Shell Scott in Tokyo, or Who Says You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Lurid Cover?

October 17, 2009


There is an English-language bookstore in Tokyo’s main book district, Jimbocho, that specializes in fiction of the fifties and sixties, the sort with lurid covers featuring buxom scantily-clad women and hunky musclemen in torrid embrace. I often stop by to have a look at their new offerings, if for no other reason than to ogle the cover art. As I perused the 50% discount bin in front of the store a few days back, I ran across a book entitled Always Leave ‘Em Dying, from a detective series I had not thought about in years: Richard Prather’s once-iconic novels featuring smart-alecky LA detective Shell Scott. For those not familiar with the series, Shell Scott is a larger-than-life (much larger, actually) character who can crack one liners like Kelsey Grammer, usually several times per page, without missing a beat in dispatching the bad guys or reeling in the babes. He is anything but an undercover operative (other than with the aforementioned babes); with his bristly snow-white crew cut and eyebrows, and his 6’2” of imposing military bearing, he stands out in any crowd. His favorite car is a Caddy convertible, from back in the days when a Cadillac was still a status symbol, and his lucky numbers are 36-25-35. Enormously popular in their day (some forty million books sold from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, outsold in the genre only by Mickey Spillane), Richard Prather and Shell Scott seem to have been consigned to the discount racks nowadays, victims of the passing years and the insidious creeping Political Correctness that has held the Western World in its death-grip for the past decade or more. For the Shell Scott novels are anything but politically correct: Scott is an unrepentant womanizer, a hard drinker, a hard driver, a hard fighter, and an alpha-dog of the first order. As the cover blurb notes: “He’s a guy with a pistol in his pocket and sex and violence on his mind…”

Narrated in the first person, the books offer up the protagonist’s wry (some might say hopelessly adolescent, but they would be in the PC crowd, therefore wrong) observations on women (“She wore a V-necked white blouse as if she were the gal who’d invented cleavage just for fun.” Or, how about “She smiled with plump lips, red lips, beautiful lips that undoubtedly had said yes much more often than no.”), bad guys (“He looked like a man with ten ingrown toenails.”), and his hometown (“It was one of those rare, completely smog-free days when you can see Los Angeles from Los Angeles. Often you can’t find City Hall unless you are in it, but this was one of those mornings when you spring out of bed nearly overwhelmed by oxygen.”). His adventures find him, by turns, serving as an extra in a movie (he plays a rock, sort of), riding a wrecking ball in pursuit of crooks, and going “under-uncover” at a naturist colony (shortly after which he lands a hot air balloon in downtown LA…in the nude!).

Perhaps the closest living relatives to Shell Scott are his spiritual successors Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Robert Crais’ hip current-day gunslinging detective duo. LA private eye Cole also drives a vintage car (a Corvette, not as imposing as a Caddy, but certainly lots faster), and cracks wise with the best of ‘em, while Pike handles the paramilitary piece, seeing off the villains with precision and finesse. They bring a modern sensibility to the action/adventure/humor continuum stirred up some five decades ago by Richard Prather and Shell Scott. Still, it would be awfully difficult to imagine either of them descending naked into downtown LA in a hot air balloon…


A heartfelt thank-you goes to my brother and childhood partner-in-crimes Thane Tierney, whose unparalleled collection of Richard Prather novels provided the subject matter for the photos. As it turned out, the cover of the book I bought in Jimbocho was too far gone for a good pic, and Thane came through in record time with pics of some of the finest Shell Scott covers.


Learning Japanese (I Think I’m Learning Japanese, I Really Think So…)

October 15, 2009

It’s a tough row to hoe when you try to add a new language to your repertoire at an advanced age (by which I mean any age over about ten). Still, if you go to live somewhere where they speak a language different from yours, it is incumbent upon you to learn several key expressions and phrases in the native tongue:
“Hello”, “My name is…”, “Nice to meet you”, “Do you come here often?”, “Do you have a boyfriend (girlfriend, dog, communicable disease)?“, “How much does that cost?”, “Excuse me, how much?”, “Seriously?”, “No, I have never eaten natto before”, “Yecch, that’s bloody awful”, “Do you have one in my size?”, “Excuse me, I believe I was in line ahead of you”, “No, I’m afraid I don’t know your friend Bob from America”, “I am feeling some pain in my duodenum, doctor; it is a shooting pain, rather than a burning or an ache; it may have something to do with the aforementioned natto”, “What seems to be the problem, officer?”, “A venti cafe mocha, half skim, half soy, with a shot of caramel and double foam”, “Pardon me, but I seem to have crashed the bicycle (rental car, airplane)”, “I’m sorry, I cannot speak… (whatever language it is that you cannot speak)”, the all-important “Do you speak English?”, and its equally critical sibling “Where is the bathroom?” )”

Needless to say, most language courses don’t cover these vital aspects of daily life, concentrating instead on instructing the student in the fundamentals of structure, after which said student can state with confidence “This is a table, this is a book, that is a red car”. The theory seems to be that you, the student, might run into a local who, though fluent in his own language, has somehow managed to go his entire life without learning what a table, a book, or a red car might be. And then you can inform him. How cool is that?

Japanese brings a whole new dimension of difficulty (their word for “difficult” is “muzukashii”, which is on the difficult side its own self) to the written communication process, in that it uses an entirely different alphabet, or rather two alphabets, plus innumerable kanji (pictogram) characters, at least a couple of thousand of which must be memorized in order to read a newspaper article or a novel. No kidding. (And get this: the Japanese dictionary is arranged not by subject, sound or spelling, but by how many lines comprise the kanji character!) After countless hours of study, I have more or less mastered the phonetic alphabets, and a good solid dozen of the two thousand-odd pictogram characters; I anticipate being fluent in the year 2412. So far, I have committed to memory the characters for: mountain, river, inside, water, several (but by no means all) numerals, field, forest, village, fireworks, fireflies, and mouth. Almost enough to compose a haiku:
“One mountain river
Waters fields, forest, village
(four as-yet unwritten syllables, blah blah blah blah, likely some fluff about fireflies or fireworks)…mouth”
Move over, Basho.

So, as a coda to all this language stuff, I was at the local Saitama post office the other day, sending a book to a friend in the States, and the cashier handed me a form (totally in Japanese, naturally) to fill out. “Nan desu ka?” (What is this?) It turned out to be a Customs form, requiring that I declare the contents of the package. And then I had the epiphany, that bright shining crescendo of unparalleled clarity and divine humor, that defining moment of transcendent international verbal communication: for perhaps the first time in recorded history outside the Japanese language classroom, somebody (yours truly, no less!) was actually going to get to say, in a completely uncontrived situation, “Kore wa hon desu” (This is a book).

Otto Penzler and the History of Mystery

October 14, 2009

Otto Penzler, editor extraordinaire, is a name well known among mystery aficionados. He was the founder of The Mysterious Press, editor of numerous collections of suspense fiction (among them the iconic Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps), and for the past thirty-one years, has been the proprietor of New York City’s The Mysterious Bookshop. Each year, Penzler commissions a short story from one of the many authors he knows (and he knows virtually everybody, it would seem). The story has three requirements: it must be a mystery, it must take place over the Christmas season, and The Mysterious Bookshop must be the scene of some of the action. This year, in a flash of brilliance, Penzler got not one writer, but twenty-two, to contribute to his holiday effort, and the result is a thick volume entitled The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives. The list of contributors is, in a word, staggering: Ken Bruen, Lee Child, Lincoln Child, Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, Colin Dexter, John Harvey, Stephen Hunter, Faye Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, John Lescroart, Laura Lippmann, David Morrell, Carol O’Connell, Robert B. Parker, Ridley Pearson, Anne Perry, Douglas Preston, Ian Rankin, and Alexander McCall Smith. Whew!

Each of the authors takes a markedly different approach from his colleagues: Robert B. Parker stages a fictional interview featuring Spenser, his girlfriend Susan, and Susan’s friend, prospective author Amy Trent. The three chat in a Boston cafe while Amy asks probing questions about Spenser’s character. The interview, as with the Spenser stories, is told in the first person of the protagonist; the repartee is, well, Spenserian: “It’s pretty hard for me not to be cute,” I said. Susan rolled her eyes slightly. “He can learn, but he can’t be taught,” Susan said.

By contrast, Alexander McCall Smith’s essay reads like a sun-drenched memoir of idyllic days spent in developing Africa. He speaks with a genuine fondness for the denizens of Botswana, and in particular one Precious Ramotswe, the “traditionally built” (read: chubby) heroine of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Remarkably, the book was not an easy sell. Publishers were looking for “grit” and “edge”, neither of which would be found in close proximity to Mma Ramotswe. In the end, the book was picked up by a small publishing company, and only fifteen hundred books were printed in the first run. (Can you imagine what a first edition might bring on eBay?) At a launch party thrown by a group of Smith’s friends, “nobody, including me, thought that this book would go anywhere in particular. Who would be interested in reading about the life of a woman in Botswana…?” Who indeed!

Robert Crais’ take on the assignment is exceptionally clever, a first-person dialog between the author and his wisecracking LA hero, Elvis Cole.
Cole: “You’re making more off my cases than I do. Look how many emails you get through the website, people asking how come I always work for free.”
Crais: “You don’t work for free. Peter Alan Nelsen paid you a load.”
Cole: “And how long ago was that, Lullabye Town?”
Crais: “Jonathan Greene paid you up front in Sunset Express. So did Judy Taylor in Voodoo River. Besides, I’ve only chronicled ten of your cases…”
Cole: “Chronicled. Am I being chronicled?”
Crais: “ I only cover your interesting cases. Our readers wouldn’t care about the boring dogs you work to pay the bills.”

And so it goes, for 400+ pages, in which the avid mystrophile can peruse the back stories of two-and-twenty of his/her favorite characters. Kudos to editor Penzler, and holiday wishes for another thirty-one successful years of mystery and suspense in store (The Mysterious Bookstore, that is).

The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives; Otto Penzler; Little, Brown; ISBN 9780316031936; 416pp; $25.99


Ethnic Humor Part I

October 8, 2009

Is it just me, or has there been a dearth of good jokes in the past several years? I used to be able to count on running across at least one a week, whether by email, over a drink after work, or once in a very great while, in Reader’s Digest. But over the past few years, during which time I have been largely gone from Nashville (this will tie in, trust me), the supply seems to have dried up. Then, late this past summer, I had the occasion to return for a brief visit to Music City, and during my time there, managed to hook up with longtime friend, singer-songwriter Mike Muldoon, who has never disappointed me on the joke front, and this time was no exception:

An Irish fellow is looking desperately for a parking space at the airport, scant minutes before he must check in for his flight. Up one row, down the next, with no luck, stress level spiking, and his departure looming ever closer. So he offers up a prayer, with a lovely Irish lilt: “Dear Heavenly Father, if you will just help me find a parking place, I promise to quit smoking, to never cheat on my wife again, to stop swearing…” And lo and behold, just at that moment, a car backs out and a parking space opens up directly ahead of him. He glances heavenward, and goes “Never mind, I’ve got it.”

This tale got me to thinking about the nature of ethnic jokes, and what a part they have played in American humor over the run of my lifetime. When I was a kid, Polish jokes were all the rage, and sometimes quite funny, although to the best of my knowledge I never met a real Polish person until I was past thirty, and even then I didn’t know he was Polish…at first. His name was Wacek Kozlowski, which might have been a clue had I been a bit more urbane. It was at a Nashville barbecue thrown by my friend Greg Welsch, who happens to be brother-in-law to the aforementioned Mike Muldoon. It was quite the international gathering: a group of Americans, a Canadian, several Paraguayans, and this Wacek character, who had an accent not unlike the “wild and crazy guys” of Saturday Night Live fame. Greg, ever the provocateur, told a Polish joke, got a general round of laughter from the group, and then turned the floor over to me: “Hey Bruce, tell us that Polish joke you told at work this week.” Sad to say, I don’t remember the joke, but I do remember that it garnered its fair share of laughs, likely for its sheer crudity, after which Wacek, who was sitting next to me, said “Bruce, perhaps I should tell you that I am Polish.” Oh, dear. So I looked at him directly in the eye and said “Wow, I am really sorry…(beat, beat)…Let me tell it to you a little bit slower.” There was that moment where it could have gone either way, then Wacek broke out into a big grin, put his arm around my shoulder and said “You and me, I think we’re gonna be good friends!”

My Dirty Little Secret

October 6, 2009

Anyone who has known me for a long time will tell you that I am quite the coffee hound. Unusually, I came to it kind of late, well into my thirties. I had always liked the flavor of coffee, just not the beverage itself: coffee ice cream, Coffee Nips, Kahlua, basically anything that tasted like coffee except, well, coffee. And then one day a miracle happened: I discovered the joys of a cuppa fresh brewed joe, with a dollop of thick cream and a packet of raw organic sugar stirred in. Granted, this was not a miracle of the magnitude of the loaves and fishes, but it was nonetheless a revelation to me. I was in Chicago at the time, in the dead of winter; I remember it quite clearly. The office crowd made a breaktime pilgrimage to the nearby Starbucks every morning around ten; I was initially in it just for the camaraderie, occasionally ordering a mug of hot chocolate just to have something in my hands while we chatted. The coffee was smelling mighty fine that frosty morning, though, and on a whim I opted for a Venti Coffee of the Day, which as I recall was their signature Christmas Blend. It was, to appropriate the closing words of Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Fast forward a bunch of years, and you can look in on a thicker balder Bruce moving into his first shoebox of an apartment in Tokyo. A thoughtful friend had made a grocery store run for me, procuring the basics: a liter of beer, a package of Oreos, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter (she reeled off the items in Japanese-inflected English as she unloaded them from the bags). “And coffee, of course,” she said, pulling a container from the sack along with a liter of milk. “Oh, wow, I don’t have a coffee maker,” I said, sheepishly. Truth be told, I didn’t have much of anything. “No worries,” she replied. “It’s instant.” INSTANT? ARRGGH! Of course I didn’t say that, but I thought it quite loudly as I made the mental note to visit the local electronics store the following day to buy a coffee maker. Much later that evening, having put away my small stash of personal effects, we plopped down in front of the TV. “How about some pound cake?” she asked. That sounded great to me, and she toddled off to the kitchen, returning in a few minutes with a small tray of cakes and two steaming cups of coffee. I took my first sip totally without thinking. “Wow, that’s good,” I enthused. And then, after a long moment, I realized that I was drinking instant coffee. Not from the taste, but from the fact that I knew nobody had purchased a coffee maker in the interim; indeed, neither of us had left the apartment. I took another sip. It really was good, good enough that I would not have realized it was instant had it been served anywhere else. It was so good, in fact, that four years later I still have not bought a coffee maker. So there it is, my dirty little secret: I drink instant coffee. And I like it. And just today I read that Starbucks has released a line of instant coffees in the US, a first for the coffee monolith. Early reports suggest that it is remarkably close to the “real thing”. I feel vindicated.