Belly Up to the Bar with Dan O’Shea

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Dan O’Shea is the author of PENANCE, an epic thriller of family secrets and Chicago corruption, his long-awaited debut novel hits the streets on April 30th from Exhibit A books. Dan’s story “Done for the Day” appears in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, and “Thin Mints” is a favorite of mine, from Crimefactory, collected in Dan’s collection OLD SCHOOL. I got acquainted with Dan through his story challenge to benefit tornado victims. He’s got a big heart only rivaled by his talent, and when they get together there’s a story worth reading.

Tom Pluck Beer Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Dan. What’ll you have?
 
 
 

dan oshea thumb A proper Manhattan – so two parts bourbon (or better yet, rye whiskey if you have it), one part sweet vermouth, a splash of bitters, a cherry (and a little bit of that sugary juice from the cherry jar please, ‘cause I’m so sweet). Serve that in a rocks glass over ice. When I go to a bar and order a Manhattan and they bring it neat in a Martini glass, then I know the place is too precious for me by half.

Tom Pluck Beer I think we bonded over charity and our bent noses. How many times have you busted yours? The first picture I saw of you looked like you went a round with Tyson before turned actor.
 

dan oshea thumb Three. And I’m hoping to give up the habit. First time was playing sandlot ball as a kid. Nobody remembered to bring a catcher’s mask, but I figured what the hell, I’d played catcher plenty of times, couldn’t remember ever taking one square on the mask. That ended predictably. Then there was my abortive boxing career, something I messed around with in my callow youth. I was in the Joe Frazier, destroy-the-body-and-the-head-will-fall school, so I ate a lot of jabs with my beak trying to get inside. Made the mistake of eating a hook instead. The picture you saw was from the famous squirrel incident. Out riding my bike and a suicidal squirrel jumped right into my front tire at point-blank range. I broke my fall with my face, which was just as well. No point messing up any of my better features. Actually, the first couple busted noses left my schnoz a tad off center. This last one seems to have straightened it out a bit. So this would be an excellent time to quit.

Tom Pluck Beer Ha, that’s my strategy. I got no reach, so I get in the pocket and hook the liver. Tell us a little about PENANCE, your crime thriller set in Chicago. Your tales of the old town make your blog a joy to read. I imagine you’ve spun some of that history into the book.
 

 Penance

dan oshea thumb PENANCE is divided between Chicago in 1971 and Chicago today (well, my version of Chicago). The backstory deals with some fictional events following up on the very real murder of Fred Hampton, head of the Black Panther party, by the Chicago police, with an assist from the FBI. OK, nobody was charged with murder or convicted of murder, but that’s what it was. I was a kid at the time, and I remember how Hampton was demonized in the media. Actually, the whole civil rights era movement made quite an impression on me. I remember the rioting after King was assassinated, watching my grandparents’ old neighborhood go up in flames.  PENANCE has a couple of intersecting story lines in which the sins of the fathers come back to haunt the sons a generation later, and the city’s history and its culture of corruption feed into both of those.

Tom Pluck Beer You also wrote a book with Shakespeare as sleuth, ROTTEN AT THE HEART. And a short story written in Elizabethan English, in Needle Magazine. What intrigues you about that setting, and writing in that voice? Will we see more of your historical crime tales from this era?
 

dan oshea thumb The Shakespeare stuff grew out of a conversation with my daughter when she was taking a Shakespeare class in college. She asked what would happen if Shakespeare wrote noir. The easy answer is Othello, ‘cause it don’t get much more noir than that. But I’ve always been a bit of a Shakespeare fan boy and that gave me an itch, which I scratched with the story for NEEDLE (The Bard’s Confession on the Matter of the Despoilment of the Fishmonger’s Daughter). Thing is, the scratching just made the itch worse, so the story turned into a whole novel, my first first-person detective tale, except the detective is none other than Billy Shakespeare forced into the unhappy role of Elizabethan gumshoe by his patron.

Now, you give me way too much credit when you say “Elizabethan English.” Pretty much my own low-rent version of faux Elizabethan English. But I love having an excuse to dump the stripped-down, Mies Van Der Rohe less-is-more verbiage that is the lingua franca of crime fiction and get a little Rococo. What I noticed writing it was that the faux Elizabethan language isn’t just an exercise in translation. It’s not like I write a scene in “regular” English and then translate into my fake Elizabethan. I have to actually get into a different mindset. Language is the medium of thought. When you change the way you use language, you end up changing the way you think. Because the language in the Shakespeare book is fuller, more discursive, so is the thinking.

Part of that, too, is writing in first person. Up until now, all my novel writing has been in third person. It’s been dialog driven. I moved the story along using multiple points of view and cutting between regularly and rapidly. My style doing that is almost ADD. First person is far more introspective. Where my style previously had been pretty terse, with a lot of very short sentences and even sentence fragments, this took on a flowing, almost stream of consciousness feel.

I thought the Shakespeare thing would be a quirky experiment, something I’d end up doing for my own gratification just to scratch an itch, but when I ran it past Stacia Decker (who’s one hell of an agent, by the way) she thought it was worth shopping around. Turned out she was right. Not quite ready for a formal announcement on the Shakespeare front yet, but I’ll just say you can count on seeing more from the Bard soon. (I’m such a tease. Here, let me flash a little thigh for you.)

Old School

 
 

Tom Pluck Beer My favorite crime film, THIEF, is set in Chicago, based on crook Frank Hohimer’s self-aggrandizing memoir, THE HOME INVADERS. And Eugene Izzi is one of my big influences. Still think PROWLERS is one of the best reads out there. Who are some of your favorite Chicago writers?

dan oshea thumb Izzi’s great. Saul Bellow wasn’t born here, but he was a long-time Chicago guy and he’s a personal favorite. Nelson Algren of course. Studs Terkel. Scott Turow and Sara Paretsky are probably the reigning royals so far as crime fiction goes, though Turow’s also done other stuff. There is the irrepressible Joelle Charbonneau of not-quite-cozy fame (she’s got two series, one set around the misadventures of a Chicago woman sucked into running a downstate roller rink and the other mixing the world of Glee with murder and mayhem. And she’s about the take the YA world by storm with her Testing trilogy.) Kent Gowran’s a guy to watch – he’s the one that got Shotgun Honey up and running.

Tom Pluck Beer Your story “Done for the Day” was one of my favorites from Protectors. There is a gripping emotional undercurrent in it, and all your work. What’s the well you draw from for your fiction?

 

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dan oshea thumb Two of my kids have developmental disabilities, so I know the challenges involved with that, know some of the bad shit that can happen. That’s what gave rise to Done for the Day, the idea that you can try to do everything right and still have it all go wrong. I don’t know that I can define any wellspring for my fiction. I know I’ve always preferred stories where the characters matter more than, or at least as much as, the plot. The types of thrillers where the characters are just props that shoot guns and drive cars fast, I hate those. Give me a textured, sometimes tortured, character like James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux over a one-note tough guy like Mike Hammer any day. Give me one of Le Carre’s morally confused and confusing operatives whose weapon is his mind over Jason Bourne and his quasi-ninja antics.

Beyond that though, I don’t know how to explain what comes from where. Life isn’t simple, neither are people. Stories shouldn’t be either.

Tom Pluck Beer I’m with you. Everything starts with a character, for me. You shared several stories from PENANCE’s tough Chicago world (you can read them here). But what’s next in store for John Lynch?
 

dan oshea thumb I’m wrapping up the second book in the Lynch series (though I think of them more as the Chicago series – the books have pretty sizable casts, so it feels a bit off to refer to them as just the Lynch series). Book two is entitled Mammon and centers on what happens when a guy who’d grown up in the Chicago area and the left town for the Marines, then the Foreign Legion and then a long, checkered career in Africa comes home with some stolen blood diamonds, and with Al Qaeda, the Chicago mob and the head of a Mexican drug cartel on his tail. Lynch and much of the cast of Penance are back, trying to make sense of – and clean up – the mess.

The man. The legend. The jacket.
The man. The legend. The jacket.

Tom Pluck Beer Sounds fantastic. Before you go, choose one album, one book, and one meal as if they’d be your last.

 
 

dan oshea thumb So many crime writers I know are into the whole heavy metal thing, but if I’m going with one album, it’s probably Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne. (Catch me on another day when I’m in a louder mood and it would be Quadrophenia by The Who. For the book, I’m gonna give you a high-brow, low-brow combo of Herzog by Saul Bellow and Dirty White Boys by Stephen Hunter.  Last meal’s gotta be St. Louis style ribs and really good sweet corn on the cob.

Tom Pluck Beer Jackson Browne is a favorite. His songs have the weary sadness of a continually disappointed optimist. And I do believe we shared such a meal at Pappy’s in St. Louis, no? Or was I in a euphoric stupor? Thanks for dropping in, Dan. If you go to Bouchercon, Dan’s the man in the techni-paisley stud-coat. You cannot miss him, nor should you. He’s a fine gent to jaw with.

Dan will be reading from PENANCE on May 3rd at Lake Forest Bookstore in his mellifluous baritone. The Velvet Fog may be gone, but the Thunder-Dome has risen to take his place. You can hear Dan read his story “Done for the Day” here.

"You shoulda seen the squirrel."
“You shoulda seen the squirrel.”

Public Enemies

Warning: Mild Spoilers ahead. Because the story is rather well-known, I will be a little free with facts here. If you don’t know how Dillinger’s story ends, you might not want to read this yet.

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies delivers a strong character drama that further romanticizes the myth of John Dillinger, but doesn’t live up to the reputation of either the bank robber or the director, who’s given us much better films such as Heat and Thief. The story of Dillinger and his pursuer Melvin Purvis is gritty and gripping, but lacks emotional punch and thematic consistence. And in the end, both men remain a mystery. I found the same problem with Miami Vice, which drops us in to the lives of undercover cops and takes a long time before making us care about them. So we have a good film, but not a great one. Like with Ali, he faces the familiar question of ‘how do you make a story everyone knows compelling?’
Mann went to extraordinary lengths to use the real locations for the scenes they re-enact. The Biograph Theater. The Ohio prison that they restored, for Dillinger’s infamous breakout. And the shootout at the Little Bohemia lodge, filmed at the original lodges still pockmarked with bullet holes from the original battle. This does give the film an unmistakable aura of authenticity, coupled with the excellent performances by Depp, Bale, Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette, and even Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. The script plays around a little with order of events and minor details, but is mostly true to form. But what it chooses to concentrate on seemed to interest Michael Mann more than myself.

Purvis and Hoover- hints at a great story.

Which was odd. I’m a sucker for a gritty crime film and authenticity can substitute for substance for me; maybe that’s why I like Thief (full review) so much. But consider the emotional power in that film’s diner scene, or when James Caan is berating the woman at the adoption agency. Reflect on Heat, with Pacino’s bombastic explosions constrasted with his quiet face-off with DeNiro in … a diner. Depp and Purvis meet early in the film, when Dillinger is locked up in an Ohio jail, but we get little interplay except that we have two Mann heroes- driven men, whose work defines them, clashing once again.
What little emotional power the film has centers around Billie Frechette, a coatcheck girl that Dillinger fancies, and takes along with him on his 18 month crime spree. They meet; he wins her over with the line, “I like baseball, fast cars, nice clothes, whiskey, and you. What else you need to know?” and next thing you know they’re at a Miami horse race. Bonnie and Clyde (full review) it’s not. Later, when she is captured by the FBI- who have taken to brutal tactics at the urging of Director Hoover, who needs a high profile bust to get the Congressional funding he wants- we are relived at Purvis’s moral authority as he intervenes during her interrogation. However, he’s let off the hook for the civilian slaughter at the botched Little Bohemia raid, which like the famous bank heist shootout in Heat, gives the end of the second act a much-needed shot of adrenaline.

Marion Cotillard, exuding class and beauty as always

The script tries to make Dillinger and Frechette’s relationship into a tragic romnance, but here it veers from its Bible of authenticity to give us an emotional handhold, and we can feel its fakery. Dillinger was not a romantic, and his desire to live fast and not think about the future precluded love stories; he was with a prostitute shortly after Billie’s capture. The poetic license doesn’t end there; Baby Face Nelson, properly portrayed as the psychotic loose cannon he was, met a much less dramatic end in reality. The FBI led by Purvis gets a surprisingly improved portrayal, even though Mann takes pains to compare Hoover’s demands for results leading to the torture of wounded suspects and their molls. Illegal wiretapping is constantly on view, in the tangled switchboard operator dens. Perhaps the title Public Enemies doesn’t just refer to Dillinger, but also to Hoover? Mann is quite subtle with this, but teases us with a much more interesting subtext.
But in the end, we’re denied. Purvis’s story, the South Carolina lawman who brought in Texas police with gunfight cred to put the final nail in the coffin of Depression-Era flashy bankrobbers, is just as interesting as Dillinger’s, but it gets short shrift. Purvis’s tragic end is given a mere epitaph before the credits, but I wanted to see more of his internal battle with Hoover. Bale plays the film with laconic moral authority, from the opening scene that shows him as a hunter of men, as he guns down Pretty Boy Floyd with a sporting rifle. Depp’s performance captures the essence of Dillinger with that sly grin, cold eyes, and snappy movements. He was called “the Jackrabbit” for his agile movements in robberies, and Depp leaps over counters with ease. You can’t fault the performances in this movie. In fact, lookout for character actor Stephen Lang to make a big splash in Cameron’s Avatar; he steals a lot of scenes as Agent Winstead here. He’s best known for playing Sherman in Gettysburg but damn if he doesn’t remind you of late-career Sterling Hayden and a bit of Lee Marvin.

Stephen Lang flanked by two lawmen

Perhaps the story lies on the cutting room floor. We also get a small subplot about the Chicago mob, led by Frank Nitti, who’ve taken to bookmaking and illegal gambling and given up the wild street shootouts now that Prohibition is long gone. To them, Dillinger and his ilk are heat they don’t need, and they make it clear. Sure, it’s an interesting footnote to history, but it fits better in a movie like The Godfather than here. In the end, we get a solid drama but one that leaves much of the mystery intact. Dillinger spent ten years in prison after pleading guilty to a grocery store robbery after he couldn’t find a job in ’29; the long sentence soured him against society. That’s left completely unexplored. But I must admit that for two and a half hours, Mann had me riveted with his stunning cinematography, sharply directed action scenes that never confuse, and excellent performances from his cast (I’d also like to thank Mr. Mann for NOT using desaturated colors and going digital. Hollywood- people still saw in full color in oldtimey days). Perhaps I’ll glean more from future viewings. Perhaps.
I’d like to thank my pal Ian Fisher for details on Dillinger, and for recommending the Lawrence Tierney film from 1945, which I plan on watching soon. That, the John Milius film with Warren Oates as Dillinger, and the movie he & the Lady in Red saw at the Biograph, Manhattan Melodrama, are the next 3 films in my Netflix Queue. Watch for a comparison of the three coming soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5 tommyguns

Candyman

As far as ghetto urban legend movies go, this is creepier than The People Under the Stairs, but not quite as memorable. The character of Candyman1 is excellent, and Tony Todd plays the legendary ghoul of Cabrini-Green with gusto. But the story meanders too much, and gets much too hackneyed for such an original premise.
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, Highlander 2: The Quickening, Sideways) is studying urban legends and wants to outdo the tenured profs at the U. She teams up with Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, Silence of the Lambs, Hard Target) to seek out the origins of the darkest legend only spoken of in whispers, that of the Candyman2. Sort of an amalgam of “Bloody Mary” and ghost stories of escaped slaves, saying his name 5 times in front of a mirror will apparently summon him. He was the son of a slave who fell in love with a plantation owner’s daughter, and when whitey gets wind of it, they hack his hand off, jam a hook into the meaty stump, and then strip him naked and smash a beehive on his gonads. Ow.
His ashes were spread over the land that would be the home of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, lorded over by gangs so powerful that the film-makers let them be extras in exchange for protection. As Helen delves into the evidence of the legend which include recent brutal murders and mutilations- a boy castrated in a restroom, a babysitter and child disemboweled- she explores the spooky underbelly of the projects, finding things that any urban explorer would jizz in their pants over. The best is when she finds a sub-basement, and emerges through a hole in the wall, around which Candyman’s3 face is painted on the other side.
Helen meets few people who are friendly to her- most outsiders come to the projects to gawk or brave the dangers, or as misguided do-gooders. She meets a young mother who sneers, and tells her not everyone here is a gangbanger or a drug addict, and most just want to be left alone to live in whatever dignity they can scrounge. She learns that people believe in the legend, and but are understandably quiet about it. You don’t talk much about a guy who comes to kill you if you say his name 5 times. Helen makes the mistake of saying his name in front of a mirror as a lark, and getting his notice.
Shortly after, Helen is approached by a strange man in a long pimp coat in the parking deck, with a deep and alluring voice. Who could that be? He speaks of her as if they are destined to be together, and after she faints, the body count starts to rise. This is where the movie falters, by becoming a slasher film. Helen awakes next to mutilated bodies, and we know she didn’t kill them because we saw Candyman4 do it; it would be better if we weren’t sure. She gets committed to a mental institution, and her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley, T2, “24”) decides to get a newer model instead of trying to help. Soon Helen realizes that her only hope is to fight back, but how do you fight a monster?
The ending is ultimately unsatisfying, with little resolution- there is some interesting conjecture that legends only live because we believe, but that goes nowhere. In the end, the C-man is defeated too easily, and we get a new monster a little too reminiscent of Fredwina Krueger to take his place. The premise is a great one, but in the end they don’t do a lot with it. Philip Glass was brought on board to score it, but withheld the rights when he saw they’d changed it to a slasher film. I think he made the right choice. This could have been a lot better, and it’s a shame, because Tony Todd’s performance is unforgettable, and iconic.

He’s a real son of a bee! hyuk, hyuk.

Whew, I reviewed it and only said it 4 times! Oh wait, does the post title count? Shit.