Whodunnit?

Ready, set, deck!

There are good things about working at home. And not as good things. Slippers and gym shorts. The ability to put your feet on the furniture without someone shooting you the skunk eye. Being able to get some household chores done during breaks from work. All good things. Knowing the TV is so close, as is the treadmill and the bicycle. And the deck is inviting, now that the temperature is starting to drop. All things that can pull you away from work. Still and all, it’s nice to be able to respond quickly to work orders.

Because I’ve got a little extra time around the house, and because I don’t want to let the TV rot my brain, I’ve been reading a little more lately. I had a half-read John Lennon biography by Philip Norman that I was finally able to finish. Interesting man, good musician, kind of a jerk at times. I’m blaming the heroin for that. I went through a couple of good autobiographies too. Jimmy Webb, the writer of classic hits like “MacArthur Park” and all those great Glen Campbell hits, paints a fascinating picture of the music business in L.A. in the Sixties and Seventies. “The Cake and the Rain” uses a one of his more memorable lines as a title. He talks about his own recording career, which sort of strikes me like an ongoing vanity project. Great songwriter, middling singer. Webb also talks about growing up in Oklahoma.

Bret and Bart

James Garner, one of my favorite actors, also had an interesting childhood in Oklahoma. And he used one of his greatest hits to suggest a title for his autobiography, “The Garner Files.” When his hit TV series, “Maverick,” launched in 1957, Warner Brothers came to the conclusion that it couldn’t produce enough episodes with Garner to meet the production schedule, so they added another unit and another Maverick brother, Jack Kelly. While many of the WB shows were able to get along with a single star, they used the multiple lead actors gimmick in several of their shows in the 50s and 60s, most notably their detective shows (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Surfside 6, etc.). The addition of Kelly didn’t make the show’s sponsor happy (back in those days, a single company would cover much of a program’s production costs ). It was good for Kelly, who ended up appearing in all five seasons of the show, unlike Garner, who left in the show’s third year (although Garner had the much better career).

Anyway, Garner also played TV detective Jim Rockford. which brings me back to the point – I’ve been reading a lot of detective novels. After seeing “In the Heat of the Night” on TCM for about the millionth time, I noticed it was adapted from a novel by a writer named John Ball. Apparently, he wrote a series of stories featuring Virgil Tibbs, who, in the books, was a Pasadena, California cop, not from Philadelphia (in the first movie, or San Francisco in the next two). Over the course of 30+ years, Ball wrote 6 Tibbs novels. In an interesting touch, the writer had his character have to deal with the fact Sidney Poitier had played him in a fictionalized film version of one of his cases. Ball was also involved in martial arts and was a practicing nudist – both things that worked their ways into his stories. While the character and basic story were enough to launch a film series and a long-running television show, I wasn’t knocked out by these stories. Tibbs in the books is smart, but not very interesting.

I also went through Chester Himes’ “Harlem Detective” novels. Those are the stories of hard-boiled black NYPD detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Eight novels and one unfinished story. Three films, including “A Rage in Harlem” and “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (loved Godfrey Cambridge as Gravedigger in two of the movies). Himes knew crime, spending some time in the Ohio Penitentiary, a prison that used to take up a lot of real estate in my hometown. And was also home to another writer, O. Henry. While his stories paint an interesting picture of Harlem in the 50s and 60s, I never felt that I understood the rage that fueled his police officers. Not as well as I should have to appreciate why they did what they did.

On the other hand, I got into another series after seeing “Devil in a Blue Dress.” Walter Mosley has the ability to create a world that is fascinating, scary, suspenseful and even mundane when it has to be. The thing I enjoy about the Easy Rawlins series (14 books – one prequel, one collection of short stories and 12 novels) is how Mosley has advanced the Rawlins character, beginning in post-war Los Angeles in 1948 and carrying him through time and the changes in the world up to 1968 in the most recent book, “Charcoal Joe.”

Each novel title is based on a color, but I’m fascinated by how the stories incorporate the color of the people involved. Most of the hard-bitten detectives you see in movies and TV are all Robert Mitchum types. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are other worlds out there, and these stories capture a black world that few other series do.

I had read “Devil,” but it was years before I picked up another Rawlins story – and almost kicked myself when I did. I was traveling, and saw a Mosley book (“Blonde Faith”) in a bookstore in Boston’s Logan Airport in 2008. Great story, but Easy drives off a cliff at the end of the book. Great, I thought, I get back into the series and now it’s over. Six years later, a new story, “Little Green” was released (he survived, but I won’t say how). That gave me an excuse to get every book in the series I didn’t have and start at the beginning and binge-read the entire series.

Of course, once I was finished, I couldn’t wait for the next book in the series, but who knows when Mosley will get around to that. Fortunately, he had an alternate series that featured another black detective. Leonid McGill works in New York, has family issues and an entirely different set of problems. Including a father who had been fascinated by the Soviet Union (which is how he ended up with the name “Leonid”). That series started in 2009 and has had five novels through 2015. I’ve binge-read those too, so have had to turn to another one of Mosley’s series.

There are three “Fearless Jones” mysteries, even though the “Fearless” character isn’t the actual protagonist of the stories. Paris Minton is a meek bookstore owner whose large, charming and fearless friend keeps pulling into scrapes he barely gets out of alive.

Mosley has other books, including science fiction. I’ve been through a couple of them, but am waiting for the next installments his main series. While I’m waiting, I’ve picked up James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet (“The Black Dahlia,” “The Big Nowhere,” “L.A. Confidential,” and “White Jazz”). The reason I enjoy series is watching the continuation of characters by the authors who create them. Those seem to work better than a new set of writers trying to crank out a sequel for money. Plus, the film version of L.A. Confidential was so good, I want to see what Ellroy did with Dudley Smith, Edmund Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes in the first place.

And even though I have no plans to write my own detective story, as I’ve told interns, students and new reporters for years, the way to become a good writer (or better writer) is to be a good reader. And reading is fundamental.

 

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