Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Magnificent music by Philippe Rogier

Philippe Rogier: Music from the Missae Sex  
Magnificat; Philip Cave, director
His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts

This outstanding recording by Magnificat features a set of masses by Philippe Rogier. Missa Inclita stirps Jesse is a parody mass, one of the higher expressions of a composer’s skill back in the 1500’s. The idea was to take an opening polyphonic theme from another composer’s work (in this case Jacobus Clemens’ motet Inclita stirps Jesse), and develop the material in a different way. The quoted (or “parodied”) material would begin each part of the mass.

Rogier was from France, but made his fortune in the court of the Spanish king, Philip II. These choral works are very clean, and spare. There’s no mere filling in harmonies here – each vocal line has a purpose. The Missa Inclita stirps Jesse is a fine example of high renaissance counterpoint, with the motifs expanding outward in ever more complex (yet transparent) patterns.

Rogier’s Missa Philippus Secoundus Rex Hispaniae takes its theme from the musical spelling of King Philip’s name. Despite its rather unmusical origin, Rogier makes it the foundation for a mass that’s an amazing compositional tour de force. His Majesty's Sagbutts and Cornetts join Magnificat for this work, doubling the vocal lines and shading them in subtle ways. This is indeed music to pull one’s mind to higher things.

Cudos go to Maginifcat, directed by Philip Cave. This early music vocal ensemble has a wonderful blend. The ensemble can be a seamless blend of sound when it needs to be, and clearly articulating multiple lines of counterpoint at other times.

And added bonus is the release of this recording in SACD format. The album is beautifully recorded, but to get the full effect of the performing space (something never far from any renaissance composer’s mind), one should really hear it through the SACD multi-channel format. Rogier’s counterpoint depends on the special relationships between the voices as well as the harmonic – it’s the difference between a 2D and a 3D image.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Spanish Cape Mystery

I watched The Spanish Cape Mystery last night. This 1935 picture marked the first on-screen appearance of Ellery Queen, the king of deductive detectives. It was an interesting and entertaining enough film, although viewing it some 75 years after release gave it an added twist or two.

As I watched, I wondered how many of the detective story tropes I saw had descended into cliche even by 1935. The story (which varies from the original novel by the same name) involves a group of hangers-on in a mansion attempting to gain their share of a multi-million-dollar inheritance. Not only is everyone apparently capable of murder, but they dislike each other enough that they all have sufficient motive to bump off any of the others -- which of course begins to happen.

There's a significant red herring that draws everyone's attention (why does the murderer dress the victims in their bathing suits?) but only Queen can see the true reason. Which leads to the second cliche; the baffling solution. Ellery Queen provides the puzzled sheriff with a cryptic clue, "look for the man with black spots before his eyes," but never explains to the police exactly what that means -- or who he's referring to.

It's great for a story, but while he's being clever, two more people get killed.

I did enjoy watching it, but The Spanish Cape Mystery is in no way great art.

And, looking at it through the lens of time, part of my enjoyment came from the awareness of just how much storytelling has evolved in film. In this movie, scene changes are done by fading completely to black, and then slowly fading back in. Far too slow for today's tastes. And the dialogue, while moderately witty, was delivered at a very measured pace: line (pause) response (pause) next line (pause) next response.

As I watched the story unfold (slowly), I kept wondering if a little judicious editing wouldn't help pick up the pace.

There was one plus to this film, though, that modern franchise movie makers should take note of. The movie starts with Ellery Queen in mid-career. There's no long origin story. The movie starts with the ninth book in the series with Ellery Queen going on vacation to get a break from all that crime-solving!

So to all you comic-book movie auteurs, forget the scene one/day one mindset. Just start the story and go. The fans are already up to speed, and everyone else will be familiar enough with the character to stay with it.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Intimations of Mortality

Slate Magazine published Last Notes an excellent piece about the final words (and works) of some famous composers. Part of the thrust of the piece was that there is an end to life, and how the creative artist deals with it.

Personally (after a bout with cancer),  I'm comfortable with a life that has a beginning and an end. Like a good story, the limits help give it meaning and definition.

I've thought quite a lot this past year about numbers. Because my life has an end point, I will only write a set number of blog posts, for example. I don't know how many, or when I'll stop, but at best I can only keep writing till my dying day (unless technology advances sufficiently to write from beyond this life).

And that finiteness helps me appreciate things more. Some final events (like the ones in the article) will be marked -- last day of work, last day owning our current car, last mortgage payment -- but some won't. I will hear my favorite song for the last time at some point -- maybe I already have. At least I can say I enjoyed it every time it played.

All of the normal daily routines will stop at some point, either by choice or circumstance. But that's all right. Because that will give them meaning. In a straight line that extends infinitely in both directions, there's no way to tell which points are the best, because the set of them is open-ended. With a finite number of days, it's possible to mark the lows -- and the highs.

Don't worry -- nothing dire in my personal life prompted this post. Just an appreciation for the arc of the story.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mutable Traditions

We tend to think of traditions as unchangeable, but they're really not. They provide a certain continuity, but they do change over time. Take Christmas lights, for example.

When we first set up housekeeping, we were given some vintage Christmas lights to trim our first tree. They were similar to the ones I grew up with -- large and wired in sequence (so when one goes out, they all go out). It wasn't long before replaced them with minilights. And this year, we replaced them with LED lights.

The tradition of stringing the tree with lights didn't change, but the type of lights did. Each change brought a different type of illumination to the tree. So the tree we have now has a substantially different appearance than the ones from Christmases past.

These were obvious changes, but each year there are other more subtle differences that we don't always notice.

Its a wonderful time of year, and for me part of the appeal is that it's never quite the same as it was before.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Unintentional Irony

On our way back home from Thanksgiving, we happened to drive through a small town. This unusual gift shop caught my eye. Outside were a number of signs. One sternly proclaimed that all the goods were American Made.

 OK, a lot of people feel strongly about that. No problem here. Other signs advertised Military Supplies and Tactical and Hunting Supplies.

I don't have a problem with hunting -- especially after having four different collisions with deer in as many vehicles. I'm not quite sure what "tactical supplies" might be (tackle?), but still, no worries.

But it was the other signs admonishing the reader to Put the Christ in Christmas that  I found interesting. Because one was right next to the sign for Military Supplies.

See, Christ had very strong opinions about using weapons, even in self-defense.

Here's what happened when armed soldiers came to arrest him:

Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus and took him. And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." 

 - Matthew 26: 50-52 

The story -- with Jesus' admonishment -- is also told in Luke and John.

So, to me anyway, selling military supplies seems somewhat incompatible with the notion of  putting Christ into Christmas. I mean, if you feel that strongly about  the Prince of Peace...

Friday, November 25, 2011

CCC 06 - Michael Daugherty

American composer Michael Daugherty is the featured artist this time for the Consonant Classical Challenge.

Daugherty's gained a great deal of acclaim for his orchestral work, the Metropolis Symphony. It's an exciting and accessible composition, and you don't have to know a lot of the Superman mythos to enjoy it. Here's the first movement, Lex Luthor. It starts out with a trio of police whistles -- appropriate accompaniment for a master criminal! What follows is music that's mischievous rather than malevolent, as befitting a Golden Age comic book villain.  Listen to the masterful orchestration, too -- this is a score that would be right at home in a feature film.

Daugherty's long been fascinated with pop culture, and his music uses a vocabulary that many non-classical listeners could readily understand. At the same time, Daugherty's compositions are meticulously constructed and has plenty of substance in it for the serious classical music listener.

A partial listing of his compositions will give you a good idea of how thoroughly Daugherty is emeshed in the elements and icons that are as familiar to audiences today as Greek mythology was to 17th Century audiences:Route 66, Bay of Pigs for classical guitar and string orchestra; Spaghetti Western for English Horn and Orchestra; the opera "Jackie O," Shaken Not Stirred for percussion and electric bass, Dead Elvis for bassoon and chamber orchestra, and the work below, Desi.

Michael Daugherty injects an element of fun in many of his compositions, but this isn't novelty music. His compositions are very much written for audiences here and now, and should have great appeal both to classical and non-classical audiences. And they're works that should hold up well in the future, too.

Fun, appealing, relevant, and well written. Why don't more orchestras lighten up and program Daugherty's music? I don't know either.

Recommended Recordings;

Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony

Michael Daugherty: Philadelphia Stories; UFO

Daugherty: Route 66; Ghost Ranch; Sunset Strip; Time Machine

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Transient Traditions

Some of my ancestors. Their Thanksgiving traditions
changed over time, too.

It's common to think of Thanksgiving in terms of family traditions, but I'm often struck with how transient those traditions are.

As a young child, we always went to Grandma's house, and the menu was always the same. But as my mother took over the cooking, there was a subtle shift. Mom's rolls were delicious, but they didn't quite taste like Grandma's. And the supporting cast changed, too. The neighbors on either side of Grandma always came to dinner, but eventually they aged and moved away (or passed on).

After Grandma died, the Thanksgiving table became smaller, until my sister and I were married and our spouses were part of the gathering. But that also changed things. Because my wife and I alternated between her family home and mine for the holidays -- so sometimes we weren't there. And when my Mom could no longer put on Thanksgiving, we started having my parents over to our house for the meal. A different menu again, based on my wife's family traditions.

When Mom passed on, my Dad would either come down for Thanksgiving, or more often just go to a restaurant with my sister (who was now divorced), while we usually went to my wife's family. As for our children, well, they sometimes join us and other times spend the holiday with their own friends.

One tradition remained -- we always took a photo of everyone gathered around the table. And I realize now that we could probably date those photos by where they were taken, who's in the photo, and what's on the table.

Thanksgiving is a traditional time for family, but it's not an immutable one. The mix of relatives (and food) will resemble those of holidays past, but also have something new, as time continues to change us all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Minimally Successful

There were two things I wanted to accomplish as a young man:

1) Have my music performed and recorded professionally.

2) Have my creative writings published professionally.

Well, as of today both those things happened -- but I have to say if there's a way to accomplish these goals in the smallest way possible, I managed to do it.

The music
As a classical composer, I've written over forty works, including a symphony, some smaller pieces for string orchestra, two string quartets, several collections of short piano pieces, and some chamber music as well. And some of it has been performed by professional ensembles.

But only one of my compositions has been recorded professionally. It's an early work of mine entitled "Three Etudes," Op. 2. They are three very short (each one is under a minute) little pieces for piano, written primarily as a composition exercise. The etudes were originally recorded by Robert Ian Winstin for the ERM label, and appeared on his release Piano Art. Very nice, but it's out of print.

Pianist Leanne Rees really liked the etudes, or at least the third one. She performed it in concert for a while, and was kind enough to include it on her album Women Composers & the Men In Their Lives released on Fleur de Son.

The writing
As readers of this blog know, I write continually. Professionally, I write articles, reviews, and other technical copy. I enjoy it, but it's not creative writing. Yes, I've written six novels, but they're definitely not ready for prime time.

But I do participate in the #operaplot contest, and have placed in the finals two years running. And that earned me my second goal. Because the contest winners were published as part of the Best Music Writing 2011 by Dacapo Press. Which means that I am now a published author (I got paid, and I'll get a copy of the book, so there).

So there it is.

I've now technically accomplished both my goals with a one-minute piano piece and a 140-character tweet.

Somehow, I don't have the feeling of accomplishment I thought I would....

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A brush with greatness

 I've been commenting on the changes in Dick Tracy recently, and I actually received a comment on one of my posts -- from Mike Curtis, the writer for the strip!

It's one of the things I like about the Internet. It's possible to communicate directly with some of the folks you admire, more so then in the olden days of pen and paper letters. Through Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter I've had interesting conversations with authors, broadcasters, composers, and performers whose works I admire.

Mike Curtis may not be a household name (Chester Gould probably wasn't either), but I'm still flattered that the writer of a major comic strip would read -- and take the time to comment -- on my post.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Virtual Packing

I know I'm not the only one preparing to go out of town. And I'm not the only one to go off the grid at the same time. We'll be spending Thanksgiving at a home where there's no Internet access, so I'll be offline for a few days.

It's not a bad situation -- I can always sneak down to the public library or other Wi-Fi hotspot if I want to check on things. And it is nice to just get away from the virtual world for awhile.

But for me, it means some additional packing.

Just like I'll be laying out the clothes I'll want to wear three or four days into the future, I'll also have to pack my social networks with content, too. I'll have to write some blog posts and schedule them to publish while I'm gone. I've already scheduled some Tweets and Facebook status updates. Nothing extensive, just some things to keep my feeds current.

Just one more thing to do before we hit the road!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trains at Christmas Model Trains Show & Sale -- the bad

Yesterday I talked about all the things that were right about the  "Trains at Christmas" Model Train Show and Sale in Fredericksburg, VA my novice friend and I attended. There were a few things I didn't like that I think are worth talking about. First, because it may help others putting on similar events, and second because it may help folks attending to better know what they're getting into.

Aggressive marketing

There weren't many vendors in the small hall, and that was fine. My friend had brought me along to help explain what he was seeing and to put things into context. A few of the vendors let us browse, but most wouldn't.

I was often interrupted with an irrelevant -- and hard sell -- pitch. As I  was trying to tell my friend a little history behind the piece we were looking at, the vendor would come on with how it was a great deal, we should buy it at once, it was a rare collector's item, etc.

There were some sketchy items further down this aisle
-- if you knew what you were looking at.
Well, if either of us had asked about the piece, that kind of talk would have been appropriate. But to have it interjected into what was actually a private conversation was neither warranted nor appropriate (and let me be clear -- we were close to, but not next to the table, and neither of us touched the items for sale).

Novice pricing

The mix of stuff offered by most of the vendors was the odd-lot sort of stuff you see in flea markets and antique stores -- and priced about the same.

My impression was that the sellers were hoping the visitors would have no idea of the value of their offerings actually were, and presented everything as a "collector's item."

And that's something I had a problem with. I saw locomotives with poorly retouched paint being sold with no indication that they were not in original condition (and yes, that does affect value). There were items with replacement parts that were priced as original, items with parts missing priced as if they were complete, and stuff thrown together and called a "set" (and priced accordingly).

It's the kind of stuff that wouldn't get past the Train Collector's Association Standards Committee at a TCA meet, but here it was buyer beware. And if the aim of the show is to get people interested in the hobby of model railroading, starting off by cheating them doesn't seem to be the best course of action.

You could make that case that if both parties were happy with the transaction, then there's no harm -- but eventually the buyer will find out the real value of what he has. And when that happens, one party won't be happy, and the other will be long gone.

To be fair, there were other vendors there who had items that were reasonably priced and were perfectly willing to let us browse unmolested. If they had been in the majority, then I wouldn't have written this post at all.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Trains at Christmas Model Trains Show & Sale - the good

 A friend of mine asked me to come with him to the "Trains at Christmas" Model Train Show and Sale in Fredericksburg, VA. Now this was a modest affair -- especially compared with the bi-annual Train Collector's Association meets at York, PA (normal attendance 15,000). But that's alright this show had an entirely different focus. The goal was to introduce the hobby of toy train operation and model railroading to kids and adults.

And in that sense, I think it was very successful.

There were operating layouts in all of the gauges, which gave the casual visitor (like my friend) to understand the relationships between the scales in terms of size, and operation. Greeting us upon entry was a large Christmas tree with a G-Gauge set circling underneath. That made a very good first impression, especially to the kids coming through the door.

Although not part of the core demographic, my friend enjoyed
the Thomas the Tank Engine HO layout.
Close by was an HO-scale static display, a section of rail yard showing the possibilities for realistic modelling. Next to it was an HO Thomas the Tank Engine layout as well, which also seemed to be a big hit.

The organizers also had a modular O-Gauge layout, and one for S-Gauge, so folks could see the trains of their youth in operation. The S-Gauge layout was very well done.

The O-Gauge was pretty sparse -- just indoor/outdoor carpet over plywood. But still, there's nothing quite like the excitement of the trains zipping around the track.

Paart of the S-Gauge modular display.
There was even an N-scale layout, showing what could be done in an extremely limited space.

I overheard a lot of fathers talking to their children about the trains they used to have, and I'm sure the interest in them was rekindled in a few. My friend had a good time, and had a chance to see the scope of model railroading and toy trains. So it was good show for him, too. On the whole, well done. But I did have a few issues, which I'll share tomorrow.

Friday, November 18, 2011

CCC 05 - Michael Torke

Michael Torke is our next selection in the Consonant Classical Challenge.

Torke has defined himself as a post-minimalist composer, and that's a pretty good description. His music definitely has the same forward motion as that of minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. And his harmonies are mostly based on major and minor triads. The difference is, though, that Torke's melodies are more organic and engaging than the brief motifs of the minimalists.

Here's an excerpt from his percussion concerto, Rapture. Now the very thought of the percussion center being front and center in a concert is enough to send many bluehairs heading for the exits. But give this a listen. Sure, it's rhythmical, but it's also tuneful. Especially the percussion parts. There are melodic motives being laid out by the drums that the orchestra picks up and develops. And notice how tonal everything is -- nothing here harmonically that Vivaldi would find too far out. But the orchestration and structure places it clearly in the here and now. 

Or how about this selection from Torke's work "An American Abroad?" It has a nodding acquaintance with Gershwin's "An American in Paris." The music has the same bustling optimism, and a hint of American jazz. But this isn't the 1930's, and the voice is Torke's own.

I think what makes Torke's music so appealing is that, even when it's quiet and contemplative, it's always bristling with energy. Contemporary classical music can be tonal -- but it doesn't have to be derivative and boring.

Want the next generation to become concert-goers? Then how about programming music by someone who speaks their musical language?

Recommended recordings:

Michael Torke: Tahiti

Michael Torke: Rapture; An American Abroad; Jasper

Javelin: The Music of Michael Torke

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Inspiration, Month 2

Tuesday marked the second month of my experiment in creativity. To briefly recap, on September 15th I was inspired by Ira Glass' thoughts on creativity. His premise that one becomes more creative by creating more made sense to me. So to improve the creative level of this blog, I made myself do a daily post, rather than whenever I felt like it.

It's been mostly successful. Tuesday I was focused in on the National November Writing Month challenge, and completely forgot about this other milestone. So that's something, I think.

I was hoping to learn how to say more with less, thereby decreasing time spent writing the posts. I'm not quite there yet, so I'll just have to keep on with the experiment. So here we go for at least another month....

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Riisager: The Symphonic Edition - An Unsung Composer Gets Heard

Knudage Riisager 
The Symphonic Edition, Vol. 1 
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
Bo Holten, conductor 

I have to admit I had never heard of Knudage Riisager before I received this CD (let alone any of his music). But after listening to this outstanding recording, I want to hear more.

Riisager is now recognized as one of Denmark’s greatest composers, although during his lifetime his music was received indifferently, forcing him to support himself in other ways. Riisager studied in Paris in the early 1920’s and was deeply influenced by the cadre of composers there. In this first volume of Riisager’s symphonic works, it’s easy to hear those influences.

Riisager’s orchestral music is written in a lush, post-romantic style, but no matter how many instruments are playing, it always sounds clean and transparent. That Ravel-like elegance is often offset by wry, humorous gestures that one might find in early Stravinsky or Prokofiev. The end result is a music that shows its influences, but remains absolutely unique.

This first volume presents Riisager’s first symphony and four symphonic tone poems. The tone poems, “Danish Pictures 1-4” reference various aspects of Danish life and culture. Structurally, they remind me a little of Richard Strauss’ tone poems. Collectively, the four Danish Pictures show a lot of imagination, both in terms of melodic invention and orchestration.

 Riisager’s first symphony is pleasant work of somewhat modest ambitions, but it succeeds completely in its intent. The structure is well-defined, and the music just sort of ambles along from one major theme to another. And what themes! They’re all very attractive, practically inviting the listener to hum along. The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra plays these works with confidence and precision. Conductor Bo Holten is a composer as well, which may be why the works on this album coalesce so beautifully. The performers believe in this music, and that attitude is infectious.

I'll be revisiting this recording often.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nanowrimo - Halfway through, and halfway there

Today marks the halfway point for the National November Writing Month challenge. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I've done this before, and every year the experience has been a little bit different (I'm hoping that these experiences will collectively make me a better writer).

This year, the words have just flowed. I've been diligently writing every morning, and in an hour and half session manage about 16,000 words -- a little over 500 words a half hour. And halfway through the challenge, I've written 25,188 words. So I'm right on track.

Of course, this is a challenge about quantity, not quality. I suspect when I get finished, I'll have a solid 30,000 word book buried in there somewhere. But that's alright. Because one of the points of this event is to turn off the internal editor that blocks the free flow of ideas and just get them out on  paper (or screen) to work with.

"The Crime Broker" is significantly off track from my outline. Oh, I'll hit the key points -- but characters have blended together, events have shifted around, and one of the recurring characters in this series I wanted to use just doesn't seem to fit in with the story as its moving right now.

To celebrate the halfway point, here's the chapter I just finished. If you check the outline, you'll see it's not there. But it does continue the thread started by the arrival of Ned Callahan. Gosh, I wonder how it will all end....

(Remember: this is a first draft with no edits. Also, this is an homage to the pulp adventure magazines of the 1930's so picture the action taking place in the New York City of the old black-and-white gangster movies.)

The Crime Broker
by Ralph Graves

Chapter 14 – Desperate Race

Raven slipped into the dark alley across the street from Palentino’s apartment. He had waited until the three thugs had departed. He heard a soft footfall behind him. It was Crow.

“I couldn’t signal the last part of the plan,” he said, not turning around. 

Crow came up behind him. “I contacted MacGuffey,” Crow said, “He’s ready and waiting.”

“Not for what’s coming,” replied Raven. “C’mon. I’ll fill you in. We’ve got to stop an ambulance!”

MacGuffey had hand-picked each man who accompanied him that evening. Every one a seasoned veteran of the force. When he captured the man who killed Ned Callahan, he didn’t want any slip-ups – or any more fatalities.

The trucks were to travel a winding route to the garment district. MacGuffey was familiar with the area the hijacking was to take place. It was an industrial area, with blocks of light manufacturing and warehouses. Plenty of places to hide in ambush, and plenty of large, double-door structures that could hide away the stolen trucks.

The truck he was riding jostled him gently as it moved down the street. Mac had to concede that Palentino had a good plan – but he had a better one.

Two black roadsters sped towards Bankroft Memorial Hospital. In the front car was Raven. He had been unable to reach Mac, and with the lead Tom and Butch had, the only option was to intercept them. Crow drove the second. The two didn’t really have a plan – but years of training had attuned the two so that they worked as a team even in the most surprising of circumstances.

Raven glanced at the dashboard’s clock. 7:10. Within five minutes Butch and Tom were scheduled to steal the ambulance, and he and Crow were still seven minutes away! Raven’s foot bore down on the gas pedal. He wove the roadster through the slow-moving traffic with the expert handling of a race  car driver. Crow remained right on his tail.

Soon the small hospital was insight. Jut one block more! As Raven approached the intersection, he saw an ambulance lurch out of the emergency exit and careen into the streets. It zoomed through the intersection, against the light. Tires squealed as surprised motorists slammed on their breaks. The ambulance made a hard right, and rocketed down a side street, its siren clearing the way ahead of it.

“Could it be – ?” Raven asked himself as the ambulance  sped past him. As if to answer, an orange flame sputtered from the right side of the ambulance, and storefront windows collapsed, their shattered glass cascading into the streets.

Raven flashed his lights and turned left in pursuit. Crow caught the signal and sped straight through the intersection and up a block. There he turned left as well, tearing down the parallel street at a breakneck pace.

The wailing siren of the runaway ambulance attracted the attention of pedestrians – the ugly snout of the machine gun sticking out the cab window sent them scurrying for cover. Tom laughed as he sprayed slugs out over the sidewalk.

Palentino dropped his cigarette to the cement floor of the warehouse and crushed it with his foot. The lookout at the dirt-encrusted window had just given him the high sign.

“OK, you mugs, pile in,” he said. The mobsters clambered into the two panel vans parked inside the warehouse. The lookout opened the warehouse doors, and hopped aboard the second van as it drove out into the street.

The large transports carrying the furs were easy to spot. They lumbered slowly up the block. Their sides bore the markings of a large trucking company, but Palentino had been given the truck numbers – the white numerals above the cabs told him these were the right ones.

The driver of the front transport saw two small panel vans approach on the left. In this area, trucks of all sizes were a common sight, but forewarned of the hijacking, he eyed the approaching vehicles with suspicion.

One pulled in line behind the two fur transports and the other swerved out and roared past the large trucks and slipped back into the lane just ahead of them.  The parade of four trucks continued for another block. At this point, the street narrowed. Once the trailing van had past the intersection, Palentino struck.

The lead van suddenly whipped to the left and stopped, completely blocking the street. The other van did the same. Armed men piled out of both vehicles. All had caps pulled down over their foreheads, with dark bandanas tied across the lower half of their faces.

The drivers of the two transports had no choice but to stop their vehicles. Even if the lead truck had smashed into the van blocking the street, at the slow rate of speed it was traveling, it couldn’t push the smaller truck aside and break free from the trap.

Brandishing their weapons, the robbers swarmed over the stalled convoy. Automatics were thrust through the cab windows. The drivers, with arms raised, were pulled from the trucks while gang members slide into their seats. The transport drivers were each slugged in the back of the head, and abandoned by the gang as they scurried back to their waiting van.

The bodies slumped to the pavement as the trucks were kicked back into gear. With sure command, the driver of the lead van whipped the vehicle back into the street and lead the three other trucks down the block.

At the next block, the van turned left into the waiting open doors of an abandoned warehouse. The two transport trucks roared in after them. The trailing van followed, and when it had cleared the entrance, the doors slid shut.

Within two minutes it was all over. Crime had struck, and a fortune in valuable furs had seemingly disappeared into thin air!

Raven cursed and tromped the accelerator to the floorboard. The roadster leaped forward with a sudden burst of speed. In a nondescript garage near the East Side, Raymond and Carlton maintained a special fleet of vehicles for Raven’s use. The roadsters that Raven and Crow drove in pursuit of the ambulance seemed to be ordinary cars, but inside their hoods were powerful motors designed for terrific speeds.

Within moments Raven was directly behind the ambulance. The white juggernaut hurtled down the avenue with seeming abandon, occasionally whipping into oncoming traffic, forcing cars to vere aside. A few hopped the curb, and one crashed into a street lamp, causing further mayhem.

When the ambulance next moved to the left to panic oncoming traffic, Raven made his move. His roadster surged ahead, to run parallel to the ambulance.

In the cab of the ambulance, Butch drove with intense concentration. Although causing accidents, he had kept the vehicle from being involved with one. But his skillful driving occupied all his attention.

Tom, on the other hand, seemingly enjoyed the wild ride with abandon. He had emptied his tommy gun indiscriminately out the side of the cab, punching holes in parked cars, chipping pavement and smashing windows. He hadn’t wounded a pedestrian yet, but hoped to have better luck with his next round of ammunition.

He laughed crazily as snapped the drum magazine into place on his smoking machine gun.

“Some fun, eh?” Tom shouted to Butch. Butch grunted. He swerved again into oncoming traffic and saw in the rear view mirror a dark roadster move to his right. Tom saw the roadster pull alongside just as he slung his tommy gun up. He aimed the weapon at the driver of the roadster.

His laughter abruptly cut short. As the two vehicles raced down the street, Tom could clearly see the face of the driver. He recognized the peculiar blue-black jacket and the black turtleneck sweater. He recognized the black, bushy hair and walrus mustache of the man. But more, he recognized the cold, steely gaze of Raven.

With a snarl, Tom pulled the trigger of his machine gun. Slugs splayed off the side of the roadster, and he realized in surprise that it was armored! He aimed a second burst straight at the face of Raven, smouldering with fury. The glass of the roadster’s door scratched and starred, but didn’t break.

Through the marred surface of the bullet-proof glass Tom could still see those cold eyes.

He turned to Butch. “It’s Raven! We gotta get outta here.”

Butch nodded and shifted gears. The ambulance started to pull slightly ahead.  Tom watched in horror as Raven calmly matched the vehicle’s speed, then turn slowly to the left. The roadster’s fenders ground against the side of the ambulance, sending off showers of sparks.

Butch fought desperately for control, trying to push the ambulance to the right. Raven gave ground, and the ambulance moved out of oncoming traffic. But the two vehicles remained locked together. Butch pulled the wheel to the right, hoping to force Raven into the curb. The roadster maintained its course.

He tried again, but without success. The two vehicles hurtled down the avenue at top speed, side by side. They neared an intersection. “Take a left here!” Tom said. “We’ve got to shake this guy!”

Butch nodded again, and crossed his arms over each other. When they reached the intersection, he would be prepared to spin the steering wheel, causing the ambulance to veer off suddenly – hopefully too suddenly for Raven to react.

Though the crooks had forgotten the ambulance’s sirens on, the wailing had helped clear the streets. Hearing the klaxon call, drivers had left the intersection open for the oncoming ambulance. As it entered the intersection, Raven stomped on the brakes. The roadster dropped away from ambulance.

Tom shouted a cry of triumph and Butch readied himself to make the turn. As he began to do so, he saw movement on his left. Another dark roadster came barreling down the side street.

There was no time to react. Butch saw the driver’s side door pop open and a figure roll out, then the roadster smashed into the ambulance, just as it turned into the path of the oncoming car.

The impact crumpled the front of the ambulance and sent it spinning clockwise back into the intersection. The roadster stopped cold, its radiator collapsed into the motor. Butch was hurtled across the cab by the impact, smashing into Tom who in turn was crushed against the right door.

The ambulance continued its spin, pivoting on its right rear wheel. As the tire ground against the pavement, it exploded, dropping the rear of the ambulance. The white juggernaut tilted slightly, then fell on its side as it completed the spin.

Raven’s roadster skidded to a halt halfway into the intersection. It had taken all of Crow’s skill to leap from his car and land in the street without injury. As his vehicle had crashed into the ambulance, he had rolled to the curb and onto his feet in one smooth motion. Without pause, he ran into the intersection and past the wreck.

A quick glance confirmed that both Butch and Tom were out cold. The distinct wail of a police siren meant the authorities were on their way. Crow ran to Raven’s car.

Just as the stunned onlookers began to react to the crash, Crow opened the door of the waiting roadster, and climbed in as the car roared off. Crime had been blocked!

Inside the warehouse, Palentino was giving orders. He had the transports pull alongside two other large trucks already parked in the cavernous structure.

“OK, boys, make it snappy. Get them bolt cutters and let’s get the locks off of those doors. We need to get them furs out of those trucks and into ours pronto. I want to be long gone before the cops start searching the neighborhood.”

Almost at the same moment, the bolt cutters bit through the links and the ruined locks clattered on the concrete floor of the warehouse. The crooks threw open the doors of the hijacked trucks. Palentino beheld the sight with satifaction. Rich, luxurious furs and ermines hung in racks, filling each truck.

His face broke out into a large, satisfied grin. A grin that quickly faded. Emerging from the forest of furs came uniformed policemen, armed with machine guns and riot guns. A grizzled plainclothes detective with unruly red hair stepped out from behind a fur coat, a large revolver gripped in his hand. His face was hard.

“You’re all under arrest,” he said in a quiet, menacing voice. Mac glared at Palentino and leveled his revolver at the crook. “You’d better come along quietly, because I am looking for any excuse to shoot you down the way you did Ned Callahan.”

Palentino blanched, and he slowly raised his hands. Sensing that Mac was deadly serious, the other crooks did the same.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Dick Tracy and the Phony Funny

Comic strips can provide a moment's entertainment. But skilled creators can make this simple art form multi-layered to appeal both to the casual reader, and those who look for more in their entertainment. (click on image to enlarge)

This particular sequence provided more than a few seconds of reading. Mike Curtis and Joe Staton worked something very clever into this one. You may recall that recently Tracy ran into Vera Alldid, former cartoonist, and referenced a discontinued comic strip. In a later sequence, Tracy called the Flash, bringing in yet another defunct classic comic. So when Sam Ketchum states his favorite strip was "Derby Dugan," I thought it was yet another reference to a Golden Age newspaper strip.

Except it was one I had never heard of.

That's not too exceptional. There were many comics that came and went since the format was introduced in the 1900's. Just take a look at the archives of Barnacle Press, for example - most of the titles are cyphers to me.

I was curious, though, so I researched Derby Dugan, and discovered the Easter Egg written into the strip. It turns out that Derby Dugan is the subject of a trilogy of novels by Tom De Haven. De Haven's narrative arc is set in the world of newspaper comics (and real life personalities) in the early part of the century (Funny Papers: A Novel ), the 1930's (Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies: A Novel ), and the 1960's (Dugan Under Ground: A Novel ). The books feature different heroes all involved (in some fashion) with the fictional comic strip "Derby Dugan."

A simply line in Dick Tracy, that helped me discover a new author (and series) I'm anxious to read. Not bad for a three panel daily!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ethereal History Revisited

Back in 2007 I wrote a post about the ephemeral nature of radio. No matter how talented the announcer, his fame is more fleeting than others. Because, for the most part, as soon as audio is broadcast, it's gone. In my post I talked about the legacy of Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver, the morning team at WMAL 630 AM in Washington, DC for 32 years.

Although Harden and Weaver were a part of Washington culture, once they retired the morning show changed and their legacy vanished.

Fortunately, it appears I was wrong. I recently ran across this audio clip on YouTube (yes, there's video, but it's filler). "JKlem," a copywriter for WMAL back in the day posted some audio he had of a typical Harden and Weaver broadcast from 1970. It's an amazing time capsule, and although some of their most famous characters and segments are missing, it can give you a good idea of what their show was like.

At one point in time, one-quarter of the Washington area audience tuned in to Harden and Weaver. Their conversational, gentle banter made them everyone's neighbor, as you'll hear. And if you listen carefully, you'll also hear two other Washington DC radio legends -- Willard Scott and Ed Walker, AKA the Joy Boys. They do the commercial for Ted Britt Ford at 7:10, and  Willard Scott returns in an ad at 16:30.

There's more to personality radio than shouting pundits. Let Harden and Weaver demonstrate.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dick Tracy and Brenda Starr

My appreciation for the revamped Dick Tracy continues to grow. In a recent sequence Mike Curtis and Joe Staton had Tracy checking some facts with a contact at a newspaper. But it wasn't just any newspaper, and it wasn't just any source. Long-time comics readers instantly recognized Hank O'Hair in the offices of the Flash -- Brenda Starr's editor.

Brenda Starr, Reporter started in 1940, nine years after Dick Tracy. Dale Messick's strip about the adventurous girl reporter underwent several changes, and despite top-notch writing and artwork by  Mary Schmirch and June Brigman, Brenda Starr was discontinued in January, 2011.

Curtis and Staton could have had Tracy call any paper and talk to any editor to get the information necessary to forward their story. To make it Hank O'Hair of the Flash was a nice tip'o the hat to another great comic strip. (click on the image to enlarge)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nanowrimo - Ringing those changes

The National November Writing Month Challenge's official motto is "Writing with Abandon."  And it's true. Trying to crank out a 50,0000-word novel while working a day job leaves little time to do more than type at a breakneck pace.

But that's what I like about it. Because of the time constraints, I have to turn off my internal editor and just write. It's a great exercise, and always produces some surprising results. I've posted a couple of times about a seemingly random character that popped up in chapter one of my novel. Ned Callahan came straight from my subconscious  mind --  he wasn't in my plot outline, and until my fingers typed out his name, he was just another anonymous spear-carrier.

Although  he was killed off in the second chapter, his death was not in vain. It's providing the personal motivation of one of the major characters to pursue the villain. You can read Chapter 1 here and Chapter 2 here.  I recently wrote this sequence in the middle of Chapter 7.

(Remember, what you're reading is the first draft, completely unedited. Also, my story, "The Crime Broker" is an homage to the adventure stories of the 1930's and hopes to capture the over-the-top writing style of the pulps.)

The doors of the restaurant burst open and a stream of uniformed officers poured in, guns drawn. The seedy establishment in the heart of the slums was a well-known underworld hangout. The diners – mostly hard-looking men, leaped from their chairs in surprise. A few instinctively reached for their guns.

“Don’t try it, boyo,” barked MacGuffey, storming in the door through the sea of policemen. He held a large revolver tightly in his fist. The belligerent thugs slowly lowered their hands.

“That’s better,” said MacGuffey, striding into the center of the room. He picked up an overturned chair and climbed up on it.

“Now listen, you mugs, and listen good. Someone’s bankrolling big time heists, and I want his name.”

The few gaudily-dressed women in the establishment looked nervously at their escorts, who pointedly ignored them. To a man, the assembled criminals in the room stared sullenly – and silently – up at the grizzled detective.

“So that’s the way it’s going to be, eh?” said MacGuffey. “Well get this, and get this good. In the last job a cop got bumped off, see? And you know what happens when there’s a cop-killer loose.”

He paused, and looked slowly around the room, returning glare for glare. “We take this town apart until we find him, that’s what.”

MacGuffey nodded contemptuously. “You birds think you’re smart. You think the guy we want’s going to make you big shots. Well, now he’s going to bring you nothing but trouble. You spread the word to your pals. We’ll be raiding joints like this every night until someone talks. And not just joints, either. Gambling houses, opium dens – whatever rackets you run, expect trouble and plenty.”

He hopped down from the chair. “Clancy, come here,” he said, motioning for the sergeant in charge of the squad. Mac took a cigar from his rumpled coat and pointed it at each man who had attempted to draw. “Take those birds down to headquarters. The charge is resisting arrest.” He pointed to the head waiter they had pushed aside when they entered. “Take him, too. And the rest of the staff. I have a feeling the health inspector will take one look at their kitchen and shut this joint down.”

Finally, he surveyed the crowd and pointed at five more men at random. “And take those guys, too. I just don’t like their looks.”

Policemen began hauling off the men singled out by MacGuffey, There was pandemonium as they loudly protested their innocence and demanded their lawyers. Some of the officers still stood facing the mobsters, holding them at bay.

“This is how it’s going to be,” shouted Mac to the remaining patrons. “This is how it’s going to be every night until I get a name.”

He turned and left the restaurant. The rest of the police squad backed out through the door, guns still trained on the mobsters.

“Yeah,” said Mac softly to himself. “This is how it’s going to be until I find the man who killed Ned Callahan.”


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Meta Tracy

 At first I didn't like the Dick Tracy reboot -- but it's starting to grow on me. I've always enjoyed the work of Joe Staton, from his first comics for Charlton (anyone remember Doomsday + 1 and E-man?) to his most recent work for Femme Noir, a female version of the Shadow. Included in the supporting cast was a policeman who looked a lot like... Dick Tracy.

It looks like Mike Curtis and Joe Staton have been given a bit more freedom than previous have been given a bit more freedom than previous post-creator Chester Gould creative teams. The artwork's picked up in quality, and the writing carries a subtext. One can read the strip at face value, but for the true comics fan there's an interesting subtext.

Take this week's sequence, for example. An old supporting character makes an appearance. When Chester Gould introduced comic strip artist Vera Alldid back in the 1960's, he did so in part to comment on what he saw as a disturbing trend in newspaper funnies. Editors were pushing for  more minimalist drawing from artists, so they could shrink the size of the panels. Also gag-a-day strips were becoming increasingly popular -- two trends that Gould felt squeezed him creatively.

In Dick Tracy, Vera Alldid was the creator of two immensely popular comic strips -- "Sawdust," and "The Invisible Tribe." Occasionally Gould let the reader see some of the strips. "Sawdust" was a play on "Peanuts." In this case, though, the art for each panel consisted of a small pile of dots from which word balloons sprouted. "The Invisible Tribe" carried the concept even further. The panels were blank, and only had word balloons. Take that, you no-talent hacks!

Vera Alldid married Sparkle Plenty (daughter of B.O. Plenty), but when fame and fortune went to Alldid's head, he divorced her and she later married Junior Tracy, Dick Tracy's adopted son.

Curtis and Staton brought him back for the current story arc, and what a change. (click on the images to enlarge)

Alldid's story reflects the state of comics -- especially adventure strips like Dick Tracy. Curtis and Staton are talking to their audience through Alldid. And for those who are comics fans, the final panel of the first sequence is a great punchline.

"Fearless Fosdick" was a comic strip within Al Capp's popular "Lil Abner" strip. It lampooned Dick Tracy, and Chester Gould absolutely hated it.

Times have changed.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

NaNoWriMo - A change for the.... better

So I was only one day into the National November Writing Month challenge when my novel jumped the tracks. As I outlined the problem in a previous post, a character popped up in the very first chapter who was not in the outline. I had no idea where he came from or why he was there.

But I do now.

By the end of Chapter Two, Ned Callahan was gone -- but he served his purpose.

Here's both chapters so you can see what happened.. Remember -- the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, not to edit it. So what you're reading is the first (and at the moment only) draft. And remember, this is an homage to the pulp adventure novels of the 1930's -- so read accordingly.

The Crime Broker

Chapter One – A City Besieged

Three police cars cut a swathe through late afternoon traffic in lower Manhattan, their blaring sirens creating a cacophony that echoed through the streets. Lieutenant Mike MacGuffey, riding in the lead car, leaned over to the driver. “Faster,” he said. The officer nodded and pushed the accelerator further into the floorboard.

The radio car surged forward, and the other two did likewise. MacGuffey chewed on an unlit cigar, his grizzled features scrunched together in worry. For the past two months, the city had been in the grip of crime. A series of robberies, each one more audacious than the last, had swept through New York.

MacGuffey absently scratched his head of coarse, rust-red hair. He and the officers of the three radio cars were responding to a silent alarm at Bennington’s, one of the city’s ritziest jewelers. If they could catch the thieves in the act, the police just might have a lead to the mastermind behind this crime wave.

“We’re four blocks away, Lieutenant,” said the driver. MacGuffey nodded and grabbed the radio microphone. “Attention Cars 7 and 23. Attention, Cars 7 and 23. This is Lieutenant MacGuffey. Turn off your sirens. I repeat. Turn off your sirens. We don’t want tip off those birds knocking over Bennington’s.”

The sound coming through the open car windows diminished somewhat. MacGuffey turned to glare at the driver. “You, too, knucklehead. Turn off that siren!”

The driver gulped nervously and complied. “Sorry, lieutenant, guess I wasn’t thinking.”

MacGuffey harrumphed, and the two policemen riding in the back grinned in anticipation. They had seen MacGuffey chew out patrolmen before, and knew he could make an art of it. Instead, the grizzled detective looked reflectively at the driver.

“New to the force?” he asked.

“Yes sir. I’ve been with the force three months, today.” The driver flashed a small smile, but did not take his eyes from the road as he continued to thread his way through lines of slower-moving vehicles.

“What’s your name, son?” asked MacGuffey.

“Ned Callahan,” he replied.

“Well, Callahan, a word of advice,” said MacGuffey. “We’re going into a very dangerous situation. Just keep your head about you, remember your training, and you’ll be fine.”

“Yes sir.”

“And one other thing,” added MacGuffey. “Follow my orders immediately.”

Callahan nodded.

The two other officers were a little disappointed, but not surprised at the exchange. In addition to being one of New York’s foremost detectives, MacGuffey had the distinction of being one of the best mentors on the force. Jim Rowland, the current police commissioner had trained under MacGuffey, and the two remained close. In fact, it was Rowland who had personally sent the red-headed detective out with the radio squad.

“Do what you can to bring them in alive, Mac,” the young commissioner had said. “We’ve got to stop this crime wave and fast.”

*  *  *
As the cars journeyed through Manhattan, Mac had outlined his plan via radio. Arriving at the block Bennington’s was on, the radio cars moved into position. Mac’s car, in the lead, drove to the end of the block and turned left to block traffic. The trailing car did the same, effectively sealing off the street. The middle car rolled up close to the curb in front of the store.

Mac and his men rolled out of their car. One of the officers walked forward into traffic to direct traffic away from the scene. Mac, Callahan, and the other policeman started up the block to the middle patrol car in a crouching run. The grizzled detective glanced up the block and noted with satisfaction that the men in the tail car had duplicated his actions. One remained behind, the other three made their way to the middle car.

The officers in that vehicle had exited through the left side, keeping the doors facing the jewelry store shut. They now huddled behind the patrol car with guns drawn, stealing an occasional glance over the hood or around the trunk.

Berrington’s storefront sported a modern, streamlined look. Rather than large plateglass windows, the store had inset polished black panels. Small windows in the panels displayed a few items of great value. The door had ornate chrome decoration and large, rounded bars for handles. The decoration served to obscure most of the view through the tinted glass door.

Nevertheless, it was possible to make out movement inside the store. Mac and his men arrived at the same time as the other three policemen. He peered over the still-warm car hood. Through the door he could see shadowy shapes in motion. Their outlines made it clear they were armed. One seemed to be patrolling the store, walking up and down, whirling unexpectedly from time to time as if startled. The other was making his way methodically down the row of display cases.

Filling a sack as he goes, no doubt, thought Mac. He looked more intently through the glass, taking a chance and rising up to get a better view. He quickly ducked down, and motioned the other officers close to him.

“Okay, I think I got the lay,” he said. “Two robbers; one’s grabbing the ice, the other’s guarding the customers and staff. It looks like they’re laying down on the floor.”

Callahan gulped nervously. “Are they dead?” he asked.

“Nah,” replied Mac. “If they were, that second jasper wouldn’t be looking around all the time – he’d be helping his partner load the loot. Our job is to keep them that way.”

“How we going to do that?”

Mac grinned. “Wait till they both come out, then grab ‘em. Remember,” he cautioned the men, “Rowland wants them alive, so easy with the rods, OK?”

The policemen reluctantly nodded their consent.

Suddenly the car radio came to life. “Calling all cars, calling all cars, hold-up in progress at Regent Jewelers, 34th and Park, Repeat, hold-up at Regent Jewelers, 34th and Park. All units respond.”

Callahan looked at MacGuffey with surprise. “That’s just two blocks away! We’ve got to respond.”

MacGuffey glared at the young officer, but he knew Callahan was right. Being the closest unit, they had to respond. But how could they prevent two crimes at once?

Chapter 2 – The law divided

One of the officers keeping tabs on the events inside Barrington’s nudged MacGuffey. “Looks like they’re about through,” he said.

The grizzled detective nodded decisively. “OK, here’s what we do.” He pointed to five of the police gathered around him. “You mugs take the lead patrol car and beat it over to Regents. But no sirens! Sergent Murphy, you’re in charge. Stop the robbery, but capture them alive if you can”

The police sergeant saluted curtly. “Right. Alright, men, let’s go.” He ran down the street with the four other policemen trailing behind him, all keeping low profiles as they hastened towards the patrol car.

“Look sharp, here they come,” called out one of the remaining officers. The silhouettes of the two men filled the door of Bennington’s. MacGuffey grabbed Callahan’s arm.

“Nervous, son?”

“A little,” the rookie admitted.

“Just follow my lead, and keep your head down,” Mac said.

The two crooks emerged from the store. Their features were hidden behind bandanas tied across their faces and caps pulled low over their eyes. One man wore a light brown overcoat over a pinstriped suit. The other had coarse black woolen sweater. Each had a bulging valese in one hand and a deadly-looking tommy gun in the other. They stopped short when they spotted the patrol car in the street. With a curse, they swung their weapons up.

“Give up,” shouted MacGuffey, “you haven’t got a chance.”

The crooks opened fire in unison, riddling the side of the patrol car with a hail of lead.

“Open fire,” said Mac, “but shoot to wound. I want those babies alive!”

The policemen’s revolvers spat tentative shots at the crooks. In the polished panels of Bennington’s bulletholes suddenly appeared with spiderweb patterns of cracks radiating out from them. Small shards of black glass sprinkled the street.

The crook with the overcoat dove for cover behind a mailbox on the curb. “Get to the car, Tom!” he barked, as he fired off another burst in the direction of the patrol car.

The man in the pullover jumped to the left and collapsed as a bullet piereced his left leg. Without losing his grip on either his machine gun or his valese, he pulled himself across the sidewalk to a low-slung coupe.

Seeing the wounded gangster move towards the car, Mac’s men redoubled their efforts. An officer leaned over the trunk of the car to get a better shot, and was immediately forced back by a barrage from the overcoated gunman. The sound of the slugs puncturing the metal sides of the patrol car was deafing.

Tom made it to the couple. He dropped his weapon and grabbed the door handle, using it as a grip to pull himself up as the door swung open.

Callahan started pumping shells into the coupe, completely emptying his gun’s chamber. Several of the shots went wild, clipping pieces of masonry off the building behind the vehicle. A few hit home, though. The right headlight disintegrated and sparks flew as two bullets richoted off the radiator grille.

Tom slid into the driver’s seat, his eyes almost level with the dashboard. The windshield sprouted three bullet holes in rapid succession before the glass shatted, spilling into the car. The coupe’s engine roared to life and the vehicle charged forward with an ear-splitting squeal as the rapidly spinning tires grabbed for purchase on the pavement.

The car stopped briefly in front of the mailbox, shielding it – and the gunman behind it – from the vengeful barrage of the police. The man abandoned his ad hoc fort and dove into the car.

Callahan was franticly reloading as Mac and the others fired at the coupe. With the lead patrol car no longer blocking the street, the way was open for the crooks to escape into the city.

“Aim for the tires!” commanded Mac. The officers, no longer pinned down by gunfire, stood and took aim. Most of them only had a shot or two left, and they wanted to make them count.

Then a motion caught Mac’s eye. Looking through the rear window of the coupe into the darkened interior, he saw the second crook swing his machine gun over the back of the set.

“Get down!” screamed Mac, dropping to his heels. At the same moment, Callahan slammed the now fully loaded chamber on his gun shut and jumped up on the running board with a shout of triumph.

The shout was cut short by machine gun fire. The coupe’s rear window exploded outwards and aa deadly rain of lead that cut through the top half of the patrol car like a scythe.

Callahan fell backwards into the street, his arms splayed outwards, his face frozen in a look of surprise. Mac rushed to him, ignoring the coupe that roared off into the late afternoon traffic. He barely heard the desultory shots fired by the policemen at the back of the retreating vehicle as he cradled the young rookie in his arms.

But there was nothing to be done. Callahan had died instantly.

“ Listen, and keep your head down,” whispered Mac, “that’s all you had to do.”

*  *  *
Murphy and the patrolmen in the lead car sped onto 34th Street. It had been just over a minute since they had left Bennington’s. The driver had kept the accelerator pushed to the floorboard. Murphy glanced around the interior of the car. All the men were alert and ready for action, their guns drawn and ready.

The patrol car took the corner on two wheels. In front of Regency Jewelers, a late model sedan sat idling, its driver scanning the streets as if waiting for something. When the police car appeared, the driver popped the clutch into gear and tromped on the accelerator.

He steered the sedan directly towards the approaching police car. Murphy’s eyes widened with horror as he saw the sedan speed towards them.

“Look out!” he gasped. The patrolman at the wheel desperately hit the brakes, but the police car had too much momentum to stop. The driver of the sedan dove out of the doomed vehicle just in the nick of time and hit the asphalt with a solid smack!

The two cars hurtled together with a terrific crash! Fenders crumpled and metal ground against metal with the impact. The chassis of the patrol car bend upwards, pitching Murphy and his men forward, then up. The car body crumpled in the middle, popping the doors open while pushing the seats together, pinning the men inside.

In a second it was all over. Murphy, dazed from the impact, feebly tried to push himself out of the wrecked patrol car, but to no avail. His chest was held between the dashboard and the back of the front seat like a vice. He could hear moaning behind him, but couldn’t turn his head to see who was making the sound. The police driver was pinned like Murphy. His head was pushed into the steering wheel, and a thin trickle of blood ran down his forehead and past his closed eyes.

Murphy groggily turned his head to look at Regents. The store was only ten feet away – yet for Murphy, helplessly trapped in the wreck of the patrol car, it might as well have been on the moon.

He could only watch helplessly as a gang of five crooks ran out of the store, each of them carrying some swag. A car parked at the end of the block turned over its engine and drove up to the group. Three got in, and two went to help the driver of the sedan. They half carried-half drug him into the car, which then pulled away at a stately pace.

Murphy cursed silently as he watched it travel two blocks, turn left, and disappear behind a row of buildings.

Two robberies within minutes of each other, and each successful! The law had failed to stop this wave of crime.


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Election day -- elect to participate

Election day across the country, and historically it will have the smallest turnout of voters. The reason is, of course, because the candidates are all running for state and local offices, andmany consider them not important enough to go to the polls for.

And that's a shame for two reasons:

1) Voting is a right that has been hard-won and shouldn't be treated casually. Throughout our history the right to vote has been extended to a wider group of our citizens, but not with struggle and conflict. There's a good chance without those struggles, unless you're a white male over 21 and hold a title to some land, you wouldn't be allowed to vote. A lot of people fought hard to give you the right to vote -- some who didn't live to have the right conferred on them.

2) Local elections are just as important -- if not more so -- than national elections. Remember, these are the people who will govern your town, your county, or your state.

They'll decide what the rates for water and electricity will be. They'll determine when and how often trash pick up will occur, and what it will cost. They'll set the tax rates for your property, and decide whether to impose meal taxes. They'll set the fees for county stickers, building permits and dog tags. They'll decide whether that big box store will be built in your neighborhood or elsewhere. They'll figure out how well (or  how poorly) to fund your police department.

In other words, your local officials will have a major impact on your daily life. You've been given an opportunity to help choose the people who'll be making those decisions. Will you take it?

I did. And if you don't like my choices, please feel free to disagree with me -- at the ballot box. Otherwise, I don't want to hear it.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Breaking the Fourth Wall for the Second Time

Just two weeks before I cited a sequence in the comic strip Barney and Clyde. In it, the characters first explained the concept of breaking the fourth wall, and then did so.  This Sunday, they did it again, but for a different reason. Encapsulated within the sequence is a brief history of Dennis the Menace, and why that comic is less edgy. And the the characters act on that knowledge for the punchline. (click on image to enlarge)

There's a danger of comic strips becoming too self-referential of course, which would further shrink their readership. But for now, these type of gags add a welcome spice to my daily reading.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Review: Steven Mackey - Lonely Motel

Stephen Mackey: Lonely Motel: Music from Slideeighth blackbird
Rinde Eckert, vocalist
Cedille Records

If you're a fan of eighth blackbird, you wont' be disappointed with this new release. If you're not familiar with this outstanding contemporary music ensemble, Lonely Motel can serve as a good introduction to the group

Stephen Mackey based his work on a series of slides used for psychological testing. Subjects are shown various images and are asked to react to them. Mackey does the same thing musically, and just as with the test subjects, the answers are often deeply significant and often confused.

Sonically the work lands somewhere between modern Broadway (think: Rent) and contemporary classical music. Perhaps it’s the addition of the composer on the electric guitar. Vocalist Rinde Eckert (who's also the librettist for the work) delivers his performance with more a Broadway belt than belle canto.

But that’s fine, because in this composition, it all works. Lonely Motel is a series of 11 short vignettes, sometimes connected, sometimes not. They range from the sparse and mordant musical accents of “Slide of Dog” to the amazingly beautiful falsetto of “She Walks.” My favorite movement is “Addiction” which effortlessly slides from a pointallistic arrhythmic opening to a wild renaissance dance.

This is the kind of composition that can appeal to both adventurous classical and rock music fans. If you like music with an edge, check into the “Lonely Motel.” I think you’ll enjoy your stay.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Pearls Before Lio

Well, there's been another Steve Pastis sighting. The characters of Pearls Before Swine have a history of appearing -- and cross referencing -- other comic strips. And Pastis' avatar has shown up in other strips.

I normally don't read Mark Tartulli's strip Lio (not quite my type of humor), but this particular panel I found very entertaining.

In this one panel Tartulli references three different comic strips. And a good deal of the humor depends on how familiar the reader is with all of them. You have to know what Blondie looks like (she's remained just as curvaceous she did in her first appearance in 1930). Pastis has always portrayed himself as somewhat shady in his own strip, so he's right in character. And Leroy Lockhorn, although unhappily married in "The Lockhorns" has a wandering eye as one of his character flaws.

Obviously, there's a connection between the two strips. Here's Pastis talking about Tartuli's work.

Reading comics has its own rewards. Panels like this are one of them.