Posts Tagged ‘true crime’

Wedding Album Blues

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

We’re the flowers in the dustbin. . .

The Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen”

I’m nosy.  I love to snoop around.  I once reported for a commodities news service, and nearly all my work was phone based, but you could say investigating market rumors and trends is a kind of snooping.  On top of that, I love “finds.”  I poke around flea markets and used-book stalls for something forgotten yet beautiful, worthless to others but a prize for me.  My discovery of a Don’t Call Me a Crook! is an example of this, although it I spotted it a public library, not on a folding table or in a dusty shop.

A month ago, on my way to Carl Schultz Park, I spotted a huge book in a garbage can.  Measuring roughly a foot in width and length and about three inches thick, it was big enough to be a family Bible.  It even came with a sturdy, dark green case.  But it wasn’t a Bible—it was a wedding album, and not an old, dusty, dog-eared one.  It was in perfect condition and dated May 2004.

Why would anyone dump a wedding album in a public trash bin?  That’s different than carefully tearing up its pictures, dropping them into a garbage bag, and fastening the pouch so the ripped photos are hidden.  This is a public and stark renunciation of the album’s contents. 

If someone gave you the book, one option would be it to return it.  Of course, that’s got to be more than a little uncomfortable.  What do you say?  “Your wedding pictures are so sweet and precious, but I’m clearing stuff out, and…”  But as awkward and alienating as it might giving it back, the act’s politics are different from the genuinely shocking violence and irreverence of chucking an album into a public garbage, not even bothering to bury it beneath rubbish.  The act screams “I don’t care about you anymore, and I’m not going to hide my disdain.  The memories these photos record are nothing to me.  They’re worse than nothing.  I won’t even let this book gather dust in my overpriced studio apartment: I want it out of my life.  Gone!”

Why leave photos of a man and wife’s happiest day (or what they hoped would be their happiest day) with rotting banana peels and empty dog food cans?  Why abandon them for some dude to bring home and use as the basis for a blog post?

Who dropped it in the can?  A former friend of the couple?  A disgruntled relative?  Did the marriage end so quickly and badly that one of its partners was moved to exile reminders of its first day to a trash can?

Actually, whoever slipped the album into the bin might’ve been motivated by something blander than vitriol.  Perhaps he was a handyman, sweeping up the detritus of past tenants.  Hopefully it wasn’t the couple who left behind their own wedding album: that’s a little too absentminded!  In any case, the bin-banishment was still brutal, but impersonal.  Like a sexton kicking a sleeping bum out of church, he was just doing his job.

For the sake of discretion and decency, I won’t tell you the couple’s identity.  Suffice to say their names, both given and cognominal, are unassuming and Anglo-Saxon.  Both the groom and bride are young and attractive, in their early to mid-twenties.  Both have light-brown hair: the bride has hers back in not a painful but a pleasant and comfortable bun with blond highlights.  Later photos reveal the bun consists of interwoven braids, the effect like a bouquet. The groom’s haircut is short, spikey with mousse.

The album’s first photo is of the bride, in her white gown sitting on a bed.  Her grin reveals large, bright teeth.  She’s a lovely woman, almost beautiful, with tan skin, luminous green eyes, and full breasts.  She casually holds a bedpost with one hand, and lets the other rest on the cover.  I doubt she’s aware of photo’s eroticism.  Was the photographer?

In the next photo the bridesmaids join their friend on the bed. (Get that smirk off your face.)  They too are attractive girls, but look younger, less sophisticated than the bride.  Has love and commitment matured the wife-to-be?  She’s certainly the most pulchritudinous of the lot.
 You can pretty much guess the course of the rest of the album: the father-of-the-bride (I assume that’s her father) walks her to the altar, the couple says their vows, friends and family pose for pictures, the assembled take lunch and dinner, man and wife cut the cake and slip morsels into each other’s mouths.  However, there is one surprise: the ceremony unfolds on a beach. 

The sand is pristine, and in some pictures it has a burnt-almond hue.  A path, flanked left and right by white, broken shells and small stones, divides the seated guests and leads to a white lattice arch there the couple say the vows.  A stout, white-haired officiant gazes placidly at them.  The bride looks close to tears in one shot. 

The wedding party is entirely Caucasian.  The women are well-dressed for the occasion, but the young men are too casual.  They have their shirts open-necked: one is shod in sneakers!  The groom wears a goatee.  It signifies more frat boy than hipster, although nowadays the terms aren’t mutually exclusive.

Where do these scenes unfold?  Perhaps somewhere on either coast, but not necessarily.  The Great Lakes have beaches.  Perhaps it’s on an island.

It’s tempting, maybe even logical, to assume scenes unfold somewhere in the U.S, but there’s no reason to think it couldn’t be Canada, Great Britain, Australia, or anywhere in the English-speaking world.  It could be nearly anywhere. South America, for example—why not?  The couple could be scions of expatriates, with names from the old country.  English could be a second language for them, an ill-fitting hand-me-down.  I doubt it, but it’s amusing to imagine the bride whispering “I do” in Spanish or Portuguese.

But for all its charm and wonder, the album is very sad.  Something went wrong between friends, between relatives, between parent and child, or most likely, between man and wife.  As happy as the pictures are, it’s impossible to forget where the album was discarded.  What happened?  That’s a true-crime mystery, and I’m not sure I want to solve it.

The Washington-Baghdad-New York Musical Express (with a stopover in Noirville)

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

I took a quick trip to Washington, D.C. earlier this week.  Washington is such an underrated city.  There are no great songs about it and there are no cinematic encomiums to it the way there are to London, Paris, and New York, not to mention Los Angeles.   But Washington was, and is, a gas.  Its museums are second to none, its architecture is breathtaking, and its subway system is futuristic and immaculate.  What’s not to love?

On my train rides there and back, I listened to Choubi Choubi! Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq, a compilation of Iraqi pop music from 1980s up through 2000The music is so good it’s outrageous.  Some of it sounds like techno with its funky, staccato drums.  The linear notes explain that while the percussion might sound electronic, and sometimes is, it’s typically a hand-drum called the khishba, also known as the zanbour (Arabic for “wasp”).  Any of these songs would sound great on a dance floor.

Choubi Choubi! also features “1970s Socialist Folk-Rock” by a singer named Ja’afar Hassan.  To my ears his songs are more like mid-1960s garage rock, particularly with what sounds like a caterwauling Farfisa.  I also really dig his enormous Dylan/Hendrix afro.

After my happy experience with Choubi!, I’ll turn to Sublime Frequencies, the compilation’s label, to satisfy further my exotic auditory needs.  (That sounds lewd.)  With titles like 1970’s Algerian Proto-Rai Underground, Radio Myanmar (Burma), and Sumatran Folk Cinema DVD, how can you go wrong?  On its website, the label says that:

SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently through all channels of academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations. SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is focused on an aesthetic of extra-geography and soulful experience inspired by music and culture, world travel, research, and the pioneering recording labels of the past including OCORA, SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS, ETHNIC FOLKWAYS, LYRICHORD, NONESUCH EXPLORER, MUSICAPHONE, BARONREITER, UNESCO, PLAYASOUND, MUSICAL ATLAS, CHANT DU MONDE, B.A.M., TANGENT, and TOPIC.

On my train rides I also read Peter Rabe’s Anatomy of a Killer.  It’s great, but sometimes I find it a little confusing.  The language itself is simple and direct, but there’s frequent and abrupt changes in perspective.  Nevertheless, so far  it’s strong noir: quick, brutal, and unsentimental. 

I also like it for its mundane settings: a Pennsylvania mining town, a bowling alley, a seedy nightclub.  I want art to transport me somewhere, anywhere–it can be someplace unfamiliar like a Baghdad tearoom, or a rundown coffee shop.  I like the trip–the destination is secondary.  Although, yes, part of Choubi Choubi!‘s fascination is its foreignness, but it couldn’t hold me on that alone.  The music itself grabbed me.

I’m reminded of why I love Don’t Call Me a Crook!  It’s a voyage through Bob Moore’s world.  Sometimes he sails to  to strange places like Alexandria and Shanghai, and other times he’s making trouble in humdrum towns like Hoboken and Glasgow.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s the trip that’s interesting: the places he sees, the women he tricks, the booze he guzzles.  What would Bob make of Choubi Choubi!?  Not a lot, I’m afraid.  It wasn’t European, much less Harry Lauder, “Land of My Fathers,” or “I Belong to Glasgow” so I’m sure he would’ve dismissed it as noise.  But that’s Bob’s problem, not mine.

Stephen King, Max Allan Collins, and Me

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Last week I also read Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid and Max Allan Collins’ Deadly Beloved, both published by Hard Case Crime.  Honestly, neither really blew me away, and perhaps that’s not the point.  Hard Case books provide quick, diverting reads: they’re first and foremost entertainment.  That’s fine, and I’ll be quick to say both had me compulsively turning their pages.  They’re competently written and executed.  But they’re both one-dimensional.  I wasn’t surprised that Deadly Beloved was originally a comic strip—it had that simplistic quality of comics that never translates well into books or film (and that’s coming from someone who loves the offerings of Marvel and DC, not to mention Hergé).

 

I want more from my noir.  I like crime literature that reveals and ponders on the sordid details of life, particularly life beyond the respectable and the law.  That’s why I like Jim Thompson’s books.  Frankly, the plots themselves don’t knock me out.  (I haven’t yet read The Killer Inside Me yet; I understand that’s great on all counts, including story.)  But I’m drawn in by Thompson’s descriptions of people, places, and mood; his artistry of language and imagery; and the subtle yet deliberate way he conveys his worldview.  I didn’t get that from either Deadly Beloved or The Colorado Kid. Contrary to what you might think, I have found it Mickey Spillane’s words.  And not to constantly blow Dissident Books’ horn (that sounds obscene), but Don’t Call Me a Crook! delivers it too.

 

But all that said, there are two things I appreciated about The Colorado Kid.  It commits the delicious sin of breaking that most holy of compacts with the reader: it leaves the mystery unresolved.  I like that.  I like that a lot.  As the two crusty newspaper editors in Kid intimate, that’s life—an unresolved mystery. 

 

Stephen King also writes something outstanding in his afterword:

 

I ask you to consider the fact that we live in web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality.  Where do we come from?  Where were we before we were here?  Don’t know.  Where are we going?  Don’t know.  A lot of churches have what they assure us are the answers, but most of us have a sneaking suspicion all that might be a con-job laid down to fill the collection plates.  In the meantime, we’re in a kind of compulsory dodgeball game as we free-fall from Wherever to Ain’t Got A Clue.  Sometimes bombs go off and sometimes the planes land okay and sometimes the blood tests come back clean and sometimes the biopsies come back positive.  Most times the bad telephone call doesn’t come in the middle of the night but sometimes it does, and either way we know we’re going to drive pedal-to-the-metal into the mystery eventually.

 

I would add to King’s rhetorical questions “What’s it all for?”  And again, the answer is “Don’t know.”  It brings to mind a wonderful passage from Mencken’s Chrestomathy:

 

Yet we cling to [life] in a muddled physiological sort of way—or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way—and even try to fill it with a gaudy, hocus-pocus . . . .   Why?  If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes . . . .

 Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic.  So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror.  He works. He plays.  He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property.  He strives for the coy eyewink called fame.  He founds a family, and spreads his curse over others.  All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself.  Life, fundamentally, is not worth living.  So he confects artificialities to make it so.  So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

 Perhaps my talk of agonies and tragi-comedies may be a bit misleading.  The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore.  It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.  The objection to it is not that is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking sense.  What is ahead for the race?  Even theologians can see nothing but a gray emptiness, with a burst of irrational fireworks at the end.  But there is such a thing as human progress.  True.  It is the progress that a felon makes from the watch-house to the jail, and from the jail to the death-house.  Every generation faces the same intolerable boredom.

 

Final thought:  It was Mencken together with George Jean Nathan who started The Black Mask, the famed detective magazine.  True, Mencken and Nathan began it as a means to subsidize The Smart Set, their prestigious literary magazine, and sold it after eight issues.  And yes, it was the subsequent editor, Joseph Shaw, who recruited great hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner.  And Mencken even wrote in his preface to his collection that those who criticized his use of Chrestomathy were “ignoramuses” who “recreate themselves with whodunits.”  But I like to think (keywords “like to think”: not “know” or “certain” or even “have reason to believe”) that Mencken had a soft spot for noir.  Consider his repeated use of criminal and prison imagery, as in the passage above.  I bet noir’s lack of sentiment and harsh view of life on “this lugubrious ball” spoke to the Sage of Baltimore.

What I Found at BEA!

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

In the spirit of going to press (or to pixels) while the story is still hot, for the next week or two I’ll be telling you about interesting books and programs I learned of at BEA this past week.  (Yes, yes, I know could’ve begun writing of them sooner, like the very minute was told of their names!  But you have to understand, BEA was frantic!  But more to the point, I need to get into a Web 2.0 frame of mind.  That was my take-away from BEA.  Soon we’ll be speaking of Web 3.0, and even of a post-Web world.  Yikes!)  I’ve not read any of these books yet: I’m simply telling you about them because from what I’ve read on their covers (forget the proverb) and flipping through their pages they look compelling.

The Official Heavy Metal Book of Listsby Eric Danville, illustrations by Cliff Mott, and foreward by Lemmy, US$19.95, BackBeat Books, release date September 2009.  I met Eric at the booth of his publisher, Backbeat Books.  He was wearing a “Venom/Welcome to Hell” tee-shirt and I immediately exclaimed “Great band!  Great album!”  Eric is a wonderful conversationalist about all things metallic.  And his book?  It’s fantastic!  Who can resist a tome with entries like “Rock Bottom: Metalheads Arrested for Being Drunk in Public,” “The Song Retains The Name: 15 Unusual Metal Cover Bands” (I especially like “Cookie Mongoloid,” a band that plays speed metal versions of Sesame Street songs), and “Phil Campbell of Motorhead’s List of Six Things You’ll Never See in a Motorhead Dressing Room” (No. 1:  “A coffee machine.”)  See http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0879309830 and http://www.myspace.com/theheavymetalbookoflists.

Torture at the Back Forty: The Gang Rape and Slaying of Margaret Anderson, by Mike Dauplaise, $12.95, TitletTown Publishing LLC, released dated August 7, 2009 and Run at Destruction: A True Fatal Love Triangle by Lynda Drews, $15.95, TitleTown Publishing LLC  I met Tracy C. Ertl, publisher of true-crime house TitleTown, at the booth of our mutual distributor, Midpoint Trade Books.  She and I immediatley hit it off.  We agreed that readers of Don’t Call Me a Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime should know about TitleTown’s offerings and vice versa.  I gave Tracy a copy of Don’t Call Me a Crook! and she passed to me a Torture at the Back Forty sampler and a finished copy of Run at Destruction.  They both look like very intense books.  Torture in particular looks harrowing:

The true story of the murder of Margaret Anderson, raped on a pool table and left for dead on a manure pile.  Though nearly beheaded, the single mother fought hard for her life, but in the end Margaret died….  Author Mike Dauplaise practically makes the reader feel Margaret’s breath as he recreates the night she was killed….  Dauplaise even interviewed Margaret Anderson’s convicted killer, and exposes the motorcycle-gang culture of the 1980s to reveal what was done to Margaret….

Run at Destruction seems to offer a similarly intimate, horrifying read.  Pam and Bob Bulik were teachers and long-distance runners.  Bob began an affair.   Pam ended up dead.   The book is penned by her best friend.  See http://titletownpublishing.com/shop/article_3/Torture-at-the-Back-Forty.html?shop_param=cid%3D3%26aid%3D3%26 and http://titletownpublishing.com/shop/article_4/Run-at-Destruction.html?shop_param=cid%3D3%26aid%3D4%26

Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mobby Jeff Coen, US24.95/CAN27.95  I was so jazzed Chicago Review Press gave me a copy of this Sunday afternoon.  As someone who loves Chicago and is fascinated by crooks, this book beckoned to me like a painted woman to a sailor on leave after a two-month voyage.  Or something like that.  From the front flap:

Even in Chicago, a city steeped in mob history and legend, the Family Secrets case was a true spectacle when it made it to court in 2007.  A top mob boss, a reputed consigliere, and other high-profile members of the Chicago Outfit were accused in a total of eighteen gangland killings, revealing organized crime’s ruthless grip on the city throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Painting a vivid picture of murder, courtroom drama, and family loyalties and disloyalties, journalist Jeff Coen accurately portrays the Chicago Outfit’s cold-blooded–and sometimes incompetent–killers and their crimes in the case that brought them down.

Sounds fascinating.  As some of you might know, Bob Moore, author of Don’t Call Me a Crook!, spent a lot of time in Chicago in the 1920s, and speaks about gangsters and the city’s rampant crime.  He even spots Al Capone’s car escorted by two “speed cops” to clear the way for the great man! 

See:  http://www.amazon.com/Family-Secrets-Case-Crippled-Chicago/dp/1556527810/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1244078423&sr=1-1 and http://chicagoist.com/2009/05/19/interview_the_tribunes_jeff_coen_re.php