Writing on a novel-per-year basis since 1993, Lisa Scottoline has created some of the best crime fiction of the past decade, but the author’s millions of readers probably love the people in her stories even more than her amazingly clever plots.
Mystery fans tend to divide the genre into two very distinct categories —“cozies” in which amateur sleuths solve crimes that never get too gruesome (think Jessica Fletcher) and “hard-boiled” mysteries in which P.I. and cop protagonists dish up much higher sex-and-violence quotients (the Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly novels would fall in that group).
Scottoline has managed to write outside both of those boxes in her 15 novels about crime and the law in the writer’s native Philadelphia.
What has drawn so many diverse readers to the books, however, is Scottoline’s warmth and humor and the great women characters she has placed at the center of each story (in her early days, she was called “the female John Grisham) .
Because she has deftly avoided the trap of writing a series of books about one character, Scottoline has been able to shift around Philadelphia with a freedom denied to peers such as Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, who have followed a single character in book after book.
Scottoline did leave herself the freedom to return to popular characters over the years.
I’ve enjoyed all of the books, but my favorite character is the Italian-American lawyer Mary DiNunzio, who was the heroine of Scottoline’s debut novel, “Everywhere That Mary Went” in 1993, and who is back for “Lady Killer,” which Harper will publish on Feb. 19.
Mary has grown in each of her adventures over the years — she’s become a lot feistier than she was in 1993 — but the widowed attorney is still rooted in her family life in South Philadelphia, despite the fact that Mary now has a condo in Center City and a job with one of the top law firms in Philadelphia.
In the “Mary books,” Scottoline always takes the reader back to the tidy rowhouse where Mary grew up and where her wonderful parents, Mr. and Mrs. DiNunzio, continue to hold court. In past novels, the house has been a shelter for endangered clients, and a place where all of Mary’s colleagues and friends have been welcomed and potential mates have been vetted.
The DiNunzios are always there for Mary and, on more than one occasion, she has wondered what she is going to do when they aren’t there anymore.
When her own father died five years ago, Scottoline realized there was more autobiography in the DiNunzios than she had thought.
The writer decided to put her fictional family aside until she could start to come to terms with her own loss.
“Lady Killer” is the first DiNunzio novel since “Killer Smile” in 2004 and I am happy to report that it is one of Scottoline’s best books, a perfect blend of suspense and personal drama, as Mary is pressed into helping an old enemy from high school days (the popular “mean girl” Trish Gambone, who Mary and her friends used to call “Trash”).
Trish is in an abusive relationship with a guy Mary once tutored (and dated) in high school, but she refuses to file the restraining order that Mary suggests.
Trish and her mob-connected boyfriend disappear.
Even though she never liked Gambone, Mary feels old neighborhood guilt and becomes determined to find out what happened to the woman.
“Lady Killer” keeps Mary in South Philly for much of the book — where battle lines are drawn between the lawyer’s friends and family and those who say Mary has (literally and figuratively) gone uptown.
Scottoline doesn’t stint on suspense and excitement, but she once again makes us care as much about her people as we do about the solution to the mystery. And, what a great pleasure it is to revisit Mr. and Mrs. DiNunzio.
Archive for January, 2008
Writing on a novel-per-year basis since 1993, Lisa Scottoline has created some of the best crime fiction of the past decade, but the author’s millions of readers probably love the people in her stories even more than her amazingly clever plots.
“Chancer” was the two-season British TV series of 1990-91 that launched Clive Owen’s career, but the smart and very funny serial about British business machinations at the end of the Margaret Thatcher era was packed with terrific actors. Season two was just released on DVD by Acorn Media today.
As good as Owen is in the seven-episode second season of “Chancer” — you can see why he was almost immediately snapped up by British filmmakers and is now an international star — veteran actor Leslie Phillips steals every scene he is in as the London banker Jimmy Blake.
Jimmy is one of those over-the-top villains you love to hate; the biggest kick of the second season is the way that the banker character starts to see the downside of London business life at the beginning of a new political era and shifts some of his alliances.
Jimmy doesn’t quite join forces with the young upstart character played by Owen — Derek Love — but Blake does become a tentative ally in a business war against the Anglo-German industrial czar Tom Franklyn (played by another wonderful veteran British actor, Peter Vaughan).
“Chancer” shows how some Brit businessmen began to turn against the Thatcher philosophy after her reign led to so many industrial concerns moving out of the country.
Thatcher economics left England in the early 1990s in the same scary “service economy” position our country found itself in a few years later, after the passage of NAFTA, under President Clinton.
“I was a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher,” Jimmy Blake tells a group of well-heeled friends gathered at a posh dinner party in “Chancer.”
“She salvaged a country down on its luck and greatly invigorated its industry.”
“Unfortunately, that country is Japan,” Blake adds.
Phillips delivers this little speech so slyly that the guests are as shocked as we are by Jimmy’s sudden attack on Maggie, and the result is one of the funniest moments in a very funny show.
Leslie Phillips is now 83 and still at work — last year, he had a juicy part as one of the old actor friends of the stage star Peter O’Toole played in “Venus.”
Phillips has credits going back to the 1930s, on stage, screen and TV.
In his mid-60s at the time of “Chancer,” Phillips had at his disposal the sort of crack comic timing it takes a lifetime to develop; he makes every scene featuring Jimmy Blake a master class in acting.
Coincidentally, Phillips and his “Chancer” rival Peter Vaughan, who is 84, have just finished filming a new comedy with Michael Caine called “Is Anybody There?”
Why is it so hard to make good romantic comedies?
What was once a taken-for-granted staple of movies is now scarcer than those proverbial hens’ teeth.
Turner Classic Movies programs batches of great oldies with actresses like Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur who did their best work as romantic comediennes and others such as Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert and Katharine Hepburn who excelled in the genre.
These thoughts were triggered by seeing “27 Dresses” a few nights ago, a largely failed attempt to charm and amuse an audience with a tale of contemporary romance.
Katherine Heigl seems to have been made for romantic comedy — she’s pretty in the non-threatening girl next door manner of Dunne and Arthur and radiates sanity and charm in equal measure.
Heigl’s looks and talent have made her a TV star on “Grey’s Anatomy” and positioned her for big screen stardom, but where are the polished romantic comedy scripts that could make her the next Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts? (The answer to that rhetorical question seems to be — Nowhere — which is why Ryan has been largely off-screen for years and Roberts took the supporting character role she plays in “Charlie Wilson’s War”).
The tired plot and the inane situations Heigl is put through in “27 Dresses” would have defeated the biggest stars of the 1930s and ’40s (indeed, most of the great romantic comediennes of the Golden Age found themselves stuck in the occasional dud by the studios that held their contracts — it is painful to watch the almost always delightful Jean Arthur in the horrendous 1943 picture “A Lady Takes a Chance” in which the star must have felt forced to overact in order to try to spark humor and romance out of her painfully remote co-star John Wayne).
What’s so sad about the dearth of good romantic comedy these days is that there is still a huge audience that hungers for movies in this genre — junky recent efforts like “Music & Lyrics” and “No Reservations” and “27 Dresses” have all sold more tickets than they deserved to because moviegoers looking for love and laughs have had nowhere else to go.
Have all the clever romantic comedy ideas been used up? Is the post-feminist dating world an inhospitable place for funny romantic women?
On TV, “Sex and the City” proved that the modern male-female dating relationship scene could still produce glossy hilarity — in 30-minute doses — but no recent film has come close to that HBO series in terms of hooking an audience. It will be very interesting to see if the forthcoming movie version of the HBO hit can sustain the premise — and do something the TV show didn’t already do — in a feature-length format.
Local audiences will have a chance to see one of the last of the great American touring theater troupes Friday when The Acting Company presents “Moby Dick Rehearsed” by Orson Welles at Fairfield University’s Quick Center.
The Acting Company was founded 36 years by the late great John Houseman and dancer-turned-arts administrator Margot Harley as an adjunct to the work they did training actors at the Drama Division of the Juilliard School in Manhattan.
Houseman and Harley wanted graduates of the theater program to have the opportunity for the added education that can only come from the practical experience of working in a real company designed to perform plays in repertory all over the country.
Among the many alumni of The Acting Company are Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Frances Conroy and David Ogden Stiers.
The first company stayed together for four years of touring. As actors peeled off for other professional work, new company members came in from Juilliard and other acting schools.
Although acting companies have been the foundation of theater overseas, it is very challenging to create such troupes in the United States.
“Most companies choose a season and hire (different) actors for each play,” Harley said in a phone interview from Manhattan last week.
The Acting Company began in an optimistic era when growing federal and state subsidies for the arts produced the explosion in regional theaters (such as our own Long Wharf Theatre and Hartford Stage) and dance companies around the country.
“People were able to take more chances then,” Harley said of the arts climate in the 1970s when the National Endowment for the Arts was still many years away from facing its terrible battles over photography exhibits by Robert Mapplethorpe and experimental theater by Karen Finley and Tim Miller (and the resulting funding cuts).
“As the country got more and more conservative that placed more pressure on the box office,” Harley said of the retrenchment of non-profit theater over the past two decades.
“We only get a tenth of what we used to get,” the producing artistic director said of her company’s subsidies. “And we don’t have that home base or subscription audience (of the regional theaters).”
Presenting non-commercial theater is a major financial struggle in 2008, but Harley is determined to see that The Acting Company continues (the important work done by the troupe was recognized with a special Tony Award in 2003).
“There is a crisis now…theater is just so expensive to produce…(but) the theater isn’t dying because too many people want to do it, and enough people want to see it.”
Harley believes the continuing national presence of The Acting Company is as important for building audiences of the future as it is for the training and employment of our finest young actors.
“Young people are not getting in the habit of seeing theater,” Harley said of her troupe’s mandate to do special performances for students around the country. (In Fairfield on Friday there will be a special 10 a.m. performance of “Moby Dick Rehearsed” for students in grades 5 and up, in addition to the regular 8 p.m. evening performance.)
One of the struggles faced by theater in America is the vast size of the country and the scattering of fine regional operations from coast to coast. The size and diversity of the country has made it virtually impossible to establish one “National Theatre” such as the renowned subsidized company in London.
“In a sense we are kind of a national company — not like the National Theatre of England — but we are taking theater all over the country,” Harley said.
The impetus for starting The Acting Company 36 years ago was simply to keep an extraordinary group of Juilliard graduates together for a few years.
“But then (Houseman) saw that we could create a company out of that…obviously we couldn’t keep it in New York, but then we saw that touring is a kind of experience you can’t match any other way,” Harley said.
“Our actors play a 400 seat theater one night and a 2,000 seat house the next…it is the best possible experience…Kevin Kline said that after his four years (in The Acting Company) he felt he had learned what would have taken 20 years of experience in New York,” she added.
The artistic director is especially pleased by the production of “Moby Dick Rehearsed” since Welles and Houseman were such an important team in the American theater of the pre-World War II era.
The two men eventually parted ways, with Welles going on to Hollywood and Houseman working in film and a variety of theatrical endeavors (including running the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford during its 1950s heyday).
“John said many times that (Welles) was the only genius he ever knew,” Harley noted.
(Tickets for “Moby Dick Rehearsed” are $30 for the 8 p.m. Friday night performance and $7 for the 10 a.m. student performance. For more information call the box office at 254-4010 or go online to www.quickcenter.com)
You might have to go all the way back to the car accident that took James Dean’s life in 1955 to find an apt comparison with the shocking news of Heath Ledger’s death in New York yesterday.
Today, news organizations ground out some silly — and rather insulting — lists of “killed-suddenly-in-their 20s” actors that included minor figures such as the TV performers Jon-Erik Hexum and David Strickland.
Like Dean, Ledger was a major Oscar-nominated actor cut down in the middle of a period of great promise. The tragedy of what the immensely talented man might have done in another 20 or 30 years of work is balanced by the genuine accomplishment of what he had already achieved.
The 28-year-old Australian star was launched here as a teen heartthrob opposite Julia Stiles in the 1999 Disney picture, “10 Things I Hate About You,” but Ledger very quickly used his Hollywood “heat” to begin edging his way to better parts in better films.
Ledger gained more box-office credibility with his performance as Mel Gibson’s son in the 2000 hit, “The Patriot,” but it was the actor’s decision to take a small but key role in a low-budget 2001 indie, “Monster’s Ball,” that changed the course of his career.
The movie won Halle Berry an Oscar, but Ledger’s work as the emotionally tortured prison guard son of Billy Bob Thornton — a young man who was fighting the racism and sexism buried within himself and the culture around him — was terrific and reportedly caused director Ang Lee to test the actor for the starring role in “Brokeback Mountain” (2005).
Again, Ledger took a big chance on a very risky project that could have hurt his leading-man possibilities, playing a repressed gay Middle American of the early 1960s who falls into an intensely passionate affair with another “cowboy” (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Both of the male roles scared off better known and more bankable actors, so Ledger once again found himself working on a tightly budgeted indie picture that demanded his total commitment as an actor.
Fortunately, for Ledger and us, “Brokeback Mountain” turned out to be a great film and his remarkable low-key performance earned him a well-deserved best actor nomination.
The movie pushed Ledger to the top of the list of movie talents in their 20s and he no doubt received lots of big-ticket offers in the wake of his Oscar publicity two years ago.
Instead of taking it easy, however, Ledger once again risked humiliation when he agreed to join five other adventurous performers in playing music legend Bob Dylan at various stages of his life in Todd Haynes’s experimental drama, “I’m Not There,” which opened at the end of 2007.
Fellow Australian Cate Blanchett was honored with a supporting actress Oscar nomination yesterday for her work as the Dylan of the “Don’t Look Back” era, but Ledger is equally good as the singer-songwriter (pictured above) in one of his darkest periods.
Judging by the trailers for the forthcoming Batman movie — “The Dark Knight” — Ledger’s performance as The Joker could be another major piece of work.
Hollywood legends have been based on a lot less than the performances given by this remarkable artist in only a few years’ time.
The list of Oscar nominees released early this morning in Los Angeles is made up of the usual mix of worthy contenders, bows to current fashion and popularity, and bizarre omissions.
The voters got it completely right in only a couple of the technical categories.
It’s hard to argue with any of the choices in the best cinematography and best editing slots — especially the recognition for the brilliant Roger Deakins’s lighting work on “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and Robert Elswit’s magnificent camerawork on “There Will Be Blood.”
What was probably the last year’s most imaginative musical score — Jonny Greenwood’s work on “There Will Be Blood” — was snubbed in favor of the second-rate score for “3:10 from Yuma.”
The biggest sleeper hit of 2007 — “Juno” — continued to build momentum with nominations for best picture, best director, best actress, and best screenplay.
The Academy voters often save plenty of room for a soft and sappy year-end hit — previous years have seen equally unjustified support for “As Good As It Gets” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”
With so many commentators complaining that too many “dark” films have been nominated in major categories, it wouldn’t surprise me to see “Juno” take home the best picture prize rather than the brilliant-but-bleak “There Will Be Blood” or “No Country for Old Men.”
The complete omission of David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (above) is a shock — the only other Hollywood releases of 2007 that came close in terms of ambition and accomplishment were “There Will Be Blood” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
Oh well, it is always important to remember that this is the same awards body that once nominated “The Towering Inferno” and “Airport” in the best picture category. More recently they gave Helen Hunt an Oscar for “As Good as It Gets” the same year that Judi Dench was nominated for “Mrs. Brown.”
Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris deserves all of the praise he is about to receive for “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood,” which will be published by The Penguin Press on Feb. 18.
The book merits a place on the very short shelf of great movie journalism that includes “The Devil’s Candy” by Julie Salamon, “The Studio” by John Gregory Dunne and “Picture” by Lillian Ross.
Harris has gone back to mid-1960s Hollywood to examine the cultural and financial shifts that brought Old Hollywood to its knees and opened the door to the maverick filmmakers and actors who would produce the golden age of iconoclastic 1970s Hollywood.
The writer came up with a simple but very effective premise for his study — a look at the five films that were nominated in the best picture Oscar race for 1967, “Bonnie & Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Doctor Dolittle.”
Harris shows how each of the five pictures was made and how two of them reflected values that were fading out (“Dolittle” and “Dinner”), two of them exemplified revolutionary change (“The Graduate” and “Bonnie & Clyde”) and the fifth (and prize-winning) title (“Heat”) represented a canny compromise of old and new movie elements.
Rather than rely on earlier people’s work, Harris went back and interviewed most of the surviving artists. As a result, we get completely fresh accounts of the production of “The Graduate” and “Bonnie & Clyde” — two of the most written-about films of the 1960s.
Harris also does a good job of analyzing the brief superstardom of Sidney Poitier, who was in two of the best picture nominees and starred in a third 1967 release (“To Sir, With Love”) that also was one of the year’s top grossers. The book shows how Poitier’s fall was to be as swift as his rise because he represented a conservative Hollywood notion of black-ness that was about to be banished from popular culture.
Harris takes us through the long and dizzyingly complex gestation of “Bonnie & Clyde” which took a half-decade to go from the minds of Esquire magazine writers Robert Benton and David Newman to a finished film. The book shows how the picture was inspired by late 1950s and early 1960s French New Wave films — especially “Breathless” and “Jules and Jim” — and was almost made as the English language debut film of Francois Truffaut. After Truffaut decided to do “Fahrenheit 451″ instead, the project was passed to Godard (who proved to be a bit too radical for Benton and Newman).
American director Arthur Penn only became involved after Truffaut and Godard urged him to look at the script.
“The Graduate” took many years to reach the screen, too, and proved in some ways to be even more influential than “Bonnie & Clyde,” particularly in the casting of then-New York stage actor Dustin Hoffman in the starring role. Many other people involved with the movie thought director Mike Nichols had taken leave of his senses when he decided to use a short and Jewish 29-year-old performer in a part that was written to be a 20-year-old WASP jock.
Nichols saw something few other people did in Hoffman and as a result opened the doors to such subsequent off-center late 1960s and ’70s stars as Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand and Gene Hackman.
The record-breaking grosses scored by “Cloverfield” this weekend are encouraging when it comes to the present status of the horror movie.
Instead of the silly, gruesome superstitions of the many Japanese-derived scare pictures of recent vintage, or the torture porn of the “Saw” and “Hostel” derivatives, the new Paramount release has virtually no gore. Indeed, it landed an unrestricted PG-13 rating.
The movie proves yet again how much more interesting it is to be scared by suggestion rather than by blatant displays of graphic violence. Just as Steven Spielberg got his biggest jolts in “Jaws” when we couldn’t see the shark, “Cloverfield” is scariest when we can’t quite see the monster(s).
The glimpses of local TV newscasters trying to figure out what is happening while it is happening are also very effective.
“Cloverfield” mixes the found-footage format of the 1999 blockbuster “The Blair Witch Project” with elements of the dramatically shaped MTV reality series “The Real World” and “The Hills” into a genuine post-9/11 horror story set in Manhattan as chaos erupts from the arrival of some sort of giant monster.
Producer J.J. Abrams has tapped into the anxiety that kids both inside and outside of the New York metro area must have felt as their parents tried to come to terms with what was going on in Manhattan on that terrible morning seven years ago.
Just as my generation sat through so many 1950s and ’60s horror pictures that derived their power from unspoken nuclear war anxiety, the current teen demographic is being touched in almost subliminal ways by this devilishly clever little film.
In 2001, many people remarked on the way that Manhattan had the feel of a disaster movie on 9/11, but up until now, no fictional filmmaker has used that widespread cultural comment as the basis for a horror movie.
“United 93” and “World Trade Center” were sober attempts to deal with the actual events of 9/11. “Cloverfield” taps into unresolved fears that something bigger and worse might still be in store for Manhattan, so there will be people who find the picture to be an offensive exploitation of continuing terrorist anxiety.
Because our perspective is so limited in the film — we see only what was captured by one videographer at a downtown going away party interrupted by the arrival of some sort of vaguely indicated “creature” — the audience is placed in precisely the same position as the characters in the film.
Kids who compulsively record their own lives with cellphone cameras will find the visual style of the movie to be completely realistic.
“Cloverfield” eventually starts to feel contrived as the characters take unbelievable risks with unbelievable speed (in terms of New York City geography) but the movie delves into real modern day anxieties in a way that no other contemporary horror picture has dared.