Bullet Points: … And the Kitchen Sink Edition

 Awards 2015, Obits 2015, Shaft  Comments Off on Bullet Points: … And the Kitchen Sink Edition
Feb 212015

• It has been far too long since I last put up a “copycat covers” post here in The Rap Sheet; I hope to resurrect that series in the near future. Meanwhile, though, I can’t help but mention the pair of book fronts shown above. The one on the left comes from the 1999 Orion UK edition of Dead Souls, Ian Rankin’s 10th John Rebus novel and one of those that was current at the time I interviewed him back in 1999. The façade on the right appears on Tell Tale (Avon UK), the new, fourth Detective Inspector Charlotte Savage novel by Mark Sennen. It seems that lowly, windblown tree on both is much in demand. But then, tree fronts have always been very popular in the crime-fiction field.

Peter James, the UK author best known for penning a series of novels about Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (Want You Dead, You Are Dead, etc.) is “the best crime author of all time”? Yes, according to a recent poll conducted by bookseller W.H. Smith. A post in that British retailer’s blog reports the 66-year-old James “has effortlessly stolen the crown with an incredible number of votes.” Effortlessly? Really? That seems unusual, given the caliber of his rivals for this honor. Here’s the top-20 list of vote-getters:

1. Peter James
2. James Patterson
3. Val McDermid
4. Ian Rankin
5. Agatha Christie
6. Martina Cole
7. Sheila Quigley
8. R.C. Bridgestock
9. Karin Slaughter
10. Tess Gerritsen
11. Mark Billingham
12. Patricia Cornwell
13. Ruth Rendell
14. Karen Rose
15. Chris Carter
16. Lee Child
17. Simon Kernick
18. P.D. James
19. Thomas Harris
20. Stuart MacBride

Obviously, this wasn’t a scientific survey, but a popularity contest–and a British-centric one at that. Still, I’m rather shocked to spot a couple of the names featured among these 20 (remind me who they are again?), and to see how many writers well deserving of reader approbation didn’t make the cut. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came in at No. 21, while others find places even further down in the roster: Dennis Lehane (24), Michael Connelly (39), Raymond Chandler (47), Louise Penny (58), Dorothy L. Sayers (61), Stieg Larsson (68), John le Carré (87), Ellis Peters (89), John Harvey (103), and James Lee Burke (104). What of Ross Macdonald, though? Or Dashiell Hammett and Georges Simenon? Or Rex Stout and Philip Kerr? Or Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, or Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö?

• Next week will offer the “Classic TV Blogathon” (February 24-26), comprising retrospectives on series ranging from The Avengers and Ellery Queen to Moonlighting and Blacke’s Magic. You’ll find the schedule of posts and essential links here.

• Dynamite Entertainment’s new line of Shaft comic books, by writer David F. Walker and artist Bilquis Evely, is among five finalists for the first Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity. As the blog Hero Complex explains, “The honor is named after … a prolific writer who co-founded Milestone Media and its popular menagerie of heroes. … He died in 2011 at age 49 of complications after undergoing emergency heart surgery.” The winner will be announced on February 28 during the Long Beach Comics Expo in Southern California.

• Speaking of Shaft, did you know that New Line Cinema has acquired the movie rights to Ernest Tidyman’s black private eye, John Shaft, and is planning to reboot that blaxploitation series begun in the 1970s? Sigh … Why can’t we simply be happy with Richard Roundtree’s original three Shaft films or, better yet, Tidyman’s seven Shaft novels? Must Hollywood try to squeeze another ounce of blood from the character once hailed as “hotter than Bond, cooler than Bullitt”? Samuel L. Jackson’s effort to reinvigorate the franchise in 2000 was painful to watch. Do Shaft fans (myself included) have to cringe again at whatever New Line might present?

• In a BBC Radio documentary, novelist William Boyd (Restless, Solo) investigates the case of Helen MacInnes, a renowned author of mid-20th-century espionage fiction. Unfortunately, this segment will be available for only the next three weeks, so click here to listen. Now!

• The opening sequence from Dog and Cat, a short-lived 1977 ABC-TV crime drama starring Lou Antonio and Kim Basinger–embedded

on the right–is just one of several new additions to The Rap Sheet’s YouTube page.

• A year and a half ago, the blog Criminal Element brought to readers an e-book collection of abbreviated crime stories called Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble. The M.O., as its editors called it, was supposed to be a thrice-yearly publication, but after that initial issue, it dropped off the map. Now, though, it’s back–sort of. Rather than trying to assemble short-story anthologies, it sounds as if the blog’s editors want to solicit short fiction several times annually and ask Criminal Element readers to choose their favorites among each set of submissions. The first deadline for stories under this new arrangement is Friday, March 6. Entries should run no more than 1,000 to 1,500 words in length and be built around the theme “Long Gone.” If you’re interested in contributing a story, read the guidelines here. A tally of finalists should be announced on March 20, at which time online voting will begin. The tale receiving the most votes will be known by April 3, and posted on April 17 for free reading. After which this submission/review/voting process will begin again.

• Congratulations to The Thrilling Detective Web Site! It’s creator and editor, Kevin Burton Smith, claims that almost 17-year-old invaluable online resource for crime-fiction enthusiasts now has “over 3,000 fictional private eyes” in its listings.

• I was sorry to read, on The Gumshoe Site, that 58-year-old author Tony Hays “died on January 25 in Luxor, Egypt, where he fell ill on vacation.” Blogger Jiro Kimura goes on to explain that

He was working in Saudi Arabia teaching English. He [had] published two Who’s-Who-Dunit novels featuring known literary characters: Murder on the Twelfth Night (with William Shakespeare) and Murder in the Latin Quarter (with Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce; both from Iris Press in 1993). After the standalone novel The Trouble with Patriots (Bridgeworks, 2002), which features a Tennessee-native journalist like the author, he launched the four-book Arthurian series featuring Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, counselor to King Arthur, starting with The Killing Way (2009) and ending with The Stolen Bride (2012; all four from Forge). His last novel, Shakespeare No More, will be published in September by Perseverance Press. It was supposed to be the first of a projected series featuring Shakespeare’s friend, a Stratford constable.

Hays was kind enough to contribute a “forgotten books” essay to The Rap Sheet in 2011, looking back at Ellery Queen’s The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932). He will be missed.

• A belated R.I.P. to Lizabeth Scott, the Pennsylvania-born actress heralded by novelist and movie historian Eddie Muller as “one of film noir’s most indelible dames.” According to Wikipedia, Scott starred in more pictures of that sort than any other female performer, including Dead Reckoning (1947) with Humphrey Bogart and Too Late for Tears (1949) with Don DeFore. Later, she took roles in such TV series as Burke’s Law and Adventures in Paradise. Scott is said to have died of congestive heart failure on January 31. She was 92 years old.

• Brash Books’ recent reissuing of Mark Smith’s 1973 novel, The Death of the Detective, a National Book Award finalist, has prompted the Los Angeles Review of Books to publish a lengthy and very interesting reconsideration of Smith’s best-known work. Michael Barry concludes, “The Death of the Detective is a disturbing, challenging, sometimes demented novel, but it is a gloriously ambitious one. It won’t be to every taste, but it clearly doesn’t expect to be.”

• If you’re planning (or just hoping) to attend next month’s Left Coast Crime convention in Portland, Oregon (March 12-15), note that a fuller schedule of panel events has been posted.

• Meanwhile, life appears to have stirred once more in the Bouchercon 2015 blog, after a year-and-a-half-long silence. Stacy Cochran, chair of that convention set to take place in Raleigh, North Carolina, from October 8 to 11, has posted a panel request deadline, info about hotel reservations, and news that “We’re presently at 660 registered attendees, and so we are on target to hit our window of 1,300-1,500 attendees by our convention dates.” If you haven’t already signed up to attend, you can do so here.

This trailer for Guy Ritchie’s big-screen version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. suggests the film, scheduled for release on August 14, may not be precisely what fans of the original Robert Vaughn/David McCallum series had in mind. But it still looks like a stylish, lighthearted flick. Let’s hope all the best parts aren’t in the trailer.

• And it’s too bad neither Vaughn nor McCallum was asked to take on a cameo role in the picture. It would have been a respectful touch.

• It’s good to see that Loren D. Estleman’s ambitious 2013 standalone novel, The Confessions of Al Caponeone of my favorite crime novels of that year–is finally due out in paperback next week. As I remarked in Kirkus Reviews, “Confessions [is] something special among historical crime yarns.” Check it out.

• Given the plethora of Star Trek fans in the world, this book seems destined to become a best-seller in early September.

• The pop-culture site Buzzfeed hails15 TV Shows You Should Totally Be Watching But Probably Aren’t.” That list includes 12 Monkeys, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce, Forever, and Man Seeking Woman, none of which I’ve seen. However, it also champions ABC’s Agent Carter, an eight-episode action-adventure series, set right after the conclusion of World War II, that I have so far watched all the way through, with pleasure. Inspired by a character in Marvel Comics’ Captain America series, this program stars British-American actress Hayley Atwell (Any Human Heart, Falcón, Restless) as uncommonly capable U.S. government agent Peggy Carter. But it is also made highly watchable by James D’Arcy, playing a butler with a hidden well of talents, Lyndsy Fonseca as a fast-talking waitress who befriends Peggy, and Shea Whigham as Peggy’s sexist boss. The final episode of this debut season for Agent Carter will be broadcast next Tuesday, February 24. If you haven’t been watching, but appreciate entertaining historical espionage series with comic edges, it may be time to binge-watch this show online in anticipation of next week’s finale. I only hope Agent Carter will return for additional seasons.

• By the way, Jake Hinkson has written some good posts about Agent Carter for Criminal Element, one per episode. You’ll find them here.

• Hinkson has also posted, in that same blog, the opening entry in what’s supposed to be “a series celebrating the career of one of mystery fiction’s true giants,” Margaret Millar, who was born 100 years ago this month. Click here to read his look back at Do Evil in Return, which Millar first saw published in 1950.

• Following up on his announcement earlier in the week of nominees for New Zealand’s 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, Craig Sisterson points me at this piece from Wellington’s Dominion Post that recounts the confusion Marsh’s moniker provoked in readers, especially in America. “Had I guessed the trouble my name was going to cause a lot of people on the other side of the world,” said the author–who died 33 years ago this week–“I would have changed it to something easier when I began writing books.”

• As a young boy, I would have loved to own this lunchbox. Heck, I wouldn’t mind having it now, either.

• You probably didn’t notice, but Bill Koenig’s The HMSS Weblog–which embarked on its own course last September, after its associated Web site, Her Majesty’s Secret Servant, ceased publication–was recently renamed The Spy Command. And earlier today it posted a terrific short piece about the failed 1967 pilot for a Dick Tracy series. That pilot’s producer, William Dozier, had already had already hit it big with Batman and The Green Hornet.

• As the blog TV Obscurities noted previously, Eve Plumb, the child actress who would go on to fame in The Brady Bunch, was to have played detective Tracy’s daughter, Bonnie Braids. She was “shown in the opening credits but otherwise never appear[ed].”

• Britain’s ITV Network is preparing “a new adaptation of George Simenon’s novels about Parisian sleuth Jules Maigret,” reports Euro Crime. Rowen “Mr. Bean” Atkinson is “set to play Maigret in two stand-alone, 120-minute films for the channel. Both dramas will be set in 1950s Paris, with screenwriter Stewart Harcourt adapting the books Maigret Sets a Trap and Maigret’s Dead Man.” Frankly, I can’t imagine Atkinson’s portrayal surpassing that of Michael Gambon in the 1972-1973 series Maigret(opening titles shown here).

• Finally, Ruth and Jon Jordan, the familiarly energetic and convivial editors of Crimespree Magazine, won some favorable attention this week in their hometown newspaper, Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, linked to the Raven Award they are set to receive during the Edgar Awards presentation on April 29.

Bullet Points: Run-up to Thanksgiving Edition

 Awards 2014, Shaft  Comments Off on Bullet Points: Run-up to Thanksgiving Edition
Nov 252014

Having finally come down from all the excitement at Bouchercon in Long Beach, and after putting the last touches on a couple of unexpectedly challenging editorial assignments, I am ready for a wrap-up of recent crime-fiction news. How about you?

Publishers Weekly has posted a list of its critics’ 12 favorite mystery and thriller novels from 2014. They are:

The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black (Holt)
Memory of Flames, by Armand Cabasson (Gallic)
Sting of the Drone, by Richard A. Clarke (St. Martin’s/Dunne)
The Sweetness of Life, by Paulus Hochgatterer (MacLehose Press)
The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson (Mariner)
The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica (Mira)
The Iron Sickle, by Martin Limón (Soho Crime)
The Forgers, by Bradford Morrow (Mysterious Press)
Desperate, by Daniel Palmer (Kensington)
Soul of the Fire, by Eliot Pattison (Minotaur)
The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central)
The Martian, by Andy Weir (Crown)

• Crime Fiction Lover chooses its “Top 10 Crime Debuts of 2014,” including Someone Else’s Skin, by Sarah Hilary; Spring Tide, by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind; and The Lying Down Room, by Anna Jaquiery.

• With the American version of Thanksgiving coming up on Thursday, check out this list in Mystery Fanfare of crime fiction related to the occasion. Who knows, you might like to pick up a copy of Kate Borden’s Death of a Turkey or Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks to while away the time as you wait for your holiday feast to be done.

• Former Norwegian police investigator-turned-author Jǿrn Lier Horst has won the 2014 Martin Beck Award for The Hunting Dogs (Sandstone Press), his third English-translated police procedural starring William Wisting. The Martin Beck Award is presented annually by the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy (Svenska Deckarakademin) for the best crime novel in translation. Last year, The Hunting Dogs won the Glass Key Award

from the Crime Writers of Scandinavia. Maybe it’s time I actually found a copy of that novel and sat down to read it.

• Several additions have been made in recent days to The Rap Sheet’s YouTube page, including the video embedded above: the opening title sequence from Tropical Heat, a 1991-1993 Canadian action-adventure series starring Rob Stewart as an ex-DEA agent turned Florida gumshoe. Other new clips include the introductions from Cool Million, Shell Game, and Jigsaw John.

• Can you dig it? Author and sometime Rap Sheet writer Gary Phillips dropped me a note over the weekend, saying that he and David Walker–the latter of whom is writing the new Shaft comic-book series for Dynamite Entertainment–“are putting together the first-ever anthology of [John] Shaft short stories … set in the ’70s of course.” As somebody who, over the years, has developed an unexpected fondness for Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft series, I look forward to seeing that black private eye’s return in any form possible.

• A recent interview with David Walker can be heard here.

• Jake Hinkson, author of The Big Ugly and a regular contributor to Criminal Element, has kicked off a new succession of posts for that blog about “standalone novels by mystery writers who are better known for their big-time franchise characters.” Hinkson begins his series with a look back at I’d Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman’s noirish thriller, published in 2010.

• Are you in the mood for an “oddball detective book”? Jeff Somers showcases five such works–by Thomas Pynchon, Isaac Asimov, and others–in this piece for the B&N Book Blog.

• This qualifies as good news: Despite doubts voiced by many people, the TV series Longmire–inspired by Craig Johnson’s acclaimed series of novels and starring Robert Taylor as Wyoming county sheriff Walt Longmire–will return for a fourth season. This, after A&E cancelled the show in August. ComingSoon.net reports that Netflix has ordered “ten new episodes of the series [to] premiere exclusively in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 2015.” It adds: “Season four of Longmire picks up moments after season three’s exciting finale. Longmire, having found out who was behind the murder of his wife, succumbs to his darker impulses and takes off in pursuit of the killer with murder on his mind. Meanwhile, Branch Connally ([played by Bailey] Chase), the deputy who Walt fired for erratic, violent behavior, believes he has already figured out who the real culprit is. But during his confrontation with this suspected killer, a gun goes off. Now the audience will finally learn what happened, and whether Walt can be stopped before he makes a fatal choice.”

• Did you know that independent bookstores across the United States will celebrate Small Business Saturday on November 29 by hosting author and illustrator appearances–just in time for holiday gift-buying? A state-by-state listing of participating shops can be found here. I’m pleased to see that my local bookseller, Phinney Books, is among those taking part. (Hat tip to Life, Death and Fog.)

Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad spin-off series starring Bob Odenkirk, will be given a two-night debut on February 8 and 9 of next year, after which it will settle into its Monday time slot on AMC-TV.

What’s your favorite John Dickson Carr mystery?

• A couple of interviews worth reading: Clinton Greaves talks with Roger Smith, South African author of Man Down, while Omnimystery News chats with Les Roberts about his new novel, Wet Work.

• If the short-lived, 1972-1973 TV series Madigan, starring Richard Widmark (an early element of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie “wheel series”), is available in a DVD set from Amazon France, why is it still not for sale in the States?

• Winners of the 2014 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards are to be declared this coming Wednesday, November 26. Among the nominees are six works competing for Irish Crime Novel of the Year. Declan Burke reacquaints us with those contenders here, and then suggests eight other “tremendous novels published that didn’t, for various reasons, feature on the shortlist”–among them Adrian McKinty’s The Sun Is God and Conor Fitzgerald’s Bitter Remedy.

• This last weekend’s Iceland Noir conference in Reykjavik received some important coverage from the blog Crime Fiction Lover. An overview can be found here, but look also for CFL’s post about new authors who took part in the event and this item about “a tour guided by Iceland’s own queen of crime, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, to the west of the island and out onto the Snaefellsnes peninsula.” You’ll find links to all of CFL’s Iceland Noir articles here.

Are you ready for Cozy Crime Week, December 8-13?

• And “after about ten years of work, and a year-and-a-half online serialization,” the Webcomic Gravedigger is done–“at least for now,” says its writer, Christopher Mills. “‘Digger’ McCrae will probably be back, though. He’s a tough sonuvabitch. I’m already talking to publishers about print editions and digital download versions of both ‘The Predators’ and ‘The Scavengers,’ and I’m hopeful that we’ll be seeing said versions sometime soon.” In the meantime, if you missed any of the 49 chapters of “The Predators,” put together by Mills and illustrator Rick Burchett, you can still find them online, beginning here. “The Scavengers” is still available, too, beginning here.

Bullet Points: Pre-Scotland Vote Edition

 Awards 2014, Bondiversaries, Shaft  Comments Off on Bullet Points: Pre-Scotland Vote Edition
Sep 172014

• Today marks 50 years since the London debut of Goldfinger, the third big-screen action film starring Sean Connery as Ian Fleming’s British super-spy, James Bond. As I noted in a previous post–complete with the motion picture’s opening title sequence–“the American release of Goldfinger didn’t come until December 22, 1964.” The HMSS Weblog has a bit more to say about Goldfinger here.

• 2014 year marked the first time contenders for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger in the Library award were selected by readers on the Web. With the nomination process having now concluded, here’s the longlist of writers who are vying for that prize (plus the names of their usual publishers):

— M.C. Beaton (Constable & Robinson)
Tony Black (Black and White Publishing)
— Sharon Bolton (Transworld Publishers)
— Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
— Mari Hannah (Pan)
— James Oswald (Michael Joseph)
— Phil Rickman (Corvus)
— Leigh Russell (No Exit Press)
— Mel Sherratt (Thomas & Mercer)
— Neil White (Sphere)

The CWA explains that “Unlike most other literary prizes, the Dagger in the Library honours an author’s whole body of work to date, rather than a single title.” A shortlist of nominees will be announced on November 3, with the winner slated to be revealed during an event at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London, in late November. (Hat tip to the Euro Crime Blog.)

• Steve Aldous, who in July contributed an interesting and important piece to The Rap Sheet about Ernest Tidyman and the “ghost writers” he employed to create his seven novels about black New York City gumshoe John Shaft, directs our attention toward this interview with David F. Walker. Walker has been hired to write Dynamite Entertainment’s new line of Shaftcomic books. “Some good news,” Aldous says, “in that Walker is a fan of the books and [is] using them as the basis for his writing. He is effectively doing an origins story, setting the [Dynamite] series a year before Tidyman’s novel.” The first Shaft comic produced by Walker and artist Bilquis Evely is due out in December, with a cover by Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz that you can preview right here. Walker has promised to post updates about his Shaft efforts in his own blog.

• Actress Julia McKenzie will return this coming Sunday evening as Agatha Christie’s popular spinster sleuth in the first of three new episodes of Miss Marple, all set to be broadcast over two weekends as part of PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! series.

• Scott Adlerberg has a nice piece in the blog Hardboiled Wonderland about the film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s novels.

• News from publisher New Pulp Press:

Starting January 1, 2015, Jon Bassoff, [the company’s] founder, will be handing over control and ownership of the award-winning press to Jonathan Woods and Shirrel Rhoades of Key West, Florida. While Jon Bassoff will still be associated with New Pulp Press in an advisory role, Jonathan Woods will be in charge of acquisitions and editorial matters. Shirrel Rhoades will take the lead on business, marketing and distribution.

Jonathan Woods, as a writer, has been associated with New Pulp Press since its early days. New Pulp Press has published three of his books, including the groundbreaking Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem. ‘Jonathan shares the same warped sensibilities that I do,” said Jon Bassoff. “I look forward to seeing where he takes this rowdy little press next.”

Shirrel Rhoades has had a long and distinguished career in publishing, including a stint as EVP and Publisher of Marvel Comics. He currently owns and manages an eBook publishing business called Absolutely Amazing eBooks that publishes a broad range of titles from horror to humor, non-fiction to mystery. “Shirrel’s marketing expertise and his existing publishing business will competitively enhance New Pulp Press and bring its writers to a wider audience,” said Bassoff.

• When you need a Mod Squad fix, check out this YouTube page.

• If you haven’t yet noticed, Criminal Element contributor Jake Hinkson has spent early September celebrating the four classic films in which Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall appeared together. Here are the links: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948).

• Speaking of the late Ms. Bacall, the blog Down These Mean Streets offers a link to an episode of the Lux Radio Theatre from 1946 in which she and Bogie give voice to a “wireless” adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

• I admit, I haven’t watched the USA Network crime drama White Collar lately, and probably not since the delightful Hilarie Burton bowed out of her recurring role on that show as insurance company investigator Sara Ellis. So I was surprised to learn, from Crimespree Magazine’s blog, that the series’ sixth and concluding season will begin on Thursday, November 6. Wow, it seems like only yesterday that White Collar had its premiere

• Happy fourth birthday to The Nick Carter & Carter Brown Blog!

• Interviews worth reading: Libby Fischer Hellmann (Nobody’s Child) answers questions from Omnimystery News; Benjamin Whitmer (Cry Father) chats with MysteryPeople; Reed Farrel Coleman (Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot) goes a round with Crimespree; and Chelsea Cain (One Kick) responds to queries fielded by LitReactor.

• Crime Fiction Lover continues its “Classics in September” series with remarks on Adam Hall’s The Quiller Memorandum, Ngaio Marsh’s best books, and a critic’s selection of the “20 Greatest Crime Movies of All Time.” Links to the whole series are being collected here.

• The Blogger software has finally forced our list of new crime fiction, due out between now and December 31, off of The Rap Sheet’s front page. (It apparently doesn’t like lengthy posts stacking up for too long.) However, you can still study that catalogue of more than 275 titles here. Prepare to expand your to-be-read pile!

Is this Nero Wolfe’s old Manhattan brownstone?

• We’d heard that new publisher Brash Books would be reprinting W.L. Ripley’s original three novels featuring football player turned troubleshooter Wyatt Storme (who debuted in 1993’s Dreamsicle). But now Brash reports that it will also bring out a brand-new Storme tale, Storme Warning. All four are due in bookstores in early 2015.

• Registration for ThrillerFest 2015, to be held (as usual) in New York City from July 7 to 11 of next year, is now open. Next year’s ThrillerMaster will be Nelson DeMille.

• Patti Abbott’s 2015 debut as a novelist (with Concrete Angel) will be abetted by a very fine-looking book cover.

• Critics At Large writer Nick Coccoma isn’t thrilled with Dennis Lehane’s new big-screen movie. “The Drop has some of the finer performances of American society’s white urban underclass we’ve seen in a long time,” he writes, “maybe even since Brando and his crew. In the end, it adds up to a frustrating, wasteful nothing.”

The Chill remains one of my favorite Ross Macdonald novels.

• And this sounds mildly intriguing. In Reference to Murder reports that “Shondaland productions and Person of Interest co-executive producer David Slack are teaming up for an ensemble [TV] cop drama titled Protect and Survive that centers on the last LAPD precinct fighting to hang on in Los Angeles after a massive disaster.”

Shaft and the Ghosts of Ernest Tidyman

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Jul 282014

(Editor’s note: The following article comes from Steve Aldous, who works in the banking industry in Great Britain and has concocted a number of well-received short stories, two of which–“Lightning Never Strikes Twice,” an affectionate parody of the pulp private-eye novels of the 1940s and ’50s, and its follow-up, “Fork Lightning”–were shortlisted for prizes in Writer’s Forum magazine. A longtime fan of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft novels, he wrote three years ago in The Rap Sheet about Shaft Among the Jews and has since undertaken extensive research on Tidyman’s career in order to pen a book titled The Complete Guide to Shaft, which is currently seeking a publisher. Aldous lives with his wife and two sons in Bury, Lancashire, UK. He also has a daughter and granddaughter.)

The recent announcement that publisher Dynamite Entertainment will, firstly, reissue Ernest Tidyman’s 1970s Shaft novels and, secondly, produce new novels and comic books featuring his black New York City private detective, came as a most pleasant surprise. The books have been out of print since the late 1970s in both the United States and the UK. Only Germany has kept the seven Shaft novels in circulation, with Pendragon re-publishing the series between 2002 and 2008.

Dynamite’s decision was also confirmation of a view I have held for a long time, and indeed have promoted in The Rap Sheet previously–that there is still an interest in and a market for this culturally iconic character. Whilst the image of Richard Roundtree dressed in a leather coat, strutting through the streets of Manhattan to Isaac Hayes’ funky score is most people’s image of John Shaft, his genesis was on the written page. Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft series is in need of re-discovery and re-appraisal.

Over the last two years I have been preparing a book, provisionally titled The Complete Guide to Shaft–a history and analysis of the series in print and on screen. The aim of this work is to introduce the character and, in particular, Tidyman’s books to a new audience, as well as furnish longtime Shaft fans with new details about the series.

I started by re-reading all the novels, which I bought during the 1970s and still possess in their original UK Corgi paperback editions. I then undertook extensive research, initially online, to compile as much information and history as I could. This research also suggested a suspicion in some quarters that a number of the Shaft books had been ghost-written, and the name Robert Turner came up from a couple of sources. That initial research, however, proved sketchy and inconclusive.

It was earlier this year that I made a breakthrough when I discovered Ernest Tidyman’s papers had been stored in the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, in Laramie. On approaching the Center I learned there was a vast amount of material covering Tidyman’s professional career, with the inventory containing 180 boxes of items: correspondence, financial records, and manuscripts. There then came a problem of logistics. Being based in the UK, I was unable to travel to the Center to undertake the research personally, so I obtained an inventory breakdown and hired a proxy researcher to work with me on honing the material down to what I needed. Over a period of two to three months, we identified the elements specifically relating to the Shaft series. I obtained copies of key pieces, such as Tidyman’s original character outline and handwritten notes.

Also during this period, I managed to enter into an e-mail correspondence with Alan Rinzler, who was publisher Macmillan’s mystery department editor in the late 1960s and commissioned Shaft (1970), the series’ initial installment. Alan was able to provide me with insight into the genesis of that first book.

These two new sources, therefore, gave me much of the detail I needed to fill in the gaps and finally answer many of the outstanding questions concerning the creation of the John Shaft character and the writing of the seven Shaft novels.

* * *

It was in late 1968 or early 1969 that Rinzler touted the idea for a black detective hero to literary agent Ron Hobbs. Rinzler had been involved in the changing social culture of that era, initially through his work fundraising and ghost-writing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in New York in 1964. He also worked for Simon & Schuster at the time, editing, promoting, and publishing works that highlighted the plight of black America–including Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), which detailed the struggles of growing up in Harlem. These books helped inspire the equal-rights movement for African Americans.

Hobbs was the only African-American literary agent in New York City, and Rinzler figured he could come up with the necessary writer to fulfill his brief. Hobbs, however, suggested a white writer by the name of Ernest Ralph Tidyman, who had only recently set up as a freelance writer, after previously enjoying a long career in newspaper journalism in Cleveland and Manhattan.

Tidyman was keen, too, to tap into the social mood of the time. His first novel, Flower Power (1968), was the tale of a runaway teenage girl who joins a hippie camp and is introduced to sex and drugs. It didn’t sell well, and despite his having contributed articles to magazines and written a non-fiction book (1968’s The Anzio Death Trap) about a controversial Allied assault in Italy during World War II, Tidyman was close to being broke when the opportunity to take Rinzler’s commission was presented to him.

Hobbs arranged a meeting between Rinzler and Tidyman. Rinzler was initially reluctant, but he allowed Tidyman to work up some sample chapters of the prospective novel. Tidyman duly obliged, and whilst Rinzler was impressed with the writing, he felt the story was too soft. He suggested a show of violence to emphasize the hero’s no-nonsense approach to solving problems. Following up on Rinzler’s suggestion, Tidyman re-wrote those early pages to include the fight in which the detective hero ends up throwing a hood out of his office window. Rinzler was pleased with the re-write, and offered Tidyman a $10,000 advance to complete the book.

Thus was John Shaft born.

Tidyman finished his draft and synopsis for Shaft on July 3, 1969. Keen right away to promote his property to filmmakers, he circulated galley copies of his novel. One interested reader was producer Phil D’Antoni, who was impressed by Tidyman’s use of dialogue and his knowledge of New York. D’Antoni thereafter recommended Tidyman to director William Friedkin as somebody who could adapt Robin Moore’s 1969 non-fiction book of the same name into the film The French Connection (1971). Later, Shaft was picked up by MGM’s new head, Jim Aubrey, who–due to his studio’s financial difficulties–was looking to produce lower-budget movies, and Shaft seemed a perfect fit for his new vision. A deal to turn the novel into a big-screen picture was signed in April 1970.

The novel version of Shaft was first published by Macmillan in the United States on April 27, 1970. (A UK hardcover edition, from Michael Joseph, followed on June 24, 1971.) It was well-received, and Gordon Parks was hired by MGM to direct the movie adaptation. Tidyman formed Shaft Productions, with initial producers Roger Lewis and Stirling Silliphant acting as equal partners. However, production responsibilities were later passed to Joel Freeman, after Lewis moved to Warner Bros. Richard Roundtree beat out 200 other potential John Shafts to grab the title role, with which he would forever be associated. The resulting 1971 film, Shaft, became a smash hit across the world and was a major inspiration for the so-called blaxploitation movies of the early to mid-1970s. A deal was executed between Tidyman and MGM for options to adapt future Shaft novels.

Tidyman had already written a screenplay for a sequel, which MGM initially accepted on May 28, 1971, before the movie Shaft even reached theaters. The story was based on an article Tidyman had read in 1968 about the mysterious deaths of three diamond merchants. He folded that idea into a larger plot concerning an Israeli fugitive and his formula for the production of synthetic gems.

Meanwhile, after rejecting a screenplay proposal from B.B. Johnson, the writer behind the Superspade novels (Death of a Blue-Eyed Soul Brother, Black Is Beautiful, etc.), Tidyman’s partners at Shaft Productions had developed their own story for the sequel, which found Shaft having an adventure in the Caribbean. With the approval of MGM, Roger Lewis developed a screenplay entitled The Big Bamboo, and Lewis and Silliphant sought Tidyman’s approval to proceed. Tidyman, however, had commenced work on adapting his original sequel proposal into a follow-up novel–Shaft Among the Jews. Tidyman did not like, and subsequently rejected Lewis’ screenplay, and he would eventually submit a new original story himself in which Shaft seeks out the killer of an old friend whilst infringing on a gangland turf war for the control of Queens. It was developed between October and December 1971 under the name Gang Bang, but was later retitled Shaft’s Big Score!

The original crew from Shaft, including director Gordon Parks, returned to commence filming Shaft’s Big Score! in January 1972. Tidyman set about writing the novelization, which was scheduled to be published in May 1972, a month ahead of the film’s proposed release date. A disagreement over royalties with both MGM and his partners in Shaft Productions, though, resulted in the book’s publication being postponed, and Tidyman threatened to withdraw the novel altogether. After some prickly negotiations, an agreement was finally reached and the book was published on August 7, 1972, in paperback–the hardback publication of Shaft Among the Jews having preceded it on June 29.

The second film was also a box-office hit and it seemed the franchise had a strong future. Like the James Bond films of the 1960s, Shaft had also inspired many imitators. However, Tidyman’s disagreement over the royalties for the novelization of Shaft’s Big Score! led to a cooling of his relationship with his partners. Lewis and Silliphant were left to continue work on Shaft’s big-screen adventures, the third of which–Shaft in Africa–went into development in late 1972.

Tidyman, meanwhile, was keen to maximize the future earnings potential from his creation by adding to the series of Shaft books and hoping MGM would take up options to film those new stories. Also during this period, he attempted to launch a daily Shaft comic strip. Test panels had been drawn by Don Rico, who had worked for Marvel Comics, and were circulated to the big newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, but they failed to attract interest.

* * *

The success of the films Shaft and The French Connection–for the latter of which Tidyman received an Academy Award (as well as an Edgar Allan Poe Award)–significantly increased demands for his time and encouraged him to branch out further into other film writing and production. He set up Ernest Tidyman Productions and began to spread his time across a number of developing projects. The increasing workload encouraged Tidyman to hire writers to help out–particularly with continuing the Shaft book series.

Tennessee Williams presents Ernest Tidyman with the 1971 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The French Connection.

Tidyman had sketched out story ideas for three further Shaft books, which he wanted to produce in quick succession so they would fall within the timeframe of MGM’s options agreement. He recruited two writers to help: Robert Turner, a vastly experienced author of pulpish fiction (The Girl in the Cop’s Pocket, etc.) and a contributor
to many of the pulp magazines of the 1940s and 1950s; and Phillip Rock, a screenwriter who had also worked on a number of novelizations in the early 1970s (including an adaptation of Dirty Harry). Tidyman had previously used Rock on his novelization of High Plains Drifter, the screenplay Tidyman had written for Clint Eastwood’s 1973 Western.

Robert Turner took up the first book, based on an outline Tidyman had written for a work titled The Gang’s All Here, Shaft. Turner developed Tidyman’s story, which centered on the planned heist of half-a-million dollars in laundered Mafia funds from a hotel that was hosting a gay convention. The resultant Shaft Has a Ball was completed in August 1972, having been heavily edited by Tidyman, and was published in paperback on April 2, 1973. Turner then moved on to compose Shaft’s Carnival of Killers (1974).

In September 1972, Rock had started to develop a book Tidyman called Shaft’s Last Goodbye. Tidyman had initially intended to end the series at that point, but once he’d conceded to involve other writers in his work he abandoned the idea. This latest story saw Shaft in action in a location outside New York City for the first time, in this instance London, where Tidyman and Rock had both lived for a time. The idea of shifting locations mirrored what Lewis and Silliphant had done with their third film, Shaft in Africa, directed by John Guillermin and released in the summer of 1973.

The plot of Shaft’s Last Goodbye centered on a kidnapping aimed at preventing Senator Creighton Stovall (who had also appeared in Shaft Has a Ball) from becoming the first black vice president of the United States. Shaft is hired to bodyguard Stovall’s young sons, who are moved to London in order to reduce the risk of their being snatched. Rock completed his writing on December 22, 1972, and Tidyman finished his editing on January 29, 1973. The book wound up being retitled Goodbye, Mr. Shaft as a nod toward James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934), acknowledging that the Stovall boys had attended an English public school during their stay in Great Britain.

Meanwhile, in August 1972, Turner had also commenced working on Shaft’s Carnival of Killers. This time Shaft would go to Jamaica in an attempt to discover who is responsible for a plot to assassinate that country’s prime minister. The story was rooted in a non-Shaft screenplay Tidyman had originally written in 1971 entitled A Carnival of Killers, featuring a private eye named Francis Clifford. John Shaft effectively replaced Clifford as the tale’s lead. Turner struggled, though, with the work due to illness, and deadlines were missed. The final manuscript, delivered in March 1973, was rather subpar and required heavy editing by Tidyman before publisher Bantam accepted it for American release.

Goodbye, Mr. Shaft reached U.S. bookstores on December 28, 1973, whilst Shaft’s Carnival of Killers, with its relatively short page-count, followed in paperback nearly a year later, in September 1974.

Around this time Tidyman had become disenchanted with the treatment of his creation on screen. Shaft in Africa had received his blessing, if not his approval. The film did not match the success of its predecessors, though, and in 1973 John Shaft made a move to television, instead, with Richard Roundtree reprising his role in Shaft, a series of seven watered-down movies for CBS-TV. At least that short-lived Tuesday-night drama returned Shaft to his New York City roots. But Tidyman had by then become tired of his creation and resolved to kill him off in the last book of the series, appropriately titled The Last Shaft.

(Right) The final page of 1975’s The Last Shaft. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Phillip Rock started converting Tidyman’s outline into a full novel in October 1973. The plot finds P.I. Shaft avenging the murder of his friend Captain Vic Anderozzi, who had arrested the Mafia’s bookkeeper and was looking to turn that man and his account ledgers over to the district attorney. Rock finished his manuscript on January 11, 1974, and Tidyman his edit on January 22. Shaft was killed off in a random mugging in a coda to the book that had no link to the story itself, providing a disappointing conclusion to the series. Bantam passed on publication in the States, but the book was later released in hardcover in the UK on March 27, 1975, with a paperback publication two years later.

* * *

Despite a couple of attempts to restart the Shaft movie franchise–first by Tidyman himself in 1979, after the expiration of his deal with MGM, and later (in 1985) by the author’s widow, Chris Clark-Tidyman–it wasn’t until director John Singleton’s Shaft, in 2000, that the character was finally reintroduced to the public. That film found Roundtree’s role being reduced to little more than a cameo, while the focus was on Shaft’s “nephew” played by Samuel L. Jackson. Disagreements between director, producer, and star meant any potential franchise relaunch was doomed.

Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft books are a product of a time when men’s adventure novels and film novelizations dominated the paperback racks. The first three books, written solely by Tidyman, had a distinctive hard-edge, wit, and style reminiscent of Mickey Spillane and, to some extent, Raymond Chandler. Those were the strongest entries in the series. The later books still carried Tidyman’s house style, due to his heavy editorial input and story outlines, but they suffered from a more formulaic approach to the writing and plotting, as well as an increasing level of absurdity. Throughout, though, Tidyman heavily protected his detective creation, and despite the tough exterior presented by John Shaft, the character remained real as a result of his fallibility. He is a hero of his time but also a hero who can transcend time, in the same way Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe can, due to his iconic status.

The books remain eminently readable and well worth revisiting. I hope their reappearance under the Dynamite banner, along with a new series of adventures, will reignite interest in the literary version of John Shaft. He has been absent for too long.

READ MORE:Beyond Shaft: Black Private Eyes in Fiction,” by Kevin Burton Smith (January Magazine).

Bullet Points: Of Sin, Shaft, and Snoopathon

 John Harvey, Mannix, Shaft, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  Comments Off on Bullet Points: Of Sin, Shaft, and Snoopathon
Jun 022014

• Did you know that June is International Crime Month? Yeah, neither did I. So at first blush, this seems like a P.R. failure of cataclysmic proportions–nothing like the triumphal event it was been billed to be: “a month-long initiative featuring internationally acclaimed crime-fiction authors, editors, critics, and publishers who will appear together in a series of readings, panels, and discussions from four of America’s most influential independent publishers–Grove Atlantic, Akashic Books, Melville House, and Europa Editions.” But as it turns out, other people are preparing to celebrate. There’s a free commemorative magazine being given out at bookstores this month, plus a schedule of book launches and other happenings. The bookstore MysteryPeople in Austin, Texas, has its own events planned, including a double-feature film series matching books such as Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress with the movies adapted from them. I’m hoping the International Crime Month Web site will keep us apprised of further developments along this line.

• Now, that’s a movie poster for you! The graphic on the left features gorgeous Eva Green of Casino Royale fame, this time promoting Sin City: A Dame to Die For, which is being readied for theatrical release in August. Everything you need to know about both this poster and today’s crisis level of U.S. idiocy is clear from the news that the Motion Picture Association of American wants to ban the advertisement “for being too sexy.”

• The A&E-TV series Longmire, based on Craig Johnson’s series of novels starring small-town Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, will return tonight for a third season, beginning at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

• Thirty-nine years after the final John Shaft novel–appropriately titled The Last Shaft–was brought to market, comic-book publisher Dynamite Entertainment has announced its plans to reprint Ernest Tidyman’s seven original novels about the black New York City private eye who’s “a sex machine to all the chicks.” Read my Kirkus Reviews piece about the Shaft novels here. (Hat tip to Gary Phillips.)

• And it was 35 years ago this month that Moonraker–the 11th big-screen James Bond flick, and the fourth to star Roger Moore–was released. The HMSS Weblog heralds this with a look back at how viewers and reviewers originally saw the movie.

• Check out “Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Spies,” currently underway and hosted by Movies, Silently. Included among the many offerings are films about Nazis, amateur espionage agents, Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto and of course Bond, James Bond. The “Snoopathon” will continue through tomorrow, June 3. Click here for all the vital links.

• That reminds me: Another blogathon began today, this one focusing on television programs featured in MeTV’s summer broadcast schedule. Among the first posts is Mitchell Hadley’s tribute to Peter Gunn, found in It’s About TV!. Other commentators will take on such shows as Adam-12, The Saint, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Columbo. You’ll find a full catalogue of elements from this blogathon–which runs through Thursday–by clickety-clicking here.

• Both CSI and Chuck number among Neatorama’s picks of “The 25 Most Powerful TV Shows of the Last 25 Years.”

• Janet Rudolph offers this preview of Endeavour, Season 2, which will premiere in the States as part of PBS’ Masterpiece series, beginning on Sunday, June 29.

• The delightful Ms. Rudolph also has some advice for attendees at this year’s Bouchercon in Long Beach, California.

• The Classic TV History Blog’s Stephen Bowie offers up, this time in the A.V. Club blog, a fine essay about what might have been one of the last great private detective series, Mannix. He writes, in part:

Mannix was easy to take, period. The low-key personality of Mike Connors, the former basketball player and B-movie actor who played the title character, set the tone. Likable but flinty, Connors was a tough guy who didn’t have to show off. An idealist and a nice guy, Mannix was perfectly willing to take on a lost little girl as a client and negotiate his fee in lunch money (never actually collected, of course). Connors had a rare sincerity that kept scenes like that from getting corny. (When cynical private eye shows like Harry O and The Rockford Files made a point of their protagonists’ pragmatic eye for a buck, it was mainly Mannix they were rebuking.) Working out of a comfy Spanish-styled home office, dressed in plaid sport coats made out of fabric as thick as carpet, driving a snazzy muscle car painted a hideous shade of army-Jeep green, Joe Mannix was functional but square. It was all of a piece. Mannix was the audience’s uncle or its brother-in-law–that quiet, comforting fellow who never let on that he’d mowed down a whole squadron of advancing enemies during the war.

I said my own piece about Mannix in this 2008 Rap Sheet post.

• In Killer Covers, I’ve begun a week’s worth of postings about cool vintage books that feature days of the week in their titles.

R.I.P., The Brady Bunch’s Ann B. Davis.

• BOLO Books’ Kristopher Zgorski recaps his days spent at the Book Expo America conference in New York City, May 28-30.

• Bob Byrne serves up a short but notable encomium to John D. MacDonald and his many novels, in the blog Black Gate.

• The June 2014 edition of The Big Thrill, sponsored by the International Thriller Writers, is currently available here.

• I somehow missed this Newton Thornbury novel from 1968.

• I’d forgotten that Liam Neeson will star as unlicensed private detective Matthew Scudder in the film adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones. Fortunately, Crimespree Magazine remembered, and recently posted this trailer for the picture, which is set to premiere in theaters on September 19.

• British novelist John Harvey deserves critical attention, and he gets lots of it in two new pieces by Michael Carlson. The first one–located here–applauds “the downbeat beauty” of Harvey’s main series star, Nottingham Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick, who appears (for one last time) in the novel Darkness, Darkness, already available in the UK and set to debut in U.S. bookstores in mid-September of this year. Carlson’s second Harvey piece, here, identifies the critic’s five favorite Resnick novels.

• The NBC-TV spy drama The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first flickered across boob-tube screens on September 22, 1964. To note the passage since of 50 years, a two-day extravaganza billed as “The Golden Anniversary Affair” will be mounted “somewhere in Los Angeles” on September 26 and 27 of this year. “This once-in-a-lifetime event will feature a reunion of cast and crew members, panels and presentations by U.N.C.L.E. aficionados, as well as a display of original props and other surprises,” promises a promotional Web site. “A special feature will be an exclusive The Man from U.N.C.L.E. MGM/Sony Studios tour, on Sept. 26th, that features a visit inside Stage 10 where U.N.C.L.E. HQ once stood.” It looks as if there are many more details to work out before this observance can take place, but an associated Facebook page has already been launched, and donations are being raised. It all sounds like an “Affair” to remember.

The Boston Globe profiles Joseph Finder, explaining:

After publishing 10 suspense novels, two of them bestsellers turned into Hollywood movies, Joseph Finder had what most writers would sell their souls for: brand-name author status; a seven-figure, multibook deal with a major publisher; a list of his previous works aggressively marketed by his publisher; and a loyal readership for virtually anything he wrote.

Then, two years ago, in a plot twist befitting one of Finder’s didn’t-see-that-coming thrillers, he made an abrupt change. After his last novel, “Buried Secrets,” failed to make the bestseller list, the Boston-based author bought out his contract with a seven-figure check, left his longtime publisher and agent, and wrote his next novel without a signed deal in place.

He took an additional risk by not publishing anything for nearly three years, an eternity in the life of a popular thriller writer. His goal was to remake his brand, and aim at a larger audience.

Don Johnson talks with Salon about Miami Vice, “his wild years with Andy Warhol and Hunter S. Thompson–and his recent comeback.”

• Finally, after a four-year hiatus, historian-author Laura James’ blog, Clews: Your Home for Historic True Crime, has suddenly reappeared with an overview of Harold Schechter’s The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation. I’ve reinstalled a link on this page under “True Crime.”

Apr 272012

This essay was originally published at Ebony.com

By all cultural accounts, 1968 was a hellish year for America. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy helped spark the “burn baby burn” sensibility ignited in the streets. It was also during this turbulent period that Paramount Pictures reluctantly agreed to finance Jules Dassin’s remake of the classic film The Informer into militant action film Up Tight.

Moving the action from the streets of Ireland to the ghettos of Ohio, Dassin’s bleak exploration into the world of sharp-dressed Black revolutionaries introduced the Blaxploitation aesthetics that later influenced a crop of Black action films including Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft (197), Super Fly (1972) and others.

In addition, the film stars an ensemble of actors that would a few years later become major stars including Ruby Dee (American Gangster), Raymond St. Jacques (Cotton Comes to Harlem), Max Julian (The Mack), Janet MacLachlan (Sounder), Juanita Moore (The Mack), Roscoe Lee Browne (Uptown Saturday Night), James McEachin (Buck and the Preacher) and Dick Anthony Williams.

Best known for his role as the sharp-tongued pimp Pretty Tony in The Mack, this was the film debut for Chicago native Williams. Playing Corbin with the heated coolness of hot ice, his performance was brilliant.

Up Tight, whose original title was The Betrayal, focuses on a group of fictional revolutionaries called The Committee. In his otherwise positive 1969 review of Up Tight, critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun Times, “It’s remarkable that a major studio financed and released this film.” However, according to Ebony magazine in November, 1968, the studio did try to bow out on their commitment to bankroll the film.

“Paramount did not want to release the film,” stated co-star then-84-year-old Ruby Dee, who also co-wrote the script, at a 2008 screening of the film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Afro-Punk Festival. Surprisingly, she had never seen the film prior to the 2008 screening in Brooklyn.

After Dassin passionately argued the project’s relevance, a Paramount executive supposedly said, “I’m crazy, but we’ll do it.” Reportedly, the budget was little over two million dollars.

A New York City native, Dassin grew-up in Harlem and moved to Hollywood in 1940 beginning his career as an apprentice with Alfred Hitchcock. A few years later, proving he too was a visionary filmmaker, Dassin directed the film noir gems Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night and the City (1950).

In 1951, Dassin’s successful Hollywood career came to a screeching halt when, after being labeled a Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he relocating to France. He struggled for a few years after Hollywood studios informed European producers that no Dassin film would ever be distributed in the states.

Unafraid of the repercussions, producer Henri Bérard took a chance in 1955 and hired Dassin to adapt the noir novel Rififi. The film was successful and became the template for future heist flicks including The Anderson Tapes and Ocean’s 11. Yet, while Dassin won the 1955 Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, it would still be another thirteen years before he was hired by an American company to shoot a movie in the states.

Up Tight opens with stark newsreel styled footage Dassin shot of Martin Luther King’s funeral procession in Atlanta as disgusted and distraught bystanders wept. “As we were finishing the shoot, Dr. King was assassinated, so Jules took his cameras down to Memphis and Atlanta and incorporated some of that footage into the beginning of the film,” Dee explained. “We then rewrote and reshot some of the film to reflect what had just happened.”

Minutes into the movie, the camera pulls back to show a group of young men watching the sad spectacle on a television set inside a rundown Cleveland, Ohio barbershop. “I brought the story to Cleveland because I think Cleveland is more representative of a big American city than any other,” Dassin told the Ohio Plain Dealer at the time.

Shot in a section known as Hough, two years before the community was the scene of an infamous riot that took place over six nights, we see a community in shambles and on the verge of explosion. The tenements and tacky hotels, side streets and steel mills look as though they might blow away in the next storm. In the same way King’s death led to riots in streets major cities, it was used as the motivation behind the crime in Up Tight that sets the pulp fiction aspect of the movie in motion with a failed heist of a gun armory the night of King’s funeral.

“The man from love got his head shot off,” spits Jeannie (Janet MacLachlan), one of the militants. “And all those people learned nothing.” Coldly, the organization’s co-leader B.G., portrayed superbly by Nehru jacket wearing Raymond St. Jacques, replied, “Death is a fast teacher. They’ll learn, it’s clearer now.”

A few scenes later the entire Committee, led by soft-spoken Corbin (Dick Anthony Williams) meet-up inside their headquarters, an abandoned bowling alley. Film World magazine described the location as, “…something out of a Black Power nightmare.”

Two of the film’s stars, Julian Mayfield (Tank Williams) and Ruby Dee (Laurie), co-wrote the script with the director. Originally, Dassin sought Ruby’s husband actor/director/writer Ossie Davis as a co-writer, but he was scheduled to be in Mexico shooting Sydney Pollack’s film Scalphunters starring Burt Lancaster. Having taken his wife to the meeting, Davis suggested Ruby would be just as good behind the typewriter and Dassin took his word.

“Ruby has a very strong, poetic talent,” Dassin told Ebony in November 1968. “Her sense of images, her sense of sound is just marvelous. It was a very full collaboration.” Asked about the film’s title change from The Betrayal to Up Tight, Dee, who is also a Cleveland native, answered, “Jules was very pleased with when the new title was suggested. It was an uptight time. Being Black in America is an uptight situation. If you’re going to survive, you have to loosen-up.”

Dassin’s second script collaborator as well as the Up Tight’s star, was novelist, journalist and stage actor Julian Mayfield. The burly scribe had gotten the gig at the suggestion of co-star Frank Silva, whom he had met a few months before a writer’s conference at Fisk University. Mayfield had just returned to the country after being in exile in Ghana.

Although Up Tight was Mayfield’s first screenplay, his talent as a novelist on The Hit (1957) and The Long Night (1958) had been celebrated in Jet magazine years before the Dassin collaboration. “Julian Mayfield demonstrates with an almost disarming ease that he possesses narrative skill, a sense of dramatic unity and poetic feeling,” they wrote. Though partially forgotten since his death 1985, crime novelist and The Wire writer George Pelecanos reprinted Mayfield’s short story “The Last Days of Duncan Street” D.C. Noir 2: The Classics (Akashic Books) in 2008.

In their shared 1998 autobiography With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, Dee wrote that director Dassin originally wanted James Earl Jones to play the intoxicated loser who betrays the Black militant organization, his woman, his best friend Johnny Wells and, in the end, himself.

Yet, while writing with Mayfield, the director realized he had the perfect “Tank” sitting next to him. “I don’t feel this will be a film we will be ashamed of,” Mayfield told a reporter in 1968. “Just seeing certain images will be so new, it will blow the minds of many people, Black and white, to see what is going on in this country.”

Working with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who shot On the Waterfront (1953) and The Pawnbroker (1963), making Up Tight a visually nightmarish film that was arty, brutal and beautiful. Dassin created a claustrophobic cinematic landscape that New York magazine critic Judith Crist described as, “teeming and pulsing one minute, stark in its solitudes and isolations the next.”

“But, it was about the music too,” says Darius James, author of That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude. “Booker T. & the MG’s doing ‘Time is Tight’ was the best. This was a few years before the big soul soundtracks like Shaft or Super Fly, and people loved it.”

According to journalist Rob Bowman, author of the fascinating book Soulville USA: The Story of Stax Records (1997), the group was commissioned after the film was completed. In preparation to learning the art of scoring films, bandleader Booker T. spent a week with Quincy Jones.

“Quincy was complimentary when I came to California,” Booker T. told Bowman. “He felt we were equals. He really made me feel good about the music, asking me for advice, for tips about making stuff funky.”

The score was recorded in Paris, where Dassin edited the film, away from the prying eyes of studio executives who had threatened, according to Ruby Dee, to pull the film.

The Up Tight soundtrack spawned Booker T. & the MG’s second biggest single “Time is Tight;” heard in fragments throughout, the complete song serves as the film’s coda. Booker T. wanted to name the song after the film, but didn’t want to confuse the audience with the 1966 Stevie Wonder song of the same name. The single went to #7 on the R&B charts and #6 on the pop charts. In Soulville, writer Bowman says, “‘Time is Tight’ just might be Booker T & the MGs finest moment.”

Cultural critic Greg Tate recalls seeing the Up Tight at a drive-in when he was a kid. “The scene where the hood rains bottles on the cops is still a visceral childhood memory,” Tate explained, still excited forty years later by an especially impressionistic moment in the movie.

While Up Tight remains one of the best gritty political crime features from that period, it was soon, according to Ruby Dee, withdrawn by the studio. Although it can occasionally be seen on late-night television, at repertoire houses or film festivals, Paramount has never released the film on video or DVD.

After the disheartening experience on Up Tight, director Jules Dassin, who died in Athens, Greece in 2008 at the age of 96, never made another movie in America.

Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories and essays for New York, Wax Poetics, Vibe and XXL. He has also published crime fiction in Needle, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, Pulp Metal and A Twist of Noir. Currently he is completing his Harlem heist novel Uptown Boys.

Slippin’ Into Darkness

 Disco, love, Shaft, Springsteen  Comments Off on Slippin’ Into Darkness
Feb 112012

When I was a teenager, the soundtrack was simple and indeed played on a 8-track tape player – and how sad is it that I’m that old – the heft of a portable x-ray machine strapped beneath the dash of my dad’s ’65 Ford Galaxy when I was a senior in high school. Pumped at volume as those of us on the football squad arrived for our Friday night games, the “Theme to Shaft” by Issac Hayes. Cue that great guitar intro:

Who is the man
That would risk his neck for
his brother man?
(all the girls say: Shaft!)
Can ya dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out,
When there’s danger all about
(all the girls again say: Shaft!)
Right on

But there was also “Lola” from the Kinks that, shall we say, piqued our interests,–

Well, I’m not the world’s most physical guy,
But when she squeezed me tight she nearly
broke my spine
Oh my Lola, L-L-Lola

Well, I’m not dumb but I can’t understand,
Why she walked like a woman but talked like a man,
Oh my Lola, L-L-Lola, L-L-Lola

Time passes and there were other Friday nights spent in places like the Jockey Club and Jukebox Jury…yes my friends, the Age, the Scourge of Disco had arrived. And what better song encapsulated this ere than “Disco Inferno” by the Tramps (riffed on I shamelessly note in a short story of mine called “Disco Zombies” from the Cocaine Chronicles recently republished in my short story collection, Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers)

Satisfaction came in a chain reaction — Do you hear?
I couldn’t get enough, so I had to self destruct,
The heat was on, rising to the top
Everybody’s goin’ strong
That is when my spark got hot
I heard somebody say

Burn baby burn! — Disco inferno!
A, ah yeah!

Threaded through those time periods and into my mid to late twenties are those relationships that healed you and took something out of you at the same time. Who better than the Joe Simon in his song “Drowning in the Sea of Love” to express that:

I’ve been down one time,
I’ve been down two times,
Now I’m drowning,
Drowning in the sea of love

And there was Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” song that pretty much summed it up for me and wommin’ folk as well —

I got a Black Magic Woman
I got a Black Magic Woman
Yes, I got a Black Magic Woman
She’s got me so blind I can’t see
But she’s a Black Magic Woman and
she’s trying to make a devil out of me

For the tough times there’s the two constants, the Boss’ “Darkness on the Edge of Town” –

Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost,
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost,
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town.

And War’s “Slippin’ into Darkness,”

When I heard my mother say,
You’ve been slippin’ into darkness,
Oh oh oh oh
Pretty soon, you’re gonna pay.
Yeah, yeah.

When it comes time to checkout, like how it was used for a dying Russian gangster on an episode of House, maybe that last soundtrack will be the intonations of the late great Eddie Hazel’s guitar magnificence on Funkadelic‘s “Maggot Brain.”

(you can click on Treacherous or “Maggot Brain” for extras by the by)