Monday, December 21, 2015

10 Lessons Star Wars Taught Me About Life and Storytelling

“I remember when I saw STAR WARS back in 1977. To this day it’s the closest I’ve ever come to a religious epiphany.” That quote is from a recent Facebook post by my friend, the writer Derrick Ferguson. I think it perfectly expresses how many of us feel about the effect that movie and its sequels had on us.
I am a member of the Star Wars generation. I was born in March, 1977, a few months before the release of the first movie. I never got to see Star Wars in the theater during its original run, of course, but, three years later, my very first moviegoing experience was The Empire Strikes Back (thanks, Dad!). Regardless of being born a bit too close to the release of the first film to see it first run, you can bet all your smuggled credits I knew the story backwards and forwards. How could I not when, because of when I happened to come into this world, I was absolutely surrounded by the action figures, comic books, records that told the story, and all the other merchandising that avalanched down upon the world after the success of George Lucas’s magnificent space opera?  

Now, at the age of 38, with the newest Star Wars movie just having been released (no, I haven’t seen it yet, but I will as soon as I can), I’m pondering just what a tremendous impact the original trilogy (I really dislike the prequels) had not only on my childhood, but on my imagination as I grew to be a man and a writer.
Before I encountered all the other films, literature, comics, and other forms of art and entertainment that influenced me, there was Star Wars. My exposure to it even predates my other favorite universes, like the fictional future of Star Trek, the Victorian-era mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, the horror-laden concepts of H.P. Lovecraft, and the wonderful stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. Before all that, and all the stories in all their formats that I read or saw in later years, there was Star Wars, and it’s had an effect on my life that I cannot even calculate the depth of.   

Here are ten things I now realize I initially learned from those three amazing movies, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  
I suspect that if I look back on this list in ten or twenty or thirty years, these points will still be informing the way I think, the way I dream, the way I write, and the way I view the world around me.

1. It can be more fun to root for the underdog.
That where the drama comes from! Seeing a small group of rebels face the mighty Empire is what makes Star Wars work. And the same could be said of Gandalf and his band of hobbits, elves, and dwarves in The Lord of the Rings, or of so many other great adventure stories. The joy of adventure fiction comes from betting on the side that the odds are against. And this bleeds over into other aspects of life too. Even when it comes to sports, I find victory means more when your team isn’t expected to win. I got more satisfaction out of the Yankees just managing to make the playoffs this past season (and, unfortunately, losing in the first round) than I did in some of the years when they were sure to win the World Series and did.  

2. The mentor is just as important as the hero.
As a kid, Star Wars was, to me, all about Luke. That’s who I wanted to be. But, looking back, I realize the importance of Obi-Wan (and Yoda, too) and how indispensable those guiding teachers are to our hero’s success. Gandalf, Professor Charles Xavier, Burgess Meredith in Clash of the Titans, and Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix: those characters are essential to the stories and their presence should not be too overshadowed by the younger heroes we are more likely to identify with.    

3. The monster in the backyard can be just as scary as the big villain.
One of the things that add such wonderful texture to the Star Wars universe is how danger lurks around every corner and on every planet and how those threats don’t always come from the Empire. Sand people on Tattooine, the creature that hangs Luke upside down (presumably to eat later) on Hoth, and the asteroid that turns out to be a living creature are all examples of how a world with many small dangers scattered about is more interesting than one with only a single main villain or set of villains.

4. Women can be kickass heroes.
As a little boy, I, of course, wanted to be Luke Skywalker. And I thought of heroes as usually being men because that’s how it was in most of the fiction I was exposed to. Even today, I see fans of Luke debating fans of Han about who was better. But we can’t forget Leia! Princess Leia was the glue that held that story together and was just as important as the boys. She sets the whole story in motion by drawing Obi-Wan back into action. She gets captured by two of the most feared members of the Empire, Darth Vader and his boss, Grand Moff Tarkin, and then (while Luke is still a na├»ve farm boy on Tattooine) proceeds not to cower in fear but instead threatens Vader with political ramifications and tells Tarkin he smells bad! And, something I realized only recently: the only time in the original trilogy that a major hero kills a major villain up close and personally is when Leia strangles Jabba with a chain! Tarkin died in the Death Star explosion, Vader and the Emperor killed each other, and I don’t think Greedo or Boba Fett (despite the latter's popularity, which comes from the fact that he looks cool) qualify as major villains on the level of the others I’ve just mentioned. Leia was, I think, the first female character I encountered who was just as tough (and maybe more so) as her male co-adventurers.   

5. Comedy has a place in even the most serious stories.
Star Wars is a dark story at times, certainly an exciting one, and full of suspense (especially when you’re a kid), and those wonderful little exchanges between R2-D2 and C3P0 nicely break up the tension and give the films a rhythm that’s just right for the rousing adventure series it is. I find that now, as a writer, I often find a way to sneak something I hope will induce a laugh or smile in the reader into even the darkest of my stories.   

6. You don’t have to know everything about every character.
Han Solo was a smuggler, a rascal, a greedy son-of-a-bitch with an “interesting” past, and that’s all we needed to know when we met him. Some characters work best that way. Marvel Comics’ Wolverine used to be one of my favorite superheroes, until Marvel decided to reveal way too much about his previously mysterious past, and that ruined the character. With James Bond, we were told everything we needed to know about him in the first 10 minutes of DR. NO: he works for the British government, he’s been on dangerous assignments before, he’s armed, he gambles, he seduces women, he drinks, and he smokes. The essence of Bond was boiled down and we, the viewers, were expected to take it from there, and we did, for 19 more movies! Contrast that with the recent, rebooted Bond movie series featuring Daniel Craig as 007. Those movies range from great to very mediocre, but if they commit one major sin it’s going too deeply into over explaining who Bond is and how he got that way. We don’t need fully detailed origins and histories for every single character!  

7. Sword fights are awesome!
There’s something about sword fighting that’s just so much fun! It’s better than watching people shoot at each other. It’s up close and personal, fast-paced, can go on for a long time or end with a single, deadly thrust. As much as I love the sword fights in Errol Flynn movies and Zorro and other such classics, my love of that sort of action began with the lightsaber duels in Star Wars.   

8. Injury can be scarier than death.
Seeing the Death Star blow up or even watching Obi-Wan struck down by Vader didn’t get to me nearly as much as that moment in The Empire Strike Back when Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. That scene horrified me when I was a kid, probably because it was something I hadn’t considered before, the idea that a heroic character could suffer a permanent injury like that.

9. Good stories mean different things to us at different times.
I must have seen each of the three films in the original Star Wars trilogy several dozen times, and I still haven’t gotten tired of them. This is because they mean different things to me at different times. I’ve identified with Luke on some viewings, Han on others. I’ve had times when my attention was focused on the brilliant performances of the first film’s two legendary supporting actors, Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing. In fact, Star Wars took on a whole new dimension a few years back when I watched it for the first time after seeing many more of Cushing’s films in the interim and having him become one of my favorite actors. Suddenly, Tarkin wasn’t just that old man who bossed Darth Vader around. Instead, he was the main villain of the first movie, and a frightening one at that. I’ve seen Star Wars as the great entertainment experience of my childhood, as a sentimental favorite of my adult life, and as a fascinating example of how certain threads of myth and archetype runs through modern films just as much as they ran through the various religions and epics of our ancestors from nations and cultures all across the world. Every time I watch the Star Wars movies, I find a new angle from which to consider them, a new way to enjoy them.   

10. Tell that story! Write that book! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

As a writer, it’s easy to discard an idea or a story, because it often seems overwhelmingly unlikely that it could ever mean much to anybody else. “Who would want to read that?” we say to ourselves in moments of doubt. It certainly wasn’t easy for George Lucas to have Star Wars made. To studio executives, seeing the idea on paper, it must have looked to some of them like a silly little space opera more fit for a B-movie than a “real film.” And here we are, 38 years after its release, and it’s not only a story beloved by millions of people who had their entire childhoods shaped by it; it’s also a piece of storytelling and cultural mythology that’s been permanently etched into the consciousness of the human race. That’s not an exaggeration. We quote it constantly in all sorts of situations. People are flocking to theaters as I type this because they can’t wait to see the next part of the ongoing epic of Star Wars. That little story by George Lucas caught hold of the imagination of a generation and has yet to let go, almost four decades later. That story was an underdog. And it won. Now it’s immortal. Don’t let your imagination be discouraged. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

What Was She Really Doing There?

I’ve written here before about my lifelong interest in detective fiction, which was jumpstarted by my exposure as a child to such TV sleuths as Sherlock Holmes (as played by Jeremy Brett), Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), and Columbo (Peter Falk).
I could write a long list of TV detectives who have inspired me, and my writing, in one way or another. However, there is one such character whose show’s entire premise has bothered me since the series’ height of popularity in the 80s. You see, most TV detective had a very good reason for being involved in the investigation of crimes. Columbo was a homicide detective, Steve McGarrett led Hawaii’s state police, Quincy was a medical examiner, Holmes was a consulting detective, and Monk was a former cop who was often called in to consult on cases. But, this other character I’ve just hinted at had absolutely no good reason to be present EVERY SINGLE TIME  a murder took place in the tiny town she inhabited (it’s amazing there was any population left), yet for 12 seasons people dropped dead everywhere she went and she (not the police) managed to figure out who the killer was.
A few years ago, my annoyance with this show made me write a little piece of fiction in which this character of whom I speak, in a thinly disguised version, finally meets her match in one of my favorite TV investigators (in another thinly disguised version) and the truth is brought to light! When the topic came up in discussion recently, I dug out that old story to post here today. Most of you who read this will probably recognize who the characters “really” are.


                                             THE QUEEN OF ALL KILLERS

“She said yes! She said yes! She’s coming to the wedding!”
            Elizabeth Appleton had just opened the mail and was thrilled. Her mother, Regina, came rushing into the foyer to see what the fuss was about.
            “Who’s coming to the wedding?”
            “Julia Fisher! I sent her an invitation. It was just a silly, crazy idea and I didn’t think she’d even bother to respond. I didn’t think she’d really come! This is amazing!”
            Regina tilted her head and looked at her daughter as if she were talking to a lunatic. “You mean you actually sent an invitation to that mystery writer you’re always talking about? We don’t even know the woman! What a waste of a perfectly good place setting. We could have used the space to seat one of your cousins.”
            “Mother, there are already more cousins coming that you can count, and I haven’t even seen most of them more than two or three times in my life; I hardly know them. Miss Fisher’s been with me my whole life, maybe not in person, but certainly through her books. And I’ll have you know she’s not just a mystery writer. She’s a real amateur detective. She started out writing fiction, but she’s stumbled across many real cases too, and she’s put the police to shame more than once by figuring it out before they did. I don’t care whether you like it or not. It’s my wedding and I’ll invite whomever I please!”
            Almost out of breath from putting her mother in her place, Elizabeth took the letter and its envelope and marched up the high, spiraling staircase and into her bedroom.
            She took the letter and tucked it away between the pages of Julia Fisher’s latest book and put the book back on the shelf. Fisher was the author with the most space devoted to her work on Elizabeth’s shelves and Elizabeth was almost as excited about Fisher’s coming to the wedding as she was about the wedding itself. She sat down on the edge of the bed and smiled, feeling silly and giddy and completely happy. The wedding was only two weeks away. Soon she would be Mrs. Thomas Grant. She would be married, out of her parents’ house, looking forward to planning a family, and would finally have the chance to meet her favorite author. Things, she decided as she sat there, couldn’t possibly be any better.
            Downstairs, Regina Appleton threw herself back into the task of making sure everything would be perfect for Elizabeth’s big day. The first of her children would be married soon and she wanted the day to be one none of the guests would ever forget. The arrangements had been made with the country club, the menu had been finalized, musicians had been hired, dresses were selected, and most of the invitations had been responded to. Everything was almost set.

            Dr. Andrew Appleton arrived home the following afternoon. He had been gone nearly a week on business, a seminar for corporate chemists. He kissed his wife on the cheek and settled into his favorite chair. He had not seen his wife since leaving for the seminar, but they had spoken on the phone several times over the course of his trip. “Frank called me last night,” he told her.
            “Frank who?” Regina put her magazine down and shot a cold glance in Andrew’s direction.
            “Frank Dante. Who did you think I meant?”
            “That’s who I was afraid you meant. What did he want?”
            “To tell us he’ll be coming to the wedding. It’ll just be Frank though; his wife can’t make it. She’s going to visit her sister in Maine or some such place.”
            “Andrew, why on earth did you invite that slob?”
            “Because he’s an old friend of the family, that’s why. I don’t see what you have against him, Regina.”
            “No, Andrew, he is not an old friend of the family. He’s an old friend of you! I never liked the man. He’s a little weasel, always wearing that wretched old trench coat like he thinks he’s Sam Spade or something and constantly chomping on those horrendous cigars of his. That wife of his must be either an angel or a lunatic to put up with someone like him. I just hope he doesn’t offend our more civilized guests.”
            “Well, he almost declined, but he changed his mind at the last minute.”
            “Why? What did you say to convince him?”
            “Well, his interest seemed to peak when I told him Lizzie had invited that mystery writer, Fisher.”
            Regina stood up. She was angry. “That is just wonderful, Andrew, just wonderful! We have a celebrity coming to the wedding and now the poor woman will have to put up with Frank Dante! You’re determined to embarrass us royally this time, aren’t you? I can’t see why that rude little man would want to meet Julia Fisher anyway. I’m surprised he’s even heard of her. I didn’t think he could read.”
            “That’s enough, Regina,” Andrew brought her raving to a stop. “Frank and I grew up together. I know his station in life doesn’t meet your ridiculous standards, but he’s a good friend and, if you really think about it, his profession means more in the grand scheme of things that mine does, regardless of how much less money he might make. He’s coming to the wedding and you’ll treat him just as you would any of our guests. And that’s the end of it.”

            The day finally arrived. The wedding went perfectly and Elizabeth and Thomas became The Grants. The entourage left the church and made its way to the reception. As the Appletons arrived at the country club, Regina nodded her approval. The grounds were lovely, the main banquet hall exquisite, and the decor perfect. She and Andrew made their way inside and greeted guests as they arrived.
            “Mrs. Appleton?”
            Regina turned to find a well-dressed, petite little late-middle aged woman standing there in a lavender suit with a charming smile painted across her face.
            “Yes, I’m Regina Appleton.”
            “My name is Julia Fisher. I wanted to thank you for inviting me. I’ve received many letters from my readers over the years, but the one your daughter wrote was so sweet, I just couldn’t bring myself to refuse. She made a lovely bride today. You must be very proud. And the groom is quite a handsome young man as well.”
            “Thank you.” Regina liked her new friend immediately. “Elizabeth will be so glad to finally meet you once she and Thomas arrive. She’s been reading your books since she was a little girl. To be honest, Miss Fisher, I didn’t quite approve of so young a girl reading about murder, of all things! But she’s turned out all right in the end.”  

            The bride and groom arrived and mingled with the guests. Elizabeth got to meet her literary hero and found Julia Fisher to be as charming as she had hoped.
            “Did you ever expect to really solve murders, Miss Fisher? I mean, you started out as just a writer, but then you wound up catching real killers! What an amazing change!”
            “I suppose I’ve just been lucky,” Fisher admitted. “Many writers have to struggle to come up with interesting mysteries. Mine just seem to pop up at the right times and provide plenty of fuel for my imagination’s fires.”

            The reception proceeded as planned. Regina had not missed a single detail and was quite proud of the fruits of her efforts. Dinner was perfect, the musicians she had hired performed admirably, and everyone, bride and groom included, seemed to be having an excellent time. Julia Fisher sat, like a guest of honor, at the table of the bride’s family, and regaled Regina and the others with tales of crimes she had helped the police solve.
            Across the room, Frank Dante was getting a headache. The violins were too shrill for his tastes and he found the overall atmosphere of the place to be stuffy. Coming from a large Italian-American family, Dante preferred his weddings more jubilant and less officious. The Chicken Dance was more to his liking than Brahms. Still, he had his reasons for having accepted the invitation and he kept those reasons firmly in mind as he munched his chicken, sipped his Coke, and kept an eye on the table around which were seated the bride’s parents and their companions. He watched as a small, white-haired woman excused herself from the table and walked in the direction of the restrooms. Dante was a people-watcher. He always had been. It was a major part of his personality and had served him well over the years.
            Five minutes later, he watched the same woman return to her seat. He noticed the gloves on her hands. They matched her lavender suit precisely, but had not been there when she had left the table. She slipped them off, put them back in her bag, and returned her attention to her meal. 

            Five minutes later, the violins suddenly stopped. The attendees all looked up from their food. The chief waiter stood there with a pale face, shocked expression, and trembling hands. “Please!” he shouted out in a French accent, “Is any of you a doctor? I need a doctor at once!”
            Andrew Appleton stood up and rushed over to the shaking man. Although working mostly as a chemist for a large pharmaceutical company, Andrew had indeed graduated from medical school. “What is it? Are you ill?”
            “Not me,” said the chief waiter, “my assistant, Antonio!”
            Andrew followed him into the men’s room and emerged a minute later, just as shaken as the man who had brought him there. He addressed the guests. “I’m sorry to say that something terrible has happened. A man is dead. The police are on their way.”
            Elizabeth Grant began to cry. Thomas put his arm around her in consolation. Regina huffed and puffed, lamenting the ruination of her perfect day. Julia Fisher produced a notebook and pen from her handbag, her eyes narrowing in an expression of supreme interest. Frank Dante did not say a word. He just watched.
            Most of the guests left once the local police had taken contact information. Elizabeth and Thomas departed, hoping to spend some time alone and make the most of what was left of their wedding day. Andrew and Regina stayed behind, as they had been the ones to book the affair. Julia Fisher refused to leave and took the homicide detective into another room, telling him she might have some important information. Frank Dante stepped out into the parking lot and lit one of his cheap cigars. He watched as the coroner’s men carried the body out. The sheet draped over the stretcher to conceal the corpse could not hide the tent made by the large kitchen knife that was still stuck in the dead man’s chest.

            The bride and groom were permitted to leave on their honeymoon as there was no reason to suspect that either of them was in any way involved. The next morning’s papers had a generous amount of coverage of the Country Club Killing, as it was now being called. Andrew Appleton read the article and related the main details to Regina, who was still wearing a sour expression and moaning about her plans being blown to smithereens.
            “Well, at least they had a memorable wedding day,” Andrew quipped. “It seems, Regina, that the murdered man’s name was Antonio Estefan. He was one of the waiters at the club for the last six months. The medical examiner seems to agree with what I thought as soon as I saw the poor fellow, that he died instantly when that knife went in. It says the man’s wife is trying to keep them from doing an autopsy, for religious reasons. I don’t suppose it matters much, as the cause of death would be obvious to almost anybody. Now if they can just figure out who did it, they’ll have everything squared away.” 
            The doorbell rang. Regina stood up to answer it, having had enough of Andrew’s talk of murder, hoping she wouldn’t find another reporter or policeman coming to ask questions for which she could provide no answers. When she opened the door, she wished it had been a reporter.
            “Oh … it’s you.”
            Andrew recognized the ice in Regina’s voice. “Come on in, Frank,” he called out, and he heard his old friend shuffle in.
            “Listen, folks,” Dante said in his rough voice, “I just wanted to thank you both for inviting me out here. It was a lovely ceremony and a great dinner too … at least until what happened at the end. What a tragic thing. That poor kid was so young, had a wife home waiting for him. You never quite get used to things like that.” 
            “Well thank you for coming, Frank,” Regina said. She was trying her best not to be rude, trying to respect her husband’s wishes. “You’re always welcome here and I’m glad you enjoyed the wedding or most of it at least.”
            “You know,” Dante went on, “I wish I’d had a chance to meet that lady, Julia Fisher. When I heard she was coming, I said to myself, ‘Frank, you’ve got to go and meet that writer.’ You see, my wife, well she loves Miss Fisher’s books, so I thought maybe I could get her to sign one for me, thought it’d make a nice surprise when the wife got home from visiting her sister. Oh well, I guess I missed my chance.”
            “Nonsense, Frank,” Andrew piped up, despite Regina’s sudden burst of throat clearing, “Miss Fisher’s staying in town for another day and Regina and I have invited her over for dinner tonight. Why don’t you come too? Then you’ll get your chance to have her autograph your book and you’ll have a decent meal before you head back home.”
            “Well,” said Dante as he took a cigar from his coat pocket, though he knew Regina would have a fit if he dared light it in her living room, “I just might take you up on that offer. What time?”

            Andrew answered the door at five minutes before seven. Julia Fisher stood there smiling, with a bottle of wine in hand. “Good evening, Dr. Appleton, have you seen the six o’clock news?”
            “No, Miss Fisher, I haven’t. Why?”
            “I left the police department two hours ago before returning to my hotel to freshen up. They’ve made an arrest in the Estefan case.”
            “You mean they’ve caught the murderer already? Who was it?”
            “Would you believe it was the head waiter, the one who called out for a doctor and pretended to be so shocked at finding his friend’s body in the bathroom? His name is Raoul.”
            “Miss Fisher, I know your reputation from all the talking my daughter’s done about your books over the years, although I confess I haven’t read them myself. Did you have anything to do with this case being solved so quickly?”
            “I suppose you could say I did, Mr. Appleton. I accidentally witnessed something that turned out to be quite important. Why don’t we open this wine and I’ll tell you and Mrs. Appleton about it?”
            Andrew, Regina, and Julia took to the living room chairs and sofa. Regina tried to corral them to the dinner table but Andrew insisted they wait for Frank Dante, who seemed to be running late. Regina snorted and agreed.
            “When I first arrived at the reception,” Julia Fisher began to explain after her first sip of wine, “I accidentally, being a confused old lady, wandered into the kitchen, of all places! As timing would have it, I overheard a portion of an argument between Raoul and poor Mr. Estefan. The young waiter had come to this country under, shall we say, circumstances that were a tad short of being fully legal. It seems Raoul had somehow found out about this and was going to report Estefan’s status to the man in charge of the club’s staff. Estefan countered and told Raoul he had learned that Raoul had been, to put it politely, seeing the club president’s wife at inappropriate times. The argument grew a bit more heated as I left the kitchen and got back to finding the place I was supposed to be. Sometime after that, it seems, Raoul cornered the poor boy in the restroom and stabbed him to death with one of the kitchen knives. When poor Estefan was killed, I thought it my duty as a citizen to report what I had overheard to the detective who arrived on the scene after the body was found.”
            “Very interesting, Miss Fisher,” Andrew said. “I suppose this will end up in one of your books now.”
            “It would be wrong of me to not use any material that comes my way,” Julia laughed. “It was a bit dull though, in comparison to some of the other things I’ve seen in my time. I shall have to embellish it to some degree if I’m to get a decent tale out of it.”
            “Well, congratulations all the same, Miss Fisher,” Regina added. “I’m sure Elizabeth will find it thrilling to be a part of one of your stories. What a wedding present!”
            “Regina please,” Andrew blurted out, “a young man was killed yesterday! That’s hardly something to celebrate!”

            The doorbell chimed, stopping Regina from verbally shooting back at her husband. As Andrew got up to answer it, Julia laughed softly, amused by the bickering between the Appletons.
            “I’m really sorry I was late, ladies,” Dante said as he hung his coat on the back of his chair and sat down. “Hello, Miss Fisher, I’m Frank Dante. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a real pleasure meeting you. My wife, well, she couldn’t be here tonight but she’s a big fan of your work and I think she’s read every book you’ve ever written. I was hoping that, maybe, after we eat, well, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think you could sign a book for her? She’d get a real kick out of that.”
            “I’d be delighted,” Julia said with a smile.
            “You know, Frank,” Andrew said, trying to get Dante to calm down before Regina lost her temper, “Miss Fisher’s going to have to write another book now. She helped them solve the Estefan case this afternoon. The murderer is in police custody as we speak.”
            “Is that so?” Dante smiled at Andrew’s news. “They didn’t waste any time on the case, did they? In the movies it usually takes them a week to figure out a whodunit.” 
            “Well, Mr. Dante,” Julia piped up, “things work a bit differently in the real world. Some murders are never solved and some are wrapped up in a matter of hours or days. Perhaps you ought to read some of my books, the ones your wife seems to find so interesting. You might enjoy a more realistic take on crime solving than you’ll find at the movies.”
            Andrew chuckled at that, but Dante shot him a ‘keep your mouth shut’ look and spoke before his host could get a word out.
            “Actually, Miss Fisher, my wife’s the big fan but I’ve flipped through a few of your books when she’s left them out on the coffee table or beside the bed.”
            “I see,” Julia said, still flashing her sweet old lady smile. “And what did you think of them, Mr. Dante?”
            “Actually, ma’am,” Dante said, reaching behind himself and poking around in his coat pockets, “that would be Lieutenant Dante.” He held up a badge. Los Angeles, Homicide.
            “Bravo, Lieutenant!” Julia exclaimed, quite delighted. “I’d never have guessed you to be a policeman.”
            “Yeah, I get a lot of that,” Dante admitted, putting his badge away. Now about those books of yours…”
            “Yes,” Julia said, “now I’m even more interested to hear your opinion.”
            “Well my wife’s been reading your work ever since your first novel,” Dante said. “That one really was a novel with a clever killer, a determined cop, and a twist ending; classic detective stuff. The problem with that kind of book is that most writers can come up with one plot like that but it’s always a hard act to follow. Unless you happen to be Agatha Christie, you tend to run out of ideas pretty soon. Then you came out with a second book, Destination: Death. It seems you’d stumbled across a real murder case while on vacation in Hawaii. I thought that was a pretty interesting coincidence. My wife kept buying your books and I kept flipping through them. And I started to see a pattern. You went to a family reunion and your old uncle dropped dead. It turned out your cousin was after his inheritance before he altered his will. You went to the circus and somebody cut the trapeze wire. Somebody bumped off a literary agent at a crime writers’ convention. On and on it went, Miss Fisher, for twenty-odd years, for book after bestselling book. Nobody’s that lucky, if stepping into puddles of blood everywhere you go can be called lucky.”
            Regina Ackerman made a sudden, loud snorting sound, almost spitting her wine out as she saw where Dante was going with his speech.
            “Frank! Whatever are you suggesting?”
            “Regina,” Dante said, turning his head to face his hostess, “how many times have you and Andrew gone to dinner at that club of yours?”
            “Dozens of times, perhaps three times a month. Why?”
            “Had you ever seen Raoul before the wedding? What about Antonio Estefan?”
            “Well no, but I just assumed they were newly hired. What does any of that matter? One is dead and one is in jail where he belongs.”
            “No, Regina, he’s not in jail any longer. And he never did belong there. Excuse me a moment.” Dante took a cell phone out, pressed a few buttons, and spoke into it. “Detective Randall, will you please bring our other guests in?”
            The dinner companions heard the front door. Ten seconds later, a man walked in, the police detective from the country club, followed by Raoul and Estefan.
            Julia Fisher turned a ghostly white. She let out a little squeak of disbelief, and she tried to stand up. Detective Randall put his hands on her shoulders and gently but firmly suggested she remain seated.
            “These two gentlemen,” Dante said to the shocked Julia and Regina, “deserve Oscars, don’t they? And so do you, Andrew!”
            “Andrew!” Regina cried out, “You knew about this, this … charade? And why wasn’t I told about this? I still don’t understand what this is all about!”
            “You weren’t told, dear,” Andrew spoke his mind loud and clear, “because you have too big a mouth! Now let Frank finish what he’s trying to say.”
            Dante went on. “To be honest, I wasn’t planning on coming to Elizabeth and Thomas’s wedding. It’s not my kind of thing, especially if my wife’s not around, but when Andrew told me you were coming, Miss Fisher, I wouldn’t have stayed away for all the tea in China. After all those coincidences in your books, I had to find out if my little hunch was on the money. If I was right, I couldn’t take the chance of you being here among these dear old friends of mine if you really were what I thought you were. So I flew out here and made sure to get here a week early. Once I arrived, I called Andrew and we met for coffee without Regina around and I told him what I had in mind and he agreed to help me, even if it did put a little bump in the road to a perfect wedding day for his daughter, and I really appreciate the sacrifice.
            “Why, I asked myself, would you, Miss Fisher, accept an invitation to a wedding between two people you’ve never seen before in your life? Being a successful writer, you must receive dozens of strange invitations. You couldn’t possibly accept them all, so why this one? Maybe, I decided, you needed some new material. That, if my original idea about what you are was right, could be a very bad thing. But it would work to your advantage, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t it always? If you go into a situation like this one, where you don’t really know anybody, you’d have no obvious motive if somebody turned up dead, would you? A murder could happen and you’d insert yourself into the investigation, using your reputation and celebrity as your ticket in, and pretty soon you’d have some more material for your books. But there would have to be a killing for that to happen.
            “So, Miss Fisher, as soon as you got here, you set yourself to looking for somebody to kill and somebody else to take the blame for it. I had my suspicions, you see, from reading your books. It was too much to be coincidental. Nobody, unless they happen to really be in the business like I am, could possibly be present at the scenes of so many crimes. Knowing what you might be up to, I decided to bait the hook. It wasn’t really that hard. Raoul and Antonio here are not really waiters. They’re police officers who act in community theatre as a hobby. I knew you’d snoop around the country club looking for a victim and a potential frame, so I had them improvise their little argument when you wandered into the kitchen. Antonio knew you’d slip a drug into his coffee and so he knew not to drink it. It was Raoul who saw you take the kitchen knife he’d just put down, held with a napkin so it would have his prints and not yours, and hide it in your purse. It was also Raoul who slipped the note to me telling me what they’d seen. Once that was set, I just had to wait.
            “I saw you notice Antonio going into the bathroom and I knew you’d take that as a sign that the drug had started to take effect and the poor fellow was beginning to feel sick. That was when you got up from the table and slipped those gloves out of your handbag. You excused yourself to use the ladies’ room and went into the men’s’ room instead. You took the knife, found Antonio passed out, or so you thought, and used the knife on him. But you missed out on knowing three important facts. First of all, Antonio was only pretending to be passed out. Second, he knew how to position his body so his chest would be the most convenient place for you to stick that knife. Third, his chest was well protected with a sheet of prosthetic skin, the kind used in horror movies, complete with pouches of fake blood.
            “So you went in and did the deed and came out thinking you’d killed the poor guy. You calmly went back to your dinner, your conscience hardened by doing things like that dozens of times over the years, and you waited for somebody to find the body. Raoul went into the bathroom after I’d given him a signal, and came out with his brilliant act of shock. That was when Andrew here, who was in on the whole thing, followed Raoul in and pronounced Antonio dead on the spot. The police arrived, and they were in on it too, and had the body hauled away before poor Antonio got cramps from keeping up the carcass act for so long. Then Detective Randall waited for you to go to him, as we knew you would, with your eyewitness account of the little argument in the kitchen.  We tested the coffee Antonio didn’t drink and found the tranquilizer you spiked it with, which, of course, matches the pills we found in your hotel room while you were out for breakfast this morning. I’m sorry, Miss Fisher, but the game is over. Next time you need material for one of your books, you’ll have to use your imagination. If that doesn’t work, maybe your cellmate will have a good story to share.”
            Julia let the tears flow. “This isn’t fair. It’s entrapment! I know my rights!”
            “Entrapment,” Dante said, “it might be, but all we really did was go through with a wedding and create an argument. Of all the people there, you’re the one that decided to go ahead and try to kill a man. You may have failed this time, but you still made the attempt. The drug you dropped into that coffee was real, even if Antonio didn’t drink it, and I don’t even have to mention the stabbing. Trying to kill someone is still a crime, even if you didn’t succeed. And, Miss Fisher, I think a judge will agree, in light of what we’ve found out here tonight, that it might be time to reopen some of those old cases you claim to have helped solve. I think there might be some innocent people in prison who’d like to go home and see their families, don’t you? Detective Randall, take her away.”

            Julia Fisher was led out by Randall. Regina Appleton, still pale and shocked, was kind enough to invite Raoul and Antonio to sit down and help finish the dinner that had hardly been touched. Andrew Appleton looked over at his old friend.
            “That was fun, Frank! If you ever need my help again, just give me a call!”
            Dante got back to his plate. “Regina, I know you might never forgive me for all this, but it had to be done.”
            “But you ruined my daughter’s wedding day!” Regina’s voice was getting shrill again. “It was supposed to be the best day of her life!”
            “Oh, don’t worry about that,” Dante mumbled with a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “Once she got over the idea of her favorite writer being a serial killer, she was more than happy to help.”
            “You mean she knew about this too?” Regina had gone from pale shock to crimson anger in an instant. “Was I the only one left in the dark?”
            “Not at all,” Dante quipped after swallowing. “Miss Fisher didn’t have a clue until ten minutes ago either.”


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Interview: Ralph L. Angelo Jr.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Ralph L. Angelo Jr.
Ralph is an excellent writer of science fiction, fantasy, and other action-packed genres, a hell of a nice guy, and (we can't underestimate the importance of this) a fan of the New York Yankees. Here are Ralph's answers to some questions about his work, as well as some information about his books, past, present, and future.

Who is Ralph L. Angelo Jr.? Tell us a little about yourself and your life beyond what a reader might learn just by reading your books.

Well, I’m a 56 year old guy whose idea of fun is riding sport and sport touring motorcycles in the warmer weather, and up until this past year skiing all winter. But due to these constant injuries I keep getting skiing every year I may be done with that for good. I have a bad lower back to begin with and last season I crashed badly on my upper back along my shoulder blades. That laid me up for two months before I was back to normal. I play guitar and sing, though the last few years that has been down to karaoke nights and not in any bands. I’m single, never been married and no kids. I owned a business for 15 years prior to all of this.

What inspired you to begin writing, and what's the earliest thing you remember writing? 

I always had an interest in writing dating back to elementary school. I loved to read, and it naturally carried over. The earliest thing I can remember actually putting down on paper was what became the prologue to my ‘Torahg the Warrior’ novel. I actually wrote that scene in mid ‘80’s. It was my attempt at the beginning of a Conan novel, and I just kept it for myself.

When and why did you decide to take writing seriously and pursue it as a profession? 

In the late 90’s to the early 00’s I had been writing and selling articles to a few motorcycle magazines and decided to write a book on Motorcycle safety. That was published a decade ago and is called ‘Help! They’re All Out to Get Me! The Motorcyclists Guide to Surviving the Everyday World’ It was my first book, and while it didn’t sell a ton of copies at first, it left me with the idea that I could do this thing. So I immediately began writing my first novel, ‘Redemption of the Sorcerer-The Crystalon Saga, Book One’ But I lagged on that one. I took my time. I dragged my heels. Flash forward 6 years and I got hurt at work. My back got so bad that I could not continue in the field I was in (I was an appliance repair technician.) and was out on permanent disability. But now I had time to finish my book, which I did. There were a bunch of growing pains associated with that book, but it was nothing that couldn’t be overcome. I think that’s probably the best book I ever wrote, to this day. I wrote 3 more within the next year, including Torahg, the still unpublished sequel to Torahg, and ‘The Cagliostro Chronicles.’

When I think of your work, Ralph, the first thing that comes to my mind is "The Cagliostro Chronicles." Can you tell us a little about how those books came about, what they're about, and what plans you might have for the future of the series?  

The Cagliostro Chronicles is my ode to space opera/sci-fi. Not the technical boring stuff that makes you want to peel your eyes out of your skull but stuff more like Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s action packed, adventurous and generally a lot of fun. It’s my most popular series. It starts in 2089 and goes from there. It begins with a scientist/engineer named Mark Johnson (BTW, the concept of this series was also something I came up with in the mid to late 80’s, especially the opening chapter) who discovers the secret to faster than light travel. Along the way he also discovers that mankind’s progress in space has been stunted by an outside force; an alien civilization that does not want man to leave Earth because they fear us and our potential. So since the early days of the Apollo missions and right through to 2089 they have made sure that there have been disasters that have set man’s quest for the stars back. The first book deals with their first mission out amongst the stars, and how they begin to unravel the conspiracy. It culminates in an intergalactic battle for Earth’s survival.
The second book is two and a half years later on and The Cagliostro and its crew have just discovered an Earth-like world about 4 days distance from Earth at hyper-warp speed. Along the way the ship gets badly damaged in a battle and they end up crash landing on that planet. There they face all sorts of threats including natives and monsters. This culminates in a three way war for that planet. This book also introduces a huge threat to both mankind and their enemies from another dimension.
The third book is set six months after the second and The Cagliostro has been in for refits and upgrades. Its shiny and new again as well as being better than ever. Now they discover that the President wants them to go undercover once again and infiltrate an ancient, long abandoned world with a hidden secret that they must retrieve before their enemies the Agalum do. But the new threat that emerged at the end of the second book is cutting a bloody swath through the galaxies, complicating things on a grand scale.
The fourth book will close the current arc. The fifth book will begin a new series of adventures that will be slightly lighter in tone, at least for a while.

You mentioned before that "Torahg the Warrior" began its existence a long time ago, long before you started your career as a writer. What was it about that concept that stuck with you for so long that it eventually found a place in your professional work?

The opening sequence really hooked me. It was frightening and monstrous and filled with dark magic and evil men looking to overthrow an empire. But most intriguing to me when I wrote it was that one of those evil men is Torahg’s older brother, the King’s other son. This novel is brother Vs. Brother but not just in their present. There’s a twenty year gap that takes place when we first see Torahg, he’s a young, wide eyed young man of eighteen or nineteen. After he escapes his home with the palace guard on his heels the next time we see him he’s thirty eight and no longer so pleasant to be around. He’s been in a forced exile for twenty years with his teacher living under an assumed name. He’s been framed by his brother for their father’s death, even though his brother, Welcomb, is the one who actually killed their father. But events have a way of coming back around, and he ends up in a position to take back his home land of Fairandia, now renamed Blackhorne by his brother to remove all semblance of the land his father ruled so peacefully. Taxes have been increased dreadfully upon the populace and everyone is miserable. King Welcomb has a private army of thugs making sure everyone stays in check as he turned a once wonderful country into a hell for its citizens. And of course the fact that he’s willingly possessed by a demon has something to do with all of this as well. It’s an epic, sprawling tale that may indeed be my favorite creation to this day.

Tell us something about The Crystalon Saga and what plans you have for its future.

Oboy… Crystalon’s story begins in another dimension. A dimension he has ruled for a million years, yes I said a million. He is an immortal sorcerer on a parallel Earth in a parallel dimension. Where the first novel begins he has just been overthrown by an invading force. He’s poisoned and shackled by mystic chains that it takes thirteen sorcerers to maintain, even in his weakened state. He’s incalculably powerful, more like a force of cosmic nature than a man. But his punishment (For ruling with somewhat of an iron fist, though not as harshly as some would make it out to be) is to be banished to a world without magic. A world that looks exactly like the one outside our door. A world where he is completely powerless and destitute. He soon discovers a mystical plot involving soul stealing demons is in place and that consequently this world is not so free of magic as he once believed. But he is the only man on Earth who has a chance of defeating the evil sorcerous forces allied against him. If he does not, two worlds will ultimately fall. His new home and the world of his birth as well. Will he regain his powers in time to save both Earth’s or is it already too late?
The second novel in the Crystalon Saga, ‘My Enemy, Myself’ takes place a few years later and he is firmly entrenched on his new home when he receives a visitor he never expected to see again, one who begs him to return to his old world and help them against a foe that cannot be defeated, one who is mad in every sense of the word. He’s making deals with the devil, literally and is seeking revenge against everyone from his old home. The universe he was originally from; the universe Crystalon now occupies. Once again the master sorcerer must put aside all his concerns and work to save two universes from a foe who is at the very least his equal in power. But how can he defeat an enemy who is alike as the face in the mirror? How can Crystalon defeat ‘My Enemy, Myself’?

Tell us what Hyperforce is about.

Superheroes and their first appearance on an Earth that never had them before. A world that is suddenly changed by the appearance of a young alien prince of extraordinary power who is being hunted by an evil warlord looking to usurp the throne of the world they are both from. They have many adventures within the book, in fact each chapter is written as if it were a monthly superhero comic. There’s even a supersized chapter inside to replicate an annual or king sized issue. Hyperforce is my ode to the great comics of the 70’s to late 90’s. It’s a fun, gigantic adventure.

Who or what is The Grim Spectre?  

The Grim Spectre is my first true pulp novel. It’s set in the 1930’s in a city where everything and everyone is corrupt except for the citizens. Robberies and muggings are commonplace and happen every day. Gangsters and crooked politicians rule the streets with impunity. When a man is beaten nearly to death in an abandoned alleyway his life is saved by a mysterious being, who could be an angel or something far worse, but he doesn’t know. What he does know is that now he has a mission and the ability to complete it. The city of Riverburgh has its champion now, but will the avenger of Riverburgh, The Grim Spectre, be up to the task? It’s a rough and tumble novel filled with fights and gunfire between good and evil for the fate of a small city forty miles north of Manhattan up the Hudson, with a horrific demon-like being as its star.

Having talked about your novels already, can you tell us about the short stories you've had published?

Sure, the funny thing is I have to sit back and actually remember what I had published as shorts. I have one novella out there that is appropriate for this time of year called ‘The Halloween Terror of Weatsboro’ which is a Halloween tale of a community that discovers they have had monsters living in their midst for over a century. At only .99 cents it’s a bargain and a steal! Many are still awaiting publishing, but the ones that worked best for me were the Sinbad tale I did for Airship 27 last year in volume 4 of that series, a story in an anthology I did for Pro Se called ‘Rat-A-Tat-Short Blasts of Pulp.’ And most especially my story in the Destroyer Anthology that came out last Christmas entitled ‘More Blood’ that one was actually nominated for an award last year. Though I didn’t win it, it was still nominated and that worked for me. I also have shorts coming out in a book by Flinch Books, another in a new Pro Se anthology featuring a hidden segment of the musketeers in old France that battled against enemies of a mystic or horrific nature. This one may actually be Lovecraft-ian. I have two stories coming out in anthologies that are being produced for those of us in the community who have been suffering with illnesses. One being handled by Ron Fortier and Airship 27 and another by Van Plexico and White Rocket. Both are benefit books. I believe that is all I have out there right now as far as new or unpublished anthology tales.

What writers do you feel have influenced your work the most?

Easy question, Robert E. Howard, Warren Murphy, Robert Jordan, Lots of comic book guys like Chuck Dixon (Who has crossed over to writing novels and is kicking ass doing it), Roger Stern, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson and lots of others I can’t bring to mind right now.

Looking at your various published works, I see some science fiction, some fantasy, and even a little horror. What other genres, if any, would you like to try?

Believe it or not, I’m considering trying my hand at an old style mystery book, something like what more acknowledged authors write. I doubt I’ll ever try romance, that’s not in me, as a writer. At this point I’m looking to write something that will be a breakout title for me, that will definitely take me out of my action packed comfort zone.

What is your process for writing like? Do you write detailed plans for your novels, fly by the seat of your pants, or somewhere in between?

No detailed plans at all. I have a few ideas of where to start and go from there. There are times I don’t really know the ending of the book in progress until it appears on the page. The opposite of this is the just finished ‘The Grim Spectre’. I knew the ending well in advance. I didn’t even have to put it down on the computer screen (Notice I did not say ‘paper’?) It was floating around my brain for a long time. It’s been said by many a writer that a book is a definite beginning and an ending and the hardest part is everything in between. Sometimes this is true for me. I put these artificial word counts in place for myself. Usually a minimum of 65K words until I’m satisfied that I’m giving the reader enough for their money. Some of my books are closer to 100K words (The two Crystalon books) others are nearer to the 65K mark, and quite a few are in-between. The original cut of Torahg was 106,000 words. Usually I let the story tell itself and if I have to add some meat and potatoes to it to fill it out I do. There was a late chapter in The Cagliostro Chronicles III where I added this entire side adventure to fill it out. It was several chapters’ worth of material and this one big adventure that had nothing to do with the main storyline, but it’s also one of my favorite parts of the book, if not the favorite.

What is your favorite things about writing? Your least favorite?

Well my favorite is coming up with new ideas for stories and putting them down on the screen, then of course seeing them actually printed. My least favorite is actually getting lost in the story and starting to realize just how little I have written. Then I have to force myself to write more and to a steady schedule, which always gets far easier as I come to the end of a storyline.

Ralph, thanks so much for taking the time to tell readers of this blog about yourself and your books. I look forward to everything you write in the future!

Ralph's Amazon page:

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Follow Ralph on Twitter as @RLAngeloJr

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Watching the Detectives

Detective and mystery fiction has been part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. I recently tallied my 45 published stories according to genre and found that I’ve had more mysteries published than any other type of story. While detective movies and literature have been very important to me, I’m pretty sure it all started with television. After all, movies, until quite recently, were either encountered incidentally when they happened to be shown on TV, or had to be seen in theaters or rented. And books had to be sought out at stores or libraries. But television has a constant presence in the household and my first exposure to detective fiction probably came from me joining my father in watching various reruns from his youth or whatever was running on Mystery! when I was in the age range when being exposed to new ideas had the greatest impact on my developing imagination.
So today I’m endeavoring to choose my ten favorite television depictions of detectives and put them in order from least to favorite. I love all ten of these shows and many more, but I can only choose ten (with one instance of cheating a bit, which you’ll see as you go up the list), so let it be noted that exclusion is not to be seen as disrespect toward any small-screen sleuth who does not appear in the countdown.  
One more thing to note: the fine actors in spots 10 and 9 are at the bottom of the list because their shows are still running and so can’t properly be compared to the other eight, which are completed bodies of work. Perhaps, if I update this list several years from now, the order will be altered in some ways.
So here we go. My ten favorite TV detectives, from 10 to 1.

10. Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

 I was prepared to hate Sherlock. When I heard the BBC was doing an updated version of Sherlock Holmes, I was against it. My favorite fictional character belongs in the Victorian and immediately post-Victorian eras. The entire mystique of the canon fits that period so well. The world has changed so much since then and we have so many new methods of crime-solving at our disposal here in the 21st century. I was convinced they wouldn’t get it right. And I was wrong. The essence is there! Holmes, Watson, and the usual cast of characters are all represented in modernized versions and the spirit of Doyle’s work lives on. I’ve enjoyed every episode so far, though some are better than others, and I look forward to the next series.

9. Idris Elba as Luther
 Since 2010, Idris Elba has portrayed Detective Chief Inspector John Luther in 3 series of episodes. Elba’s intense performance has made him one of my favorite current actors and made Luther a TV cop I look forward to seeing in what I hope are many future episodes.

8. Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes
In 1954, 39 half-hour episodes of a Sherlock Holmes TV series aired. I call this “Holmes Lite,” as they were short, sweet little mysteries, perfect for quick distractions when one is in the mood for a Holmes fix that’s not too heavy or intense. Simply put, these stories are fun. Howard plays Holmes well, and his co-star, Howard Marion Crawford, plays a Watson who is somewhat of a cross between the brave, able doctor of Doyle’s canon and the comedic sidekick of the Basil Rathbone films.   

7. Robbie Coltrane in Cracker
A detective doesn’t have to be a police officer or private investigator as long as he or she works to get to the bottom of mysteries. Robbie Coltrane gave a great performance as Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a psychologist who assists the Greater Manchester Police in this 1993-1996 series. An obese, chain-smoking, drinking, gambling, sarcastic, yet brilliant man, Coltrane’s character was a pleasure to watch.    

6. Derek Jacobi as Cadfael
A medieval monk solving mysteries is a wonderful contradiction, as the clergy usually has the job of encouraging faith and belief in things we can’t see or hear, while a good detective must always rely on evidence and facts. This mixture of two opposing ideas is what made Brother Cadfael so interesting. The character originally appeared in stories by Ellis Peters (the nom de plume of Edith Pargeter) and was adapted for TV between 1994 and 1998. 

5. Inspector Morse and his spinoffs
Okay, this is the part where I cheat. The Inspector Morse TV series ran from 1987 to 2000 and starred John Thaw as author Colin Dexter’s opera-loving, crossword-solving police detective. His partner was Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis, played by Kevin Whately. From 2009 to the present, Lewis, now an inspector, has had his own series, simply called Lewis, in which he is assisted by the young Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). In addition to that, there is also another currently running spinoff series, Endeavour (Morse’s rarely mentioned first name), which features Morse as a young detective (played by Shaun Evans) in 1960s Oxford. I enjoy all three series and consider them parts of a whole, so I see no reason not to include them all on this list. 

4. Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett 
Hawaii Five-O had an incredible run from 1968 to 1980, making it (I think, but I’m too lazy to look it up right now, the longest running weekly police drama before Law & Order). It’s been the butt of jokes for years, due to the blindingly garish fashions of the 70s, the catch phrase “Book ‘em, Danno,” which is actually not spoken very often at all in the series, and Jack Lord’s thick, seemingly immovable hair. People can make whatever comments they want, but it’s hard to deny that the show was a huge success, and it’s easy to see why. The stories were always compelling crime dramas with great guest stars, clever mysteries, and good action scenes. Like some of the 60s and 70s’ best shows (like Star Trek and Bonanza) Hawaii Five-O features story styles that could switch episode to episode from drama to semi-comedy to espionage-based noir worthy of the early Bond movies. Jack Lord’s no-nonsense McGarrett was the series’ star and the glue that held the show together. 

3. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
Holmes is my favorite fictional character in the entire world. He’s been played by many fine actors on film, many of them quite good. But Jeremy Brett, in his 41 Holmes adaptations, from 1984 to 1994, was the most faithful to the character as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These are nearly perfect versions taken directly from the source material. Brett’s performance is magnificent, as are those of his two Watsons, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke. It was when I happened to walk into the living room of the house I grew up in to find my father watching the Holmes episode “The Devil’s Foot” when I was 11 years old, that I became hooked on Holmes and soon sought out the original stories. 27 years later, I’ve had six of my own Holmes stories published, with 2 more on the way, and, I hope, many more yet to be written. I have Jeremy Brett to thank for all that! Many people who know me well might expect Brett’s Holmes to be first on this list, but it’s third, because, as I said a moment ago, Jeremy Brett was, perhaps, the best, but he was not the only great Holmes. The top 2 spots had to go to actors who are now the only men I can accept as the detectives they so brilliantly portrayed.

2. Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo
Columbo was a unique character among TV detectives, with his stories being not whodunits, but, as someone once pointed out, how-catch-ems, meaning that we, the viewers, knew from the opening scenes who had committed the murder, and, probably, so did our title character, a disheveled little man who latched onto his suspects like an annoying tick, not letting go until he’d just-one-more-thinged them to the point of gathering enough evidence to put them away. These were brilliant stories starring one of the greatest actors ever to grace the silver or small screens. I probably saw Columbo even earlier than my first exposure to Sherlock Holmes, and I still admire the series and Falk’s work to this day. One of my favorite conversations I’ve ever had involved discussing the brilliance of Pete Falk with Robert Culp, an actor who played a murderer on Columbo no less than 4 times. As far as I’m concerned, Peter Falk was Columbo, and if the occasional rumors of a rebooted, recast version ever turn out to be true, my head may literally explode, so somebody needs to keep a mop close by.

1. David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
How could the first spot on this list go to anyone else? Hercule Poirot is easily my second favorite literary detective, after Holmes, and most adaptations previous to 1989 had been less than faithful to the character Agatha Christie put on paper. David Suchet, over a span of nearly 25 years, starred in TV adaptations of almost every one of Christie’s Poirot novels or short stories, for a total of 70 episodes or TV movies. Suchet meticulously researched the role and perfected it in a way no previous actor had (and, I think, no one else ever will, for perfection cannot be improved). His Poirot is an extraordinary accomplishment, and watching an episode transports the viewer to a different time and place. The glorious opening theme music pulls us in and we’re spellbound until the conclusion of the mystery. I would go so far as to call Suchet’s little Belgian detective the finest adaptation of a literary character I have ever seen. Of course, I also have to mention the superb supporting cast of Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings, Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp, and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon, whose contributions to the stories and interactions with Poirot added to the show's many layers of charm. 

And that's the list. I'd like to extend my thanks to all the actors, writers, directors, and producers of these fine detective shows, as well as the original creators of the characters and the mysteries in which they found themselves entangled.