Sweet Mysteries of Life

My father died when I was young, and there are a few million things I wish I could talk about with him. He was 53 and I was 20. I’ve significantly outlived him.

I inherited most of his books — and it’s daunting. He had everything. Go into my living room, where I keep this prized library, and you’ll find an impressive collection  of world literature. Run your fingers over the spines: Thuycides, Plato, Aristotle, through all of Jane Austen and Henry James, and that fun couple, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne

This photograph of Raymond Chandler kind of looks like my father.

I have a beautiful edition of Leaves of Grass, printed (appropriately) with a grass leaf cover. I have his copy of The Bible as Living Literature

He loved Vladimir Nabokov, and could recite parts of Finnegans Wake from memory. He was a huge fan of James Joyce and so the portrait of Joyce next to the living-room bookshelves — which I purchased from a Dublin street artist — is there in tribute to him. I’ve appreciated Joyce’s short stories but never made it through Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.

I have such strong memories of my father performing passages basso profundo.

But his tastes were so catholic. Note lower case. 

My father was one of those guys with a book in every room — living room, family room, bedroom, bathroom. Different books for different moods.

I share one of his addictions, though mine did not appear until many years after his death. We both love(d) detective fiction.

I remember when we were stationed in England in the 1950s. Dad had a lot of paperback mysteries strewn around the house. My brother got custody of those books when Dad died, so I’ve been playing catch-up.

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason

The recent HBO series devoted to the Perry Mason origin story got me reading the Erle Stanley Gardner omnibus my son Jack bought for me last year at a garage sale. Mom and Dad used to devour those books.

I bought a few Raymond Chandler collections from eBay. Dad, in particular, loved Chandler.

And there was a less-well-known writer, named John Dickson Carr. I remember so clearly my father reading his book, The Problem of the Wire Cage. I await the arrival of a battered 60-year-old paperback from eBay.

I wish I could talk over these books with my Dad. I was so unformed when he died. In the last year of his life, he bought me two books that meant so much to me — The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I was the only member of the family who showed no interest in following him into a medical career, so he wanted to support me in the work I chose.

Carl Hiaasen

Somewhere along the way, I became a fan of mystery novels. Maybe it started with Carl Hiaasen’s books, back in the 1980s. I’m not sure those are traditional mysteries — they’re more like farces with undertones of ecological skullduggery.

His latest book, Squeeze Me, spoofs the crimes against humanity at the Palm Beach White House, where the president is known only by his secret service code name: Mastodon.

Hiassen’s novels have only a couple of continuing characters. Alternating novels feature Skink, the renegade former governor of Florida. War hero and patriot Clinton Tyree returned from Vietnam filled with idealism and entered public life. He was elected governor, but then became frustrated by the rampant corruption in the state, and so disappeared.

But he didn’t exactly disappear. Tyree went underground as an eco-terrorist, subsisting on roadkill.

Thankfully, Skink appears in Squeeze Me. (He has also appeared in one of Hiaasen’s entries in his best-selling series of young-adult novels. Hoot is the best-known of his YA books.)

Squeeze Me got me laughing during this pandemic, and I wrote about that book a few posts back. Find it here.

Michael Connelly

But my old man would have really loved books by two writers whose work is like crack to me: Michael Connelly and Tom Corcoran.

Both are known for their long-running series of novels with continuing protagonists. Connelly and Corcoran are so expert at their craft that it does not matter in what order you read the books. You can read the latest Connelly novel about Harry Bosch and not feel left out.

Bosch is the character to whom Connelly most often returns. He was introduced 30 years ago as a Vietnam veteran, born to a prostitute and a (then) unknown father. His mother is murdered, Bosch grows up in foster homes, serves as a tunnel rat in Vietnam before becoming a cop. With each case, he avenges his mother’s murder. “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”

Along the way, Connelly has introduced other continuing characters, including FBI profilers Rachel Walling and Terry McCaleb. He had to kill off McCaleb several years back, because Clint Eastwood bought the rights to a novel featuring McCaleb. The character was around 40, but when he was played by the Great Squinter in Blood Work, Connelly realized he had to dispose of his creation. In a meta moment, Connelly addressed the issue of Eastwood’s major plot twist that perverted the relationships in the Blood Work novel. This showed in conversation, when McCaleb notes — not long before his demise — how it sucked to be played by a geezer in the movies.

Along the way, Connelly created another character. Since he showed a great affinity with police stories, he decided to master the courtroom thriller. Thus was Mickey Haller born. Turns out he’s the half brother of Harry Bosch — we finally find out the identity of the father — and works out of the backseat of his car. Connelly inaugurated a series of Lincoln Lawyer novels, then two years ago, introduced a young detective who lives in a lean-to on the beach, Renee Ballard. 

Another continuing character, Jack McEvoy, harkens from Connelly’s days as a newspaper reporter. He appeared in The Poet, The Scarecrow (one of Connelly’s very best) and Fair Warning. Once a mad-dog journalist, these days Jack works for a non-profit reporting collective. Connelly keeps up with the times. His characters often show up in each other’s novels. Bosch might appear in a McEvoy book and Bosch makes frequent walk-ons in the Mickey Haller stories.

(FYI, Bosch is the excellent Prime Video series starring the perfectly cast Titus Welliver as the detective. If you have not seen it, six seasons await your binge. The seventh season is in production.)

A few years back, the jacket of a Tom Corcoran novel bore a quote from Connelly that said Corcoran’s book Air Dance Iguana was “the reading highlight of the year.” 

That is high praise. 

Tom Corcoran

Corcoran’s protagonist isn’t a police detective. Alex Rutledge is a Key West photographer well connected to cops and reporters and gets roped into solving mysteries in America’s southernmost city. 

Corcoran’s books have the added attraction of their setting. He gives us the underbelly of Key West, not just the tourist version. His books are fecund with sights, sounds and tastes of Key West. 

As an even further added attraction: the setting, the heat, the lack of clothing, the island breezes . . . they all combine to make these Corcoran books sexier than your average detective novel.

I’ve read all of his books and his new one, The Cayo Hueso Maze, is his best. Again, you can start with this Alex Rutledge novel, then read the rest of them — and trust me, you’ll want to — in any order.

Corcoran was an Ohio boy, but was assigned to Key West in 1968, and he’s spent most of the last 50-plus years in the islands, and he knows the town’s deep history, having palled with Tennessee Williams, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. He wrote a couple of songs with new-kid-in-town Jimmy Buffett (whom he also housed when Buffett lacked a place of his own) and co-authored two unproduced screenplays with Hunter S. Thompson.

(Of course, if you’re interested in Corcoran’s life, you can always read my swell book, Mile Marker Zero.)

We are in the middle of a global pandemic, so reading a Tom Corcoran book might be the only way to take a trip to the island.

Click on these links to buy the two latest books — Connelly’s The Law of Innocence and Corcoran’s The Cayo Hueso Maze

Michael Connelly’s website: www.michaelconnelly.com
Tom Corcoran’s website: www.tomcorcoran.net

Land of the freak and home of the brave

Hunter S. Thompson lived a huge life. It’s so monumental that it’s nearly impossible to tell the whole widescreen Technicolor story. 

Hunter S. Thompson in “Freak Power”

I know, because I tried to wrestle that life between covers when I wrote Outlaw Journalist a dozen years ago.

At least I had the luxury of a book with wide-open pages.

To tell Hunter’s story on film is tougher. Maximum ass-time in seats rarely exceeds two hours, so you have that limit.

So what’s happened with tellers of Thompson stories is that they have begun to break off chunks of this epic life, to focus on just a part of the narrative.

A couple of years ago, Timothy Denevi examined Thompson’s 1970 political campaign and his influential role as a journalist covering the 1972 presidential campaign. He called his excellent book Freak Kingdom.

Click above to order the film.

Daniel Joseph Watkins put together a lavishly illustrated coffee table book celebrating that 1970 campaign and now he’s co-directed a new documentary. Both the book and film are called Freak Power. 

Watkins and his co-director, Ajax Phillips, have done a masterful job filleting the contours of Thompson’s life and creating a riveting, inspiring and heartbreaking documentary of a critical time in the life of Hunter S. Thompson and his country.

As the Sixties limped to that decade’s sad conclusion, Thompson retreated to Aspen, Colorado. He evacuated the Bay Area after a few years in San Francisco, where he’d witnessed the birth of the counterculture. 

He found peace and beauty and the community he wanted in Aspen — like-minded friends he fondly called freaks. As was the case with most of the country in that foul era, there was a generational divide in the town. 

Aspen’s powers-that-be included old-guard Germans who’d come to the Colorado ski village after ending their Nazi careers. They had become the new establishment, and, joined by the conservative town folk, they went to war with the long-haired young folk who’d moved to town to ski, fuck and smoke dope.

One of the stores posted a sign: No Hippies Allowed.

Into this world came Thompson, who soon joined in with the other young folk — Thompson was 33 in 1970 — to look for a different kind of society.

“We were the aberrants,” Thompson’s friend Ed Bastian said. “We were freaks of nature. So we might as well call  ourselves freaks.”

With his friends, Thompson helped established the Freak Power movement. He was placed on the ballot as a candidate for sheriff, with a platform that called for renaming Aspen “Fat City.” It was a move to scare away developers and tourists. “Sod the streets at once,” he said elsewhere in his platform. He wanted a pedestrian town.

Click on the cover to order.

Though Thompson was funny, running for sheriff wasn’t really a joke. He believed that politics was the art of controlling your environment. And he and his friends thought they could really establish a new utopia in the mountains.

We so rarely take funny people seriously. Many assumed his campaign for sheriff was some sort of prank. Watching the film, you can see idealism in his eyes.

And what we also see in Freak Power is Thompson’s seriousness of purpose. He had a lot of good ideas, and planned to use the office of sheriff — if he’d won the election — as sort of an ombudsmen within the community. 

Again, Thompson was ahead of his time. The sort of law-enforcement model he suggested is similar to the proposals we hear in the wake of the defund-the-police movement.

So he was putting forward a lot of great and innovative ideas, but he couldn’t help himself. He had to be funny. 

For example: the incumbent sheriff, Carrol Whitmire, had a short, well-groomed head of hair. Since one of the gripes the Aspen old guard had with the hippies was with their tendency to be hirsute, Thompson shaved his head, so he could refer to Sheriff Whitmire as “my long-haired opponent.”

Freak Power shows the campaign in all of its glory. It makes no effort to tell the full-life story of Hunter S. Thompson. That might take three 10-episode seasons on Netflix.

Click on the cover to order

Instead, you see this brilliant guy, climbing to his peak. His first book, Hell’s Angels, was behind him. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and his campaign coverage for Rolling Stone were ahead. (His first article for Rolling Stone was about the campaign)

Watkins and Phillips use 1970-era films from a variety of sources. The images are crisp and the sound is excellent. There’s nothing about this film that looks dated.

As always. Thompson’s civic wisdom is timeless. His analysis of American political experience — spoken 50 years ago in an Aspen hotel — could have been spoken yesterday.

Things are pretty foul. A lot of friends shake their heads about the state of the modern world and say, “I wonder what Hunter would say about all of this.”

He’s already said it. 

Listen to him in Freak Power and re-read his political coverage. He warns us about the nation’s Trumps, no matter what their names. Denevi, in Freak Kingdom, pays tribute to Thompson’s enduring political wisdom.

Freak Power is a fantastically well-made film, laser focused on that long-ago campaign but with wisdom that resonates today. The story is told with the vintage film and with voiceovers by the surviving participants. They appear at the end, old soldiers speaking of their battle and their eventual survival. 

Throat, meet lump. 

Fantastic Monument

Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-1972

“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable….. [W]hat a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers…. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?”

Hunter S. Thompson, 1972