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Books Read; Things Seen

A few objects, both text and media, have recently passed under my gaze and I thought I'd share my reactions to them with you here.

Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler may have first brought what is now call "noir" or hard-boiled fiction to the world, but David Goodis was one of those writers (like Jim Thompson) who took readers down further into the lower depths, and we mean this as a compliment. The inspiration for Francois Truffaut's 1960 classic film, this novel of a hard-fallen concert pianist unable to play his way out of the long shadow of his past stands out with its genuine emotional core of despair and grimy gamy details of life as it's lived "down there" (the novel's original title) on the lower slopes of the American underworld. The criminals who scramble through this ultimate hard-luck story are not cunning criminal geniuses, but bumbling losers whose limited minds and poor impulse control only entangle them further in a web of fate and pull even the best of us around them. One the best books I've read so far this year.

The Devil's Redhead by David Corbett. Goodis's lonely footsteps echo in this dark and violent peach of a noir thriller that appeared in 2002, not long after the author's wife passed away from cancer. That tragedy seems to cast its own poignant shadow across this grim, but still romantic, story of two ex-cons swimming against the bloody undertow of criminal lowlife in NoCal's Contra Costa County and lifts this into something absorbing and special. (Full disclosure: I knew David at the Squaw Valley Writers Community in the mid-1980s; he also worked as a real-life private investigator around the corner from where I lived in San Francisco's Haight and our trails have happily and recently crossed again). As with Goodis, the criminals here aren't brilliant avatars of evil but pathetic, unlucky, dumb and-mostly--doomed. Also impressive is the poignant story of two damaged people swimming desperately to escape the underworld's undertow. Corbett's newest novel is due out next year, Do They Know I'm Running? Indeed, it sounds like one worth running out for.

Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell. Britain's (and maybe the world's) best horror writer seems drawn to stories of humanity's tortured and twisted conflict with nature (a theme I sensed in his novels Ancient Images and The Darkest Part of the Woods.) In this novel from 1990,  a newly successful children's author and great grandson of a famous but mysterious Norse mythologist, returns to his northern England home to claim his family's estate, but also find himself the heir to the wintry shadow of their history. Like much of horror, the plot is barebones, maybe because it's what happens in the mind, heart and soul that count most (hence, no high-concept, post-modern gimmicks like those goddamn zombies who plague most of the horror fiction coming out now). It's also the writing. Though Campbell's finely nuanced characterizations slow the snow-swept climax, he's still about the best there is with the haunting ping of his fabulously evocative descriptions of lonely windswept English moorlands: "Spiky drystone walls, which put him in the mind of the spines of dinosaurs, separated fields crumbed with sheep."

World War II in HD: If you toughed out Ken Burns's 12-hour mini-series The War a couple of years back, I wouldn't blame you for wondering if you have the steel for another go around through that epic real-life horror again with all color footage, but I did and it seems to work better here. The footage is much more explicit in its rending gruesomeness but the program provides a wider sense of historical perspective that kept me from feeling repeatedly steamrolled. Like Burns's documentary, it interweaves the terrifying and heartbreaking stories of numerous veterans of the conflict, along with their desperation, shame and even pride. Definitely worth a look, but absolutely not for the squeamish.

KCSM, a public television station broadcasting from San Mateo, California, has become a favorite to watch around Casa Burchfield for the following two reasons:

International Mystery: If you like the way the British weave a mystery tale (Foyle's War; Inspector Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Poirot et al), contact your local PBS station right this instant and urge them to book this rotating series of European-made mystery movies distributed by MHZ Worldview.

For awhile now, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Norway have all been producing their own crime series to compete with the U.S. and Britain. Like the British, they lean toward intelligent characterization, context, plotting and style than the physical and emotional hammering effects that Americans seem to prefer. You get the Maigret series, starring Bruno Cremer as author Georges Simenon's great humanist detective; there's depressed overworked Wallender from Sweden; the amusing Scene of the Crime from Germany (of which I've only seen one); and Montalbano from Italy (which seems the weakest of them). (Additional beef: the films are censored for delicate American sensibilities to an almost childish extent, including the blurring out of nude paintings.)

But our favorite is a rakishly handsome Norwegian investigator evocatively named  . . . VARG VEUM. Played with a combination of Viking insouciance and sweet vulnerability by an actor named Trond Espen Seim. The Varg Veum films, adapated from a series of novels unpublished in the U.S., are deft blends of the mystery and thriller genres, feature strong stories set in the haunting rain swept mountains surrounding Bergen, Norway. They've only made six so far. That is by no mean enough.

As for the rest, a Russian crime series is rumored to be on its way and they've broadcasted a famous Italian crime series called La Piovra (The Octopus), with music by . . . Ennio Morricone.

Which makes for a nice lead-in to the second reason why I like KCSM.

Ennio Morricone: Peace Notes. Last week, KCSM broadcast a segment of the concert DVD recorded in 2007 in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, featuring one of the world's great composers conducting over one hundred members of the Roma Sinfonietta in selections from his forty-plus-year career. Americans only seem to know his music from films such as The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, The Mission, and The Untouchables, but the rest of the world (including yours truly) are also served other treats from Il Maestro's mountain-high catalog of masterpieces such as Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, The Working Class Goes to Heaven and the exuberant and melodic Come Maddelana. (There's almost nothing the man can't do and do well). Morricone wields the baton like the world's steeliest music school teacher (at times, the musicians, all of them veterans, look white with terror), and some pieces would work better with small jazz combos or chamber orchestras, but never has being a fan of Ennio Morricone's music--forty years for me--been such a cool thing. Come on and be cool!

A DVD of the concert with extras (including a concert Morricone gave at the United Nations that same year) is available, but, for those of you who live in the Bay Area, a donation to KCSM might be the better bet--for a variety of obvious reasons, the station is suffering extremely keen financial woes and could use some extra dollars.

You wouldn't want International Mystery to go away, now would you?