Q: What makes Kai Cooke (the Surfing Detective) different from other hardboiled characters?
The definition of the classic hard-boiled PI (or the cliché that it has sometimes become) fit less well a laidback surfer in Hawai‘i than it does the tough-talking, trench coat-clad gumshoes in the cold, hard cities on the mainland. Kai Cooke musters toughness when he needs it, but his approach is generally more low-key and soft-spoken, in keeping with the way things are done in the islands. He owns a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, though seldom uses it. He quietly contemplates his cases while sitting on his board and waiting for the next wave. “Sherlock Holmes had his pipe,” he tells us in Murder on Moloka’i. “I have my surfboard.” Wherever a PI operates, he or she needs to adapt to local circumstances. So in this way, I suppose, Kai is not unlike other PIs—except he probably bangs fewer heads and enjoys more sunshine. And, of course, more waves!
Q: How did you come up with the character?
In keeping with the island theme of the series, I felt my PI should be someone who was uniquely of the islands. Kai Cooke (originally named “Keahi”) was first conceived as part-Hawaiian and a sailor. Then two things became clear: 1) As a non-Hawaiian, I could not write authentically from the point of view of a native Hawaiian. So I decided that Kai would be haole (Caucasian) and hanaied (adopted) by a Hawaiian family. 2) Kai would also be a surfer (rather than a sailor), because surfing is Hawai’i’s gift to the world. It made sense that a mystery series attempting to capture the flavor of the islands would have a surfer as its PI.
Kai Cooke’s first name means “sea” and his last name comes from a famous kama’aina (longtime island resident) missionary family. He was adopted by Hawaiian relatives at eight when his parents died and left him an orphan. As the series begins he’s thirty-four and single. He rides a longboard, drives an old Impala, and has no wife, no children, and no pets. When he gets lonely, he has a knack for falling for the wrong person. Usually with dire consequences. He has no shortage of dates, and no shortage of lonely nights. He carries his board with him wherever he goes inside his car. And under his khakis, aloha shirt, and sandals he wears board shorts. Surfing is his sanctuary.
Q: What are your thoughts on the whole eBook revolution?
What eBooks—and also print-on-demand books—have done for self- and Indie-publishing can only be described as you have: a “revolution.” Before this happened a small number of national and regional publishers essentially controlled what books were printed. Now any individual can publish his or her own book in digital and paper form at very little expense and, via the internet and social media, can promote books in a way that was never imaginable before. A true breakthrough for the little guy. Amazing.
Q: What's next for you and Kai?
My plan from the beginning for the Surfing Detective series was to write six books, each featuring one of the six main inhabited islands in the Hawaiian chain. The four books that have been published so far haven’t exactly followed the plan, but close: Murder on Moloka‘i, the first book, is set on the Friendly Island; Wipeout!, the second, features the famous surfing breaks of Oahu’s North Shore; Kula, the third (about a stolen golden retriever), takes place on three islands (O‘ahu, Maui and Hawai‘i); and Murder at Volcano House, the fourth, at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. I plan to set the two remaining books on Kaua‘i and Maui, respectively. We’ll see what happens! In any case, you can expect more island-hopping sleuthing from Kai Cooke.
Q: What do you do when you're not writing?
My wife and I both come from large families on either US coast. Since family is a big part of our lives, we travel a lot to see them and they frequently come to see us. I also surf when time allows. I am a member of the Golden Retriever Club of Hawai‘i and participate in rescue (that’s how we got our golden). I am a member of the Porsche Club of America, Hawai‘i Region. Finally, after retiring from college teaching I’ve taken up the piano; I adore the instrument and its repertoire. Other tidbits: I eat mostly vegetarian (my wife is a superb cook), she and I jog and walk and do a little yoga, we’re into sustainability and are transitioning to all-solar power for our Hawai‘i home, our cars run on 100% biodiesel (except the Porsche—we’re waiting on Stuttgart to offer an all-electric or biofuel car), and we are advocates for peace (I am a Vietnam-era veteran) and have been known to march and carry signs to that effect.
Q: How do you promote your work?
The Surfing Detective website & blog—http://surfingdetective.com—Facebook, Twitter @surfingdetectiv, and giving away free ebooks every Sunday.
Q: What other genres besides crime do you like?
When I’m not reading mysteries to see what other writers are doing, I read mostly non-fiction. Right now I’m reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Wiener. My favorite author of all time is Henry David Thoreau. My favorite book, Thoreau’s Walden. Here’s the passage from Walden that has most inspired me:
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Q: What's your idea about the psychotic sidekick in PI novels like Hawk and Joe Pike?
I don’t want to repeat what others have already said, so I will simply concur that sidekicks in the Robert Crais and Robert B. Parker novels—and a myriad of other PI novels—provide excellent foils for their gumshoes. And I will add that the sidekick role goes back to the beginnings of the genre with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Those two were not technically the first, but they are probably the most remembered. Whether psychotic (like Hawk) or not, sidekicks provide a balance and a contrast to the PI, and, in the case of Dr. Watson, narrate the tale and aggrandize the sleuth. In my own Surfing Detective series, PI Kai Cooke generally works alone, but he’s frequently on the phone or eating Chinese out with his attorney friend Tommy Woo, who sends cases his way. And in Kula, Kai teams up with his high school crush and pet detective, Maile Barnes, to rescue a famous surfing dog. After one dicey moment with Maile Kai laments, “That’s why I don’t work with a partner. Each of us had a job to do that directly affected the other’s and neither of us knew for sure if the other could deliver.”
Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation?
I just finished judging a PI hardcover novel contest that included 70 books by well-known authors and newcomers alike. What I learned encountering all of these books is that the sub-genre of the PI novel (the main genre being “mystery”) is proliferating into various sub-sub-genres, each with its own writers and (apparently) readers. For example, there are books featuring animals and pets; ghosts and vampires; cooking and culinary arts; CSI and forensic procedure, historical periods and events, including westerns; priests, nuns, and religious orders; stories with an essentially comic tone, etc. Fewer books than one might imagine followed the Hammett and Chandler hard-boiled school—while Parker’s books continue to be written by surrogates under the auspices of his estate. (Dennis Lahane did not enter the contest this year.) Since the PI novel has proliferated with new writers who bring with them interests in other genres and other subjects, the pertinent question might be not “who” will influence them, but how many new and different directions will they take?
Q: Why do you write in this genre?
I started writing in the genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was, in my opinion, the golden age of “Mystery!” on PBS. Night after night I watched British productions of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, John Thaw as Inspector Morse, David Suchet as Hercule Poroit, Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, and others. These actors are (the last episodes of Poroit air this year) and were masters. And the productions they starred in are of extremely high quality. I wasn’t a mystery reader at the time, but these excellent television programs lured me to the printed works from which they were adapted. I began to teach a mystery course at the University of Hawai‘i, and not long after tried my hand at writing a mystery. So I guess you could say I was inspired to write a book by a TV program!
My arch-nemesis has been in the news a couple of times in the last few days. It would seem to be another opportunity for a rant from the independent bookseller, but I promise to try to avoid complaining. The news items actually gave me pause as I tried to figure out how the world works. Yes, at my age, I’m still trying to figure it out.
The news of Amazon’s greater than expected quarterly loss (note that “greater than expected”; nobody was expecting them to actually make money) caused an almost 10% drop in their stock price. Incidentally, this drop in value lowered Jeff Bezos’ net worth by about 3 billion dollars. Of course, that is a smaller percentage loss to him than it would be to me. What amazes me is that it has taken so long for investors to notice that a major company is losing money; as I looked at a chart of the stock’s value over the last five years, there is a steady upward trend until this year. I have wondered for a long time why this is true. I thought perhaps investors were looking forward to the day that no one could make a purchase anywhere else, Amazon increased the price of goods to all-time highs, and years of losses would be recouped in a few short months. But let’s face it: investors today aren’t looking at the long term. The quarterly bottom line is all that counts, much to the detriment of research and development which would be expensive now but bring great rewards in the future. Why has Amazon gotten a pass on this short-term profit mind-set, at least until this week? And is the drop just a glitch? I don’t understand the world of finance, but I do understand that you can’t stay in business if you don’t make money, and that many a business has collapsed under the stress of over-expansion. I guess the answer to this puzzle remains to be revealed.
The other Amazon news that caught my eye this week was the announcement of “Kindle Unlimited.” This new service allows readers unlimited access to Amazon’s “library” of about 600,000 titles for $9.99 a month. My mind-set being what it is, my first thought was “What are they up to now?” I am not fond of reading e-books, and if I do download one, or a few, it’s because I’m traveling and don’t want to pack my suitcase with books, allowing no room for clothing. I am perfectly happy to pay the price at iBooks. Thus I was not aware until I did a little research that there are already at least two other similar services, Scribd and Oyster, which have extensive libraries and increasing subscriber bases. As a seller of traditional books that you can hold, feel, smell, and use as a face covering while sleeping outdoors, I have been paying less and less attention to the electronic book world. There are paper book readers and electronic book readers, some adamantly attached to their chosen format and some willing to cross over as the situation dictates. I looked into selling e-books through my shop, but concluded that the projected revenue would not be worth the aggravation and time. The Kobo system for independent shops is complicated, at least for the retailer, and still needs some technical shaking out. Customers who would purchase through my business would do it to be supportive, but for most consumers, there are too many better options. So I concentrate on the (many, thank goodness) readers who prefer paper.
Further reading about Amazon’s new offering yielded some interesting insights into subscription plans. Amazon’s “library,” which appears huge on the surface, currently consists primarily of titles from their own publishing imprints, self-published e-books, and some older titles. They have not reached agreements with any of the Big 5 publishers for this service, so don’t expect to find most of the newest bestsellers, or any of the “Prime Crime” cozies that are so popular. These will have to be purchased separately. Given the current antipathy between the large publishing firms and Amazon, it may be a while before these books are available. In fairness, I have to point out that I also learned that the other subscription services started with libraries that were limited, if not in numbers, in “name recognition.” Amazon’s other offerings of this type, in music and movies, started with limited offerings and grew over time.
I wondered how these services actually make money. If every subscriber read 3 books a week, certainly the fees to the publishers would exceed the revenue collected. I found that the average is actually 1 book a month. There are some heavy users, just as there are of Netflix, but in general, people don’t have the time to read (or watch too many movies). So the average subscriber is paying $9.99 a book. Hmmm! That number rings a bell. My suspicion, based on nothing but personal experience, is that many people subscribe to services they use rarely or never. They forget to cancel, especially if there is an initial “free” period of time, or optimistically believe that “next month” they will use the service. My own example is my membership at the Y; I really am going to start exercising regularly, and I don’t want the hassle of signing up again when I’m ready. I wasn’t able to find numbers of dormant subscribers, but my intuition is that there are a lot. There are similar “frequent” buyer plans in the physical book world, where customers pay a yearly membership fee and receive discounts and other perks. Often the discounts don’t reach, much less exceed, the cost of the membership, but people continue to join.
So what have I figured out about how the world works? People invest in unprofitable businesses. Consumers purchase subscriptions or memberships for things they use rarely or never. Why? That’s still a mystery to me.
Although noted for his “pioneering use of sexual and religious themes,” Philip José Farmer was, in short, a pulp writer. While most people don’t think of the pulps when they hear Farmer’s name, he began his career selling stories to pulps such as Adventure, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. In fact he sold over fifteen stories to pulp magazines and digests before his first novel was published in 1957. In all, Farmer had nearly forty stories published in a wide variety of magazines in the 1950s and 60s.
“A prolific and popular science fiction writer who shocked readers in the 1950s by depicting sex with aliens and challenged conventional pieties of the genre with caustic fables set on bizarre worlds of his own devising,” Farmer was best known for his novels. Called “sprawling, episodic works that gave him room to explore the nuances of a provocative premise while indulging his taste for lurid, violent action,” his best were set in the Riverworld and World of the Tiers series. Named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2001, Farmer is also remembered for his work concerning the Wold Newton Family.
Beginning at 8:30 PM on Friday, August 8th, Farmerphiles Michael Croteau and Art Sippo will explore Philip José Farmer’s work as a magazine writer in the waning years of the pulps. Like many of his contemporaries, Farmer sold stories to over a dozen magazines—five different magazines in 1954 alone—constantly looking for new markets for his work. Accompanying the presentation will be a slide show of magazine covers in which Farmer’s early work appeared.
Michael Croteau, one of the founders of FarmerCon, is the publisher of Meteor House books and editor of The Worlds of Philip José Farmer and Farmerphile. Art Sippo is a physician board certified in Aerospace medicine and Occupational medicine who is currently working in various emergency rooms in southwestern Illinois. He is the co-host of The Book Cave, a podcast that reviews adventure fiction, comics, movies and all thinks pulp-related. He has also written the book, Sun Koh: Heir of Atlantis, a re-imagining of a German pulp hero of the 1930s, as well as numerous essays and short stories for magazines and anthologies.
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FURY AT GUNSIGHT PASS. Columbia, 1956. David Brian, Neville Brand, Richard Long, Lisa Davis, Percy Helton, Morris Ankrum, Wally Vernon. Written by David Lang. Directed by Fred F. Sears.
Whence this film?
A stylish, well-paced and intelligent western, written and directed by talents whose careers could be charitably described as “undistinguished.” Writer David Lang was responsible for a long, long list of forgettable B-movies followed by work on every low-budget television series known to man; and as for director Fred F. Sears, well, he started out acting in “Durango Kid” movies, moved on to directing them, then continued directing, sort of. The same year as this film he made probably his best-remembered movie, Earth vs. Flying Saucers, and the next year followed it up with The Giant Claw — a film equally memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Perhaps we’ll never know what burst of creative inspiration produced Fury at Gunsight Pass, but it’s a film well worth catching, filled with smoothly tracking and complex camerawork, vigorous shoot-outs, complex characters and a story that stubbornly refuses to settle into any familiar pattern.
David Brian (looking unsettlingly like William Boyd in his western garb) and Neville Brand are co-leaders of an outlaw gang planning to rob a bank in the small town of Gunsight Pass. Of the other outlaws, the only actor you might recognize is perennial side-kick Wally Vernon, but they do a fine job of looking nasty, even when just sitting around, and when they go into action they more than fill the requisite boots. Turns out the local undertaker (the indefatigable Percy Helton) is inside man on the job, and it further develops that Brian plans to double-cross Brand and take off with the loot.
Well, he’s not the only one with a hidden agenda, as things fall apart in spectacular fashion, the loot walks off, the townspeople capture the bad guys, then the bad guys capture the townspeople, and the whole thing gets resolved amid a furious and very cinematic dust storm.
David Brian was never the most electrifying of actors, but he puts in a nice turn here, the wheels of deceit clicking very audibly on his face, and Neville Brand is as engagingly unpleasant as ever. David Long (you may remember him from the “Ma & Pa Kettle” flicks, or as the leading man in House on Haunted Hill, or even from Nanny and the Professor) is too pretty to take seriously at first, but he manages a very creditable Hero part stacked against long odds. The other actors, including Morris Ankrum, that grand old man of Sci-Fi movies, lend what is generally known as Solid Support.
But it’s the tricky plot and assured direction that carry the day here, keeping the movie constantly on the move, twisting and turning where and when one least expects it, and finally ending up with a very satisfying and unpretentious bit of film-making where you might not expect to find it.
The Girl With The Long Green Heart is the only novel I’ve read by Block, but if it is any indication of the quality of the rest of his work, then Block’s reputation as a premier crime fiction author has been justly earned. The book offers a wickedly clever and highly stylized narrative center on a grift being pulled off by a veteran con-man who has agreed to do one last job before going straight. The story reads like a smooth screen play that would be well suited for the likes of George Clooney or Brad Pitt, but the narrative is not simply fluff. It has existentialist and feminist overtones while linking both to an attack on capitalism. The novel offers some engaging themes and that are made easy to digest because of Block’s entertaining, engrossing, and quickly paced narrative execution. It is simply put, a model in story telling within the genre.
William F. Deeck
OSMINGTON MILLS – At One Fell Swoop. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1963. Roy, US, hardcover, 1965.
Aware that the case won’t do his career any good, Superintendent William Baker of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch nonetheless undertakes the investigation of the missing head of the C.I.D. in Bramwith. The policeman, a lay preacher in the Johnsonite sect, had disappeared shortly before he was to address a centenary celebration of the sect, if the Johnsonites can be said to celebrate.
Since the policeman’s wife had tried to divorce him for cruelty and now has a lover, she and the lover are the first suspects, if there has indeed been foul play. Information also turns up that the C.I.D. man had with him on his travels two warrants; perhaps the individuals sought made sure that the warrants would not be served.
Possible, too, is the involvement of the police superintendent where the C.I.D. man was going to serve the warrants. But what role does the leek slasher play?
A good investigation by Baker and his assistant, Inspector Hughes, and an engrossing portrait of a fundamentalist Christian sect. Forgive the far-fetched coincidences and enjoy this one.
The Insp. (Supt.) William Baker series —
Unlucky Break. Bles, 1955.
The Case of the Flying Fifteen. , Bles, 1956.
No Match for the Law. Bles, 1957.
Misguided Missile. Bles 1958.
Stairway to Murder. Bles, 1959.
Trial by Ordeal. Bles, 1961.
Headlines Make Murder. Bles, 1962.
At One Fell Swoop. Bles, 1963.
Traitor Betrayed. Bles, 1964.
Enemies of the Bride. Bles, 1966.
Osmington Mills was the pseudonym of Vivian Collin Brooks (1922-2002), whose other series, eight in all, recorded the cases of Chief Insp. Rupert “Rip” Irving and P.C. (Sgt.) Patrick C. Shirley.