I've read so far this year. I recommend it highly.

According to Wikipedia, Lamb to the Slaughter was initially rejected by The New Yorker and later published in Harper's Magazine in September 1953. It was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1958, the story appearing on the two-disc special edition DVD of Hitchcock's Psycho, and Roald Dahl's British TV series Tales of the Unexpected. It has also been adapted in other creative forms including cartoon and fabric painting. The idea for the story was apparently suggested by his friend Ian Fleming.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Love Story by Irving E. Cox, 1956

Everything was aimed at satisfying the whims of women. The popular clichés, the pretty romances, the catchwords of advertising became realities; and the compound kept the men enslaved. George knew what he had to do...

If it hadn't been for the cover, which looked like a picture from a vintage issue of Ladies Home Journal, and the catchy blurb, I would not have read this short story by sf writer Irving E. Cox.

Science fiction is riddled with possibilities, such as the uneven matriarchal society in this story where women rule the world and treat men like slaves. Their weapon is a mysterious compound, an addictive love potion, that makes the men amorous and lust after women, all in the name of love. The compound, 
a mixture of aphrodisiacs and a habit-forming drug, forces the men to wait on women and do as their wives say. The potion, stored in a capsule, is secretly brewed at the all-female Directorate Building in Hollywood.

However, not all men allow themselves to be subjugated by females. Many have tried to escape bondage under women and have failed. Nineteen-year old George, a veritable Adonis standing over six feet, has been swallowing the compound as well but his domineering mother doesn't know that he is immune to it. George chooses his marriage to the stunning Jenny Harper, whose mother paid his mother twenty-eight thousand shares as dowry, to plot his revenge against female dominance by targeting the Directorate and destroying the machine that makes the compound.

The story appeared in If,
Worlds of Science Fiction

April 1956
Love Story is ludicrously sexist. For example, a federal law requires every male to watch television romances three hours a day and failure to do so would mean a three-month sentence to the national hero’s corps, whatever that is, or, worse still, elimination by the Morals Squad. The television romances are meant to “shape male attitudes and emotional reactions” and make the men hunger for women even more. Ironically, however, the women are actually craving to be appreciated, loved, and desired by the very men they seek to control through their potion.

Conversely, bachelors are treated like traitors, enemies of the state, while those who dream of avoiding their matrimonial duties and ditching their wives would have to first break their years-old addiction to the compound.

But is the compound for real and does George succeed in rebelling against women?

Irving E. Cox has written a futuristic story where men, and not women, are marketable products in a matriarchal, and not patriarchal, society. While not overlooking matriarchy in some traditional communities around the world, the role reversal as propounded in this story sounds unthinkable in our times, but it sounds plausible at some point in the distant future. However, if Cox is trying to make a case for gender equality, it's not exactly convincing. Still, Love Story is a nice and readable story.

Irving E. Cox (1917-2001) was a prolific sf writer of short stories, short fiction, and anthologies. Some of his noted works include Adolescents Only and The Instant of Now (1953), The Cartels Jungle and The Guardians (1955), and Impact (1960). All these stories including Love Story are available online.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tommy Lee Jones

Another deviation for Tuesday's Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don’t miss out on some real vintage action over there. 

Not long ago, we were watching The Fugitive when a member of the family remarked that Tommy Lee Jones was a very good actor and that he looked pleasant on screen. I thought about it and agreed he was pleasing but also brooding at the same time, which far from diminishing his screen presence actually enhances it. 

Tommy Lee Jones is one of those unassuming actors whom you don't tire of watching and have a certain comfort level with; someone who puts you at ease in your seat; someone like Morgan Freeman, who provides good entertainment and good value. His characters, at least the ones I've seen, are easy going, laconic, frequently bemused, often flustered, and never really in a hurry chasing good or bad guys, and he has been chasing a fair number of them. His cinematic appeal probably lies in his craggy-faced smile; if you think about it, he does smile a lot.

While watching The Fugitive, for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that Tommy Lee Jones has been cast as a law enforcer in a number of films. He has been stereotyped as cop, sleuth, agent, ranger, prosecutor, and military man, in character roles that, in fact, suit him well. Occasionally, he has played the saviour outside the confines of the law, as in the disaster flick Volcano and in the thriller The Hunted.

I haven't seen all of his movies—in a television and film career spanning forty-two years—but among the ones I have seen, The Fugitive, The Client, US Marshals, and No Country for Old Men stand out; perhaps, because of the common thread running through them. In all four movies, lawman Tommy Lee Jones is chasing someone or other to the point where he actually looks and sounds alike; whether in pursuit of Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) in The Fugitive or the young client of Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon) in The Client and Mark J. Sheridan (Wesley Snipes) in US Marshals or Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in No Country for Old Men.

The only film where his character looked out of sorts, perhaps owing to the presence of the formidable trio of Bardem, Brolin, and Harrelson, is the Coen brothers’ film, undoubtedly the most violent of the quartet.

Tommy Lee Jones seems to be content in doing the kind of films he has done so far, which is not to say that he doesn't have an impressive body of work behind him.  As he says, courtesy IMDb, “It's no mean calling to bring fun into the afternoons of large numbers of people. That too is part of my job, and I'm happy to serve when called on.” It's what makes him such a likeable actor.

Born in Texas, sixty-eight year old Tommy Lee Jones worked in underwater construction and on an oil rig, had future Vice President Al Gore as his roommate, and is believed to have said that he loved cinema and agriculture.

I have mentioned some of Tommy Lee Jones’ more obvious films while deliberately leaving MIB out. Which of his films do you like?

For previous Actor Profiles, see under Labels.

Friday, May 09, 2014

A Body in the Backyard by Elizabeth Spann Craig, 2012

Review & Interview

“Dusty found a body in my yard this morning. We’re trying to figure out who he is, when he died and who was responsible.”

When Myrtle Clover’s insufferable yardman stumbles upon a dead body in her backyard, you can’t help feeling that the amateur sleuth in her late eighties is secretly pleased as it gives her a chance to investigate a crime in the sleepy town of Bradley, North Carolina. Red, her son, neighbour, and chief of police, goes as far as suspecting his mother of flipping out and killing somebody just so that she can play detective again. 

Red is wary of his mother’s intentions. When Myrtle observes that she is getting too old to clean floors and lift heavy things, Red says, in a gently mocking tone, “But not too old to chase criminals down.” In this particular case, Myrtle thinks she has an obligation to the corpse.

The initial banter between mother and son sets the tone for this lighthearted and delightful mystery that revolves around the murder of Charles Clayborne, a young and handsome conman who grew up in Bradley, went away, and came back penniless. Until his murder, executed with one of Myrtle’s precious garden gnomes, Charles was trying to lure the inhabitants of the town, including his cousin Miles, into investing in his nefarious schemes.

During her not-so-subtle inquiries, Myrtle enlists the help of Miles, fifteen years her junior, and her neighbour, friend, and sidekick. Miles lacks Myrtle’s spirit of adventure and is a reluctant accomplice in her investigation. In one of the many funny moments in the story, Myrtle uses Miles as a guinea pig at a dentist and a barber, all because she wants a reason to pop in and ask a few indiscreet questions about Charles.

Even as Myrtle sniffs around for clues, with a little help from Elaine, her daughter-in-law—another dead body turns up in her backyard, on the same day as her reception for Charles’ funeral. This time it’s Lee Woosley, her handyman, whose daughter Peggy Neighbors was one of two women hung up on Charles. Myrtle’s probing instincts, annoying at times, lead her to the discovery of unrequited love and blackmail and, more importantly, the fact that she is no longer safe in her own house.

A Body in the Backyard, the fourth in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover mystery series, is a charming tale of a small town where everyone knows everybody, and especially Myrtle Clover who once taught English to most of the townsfolk. Now she is a woman of many parts—brave and adventurous in her own quiet way, a doting grandmother, a reporter for the Bradley Bugle (a position she uses as a cover for her detective work), and a good friend. But the old lady is not without her foibles; for instance, she can’t tolerate her pesky neighbour, Erma, and she doesn't hesitate to tick off her lazy and superstitious housekeeper, Puddin.

I think this was the first cosy mystery I read and I liked it for all the reasons that make a good story very readable—a lucid style, an uncomplicated plot, and lively characters. A big plus for me was the humour associated with Myrtle and Miles. For example, when Miles reveals that Charles was his cousin, Myrtle comes out with this gem: “Your cousin Charles is dead in my yard? How—well, how careless of you Miles!” If I’d issues with the book, it was Myrtle’s ripe old age (about which I asked Elizabeth in the interview below), but as the octogenarian was herself blasé about it, who was I to object? Recommended.

Elizabeth, who lives in North Carolina, writes the Memphis Barbeque series, the Southern Quilting mysteries, and the Myrtle Clover series. You can follow her work and her blog here and buy her books here. Over to the author...

‘Writing is a joy. It’s cathartic and creative’

Elizabeth Spann Craig spoke to the 3Cs in an email interview which is split into three parts: the book, the characters, and the author.

Photograph provided bv the author.


Elizabeth, A Body in the Backyard is a cosy mystery. How would you describe “cosies”?
Cosies are basically traditional mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth. The reader receives the same clues as the sleuth and solves the case alongside her. These mysteries are frequently humorous, character-focused, often (not always) set in small towns, and are part of a series. You’ll never find explicit descriptions of violence, dark themes, or much profanity in a cosy mystery.

How popular are cosy mysteries and who reads them the most?
Cosies have become quite popular in the last thirteen or fourteen years. Readers tend to be female and older, although the genre has also drawn young readers due to its lack of profanity/disturbing content.

In these times of violent crime fiction, is it easy to carry off murders in a small idyllic town?
Surprisingly, it’s not so tough to carry off. I think there is an audience that loves the puzzle aspect of mystery reading (the whodunit), but isn't so interested in some of the more gory aspects. Gentler stories are doing amazingly well.

Small towns are interesting backdrops for murder. I grew up in a small town and gossip there was rampant. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. It was idyllic on the outside, but tensions could run high on the inside.

How did you get the idea for A Body in the Backyard?
I wanted to write a book where both Myrtle and her sidekick, Miles, were very close to the victim. So I chose to put the body literally in Myrtle’s backyard, and to have Miles be related to the victim. That definitely solved the “how to get the amateur sleuth believably involved in the investigation” problem, too.

I liked the cover of this book. Can you tell us who designed it?
Thanks! It’s one of my favorite covers. Kendel Lynn was the designer. Sadly (for me) she’s now a successful publisher of mysteries at Henery Press and out of the cover designing business.


Elizabeth, there are many sides to Myrtle Clover. She is a brave woman, a doting grandmother, a newspaper reporter, and a good friend among others. Who or what was the inspiration behind her character?
My late grandmother, Mary Spann, was my original inspiration, although I like to say that Myrtle’s good traits are my grandmother’s and her bad traits are perhaps some of my own. My grandmother was a retired English teacher who wrote for various local publications. She had a keen sense of humor and a very sharp mind.

What prompted you to cast Myrtle as an amateur sleuth well into her eighties? Did you feel that you may be taking a risk with an octogenarian living alone and solving murders?
I did feel as if I were taking a risk and I had a little early pushback from my editor. But to me, Myrtle was very realistic. The women in my family tend to live extremely long, active lives…and independent ones. I did add Red in the mix, though, in an attempt to rein Myrtle in and provide some conflict as he tried to slow her down.

Next-door neighbour Miles is not as old as Myrtle. I couldn't help thinking that had she been a few years younger, perhaps, Miles could have been more than a friend, a sidekick, and a sounding board. Do you get a lot of this?
Yes, I get a lot of it…ha! I think it’s human nature to match folks up into couples. To me, Miles and Myrtle have a very close, special relationship. They do feel a strong connection with each other. To me…it’s friendship. There’s something like a fifteen year age difference between them, although that doesn’t completely rule out a relationship, obviously. But readers are open to their own interpretations—the books are for them.

How did you decide upon character names like Myrtle, Miles, her son Red, her cat Pasha, and her yardman Dusty and his wife and her housekeeper Puddin?
In the American South, funny names come with the territory. There are lots of nicknames here, which are considered endearments. I spent my first twenty-two years being known as Little E by my family (even though I was taller than some of the people calling me that). My uncle was known by everyone as Brother, so he became Uncle Brother to me when I was born. Myrtle is an old-fashioned Southern name…my mother knew a Myrtle when she was in college. I latched onto the name once I heard it. Miles is a serious name and Miles is a serious guy…a good straight-man for Myrtle. Red, Dusty, and Puddin are all nicknames and represent similar names I've come across in the South.

Considering that the mother-in-law—daughter-in-law kinship is something of a myth in India, I was amused that Myrtle confides more in her daughter-in-law, Elaine, than her own son, Red. What makes their relationship fetching?
I can imagine how surprising that successful relationship would seem in India! I think the key here is that Myrtle is so much older than her daughter-in-law. Elaine feels as if Myrtle is more of a grandmother figure to her…since Elaine is also a good deal younger than her husband, Red. Also, Red is something of an antagonist of Myrtle’s and Elaine is an ally of sorts.


Elizabeth, can you take us through your journey as a writer and an author?
I've always been a writer. Or, I’ve been a writer since I was seven, anyway. I wrote for magazines for a while until I felt as though I just couldn't keep from writing fiction. Realizing there would never be a good time to write a book, I decided to write a page a day while my then-toddler daughter napped or watched a short television show. A page a day adds up after a while. Then began the long, harrowing process of querying until I got a publishing deal.

Which books and series have you published and what is in store for your readers?
I've got several series. I write the Memphis Barbeque mysteries (as Riley Adams) and the Southern Quilting mysteries (as Elizabeth Craig) for Penguin-Random House. I write the Myrtle Clover mysteries (as Elizabeth Spann Craig) independently, although it started out with Midnight Ink.

As far as 2014 goes, I've got a Southern Quilting mystery, Shear Trouble, set to release in August, and a Myrtle Clover release, Death Pays a Visit, to release this fall.

Do you also write short stories or books in other categories?
Currently, I'm only writing mysteries. But I do plan on writing other genres, once my schedule lightens up a little. I’d like to try my hand at Young Adult fiction or possibly even a saga.

I’m sorry to say that I'm not a very good short story writer, despite being a real fan of them.

What does writing mean to you? How would you describe the experience of writing?
Writing is a joy. It’s cathartic and creative. When I write, I feel as if I’m doing what I was born to do. It’s also one of the hardest things I do—in terms of keeping discipline and handling the business end of the craft.

Where, when, and how do you write?
I reach about half of my 3.5 page goal at five o'clock in the morning before my family wakes up. Then I fit in the rest of my goal in bits and pieces during the day…frequently in the carpool line outside my daughter’s middle school.

I do use an outline now, although many of my books were written without one. After a couple of disasters when taking an ‘organic’ approach to writing (sans outline), I realized that my production schedule (three-four books a year) doesn’t lend itself well to winging it.

What kind of books do you read and who are some of your favourite authors?
Mysteries are my favorites, although I read many other genres. Favorite mystery authors include Louse Penny, Elizabeth George, and M.C. Beaton. I also enjoy reading nonfiction (particularly biographies), poetry collections, literary fiction, women’s fiction, and some fantasy.

Do you have a specific time and place for reading?
I will nearly always read before falling asleep at night…but I also have books on my phone so that I can read at a moment’s notice—whenever I unexpectedly have a few free minutes.

What has your award-winning blog Mystery Writing Is Murder done for your writing career?
My blog has connected me to a supportive group of other writers who share ideas and resources with both me and my blog readers.

Lastly, what is your advice to budding writers?
My advice to budding writers is to keep your writing goal simple. Make it something that you can easily meet, even on the craziest day. Those daily successes when meeting your goal will help motivate you, moving forward.

Thank you, Elizabeth.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Best action flicks of the 90s

Do you think the nineties was the best decade for action movies in recent years? While I’m not sure about my own answer, I can confidently say that Speed tops my list and worms its way into Tuesday’s Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

I missed forgotten books last Friday. My proposed review of a short vintage mystery, announced with fanfare in the previous post, will have to wait. I read the ebook but I have not had the time to write about it. Before I do, however, I'll have to once again go through the book, to sift through the various characters and figure out who is who, make sense of the subplots, and see how I can refer to a particular dialect. Was the book confusing or was it my lack of understanding? The latter, no doubt.

In the past, mystery novels have left me baffled. I've had to reread certain portions to clear my doubts. It is easy to go back in a book, not so in an ebook, especially if you're reading on a tablet where you tap page after page and get nowhere. The “search” option is no patch on turning back pages in an actual book. Besides, you can’t take down notes while reading on a tab; after a while your fingers hurt and you experience mild arthritic symptoms!

With no book review in immediate sight, I thought of writing about some of my most preferred action movies. Here is how this post came about.

Saturday evening, as I returned home by a near-empty suburban train, I overheard two fellow commuters discuss action films and one of them observed that the nineties was the best decade for action movies in recent times. While it was a matter of opinion, my fellow passenger had a point. They mentioned a few movies based on which I drew up my own list but didn't get very far as I wasn't sure if the films were made in the nineties.

Later, after cross-checking on the internet, I found that I was right. My random list of action films across genres included Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Die Hard 2 and Die Hard with a Vengeance, Con Air, Executive Decision, Speed, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, True Lies, Face/Off, The Rock, Independence Day, The Matrix, and Air Force One. I liked all of these though I'd reservations about Face/Off.

I’m aware that I've left out several good movies, like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs; I have not seen either and I'm not sure they fit into the “action” mould. Or even sf comedy Men in Black for that matter.

Choosing my best action film of the nineties wasn’t easy. After much thought I narrowed down the fourteen movies to six: Terminator 2, Executive Decision, Speed, The Rock, Independence Day, and Air Force One. I have seen each of these films more than once and every one of them is a slavish entertainer.

The action in The Rock is thrilling from the time Sean Connery takes a clueless FBI on a reckless and destructive chase in a Humvee, through San Francisco, to the secret mission Connery and Nicholas Cage undertake on Alcatraz Island. The dialogues are good, particularly the biting humour between Connery and Cage. Rogue army men Ed Harris and David Morse, holed up inside the former military prison, are the bad guys who actually play the good guys. Harris and Morse, two fine and amiable actors.

There are similarities between Executive Decision and Air Force One. Both are hijack dramas and both Kurt Russell and Harrison Ford have a distinctive on-screen presence. Russell must share honours with David Suchet, John Leguizamo, Halle Berry, and Oliver Platt in what I thought was a cohesive cast in a well-integrated plot. Ford, who has perfected the grimace, has more at stake—it’s his film, it’s his plane, and he has a right to order terrorist Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) to get off the flying White House in midair.

Air Force One and Independence Day must be two of the most jingoistic films ever made. “Liberty 24 is changing call sign. Liberty 24 is now Air Force One!” and all that grandstanding. People love these films. They want their presidents and prime ministers to be like James Marshall and Thomas J. Whitmore. Celluloid icons come alive.

Predictably, a lot of people liked Arnold Schwarzenegger as the villainous cyborg in The Terminator. Arnie in a negative role? Not for me. I prefer him as the good guy, including in the sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Anyone, even a deadpan bionic man, who throws a security blanket around you with the assuring line “Come with me if you want to live” must mean well.

That leaves us with Speed which I decided was my first choice for the best action movie of the nineties. I liked everything about it: it is an ordinary film with a tightly woven script; it has nonstop action and suspense; it has a good cast—a grim-faced Keanu Reeves, the endearing Sandra Bullock, the "multi-talented" Dennis Hopper, the affable Jeff Daniels, and a pleasant-looking Joe Morton; it has a fairly believable storyline—a speeding bus filled with regular people and a bomb that'll go off should it slow down or stop; it has a daredevil cop and a spunky gal to save everyone’s day; it has funny lines; it has romance, friendship, and vengeance; and it has a half-crazed villain with a sardonic humour. 

Speed, directed by Jan de Bont, whose portfolio as cinematographer is more impressive, is a busload of nerves and hypertension, and good fun all around.

Which action films of the nineties didn't make it here?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Musings on May Day

Today is May 1, a public holiday, in celebration of May Day, Labour Day or International Workers’ Day. It has a special significance for India and especially for the western state of Maharashtra of which Mumbai (then Bombay) is the capital. On this day, in 1960, a little over a hundred people sacrificed their lives during protests for the formation of a separate Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital. Marathi is the official language of the state and one of the twenty-three official languages of India. For this reason May 1 is also celebrated as Maharashtra Day. “Maha” means great, “Rashtra” means “nation” or “land,” hence great nation.

The formation of the state was part of the reorganisation of states under Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister after the British left. Maharashtra is the second most populous and third largest state as well as the richest, a distinction it owes to Mumbai which is the financial, industrial, commercial, and entertainment capital of the country. The city of everyone’s dreams, and not a few nightmares, pays maximum taxes to the central, or federal, government. In return for its generosity, Mumbai gets back very little, as evident from its poor infrastructure. But things have been improving, gradually, since the turn of the century. We have a new cable-stay sea bridge linking the old city and the suburbs—our very own Golden Gate, the country’s first monorail system, and a four-line metro rail of which Line 1 has been in the making for a few years now. It cuts right through my suburb. I won't be taking it as my commute to and from work is perpendicular.

I was born in Bombay and live in Mumbai, which is the same thing, and I thought I should tell you something about my city.

Meanwhile, this and next week I've lined up a few reviews of books and short stories I finished reading by April 30. Immediately coming up is a review of a vintage mystery, a short fiction, for forgotten books at Patti’s blog, Friday. I hope I do justice to it as I couldn't get used to the lingo spoken by one of the characters.

Posting from home has become a bit of a problem since I got rid of our desktop PC a couple of years ago. I’m not comfortable with a laptop. I can use it to surf and read, download books, comment on blogs, check emails, book tickets, and that sort of thing. What I can’t do as well as I can on a regular computer is type out a lengthy post or an article with two fingers (as I do) and scroll (with my forefinger). I still need the keyboard and mouse. So now I keep the laptop a little distance away, the keyboard right in front of me, and the mouse on my right—the desktop-laptop has made things easier.