Apropos Of Nothing: Tearjerkers

Recently, on the strength of the news of Alan Rickman’s death, I attempted something I hadn’t done for years and started watching Truly Madly Deeply. I used to own it, but that was a few broken relationships and one or two deaths ago, so this time I had to stop after 25 minutes because my nose was completely blocked and the tears were starting to soak my shirt collar.

Most of the time, I know better.

I dislike saying it, because it makes me feel shallow, but I hate depressing movies. Part of this is just the way I’m made, I suspect, and the other part is the perception that a lot of these tearjerkers are “women’s movies”—or worse, “date movies”—and so people think I will enjoy them. I vividly remember watching some complete painfests with my high-school sweetheart as a result of this idea: I’d pick comedies (Splitting Heirs was bad, but not so bad I cried about it), and he’d pick things like Steel Magnolias and the Stella Dallas remake with Bette Middler. By the time I realized he was watching the big-screen equivalent of Lifetime movies for my sake, we’d already broken up, and I’ve made sure to be clearer about my preferences since then.

That said, there are a few things I like even though they cause me to wail like the very cranky baby Mom assures me I was. Some highlights:

  • “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” an episode of Night Gallery about a man whose life is unraveling between his wife’s sudden death and the machinations of a business rival.
  • The part right before the end of The Last Unicorn. The part right before the end of Young Sherlock Holmes. The part right before the end of The Secret of NIMH. Kids’ movies reserve the right to stomp on your heart, but will generally dust it off and return what’s left of it in the last ten minutes.
  • The end of Hellboy. That’s when I try to explain to anyone else watching that it’s one of the most romantic movies ever. Even though that should be self-evident.

Readers (if any), what about you? Tearjerkers? Nonstandard tearjerkers? Outright refusal? If anyone has a rousing defense of the Stella movie, I’d especially like to hear that.

Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, Chapter 4

Why Found-Again? Because a lifelong fascination with CSI stuff had to start somewhere. It probably wasn’t here, but I’m not sure that matters. Just look at that adorable book.

Portrait of the detective handbook as a gentleman thief—probably the only gentleman thief we'll see in here.
Portrait of the detective handbook as a gentleman thief—probably the only gentleman thief we’ll see in here.

The Premise: In “The Safecracker’s Calling Card,” the Hardy clan—plus friend Chet— gets called in to assist a burglary investigation, which leads to our characters learning about modus operandi, profiling, and what sort of information is collected for a “Wanted” notice. It also, (un?)fortunately for impure modern readers, leads to a discussion of safecracking techniques.

My apologies if you already saw me post this on Twitter, but wouldn't you?
My apologies if you already saw me post this on Twitter, but wouldn’t you?

As a story, this chapter was solid, even though the “whodunit” part is solved almost immediately thanks to Fenton Hardy’s enormous card catalogue of villains (and to one of the thieves leaving his jacket, complete with dry-cleaning tag, at the crime scene—honestly). Just like in “The Case of the Shabby Shoes,” our heroes do a lot of legwork, and there’s a suspenseful quest—culminating in a mini-manhunt during which we learn how to track a fugitive—to bring the thief to justice.

This chapter also manages to neatly work in all the skills from the previous stories: fingerprints are searched for, shoeprints are taken, and Chet even goes briefly “undercover” to confirm the residence of the bad guys. And although the techniques are, as ever, a little outdated and analog…

I love a good diagram--even when John Doe has the official hairdo of the Hardy Boys books.
I love a good diagram–even when John Doe has the official hairdo of the Hardy Boys books.

…the story hints at a few things that will become important in the crime stories that have followed it: going through trash for clues, for example, and the rise of intellectual property theft (the safecracker steals proprietary jewelry designs as well as the usual cash and bonds). I recently read an article about another prescient Hardy Boys plot, and it’s interesting to see the trend stretches back to at least the 1970s.

So far, budding crime lords can take the following lessons from this book:

  • Don’t leave fingerprints. (This is clearly the most easily memorized. It’s been two chapters since our last meaningful fingerprint.)
  • No smoking foreign tobacco while you’re working.
  • Did you have more clothing when you went in there than you have now?
  • Is your way of working so familiar that, say, a private citizen friendly with the police would suspect you immediately upon seeing your handiwork?
  • Maybe buy new shoes with unmarked soles before every job.
  • Don’t use your brothers as accomplices if you can help it.
I think Fenton's been spending a little too much time with his kids.
As for lessons for the good guys, I think Fenton’s been spending a little too much time around his kids.


The Verdict: Probably the best story so far, unless you’re the security guard who got blackjacked on the first page.

Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, Chapter 3

Why Found-Again? Because I was an inquisitive child literally surrounded by the kinds of evidence this chapter, “The Case of the Shabby Shoes,” talked about. If I could’ve talked my folks into the plaster, I might still have tractor-tire casts lying around.

Much like the story, the book is getting around a bit.
Much like the story, the book is getting around a bit.

The Premise: The police—still frighteningly short-staffed—call on Fenton Hardy, his kids, and their friend Tony when thieves ambush an eccentric businessman and crack his skull.

Although it probably contains almost as much technical information as the previous story, “The Case of the Shabby Shoes” works much better as a story.

…with a couple of rhetorical exceptions.

There are a number of different locations involved, the Hardys interview witnesses, and there’s even a chase before the bad guys are brought to justice. It’s also not clear until the end whether the case will be murder, which effectively amps up the suspense. And along the way, we’re given a lot of practical tips for gathering different varieties of physical evidence—which is handy, because these miscreants leave all kinds of stuff behind:

The good old days when everyone didn't learn from Law & order to wipe their prints. Aww.
The good old days when everyone didn’t learn from Law & Order about wiping their prints. Aww. (Pro tip: do not leave exotic cigarette butts at your crime scenes!)

The Verdict: Positive. This is the best mix of mystery and reference material the handbook has provided so far, and it even includes a diagram showing you how to make a plaster footprint cast. I’m also noticing that most of the villains in these tales are former convicted criminals, which makes this book unlike most mysteries I’ve read as an adult.


Next time: Let’s see if we can finally get Jonny Quest to that darned temple.



Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, Chapter 2

Why Found-Again? Because I was sure as a kid that I had the detection “right stuff”—and by that I mostly mean a magnifying glass. For the fingerprinting chapter, “The Clue of the Cashbox,” we can add Johnson’s Baby Powder, Scotch tape and a paintbrush to the list.

Our book, posing with three things that have jack-all to do with fingerprinting.
Our book, posing with three things that have jack-all to do with fingerprinting.

The Premise: With the town’s fingerprint specialists out of commission, Frank and Joe get pressed into service when a doctor’s office is burglarized. How small is this police department, anyway?

I mentioned last time that The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook was written in collaboration with retired law enforcement, and this chapter clearly leans heavily on the consultant. Frank and Joe spend no fewer than seven pages explaining to their hapless pal Chet how fingerprinting works, in excruciating detail and with frequent reference to “persons” as though the Hardys just arrived from narrating Dragnet—and all before we even get to the crime scene. From there, it’s a ratio of five lines of story to 15 lines of technical information and everything you ever wanted to know about collecting and comparing fingerprints, analog-style.

I can find no evidence that skin oils and sweat are the same thing. I think Joe is, as the British say, telling porkies here.
I can find no evidence that skin oils and sweat are the same thing. I think Joe is, as the British say, telling porkies here.
Fingerprinting must be even more important in a town where everyone has the same hairstyle...
Fingerprinting must be even more important in a town where everyone has the same hairstyle…

The Verdict: Mixed, but mostly positive. As a story, “The Clue of the Cashbox” is abysmal; the first chapter did a much better job of integrating knowledge into a real narrative, and the solution to this “mystery” turns out to be a nephew ex machina anyway. My childhood self, who bought the book for the technical information in the first place, ate this section up—and though the techniques are dated, it remains a fascinating little glimpse into ’70s forensic science. Just try not to imagine poor Chet going into a boredom coma in the first half and let the dusting techniques wash over you.

Random Notes:

  • I did, in fact, attempt to raise and lift fingerprints with baby powder and Scotch tape when I was a wee thing. My parents had a Formica-topped wooden coffee table that may have been the only surface capable of responding to this treatment. I taped the results to construction paper. Ah, youth.
  • Here is a neat forensic science website I found while researching whether finger oils and sweat are the same.



Next time: How lost can a city be if Benton Quest can find it?


Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook Chapter 1: Undercover Work

This one’s going to be a multi-parter every other week until it’s all done.

Why Found-Again: When I finally saved up enough allowance to buy this, sometime around 1983 or ’84, it immediately became my bible.

Not the one I had back in my youth. You can tell by the lack of Cup-O-Noodle stains.
Not the copy I had in my youth. You can tell by the lack of Cup-O-Noodle stains.

Readers of this site have no doubt noticed I can be insufferable about things I’m interested in—why, yes, I am still yelling at the end of Highlander whenever I watch it as though expecting a different result, how did you know?—and one thing I have always been interested in is a detective story. My parents, who I have to assume thought they were getting one of those kids who would tell them what happened at school that day, suddenly found themselves saddled with a would-be miniature Magnum, P.I. blathering on about various kinds of surveillance while not eating her vegetables.

Mysteriously, regaling my family with the details of detective work in no way caused Dad to hurry up and build that network of Three-Investigator-style hidden offices I wanted. Maybe I should have picked up How To Win Friends And Influence People first?

The Premise (Entire Book): Written in conjunction with a retired FBI agent, this book uses fictional teen detectives Frank and Joe Hardy in various scenarios to teach young readers sleuthing skills. (I have the revised 1972 edition.) It essentially works out as  half guidebook, half story collection.

The Premise (Chapter 1—Undercover Work): When a plastics factory suffers a series of thefts, the owner enlists the help of the Hardy Boys’ father, who sends Frank and Joe undercover as delinquents in need of jobs.

They do kind of look the part.
They do kind of look the part.

The boys manage to infiltrate the group responsible for the thefts, only to be inadvertently ratted out by the factory owner, who obviously should’ve been in the briefing pictured above.

The Verdict: Above all, I remember this book as being hilariously dated, even at the time I was first reading it. This chapter was less Starsky & Hutch than Dragnet, though, heavy on common sense and following procedures. There were, however,  a few odd moments:

Even without taking this willfully out of context, Frank Hardy really looks like he's up to no good.
Even without taking this willfully out of context, Frank Hardy really looks like he’s up to no good. I think it’s the sideburns.
Typewriter banter among thieves! What has the march of progress cost us?
Typewriter banter among thieves! What has the march of progress cost us?

Not bad at all so far.


Next time: Jonny Quest eludes yet another attempt to destroy his globetrotting family. Doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?


Apropos of Nothing: December Reading And Attendant Guilt

…A look at what I’ve been doing in my free time this month, as compared to the vision in my head of some perfected J.A.:

The Thing I Read: Don’t Dare a Dame by M. Ruth Myers

This is the third book in a hard-boiled detective series starring young Maggie Sullivan, a P.I. trying to make her way in 1930s Dayton (at some point, Ohio seems to have become the new Chicago as far as the detective novels I read are concerned). Maggie and her friends and helpers are beautifully written, the historical setting is interesting, the mysteries are excellent, and if she doesn’t give her possible love interest a break I am going to explode from frustration. The man can play a penny whistle and catch bad guys, for god’s sake.

What I Should Have Been Reading: I just bought a three-in-one volume of Philip Marlowe novels after seeing The Big Sleep for the first time this summer. Until then, I’d just assumed there were Hammett people and Chandler people in the world and I was clearly Team Dashiell; if I can ever stop reading about Maggie Sullivan, I’m going to put that hypothesis to the test.

Chandler even seems to be looking at me reproachfully from the book jacket.
Chandler even seems to be watching me reproachfully from the book jacket.

(On a side note, any fellow mystery/movie buffs who are reading this: isn’t The Big Sleep odd? I can’t think of any other movie I enjoyed so much that seemed so much longer than its actual runtime.)

The Thing I Read: Weird Romance: A Sparrow & Crowe Anthology by various authors, including the creators of the Wormwood podcast that originated the characters

I came late to podcasted dramas after a few years of subscribing to the driest “Boring Fact of the Day”-type podcasts you could imagine.  I was therefore probably the last to know about Wormwood, a sort of supernatural(…er) Twin Peaks in which a vision leads booze-swilling former psychologist/current sorcerer Dr. Xander Crowe and his technomancer assistant Sparrow to the titular town. When I did find the 2007 series, I promptly put off listening to the last season for months on end because I didn’t want Wormwood to stop. Fortunately, there’s also a comic book series and two short-story anthologies to keep fans of Crowe and Sparrow from languishing. The book badly needed more proofreading, but the stories are often excellent as two of the most entertaining misanthropes in fiction take on demons, mythical creatures, themselves and each other.

What I Should Have Been Reading: I’ve been on a weird-fiction kick of late and took a chance on a book of Thomas Ligotti stories. I’ve paused halfway through, but the man is a master of elegant prose about horrible things, and I can’t believe I’d never heard of him before this year. I suspect this is how I’m supposed to feel about Raymond Carver but don’t.

I should also start re-listening to Wormwood, for that matter.

The Thing I (Re)Read: Various portions of the Addison Holmes mysteries by Liliana Hart

These books have a special place in my heart—extra-special, considering I’ve read four of them and can’t decide if I like them, and I’ll probably buy the next one and feel the same way. It might be more accurate to say they have a special place in my wallet. But the Addison Holmes books are the story of one woman, not particularly suited for the job, becoming a private investigator—a subject I’m currently trying to write about myself. Watching Addison train and deal with an increasingly demanding vocation when she starts out as a schoolteacher is, dare I say it, educational.

What I Should Have Been Reading: Oh, maybe something from this nice collection of mystery-writing books I have?

Is there a group called "People Who Haven't Worked Out Which Gun Their Fictional P.I. Carries Anonymous"?
Is there a group called “People Who Haven’t Worked Out Which Gun Their Fictional P.I. Carries Anonymous”?

Additional Warning About The Dangerous Ease of Buying E-books: I own Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead on Nook? When the hell did that happen? You should pick it up, though; it’s really good.


Next time: What anybody who was all Frankensteined out for the year would do: watch Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein for the first time since the oughts.


Found-Again Friday: Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels

Why Found-Again? As usual, darned if I know. I’ve read a lot of Barbara Michaels novels and I own my favorites, but this 1986 book is the only one that doesn’t get a yearly re-read, even though it’s set in the general area where I grew up and is in other ways relevant to my interests.

The Premise: Broadly, the premise of most Barbara Michaels books: a heroine finds herself in a creepy old house that is filled with danger from forces both spectral and human. The genre is gothic/romantic suspense, which can definitely stray too far into its own silly conventions: then again, which genre doesn’t from time to time?

In Be Buried in the Rain, our heroine Julie has a lot to be cynical about: the moment medical school isn’t keeping her busy, she’s asked to spend the summer taking care of her (evil) grandmother at a run-down farmhouse somewhere near Tidewater. Julie finally agrees, which brings her into contact with a former lover, a smarmy politician who happens to be her cousin, and an assortment of zealots, religious and New Age alike—all of whom are very interested when two skeletons turn up on the road. What secret from the past is hidden in those bones?

My hardcover. Not sure what that well-landscaped mansion is supposed to be, but I bet our main character would've had a much nicer time there.
My hardcover. Not sure what that well-landscaped mansion is supposed to be, but I bet our main character would’ve had a much nicer time there.

I’ll say this for our protagonist: faced with ailing and nutty relatives, she does not start watching Highlander obsessively. I’ve heard that can happen.

"I'm pretty sure that's just a myth."
“I’m pretty sure that’s just a myth.”

Instead Julie takes matters into her own hands, reading to her grandmother by day—if you break it down into real time, this is probably a book about a woman reading Bleak House aloud—and looking into the mystery in her precious free time. This is a mystery story, but it is also a book about family and…well, how family can screw you up.

The Verdict: Only this year have I come to realize how much these books, which I first read as a young teenager, have influenced both the way I write and what my concept of “a novel for grownups” should resemble in general shape and tone. That said, I think in this case the similarities to my own experiences are working against it, making it less interesting than the Michaels books set in Georgetown or farther abroad.

(…And while I was writing this, I  remembered that somewhere in my hometown, there may still be video of me doing a book talk for this in the eighth grade. Talk about horrors from the past…)

Might go well with: Country ham biscuits, Dickens, a nice nightgown.


Next time: The hiatus will come to an end and we’ll catch up with the Quest family. I will also be doing something fun here next weekend—by which I mean the weekend after the approaching one.


Apropos of Nothing: Sadness in Print

Inspired by watching Heaven’s Prisoners last week, a list of (other) books I stopped reading because they were getting too depressing, with the reasons:

The Repairman Jack series (F. Paul Wilson) <—- Apocalypse seemed nigh (may have occurred in later books I haven’t read).

Hellboy (Mignola et al) <—- Apocalypse definitely occurred.*

The Kay Scarpetta books (Patricia Cornwell) <—- Unrelenting human malice, from the killers and from not a few of the recurring characters.

Charles de Lint’s novels <—- Unrelenting human and supernatural malice; it’s a bad old world out there, and the presence of magic just means more of it can literally steal your soul before it harms or kills you.

The Amelia Peabody Mysteries (Elizabeth Peters) <—- WWI. ‘Nuff said.

The V.I. Warshawski books (Sara Paretsky) <—- Unrelenting human malice again,  with a soupçon of hideous sexism on top.

The novels of Thomas Hardy <—-To be fair, I barely started these, because depressing is what Hardy is known for. Hardy’s books are all beautifully written—but my god, at least none of the V.I. Warshawsky novels has anybody being sold at the farmers’ market.

King Lear <—- I used to think Hamlet was a little depressing, and then this. I’m not even going to give it the same semi-endorsement as Hardy, because even the power of Shakespeare’s writing can’t mitigate how much I hated King Lear. I’ve read less nihilism in actual nihilist philosophy.


*I’ve noted before that I find it really hard to stay away from Hellboy, but at the moment I’m holding strong.

Next time: On Friday, I continue this mournful theme with another Musical Interlude.


Found-Again Friday (Sort Of): Heaven’s Prisoners

This one’s iffy: while it’s true that I once sat down to watch Heaven’s Prisoners and remained in the room the whole time, I fell asleep and never followed up until last week. After all, it seemed incomprehensible that anything with Eric Roberts as the bad guy could be dull enough to incite sleep. It might not be good, but it shouldn’t be dull.

Good news, kind of!

The Premise: This is one of two film adaptations of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books: regular readers will remember that these often have a similar structure to episodes of Highlander: The Series. Alec Baldwin stars as Robicheaux, an alcoholic ex-cop who tries and fails to shake his past by leaving New Orleans and opening a bait shop in the bayou. A plane crash lands him with both a foster child and a mystery, and the answer lies with his childhood friend, mobster wannabe Bubba Rocque (Roberts).

People forget Alec Baldwin could noir like a champ back in the 1990s.
People forget Alec Baldwin could noir like a champ back in the 1990s. Then again, I also liked The Shadow.

The good news is that if you get past the first 40 minutes or so without pricking your finger on a magic spindle, Heaven’s Prisoners picks up considerably, with some nice action sequences and interesting secondary characters. (The other good news is the soundtrack, which is naturally blues-heavy.) The bad news is that it’s often a colossal downer of a film; if you’ve read the books, you know Robicheaux is what you might get if Thomas Hardy had a bowl of jambalaya, watched a few cop shows, and decided to write a mystery series, so this is not surprising. And then there’s Bubba Rocque. Did I mention Eric Roberts sports a distracting combination cornrows/French braid/man-bun for most of the film? You won’t be able to forget it.

The Verdict: Definitely better than I remembered (in that I got  all the way through it), but still not quite the movie the books deserve.

Might go well with: Etouffée, beer, and the much sillier The Big Easy, since I’ve got to admit I’ve never conked out on that one.

Found-Again Friday: Bram Stoker’s Dracula—The Coppola Film

Why Found-Again? When I said a few weeks ago I was adding the 2013 Dracula TV series to my Netflix queue, I didn’t wait around. (Capsule review: it’s not perfect, but I never in my life thought I’d sincerely utter the words “I want a Renfield,” either. Wow. Mad Science! Steampunk! Impalers and Van Helsings colluding together! Mass hysteria!)

That said, the show seems to owe a great debt to the 1992 film adaptation, especially in the turning of subtext into opulent text.

The Premise: You’re kidding, right? No? Okay: Slightly dim but decent Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves, hitting the first part of that description rather hard) unwittingly brokers one hell of a real estate deal when he sells an English abbey to Count Dracula (Gary Oldman), who in no time goes from elderly nobleman to hot young technophile thanks to the fine English climate and a constant supply of human blood. Sadly for Dracula but fortunately for Britain, he is eventually thwarted by Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins)—though not before the Count and Mrs. Harker (Winona Ryder) have fallen in love.

If you enjoy the kind of excess this adaptation revels in, it’s quite good. That sounds pejorative, I suppose, but I don’t mean it that way: as a viewer of Dracula movies, there are times when I like to watch a rich, Victorian-Decadent riff on the legend of Vlad Tepes and Stoker’s book, and there are times when I’d just like to see a guy in a cape who owns a spooky castle. (There are also times I’d just like to see George Hamilton and Arte Johnson spoofing the whole enterprise, for that matter; I’m kind of omni-Dracula that way.) The beautiful visuals in Coppola’s film mitigate its cheese factor—the old Count’s double-bun hairdo, slutty Lucy, Van Helsing chewing more scenery than his nemesis ever did necks—and so does its all-star cast.

The Verdict: I was a purist teenager when I saw this in the theater, but I think the Dracula story may be one I’ve grown less cynical about as time goes by. As I said, it’s not always my cup of tea when I need a Count fix, but it’s a very worthy entry among its peers. And Tom Waits as Renfield is not to be missed.

Might go well with: Steak; wine; the Frank Langella Dracula movie from the ’70s. Oh, and garlic bread!



Next time: Mondays are going to be no less weird on this site. They might be a little less pretty, though.