You wouldn’t think that there would be too many laughs to be found in murder and prostitution, but you might change your mind after reading Scott Sherman’s debut mystery, “First You Fall” (Alyson Books).
I picked up the book after hearing the writer speak at a panel at the annual Bouchercon mystery writers’ conference in Baltimore in October and I’m glad I did. Sherman has pulled off the mean feat of writing a Janet Evanovich-style comic crime novel about a New York City male escort named Kevin Connor.
The range of professions in amateur sleuth crime fiction these days is quite amazing. Coffee shop operators, nurses, gardeners, crossword puzzle creators, tattoo parlor managers — you name the job and there’s a good chance some clever author has used it as a jumping off point for a mystery series.
Sherman breaks new ground with his escort hero who juggles a number of compelling personal problems — including the sudden death of a dear friend, a surprise visit from his hysterical mother who is convinced Kevin’s dad is cheating on her, and the search for a stable romantic partner — while plying his trade in the oldest profession.
What makes the book distinctive (and memorable) is the way that Sherman juggles laughs and drama (and terrific plot twists) in a story that opens a door into the world of men who make their livings as sex workers. The author doesn’t glamorize prostitution, but he shows us how attractive “the life” can be for young people who are just starting out in New York. What other job pays several hundred dollars an hour and often includes fine dining and free trips to the best cultural attractions Manhattan has to offer?
Kevin Connor makes a very nice living working for “Mrs. Cherry,” a madam of unknown gender with a large stable of male escorts (the name Sherman chose for the escort manager is just the first of many sly references to gay icon Barbra Streisand in the novel — Mrs. Cherry was the very odd madam played by Yiddish theater legend Molly Picon in the 1974 Streisand epic, “For Pete’s Sake”).
Most of Kevin’s clients are low maintenance types who are willing to pay considerable amounts of money for companionship and role-playing. But the young man’s work leaves him in a very vulnerable position when his own life appears to be in danger — going to the cops is not an option for an escort in trouble.
Mystery and tragedy enter the book early on when one of Kevin’s older friends — not a client but a regular customer for some of Connor’s associates — falls to his death from a fancy Central Park West apartment. The cops rule the death a suicide, but Kevin knows that the late Allen Harrington would never kill himself. Soon we meet a large pool of murder suspects, ranging from the man’s homophobic grown sons to at least one of Kevin’s fellow escorts.
Through Kevin’s search for Allen’s killer, Sherman explores the unique mix of high life and low life that makes Manhattan such a compelling — and sometimes dangerous — place. The result is an unusually substantial piece of light entertainment that will leave most readers wondering what might happen to Kevin in follow-up novels.
Archive for November, 2008
You wouldn’t think that there would be too many laughs to be found in murder and prostitution, but you might change your mind after reading Scott Sherman’s debut mystery, “First You Fall” (Alyson Books).
Did you catch the Diane Sawyer-Ashley Dupre act on “20/20” Friday night?
It still boggles my mind that Sawyer is considered a “journalist” by ABC News after the Michael Jackson-Lisa Marie Presley debacle of a decade ago and the Elian Gonzalez shaming in 2000, but there she was two nights ago looking suitably “shocked” and “compassionate” as the Eliot Spitzer call girl told her tales of woe.
The ex-beauty pageant contestant and loyal secretary to President Richard Nixon — Diane followed Nixon back to San Clemente after he resigned in disgrace in 1974 — is a better actress than many of the stars her husband Mike Nichols has guided to Oscar nominations over the past 40 years.
Whether it is looking sympathetic sitting across from the Jackson-Presley trainwreck marriage or getting down and playing on the floor with little Elian, Sawyer has always seemed to be auditioning for the sob sister newspaper-woman role in “Chicago.” She makes Barbara Walters look like Helen Thomas.
Years ago in the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” there was a hilarious number sung by a mock-outraged Houston TV reporter — “Texas Has a Whorehouse In It!” — and I recalled that tune as Sawyer kept working up a new look of surprise and moral superiority every time Dupre explained that there are lots of men in this country who pay young women to have sex with them (No!)
Way back in the early 1980s I used to enjoy Sawyer on the CBS version of “The Today Show” where she handled light features and co-host banter with considerable charm, but as she has risen up the ladder into harder news slots, Sawyer’s reliance on pseudo emotionalism and ignorant moralism has become increasingly repellant.
Fighting with colleague Barbara Walters for each new ABC newsmagazine “get” — and making who-knows-what sort of deals with her scandal-sheet prey — the newswoman is an embarrassment to her profession.
Tomorrow night it will be my privilege to co-host a free screening of the 1995 Claude Chabrol film, “La Ceremonie,” at the Fairfield Library at 7 p.m.
The movie is the second in a new monrhly series the library is calling “Fringe & Foreign” (my pal, Drew Taylor of The Fairfield Weekly, is selecting the indie cult titles and I’m choosing the foreign films).
“La Ceremonie” is a perfect choice for a library showing because it is an excellent adaptation of the novel “A Judgement in Stone” by the great British crime writer Ruth Rendell.
Rendell has always been more interested in how crimes happen than in the traditional whodunit. She likes to examine the forces that push seemingly ordinary people to violent eruptions.
“A Judgement in Stone” is one of Rendell’s finest novels, with a much-discussed first sentence that gives away the ending of the story. The author names the perp and her victims flat out and readers who aren’t familiar with Rendell might wonder how she can keep us turning the pages toward a pre-ordained finale.
Instead of diminishing the suspense, Rendell increases it by making us wonder and wait to see how things could possibly end so badly for a group of people with no history of violent crime.
Chabrol made one major change in the Rendell book by omitting that opening declaration. He just tells the gripping story of how horrific things transpire after a bourgeois French family decides to hire a rather aloof but very hard-working young maid.
I think even viewers who have never read the novel feel a sense of dread very early on, when it becomes apparent there is something wrong with the maid. So, the film generates the same sort of suspense as the novel — we wonder what terrible things are going to happen.
Sandrine Bonaire (above, left) gives a very understated performance as the maid, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about what is going on under a series of rather blank expressions.
The trigger for the events of the final third of the story arrives in the form of a discontented postal worker who dislikes most of her customers and matches the maid in terms of loneliness and emotional repression. The French call this sort of unhealthy pairing a folie a deux.
Chabrol regular Isabelle Huppert (above, right) plays the part of the postal clerk with a subtly subversive humor that allows us to share her character’s resentment of the comfortable country lives of the wealthy Parisians who own lavish weekend getaway estates outside her village.
Chabrol turns the screws by making the rich family sympathetic — despite their being oblivious to the lives of the underclass people all around them. Jacqueline Bisset plays the working wife and mother — she runs an art gallery — who is so grateful for her new maid’s work ethic that she doesn’t pay much attention to the young woman’s simmering anger.
The final 15 minutes of “La Ceremonie” are as creepy and as shocking as any horror movie finale without resorting to any graphic displays of violence. It’s a movie most people remember long after the credits roll.
(The Fairfield Library is at 1080 Old Post Road in Fairfield Center. Call 256-3155 for more information on the free screening Friday at 7.)
The terrible civil rights setback represented by the passage of the gay-bashing Proposition 8 in California earlier this month could prove to be an unexpected boost to the Gus Van Sant film, “Milk,” set to open in New York and Los Angeles Nov. 28 and around the country in December.
The bio-pic about the life and 1978 murder of the pioneering San Francisco gay politician Harvey Milk was already generating Oscar buzz when liberal Hollywood and the gay community around the country were stunned by Prop 8.
Now, the film could become a rallying point for the national movement to repeal the discriminatory proposition.
With a dearth of obvious year-end awards contenders, “Milk” seems on track to be a all-too-timely audience and critic hit.
One of my favorite Manhattan performers, Justin Bond, attended a screening at the Tribeca Grand last night and kicked off a new blog (http://www.justinbondisliving.blogspot.com/) with a long posting today.“The real uncanny thing, to me, is the timing. It reminds me of when The China Syndrome came out right when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant went all funky…I think this film comes at a time time when the LGBT community needs a shot of inspiration and if nothing else the story is truly inspirational,” Bond writes in a smart and witty account of the screening (and his gate-crashing the celebrity party afterwards).
With a strong supporting cast that includes rising stars James Franco (above, embracing Penn) and Emile Hirsch, “Milk” should be able to crossover quickly from limited art-house release in early December to wide multiplex play by Christmas. I’ll report on the film here after I see it next week.
Tonight at 7, I’m hosting a screening of the 1957 Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg drama, “A Face in the Crowd,” as part of the monthly “Martini and a Movie” series at the Fairfield Theatre Company.
The picture is the second in a three-film series devoted to “Politics & Hollywood.”
Last month’s movie “State of the Union” was a look at the way politicians often have to bend their beliefs to get elected.
“A Face in the Crowd” was made at a time when smart people were starting to worry about the negative impact of television on almost every aspect of American life — in particular, the way that TV was changing political campaigns (and even the choices of potential national candidates).
Kazan and Schulberg looked at the issue three years before John F. Kennedy brought a new youthful “charisma” to the presidential race, changing some of the ground rules of what the public looked for in a leader because he used TV so brilliantly as an image-building tool. Everyone knows the story of how radio listeners believed the sweaty and far-from-charismatic Richard Nixon won his election season debates with Kennedy, but that the vastly larger audience that saw the debates on TV thought the cool and handsome senator from Massachusetts was the winner.
“A Face in the Crowd” is about the creation of a national celebrity out of a rather sleazy backwoods country singer named “Lonesome” Rhodes.
A small-town radio personality played by the wonderful Patricia Neal discovers Lonesome in an Arkansas jail and turns him into a local star. Soon, he becomes a regional sensation via a Memphis TV show. Lonesome is brought to New York where he builds a huge national audience and thoughts of a political career.
A key scene involves the critiquing of some footage of a national political aspirant by corporate types and ad men .
One of these hucksters says, “Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans: ‘Time for a change!’ “The mess in Washington!’ ‘More bang for your buck!’ (They want) punchlines and glamour!”
Andy Griffith plays Lonesome in a truly scary performance — the moral opposite of the country sheriff he would play on TV a decade later.
“A Face in the Crowd” was a financial flop in 1957, but has been elevated over the years in the same manner as another cynical “flop” that year, “Sweet Smell of Success.”
Kazan and Schulberg were free to attack TV 50 years ago because the movie studios saw the relatively new medium as their enemy. Now that the same global corporations own film production companies and broadcast and cable TV networks it would be much tougher to mount a major film that is this savage about the way “home entertainment” has changed every aspect of private and public life in this country.
“A Face in the Crowd” still has the power to provoke, so there should be a very interesting discussion after tonight’s free showing.
(The Fairfield Theater Company is at 70 Sanford St. in Fairfield. The doors and the bar open at 7. The film will be shown at 8.)
I had a great time at the seventh annual New England Crime Bake over the weekend — about 200 writers (and aspiring writers) gathered at a Hilton in suburban Boston to talk about the state of crime fiction.
The Crime Bake is one of the best small conferences in the country and a great way for me to catch up with old and new Connecticut novelists.
The organizers of the Crime Bake included the fine Madison writer Roberta Isleib and I had a chance to moderate a panel that included Chris Knopf, an Avon mystery novelist who was new to me.
Also on my panel was Brunonia Barry, the Salem, Mass., novelist who achieved one of the year’s great publishing success stories by having her self-published novel, “The Lace Reader,” bought by William Morrow in a multi-book, multi-million dollar deal.
The guest of honor was best-selling thriller writer Harlan Coben who delighted the aspiring writers in the crowd with tales of his tough early days working on a paperback series that featured sports agent Myron Bolitar.
Coben thought then that having a 15,000 copy print run of the first Myron novel was fantastic, along with the $5,000 he was paid. The author said he likes to attend conferences and help new writers because of the gracious way he was treated a decade ago by highly esteemed crime writers such as Lawrence Block and Mary Higgins Clark.
Having attended several Crime Bakes and Bouchercons (the annual international gathering) and the ThrillerFest in New York City last summer, I can vouch for Coben’s assertion that the folks who write the most popular mysteries and thrillers and suspense novels are unusually nice and accessible.
Coben was part of a group of newcomers in the 1990s that included Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Lisa Scottoline, and Lee Child, all of whom take time out of their very busy writing lives to give back to the crime fiction community (Child was the guest of honor at Crime Bake last year and Scottoline was the star attraction at the 2006 gathering).
Coben did two panels, a dinner at which he was mildly roasted and then a Sunday morning breakfast gathering. He also authorized a screening of the hit French version of his novel, “Tell No One” (above), which has been a huge art house hit in this country since it opened in the summer.
The writer spoke about the irony of his novels languishing in Hollywood — or being threatened with massive changes — until the French director Guillaume Canet decided he wanted to make a movie out of the book. Now that “Tell No One” has been a huge hit in Europe and the U.S., Hollywood is once again very interested in the writer.
While I was in Dedham I learned from Stamford mystery writer Rosemary Harris the exciting news that there will be a new two-day Connecticut crime fiction event called “Murder 203” at the Easton and Westport libraries next spring — April 18 and 19.
Details will be posted as they come in on the event’s Website: www.murder203.com.
The Eugene O’Neill play “Hughie” is often performed like a virtual one-man show with a star dominating the action as the desperately lonely Erie Smith who is killing time in the lobby of a fleabag hotel in New York City nearly a century ago.
Erie spins stories to a new nightclerk who remains silent most of the time.
Erie’s best years are behind him and the death of the previous hotel desk clerk, Hughie, leaves him without one of the few pals he has left who is willing to listen to Erie’s tales of Manhattan high life.
12 years ago, Al Pacino did the play at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and then on Broadway with the estimable actor Paul Benedict, but due to the way the piece was staged your eyes rarely left the star.
What is so fantastic about the current production of “Hughie,” running through Sunday at Long Wharf, is that director Robert Falls and star Brian Dennehy have made the play into a real two-character piece by moving the clerk’s desk to a center stage position and by calling on the great character actor Joe Grifasi to work his magic on a role with very few lines of dialogue.
For Grifasi, the show has been a chance to return to his career roots, He was part of the 1970s halcyon era at the Yale School of Drama that included fellow students Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Durang and others.
Since his Yale days, Grifasi has worked on more stage, TV and movie projects than most of us can count — ranging from “Splash” (1984) to “Moonstruck” (1987) to “13 Going on 30” (2004).
Grifasi and Dennehy have a long working history together in the theater and in film. One of my favorite pairings of the two actors was in the wonderful New York-set 1986 thriller, “F/X.”
I talked with Grifasi a few days after “Hughie” opened and he said lots of people have mentioned the way Falls has emphasized the desk clerk’s reactions to Erie’s boozy monologue.
The teamwork between Dennehy and Grifasi occasionally suggests a black comedy variation of Laurel & Hardy.
The 64-year-old Buffalo native said Dennehy has kept the production sharp and fresh in the multiple productions of “Hughie” that they have done together.
“It changes every day. We keep tuning it up so that it’s a little bit different,” he said.
Dennehy asked for Grifasi to play the role and pushed for having the hotel desk front and center rather than its position off to the side in most other productions.
“I think it’s generally played on a deeper stage but I don’t know the other productions. I hope the relationship comes through,” Grifasi said of the connection that slowly forms between O’Neill’s two strangers.
Although “Hughie” is not a comedy per se, there are many dark Irish laughs in Erie’s monologue and in the night clerk’s reactions to what he is hearing. Grifasi said there is a lot of room for day-to-day differences in the way his character relates to the talkative night owl.
“Some days I play the role more passively. I do think about who he is. Working in service, wanting to go back to what he originally wanted to do. I think his attention ebbs and flows,” Grifasi said.
“Brian really throws the focus toward some of the comic possibilities but he varies them day to day,” he added.
The actor loves the tightness of the play — which runs around an hour.
“A lot of plays have a brilliant first act and then come to ruin,” Grifasi said, with a mordant chuckle.
“There have been a lot of playwrights in this town who have labored mightily over second acts for the past 75 years,” the actor added in reference to New Haven’s glory days as a try-out town for shows headed into New York.
Grifasi is a director, too, and will be staging a workshop of a new play by Lewis Black in the city next month.
There is also talk that “Hughie” might be produced on Broadway early next year.
Meanwhile, you do not want to miss this chance to see two of the best American actors playing off each other at Long Wharf.
Some tickets are still available for the last three days of the run and can be ordered by calling 203-787-4282 or online at www.longwharf.org
It was fun to see the first performance of the new Metropolitan Opera production of “La Damnation de Faust” last Friday night – French Canadian director Robert Lepage made his debut at the august Manhattan institution with a multi-media approach that clearly divided the house.
You could tell that the older traditionalists in the audience felt the former Cirque du Soleil stager’s elaborate video projections overwhelmed the acting and the singing of the live performers. The buff, non-singing male acrobats, dressed as devils, who swung around the stage on ropes also gave the performance a distinct Las Vegas feel.
The cultural trendsetters who tend to think “new” equals “genius” could be heard buzzing in the lobby during the one intermission in the two-hour-and-forty-five minute show.
I thought my young friend Francesca put everything into perspective on our way up the aisle when she suggested that most of the projected visuals were so repetitious — and mind-numbingly protracted — that Lepage had turned the stage of the Met into the world’s largest screen saver.
“You’re absolutely right!,” a stranger behind us chimed in when he overheard my friend’s spot-on comment.
The Met program notes point out that composer Hector Berlioz’s version of the Faust story is generally presented as a concert piece rather than as a fully staged opera because of the long orchestral passages.
The opera also suffers from the fact that the plot has become so religiously archaic and socially conservative (Hell is the exclusive preserve of men who have catted around on Earth and Heaven is a place for female virgins).
Lepage inexplicably drops the special effects projections in the final scene where poor old Marguerite (the fantastic soprano Susan Graham) ascends to Heaven by slowly climbing a giant ladder all the way to the top of the Met’s very tall prosenium arch. Just when we need a burst of light and excitement the production peters out (the rigid formation of choral singers around the ladder put me in mind of one of those Pentacostal church services you still see on some cable channels).
It might be a sign of the basically conservative nature of the opera world — and the art form’s need to build broader and younger audiences — that The Met would hire a director who includes in his Playbill bio a “permanent show” in Vegas called “KA.”
You could feel a great deal of warmth in the house for conductor James Levine — who has been ailing recently — but people seemed to be sitting on their hands during most of the opera.
You can make up your own mind about this “Faust” without traveling into Manhattan. Saturday’s matinee performance is being presented as part of the live Met HD transmission series at 1 p.m. at Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Art. There will be an encore HD showing at 7 p.m. at the Quick. Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $15 for students and children. For more information call 254-4010.