Monday, October 26, 2015

‘Public Morals’ and the moral ambiguities of the 1960s

Two things about me: I’m a big fan of police procedurals, and I’m generally skeptical of most of what’s on television.

I therefore tuned in to TNT’s Public Morals this past August with an attitude of cautious hope. Having just finished watching the first season’s finale, I am not disappointed.

The show’s premise has few surprises, and yes, elements of it have been done before. Public Morals is set in New York City sometime in the late 1960s. Terry Muldoon (Edward Burns) is a plainclothes detective in the NYPD’s vice crimes unit.

Muldoon and his partners “control” vice rather than fight it, taking plenty of kickbacks along the way. The vice cops have a semi-cooperative, semi-adversarial relationship with a group of Irish gangsters.

As the series opens, the symbiotic relationship is working: No one is getting hurt, and everyone is pocketing loads of ill-gotten money. Then the middle-aged son of one of the mobster patriarchs, Rusty Patton (played brilliantly by Neal McDonough) goes on a sadistic killing spree. Rusty commits the unpardonable sin of killing a cop. Rusty must be stopped. This sets up the main conflict for Season 1.

But there are plenty of other conflicts and subplots, and these give Public Morals its real charm. Terry Muldoon is, on one hand, a cynical vice cop who profits from the very crimes that he is charged with eliminating. But most of those crimes are victimless ones (gambling, prostitution, gay bars, etc.) and Muldoon has a family to feed.

While at home, Muldoon endures his wife’s constant complaints about life in their Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Muldoon has a sentimental attachment to Hell’s Kitchen, but he also wants to please his wife. Before the end of Season One, a move to the suburbs seems inevitable. Terry is also a well-meaning father who applies stern but gentle discipline toward his sometimes unruly teenage son. These father-son interactions are as rich as those seen in any family drama.

Authentic details help readers and viewers suspend their disbelief, and Public Morals doesn't skimp on this score. The technology, dress, and cultural motifs of the late 1960s have been recreated here with care.

Muldoon—like many of the crooks and cops in Public Morals—is a devout Irish Catholic. As a real-life Irish Catholic, I recognized a lot of details from my childhood in many of the show’s episodes. (Edward Burns, who is the show’s creator as well as its lead actor, is a New York-raised Roman Catholic of Irish descent. This likely explains the authenticity.)

Then there’s Officer Charlie Bullman, played by Michael Rapaport. I remember Rapaport from the quirky but oddly addictive series Boston Public, which went off the air ten years ago. Rapaport was good in Boston Public. He’s better in Public Morals.

Bullman is suitably gruff, and displays all of the superficial hardness you would expect from his character while on the job. At home, though, the both divorced and widowed Bullman dotes on his German-speaking mother and his young adult daughter, Agnes. His mother lovingly scolds him in German—which Bullman understands, but apparently does not speak. Agnes is planning her wedding to a fireman. Bullman is wary of his future son-in-law, and frustrated in his attempts to give his only daughter the “perfect” wedding.

Bullman also spends much of the first season in a platonic relationship with a call girl named Fortune, played by Katrina Bowden. After Fortune is roughed up by a customer, Bullman becomes her unpaid protector.

Bullman clearly wants to sleep with Fortune, and Fortune clearly wants him to do so. However, Bullman’s selective professional ethics prevent him from taking the plunge (no pun intended). Also, the fortysomething Bullman seems to have projected his boyhood romantic ideals onto her.

While Fortune would be glad to compensate Bullman in kind for his protective services, she obviously has no plans of becoming the idealized girl-next-door that Bullman wants her to become. Could she even do this if she wanted to, at this point in the game?

While watching Bullman’s awkward moments with Fortune, I struggled with simultaneous reactions of annoyance and pity. What guy hasn't projected the right feelings onto the wrong woman at one time or another? At the same time, though, Bullman should know better.

Despite Bullman’s toughness and good intentions, nothing in his personal life really works out according to his plans, and this makes him both vulnerable and sympathetic as a character.

The plot of Public Morals is sufficiently fast-moving to make each hour-long episode pass quickly. There are plenty of gunfights, murders, and one-way rides with gangsters, as someone gets “whacked”.

But again, there have been so many police procedurals, so many movies about internecine mob wars, that it is difficult for any novel or film to break entirely new ground here.

Where Public Morals does uniquely succeed is with its characters. The show avoids a common pitfall of police procedurals that cast the cop as anti-hero. Muldoon, Bullman, and the other vice detectives are flawed human beings, to be sure, but they are also fundamentally likeable. Their ambivalence about right and wrong—as it applies to issues like consensual crimes and sex—mirrors the moral relativism that has characterized American society since the 1960s.

The mobsters, likewise, are thoroughly vicious—as mobsters should be—but they are not cardboard cutouts. The worst mobster in the show, the aforementioned Rusty Patton, reveals some surprising soft spots that add depth to his character, and do not come across as contrived.

Finally, I should say something about the show’s 1960s setting. Public Morals could theoretically have been set in the present time. There are plenty of battles over vice today: Many states are legalizing marijuana. As I type these words, there is a movement underway in California to legalize prostitution. Pornography, once forbidden, has now gone mainstream—or almost mainstream.

However, Edward Burns made a brilliant decision in setting the show in the latter half of the 1960s. This was, as I’ve noted, the period when American culture began a fundamental shift regarding the basic nature of right and wrong. The moral relativism of Muldoon and his fellow cops would appear anachronistic in a cop show set in the 1940s or 1950s. In a cop show set in the present day, it would appear all too ordinary. Everyone’s a moral relativist today—about sex, drugs, and practically everything else.

But the 1960s was a time when the old America and the ‘new’ America coexisted. While the crime—consensual and otherwise—in Public Morals has a thoroughly nihilistic, post-modern feel, the show’s depictions of family life are grounded in the idealism of the early postwar period. This reminds the viewer that while the counterculture was poisoning academia, the media, and popular culture during the late 1960s, traditional values still held sway in the average American home.

In the final episode of Season One, a single young woman and secondary character named Kay O’Bannon discovers that she’s pregnant.

Kay wants to be a journalist, and has no time for marriage. Her ambition is admirable. But her unplanned pregnancy is symbolic of the mixed, complex outcomes of the sexual revolution.

When Kay contacts her ex-boyfriend, one of the NYPD cops (and the father of Kay’s child), he doesn't want to hear her out. Why? She has dismissed him with the explanation that she doesn't want to “get serious”. She’s been out with other men. (In one episode, her boyfriend catches her on a date with another man.)

Nevertheless, the unsympathetic boyfriend is the child’s biological father. What will he do? What will she do?

As Season One ends, Kay is contemplating an abortion, which was still illegal in most of the United States, in most cases, in the late 1960s. But the resolution of that conflict will have to wait until the following season.

Public Morals has generally received positive feedback and strong ratings. I look forward to Season Two. 

*       *      *

Read the first chapter of my serial killer novel, Lilith. description:

With Lilith, the search for love can be deadly.

Someone is murdering Ohio men who use dating websites. The men are found in their homes, killed by a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.

Such is the work of the serial killer codenamed 'Lilith'. But who is Lilith? Is Lilith a 'she'? A 'he'? Or more than one person?

These are the questions that Alan Grooms must answer. Grooms is a detective in the Ohio Department of Criminal Investigation (ODCI).

Together with his partners, Dave Hennessy and Maribel Flynn, Grooms will enter the anonymous world of Internet dating to set a trap of his own.

This will eventually pit him against a homicidal young couple who kill men for profit, a couple who will kill anyone who stands in their way.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Latin: the most successful of all languages?

I was recently in a restaurant reading a copy of Tore Janson’s book, A Natural History of Latin: The story of the world’s most successful language.

The waitress—who I had not noticed during her approach—interrupted me in my reading.

“Latin?” she said. “How do you figure?”

“Figure what?” I asked.

She pointed to the book’s subtitle. “How can this author say that Latin is the ‘world’s most successful language’? Isn’t Latin a dead language? I mean—who speaks it anymore?”

I then explained to her that yes, Latin was technically dead. There was no country on earth where Latin was officially spoken, with the exception of Vatican City. And Vatican City hardly qualifies as a country. (Moreover, Italian will get you farther in Vatican City for practical purposes.)

“Real successful language,” she observed.

I then reminded her that Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire. And the Roman Empire had a population of about 57 million people (3 million less than Italy today) at its height. This was at a time when the total world population was around 300 million in total (22 million short of the United States today).

“We don’t get too many Romans in here,” she shot back, still skeptical. “Except when that office group threw a toga party in here last year.” She paused for a moment, remembering. “What a riot that was!”

I was going to counter that Latin has a history far beyond the Roman Empire. As late as the 1600s, most books and official documents were written in Latin, before French, and other local languages replaced it for these purposes.

I was also going to note that Latin is still used in the mottos of numerous entities. For example, the motto of the United States is E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”). The motto of the U.S. Marine Corps is Semper fidelis (“Always faithful”).

But these references, too, are deeply mired in history. And I could tell that my new friend was not to be impressed by history.

Latin pedagogy has, of course, undergone a revival in recent years. But there aren’t nearly as many people studying Latin as are studying Spanish, French, Japanese or Arabic. (Nor, to be fair, should there be.) In the world of language study, Latin is a minority interest, and will likely remain so—barring a revival of the Roman Empire (highly unlikely).

Why then, should Tore Janson refer to Latin as “the world’s most successful language?” Based on the evidence presented above, this might seem to be an inflated claim.

Latin’s ‘success’ can be reckoned in two ways: First, it is highly unusual that a technically ‘dead’ language is still being studied at all—or used at all—centuries after it went out of active use. No one today, outside of a few specialists, is studying Gothic or Etruscan. Opinions about the value of studying Latin are by no means unanimous, but one may be impressed by the fact that Latin is even the running, this far out.

Latin mostly lives on today in the form of the many languages that were derived from it, to one degree or another. Latin was the base stock from which so much of the Indo-European language family sprung.

French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian are all direct descendents of Latin. Anyone who speaks English also speaks Latin everyday. And I’m not merely talking about those English-speakers who like to pepper their speech with Latin phrases like tempus fugit (“time flies”). A vast swath of our day-to-day, ordinary vocabulary is Latin-based. Strip English of its Latin, and you can’t say agriculture, solar, or portable. Latin is everywhere in English, even though English is technically a Germanic language.

Speaking of which: There is some Latin-based vocabulary in German, too (though not as much as in English). Even Russian, the most significant Slavic language, contains a smattering of Latin-derived words.

But the reach of the Latin alphabet is practically mind-boggling, when you stop to think about it.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that every Western European language employs some version of the Latin alphabet. You might be surprised to learn that Latin is used to write most indigenous African languages. The same can be said of Indonesian and Tagalog. Vietnamese uses a version of the Latin alphabet, too—though it has been highly modified to accommodate Vietnamese phonetics. Ditto for Turkish.

Is there anywhere on the planet where the two letters ‘OK’ will not be recognized by at least some of the local population—even if they would be unable to conduct a basic conversation in English? I would venture to say no.

This would make the reach of Latin—the ‘dead’ language of the long-defunct Roman Empire—more or less universal, if only by a tiny degree in some places.

And yes, that is impressive. No other writing system has spread so far and wide—not the Cyrillic alphabet, not the Arabic script, and certainly not any significant number of Chinese characters.

So depending on how you measure success, Latin is indeed the most successful language in the world. There is no other language that has seen its elements and components spread so wide for so long.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Robert Greene on self-awareness

I learn something every time I listen to Robert Greene. I've read all of his books, and reread them at regular intervals. 

Robert Greene is not your typical self-help guru. (Most of them rely on mere "positive thinking" and empty generalizations.) 

Greene studies a diverse range of fields--from history to psychology--to distill the best tools for self-mastery and external success. 

I highly recommend that you read Robert Greene's books, if you have not done so already.

Amazon the publisher

A somewhat long, and convoluted article, but more insight into Jeff Bezos’s plans to move the company into more areas—including publishing.

Our House: the first ten chapters

Have you read my suburban thriller Our House? You can read the first ten chapters online on this site.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The haunted road and "Eleven Miles of Night"

One of my recent novels, Eleven Miles of Night, is a story about a haunted road in rural Ohio. (This is only part of the story, of course, but it's a big part.)

While the haunted road in Eleven Miles of Night, the so-called "Shaman's Highway", is completely fictional, there are plenty of roads in the real world that have spooky reputations. 

A few years ago, Jamie Frater wrote an article entitled "10 Roads That Will Scare You Stupid". This article is worth checking out if you're interested in learning about roadways with dark reputations.

As chance would have it, one of these roads, Dead Man's Curve in Clermont County, Ohio, is less than five miles from my front door. (This road is number 8 on Frater's list.) I've been over it many times.

The haunted road is particularly scary, I think, for two reasons:
1.) Sometimes you can't avoid it: If you want to avoid a reputedly haunted house, the solution is simple: Don't go in there. Don't like graveyards? No problem. Modern life seldom requires you to enter one. 
But what do you do if a haunted roadway is the only way of traveling between say--your house and your workplace? 
In that case, you don't have much of a choice. 
Dead Man's Curve in Clermont County, Ohio isn't located along some lonely, obscure county road. It is part of a major highway (albeit in a rural section of that highway). Each day, thousands of people travel over Dead Man's Curve on their way to and from work, school, etc.  
According to local legend, those who travel over the road around 1 a.m. might see something disturbing.
2.) The haunted roadway contradicts our notions of the secular and modern: Roads are symbols of modernity, of humankind's ability to tame the forces of nature.  
But when a road becomes a source of persistent supernatural phenomena, that undermines our assumptions about modern society. 
Supposedly, modern civilization banished the unknown to the realm of "superstition".  
Tell that to the people who live on or near Kelly Road, in the vicinity of Ohioville, Pennsylvania. As Frater writes:

"A one-mile section of Kelly Road, Ohioville, Pennsylvania is an area that has had numerous reports of paranormal activity and bizarre happenings. Reports say that when animals have entered this haunted stretch of road they suddenly turn from peaceful and quiet to violent (think Cujo), chasing after other animals and even people. The road is surrounded by dark, thick and creepy forest where white apparitions and noises that can’t be explained have been seen and heard. No one is quite sure why this short section of road is haunted but theories suggest that is could be somehow connected to cult activity that was once taking place in the area and curses that have been put on the land for some reason."

A haunted road is therefore invasive: Sometimes there is only one way to travel from point A to point B, and that is via a stretch of road that has a nasty history and an equally nasty reputation. 

The conveniences of modern automobile travel won't save you. There are no shortcuts or detours . You simply have to drive and take your chances, and hope that the stories are only legends.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Spanish, Arabic and loanwords

Does a common vocabulary between two languages help the student who wants to learn one, after first learning the other?

The short answer: It depends.

When you're moving between two languages within the same linguistic group or family, loanwords and cognates can be extremely helpful. This is why Western European languages like German, Spanish, and French are comparatively easy for native English-speakers to learn.

But when loanwords randomly show up in completely unrelated languages (as they often do), the answer is: not so much. 

For example, if you know the words tsunami and samurai, then it's technically correct to say that you "already know some Japanese". 

But this knowledge won't make the journey of mastering Japanese substantially easier, as I explain in the video that follows:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Woes for subscription ebook services

“Reidy explained the parameters of the financial model behind such services, or at least behind Simon & Schuster’s deal with one of them: when a user selects a book from a subscription service’s catalog and starts to read it, the author gets a royalty as if it were a sale of that book.  
No wonder Reidy expressed skepticism about the future of subscription e-book services — and no wonder Amazon does not offer any titles from “Big Five” trade publishers (such as Simon & Schuster) through its subscription service, Amazon Kindle Unlimited.  If we compare these services with paid subscription music services like Spotify Premium, Apple Music, and Rhapsody, it becomes clear that with this financial model, the subscription e-book model is not viable for service providers in its current form.”
The bottom line is that a “Spotify for ebooks”—which would presumably include all the latest bestsellers—is a bad financial deal for publishers.

The numbers don’t add up: Such a scheme would cannibalize the publishers’ existing business model, which is based on the idea of readers buying titles on a book-by-book basis.

Musicians have long been complaining about streaming services like Spotify. We ought not expect publishers to embrace a business model that isn’t working for the music industry.

From the "Organization Man" to the "Termination Man"

Termination Man is a novel about the dark side of corporate human resources management.

Although the novel is a work of fiction, it contains numerous elements that anyone who has ever worked for a Fortune 500 company will immediately recognize.

Like references to bestselling business books. Several well-known non-fiction business books are cited in Termination Man, including William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man.

Below is an excerpt from a scene in which the book’s protagonist, Craig Walker, is threatened by Kurt Meyers, an executive of TP Automotive.

Craig recalls reading The Organization Man during his MBA days. He reflects how things have changed since the book was published in 1956:

I found myself momentarily without words. I was the corporate spy, the one accustomed to manipulating behind the scenes and leveraging other people’s secrets. But now my clients were openly spying on me. 

And there was more than spying involved here. Kurt was attempting to send a message. He had brought along his lawyer, and this other man whose presence was supposed to intimidate me. It was as if Kurt were informing me that there was more than one way he could exercise his will. He had any number of minions who could do his bidding in any number of ways. Whatever was required to get the job done. In all my years of internal security work and private consulting, I had occasionally encountered corporate employees who threatened me within the context of one of my assumed aliases. This was the first time that a client had ever threatened me in such a manner.

Nevertheless, I was determined to show Kurt that I was not impressed. I had to appear unflappable—even though this unexpected trio had thrown me off my balance.

“I work for TP Automotive during business hours,” I said. “What I do after five o’clock is my own business.”

Kurt laughed. “I don’t even need to dignify that one with a response, do I? Come on, now, Craig. You and I are both company men at heart. We don’t think like nine-to-fivers.”

Yes, we are both company men, I thought. We were members of the same tribe, even though I was not technically on the TP Automotive payroll. We both prided ourselves on our identities as professionals—members of that tribe of men and women who don suits and ties each morning rather than coveralls and work boots. Our loyalties were based not on patriotism, nor religion, nor even class affiliation. We were loyal to the abstract entity known as the corporation—for the corporation gave us our six-figure salaries, our security, and the titles that formed the cores of our individual self-worth.

But lately the price of that self-worth had risen, hadn’t it?

Years ago I had read a book called The Organization Man. Penned by a Fortune Magazine journalist named William H. Whyte and published in 1956, the book had decried the lockstep conformity in post-war corporate America. Whyte had written about men who gave eight or nine hours of their lives to behemoth corporations each day, at jobs that drained them of individuality, energy, and creativity.

The Organization Man had been a supplemental text in one of my MBA courses, a management science class. The book was critical of corporate culture, obviously, and the class instructor had assigned it as a source of “alternative viewpoints” about the principles that most of us—being rising stars in the corporate world—held dear.

I don’t know what sort of reaction the professor had been expecting. During the class discussion of The Organization Man, however, it became clear that few of us felt much sympathy for our Eisenhower-era counterparts. We had all spent some time in the professional workforce, and few of us had ever worked eight or nine hours per day. Instead we all worked eleven, twelve, or fourteen hours per day. On any given evening, one text message, email, or cell phone summons could yank us out of our homes and back into our offices—mentally if not physically as well. Our weekends were often filled with corporate-sponsored volunteer work. We exercised caution when posting personal photos to our Facebook accounts, lest we accidentally display a photo or a comment that might be misinterpreted by the roving eyes of our employers’ human resources departments, who routinely monitored employee activity on social networking sites.

 “Eight or nine hours, that’s it?” one woman in the class had asked. “What the hell were those guys complaining about?”

This comment had elicited cynical laughter, and a general murmur of agreement. The days of postwar hothouse capitalism had seemed quaint and gently paternalistic to most of us. Eight or nine hours per day were nothing. In today’s hypercompetitive marketplace, corporate players were corporate players twenty-four hours a day.

This was doubly true for me now, being an undercover consultant assigned to handle sensitive HR issues. It had been foolish of me to suggest that there was any real line between my work and my personal life. Nor could I take refuge in the platitudes of fair play that formed the boilerplate text of corporate employee handbooks. By his very presence here, Kurt was declaring that our business lay outside the bounds of ethical conduct. And I had placed myself permanently outside those bounds long ago.

“Here is what we’re going to do,” Kurt said. “Tomorrow morning, when I see you in the office, the two of us are going to pretend that this little conversation never took place. But you—” He pointed his finger at me. “You’re going to give this some serious thought. You’re going to think about your future. About which side you’re on.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Why yes, Shakespeare is still relevant

Although I would have added some additional points to Professor Helga Duncan’s three reasons, her piece deserves note.

It is gratifying, in these politically correct times of dumbing down education, to see an educator who is not attempting…to dumb things down.

For starters, I would add that Shakespeare had a tremendous range: King Lear is a very different play from As You Like It

Read Shakespeare, and you can't help but appreciate the breadth of his knowledge, and his mastery of a wide variety of human emotions, motivations, and personality types.

I would also add that Professor Duncan teaches at a small Catholic college, rather than one of the highly overrated and self-important Ivy League schools. 

That could be one reason why she chose to write about something worthwhile, versus say, trigger warnings or similar nonsense. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bill Cosby, and the challenge of separating the art from the artist

The child actors cast in the roles of Dr. "Cliff" Huxtable's progeny during the 1980s run of the Cosby Show are all now well into middle age. They have been weighing in regarding how (or not) the sex scandal involving the show's patriarch has affected the series' legacy. So far, their opinions are divided.

I will openly confess that during the early days of the scandal, I was among the many people who hoped that Bill Cosby would be ultimately exonerated.

I have a history with Cosby, you see. Bill Cosby's rise neatly paralleled my own childhood. In the 1970s I enjoyed his performance as the human host of the cartoon series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Cosby was then an already fatherly man in early middle age. During scheduled breaks in each episode, he would deliver poignant and pithy remarks about the lessons that the animated characters learned (or should have learned) throughout  various adventures and misadventures.

And of course, I watched the Cosby Show.

I was in the middle of high school when the Cosby Show premiered in 1984, and I had many other things on my mind: girls, track meets, and trying to keep my head above water in chemistry class.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've never been much of a television addict. But the Cosby Show was one of a handful of sitcoms that I usually made time for. It was well written and peopled with engaging, fully human characters. These are among the reasons why it became one of the most highly rated series of the 1980s. Almost everyone who watched television watched the Cosby Show in those days. It is no bombast or exaggeration to declare that the show was a cultural icon of that decade.

Since this blog sometimes opines on matters of race and political correctness, it may be appropriate to make a few remarks about the racial aspects of the Cosby Show. That won't take long, because the show basically didn't contain any. Although the Huxtables were an African American family, the show rarely touched on racial themes at all, and never engaged in anything that could be fairly described as race baiting.

Likewise, millions of white viewers tuned into the Cosby Show each week, myself among them. But no one watched the Cosby Show in order to "show support for diversity" in the sanctimonious, self-conscious, and contrived manner of the present time.

The Cosby Show wasn't a "black show"; it wasn't a "white show". Decades before the term was coined, the Cosby Show embodied the best of what we might call "post-racial" American culture. It was an originally conceived and skillfully produced television sitcom. That is why it was so successful for so long.

But how should we feel about the Cosby Show given what we now know about Bill Cosby?

Anyone who consumes art in any form will occasionally be confronted by the need to separate the art from the artist. I've been reading and enjoying Stephen King's novels for more than thirty years; but my status as a diehard fan is occasionally challenged when I make the mistake of reading the author's political ramblings on Twitter.

Political opinions we don't like are one thing, of course; Bill Cosby's gross misconduct is another.

This leads to an important question that has implications far beyond the case of Bill Cosby: How closely should the work of an artist be associated with the artist himself, or herself?

Suppose that Bill Cosby had invented a new power window for automobiles, or a new electric can opener. In such a case, we would have little difficulty separating Cosby’s professional contributions from his personal failings. But because this is ‘art’ we are talking about, we tend to consider the work and its creator inseparable.

This would be a reasonable approach if Bill Cosby's public work had overtones of misogyny. But nothing could be further from the truth. The depiction of women on the Cosby Show was always respectful, even by the most exacting feminist standards. Relations between the sexes were, likewise, portrayed in a ‘family-friendly’ manner.

There is not a single clue in the content of the Cosby Show to suggest that the series' main creative force drugged women and had nonconsensual sexual relations with them in his private life. If anything, the Cosby Show seems, in retrospect, to have been Bill Cosby's expression of ideals that he recognized, yet fell tragically short of achieving.

Some observers will nevertheless ask why we shouldn't declare the Cosby Show tainted, before purging it to the dustbin of history and moving on. After all, the show went off the air nearly a quarter-century ago, and it had its heyday a half decade before that. This is hardly a topical bit of television.

The problem, rather, is a larger one of general principles: Bill Cosby is far from the only creative person with significant skeletons in his closet. Lewis Carroll indulged in the highly suspicious hobby of drawing and photographing young girls—often in the nude. At the height of middle age, Charles Dickens left his frumpy but faithful wife to cavort with Ellen Ternan, an actress young enough to be his daughter.

Three generations of conservatives have now made the reading of Atlas Shrugged a rite of passage; and many regard Ayn Rand as the supreme embodiment of self-detached objectivity.

But in yet another instance of middle age sexual folly, Ayn Rand engaged in an openly adulterous affair with one of her young male (married) acolytes. She conveniently managed to reconcile this behavior with her philosophy of Objectivism. Rand even found a way to celebrate her extramarital affair symbolically through the polyandry of Dagny Taggart, the main female character of Atlas Shrugged.

Do the above data mean that we shouldn't read Alice in Wonderland, David Copperfield, or Atlas Shrugged? These books were, after all, the works of artists who did Bad Things.

Not at all. But we would do well to remember that artists commonly fail to live up to the ideals expressed in their art.

Bill Cosby is now approaching eighty. Even had the scandal not broken, his professional career would likely have been over.

Similarly, The Cosby Show long ago joined the historical archives of television, along with I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island. The question is not how to watch it (almost no one does anymore) but how to remember it.

I would argue for a functional approach: The reputation of Bill Cosby may be forever sullied; but The Cosby Show remains an admirable, if idealized, depiction of family life and enlightened parenting.

In this regard, Bill Cosby had a constructive vision, even if he sometimes led a contemptible life.

We should remember Cosby’s work on its own merits, just as we do the work of other artists whose personal lives were marred by gross misbehavior.

We can condemn the artist, even as we appreciate the art.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Crime writers who have influenced me

It is, I think, somewhat axiomatic that all writers are influenced by other writers. Someone recently asked me which crime writers have influenced me....if I had any of them in mind when writing Blood Flats

I wouldn't say that there is one in particular who influenced this book---in the same way that Bram Stoker's Dracula has influenced every vampire movie and novel since 1897. But I did read crime fiction long before I ever attempted to write it; so I have indeed been influenced by others.

Crime writer Michael Connelly has stated that Raymond Chandler had a significant impact on his work. I haven't read much Chandler. But here is a list of some of my favorite crime novels and writers from over the years. I have no doubt that some--if not all of them--influenced Blood Flats.

(Note: Not all of these novels are crime fiction, according to the strictest definition of the term. However, all of them do involve elements that are common to crime fiction: good vs. evil, violence, law enforcement, and criminal elements.)

Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men, The Road, Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian in particular had a huge influence on me. While my book is set in the modern era, Blood Meridian is set in the 1800s, so there are virtually no similarities in the plot or characters of Blood Flats.

What struck me about Blood Meridian is its portrayal of over-the-top, epic levels of violence. (This is also true of No Country for Old Men.)

Michael Connelly: all of the Harry Bosch novels

I've read all of Michael Connelly's books. Blood Flats is a rural crime drama, completely different from the LA beat that Connelly writes about. But I learned a lot from Connelly's handling of pacing, plot, and characterization. 

Other favorites:

James Lee Burke: Rain Gods
William Gay: Provinces of Night
John Grisham: The Firm, A Time to Kill, etc., etc.
Joseph Finder: Company Man, Paranoia, Power Play, Killer Instinct
Nelson Demille: The General's Daughter, The Gold Coast

The above is a sample. I read other sorts of books, of course; but these are my favorites in the crime/thriller genre. 

“Meth, murder, and the mafia---a vast tapestry of a southern gothic crime novel with a Dickensian cast of characters.”