Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Ambler Inheritance (and Another PSA!)

The Schirmer Inheritance (Knopf; 1953) is the second novel Eric Ambler wrote after he returned to fiction writing following his service in World War II. His previous novel, Judgment on Deltchev mirrored—brilliantly, I thought--the collapse of Ambler’s Marxist idealism and passion for politics after the scouring betrayal by Soviet collaboration with the Nazis and the subsequent Communist tyranny. Deltchev was an angry novel written by a bitten and burnt soul.

The Schirmer Inheritance continues that pattern, though I think the mirror is a little smudged here, and Ambler’s enthusiasm, his fierce clarity and discipline, seem a touch ragged this time around.

In this novel, set mostly in the early 1950s, Ambler shifts his focus from an Englishman abroad to a new breed of innocent that was just starting its strut across the globe: an American (no doubt a commentary on the rise of the American Century).

The story opens with a tense, colorful prologue set in 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars: A Prussian officer named Schirmer deserts his troops during a bloody rout by Napoleon’s forces and takes refuge with a poor peasant widow with whom he starts a new fugitive life and family.

Then, very cleverly I thought, the novel leaps a hundred and forty years ahead, landing in a scenario that seems to have been inspired by Dickens’ Bleak House—an inheritance case that never ends.

This particular estate issues from American descendants of Officer Schirmer. As this part of the story opens, the last apparent Schirmer descendant, named Schneider, has died, leaving their large inheritance intestate, to be claimed by the State of Pennsylvania, unless an authentic, verifiable heir is found.

Most law firms treat cases like this as “the sort of slapstick affair that a corporation lawyer with a thought for his reputation would pay to steer clear of.” The Schirmer/Schneider affair has already nearly devoured one law firm. The new pinstripe firm tasked with administering the case, Lavatar, Powell and Sistrom of Philadelphia, decide to dump the bleak task of pawing through the cobwebs on their new young lawyer, George Carey. George is a young man whose eye gleams with ambition and legal cleverness, but whose lack of awareness of How Things Actually Work make him another member of Ambler’s club of naïfs.

After a somewhat slow opening, George’s labors bear sudden fruit: Somewhere in the distant European past, an obscure vine of Schirmers crept away into a far corner of Europe to bud a possible heir to the fortune.

From there, the firm sends George across the Atlantic on a trail of mystery and intrigue. He’s guided in his search by beautiful Maria Kolin, a super-competent, but enigmatic and tough, interpreter, a woman with a hollow leg so capacious you can hear the brandy sloshing all the way from Paris. Altogether, “Miss Kolin” is a very atypical female character for a genre novel from this era. For once, it doesn’t look like the hearts are going to turn up in this deck of cards.

Together, George and Miss Kolin meet a colorful assortment of characters good, bad, and venal as their search takes them from Paris through the ruins of postwar Germany and, most excitingly, into the wilds of northern Greece, where civil war rages.

It’s here that the novel really quickens with its vivid portrayal of postwar Greece. Whether he’s accurate or not, I can’t say, but Ambler provides a surprising and often-absorbing portrait of the tangled conflicts then blazing in that part of the world.

Eventually George and Miss Kolin track their quarry to the rugged mountains of Yugoslavia (now, I believe, Macedonia). The story of Franz Schirmer is an unanticipated pleasure, dabbed with the color, texture, and weaving of motivations and mystery you find in the best novels. Schirmer is a blend of boyish soldierly nobility and Teutonic thuggishness; one moment, he’s as bright-eyed as a child, the next, he’s an angry, war-scarred brute. That Ambler makes him so recognizably human is a tribute to the author’s talent. The decision that Schirmer makes about his legacy is touching, surprising, and wholly believable.

Still, the cynicism that made Judgment on Deltchev so bracing seems to weigh a little heavily on The Schirmer Inheritance. George Carey seems more lawyer than character. The writing occasionally stumbles and flags, with, at one point a long lecture on Greek civil war politics that might have been better handled as a dialogue. Near the end, Miss Kolin flips in a manner that I found, baffling, unconvincing, and a little uncomfortable.

Even with these flaws, The Schirmer Inheritance remains a worthwhile experience for admirers of Eric Ambler and aficionados of the best genre fiction. All the best genre writers working now are, at least in part, inheritors of his legacy.

 Windham Rembrandt author James Humphries, Self Portrait

Another Public Service Announcement!

Late last year, I took deep pleasure in editing a book titled Windham Rembrandt: Memoir of an Art Teacher in Texas Prisons by James Humphries. Mr. Humphries passed away in 2001, leaving his story of beauty, grace, and hope in a world of desperate men behind, but his family, led by his son Jonathan, has picked up the torch and will independently publish Windham Rembrandt later this year.

As I—and some of you—can personally testify, independent publishing costs money and to help raise the funds, Jonathan Humphries has set up this Kickstarter account. I urge you to visit the site and help however you can. Thanks!

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Painting by James Humphries.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thoughts on "The Expats" by Chris Pavone and a Special Announcement!

Kate Moore, the protagonist in Chris Pavone’s entertaining novel The Expats, is one of those people who can’t bring their work home, but once she quits her job, it follows her anyway. As the novel opens, her husband, Dexter, an online security expert, announces to her that he has a new job, one that will move them, along with their two children, from their Washington D.C, home to the European postal-stamp nation of Luxembourg, where they will join the subclass known as expatriates, or “expats” for short.

Kate reluctantly agrees. She has no choice, because arguing to stay in Washington might mean revealing to her seemingly obtuse husband what exactly it is she does for living. Soon, the novel quickly and cleverly peels away Kate’s veneer of upper class Washington, D.C. normalcy to reveal who she really is—a CIA field operative, with a track of bloody footprints trailing behind across the espionage landscape.

And so, Kate retires from the Agency and tries hard to settle into the patterns and rhythms of an expat, stay-at-home mom in a foreign city—taking the kids to school and playdates, meeting with other expats at coffee houses, taking weekend family spins around the continent to Paris and Amsterdam.

We should all be so lucky, but Kate doesn’t feel lucky. She may have quit the business of spying, but she hasn’t quit life. The skills and habits ingrained in her over the years remain embedded and very much alive. She can’t help looking closely and noticing odd things, the kinks and breaks in the everyday that spies are trained to notice: like Dexter’s nebulous description of what his new job is really about and that strange other American expat couple, Julia and Bill, who suddenly become awfully friendly awfully quickly.

Despite some awkward insertion of social commentary, and clumsy flashbacks-within-flashback, The Expats  starts out as a fascinating, intriguing trip seen through the eyes of a wife, mother, and sometime government assassin. With strong, vivid prose and carefully woven detail, it does a terrific job of seeing the world through Kate’s eyes, of understanding how she sees things and why, and what she does about what it, especially as paranoia and obsession takes over and her view of her husband evolves into something darker and her love for him runs ups against the truth behind his secretive behavior.

However, the novel eventually sinks into the same gray sand that many genre novels run afoul of--its plot. As Kate’s and Dexter’s (and Julia’s and Bill’s) secrets are revealed, the story, ideas, emotions and characterizations are paved over with keystroke-by-keystroke detail (hacking plays a big role here) of who did what to whom and when.

Even the why—the emotions, the real engine of any good novel mainstream or genre—get shrifted, especially Dexter’s. His actions are driven by what must be a terrible and righteous rage, but the narrative merely skates over it and, afterward, following many pages of plodding dramatically static explanation, undercuts and dismisses him, leaving his character a helpless, foolish murp, leading to deeper revelations and confrontations that feel more contrived than satisfying. When Kate’s real enemy stands revealed, I merely shrugged and fought not to hurry to the end.

Sidney B. Cushing Mountain Theatre, Mt. Tamalpais, CA

A PSA from A Curious Man!


For those of you who are Bay Area residents, I am, of course, talking about Marin County’s fabulous and legendary Mountain Play, a full-blown outdoor musical extravaganza that is produced under summer skies, during July and August, on magnificent Mt. Tamalpais.

From Abraham and Isaac to this year’s The Music Man, the Mountain Play has been staged every year since 1913, performed in Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheatre, one of the most beautiful spots on the California coastline.

As the 100th anniversary approaches (and its longtime director retires), a group of Mountain Play members thought it a perfect time to film a documentary that both celebrates the history and pays tribute to this epic and treasured theatrical tradition.

But this movie can’t be made with your support. To help raise funds for what is sure to be an excellent film, producer Laurel Fontana has opened a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. They have until May 21 to raise $34,000.

Don’t wait! Slip on your dancin’ shoes, kick up your heels, and donate today!

Photo from Mountain Play website.

Text Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dick Clark, in Black and White

I had to turn off Yahoo Safe Search to find this image, I’ll have you know!

This morning I went down to our large garage (an extremely rare Bay Area phenomenon) and dug out the March 1977 issue of Playboy magazine.

I’d bought that issue, used, for author Jules Siegal’s memoir about his strained relationship among him, his wife, and Thomas Pynchon. (Really! Honest! I did! I’ve never even looked at the pictures . . . well, maybe a couple times . . . . ) 

I only noticed quite a few years later, after I moved to San Francisco, that the same issue also contained a profile of Dick Clark by superb San Francisco Chronicle columnist and humorist Jon Carroll.

It was a funny portrait of Mr. Clark, written in Mr. Carroll’s bouncy, vivid and peppery style, though, reading it now, it seems a bit more acidic and frustrated than I recall. Carroll portrays Clark as fixed in his affability as he was in his youthful looks. 

Try as he might, Carroll the journalist was unable to exhume even a decent odor of deep impropriety about a man who often dominated a field rocking with unseemly behavior. The most scandalous details that slip are the mirror over Clark’s bed and his dislike for the English. Oh, and he would pass the marijuana pipe at parties without ever taking a toke himself.

Dick Clark even overpaid his taxes.

Like most celebrity profiles I’ve read, it plumbed no depths beyond the public face. Maybe Clark was too thickly armored. Maybe there wasn’t much there beyond what he did in his very busy life. Maybe both.

(Amusing side note: While searching for an image for this article, my Yahoo search actually road-blocked me: “Results for Dick Clark may contain adult oriented content. Safe Search must be turned off to display these results.” There’s a reason no one’s nick-named “Dick” anymore.)

I only remember Dick Clark in black and white and prefer it that way. I grew up watching him on American Bandstand on our black-and-white, black metal RCA TV, in the early 1960s, in the afternoon after I got home from school, in the little den off the kitchen.

American Bandstand  was a major event in our house, at least on the day that my next oldest brother, Jeff, actually appeared on it, live. He went with his girlfriend all the way to Philadelphia from Mohegan Lake in upstate New York, as far off as the moon to my young mind.

Not only did Jeff join all the other teenagers on the dance floor, he was interviewed by Clark during the “rate-a-record” segment. I don’t remember the song, but I do recall Jeff saying that he didn’t like slow songs (and how we all clucked about that).

It was awesome moment for me, to see my brother, who was ten years older and so much bigger and so handsome, actually on TV!  It made him even more of a hero to a boy lacking them.

On reflection, though, Jeff didn’t belong on American Bandstand because he didn’t like one single note of rock n’ roll or teen music. He was a fierce country music fan, with a large collection of Johnny Cash albums. To this day, I don’t know what drove him to drive all the way to Philadelphia.

Thinking about it 50 years later, I wonder if he didn’t find the whole experience frightening. In my memory of that segment, he looks frozen, his normally sharp personality blunted to a tinny murmur, encased in wavering gray dots. Maybe he said what he did about music he didn’t care for because he had to say something, with the whole world watching through the piercing eye of the camera. He never appeared in public like that again, so far as I know.

For many decades, Jeff stayed as young-looking as Dick Clark and growing gray only made him better looking, even as he inhaled cigarettes by the carton and downed beer by the barrel.

We eventually drifted apart, as more families do these days. (Only recently have I learned that he died in 2007.)

As for Dick Clark, I never became a fan, even after he waved his microphone wand over my brother. I never once watched his Rockin’ New Year’s Eve special, because--insert Gabby Hayes voice here--by cracky, I was a Guy Lombardo man to the great, deep chasm of my soul, dagnabbit!

Sometimes, nostalgia tastes sweet only in the memory and nowhere else.

Text Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

California Storm Watcher

Oakland Bay Bridge, April 12, 2012

A couple nights ago, a rare thunderstorm boomed across the Bay Area, one of the biggest storms in years. On the coast, we get them once a year, at most. Frankly, the weather along the California Coast is often boring.

Thunderstorms don’t come often enough for me. I enjoyed how every flash brightly flickered into our house, how the thunder boomed and rippled away through the air, and how the walls trembled like glass. I wished our windows—narrow and set oddly at the corners--were bigger, more open to the drama unrolling across the tumultuous sky, where gods make beautiful war.

By one estimate, lightning struck 750 times between 8 PM and midnight. I enjoy bad weather, I wish there had been more. Sorry, guys, but your weather out here is just too damned nice. (Even as I write this, a sun shower spatters prettily on my office window from a blue sky.)

My Midwest memories are seldom honeyed, and often bleak and sorry. But two windows of nostalgia stand open: one lets in the early snows of winter; the other welcomes the great storms that roared proud and purple across the summer skies.

My horizons in those days were flat, circumscribed and laid out along strict grids, but when the storms came, possibilities opened up, the sense of something larger than the place I lived in; of great turbulent beauty and dangerous power, of things beyond plain words and dry measures. Sure, I know how thunder and lightning works, but that’s not the why of it.

One afternoon, I saw a frosted lightning bolt unfurl like a whip across the purple sky to the north. On another summer evening, driving back into Oshkosh from a party out in the countryside, I drove head on into a giant storm, blacker than a clear night sky. Lightning broke and snapped across my windshield, from the left, from the right, from the empty center, a dozen flashes imprinting my retinas mere seconds before another jagged bolt leapt again. I was a little scared, I knew the danger, but I’d been through more dangerous storms, and smiled with uneasy pleasure. I was relieved to reach home safely, but grateful for the spectacle.

Soon after, I moved to Minneapolis, where I lived for five years. For three of those years, I lived on the third floor of an apartment building in South Minneapolis with two other guys, Greg and Steve. A small balcony opened up off the outside hallway. During the summers, after my roommates and I had made ourselves a little fuzzy (or “had us a laugh” as the Beatles once put it), I’d go out on the balcony for a while to watch the towering wall of purple clouds sail proudly from the western sky, swallowing the IDS tower (then the tallest building in Minneapolis)—here comes God rolling into town with His caravan to put on a great light show—step right out, ladies and gentlemen, see what I can do. No matter how big and strong we are, there are powers bigger and stronger.

No matter how hard Hollywood tries, their epics and spectacles seem small, tinny affairs when compared to those storms; and when compared to the one that enchanted me a couple of nights ago.

(Re-edited 4/17/12)

Photo from North News & Pictures, Ltd.

Text Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Asocial Networks #2: 15 Years of Online Writing


To twist a line from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, there are two kinds of people in the social networking world: those who embrace it like a lover; and those who see it as a tool, who use it like a carpenter who uses his hammer without mistaking it for the house he’s trying to build.

I’m the second kind: To me, Twitter, Facebook, and the other social media pockets are an extension of my desktop, extremely useful, even indispensable in the pragmatic sense; often informative, once in awhile a bit of fun—in the way that carpenter enjoys lining his tools up on his shop wall, discovering a better brand of chain saw, or trading shop talk with another builder, or landing that next project.

I’ve found Facebook to be both a more useful and compatible tool than Twitter (though whether it contributes significantly to sales of books is another matter.)

On FB, it’s easier for me to follow a thread than it is on Twitter’s relentless confetti stream. My jokes, quips, and snark receive more acknowledgment, as does any Internet flotsam I share, making it more a manageable amusement.

Dragon’s Ark interior designer (and indie-publishing maven of mavens) Joel Friedlander said in a discussion on his site that he thought Facebook was a mess. I’d agree that it’s certainly in danger of becoming one. I haven’t switched to FB’s “Timeline profile” yet; first, because of the tsunami of negatives I’m seeing from other users. Second, when I look at these profile pages, they do look terrible: confusing, overbearing blocks of incomprehensible sidebars, where I can’t tell a newsfeed from advertising.

At some point, I gather, I’m getting the “timeline profile,” like it or not. I’m trying not to whine because, first, Facebook is a free service and when it’s free, I don’t really feel I can gripe, even if I’m bein’ served a heapin’ steamin’ plate o’ poop. When I want more control, I’ll pay for it, when I can afford it.

And I can always leave.

Some asides: I suspect that the real force driving these pointless changes is techie boredom: the constant itch of change for change’s sake. In Techie World, if it ain’t broke, break it.

I don’t divide up my friends into “circles” either, not out of some woozy egalitarianism, but because I can’t be bothered. It’s not that important to me that I can see the advantage. Whatever’s private can be taken care of with a private message.

One more thing I don’t do: Inform everyone of my whereabouts at any given moment, for reasons comically illustrated in this piece from 2010 that may have led to my being “unfriended” at least once.

Speaking of “friending”: I’ve been on Facebook since 2010 and only have 92 “friends.” This, I’d like to think, is not because I’m especially obnoxious (at least by Internet standards), but because I don’t try very hard.

Again, it’s my Yankee/MidWestern upbringing. Of course, I suffer from the status anxiety epidemic in the modern world, but it only raises mine to go running from person to person, tugging on their shirttails and whimpering “Would you please be my friend!?” (“Friend!?” as Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster so memorably pleads). It’s much too much like high school and college, experiences that still poignantly sting the memory.

Now, some of you marketing mavens, I’m sure, are frowning, tapping your toe, one hand on one hip while waving your finger:

“This is all very fine and funny, Mr. Burchfield, but what about your marketing plan for your books? Huh?”

OK, let’s go.


I used to be an advertising skeptic. “Oh, who the hell pays attention to advertising?” I would proudly scoff, my nose angled leftward and up. “It’s all lies, exaggerations, and evasions! I’m sooo above all that!”

Sometime in 2010, I signed on to Goodreads. Goodreads is a social “cataloging” site for readers that has become enormously popular, with, according to Wikipedia, 2.9 million members listing 78 million books. (Yeah, I know, Wikipedia also says that Rick Santorum was a major sperm donor to Planned Parenthood, but give me a minute, please?)

I didn’t use Goodreads much at first, until late last year, 2011, when I noticed that they were offering an “Author’s Program.”  Among the features of this program is the ability for Goodreads authors to launch advertising campaigns for reasonable effort and cost.

I felt much more comfortable with this approach than I did spamming my FB friends and Twitter followers, something I really find distasteful and representative of what’s wrong with the Internet.

Further, I was a little flush at the time. So I put up ad on Goodreads for Dragon’s Ark.

The results didn’t knock me out, but they definitely perked my eyebrows, as you can see here. In less than two months, a little over half a million people viewed the Dragon’s Ark ad. Of those, 313 “clicked” on it. Of those, 30 decided to add it to their reading lists. Seven read the novel (with two of them giving the book five stars, one of them a chap from Indonesia), while the rest have it on their “to-read” lists. (None of them have read it since then, but perhaps they need a little reminding, say by another ad campaign.)

No, not large numbers, but definitely a sign of where I should point my marketing efforts. Now, with two more books for sale, I’m eager to do this again, plus send an ad across Facebook, which seems to have a similarly structured advertising deal. With a fourth book coming out soon, I want to send all of them across as many platforms as possible at once, a fairly expensive proposition.

I like advertising because it sends my work out among my circle of friends across the wider world of readers who may actually enjoy my work. I don’t feel like a nuisance. No one feels obligated to me, but they might be interested in my books, which is what counts. With even more money at hand, I’d hire a marketer to extend my reach even further (because, let’s face it, with few exceptions, all independent writers need help here.)

Unfortunately, a sudden drop-off in the freelance editing business, a very expensive health issue that needed fixing, and more debt than is safe have suddenly and tightly tied my eager hands. As John Lennon once said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

But me, I go on living, anyway. So stay tuned . . . . As usual, I’m hanging in, staying at the table, playing the chips I have.

(Re-edited 4/12/11)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.