Escape Artist, Part One

October 22, 2010

Every year as the weather gets colder in Prince Edward Island, I start daydreaming of sunnier climes. Not that Tokyo is appreciably sunnier, mind you, but it is at least quite not so bitterly cold come January. Still, by the dead of winter, I am usually more than ready for an infusion of warm ocean breezes and palm trees. Last year I took a break from Tokyo in usually-tropical Jeju Island, South Korea, where, as my regular readers may remember, it pretty much snowed for most of my stay (if you have a look back through my previous postings, you will find several about Jeju around December, 2009). It was quite beautiful to see icicles hanging from swaying palms, but my lazing-about-on-the-beach plans were sadly scuttled.

My friend John MacDonald, who runs Cardigan Lobster Suppers in PEI in the summers, works like a stevedore all season: serving thousands of lobsters to hungry tourists, keeping the 19th century restaurant building in repair, operating a sailboat tour company, arguing for progress at town meetings (where many of the recalcitrant townsfolk firmly believe that anything that has changed since the 1950s has been a change for the worse), and only occasionally finding time for a leisurely chat over a Barbados rum. But in the winters, John takes off to exotic locales, from which I receive occasional postcards, most of which depict just the sort of beach I have in mind: Australia, New Zealand, Cuba, Viet Nam, Bali.

In two weeks or so, after the potential mischief of Halloween has passed, John will bid goodbye to Prince Edward Island for several months, this year heading to Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Puerto Escondido, for those unfamiliar with it, is a smallish (20,ooo full-timers, plus a regular influx of tourists) town on the west coast of Mexico. The name means “Hidden Port”, although it seems nowadays it is hidden only from Americans, who seldom venture beyond the vast and powerful tourist magnets of Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and Cancun. For Mexican families, surfers and intrepid backpackers, however, Puerto Escondido has evolved into one of the prime tourist towns of the Oaxaca coast. It is mostly downscale and rustic, even retaining a handful of palapas (palm-thatched buildings) housing seafood restaurants along the waterfront. I can almost taste the ceviche…

So, anyway, John asked me if I would like to come down there with him for a couple of weeks before I return to Japan. Mindful though I may be of Kurt Vonnegut’s admonition, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God,” I can’t swing it this year. I already have my flight booked, a new apaato rented in Tokyo, and so on; as you might well imagine, it pains me greatly to have to miss this particular dancing lesson.

As I am late getting to the Land of the Rising Sun this year, the leaves will all have fallen, the skies will likely remain the same steely grey color for the next several months, and the only palm trees on offer will be potted in hotel lobbies; thus, John will be carrying with him to Mexico, in addition to his clothes and personal effects, a large suitcase containing my envy. Safe travels, amigo!

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Planet Mystery: North Korea

October 18, 2010

North Korea is perhaps not the first place one might consider as a setting when writing a noir detective novel. A few hardy souls have used the enigmatic dictatorship for one-off novels (David Hagberg’s thriller The Expediter jumps to mind), but even those are thin on the ground. James Church, however, has taken the plunge and written not one, but four novels (thus far) featuring Inspector O, an operative for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s paranoid and highly dysfunctional Ministry of Public Security.

I picked up a pair of Inspector O novels while visiting the offices of BookPage in Nashville a few months back, and just recently finished the first, Bamboo and Blood.

The back cover mentions that Church is a pseudonym for a “former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia.” That is quite easy to believe, as his novels (I am now working on my second one, Hidden Moon) display a sense of place and detail equal to Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, or Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Additionally, Church is a master craftsman when it comes to dialog and action (think Stieg Larsson or Ian Rankin, and you won’t be far off).

As Bamboo and Blood opens, Inspector O and his associate Chief Inspector Pak are hot on the trail of a man who has eluded their none-too-covert surveillance, a man who may well be an Israeli spy. This of course begs the question: what on earth would an Israeli spy be doing in North Korea, of all places? It is no simple task to track him down, either, as he has absconded into the icy mountains, taking his minders by surprise, catching them ill-prepared for the subzero temperatures and keening winds. To make matters even more uncomfortable, it seems that two rival government security services are in contention with one another in some inscrutable way, and stepping upon one another’s toes, at first accidentally, and later with some purpose. Tensions flare when the wife of a North Korean diplomat is killed in Pakistan, and Inspector O is chosen to investigate; well, perhaps “investigate” is a strong word, for he is not to delve too deeply into the details, and whatever else he may do, avoid at all costs the topic of missiles. So it goes almost without saying that soon Inspector O will find himself waist-deep in illicit missiles, and the target of a killer intent on burying damaging international secrets (and there is plenty of room in that particular grave for our intrepid inspector as well).

Church’s descriptions of North Korean life capture the frustration of a government and a people hobbled by inadequate basics (food, shelter, transport) as well as a raging paranoia about dangers both within and outside the country.

The remaining two Inspector O books that I have not read will accompany me to Japan next month, providing a bit of a break from back-to-back movies on the 16-hour plane trip, and on the two-plus-hour trip from the airport to my apartment in Western Tokyo, by which time I will be quite weary, and perhaps checking out my fellow travelers with a bit of literature-induced (and unjustified, I hope) suspicion and paranoia. More on that in a month or so…


On Being Alone

October 15, 2010

I think this may be true of all writers to some degree or another, but for me at least, a certain amount of alone time is required to attend to the business of wordcraft. For the most part though, I am a social person, and I quite like being out and about, meeting friends and making new acquaintances, many of whom end up providing fodder for my various writing endeavors. Case in point: Saki and I were in the bank making a long-overdue deposit yesterday, when we ran into Tom Rath, a Prince Edward Island writer of some note, and a person I consider a “good acquaintance.” We don’t know one another well enough to be friends yet, I think, but we seem to be on that road, and he is someone I am always happy to meet in my travels. We stopped in for a coffee together at Tim Hortons, and chatted about this and that, but primarily about the imminent departure of Saki-chan, who had less than 24 hours left in Canada before returning to Tokyo. “Well, you’re going to be knocking around that big house on your own for the next little bit,” Tom said to me thoughtfully, between sips of Tim’s finest. True enough, it was a subject that had occupied my thoughts off and on for the past week or more. For the next month, I will be doing my own cooking and cleaning, showering rather less often and talking to myself a bit more than I would typically do in the company of others. I will also plant my butt in my Aeron and get a good bit of writing done: the December Whodunit column for BookPage (and perhaps the January one as well if I get really ambitious), a whack of blog posts (including one about the cars of TV and cinema gumshoes, as the “Watching the Detectives…Drive” series has gotten quite a lot of response), and the finishing touches to the outline of the sequel to my as yet unpublished novel, Cadillac Haiku. And, if past years are any indication, I will be experiencing bipolar mood swings between giddy independence and abject loneliness, often on a minute-by-minute basis.

Anyway, back to Tom: in the course of the conversation, he and I traded our best recent jokes, two of which I feel compelled to share with you, as they are a) both pretty funny, and b) (surprisingly) not off color. The first one takes place in the clubhouse of a golf course, where the Saturday afternoon duffers have gathered for a post-game drink or two. One notices a friend at the bar, and calls out by way of greeting, “How was your game, Fred?” Fred ambles over, drink in hand, and replies, “Not so good, Al. I was partnered with Charlie, and on the 13th fairway, just as he was getting ready to take a swing, he had a heart attack and dropped dead on the spot.” Al is visibly shaken, and after a moment asks “What happened then?” Fred’s reply: “Well, you know, it was pretty much the ‘same old same old’ for the rest of the game—hit the ball, drag Charlie, hit the ball, drag Charlie…”

The second joke involves a New York mother, a member of one of the ethnicities known for doting upon male children, and her young son, spending the afternoon at the beach. Mom is slathering on sunscreen when she looks up to check on the whereabouts of Junior. To her horror, a rogue wave of epic proportion sweeps her son out to sea while she watches helplessly. She begins to pray, more strongly than ever before in her life (and in a marked Brooklyn accent, I might add): “Please God, return my son to me; he is such a perfect boy, and he is my entire life. Please don’t take him from me.” To her immense surprise, a second huge wave breaks upon the shore, and her son, bedraggled but very much alive, is deposited onto the sand. The mother looks back toward the heavens, shakes her fist at the sky, and says in a loud voice: “He hadda hat!”

So thanks most kindly, Tom, for the pleasant interlude (and the belly laughs). And now, butt in Aeron, back to the writing…


Watching the Detectives…Drive, the Sequel

October 6, 2010

Well, there have been several responses to “Watching the Detectives…Drive” my several-days-back blog post on the cars driven by fictional investigators, so without further ado, here’s installment two:

J.A. Jance’s protagonist Beau Beaumont, and John Sandford’s main man Lucas Davenport are both Porschephiles; Beaumont pilots a red 928,

and Davenport a 911 (the color may be mentioned in one or another of the Davenport books, but a cursory look failed to turn it up).

As both are cops, whose company cars are most likely well-used Ford Crown Victorias, it is no surprise that they choose to use their own wheels at every possible opportunity. That said, the government mileage allowance wouldn’t begin to cover the operating expenses of such exotic machinery, so it is a good thing that both men are independently wealthy.

One of my readers (thanks, Dana) asked about Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich’s wisecracking bounty hunter. Well, as it turns out, Plum is much more notorious for the cars she destroys than for the ones she has owned, although it must be said that the second group represents a significant subset of the first group. In fact, in the Wikipedia entry on Stephanie Plum, there is a separate section in each book review devoted to the cars she has destroyed in that episode! She has lost cars to thieves, the crusher, the repo man, crashes, and in one memorable case, one got blown to bits by a rocket launcher. To date, she has gone through a Jeep Wrangler, several Honda CR-Vs, a “Rollswagen” (don’t ask), and an assortment of ill-kept clunkers. Oh, and more than one expensive black car of dubious provenance donated to the cause by her on-again off-again boy toy, Ranger. About the only car she has not managed to totally destroy thus far is her Uncle Sandor’s powder blue 1953 Buick Roadmaster, a reasonable facsimile of which is pictured below:

Mary Alice Baker aka Nina Zero, Robert Eversz’ platinum-tressed post-punk heroine (Shooting Elvis, Digging James Dean), tools around the streets of LA in a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible,

the last of a breed of supersized land yachts from Detroit. Government rollover regs for 1977 and beyond spelled the end of the ragtop, or at least that’s what the carmakers thought, so General Motors, then the largest auto manufacturer in the world, went out in a blaze of convertible glory with the biggest, fastest, thirstiest, and priciest soft-top in the land. The picture here depicts one in its prime; Nina Zero’s had covered some 120,000 miles when she got it, and it hasn’t improved (cue the understatement alert) over the time of her ownership.

Perhaps the baddest car in detective fiction belongs to Andrew Vachss’ outlaw protagonist, Burke. Burke drives a 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner that has been “breathed upon” by a legendary car tuner who specializes in street racers. No trailer queen, Burke’s Roadrunner is all business, all the time: “The beast’s undercarriage was a combination of an independent rear suspension unit pirated from a Viper, and subframe connectors with heavy gussets to stiffen the unibody…” (By now, the eyes of the non-car-savvy members of the reading public have totally glazed over, and the folks with Pennzoil 10W-30 running in their veins are just beginning to get interested.) Vachss continues: “Huge disks with four-piston calipers all around, steel braided lines…a 440 wedge, hogged out to 528 cubes. To a rodder, it would look like a restoration project—the beginning of the project…To anyone else, it looked like a typical white-trash junker, just fast enough to outrun the tow truck.” I looked online for the meanest looking ’69 Roadrunner I could find, preferably in Burke’s favorite color of primer grey, and this was the closest I was able to turn up:

Add in rusty rocker panels, a generous allotment of NYC parking rash, and a bordering-on-illegal window tint, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what shall henceforth be known as the Burkemobile.


Separated at Birth, the Sequel

October 3, 2010

Let me go on the record here right at the outset; I don’t think I look an awful lot like Shrek. Truth be told, I don’t think I look a bit like Shrek. Without a doubt, I can be a bit of an ogre by times, but it is not my normal demeanor, and the cinema icon definitely sports a greenish cast that I approach only rarely, after eating bad clams, for instance. It would be fair, however, to accuse me of a similarly snarky sense of humor, bordering on childish crudity and dubious taste, particularly when it comes to the sorts of bodily functions that elicit peals of laughter from grade school kids, about which little more need be said.

There is one person in my life, nonetheless (my Japanese friend Saki), who insists that I remind her of Shrek, (indeed, she says “You are Shrek…”) and she has taken great pains to point this out to me on numerous occasions, whether watching the latest episode in 3-D in a pricey Tokyo movie house, or simply happening upon a convenient (from her point of view) roadside billboard in rural Prince Edward Island:

Seeing that I remained unconvinced, she launched upon a program to show me the error of my thinking. One evening not long ago, after imbibing a bit more alcohol than is my norm, I mentioned the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly to a group of friends, none of whom was familiar with him. So I took it upon myself to treat them to a small sample of his wares, conjuring up what may well be the worst faux Scottish accent in recorded history: “So there aye wuzz, rrrruinin’ dune the rrrrude, when a wee lassie luked out her window…” You get the picture. Meanwhile, Saki had been zoning out on the conversation, or at least peripheral to it, when abruptly she reanimated and interjected with “See, that’s it! That’s Shrek!”

“No, that’s Billy Connolly,” I explained, much in the fashion that one might to a recalcitrant child. “Sounded more like Shrek to me,” my friend John offered. “I don’t know Billy Connolly, but that does sound quite a bit like Shrek. It certainly doesn’t sound the least bit Scottish,” another added helpfully. Okay, okay, I get it. I politely demurred when asked to reprise Connolly/Shrek, figuring quite correctly that in the cold clear light of the following day’s sobriety, nobody would remember. Nobody, that is, except Saki, as she had had nothing to drink.

Another nail was added to the coffin when she asked me to pose for a picture, a close-up head shot. Until I saw it downloaded onto my computer, I didn’t realize just how close up it was. As I gazed upon my abbreviated northern countenance, juxtaposed with an analogous shot of my newfound twin, Saki regaled me with her version of the triumphant look that women have bestowed upon men since time immemorial, the look that says in no uncertain terms: “I was right…and (much more importantly) you were wrong!”