Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Short Con Week 35 - The Year's Best Crime Writing 2009

Here it is, the last day of non-fiction month.  I'm surprised that I've enjoyed it as much as I have. 

Documentaries, while almost always good, have never been my thing, but I've learned a hell of a lot from them.  Same goes with the novels.  Thanks to interesting books like The Brothers Bulger, I've picked up other sources on the story, such as Kevin Weeks' book, Brutal.  Like so many others, it's been added to the shelf, just waiting to be read.  And Gamorrah, a book that just wowed me, was also made into a very good film, one the folks at Criterion were smart to jump on.  Excellent book, excellent movie.  And surfing the net for other newspapers, while frustrating a great deal of the time, has also had it's rewards.

The last thing I'm going to mention is something I haven't yet had the time to review, but based on it's pedigree, I'm sure it's got merit. 

It's The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 edition, and I'm not sure why I was so surprised by it's existence.  It's edited by Jeffrey Toobin this year, but the series editors are Thomas H. Cook, and the guy whose name always seems to pop up on these books, Otto Penzler.  It looks like a great read, and perhaps as soon as I am done reading for October's theme*  I plan on picking it up.

And speaking of theme months, September is going to be a bit different.  For just this month, all reviews of books, comics and such will be taking a break.  I've addressed this problem before, but I feel movies have been getting the shaft during this experiment.  Most of my time has been spent reading or writing (yes English teachers, I can hear your applause from here) that movies have taken a back seat.  So for the next 30 days, I'm diving into the deep, dark end of the pool.

September is Noir Month, and I hope you like it.

*Yes, that is a spoiler.  The whole month of October will be centered around one man. Start guessing now.

Monday, August 30, 2010

45 Minutes Week 35 - Brick City

I've only seen the first of five episodes, but the Sundance channel's Brick City appears to be an excellent documentary, that looks at the different facets of a crime ridden city, much in the way that HBO's The Wire did.  It's not as good, but it's real, and deserves to be watched.

Brick City starts in the spring of 2008.  Recently elected Mayor, Cory Booker, is an enthusiastic, young, and determined politician.  He's a product of Newark, New Jersey (Brick City) and he feels it's his mission to help clean this city up.  I've heard that talk from plenty of politicians, but Booker seems genuine.

He's also got some good help.  His Director of Police, Garry McCarthy, once held a similar position in their neighbor across the water, New York City.  He knows he's inherited a mess of an agency, but is confident he can turn it around.

Along with these two public servants, the cameras also follow along the most important piece of the puzzle, the public.  Among it's targets are Jayden & Creep, two young parents, and parents to be, who also happen to be a Crip and a Blood.  They've lived the life, and now they want to live better.  We also meet the Street
Warriors, who appear to mostly be middle aged men.  Far from being a gang, they set out to help improve the community any way they can.

So far, that's the theme of the first episode, Improvement.  We see the Mayor interacting with everyone he can, taking in interest in who they are and what he can do to make their life better.  He realizes that to save the city, he needs to start with the children that might grow up to continue the already prevalent drug culture.  The importance of community programs is not lost on him, and it's nice to see him showing up at midnight basketball games to challenge the kids to "beat the mayor for money."

He manages to get everyone on board with Operation Impact, a citywide project to lower the murder and violent crime rate over the summer, the period when it's usually at it's apex.  It's a noble goal, and one that will be hard to meet.  The very night of his first midnight basketball game, a ten year old is shot.  Booker goes to the scene, along with his police director, and talks with those who will listen.

And Booker is one hell of a public speaker.  Much of the episode has him in front of an audience, whether it's engaging the City-Wide Legal Internship Program in a debate over newly installed deterrent cameras, motivating the recent graduating class of police cadets, or just chatting up a kid in the elevator about the 77 Yankees.    The man can inspire, and it's easy to see why his approval rating was so high (71%) at the time of filming.  

The first episode left me feeling pretty good, that maybe this man can make a difference, but the cynic in me is thinking I will see the worst in the next few episodes.  Either way, as soon as I'm done watching, I'm going to see how he's doing today.

Brick City is available as a 3 disc DVD set or, if you're like me, you can instantly watch it on Netflix.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Night at the Movies Week 34 - The Thin Blue Line

There is not much I can say about the film that these folks have not already said.  Watching The Thin Blue Line both captivated and infuriated me.  Between this and Paradise Lost, it's possible to become disillusioned with the judicial system.  It's easy to look back on this with hindsight, but once again it's nearly impossible to comprehend how this man was convicted, despite all evidence, or lack thereof, pointing to his innocence.  It's unfortunate that more time was not spent interviewing the District Attorney and the man who originally brought Errol Morris into this case, "Dr. Death" James Grigson.  It was his testimony that Randall Adams would kill again that landed Adams on death row.    However, I understand why they chose not to participate, and it's interesting that the judge in the case, despite his verdicts being overturned, still considered himself as a winner.  Should judges really think that way?

Anyway, this film was absolutely amazing, and I'm glad I saved it for last this month.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Long Con Week 34 - The Brothers Bulger

"I do still live in the hope that the worst of the charges against him will prove groundless," Billy Bulger read.  "It is my hope."

It was December 23, 1994, the day that Whitey Bulger vanished.  He had always assumed that it would come to this, so in 1977 he had begun constructing a new identity for himself.  The most powerful organized crime figure in New England was about to turn into "Thomas F. Baxter."

When I learned about civics in high school, I realized they told me how things are suppossed to work, not the way it's really done.  My teacher told me that if you have a problem with criminals, you go to the police.  They will serve and protect you.  If you've got a problem with how they have to do their jobs, you go to your Congressman/woman.  It's a fantastic system that our founding fathers built.  When each citizen does his/her job, it forms a chain that cannot be broken.  But you know what they say about weak links.

What if each and every single link in that chain is a corrupt son of a bitch, mixed unequally with one part upstanding honest citizen and nine parts hoodlum? 

I've seen The Godfather.  I'm well aware that politicians use gangsters for the dirty work and the gangsters used their money to keep elected officials in their pocket.  The scene with the Utah Senator, covered in blood next to a dead prostitute at a Corleone hotel always stayed with me.  Lie down with dogs, and you get framed for a whore's murder.

We expect the criminals to be "the bad guys," but what happens when that line between law/lawlessness is viewed through beer goggles?

Case in point, the Bulger Brothers.

I lived in Boston in 1994, and I remember reading about Beloved Public Figure, Billy Bulger.  At the time, I knew nothing of him or his past.  I didn't even really pay attention to the headlines.  Another potentially corrupt politician,  not exactly Earth shattering news.  Then I heard about his brother Whitey.  While many politicians have black sheep family members they try to ignore, it's not often that sibling is a hard case criminal.  It's a story straight out of the pulps or Hollywood.  Two brothers, one a cold blooded killer, the other President of the Massachusetts Senate.

How does this happen?

Howie Carr's book, The Brothers Bulger, does a wonderful job exposing the labyrinth of deceit that became the lives of these two brothers from Southie.  It's an effective biography that offers detail up detail, especially when it comes to building a criminal dynasty, regardless of which side of the law you fall upon.

First order of business, get yourself some cronies.  Whether through political connections or intimidation, it's important that people owe you favors.  They will need to be called upon in time of need when you need a man murdered or a vote to go your way.  Give those who support you, and their families, important, well paid jobs.  Promote them when possible.  Build a pyramid scheme in the legislature, committees, or street corners.  Make sure they all kick up to you.

Secondly, get the dirt on everyone.  They may be your friend now, but you want to make sure they won't turn on you when it starts to go bad. 

Third, if they do flip, be ready to silence them.  It could be a bullet in the back of the head, or having them voted out of office.  It doesn't matter, as long as they are out of your way.

Lastly, be prepared to sell everyone out if it saves your ass.

It amazed me just how powerful these two men were.  For the longest time, they both held their respective peers (using that term loosely) in their iron grip.  Everyone feared them, especially Whitey.

He wanted your business, he'd take it.  You resisted, he'd kill you or your family.  Those working for him were as cold as it got.  Nothing got in their way.  Not La Cosa Nostra, not rival Southie gangs, not even the feds.

Oh yeah, the FBI.  Just to make your patriotic heart beat a little faster, let it be know that they were just as crooked as everyone else.  So many agents were on the Bulgers payroll, in some form or another.  Even Whitey and his top man were INFORMANTS!  Try to picture Tony Soprano rolling over on his guys.  But that's what Whitey did.

The most worrisome detail in the whole book  was that this high level of corruption went on for decades, and they all got rich. 

I take that back.  That's the second biggest problem.  Despite all the corruption eventually seeing the light of day, with numerous convictions and jail sentences, the two men at the top remain free.  Whitey is still on the run, featured on America's Most Wanted just last week.  And Billy, he's got himself a cushy retirement, living of a pension that would drop your jaw.  Despite all their enemies, there are still those that allowed them to fall gracefully.

It's heartbreaking and maddening to see the system fail the citizens of The Commenwealth so completely.

Late in court, Kevin Weeks was asked how such an incredible situation could be so utterly ignored, or covered up, in America. 
"We weren't in American," Weeks replied.  "We were in Boston."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Comics Wednesday Week 34 - Brownsville

I was hoping to read and review Ande Parks Union Station for the last week of non-fiction month, unfortunately neither the comic book store in town, nor the book stores had it in stock.  I did manage to order myself a copy, but with distribution the way it is, I won't have it in my eager hands until a few days after this is to be posted.  Unfortunate, but I will manage to read it, and perhaps review it somewhere down the road once the next TWO theme months are over.

Yes, observant and longtime readers, I do indeed have an entire theme for the month of October, encompassing each and every category I chronicle.  This will be a first.  Hopefully, the subject of such lavish devotion for the 31 days of the hallowed month will keep you coming back each and every day.

But there is still today's post to talk about.  Honestly, I thought I was sunk, unable to find just one more graphic novel that would fit into my narrow parameters.  So I did what I always do when I don't know what else to do.  I sat in my office and stared at the stacks and shelves of books, hoping one of them would glow like the Ark of the Covenant, and not burn my flesh away as soon as I noticed it.  Hard to pick a book with eyes closed.

Fortunately for myself, a rather non-descript book did catch my eye from the bottom shelf of a rarely read bookshelf.  A thin layer of dust did it's best to keep this title from my gaze, but, I'm hoping purely by circumstance, it was slightly askew, and my obsessive compulsive nature made me immediately straighten it out.  It was a book I owned, but hadn't yet read, a problem I have quite often. 

It is Brownsville, written by Neil Kleid, illustrated by Jake Allen, and published by NBM.  And had I remember I owned it, it might have been the first book reviewed this month.

In the 1930's, life in Brooklyn was murder.

"Jewish gangster" isn't a term you hear much in post-Holocaust society... but back when the Dodgers played in the East and licorice cost a penny a bag, Brooklyn corners were lousy with semitic young toughs looking for adventure and excitement - none more so than in Brownsville.

Follow the intertwined lives of Allie Tanennbaum, Abe Reles and scores of hoods organized by Louis Lepke Buchalter into the deadliest hit operation in Mafia history, "Murder, Inc.", as they escape the mean streets and lonely tenements of East New York., make themselves into the most dangerous men in America, only to eventually send their best friends and closest allies up the river.

Not sure why I'd never read this before.  If memory serves me correctly, I purchased it in a lot of graphic novels, and it was most likely not the reason I purchased them all.  So it got set aside while I focused my attention on something else, which is a shame.
Brownsville is an interesting and excellent look at a group of gangsters we never hear of or flat out ignore, the Jewish Gangsters.  It's unfortunate, because if there were more books like this, it wouldn't be such an unfamiliar subject.  Kleid weaves a great, decade spanning tale that encompasses numerous quality characters and Allen's black and white art is a good fit for the tale being told.    It's bold and dark, with just enough details; a perfect compliment to the story.
Klein was also smart enough to include a bibliography and reference section.  It's obvious from the story  it was well researched, but thanks to this inclusion, folks such as myself can check out the same books, websites, and films he did.  Believe me, I will.
More from Klein can be found at his website, http://www.rantcomics.com/ .

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Short Con Week 34 - The Times Picayune

Instead of focusing on a particular story or writer this week, I'm going to share a website feature with you.

Yes, I'm surprised as well.

After checking out numerous newspaper sites over the past few weeks, I've come to realize that they are all mostly the same.  They will list articles, or you can search by reporter, but not much else.  You really have to dig to get the good stuff.

And that's okay.

But Nola.com, and the Times Picayune have a crime map on their website.


Want to see where burglaries have been committed in the month of August?  It can show you that.  How about the location of an assault on July 15th?  It can do that as well.  Zoom in as closely or as far out as you would like.  It's a facinating feature that I wish more web sites would use.

Monday, August 23, 2010

45 Minutes Week 34 - The First 48

For homicide detectives, the clock starts ticking the moment they are called. Their chance of solving a case is cut in half if they don't get a lead in THE FIRST 48®. Each passing hour gives suspects more time to flee, witnesses more time to forget what they saw, and crucial evidence more time to be lost forever.

THE FIRST 48® follows detectives from around the country during these first critical hours as they race against time to find the suspect. Gritty and fast-paced, it takes viewers behind the scenes of real-life investigations with unprecedented access to crime scenes, autopsies, forensic processing, and interrogations.

Although I'm not the biggest fan of procedurals, The First 48 really is an excellent show.  By giving themselves a time frame of 48 hours, the producers of the show have put the audience up against a ticking clock, and despite having zero involvement in the case, I could feel a sense of tension creeping in as that clock ticked down.  I can only imagine how it must feel for the detectives, knowing that a chance at solving the crime could be slipping away with each second.

The website has past episodes, along with updates, as well as an investigation game, a list of victims resources, and the oppurtunity to learn more about the investigating detectives.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Night at the Movies Week 33 - James Ellroy's Feast of Death

James Ellroy is an interesting man.  I've read a few of his books, and was always fascinated by his use of language, but still wasn't prepared the first time I heard him speak.  On the original DVD release of L.A.Confidential, there is a little bit on him, and during one particular moment, he says that this movie is the perfect family movie, if your family happens to be the Manson Family.

That is his sense of humor.

Cut to the opening scene of James Ellroy's Feast of Death.  He is recounting an anecdote of when little old ladies used to approach him in a video store.  They would always go on and on and ask about certain actors, or tell him what a wonderful movie it was.  He would always reply the same way.  Have you bought and read the book?  Any one of them that would reply "no" would always get the following reply.

"Well then, what the fuck good to me are you?"

You gotta love that.

James Ellroy's Feast of Death is an exploration of not just crime, but the man himself.  We join him as he travels around the streets of LA with detectives looking into unsolved murders, including his own mothers, who was brutally murdered when he was ten.  All the while he talks with his own special cadence to anyone who will listen.  A particularly interesting scene is him at a book reading.

"These books are written in semen, blood and napalm."

Besides the travels around the city, we are also invited to a dinner, hence the title I assume, with him and numerous detectives.  It's obvious these guys love him, and the feelings are returned.  So enamored are they with him, and especially his treatment of victims in his work, that they make him an honorary LAPD Detective, even going so far as to get him a replica badge #714, Jack Webb's badge.*

*For those not in the know, Ellroy is obsessed with The Black Dahlia Murder, and it was Jack Webb's book, The Badge, that began that shaped Ellroy's life and still drives him today.

LA crimes not enough.  Well then how about a tour of the plaza in Dallas where Kennedy was shot?  Listen to him say Kennedy was hung like a cashew and a two minute man.

Whether you enjoy Ellroy's books or not, this is one entertaining film.  You might end up being repulsed by his behavior, but I found it impossible to stop watching.  Even his wife is interesting.

"Closure is bullshit!"

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pardon the Interruption

Just found this online.  Had to post it.  Cannot wait until September 19th.

And yes, that is Michael K. Williams, AKA Omar Little.  So excited.

The Long Con Week 33 - Mr. Untouchable

Mr. Untouchable is a rather ironic name considering he did in fact land in prison and this book is nothing more than him masturbating on paper while probably looking at a picture of himself masturbating.  His memoir is  a literary Ouroboros circle jerk of self-congratulation.

I can only compare it to watching an endless amount of the Old Spice Guy commercials and not realizing they are meant to be funny.  Not even the Dos Equis guy is this cool.  And it could be possible to forgive the ego trip if the writing was engaging, or interesting, or even passable, but it's Showgirls level bad.  The fact that I read it to completion should look favorable to me should I ever meet Saint Peter.

"Well, you were a bit of a bastard, but you did read Nicky Barnes book."

And I was anxious to read this!  Cuba Gooding Jr., who portrayed Barnes in American Gangster, was more interesting in his five minutes of screen time than the actual man in three hundred pages.  For a man who apparently did everything, sold the best drugs, lived in the best places, fucked the hottest women, drove the fastest cars, he's incredibly dull.  How does that happen?  Remember back to high school or middle school, when one of your friends was the first in your gang to get a blow job?  Remember how he talked about it so much that you went from envying his luck with the ladies and eventually hoped he caught syphilis?  That's how this book made me feel.  I was cheering for the police to get him.

So instead of reviewing this book any further, I'm going to leave you with selected quotes.  I'm not even cherry picking the worst of the worst.   The whole book consists of this.

"Besides, you need your men making drops, dealing powder and takin' out mothafuckas who need killling.  Puttin' shit in bags seems like something a woman should be doin' anyhow."

"And that was that.  No more words on the situation.  We may have been equals, but my decisions were not subject to discussion."

"I was all decked out for the grand opening of Jegazzy's in my new fit from Brioni.  At least I'd be the best dressed dude on the run!"

"They want you to say 'Oh, I'm an asshole, please forgive me,' and that's the role I took.  But that made it worse, turning me into an elusive celebrity like Greta Garbo or my man Howard Hughes."

" 'Don't fuck me so hard!' yelled the go-go girl, but she was just playin'. She loved to deep fuck."

"And while it wasn't a big deal to see a Benz in a high-crime neighborhood by now- everybody caught onto my trend, and believe it, I was the first to be doin' that- the cops decided to tail us."

"But I despised that woman for bringing Stan down.  Underneath her suburban clothes, she was just a hustlin' lady, a street person like her mother.  I saw that long ago- that's why I dumped her in the first place."

"True, I'd beat the rap time and again, but what Jimmy's not realizing is I'd been framed on those cases.  That's the real problem with the justice system.  Tryin' to fuck me over!  And I hate to break it to the President, but he ain't the judicial system!  That's not his job.  That's why we got separation of powers!"

'Everything in prison moves in cliques.  My clique was the New York and DC dealers, mostly black.  People knew me and took good care of me, so I quickly became their ringleader.  In the joint I had an invincible reputation."

" 'We may not look upon him ever again,' wrote Kempton, 'and it will be a long time before we look upon his like.  Nicky Barnes is a great men, and to say that is not to dispute Acton's conclusion that all great men are bad men.' "

Should you be inclined to learn more about Nicky Barnes, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary, Mr. Untouchable.  It's entertaining, engaging, and most importantly, not told entirely from Barnes' point of view.  It's available for instant viewing on Netflix and on DVD.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New Comic Wednesday Week 33 - Torso

Elliot Ness was a glory hogging asshat.  Who would have guessed?  Kevin Costner portrayed him as such a nice fellow in The Untouchables.

In the year 2000 (I can’t even type it without thinking of Conan), I was still just getting back into comics after a ten or so year absence. I was fully divested in Batman again, but was looking for other books to pick up in my weekly sojourn to Ye Ole Comic Shoppe. (Not it’s real name.) When looking for a new read, it’s usually recommended by retailers to check out new Number One issues. Most I picked up were usually shitty, but a few were worth the price of a blind buy. Sam & Twitch, written by an unknown-at-the-time-to-me, Brian Michael Bendis, was actually quite good. So good, that when he got picked up by Marvel to write Ultimate Spider-Man, I bought a copy or two on his name alone, and I eventually made a few pennies selling them on the back issue black market. Perhaps the only time my comic habit has brought in a profit.

But my enjoyment of these few books made me search out his earlier, creator owned work. Thankfully Image Comics had them all available in trade, and while at a convention in Pittsburgh I was lucky enough to both meet Mr. Bendis and pick up both Torso and Jinx in the 50% off bin at a dealer booth. Now that I think about it, I have no idea why I didn’t have him sign a copy for me.  At least I got a nice foul mouthed sketch.

While I enjoyed his work to this point, Torso made me a life long fan, despite his many attempts to rape the childhood memories of Avengers fans and rip the internet in half.  (If you're not a comic fan, don't even try to make sense of that last sentence, I beg of you.)

Co-written with Marc Andreyko, and illustrated by himself, Torso tells the horrifying true story America’s first serial killer, Cleveland’s very own Torso Killer. Mr. Untouchable himself, Elliot Ness, who had been brought in to clean up the corrupt police force, put himself in charge of the case. Would it be another feather in his G-Man cap or turn into America's version of the unsolved Jack the Ripper murders?

I’ll let you read the story and figure that one out for yourself. But believe me when I tell you, Torso is worth picking up.

Those familiar with Bendis’s rat-a-tat Mamet-speak will be happy to read it in all it’s glory in this volume. His dialogue sparkles and drives the story forward despite all the chit chat. It’s hard to explain unless you are familiar with it, but those who enjoy shows such as The West Wing and Gilmore Girls will know what to expect. Bendis’s characters have never been afraid to fill up a page talking about anything and everything, and it always feels natural.

As for the art, well, there is a reason Marvel hired on Bendis as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very capable, and he knows what his strong suits are. No one lays out panels and pages like Bendis does. He’s not afraid of negative space, jam packed pages, repeating panels, or unusual looking double page spreads. And he uses old photos wonderfully as backgrounds. Gives the story a nice, authentic feel. It could also be that he just didn’t feel like drawing much beyond the characters. And while some characters look “cartoonish,” his art works, especially when rendered with a high black/white contrast. This book would have never worked in color.

I’ve heard rumors that Torso will soon be reprinted by Icon, Marvel’s creator owned boutique, and if that’s the case, I’ll probably double dip. A hardcover would be a nice addition to the bookshelf.  Now let's just get on David Fincher to make that Torso film that he's been toying around with for years.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Short Con Week 33 - The Chicago Sun Times

Here is a link to various articles written by Steve Warmbir of The Chicago Sun-Times.  He's been covering the Chicago mob, The Outfit, for the paper for some time.  It's good stuff.  Hopefully someday we'll see a book from him.


Monday, August 16, 2010

45 Minutes Week 33 - Gangland

Currently in it's sixth season on the History Channel, Gangland spends an in-depth hour exposing and detailing the world of the most dangerous gangs, from it's history to present day, clothing, mannerisms, culture, and membership.

Episodes include
-The Aryan Brotherhood
-Mexican Mafia
-Latin Kings
-Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes
-Bloods & Crips
-Hells Angels
-Gangster Disciples
-and countless others you've never heard of.

The series does a nice job of including interviews with past, and when possible, current gang members, as well as experts and law enforcement.  The re-enactments are decent and not overly melodramatic.  I've never watched an episode and felt I wasn't given enough information.  Anyone looking to learn more about gangs in America should check the show out.

Unfortunately, episodes are not available to watch on  History.com, but Seasons 1-5 of Gangland are available on DVD.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Night at the Movies Week 32 - The Mark of Cain

The first time I heard the word "gulag" as a young child it frightened me.  I didn't know what it was or what it meant, but something about the word gave me the creeps.  Thinking back, I'm not even sure how I came across it.  Probably reading a book or watching a movie I wasn't supposed to.  By the time I learned of it's meaning, it only scared me worse.  Prisons were not something I wanted to become overly familiar with, but the sound of a Russian Prison nearly made me wet myself.  Keep in mind, I grew up in the 80's, and everything Russian, with the exception of Ivan Drago, was bad.  So Russian + Prison = terrified ten year old.

As I grew older, I became strangely obsessed with prisons.  Again, not somewhere I ever plan to go, but the dynamics of prison life fascinates me.  The show OZ was a gift from heaven for me.  I could see prison life, albeit highly fictionalized, from the comfort of my own home.  Along with it, there are countless television shows on cable that document prison life in America.

Then came the movie Eastern Promises.  Suddenly, the thought of Russians gulag's crept back into my consciousness.  And while Viggo Mortensen oozed badass charm, it was his tattoos that stole the movie.

I love tattoos.  I got my first one when I was twenty, and  have been adding to them ever since.  I've got one arm nearly covered, and if my personal wealth would ever come in line with my imagination, I would acquire many more.  And they are all personal to me.  I took my time choosing them, making  sure each one had meaning.  It drives me fucking crazy to see people with generic tattoos.  Those posters on the walls of tattoo shops with tribal designs and panthers and whatever else is on them, need to be abolished.  I cannot comprehend picking out a design that countless other people have.  Might as well tattoo a barcode on me.

Russian prisoners seem to agree with me.

While the documentary, Alix Lambert's The Mark of Cain, doesn't just dwell on the ink of Russian prisoners, it does explain how and why they may choose to get them.

Russian prisons, like I once thought, are not nice places.  There is rampant overcrowding, terrible air quality, and awful food.  Combine these three conditions and wait for skin diseases and tuberculosis to break out.  Yet even in this squalor, the inmates still ink themselves.  For them, it's not to "look cool" or "edgy," and it's certainly not a way to rebel against the middle class upbringing.  It's a badge of honor, and one not achieved lightly.

Tattoos are the stories of who they are and how they got to be there.  Images on their skin can mean anything from the crime they've done, to the time they've served, to even what they like.  And they are not to be taken lightly.  In the system, there are castes, and you do not get a tattoo that you do not deserve.  Tempt the powers that be, The Thieves-in-the-Law, and you could find yourself getting punished in some terrible ways.

As informative as it was, I certainly wanted a little more from The Mark of Cain.  It's only 75 minutes long, and with all the inmate and expert interviews, it could have benefitted from an expanded running time.  I would have loved to have seen more specific stories about certain tattoos, or gotten an expanded look into the prison hierarchy.

But as an introduction, it's worth your time.

And it's nice to hear that when researching for Eastern Promises, Viggo, Cronenberg, and writer Steven Knight were inspired to make changes to the script based on the knowledge they got from this film.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Long Con Week 32- Gomorrah

“Camorra power does not involve only the flesh, nor does it merely own everyone’s life. It also lays claim to the soul.”

I’ve read a fair amount of true-to-life-really-I-was-an-insider books on the Mafia. Some good, some bad, but most were written by guys who hand-to-God were the right hand man to So And So. Seriously, so close they wiped his ass and spoon fed him his morning oatmeal while he personally gunned down government agents and Superman.

I have a hard time believing these guys.

I get it. You were in the organization. Possibly overheard some order, not including the lunch orders, that were potentially important or dripping with murderous intent. Maybe you were the button man. But the details are where the stories got hung up.

Any good liar will tell you to go easy on the details if you want to be believed. Too many, and your story smacks of fiction. And these hoods always go heavy on the details.

Does it make for a better story? Oh hell yeah. I’m enjoying the ride, even if your telling me the Pinto we are seated in is a Porsche. Go for broke. Throw in enough intrigue and murder and get yourself on the New York Times bestseller list. I’m cool with it. Just don’t expect me to vouch for the authenticity.

However, there are exceptions. Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano, is one of the few non-fiction accounts of a criminal empire where I believe the writer is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Why you ask? Perhaps because he never puts himself in the role of Important Made Man. Doesn’t claim to be anyone important other than a “guy who was there”, and the way he describes it, anyone stuck in Naples is an active participant. So he doesn’t elevate himself to anyone of significance in the organization. He just wrote a tell all book because he felt it was a story that needed to be told, despite it’s publication endangering himself (he is in police protection).

But Gomorrah is not his story. It belongs to the Campania region of Italy, specifically the area surrounding Naples. And it’s not a story Hollywood begs to throw money at, although a feature film was made. Instead of a tale filled with glory and machismo, we get a detail oriented look at the Camorra, an organized crime network supposedly more violent and powerful than the Maria.

And man, are there ever details.

Ever wanted to know about Italian fashion but were afraid to ask? No? Me either. I could care less about high fashion and what runway models are wearing. Never gave it thought at all. And if I had been told it was run by gangsters a bit earlier, I might have been interested. Apparently it’s a fairly lucrative racket, with all the trappings of a gangster empire, racketeering, bribery, even cheep labor.

How about the history of the AK-47? Isn’t this a Russian history book? It’s obviously not, but this weapon plays an important role in maintaining power. Did you know the Camorra has long kept it’s supply of weapons safe inside military bases, where no one would think they were contraband?

And it wouldn’t be an Organized Crime story without their bread and butter, narcotics. The drug trade is very important to them, a constant source of income. One particular chapter spends a great deal of time outlining how they deal, and for fans of The Wire, its strangely familiar. Apparently everyone can deal in Naples, with nearly the exact same set-up as inner city American cities. Frightening.

Stories like this are how Gamorrah engages the reader. Saviano does an amazing job of not just outlining how the system works, but why. He gives each arm of their business, and forgive the pun, something concrete to symbolize it. The beauty of Italian clothing and the ugly conditions under which they are made. The mechanical precision and excellence of the AK-47, a weapon that rarely ever breaks down. The solid strength of cement, the cornerstone of many Italian buildings. The intricacies of the distribution system, and the importance of a home port. All of these facets get at least a chapter devoted to it, allowing the reader to become familiar with how the Camorra works, and has worked, for years.

However, all these details can provide problems. I was, and still am, rather unfamiliar with the geography of Italy. I can point to Rome or Milan on a map, but start rattling the names of towns off and I’m going to be lost. Thankfully, there was a map included at the beginning of book. Problem solved. But what wasn’t included, and really should have been, was some family, both actual and crime, trees. Names probably familiar in Italy were dropped all over the place, but I don’t know any of these people. And after a while they all started to blur together. It would have been easy to include something, and very helpful to readers such as myself.

All can be forgiven though with the reading of one particular chapter. I’m not sure if I’ve read a more compelling seventy pages in any non-fiction book. The chapter, “The Secondigliano War” is beautifully written, and brutal in it’s nature. Saviano’s poetic musings on the nature of war are punctuated by the real life onslaught of death.

“In war the attention threshold of all the senses is multiplied: it’s as if you perceive things more acutely, see into things more deeply, smell things more intensely. Even though all such cunning is for naught when the decision is made to kill. When they strike, they don’t worry about whom to save and whom to condemn.”

Saviano also takes some time to show, despite all the evidence of criminality, how impossible it is to truly fight organized crime. It’s a war that has been fought without end for decades, in Italy, the United States and countless other countries. As long as there is profit to be made there will be criminals. And as long as a few of them are smarter than others, they will organize.

“Lorenzo Diana is one of those rare men who knows that fighting the power of the Camorra calls for infinite patience, the sort of patience that starts over from the beginning, again and again, that pulls the threads of the economic knot one by one to arrive at the criminal head. Slowly, but with perseverance and anger, even when your attention wanes, even when it all seems futile, when you’re lost in a metamorphosis of criminal powers that change but are never defeated.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

New Comics Wednesday Week 32 - Capote In Kansas

Fear can be terribly debilitating.  Overwhelmed by your own heartbeat, the rush of blood in your ears, it can be impossible to move, let alone make a rational decision.  Some, when confronted by fear, do nothing.  It's safe to let happen what will happen.  Often, those are the victims.  Others do just the opposite.  The fear takes over, and soon, blood is spilled.  Many a murder springs from fear.

Was the murder of a Kansas family in 1959 caused by fear?  What went through the mind of those two men, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith as they went room by room, and extinguished the life of every man, woman, and child inside?  I'd like to believe that fear played a part in their actions.  Perhaps they were afraid of leaving witnesses to their crimes, someone who could finger them to the police and ensure their time in prison?  I can understand wanting to remain free, and doing what was necessary to achieve that.  But the possibility that someone could commit cold blooded murder on folks they don't know, well, that just leaves the rest of us to be afraid.

Capote In Kansas is not a book that dwells on the murders.  As Ande Parks puts it in his afterword, he's not here to retell the story already told.  "The job has already been done, and brilliantly."  He is referring to Truman Capote's landmark work of non-fiction, In Cold Blood, perhaps the first true crime "novel."

Instead, this graphic novel concentrates on the man himself, and the fears he encounters writing the book which would make him a superstar.  Capote came from the New York literati, where he was well respected and had earned a reputation as a solid writer thanks to his story Breakfast at Tiffany's.  But he wanted something more.  He wanted to write a "real" story.  So he left behind his boyfriend, most of his friends, and his way of life to journey to a small town in Kansas to write of murder.

He wasn't exactly accepted early on.  He came across as aloof, uncaring, and it's a testament to the character of the townsfolk that he didn't' receive a daily ass whipping.  Soon enough, he was doubting himself.  Was this going to succeed?  Should he just run home to New York and forget about the whole thing?  Spurred on by his friend Nelle (Harper Lee) and the help of Agent Dewey, he decided to stick it out, fears be damned.

That's what this story is about, internal fears.  The doubts that stop us from accomplishing anything great in our lives because we feel deep down that we just can't do it.

"I want to create a form no one has done before: a sort of non-fiction novel.  The readers will feel those tragic events not as though they're reading about them in a dry newspaper account, but as if they are living in them. 

I'm not coming home soon, my dear.  I have no chance of success unless I lose myself completely in this place...these people. "

And Parks makes some brave choices.  He's admitted upfront that he's fictionalized some of the details, so when Truman starts talking to the ghost of Nancy, one of the victims, it doesn't come as a shock.  It's conversations with her that allow Truman to come to grips with the story, to feel like he has the right to ask the questions that need to be asked.  It an effective device, and it leads to a wonderful moment at the end of the book that left this particular reader with a slight grin on his face.

Chris Samnee, in what I believe was his first major work, absolutely (forgive the expression) kills with his art.  We needed to feel Capotes isolation, both mentally and physically, and Samnee's strong black and white storytelling  do just that.  Numerous single shots of Capote, alone, bathed in shadows and light, show us just how lonely he must have felt.  See that striking cover?  It just gets better inside.  His facial expressions range actual human emotion, something many artists have problems with.  When someone is angry, or more often hurt, it's easy to recognize.

If you want all the bloody details, this isn't the book for you.  Go read In Cold Blood.  Honestly, you should do that anyway.  It's brilliant.  But if you want a humanized companion piece, you couldn't do any better than this drawn novel.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Short Con Week 32 - The Baltimore Sun

There was no other choice.  If I was going to read some newspaper (even online) then I would have to check out The Baltimore Sun.  This is the paper where David Simon, writer of Homicide and creator of The Wire, wrote.  So I found it's online site and looked through a few pages, hoping for a story that would catch my eye.
And one did. 

It might not be as splashy as a serial killer or mass murderer, but it's almost as frightening.

It appears there have been some problems and inconsistencies in rape statistics, and there could be possible instances of police neglect.  It's troubling stuff. 

Unfortunately, each story is not written by the same author, so the voice isn't always as consistant or engaging, but it is worth following.  To read more of the stories, simply click

Monday, August 9, 2010

45 Minutes Week 32 - A&E's Crime 360

A&E's highly-rated justice series, CRIME 360®, returns for its second season with more cities, great detectives and challenging new cases. This innovative real-life investigative series continues to re-invent the genre by combining cutting-edge technology and high-end CGI (computer generated imagery) with present-tense investigations, a completely unique way to experience the cases as they unfold. CRIME 360 is the perfect blend of technology and real-time suspense, as viewers see forensics and evidence in a way they never have before.

Go inside the investigation as theories and evidence are brought to life through fantastic CGI visualizations, state-of-the-art 3D laser scanning and 360-degree digital photography. In each episode, we follow a case from start to finish. From the moment detectives are called to the scene, viewers are part of the action, experiencing the crime scene from every angle, and the evidence at the microscopic level. As the case develops, and the theories change, the graphics evolve, culminating in a full-blown visualization of what really happened. New cities include Cleveland OH, Rochester NY, Indianapolis IN, Little Rock AR

Today's viewing choice: The Killing Field
On the morning of July 5th, the body of the victim is found lying face up in an abandoned lot that had been used to shoot off guns the night before in celebration of Independence Day.

White it is a bit of a pain in the ass to watch an episode in seven different parts, it's the price to pay for missing the episode the first time around and not wanting to purchase the DVD's.  At least they play consecutively.

This show certainly loves their CG graphics, but it does visually separate them from other shows.  I'm not typically a fan of this, but for the show it works quite well.  A few times I caught myself being actually impressed with some of the tech.

As for the presentation of the case, I can say Crime 360 is very efficient.  They only have an hour (with commercials) to show everything from beginning to end, and they don't waste a lot of time with contemplations or unnecessary dramatics.  The show you what they've got and move on.

I just might try to catch an episode of this next time I'm at work.

To watch full episodes, learn more about technologies used in the show, view photos, or buy things, go to http://www.aetv.com/crime-360/index.jsp

Saturday, August 7, 2010

To the Mattresses Week 31 - Rip Off Part 1

In honor of the Bangor State Fair, which rolled into town this past week.

Now when you go and win those big prizes, tell them I sent you.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Night at the Movies Week 31 - Paradise Lost

I've long been told this documentary, Paradise Lost, is just "one of those movies you have to watch."  Usually, when I hear something like that, I do just the opposite.  It's the petulant teenager in me surfacing every once in a while.  It probably stems from the years I worked at a video store where everyone told me I just had to see The Waterboy or Practical Magic or some other piece of shit movie that I couldn't possibly enjoy.  Usually, I'd recommend some movie right back they would consider unwatchable, usually foreign.  Damn, my customers hated to "read movies."

But something about this film kept coming back into my consciousness.

Was it the small town setting?  Growing up in East Bumfuck Maine, I certainly know what that's like.  The Heavy Metal/devil worship?  Another possibility.  As a teen, I grew up listening to Metallica and other bands that seemed very objectionable to my mother.  I remember receiving Guns & Roses Appetite for Destruction from my Grandmother for Christmas,  and trying desperately to hide the inner artwork from her.  She might not have been so keen on the robotic rape pictured inside the liner notes.

Most likely I decided to watch this film because I knew some guys like those accused of the murders.  One such guy was often whispered about in the back of the schoolbus.  "He's a devil worshipper!"  "He's killed animals!"  Etc. No one ever had any proof of these outlandish claims, but 13-year-olds rarely need evidence to convict.  Looking at the guy I know now, that seems impossible, but at the time, the mention of his name was enough to give you the creeps.  It didn't hurt that he was a few years older than me, therefore, unknown and more frightening.  Upper classman!  The horror!

I've got no idea if these childhood tales ever made it to the ears of local adults.  Perhaps they were just confined to buses and playgrounds, but I'm willing to bet if there had ever been a murder, much less a triple murder, fingers would have been pointed in his general direction.


While I will never claim to be an expert on documentaries, I can tell you this film was amazing.  There was a strong narrative throughout, and every side to the story was presented fairly.  The filmmakers themselves (I'm looking at you Academy Award Winner Michael Moore, not victim Michael Moore) did not make the film about themselves or their opinions.  They allowed those involved to tell the story in their own words.  Mingled throughout were newsreports, support groups, court footage and actual crime scene footage.

I did not expect to see the bodies of two of the dead children within the opening minutes, but it made me aware that this would be an unflinching look at the horrible crimes committed.  Everyones pain pours out of the screen, and it's tough to seperate their sense of loss from the facts presented.

Would my community have reacted this way?  Would any community today react this way?  It would be far too easy to label so many involved as uneducated.  The one boy who confessed to involvement, Jessie Misskelley, had an IQ of 72, barely above the mental retardation guidelines.  Listening to others, it's not hard to estimate their intelligence level.  Their testimonials are filled with rage and hate, and it's hard to remember that they are in pain and want someone to pay.  But does any of this change what really happened?

This film raises so many questions, and challenges you to think about them, putting aside any biases you may have.  It was a hard for me to watch for that very reason.  Everytime someone opened their mouth, all I could think was "violence obsessed, ignorant, bible-thumping redneck," and that's not limited to just the victims families.  I had a hard time listening to the "educated" police, expert witnesses, and prosecutors, desperate for a conviction.  And frankly, I didn't feel like a good person while watching it.  If this was my own child murders, I could possibly act just as they did.

Did justice prevail?  I've got my own opinions on the case after watching this film, as I'm sure everyone does.  It's hard not to be moved and influenced by such work.  But I'm not going to give anything away, even my opinion about the verdicts, as I think it's important to view Paradise Lost like a potential jury member, without preconceived ideas and prejudices. 

There is a follow-up film, Paradise Lost 2, and that is next on the viewing list, once I emotionally recover from this. 

It will take a day or two to feel human again.

For more up to date on this still ongoing case, please check out http://freewestmemphis3.org/

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Long Con Week 31 - Crime Beat

True Crime gets a bad rap.  It's the section of the bookstore where slightly "off" people hang out, at least at the book store I worked out.  These folks are a little too anxious to get there hands on a quickie novel about whatever crime has been in the news lately.  Need to find out what really motivated the BTK killer?  How about the secret desires of Scott Peterson?  You'll find it all in True Crime.

For the most part, I scoff at these "books."  Usually they are poorly written on the fast and cheap, not really worth the paper they are printed on.  Like every genre, 90% of it is crap.

That leaves 10% worth reading, and I've read a few.

I've talked about my love of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets at length.  It's one of the only books, besides comics, that I own multiple version of.  Should they print an anniversary edition in the future, hint hint, I'll gladly hand over my Amazon card to get a copy.  I've also read through Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, an Edgar Winner for Til Death Do Us Part, and recently The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston.  If you haven't read that, track it down.  It's a facinating case of a writer who gets so involved in an unsolved murder that he becomes a suspect.

Today's book, while not as great as any of those, was a good read.

Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers by Michael Connelly is exactly what the title implies, a collection of Connelly's articles as a prize-winning crime writer for various newspapers.  The stories are interesting and varied, often following up on previous articles at a later time, giving them a nice arc.  They are easy to read, fast paced, and always interesting.  It was this book that gave me the idea to search the internet for newspaper based crime writers that I haven't read before.

Connelly has since gone on to a very successful crime novelist.  I haven't read any of them yet, but I've got a few of his Harry Bosch series, Echo Park and A Darkness More Than Night on my bookshelf.  Based on how much I enjoyed this collection, I will be reading them.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New Comic Wednesday Week 31- A Complete Lowlife

When it comes to crime related, non-fiction, comic books and graphic novels, the pickings are pretty slim.  Most non-fiction comics are auto-biographical.  Those can be found everywhere, from Harvey Pekar's exploration of the mundane in American Splendor, to the frightening war-torn reporting of Joe Sacco in Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, and War's End, to the heartbreaking tales of the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman's Maus.  But most author's aren't brave/stupid enough to write about their true criminal exploits.

Except for Ed Brubaker.

Wait.  What?  The guy who has written Captain America, Batman, Daredevil and the X-Men?  That guy?

Yes.  That guy. It seems before he became a top tier creator for the Big Two, whe was, in fact, A Complete Lowlife.

I'm sure sure names, places, and possibly plots have been fictionalized, but if each story has a grain of truth, than Mr. Brubaker has more in common with his Criminal characters than is comfortable.

I'd actually label him, or the past him, a bit of a scumbag.

There are fights, drug abuse, theft, and armed robbery.  He had himself a career in his younger days.

But what's more surprising than Ed's level of degradation, is his skills as a cartoonist.  Ed didn't just write A Complete Lowlife, he also drew it.  And while he will never draw the next big crossover, he is an able story-teller.  I know it's time consuming, and he has found considerable success as a writer, but I'd love to see him pick the pencil up again.

Now I need your help, yet again.  I've got two more books I can read for future weeks, but like today's book, I've already read them.  Both Torso by Brian Michael Bendis and Capote In Kansas by Ande Parks and Chris Samnee are excellent books, and I'd gladly open them again, but it would be nice to read something new.  Only I'm at a loss.  Suggest to me something new.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Short Con Week 31- The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Robbers take millions in cash in early-morning heist
By Kim Bell, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Aug. 02--ST. LOUIS -- Bandits pulled off a daring armored-car heist early Monday morning and fled with millions in cash, the guards' weapons -- and the armored car itself. "

That's enough to catch anyones eye.  Here in Maine, there are very few armored-car heists.  I've seen a few around town, but honestly, anyone hoping to steal one would have to have a dynamite getaway plan.  There are very few escape routes, and even fewer major highways.  The state isn't exactly crawling with cops, but I find it hard to believe that  a large Brinks truck could disappear without anyone spotting it.  Hell, I'm surprised when a convenience store is held up and the criminal isn't caught within two days.  With a population of less than a million, it seems everyone does indeed know everyone.

So when it comes to reading about crime in the local newpaper, I get the short stick.  There is a murder every once in a while, but mostly it's all drug busts and assaults.  As a parent and upstanding citizen, that's good news.  As a crime junkie, not so much.

This month, because it's non-fiction month, I'm going to search through online newspapers, looking for interesting stories and solid crime reporting.  I welcome suggestions for newspapers and writers.

Did I forget to mention the whole non-fiction thing?

To see more of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.stltoday.com.   For updates on the armored-car story go to http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/article_46b7ff9e-9e2f-11df-9608-0017a4a78c22.html

Monday, August 2, 2010

45 Minutes Week 31 - The Unusuals

After a few years, I'm finally getting around to watching the Unusuals.  It aired a few years ago on ABC, but had the misfortune of airing immediately after Lost, and if you are anything like me, the last thing you want to do is watch another show.  Me, I'd be too busy having my brain melt to enjoy anything else.

But thanks to the magic of Netflix, I'm able to watch the show now despite it not being released on  DVD.  That surprises me.  Just about everything is released on disc now, whether it deserves it or not.  Jersey Shore is released, but not this?  What the hell is ABC thinking?

They are probably embarrassed they cancelled the show.

I've only watched two episodes, but it's easy to recognize this show was worth watching.

For starters, the great cast.   Jeremy Renner (Oscar nominee for The Hurt Locker) is, so far, the lead character.  He plays Detective Jason Walsh, a former pro ball player turned cop whose partner is killed at the beginning of the episode.  He doesn't always play by the rules, owns a diner, but is a good cop.  His new partner, Detective Casey Shraeger (Amber Tamblyn) has just transferred over from vice where she's been spending her nights dressed as a hooker.  She's our POV for the station, as she is introduced to everything just as we are.  She's not the typical NYPD, as she happens to be rather rich, but is hiding it.  Her Sarge knows, and that's exactly why she's put on the squad.  His "house is in disarray" and it's hard to bribe someone who doesn't need money.  While she could be the typical wide-eyed rookie, she's actually pretty strong.  She's playing well of Renner, and their partnership is thankfully free of any "will they or won't they" tension.

Joining those two are another pair of Detectives, Banks and Delahoy, played by Lost's Harold Perrineau and Adam Goldberg.  I've got great affinity for these two actors, and they instantly won me over by using the old photocopier/lie detector test made famous by Homicide.  So far, it seems these two get stuck with the strange cases, hence giving the show it's name.  Their handling of a cat murder in the pilot was well worth the time.  Oh yeah, Goldberg's Delahoy also has a brain tumor and not long to live.  Not that he's telling anybody.

Rounding out the cast is Terry Kinney, well known to me as Tim McManus from Oz.  I hadn't seen him in a while, and wasn't surprised to see he's just as good as I remembered.  The rest I'm not so familiar with, but they are holding their own.

I'll hold out complete judgement until I've watched the entire show, but I'm sure ABC made one hell of a mistake.  The show is amusing, interesting, and full of cop tradition, including one I'd never heard of.  Apparently, cop badges are past down upon retirement.  In the case of an officer being killed in the line of duty, the badge is retired, never to be worn again.  Not sure if this is fact, but if so, it's pretty moving.

Hopefully the show will keep teaching me a few more tricks.