Review: The Dark Knight

Okay, so I just saw the Dark Knight, for the first time. I didn't see it in theaters for a number of reasons, and I'm glad I didn't. I'm glad I didn't give in to the hype, I'm glad I stood by my now-more-solid-than-ever convictions that it wouldn't be the end of the world if I didn't see this movie in theaters, despite what certain friends said. Partially because very few movies are that important – and the ones that are are very, very, very rarely accorded all this hype.
A few disclaimers before I launch my all-out assault. I did not like Batman Begins. Though I have a tremendous respect for Christopher Nolan, that was by no means his best work – ever, at all, in any way. That film had a number of problems which inform my problems with this film, both in character and action. Fortunately, a number of them are repaired in this film, unfortunately, many others are not, and some are compounded. Let me also say, as the harshest critic of this film I know, that even I have to admit Heath Leger's performance was impressive – perhaps even astounding. I have long approached Joker with a very different mental picture. Despite this, Leger remains relentlessly convincing. My inability to critique his performance is quite honestly, a vague annoyance to me, as I would have loved to, given all the hyperbole gushed in that area. Still, I find it delightfully ironic that the one character in the movie who doubts human nature most is the only one that seems able to restore my faith in the human ability to act. This also leads into the fact that in many respects, the best parts of this movie were the parts that were not the way I pictured they should be, but which still remained convincing – still seemed to get at the heart of this story, still seemed to exploit all the rich emotional, psychological, and philosophical material with which any such story is imbued, though it is so rarely exploited. Though I was over all expectedly disappointed with the Dark Knight, it did some things right – and it had what every movie of its kind should have – an excellent beginning and ending. It was almost a full hour into the movie before I began to notice the edges fraying, which is far longer than many other movies last for me.
The edges, however, did fray, and then they began to run out as fast as that beautiful little thread from the back of Joker's coat in the opening. And so, without further ado, the angry, grouchy part of the review where I tell you what I thought was wrong with the movie, and challenge you with Arizona stone eyes to have any explanation which would make it all right. I warn you, I'm a little angry. I'm partially angry because parts of the movie were so damnably good, and so convincing, and I wanted to like it, I really did, at times. I wanted to believe someone out there could give me a convincing, alternative version of a Batman story, and still let me believe in it. So, yes, I will be passionate. I hope it entertains - and please do take it as entertainment – don't be upset that I didn't like your favorite movie.
First, and most important (the rest are really just physical incontinuities – yes that was an intentional pun on incontinence -, this first issue is psychological, and therefore far more important to the story and the characters). Okay. Let's set this straight. Bruce Wayne is not a struggle! Batman does not want to be Bruce Wayne! He does not want a normal life! Get it right! Bruce Wayne died (spiritually) the night of his parent's murder, and he has been OBSESSED ever since with “justice” or “vengeance” depending upon which side of the law you sit on, and which label you prefer. Yes, he will not kill, but that is Batman – that is because of his parent's death – that is not Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne is as much of a front as Clark Kent is – even more so, in fact, because in some sense, Superman does seem to want to be Clark Kent – he does seem to at times envy the normal man, though even he knows he can never be one. Batman however, not only knows he could never be one, he does not want to be one. What is ironic about this is that in creating this “conflicted” Bruce Wayne/Batman, the screenwriters actually shot themselves in the foot because in the scene DIRECTLY AFTER he's saying he can not risk the lives of “innocent people” Batman is risking their lives by blowing up cars, plowing through a mall in a supercar (shooting in its windows with no way of seeing what's beyond) and generally being an innocent-life-risking bastard. The Dark Knight cleared this up for me. I always knew there was something wrong with portrayals of Batman in which he wants to be a normal man, but this film, like Batman Begins, reveals to me negatively where these sad attempts at character conflict spring from. Batman can not be an ordinary man – a man does not put on a bat suit and nightly risk his life just because he is rich, or even because his parents were killed – many people have to suffered that, and not been so afflicted. What is unique about Batman is that he is so struck by it, so psychologically changed, or even damaged, that he must take up this mantle himself, alone, and to do that leaves no room for hopes of a normal life, and to see that tangential, sappy hope levered into so many superhero plots annoys me. Superheroes are superheroes because something hugely unique happened – this is inescapable – they are born of alien intervention, strange experiments, or, in this case, and really only in this case, the death of loved ones. It is one of the most beautiful ironies of Batman that he who begins most human becomes, through a human action, the least human-like superhero of them all, and that is so much the foundation of his strange comparisons with his villains, especially Joker. So much for the psychological.
Now, to the other legion of swarming annoying little mosquito problems. In no particular order., beginning with something I am unsure of, but which still bugs me. Most of the time, from what I know, when facial trauma of Dent's degree is suffered, facial reconstructive surgery is undertaken as soon after the event as possible – so probably when he would be unconscious – to save further damage to the muscles, skin, etc. The longer they wait, the more scar tissue develops, the harder it is to deal with. Not a big deal, but annoying nonetheless. Like I said, mosquitos. A bigger problem (okay, this is more like a mosquito the size of an elephant) is how the heck did Joker get out of the interrogation room – sure, he's got glass to the guy's neck, but the room can only be opened FROM THE OUTSIDE, that is the POINT of a secure interrogation room. The writers even make this obvious earlier. Why the guy was in there in the first place is a whole other question. What took Batman so stoinking long in coming to rescue Harvey Dent from Joker's assaults? There's just long enough that the Joker can succeed in so much of his plan, and just short enough that Batman couldn't have come from his penthouse. Brilliant. Speaking of the penthouse, how is it that the penthouse which was, may I remind you, successfully breached by so few as five gangsters during a wine and dine fundraiser, when one would think security would be tight, why is this penthouse suddenly the safest place in the city? Why does Harvey Dent not bleeding insist on this being true, especially given that he himself was endangered there not three nights ago? Furthermore, since when is a cheap RPG (and trust me, the Joker had only a cheap RPG) enough to punch a hole in the new and improved Batmobile? And not only punch a hole, but put the thing completely out of service? An upgraded Hummer easily survives an RPG, and it is built by the lowest bidder, not by the personal servants of a multi-billionaire who cares about nothing more than his personal safety during his midnight vigilantianism. I would scour Batman Begins for film of it surviving worse, but, alas, I have neither the time nor inclination – and to those who would say “well, all it had to do was take out the tires” Watch the film! The tires are fine! The system says “massive damage” or some crump like that, and the tires aren't even deflated!
Okay, on to Batman's personal physical problems – he survives a fall from a penthouse onto a car, is landed on by a girl (who, by the way, seems entirely too uninjured – I was so glad she died) and still has breath to chat her up in a growly, breathy he-man tone, and then, woopiddy do, he's knocked out of commission for a number of seconds by a slowed crash, tires beneath him, into a yielding semi, a crash he never should have been in, because the batbike could obviously stop faster than that – he didn't have to lay it down to turn around, and besides, it was built to be able to go sideways if it needed to. Are we not paying attention to what happened when we said cut five minutes ago? The fall at the end is even better – he falls a maximum of three stories – MAXIMUM, probably less (after that wonderful “oh look, fingers loosing grip, at least he saved the kid” shot) and he's out of it enough to still be lying there, and then to be limping, when Gordon comes down, all because he didn't have anything as soft and yielding as a CAR to break his fall.
Right, onto problems with the villains and their plots. First off, wonderful job on the face for Harvey Dent – nice makeup. The voice, however, sounds EXACTLY like it did before. Let me remind you of a little anatomy – the sound of a voice is projected and formed partially by the movement of the cheek and lips. Hold onto your cheek – just hold onto it from the outside, and pull it for a second, and then try to talk – sounds different, doesn't it? And Harvey Dent, with half his face, lips, cheek, you name it, gone, sounds exactly the same. How could they miss that – making a multiple quatillion dollar movie, with so many other great, wonderfully done details, and no one says – wait a second, that doesn't sound right. Hold on just one gold picking, lambbasting, carrot and celery minute. Let's at least get this freakishly obvious piece of sound engineering right. Okay, enough of that one. What of the Joker? How does he get into the Hospital? They have cops crawling all over, and there he is, the nurses' uniform fools them? Besides that, they're evacuating, and no one takes the trouble to actually look around for the bombs? What? Gotham has no bomb squad? They don't check Harvey Dent's room? He's not even prepped to go in the evac? Furthermore, TV SHOWS SCREEN CALLS! Yet there's Joker, on the TV, at a dial's command, right away. There are hundreds of people watching that show, (if you don't remember, I'm talking about the part where Mr. Accountant (because we've never seen an evil accountant before) says he's going to betray Batman's identity) trying to call in, it's obviously almost the only thing on TV, and he gets right on? Hunh. On to the ferrys- it's the army, and they don't think to check the engine rooms before they leave AT ALL? On top of that, since when do they evacuate prisoners because of a terror threat? Okay, so I believe it could happen in a system as messed up as ours, but really, doesn't it seem just a little bit levered in, so that the movie isn't quite so dark, and so that a few people who believe in the goodness of the ordinary man, not to mention the goodness of the tattooed and physically disabled, but frighteningly strong prisoner? The worst part is there are more convincing ways of talking about the “goodness of man” there are better arguments, and there could have been better scenes, but that seemed far too much like a cop-out. And the guy (the non-criminal) who offers to do it, then can't? Entirely unconvincing, if you want my opinion, though I'm sure you must be sick of that by now. Okay, more stuff, they wouldn't let that prisoner get that close, bye the way, anyway, the “hostage” clowns could have LAID DOWN (they're hospital patients, and they don't think of this? They must have been wanting to lie down!) I know, maybe not earlier, but at least when the swat teams burst in? That's a more minor point, and I could have let them get away with it, but no, not when they're messing up like this. Even worse- perhaps the worst of all these is the interrogation room with the Joker in it - and on top of that, why didn't the cops take his makeup off? You know the first thing they'd want to do – the first step in interrogation – would easily be to deprive him of his face – to wash it off, which could have been so good, because his face could have been almost creepier without the makeup, but no, they didn't think of that, because they get paid obscene amounts of money to make mistakes.
Okay, all that said, like I said, there were parts I really liked. There were bits and pieces I thought fantastic. I wanted to love the movie – which in itself is impressive, because usually I love to hate hyped action flicks, especially ones about superheroes. I love that Batman predicted- absolutely predicted Lucius' behavior about the sonar – and I love that he thought of it, that was really, really good. The ending was great – Gordon's conclusion that Batman has to be chased is right on the money of the character and tone of the movie. If the whole movie could have been like parts of the movie, I would have been so happy, really, I would have. But it wasn't. And I'm not. So consider yourself warned, if you ask me about this movie, if you try to tell me it was oh so good, if you try to convince me that I'm wrong, I'll go down fighting. Not that it isn't possible for me to be convinced – you've seen my weapons, now, you'd better have answers if you're going to try to tell me I should like it anyway, you'd better have your own.
All this to say – the Dark Knight is not a bad movie. It is much better than the majority of movies of its type – but there are movies of another type, and it is to movies of the greater type that I often hear Dark Knight compared – but those movies are made more carefully, and with a greater thought for continuity, and it is annoying to me that these films are not recognized for being great in how they are great. If there were that recognition, maybe both action movies and the “dramatic” movies could begin to care about everything, because it is only in caring about everything – caring that every little bit of the movie is at least interesting, or helpful, or meaningful, caring that every bit works – that any movie can be, in my book, truly great, and that is why not caring enough about the details – every type of detail – is the great sin of so many works of so-called art, be they films or books or poetry or paintings or music or anything else. Oh, and if you agree with me, and want to pass along your ideas without doing your own writing, please do pass on this link to anyone else, I won't complain about free publicity.

P.S. I would be remiss if I did not thank a friend for loaning the movie to me – his action was very gracious, despite my not liking the movie.


Postcards from a time-traveling punk bunny: an opportunity for collaboration

So, I was lying in bed tonight, and I had an idea...
Well, that's not quite true. I was helping a friend move today, and I happened across a little orange book "The Book of Bunny Suicides" it proclaimed, in large and cheerful font. What a fortuitous meeting, I thought, just my sort of dark humor. So I read, and was inspired. (here's the amazon page, if anyone is interested: http://www.amazon.com/Book-Bunny-Suicides-Andy-Riley/dp/0452285186/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1230461339&sr=8-1)

So, tonight, I was pondering a few of my favorite illustrations (a bunny peppering the eye of Sauron, a bunny V-signing in a row of Nazi troops.) and pondering just how for-crying-out-loud-a-zucchini-in-a-zebra lucky that Andy Riley is, sitting around, getting paid for those odd thoughts. And I had an idea. Surely there must be room in this market for two darkly humorous bunny people.

And so, a dream was born. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the inclination for drawing my idea out, so, for an artist who is interested enough to collaborate, I'll split any profit 50-50. My idea is of a new world's hero, suitable for internet distribution and newspaper syndication alike (and God knows we need some better comics in the paper) My idea is simply this:

Postcards from a time-traveling punk bunny. A series of brief, sometimes one-image comics, of a raffish bunny causing trouble in different time periods, for example:

Bunny posed to strike the nose off the Sphynx
Bunny riding the head of a stampede through a McDonalds
Bunny giving Hitler the finger.
Bunny giving (insert political figure here) the finger.
Bunny rubbing himself with rosemary and garlic in front of Ghandi

We could, of course, include a number of story-telling multiple-frame comics, for example:

Bunny gets in remote-conrol plane, remote in hand. Bunny flies. Bunny waves at astonished Wright brothers, trying to get their plane off the ground.

We could also include stories from bunny's normal life:

Background noise: Brapp brapp brapp! Bunny's wife: Pesky kids on motorbikes. (next frame) Bunny: Don't worry, I installed a raised speedbump. Wife has quizzical look. (next phrase) Wife opens window, sees kid on motorbike headed toward speed bump, which is literally raised by poles at either end - to about neck level.

So, that's the idea. Any interested illustrators, please contact me: rascalyboy [at] gmail [dot] com. Inclusion of work samples, or possible mock-ups, especially of bunny-face expressions would be greatly appreciated.


To do more research on: Hope it dies with the downturn: Too many titles.

Leveraged Buy Outs, or LBO's, are something I really wish I could investigate further, especially in the form of "Juicing the Returns". Unfortunately, my personal interests, lack of resources, and lack of funding, all point to me continuing to skip across the waters of interest, wishing someone would fund an extensive search of the milky depths.
To my mind, there are few things more worth researching. I first came across Leveraged Buy Outs in the book "Ahead of the Curve" by Philip Delves Broughton, a memoir of two years at Harvard Business School. In his chapter "Extreme Leverage" Broughton describes the process by which an investor will buy out a company using borrowed money, (essentially, the lenders buy the business with then take out loans on the companies' assets in order to pay himself, attempt to load the business with as much debt as possible, until the company strips down to the bare butt naked thread of its operating expenses. At this point, the company is offered up to the public market as new and efficient, and will commonly sell back for a lot more than it originally was purchased for - sometimes three times as much.
The short term profits, and the attraction for investors, are obvious. What raises a harrowing hall of alarm bells in my mind is the simple question of sustainability - can a company that is so laden with debt, and made so "efficient" actually survive beyond that initial year of plenty - even more so, even if the company does survive, will the slightest hiccup (like a recession) send it spiraling into bankruptcy quicker than cockroaches leave a lit room?
What makes these questions all the more interesting is that there does seem to be some form of this sort of lending/buying before every major recession in our nation's history - a "debt" bubble is certainly one of the operative interpretations of the situation in 1929, the 1970's stagflation era, and Black Monday of 1987. Interestingly, leveraged buy outs "began" in the 1950's, became more and more popular through the 1960's, and disappeared in the 70's. They reappeared in the 80's, were implicated in the junk bond crashes, and went underground for a while. Perhaps the best illustration of this recurrence today is this chart, apparently from the Bank of England.

So, what do I want done? Well, first off, I'm not at all sure this is a culprit. More research needs to be done - specifically into the performance of the companies of which we speak. Even if a solid link can be made between bad performance and leveraged buy outs, and even if this link extends to the depressions and fallbacks however, I would not say the proper solution - at least the proper long-term solution, is to make some government rules about how much can be done. Rather, the solution must be to advance the learning and expected learning of investors - who must learn not to invest in such companies, companies that have been loaded with leveraged buy outs in their past. If this can be accomplished, leveraged buyouts will disappear simply because no one will buy them back, and the possible profits will be nil.

Further resources:


Literature and History in Japan

Along with attempting to organize my writing projects, in order to prioritize them, I'm going to go ahead and start writing. Right now, my essay is one about Literature and History in Japan, specifically the influence and representation of the end of WWII, and of the Meiji restoration.

For now, it'll focus more on the whole atomic issue, as that's what I've seen more of.

When finished, hopefully it'll get itself submitted to a few essay contests to line my resume.

The first paragraph runs:

Some things are only visible through distance, and some things only in mirrors. Distance, both chronologically, and spatially, has functioned as both a gear and metaphor of clarity in literature, and mirrors, even in Shakespeare, are a way of more clearly seeing our selves – of seeing ourselves differently. Sometimes, too, as we view from afar the literature of distant cultures, we may see things they themselves have no access to. Sometimes, even, we may have the privelege of seeing, in these cultures, a mirror of ourselves, either of those things we are grown too attached to, or of those things we have not, and may want to acquire.

I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the generalizations.


Is it bad?

Is it bad that I like a world in which thrown shoes can make it to top news?

I think the surreality of it hasn't even entirely hit me yet.


Two thoughts for today: Dialectic

I know people who fight against thesis, and I certainly know people who will fight against an antithesis, but does anyone (or can anyone) fight against a synthesis? If they can, is it really a synthesis? (my tendency would be to say their first argument is that it isn't)

Is there really any thesis that isn't a synthesis, and an antithesis? Ditto for the others?

My next project

Okay, so I've been thinking about my writing. I think the first thing I need to do is actually organize a list of projects I'd like to work on, before I get started on one or two...

Help wanted: solving a puzzle

So, a very evil librarian friend of mine posited a puzzle to me. Apparently, the title of a "classic" or "good" book (possibly modern?) is encoded in:

"2 (33-97)"

I have constructed a table of possible pieces of the solution, available here:


It's messy, but it's a start. Go ahead and edit it, add something, make a suggestion (you should probably do that in the comments) and best (here comes the self-promotion) spread the puzzle around. It'd be fun to see how many people get in on solving it (and it means less work for me, ha-ha!)... if you're interested, and have time.

Update: Here is the whole list, to give one an idea of the sort of solution one might want to look for: (thanks to Janet Tillman)

Here’s something to stretch the imagination and keep the ole’ grey cells from becoming soft. Enjoy!

Benevolent Moves Real Fast

1. Bye bye three minus one two limbs
2. Chronological condition that belongs to purity
3. Butcher home half of ten
4. Young raisins associated with anger
5. Pumpernickel outside Johnny Bench
6. Double murder one heckling fowl
7. Fajita wrap not sharp
8. What you hang pictures on and where lions live
9. David’s son squared
10. Felony without impunity
11. Tossed yesterday da seeing tumbler
12. Blades
13. Hubris as well as bias
14. Recline feminine Mr. un Mr. Curfman
15. Hare Race
16. Astounded purchase mirth
17. Sob the dear land
18. Ass after terre a drink with jam and bread
19. The returning to consciousness
20. Red missive
21. Male child gets up too
22. The dissatisfaction that belongs to us owns the coldest season
23. 2(33-97)
24. Consumes Fires plus Foliage

P.S. Benevolent Moves Real Fast translates to Good Books (as in “He really books”). This will help you understand the spirit of the game. One of them is Leaves of Grass and another one is Walden. They are all classic books, some might even call great books. Please let me know if you solve 2(33-97).


Paying attention producers?/ What Quantum of Solace should have been./The greatest Bond cliffhanger ever.

Okay, so, I'll admit, I haven't seen Quantum of Solace, so there may be premature judgment in the following (isn't there always?) but I trust my friends to some extent, and when they all say a sequel is crap, it pretty much cements my generally correct opinion that if X is sequel, X will suck, especially if X is written after, and by a different team than A, the “original.” This conclusion seems to have held true despite my great respect and hope for Marc Forster, Daniel Craig, and Paul Haggis (especially his work on Crash), and my hope in the greatest title I think a Bond film has ever had (and there have been some good ones, IMHO). So, believing that all these could do better, I wonder what went wrong, and pitch my own idea of what should have happened.

The film opens, after lavish, water-themed opening credits, with the last of them melting into the desert, sizzling on the sands. Bond sits in the sand, back against his car, looking into the distance. He glances to his left. Over the distant dunes, a huge procession is coming, most on camels.
We flash back to Bond searching Mr. White's house. He comes downstairs. White is tied to a chair, and has already obviously been worked over rather badly. Silently, Bond gives him a grim look, and begins to beat him again. We return, mercifully, to Bond in the desert. The caravan is much closer. We flash in and out of the interrogation of Mr. White throughout the first act, learning that Mr. Bond is contacting this caravan because it has some unstated connection with the organization “SPECTRE”, which is not stated by Mr. White, but found on a single piece of notepaper – “SPECTRE, 25.039198, 50.019979 Nov. 3?” It is there that Bond waits now. During the flashes we learn that Mr. White has been taken back to MI5 to be under interrogation there. M begins to talk to Bond about revenge. During the flashes the caravan moves closer, until it directly in front of Bond. When the caravan is half-past him, all of them stop, and Bond is suddenly covered by dozens of guns. He is entirely unperturbed. One of the men comes forward to talk to him.
“SPECTRE?” Bond asks.
The man smiles. “You don't want SPECTRE.”
“What is SPECTRE?”
“To find out what SPECTRE is, is to join SPECTRE.”
“How do I find out more?”
“Go to Dubai. SPECTRE watches over Dubai.”
“Is that where you are going?”
“Can I travel with you?”
“No, we go too slow for your purposes. You may, however, dine with us.”

Bond dines with them, and, in the darkness around the tents, drives away after the dinner. Later, in the darkness surrounding the tents, he returns, and roughs up a few young men indiscriminately, questioning them about SPECTRE. One of them, he discovers, is a disguised Estonian spy, after she repels his attacks. Her name is Maria, she's the main bond-girl for the movie. She asks to go with him. They drive to Dubai. The second act is split half-and-half between Dubai, and Moscow. In Dubai, Bond-girl tells him where he can find Mr. White's handler. Mr. White's handler asks Bond, just before he commits suicide, if Bond is SPECTRE. This puzzles Bond, and Bond, searching the handler's apartment, is taken captive by a Dubai police task force. They take him, to his surprise, before the Emir of Dubai, who takes him for White's handler, and tells him, after Bond's credentials are cleared, that SPECTRE actually works with the government of Dubai, as well as the governments of Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. The Emir also tells Bond that SPECTRE says there were indications of Mr. White's handler having connections in Moscow. Bond goes with bond-girl to Moscow, to continue to research. There we brow more embroiled in a number of suspicions and paranoias, of Dubai, of the Emir, of the girl, of Moscow, of SPECTRE.
The beginning of the third act, Bond meets a self-described “SPECTRE” agent in Moscow, who tells him that he's “Not from the government, but here to help.” Bond learns more about the apparent structure of SPECTRE, how a number of government agents work with it, but none are allowed to tell of its existence to any others – essentially, the test to enter SPECTRE is to find it. Bond and Bond-girl have a couple more adventures, she could die (she's a Bond girl, she's expendable). M starts to doubt Bond's dedication to revenge, and tells him that Revenge is a quantum of solace – the smallest possible piece of solace, because revenge is always tinged with regret. Revenge means one has power- and probably had the power to stop the thing from happening which now must be avenged.. Bond just looks at her blandly, and tortures White more. White asks Bond if Bond is looking for revenge. Bond says yes. White says, well, that's easy, for that, you need to go back to where you started. Bond girl (if alive) goes back with Bond to the desert (either way, that's where Bond goes), where he tells the nomad (still camped there) he does want SPECTRE. The nomad smiles, and they join the caravan into the desert. If we want to do a classic Bond, they are making love in a covered camel saddle, or wagon, or whatever, when the caravan stops, at the apparently empty edge of the sea. A door opens in the sand, and Bond goes in. M's voice comes on over the loudspeaker.
“You know Bond, you were right. You may not have known it, but the quantum, while it is the smallest possible piece of revenge. But quantum is also a level, and once you get down to where those smallest particles matter, the big ones don't matter anymore. In any case, you're at the right place now. Welcome to SPECTRE.”

There we go. Leaves us wondering whether M is working for the greatest criminal organization ever, leaves us with a great jumping off point where Bond starts suspecting SPECTRE, and, to M's protests, teaches M a lesson about watching her friends. At that point, one could keep creating new Bond films, or return to the originals. Remake anyone? I'll write a script if Marc Forster, Daniel Craig, or Paul Haggis contact me... :)

True enough, and most useful for its air of condemnation.

"The public school headmaster and the public school prospectus use the word "philosophy" much as Californian Valley Girls use the word "like," ceaselessly and senselessly." - Steven Fry, Moab is My Washpot, "Falling in" sixth paragraph.

The only trouble is, if they were to attempt to use it any more rarely and thoughtfully, it would only reveal, unbeknownst to them, the poverty of their thought.


Our thought for today.

You know what bureaucracy is, don't you? Bureaucracy is a way of making your rise to power so slow that by the time you have power anyone you were going to use it against is dead, and all the evils you were going to fight have been replaced. By you.


National Novel Writing Month: My Experience, and the Modern World

1. Words without thought (or other qualitative measure) are stupid and lacking in quality.
2. A high volume of production causes a devaluation of quality products in both economic and intellectual areas.
3. It is therefore the economic, social, and intellectual responsibility of everyone to strive to only produce and only reward quality – in anything we pay for or support.

If you agree with me on the above points, and don’t have much time, or don’t want to hear my conclusions from these theses, you needn’t read further.

As the few who read this blog with any regularity perhaps know, I have been participating in the National Novel Writing Month, hosted by the so-called “Office of Letters and Light.” On Saturday I “finished” with a total of 52,698 words, making me one of the 2008 “winners.” In their vapid and hyperbolic prose, the office of letters and light would like to call this a resounding victory. If my victory resounds, it is only because this victory is hollow – and that is the only reason I would like it to resound.
I will not be posting the rest of my novel on this blog. I apprehended, even in chapter 1, that this writing would not be of the quality I desired. My “novel” suffers most from a complete lack of organization – a trouble I feel is deadly to any story, especially a detective story. While there are certain passages of my novel I do like, while there are certain parts I enjoyed writing, I generally found the exercise not to be worth my time.
I find the reason this exercise was not worth my time interesting, and symptomatic of modern culture as a whole. The reason, specifically, I found this experience hollow, is that the focus of the National Novel Writing Month is entirely upon the production of a set number of words. I believe, however, that the quality of writing should never be judged or even referred to by the number of words. I believe, furthermore, that not even the quantity of writing, and especially of novels, should be judged in words. A novel is not a creature of words - this is obvious as soon as we consider collecting a jumble of words and calling it a novel. It is not a novel. A novel therefore is composed of something other than words – it is composed of ideas, and the quantity of these ideas, the number and depth of them, is the true and only quantitative measure of any writing.
Yes, one might say, but the Office of Letters and Light cannot measure that. Exactly so, and therefore, they should not encourage the production words without content. So far in 2008, according to their webpage, 1,519,501,005 words have been written as a part of National Novel Writing Month, and through the writers, the Office of Letters and Light received donations of $333,682. Needless to say, I find it unbelievable that even a small percentage of these words were produced with worthwhile content. I once had a teacher who would doubtless be happy with this result. He told us often that, to become good writers, we must write every day. I disagreed with him then, and I do so more now. If writing every day were the content of the practice of becoming a great or even good writer, romance novelists would be great writers, as they produce huge amounts of fiction every year. In any list of the most prolific authors of western literature, I would challenge anyone to actually recognize as reasonably good any but Alexandre Dumas, who ranks somewhere around 19th, and wrote many of his books with co-authors. The most prolific authors of the western world are known for novels such as “Wind of Desire” “Gathering Storm” and “Wild Bill, the Pistol Prince.” It seems to me that to encourage the production of novels in the same method as these – as Shakespeare, and later T.S. Eliot phrased “words without thought”, is not only a step backwards in literature, but literally irresponsible.
To save time, and to save myself from proving my point while making it, I will refrain from making suggestions of what might replace it, but I have thought of some which could likely be implemented with less than $333,682 (as a side note, they’re still griping that they don’t have enough money).
I would, however, like to say (at this point my complaint about NaNoWriMo has ended, and my subject becomes the culture) that I think this seems to be a symptom of much of the character of the nation today, a character which the internet makes daily and increasingly apparent. Many pundits refer to western culture as “consumption” or “consumerist” culture, but I think that in some respects, they may have the thing completely backwards. Western culture may be more dangerously “productionist” or “producing” culture. I have heard that one of the contributing factors to the great depression was that there were large volumes of low-quality products warehoused, which began to destroy the value of new production. It has been said that the current bust is deeply related to the production of houses which were assumed to have value, although there were too many houses for any to be of the assume value. Though stores were crowded, and people died, black Friday was considered a failure, because not enough product was sold – so which is there more of? Production or consumption? Of course, especially in this case, the over-production could be symptomatic of too much consumption, but, especially in the case of letters, a terrific amount is produced which is not meant to be read, largely the form of National Novel Writing Month. This production is present not only on the internet, but in Academia, where academics are pressured to (or do of their own free will) produce new books constantly repeating what they have already said, in order to satisfy tenure boards or research grants, rather than taking their time to produce really quality material.
It seems to me that this over-production, without a careful eye to quality (and it is extremely rare when quantity is raised but quality not lost), de-values the qualitative product, burying it in a huge number of suitable but low-quality replacements that consumers will consume, because they are cheap and easy, and, more so, because it is difficult to wade through the thousands of low-quality products to find one or two high-quality ones. Therefore, because no one can find the high-quality product, and high national sales are generally generated through ubiquity, there is even less encouragement for those with the ability to produce to produce a high-quality product, and the bar is lowered again. This is the system which it seems to me the National Novel Writing Month participates in, to name just one.
As an expected result of this, I will not recommend that anyone engage themselves in either National Novel Writing Month or Script Frenzy in the future. I will also recommend that if they really want to, they should be of a specific, and very rare character – a character which has more trouble writing words than planning them, and who, while they might have a refined plot, developed characters, and a host of interesting ideas, lack the impetus to actually sit and write them down. This is not my character (really? You could tell?), but to those who have such a character, I would encourage them, too, not to force themselves through National Novel Writing Month or any other means, to write, but rather, share their ideas with someone, perhaps a friend, with a gift for writing, but little gift for ideas, characters, or plots. Work with someone else. The internet is rife with the production of possibilities of social network, so network, so that you may concentrate on doing what you do best, rather than trying to do something you aren’t really excited about, and depriving someone else of the opportunity to do it. Quality is the only really rare thing in the world, and I still believe that when people see it, especially in writing and philosophy, they long to pursue it, to be a part of its production.
What shall I do? Well, first, I am going to hound a friend of mine, who is a far better proofreader than I, and has a different eye for stories. I’m going to hound him to work with me, because I greatly respect him as a thinker, and don’t want to miss an opportunity to write with him, even though that probably means we’ll disagree about a number of items. Second, I am going to focus on my short stories (since I can’t find someone to write plots for me, I’d best improve on mine) in part so that I can work on my editing, and try to produce small things of unquestionable quality. This will not be easy. Finally, I will work on another blog, the sartorial screen, which will speak mostly of the cinematic history of men’s style, something for which I have a passion, as my loving wife has often pointed out. Through these three things, and in my posts here, (which will large be concerned with the quality of my short stories and essays) I hope to pursue a quality and brevity unmatched by my previous writing, and a quantity of ideas unalloyed with the dross of vapid production. Also, I will be producing less total words. Hopefully. A higher percentage of them should be on my blogs, because a higher percentage will be readable.


My Apologies

Hey everybody (or anybody - is there anybody out there, and all that) Sorry about not posting in a while. I have been working on the novel, and just posted three more chapters. I'm a little more than a third of the way through, and if I can only avoid writer's block, I should be able to finish on time for NanoWriMo. Please do keep in mind that what I'm posting is quite unedited, so be kind (wife).

Thanks all for reading.

Cooking with Arsnic - Full fifth chapter

Chapter 5
Going Home
It got dark quickly. I had forgotten how hungry I get when I skip lunch. Fortunately, I found a box of raisins in my pocket. It was still a long night. Some thing to do a second coming for. I was sitting outside the window of a house of a woman whose husband did not care what she did, while she might or might not be hearing important military secrets from an Admiral with whom she might or might not actually be sleeping with, and might be spreading said secrets to the other men with whom she did or did not sleep. I had no trouble, however, believing that she might actually be sleeping with an Admiral. Of course, if it weren't for the fact that my boss and mentor was lollygagging around a boat, busy pretending to be dead for this strange assignment, I would probably delegate this watch to one of the kids. Of course, with my partner "dead", I couldn't exactly involve them in the case. Typical of Hartley, picking a route which creates more work for others, leaving less for himself. Slowly, the lights went out in the house, ending with what must be the servant's quarters. I check my watch, and it's nearing midnight. I'm powerfully hungry, and if anyone else owns the cars, they're staying for the night. Another thing which I find entirely believable. I am consistently surprised at how little people think their neighbors notice over a fence.
If Mrs. Miller's neighbors weren't busy ruining their own pleasant little lives, and that is admittedly likely, they could easily know not only that Mrs. Smith was very busy with other men, but exactly who those other men were, and how little Mr. Smith visited or cared. I once was involved in the case of a sweet little old lady who went into a nice little business for herself blackmail three sets of neighbors, after she, bored one afternoon, simply set out a lawn chair in her own back yard, and watched and listened. She grew addicted to watching and listening, then to the thrill of blackmail, and it was only when that had worn off that she realized just what a predicament she might be in, so she hired us to try to fix her legal problem. We did, by finding out what each house would take to secure the secret of our little old lady's blackmail, and then supplying it. I heard tell they all moved away fairly soon, and that the little old lady, struck deep with remorse, actually gave all the money back anyway. There were piles of it, but people have done stranger things.
Anyway, it was about time I got down out of that tree. Another day I might actually strike up a conversation with her neighbors, or, better yet, her friends. I wonder if the people who receive the gossip of Admirals are as likely to have friends who gossip as anyone else. Probably. It was a fairly and fortunately short walk to the nearest phone booth I could call a cab. I got my taxi, after a wait, got in the back, and was glad of the driver's silence. He drove me to my apartment building in his silent manner, asking me once which way was better. He obviously didn't go to my apartment building often, and seemed distressed to be entering my part of town. It was late enough, all the groceries, food stands, and various other places one might possibly eat were locked up and silent. Otherwise I would have had my intrepid cabbie stop off at the meanest looking one, go in for a quick bite, and come back out, probably to find him gone. Just as well, we went straight to my house, and I held my head as high as I could with thoughts of the pastrami I had stashed at my apartment from yesterday's lunch. It should still be good. That, day old french loaf, a tomato, cheese, a sprinkle of onion. I usually liked my pastrami only with mustard, but tonight I was in no mood to be simple. I wanted to stuff as many tastes into my mouth as it might fit.
I hobbled up the steps to my apartment, legs stiff from a night of waiting and watching, and found, to my surprise, my beautiful young lady, fallen asleep sitting next to my door. Tony, a neighbor poked his head out of his apartment.
"Hey Jimmy, you shouldn't keep her waiting so long."
"I know. Thanks for keeping an eye out."

Tony was an odd man. I pondered waking the young lady, but decided my chivalry would be challenged either by carrying, or by waking, and it seemed the more gracious thing to do to carry her into the apartment. And so, tiredly bending, I did, picking her up, I felt huddled against her, a bag I did not expect. From it wafted the aromas of fresh cooked bread, and I could only believe that in some strange way, she had sensed my hunger, and come to fulfill it, arriving, sadly, far too soon - or at least at the wrong location. I carried her, while still she slept, into my small apartment. It was half one bedroom, half loft, and I laid her on a mostly empty couch, her head resting on a book or two, and some magazines. Thankfully, they were generally clean. As gently as possible, yet with firm determination, I removed the prize form her hands. It was still warm, huddled as it had been against her sleeping form. I could not wait, and bit straight into the loaf of bread, walking towards my small kitchen as I did. I was only a moment before she woke, turned, stretched, fell back asleep for a few moments, and woke again.
"Hi." She said, as if waking on my couch were completely normal.
"Hi." I said, as if it were not.
"See you found the bread."
"Thank you. I don't deserve you."
"That's right you don't. Leaving me waiting like that."
"Sorry. Had a watch."
"I know. I asked at the office. Maybe I can use this to buy some sympathy with Mrs. Tummley."
"Probably. Easiest way to get sympathy with her is to turn her against someone else. In this case, me."
"You going back out there tomorrow?"
"Fortunately, no. Tomorrow I have to case a few bars. Look into the Heartley murder."
"How are you doin' with that?"
"Kind of lonely, but okay."
"Yea, Mrs. Tummley seemed to take it really hard. McAven said you should take the corner office."
"I just might."
"A little heartless of you, the man still being warm."
"Yea, but it's a great view."
We were silent as I ate more of the loaf, and, cutting off some slices, loaded them with a variety of goods. She took one sandwich, and the only sounds, for a time, were the welcome sounds of the uncontrollable smacking of lips trying to navigate silently the sticky waters of good, fresh bread.
We finished, and still were silent, lethargic in our engorged state. All the blood in my body was rushing to my stomach to deal with the sudden influx of food. I knew I had to get to sleep soon, or I would be awake throughout the ordeal of my body screaming at me for so ignoring it. The pains and wearynesses of sitting in a tree for a whole day catch up quite quickly, but, if sleep can be had, the right sleep, before those pains take hold, one can easily avoid their worst manifestations. One look from me was all it took to convince us both that we had the same thought. Silently, she rose, and I walked her to the apartment she shared with three other girls, three buildings away. We walked largely in silence, and I kissed her on the cheek at the door. Our delighted innocence welled up, but you don’t want to hear about that. Suffice it to say, she went to bed, and I, alone, hobbled back to my apartment through the warm Los Angeles night. Once at my apartment, I went straight to bed, stopping only to strip myself of the day’s clothes, not stopping to put them away properly. My mother would be incensed, I knew. My mother could deal with it, and she never had to know.
The half-room I call my bedroom, with only a wall and no door separating it from the main room was not uncomfortable, taken up as it was, largely by a single bed. I buried myself under the unkempt covers, taking care always to make sure that I was positioned properly. I discovered even in my high school years that there were certain ways of sleeping which would stretch the body properly, helping it to recover from a day’s strenuous exercise, or from the long niggling the muscles receive from the stiff positions of a watch. I positioned myself properly in my bed, closed my eyes, and waited for sleep to come over me.
I waited for a long time, a thousand butterflies in my brain, each one trying to settle itself to sleep, but as each butterfly of thought settled, it turned up another, which, restless, would flap its orange wings of the mind, float, listless in image, sound, or concept across my brain, and hover into rest in a spot calculated to disturb one of the crowded companions of my brain. Every now and again, the floating butterflies would all come to rest, and I would, for a moment, skim across the surface of sleep, feeling the warmth of that glowing ocean call me and reach up from its depths, but, some butterfly would discover, at that moment, that it could not endure the snoring of its neighbor, or that it had not vacated its bowels before settling in, and the wings would stretch out, and the pattern would begin again. Somewhere deep in my stomach, a thunder of earthworms began to rumble, disturbing, now and again, the butterflies of my mind. I grew all too glad that the next day’s work would generally be in bars, which are only profitable for anyone after noon.
My first visits, of course, would be to those half-bars half-cafes so often frequented by military workers on their lunch break. Then there would be a hopefully quiet afternoon, followed by the loosened tongues of the bars around town to which the navy men might resort when they grew tired of their officer’s clubs, which was often enough. Finally, at who knows what time of morning, the butterflies themselves grew tired enough of their shifting that they entered into mutual pact no longer to disturb my slumbers, settled down, rose, bloodily slaughtered the single thought that dared rustle its wings, and tumbled back into sleep, to be shifted only by the strange and tectonic patterns of dream. I slept fitfully, secure in the knowledge that I had closed my blinds, and that the morning light would not intrude too early upon my slumbers.

Cooking with Arsenic - Full fourth chapter

Chapter 4
“Mister Miller?”
Despite appearances, John Smith was not as nervous as he seemed to be. He was more calm than the day before, and the fidgeting Miller interrelated as nervousness were part and partial to a excess of energy and conscience which, now that movement had finally occurred, had dug itself deep into the psyche of John Smith. Fingers twitching, legs shifting, and rapid eye movements were the symptoms of a man who had lived without adrenaline for so long that when it began to rush through his system for the first time, perhaps in years, it affected him in a way similar to a rich grande cup of espresso, downed by Mormon, forever previous, abstinent of caffeine.
“I want to assure you, your partner’s death had nothing to do with me or my friends. I do not even think it is attached to my case. I have considered it, and I do not think it is likely, furthermore, I hope it is not likely.”
“If you will forgive me.” Miller replied, “I think it is best, no matter what, to proceed with your case as if my boss’ death was directly related. After all, the cases Mr. Hartley usually took often had more to do with Hollywood heiresses than half town hit men. Hollywood heiresses, though they may hold quite a grudge, will rarely plot murder.”
“Surely, he’s made other enemies. Is it not possible, also, that his death was merely a mistake, just one of those things that happens in that part of town?”
“I didn’t say it’s not possible. I said it’s best if we proceed as if that were not the case. I think it’s best if you tell me everything you can, and then leave the rest to me.”
“I suppose I have no choice. I do feel badly for your partner. If I may offer my condolences.”
“Thank you.”
As they spoke, they entered Miller’s office. He pushed a stack of papers from one side of his desk to the other, then put his feet up on the edge of the desk, and lit a cigarette.
“Lucky Strikes?”
“What the doctor ordered.”
“May I?”
“Please.” Miller tossed the pack to him, and for a moment, they joined in one of the oldest conspiratorial traditions in mankind. The warm glow of the cigarettes released from them the glow of Mrs. Tummley’s glare, and gave strange, warm relief from the heat of the day. In hot climates, cigarettes can be strangely homeopathic medicines.
“So. First, what’s your real name?”
“My real name? John Smith.”
“Come on. Now’s not the time to pull my leg.”
“Would you like to see my identification?”
“Yes, actually.” Miller studied the document closely, wrinkling his eyebrows. “John Smith. What sort of parents did you have, that’s been a cliché since Sherlock Homes.”
“My parents did not expect me to be in the midst of a murder investigation, Mister Miller.”
“Really? They seemed to have planned it well enough – a real name everyone will think is an alias.”
“It was certainly partially that they were not raised American. Irony does not translate terribly well I find.”
“True enough. Where were they from?”
A long sigh. “America. But their parents came from Japan.”
“Japan. This is part of why this so concerns me. My mother was born in America, raised by parents who spoke Japanese almost exclusively. She was raised to speak American. My father was of Scottish blood, adopted by first-generation Japanese parents, who also spoke little English. My father, not knowing his real name, at some point took the name Smith, and my parents desired me to have a name they considered American. I am a very patriotic man, and understand why my so-called people are now under suspicion, but I have no desire to come under suspicion myself.”
“You work as a lawyer?”
“Yes, how did you guess?”
“Not unexpected, along with an American name you were given an American schooling, and the most American of carriers. Being a lawyer gives you the longer lunch break to speak with me, without arousing suspicion, and explains why you have so easily put your ancestry out of the way of notice.”
John Smith checked his watch. “You are more perceptive than I first gave you credit for. I am a lawyer, specializing in business law.”
Miller imagined, for a moment, that he heard a mocking laugh from next door. McAven hated business lawyers.
“So, who is this Admiral?”
“I’m not sure. She just talks about big brass, and about military secrets. She tells me things, reports before they’ll come out.”
“Do you know how they met?”
“Mr. Miller, this may come as a shock to you, working in your business of broken homes and weeping, emotionally betrayed people, but I do not really care what my wife does.”
“For your information, that isn’t what I was asking. You might be surprised. My business is rarely involved with the passionate and betrayed. Usually, I’m called in at the end of a long marriage the couple both knew was over for some time; one side just needs some evidence to ratchet up their winnings in court. I have actually simultaneously represented both sides in divorce hearings.”
“I’m sorry. I tire of those who judge my position on marriage. I was, you see, rather forced.”
“Isn’t every man?”
“True enough.”
“I’m just looking for anything that can help us to understand what is happening, or to help me find the man your wife is… seeing.”
“You could just follow her.”
“That is certainly an option, but I vastly prefer not to, if someone else already is, the situation might very quickly become dangerous, and I think it’s quite dangerous enough as it is.”
“I suppose that is true. Unfortunately, I have no information, as my wife and I live very separate lives, exactly what we came to Los Angeles to have the ability to do.”
“Very well then, what’s your address?”
“24243 Sycamore. But that won’t help you much.”
“Why’s that?’
“My wife’s address is 1322 Canary.”
“The other end of town.”
“You do live separate lives.”
“I did inform you of that before.”
“Not even keeping up appearances?”
“For whom would we do that?”
“Why stay married?”
“Two reasons, the first being taxes, the second, simply I think we both get some benefit from it. We both found, rather quickly in our marriage, that we were attracted to a certain sort of people who find their joy in thinking themselves home-wreckers, able to turn people away from their wives. There is an inexplicable number of men and ladies willing to throw themselves at those they would not touch, were they not married.”
“The seal of approval of another woman is the greatest attracting factor?”
“Something like that, I do believe. Perhaps a penchant for drama, I don’t know. With those already married, our being married extends to them a feeling that we are living as dangerously as they. I will admit, to a man such as yourself, that this has, at times, proved financially helpful.”
“Only from those who could afford it. I’m sure you understand. We actually help each other sometimes, she will create drama at times when I feel my relationship needs it, or she will help me blackmail to prove I have nothing to loose. All in all, it’s a wonderful marriage, despite appearances.”
“Sounds like it. You aren’t nervous are you?”
“Yesterday? Yesterday I thought I would soon have the immigration bureau breathing down my neck. Today, I know it’s something much larger, and I, sir, prefer prison to paperwork.”
“Very well. I guess I’ll follow your wife.”
“Ironic, you following the wife of a man who couldn’t care less.”
“I told you, it’s what I do. Any idea when I should watch her?”
“Did it sound like I kept track? Do what you do.”
With that, John Smith left.
Jim Miller muttered, and his stomach followed suit. He had been leaning against the desk for the entirety of his interview. He threw himself into his chair, and put his feet up on the desk. Leaning back, he closed his eyes, and ran his hands across his face. He took one three second glance out of his window, swung his feet back down off of his desk, and left the room. As he passed Mrs. Tummley on the way out, he spoke:
“Mrs. Tummley. I will be out for the rest of the day on a trail.”
“Thank you Mr. Miller.” Though Mrs. Tummley disliked rudeness, she did appreciate a businesslike, hardworking attitude. She liked to see them busy, and it was often jested that she was more a slave-driver than Mr. Hartley. The jest was funny because it was an understatement. Jim Miller caught a quick “Very good, sir,” Emanating from her battleship of a desk before he was out the door.
Miller after taking the stairs as quickly as gravity and agility would let him, he paused, and peered out of the doorway, looking for John Smith. John Smith, apparently, had been eager to depart, and had disappeared entirely. After making sure of this, Miller stepped into the street, and, after some watching, managed to flag down a taxi.
“1333 Canary.”
In the taxi, Miller thought of his two trips to New York – taxis there were places of talk and chatter, only occasionally struck by silence, in rare moments when passengers and driver were both quiet. Here in Los Angeles, taxi rides were silent affairs, even the cars more silent than in New York, and the cacophony of horns, motors, and screeching tires. He rode silent through the streets, pondering the movement, and the long, low buildings. After some time, the taxi turned into the residential area, and long low businesses gave way to the long, low houses that form the backbone of the Californian rich life. Canary street was a brief side street, with no number 1333. The cab driver seemed unnaturally perturbed when he was told to stop in a cul-de-sac and just let his passenger out. He took his pay, however, and left. Miller walked back part way back to the gate for 2311. The neighborhood here existed almost completely of gates, the houses being set far enough back from the road that roofs alone were visible. Around 2315, Miller slipped into a hedgerow, and swung himself easily over a fence. He tried to spend as little time as possible in either breaking and entering or trespassing, but the police tended to look with a blind eye toward private investigators with good records who committed minor crimes while doing their job. The police, so long as their more important and public cases were not interfered with, tended to see private investigators as doing work they would prefer not do themselves. Those who extended no such grace were the sort that could often be bribed.
That was trouble Miller would rather not go to, and he was glad to see neither cars in front of 2315, nor any lights on inside. Silently, and staying toward cover, watching the house carefully despite its apparent emptiness. The next yard was occupied by a dog, yet Miller quickly and easily navigated it through trees and fences, keeping well out of the dog’s reach.
Miller, crossing the final yard, found a perch in a tree near the gate. Best of all, he was technically on public property, the tree extending over the sidewalk, and could drop if escape or pursuit was necessary. He so ensconced himself in the brush and bushiness of the tree, it was, after all, a pine, that he could not be seen from nearly any angle. There, he waited, nearly motionless, and without result, for the rest of the afternoon.
There were three cars outside of the house, and Miller could easily believe that all, or none, of them actually belonged to Mrs. Smith. They were each of a certain sort - a rich sort, a sporting sort, yet slightly antiquated. They could have been all of the sort one person might choose, or all of the sort one person's friends would choose, were that person particularly limited in friends. In any case, Miller took all their license plates down, and used the idle moments to memorize license plate numbers and descriptions, and plan routes up and into the house. By the time darkness had fallen, he had worked out fourteen ways he could most likely get into the house, including a daring chimney entrance. Chimney entrances are always problematic, and generally unnecessary, as people who might lock upper windows rarely realize how easy it is for one with practice to climb a house.

Cooking with Arsenic - full third chapter

Chapter 3
I know that there is only one thing I should be focusing on now. I know that. All the possible problems that could arise from the Second Coming as a tactic come down to this – it should not be a long term tactic. I twist one lip upward briefly as my college encounters with existentialism come back to me. Isn’t this the problem with Christianity? It executes a second-coming maneuver, but now the family is asking where he is, the archaeologists are checking the death certificate. Were I executing the second coming, it would be something done at the end, not at the beginning. Yet here we are. God created the world. His son died. What now?
Simultaneously, I can see the sense in executing the second coming at the beginning of maneuvers. The disadvantages of the early second coming also operate as advantages – now is the time of most uncertainty. The movement was just too quick – too quick for me, but too quick for anyone else too. Mr. Hartley has placed the opponents into positions of greater uncertainty before. I just need to move. The second coming is meant to draw out information. Of course, it can backfire – people can go into hiding, but as Mr. Hartley pointed out to me before, when people hear of a killing, they go into hiding sloppily, quickly, and this, too, reveals information. So, here’s the question. Given the information we have now, what is the best course of action? This is the primary principle of the private investigator. Probably the primary principle of anyone. I envy, momentarily, the professors I knew at college. They puttered about, gathering information, and had all the time in the world to do so – and if their results were contradicted, no problem, just publish a paper on what an interesting scientific state that put them in, then move on. That worked well for them, but it would never work for me. In most cases, that would mean no pay. In this case, it could mean someone would die – possibly even many people, many young soldiers. As I am unable to go to war, should I feel responsibility towards them? How best to discharge responsibility? No doubt about it. I was caught, with too little information.
There is a simple solution, however, a strangely simple solution. In this case, what would people expect me to do? As I cannot myself decide what I should be doing, the best course of action is to do whatever people would expect of a young private investigator whose elder partner has just been killed. And so, that is what I will do. There are two things that can be done in that case – go to the office, and try to direct an investigation from there, hoping that yesterday’s John Smith will come in on hands and knees, insisting he had nothing to do with Hartley’s death. Of course, that is not what I would do. I must live as if Hartley died. Eat less. Eat more? Perhaps alternate. More importantly, go straight down Apple Street. Look at the place he was “killed” see if I can find John Smith. See if I can find his wife. Apparently, she has a fairly loose tongue.
And so, I walk towards Apple Street, hands alternating between being in my pockets, and hanging by my sides. I keep my head up. Eyes searching the street for any furtive glances. Sometime after the Apple street nonsense I’ll go visit a few bars. Tongues are loosened there. I’ll go to the seaside bars where sailors, from ensign to Admiral, fall off their ships and do a sea-leg crawl to the closest notorious establishment. Two movements, I already feel better. The streets are bustling now, everyone returning to work. I reach the crossroads with Apple. There is a strange four-way balance here, one quarter of the men wear suits and ties, and I look among them especially for yesterday’s visitor. If I am to catch him it would be best to see him before he sees me – but simultaneously, I watch for sudden movements, of the sort that might indicate him seeing me. Another quarter are the denim and coveralls crowd. Many of them are not in their denims, but it is clear their slacks, shirts, and sometimes suits have not been worn for as much of the day. They are scattered, heading back to the demanding whistles of various labor jobs. Scattered, usually among them, are farmers from North, South, East and West, in the city to sell their various produce, their animals, and their fruits. They are generally still in denim. The last contingent is military, and it, if any, holds a slight majority. It has its own variation, the majority the white and navy town-wear of sailors too soon off the boat to change, or too proud of their military standing to consider it. There are scattered among them the green of the army, and the darker navy hues of the air force as well, in increasingly smaller numbers. I turn onto Apple Street, hoping the location will lend me some insight into the nature of our current investigation.
As I walk down Apple, the bars disappear, and so do the soldiers. I know one thing about Mr. Smith. He knows his location. It’s a more downtrodden area, in which there is not the emptiness of the true ghetto, but still, there are not the attractions here to draw the soldiering clan. That is a few blocks up, where these men send their daughters, when they are old enough, and their sons, if they are handy enough with a bottle, a chef’s knife, or, if they are lucky enough, a microphone. Here, there is training for all these professions, training which will never transition into actual labor. There are butcher’s shops for the kids with chef knives, small shops in which the underage and ugly daughters are waitresses, bars only the local visit, and songs sung in Spanish. Perhaps my friend Mr. Smith was not as smart as I thought. He had no Spanish blood that I could discern, if anything, his vaguely oriental looks would earn him, here, more hatred and animosity than I was subject to, though I absorbed the heat of unwelcome glares with practiced ease. I have, after all, had plenty of practice. There were no doughnut shops here, where Hartley preferred to fall, whether that be to add the touch of the local cops, or as an underlying comment on the fat he saw as replacing his beloved bars. So, where would He have fallen? Not in front of one of the local saloons. A man falling there would attract no attention at all. It was unlikely that even the police had a distinct location on his so-called demise. The few ambulances that flit as quickly as possible through this section of town do not keep distinct records, and even if they did, location is difficult to track in a slum – things are always being moved by someone. Some years ago, I read an article about new street signs in one of these neighborhoods. They had been stolen and moved around so quickly that more than one tourist found themselves quickly lost, even in danger, and many of the signs became no more than private decoration. Tourists knew a street without signs was not a street on which they should travel.
The heat began to become oppressive; walking mid-day in Los Angeles is hardly recommendable, even in the dead of winter. I took off my coat, walking with it slung over one shoulder. Even this slight step from the norm more deeply ingratiated me with the populace, my alien presence softened by some casual movements I had picked up, and by the presence of remnants of the Irish in the slums. If certain private eyes wandered into this part of the city, they might be robbed, even killed, marked as under-cover policemen, the slum’s juiciest target. The undercover policeman carries large amounts of cash for cease of movement, and will rarely report a robbery, for fear of making obvious their delicate position. Fortunately for me, one of McAven, Hartley, and Miller’s advantages lay in the work it has done on both sides of the so-called law. Many people, on both sides of this mad game of cops and robbers, forget that the police are not the law, but rather the judges, juries, and codes of the state and nation in which they live, and, in order to keep the law, it is sometimes – sometimes, necessary to go behind the back of those who think of themselves as the law.
This brief and egoistical reverie of democracy brought me to a point likely to be that chosen by Hartley. It fulfilled all of my inclinations, it was near the end of Apple Street, which dove off an uncompleted bridge over some minor runoff, and behind it spread out the brown and khaki that the west and southern United States chose as a replacement for nature. Here the drama could be fulfilled by the audience – Mr. Smith and his partner, hiding at the end of Apple Street, could see clearly Hartley go down. After a brief search, I found upon the ground a dark red splotch on the concrete that confirmed my suspicions. It is in front of a closed vegetable stand, next to a one way side street only too convenient for the Ambulance.
A scraping noise interrupts my reverie. There’s an old Irishman, in vest and trousers, dragging a chair toward the middle of the street. Before this, the street was abandoned, and the man, with a few white scraps of chin-hair worming and twisting above and below his lips, drags the chair directly to the middle of the street, sits on it, and regards me with gray eyes. I suppose this close to the ragged, unfinished end of Apple Street, it almost makes sense. He could have been sitting there last night. He could sit there every day, as his mad fancy takes him. He’s looking around, as if he doesn’t see me, then he looks again bullet-straight at me. He smiles. He leans on the rugged, dark-stained cane he holds in his hands, and smiles.
“Quite a pickle.” He says, his voice thick with accent.
“A pickle. Quite a pickle. You know, stored in brine. Sour. Plump with the salt-sea juices.” His lips slurp, sucking down an imaginary slice of pickle. “In this case, metaphorical, of course. He fell as if shot from behind.”
The man’s arms and chest, visible round the edges of the vest, lead me to believe he would know how a man looks when shot from many directions. I’d trust him more if Hartley were “killed” by knife.
“How do you know what I’m looking for?”
“Don’t ruin the mystery, man.” He says. “Though I suppose that’s what you private detectives are for, isn’t it now? To give you a hint, no stranger stops in the middle of this neighborhood to study the sidewalk. No one round here drops diamond rings or hundred dollar bills, and I know everyone around here. Does that make it clear enough for you, or will you have to investigate for yourself?”
“Did you see him fall?”
“Did I see him fall? I was sitting right here, wasn’t I?”
“Were you?”
“I was, I’ll have you know. Don’t disrespect me.”
“I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
He laughed. I paused. This was the strangest encounter I’d had in a while. I was saddened to find myself unprepared for it.
“Now, is there anything else you’d be wanting to know, or can I go back to smoking my pipe?”
“Do you know a John Smith?”
“John Smith, I know a lot of John Smiths. You don’t have time to meet all the John Smiths I know. John Smiths, and John Does, that’s the only people I know.”
“Anyone else in this neighborhood see anything?”
“No one in this neighborhood sees nothing. I’m the only one sees anything. I am the surrogate eyes of the world. They pluck them out, give them to me.”
The man was mad, but metaphorical. I had no doubt that the people around here would have nothing to say – besides that the existence of some secret government killer was pure myth, invented by the oh-so-professional private eyes. Just one more question, for my amusement, and to lend some quantum of solace and plain explanation to this mad conversation.
“You come to Hollywood to act then?”
“Me? I was born acting. I’ll give you to know, true actors never appear on screen, not when they’re born acting. They that are born acting want to see. They that have to learn want to be seen.”
“Wise words.”
“Hidden thoughts. Go with God.” And, as if I had spoken a password, effective, though unknown to me, he was gone. He stuck a pipe in his mouth, and lit the pipe, and proceeded to blow smoke out through his nose, his lips shut tight like those of a determined child. His arms were crossed. I know our conversation was over, and I felt like he would not speak again for that whole day. This was enough, I supposed, any tail must have tired of this conversation by now, and would understand if I pursued the neighborhood no farther. Any nearby rooftop or room could house the marks of the killer’s rifle, it was pointless to search those.
Quietly, I turned, and began to walk back down Apple street, my coat still thrown over my shoulder. Magically, the tone of the whole street had changed, and I was met with something like acceptance by the people as I walked by, as if my conversation with the mad Irishman had somehow washed from me the stench of the rich city boy I was. No doubt that stench was deep inside me, and would soon exude from my skin again. I rejoined the four way flow of man at the intersection, since deeply quieted. The lunch hour was not yet over, but a few early returners to their desks were walking my way, down towards the docks, and toward my office, and the subtle but infective aromas of the white collar world. A few taxis passed me by, and I could not notice how old and rare the taxi drivers seemed to be, since the disappearance of so many young men to war. Perhaps they would come back, and fill those taxis again soon. I wanted to walk, to clear my mind, to focus on what to do next. A few bars? I needed to find out more about this Admiral. There was no alternative. I would have to find John Smith. I thought his first name was John, the Smith a definite forgery – perhaps intentional to cover up the unrehearsed dropping of his first name. I did not put my jacket back on until I had walked all the way up the stairs of the building, enduring the looks of prim secretaries, lunching at their desks with the doors wide open, and looking out at the stairs. In front of my office, I breathed deep, and dove back into the wooly warmth. Stepping through the door, I met my favorite unabashed glare.
“There’s a mister Smith to see you.” Mrs. Tummley said. She was always more cranky when Mr. Hartley was gone. I turned towards the seats which waited to one side, and there, sitting, looking even more nervous than yesterday, was John Smith.


Cooking with Arsenic: Chapter Two: The Second Coming

Chapter 2

The Second Coming

The second coming was a trick Hartley had worked out during his career as a solo investigator. The operation of the second coming could be extremely complex, fortunately, Hartley was unmarried, and relatively unknown, Hollywood actors rarely paying their respects to private investigators. At 9:00 that night, Hartley would be seen leaving a party in a high-rent part of Hollywood. The primary witness of this would be the party’s private bartender, who would mark the sudden decline in the disappearance of Gin.

At 9:15, on his way to Apple street, the respected Mr. Hartley, private investigator, would drop to the ground, blood flowing out of his body. Fortunately, there would be an ambulance nearby, and no one would notice the relative youth of the ambulance’s operators. The right high school students are both indistinguishable from the college-aged ambulance drivers of the day, and extraordinarily discreet. Mr. Hartley would be delivered directly to a police station, and directly to the head of that particular police morgue and autopsy, Reginald Emminson, a first-generation American, from England, sent over just before the first word war. He had an unquestionably morbid sense of humor, and was only too happy to send a friend’s paperwork in all the necessary directions. This caused a murder investigation in the department, which was usually handed to a relatively inexperienced, and notably lazy investigator. The hospital received “body received” paperwork, which listed the doctor who declared Hartley dead as an indistinguishable name, halfway between two of the more absentee and forgetful doctors at the given hospital of choice. Of course, it need not be the same hospital every time.

Hartley had died several times any hullaballoo. The obituaries page in most newspapers is run as a stopping point between copy boy and other assignment, and in some papers is run as a punishment post more than anything. As such, and given the relatively nomadic nature of journalists, chances that anyone would notice two identical obituaries were close to zero. Given the nature of the post, most newspapers were more than happy to accept the family and friend’s offers in obituaries. This, Mrs. Tummley did in the morning, from letters already prepared, ranging from the suspiciously polite, to the mind-numbingly praise-filled.

According to this plan, Jim Miller left the office at 9:30 the morning after the supposed murder, and traveled down to the police station, where he was met by Reginald Emminson. Reginald saw it as a necessity that the role be played up somewhat. As anyone who knew McAven, Hartley and Miller would know, Jim Miller had been close to the esteemed Mr. Hartley since his childhood. When Miller arrived at the morgue, he was met with a brief and sufficiently awkward hug, entirely outside the character of the still very English Reginald Emminson. He was then lead into the silence and solitude of the police morgue. The solitude of the morgue is a wholly strange solitude, a strangeness Emminson loved, and to which Miller had never entirely adjusted. In the morgues of the late twenty first century, bodies are will be stored in cabinets, ensuring that any friends or family to visit the morgue will see only a single body. This, however, offers no consolation to Jim Miller, who must wander among the cracked marble slabs, half-sheeted white. In a police morgue work of a more immediate nature than that of the undertaker is constantly underway. In this old sort of morgue, bodies are constantly in view. The effect is like that of entering a room filled with sleeping people – a brightly lit room filled with the sleeping. These eyes, however, have often lolled or been pushed open, despite the absence of any comprehensible consciousness. The faces are white, and the absence of breathing is marked. Surely it is in morgues where men first dreamed of vampires and zombies – the undead, who, though they appear to be living, still leave anyone in contact with them with the horrible taint of the simacrula of life that is the carcass.

“Lost another partner, eh Jim?” Reginald says. He speaks partly through his nose, an oddity for morticians, whose sense of smell sometimes even deteriorates from being so often half abused, half neglected.

“Yea. They drop like flies.”

“It’s a risky business.”

McAven, Hartley, and Miller had lost people before- though never partners. More often than not, those killed in the strange non-duty of private investigation had been those with a more than tasteful connection to the crime, one deeper than the investigation went, only on the payroll because Hartley knew the value of information. Sometimes, in the strange human cannibalism of finances and lusts, they were killed by their families. Though the most uncouth of tribes will shy away from family meat, the family of many men will gladly devour his finances, properties, and ambitions, for the right end, and should they think themselves invisible to the law.

Those who died in the course of investigation were always offered a pleasant funeral by McAven, Hartley, and Miller. Often, their families could not or would not pay for the funeral. They were not, however, offered the use of Mr. Hartley’s yacht, where he planned to spending the next week or two finishing a number of books, and several bottles of Gin, and fishing. If duty compelled him, he may even read up on a case or two, or track the doings of Hollywood superstars, his most lucrative perspective clients. Now and again, his sail might wink above the horizon of some actor’s seaside castle, long-range telescope and camera trained upon the suspicious beds. This was dangerous - both because these seaside castles can be surprisingly hard to tell apart, and because Mr. Hartley would have no way of knowing how the investigation progressed. In times of peace, information could be snuck to the ship through Morse code on little-used channels. In full-blown war in the Pacific, the Navy watched every channel, and such activities were foolhardy at best, illegal at worst.

Mr. Hartley’s body was one of the few covered with a sheet, and when Miller lifted it, it was to his surprise that he saw the slightly pale face of Mr. Hartley.

“Fool” he muttered. He thought he saw the crack of a grin, which confirmed his suspicions. Some people took necessary risks, and Mr. Hartley was not one of them. Necessary risks were not so much taken as ignored in pursuit of the more interesting risks. Miller laid the sheet back down over the dear deceased. The white cloth felt like the weight of sailcloth more than a bedsheet. Miller wondered if this was Emminson’s precaution against the detection of breathing. He doubted the Englishman had the wisdom, foresight, or sense of diligence to think of it. He concluded it was best just to think of it as a normal sheet, and noted to himself not to imagine the sheets in a morgue rustling in the wind anymore, at least, not in anything short of a hurricane. Of course, as soon as he identified the body, it would be zipped into a bag, a new addition, and wheeled out, theoretically to be cooled and preserved during the investigation, but in fact, it would be “accidentally” delivered to the docks, where Mr. Hartley would leave port, an assumed name on the shipping register.

“That’s him.” Miller muttered, smelling gin still on Hartley’s breath.

There were plans in effect, in case something unexpected took place. If the detective on the case showed an unnatural amount of interest in seeing the body (usually, a coroner’s report would suffice) Emminson would be more than happy to get in a row with one of the younger attendants, one who was failing anyway, and, if necessary, produce a false corpse. To especially bar this necessity, the detective on the case would be informed that a private investigator, one Mr. Miller, was already investigating the murder, and had inspected the body, and would be more than happy to share any further information he uncovered. Jim Miller wondered if it wouldn’t be wise to feed a couple of useless and moronic tidbits through Mrs. Tummley – exactly the sort of drivel a cynical policeman would expect to come from a young private investigator with no experience in murder cases, but would give the policeman one more excuse to visit the donut shop. Still, the thought of breath rustling the sheets brought again to mind the sheer audacity of such a plan of fake death, the audacity of many of Hartley’s plans. Often, of course, the audacity was a calculated one. Hollywood stars and celebrities are rather fond of both drama and audacity, the businessmen that run the celebrity sideshow even more so, and elaborate plots, and tricky capers attracted high-paying business, extra bonuses, and often, the sympathy and consequent confession of the guilty party. Often, the stars who were on the receiving end of the trick or plot, even if it was uncovered before being fully successful, would confess. A memory of Mr. Hartley, purely vocal, hummed in Miller’s mind. “Stars, celebrities, and the businessmen who manage them.” Hartley once said, between sips of a Gin Rickey, “Are inherently dramatic, and gluttonous for attention. When they feel they’ve been upstaged, they will, almost always, try to return the attention to them by dramatic means, and there is nothing so dramatic as a confession, and the most dramatic confession, the most final confession, is confession of the truth. In this twisted town, people will likely go to jail for the truth, but will only tell the truth for the sake of drama.” As much as Miller did doubt the effectiveness of this amateur psychology, he had seen it work. He was worried about this case, however. He wondered if Hartley recognized the strange commentary he was making on the military by treating them as similar to Hollywood stars. He wondered if too much time dealing with those twisted people in the Hollywood hills had finally twisted Mr. Hartley. Most of all, he wondered if there were people, other people, who would mess it all up. He didn’t know whether or not Hartley’s parents were alive. Brothers, sisters, cousins, they were all possible, and anyone who would be interested in Hartley’s death was a potential danger.

All these things on his mind, Jim began his long trek back to the office. Conveniently, his way back to the office, he met a short redhead with whom he shared a short and early lunch. She did not intrude upon his quiet, but rather danced conversationally around the edges of his life, tying off frayed strands on the edges of his spirit.